Miami Vicar

I returned for my second year of seminary a bit more prepared for the experience. I needed to take an overload of classes and also two classes the following summer to compensate for the term I had missed, but additional academic work was no worry for me. I also found a job off-campus. Five nights a week, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., I was a security guard for a major trucking firm I sat in a shack and checked truck trailers in and out of the lot. The job gave me time to do all my reading assignments and to write drafts of all my written assignments that I could then type back on campus. I even composed some creative writing of my own in that guard shack. When I started the job, I signed a paper indicating that any work I did while on company property belonged to the company. But no one has ever asked me for a copy of the papers I wrote that year or the short stories I composed.

In the dormitory, I found myself part of a group of friends. We visited and talked about classes and professors. We watched TV together. We played cards. We formed a temporary identity. For thirty years, since the campus had been designed and built, the dormitories had been designated only by letter names: A, B, C, and so on. We lived in Dorm C, but we decided that our building needed a real name. A paper was posted on the bulletin board, asking for suggestions. The only rule was that the name had to begin with the letter C. From the start, I knew that some name would appear just before the deadline that would be just right. Until that happened, the most popular candidate was Chemnitz. (Martin Chemnitz was a theologian a generation after Luther, one so important in expressing doctrine that he is often called “the second Martin.”) But the last-minute winner—and I never learned who proposed the name—was Clyde. I cut the appropriate letters out of black construction paper, laminated them, and put them after the C on the outside wall. A few days later, our neighbors to one side had renamed their dormitory Bonnie, while the neighbors to the other side chose the generic Dorm. Maintenance removed the names, but I replaced ours. Our identity of Clyde mattered, at least to me.

When we returned from vicarage for our final year on campus, the dormitories had all been named by the school’s Board of Directors. Bonnie was now Ambrose, Clyde was Athanasius, and Dorm was Jerome.

That year I also studied Spanish and associated myself with the students and faculty interested in missionary outreach to Spanish-speaking people in the United States. I had been around Hispanics for a while—during college I had a roommate from Columbia and, later, another from Venezuela. I was friends with people from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. During my half-year away from campus, I had become close to a family of Mexican ancestry. Involving myself in outreach to Hispanics felt comfortable to me.

The seminary respected my choice and supported it. When the time came for me to be sent to a congregation for a one-year internship, or vicarage, I was sent to a dual-language congregation in Miami, Florida. I worked there with Spanish-speaking Lutherans, many of them from Cuba. I learned about cross-cultural ministry, about Cuban culture, and also a bit about politics. At times I was uncomfortable and felt myself outside of my comfort zone. But, then, I feel that way most days. I was given passing marks on my vicarage. After a two-week missionary trip into Mexico with a non-denominational Christian group, I returned to campus, ready for the final lap that would earn a Master of Divinity degree and a certification saying that I was qualified to be a Lutheran pastor. J.

Dropping out of school

When I began at seminary, there were several groups of friends on campus to which I did not belong. The tightest clan consisted of those students who had arrived during the summer for intensive instruction in New Testament Greek. Most of the students who had not gone to a Lutheran college were part of that group, but I had taken classes in Greek in college. Other groups of friends had been formed at the various Lutheran colleges. Those groups did not deliberately exclude me, but I did not have any of the instant connections with other students on campus that many other students enjoyed.

The seminary program, then and now, was a four-year program. In most cases, the third year was spent off-campus in a full-time internship within a congregation. (These interns are called vicars, a word that has different meanings for other Christian groups.) Each crop of students, therefore, was on campus at the same time as two other groups of students each year, but the other two groups would be different from one year to the next. Instead of semesters, the school year was divided into three terms of twelve weeks, as well as a summer term which was mostly set aside for catch-up work should any of the students have fallen behind their schedule.

The campus had been designed to resemble a European fishing village. The chapel stood on the highest part of the campus, with the student union and cafeteria next door. Two classroom buildings were connected by a walkway, making a U-shaped structure. Dormitories were scattered around the campus in various directions from the chapel-union-classroom complex. The dormitories were built to accommodate no more than twenty residents, and each had a lounge/meeting area with couches, chairs, a television set, and a fireplace. The campus also featured wide-open spaces, some of them forested, and an artificial lake below the chapel. One joke about the campus (which I have used productively at several congregations, especially in the south) was that students who arrived at the beginning of September had no hope of being able to walk on the lake, but after four or five months of study, most of us were able to do so easily.

I survived my first term of seminary, but rolling into the winter term, I felt increasingly alienated. Much of the feeling was my own fault—my awareness that I could not continue my college practice of disagreeing with professors and still expecting a good grade, my sense of being outside most of the campus clans and cliques, and the feeling that students and professors seemed always to be looking over their shoulders, cautious about saying anything theological that might be part of one of the synod-wide conflicts. In the midst of winter, I visited with the Dean of Students and asked permission to take a break, to withdraw from spring and summer classes, perhaps returning in the fall, perhaps not. His first question was if my need for a break was finances. He could find help if money was a problem. I told him no, I just needed time to adjust my thinking and to be sure that I wanted to continue what I had started. He granted permission. After completing the winter term, I packed my belongings into my car and headed home.

My parents were worried and frightened about my choice to take time off. They also did not like the fact that I choose not to return to their house. One of my friends had an apartment he was willing to share for a few months. I dropped off my stuff and made a short visit back to the college campus. Then I was ready, for the first time in more than sixteen years, to live a life that was not student life.

The summer between college graduation and the start of seminary, I had worked at a Christian publishing firm, telemarketing one of their magazines. That company was willing to have me back at the same job. The three previous summers, I had worked at Burger King. They were willing to have me back five evenings a week. The money was enough to meet my expenses and also save for the future, whether I would be returning to seminary or striking out in a new direction.

Three people guided my decision those spring and summer months. One was a coworker at the Christian publishing house. Rod came from Hawaii; he was of Japanese ancestry. He had done some amateur sumo wrestling and also had played football (offensive line) for the University of Hawaii. He had not been raised as a Christian. In fact, he had partied hard in college, took drugs, and lived a wild life. But then Rod was born again as a Christian. He became a pastor—and, as a pastor in Hawaii, he left his phone number at half a dozen bars. From time to time a bartender would call him to provide Christian counseling to a customer who was in emotional pain and needed help. Rod was working part-time while taking graduate classes at Wheaton College. He was also receiving medical care for damaged kidneys, a result of his pre-Christian adventures. Rod was excited about the opportunities he saw to serve the Lord. Every week, it seemed, he had a new dream of what he could do for the Church. Then, one week, Rod wasn’t at work any more. His kidney problems had shortened his life. Rod’s enthusiasm for Church work was inspiring. When he was gone, I was given one reason to find my place in the Church.

My boss, George, was also an inspiration. George had served various congregations over the years, Baptist and Mennonite and nondenominational. He also had medical challenges; in fact, he missed some time at work that summer due to a heart attack. But George had advice for me. He said that a ship sitting still in the water cannot be steered; a ship that is moving can be steered. I should ask God to steer, but I shouldn’t be afraid to move, trusting that if I was moving in the wrong direction, God would steer me toward the right direction.

At Burger King, a co-worker my age also provided some help. We did not talk religion with each other. But one day he told me that he wished he had known a pastor like me when he was younger. He had tried to talk with his pastor when he was a high school student, but their conversations had not collected. Paul said that I would be approachable as a pastor; I would be helpful to people like him.

Because of Paul and George and Rod, I ended the summer knowing that I would return to the seminary. No one could tell me where the journey would take me, but the journey was one that I needed to take. J.

Exegesis and hermeneutics

If I could send one message back in time to my younger self, entering seminary immediately after graduating college, I would advise that new seminary student to cultivate a relationship with one member of the seminary faculty and to be mentored by him. Knowing what I know today, two members of the faculty stand out as men that I wish had guided me during my student days. Both men are (and were then) very intelligent, bold in their theology without contradicting the faith of the Church—very Christian, very Biblical, very Lutheran, and very solid academically.

I was assigned a counselor from the faculty. He was one of the professors about whom my pastor had warned me: having gone straight from student to instructor, he had not spent time in the parish. Now, forty years later, he was continuing to lecture in the classroom, quite probably delivering the same lectures he had developed forty years earlier. They had been safe during the time of controversy and debate, so undoubtedly they remained safe at that time. Outside the classroom, he was sometimes referred to as “Doctor Sominex.” In my own spare time, I developed a different reaction to his teaching manner: I made him spokesman for a brand of beer that was unlike the common beers sold with energetic commercials. His beer was a calm beer, a soothing beer, a settling beer, sold with the motto, “because life is exciting enough already.”

Other members of the seminary faculty also clung to the tried-and-true methods of instruction, those that could not be challenged as liberal or progressive, since they were older than the hills. In Bible translation, these methods consisted of labeling words in the fashion of Aristotle. Words were first identified as nouns or verbs or adjectives, etc. (which is of course proper); then nouns were labeled by case: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative (still proper). A third level of labels further framed the word. There were, for example, eighteen types of genitive case, including genitive of possession, genitive of source, genitive of material, and so forth. We were expected to memorize all the different kinds of genitives and datives and accusatives and to apply them to nouns as we translated the Bible into English.

In a similar way, we were expected to recognize figures of speech, or “tropes.” Most passages of the Bible were to be interpreted literally, but we were warned that the Bible sometimes uses tropes, and these also were to be matched to a list of labels: similes, metaphors, synecdoche, hyperbole, irony, and a dozen more. Old Testament prophecies of Christ were assumed to be rectilinear—pointing directly to Christ and having no other meaning—unless a New Testament passage specifically uses a different kind of interpretation for an Old Testament passage. (For example, in Galatians 4:21-31 Paul uses “typology” to discuss Hagar and Sarah and their sons as images of God’s people under Law (Hagar and her son) or under Promise (Sarah and her son). Paul, an apostle inspired by the Holy Spirit, was allowed to interpret a passage from Genesis in this way. We, as seminary students, were not.)

We were taught a few principles of hermeneutics (Bible interpretation): the simplest meaning was best, although that simplest meaning might be a trope rather than a literal interpretation. The Bible interprets itself—when we were puzzled by one passage of Scripture, our best resource was to find another passage of Scripture which discusses the same topic. Each passage of Scripture has only one meaning. We are not translating and interpreting God’s Word correctly when our version is open to multiple meanings. This last principle counters a medieval approach to hermeneutics which claims that each Bible passage contains four meanings: literal, allegorical, moral, and analogical. To find all these meanings in each passage, scholars frequently produced creative, tortured, and even bizarre interpretations of Bible passages. I have recently encountered a powerful Lutheran defense of this principle of only one meaning for each passage, written by a current Lutheran seminary professor. His defense follows the “slippery slope” argument, saying that if any passage is affirmed to have two or more meanings, then the entire Bible becomes subjective, with each reader feeling free to invent his or her own meaning to any passage of the Bible.
In one of my first assignments as a seminary student, I was required to translate a passage from the Gospel of John, chapter one, about the light and the darkness. The professor was particularly interested in our approach to one Greek word, “katalambano,” which has a range of meanings, including, “obtain, attain, come upon, overtake, attack, seize, catch, realize, understand, learn.” So John 1:5 reads, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not katelaben it.” Some translators favor, “the darkness has not understood it,” while others say, “the darkness has not overcome it.” I felt that John deliberately chose a word that covered a range of possibilities; if he wanted to be precise about understanding or about overcoming, other words were available to him. So my translation was, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it,” a translation which maintains both meanings. The professor said I was precisely wrong. Each Bible passage has one meaning and one meaning only, and the translator and interpreter must find that one meaning and express it clearly, without allowing any ambiguity or multiple meanings.

A second example, one which I did not have to discuss in seminary, is found in I Corinthians 7:9. Paul expresses his wish that all Christians could remained unmarried, like Paul, and focus their attention on Christian living, service to the Lord and his Church. But Paul acknowledges that not every Christian can keep his or her desire for marital relations unmet, so Paul permits marriage, saying, “It is better to marry than to burn.” Does he mean “to burn with passion” in this lifetime or “to burn in judgment” eternally for breaking a commandment? I would say that Paul skillfully includes both possibilities while addressing this complex topic. But, if every passage has one and only one meaning, then the translator and interpreter must select one or the other.

Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to respond to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Bible as a whole shows that we cannot earn eternal life. It comes only as a gift from God, not a reward for anything we do. The very word “inherit” suggests that theme. But the usual Lutheran interpretation of this parable, in the context of its conversation, suggests that Jesus was revealing the strictness of God’s Law, forcing the man asking the question to learn that he could not inherit eternal life, because he could never reach God’s standards of perfection. The lesson concerns Law, not Promise. But one might notice that the Good Samaritan resembles Jesus. We are like mugging victims, lying helpless on the road, unable to rescue ourselves; Jesus comes and rescues us from our sins and from all evil, paying to grant us life. I have heard seminary professors say that, as hermeneutics, we must say that the parable is about Law, about God’s high standards which we cannot meet. They then say that, as preachers, we can indicate that the Good Samaritan reminds us of Jesus, and then we can proclaim the Gospel. This preserves the principle of one and only one meaning, but at the cost of making the Gospel seem like an afterthought, something the preacher adds to Jesus’ parable even though Jesus never intended that lesson and that application. To me, the responsible interpretation and application of this parable is both—Jesus shows the sternness of God’s Law, which we can never achieve, but he also shows how he fulfills the Law for us and rescues us by grace. In my opinion, this reading is faithful to Jesus’ explanation of why he told parables, found in Matthew 13:10-12 and parallel verses in Mark and in Luke.

As a professional theologian, I would acknowledge that most passages of the Bible have one and only one meaning. I would add that God can use language as skillfully as any human writer and that sometimes he has a double message in a single passage, whether a short verse like “it is better to marry than to burn” or a longer passage like the parable of the Good Samaritan. As a translator and interpreter usually treats the message of the Bible literally but also acknowledges and deals with tropes, so the translator and interpreter usually handles each passage of the Bible as containing a single message but also sees a few passages where the best interpretation contains more than one message.

Isaiah 7:14 is a controversial example. “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son”: who is this virgin? Matthew 1:22-23 says that this prophecy was fulfilled when Mary gave birth to Jesus. By the principles I was taught at the seminary, this is a rectilinear prophecy with one and only one meaning. Isaiah was talking about Mary, and that is all that can be said about his prophecy. Whether King Ahaz and others who heard the prophet speak this promise understood the doctrine of the virgin birth is immaterial. Mary was a virgin; she conceived and gave birth to Jesus, and Isaiah foretold that miracle seven hundred years before it happened. But what if Christian hermeneutics allowed this passage to have a second meaning, also centered upon Christ and his rescue mission? The promise of Isaiah was fulfilled in Mary’s pregnancy and delivery, yet something bigger was happening at the same time in the same event. Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church are the people of God. In a frequent trope, the people of God are treated as a bride, with God (or Jesus) as husband. The wedding and marriage have not yet happened; that comes on the Day of the Lord at the dawn of the new creation. Old Testament Israel and the Church, taken together, are the virgin bride awaiting the coming of the bridegroom for the wedding. But, when the time was right, God sent his Son, born of a woman within the chosen people of God. He was born, not to any virgin, but to a virgin of Israel, making the Son a descendant and heir of Abraham and of David. Does any passage in Scripture endorse this reading of Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1? Look at Revelation 12, where a woman gives birth to a Son who is the promised Savior. This woman, the queen of heaven (clothed with the sun and with a crown of twelve stars) is protected in the wilderness. Is this woman, the mother of the Savior, the queen of heaven, to be seen only as Mary, or does this woman represent all the people of God, Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church? I answer that she is, and that this picture from the last book of the Bible completes our understanding of the promise in Isaiah 7:14 as well as other Old Testament promises, including Genesis 3:15.

But, then, I never became a seminary professor. J.

Faith, reason, and politics in the Church

Creative tension between faith and reason has been part of philosophy and of religious thinking for many generations. Some thinkers demand that all propositions of faith be put to the test of reason and rejected if they fail that test. Others say that statements of faith rise above reason, that reason can be used to assemble clear understanding of the world and our place in it within the boundaries set by faith, but reason cannot judge those propositions upon which faith is founded. Few believers follow the stereotype of empty-headed followers who cling to faith but abandon reason. Many more people in the modern world cheat themselves by clinging to reason while abandoning the deeper truths known only by faith.

During the so-called Enlightenment, which followed the religious wars of the Reformation in Europe, some prominent philosophers and scientists advocated a life in which reason takes the lead and faith must follow. Wars continued to be fought in Europe and around the world, but they were fought for political reasons rather than religious reasons. Science had begun in medieval Europe as examination of God’s creation. Now some philosophers tried to separate science from religion. Over time, myths came into being featuring Galileo, Darwin, and other scientific figures who supposedly led an attack upon religious faith in general and Christian beliefs in particular. Christianity and organized religion were labeled enemies of knowledge, truth, and progress. On the defensive, Christian philosophy sometimes surrendered ground to the legions of Reason. Church leaders always include some who treat the Biblical accounts as metaphor and analogy, not to be treated literally. Among many branches of Christianity, this approach became more prominent, as theologians who proclaimed literal truth from the Bible were called “fundamentalists” and “bibliolaters” and were dismissed from serious theological discussion, pushed to the sides of the room and silenced in the conversation about reason, faith, and truth.

Christianity was very fluid in North America in the nineteenth century. Many branches of Christianity were imported from Europe during that century: Roman Catholics, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and others. New variations of Christianity arose in the New World: Adventists, Churches of Christ, Latter Day Saints/Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a bewildering array of Baptists and non-denominational sects. By the twentieth century, rapid transportation and communication allowed some scattered groups to congeal. Often, in the process of uniting assorted congregations and schools and theologians, theological compromises were accepted in the name of Christian unity. Frequently, these compromises included acceptance of European Biblical interpretation, which treated the Bible and its message scientifically and allegorically, casting away faith in a six-day creation, a world-wide flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, Jonah swallowed by a fish, and other Biblical accounts of miraculous events, times when God personally intervened in his creation for the sake of his chosen people.

Many Protestant Christians in North America continued attending the same congregations while their leadership carried them into what is called mainline Christianity—organizations that call themselves Christian, base their teachings upon the Bible, but also reject many sections of the Bible, being guided by reason first and faith second. Not only does mainline Protestant Christianity dismiss descriptions of miracles from the Biblical record; the same movement feels free also to edit out of the Bible any commandments or instructions that the surrounding world considers antiquated, old-fashioned, and not progressive. At times discussion of particular issues can become heated within these groups, but generally, sooner or later, the world’s leadership is followed by these groups, as faith-based thinking and living must surrender to world’s latest fashions and fads as set by human science and human reason.

 In most cases, smaller groups broke away from the mainline groups and formed associations of congregations that continued to teach and believe the Bible. Only two large North American groups remained under the control of traditional, Biblical, faith-ful Christianity. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) endured emotional, political, and theological arguments and debates in the 1960s and 1970s; in both cases, leadership of these groups was held by supporters of the Biblical message, and the leaders and congregations and other entities that left were those who favored reason over faith.  Southern Baptists and the LCMS remained in the hands of those who treat the entire Bible as God’s Word rather than defining their task to sift through the human messages of Scripture to identify and proclaim a few genuinely inspired words from God.

Conservative victory in the LCMS did not produce a happy, healthy, smooth-functioning synod. The bitterness of the “Battle for the Bible” left some church professionals looking over their shoulders, as if they might be the next victims of a church-wide purge. Disagreements over worship styles and other internal controversies were treated as if their issues were as vital as questions about Biblical inspiration. Even political competition within the LCMS took on the flavor of a Crusade to defend truth and overthrow error. In one seminary, students joked that the cafeteria tables were bugged by both sides: microphones heard the in the office of the seminary’s president were hidden in the saltshakers, and microphones heard in the office of the synod’s president were hidden in the pepper-shakers. The academic environment was tense, unsettled, and uncertain.

Some students felt the pressure stronger than others. One student in particular struggled to find his way in this new (to him) environment. J.

Sermon on the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-9)

16 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

              Life is not fair. We live in a world that is not fair. Bad people do bad things, but they get away with them and even profit from them. Good people try their best to do good things, but they still suffer from the things that go wrong in this world. Other religions teach about karma. They say that what comes around goes around, that you will be rewarded some day for the good things you do today, and that you will pay someday for all the wrong things that you do today. To make karma work, those religions have to assume that we live more than one lifetime. If you were born into a lifetime of wealth and comfort and privilege, you must have done good things in a past lifetime. If you were born into a lifetime of struggle and pain and poverty, you must have done bad things in a past lifetime. You harvest what you plant, you get what you deserve, and so all the things that happen now must be the consequences of things that happened in the past, even if we do not remember those things that happened.

              The rest of us believe in only a single lifetime, and we must admit that life is not fair. For some people, the random evil in this world proves that God does not exist. For them, life and the universe and everything are a string of random events, gradually building up to the world we know today with no plan, no purpose, and no reason for us to be here. Most of us are convinced that life has a purpose. We are here for a reason. God created the world that exists, and God sustains the world. God has a plan for the world, and each of us has a place in God’s plan.

              But what kind of God would make a world like the world where we live? When we describe God, we say that he is almighty—he has all power, and he can do anything. We also describe God as good. We say that God is the source of light and that evil comes from the darkness. We say that God gives us rules, commandments about how to live, and judges us according to those rules. We describe God as loving. We say that God wants the best for each of us, that he watches over us and cares for us, that he provides for us today and promises us better things in the future.

              When people look at the world logically and look at God logically, they say that we must change our description of God. Perhaps he is not all-powerful; perhaps evil exists because God is unable to prevent evil. Or perhaps God is not good, at least not in the way we understand goodness. Perhaps he enjoys suffering and pain and death; perhaps he is content to reward sinners for their bad deeds and to make his good people suffer. Or perhaps God does not love us. He might have forgotten about us, or he might be angry at us for our sins. Maybe the world is not unfair; maybe we deserve every bad thing that happens to us in our lives.

              Christians deny those maybes. Christians are convinced that God is Almighty. He can do whatever he wants—the bad things that happen have his permission and somehow are part of his greater plan for the world. God is loving. He desires all people to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. He does not want to judge and punish sinners; he wants to rescue sinners. He takes no pleasure in pain and suffering, but he allows them for a reason. God loves us. He has rescued us from our sins and from evil in this world. He has forgiven all our sins, and he plans to bring us to a perfect world where we will live with him forever in joy and peace and righteousness.

              For some Christians, then, the problems of this world are temporary troubles, something to be endured on our way to greater glory. Paul writes to the Romans that the problems we face today are nothing when compared to the glory that will be revealed. A few even go so far as to say that evil and suffering are imaginary. God is good. Everything he creates is good. We only think some things are bad because we cannot see them the way God sees them.

              That answer is not acceptable. Suffering and pain are real. Death is real. Sin and rebellion are real. Evil is real. Evil is not eternal, as God and goodness are eternal. Evil and sin are good things twisted, changed from their original good shape and purpose. Goodness can be pure, because God is purely good. There is no pure evil, because evil is only good things twisted. Evil will not last forever, but good will last forever, because God’s solution will eventually remove all evil from creation. But pain and suffering, sin and rebellion, evil and death exist in this world, and we must accept them as real even as we call to God for help and for solutions to our problems.

              God is Almighty, but God is not power. Other things matter to God more than his strength and his power. God is good; he is just and fair, but God is not justice. Other things matter more to God than being fair and just. God is loving, and also God is love. Eternally, love is God’s nature. In creation, love is God’s nature. Being made in his image means that we also love, even as God loves. When God responds to sin and rebellion, he responds with love. When he sees his good creation twisted and transformed, he answers with love. When we struggle and suffer in this world, our greatest strength comes not from the power of God, or even from the goodness of God, but from the love of God.

              Jesus describes a manager who faces trouble at work because he has wasted the possessions he was supposed to manage. He is about to lose his job. He does not want to beg, and he does not want to dig ditches, so he decides to be dishonest while he still has his job. He has the people who owe money to his master change their bills, reducing their debts. In this way, he wins friends that will help him after he has lost his job with his master.

              Jesus says that the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. He tells us that we should make friends with unrighteous wealth, friends who will welcome us into eternal dwellings after the wealth of this world has lost all value.

              This parable puzzles us. It does not sound like the Jesus we know so well from the rest of the Bible. The Bible tells us not to steal. It also tells us not to bear false witness. Jesus is the Truth, but the devil is the father of lies. We should be honest with our neighbors. We should be honest when dealing with wealth and possessions. We do not cheat to get through life. Because we love God, and because we love our neighbors, we are honest and truthful with our possessions and (especially) with the possessions of other people.

              This is called “stewardship.” We take care of the things entrusted to us. Often pastors use the word stewardship to talk about money and other gifts given to the Church. But stewardship covers everything in our lives. It covers our responsibilities to pay our bills, to take care of our families, to use our resources wisely, and to be responsible as we care for the world God created. Nothing we call ours today will be ours forever. We take none of this world’s wealth and property with us into the grave and beyond the grave. Yet, when we stand before the judgment throne of God, we will be questioned about our stewardship. God will ask us what we did with the blessings he entrusted to us. Did we meet our responsibilities wisely? Did we care for our neighbors, especially the poor and the weak and the vulnerable? Did we make the world a better place? Or did we use our wealth, our possessions, our abilities and our time only for ourselves? Did we love ourselves first and spend on ourselves first, leaving God and our neighbors with the leftovers when we were content and comfortable?

              Jesus uses this parable to help change the focus of our priorities. When you remember that life is short and that heaven lasts forever, the things God has given you today have a different meaning. We should consider the wealth, the time, the abilities we each have been given in terms of eternal dwellings and not just merely in terms of our comfort and happiness today. Rather than lowering ourselves to the standards of this world, we should raise our standards so we are faithful to the God who made us, the God who can welcome us into eternal dwellings or who can keep us locked out of heaven forever.

              Yet we also know that we cannot earn a place in heaven. We cannot buy God’s love with worldly wealth, because the entire world already belongs to him. We cannot put God in debt to us, because we already owe him everything. We cannot make ourselves friends of God by our good deeds in this world. If God welcomes into heavenly dwellings, his welcome will be based on his goodness and his love, not on anything we try to contribute to our salvation.

              Jesus was perfect. He lived a sinless human life in this sinful world. While we are dishonest managers who deserve judgment, Jesus is without sin; he should be welcomed into heaven by his Father, even if he is the only human being there. The rest of us have sinned and have fallen short of God’s glory. Only Jesus is righteous; only Jesus can claim a home in heaven by his own good deeds.

              But Jesus, in love, chose to be unfair. He chose to take the burden of the world’s sins upon himself. Our Redeemer transferred our debt to his account with his Father. He did not have us change our bills to eighty percent or fifty percent of the debt; he personally wrote a zero on each of our accounts. He had our bills marked “paid in full,” and he assumed all of our debt. More than that, he transferred his good works to our accounts. God the Father looks at us and sees his Son; he sees Jesus. He treats us accordingly. The heavenly paperwork has been altered, and the change that Jesus made is entirely in our favor.

              Anyone who demands that the good and almighty God be perfectly just and fair must be offended by this exchange. Satan himself stamps his foot and screams, “That’s not fair.” But God’s love is greater than his fairness and justice. God willingly is unfair on our account so he can claim us as his children and bring us into his eternal kingdom of peace and joy and righteousness.

              Because God wanted to be unfair, he permitted the world to be unfair. Often we suffer because of the sins of other people. Often we have problems for no reason we can discover. We suffer in ways we do not deserve to suffer, but this makes it possible for Jesus to suffer on the cross, even though he does not deserve to suffer. The world is polluted by sin. We suffer because of sin and evil in the world. But we never suffer for our own sins. The problems we face are not punishments from God. Christ bore our punishment and paid in full for all our sins. Now, if God allows us to suffer and have problems today, we can use those problems as reminders of the cross of Jesus Christ. We can let today’s problems keep our attention focused on the cross where Jesus paid for all our sins. The devil wants us to blame God for our problems. Instead, we let our problems remind us that God is unfair to us, adopting us as his children and giving us a home in his eternal dwellings.

              Because God is unfair to us, we also can be unfair. We forgive those who sin against us. They don’t deserve forgiveness, but we forgive them anyhow, because Jesus has paid for their sins on the cross. We pray for other people, for those we love, and for those who have authority over us. We do not always agree with those other people. They might not deserve our prayers. But we pray for them anyhow, because God wants us to live peaceful and quiet lives in this world, protected from at least some of the problems of evil and rebellion in this world.

              Prayer itself is not fair. God knows everything; he does not need our advice. Logic says we should trust God, accept whatever happens, and not speak with God about the world and our lives. But God tells us to pray. He wants to hear from us. He promises to hear our prayers and answer them. Because God is love, he entrusts us with power, inviting us to pray and assuring us that our prayers matter to him and matter in the things that happen in this world.

              Jesus is our Mediator. He brings our prayers to his Father and promises to answer those prayers. He pleads our cases before his Father and promises us forgiveness and new life. He pays the debt of our sins and claims us for his kingdom forever. To our King, our Redeemer, our Mediator Jesus Christ be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever.                   Amen.

Collected thoughts about current events

  • King Charles has some mighty big shoes to fill. Elizabeth walked a delicate path of calm and firm leadership in a rapidly changing world, and she did so with grace and dignity. Of course, Charles has spent his entire life training for this job, and he has watched her example that entire time. I’m sure he will do fine.
  • Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump remains under fire in the United States. He was the first person since General Eisenhower to be nominated for the Presidency by either party who did not have incumbent President, Vice=President, Senator, or Governor on his resume. He now supports candidates for the House and Senate who likewise have not “paid their dues” by working for years under the supervision of a political party and rising through the system. This may be a major reason Democratic and Republican leaders fear Trump and work so hard against him. The issue of Top Secret documents taken from the White House by Trump and his administration reveals much about how the system functions. No one in President Biden’s staff complained that they could not do their jobs because important documents were missing. The Archivist of the United States reported missing documents and asked the Department of Justice to locate and retrieve them. Presidential papers always belong to the nation, not to the retired chief executive. For this reason, we have Presidential Libraries and Museums. But, aside from Nixon and his tapes, no former President has ever been searched for possession of secret documents from his White House years. I have not heard any comments from Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama about Trump’s papers. On the other hand, the Archivist (whose job is supposed to be nonpartisan) has not only created a fuss over Trump’s documents; he has also retired from his post, saying that he wants to be sure that President Biden appoints his successor.
  • Ukrainian forces have enjoyed moderate success this month turning back the Russian invasion and reclaiming some parts of their country. The war is far from over. Russia maintains a huge advantage in resources and manpower. Other governments are willing to provide Ukraine with weapons, but no one will be replacing the soldiers lost on the battlefield. Putin will not back down; he stepped into this mess, and he is determined to keep his foot planted where it has landed. Some small gestures in Russia call for his resignation or removal, but Putin spent years building a power structure to protect him. His welcome fall from power remains a distant possibility, not yet a near hope. When it finally happens, world leaders must be ready to help Russia reestablish itself as a democracy, a free nation, and a defender of human rights and freedoms. The term limits flouted by Putin need to be restored; the Russian people will have to learn how to function without a tyrant controlling their country.
  • Mainstream media is doing all it can to minimize the Democratic Party’s loss of power in the coming mid-term election. As always in American elections, voter turn-out will be key. Generally, the party which lost the most recent presidential election has greater success drawing its supporters to the ballot box. Enormous efforts are underway to inspire liberal Americans to vote this November. The majority of Americans—those who are pro-life, who prefer limited government, and who favor a recovered economy over gifts from the government—must remember to cast their ballots and to encourage their families and friends (and all those who agree with them) to do the same. J.

College years

When I told my parents that I planned to attend seminary after college and become a Lutheran pastor—with the final goal of writing and teaching theology—my father strongly suggested that I not attend a Lutheran college. He felt that I would have a broader experience and understanding if my college education was not from the same system as the seminary I would later attend. With that in mind, I looked at small liberal arts colleges in the Heartland of America, ranging from Oberlin College in Ohio to Creighton University in Nebraska. My short list of three colleges attracted my attention because they were then experimenting with “open curriculum,” meaning that students had greater freedom to choose their courses, not required to take a predetermined number of hours in science, math, languages, etc. (Frankly, one of the reasons this option attracted me was my hope to avoid physical education.) The second such college I visited with my parents fit that description and felt like a comfortable community, so I enrolled and committed myself to four years at that campus.

I could write thousands of words about my college experiences. I took classes (and graduated at the top of my class) and also participated in a variety of extracurricular activities, including writing for the student newspaper, broadcasting contemporary Christian music on the campus radio station, taking part in student government, being a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and even playing on an intramural basketball team. (Did you catch the irony?) I was part of a tight group of friends; we saw ourselves represented by contemporary movies such as The Big Chill and St. Elmo’s Fire. But the most relevant experiences as I aimed for a career in theology were the classes I took in religious studies.

The college’s religion professors were largely older white men who had been pastors (much as I would be described today if I were a college professor). Their approach to the Bible was far different than that I had learned growing up in a conservative Lutheran family and congregation, and it was equally different from what I would learn in seminary. They taught about supposed sources of Biblical accounts such as J, E, P, D, and Q. We spent more time examining the communities from which the Bible allegedly arose and less time considering what it had to say to people today. At the same time, Christian theology was dividing into assorted schools of thought such as liberation theology, black theology, and feminist theology, but the professors were not up to date on those approaches. They also had only academic exposure to non-Christian religions. Granted, they had the wisdom to invite the local rabbi to teach a class on Judaism. But I also learned about Judaism from a Jewish friend on campus (who did not like the local rabbi), and I learned about Islam from an assortment of Muslim students on campus, one of whom was my first roommate. My exposure to Hindu thought came from Beatles music, but I also learned to read texts from east Asia and south Asia and to see the material world and the spiritual world from those perspectives.

As my father had hoped, I learned many important lessons from my college religion classes. I learned to defend my faith in a mildly hostile environment. (I say “mildly hostile” because it was possible for me to disagree with my professors, even while taking an exam, and to earn an A provided I could defend my position.) I learned how to communicate in the language of scholars who are not conservative Lutherans. I learned how to be friends with people who did not share my core religious beliefs. I learned how to discuss religion and other controversial topics without ending friendships or becoming entangled in emotional wrangling or dead-end conversations. I found more reason to hold to my beliefs, having experienced the world in which people of contrary beliefs live and function. And I took part in a wide array of studies and student activities, not being limited to academic life of a purely theological bent.

But I did not learn how to survive in a conservative Lutheran academic community. J.

Key choices in the direction of a career

My worst subject in elementary school was penmanship. My handwriting has always been bad for two reasons. First, when I was young, my fine motor skills were, well, not very fine. Second, my mind moves much faster than my hands, so I am always in a hurry to get things written.

My parents, consulting with my teacher, decided that I would practice handwriting at home. I had a set time for penmanship practice, a certain number of minutes each day. They had me copying sentences out of my favorite books, which made sense for a while. Eventually, I wanted to go beyond copying what others had written; I wanted to create my own material. Even in the third grade, I sensed that everything I wanted to read had not yet been written, and I was determined to write those books myself. My parents permitted me to write my own stories. I doubt that decision helped my penmanship—once again, my mind was racing far ahead in the story, and my hand couldn’t keep up the pace. But my career as a writer began in that way.

In spring of my fourth grade year, the music department tested our hearing to determine which students had the best perception of differences in pitch. Also, the music department brought in middle school students with their instruments to encourage us to join the band and orchestra. My pitch perception tested very well, and the music department told my parents that I would be good at string instruments like the violin, or at the trombone. My parents thought they would prefer a beginning trombonist in the home over a beginning violinist and encouraged me to volunteer for the trombone. I accepted their challenge and was a trombonist from the summer between fourth and fifth grade through my first year of college. I think a lot of other families in our region followed the same process. It seemed that competition was high among trombonists everywhere I went, from high school honors bands to summer camps to municipal summer programs. Even when I was the best trombonist in my school, I couldn’t always stand out from the crowd in larger groups. My life might have been different if my parents had encouraged me to play the violin.

Still, I loved music almost as much as I loved writing. My sophomore year, I had to choose between two after-school activities. I had already become involved with the high school newspaper, a natural place for me to land as a budding author. But I was also active in the music department, and the spring musical was a big deal at our school. That year, the department had chosen Music Man. I could not play in the orchestra for the musical and also work on the newspaper. I know I thought about it for a while and weighed both choices. In the end, I chose to go with Music Man, making me one of three trombonists to represent the seventy-six trombones of the script. I never regretted that decision. My high school friends were in music and drama, not in the newspaper. I worked up the courage to appear on stage my senior year. I had many good experiences and still have many good memories because of that choice. I cannot help wondering, though, where life might have led me had I stuck with the newspaper and given up the music and drama.

Either the summer before or the summer after that choice (I cannot remember which summer it was), I made another important choice. As a child, I had dreamed of many possible careers: astronaut, fireman, pastor, writer, and other possibilities which do not come to mind at the moment. One night, my parents and I were in a motel, returning from a family vacation. My mother and father were sound asleep, but I could not fall asleep. I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, and I prayed. I asked God to guide my decision. Somehow, during that night, I concluded that I wanted to write, but I wanted to write for God. I wanted to write for the Church. I wanted my writing to matter, not in the realm of my favorite writers (including Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Mike Royko, Kurt Vonnegut, and Roald Dahl), but among Christians.

Later that summer, I discussed that thought with my pastor. He knew me well; even when I was a confirmation student, he had been impressed with my thinking and my ability to handle difficult concepts. Pastor Hoffmann thought I could be a valuable theologian in the Church. Generally, theologians teach in the seminary, which means they must first receive a seminary education. Pastor Hoffmann also told me that the best seminary teachers have served in the parish. They are more helpful to their students because they have done the work that their students are preparing to do.

I did not think that I could be a pastor. Speaking in front of people was not my strong suit. Nor did I expect to be able to handle the other duties that are expected of a pastor in the congregation. My peers had spent several years telling me—and reinforcing the message emphatically—that I was different, that a lot of people did not like me, that I did not belong to the “in crowd.” For this reason, I wanted to write. I enjoyed writing, I seemed to be good at writing. I would be able to write in solitude, and I could send my books out to speak for me. But, because Pastor Hoffmann assured me that the seminary degree and some experience in the parish were important preparation for the writing I wanted to do, I began to chart my course in that direction. From that point in high school, and on through the college years, I was aiming to be a pastor—not as my final goal, but as steps on the path to writing for God and for His people. J.

The grim prophecy of Edmund Burke

It can be both thrilling and disconcerting when a thinker from an earlier time speaks to current issues in his (or her) day, and we find his (or her) words equally relevant for the problems we face today.

Edmund Burke was a member of the British Parliament in the second half of the eighteenth century (the 1700s). During his political career, he addressed many of the international situations that affected the British Empire, most of which involved the Empire directly. Burke did not want to see the thirteen colonies in North America leave the Empire, but he also did not want to go to war against those colonies; he wanted to negotiate a settlement that would address their complaints and preserve their place in the Empire. Burke opposed slavery, but he suggested a gradual reduction of slavery in place of sudden and potentially divisive and violent abolition. He sought greater rights for Irish citizens of the British Empire, and he sought to improve conditions in southern Asia (which is to say, India) and punishment for British officials who violated the human rights of Asians in the Empire.

Burke feared the excesses he saw in the French Revolution. A few British leaders were delighted to see France struggle, figuring that anything bad for France was good for Britain. Others favored the slogans of liberty and equality expressed in the French Revolution and hoped to see similar changes pursued in Britain. Burke despised the attack upon authority and tradition that he witnessed in France. He spoke against the Jacobins, the political group in France most responsible for the violent phase of the Revolution which has become known as the Reign of Terror. In 1795, Burke spoke about the Jacobins, their goals and their strategy, in a way that seems eerily relevant to political strife in the United States today. Burke wrote:

 “What is Jacobinism? It is an attempt (hitherto but too successful) to eradicate prejudice out of the minds of men, for the purpose of putting all power and authority into the hands of the persons capable of occasionally enlightening the minds of the people. For this purpose the Jacobins have resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion. To obtain an army for this purpose, they everywhere engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich. This I take to be a fair description of the principles and leading maxims of the enlightened of our day who are commonly called Jacobins.”

At first glance, eradicating prejudice out of the minds of men (and women and children) seems a good thing. We hold that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We quickly renounce prejudice and discrimination on the basis of race, culture, and other human differences. But what happens when the battle against prejudice is expanded to include tolerance of all human differences, even those differences that strike at the core of being human? What happens when the government is given power to censure and punish any statement or belief that the government defines as intolerant, as “hate speech”? Does this battle against prejudice provide greater freedom and liberty, or does it make all people slaves of the government and its managers?

Are we truly ready to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world—to strike down religious liberty in the name of tolerance, and to label as “science” any faddish procedure that the government favors today? Do we want a small group of elite educators, entertainers, and opinion-generators to be the guardians of truth, the authorities that undermine and displace traditional leadership in the family, the community, and the religious gatherings of the people?

And what do we say in response to those who “engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich”? Are we truly inclined to punish the wealthy for their success, to reward the lazy for their indolence, and to invite the government to gather all national wealth and redistribute that wealth as the government chooses? Granted, the world is not fair. Some people gather wealth without deserving it; many people are poor who deserve more than they have received. Must we abandon our hope that generosity and kindness will reduce the injustice, that hard work will be rewarded, and that compassion and respect for all people can be taught as common virtues? Must we trust a few self-proclaimed experts to take into their hands our wealth, our freedom, and our self-respect, allowing them to distribute these goods as they deem appropriate and right?

By asking these questions, I may well be risking my present job and potential future employment. At the moment, I do not care. Each generation, it seems, must struggle to preserve liberty and justice, and our time has come. If we remain silent, if we allow tyranny and oppression to go unchallenged because the tyrants claim to be tolerant and beneficent, then we cast away all that our forefathers struggled to establish in this land. We remain the land of the free only so long as we also are the home of the brave. J.

Growing up in the Seventies

Some readers might wonder whether my formative years, spent in the Chicago suburbs, resembled the teen world depicted in movies written and directed by John Hughes. My best answer to that question is, “Somewhat.” My family and the families of my classmates were not, for the most part, as affluent as the families represented in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Home Alone (or, for that matter, in Risky Business, another teen-centered movie set in the Chicago area). Probably the 1980s movie that comes closest to depicting my memories of high school is Lucas, also not a John Hughes movie. But Hughes did capture some of the themes and nuances of adolescence in the Chicago suburbs during that era. The stereotypes depicted in Breakfast Club match the groups I knew in junior and senior high school.

I just pulled out my Middle School and High School yearbooks to confirm my memories of those years. Nearly every boy in my class was involved either in athletics (such as basketball) or in more academic extracurricular activities (such as the photography club). My better friends were in the latter group. A larger range of opportunities in high school allowed more overlap, but more prestige belonged to the athletes and cheerleaders than to the future chemists, physicians, or business leaders in the student body. The Swing Choir was also a prestigious group, and it was notable to be involved in the spring musical. (My four years, the high school put on “My Fair Lady,” “Music Man,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and, “Hello, Dolly!” I played in the orchestra for “Music Man” and “Fiddler,” then auditioned for an acting role in “Dolly” and won the part of Horace Vandergelder.) Looking at the accomplishments listed for each graduating senior, some were active in many groups, others did only a few things, and some went through four years of high school without taking part in any activity outside of classes.

One feature of high school life missing from the John Hughes movies is religion. Most of the students I knew in middle school and high school were active in a church, generally the same church their parents attended. Some families were Catholic; many went to the Bible Church or other nondenominational congregations. Being near Wheaton with its Christian college and its Christian publishing companies, the students in my community had a higher than average Bible literacy and participation in faith-based groups.

But my other memories of those years involve bullying. Around fifth grade, other students began noticing that I was “different.” Without much racial or cultural diversity in our neighborhood, small things were enough to mark someone as “different.” I was called “the brain” and other less complimentary terms, including some words whose meaning may not have been known to the students who used them as insults. I was the first member of the class to wear glasses. I was the last to learn how to ride a bicycle, always being mildly awkward. When assaulted, I did not fight back. For about five years, I found myself at the receiving end of mild abuse—nothing horribly violent or humiliating, but abuse all the same.

One of my middle school teachers took me aside one day and advised me to fight back. He believed that one solid punch in the nose might set the bullies straight and end my troubles. I didn’t have the confidence to follow his advice. When I was a high school freshman, a Physical Education (P.E.) teacher deliberately put me in a difficult position. We were playing dodgeball in PE, the bane of all tortured, non-athletic students. He had a variant of the game that required a student to guard an orange traffic cone while the rest of the class tried to knock the cone over with the rubber balls. Because I could not wear my glasses during PE, certainly not in dodgeball, I could not see the balls coming my direction to catch them (which would have disqualified the thrower of the caught ball from the contest). But, blinded though I was, I doggedly guarded the cone and kept it from being hit. Needless to say, I was thoroughly pelted during the moments the game continued—probably a much shorter time than it seemed. As the PE teacher may have respected, I did not cry or lose my composure or complain in any way. My endurance, perhaps, helped to win respect for me from at least some of the more athletic types that had felt only disdain for me until that day.

I have good memories from high school. I learned many important and helpful things in the classroom. I took part in the marching band, the orchestra, the musicals, the district math contest, the student newspaper, and the Honors Society. I made friends, some of whom are still valuable to my life today. At the same time, I also learned that many people will dislike me, just because I am “different.” I believed my mother’s advice, that “if you show people that their pestering bothers you, they will keep on pestering.” (Therefore, I did not learn how to confront a bully.) I learned to dig in, to hold my ground, to keep on doing the right thing, and not to care if that makes life tough for a while. I learned that bad times end and that better things can be expected down the road. I learned to live. J.