Saturday, January 22, 2011

In Memory of the Unborn on the 38th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Following is the presentation I gave today for the Langlade County Right to Life:

Fifty years ago a single woman in California became pregnant unexpectedly.  She was in her early 30’s and thought she could not get pregnant.  She was divorced and certainly was not looking to start a family.  Most of her family lived far away in Wisconsin, and like many then she journeyed far west some years before to find new job opportunities.  At the time she was the manager of two very successful restaurants in LA.  Her baby was born late in December, 1960, and because she had smoked during the pregnancy the baby had a somewhat lower birth rate.  With a smaller cervical opening there was additional concern about her safety during the delivery.  Matters were complicated further when the baby came out with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck.  Less than two months later this baby would have emergency surgery to correct a double hernia.  Yet despite all this the child survived and grew into adulthood.  He later went on to school, earning a master’s degree, became a pastor and a father himself of three children, one of which may one day become a teacher to our future children.  The person standing before you today is the result of that unexpected pregnancy half a century ago. 
            In 1960, the year of my birth, there were only 292 abortions in the U.S., one hundredth of one percent of the population.  That statistic would skyrocket to over a million by the time I turned 15.  Today the lives of over a million unborn babies are still terminated annually, a figure that has stayed in the six digits now for 36 years, in large part because we legalized the procedure in 1973 in that infamous Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade, the anniversary of which brings us here today.
            I can only imagine how different my chances might have been had I been born today.  California currently accounts for more abortions than any other state in the union.  According to the CDC at least 80% of all abortions are performed on unmarried women.  The abortion ratio for these women is 510 for every 1,000 live births.  For married women it is 61.  I would have stood a less than 50% chance.  On average, women give at least 3 reasons for choosing abortion: 3/4 say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or other responsibilities; about 3/4 say they cannot afford a child; and 1/2 say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner (AGI).  I can only imagine what my chances would have been if I had been born today.
            I am here today purely by the grace of God.  Statistically some might say that the “odds were stacked against me”: single parent, unexpected pregnancy, health concerns for mother and child.  And based on how many might have grown up in similar circumstances, some may have predicted that I would become a problem child and grow up working my way through the legal system. My mother later remarried and I grew up with parents who were recovering alcoholics.  They met in a halfway house here in Wisconsin. Yet none of us became victims or just another sad statistic.  By God’s grace we studied and got degrees and held jobs and raised families and contributed to our churches and our society.  We were not perfect. Like many Americans we struggled with mental illness and substance abuse and disease and financial setbacks.  Still, we survived and thrived…by God’s pure grace. 
             Abortion is a tragedy that cuts short the potential of precious lives that might have had the same opportunities offered to me.  It’s an action that says nothing good can come of an unexpected pregnancy, that the future is too dark to take a chance on the possibility of an unwanted child, that we are better off making our own choices and controlling our own futures.  But are we?  I am but one living example of what God can do with a less than ideal situation, how God always remains in control and brings success out of what we consign to failure. Thankfully God was making the choices in my life.
            When I was married 23 years ago abortion rates were at some of their highest rates, over 1.5 million. They would peak to their all-time high three years later.  Even though my parents grew up and lived during some of the greatest wars of the modern era, I have lived in a time of even greater death.   During their lifetime a little more than half a million people died in combat operations.  My father fought in WWII, which accounts for most of those deaths.  Admittedly every casualty is a painful loss.  Yet since the legalization of abortion 38 years ago as many as 52 million babies have died to abortion.  The deaths in these wars equal only 1% of that total!  Still, these deaths are largely unknown to our communities.  It is a silent holocaust of our time. 
            I pray that in my children’s lifetime this unnecessary war against the unborn will cease and that we can again value life as the gift given us by God.  While laws to protect them are necessary, and I value the role our government can play in protecting all life, a complete shift in the attitude of our nation must ultimately take place if the trends in this last half a century are to be reversed.  The world has changed dramatically since I was born, and one of the things that changed was our view of life.  We have cultivated a culture of death. As a pastor I realize that the change in this culture can only come through the power of God’s life-giving word in Christ.  Only he can transform our world.  To that end I will dedicate my remaining years to proclaiming it and praying our nations hears.  

Let us pray.
Dear heavenly Father, in whom we have been given the precious gift of life, strengthen our resolve to speak for the silent voices of the unborn, to champion the right to life for all people, young and old, to stand solidly against a culture of death with a firm resolve to preserve potential for those yet to be born.  Let us reach out with your divine mercy to the struggling and suffering of our world that our example might allow a light of love to shine that will inspire others to hope in your limitless grace that transforms life through faith in the redeeming death and resurrection of your Son.  Be with us in this critical mission and let us never despair that with you all things are possible, that the future remains securely within your almighty hands.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.

President Dean Wenthe to Retire

Some of you no doubt have heard that the Rev. Dr. Dean O. Wenthe has announced his retirement as president of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne.  He has served "the Fort" as president now for 15 years, and at age 66 I can well understand why he would consider this move. Amazingly he has been in the ministry now for 40 years, having graduated from Concordia, St. Louis in 1971.  I remember him as a professor when I was a student there 23+ years ago, although I never had the privilege of studying under him.  He always impressed me as a very approachable and gentle man.  My last encounter with him involved introducing him to an ELCA pastor who now serves a congregation where he did his vicarage.  It was during one of the symposia a few years back and I wanted this young confessional ELCA man to have a chance to meet Wenthe.  Dr. Wenthe was quite gracious and willingly took time at this reception to visit with my friend.  In some small way I suspect it has helped in encouraging him in his long journey to eventually leave the ELCA one day.  CTS has been fortunate to have him at the helm these last several years.  Despite the sometimes unpredictable political climate in the Synod during his tenure, he guided the seminary in such a way as to ensure its continued valued place in the LCMS.  I pray that whoever follows him will serve "the Fort" as faithfully.  

You can read more about his retirement and service in the article posted January 19 by the Ft.Wayne News-Sentinel. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Doctrines" of the LC-MS: A Response

Lois Meyer Voeltz at The Creator's Tapestry has presented an article calling for a "conversation" on the topic of what the Missouri Synod teaches.  This post is my contribution, for what it's worth.  Ms. Voeltz writes:

The opening question for the New Year: how are the 'doctrines of the LC-MS' formulated? Is there academic/theological study, a vote by the Convention, are they mandated, or are they put into practice because of a tradition? A clear understanding of the process would be helpful.

Years ago, as the question of my particular understandings of 'LC-MS doctrines' was asked, the first thought was the Three Solas. That wasn't the correct answer! Instead the topics/doctrines were abortion, homosexuality, and women in public ministry. What a surprise.

Again, my question, how did these topics become doctrines of the LC-MS, with a very particular viewpoint?

This post is by no means an attempt to give a fully comprehensive answer.  That would require a book, or several.  However, a few initial observations are in order: 
  • First of all, the doctrines or teachings of the LC-MC are ultimately based on the Holy Scriptures and the Confessions of the Lutheran church as an exposition of those scriptures.  They are the fruit of more than two millenia of study by the great fathers of the church and the consensus of many church councils.  In other words, the various positions that the Synod has taken on such contested teachings as the ordination of women, homosexuality and abortion were not formulated out of thin air or concocted by a few men in a back room.  They are backed by a long tradition stretching even beyond the history of the Lutheran church. 
  • Challenges to the various "topics" Ms. Voeltz mentions have often come, it appears, out of changing social conditions and the desire of people to have the church embrace those changes.  As women became more involved in society, especially high positions of leadership in government and business, it seemed natural that they would assume an equal role within the church.  When abortion became legal and more widely accepted, it seemed natural that the church would also find it to be an acceptable option.  And then, with the increased acceptance of homosexuality in our country, a challenge was posed to the church:  why can't people of all sexual orientations participate as freely in the church as they do in society in general?
  • Thus, social changes have driven new interpretations or the search for them.  The LCMS, instead, has long desired that the church would follow where the Scriptures led, not the world, even if that meant we were seen as 'out of step' with the culture around us.  
One might debate the above, but I would encourage us to look historically at the church and see how these issues came to the fore only when the culture pushed them there.  For example, how could the church resist the ordination of women to the ministry for 2,000 years and only in our generation suddenly embrace it as if it was normal all along?  Likewise the other issues.  These circumstances should seriously be considered in answer to Ms. Voeltz's questions.  

Sunday, January 16, 2011

John Paul II and the Process of Sainthood

A January 14 story from RNS reports that the late pope is closer than ever to sainthood.  If I understand it correctly, he has cleared the next to last hurdle, namely that of beatification, a difference from canonization only in terms of the extent and place the person may be venerated and invoked in prayer.   This stage to canonization was accomplished with the confirmation of a French nun's recovery from Parkinson's disease after "praying to John Paul."   Being a Lutheran the whole idea and process of canonization feels foreign to my theological orientation, and not a little uncomfortable.  Although we willingly recognize certain 'heroes of the faith' by special commemorations in the church's calendar, calling some even by the title "saint" (e.g. Saint Peter), such is done in the spirit of honoring of memory and example.  While the Lutheran church does recognize that those who departed this life to be with Christ may indeed intercede for us, we have neither the command nor the invitation to initiate prayer directly to them.  Thus, as a Lutheran I respectfully offer my reluctance to connect the dear nun's intercessions and John Paul's saintly abilities.  That she was healed I need not doubt.  How and why she was is another matter.  My response is to give God all glory.

Despite my Lutheran hesitations on this issue, such does not disparage whatever good the late pope was able to accomplish in his life.  Again, this is not the issue, at least for me.  Without the invocation aspect of the cult of saints, sainthood seems to hold little necessity, for you do not need this designation to honor him.

Some are questioning that the process in John Paul's case is rushed and may set a dangerous precedent.  Pope John Paul II did, however, 'fast track' the canonization for Mother Theresa of Calcutta, already establishing the precedent for those figures popular with the masses.  Canonization, like many things in life, is filled with 'exceptions to the rule' and can be influenced by popular appeal.  Or so it appears from here.

In the end John Paul's canonization will have little to no impact on the Lutheran church, and our calendar, unlike that of Rome, will not change.  Nevertheless, the process itself remains a barrier of difference that separates these two communions and continue so.  I do not entertain the hope that Rome will ever change on this point, so I realistically realize that ecclesial union in this life is just as far from possibility as ever.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Nashotah Reflections

Last night I returned home safely from a very intensive week at Nashotah House Seminary.  Condensing an entire course on Romans into 20+ hours proved to be utterly draining, yet invigorating at the same time.  Dr. Anderson led us through what is undoubtedly one of the most challenging books in the New Testament.  No wonder so many have fought so many battles on its epistolary turf.  St. Peter's early comments that many in his time had already misunderstood his colleague Paul proves even now to be prophetic.  Nevertheless, what a glorious treasure trove of theological gems hiding within the apostle's robust letter! We were assigned two commentaries, one by Joseph Fitzmyer, as esteemed Jesuit scholar, and one by Leander E. Keck.  Both are commendable scholars, yet Fitzmyer's higher critical bent could not ultimately be hid, especially in his less than transparent comments on Adam in Romans 4.  Apparently he doesn't believe him to be a real person, although he believes Paul did.  I think.  Keck was refreshing in his effort to present Paul as quite Christocentric, although his choice of "rectifying" for "justification" seemed a bit awkward.  All in all, though, they are good resources to be used with the usual caution.

I have a few papers yet to write, and my plan for the final one is a review and examination of Luther's and Melanchthon's exposition of Romans 13:1-7.  This passage has historically been a foundational scripture for the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, and I am curious as to how they handle it, especially in light of modern exegesis as a comparison.  I am especially interested in examining Melanchthon, as his commentary was recently republished by CPH, and highly commended.

When I complete this course I will have but two to go to finish the degree.  I will take one this summer, and one next January.  In between I hope to begin work on my thesis.  Well, that's the plan for now.

I didn't think I would necessarily think too far beyond this academically, but I am beginning to seriously muse about doctoral work now.  I am looking, however, at the possibility of pursuing this work in England rather than the states.  Again, that's just 'musing' for now.  I still have a lot to complete before I can seriously entertain those options.....

Monday, January 3, 2011

May 21, 2011 - Mark That Date on Your Calendar - It's the End of the World!

Described as a loosely organized Christian group, several people united by radio broadcasts and websites are predicting the end of the world. The date? May 21. Exactly. Kind of risky, if you ask me, considering that Jesus Himself said that no one knows the day or the hour. Not to mention the fact that the return of the Lord in glory is pictured as a "thief in the night." Can you imagine a thief broadcasting the exact date of his break in? Well, considering that May 21 is technically the "Rapture," and that this misguided doctrine teaches a secret first coming of Jesus, then maybe the 'thief in the night' thing is kind of covered. Well.....

A major player in this prediction is a retired civil engineer named Harold Camping, the leader of the California-based Family Radio Worldwide, an independent Christian ministry. The 89 year old leader claims that the Bible functions as a cosmic calendar. Considering that he messed up by predicting the end of the world back in 1994, it is surprising any one is taking him seriously. He should stick to engineering.

You can read the longer AP story that describes how various followers are responding at this by going to this site. If you want to see exactly what Family Radio has on its own website, check the link provided above. By the way, Mr. Camping has an interesting way of getting around Jesus' words in one of his online booklets entitled "No Man Knows the Day or the Hour?" Talk about creative exegesis. Or should we say eisegesis?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

More Anglicans Head for Rome

According to an article in the January issue of Christianity Today, the Vatican announced in November that 50 Anglican priests, including five bishops, plan to leave the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI has opened a special clerical category for Anglicans who object to recent developments in the Anglican Communion. These "personal ordinariates" will let them retain many Anglican distinctives while belonging to a church that maintains opposition to female priests and gay clergy. In Baltimore, an entire Episcopal parish voted to switch to Catholicism for similar reasons.

(Note: For Episcopalians with a strong Anglo-Catholic contingent, such moves are not altogether surprising, especially since their worship practices are already quite Catholic. Although the Church of England has worked to strike a balance between their Anglo-Catholic population and that of the more evangelically-oriented, High Church priests would adapt quite well to Rome, from my observation.)

Top 10 Stories of 2010

Here is a brief summary of the top 10 stories from 2010 from Christianity Today:
  • 1 - Aid groups rush to help Haiti after suffering a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake, raising $750 million in a mere five weeks. The subsequent scandal over the Baptist missionaries' efforts to move 33 children to the Dominican Republic raises questions about 'amateur' aid.
  • 2 - Thousands of global evangelical leaders meet in Cape Town to discuss missions. Their gathering reflects a much greater global diversity than in the past. (See also the Wikipedia article on the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. LCWE was organized in part by Billy Graham in 1974 when some 2,700 participants and guests from over 150 countries met in Lausanne, Switzerland to discuss and promote evangelism.)
  • 3 - Word Vision wins its unemployment case in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It ruled 2-1 that the organization can fire employees who are not orthodox Christians. A loss could very well have caused great turmoil for faith-based organizations' hiring rules.
  • 4 - Midterm elections cut in half the number of pro-life Democrats in the House of Representatives. Activist groups claim the vote was a backlash against March's health-care reform bill, which also brought about new state abortion funding restrictions.
  • 5 - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Hastings College of the Law chapter of the Christian Legal Society. It said that the school's policy that student groups must open all positions to all students - even those who oppose the group's core values - "is a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition."
  • 6 - The Deepwater Horizon oil spill shifted the creation care debate. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary dean Russell Moore called it a "defining moment" comparable to Roe v. Wade, and oversaw a SBC resolution calling for "full corporate accountability."
  • 7 - American evangelicals found themselves at odds with African Christians over Uganda's proposed anti-gay bill, which would punish homosexual acts with life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
  • 8 - Prominent Old Testament scholar Bruce Walke resigned from Reformed Theological Seminary under pressure amid debate on the historicity of Adam. "If the date is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution," he said in a video for BioLogos, to deny that reality will make us a cult." (Note: See my earlier article "Dr. Francis Collins, Evolution, and the Continued Debate" from May 12, 2009 where I shared some information and commentary on the BioLogos Foundation. Read also the extensive dialogue that resulted in the comment section between me and some supporters of evolution.)
  • 9 - Christian Musician Jennifer Knapp announced that she was in a same-sex relationship, spotlighting questions of pastoral response to gay Christians.
  • 10 - Terry Jones, the pastor a small church in Gainsville, Florida, sparked worldwide condemnation when he threatened to burn a Qur'an (Koran). He later promised never to burn one.
For another list of top religion stories from 2010, see also the article at Religious News Service. They highlighted the continued abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, the election of a second openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, Robert Schuller handing over his Crystal Cathedral empire to his daughter after disagreement with his heir-apparent son and the subsequent filing for bankruptcy (see my own article "Even the Crystal Cathedral is Tightening Its Belt" from January of 2009) and updates on several well-known Christian leaders.