Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Visitation, like the Ascension, is one of the many festivals of the church that receives little to no notice in many parts of the church today. One of the benefits of this blog for me has been the opportunity to share these forgotten festivals with others despite the fact that many churches like mine will not gather for any act of worship in honor of the occasion.

The more modern three-year lectionary places the date of this minor festival on today, May 31. However, the older lectionary places it on July 2. I have to admit that I do not understand the shuffling of dates that has occurred between the calenders in the last century or so. Certainly there is a good reason, but it will require more research. This festival is also a relative newcomer to the church calendar. According to The Christian Calendar by Cowie and Gummer, "It was the Franciscans who first observed it in the West and their devotion was confirmed at the Council of Basle." They also note that the Eastern church does not observe this festival, which I find perplexing.

The lection for this day is Luke 1:39-47, which includes not only the actual visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth and her familiar greeting, but also the first two lines of the beautiful canticle of Mary, the Magnificat. The Christian Calendar (Cowie and Gummer) catches a sense of the significance of this event:
"It would have been a difficult journey which Mary undertook and the Visitation has always been seen as symbolic of the homely kindness associated with the Virgin. Just as Christ later will go to be baptized of John, even though infinitely greater than he, so His mother goes to visit Elizabeth whose child leaps in her womb as if in recognition....the natural affections of cousins are caught up in the eternal mission in which they both share." (200)

The greeting of Elizabeth to Mary has become a well known phrase to many readers of the Bible due to its inclusion in the familiar "Hail Mary" prayer of the Catholic church. However, the importance of Elizabeth's greeting also highlights the blessedness of Mary as the Mother of Our Lord, an honor truly unique of all women. Elizabeth recognizes that God himself has come close to her this day. And the reaction of the still unborn John demonstrates the power of our Lord's presence as he leaps in the womb for joy as Mary enters. Mary receives this exclamation of faith and celebration humbly and meekly, as her canticle demonstrates so beautifully.

The Collect for this day, as recorded in Lutheran Worship reads:
"Almighty God, as you dealt wonderfully with your servant, the blessed virgin Mary, in choosing her to be the mother of your dearly beloved Son and thus graciously made known your regard for the poor and lowly and despised, grant us grace in all humility and meekness to receive your Word with hearty faith and to rejoice in Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Lessons of History

Occasionally someone from a news program or talk show will quiz those passing by on the street as to their knowledge of basic American history. Sadly many fail the simplest of questions. As a nation we are weaker for our lack of historical awareness, for without the past to illuminate the present, we are often no better than a man groping in a dark room inches from the light switch. The darkness offers no hope and no direction.

The Christian church, as well, is also weaker when it is ignorant of its history, or chooses to ignore its lessons. Yet many Christians are oblivious to their history, and the consequences of this void of knowledge is that they are forced to reinvent the church and its mission in every era. They are also captives to the current crisis with no way of looking beyond by looking behind. In our time there is a fascination with the present, and the tools we prefer are the social instruments of polls and surveys and questionnaires. What do people think? What do people want now? How quickly we become literal slaves to the whims of changing emotions and opinions.

Given this trend in the church today, I was quite pleased with the recent issue of Christian History and Biography (Issue 94, Spring 2007). The theme for their special 25th anniversary issue is "Building the City of God in a Crumbling World - How Christians from the Past Can Help Us Survive Today's Challenges." Utilizing a variety of writers and scholars they examine several modern issues in light of historical counterparts of times past.

The first article entitled "Love Amidst Brokenness" briefly examines Augustine's approach to history itself, especially in light of the traumatic events associated with the sacking and eventual fall of Rome in the fifth century. In his seminal work, The City of God, this father of the faith broke rank with popular views of history and after meditation on the Word itself came to a new conclusion. He rejected the cyclical and the progressive views, as well as the apocalyptic view, this latter one which is closely related to views held by modern evangelicals who are obsessed with the details of the return of Christ.

Many of Augustine's time closely linked the events of history and the status of the Roman empire. The progress or demise of one went with the other. Again we see a parallel in those who view the future almost exclusively through the political status of nations. Augustine, on the other hand, understood the political realities of his time, but looked beyond.

Writer Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School notes that:
"Augustine teaches us that Christians are those who live in time but who belong to eternity. he also teaches us that we must not equate any political entity - whether it be the Roman Empire, the American Republic, the United Nations, or anything else - with the Kingdom of God. This is one side of the Augustinian equation, but there is another. Christians hold a double citizenship in this world. Like the apostle Paul - who could claim that his true political identity was in heaven (Phil. 3:20), but who also appealed to Caesar as a Roman citizen when his life was at stake - so believers in Christ lives as sojourners, resident aliens, in a world of profound discontinuity and frequently contested loyalty." (9)

George also notes the two major mistakes that Augustine wishes us to avoid as we engage the present in light of the past and future:
"One is the lure of utopianism - the mistake of thinking we can produce a society that will solve our problems and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. This was the basic error of both Marxism and 19th-century liberalism.

The other error, equally disastrous, is cynicism. This creeps upon us as we see ever-present evil. We withdraw into our own self-contained circle of contentment, which can just as well be a pious holy huddle as secular skeptics club." (10)

In light of our recent Memorial Day celebrations these points are well put. I participated in the parade and other ceremonies in my local town yesterday as part of our Boy Scout troop, including a dedication of a monument to those killed in WWI. It was an honor to be a part of these events, especially since my father was a 23-year vet of the Army. However, as a Christian I participated as one who gave thanks to God for the good he has given to my nation, while still recognizing that my full citizenship remains in heaven to come.

For those interested in history in a popular and engaging format that is not as heavy as a professional journal, would be encouraged to check out the Christian History magazine. They have covered many figures of history, both ancient and modern, as well as periods and events of the past. It is part of the Christianity Today universe of periodicals, and more information on subscription can be found here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pentecost and Pentecostal

With the festival of Pentecost the church has again celebrated the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the faithful according to the promise of our Lord. This year in our lectionary (series C) the Acts 2 account of the Pentecost event was read, which included the familiar phenomena of the sound of the loud rushing wind, the tongues of fire, and the disciples speaking in many languages. It is an inspiring account of the church's official beginning, leaving no doubt as to the Lord's presence with his people or the fulfillment of his promise they they would receive power to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

In the beginning the church had no doubt about the empowering and renewing force of the Holy Spirit which it received through the living Word and the blessed sacraments. Children and adults alike received the "gift of the Holy Spirit" in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and they were regularly strengthened by that same Spirit as they were fed the Bread of Life in Christ through the proclamation of the Word and by dining at the Lord's Table.

However, throughout history there have been those who have questioned whether this work of the Spirit has been alive and well within the church. They would look at a particular situation where part of the Church seemed mired in lax practice and questionable morality, and then concluded that the Spirit was being resisted and that a new renewal movement needed to be kindled to inflame the church's zeal.

Such a movement hit Christianity in the beginning of the last century which resulted in the so-called "Pentecostal" churches, know today by such names as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God. However, this "movement" spilled over into the mainline church bodies beginning in the 60's (with Episcopal priest Fr. Bennet) and culminating in the 70's. Initially referred to as the Charismatic movement, after the emphasis of this movement on a rediscovery of the "charisms" or "gifts" of the Spirit, it later changed its a label to the Renewal movement, with the emphasis, it would seem, on the work of renewing the church and restoring it to its original First century zeal.

I came of age when this "movement" hit the Lutheran church, but little understood what it meant at the time. It would only be around 1985 when I encountered fellow camp staff workers who were avowed Charismatics, that I began a serious investigation into what it all meant.

In the years since then I have matured in my understanding of the Holy Spirit and this divine person's role in the church. One of my concerns with the movement has always been the need for an emotional lift to assure the faithful that God is active. I have also been alarmed by the excessive importance attached to the gift of tongues, listed low in priority even for Paul who willingly admitted that the gift of prophesy, which is the proclamation of the Word, was of much greater value. A careful study of 1 Corinthians 14 is still a good corrective to the excesses connected with the "speaking in tongues" phenomena that has so captivated some people.

Today the "movement" seems much more low-key. Within the LCMS, the official Charismatic group called "Renewal in Missouri" (RIM) went out of existence a few years back, probably assimilated into other larger moderate groups who could defend and champion their cause as necessary.

Nevertheless, the understanding of the Spirit's role and purpose remains confused for many in the church today. And the "movement," I fear, still has a divisive quality. There seems to be a great desire to replay that first Pentecost each time the faithful worship, even though the need for the sights and sounds of that day are no longer needed. This was an infant church being born in the midst of a largely pagan world. The challenges it faced were overwhelming. Today, by contrast there are a billion and a half Christians worldwide, with some estimates that one out of every three persons is part of this faith. Now don't get me wrong - there are many challenges for our own time to be sure. But we are no longer called to wait for this special event in each era. The outpouring of the Spirit that day has happened, and it has continued on countless occasions in innumerable fonts, as children are reborn of water and Spirit, and the church again grows and renews.

Even without the loud rushing wind and the tongues of fire I still knew the Spirit was present in church this Sunday. There was no doubt that the promise of our Lord continues. Personally I don't need an emotional experience to reassure me that the Spirit is alive and active. I have the Word. I know the Promise. And as Paul said long ago: "We walk by faith and not by sight."

A blessed Pentecost to all!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Creation Museum and American Beliefs

In the few moments I was able to catch the news headlines on ABC this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see a feature on the new Creation Museum opening this weekend in Petersberg, Kentucky. This is a project of Ken Ham's Answer's in Genesis organization. I was also surprised when they quoted a poll result on the number of Americans that actually believe in a six day creation: 60%.

The museum, which is a high-tech $27 million facility, aims to present the ancient pre-history of the world in light of biblical truth. To that end they have included dinosaur exhibits which combine the presence of man, a view not held by secular scientists who claim that the big lizards died out millions of years prior to the arrival of homo sapiens.

Obviously there are critics of the new museum. Mainline teachers and scientists are fearful that the high-tech presentation will too easily influence young impressionable minds, who might now - heaven forbid! - question the scientific veracity of classic evolutionary theory.

They need not fear too much, however. The public school still maintains a large monopoly of influence in matters scientific when it comes to education. Still, the quoted poll results should give them pause to think about what these little minds really believe, and how their teaching is directed to dismantling it.

You can read the brief ABC news story on this on their site here.

Post script: I had the opportunity to hear Ken Ham speak at a pastor's conference a few years back here in Wisconsin. He is an engaging and convincing spokesman and apologist for a young-earth creation belief. I purchased some of the books from his organization, which are very readable and informative.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Women and Jewelry

As a Lutheran there are issues in Christian living which for me are very neutral and minor, but for others are significant aspects of the Faith. One of those "issues" that surfaced recently in a discussion with a parishioner was the matter of whether women should wear jewelry. The question arose from some comments given by a person new to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. I knew that this faith had strict laws regarding food and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. However, I was unaware, until recently, that they were among those who regarded the wearing of jewelry to be contrary to God's will.

Like the Amish, the appeal to 'plain living' with respect to clothing and adornment stems largely from two passages in the New Testament: , 11 Timothy 2:9, 10 and 1 Peter 3:3, 4. In the first Paul calls upon women, especially in the context of the worshiping assembly, to "adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel," then adding "not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire...." In the second passage Peter writes that wives, in particular, should not let their "outward adorning" be with "braiding of hair, decoration of gold, an the wearing of robes," and then also adds that it should rather be "the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit..."

Now the dilemma - Do Peter and Paul expressly forbid jewelry of any kind? According to people of the Amish and Seventh-Day Adventist traditions, apparently, the answer is yes. But is this a faithful rendering of the apostle's intent?

An axiom of biblical interpretation says that a text without a context is a pretext. In other words, to properly understand a passage of scripture we must understand the context that frames and informs it, otherwise we are simply reading into the passage what we want it to say. Secondly, we must also interpret scripture in light of the whole witness of God's Word. Passages taken alone without the fuller reference of other passages leave us with isolated bits and pieces subject to the whims of personal opinion. As Lutherans are wont to say: Scripture interprets scripture.

So, in light of above, how do we answer this challenge of jewelry and outward adornment in the Christian's life? For starters it would be good to examine other areas where believers were adorned with various jewels or precious metals, and note whether there was any condemnation of the practice. Genesis 24:47, 48 and Genesis 41:42 both provide examples in which Old Testament believers wore "outward" adornment without negative reactions. Isaiah 61:10 reminds us also of the customary practice of brides and grooms to be richly adorned likes kings and queens at their wedding, a picture of the believer as they are adorned in God's sight by his grace and righteousness. In Ezekiel 16:11-13 God says that he himself blessed his people with jewelry and ornaments of precious metals. More verses could be added, but the point is made. A blanket condemnation of such things in the Old Testament is missing.

In Luke 15:22 we read in one of Jesus' parables how the waiting Father welcomes his prodigal son back by putting a ring on his finger and a robe upon him. If such things were forbidden (as per Peter and Paul), would Jesus have used such a picture to illustrate the love of the heavenly Father?

Taken therefore in context, Peter and Paul should be understood as not offering a blanket condemnation or a new "law" against outward adornment, but a corrective to excesses in their time. They both wished to show that the true beauty of a godly woman was not in her fashion or in her rings, but in the humility of faith. Then, as now, women could be given to extremes with regard to their appearance, using it in a spirit of pride and vanity. Yet many women wear jewelry and dress nicely without ever giving such an impression.

The rule is then for the women to adorn themselves "modestly and sensibly." Moderation and humility are the key, not abstinence. Taken out of context it could very well appear that Peter and Paul forbid any outward adornment of jewelry. But, again, that is an "out of context" rendering. Thus, we should not burden women with a new law the scriptures and apostles have not imposed. But, as with all things, we should always encourage a modest and humble spirit in all things.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Real Presence of Christ in the Supper

Although Lutherans have often been viewed as part of the larger "Protestant" community, our commitment to the doctrine of the "real presence" in the Lord's Supper sets us apart sacramentally as more catholic. It would seem that embracing real presence would be the most natural move for a literal Bible-believing evangelical. Yet somehow, when it comes to this one area, many Protestants balk. Despite the clear language and clear intent of our Lord, reason slams the door on the truth and says: "It doesn't make any logical sense." Then, with the argument of reason presented, Biblical proof is sought to under gird the argument.

Aside from the scriptures, however, there is also additional assurance of the real presence to be found in the witness of the Early Church. The Rev. Paul T. McCain on Cyberbrethren: A Lutheran Blog has amassed a nice collection of testimony from the Early Church in defense of the real presence. The list is entitled "Early Church Fathers on the Real Presence in the Lord's Supper." It is hard to argue with such consistent teaching through the ages. I think that those Protestants who continue to insist on what is sometimes called the "real absence," with Jesus' body conveniently 'stuck' in heaven, need to ask themselves: Could the church fathers be so consistently wrong for so long?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

That They May All Be One

This morning's Gospel reading included the favorite text of the ecumenical movement: John 17:20-21 - "Jesus said: 'I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one...." The existence of the World Council of Churches, the premier ecumenical organization today among Christian denominations, is based on the fact that these words of Jesus are fulfilled only when we achieve a visible organization of churches in the appearance of unity.

As the Rev. Dr. Thomas F. Best is quoted on the website for the WWC: "The ecumenical movement rests on ecclesiological convictions: one is that the churches' unity in Christ is greater than all the differences in belief, and all the tragedies of history, which divide them. Another is that Christ wills that this unity must be both visible and effective [emphasis added](John 17:20-21). "

Yet is the prayer of Jesus to the Father fulfilled when we successfully gather diverse groups into one organization? Or - is it possible that this prayer is already fulfilled (although not yet fully visible)?

Ecumenism, as a modern movement, has unfortunately misunderstood both the nature of the church and the the nature of the church's unity according to Jesus' own words. When we confess in the Nicene Creed, "I believe, holy, Christian [or catholic] and apostolic church," we confess a reality in Christ, not a dream waiting to come true.

But does this unity require visibility to be true? Here many Christians part ways. Yet when Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers in John 17 it was a spiritual unity for which he prayed. And it was a unity created by the Word proclaimed by the apostles, not by the efforts of the modern church to gather people together. Jesus prayed for those "who would believe in [him] through their word." Thus the Word and the Sacraments (the "visible Word") become the "marks" of the church, and not the gathering of people in an of itself. He furthermore described the unity of the church by comparing it to the unity of the Son to the Father: "...that they may be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us...." A unity of fellowship that begins with our fellowship with God himself through Christ.

Now it isn't that Lutherans are not interested in greater unity among Christians. We have long encouraged serious dialogue on the doctrine and practice of the Faith based on the objective witness of God's will in the Holy Scriptures. However, the modern ecumenical movement insists on accepting all teachings with equal validity, with the understanding the criticism or correction of another's teachings is contrary to the spirit of unity. Yet how can true unity exist apart from a faithful confession of the whole Word? Without honest agreement on what Christ teaches, and by picking and choosing which doctrines to believe, the so-called unity of ecumenism is little more than a house of cards. Pull out one card and the rest collapses in on itself.

By contrast, the true unity of the Church based on faith in Christ, while hidden in many ways, is a creation of God and a direct answer to Jesus' prayer. It already exists. In fact one translation of the original in John 17 could very well be rendered: "...that they may continue to be one," understanding that this unity was a reality to be discovered, not one to be created ourselves.

Contrary to the popular joke, Lutherans believe that there will be more than just Lutherans in heaven. We have always held that true believers exist throughout the world in many groups and churches. We can hold to this because we believe that this unity is mystical and spiritual, based on the very essence of the unity of the Godhead, and not on the mere appearance of oneness in humanly-contrived organizations. The church in this life, while a visible manifestation of the community of believers, gathered around Word and Table, is still a mixed-gathering at best, for hypocrites will always be part of the visible church. It is unavoidable. The hidden and true church (called "invisible" by some), however, is perfectly united in true faith, and will become visible in the end when the elect are gathered from throughout heaven and earth.

And when this unity finds its source in a common confession of God's Word, then Jesus' prayer for those who do not yet believe is realized. For it is only through the Word that faith comes. The mere gathering of people in an appearance of unity does not bring about faith, and therefore cannot bring about true and lasting unity.

Still, we pray in the Kyrie for "the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the Church of Christ, and for the unity of all..." The collect "For Unity of Faith" summarizes well our prayer as Lutherans:

"O God, whose infinite love restores to the right way those who err, gathers the scattered, and preserves those whom you ahve gathered, of your tender mercy pour out on your Christian people the grace of unity that, all schisms being healed, your flock, gathered to the true Shepherd of your Church, may serve you in all faithfulness...." (Lutheran Worship, 126)

[Note: The picture above is the logo for the World Council of Churches. The word 'oikoumene' is Greek for "fellowship." True fellowship around Word and Table is where unity is found (Acts 2:42). That is the point behind true biblical fellowship.]

Saturday, May 19, 2007

But What God do the Mormons Believe In?

The Rev. Al Sharpton indicated he was simply making a comment about a presidential candidate and did not intend it to be a slight against the Mormon faith. But you know how words can be. They are usually interpreted, it seems, in the worst possible light. For the record he stated that "as for the one Mormon running for office [Mitt Romney], some who really believe in God will defeat him anyway, so don't worry about that, that's a temporary situation."

He claims that he "wasn't saying that Mormons didn't believe in God. I was saying that we weren't going to have to rely on atheists" to defeat Romney.

OK. But what is wrong with admitting that Mormons believe in a different "god"? I know, I know, it's a horrible faux pas to even imply that people of any 'faith' do not believe in the same generic god. Admittedly Romney's faith, whatever it is, is somewhat immaterial to his competence as a public official. Granted, I would prefer a true Christian over one that is not. But the left kingdom can be run well even by those who do not believe. Yet the issue for me is not politics. It's a matter of properly defining God. It's about the clarity of Christian witness.

For centuries upon centuries the orthodox Christian faith has been defined by its carefully crafted creeds. These confessed boundaries allowed the Church to determine what was false and what was true in any statement or belief regarding God. And all the ecumenical creeds are clear about the confession of the true God as triune - One God, three persons: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. They are also very clear about Jesus, the Son of God, as equally God and man. This, it should be noted, the Mormons do not believe. The "god" they confess does not fit inside the boundaries of the historic creeds.

Yet we are compelled, it would appear, to insist publicly that Mormons "believe in God," without qualifiers, so as to imply that all religions, no matter how diverse, all have a common commitment to a similar generic deity. And naturally, this 'deity' must be referred to as "God" with a capital "God." So, of course, this would also be true for those world faiths of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism (even though it is admittedly polytheistic), and Buddhism (even though it is basically a godless faith).

Now this is not about 'bashing' another belief system. Note that no one is saying anything about Mormons and their lifestyle. This is not about calling people of a particular faith "terrorists" or some other moniker. It's about a clear witness to the world. People deserve to know the differences. For one things it's honest. Any serious student of traditional Christianity and Mormonism can quickly tell you that they believe differently about how they define "God." So let's tell it like it is.

Now having said all that I still think the the Rev. Sharpton would have been better served to have avoided any comment at all regarding the Mormons and God. It would have been far less complicated, politically speaking. My whole point is about his simple statement that he "wasn't saying that Mormons didn't believe in God." That muddied the waters of Christian witness. And unfortunately it's all too prevalent in today's highly pluralized culture.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Ascension of Our Lord

Unfortunately the festival of the Ascension has fallen on hard times. Like so many wonderful observances of the historic church, this festival seems to command little attention in today's church - at least among many Lutherans. Since it usually draws only a small attendance, it is easy to eliminate on the grounds of practicality.

And admittedly, this festival is probably not the easiest for many to appreciate. Unlike Easter Jesus is not appearing to a relieved band of terrorized disciples, but his very appearance is being 'hidden.' And the hiddenness of God has always been a difficult point for Christians to grasp.

So of what great value is this day? Permit me to point out a few from my perspective -
1.) His ascension signals a transition in the mission and direction of the church. Our Lord's mission of salvation was completed in the cross and empty tomb. The Comforter has been promised. The living Lord will continue his mission to all the world, but now it is through his chosen servants using the gifts of Word and Sacrament. His earthly presence is now "hidden" by the cloud, but is still 'visible' in the means which he has appointed. Note Jesus' words just prior to his ascension in Luke 24:45-49.
2.) His ascension visibly marks his exaltation again to the right hand of the Father. For a time he humbled himself among us, taking the form of a servant. But now he ascends to his rightful place of honor.
3.) His ascension directs our attention to what is yet to come. "This Jesus, who was taken away from you to heaven will come back in the same way that yo saw Him go to heaven." As we confess in the creed: "I believe in Jesus Christ....[who] ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he will come to judge the living and the dead." We now await the great day of his return in glory when all things will be fulfilled. As the collect for this day also attests: "Grant, we pray, almighty God, that even as we believe your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind ascend and continually dwell there with him...."

The Ascension is truly an event of the "now, not yet" reality of the Kingdom. It is fulfillment, yet it is transitional. It is hiddenness, yet it is revelation. It is comfort, yet it is also anticipation. So it is also with the blessed dead. In heaven, yet awaiting the fulfillment of their salvation at the final resurrection.

Christians of the Reformed tradition, I believe, have always struggled with this 'tension' of the Ascension. And how they reconcile this tension unfortunately results in the denial of his real presence in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar and his real presence in the gracious waters of Holy Baptism. If you read the NIV rendering of Acts 3:21 you will see this scriptural misunderstanding right in the translation of the word itself. It reads: He [Jesus] must remain i heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything..." The Greek, however, should be translated instead as "It is necessary for heaven to receive him..."

One cannot use "who has been taken from you into heaven" to cancel out the fullness of the promise "Lo, I am with you always..." And yet that, I fear, is what is too often done. As Calvin had to have it logically laid out according to what made sense, and came up with such monstrous solutions to scripture's tensions as double predestination, so too some try to solve the tension of his ascension by claiming that the real, physical presence of Jesus is no longer tenable now that his physical appearance is taken from us.

But tension is a large part of faith and revelation. Hidden, yet revealed. Accomplished, yet waiting to be fulfilled. Thus, we walk by faith, and not by sight. And as such we also walk through this time as "pilgrims and strangers." We have no earthly city here. This is not our home. We are passing through. And the Ascension reminds us that the journey is not yet at the end.

Ascension Day is technically tomorrow, but let me wish you all a blessed festival today. May the wonderful realities of this day comfort you in your own pilgrimage here in the valley of the shadow of tears.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Rev. Jerry Falwell Died Today at 73

Jerry Falwell was one of those names that dominated the face of public Christianity in this country for decades. His visibility certainly rose with his entry into the political scene in the late 80's as he molded together a new conservative political organization known as the Moral Majority. However his Thomas Road Baptist Church with 22,000 members (founded 1956), along with the Liberty University complex (founded 1971), now over 7,000 students strong, were also visible reminders of his significant presence in the world of the Evangelical movement of our times.

Although my theology is quite different from Falwell's Baptist views, I appreciated his straight-forward support of traditional morals and ethics, as well his defense of such biblical truths as the divine 6-day creation. Despite the differences any might have had with him, you had to respect his consistent commitment to the ideals he held, unwilling to sway with the vacillations of public opinion. He held strongly against the powerful societal views of abortion, homosexuality and other widespread sins of our day.

His involvement in the political realm is seen as a significant force behind the election of Ronald Reagan, and the Republican surge in congress in the 1980's. He certainly felt strongly that leaders such as himself needed to step into the political arena if conservatives were to have a chance. Again, I commend him for his convictions. However, as a Lutheran I could not have mixed the kingdoms of the right and left the way he did. While I am a citizen with an obligation to carry out my duty to vote and to support the work of government, actively perusing a political agenda while pastoring a church seems to me still very much a contradictory mixing of vocations. The "tools" of each "kingdom" are different, and there is always a danger that one will carry what is natural to one into the other, thus confusing the mission of both. I have felt this to be one of the weaknesses with the Evangelical movement.

It will be interesting, now that he has built an 'empire' in his name, to see what will become of all the institutions he has helped build. Time will tell. This may, in some ways, be the beginning of the end of an era.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pope Speaks Out Against Drug Trafficking in South America

Standing before a cheering crowd of 6,000 at the Fazenda de Esperanca (Farm of Hope), a drug treatment center in Guaratingeuta, Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI warned drug dealers: "God will call you to account for your deeds." The pontiff told the people that "human dignity cannot be trampled upon in this way." So noted Vivian Sequera of the Associated Press.

Brazil, Sequera reports, "is the world's second-largest consumer of cocaine, after the United States..." Big cities across this country are "plagued with drug violence." This drug related violence is a "huge problem, driven by gangs that control street-corner dealing and the transshipment of drugs to Europe and the United States from elsewhere in South America."

"In Rio de Janeiro's teeming slums, gangs recruit children and engage in near-daily shootouts with police that frequently kill bystanders." But it is not limited to Brazil. Sequera notes that "The violence is endemic in other Latin America countries, including Columbia and Caribbean nations. In Mexico, gangs battling over billion-dollar smuggling routes into the United States leave a daily body count from beheadings, grenade attacks and execution-style killings."

There is no doubt that Satan is exploiting the drug culture of our era as one of his primary destructive forces against humanity. The violence and suffering is horrifying. I commend the Pope for forcefully speaking out against this pervasive ill in our society. However, as we well know, the expansive drug culture is driven in part by the same forces that drive all economics: demand. The drug dealers at all levels simply exploit this demand by providing supply. Economics 101. The equally important question is how do we address the demand at the level of the user.

The fallout of drug abuse is experienced at every level of our society, and even here in the Northwoods we are not immune. The people in the smallest parishes are involved - sometimes in the abuse of prescription meds, sometimes in the small-time peddling of street drugs via high school traffickers, and, yes, even in the horrible abuse of alcohol, which is probably the greatest problem in rural areas such as mine.

The large scale traffickers are far from my world, but their ultimate customers are not. Yet how do we speak out at this level? Recently one of my daughter's classmates died in an auto accident. He was under the influence, and it was evident that he had an existing problem. They tried to help him, but he wouldn't listen. In the funeral last week I heard that his priest, knowing that he had a lot of high schoolers present, made a point of applying heavy 'law' as he warned them that they could end up just like this young man if they too persist in abusing drugs and alcohol. I can understand this pastor's frustration. How hard it had to be to bury a young man on the verge of graduation and on the verge of just beginning his life. And then all of it cut short by such utter stupidity. I was not at the funeral, so I don't know what else he said. It is my hope, though, that this law did not predominate. The family and friends needed comfort from the gospel too, and we must be careful to remember that funerals are places to minister to the fears and sorrows of the grieving by pointing them to the ever-living Christ.

But we cannot remain silent as a church while our young and old are being dragged into needless suffering and death by these deceptive chemicals. Yet how do we wake them up to the reality to which they choose to close their eyes? I am continually amazed at how we can allow ourselves to be so ignorant even when we are so well warned. My mother, who was a life-time smoker and died of complications of that habit in 2002, told me that she began to smoke in the 40's around age 16. This was before the "surgeon general's warnings" began to appear on packs of cigarettes. Now, a half century removed with countless people diagnosed with lung cancer and other maladies, you would think that we had learned. Yet time and again I see a younger person smoking out in the open as if it is the most natural thing they could do. I want to scream: Do you know what your lungs will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years?

Sin is so clouded in deception it often looks like a virtue to some. And therein is the challenge of preaching against it. Like the sins of living together or abortion people see what used to be sin now as acceptable and even necessary choices. People become angered when these things are "labeled" as sins against God. How dare we be so judgmental! Yet we know that sin which is allowed to live untouched eventually leads all the way to death - eternal death.

May God grant us courage to preach strongly against all sin. And may the Spirit convert hardened hearts thus condemned that they turn to the good news of Christ, and repent, and live.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

St. Lydia

Tomorrow I will be preaching on the appointed first reading for Easter 6, which is from Acts 16, the account of Lydia's conversion in Philippi. Given the fact that it is also Mother's Day a sermon involving Lydia seemed appropriate, although I try to avoid giving in to the "Hallmark Holidays."

While studying and investigating Lydia's background I was surprised to find that she was not generally included in the books of saints. An Internet source indicated that her feast day is August 3, but even among the minor saints I counld't locate it in my books. The LCMS, to its credit, now includes a list of saints' commemorations in the new Lutheran Service Book, and along with Phoebe and Dorcas, Lydia has a commemoration date of October 25.

It is not surprising that she would be overlooked, since her name appears in Holy Scripture only in Acts 16. However, it can be shown that she was a successful and well-to-do businesswoman in Philippi in her day, and was probably one of the founders of the first church in Philippi. Her home was undoubtedly its first church.

She listened to Paul attentively along side the river where they gathered that Sabbath day, and through the Word her heart was opened and she believed. Without hesitation she allowed herself to be baptized, and not only her, but her "entire household." Although a husband is not mentioned, and some believe she was a widow, I have no problem with the word "household" including children of any age. It may also have included servants too.

So this successful merchant of purple goods became the patron, it would seem, for the new mission in Philippi, and according to scholars she was the first convert in Europe. What a model for any woman today! Christ was first in all things. Living in an area that was probably more pagan than Jewish, she was already a kind of outsider, being a "worshiper of God." And now as a Christian she may have been even more so. Yet that never deterred her and she labored hard on behalf of that new church that would be one of Paul's favorite missions.

May the mothers among us follow her example in their homes. May all women find in her an icon of devotion and faithfulness and courage. And may we all look to her with gratitude for her willing stewardship in this valuable mission work of the Early Church.

Although her day, whenever it should be, is obviously not today, I nevertheless wish all a "Blessed St. Lydia's Day"!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Churches as Sanctuary for Illegal Immigrants

According to an AP article out of Los Angeles, "Churches in five big U.S. cities plan to protect illegal immigrants from deportation, offering their buildings as sanctuary if need be, as they pressure lawmakers to create a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants." It further reports that "On Wednesday, a Catholic church in Los Angeles and a Lutheran church in North Hollywood each sheltered one person, and churches in other cities plan to do so in coming months as part of the 'New Sanctuary Movement.'"

This 'movement' according to the AP is "loosely based on a movement in the 1980's, when churches harbored Central American refugees fleeing wars in their home countries." In an on-line newsletter for the "New Sanctuary Movement," they state that,

"In the early 1980's, thousands of Central American refugees poured into the United States, fleeing life-threatening repression and extensive human rights violations by their governments.

At the time, federal immigration policy would have denied the majority political asylum simply because their governments were allies of the U.S. Many of these refugees had actively participated in the liberation theology movement and naturally sought protection from congregations.

Many Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations and temples responded positively -- offering these refugees social services and advocacy support as well as engaging actively in efforts to change federal immigration policy. These congregations, united under the banner of the Sanctuary Movement, also pledged that they would not reveal the identities of these refugees, even if they were arrested or jailed for doing so.

The Sanctuary Movement was ultimately successful both in changing national policy and in protecting tens of thousands of individuals and families, enabling them to start a new life in the U.S.

Now, over 25 years later, religious leaders across a broad spectrum of denominations from 10 states are coming together to begin a New Sanctuary Movement to accompany and protect immigrant families who are facing the violation of their human rights in the form of hatred, workplace discrimination and unjust deportation."

Here in the Northwoods immigration is not a burning issue as it is for the southern boarder of the country or in the larger metropolitan areas. We have some migrant workers who come to the larger dairy and potato farms, but I suspect the numbers are insignificant compared to the overall population. Thus, churches here probably have only a cursory interest at best.

Still, the theological rationale for such a movement does impact the church regardless of where it is located. Technically the Sanctuary Movement is a form of civil disobedience, and thus should be examined as to whether it is scripturally justified. Historically the church has been far more involved in such civil resistance in the latter half of the last century, it would appear, than in the first half. The thrust of such resistance seems to stem heavily from the 60's onward as churches became involved in the anti-war movement as a reaction against policies in Viet Nam. Such resistance, however, came more from the liberal denominations and sectors of the church than from the conservative, which became political 'insiders' in the 1980's with the rise of the New Evangelicals.

Immigration and the status of illegals is a hot-button topic at present, even polarizing in its strongly held views on both sides of the issue. As a conservative Lutheran I am admittedly cautious of such a movement, especially since it involves the possibility of directly opposing legitimate legal statutes. I can understand the desire of some to protect the innocent and victimized from further trauma. However, there are also good reasons why there is a structured policy for immigration. Any country has the right to limit the number of people who wish to be citizens, and they have a vested interest in protecting their own security, especially now in a time of increased terrorism.

I would be very supportive of doing everything legally possible to protect immigrants and allow them an opportunity to enjoy the land I call home. But to use my church as a sanctuary to deliberately shield them from the law? I know that immigration policy is far from perfect. But is it such that it actually runs counter to God's will, or is it simply a case of bureaucratic complexities? Civil disobedience is not prohibited to the Christian, and historic examples can be provided which show how it has indeed influenced policy in the U.S. But we must be cautious in our use of such 'disobedience.' For God has appointed the governing authorities as his servants for our good (Romans 13). This we dare not ignore or overlook.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Religious Sections Being Deleted From Newspapers

According to an article by Sarah Pullam in Christianity Today, financial challenges in the past year "have prompted cutbacks in religion coverage in newspapers." For example, the Dallas Morning News eliminated its religion section in early January and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution "folded its Faith and Values action int he Living Pages. The Wichita Eagle likewise plans to remove its religion editor position, and "other newspapers are removing their religion beats."

My experience in my previous parish in Traverse City, Michigan was much the same. When the primary religion writer left to go back to school, they never filled the position at the Record Eagle, but simply took the convenient AP or RNS article and let that suffice. In our local daily here the paper is too small to have a separate editor or writer (in the traditional sense), but does include religious pieces. Again, though, they are 'cut-and-paste' pieces from the larger news services.

Admittedly the current state of religious writing in secular papers is going to reflect the financial condition of the newspaper industry. As Charles Overby said: "Unfortunately, with a lot of the cutbacks in newspapers right now, the religion beat is seen as expendable."

On the flip side, however, Overby is optimistic about religious coverage and claims that it has actually improved over the last five years. He admitted that media is prone to look only at the "qwirky" side of faith, and not at the mainstream issues that interest the average reader.

Dallas Morning News editor Bog Mong also sees another encouraging development in religious reporting. It is in the realm of blogs and newsletters. Indeed we have all seen a revolution in writing and reporting since the Internet came of age, and blogs are beginning to find a niche in the greater world of writing and media.

Personally I think that it might be interesting to see clergy, in particular, volunteer to write for local papers, although lay people would be just as effective. There is no cost involved, other than space, and the positive relationship between media and church could actually be improved in a small way. In my first parish I wrote for the Lake County Star on a weekly volunteer basis. But unlike many who submitted material, I avoided the typical "bulletin" filler, and instead wrote feature articles on topics of interest, not unlike what I have done with this blog.

So pastors and people of the church- any chance we might break into this area and take advantage of a waiting opportunity?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Between Life and Life

As I carry out my duties doing commital services for spring burials (in the northwoods we often store the remains during the time when the ground is deeply frozen), I endeavor to point the faithful to the day when our Lord will come again and the dead will be raised. Verses from 1 Corinthians 15 are the standard reading. The Easter greeting, "Christ is risen...", completes the event with the sounds of resurrection, not death, echoing in the air.

Yet what happens between that last breath of life in this world and the final resurrection at the end of time? In other words, what is there "between life and life"?

Seventh Day Adventists propose that the soul goes into a dormant condition, "sleeping" unaware until that last day. And if I understand the position of the Catholic church correctly, most heaven-bound believers enter a state known as "purgatory" to go through a time of "purging" or purification of unrepented sins and other sinful problems not resolved in this life. This transitional state does not have a standard time line, but may range from instantaneous to many years.

However, in contrast, Protestant Christians have long held that the believer goes directly from this life to heaven. In the last funeral I did I used Paul's familiar passage from Philippians 1 where he writes: "I desire to depart and be with Christ which is far better..." The apostle knows only two states: "departing to be with Christ" or remaining or living "in the body." He doesn't hint at any other condition.

Furthermore, in 2 Corinthians 5, which we studied last week in class, the description is equally clear: "away from the body" or "at home with the Lord." There seems to be no state between these two, nor is the believer seen as anywhere but in the presence of His Lord and Savior.

Admittedly the scriptures do not devote a lot of space to the disembodied state before the resurrection. Thus, people have conjectured about it endlessly and wondered what it was like. Unfortunately even preachers at funerals may do a disservice here by neglecting to point the faithful all the way to the final resurrection, which is the fulfillment of our salvation sealed by the resurrection of Christ himself.

So as I continue to commit the bodies to their "resting place" in anticipation of the Day of Judgment, I will also look with comfort to the fact that the faithful, now free of pain, death, and sorrow, do enjoy a beatific vision of heaven and its glories. Exactly what that entails I will have to leave to the future. John provides a glimpse, for which I am thankful, and for now that will have to sustain our curiosity.

Monday, May 7, 2007

God and War

Several years ago I had determined to become a chaplain in the armed forces. However, as God does so often, he frustrated those efforts so that after ten years of on-again off-again trying, I finally stopped trying. It wasn't meant to be. At any rate, I had a family by then and was now way over the military's weight limit.

While I was still attempting to get in, my view of the chaplaincy was probably far more 'rosy' than real. In the late 80's we were not fighting a war and the memories of Viet Nam were not as evident. With the latest Newsweek (May 7) issue, we are given a sober and very realistic view of what it means to minister to soldiers in wartime.

Eve Conant in her feature article "Faith Under Fire" gives what I would consider a fairly balanced and honest view of the military chaplaincy, in so far as I am not in the military and have no firsthand experience with it. She specifically follows Chaplain Roger Benimoff through his struggles both in Iraq and then stateside when he returns to minister to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. Rather than use this article as another anti-war diatribe, Conant sympathetically probes into Benimoff's inner struggles of heart and soul as he attempts to reconcile faith in a loving God with the harsh realities of death, pain and loss on a scale that exceeds what the normal person can often endure.

Benimoff began his career as a chaplain much as I suspect I would have: eager, optimistic, and full of positive expectations. However, war has exacted a huge price for this chaplain, and the stress on his soul has taken him even to the brink of doubt and anger at God. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis' experience when he lost his wife Joy. It is difficult in times of great carnage and senseless violence to see the hidden face of God. For God often 'hides,' as Luther reminds us, behind pain and suffering. We see the love of God most clearly in the cross, where God 'hides' behind the suffering and agony of his own Son. As a Baptist Benimoff may have struggled more to reconcile this "hidden God" with the theology of glory that is often prevalent in much Protestant theology. Nevertheless, he wrestled with the same faith issues all of us would. And the stress of ministering to so many with so much pain would overwhelm even the best.

If one were inclined to complain about life and work in the church today, a helpful corrective to our own pastoral self-pity would be to live inside the experiences of our military chaplains. They are called upon to offer themselves in ways that exact and demand much from their sanity and health. They are pushed to limits the average parish pastor will never experience. And yet the grace in it is that they, by God's sheer grace, still maintain faith. Benimoff does teeter on the edge of denial, but he regains his faith footing. Such raw evil is difficult to battle on so constant a basis. If ever there was a picture of the "wounded healer," our military chaplains may be just that.

May God grant them renewed strength in Christ.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Easter Bunny is Too Christian

This is one of those stories that is the category of "sadly humorous." I found it in Falwell's National Liberty Journal which I receive unsolicited and free of charge. Apparently there is a Rhode Island public school that has determined that the Easter Bunny is too much of a Christian symbol and has relabeled said bunny as "Peter Rabbit." In response to this Rhode Island State Representative Richard Singleton has introduced legislation he is calling "the Easter Bunny Act."

"Like many Rhode Islanders I'm quite people trying to change traditions that we've held in this country for 150 years, like the Easter bunny," Rep. Singleton said during a broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America Weekend Edition. District Superintendent William Rearick said he decided to change the Easter Bunny's name "in an attempt to be conscious of other people's backgrounds and traditions." The ALCU, predictably, is supportive. "Public schools should not be promoting Easter celebrations, and to the extent that the school district try to avoid that problem they are to be commended," said Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU.

I find it interesting that those so vehemently opposed to any hint of Christianity in the public square are so ill informed on their own culture. The Easter Bunny is not a Christian symbol. In fact, according to Wikipedia the Easter Bunny is a fertility symbol of extreme antiquity and is associated with the rising fertility of the earth at the Vernal Equinox. According to one footnote, the Easter Bunny was also recently renamed the "Spring Bunny" to avoid religious connotations according to an article in the Tri-valley Herald.

Given this logic Santa Claus should soon be banned (no tears here), since he is a blend between Saint Nicholas and Father Winter. Now here there is some Christian connection, and yet no one is crying out against Santa! Oh, well. This is a very strange culture sometimes.

Prayer - Battleground of the Cross

Yesterday was the National Day of Prayer (NDP) and I intended to take that opportunity to reflect on prayer itself. The NDP, according to Wikipedia, is "a day designated by the United States Congress as a day when all Americans regardless of faith are asked to come together and pray in their own way." The NDP appears to be, in intention, much like the World Day of Prayer, in that its primary purpose is that of encouraging broad-based fellowship and ecumenical unity. Unfortunately, since it embraces prayer so broadly as to include the entire Judeo-Christian culture, it has not been of great value to me. Prayer does not unite people in and of itself apart from the Truth and true faith. Although it can give the appearance that it does. That having been said, however, I would never discourage any American Christian from praying. It's always a good thing (assuming it is done according to God's will.)

A national day set aside for prayer does give me the opportunity to reflect on what prayer means, especially within the Christian church and more specifically within the Lutheran church. One of the misunderstandings of prayer that I have seen has been where prayer is misunderstood as a 'means of grace,' that is, a means much like the sacraments. Another problems is that prayer is a "name it and claim it" tool that becomes a way of getting the blessings from God that I would otherwise not receive. On the flip side, though, prayer can also be under appreciated and even neglected, which is certainly contrary to the scripture's injunction to "pray continually."

Some years ago I found a chapter on prayer that was helpful to me in Dr. Harold Senkbeil's book Sanctification: Christ in Action (Northwestern Publishing House, 1989). He entitled the chapter as I did this blog article: "Prayer: battleground of the cross." In it he notes how prayer is not an exercise in trying to find an additional word of God not already revealed, but rather to wrestle in faith with the word He has revealed. He writes:

"We forget that God hides in order to make himself known. In a world in which we are bombarded by talk, we forget that God's silence is his most eloquent way of communicating with us. We keep listening for some word from him, but we forget that God has spoken most clearly in the cross of his Son. What he has said there is simply this, that there is nothing in all creation which will separate us from his love...

This puts prayer in a whole different light. Whenever we pray expected God to speak to us, we will be disappointed. He has already done that; he has given us his Word: 'In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son' (Hebrews 1:2). If we ask for something more we're actually rejecting his Word and promise. Prayers which seek additional evidence from God are prayers of doubt, not of faith. But prayer under the cross is always the prayer of faith....

Prayer then becomes not a comfortable break from the trials of life, but the very place where we do battle against Satan, the world and our own sinful nature. Armed with our own inner resources and spiritual strength we're doomed to defeat. But God supplies the real equipment we need for this combat - the breastplate of righteousness.....

Life under the cross is a joyous life, for it is in our weakness that we can see the grace of Christ most clearly. That's why the most effective prayers are offered with empty hands...Humility, trials, and faith all come together in prayer. We don't expect to hear God speak to us when we pray; he has already spoken in the cross. But prayer is where the Christian lives most intensively under the cross." (pages 144-145)

I believe I heard it somewhere that prayer is not so much about changing God, but about changing us. Which makes sense. For how did Jesus teach us to pray: "Thy will be done." So much of our prayers, I fear, begin with selfish desire uninformed of the will of God. Thus the wrestling if we take seriously the words of our Lord. Our natural flesh wants to turn inward, but prayer inevitably turns us outward, to God again, and to our neighbor. What is it that God desires? He desires that his name be kept holy. He desires that the Kingdom of Grace through His Son come among all, especially those who know him not in faith (missionary prayer). And yes, he desires that we pray for our daily needs, but only for those needed within this given day. There are no prayers for great wealth, although God may grant this. And what else does God desire us to pray for? Forgiveness, the very blessing at the heart of God's Word and work. He desires also that we forgive others as he has forgiven us. He desires that we not be led into temptation and that we would be delivered from the power of Satan and his kingdom. This is his will and certainly includes plenty of material for our prayers.

One wonders how our parishes might change if people prayed the Lord's Prayer seriously, meditating on it in such a way, and wrestling with the implications. For we are often selfish and self-centered and too often looking for that which God has not directly promised. Instead, may this day of prayer remind us of the kind of prayer our Lord Jesus has called us to: a prayer of faith under the cross, seeking his will in his Word, imploring is forgiveness for our sins, and his strength that our life might better conform to his divine will.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Noble Army of Martyrs Praise You

From my experience it has only been in the last 20 or so years that there has been a heightened awareness of persecution of Christians in the world. When I entered the ministry in the late 80's I remember subscribing to a magazine called Voice of the Martyrs, which opened my eyes to a reality of which I was largely unaware. I was amazed when I found out that more men and women have died for the faith in the last 100 years than in the first 300 of the church's history. However, the persecution of Christians, while sometimes a topic on Capital Hill, is certainly not a front and center concern for many in the country - or even in our churches.

What a surprise it was then to see a multiple-page color add for the Voice of the Martyrs right in the middle of the secular magazine U.S. News and World Report (May 7 issue)! The opening page pictures a young Asian woman with a tear streaming down her cheek. To the right of her picture appear the words "Christian Persecution Does Not Exist For Me," with the words "Does Not" crossed out in red, and the letter "s" added to "exist." Inside the profiles of two persecuted Christians are highlighted, although without mention of their country (for obvious reasons of safety.)

The subscription to Voice of the Martyrs is free, and according to the add they will also send a copy of Pastor Richard Wurmbrand's book Tortured for Christ. I have read the book and highly recommend it. The true heroes of the faith in our modern era exist in hidden prison camps out of sight of the media, where Christian love is expressed in ways that would amaze many of us. We argue in our churches over some of the most mundane and trivial issues, while men and women fight just to survive and enjoy the simple right to worship their Lord. And they love their enemies in the process. How sobering.

It also makes me realize that when Jesus said that those who would follow him must "deny themselves" and "take up their cross," he wasn't referring to enduring the occasional cross word from an irritated member. Cross-bearing is suffering for Christ and His Word, something the apostles did and rejoiced about.

If you would like to learn more about VOM, see the ling here.