Death and Life

Cross Autumn

Today’s quote is from Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970): “Who knows what death is? Maybe life is nothing more than a beam of light passing slowly over our changing faces. Maybe we had a face before we were born that will live on after all our perishable faces have passed away?”

Although I had never heard of this man, I discovered from a brief Google search that he was “a German novelist who created many works about the terror of war.” One of those works was All Quiet on the Western Front, translated into 12 languages and made into a 1930 Hollywood film.

His questions reflect the mystery of death, which I always address in funeral sermons. One moment a person is warm, animated, conversant, mobile, and alive. The very next moment the body of that same person is cold, still, silent, vacant, and dead. How can it be that the body of a beautiful woman or a handsome man can over time deteriorate into a pile of dust and a box of bones?

To me, the most easily understandable explanation of life and death is that everyone has a body in which that person’s soul or spirit, that person’s real being, resides as long as he or she is living on this earth. When death occurs, that person’s soul or spirit leaves the body behind and moves on to a different existence.

Simply stated, a person who dies takes off his or her body. A long time ago that metaphor was shared with me by our daughter who at that time was only three years old. To this day, over 40 years later, I still turn to that insightful understanding when death occurs. Thank you, dear Angie!

Christians believe that the different existence a person experiences after earthly life is eternal life in heaven, by God’s saving grace in the person of Jesus, Savior of the world. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus on a cross, the real being that resides in a person’s body for the duration of his or her lifetime on earth goes through physical death to eternal life. Eternal means everlasting, undying, perpetual, endless, ceaseless, timeless, infinite, immortal, and never ending.

“Maybe life is nothing more than a beam of light passing slowly over our changing faces?” I believe it’s more than that. I believe what David wrote: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:1, 13)

And I believe what Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)

That’s my hope! That’s my belief! That’s my comfort! That’s God’s promise!

 

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A Time for Everything

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Today’s quote comes from Holy Scripture in Ecclesiastes 3:

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.

These words were written by King Solomon, son of King David and builder of the temple in Jerusalem. Solomon goes on in this chapter to talk about other times, seasons, and activities in addition to the ones quoted above.

His list includes a time for killing, healing, tearing down, building up, crying, laughing, grieving, dancing, scattering stones, gathering stones, embracing, turning away, keeping, throwing away, tearing, mending, being quiet, speaking, loving, hating, war, and peace. Quite a list!

The impetus for selecting the quote above is this past Monday’s arrival of the season of spring. For everything there is a season…a time to plant and a time to harvest. Although spring has just arrived, much planting has already occurred. Harvest will come.

Spring is my favorite season, partly because it brings vast fields of wildflowers. Even before the official arrival of spring we’ve been blessed by the beauty of Bluebonnets and other strikingly gorgeous blankets of blooms across the fields and along the highways of the great state of Texas.

Other parts of the country have similar but different floral beauty. Even a simple list of official state flowers in the U.S. includes an impressive variety of natural beauty, from the Camellia in Alabama to the Indian paintbrush in Wyoming and everything in between. Check out the list at: http://www.50states.com/flower.htm

Martin Luther has an interesting quote of his own in this regard: “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” He also said: “Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in spring time.”

Indeed, this is a season for planting, harvesting, and thanking God for his grace, displayed this season in the flowers that add beauty to his earth and to our life!

Ordinary Men

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Here’s a quote about jury selection from G.K. Chesterton: “Our civilization has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be entrusted to trained men. When it wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing around. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the founder of Christianity.”

Interesting thought, especially the final sentence. How ironic it is, therefore, that a national church body I know and love recently voted to withdraw its previous blessing that gave permission for partially trained but carefully supervised “Licensed Lay Deacons” to conduct a ministry of word and sacrament in congregations unable to find or afford a regularly trained and ordained clergyman.

Perhaps more than ironic, I should describe this decision as regrettable. People who know the dates of birth of active clergy in our denomination have announced for more than a decade that in the next ten years at least 50% of these active clergy will reach retirement age. Some will continue to serve, whether for purely altruistic or simply financial reasons. But if that were not to happen, we would need 300 new pastors each year for the next ten years just to stay even.

Put those stats together with this year’s entering seminary student enrollment numbers of fewer than 100 at our two seminaries, combined, and the problem becomes transparently eminent and undeniably urgent. For each of the past several years only approximately 100 new pastors have entered the ministry. That leaves a shortfall of 200 pastors per year, with no sign of improvement, at least in the near future.

The 12 men selected by “the founder of Christianity” were indeed ordinary men. Yet while their affiliation with Jesus did not render them exempt from the faults and frailties of other humans, their faith became strong enough to ignite a movement that exists to this very day. Furthermore, their faith was strong enough to transform them into martyrs.

With all my heart I believe, and through my experience I know, that the same qualities of conviction and commitment that motivated those 12 men two millennia ago still exist in the hearts and lives of ordinary men called by God and set apart by the church today. No doubt some of those men are not in a position to “sell their cow and burn their plow” in order to move to our seminaries in St. Louis or Fort Wayne to become regular pastors.

Yet they have gifts and calling to do what our church recognized in 1989 would be a blessing to many. Sounds like the same thing done by the founder of Christianity many years ago.

Listening and Understanding

listeningToday I have two quotes:

  • “A good listener is not only popular everywhere but after a while he knows something.” – Wilson Mizner
  • “It is better to understand a little than to misunderstand a lot.” – Anatole France

One of the difficulties most people have when listening to another is the tendency to stop listening and to start thinking about how to reply, especially if the reply is a rebuttal. The problem that develops is that the listener may not truly understand the speaker’s perspective and rationale, which leads to greater difficulty in reaching a point of agreement between the two.

Years ago I learned a technique simply called “active listening.” In an Effectiveness Training seminar, participants were divided into teams of two. One participant was given a written script with directions to read the script to the other participant, verbatim. The listener was instructed to try to repeat as nearly as possible the exact words that had been read.

While the exercise seemed rather sophomoric at the time, it worked quite well. The listener repeated the words of the reader, who instinctively nodded his head in appreciation for the fact that the listener actually listened. The reader went on to speak in greater detail about the topic of the written script. Before long there was a greater sense of mutual respect, simply because the listener was actually listening and understanding instead of trying to formulate a response.

While not a magic wand, the art of active listening is essential to understanding. Agreement often comes from understanding, even if it takes the form of agreeing to disagree.

God is glorified when people communicate with one another with love and respect. Listening and understanding are essential components of that process!

Maturing Oaks and Mighty Trees

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Last week’s quote was from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” In my article I listed some new parachurch organizations that had recently been created within The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). This week I’ll add two ministries that could be described as “maturing oaks” and two others that could be called “mighty oaks.”

“Maturing oaks” are Pastoral Leadership Institute and Grace Place Wellness Ministries. “Mighty oaks” are Lutheran Women’s Missionary League and International Lutheran Laymen’s League.

Pastoral Leadership Institute and PLI International – PLI was begun nearly 20 years ago by the vision of eight LCMS pastors who developed a brochure designed to train pastors in the art of leading large and growing congregations. Hundreds of LCMS pastors and spouses in the United States and 12 countries worldwide have been led to lead through PLI, which is devoted to “empowering pastors, spouses and other church leaders for wider influence for the sake of the gospel in their communities and effective leadership in their congregations.” http://www.plileadership.org/

Grace Place Wellness Ministries – Grace Place was founded in 1999 by Dr. John D. Eckrich, a St. Louis physician who provided health care to many pastors, teachers, seminarians, and their families for more than 35 years. During his practice he observed a recurring pattern of stress related illnesses among many workers and families he served. Through retreats, workshops, and programs, Grace Place’s mission is “nurturing vitality and joy in ministry by inspiring and equipping church workers to lead healthy lives.” http://www.graceplacewellness.org/

Lutheran Women’s Missionary League – The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML) is the official women’s auxiliary of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. For almost 75 years the LWML has focused on “affirming each woman’s relationship with Christ, encouraging and equipping women to live out their Christian lives in active mission ministries and to support global missions.” Also known as Lutheran Women in Mission, LWML will celebrate its 75th anniversary June 22-25 in Albuquerque. In its history LWML members have contributed “mites” equaling millions of dollars for mission work in and around The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod! http://www.lwml.org/home

International Lutheran Laymen’s League (ILLL) – Also an official auxiliary of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, ILLL is comprised of dedicated supporters and volunteers “active in ministry domestically and around the world.” Its ministry is currently expressed through “a wide range of Christ-centered outreach efforts under the name of Lutheran Hour Ministries (LHM).” Originally called the Lutheran Laymen’s League (LLL) upon its formation in 1917 (now 100 years old), the organization was renamed the International Lutheran Laymen’s League in 1972 “to reflect its growing impact globally.” The LHM ministry proclaims the gospel to millions around the world. https://www.lhm.org/

It’s my hope and prayer that the terms “maturing oaks” and “mighty oaks” are seen as complimentary, which is my intention. Terry and I have been involved with and supportive of each of these organizations for many years. I am happy to commend all of them for your prayers and support.