Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Book of the Month: The Executioner's Redemption

A couple months ago, I was browsing books at Concordia Publishing House after a board meeting, and I picked up The Executioner’s Redemption, by Rev. Timothy R. Carter (CPH, 2016).

One of my fellow board members, a pastor, was nearby. “Your husband would really like that.”

I bought the book, but not for my husband.

Now that I’ve read it, I know why pastors—and anyone else who has visited a prison—would find the book useful. Rev. Carter, a Texas executioner turned Lutheran pastor, has an amazing story to tell.

Read it if you’ve worked with inmates, their families, or victims of crimes.

Read it if you’ve watched movies or TV shows set in a prison (e.g., The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking) and wondered, “How can people work there?”

Read it if you’ve heard stories about people like the Carr brothers, who are currently awaiting execution in Kansas (a state that, incidentally, hasn’t executed anyone since 1965). It’s easy to be revolted by their actions, to wish for vengeance, and to think that they’re outside of God’s mercy.

Carter understands the impulse. He harbored similar thoughts himself in the early days of his prison career. He took a job as a prison guard in Huntsville, Texas, during college, and he quickly came to see himself as “an agent of God’s wrath.” He recalls:
I could once bench press twice my weight. I was quick, agile, muscular, and had little difficulty standing my ground and proving I was one not to be reckoned with. I enjoyed fighting prisoners. Compassion and lenience were left behind, replaced by a keen attentiveness to winning the war against inmates. Mentally and emotionally I became hard as a rock, and my heart became equally calloused and insensitive. (p. 8)
Carter describes himself in those early days as foul-mouthed, rough, self-righteous, and judgmental—easy to understand, in light of his circumstances. But he wasn’t happy with that. His attitude changed over the course of his career, and that’s the story at the heart of the book.

 So what changed him?

In a word: Christ.

Carter grew up Catholic but was disconnected from the church. He started reading the Bible as a young man after a conversation with a coworker. Later, he found his way into the Lutheran church after a conversation with George Beto, a criminal justice expert and ordained Lutheran minister.

He recalls asking Beto how he, as a Christian, navigated prison management.
He respectfully, yet firmly answered by reciting one Scripture verse. It was Matthew 10:16: “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise [or shrewd] as serpents and innocent [or gentle] as doves.” He then explained that I had it half right. He said that I was very good at being as wise as a serpent, but I appeared to be a complete failure at being as innocent (or gentle) as a dove. (pp. 20-21)
In short, you need both Law and Gospel, and the help of God. Carter got the message.

In the remainder of the book, Carter describes the lessons he learned in prison, focusing particularly on his work as a member of “the death squad” at the Walls Unit, where all executions in Texas take place. (It’s a busy unit; for stats on Texas executions, see this article.)

Most of us, thankfully, will never see anyone strapped to a death gurney, awaiting lethal injection. Carter saw it over 150 times, which gave him plenty of opportunities to think about the inmates, their families, the families of victims, protesters, and God.

All of those lessons made an impact on him. They’ll likely make an impact on you, too.

P.S. Here’s one other reason to check out the book: flip animation! (Remember flip books?) Give the pages a flip, and you’ll see Carter symbolically go from compassionless tough guy to caring servant of Christ. Kudos to the illustrator.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

In Moments of Fear, Where Is God?

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

If you’re searching for Scriptural words of wisdom on the subject of fear, you’re sure to find that passage from Isaiah, along with a host of others.

Fear not! Perfect love casts out fear. I will fear no evil. When I am afraid, I put my trust in you (Is. 41:10; 1 John 4:18; Ps. 23; Ps. 56).

“I put my trust in you”. . . except when I don’t. And then I realize this whole business of “fearless living” is much easier said than done.

We know God’s expectation, and His promise. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

Those are sound words, but they were nowhere on my radar yesterday, when I had an unsettling encounter with a stranger.

I blanked on God’s verses—all of them, including the “Fear not!” passage that’s been in my head for over 40 years.

I didn’t put all my trust in Him. I was anxious, unnerved. I thought, “What would Jack Bauer do?”

I did not act in accord with this upbeat reminder from blogger Grace Robinson: “We do not need to fear people or circumstances because God is with us. The very same God who gave Joshua victory on a battle field gives us victory in all of life’s challenges.”

If only my brain had been processing those sensible thougths as I watched the shady character outside my window.

Here’s what I was thinking instead: Nearest exit? Where’s my phone? If . . . then. Call 911? Non-emergency or emergency? Paranoia, or possible threat? Scenes from Blindspot: What would Jane Doe do?

And then, in the middle of those anxious thoughts, a prayer popped into my head—perhaps God’s way of giving me a little shake and saying, “Focus, girl!”

The words (as I recall them): “Dear Lord, please remove any malign intent (yes, I actually said that) from this situation. Be here with me. Give me the courage to do the right thing.”

I still felt rattled, which suggests my trust wasn’t up to snuff. Such is a life of imperfection. I’d love to be able to look at all of life’s moments of threat, disaster, hardship, and anxiety and say with a smile, “Fear not!” But I can’t.

And yet God is still our strength.

To Him I say:

Thanks for sending that prayer in my moment of anxiety. I pray that you’ll do the same for everyone else who’s too stressed out to be one of your fearless souls.

Thanks for supportive family, friends, and public safety officers. Please keep them all safe.

Thanks for the guardian angel—the one that a friend assures me was there.

And one other prayer: for all shady characters, that they’ll turn away from trouble and toward You.

Image (which I recall seeing in my grandparents’ house):
Guardian Angel, German postcard (1900). By unknown, similar to works by Fridolin Leiber. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Few Things You Might Not Know about the Antichrist

In 1976, when I was in elementary school, The Omen was released. That movie still gives me the creeps.

I was too young to see it in a theater, but I remember seeing snippets of the film, and I recall seeing a book with pictures of the devilish Damien.

He was the antichrist, and hed come to wreak havoc on the world.

A few years later in confirmation class, I learned the real identity of the antichrist.

He was not Damien, but…the Pope! No, he wasnt John Paul II, but rather, the office of the papacy. The revelation was a little hard to wrap my head around, especially as I thought of the Catholic half of my family.

All that by way of saying, I don’t think much about the antichrist, unless there’s a trigger. And this week, it was a headline in The Sun (UK): “Donald Trump is the Antichrist Who’ll Bring the Apocalypse, Crackpots Claim.” The article includes a link to a website that presents a top ten list of connections between Trump and “666, the mark of the antichrist.

I’m not persuaded, but the article did inspire me to do a little reading on the Antichrist. Here are a few surprises I picked up along the way.

1. Many people throughout history have been called the Antichrist.

I had heard that accusation about Mikhail Gorbachev (remember the birthmark on his head?). But Ronald Reagan?

Yes! Count the letters in his name. Ronald (6) Wilson (6) Reagan (6). (If you need more convincing, you can find a book on Amazon that identifies 45 signs pointing to Reagan.)

How about Barack Obama?

Yes! As of today, you can still see the “Barack Obama is the Antichrist” page on Facebook (with 972 likes).


Yes! Nero, one of the earliest suspected antichrists, appears on a list of 7 top contenders for the title. The others? The pope (office or individual), Hitler, Napoleon, Henry Kissinger/Gorbachev (tie), the American president (tie), and Nicolae Jetty Carpathia, a character in the Left Behind series.

The theories are kind of fun to read (here’s one on the papacy and Daniel 7), but I’m generally skeptical of efforts to “crack the code/read the tea leaves.”

2. Confessional Lutherans do maintain the “Papacy as Antichrist” teaching, and yet…

Some of you might remember Michelle Bachmann, a former Republican presidential candidate who came under scrutiny for the “anti-Catholic” views of her Wisconsin Synod church (which she has since left). An Atlantic headline in 2011 proclaimed: “Michelle Bachmann’s Church Says the Pope is the Antichrist.” Ouch! Included in the article is a statement Bachmann made during a debate, in which she denies the position: “I love Catholics, I'm a Christian, and my church does not believe that the Pope is the Anti-Christ, that's absolutely false.”

Well, not entirely. The WELS does maintain the connection between the papacy and the Antichrist, and so does the LCMS. You can find support for the position in the Book of Concord in the treatise, “On the Power and Primacy of the Pope.” There, Philip Melanchthon writes: “It is clear that the Roman pontiffs, with their followers, defend godless doctrines and godless services. And the marks of Antichrist plainly agree with the kingdom of the pope and his followers” (39).

Melanchthon then cites 2 Thessalonians 2:4, concluding that Paul “calls [the antichrist] the enemy of Christ, because he will invent doctrine conflicting with the Gospel and claim for himself divine authority.”

It’s an interesting read, and the position is completely understandable in the context of the sixteenth century. I do wonder, though, how Melanchthon and the reformers might modify that statement today.

Would they agree, for instance, with this FAQ document on the LCMS website?
Concerning the historical identity of the Antichrist, we affirm the Lutheran Confessions’ identification of the Antichrist with the office of the papacy whose official claims continue to correspond to the Scriptural marks listed above. It is important, however, that we observe the distinction which the Lutheran Confessors made between the office of the pope (papacy) and the individual men who fill that office. The latter could be Christians themselves. We do not presume to judge any person's heart. Also, we acknowledge the possibility that the historical form of the Antichrist could change. Of course, in that case another identified by these marks would rise.
Those acknowledgements seem pretty reasonable to me.

3. The term “antichrist” appears only 5 times in the Bible, all in the writing of John.

If you search online for antichrist verses, you’ll find lists that range widely in number. 7 verses. 22 verses. 81 verses. Many of these lists include verses that speak about the antichrist without actually using that term (e.g. the beast in Daniel and Revelation; Paul’s discussion of the “man of lawlessness” in Thessalonians).
Albrecht Dürer, via Wikimedia Commons
But “antichrist” (ἀντίχριστος) shows up only in John. The four verses:
1 John 2:18: Children, it is the last hour; as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.
1 John 2:22: Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.
1 John 4:3: And every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it is coming, and now it is in the world already.
2 John 1:7: For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.
John’s advice: He who abides in the doctrine [of Christ] has both the Father and the Son (and can give all antichrists—big and small—the boot).

Take that, Damien.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Praiseworthy Metaphor for Liturgy: Incremental Deposits

I’ve just experienced a flash of prose envy.

The definition of prose envy: A feeling of covetousness over words you WISH you would have thought of yourself (but are pretty sure would never happen).

An illustrative example: James Parker’s description of Donald Trump in The Atlantic (October 2016): “He flames here and there, impossible to pin down, an ignis fatuus topped with a toasted golden ghost of a hairdo.” (Toasted golden ghost! Genius!)

And then there are the words that triggered my most recent bout: “incremental deposits.”

Yes, that’s right: incremental deposits.

The words don’t look all that swoon-worthy when they’re sitting there out of context.

But in context, the words become a metaphor, and that metaphor has changed the way I see the liturgy.

The Inspiring Words

Rev. Robert Zagore talks about incremental deposits in a short article called, “The Liturgy Serves Us.” When Zagore was in the seminary, he got involved in a hospital chaplaincy program, and that experience gave him a new appreciation for the words of the liturgy­ (e.g., Invocation, Apostles’ Creed, etc.). He recalls:
“During those months of overnight chaplaincy, I would often be called to attend those who were in shock, unconscious, near death, critically injured. I was called in to speak to families enduring devastating trials. The work was always easier if they knew the liturgy—and surprisingly, many of them did.”
Zagore then talks about the advantage of learning the liturgy “day by day, week by week,” noting,
In this way, the words of the liturgy make incremental deposits in our hearts and minds from which the fruits of hope are drawn in times of trial.”
I’m sure you can imagine those times of trial.

Maybe in an emergency room.

Or in some other crisis situation.

Or when memory—a parent’s, a spouse’s, your own—fades.

Or when hearing and vision fail.

At the end of life.

At those times, I imagine it’s a great comfort to have a ready storehouse of perfect words, words that you can call up without even really thinking.

“When parishes cultivate a liturgical life,” says Zagore, “they arm their sons and daughters with words ingrained with the Gospel. They implant a resolute and joyous hope. Reinforced over a lifetime, they are unshakeable, even by death.”

Zagore speaks from experience, and I suspect many of you can relate. Just a couple months ago, in fact, blog reader Bev shared the following anecdote in response to a post on the Lord’s Prayer:
“Have visited a lady with significant memory loss on occasion. She can't remember if her husband is alive, or her sons visit from earlier in the day, or what town she is in. But guess what she can remember? The Lords Prayer and Apostles Creed. Three cheers for repetition.”

A Changed Perspective

Examples like Bevs, paired with the “incremental deposits” metaphor, have given me more to think about with the liturgy.

If I were asked to explain and defend the liturgy, Id be inclined to look to the past (“the liturgy is a historic, time-honored tradition passed down from generation to generation”) or right in front of me (“the liturgy is reverent/teaches the full sweep of the faith/is heaven on earth/allows me to receive God’s gifts”).

I really haven’t thought much in terms of banking and building—of making small and steady deposits for the future.

But I will now.

And when the days come when I need those words, I trust that, as Pastor Zagore says, they’ll “revive a thousand moments in the presence if a merciful and loving Father, and bring us there again.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Rethinking "You Might Be A Lutheran If..."

The first time I saw it, I laughed out loud.

It was a photo of Mexican food, with the familiar opening line, “You know you might be a Lutheran if . . . ”

Many of you have probably heard those old jokes, especially if you’re an older Midwestern Lutheran of German or Scandinavian descent. The standard version goes like this:

• you think hotdish is one of the major food groups
• your church is on fire, and you rush to save the coffee pot
• you have more than 5 flavors of Jell-O in your pantry
• you hesitate to clap for the church choir or special music because “it just wasn’t done that way in the old days”
• you hear something funny and smile as loud as you can

I get these jokes—all of them. The lutefisk. The lefse. Sven and Ole. The “frozen chosen.” But I also appreciate the new twist with the Mexican food, from Iglesia Luterana San Lucas (Eagle Pass, TX).

“You know you might be a Lutheran if . . . your VBS snack is tostadas.”

Ha! Love it! And not just because I’d much rather eat tostadas than orange Jell-O with carrots.

The meme struck a chord with the folks at Old Lutheran, too. Back in April of this year, Old Lutheran posted the following message on its Facebook page:
As the Center of Lutheran Pride (but not too proud), one of the things that keeps us from becoming "too proud" is learning that we don't know what we don't know. We are learning that what is funny to us doesn't even make sense to Lutherans in other parts of the broad expansive Lutheran community. We are grateful to a growing number of Lutherans who are creating memes that truly represent the cultural diversity in Lutheranism. 
Other images they posted: Crab. An Indian dinner. A woman in Tanzania clapping. A group of people protesting.

The response to these posts was largely positive, but not everyone was enthusiastic. The memes are associated with #decolonizeLutheranism,” an ELCA movement focused on challenging existing cultural dynamics. If you’re not on board with ELCA theology, you might also have some reservations.

Old Lutheran’s response:
We here at the World Wide Headquarters prefer to look at the #decolonizeLutheranism hashtag not so much about changing our focus but one of growing in our understanding of who the Lutherans are. Each of us have cultural and geographic traditions that inform who we are. We sometimes misunderstand our cultural traditions with our faith traditions. We are not Jews or Greeks, slaves or free but we are one in Christ.
The underlying theology aside, I appreciate the effort to expand awareness. And I give two thumbs up to this idea from Old Lutheran: “Visit a Lutheran congregation that is different than the one you grew up in.”

One of the best experiences of my Lutheran life (and most challenging, in some ways) was joining a predominantly black Lutheran church (Missouri Synod) in Tennessee. When our family of three joined, the white population just about doubled.

For the first time in my life, I felt like an outsider in church, which alone made the experience worthwhile.

Some of the hymns were familiar, but some I had never seen. People made noise during the service. They said, “Amen!” during the sermon. They filled the front pews.

And when we had our first church dinner, the menu was entirely different—for me, anyway. No lefse. No Jell-O. No tuna noodle hotdish. It was all mac-and-cheese and collard greens and sweet potato pie (soooooo good).

Lutheran? In some corners, yes!
It was pretty disorienting at times, but we had a common anchor: Christ.

Christ came through in the Word and Sacraments, and in the Confession and Absolution, and in the Law-and-Gospel sermons. He came through in the consistent proclamation: We’re saved by grace through faith, and not our own works.

Ultimately, that’s what really matters when completing the sentence, “You know you might be Lutheran if…”

Works with tostadas. Works with brats and potato salad. Works with sweet potato pie.

Photo of sweet potato pie:

Ernesto Andrade from San Francisco, California, United States (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.