An Unexpected Blessing

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Credit: MustangJoePixabay 

This past week I spoke with several fellow pastors, as I often do. One reoccurring question asked by almost every one of them was what I expected church to be like after the COVID-19 pandemic is slowed to the point that life might return to some semblance of normality.

My answer was a prediction that when people are allowed to gather in groups larger than 10, the return to public worship services will probably be gradual. Slow at first because of lingering anxiety about exposure to the virus. Then, over time, the number of worshipers might grow.

My further prognostication was that pastors and other worship leaders who have been live streaming or pre-recording worship services dare not stop that practice. Why? Simply but significantly because the audiences reached by the medium of video are proving to be much larger than the number of worshipers who used to sit in the pew on a regular basis.

Pastors tell me that the Easter Sunday online audience was twice as large as the typical Easter Sunday in person attendance. They also tell me that the online audiences include both active members, previously delinquent members, and non-members. It also includes strangers who call or email with words of appreciation for the music, the message, and the medium.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise. But it is. An unexpected blessing!

COVID-19 and Resurrection

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Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Obviously the greatest impact of COVID-19 on life in the world today is the death of thousands of people. Lots of medical researchers and hypothesizers are trying to figure out the best ways to flatten the curve, to save the lives of those infected, and to create a vaccine that works.

Another notable result of this pandemic is that many events have had to be postponed, such as weddings planned for months in advance and funerals that allow little if any pre-planning. Brides and grooms can be flexible. But it’s painful to delay the grief process as the world waits for coronavirus to be brought to its knees.

In the midst of these new but hopefully temporary realities, Holy Week is upon us. The customary worship experiences of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday are replicated online, from empty sanctuaries, by small choruses of disbursed voices, softly and remotely spoken words from Scripture of the life and death of Jesus.

Then, on Easter Sunday morning, the responsive greetings, this year also spoken remotely: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Especially at Easter, those of us who have lost loved ones from this life on earth cannot help but recall the joys and sorrows, difficulties and blessings that were fruits of the relationships we experienced with those dear people. That list includes beloved parents, grandparents, spouses, children, grandchildren, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and dear friends.

They are gone but not forgotten. At this Eastertide, we give thanks for the love we shared with them, and they with us, during the times of our togetherness.

Even more importantly, we look forward to that day of reuniting with them, of seeing them again, of occupying that immortal, spiritual, imperishable body of which Paul in 1 Cor. 15 so intriguingly speaks. All because of our hope and God’s promise of resurrection.

Resurrection. I say that word with conviction when I speak The Apostles Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting!” And I speak that belief when I conduct a funeral: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:54-57)

COVID-19: Where is your sting? Where is your victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Terry and I pray for each of you a blessed Festival of the Resurrection of our Lord!

Notre Dame Fire and Communion on the Moon

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Credit: Earthrise by William Anders

Much has already been written and reported about the tragic fire causing severe damage to Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral earlier this week. My sadness joins that of many in the world.

Historical structures with cornerstones dating back to the early 12th century are priceless. More importantly, notwithstanding differences between Lutherans and Catholics, this cathedral has served as a place of worship for nine centuries. I hope and pray reconstruction will occur.

Today is Maundy Thursday, observed in the Christian Church throughout the world as the anniversary of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It happened as Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. Biblical accounts are Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23.

On several occasions I’ve written about the Lord’s Supper, aka Holy Communion, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Eucharist, etc. But I don’t recall writing a Perspectives article that tells the story of Communion on the moon. So here we go.

Apollo 11 landed the first two human beings on the moon in July 1969. Those of us old enough to do so remember it well. It also marked the first occasion on which a Christian took the sacrament of Communion on an astronomical body other than Earth.

This event took place in the interval between the lunar module’s landing on the moon on July 20, 1969 and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface several hours later. During that period of time, astronaut Buzz Aldrin privately observed Holy Communion using elements he had brought with him to the moon.

Aldrin was an elder at his Presbyterian Church in Texas during this period in his life. Knowing that he would soon be doing something unprecedented in human history, he felt he should mark the occasion somehow, and he asked his pastor to help him. The pastor consecrated a communion wafer and a small vial of communion wine. And Buzz Aldrin took them with him out of the Earth’s orbit and on to the surface of the moon.

On the silent surface of the moon, nearly 250,000 miles from home, he read a verse from the Gospel of John and quietly took communion. Here is his own account of what happened:

“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.’”

“I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute Mission Control had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly.”

“Then I ate the tiny host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: The very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements. Neil [Armstrong] watched respectfully, but made no comment to me at the time. I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”

Not incidentally, another astronaut has done the same. Col. Jeff Williams, longtime faithful member of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Houston, communed numerous times during his lengthy stays aboard the International Space Station in 2006, 2009, and 2016, with sacramental elements consecrated at Gloria Dei.

I spoke with Jeff and his former pastor, Rev. John Kieschnick (my second cousin-once removed and very close friend) this week. Both men humbly and thankfully honor this wonderful spiritual and sacramental blessing from our Lord Jesus.

Regardless of where it is received, whether in a centuries old cathedral or on the moon, Holy Communion is a precious gift of God. It’s as close as a human can come to Christ this side of heaven. Receive it with a heart of thanks for God’s love, made real in the human being named Jesus, Savior of the world and Lord of the universe!

Terry and I pray that your observances of Holy Week and Triduum, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, will be blessed. And we pray for you and your family a joyous Festival of the Resurrection of our Lord!

Resurrection!

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As most Americans are aware, this is Holy Week. The days ahead include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord, aka Easter.

Amid all the aspects of the secular observance of Easter, Christians focus on the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. It’s an awesome story, recorded in the New Testament in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20. I highly recommend you read all four accounts this week.

Lots of people will be in church this Sunday. Some are those lovingly referred to as CEO Christians: Christmas and Easter Only. Be that as it may, I hope and trust that pastors will focus not on the sporadic attendance of some but on the reality of death and our belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” (Apostles’ Creed: circa 390 AD)

This statement of belief in the resurrection provides hope and comfort, especially at the time of death of loved ones and friends. Earlier this week I wrote a letter to a friend whose wife passed away suddenly last week. Here are some of the words I wrote:

The author of Ecclesiastes writes: “There is an appointed time for everything  … A time to give birth and a time to die … A time to weep and a time to laugh … A time to mourn and a time to dance …” (Eccl. 3:1-2, 4) The times of dying, weeping, and mourning are not happy times.

That’s true whether a loved one dies after a lengthy illness or with no advance warning. At a time like this we echo the words of Simon Peter to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) That’s where we go at a time like this. We go to Jesus.

Many years ago his loved ones went to his grave, grieving deeply. They had lost the one who had been expected to change the history of the whole world. But he had died, as all men do, and his was a bitter and painful death.

Yet as those mourners came, by a miracle of the grace and power of God, their grief was turned to joy, their despair to faith and confidence! Jesus had risen from the dead!

Ever since that first Easter morn, believing people have come to the grave of their loved ones in confidence and trust … weeping, mourning, but not despairing, not lost, awaiting the promised resurrection of their loved one and the new heaven and new earth that lie ahead. (Rev. 21:1)

Terry and I pray that your times of weeping and mourning will be mitigated by the joy and hope that come from the peace of God that passes all understanding. We love you and thank God for you! A Blessed Festival of the Resurrection! That’s what I mean when I say: “Happy Easter!”

Spring has Sprung!

FlowersThat’s a saying that may or may not be grammatically correct. As a matter of fact, Spell Check on my computer took a second look at it, with a squiggly frown on its electronic face.

Many in our land have been inundated with an unusually brutal winter. Records have fallen in numerous categories, particularly total snowfall in the Northeast. But not in Texas.

Here in central Texas winter was more messy than record breaking, with many misty and chilly but not frigid days of drizzle and dreariness. At least for the moment those things have given way to sunshine and warmth, the stuff we’re accustomed to experiencing here at this time of year.

Another sign of spring in Texas is the eruption of colors in the landscape. Earlier this week I was traveling along a road that provides a multi-mile view of rolling hills and valleys. I saw beautiful shades of green, provided by newly-leafed trees awaking from their winter hibernation.

In addition, I saw some of my favorite wildflowers—bluebonnets—which seem to have appeared overnight. Some of the uninformed mistakenly call them bluebells. That’s the ice cream company. The flower is a bluebonnet. But I digress.

Along with spring comes the Festival of the Resurrection of our Lord. In many ways the things I’ve just described about spring are subtle seasonal reminders of the awakening, the eruption, the appearance of our Lord Jesus from his time in the tomb. Thankfully, his season of embalmed hibernation was brief and temporary. Unlike spring, his reappearance and reemergence are not seasonal but eternal.

Remember that reality as you walk next week with billions of Christians around the world the path of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It’s the week we Christians call Holy.

Many blessings to each of you! Spring has sprung!

Holy Week

Cross 10For Christians around the world, this week is holy, special, sacred, set apart. It marks events of crucial significance in the history of the Christian faith:

  • Maundy Thursday – the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion.
  • Good Friday – the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
  • Holy Saturday – the day Jesus’ body lay in the tomb between Friday and Sunday.
  • Easter Sunday – the Festival of the Resurrection of our Lord from the grave.

The early church and liturgical churches today call the three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday the triduum, the intent of which is to signify the walk with Jesus through the darkest hours of his life. The conclusion of the triidium is the celebration of the glory and miracle of the resurrection on Easter Sunday morning!

Terry and I pray for each of you a blessed Holy Week. We, like many of you, will attend services of worship this week that will renew in our hearts an ever growing appreciation for the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

At the end of the day, at the end of our life here on earth, what really matters, eternally, is made possible and provided for believers in Christ through the events of this Holy Week!