30 July 2008

Longing To Be Understood

It's nothing new, but lately I've been more aware of how poorly people understand each other, and how desperately we all want to be understood. I know it's cliché for young people to moan that their parents and other authorities "just don't understand," when actually there's quite a lot about youth and growing up that adults remember rather well and comprehend well enough. We adults have our own ways of whining that "nobody understands," even though it may be the case that some other people just don't like us, whether they really know us or not. Nevertheless, setting aside the persecution complexes of the perennially paranoid, the teenager in all of us seems to have a valid point: people don't understand each other. Yet, each and every one of us wants to be known, understood, appreciated and loved for who he is.

I know that I want very much to be understood, and, yes, to be loved for who I am. But there are days when I despair of such things altogether. To be sure, there are people who love me and care about me, and there are some people who know me better than most do. My family and friends, my congregation and my closest colleagues know many things about me, including many of my faults and failings, my quirks and idiosyncracies; to a certain extent, they know me. Such knowledge of another person is inherent in having a relationship; which is why we all want to be known as we are, because we are created to live in relationship with God and one another. However, even the people who know me best, do not always understand me. In fact, I am surprised at how frequently my nearest and dearest loved ones misunderstand what I am thinking and feeling, and consequently misinterpret what I say and what I do.

Little misunderstandings in the course of everyday life can actually be cute, even humorous, and perhaps endearing in our family and friends. Occasionally, they can be quite frustrating, and at times hurtful. Being more aware of the extent to which people fail to understand each other, I've been thinking that we all need to be more patient with each other, less defensive, and more diligent in our efforts to listen and communicate before making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. That doesn't seem terribly profound or complicated, but my observation is that we generally proceed as though we had ourselves and everyone else figured out, even though we don't. When my dear wife describes something I've evidently done or said, commenting on what she took my words or actions to reveal of my inner thoughts and feelings and intentions, as often as not I won't remember doing what I did or saying what I said, mainly because it simply wasn't invested with any profound premeditation or deep significance, and whatever I was thinking or feeling at the time was something else entirely than she was led to conclude. And that's an example in the case of the person who knows me best (after twenty-three years of marriage). There are probably certain situations in which another man, especially another pastor, might have an advantage over my wife in understanding me, but by and large she's got the best chance of knowing my heart and mind, if anyone does. Yet, she doesn't always.

If the people who know and love me best do not understand me, it's hardly surprising that other people miss the mark in their measure of me. It is frustrating, though, when people who don't understand me proceed on the presumption that they do. I'm weary of evaluations and expectations based upon assumptions concerning me that bear no resemblance to who I am. I don't suppose that such things are done maliciously; sometimes the false assumptions are quite flattering. Either way, I'm not really known, and the possibility of any genuine relationship is hindered, if not prevented or destroyed. I'd rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I'm not. Mostly, I'd prefer to be loved for who I am, but such understanding is elusive.

There are countless examples I could give, but it won't be necessary. My assessment is that pretty much everyone shares this same sort of experience and frustration (but I won't presume to know how anyone else feels about it). There are, I think, a variety of reasons for it. Often the difficulty stems from the way we communicate; we're not as careful and precise as we need to be, perhaps because we're allowing our emotions to drive our words faster than our brains can keep up. That was a problem for me in the early years of the Lutheran Hymnal Project, especially in my e-mail conversations. I didn't mean any harm, and I really wasn't angry with anyone, but I'd fire off passionate responses to various things in a way that came across quite aggressively, even mean spirited. In retrospect, I have often marvelled that anyone continued to put up with me. I'll be forever grateful to my dear friend, Paul Grime, who was such an excellent project director. At one point, he gently admonished me to consider the way I was approaching things, and he gave me some very helpful suggestions toward a better method of communicating. His good advice for e-mail conversations could also be applied more generally: (1.) Don't respond immediately, but take a breath and a step back; allow some time for reflection before replying. (2.) Once you've drafted a response, don't send it right away, but sit on it for a while, even sleep on it for a night, and then re-read it again before sending it. (3.) If you need to vent and blow off steam, share your frustrations confidentially with someone you trust, and get it off your chest that way, rather than spouting off to others in a way you'll regret. Paul offered to be that sounding board for me, and I took him up on it more than once. I don't know if he ever regretted the offer, but it was a huge benefit to me.

Misunderstanding also arises from the fact that each of us has numerous things going on in his life, running through his head and weighing on his heart, that other people have no way of knowing. We may not even realize, ourselves, the extent to which those factors are affecting the way we speak and act, and other people have no way to gauge those things.

Furthermore, no one really knows the mind or heart of a man, other than the spirit of that man. What is worse, actually, because of sin, we don't even know ourselves correctly. Apart from the Spirit of God, we don't comprehend the depths of our depravity or the pervasiveness of our perversity; nor are we able to discern or grasp the gift and blessing of God in Christ. Thus, we do not understand ourselves, except as the Holy Spirit works in us by the Law and the Gospel, and our neighbor certainly cannot understand us any more readily, nor at all apart from grace.

We are rightly known and truly understood, only as God knows us in Christ. So, too, we know ourselves rightly only in Christ. And we are given to know and understand our neighbor, to love and relate to our neighbor, also in Christ Jesus. That is the point to which my thinking has led me recently. It dawned on me that, as often as I find myself misunderstood, I rarely stop to consider that I am just as likely to misunderstand other people as they are to misunderstand me. Being misunderstood doesn't make any of us right, but it does make it much harder, if not impossible, to be helped, corrected, or called to repentance wherever we may be wrong. The key is that we not take our cues from our presumptions and perceptions of each other, which are likely mistaken anyway, but that we love and deal with each other as the Law of God commands, and that we "understand" one another in accordance with the Gospel of forgiveness. "Forgive us our trespasses," Jesus taught us to pray, "as we forgive those who trespass against us."

While there are ways that I can and should communicate more carefully, clearly and precisely, it is also the case that I should make every effort to be patient with my neighbor, considerate and compassionate, even when he may not be so careful, clear and precise in his communications. I can do so, not because I understand my neighbor, nor as though my neighbor were right, but for Jesus' sake; in the same way that Christ Jesus has chosen to know me according to His Gospel.

The Best Freedom, the Worst Slavery

"‘Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1). Paul has been speaking very seriously about grace and Christian freedom, and has urged the Galatians in many words to continue in these. He commands them to stand, because it is very easy to lose all this either by carelessness and smugness or by a relapse from grace and faith into the Law and works. But because to reason this does not seem to be dangerous, since reason vastly prefers the righteousness of the law to the righteousness of faith, therefore he denounces the Law of God with great indignation; contemptuously and scornfully he calls it a ‘yoke,’ in fact, a ‘yoke of slavery.’ That is how Peter spoke in Acts (15:10): ‘Why do you make trial of God by imposing a yoke?’

"In this way Paul turns the tables completely. For the false apostles minimized the importance of the promise and magnified the Law and its works in the following way: ‘If you want to be set free from sin and death, and to obtain righteousness and life, keep the Law; be circumcised; observe days, months, seasons, and years; perform sacrifices. Then this obedience to the Law will justify and save you.’ Paul says the exact opposite: ‘Those who teach the Law in this way,’ he says, ‘do not set consciences free; they ensnare them. They ensnare them in a yoke, indeed in a yoke of slavery.’

"Therefore Paul speaks with complete contempt and in an exceedingly reproachful manner about the Law when he calls it a snare of the harshest slavery and of a servile yoke. He does not do this without reason. The wicked notion that the Law justifies clings to the reason very stubbornly, and the whole human race is finally so entangled and conquered by it that it can be rescued only with the utmost difficulty. Here Paul seems to be comparing those who seek righteousness through the Law to oxen that have been subjected to a yoke. Just as oxen that bear the yoke with great effort get nothing out of it but their food and are slaughtered when they are no longer fit to bear the yoke, so those who seek righteousness in the Law are captive and are oppressed with a yoke of slavery, that is, with the Law; and when finally, after great effort and sorrow, they have worn themselves out with the works of the Law, all the reward they get is that they are miserable slaves forever. Slaves of what? Of sin, death, the wrath of God, the devil, the flesh, the world, and all creatures. Therefore no slavery is greater or more severe than the slavery of the Law. Hence it is not without reason that Paul calls it ‘a yoke of slavery’; for, as we have often said, the Law only demonstrates and increases sin, accuses, terrifies, condemns, works wrath, and finally brings consciences to the point of despair — which is the most wretched and the harshest slavery (Romans 3, 4, 7).

"This is why Paul uses such passionate words. He would dearly love to stir and persuade them not to let themselves be influenced by the false apostles and not to let these men ensnare them once more in the yoke of slavery. It is as though he were saying: ‘The issue here is no trifle or mere nothing; it is an issue between either endless, eternal freedom or slavery.’ For just as the freedom from the wrath of God and from every evil is not political freedom or a freedom of the flesh but an eternal freedom, so the slavery of sin, death, and the devil, which oppresses those who seek to be justified and saved through the Law, is not a physical slavery, which lasts for a while, but a perpetual slavery. For self-righteous people of this kind, who take everything very seriously — and they are the ones whom Paul is discussing — are never serene and peaceful. In this life they are always in doubt about the will of God and are afraid of death and of the wrath and judgment of God; and after this life they will suffer eternal destruction as punishment for their unbelief.

"Therefore the workers of the Law are very rightly called ‘martyrs of the devil,’ if I may use the common expression. They earn hell by greater toil and trouble than that by which the martyrs of Christ earn heaven. They are worn down by a double contrition: while they are in this life, performing many great works, they torture themselves miserably without reason; and when they die, they receive eternal damnation and punishment as their reward. Thus they are most miserable martyrs both in the present life and in the future life, and their slavery is eternal. It is not so with believers, who have troubles only in the present life. Therefore we must stand fast in the freedom Christ has acquired for us by His death, and we must be diligently on our guard not to be ensnared once more in a yoke of slavery. This is what is happening today to the fanatical spirits: falling away from faith and freedom, they have a self-imposed temporal slavery in this life, and in the life to come they will be oppressed by an eternal slavery. The papists do not listen to the Gospel; they persecute it. But even though these men use the freedom of the Gospel — for many of them are Epicureans — they are really slaves of the devil, who holds them captive at his pleasure. Therefore the eternal slavery of hell awaits them." (Luther’s Works, Volume 27, CPH 1963; alt.)

28 July 2008

Mein Nein to Nine

When I posted "An Ecumenical and Catholic Core of Hymns in the Lutheran Service Book" (23 May), I noted the following nine LSB hymns, which appeared on the lists of Protestant and Roman Catholic hymns that I had discovered in my research, but which I would not willingly have sung in my congregation:

Come, we that love the Lord (LSB 669)
I heard the voice of Jesus say (LSB 699)
In Christ there is no east or west (LSB 653)
O worship the King (LSB 804)
Stand up, stand up for Jesus (LSB 660)
Were you there? (LSB 456)
When morning gilds the skies (LSB 807)
When peace like a river (LSB 763)
You satisfy the hungry heart (LSB 641)

In response, half a dozen people asked me to indicate my rationale for not wanting to use these particular hymns. I promised that I would not forget that request, and I've had good intentions ever since of answering it. So, here goes:

Come, we that love the Lord (LSB 669)

This song is grating and inane. The emphasis is on the singer's attitudes and actions, with only inferrential reference to the future promises of God. The mention of "Emmanuel" in stanza 4 is the closest thing to any explicit confession of the particular "God" in question. Otherwise, the entire song is utterly vague and whispy; which isn't helped by the pointless repetition of phrases that don't say much to begin with (nor the second time).

I heard the voice of Jesus say (LSB 699)

Sorry, but I don't appreciate hymns that emphasize "my" choices and decisions and obedient responses. Despite the promises of Jesus that are set forth in the first two lines of each stanza, everything hinges on "my" acceptance of these things, in a way that turns attention away from the external Gospel and into my own subjective heart. This is all the more troubling in that the hymn describes these promises and transactions as being in the past, in contrast to an emphasis on the daily and lifelong return to Holy Baptism through ongoing contrition and repentance.

In Christ there is no east or west (LSB 653)

I'm not as averse to this hymn as to some others, but it rubs me the wrong way; maybe because it strikes me as more sociologically than ecclesiologically driven. In any case, there is no mention of the Church per se, but of individual "Christian souls" united by their personal faith. Emphasizing such unity apart from the tangible life and corporate fellowship of the Church can be quite misleading. I'm also not a fan of hymns that speak of differences in "race," since there are rather only differences of tribe and tongue, culture and clan within one human race.

O worship the King (LSB 804)

Who is "the King" in question? Of course, a Christian will hopefully presume Him to be the Holy Triune God, but the hymn makes no such mention of His Name. There is no mention of Christ, nor His Cross, nor His work of redemption (despite a passing reference to our "redeemer" in stanza 5); nor is there any indication of the Gospel. The word "grace" is used in stanza 2, and "mercies" in stanza 5, but without any hint of what the "grace" and "mercies" of God might be. Nothing is anywhere said or even intimated concerning the forgiveness of sins. Instead, "the King" is praised for His power and might and the impressiveness of His creation. "His love" (stanza 1) is never spelled out or specified. There are other hymns that share similar weaknesses, but this one seems particularly weak, with less to commend it.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus (LSB 660)

There's a time and place for militaristic images, such as the Scriptures also use; though in the present day and age, those images ought to be used with great care. Too many non-Christians perceive "conservative Christians" to be as aggressively and outwardly militant in the same way and sense as fundamentalist Muslims. This hymn lends itself to that sort of misunderstanding, in my opinion. What is worse, the hymn implies that we must come to the rescue of Jesus and His Cross, instead of understanding His Cross and Crucifixion as the victory already won for us.

Were you there? (LSB 456)

Aside from the sentimentality associated with this song (which overpowers an already thin text), its entire thrust turns one's attention away from the Gospel and the means of grace to a nostalgic intellectual reminiscing. Thinking about the "once upon a time" of the Cross and Resurrection is a far cry from hearing the voice of Christ and receiving His gifts in the "today" of the Gospel as it is preached and administered in the Word and Sacraments. My concern is not nit-pickyness. When the means of grace are set aside or ignored, a vacuum is created that is invariably filled with man's own works and efforts, whether of the hand, the head or the heart. Trying to reach back to Jesus then and there turns us away from His laying hold of us in the here and now.

When morning gilds the skies (LSB 807)

The repetition of this hymn becomes tedious and old, especially since it focuses on our response of praise instead of that for which Christ Jesus surely should be praised. Over and over we are admonished to praise Him, yet the hymn never gets around to doing it. For Christ is praised, not by telling Him (or each other) that we are praising Him, but by confessing what He has done, and by praying for what He has promised. Here, though, notwithstanding the repeated mention of Jesus Christ, all the reveling is in our work of praise, when our praise should rather revel entirely in Him and His work. Instead of talking about Him, we should give heed to His talking.

When peace like a river (LSB 763)

The text of this hymn, though thin, is better than many others. What it says, so far as it goes, is Christocentric, good and right. My objection in this case is almost entirely to the sentimentality attached to it (especially with its echoing refrain), and the schmaltziness of the tune. The big trouble with such things is that they overpower and distract from the text.

You satisfy the hungry heart (LSB 641)

This sort of post-Vatican II music grates on my nerves. That's a subjective reaction on my part, which may not be true for everyone. The text could be better, could be worse. As far as hymns on the Lord's Supper are concerned, this one seems to put the emphasis in a secondary place; it majors in the minors, so to speak. The focus is on our response, and on our love for one another, with very little stress upon the love of Christ and His gracious gifts to us in the Supper. There is a confession of His blood in verse 3, but no explicit mention of His body. The "mystery of [His] presence" (verse 4) is located not in the elements given with His Word, but "in our hearts." I'm not suggesting there's anything false in this hymn, but it leaves me wanting more Gospel.

There are perhaps another 80 or 90 LSB hymns that I would not choose to have sung in my congregation, but I'm not going to attempt an explanation for all of those. The above nine were singled out because they have gained some prominence among Protestants and/or Roman Catholics. We would have done better, in such cases, to retain more of our own Lutheran heritage of hymnody, including Gerhardt's "I Will Sing My Maker's Praises" (inexplicably relegated to the LSB electronic edition).

Stand Fast in the Freedom for Which Christ Has Set You Free

I've very much appreciated, recently, Luther's comments on the opening of Galatians 5. As often as I have gone back to his lectures on Galatians, I've not really gone past his discussion up through chapter 4 (contained in Volume 26 of Luther's Works). His treatment of chapters 5 and 6 is found in the next volume of Luther's Works (CPH), and for that reason, silly as it may be, I simply haven't given it the same attention. But already the first few pages have been great:

"‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore’ (Galatians 5:1). That is: ‘Be firm!’ Thus Peter says: ‘Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith’ (1 Peter 5:8–9). ‘Do not be smug,’ he says, ‘but be firm. Do not lie down or sleep, but stand.’ It is as though he were saying: ‘Vigilance and steadiness are necessary if you are to keep the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Those who are smug and sleepy are not able to keep it.’ For Satan violently hates the light of the Gospel, that is, the teaching of grace, freedom, comfort, and life. Therefore as soon as he sees it arise, he immediately strives to obliterate it with all his winds and storms. For this reason Paul urges godly persons not to be drowsy and smug in their behavior but to stand bravely in the battle against Satan, lest he take away the freedom achieved for them by Christ.

"Every word is emphatic. ‘Stand fast,’ he says, ‘in freedom.’ In what freedom? Not in the freedom for which the Roman emperor has set us free but in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. The Roman emperor gave — indeed, was forced to give — the Roman pontiff a free city and other lands, as well as certain immunities, privileges, and concessions [or, so it was supposed in Luther’s day; the so-called ‘Donation of Constantine’ has since been shown to be a forgery of the 15th century]. This, too, is freedom; but it is a political freedom, according to which the Roman pontiff with all his clergy is free of all public burdens. In addition, there is the freedom of the flesh, which is chiefly prevalent in the world. Those who have this obey neither God nor the laws but do what they please. This is the freedom which the rabble pursues today; so do the fanatical spirits, who want to be free in their opinions and actions, in order that they may teach and do with impunity what they imagine to be right. This is a demonic freedom, by which the devil sets the wicked free to sin against God and men. We are not dealing with this here although it is the most widespread and is the only goal and objective of the entire world. Nor are we dealing with political freedom. No, we are dealing with another kind, which the devil hates and attacks most bitterly.

"This is the freedom with which Christ has set us free, not from some human slavery or tyrannical authority but from the eternal wrath of God. Where? In the conscience. This is where our freedom comes to a halt; it goes no further. For Christ has set us free, not for a political freedom or a freedom of the flesh but for a theological or spiritual freedom, that is, to make our conscience free and joyful, unafraid of the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7). This is the most genuine freedom; it is immeasurable. When the other kinds of freedom — political freedom and the freedom of the flesh — are compared with the greatness and the glory of this kind of freedom, they hardly amount to one little drop. For who can express what a great gift it is for someone to be able to declare for certain that God neither is nor ever will be wrathful but will forever be a gracious and merciful Father for the sake of Christ? It is surely a great and incomprehensible freedom to have this Supreme Majesty kindly disposed toward us, protecting and helping us, and finally even setting us free physically in such a way that our body, which is sown in perishability, in dishonor, and in weakness, is raised in imperishability, in honor, and in power (1 Cor. 15:42–43). Therefore the freedom by which we are free of the wrath of God forever is greater than heaven and earth and all creation.

"From this there follows the other freedom, by which we are made safe and free through Christ from the Law, from sin, death, the power of the devil, hell, etc. Just as the wrath of God cannot terrify us — since Christ has set us free from it — so the Law, sin, etc., cannot accuse and condemn us. Even though the Law denounces us and sin terrifies us, they still cannot plunge us into despair. For faith, which is the victor over the world (1 John 5:4), quickly declares: ‘Those things have nothing to do with me, for Christ has set me free from them.’ So it is that death, which is the most powerful and horrible thing in the world, lies conquered in our conscience through this freedom of the Spirit.

"Therefore the greatness of Christian freedom should be carefully measured and pondered. The words ‘freedom from the wrath of God, from the Law, sin, death, etc.,’ are easy to say; but to feel the greatness of this freedom and to apply its results to oneself in a struggle, in the agony of conscience, and in practice — this is more difficult than anyone can say.

"Therefore one’s spirit must be trained, so that when it becomes conscious of the accusation of the Law, the terrors of sin, the horror of death, and the wrath of God, it will banish these sorrowful scenes from its sight and will replace them with the freedom of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, life, and the eternal mercy of God. Although the consciousness of these opponents may be powerful, one must be sure that it will not last long. As the Prophet says, ‘In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid My face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you’ (Isaiah 54:8). But this is extremely difficult to bring about. Therefore the freedom that Christ has achieved for us is easier to talk about than it is to believe. If it could be grasped in its certainty by a firm faith, no fury or terror of the world, the law, sin, death, the devil, etc., could be too great for it to swallow them up as quickly as the ocean swallows a spark. Once and for all this freedom of Christ certainly swallows up and abolishes a whole heap of evils — the Law, sin, death, the wrath of God, finally the serpent himself with his head (Gen. 3:15); and in their place it establishes righteousness, peace, life, etc. But blessed is the man who understands and believes this.

"Therefore let us learn to place a high value on this freedom of ours; not the emperor, nor an angel from heaven, but Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created in heaven and earth, obtained it for us by His death, to set us free, not from some physical and temporary slavery but from the spiritual and eternal slavery of those most cruel and invincible tyrants, the Law, sin, death, the devil, etc., and to reconcile us to God the Father. Now that these enemies have been defeated and now that we have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, it is certain that we are righteous in the sight of God and that all our actions are pleasing to Him; and if there is any sin left in us, this is not imputed to us but is forgiven for the sake of Christ. Paul is speaking very precisely when he says that we should stand in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Therefore this freedom is granted to us, not on account of the law or our righteousness but freely, on account of Christ. Paul testifies to this and demonstrates it at length throughout this Epistle; and Christ says: ‘If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36). He alone is thrust into the middle between us and the evils that oppress us. He conquers and abolishes them, so that they cannot harm us any longer. In fact, in place of sin and death, He grants us righteousness and eternal life, and He changes slavery and the terror of the Law into the freedom of conscience and the comfort of the Gospel, which says: ‘Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven’ (Matt. 9:2). Therefore he who believes in Christ has this freedom.

"Reason does not see how great a matter this is; but when it is seen in the Spirit, it is enormous and infinite. No one can realize with language or thought what a great gift it is to have — instead of the Law, sin, death, and a wrathful God — the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, eternal life, and a God who is permanently gracious and kind. The papists and all self-righteous people boast that they also have the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, etc.; they also lay claim to freedom. But all these things are worthless and uncertain. In temptation they vanish instantly, because they depend on human works and satisfactions, not on the Word of God and on Christ. Therefore it is impossible for any self-righteous people to know what freedom from sin, etc., really is. By contrast, our freedom has as its foundation Christ, who is the eternal High Priest, who is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Therefore the freedom, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and life that we have through Him are sure, firm, and eternal, provided that we believe this. If we cling firmly to Christ by faith and stand firm in the freedom with which He has made us free, we shall have those inestimable gifts. But if we become smug and drowsy, we shall lose them." (Luther’s Works, Volume 27, CPH 1963; alt.)

25 July 2008

St. James the Elder, Apostle

Do you love Jesus? Why? What is it that you see in Him? What glory? What do you want Him to do for you? What glory do you hope to share with Him? And how? What do you suppose that should look like?

When you pour out the deepest longing of your heart, what is it that you’re asking for and hoping for? Is it popularity? Comfort? Freedom? Security and stability? Happiness, perhaps? Or greatness? Heaven on earth? Life?

Well, here’s the deal: Jesus, the Son of Man, the incarnate Son of God, the Lord’s Anointed, the very King of heaven — He has come in love to serve you; to give you nothing less than Himself, and to give His whole life for you; and with that, to give you all good things.

He does not lord it over you, but makes Himself your servant, even a slave, for your benefit. He exercises His almighty power in showing mercy upon you. He uses His authority (in heaven and on earth) to forgive all your sins, and thereby to give you life and salvation, divine sonship and a place in His Kingdom.

You do not understand, but He does it for you anyway. You do not deserve or merit any of it, but He does it for Love’s sake.

That is His greatness, His grace and His glory. His place and His position are on the Cross, centered between two thieves, one on His right, the other on His left. That is where and how He becomes the first of many brethren (including you). That is where and how He obtains all good things for you. For He gives you a place with Himself in His Kingdom, and He withholds nothing from you.

It’s all yours, for free, for the asking (and even before you ask). Take it, and live, for Jesus’ sake.

And then what? Everything is yours: What are you going to do with it? How shall you live?

Shall you live with Jesus in His Kingdom of the Cross? Or will you go your own way, in the hope that something better comes along? Where will you go? What will you do? Will you make a go of it with the gentiles, or will you die to live with Jesus?

As you consider the glorious company of the holy Apostles and the sainted Martyrs of this Lord Jesus Christ, St. James the Elder prominent among them (especially on this day), learn from them to fix your eyes on Jesus, come hell or high water against you.

Do not look to your left or your right to see how it is with your neighbor. Christ has given Himself for your neighbor, too, and all good things to your neighbor, and a place in His Kingdom, at the cost of His own life. That it is how it is with your neighbor, and it is all for Jesus’ sake; no more nor less than He is for you.

But the particular place that has been given to your neighbor is different than yours: a different chair at the table; a different cross to bear; a different crown of glory.

Do not be indignant with your neighbor, neither for his sin, nor for his faith and life.

Do not be angry with your Lord, either, for giving your neighbor what He has not given you.

As you are a citizen of His Kingdom, do not live as a citizen of this sinful world with its petty jealousies. Do not compete with your neighbor, nor seek to get the better of him (or her); but, for the sake of love, serve your neighbor as Christ Jesus loves you and your neighbor and serves you both.

How? By suffering hurt, hostility and insult — with patience — without anger or vengeance, without bitterness or resentment. By forgiving your neighbor his trespasses against you. By helping your neighbor to bear his burdens, without begrudging or coveting your neighbor’s blessings.

Let there be no jealousy among you, but only love. Let there be no contesting for greatness or glory, but glorify your Lord Jesus Christ and His Cross by outdoing one another in humility, grace and compassion.

Do you wish to be great? Then serve. Do you wish to be in first place? Then become the humble and obedient slave of all the rest. Dedicate your whole life, your every breath, your blood, sweat and tears, to serving your neighbor. Hold nothing back, and show no partiality or prejudice. Love your enemy. Pray for those who hate you and hurt you. Bless those who curse you; bless, and do not curse. Take up the cross; bend your neck to the sword; give your body to be beaten, bruised and buried.

Are you able to do this?

How?

What do you have that you have not been given? What good shall you do that is not done for you? How shall you serve for Jesus’ sake, except that He has come to serve you, and to give His life for you? How is it that you share His Baptism and drink His Cup, except that He has been baptized for you, even unto death upon the Cross; and that He has drained the Cup to the very dregs in fulfillment of all righteousness.

It is by your Baptism into Christ that you do share His Cross, His death, His Resurrection and His Life; His Righteousness and His Glory.

With His Baptism, He has taken your place, so that your Baptism has given you His place. His faithfulness, His humility and obedience, His service, His greatness — all of these are now granted to you.

So are you given His Cup to drink — and more than that, His Body to eat. The flesh that bore your sins upon the Cross, the blood that atoned for all of your unrighteousness — these are given to you at the Lord’s own Table. He surrounds you on the right and on the left, and He gives to you the place of honor, that He may serve you and give Himself to you in love.

The bitter cup of wrath and woe, He has made sweet by His bloody Cross and Passion. The poison in the cup, He has swallowed, that it might become for you the Medicine of Immortality.

As He shed His blood to fill that Chalice from His Cross, and as He poured it out for His disciples, for James and John and the other ten, for each of them to drink from His own hand, so did He send them to give that Cup to His Church — to you — and to give His Body to be eaten — for the granting of eternal life.

St. James poured out that Cup, not only as an Apostle and a Minister of the Sacrament, but as a martyr of the Lord Jesus Christ; as a lamb to be slaughtered, in a Passover like that of his King.

You are given to drink that same Cup of blessing and salvation. It is filled from the Cross, and those who drink it bear the Cross of Christ, as do they also in sharing His Baptism. Whether that will mean for you the sword, or prison, or fire, or lions, or simply the weight of daily service in your vocations for many years on end, the Cup of Christ is your glory and your life.

Take it, and live; it’s all yours, for Jesus’ sake. And nothing in heaven or on earth shall be able to sever you from Him, who loves you.

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

23 July 2008

Hymns for Historic Trinity 13-19

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
2 Chronicles 28:8–15
Galatians 3:15–22
Luke 10:23–37

Hymn of Invocation
Salvation unto us has come (LSB 555)

Hymn of the Day / Catechetical Hymn of the Week
Jesus, Thy boundless love to me (LSB 683)

Offertory Hymn
Lord of glory, You have bought us (LSB 851)

Hymns for the Distribution of the Holy Communion
Wide open stand the gates (LSB 639)
Where charity and love prevail (LSB 845)
If God Himself be for me (LSB 724)
Lord, Thee I love with all my heart (LSB 708)

Hymn of Departure
I walk in danger all the way (LSB 716)

Alternative Hymns
Awake, O sleeper, rise from death (LSB 697)
By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless (LSB 566)
Evening and morning (LSB 726)
From God can nothing move me (LSB 713)
Hope of the world, Thou Christ of great compassion (LSB 690)
In the shattered bliss of Eden (LSB 572)
Jesus, priceless treasure (LSB 743)
Let us ever walk with Jesus (LSB 685)
Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide (LSB 585)
Lord, whose love through humble service (LSB 848)
O blessed, holy Trinity (LSB 876)
O God of mercy, God of might (LSB 852)
Oh, how great is Your compassion (LSB 559)
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (LSB 790)
Sing with all the saints in glory (LSB 671)
The Law of God is good and wise (LSB 579)
The will of God is always best (LSB 758)
What God ordains is always good (LSB 760)
Who trusts in God a strong abode (LSB 714)
With the Lord begin your task (LSB 869)


Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Proverbs 4:10–23
Galatians 5:16–24
Luke 17:11–19

Hymn of Invocation
O Holy Spirit, grant us grace (LSB 693)

Hymn of the Day
Praise the One who breaks the darkness (LSB 849)

Hymns for the Distribution of the Holy Communion
Jesus, grant that balm and healing (LSB 421) (Catechetical)
Your hand, O Lord, in days of old (LSB 846)
O God, my faithful God (LSB 696)
Sing praise to God, the highest good (LSB 819)

Hymn of Departure
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (LSB 790)

Alternative Hymns
All people that on earth do dwell (LSB 791)
Christ is the world’s Redeemer (LSB 539)
Come, Thou Fount of ev’ry blessing (LSB 686)
Father, we praise Thee (LSB 875)
From God can nothing move me (LSB 713)
Fruitful trees, the Spirit’s sowing (LSB 691)
How can I thank You, Lord (LSB 703)
If Your beloved Son, O God (LSB 568)
Jesus, Thy boundless love to me (LSB 683)
Let me be Thine forever (LSB 689)
My soul, now praise your maker (LSB 820)
Now thank we all our God (LSB 895)
O God, forsake me not (LSB 731)
O Holy Spirit, enter in (LSB 913)
O love, how deep, how broad, how high (LSB 544)
Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing (LSB 528)
Oh, how great is Your compassion (LSB 559)
Praise, my soul, the King of heaven (LSB 793)
Praise the Almighty, my soul, adore Him (LSB 797)
Rejoice, my heart, be glad and sing (LSB 737)


Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
1 Kings 17:8–16
Galatians 5:25—6:10
Matthew 6:24–34

Hymn of Invocation
All who believe and are baptized (LSB 601)

Hymn of the Day
What God ordains is always good (LSB 760)

Hymns for the Distribution of the Holy Communion
If thou but trust in God to guide thee (LSB 750) (Catechetical)
Evening and morning (LSB 726)
A mighty fortress is our God (LSB 656)
Praise the Almighty, my soul, adore Him (LSB 797)

Hymn of Departure
Triune God, be Thou our stay (LSB 505)

Alternative Hymns
All depends on our possessing (LSB 732)
Children of the heav’nly Father (LSB 725)
Church of God, elect and glorious (LSB 646)
Consider how the birds above (LSB 736)
From God can nothing move me (LSB 713)
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father (LSB 809)
Have no fear, little flock (LSB 735)
I leave all things to God’s direction (LSB 719)
In God, my faithful God (LSB 745)
Let us ever walk with Jesus (LSB 685)
Lord of all hopefulness (LSB 738)
O God, my faithful God (LSB 696)
O Holy Spirit, grant us grace (LSB 693)
Once in the blest baptismal waters (LSB 598)
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (LSB 790)
Sing praise to God, the highest good (LSB 819)
The will of God is always best (LSB 758)
These are the holy Ten Commands (LSB 581)
Who trusts in God a strong abode (LSB 714)
With the Lord begin your task (LSB 869)


Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
1 Kings 17:17–24
Ephesians 3:13–21
Luke 7:11–17

Hymn of Invocation
In the very midst of life (LSB 755)

Hymn of the Day / Catechetical Hymn of the Week
The will of God is always best (LSB 758)

Hymns for the Distribution of the Holy Communion
O love, how deep, how broad, how high (LSB 544)
Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice (LSB 556)
From God can nothing move me (LSB 713)
Sing with all the saints in glory (LSB 671)

Hymn of Departure
God’s own child, I gladly say it (LSB 594)

Alternative Hymns
Awake, my heart, with gladness (LSB 467)
Awake, O sleeper, rise from death (LSB 697)
Be still, my soul; the Lord is on your side (LSB 752)
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands (LSB 458)
Entrust your days and burdens (LSB 754)
Father most holy, merciful and tender (LSB 504)
If thou but trust in God to guide thee (LSB 750)
Jesus Christ, my sure defense (LSB 741)
Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal (LSB 533)
My soul, now praise your maker (LSB 820)
O Christ, who shared our mortal life (LSB 552)
Once in the blest baptismal waters (LSB 598)
Our Father, by whose name (LSB 863)
Our Father, who from heav’n above (LSB 766)
Praise, my soul, the King of heaven (LSB 793)
Praise the Almighty, my soul, adore Him (LSB 797)
Rise, shine, you people (LSB 825)
Thanks to Thee, O Christ, victorious (LSB 548)
When in the hour of deepest need (LSB 615)
Why should cross and trial grieve me (LSB 756)


Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
Proverbs 25:6–14
Ephesians 4:1–6
Luke 14:1–11

Hymn of Invocation
These are the holy Ten Commands (LSB 581)

Hymn of the Day / Catechetical Hymn of the Week
Seek where you may to find a way (LSB 557)

Hymns for the Distribution of the Holy Communion
We all believe in one true God (LSB 954)
Now, my tongue, the myst’ry telling (LSB 630)
Soul, adorn yourself with gladness (LSB 636)
Son of God, eternal Savior (LSB 842)

Hymn of Departure
May God bestow on us His grace (LSB 823)

Alternative Hymns
From God can nothing move me (LSB 713)
How clear is our vocation, Lord (LSB 853)
I come, O Savior, to Thy table (LSB 618)
I know my faith is founded (LSB 587)
Let us ever walk with Jesus (LSB 685)
Lord Jesus Christ, life-giving bread (LSB 625)
Lord Jesus Christ, we humbly pray (LSB 623)
Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide (LSB 585)
Lord, Thee I love with all my heart (LSB 708)
O God, my faithful God (LSB 696)
O love, how deep, how broad, how high (LSB 544)
Praise the Almighty, my soul, adore Him (LSB 797)
Take my life and let it be (LSB 783)
The Church’s one foundation (LSB 644)
Thy strong word did cleave the darkness (LSB 578)
To God the Holy Spirit let us pray (LSB 768)
To Thee, omniscient Lord of all (LSB 613)
Where charity and love prevail (LSB 845)
Who trusts in God a strong abode (LSB 714)
Wide open stand the gates (LSB 639)


Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Deuteronomy 10:12–21
1 Corinthians 1:(1–3) 4–9
Matthew 22:34–46

Hymn of Invocation
Father most holy, merciful and tender (LSB 504)

Hymn of the Day
Thee will I love, my strength, my tower (LSB 694)

Hymns for the Distribution of the Holy Communion
Salvation unto us has come (LSB 555)
Christ sits at God’s right hand (LSB 564) (Catechetical)
O God, my faithful God (LSB 696)
Where charity and love prevail (LSB 845)

Hymn of Departure
In God, my faithful God (LSB 745)

Alternative Hymns
Abide, O dearest Jesus (LSB 919)
All hail the pow’r of Jesus’ name (LSB 549)
Church of God, elect and glorious (LSB 646)
Eternal Spirit of the living Christ (LSB 769)
For the fruits of His creation (LSB 894)
Lord, help us walk Your servant way (LSB 857)
Lord, it belongs not to my care (LSB 757)
Lord, Thee I love with all my heart (LSB 708)
O God of mercy, God of might (LSB 852)
O Jesus, King most wonderful (LSB 554)
One thing’s needful; Lord, this treasure (LSB 536)
Praise the Almighty, my soul, adore Him (LSB 797)
Son of God, eternal Savior (LSB 842)
The Law of God is good and wise (LSB 579)
The Lord, my God, be praised (LSB 794)
The only Son from heaven (LSB 402)
The saints in Christ are one in ev’ry place (LSB 838)
These are the holy Ten Commands (LSB 581)
Voices raised to You we offer (LSB 795)
We are called to stand together (LSB 828)


Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Genesis 28:10–17
Ephesians 4:22–28
Matthew 9:1–8

Hymn of Invocation
May God bestow on us His grace (LSB 823)

Hymn of the Day / Catechetical Hymn of the Week
Lord, Thee I love with all my heart (LSB 708)

Hymns for the Distribution of the Holy Communion
Triune God, be Thou our stay (LSB 505)
Chief of sinners though I be (LSB 611)
My soul, now praise your maker (LSB 820)
I lie, O Lord, within Your care (LSB 885)

Hymn of Departure
O God, O Lord of heaven and earth (LSB 834)

Alternative Hymns
All depends on our possessing (LSB 732)
Christ is made the sure foundation (LSB 909)
Come, Thou Fount of ev’ry blessing (LSB 686)
Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice (LSB 556)
Evening and morning (LSB 726)
"Forgive our sins as we forgive" (LSB 843)
I walk in danger all the way (LSB 716)
If Your beloved Son, O God (LSB 568)
In God, my faithful God (LSB 745)
Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal (LSB 533)
Jesus sinners doth receive (LSB 609)
Just as I am, without one plea (LSB 570)
Let us ever walk with Jesus (LSB 685)
Lord Jesus, think on me (LSB 610)
Now thank we all our God (LSB 895)
Oh, how great is Your compassion (LSB 559)
Only-begotten, Word of God eternal (LSB 916)
Rejoice, my heart, be glad and sing (LSB 737)
Rise, shine, you people (LSB 825)
The will of God is always best (LSB 758)

18 July 2008

Viva La Vivian

In Fort Wayne today, a father and mother have mourned the death of their infant daughter, Vivian Anastasia Gregory. She departed from this vale of tears to the heavenly Jerusalem at 7:00 p.m. last night, the 17th of July. That was the news with which I went to sleep, having seen the announcement on Pastor Petersen's blog just before putting myself to bed yesterday. It was on my heart and on my mind when I awoke first thing this morning, and although I have been at a loss for words all day, I could not rest another night without saying something in response. I have been numbed, almost frozen, by the contemplation of this loss and of those grieving parents, and I have nothing with which to counter that except the Word of God in Christ.

I did not know Vivian, though I have seen her picture more than once. She was born prematurely in January of this year, and was afflicted with various infirmities and weaknesses from the beginning. I had met her parents, Peter and Kristen, not long before she was born, when they visited Emmaus during Christmastide. They attend Redeemer in Fort Wayne, where my daughter and son-in-law are also well served each week by the Gospel. So, from a distance, I have had a special place in my heart and mind, in my thoughts and prayers, for this baby girl: premature in her birth, and now, from our finite perspective, premature in her death. We have prayed for her at Emmaus in these past many months, and, as the chaplain at the Higher Things conference in St. Louis, it was my privilege to pray for her two weeks ago, as she was having a critical surgery at that time. Each day that has passed since then, I have given thanks for the life that God has granted Vivian, and I have prayed that He would continue to guard and keep her in safety and in health.

Vivian was born about the same time that my eldest son, Zachary, fell and hit his head. It was just a few weeks later, then, that we lost our unborn son, Job, by miscarriage. No doubt those two events contributed to my paternal empathy for Vivian's parents. I trembled in fear for them, not as though abandoning the faith and hope of the Gospel, but at the prospect of the grief that would grip them at the loss of their little girl. God has made the bond between parents and their children incredibly strong and precious. Even faithful Christians do not lightly suffer the breaking of that bond. Though they do not mourn like those who have no hope, they do mourn exquisitely. I did not want Peter and Kristen to suffer that painful loss, because, already in my empathy for them, I could almost taste it, and at that my whole body, soul and spirit shuddered.

I still remember, from years ago, a sermon preached at Emmaus by my friend and colleague, the Reverend Scott Stiegemeyer (now also a member at Redeemer in Fort Wayne). It was on the death and resurrection of Lazarus. It was on that occasion that Jesus wept, thereby sanctifying the tears of His saints, as He has also sanctified our graves by His own rest in the tomb. More than once in that same story, He was deeply moved within Himself. He shuddered at the curse and consequence of sin, which He Himself would bear in His own body on the Cross, unto death. Pastor Stiegemeyer preached, then, that as much as we hate death, the Lord our God hates it even more. It was neither His idea nor His intention. It is an intrusion upon His good creation, a contradiction of His Life. It is the last great enemy, already defeated by the death of Christ, but not yet laid to rest. It still rages and storms against us, and we still shudder. But the Lord has shuddered with us and for us, and He has brought an end to the power and sting of death.

The truth of this Gospel seems impossible to us, especially when we are given to bury a child. Where, O death, is thy victory? It would seem to be right here in front of us. All the words and promises of God appear to be an empty mockery, an impotent lie, a cruel and tasteless joke. The world's attempt at sympathy, its awkward pat on the shoulder, is no comfort but another nail in the coffin. The devil's taunting and his dreadful accusations would bury us, also, in grief and shame, in doubts and fears, in cold anger or bitter despair. Where is that Jesus of Nazareth who raised Lazarus of Bethany and the widow's son at Nain and the young daughter of Jairus? Words, words, words. None of them put the baby back in the arms of her mother and father.

I cannot presume to know how Vivian's parents are feeling, or what they are thinking, or how they will cope without their little girl in these coming weeks. I am going to keep praying for them, and I thank God for the good and faithful pastor He has given them in Fort Wayne. But if my own emotions are of any help to me in empathizing with my neighbor, then I am also going to hurt with Peter and Kristen. Perhaps that is not such a pointless or empty thing. We ought to mourn the death of a child. There is no other cross that echoes more closely the sacrifice of God's own Son, and it is by that Cross that He makes all things new. By this hurt we are catechized after God's own heart, who did not spare His beloved Son but delivered Him up for us all. Why? That He might become the Firstborn of many brethren; that we might become the children of God in Him.

As it so happened, Vivian departed from this life on earth to her Father in heaven on the commemoration of the Council of Ephesus (which adjourned on the 17th of July, A.D. 431). There and then the Church confessed that, because the Lord Jesus Christ is true God, His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is rightly called and truly is "Theotokos," the God-bearer, the Mother of God. That is chiefly to say what is true concerning Christ, our Savior, but it is also to say something about His Mother, which in turn means something for every mother. She conceived the Son of God in her womb by the Holy Spirit, and thereby God became true Man. She carried Him for nine months in her body, and then gave birth to Him in the flesh, that He might carry the sins of the world in His body, and deliver us all from death and the grave by His sacrifice upon the Cross, and give birth to the children of God in His Resurrection from the dead, by the new birth of water and the Holy Spirit. So has He done for every mother's son, for every mother's daughter.

The little Babe, the Son of Mary, is true God in the flesh, and He Himself has become our Savior. He has joined Himself to us and to our children, precisely in our weakness, in our littleness, in our poverty, in our hurt and fear and suffering and death. He has become the great Champion of babes and infants, whom He does not despise but surely welcomes to Himself. But He does so by the Cross. The Mother's soul that magnifies Him is cut to the quick, severed by that dread Sword of the Spirit. The Cross of Christ is both merciless and full of mercy. It crucifies and raises. It sunders our children from us, in order to bring them to God the Father. So do we bring them to death, already, when we bring them to Holy Baptism. How, then, shall we not entrust them to Crucified and Risen One, with whom their lives are hidden in God forever?

It is the contradiction of the Cross that we feel and experience in the face of death, nowhere more poignantly than the death of our own children. It is the contradiction of the Cross of Christ, the beloved Child of God the Father and of the Blessed Mother Mary, that saves us from death forever. That promise is for us and for our children. Vivian's father and mother have been granted that faith by the Word and Spirit of God, and they have confessed it in the midst of their hurts and fears, as they named their baby girl at her Baptism: a lively resurrection (Anastasia). Their prayers and ours have been answered, according to the good and gracious will of God; He has kept Vivian in His mercy, and He has granted her the life everlasting. She has not died, but lives. So shall her body, too, in the resurrection, no longer in frailty and mortal infirmity, but in the immortal and imperishable glory of Christ; as she has shared His death, so too His bodily resurrection and ascension. Just now, her parents may not feel or experience any of that, nor anything else than darkness and death and the contradiction of the Cross. But the God who has been faithful to their daughter remains faithful to them, also; together with His Church in heaven and on earth He shall sustain them. We mourn with them, and on their behalf we rejoice in the living hope of the Anastasia, lest their grief prevent them from that rejoicing. Viva La Vivian!

13 July 2008

Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds

Over the past couple years, I've been impressed and encouraged by many of the younger pastors who have graduated from the seminaries since I did (fifteen years ago, remarkably). I've enjoyed their conversation and collegiality within my local circuit and in our Indiana District, and I've been especially blessed to have one of the best of the bunch as my assistant at Emmaus. At the synodical convention last summer, it was the beautiful confession of several of my younger colleagues that gave me cause for hope and renewed in me a far more optimistic perspective than I would otherwise have had. Most recently, at the Higher Things conference in St. Louis two weeks ago, I reveled in the opportunity to work and visit and drink together with a number of young pastors, several of whom I had not really known before.

It was in St. Louis, also, that I engaged in conversation with my good friend and brother in Christ, the Reverend Bill Foy, and voiced aloud a brainstorm: "We should start a blog together," I said, "a group of us, in order to interact with one another and share our thoughts and keep each other sharp." I was pleasantly surprised by his immediately positive response. In fact, he and a few other fellows had pondered the same possibility at the Fort Wayne symposia earlier this year. We tossed the idea around for a bit and then moved on to other topics, but I was invigorated by that notion of a cooperative blog.

In the days that followed, the more I thought about it, the more enthused I became. One of my very favorite blogs is "Concordian Sisters of Perpetual Parturition," jointly authored and administered by three pastors' wives. Their successful efforts inspired me to move my brainstorming with Pastor Foy into something tangible (as virtually tangible as a blog can be).

Initially, I figured on a group of twelve pastors, including myself. I wanted to enlist a number of those younger colleagues who had so impressed me in recent years, especially those who haven't had their own place in cyberspace to "think out loud." I know those brothers in office have worthwhile things to say and contribute, and I wanted to facilitate that opportunity: both for my own benefit, and for the benefit of the Church.

I also hoped I could recruit some of my elder brothers and fathers in Christ, men who have taught me so much over the years about what it means to be a pastor and a real theologian. Many of those dear men have not had the time or inclination to start blogging on their own; yet, that sort of forum would offer the potential for them to share their wisdom and experience with others. Since I don't have regular opportunities to be with those fathers in person, I was eager to bring them on board the cooperative blog I was envisioning. Not that a blog can take the place of personal conversation around a table; it cannot, nor would I want it to! But a blog can help to fill the gaps between gatherings with a salutary form of communication; and I believe it does provide another means for the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.

Along with my younger and older brothers in office, I deliberately sought the participation of a few key peers who have already established their savvy and proficiency at blogging. I figured their involvement would serve as a catalyst and help to kickstart the endeavor. I suspected that most of them would probably decline the invitation, not for lack of interest but for lack of time. Each of us can only stretch himself so thin. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained; so I asked a few of them to consider it.

All in all, I invited over forty different pastors to join me in starting a new blog together. That sounds like a lot of people, and I suppose it is, but I was selective in my invitations. No one should take that the wrong way, and no one should take it badly if I didn't ask him. There were at least half a dozen invitations that bounced back at me, because I evidently had the wrong e-mail address. But the truth is that I purposely did not invite many of my closest friends and colleagues, in spite of the fact that I love them dearly and respect their thoughts and opinions. For one thing, I wanted something broader than simply a circle of my cronies, something really more diverse and comprehensive. Also, I didn't want to put my friends in the position of having to say "no," far less to pressure them into saying "yes," when they really shouldn't be trying to stretch themselves any further than they already are. My hope and prayer is that no one feels slighted, but that anyone who may be so inclined will keep an eye on what we're doing and chime in with his comments.

Anyway, the responses to my invitations were more immediate and more positive than I would have guessed. Within a day I had already received more than a dozen affirmative replies, and it was clear that I would have to broaden the scope of the project. I settled on twenty-four, mainly because of the twenty-four elders gathered around the Lamb upon His Throne in the Book of the Revelation. Those apocalyptic elders signify the twelve Old Testament Patriarchs and the twelve New Testament Apostles, which fits nicely with my aim to bring together both younger and older colleagues in the Office of the Holy Ministry. No, I don't imagine that any of us are on par with the holy Apostles and Prophets, but we do share the same office of preaching and teaching the Word of God.

The consequence of all this is off the ground and flying, more quickly and smoothly than I dared hope. Perhaps the timing was right, or maybe I got lucky. I'd like to believe that what we're doing will be of mutual benefit to all of the participants, as well as to those who read our blog posts. One and all are welcome to check it out: "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" (link on the left).

Being a parish pastor can be one of the most rewarding vocations in the world, but it can also be a lonely undertaking. We pastors do have good friends among the laity, for whom we are profoundly grateful, but there are aspects of our lives that can't really be shared with anyone else but with those who share the burdens and joys of the pastoral office. Some of us are fortunate to have colleagues nearby, in some cases even within the same parish, but it has broken my heart to meet fellow pastors who feel themselves almost abandoned, alone in the wilderness, beleaguered and without an ear to bend or a shoulder to lean on. In certain parts of the country, a faithful pastor may find that he has not a single kindred spirit in his circuit, nor within a hundred miles of him. Some of these men hang on by their fingernails, counting the days until the next symposia or the next decent conference, longing for the fraternal fellowship and collegial companionship of like-minded brethren. Others gradually wither on the vine and become lost: to themselves, to their families, to the Church and Ministry, sometimes even to the faith. I don't imagine that a blog could ever be the remedy or solution to such systemic ailments, but I do pray that "Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds," flocking together in faith, may be a genuine means of aid and comfort to each other, to our near and distant colleagues, and to the Lamb's beloved Bride, His holy Church.

12 July 2008

Jesus Says So

There's evidently been a flurry of recent discussion and debate over the consecrated elements remaining at the conclusion of the Divine Service. "What are they, and what should be done with them?" I'm sorry, but such questions — and arguments over the answers — strike me as unseemly. I'm glad I've been out of the loop. Getting dragged into a debate over the elements of the Holy Communion is akin to Ham, the father of Canaan, calling his brothers Shem and Japheth to come look at their father's nakedness. Duty requires a response, but our humble service is one of love. If the questions are asked, they ought to be answered. I also acknowledge the significance of the way such questions are answered. But it is shame to be arguing the point to begin with.

Maybe I've become spoiled and naive in dealing with my young catechumens, who simply want to hear what Jesus says and to proceed according to His Word. There is a great Mystery indeed in the Holy Communion, but it isn't in the "what" or "what for" department. The Catechism gets to the heart of the matter in a single sentence: "It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink." That's nothing else than a confession of what Jesus does and says: He takes bread and wine and gives them to His disciples. "This is My Body. Eat it. This is My Blood. Drink it." Even the littlest catechumen knows what it is and what to do with it, because Jesus says so. His Word makes it so. The eating and drinking are faith's "Amen" to what is given; not to make it so, but to receive it.

There isn't any ambiguity in what Jesus says. If we abide by His Word, there is no problem. As long as there is "this bread," concerning which Jesus has said, "This is My Body; eat it," we Christians should eat it. As long as there is "this cup," concerning which Jesus has said, "This is the New Testament in My Blood; drink it," we Christians should drink it. Since everything is given by His Word and depends upon His Word, faith proceeds according to His Word. Anything beyond or apart from that introduces unnecessary ambiguity. Yet, the Word of Christ remains.

His Word and promises are irrevocable. He has sworn by and with Himself, and He will do it. Even when we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.

I'm frankly surprised by arguments that, "if it isn't eaten, it isn't the body of Christ," and "if it isn't drunk, it isn't the blood of Christ." It's as if the policy has been adopted, that two wrongs do make a right, or something. Thus, if Jesus is contradicted by not eating and drinking, then He is also to be contradicted concerning His Body and His Blood. If this is supposed to resolve the ambiguity, it has the opposite effect, for the Word of Christ has been altogether abandoned.

Now, I understand and agree with the position of our Lutheran Confessions, that outside of the use there is no Sacrament. But what does this mean? A supposed "consecration" of bread and wine for some other purpose than eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ in the Holy Communion is no Sacrament of His. It is not the Sacrament of the Altar, and therefore not the body and blood of Christ, because it is a departure from the Word of Christ; and where there is no Word of Christ, there is no Sacrament of Christ. The same thing holds true in the case of those who publicy deny the Word of Christ by teaching that the bread and wine of the Supper are not His body and blood. In such a case, no matter what vocables may be uttered, they have been redefined and are not the Verba Testamenti Christi. Where there is no Word of Christ, there is no Sacrament of Christ.

But these aberrations are not really the point under discussion. The consecrated elements remaining at the conclusion of the Divine Service have been set apart and given by the Word of Christ precisely for the eating and drinking of His Christians. Concerning this bread and this cup, He has said: "This is My Body. Eat it. This is My Blood. Drink it." How should this be difficult? If more has been consecrated than may be consumed immediately, then whatever does remain should be consumed as soon as possible. If it can be taken directly to the shut-ins, that practice does have ancient precedent and still follows the Word of Jesus, that His disciples should receive and eat and drink His Body and His Blood. Even so, because the Verba Testamenti are not only the Words of consecration of the elements, but also the Words with which Christ gives His Body and Blood to His disciples, those same Words surely ought to be used (again) in the distribution to any shut-ins who were not on hand to hear and receive the Sacrament in the Divine Service.

The best and strongest practice (if not the only right practice) is to do what Jesus has bidden us Christians to do: to eat that bread which is His Body, and to drink that cup which is the New Testament in His Blood. Jesus says so, and faith proceeds according to His Word. There is no Word of Jesus that says, "This isn't My Body or Blood after all; don't eat it or drink it"? Therefore, if He has said no such thing, than how shall we trust or follow any such thing?

As soon as someone says, "Well, what if we don't eat or drink it, anyway," there is already a departure from the Word of the Lord. But does a departure at that point undo the Word of Christ that He has already spoken? If the bread and wine administered from the Altar have been the Sacrament, the Body and Blood Christ, as He has spoken, then how shall any of those same elements that remain become anything less? As our Confessions also teach, when the Word comes to the element, it is a Sacrament. Therefore, instead of debating what it might be if we don't use it correctly, should we not simply receive it and use it correctly?

When Israel and the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, took the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Hosts into battle against the Philistines, as though it were a secret weapon of war, they certainly were not using the Ark in the way the Lord intended. And to be sure, it didn't work in the way they were hoping. But neither did it cease to be the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Hosts, as the Philistines learned to their great hurt and regret. Likewise, when the Ark returned to Israel and some of the men of Beth-shemesh looked upon it with unseemly interest, those men were judged and put to death. I can't help but wonder if there isn't something instructive in these stories of the Ark, something to consider in our reverent administration of the Lord's Supper.

As for me, I'm going to continue to follow the same catechesis I give my young communicants: We know what the Sacrament of the Altar is, and we know what to do with it, because Jesus says so. "This is My Body. Eat it. This is My Blood. Drink it."

The Sound of Comfort in a Picture

It's been five months since our little Job was called from the womb to our Father in heaven. Hard to believe it's been that long, although a lot has happened in the meantime. We've observed the Lenten fast and celebrated Easter; I've been to Siberia and back; I've given my daughter in marriage; and I've served as the chaplain for the "Amen" conference in St. Louis. I've preached and received the preaching of the Gospel. I've confessed and heard confession; I've absolved and been absolved. I've catechized and received the catechesis of the Word. Faith and life continue. Christ remains the same, as in the past, so now and forever.

My wife and I, and our children, have been comforted by the grace of God in Christ, by His Cross and Resurrection, and by the gift of His Holy Spirit. We have been granted blessed peace and rest in the certainty of His Gospel, and we have rejoiced in His tender mercy and compassion.

I do believe all this, but, Lord, help Thou my unbelief! So many mixed emotions. So many hopes and fears and trepidations and desires. So many things to think about. How is it that my counsel and care and catechesis of others can be so simple and clear, and my confession of the faith so sure and certain, and yet, when it comes to living as I believe, it can sometimes be so difficult, so murky and muddy and confusing?

I'm not referring to despair, nor to shame and vice, but to the simple question that reared its head in the weeks and months following Job's death: Should we seek to avoid another pregnancy or remain open to receiving any other children the Lord in His mercy might entrust to us?

Immediately, I want to argue with myself that such a question is not valid. The Lord is the Author and Giver of life, not me. I am not able to choose whether He will give new life or withhold it. I should not seek to try. All of this is true, I know, but the question still arises. I can't argue it out of my head, nor ignore it out of my heart. For while the Lord has every prerogative to work as He will in spite of our contrivances and machinations, I know Him to be faithful in upholding His creation, to be orderly and consistent in preserving the means He has established for His work of procreation. He has entrusted us with a stewardship of His gifts, and He honors our exercise of that stewardship (with rare exceptions), whether we manage it poorly or well, rightly or wrongly. As He is faithful, so is it required of us to be faithful; which is to do what we are given to do, trusting Him to provide all that we need for this world and the next.

There are no guarantees to be found in our decisions and actions, nor within this fallen world. Heaven and earth will pass away, and only the Word of the Lord endures forever. Nevertheless, we do know how it is that God normally works the creation of new life, and we are clever enough to know how to avoid or reduce the likelihood of that happening. So we are faced with the responsibility, the temptation and the possibility, of making choices and decisions in such an area where angels and demons have no prerogative to tread. Hence, the question that confonted us following the miscarriage.

It has been most helpful to me, in contemplating such questions, to think of this in terms of love for the neighbor. In fact, I would venture to say, that is the right way to contemplate almost any of the choices or decisions we face in life. However, it is not the way our devious sinful will has wired us to think about things, nor the way in which the world teaches us to live. The perspective of our sinful hearts is to wonder what is to our own best advantage: What will make us happiest? What will cause us the least amount of difficulty? What is the ratio of our risk to our potential gain? When faced with a particular situation, a set of circumstances, a selection of possible paths and outcomes, each of us is far more likely to ask, "What's in it for me?" instead of, "How shall I be given to serve and help my neighbor in this scenario?" Or, again, "What must I do to be saved?" instead of, "What may I do to save my neighbor?"

So, for example, in answering this particular question of whether or not to avoid the likelihood of pregnancy, I am convinced that a husband must consider this from the standpoint of serving his wife. Not that he should simply defer to her judgment; for that would not be serving her, but abdicating his headship and avoiding his responsibility. Nor do I mean that he should chiefly be concerned about her feelings and desires, which are susceptible to the same sinful weaknesses as his own. Rather, it is a question of her life and health and strength and well-being. My opinion is that husbands and wives should normally not seek to avoid or reduce the likelihood of pregnancy; though I do not offer this opinion as a hard-and-fast law, but simply as a default rule of thumb. The norm, in other words, is that a husband and wife will gladly receive God's good gift and blessing of children, however few or many sons and daughters He may graciously choose to bestow upon them. So far, so good. But I am also suggesting that a departure from this norm may be pursued by a husband for the sake of his wife, in order to protect and care for her. In such a case, he is not acting apart from faith in God, but he is bearing the burden of love.

The specific application of these general observations will differ from one couple to the next. I am not seeking to make any blanket decisions for anyone. But these parameters were helpful to me in grappling with the question I found myself confronted with and unable to avoid. In my own heart I perceived how easily I could be swayed by doubts and fears and a lack of faith, and I fled from proceeding along such a path. Instead, I took up the much different perspective — not only a different consideration, but a different way of thinking: in the way of the Gospel instead of the Law, for the sake of my neighbor instead of my self — whether my wife would be endangered or harmed by another pregnancy, or so burdened in her own mortal frailty as to be undone or brought low in grief and sorrow. Those new questions were challenging in their own way, but they were the right sort of questions to be asking myself. They gave me a way of proceeding that did not call into doubt the grace, mercy and peace of God, but rather allowed me the privilege of living in grace, mercy and peace toward my nearest and dearest neighbor.

I should clarify that I did not process all of this in lonely isolation, but in conversation with my bride; both for the sake of hearing her own thoughts and concerns, and in order to articulate my various considerations. I rejoiced in that opportunity to share our hurts and struggles, to confess our faith to each other, and to arrive at an answer together in the hope and freedom of the Gospel. It was especially in the give and take of our discussion that I realized, my fears and trepidations were not so much for the health and well-being of my wife as for the possibility of another miscarriage. Of course there are always difficulties and dangers involved, but no more so now than six months or a year ago. Thus, the path of faith and love presented itself as an openness to any other sons or daughters with which the Lord in His mercy might entrust us.

Now, as the Lord has so willed, we are again privileged to care for a child in the womb. We pray that He who has begun this good work will also bring it to completion in due time. The little one is reckoned at eight weeks, the very point at which our Job departed from this vale of tears; and we anticipate that he or she will be born this coming February, very near the anniversary of Job's death. It has occurred to me that Job went on ahead of us to heaven, in order to make room for this new person of body and soul to be given life both now and forever.

I have also been aware of my weakness in response to this new life. For weeks my sinful heart hardly dared to believe the news, but held itself in check and hid, for fear that I would have to mourn another loss, another death. I resist that tempation by doing what I am given to do: praying for my unborn child, caring for my wife, and catechizing my family with the Word of Christ. Here am I, and the children God has given me. We are now and ever in His hands, who does not desire that any of these little ones should perish forever. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's; and we who live and believe in Him, though we die, yet shall we live.

In addition to His Word and promises, the Lord is also at work through His earthly means and wearing His human masks to serve and protect my dear wife and our little one inside of her. So, she is taking her vitamins, and she has been to the doctor, and within the past few days she had an ultrasound. What a joyous and tremendous help it was to see the picture she brought home with her, depicting our new baby in the womb, so clearly a human person, a child, a living being. He or she is barely as large as my thumbnail, but the head and torso are quickly and easily discerned, and even the features of a tiny face with eyes and nose and mouth. Arms and legs are already evident, beginning to extend from the body. Most wonderful of all, though not captured in the picture, was the rapid rhythm of the heart, beating in accordance with the Lord's design.

An ultrasound is a picture formed by sounds, which enter the womb from the outside and, as in this case, do not return void or empty. So, also, the voice of the Word, the Son of God, by whom all things are made and have their being. His Gospel enters the womb, even now, as easily as He once entered the womb of His Mother Mary and crafted for Himself a body from her flesh and blood to sacrifice for us upon the Cross. His incarnation and nativity, His life and death, His Cross and Resurrection, His Gospel of forgiveness and salvation, these are the sure and certain hope to which we cling as we care for our new baby in utero and wait upon the tender mercy of our God.

There is no other comfort like that of the Gospel, the sweet and sure forgiveness of sins. But that Gospel is often accompanied by tangible signs, and sometimes a picture really can be worth a thousand words. So it is that seeing a picture of my baby has been such an incredible, indescribable comfort. The last time LaRena had an ultrasound, immediately following Job's death, we both sat there in the little room at the hospital staring at the monitor, at the picture of an empty womb, a blank space where our baby once had been. There was no body, no face, no hearbeat; only emptiness. For now we live under the cross, and we look upon life as through a darkened glass; with all of creation we groan for the revealing of the sons of God in Christ, when we shall see Him as He is, and we shall be like Him, knowing Him as we are known by Him in love. Yet, even now, in the midst of thick darkness and under the Cross of Christ, He has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. For He has become flesh and tabernacles among us, all the fullness of the Godhead dwelling bodily and personally within His Church on earth.

In that picture of sounds from the womb of my dear wife, I am given to see the image of Christ, our Savior: a new life created for the life everlasting in Him. For He who is the Son of the Living God from all eternity, He has also been conceived in the womb of His Mother. It is precisely in that way that He has become true Man, like me and like my children in our frailty and weakness. There was also a particular day in time when He was at the stage of eight weeks in the womb, the One who would be born and grow up to bear our sins and death in His own body on the Cross. Thus has He become, not only our Brother of blood and flesh, but our faithful and merciful High Priest in things pertaining to God. In His face we see the Light of the revelation of the glory of God; and His face is a face like ours, like that of my tiny infant in the womb, so that in the Resurrection we shall see Him face-to-face, with our own eyes, from our own flesh. By His grace, that is the future and the hope set before me in the ultrasound picture of my youngest son or daughter, and I cannot help but give thanks. Soli Deo Gloria! Amen.

10 July 2008

Is Friendship an Office or Station in Life?

I've been thinking carefully about friendship for several years now, especially since I was asked to write about it for Higher Things in 2004 and then to speak on relationships more broadly at the "Dare To Be Lutheran" conference in 2005. Such considerations are hardly hypothetical, ethereal or esoteric, but quite personal and existential. For all of that, though, the "what" and "wherefore" of friendship still strikes me as rather fluid, amorphous, and difficult to grasp with any consistent clarity. I keep searching for how to get a handle on this aspect of life, but maybe there isn't one; or maybe it's as variable as our friends and our friendships tend to be.

I confess with Dr. Luther that "good friends" are among God's good gifts of daily bread. I have noted in the past that the Holy Scriptures set forth the friendship of David and Jonathan as an example for us, for instruction, reproof, correction, admonition and encouragement. Our Lord Himself, on the night when He was betrayed, pointedly described His relationship with His disciples as friendship; which is typified throughout the Holy Gospel in "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Elsewhere, it is revealed that Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany were His friends.

Clearly, there is a theological significance to friendship. That should hardly seem surprising, if not for the fact that we tend to trivialize these things. Children know it very well, and they are less shy about expressing it than adults. My friends and friendships have always been among the most precious and important things in my life, not only when I was a little boy, but in my youth and in adulthood no less. The ancient philosophers recognized and acknowledged the special importance of friendship, too, as did C.S. Lewis in his marvelous book, The Four Loves.

Our friends are people we love, and it is a shame that we do not speak that way more freely and faithfully. "Love" in modern American English is much abused. It is used in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of things, but, so far as I can tell, it is not often used to describe friendship. We speak of loving foods and sports and music and movies, but not our friends; probably because, when it comes to other people, "love" is too quickly equated with romance or used euphemistically for sexual relationships. Our English word is narrowed in its scope to that of eros, with little room left for the profound agape and philos of the Holy Scriptures. People love their pets, and they love their lovers, but they "like" their friends. There is a sad impoverishment in that language, which, I suspect, betrays the poverty of our sinful hearts. But the specifics are elusive to me.

It seems clear to me that friendship is not a "vocation" per se, certainly not in the proper sense of that terminology. We have come to use this word "vocation" more broadly than we probably should, but friendship still doesn't fit even the broadest stretch of the term. We have no external "call" to be anyone's friend, far less any permanent assignment to such a relationship. Leastwise not if we are to mean anything specific by "friendship." As Christians, we are called to love one another, and even to love our enemies, but those commandments do not define what friendship is. I have suggested in the past, and I still believe, that friendship is the particular context in which we regularly exercise our love for the neighbor, whereby we are also trained in the way of love for others, too. As finite creatures, we are not capable of loving everyone all the time. Our circle of friends is comprised of those neighbors whom we love with tangible service and assistance; not to the exclusion of all others, but as our normal expression and embodiment of that which is universally comprehended and accomplished by Christ Jesus, our Lord.

If friendship is not a vocation, then is it possibly an office or station in life? That's one of the key questions I've been pondering for a while now, but I think the answer has to be, "no." There is obviously a connection between our friendships and our particular place in life, but not in a direct or necessary way. In fact, there is a freedom to friendship that resists the very notion of a duty or obligation. It is a joke when we tease that we are being paid to befriend someone. True, we are obliged to love one another; that is a divine commandment. Yet, Christian love, like that of the Father for us in Christ, flows not from compulsion but in freedom. Thus, friendship not only embodies the law of Christian love; it also embodies the freedom of a mutual relationship, as the Lord our God created us to live in faith and love toward Him, not as slaves but friends.

C.S. Lewis writes eloquently of friendship as the companionship of those who share common interests and common pursuits; a bond that is formed by a common commitment to some shared passion. Whereas "lovers" gaze upon each other, friends walk side-by-side, shoulder to shoulder, eyes ahead on a mutual destination. I like this definition of friendship very much and have found it to be helpful and instructive. It rings true in my experience. My closests friends surely are those with whom I share important aspects of life. So, for example, many of my nearest and dearest friends are fellow pastors, with whom I share a special kinship even if they happen to live and serve far away from me. Likewise, my wife and I share friendships with other married couples, and our family friendships gravitate toward other families with children of the same age, especially other homeschooling families. These are ways in which, it seems to me, the strongest friendships are rooted in our vocations and offices, without actually being an office or vocation. The more significant and permanent the connections we share with our friends, the more solid and pervasive our friendship with them is likely to be.

That much has seemed fairly clear and even obvious to me. It's a pretty satisfying picture of friendship, so far as it goes. Yet, it doesn't paint the whole picture. Or, rather, it presents a two-dimensional picture but not a full three-dimensional model of friendship. There are people with whom we share many important things in common, who aren't counted among our "friends." We all have colleagues, co-workers, associates, acquaintances, classmates, or what have you, with whom we regularly interact, who simply don't belong to our circle of "loved ones," not in the special sense of friendship. Evidently, there are other factors involved in addition to mutual pursuits. I suspect there are also differences along these lines between the friendships of men as compared to those of women (and again in the case of friendships between men and women), but I'm not prepared to think out loud about those dimensions of the topic at this juncture.

There are some people who seem to have a special knack for friendship. I'm not one of those people, but I assume that everyone could easily think of examples. Some people have a certain charisma about them, which makes them attractive and easy to love. I'm not talking about "sex appeal," but a kind of charm that is inviting and comfortable and fun to be around. Then again, there are other folks who have a selfless and loving way about them, who are always pouring themselves out for their neighbors. These people may or may not be "attractive," but they simply befriend whomever they encounter. There are also those rare individuals who span both of these qualities: who have the charisma to attract friends, as well as the grace to befriend everyone around them. I've known a few people like that along the way, and I frankly stand in awe of them. In both respects, there is a personal character involved that lends itself to friendship, which seems to be as instrumental as the proximity of professions and pastimes.

I'm afraid that I don't possess either sort of knack for friendship. As vitally important as friends have always been to me, friendship doesn't come naturally or easily to me. I'm too selfish and self-centered, and I consequently try too hard or not enough. I'm either overdoing it, in the hopes of trying to make people like me, or I get too caught up in my own pursuits and tend to neglect other people. My interests in life are limited in number and narrow in scope, and yet I am passionate about them in a way that is all-consuming; which, unfortunately, makes me rather tedious and boring. I'm not describing any of this to offer an excuse, but as a way of wrestling with myself and trying to identify where I need to do better.

I often admonish my children that, if they want to have friends, the best thing they can do is simply to be a good friend. That's a case in which I need to hear and heed my own good advice, and take it to heart. Whining and pouting and complaining with self-pity is no way to go about winning friends, irrespective of one's age. It's certainly not attractive or becoming. Gracefully going about one's life, serving one's vocations and befriending one's neighbors along the way, that is not only a more effective "strategy," but a far better and more satisfying way to live.

So, as I have been considering these various aspects of friendship, here are several specific things that have come to the forefront of my mind:

First of all, I am incredibly grateful to my friends for their friendship, especially because it is largely a consequence of their gracious kindness. In fact, I am amazed at how many people are so patient with me, who befriend me and bear with me, even though I am a difficult person to love. It has occurred to me, from that perspective, that my friends provide a good example for me, and by their love they enable me to be a gracious and charitable good friend toward others.

Second, I have come to realize more clearly that friendship can't be forced or manipulated. It is a mutual relationship of love that is lived in the freedom of faith (in the Gospel). Yet, this freedom of friendship does not free me from responsibility, but frees me to befriend and serve my neighbor in love, whether or not that love is reciprocated. In this way, friendship becomes a special example of the way in which Christians are to live in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. That seems simple and obvious enough, and yet I am chagrined at how easily I approach friendship seflishly.

Third, I remain intrigued by the connections between my vocations and stations in life and my friendships. There is more to be explored in this area, and more to be learned, but already my perception is that my offices and friendships can mutually inform and benefit from each other. That is to say, friendship can serve not only as a training ground for loving my neighbor in general, but as a training ground for loving my wife and children and serving my congregation. The way in which my friends and I love and serve each other can therefore teach me how to be a better husband and father and pastor. Similarly, the particular ways in which my various vocations direct me to love my family and my parishioners can provide some useful guidance to my friendships, as well. Obviously, I have a unique relationship with my wife and my children, which is not shared with anyone else. Still, there are aspects of friendship analagous to familial life, and my vocations teach me how to love my neighbors as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters (especially in Christ, within the household of His Church). Even more directly, the Word of God that I am given to speak as a pastor to my people, certainly can and should inform the Word of God that I am given to confess in all my relationships. Anyway, that is where my thoughts have led me thus far in my contemplation of friendship.

04 July 2008

Heaven, I'm in Heaven

No, I haven't died and gone to heaven, but this servant of the Lord surely could depart in peace, for my eyes and ears and nose and mouth and hands have beheld the Glory of God in the gifts of His Christ, on earth as it is in heaven, by His Word of the Gospel throughout this week. I'm in St. Louis, completing my duties as the chaplain of the Higher Things conference that began on Tuesday and concludes this afternoon at Vespers. What a joy and delight, what a privilege and a pleasure it has been to serve in this capacity. How rich in grace and mercy the Lord has been to lavish such loving-kindness upon me and all His children here gathered together in this place.

Granted, I have missed having my own Emmaus Youth here with me. There have been times I've almost forgotten that, when I have momentarily wanted to seek them out in the midst of the crowd and exult with them as their pastor in the good gifts that we are granted to receive. Then I immediately remember that they have already rejoiced in that privilege last week in the Poconos, and that here I am given to serve as a pastor for other young people, for their parents and pastors and chaperones. There is a twinge of melancholy sadness, that I am not able to share this immediate experience with my own young people, who are in many ways almost like my own children (and in some cases are, in fact, my own children). Yet, there is the benefit that I have been able to give my full focus and complete attention to my office as chaplain.

My entire week has really been consumed with preparations for each of the services: ten of them altogether, from Tuesday afternoon through Friday afternoon. I've been able to consider every detail ahead of time, so that, when the time comes to pray with this group of 800+ youth, we are simply able to rest in the Word of the Lord and to pray together in peace and quietness. What a marvelous thing that is. There is such a beautiful rhythm to this week. It is more full and complete than we are able to follow back home; though, at the same time, each of the prayer offices are like an old friend, a familiar and comfortable place to be at ease: to be "at home," as it were, not geographically, but in Christ Jesus our Savior. Praying Evening Prayer and Vespers with my own congregation every week throughout the year, I find that praying with the people here at the conference is simply a continuation and extension of that regular pattern and practice. Thus, even separated by hundreds of miles, I am still praying with and for my dear people at Emmaus.

It was a different experience for me to administer the Holy Communion to a congregation of disciples some ten or twelve times larger than I am normally given to serve. Having bread and wine ready to hand for 900 communicants makes for a lot of food up there on the Altar. To take that in hand with the Words of our Lord and to oversee the distribution of His Body and His Blood into the mouths of His people is an awesome responsibility and task. Yet, the same Lord whose gifts I was given to administer also surrounded and supported me with faithful brothers in Christ and in the Holy Office, that all things might be done in love, in decency and good order. Looking out over the distribution as it was occuring last night, there was such a wave of joy that flooded me, I could hardly have expressed it, except by joining in the singing of the hymns as best I could while remaining attentive to my duties.

The music all week long has been tremendous. I have basked in the opportunity to be served by my dear friend and father in Christ, Kantor Resch, as he has served at the organ bench for all of the services of the conference. Mr. Tim Lacroix returned to this conference to serve, as he has so well in the past, as the choir director, and what great work he has done with a wonderful group of young people. My seat on the chancel has been immediately in front of the choir, and their beautiful singing of the Word of God has both comforted and delighted me.

For each of us here in this place, to sing in the magnificent St. Xavier Church on the campus of St. Louis University is truly a taste of heaven on earth. Architecturally, artistically and acoustically, it is simply marvelous. As the Lord opens our lips to show forth His praise in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, it has been almost an effortless undertaking. And to hear the great Lutheran chorales swell from the lungs and lips of this group is breathtaking.

Three years ago, when I was attending the "Dare To Be Lutheran" conference here in St. Louis (my first Higher Things conference), I was in such awe of the chapel space and daily services. If anything, my perspective and experience as the chaplain has been even more exhilerating. What is definitely sweeter this time around is the weather and my experience of the campus. In 2005, it was so terribly hot and humid all week long, and everything seemed to bake in the sun like the Sahara desert. I remember walking from my dorm, then, to the student center where the sectionals were held, a matter of only four or five blocks I suppose, and arriving drenched in perspiration. Wearing my clericals that week, I felt like a mobile solar panel, and it was dreadful. Our dorm for that conference was the one south of the campus, right on Grand Avenue, immediately off the highway. Consequently, I never actually saw the bulk of the campus, but basically walked back and forth up and down Grand Avenue all week long. Mainly what I saw was concrete and blacktop and lots of traffice. I don't think anything was very green that summer, either, and the overall feel was that of an inner city.

This year, my dorm is toward the western end of the beautiful campus. I walk amidst fountains and trees and grass. Everything is green and lush and lovely. I've seen very little traffic most of the time, because I haven't had to be on Grand Avenue much. Sure, I've spent most of my time in the church, because that's where I've been preparing and officiating all of the services. But I've had the pleasure of enjoying the campus in my movement to and fro, and it simply feels like a different place altogether than the last time I was here. My dorm is very nice, too, and I've had a couple of great roommates; although I will say that I have missed having my Zach here and rooming with him, which was the other thing I enjoyed best about "Dare To Be Lutheran."

I suppose that if I got to revel in this kind of splendor all the time, I would be tempted to fall into a theology of glory. Leaving this place will tug and pull at my heart, because this truly has been a joyous opportunity to serve and be served. Yet, the parish and people to whom I return are God's own children, the very ones He has given me to care for, not only for a week, but for a lifetime. I don't have a space as architecturally, artistically and acoustically astounding as St. Xavier Church, but our own Emmaus is the place where Christ Jesus comes to be with us, to open the Scriptures to us, to open our ears, our hearts and minds to Himself, and to give Himself to us in the Breaking of the Bread. He gives those gifts to me, His child and servant, and He gives me the tremendous privilege and pleasure of giving them to the congregation in His Name. That, also, is heaven on earth; under the cross, to be sure, but no less so for that reason. Indeed, it is by and with the cross that heaven is ours, even now, by grace through faith in Christ. It has not yet appeared what we shall be. Even here in this place, we do not see or hear or smell or taste outwardly what the full glory of heaven shall be like. Yet, all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily among us in the Word and Flesh and Blood of Christ the Crucified. Heaven itself would be void and bare, if He were not near us, but here and back home He is already a very present help in trouble; and He shall never leave us nor forsake us.

I'll take my leave of St. Xavier Church with a touch of sadness, but I am already looking forward to being again with the flock entrusted to my pastoral care in South Bend. There it is true, no matter how any given day may feel, that I am given to live a heavenly life here on earth.