29 November 2007

Penitential Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Weaknesses of Preachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 November 2007

Gerhardt Hezekiah Klement Ambrose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 November 2007

Receiving Our Bread with Thanksgiving

The Holy Triune God is the Author and Giver of life, the Maker and Preserver of all things. Every good and perfect gift comes to us from Him. All of this is for the sake of Christ, the Son of God, the almighty and eternal Word by whom all things were made, by whom all of creation has been redeemed and is sanctified. Our bodies and life have meaning and significance, in this world and the next, in Him who is our Head, our Savior and our God. For all of this it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him, at all times and in all places. Truly, we have nothing else to offer Him but thanks for all His gifts and benefits of body and soul; nor can we offer Him even that sacrifice of thanksgiving except through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

By the nature of the case, and paradoxically, we give thanks to God chiefly by receiving His good gifts. It is by faith that He is worshiped rightly, which is to love and trust in Him, to look to Him for all good things, and to receive what He so freely and generously bestows upon all of mankind. Even such faith is a gift, which we can only receive from Him. So do we pray that He would lead us to recognize all that He provides for us by grace, and receive our bread with thanksgiving.

We also give thanks to God by using His gifts, not only for our own benefit and enjoyment, but also for the loving care and support of our neighbors. We give thanks to God by serving our families, and also by feeding and clothing, visiting and tending orphans and widows in their distress, the hungry and thirsty, the ill-clothed and ill-treated. There is nothing we can render to the Lord but our thanks for all His benefits, but we serve the Lord in His poor and little ones, and so give thanks to Him also by caring for them.

There is yet the praise and thanksgiving that we offer unto God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, by calling upon His Name and confessing His Word. In this we honor Him by speaking back to Him and all the world what He has first of all spoken to us by the Son. We do so in the Creed and the Our Father, and in the Catechism, and so also in the acknowledgment and appreciation of the particular gifts that the Lord has bestowed upon us within our stations in life. It is truly meet, right and salutary that we thus put into words the faith that God has worked in our hearts by His Word and Spirit. Sometimes this may be a case of stating the obvious, which should still not go unsaid, because it is not so much a case of providing information as it is a matter of confession, of prayer, praise and thanksgiving. All the more so when the truth that we speak may be in stark contrast and contradiction of outward appearances. In such a case, especially then, to confess the Word of God is to glorify His Name and to spite that great liar, the devil.

As a matter of thanksgiving, therefore, I am counting my blessings out loud on this day, because the Lord has not only given me these good gifts of daily bread, but by His Word and Holy Spirit He has also given me to realize this and opens my mouth (and my blog) to show forth His praise.

I thank God for my colleague and father confessor, the Reverend Gifford Grobien, for his friendship, his fellowship, his fraternal encouragement and support, and his faithful assistance in the Office of the Holy Ministry. I am particularly grateful, at this time, for the respite that Pastor Grobien has enabled me to have with my family as we have moved and settled into our new house and home.

I thank God for the many good friends with which He has surrounded me, both new and old, near and far, who support me and my family with love and affection, who bear with me and my idiosyncracies, and who care for me with gentle forgiveness even when I am persnickety and grumpy, tired and out of sorts. I am humbled but deeply appreciative of the tremendous assistance that we have received from a number of these dear friends in the past several weeks of packing and moving.

I thank God for the house that He has provided for us, and for all the myriad ways in which He has caused everything to work together so beautifully in this process. I'm thankful for the additional space that we now have to work with, for the larger basement, for the very nice hardwood floors upstairs, for the lovely new kitchen tile, for the furniture that has been given to us, for the new appliances, for the paint and the painting, and for lots of other help along the way, all of which has done so much to make this new house a delightful new home for my family.

I thank God for my dear wife, my beautiful bride of the past twenty-two-plus years, who has worked (and continues working) tirelessly and selflessly to serve our home and family. I am thankful for all that she has done in the process of moving, packing and unpacking, and for the most delicious feast that she prepared for this Thanksgiving Day. I also give thanks for the classical and Lutheran education that she provides for our children throughout each year, and for her loving support, her patience and forgiveness on my behalf.

I thank God for my children, each and every one of them, for all their similarities and differences, and for the marvelous opportunity He has given me to care for them and catechize them and simply to enjoy sharing their lives with them. I am thankful for DoRena's visit on Tuesday, and for her phone call and Zachary's on Thanksgiving Day. I am thankful for my little Gerhardt, who was born on Thanksgiving Day one year ago. And I am profoundly grateful for my six other "little people" in between: for growing-up-too-fast Nicholai, articulate Monica, inquisitive Ariksander, tender Oly'anna, mischievous Justinian, and affectionate Frederick.

I thank God for DoRena's fiance, Sam, and for Zachary's girlfriend, Rebekah. Along with that, I thank God every day and night for the way in which both of my older children have honored their Mother and me in making decisions about their future, for the wisdom and maturity they have demonstrated along the way, and for the faith and piety in which they have proceeded.

I thank God for my Father and Mother, for their love and support and forgiveness and care. I am so grateful that they are still able to be a part of my life and a part of my family's life. Most especially, I give thanks that they brought me to Holy Baptism and continued to bring me to Church, that they taught me the Word of God in our home and family as I was growing up, and saw to it that I was catechized in the Christian faith and life at every step of the way.

I thank God for my brother and sisters, for Paul and his family, for Dorisa and her family (including her little Logan on the way), and for Dawn and her husband. I am glad for the years that we shared growing up together, and for the good relationship that we now enjoy as adults, even though too many miles separate us. I appreciate the things we have in common, but also admire the different sorts of gifts and talents, vocations and stations in life that God has given to my siblings.

I thank God for His gift of Holy Baptism, which I received on Thanksgiving Day forty-two years ago. Dr. Luther is surely correct, in his Large Catechism, when he says that we could spend our entire lives exploring and praising the benefits of Holy Baptism and never exhaust that treasure. In the washing of water with His Word, the Holy Triune God brought me out of Egypt and into the Promised Land through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, my Lord. All my sins were freely and fully forgiven, and I was given life and light in place of darkness and death. The Father made me His own dear child, united me with His beloved and well-pleasing Son, and anointed me with His Holy Spirit. It is not possible to thank Him too much for this benediction of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.

Finally, I thank God for the profound privilege of being a pastor and serving His people in this place with His Gospel, His means of grace, His forgiveness of sins, His life and salvation. I thank Him for the fact that this divine vocation forces me always back into His Word, day by day and week by week, so that my own faith and life are constantly fed and sustained. I thank Him for the joy I am given to baptize the children of God, to catechize the lambs and sheep, to visit the homebound and hospitalized, to pray with and for the people of the congregation, and to speak the sweet Word of Holy Absolution to those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness of Christ. I thank Him for the constant grace and blessing to celebrate the Church Year, to rejoice in the Lord's Day and the festivals of Christ throughout the year, and both to administer and receive His very Body and Blood in the Holy Communion. Surely, this is Paradise on earth.

17 November 2007

Carrie What's-Her-Last-Name Kisses Frogs, Loves Her Dog

I've been enjoying Carrie Underwood's new record, Carnival Ride. It's a solid sophomore set of songs, and anyone who cared for her debut should find this new one very satisfying, too. There's nothing as instantly catchy as "Jesus, Take the Wheel," but overall this second record has greater breadth and depth, both musically and lyrically. Among those singers who have actually won on American Idol, Carrie is so far the only one to have demonstrated a compelling reason for her victory, although I suppose there are diehard Kelly Clarkson fans still out there somewhere. These are matters of my own opinion, obviously, and others are quite welcome to their own.

Carnival Ride was aptly named, as it feels a bit like that. There's some sparkling moments of humor and fun, and then some other more melancholy songs. I don't gather that Carrie is bitter about anything, but she does seem a little cynical and skeptical these days. I have no idea how old she is now, but I sense that she may be feeling the pressures and disillusionments of the entertainment world. I hope such things don't get the better of her, as she comes across as a wholesome, down-home kind of girl. That's part of what I like and enjoy about her songs.

There's not a lot more to say, I suppose. Those who like Carrie Underwood have probably already picked up this new record for themselves; and those who don't, probably won't. To each his own. There are some poignant points along the way, such as "Just a Dream," "I Know You Won't," and "You Won't Find This." Carrie handles each of those well, I think. I like her remake of the Randy Travis song, "I Told You So," as well as some of the more uptempo songs: "Flat on the Floor," "So Small," and "Crazy Dreams" (the last of these complete with hairbrush singers, dashboard drummers and air guitar players). The sweetest song on the record is "All-American Girl," and I'm mushy enough about my children to find it touching and delightful.

The two songs on Carnival Ride that bust my gut with laughter the first time I heard them, are "Last Name" and "The More Boys I Meet." The first of these had me wondering to begin with, but the conclusion of the story it tells is a riot. Apologies to anyone whose piety may be offended. I don't recommend that anyone follow the example of the poor girl in the song; in fact, I recommend strongly against it. But it's clever and humorous, anyway. "The More Boys I Meet" is great, and the punch line of that song almost caused me to drive off the road; well, not really, but close enough. I was on my way from visiting my Grandma in Seymour to visiting my daughter DoRena in Bloomington, on a twisting, curving road through Brown County, as Carrie was singing the chorus: "I close my eyes and kiss the frog, each time finding, the more boys I meet, the more I love my dog." Okay, I found that to be very funny. Young bucks starstruck by Miss Underwood might not be so amused. But anyone can have a good time hearing her sing. Enjoy the ride.

16 November 2007

Learning with Age and Taking Second Chances

I've been teaching one of my young friends how to write a research paper, which is something I know how to do and have a fair amount of experience with. My family is co-oping with another family in homeschooling our children, as we have done with good success in the past, and this is one small way that I am able to contribute. Other than catechesis with the family, which I am able to do most nights and some mornings, I've done very little of the schooling over the years. I began to do math with Zachary at some point, and, even though I wasn't as diligent with that as I would have liked to be, it was something I really enjoyed doing with him. Now that he's away at college, I retained an itch to participate in the homeschooling process, and so it is that I've been helping out by overseeing a research paper project.

I never did anything like this with either DoRena or Zachary. I proofread and edited some of Zach's writing, but I never took him through the process of researching a proper sort of paper. It's just one of many things, I now realize, that I never found the time to do with my two oldest children, and I'm past the point of any second chances with either of them. I don't think they hold it against me or feel deprived; I'm tremendously grateful for the good relationship I have with both of them. They don't appear to have suffered any loss in their education, either, as they are both doing quite well in college. But I do regret the lost opportunities I failed to take with them. Not only in the area of their education, but simply in getting to know them as people. I've always loved them, more than I could ever express, and I've always been so proud of them, but I haven't always taken the time to enjoy their company and share their lives as I should.

I'm always learning from my mistakes, like it or not, and hopefully getting wiser with age. By the grace of God in Christ, I'm getting better at giving my time and attention to my younger children. It's certainly true, by way of a more general example, that LaRena and I are more comfortable and confident with Frederick and Gerhardt than we were with poor little DoRena and Zachary. We've learned by trial and error, I suppose, and I guess that never really stops altogether. If I were going to offer advice from what I have learned along the way, I would encourage others to seize whatever opportunities they are given to speak from the heart, and to listen carefully, as well. That goes not only for children, but for parents and siblings, spouses and friends. There are those things one wishes he had never said, which can't ever be taken back, but equally tragic are those things that were left unsaid, for which the chance to do so may never come again. In any case, I have gotten better at simply saying what ought to be said, straightforwardly, instead of resorting to idle chit-chat or refraining from anything of substance.

There's a bigger gap between Zachary and Nicholai than between any of our other children, and there is an inside family joke that we actually had a daughter, Katie, in between those two boys, but that we accidently left her at a gas station. The children all know this is only a joke, and they find it quite amusing. I'm sure they realize that their paranoid and overprotective father would never leave any of them behind! But the young lady I'm helping with the research paper is just the right age, and she is close enough to my family, and we to hers, that she is in some ways like that "missing daughter" of ours. I suppose it would be cruel and unusual humor to call her the "missing link," although I suspect she might find it hilarious. In all seriousness, however, it has dawned on me, in my conversations with her, that I missed the boat with my own DoRena when she was that age. I honestly don't think I learned how to visit with her or communicate with her properly until after she moved away to college. How sad is that? There's no making up for it now, no undoing of the past at any rate, but I do hope and pray that I will be a more attentive father to my two younger daughters, especially as they become teenagers in the years ahead. It seems to me that there is hardly anything more important for a young woman as she is growing up, then to have a good relationship with her father. In the meantime, I cherish the good relationship I have with my oldest daughter, who is now a grown woman and a bride-to-be.

It is encouraging to remember that we live by grace and the forgiveness of sins, for Jesus' sake, and that our children have a dear Father in heaven who loves them perfectly and cares for them more adequately than we could ever achieve or even imagine. Children are also rather resilient, by God's good design, and loving parents who may fumble and fuddle along are still not likely to mess things up too badly. It does appear to me that, whatever else I may have failed to give my children, I have somehow managed to catechize them with the Word of God, and He has served them well with that. I would not trade their faith and piety for anything. Yet, it doesn't have to be an either-or. I'm glad to be taught how to communicate more capably with my children, and I pray that the Lord will enable me to do so. Better late than never.

Biblical Bekah's Birthday

One of my favorite young people turns 19 today. I've been thinking of her and of this occasion all week long (and longer), but despite that fact, and notwithstanding my good intentions, I've not managed to put her card in the mail. To my chagrin, I am simply not very timely when it comes to getting holiday or birthday greetings to my family, friends and loved ones. It's not for any lack of caring, but somehow I need to prioritize my time better for such important gestures.

Anyway, "Biblical Bekah" (so called both for the spelling of her name and for her conscientious love for the Word of God) is uniquely significant to me and to my family. She is a genuine southern belle, no doubt, lovely in both her appearance and the gentle spirit of her heart. She's got style, as well as a marvelous, fun-loving sense of humor. She's also quite bright, let me assure you; but then again, when she's not entirely clear on what is going on, she'll flash her photogenic smile and equally disarm the rest of the room along with her. She's caring and compassionate and considerate, delightful with children, and a real good dancer. What's not to love? Yet, it is none of these things that has made her so special to us.

Biblical Bekah surely deserves the credit for inspiring my eldest son to mature, seemingly overnight, from a big boy to a responsible young man. I don't believe there is anyone in the family who would seriously dispute that observation. My dear Zach has always been thoughtful and serious, but he became downright disciplined about life, the universe, and everything once Bekah had captured his attention. It seems that his and her elder sisters had a hand in this, but I suspect that he would have noticed her in any case. Higher Things is the new Walther League (let the reader understand). Whatever the circumstances may have been, the transformation of Zach's daily routine and longterm outlook was nothing short of miraculous. Thank you, Bekah!

As things have progressed and life has happened since then, it now appears, God-willing, that the dear southern belle whose nineteenth birthday we celebrate on this auspicious day will also become my first daughter-in-law. I am still also in the process of accustoming myself to the fact that my own Beanie Belle will soon have a husband, and that her Sam will then be my son-in-law. All of this sets very well with me, but it is an adjustment nonetheless. Such developments have caused me to ruminate on what it means for my children to be growing up and beginning to make adult lives of their own, and to consider the differences between daughters and sons (both in general and in particular). Along with all of that, my witty wife has recently hit upon a great answer to those inquiring minds who want to know how many more children we are hoping to have: "We're planning to double 'em," she says. Not losing our daughters and sons, but gaining sons- and daughters-in-law. Sounds good to me. I can only hope and pray that each of my younger children will, as the time comes, find (or be found by) such fine companions as Sam and Bekah are for my DoRena and my Zachary.

Of course, it is not mine to make nor even to predict the future. Life comes as God so wills. We make our plans and proceed in faith; or, as the case may be, our children make their plans and live their lives, and we proceed in faith all the more, fervent in prayer and constant in hope. In the meantime, it is already my pleasure, and my family's pleasure, to count Biblical Bekah among our friends and loved ones. Among other things, her parents and sisters and she are my little Frederick's godfamily. But how shall we count the ways in which she has endeared herself to all of us? She has brought a happy joy to our home and family, and we have known the world to be a better place because of her presence. On this day, we rightly give thanks to God for His good gift of Rebekah, with optimistic hopes for the future, cheers to the past, and a celebration of this day which the Lord has made, in which we rejoice and are glad.

From far away across the miles, which seem especially too many on this occasion, here's to you, Bekah! The Lord be with you, bless you and keep you, and lift up His countenance upon you.

14 November 2007

Differences of a Pinion

It stands to reason that conflict will arise between two or more sinners intent upon mutually exclusive actions. Something has to give. But I have been noticing how often even well-meaning Christians are quite determined to dictate or evaluate the choices, decisions and behavior of others. Not only where a clear Word of the Lord identifies what is right and what is wrong, but also in matters that fall well within the freedom of the Gospel. Or, sometimes it happens that a course of action quite in harmony with the Holy Scriptures will be questioned and criticized in favor of something else that may be at odds with the good and gracious will of God. As I have become increasingly aware of such tendencies, also in myself, I have been wondering why we poor, miserable sinners are inclined to act this way.

Tolerance and diversity-for-its-own-sake are all the vogue these days; they have been for a while now. I find that whole kit-n-caboodle a bit humorous and ironic, since it is a mindset that seeks approval from those who are different by choice. But why? As much as everyone wants to be a self-determinating individual, it seems the vast majority of folks are really hoping that their self-determination will end up looking pretty "normal" and "mainstream." Those who pride themselves in being "weird," have generally identified quirkiness and eccentricity as the very sort of cool that will help them to be accepted and fit in. We all crave a clear sense of personal identity, but, so far as I can tell, most of us would prefer that identity to be recognizable and more familiar than strange to our neighbors in the world. Tolerance and diversity are stressed, I think, mainly to broaden the parameters within which "normal" is to be found; because the truth of the matter is that no one is really very tolerant of differences in others. We want to be like everyone else, because we'd prefer that everyone else be like us.

Admittedly, there does seem to be rather a lot of tolerance when it comes to religion and the myriad things that pass for "spirituality." There's a tendency to cut everyone a bunch of slack when it comes to God, partly because there is this mistaken notion that we can't be too sure about any particular truth of the matter, but also, I think, because insisting upon any objective truth about God already rules out the notion that I am free to pick and choose who and what I am. By tolerating "anything goes" with my neighbor and his faith, I presume to give myself the same latitude and to exercise a kind of spiritual licentiousness.

When it comes to a consideration of other people, however, there is a decided lack of patience or tolerance for any thinking or behaving that diverges from one's own choices and decisions. Folks get downright aggressive about this. Some are openly aggressive, not hesitating to express their opinion as though it were the golden mean by which all else is to be measured. Others are far more passively aggressive, smiling to their neigbhor's face, but disparaging and criticizing behind his or her back. Either way, the critique emerges from the fact that people make different decisions from different perspectives, with different values, goals and purposes. Some things are plainly right or wrong, but most things in life are not so clearly either one. Great. Except that we get uncomfortable when others proceed differently than we do or have (or would), and others are similarly unsettled by our distinctive actions.

I've concluded that this urge to criticize and "correct" the differences in others, stems from the works righteousness inherent in our sinfulness. Believing that our righteousness is a product of our own behavior, every choice and every action is freighted with a fevered scrupulosity and weighted with unwarranted significance. If we are pridefully convinced of our own righteousness, we evaluate the differences in others as obviously unrighteous. Alternatively, if we are uncertain of ourselves and our decisions, then the contrasting choices and actions of our neighbors are threatening and downright dangerous to our self-confidence and sense of security. Hence we become either condescending or defensive. That appears to be the reason we poor sinners have such a hard time allowing others to be themselves and do their own thing. It's finally impossible to "live and let live" when you're trying to live by the righteousness of the Law, as the old Adam is always striving to do. The freedom to be ourselves, and the freedom to let others be themselves, is lived only in the Gospel: in the grace, mercy and peace of the New Man, Jesus Christ.

12 November 2007

Too Tired to Move Any More

I turned 42 this past Friday, and I got a house for my birthday. After more than twenty-two years of marriage, I finally had a threshhold to carry my bride across. There wasn't a lot of time or opportunity for celebration, but I did buy myself a new crucifix for the living room wall, and my family and friends sang "Happy Birthday" to me over a nice salmon dinner that we ate in the midst of moving, and I took a break in the evening to enjoy a beer with my good friend and colleague, Pastor Grobien. With or without the birthday, however, I'm feeling my age more than ever at this point. On Sunday morning, I was actually aware of the process of formulating my thoughts and articulating them into words. My body and brain have been exhausted and sluggish, more so than I can remember feeling in a very long time.

The entire past month or so has been a whirlwind, and I am more than ready to catch my breath and get my bearings again. There was the district worship workshop in mid-September, than the Lenten resource for CPH, the paper I wrote and presented on Paul Gerhardt in New York, the pastors' conference in southern Indiana, the hymn festival and then the fundraising dinner at Emmaus. Along with all of that, we made an offer on a house in early October, went through that whole process, had the inspections done, negotiated the deal, and closed on the 30th of the same month. I was already tired by then, but the real work had yet to begin.

There's no way we could have accomplished this move without my amazing wife, LaRena. And even with her persistence and hard work, there's no way we could have managed it without the help of many good friends. It is staggering, the extent to which others have gone out of their way for us, and bent over backwards to help us, and pitched in their time, treasures and talents toward the goal of getting us into our own house and home. An awful lot of the work that has had to be done is of the sort that I have very little ability for or experience with. My lack of know-how and my inability to do more have been frustrating, discouraging and embarrassing, though no one has said or done anything to make me feel that way. It is just the reality that my skills and vocations typically exercise a completely different set of muscles than moving does.

We weren't as well prepared for the actual move as we might have been, either, but that was largely due to unforseen circumstances. In a way, the whole move was unforseen, as we had not anticipated that all of this would come together so soon or so quickly. After all these many years of renting, and after more than a year of looking unsuccessfully for a house that might work for us (in size, condition, location and price), I suppose we might have thought it would never happen. Now that it has, I'm still a bit breathless from the experience: both from excitement and from the fact that I'm out of shape and getting old (funny as it sounds to say so).

There were two things, in particular, that put us off schedule for the move. We closed on the 30th, but the contract allowed the previous owner three days after closing to wrap things up and get moved out. Apparently that has become standard, but I don't think it is typically abused as it was in this case. When we went to take possession of the house on Friday the 2nd of November, we discovered an absolutely chaotic mess. Words do not suffice to describe the disaster we encountered, nor do photographs do it justice. There were piles of trash in the basement and the garage. There were pieces of furniture in various rooms throughout the house. There were cat boxes in several places, dirty dishes left on the stove and in the sink, cupboards and drawers full of junk in the kitchen and laundry room, toiletries and other personal items left behind in the bathrooms, and miscellaneous odds and ends everywhere we looked. Several of the supposedly working appliances proved to have gone beyond their last legs, and they were filthy besides. It would be hard to decide the single most appalling thing about the condition in which things were left. The consequence was that we (with the help of several friends) spent the better part of three days cleaning up the new house, so that we could begin the process of moving ourselves into it.

The other thing that happened was the death of a dear, long-time member of the congregation, which meant a funeral between closing and moving. Obviously, I don't begrudge such a thing, not at all, but it did mean that several days I would have spent packing were spent preparing for the funeral. When it came down to it, the things I really needed to do before we tried to move had to be happening in the middle of moving day. All things considered, I suppose that I should not have taken the time to attend the Good Shepherd Institute this past week, but it meant a lot to me to be there, and I was well-served by the papers that were presented. The highlight of the institute was the paper on Franzmann's life on Tuesday morning. I was really struck by the way in which we got to know the man as a child, a husband and a father, within the context of his family, and in relation to his friends, instead of simply as a theologian and hymnwriter. It occurred to me that we rarely get to know the leaders of the church within their familial context. Which means, I think, that we probably pull them away from their families more than we should, on the one hand, and that we don't really know them at all, on the other hand. But I was given the privilege of getting to know Martin Franzmann last Tuesday, and I am profoundly grateful for that. I was also very pleased for the opportunity to visit with a few of my dearest friends, and to chat with them about things of importance that I might not otherwise have had the chance to discuss.

Now, for the time being, I am altogether spent. Both my mind and my body really are ready for a break. I am thankful to have a colleague who is ready, willing and able to give me that chance, because I need to recharge my batteries: both for my own sake, and for the sake of those I am called to serve. My wife and family need my help and assistance on the home front, besides, and I am more painfully aware than ever of my finitude. I cannot even begin to put into words how deeply and profoundly grateful I am for the brothers and sisters in Christ who have done so much to serve and support us through this move; and not simply to get the job done, but to help us make our house into a home for our family. They've assisted us (or we've assisted them!) in ripping up the ratty old carpet and finishing the hardwood floors underneath, putting in a new kitchen floor, painting the walls and ceilings in almost every room of the house, replacing the stove and refrigerator with new and more adequate appliances that actually work well, and thoroughly cleaning everything.

I may be getting old and too tired to move any more, but the joy and satisfaction of my family make it all worthwhile. My little Frederick has cheerfully dubbed our new home his "Happy House," and it has been clear that he and his siblings really are very happy about it. Justinian, bless his heart, has several times come up to me and given me a big hug and said "thank you" for buying the house; that probably meant as much or more to me than anything else. My one regret is that DoRena and Zachary have not gotten to be a part of this milestone adventure in our family's life. I've missed having DoRean around to help organize, coordinate, and clean; and I've missed having Zach around to help with the lifting and loading and hauling about of stuff. But mostly I've missed being able to share this occasion with the two of them, and I regret that I never had the chance to provide them with a house they could really call their own. It seems very strange, and kind of sad, that they will be visitors rather than residents of this new house; although I was rather surprised at how much of their stuff we still had to move, as it was.

Already in less than a week, we've made a number of special memories with good friends in our new house and home. I expect there will be many more as the years go by, and hopefully most of them will not be quite so exhausting! If I never have to move again, it will be too soon, but I cherish the treasures of friendship I have experienced so tangibly in the course of this move. It seems to me that providing a house for my family and sharing it with friends is what makes it into a real home, for which I am truly grateful.