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On Dust and Time in Churches: Notre Dame and Holy Week

Thou hast a house on high erect 

Framed by that mighty Architect,

With glory richly furnished, 

Stands permanent though this be fled.

“Verses upon the Burning of our House, 10 July 1666” by Anne Bradstreet.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has burned this Holy Week. The world watched the flickering heat lick and then consume the roof of the eight-hundred-year-old church, then, horrified, witnessed the spire falling. In our secular, postmodern world, why did the sight of flames devouring an old building, particularly a church, move so many? What are we to learn from this?


A view of Notre Dame from the rear, with the Eiffel Tower framed between the two towers. Photo by Colin Schmitt from Pexels.

The historic value of Notre Dame, of course, explains part of our grief. Anyone who cherishes the study of the past and the relics, holy or otherwise, that mark it knows the incalculable worth of a Gothic structure like Notre Dame. Though the cathedral will be rebuilt, no amount of money, however philanthropically gifted, and no amount of architectural purity can replace what has been lost. Preservationists across the globe will be further disheartened to learn that part of the rebuilding will include a design contest rather than a reconstruction of what previously stood. I shudder to think of the result.

But Christians grieve over the loss of Notre Dame for more than its historical design and consequence. More than one commentator has noted the symbolic significance of the burning cathedral, from “The End of Christendom” to “Hope in the Ruins” (to mention just two takes). Those of us who notice the increased secularization of our culture, and the emptying and closing of our churches, know that the fire represents what has been happening to many churches, only the burn and smoke and destruction has more often been slow and subtle than fast and noticeable.

Thibault Camus/AP Photo in Business Insider.

Stratford Caldecott, in his lovely and timeless book Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education""” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener” aria-label=”affiliate link (opens in a new tab)”>affiliate link), writes that

The transcendence of time by eternity, and by Christ as the incarnation of eternity in time, is suggested by the stability and durability of the church. An effective church building is a manifestation of tradition, and tradition is more than just the dead accumulation of custom; it is a living organism that overcomes time and death by a process of continual regeneration and gradual creative development. The church building, if it achieves permanence simply by resisting change and being preserved over centuries, might be no more than a museum or monument. But if it is built to last and is sustained from within by a community of worshippers then its permanence becomes a true reflection of eternity.

Pages 101-102.

Photo by Ashley Elena from Pexels.

Caldecott rightly emphasizes the importance of devout worshippers. Too many of our churches have become merely museums and monuments (or even condos or bars or nightclubs), empty of people confessing Christ. The living organism of a community of faithful believers gathering around His Word and Sacrament has long been tepid or absent at too many Christian churches, even great, old ones like Notre Dame. This is why even Lutherans like me are sad at the news this week. Burning churches bespeak of both lost holy places and lost souls.

Joshua Gibbs noted this ecumenical mourning of Notre Dame in the Circe Institute “The Cedar Room” blog this week. “The loss of Notre Dame, or huge portions of it, stings even the Protestant and Orthodox Christian because cathedrals are physical manifestations that worship is one of the human things,” he wrote. “Cathedrals are silent arguments and wordless syllogisms which make it easier to believe. … Yes, Christianity will go on. No, no one died. Nonetheless, a very old and very good thing which testified to the power of piety and the sanity of beauty has been irreparably marred.” We cannot take for granted either our faith or the witness of our faith through physical materials of wood and stone when we see smoldering ruins, ash and dust that remind of us of Earth’s mortality and our own.

Which brings me to Holy Week. We began this Lent with Ash Wednesday, our somber reflection with King Solomon that from dust we are formed, and to dust we shall return (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). This week we remember how our incarnate Lord, God made flesh, gave and gives His body and blood to us, and how He suffered crucifixion before He died. As we think about the burning of Notre Dame, let us also meditate upon its “Gothic floorplan [which] echoed the form of Christ’s human body on the Cross, and the distance between heaven and earth… in vertical elongation” (Caldecott 104). We must go to our own churches to hear and receive the Truth embodied in Christ, that though time will inevitably take its toll on us, moving us inexorably to the dust, we know that earthly death is not our end because it was not His end. An Architect and His mortal yet immortal Son remain our permanent hope.

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Why We Welcome Babies

How can you say there are too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.

Mother Teresa
Wildflowers on Casper Mountain.

Spring has sprung, and with it will soon come flowers. And flowers make me think of children–mainly, the children God has given to Jon and I.

Next week our baby turns two. We’re shocked about this the way most parents are, that time has turned our helpless, fragile newborn into a thriving, talking, moving toddler. We love her so much. And I find myself wondering a little, too. A few months ago, we expected to soon hold another sweet baby. But another child was not in God’s divine plan for us in 2019. So this is the first time one of our children will turn two and we do not have another baby in utero or a newborn in arms.

That fact all by itself usually provokes a shocked response from people: “Wow.” And it is truly amazing. How blessed I have been by God to have the privilege of bearing, birthing, breastfeeding, and bundling up six babies, and all of them in less than ten years. It’s been a blur at times, that’s absolutely certain–there are periods in there that I don’t quite remember. But these years have also been overwhelmingly good. Jon and I are so grateful for what we have. Our family garden, so to speak, has abundantly multiplied and grown, and like good farmers, we thank the only One who has the ability to create and sustain life. We are merely receivers of His great generosity.

Our kids lined up, cell signal style, in 2017.

With our larger-than-normal family, we get questions sometimes. “Did you always want a big family?” “How do you do it?” and the niggling one that most people wonder: “Are you open to more children?” At least, that’s the tactful way questioners put it. Others phrase it as our cultural is wont to, in terms of choices and personal desires: “Do you want any more children?”

We can answer this with a short response, and we usually do. We say something like, “We’re open to as many as God wants to give us.” Another version we’ve shared is “We’ve left that in God’s hands.” Both of these answers imply our heartfelt feelings, hopefully, that we do, in fact, love children, both our own and the idea of more.

Our answer, and our life, is weird to most people. That’s why we get questions to begin with. Our culture doesn’t understand our family or our perspective on children, because our culture idolizes control and autonomy and definitely–definitely–human ways to avoid children at almost any cost.

Because of this, our short answer isn’t really enough to explain to people where we’re coming from in terms of children. If we had time, we’d sit down and chat for a few hours about God’s gift of fertility. That’s not possible in a grocery store checkout line, but it is possible on a blog! So if you’re curious and want to know the extended version of why we’ve welcomed children so readily into our family, read ahead.

Yellow flowers on Casper Mountain.

The Typical Marriage Start

Jon and I have been blessed with nearly fifteen years of marriage. In the last ten, we have become one of “those” families—one that people smile at in parks, gawk at in stores, and probably run away from in airports and other confined spaces.

But in the first few years, we looked like many young married Americans. We didn’t have kids.

This wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned growing up. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted a big family. The play “Cheaper By the Dozen” and a number of books influenced my thinking, as did my loving, supportive parents who cared for me and my two siblings and made a wonderful home for us. I am also sure that God gave me a natural and good desire for a Godly husband and children during numerous babysitting jobs and summer camp counseling. Before Jon and I met, he, too, hoped God would give him a Godly wife and children—though he didn’t quite visualize a half-dozen children in his future. But on one of our first dates, when I mentioned I’d like six sons, he said, “That’s enough for a basketball team and a sixth man.” And he meant that in a good way! Suffice it to say that I was relieved that I hadn’t scared him off.

But in 2004, Jon and I were influenced by cultural norms, even among many Christians, regarding birth control. In particular, I was pretty sure we weren’t “ready” right away for children. I thought that we needed time to “get used to one another.” I was sure I needed to work at least a little bit to use my expensive undergraduate education and help out with the bills. I was confident of any number of popular ideas about early marriage that circulate, most of which involve materialistic acquisition and experiences, like saving up for a house and all the trappings and traveling. Mostly, I was sure that I should use birth control at least in the beginning of our marriage. I didn’t feel extremely dogmatic about it, but I definitely felt like it was something we should do–because that’s just what people did. And it just made so much sense, given all of my preconceptions going into marriage. Jon agreed with me in this. My gynecologist encouraged me, of course, and the example of countless friends and relatives silently supported it.

So just before we got married, I got a prescription for a birth control patch that I would stick on my skin and change once a month (I never remembered to take vitamins every day, so I figured the patch was my best bet). I immediately started using it.

In those first few months after our wedding, Jon and I didn’t really think much at all about God when it came to preventing conception. Despite both of us being raised in Lutheran churches our entire lives, we had no clear understanding of how God intended marriage, including our marriage, to be blessed by children. We had swallowed the cultural norm, hook, line, and sinker, that while children are great, responsible, educated, married people always plan for them, and they usually don’t have more than two or three, maybe four at the maximum. Those days of thinking of a basketball team and a spare seemed naive and heedless.

But after about six months, I was ready to stop using contraception, and Jon was supportive. I didn’t like the mood swings or the feelings I had when I used it. I didn’t like the discoloration on my skin and the tight stick of the patch. I also think both of us had pricked consciences. We felt like something was missing from our marriage, and I think we’d realized that most of our rationale involving contraception revolved around fear rather than trust—hardly the way to build a Godly marriage. I wish we’d had a thorough theological conversation about it, but we didn’t–not until later. Instead, we simply realized that we wanted to be open to children instead of trying to prevent them. So I stopped using contraception. And a month or so later, I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive.

A Brief Life

Those of you who are parents can understand the joy we felt at learning that new life was growing inside of me. We were thrilled. We were also kind of terrified. I began to feel exhausted and nauseated right away, and while questions about our ability to parent and provide for our child began cropping up in our minds, we were extremely thankful for our child. We told our parents and some close friends, and I bought a little book with flowers on it to record questions I had for my first prenatal appointment.

The only physical reminder I have that our first baby existed. I have used this notebook for prenatal visit notes for all of our children.

Just a few weeks later, we got a chance to really consider how precious God’s gifts are. I began bleeding, and after several doctor visits, ultrasounds, and a hospital run, we were told a blood clot was pressuring our baby’s placenta. Shortly after that, I began cramping intensely, and we knew. On April 26, 2005, our daughter died.

What could we do? Nothing. We could do nothing. Jon felt helpless. I felt like a murderer. Doctors told me that sometimes the mother’s body attacks an in utero child as something foreign. That was bad enough to hear, but some of what I learned also pointed to my recent use of the patch as a likely reason why the blood clot appeared. But regardless of the “why,” we were both overwhelmed with grief, loss, and guilt. We had been so glib, assuming we were in charge and taking life for granted. Both Jon and I, like Peter, could only plead, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

God in Christ gave us comfort during that time. When I was miscarrying in the emergency room, a gentle nurse leaned over me to check my heart rate. A gold necklace around her neck slipped from beneath her uniform and swung just before my face. On it was a crucifix. Seeing that was a lifeline for me. I knew God was with me, despite my pain and anguish, and that He fully understood physical suffering and loss.

Our wonderful pastor arrived soon after that and prayed with us. A few days later, he held a private memorial service for us at church for our child and read Martin Luther’s “Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage.” Both Jon and I were deeply gratified to be reminded that our child had received Christ through me when I had received His body and blood in the Sacrament. God had formed our child, and He had taken care of her. Someday, we will see her again.

The Waiting and Hoping

Months passed. We learned to grieve alone and grieve together. Jon’s seminary studies caused us to move several times, and we prayerfully weighed big decisions involving schooling and housing. And we waited. Several years went by. We no longer used birth control, but God chose to close my womb. I didn’t recognize it at the time, probably willfully, but we were experiencing infertility. Thankfully, our desire for children gave us opportunities to learn.

Those years of wondering and waiting, praying for children, taught us many things about God and His goodness. They were hard. Doctors told us everything was normal, and so we did not pursue any special medical treatment. Every month I wondered if this month, we would be pregnant again. And every month that we weren’t, God will still reassure us of His eternal love and mercy. “Be content with what you have,” His Word reminded us. “I will never leave you nor forsake you… Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” No matter what happened, we knew this was the Truth that would sustain us.

God blessed me with greater insight during that time. I learned not to judge so quickly when I saw married women without children.  I learned to be more patient and trusting of God’s will for me, for my husband, and for our marriage. I especially learned that my worth is not bound to my ability to conceive or bear children. My worth is bound in the blood of Christ, who died for all of my sins. “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16).

God opens His hand and showers us with blessings.

Answering the Question–and Trusting in God’s Provision

So how exactly did our views on family change?

By the time our oldest son arrived in 2008, both Jon and I were so thankful to more deeply understand that he, and every child, is a gift. As the years passed, and God added to our family, we learned through long nights and busy days that He knew exactly what He was doing, even when we didn’t–and we usually didn’t, and we still don’t. By now, we have learned countless more lessons in understanding and receiving children as a gift. God knew, in our case, that we needed to suffer before we began to grasp how precious life really is. We’d heard this countless times in pro-life circles, at church, and in the Bible, but we’d been influenced by our culture into thinking about children as acquisitions, as planned, as ultimately items and objects that we could, and even should, control.

In these full days, when I’m often frazzled, the thought of more children makes me pause. I know I’ve got more than enough to keep me busy right now, and for years. I know what pregnancy is like, and all the risks and dangers involved, especially as I get older. I also know in my marrow that regardless of how exhausted or overwhelmed or frustrated we might get with our brood, we are neither in control of creating life, nor do we want to be. We’ve sailed that ship, and we have no desire to do so again. And I am so reassured to know that my subjective feelings on the subject are moot, because God knows what is best.

From 2017: All these blessings.

So when people ask, “Do you want more kids?” my immediate, heartfelt thought is “Yes, but my wants don’t matter. Only God can give life.”

We also know that what people are really asking is “Will you do anything to prevent the conception of more of your children?” And our answer is an unequivocal “No.” In fact, when people ask us, testing our clairvoyance, “Will you have any more children?” We can say with frank and candid honesty, “We don’t know.” God might bless us with more children. He also might not. Either way, we trust His provision for us, both if He opens His hand to grant new life and how He will provide for that life. He’s got us either way. We are not God, and we do not know the future. But He does, and He knows what is good for us.

(And I’ll be honest: Jon is much more willing and adept at turning the tables on curious questioners. Once or twice, he’s said, straight-faced, “We really like sex, and that’s not ending any time soon.” So be careful what you ask! :))

What Our Children Learn

Awhile back, Jon and I played the board game of Life with our older sons. On their own, the boys both chose to follow the route labeled “Family” rather the route labeled “Life.” And both were extremely excited when they “won” a son or daughter, little blue and pink pegs. “Mom!” our oldest yelled. “I had so many kids, I had to get another car!” He was thrilled at the abundance he’d been given.

The boys’ excitement and genuine joy at having a family, even in a game, was so gratifying to us. Our children are young, and they have so much to learn in terms of the great responsibility God gives to fathers and mothers. But we are so thankful that they are already learning to view children as a priceless gift.

Do I know what God has in store for us regarding family size? No. I also do not know what God has in store for us regarding earthly wealth, health, opportunities–you name it. Not surprisingly, I don’t know exactly what God has in store for us tomorrow. I can guess, but I don’t know. All I know is that He promises to provide for us and care for us, and He is faithful even unto death. I know he will open His hand as He sees fit, and we will receive what He gives.

And this is our hope as individuals, as parents, as a family, and as pro-life, proliferating people: that our children will live out the thankfulness of God’s gracious, giving hand in regards to family, freedom, and faith. We hope that they will be brave enough to live the lives before them, making choices to serve their neighbors near and far, not in the hope that their choices will save them or anyone else, but trusting in Christ, who has promised to hold each of them in His hand–guiding them, blessing them, and taking care of them.

An excellent resource for questions about Lutheranism, problems with contraception, and the blessings of procreation can be found at Lutherans and Procreation.

His mercies never cease.
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Our Weakness His Strength

Women aren’t known for boasting. As a group, we tend to avoid discussing our accomplishments out of fear of looking arrogant, because arrogance doesn’t play well. But before you think this is yet another call for women to trumpet themselves, think again.

Last night, a group of women from our church met to discuss a chapter in Katie Schuermann’s Pew Sisters. Our ages vary, from Millenials to Boomers, and our experiences vary, from exclusive homemakers to part-time volunteers and entrepreneurs to established professionals. All of us who gathered yesterday were moms. Some are in the diaper-and-potty-training stage. Some have tweens. Some are recent empty nesters. Some are grandmothers. One thing we all share, though, is that we are weak.

Women sharing at our Pew Sisters study.

We read about Claire, a young mother suffering from postpartum depression who tenaciously clings to Christ’s promises to her in her baptism. Claire’s cross rendered her weak. And in her weakness, Christ revealed His strength and sustained Claire.

As we read and talked, our conversation touched upon many weaknesses we carry and face. Anxiety. Worry. Depression. Marital woes. Chronic illness. Addiction. Many of us shared traumatic birth stories of ourselves or of our children and grandchildren, as well as ongoing medical challenges some of our family and friends face from terminal illnesses. And it occurred to me that in precisely in baring our weaknesses, Christ’s steadfast love and His bearing of our burdens shone most brightly.

St. Paul famously wrote that Christ’s “grace is sufficient for you, for [His] power is made perfect in weakness.” None of us enjoy weaknesses–the helplessness, the lack of control, the pain, the seeming endless weight of suffering. One of the women said that Christians, though, have the advantage of knowing that God works all things for good for those who love Him, even when we can’t see or understand His ultimate plan. This is a relief, a huge transfer of whatever weaknesses we endure to the back of Him who bore all things for us.

Lent is a time of reflection and penitence, of recognizing anew the terrible cross of sin for the entire world that Christ suffered and slew for us. We don’t have much to boast about, we sinners who constantly taint and mess up our lives and suffer many and myriad consequences of sin in our fallen world. But we can always boast in Him, who promises us His faithfulness and blesses us with Himself. And we can do this together, thank God, around His altar and around His word. Crosses come, but He remains, and His grace saves us. Ultimately, that’s all we need.

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The Truth His Delight

It’s funny how God works through His Word at just the right time to address specific sins and crosses. Take lying, for instance.

Today, the first Sunday in Lent, we heard how the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Of course, any references to the wilderness pique my interest, and I listened closely. I wondered about one of our middle sons, though, who rarely seems to be paying attention in church.

“Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory,” read my husband, the pastor. “And he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'” Our son, eyes wandering and fingers twiddling, leaned over to me at this point and whispered, “That’s dumb. The kingdoms already belonged to Jesus.”

An insight indeed. Not only was I reminded that children often listen when they seem to be doing anything but; I also realized that the devil never, ever stops telling lies. His lies can be compelling and seem to address true needs, like offering bread to a Man who has miraculously gone without food or drink for forty days and who is, in admirable understatement, “hungry.” His lies can also be completely ridiculous, like telling Jesus, the Son of the Father who created all things and thus already possessed them all, that if He just bows down before him, the devil will give Him…what He already had.

The truth is, though, that the devil will continue to lie to us the way he lied to our Savior because we fall prey to his lies. We dumb, selfish, idiotic fools all have something we crave, and when the right words come along, we can believe almost anything, despite how ridiculous it might be. Sunday morning buffet is so delicious, and I’m hungry; I can go to church some other time. The tax man is so swamped and busy; he won’t notice if I fudge a few numbers on my return. My colleague at work is bright and good-looking; I can be close with him, and my husband won’t even notice. And so on.

One of our children has made a habit lately of lying. It’s been a difficult lesson to learn, for him and for us, seeing how lies–all of them–affect others and relationships, and how we understand the truth. It’s been important for him to learn that there are both temporal consequences to lying, like staying in from recess to complete homework he previously claimed he had finished, as well as spiritual consequences. Broken trust is not renewed overnight. Lies told about small things betray, at best, a lack of understanding to the gravity of untruths. At worst, they betray a rejection that lies hurt both the teller and the receiver of the lie. Lies imprison the teller and ostracize the receiver. They are like worms that, if unchecked, can ruin an apple, leaving only rot behind.

In Bible class after service today, we continued studying in the book of Proverbs, including many verses that referred to both fools and the wise, lying and the truth. “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment,” reads Proverbs 12:19. “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but those who plan peace have joy,” exhorts Proverbs 12:20. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are His delight,” goes Proverbs 12:22.

We know, we know, we all say. This is old news to us believers. And then we all slide on that greasy rail down the wide path, telling others and ourselves little white deceptions that show us just how susceptible we are to the Father of Lies. Even when the lies are dumb, we tell them, and hang on.

A lamb to remind us of the Truth that sets us free.

Near the end of Bible class, I noticed a small plastic lamb that our youngest had been playing with. There’s nothing particular about it, except I saw ink scribbles all over it. The scribbles had not been there before the class. After simple questions failed to unearth the truth, some moms had to interrogate the likely scribblers. Blanket denials resulted, until one mom said, “Even if it wasn’t you, but you know something that can reveal the truth, you need to speak up.” Then my son opened his mouth and shared the truth.

As sinners, we lie because we fail to see the big picture, the ultimate good that God desires for us. We lie because in the blink of a moment, we think we will get something good for ourselves, whether it’s bread, kingdoms, or avoiding punishment. In that instant, we are blind to the beauty of the Truth, the only Truth that can set us free from our slavery to sin and lies.

Telling the truth is hard. It can mean hunger, and loneliness, and punishment. But God knows what is best. His Word endures forever, and He wants us to be His forever, too. When the lies come easily, we can cling to Christ, who, emaciated and exhausted, told the devil, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.'” In His weakness, the Lamb who died for us, we have strength, and we can tell the truth, too.

Just an ordinary Reformation Day

People say Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s also true that it wasn’t destroyed in a day, either the city itself which took several centuries to fall, or to the Roman Catholic Church, which still stands but continues to wither, for reasons both long known and recent to us.

I’m thinking of this today, October 31, known to Lutherans as Reformation Day, the day when Martin Luther strode up to the Castle Church doors and nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to them, forever changing Western Christianity. Rome, or the Roman Catholic Church, began to fall that day, petty Protestant triumphalists like to crow. While it was unquestionably an important event in history, Luther’s nailing was actually normal. He’d slapped other papers on the wood before, and so had many others. And he wasn’t the first person–or even the first priest–to criticize the RCC. But that reality isn’t flashy enough for us. “Man Does What Many Others Had Done Before” just doesn’t really sell as a headline. (If you’d like to read a fascinating secular analysis of how Luther and his reforms ended up garnering so much attention, I’d highly recommend Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree.)

Things of great import never happen overnight, much as we like to think they do. Let’s be real: we love the movie-reel squashing of time that erases all the toil and sweat and sheer inching along of tiny efforts that make up Great Imports because we don’t like incremental. We want everything dreamed one second and done the next, mostly because we’re shiftless and loafing and mostly interested in pleasing our stomachs, to paraphrase Luther.

I say all this not to belittle Luther’s contributions to the world. On the contrary. I actually just want to make the point that momentous days have beginnings prior to their happenings. Luther had spent decades studying theology and the Bible, as well as the writings and teachings of church fathers and many other respected pastors and teachers. In fact, through his own well-rounded, classical education, he revolutionized education as we know it. He didn’t just wake up one day with some grand understanding of the Truth. He sought it like silver and like a hidden treasure. (As an aside, that’s probably a good, solid way to sniff out a theological swindle.  If someone wakes up with a revelation after Revelation is over, and said revelations contradict Scripture, well, besides rejecting Scripture, which isn’t good, their insights haven’t been around long enough to percolate under the test of time. A flash-in-the-pan is not a silver strike. And news flash: “because an angel only I could see said so” isn’t valid evidence.)

So what should this teach us? In part, we should learn that, absent a lightening bolt of wisdom sent straight from God (hint: not likely), we should remember that small doses of the Truth, taken repeatedly and often, over long periods of time, reap great faith benefits. We recite the catechism, which comes from a Greek word that means to “sound back and forth.” As an experienced pastor, Luther wrote in his Enchiridion to the Small Catechism about how appalled he was to encounter Christians who didn’t actually know the basics about the faith they professed.

[They say that they were] Christians, [had] been baptized, and [had received] the holy Sacraments, even though they [could not] even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.

If that wasn’t clear enough, Luther went on: “[Those] who are unwilling to learn the catechism should deny Christ and are not Christians.” Ouch.

The freedom of the Gospel means Christians delight in the Law of the Lord, not ignore, revile, or neglect it. Even the well-intended don’t get a pass in his preface to the Large Catechism: “Oh, what mad, senseless fools are we! While we must ever live and dwell among such mighty enemies as the devils, we still despise our weapons and defense, and we are too lazy to look at or think of them!”

So what should we do? Or what does this mean? We should not shun the Word or the Catechism or the Divine Service. We should daily read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these treasures we have. We should bask in the gift of life that we have been given in our baptisms, and continue to be nourished in our small, faltering faiths, not having any illusions about how very small and faltering they are. We know those mustard seeds can move mountains; we must not shirk the gifts that water and feed them. We will not be Martin Luthers, titans of our time and in history, but we hope and pray to maintain the blessed grace we have been given, and never take it for granted–the same lesson Luther sought to cultivate and honor himself, and that led him to restore the Church.

Happy Reformation Day.

Not even apple seeds become trees overnight.

Coming Home

Loved ones looking at a loved home

In July, our family spent two and a half weeks away from home, the longest separation from home we’ve had in many, many years. Driving west through white-bright afternoon sun outside Scottsbluff, Nebraska, under the wide, pale blue sky, we saw a green sign that listed Casper, some 175 miles away. We all cheered. We were coming home.

Ideally, coming home from time away arouses a deep cherishing and gratitude. Years ago, I wrote of this quiet joy of homecoming, of the familiarity and certainty of returning to your place, your life, located geographically and emotionally in the circle of many other lives.

 [On the way,] we stopped in south-central Minnesota at a BP, which happened to be across the road from an implement business. We sat on the curb next to the pump, drinking Mountain Dew Throwback … listening to the quiet roar of traffic on I-90 and the periodic buzz of crickets in the surrounding fields. “You can tell the pace has slowed down already,” [Jon said], and I realized that I was breathing differently–more relaxed, slower. Sitting there, pointing out the occasional car, enjoying the silences that only family togetherness can create, I realized it felt like home, felt like here. We still had a few hours to drive, but it didn’t matter–the rush and bustle of the more metro areas we visited in the last ten days were fading. And I was glad. Really glad.

I think experiencing these kinds of homecomings is important. Despite their nostalgic, gooey emotional fervor, They portend, however dimly, of the great homecoming we await in Christ. As Martin Luther put it, we will go to sleep and awake to the gentle sound of our Savior’s voice and open our eyes to see His face. We will know we have arrived at our final Home–the place and endless time where we will never, ever have to leave Him.

Perhaps an even closer comparison to our final homecoming, then, would be a church homecoming. A short story: I attended a conference five years ago in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and several pastors and I who were driving to the airport together had some extra time to spare before our flights left.  “Do you mind if we visit Zion?” one asked. “I did my fieldwork there.” During seminary study, Sem students are assigned to local congregations to be mentored by those congregations’ ordained and installed clergy, to participate in services by assisting with communion and the like, and generally to get a small taste of a church home. We all agreed to swing by the majestic church. No one was there, but the pastor jumped out and took a selfie anyway.

As we drove toward the airport, several of us realized that we were close to Redeemer, another beautiful church where another pastor with us had done fieldwork. Jon had been placed there, too, and he and I had attended there many times during his last year of seminary, so I was very familiar with it. We pulled into the parking lot and I ran to the back door, expecting no response, but after a moment, Pastor Petersen answered. He’d thought he was hearing things when he heard the bell on that slow July midweek afternoon, but he was thrilled to greet us and show us in.

We walked through the dim hall toward the sanctuary, the only light streaming softly through the stained glass. We paused in the narthex as Pastor Petersen opened the double doors that led down the center aisle of the nave. When he opened them wide, he turned to us and said quietly, “Welcome home.”

In all the years of referring to my church home, truly I had never quite connected the idea of home with church. Yet at that moment, hearing that welcome made sense. I realized that it was a truer description than any of a place where I could claim to rest and to know I belonged, forever.

In my life, I have been blessed to be a member of congregations in Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, and now Wyoming. Jon has been a member of congregations in Wisconsin. We both loved his vicarage year at a congregation in Connecticut. We have visited wonderful congregations in Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Missouri, and many other places. When we have been able to visit churches where we have been members, and even those we have not, we have cherished the common gifts we recognize and receive–the Word and Sacrament. Though our childhood homes have long since passed from our experience, our church homes have not.

Even more importantly, the immortal Truth they share will never pass away. We may be nomads, physically, while as sinners, we always wander away from God. Much of what we know here on earth is rootlessness, the unrest of the wanderers longing for our eternal home. Yet we can rest, in the knowledge that our Savior is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And He desires nothing more than for us to come home.

Coming soon: What happens when our earthly homes, particularly our churches, are broken?

 

 

When Congregations Close

Your Sanctuary will feature thoughts on congregational life, particularly in local churches, but also in our culture and denominations. This is the first post in this section.

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

~ 1 Corinthians 12:24-27

To talk about the church means to talk about death.

The Greek word for church is ecclesia, and while it can refer to a simple assembly as well as the universal Church, in Paul’s epistles it usually means the local congregation. (The stress is on the second syllable; you can listen to it pronounced here). When most of us say “church,” we’re referring to St. Paul’s or Trinity or Redeemer–a particular gathering in a particular place where we hear the Word and receive Christ’s gifts in communion with particular fellow believers. We know the universal ecclesia will always exist until the end of time, but also we know that some individual congregations won’t.

While pastors and their families, and some lay people, have known of the current decline in church attendance generally for years, others are starting to take notice. The Minneapolis Star Tribune published this article earlier this week about yet another Lutheran (ELCA, or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregation that will be closing, this one in La Salle, Minnesota.

Many factors come into play with church closure, but evidence points to some primary causes. First, demographically, churches are emptying. When families don’t have babies, or have only a few, replacements to follow aging congregational members automatically drops. This is a simple statistical truth. For instance, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has seen a 70% decrease in child baptisms since the 1950s. At the same time, it has seen a 47% drop in adult converts. This is not a coincidence, as this 2016 report points out. Second, many churches that are closing exist in areas that have experienced population decline for economic reasons. One pastor’s wife I know in southwest Minnesota said to me last month that in their three county rural area, there are twenty-seven Lutheran churches. “One hundred years ago, enough big farming families lived there to make that work,” she said. “Now, there’s just not the people. All the children of members leave for metro areas to get better jobs.”

There’s other reasons, too. Theologically, many mainline Protestant churches have become much more liberal in their theology in the last decades. The ELCA is one church body whose public confession has drastically changed in the last thirty years. While that kind of theological shift can make it in a few pockets of America, many church members in the Heartland, especially the elderly that are left in the pews, just can’t stomach the lurching from Biblical inerrancy that was still widely accepted a half-century ago to positions like embracing actively homosexual pastors. Beyond the theological inconsistency, once churches start jettisoning or abridging the Scriptures, there’s very little they have left to offer that people can’t find elsewhere. Our hedonistic culture is stuffed full of socially vogue or entertaining–or both–pastimes. And to be fair, more theologically conservative churches have to contend with the same cultural competition and distractions, and doctrinal purity certainly doesn’t guarantee membership stability. So members leave, either to go to more small-o orthodox churches or to quit church altogether for other pursuits. Any way you look at it, people either are leaving these churches or don’t exist to attend in the first place.

We spent ten years in Pipestone County in southwest Minnesota, not too far from La Salle.  What’s happening in La Salle is happening in Pipestone, and it will continue to happen for years and decades to come, the way it’s already happening in Japan and other countries with falling birthrates and rising elderly populations. It’s heartbreaking to witness lifelong members weep over where they will be buried when they’ve been baptized, confirmed, and married in their local church that is closing or will close. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s infuriating, because it shows that for too long, people assumed that their ecclesia would exist forever. Too late, they realized that ignoring patterns of selfishness or mediocre doctrine or shunning teaching and Christ’s gifts to go fishing at the lake or not catechizing their children to repeat what they heard together in the sanctuary would cumulatively result in nonchalance about the church. And nonchalance translates into emptiness. Too late, they realized that Christians should never, ever take the church for granted.

We can do very little to change the trajectory of countless small churches that will close this year and in the years to come. But what we can do is trust that God is faithful, even when pews are empty. We can support our own local churches by attending the Divine Service regularly, participating in Bible studies, volunteering our time and talents for Fellowship or Trustees or whatever needs our hands, giving of our treasure. And we can pray that the Body continues, that we help each other, that we will suffer together, yes, and we will also rejoice and hope together.