Monday, March 31, 2008

The Unfortunate Death of Madeline Neumann

The death of a child inflicts a uniquely heavy blow of grief. Yet such deaths become so much more painful when the death is preventable. Add to this a misunderstanding of healing and faith and you end up with a recipe for a most unfortunate tragedy.

A little over a week ago an 11-year old girl by the name of Madeline Neumann (also called "Kara") died from an untreated condition of diabetes. She died as her parents prayed over her expecting all the time that their little girl would recover. Contrary to usual stories of children dying due to medical neglect over faith issues, this couple was not a member of the usual cults that reject treatment, such as the Christian Scientists, or the Jehovah's Witnesses in the case of blood transfusions. The newspaper simply recorded that "The family believes in the Bible, which says that healing comes from God."

Since this was a local death (in a nearby city), we discussed it at last night's youth meeting along with the topic of healing and faith. I was surprised at how some youth members believed that there was a direct tie between faith and healing, in that people who are not healed would be that way due to a lack of faith. The pentecostal movement has long muddied these waters with claims of "faith healing," insisting that those who are not healed simply did not have enough faith.

Healing is a gift of God, an act of grace that falls on unbelievers as well as believers. Even in the days of our Lord's ministry healing was granted to people who believed along with those who did not demonstrate faith prior to the healing. Furthermore, people of faith may suffer greatly from diseases or disabilities, but this does not mean that God has abandoned them, or that they do not believe strong enough to find relief. There is mystery here. We do not always understand the reasons why one suffers and another recovers. We simply cling to the cross wherein we find our hope, and know that even in our weakness the power of God can be manifested. And we also look to the Day when our mortal bodies will be raised from the soil of death and decay, and renewed with life through the resurrected Savior we will find that promised healing which will never end.

I pray that Madeline's mother is able to discover the full truth even in the midst of her pain and loss, and in that Truth which is Christ, find the ultimate healing of forgiveness and new life.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Death of Death

Yesterday's Good Friday worship put me face-to-face with the reality of sin and death. The full weight of that ancient curse of sin rested fully on and in His tortured dying body. Yet before his last breath escaped the promise of new life emerged. It is finished. The mission to defeat sin and death was completed. In full. Their curse rendered empty. News of my uncle's death last night reminded me how much the comfort of the cross and the empty tomb means to the believer. Since the mid-80's my family has been affected by death again and again: uncle in '84, grandfather in '86, father in '88, mother-in-law in '99, uncle in '01, mother in '02, grandmother in '06, and now my uncle in '08. I know that I am not alone and many suffer the same grief. My uncle's death was especially difficult in that it was a sudden logging accident. All at once he was gone. No good-byes. No time to prepare.

Tomorrow, however, I will rejoice in the victory of new life, not in the defeat of death. St. Paul has assured us that the last enemy to be fully destroyed will be death. It's final demise is imminent. The shadow looms weakly for now, but the light of life in Christ has broken through and the darkness is retreating. As the baptized we were buried into the death of Jesus and raised with Him to newness of life. I live in the life of Christ in the midst of death.

As one of my favorite hymns declares:

I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still if Thou abide with me!

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies.
Heav'n's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
(Abide with Me, LSB 878, by Henry F. Lyte, 1793-1847)

A blessed Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord to all who pass this way. May the joy of His rising renew in you an undying hope in the gift of life in Him who died and rose and lives forevermore!

Friday, March 21, 2008

New Testament or New Covenant?

In the institution of the Lord's Supper Jesus instructs His church that "this cup is the new testament in my blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." Newer translations of the scriptures often translate the word diatheke as "covenant" instead of "testament." Footnotes will tell us that the word can be rendered either way. So which to use?

In all the hymnals I have used over my 20+ years of ministry the words of institution have always included the word "testament," obviously favoring the KJV translation and the subsequent tradition that followed, much like we have with the wording of the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm. However, aside from tradition, Martin Chemnitz, the great "father" of the Lutheran church, in his substantial defense of the Supper, based much of his argument for the real presence on the use of the word "testament."

Testament, as in "Last Will and Testament," underscores the weight we give to Jesus' words in the Supper, helping us to avoid slipping into the Reformed error of taking it symbolically. For in a Will the testator does not use symbolic language, nor does he leave his instructions vague and open for multiple interpretations. Rather, he is precise and exact, for what he is doing is far too important to risk that those who come after him will inject their own opinions into his final wishes.

The Reformed have traditionally insisted that the real presence is not reasonable, and that an interpretation of "this represents" is more logical. Yet if we seriously consider the true nature of our Lord as both true God and true man, the difficulties of taking his words as they are disappear. For we know that as God Jesus possesses all the divine attributes, including that of omnipresence. Having demonstrated his divinity on numerous other occasions, why should He now do something less than that in this most holy of meals? Thus, if it can be demonstrated that according to his very nature as God and man His words are consistent with that nature, then his final Testament must remain as written and not altered. If we give that much respect to the dead among us now, should we not afford as much and even more to our crucified and living Lord?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Case for the Crucifix

For those who observe Lent and Good Friday, this season of the Passion of our Lord brings the reality of the cross into full view. We cannot ignore it. All the pain and suffering is right before our eyes. However, as I intimated in a previous post regarding Holy Week, I sense that many Evangelical Christians are uncomfortable with this to the point they actively push it away. They sing of His atoning death, but they do not want any visible reminder of it. Thus, they make much about their preference for the "empty cross" verses the traditional crucifix well known to Roman Catholics and many Lutherans.

One argument is that "Jesus isn't on the cross anymore." True enough. But as one article pointed out in defense of the crucifix, Jesus also isn't in the manger either, yet we continue to put up Nativity scenes each Christmas. So why the singular rejection of the crucifix? Probably in part because it makes us uncomfortable. We cringe at death and suffering. And when we are uncomfortable with something we turn away and ignore it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Power and Confusion of Religious Symbols

As a pastor who is also a firefighter I understand the power of symbol. The same symbol can evoke both positive and negative reactions depending on the background or attitude of the person observing. But you can't entirely predict what that reaction will be. Wearing a clerical collar can get me cold stares or polite people holding doors for me. However, some objects with symbolic value do not necessarily bring out negative reactions. They simply identify, or so I thought. Like the Roman Catholic rosary, for example. At least until this latest trend picked up by the RNS showed differently.....

Police say rosaries are newest gang symbol
By Esmeralda Bermudez
ALBANY, Ore. -- Never did Jaime Salazar imagine that wearing a rosary-like crucifix to school would provoke a national stir. But when the 14-year-old and his 16-year-old friend, Marco Castro, were suspended recently for refusing to remove the religious beads because they were “gang related,” it thrust Oregon into the headlines and has triggered questions over the evolving role of rosaries in religion, fashion and street gangs. In the latest cultural take of a symbol that's gone from Catholic altars to Britney Spears' bosom, the rosary is blurring the lines of liberty and safety on campus. Some call the rosary-gang connection a stretch. But for educators and public safety officials charged with blocking fluid gang trends, rosaries in the past few years have become one more marker to track suspicious activity.

This brings up an interesting issue for society as a whole. If symbols are negatively used, or if they are adopted by violent and criminal factions, do they immediately become something to be legally banned? The cross, for example, has been used in countless places, including questionable tattoos, biker insignia, not to mention a certain socialist government from the 30's and 40's. Madonna has worn it in sexually provocative scenes, and it has been immersed in urine and called art. Yet the cross still remains a positive and universal symbol for the faith it normally represents.

Banning the rosary in schools because some gangs may use it is simply an unrealistic stretch, at best. Symbols are impossible to control, and one can not begin to predict how they will be used or interpreted. I remember some years back in my last parish where the public school asked that when we held their classes or events at our parochial school we should provide "symbol free environments." How do you interpret such a directive? In the end the personnel from the public school that came to our school did not have an issue with our "symbols" and we never covered them up or removed them. After all, they lived in a community that was full of it, and like most citizens they were free to ignore it, as many do every day they pass a church with a cross on the steeple.

So what are these administrators supposed to do with the rosary if it is true that some gangs have begun to wear them? Nothing. I think the issue is just another example of a society gone to extremes of paranoia.
BTW, the discipline and use of the Rosary has long intrigued me, but I have never figured out how one might adapt it for Lutheran usage. It would seem that it could have potential for the devotional life of Lutherans, but can a Catholic rosary be effectively "reinterpreted" to fit a different theology, or is it simply not doable? One purpose of the Rosary, as I understand it, is to provide focus to prayer. There is a more recent tradition of Anglican Prayer Beads (example to the right), which are based upon the Rosary concept, but assign different prayers, and leave the precise prayers to the discretion of the person. Darel E. Paul has actually worked out an interesting adaptation of the Rosary called the Lutheran Rosary. It's a pdf document that includes a helpful diagram of the traditional Rosary with an evangelical interpretation.

The Meaning of HOSANNA

We sing it Sunday after Sunday in the latter half of the Sanctus (L: "holy") prior to receiving the blessed Sacrament, but how many people honestly know what HOSANNA means? The same goes for Hallelujah ("Praise the LORD/ Yahweh"), or my favorite, Sabaoth (as in the older Sanctus, which means "host" or "company" in reference to the "angels and archangels" of the Proper Preface, and is often mistaken for the more familiar "Sabbath).

For my sermon this past Sunday I did some research on this word and was surprised by the variance in interpretation. The word comes from Psalm 118:25, which was chanted by the Palm Sunday pilgrims praising Jesus as he came into Jerusalem, and it means "save, now" in its basic sense. However, there is obviously more than one way to take this word.

One school of thought, which I found in many references, is that the people were in effect saying "God save the king!" True, the praises of this day are clearly messianic, and the titles ascribed to Jesus identify him as the Davidic King of Israel. This interpretation of hosanna goes counter, though, to the basic meaning in the original psalm, which clearly is a prayer for deliverance. Some English versions of the psalm include the word "us" (as in "save us, now, we pray"), although technically the Hebrew does not. Thus, it is possible in the one version where they chant "Hosanna to the Son of David," that it could be seen as a call of "God save or grant victory to the King!"

The fact that the Gospel writers transliterate, but do not translate the word hosanna, is indicative that there was a change in this word from the simple prayer of Psalm 118 to a more general declaration of praise. Psalms 113 to 118, often referred to as the "Hallel Psalms" because of their character as psalms of praise, were used liturgically at the great festivals, especially the Festival of Booths/Tabernacles, and the Festival of Passover, which is what frames the context of our Palm Sunday pericope. Thus, like our Hallelujah, the nature of Hosanna seems to have changed in its basically understood meaning from one time to the next, ending up as a more general ascription of praise.

However, I am not convinced that the change went from "save us" to "save the king." The context of the original psalm resists this, in my opinion, even when factoring in a shift in use. I found a sermon on this word by a Pastor John Piper that seems to effectively argue for a different kind of 'shift' in meaning. He contends that the word underwent a change from "plea to praise, from cry to confidence" in the sense that the "new hosanna," as he calls it, became a cry of praise similar to "Salvation has come!" Thus, one use (the "older hosanna") is a cry for God to save and deliver his people now, and the other a cry of thanksgiving and relief that this deliverance has arrived.

As I noted in my sermon yesterday, I believe both uses are appropriate in the Sanctus given its place in the Divine Service. Since we are drawn to the Supper where we encounter the living Christ in the bread and wine, and here receive the true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins, it is proper that we would pray in our approach that God would indeed "save us now." This is a means of God's grace, a sacrament through which, as Luther pointed out, we receive life and salvation. Still, we also approach the Table realizing that this salvation has come as an historically completed event. Thus, both hosannas, old and new, if you will, work well in the liturgical context of the Service of the Sacrament.

I am grateful, by the way, that our newest hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book, offers a small footnote of the meaning of hosanna right under the Sanctus. While meanings change, it is still helpful for our people to understand and appreciate these ancient words of worship.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Firefighter's Cross

[Note: A similar article to this will be shared with my department at their next meeting. During this Lenten season when we are meditating on the significance and meaning of the Passion of our Lord and the Cross at Golgotha, it seemed like one way to offer a witness to the department that captured their interest and yet was not too heavy.]

[Editorial Note: In response to a recent comment on this article I have made some changes to the original version of this article especially in regard to references to the so-called St. Florian's Cross. For any confusion the previous unreferenced information may have caused I apologize. I hope that the changes are satisfactory.]

In many ways the familiar symbol to the right requires no explanation. It is the universal insignia of firefighting nationwide. Yet the precise origins of this symbol are less clear. The most popular explanation proposes its beginning in the far distant past of medieval Crusaders fighting back the incendiary weapons of their Middle Eastern enemies in the Holy Land. Linking the symbol to the Maltese Cross of the Knights of St. John, they recall how these ancient warriors used this cross on their armor to identify themselves in battle. These brave knights, it is said, frequently risked their own lives to save another knight or to extinguish a fire. However the Firefighter’s Cross is actually not a true Maltese Cross and only loosely resembles the one worn by the brave Knights of St. John (as seen in the image below the Firefighter's Cross to the right.) It’s a nice idea to think that there might be a connection between these ancient knights extinguishing fires in time of war and the modern “warrior of the flames,” but the connection has never been proved. At the very least we recognize that modern firefighting is in the “spirit” of their work, if not a direct continuation of it.

Some have identified the Firefighter's Cross as the cross of St. Florian. Given Florian’s historic association with firefighting as its 'patron saint,' one can see how the connection was made. Jewelry with the image of St. Florian imposed on the Firefighter's Cross is often identified as the cross of St. Florian or even as a St. Florian Maltese Cross, but unfortunately without any firm historical proof. Florian (250-304 AD) was a soldier and high ranking officer in the ancient Roman army. He is credited with helping to organize and lead early fire brigades that defended the city of Rome from fire. Pictures often show him dressed in the distinctive green tunic of the Roman firefighter, with himself or someone else pouring water on a fire. One picture as seen to the right has him holding a cross with a cross-marked banner. However, the cross here is clearly a Latin Cross in his hand, and possibly a Greek cross on the banner, yet clearly not the one seen in the familiar firefighter symbol. Florian was an early martyr of the faith who was originally supposed to be burned at the stake, but was later killed by drowning because he proclaimed himself a believer in Jesus Christ. His service to his fellow man in fighting fires and his eventual sacrifice for his Lord are wonderful examples for the service even today, even if we cannot say that the familiar symbol's cross is his distinctive cross.

After all the research and investigation, the precise point of origin of this widely recognized symbol of firefighting remains shrouded in a mystery. We can conjecture, even draw some possibilities, but we may never know for certain. It may very well be unique with no direct ties to any other known form of the cross.

Nevertheless, what we do know is that whatever type of cross it is, it is a cross that was used. And it is very probable that this cross was borrowed from the religious realm, and not simply adopted simply for stylistic reasons. Given the inherent danger of firefighting it is appropriate for the firefighter to have such a symbol of hope and faith. When faced with the life and death realities of raging fires and other disasters, the firefighter realizes that they are not impervious to debilitating or even fatal injury. Disability and death are always a possibilities, and therefore so is the need for real hope and assurance of God's continued help and presence.

Thus, the cross first reminds the firefighter of what God has given to the world for their eternal salvation through Jesus Christ. It is the place where God’s Son died in payment for the world’s sins, that whoever believes in Him would not die forever, but rather receive eternal life. The cross, therefore, is the place where forgiveness was earned on our behalf, and this is especially important for those who work the front lines of great danger. Fire and rescue people know that the mistakes made in their work may have far more tragic results than for the normal citizen. They can too easily carry heavy burdens of guilt for failed missions. But in the cross they find full forgiveness and unconditional love from a God that accepts us in in all our imperfections and all our failings; a God that absolves us especially when we are unable to absolve ourselves.

And looking at the cross we thus see a powerful model of sacrifice that can be reflected further in our own work. Fire and rescue personnel are called to give of their time and energy and even sometimes their very lives, often without compensation or gratitude. By its very design it must be selfless and self-giving. The cross is a symbol of sacrifice, first that of God’s Son on our behalf, and secondly for the believer who gives in Christian love to his neighbor. In this way the work of both the Knights of St. John and Florian may remind us of this aspect of the cross in our ongoing work of fire and rescue work. We give of ourselves that others might live.

Aside from this, the symbols within the firefighter’s cross also hold additional meaning that should not be omitted. These are not religious symbols, but rather signify the work and readiness of the firefighter. The symbols as a unit are referred to as the “scramble,” are often part of various fire department insignia. The color red reminds us first of the fire to be fought and conquered, as well as the courage of the men and women who are enlisted in this fight. The trumpet represents leadership and is reminiscent of the early history of firefighting when officers had to communicate with these primitive types of ‘loud speakers’ to direct those under their charge. The helmet reminds us of safety, for although the firefighter often enters areas of great danger in which others would never dare to go, they are trained to take every precaution that those who leave for work may still return to serve another day. The ladder, pick axe, and pike pole and hydrant are all tools of the firefighter’s trade, and remind us that this is a highly specialized work requiring careful study and ongoing training on the part of every firefighter.

Although it was shown before that it is not possible to prove a direct link between the Maltese cross and our current symbol, traditions associated with the cross have nevertheless been carried over into the Firefighter’s Cross. In the past there was a tradition that has assigned various virtues to the eight points of the Maltese cross. Some see in its eight points the Beatitudes from the Bible. Others see in them the eight chivalric virtues of the ancient medieval warrior, which were: loyalty, piety, frankness, braveness, glory and honor, contempt of death, helpfulness toward the poor and sick, and respect for the church. There are more still. The fire service, however, while undoubtedly borrowing from these and others, appears to have assigned its own unique virtues as well, which are: pride, honor, charity, loyalty, gallantry, generosity, dexterity of service, and protection, especially of the weak.

Although it could be argued that this is not technically a cross, in the traditional sense of the word, it is the second most widely recognized symbol associated with fire and rescue service. A relatively new symbol, the Star of Life for Emergency Medical Services (EMS) was originally designed in 1977 by Leo R. Schwartz , who was then chief of the EMS Branch of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It came about after the American Red Cross, themselves represented by the cross symbol, objected in the early 70’s to the use of the Omaha orange cross on a white reflectorized background, which often appeared on ambulances. They claimed that it too closely resembled their own symbol. Each of the six arms of the star (or cross) represent features of the EMS work: detection, reporting, response, on scene care, care in transit, transfer to definitive care. The staff and serpent in the center of the symbol, which resembles the common symbol used in medicine, represents Asclepius, a Greek god from which people claimed to find cures and healing. *As an aside, the red cross used in the symbol of the American Red Cross association, which frequently works in cooperation with fire departments and other emergency personnel and organizations. The red cross was the original protection symbol for relief aid following the Geneva Convention of 1864, and is a reversal of the Swiss Flag (which is a white Greek cross on a red background) in honor of its founder, Henry Dunant, and his home country of Switzerland.

As a chaplain who proudly carries the cross of Christ on my uniform and my badge as a sign of hope and peace to all, I pray that this special cross which adorns our honored craft and work of sacrifice for those in need, might continually remind each firefighter of the unlimited grace and love of God in Christ Jesus which rests upon us and watches over us in oru hour of need.

Chaplain Don Engebretson
Town of Antigo Volunteer Fire Department

For additional reading regarding the background of this article see:
"The 'Maltese Cross' and Fire Service" by Mica Calfree

The members of TOA Vol. Fire Department (I'm in the lower right hand corner.)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Guilty of a False Defense

Northwoods Seelsorger has finally caught the attention of the press. Well, not the mainstream press, as such (I'm really not that important!), but at least a smaller religious weekly called Christian News. In an article from the February 25 edition entitled "The Jesus Hoax: the LCMS Teaching Incarnational Theology," author Jack Cascione accuses me of falsely defending "incarnational" as a valid word. For those who may not have read my original article responding to the issue (which he references), you may find it here.

While I am tempted to develop a detailed response defending my position, I am content to allow the original article to stand on its own. Not only that, the issue really isn't my own. I only responded. I only called for reasonableness. With all due respect I believe that Pastor Cascione has taken his concerns about this word well beyond the reasonable, creating an issue where none should exist. This is especially so when he equates the use of this word by those at the two seminaries as examples of false doctrine. To wit: "We now offer just three examples from the President of the LCMS and the Presidents of the two LCMS Seminaries describing Jesus as less than God" (emphasis mine; page 8).

I believe that the given presidents can defend their own words, so I won't take time here to do so. But lest Pastor Cascione think that I likewise am describing Jesus as less than God by merely using or defending the use of the word "incarnational," I recommend he reconsider how much he reads into what is not actually true. Such has never been my confession. Jesus is the true God, period. Enough said. It probably didn't need that much attention to begin with......