A Note on Humility and Diligence

As an academic with a short attention span, I have the tendency to bounce from subject to subject. Yesterday, I studied the Norwegian-American church, today I study New Testament. Yesterday, I read a book about the history of China, today I’m reading a book about geology. With that in mind, this devotional from Martin Luther struck me, and reminded me that no matter how many degrees I pile up, I have to return to some things over and over again.

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Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. – 1 Timothy 4.13

I am often aware of my temptation, and even to this day can scarcely guard myself sufficiently against it. This I confess openly as an example to any who are interested, although I am an old doctor and preacher and am so much more versed in the Scriptures, or at least ought to be, than all those wise ones who attack me; I must still grow daily, like a child, saying aloud every morning the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and such precious psalms and sayings as I choose, just as the children are now being taught to do, although I have daily to study the Scriptures and to fight the devil. I may not say in my heart: You know the Lord’s Prayer, you know the Ten Commandments, you know the Creed by heart, etc. No, I must go on learning every day and remain a pupil of the Catechism. I feel how noticeably it helps me, and I find by experience that the Word of God can never be exhausted, but that it is really true as Psalm 147 says: “His understanding is infinite.”

-From Day by Day We Magnify Thee: Daily Meditation’s from Luther’s Writings, ed. Margarete Steiner and Percy Scott (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), 348.

God is a Trout Fisherman

(Author’s note: I could say that the lack of posting is because I have been absolutely swamped with work, or that I have been working long days and nights perfecting this post. However, neither of those two would be true. Rather, I’ve been bad about making time to write, and so my apologies for that. And special apologies to those of you who have been waiting for the next two entries in the Socrates and Lutheran theology series. Hopefully those will be coming soon.)

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Recently, I spent a couple of days on the North Shore of Lake Superior, north of Two Harbors, Minnesota. During my trip, I received hundreds of bug bites, a rodent chewed into my food, my sleeping pad sprang a leak, and the nights were so cold that I couldn’t sleep. In the midst of my misery, after hours of trying to force my way alongside rivers overgrown with weeds and infested with mosquitoes, I caught a trout. In fact, it was the trout featured in the picture at the top of this post. My trout wasn’t puny at all, but it definitely didn’t qualify for lunker status. After admiring it for a short period of time, I slipped it back into the water, and proceeded to catch zero more. And yet, despite my lack of success and despite the trials I endured, that one trout made the whole trip worth it.

You see, I’m crazy about trout. And as anyone who’s crazy about trout knows, there’s nothing like the feeling of catching a trout. The feeling of holding a trout in my hands makes up for any bug bites, lack of sleep, or rodent espionage that I may have to endure to experience it. But, and I’ll be the first to admit it, it’s not a universal human experience. There’s no rational reason that catching trout brings me such great pleasure. And there’s absolutely no obligation on my part to go out and catch trout. In fact, the vast majority of people don’t go out and catch trout because in their arithmetic, one 11 inch trout does not make up for two days of misery.

So, what exactly does trout fishing have to do with God? Trout fishing, dear reader, is an opportunity to re-frame the way that we think about God, because we’ve been taught so often to think of everything God does as necessary and rational. The whole reason that theodicy is so popular is because it allows people to put God under the microscope of “what makes sense.” But what if it doesn’t make sense? To take creation as an example, what if God didn’t create the world because it was “necessary” or “inherent to God’s nature?” What if God created the world simply because it brought Him extraordinary pleasure to do so?

Or, let’s push the metaphor a little bit further: What if God is a trout fisherman and you’re the trout? You’re hiding deep down in the waters of death, scared that everything around you is going to devour you. God could be a stamp collector, and, then, you’d be out of luck. Instead, because God’s a trout fisherman, He endures a cross and death just to chase after you, you sinful trout. And he does it for no reason, other than that He really likes trout. And the immense pleasure of holding one sinful, redeemed person in His arms makes up for it all, because Jesus means it when he says that He rejoices more in one redeemed sinner than a hundred righteous people.

It’s a clunky metaphor at points, I get that. But, it’s also an opportunity to play around and to try and escape the trap of thinking of God as some sort of divine bean counter, who meticulously calculates the necessity of His actions, moves accordingly, and then, once He’s done, expects you to do the same. Maybe God chases sinners, simply because, against all reason, He likes them.

 

 

What Does it Mean to Repent?

Which person among you, who has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, will not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness and go after the one who is lost, until you find it? Luke 15.4

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We have talked about those people who employ God’s love to run away from religion and afterwards smile all the time. But there are others who don’t smile.

There are never many. Jesus gives an illustrative expression in the parable where he talks about the one and the ninety nine.

Listen here, you lonely, fearful, wandering soul: Jesus loves you.

No, he doesn’t love me, you say. He’s mad at me. And rightly so! I have never done anything but sin against him.

Yeah, you’re right. If you look back on what you’ve done, you’ve got no hope. But all those things that you’ve done Jesus took upon himself. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our misdeeds, the punishment lay on him, so that we should have peace.”

That’s how He loves you.

In the same way, he’s worried about you when you run away. He’s been looking for you day and night. Haven’t you heard him calling?

Yes, yes you have. That’s why you’ve become ill at ease. That’s when your sins started to get so heavy.

But what do I do to find my way to God? you ask.

You don’t. And God hasn’t asked you to either. He’s the one who’s been looking for you. And now He’s found you. Now all He asks is that you hold still and He’ll put you on His shoulders and carry you home.

That’s what it means to repent.

Adapted from Hallesby, Ole. Daglig Fornyelse: Andaktsbok for Hjemmet. Translated by Kristofer Coffman. Oslo: Lutherstiftelsens Forlag, 1951, 177.

A Normal Time Burden

It’s now June, and that means that we’ve entered the season of Pentecost, or as they used to call it, Normal Time. It’s a season of the church year that comes about when people have run off to their cabins and other vacations, and so Normal Time gets little press and even less love. So I’ve dreamed up an idea to spice the season up.

I call my idea a “Normal Time Burden.” Think Lenten discipline, but instead of giving something up, take on the burden of reading a book. And not just any book. Read a boring book.

Read a book, not to be entertained, but to learn. Read a book full of obtuse terminology and words that you have to look up. Instead of a free flow of words, slog your way into a strange discipline. Struggle. Slow down. Find a monograph on the classification of mayflies. Read John McPhee’s colossal work of popular geology, Annals of  a Former World.

But why? Why read geology or mayfly taxonomy? How will this improve your standing with God? It won’t. Aside from the fact that reading about mayflies will present you from committing any heinous crimes for a short amount of time, there’s nothing holy about it. And that’s the point.

The idea behind the “Normal Time Burden” is to stop for one moment and not try to “do the right thing” or “be a good person.” That’s it. Just stop and be boring, like a blog post without a picture. It’s Normal Time. Be normal.

 

Mental Post-It Notes

A friend of mine tells the story of his father, who once rolled a tractor into a ditch and severely injured himself. As his father lay in the ditch, waiting for someone to discover his predicament, he comforted himself by reciting psalms that he had memorized. In my work as a pastor-in-training, this story has stuck with me. It’s stuck with me because now, more than ever, people find themselves without a pastor. And I don’t just mean people who don’t go to church. Even devout people find themselves in perilous situations without pastoral care. The causes are diverse. Sometimes its transience, moving to a new community and not being able to find a church home. Other times, it’s pastoral incompetence that leads people to strive with death and the devil all by their lonesome. Whatever the cause, the need has arisen for pastors to equip their congregants, both devout and occasional, with resources for comfort and reflection.

I think of these resources like Post-It notes, stuck in the corners of people’s minds. Mostly ignored, but at crucial junctures, reminding people of things beyond their consciousness. But with my mental Post-It notes come two questions:

First of all, how do I help my parishioners to build their own personal Post-It note stack? At least in the Lutheran church, membership used to come with a ready-made expectation of memorizing the Small Catechism, a treasure trove of resources for fighting the battles of the Christian life. However, in the present day and age, where educators scorn memorization as a relic of the “banking model of learning,” and where information is easily accessible, how can I kindle the desire for memorizing Scripture passages and other resources for the comfort of souls?

Second, tied together with the first question, what should go on those mental Post-It notes? While it’s possible that every member of my church may know John 3:16, can such an over-sentimentalized passage be of use in moments of need? These Post-It notes are not meant to be trite greeting card material; they need to be sharp tools. In other words, they need to pack a punch.

Unfortunately, while I possess the inkling that such work is important, the tools to make it a reality are still lying beyond my grasp.

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With that all in mind, if you wish to start your own mental Post-It note stack, I’ll leave you with my recommendation for the first note to commit to memory. It comes from the prophet Ezekiel 37.13-14: The Lord said, “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

Recommended Reading: Bread From Beggar’s Hands

Dec 17Although I try to post twice a week here, the vagaries of my work schedule and my own distractedness often interfere. At this point, if you’re looking for an everyday devotional, this is not the place. That said, if you’re looking for an everyday devotional, you ought to be reading Bread from Beggar’s Hands, a morning feature over on The First Premise. Written by Donavon Riley, a Lutheran pastor in Webster, Minnesota, Bread from Beggar’s Hands is 500 words of straight up Law and Gospel truth. It’s kind of like the espresso of Lutheran devotionals. I recommend one dose a day with your morning coffee. More than that may make you jittery.

Go Away from me Lord! Hallesby on Luke 5.8

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down on his knees before Jesus and said: Lord, go away from me, for I am a sinful man! – Luke 5.8

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If the Lord will live in a person’s heart, He first must crush it. And the hearts which He will use in His work, He will crush the most thoroughly.

It was not only Peter who recognized the terror in his heart. If the Lord will make us useful, we must be able to see our sin, and seeing sin breeds terror. We must look so deeply at our own heart, our own god-fearing, our own Christian work, such that it becomes our despair. If we shall receive “the wisdom which comes from God,” we must first see our own stupidity.

Therefore, do not become discouraged, my dear co-laborers, when you experience this crushing blow from the Lord. You think that everything is impossible, but nothing is as impossible as you doing something righteous in God’s kingdom.

You think that you are unworthy? Yes, but who is worthy? No one. It is only through grace that we become co-laborers in the Lord’s work. As long as you realize this, it will go well with your labors.

You realize that you’re ill-fitted for the work? Good. As long as you realize it, the Lord can use it. For there is nothing which can make you fitted that you don’t receive from God, and He gives grace to the humble.

No one is so well-suited to win over people as a humble person. A humble person never takes a high position among the believers. A humble person never sows splits and disagreements in the Lord’s flock. And a humble person has an entrance into the heart and conscience of the unconverted that nobody else has.

From Hallesby, Ole. Daglig Fornyelse: Andaktsbok for Hjemmet. Translated by Kristofer Coffman. Oslo: Lutherstiftelsens Forlag, 1951, 104.