Thursday, November 29, 2007

YourRedeemer.com

Our local congregation's website -- Redeemer Lutheran Church, Burlington, NC -- is at YourRedeemer.com

The site provides basic information about the church, and also includes a link to our news blog.

If you're close by -- or coming through for a visit -- we'd love to see you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Joshua and the flood prayer

In reading Joshua 24, interesting how Joshua recounts (4 times: in vss. 2, 3, 14, and 15) to the children of Israel that their fathers had "served false gods on the other side of the flood."

The specific meaning of "flood" here is of course the Jordan river, which brings to mind a whole host of associations with the baptism of our Savior in that same river, and the parallel extends down to our baptism, too: we're taken to the water, connected with God's Word, and we no longer serve the false gods, but after coming over the flood, we serve the true God, the God who deigns to put His name on us, and make us His own.

Which brings to mind the other association for liturgy and theology: Luther's baptismal flood prayer:

"Almighty and eternal God, according to Your strict judgment You condemned the unbelieving world through the flood, Yet according to Your great mercy You preserved believing Noah and his family, eight souls in all. You drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea , yet led Your people through the water on dry ground, foreshadowing this washing of Your Holy Baptism. Through the Baptism in the of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin. We pray that You would behold us according to Your boundless mercy and bless us with true faith by the Holy Spirit, that through this saving flood all sin in us, which have been inherited from Adam and which we ourselves have committed since, would be drowned and die. Grant that we be kept safe and secure in the holy Ark of the Christian Church, being separated from the multitude of unbelievers and serving Your name at all times with a fervent spirit and a joyful hope, so that, with all believers in Your promise, we would be declared worthy of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen."

About which Fr. Ryan Fouts has some interesting thoughts. Fouts doesn't connect Joshua 24, but his thoughts on the flood prayer are rewarding and worthwhile.

How to be sure that you're really sorry for your sins: theses 29 and 30

29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.

30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.

If you've heard this, raise your hand. : )

"If you are really sorry for your sins, God will forgive you."

This is an error that gets thrown out far more than we'd wish, that if we are only really, really, really sorry, God will forgive our sins.

The problem -- as Luther points out -- is that no one is sure his own contrition (or sorrow for sins) is sincere. Much less someone else's.

And so you have people going around and around and around, wondering if they were really sorry, or judging someone else, guessing that from their facial expressions or whatever that "they weren't really sincere."

This is especially true when the sin is deemed worse than others. Or when the person keeps repeating the sin.

But we don't know when we are sincere. And we know that even our sorrow for our sins can be clouded by the very sin we're sorry for.

What we remember (2 Timothy 2.13) is that even when we are unfaithful, God is faithful. Our sorrow for our sins isn't what merits forgiveness. Instead, it is the merits of Christ, who died and rose again for our sins. For those that make us sorry, and even those that don't.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review: Thomas Sowell's 'A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles'

My review on Amazon:

"Have you ever noticed how it's easy -- after, say, 15 minutes of discussion -- to predict how someone will turn up on a given controversy? So, even though you haven't talked about immigration or taxation or abortion, you find that you can accurately give your new acquaintance's views based on other things they've said.

This book helps to explain why that occurs. Sowell seeks -- and it's a tough task -- to give a broad guide to understanding the wide visions that we all carry around, and with which we interpret the world and the controversies that happen around us.

Others have complained that Sowell oversimplifies. I would argue instead that Sowell's given task in this book is to make simple what can be an endlessly complex job -- to figure out why we usually end up -- predictably -- on a given side of a subject.

What's also good is that Sowell doesn't use the tired, unhelpful categories of "liberal" and "conservative" which in our time have come to be simplifying without helping. Sowell's simplifying, instead, gives a means of looking at the world that clarifies and in the end helps us think more clearly and -- perhaps -- more reliably when we evaluate problems of our time."

The mercy of hell

OK, so mercy is not the right word. But I don't quite know which word to use in describing what I'm talking about.

I start off with puzzlement. I'm puzzled by those who profess to hate/dislike/be offended by the God of the Bible (and there is no other God: any other representations are to a greater or lesser degree idols) and yet who still want to end up in heaven.

We don't know a lot about heaven. Or hell. We know that heaven will involve the praise of God, that we will sing there (one of the few skills from this life that we know will carry over to the next), we know that we will be with God and His saints -- but beyond that, we don't know a lot of details.

The Bible just doesn't say a lot about heaven. Primarily because, I suspect, most of what heaven will be like would be pretty incomprehensible to us. It would be like if I could (I'm stealing this analogy) take a not-yet-born infant and try to describe what the world is like: beautiful sunsets, the sound of an opera, the smell of a rose, the grace of friendships, the taste of fresh bread. All of this would make no sense at all to our hypothetical infant, because she would have nothing to understand these descriptions. So heaven: we have only the most limited ability to understand what joys will be ours. So the Holy Spirit through the biblical writers just doesn't bother. We'll know soon enough.

But we all encounter folks who have no interest in church, dislike talking about God, do not pray to Him, and do not hear His Word. And yet these same people will often complain bitterly about a suggestion that they will not be in Heaven.

The biggest question is why they would want to be in Heaven in the first place. They have no interest in even the little that we know about Heaven; why would they want to be there?

God could have made us robotoids, beings incapable of turning away, beings who loved Him because we had no other options. He did not make us so. Matt. 23.37 is sad evidence that God permits us to turn aside His love.

As we don't know much about Heaven, so we know little about hell, except that it is a place of torment and sadness. But perhaps hell is also the ultimate statement of God's respect (I can't think of a better word) for humankind. Because we as a race are given the ability to turn aside from His love, and those who turn aside from that love go into hell. Not because God hates them (John 3 forever refutes that dreadful idea) but because will not force these people into a Heaven that they don't want, a Heaven where everything about God that they have despised would be forced in their face for eternity.

Hell is a sad and terrible place and Jesus -- who speaks of Hell more than anyone else in the scriptures -- never speaks of it except in the saddest of tones. Sad because those poor creatures who end up there perhaps spend eternity knowing why they are there, and despising the Creator who made them capable of joy -- joy which they away from -- here on earth, and there in eternity.

Prayer and the power of God: theses 26-28

26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.

27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].

28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Church politics

I have strong political opinions (don't get my wife started) but I try to maintain this as a politics-free zone, just because while our faith and politics influence each other, it's very easy to become sidetracked by politics.

Which is what this post is about. I generally go on the assumption that when I can't quit thinking about some political matter, I'm being sidetracked from what I should be doing. And a temporary obsession with politics should be a wake-up call for me to get back to what God has called me to do.

Same with church politics. It's no secret that I'm unhappy with the LCMS, but when I get irritated by someone (or some thing) in the Missouri Synod, I need to get back to the callings God has given me: as a Christian, a husband, a father, and in my work.

Earlier this year, I made some suggestions of things you can do for the church. Those were numbers 1 to 5, here's
the last 5. When we become angry over church politicians, I would encourage doing these things first, and perhaps as an antidote to fretting over church politics. Not that the politics isn't important. But what you -- yes, you -- have been given by God to do is often far more important. Do what God has given you. And let God worry about the other stuff.

belated Thanksgiving greetings

So, I hope everyone is having a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend. For those of you here in the States, of course. I've been outside the States for Thanksgiving once. It was kind of weird. My son did study abroad in Seville, Spain in 2003, and we all went to visit him that Thanksgiving week. We were on our way back from Seville, and had a couple of days in Madrid, and on Thanksgiving morning, my wife and daughters got hit with the urge to do Thanksgiving. I thought this was a bad idea, as it is very difficult to duplicate iconic foods of another culture. But there's a market for that sort of thing, and Planet Hollywood was offering a Thanksgiving menu for the innocents who happened to be abroad that day. So we ate there. I refused to do the Thanksgiving menu, knowing it would be wretched, and not being the biggest fan of Thanksgiving food in the first place. And the food was pretty bad, but we were surrounded by other Americans, and that somehow seemed reassuring. And we were together with those we loved which was the most important thing of all, and that makes even mediocre food seem OK. (Proverbs 15.17: "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.")

Sunday, November 18, 2007

If you're bored with theology

I was reading physicist Peter Woit's blog this evening. (And no, as I mentioned in an earlier posting, I'm not a physicist, or anything approaching one; I try to read different areas sometimes to avoid the inbred quality that sometimes occurs in theology and philosophy).

He mentions in passing that he hadn't posted for a while because there hadn't been a lot of news in the physics and mathematics fields.

I have no such excuse. There is always something going on every day in theology. Every day, folks. Because in theology we're dealing with the big pictures of God and man and the universe. And when we look at theology from that perspective, hey, it even makes the things our friends over there in physics write about seem kinda small. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, if you're bored with theology, you're bored with life. Keep thinking. Keep growing. Keep asking the questions. And keep finding the answers.

The remission of penalties for sins: theses 23, 24, and 25

23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.

24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.

25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.

Why was the sky bright at the time of Christ's birth?

When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronomer.

I was the nerd out there with the telescope. I sat out in the winter cold looking for comets. And I read about, dreamed about, and thought about the heavens much of the time.

But that career was not to be. Because I realized early on that my math skills were not sufficient for astronomy. (Most people who check "astronomer" as their job title finish an undergrad degree in physics, followed by graduate degrees specializing in astronomy. Physics requires math. Lots of math).

But every year around Christmas, I'm reminded of my interest in the heavens. I'll talk later about the star of Bethlehem. But today, I'd like us to ponder a line from Away in a Manger, in which we're told that "the stars in the bright sky/look down where He lay."

Some versions omit "bright," but it's in the original. And what "bright" brings to mind is an astronomy term called "Olber's paradox," which asks the question, "Why is the night sky dark?" Very briefly summarized, the paradox says if the universe is infinite, there should be stars at every point in the sky, and the night sky should be at least as bright -- probably brighter -- than the daylight sky. But it's not bright.

We do not know who wrote the first 2 stanzas of this hymn. I suspect that whoever the author was meant to say by the words that the sky around the birth of Christ were bright with stars -- a "brightness" that most of us seldom see, much less appreciate, given that most of us live in light-polluted areas.

Here's a summary of Olber's paradox. I got a book in the mail yesterday which deals with the question as well. It's Edward Harrison's Darkness at Night: A Riddle of the Universe. I'll review it here when I'm done with it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Why do we want new members?

Most of us are in relatively small congregations. I sure am.

And while we pay lip service to avoiding sheep stealing, the reality is that in any small congregation (big ones, too, for that matter), our hearts flutter a little when a visitor arrives. Especially a local visitor.

Why's that? Well, the best construction is that we want to fulfill our Lord's command, that we want to preach the gospel to all nations, that we want to bring the good news of salvation to all.

And most congregations genuinely want that. The question is why we get such joy when someone arrives who is a baptized Christian, someone who has heard and trusts the gospel. And the reality is that our reaction is sometimes a selfish one.

Selfish because a newcomer is another potential giver, who will help out with the perennial money problems. Or someone else who might teach Sunday school, help out with VBS, whatever.

It's not wrong to rejoice when someone uses their gifts and talents in God's service. That's a good thing, and there is genuine joy in service to God.

The problem arises when we are too quick to take on a newcomer, someone who might be coming to us because of a conflict at another congregation, someone who might be angry with their pastor or someone who's just tired or bored with their church, and we offer a change.

I think pastors need to be sensitive to this. Because people will not tell all the details. They will flatter a new congregation, telling them that they are better, more faithful, whatever. It's good to probe a bit. And if there's anger, if there's bitterness, if there's unforgiveness back at the old church, that person needs to get it resolved. I'm not saying they should be discouraged from joining. But joining without resolving the old conflict only guarantees that the old wound will fester and become infected.

Encourage anyone in such a situation to forgive, and receive forgiveness, and ponder whether they really need to leave. If they really do need to move on, receive them joyfully. But part of confessing the church means that we respect and love our brothers, even if they have done this person wrong. It doesn't mean condoning wrongdoing, but we are one with our brethren. And this is part of acknowledging that brotherhood.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

More on the meanings of words

Writing earlier about word meanings brought to mind something I read a while back, about "gay" coming to mean "homosexual."

Seems that this isn't a recent development, and that as far back as the 1850s -- at least in London and New York -- "gay" had already taken on a connotation, one which fully developed in the 1960s.

(I also suspect that this was a town mouse/country mouse thing for a while, so that those in New York might have heard this connotation decades before those in, say, Raleigh might have).

I remember very plainly the last time I heard "gay" used publicly in the old sense. I was at chapel at Moody Bible Institute in 1975. (We were still required to attend chapel 5 days a week then). A speaker -- one who was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and whose name I'll withhold to protect the guilty -- said something to the effect that summer was on the way, and it was time "to take out our gay clothing."

Snickers went through the audience. Some laughed out loud. I remember the look on the guy's face: he obviously didn't have a clue why people were laughing.

Words are tough. Meanings change, and sometimes quickly.

Teaching about words

A thoughtful reader asks in regard to my post about "fatherland":

"Why is it, whenever someone taints a word, that we jettison that word rather than re-teach its original context? It seems like we are compounding the wrong when we choose to avoid such terms rather than draw the fire out of them through proper usage. Observe how people are treated when they use the word niggardly, and the term has nothing to do with race."

As a language nerd, I'm sympathetic to this argument. But I just don't think it works. Not in real life.

Let's imagine trying to re-teach "fatherland." In the first place, the problem isn't with the definition itself, it's with the connotation of the word. Teaching people what they "should" hear when they hear a given word isn't easy. I know what the meaning of the word is, I know the German meaning of the word it's derived from, and it still sticks in my craw, and always has.

It's like with "gay." I've heard arguments that we shouldn't cede the word to mean "homosexual," but it's a lost cause. And on one level, we should have pity on homosexual activists. Because now the word "gay" has come to mean -- for those 20 and below, which likely means it will retain this meaning for a very long time as these folks grow into adulthood -- something like "dorky" or stupid. So my daughter will say, "He's so gay," and I jokingly ask, "Meaning 1, 2, or 3?" 1 -- the older argument, as in bright, colorful, cheerful, 2, homosexual, or 3, loser.

Or "propaganda," which was another casualty of WWII. Prior to the 20th century, it had more of a meaning like we think of "advertising." But that is no more.

Words are funny things. Their meanings are more fluid than we like to imagine. I'm a big believer in holding fast to meanings, and carefully defining words. But in the end they mean what they mean, especially when it's a term in common usage.

In a real sense, no one has tainted the word "fatherland." I do it myself every time I hear the word. It sounds Germanic, it frankly has a connotation of the Nazis, and there's not a lot I can do about that. I know it's an English word, and I know it is not intended in the slightest to remind me of the Nazis. Maybe it won't sound that way in 100 years. But I suspect there's a lot of people like myself for whom it's still a problem.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"Jesus, Lead Thou On," LSB 718

This is a fine hymn. A good prayer, singable, and good words.

Mostly. I suspect I'm not the only one whose voice catches when using the word "fatherland," which has an oddly WWII German sound to it.

The English "fatherland" is translated directly from the German "Vaterland," and -- in German -- simply means "homeland."

Unfortunately, some of us singing it in English have a mental picture of the word alluding to Nazi propaganda, as here:

"Drawing from the Nazis' usage of the term "Vaterland", the direct English translation "fatherland" featured in news reports associated with Nazi Germany and in domestic anti-Nazi propaganda during World War II. As a result, the English word is now associated with the Nazi government of Germany (unlike in Germany itself, where the word means simply "homeland") The word is not used often in post-World War II English unless one wishes to invoke the Nazis, or one is translating literally from a foreign language where that language's equivalent of "fatherland" does not bear Nazi connotations."

A suggestion: congregations wishing to avoid unpleasant connotations might substitute (vs. 1) "to our father's land," and (vs. 4) "in our father's land." The meaning is not quite the same, but it's pretty close, and is a sweet and cherished thought rather than one that sticks in the craw. A quick perusal of other hymns so burdened indicates that a similar slight change could be made in them, too.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Children of Men: how they filmed the birth scene

Those of you who've seen the movie (those of you who haven't, stop reading now: this is a scene spoiler) watched in awe as Kee gives birth. Here's how they did that scene so realistically:

Children of Men: the movie, and lodging in Bible times

One of the finest films I've ever seen -- and one of the most moving -- is Alfonso CuarĂ³n's Children of Men. I keep bringing this film up because it's a keeper on so many levels, one of those that you can imagine people profitably watching 50 years from now.

I've been commenting on the ongoing subject of Rahab's house, caravanserai, and other questions related to lodging of strangers in bible times. This is a time when Children of Men works for that, too.

The movie is not set in bible times: it's set in 2027 AD. But in the story when Kee gives birth, I think we get a picture (probably not unintended) of the dangerous situation when the Virgin gave birth to the Savior.

Not to knock Christmas pageants (my children have been in a number of them) but Christmas pageants generally portray the Savior's birth as a quiet, sedate affair, the worst problem being that Mary gives birth in a barn, where the only sound was that "the cattle are lowing." But Revelation 12.4 hints at the danger which awaited the Savior's birth.

3 more theses: on purgatory

20. Therefore by "full remission of all penalties" the pope means not actually "of all," but only of those imposed by himself.

21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope's indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;

22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.

Review: Thomas Sowell's 'Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality'

A review I posted today on Amazon:

"This brief (140 pages) overview of American civil rights remains important for understanding what has gone on in the struggle to have all Americans share in the rights recognized in the Constitution.

The focus of the book is the question of rhetoric (I might have called it "intentions") and reality. In other words, what's important in the struggle for civil rights? Is it that one is rhetorically correct, with "good intentions" or is it more important that concrete individuals share in economic, social, and legal improvement in their status in life.

The book is somewhat dated, as it was published in 1984. But its overall review of civil rights in America remains unchanged. Reading it now can be considered a snapshot of where civil rights were over 2 decades ago, but the differing visions of civil rights and how to attain them has not changed. Sowell is insightful, thought-provoking, and cuts to the chase, arguing carefully about his subject. Understanding America's continued discussion of civil rights is made easier by digesting what this book has to say."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Rahab and the church

I've been pondering Rahab and her place in the story of the conquest of Jericho recently.

Since the primary story of the scriptures is about Christ (John 5.39, "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me") searching for Christ in a given narrative is good. And although it's easy (my wife accuses me of this frequently) to perhaps see too much in the Old Testament stories, Rahab is a significant character, and I think her story tells us something. She's a type or picture to us. The question is what she's a picture of: I'd argue it's the church.

Notice how Rahab and the church are similar.

1. The church is made up of justified sinners. Rahab is specifically noted as not merely a sinner in general, but a prostitute. The only 2 New Testament references to her (Heb. 11.31, and James 2.25 both specifically mention that).

2. The church is saved by the preaching of the word. Joshua (in Joshua 6.17) calls the 2 spies who lodged with Rahab "messengers." I don't have an interlinear in front of me, but I'd bet that the LXX term there is "angelos," messengers, the same word often used in the NT for those preaching the gospel.

3. Rahab and her family are saved by being in their house, which is also a picture of Noah's ark: those inside are saved, those outside are not.

4. Her house is marked with a scarlet thread; we are buried into Christ's death in baptism, and thus marked with a scarlet mark as well.

5. Rahab confesses the faith: "for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath" (Joshua 2.11) A confession is always a response to the preaching of the word of God, and -- per Matt. 16.17 -- such a true confession is never something we have contrived on our own, but it is a gift to us, something revealed to us by God.

6. Finally, Rahab and her family -- all of those found in the place of safety -- are rescued from destruction as they put their trust in God and His mercy.

Friday, November 09, 2007

OK, I have to admit ...

that I've been using a word I couldn't pronounce: caravanserai. Actually, it's one I've been thinking through (it figures somewhat prominently in another area of interest to me, Mongolian studies) for some time. I just didn't know how to say the word out loud.

So I thought this morning that it wouldn't hurt to find it out. Turns out it's pronounced "caravan-surry." I had been giving it a slightly different twist, calling it "caravan-sir-I."

This is the site I used to find how to say it.

Those in purgatory: thesis 19

19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

more on the caravanserai

I am not suggesting that Rahab's house (per Joshua 2.1) was a caravanserai. What is fascinating is that a caravanserai (or something similar to it) would probably have been the place the spies would have been expected to lodge. The Jericho authorities would also likely have looked for them in such a place. But they were obviously watching Rahab's house as well, which we know from her tale to the authorities of the spies' escape.

This is a video which gives a picture of a modern-day caravanserai. This one was built in the 13th century, AD, which means it is centuries older than the situation we encounter in Joshua 2. But like many of the wonderful things on youtube, this one can give us a picture that helps our understanding.

Rahab helps the spies

The story of the sainted Rahab is one of those very interesting stories from the OT, and one that tends to get glossed over way too much. Probably because we are uncomfortable with Rahab's occupation.

Which is a prostitute. Since we are Americans, and since we all carry the burden of our Puritan heritage around on our backs, we are inclined to explain her work as something else. Innkeeper is the one I hear most often. Another is that she was a sort of a madam, which is our female version of a pimp, and sounds -- for some reason -- more palatable to our ears.

But the Bible will have none of it: James 2.25 confirms what Joshua 2.1 infers: she was a prostitute. And in Joshua 2, the 2 Israelite spies lodge at her house.

Which begs the question: what were they doing there? One very logical answer -- that they were using the establishment for what it was designed for -- is one we don't usually touch. It wouldn't be that unusual, given that they were likely young men, but the more likely answer is that young men going into a prostitute's house wouldn't raise an eyebrow. It's a perfect cover for spies, and that's what they were there for. Jericho was not that large a city; Kathleen Kenyon has estimated a population of 3,000, which isn't that large, and 2 spies -- who might not have spoken the language -- would have been obvious to the inhabitants of the city. Staying there would be a logical choice.

(Lodging for travelers was tough in biblical times. Many places described as "inns" would have been rough housing, with thievery and physical danger as part of the landscape. We tend to think badly of the apocryphal innkeeper from Luke 2, and he's usually imagined as a hard-hearted person who would turn away a full-term pregnant woman. He's also become a stock figure in children's Christmas pageants. The reality is that his giving the Virgin and her husband a place in the animal cave might have been the kindest alternative, given that the inn -- more like a variety of a Caravanserai -- would likely have been dirty, loud, and dangerous for the mother and her newborn Son. The link above is a fascinating overview of the caravanserai in the middle east in current times).

More on Rahab later.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Theses dealing with the state of the dead in purgatory

16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.

17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.

18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.

Luther's thesis on the penalty of purgatory: thesis 15

15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Review: 'Language Death' by David Crystal, posted on Amazon.com

'Language Death' does a hard job well. The author seeks to show both the need for language preservation, and at the same time provides an overview of the process by which language preservation can be done.

The book started slowly for me: the first section is an argument in favor of language preservation, and a discussion of language death, and I found the arguments in favor of preservation to be a bit long and over-drawn. But then, I didn't need to be persuaded; I think language diversity is a good thing, and those not yet so convinced may need more work. But the book is overall well-done, well-written, and concise, and entertaining and thought-provoking as well.

An earlier reviewer (who's also a buddy of mine) suggested that the book gives insufficient credit to Bible translators in the job of language preservation. I'd suggest that Crystal may have a slight bias against Bible translators, especially when he refers to the work done by Bible translators as being biased. I might prefer describing it as narrowly-drawn, rather than biased.

But having said all this, the book handles a tough task in a easy to read manner, and gives a good introduction.

"The smaller the love, the greater is the fear": theses 13 and 14

13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.

14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.

"Tests of true contrition": thesis 12

12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.

how small changes add up

Marion Wright Edelman is not speaking about the church here. But there's wisdom in this statement.

Remember this when you worry about your congregation. I don't suggest that you worry about your larger church body; you have enough on your plate in concerns for your congregation, though prayers for church bodies are certainly in order. But keep this in mind:

"We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee."

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The shroud of Turin

I am fascinated by those little artifacts of history that don't quite fit into our paradigms, little events and items that stretch our way of thinking and make us question our assumptions.

The "shroud of Turin" is one of those artifacts. The shroud has an amazing history, and there are numerous studies done about it. Whether one believes this was the burial cloth of Christ or not, the artifact of the shroud is worth pondering. Here's one of those factoids that make us think about the shroud and its relation to the gospel accounts. You can read here an article about Mozarabic rite, a liturgy used in 6th century Spain, which hints at what might be evidence for the shroud.

When Luther still believed in purgatory

As I mentioned yesterday, Luther was not the raging protestant some make him to be. In these 2 theses, he affirms a belief in purgatory -- which he later came to disavow.

10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.

11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Kieschnick: "I'm not a theologian"

This is another of Kieschnick's cliches, and it's a bit more subtle and a bit more difficult to deal with than even the "grandfather's synod" cliche. Like the other, it's a conversation stopper. It's a form of bragging by feigning humility. What we have is a synodical bureaucrats bragging [!] that he has little prowess in theology.

It sounds vaguely humble. It's anything but that. The simple response to this should be to request Kieschnick to immediately resign his position, because if he's not a theologian, he's not qualified -- by his own admission -- to do his job.

But we hear this cliche, and feel vaguely guilty. Guilty because by saying it, Kieschnick sounds humble. It's designed to stop the other individual from doing the theology that has to be done, because most of us feel guilty lording superior knowledge over someone who's admitted they don't know the field. So Kieschnick by this cliche is removing theology as a grounds of discussion about what's going on in the LCMS.

Again, cliches must be confronted. Hearing someone say this -- someone who should, like Kieschnick, know and do theology -- we should ask them questions such as, "That's a serious admission. What exactly do you mean by that?" and "Is it appropriate for someone who is not a theologian to head a church body?" and "If you're not a theologian, why are you in the position you're in?"

Defining terms, knowing how to logically discuss matters, and how to carefully think through the implications of an issue are important. Debate in the LCMS has become sloppy and trivialized. Confronting the cliche-spouters is a first step in cleaning up our confused discourse.

"This isn't your grandfather's synod"

Since cliches are used to stop conversation, they usually have a number of underlying assumptions going on behind them. Which ones are going on with this cliche?

1. The people addressed are those who are not new to the LCMS. It has no meaning to me: one of my grandfathers was a nominal Methodist, and the other a Southern Baptist. I didn't become a Lutheran until I was 23. No one else in my family is Lutheran. But the upper leadership of the LCMS is ingrown, and this is a good example of this very real problem. Those hearing this cliche are expected to have had family going back several generations who knew the LCMS as it was.

2. The second underlying assumption is that newcomers (I refuse to use the word "converts" when referring to those -- like myself -- who came into Lutheranism by adult instruction when we were already baptized Christians) are not welcome to the particular debate. This cliche marginalizes those without the extensive family connections that rule much of the top leadership of American (not just LCMS) Lutheran church bodies.

Cliches and synodical politics

I don't encourage church politics.

Like getting into a wrestling match with a pig, the end result is usually that both participants end up getting filthy, an outcome that the pig enjoys.

Far better than to fret about who's elected to this post, who's appointed to that, getting the "right" delegates to whatever convention, is to do your job.

I mean it. Do what God or the church or both have called you to do, pray without ceasing, and let God deal with church politics.

What I do is encourage folks to think about what is being said. Consider how the discourse is going.

Because when we don't think clearly, we're captive to bad ideas, and mis-formed thinking.

A good (bad, actually) example comes from Gerald Kieschnick. Kieschnick is widely quoted as saying, "It's not your grandfather's synod."

A lot of time, energy, and effort have been expended on trying to figure out exactly what this means. But I'm going to suggest that it has no meaning at all. And that's precisely why Kieschnick says it so often.

My day job is a nurse. And among the injuries and illnesses and damages to our bodies that we medical people deal with, one thing we see are scars.

A scar is a place where the body's tissue has stopped growing. In other words, when your body is injured and a scar ensues, that spot will never "get better." It will look like it does for as long as you live.

I think a cliche is something like that. A cliche is a phrase used when we've stopped thinking. We repeat a cliche without thinking, and those listening hear it without thinking.

Cliches are harmless enough most of the time. When they become harmful is when they're used to stop a conversation. And that's what I suspect the "grandfather's synod" comment is used for.

We hear it, and we don't know what to say. We hear it, and -- as it's designed to do -- it stops the conversation about events in the Missouri synod.

Like most cliches, it has no meaning. It's vaguely seen as a warning that Missouri must get up to snuff, must stop acting as though it's 1953. But what's dangerous about this silly cliche is that it provides no grounds for debate, for discussion, for trying to determine what the LCMS should -- or shouldn't -- be doing.

As I said, most cliches are harmless enough. When something's "dead as a doornail," we've heard it many times before, but it's just a phrase people say. But when cliches are used as means of stopping the conversation -- as Gerald Kieschnick is wittingly or unwittingly doing -- the cliche should be challenged.

When someone says it, or something like it, ask them: "What does that mean?," "What are you trying to say by that?, "What was 'our grandfather's synod,' and how does that relate to our current difficulties?" and "If it isn't our grandfather's synod, how does that change the way we do church in 2007?"

Works of penitence: theses 8 & 9

Some of our Baptist (and other) brethren would make Luther a kind of zealous protestant. But don't be so hard on them: lots of Lutherans do the same thing. Luther's theology developed; he learned and grew, and there were things that he at one point found acceptable that he came to realize were not acceptable. Theses 8 and 9 are firmly fixed within the world of late medieval catholicism. Note -- in thesis 9 -- how Luther views how the Holy Spirit works in the pope.

8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.

9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thesis 7: into subjection to the priest

"God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest."