Defund the Library: a short story

This story is a work of fiction. As such, it does not necessarily represent the opinion or views of the author or of anyone else involved in its transmission.

Jasper Stevens gazed across the Westfield Free Library. He smiled a small, private smile. At times he had doubted that his dream could ever change to reality. Some of his friends had told him, time after time, that it couldn’t be done. Some had even added that it shouldn’t be done. But Jasper’s stubbornness carried him to success. He had found support, enough to counter the opposition. He had scrambled to find the resources he needed, sometimes at the very last minute. He had prayed. Most of all, though, he had believed that he was right. Now, the evidence before him assured him that he had indeed been right, that his dream had been worthy, and that his efforts had been aimed at a good and proper goal.

The problem began five years earlier, when Jasper walked into the Public Library with his friend, Gus Michaels. Jasper and Gus had been dismayed to see a large, rainbow-themed display filling the Children’s Wing of the library. In his younger days, Jasper had loved the rainbow, the beauty it held, the hope it promised. He read in the Bible about the rainbow revealed to Noah after the Great Flood, the Lord’s promise that He would not destroy the Earth again with a flood. Jasper’s own childhood bedroom had been decorated with a rainbow theme. But, while he was in college, Jasper learned that a small segment of the population had taken the rainbow to represent their own views and behavior. They had changed the rainbow, as they had earlier changed the word “gay,” so that it now belonged to the homosexual students on campus. Jasper and his friends in Campus Crusade had founded a movement which they called Reclaim the Rainbow, but the college administration had banned his group. College officials told Jasper and his friends that they were being intolerant, unloving, and unChristian. From that experience, Jasper learned not to be outspoken about his beliefs, not to object out loud when people demonstrated in favor of behavior and opinions that Jasper understood to be sinful, unBiblical, and wrong.

As a parent, Jasper had remained quiet while other parents confronted the Westfield School District about teaching materials in the schools that violated community standards. He had silently agreed with the parents who objected, but he had kept quiet. When elections were scheduled, Jasper voted for school board candidates who advocated traditional standards in the schools. Sometimes they won; other times they lost. Jasper shuddered when some people attended school board meetings and rose to say outrageous and inappropriate statements in defense of the time-honored standards. He had rolled his eyes when some of those statements were reported in the big city newspapers and in the national news. He hated to see Westfield labeled as a home to bigotry and ignorance. He especially hated to see that happen when offensive things were said in support of what Jasper believed, making the proponents of new and changing ways seem reasonable and acceptable. But Jasper stayed on the sidelines. He didn’t want to get involved.

It seemed at first that the Public Library was also staying out of the fight. To Jasper, the library had always been a safe place. He could find books he wanted to read and could bring them home; he could ignore books with which he disagreed. He was even quietly proud that all ideas were available in the library, since he believed that bad ideas inevitably lose when they are placed next to good ideas. Jasper was pleased that the Public Library was available to everyone in Westfield: children and adults, wealthy and middle-class and poor, able-bodied and limited in sight or hearing or mobility, white and black, English-speaking at home or speaking some other language, active in a church or synagogue or mosque or not active in any religious community. The Westfield Public Library belonged to everyone. They all paid for it with their taxes. They all owned it. They all treasured it as part of their community.

But somehow the library had changed. The books that caused controversy at the school invariably found their way into the library’s collection. Not only were those books present: they were proudly displayed alongside other “banned books” from the past, including Slaughterhouse Five and Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To Jasper, and to many other people in Westfield, the objections were not the same. Those earlier books had contained controversial material, things that might require some discussion in the classroom or around the family table. Objections to the current crop of books were far stronger. Those books were, in some cases, pornographic in their content. They described and encouraged behavior that ought not even be mentioned in a classroom or a family setting. They were being given to children of an age that, Jasper felt, were not ready to be exposed to such discussions. Under the guise of “tolerance” and “acceptance,” children were being exposed to adult topics, and even to topics that adults found best kept quiet and unmentioned.

Not all the concerns related to sexual matters. Controversies arose over history classes and their teaching materials. Some of the teachers wanted to use only classroom material that was critical of the United States and its history. They wanted to talk about everything wrong in America without ever mentioning anything right in America. They found fault with all the heroes Jasper had been taught to admire: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, even George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. They insisted that the history of the United States consisted largely of racism and oppression. Jasper had learned, in his school days, about slavery and the Civil War. He had been taught to respect people of all races and cultures. His history classes had spoken of the Civil Rights movement, of its successes and of its goals still unmet. But Jasper had also learned to love America. He had learned to celebrate its freedom and its goal of “liberty and justice for all.“ He knew that the United States is imperfect, but he also believed that the best way to make the country better was to start with what it was doing right and to continue improving from that set of achievements rather than tearing the entire system to the ground and expecting to build something new and better.

Once again, the battle had been fought through the school board. Jasper had remained on the sideline. The Westfield Public Library at first seemed equally uninvolved, but Jasper came to see that it was very much involved. Its new materials and its displays paid far more attention to the Black Lives Matter movement than it ever acknowledged the Tea Party movement. It said far more about “critical race theory” than about positive achievements in American history. It marked the 500th anniversary of black slaves arriving in Virginia but ignored the 500th anniversary of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Its programs for children and for adults were increasingly focused on national problems and on the concerns of minority groups; very little attention was given to events and facts that inspired pride in the United States or thankfulness for the benefits and blessings that come with being an American citizen.

Jasper mentioned these concerns to his good friend Gus Michaels. Gus responded, “I’ve noticed exactly what you’re saying. The library used to be a sanctuary, a storehouse of human wisdom, a second home where everyone in town was welcome. But it’s not like that anymore. They are calling ‘science’ things that aren’t scientific at all. They’re cooperating with the liberals in government and mass media to keep fear and hysteria boiling all the time. They’ve become part of the conspiracy to keep us under control, to entertain us and distract us while they steal our country away from us.” Gus and Jasper spoke with other friends, with Leigh James and with Jane Thomas. Leigh and James agreed with Gus and Jasper. Even though the four of them supported the library by paying their property taxes, they no longer felt that Westfield Public Library belonged to them at all.

Leigh and Jane and Gus said that they would gladly start a campaign to defund the library. “The liberals want to defund the police,” Jane said, “but if we want to make America—and Westfield—great, we need to start with the library.” But Jasper disagreed. “Defunding the library cannot be our first step,” he told his friends. “They’ll get the votes to keep their money, and they’ll make us look foolish in the process. Even if we did manage to reduce their funding, they’d fight back by cutting the services that everyone wants while holding on to the things we’re trying to discard. That’s how government agencies always play the political game.”

Jasper took a deep breath and continued, “First, we need to provide an option to the Public Library. We need a place in Westfield that does everything the library used to do, but without all the things that the library shouldn’t be doing. Once we’ve established a Free Library, once we’ve developed a viable option to the Public Library, then we can run a campaign to defund the Public Library. But we need to take one step at a time.” Jasper stopped there. He didn’t add the third step he had in mind. First, they needed to create a Free Library. Second, they needed to defund the Public Library. Third, they owed it to the rest of the country to share their success, to transplant their idea of a Free Library into other communities. Westfield could be the beginning of something great. It could be the incubator of a movement that would restore authentic library services in towns and neighborhoods across the United States of America, “from sea to shining sea.”

Conditions were favorable in Westfield. The Baptist Church had just built a new worship center for their growing congregation; they had no plans for the old church building. The pastor was pleased to sponsor Jasper’s suggestion to the congregation that the building become home to a Free Library, one which would serve the Baptists (and their literary and cultural interests) far more faithfully than Westfield Public Library.

But having a building was just a start. Jasper and his friends needed to organize. He and Gus and Jane and Leigh created a Free Library board, with Jasper as President and Gus as Treasurer. Then they began seeking donations. They needed books and other reading material, especially children’s books. They needed bookshelves and other library furniture. They needed volunteers—librarians to check out the books and reshelve the books and maintain the books, but also workers to maintain the building and grounds, to keep the Free Library clean and welcoming, and to provide security for the new establishment. Jasper and his friends knew there would be problems. Unruly people would arrive, merely because every town has a few troublemakers among its residents. At some point, supporters of the Public Library might also create a scene, anticipating the challenge from this new institution and understanding that might threaten their own standing and financial support in Westfield.

The Free Library was not going to ask for any money from the town government or from any other level of government. They would need contributions. They would need to pay for utilities, for Internet access, and for other supplies to keep them in business. They would not need all the bells and whistles of the public library. They did not need scanners to check books in and out, nor did they need a fancy theft-prevention system. They could keep paper records the old-fashioned way; they could give numbered library cards to every patron and so keep track of who had which book at which time. One volunteer could create a digital book catalog for the Free Library and attach it to the library’s web site. This way people at home, even from out of town, could see what the library had and decide if they wanted to drop by and check out a book or two.

They would not be able to stock copies of the latest best-sellers or promise as comprehensive a collection as the Public Library boasted. But, relying on contributions, they could fill their space with interesting titles with very little effort. Books were always being discarded, being given away, being offered in bulk at estate sales. Children outgrew their books; adults lost interest in one hobby and moved on to another. The Free Library would not spend money on access to digital books and magazines—people who could afford devices that read those materials could also afford to receive those materials. But the Free Library would have a few computer terminals with public access, Internet service, and perhaps occasional guidance for computer users. Over time, their volunteer librarians would gain the ability to help those who came into the library needing special help: writing a resume and applying for jobs, or seeking online information for various reasons, or researching their family history and genealogy.

Of course, the Free Library would need rules. They would block inappropriate websites from access on computer libraries. They would refuse donation of materials that violated community standards. When donors or patrons objected to restrictions upon certain materials, the library board and staff could meet with the offended individuals and could even open such meetings to community participation. While insisting upon courtesy and respect in their gatherings, they could make room for members of the community to explain why they felt certain materials should be available in the library. And, if needed, the Free Library could maintain a section of restricted materials, available to some citizens upon request but not put out in the open for all visitors to see and peruse.

Like the Public Library, the Free Library would host (and, in many cases, develop) programs for children and for adults. Children’s programs would, in many cases, involve little more than the public reading of a book, perhaps with associated craft projects for the younger children. Discussion of the story might take place with some older children. The Free Library would aim to attract children particularly during the summer and holiday periods when school was not in session. Adult programs might involve anything from Reading Clubs to public lectures, bringing local and outside speakers to speak on their area of expertise. Some adult programs might also involve activities including crafts (such as quilting or fly tying), exercise, or training in computer skills. As with books, any program that generated controversy would be discussed with the library board; such discussion could lead to an open meeting for the community to address the controversy.

With a Free Library open and operating successfully, Jasper and his friends were ready to challenge the Public Library. They were ready to tell the voters of Westfield why they felt that the Public Library was not serving the community properly, why the Public Library was not acting as a good steward of the town’s tax money and public property. They would not move to defund the Public Library all at once; they would suggest a decrease in millage on the grounds that the public interest and the needs of the citizens were neglected. For a while—perhaps for many years—the two libraries would compete. Maybe the Public Library would always exist, in some form, to serve those citizens who approved what it was doing. Maybe the Public Library would collapse, or maybe it would find a way to merge with the Free Library, meshing their property and their budgets but continuing to respect the community values upheld by the Free Library. Jasper could not see the future, nor did he need to see it. He was confident that the Free Library was doing the right thing. Its current success was all the reward he needed at this time.

But one change in one town was not the limit of Jasper’s vision. He saw Free Libraries springing up in communities across the country. Some would be county-wide entities; some would serve a single town or village; some would serve single neighborhoods located in the larger cities of the country. Jasper, in his mind, set an arbitrary benchmark of ten thousand people. Where ten thousand people lived in the same general area—a county, a city, a neighborhood—they could find some available space to assemble a Free Library. As in Westfield, they would need donations: books, workers, and financial support. They would need to obey zoning ordinances and handicap-accessible requirements. They would face opposition, even rage, from some people who understood exactly what they were doing. They might be sued. Their property might be vandalized. The reputations of Free Library board members and staff workers might be dragged through the mud. But, given the opportunity to explain what they were doing and why, Jasper felt that Free Libraries would succeed and prosper in many areas. He hoped to network these Free Libraries, to encourage those getting started with success stories from those already operating, to offer advice about how to overcome various challenges, and to assure people across the nation that they were not alone, that they were part of a movement that was gathering steam, that was growing in power, that was respected because it built on the energy and inspiration that had already made America great.

In some locations, the Public Library might already be operating under the standards followed by the Free Libraries. In those cases, Jasper saw no reason those libraries could not be added to the Free Library Network. Free Libraries in other parts of the country might have things they could learn from such Public Libraries, and those Public Libraries might also pick up valuable tips from people involved in the Free Library movement.

Defund the Library? In a way, that is exactly what Jasper and his friends had set out to do. But instead of destroying the public library and leaving nothing to fill the empty space, Jasper Stevens and the Free Library movement, beginning in Westfield, were united in a patriotic endeavor that is part of the genuine American experience.


On preaching

Things I have learned about preaching:

  • Sermons should be Christ-centered. It is not good enough to quote the teachings of Christ: he should be identified as Immanuel (God with us), and his work of salvation should be portrayed clearly. Several pictures show Christ as Savior: He defeats our enemies, He forgives our sins, He pays our debts, He finds us in the wilderness and carries us home, He claims us for His kingdom, He fixes what we have broken. Every picture is not used in each sermon, but a good preacher also will not stick to the same picture every time. As one of the seminary professors said, “If this was the first Christian sermon some visitors heard, would they know enough to be saved? If this was the last sermon some member of the congregation heard before meeting the Lord face to face, would he or she have been told enough to be saved?”
  • Sermons should be Biblical. Every sermon should focus on one passage of Scripture, interpreting it correctly and applying it effectively to the lives of the hearers. The traditional practice, followed by Lutherans and many other Christian groups, follows a lectionary, a series of readings selected long ago for each Sunday and holiday on the calendar. This tradition provides variety for the preacher but also gathers Bible readings into groups that reflect the season—Christmas, Lent, Easter, etc. It helps keep the preacher of falling into a rut, preaching the same message every week. At the same time, sticking to Biblical texts helps the preacher to preach God’s Word and not the preacher’s opinions.
  • Sermons should be relevant. A hunter does not fire randomly into the forest; a hunter aims and shoots. So preachers, knowing the lives and needs of the people in the congregation, aims to reach them where they need to be reached. This is not as simple as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” But it does mean studying the Scripture, considering the members of the congregation, and reflecting upon the message God intends them to hear.
  • Sermons should contain the full council of God. This includes the Law, or commandments of God, as well as the Gospel, or promises of God. The Law tells people why God made us, why we are here, what God intends for us to do. It also diagnoses our problems, identifies our sins, and tells us that we need a Savior. The Gospel brings us to Jesus our Savior. It tells us what he has done for us, how we are saved from our sins and from all evil, how we inherit a place in God’s kingdom. Sermons of Law without Gospel offer no hope; they reduce the hearers to despair, showing that we cannot enter the Kingdom of God by our best efforts. Sermons of Gospel without Law offer no depth; hearers will not care that Jesus loves them and wants to save them if they do not understand that they do not deserve his love and that they desperately need to be saved. The Law also describes how Christians are transformed into the image of Christ by the power of the Gospel. Lutherans call this “the third use of the Law.” Some Lutherans try to preach the third use of the Law in every sermon. I follow the guidance of another professor from seminary: I preach the Law, allowing the Holy Spirit to apply it as He chooses—diagnosis to one hearer, leading that hearer to repent and to be prepared to hear the Gospel, guidance for another hearer, leading that hearer to strive to imitate Jesus drawing upon the power of the saving Gospel.
  • Sermons should be incarnational and sacramental. They should not make Christians “so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good.” Hearers are reminded that Christ has redeemed them as whole people, body and soul. Hearers are reminded that the entire world has been redeemed and will be made anew on the Day of the Lord. Hearers are reminded that Christ became one of us and lived among us. Hearers are reminded that Christ is encountered in material ways, in the water of Holy Baptism and in the eating and drinking of Holy Communion. Hearers are equipped to do good works in this world, to share the hope we have in Christ, to forgive those who sin against us, and to be pictures of Jesus in a sinful world. But these good works do not save us from sin and evil; they are the results of being saved from sin and evil.
  • Sermons should be interesting. Making the Gospel of Jesus Christ boring is a sin. Preachers should prepare their sermons and not expect the Holy Spirit to work a miracle on their behalf every Sunday. Preachers should find illustrations that apply to the Bible’s message, not stories that distract hearers from God’s Word. Likewise, humor should be used to make a point—when hearers remember the joke but forget the rest of the sermon, the humor failed. Preachers should know when to say “Amen” and end the sermon. When most of the congregation has stopped listening, that moment has already passed.

Sermon on II Timothy 3:14-17

But as for you,  continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it  and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings,  which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete,  equipped for every good work.

              Communication is vital in any relationship. To keep their marriage strong, husbands and wives need to communicate with each other. Parents and children need to communicate, not only when the children are young and living in their parents’ houses, but also when the children are older, active in the world, raising children of their own. Friends cannot remain friends if they do not keep in touch. Neighbors need to speak to each other. Those who share a community, a state, or a nation need to speak to each other and to their leaders, and the leaders need to tell the other citizens what is happening among them and in the surrounding world.

              Clearly, then, we also need to communicate with God. We need to speak to him, telling him the things that matter most in our lives. We pray, talking to God, sometimes using prayers we have memorized and sometimes creating our own prayers from our own minds and hearts. Jesus urges us to be persistent in prayer and not lose heart. In ancient times, Jacob wrestled with God, and some Christians today describe their prayers as wrestling with the Lord. God has promised to hear our prayers. He has promised to answer our prayers. He has not given us magic power to control the world with prayer. He has not given us power to control him, to make him do things he does not want to do. But God hears us when we pray. Jesus meant what he said: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.” The Holy Spirit guides us when we pray, speaking to our Father in heaven even with groans that words cannot express. Our line of communication to God is always open, always available, never threatened by a power outage or dead battery or computer fault. But what about God’s communication with us? Do we hear his voice? Do we pay attention to the things God says to us?

              God is almighty. He can do anything he wishes. God wishes to speak to us through his Word. In earlier times, he chose messengers and told them what to say to his people. Moses and all the Old Testament prophets brought God’s Word to his people. These messages from God, sent through Moses and the prophets, were written to be saved for all God’s people of every time and every place. Jesus authorized apostles to supplement the message with a New Testament. These messages, this Scripture, was breathed out by God. It is inspired. It carries the power of God, telling us what we need to know.

              The idea of inspiration is complicated; it can be confusing. Some people imagine God dictating, like a boss in the office telling his secretary (or administrative assistant) what to write. Other people picture God inspiring prophets and apostles the way a sunset over a lake in the mountains can inspire a painter or poet or musician. Some people think that God’s message is hidden in the Bible among many human opinions and perceptions that we can pluck out and ignore. Some even seek hidden messages in the Bible by reading every fifth letter or changing the letters into numbers and then decoding the numbers. But the Scripture, breathed out by God, is straight-forward. It has no hidden messages. It tells us what we need to know. We can trust the same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles also to be with us and to guide us when we read and hear the messages God has for us.

              When we say that God inspired the Bible, we say that everything in the Bible is trustworthy and true. We compare the Bible to Jesus himself, who is completely God and also completely human. Everything in the Bible comes from God, even though everything in the Bible came through human beings chosen by God. We cannot discard any part of the Bible, saying that it came from certain human beings a long time ago and no longer means anything for us today. But we remember that the human beings, inspired by God, remained human. Matthew and Mark and Luke and John all wrote the truth about Jesus, but they saw and heard different things and communicated them in different ways. Matthew dealt with statistics and numbers in his day job, and his descriptions tend to be dry and terse and straight-forward; Mark, writing the preaching of Peter the fisherman, contains far more active and vivid language. Moses and David and Isaiah did not have the same background and the same experiences; of course they had different ways of saying things. But they all gave the same message from the same God, meant to be shared with all God’s people so all of us would know what we need to know about God, ourselves, and the world around us.

              To fully comprehend the Bible, then, we need to know something about the times in which the writers lived, the ideas that shaped their thinking, the cultures to whom they were first speaking. The Bible must be translated, not only from language to language, but also from culture to culture. When we know the essential message of the Bible, though, we do not need to perplex ourselves with every detail. The Bible is not a textbook about biology or economics, or even about history and geography. The Bible is about God our Creator and about us. Some things change in the world, but God does not change, and people are essentially the same. We read a book on chemistry to learn about chemistry. We read a book on cooking to learn about cooking. We learn God’s book to learn about God. As Paul told Timothy, all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

              At this point it is tempting to concentrate on those four things and to struggle to discern the shades of meaning between teaching, reproof, correction, and training. But in Paul’s Jewish culture, similar words often were piled together, not because of their differences but because they reinforced each other. Teaching and training essentially mean the same thing; correction and reproof are synonyms. God tells us how to live our lives. He made us, and in the Bible he gives us an owner’s manual for ourselves. He tells us why we exist, why we are in this world. He tells us what to do and what not to do. He equips us for good works so we will do those things God wants us to do.

              We learn that we are here to give glory to God. All creation sings God’s praises, and we also sing God’s praises. The stars shine for the glory of God, and the flowers bloom for the glory of God, and the birds sing for the glory of God. So we also do what we can do for the glory of God—not only by singing, but by imitating Jesus. In every decision, we choose to do what Jesus would do. He lived the perfect human life. He is the example all of us should follow. Our lives remind the people around us of Jesus when we are living the way we should live. We sin whenever we are not like Jesus.

              Being like Jesus, we find ourselves managers of God’s property in this world. We are given money (and the opportunity to earn money), and we use that money to do God’s work. We do not give ten percent to God and the Church and do whatever we want with the other ninety percent. All of our money belongs to God. We care for ourselves, our bodies, our health, our well-being. We care for the members of our families. We help our neighbors when they are in need. We also support the work of the Church, continuing the work of God in this place and helping to send missionaries into the rest of the world.

              We have been given different amounts of money and different opportunities to manage that money, but we all have been given the same amount of time, twenty-four hours every day, seven days every week. With our different abilities and different opportunities, we manage that time in different ways, but we were created so we could manage that time for the glory of God. We dedicate some time directly to God, coming to church on Sunday morning and taking time each day to pray and to read the Bible. But the rest of our time is not for us to do whatever we want. Again, we manage that time for the glory of God and for the benefit of our neighbors, doing what we can to make the world a better place.

              Behind all our management is the obligation and the opportunity to love. God is love, and God made us in his image. We are here to be loved by God, and we are here to love God. We also are to love our neighbors. All the commandments of God tell us how to love, how to manage our time and our possessions to show our love for God by loving our neighbors and helping them. That includes not only food and clothing and shelter; it also means forgiving them when they sin and sharing with them the hope that we have in God, the good news that we can share because we are the people of God.

              All Scripture is inspired by God. It is useful for teaching, correcting, reproof, and training. It guides us in good works, which we were created to do. But those commandments from God, his rules and regulations, do not make us perfect people. Instead, they diagnose our sins. They show us how we have fallen short of God’s glory. The more we focus on teaching and training, on correction and reproof, the more we see that we have failed. We have sinned. We have broken God’s commandments. We are not the people God intended us to be.

              If God’s Word was only about our good deeds, we would be in trouble. If the Bible was written only for teaching and training, its message would leave us hopeless and in despair. People who love to quote II Timothy 3:16 often fail to look at the important verse that comes before it. The Bible tells us how to live, but it also tells us how to have life. Scripture makes us wise for salvation. That wisdom, more than any teaching and training, makes us God’s people and gives us hope for today and hope for the future.

              The Bible tells us about our Creator. It tells us how our Creator wants us to live. But the Bible also tells us how our Creator sees our problems and chooses to help us. With the commands come promises. With the correction and training comes a solution for our problems. That solution is not found in our efforts to obey God’s commands. His solution comes through the work that God does for us. Knowing that we would sin and fall short of God’s plans, God created a second plan. His second plan, the good news of the Gospel, shows how God rescues us from sin and claims us as his people even when we have failed to obey God and no longer deserve to be called his people.

              To rescue us, God became one of us. Jesus of Nazareth is human like us, but he is also completely God, equal to his Father in every way. He entered this world, not merely to teach us and train us, but to rescue us. He lived for us, obeying all the commands of his Father. Then he exchanged lives with us. He credits us with his righteousness, giving us credit for his perfect obedience. He takes our sins and our guilt upon himself. He goes to the cross, paying our debt in full so nothing in our lives—and nothing in the world around us—can separate us from the love of God.

              The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was also a battle in the war against evil. Jesus won that battle. He defeated our sins. He defeated all our enemies. He even defeated death, rising from the grave on the third day to promise us eternal life. Teaching and training do not get us into heaven. Correction and reproof do not get us into heaven. They guide us in these lives, but only the perfect work of Jesus takes away our sins and makes us heirs of the kingdom of heaven.

              Jesus is with us now, guiding us by his Word, but also giving us life through his Word. We read the Bible, not only for teaching and correction, but also for the promises, the good news that makes us wise for salvation. As we read the Bible, we look for Jesus. In the history of ancient times, we find the promises of God to send a Savior, and we see those promises acted out in advance through the lives of his people. In the poetry of the Psalms and the prophets, we find the same good news repeated, telling us to put our trust in the promised Savior and not in our own good deeds. The apostles show us how Jesus kept the promises of God. They show us our Savior, and they give us power to believe in Jesus our Savior and to receive from him forgiveness and everlasting life.

              The Word of God gives us power to believe his promises. That same power brings us forgiveness for our sins and the ability to imitate Jesus, doing good works. We gather around God’s Word as his Church. The Word, combined with water, washes away our sins and adopts us as children of God. The Word, with eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table, guarantees us forgiveness and everlasting life and victory over all our enemies. That Word equips us to be like Jesus, forgiving the sins of others and sharing with them the hope that God has given us through his promises.

              God’s Word makes us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. When we pray, we cling to the promises of God’s Word. We even remind God of his promises when we pray. If we feel that, like Jacob, we are wrestling with God, we wrestle with confidence, knowing his promises cannot fail. We do not lose heart; since God is for us, no one can prevail against us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. To Jesus our Savior be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.                            Amen.

Expectations and darkness

When I lived in Chicago, I joined a pastors’ study group that met once a month, looking at the Lutheran Confessions (those historic documents which defined Lutheran theology during the Reformation of the Church). The group included several brilliant men, experts in theology and in languages—not only the Biblical Greek and Hebrew, but also Latin and German. They were capable, not only at interpreting words and grammar of those languages, but also of detecting nuances relevant to the times and situations of the original writers. These men earned advanced degrees in their fields, and several of them are now professors at universities and seminaries. As a pastor and theologian, I had the respect of the members of this group and was honored to be included in their gatherings.

Seeking to have our “confessional” voice heard in the district and synod, the members of our group were encouraged by some in our number to be nominated for leadership positions within the organized church. I allowed myself to be nominated and elected as vice-president of the annual district pastors’ conference, since the president of that conference was part of our confessional gathering. A few months later, he accepted a call to a congregation in another district, and I found myself president of the conference—helping to arrange meeting facilities (including meals and overnight lodgings), plan the agenda, invite speakers, and of course lead the sessions. I must have done an adequate job, since I was re-elected by the conference to the office of president. I also was asked, by the president of the district, to complete a term as “circuit counselor,” giving me loose oversight of several pastors and congregations in one part of the district.

At the same time, I was pastor of a congregation and father to young children. Their grandparents lived only an hour’s drive away, which was a blessing in some ways but a struggle in others. My wife and I said that, since I worked on major holidays, we would host family gatherings rather than traveling. But this did not keep the extended family from expecting our presence in their homes as well. One year, even though we hosted the Christmas Day gathering after our church service, my mother-in-law also hosted a brunch on Christmas Eve, several hours before our Christmas Eve service. My parents then expected us at their house right after Christmas, since my sister and her household were visiting from out of town. We had three family Christmas celebrations on three consecutive days, in addition to the special services and regular Sunday service at the church.

My biggest personal struggle hit one spring. Several church groups delayed their springtime activities to happen in the two weeks after Easter, recognizing that pastors like me are busy preparing for Holy Week and Easter services. They failed to leave any time to regather energy after those celebrations. I found myself emotionally overwhelmed, falling into a darkness of clinical depression. One of my friends from Clyde days heard my distress and did what he could, sending a care package of chocolate in the mail. But, for the most part, I was left to myself to steer through the combined pressures of demanding and conflicting expectations. This was not the first time I had experienced depression. I had known dark times in school, as early as junior high school when I was the target of bullying. My leave of absence from seminary was likely a response to depression. I was unhappy in Miami and counted the days until I could leave. This was one of the darkest times I recall, though, because this time no visible path promised a way out of the ongoing pressures and expectations. J.

Those early years

It has been said that a new pastor goes through three stages after at arriving at a congregation. First, for a bit of time, the pastor can do nothing wrong. Afterward, for about the same bit of time, the pastor can do nothing right. Finally, after completing both these stages, the pastor can begin doing things.

Of the five congregations I have served as pastor, I was on good terms with four of them and have mostly pleasant memories of those four. The exception is, of course, the one I recall most often, the one that had the greatest impact on me as a person. At least the first congregation I served was one of the four where things mostly went well. Not only did I begin my pastoral career there; while I was there I married my high school sweetheart and our first children were born. In fact, the growing family contributed to the fact that I left that congregation after eight years. But I look back at that time with no regrets.

Once I was settled at that congregation, I remembered my goal of becoming a teacher and theologian of the Church. A few miles to the north was a famous school, noted for turning out qualified scholars. It was called the University of Chicago. One day I visited the campus and spoke with a leader of their graduate school. I was well qualified to be a student there, but their financial aid program was offered only to students who began their studies full-time. They asked if the congregation I was serving could give me a sabbatical year or hire an assistant. The answer to their questions was, of course, no, and so my thoughts of returning to school were put on hold for a time.

Regarding Hispanic outreach, I discovered that the new families in the neighborhood were comfortably bilingual, having first established themselves elsewhere in the Chicago area before buying homes in our part of the city. Even if I did not use my ability to speak Spanish, my sensitivity to Hispanic culture was useful in that neighborhood. Since the church had a school, several families were already attracted to the facilities. Aside from the school, most of the congregation was elderly; the neighborhood had been built around steel mills, and by the time I arrived they were employing fewer workers than they had in the past. Retired steel workers remained in their homes; their children moved and raised their families elsewhere. Consequently, the profile of the congregation had many people over sixty and others under thirty with not so many in between those ages—the ages from which one generally recruits and trains congregational leaders. In the years I served there, I averaged about one funeral a month. I had a few weddings and a few baptisms and brought in a few families through adult classes, but the growth was not vigorous to offset the losses in membership.

Three years after I left, I was invited back to preach one Sunday in an extended celebration of the congregation’s 125th anniversary. I was disappointed that no one attended the service that I did not already know. That congregation where I got my start is now closed. Google still shows the building standing, but I find no evidence that it is in use.

Meanwhile, the Synod continued to face political struggles centered around the seminary I had attended. Though these struggles in no way approached the importance of the earlier “Battle for the Bible,” they remained divisive and distressing. The President of the Synod persuaded the board of the seminary to grant the seminary president an honorable retirement against his will. His resistance to this decision was fought in church procedures and also in civil court. Some of the underlying issues related to the dispute included diversity in worship practices and in congregational life. Within the Synod, some leaders advocated a mission strategy that brought in new members in every way possible. Related to the “church growth principles” that were popular among other American Protestants, this strategy set aside traditional worship and even suggested compromises in doctrine for the sake of increasing membership. Other leaders insisted upon maintaining the Church’s traditions, serving the Lord faithfully and trusting Him to provide the growth. The conflict reached a crescendo at the next Convention of the Synod, in which the synod’s President hoped to be reelected. He was instead replaced by the narrowest of margins. As a delegate at that convention, I helped to provide the new President’s margin of victory. (I may have contributed to that vote in other ways, but I won’t go into that here and now.) The new President rejected the false dichotomy of outreach and faithfulness, instead saying, “Keep the message straight! Get the message out!” I have been guided by that simple motto in the thirty years since I first heard it at the Convention that summer. J.

From student to pastor

I returned to the seminary campus for my last year of classes—three more terms, three more laps around the track before heading out to serve as some congregation’s pastor. Five of us returned to the dorm now known as Athanasias, but we brought Clyde Pride with us and shared it with the rest of the students living in the dorm. I still had no faculty mentor, and I had no ambition to study further at that campus. I was now tagged as a candidate for ministry to Hispanics; for better or for worse, this would define the next steps of my career.

In Lutheran theology, a personal choice or an inner call does not make a pastor. An academic degree or episcopal ruling does not make a pastor. Only the call of a congregation makes a pastor. (On the other hand, congregations in the Synod agree to call only qualified candidates. This implies seminary training, which suggests both a personal decision at some point and an academic degree.) When a congregation seeks a pastor, any of the thousands of men certified by the synod are eligible to receive a call. In theory, the Holy Spirit guides a congregation as it searches for a pastor, so when a call is issued from a congregation to a candidate, that call represents the voice of God. Candidates are free to accept or decline a call, generally after a time of prayerful consideration and, frequently, a visit to the calling congregation.

Pastoral candidates cannot apply for open positions. Any effort to get the attention of a congregation seeking a pastor effectively disqualifies the candidate from consideration. Congregations generally form a committee which collects nominations of candidates for the position. Those nominations can come from members of the congregation—they might know of a qualified pastor through family connections, vacation visits to other congregations, Internet contacts, or other ways. But the District Presidents are also involved in the process. The LCMS is divided into thirty-five districts, mostly defined geographically. Each district has its pastors fill out paperwork about themselves. During a search for a pastor, congregations also fill out paperwork about themselves. District Presidents endeavor to match pastors with congregations, even though congregations have the sole authority to offer a call. A pastor hoping to move to a new position can use his paperwork with the District to indicate his willingness to consider and accept a call. Beyond that, his future is in the hands of the calling congregations, of the District Presidents who share information with the congregations, and of the Holy Spirit who is expected to oversee and guide the entire process.

Recent seminary graduates receive their first calls by a slightly different process. Generally, a calling congregation will indicate its willingness to receive a recent graduate without knowing in advance the names of the graduates or the details about them. District Presidents and seminary professors work as a team to assign graduates to calling congregations. They do their best to achieve compatible matches. Because the bulk of seminary graduates become eligible in the spring, often a small number of qualified candidates must wait for summer or fall before they receive their first calls.

During my last year of seminary, I completed my classwork. I also worked as clerk for a family business in town, a family and a business that I still remember fondly. Like every seminary student approaching graduation, I underwent a theological interview with two professors to verify my ability to serve as a pastor, and I underwent a placement interview with another professor to talk about my preferences about where I might serve as a pastor. Shortly after my placement interview, I was called in for a second visit with the same professor. He remarked that two members of my class were qualified for service in a Spanish-speaking congregation, but only one such congregation had an opening and was calling a pastor. The other candidate in my class was married; I was single. For that reason alone, the professor (and the other people involved in the placement process) hoped that I would be willing to wait until summer for a call, with the hope that another opportunity for Hispanic outreach would be available by that time.

I accepted the proposal and agreed to wait. When I told my parents about the decision, they were not so calm. Without warning me what they were doing, they phoned the seminary and asked why I was being delayed in receiving a call. They also spoke to our pastor, and he called both the seminary and the District President to complain. I apologized to the professor for the misunderstanding (another meeting), and when my classmates received their calls in the formal service that spring, I walked with them to shake hands when my name was said with the words, “Call pending.”

After graduating, I took my possessions back to my parents’ house and returned to my telemarketing job where I had worked before. I did not go back to seminary for the service that summer in which my call and others were announced. I did learn, via telephone conversations, that I had been assigned to a congregation in Chicago. They did not have a history of Hispanic outreach, but the members of the congregation had noted that new families in the neighborhood were largely Hispanic. The District President had been meeting with them around the same time that he got the phone calls about me and my delayed call. He connected the dots and made the recommendations so that I could begin pastoral ministry only an hour’s drive from my hometown, hopefully drawing on my experience in Hispanic ministry to serve a congregation and to reach out into a changing neighborhood. J.

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.