Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The 'Hand' of Faith

[Prelude: As most of you already know, I’ve been writing a biweekly faith column (called “Sola Fide”) for the Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley newspaper since November 7. There is another faith column, Perspectives, which runs on my off weeks; I and the author are both well-meaning Christians, yet our confessions differ. For example, the Perspectives column for November 28 begins: People make decisions all the time. Some decisions do not have a lasting effect on our lives., but some do., and people make them like it really does not matter. God, in His wisdom, makes a way for us to make good decisions, but Satan also encourages us to choose the wrong way. The decision to choose Jesus in the forgiveness of sin is the best decision anyone could and should make…]

People, generally speaking, religious or not, Christian or other, deal with death differently. As a clan, death unites siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles—it’s a chance to reconnect with those family members not only geographically distant, but estranged for whatever reason. And a death in the family inevitably brings up the topic of separation, as was the case during our reunion for my uncle’s funeral in January 2016.

The service was held in a Methodist church and was led by the pastor of my aunt and uncle’s congregation. I thought the service itself was very nice; many nice things were said by family and the pastor offered us reassurance of Heaven, as described in Revelation 21, but there was no explicit mention of my uncle now resting in God’s hands. I found this curious... enough that I felt compelled to reassure my aunt and cousins that there is no doubt that her husband and their father is now in Heaven. How can I be so sure?

One of my cousins, a practicing Christian of a different denomination, with much determination and a heart of love tried to lead her father down the “Romans Road” to salvation, a journey that culminates with the recitation of a sinner’s prayer* (proof of one’s sincere desire to receive Jesus into one’s heart)—in a conversation with her she seemed to acquiesce to my reassurance that her dad was in the presence of God. I think she still worries whether my uncle had enough faith—or the right kind of faith—to get to Heaven.
*I highly recommend this article, written by a non-denominational pastor and published in Christianity Today magazine in 2012: Should We Stop Asking Jesus Into Our Hearts?

I cannot speak of my uncle’s faith conversations with my aunt, cousins, or other family members; however, I can speak of plenty such conversations he and I had over the years. My uncle was a man who acknowledged a God that blessed him with a loving family, yet at the same time struggled to understand Him. He (my uncle) pondered once that if God (the Father) and Jesus were one, how, then, could He kill Himself? (I’m smiling here as I type this…) That comment was made over a beer and a cigar on the stoop of their row house in the Baltimore area some years ago, and, as I recall, led to a change in his perspective, to be able to see God’s sacrifice of Jesus as the climax of the love story that is the Bible. My uncle asked me a lot of questions about church, God, and what I believed.

Romans 10:17 tells us that faith comes by hearing the Gospel. Christ Himself works through the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-18, 16:7-14), who produces faith where and when He wills (Titus 3:5). Just as important, and maybe the bottom line in any discussion of how one gets to heaven, is Ephesians 2:8, the fulcrum of Martin Luther’s understanding of Christianity and Lutheran doctrine: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…

I hope every person in attendance at my uncle’s funeral—particularly, my cousin—walked out of that Methodist church comforted by God’s Grace, the scope, depth, and breadth of which human reason cannot grasp. Faith is like an empty hand that receives the gift of God’s Grace. Maybe the pastor himself wasn't sure of my uncle's final destination (hopefully not); if so, had I been in his shoes, I would have emphasized that the Grace of God which is freely offered to all who believe in Him was also offered to my uncle, a man who attended church with his wife, attended Bible studies to learn more, and who I never heard deny His existence. 

I am absolutely certain in my heart that God filled my uncle’s “empty hand” and though he is gone from his family and this Earth, he is not really gone, like the flame of a snuffed-out candle. In matters of faith, any decision is God’s and God’s alone.

[Postlude: That same Perspectives column for November 28 ends with an ultimatum: What decision have you made about Jesus? Do you know him as your Lord and Savior or are you still searching for Him? He is available to all, but you have to choose to accept Him in the forgiveness of sin and ask Him into your heart. When the Lord comes back, there will be two men. One will go with Jesus, and one will be left. Where will you be? The decision is up to you.]

That’s it for this month. May the Lord bless you and keep you,

Pastor E.B.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Reformation? 501. Sola Fide? Ageless...

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 12:1-6 ESV)

God seldom allows our faith to remain static, and so we face crisis points which bring our faith from the abstract to the concrete, and from the general to the specific. Such is the case with Abram in Genesis 15. Even though Abram had been assured by the Word of God about the future blessing, he nevertheless begins to have doubts when he considers both his own childless marriage and the hope and plans of his servant.

We Lutherans operate under three premises, more commonly known as our three “solas”:  Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone; Sola Gratia – Grace Alone; Sola Fide – Faith Alone.  Scripture alone shows us that we cannot possibly measure up to God’s expectations as sinners, but through God’s grace alone we are given, not only the precious gift of a Savior, but the wonderful gift of faith through which alone God counts us as righteous in His sight.

Genesis 15:1-6 deals with the latter—faith—and how Abram, some 4,000 years ago, was counted as righteous, that is justified by God’s solely by means of his faith…alone. And, no, Abram wasn’t a Lutheran—Sola Fide is older than the Reformation!

God told Abram to take his family and possessions and move to an unfamiliar place about 400 miles away…and he was no spring chicken, easily 70 years old! By obeying God and doing so, God promised that through Abram would come a great nation. Abram did as he was told by God, which included, later, circumcising himself and his entire household. Certainly by such obedience this man Abram was deserving of God’s favor.

In fact, many Jewish religious leaders assumed that Abram was justified by his obedience to God. Descendants of “Father Abraham,” as Abram would come to be known, claimed entitlement to God’s favor and expected redemption (political and spiritual) from the promised Messiah.

Most of us are acquainted with those three verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church which, perhaps, define us as Lutherans, Ephesians 2:8-10: For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Abraham simply believed. Yes, and he obeyed. But he believed! In his letter to the churches in Rome, Paul used Abraham as an example to demonstrate that faith—not obedience, which we could never pull off anyway, nor any amount of good works—is required for salvation. This is the doctrine of justification, being made right with God, through that third sola, FAITH ALONE.
The doctrine of justification apart from works —often spoken about as a Lutheran doctrine—predates the time of Moses and the Law by 600 years. God promised to give Abraham more descendants than the stars in the skies...and Abraham believed. And because of his obedience, God even called Abraham “friend” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8).

Abraham showed faith before he became circumcised (as the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17)...and in doing so Abraham becomes the spiritual ancestor of later believers, Jews and Gentiles alike. And think about it—Abraham was a Gentile before his faith was counted to him as righteous. The decisive moment in God's plan for salvation is Abraham's trust in God's promise to him.

Paul uses an analogy to highlight the gift aspect of justification through faith alone in Romans 4:4, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” People who believe that God responds to good works, that salvation is either fully or somewhat dependent upon what we do—such things about which we could easily boast, like Pharisees, before God—are like workers awaiting payment in return for services rendered. Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteous by God’s grace.

While God’s justification of Abraham occurred four millennia ago, it was still based on that third sola, as is a sinner’s justification today. Yet obedience, then and now, cannot be discounted—4,000 years ago God told Abraham what to do and he did it; 2,000 years ago, God told Jesus what to do and HE DID IT. Through the sacrifice of His one and only Son, God freely and graciously justifies believers through faith alone in Christ alone.

God’s way of saving men is not new. It has not changed from Old Testament times to New. Always, God has saved men by grace, through faith. There is no other way. While Abram was saved through faith in the One Who would come, we are saved through faith in this One Who has come. That is the only difference.

May our baptism assure us of God’s promises in Christ: freedom from the shackles of sin, rescue from the devil, and hope for everlasting life! May our works reflect an Abraham-sized faith to the glory of His holy name! Amen!

That’s it for this month. May the Lord bless you and keep you,

Pastor E.B.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

An Elegy to the Fruitless

And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9 ESV)

Some years back, while I was still on active duty in the Navy, my wife and I bought our first house in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area prior to my transfer there for recruiting duty.  It was fall when we moved in, so the initial yard work consisted mostly of raking and bagging leaves from the half-dozen trees on the property. It wasn’t until late summer of the following year that one tree—some sort of fruit tree, we thought, but we weren’t sure—caught my attention. This tree and I already had a special relationship. Whoever had planted it, did so about a yard from the curb in a front yard that slanted downward toward the street. Each weekend this tree and I sparred, as I tried to get the lawn mower around it without hitting the blade on the curb. I may have cursed it once or twice over the roar of the mower, certain that it couldn’t hear me.
One Saturday morning in early fall, I was going about my mowing routine in the front yard and I happened to notice a single, solitary apple hanging on one of the higher branches. An apple tree! A tree that would give us apples! I was so excited that I snatched that apple, gave it a quick looking over, then took a bite. It tasted so good!
Well, as you can imagine, we couldn’t wait for more apples to appear… But that year there weren’t any. We apparently had the only one-apple tree in the neighborhood. Oh well, we’d wait until the end of the next summer. We’d just have to be patient. But the next year came and went…and no apples. And another year passed, then another. Still no apples.
However, year after year I remained forced to manhandle my lawnmower around that tree, and at one point my wife and discussed removing it altogether. But there was still a chance that it would bear more fruit—maybe it worked in five- or six- or seven-year cycles? So we decided to keep it.
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree is found only in Luke. It’s the story of a man with a fruit tree in his yard, too, and who, like me, came seeking fruit…and found none.
In Luke’s Gospel, repentance is a major emphasis, not as a nagging call, but instead as an implicit promise of salvation.  Those who don’t repent will perish, but God will forgive those who do repent—and will save them through Christ.
The insistence of the fruitless fig tree’s owner to “cut it down” evokes John the Baptist’s proclamation that “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).  Jesus is reiterating to His listeners that the time for repentance is now; He is the Gardener sent into the Father’s vineyard to help the fig trees bear fruit. He plants, waters, prunes, digs, and fertilizes. He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, forgiveness to the sinner, understanding to the simple, and humility to those who consider themselves wise. Each tree is baptized with water and receives the Holy Spirit. The Gardener Himself fertilizes the soil with his own Body and Blood.
Each day is a day of grace, allowing a fresh opportunity for repentance and a renewed life of discipleship, living out the fruits of repentance.  By Christ’s death and resurrection, we not only share in His victory over sin, death, and the devil, but the gracious gift of borrowed time, as well, the length of which only God knows for sure. Just as Jesus’ message had a sense of urgency for His listeners in our text, so does it still for us today, for the world around us.
We had that house for 12 years. That one-apple tree remained standing and fruitless as we waited all those years. Our second house was only a few miles away, so a few months after we moved I decided to drive through the old neighborhood and past our first house and as I approached it the first thing that I noticed was that the tree was gone! The new owner must have cut it down. 
In Christ Jesus, the axe won’t take us. In Christ Jesus, we are nurtured and nourished in the Sacraments. In Christ Jesus, we thrive and bear fruit.
That’s it for this month. May the Lord bless you and keep you,
Pastor E.B.

P.S. Speaking of apples and such, it has been said that anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the apples in a seed.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

DIY Theology

[Note: There was a combined July/August newsletter issue, so this is my September article... You might find it has a different feel, intentional on my part; however, if you mull over Tolstoy's short story, you might see Do It Yourself theology in a... Well, I hope you'll see what I mean...]
What do Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy have in common? Read on…
One early Spring morning when I was a seminary student, I was walking to class and as I came around the corner into a hallway with a couple of large potted trees/shrubs, one with a lone bright yellow bloom caught my attention (as if that was its plan). I stopped and looked at it and wondered how a tree/shrub in a pot left to its own devices on the second floor of a poorly ventilated old building could generate the kind of natural beauty that could stop me in my tracks. I considered that, perhaps, the bloom was sign or a message or something... Maybe from God? Maybe the plant itself is trying to speak the only way it knows how? Even the hapless atheist has to ponder a yellow bloom from time to time...
As I sat through my classes that day, I felt a renewed appreciation for the nearly infinite things the people of this planet believe and believe in. For some, when a belief is at odds with a tenet or dogma, the simplest remedy is to either rework (reinterpret) a teaching or create a more palatable replacement. (In the world today, science, history, politics, and especially religion function for so many as a cafeteria line—if the price is right, we get in the line and take what we want.)
In the late 1800s, the renowned Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, took issue with some facets of Russian Orthodox theology and the practices of the church; he became an outspoken thorn in the side of Tsar Nicholas II upon whom the church had bestowed near-deity status. He was quieted only by the pneumonia that took his life in 1910. Before he died, had put together his own "bible" and even had a cult-like following of morally austere pacifists ("Tolstoyans") who believed that non-violent resistance to authority was mandated by Jesus and true faith manifests itself in anarchy (contrary to what Paul tells us in Romans 13).
He may have been a religious renegade and he certainly had no use for monarchy; however, Tolstoy was an interesting character and a gifted writer. Much of his work contains a thread of piety. A great example of this is his short story Three Hermits, which I found to be an unorthodox (pun intended), but very effective conversation-starter when I was a high school Russian teacher:
“And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.” -- Matt. vi. 7, 8.
A bishop was sailing from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery; and on the same vessel were a number of pilgrims on their way to visit the shrines at that place. The voyage was a smooth one. The wind favorable, and the weather fair. The pilgrims lay on deck, eating, or sat in groups talking to one another. The Bishop, too, came on deck, and as he was pacing up and down, he noticed a group of men standing near the prow and listening to a fisherman who was pointing to the sea and telling them something. The Bishop stopped, and looked in the direction in which the man was pointing. He could see nothing however, but the sea glistening in the sunshine. He drew nearer to listen, but when the man saw him, he took off his cap and was silent. The rest of the people also took off their caps, and bowed.
“Do not let me disturb you, friends,” said the Bishop. “I came to hear what this good man was saying.”
“The fisherman was telling us about the hermits,” replied one, a tradesman, rather bolder than the rest.
“What hermits?” asked the Bishop, going to the side of the vessel and seating himself on a box. “Tell me about them. I should like to hear. What were you pointing at?”
“Why, that little island you can just see over there,” answered the man, pointing to a spot ahead and a little to the right. “That is the island where the hermits live for the salvation of their souls...”
You can read the rest of the story at goo.gl/vKVTJz. (Go ahead—you’ll like it!)
In the end I decided that the one-bloomed shrub-tree, a paean to the brick-and-mortar captor that sheltered it from a disordered and fragmented world, was simply relaying the instructions of its God. We humans were made to do the same (through faith, without alterations—our theology is not DIY, but DIH… as in [God] Does It Himself ).
That’s it for this month. May the Lord bless you and keep you,
Pastor E.B.
P.S. Jefferson, like Tolstoy, took what he liked from Christian doctrine and assembled his own "bible."

Friday, July 6, 2018

Loose Laces (Part 2 of 2)

[This post is the 2nd half of a newsletter article; the 1st half was in June issue of ¿Qué Pasa?.]

To recap the point (loose laces?)... For a number of people, ignorance about Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and Lutherans in general, is not unlike a loose shoelace. I have heard Lutheranism referred to as Catholic lite and the Reformation called a second Crusade (as though Luther and other Reformers were motivated by a call to war against the Pope). Luther at the start of the 16th century faced more than a degenerate Roman Catholic Church—his church, the church that he loved; he encountered clergy “altogether incapable and incompetent to teach” and laity with “no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine,” not to mention inveterate illiteracy. Luther found himself with more than a few shoes to tie (so to speak).
Go ahead... Bow your head
 and check those laces!
Derek Landy is an Irish author best known for the Skulduggery Pleasant series of young adult books. The following quote is from Playing With Fire (Skulduggery Pleasant, Book 2): “An untied shoelace can be dangerous,” he said. “I could have tripped.” She stared at him. A moment dragged by. “I'm joking,” he said at last. She relaxed. “Really?” “Absolutely. I would never have tripped. I'm far too graceful.” Far too graceful…there’s a Lutheran pun in there somewhere. Sometimes we move through this world, not being far too graceful, but feeling far too full of grace. As Lutherans, sometimes we wear God’s grace like a pair of Wayfarers, forgetting to occasionally to bow our heads (and look down at those shoes that walk behind Jesus' sandals).
The Reformation left in its wake an epidemic of loose shoelaces; Luther’s remedy was a simplified instruction of the basic tenets of the Christian faith, his Small Catechism. But even after 500 years, we find the Lutheran Church splintered by varying interpretations of God’s Word, an ignorance about our Confessions, and a growing complacency in the face of other Christian denominations and the world at large. Personally, I think everyone who calls himself or herself a Lutheran should dust off a Small Catechism and conduct a shoelaces check…
Luther’s ordering of the chief parts of the Catechism was intended not only to facilitate teaching the faith, but as a diagnostic tool for self-examination. The sequence is driven theologically, from Law to Gospel; Luther uses the analogy of a sick man to illustrate: the Ten Commandments show a man his sickness (sin), the Apostles’ Creed shows him where he can find the medicine (God’s grace offered in Christ), and the Lord’s Prayer shows him how he can appropriate this medicine (through faith which reaches out for God’s grace in prayer). The Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer help the Christian to abide by the Ten Commandments, rather than struggle to keep them; this, in turn, provides a creedal and Trinitarian compass for making one’s way in the world.
The fulcrum of the three chief parts is the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, which is the medicine (redemption) that heals the sick man, and which we Lutherans refer to fondly as the chief article of the Christian faith. This article is the centerpiece—quite literally—of what we confess, teach, and believe as Lutheran Christians.
Luther’s theology, cultivated heavily as a practicing monk and originally steeped in the medieval doctrine and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, evolved from a pursuit of salvation through a faith produced and maintained by love (and expressed in good works) into the recognition of faith alone as the conduit through which God’s gracious gifts are received freely. It is this definition of faith that shaped Luther’s practice of catechesis and permeates each section in the Catechism. The chief parts (Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer) focus on faith in the everyday life of the Christian. The next three parts (Baptism, Confession and Absolution, Lord’s Supper) focus on faith in the sacramental life of the church. The last section (Prayers, Table of Duties) addresses the manner in which the Christian should exercise faith each day through prayer (and meditation).
Luther meant for his Small Catechism to accompany the Christian from the Baptismal font to the grave. For Luther, catechesis was more than just the Small (or Large) Catechism as textbooks, per se, for do-it-yourself spirituality. Catechesis incorporates a life of Word and Sacrament—hearing God’s Word as preached in church and taught at home, living life each day as one baptized into Christ and claimed by God, trusting in God over all else, secure in His grace through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection alone.
Luther calls the contents of the Catechism (in the preface to the Large) “the minimum knowledge required of a Christian.” But they are so much more than that! As the contents are learned and memorized, one’s thought processes change, as does one’s perspective on life and life’s priorities. This is evident from his explanation of the First Commandment: “We should fear, love, and trust God above all things.” The Catechism is not merely a primer, nor is it simply a handbook for better Christian (or Lutheran) living. It truly is a vade mecum, yet it is even more—an instruction manual, a prayer book, a pastoral care companion, a theological roadmap, and a guide to confession, suitable for adults, children, confirmation students, and seekers alike. The Small Catechism, especially, could be called Luther’s blueprint for all other forms of catechesis—preaching, self-study, teaching, evangelizing, etc.
Whether newly baptized and growing in the faith or a seasoned believer, Luther reminds us of the necessity to bow our heads daily before God. And to keep our shoelaces tied.
Until next month, may the Lord bless you and keep you!
Pastor E.B.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Loose Laces (Part 1 of 2)

In the short time I’ve been a pastor I’ve met all kinds of Christians—some seasoned, others just starting to toddle; I’ve even met a select few called, I suppose, by the Spirit to “baptize” a newly-minted pastor with questions “every pastor ought to know the answer to.” Church folk—and so Lutherans—come in all shapes and colors and sizes, with varying levels of church life experience/involvement, biblical/doctrinal familiarity, and knowledge about what their own church teaches (much less someone else’s). But what all Christians have in common are the shoes (perhaps sandals?) on those feet that follow Jesus… Some are laced up nice and tight, while others are…well loosely wrapped or not even tied at all.

There’s no doubt about it—one’s adoption into God’s family at Baptism is not only a lifelong commitment from God, but a lifelong learning curve, for no other reasons than to keep the Cross the focal point for all one thinks, says, hears, and does, to learn to recognize false teaching, and to keep that pesky devil at bay. The Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Two of the most trusted tools in Satan’s toolbox are vanity (in particular, complacence) and ignorance (the true source of confusion about our world and our God).

For a number of people, ignorance about Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and Lutherans in general, is not unlike a loose shoelace. I have heard Lutheranism referred to as Catholic lite and the Reformation called a second Crusade (as though Luther and other Reformers were motivated by a call to war against the Pope). Luther at the start of the 16th century faced more than a degenerate Roman Catholic Church—his church, the church that he loved; he encountered clergy “altogether incapable and incompetent to teach” and laity with “no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine,” not to mention inveterate illiteracy. Luther found himself with more than a few shoes to tie (so to speak).

Lutheran professor Charles Arand, in the introduction to his book That I May Be His Own, writes that in 1528 (eleven years after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg) “it became painfully evident that the Reformation had not taken hold at the grassroots of the population as once hoped.” Many had become indifferent to church. Following several parish visits that year, Luther produced his Small Catechism (a more in-depth Large Catechism quickly followed), which, notes Arand, had been “translated into every language on the continent” by the end of the 16th century.

Catechesis in the sense of simplified instruction of the basic tenets of the Christian faith was Luther’s remedy for the epidemic of loose shoelaces nearly 500 years ago (a remedy still used in the Lutheran Church today). In addition to contending with ignorance, illiteracy, and indifference, Luther had to deal with one of his contemporaries (in what came to be known as the Antinomian Controversy), Johannes Agricola, who was teaching in error that the Gospel, not the Law, brings knowledge of sin and contrition. In January 1529, the first iteration of the Small Catechism was printed in everyday German on paper large enough to hang up, poster-like, for easy access, particularly in the home. Luther intended this Catechism (and the book editions that followed) to be used by the head of the household for basic Christian instruction centered on memorization of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. He also included explanations of Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, as well Daily Prayers, Table of Duties, and Christian Questions with Their Answers (and later editions contained woodcut illustrations). The advent of the printing press helped Luther to get the Word out—literally. According to Arand, by the end of the 16th century about 150 editions of the Small Catechism had appeared, making it “the standard and norm for all other catechisms.”

For Luther, catechesis was inextricably linked to the liturgy, as those familiar with, at least, the three chief parts of his Catechisms (which he considered a summary of scripture and all that was needed to know for salvation) could better understand the sermon—while Luther preached on catechetic topics, he was aware of how little was actually learned from a sermon. The same year his Small Catechism was published he promoted it as a confessional manual used to examine people for admittance to the Lord’s Supper. If one could recite the chief parts and demonstrate an understanding of each, confess sins contritely, and express an earnest desire to continue learning, one would receive absolution and the Sacrament.

Arand points out that “Luther also recognized that while the catechism leads a person into the Scriptures, it also functions as a catalyst for bringing the same Scriptures into the life of Christians.” For Luther, the basic elements of Christian faith contained in his catechisms were not only meant to better one’s church life but aid the Christian in everyday life outside the church.

Until next month, may the Lord bless you and keep you!

Pastor E.B.

P.S. On May 21 I received a somewhat cryptic, but very kind postcard from an anonymous sender with no return address and a postmark from Dallas. I’d sure like to know who you are in order to personally thank you!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Let’s give 'em something to talk about—the 8th Commandment.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. (John 8:3-8 ESV)

A few years ago, when I was a teacher, I was talking with a colleague during parking lot duty before dawn one morning about things people—coworkers, particularly—say about others out of earshot and that I was the topic of one snippet (snipe?) overheard between two staff members on my campus. I find such pettiness contemptible and, most of the time, just let it slide (like water off a duck's back, as we used to say in the Navy). My customer service doctrine is very simple: if you have a problem with me, come talk to me and let's resolve it to prevent festering. And if I've wronged you, please say so—I may not even be aware that I have done so.

Ironically, upon hearing that I was the subject of someone else's conversation, I quickly made a colleague the subject of my conversation, and that is the mitosis of gossip (replete with mutation as each new tale unfolds). Such is our human nature. Sin makes us victims and convinces us to live our lives seeking compensation (whereas faith, conversely, compels us to forgive and live in the shadow of the Cross on which Christ's life was taken in recompense for our transgressions). So I was reminded to get a grip and that even in such a charitable and altruistic vocation as church work, the 8th Commandment is more than occasionally seen but not heard. Martin Luther wrote this nugget about it in his Small Catechism (my boldface): "We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything." (Luther also said that our ears should become like tombs for gossip…)

Gossip is the kissing cousin of false witness. And while some transgressions of the 8th Commandment are blatant accusations, insults, or epithets hurled in anger, weakness, or fear, many in today’s world come in the form of veiled posts to social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) or seemingly innocuous comments which are actually attempts at now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t passive-aggressiveness (i.e. the backhanded compliment) or reports of truth that are likely opinion-based, merely doubtful, and based on conjecture, rather than facts.

In Luther’s Large Catechism, he writes: “False witness, then, is everything which cannot be properly proved. Therefore, what is not manifest upon sufficient evidence no one shall make public or declare for truth; and, in short, whatever is secret should be allowed to remain secret, or, at any rate, should be secretly reproved…”

Pastors, unfortunately, have a tough row to hoe (so to speak) as they strive to serve faithfully and dutifully, called by the Church to stand for Christ in His stead. 1 Timothy 3 is a constant reminder that the office of pastor (overseer) is "a noble task" meant for those who "must be above reproach" and "well-thought of by outsiders." A former pastor once remarked to me that Satan's attacks upon pastors are more frequent and more severe, so much so that some have buckled. I'm not blind to the potential pitfalls and perils of this office and I'm abjectly aware of my own nature and proclivities, that I'm a sinful human being, susceptible to the same temptations and conflicts as everyone else.

And the sad truth is, people are going to talk...about you, about me, about whomever, for whatever the reason. Christian or not, the need to engage in petty gossiping is fueled by sin and is often a manifestation of a deeper issue such as low self-esteem, insecurity, and envy (or—even worse—bias, driving one’s own agenda at the expense of others…even hate).

God obviously considers false witness serious enough that He made a specific law against it—gossip and slander can poison a congregation, break apart relationships, and ruin reputations. There’s no truth where there’s no trust; without trust there can be no relationships with others. Outside the church doors is a sin-driven world in which the truth is blurred by cynicism, fear, and an atmosphere of exclusion and secrecy; however, those sinners seeking refuge inside perhaps still require a reminder from time to time of Christ’s expectations of His disciples in the “Great Commandment” (recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke):

"'And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:30-31 ESV)

Love your God and put Him first. Then love others. All of the 10 Commandments are wrapped up in these two! And while we can’t keep all Ten, we surely can try to abide by them through faith. As a pastor, most of the issues I deal with are related directly or indirectly with the 8th Commandment and the hurt, misunderstanding, and, too often, anger that resulted because of something someone overheard or read in an email or post online.

I know one doesn't need to be ordained to make a difference in this world...

...but it's not this world that concerns me as much as helping others in it find a place in the next.

Until next month, may the Lord bless you and keep you!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

'Who dieth thus is living still.'

One evening after dinner last month, my wife and I caught an episode of the late 80s tv series In the Heat of the Night (starring Carroll O’Conner as the police chief in the small town of Sparta, Mississippi), a powerful, albeit unintentional, devotional curiously appropriate for Lent from the secular world. The episode’s title is "A Trip Upstate" (from the 2nd season) and it deals with the sanctity of life, capital punishment, and, surprisingly, John 11:25. It got me to thinking…
Most Christians, especially those who have lost a loved one, are familiar with the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  The Apostle John relates a conversation between Martha, the sister of Lazarus, and Jesus, which begins with Martha in effect blaming Jesus for her brother’s death because he arrived too late to heal him.  Martha is just like the rest of us, really—we face-off with God when He “takes” someone from us (and without so much as an explanation). Jesus knows that Martha is understandably upset, but also knows that there’s a Gospel moment in all of this.  Before he deals with Lazarus, Jesus says to Martha: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26 ESV)
What could be a more comforting thought for the survivors of the deceased than knowing that Scripture assures us that upon death believers are in the hands of God and that they are with Christ. Better yet, what could be a more comforting thought for the living
On Thursday, November 6, 2008, I found my 70-year old father dead on the floor in his house where he lived alone. It was just before 6 p.m. and all the lights were off in the house.  I discovered his body on the floor in a back bedroom. It was a Stephen King moment—I say that, not because of the horror, but because King was fond of describing that phenomenon that takes place when your eyes see something that your brain is still trying to process. I was more surprised than anything else, actually.  So much so that I stood in the hallway for some time trying to decide what to do or whom to call.
Once my sanity returned, I called 911 and waited. And I was okay...sad for me, of course, because my father was gone…but okay. I knew that I had found my father’s remains and not him.  My faith reassured me that in death, my father, who had been plagued with heart and addiction problems, had been set free!  I am so thankful to God for the gift of faith He has given me in Him through Christ that sustained me that night and in the weeks that followed…  
There is a Lutheran hymn (LSB #759) called “This Body in the Grave We Lay” which is played often at funeral services.  The 2nd and 3rd stanzas are beautiful and reflect our Christian sentiments about physical death, seen as an end forever by the unchurched, but as a transition by the believer through faith:
The soul forever lives with God,
Who freely hath His grace bestowed
And through His Son redeemed it here
From every sin, from every fear.

All trials and all griefs are past,
A blessed end has come at last.
Christ's yoke was borne with ready will;
Who dieth thus is living still.
Funerals and memorial services are for the living. As was the case with Martha, the passing of a friend or a loved one still provides Jesus with a Gospel moment—if we can listen to His words "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” and then answer His question “Do you believe this?” with an unwavering “Yes!”, then we are not only witness of, but witnesses to the Gospel message of hope, the anticipation of bodily resurrection and a reunion with those we knew in this life, God’s promise of life everlasting in Christ.
It is with hope, not apprehension or fear, that we look upon the grave, secure in knowing that it is not the end.  An open grave for us as Christians is no longer really open; our faith has closed it forever.   For as the hymn says…
“Who dieth thus is living still.”  Amen.
Until next month, may the Lord bless you and keep you!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Other Apology

Over the last few months I have written in this newsletter ad nauseum (so I’ve been told) of learning enough about what we teach, preach, confess, and believe as Lutherans to apologize (defend) our faith in the face of false teachings and untruths. This month, this Lent Season, I’d like us all to think about the other apology…
Some years back a teaching colleague and Baptist friend of mine were having a spirited chat about Christians and forgiveness. He offered this nugget of wisdom, which I still carry in my faith’s back pocket to this day: “Unforgiveness is like taking poison and hoping it kills the other person.” Why is forgiveness so easy to speak of in the pew (or from the pulpit) and so difficult to “do” beyond the sanctuary?
For God there are no unforgivable sins (though some well-meaning Christians are fond of pointing out Matthew 12:32; however, for the believer, no sin is unpardonable). Why, then, for the rest of us is the list of transgressions for which retribution is the only answer so long?!
I bring this up because a congregation is like a family—well, it is a family—and no family is perfect. A family is as imperfect as its members. And, let’s face it, some families can be downright dysfunctional. Christian families are no different. Scripture regularly reminds us of our seemingly infinite capacity for dysfunction, for hurting the ones we love. We are, after all, sinners, at odds with God from the day we were born.
Most of us associate human forgiveness (or lack thereof) with an apology (or lack thereof)—even God’s forgiveness is offered freely to apologetic (that is, repentant) sinners.  Yet it’s easy enough to make excuses when we hurt others, and some people (mostly men) believe saying “I’m sorry” to be a sign of weakness. Some believe that an apology is only needed to take the heat off; afterward, we can go back to living with just one real concern: self.
According to Psychology Today, an “apology is not just a social nicety. It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. It is also a way of acknowledging an act that, if otherwise left unnoticed, might compromise the relationship. Apology has the ability to disarm others of their anger and to prevent further misunderstandings.”
Forgiveness requires neither an apology nor atonement to free the one who has suffered a transgression; however, the same is not true for the transgressor. The burden is truly upon the sinner to mend the fence, so to speak. Particularly for the believer before God, as Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 5:
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council… So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Forgiveness is a personal response to an acknowledged transgression for which the transgressor was clearly responsible. We say “You hurt me, but I am not going to seek retribution, because I forgive you.” Then—right then—the debt is cancelled. Jesus said that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us (Matthew 6:14), yet I haven’t found anywhere in Scripture where that forgiveness must be unconditional. Atonement, in contrast to forgiveness, is a contrite acknowledgement of wrongdoing and any necessary reparation. Forgiveness and atonement work together to repair broken relationships.
Forgiveness certainly frees us from anger and resentment, but an apology—sincere repentance + the desire to “make it right”—is truly the first step toward patching up, even renewing a damaged relationship. When we mend our relationships with one another in Christian love, we mend our relationship with God. And then our faith can truly receive the forgiveness Christ won for us on the Cross.
(Just as Christ keeps forgiving us, so we must keep on forgiving our fellow men. If this precept were observed, says Luther in his exposition of Matthew 5:32, there would be fewer divorces.)
Until April, may the Lord’s Peace be with you all!
Pastor E.B.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Confessional Unity: Part 5 of 5

[Note: This article appears in the February 2018 newsletter.]

An open letter to the gentleman who brought the Communion card out of the sanctuary after the service…
…and very brusquely told me that he and his wife would not be back, that our Communion card says nothing about having to be a member of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS), and that he was of a non-Lutheran denomination. Sir, you left our church agitated, without ever giving me the opportunity to properly address your concerns; I was in the greeting line. Your comments to me are case in point why confessional unity is so important. Though I hope you will seek me out to see if we can find some common ground, I doubt I’ll see you again. So for the benefit of any others who may not be fully aware of our Communion practice and policy*, I will try to address your concerns here.
My job as a pastor is to bring as many baptized souls to the Communion rail as possible, not the other way around. LCMS pastors take a vow to uphold the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the practices of the LCMS. We, as a congregation of the LCMS, practice “close” Communion. This is clearly stated on the LCMS website. Things may seem a little different with a new pastor, I understand, but your denomination and ours have differing views on Communion—I wish we could have sat and talked, but you left. I suggest you contact the pastor of your home church and ask him or her to explain that church body’s Communion practice—and ask about whether he or she believes that Christ is truly present in the reception of the body and blood. Then find an LCMS pastor (I’m still available) to chat with. You must follow your heart. It’s not possible to subscribe to two confessions (you’d have to cheat on one somewhere along the way).
Sir, I’m sad that you left in the state you did this morning. I will pray that God will plant you in a place where you will feel comfortable and you will bloom. I truly apologize for any discomfort I or our church may have caused you.
This final article in the series—this letter—serves to punctuate the importance of confessional unity. It’s not enough to just “be” Lutheran, but to be aware of what we confess, preach, and teach. Scripture is our sole norm and source for all we say and do; as for the Sacraments, Christ said to do it (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), so we do it. There is nothing “Lutheran” about our three Creeds, and our liturgy is based on the ancient church’s order of worship. We are Christians first, saved by God’s Grace Alone through Faith Alone in Christ Alone!
Pastor Aleksei with wife Ana (glasses) and a few members
of St. Andrew Lutheran Parish in Simferopol, Russia
A postscript: Speaking of confessional unity, we officially became a “sister congregation” of St. Andrew Lutheran Parish in Simferopol, Russia (see map), on January 7! St. Andrew is a congregation of the EvangelicalLutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), an LCMS partner church. We will keep Pastor Aleksei Shepelev, whom I've known for 15 years, and his church family in our prayers each week and they will do likewise (they gather for worship at 2pm on Sunday, 5am Texas time). More information about them will be on a bulletin board in the fellowship area soon!
Until March, may the Lord’s Peace be with you all!
Pastor E.B.

Zion Lutheran Church Communion Statement (printed each week in the worship bulletin): This Sacrament is intended for baptized, prepared Christians. Lutherans believe, teach, and confess that this Holy Supper was instituted by Christ Himself and that His body and blood are truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine and are received not only spiritually by faith, but also bodily, for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Because those who eat and drink our Lord’s body and blood unworthily do so to their great harm (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-29), because we take seriously the spiritual care of those approaching our altar, and because Communion is a confession of what our church teaches and believes, we ask that those not yet instructed, in doubt, or belonging to another church body or denomination not in fellowship with The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod please remain seated during Communion. Please see the pastor after the service with any questions.