Sunday, December 30, 2007

Your next president

The following is not about theology. So you have been warned. : )

What I'm doing is going out on a limb, and predicting who will be the next president of the US.

You will likely know in a month (probably less) if I'm very smart. Or if I have made a complete fool out of myself. So here goes.

A year and a half ago, in this posting on another blog (as well as in an op-ed piece in a local newspaper), I predicted that Hillary Clinton would win her senate race in 2006 (she did, but that was kind of a no-brainer) and that she would not be elected president next year. I stand by that prediction.

The bottom line is that since 1960 -- 47 years ago -- we have not elected a president from outside the southern or western US.

We have also not elected a sitting senator since 1960.

Think about it: this is a strong pattern in American presidential elections, one that has held for the lifetimes of most of those who will be voting next year.

My prediction: on Jan. 20, 2009, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas will become president.

I don't support Gov. Huckabee. I disagree with him on some significant areas. But he is the only candidate running who fits the pattern for electability in post 20th/early 21st century America: he is a Southern governor. The only others who come close to the pattern are former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (who doesn't seem to have generated much excitement) and Texas representative Ron Paul, who is running an uphill battle because Americans seldom elect Representatives to the White House.

Slideshow of the exhibition on the prodigal son

I mentioned yesterday the exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art of art around the theme of the prodigal son in Luke 15. I just found this slideshow of a few of the pieces from the exhibition. It's not as good as the real thing, but if you're in Bangkok and not quite able to get there, it's a good preview.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Back from New York!

OK, so now I'm back from our annual visit to my wife's family (thanks, Phyllis!) in New York. We got back in safely about 2 hours ago. Now a couple of thoughts for the new year.

First, for those within visiting distance of New York City, consider visiting the Museum of Biblical Art's exhibition of paintings centering on the theme of the prodigal son. It's a fine, enjoyable exhibition of probably 3 dozen art pieces, ranging in time from medieval to contemporary, and well worth the visit. Suggested donation is $7.

Secondly, if you've never enjoyed opera -- or if you haven't enjoyed it in a while -- consider taking in an opera in 2008. Oh, it's easy to make fun of this wildly extravagant art form. It's big and overdone and often over the top, and it's usually performed in a foreign language, but the learning curve is not steep, and I enjoy it immensely.

The reason I mention it now is that my son Matt and I were privileged to see the Metropolitan Opera's performance of War and Peace. It's all of the above: a cast of probably over 100, overdone with a huge stage -- including a live horse on stage! -- it was all in Russian (with English subtitles) and lasted 4 hours and 15 minutes.

Tickets for seats there start at $105. But because I am cheap, we bought standing room spots for about $25. Now I am a big fan of standing for such things (church, too, but that's for a different day) but standing for over 4 hours (with a 20 minute intermission) was almost too much for me. But it was still a wonderful night, and a great performance and I have loved almost every one I've seen. (We saw Mozart's Die Zauberflute last year at the Metropolitan, and saw a local performance of Madama Butterfly this Spring).

My wife does not share my tastes. But I trust she will come around. Maybe you will, too.

Some giving suggestions for the new year

OK, so you're burned out from giving and buying and everything else at the end of this Christmas season. But here's an article with some helpful suggestions about giving. I don't agree with everything this guy (Gary North, at says, but I do agree with these thoughts. Giving to the huge, "name" organizations is not for me. Here are his ideas, and a couple of suggestions for giving:

"When looking to make year-end charitable
contributions, I ask myself this question:

What organization is doing a really good job that
either has little publicity or is very new?

The reason why I ask this is so that I get more bang
for my bucks. There are large organizations that will not
miss my donation. There are small ones that will put the
money to unique uses that would not be funded otherwise.

That's why I don't give to United Way or the Salvation
Army. These are large, successful organizations that will
meet their budgets without me. But some small, struggling
organization really does need my money. It is not well
known. It is on very few people's list to send $50 to.

For them, a $1,000 or more donation makes a

I give from after-tithe money, which goes to my local

A good choice is any outfit that has made a big
difference in your life or the life of someone close to
you. Ask a relative about such an organization.

One that I give to sinks water wells in African
villages. One well will provide water for 1,000 people
for decades. That's a gift that keeps on giving.

Another great project is Plumpy'nut. It's a peanut-
based food given to starving children. The food doesn't
require refrigeration. It's high in protein. It's cheap.
Mothers walk for a day once a month to get a container. It
saves lots of lives. It's a new product."

Monday, December 24, 2007

The road less taken

Robert Frost's seemingly simple take on life. And yet not simple. Like many of Frost's poems, Road is darker and far more complex than it initially seems. I was reading it yesterday, and was struck again by what it means to us all.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Off for a few days

I'm taking off for a few days for Christmas.

May you have a joy-filled Christmas week, and a happy 2008!

Friday, December 21, 2007

How did our mystery song get into the LSB?

Yesterday I talked about Lift Every Voice and Sing, song 964 in the Lutheran Service Book.

So how does a song in which the gospel is not preached, which doesn't mention Christ, which gives nothing of the law, and is written by a self-described agnostic get into a Lutheran hymn and service book -- especially one published by an ostensibly conservative group like the Missouri Synod?

It's easy: Lift Every Voice is a favorite among one of the special interest groups which populate the LCMS. This particular group are the Black Ministry folks. Distinguished, of course, from Lutheran congregations which happen to have a majority of black congregants.

We note from yesterday's posting that Lift Every Voice experienced a revival of interest in the 1970s, and this probably explains even further how it got into LSB. Black pastors coming of age (or coming into the ministry) in the 1970s would have been exposed to it. And because the musical and cultural tastes of individuals are often set in stone in their late teens and 20s, these pastors grew to love Lift Every Voice. And when their particular special group got polled for "What songs would you like in the new book?," Lift Every Voice was a natural.

As a song, Lift is not all that bad. It's a bit generic, and it's starting to wear its 20th century quality a bit thin. But there's nothing wrong with it. It's fine to sing at a community function, or a school, or a rally. But it doesn't belong in a hymnal. Especially when certain folks who helped compile it are among those who regularly criticize other church bodies for their hymnody.

A few months back, I quoted a Primitive Baptist who said, "Hymns are small sermons." He was correct. Which means that as with all sermons, a hymn should preach a clear message, should properly distinguish law and gospel, should set forth Christ, and should bring us to the cross. Lift isn't the only hymn in LSB which fails to do these things. But it's an obvious example of one that got there in spite of its obvious faults.

Tomorrow: why Lift is a micrcosm of the problems in the LCMS.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The identity of the mystery song

The answer to my mystery song quiz is "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (LSB 964). The author is writer and professor James Weldon Johnson.

Check out your hymnal and see if you can -- without coming to it with preconceived ideas -- find the gospel in this hymn. Or the law preached lawfully. I can't.

Here's some information on Lift Every Voice, from Wikipedia:

"Lift Every Voice and Sing — often called "The Negro National Anthem" — was written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and then set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) in 1900. It was first performed in public in the hometown of Jacksonville, Florida as part of a celebration of Lincoln's Birthday on February 12, 1900 by a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal.

Singing this song quickly became a way for African Americans to demonstrate their patriotism and hope for the future. In calling for earth and heaven to "ring with the harmonies of Liberty," they could speak out subtly against racism and Jim Crow laws — and especially the huge number of lynchings accompanying the rise of the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the century. In 1919, the NAACP adopted the song as "The Negro National Anthem." By the 1920s, copies of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" could be found in black churches across the country, often pasted into the hymnals.

During and after the American Civil Rights Movement, the song experienced a rebirth, and by the 1970's was often sung immediately after The Star Spangled Banner at public events and performances across the United States where the event had a significant African-American population.

In 1990, singer Melba Moore released a modern rendition of the song, which she recorded along with others including R&B artists Anita Baker, Stephanie Mills, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Brown, Stevie Wonder, Jeffrey Osborne, and Howard Hewett; and gospel artists BeBe and CeCe Winans, Take 6, and The Clark Sisters. Partly because of the success of this recording, Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing was entered into the Congressional Record as the official African American National Hymn."

All of which is fine as is. But what's this song doing in the Lutheran Service Book? I'll put forth my guess tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More on our mystery song from LSB

A few more hints about the song I've mentioned: written by a self-described agnostic, written to commemorate an anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

Unlike the canonical book of Esther, the song does mention God. (But given that the author is agnostic about this God of whom he speaks, what might this tell us about the God who's invoked?)

There's no church.

No Christ. Of course, no gospel. As we might expect, pure law.

It invokes memories of a particular ethnic group.

Later: which song I'm speaking of. And a likely reason why it's in the Lutheran Service Book. And what its inclusion in LSB tells us about the current state and future of the Missouri Synod.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

When Christians bought pardons and didn't give to the poor: theses 44 & 45

44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.

45. 45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives his money for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The buying of pardons: theses 42 and 43

42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;

The agnostic songwriter: another clue

My mini-puzzle started yesterday, when I asked you to guess which song in Lutheran Service Book was written by a self-described agnostic.

Another clue today: the song was written to celebrate an anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. (Not, it should be noted, the birth of Christ or one of the saints).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

True contrition -- and liberal pardons: theses 40 and 41

40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].

41. Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.

What song was written by an agnostic?

December is nearly always busy. My work is busy, and then there's all the wonderful stuff with church and parties and such. So that explains my dearth of postings in the last week or so. But I will endeavor to do better.

Here's a puzzle for you. More clues will come, God willing, tomorrow.

Which song -- I will not use the word "hymn" to describe it -- in Lutheran Service Book was written by an agnostic?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When the Pope correctly speaks God's word: theses 38 and 39

This is one of those toughies among the theses. Here Luther puts forth the debating point that when the Pope proclaims God's forgiveness, it's true: he proclaims that God in Christ has forgiven the sins of the whole world.

Of course, it's not just the Pope who speaks that forgiveness: any priest who speaks the gospel to a sinner does the same thing.

38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation in the blessings of the Church which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.

39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and the need of true contrition.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What Mormonism is all about

As the Mormons try harder and harder to portray themselves to the non-Mormon public as just another mainline Protestant denomination, it's important to know some of the things that make them different. While I'm willing to stretch the concept of "church" a ways, there are lines and boundaries and the Mormons are outside of those lines.

This is an interesting cartoon synopsis of Mormon teaching.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus

While I'm on a semi-rant about methods of preaching, I'll point out another issue with the church-as-classroom.

Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us." This can especially be said about churches.

Build churches without icons, and we forget that we are -- per Hebrews 12.1 -- surrounded by the saints of God.

Build churches without a crucifix, and we forget the cross.

Make a baptismal font insignificant, and baptism will become -- to us, not to God -- insignificant.

But the problem I address today is pews. Go into 99% of churches in the US, and one will find the following structure: a pulpit facing rows of pews. Which looks like a variant of a lecture hall. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, people (preacher and congregation) begin to imagine that they are there for their weekly dose of religious instruction.

Most of our eastern brethren realize that it's quite improper for us to sit in the presence of a king. Especially the King of kings. But sit we do.

Remove the pews. Provide seats around the side so the frail or elderly or tired or nursing mothers or whomever can sit down when they need to. But most of the congregants can and should stand.

Remove the pulpit. Let the preacher stand in Christ's stead in the midst of the congregation and proclaim God's word to God's people.

More about the sermon tomorrow.

What Christians have: thesis 37

37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What happens if you write a sermon out?

I know that writing out one's sermon is a cherished idea. I suspect it starts with homiletics class, where we wrote the sermon out in advance, so the professor could critique the sermon. The problem is that guys keep doing writing them out. And woe to those who deviate from the written sermon. Supposedly, this is a path to rank heresy.

The problem is not with the written sermon itself. It's what it does to the preacher and the preaching style. We all know those guys who talk in a perfectly normal voice over coffee but develop a stained-glass voice for sermons. Not an interesting, beautiful voice, but what they hope to be A Holy Voice. And what they do is end up sounding pretentious.

I honestly think that pulpits are also part of the problem. It's not uncommon in Missouri Synod circles to mock those who preach outside the pulpit as "chancel prancers" or the like, but let's objectively look at what preaching from the pulpit suggests. It looks like a lectern, and is likely to make the preacher think he's lecturing. And the congregation becomes -- rather than the sheep being fed by the shepherd -- a group of students, dutifully hearing their weekly dose of religious instruction.

And a church is not a classroom. A sermon is not a lecture. Celebration of the Eucharist shows that we are giving forth life, and faithfully -- per the Augsburg Confession -- giving and receiving Christ's Body and Blood is one of the best ways to reinforce that church is not -- per Melanchthon -- a "heavenly academy."

More tomorrow.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Those pesky "letters of pardon": thesis 36

36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

cf. John 1.11-14: "He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth."

Should preachers write their sermons out?

Been doing some non-theology reading recently (as I said earlier, it's good mental cross-pollination, and helps us stay fresh), and this book has me intrigued with the discussion of the differences between oral language and written language.

The vast majority of the world's languages have never been written out. Those of us who speak one of the world's big 20 languages forget that. At least I do. But most language is a spoken thing, ever-changing, ever growing and fluid.

McWhorter speaks at some length about how our language changes when we write it down. We imagine that it doesn't, but it's almost always vastly different. Which leads me to the question of the day: should preachers write their sermons out?

A sermon is a preaching of the gospel. It is not a religious discourse, a lecture, or a holding forth on issues of contemporary interest -- though it might incidentally be any or all of these. But the primary purpose of preaching is to proclaim the word of God to those who hear.

Some sermons are wonderful. We're all heard those that spoke immediately, crisply and succinctly to what we needed to hear. And we all know the duds. Those without direction, without a point, hard to listen to, and even harder to remember.

I've begun to wonder if writing out a sermon can be the first step to irrelevance. I shouldn't use the word. It's a 60s buzz word, when an irrelevant sermon meant one that didn't address the Vietnam war. But I mean irrelevant in the broader sense of the word, a sermon that doesn't connect the gospel to those who hear.

There are horror stories. C. F. W. Walther -- if I remember correctly -- mentions preachers in Germany who lectured on potato growing. And I distinctly remember a preacher who regularly recycled sermons. Which is not bad in itself, but please, please change illustrations that are dated or have no connection with the congregation listening.

Anything written out acquires an importance just by being written. We tend to think of it as A Learned Discourse. Something for a journal. Or at least a newspaper.

But the point of a sermon is NOT to preach something that people will read later, that people will admire, that someone will put in a collection of sermons. It's to give the word of life to dying souls. and I think that writing out a sermon tends to untether it from the reading that the sermon should be expositing.

More tomorrow --

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Is contrition needed?

Thesis 35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional licenses.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A cheap gift that keeps on giving

Some totally non-theological stuff. But since you're reading this on a computer, this is computer -- and other -- electronic suggestions that are useful for anyone.

"At this time of year, it's a real head scratcher on what to give anyone (including yourself!) Here is the gift that keeps on giving all year - a can of compressed air! This is often called dust remover. And the reason? ALL electronic equipment that dissipates heat, such as DVD recorders, televisions, appliances and computers are continuously accumulating dust and dirt internally through cabinet openings. Heat buildup is a prime cause of failure in all electronic systems. Think of any electronic equipment as an "unintentional electronic air filter." (Before using the canned air, attach the red tube supplied with it.)

Here's a slogan: "A cheap can of air prevents a $200.00 repair!"

* A computer's lifetime is often directly related to how HOT it operates, among other factors. Heat build-up dries out capacitors and causes power semiconductors to run at excessive termperatures. This shortens the lifetime of power supplies, video boards and processors.

To clean a computer, one only has to open the case. Many cases today are hinged and open like a book. Often no screwdriver is needed. In today's computers, there are no exposed line voltages anywhere inside any computer when the case is opened. Cleaning is best accomplished with the computer ON, not off. There is no need to physically touch or take a tool to anything inside the computer. It is impossible to have any effect on software by simply opening the case.

Here are the steps to clean your computer:

1. Spray the fan on the video board (and any metal heat-sink fins) to remove dust and dirt there, and also the processor. The CPU fan will blow out the loosened dirt. Heat sinks are usually silver, blue, green or black and stand straight out from the motherboard.

2. Use the canned air to clean accumulated dust and dirt from CDROM drives. This can be done from the front of the computer, with the empty drive tray ejected. Avoid spraying downward where the delicate head assembly located.

3. Spray the compressed air into the slots or holes on the power supply box. This is usually silver colored. A blast of dust and dirt will exit the rear of the computer with the air. Do a few short blasts until no more dirt exits the fan.

4. Finally, use the compressed air to clean out the cabinet interior and close the cabinet. The entire process takes about 2 minutes or less.

* To clean a DVD recorder (these run far hotter than simple players, and usually have a fan on the rear panel) eject the disk tray, and blow compressed air inside. The rear panel fan will help you and carry loosened dirt out through the rear of the enclosure. Avoid directly spraying the head asembly. This assembly will be located downward, near the center of where the disk tray will be when retracted. If mechanically inclined, you can remove the top cover. Note: Avoid directly blasting the delicate laser head assembly with compressed air. While open, the laser lens can be cleaned with a cotton swab and alcohol. Do not allow alcohol to contact the tiny tracking coils located near the laser. A film of dirt often builds up on the laser assembly.

* Televisions (with picture tubes) are a somewhat harder to clean with compressed air with the cabinet on. Almost all televisions have the high voltage, heat generating section located on the left inside the cabinet (orientation - facing the television from the front.) Vents around rear, underneath and the rear of the cabinet can be safely blasted with canned compressed air. If there are no vents underneath, the sides or the top then there is no dust problem to be concerned with. This is often the case with smaller portable televisions. It's not recommended that you open the cabinet on a picture tube television unless you know what you are doing. However, television lifetime can easily be about 20 years (or until the picture tube itself degrades) if dust is removed each year. Television designs today are actually not as robust as old vacuum tube televisions. Those televisions were designed to run hot - solid state televisions are not.

* Microwave ovens, refrigerators and freezers - these too, can become plugged up with dirt from simple convection. These appliances generate far more heat than the largest television set. Compressed air can blow insulating dust and dirt out of hard-to-reach places, such as condenser fins. A vacuum cleaner can remove the dust bunnies that will come out from the process. This also reduces electrical consumption, as these appliances run longer to acheive the same temperature when there is more dust around the condensers. A microwave oven cooking causes a fan inside to run to remove heat from the magnetron. While the oven is running (with covered food inside for a load, do not run empty!) blow compressed air into cabinet openings. The fan will help blow loosened dirt out of the cabinet.

Canned compressed air is a cheap gift, around $6.00. Some cans are sold in packs or two or more. Don't worry about buying a particular brand or what nonsense is written on the label. All canned air has the same inert gas. The only difference between brands is the amount of gas (sold by weight) you get for your buck. Some companies offer tall cans with 20% more than the standard size, for the same price as the standard size can. A bonus can like that typically has 12 ounces. Depending on the amount of dust and dirt to be removed, one can of air can clean a computer thoroughly perhaps two or three times.

Merry Christmas from"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What benefits are given by the Pope's pardons? Theses 33 and 34

33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope's pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;

34. For these "graces of pardon" concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The rarity of true penitence: theses 31 and 32

31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.

32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Angel Who is a Shepherd

What kind of an angel carries a staff?

In Judges 6, Gideon is carrying out some surreptitious wheat threshing, and an angel appears to him, promising good in spite of the very bad circumstances the Israelites found themselves in.

Gideon correctly realizes that this is no ordinary angel, because he fears that he will die (vs. 23). This angel, this "angelos," this messenger is the pre-incarnate Son of God, Christ our Savior.

This angel carries a staff, something that only a shepherd would have (vs. 21). The angel uses the staff to receive Gideon's offering.

In a few weeks, we celebrate the taking of flesh by this Angel, this Son of God, our Savior. These are precious weeks, a time to prepare our hearts for God who slept in a cradle.

Welcome to Advent.