Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Quotable Playmobil Luther

A few weeks ago, I received the Playmobil Martin Luther that I had ordered. He wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

He looks fine now as he sits on the bookshelf in my office, but when he arrived, he was in pieces. Body. Hat. Quill. Bible. Cape. Little cuffs. All in a small plastic bag.

Guess it hadn’t really struck me that Little Luther is a TOY. Maybe he’d rather be doing something more exciting than standing on a shelf, grinning politely by the reference books.

That gave me an idea. What if he interacted with other Playmobil friends?

This past week, my nephew and niece, Will and Greta, came for a visit with the rest of their family and brought their Playmobil toys along. I’m including here a few snapshots of Luther and the gang, each accompanied by a Luther quotation (or maybe I should say “Luther” quotation—more on that later).

We'll begin with the astronaut.

1. Rocketman! You of all people should understand my plight. “They are trying to make me into a fixed star. I am an irregular planet.”

 2. Princess! I have a paradox for you about lords and subjects: “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none. A Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone” (Freedom of a Christian).

What? Yes, of course I can explain, but maybe we should sit.

3. This crown may seem inappropriate, but as I like to say, “Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing” (Letter to Jerome Weller).

Frankly, the crown makes me laugh. “If you can’t laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” 

4. No really, take the quill, please! “I frankly confess that even if it were possible I should not wish to have free choice given to me, or to have anything left in my own hands by which I might strive for salvation.” (Bondage of the Will)

5. What’s this? A pink fan? Really? Well. “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess.”

6. Ahoy, Pirate! What a fine life you lead! As I’ve said before, “He who loves not wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long.”

Okay, wait a minute.

Did Luther really say that?

Like several of the quotations here, this one is attributed to Luther, but there’s no source identified. Where did Luther say it? (On a related note, how can quotations like this circulate for so long and be repeated in so many places without a source identified? Ugh.)

If you can find a source for 1, 3 (second half), and 5, let me know. As for the “wine, women, and song” line, I’m dumping it. It’s been attributed to Luther, but the attribution has been challenged, with the suggestion that the source is actually Johann Heinrich Voss, an eighteenth-century German poet and classicist.

Thus, I need a new quotation for the pirate pic. If you’re feeling creative, add your ideas!

And when you do, include the Luther source, if possible.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Friday Figure: Hypophora

If I asked you to quote the apostle Paul, would you look at me blankly with nothing to say?

Certainly not!

At least that’s what I’m guessing. And I’m giving you that answer in imitation of Paul, who adopts the same form in some of his writing. When he does, he’s using this month’s Friday Figure: Hypophora.

Hypophora, also known as anthypophora, involves posing a question and then answering it aloud. 

Romans 3:1-9 is filled with examples:
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be jusified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to His glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.
Hypophora serves many functions, all of which you can see in the Romans example. It arouses curiosity. It addresses questions listeners may have on their minds. It directs attention to important topics. It allows speakers to display their reasoning process and refute possible objections.

In the Romans passage, Paul could have employed only rhetorical questions, but by providing answers, he encourages listeners to think along the same lines he does.

If youre curious about how this works in other contexts, check out this article from the Wall Street Journal about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who often employs this figure of speech. An example:
Can you close a $10 billion deficit? Yes. Does the place operate? I think better than before. Did the walls crumble? No. Was it hard? Yes. Was it unsettling? Yes. But did we do it? Yes. I think you can bring costs in line with revenue. 
Do you talk the same way? 

Doubtful, but I’d love to hear some examples if you do.

ART: Statue of St. Paul Apostle in the Basilica San Paolo fuori le Mura (Rome). By Fczarnowski (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reading the Psalms with Luther

A few months ago I wrote about my disorganized approach to prayer and wondered if reading the Psalms would help.

So I picked up a copy of Reading the Psalms with Luther (Concordia Publishing House, 2007).

Overall, it’s a nifty little book—Luther calls the Psalter “a little Bible” in the opening pages—but it didn’t have quite the effect I expected. Instead of clarifying my prayer life, it stirred up the waters.

To be more precise, certain Psalms stirred the waters, including Psalm 69, Psalm 109, and a few others that feature strikingly harsh sentiments.

These are the Imprecatory Psalms, which include curses and prayers of ill will for God’s enemies. A few examples:
Add to them punishment upon punishment/may they have no acquittal from you. (Psalm 69:27) 
May his children be fatherless/and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg/seeking food far from the runs they inhabit! (Psalm 109:9-10).
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones/and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:9)

I don’t know about you, but I’m a little reluctant to pray those prayers. And I was pretty uncomfortable last month hearing fiery Baptist preacher Steven Anderson invoking Psalms 69 and 109 against Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, shortly after announcing, “I hate him with a perfect hatred. . . . I hope he dies today. I hope he dies and goes to hell.”

Again, ouch. I don’t agree with Jenner’s choices, but I’m not on Anderson’s wavelength, either. When I heard his words, I thought about Leviticus 19:17: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart [. . .], but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Imprecatory Psalms present a similar conundrum. How do you pray curses on your enemies when you’re also taught to love them? (E.g., Luke 6:27: “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”)

One way out: Love your enemies, and dismiss the words of the imprecatory Psalms as the emotional rantings of vindictive, morally weak individuals from Old Testament times. With this solution, the harsh, inappropriate sounding sentiments of the Imprecatory Psalms can be disassociated from the loving God, and the conundrum disappears.

This solution only works, though, if one believes that the Bible is NOT inerrant or inspired, as noted by Raymond Surburg, former professor at Concordia Theological Seminary. In his informative analysis of the imprecatory Psalms, Surburg pokes holes in various criticisms of the Psalms, then offers helpful observations about how best to understand those writings, assuming that they are, in fact, the inspired and inerrant word of God.

Surburg’s insights are too numerous to discuss in detail, but here are three highlights:
1. Quoting Moorhead, Surburg underscores the idea that the Psalms are true “expressions of the mind of the Spirit concerning evil and persistent, incorrigible evil-doers (93).
2. Regarding the motives of the writers, Surburg writes (quoting Hibbard): “They constantly professed their motive and object in praying for the destruction of enemies to be the protection of the righteous, the honour of God, and the accomplishments of His gracious purposes in the earth” (96).
3. Picking up on the idea of God’s purposes, Surburg notes: “The imprecations and maledictions in the Psalter may be understood to ask God to do with the ungodly and wicked exactly what the Bible says God has done. […] The holiness of God cannot brook sin in any form, shape, or manner. God has clearly and frequently announced that the unrepentant sinner will be punished” (99).
Surburg’s observations are helpful for interpreting and understanding the Psalms, but what about actually praying them?

Here’s a final thought on that note from Pr. Walter Snyder, from his Ask the Pastor blog:
The caution for the Christian in praying as these Psalms lead us is to do so in fearful humility. We do not do so out of hatred for those individuals who bring shame or pain upon us, for we realize that we are also sinners who escape eternal punishment only through God’s grace in Christ. Yet God also calls us to stand firm and to resist the devil and all evildoers — a resistance that includes fervent prayers to our Lord who “breaks and hinders every evil counsel and will which would not let us hallow the name of God nor let His kingdom come. (Small Catechism)” God grant each of us the wisdom, humility, and compassion to pray both for and against our enemies as His Word and Spirit guide us. 

ART: Maestà, Altar of Siena Duomo, predella with scenes of Christ's temptation and miracles scene: Temptation of Christ on the Mountain. Duccio [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Ghosts in the Sermon

Imagine you’re at church this coming Sunday. The sermon is on Mark 8:1-9 (feeding the large crowd with seven loaves), and the pastor begins with these words:
More than five thousand people gathered to hear Jesus teach in a desolate place. For three days, he taught in that desolate place. By the third day, the people began to show signs of weakness in this desolate place. For three days, they were there without fresh food until Jesus has compassion on them.
Now imagine that you find out the sermon came from Sermon Central, a popular sermon preparation website.

What would you think?

If you’re uncomfortable with the idea, you’re not alone. The image below, “Dozen Firms Sell Sermons,” is from the 1972 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opening line of the article offers a clear moral judgment:

The Wall Street Journal’s recent report of an estimated 40,000 clergy who are preaching $1 million worth of sermons purchased from a dozen firms is about as morally edifying as the purchase of term papers from similar firms, from lazy and dishonest college students.
But that was in 1972. Its possible that by now, ideas about the ethics of ghostwriting have changed, especially in light of some of the arguments that have been made in defense of the practice.

For instance, some speakers might just be too busy to write speeches (e.g., the president of the U.S. or a CEO). They may be speaking as a representative of a group or idea rather than as an individual. Their words may be critically important, requiring absolute precision (or rhetorical skill that the speaker may not have). Or speakers may work in contexts where people expect speechwriters to be on staff (which takes the deception argument off the table).

Some of these arguments, which have emerged largely in the context of political and business speechwriting, may also apply to preaching, but there’s still some uneasiness with ghosting in the sacred realm, as suggested by articles like, That Sermon You Heard on Sunday May Be from the Web,” published in the Wall Street Journal in 2006.

Bloggers have weighed in, too, expressing concerns over the integrity of the practice. On The Constructive Curmudeon, for instance, the author minces no words, saying: “Sermon-stealing and sermon-buying are particularly egregious forms of plagiarism that effect [sic] and infect the church more than we might like to believe.” And a 2013 post on The End Time describes an incident in which a pastor was asked to resign because he was preaching sermons that he found on the Web.

There are plenty of arguments against ghosted sermons, and I tend to think along those lines myself. On Sunday mornings, I believe that the person speaking to me is my pastor; the only ghost there is the Holy Ghost. I’d feel deceived if I found out those sermons were not the product of my pastor’s own hard work and insight—i.e., not a sign of his own command of the material.

In fairness, though, there are other arguments. Consider these thoughts, for instance, from Saint Augustine in On Christian Teaching (4.62, Sullivan trans.):
But there are, indeed, some men who can deliver a sermon well, but who cannot think out its matter. Now if they take what has been eloquently and wisely written by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it before the people, if they assume this character, they do no wrong. For this, as is certainly profitable, many become preachers of truth, though not many, teachers, if they all speak the same thing of one true teacher, and there are no schisms among them. Nor need they be frightened by the word of Jeremiah the Prophet, through whom God rebukes those who steal His words, everyone from his neighbor. For those who steal takes what belongs to another, but the word of God belongs to those who obey it.
Hence, hypocritical preachers—those who preach God’s Word but don’t live it—are the true thieves, according to Augustine. He continues:
When good Christians render this service [ghoswriting] to good Christians, both speak what is their own, because God is theirs, and to Him belong the words which they speak; and they make these, too, their own, though they were not able to compose them, if they compose their lives in accordance with them. 
An interesting twist, no?

Maybe it’s not so easy to lump ghosted sermons in with plagiarized college papers, based on Augustine’s insights. But at the end of the day, I’d still like to see “ghosts” remain in the secular world.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Little Lutherans #1: The Budding Filmmaker

Today is the first installment of “Little Lutherans,” a variation on the monthly “Guest Post” feature here on the blog.

To kick things off, we have 8-year-old TJ Humphrey, who attends St. John’s Lutheran with his mom and dad, Wendy and Timothy, and six brothers and sisters. One of TJ’s current interests is making movies.

TJ filled me in on his hobby one day after church, when I spotted him holding a notebook. He told me he makes sketches, lines them up, and narrates a story with his dad’s cell phone in hand. Voila! You then have movies like “The Sea Monster and Who Knows What,” one of TJ’s completed feature films (running time: 2:56).

That got me wondering: What would an 8-year-old put in a movie about church?

I sat down with TJ a few days ago and asked him that question. His initial response wasn’t quite what I expected.

“Sorry to burst your bubbles,” he said, “but I ran out of the paper in my box, and I sold my markers.”

Well…no paper? No problem. “What if you just told me what you would put in the movie?”

TJ was okay with that, and after thinking a bit, he told me he’d include “something in the Bible.”

“Anything in particular?” I asked.

He surveyed the room we were in, which is used for music instruction. He looked over his shoulder and immediately lit up, gesturing with both hands toward the wall.

“Maybe we could put THAT in!”

I looked at the small crucifix, hanging among the colorful musical notes. “Yeah, I think that would work well. What do you think we should say about it?”

“Mmmm…that He died for our sins.”

TJ then added that he’d play “devil music” during this part of the movie. (Note to self: Sit down with TJ and listen to some CDs. Try to identify “devil music.”)

Why devil music? 

Two reasons, said TJ. “One, because it’s sad. And two, nasty people did it.”

“OK. So when Jesus rises again, what kind of music then?”

“GOOD music!” he said, gesturing to the little keyboards behind us.

“Good music. Right. Do you have any favorite hymns?”

Nothing came to mind at first, but with some prompts from his mom, TJ said, “I did like that mountain one.”

“Go Tell It on the Mountain?”

He smiled and sang the first line of the song.

“What are people telling on the mountain?” I asked.

TJ thought a bit. I pointed to back to the crucifix, and he came back with an answer: “Jesus died for our sins?”

TJ and I talked about some other scenes he’d put in the movie, including the sermon. (“I forgot what it’s called, but when we sit down and the pastor talks.”) He then looked at the crucifix again and said, “Maybe we could take some cardboard and make THAT and then put it in front of the church and take a picture!”

A crucifix in the front of the church? That could definitely work.

I asked TJ for any final thoughts, and he said, “Maybe we could do two movies. I was thinking of another movie about when the flood came.”

Hmmm. Where did THAT come from?

TJ pointed to some cutouts of clouds and rainbows on a whiteboard in the room.

I asked TJ if he’d seen Noah’s ark and the rainbow in our stained glass windows in church. He shook his head no, but then said, “I want to know what the wolf stands for.”

That’s the wolf, by the way, that I mentioned in last week’s blog post, Ulfilas/Wulfila, missionary to the Goths. 

I explained the story to him, then said, “You can see his name, Ulfilas, on the window.”

He gave me a puzzled look: “I thought it said Jesus.”

He’s right. It does say Jesus.

Good eye, TJ—just what a budding filmmaker needs.