Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another Icon Passes

With the recent passing of Oral Roberts (1918-2009), I was reminded of the significant personalities that once impacted the religious landscape in my younger years. Growing up my parents would regularly tune into the Billy Graham (b. 1918) televised crusade, and like thousands of Americans had good Southern Baptist theology conveniently taught in our own living rooms. Graham, bar none, certainly ranks as one of the most influential religious figures of the previous century. Oral Roberts, while recognized today as "a towering figure in 20th century American Christianity" (AP, Eric Gorski, 12-16-09), failed to make much of an impression on my still very Lutheran family. He may have made Pentecostalism mainstream even before the Charismatic movement came into being, but it remained over the top for the religious tastes of the more staid Lutherans of the Midwest.

Other personalities, however, made greater and more positive impressions. Robert Schuller (b. 1926) and his Chrystal Cathedral brought the 'power of positive thinking' as a new gospel for Baby-boomers looking for 'religion lite.' D. James Kennedy (1930-2007), a conservative Presbyterian from Florida made his impression on Lutherans with his landmark Evangelism Explosion program, and also pulled off a very successful TV ministry for many years. Furthermore, Kennedy was one of the first to bring some literary substance to the newly discovered field of apologetics. Finally, one can hardly forget the forceful presence of Jerry Falwell (1933-2007) who married church and politics in a way previous generations would never have attempted. His "Old Time Gospel Hour" also provided a convenient conduit for Baptist theology to flow unhindered into many homes.

These men, in particular, defined the age in which they came in large part because they exploited, for good or ill, the newly discovered power of mass media, especially TV. Regardless of what we may say of their theology one can hardly dispute their mastery of persuasive public speaking. Pulpit craft for many years was influenced by their style, and I remember someone once telling me that Dr. Wallace Schultz even modeled his own speaking style after Billy Graham. Dr. Walter A. Maier, a pioneer in religious broadcasting on the radio airwaves, no doubt had his own influence which stretched far beyond the parochial boarders of the Lutheran church. Still, those who came later, and who undoubtedly built upon what he started, exploited the much more powerful medium of television, and remain now as giants in this field, far eclipsing those who came before.

Roberts, Falwell, and Kennedy, in particular, also exploited yet another area which guaranteed the perpetuation of their influence beyond their deaths. Each of these men was responsible for founding educational organizations that have evolved into well recognized and even well respected institutions of higher learning. Roberts, who completed only two years of college, founded the Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1963), the largest Charismatic university in the world. Falwell in turn also founded Liberty University in 1971, which is one of the largest Evangelical universities in the world today. Finally, Kennedy, the best educated of the group with an actual earned doctorate, founded Westminster Academy (1971) and Knox Theological Seminary (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) in 1989.

Three of the five men are now deceased, and the last two are retired. Graham at 91 is the same age as Roberts, and will certainly soon pass as well. An era has passed. Although it appeared at the time that their influence would produce family dynasties, it is now apparent that the progeny of the masters would never replace them or even measure up to them by the standards of that iconic era of TV evangelism. Robert Schuller was succeeded by his son, but his theology was too biblically based and too pop psychology lite for the father's taste, and was soon replaced by another. While the sons and daughters of the others have attempted to fill the gap of their fathers, they can never capture the charisma these men once had. Preaching continues, the universities grow and expand along with their various evangelistic organizations, but the era has come and gone.

Now we must deal with a new generation with such influences as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, among others, who like the icons of that former era continue to leave their mark on our Lutheran landscape. Their influence is great, spread now largely by books and tapes and a medium the giants of the past could only have dreamed of - the internet. In each era, therefore, faithful Lutheran pastors must remain vigilant to the powerful influences that invade the lives and homes of their flock. And in being aware he must be even more committed to teaching and preaching in a way that addresses these new errors.

P.S. Here are two posts by me that provide additional information on some of those mentioned above:
The Rev. Jerry Falwell Died Today at Age 73
Dr. D. James Kennedy Retires

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

ELCA Synod Declines to Adopt Recent Denominational Deceisions on Gay Clergy

Apparently the ELCA is far from unified when it comes to the recent denominational decision for full inclusion of active gay clergy. According to a report dated December 11, the bishop of the Northeastern Synod of the ELCA (the equivalent of the president of a district in the LCMS) has decided to pass on the new guidelines and stay with policies adopted in 1990 where "ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual relationships." Obviously the home office is none too pleased and openly wonders how a denominational leader such as a synod bishop can just choose to ignore the denomination's official policy. You can read the whole story here from the Worldwide Faith News archives.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The "Worship Wars" are Over?

According to Jesus First author David S. Luecke, the "worship wars" have now come to an end. Just like that. Really?

In his November article he claims that they came to an end in the "
eight theses on worship unanimously approved by the Council of Presidents in their September meeting." (The COP's "Theses on Worship" can be found here.) With the stroke of a pen all concerns regarding the fidelity and faithfulness of worship practices synod-wide came to a happy end. Well, maybe that's overstating the issue....

Still, to make a broad-brushed statement that the so-called "worship wars" of the Missouri Synod "are over" based simply on a series of theses by the Council of Presidents
is to overstate an issue itself. What Rev. Luecke fails to appreciate is that the situation that gives rise to conflicts over worship, both in the Synod-at-large, and in the parish, is not about appreciating our freedom to use different forms and rites. What is not at issue is not that you modify Matins for your local parish or that you print out the Divine Service and make substitutions for certain liturgical portions. What is at issue is that too many churches abandon the liturgy altogether and conduct worship no different than what we might find at the local Baptist congregation or Pentecostal assembly.

That these situations persist in a church body professing itself to be Lutheran is not only unacceptable, but in need of protest as long and as often as is required before someone will finally listen. While Luecke seems so intent on protecting the parish's freedom to choose its own forms and rites, he misses the point that in the process the infrastructure of the liturgy itself is disappearing.
As he notes, one of the theses cautions that “great care is necessary in choosing forms, rites, and ceremonies because they either support or hinder true worship. There are no ‘neutral’ forms.” (Thesis V) This is the heart of the issue. And as long as there are those in a church body such as the LCMS that insist that worship is so 'neutral' as to jettison the liturgy itself, there will be some contentious 'warfare' in our discussions and meetings as we contend for what is so utterly important. This, as the COP has indicated, is not a debatable issue. It is an issue of faith. And that is worth fighting for.

So, with all due respect, the "worship wars" are not "over." Those contending for fidelity to the hymnal and our traditional forms (with freedom to adapt as necessary) as a sign of unity within a denomination may be too often shut out of the discussions and decision making, but we dare not confuse this silence as a laying down of arms. We are quietly holding the lines in our own parishes, attempting to retain the tradition for another generation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pastoral Stress

As multiple deployments of military personnel continue to Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more reports filter back concerning the rise of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in our troops. It stands to reason that these men and woman cannot receive repeated trauma and not react both physically and emotionally. It all builds up over time.

Given the title of this blog article I do not want to insinuate that much of the normal stress endured by pastors is comparable to the overwhelming stress of a battle environment. My point, however, does concern a difference between normal working stress and the kind of stress that is serious enough to eventually result in physical and emotional harm. With training in CISM I recognize that sometimes 'critical incidents' - incidents that are more intense than normal - can and will be life-changing and personally destructive if ignored and left unattended.

Many outside of the immediate working of the pastoral ministry probably do not realize the potential for such stress in the life of their shepherd. They may marvel at times how he seems to deal with death so professionally, or navigate congregational conflict with such calm, that they believe he is untouched by the events themselves. But he isn't. He may be able to distance himself emotionally from the event at the time, allowing an emotional 'buffer' so that he can function. However, back in the quiet of his home or office with time to process the events, he may begin to eventually feel the accumulated burden of what he has carried.

One area that exacts so much toll on pastors, yet is probably too often ignored, is inner church conflict. Unlike the parishoner who blows up at a meeting or storms out of your office, pastors, by and large, do not feel the luxury of allowing themselves to lose control. Instead, they absorb the energy of the anger and frustration, attempting to patiently listen and empathize, yet all the while the intensity within begins to reach dangerous levels. Yet all that we know about stress tells us that the worst possible thing to do is to internalize it. For when we do this, it will express itself elsewhere, usually in inappropriate or hurtful ways. Do we wonder why the marriages of pastors too often suffer the same fate as those in the rest of the community? One might pause to look at what unresolved stressors are affecting his and his family's life.

The pastor's family often absorbs the stress of the parish right along with the pastor. They, too, feel limited in how they can express their own frustration and anger. Living in the 'glass bowl' of the parsonage they feel on regular display, many observing how they will deal with their lives. It is a mixed blessing to be in such a position. On the one hand one has the opportunity to model Christian behavior to those who need to see how one can live our Christ in their family and community. On the other hand pastors and their families are also quite human and have the same emotional needs as others. Finding appropriate venues to express these remains an ongoing challenge.

Pastors know that in accepting the mantle of their office they accept the burden of their calling as well. By and far they are no given to 'whining' or complaining about the weight they carry. In fact, most, like traumatized veterans returning home, will even go to great lengths to avoid talking about it. So many others need their listening ear and understanding presence. How can they be so selfish as to burden others? Furthermore, their churches need their steady leadership in the midst of the tumultuous storms of parish life. Someone has to be calm when others are losing their cool.

Yet stress is stress, and untreated will harm the person enduring it. Much over the years has been written about pastoral burnout, but one wonders if much has been done to address the underlying causes. It's not just from being too busy, although overwork will take its toll in time. The problem is that buried frustration, fear, and anger. That is the hidden culprit. Hopefully most pastors have opportunities at winkels to 'vent' and receive brotherly encouragement. My guess is that many do not. But to let these emotional ghosts drift unseen is to welcome eventual breakdown. I am encouraged to hear of some who are addressing these matters, not least of which is DOXOLOGY. May many more pastors be able to take advantage of these opportunities to release and heal. The church depends on it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Can You Speak of the Church without the Threefold Order?

Having just taught a Bible class last night on the structure and teaching of the Catholic Church, I took a moment this morning to go over to the blog of Daniel Woodring, former LCMS pastor now turned Roman Catholic. His latest post concerns information about the clerical structure of the church as indicated by church father Ignatius of Antioch. The good father, in referencing the typical order of bishop-presbyter/priest-deacon claimed that "Without these three orders you cannot begin to speak of a church." Mr. Woodring (I assume he is no longer in the "orders" of which he writes) notes that if Ignatius was wrong, it is quite surprising, given his relationship to the apostolic church and his status, that no one corrected him. He then says: "You may reject the threefold office, but you cannot avoid the question, 'Why didn't the early Church reject it?'"

I am well aware that for the Catholic church the outward structure defines and identifies what is considered legitimately "church" (as opposed to the biblical Lutheran view that the church is identified by the "marks" of Word and Sacrament.) In fact, the RC church goes a step further in claiming that without the pope there is no legitimate church. I suspect that Ignatius, writing in the second century, didn't anticipate that, although the RC church no doubt simply puts the pope in the "first order" of bishop. To be truthful, however, the pope is an order unto himself. He may sometimes be referred to as a 'first among equals,' but in practice I fail to see the equality.

Still, what are we, as Lutherans, to do with Ignatius' claim and Woodring's challenge? Does the Lutheran church truly "reject" this order? No, we do not. Luther was more than willing to live with the entire ordered structure of the late Medieval church if only the bishops would be the pastors they were supposed to be, instead of political leaders into which they had evolved.

The historical reasons for our current structure in the LCMS are a bit complex and beyond this brief post. However, in many ways we have retained the structure, even if we do not always use the exact titles. Is it right to read the current RC structure as it exists today back into Ignatius? I would think not. The Lutheran church recognizes Ignatius' concerns in that it has always claimed that you cannot talk of the church without the public office of the ministry (contrary to some claims within the Lutheran church notwithstanding.) It has always acknowledged the order of laity and called servants of the Word. And as Woodring rightly admits, the terminology in the New Testament is 'fluid.' A careful read of St. Paul will reveal that there is anything but a rigid and set definition of the terms then employed in the sense that the RC church now insists. Lutherans, for example, recognize that "bishops" are synonymous with "presbyters." In Christian freedom (and that is the operative word - freedom!) we are permitted, as need arises, to order the church with increasingly complex structures, or to remain as simple as a little rural church requires. I cannot see in Paul any insistence on the exact structure now seen in the RC church (And we haven't even dealt with matters such as archbishops and cardinals.) Furthermore, in fairness to Ignatius I suspect he did not visualize the complex ecclesiastical bureaucracy that has now emerged claiming apostolic legitimacy.

For the record, I, as a Lutheran, do not "reject" this structure. I also believe that I can remain true to Ignatius' concerns in the current order we now observe, where the true office of bishop - a churchly office of Word and Sacrament ministry - is mandated within each parish, along with the other supportive structures as well which carry on the time-honored duties we associate with the deaconate office.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

How Do You Know When a Church is Dying?

"The church is dying!" a concerned member declares. And who feels they can argue? Average attendance is down considerably from those past glory years. The Sunday School looks quite a bit smaller than it did a generation or so ago. It seems that there was more energy, more enthusiasm, more sense of mission in those 'old days.'

Are these then the irrefutable signs that a church is on its way to closing the doors for good? In popular models of the church numbers are especially key. When attendance goes down along with general membership, so does the hope of any meaningful future. Other signs are rather subjective, and depend on one's definition of "exciting" or "enthusiastic."

I am hesitant to even attempt to define what it means when a church is dying. For starters, can we impose a certain number of criteria apart from a reasonable view of the church's historical context? In others words, is it fair to nakedly assess a church's future based on a chart-like comparison where 'up' is good and 'down' is bad? Is is possible that congregations instead have a history that comes in 'waves,' some rolling in high swells, and some, just as in life, dipping deep into the darker recesses of suffering and struggle?

As I look at my own rural parish I realize that numbers will never truly tell the story or future of this little corner of the Kingdom. Built and planted over 120 years ago as concerned Lutherans attempted to minister to increasing numbers of those carving out a place in the Northwoods to farm, the congregation grew naturally right long with those burgeoning farm families. At its peak it was not uncommon to see a household of as many as 14 children. Can you imagine the kind of Sunday School you could have with such 'mega-families'? Yes, 50 or more children in those days was not at all uncommon. Youth groups really never required recruitment. They were the expected part of what then formed the center of the social activity of those days.

Times, of course have changed. Radically changed. Families are smaller. Much, much smaller. Farms are fewer. Many other activities compete for the attention of young people that couldn't be imagined in those simpler times. Morals are often in shreds, the world having crept in the back door of a generation that enthusiastically embraced it and all its enticements. We battle new demons in these days. Demons that seem more sophisticated and crafty than before. Now it seems that we can be in the middle of a bustling city yet feel like we are a lone outpost in the prairie. Indeed, we are cultural outposts, for a culture alien to our ancestors have since surrounded us and left us as islands.

Yet still we do not die. Babies continue to be brought to the font to be given new life in Christ. Marriages continue to be blessed at the Lord's altar. The sound of children still resonates in the basement hallways as teachers patiently attempt to teach them for one more hour. True, we are older and fewer. But we are still here.

How does one gage life and death in these cases? If life is of Christ, we must start with Him. Is Christ still proclaimed? Is His life-giving flesh still offered in the Blessed Sacrament? Are children still buried in the tomb of the watery grave to be raised to new life through Christ? If all this is true, then life is present.

Quite often a doctor will listen intently to a faint pulse, but will not declare the patient deceased. He wouldn't even say the patient is dying. It would be unthinkable. Why then would we want to declare a church dying if the pulse of her activity at a given moment seems weak and difficult to hear to our sometimes poorly tuned ears? Bombarded by the loud, harsh sounds of our culture we lose the ability to feel the softer vibrations of genuine living reality.

Any time we attempt to call the moment of death in a church we risk making the wrong call. God does not need large wealthy congregations, or buildings flush with people and activity. He can use these things, but He is not dependant on them. He also is know to allow his children to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, so that in faith they might learn anew, grasping only the cross for comfort, that He is with them, and they will not fall.

So for today I'm not going to think any more of what it means when a church is dying. I guess I'm no longer sure if it's a question we can even ask.

Friday, October 23, 2009

When Interpretations Differ - To What Authority Do We Appeal?

Christians often disagree in how they interpret Scripture. Sometimes these disagreements are minor and fail to rise to any level of concern. They can safely "agree to disagree" without compromising the integrity of their faith. On other occasions the disagreements set two interpretations against one another with the claim that those with whom they disagree are teaching "contrary to the Word of God." At this level it is impossible to "agree to disagree," for the integrity of the witness is at stake.

Yet how do Lutherans resolve such differences? With our historic teaching that "scripture interprets scripture" does this not place us in a 'no win' position of having in the end to embrace both views? Roman Catholics can appeal to the magisterium of their bishops to resolve the differences as they in turn appeal to the ancient cannons of their teachings. But Lutherans do not appeal to anything 'above' the clear Word of God. God's Word is the final authority.

The Lutheran Study Bible has a helpful note on dealing with this subject in the introductory articles at the beginning of the Bible. Under "How to Read and Study the Holy Bible" on pages xxvi-xxx, the general editor outlines some very instructive points, such as the Scripture focuses on Jesus Christ, the Scripture agrees with itself, the scripture is understood through context, etc. However, even when these principles are used, how does one deal with the potential problem of the 'renegade interpreter' who pits himself against the generally accepted teaching of the church? Under the section entitle "The Holy Spirit Leads Us to Confession of Faith with the Church," the editor writes:

Never imagine that believers exist without the Church...When the Holy Spirit calls someone to faith, He likewise calls that person to serve in the congregation of the faithful (2 Tim 3:16-17). A Christian should not set out to interpret Scripture by himself, in isolation from other believers. God's people meditate on Scripture together (1 Tm 4:13) and interpret Scripture in view of Scripture.

Life together in the Church requires unity, because people cannot dwell together long without agreement (1 Cor 1:9-10).....[The editor outlines the various 'confessions' the church has developed over the centuries to guide the Church and address abuses, then share the following.] ....The need for these "rules of faith" should call us to humility, to acknowledge that our own reason, experiences, interests, and opinions are distorted by the effects of sin. Just a surely as a child needs the faithful guidance of parents and teachers to learn how to read new believers also need the community of faith to learn how to read the Holy Scriptures. Even Jesus - the Word of God in the flesh - humbly listened to the teachers at the temple in Jerusalem (Lk 2:46). the creeds and confessions are a written record of how God's people faithfully interpret Scripture."

1 Corinthians 10 and Those Who Wish to Commune at Conflicting Altars

The most difficult aspect of the close(d) communion practice in our churches usually comes with the presence of a prospective communicant from another Lutheran denomination, especially the ELCA. Many people accept the fact that it is not appropriate for Catholics or Baptists to present themselves at our altar. But Lutherans from other denominations present a unique and thorny issue for the pastor. Where should the faithful pastor turn for support?

Exegetes readily admit that Paul's words in 1 Corinthians do not directly address denominational membership as we currently understand it. How could they? The church, thankfully, was yet one. Unfortunately the temptation exists to brush away our need for faithful fellowship at the altar by utilizing the seeming silence of scripture as our escape clause. Furthermore, it is argued that membership in a congregation that happens to belong to another denomination does not automatically imply that the prospective communicant possesses the confession of that church body. To a degree there is truth here. We do not deny the reality of 'felicitous inconsistency' where many a Lutheran possesses an orthodox understanding of the faith while belonging to a heterodox church body.

However, do we simply overlook this and disregard their denominational affiliation? No. Pastoral care exceptions aside, the public participation of a Christian in a congregation with which they hold formal membership does involve them, even unwittingly, in the errors of that church. And to what scripture do we appeal? My suggestion is that 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 is our firmest ground in this case. Now I can already hear the protests since Paul here is talking directly about those who participate in pagan rituals and worship while at the same time presenting themselves at the Lord's Table. Are you saying that the ELCA churches are demonic altars? No. My point here is that Paul clearly shows how the involvement of a person in the sacrificial worship of any religion is a real participation (communion) in that faith.

I make this first point because the argument is often put forth that a person's involvement or association with the ELCA does not connect them in any way with the errors of that church. To the contrary, participating in a church that teaches error connects you intimately with those errors whether you intend it or not. Thus, when talking about error and falsehood in the church as much as the demonic deceptions of the pagans, Paul's instructions are clear: flee! One could imagine a Christian of the first century arguing with Paul trying to convince him that being at the pagan temple was just a social thing, and that he was in not danger of straying from his Christian faith. He could do both, no harm. Paul, however, would warn him that his confidence was overstated and the danger was real.

Furthermore, the issue of unity is also at stake. In the same context Paul states: "Because there is one bread, we the many are one body, for we all share in the one bread" (vs. 17). A careful examination of the first chapter of 1 Corinthians will reveal the divisiveness already present within the Corinthians congregation and Paul's call for unity. They are lining up in differing factions. They are embracing contrary teachings. All this is unacceptable. That unity is now further threatened by the careless participation of some of its members in the religious rites of the neighboring pagan temple.

When a person tries to maintain their participation in two churches that teach different doctrines and are not in unity of faith, is this really any different? In our individualistic culture today we loathe the idea that the actions of those with whom we might associate could be connected with us. We are 'free agents' accountable only to ourselves, and if we must, directly to God on our own terms. It is as if the church hardly exists in this cases; merely me and Jesus is all that counts.

We must hold people accountable for the confessions with which they associate themselves. If they don't believe what a given church teaches, then leave. You have a choice - and a responsibility! If you want to fellowship at my altar, then sever yourself from the demonic errors that you have become connected with, even if unintentionally. This is for the good of your own faith, not just the integrity of the church's public witness.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Close vs. Closed Communion?

When debates rise about the fellowship policy of the LCMS with respect to participation in Holy Communion, inevitably we are subjected to the supposed semantic distinction of "close" vs. "closed." Often in synodical literature the word is merged into one with the "d" encased in parentheses, indicating that understood properly the words are synonymous.

Try convincing anyone of this who is committed to a "functionally open" policy and you encounter a losing battle. Unfortunately language has changed and along with that the older word "close." Dr. Kurt Marquart in his article "Gold, Silver, and Bronze - and Close Communion," notes:

Actually "close" is simply an older form of "closed"-as in "close carriage." So, despite the touching stories that have been made up about "close" communion-and why that is so much better than the "exclusive," and therefore politically incorrect "closed" communion-the fact is that "close communion" and "closed communion" mean exactly the same thing. The opposite of both is "open communion," not something like "distant communion"!

Unfortunately many pastors in the Synod long ago began making the unfortunate distinction between these words, forever contaminating their use.
Personally I am done with the words. They only end up in a losing debate, for the person proposing an open practice will always appeal to the more modern understanding that "close" has nothing to do with "closed."

I commend the article referenced above for your complete review. Marquart was my professor at seminary, a man for whom I have the greatest respect.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Catechesis: The Quiet Crisis

In recent discussions at my church on the subject of close communion, one thing has become increasing apparent to me. We have a crisis in our church body and the 'ground zero' of this crisis is in our ongoing failure of catechesis, the work of teaching and passing on to our people the faith once delivered to the saints. To that end I would like to commend to you a past article from the Concordia Theological Quarterly out of CTS-Ft. Wayne. It is an article from 1992, written by a then young pastor by the name of William E. Thompson, entitled "Catechesis: The Quiet Crisis."

DayStar Is Back - Did You Miss Them?

11 days later they have reappeared. The website is back up and unchanged. What is kind of interesting to me is that in that week and a half of their absence I failed to find any indication at all that anyone noticed - or seemed to care, at least not openly. And I checked the areas where much of the Lutheran chatter occurs these days.

Perhaps their disappearance and the apparent cyber-silence surrounding it sends a quiet message that their influence may be very small and on the decline in the Missouri Synod world. I can only hope.

Since I began blogging three years ago I took it upon myself to monitor the sites of those pushing for liberal change in the LCMS (specificially Jesus First, DayStar, and Voices/Vision). What is curious is the disproportionate amount of space and time confessional-conservative writers openly devote to the issues affecting us compared to those on the other side of the spectrum. I say "openly" because I suspect that there is a lot more chatter behind the scenes on private list serves which are very carefully guarded to keep conservative voices out.

Voices/Vision, the site which openly champions women's ordination in the LCMS, in fact, has not been 'updated' since 2006, making reference to upcoming overtures to the 2007 convetion without any follow up to inform how they were passed. DayStar's articles still date back to their 'Easter' issue of this year. Only Jesus First updates their site on any seemingly regular basis, and then generally becomes far more active only when we are getting close to a national convention (since they are truly only a political organization working to keep conservatives from any influence - For example, see my article "Jesus First Gearing Up Again" from March of this year.) DayStar's links are rather out of date as well. Quite telling is the one to the Charismatic group Renewal in Missouri, which links to a place since shut down. In fact, are they unaware that RIM is no longer an active organization in the LCMS, having 'published' their last newsletter in September 2005? Perhaps I should contact Rev. Wyneken and tell him that if anyone really wants information on RIM they should go to this site instead (although it appears no one really cares or he would have changed it by now.) Their link page, also, has not been updated since 2005, and shows reference to the 2004 LCMS convention as their last noted convention. Even Voices/Vision is more current.

The leadership of these organizations is obviously aging, and that in itself may indiate the lower level of activity. Rev. Delbert R. Rossin, the 'director' for RIM Leadership, currently serves as an associate pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, technically responsible, however, for their satelite church in Rome. He is a 1963 graduate of Concordia-St.Louis, so I suspect that with 46 years in the ministry he is probably now partially retired. Rev. Karl Wyneken, webmaster for DayStar, is retired, having been out of active ministry since 1998. The folks who ushered in the Charismatic Renewal Movement in the 60's and 70's, and the Seminex folks who broken rank in the early and mid-70's are a graying group. The graduates who trained under those professors who remained post-Seminex are now in their 40's and 50's and are moving into higher levels of leadership in Synod.

One wonders just how much influence these sites really have in the broader world, and whether they serve any purpose remaining on the web. Other than me does anyone bother even checking on them? Jesus First, of course, remains a force to be reckoned with, and they continue in their firm commitment to orchestrate the political structure of Synod to keep things comfortably in a moderate zone, tolerant of all things except that which seems too far to the right.

I'll keep my eye out nonetheless to see what they are up to as they publish from time to time. You never know when a pleasant surprise will occur.

For anyone interested in my past ramblings about the periodic writings or issues connected with DayStar and its writers (espeicially Dr. Matthew Becker, Rev. Robert Schmidt, and Rev. Karl Wyneken), here is a list to consult from my blog:
Seminex Grads and DayStar (August 29, 2009)
Close Communion and DayStar (May 2, 2009)
Roland Allen Republished: A Response (June 7, 2008)
Women Pastors in the LCMS? (August 14, 2007)
The Order of Creation (January 30, 2007)
Ecumania (January 3, 2007)
The New Agenda for the Synod: LWF (December 18, 2006)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Was It Blood or Did It Only Look Like Blood?

Recently I heard about a question regarding one of the notes in the new Lutheran Study Bible that caused a bit of a stir. So, I looked it up to see for myself what it said. In Exodus 7:17 the Lord instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh that when he struck the Nile with his staff the water in it would "turn into blood" (ESV; NIV - "changed into blood"). The footnote referencing this verse in the LSB reads: "The same sense as Jl 2:31, where the moon is to be turned into blood; thus it was not a chemical change into real blood, but a change in appearance, possibly because of red algae. The Admonitions of an Egiptian Sage (late third millenium BC) refers to the Nile as being turned into blood." Now admittedly I have always believed that the water of the Nile did in fact turn into the substance of blood. This was new to me.

I was curious, though, whether the idea presented here was new to biblical interpretation in the LCMS. Maybe I just missed this over the years. So I went back and checked the last study Bible, the Concordia Self-Study Bible from 1998, a Lutheran edition of the original NIV Study Bible. The study note on this same verse reads: "The first nine plagues may have been a series of miraculous intensifications of natural events taking place in less than a year, and coming at God's bidding and timing. If so, the first plague resulted from the flooding of the Nile in late summer and early fall as large quantities of red sediment were washed down from Ethiopia, causing the water to become as red as blood (see the similar incident in 2Ki 3:22)."

Now I had two explanations, both of them, however, claiming that it was not actual blood, but the appearance of blood caused by other "natural events." One said it could be "red algae" and the other "red sediment." I have to admit that the absence of the claim of "supernatural events" puzzled me, despite the claim of these things happening "at God's bidding and timing," or the LSB claim that "A natural chemical phenomenon was immediately intensified and precipitated by the hand of God." Either way God's hand would be involved, especially since all life and existence exists purely by his power and according to his divine will. Still, there is a difference between "natural" and "supernatural," the later clearly being outside of the usual and expected course of events.

Going back in time one more step I also consulted CPH's Concordia Self-Study Commentary from 1971/1979. On this verse Dr. Walter R. Roehers, who was also part of the Concordia Self-Study Bible project, notes that "The Nile, Egypt's 'lifeline,' turned into bloody sewage. At an abnormally high flood stage it carried with it so many particles of fine red earth and microscopic bacteria as to render it 'foul,' undrinkable, and deadly to fish" (p. 66). Both explanations are combined here: organic and non-organic. Yet, they are also more natural than supernatural.

Finally, I went all the way back to 1923 to the beloved and well-used Popular Commentary by Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann. Kretzmann, surprisingly, claims that the water of the Nile was to be turned into blood and "not merely be given a blood-red color through the presence of microscopic animals or particles of red clay, but actually be changed into blood, that the river throughout the length of Egypt would flow with the liquid which commonly pulses through the arteries and veins of men and beasts" (p. 124, vol. 1).

Interesting. One might have claimed at first that Kretzmann would not have had the scientific awareness of the possible natural causes back in 1923, but he is clearly aware of them. Nevertheless, he sides with the supernatural explanation, now presenting me with two conflicting interpretations. Somewhere between the early 20's and the early 70's the interpretation underwent a change. But why? Was the explanation of a "God directed" natural clause more plausible to modern understanding than a purely "supernatural" one? Yet why did Kretzmann, aware of these alternate explanations reject them out of hand? I have to admit that with this brief investigation I am left with more questions than answers, and a bit of new concern. Perhaps someone else may have an explanation of the change in interpretation that I have missed.

Note: All four of these sources are still carried by Concordia Publishing House, although the last one by Kretzmann is now part of the new "print on demand" service as referenced in the above link. One might also note that the entire Popular Commentary is now available online through the Kretmann Project. For some further reading on the above topic and verse one might consult "Did the River Nile Really Turn to Blood?" by Wayne Jackson.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

BOD Offers FAQ Sheet on the KFUO-FM Sale

KFUO-FM Sale “Frequently Asked Questions”

October 9, 2009

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s Board of Directors offers this “Frequently Asked Questions’’ document to provide additional information about the recent sale announcement of KFUO-FM to Joy FM. More questions may be added in the future if necessary. If, after reading this document, you have additional questions or concerns, please contact the LCMS Church Information Center at 888-THE-LCMS (843-5267) or at

Who is Joy FM?
Joy FM is a station that currently broadcasts Christian contemporary music over two frequencies (97.7 FM and 94.1 FM) in the St. Louis area.

What is the timetable to transition the station to Joy FM?
On October 6, 2009, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and Joy FM announced an “asset purchase agreement’’ to transfer ownership of KFUO-FM from the LCMS to Joy FM. However, no change will be in effect until the Federal Communications Commission approves the sale. We expect the approval within six months.

What happens to the call letters?
As a term of sale, the LCMS will retain the KFUO call letters.

What are the details of the “agreement to sell’’ including the selling price?
The sale price is $18 million, plus interest scheduled over the 10-year term, for a total of $26 million.

Was this the best offer?
This was by far the most attractive offer received by the LCMS.

Will the sale affect KFUO-FM’s current classical music format?
KFUO-FM will continue to play classical music until the final closing, which we expect will occur with FCC approval. Joy FM currently broadcasts Christian contemporary music and is expected to continue that format on 99.1.

What effect will the sale have on employees of KFUO-FM?
We are an organization that values our employees and takes no delight in making operational and ministry decisions that negatively impact employees. At this time, there will be no changes in employment. We are exploring ways to continue classical music programming in St. Louis. Until we know more, we cannot make definitive statements about employment. If employees are displaced after the final closing of the sale, the LCMS will provide those employees with transition assistance, just as we would if any other employee’s position was going to be eliminated. An initial meeting was held with employees, and future meetings will be held to keep employees informed.

What happens to KFUO-AM?
The LCMS will continue to own and operate KFUO-AM, the world’s longest continually-broadcasting religious radio station. The station will continue to uplift and inspire listeners with inspirational Christian radio that includes on-air talk shows, Bible studies, and discussions of modern issues from a Christian perspective.

Why is the LCMS selling KFUO-FM?
The LCMS Board of Directors routinely evaluates church assets and makes regular stewardship decisions about the best ways to fund mission and ministry. This decision comes after a thorough evaluation of assets in light of the best ways to fund LCMS mission and ministry. Proceeds from the sale will be used to fund new opportunities for mission and ministry, including broadening the use of technology to proclaim the Gospel worldwide.

Is this sale a sign the LCMS is struggling financially because of the country’s economic decline?
No. This sale is intended to enable the LCMS to pursue new and exciting opportunities in the area of electronic communication that can be used to accomplish our mission: In grateful response to God’s grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacraments, the mission of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is vigorously to make known the love of Christ by word and deed within our churches, communities and the world. Discussions about the possible sale of the station began before the economic downturn occurred.

Were there others interested in purchasing the station?
Once the board’s interest in selling the station was made public, the LCMS received dozens of inquiries from individuals, groups, commercial and specialty broadcasters, and media brokers.

Did the KFUO Radio Arts Board make an offer to purchase the station and if so, why was this offer not accepted?
The LCMS met with and conversed with representatives of the KFUO Radio Arts Board on multiple occasions. The arts board expressed an interest in purchasing the station, but its most recent proposal was to buy KFUO-FM for $4.1 million, leaving the LCMS with minority ownership and bearing all operational costs. Clearly, this was not viable.

There have been allegations of secrecy regarding the decision to sell KFUO-FM. Was information about the decision to sell the station made public?
The Synod’s board has been open about its intentions regarding the FM station. Since as early as February 2008, this item has been on the board meeting agenda. Minutes from board meetings are posted on the LCMS Web site, the LCMS newspaper Reporter – which is provided free of charge to every pastor and teacher of the church and to certain congregational lay leaders – carries news of board meetings and “Board Briefs,” a regular insert that summarizes board activity. Also, at various stages, information regarding the sale of KFUO-FM was shared with several groups of church leaders, including the presidents of the Synod’s 35 districts and the Board of Regents of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

Was the LCMS only interested in selling the station to another Christian broadcaster?
No such limitation was ever imposed.

What about the board’s statement of being committed to providing uninterrupted classical music, as discussed at its August 2009 meeting?
As part of the asset purchase agreement, Joy FM has agreed to purchase high definition broadcast equipment for our use for the next two years. The LCMS is still working out the details of how to provide classical music on the station’s HD channel (99.1-2). The LCMS also is investigating a way to provide classical music at another location on the FM dial.

Some people believe HD has little if any future. Is this a viable possibility?
Some experts – and listeners – believe HD radio provides an unrivaled listening experience and that it just has not truly caught on yet. In fact, Microsoft has just launched the first portable media player that combines a built-in HD radio receiver and HD video output capabilities that some are calling revolutionary. While special equipment is required in order to listen to HD radio, the receivers are relatively inexpensive to purchase. There are at least two dozen HD broadcasters in St. Louis already, including KMOX Radio, the leading station in the St. Louis market.

How long has KFUO-FM been broadcasting classical music?
KFUO-FM “CLASSIC99’’ aired its first public broadcast in 1948. KFUO’s FM and AM stations aired simulcast programming until 1975 when the FCC began requiring stations with multiple frequencies to air separate programming. At that time, KFUO-AM committed itself to Christian talk programming and KFUO-FM began broadcasting all classical and sacred music.

Is this sale a sign the LCMS does not care about classical music?
The LCMS considers it an honor and privilege to have provided the St. Louis community with classical music for the past 34 years. We value the heritage of the station and the support the station has received through the years. We are especially grateful to the station’s listeners, patrons, and corporate partners for their generous support.

Martin Luther often referred to music as a gift of God, a gift that can proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ’s salvation of all people. The heritage of Lutheran church music owes much to classical composers, such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Music is an integral part of the Lutheran faith. In no way does this sale diminish our church body’s appreciation for classical music.

Was KFUO given as a gift for evangelism and not to be resold?
Three legendary Lutheran men – Dr. Walter A. Maier, Rev. Richard Kretzschmar, and Dr. John Fritz – began operating KFUO-AM in 1924. In 1926, the KFUO license was given to the LCMS, and the station became an official LCMS entity. KFUO added the FM channel in 1948. The church is free to sell the station, if so desired.

KFUO-FM Sale: Editorial from Board of Directors

October 9, 2009

Letters to the Editor
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
900 N. Tucker Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63101

RE: “Missouri Synod agrees to sell KFUO” - Oct. 7, 2009

Dear Editor,

The ongoing news coverage of the sale of KFUO-FM has been disappointing in its lack of completeness. There is significantly more to the story than has been reported.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s (LCMS) Board of Directors is elected by convention delegates and is responsible—on behalf of the 2.4 million members of the church—for conscientiously evaluating the assets of the church to determine how best to use those assets to further the proclamation, mission, and ministry associated with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Synod’s board has been open about its intentions regarding the disposition of its FM station. Since as early as February 2008, this item has been on the board meeting agenda. Board minutes are made public by posting on the LCMS Web site and summaries are reported in the board’s insert “Board Briefs” to the church’s newspaper, Reporter. At various stages, information regarding the sale of KFUO-FM has been shared with several groups of church leaders, including the presidents of the Synod’s 35 districts and Concordia Seminary’s Board of Regents. All of this refutes the ongoing allegations of secrecy regarding the decision to sell the station.

There have been numerous allegations that the LCMS would not meet with certain potential buyers. This is demonstrably untrue. The LCMS has been accused of not providing term sheets to certain potential buyers. No one received a term sheet because one was never developed. This has been explained time and again.

The LCMS received dozens of inquiries and expressions of interest in purchasing KFUO-FM from commercial and specialty broadcasters as well as media brokers. The only organization the board approached regarding submitting a purchase offer was the KFUO Radio Arts Board, which was notified the day after the LCMS board determined to move forward with seeking a buyer for the station. No one—including the KFUO Radio Arts Board— offered more than Joy FM.

Beautiful music is indeed a gift from God. The heritage of Lutheran church music owes much to classical composers, such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Music is an integral part of the Lutheran faith. It is our desire to continue providing classical music for our community’s listening pleasure if we can, and we are working to explore alternatives regarding broadcasting over a high-definition channel and perhaps farther up the FM dial through a radio translation system.

The LCMS appreciates being a member of the St. Louis community. St. Louis is the center of the church’s worldwide operations, and we employ nearly 600 local citizens.

We consider it an honor and privilege to have provided our community with classical music these many years. We value the heritage of KFUO-FM and are immensely grateful for the support the station has received. We are especially grateful to the station’s listeners, patrons, and corporate partners for their generous support.

We appreciate the opportunity to provide this information so that your readers may know these additional facts. The LCMS is involved in myriad national and international mission and ministry endeavors. We praise God for providing this means of additional resources for reaching the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ.


Dr. Donald Muchow
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Board of Directors

Friday, October 9, 2009

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed - Part 2

Some reading this post may honestly wonder: Where is "Part 1"? - Especially if you have not followed this blog for very long. "Part 1," as such, was my original article on the Ben Stein film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," posted on July 9, 2008. It received a surprising total of 23 comments, a record unmatched by subsequent posts on this blog. My suspicion is that it was more or less 'hijacked' at the time by some who were actively searching out blogs and sites that positively supported this film, defensive of its claims for Intelligent Design, and its critique of the modern scientific enterprise as it exists in mainstream academia today.

At the time of the original posting over a year ago I had yet to see or view the film, as I willingly admitted. This evening, thanks to my son who secured a copy for us to see from an inter-library loan, I finally watched the entire DVD along with my son and wife. Indeed, it is a powerful and convincing documentary, in particular with respect to its critique of the philosophical closed-mindedness of the Evolutionary luminaries, Richard Dawkins being chief among them. I now understand more clearly the defensiveness of the comments to that original blog article, since Ben Stein strikes directly at the heart of a system that sees the scientific enterprise with respect to Evolution and origins as a closed box where the fundamental questions are all answered and debate is meaningless. To openly question Evolution, or aspects of this view, is seen as scientific heresy, or to put it the way Dawkins might, sheer lunacy or idiocy. Stein's willingness to entertain thoughts on the implications of Evolution to society itself was also hard hitting, especially the parts examining the Nazi regime and its devotion to Evolutionary belief.

I stand behind the original blog post and second the observations made at the time. More than that, I now heartily recommend a viewing of the film for anyone interested in seeing behind the veil of political correctness as it has hamstrung the scientific world today. Watch it for yourself and see if Mr. Stein's clarion call for freedom does not awaken something in you as well.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jesus First - New Articles

Jesus First, the political arm of the moderate and liberal wing of the LCMS, has posted two new articles for October. Same message, however. Interesting defense of what it means to do politics in Missouri. Do you suppose this defense applies to the more conservative part of the Synod? Also, do they ever critique the current administration? Do they ever honestly question any of the directions given from the International Center? Or is everything that comes out of St. Louis untouchable regarding debate? Oh, and I wonder what the thinking is these days regarding the rather clandestine sale of the Synod's venerable 60+ year old radio station KFUO by the Board of Directors? Sounds like Dr. Paul Maier certainly is not pleased. Think this will get any coverage at Jesus First? I'm not holding my breath.....

Is DayStar Gone?

In my periodic check of the DayStar site ( I was startled to see the site missing, and in its place the following message: "This domain is parked, pending renewal, or has expired. Please contact the domain provider with questions." Perhaps they simply forgot to send in the check. Or maybe they are moving on to something else. Seems unlikely. They would never go away that easily. We'll just wait to see what comes.....

In Hollywood Moral Standards are Simply a Waxen Nose

In Hollywood sex is simply something to be used, abused, and exploited. Seeing it as a gift of God to be cherished and protected within the sacred bonds of marriage remains an entirely foreign and despised c0ncept. The circumstances under which one might scrutinize whether a particular sexual behavior is right and moral depends entirely on the personality in question. Enter Roman Polanski, the great film director who admitted to unlawful and inappropriate sex with a minor over 30 years ago who he drugged in the process. Who then fled the country to avoid punishment. And who now wonders why anyone feels a need to prosecute him all these years later. Along with 110 other Hollywood stars who recently signed a petition opposing his arrest and extradition back to the U.S. "Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by the decision," the petition reported. Their outrage was directed at the fact that authorities would have the gall to arrest such a famous person at an event where he was being honored.

Now let me get this straight. Because Mr. Polanski is famous, and because he is admired by many in the film industry, one should treat him with greater deference when it comes to serious crime. We all know that if a normal unknown citizen of the country was convicted of the same crime the outrage against them in the media would be deafening. Yet if the man is a president, or a film producer, or a star, the standards change. Just like a waxen nose, twisted to suit the desires of the moment.

The issue of Mr. Polanski's overdue arrest highlights in bold colors the heart of the issue many of us face in our culture and time when it comes to sex. Many, if not the vast majority, who come to me to be married today are openly living together. What dismays me most of all, though, is the seemingly indifference to the divine moral standard that used to govern and protect marriage and its gift of sex. Has the world so entered the church that the simplest of moral standards no longer apply? Also recently noted in the news is the furor over the David Letterman and the extortion case. Now there are some who are wondering about the possibility of sexual harassment on his part. Yet Letterman, even while he seems to be admitting his sin, is also making light of it at the same time. The world will quickly forgive and forget the affair, realizing that sex outside of marriage under any circumstances is simply the way we live today. A desire to be fulfilled. Then move on to the next "partner." Stay clear of commitments. Be careful of making too many promises. Sex is just a physical release and is little different than stopping by the local bar for a drink after work.

The church exists within a very different culture than was known by our forefathers. Out task to let the light of God's Word shine remains a difficult calling.

How Far Apart We Really Are

Over at the Crossings web site of Ed Schroeder an article is posted that demonstrates so well the differences between the ELCA and LCMS today. In "In Washington, Missouri too -- It's a Time for Confessing," Robin Morgan responds to an ad placed in a local newspaper by LCMS clergy wishing to clarrify the differences between the two denominations, especially in light of the recent decisions at their national assembly. The Missouri pastors specifically enumerate the doctrines they wish to confess, while the ELCA pastor wishes to counter with an "actions speak louder than words" approach by elevating their work among the poor and disadvantaged. Not once does she address the core issues that truly separate these two large Lutheran denominations. In fact, she even defends the "open communion" practice so prevelent in the ELCA. It is as is she says, "Those issues (such as gay clergy, abortion, higher critical approach to the scriptures, etc.) are incidental. They don't matter as much as what we do on the streets for those in need. We are are welcoming church. You simply close doors." How sad that she doesn't really understand the need to clearly confess as well as to care. One goes with the other. They are not mutually exclusive. Also, one can care for the poor and still end up denying the Word and jepordizing the eternal welfare of people in the process. How sad she cannot see this.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Creeds and "creeds"

In the Catechism we learned about God and the story of salvation from a statement of faith as old as the church itself. Generation after generation it was passed down, each era adopting it in continuity with the one before. Of course the Baptists and like-minded Evangelicals balked at these so-called "man made" statements. They wanted Scripture alone. Never mind that the Creed merely presents a summary of what the Scriptures proclaim. They remained unconvinced.

Then some years back the Lutheran church became infected with a strange tendency not so much to reject the Creed, but to alter it. Interestingly, this movement was born not of concerns with the theology within, but out of a need to be relevant, to have variety for the masses that bored of the same old thing Sunday after Sunday. Creative Worship, a worship tool used widely within the LCMS, once produced these creations with regularity.

This past week I discovered again that the movement to produce new creeds remains alive and well within my own church body (not that I truly doubted it ever went away.) Considering that the creeds in our official confessional documents are referred to as "ecumenical," thus noting their historical universality, the writing of local creeds only reinforces a suspicion that our unity is barely skin deep. Are we any longer bound by a common confession of a common faith? On paper, perhaps. But in practice? I have my concerns.... Each man does what is right in his own eyes, just like we read in Judges.

Read the following "creed," and if you are so inclined, give me your own assessment. I know that its various additions and omissions gave me great concern, and I am left asking once again, Why? What is so inadequate about this ancient confession (Apostles' Creed) that we feel compelled always to change it?


We believe in God, the Master Builder, who created and still holds title to everything in the heavens above, on the earth below, and in the oceans deep.

We believe in Jesus Christ, God's beloved Son and our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, lived the life of a humble Servant without limit, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. The third day the Father raised his Son from the dead, and declared him Lord over the universe, time, death, and eternity. He will make his presence among us visible again on the Day that God has appointed, and then welcome us into his eternal kingdom where he will care for us forever!

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, which is the fellowship of forgiven saints who are striving to represent Christ to the world in our words and works of love. We believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

By the way, I did a search of this "creed" through Google, thinking it may have been borrowed from elsewhere before being used in the service I attended, but alas, the search came up empty. Which makes my point once more that creeds are "ecumenical" by design, not local or parochial. What value is there to publicly confessing something no one else subscribes to?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart

After it arose in an on-campus Bible study, my daughter suggested that I address the question here in a blog article. Since the Northwoods Seelsorger loves the opportunity to ruminate on deep theological issues, he couldn't resist the temptation to oblige. The question at hand - "Did God harden Pharaoh's heart?" - presents one of the classic dilemmas of biblical interpretation: the potential contradiction. I say 'potential' because it appears as such without taking into consideration the entire context of the passage in question, as well as what has historically been called the analogy of scripture (or analogy of faith), that is, the interpretive rule of allowing the entirety of scripture to interpret and inform itself.

In the book of Exodus we read of how Pharaoh, supreme leader of Egypt, is progressively offered the mercy and grace of God through the ministry of Moses, only to spurn it in the end in confirmed unbelief. Specifically, it is said that his "heart was hardened." That is, his resolve to do and believe what he wished was firm and unyielding. He refused to change. Theologically, Pharaoh was simply impenitent. He shut himself off from God and His Word. His choice, his will.

There is a progression in the hardening of Pharaoh's heart that leads up to the passage in question (Exodus 9:12), which is a critical consideration for understanding what is happening. Let us first consider the following passages as our context:
Exodus 7:13 - Pharaoh's initial confrontation with Moses. Even though Moses prevails over Pharaoh's court magicians, the Bible says: "Still, Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them." He will not listen or respond to the truth, even when it is so plain and clear to see. He has already closed himself off from the beginning. Unbelief is unreasonable and irrational.

Exodus 7:22 - The first of 10 plagues has been visited on Egypt (the Nile, the source of life itself to the Egyptians, is turned into blood rendering it dead to life), sending a clear message from God that He wishes His people to be freed. But, as this verse indicates, "Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said." Second chance is rejected.

Exodus 8:15 - When God visits the land with a second plague, namely the invasion of frogs, Pharaoh panics and calls Moses in to plead for mercy (vss. 8ff). By God's grace and mercy Moses pleads before Yahweh, and indeed the frogs are taken away. However, "when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said." Notice that Pharaoh hardened his own heart!

Exodus 8:18b - Now even Pharaoh's own magicians recognize that these events are from the "finger of God." Yet, as predicted, "Pharaoh's heart was hardened...." Nothing changed. He wouldn't even listen to his own advisers, who as unbelievers themselves can see the plain truth.

Exodus 8:32 - It seems as if Pharaoh is finally softening, as he initially gives permission for the Israelites to go into the wilderness to worship, as was requested. Moses pleads with God to take the swarm of flies away, which He graciously does. Still, no real change: "But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go." Again, Pharaoh is hardening his own heart, even in the face of God's mercy.

Exodus 9:7 - The Fifth Plague breaks out with a death of the livestock in the land. Five plagues to convince Pharaoh to change his mind. The result? "But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go."

Exodus 9:12 - It is only with the Sixth Plague that we now read the passage that "the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh." Six times he was given an opportunity to change his mind (the first being before the first plague.) As the Lutheran Study Bible comments: "The Lord confirmed Pharaoh in his persistent unbelief." Was this an act of divine judgment? Very much so. Yet it came, as all of His judgment do, only after a period of mercy and grace. Pharaoh had many chances which he spurned and ignored. God did not single Pharaoh out to deliberately harden his heart, he merely allowed him to remain what Pharaoh had already done to himself. Although the time of mercy remains in this world to preach the Gospel so that hearts are turned to the Truth and thus brought to faith, God will not forever tolerate stubborn unbelief. Eventually his judgment will allow the person to remain as they wish. As C.S. Lewis once said, the gates of hell are locked from the inside. We seal our own judgment by the free will of our own unbelief. The judgement is that God allows it to be, He is not the original cause. This is the sense of what it means that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" after it is abundantly clear from several verses prior that Pharaoh had already done it to himself.

Exodus 9:34 - This time it appears that despite what occurred in in the previous account, Pharaoh now repents: "This time I have sinned," he told Moses. So again Moses pleads with God for mercy. Again God grants the request. And again - you guessed it - Pharaoh forgets and goes back to where he was before: "But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had ceased,he sinned yet again and hardened his heart...So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened..." Was Pharaoh truly repentant as it originally seemed? Hardly. The fruits of true godly repentance would not be to return to immediately return to the sin when the consequences were lifted.

Exodus 10:16 - The same pattern as with the 7th plague, but now with locusts. - "I have sinned," Pharaoh again says. "Now therefore forgive my sin..." Yes, it says a second time that "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." However, don't lose sight of what is going on here. Pharaoh is not a repentant man. He's playing games with God. He does what he does only for his own good. This is not a confession of faith and it is plain to see.

Exodus 10:27 - Once more we read "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." Pharaoh's response to Moses is absolute rejection now. He banishes him from his presence. He tells him he never wishes to see him again. "As you say," Moses replies. "I will not see your face again!" The days of mercy have ended. Pharaoh shut the door in God's face.

Exodus 11:10 - The last instance where we read that "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." Yet it is noted that "Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh." He was given repeated opportunities to see God's work and respond. Jesus once said that He had to work while it was day, for the night was coming when no man can work. The "day" for Pharaoh came in the first six plagues. The "night" came in the last ones. But God's grace and mercy are never lacking.

The analogy of scripture, also reminds us in places such as Ezekiel 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:3 that God does not desire the loss of the wicked. He has no pleasure when they perish. He yearns for their salvation. God is not a God who desires eternal separation from His creation. He is governed by love and mercy. Yet, He is also governed by divine justice. Sin can be forgiven, but if faith be not present and forgiveness is rejected, the person is finally lost in the self imposed hell of unbelief; he faces the consequence of his own sin, willingly rejecting a mediator or substitute to pay the price. The Father has given to us in His Son the way to salvation. This offer of atonement is for all, none are excluded: "For God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son..." (John 3:16).

The story of Pharaoh in some ways is a foretaste of the latter days in which we now live: "Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars who consciences are seared..." (1 Timothy 4:1,2). we know that as long as time remains so too does the opportunity to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ for the salvation of unbelievers. Still, the tragedy is that many will seal their own fate in this life long before they die. They will close the door of mercy and turn their backs on God. After a time God will simply leave them to be. Even in the time of Jesus when He sent out the 12 and the 72 on their missionary journeys, He informed them to "shake the dust from their feet" if the occupants would not listen. The Gospel would not come their way again. That is the worst judgment of all.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Religious News Service Blog

If you enjoy keeping up with religious news around the country and world, you would do well to check out the Religious News Service blog. Especially noteworthy is the recent addition of their daily "religious round-up" which presents a quick summary of newsworthy items of interest through the world, along with links to the full stories. Of particular interest to me this week was Thursday's article "Is religion a dead beat?" Apparently major newspapers continue to drop religion beats as budgets suffer in this down economy: "Newspapers across the country have been eliminating their religion beats," Stern wrote Tuesday on his Journal News blog, called Blogging Religiously. "It seems that religion is seen as a ‘soft news' beat and a luxury at a time when newspapers are emphasizing breaking news on their websites."

The Blessings of Being a Pastor

As pastors we often complain about the burdens and dysfunctions of the church. Dealing with sinners in a sinful world presents untold challenges and frequent heartache to those who serve. Many a day we simply wish to quit and leave it all behind. Unfortunately the dark side of church life and the realities of our people's struggles too frequently predominates in our minds. It clouds over the joys and blessings that come from the Lord of the Church who has given us an incomparable privilege to labor in His vineyard as undershepherds of the Good Shepherd. So today I wanted to simply pause in my own journey to give thanks and reflect on the equal, if not surpassing, number of blessings overlooked in the process of slogging through the difficult labor of shepherding the church.

This morning I made a visit to the local hospital to see a mother and her newborn child. It occurred to me in leaving that as a pastor I have the unique privilege of entering into the most private moments of people's intimate lives, often in ways others never know. I stand with them in the difficult moment of death to comfort them with the truth of eternal of life in the risen Christ, often assisting in carrying out their earthly remains as my final act. I celebrate that same gift of life by the font of Holy Baptism, being the hand that has the high honor of pouring water on this tiny head through which God works faith in the power of His Spirit. A few days ago I officiated at a wedding as well, and had the opportunity to present Christ as the model of their love, setting the tone of their future marriage. What a great gift to be the one who brings the Word of Christ into so many personal moments of life. In times of acute crisis and in times of pure joy I share the sorrows and joys of living with people who have become my friends and family in Christ. We share each others sufferings. We support each other when faint. How easy it becomes to lose sight of these simple realities. How easy it is to allow the frustrations of failure to block out faith in God's hidden and effective work among us.

May the Lord of the Church renew in me daily a joy of service that sees in each act, no matter how humble or small, a precious opportunity to live the reality of Christ in this troubled world. And may He strengthen my spirit to maintain the fight when the struggle against the forces of hell are so fierce that I am tempted to lay down my sword and surrender. To be a pastor is a holy calling for which I am not worthy, yet one for which I should offer constant thanks that the Lord chose me from among many to be His prophet in a difficult day. Thank you, Lord, for this honor. Forgive me my weak and self-serving tendencies. Strengthen me through your Word and Sacrament, that I will be found faithful in the days yet to come. I commit myself unto you assured of your never ending sufficiency. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Harmony Always Harmony?

According to Jon Coyne of Jesus First, this past year's cycle of district conventions demonstrated a rare image of harmony in Synod. He pointed to the election of the district president by affirmation in the California-Nevada-Hawaii convention as a prime example of "speaking as one in a positive way." With the election safely passed, he further remarked that "The days of that convention flew by without the discordant sounds of argument and contentious vote."

Now I am the first to be pleased with meetings free of rancor and disagreement. After all, as a pastor, I have lived through too many of these. On the other hand, I must wonder if a meeting completely free of disagreement is always good. By this I mean that when a meeting "flies by" without a single dissenting vote one begins to question whether anyone is paying attention. So often I have seen meetings begin and end quickly without any questions for the single reason that it was late and people wanted to go home. They didn't want to do the hard work of getting to the truth of the matter. So they slid by the easy way just to get to the end of the meeting.

Sometimes the "discordant sounds of argument," as unpleasant as they are, reflect people needing to find the truth and combat error. Using the word "argument" unfortunately casts the entire matter in the most negative light. It seems that every time people disagree the immediate label is "argument and contentious." Emotions inevitably rise as people contend for the truth. Such emotions easily become mistaken for sinful anger. Yet such need not always be the case. Anger surfaced in our Lord as He witnessed the desecration of "His Father's House." Would we dare to label His actions that day as "discordant sounds of argument"?

I fear that the vision in some quarters today casts the ideal future of the Synod largely as one happy family where no one ever dares to disagree. As many know this is still the sign of a dysfunctional system. Harmony for the sake of harmony merely reflects the desire to avoid confrontation. It does not contend for the truth. Hopefully the Synod will not repeatedly frown on the desire among some to press for the truth even when it makes them uncomfortable. We need these voices. Otherwise we will simply slide by into the pleasant white light of oblivion.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Reserved Parking for Handicapped Clergy?

The other day when I went to the hospital for a visit I naturally turned into the reserved spot for clergy. However, I wasn't sure what to do when I got there since they had painted these nice new handicap symbols on the pavement right on that spot. To the left of this picture there is another sign indicating that handicap people were to park to the left with an arrow pointing in the opposite direction of the "Clergy Parking Only" sign. Faded handicap symbols were also still visible on the pavement in front of that sign, so that now all four parking slots seemed designated for handicapped only. When I brought this dilemma up to the folks inside they theorized that maybe this was only for handicapped clergy. Ok......