Friday, August 24, 2018

Rostered and Called III

Recently I noted that I have now become a rostered ELCA minister of word and sacrament. As a part of that candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. I have already shared the first two sections from my entrance essay that began the process. Here is the third section of that essay:

(3) My Relationship with Jesus Christ. I have already referred to my baptism, which is the starting point for responding to this prompt. Nothing I’ve experienced in my life has been more important to me, my identity, and my vocation than that sacramental event in September 1962. Every morning and night I make the sign of the cross in remembrance of it. I make this same sign of the cross each Sunday in the divine service and in the weekly chapel services I attend at Valpo. Marked with the cross of Christ, my sins and death have become his, and his righteousness and life have become mine. In my baptism, the triune God has said, “You are my child. I love you and forgive you. I will never leave you or forsake you.” That cruciform promise frames each of my days. It sustains me in my living and working, in my cross-bearing and daily dying. It gives me hope for the future.
            My relationship with Jesus Christ is nourished and strengthened through daily reading of Holy Scripture. My days thus begin with careful study of two chapters from an English version of the Bible and a paragraph from the Greek New Testament. After meditating on these Scriptural passages, I pray three psalms, offer a prayer ex corde that leads into the Lord’s Prayer, and then sing a hymn verse. Because of my ordination vow, which includes reference to the doctrinal content of the Lutheran Confessions, I try to spend at least thirty minutes during the workday studying the Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche. (Editing and translating the writings of Edmund Schlink have also entailed frequent examination of these writings.) Each year I focus on a classic figure in the Christian tradition, reading everything by that person as well by those who have written the most important secondary studies. For example, given the significance of this year [2017] for Protestants, I am reading straight through all of the available volumes in the American Edition of Luther’s works. Last year it was Kant; the year before, Augustine. But I also regularly “pray the news.” Each morning I read the New York Times and our local paper; during lunch I watch CNN (and sometimes listen to NPR); before dinner I view the NBC Nightly News and then the PBS NewsHour. I also regularly read several magazines, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Economist, and the Christian Century. After dinner, my family has a brief devotion and prayer. Before going to sleep, I read two psalms and say a final prayer. (By meditating on five psalms a day, I am able to get through the entire Psalter each month.)
            My relationship with Jesus Christ is nourished and strengthened through regular participation in the weekly Eucharistic service at Christ Lutheran Church, Valparaiso. Each Sunday I listen for the voice of the living Christ, the viva vox evangelii, a word that judges and forgives, renews and empowers, enlightens and propels, a word that is also joyfully received in the Eucharist itself along with everything else that Christ gives there. Sent forth by God’s blessing, I re-engage my various vocations (disciple, husband, father, professor, citizen) with the promise of Christ and his Holy Spirit.
            Let me say a further word about one of those callings, that of professor. Here I seek to love the Lord with all my heart and mind. I strive to teach my students in faithful obedience to Christ. In this way I seek to fulfill the Scriptural exhortation that was spoken to me personally in the pastoral blessing at my confirmation: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” So I have read many books on the historical Jesus and Christology. I have written several essays and book chapters on the issue of “the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.” I have taught Christology to undergraduate students. I have been particularly interested in the development of Christological and Trinitarian dogma in church history—dialoguing with classic thinkers from the early church but also with more recent theologians—and I hope someday to write my own “Christian dogmatics” for undergraduates (which will be a sequel of sorts to my book on fundamental theology). In each of my classes I try to show my students—those who are Christian as well as those who are other-religious and non-religious—what a “critical” faith in Jesus Christ might entail, an informed faith that does not shrink from the hard questions relating to Christ and the apostolic witness to him. For those who are other-religious (e.g. Muslim, Hindu) and non-religious (“the nones”), I seek to share reliable historical and theological information about Jesus, to explicate what it might mean to believe in Jesus, and to invite respectful dialogue. So I speak about Jesus in a way that shares knowledge, welcomes dialogue, and encourages further reflection. Perhaps those students who are struggling with their faith, whatever their background might be, will consider that it is possible to move from a naïve, childhood understanding of the Christian faith, through criticism and doubt, to something akin to what my teacher Paul Ricoeur called a “second naiveté.”
            I continue to struggle to relate my faith in Jesus Christ, my love and passion for him, to my work as a scholar of Christian theology. I have learned that scholars of Christian faith (i.e., people who are believers in Christ who also teach about Christian faith) need not be afraid to share such faith and passion with their students or downplay the knowledge of faith that they have gained through their formal education and the school of hard knocks. I have also learned not to pretend that such a scholar is really ever completely “objective” and “neutral” in teaching about Jesus Christ, even if I also know that I should constantly strive to avoid bias, prejudice, and distortions. Every semester I remind myself and my students of the functional wisdom of Bernard Lonergan’s advice to young theologians: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be rational, be responsible, develop and, if necessary, change.”

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Rostered and Called II

In my last blog post, I noted that I have now become a rostered ELCA minister of word and sacrament. As a part of that candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. Earlier this month I shared the brief autobiographical section from the first essay that started the process. Here is the second part:  

(2) Journey of Discernment. In 1946 my grandfather moved from Portland, where for twenty years he had been the founding pastor of a Lutheran congregation, to Salem, where he became the first LCMS chaplain to the Oregon State Hospital, the state penitentiary, and a large Lutheran nursing home. He retired in 1970. When St. John congregation experienced a pastoral vacancy, as happened to be the case when I was born, he was called upon to serve as the interim pastor. On the day I was baptized he told the congregation, “This first grandson of mine is going to be a pastor someday.” Being only twenty days old, I had no say in the matter, at least not on that occasion. Still, when I was a little older and people would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” I would always respond, “I want to be a pastor, like my grandfather.” When I was in the second grade, my public elementary school teacher invited him to our classroom to talk about what he did as a hospital chaplain. I do not remember what he said that day, but I do remember that he made us laugh, that he spoke very kindly to all of us, and that my classmates treated me better afterwards. While he probably never read Meister Eckhardt, he nonetheless exemplified for me the wisdom of “being ready at all times for the gifts of God and always for new ones.” I was thus thankful for my grandfather and proud of him. That second-grade school visit fit with what I already knew from church and family gatherings: my grandfather was loved and respected.

            In my early years, he would sometimes take my brother and me with him when he did supply preaching on the Oregon coast or over at Bend (where my uncle had been pastor), or when he made a pastoral visit to Willamette Lutheran Home or to the Oregon State Hospital. The latter is where One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest was filmed and where the director of that hospital, Dr. Dean Brooks—who played himself in the film opposite Jack Nicolson’s “McMurphy”—frequently consulted with my grandfather and at his retirement spoke words of gratitude about him and his ministry. My brother and I also served as my grandfather’s acolytes at the retirement-home Good Friday service, an event we relished, mostly because we got out of public school for the day. Then and at other times he told me, “A good pastor loves the people, all the people, especially the ones nobody else loves.”
            In a very basic way, my calling to the pastoral ministry was not my choice; it was something thrust upon me by someone I greatly loved and admired. My grandfather’s piety and vocation rubbed off on me and I felt called to become like him. While at times that summons was a burden, especially when I thought about studying the sciences or when I envied my cousins who were on the way to successful careers as attorneys, mostly it was not. I do not recall ever thinking about pursuing another vocation, at least not for very long or to any significant depth.
            The only time of crisis in that regard came when my grandfather died of brain cancer in January 1980, midway through my senior year of high school. It was then, in the midst of my profound grief, that I questioned for a few months the road that had been set before me. Why had I always answered the question about my future the way that I did? Was it merely out of love for my grandfather and because of what I knew he had wanted me to become since the day he baptized me? Or was the Holy Spirit really calling me to serve as a minister of Christ? Over the course of that relatively short period of time, which lasted into my first year of college, I gained greater clarity in my responses to these perplexing vocational questions. That discernment process was helped forward through much prayer, mutual consolation within my family, and by serious conversation with my pastors and college professors. I also benefited from the encouragement and support I received from the members of St. John. Indeed, throughout my formal education, which included a year-long pastoral internship, people repeatedly voiced appreciation for the gifts God has given me, the external affirmation of which provided a much more solid grounding for my vocational goal than did my own internal feelings. For example, at my ordination, I felt more like Moses or Jeremiah (“Lord, don’t you want someone else?”) than Isaiah (“Here am I! Send me! Send me!”), figures who surfaced in the sermon that day, and was grateful later for the external words of encouragement. Through the years, the importance of that external assurance--including especially that ordination service itself--has only grown, especially when I was under fire for professing a theological point that rubbed a few “true believers” the wrong way or when I’ve been troubled by the awareness of my sins, failures, and shortcomings. Over the years I have learned the truth of Luther’s dictum, “Experience alone makes the theologian”—hence, the need to return daily to my baptism and to remember frequently the Scriptural words of promise that were spoken at my ordination, the gospel that was preached that day (by the same professor who had buoyed me along at seminary, Dean Hempelmann), the pastoral blessings that were spoken with the laying on of hands, and the congregation’s shout of “Yes!” (Remembering all this made my expulsion from the LCMS on 15 July ’15 all the more painful. I was grateful that my mom and the circuit counselor who had ordained me--Pr. Joel Nickel--were with me in Rome that night, in the Piazza della Rotonda, and that we could share a bottle of good Chianti together.)
            While my seminary education proved less enlightening than my college experience—primarily because the former dealt less effectively with the challenges of our modern and pluralistic world—I did go deep into the Christian tradition in those years. (The great strength of that seminary is its library.) It was then, too, that a few of my teachers began to suggest to me that my gifts might be better suited for an academic setting than a parish one. Early in my fourth year I thus applied to a number of divinity schools and universities. I ultimately went with the one that gave me the most financial assistance. (I would have gone to Cambridge University—I was accepted to Fitzwilliam College—but this was when Mrs. Thatcher was giving no funds to foreigners.)
            My years in Chicago only confirmed for me what my seminary professors had suggested: While I enjoyed throwing myself into parish ministry (e.g., teaching confirmation instruction to twenty-plus middle-schoolers every Monday evening, leading the young couples group [even though I was single!], preaching every other Sunday, leading a Bible class, visiting the sick and shut-ins, marrying, burying, preparing devotions for various parish meetings, etc.), I felt more at home in a Swift Hall seminar room. Even before arriving in Hyde Park, Martin Marty had become a role model for me, and so what a pleasure it was to sit in his classes and to discuss readings with him in his office. I wanted (and still desire!) to be like him. I am grateful for his mentoring and for the friendship we have shared over the past thirty years.
            I am likewise thankful for the gracious example, friendship, and support of four other theologians who were also sent into exile from the LCMS: the sainted Bob Bertram (whose library I inherited), Ed Schroeder, Dean Lueking, and Gary Simpson. They have taught me much about “grace under pressure.”
            The past twenty-five years of teaching, first at Concordia and now at Valpo, have affirmed the rightness of the path that Marty and others have encouraged me to follow. While I was sorely tempted to accept the repeated offer of becoming the called pastor of Immanuel, Michigan City, I think I am better suited for a teaching ministry at the undergraduate level, at least for the time being. Fully cognizant that the ambitious theologian can be a pestilence to the church, I only hope that in some small way I can contribute to the mission of the church in service to the world for which Christ gave his life.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Rostered and Called

Late last month, word came that I am now officially rostered in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a minister of word and sacrament. The Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the ELCA has formally called me through its synod council to serve as a professor of theology at Valparaiso University. This call is the culmination of a three-year candidacy process. Back in the fall of 2015, a few months after I had been expelled from the LCMS, I contacted Rev. Heather Apel, assistant to I-K Synod Bishop Gafkjen, to begin a discussion about how I could become rostered in the ELCA. At the time, I told her that I did not want any special treatment and that I wanted to go through all of the steps of the normal process. She and Bishop Gafkjen, along with the I-K Synod candidacy committee, have been very gracious and helpful to me in this time of discernment. Indeed, these three years have allowed me to reflect more deeply on my sense of vocation and the future direction of my service in the ELCA and at Valpo. I'm grateful for the insights I have gained along the way.

This year marks the 90th birthday of my teacher and friend, Martin E. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, who is also rostered in the ELCA. He, too, has been a great "encourager" to me (for nearly thirty years!). His little autobiography, By Way of Response (Abingdon, 1981), made a deep impression on me when I first read it as a student at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Indeed, it was a key factor in leading me three decades ago this fall to matriculate at the U. of C., where I continued my graduate studies after seminary.

As a part of the ELCA candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. So I've decided to share a portion of that material here and in some future TM posts. Consider these altogether as my own very modest and brief "By Way of Response."

(1) Autobiography. I was born in Salem, Oregon, on 10 September 1962 and baptized twenty days later by my paternal grandfather at St. John Lutheran Church, where he too had been baptized and ordained. At the time, he was serving as St. John’s interim pastor. My paternal uncle, also an LCMS pastor, was one of my sponsors. Twenty-seven years later I would be ordained in this same chancel.
            The main foci of my childhood were my family and its circle of friends, St. John, and the public schools I attended. Despite the severe injuries that my dad received in the Korean War (he was legally blind, partially deaf, and half paralyzed), he worked for thirty-five years at the regional office of State Farm Insurance. My mother was a legal secretary for much of that same period. Our family participated regularly in the divine services at St. John, and my younger sister, brother, and I hardly ever missed Sunday school or the children’s choir. Later we were very active in our church’s high-school youth group. All of these events, and the individuals who led them, deeply shaped my Christian faith and piety.
            In high school I was a member of the German club, the debate team, and the ski club. While some of my teachers encouraged me to think about studying one of the sciences in college, by the age of seven I was already convinced that God wanted me to take the same vocational path as my grandfather and his elder son. Still, the sciences, especially aeronautics and astronomy, have always attracted my curiosity. On clear nights throughout the year I often make time to gaze at the night sky through my telescope.
            In the fall of 1980 I matriculated at Concordia, Portland, a small Lutheran college, where I concentrated on Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English literature, among limited extra-curricular opportunities (e.g., student government, drama). While I initially struggled academically, I did pretty well in the final two years and ended up graduating with honors. Several professors helped me to clarify and strengthen my commitment to the vocation of pastor. Two of them have been mentors and close friends ever since then, especially after I joined Concordia’s faculty ten years later.
            Following college, I attended Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the alma mater of my grandfather (class of ‘24) and uncle (class of ’54). Decades earlier it may have been the premiere Lutheran seminary in the country, but all that had changed by mid-1974. My seminary education was thus quite stifling, apart from a few professors. More than once I thought of leaving. Nevertheless, I kept at it, hoping that after those few years of mostly stale, parochial theology I could return to the more ecumenical and “moderate” LCMS of my native northwest. I spent most of my time in the library, often out with friends, or at a nearby cinema. Along with a few classmates, one of my professors, Dean Hempelmann (who had been my childhood pastor and who has had a significant, positive influence on my education and pastoral formation), also encouraged me to stick it out, and so I did.
            After escaping seminary with a M.Div., I headed north for further study at the University of Chicago. Here I was blessed to encounter such scholars as Martin Marty, Brian Gerrish, David Tracy, and Paul Ricoeur. In these years, after my ordination in 1989, I also began serving full-time as an assistant pastor at Bethlehem, West Dundee, Illinois. So I became a commuter graduate student/pastor.   
            The high point of that half decade was meeting my future wife (on a blind date). At the time, she was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. We dated for three years, a period that included being ostracized by her father and suffering the death of her college roommate. I baptized Detra at Bethlehem’s Easter vigil in 1993, and we were married that summer. (Members of her mom’s side of the family—all native Greeks who are Orthodox Christians—could have played themselves in the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”)
            After serving Bethlehem for five years and doing additional interim work at a south-side congregation, I became an assistant professor at my undergraduate alma mater in 1994. There I taught courses in the New Testament, Greek, church history, and the humanities. I also regularly team-taught science/theology courses with a microbiologist. This occasioned some public attacks against my scholarship by a few zealous LCMS clergy. Thankfully, my ecclesiastical supervisor repeatedly vindicated my teaching and writings. Indeed, I became one of his closest theological advisers when I was twice elected secretary of that district (which comprises 270 congregations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska, China, and Vietnam). I served on its board of directors for seven years.
            Despite that support, however, I decided to seek a new academic position beyond LCMS control. In these years I had endured several heresy trials, and my family was tired of the strain they had caused. So in 2004 I became a visiting associate professor of theology at Valparaiso University. I was then granted tenure in 2007, just as I began serving for two years as the director of Valpo’s study-abroad program in Reutlingen, Germany. In addition to my teaching, I have published several essays, encyclopedia articles, and book chapters. I have also written a large book on fundamental theology and another on the life and theology of Johannes von Hofmann (1810-77). I have also edited a book on nineteenth-century Lutheran theologians. Two years ago I began editing and co-translating six volumes of writings by Edmund Schlink. The first volume appeared in January 2017. Around that same time, I was advanced in rank to full professor.
            Alongside my full-time teaching at Valpo and during the time that I wrote Fundamental Theology, I also served as the interim pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Michigan City, Ind., from October 2010 to March 2014. For more on this, see
            On 1 July 2015 I was suspended from the clergy roster of the LCMS in the wake of an official charge of heresy that had been leveled against me by the Montana district president for an essay I had published on evolution. When I refused to appeal that suspension, I was removed from the clergy roster on 15 July 2015. On that day, I was leading a Valpo alumni tour in Rome. For more details on my expulsion, see

            Finally, and most importantly, since March 1999 my wife, who is the assistant to the dean of Valpo’s library, and I have been raising our son, Jacob, who is a junior in high school. [Update (8/1/18): Jacob will be a freshman at Valpo this fall, and will likely be majoring in electrical engineering.] These days, he’s mostly interested in computers, calculus, and German, but when he was four he suffered a life-threatening injury, a sub-cranial hematoma from a torn artery, which led to seventy-five ml of blood pooling on his brain. An injury that could have resulted in his death, or at least in his being severely disabled, has only minimally impacted his motor skills and cognition. He now has a question mark of a scar on his scalp as a consequence of the neurosurgeon’s three hours of delicate work. This miraculous outcome, however, was tempered by the death of my sister’s son, who was born the same year as Jacob and who died from neuroblastoma just a few months after Jacob’s emergency surgery. From those darker days to the present ones, we have lived with a sober awareness of the fragility and uncertainty of life, but also with deep gratitude to God and for the hopeful promise that is given in our baptism, to which we return daily. We move forward under the sign of the cross.