The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Sunday, June 26, 2005

What Does A Pastor Do?

I have an assignment for a training exercise: I am to write a summary of my ministry in less than 100 words. I decided I am a "Headwaiter."
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"Headwaiter"

I help Christians have an enjoyable experience dining on the Bread of Life.

Individually I help them by counseling, praying for them and with them, and other contacts, to feed on God's Word, to cope with normal life and crisis situations as a Christian. Satisfied customers spread the Chef’s fame.

Corporately I help the congregation by exercising their ministry of Word and Sacrament on their behalf: as the lead Bible teacher, and worship leader. I also, by counsel and example, help them "run the restaurant" in such a way that it stays true to its purpose.


How did I do?

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Gloomy Young Fiction

Janie B. Cheaney's World magazine article titled "All Alone In The World?" raises some interesting points about the young readers' fiction market.

Though exceptions abound, the trend in realistic juvenile literature has been toward the gloomy: stories in which very bad things happen to good kids. The "edgiest" subjects are reserved for the young adult market (average age, 13), but death and divorce are common themes for younger readers.

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I find the whole article to be well-written, concise and thoughtful. It's here (in my blog) because I am interested in how language and literature, as media of culture, affect us. Lately, I have been interested in an off-the-wall correlative: the tendency for us to become false to ourselves.

About Barbara Feinberg (Welcome To Lizard Motel) she writes:
Trying to put a finger on what it is that disturbs her children, she realizes that the protagonist in most of these books is deserted (or at least misunderstood) by parents and friends, and must work out a solution to the problem entirely alone.

In other words, the existential dilemma that infected literature in the early 20th century has worked its way down to 10-year-olds. The notion that the individual is his own best and final arbiter has fueled self-esteem and "values clarification" programs for 20 years, and now dominates the genre of realistic juvenile fiction.

But pre-teens don't normally see their world in existential terms. Their proverbial self-centeredness—the folly bound up in the heart of a child—has one positive facet: a conviction that the universe is somehow interested in them. While enemies lurk out there, so do allies. The dark is a personal threat, but the wind murmurs a lullaby.


I'm quoting too much--because it's hard to see what are just the best bits. The last four paragraphs of the article are the best, and maybe this is a resource for my work on anomie although it seems oblique to my thesis.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

How to Yield


Just about done with Le Morte D'Arthur, volume 1. Can't figure out if the Knights of the Table Round are samurai, or just jocks. While I love the language, it has gotten pretty monotonous, with there being two jousts or more per page, often described in boilerplate phrases.

But I found a gem last night: a formal declaration of yielding.
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It is in Book IX, Chapter 11. Chapter 10 describes a contest between Sir Tristram de Liones with an unnamed knight who knocks him off his horse, causing him to be thoroughly ashamed, and desiring to finish the battle on foot. After two hours of such fighting, they take a break, and introduce themselves; the tough mystery knight turns out to be Lamorak de Gales. They fight some more. (What follows is from the Penguin Books edition, edited by Janet Cowen.)

Then Sir Tristram said to Sir Lamorak, 'In all my life met I never with such a knight that was so big and well breathed as ye be, therefore,' said Sir Tristram, 'it were pity that any of us both should here be mischieved.'

'Sir,' said Sir Lamorak, 'for your renown and name I will that ye have the worship of this battle, and therefore I will yield me unto you.' And therewith he took the point of his sword to yield him.

'Nay,' said Sir Tristram, 'ye shall not do so, for well I know your proffers, and more of your gentleness than for my fear or dread ye have of me.' And therewithal Sir Tristram proffered him his sword and said, 'Sir Lamorak, as an overcomen knight I yield me unto you as to a man of the most noble prowess that ever I met withal.'

I love that. Now I know how to yield. 'Dear God, as an overcomen knight...'

This, oddly enough, is a good place to quote Bob Dylan:
Surrender your crown on this bloodstained ground
Take off your mask.
He sees your deeds--He knows your needs
Even before you ask.

--1979, "When He Returns"

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Missouri Synod Woes

The LCMS is having some problems. "Synod" means "walking together;" what's the best structure for our walking-together work? What's the best way to worship? How "together" do we have to be as we walk? How do we stay faithful to the revealed Word of God, when trying to apply His message to a diverse range of cultures and generations?

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I am not too concerned about the fact that some churches use praise bands, or that some "moderate" candidate was chosen over a "conservative" candidate at some stupid convention. What I am most concerned about at the present is the way that people are getting sidetracked arguing over these and other issues--and I mean, angry arguing, not just discussing--with name-calling, electioneering, letter-writing, and all that stuff that belongs to the flesh.

I believe the Scriptures, and I believe that nothing in them is unimportant. I believe there are good ways, bad ways, and not-so-great ways to do God's work or worship Him. But I know that God can work in spite of our imperfections, and it is better to try and do poorly, than to sit back and take potshots at someone because he's doing sloppy or ill-thought-out work. I would rather be a dull, rusty tool doing useful work in the Gardener's hand, than a sharp, shiny tool that just sits on a shelf in the Gardener's potting shed.

The main trouble with the LCMS today, as I see it, is that we have way too many sharp shiny tools that are snipping away at other tools, instead of snipping away at weeds. These are the whistle-blowers, running around like nasty little boys, tattling to the Teacher that "Johnny isn't using a No. 2 pencil, he's using a pen!!!!!"

Another blogger was expressing some of the same concerns. I posted this paragraph in my comment on it:
Ever watched a drug sniffer dog work? That's what I felt like after I got out of seminary: like we had been trained to sniff out error and bark like mad, hackles up. I have worked hard for 20+ years to try to change that in myself, and it's not easy. I don't mean to blame the seminary per se, but what we have done with confessionalism--our corporate culture of confessionalism. The Christian walk is a combination of movements of both legs (Truth and Love), but we forget that. So we do the confessional hop.

I will continue to fight for a balanced Christian walk until the Day comes (or my personal last day on earth).


"Speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15) is a great way to describe that balancing act.

May our truth be clear, and our love sincere!

Friday, June 17, 2005

Christian Political Power

World Magazine's blog had an interesting post this morning titled Christian Conservatives To Interview, about a group of Christian leaders who plan to interview Republican '08 presidential hopefuls to determine how they measure up according to their values. I think this is a bad idea.
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Somebody commented that he is "sure the information that they collect will be helpful. If someone wants to canonize their suggestions, then shame on them." My reply:
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The information *might* be helpful. A small possibility. But the *process* will hurt us, and that's a major probability.

Christians, as citizens, ought to participate in government, and the public forum. But a "Christian power bloc" is an oxymoron. The more power a church, or a group of Christians has, the less that group deserves the name "Christian"--because Christianity is about proclaiming a Savior, not making a safe nation to raise our families in.
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Things that lower the possibility of this being "helpful" as the commenter was thinking of it:
  1. The interviewee might be skilled at representing his values as being more conservative that they really are.
  2. His positions might change over time (i.e., after he is elected).
  3. The values test that the interviewers contrive might have to be too general to be useful, given the breadth of the organizations represented by these 14 people.
  4. Such an endorsement might be the kiss of death for a candidate, with voters who have become allergic to "the Christian Right" due to the way it is characterized by the mainstream media.

Things that practically guarantee that such a process will hurt the true Church, which I define as the sum total of all people who are trusting in Jesus, not themselves, as the solution to their ultimate issues, and the good "visible" churches (denominations that publicly confess the Scriptures and the Gospel of Jesus Christ):
  1. It will become harder to get a hearing when we, as individual conscience-driven Christian citizens, try to take part in the public forum, because people will assume "Christian"="the Christian political Right"
  2. It will become harder for Christians to remember that, while we are free to speak out on public policy and work for our nation to be a better place to live, our main focus is to represent the interests of a kingdom whose King said "is not of this world."
  3. It will become confusing and complicated for many average Christians to sort through all the spin and the counter-accusations in the mainstream media, so many will just withdraw from any participation in discussion of national issues.
In short, this is another example of the "chaff effect" I described in an earlier blog. Only this time, the chaff is being fired by those as perceived as being "on our side."

One of my mentors, the dear departed Prof. Art Sekki, once told me, "Joe, I'm afraid many of our people confuse 'conservative theology' with a conservative Zeitgeist." How right he was, and how foolish of us to perpetuate the confusion.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Author and Finisher

I was talking to someone who has been going through a rough time. She said it was all she could do to get through the day. I told her that her statement fit right in with Jesus' telling us not to worry about "tomorrow," but to "worry about" today by seeking His kingdom today (Matt. 6:31-34). As we talked more about what it means to "seek His kingdom," I realized that this devotion wasn't just for this one person, but that at least one other person I knew needed to hear what God has to say about kingdom-seeking vs. worry.
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How do you seek the kingdom of God? A hint is in Matthew 6:33, which uses the phrase "seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness." Lutherans are able to get this right, because we know that "the righteousness of God" does not mean "the righteous life God requires" but "the alien righteousness that God offers." Just as we receive God's proffered righteousness, we receive God's kingdom. We don't put God on the throne; He's already there; the adjustment is on our part, to get it straight in our own understanding first.

There is a subtle danger in the phrase, "take Him as your Lord" or "put God first in your life." God IS Lord, He IS first, objectively, in reality. The phrases I mentioned are shorthand, sloppy ways of saying "Adjust my thinking/priorities/attitudes to the reality that I am not God, He is." To "seek the kingdom of God" is to pray in the Lord's Prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, and as Martin Luther rightly said,
The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.
(How does God's kingdom come?) God's kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.
First we gotta be converted (God's work, without our help). Then we gotta get our heads straight (God's work, but we participate too) and say: "Got it. You're God, I'm not. You Da Boss. Whatever You decide is gonna be OK with me."

In our devotion, my troubled friend and I looked also at Hebrews 12:1-3 (here in the NIV) --
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
The "great cloud of witnesses" were the Heroes of Faith listed in Hebrews 11--people who didn't get what was promised during their earthly lifetimes, but they held firm in their faith anyway. In operational terms: they kept praying, and God kept telling them, "Later." "Hold on." "Not yet." "Wait." All those answers that we don't like.

"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus"--that's the only way to win the race. He's the Author of our faith. He was the guy who put us on the track in good running shoes, and fired the start gun. He's also the Finisher (that's what the word "perfecter" means), the one who doesn't just cheer us on, but gets out there when we're too weak to keep going, and throws us over His shoulder and carries us across the finish line.

In our visit, we concluded with the Sacrament of Holy Communion and its sacred charge: "Eat... , drink..., remembering Me." We remember the past, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the sound of the start gun at the beginning of the race. But we also remember His promise about the future, that He will be there to guarantee the end of our race, so that our crown of victory will be to His praise and glory (see 1 Peter 1:3-9). And we remember that He is with us now, on the race course, even though we can't see Him, just as we can't see Him in the bread and the wine.

Fixing our eyes on Jesus in this way is the only way we can deal with it, when we feel weary and about to lose heart.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

A Great MP3 Renamer

I've been using JJ MP3 Renamer, a really well-written and useful freeware program for managing ID3 tags and filenames in MP3s, because I really hate the usual
"01 - Winter Reveries.mp3"
format that RealPlayer and others use when they rip. Click on the title of this post to go to the author's download page, or
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Here's some info from the author:
JJ MP3 Renamer
Developed by Jens Juul Jacobsen
JJ MP3 Renamer is a program that lets you edit ID3 tags and rename your MP3 files automatically. It makes it a lot easier to give the MP3's correct names and ID3 tags.

Features:

- Full ID3 tag 1.x and 2.x support
- Powerful ID3 tag editor
- Convert tool: File name to ID3 tag reads the file name and uses it as ID3 tag
- Convert tool: freedb to ID3 tag lets you download ID3 tag information from the freedb CD database.
- Convert tool: ID3 tag to file name uses the ID3 tag to rename the file name
- Convert tools for copying ID3 fields between version 1.x and 2.x
- Convert tools for removing and replacing unwanted letters from the ID3 tag automatically
- Convert tool: Make playlist for Minidisc transfer
- Comprehensive help file covering every part of the program

Recently finished the new convert tool "freedb to ID3 tag" that will let you download ID3 tag information from the online freedb CD database.

Actually, I haven't been able to get the freedb thing to work, but it does everything else that anyone could possibly want!

Exposing the Wizard

I keep thinking about my Dryer Sheet Theory. And then I've been thinking, why do I keep thinking about that? Last night I took the dog for a walk and thought about the things that have engaged my mind lately, and my tendency to look away from the obvious aspects of it, and try to see the more subtle implications. I'm like Dorothy's little dog Toto, ignoring the pyrotechnic epiphany of the Great Oz, and looking around for what might be happening beyond the diversion.

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From technology to the Terry Schiavo case to the homosexuality debate to the proliferation of Bible translations to... just about everything I've been interested in for some time has had me looking around for what's going on behind the curtain. It's either a curse, or a gift, and I'm not sure what I should be doing about it.

This explains why I've pretty much abandoned trying to be one of those bloggers who finds The Next Big Thing and immediately responds with a critique. I am suspicious of immediate responses. The kind of analysis I want to do requires days, sometimes weeks, of wondering and reflection, and by then, of course, the Next Big Thing is old news.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

"Moralistic Therapeutic Deism"

This article sums it all up so nicely; now we have a usable term for the insipid Americanized religious milieu.

Thanks to Pastor Paul McCain for bringing this to our attention!

A sampler to tease your taste buds:

As described by [researcher Christian] Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth." 2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions." 3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ones self." 4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem." 5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

That, in sum, is the creed to which much adolescent faith can be reduced. After conducting more than 3,000 interviews with American adolescents, the researchers reported that, when it came to the most crucial questions of faith and beliefs, many adolescents responded with a shrug and "whatever."

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Technology Changes Us

Been meditating on a series of Os Guinness lectures from the early '70s I listened to a month ago; my favorite was an hour and a half devoted to Marshall McLuhan and his contribution to the intellectual milieu of the last century.

One of McLuhan's seminal ideas is that while man creates technology and uses it to change the world, he is also changed by it at the same time. Inventing the automobile enabled us to cross great distances more quickly and more easily, but using automobiles has changed our ideas about distance, and brought the destination to the fore and relegated the the journey itself to the backgound. Guinness says, "The invention of the electric light bulb abolished the distinction between night and day, the distinction between indoors and outdoors, and completely changed the face of Western culture." That is the "message" of the "medium" (to McLuhan, technology is media) of the lightbulb, quite apart from specific day-to-day uses of it.

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I experienced this when I could finally afford to buy a CD player. Using a CD player changed the way I listen to music. When all my music was delivered to me from cassette tape, it was annoying to have to hit the fast-forward button to skip a song I didn't want to hear. I sometimes declined to purchase an album if there were only two or three songs on it I wanted to hear, because I didn't want to be bothered having to dub the wanted songs to another tape (resulting in loss of sound quality). With CD technology, it's much simpler, just a press of the button to skip a song; I now will buy an album for the sake of a couple of songs. Plus I found that I could shuffle and randomize the songs, to increase the surprise factor, thus increasing the pleasure of the musical experience. And now thanks to MP3 technology I can put most of my music on one CD and shuffle the whole bunch.

I've always been interested in this idea, and I wonder what changes have been made in the way we see the world, as we use our most commonplace technologies. Sit on the couch and channel-surf; what training are you giving your brain as you do so? See; want; buy; pay later: the credit card becomes another nail in the coffin for the endangered species of virtue known as delayed gratification. Read an email, hit Reply, dash off a scathing rejoinder, hit Send, wake up with regrets the next morning... there was something to be said for the process of getting out paper, sharpening the quill, dipping it into the inkwell, and scratching out a reply, which could be reworked or p.s.'d before the postman came for it.

And the other thing that interests me about this--what is the Devil's role in all this? I'm sure he's not just sitting by idly. After all, he really hasn't forsworn his original temptation, which was to upgrade. He is not very original that way. And what is a Christian to do? I think we can all agree that the Luddite answer is not the way. How do we use our wealth, our power, our knowledge, without in turn being corrupted by them?

First approximation: The world says, "Use people, love things." God says, "Love people, use things." The Devil says, "Upgrade, and you will be as gods." God has cursed the upgrades so that they don't work as grandly as advertised, and that is a mercy, because we are not in fact gods; thus in our frustration we cry out for help, and "get back from exile, and grow man," as C.S. Lewis put it in "As The Ruin Falls:"
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

Christian-Techie Dictionary: "Repent"

First in what may be a series!

"Repent" (v.) 1. to reboot your spiritual life. 2. to load a completely new operating system.

Repentance(1) is a normal part of being a Christian. Like any computer, one's spiritual life sometimes need a whack on the ol' Reset button. The registry is corrupted, or system resources have been brought dangerously low by buggy programs with memory leaks and objects that don't get destroyed on application termination, or a program hangs and freezes your screen... stuff like that happens in your spiritual environment as well. Got to get your head straightened out, initialize back to the default starting values, like that.

Repentance(2) is shorthand for the sea-change also known as "conversion," which involves turning away from trying to be master of your own fate, and turning toward God in trusting Him in the driver's seat. It's a complete OS change, like giving up on Windoze and doing a clean install of Linux.

Actually the first sense of "repent" covers this too, but the OS has already been installed (trust relationship has already been established), it's just that you have drifted away from it in practice. It's still a re-establishing of the trust thing.

Unfortunately, many people think that repentance is just a matter of quitting a bad habit. That isn't enough; that's just terminating an app. If the OS is corrupted, or just plain wrong for your machine, you'll continue to have problems.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Mom's the greatest!

I just got off the phone with Mom. Today's her birthday, so I called after work. We talked for an hour, maybe (Dad was in on it too) but 45 minutes of that was just laughing. It reminded me of why I love Car Talk--listening to those guys yuk it up--that's what we were doing.

I just want to say, I'm lucky to have such a young, funny, fun set of 'rents. Gr8ful, I am.