Saturday, December 6, 2008

Is This the Best They Can Do?

Recently the Freedom From Religion Foundation felt they needed to get their message out there during the holiday season. Along with the Nativity scene and the "holiday tree" (Pleeeese! - It's a Christmas tree!), they put out a simple sign to somehow balance the festive mood. "There is only our natural world. Religion is but a myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds," the placard outside the Washington state capitol proudly reads. The picture to the right is one I found on the web. It may be the whole message of which the newspaper only caught a part.

But is that the best they can do? Only a negative message during an otherwise positive season? Only a negation on what is not and never an affirmation of what there is to celebrate? How sad. I would have thought they might at least have celebrated their faith in humankind's ability to solve the world's problems. Or maybe their optimism in the boundless human spirit to do good to their fellow man. Something. Then again, maybe they don't have such optimism. Maybe they only see the world as horribly oppressed by all those narrow-minded Christians. Maybe all they have to proclaim is what is not. There's nothing for them to celebrate. Their one shot at encouraging the world sounds no more upbeat than Simon and Garfunkels' "Dust in the Wind."

Don’t hang on
nothing lasts forever
but the earth and sky
It slips away
and all your money
wont another minute buy

Dust in the wind
all we are is dust in the wind
Dust in the wind

I guess there's still a reason for Christians to proclaim the miracle of the Savior's birth after all. There is more than just this "natural world." And something does last forever. It is Christ.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Protests Erupt Over Proposal 8

Although the voters have spoken by a fair majority (see previous post on this vote), the gay community is still crying crying foul. They are now actively targeting the LDS church and the well-known Saddleback Church in Forest, California for their support of the passage of Proposition 8. More comments to follow the article below.

Protests sweep across Calif. on post-Prop 8 Sunday
By THOMAS WATKINS, Associated Press Writer Thomas Watkins, Associated Press Writer – Sun Nov 9, 6:55 pm ET

LOS ANGELES – On the first Sunday after a gay marriage ban passed in California, activists rallied in defiance, including hundreds of protesters outside an Orange County megachurch whose pastor brought Barack Obama and John McCain together last summer for a "faith forum."

About 300 gay-rights advocates fanned out along sidewalks leading to Saddleback Church in Lake Forest to voice their anger of the church's support of Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment approved by voters Tuesday that overturns a state Supreme Court decision in May legalizing same-sex unions.

Ed Todeschini, a Human Rights Campaign volunteer, accused Saddleback in particular of helping propagate what he called misinformation about the Supreme Court ruling, including that gay marriage would have to be taught to kindergartners.
A message seeking comment left at the church's main office, which was closed Sunday, was not immediately returned.

"They told such obvious lies. They used their lies to deceive the public," Todeschini said of the church, which gained national attention in August when its pastor, Rick Warren, brought Obama and McCain together to discuss their religious faith. The two candidates embraced during an often-contentious presidential campaign.

Todeschini said Sunday's rally was peaceful, with demonstrators waving placards with slogans including "Equality for all" and "Shame on you."

The amendment was passed last week with 52 percent of the vote, and backlash at churches over their support swept across California on Sunday after days of protests.

In Oakland, a large protest at the city's Mormon temple led the California Highway Patrol to close two highway ramps to ensure pedestrian safety. Protest organizers said they hoped to tone down the anger that has characterized some previous demonstrations.

"Our intent is not to disturb churchgoers," organizer Tim DeBenedictis said in a statement. "Our goal is to mend fences and build bridges so that all Californians can achieve marriage equality under the law."

The pastor of the 4,000-member All Saints Church in Pasadena spoke out against Proposition 8, calling the religious community's support of it "embarrassing."
The church announced that while it could no longer legally marry same-sex couples, it would continue blessing gay civil unions.

"It's very unfortunate and embarrassing that the (Christian religion) is in large part responsible for this act of bigotry," the Rev. Ed Bacon said after his sermon.
In Sacramento, a protest at the state Capitol was boisterous but peaceful as speakers led the crowd in noisy chants. Protesters waved rainbow flags, a symbol of the gay rights movement, and "No on 8" signs as police watched from the side.

Speaking on CNN's "Late Edition" Sunday, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger expressed disappointment at Proposition 8's passage.

"It is unfortunate," Schwarzenegger said. "But it is not the end because I think this will go back into the courts. ... It's the same as in the 1948 case when blacks and whites were not allowed to marry. This falls into the same category."_

Associated Press writer Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Well, I guess I am now to be labeled "bigoted" for my religious views on homosexuality. So be it. Interpreting the Scriptures as they are revealed is now considered a narrow-minded and hateful approach to Holy Writ. If the Rev. Bacon is "embarrased" by the church's involvment in promoting Proposition 8, I would like to say that I am equally "embarrased" that a Christian clergyman and his church would actively support that which the Scriptures clearly condemn. This is the division that occurs when the Bible is robbed of its inspired and infallible character.

One more note: With due respect to the Governor, this is not the same as when blacks and whites were not allowed to marry. That was an issue of race, and clearly wrong. But homosexuality is a behavior issue. While we have the freedom to behave as we wish, assuming no one is injured or wronged, the issue of gay marriage is about changing the definition of a cultural institution. Gay may continue to legally live together. That is not the argument here. The point is whether the legal definition of marriage is going to be changed. To this the voters of California have clearly answered. They said no. Let's leave it at that.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Executive Orders Under Review Affect Status of Unborn

According to FOX news, President-elect Obama is expected, as many would have anticipated, to review and most likely reverse many of George Bush's executive orders. The most troubling, though, are those that once again place the unborn in needless peril.

"Presidents long have used executive orders to impose policy and set priorities. One of Bush's first acts was to reinstate full abortion restrictions on U.S. overseas aid. The restrictions were first ordered by President Reagan and the first President Bush followed suit. President Clinton lifted them soon after he occupied the Oval Office and it wouldn't be surprising if Obama did the same.

Executive orders "have the power of law and they can cover just about anything," Tobias said in a telephone interview.

Bush used his executive power to limit federal spending on embryonic stem cell research, a position championed by opponents of abortion rights who argue that destroying embryos is akin to killing a fetus. Obama has supported the research in an effort to find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's. Many moderate Republicans also support the research, giving it the stamp of bipartisanship."

What a shame that we cheapen human life for the sake of bipartisan support. We should protect life for the simple fact that it is the right thing to do.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Assisted Suicide Approved in Washington State

After hearing about the results of this important vote in Washington State on the radio this afternoon, I found the following from the Wall Street Journal:

Washington Passes Initiative 1000, Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide
Posted by Jacob Goldstein

Voters in Washington State gave a clear answer yesterday to a thorny ethical question: Should a doctor be allowed to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to a dying patient?

A state measure known as Initiative 1000 passed by a margin of 59% to 41%, making it legal for doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication for patients with less than six months to live.

As we reported last week, the law is packed with provisions intended to limit the practice. Patients must make two separate requests, orally and in writing, more than two weeks apart; must be of sound mind and not suffering from depression; and must have their request approved by two separate doctors. Doctors are not allowed to administer the lethal dose.

Backers of the bill, including national right-to-die organizations and a former Democratic governor who has Parkinson’s, raised $4.9 million to support it. Opponents, including several Catholic organizations, raised $1.6 million to fund their fight, the Seattle Times reports.

In Oregon, the only other state with a similar law, some 341 patients have committed physician-assisted suicide in the 11 years the law has been in effect, the New York Times reported last week.

This is not a good sign regarding our attitude toward life in this country. Viewed together with the atrocity of legalized abortion on demand, we see the erosion of the value of human life coming from both ends of the spectrum. What is to keep us from adopting mandatory euthanasia measures for the sick and infirm, not to mention those in frail, vegetative states? I fear for the future. The very question of life's value hangs in an ever-tipping balance and our culture seems intent on being its own god in determining the beginning and end of our own existence. This is clearly self-destructive and self-defeating.

Important Decisions in California Largely Ignored

While the mainstream media was consumed with the presidential election, equally important election results in California regarding significant proposition issues seemed completely ignored. Late into the night I switched channels looking for results on the fate of Proposition 8 which endeavored to secure the traditional institution of marriage. Nothing. Not a word. Was it just too close to call? Or would that even matter? Or was it not reported on because it was losing and such a loss was a disappointment to the mainstream media that normally throws it support toward same-sex rights?

Evangelicals were greatly concerned about this proposition and the cultural domino effect that would ensue if it was defeated. For those not familiar with the issue, the Supreme Court of California back in May struck down a ban on same-sex unions. According to a CNN article at the time,

The California Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage Thursday, saying sexual orientation, like race or gender, "does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights."

In a 4-3 120-page ruling issue, the justices wrote that "responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation."
"We therefore conclude that in view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the majority.

This was not the last word, however. As the San Fransisco Chronicle reports today:

Californians appeared poised to overturn a state Supreme Court decision in a historical move that would write a ban on gay marriage into the state Constitution, while other bond measures proposed during a weakening economy were defeated or struggled with a narrow lead.

The outcome of the same-sex marriage ban dominated the list of ballot initiatives faced by California voters, with proponents saying religious liberty and the building blocks of society were at stake. Opponents called Proposition 8 a civil rights battle, that tested the American ideals of equality and personal freedom.

By early Wednesday, with nearly three quarters of the precincts reporting, the measure appeared to be passing with 52 percent support but was too close to call.

CBS News online this morning, which likewise declared the outcome too close yet to call, also noted that:

Similar measures have prevailed previously in 27 states, but none were in California's situation - with thousands of gay couples already married in the aftermath of a state Supreme Court ruling in May. Reporting on Proposition 8, Barbara Simon, Executive Producer of CBS News on LOGO, says polls have gone back and forth with extremely slim margins, and right now, approval of Prop. 8 is leading by three points, according to a poll from our CBS station KPIX-TV in San Francisco. The margin of error is 4. Similar ballot measures banning same-sex marriage were up for vote in Arizona and Florida. CBS News projects that Arizona voters have passed the same-sex marriage ban.

For clarification it should be noted that the proposition seeks to add to the California constitution the words "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." Thus, it does not technically ban same-sex unions, as such, or even preclude all benefits that they may enjoy by such unions. What it does seek is to preserve the language and institution of marriage as it has been historically defined, namely the union between one man and one woman.

Concerned Christians should continue to keep a watch on the outcome of this vote, as a defeat would have profound implications across the nation. As Shannon Minter, attorney for one of the plaintiffs in the case that brought about original Supreme Court decision, noted: "California sets the tone, and this will have a huge effect across the nation to bringing wider acceptance for gay and lesbian couples."

Ironically, the outcome of other proposition decisions in California indicated once again the general confusion of moral truth that exists in the country today. As the San Fransisco Chronicle also reported:

Proposition 4, another divisive social issue that would require doctors to notify parents or guardians when minors seek an abortion, appeared to be headed for defeat. California voters defeated similar initiatives twice before, in 2005 and 2006.

Proposition 2, the Standards for Confining Farm Animals Act, passed. With nearly three quarters of the votes tallied, 62 percent of voters supported the measure.

The measure drew some high-profile backers, including Ellen DeGeneres and wife Portia de Rossi. The initiative sought to outlaw cramped cages for egg-laying chickens, but opponents said it would drive egg producers out of state if approved.

How is it that we care so much for crowded chickens but care nothing for the rights of unborn humans and the sanctity of life in our own species?

Regarding other news on election season life issues CBS reported on ballot decisions elsewhere, noting:

...that voters in South Dakota voted down Measure 11, which would have prohibited abortions except in cases where the mother's life or health is at a substantial and irreversible risk, and in cases of reported rape and incest. If it had passed, it would likely have triggered a legal challenge which could have lead to the U.S. Supreme Court and a reconsideration of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established the right to abortion....In Colorado, CBS News projects that voters rejected Amendment 48, which would have defined the term "person" to include any human being from the moment of fertilization.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Today I Vote for Life

As has been my practice for 20+ years now I will not publicly announce who I am voting for today. However, I can tell you that my trip to the township hall where I will vote has a higher mission than just voting for a candidate. Of all the issues discussed this season there is always one that stands out as of primary concern for any voter. For me that issue is LIFE. Life for the unborn. The next four years will provide the next president the unique opportunity to influence the rights of this silent mass of humanity by his appointment of judges to the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wade has been a blight on this nation that has historically defended the rights of all. My vote may not change the this judicial atrocity. Judges may be appointed that guarantee the entrenchment of this decision for generations to come. However, it is my privilege to at least speak quietly for those who cannot speak for themselves by that single vote. Today I vote for life.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Couple of Books of Interest

This past week when I was at our district's Professional Church Worker's Conference, I was once again blessed to find some worthwhile books to add to my library. The two highlighted here are 2008 publications of Concordia Publishing House.

For those familiar with Bo Giertz (1905-1998), best known as author of The Hammer of God (1941) and one time bishop in the Lutheran Church of Sweden, the recent translation of his devotional To Live with Christ is a true gem to acquire. 830 pages, arranged according to the church calendar with short devotional readings and prayer, hardbound, and my copy was secured for only $16.00 ($19.99 list price at CPH.)

Arthur A. Just Jr. is a name familiar to any who attended Concordia-Ft. Wayne in the last 20 years. He came to the seminary during my student days (1983-1987.) I was able to take some of his new liturgical courses before I graduated, and in a cursory look of his most recent work Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service, I saw several familiar illustrations from my old student notes. This work is a capstone collection of many articles and notes collected over the years and well worth the price of only $12.00 I paid at the conference ($14.99 list price, although you can get it for less through 307 pages, paperback. For those interested in liturgical history and practice, especially as it is traced from its Jewish and Early Church roots through the time of the Lutheran liturgical renewal, this would be a good addition to anyone's library.

After This I Looked, and Behold, a Great Multitude

All Saints’ Day
November 2, 2008
Text: Rev. 7:9-17
Theme: A Vision of the Triumphant Church

When my mother passed away I freely admitted that I would not want her to have to come back to this life - even though I missed her a lot. I’ve heard others say this as well. After watching someone suffer you’re relieved, in a sense, to know that the one we love doesn’t have to endure the pain anymore. Death is hard to face, but there’s the comfort knowing something better came out of it. No more struggle. No more agony. No more limitations. No more frustration. And for those who die believing in Jesus we have the added anticipation of all the good that awaits them beyond this “veil of tears.” We are allowed, for a moment, to start dreaming again. Dreaming about the heaven Jesus prepared for us. Dreaming about a place where there is no hunger, no thirst, no death, no sickness, no disease, no injury, no sadness.

All Saints’ Day is the day for the Church itself to dream too - dream in the midst of death. For most of the year we live through days filled with intermittent clouds. Clouds of dark reality that hang over our lives like a dreary Fall day. We know that death and suffering are always there, visiting one this day, and then another tomorrow. We can pretend it’s not there, but we know better.

But today is an exception. Today is different. Today we can behave as if the rules have changed.
The reading for All Saints Day from Revelation 7 is the dream of hope between the realities of suffering and hardship we witness in Revelation 6 and 8. In chapter 7 the curtain is pulled away for just a moment to let us see what awaits us, to let us dream again, and in that dream we find the comfort to make it through the suffering we must still endure in the days ahead.

And what do we see behind this curtain? In a way I envy John who saw this with his own eyes. Words can only paint so much of the picture; it‘s like the difference between a single photograph of one portion of the Grand Canyon and actually standing there on the edge of a rocky precipice peering into the endless expanses stretching before you as far as the eye can see . And in that we must be willing to stand back and try to see the immensity of what opens before us here. This vision is enormous and expansive like the Grand Canyon; way beyond many of the smaller images many have of heaven and the life to come.

It begins with an endless sea of humanity stretching beyond the horizon: “a great multitude,” John writes, “that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages.” Sometimes the church can seem quite small. And if you are suffering under persecution like John on the little island of Patmos it seem smaller yet. The Church Militant on earth at the beginning of chapter 7 is described by a very large number - but it still seems limited. By verse 9 the entirety of the church from distant past to unseen future stretches out before us. We never imagined it this large. And if this is not too much we have all the angels of heaven gathered there as well. All of them, which we know number thousands of thousands, ten thousand upon ten thousand.

And as they gather before the divine throne and the Lamb they are full of life and overflowing with confidence. Their praises are anything but meek and half-hearted. They “cry out with a loud voice,” John says. The walls reverberate with the thunder of their song. We all know that it’s tough to get any church to really sing to their fullness on every Sunday. Depending on the hymn it sometimes sounds half it’s own size. And sometimes we hold back even when we know the tune, despite the fact that the song begs to be literally shouted. But not here. Not in this place. The hearts of the faithful are overflowing with the joy of their salvation, from the tone-deaf worshiper to the accomplished chorister. The victory of Good Friday and Easter is now complete. Suffering is past tense. Death is no more. The devil is defeated. His hoards of demons cast into the endless pit of hell’s everlasting fires.

Thus they wave palm branches - signs of victory and triumph - just like they did the day Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Yes, the day Jesus was on His way to His own great suffering and death, they were cheering for victory. Victory on the way to death.

This contrast was brought to mind recently as I was listening to a book on tape by the name of GHOST SOLDIERS by Hampton Sides. Sides told in vivid detail about the notorious World War II Bataan Death March of 1942. 75,000 starving and diseased American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to the Japanese that year in the Philippines, and were subsequently forced to march 90 miles in their weakened state. Only 54,000 of the original 75,000 eventually made it to the prison camps. Along the way thousands dropped from exhaustion and were beaten and executed in horribly brutal ways. At one point Sides describes the march as it passed through a Filipino village. Villagers attempted to aid the soldiers with water and food. But then Sides also describes a curious event in the middle of this march to death. Villagers lining the road held up their fingers in the familiar “victory sign.” Did they see in these dying men their long awaited victors from their savage captors? How could they envision victory in the midst of so much death?
In a way we are also on a kind of “death march.” Today we will pause to remember four of our members who passed away over the last 12 months. Each year we say good-bye to a few more. More of us will pass away in the year to come. One day we too will die.

And yet in the middle of this ‘march of death’ the saints are holding up the victory sign. They are not mourning, they are cheering. There are no tears here, but shouts of triumph. That great multitude that no one could count is cheering us on. As the writer to the Hebrews once said: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

And there it is. There’s the real victory in the midst of the march to seeming defeat and death: Jesus the crucified. Jesus the risen. Jesus the ascended and glorified. That’s why the multitude shouted “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!”
Revelation fast-forwards us to the day when that march of death ends in heaven and allows us to see ourselves as we truly are in Christ. The soldiers the Filipino villagers encouraged were torn and tattered and emaciated shadows. I suspect, however, that they looked past this and saw more. They saw the whole of the U.S. Army come to save them. They saw what they hoped was the superior force.

Today we see ourselves as John describes as the “ones coming out of the great tribulation,” or great suffering. The tattered remains of our former lives are now exchanged for bright white robes - robes of Christ’s own holiness given us lovingly in our Baptisms where we were buried with Him in death and raised to newness of life. For these robes, we are told, were “washed…and…made…white in the blood of the Lamb.”

And beginning with today there is also a subtle change in our worship in the weeks to come as we near the end of the church‘s calendar year. Our eyes will be fixed more and more on the great final day to come and the treasures that await us in our heavenly home. A vision that will even spill into the first Sunday in Advent itself. For the church’s march of death ends in life and victory, and that is our dream, our vision, our confidence, our enduring faith.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Collective Ignorance of the Church's Roots

Do we really know our history as Lutherans? I suspect not in many cases. This was brought home to me the other night at a youth meeting when I showed a video clip from the Luther movie. Before I ran the clip, which happened to be Luther before Charles V at Worms in his famous "Here I stand" speech" (1521), I tried to review the basics of Reformation history. Basic as in "Does anyone know who Martin Luther is?" While some of the answers were predictable, as in confusing the great Reformer with the U.S. civil rights leader who happened to also have his name, they were also alarming in their ignorance. They seemed to have no idea of who this man was, what history surrounded his actions, and how any of that pertains to where we are at today. To my defense, in part, some of these kids did study these things under my catechetical direction.

I realize that Americans, in general, are often ignorant of their historical roots, as evidenced more than once on late night talk show street surveys. Viewers laugh at the ignorance, yet probably know little more than those they deride with their chuckles.

We are a people who value immediate relevance over long-term effects. Pragmatism reigns as the operating philosophy of many. Yet are we paying a price for our historical ignorance? Time will tell. In the Lutheran church it has already meant a mass eroding of our liturgical treasures and a distancing from our distinct identity. Our people regularly read Evangelical literature and sing Evangelical songs and prefer it over the perceiving dryness of the corresponding Lutheran books and music. Little by little we are evolving into Baptists.

That night at the youth meeting reminded me, however, that I am responsible for this as much as anyone else. Educating the next generation about who we are and where we came from begins in the local parish. That is "ground zero" for our efforts. With so many resources now available, such as first-rate films, there is no excuse for us to wait. May Reformation 2008 be a new call for rediscovery of our rich treasures as Lutherans before we lose them in a haze of indifference.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Living in Two Kingdoms

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
October 19, 2008
Text: Matthew 22:15-21

Election season, especially in a presidential year, can get pretty nasty at times. Candidates are placed under a public microscope where their lives and words are picked apart unmercifully. But it’s not just the candidates that are the focus of extreme scrutiny at times like this. It seems that government itself is often put on trial. Much ink is spilled during election years showing everything that is wrong and broken and misguided with government. And it’s easy to set the whole system up as a kind of “enemy” that is out to get us and our money.

As Christians we may feel this tension as well. Government becomes the “necessary evil” we must endure, but certainly not support. We live in a different kingdom, a spiritual kingdom, right? After all, doesn’t the Bible tell us that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20)? Yet, on the other hand, could it also be possible that we instead actually live in two kingdoms at the same time - the Kingdom of the World and the Kingdom of Grace- and each is blessed and supported by God?

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus answers that very question by dealing with an issue about paying taxes. Which is kind of timely, wouldn’t you admit, given all the talk about taxes this election season? It turns out that a group from the Pharisees and from the Herodians came to Jesus with the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. By “lawful” they mean does it square with God’s law, His will. In truth the question was really a ‘set up,’ and Jesus was well aware of their evil intent. They really weren’t interested in what Jesus said. All they wanted to do was discredit him. And it didn’t matter which way Jesus answered. If he said “no” He would be branded as an insurrectionist in open rebellion against Rome. If he said “yes” He would be branded by others as a traitor to His own people. The Zealots of the time even said that for one to pay the tribute tax to Rome was to give up the yoke of the reign of God.

It seemed that Jesus was, as they say, on the “horns of a dilemma” from which he would not free himself. Yet his answer ended up surprising all of them in the end, for it brilliantly avoided the “either-or” bind they were trying to force on him. And it also helps us appreciate the truth that we also are not locked into an “either-or” bind with regard to our own support of government and church.

“Show me the coin for the tax,” Jesus told them. Someone in the crowd handed him a denarius, a common silver coin. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” he asked them, no doubt holding the coin up for them to see. There was no denying that the likeness or image was the Roman Emperor. And around his head was the inscription in abbreviated form: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus” and “Father of His Country.” If you were to flip the coin over you would see the figures of two Caesars, with the words above and around them reading, again in abbreviations: “Augustus” and “Pontifex Maximus,” referring to the Emperor as the “Highest Priest” or supreme religious ruler of the country, along with other references to his station as absolute monarch with total power. For a devout Jew it was downright idolatrous, with the image of a man claiming to be a “god.” Still, they had them in their pockets and used them. Talk about hypocrites!

“Well then, give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus instructed them. And then without missing a breath the second half as well: “and to God the things that are God’s.”
Did Jesus just support what was on the coin - Caesar‘s claim to divinity and all that? No. He simply acknowledged that “Caesar,” that is the government, owns the money which bears its image. The point was whether they had the right to demand money for the support of their work.
What is interesting is that those who confronted Jesus that day enjoyed much of what the Roman government did for them. They benefited from the army’s ability to maintain a lasting peace. They used the roads Rome constructed to aid their travel and help their business affairs. Truth be told, the government - even one like Rome - was helpful to them in many ways.
Which is true for us also. Say what we might about waste and mismanagement and heavy-handedness in our government, we all know that we would not want to live without the security and benefits it brings us.

And that is no accident. God has always intended that earthly government would be His servant for our greater good in this life. It is part of the gifts we confess in the First Article of the Creed where Luther reminds us that the God who created us is also the God who “provides me with all that I need to support this body and life,” and that He willingly “defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil.” And how does He do this? In part through the servants of God in the government.

Note also Luther’s concluding words. “All this He does out of His fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” The work of government, imperfect though it be, is part of God gracious love toward us.

Which is why we also owe God our prayers on behalf of this special servant. We serve God by actually praying for the government which God has given us. This is part of “rendering to God what is God’s.” As Paul told Timothy: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be make for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” The governing authorities provide a safe and secure climate in which we carry out our most important work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Without their protection and stabilizing power that holds evil at bay, we might not be able to do what we are doing today - freely and openly telling everyone about the Savior Jesus who God sent into the world to save lost sinners for eternity. While we don’t mix these kingdoms - making one do the work of the other - even Paul realized that one can still serve the other.
Which now brings us back to our election season and how we as Christians can best serve God and Caesar. Many of you are probably experiencing a bit of election season fatigue by now with all the ads and debates and such. Maybe you are among those who say you just want to stay clear of anything that is political - including voting.

Yet voting is part of what we owe Caesar. Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, in a recent article in the Lutheran Witness called “Priests in the Voting Booth,” writes that we are “divinely appointed sovereigns of a democracy and as such compelled to exercise [our] office by virtue of good sense.” He also states that “In these dangerous times [we] must have the courage to ask candidates to be brutally truthful about the dire state the world is in, and how they intend to deal with this, even at the risk of proposing unpopular measures. Should voters base their decision on prejudice, ideology, conjecture, ignorance, selfishness, and a sloppy desire for an easy way out, rather than informed logic and neighborly love, they neglect their priestly duties.” (Uwe Siemon-Netto, “Priests in Voting Booths,” Lutheran Witness, October 2008, page 23.)

This morning you are exercising your Christian calling as the “priesthood of God” through your prayers and praises in the Divine Service which you render on behalf of all people. But you also have a priestly duty as citizens, and you owe your services as such in both kingdoms. It is not pious to avoid your role in the worldly kingdom just because it is imperfect. You are called to serve in a sinful world. The Pharisees and Herodians had it all wrong. It has never been an “either-or” but rather a “both-and.” May God therefore bless your service as God’s priests in both of His kingdoms.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Remembering Collective Shame

I recently found this article in my email inbox from one of the 'lists' to which I currently subscribe. To find a clean copy to print here I did a Google search of the title and author and received 227 'hits.' Apparently others have found this as thought-provoking as I did. [Note: The pictures were added by me and were not part of the original article.]

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

This column requires a caveat: I am not an American citizen and therefore neither a Republican nor a Democrat. But as a German residing permanently in the United States I believe I have a duty to opine on at least one aspect of the upcoming elections - the question whether years from now Americans will have to wrestle with collective shame, just as I have had to deal with collective shame over what has happened in Germany in my childhood for my entire life.

It was West Germany's first postwar president, Theodor Heuss, who coined the phrase, "collective shame" contrasting it with the notion of collective guilt, which he rejected. No, I cannot be expected to feel guilty for crimes the Nazis committed while I was still in elementary school. But as a bearer of a German passport I have never ceased feeling ashamed because three years before I was born German voters elected leaders planning the annihilation of millions of innocent people.

I am certain that in 1933 most Germans did not find the Nazis' anti-Semitic rhetoric particularly attractive. What made them choose Hitler, then? It was the economy, stupid, and presumably injured national pride, and similar issues. This came to mind as I read the latest Faith in Life poll of issues Americans in general and white evangelicals in particular consider "very important" in this year's elections.

Guess what? For both groups, the economy ranked first, while abortion was way down the list. Among Americans in general abortion took ninth and among white evangelicals seventh place, well below gas prices and healthcare. Now, it's true that most evangelicals still believe that abortion should be illegal, which is where they differ from the general public and, astonishingly, from Roman Catholics even though their own church continues to fight valiantly against the ongoing mass destruction of unborn life. Still, 54 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of young Catholics have declared themselves "pro choice," according to the Faith in Life researchers.

What I am going to say next is going to make me many enemies, of this I am sure: Yes, there is a parallel here between what has happened in Germany in 1933 and what is happening in America now. The legalized murder of 40 million fetuses since Roe v. Wade in 1973 will one day cause collective shame of huge proportions. So what this wasn't a "holocaust?" This term should remain reserved for another horror in history. But a genocide has been happening in the last 35 years, even if no liberators have shocked the world with photographs they snapped of the victims as the Allies did in Germany in 1945. And it has the open support of politicians running for office next month.

If most Americans, and shockingly even a majority of Catholics think physicians should have the "right" to suck babies' brains out so that their skulls will collapse making it easy for these abortionists to drag their tiny bodies through the birth canal; if even most white evangelicals think that economic woes are a more important concerns (78 percent) than legalized mass murder (57 percent), then surely a moral lobotomy has been performed on this society.

I agree it would be unscholarly to claim that what is happening in America and much of the Western world every day is "another holocaust." No two historical events are exactly identical. So let's leave the word "holocaust" where it belongs - next to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Mauthausen. Still there are compelling parallels between today's genocide and the Nazi crimes, for example:

1. Man presumes do decide which lives are worthy of living and which are not. "Lebensunwertes Leben" (life unworthy of living) was a Nazi "excuse" for killing mentally handicapped children and adults, a crime that preceded the holocaust committed against the Jews. Notice that today fetuses diagnosed with Downs Syndrome are often aborted as a matter of course in America and Europe.

2. In German-occupied territories, Jews and Gypsies were gassed for no other reason than that some people considered it inconvenient to have them around. Today, unborn children are often slaughtered because it is inconvenient for their mothers to bring their pregnancies to term.

3. Murder I is legally defined as killing another human being with malice and aforethought. The Nazis killed Jewish and Gypsies with deliberation - and maliciously. But what are we to think of babies being killed deliberately simply because they would be a nuisance if they were allowed to live? No malice here? 4. Ordinary Germans of the Nazi era were rightly chastised for not having come to their Jewish neighbors' rescue when they were rounded up and sent to extermination camps. Ordinary Americans and Western Europeans might find the fad to kill babies disagreeable, but as we see from the Faith in Life poll, most have more pressing concerns.

Some future day Americans and Western Europeans will be asked why they allowed their children to be slaughtered. They would even have less of an excuse than Germans of my grandparents' and parents' generation. In Germany, you risked your life if you dared to come to the Jews' rescue. In today's democracies the worst that can happen to you is being ridiculed for being "a Christian."

As a foreigner I have no right to tell Americans whom to elect on Nov. 4. Recently, though, a friend asked me: "If you worked in an office and a colleague asked you at the voter cooler, whom he should vote for what would you tell him?" Well, I would say: "I am not here to make up your mind for you. But personally I could never give my vote to so-called pro-choice candidates."

This would doubtless lead to a heated postmodern dialogue. Perhaps the colleague is not a Christian; he might chastise me for mixing politics and religion. "If you as a Christian oppose abortion," he could say, "then by all means don't get involved in an abortion, just don't impose your religious views on the rest of us." How would I answer that? An evangelical might yank out his Bible and quote passages pertaining to this issue. But to a non-Christian the Bible is meaningless; I am not sure a political debate around the water cooler is a great venue to start individual evangelization.

My Lutheran approach would be different. I would argue natural law, the law God has written upon the hearts of all human beings, including non-believers. Unless they really have undergone a moral lobotomy they should be open to this story: Down in Wichita, Kansas, there is a physician by the name of George Tiller. On his website he boasts that he has already performed 60,000 abortions, mostly late-term, and week after week he is killing 100 more unborn babies.

Dr. Tiller does not think of these fetuses as clusters of cancerous cells. He knows they are human because he baptizes some of them before he incinerates them in his own crematorium. You don't baptize non-humans. Dr. Tiller knows that. He is a practicing Lutheran. His former congregation, Holy Cross of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, excommunicated him as an unrepentant sinner. But the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, which belongs to the ELCA, communes him.

Did I mention that he kills 100 human beings every week and has already done away with 60.000? Sixty thousand. In Nuremberg they hanged some fiends for murdering less than 60 -- zero point one percent of Tiller's toll. Perhaps this little tale will give even non-believers pause if they have not discarded their conscience, known to Christians as the law God has written upon every man's heart. One day, of this I am certain, this will indeed result in collective shame - and God knows what other horrible consequences.

---Uwe Siemon-Netto Ph.D., D.Litt. is Director for the Center for Lutheran Theology & Public Life in St. Louis, MO He writes an occasional column for VirtueOnline

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Facing Death without Christ

A recent article from the Religious News Service made me wonder: What is it like to die without the direct comfort of the resurrected and living Christ.? Pastor Forest Church of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York is dying of terminal cancer. But he is dying, it would appear, without the comfort of eternal life in Christ in which Christians find great comfort at times of death. The article notes:

"Like other Unitarian-Universalists, Church rejects many aspects of Christian doctrine. He neither blames God for his illness nor asks God for a cure.

"I don't pray for miracles," he said. "I don't pray to cure my incurable case. I rejoice and consecrate each day that I'm given as a gift.

As to the afterlife, Church said he has "no idea what happens after we die. I go with Henry David Thoreau who, when he was asked about the afterlife, said, `Madam, I prefer to take it one life at a time.'"

At the same time, Church says he has come to believe that without God there is nothing.

"God is what sustains me. I am connected with that grace and power. God is that which greater than all and present in each," he said.

"For me, Christianity is a faith about love, love to God and love to neighbor that is right at the heart of my very being," he said. "I am a Christian Universalist. I believe that the same light shines through every religious window. And it's interpreted. The windows are different. It's interpreted in different ways. It refracts in different ways."

Church calls "Love and Death" a coda to his theology, to his "lifelong belief that love and death interwoven were the heartstrings of religion."

"The greatest of all truths is that love never dies," he said. "That every act of love that we perform in this life is carried on and passed on into another life so that centuries from now the love carries. And that is the work of religion."

So that's it. The sum total is simply love. Love endures. But can you define love without Christ (1 John 4:10)? Do our singular acts of human love really amount to anything truly significant without Christ?

I agree that reconciliation before death is important. We need to tie up loose ends. So is leaving a legacy of love and concern, as opposed to bitterness, hate and resentment. Knowing we are dying allows us the opportunity to do that which we have too long put off and neglected in this life. Yet dying without a firm hope in what is to come is for me unthinkable - and empty. I suppose it has been a part of my life and faith for so long that to consider its absence is inconceivable. More so, is the thought of viewing God apart from Christ. It simply goes against the very witness of scripture itself (John 14:7-9). Mr. Church is therefore an enigma for me. There is no real comfort here. How sad....

Monday, October 6, 2008

Atheist Group Suing Over National Day of Prayer

The founding fathers certainly could not have imagined that people today would be so hypersensitive about anything religious in connection with the national government. Yet once again we hear the clarion call that something else has violated the constitutional ban on "government officials endorsing religion" and the so-called separation of church and state. This time the target is the National Day of Prayer. Note the recent AP article:

By Scott Bauer, Associated Press Writer Fri Oct 3, 9:26 PM ET
MADISON, Wis. - The nation's largest group of atheists and agnostics is suing President Bush, the governor of Wisconsin and other officials over the federal law designating a National Day of Prayer. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Friday in U.S. district court, arguing that the president's mandated proclamations calling on Americans to pray violates a constitutional ban on government officials endorsing religion. The day of prayer, held each year on the first Thursday of May, creates a "hostile environment for nonbelievers, who are made to feel as if they are political outsiders," the lawsuit said. The national proclamation issued this year asked God's blessings on our country and called for Americans to observe the day with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle is named in the suit because he is one of 50 governors who issued proclamations calling for the prayer day. The foundation is based in Madison. Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and White House press secretary Dana Perino also are named. The foundation has filed numerous lawsuits in recent years, including one rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court last year that attacked President Bush's faith-based initiative. The White House and Doyle spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner had no comment on the lawsuit. A message seeking comment from the task force was not returned Friday.

"Hostile environment for nonbelievers who are made to feel" like "political outsiders"? Did I hear that right? Maybe someone can explain to me what that means. How are they "outsiders"? Did someone take away their right to vote? Were they forbidden their constitutional right to free speech (obviously not)? Were they banned from participating in the work of government? Did the government say they had to pray?

The stated mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is "protecting the constitutional principal of separation of church and state." The First Amendment of the Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." The phrase "separation of church and state" does not actually appear in the constitution. According to Wikipedia the phrase "is generally traced to an 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, where Jefferson spoke of the combined effect of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause."

Unfortunately some have taken the "freedom of religion," where the state cannot dictate the religious practices of its citizens, and reinterpreted it as "freedom from religion," where the state must be entirely separate from any religious service or intent. If we rule out prayer are we then catering to the religion of atheism? Although there has been a lively debate about whether atheism is indeed a religion, the government, in one instance called it such. Note this article from 2005:

Decides 1st Amendment protects prison inmate's right to start study group

Posted: August 20, 2005
1:00 am Eastern

© 2008

A federal court of appeals ruled yesterday Wisconsin prison officials violated an inmate's rights because they did not treat atheism as a religion. "Atheism is [the inmate's] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being," the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said. The court decided the inmate's First Amendment rights were violated because the prison refused to allow him to create a study group for atheists. Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, called the court's ruling "a sort of Alice in Wonderland jurisprudence." "Up is down, and atheism, the antithesis of religion, is religion," said Fahling. The Supreme Court has said a religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being. In the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, the court described "secular humanism" as a religion. Fahling said today's ruling was "further evidence of the incoherence of Establishment Clause jurisprudence." "It is difficult not to be somewhat jaundiced about our courts when they take clauses especially designed to protect religion from the state and turn them on their head by giving protective cover to a belief system, that, by every known definition other than the courts' is not a religion, while simultaneously declaring public expressions of true religious faith to be prohibited," Fahling said.

Well, based on the above, I suppose the only fair thing to do now is to have a "National Day of Non-prayer." But then that's about what the other 354 other days are.

Pittsburgh Diocese Leaves Episcopal Church

The Diocese of San Joaquin of Fresno, Calif. (now known as the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin) became the first to leave in 2006. Now the Pittsburgh Diocese is following suit. Bit by bit the Episcopal communion continues to fray apart at the seams. It would appear that even in this country, where diversity is praised above fidelity, a church can become so liberal that people will still leave - and take much of their church with them.

Following the vote of clergy and lay members of the theologically conservative diocese to officially break from the Episcopal church, Assistant Bishop Henry Scriven commented: "I am delighted that what we have done today is bringing the Diocese of Pittsburgh back into the mainstream of worldwide Anglicanism."

Naturally not all were pleased. The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the U.S. church, was critical of the vote saying: "There is room in this church for all who desiere to be members of it."

It would seem that what the bishop means is that the Epicopal church should be large enough to incorporate and accept a wide variety of behavior and doctrine, including the practice of homosexuality, even among its own clergy. However, many in this church body are taking the scriptures quite seriously and noticing that such behavior is clearly sinful and unacceptable in the Christian church.

After the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, Anglicanism represents the third largest Christian communion in the world today. According to the official website of the Anglican Communion the church body is comprised of over 80 million members in over 160 countries.

As a liturgically-appreciative Lutheran and self-professed anglophile, the Anglican church has long appealed to me. I am encouraged by these stands for the truth against what has been a constant erosion of faith and fidelity to the scriptures. It will be interesting to continue watching the unfolding developments in this church body as it wrestles with the strong pulls of liberalism in its ranks.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Reason vs. Faith??

It seems that there is the belief out there among some that faith is a purely subjective experience entirely divorced from reason. On "The View" the other day someone again made that claim, one I seem to be running across more frequently. To be fair, I understand how some arrive at this conclusion, especially if they have concluded that what faith is based upon is pure myth. If you do not acknowledge the premise, then the only conclusion is that faith is mere subjective opinion or wish.

However, those who have concluded this a priori have neglected to examine the objective evidence of the faith claim - i.e. historical documents that underly the claim. If a faith claim (in this case Christian) asserts that it is based on objective, historical facts that can be authenticated and examined, then the claim deserves to be heard and reasonably debated on those terms. Christianity has not divorced reason from faith, but understands that reason can be wrongly used. Typically we speak of its use as either magisterial or ministerial. If reason rises above the faith it informs, it ultimately replaces it. That is the magisterial use of reason.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Book of Concord Site

If you are interested in the historic confessions of the Lutheran Church, there is a new site you need to check: The Book of Concord. It contains the complete next of the Book of Concord (including the German 1580 version), introductions to the book, and a wealth of other information. There is even a link to a blog where you can interact with others on questions or concerns regarding the theology of the Book of Concord. So, bookmark this now. I am also going to provide a link to the left on this blog if you forget ;)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Are the Unborn Protected or Not? I'm Confused

"Authorities Want to Arrest Pregnant Woman to Protect Unborn Child." So the headline read this past Wednesday over at MSNBC. The woman in question is an habitual drug user who has repeatedly refused treatment. The district attorney wants to arrest the woman to protect the unborn child from her uncontrolled drug abuse. The author of the article called the action "controversial," yet only a couple of sentences later reported that "Parents can't understand why a woman would use drugs with a baby due in just a few months. 'I’ve been a dad and a grandfather for over a year, and it's hard for me to imagine why someone would ever do that to a child. Why they wouldn't take care of them?' Frank Schinko said."

Interesting how common sense can understand the need to protect life even when it is pre-born, yet the so-called right to terminate a pregnancy is considered one of the most sacred of choices. It is also interesting how many states protect the life of an unborn child when the mother is injured or attacked. The following link is dated to 1999, but I wonder if many of these laws have been since changed. I suspect very few. The law easily recognizes what the law easily dismisses. How ironic.

If there is any doubt on the above link, check out the Wikipedia article "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" from 2004. Yet the irony rises here again. In the first paragraph we read the following:
"The Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-212) is a United States law which recognizes a "child in utero" as a legal victim, if he or she is injured or killed during the commission of any of over 60 listed federal crimes of violence. The law defines "child in utero" as "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."

Then a little later we read this:
"The legislation was both hailed and vilified by various legal observers who interpreted the measure as a step toward granting legal personhood to human fetuses, even though the bill explicitly contained a provision excepting abortion, stating that the bill would not 'be construed to permit the prosecution' 'of any person for conduct relating to an abortion for which the consent of the pregnant woman, or a person authorized by law to act on her behalf', 'of any person for any medical treatment of the pregnant woman or her unborn child' or 'of any woman with respect to her unborn child.'"

So let me see if I get this right. If I deliberately injure a woman and cause the death of her unborn child, I can be prosecuted. But if that woman decides to bring about the death of that unborn child herself through abortion, she is legally protected. I'd say we are confused here on the nature of unborn life, but that's probably not the real point. The point is that we know killing is wrong, in any form. On the other hand, we also are a society of situational ethics, where we change the definition of right and wrong depending on how ii impacts our personal preferences. And within that is the sin that continues to bring about one of the greatest holocausts mankind has ever known.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Value of Guilt

Recently I received a forwarded piece from George Carlin on the subject of "How to Stay Young." Much of his advice was common sense and reasonable. One point, however, caught my attention. He wrote: "9. Don't take guilt trips. Take a trip to the mall, even to the next county; to a foreign country but NOT to where the guilt is."

Now I understand that there is an excessive and unhealthy side to guilt. I've been there. Too often we can beat ourselves up over false guilt, taking on responsibility that is not ours. In that sense, I agree. Don't take such a 'trip.' It only leads to misery.

On the other hand, our society regularly tells us that any guilt is unhealthy, and that we should do whatever makes us happy and content. Our mores are self-serving credos that elevate freedom as the highest aspiration. And this lack of restraint has brought untold damage to marriages and families, cheapened sex, increased violence and substance abuse, and somehow reasoned that "personal choice" trumps the higher need to protect life. In this sense, we are greatly in need of more guilt, not less. Yet guilt assumes regret over breaking a law outside ourselves. If this law is not recognized, there can be no real guilt.

Guilt is most unhealthy when it knows no absolution. But thanks be to God that in Christ we have true forgiveness for repented guilt. The law that brings guilt in this sense is good, for it humbles our pride. Then the Gospel can awaken true faith. If Carlin wants to avoid this "guilt trip," he is to be pitied.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


According to an article in my Sunday paper labyrinths are finding "new converts in the modern world." In "A Spiritual Path," Post-Crescent author Cheryl Anderson begins by recounting how a certain Anglican priest began creating these things by mowing intricate paths in her backyard, and then later at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Menasha, WI. This is just the latest version of what has descended from one of the most famous 'Christian' labyrinths located at the Chartres Cathedral of Notre Dame, France.

"A labyrinth is a form of a maze," Anderson writes, "but unlike a maze there's only one path leading to the center with no dead ends or false turns. It is a meditative tool used to quiet the mind. Labyrinths serve as a metaphor for the person's inward spiritual journey." Labyrinths fell out of exsistence over time, and were only 'rediscovered' in the '80's and '90's.

I have never 'walked" a labyrinth, so I have no real experience with them. The idea of focused walking in a quiet atmosphere to aid in prayer and meditation would seem to have benefits for those who struggle with distractions. Mideaval believers used the labyrinth as a substitute for pilgrimage to the Holy Land,and as Anderson notes, "to gain spiritual merit." For that reason I can imagine that the practice would have been suspect among the early reformers who were cautious of anything that took away from grace and faith alone in Christ. However, I am not sure that Luther or the others had an familiarity with this practice by the 15th or 16th century.

Overall walking labyrinths seems innocent enough. My only concern would be if someone substituted this for true devotional prayer centered in the Word, feeling that they could "find God" by merely walking the path. As this Anglican priest admitted of her time in labyrinths: "I've had experiences where I've felt like I was in the pressence of the holy one, in the hands of God." Such an experience I have usually reserved for describing my time in the sanctuary during the Divine Service centerered on Word and Sacrament.

For now walking around my country church for exercise and meditation seems to work fine for me. I guess I'm not really into trends. Any way, I hate to mow. I'd just as soon keep all the grass at one length.

Note added on 9-15-08: For additional information discovered after this article was originally written, please make sure to read the "comments" section. Links provided here will help those interested to learn more about the concerns some Christians are expressing concerning the current use of "prayer labyrinths."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Do Stay-at-Home Moms Damage Their Children?

The title to this article presents an odd question. However, it was raised by one of the writers to Dear Abby and reflects a deep seated concern in our times regarding women, children, traditional families, and the role of women in society. This mother from Texas claims that she loves being with her children and taking care of them. Yet, she wonders: "Am I doing long term damage to them by being so dependent on their father for everything?

To her credit, Abby affirms the value of a loving mother. "How can having a mother in the house whose focus is on their welfare and development be damaging?" she asks. "Most children should be so fortunate." Indeed. Nevertheless, I suspect that there are those out there who would answer differently, advising this women to get out there an find a career so that her children had the proper role model of an independent and thoroughly self-sufficient woman. The irony of this woman's question is that the problem of our society is too few engaged and committed mothers, not too few independent career-minded ones.

God elevated motherhood as one of the highest honors a woman could know. It is also one of the greatest responsibilities in one's life: shaping and molding and directing the futures of countless children who will be the leaders of tomorrow. My wife has been an at-home mom now for 19 years and I thank God for the invaluable contribution she had made to their welfare and development as healthy, well-rounded individuals. Praise be to God for faithful motherhood!

Friday, September 12, 2008

On Synodical Structures and Changing Polity

Currently the LCMS has a blue ribbon task force studying possible changes in the structure of the governance of Synod. The September Reporter revealed several proposals currently on the table for discussion, summarizing a recently released "white paper" called Walking Together - The LCMS Future. The suggestions, at present, seem to be fairly extensive, and in some cases reflecting conflicting directions. Districts should either be increased in number or decreased or remain the same, but cooperate more with other districts. Change the circuits so that they are purely "visitational," and not "electoral." Involve the district presidents in choosing the circuit counselors. Change the voting representation so that larger congregations will have more delegates to correspond to their greater membership numbers. Discontinue advisory delegates. Continue the policy for submission of overtures, but include district or synodical officers as well. Encourage congregations to submit their concerns through circuit forums to district conventions and then have those results submitted to the national convention (instead of individual congregations submitting them indepentently as they can do so now.) Change the name of the Synod to "better reflect who we are today..." Involve district presidents and the congregations being served by pastoral candidates in the certification process. Make commissioned ministers eligible as voting delegates. And on go the suggestions...

Naturally I have my concerns, even fears, when I see proposals for far reaching change. While I understand that governance is a matter of choice - that is, there are no divinely appointed forms here - I also am cautious when we want to change structures that have, for the most part, stood the test of time, albeit imperpectly in an imperfect world. I hesitate on matters that seem, to my eyes, to reflect a possible tendency to centralize power, even for the sake of effeciency. For an effecient organization can also be one that too easily bypasses the need to consult the will of the people. Efficiency over representation. Even the forefathers of our nation knew there might be problems brewing here. They created what could be considered a fairly cumbersome and inefficient system of governance. But it was not because of carelessness. It was by design. Balance of power, they called it. One branch was never to become an out-of-control freight train racing ahead of the others.

I pray that the delegates of the 2010 convention carefully study these proposals and those that will certainly follow on their heels. Too often delegates have so much information before them that they cannot digest it all. They trust those who bring the overtures to the floor, assuming that they certainly are all for the best of everyone. While I do not wish to questions the sincereity or integrity of those who bring such proposals, I do hold the right to question whether they are in our best interest at this time. And right now I am wary. I hope that those who represent us are equally cautious in thier willingness to endorse these proposals. This all needs much more thought before it is brought to the synod.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Surprises About the Unchurched

Church-going people sometimes have stereotypes of those who do not go to church. They may think such people are thoroughly turned off of the established church, antagonistic to anything Christian or religious, resistive to invitations to Sunday worship, and put off by old, traditional church buildings. How wrong we are.

While searching Google for information on the unchurched, I ran across the following:

Ten Surprises About the Unchurched by Dr. Thomas Rainer

Unchurched Prefer Cathedrals to Contemporary Church Designs by Tobin Perry

The message on current outreach and evangelism often suggests significant changes from traditional practices. Old buildings are not attractive as theater-style structures, so the old cathedrals are torn down for state-of-the-art edifices with drop down screens and cutting edge sound systems. Hymnals and traditional music is tossed in favor of contemporary bands. All this is supposed to be so much more effective in reaching the unchurched. But what if simply having a regular Divine Service on Sunday morning with friendly people in a beautiful old church with stained glass windows was more attractive to those seeking the holy in the midst of this fallen world? Makes you wonder....

Monday, September 1, 2008

Pastor Hunter's All-Inclusive Prayer

On Thursday, August 28, the Rev. Joel Hunter of the Northland Church in Floria, gave the closing prayer at the Democratic National Convention. As a well-known, albeit unconventional Evangelical, Hunter's prayer certainly raised more than a few eyebrows in the Christian community. The buzz concerned the all-inclusive nature of the prayer (especially the ending), something unheard of in conservative Christian circles. As one who has been called upon to pray in public for a wide variety of civic groups over the years, it has always been my conviction that I would pray specificially in Jesus' name, or I would not pray at all. In the explanation to Luther's Small Catechism we read that "Only those who believe in Jesus Christ may pray to God and expect to be heard." Aparently Evangelical theology is changing. The definition of God is now broad enough to encompass all faiths.

Here is a transcript of the prayer as taken from the DNC itself. What do you think?

Please stand. We are all here to devote ourselves to the improvement of this country we love. In one of the best traditions of our country, would those of you who are people of faith join me in asking for God's help?

Almighty God, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us a reverence for all life. Give us a compassion for the most vulnerable among us - the babies, the children, the poor, the sick, the enslaved, the persecuted. For all of those who have been left out of the advantaged world. Give us a zeal to clean the environment we have polluted while we create an economy where everyone who can work can have a job. Help us to honor those who defend our country by working harder and smarter for peace. Help us to counter those that incite fear and hatred by becoming people who are informed and respectful and are known for principles and projects that aim higher than our own group's benefit. Guide Barack Obama and all of our leaders to be agents of your will and recipients of your wisdom. And grant that all of us citizens will continually do our part to contribute to the common good by loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Now, I interrupt this prayer for a closing instruction: Because we are gathered in a country that continues to welcome people of all faiths, let us personalize this prayer by closing according to our own tradition. On the count of three, end your prayer as you would usually do. Amen! Let's go out and change the world for good!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

When Does Human Life Begin?

Why is this question so difficult? At the risk of sounding downright simplistic, would not the definition of the beginning of human life be the moment of conception? I mean, it's life and it's decidedly human. How else do we explain it?

Still, the confusion goes on. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently stated that she didn't think anyone can tell you when life begins, that is, human life. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama essentially dodged the issue. In response to the question of when does a baby get human rights, he stated that such an answer would be "above [his] pay grade." I'm not entirely sure what that means. Is he simply conceding the answer to God? If so, he's right in one sense. But the point here is that God has already answered the question. Life begins at conception.

And what about science for those who would cloud the issue by saying it's really all about religious views? In one of America's most prominent human embryology texts The Developing Human it is stated: "Human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to produce a single cell - a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual."

Where is the confusion here Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Obama? Is this human life or not? And if so, I would think that it should be protected. Or am I missing something?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mercy Journeys with Pastor Harrison

Check out the new kid on the Lutheran blogosphere block: Mercy Journeys with Pastor Harrison. Pastor Harrison is the executive director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care and author of the book Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith in Action (CPH).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What is High Church?

If you have hung around Lutherans for any length of time you no doubt have heard the term "high church." Like the term "liberal," it is not a label typically used for complimentary reasons, but rather to identify a group that is out of step with where they should be. In a church body such as the LCMS, where a declining and aging membership signals a need to change for the sake of survival, "high church" is a handy term to identify those who stand in the way of progress.

"High Church,"
actually, is a term borrowed from the Anglicans, and does not originate with Lutherans. Nevertheless, there now is an identified phenomenon known as "High Church Lutheranism." That having been said, however, the use of the term "high church," from my perspective at least, is overused and abused, especially as a way of pitting evangelism against ministry, and progress against stagnation.

"High Church," in common usage, now often refers to a church that uses the established hymnal as the normal source of liturgical material for Sunday worship, which prefers the singing of hymns in place of "praise songs," values the Lord's Supper as central to Christian worship, utilizes historic vestments on her clergy, maintains a decorum of respectful formality at the altar (as one who recognizes that they are standing in the presence of a Holy God handling 'holy things'), and whose pastors preach sermons that are driven by exegesis rather than felt needs. The term "high church" is now part of a grouping of words and phrases used to describe the great variety that characterizes Lutheranism today. Worship in one church could be described service-by-service as "blended," "traditional," and "contemporary," each being seen as normal Lutheran practice. The point here is to make sure the variety is excepted and even celebrated, or seen as a means to bringing a church fully over to "contemporary". But to insist that "traditional" forms are more faithful to Lutheran theology and practice is to earn the label "high church" immediately.

The unfortunate situation here is that what is now labeled as "high church" was once the expected Lutheran practice for all churches. Even in the late 60's when I was growing up as a child in the Lutheran church one did not see using the hymnal as being overly formal or unusual, but the norm of practice. Now a country church such as mine, where I lead worship from the current hymnal, yet without chanting (not that I'm against it, but you have to understand the situation here), wearing a cassock and surplice, celebrating the Lord's Supper on the first and third Sundays (which I would love to see celebrated each Sunday!), could be labeled as "high church." Yet compared to some Lutheran churches my practices would probably be seen as virtually "bronze age," not "high"; in other words, reflective not of the "smells and bells" ritualism one associates with a Tridentine Mass (a bit over stated, but you get the point), but rather with what many might remember from the old TLH days before the liturgical renewal hit full stride.

It is unfortunate that such differences have come to pass, and more unfortunate still that they are used to label people seen as standing in the way of evangelism. When did we lose faith that the Word really did accomplish that which God purposed, and instead came to believe it was up to us and our cleverly produced programs? As with politics, so with the church. Words will mean what those who use them determine then to mean for the sake of the argument of the moment. I only hope some will begin to see through the smog of rhetoric and see the realities as they truly are.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Novel on Muhammad's Birde is Cancelled

Books that slander the Christian faith and cast aspersions on Jesus himself seem to have little trouble finding willing publishers these days. Yet books that dare talk of Islam or its founder, even when they are not slanderous, would seem to be cautiously avoided. Such was the case with the almost new novel The Jewel of Medina by journalist Sherry Jones, a story of Aisha, child bride of Islam's founder Muhammad, five years in the making. The publisher, Random House, initially showed such excitement for the book that they gave Jones a $100,000 contract for not just this work, but for a sequel as well.

However, it only takes one voice of protest to stop the presses, and the voice of Denise Spellberg, who teaches Middle Eastern studies, was just such a voice. After reading a galley of the book she declared that the novel was a "declaration of war...explosive stuff...a national security issue." Random House eventually reached a "termination agreement" with Jones due to "cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."

For all the rhetoric about how violent and muderous Christians were during the Crusades (and that is a topic worthy of a separate discussion itself, not to mention a discussion of Islamic war and violence by its founder in their early history), I can't recall a single story about a similar book canceled in our day due to concern over "violence by a small, radical segment" of Christians. Why are there some Muslims that are driven to "acts of violence" when they believe their religion is somehow slandered or besmirched? It has been argued that the Qu'ran (Koran) does not condone violence of this sort, yet from where else could the inspiration for such acts ultimately come? Is this a political-nationalistic-ethnic kind of issue? Is it merely a matter of some radical Muslim theologians and religious leaders?

By the way, there is yet one last 'twist' to this story that is interesting in its own right. Shahed Amanullah, a developer in Austin who runs the website, noted that: "The thing that is surreal for me is that here you had a non-Muslim write a book, and you had a non-Muslim complain about it, and a non-Muslim publisher pull the book." Could it be that we are no so overly sensitized to offending, and so fearful of terroristic violence, that we duck for cover even when there is no apparent reason to do so? How sad that we have come to this point.

[There is an article at Wikipedia on The Jewel of Medina that provides additional background and information. Information for the above article was taken from the Chicago Tribune, Sunday, August 24, in an article by Erik Lacitis.]