Last Words

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This week’s quotes are the seven last words of Jesus from the cross:

  1. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
  2. To a thief on the cross: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43
  3. To Mary: “Woman, behold your son.” To John: “Behold your mother.” John 19:26-27
  4. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34
  5. “I thirst.” John 19:28
  6. “It is finished.” John 19:30
  7. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46

As you contemplate these words and their meaning in your life, Terry and I express to each of you our prayers for a blessed Holy Week and a joyful Festival of the Resurrection of our Lord!

A Special Christmas Gift

christmas-giftAlthough I first wrote this true story for Perspectives in 2009, I think it’s worthy of a repeat.

Quite a few years ago, Terry suggested that I make a doll house for our seven-year-old daughter’s Christmas present. I agreed.

We drove our station wagon to the lumber store, purchased the necessary material, and headed home. Child restraints and seat belts were not what they are today, so Angie sat in the back of the vehicle on the small stack of lumber that would soon become her doll house.

As we drove home, she asked, “Daddy, what are you going to build with this lumber?” While I don’t clearly recall the answer I gave, I suspect my response was not exactly the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There was no way I was going to spoil the surprise Terry had in mind.

To keep the surprise a secret, I confined my work on the project to the garage after our children’s bedtime hours. On Christmas Eve Angie was totally surprised and thrilled. Terry was happy. The doll house hasn’t fallen apart after all these years. It was a special Christmas gift!

Much more special at Christmas is God’s gift—Jesus, the Holy Child born in Bethlehem’s manger. Having been long foretold, his birth was neither a secret nor a surprise. It was very special!

Heralded by angels to humble shepherds, sought out and worshiped by kings from afar, worshiped by people around the world after all these years, this King of Kings and Lord of Lords is the most special gift ever given!

Terry and I send personal greetings and fervent prayers for a Blessed Christmas!

Lest We Forget

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Fifteen years ago this coming Sunday, life changed in America and around the world. Most of us vividly remember that day, September 11, 2001, now known worldwide as 9/11. Images of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City burning and collapsing are indelibly etched in our minds and hearts.

In a meeting of the Council of Presidents of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod September 25, 2001, leaders of our national church body reached out to the nation by drafting and unanimously approving a full page statement published October 2, 2001, in USA Today and The New York Times. Here’s the text of that statement, titled A Promise:

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A Promise – The New York Times and USA Today – October 2, 2001

In the aftermath of our nation’s tragedy three weeks ago today, we of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod wholeheartedly offer our love and prayers for those tens of thousands of people whose lives have been drastically altered by the sudden loss of their loved ones and friends. At such a time it is natural to wonder how we can get on with life.

Still heavy with the burden or our enormous loss, we face the potential for even more danger at our doorstep. And as we look out upon the world seeking a promise of comfort and hope, we may see only darkness. Yet we are not the first people to suffer such darkness, nor to long for such a promise.

David in the Old Testament, in time of great personal and national distress, looked to God and took comfort in His promise: “The Lord is my shepherd … Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” 

Jesus, to whom the Scriptures refer as our “Good Shepherd,” spoke words that are particularly poignant right now: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”    

That Good Shepherd understands suffering and death … and His own death and resurrection promise hope and comfort to us all.

In these days of great personal and national trial, it is important to remember the words of St. Paul as we struggle with ‘getting on with life’: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And that’s His promise!

Vernon and Betty Gundermann

GundermannsLast Saturday afternoon, June 4, Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Missouri, held a special worship service of thanksgiving to God for his servants Vernon and Betty Gundermann. It was my challenging privilege to be the preacher. Sermon title: God’s Gifts. Your Legacy.

It was a privilege because Terry and I were blessed to have Vern for our pastor during our nine years in St. Louis when I served as president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Vern was an excellent pastor in every respect. I also considered him the best preacher in the LCMS.

Sadly, not all of our nine years were filled with joyful activities and experiences. Particularly during some of my most difficult days in office, I had the “privilege” of receiving communications from or attending meetings with people who my dear Terry aptly describes as “joy suckers.” They sucked the joy right out of life and ministry.

At such times, Pastor Gundermann had an uncanny, almost surreal, perhaps even supernatural way of knowing and feeling the struggles we were experiencing. Incredibly, upon returning from such joy sucking experiences, Terry and I were greeted, virtually every time, with a phone message from our pastor, assuring us of his prayers, his love, his support, his encouragement.

In addition to Vern’s wonderful pastoral ministry of encouragement and support, his dear wife Betty became a very important person in the life of my dear wife Terry. Not many folks who live outside a pastor’s home know or understand the unique concerns, stresses, frustrations and worries of a pastor’s wife. Betty possessed a keen sensitivity to what pastors’ wives were likely to experience, including a pastor’s wife whose husband had become a national church president.

In our toughest times, Betty was there for Terry, to encourage her, to cry with her and to laugh with her. Betty was and to this very day still is an indescribably close friend of my dear Terry.

Preaching at last Saturday’s service was a challenge because Vern’s normal activities and abilities have been altered by the effects of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Knowing what to say and how to say it was tough. Yet through it all Vern maintains a realistic attitude of joy and thanksgiving. I pray the Spirit blessed my words.

In one of his weekly updates, Vern acknowledged that no longer will he be able to say or sing a single word. He also wrote: “Life is good. Life is changing. Life is good. Do keep Betty in your prayers. Every change for me adds a task to her life! She now shaves me, puts on my socks and so much more. And she does it all with a good spirit. Little did we understand [on June 25, 1961] the words of our marriage vows ‘in sickness and in health.’ It is not easy living with one who cannot speak and whose eyesight is quite dim.”

Last week hundreds gathered to thank God for Vern and Betty Gundermann! It was a day to remember! God has given them many gifts! They will leave a legacy!

Trusting God’s Promise

Church 1This article is intended specifically for Terry’s and my fellow members at Zion Lutheran Church in Walburg, Texas. It’s also directed toward every person, young or old, lay or clergy, faced with the decision of how much is enough to give back to God. That’s not always a simple decision.

A couple months ago it became obvious that the total weekly offerings at Zion were falling about 20% short of the amount required to meet budgeted expenses. On several separate occasions I expressed to Terry my concern about this matter. A few weeks later we decided to do something.

Our decision was to increase the amount of our weekly offering by 25%. Frankly, this was not an easy decision. Last year we had pledged a sizable amount for Zion’s three year Capital Stewardship Campaign. Already stretching our finances to meet that challenging pledge, the thought of adding an additional 25% to our weekly offering caused me to furrow my brow.

Then I read again the words of Malachi 3:8-10: God said to the people of Israel: “You are robbing me.” The people asked: “How are we robbing you?” God answered: “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Put me to the test and see if I will not open the windows of heaven and pour out upon you a blessing so great that you will not be able to take it in.”

Really not anticipating any specific blessings over and above the spiritual ones we’ve been receiving bountifully throughout the 50 years of our lives together, imagine our surprise when two totally unexpected checks arrived in the mail within weeks of our decision to increase our weekly tithe and offering! The sum of those checks was over five times more than the total amount by which our offerings were increased for an entire year!

This past Sunday afternoon I shared this story with the crowd of folks who had gathered for our congregational voters’ meeting for the purpose of adopting our budget for the coming fiscal year. It was not an easy meeting. I expressed to the crowd my wonderment whether those two checks would have arrived even if we had not made the decision to increase our weekly offerings. I quickly added that although that may certainly have been the case, I would always be convinced that they came in fulfillment of God’s promise in Malachi 3.

My encouragement to each of you, dear friends in Christ, is to put the Lord to the test, as he has challenged us to do. The bountiful blessings you receive may not be the same as ours. They may be even greater! Regardless of the type or amount of your blessings, I pray and predict that you will experience special joy in the process of anticipating the fulfillment of God’s promise!

Resurrection!

CrossesThis is the week before Easter, aka the Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord. It’s a busy time for most pastors, who are heavily involved in preparation for special Holy Week observations of the Paschal Triduum. That’s one name for the three day period beginning Maundy Thursday evening, including Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and ending Easter Sunday evening.

In Western Christianity Easter is always the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox on March 21. Easter can come as early as March 22 or as late as April 25.

One of my so far unfulfilled goals in life is to persuade the Roman Catholic Pope to adopt my recommendation that the date for the Festival of the Resurrection be permanently established on the first Sunday in April. In my previous role as national church body president, I thought I had a platform for making that happen. Not so much anymore as a has-been official church leader.

Regardless of its date, I’ve always been amazed by the Festival of the Resurrection, which observes Jesus’ coming back to life. What a miracle! No one can prove it actually occurred. Nor can anyone disprove it. I don’t understand it. It’s a matter of faith. The Bible says it. I believe it.

We Christians confess in the third article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in … the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting…” We believe not only that Jesus came back to life but also that we will do the same. Every time I speak those words I’m saying I believe that someday a miracle will occur, transforming my dead body back to life again.

Last week Terry and I went to Houston for the memorial service of my youngest sister’s mother-in-law. On the way back to Georgetown via New Braunfels to see my mother, we visited my father’s gravesite. His physical body has been in that grave for more than one third of a century. The thought that what’s left in that casket will come back to life is incomprehensible yet inspirational, bringing hope and assurance.

The older I get, the more I ponder the resurrection and the more I wonder about the nature of life in the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21). Many questions remain:

  • Will the body of a premature baby or an amputee or an elderly person or a person confined to a wheelchair on earth be transformed in heaven into the body of a strong, agile, wrinkle free young adult in prime physical condition?
  • Will we be driving some kind of extraterrestrial vehicles or will we simply blink an eye and be transported effortlessly and quickly to a new destination?
  • Will animals be living among us?
  • Will my favorite foods (medium rare rib eye steak, marinated pork tenderloin, grilled chicken drumsticks/thighs and lightly grilled salmon) be available? (See Luke 24:42-43.)
  • Will my least favorite foods (Brussel sprouts, yellow squash, okra, cilantro, peppers and onions) be nowhere to be found? (See Gen. 3:17-18.)

The resurrection of the body and life everlasting are made possible by the price Jesus paid during the days in his life we now observe as Holy Week. In that new life believers in Christ will be in his presence eternally. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:16-17)

That’s a promise worthy of joyful anticipation! Have a blessed Festival of the Resurrection!

The Great Escape

The Great Escape

That’s one of my favorite movies. Based on a true story, a group of allied prisoners-of-war (POWs) are put in an “escape proof” camp. Yet the prisoners outwit their jailers, dig an escape tunnel, and use motorcycles, boats, trains and planes to get out of occupied Europe.

One week ago yesterday was Ash Wednesday. I preached on a different great escape at Zion Lutheran Church in Walburg, Texas, Terry’s and my church home. The text was Luke 22:1-13. Those few verses describe seemingly unrelated things going on at that time in Jesus’ life.

While the Feast of Unleavened Bread, aka Passover, was approaching, leaders of the church were plotting Jesus’ death with the help of a man named Judas Iscariot, a disciple of Jesus.

Luke simply interjects at that point that Jesus sent Peter and John to prepare the Passover feast. When asked where they should do so, Jesus gave them a few clues. In the city, a man carrying a water jar would show them a house. The master of the house would show them a large furnished upper room. That’s where the Passover was to be prepared.

Luke doesn’t say what preparations the disciples were to make. Yet we know that Passover observances always replicated the original Passover meal, including unleavened bread, roasted lamb and bitter herbs. Although wine was not specifically mentioned in the original Passover instructions, wine was present when Jesus celebrated this Passover with his disciples.

The night of the original Passover, the angel of the Lord passed over the homes of the Israelites who had painted blood on their front doorposts. The blood came from the lambs they had prepared for the final meal they would eat in Egypt before leaving that country in the Exodus.

The angel passed over Israelite homes for the purpose of sparing God’s chosen people from the devastating impact of the last of the ten plagues that God through his servant Moses had inflicted upon the Egyptians. That final plague was the death of the firstborn son of every Egyptian family and also the death of the firstborn of all cattle throughout the land of Egypt.

The annual Passover commemorated the Exodus of the people of Israel from 430 years of Egyptian slavery, a reflection on how God saved his people as they left Egypt. That included crossing the Red Sea and surviving 40 more years of wandering in the Wilderness of Sinai before entering the Promised Land, the Holy Land of Palestine. It was truly a great escape!

Next time you receive Holy Communion, instituted by Jesus during this Passover meal, remember that God has rescued his people through the ages, not from physical incarceration but from the spiritual imprisonment of sin and death. Jesus did not escape the plot of those church leaders, but that was part of God’s plan that leads to eternal freedom! Praise God for that great escape!