Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Noticer

Andy Andrew's little book The Noticer (2009) reminded me of Og Mandino's books of another era.  He uses a simple story to make a larger point, not entirely unlike the use of a parable.  Andrew's book, admittedly is not an overtly religious work, even though published by Thomas Nelson.  Still, it's an engaging story and quite practical with natural applications to a Christian life.  The subtitle explains the heart of the tale: "Sometimes all a person needs is a little perspective."  As an old Chinese proverb states, "if you want to know what water is, don't ask the fish."  Or as Ravi Zarcharias notes, "total immersion deprives the mind of a counterperspective and, for that matter, an honest evaluation."  To put it more simply: we often lose perspective when we are too close to the issue.  In Andrew's story an indigent old man named "Jones" provides this perspective to a number of people in crisis.  For some it's a marital crisis, for another a crisis of morals, for another simply of purpose in life.  Looking back on the many times I have been called to 'counsel' troubled people as pastor I realize that I probably was employing, much of the time, Jones' simple attempt to regain perspective, to be able to see the problem from a different, and hopefully, more productive angle.  We can choose to see life in any way we want, and too often we choose the negative.  And one thing I learned in psychology class, self-fulfilling prophesies do work.  If we see our lives as
unmitigated disasters we will begin to live in such a way to reinforce that.

Of course Andrew's book lacks the most important ingredient of God's grace in action, and if I had one substantive critique it would be there.  Not that you can't see God's hand at work even without mentioning His name, but it would have been nice to acknowledge God's work as the real healing in this scenarios.  All in all, though, it's a nice little book worthy perusing if you find yourself with a few minutes at the library. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Some Reflections on the Pastoral Ministry

The pastoral office is central to the church.  We operate seminaries for the primary purpose of preparing men for this very important office.  Yet it seems, at times, that so many other positions compete in importance with that office.  It's not hard to see how a pastor could see other positions in the church-at-large as promotions from the pastorate.  One position would be teaching at a synodical university or seminary.  Another could be a director of some department within the International Center at the LCMS in St. Louis.  Obviously these require special skills and education above and beyond the 'entry level' position of parish pastor, right?

After spending over a quarter of a century in the pastoral office I have come to see that such thinking is dangerous and misguided, if tempting to be sure. It has certainly captivated my own thinking.  Not that the larger church does not need such specialists, or that they are not important.  However, technically speaking, do they not ultimately exist to serve the local parish and school? 

But beyond this it is hard to compare any of these offices and positions with the unique opportunities that exist in the pastoral office.  Once one steps out of this office a connection is lost with the intimacy of ministry.  Today I communed a dear saint at a local nursing home.  He was crying as I served him.  To receive Jesus' body and blood was the most important gift for him at that moment.  And to serve this gift is one of the most important responsibilities of my call. I handle holy things. The other day I ministered to a family in the midst of a crisis.  I responded to their farm as their barn was burning, fulfilling multiple roles that day of firefighter, chaplain and pastor.  Gently leading an older member away from the fire I saw the pain in his face as he watched a lifetime of memories burn to the ground.  But I was there.  In the very heart of life's mess.  I saw the tears.  I experienced the immediacy of their grief.

As pastor I am invited into the most private places of people's lives.  Their hearts are opened in trust, looking to me as Christ's representative to offer some comfort and hope.  I am there at their births and rebirths, their weddings and funerals, their anniversary parties, holiday gatherings and family reunions.  They invite me to their land to hunt and include me on a snowmobile ride.  We eat together, laugh together, and cry together with a bond as deep as a family.

Sometimes I forget the privilege it is to serve this way, the honor to be called someones "pastor."  It is unfortunate that even as we recruit men for the ministry we sometimes neglect to remind them of this tremendous privilege.  Some day I may leave the pastoral ministry.  I don't know.  But I do know now that if I should I will never find such an incredible opportunity to serve.  Nothing will compare. 

The Staurogram

Every now and than an article from Biblical Archeology Review catches my eye.  One in particular from the current March/April issue interested me in particular.  The article by Larry W. Hurtado is "The Staurogram: Earliest Depiction of Jesus' Crucifixion" (see here for a somewhat abbreviated version by BAR on their website.)  The symbol to the right was an early Christian representation of the crucifixion (combining the Greek letters tau and rho, no doubt from the Greek word for cross - stauros), intending to serve as a kind of pictogram of a figure hanging on a cross.  What makes the article most interesting is that this symbol has been discovered in a papyrus fragment dating to 200 AD.  And why is this significant?  For the simple reason that it provides an example 150 to 200 years earlier than the earliest depictions of the crucified Jesus.  This challenges what the article's author noted has been a "commonplace belief among historians of the early church that early Christianity did not emphasize Jesus' crucifixion and that this did not change until the late fourth or fifth century."  The article seemed doubly appropriate this week given that the cross and the crucifixion is so central to the story of salvation.  So, despite so much scholarship to the contrary, it looks like the cross really was important to the church from the beginning!

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Devil in Pew Number Seven: A Review

Every pastor experiences at least one member who makes his ministry and life difficult.  Some endure people who make it a living hell.  Robert Nichols, unfortunately, had to have the latter.  Having worked through many of my own traumatic issues over the years with some incredibly challenging parishoners, I do have to say that Nichols tops it all.  You simply have to read the book from cover to cover to really appreciate what this man went through.  However, it's easy to get caught up in the horror of it all and miss the real point of the author: forgiveness. 

To tell the story in full here would be to spoil the ending if you don't already know it.  So I won't share too much, except to encourage you to read the book.  The book's author, Rebecca Nichols Alonzo, shares an incredible tale of survival on a physical, mental and spiritual level.  You find yourself wondering if you could have survived all that she endured.  Yet it also reminds you that no matter how bad your situation is, there are those who have suffered much worse, especially in terms of congregational dysfunction.  Still, the real healing is not survival, but reconciliation, a most helpful story for this time of year. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Charity's is the Face of Christ

As many are observing the new pope as a humble man with a heart for the poor, the following quote from my breviary seemed apropos.  It is from the great Lutheran scholar Charles Porterfield Krauth.

Charity's is the face of Christ.  He is gone - yet lo, he is here always, dwelling in the faithful and the holy.  Oh, if Christ, the suffering, Christ, the hungering and thirsting, the naked and the sick, the stranger and prisoner, still abides on earth in the persons of those who suffer, abides in their persons because his love makes him one with them - Christ the pitying and relieving moves among us in the persons of those who pity and relieve, moves in their persons because his grace makes them one with him.  As the burdened and sorrowing "fill up the measure of the afflictions of Christ," so do the loving and helping become channels of that stream of his love which yet remains to be poured upon the world through every age, filling up the measure of the benedictions of Him who ascended on high that He might give gifts to men.  Charity has gazed on the incarnate Mercy, and loved, and followed, and given herself up to His transforming power, till she has been changed into his very image.  Those who would know how Christ looked, must not go to the dim imaginings of the painter or the sculptor, but must fix on her their eyes, and learn form her what was the marvelous beauty of him who was "fairer than the children of men." 
--from Poverty: Three Essays for the Season

Reflections of a Rural Fire Chaplain

Over ten years have passed since I came to my first meeting.  At the time I knew precious little about real firefighting or the culture of a volunteer fire department.  Wading into unfamiliar waters was compounded by the need to create a non-existent position without experience.  We started slowly.  None of us knew quite what we needed, although my reason for pursuing this course was grounded in previous traumas.  Even volunteers will face unspeakable horrors at times.  Young people laying bloody and lifeless on the pavement, dead from a stunt gone tragically wrong.  A small child pinned under a rolled over pickup that careened into a ditch when the driver dozed off.  An EMT stabbed by an intruder with her colleague attempting to revive her while her husband keeps watch with a loaded shotgun.  An elderly couple hit head-on by a teen racing down a country road, body parts littering the asphalt.  Such incidents may occur only once every decade or more, but they occur, and the odds in such a community that the victim is a family or friend is high. 

I decided early on that these men and women needed more than a ceremonial chaplain.  So from the beginning they had me in turnout gear, carrying a pager, treating me always like one of the rest.  I've worked beside them holding hoses in subzero nights, mopping up a charred field after a wild land blaze, riding with an elderly couple in a Hummer out of a flooded city, driving an engine or a van or a tanker as need arises, in and out of burning buildings.  I train beside them as much as time allows.  At 52 years of age I am not the first for interior attack, but I train in search and rescue for the day it may be needed.  It's sweaty, backbreaking work that favors the physical conditioning of a younger man.  Yet many an older, seasoned volunteer keeps these departments going, manning the pumps, serving as backup support, driving vehicles to scenes. 

By now the men and women I serve with know that their chaplain is no further away than the line of attack, experiencing the same risks, laboring at the same mundane tasks.  Every now and then we have to gather at the station for debriefing and it is then that this earned credibility serves well.  I am one of them.  I know what they see, what they experience, the stresses that weigh them down.

If I had to sum up my office it could be done with two words: presence and support.  The blue helmet I wear with a reflective rocker panel printed with "Chaplain" keeps my profile visible on any fire scene, even when I am only working as a regular fire fighter.  However, even without this symbol, they know I am there.  And I think sometimes that is enough.  Words do not always have to be spoken.  Sermons can be saved for another time.  I was reminded of the symbolic nature of this presence early on when I went to my first viewing at a funeral home as chaplain.  Ready to process in and greet the widow my captain was looking for the chaplain.  I held back, remembering that it is never right to assume first place, especially when you are the newbie.  All of a sudden I heard his voice calling for me to come up front.  "God goes first," he said firmly. 

These men and women may not always be the typical every-Sunday attender.  Some of them may only come at funerals and weddings.  Others are very active.  It's a mixed group.  Yet I sense a high respect for the things of God among these people.  Perhaps when you stand on the edge of death and destruction long enough you begin to appreciate the need for God's presence and some assurance of what comes after our departure from this veil of tears.

As a rural department our calls are often less frequent than the big cities.  Chaplains there certainly have more demand.  Like my other fellow firefighters we train and prepare for incidents that may not occur for months or years.  Always ready.  Perhaps that's another unofficial motto of my work.  I only hope I am not needed too much, for that always means more trauma and tragedy. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

One More Time

Sometimes you simply have to step back and take another look.  For me it involved my thesis proposal.  After soliciting input from my advisers it was clear that something wasn't working.  The concept had potential, but the scope seemed too broad.  I discovered I lost passion for it, in part because I no longer felt that I could do it justice.  Add to that my sense of not possessing quite enough depth of learning and understanding to adequately handle the growing number of issues I had put into the proposal.  So I stepped back, took a deep breath, cleared my head, and took another look.  Might there be something I could salvage here?  I really didn't want to start completely from scratch. In the third part of the proposed outline I found a place to begin.  Massey Shepherd's book, The Pascal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (1960), had been a key volume in my original bibliography.  As part of my original research I had planned to examine the place the liturgy played in the book of Revelation. I should have realized then that it was a topic worthy of its own thesis.  In my reading I had also discovered a more recent work by Dr. Scott Hahn (The Lamb's Supper - 1999), which I reviewed elsewhere on this blog.  He seemed to be going down the same path as Shepherd, albeit in a slightly different manner.   Feeling I had a topic I could now put my energies in with come confidence, I set about to read Shepherd's book and reread Hahn's.  I also began to reassemble a working bibliography, flesh out the outline, and write the actual proposal. Over 20 pages later it was finished. It took a few weeks, but I managed to rebuild what a month earlier seemed but a pile of ash.  With a bit a trepidation I called my primary adviser to bounce it off of him.  He felt that my new direction was better than the old one, and liked the topic.  So after having it thoroughly proofread by my wife I mailed it off and now I wait.  The new 'working title' is: "A Study of the Influence of the Church's Liturgical Forms on the Literary Structure of the Apocalypse of St. John."  I'll let you know if it passes.  After that comes the actual writing.