Friday, September 30, 2016

Photo Friday: The Great Steeple Chase

Remember this nursery rhyme? “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors, and see all the people!”

Here’s my revised version, which seems appropriate after chasing after steeples to photograph for this month’s “Photo Friday”:

Here’s a church, where’s the steeple? This one might count. Should just ask the people.

Or I could just consult a dictionary. The simple definition of a steeple, according to Merriam-Webster: a tall, pointed tower on a church. The full definition: A tall structure usually having a small spire at the top and surmounting a church tower. Broadly: A whole church tower.

My Platonic ideal of a steeple: Cathedral Metropolitana in São Paulo, Brazil (photo by Morio via Wikimedia Commons; for more cathedral pics, click here.) 

Ready for a mini-tour of the steeple scene in Topeka? I’ve left the names off of the churches. Can you guess the denomination?

First up: The most “Platonic” of the steeples in Topeka, currently being refurbished as part of a multimillion dollar renovation project. (How would you like to be working on this?)

Another downtown stop:

A riff on the steeple: the steeple-ish roof. Does anyone know anything about this architectural style?

And a few from Central Topeka:

Finally, here’s the last (fuzzy) pic I took this morning: A hawk perched atop a church tower, which I snapped with my husband’s phone camera. I had already put my Canon away, and my own cell phone was dead. Not prepared! Aargh!

How about if you just go back and dwell on that splendid pic of the Cathedral Metropolitana?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Without This Ring: Divorce in the Christian Life

There is The Healthy Divorce. The Good Divorce. The Collaborative Divorce. And The Happily Ever After Divorce.

Then there’s Donna Pyle’s Christian take on the subject: Without This Ring: Surviving Divorce (Concordia Publishing House, 2016).

I read Pyle’s book this month. I should mention at the outset that it wasn’t written for me.

The first words of the book made that clear: “You never thought divorce would happen to you. But it did.”

Well, divorce hasn’t happened to me. But I know plenty of people who have gone through it.

If you’re part of that target audience (i.e., you’re divorced) and enjoy books in the “heart-to-heart, friend-to-friend” genre, I suspect you’d find this worth a read, especially if you’re still smarting and need encouraging words from Scripture. Without This Ring is peppered with Bible verses (e.g. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” Ps. 47:3).

The book is part personal experience, part counseling psychology, all wrapped up in an overriding message: Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (see, e.g., Romans 8:35-39).  

You won’t find a theological deep dive in this book. The chapter entitled “What Does the Bible Say About Divorce?,” for example, is just 13 pages long, covering core ideas that you’ve likely heard. (E.g., God hates divorce. The Bible points to two acceptable reasons to seek it: adultery and abandonment. Divorce is not an unforgivable sin.)

If you’re looking for an extended theological discussion of these ideas and others, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Pyle focuses primarily on helping readers find a way, with the help of God, to recover from the life-shattering experience of divorce, which she likens to an F-5 tornado.

That tornado image, incidentally, ended up being my takeaway from the book. Pyle paints a pretty heartbreaking picture of the aftermath of a break-up:
I slowly walked into my house, dreading turning on any lights. I wasn’t afraid that someone lurked within. I simply knew what awaited. Holes. It was December 21 and my husband and I should have been celebrating our thirteenth wedding anniversary. Instead, he moved the rest of his belongings out of our home that day. . . .
The kitchen table where I usually deposited my purse and workbag was gone. I dropped them onto the floor and turned on the lights. I walked through the kitchen straight into my husband’s study. Except for scattered papers and loose trash, it was completely empty. Tears began to flow. (p. 95-96)
This unsettling scene—a reality for Pyle and countless others—served as an important reminder for me, the still married reader.

Marriage is fragile. It needs to be protected. Time to reread 1 Corinthians 13.

And if 1 Corinthians 13 ever starts to fade from sight and things get turbulent (or strangely distant), that would be a good time to seek out the help of a pastor or counselor. As my husband said in a recent Bible study: “Please come and see me BEFORE things have completely fallen apart.”

Thats probably easier said than done. Sometimes things do fall apart, and it can be hard to spot before it’s too late. Sometimes people get blindsided.

Pyle's redesigned wedding ring, a symbol of forgiveness

Whatever the case, when a split happens, a book like Pyle’s might help. The same goes for the posts of Chad Bird on the subject (see, for example, “Anniversary of a Dead Marriage” and “Married to the Cross in Divorce”).

The bottom line is the same. In the words of Bird:
If you are facing a divorce, going through one, or recovering from one, let me tell you the most important thing: Christ will not and cannot sever you from himself.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Greek Class, Take 2: Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy

If you have a minute, go to Acts 23, verses 6-8. The apostle Paul has just told a council of Pharisees and Sadducees that he’s on trial “with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead. His remark causes dissension, “for the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.”

Is that how your translation reads? Τhe God’s Word Translation, for example, says: “The Sadducees say the dead won’t come back to life, and that angels and spirits don’t exist.” Angels and spirits appear in the plural, as well, in the NIV, New Living Translation, and Berean Study Bible.

Then there’s this interesting variation in the Aramaic Bible in Plain English: “For the Sadducees were saying there is no resurrection, neither Angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees confess all of these.”

Angels, angel, Angel. Which is it? And does it matter?

It does matter, and that’s why I’m taking Greek class (again!), along with about 30 other students who want to get a better handle on the original language of the New Testament.

I could just keep relying on Jon for answers to all my Greek questions. (He votes for Angel with a capital A, by the way—Angel, meaning Christ). I trust his knowledge, but I’d rather be able to do this on my own.

It’ll be an uphill climb.

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog was called “ἐπιθυμῶ: I Covet.” The target of my covetousness: stronger Greek skills (via a Greek class, ideally). 

I had retained enough from my first Greek class to be able to type πιθυμῶ (slowly), but if you asked me to put that verb in the past tense, I’d be stumped.

So it’s back to the drawing board. I started having second thoughts right after cracking open chapter 1 of Voelz’s Fundamentals of Greek Grammar:
“Students who never really master the importance of this lesson [the alphabet] or who fail to learn to pronounce words correctly are forever handicapped and never really learn the language in which God’s Word of the new covenant was written.” (Amen!)
“The following chart of stop consonants is useful and must be learned.” (Seriously? Aaargh.)   
 “The following is true…except for…”  (Blasted rules!)
 ηυ = ay + ü” (no English equivalent) (Sigh.)

And yet, I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm of the other students. I asked a few of them about their first impressions of Greek class, and here’s what they had to say:
 So far, so good!
It’s a lot of information, but it’s really interesting.
I’ll have to buy in and work, as with any serious educational endeavor.
I hope I don’t get overwhelmed.
I remember the days of “So far, so good/interesting!” But as the vocabulary, paradigms, rules, and exceptions piled up (i.e., a boatload of rote memorization), I started slipping.

This time around, I’ll be doing things a bit differently to learn the language well (instead of just learning enough for the moment to do fine on tests). Here’s the game plan (recommended for anyone who’s thinking about learning Greek):

1) Follow the instructor’s study tips. They seemed like overkill the first time. Read words. Write them. Conjugate them. Use them in a sentence. Listen. Read aloud. Add accents and breathing marks. Move the words around. Tattoo them on your forehead. (Okay, not that last one, but it would probably help.)

Greek class at St. John's 
2) Read aloud, often! Reading aloud can feel pretty awkward, kind of like practicing a speech by yourself. I suspect that’s why I avoided it the first time around. The consequences: I still stumble over things I should be able to sight read, and I ask about pronunciation more than I should. Reading aloud is a must.

3) Focus on the end goal. I’ll likely never be a Greek whiz who’s able to recognize iffy translations on the fly, but with a good handle on basic Greek, I should be able to open a Greek translation and figure some things out for myself.

As in Acts 23:8. The word for angel is ἄγγελον, and the word for spirit is πνεῦμα.

Singular, not plural. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Lord's Prayer: No Vain Repetition

It’s been 15 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the memories are still sharp. Among those memories is the story of Todd Beamer, one of the passengers who fought back against the hijackers of United Flight 93.

It’s hard to forget “Let’s roll.” But before that, there was “Our Father.”

Remember that? Beamer had connected with Lisa Jefferson, a GTE-Airfone supervisor, after the hijackers took control of the plane. Jefferson recalls Beamer at one point asking Jesus for help, then saying, “Lisa, would you recite the Lord’s Prayer with me?”

That would have been my impulse, too. And it would have been a big comfort to hear the voice on the other end of the line saying the prayer with me.

Stories like this one, of strangers praying together, often bring to mind the universality of the Lord’s Prayer. But is it really universal?


I’ve heard that Jews, for example, don’t pray it (understandably, in light of its New Testament sources, Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4). Mormons don’t pray it. And, as I just found out, many Evangelical Protestants don’t pray it, either.

What? Don’t all Christians, at least, pray the Lord’s Prayer?

“Noooooo, they don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer!” Thus said our new pastor, who spent many years as an Evangelical before becoming Lutheran.

After Pr. Kerns shared that little eye-opener with me, I spent some time researching the issue, and the conversations online all echoed the reasons I heard from him.

Reason #1: Saying a prayer verbatim is “vain repetition,” which our Lord commands us to avoid. Reason #2: Prayer is a form of direct communication with God and should come from the heart, in one’s own words.

Hmmm. I understand the reasons, but they’re shaky.

Christ does warn against “vain repetitions” (or “empty phrases” or “babbling”) in Matthew 6:7, saying, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (ESV). It seems clear, though, that the issue isnt repetition itself but rather the repeated use of many empty words (as with incantations).

“Jesus does not condemn repeating prayers,” says a note in the Lutheran Study Bible. The commentators point readers to Matthew 26:44 as evidence: "So, leaving them again, he [Jesus] went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again” (emphasis added)., a Catholic site, adds a couple more useful examples of repetition in Scripture, including Rev. 4:8 ("...and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come”) and Deut. 6:4-7 
(“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up”).
So much for the “vain repetitions” argument. What, then, about the argument that the Lord’s Prayer simply models form and we need to fill in the words from our own hearts? After all, Jesus says in Matthew 6:9: “Pray then like this.”

 True enough, but in the account in Luke, Christ’s words are different: “When you pray, say.”

Say these words. Pray these petitions. Over and over and over and over. The words of the Lord’s Prayer, exactly as written, are a constant source of comfort, assurance, and hope. 

When it comes to that prayer, Im with these two:
“If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lords Prayer.”
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
“There is no nobler prayer to be found upon earth than the Lords Prayer which we daily pray, because it has this excellent testimony, that God loves to hear it, which we ought not to surrender for all the riches of the world.
Martin Luther, Large Catechism III 23
The Lord’s Prayer (1886-1896) by James Tissot, from the series The Life of Christ, Brooklyn Museum [Public domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Is There a Church Nearby? Finding a Church Home Away from Home

The snazzy admissions publication from the University of Tulsa states: “There are many reasons to choose a specific university: scholarships, campus life, location, professional ties, and friendships. TU’s lush campus is pedestrian and bike friendly. Our challenging academic standards and generous financial aid beckon to many students. Our faculty are engaged, internships are plentiful and extracurricular activities are tailor-made. It’s time to connect with the University of Tulsa.”

Here’s one other reason to consider TU: Grace LutheranChurch.

Grace, in fact, is probably the only reason TU remains on Ingrid’s “maybe” list of colleges. We visited Grace last year, and Ingrid liked what she found there. She tells me she’s looking for “vibrancy, good doctrine, and solid preaching” in a church, and Grace meets the mark on all fronts. When we visited, the people at Grace went out of their way to make us feel welcome.

This year, I’ve really come to appreciate the role that churches—and congregation members—play in the Christian student’s college choice. Colleges often describe themselves in marketing materials as a “home away from home,” but they dance lightly, if at all, over the “church” part of home (and that includes some religious colleges, too).

Students and parents need to do their homework, and churches need to find ways to reach out and connect.

A few things we’ve found helpful in the college search process:


With every campus on Ingrid’s list, we check the LCMS U site, which is dedicated to helping college students connect with churches. Two particularly helpful features on the site: a map with LCMS U chapters, and a form that you can fill out in case you’re not seeing anything in the area. (Another option to try: The Wisconsin Synod’s Campus Ministry page, which offers similar resources.)


One note about LCMS U: churches need to submit a form to become an LCMS-U chapter, and not all of them do. If you were going to school in Topeka, Kansas, for example, you’d find only St. John’s on the map, yet there are five other LCMS churches in Topeka. A Google search shows that there are nine Lutheran churches here: six LCMS, three ELCA, and one WELS church.

Websites can be very helpful, IF they have up-to-date information and offer more than skeletal details about the church. What I’d love to see: specific information for college students seeking a church home away from home, even if it’s just a welcoming blurb. (Note to self: a project for our own website.)

Personal recommendations

Pastors can be a big help in this process, as can fellow members. Ingrid was interested in a college last year, for instance, and one of the members at our church had a son who taught there. His son sent Ingrid information about the college along with a note describing each of the three Lutheran parishes in town. Very helpful.

More recently, Ingrid has used a personal recommendation to bolster her case for going to college in San Diego. “Bethany says there’s a great church out there!” Hmm. Well…

On a recent visit to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota
Visiting the church

I have to admit, when I think “campus visit,” I don’t typically think “church visit,” maybe because campus visits aren’t typically on Sundays, and they can be kind of rushed. But maybe that should be on the radar—at least a visit with the pastor, if it works out. I think again of that visit to Grace, and how positive an impression that left.

I have every confidence they’d care about Ingrid, and her spiritual well being.

For a home to really be a home, that piece needs to be there.