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

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Reformation Day

Yes, it's All Hallows Even, better known to us Lutherans as Reformation Day. I wrote what I consider to be a pretty decent summary of what the "Lutheran" moniker means for the "pastor's page" of the newsletter of the church I pastor, October 2006 edition, which is now history. It is posted as the end of this entry.

Before you go there, or skip this post entirely, allow me to offer a more concise, and quite elegant, quote from the eminent Dr. Gene "Ed" Veith, who wrote this on his Cranach blog a few days ago:

...being Lutheran has to do with being a Christian whose sole hope is the Gospel, who has a theology of the Cross rather than Glory (that is, grows closer to Christ in the experience of weakness, suffering, and defeat rather than strength, power, and victory), who has a sense of vocation (that God is in the ordinary tasks of life that He calls us to), who recognizes the depths of human sin and also the depths of God's grace, who rejects all gnosticism in a recognition that God comes to us in the material world of flesh, creation, incarnation, a book printed on paper, and sacraments of water, bread, and wine.
Thus far Dr. Veith. For my 520 words of wisdom, click here to

from the October 2006 Good Shepherd's Clippings:

We weren’t supposed to be “Lutherans.”

As you may have heard, Martin Luther really didn’t like that term. He preferred the term “Evangelical” (“Gospel-oriented”). But the sixteenth century Gospel Reformation came to be known as the Lutheran Reformation, so the name stuck, much to his dismay.

A “Lutheran” Christian is not a follower of Martin Luther. (He was a fallible human being, who made mistakes like all of us.) Here’s what it means to be a Lutheran Christian:

Bible-based: We hold the Bible to be the Word of God, totally true, no mistakes or lies. We use it as the sole source and norm for Christian teaching. Other expressions of Christian teaching--the documents collected in the Book of Concord, the Creeds, the Large and Small Catechisms, a pastor’s sermon, a hymn, a Bible study, even the Pastor’s Page of a church newsletter--are under the authority of the Bible, which is the standard by which they are to be judged. To be Lutheran is to say that the Bible corrects and informs our teachings; but no one corrects the Bible. To correct the Bible, you’d have to be smarter than God Himself.

Christ-centered: To a Lutheran, the central figure in the Bible is Jesus (yes, even in the Old Testament!). Jesus Himself said that: You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me... (John 5:39 ESV) When He said this, nothing in the New Testament had been written yet! His coming is promised, His mission is described, in Isaiah, and the Psalms, and Genesis, and the other 36 books of the Old Testament, and of course He is the star of the 27 books of the New Testament. There are many ways to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures. We deliberately interpret them in terms of the coming of the Jewish Messiah, the Christ, and we see Him on every page.

Grace-obsessed: The Christ we see in both Old and New Testaments is not a new Moses, bringing an updated list of do’s and don’t’s. Gospel means “Good News,” and the Good News is that God has had grace and mercy on us undeserving, wretched sinners. We don’t do anything to deserve it. We can’t do anything to contribute to it. It’s all Him, generously offering complete pardon, at absolutely no charge to us. We harp endlessly on this point. It’s a mania with us.

In short, we believe God’s Word, even the things we don’t understand, because that’s where we get the Gospel, and it is that Gospel that made us believers.

Oh, one more thing. To be Lutheran is to be confessing. I don’t mean the negative use of that word, like confessing to a crime. The positive meaning of “confess” is to tell the truth, boldly, no matter what the consequences. We tell the truth revealed in God’s Word. We don’t hide our light under a bushel basket. We don’t “go along to get along.” We don’t bow to the spirit of the age. There’s no such thing as a wishy-washy Lutheran!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Additions To My Tiny Blogroll

My blogroll at left is not some sort of exclusive club. It's just my short list of the blogs I drop in at regularly. I have added two today:
Daylight - the blog of Old Solar Online magazine. Rick Ritchie is a regular, and edifying, contributor to Cranach; but when I read his most recent post, I resolved to start hanging out at Daylight more. This guy, too, has mojo.

Here's a teaser:
Overstatement is part of the Lutheran grammar. You speak a different language and you describe a different faith. It the very fabric of Lutheranism. Trying to iron out the wrinkle is like trying to iron out a felt hat. You may succeed, but you will no longer have a hat.

The other new addition is Fire and Knowledge, the blog of Joshua Sowin. Not really a blog, actually... oh, never mind, I'll let him explain it:
This is not a “blog” in the normal sense, as it tries not to be narcissistic or contemporary, but rather encourage others to think deeply about important issues through quotes, essays, and occasional links.

I find that looking over his shoulder as he does this is very stimulating. Besides, I wanted his advice for my own wrestling with the proper use of quotes, and instead of blowing me off, he posted a very helpful comment. A good goober.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Style And Content

Notes on an ongoing project. And an excuse to post a photo that begs to be shown.
In the effort to communicate, what lines get crossed when undue emphasis is placed on the target language? (Translation: when you're trying to talk in plain, simple English, when does simple become "too simple"?)

Factors to consider:
1. correspondence of ideas: what gets lost in translation?
2. associational pollution: what kinds of crosstalk do you get--what cognitive dissonance do you create--by the popular-culture associations that attend popular language? Can you really say, "It's the theology, stupid!" without making the hearer flash on Bill Clinton?
3. style as content: what (meta-)"information" is transmitted by style? Does use of a popular verbal style create a message that "college-educated readers may as well tune out now"?
4. media as content: what (meta-)"information" is transmitted by the choice of media? Does a visual presentation "say" "We are not bookish snobs! We speak TV just like you!" Does the "look and feel" of a presentation, with its power to create first impressions, prime the audience with some sort of predisposition?

Consider the photograph at the right. This is not some Photoshop creation. You can go to Manitou Springs, CO and see this sign downtown. The shape of the sign, its location, the shape and spacing of its letters, all say OFFICIAL CITY SIGN. I was ignoring it until I was startled to see the word "DUDE" appear in a place I wouldn't expect it. I did a double-take, and had to read it three times. Droll, huh?

Read more (and see another photo, too!)...

Yep, it's cute. We can see what the words say. But what does the existence of the sign itself "say"? Pick your favorite:
  • "We are a hip community, capable of mocking ourselves, but we would really prefer that you humor us: please don't skateboard here."

  • "Skateboarders can't read."

  • "Skateboarders can read but they are a bunch of scofflaws who routinely ignore posted rules. We wish to appease them with drollery. If we ask them nice, in a fun, hip way, maybe they'll give us a break and do what we ask for once."

  • "Nobody pays any attention to official signs anyway, so whatthehell, may as well have a little fun with taxpayer money."

I also found this sign. Is the joke getting old? Did you chuckle, groan, or bristle? Does it lower your opinion of the Manitou Springs city government? Does it make you more, or less, inclined to obey posted signs of any sort when you visit this town?

What happens to our Christian message when we abandon traditional Christian vocabulary, in a quest for relevance? What are the tipping points from "You are correct, if somewhat obscure" to "You have dumbed down" to "You are getting ridiculous"?

What happens to a content-rich message, traditionally delivered through words ("Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ," Romans 10:17) is delivered in a PowerPoint presentation, or a video, with pictures of smiling people (a suitably diverse mix of races and generations, of course) talking on cellphones? Do the smiling faces, the emotional cachet of the "show," eclipse or modify the message? Do they move the focus from faith (hard to depict visually!) to people, or networking?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Keyhole Faith

1 Peter 5:5-11 (ESV)
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

The hand of God lies heavy on us sometimes.


I know several people in two churches who are feeling it right now. Bereavement, illness, finances... Peter tells us to humble ourselves under that mighty hand. Enough already with the kicking and screaming! Be still and know that He is God. God knocked Saul of Tarsus down and encouraged him to acquiesce: "It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14). So we stop fighting God, and humble ourselves. We weep and pray; we hurt and pray. We feel like we are being crushed, but if we could step outside the situation and look at it from heaven's perspective, we wouldn't see a smothering weight, but a mighty shield. If we quiet our whimpering long enough to hear His Word, we will be reminded that we "by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:5). We hear a promise that this setback, this crisis, will not last forever. After we have been pushed down for a little while, we will be lifted up.

"In your light we see light" (Psalm 36:9). It's heavy, it's constricting, but it's not completely dark. There's a little light coming from somewhere. That's because the huge hand that's holding us down has a hole in it: a nail hole. A hole made by a horrible Roman spike. We can look up through that hole. It's like peeking through a keyhole. We are not allowed to see the whole plan; we don't get to see all the details of how God is going to turn this into a blessing; we put our eye to the hole, and look through it and see exactly what we need to know. We see that the hand that holds us down, the hand that has promised to lift us again in due time, isn't just the huge, irresistable hand of an implacable God to whom we must submit. We see what Islam ("submission") does not know: this God who is humbling us, humbled Himself to the point of dying for us. He's not just a control freak. He loves us.

That nail hole is what we use to resist the devil. He is trying to insinuate his poisonous thoughts into our self-pity and sense of injustice. We see instead God's pity on us, through the wound in Jesus' hand, and we see the true depth of His justice, how Jesus accepted the punishment for our crimes.

This crucified man is the God that holds us down. This risen man is the God who will lift us up. This keyhole peering is the faith that helps us hold it together.

Friday, October 13, 2006

More Than A Soundtrack

Somewhere I heard a phrase--in some advertisement I accidentally heard or read-- about music (or their gadget to play it) as "The Soundtrack of Your Life." It got points for cleverness, which is the only reason it stuck with me. I don't mean clever as in a catchy, pleasing, memorable turn of phrase. What's clever about it is the way it exploits one of our most common fantasies: one's life as a movie.

A while back we rented the DVDs of Lost (the hit TV show) and watched the whole thing. The broadcast schedule chopped the story up so badly that it had become hard to follow all the threads. In the special features interviews, I was struck by a comment that came up more than once about the story development: "The island itself has become one of the characters." As production design in Lost has bled over into story development, I find the same thing is true about music's role in my life.


This morning while I got out some bacon and eggs, Richard Stoltzmann's Begin Sweet World was on the radio station in my brain, so I dug out the CD and put it on while I cooked and ate. It took me back to a month ago, the first time I listened to it. I had saved it to listen to specifically coincide with our arrival, the drive up out of Colorado Springs toward Woodland Park. This morning it took me back to that breathless excitement, eyes popping from gobbling up the sights, ears popping from the rapid altitude change, and the whelming gratitude to God for the privilege of being able to share these things with my wife by my side.

It made me realize something about the role of music in my life. It's always been something more than mere entertainment, more than just background accompaniment. If the set design of the island in Lost makes it a character in the story, in my movie, music is more than soundtrack; it is a character. For that matter, I feel the same way about landscapes. They have dialogue; they play a role. Sometimes they make a cameo appearance, other times they have a story arc of their own. Sometimes they reprise a role. Whenever I drive up into the mountains, I say, "Hello, old friends. I'm happy to be back with you." They greet me and welcome me on some undefinable scale. The next time I walk on a seaside beach and breathe salt air, I will be saying something different from what I say when I walk on the shores of Lake Michigan.

There is a strangely satisfying irony when an actor returns to a television series after a long absence in order to play a different role. Think of Richard Hatch returning to Battlestar Galactica after, what, 30 years? Star Trek: The Next Generation brought back Denise Crosby in a different role after her Tasha Yarr character was killed off. Forty years ago, Ravi Shankar's Three Ragas was a strong player in my brief fascination with all things India--I came this close to begging my parents to buy me a Nehru jacket--and naive excitement about the dawning of the Age of Aquarius; today it is back more like an actor appearing "As Himself"--a sterling example of Northern Indian Classical music, great to listen to during sermon preparation.

All this highlights the truth that I am not just a spirit, encased in a disposable and irrelevant body. "God has made me and all creatures; he has given me my eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them," Martin Luther wrote in his explanation to the First Article of the Apostles' Creed. In the production design of my life, there are no irrelevant details. They all become elements of the story.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Colors and Hope

I took a little extra time this morning on my half-hour drive to my office day at the vacancy parish I am serving. The fall colors are starting to pop around here--some of the maples have that unearthly red-veiled-in-a-green-haze that you see when the tree is starting to turn. I actually like that part better than a little later, when the whole tree is a big red ball of flame. The remaining green in the leaves that are turning seems to have an inner luminosity that eludes any attempt to capture it on film. As I was on my mini color tour, I remembered a conversation we had with a young woman in Glenwood Springs, CO on our vacation. She mentioned that she would be visiting the Uppper Peninsula of Michigan for the first time this fall, to meet her fiance's mother and sisters.


"I don't suppose you folks have fall colors there, do you?" she asked wistfully. Mrs. Fremer and I just laughed and assured her that Michigan does, indeed, have nice fall colors.

This conversation was happening as we were riding in a gondola, the Iron Mountain Tramway, wafting down the side of the mountain back to Glenwood Springs. Looking out through the plexiglass walls I saw a lot of tans and greens, punctuated by little patches of aspen that were just beginning to turn. Our trip to Glenwood Springs had taken us past Breckenridge and Vail, with plenty of altitude changes, so we had been watching for color. But aspens don't seem to be able to get away from various shades of yellow and gold.

She said she had recently moved to Colorado from Wyoming. A lot of Wyoming is pretty empty scrubland, so maybe to her, Colorado's aspens were a riot of color. Yes, Michigan has fall colors, we said. Wait till you see the maples, we said. But the conversation seemed to peter out, as we realized that you can't really describe something like that, or if you do, you might create an unrealistic expectation. After all, she was going to the Upper Peninsula, and much of the the U.P. is a solid mass of evergreens. And what if her trip was past peak? What if the colors she was able to find didn't live up to the hype? So we simply congratulated her on her upcoming nuptials, as the gondola pulled into the landing platform, and went our separate ways. In the car, we remarked on how funny it was that she was afraid her fall trip to Michigan would mean no color for her this fall. Then we talked about the news report we had heard a few nights earlier, that aspens are mysteriously dying in large numbers.

As I think back on this, here in the embarrassment of riches that is West Michigan in autumn, it feels like a parable. The joys of this world are a shadow of the joys that wait for us in the new world that God is preparing for us. Yet we are afraid that leaving will be loss. We are afraid to let go, even though we know what we hold here is dying, and on its way out. The current scheme of this world is passing away, Paul writes (1 Corinthians 7:1), so we who use the things of this world are not to let ourselves get hooked on them. Letting go of present joys is made easier by a clear vision of the hope that is laid up for us at Christ's appearing (Colossians 3:1-4), and an eager anticipation of the eternal pleasures at His right hand (Ps. 16:11).

Ryan Tinetti, at Backward Kingdom, has an excellent post titled "An Irrelevant Question Well Worth Asking" that stimulated me to blog my own thoughts. Once again, iron sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"A Good Woman" video recommendation

This was a delightful bit of video diversion. Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson star in a Lions Gate 2004 film of the Oscar Wilde play, "Lady Windermere's Fan." It's set in the 1930s, and lushly portrays a slice of life in that period.

The only thing I didn't like about it was the plethora of Wilde witticisms. Almost every character winds up sooner or later delivering one-liners of the sort that made Oscar Wilde famous.

The tag line is great, too: "Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future." Hmmm.

If you like period pieces, you will enjoy this.

Stranger In A Low Land

Everybody is from somewhere -
Even if you've never been there...

(Ian Anderson, "Another Christmas Song")

I was born in Chicago, but ten years later I spent one year in Lakewood, Colorado. The Rocky Mountains left an indelible mark on me. I have tried to deny it, ignore it, but uplift mountains are in my blood. We took a trip to the Rockies in September, and it felt like coming home. I spent weeks with my eyes boggling and my chin dropping. Oh, I also did a lot of panting, but that's because most of the time I was at 7800 feet or so of altitude, half an hour northwest of Pike's Peak. The silence, the sheer weight of the masses around me, the low humidity, the thin clean air--I don't know what it is, but it feels like home.

Strangely, now that I am back in my usual haunts in Michigan, back in the damp thick air at five hundred and some feet above sea level, I'm not depressed. I'm away from my home, but I know I'll go back someday. Somewhere in this, there is a parable of the spiritual life, but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

"Remembered For Evil"

Lars Walker posted an ichiban comment on Cranach (Dr. Veith's blog) today under the subject "Homegrown Terrorism," about the recent spate of school shootings. His comment #4 is reproduced here in its entirety:
I keep thinking that it has to do with "values" in the precise meaning of the word. What do we value, as individuals and as a culture? More and more, we'd rather be known as sexy than as honest. We'd rather be thought clever than good. We'd rather be remembered for evil than be good but forgotten. It's a yearning for celebrity, regardless of the content of the celebrity. If you don't believe in judgment after death, then your death itself is your final opportunity to leave a mark in the only world you believe in.
Well said, Lars, and spot-on.