Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Giving Thanks

While Christians need not wait until now to express their gratitude and praise to God, November has traditionally been an intentional time for Americans of all backgrounds to "give thanks." Of course in our day, as well as in earlier eras, not everyone gives thanks to God for the blessings of one's life. While "God" and "Jesus" may be on the lips of many, too often those lips are not praising.

In the seventeenth century, ragged bands of God-fearing pilgrims and settlers in the New Land frequently set aside a day of "thanksgiving" to God. Before they ate, they prayed. Often overcoming great difficulties and challenges to eek out a living, they had much for which to be thankful. After an arduous year of tending to fields and flocks, they gave thanks to God for whatever harvest they had, bountiful or not. One can imagine them enjoining one another to praise the Lord, along the lines of the old hymn:

Sing to the Lord of harvest, sing songs of love and praise;
With joyful hearts and voices your alleluias raise.
By Him the rolling seasons in fruitful order move;
Sing to the Lord of harvest a joyous song of love.

In the nineteenth century, in the midst of the American Civil War, President Lincoln declared a National Day of Thanksgiving. For the first time, all the states would be encouraged to observe "Thanksgiving" on the same date. That the President did this was largely the result of petitioning by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (creator of the nursery rhyme, "Mary Had a Little Lamb"), who argued that a sense of national unity could be re-established and fostered among the warring states if they all observed Thanksgiving on the same day. One can imagine Americans in 1863 pausing to give thanks to God along the lines of the old hymn:

Before You, Lord, we bow, Our God who reigns above
And rules the world below, Boundless in pow'r and love.
Our thanks we bring In joy and praise,
Our hearts we raise To You our King.

At the end of the last century, my teacher and friend, Martin Marty, published a little book about "hope." Included in that book of reflections and photos (the latter by his son, Micah) is an entry on "Praise." Marty writes, "Praise usually erupts spontaneously when someone wants to thank God for what has been or to express passion about the now and the here. But how do we praise in the spirit of hope, which means to praise about a future that has not yet occurred? …The long record of praise by people who hope becomes understandable when we recall that what is thereby celebrated is nothing but the character of the God of 'God's people,' who is steadfast in dealing with us also in the times of disappointment. Hence, we praise" (Martin Marty, Our Hope for Years to Come [Augsburg, 1995], 63). Marty's meditation and his invitation to thank and praise God are grounded in the lines of the old hymn:

Praise the Lord! Oh, let all that is in me adore him!
All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him!
Let the amen sound from God's people again.
Gladly with praise we adore him!

On this Thanksgiving Day 2011 my family and I will gather with the faithful from Immanuel, Michigan City, to give thanks and praise to God, not only for the material blessings we have received from his hand, but also, especially, for the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation that have been given through Jesus. We, too, will pause, like our Christian forebears of old, to thank and praise God for these gifts. On our lips will be the lines of the old hymn:

Now thank we all our God With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mother's arms has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Through Their Eyes by F. Dean Lueking

One of the joys of teaching theology at Valparaiso University is getting to know people from around the world, both Christians and non-Christians. Over the years I have been blessed to have taught many students from every continent except one. (I'm still waiting for someone from Antarctica.) This semester I'm once again teaching the basic Christian theology course that nearly all VU students have to take to graduate. Among the participants are students from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Kuwait, and Guinea. While some of these international students come from non-Christian backgrounds, a few are Christian. Each provides an informative, non-western perspective on the theological topics we discuss. Of late these international students have helped us to distinguish between "America" and "Christianity" even as they have helped to enrich our understandings of "global Christianity" and the current conflicts between Christians and non-Christians in other parts of the world. The conversation continues.

I am also grateful for how these non-western students have encouraged the American, mostly Christian students to take the subject matter of the course more seriously than might otherwise have been the case. Some weeks ago one of my American students told me that she felt compelled to learn more about the history of Christianity, her religious background, because she had met a Muslim student here who knew the history of her tradition better than she did. She told me that she felt embarrassed by her ignorance and thus wanted to overcome it. She has come to see that "the Christian tradition," the actual title of the course, is far more complicated and complex than she initially thought. Not only is "the tradition" much older and deeper than she had heretofore been led to believe (hence, we might be better to speak realistically of "traditions"), but it is also more ethnically and culturally diverse than her exposure to it, via the Sunday-morning services at her local congregation, has indicated.

Pr. and Mrs. Lueking
To help students to see the complex texture of the global Christian church more fully and to help these students connect with Christian people who are separated from them by both space and time, I am having them read Dr. Dean Lueking's new book, Through Their Eyes: A People's View of the Global Church, Foreword by Martin Marty (Chicago: Tyra Books, 2011; $25.00).

In the interest of full disclosure: Dean is a friend who has been a great support to me personally, both when I was a graduate student at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, and when I have come under ecclesiastical pressure for my theological investigations and publications. He has been a role model for me in so many ways...)

I can easily envision this 472-page book as the centerpiece of a multi-week adult forum, especially within a Lutheran congregation. One would be hard-pressed to find more engaging, flesh-and-blood stories about contemporary Lutheran Christians throughout the world than those conveyed here. As Marty notes in his Foreword, "Most of Lueking's featured people are…pastors, teachers, ministers, catechists, nurses, and the like. I'd like to meet more of them personally and cannot forget most of them, even if I've greeted them on only a half-dozen pages here" (xiv). While most of these are Lutheran, which is what one would expect, given that the Luekings are Lutheran, there are also a few non-Lutheran Christians who crop up as well. Perhaps the model of this book will inspire others to write similar accounts for folks in the rest of the 35,000+ Christian church groups in the world today.

The book is divided into nine geographical parts that take the reader from Palestine (Bethlehem) through Africa (eastern only), eastern and western Europe, central and south America, northern Asia and India, Southeast Asia, and finally to New Guinea and Australia. Along the way, the reader encounters stories of hope, courage, struggle against hardship (especially against economic poverty and the poverty of spirit), new and renewed conversions to Christian faith, joy in the midst of suffering and persecution, stories of Christ-living-in-community (to paraphrase Bonhoeffer). The book seeks to provide a global picture of the church "through the lens of the individuals who gather regularly in congregations, who know the ups and downs of Christian discipleship in their daily lives in the world" (xix). Yes, Dean and his wife, Beverly, appear as important characters in these stories, too. After all, they were blessed to receive them first-hand as a result of their missionary experiences. But their presence is not intrusive: their words and actions give way to those of the central characters. Photos of the latter help to connect faces with the stories.

One other thing is clear from reading this book: Dean and Beverly Lueking are missionaries. The heart of their mission is sharing the gospel of Christ's love and mercy with all who will receive it, and doing so in gentle, humble, creative and patient ways. While Dean thought that he might be called after seminary (he graduated in the same class as my uncle Bob, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, 1954) to serve as a Lutheran missionary in Japan, he was instead called to serve as an associate pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, a position that then allowed him to complete a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. (His research focused in part on the Christian mission in the global church.) Dean would remain at Grace as pastor until his retirement several years ago. During this long pastorate he and his wife were also able to engage in further missionary work abroad. Grace granted them two sabbaticals: one in '83 to study churches in Africa and Asia and the other in '91 to study churches in the Southwest Pacific. Throughout their ministries, Dean and Beverly have been bridge-builders and care-givers. Near the end of his pastoral ministry Dean was encouraged by foreword writer Marty to write this book in which he would recount visits and revisits with Christians from around the world that he had met or had come into contact with during his various travels.

(A story in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune is a further example of how the Luekings are "bridge-builders." They recently reconnected with a long lost foster son after reading about how he had reconnected with a family member of his own that had been thought to have been murdered by John Wayne Gacy. See the online article, "One Reunion in Gacy Saga Fosters Another,"

The stories that the Luekings relate in Through Their Eyes are too numerous to recount here. Let me identify three that have stayed with me since first reading the book a few months ago:

After a description of the military occupation of Bethlehem and what that has concretely meant for many hundreds of Palestinians, including Palestinian Lutherans, Lueking asks, "How does one continue to live under such conditions of injustice and humiliation?" The responses to this question by two Palestinian Lutheran clergymen, Rev. Mitri Raheb and Bishop Munib Younan, stick in the mind. Hope for the future for them is anchored in Jesus Christ, "who has made his home with us, especially among the outcast and suffering." According to Lueking, Younan's "prophetic ministry, sealed by the Holy Spirit's calling" is to be "a servant shepherd in a church largely composed of people who need a future governed by hope rather than the pain of what they have lost" (17).

When Pr. Lueking wrote his book, Itaffa Gobena was the president of the Ethiopia Evangelical Church Mekane Yesu (EECMY). In Lueking's book he recounts the struggles of Christians during the Marxist regime in that country in the 1970s and 80s. He himself was arrested, beaten, threatened with execution, "but was spared death by the sudden action by the jail warden who, without explaining why, arranged his release--an experience that to this day Gobena attributes to the intervention of angels" (46). After studying theology at Wartburg Seminary in Iowa, he returned to Ethiopia. His burdens? "Insufficient inward growth in soundness of faith as the church rapidly expands outwardly, conflicts in the church which come from imitating the spurious teachings of sects and self-made prophets, and the difficulty of engaging the Orthodox Church in meaningful dialog." And his joys? "The joy of living as God's child and servant, free in Christ's grace to believe the good news and share it openly… We of my generation have experienced so much blessing that others before us could only foresee by faith--doors opened and believers formed by Christ's Spirit in astonishing ways and numbers. Fifty years ago our parents were tortured, chained, humiliated, and in some cases murdered for the sake of the Gospel. Now we see the fruits of their faith and that is our greatest joy" (ibid.).

Irene Ponce, Adita Torres, Ofelia Davila, and Alicia Cuyotti are among the first women ordained as pastors in the Lutheran Church of Peru. They have served congregations among the poorest of the poor, for example in the slums of Lima and Cusco, in lands that have been affected by Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and indigenous religions. In this trying context these pastors have reached out to troubled youth, have struggled to assist abused women, drug addicts, and the unemployed, and have tried to meet peoples' acute needs of body and soul. The dedication of these female pastors to the poor, as revealed in Lueking's vignette, makes a lasting impression.

I know of no other book quite like this one. We get an "on-the-ground" portrait of central characters in the Lutheran church's mission in and to these various locales. The stories are ultimately encouraging, since the cross and resurrection of Christ are at the center of what is confessed and told. In the midst of death and suffering, there is also life and salvation. The Luekings demonstrate that a little Christian compassion and ingenuity go a long way, that faith, hope, and love really do make a difference, perhaps especially under the most difficult of circumstances. Seeing the church through the eyes of Christians in other parts of the world does amazing things for one's own vision.

So my students are reading the book. As an added bonus, the author has graciously agreed to visit my class next week to discuss his book with them. So they are also busying formulating some questions for the conversation.

[Purchase info: In order to keep the book price at $25, Dean is doing much of the marketing of Through Their Eyes himself. The quickest way to get a copy is to send him a check for $30 ($5 extra covers postage and handling) to Dean Lueking, 829 Lathrop Ave, River Forest, IL 60305 with your name and address. You will have your own copy pronto. In addition, Dean is making a special offer for book discussion groups: Order a box of 12 copies at $15.00 each (40% discount) and receive free shipping as well. Several pastoral friends have found such groups beneficial for broadening a global church awareness. For this offer, please send a check for $180 (12 x $15.00) to the above address.]

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pericope for the Week: Garrison Keillor

The following has been around for awhile, especially among us Lutherans, but it hasn't yet been posted here, so I'm going to pass it along as this week's pericope. Keillor is certainly a saint, at least in the Pauline-Lutheran sense of that word, and so it is also fitting that this excerpt from his writings serves as our "All Saints Day" posting for this year...

Garrison Keillor

By Garrison Keillor 

I have made fun of Lutherans for years - who wouldn't, if you lived in Minnesota ? But I have also sung with Lutherans, and that is one of the main joys of life, along with hot baths and fresh sweet corn.
We make fun of Lutherans for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like they do.

If you ask an audience in New York City , a relatively Lutheranless place, to sing along on the chorus of 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore', they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear.. But if you do this among Lutherans they'll s mile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!

Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It's a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person's rib cage. It's natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We're too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison When you're singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it's an emotionally fulfilling moment.
I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.

I do believe this: These Lutherans are the sort of people you could call up when you're in deep distress. If you're dying, they'll comfort you. If you're lonely, they'll talk to you. And if you're hungry, they'll give you tuna salad!

The following list was compiled by a 20th-century Lutheran who, observing other Lutherans, wrote down exactly what he saw or heard:

1. Lutherans believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud.
2. Lutherans like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.
3. Lutherans believe their pastors will visit them in the hospital, even if they don't notify them that they are there.
4. Lutherans usually follow the official liturgy and will feel it is their way of suffering for their sins.
5. Lutherans believe in miracles and even expect miracles, especially during their stewardship visitation programs or when passing the plate.
6. Lutherans feel that applauding for their children's choirs would make the kids too proud and conceited.
7 Lutherans think that the Bible forbids them from crossing the aisle while passing the peace.
8. Lutherans drink coffee as if it were the Third Sacrament.
9. Some Lutherans still believe that an ELCA bride and an LC-MS groom make for a mixed marriage. (For those of you who are not Lutheran, ELCA is Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and LC-MS is Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, different divisions of the same Protestant religion. And when and where I grew up in Minnesota, intermarriage between the two was about as popular as Lutherans and Catholics marrying.)
10. Lutherans feel guilty for not staying to clean up after their own wedding reception in the Fellowship Hall.
11. Lutherans are willing to pay up to one dollar for a meal at church.
12. Lutherans think that Garrison Keillor stories are totally factual.
13. Lutherans still serve Jell-O in the proper liturgical color of the season and think that peas in a tuna noodle casserole add a little too much color.
14. Lutherans believe that it is OK to poke fun at themselves and never take themselves too seriously.

And finally, you know you're a Lutheran when: 
*It's 100 degrees, with 90% humidity, and you still have coffee after the service;
*You hear something really funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can;
*Donuts are a line item in the church budget, just like coffee;
*The communion cabinet is open to all, but the coffee cabinet is locked up tight;
*When you watch a 'Star Wars' movie and they say, 'May the Force be with you', you respond, 'and also with you';
*And, lastly, it takes 15 minutes to say, 'Good-bye'.

May you wake each day with His blessings, Sleep each night in His keeping, And always walk in His tender care.