Wednesday, August 31, 2011

One of Many Ways to Learn

One of the nice things about home school is the flexibility - regarding both time and curriculum.  It's 7:30 pm, and we're doing Greek, Latin, and Catechism while eating ice cream, cracking jokes, and shooting video.  It is our second day of first grade, and Leo is loving it!  We get lots of quality time together as a family (he and I walked to the store this evening hand-in-hand singing the Greek alphabet).  We have a lot of field trips to Bayou Segnette planned - things like bird watching, looking for frogs, and canoeing.  And even in the "classroom" he doesn't have to sit still (I have no doubt that his incessant wiggling would be driving a classroom teacher insane after 20 minutes - not to mention the other kids).

I'm really impressed with Song School Latin and Song School Greek by Classical Academic Press.  The songs on the CD are simple and yet catchy and pedagogically effective.  Similarly, I'm using CPH's "Sing the Faith," which is the Small Catechism set to music especially suited to children.

Mrs. H. is doing the heavy lifting during the day, teaching Math, Reading, Writing, Spelling, Grammar, Science, History, and Geography.  Leo and Grace are also learning piano together.  Music Appreciation and French are around the corner.  And anything Mrs. H. and I happen to be studying gets into his system as well.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mrs. Hollywood on the Small Screen

The WDSU van caught us taking a walk and wanted to chat with Mrs. H. for twelve seconds (beginning at 1:49) about the marsh fire that is sending smoke all over the New Orleans area.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sermon: St. Augustine – 2011

27 August 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 5:13-19 (Micah 2:7-13, 2 Tim 4:1-8)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today the Church around the world honors a man who stole as a child, who fathered at least on child out of wedlock as a youth, and who joined a cult and attacked Christianity as an adult.

And this, dear friends, is the power of the Christian faith, of the Lord’s mighty Word, of the Holy Spirit’s power, of the Son’s redeeming grace, of the Father’s unrelenting love.

Augustine’s conversion was not as dramatic as St. Paul’s, but it was just as profound. Unlike St. Paul’s sudden change of heart on the road to Damascus, St. Augustine’s conversion was a long road, paved by the prayers and tears of his devout and patient mother, St. Monica, and marked by the irrefutable preaching and teaching of his devout and patient pastor: St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan.

In time, Augustine would see his folly, would yield to the Holy Spirit, would be molded by the Word of God, and would submit to His Creator. And like St. Ambrose, his beloved pastor and teacher, Augustine would also become a pastor and teacher. He is loved by Christians around the world, along with St. Ambrose, as one of the great Doctors of the Church. In fact, St. Augustine is known by a more specific title: “Doctor of Grace.”

The first thing that comes to mind when we think of the word “doctor” is typically a healer, a learned man or woman who is an expert in the arts and sciences of medicine, a caregiver of the body. But the more basic meaning of “doctor” is a “teacher.” And in the case of one who “does” and “teaches” the “least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

In the aftermath of his conversion, St. Augustine was a teacher, a doctor, a healer, a learned man expert in the arts and sciences of theology, a caregiver of the soul – that is to say, a pastor. After decades of a life wasted, he spent decades of a life lived to the full in Christ. He served as a bishop in Northern Africa from 395 AD until his death in 420.

As a redeemed sinner, this great doctor understood forgiveness and redemption, grace and salvation, law and gospel – and the centrality of the cross. He guided the church through difficult times, teaching us, by repeating God’s Word that we are saved by grace through faith, that our good works do not save us, and that salvation cannot be bought, sold, or earned. St. Augustine taught us to confess, to pray, to live the Christian life to the full, to love, to serve, and to teach pure doctrine.

More than a thousand years later, an Augustinian monk, another Doctor of the Church, another Doctor of Grace, would likewise remind the church about forgiveness and redemption, grace and salvation, law and gospel – and the centrality of the cross. This man, the Blessed Doctor Martin Luther, also taught us, by repeating God’s Word that we are saved by grace through faith, that our good works do not save us, and that salvation cannot be bought, sold, or earned. Dr. Luther – like St. Augustine – taught us to confess, to pray, to live the Christian life to the full, to love, to serve, and to teach pure doctrine.

Dear friends, we need teachers like these men, and we need to hear them. For they pointed us to Christ and the holy scriptures, they preached to us and celebrated the sacraments. And in their writings, their life and work continue. St. Augustine, in his sermons and theological writings, let his light shine before others, seeing his good works, giving glory to our Father who is in heaven. And his greatest work of all is the preaching of the pure gospel and teaching us that good works do not save us.

As St. Augustine taught and preached, our Lord has not come to abolish the law. It is to be preached in its severity. It is to sting us and condemn us. But our Lord has not come to leave us in our trespasses and misery. For He came to fulfill the law. He came to save, not to condemn. He came to call all men and women of the church, the doctors and the students, the preachers and the hearers, to repentance and new life. For Augustine, this was not theoretical, but rather autobiographical. The Lord heard St. Monica’s tear-drenched motherly prayers. The Lord used St. Ambrose’s gospel-laden pastoral preaching. The Lord used the threats of the Law and the enticement of the Gospel to convert St. Augustine.

And the Lord would use the convert, the intellectual, the writer, the pastor, the bishop, the doctor St. Augustine to continue to “gather the remnant of Israel” to “set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men.” Augustine was charged “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom” to “preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

And as St. Paul exhorted St. Timothy, and as St. Augustine himself was exhorted at his ordination, and as pastors and teachers are exhorted to this very day and even until the Lord returns: “As for you,” says the Lord, “always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

By His bountiful grace and merciful will, may the Lord continue to raise up preachers and teachers, doctors of the Church, theologians, and bold confessors of the faith once delivered to the saints, so that we too may fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith – now and forever.


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

Lutheran Propers for St. Augustine

I published a blogpost over at Gottesdienst Online, where I serve on the editorial board.

It begins like this:

Lutheran Service Book(LSB) has given us a lot of possible commemorations, perhaps more so than any previous English language hymnal.
For example, in the Missouri Synod's sanctoral calendar on LSB page xiii, we find that "Augustine of Hippo, Pastor and Theologian" is commemorated on August 28 - which falls on a Sunday this year.  Setting aside for the time being the sectarian terminology ("Augustine of Hippo, Pastor and Theologian"), it is a good development for us to honor whom the rest of western Christendom calls "St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church." 
However, LSB does not provide any liturgical propers for the celebration of the feast.  Fortunately, we do have some resources at our fingertips.
To read more, click here.  And please feel free to comment there as well!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

My Siberian Adventure - Day 12 - July 8, 2011

Visit: Novosibirsk

We got up early, and Father Pavel (Khramov) walks with us to the train station.  We will be using different forms of public transportation today and seeing some different sights (as well as familiar ones) in Novosibirsk.  We ride the local train downtown.  We briefly tour the Novosibirsk train station.  There is a humorous plaque on the wall that isn't really meant to be funny.  In an effort to find some connection to Lenin, the train station boasts that it has a desk that Lenin once sat at, and this fact is proclaimed on a bronze plaque.

We visit the Orthodox cathedral of Novosibirsk where services are going on.  We also visit the Roman Catholic cathedral. It is much smaller and simpler.  It is also modernist in design.  There are actually more Lutherans than Roman Catholics in Russia.

We walk to Lenin Square, and again drop by St. Nicholas Chapel, the geographical center of Imperial Russia.  This time, however, there is a service going on.  The space is tiny, and crowded with old ladies with heads covered with scarves bowing and crossing themselves.  To someone used to western-style worship, it appears chaotic.  There is a single priest, magnificently vested, and his assistant conducting the service.  Both are bearded and wear pony tails.  Not more than ten feet away, an elderly woman does a bustling icon business at the counter.

There are a few young women there as well, whose attire is similar to young Muslim women back home in the fact that they modestly cover their heads with a scarf, and yet wear skin-tight jeans and high heels.

We cut through the subway tunnel to cross the street.  It seems that there are always crowds of people hustling and bustling in the underground.  I snap a picture of a shoe shop for Miss Grace.  It's a long way to travel, but it's not easy for her to find nice shoes back home.  I'm able to exchange currency using a very slick modern machine located in a bank.

We take the subway across town.  We visit an upscale souvenir shop, as well as a bookstore that caters to English speakers.  I buy a Russian-English pocket dictionary.

Father Pavel brings us to a local Fork and Spoon (столовая вилка-ложка), a nicer one than the one we ate at earlier in Novokuznetsk.  I have an okroshka (окрошка) - the cold summer soup with sausage pieces, cucumbers, and tomatoes with herbs - such as rosemary.  I also have a piece of pork with "hot sauce" - which was not hot at all.  Tasty though!  Also, potatoes, orange juice, and a chicken blini.  Foodies, please feel free to click here.

There is a coffee bar!

I order lattes and cappuccinos for us.  The prices are good, and the barista knows what she is doing.  On the way out, I buy a Pepsi, which is unusually served soda-fountain style, self-serve in a disposable cup with lid and straw.  As is typical, there is no ice.  Russians don't typically take ice in their drinks (I will have to ask the bishop how this can be synthesized with his statement, "We are Siberians. We like ice."), and so I never saw an ice dispenser or ice machine.

It is a nice day, and we visit the little city park area by the fountain where there are a couple wedding parties and people who seem to be on vacation.  Friday is a big wedding day in Russia - which goes back to Soviet times.  It seems that the Russian Orthodox Church had forbidden Friday weddings, as Friday is a fast day.  The Communists wanted to oppose the Church and her traditions, and so pushed Friday as the "traditional" post-Christian wedding day.  Even now, 20 years after the fall of Communism, it is still a "tradition."

We head back, hang out with the bishop, and get ready for our seminars.  Father Daniel is the first speaker, and lectures from 5:00 - 6:00 pm on Psalm 23 (22 per the Septuagint).  Father Alexey translates.  I speak from 6:00 - 7:00 pm, again on the Augsburg Confession, with Alexey translating.  At 7:00 pm, we break for worship - a combined Vespers and Mass.  The audience is diverse and serious.  They are interested in theology and eager to hear.

The service is beautiful but simple.  Father Alexey is the celebrant and Father Pavel is the preacher.  I follow the service as best I can.  The closing hymn is Luther's Keep Us Steadfast.  They use incense, but there is no chasuble, as this is a combined prayer and Eucharistic service.

Afterward, I meet Father Alexey's wife Elena.  She is very kind and speaks impeccable English.  She invites Dan and me to join their family for dinner before we head to Yekaterinburg on Wednesday.

Shortly thereafter, we meet again with the bishop for a late dinner.  We went to one coffee shop, but chose not to eat there.  We settled on East-West, a trendy but inexpensive restaurant that focuses on Russian diversity.  It is located on the second floor of the shopping center - just above the grocery store.  I enjoy a plate of plav.  The food and conversation are also outstanding here!

Here is a link to all of my pictures of Days Twelve and Thirteen.

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Child

Here is a great piece about books, children, and education from Memoria Press.  It's actually a teaser for a book of the same name by Anthony Esolen, an English professor (and translator of classical works) at Providence College, and one of the editors of Touchstone.

The link doesn't provide the actual Big Ten, so I will provide them here.  I have not read Dr. Esolen's book, but I like what I'm reading so far.

10 Sure Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

1. Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible or They Used to Call It "Air"
2. Never Leave Children to Themselves or If Only We Had a Committee
3. Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists or All Unauthorized Personnel Prohibited
4. Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Cliches and Fads or Vote Early and Often
5. Cast Aspersions Upon the Heroic and Patriotic or We Are All Traitors Now
6. Cut All Heroes Down to Size or Pottering With the Puny
7. Reduce All Talk of Love to Narcissism and Sex
8. Level Distinctions Between Man and Woman or Spay and Geld
9. Distract the Child with the Shallow and Unreal or The Kingdom of Noise
10. Deny the Transcendent or Fix Above the Heads of Men the Lowest Ceiling of All

We Want You in Gretna!

The City of Gretna, Louisiana unveiled the following video at a premier last night.  Salem Lutheran Church and School was represented by our principal and one of our school board members.  While we were walking home from last night's church services, Mayor Harris drove by, got out of his car, and we chatted for a few minutes right there on 4th Street about the exciting things happening in Gretna.  There really are some good things happening in our community.

By the way, the line-up for this year's Heritage Festival on October 7 to 8 includes Grand Funk Railroad, Amanda Shaw, Sara Evans, Molly Hatchet, Frankie Ford, Rockin' Dopsie, and (get out those battle flag lighters, y'all) Lynyrd Skynyrd!  Seven musical stages, lots of restaurants and food booths, and carnival rides.

Y'all come!

There is also a three-minute version and a thirty-second spot.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sermon: St. Bartholomew – 2011

24 August 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 1:43-51 (2 Cor 4:7-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today the Church around the world honors one of the holy apostles: St. Bartholomew, who is known as St. Nathaniel in John’s Gospel.

When first told about Jesus by his friend Philip, Bartholomew was skeptical: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He honestly expressed his doubt and was not ashamed to speak the truth even before his excited friend Philip challenged him to “Come and see.”

And Bartholomew did “come and see.”

He would see our Lord proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, die for the sins of the world, and conquer death itself by rising again. Bartholomew would see the Church grow from a small band of frightened cowards to a powerful and mighty kingdom and army of preachers and hearers that would conquer even the mighty Roman Empire and make its way into every land and nation in the world.

Indeed, as our Lord would promise (and as He would fulfill), He tells St. Bartholomew on that single life-changing day: “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

“Come and see” indeed! Bartholomew would see the fulfillment of Jacob’s ancient vision of the ladder to heaven, only this ladder would truly be the cross. St. Bartholomew would indeed see if anything good was to come out of Nazareth. He was indeed destined to see the word “Nazareth” written at the top of the cross that was to indeed save man and the universe from the decay of sin and the corruption of death.

Our Lord pays Bartholomew a high complement – and our Lord was not one to offer vain flattery. He says to Bartholomew: “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” Jesus identifies Bartholomew as a true confessor, one who does not waffle or play with his words. And in his words which ring true, St. Bartholomew proclaims the good confession: “You are the Son of God!”

An Israelite in whom there is no deceit, indeed!

And yet, telling the truth can often get one into trouble. For St. Bartholomew will not merely hold a private opinion about Jesus. Nor does he even simply tell the truth when asked. Rather, Bartholomew has been called and chosen to preach, to be a herald of the kingdom, to proclaim to friend and foe alike the universe-changing truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the victor over the devil and the grave, the atonement for sin, and the bringer and deliverer of peace between God and Man.

The apostle Bartholomew knows this truth, confesses this truth, preaches this truth, and in his lack of deceit, he will suffer for this truth. St. Bartholomew will lay down his life and even die for this truth. For he is indeed an Israelite “in whom there is no deceit.”

And Bartholomew the truthful will truly show us what it means to be a “jar of clay.” He tells the truth that the “surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” He will join St. Paul and all of the martyrs in proving with his very lifeblood: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies… in our mortal flesh.”

According to tradition, St. Bartholomew was executed for his Christian faith by being skinned alive, offering his flesh as testimony to the Word Made Flesh, manifesting the life of Jesus in his own body – that of an “Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

Dear friends, it is important to tell the truth about the kingdom. It is a gift of God to be able to tell the truth about Jesus. It is our privilege as “Israelites” who have been redeemed by the One Israelite in whom there truly is “no deceit” – to confess with the apostles and to point the world (who likewise asks: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”) to Jesus and invite them to “come and see.”

For the opposite of deceit is truth. And as our Lord so often says: “Truly, truly I say to you.” We repeat and confess this word “truly” – joining St. Bartholomew in his lack of deceit – every time we use the word “Amen.” For this word doesn’t mean “the prayer is ended,” rather it means: “This is the truth.”

Dear friends, let us follow Jesus, whose Word is truth, by following the example of St. Bartholomew, who spoke true words about the Word Made flesh. And if we are ever required to surrender our flesh for the sake of the kingdom of the one who willingly surrendered His flesh for us – let us join with St. Bartholomew and all the martyrs in willingly proclaiming the truth in word and deed. Let it be said about the whole Church in heaven and on earth that in our confession of Christ, “there is no deceit.”


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

It's all you need...

Today's Musical Guest...

...The J. Geils Band

385-226-3690 Card Member Services, Fraud?

Disclaimer: This is not an actual picture of anyone at 385-226-3690, Card Member Services, its affiliates, associates, franchisees, or their mothers.  Any similarity to anyone living or dead is a coincidence.  A really funny coincidence.  Do not look directly at Happy Fun Ball.  Batteries and lawyers not included.

So, is this a fraud?  I'm just asking.  And it is a rhetorical question - so please don't answer it.

I got a call from this number on my cell phone, a recording allegedly (I love this word!) about my credit card.  It sounded suspicious, allegedly, so I wanted to talk to someone.  I took option 1, and a lady (allegedly) went into a sales pitch.  When I asked her the name of the alleged company, she said "Card Member Services."  Hmmm.  When I asked if they had a website, she said that if I agreed to do business with them, they would then direct me to a website.  Sounds like an offer one can't refuse.  Allegedly, that is.

When I asked for contact information for her company, she promptly hung up on me.

Calling back results in only a strange noise in the phone.  Other people report a similar experience here.

So, I'm not saying this is a fraud, a scam, a ruse, a racket, a shakedown, a rip-off, or a criminal enterprise - because saying things like that would make a person liable to a lawsuit.  So I am not saying any of those things.  Nor am I going to call them bottom-feeding parasites for calling my church's cellphone number - because that really wouldn't be nice either.  Eighth Commandment and all that.  I do think it would be more professional of them to be more specific about their company name, services, contact information, and of course, not to hang up when asked for more information.  I'm not saying they are unprofessional, as that might make someone liable for a lawsuit.  So I won't say that either.  But I do wonder if their level of professionalism might leave some room for improvement.  Cough.  I'm sorry.  I must have gotten something in my throat.

I'm just asking the question rhetorically: "Is this a fraud?"  Maybe you all might want to program this number into your cell phone so that you can ask them some questions if they call you too.  Cough.  Cough.

I really need to take care of this tickle in my throat.  Allegedly.

My Siberian Adventure - Day 11 - July 7, 2011

Visit: Novosibirsk and Berdsk

Dan and I have breakfast in the bishop's office.  After a while, the bishop arrives and we have a nice visit.

Dan and I then go for a long walk from the seminary to the shopping center.   We're not exactly sure where it is.  This part of Novosibirsk is very amenable to walking.  In our strolling and conversing, it seems like we have gone too far.  Three young people are walking toward us.  In as primitive a Russian as possible, I offer up: "PuhZHALstah, g'DYEH SHOPping CENter."  "Shopping Center" is actually Russian for "shopping center" - though I try to Russify it up a bit like this guy.  My Russian was obviously not impressive, as my youthful interlocutor replied in English and pointed us back the way we came.  But then again, if the object is to communicate, it worked well enough to get us where we needed to go.  It helps that young people both know English and shopping centers.

We can tell we are getting close, as the density of people increases and they are carrying shopping bags.  We walk past the old iconic crumbling Soviet-era movie theater.  In the mall, I buy a few gifts and souvenirs.  Dan wisely buys us some ice cream.  We are, after all, trying to fit in.  And as the bishop explained the native affinity for ice cream: "We are Siberian.  We like ice."

We meet a map dealer selling maps on the street.  He looks like a bum, but is polite, almost courtly.  He is selling maps of Russia for 200 rubles (about $6).  He has them strung up on a clothes line.  I buy one.  He meticulously refolds the map and places it in a plastic sleeve.

On the way back to the seminary, we stop at Traveler's Coffee - a fairly new chain of western-style coffee shops.  I have a Coke and a капучино большой (large cappuccino).  A double cappuccino is only 10 rubles (about 30 cents) more than a single.  My blood-caffeine level is beginning to creep back up to acceptable levels.  Dan has a Coke.  Cokes in Russia have real sugar - not high fructose corn syrup.  On the down side, the Diet Coke ("Coke Light") seems to be flavored with saccharine.

We hang out on the outside patio and relax.  We are under an overhang and face the street.  This is the lovely Akademgorodok neighborhood - a university/scientific community partially set in the woods.  It combines forest trails with an urban setting.

After our little caffeine respite, we start the hike back.

Upon our return, we chat with the bishop, who suggests we try some Arminian шаурма  (sharma - which is called shwarma in North America).  We take a drive to Berdsk where Natasha lives.  We buy food, pick Natasha up at her flat, and drive to the central town park where she is planning on doing some rollerskating.  We eat with our food on the roof of the car as Natasha skillfully glides away.  It's getting chilly.  The bishop shares vanilla powder with us - not as a spice, but as a black fly repellent.  As this is one of the feasts in the Orthodox Church honoring John the Baptist, young people partake of the ancient custom of shooting one another with water pistols.

After we finish our sharma - which is outstanding, by the way! - we drive to a local Orthodox church,  newly constructed, and take pictures.  The bishop tells us the story of the local bishop who is buried in the small graveyard behind the church - a man who suffered at the hand of his own church, who died of a heart attack while still in his forties.  It seems that he was not abusive enough toward religious minorities to satisfy everyone.  He once raised eyebrows by greeting the local Presbyterian minister (whose wife was pregnant) in a TV interview.

The Orthodox building is impressive, and was built with government money after the fall of Communism.  The Orthodox churches typically have highly-polished gilded onion-domes.  All over Russia, these buildings have either been restored or built.  In spite of her legal status and the fact that her churches were also destroyed by the Communists, the Lutheran Church doesn't get the same treatment under the law.  There are a lot of hoops to jump through for Lutheran churches.

Even small things - like registering the official seal of the church - can become a bureaucratic nightmare that requires the hiring of lawyers.

We take pictures of the local Lenin statue (this one, interestingly and inexplicably, is flanked by a dinosaur).  Lenin is often portrayed with his arm extended, pointing like a football referee signalling "first down."  So Dan, who is a high school football referee, poses beneath the statue signalling "first down" as I snap the picture.  This high jinks happens under the watchful eyes of security guards in a car and an older lady who is amused and delighted at our antics.

There is another tableau worth a picture or two - a sharma kiosk whose logo is the McDonald's golden arches, only upside down.  Such restaurants are run by Armenians all over Russia.  But this may be the only one with inverted golden arches.

Back at the seminary, the bishop shows us pictures on his computer of his episcopal consecration at the Lutheran Cathedral of St. Mary in Tallinn, Estonia.

Here is a link to all of my pictures of Day Eleven.

Monday, August 22, 2011

My Siberian Adventure - Day 10 - July 6, 2011

Begin: On the train toward Novosibirsk
Visit: Novosibirsk

It was a nice relaxing ride from Shira to Novosibirsk.  It was an overnight trip.  I wake up in the morning to the rocking of the train.

Father Alexey bought us breakfast in the dining car.  It is attractive with red trim, tablecloths, and fine silverware.  The menu is bilingual (Russian and English).  I had some sausages with mustard and a (real) coffee.  We also had pancakes (blini) and I ordered the cherry-filled one.  They are basically the same thing as crepes.  They are as good as they look!

After breakfast, we took it easy in the sleeper car for the rest of the trip.

We arrived at Novosibirsk in the afternoon.  It is rainy and chilly.  Father Andrei picked us up and we decided to have some American food.  We have a choice between burgers at Carl's Junior (which is ironic because we don't have Carl's or its sister franchise Hardee's, in Louisiana) or pizza at a place called Capriccio's.  We settle on the latter option, and aside from the Russian language, it could easily be mistaken for a college hangout in Kent, Ohio.  The menu is huge - like a book.  It is also all in Russian.

We order three pizzas - including one that has salmon.  They are all outstanding!  They are baked in a brick oven, and could compete with any pizza shop in the States.  They also have beer.  I have an Amadeus lager and Father Dan opts for a dark beer.  As our Russian brethren are our drivers, they stick with coffee and orange juice.  We enjoy our meal and fraternal conversation and take a few pictures.

We get back, get caught up on our computers, and do laundry.

Father Pavel (Khramov) - whose office I am occupying - takes us for a walk to the local grocery store.  I buy batteries, some tea, and a Coke.  Dan buys some cheese, milk, and cereal.

We return, hang out with the bishop for a while, and call it an evening.

Here is a link to all of my pictures from Day Ten.

My Siberian Adventure - Day 9 - July 5, 2011

Begin: Ephremkino
Drive to: Shira
Ride the train toward: Novosibirsk

I wake up about 8:00 am as Dan snores and Alexey continues snoozing.  I walk outside to take some pictures.  The little kitten is always near the people.  He is very tiny and orange - and fearless.  He slept on top of Dan last night.

I'm called to breakfast by Father Dmetri.  We have sweet rice, tea, and there are some other options - including цикорий for tea, a kind of berry powder used as an additive.  I ask Dmetri what it is, and he can only explain in his limited English that it makes the tea taste good.  In sounding out the Russian name, I realize that it is "chicory."  This is amusing because chicory is closely associated with New Orleans.  Our famous Cafe du Monde coffee is half coffee and half chicory.

There is also bread and a bee by-product - the stuff that the bees themselves feed on.  I believe it is royal jelly.  A local beekeeper harvested it.  It tastes like honey but has a more solid consistency.  There is also a traditional Khakassian sweet called halva - which is made from sunflower seeds.  I later learn that halva is enjoyed across Russia and the Mediterranean world and comes in different varieties.

Breakfast is informal, with people coming and going, seated outside in the cool air on a rustic bench under what appears to be a new wooden gazebo.

Father Pavel is going to take us for a hike.  So, I quickly change my clothing configuration and get ready to go.  He has a minivan to carry Dan, myself, Alexey, and an older guy named Victor.  As we prepare to go, our younger friends are in a  group snapping pictures. Ira takes the opportunity for some more English practice with us.

We head down the road, such as it is.  We wind down the streets of the village (Ефремкино - Ephremkino).  We pass a school.  In a few minutes, we are at the base of the mountains.  We walk down a small trail and pass recreations of the native teepee-like yurts.

Pavel is dressed impeccably in light blue fatigues, military cap, backpack, and a modern aluminum walking stick.  He is pleasant and sports a closely-cropped full beard.  Father Alexey serves again as our translator.  We start climbing the trail, and the view of the river, winding its way around the mountains, is spectacular.

We walk a little ways along the path, and Father Pavel tells us that we have a choice to make.  Either we go the way he takes the teenagers, or we go the way he takes the babushkas (old ladies).  We laugh and let Victor decide.  He is experienced with this climb, and opts for the more treacherous option.  Off the bat, we start climbing straight up the rocks on the side of the sheer cliff.  It is a long, long way down!  We continue up this steep include for quite a ways - no safety helmet, no ropes, no buckles and videos about how to use them, no explanation, and no liability release forms.  I have to feel around for a place to grab a rock with my hands, and I pull myself up one step at a time - trying to keep up with the fleet-footed Pavel.  Sometimes, the rocks give way under my feet.  Did I mention that it is a long way down?  I'm wearing black dress shoes - but being rubber-soled, they actually perform well.

We make it to a little rock cavern where the next step was to climb the narrow channel of rock to emerge through the small hole at the top.  The local legend describes this as a kind of rebirth.  It was not an easy climb, but we all make it just fine.  There are caves that have ancient cave drawings on the walls.  They are still making archaeological discoveries here.

We continue walking, climbing, chatting, snapping pictures, and we make a good pace.  There is a long path along the side of the mountain that winds up and down with occasional detours to rock outposts to see the views.  I believe this is the Shaman's Trail that Father Dan had spoke of earlier.  Father Alexey lugs his Nikon D30 everywhere, and stands like a mountain goat on narrow piles of rocks on the precarious edge of the cliffs as he snaps away on the camera.  It is unnerving.

Father Pavel explains many interesting events of local history that happened here, including a cave blown up by the Bolsheviks as they sought to capture a local tribal leader, a Cossack, who opposed them.  He had become a kind of folk hero and guerrilla leader.  The Bolsheviks ended up killing him with mortar fire.

Many trees were marked by ribbons - an old Pagan (Shamanistic) Khakassian custom.  There are large stones that Pagans claim represent the organs of the body, and some try to use these stones to cure their ailments.  Pavel also shows us the remains of an ancient copper mine - and pieces of ore are lying all around.

We turn around and retrace most of the way back - although we don't climb down the sheer cliff face.  Fathers Alexey and Dmetri go off on their own for more hiking, while Dan, Victor, Pavel, and I head back.  We walk past the yurts and are able to visit them briefly, even to go inside.  They are wooden structures and are lined with wool.  There is a hole in the top to accommodate a fire.  These yurts are furnished with tables and chairs.  We make our way back to Pavel's minivan, and drive back to the camp.

There, I was able to work on my sermon while Dan headed to the main gazebo to read.

I was offered lunch by Victor and his daughter Masha (Maria) - who works at the camp with Father Pavel.  They made some пельмени (pelmeni) - small dumplings that are boiled.  I put butter on mine.  Victor used ketchup.  I was also offered milk - which may have been fresh milk from the cattle outside.  I was also offered hot water and green tea to add to the milk - which was refreshing.  There is also bread and halva on the table.

I spent time resting and looking over my sermon.  Lacking Internet, I borrowed Dan's cellphone and sent Grace a text message.

Dan and I took a walk to the village.  We stopped at a small "magazin" (store) called "Magazin Elena."  I bought us a couple of ice cream bars at 25 rubles each (just under a dollar apiece).  The lady clerk (Elena?) tallied up our total on an abacus.  There is a wandering herd of cattle in no particular hurry also out for a stroll.

Back at the camp, I converse with Nikita, who is preparing to start college and is still trying to figure out what to study.  His English is good.  I then took another nap, and was joined by the kitten, who was quite content to snuggle up under the blanket.

For dinner, we are offered a choice of potatoes or a summer cold soup, окрошка (okroshka), which is made from a drink that is basically fermented bread: квас (kvas).  The mosquitoes are starting to get bad.

After a little more rest, we are ready to go.  Father Pavel has already left, and Masha is driving us to the train station in Shira.  He car is not in good shape.  The windshield is badly cracked, the back is dented, the back passenger window was broken and replaced with plastic.  It turns out that she had been in a wreck a week ago.  He car flipped and she suffered a banged up arm.  Other than some scrapes, she is fine.

Her father Victor is riding along with us.

We arrive in time to wait for the train.  It will be about a ten hour trip.  Fortunately, the ride begins at about 11:00 pm - which means we can sleep during the ride.  I get one of the top bunks tonight.

Here is a link to all of my pictures from Day Nine.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

North American Lutheranism's Dark Secret

Pastor Peters has given us an insight into one of American Lutheranism's biggest problems - one that is hardly ever broached in polite company: pastors (usually young pastors) who leave Lutheranism because Lutheranism (at least as we know it here in North America) has largely forgotten what Lutheran Christianity really is.

You can  read more here.

This is a big problem.  It is shockingly common.  Many of our brightest and best North American pastors have left their pastorates and/or Lutheranism distraught that what we confess on paper is so often at odds with what happens in our churches.  A lot of men I went to seminary with are now laymen or pastors in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglican communions.  It grieves me, and I am saddened every time I hear of another defection.  If we truly do confess the Book of Concord, those other options are not options at all.  I don't condone their leaving, and I have to confess that I feel a little betrayed by such defections.  But by the same token, there have been pastors and their families (and a good number of them) subjected to the kind of abuse that is simply scandalous and shameful - things that ought not even be named among Christians.  I would even call it sadistic in some cases.  I believe there have been marriages saved by pastors leaving their calls and even walking away from Lutheranism.  How sad is that?

Tragically, if we would just practice what we preach and allow our preachers to practice what we confess (as Lutherans), this hemorrhage would not be happening.  We would also perhaps not see the high level of pastors suffering from depression.  I do think the tide is turning and younger pastors are making a difference - especially given the superlative job done by our seminaries in instilling an authentically Lutheran ethos among our pastors.  But in the mean time, a lot of good men and their families are being ground up like sausage.

We North American Lutherans have a lot of soul searching to do.  It has been our burden for as long as Lutherans have been coming to America wanting to fit in with our Protestant neighbors.  Meanwhile, I would encourage faithful pastors and their wives and children to hang in there if they can.  But if staying put means suffering from depression, having to go on drugs, and feeling like they are living a lie because their confession and practice are in a state of dissonance beyond what they can bear, who am I to blame a man and his family for leaving?  Rather than judging them, maybe we should recommit ourselves to be genuinely Lutheran in doctrine and practice. Instead of railing against their  specks, maybe we should be addressing our own planks?

And there is the rub.  For that is easier said than done.  Lord, have mercy!

Sermon: Trinity 9 – 2011

21 August 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 16:1-13 (2 Sam 22:26-34, 1 Cor 10:6-13)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Jesus tells us a shocking story because he wants to teach us a shocking lesson: we Christians are not very smart.

More accurately, we’re not very “shrewd.” A shrewd businessman uses the resources at his disposal for the good of the company. A shrewd general figures out a way to achieve military success even with a smaller army and a difficult strategic position. A shrewd diplomat will find a way to get something out of another country without causing a war.

In our Lord’s parable, “the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” Notice he doesn’t commend him for his dishonesty, but rather for his wisdom and resourcefulness – his ability to “think outside the box” to wrench success from certain failure.

For when people are facing starvation and public humiliation, they find a way to become resourceful and motivated. In such dire circumstances, there is no room for complacency and frivolity.

And Jesus criticizes us because “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” In matters of business, war, politics, family life, education, work, and leisure time we are very shrewd. But when we deal with God’s Kingdom, we’re really quite naïve and foolish. And for our lack of shrewdness, the kingdom suffers. And when the kingdom suffers, people remain in their sins. People lack communion with God. People suffer in hell.

We suffer from a lack of priority. Like the dishonest manager, we are not very good stewards. We allow the situation to degenerate until it becomes dire in the Lord’s kingdom. We allow other things to take priority over and above the church. Over time, the kingdom becomes a lower and lower priority in our lives.

Dear friends, we need to be shrewd for the sake of the kingdom! Our Lord wants us to be honest, to be “innocent as doves,” and yet, he also implores us to also be “wise as serpents” and to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

Money is neither good nor evil. It is a tool that can be used for the kingdom or against the kingdom. Money can be a great temptation to selfishness, but it can also be used unselfishly for the good of our neighbor and the glory of God. Our Lord warns us that wealth can make it difficult to enter the kingdom, even like a camel passing through the eye of a needle, but he also teaches us that “with God, all things are possible.” With a regenerated heart, the wealthy can and do serve the kingdom. In the joy of the gospel, even those who are not well off can outgive even the wealthy by their two mites offered in faith.

However, as our Lord points out, when it comes to the kingdom, we generally aren’t very shred. We don’t have a very good track record, and we need to be reminded what is important and how we should use the resources God has entrusted to us.

People who would not think of missing a day of work – or even going in late – will absent themselves from hearing God’s Word and from partaking of the Holy Sacrament. People who are shrewd with their savings or investments, who find a way to generate business or secure promotions – may not even put money in the plate to support the work of the kingdom. Christians may well analyze the stock market and pay attention to TV news channels virtually around the clock while allowing the Bible to sit unopened on the shelf.

On the other hand, the church benefits when we also “think outside the box” when it comes to ways to support the work of the kingdom, when we “make friends with unrighteous wealth” and are “innocent as doves” in our shrewdness.

Dear friends, we are part of an enterprise – not a corporation, but the corpus of the Body of Christ, not a Fortune 500 company, but rather the eternal company of heaven! We are not part of a political entity, but rather subjects of a kingdom. Dear brothers and sisters, we are at war. We need strategy. We need officers. We need soldiers. We need to move men and resources in the service of our King and kingdom. We are not part of the world whose wealth is passing away, whose material goods all rot in a landfill, rather we are “sons of light” who have been entrusted with the “true riches” of the forgiveness of sins, communion with God, and everlasting life!

Our Lord bids us to be “faithful in a very little” even as our Lord was “faithful in much” – even being so shrewd as to sacrifice His very body and blood on the cross for our salvation, and finding a way to “think outside the box” to give us the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments so that we might receive the gifts He won for us by His shrewd faithfulness.

And when it comes to our sins, He tears up the bill and forgives our debts. Instead of trying to buy our way into heaven, the Lord frees up our funds to serve the kingdom of heaven, motivated not by selfishness, but by selflessness. The Lord has shrewdly defeated Satan and entrusts us, his managers and stewards, with receiving others into those “eternal dwellings.”

Indeed, we cannot serve two masters. We “cannot serve God and money.” When we are shrewd in the eyes of the world and foolish in the kingdom, we are simply being selfish. We are simply serving the false god Mammon – which is to say, we are serving ourselves. Let us be shrewd in matters of the kingdom. Let us not only be unselfish with the time and treasure and talents the Lord has entrusted to us, but let us, like the dishonest manager, think of ways to serve the kingdom with shrewdness and wisdom, - while maintaining our integrity and innocence – motivated by a desire to draw people to the kingdom and to give glory and honor to Him who suffered shame and dishonor for us.

Indeed, dear friends, we can learn something even from a dishonest manager – we can learn to be shrewd. We can learn to treasure that which is truly important and we can learn to effectively use the things the Lord has entrusted to us. And in Christ, we can put it all into perspective with the hymnist:

What is the World to me
With all its vaunted pleasure
When You, and You alone,
Lord Jesus are my treasure!
You only, dearest Lord,
My soul’s delight shall be;
You are my peace, my rest.
What is the world to me!


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

Saturday, August 20, 2011

How the Swiss Might Save Civilization

Here is an interview with Thomas Jacob regarding an effort in Switzerland to introduce a competing currency - a gold franc.  This is not some kind of pipe-dream, but has been introduced as a "parliamentary initiative" on March 8.  Moreover, the Swiss can place any issue on the national ballot with only 100,000 signatures.

I like the way he frames the issue as one of freedom of choice.  Even if Socialist-Keynsian Republican-Democrat welfare-warfare statists are opposed to hard currency, who could argue with freedom of choice?  If hard currency is a bad idea, the free market will prove it.  If a fiat dollar is more reliable than gold, it will outperform the gold franc.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Siberian Adventure - Day 8 - July 4, 2011

Begin: On the train toward: Abakan, Khakassia
Visit: Abakan
Drive to: Ephremkino Village

I wake up about 6:00 am local time on the train.  We're now in the Republic of Khakassia.  The countryside is totally different: a remote place of rolling hills and occasional villages of small houses.  It's raining.

Father Alexey took our glasses and came back to report that there is no tea.  We'll be arriving in Abakan in a few minutes.

When we arrive at the station, it's cold and rainy.  I have no coat or hat.  We climb down from the train and walk a ways on the platform in the rain.  Father Dmetri lives here, and so we follow him as he arranges a ride from an older man standing near an unmarked minivan.  The driver is cautious and looks around.  He quickly loads our bags into the truck, and we're off.  He drives very fast, passing up traffic and hydroplaning his way to the city.

Father Dmetri lives in a flat with his wife Elena and their 5-year old Spiderman-crazy son.  They also have a 17-year old daughter who is not there.  He commutes every week by train between Abakan and Novokuznetsk - usually traveling fourth or fifth class.  He spends the night in the church flat.

Their apartment is small by American standards, but comfortable and tidy.  There is no hot water this time of year.

The rain is affecting our plans.  We will probably visit the local church where Father Pavel Zayakin serves.  Then the plan is to head to Tuim.  There are things that they would like to show me, but the rain may impede our sightseeing.  We are now one hour ahead of Novosibirsk time, so it's now 8:30 am (7:30 am in Novosibirsk, and 7:30 pm July 3 back home in New Orleans).

The TV is on as Elena is preparing breakfast for us.  There is a program on that translates to Morning Russia and the format is just like American morning news shows.

Our breakfast was very nice, featuring a traditional dinner dish called pozi, which is common among people who live near Lake Baikal and Mongolia.  It is very similar to manti, as it is known across Russia - though there may well be a difference between the two.  Pozi is a large steamed dumpling with meat - pork, beef, onions and broth inside.  Outstanding!

Breakfast also includes eggs, cheese, salad, bread, butter, and Jacob's Coffee (instant).  Father Dmitri's son played with trucks, ran around, made noise, and giggled with his mother - which all sounds familiar. It made me a bit homesick.  I showed them some pictures on my Nook, including the picture of Leo at Mardi Gras in his Spiderman suit.

We drove to St. Luke's parish in Abakan.  It is a self-standing house purchased by the SLMS.  It is very traditional, with icons, candles, and portraits of bishops.  It is small and simple, but most definitely and unambiguously a church.

We went back to the train station to check on our tickets.  I bought 8 AA batteries for 278 rubles, just under $10.

At about noon local time, we begin our drive to Tuim with Father Dmetri at the wheel.  It's about a four hour journey over very bumpy roads that call to mind The Long Way Round.  The rolling hills and mountains are on the horizon.  We've seen several herds of what appear to be wild horses on the grasslands surrounding the highway to Tuim.  For miles and miles, there is no housing to be seen.  Aside from an occasional car coming the opposite direction, we see no other human beings anywhere.  There are wandering herds of cattle that must belong to someone.

Our destination in Tuim was Father Vitaly Gavrilov's home.  Father Vitaly lives in a small house that is filled with people - including his wife Anna and three sons - as well as Father Dmetri's sister-in-law, who is visiting with another family friend.  They are a gregarious and friendly family that loves to laugh.  They are very hospitable and serve us homemade bread with meat and cheese, salad, fresh fish, and tea.

The Gavrilov home is very child-friendly, as the children write in crayon on the walls and draw on some of the wallpaper.  The hallway is covered in a Route 66-themed wallpaper reminiscent of the movie Cars.

We take a drive over to the Church of the Transfiguration of our Lord, an old 20th century log structure with green trim.  The inside is a simple but beautiful church.  It was originally a government building of some sort.  This is one of the oldest SELC congregations.  Father Vitaly, who has a compelling story of his own (see page one here), was originally a layman in this congregation.  Many of his parishioners live in surrounding villages.  Tuim was the site of a forced labor camp, one of Stalin's "death camps" where Christians - including many Lutherans - were sent.

As I take video of the inside of the church, Father Vitaly presents gifts to Dan and me - beautiful hand-knitted linens which are the perfect size to use as a corporal during shut in celebrations of the Eucharist.  These were made for us by a parishioner named Irena - which means "peace" - the same as my congregation "Salem."

We take a walk to the house that Father Vitaly is renovating - a log home within walking distance from the church.  Father Vitaly is a carpenter and a master at woodcarving.  He earns his living by this kind of work.  The house has a lot of work to be done on it, but Father Vitaly's skills show in the work that has already been done.  He also shows us his garaged 1987 Mercedes that is in need of a makeover - not to mention a new engine.  Father Daniel collects and refurbishes old cars, and he and Vitaly are in a state of bliss.

We drive to Tuim's most famous attraction: the Tuim Pit.  It is a man-made canyon caused by the implosion of a mountain when the copper mine ran dry.  There is a huge crater filled with water bounded by extremely high cliffs.  There is an observation deck which we mount.  The view is spectacular!

Afterwards, Vitaly and his brother Sasha (who came to the Pit with us) invited us to his mother's place. Dan had met her before and was very happy to see her again.  Her name is Ludmilla, and she lives in a small dacha with kittens frolicking about.  For this reason, Father Dmetri has to wear a surgical mask, as he does when visiting Father Vitaly's family (they also have cats), owing to a severe allergy.  Ludmilla's fenced-in yard is a working garden, packed to the perimeter with food.

We leave and head to yet another location: Father Pavel (Zayakin)'s camp in the village of Ephremkino. He is hosting a few young people, and in a couple weeks, will host his annual youth camp.  I sleep a good bit of the trip as Father Dmetri skillfully navigates the mountain roads.

We are greeted by Father Pavel and a young man named Nikita who speaks some English.  Father Pavel looks like a hunter, is gregarious and friendly, though his English is greatly limited.  Father Alexey continues as our translator.

It is interesting that we don't introduce ourselves to lay people - especially young people - as we would in the states.  The custom in Russia is not to address people by the title "Mr." or "Mrs." (or "Pastor") followed by the last name.  Russians refer to each other by their first names - though children   traditionally address adults in a formal way making use of their patronym - a kind of middle name that makes use of the father's name.  And so, even when meeting young people, I offer my first name.  When they find out that I am a priest (pastor), they call me "Father Larry" - which is the custom in Russia.

The camp is an area enclosed by wooden stockade fencing, ringed by the village, which is surrounded by majestic mountains.  It is the forth of July and I am in the middle of nowhere in this magnificent mountain range in Asia.  Several young people are gathered around a campfire under a gazebo.  They are interested in the visitors.  Americans are still a novelty in this part of Russia.  Several are eager to practice their English, especially a college student named Ira.  She latches on to Father Daniel for English practice.  She studied English at the University of Khakassia for a year and a half.  She is herself ethically Khakassian, very Asian looking.  Khakassians are aboriginals and are related to American Indians.  They are about a 30% minority in this region.  She can only speak fluently in Russian, but is holding her own quite well in English.

She makes mistakes, laughs, and expresses frustration.  She doesn't quit, though!  I give her the URL for LiveMocha.  She asks questions about our houses.  I told her about our tropical climate and showed her pictures of a banana tree in our yard.  Nikita is also interested and asks questions.

The camp has no indoor bathroom - only a series of well-constructed (but seatless!) outhouses.  The grounds are strewn with a few tents, though Dan, Alexey, and I are bunking in the wooden cabin.  We are also able to use the баня (banya, or sauna) and I was able to get about a half-hour of a sauna bath.

We have no Internet here, and there is only 2G cellphone access - which will not work with our computers.

The flag of Khakassia flaps in the breeze to remind us of where we are.  It is July 4th, and it is now so cold that we need a fire.  It is in the forties Fahrenheit.  I go out about midnight, as Dan, (with whom a kitten has snuggled up) is snoring.  The fire is nearly out.  I can still see the light of the sun near the horizon.  I decide to come in and do some journalling and transfer pictures from my cameras to the computer.  It is chilly in the room, but not freezing.

Here are all of my pictures from Day Eight.

My Siberian Adventure - Day 7 - July 3, 2011

Begin: Novokuznetsk
On the Train toward: Abakan

We have breakfast again at the hotel: eggs, yogurt, tea, and orange juice. We checked out of the hotel, and head over to Father Dmetri’s parish for Sunday Mass. The congregation is called St. James. Father Dmetri renovated the flay himself, and it contains a beautiful small sanctuary. Demetri is a good celebrant, very much in command.

Today is the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, and the liturgical color is red. Dan is the preacher, and Father Alexey is his translator.

The service is dignified, but not what we would call “high church.” The altar is adorned with two beeswax candles. The pastors of the SELC do not chant, but the congregations sing their responses. The pastors do not genuflect, but they do elevate the elements as part of the consecration. The liturgy is printed in a bulletin – including the hymns. The SELC has no hymnal. This parish has an organist who plays a small keyboard on a stand. The room is crowded and the congregation sings very well. Most of the women have scarves on their heads.

There are three little girls who take communion – much sooner than in the LCMS.I sit next to Evgeny Dmetriev, whose journey to Lutheran Christianity and role in the establishment of this congregation can be found here.

After the service, we pose for a picture. Father Alexey is the stereotypical photographer. He is armed with his full-sized Nikon digital SLR with flash unit. After Alexey snaps a couple pictures, Father Andrei takes the camera and puts Father Alexey into the picture. He implores us to smile by explaining that we should say as the Americans do: “cheese.”

There then follows a brief order of anointing and laying hands on the sick.

We then head back to the kitchen for tea, coffee, cake, small sandwiches of salmon, salmon caviar, cucumbers, and salad greens. There are also cookies and candies. People are very friendly, though we struggle with the language barrier. I take pictures and some video. Evgeny wants to point out his niece to me. He doesn’t know the word, so he calls up Google Translate on his phone and shows me the word. The other two little girls are his daughters. His niece and daughters are studying English at school, and shyly speak with me a bit.

He tells the story of his daughters’ baptisms, but can’t come up with the English words, and is frustrated. He asks the church organist for help. She is maybe 30 years old, and I understand that she recently joined the congregation through Holy Baptism. She speaks enough English to relate the story.

The girls were baptized by a missionary – who it turns out was sent by the LCMS. However, he left, and the people had no church. This was the situation for a couple years until they contacted Bishop Vsevolod in Novosibirsk and asked if a SELC congregation could be established in Novokuznetsk.

The people are very happy with Father Dmetri.

The members of the congregation are gregarious and span all ages. The ladies implore us to eat and set more food in front of us than we could possibly eat. They also fuss at their husbands, who seem to be able to fuss right back at them. The people greet us again, and we all say our goodbyes.

Alexey, Dmetri, Dan, and I join Andrei in his small Toyota for a drive to see the sights. We are rather cozy in the back seat – three guys. There are very few minivans, SUVs, and trucks here. Gas is expensive and so most vehicles are small.

First, we go to the Novokuznetsk Aluminum Smelter run by Russian Aluminum – where the owner has recently erected memorials to Peter the Great and Stalin – the latter of whom still has some cultic devotion in Novokuznetsk – which used to be named for Stalin.

Smokestacks bellow and the smell of chemicals lingers in the air. Novokuznetsk is the third most polluted city in Russia. Father Alexey translates the Stalin monument, noting the irony and hypocrisy in the boasts on the bronze slab.

We get back into the car and exchange stories of political correctness. Alexey had written a thesis for college admission at the time of the end of the USSR. He wrote it about the novel 1984 – which had only recently become legal to read in Russia.

I told him about my Indian friend Prayag being fired from his job, and even getting a police escort (!) for cracking a private joke to me about the number of Indians on the job. This happened in the People’s Republic of New Jersey. I also told them about the marginalization of American historical figures and about the situation of political correctness in Canada.

Father Alexey related amusing accounts from his own childhood.

We drove to the Novokuznetsk Fort, and it was now raining heavily. Of course, my rain poncho is back at the church flat, and I did not bring my leather jacket for this trip (it is still in Novosibirsk. I’m a mess. I have things strewn all over the world.  We visit the museum - which is extremely modern and new.  There is not yet any English on any of the exhibits.  A bubbly college student who works at the Fort is eager to speak English with us, and does a very good job even though it is a second language for her.  There is even a non-human patron at the museum.

We went back to the church for a meal of leftovers and good conversation, including a good natured debate about whether or not a piece of bread with meat and cheese constitutes a sandwich. Father Demetri insisted that this was not a sandwich, but a butterbrot (a word borrowed from German that means literally “butter bread”). I think I synthesized the two opposing sides of the argument by folding up the piece of bread, thus enveloping the contents with bread on top and bottom.  Blessed are the peacemakers, and all that.

I took a nap for about an hour. The tea that I have been drinking and the utter lack of soft drinks has left me caffeine-deprived. I’m also still adjusting to the 12-hour time difference.

We gather our bags and Father Andrei drives us to the train station. It is large and busy. We wait inside under the board announcing the trains. Unlike the planes (which run according to local time), all the trains in Russia run on Moscow time – initially giving Dan and me a little confusion.

Father Dan points out a sign in Russian and asks me to read it. I sound out the Cyrillic letters and it says “service center.” They had to borrow a word from English – which suggests that the term was not used during Soviet times – a reflection on the state of customer service. Things are changing in the 20 years since the fall of Communism.

Finally, we need to board. We hurry down a light of stairs, go through doors, exit the building in the rain, climb a large flight of stairs (with steps covered in pools of splashing water), and then walk for about another quarter mile.

At last, the four of us – Dmetri, Alexey, Dan, and myself – board the train to Abakan. Boarding is no problem, and we are directed to a small berth with two bunks above and two below for the four of us.  We drink tea in the traditional railroad mugs - which are glasses that slip into an elegant pewter holder.

We're on a ten-hour trip, which is set to arrive at 6:40 am local time (in Abakan) which is 7:40 Novosibirsk time.

We have excellent conversation in our second-class room - private with bunks and a little table.  The seats open for storage, with additional storage over the room door.  It's nearly 1:00 am and the conversation is still going strong.  It is a real joy to be able to pass the time with brothers in the office of the holy ministry!  Dan is finally ready for bed.  He shows me where the bathroom is.  He reminded me of the scene in Transsiberian where they open the door to find that there were no more cars.

The ride is similar to Amtrak, as is the feel of the cabin.  Exhausted, I go to bed myself as the train rumbles on toward Khakassia.

Here are all of my pictures from Day Seven.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Siberian Adventure - Day 6 - July 2, 2011

Visit: Novokuznetsk

The sun fights its way through the thick gloomy gray clouds to press its way through the fifth story window of the Novokuznetskaya Hotel and manages to wake me up quite early. Although the quarters are tight, it is a nice place. The best part is the piping hot shower. There is no hot water right now in Novosibirsk, so Dan and I both comment about how nice the hot water is.

There is an amusing sign in the bathroom, posted in both Russian and (Google Translate-style) English that is apparently typical customer service in the former USSR. It ominously warns guests that using towels for any purpose other than their intended use would result in fines. It is signed by Administration.

We meet the other guys for breakfast at the snack bar on our floor. It seems to be the common formula to have a small restaurant on each floor of hotels. In Russian, it is called a буфет (buffet), but it isn’t actually a buffet at all. In the old Soviet way, the menu has four options: Option One, Option Two, Option Three, and Option Four – no substitutions. We order Option One, the basic breakfast of two eggs, over-easy, yogurt, tea (or instant coffee), and bread. The eggs, like a lot of the food here, is garnished with dill. It is a simple breakfast, but quite tasty.

We drive to the church in Novokuznetsk, which is actually an apartment purchased by the SLMS. The Rev. Dmetri Dotsenko serves there as pastor. The sanctuary is set up for our lectures.

First, Father Dmetri conducts a brief prayer service. Father Daniel gives a series of short lectures on Psalm 23 (which is actually Psalm 22 by the numbering of the Russian Bible – as they use the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament. Following Dan’s lecture, I give my presentation on the Augsburg Confession.

We break for lunch: a pasta salad, borscht, and a dish that is like a meatball surrounded by mashed potatoes. The people are very hospitable, and the ladies (most of whom in this parish cover their heads with scarves) keep giving us more food. We drink hot tea with cubes of sugar.

After lunch, Father Andrey and Father Alexey speak. Dan and I retire to a back room since we don’t understand Russian. He and I have excellent pastoral discussion. It is one of the side benefits of coming to Russia to get to know Dan both as a friend and as a brother in arms in the office of the holy ministry.

At the end of the lectures, about 4:00 pm or so, we greet everyone again. We head back to the hotel, and there is a huge festival going on in the neighborhood commemorating the anniversary of Novokuznetsk, bringing people out into the streets. Father Andrei goes to park the car, and comes back chuckling as the parking attendant is apparently very drunk. The streets are packed with people strolling, drinking, and listening to live music. We walk for a long time, talking, taking pictures, and people-watching.

We visit the monument to the USSR, a drab gray concrete monument shaped (ironically) like a crown. There is a display commemorating each of the republics of the now-defunct Union. The monument was apparently erected just a few years before the dissolution of the union. Alexey takes the opportunity to explain some of the ironies of Soviet history and the geographical complications resulting from this era that linger to this day.

For dinner, we decide to go to a mall food court, apparently a new thing for Siberia. We take a long walk to the mall, go upstairs, and wander around the food court. The mall is quite western, with a Subway, a Bowling Alley, and a movie theater showing Cars 2.  There is a difference of opinion about what to eat. So we decide to check out a competing mall’s food court. We walk some more, enter another mall, and make our way to the other food court. Again, opinions are divided. Lacking a consensus, we return to the first food court, traipsing all the way back. Again, someone vetoes the decision. Democracy is messy. I’m not sure how this procedure works, but it isn’t Robert’s Rules of Order. So, we head off to find another restaurant.

We settle on one that is a microbrewery/sports pub with an unpronounceable name (for me, anyway) just a half block from the hotel.

I order chicken wings and a blond beer. The wings are a little more authentic than the last ones I had. The restaurant is filled with TV screens. The ladies’ Wimbledon finals are in progress, and the Russian Maria Sharapova is playing. We Americans typically mispronounce her name – which is actually more like Sha-RA-po-va. She loses. Interestingly, the patrons are not paying that much attention.

Two scantily-clad women walk into the restaurant and come over to our table (of four priests not in clerical garb). They walk up to Dan and me and start talking. Since we don’t speak Russian, we are pleased to direct them to Father Alexey. After a very brief conversation, they leave abruptly. We laugh. We ask Alexey what he said to them. Father Alexey can be a master of understatement at times, and generally has an easygoing manner. He shrugged, smiled slightly, and said, “I told them we’re not interested.” He explained matter of factly that they were trying to get us to follow them to a bar that offers, in Father Alexey’s words, “erotic shows.”

We spent a good while hanging out in the restaurant, enjoying conversation and our food, and we walked back into the crowded street. It was finally starting to get dark. It seemed like everyone was standing around waiting – and Alexey speculated that the crowd was waiting for fireworks. At last, at the stroke of midnight, they began. It was a very good display.

There are a lot of drunk people in the streets, and others who were not tipsy just happy: people of all ages. Crowds squeeze chaotically onto the busses as longsuffering drivers wait patiently for their fares (in various stages of alcohol-consumption) to board.

We stroll across the street back to the hotel. Dan gets right to sleep, while I call Grace on SnapYap, copy pictures and videos to the computer, and upload a short video to facebook.

I wind down with a hot shower. I’m in bed at about 3:00 am as the partying goes on outside our open window.

Here are all of my pictures from Day Six.