Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What's With the Discover Card?

A couple times a week, I'm getting calls from Discover. They're driving me nuts!

We have a zero balance, so they've become stalkers. Yes, yes, I know about the "cash back" program. I also know how easy it would be to fall back into debt. I know the whole script by heart every time they call. I keep asking them to stop calling me, but nothing changes.

I'm tempted to stop answering the phone altogether unless I recognize the number. This is not such a great solution, as I do need to field emergency calls.

But there's no explaining this to the Discover Card people. Maybe I should cut the card up and send it back. Of course, then they'd probably start a new round of stalking, demanding to know why we "broke up" with them, asking for "one more chance," and promising us that they'll "give us more space" next time.

I could just start speaking French and act like I don't understand, or tell them I've just been elected the new president of Afghanistan, or maybe make up a story that I've just lost my job and plan on running up a bill that I can't repay, or some such. I could tell them I have to change phones and just never come back to answer it. I don't want to be mean, but after a while, aren't they kind-of obliged to back off?

Anybody have any good ideas?

The Winners of the June 2009...

... Bible Quiz Award are Bethany and William, for their answer: 1 Esdras 4 (verses 12-32). Right click on the above classy award to take what is rightfully yours, and feel free to show it off proudly. And in a pinch, you might be able to pawn it. Don't drop it, it will chip the floor.

Verbum Dei manet in aeternum!

The Grand, the Glorious, and the Ugly

This year's annual retreat of the Society of Saint Polycarp was held at Holy Hill, a monastery of the Discalced Carmelite order of monks near Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This was my first trip away from the parish in a couple years. We made it a family trip, and instead of flying or driving, chose to ride the iconic City of New Orleans train, which runs from its namesake city out of Union Station near the Superdome all the way to another Union Station in Chicago. From there, we caught the Hiawatha train to Milwaukee. All three of us fit comfortably in a sleeper car with all meals included. This was our first long-distance train ride since our delayed honeymoon in 1994 that took us from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Mobile (then by auto to New Orleans and Biloxi), St. Augustine, Charleston, and back home to Philly.

Of course, this time, we traveled with our four year old boy.

If our trip had been a Clint Eastwood movie, we might have modified the title to The Grand, the Glorious, and the Ugly.

The Grand

We left after Mass at Salem Lutheran Church Sunday, June 14, as some very helpful parishioners took us to the station and saw us off. The plan was to have the Rev. Al Kornacki fill in for me on Wednesday night, and I would be back at Salem's altar and pulpit the following Sunday. That was the plan, anyway.

We went into the Magnolia Lounge for sleeper car passengers, which was basically a small room equipped with a couple tables, a TV, and a coffee pot. We met some of our fellow travelers - including the one-in-every-crowd who announced to me that he "gave up Christianity for Lent." Yuk yuk. From there, we walked a little ways to the train platform, boarded, got on our way, and got settled in.

Our room included a good sized seat that folded out into a bed. There was also a fold-down table and armchair. Over the big seat was a foldout bunk style bed. We also had a small mirror and sink, as well as a (very tiny) closet area and space for washcloths/towels. The room was also equipped with a tiny, but operable, bathroom that included a shower stall. Though our quarters were roughly the same size as our bathroom at home, we were comfy. Leo had his DVD player, I had my computer, and we all had our books.

The bedroom also had a large window that provided phenomenal views of the scenery.

We quickly rolled through the New Orleans cityscape, past the Louis Armstrong airport in Kenner, and suddenly found ourselves in the swamps. We didn't see any alligators, but that is certainly their milieu. We saw plenty of herons and cranes, butterflies and cypress trees. It is a magnificent glimpse into South Louisiana's natural environment.

We walked away from the bayou view from our bedroom over to the more civilized environs of the dining car. There, we were served top-notch meals that included herb-roasted chicken and veal so tender you barely needed to put any pressure on the fork to slice it. It was delicious. Leo was treated to chicken tenders. The City of New Orleans features a dining car that actually resembles a diner - as opposed to our previous Amtrak experience with the white tablecloths and china. It was more casual, but still nice and laden with ambiance. The meal was outstanding and included such desserts as Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Mississippi mud cheese cake, and pecan pie, the latter made with (of course) bourbon. In addition to the dining car, there is an additional seating area in the Cross Country Café.

After indulging in dinner and dessert (part of the time in plain view of the stately Mississippi state capitol building) and following up with a remarkably decent cup of coffee, we headed back to our room.

The terrain in northern Mississippi is very different than Louisiana's swamps. The large agricultural fields were flat, and covered in what appeared to be bean crops. The ride through the Magnolia State is quite bumpy, and there were a few unexplained delays along the way. But we were having a great time. Leo was very well-behaved, and he was thoroughly enjoying the adventure.

Our stewardess was a New Orleanian named Florence. She was always happy to help us out with anything. She and Mrs. Hollywood became buddies along our trip. They said goodbye in proper Nawlins style with a hug and a kiss. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself in this as-of-now northbound Odyssey (with apologies to Steve Goodman and Arlo Guthrie). We did listen to Arlo's version of the anthem to our train on the computer as we rolled "along past houses, farms, and fields." It just seemed like the thing to do.

Our quarters were cold, as the air conditioner mercilessly blasted the marrow of our deep South bones. The controls did not seem to work at all. Florence explained that we were on an older car, and she showed us a trick - stuff towels into the vent. It wasn't the most elegant solution, but it helped tremendously. Grace and Florence worked together to get our bed to fold out (it was a little stubborn). By the time I had fetched the conductor for help, they had it fixed up.

As the evening rolled on, Leo chatted with other passengers and demonstrated proper wrist motions for slinging webs à la Spider Man. We had a coffee pot down the hall and could grab refills whenever.

Finally, it was time to hit the hay. We all managed to fit into the lower bed. It was a tight fit, but not outrageously so. The rocking motion and the white noise of the train put me to sleep rather handily. Mrs. H. had to reposition herself to get comfy.

Breakfast was very early, and limited to a brief window in time. So we had asked Florence for a 5:30 am wake-up knock. This is Mrs. H's normal time to get up back home, as by this time, the feline chorus has already typically dispatched Churchill (the one with the biggest voice) as the envoy petitioning piteously, but firmly, for breakfast.

And on that note, we were very grateful to have Linda Boudreaux as our pet sitter. She is professional, loves animals, and keeps us posted. If you are in the New Orleans area and need pet sitting services, we cannot recommend her enough!

As the sun rose, we got dressed and headed to the dining car for breakfast. The offerings included a Mexicali omelet, French toast, scrambled eggs, and a kind of bread pudding breakfast concoction. We both settled on the omelets, while Lion Boy opted for French toast. Outstanding! The meal also included juice and coffee. Service was excellent.

This is by far a more relaxing alternative to driving, and is certainly better than flying. We could bring two carry-ons apiece (and not the scrawny airline carry-ons either), and this did not include Leo's DVD player, my laptop, or the car seat we brought along for Leo. There was no strip search, no pat-down, no taking off of shoes, no long lines, no surly TSA agents, no worries about toothpaste and shampoo. I was even able to bring my Swiss Army knife onboard. Passengers may bring their own food, and even alcoholic beverages so long as they are consumed in their own sleeper cars. And forget about the airline mentality that a tiny bag of pretzels and a full can of soda somehow constitute top-notch service. This is a much more civilized way to travel that offers a little respite from the post-911 hysteria, not to mention the airline paradigm of being squeezed into a seat with a shoehorn, bombarded with "federal regulations" and phony smiles from people demonstrating how to use a seat belt.

Late morning, we arrived at Chicago's Union Station after being treated to a magnificent view of the skyline. We gathered all our things, said goodbye to Florence and our fellow passengers, and made our way inside. Our train was late, so we had to catch the next train to Milwaukee, which set us back a couple hours.

My typical experience with Chicagoans is that they are unhelpful, dour, impatient, and annoyed to be "bothered" with questions. Sadly, this time was no exception. However, the Chicago waiting area for sleeping car passengers, the Metropolitan Lounge, was magnificent. It was large, filled with comfy chairs, had a computer online for our use, a soda fountain, coffee, and it was possible to avoid the TVs. We were able to stow our luggage in the lounge, and go for a walk.

We strolled around the block, grabbed lunch at a McDonald's, and got back in time to board the Hiawatha to Milwaukee. We had normal coach seats for the hour and a half ride. But we had plenty of room, and were quite comfy. Leo slept the whole way. Upon our arrival, we called the Rev. Tim May to pick us up. This was only the second time Tim and I had met in person. He gave us a ride through Milwaukee over to the monastery.

Our excursion from New Orleans to Milwaukee (obligatory pictures here) was not just good, but grand.

The Glorious

But our experience was only to get gloriously better!

Fr. Tim drove us through Milwaukee to our destination: Holy Hill. The monastery is aptly named, as we zigged and zagged through the wooded country road that climbed higher and higher. The imposing bell towers of the awe-inspiring stone basilica church that came into view signaled that we were getting closer.

Although our retreat formally began at 12:00 noon, it took a while for many of us to arrive. When we got there at about 3:00 pm, most of our crew was there.

Our rooms were the usual small but comfortable accommodations offered at retreat houses. We had access (and exclusive use) of a meeting room (set up with an altar in a recessed window area) in a building a few feet away. Our rooms were also connected to the building that houses the monastery book store. Many of us had not met one another in person. Introductions and handshakes ensued. Some of the men brought their wives and children.

We spent time socializing and becoming familiar with the pleasant, rustic grounds.

Unfortunately, the caterers we had contracted with for meals had apparently skipped town. The new caterers were very nice and accommodating, but were not offering us dinner. So for Monday evening, we headed off to a restaurant close by, the Mineshaft, a vibrant tavern establishment with a large variety of food on the menu, as well as a huge game room upstairs to the pleasure of the children. Dinner afforded yet more opportunity for the men in the SSP and some of the wives in attendance to get to know one another better.

We were all looking forward to the evening's high point - celebration of the Holy Eucharist and the consecration of our lay brother Latif Gaba into the diaconate. Owing to his third shift work schedule, Br. Latif was in his room sleeping while we were all enjoying a fine meal. Some of Br. Latif's family were in town for the service (Latif had previously inquired as to the time of the service in typical Latifian fashion: "I want to let Fatime, and Bedull, and Daut know as soon as I can (my family has such good Lutheran names)."

With dinner ended, we scrambled back to our cars. Mrs. H. and I were a source of myrth to the brethren from the frozen tundra of places like Minnesota - as the early evening temperatures dipping below 70 on the Fahrenheit scale found us shivering. We all headed back to the monastery and met at the meeting room/chapel where the details of the evening's service were all hashed out.

The incense and candles were lit, bulletins distributed, participants vested, procession put into order, and the service was under way. The Pollock boys and Leo Beane helped put incense on the charcoal, and brought the thurible to Br. Latif - who prepared the holy altar. As we began to process, I chanted the first stanza of Veni Creator Spiritus in Latin, and the congregation responded by singing the hymn in English (LSB 499: Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest).

Rev. Fr. David Juhl, SSP carried the century-old altar cross of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church in procession and placed it reverently upon the altar. The order of worship followed the liturgy for the daily low Mass said at St. Stephen's, where Rev. Tim May, SSP serves as pastor, and where Br. Latif Gaba, SSP assists him. On this evening we used a mixture of both Latin and English in the service.

After the confession and absolution (which followed the traditional Confiteor service used both in traditional Masses and in the Compline service common to many American Lutheran hymnals, including LSB p. 254), we went directly to the service of making a deacon - largely drawn from the old Book of Common Prayer.

I officiated during this part of the rite. Candidate Gaba was prostrate on the floor. A lengthy litany ensued in both Latin and English. Br. Latif was asked a series of questions concerning his confession of the faith according to Scripture and as confessed by the ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran symbols. At the appropriate part of the service, I installed Br. Latif into his diaconal office. I imposed the deacon's stole over his shoulder and vested him in his dalmatic. Five years ago next month, it was then-Subdeacon Latif Gaba who assisted the Rev. Douglas Punke at my presbyterial ordination, as my own deacon's stole was reconfigured to be worn in the manner of a presbyter/bishop. I was wearing the same red stole on both solemn occasions.

Following the singing of Holy God, We Praise Thy Name (LSB 940), I served as the evening's preacher.

Afterward, Rev. Fr. Tim May took over and served as the celebrant at Mass. Although the surroundings were humble, the spoken liturgy was full and reverent. Fr. Tim distributed the most holy body of our Lord while Br. Latif administered the chalice to all communicants present as we knelt on the floor.

In honor of our Society' patron saint, we closed with By All Your Saints in Warfare (LSB 517), making use of a heretofore unpublished stanza in honor of St. Polycarp, bishop and martyr:

Praise for our patron Polycarp
Our father in the faith.

Whose life, a fragrant off'ring

Led to a
martyr's death.
May we who wear his mantle

Confess Thy Son our Lord,

In life, in death, in battle,

Word of God our sword.

Of course, there were the obligatory pictures, as well as a late night of fellowship and theological reflection.

The next day (Tuesday) was to be our only full day of retreat.

Those of us not accustomed to fasting for morning daily Mass enjoyed breakfast, while those who were fasting snatched up food for later. We had a great time around the breakfast table as Miss Tina cheerfully took care of all our meals for us - which were all quite good!

Following breakfast, we headed back to the meeting room. We celebrated the Mass (of the Holy Angels), and our "preacher" was St. Basil, who proclaims that the angels give glory to God (thanks to the Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, edited by M.F. Toal), read by our celebrant, Fr. Tim May.

Following the service, Fr. Dave Juhl, SSP gave a remarkable presentation on a most relevant book he had recently read: Towards a Renewed Priesthood by Arthur Middleton, a traditionalist Anglican priest. One could simply strike out the word "Anglican" wherever it appears, substitute "Lutheran," and it could be read as-is by contemporary Lutherans (and not just pastors) all over the United States. Thoughtful and pastoral discussion flowed from Fr. Dave's presentation.

I led us in a brief order of prayer, using Responsive Prayer 1 from LSB (page 282) combined with readings from the Treasury of Daily Prayer. We broke for lunch, followed by free time visiting the outstanding bookstore and touring the manicured grounds - including the 178-step ascent up the bell tower (in may case, with an extra person on my shoulders), which was rewarded by a magnificent panorama of the surroundings. We also toured the basilica church and the St. Therese Chapel.

Later in the afternoon, Fr. Dave continued his presentation on the Middleton book.

We went to dinner at a local restaurant called Alpine Retreat. It was pricey, but Mrs. H. and I shared a meal - which made it a little more bearable. The prime rib was very good. Service could have been better. Perhaps the waitress was a transplant from Chicago.

Upon our return, we closed out the day gloriously as Fr. David led us in singing the Order of Compline.

On Wednesday, we rose for breakfast followed by Mass in commemoration of our Society's patron St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, a disciple of the apostle John. St. Polycarp was martyred around the year 155 AD. Dr. John Stephenson, theology professor at St. Catharines Lutheran Seminary in Canada has called St. Polycarp the most important Christian saint for our times.

Our "preacher" for the service was Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, a portion of whose writing was read by Fr. Tim May, our celebrant. Fr. Cantalamessa is the remarkably evangelical preacher who is the pope's personal chaplain, a post he has held since 1980. Fr. Tim read from Cantalamessa's extraordinary book The Eucharist: Our Sanctification.

Following the service, Fr. Ben Pollock, SSP gave a brief but informative presentation on the monastic theologian St. John Cassian and his writings on the affliction of acedia (despondancy) - which is analogous to what we call depression today.

Br. Latif Gaba, SSP shared with us an advanced copy of his forthcoming published edition of an English-Latin Psalter, making use of the Coverdale English translation and the Clementine edition of the Vulgate for the Latin. The book is in its final revisions and will be available for purchase very soon!

I closed out the presentations with a brief roundup of Society business to consider in the future.

We met one more time for lunch, followed by an Itinerarium prayer service (employing LSB Responsive Prayer 2, page 285) and again employing readings from the Treasury of Daily Prayer. We prayed this final office in front of one of the magnificent outdoor stations of the cross.

Though this was the end of our glorious retreat, our joy was to continue as Grace, Leo, and I were to be houseguests of Deacon Latif for a couple days. Unfortunately, Latif's wife Ruth was out of town at a conference (she is a librarian at Concordia University - Mequon). Br. Latif drove us back to Milwaukee while playing a CD of Lil Rev, a local musician whose recordings often feature the beloved and sainted Fr. Stephen Wiest playing harmonica. He continued on back to his home on the East Side of Milwaukee - a little urban paradise that made us feel right at home. Latif lives just a couple blocks from Alterra Coffeehouse. It is only a slight exaggeration to call this place heavenly. You can watch the beans being roasted and prepared from your table as you sip on coffee that can only be called extraordinary. The aroma is glorious! If the coffee were any fresher, the beans would still be growing in your mouth. The service at Alterra is top-notch, and to paraphrase the opposite of how John F. Kennedy described the inner workings of Washington, DC, combines northern efficiency and southern charm.

This was only one of several coffeehouses we would visit in our short stay in Milwaukee. All of them are distinct and have their own ambiance and character. But they all had a sense of joie-de-vivre, of not only good service, but genuine friendliness.

Milwaukee is a gorgeous city. Our overall impression is that it is clean, has a real culture of physical fitness, is laid-out well, has all the benefits that access to a lake and several rivers has to offer. Unlike the surly and dour chip-on-the-shoulder Chicago culture, we found the Milwaukee spirit to be remarkably similar to that of New Orleans. People often address one another using endearments, such as "sweetie" or "dear" (Louisianians also use these forms of address, as well as the iconic "dawlin'" and "babe").

After our visit to Alterra, we went back to the Gaba home, visited, unwound, and enjoyed Br. Latif's hospitality. We were treated like visiting royalty. It speaks volumes of a man's character as to how he treats guests in his home. We Christians are exhorted to be hospitable - and this is something the Hollywoods are also working on. Thank you, once again, Latif, for bringing us such joy.

Thursday Morning, Br. Latif kindly indulged our need for morning coffee and we swooped by Alterra on our way to St. Stephen's daily 9:00 am Mass. Fr. Tim May and Br. Latif Gaba led the liturgy, a low (spoken) Mass at the more than 100 year old church. It was an edifying way to start the day.

St. Stephen's is take-your-breath-away remarkable! It is gothic with arches and vaults. The altar is similar to Salem's (my parish in Gretna) - made of polished wood with an Agnus Dei motif carved in the front. There is a beautiful statue of our Lord on the raredos. The stained glass windows simply take one's breath away. This is the only Lutheran church I've ever seen that has a window honoring the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This was Br. Latif's first Mass in his home parish serving as a consecrated deacon. We loaned St. Stephen our thurible, and Deacon Gaba knew exactly how to employ incense in the liturgy.

The eloquent and witty Rev. Mike Carter was also present for Divine Service this morning, as he often is at St. Stephen's.

After Mass, we all went out for breakfast at a coffeeshop whose name escapes me. But the coffee and the food were excellent, and our high view of Milwaukee culture was only confirmed.

After breakfast, we all headed to Marquette University. Br. Latif shared with all of us one of the great treasures of his beloved city: the St. Joan of Arc Chapel at Marquette. This extraordinary 15th century chapel (Chapelle de St. Martin de Sayssuel) was moved from near Lyons, France and rebuilt in the U.S. - ending up at Marquette. It includes the stone (recessed in a windowsill) kissed by Joan of Arc, which stood before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are several artifacts on display dating from as far back as the 13th century.

We popped in quickly inside the university chapel, but we unable to look around too much as services were underway. After saying goodbye to Frs. May and Carter, Br. Latif and the Hollywood family headed to a local Catholic bookstore, mainly to find copies of Fr. Cantalamessa's book on the Eucharist (the store had exactly two in stock!). The lady working at the store was remarkably helpful and obviously pious in her faith.

After having a quick lunch at a local sandwich shop, we decided to crash the party at the Concordia Catechetical Academy (CCA) conference that was going on near Milwaukee. The main reason we wanted to drop by was to say "hello" to the Rev. Dr. Burnell Eckardt and the Rev. David Petersen - both of whom serve as editors of Gottesdienst. It is rare that I get to see these men face to face, so we decided to sneak in to a brief Q&A session in order to greet them afterward.

As non-paying guests, we sort-of sneaked in and took seats in the back. However, Frs. Petersen and Eckardt spotted us, pointed us out from the platform, and every head in the place was soon turned around to look at us. All I could do was offer a sheepish wave. So much for my career as a party crasher. I was never much good at that kind of thing.

After the panel discussion, I greeted the two men, and I was in turn greeted by several gracious folks who actually read Father Hollywood. And Dr. Bender didn't even scold me for dropping in uninvited! Br. Latif purchased a couple of CDs for me as a gift - two talks given at the CCA by his pastor, the aforementioned bluesman and professor, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Wiest.

We had good intentions of returning later in the day to greet the Gottesdienst editors for more fraternal discussion, but that just didn't work out. We are considering attending the CCA conference next year, however. Upon returning to Milwaukee, Latif gave us a tour of Brady Street, and we ate Greek food at the Apollo Cafe. Tasty and delightful!

We dropped in to the local Wallgreen's to get some supplies. Br. Latif bought some M&Ms. As we were paying, the older lady running the cash register had to ask him if he wanted to purchase additional M&Ms in the smaller sized package (it was a promotion the store was running). She explained that she had to ask the question, or she would have been compelled to give the candies away free. She was kind of miffed at this. She whispered to me (clad in my clerical collar): "What the h__ is with that b__s__?" Immediately thereafter, she took hold of my crucifix for a closer look and said: "Nice cross, dear." It was a wonderful "conversation" that made me smile. The exchange made me feel right at home, as folks in New Orleans are also likely to employ such an endearing mixture of mild profanity and affectionate familiarity toward the clergy.

We walked near the lake, and were treated to wonderful views of the cityscape - against a cloudless sky. We returned to the Gaba home and adjourned the day's festivities with ice cream.

On Friday, we began our day with the now-familiar routine: Alterra and Mass at St. Stephen's. At my request, the Mass was offered this time in Latin (which is actually the custom on Monday mornings at St. Stephen's). I snuck a few pictures (without flash) during the service. Afterward, I took a good many photos of the church. Again, the attendees were the deacon and celebrant, the Hollywood family, and Rev. Mick Carter. This was the first time I ever attended a Lutheran Latin Mass. Latin is an extraordinarily beautiful tongue, and I thoroughly recommend its study by all and sundry.

Afterward, we all headed over the the Central Market (I think I have the name right) for coffee and breakfast. The food and the company were delightful. We then all headed on a little pilgrimmage to Stemper's, a church supply house headquartered in Milwaukee. We spent a good bit of time browsing and buying a little bit here and there. Fr. May bought for St. Stephen's a used thurible of the exaclt same type we brought with us for use at our retreat. The owner of the store was very helpful, and seemed genuinely happy to have us browsing in his shop. We then headed to McDonald's for a bite, and proceeded to St. Josaphat's Basilica. To describe this magnificent church as "breathtaking" and "stunning" is an epic understatement. It is simply glorious.

After a brief visit to the basilica bookstore, we bid one last goodbye to Tim and Michael.

Latif continued our magnificent tour by leading us walking downtown by the river. After a brief visit to Border's (as a reward to Leo, who was remarkably well-behaved, especially considering how many churches, services, bookstores, and time with only adults we subjected him to), and after Br. Latif bought Leo a gift from the store, we then stopped at yet another coffeehouse: Mocha's.

With our time winding down, we took a nice stroll along the lakefront by the Discovery World. We got a few more pictures, stretched our legs one last time, and then prepared to head over the the train station.

Br. Latif accompanied us to the train station, hanging out with us until it was time to board. I snapped a nice shot of Leo giving Uncle Latif a hug. He has always loved his "uncle" and several times described Latif as "silly" or "crazy." It was indeed a glorious time (obligatory pictures here).

But now, it was time to board the Hiawatha for the last part of our adventure - which was destined to become a little ugly.

The Ugly

Things started out fine on the Hiawatha returning to Chicago. However, the weather turned ugly, signals were out, and the train was creeping along at times less than 20 mph. At first, the conductor assured us that no connections would be missed, though it was going to be tight. However, as time went on, his optimism waned, and he began to warn us about what to do in the case of missed connections.

At this point, a little background is in order. The Hiawatha arrives in Chicago only 45 minutes before the City of New Orleans departs. When we first booked our trip, I asked if we should take an earlier train from Milwaukee on our return - since the City of New Orleans only runs once a day. In other words, if we miss the connection, we're looking at a 24 hour wait (as well as missing Sunday's service). I was told not to worry about it. The Hiawatha to the City of New Orleans is a guaranteed connection, and if the Hiawatha were running behind, the City of New Orleans would be held.

I should have listened to the little voice in my head instead of the Amtrak clerk.

Anyway, it became apparent that we would not be in Chicago in time to make our connection. I called Amtrak on my cell, explained the situation, and was assured that the City of New Orleans would be held for us. However, a lady sitting near us was getting different information.

This was a cause for concern.

I called Amtrak back, explained this discrepancy, and asked for clarification. I was on hold 15 minutes, just long enoughh for the clerk to return and inform me that the City of New Orleans had left without us.

This was indeed getting ugly.

We arrived 27 minutes after the train left, headed through Union Station, found the office labeled "passenger relations" and asked what our options were. Being in Chicago, we were not only treated to rudeness and indifference, but an amusement and antagonism at our situation.

The conversation took on a Catch-22 feel when Mrs. Hollywood offered: "A guaranteed connection means the connection is guaranteed," to which the clerk replied (no joke, this is the exact exchange): "No, that's not what it means."

The clerk called the station manager, who scolded us for not allowing enough time to make our connection. When we explained the situation, both ladies looked at us skeptically and made snide remarks. It was surreal, and yet so typical of my past experiences with "Chicagoland." New Yorkers are downright compassionate by comparison.

There was no way to get back in time via Greyhound. I was unable to rent a car one way. We were stuck. They put us up in a hotel - a very nice hotel - but we were so steamed that we could not enjoy it in the least.

Another lady was in a similar situation. She was supposed to meet her children, and was concerned about not being able to travel with them. The station manager basically scolded her for being concerned about her children. Nice.

The next day, we took a cab back to Union Station, established ourselves back at the Metropolitan Lounge before swapping out our tickets. Of course, there was no sleeper car available for us - so we were going to be riding 19 hours in coach with a four year old. We accepted our fate and spent all day in the lounge. We read, Leo watched DVDs, and I even managed to watch Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino on my laptop.

Of course, before I could do anything relaxing, I had to find out what to do with my congregation, as I was going to miss Sunday morning services. I called Pr. Kornacki - knowing he was booked. He suggested I call another area pastor who is at this time without a call, Rev. Warren Schulingkamp, who lives in Baton Rouge. I was not optimistic, as this was extremely short notice and on Father's Day to boot. But Pr. Schulingkamp was the anwer to our prayers! He agreed to fill in for me. I e-mailed him all the information he needed, and at least that was settled. Thanks a billion, Warren!

The ugliness of the situation was beginning to dissipate.

Finally, we boarded the train at about 7:30 pm, dragging our baggage to coach. We settled in, and realized that there was no place to plug in Leo's DVD player. Mrs. H. frantically looked for electrical outlets, only finding one seat per car so equipped. All of those seats were taken. This was going to be a long trip for a four-year old.

Just then, a mother and four children hurried onto the train, and took up seats right in front of us. She had also come from Milwaukee, and was running late. She was concerned that she would miss the train, but had just made it. We started to roll, but then backed up, and sat there for more than a half hour. Had this delay been the previous day, we might have been home by this time.

As it turns out, the family in front of us were practically our neighbors, fellow Westbankers. They were from Harvey - the next town over from Gretna. We were like long lost pals. It was so good to be "among our own kind" again. We were soon hanging out like family. Some folks up north might have been shocked that these people whom we consider "our own kind" were black. In spite of the stereotypes and decades of a diet of self-righteous fiction designed to convince northerners of their moral superiority, the reality is that black and white Southerners (especially in Louisiana) feel more at home with each other than with those of our own race from somewhere else.

Leo was soon sitting with the other family and playing with the children. This went on for hours. He had so much fun that the issue of the DVD player never came up. Our neighbor was traveling with daughters aged 13, 9 and an infant, as well as a 3-year old boy. They were all very well behaved, polite, and easy to travel with. Even the baby was quiet. We were all looking forward to getting back home.

A young guy behind us joined the conversation, and seconded all of our impressions about the cultural differences between the regions. Needless to say, he was also greatly looking forward to getting back home. He had just bought a house in the Garden District.

Armed with our letter from the manager entitling us to our meals, we headed to the dining car. The manager stopped us before we could get to the diner car. We explained the situation and showed him our letter. He looked at it skeptically, and initially refused to honor it. Here we go again... I pressed the issue, and he agreed to give us one meal, but he said he needed to keep the letter. I asked for it back, showed him where we were entitled to all three meals. He agreed to give us two meals. Mrs. H. was beginning to turn colors. Fortunately, our waiter assured us he would take care of us, and told us not to worry.

And he sure did take care of us!

He escorted us to our table for each meal, and made sure we had all the courses. Can you guess that he was not from Chicago? He was indeed from South Louisiana.

The only difficult part of the return trip was sleeping. Grace and Leo were on one pair of seats together, and I on one by myself. It was a long night for Grace, though Leo can pretty much sleep anywhere and in any position. Maybe we should have laid him out on a luggage rack or something. As for me, I had trouble getting comfy. I was cold. I was to discover another advantge of the cassock. I unbuttoned it all the way, and, voila, a train blanket. I was having trouble settling my mind, so I put on some headphones and listened to Who's Next. The last song I rememeber before drifting off was Bargain, as my brain was racing to make Christological interpretations of the lyrics. I was sound asleep for the rest of the album - as well as those that followed it on my MP3 player. I remember hearing The Who in my dreams.

Later, I did awake, and changed over to Pink Floyd's The Wall. The tune Comfortably Numb always knocks me out. I fell back asleep until sunrise.

In the morning, we awoke, got dressed, and headed to the diner car for breakfast. The worst of the trip was over. There was to be no more ugly from this point on. We had a lovely breakfast, and having been sufficiently caffinated, returned to our seats.

The closer we got to home, the better our mood became. Leo continued to play with his friends. Another three year old boy appeared on the train, and began to make visits to us. We watched the scenery as we ambled through Mississippi. We enjoyed one last lunch onboard, chatted with the staff (who were interested in the details of our Odyssey), and we went back to our seats one more time.

We rolled once more through the swamps, with the cypresses and Spanish moss seeming to wave "hello" to us, cheering us on home. The last part of the trip was agonizingly long, as we rumbled slowly past the airport and into New Orleans. But we got there safe and sound.

Our parishioners were there to pick us up, take us home, and hang out with us a little while. Boy, we were happy to see them! Our feline friends were obviously well cared for in our absence, but were nonetheless excited to have us back home. Linda had left a detailed log for our perusal, complete with humorous observations of each of our critters, notes that made it very clear she actually spent time with them.


Our grand and glorious trip was only slightly ugly. We cannot recommend train travel enough - especially with a sleeper car. It was a truly pleasurable and civilized way to travel. Just allow lots of time for connections! And get everything in writing. Avoid Chicago wherever possible (the Metropolitan Lounge, excepted). We also recommend a visit to Holy Hill. Plans are already underway for next year's retreat to be held at the same place. We also commend to FH readers the City of Milwaukee. It is a beautiful city, not simply because of its vistas and buildings, but also because of its culture and its people.

We want to thank Br. Latif again for his fine hospitality and for sharing with us the treasures of his city.

It was also a great joy to meet some of the men in the SSP for the first time. Our retreat was spiritually edifying and a great encouragement to both Grace and myself in our sojourn as Christian pilgrims on this side of the grave.

We did see some of the iconic sights from the anthem The City of New Orleans: such as the train pulling "out of Kankakee, the "houses farms and fields," the "trains that have no names" and the "graveyards of the rusted automobiles." We did indeed "feel the wheels rumblin' neath the floor" just like "magic carpets made of steel." There were really "mothers with their babes asleep," that were "rockin' to the gentle beat" and "the rhythm of the rails." We changed "cars in Memphis Tennessee" and rolled "down to the sea."

It was indeed an "Odyssey."

And the whole point of an Odyssey is to be happy to be home. We love our parish, our parishioners, our house, and our beloved city and region. It was good to sleep in our own bed, surrounded by our critters. Even the Lousiana summer heat was a welcome homecoming.

To answer the question raised in song, we do "know what it means to miss New Orleans."

The next day after our return, we went to Sam's Club. We were having so much fun, we didn't realize the store had been closed for 15 minutes. A clerk told us, and we apologized profusely, half-expecting a Chicago-style scolding. It never came. Instead, she joked with us. When we got to the cash register, we also apologized to the clerk working the register. We explained that we were new Sam's Club members and didn't know the hours. Her response was: "You're new? Well, welcome to Sam's Club!"

Yes, indeed, it's good to be back home!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Tempus Fugit

It's a funny thing how music triggers memories.

We were standing in the check-out line at the Winn-Dixie today, and this Van Halen song came on the sound system in the store. It was from their 1986 album called 5150. The eighties are now considered "the oldies", and what was once cutting edge heavy metal for the wild and crazy young is now grocery music for middle aged shoppers browsing the produce section.

But it made me think about that particular time in my life - though I was specifically pondering a couple years before that particular song.

The summer of 1984 was exactly 25 years ago. Where does the time go? That was a wonderful year. I was 20 years old, still living at home. My dad was about to turn 45 that fall, the same age that I am now. My mother (who went on to her eternal glory only a decade later) was a vibrant 38 years old at the time, and had not yet been diagnosed with MS. My brother was 13 and also at home. We were a close family. My dad and I used to take excursions together in those days, usually camping in the hill country of our ancestral West Virginia to do genealogical research - though we also went on other adventures, such as a van trip to DC and a motorcycle odyssey to Arkansas and Oklahoma. We did ham radio together, watched the Cleveland Browns on TV (we did actually attend a couple playoff games in the mid eighties at the now-nonexistent old Municipal Stadium on the Lakefront), and rode our Suzukis like there was no tomorrow.

In 1984, I was a carefree college student at the University of Akron and had a great part-time job as a clerk in the Sears Parts store. I was good at my job, and I liked being a student - though admittedly, I would sometimes blow off my classes to hit the campus library in order to read theology. I could run like the wind, and weighed about 130 pounds dripping wet.

I had been a Lutheran for two years, and by this time, I was helping teach confirmation students - who were only seven or eight years younger than I was.

My friends were all really good kids. We played a lot of basketball, went to concerts, made group outings to various parks to picnic and to toss around frisbees, bowled, went to the movies (those were still the days of the drive-in theater), played video games, ate a lot of pizza, worked out at the Natatorium, played miniature golf (and a little par-3 as well), and enjoyed just driving around together drinking Coke and Dr. Pepper while listening to WMMS 101 ("Home of the Buzzard") or to cassette tapes (CDs were as yet unheard of). All in all, pretty tame stuff back in those days.

We did get a little wilder when we started going to nightclubs in Akron and Kent a few years later - but even then we watched out for one another and nobody got involved in fights or arrested or anything like that. We just hung out and enjoyed the music scene. My friends and I would later befriend the members of a popular local heavy metal cover band (U.S. Metal) and they would often let us hop up on stage with them to "help" them out. One of the singers later went on to replace Rob Halford as Judas Priest's front man.

This was the era of big hair, parachute pants, jeans and black concert shirts, bandannas, and (for some reason) crucifixes. The pectoral cross I wear today as a pastor (which was ceremonially presented to me at my ordination) dates from this time. I actually used to wear it while playing basketball at the park - which in retrospect, doesn't seem like such a bright idea. It's a wonder no-one lost an eye.

For some reason, my buddies all had Firebirds. One of them had a magnificent stark-white Formula (I believe it was a 1979) with baby-blue interior and a tiny racing-style steering wheel. He kept the car immaculately waxed and polished. We teased him that he never went faster than 20 mph so he could show off his chrome wheels. I, on the other hand, was stuck with a sensible beige 1982 Ford Escort with a stick shift. There is simply no way for that car to be cool - especially when arrayed with the Firebirds. I don't think it even had air conditioning. But my prize ride was my aforementioned Suzuki GS850L - with a Windjammer fairing complete with sound system (and yes, I did listen to Van Halen and other hard rock and heavy metal bands while I cruised). That was one heckuva machine (my dad had the same bike, though I think his was a 1980 and mine was an '81 - or vice versa). The Suzuki 850 had mag wheels instead of spokes, and a drive shaft instead of a chain - features which were not all that common in those days. We had really cool Nava helmets, leather jackets, and trunks mounted on the back. We both had highway pegs and primitive "cruise control" so we could stretch out our legs and get comfy on those long rides.

My dad and I were pretty crazy when it came to our bikes. When it got cold (this was northern Ohio, after all), we donned snowmobile suits, gloves, and boots, and we just kept right on riding. If there was no ice or snow, it was a pretty good bet that we were on our motorcycles.

And maybe time has a way of sanitizing our memories, but it did seem to be a simpler, more innocent era.

Not long after that time, we all grew up. Eventually, my friends and I all left behind our part time jobs, graduated from college, left the Firebirds and Suzukis behind, got married, bought houses, and had children. At least most of us grew up. My dad, who turns 70 this year, still rides. He now has a very cool little mother-of-pearl colored Yamaha 250 Virago Route 66 (pictured below). Spiffy!

Me, I drive a dirty-white Toyota minivan and listen to Van Halen on the speakers at the Winn-Dixie.

Oldest Image of St. Paul (so far) Discovered

Here's the story, just in time for today's Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sermon: Trinity 3 & St. Irenaeus

28 June 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 15:1-10 (Mic 7:18-20, 1 Pet 5:6-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Like most of us, St. Irenaeus was born into a Christian home and raised in the Christian faith. But unlike most of us, he lived in times when confessing that Christian faith was a great risk to one’s very life.

The pastor he grew up with, St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was executed by the Romans when Irenaeus was between 30 and 40 years old. Irenaeus went into the priestly ministry himself, and preached as a missionary to the French people at Lyons. Two decades after Polycarp was martyred, Irenaeus’s bishop was also put to death. And in 177 AD, Irenaeus was himself made the Bishop of Lyons.

In such perilous times, the world would have advised Bishop Irenaeus to lay low, keep his head down, stay quiet, and don’t make waves. And that advice would have suited the devil just fine. For Satan is indeed our adversary “who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” St. Peter exhorts us not to shy away from battling the devil, but rather “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”

St. Irenaeus understood this suffering, not from history books, but from life experience. For not only did his predecessor as Bishop of Lyons and his childhood pastor die as martyrs, St. Peter himself, who warns us about the suffering of our Christian brotherhood, was also put to death, crucified, as was the Author and Perfecter of our faith Himself.

One of the ways the devil constantly attacks the Church is by attacking the Church’s doctrine. For the Church teaches us what God has revealed to us in Holy Scripture: the Good News that he loves us, sent his only begotten Son into the flesh to die for us, to save us, to forgive sin, defeat death, slay the diabolical lion, and bring us to everlasting life. Like Jesus, we say: “It is written…”

To this, the devil replies: “Did God really say…?” For Satan wants to destroy the doctrine of Scripture. And this is why Satan sought to destroy the faith upheld by Irenaeus, why Satan killed the earlier Bishop of Lyons, why the devil extinguished the life of holy St. Polycarp, why the evil one brought Peter to the cross, and why the serpent of the garden of Eden sought to bruise the heel of our Lord Himself – though in the process, had his own head mortally crushed.

Christianity is not for hobbyists, for dabblers, or for those with nothing better to do on Sunday morning. There is nothing cute or lighthearted about the faith we confess, the faith that opened the veins of the martyrs. The devil could care less if we were here to be entertained or to hear funny stories. Rather the devil wants to distort and destroy our faith.

For our faith is a mystery that connects us to God and to His work in recreating us, reforming us to be recast as perfect beings, destined to live forever. The Christian faith is the very epic struggle between God against those rebellious creatures who seek to undermine His work. It is a war with very real, physical casualties.

And though St. Irenaeus understood this, and though he risked everything to teach the pure doctrine of the Church - his own life was spared. The Bishop of Lyons lived a full lifetime combating the devil, preaching the Gospel, serving the Lord Jesus Christ, writing on, and defending, the faith, administering the sacraments, ordaining other men into the Holy Ministry, and turning back the crafts and assaults of the devil one battle at a time.

In our Lord’s parable, the faithful shepherd will go after a lost sheep – even if it means temporarily leaving his other 99 for a while. The shepherd is expected to wander into the lion’s territory, to risk his own life for the sake of the errant sheep. Not every shepherd comes back alive. And yet, unlike hirelings and slackers, the faithful shepherd is in the business of calling those who wander back to repentance.

The shepherd does not rejoice in the size of his flock, in how respected he is by other shepherds or by his own sheep, or by the quality of the sheep-pen or his own possessions. Rather, the cause of his rejoicing is in repentance. For as the Good Shepherd Himself teaches us: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”

The same doctrine shines forth from our Lord’s next parable: the Lost Coin. The woman doesn’t rejoice because the silver coin is worth all that much in the eyes of the world, but rather because it was lost, and now is found.

St. Irenaeus was a profound theologian, whose books are still studied in seminaries. There are many doctoral dissertations yet to be written based on the theological works of Irenaeus. And yet, Bishop Irenaeus did not rejoice in being right, in being published, in being famous, but in preserving the true doctrine of the Church for the sake of souls. The real theologian is a pastor, a shepherd, one who seeks out the lost and calls him to repentance.

In Irenaeus’s day, as in our day, there were scoffers and deniers of our Lord. There were those who sought to diminish our Lord’s humanity. There were those who claimed to have some kind of secret knowledge apart from the Scriptures. There were those who claimed to teach the true faith apart from the bishops of the Church Catholic.

St. Irenaeus preserved the true faith against all of these assaults. He defended the virginity of the Virgin Mary. He confessed the real physical incarnation of our Lord. He argued for the truth of the Bible. And he appealed to the authority of the Church based on an apostolic chain of authority through the ordination of pastors by previously ordained pastors.

And while we are not saved by holding to correct doctrine, holding to false doctrine can condemn us to hell. The Church of every generation depends on theologians and writers, men who are not only thinkers, but confessors; men who are not only teachers, but believers – to preserve the faith once delivered to the saints and passed on to us.

But most of all, we Christians of every generation need faithful shepherds, proclaimers of the Good News, men who will call us to repent, teachers of the mysteries and revelations of God, pastors who remind us that our God is “pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression.” We need theologians and doctors of the Church not merely to hash out esoteric theology, but to clearly teach the Good News that “He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us, He will tread our iniquities underfoot…. [and] cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Christians all around the world honor St. Irenaeus not for his own greatness, but for the greatness of Christ that Irenaeus preached, taught, confessed, and lived – even at the risk of life and limb. St. Irenaeus knew what was important in this life: calling wandering sheep to repentance and protecting those sheep from the wiles of the devil, whose false teachings denied the Lord Jesus and sought to undermine the majesty of the Most Holy Trinity.

We rejoice over the fellowship we continue to enjoy with St. Irenaeus, who today praises God to His very face, because we rejoice with heaven itself and before the very angels of God that the pure doctrine of the Gospel, through which sinners repent and are saved, has been preserved by the Holy Spirit through the work and ministry of St. Irenaeus, and has been victorious over every manner of persecution, through every attempt by Satan to devour it, and in spite of our own modern indifference to it.

And even if we are called to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, we have this promise of God:

“After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Is This a Joke?

Luther bobblehead sold separately

This just in from Synod...

In honor of our DCEs

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the office of Director of Christian Education, which was established by the Synod in convention on June 26, 1959. I am therefore proclaiming June 26, 2009 to be "National LCMS Director of Christian Education Day" in the LCMS. For the full text of my proclamation, please click here.

So much for sola scriptura. According to 1 Tim 3:2, who is the Director of Christian Education in the congregation, anyway?

Was there a synodical proclamation in honor of St. John the Baptist's nativity (June 24) or the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession (June 25)? The Missouri Synod is becoming Initech. I just can't wait for other inevitable LCMS ecclesiastical feast days, such as Aluminum Foil Appreciation Week and the Commemoration of the Invention of the Popeel Pocket Fisherman.

And some people claim the reason people leave the Missouri Synod is that such people have turned their backs on the doctrine of justification. Yeah. Right.

Lord have mercy! In times like these, I like to pray LSB hymn 666 (perhaps the only hymn in the hymnal that uses the word "joke"). In spite of appearances to the contrary, the Church Catholic in its fullness can indeed be found in parishes of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

We can take great comfort in 2 Cor 5:7. Deo gratias!

Bible Quiz

The following amusing take on womanhood comes from a biblical account of an oratory contest. Whoever can give the book and chapter first will get an internet award. I don't have the award yet, but I guarantee it will be worth every penny paid for it.

Anyway, here is the text according to the English Standard Version (ESV):
"Gentlemen, is not the king great, and are not men many, and is not wine strong? Who then is their master, or who is their lord? Is it not women? Women gave birth to the king and to every people that rules over sea and land. From women they came; and women brought up the very men who plant the vineyards from which comes wine. Women make men's clothes; they bring men glory; men cannot exist without women. If men gather gold and silver or any other beautiful thing and then see a woman lovely in appearance and beauty, they let all those things go and gape at her and with open mouths stare at her, and all prefer her to gold or silver or any other beautiful thing. A man leaves his own father, who brought him up, and his own country and holds fast to his wife. With his wife he ends his days, with no thought of his father or his mother or his country. Hence you must realize that women rule over you!

"Do you not labor and toil and bring everything and give it to women? A man takes his sword and goes out to travel and rob and steal and to sail the sea and rivers; he faces lions, and he walks in darkness, and when he steals and robs and plunders, he brings it back to the woman he loves. A man loves his wife more than his father or his mother. Many men have lost their minds because of women and have become slaves because of them. Many have perished or stumbled or sinned, because of women. And now do you not believe me?

"Is not the king great in his power? Do not all lands fear to touch him? Yet I have seen him with Apame, the king's concubine, the daughter of the illustrious Bartacus; she would sit at the king's right hand and take the crown from the king's head and put it on her own and slap the king with her left hand. At this the king would gaze at her with mouth agape. If she smiles at him, he laughs; if she loses her temper with him, he flatters her, that she may be reconciled to him. Gentlemen, why are not women strong, since they do such things?"

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Faith Lost, Faith Restored

The movie The Exorcist caused quite a stir when it was released in 1973. Unfortunately, most of the attention went to the over-the-top special effects and horror-movie camp instead of the very good story that the movie tells.

The movie was based on the William Peter Blatty novel of the same name, and is based on a true story (see here and here) - though the details were changed considerably. In the real life case from 1949, the family lived in St. Louis and were Lutherans. The demon-possessed child was a boy rather than a girl, and the family first sought help from their pastor before being sent to the Roman Catholic Church.

The novel/movie is not primarily about the possessed child. It is rather a story about a priest who has lost his faith: Fr. Karras, the younger of the two exorcists. The elder priest, Fr. Merrin, was played brilliantly by Swedish actor Max von Sydow.

In 2004, a prequel to The Exorcist was released. Actually, two versions of the same film with the same actors were released: Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005). It seems there were artistic differences as to how the movie should look. At this point, I'm not sure which version I actually saw, but I thought the story was well-done. Like the original Exorcist film, this movie is about losing faith, and regaining faith.

The main character is Fr. Merrin as a young man - played by the extraordinary Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård - who looks very much the part of a younger Max von Sydow. The movie opens with a battle-scarred Father Merrin, who served in World War II, losing his faith after experiencing the horrors of war. He leaves the priesthood to become an archaeologist. The first clip below is a scene near the beginning in which Merrin is being recruited in a dingy bar in Cairo by a mysterious man for a project to excavate a newly-discovered site of an ancient Christian church. He is greeted by a younger cleric who greets him warmly as "Father" - to which Merrin replies curtly: "It's Mister Merrin."

As in the Exorcist film, the priest's wavering faith is restored by experiencing the very real battle between good and evil, between the forces of the Triune God and the forces of the devil.

The end of the film (below) is a fitting bookend to the beginning of the movie - in which the changed Merrin, this time in an open-air cafe in Rome, meets the same mysterious character he met early in the film - who says: "Au revoir, Mr. Merrin." The collared Merrin corrects him curtly: "It's Father Merrin."

It is a shame that the good storytelling and the very real battle between good and evil has been overshadowed by the Hollywood sensationalism. It calls to mind C.S. Lewis's observation from the preface to The Screwtape Letters that the two errors we make about Satan are thinking too much of him and thinking too little of him.

Ultimately, Satan's goal is to rob us of our faith: laypeople and clergy. In spite of the largely ignored recurring themes of faith lost and faith restored, these are actually quite good, and inspiring, works of fiction in which God triumphs over Satan, Christ triumphs over sin, the Church is victorious over darkness, and the faith is preserved in the Lord's servants.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sermon: Nativity of John the Baptist

24 June 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 1:57-80

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Some children are just destined for greatness.

This was the case with John the son of Zechariah. No doubt, when the elderly Elizabeth was released from the shame of barrenness, holding her eight-day old son; and when the elderly priest Zechariah – who had been struck with the inability to speak – prepared to receive his child into the people of God through circumcision – they must have been one proud couple.

John was a miracle baby. His nativity was the stuff of angels and signs and wonders. He even leapt in the womb in the presence of his cousin Jesus, who was Himself inside the womb of His virgin mother.

God was certainly up to something.

But on this day, the day of a ritual circumcision of an eight-day old child of Abraham, nobody knew what was to come to pass. “What then will this child be?” they asked. “For the hand of the Lord was with him.”

The Holy Spirit spoke through the child’s father, the priest who suddenly found his voice, and who began to prophesy in answer to the question: “What then will this child be?”

Zechariah answered the question not by speaking immediately about his little boy, but rather in praising God for His mercy, for the Lord’s visitation and redemption. Zechariah preaches about salvation, and that this salvation is linked to “the house of His servant David.”

On the occasion of the fulfillment of the covenant of circumcision in his son, Zechariah prophecies of the Lord’s remembrance of His end of the deal in the holy covenant, sworn to their ancestor Abraham: “to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.”

So far, Zechariah’s prophecy says little about his miracle-baby, about what this child will be.

But then, the boy’s father addresses his son: “You, child,” he says, “will be called the prophet of the Most High.” He speaks of blazing a trail before the Lord, one who will prepare the path, a preacher of salvation, a forgiver of sins, a bearer of divine mercy, one who brings light to those sitting in darkness, and life to those helplessly mired in death. He is to be a guide to bring people to a pathway of peace.

Zechariah watched the child grow and “become strong in spirit.”

“What then will this child be?”

Even though John was a miracle child, I can’t imagine any parent not asking the same question: “What then will this child be?”

All parents hope their children will make them proud. Parents today go to extraordinary lengths to mold and shape their children into something great – be it playing classical music to them, enrolling them in schools when they are still babies, following them about with hand sanitizer, buying them anything their heart desires, hovering over their every move as they grow up, sending them to the finest schools – no matter the cost, involving them in sports and activities and exposing them to people who may help them get a career.

We are a culture obsessed with greatness – at least in a worldly kind of way.

Zechariah’s son was to be great. In fact, our Lord Jesus Christ was to say about John that no man born of woman would be greater. John would grow up to be emulated and admired, revered and venerated. His name and image are displayed in churches around the world.

And yet, John would have been a big disappointment to most parents today. He never went to college, never had a job, did not fit in with polite society, angered the authorities, and ended up in prison.

John was destined to live in the desert, a long-haired preacher who wore funny clothes and ate grubs. He was not one to wear soft clothing and live in a palace. He did not play sports, did not have a reserved parking spot, was not written up in the society pages, and would never find himself on Oprah.

John had no future in politics, except to become a political prisoner. John was to end his life in a dungeon, having his head cut off.

This hardly seems to be the fulfillment of the proud papa’s prophecy. One can only imagine how puzzled people were to see what John’s cousin Jesus considers to be greatness.

And yet, John was, and is, in fact, among the greatest of all men. John was a faithful preacher of the Gospel, the baptizer of our Lord Jesus, a saint who lives forever in the presence of the Triune God, victorious over sin and death, triumphant over the very devil who sought his life. John continues to be a hero to Christians of every stripe, in every corner of the world, whose proclamation in Scripture lives on. His simple sermon: “Repent and hear the Good News” is still our sermon today. His life of faithfulness unto death is the very definition of what it means to be a Christian.

John decreased while Christ increased. John pointed all of us to the Lord Jesus Christ. John courageously spoke truth to power. John gave up His life and received eternal life. St. John relinquished his own head to serve the Head of the Church. And in so doing, John’s head bears the crown of glory for all eternity.

Greatness is not determined by the world, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Greatness does not lie in prestige, money, intelligence, education, accomplishment, or in the accumulation of temporary things. Rather, greatness lies in confessing Christ and living as a recipient of God’s mercy and grace. Greatness lies in receiving the gifts of God and living in His divine will – a will that may include dying for the sake of something greater. For in John’s case, his greatness was a reflection of Christ’s greatness.

“What then will this child be?” This child is a confessor of our Lord Jesus Christ and a proclaimer of the Good News of salvation!

There is nothing greater than to be a disciple of Christ, a believer in the Gospel, a partaker in Holy Baptism, and a child of God given to grow and become strong in spirit through the very Word of God. There is nothing greater than confessing that there is One who is greater still. And the greatest men born of women are those who confess their unworthiness to untie the sandals of the truly great One. St. John the Baptist taught us such humble greatness:

The last and greatest prophet,
He saw the dawning ray
Of light that grows in splendor
Until the perfect day.


In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sermon: Monday of Trinity 1, Consecration of Latif Gaba as Deacon

15 June 2009 at Holy Hill, Milwaukee, WI

Text: 1 Tim 3:8-13, Luke 12: 35-38

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Reverend Fathers and Brothers, brothers and sisters in Christ, Reverend Deacon Gaba, family and friends.

When Deacon Gaba recommends a book, it is generally good advice to read it. In one such book, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, the narrator often relates horrific accounts of our fallen world, of our sinful nature, of what St. Augustine called our “lust for domination.” And at the end of each depressing anecdote comes the matter-of-fact line: “And so it goes.”

We have become so used to sin, evil, temptation, cruelty, man’s inhumanity to man, tyranny, and all such things that lead to death, as to barely elicit a shrug. And so it goes.

The first of a very long chain of deacons in the history of the Church did not have what our church bureaucrats would today call “a successful ministry.” Not long after his consecration, St. Stephen suffered and died a painful summary execution by stoning, because the religious authorities of his day were hard of heart. And so it goes.

Our patron, St. Polycarp, the aged bishop of Smyrna likewise died a cruel death at the hands of the enemies of the cross for the sake of his confession of our Lord Christ. And so it goes.

Another Stephen, a man of our own times, Br. Latif’s now sainted spiritual father, was not stoned to death or burned at the stake, but he too suffered for the sake of the Gospel by those in authority – being forcefully removed from his ministry and being injured in reputation and livelihood, and all for such grave issues as the wearing of a cassock. And so it goes.

When I first met Latif as a seminarian, we became fast friends. I found him to be not only theologically astute, but devout, indeed “grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre, holding the mystery of faith in a pure conscience.” I also found his wife Ruth to be “grave,” and not a slanderer, but rather “sober,” and “faithful.” I looked forward to the day when Latif and I would go out together to serve as pastors. I was honored when Latif served as the subdeacon at my priestly ordination. I looked forward to impressing Latif into service as my father confessor upon his own priestly ordination. Many of us were to be disappointed, and terribly so. We were given a terribly bitter and painful pill to swallow. And so it goes.

And in this continuity of the fallen world, the seemingly never-ending parade of bad news, the relentless assault of the devil upon those who strive to serve the Triune God – here we are today, placing the same burden of St. Stephen’s office of service to our Lord and His Bride upon Br. Latif. And so it goes.

But unlike when uttered by Kurt Vonnegut – the refrain “and so it goes” does not, for us, reflect an indifferent lack of hope. Far from it. To the contrary, the expression “and so it goes” reflects continuity, the sense that no matter how bad things get in this fallen world, the Church, the faith, the Gospel, the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life go on and on. And so it goes!

For St. Stephen did not die in vain as the world might see it, but died confessing his Lord, bound for glory, with the beatific vision and life that has no end, singing with angels and archangels, now and forever. And so it goes!

St. Polycarp likewise went to eternal glory, to where old bodies are made new, where the pain of sword and stake gives way to the joy of song and praise. St. Polycarp gave us a saintly example of humility and faithfulness, leaving us a legacy that is as fresh today as it was in the second century. And so it goes!

And Blessed Stephen Wiest, far from being a failure, his brief ministry on this side of the grave brought Christ to many people, and brought many people to Christ. As a priest, professor, and preacher, he was equally at home in a cassock among the Jesuits, or playing a harmonica on a barstool at a blues club. And in eternity, he no longer suffers the indignity of injustice or the agony of cancer. He too joins with St. Stephen the deacon and St. Polycarp the bishop in eternal glory. And so it goes!

And dear brother Latif, though the Lord has not seen fit to place you into presbyterial ministry at this time, he has, in His own due season, placed you under holy orders, bound to a faithful pastor, in the service of a faithful congregation, called to be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, given to “purchase to [yourself] a good degree, and great boldness in faith which is in Christ Jesus.” And so it goes!

The 20 centuries of continuity from Deacon Stephen to Deacon Latif is a testimony to the continuity of the Church. On the one hand, it is tragic that our synod does not recognize diaconal ministry – at least not for men. We have feminized and emasculated the concept of diaconal ministry, even as we have somehow placed works of mercy and compassion entirely into the sphere of “women’s work” usually pulling women out of the home and away from their husbands and children to do so.

I’ve been told “we don’t have deacons in the LCMS.” This is simply untrue. While the office of deacon is officially a congregational office and unrecognized by our synod as a rostered form of official church work – there are indeed deacons in the LCMS. I was consecrated a deacon myself while on vicarage – and it continues to be a blessing to me as a deacon today.

I once saw an Anglican friend being consecrated a deacon. The preacher was a bishop who told the candidate: “You will always be a deacon. No matter how far you rise in the Church, you will always be a deacon. You might become a priest, a bishop, or even a primate – but you will always be a deacon, a minister, a servant.” I never forgot his words, and now I pass those words on to you, Deacon Gaba. Whether you eventually serve as a presbyter or not, you will always be a deacon, a servant of Christ. And so it goes.

We who serve as pastors in the Church would all benefit from being consecrated into this holy order as a reminder of our call to compassion, to love, to humility, to hard work, and to a martyr’s death if need be. Every pastor should wear his stole to the diagonal on occasion.

Too often, we in the Church stress that which is exulted in the eyes of the world – being up front, being the pastor of a big and growing congregation, wearing a miter, having the title “president,” wearing a suit and a tie and occupying a big office like those who are deemed successful in the eyes of the world, even given the title “dean” of a religious society. But what does our Lord esteem?

He tells us that instead of seeking titles and the praise of men, we are to “let [our] loins be girded about, and [our] lights burning.” We are to manfully “wait for the Lord.” For “blessed are those servants whom the Lord, when He cometh shall find watching.” For our Lord will reward these servants by serving them. Interestingly, the Greek reads “deaconing them.” When the Lord returns, he expects us to be “deaconing”: serving, working, and confessing Christ. This is the work of every Christian. But it is especially the work of men like Br. Latif who have been consecrated to assist the pastor in his evangelical work.

Br. Latif, we’ve often heard the quip of our clever seminary classmate, who likewise served as a deacon, who passed his dalmatic on to me, which I now pass on to you. He said: “What the Missouri Synod needs are male deaconesses.” And so it goes. But we know exactly what he meant by that. What we need are deacons. We need men who assist pastors in their work. We need consecrated men who will teach, assist in visitation, pray, serve in the liturgy, perform works of love and mercy, men who confess Christ even to the point of martyrdom. We need men who understand that the sanctuary is a holy place, and that we, as Christians, are called upon to be sanctified through prayer, through formation of the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God and His Holy Sacraments.

Br. Latif, the Lord has seen fit to place you into the office of St. Stephen, serving in the congregation of St. Stephen. The Lord blessed you with the spiritual formation of your father in the faith, the Blessed Stephen, and has called upon you to confess in the manner of Deacon St. Stephen – speaking truth to power, “with boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus,” not in self-aggrandizement, but in love and diaconal service for the sake of the kingdom.

Whether or not you ever get to be my father confessor is irrelevant. For now, you are called upon to be a confessor of our Lord Jesus Christ, a servant of his Church, to “be proved” and to be “blameless”, with loins girded, with lights burning, waiting and watching for the Lord, busy with the work of the kingdom.

And so it goes, now and forever, world without end. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Br. Latif Gaba, SSP and Fr. Tim May, SSP

[Note: For more pictures of the consecration Mass, go here.]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sermon: Holy Trinity 1

14 June 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 16:19-31 (Gen 15:1-6, 1 John 4:16-21)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our blessed Lord tells the tragic tale of the rich man and Lazarus to people living in the first century Roman Empire. We might be tempted to think of our Lord’s listeners as primitive and unlike ourselves. But we have quite a bit in common with the first century Romans.

They lived in the greatest and richest country in the world, the only standing superpower that had long since defeated its only rival. The nation, through sheer military might, made it inconceivable to be attacked. To the people living well within the nation’s borders, there was no hint of war.

The people of the empire were patriotic, proud of their military personnel, enjoying a great deal of economic freedom (though stuck with a lot of unpopular taxes). To be a citizen of Rome was something the whole world envied. Roman money was good everywhere. The Roman language was to become an international standard.

The Romans had technology, commerce, and a vibrantly diverse people. They lived in everything from massive country villas to small urban apartments. They frequented malls and taverns. They had not only running water, but magnificent fountains. They had not only public bathrooms, but public spas. Their roads and bridges were the envy of the world.

They also loved sports and leisure, filling huge stadiums, racetracks, and arenas with cheering fans. They loved big shows, the theater, and all the gossip concerning how the foreign wars were going, all the intrigue in the Senate, and the dirty laundry in the emperor’s family.

In the midst of this grand existence in the world’s greatest country were the people of God. And they were quite often distracted by what the world had to offer.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of one’s labor. There is nothing wrong with being wealthy. But our Lord is telling us to be careful. He is admonishing us to keep our priorities straight.

The rich man in the story, a son of Abraham, who “was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” had lost track of what was really important. God had blessed him with great wealth, and then gave him a golden opportunity to show love to another son of Abraham: a poor man by the name of Lazarus. But the rich man was distracted by the greatest things the booming Roman economy had to offer. He chose the passing things of this world over that which truly lasts: mercy, compassion, and love.

The rich man chose his god: Mammon. This son of Abraham forgot the covenant with Abraham, and made a false god to serve instead. The rich man lost his faith in the Creator by putting his faith in his own creature comforts.

What a sad commentary that his brother in Christ sat in his magnificent gate, miserable and “covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.” We have no reason to believe Lazarus was lazy, deserving of his fate, and just looking to get over on the rich man who earned his wealth. Lazarus is apparently no slacker.

But the real tragedy is not Lazarus’s poverty, his sores being licked by dogs, his short life of squalor and misery – for these things all passed away with this age. The real tragedy is that the rich man never came to his senses – until it was too late.

Suffering the pangs of hell when his own short life ended, the rich man had become bereft of hope. Even his begging to send an envoy to his brothers went unheeded. For as Abraham pointed out, they already have “Moses and the prophets” warning them. And when a person has made a god out of Mammon, when he has bartered his faith away for selfishness, no amount of Scripture, no amount of preaching, no amount of exhortation will bring about repentance. This hardened unbelief is the “unforgiveable sin” our Lord warns us about.

Not even the testimony of the risen Christ will convert a person who has so turned against the faith by turning inward onto himself.

Dear brothers and sisters, our Lord has given us a stern warning. He is not beating up on the rich, nor turning poverty into a virtue. Rather, he is pleading with us to serve God, not money. He is pleading with us to have the right set of priorities, love over money, compassion over personal comfort, the Creator over the creature. God promises us abundant blessings. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he says, “and all these things will be added to you.” The rich man could have continued to enjoy the blessings of wealth in this life and in the next – had he not wandered from the worship of the true God to the deluded worship of what the world had to offer – which became, in fact, the worship of himself.

For our Lord tells all of us to “seek first” God’s kingdom: rich, poor, and everyone in between. We all have the obligation to support the work of the Church, to support the work of mercy, to support those in need – starting with our family members, our brothers and sisters in this congregation, and finally, to all our fellow men in this world. The ongoing work of the Church is not the burden of the rich, but of all of us. We should give to our Lord in proportion to what He has given us.

For what has He given us, dear friends? He has given us, His forgiven children, the same thing he gave Lazarus: eternal life in Paradise! He has forgiven all our sins, brought us into communion with the Triune God, and remade us into new people – all by grace, all in spite of our own unworthiness.

Let us not lose sight of this, dear friends. There is great need – in our congregation, in our community, and across the globe. If you have been graced with wealth, you have been given the gift to use it as a tool to do good in this fallen and suffering world for the sake of the kingdom! Even if you’re not wealthy, you can still support the work of the Church and of those who help those in need with your offerings. Think of all the blessings we enjoy – leisure and comfort, house and home, family and friends. If the Lord has blessed you with these, you can certainly support the work of the kingdom with some of the bounty the Lord has shared with you and entrusted you to manage.

And even if you don’t have any money at all, you can use other gifts. Maybe you can cook. Maybe you can visit those in need. Maybe you can offer a kind word. And even if you are homebound and feel that you are unable to do anything, that is not true. That is a lie of Satan. For you can pray for your brethren. And that is the greatest work of all in God’s kingdom.

We are surrounded by wealth, technology, comfort, sumptuous food, sports, theater, malls, fine clothing, and 24 hours a day of talk about celebrities and politics. We are no better and no worse than the people of God who lived under the Roman culture and government. The Lord is warning us to stay focused on God’s kingdom because it is so easy to become distracted. The Holy Spirit inspired this parable to be written so that it might be read, meditated upon, preached, and taken to heart by the Church until the Lord returns.

And whether we are rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle – there is a little “rich man” inside of us who only wants to serve himself, his lusts, his material greed, and all the rusting junk this world has to offer. But there is also a Lazarus in every baptized Christian, one who is called to serve the Lord in humility, one who stores up treasure in heaven, one who knows his real wealth lies not in what he has earned, but in what the Lord has earned on His behalf at the cross.

Let us repent. Let us heed the warning of Moses and the Prophets, the Word of God, the preaching of our Lord, and the testimony of His resurrection, now and unto eternity. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.