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The LCMS won’t be able to work out its differences in the dark

I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard a journalism professor say, “Don’t ever do something you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.”

It’s worse today. In the 1990s, the news cycle was hours long. Today, with three major cable news channels and the Internet, the news cycle is minutes long, and marching toward real-time.

That’s the problem with Dr. Matthew Harrison’s hope, reported in the Post-Dispatch, to handle the LCMS’s Sandy Hook Vigil controversy “[Internally,] well out of the public spotlight.”
Read More »The LCMS won’t be able to work out its differences in the dark

I do not agree with my church president’s forced apology over Newtown, Conn.

This morning, I read something in the St. Louis-Post Dispatch that disturbed me greatly. I didn’t say anything about it until I had a chance to confirm with my pastor that it is true.

In the aftermath of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., Rev. Rob Morris, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church, spoke at an interfaith service designed to give comfort to the community. the Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, of which I am a member and a former employee, forced Rev. Morris to apologize. (I will refer to him as Dr. Harrison throughout because he has earned that degree, not because I agree with what he says. It is possible to acknowledge rank while expressing disagreement.)

Read More »I do not agree with my church president’s forced apology over Newtown, Conn.

Being more interested in growth than being Lutheran? Hardly.

On Monday, a group of protesters gathered outside the Vatican, er, 1333 S. Kirkwood Road.

Their complaint: Issues, Etc., a popular radio show on the LCMS’s unpopular talk radio station, got cancelled without warning, and the host and producer were fired.

I know from personal experience that this is how the LCMS does things. About this time of year, people come into work like any other day, and they lose their jobs. The next day, everyone else comes in and finds out a bunch of people are gone. Sometimes there’s an announcement, and if everyone takes it like a man there might even be a little fare-thee-well with cake and punch and a picture for the internal newsletter, but it’s just as likely there’ll be nothing but a few whispers.

Several years ago it happened to me. It still bugs me a lot, since I moved 120 miles, made a less-than-lateral move, and worked for far less than fair market value for those people.

So I feel for The Rev. Wilken and Jeff Schwarz. I’ve been there. And I really hope they find stable employment very soon.

I happen to know David Strand, the LCMS employee quoted in the article. In fact, if my phone rang and I saw it was him on my caller ID, I’d probably pick up. There are maybe a dozen people who work at The Vatican that I can say that for. I spent a fair amount of time with him and I trust him. I also know in the past that his department has been ravaged with cuts. It seems like pretty much every time the LCMS loses money (which they’re very good at doing), his department takes the bullet. So when he throws the monetary figures out there, my inclination is to believe him.

So while I sympathize with those who lost their jobs, and while I’m very disappointed in how it was handled (but not surprised), I very much take issue with what one of the protesters said: “They’d [the LCMS leadership in Kirkwood] like to be more in the mainstream of American evangelicalism as opposed to distinctly Lutheran.”

I’m not sure what Bible the so-called confessional Lutherans read, but my Bible doesn’t say, “Wait, therefore, for 15th-century Germans to come to you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It says to go–don’t wait, GO!–to all people, all nations, and baptize them.

The church I attend takes that seriously. And we attract an interesting mix of people. A lot of people are lapsed Lutherans, like I was. But we also attract a very large number of lapsed Catholics. We also have a small but vocal group who have, shall I say, some Calvinistic sympathies.

Our church looks more like a library or a community center than a German cathedral, and we don’t have a pipe organ and we put–gasp!–Bibles where other Lutheran churches put those horrible blue hymnals. I’ve had people tell me it doesn’t look or feel like a Lutheran church. But the theology that our pastor preaches is extremely Lutheran. The confession and absolution of sins is as Lutheran as it comes–the difference slaps me in the face any time I go to a non-Lutheran church–and in fact, if anything I hear more references to things like sola scriptura, grace alone and faith alone than I did in more mainline Lutheran churches.

And that’s good, because that’s what the people God brings us need to hear more than anything else. Isn’t that what God wants us to do? Heal the hurting? What could be more healing than the message of God’s grace?

We Lutherans have a near monopoly on perhaps the most potent force in the entire universe. I don’t think anybody understands grace as much as we do, and certainly nobody else has studied it like we have, because perhaps nobody in history needed it more than Martin Luther did. But all too often, we just sit on it. Or we bury it in tradition that people don’t understand.

The church I attend does a few things that draw people in, the upbeat, modern music being the most noticeable thing. But I don’t think that’s what keeps people there. Lots of churches have good praise bands. Lots of churches have eloquent pastors. But not a lot of churches have that plus the Lutheran doctrine.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. My church is one of the few Lutheran churches that’s growing, but that’s not necessarily a comfortable place. Growing is painful, and it’s expensive. It’s been a while since I was the one counting attendance, but I believe we can fit about 700 people in our sanctuary comfortably, and sometimes we have to squeeze a lot more than that in there. On Christmas and Easter we have to go to extreme measures to fit everyone in. Some people end up watching the service on closed-circuit TV in another room. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than turning people away.

Our life really would be a lot easier if more churches would make their services a bit more friendly for people who didn’t necessarily grow up in the old German Lutheran tradition. Play a new song occasionally. Preach practical sermons that people can use to apply to their lives, rather than sermons that sound like seminary lectures. Look at the problems we face in life every day and tell people what the Bible has to say about that, and make sure there’s a good helping of grace in the middle and at the end. The word will get out, and people will come. And then maybe my church’s buildings will last 10 or even 15 years before we outgrow them, instead of seven.

I think my church goes beyond what most of the current administration finds comfortable. I occasionally spot some higher-ups in attendance. I don’t know if that’s a sign of approval or if they’re keeping an eye on us. I do know they wish more churches would try an approach like ours, however.

I got a good healthy dose of decision-based evangelical theology this weekend, and it reminded me of how I ended up at this church. CBS News did a special called God’s Boot Camp. That movement is real, and in college it found me. It finally caught me a few months after I graduated. At least it got me in church when I hadn’t been going at all, which I think pretty much everyone would agree is a good thing. But the gospel they preached was very works-based. For a time it was really nice, because I’d never seen a church like this one before, but eventually I realized the burden was literally destroying me.

I found an evangelical-minded Lutheran church that knew what a guitar was, had a pastor who knew how to apply the Bible to daily life and preach a sermon about it, but most importantly, that pastor and his church knew what grace was, and all of a sudden, it was like all was right with the world.

I have a question for the Lutherans who are reading (both of you). Those people are out there. They will find your children. Given a choice between guitars and pipe organ on Sunday morning, your children probably will pick the guitars, unless you’ve somehow managed to spawn a teenager who prefers Lawrence Welk to MTV. So which gospel do you want them to hear? Works, or grace?

I want my son to hear about grace every Sunday. And I couldn’t care less what the rest of the church service looks like as long as the pastor’s definition of grace is something along the lines of “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.”

Speaking of expense, I also have one more request, although I’m pretty sure it will fall on deaf ears. I worked nearly seven years at 1333 and other LCMS office buildings, and I saw a lot of waste–waste that wouldn’t be tolerated in the corporate world (I know, because I’ve worked in the private sector too). By and large, the money that flows to 1333 flows there via the offering plate every Sunday morning. Please remember that it’s offering money that funds everything there, and in some cases it comes from people who really don’t have a lot to give. With that in mind, please use it wisely, carefully, and honestly.

The waste I saw wouldn’t have been enough to make a difference in Issues, Etc. being on the air. But it’s a symptom of a large but solvable problem. If the LCMS had addressed this problem seven years ago when layoffs and huge cuts became an annual event, then it’s entirely possible that Issues, Etc. would be on the air, I would be working at 1333, I wouldn’t be writing my offering check in such a way as to minimize the amount of money going to 1333 to be wasted, and none of this talk would be happening.

Good night.

It\’s 2004, and that means a new presidency

I am Lutheran. Lutheran in both senses. Dad was Lutheran because his mother was Lutheran and she was Lutheran because her grandparents were Lutheran when they got off the boat in Philadelphia. But that’s not the end of my Lutheran background–my ancestry hits Baron Jost Hans Hite (Heydt) at least twice.

But I’m not a Lutheran just because my forefathers were Lutheran. I left the church, and at 22 found myself at another church that I sensed was teaching things that were wrong, but I wasn’t sure why. So I read the Bible cover to cover trying to find out why. And in the end, I realized the Lutheran explanation of all this stuff made more sense than anyone else’s.

So here’s my take on the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s much publicized convention.The semi-underground Christian News reported the following: “MAJORITY IN THE LCMS VOTES THAT LUTHERANISM IS NOT WHAT THEY WANT IN A CHURCH – KIESCHNICK IS RE-ELECTED; OKLAHOMA D.P. DIEKELMAN ELECTED AS 1ST V.P.”

I define “Lutheranism” as a discipline that teaches people to read and interpret the Bible and not necessarily take the clergy’s word for it because the clergy can be wrong and needs those checks and balances. That’s my Lutheranism.

In my Lutheranism, God chooses us, not the other way around.

In my Lutheranism, we believe that faith without works is dead, but we teach that it’s God who does those works through us. It’s by grace that we’re saved, not those works. Works are a symptom of that disease called faith. We don’t do it ourselves! That’s what Jesus came here for, because we spent 4,000 years proving that all we could do was mess it up! In my Lutheranism, we don’t compare works and beat each other up trying to prove who’s the better Christian.

In my Lutheranism, “grace” is a simple concept: God’s riches at Christ’s expense. And that’s Lutheranism’s greatest treasure.

I may have ruffled a few feathers by not saying anything about tradition. Funny thing about tradition. It explains things that were never officially written down, and that can be a good thing. But tradition can get in the way too. The Pharisees had tradition. In spades. Jesus had some problems with them.

And I wonder sometimes too if we Lutherans might be a bit too smug. The Lutheran stereotype is someone with a whole lot of education and a whole lot of money. We’re successful, and that makes us not too eager to try out something we never thought of before, because, well, look where my way has gotten us!

There’s room for tradition and excellence in my Lutheranism. But when tradition and excellence get in the way of that last thing Jesus said before the ascension (“Go to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”), then they become a problem.

When publications like the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch call you “The Taliban of American Christianity,” I think we have a problem.

Now, I know I don’t have as much education as some people, but when I look at the election results, I don’t see it as a majority of delegates rejecting Lutheranism. I see it as a majority of delegates rejecting the power plays and the infighting that happened after an LCMS pastor offered up a prayer in mixed company at Yankee Stadium after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

Some believed that wasn’t a very Lutheran thing to do. And some believed it wasn’t a very Lutheran thing for our president to do, approving this despicable act of praying in mixed company. Now I’m not saying that this was the motivation, but what happened next appeared to be an attempt by the president’s political opponents to bring him up on charges so they could take the presidency, since the next person in line for the presidency was one of the president’s political opponents.

It left a bitter taste in some people’s mouths.

And I think that’s why Dr. Gerald Kieschnick won re-election by a reasonably comfortable margin on the first ballot this year, and why another person much like him won the #2 slot, and other like-minded people took three of the remaining four slots.

I have one question for those of you who are Lutheran like me.

If–without changing any of your fundamental beliefs, but simply losing a label–if giving up that “Lutheran” label would cause one–just one–person to be in heaven who otherwise wouldn’t, would you do it?

No one’s asking you to do that. I’m just trying to get you to decide where your priorities sit.

My well-dressed visitors

One evening early in March–the first really nice day of the year, as I recall–my doorbell rang. My girlfriend was coming over that night, but I didn’t expect her for another 45 minutes or so. I looked out the window and saw two guys in their early 20s, wearing black dress pants, white shirts, ties, and engraved nametags.
I knew instantly who they were representing. I debated whether I should answer the door, but I figured it would be better for them to come in and talk to me than to go knock on my neighbor’s door. My neighbor already has a church and doesn’t need another one, and I really didn’t want these guys trying to convince him otherwise. (For the record, my neighbor’s church isn’t my church and it’s not the same denomination as mine. I just want you to know that.)

They came in and they told me who they were representing. Then they proceeded to tell me that everything I know is wrong. I’ve been told that before. I think the first time was at a U2 concert, but I don’t think they really meant it. At least they didn’t mean everything. I heard it again at college, but their main motivation was to teach me how to think.

They told me a story about a prophet. When this prophet was about their age, he didn’t know what church to go to. So God the Father–this is important–and Jesus Christ appeared to him. They told him a couple of things, and the result of this was the church that the two of them represent.

There’s only one problem with that story. There’s another prophet named Moses. You’ve probably heard of him. He’s the one God handed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. He also wrote the first five books of the Bible. Among prophets, Moses is in an elite class. When Jesus was transfigured in front of three of his disciples, two prophets also showed up. Those prophets were Moses and Elijah. To those three disciples, who were Jewish, the presence of Moses and Elijah and their submission to him indicated that Jesus was something special.

Well, one of the big reasons that Moses is something special is because he saw God. Once. Only he didn’t get to see God the Father’s face, because it would have killed him. (See Exodus 33:19-23.)

St. Paul was in an elite class of apostles. (According to these two guys, St. Paul was sort of a prophet. Remember the “sort of.”) St. Paul was on his way to Damascus to kill some people (see Acts 9:1-22) when he got interrupted. He got blinded by a light, then he looked up in the sky and saw Jesus. Jesus gave him a talking-to, then Paul went and changed the world.

When God shows up visibly to people, things change. It doesn’t happen very often, so when someone comes along saying he’s seen God, people tend to follow.

But the problem with the story these two guys told me is that it doesn’t mesh up. Moses couldn’t see God’s face because it would have killed him. Paul’s story meshes up with Moses’, because Paul didn’t see God the Father. He saw Jesus. But their prophet saw God the Father.

I pointed out this discrepancy to them. When they left that night, one of them handed me a piece of paper with the verse Acts 7:55 written on it. That’s the story of Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. It says so. So how does that mesh up with the story of Moses and Paul? Five verses later, Stephen was dead.

These two guys put a lot of emphasis on their prophet’s testimony and on their own experience and feelings. I resented their implication that I’d never had an experience with the Holy Ghost. I resented them coming right out and telling me my baptism was invalid. It annoyed me when they told me that neither one of them had read much of the Bible, and they continued to talk down to me even after I told them I had read the Bible in its entirety. On a subsequent visit, one of them told me he very rarely read the Bible because he didn’t like it, but this other book they wanted me to read… He loved that book. That made sense to me though. Americans are very do-it oriented. Give an American male a list of things to do to be successful, and he’ll probably do them. He’ll probably thank you for it. Even if the list is 613 items long. There’s a reason why the self-help section in American bookstores is so big. The book these guys wanted me to read is well-suited for an American audience. While the Bible likes to talk about the things God did for us, this book is full of ideas about things we can do for God.

But the most important thing about that book is the experience and feelings you get when you read it. Let me tell you a little bit about my experience and feelings reading the Bible.

When I was about the same age as these two guys, I began the process of reading the Bible cover to cover. I was questioning everything I knew and everything that had ever happened to me, and that book and what I perceived as the misuse of that book was at the center of those questions. So I read it, looking for answers. I prayed at the same time too. I asked God where I should be going to church, because I didn’t know. He told me where I should go. Not because it was where I wanted to go–I didn’t want to be Lutheran–and not because the LCMS is right about absolutely everything, because they aren’t. When it comes to understanding the needs of a guy in his 20s and resources to help them, the LCMS has a whole lot of nothing. But the LCMS’s specialty is its teachings on grace and forgiveness, which was what I needed more than anything. God knew it, and I know it now, and I needed that message so desperately that I would have listened to the pastor talk through an electric fan if that was what he wanted to do. I returned to the denomination of my youth about a month after I finished the Bible.

These guys talked a lot about feelings. Sure, it was an emotional time. And while you should pay attention to feelings, you also should remember that feelings aren’t infallible. Our emotions can be 100% wrong and totally detached from reality. There are plenty of moments in just about any relationship of a romantic nature can illustrate that vividly.

Four years after I returned to the church body of my youth, I went on a mission trip to a very impoverished part of Florida. I saw the life of one of the teenagers in my small group completely change over the course of a couple of days. If God the Holy Ghost didn’t have a hold on him, then I don’t know who it was. That same week, five or six of us had finished up our task for the afternoon, so we went walking. We came upon a church, and it had become our habit that week to pray for the churches in the area. The prayers were pretty simple and generic: That the area churches would reach out to the community, and that they would have the desire and the ability to meet the needs of the people around them. After we finished, our pastor looked up and saw an elderly woman standing on a second-floor balcony across the street from us. “Are you watching us?” he asked playfully. “Yes I am, sir,” she said, humbly but without any shame or nervousness or timidity in her voice. Pastor asked if he could send a few of us up to her to pray for her. “I’d like that very much, sir,” she said. So I grabbed three guys and we walked up to her apartment. We talked to her for a few minutes, prayed with her for a few more minutes, then talked for a while again. The last thing she said to us is probably something I’ll never forget: “I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit outside when your group walked up to that church, and I just had to step outside and see what was going on out there.”

When my two visitors told me the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost is beyond description, I had to agree with them. And I’m sure that the Holy Ghost is working on them, trying to show them the way to truth, and I’m sure they feel that work in their lives. But they have it backwards. To them, the Holy Ghost is their reward for doing the right thing once. To use a baseball analogy, the Holy Ghost is a World Series trophy to them. That’s wrong. Yes, the Holy Ghost is there after you’ve gotten right with God, but only because He was already there. The Holy Ghost isn’t a World Series trophy. The Holy Ghost is the leadoff batter on opening day, and His work never ends until our final breath and the final beat of our heart.

These guys have a lot of things backwards, but I could never convince them to even think about any of that stuff. They’re constantly talking about proving things to God. The only thing we can ever prove to God is our inadequacy, but even that isn’t really proving anything. How can you prove anything to an all-knowing being? Of course, I’m not sure that their god is an all-knowing being.

They never encouraged me to read the Bible. They wanted me to read their book and pray about it. But they wanted a very specific prayer: Pray to know that their book is true. The problem is that when you pray a prayer like that, God may say no, but since you prayed for a yes answer, if some other being comes along posing as God and says yes, that’s the one you’ll listen to.

Truth be told, the ethics of their book aren’t bad. Their book reads much like the books Protestants call the Apocrypha: the books between the Old Testament and New Testament that Catholics and Episcopals accept but Calvinist and Lutheran denominations don’t. If the church these guys represent only believed and taught what was in the Bible and this other book, they’d still be a fringe group but mainline Christianity would have far fewer problems with them.

On the Saturday before Easter, they paid me a visit again. My friend Matt, who’s working on his Master’s of Divinity, happened to be over. They talked to me some more about why my baptism was invalid and theirs is valid: The authority to baptize died with the apostles and wasn’t restored until the 19th century, they said. After a half hour or so of miscommunication, Matt asked me if he could ask a question. I said certainly.

He had them turn to a second book they use–one that I was aware of but didn’t have a copy of–and read a passage from it. That passage stated that the Apostle John never died. (Matt later told me that that belief is a misinterpretation of John 21:20-22. Interestingly, John 21:23 specifically warns against just this interpretation.) But Matt went with their interpretation. Is it true that John never died? Yes, they said. Then the authority to baptize, which disappeared with the death of all the disciples, never left this earth.

The younger of the two was visibly taken aback. The older of the two struggled for a minute, then regained his composure somewhat and changed the subject.

The discussion quickly turned to the Nicene Creed and never veered back to this contradiction. But that very neatly illustrates a problem.

Whenever the Bible appears to contradict itself, it’s due to misinterpretation. Since English is a terribly imprecise language, often the problem comes down to word choice, and reading the verses in question in more than one translation (if you can’t read Biblical Greek and Hebrew) will resolve the issue. Or, often the problem is due to taking verses out of context. Re-read the offending verses in context and in light of similar verses, and the conflict resolves. Biblical prophets do not contradict themselves or one another because they were repeating the words of God, who doesn’t contradict Himself.

Statements such as “The Apostle John never died” are not the words of a prophet. They are the words of someone who didn’t read John 21:23. (Church tradition states that John died in Ephesus around the year 100 AD, at the age of about 94.)

In an early conversation, they told me that God used prophets in the Old Testament to bring people back after they became wicked. They then asked if it doesn’t make sense for there to be a living prophet today. I said no. They were taken aback; I’m certain that usually they get the opposite answer.

I held up my well-worn NIV Bible, then I said something like this: This is a book about relationships and sin. It took several centuries to write. There isn’t a single relationship problem that exists now that didn’t exist then and isn’t mentioned somewhere in here. And sin hasn’t changed. We’d mastered sin by the time this was written. Our need for God hasn’t changed, and what we have to do to be right with God hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed since this book was finished is our technology. God’s given us our answers; He doesn’t need to add anything else to it.

I’ve read books written by people who claim to have the gift of prophecy. But their revelations from God mostly affect them and the people directly around them, and they make no other claims about the messages they receive. They’re also incredibly short. And, most importantly, they don’t contradict scripture. In fact, many of them are simply restatements of scripture.

But when I’ve run across someone claiming infallibility, it usually hasn’t taken long for them to say things that do contradict scripture, such as that statement about the Apostle John. Verses such as Deuteronomy 18:20-22 and 2 Peter 3:16 have harsh words about these kinds of people.

Before they left angrily, one of them asked Matt what his motive was. Their motive, they said, was the truth. Matt said his motive was the truth. Have you read it?, one of them asked, holding up his secondary book. Matt said he had, and he was in the process of reading it cover to cover now. They each agreed that the other needed to find the truth (the less experienced of the two visitors didn’t say much and left looking shellshocked)and that was the end of it.

I see two major problems. The first is the assertion that the Bible isn’t enough. That opens the door to all sorts of crazy things. The second problem, just as bad, is the overemphasis on self and de-emphasis of God. Virtually every sentence they said began with the words, “You need to” or “We need to.” But it’s God working in us that enables us to do things. And in my experience, often when God’s working in us, we don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and it’s only after the fact that it makes sense. That doesn’t happen when your motive is to prove something to God though.

It’s been a couple of weeks now, and they haven’t called me or stopped by. I hope some of the truth has sunk in. But it usually takes a while.

Linkfest since I’m busy

I wasted way too much time with this, so I’m passing it along.
Parliament of Whores. Ed Felten, the star of the Microsoft Antitrust trial, and infamous anti-DMCA activist, has a blog. I like his stuff. I especially like this: a list of devices that would have to have copy-protection hardware under the insane Fritz Hollings I-Sold-Out-to-Hollywood bill. Bookmark it and visit it weekly. Get a good laugh. Print out copies and send them to your congressman. Send one to mine too, while you’re at it. Dick Gephardt needs something constructive to do.

Benke for First Vice President. If you’re LCMS, you can make nominations for the 2004 Convention. Here’s the form. Unfortunately there’s no box for me to nominate Dr. David Benke, the man who dared go to Yankee Stadium on Sept. 22, 2001 and pray with heathens lepers infidels non-LCMS Lutherans present, for the office of First Vice President.

If anyone knows where I can find that form, I’d appreciate a link.

Meanwhile, yeah, I think Dr. Benke belongs on the LCMS Board of Directors and the CPH Board of Directors. Getting him on the Commission for Theology and Church Relations would make it much easier for the rest of the Body of Christ to deal with LCMS. And since he actually (shock, horror!) talks about his faith, he’d be good on Mission Services, too. And we’d do really well to have hundreds–no, thousands–more pastors just like him, so putting him on the Board of Regents for both the Fort Wayne and St. Louis seminaries would be an excellent move.

Boy, I’ve got plenty of work for him, don’t I?

But I’d really like to see him at 1VP.

As for Dr. Benke’s crimes against Lutheranism and humanity and God, evidently, the Apostle Paul was guilty of the same crimes. St. Paul was awfully abrasive sometimes, but I wouldn’t mind having him in one of our top leadership spots. Since we can’t get St. Paul, I’ll settle for Dr. Benke.

Where are we now?

It’s September 11, and I’m mad.
I’m not mad at the government for not finding Osama Bin Laden. The government sent him running. He’s weaker today than he was a year ago. I can be patient about the day he finally gets sent to the universe’s highest court.

I’m not even certain that I’m mad at Bin Laden. One of my college professors said you can’t get mad at a dog for barking. That’s what dogs do. Can I get mad at a raving lunatic with money and a bunch of guns and no guts for brainwashing some of his henchmen and making them hijack some airplanes on suicide missions? Just as dogs bark, that’s what raving lunatics with money and a bunch of guns and no guts do.

But given the opportunity, I’d still shoot him. Nothing personal. It’s my duty to my country. Raving lunatics with money and a bunch of guns and no guts brainwash henchmen into hijacking planes and slamming them into buildings. Patriotic Americans protect their fellow countrymen against enemies of the state.

No, what I’m mad about is the headline I read this morning that said church activity is back down to its pre-9/11/01 levels.

Osama Bin Laden hit a really easy pop-up to Christianity. And we fumbled it, let it squirt out of our glove. And then we didn’t even bother to run after the ball afterward and catch him off guard.

“This is not what the beautiful religion of Islam is about,” some said after 9/11. Here’s what the beautiful religion of Islam is all about: Do a bunch of deeds. When you die, Allah might let you into heaven. There is no assurrance. No security. You live your life, doing deeds, hoping it’s going to be enough.

Christianity can be summed up in two verses:

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will never die, but have eternal life. –John 3:16

I write these words to you who have believed in Him so that you may know that you have eternal life. –1 John 5:13

It’s not about deeds because it’s not about you. Believe in Jesus Christ, then let Him work in you. Deeds follow. But the deeds don’t get you into heaven–the deeds are just confirmation that you’re going to heaven. You’re saved before you’ve done your first good deed. Remember the story of the crucifixion? The thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. And Jesus said, “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.” How many good deeds do you think that thief did between the time he said that and the time he died? He didn’t exactly have the ability, did he?

Christianity offers all the beauty of Islam, and then some.

After Sept. 11, Rudy Giuliani invited speakers from all faiths to attend a community prayer event at Yankee Stadium. A number of Christian speakers showed up. None of them mentioned Jesus. I guess they didn’t want to offend anyone. But without Jesus, Christianity is just another religion. Why would anyone want to have anything to do with it? I wouldn’t.

Well, actually one of the speakers did mention Jesus. His name was Dr. David Benke, a Lutheran pastor from New York City who also serves as president of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Dr. Benke’s reward for doing the right thing–offering comfort and support to the grieving people around him who desperately needed it, and not just offering any comfort and support, but the very best comfort and support this world has ever had to offer in the form of the Gospel of Jesus Christ–was to be brought up on charges of unionism. Unionism is a fancy Christianese word that means watering down Christianity and making all religions look equal.

LCMS has been fighting amongst itself ever since. On one hand, you have evangelical-minded people like Dr. Benke and LCMS president Dr. Jerry Kieschnick who have dedicated their careers and their lives to reaching as many people as possible with the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. On the other hand, you have so-called “Confessional” Lutherans who talk mostly about something called “doctrinal purity.”

“Doctrine” is Christianese that can be roughly translated into “what you believe.” Confessionals like to use a lot of Christianese language. I have no idea why. And to be honest, if I were to take what my evangelical-minded pastor believes, write it down, and put it in a hat along with what Confessionals like LCMS First Vice President Daniel Preus and LCMS Second Vice President Wallace Schultz believe, you and I wouldn’t know the difference.

Now, maybe evangelical-minded Lutherans are more lax about what they require someone to believe. If you’re right about John 3:16 and understand that what Jesus did is the only reason you can go to heaven (and for that matter, the only reason you have any value whatsoever), you’re going to heaven. And an evangelical-minded person is more interested in getting as many people as possible right about that point than about making sure a smaller number of people believe the right thing about everything.

Yes, we have different priorities.

But I don’t think confessional Lutheranism is about doctrinal purity. It’s more about control. These are the hymns you may sing. This is what your church service is going to look like on any given day. These are the topics you are going to preach about each Sunday for the next year.

Unfortunately, you cannot anticipate the needs of the people around you months and years in advance. Different people in different places at different times have different needs.

The greatest treasure of Lutheranism is not that great hymnal we have. You can tell because it doesn’t seem like anyone can agree which of our many hymnals is the great hymnal we have.

The greatest treasure of Lutheranism is the greatest treasure of Christianity: The teaching that God wanted to save you in order to spend eternity with you, so He did anything and everything it would take to make that happen, in the form of sending Jesus Christ to come show us how to live, then die for us and rise again. That resurrection, and the deeds we do once we start to believe in it, are our 100%, iron-clad, unshakable assurrance that we are going to heaven.

In Christianese, that’s salvation and grace.

After Sept. 11, that was the message the confused masses needed to hear. A few churches heard the call and ran with it. Others responded to it the way they respond to everything: With a confusing message only a committed, longtime Christian would understand.

But the committed, longtime Christian was the last person who needed that. Jesus did not come for the healthy.

One man dared to stand up and challenge the convention of being a doctor for the healthy. Dr. David Benke accepted the invitation and preached the gospel to all who would listen at Yankee Stadium. He is now standing trial in his denomination for that dastardly deed. LCMS has now been called the Taliban of American Christendom in the press. Is this what we want to be known for?

Our willingness to compromise the Gospel, our unwillingness to meet the needs of the unchurched, and our eagerness to throw bricks at one another are the reasons why Christianity in this country grew for a short while after Sept. 11, then dropped back to its previous levels. Meanwhile, Islam grew.

A large number of LCMS churches are doing special services today, in rememberance of the events of a year ago. Many of them promise to be beautiful services, with high liturgy and beautiful hymns. I won’t be going.

One LCMS church is hosting an inter-denominational prayer gathering, where large numbers of Christians with gather and, for a day, put their differences aside and pray for this country and for American Christendom.

There might be some non-believers there, wondering about what this Christianity thing is and what it means, and asking some really hard questions. I hope so, at least. I want to talk to them.

That church might be disciplined for allowing such an event to take place on its grounds. I might be disciplined for taking part in it.

If that happens, I’ll take comfort in 1 Peter 4:19, as I hope Dr. Benke and Dr. Kieschnick do:

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

The ten-minute guide to oppressing women

“Promise Keepers is here in St. Louis, but not without controversy…”
I’m surprised Promise Keepers doesn’t get more attention from the media, because you can always count on protesters. The biggest demonstration was a throng of militant abortion activists playing off this year’s “Storm the Gates” theme urging PKs to storm a local abortion clinic.

Strangely absent was Fred Phelps. He’s always good for a news story, although I would be afraid to interview him directly. I saw him at PK last year in Kansas City.

A half-dozen feminists were also protesting.

I didn’t see any incognito women this year, although I’m pretty sure I did last year. I saw some “guys” wearing really baggy clothes and sporting short but very feminine haircuts. Officially, PK is a male-only event. But I can’t imagine a woman in disguise getting kicked out if she’s recognized. PK really doesn’t have anything to hide.

Before I get into explaining what PK does and why, let me give my standard disclaimer: I’ve been to two PK events. I occasionally wear a PK t-shirt. There are some PK books on my bookshelf. I don’t know if I’ve read them. When asked if I’m a Promise Keeper, I answer yes. But I don’t agree with everything PK teaches. Since PK is inter-denominational, its theology is a very mixed bag. It’s heavy on decision theology, which bothers me a little. It’s very heavy on the Calvinist/Reform do-it-yourself attitude on grace, works, confession and absolution. There is confession, sort of, but no absolution. That bothers me. When you confess your sins, when you’re done, someone needs to reassure everyone of God’s forgiveness. Too often in Reform circles, there’s an unspoken “try harder next time” attitude. That’s present in PK. That’s spinning your wheels. But we already talked about that.

But I don’t agree with LCMS all the time either, and I’m on the board of directors of an LCMS church. So be it.

So I have some disagreement, but it doesn’t stop me from paying my 70 bucks to go and it doesn’t stop me from encouraging my friends to go.

So, how’s about some straight talk on PK?

Why no women? Mostly because they wouldn’t be interested. Last year, a one-time football coach named Joe White walked in carrying what looked like a telephone pole. Then he carried it up to the stage, put it down, grabbed an axe, and made a cross, right there onstage. Then he set it up. When he was finished with it, it took three people to hold up what he held up himself.

That’ll get a guy’s attention. And when a guy who can carry telephone poles around isn’t afraid to cry… That sends another message.

And then we found out he was dying of leukemia. This is what he was spending the rest of his life doing. So it must be pretty important to him.

This year, Joe White did almost the same thing, carrying an oversized cross around the perimeter of the Savvis Center rink in St. Louis. And at one point, later in the conference, he rode in on a motorcycle, rode up the stage, hopped off, and gave a 10-minute sermon on the power of God, in the style of professional wrestler bravado. It was the end of a combination video/skit that portrayed Jesus and the 12 disciples as a biker gang.

It’s not uncommon for a former football or basketball coach to come in and use sports metaphors to explain Christianity. It’s the language some men understand best.

Most women wouldn’t like it.

The other reason is that a lot of men act differently when women are around. Since getting right with God is a big focus of the events, it’s helpful if you help the men get over the act and be themselves before God.

What’s this take back your household thing? This is where the controversy arises. PK advocates that men take back the responsibility they’ve shoved off on their wives. Wanna know what form that took this year? A big, bald, burly black preacher telling us men to wash the dishes and take out the garbage. This isn’t about taking away a woman’s humanity. It’s about getting your butt off the couch, turning off the football game, and paying attention to your family.

Leaders give. Leaders serve. A real man serves. A real man gives, he said. Then he went on to say if you’re a man and you’re receiving all the time, he questioned their manhood. In more ways than one.

Both times I’ve gone, one of the speakers has advocated that the men take a basin and wash their wife’s feet (the way Jesus washed His disciples’ feet before the Last Supper) while confessing their shortcomings and asking forgiveness. Where’s the oppression in that? PK advocates humility and responsibility. Who wouldn’t want her husband or boyfriend to be more humble and responsible?

Above all else, PK advocates men taking the role of spiritual leader in their house. Many men are passive or apathetic about God. PK advocates that men pray for their wives and their kids. “My wife comes to me when she has a problem,” that same preacher said. “She doesn’t come to me because I’m a pastor, she comes to me because I’m her husband and she trusts my prayer life. Does your wife trust your prayer life, or must she turn to another?”

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’ve prayed for girls on a few occasions, with them present. There hasn’t been a one of ’em that didn’t like it. Women like it when a man prays for them.

Most of the women opposed to PK probably don’t understand that this is what PK teaches. Or they may be opposed to any conservative Christian movement.

The best week of my life revisited

Well, I got word this week that my first video of significant length landed on the desk of the founder of Adventures in Missions. And he liked it.
It made its St. Louis debut the Sunday before last. I think it did its job. The subject was my church’s June mission trip to Belle Glade, and a number of the people who were there cried.

“God, send us some signs or something,” prayed the 15-year-old son of Christian author Tim Wesemann, about 30 seconds into the video.

Sign? You got it. A kid named Matthew set off an alarm in room 229 in the church where we spent our first night. So, for what seemed like an eternity, the PA system bellowed, “2-2-9.” And it beeped a lot too.

The minute he prayed and asked for forgiveness, it stopped. Things like that happened a lot that week.

That afternoon, someone looked up Matthew 22:9.

That became our theme. Which reminds me: We need to make t-shirts.

About halfway through, the words, “Wednesday, June 19, 2002: A night to remember” flashed up, simple white letters on a black screen. One of the girls turned back to me. “You got that on tape!?” I nodded. I shot at least three hours of tape that night. She reached back and squeezed my hand.

Let me tell you something about Wednesday night. I don’t know everything that was going through everyone’s minds that night, but by Wednesday, most of our kids (28 in all, I think) had been to the gates of hell and back. They were seeing the desperate situation the people in Belle Glade were living in, and although we’re middle-class white guys and gals from south suburban St. Louis, we live in luxury compared to any of them. We live in nice houses, drive nice cars, and get to eat pretty much anything we want, whenever we want. We don’t have to worry about any of our basic needs.

In Belle Glade, “affordable housing” often means four concrete walls, a concrete floor and roof, some kind of bed, and a 110-volt outlet to plug a hotplate into. A sink is a luxury. A lot of “discount” stores selling low-quality food abound. The food is affordable but not worth the prices they’re forced to pay for it. Blaxploitation at its finest. It’s pretty sickening.

And on Tuesday, there was an incident. One of the kids from our downtown VBS, an eight-year-old, got into a fight with a 13-year-old. The eight-year-old was everyone’s favorite. His was probably the saddest story we’d heard down there. But there was something else about him too. I had limited contact with him (I worked the other VBS) but I can attest to it. He drove me nuts most of the time. But I liked him.

Well, the angel they’d seen that morning flashed his other side. At one point, he had a big rock that he was ready to throw at the 13-year-old–a big-enough rock that if he beaned him with it with enough velocity, it’d do some permanent damage. And the fire in his eyes suggested he was more than willing–if not able–to do just that.

Being an adult, I’ve seen people who have such polar extremes. Not everyone in their early teens has yet–and let’s face it, Oakville, Missouri is pretty sheltered. Seeing two people willing to fight, perhaps to the death, over something that warranted at most a minor scuffle represented a major loss of innocence, especially for the girls.

And the adults from the neighborhood wanted to just let the two kids fight it out and call the police when it ended. One of our adults intervened, broke up the fight, and seperated the two, and a group of people talked to each of them. We didn’t have any more problems of that sort with those two for the rest of the week.

On Wednesday, a couple of teenagers hopped onto the roof where we were holding our other VBS. They threw off a soccer ball and football that had been thrown up there. One of them also picked up a five-pound iron weight, attached to a belt–a crude gang weapon–that was up there. A number of kids were playing in front of the building. He pitched the weight off the top of the roof. He probably wasn’t thinking. And he probably didn’t care, to be honest. The weight came down off the 12-foot roof (he’d probably pitched it up a bit higher, so it may have fallen 18, even 20 feet) and hit a little girl on the head. It bounced off, like a rubber ball. She wasn’t hurt at all. She was scared because she didn’t know what happened, and because our kids were terrified–you know how kids are, they get scared when adults think there’s supposed to be something terribly wrong–but completely unharmed.

Those were just the major events of Tuesday and Wednesday. Enough other things happened both days to fill a book each.

End long digression. Wednesday night was a crescendo. Georgia-based worship leader Joey Nicholson was singing songs and leading us in worship, and his song selections seemed especially poignant that night. Emotions were running high and our kids were exhausted. Our kids were crying, hugging each other, encouraging each other… The total opposite of the all-too-common cold and impersonal church service. At some point, one of the boys in my subgroup–Matthew, he of 2-2-9 and a source of a lot of gray hair for me, prior to that day–walked up to the stage and knelt down to pray. And he stayed there. The rest of the kids stayed pretty much where they were, singing, crying, hugging, consoling, for about two songs. He was still up there alone, praying and it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to budge. Our pastor tried to inconspicuously walk up there. Well, that didn’t exactly work. He walked up, put his hand on his shoulder, and knelt down next to him, talking to him and praying with him. The next thing I knew, all 28 of our kids were up there with them. By the time I knew what was going on, I was one of about five adults still standing. We didn’t waste much time joining them. I ran my handheld camera as I walked up and knelt down, but then I turned it off. What was going on up there was between each of us and God. I wasn’t going to invade that.

We were up there for about an hour, praying for each other.

It was a Lutheran altar call, I guess. No decisions for Christ there–Lutherans believe that’s pointless, because it’s God who empowers us to come to Him–but there were plenty of people talking to God about what their present life looked like and asking God what He wanted them to be doing with it, instead of what they were currently doing with it.

With all due respect to Promise Keepers, 10 PK rallies can’t match the intensity of those few hours that night for the 43-or-so people who were there. Yeah, it was that significant.

That was the self-indulgent memories portion. My gift to those who went, pure and simple. The remaining 19 minutes were about the various ministries we participated in while in Belle Glade. I’ll make no bones about it–it was a propaganda piece. The group that organized our trip had been talking about pulling out of Belle Glade, making our trip the last one there. After seeing so many lives transformed, I wanted to convince them not to do that.

They’ve told us their plans to pull out are history. Mission #1 accomplished.

There were 38 of us who went on the trip, but according to LCMS records, our congregation has 1380 members. Obviously it’s not realistic to send 1,380 people, but a congregation our size can send more than 38. I wanted to make the people who didn’t go jealous, so they’d want to go next year.

Time will tell if that works. Right now it looks like it will.

And I had a fourth objective too. There are lots of churches in Belle Glade. Most of the churches we came in contact with weren’t doing much outreach. I don’t know why that is, and I’m not going to speculate. But here’s what happened: 38 white guys and gals from St. Louis came in for a week. They didn’t have a clue what they were doing. But every ministry we touched caught fire. By the end of the week, every time a group of us walked down the street, someone stopped them. “Where are you from?” And when we’d answer, “St. Louis,” the people would say, “We’ve heard about you.” Then they’d tell us what we’d been doing. Then they’d thank us.

So the question in my mind was, if 38 St. Louisans can come down and spend a week and lots of great things happen, what can the churches that are down there do the other 51 weeks out of the year?

To my knowledge, the video’s been shown at two different churches, one in Belle Glade and one in Wellington, an affluent community a half hour away.

I hope they’re insanely jealous too.

Not that any of that was going through my mind as I watched. No. I was noticing how the audio needed to be normalized, and how a few of the shots desperately needed either to have been shot on a tripod or a healthy dose of post-production image stabilization, and how awful the lighting was and how nice it would have been to be able to do some post-production color correction.

Powerful? Sure. Worthy of winning a Telly? No way.

But the media director at church just told me to win a Telly. She didn’t tell me when. So there’s always next year.

But if we go back next year and I make a video about it and we win a Telly, I’ll betcha the Telly still isn’t the highlight of my year.

My spiritual journey

I guess this is as good of a time as any to write my spiritual autobiography. It’s not as long of a story as some–years of apathy have ways of shortening stories.
I guess I could sum up my current state in a couple of lines: Reach the world. Work within the system and change it from within.

Here’s how I got there.Read More »My spiritual journey