Lutherans in the Spotlight

November 17, 2021

Lutherans – and particularly conservative, Confessional Lutherans – don’t often make it into the public spotlight. That’s partially intentional. Still, people are noticing that our aversion to the spotlight doesn’t mean we don’t have ideas (Biblical, hopefully!) to communicate to the power-brokers and king-makers of Washington D.C. Here’s a brief spotlight on the unfortunate necessity of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod working to help shape public policy and the rule of law.

Swallowed by the Cracks

November 17, 2021

(Still a great jam all these years later.)

Unsurprisingly, being fully vaccinated (whether with Johnson & Johnson’s single shot or the two-shot program required for other vaccines) is likely going to be redefined to insist on at least an initial (and I believe eventually annual at least) booster shots. In other words, I don’t think it will be long before immunized or vaccinated status is a rolling status dependent on mandatory updates. Failure to stay up to date on boosters will kick someone into the legal status of unvaccinated.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone paying attention to the actual science of the vaccines and the changing understanding of how they work and more specifically, how long they work. If antibody generation wanes considerably after six months, only through additional boosters can the population hope to be protected long enough – by our current methods – for the virus to wane in prevalence and strength. Of course, since the vaccines only reduce your odds of infection and reduce the effects of infection, the virus may never really subside, a reality countries around the world are coming to grips with as they transition from pandemic footing to trying to manage the situation as endemic and ongoing, like the flu.

In the meantime, the reality of an even bigger problem will likely garner little more than passing notice by lawmakers and citizens alike. Indeed, as more and more states decriminalize not only marijuana but cocaine (and potentially other drugs), the number of people dying from drug overdoses continues to skyrocket. Just in the last 20 years we’ve surpassed the number of Covid deaths (if my math is mostly correct). That may seem like a long time but this year we just surpassed 100,000 diagnosed deaths by drug overdose, up from only 20,000 a year just 20 years ago. At this rate the potential death rate for drug overdoses could rival Covid deaths, with no magic vaccine available to slow it down.

Musicians and other celebrities continue to pass away at young ages but the role of prescription medications as contributing causes of death is ignored. Regardless of whether someone kicks the habit or not drug abuse can cause permanent damage, damage that shortens a person’s likely lifespan. Yet we continue to allow the glorification of drug use even as it continues to strangle young people at an alarming and growing rate.

What a waste. When we emerge from our government and media inflicted Covid paranoia (at least I hope people emerge!) will we rally to destroy this larger and far longer-term enemy in our midst? Or will we continue to demand increasing laxness regarding the issue of drugs in general, further contributing to mixed messages to our impressionable youth?

I was a kid when the war on drugs began, long-overdue at that point and really just at the beginning of the epidemic of harder drug use as a widespread issue. The deaths in this war far eclipse the deaths of all of our military ventures in the last 40 years and Covid – probably combined. Maybe we won’t properly start caring about it until our ICUs are overwhelmed. Then again most overdoses aren’t caught in time to attempt medical treatment so I guess that conveniently won’t be a problem.

Maybe we’ll have to wait for the cemeteries to fill up and the environmentalists to get pissed off before we recognize that legalizing for tax benefits drugs that are killing our children is not good public policy. We seem far more willing to protect the environment than our children.

Book Review – Murder on the Orient Express

November 9, 2021

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

I went through a brief stage in early adolescence of reading classic mysteries. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were both tutors in this brief foray. It didn’t last long because I tired of the genius of the detective becoming evident only at the end of the story by the introduction of additional facts, clues, and background information I as the reader could not possibly know. I was frustrated because I wanted to solve the mysteries myself, and the authors weren’t giving me what I needed to do so.

But when I found a copy of this book at the tiny library near where we’re sojourning along with a British television adaptation of the book, I knew we had to read it as a family and then watch the film. I’m glad to say that my particular irritations of many years ago notwithstanding, we all roundly enjoyed the book as well as the movie, and had a delightful interchange comparing the two and the interpretative license the director of the film version engaged in, both for good and bad effect.

The story finds Christie’s protagonist, Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot trying to unravel a particularly complicated murder on board the said Orient Express. The ending is truly a masterful stroke of genius. The characters are wildly diverse and curious in their own right. The book is well-written, engaging without pandering. It keeps the readers involved as clues are unveiled and alibis examined.

The television version of it, a 2010 British production, does an admirable job with some interesting twists. It adds scenes and skips over others. But as a whole, the director picks up on religious themes both expressed by Christie in the book and others not in the book but created to better flesh out the character of Poirot. Performances are solid though, as is typical in most adaptations, the characters can’t possibly be given their full due in 90 minutes of film as they can in 200+ pages of text. Still, if you can find this version I’d encourage you to watch it (ideally after just having read the book!) and sit and ponder the meanings of rosaries and prayers and God that find such a central place in this adaptation.

Then drop me a line and let’s talk about it more together!

Book Review – Old Man and the Sea

November 4, 2021

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I’d read this back in one of my high school literature classes. It’s not a complicated little story so it wasn’t as though the intervening decades clouded the storyline or the outcome. But as part of our less-connected, wi-fi-unpredictable life for the moment reading together as a family has come to the forefront. The place we’re staying had a copy and I knew it would be good for everyone to experience it.

I like Hemingway, but his sparcity can be exhausting at times. Where Bradbury or other authors bury you in similes and metaphors and adjectives, Hemingway remains terse, no doubt a throwback to his days in journalism. The story is slow, as slow as being stuck in a boat at sea alone for days on end, trailing a line connected to a massive, unseen fish below. I would likely be tempted to tighten it up a bit, but tightening it up ruins the entire point of the story. You feel the interminableness of Santiago’s situation. You feel his hope as well as his wariness. You admire his stolidity.

His dedication is to a code of manhood rapidly being erased in a Western culture intent on desexing and unisexing everyone and everything. No doubt he is dubbed as an example of toxic masculinity in college literature classrooms on two continents. How foolish, to risk his life on such an uncertainty, against overwhelming odds. Yet Santiago’s decisions are set by larger forces than himself and he seeks only to measure his mettle against them, just as he continually measures his own pain against the pain reported of his beloved DiMaggio. Does his suffering come close? Does he measure up?

If you haven’t read this for a while go back to it. As a father of boys and young men it is helpful to show traditional masculine qualities evaporating in the world around them. Like other much longer epic works it highlights the importance of doing what you know to be right and proper despite the potential loss you may personally suffer in doing so. Some things are worth dying for. Some battles should be faced squarely that the stories may be told and passed down to younger generations who will one day have to face their own giants, whether under the waters or in the stars or in their own hometowns.

Book Review – Muslims, Christians, and Jesus

November 2, 2021

Muslims, Christians and Jesus by Carl Medearis

Gifted to us by life-long Bible translators, this book offers personal insights in how Christians can meet and build relationships with their Muslim neighbors. The author speaks with confidence and experience in this regard, sprinkling the book with real life anecdotes about interactions with a variety of people in a variety of settings.

It’s clear Medearis’ overriding concern is to demonstrate that Christians and Muslims can co-exist, can be loving and good neighbors, and can engage in meaningful religious discussion based around common elements of Christianity and Islam. Towards this end he would much rather sidestep some of the most awkward conversation points that might arise, preferring to encourage his readers towards that common ground. This is important to keep in mind. If you’re inclined to see discussions with others primarily as an opportunity to engage in debate – whether academic, historical, or theological – you will probably be less than thrilled with Medearis’ approach.

For someone unfamiliar with the basics of Islam, the Qu’ran, or Islamic history Medaris’ suggestions might not raise any eyebrows. And even as someone with at least a passing familiarity with each of these areas, I’m willing and able to give Medaris a lot of latitude as his goal is not confrontation but conversation, and this is desperately needed at all levels and all over the world! Combatting an us-versus-them attitude is not only unhelpful but contrary to the command of Jesus to love our neighbor.

Medearis purports both anecdotally and directly an attitude that promotes the idea of spirituality against religiosity. Only by refraining from some of the broad connotations of spirituality and thinking of only the worst excesses and abuses of religiosity can I come close to sympathizing with his position, which I think I find ultimately to be either unhelpful to Christians or dishonest to them. I understand his emphasis on Jesus only to be particularly helpful in cross-cultural discussions, but it falls short ultimately as a way of living the Christian life. Only by attempting to live life as an isolated Christian without meaningful Christian community can such a Jesus only theology work, and such an isolated life is contrary to Jesus’ own practice and the direct instructions of the Bible.

Medearis does a good job at introducing the basic tenets of Islam, providing a brief historical overview of Muhammad and Islam and explaining differences between the three major sects of Islam.

This is a good starting reference for Christians who feel led, or interested, or realize they have an opportunity to build a relationship with a Muslim person. His insistence on doing so not as a means to an end but simply as a fulfillment of the command to love our neighbor is admirable. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for meaningful, deep, and sometimes complicated and difficult religious dialogue down the line. It just acknowledges that’s not where things should – or can – start.

Book Review (Partial) – A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200

November 1, 2021

A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200, 4th Edition by M. C. Ricklefs

Another partial book review, this time because I didn’t finish it. I barely started it, but it’s obvious it’s far more detailed and in-depth than what I need right now. While I feel I have a good, broad-brushstrokes familiarity with the major eras of Indonesia’s history, I need to better cement that foundation before filling in with the detailed academic treatment Ricklefs brings to this book.

By his own admission in the introduction he prefers to provide details and allow others to draw broader conclusions, an approach I resonate with. I’m just not ready for this level of work quite yet! Once I’m a bit more conversant in the overarching history of Indonesia I’ll undoubtedly go back to this as a more detailed resource!

Book Review (Partial) – Healthy, Resilient & Effective in Cross Cultural Ministry

November 1, 2021

Healthy Resilient & Effective in Cross Cultural Ministry by Laura Mae Gardner, D.Min

I call this a partial review for two reasons. The first is the copy I was gifted from long-term overseas Bible translators is a pre-release copy that only has the first eight chapters – roughly the first half of the book. Secondly, I only really skimmed it as it’s designed for sending agencies and those who oversee overseas workers.

From that perspective it’s an amazing book, even in the unfinished form. I have no doubt that folks in our own Office of International Mission have read this or other resources like it, as I recognize some of the recommendations from the book in how OIM is structured and the interactions I’ve already had with them. A fantastic resource (and the link above is to the finished Kindle version of the book – a print version of the finished book is here) for those entrusted with the recruitment, evaluation, deployment, management and ongoing care of overseas workers!

Show Me the Math

October 31, 2021

It’s hard in life as well as poker to know when someone’s bluffing. It’s easy to act and speak as though you’ve got a winning hand, and finding out if that’s true or not always entails a certain amount of risk. Some people aren’t willing to risk calling a bet to see if the other person is bluffing or not. Others love the risk.

Elon Musk certainly seems like a guy who isn’t afraid of risk. And why not – he certainly can afford to call a few bets now that he’s worth over $300 billion dollars. I’m glad to see he’s willing to put his money where someone else’s mouth is – if they can back their claims. Elon Musk has signaled he’s willing to spend $6 billion dollars to substantially alleviate world hunger, if the UN official who named that figure can prove his math.

Frankly, this is a great move – by both people.

The assumption that the wealthy could fix the world hunger problem (either in the short or long-term) has been a steady assertion by progressives advocating for wealth redistribution. However efforts to stave off or solve world poverty and hunger issues have at best blunted the damage of famines and other disasters, and have not resulted in the elimination of chronic poverty, hunger, malnutrition, etc. In some cases at least, aid efforts may have actually made things worse in the long run. This information is not often discussed by the media, though others are willing to point it out.

So for the United Nation’s World Food Program director to put a $6 billion dollar price tag on saving 42 million lives from eminent starvation is not unusual save for the specificity. But specificity is exactly what is needed. I assume the wealthy have reached their state of wealth and maintain it by some very good evaluation and analysis skills, something often lacking in wild assertions about how taxing the rich will fix various local, national, or global problems.

Musk’s calling out of this claim is also crucial. Talking about how the rich can save the poor is one thing. But showing it is quite another – or at least I assume it is. I assume the reason poverty and hunger have not been eliminated already by massive influxes of aid is because the calculations of experts and mathematicians and others fail to take into account basic human sinfulness. They operate strictly within the realm of the theoretical without accounting for the avarice and cruelty that is part and parcel of a fallen humanity.

Wanting to solve hunger is different from being able to, and the issue is not simply money, unfortunately. However hopefully this exchange – in addition to saving very real lives – could lead not just to future giving and investment increases, but improvements on the processes by which aid is envisioned, planned, and executed. I’ve got to believe that if the mechanisms were clearer, more people would be prompted to give. And if the mechanisms are flawed, then business people are far more likely to be able to help correct and improve them.

These are real lives at stake, and the inability to solve hunger and poverty totally should not hold people back from saving very real lives here and now. Hopefully the upshot of this exchange will be saving lives and showing others – wealthy and otherwise – how their donations can make real differences rather than just ending up in the pockets of anyone with a gun, a gavel or a scepter who decides to help themselves first.

One Last Time

October 30, 2021

I relented sometime in the last year and watched the musical Hamilton after my youngest two memorized literally every song and sang them incessantly. And while I’ll be the first to admit I’m no fan and therefore a poor critic of musicals, it impressed me thoroughly and I’m glad for once I didn’t let my stubbornness get the better of me.

We were listening to one of their Spotify playlists the other day and the song One Last Time came on. Take a moment to listen to it if you haven’t. It’s beautiful. Not just musically but in what it talks about. I won’t pretend to know whether it accurately reflects how Washington and Hamilton interacted as Washington retired, but I think it captures some of the core elements rather well.

President Washington retires rather than seeking an additional term. Rather than assuming the leadership mantle for life and becoming a beloved King he settles for the fleeting role of statesman. He sees that in his leaving office he has a unique opportunity to model to Americans – and the world – what democracy can really be. To give it flesh and bone or, perhaps more accurately, an empty office to fill.

Hamilton is understandably stunned and skeptical, to say the least. How counterintuitive, to follow a course of action that will widely be misunderstood as weakness when in reality it is in fact the strongest course of action Washington could possibly choose to follow. To take the risk that people will watch and learn, or in the mantra of Hamilton, that history has it’s eye on him.

I’ve found this song compelling in recent weeks. The lyrics haunting. Much has changed in my life this year. Much uncertainty. But perhaps the strangest of all those changes was stepping away from a group of people I had loved and served for nearly 11 years. Stepping away from brothers and sisters in Christ because I felt it was the Holy Spirit’s desire for them and for me that this should happen.

I’d never had to do that before. I’ve left employers before in the corporate/professional and academic worlds. Such comings and goings are expected. You miss some people and not others. And in nearly all of those situations I left knowing things would go along mostly unchanged. I was part of a larger entity. My departure wouldn’t substantially affect the organization.

That’s both true and untrue of a pastor and his congregation, a shepherd and his flock.

The nature of pastoral parish ministry is of necessity and privilege a very personal one. As one of my first seminary profs waxed eloquently about for the better part of an hour, a pastor performs a καλου εργου, a noble task. Pastors are privileged to be part of their congregant’s lives in an intensely personal way rarely afforded to those outside immediate family. We are privileged to be present shortly after births as well as shortly before deaths. We stand with people in their moments of greatest joy as well as deepest sorrow. This privilege is not afforded to us because of us personally, but rather the office we bear, the duty and responsibility of shepherd. Caring for the sheep. And that means getting to know them, just as a good shepherd can tell every sheep from another and knows their personality and quirks.

For eleven years I was invited into their lives. And then one day, I left.

In one sense they remain the congregation, the flock, and my departure doesn’t significantly alter that reality. They begin the process of finding a new shepherd. But in another way, the congregation was shaped by my service as shepherd, just as they had been shaped by other shepherds over the last century, and as they will, God-willing, be shaped by their future shepherds.

It’s weird to go from knowing the intimate details of their lives to not having contact with them. There’s a balance of sorts to try and maintain, to ensure I don’t become problematic in their duty of receiving a new shepherd, in not preventing them from grieving (or rejoicing!) and moving on. And not knowing where that balance line is, my communication with them has been minimal, to say the least.

And that’s hard.

I worry and pray for them, in some ways as I worried and prayed for them while I served them. Most of those prayers don’t change, and to them are added prayers for their protection and wisdom and peace as they prepare to Call and receive a new shepherd, and prayers for that shepherd that he will know them and love them even better than I attempted to.

There’s also the human, most likely sinful aspect, of wondering what the long-term effects of my 11 years with them will be. What did they learn from me while I was with them? How was I a good shepherd and how did I fail them? And what did they learn from my departure as well? Did I teach them how to say good-bye, as Washington sings to Hamilton? Meaning did I model for them things that will be helpful as they move forward as individuals and a congregation? I wonder. I worry. I pray.

I can think of lots of things I wish I had done differently. I can worry about whether I was right to deal with this sheep or that sheep in this way or that. I can imagine how things might have differed had I opted for alternate courses of action, more firmness here, more gentleness there. But I can’t change any of those things now. Now they move on, one way or the other, for better or worse for their time with me, just as I move on changed for my time with them. We each have to follow the Holy Spirit’s calling in our lives the best we can.

My consolation in all of this is one day we’ll meet again. No longer as shepherd and sheep or pastor and congregant but simply as brothers and sisters in Christ. Fellow heirs of the kingdom of heaven. By the grace of God I pray I conveyed that hope and certainty to them over the course of 11 years. Not perfectly, obviously. But always pointing to the one and only Son of God as the best and most perfect one to not simply emulate but trust in with every moment of our lives, every circumstance. Because only He can handle those highs and lows, those doubts and misgivings and uncertainties and regrets. Only He can redeem them all until his return when we’ll never need to learn or teach how to say goodbye again.

Imagining Repentance

October 29, 2021

Your Grace, it is such an honor to have this time with you.

Thank you my son, I have wanted to meet with you for some time.

Really? A man as busy as you, leading the Church, and you’ve wanted to meet with me?

Of course my son. A good shepherd cares for every sheep from the least to the greatest. But sometimes more time is taken with the greater ones, as they have greater responsibilities. Especially now that you hold such an important position yourself.

I am thankful to God I can serve him and his people as President of the United States.

A fine understanding of vocation, my son, and the reason I have hoped to speak with you. I pray God continues to use you even more mightily in the future!

How do you mean, Your Grace?

My son, you loved your daughter Naomi very much, I know. Her loss – along with your wife – was very hard on you.

The hardest loss in my life, Your Grace.

Very understandable. And yet you support the murder of unborn children. A position you once were much less in agreement with, when you had far less influence than you do now.

I support the rights of women, Your Grace. I strive for the equality men and women are created under by God.

But the Word of God on this matter is clear, my son, as is the voice of the Church. Your Church. The One, True Church. She has not wavered on that stance, though of course some within her wish she would. The stance of the Church upholding the sanctity of human life from conception is clear.

Your Grace, you must understand….

I commend to your reading Job 10:11-12, Psalms 127 and 139. Consider Joseph’s faithfulness to the life of our Lord and Savior in the virgin’s womb. Consider the difficulty, the inconvenience, the scandal that Mary would be found to be with child before her marriage to Joseph was finalized. And yet in spite of these things they acted in faith that the child was of God. You may also be interested to read The Didache which dates to the time of the Apostles and which states categorically that Christians do not murder the children or the unborn. Even though these were common, culturally acceptable practices among the Greeks and Romans.

We must defend the conscience of each person, Your Grace, of each believer.

And at times my son, we must also speak hard truth, even to those in power. Ever this was the case as well you should know from Scripture.

Then what are you saying, Your Grace?

What you already know to be true in your heart. What you have grown accustomed to making excuses for to satisfy any number of needs. You know it is wrong to kill an unborn child, my son. It is a sin. A violation of the Fifth Commandment. A violation of the Holy Church’s Law. You consider yourself a good Catholic, do you not my son?

Of course, Your Grace!

How can you consider yourself as such when you publicly support with your person and words a policy the Bible, the Church, and your Savior condemn as sin? Can you say to your Savior’s face that your public and professional support of abortion is not a sin? Do you think He will commend you for your stance?

I…I do not know, Your Grace.

You must reflect on this, my son. Not in light of politics or career. Not in light of the so-called rights the West has created out of thin air and in blatant contradiction to the Word of God. You should well know that we do not improve upon an error by creating another error.

What am I to do, Your Grace?

No more and no less than each of us must do each day, and by the grace of God we are given a new day in which to do it, or another hour in which to begin it. Repent. Acknowledge your sin and guilt before your Savior. Take refuge in his mercy and grace and forgiveness, which you receive at Holy Eucharist. Turn from your sin. Do not endanger your very soul with so great a sin and worse, so great a refusal to see your sin. Repudiate it. Publicly, as you have embraced and facilitated it publicly.

What you ask, Your Grace….

I do not ask, my son. As the Vicar of Christ I command. I point you to his Word and his Church and call you to confession, to repentance, to forgiveness, and to eternal life. You are not responsible for what others do in spite of your refusal to condone such terrible sin any longer. But you can in your life and words sound a clear warning for all those like you who seek to obey the voice of God through His Church, yet insist on the right to determine which of His words you accept and reject.

(…)

Go now, my son. Reflect. Read. Pray. Repent. Confess. Receive the assurance of your forgiveness in the Eucharist. And trust that in your repentance you find not death but life, not suffering but joy, not enslavement but freedom. And by your great example, many far smaller and weaker sheep may be guided away from paths that lead only to death and suffering. Rise, my son. And may the Lord bless you and keep you; may he make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen, amen, and amen.