Archive for January, 2010

A new friend in Christ named John Book was kind enough to stop by this site, and on my “About this site” tab he shared some honest observations about his past and present experiences with the Lutheran denomination, many of them negative. It brought to my mind a colleague of mine named Paul, who was pastor of an Evangelical Free Church in the same Texas town where I was pastor of a very small Lutheran church 15 years ago. As a younger Christian man he had belonged to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, when he experienced a rather dramatic sense of call to pastoral ministry (I forget the details, but I remember it was dramatic). He contacted a church official, partly to find out how to become an LCMS pastor, and partly just to share the story of his call and new sense of closesness to Christ. Paul exuberantly told his story, fully expecting the church official to share the joy. Instead, the official listened to the story in stony silence, didn’t acknowledge it in any way, and proceeded to explain the LCMS pastoral training and call process in a detached, businesslike tone. Lutheranism lost Paul right then and there, and he has ministered in a couple of different Evangelical Protestant denominations ever since.

Many Christians have felt let down by their church. As a Lutheran I’m sorry to say that Lutheran churches have let lots of people down. Other brands have also had their failings. Richard, another pastor friend of mine in the same Texas town, was pastor of the Pentecostal Church of God. He and I shared a love for really digging into the deep content of Scripture. He lamented to me more than once that many of his people really didn’t seem to have a desire to grow and advance in their knowledge and application of Biblical teaching. They just wanted to feel the same feelings and have the same elated experience week after week. We Lutherans tend to be a lot more subdued at church than Pentecostalists (with some exceptions; there are Charismatic Lutherans, for example), but we often have our own form of the same failing: we like to be comfortable, non-controversial, and safe, more than we like to learn something new that might force us to grow, get off our duffs, and rock the boat.

One of my personal beliefs about the Christian Church is that as a whole it ought to look quite a bit more like the Salvation Army, that is, we should be very conspicously working to reach out to the poor and needy, to the point that it’s one of the main things we’re known for. As it is, many churches I’ve been part of are very practiced at finding reasons why the plight of the poor is someone else’s problem.

The Salvation Army has its failings, of course, but I respect them to the point that I would seriously consider joining them, were it not for the fact that do not practice Baptism and Communion. I don’t stand in judgment over them for that, but I simply couldn’t live with that myself. Awhile back I took an online quiz that would supposedly determine what denomination is the best fit for you. My Number 1 answer was interesting: “Orthodox Quaker.” I think it’s because my answers reflected a blend of old-fashioned orthodox theology with a concern for social justice and the environment. I was intrigued enough to investigate further, but alas, I found the same issue: Orthodox Quakers do not practice Baptism or Communion.

21 years ago I made a brief but memorable visit to English L’Abri. I was a seminary student at the time, and towards the end of my visit a friend told me that when I had first arrived, some of the other students had been turned off by the fact that I was studying to be a pastor. At that time much of L’Abri’s ministry was to young Christians who felt alienated from and/or let down by the Church as an institution, and I, as a prospective church leader, stood for the very thing that had hurt them. But, my friend told me, I had won them over by being a “good person.”

One of the main formative spiritual experiences of my youth was a great non-sectarian Bible study group my family was part of during my teens. It had begun as a follow-up study group about a film series by L’Abri founder Francis Schaeffer, and it grew into a rich, unique experience of the family of God. It was simply a group of people who loved to enjoy fellowship together, dig into the Word, and apply it to all areas of life. Members of the group included Lutherans, Catholics, a Baptist, members of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and “House Church” people. One of the great letdowns of my life is that churches I’ve been part of usually haven’t measured up to the quality of the fellowship and vision of that little group that I experienced when I was quite young. Another loss is that it’s no longer possible for me to be part of an all-laypersons’ Bible study, because it stops being one as soon as I show up. Some expect “all the answers” from me as clergy, others are afraid I might find something wrong with what they say, and still others close the door because for them I stand for the hurt they’ve received from the Church or from another clergy person.

There are four different denominational bodies I think I could function in; three of them are Lutheran, the other is the Evangelical Covenant Church. I stay in the church body I’m in (the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations) because I think it has a core of good, balanced, Biblical teaching and a rich heritage, because it is a family of people that I know and love, because I’m free to be my maverick self, because it’s open to input from outside (indeed, it would be downright cultish if a group of only 30,000 people in the whole world didn’t think they had anything to learn from others) and because it’s what the LORD has given me; also, my status as clergy in this church body didn’t come cheap. As much as I would love to wander around and search for the perfect Salvation Army/Orthodox Quaker/L’Abri/Old Bible Study group church, I think God’s calling me to impart something of the vision in the setting where He has already brought me.

Having said all that, I’d invite all to use this post as an open thread about whatever is on your heart about these matters. Our key guiding verse is James 1:19, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” I’m especially not here to try to “fix things” if your journey led you away from Lutheranism, or something like that. I’m just here to listen, share, and grow. I like Francis Schaeffer’s approach, described here:

Schaeffer … used to say that “if he had only one hour with someone, he would spend 55 minutes asking them questions and 5 minutes trying to say something that would speak to their situation once he understood a little more about what was going on in their heart and mind.”


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Today Mars makes its closest approach to Earth for about two years and two months, though it isn’t one of its closest close approaches. At a bit over 70 million miles, it’s twice as far away as it was during its close approach in August, 2003, its closest approach for thousands of years, when I brought my big homebuilt reflector telescope out of mothballs for the occasion. I didn’t feel like pulling out of the garage on this bitterly cold morning in Minnesota (the big scope weighs 95 pounds), so I parked my little 5-pound refractor on the deck instead for the ceremonial look as it hung in the western sky. As usual, it looked like a tiny luminescent orange. I couldn’t discern much as far as surface markings – I usually do better with the big scope.

Saturn is also visible in the early morning sky these days, so of course I took a look. I never get tired of looking at it.

A few tips for newbie astronomers: as fascinating a place as Mars is, it’s overrated as a beginner’s target. Every two years and two months it comes close enough for a couple of months of OK viewing, then it recedes and becomes a very tiny pale dot for a couple of years. During its closest approaches one can often see vague surface details even with a small telescope, but discerning them is a subtle art that’s easier if you’ve already gotten some practice viewing other celestial objects.

My favorite planets for telescopic viewing (and thanks to Pluto’s recent demotion I can honestly say that I’ve seen all the planets with my own eyes) are Jupiter and Saturn. They consistently reward the viewer for 9-10 months out of the year, every year. Jupiter’s four largest moons are visible even with binoculars, and are constantly changing their configuration as they orbit. A small telescope reveals Jupiter’s atmospheric bands, and makes the moons easier to view as well. Distant Saturn looks tiny and jewel-like, and it only takes about 25x magnification to see the rings clearly, but at least about 40x is better.

A newbie astronomer will need to get used to the art of aiming a telescope, and the best, easiest target is the Moon. Before I got my large telescope as a teen, I thought that the planets, etc. were more interesting than the Moon, but ever since the lunar landscape first filled the eyepiece of the 8″ reflector, I’ve been hooked. I love the Moon, because there’s so much to see.

So, my tips in short are:

1. Start with the Moon.
2. Continue with Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. Venus isn’t my favorite planet, but its changes of phase are fascinating.
3. Then move on to Mars and Mercury, which I would class as intermediate-level objects. Of course, if they’re right there in the sky waiting to be viewed, go right ahead and look. But it will be easier if you’ve already practiced with the beginning-level objects above.
4. I’m such a Moon-and-planet guy I sometimes forget to mention the stars, nebulae, and other objects outside the Solar System. The evening sky in Winter and early Spring holds fascinating wonders such as the Pleiades, the Hyades, and the Orion Nebula, which looks nebular even in binoculars and is easily found in the “sword” of the grand constellation Orion.
5. Don’t go bananas with magnification. As a rule, use the lowest magnification that will serve your purpose. Low magnification makes it easier to find things, since you can see a larger area in your view. You will be amazed what stellar (literally and figuratively!) views you will see even with 7x-8x binoculars – stunning starry fields, the Milky Way, many lunar craters, nebulae, Jupiter’s moons, the crescent phase of Venus, since when it’s crescent it’s getting close to Earth. With my small telescope I use 41x magnification 85% of the time, and with the large telescope I use 96x magnification 85% of the time. Under ideal conditions I’ve occasionally pumped the big scope up to 360x, but the fact is, one rarely sees anything at high magnification that can’t already be seen, more clearly and brightly, at lower magnification. With higher magnification the image is dimmer, since you are simply spreading the same amount of light over a larger area – like butter scraped over too much bread, as Bilbo Baggins would say.
6. Don’t skimp on your equipment. I manage well with my small $60 Walmart telescope, but it helps that I already had experience with the big scope. The Walmart scope is a bit hard to aim, and it has some “chromatic aberration,” a sort of rainbow effect that shows up with small, bright objects. Also, the eyepieces that came with it weren’t much to write home about. It performs much better with a different eyepiece I bought from the Orion Telescope Company. If you’re a beginner and want some great views on a budget, I’d recommend you check out Orion’s website, as they have a few beginner scopes in the $50-100 range that would be very easy to use, optically excellent, and perfectly sufficient to show you all the celestial wonders I’ve mentioned, and more. I’ve also seen a spotting scope on eBay for $20 that zooms from 15x to 45x. That would be plenty enough power to view everything I’ve mentioned, and would be extremely portable as well.

My “tips in short” got longer as they went along! I hope they’re helpful. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Psalm 19:1

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This old classic TV theme song was just running through my head, so I decided to share it with my faithful readers just because it’s fun:

I was hoping also to include a clip of this song being sung by the “Blues Brothers” in the 1980 movie, since that’s actually where I first heard the song, but the clip I found on YouTube included dialogue with a bit of profanity in it, and I don’t put things like that on my site.

The “Rawhide” theme is a prime example of how Dimitri Tiomkin took a sound with him from his native Ukraine and turned it into the sound of the American West.

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This article first appeared in the West Douglas County Record on January 7, 2010.

It was just an old one-use camera with a few pictures left on it, that we decided we should finish out and have the pictures developed. But today when I picked up the prints, it took me on an unexpected journey to another place and time.

The most recent pictures were first, some scenic shots from our little visit this past September to the Glacial Lakes State Park, south of Starbuck. Then, an interesting surprise: a picture of a younger, beardless me with our two dogs; Missy, who went to a different home almost eight years ago, and Pluto, still our faithful companion today at age fourteen. After that, some nice photos of Autumn foliage, probably taken by my wife at least ten years ago, as well as a few garden pictures.

Then came the real surprise. The next photo was of my old 1973 Ford Galaxie that I drove in the mid-1990s, parked in front of a large stone church building on a sunny day. What church was it? Slowly it dawned on me. It was First Lutheran Church in Oklahoma City, where I attended a regional pastors’ retreat in October, 1995. At that time I was pastor of a very small church in the very large state of Texas. We enjoyed great fellowship at that retreat in Oklahoma City, and I would love to go back to the great bed-and-breakfast where we stayed. But a shadow encroached upon that retreat, because of a terrible event that had happened six months before, only eight blocks from First Lutheran Church where we met.

I sighed as I realized what would appear in the next pictures: the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. Today there is a dignified Memorial on that site, but when I was there, six months after that tragic day, the remains of the building had been bulldozed, and the block was fenced off. It almost looked like a common construction site, but with two big differences. The fence was covered with wreaths, notes, t-shirts, and other makeshift memorials, and the surrounding buildings bore severe damage to windows, roofs, and walls. The scene was very quiet. There weren’t crowds of people, but there were always a few people coming, spending a few quiet moments at the fence, then going on their way. Feeling moved to leave some memorial of my own, I fetched my cello, played a few selections that seemed fitting, then pulled a few strands of horsehair from my bow and tied them to the fence and went on my way. I saw it all once again as I looked through my remaining photos, and I finally recalled dimly that I had hastily picked up that disposable camera at a convenience store in Oklahoma City to record what I saw that day. That camera had now completed a long fourteen-year journey.

Human beings are like old rolls of film. Every one has a story to tell, but it will go untold if it isn’t “developed.” I thought of the stories I heard from a friend who was an Army chaplain at the time, ministering to recruiting stations throughout the South Central USA, including one that had been located in the Alfred Murrah Federal Building until April 19, 1995. Oklahoma City was his War Zone. Others have stories of their own War Zones, their own sorrows and joys, hopes, disappointments, insights, and life lessons. Someone you think you know may have a story to tell that would really surprise you. Take some time this new year to listen with new ears to someone else’s story, perhaps a relative or friend, or someone you know needs a listening ear. And take some time to read or listen to the many life stories found in the Bible, especially one that’s so important that it’s told four times, the life of Jesus. “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:31

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One cold winter a young father and mother and their daughter and son struggled to make ends meet. The father came down with viral pneumonia and couldn’t work all winter long. Once he was so weak that he couldn’t get off the floor while he was taking care of his two-year-old boy, who climbed all over his Daddy, because he thought he was playing!

Thanks to the generosity of friends and other benefactors, they were able to get by, but they didn’t know from one day to the next how they would pay each bill. One day the man came who delivered the fuel bills in their neighborhood. He was a nice man, but their hearts sank as he came, because they had no idea how they would pay the bill. But soon their spirits soared, because as they opened the envelope, written across the bill were the words PAID IN FULL.

They thought maybe the fuel bill man had paid it himself, but they never knew for sure. But we know who paid in full our entire debt of sin: “And the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it! (John 1:5)”

By the way, the young man was my father. It made him angry when I climbed all over him, not realizing he was sick, but later on it became one of his favorite stories. Merry Christmas, one and all!

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