Tuesday, August 31, 2010


The lectionary once again gives us the letter to Philemon this upcoming Sunday. I don't know how to avoid preaching on this. There will be plenty of "carry the cross"-discipleship passages, but this gem of a letter only shows up once every three years. In preparation for this Sunday then I have been reading Risto Saarinen's commentary on Philemon in the the Brazos Theological Commentary series. And to be fair Saarinen's commentary also includes the Pastoral Epistles, and Jude; the Philemon commentary is too short for its own commentary.

Saarinen gives two paragraphs that I thought were helpful in his introduction to the letter. He writes:
The purpose of Philemon is obvious: it is a letter of recommendation that should accompany Onesimus and create good will in Philemon so that he would not punish the returning slave. On the way home, such a letter may also to some extent protect the fugitive slave from imprisonment by legal authorities. Other similar letters are known; the most famous is the letter of Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus from around AD 110. In this letter, quoted in many commentaries on Philemon... Pliny appeals for a freedman who has run away and thus violated his duty of servanthood. Like Paul (Phlm. 16), Pliny pleads for a relationship of brotherly love between the servant and his master and recommends the returning servant as worthy of such love.

Although Philemon was originally composed for this practical purpose, the epistle also creates a "symbolic universe"... in which a prisoner, Paul, pleads for the release or at least for the kind treatment of another nonfree person, Onesimus. Neither Paul nor Onesimus is free, but their being Christian transcends external boundaries. In a paradoxical manner, the epistle stresses joy, love and confidence between people in chains. Christians have become prisoners "of" and "in" Jesus Christ (Phlm 9, 23). Although Philemon is a practical and occasional piece of writing, it also contains a deeper message. In the exposition, this deeper message relates to freedom, love, and gratitude as the motivational grounds Christian behavior. It is further noteworthy that Philemon is addressed not only to Philemon but to the church (vv. 2, 25)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pakistan, Flooding and Our Response

I knew Pakistan had terrible flooding. I just didn't know how terrible. At the Lutheran World Relief website they gave me a glimpse at how bad. They wrote, "The floods are the worst natural disaster to hit Pakistan in the last 80 years and have killed at least 1,600 people, left a million people homeless, and have affected at least 14 million." Adding that on top of the other natural disasters over the past few years, the effects are magnified even more.

The congregation I serve has had a quilting ministry for several years. A load of quilts was taken over to the warehouse in New Windsor, MD but their stores are becoming depleted. One of the quilt transporters stood up in worship the other day and made folks known of the need. And in that LWR article, we see why. LWR is looking to send "3,300 quilts, more than 13,000 health kits and 1,500 layettes in response to the flooding," while working with a local organization in Pakistan.

But LWR could use more help. How? Here are their words:

You can help get relief on the ground quickly with a cash gift to Lutheran World Relief.

“In times of emergency, cash gifts are the quickest, and most effective, way to get relief to the people who need it most,” says Trevor Knoblich, LWR’s Emergency Response Coordinator.

With those gifts, our partners on the ground can purchase food and supplies locally, when possible, reducing delivery cost, and time, and infusing vital income into local economies that desperately need it.

“The monsoon season is not yet over,” remarks Joanne Fairley, LWR’s Regional Director for Asia and the Middle East. “For Mehr Nisar, and her son, who have been through so much already, your gifts — and the food, shelter and water they bring — really does represent hope in their darkest hour. Please give what you can.”

LWR is accepting donations to the “Pakistan Floods” fund online at lwr.org/giving, by phone at 800.597.5972 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 800.597.5972 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or by mail at PO Box 17061, Baltimore, MD 21298-9832. You can also help by donating quilts, kits and layettes to LWR to send around the world in times of emergency. To find out how to donate, visit lwr.org/beinvolved.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pedalling Pell-mell Through the Rain

Yesterday I was helping hand out lemonade on the campus of West
Virginia University at the Lutheran Campus Ministry. Mid-afternoon it
started to threaten rain. We called it a day, and after a brief
meeting, I headed home.

Which was fine, except that in the morning, knowing that traffic
downtown would be horrendous, I rode my bike circumventing most roads
by using the newly repaved rail trail.. A bright, sunny morning became
a dark, downpour in the afternoon.

But I knew that there were worse things than riding through the rain.
So off I headed, out the door. I hadn't ridden more than fifty feet
though when my sunglasses not only became spotted with drops but
fogged up as well. So there I was riding through not insignificant
traffic to get to the trail, getting absolutely soaked and barely able
to see.

Once on the trail though, it wasn't any better, at least as far as
vision was concerned. Traffic was much better. But I still had to
make allowance for runners, walkers and other bikers as we travelled
on the rain-soaked trail together. After a while I realized that it
was futile trying to pedal as fast as possible to stay as dry as
possible. I was already soaked clean through. So I slowed a little
and tried to alternate between wearing glasses and not. That was a
losing effort as well. With the glasses the copious rain drops
blocked my vision. Without my glasses I couldn't see because they were
my glasses, not just my sunglasses.

With the water pouring of me in rivers, I of course reflect on
baptismal imagery. I can't help it. It's conditioned response I
suppose. Water? Baptism! But so be it.

I strive to walk wet, soaked in the waters of baptism daily. Yet here
I was completely soaked and unable to see as clearly as when I was
dry. I wonder if our baptismal life isn't similar.

Knowing that we are children of God, trusting the promise made in
baptism, doesn't guarantee any clearer vision at least as far as the
path of our life is concerned. Certainty is not the issue, trust is.
We trust that the one we follow leads us through all uncertainty. And
there is plenty I cannot see or know in this life of faith. I think
sometimes it is clearer when NOT engaged in the life of faith, I
follow my own path, chasing my own desires, very little guesswork.
Too likely though, this leads to the ultimate death of my self.

This baptismal life is not entirely clear as we discern where our Lord
calls us. What is right here and now might not be right later. There
are certainly norms. I am not saying that we are called to just any
life. After all, yesterday, despite being hard to see at places, I
did know that there was a path. If I had veered off the trail, I
would have known quickly to turn around and get back on. But we don't
always know what's coming. Pedalling pell-mell through the rain
reminds me of the trust that we're called to daily as we walk wet.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

From the midst of vacation...

I have been at home on vacation since Sunday... the ever popular stay-cation. I have been trying to get some home improvement projects finished. To some extent I have been succesful. In other ways, I have not.

I have also been unplugged and therefore not posting, but that is fodder for another post sometime.

I know that there are some who would look at this time and speak of sabbath. But I don't know if I would go there. Not every vacation is sabbath... in fact I might go and say no vacations are sabbaths. I always find it interesting that Luther in his Large Catechism makes the bold claim that the commandment, "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy" is technically not a commandment that Christians are required to keep. (Read Luther's third commandment explanation here) But it is good to have a day to gather and attend to God's Word in the midst of worship. Luther points out that the resting does not make the day holy, rather the opposite, the hallowing makes it restful (and no jokes about the pastor putting everyone to sleep during the sermon!).

I wonder how do you "keep sabbath?"

Thursday, August 05, 2010

"Have no fear, little flock..."

In preparing for this upcoming Sunday's reading where Jesus calms his hearers with those beautiful words, "Have no fear little flock," I was pondering both David Lose's exegesis over at Working Preacher where he talks about promise. Lose writes:
But Jesus does not simply hold out faith as a model and goal, much less as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves her children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God's good pleasure to give God's children the kingdom. Promises create a shared expectation about the future and bind together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises create faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life - whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, care of neighbor, and more - are therefore anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Remembering - indeed, exalting in - this promise enables us not only to have faith, but to answer Peter's question: is Jesus saying this to us or to everyone? Yes!
My mind turned to a short book by Robert Jenson that I found at some used book sale (almost surely at a seminary book sale, if so then almost certainly at LTSS, but maybe not... I seriously cannot remember where I find all of my used books). In this book, Jenson works to talk about the story of God and help make the promise that God is making in the midst of that story. Primarily then it is a promise rooted in who this Jesus is and what the Kingdom has to do with it all. Since Jesus' words this week specifically point to the promise that it is the Father's good pleasure to give us the Kingdom, I have found Jenson's ideas to be particularly helpful, especially in conjunction with Lose's reflection. Promise does indeed change things. More importantly, Jesus' promise changes things, transforms lives by God's action. Particularly when Jesus' promise of God's pleasure in giving us the Kingdom is followed up with some rather difficult imperatives "Sell your possessions. Give alms. Be ready." The promise, as always is key.
We regulate our relations with our fellows by what they have been; if a teenager is hooked on dope, we do not encourage our children to make him a friend. Jesus did the opposite: he brought his fellows into his life not in terms of what they had been, but of what they would be. And not in terms of what it could be predicted they would be, on the basis of a "little bit of good in everyone" or of what he planned to reform them to, but in terms of what they could be only by God's miracle. He enacted God's future as his brothers' own present.
Jesus' own miracles hit here.... Jesus performed miracles as signs, as non-verbal parables. They were signs of the overcoming of all alienation of human life from itself, including those alienations we clumsily call "physical." As acted-out signs, the miracles were also instances of the immediacy of the Kingdom. Jesus did not, for example, merely promise to the leper, a permanent outsider because of repulsive and contagious skin disease... that in God's Kingdom he would be accepted; he then and there made the leper so.
In that he interpreted his fellow's lives by God's future rather than by their own pasts, Jesus interpreted his own life by that same future. The outcome of his own life would be the fulfillment 0r failure of the promise he brought. And in that he promised the Kingdom to all comers, he bet his life on the final overcoming of all religious and social distinctions. In that he called publicans and sinners to be his brothers at table, his table became a table of publicans and sinners (and he seems to have acquired a reputation for as a glutton and a drinker)....
Moreover, his interpretation of his own life in terms of the promise he had for his fellows was total. He retained no escape lines back into respectability, or even into an inner secure position with God; "My God,"he would finally say, "why have you forsaken me?" The community in and by which he interpreted his life for himself and before his Father, was the brotherhood of the unconditionally promised fulfillment, the brotherhood of the oppressed, the declasse, and the wicked. He so appropriated the persons and circumstances of his life that if the promise of the Kingdom failed, his life would have no value; and that if the promise did not bring hope for the publicans, neither could there be hope for him.
...And therefore Jesus interpreted his own words and miracle as the present anticipation of the future Kingdom. "If I am casting out devils by God's power, then his Kingdom has reached you." This did not mean that the Kingdom had "started," or that a little of it was there from which more would "grow." The kingdom was present with Jesus as promise, as word and meaningful action; and as the unconditional promise which abolished all space of controllable between itself and its fulfillment.
(Robert Jenson, Story and Promise, pp. 39-41)
When Jesus stands before his hearers and utters those words "Have no fear, it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom," Jesus is the reality of that promise. As such he relates to us in the fulfillment of that promise, in the reality of the Kingdom.

It does then create some immediacy for our hearers on Sunday to think about the fact that the Father's good pleasure is not just rooted in the life everlasting, but in the here and now for Jesus still comes to us and for us. Jesus, as Shepherd King, is not at all divisible from the Kingdom which is at hand. We can see the promise and the fulfillment together. And as Lose points out, the promise creates faith and hope, which transform us and our world.

Chaplain's blog over at the Lutheran

I have been keeping an eye on the blog by Col. Michael Lembke over at the Lutheran. Col. Lembke is the father of one of the students whom I know through the Lutheran Campus Ministry at WVU. The blog is updated roughly on a weekly basis, so it isn't hard to follow. I thoroughly enjoyed his comments from early July (which I just read now) about Jacob and Esau, and his reflection on the applicability of that story for his situation.
In our work, we often use the word and concept of reconciliation. True reconciliation is pretty scary though. It suggests risk, vulnerability and a search for truth; a willingness to know and be known. No matter how many times I read the story of Jacob and Esau's reunion, I am overjoyed by their emotional meeting. It encourages me to think that such a reunion may occur in Iraq, both small- and large-scale. "No way," you say. "Lembke, you pipe dreamer ... you myopic, naïve, optimist."

Well, I took my Jacob-and-Esau motivated naiveté into the studio this past week to record some encouragement under the title New Dawn Songs, with fellow musicians and technicians. Most of the songs aren't new (I've written them over the last 10 years), but the tempos, style and intent are fresh. Our title song, "New Dawn," will become a music video, with footage of good things going on in Iraq: schools, soccer fields, business ventures and other things that express hope for Iraq through music.

Song titles include "Roots," "Listen to the Lord," "Remember," "Stay in the Ring" and a new offering, "Grace-full Person." I'll be working with a new acquaintance, Canon Andrew White of St. Georges' in Baghdad, the church's youth group, and the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra to have "New Dawn" translated into Arabic and recorded for Iraq radio.

In the story of the reunion between Jacob and Esau, there is a wrestling match Jacob goes through the night before, the uncertainty of the meeting and then, finally, the joyful reunion. It's a precarious story, clouded in wonderment and fear, right up until the moment when the brothers embrace. I suppose it's like that here in Iraq. There is great uncertainty. The specter of the unknown looms large and expectations aren't high for positive outcomes.

I am reminded in his reflection of the risk of reconciliation and the wonderful joy that is accomplished through it.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Anne Rice, Loosed and Bound

I first read about Anne Rice (author of Interview with a Vampire and sequels, as well as a coupe of historical novels about Jesus, one being Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt) leaving Christianity, but not Christ, behind on my Twitter feed from the USA Today religion blog Faith & Reason (original post here). I was at the end of a week of teaching at church camp so I didn't see other reactions, but they are out there. Pretty Good Lutherans ran a nice column with it that included several bloggers' reactions and a fairly hefty number of comments follow that show Rice's move has hit a nerve. What about community? How does one follow Christ without the community? I am sure that Rice is feeling loosed from the chains that have bound her, as she has no doubt struggled with what seems like the bondage of social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

At Pretty Good Lutherans, Pastor Joelle Coville-Hanson is quoted from her blog's article,
“But Jesus calls us to community,” Coville-Hanson wrote. “Not a perfect community, but a community of sinners. You don’t get to pick what sinners you will be associated with and which ones you won’t.”
But my friend Mike, over at his blog Catholic Anarchy comments in 'Anne Rice "quits Christianity"',
The “you’re in or you’re out” view of ecclesiology will no longer cut it. The boundaries of the church are fluid and we cannot limit it to “Christianity’s” often tired institutional forms, as important as they might be. Sounds to me like she has left “Christianity” but is still very much attached to the Body of Christ. May she find peace wherever she finds “church” to be.
I resonate with both veins of thinking. I do think if she has faith in Christ, salvation will indeed happen. But to willingly cut herself off from the body of Christ I wonder if her faith in Christ is not somehow lacking. After all, there are few of us who would willingly exile ourselves to a desert island, no matter how bad we might think the other nutjobs around us are. If we want to leave Christianity but not Christ behind, what do we do with the Lord's Supper? That is specifically a meal for the community. I cannot help but think of numerous hymns for communion that are simply first person plural, like the old chestnut "Let Us Break Bread Together."

I know that Rice is reacting in many ways against the apparent heavy-handedness of the magisterium. She doesn't want to be anti-gay, anti-science, anti-whatever. But I find that really interesting since the Roman Catholic Church is not some monolithic block of thinking. Despite official church teaching, there is, as one colleague put it at ecumenical conference I attended, "a long history of ignoring directives from HQ" in the Roman Catholic Church.

But if we leave Christianity behind, how do figure out our lives of faith? Am I just left to my own thoughts? Please Lord, save me from that. I have screwed that up in my own life too often. I rationalized too many things as acceptable. I need a call to a new life and how do I know? Jesus promises that where two are three are, there he is in the midst of them. That promise has almost nothing to do with the size of our worship gathering and everything to do with our discerning the character of our discipleship. The theologian John Howard Yoder has written about this idea in many places. In a study entitled "Practicing the Rule of Christ" he writes about the discernment and character of the Church.
The Greek word ekklesia ("church") is found only twice in the Gospels coming from Jesus' lips; the two times are the two "bind and loose" passages. The word ekklesia itself... does not refer to a specifically religious meeting or to a particular organization; rather it means the "assembly," the gathering of people into a meeting for deliberation or for a public announcement. It is no accident that in Matthew 16 the assignment by Jesus of the power to bind and loose follows directly upon Peter's first confession of Christ as Messiah. The confession is the basis of the authority; the authorization given is the seal upon the confession. The church is where, because Jesus is confessed as Christ, men and women are empowered to speak to one another in God's name.
There is the truly sad part. Rice, and anyone else who follows this path of leaving Christianity but not Christ, does indeed miss the radical call to discipleship that Jesus brings to each of our lives. More importantly however, we lose her voice as one empowered to speak to us in God's name. I understand that the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church makes that speaking out difficult, but with the greater understanding of the Body of Christ, it is not. Here I am reminded of Pope John Paul II comment from his statement on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint that the divided Church is like one lung breathing. I would argue the case is the same here. When dissenting voices do not love the offending brother or sister or authority enough to speak out and enter discernment and seek reconciliation and true repentance from everyone, the Church is lacking something. The Church and Rice as well, remain bound, in the brokenness of our existence.

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Eucharist, a Child, and Pastor Dad

Two Sundays ago (I've been away for a week teaching at a summer camp, and learning good youth group stuff), during a normally orderly service, my middle child went absolutely ballistic in the middle of the distribution of the Eucharist. Evidently I gave him too small a piece of bread. The bread must have been an older loaf nearing the end of the batch which one couple bakes regularly. But it was dry and crumbly. I was having a difficult time breaking off pieces that would ever be considered large. It wasn't just him, but everybody. Only he didn't like it. And he let me know about it. Everyone else in the congregation overheard as well. He was L-O-U-D.

Luckily, I thought, he was almost at the end of the rail, so when he pitched this fit, throwing his piece of bread to the floor, I kept moving. I finished communing the four or five people after him, and since he had not finished his screaming, I returned. But when I returned it was not as pastor but dad. I don't know what to think about that transformation. After all, at that moment I was dealing with conflicting emotions. I needed to step in and support my wife's discipline. But I was also dealing with the embarrassment of MY child cranking it up in front of everyone. I really wanted him to stop. But he would simply not let up.

I went up to him and uttered as quietly as I could but so he could hear them the oh-so pastoral words, "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit." And he did not let up. He was not fooled by this. He wanted more. So I tried giving him another piece. It was not big enough either. I feared the voices in my head who were saying I was giving in, but I just wanted him to quiet down. Stop interrupting everyone else's quiet meditation (although I know that most folks are not really doing that... they are beginning to wonder what to do about lunch or what's going on that afternoon, since once Communion is over, the service is practically done). But that piece didn't satisfy him either. He was still raging for a bigger piece. At that point I had nothing left to do and other people were waiting so I moved on. His mother, as always, had to deal with discipline during the service. If I could change one thing about being a pastor and a dad, it would be this... for almost seven years, my wife has borne the burden of this.

My wife removed him from the sanctuary and down the connected hallway. We could still hear him screaming but it was at least muted. But not for long. Somehow he burst out of her containment and down the hall back to the communion at which he launched himself, nearly knocking over an elderly member with a walker. His hand thrust out at me and he demanded a bigger piece as loudly as he could. And with great sorrow, I passed him by and let my wife drag him away again.

Why was I sorrowful? Because about a month previous, our youngest child became our middle. And he became the middle literally overnight, wetting his bed for the first time in well over a year, the very night his younger sister was born. He has been demanding attention. He isn't staying in bed at night. He wants us to come up to his room with him. And here I think he turns to God (not just me, but I am part of the equation) for attention to... "I want a bigger piece of you!" He knows that this is not just bread. Can he quote the answer to Luther's "Was ist das?" question of the Small Catechism? no, he is four. But he knows that it is Jesus Bread. He has communed since the day of his Baptism. And the special nature of this meal brings him to the point where I think he feels he can turn. But when his world seemingly shrinks, and divided attention becomes even less, and the place where he derives some comfort for at least momentary connection with God in a piece of bread and small cup of wine, not to mention a moment where Dad touches him and we have a one-to-one connection around the words "The body of Christ shed for you" but even this seems divided because the bread is too small... it is too much for him.

He wants more from God. Don't we all. I can at least think abstractly and ponder what a "foretaste of the feast to come" might mean. But a four-year old cannot. He wants God writ large coming and speaking to him in real and concrete terms. And Pastor Dad responds with, "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit." How callous of me. How horrible to see a pastoral moment and stomp on it. My son's desire for more of God is what we want to cultivate isn't it? Maybe not in its performance, but the desire? Surely. After all, who doesn't want a child, or an adult for that matter, to desire more Jesus? Jesus is there in that bread and wine. We should expect that. Maybe if a few more people threw such fits at the altar it might remind that our own humanness, fallen as it is, does not always perceive the presence of the risen Jesus like it should. These fits remind us that there is a world of people desiring something more than the normal routine with the all too often heard words of "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit." Christ gives of himself so unreservedly that those words have no place at the altar. Instead we should hear, as Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism, the "for you" and remember how great such giving is.

This past Sunday, when I approached my son at the altar and placed the bread in his hand, declaring it to be the Body of Christ given for him, he asked in a voice full of wonder, "Is this a big piece?" "Yes," I replied. This piece is bigger than anything either of us will know until the day Christ returns.