Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Photos from My Trip to Concordia-Portland

I spent last week in Portland, Oregon, smiling, laughing, and fighting back tears on the campus of my alma mater, Concordia University, which will soon be closing its doors for good. It was a bit of a pastoral visit, too, in order to share in the grief of friends who will be losing their employment at the end of April. Through watery eyes and despite my feeble attempts to offer a word of encouragement, there was also a lot of joy, as I was able to see quite a few friends, former colleagues, and abiding mentors. I also got to sit in on a class taught by one of my former students (the focus of which was Luther's understanding of "vocation"). A current Concordia student, who also happens to be the school's student body president, will be transferring to Valpo in the fall. She'll be continuing her degree in social work. (We shared a few laughs, as I told her about my own experiences in that same office long, long ago.)

Particularly meaningful were the precious minutes I spent contemplating the liturgical artwork that once hung on the chancel wall of Concordia's "Chapel of the Upper Room," a space that was later "secularized" and purposed for other aims. This art, which now hangs in the relatively new (!) library, is by Ernst Schwidder (1931-1998), who graduated from Concordia (high school) in the same class as my dad, the class of '49. Later, Schwidder taught art at Valpo, where he also created many sculptures and other artworks that hang today in church buildings, hospitals, and other venues around the country. So I definitely share "a sense of place" with Schwidder, a fellow Pacific-Northwesterner who was transplanted to the Midwest for a season. (Like the artist, I hope to return to my native country when my vocation here comes to its end.)

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Liturgical art by Ernst Schwidder, which hung in the chancel of the Chapel of the Upper Room at Concordia Portland. These works now hang on the east wall of the new library, soon to be shuttered.

While in Oregon I was able to celebrate the 117th birthday of Edmund Schlink, whose 830-page "Ecumenical Dogmatics" will be the second volume in the collected works that I am editing and co-translating. Co-celebrating with me on the eve of that occasion was my co-translator, Hans Spalteholz. I first met him forty years ago, when I was a freshman at Concordia. On that day, we both were late for chapel. A year or two later he introduced me to Schlink, whose writings have now become intimately linked to us both. Here we are four decades later, still working together, still running late, still modeling the NW-plaid style of shirts we both like to wear, still learning from the famous Heidelberger. I’m deeply grateful for Hans'  friendship and mentoring through the years. By God's grace, we will keep on plugging along.

"Happy Birthday, Dr. Schlink!" "R. I. P., Concordia-Portland!"

Taking a Break from Translating Schlink's "Ecumenical Dogmatics"

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Checking a Definition in Cassell's

The "Becker Brick" at Concordia Portland

At Concordia University, Portland, between Luther Hall and the Hagen Center, is a small circle of bricks that memorializes alumni and faculty. Here is a photo of the "Becker Brick" in that memorial courtyard:

One night last week I was tempted to sneak onto campus with a chisel.... But that wouldn’t have been right— and the Portland PD would have easily found their prime suspect.

Still, I told some of my local friends, "Can you keep an eye on those bricks? My family and I would like to get ours back...."

Grandpa Emil - high school class of ‘18 (also on the university faculty in the 1930s)

Uncle Robert - high school class of ‘46

Dad David - high school class of ‘49

Yours truly- university class of ‘84 (also on the university faculty from '94 to '04)

Sister Melissa - university class of ‘91

Wife Detra - university class of ‘97 and ‘00

Friday, February 14, 2020

Further Details On CUP's Closure

A former president of one of the Concordias forwarded to me the following online article that gives quite a bit of new information (at least to me) about Concordia-Portland's closure.


Thursday, February 13, 2020

Christi Crux Est Mihi Lux

Forty years ago, I matriculated at Concordia College, Portland, Oregon. By doing so, I was continuing a family tradition. My Grandfather Emil had attended the school in the 1910s, my Uncle Bob had done so in the mid-1940s, and my dad a few years after that. When I helped to research and co-edit the chapter on Concordia for the book that commemorated the centennial anniversary of the NW District of the LCMS, I learned that my grandfather had even taught at the college in the 1930s.[i] My wife, my sister, and one of my cousins are also graduates of the institution, which today is called Concordia University. Little did I know, when I was student-body president in '82-‘83 and regularly representing my fellow students at monthly faculty meetings, that a decade later I would join CUP’s faculty as a young assistant professor. During the ten years that I taught theology and the humanities there and directed its pre-seminary program, I was promoted to associate professor and then professor.

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Luther Hall (photo copied from Concordia's webpage)

I fully intended to serve at Concordia until I retired, but that was not to be. Sixteen years  ago, several events led me to realize I needed to leave and seek a calling elsewhere. While the accusations of “teaching false doctrine” followed me to Valpo, I was protected here in ways that were not possible at Portland. Today I am grateful that my family and I made the move in 2004, even though we really didn’t know what would happen after that first year. Suffice it to say, the pastures have been greener, for all sorts of reasons.

But today I am also very sad, still in shock, really, for I learned this week that my undergraduate alma mater, where I had also taught for a decade, will be closing at the end of April. To read that announcement, you can go here. To read an article on the closing, you can go here.

I feel deep sorrow and sadness for the faculty and staff who will lose their jobs at the end of April. Angry and distraught students are scrambling to figure out how to complete their degree programs. It is a terrible, tragic mess.

Just a few years ago, Concordia had 8,000 registered students—most of whom received their instruction entirely online. Only a small portion of those students lived on campus or commuted to their classes there. While I recognize that the Concordia I experienced as an undergraduate had to change, if it was to survive in these challenging times, the changes that it underwent were obviously not all for the good.

Part of the decline of the school, it seems to me, was the decision to move away from its core grounding in the liberal arts. There is no way that 8000 students, most of whom were studying completely online, could ever grasp or embrace the Christian-liberal-arts ethos that needed to remain at the heart of the school’s mission. By going in the direction it did, I feel that Concordia lost its soul, its center, its grounding, its focus. Hopefully someone someday will uncover the full details of the decline and demise of Concordia-Portland.

I would invite your prayers for those deeply affected by this tragic development.

In the wake of this shocking news, I find myself also giving thanks for the classic, Christ-centered, liberal-arts education I received at Concordia, for the leadership skills I learned there, and for the love of learning that was faithfully and passionately handed on to me. That kind of education may be going the way of the dinosaur. I'm grateful that I got to experience it when I did.

I’m thinking in particular of the professors who have meant so much to me over these past four decades, whose lives and teaching have shaped who I am, and who were absolutely crucial in helping me to discern my own vocation in the church and the academy:

·       Dick Reinisch+, who taught me Latin and Greek; who transmitted a love for classical culture; whose dry wit made education fun; who taught me the gospel as we studied the Gospels and the letters of Paul; and who, each spring, competed with me and a few others on the tennis court. (I will never forget the joyful experience of meeting up with Dick and Irene in Greece in the summer after I had graduated. I think of that trip every time my wife, who is Greek, serves us ouzo or retsina. Dick made it possible for me to join CUP’s faculty, where I then also taught Greek for that decade.)

·        John Scheck, who taught me philosophy and American history; who as my academic adviser patiently helped a struggling freshman mature just enough to get his academic feet more firmly planted midway through his sophomore year; who transmitted a love for the liberal arts and a hopeful vision of Christian humanism, one that included a deep appreciation for the music of the church. John’s gospel-centered, humor-filled preaching has remained the gold-standard model, the ideal.

·        Hans Spalteholz, who taught me to love the Scriptures, to wrestle with them for the sake of faithful interpretation, and to apply them to the world’s deep needs and hurts; who taught me the distinction between law and gospel by unpacking the theology of the Lutheran Confessions; whose love of books and learning and of the German language has rubbed off on me; who pointed me the way to the University of Chicago; who later also made room for me to join Concordia’s faculty; who has become a second father to me, a spiritual counselor in times of crises, and a comrade in various book projects.

·        Dick Hill, who taught me the power of stories, of literature; who invited me to test interpretations of American culture and history; who was the first to show me how a film could be more than just a good visual experience; and who also encouraged me to follow the academic path. Dick has become one of my closest friends.

·        Sid Johnson, who, by meeting one-on-one with me every week during my freshman year of humanities, taught me how to write; who helped me to discover my own voice; who showed how the gospel can be dramatized; whose sermons are also gold standards of evangelical proclamation.

·        Frank Gebhardt, who instilled in me a love for rocks (I still have his geology textbook on my shelf!).

·        Chuck Kunert and Johnnie Driessner, who shaped my understanding of the sciences and their relationship to Christian faith.

·        Julie Rowland, whose spiritual depth and ecumenical spirit have been so influential on my own Christian pilgrimage; who patiently helped a mathematically-challenged sophomore to pass the math requirement.

·        E. W. Hinrichs+, whose kindness and compassion were evident every day in the classroom, and who taught me about Old Testament “Heilsgeschichte,” a concept that would later be the subject of my doctoral dissertation (and first book).

·        Art Wahlers+, who as “Mr. Concordia,” embodied the spirit of the place, the memory of the institution, and who impressed upon me the importance of using concrete examples and analogies in instruction and proclamation.
·        Dale Fisk, whom I never had as a classroom teacher but whose musical leadership and vocal performances led me to experience the beauty and joy of classical Lutheran chorales (He knows that my deepest undergraduate regret is that I never joined the choir.) [Addendum, 2/14: Tim and Nancy Nickel belong on this list, too, for they introduced me to a composer named J. S. Bach, whose musical offerings have become a part of my daily bread; indeed, this semester I am again teaching my course on Luther and Bach. I think of the Nickels and their own offertories given the the Chapel of the Upper Room, every time I walk to that class....]

·        Rhonda Miller, who also modeled Christian humanism and humility; whose humor was infectious; who also unveiled connections between drama and the gospel.

·       Tom Wolbrecht, who as dean of students taught me about grace and compassion; who also taught me the basics of the Christian faith; who was an important mentor to me, especially when I served in student government.

·        Larry Gross, whose course on Christian art and architecture opened my eyes to the beauty of grace and led me to journey through Europe with fellow Concordian, Steve Chambers, in the summer of ’84. (In just a few weeks I’ll be co-leading a six-week course on Christian art and architecture at my church, in preparation for the European tour I’m leading in July.)

·        Dwaine Brandt, who taught me Luther and Lutheran theology; who opened my eyes to the great problems in German history, matters that have become the focus for my own scholarly work.

·        E. P. Weber+, who as president regularly took me to lunch to find out what the students were thinking on this and that subject; who taught me the finer points of synodical politics; who continually brought whatever conversation we were having back to the questions, “so what?,” and “how does this issue/problem connect to Christ and the gospel?”

To be sure, Concordia had its flaws and weaknesses. For most of its history, it was very small and truly parochial. Its non-human resources were limited. Its institutional challenges, both financial and missional, were often daunting. I don’t want to paint a too rosy picture. But what the faculty and administration had to work with was always put to the best use.

The education I received has served me well as a pastor and professor. I’m grateful to all those who were my teachers in those years ('80-'84). Indeed, that is what the word "Concordia" means to me, the faculty and staff who embodied that "Christi-crux-est-mihi-lux" [“The Cross of Christ Is Light to Me”] liberal-arts tradition that was lovingly and faithfully passed on to me and my generation of students there. That tradition and motto live. A few of us are its "living letters" (cf. 2 Cor. 3).

The “spirit” of Concordia is nicely, beautifully captured in the school song, written by Professor Scheck. Permit me to end this post by quoting it here:

Out of darkness into the light of God
We have been brought by Christ our Lord.
Called by his Spirit into this fellowship
We work and pray with one accord.
Living together, serving each other
Striving always for harmony.
This is our motto, we of Concordia: 
The cross of Christ is light to me.

[i] Hans Spalteholz, Matthew L. Becker, and Dwaine Brandt, eds., God Opens Doors: A Centennial Celebration of the Northwest District of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (Portland: Northwest District of the LCMS, 2000), 111-131. E. P. Weber, who had been president of the school for my first three years there, wrote the bulk of that chapter (“You Must Grow Your Own”), but Prof. Spalteholz and I made significant editorial adjustments to it, e.g., adding some references to individuals beyond Dr. Weber’s principal focus, which was the school’s infrastructure and building projects. The quote, “You Must Grow Your Own,” comes from an address that Dr. Francis Pieper delivered at the 1903 Northwest District Convention. When discussing the need for pastors in the district, Dr. Pieper famously stated to the twenty-nine delegates, “You must grow your own crop.” My grandfather was among the first pastors in that “home-grown harvest.” My uncle and I also came back to the district to serve as pastors. My sister served as a parochial-school teacher and my cousin as a director of Christian education. Both are now working as public-school teachers.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

J. S. Bach on PBS

The first music I ever heard in public was by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). I don’t remember the piece—in fact, I don’t remember anything from those days—but I know I heard it at St. John Lutheran Church, Salem, Oregon. The date was Sep 30, 1962. I was baptized on that Sunday. It was the first time I was "brought out in public," the first time I worshiped, and I was only a mere twenty days old at the time. Needless to say, my role in that service was entirely passive. On that day, the regular organist, Mr. Fischer, had selected a Bach prelude to begin the event. I later learned that he nearly always selected a Bach prelude to begin the service. I subsequently found out that on that occasion Mr. Fischer played Bach’s “Prelude in C” (BWV 547), fitting for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (Sep 29). That’s the first music I ever heard in public.

Growing up in that congregation, I heard a lot of Bach. Mr. Fischer routinely played the Eisenacher's  organ works, as did Mrs. Holsing, who rotated Sundays with Mr. Fischer. After Mr. Fischer’s death, my childhood friend, Beth Sorsdahl, alternated with Mrs. Holsing. (I remember being quite impressed that a teenage peer not only wanted to play Bach, but wanted to do so by learning the most difficult of all musical instruments, the one at which Bach himself excelled.)

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Haussmann's famous portrait of Bach (1748)

In those youthful days, I didn’t know the significance of the name “Bach,” nor did I understand his music. (I still don't, at least not fully! Who does? There's always more depths to plumb than even multiple soundings provide.) Maybe because they were so complicated, I simply didn't pay close attention to the pieces of his that were played in the services at St. John. Back then, I was more into the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and KISS and eventually U2. But J. S. Bach was in the mix, too, nearly every Sunday throughout my childhood. I couldn’t avoid him. In fact, in retrospect, his music became a cantus firmus for my life, even if I didn’t always sense the tunes properly or appreciate them fully. He's become more important to me as I've grown older.

When I was a young boy, I served as an acolyte in my home congregation and sat behind Mr. Fischer’s organ bench. (The adults in the congregation called him “Bud,” but I only knew him as “Mr. Fischer.”) I still remember the wry smile on his face when he would turn around during the “sharing of the peace” and extend his hand to shake my own. I was always impressed by how he was able to translate what were for me the indecipherable black notes of his organ sheet music into the beautiful, soulful sounds that came from the pipes hidden behind the curtains on the walls above, on either side of chancel. I didn't know then just how well he was able to do that. I do now. Sunday was often mystical in that way, at least for me. (It helped that Mr. Fischer always wore a white organist's robe over his Sunday best. That gesture communicated something serious about the important task at hand.)

"Bud" Fischer at the organ; my dad is behind him (1960)
Bach resonated deeper in me in college, and still further in seminary. That resonance became even more profound and personal when I developed and taught a university course on Luther and Bach, during my stint as the director of Valpo’s study-abroad program in Germany. During those years, I took students to Eisenach (Bach’s birthplace), Erfurt (where for generations his family had been well-regarded as musicians), Weimar (where he served as court Kappelmeister), and finally to Leipzig, where he served as music director for more than two decades. Yes, we also visited the museums that are devoted to his life and work, and we traversed the venues where he lived and moved and had his being. But tell me, how can a Christian of the church of the Augsburg Confession not get teary-eyed while standing above Bach’s resting place in the chancel of the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, receiving Holy Communion at the end of a Sunday service in the presence of “all the company of heaven”? Talk about a mystical experience!

While that Luther/Bach course continued to be taught in Reutlingen after my departure, sadly it has recently come to an end. So, I plan to teach it anew this next spring, on campus. (Maybe in the future I'll tie it to a spring-break trip to Germany.) So much has been written about Bach since 2010. I have a lot of catching up to do before January.

Tonight, I was encouraged in that endeavor after watching the PBS special, “Now Hear This: The Riddle of Bach,” hosted by Scott Yoo. What a great episode! (A few years back I was blessed to have participated in the Bach Institute at Valpo, organized by my friend and colleague, Chris Cock, and partially led by Dr. Christoff Wolff, who makes an important appearance in this evening's PBS show. Back then, the Institute was gearing up for a performance of Bach's St. John Passion. Another mystical experience!)

For details on the show, go here.

I told my wife the other day that if it is at all possible, I would be very grateful if Bach’s music were the last I were to hear in this earthly life. Talk about a stairway to heaven! (Or better: Talk about a foretaste of heaven on earth!)