Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

One of the toughest tasks for me in setting up this blog was, believe it or not, working on my Google+ profile.

Occupation? Tagline? Introduction?

Those blanks are a lot easier to fill in when you have what my fellow church member Timothy calls “a W-2 job,” one that bestows upon you a handy title describing what you do.

Since leaving academia, I’ve wrestled quite a bit with the “Who Am I?” question, which is one of the reasons I snapped up this month’s featured book, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life” (2002; 2011 reprint), by Gene Edward Veith, Jr.

In God at Work, Veith explores the nature of Christian vocation, first explaining what it means (as defined by Luther), then discussing how it operates in contexts such as work, family, society, and church. The book is worthwhile for anyone who has questions about vocation. (Am I really supposed to be doing this? What’s the point? Why has this door closed? Shouldn’t I be doing something else? What does God want me to do?). It’s also helpful for those who need to be reminded of what they’ve already learned about the subject.

Like people who are prone to thinking of vocation as synonymous with “W-2” job.

Luther’s idea is more expansive and other-centered (and that alone is enough to settle nagging doubts about the “Who Am I? question). As Veith explains: “For Luther, vocation, as with everything else in his theology, is not so much a matter of what we do; rather, it is a matter of what God does in and through us” (p. 9).

In short, we’re God’s instruments. “Our purpose in life,” says Veith, “is to do good works, which God himself ‘prepared’ for us to do. We are ‘[God’s] workmanship,’ which means that God is at work in us to do the work He intends” (p. 38).

God is hidden in our everyday vocations (e.g., employee, spouse, parent, citizen, church member), accomplishing His purposes through us. As Veith explains:
God fed me, not with manna but with what the teenager working at the fast-food joint gave me. God clothed and sheltered me, with the help of my employer. God protected me, though I wish the highway patrolman hadn’t pulled me over. God gave me pleasure, thanks to the talents he gave that musician playing on my new CD. (p. 25)
Vocation, at its heart, is all about loving and serving one’s neighbor.

That focus on loving and serving one’s neighbor is one of the central takeaways/reminders in God at Work. In fact, you could probably sketch out much of the rest of the book yourself, armed only with that idea. (Q. What’s entailed in the vocation of child, parent, employee, supervisor, citizen? A. Doing work that loves and serves others.)  

A related and equally important reminder: vocation exists in the present. As Veith notes, “The present is the moment in which we are called to be faithful. We can do nothing about the past. The future is wholly in God’s hands. Now is what we have” (p. 59).

It’s easy to ruminate about the vocational past and worry about the vocational future. But those things aren’t our vocation; vocation is in the here-and-now. It’s what we’re doing today, and that “present” orientation does a world of good to counter moments of uncertainty.

At the end of the day, God at Work didn’t provide me with any clear suggestions for fine-tuning my G+ profile. (I suspect if I listed “Instrument of God” as my occupation, I’d end up on an FBI watch list.) But the book did help clarify my mindset.

A few words worth remembering:
The promises of God’s Word and the conviction that right now, where I am, I am in the station—the vocation—where God has placed me—those constitute the basis for confidence and certainty that God has assuredly placed me here and that He is faithful and that He, even though I cannot see Him, is at work in and through my life. (p. 152)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Guest Post: The Rules of Koinonia

Note: In October of 2014, Pastor Jim Bender of Faith Lutheran Church in Topeka, KS spoke at a Kansas District Pastors Gathering on the Koinonia Project. The Project, launched several years ago in the LCMS, is described on the LCMS website as “an effort through which we pray God will give greater harmony in our Synod’s ‘Life Together’” (by addressing long-standing differences regarding issues such as worship, communion, and fellowship practices). Central to the project are small theological study groups, like the one in Circuit 6 to which Pr. Bender belongs. 

Can this work? Following are the comments Pr. Bender shared with his fellow pastors in Kansas on how to make the discussions productive. My thanks to him for sharing those ideas here, too.

* * * * *

I’ve been asked to speak about the rules of Koinonia— formal and informal. Rules are important, as I’m sure you know. I, along with a couple others in this group, was not at all comfortable with the idea of Koinonia because I worried that at the least we would enter into arguments over doctrine and practice—arguments, not conversations, arguments that fixated on what where we differed and not on where we shared a vast common ground, arguments that aim at unity of practice as determined by the most bullheaded person in the group. That was my minimum worry. My maximum worry was that heresy charges would be filed. So the rules were important to me.

The formal rules that we agreed to in our first session are these:

1. Lets all be here if possible.
  • Catch up if you miss.
  • After catching up by reading the minutes, absentees should be patient and restrained in the next discussion until they are fully back up to speed on where everyone else has progressed.
  • After the opening devotion, we should take 10 minutes to summarize the previous meeting.
2. Address/attack issues, not each other.    
  • The group should mutually enforce this ground rule.    
  • The facilitator will also act as referee.
3. Practice articulating the others point of view.

4. Be confident in expressing our theological views, expecting them to be kept confidential between the brother pastors involved.

The higher rule, the informal rule that we are committed to is that we remain friends, or at least mutually respectful of each others ministries, after our conversation. That higher rule is supported by a lot of little behaviors such as:

Be patient with each other. That may mean having to explain to less academically rigorous pastors what “repristinate” means, or for that matter, being patient with the brother who uses big words. It certainly means listening and not rushing someone trying to explain what they think.

Be kind to each other. That mean no eye-rolling, or whispering when someone else is talking. It also means verbally encouraging each other or noting when someone said something that was original or worthy of deeper consideration. If we are kind to one another, that means we aren’t jerks.

Not boasting or being arrogant. That means sharing your struggles with your fellow pastors; it means demonstrating that you are not a master of the Word of God or the final answer to how to do ministry, even though you may have the biggest parish or the most faithful expression of worship or the XYZ of whatever “success” may look like in your own eyes. Check the ego at the door and see each other as equally called as you to their particular parish. 

Do not insist on your own way. That means there are other ways. Will you work hard at seeing the Gospel at work in ways that are other than what you would do or say? Your way works for you, but there is no one way. This means that you let your brother pastor be a pastor to his own flock; we don’t presume to speak about how to pastor another’s church. This means also that no one person can dominate the Koinonia conversation.

Do not be irritable or resentful. Yes, that means being present for your brothers for the mutual encouragement and edification of Koinonia. It is hard to do that when you carry anger into the setting. Check the anger at the door, even if, and especially if, the anger springs from how you perceive the Synod or the District going downhill.

Do not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoice with the truth. That means having eyes that see the common truth we share more than the errors or wrongs in the other. It means not letting the conversation drift away into an ultimately meaningless talk about how wrong the ELCA or the Evangelicals are (as much fun as it is to do). Instead, name the common ground of the truth that we as Christians, and certainly we as fellow LCMS pastors, share. Rejoice in that truth. Look for thing to build upon, not for things to tear down. Take extra care in being truthful with others positions. Caricaturing and exaggerating the points of view of others is a rejoicing in the wrong that should be avoided, and the rest of the group should police this very easy thing to do.

Bear, hope, and endure all things with your brothers. This is what love does. We stick with each other; we don’t abandon each other. We live in the hope of the Gospel and aim at building each other up.

I’m sure you’ve recognized that these behaviors spring from the primary rule given by Jesus and immortalized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. He said we can have all the knowledge in the world (i.e., You can be “right” and maybe even convince everyone else you are right and even make them follow all the implications and practices of you being right. And you can do this because you have the tongue of men and angels, you are gifted verbally and can persuade others—good for you), but if you have not love, you are wrong, you are nothing.

Brothers, love must be practiced, or else Koinonia will become in your circuit everything I feared it would be when we started in Circuit 6. But I trusted the men in my circuit. And they have practiced love. We are still friends. In fact, better friends.

Pastor Bender (right) with fellow Circuit 6 members, Pr. Dan Galchutt (left) and Pr. J.S. Bruss (center)

Friday, February 12, 2016

Don't Mention It: Praeteritio (The Friday Figure)

A recent article in Slate got me thinking again about one of my favorite figures of speech, one that I found so fascinating in grad school that I devoted an entire seminar paper to it. (Yes! 35 pages!)

And now here it is again, this time the subject of the following headline: “Donald Trump’s Debate Strategy Is Stolen from 8-Year-Olds and Cicero.” (Ha!)

The strategy in question: Praeteritio (sometimes spelled preteritio; also known as paralipsis/paralepsis and occultatio). According to the Rhetorica ad Herennium, speakers who use praeteritio say that they are “passing by, or do not know, or refuse to say that which precisely now [they] are saying” (4.37).

So, with praeteritio, you say what you say you’re not going to say. 

The introductory paragraph of the Slate article is a perfect example (and you really should check out the video that accompanies the piece):
 Let’s talk about Trump’s rhetoric. No, we’re not going to talk about how he called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, or prisoners of war losers. And we’re definitely not going to remind you how he imitated a disabled reporter. No, we’re not going to mention those moments, because we wouldn’t do that. We are, however, going to talk about Trump’s favorite rhetorical tactic.
That favorite tactic, praeteritio, was also a favorite of Cicero, as Slate rightly notes. Listen to Cicero (pictured above) railing against his enemy Catiline: 
 Or again, shortly after you had made room for a new bride by murdering your former wife, did you not compound this deed with yet another crime that defies belief? I do not dwell on this and readily allow it to be glossed over in silence lest it be thought that this State has allowed so heinous a crime to have been committed or to have gone unpunished. I pass over the total ruin of your fortune which you will feel hanging over you on the coming Ides; I come to the events which are not concerned with the disgrace brought upon you by the scandals of your private life or with the poverty and shame of your family, but with the supreme interests of the State and the life and safety of us all. (First Oration Against Caitline)
Why use praeteritio? According to the Rhetorica ad Herennium, praeteritio is useful when direct references “would be tedious or undignified, or cannot be made clear, or can easily be refuted. As a result, it is of greater advantage to create a suspicion by paralipsis [praeteritio] than to insist directly on a statement that is refutable” (4.37).

Some of you might remember this example from Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech: “Let me say, incidentally, my opponent . . . does have his wife on the payroll. And has had her on his payroll for the past 10 years. Now let me just say this. That’s his business and I’m not critical of him for doing that. You will have to pass judgment on that particular point.”

Praeteritio is clever, but it’s not always highly regarded. It’s been called sneaky, disingenuous, a trick, a way of landing low blows. In his book Figures of Speech, Arthur Quinn says: “If I were to declare any figure inherently disreputable (which of course, I will not), this would be the one” (p. 71).

Quinn does note that praeteritio has “innocent” uses, which would be an apt description  for examples in the Bible.

"I have no need to write this..."
In some of those instances, praeteritio functions as a summary device, drawing attention to subjects that are important enough to mention but can’t be addressed in detail due to time or space constraints.
 “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus Christ is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.” (Heb. 9:5)
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets.” (Heb. 11:32)
In this next set of examples, all from the apostle Paul, praeteritio serves a very different purpose.
“For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.” (1 Thess. 1:8)
“Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” (1 Thess. 4:9)
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.” (1 Thess. 5:1-4)
What’s going on here? Whatever the case, it’s more sophisticated than a debate strategy of an 8-year-old, and more noble than a politician’s trick.

From The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Albert A. Beckett. Circa 1850. Image by John Leech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul Writing to the Thessalonians. 1629. Jan Lievens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Who, Me? Offended by the Gospel?

When our daughter was younger (early middle school, maybe), she began using the word “offensive” in unexpected ways.

Ingrid: Why can’t I go to Grace’s house?

Me: Because you didn’t follow through on your chores. No chores, no fun stuff with your friends.

Ingrid: Offensive! 

I laughed then, but now I’m having my own issues with the term “offensive,” particularly in the context of “the offense of the Gospel.”

My problem: I hear “offensive,” and typically think, “Offensive? Really?”

The sermon I heard last Sunday is a good example. It was basically all about the offense of the Gospel—how the disciples in Luke 18:31-43 didn’t “get” Christ’s message about his impending passion and death. A snippet from the sermon: 
And they don’t get it for the same reason you and I often don’t get it. Because those facts, those on-the-ground facts of the Gospel harbor truths too great to bear. Truths about ourselves, and even more, truths about God and Christ, that are beyond our understanding, beyond our ability to get, yes, beyond our desire to get. . . . Let that not be said of you. That the offense of the cross is so great that you can’t, or won’t, get it.
Hey, no worries here, Pastor. I’m not offended. Why would I be offended? I grew up hearing nothing but this message, the message of utter human unworthiness and depravity, and the incredible grace of God in providing us a way out through the suffering and death of Christ.

So goes my thinking when I hear statements like the following: “If what we preach as ‘Gospel’ is not offensive, we’re doing it wrong. An inoffensive Gospel is a false Gospel, a damning Gospel—because the only Gospel that saves is the Gospel that offends.”

 It’s easy to think that these messages are for unbelievers, or newcomers, or the dechurched—i.e., not me.

But that “not me” thinking makes me wonder. Should I find the Gospel offensive? (I’m not sure.) Am I actually more “offended” than I think I am? (Likely. How often, for instance, do I talk about Christianity with non-Christian friends or colleagues?) And what does “offense” mean in this context? (Probably more than meets the eye.)

Time to go hunting.

Several passages in Scripture talk about the offense of Christ and His cross. A few examples:     
Galatians 5:11: “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.” 
John 6:60-61:  When many of His disciples heard it [Christ’s words about eating His body and drinking His blood], they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it? but Jesus, knowing in himself that the disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this?’” 
1 Peter 2:7-8:  So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” 
Isaiah 8:14: “And He will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense  and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to both houses of Jerusalem.”
The New Testament word translated as offense is skandalon, which the Lutheran Study Bible defines as “what arouses ridicule and opposition (‘stumbling block’).” As explained in their note on Galatians 5:11, “The cross offends human pride, which seeks to be justified by the Law. The cross knocks the props out from under all religious systems advocating salvation by human merit” (p. 2011).

When skandalon is defined in this way, as something that arouses ridicule or opposition, I get it. But what about when it’s defined as something that causes one to stumble?

Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, for instance, offers this definition of skandalon: “A trap  laid for an enemy:—a stumbling-block, offence, scandal.”  

Definitions on the Blue Letter Bible site echo this idea, defining skandalon as
a. a trap, snare 
b. any impediment placed in the way and causing someone to stumble or fall 
c. fig. applied to Jesus Christ, whose person and career were so contrary to the expectations of the Jews concerning the Messiah, that they rejected him and by their obstinacy made shipwreck of their salvation
Jesus and the Gospel as trap? Impediment? Stumbling block? A rock that will “make them fall” (as the translation of the 1 Peter passage reads in my Greek-English New Testament)? Well, it’s right there in Isaiah and repeated in the New Testament.

Ah, the hidden God. Who can understand? In the words of the disciples, “This is a hard saying. (i.e., Offensive!)

But such is the nature of the Gospel—stumbling block and folly to some, good news to those with “ears to hear.” May you always be in the latter category.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What? I'm NOT a Protestant?

Last week, I ran across a First Things article called “Why Protestants Can’t Write,” by Peter J.  Leithart. I was in defense mode before I even got into the article.

What? Protestants can’t write? What about Luther’s works? Or Hammer of God? Sheesh.

I was interested in hearing Leithart’s rationale, though. I gave the article a quick scan, skimming the introductory comments about Melanchthon and Zwingli as I searched for the thesis. And there it was: “Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology.”

I consulted with my in-house theologian, who was sitting across from me. “I don’t get this article. Our theology is sacramental, right? (Yup.) So why would this author say Protestants can’t write when, in fact, we do have sacramental theology?”

His answer: “We’re not Protestant. We’re Lutheran.”

What? Lutherans aren’t Protestants?

I went back to Leitharts article and read it more carefully, and this time there was no confusion. The Protestant “we” that Leithart talks about is clearly a Zwinglian “we,” as in “Protestants will learn to write when we . . . have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics.” In this case, Protestant = Reformed (i.e., not Lutheran). 

I’m not sure how I missed that initially (zero points for reading comprehension!), but I suspect it has a lot to do with my reading filter. When I hear “Protestant,” I think “me” (and Lutherans, generally).

Am in the minority here? When did Lutherans start dissociating themselves with Protestants?

I’ve been operating under the assumption that a Protestant is a non-Catholic Christian, which is pretty close to the standard dictionary definition. Merriam-Webster, for example, defines a Protestant as
a member of any of several church denominations denying the universal authority of the Pope and affirming the Reformation principles of justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as the only source of revealed truth; broadly :  a Christian not of a Catholic or Eastern church 
The LCMS Christian Cyclopedia offers a more historical explanation of the term, directing readers to “Speyer, Diet of, 1529.”

The Second Imperial Diet of Speyer, in brief, overturned provisions from the First Diet of Speyer (1526), which provided for a certain degree of religious freedom (e.g., the spread of Lutheran reforms) in the Holy Roman Empire and temporarily set aside the Edict of Worms (1521), which banned Luther and his works. A small minority of Lutheran princes protested this move; hence the term “Protestant.”

By these definitions, the “Protestant” label fits.

But then I think about those research studies by groups such as Pew and Barna, where Protestants are divided into subtypes, and the labels are clearly off.

“Evangelical Protestant?” It’s the ballpark, except for the beliefs about being born again and accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior.

“Mainline Protestant?” No again. The ELCA fits in this tradition, but I don’t.

And this, it seems, is the heart of the “not Protestant” argument, judging from some of the articles I’ve read. The meaning of “Protestant” has changed, and the contemporary understanding is at odds with confessional Lutheranism. LCMS Chaplain Graham Glover sums up this point of view in The Jagged Word:
But despite these interactions [with other Christian chaplains], there is no doubt that I am not a Protestant as my peers understand the term. While my Protestant chaplain peers believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, they do not share the Lutheran understanding of, among other things, Justification, the Church, the Sacraments, etc. For some, I can’t even get them to confess the Apostles’ Creed. For many, the theology of the Book of Concord (the confessions every Lutheran swears is a right exposition of the Christian faith) is either theologically insignificant or offensive.
I see his point. Sometimes I avoid the labels “Evangelical” and “Christian” for the same reason—because of their contemporary associations. I’ve just never thought of “Protestant” in the same way.

And I may not come around anytime soon. More than likely, I’ll continue to think of myself as a Protestant—an old-school Lutheran, untroubled by Zwinglian ghosts.


Religious Colloquium of Marburg [featuring Luther and Zwingli], wood carving, 1557. Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Protestant Memorial Church in Speyer, Germany. By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.