True grit


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I’ve recently started playing pickup basketball again, and I’m remembering a lot of things I hadn’t know I had forgotten. One of them is the joys of defense. I would almost rather play defense than offense. I’ve always been that way, from when I first learned the game in grade school, through rec league basketball in high school (aka “church ball”, from where we drew our team members), and up till now.


Not me (I usually have my back to the basket).

Defense doesn’t require any particular talent, unlike offense. All it requires is hard work and a readiness to sweat. The willingness to get physical, push and shove, bang, and generally run into people doesn’t hurt either. That hard-nosed, collide, mix-it-up, defend the basket aspect of the game appeals to me. I also like that there’s no breaks on defense — if you take a break, you usually get burned and your man scores on you. It’s a high level of effort, all the time, with occasional spurts of flat-out exertion. Part of me craves that chance to work hard.

In high school I played football, among other things I did. My position was lineman. This was due in part to my frame and heredity — bigger and not so fleet of foot as some (go figure) — but also due to what the position was like. As one coach I had described it, being a lineman is an every-down proposition. Linemen do not get snaps off, unless they’re on the bench. Every time, you have to be ready to blow out of your stance and hit the other guy — hard. And be ready to do that for as long as you’re in. It’s facemask-length, brute strength, mano a mano combat. Even if you win this down, you might not win the next — so you have to be ready every time. There’s no breaks. Crunch, crunch, crunch…repeat, for as long as you’re on the field. The idea of toiling away in the trenches made a lot of sense to me, so I gladly took up the challenges of the position. I like a good slog, I guess.


Also not me…I was usually closer to, um, the sideline. Because I was often on it. (Still enjoyed football.)

So now it’s Lent, and maybe like me you’re finding Lent a bit of a slog at times. Part of the reason for this is that we were blessed with a baby boy in January (hi, Mark! Keep sleeping soundly! Daddy loves you!), and I could use a nap. Part of that is the fact that I am preaching my own midweek Lenten sermon series. I say this not to brag; it just is. Every pastor must figure out what works for him and his congregation in the area that they’re in, and this is what works best for me. To preach it any other way, whether using canned sermons or as part of a rotation with other area pastors, would almost be more work for me. It would be a different kind of slog — perhaps a less interesting one, more of a tiresome chore than the hard but interesting work that is preaching the Word. Every time I get to preach, I love it, but you understand how the flesh turns a duty that delights into a drag. I wasn’t interested in going down that road, so I do my own Lenten series.

ImageBut that’s not why Lent feels like a slog to me. It’s for a far more basic reason, one that any Christian — pastor or layperson — can appreciate. Every week I am confronted with my own weaknesses, my own sins of choice and convenience, as we ponder our Lord’s Passion in worship. Every week I have held up before me the results of my sin — you see Him, don’t you? See Him dying on the tree? That was for me. And you. That’s a hard fact to swallow at times, especially when it’s so inescapable, because we all like to pretend we’re good people — and the cross of Christ punctures that fond illusion of ourselves as good, moral people with emphatic finality. No, you’re not good. Neither am I. If we were, we wouldn’t be gathered at the foot of His cross, watching Him die in our place.
Lent can be a long slog for another reason. Contrition, repentance, sorrow over sin can seem tiresome after a while. It can seem like something you have to gin up in yourself before God will forgive you and love you — and frankly, we don’t care to go through all that effort. When we forget that true repentance is worked by God’s Word on us, just as faith is, then repentance becomes a chore — and not a particularly appetizing one.
Yet every year we take up the slog of Lent once again. Even if we don’t feel like it, we take up the Ten Commandments, or a passage from God’s Word, and we begin to probe our discontented hearts — listlessly at first, and then with real alarm and turning away from sin as the Word does its work. It always does. It always opens, lays bare our sin in all its malignant wretchedness — but it also shows us our Savior, the Savior who not only died for us, but did not stay dead. Instead, He rose back to life to grant us life and joy forever. Now we are in Holy Week, and the time of our rejoicing draws ever nearer…but first we have to slog the wrenching pathway through upper room, garden, judgment hall; Golgotha, and finally tomb — but not to remain there. He makes the journey sweet. He makes the slog a valuable one, as God’s work is done in us. May Jesus grant you a blessed Holy Week, friends.


Reading Life Backward: Why Hebrew is the Language of the Christian


Attention-grabbing headline — it’s still a good read even if you don’t know Hebrew.

Originally posted on :

Image Not German, not Latin, not even Greek, but Hebrew alone is the language of the Church that preaches Christ crucified. In this language the last is first and the first is last. Everything is read from right to left, from end to beginning, from what will be to what is. In the Church, what you see is never what you get. It is the opposite. Appearances are deceptive.

Israel is my servant; Jacob is my chosen; Abraham is my friend; the Church is my bride. So says God. But this flies in the face of what I see. For I see Israel black-eyed and bloody-lipped, wrapped in Babylonian chains. I see Jacob fleeing a would-be murderous brother, exiled far from the land of promise. I see old man Abraham loading the wood onto Isaac’s back, lifting the blade of sacrifice over the promised seed. I see the Church plagued with…

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“To me” — “for me”


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ImageI was correcting some catechism quizzes the other day when it struck me how personal Martin Luther made his explanation of the 3rd Article. Over and over, he makes salvation a personal matter — as it should be. One’s own faith and confession are paramount, for “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” but “he who does not believe will be condemned.” It’s always the Holy Spirit’s action in an individual sinner’s heart that makes the difference, as He uses His Word to convict sin and kill the sinner, so that Christ can raise that person to new life through regeneration and faith in Him. Just run your eye over Luther’s explanation of the 3rd Article, quoted below, and notice how often Luther puts things on an individual footing. You’ll be surprised — and hopefully, grateful, because God took that much trouble, and still does “richly and daily”, for a sinner such as you or me. (Thanks be to God.)

I believe that  I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ,  my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me  by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and  kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens,  and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps  it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian  Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all  believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the  dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting  life. This is most certainly true.

2013 in review


The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Onward, Christian soldiers!


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I realized something today that I had never thought of before. Today, Nov 11, is Veteran’s Day in the United States, where we remember all those who have served in our armed forces. Today the Christian Church commemorates St. Martin of Tours, who started a career as a Roman soldier before deciding that he might serve the Lord better as an evangelist and bishop (today we’d say pastor).

It’s an interesting coincidence that on the day where the nation thanks our soldiers, the Church also thanks her Lord for the service of a former soldier. In his service as a bishop, Martin displayed many of the virtues commonly seen in the military — energy, endurance, courage, a clear-sighted practicality, abundant loyalty and unswerving obedience to his “superiors” in the faith (for want of a better term — perhaps it would be better to say “fathers” in the faith). Several times he chose to follow Hilary, the bishop who was his teacher and pastor, into exile. Martin also displayed the compassion that comes from true strength, and the truest strength is faith in Christ. The story is told that during his days as a soldier, as he rode along, Martin saw a half-naked, shivering beggar by the side of the road. Martin immediately stopped, cut his cloak in two with his sword, and gave half to the freezing unfortunate. How many of us would hack our coats in half to give to a homeless person? Yet that’s exactly the sort of thing that Martin of Tours became known for.

All this reminds us, too, that proclaiming the Gospel is not for wimps. It takes a certain amount of dedication, fortitude, courage — in short, the grit that comes from a living trust in the Savior — to face down the challenges of life and the rage of the old enemy, Satan. It takes discipline to push your flesh down and not give in, and a certain amount of daring to not care what the world will say or what it will do to you for preaching Christ. “Endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ,” St. Paul advised Timothy, and that’s good advice for us all. Being a Christian is rarely easy or fun (the devil, the world, and your flesh see to that), but the victory that Christ gives in the end is worth it.

Lord God of hosts, Your servant Martin the soldier embodied the spirit of sacrifice. He became a bishop in Your Church to defend the catholic faith. Give us grace to follow in his  steps so that when our Lord returns we may be [found] clothed with the baptismal garment of righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

– from “A Year with the Church Fathers,” p.354

What Is A Lutheran Church?


All I can add is…yea and amen. This is most certainly true. Sasse knew his onions, as they say.

Originally posted on The First Premise:

OverwhelmedAmerican Lutheranism became an enigma to its environment.  For with the exception of a few remnants of old Reformed Churches, American Protestantism is not familiar with a doctrinal type of Christianity.  Only by means of this “rigid” (as the world calls it), firm, and clear position was Lutheranism able to maintain itself.  There was no Lutheranism that was receptive to the influences of the world, that was broad-minded, liberal, and modern.  There were indeed Lutherans who became liberal.  But then they ceased to be Lutherans. …

What is Lutheranism without the actual incarnation, without the miracles that belong to the enfleshed God-man, without the real presence of the body and blood of Christ, without the washing of regeneration?  There is no Lutheranism save that which is “orthodox.”  Anything else may be a beautiful, congenial humanitarianism and Christianity, but it is not Lutheranism.  That must be kept in mind, even when…

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Now I know what he means


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And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth. And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey. And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter. And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.

– Revelation 10:8-11

I had always, more or less, known intellectually what these verses were portraying: that St. John’s message was one that was sweet to his taste, as God’s Word always is to the devout soul (cf. Ps 19:10), but that that same message would stir up unpleasant emotions or reactions, even for the prophet himself. But I had never experienced it, at least that acutely, until just recently. Knowing that you have to tell someone you love something unpleasant, that they’re not holding up their end of things or not meeting the divine standard, can give a pastor a gut ache, quite bluntly.  You can feel the ache in the pit of your stomach. This is the sort of thing that gives people ulcers. Some may be more prone to stomach ailments due to stress (that’s why St. Paul told Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake), but sooner or later every pastor will face that kind of a situation. When I have in the past, I’ve realized that St. John’s words aren’t just a picture. They’re the literal truth. Your gut really does churn, because you’re conflicted: you dearly love the other person (or people) in Christ, and yet you know that you must preach the law to them and not shy away. That’s part of our calling. That’s how it was for Ezekiel, who is the source of this image in Revelation (read Ezekiel chapter 3 to see). That’s how it was for St. John, who had to endure being the last apostle and being exiled for the testimony of Jesus Christ. That’s how it is for every faithful pastor, who finds out that the ache passes and the sweetness of God’s Word becomes even more precious and endearing after the bitterness of the law and the taste of death have passed. His Word is the bread of our souls, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, and it heals the ache it causes — for pastor and for people.


Prison ministry, Lutheran style


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I ran across this interesting Luther quote while looking for something else. It shows that Lutherans have always been concerned with those society has cast away (as, indeed, all Christians should be.) Our Lord’s words in Matthew 25 still ring in our ears: “I was in prison and you came to visit Me.”

Perhaps even more revealing for us in modern-day Arminianized America is Luther’s insistence that he doesn’t pay any attention to the personal faith of the prisoner. Today many insist that someone needs to make a decision for Christ before they can be assured of forgiveness, but Luther puts his foot down quite firmly that God’s Word is objectively true. Take the penitent at his or her word, and let God’s Word be taken at face value as well. Sins are forgiven when God says they are! When someone confesses and trusts in Jesus for forgiveness, they are forgiven! Concerning oneself with the personal faith in the heart of the penitent, rather than their outward confession and the power of God’s Word and absolution, is a subtle trap of which all pastors need to beware. Our job as pastors is dispense God’s Word and Sacrament; we leave the judging of hearts to Him who knows what is in them, and to whom all creation will give account.

When a certain Bohemian said that the sacrament ought not to be given to those who have been convicted of a public crime and have been condemned in a public trial because there is danger that they might not believe, Luther responded, “This doesn’t concern the one who administers. His only concern should be that he offer the true Word and the true sacrament. I don’t worry about whether he [the communicant] has true faith. I give the sacrament on account of the confession which I have heard, the condition of his heart be what it may. I wager a thousand souls that the absolution and the sacrament are right. I must believe him when he says he is penitent. If he deceives me, he deceives himself. Nevertheless, the sacrament is true and the absolution is true. It is as if I were to give somebody ten pieces of gold and he took them to be only ten coppers. The gold is right in front of his eyes. If he doesn’t know what he’s taking, the fault is his and the loss is his.”

–from Luther’s Table Talk, No. 325: Administration of the Lord’s Supper to Convicts(Summer or Fall, 1532)

My Review of “Faith and Act” Featured on “The Shepherd’s Study”


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Once again I have the privilege of being the featured review on “The Shepherd’s Study,” our synod’s continuing education blog for pastors. This book was a real pleasure to review. Having a vibrant, authentic Lutheran Church in these gray and latter days is a pressing concern of mine, and this book can help us see more clearly toward that end. If you want to know what “real” Lutheranism looks like, sounds like, prays like — be sure to read the review! And the book will not disappoint, either. (The full review is below — you can see it posted here, along with other reviews and content.)
Faith and Act: The Survival of Medieval Ceremonies in the Lutheran Reformation
Walter Zeeden
Pastor Kurt Hagen


Faith and Act: The Survival of Medieval Ceremonies in the Lutheran Reformation, by Ernst Walter Zeeden. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012. 147 pages.

Prof. Dr. Ernst Walter Zeeden was a German historian of some note whose specialty was the late medieval and Reformation eras.

What does it mean to be truly “Lutheran?” What does “real” Lutheranism look like in practice? How should we expect genuine, faithful Lutheranism to be practiced? Sooner or later, every Lutheran who cares about his or her church – especially about the way that the Lutheran church worships or ought to worship – will ask questions similar to these. It’s inevitable. Lutherans seem to be poised in the no-man’s-land between Roman Catholicism and the Reformed – between the weight of traditional accretions of false doctrine on the one hand, and the slashing scalpel of unsanctified reason that tries to cut down everything to its own size, on the other. We honor and respect the heritage of our forefathers in the faith, but we struggle to focus on the Word, and the Word alone, as our only guide in faith and life. So what are we to do? What will real Lutheranism look like?

This is not a hypothetical question. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, towns and territories in Lutheran lands had their worship and church life ruled and guided by documents called church orders. These church orders laid out, often in exacting detail, just what was and was not permissible in worship and parish life. Since there was no separation of church and state, these church orders were enforced with both civil and ecclesiastical sanctions. (For instance, we cannot fine our members or put them in the stocks for neglecting preaching or the Sacrament, but they could, and probably did!) If we want to know for certain what Lutheranism looked like, sounded like, lived like in that bygone time, the church orders are the place to start. The church orders especially focus on how worship was to be conducted, and thus Zeeden’s book does as well.

In one of the endorsements of Faith and Act, William Weedon, Director of Worship for the LC-MS, enthuses, “[Faith and Act is] the next best thing to having a full set of Sehling gracing your shelf!” Just who Sehling was quickly becomes apparent: he was the first historian to make a thorough, systematic study of the Lutheran church orders, publishing the texts of many of them with commentary added.  Often throughout the text, Zeeden summarizes Sehling or presents a digest of his findings, but Zeeden’s approach – mature, balanced, fair, and crystal-clear – and his conclusions are ultimately his own. For those who have never studied the church orders, or who lack the necessary language skills or interest to tackle such a topic, but yet would like to get a taste of what the church orders contain, Zeeden’s book is made to order. Here lies the answer to the question, “What is Lutheranism?” – or perhaps more accurately, “What was Lutheranism?” Without answering the second question we cannot know the answer to the first.

It was both gratifying and interesting to note while reading Faith and Act just how much the Lutheran Church has managed to retain, or recover, over time. This should not be surprising, because the liturgy, among all the precious treasures of our heritage, continues to be celebrated among us. Many of the extra adornments involved in worship may have lapsed from common or frequent use among us since the days of the church orders. Among them we might mention a number of the ceremonies associated with the Holy Communion like genuflection or elevation of the consecrated elements, or the multiplicity of festivals and saints’ days taken over in large part from the medieval Church. At the same time, the basic shape of the liturgy is still present in many of our churches. The doctrine that the liturgy teaches and reinforces continues to be cherished and taught, which also breeds an appreciation for the liturgy – not only its beauty of expression, but its wonderfully solid, orthodox doctrine. The two—doctrine and practice—go hand in hand, and the history of Lutheranism that Zeeden documents demonstrates this well.

It’s interesting to note that as Calvinism encroached, Lutheranism’s ceremonies became the benchmark by which the truth was confessed. Our doctrine is already firmly founded on God’s Word. Should not the ceremonies of our worship confess that doctrine visibly – especially in an age where people are hyper-sensitive to any disconnect between words and actions? We should at least consider expanding the range of ceremonies we use, for the sake of confessing Christ clearly.

At the same time, the life of the ordinary people, and the clergy who served them, continued after the Reformation as before – only with Lutheran preachers and pastors complaining about the laxity and worldliness of their people. It provided some backhanded encouragement to see that our Lutheran forebears struggled under many of the same conditions imposed by the world and the flesh that we do today. People skipped church, misused church property, battled with their clergy over issues monumental and trivial, and tried to chisel their shepherds of the material support due them, back then just as often as now. Superstition and people’s own ideas substituted for the Word of God more often than they would have liked to acknowledge. We see these same problems in our own day. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

One of the benefits of reading this book is the historical background it provides. As an example: for those who have wondered about the vehement, acid broadside Luther launches in Article XV of the Smalcald Articles, where he rips into the papists for baptizing bells, among other things, and charging good money for it, Zeeden provides some background. It turns out that the church bells were often tolled during storms as a reminder for the people to pray for God’s mercy and protection, and over time the tolling and the bell itself occupied significance in the minds of the people (71-72). Superstition gradually replaced the worthwhile reason that the bells were rung in the first place, and it is against that superstition that Luther responds.

Zeeden’s analysis of the church orders provides welcome context that frees us from ignorance and from Lutheran myths. The abuses that the Reformation sought to correct were not remedied overnight. Some took a long time to root out. Others are endemic to human nature and still encountered today. Lutherans might be prone to speaking or thinking as if Luther found everything wrong in the church in his day, and after he took his stand and inspired others to follow, everything fell back naturally into place and remained there, pristine and unruffled, to this day. Reading works like Zeeden’s can guard us against both traps: thinking that the medieval church was all wrong, and thinking that just because Luther stampeded across the stage of history, everything was hunky-dory in his considerable wake. Both mindsets are half-truths at best. Zeeden helps us see our own heritage more clearly. For that he deserves our thanks.

Too precious

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

– Ps 139:14-16


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