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.

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.

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.

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.