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.

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.

Memorial Service for +Ralph Arthur Bohlmann+

Ralph BohlmannFor God So Loved the World (John 3:16-17)

Jesus said: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 

I Am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (John 14:1-3, 6)

Jesus also said: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also… I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ!

The first time I saw Ralph Bohlmann was at the national LCMS convention in Dallas in 1977. He was a distinguished looking man who spoke eloquently, evangelically and pastorally about a matter of great importance. I was quite impressed with his obvious leadership skill and ability. Little did I know what the Lord had in store for him and littler did I know what the Lord had in store for me. I certainly never expected to be here today.

During our years in St. Louis from 2001-2010, Terry and I were together with Ralph and his wife Pat on a number of enjoyable occasions. I also had the privilege of taking Dr. Bohlmann to lunch on his birthday, almost annually. Often Sam Nafzger was with us. Both are theological giants whose friendship I will always cherish.

The occasion that brings us to this place on this day at this hour is the death of a man who was dearly loved and deeply respected by many. His service as parish pastor, CTCR leader, professor and president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod demonstrated humility, integrity, keen intellect and a heart for the Gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

In addition, notwithstanding the attention and accolades bestowed upon those who serve in such positions of responsibility and notoriety, Ralph Bohlmann took seriously his duties as husband, father and grandfather. Like many of us in public ministry of any kind, the stresses and stretches on his time and energy no doubt at least occasionally and perhaps more often than he would have liked, demanded his attention, diverted his priorities and diluted the quality of time spent with his wife, his children and grandchildren. Many of us can identify with that from our own personal experience!

Be that as it may, Ralph Bohlmann dearly loved his wife Pat, their son Paul, their daughter Lynn, and their grandsons Jesse and Lucas. You are the ones most personally affected by the death of a man you knew as Dad and Grandpa. You are the ones who will miss the sound of his voice on the phone, the warmth of the hugs he shared when you were together and the security of knowing he was there to lean on in times when only a father or grandfather can provide what’s needed. But now he’s gone. He died.

That’s a painful statement! He died. It’s a dark mystery, this thing called death. How can it be that one moment a person is warm, animated, conversant, mobile and alive, while the very next moment the body of that same person is cold, still, silent, vacant and dead? How can it be that a beautiful woman or a handsome man can over time deteriorate into a pile of dust and a box of bones?

The most helpful insight I’ve ever heard about life and death came from my own daughter, when she was three years old. As I stepped out of the shower in preparation for the funeral of a beloved member of the congregation I was serving at the time, I was greeted by little Angie, who asked the thoughtfully perceptive question: “Daddy, when a person dies does he take off his body?”

For a moment I was completely stumped, by my three year old daughter! As I reflected and recovered, I replied: “Yes! That’s exactly what happens when a person dies!” And to this day, over 40 years later, I still turn to that insightful understanding when death occurs.

The ancients used to think of life as consisting of three parts: body, soul and spirit. In my simple way of thinking, it’s hard to distinguish between soul and spirit, so I simply speak of body and soul or body and spirit. To me, the most easily understandable explanation of life 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. Angie had it right. The person who dies takes off his or her body and leaves it behind.

That’s what’s in this box. The physical body inherited and inhabited by the soul, the spirit, the real being, the true essence of the man we knew as Ralph Bohlmann, Dad, Grandpa. This body was baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This body was the home of a soul redeemed by the blood of Christ. This body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. This body contained the man Ralph Bohlmann, who lived his life as both saint and sinner.

So then, where in the world has the real being gone, the soul or spirit of Ralph Bohlmann that animated his body for 84 years? Jesus himself answers that question: 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

That’s the answer. The real being that resided in this body for over eight decades has gone to eternal life. Eternal life. Ever wonder what that’s like? I have. And still do. Eternal means everlasting, undying, perpetual, endless, ceaseless, timeless, infinite, immortal, and never ending.

My brain says “Hold it! That doesn’t compute! I can’t begin to comprehend how life can never end because my experience this side of heaven tells me that everyone I’ve ever known has had or will have, at some point in time, an ending.” I simply cannot understand how someone can go on living or existing forever. But that’s the promise of God. Believing that promise gives me hope.

The words of Jesus read a few moments ago give us not only hope but also assurance. God so loved the world … How much did he love the world? So much that he gave … his Son … his only Son. And unless you’re unfamiliar with the basic beliefs of Christianity, you know what that gift cost God the Father—the very life of his only Son, Jesus.

Terry and I have a son. I love him very much. I love him and the other members of my family more than I love anyone else in the world. I don’t love the world enough to give up my son. I’m not God. God is God. And God gave his Son to this world for a purpose.

St. John writes: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” What would cause God to love the world and its inhabitants, even the most unlovable person you can think of, so much that he would send his Son to a painful death on the cross for the life and salvation of the world and everyone in it?

The Bible says “God is love.” (1 John 4:16) A God of love is constrained to do what he is. Parents love their children and are willing to do anything to protect and save them from harm and danger. God is our Father. He loves us. He was willing to do anything to save and protect us from eternal condemnation, even to sacrifice his Son on the altar of a cross.

The sacrifice Jesus paid is the sacrifice that ended all sacrifices. Instead of bringing animals to temples to be killed so their blood can be sprinkled on the altar and their flesh consumed with fire to gain the attention of God in heaven so he will look down with favor upon his sinful people, as the Old Testament people were commanded to do, we look to Jesus, the Lamb of God. His death on the cross has taken away the sin of the world, once and for all and assures eternal life for all who accept this free gift!

Jesus spoke of his love for the world: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

That’s where Ralph Bohlmann has been since Sunday evening. That’s where Pat Bohlmann has been since September 14, 2012. That’s where my father and Terry’s parents are. That’s where your loved ones are whose life on earth has ended in faith. That’s where, by the grace of God, you and I will also be someday when our life here on earth is over. And in the place that Jesus has prepared for us, we will spend eternity with him.

Although impossible to confirm veracity beyond the shadow of a doubt, testimonies from people who have gone through what is called a “near death experience” in a place appearing to be heaven give a glimpse of the eternal life awaiting believers in Christ.

These near death experiences occurred when individuals were thought and even in many instances declared to be clinically dead, usually as a result of traumatic injury, drowning, choking, auto accident, etc., but later came back to life.

People who have had such an experience have repeatedly testified, as reported in a book titled “Imagine Heaven,” that they saw a man “wearing a robe of brilliant white light down to his ankles, held together by a gold sash, with piercing eyes that see right into your soul, yet also draw you in with a magnetic warmth and love.” They also experienced reunification with family members, both previously known and unknown.

That sounds an awful lot like the way I picture Jesus and life in heaven. Imagine a life that never ends in the presence of someone who draws you near with warmth and love. That someone is Jesus! Imagine being reunited with loved ones forever. That is heaven!

And how do we get there? One day Jesus saw Thomas, who later doubted that Jesus had really come back to life after his crucifixion and burial. Jesus said to Thomas: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the way to eternal life. Jesus is the only way to eternal life!

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles! The Jesus who spent lots of time on earth hanging out with sinners, including prostitutes and tax collectors, looks at you and at me the same way he looked at them. Not as saints whose lives were perfect but as people who are lost and in need of a Savior.

The same Jesus who brought his dear friend Lazarus back to life even after Lazarus had been buried in a tomb for four days has promised to bring us back to life someday. And though Lazarus died again, he, with all believers in Christ, has been given a life that never ends. That’s the life awaiting you, me and all believers in Christ.

So it is that a stranger to Christianity might walk into this beautiful chapel and observe a crowd of people mourning the loss of a beloved father, grandfather and highly respected church leader, yet singing songs without grieving as those who have no hope.

A few moments ago we sang “Abide with me.” It’s a beautiful hymn, solemn in spirit, rich in meaning, courageous in confronting the end of life on earth:

  • Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still if Thou abide with me!
  • In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

And as we say in Texas, we’re fixin’ to sing “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. Be Thou our guard while troubles last and our eternal home!” I encourage you to sing from your heart the words from this hymn that provide hope for the future.

Sing this hymn with thankful hearts that the God of the universe loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that everyone might have eternal life! He died for all! That’s the great news we Christians are called to proclaim to the people of the world who live in doubt, in darkness, in despair.

And sing with thanksgiving and joy in your heart that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you and for me, even as Ralph and Pat Bohlmann already abide in the place he has prepared for them!

My prayer for you, Paul, Lynn, Jesse and Lucas, is that your hearts will be filled with constant hope and quiet joy. Remember the time you spent with the man whose vacated body, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, is in this box. And look forward to the time when you will see him again, in heaven, where life eternal will be yours as well.

In the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Amen!

 

+Rev. Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann+

Ralph BohlmannWelcome to the eighth consecutive year of weekly Perspectives articles. I hope they are meaningful to those who read them and welcome your comments and suggestions.

This week I share the news that Rev. Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann passed away peacefully Sunday evening, July 24, 2016, at the age of 84 years. His memorial service was held yesterday at the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus on the campus of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Mine was the humbling honor and pastoral privilege to preach at that service.

Following several years as a parish pastor and professor, Dr. Bohlmann served as the seventh president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, from 1975-81, and as president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod from 1981-92. He was named president emeritus of both.

Dr. Bohlmann was found unconscious early last week on the floor of his apartment at Laclede Groves in St. Louis. The cause is unknown but indications are that he was in that condition for a few days before being discovered. He was hospitalized but never regained consciousness.

Terry and I were in St. Louis last week for a reunion of my former staff members and their spouses. On Tuesday we visited and prayed for Ralph in the hospital. His daughter Lynn was there, caring for her dear father. Her brother Paul kept in touch from his home in New York.

The medical prognosis at that time was very bleak. Later that day life support was removed. Medical personnel indicated their belief that Ralph’s life here on earth would be coming to an imminent conclusion, but we all know that no one can predict with certainty exactly when anyone’s life will end. The Lord alone is the one who numbers our days. Ralph continued to breathe independently for five days before joining his wife Pat, who died Sept. 14, 2012.

Our gracious Lord has received Ralph into his everlasting arms, reunited with Pat and many others in “the vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9) awaiting all who trust in Christ our Lord for life eternal.

Please join me in prayer that Ralph and Pat’s son Paul and their daughter Lynn, together with the rest of the Bohlmann family, will in the days ahead find peace and comfort in the promise of Christ: “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 11:26

Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann, rest in peace!

Last Week in America and the World

Dallas Shooting

Credit: DallasNews.com

What better way to end this seventh year of Perspectives articles than with a few observations about our church body based on last week’s 66th Regular Convention of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Milwaukee? While inclined to do so, I’ve decided to begin the eighth year of Perspectives with an article on that topic next week. Today I feel constrained to address other events that occurred last week and at too many other times in our nation and around the world.

Insane and premeditated attacks and ambushes, bombings and brutality, vitriol and violence continues to plague our nation and world! For starters, I would hope and pray that anyone in a position of political, racial or religious authority and influence in our country and around the world would immediately cease any hint of verbal justification of such atrocities and instead denounce these barbaric activities unequivocally!

Rationalization or justification of violence in any form empowers those with a propensity toward such behavior, precipitating new incidents that take the lives of innocent women, men and children. Black lives matter! White lives matter! The lives of those unjustly treated by officers of the law matter! The lives of law enforcement officers matter! The lives of grieving family members of those who die matter! Young lives matter! Old lives matter! Unborn lives matter! All lives matter! Jesus came to give life, in all its fullness! (John 10:10) Life is precious!

Might gun control legislation be helpful? Perhaps. I see no need for rapid fire machine guns to be as readily available as they appear to be. Yet the reality is that gun control alone will not deter those who are ideologically or mentally or religiously imbalanced from doing the dastardly deeds we’ve seen way too frequently in recent months. When Cain killed Abel thousands of years ago, he had no firearm at his disposal. Yet he did what he set out to do.

The real root cause of all evil, especially the kind we’ve recently seen, is spiritual depravity. The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21). The devil will always walk around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). King David was beset on every side by enemies who hated him (Psalm 25:19). Jesus was brutally killed. So long as the world exists, man’s inhumanity to man will continue to wreak havoc upon peaceful, law abiding citizens.

What can you do? What can I do?

  • Pray for, encourage and express appreciation to law enforcement officers and military personnel.
  • Petition political and religious leaders at every level to speak out against violence of every kind.
  • If you see something or someone suspicious, say something to someone who can help!
  • Pray for all who lay their lives on the line every day to protect the citizens of our land.
  • Take appropriate protective precautions wherever and whenever possible.
  • Pray for divine intervention to thwart the devil’s destructive desires.

Above all, say this: Lord, have mercy!

The 66th Regular LCMS Convention

LCMS ConventionIn its 169 year history, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has held 65 regular conventions. This weekend marks the beginning of the 66th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Three former national presidents upon whom the honorary title of President Emeritus has been bestowed are still living. Dr. Ralph Bohlmann, Dr. Robert Kuhn and yours truly were invited to send a written greeting to convention delegates. Here is the text of my greeting:

Dear Delegates and Guests, Sisters and Brothers in Christ:

As this 66th Regular Convention of the LCMS begins, I offer words of greeting, encouragement and challenge as you determine at least a portion of the future direction of our beloved Synod.

More than half a century ago the LCMS was recognized as a dynamic, evangelical leader in the United States religious community. Cutting edge endeavors like The Lutheran Hour, This is the Life, Each One Reach One, etc., emanated from a conviction that we had a message to share with the world and that doing so required more than just paying a pastor to mount the pulpit, proclaim the Word of God and praying he would succeed.

Today, some congregations experience health, growth and vitality. Others, perhaps including yours, are uncertain about the future, in many cases less than one generation away from congregational extinction.

A Synod is only as healthy as the congregations that comprise it. Recent decades have seen a steady decline in congregational membership and in dollars contributed for national and international mission and ministry through Synod headquarters in St. Louis. Institutions, including religious ones, are no longer highly respected and trusted.

In this world of complexity and confusion, it is more imperative than ever that the simple, clear, certain hope that is ours in Christ be communicated as widely and broadly, as sincerely and sensitively, as clearly and courageously as possible. We are called to proclaim the great news that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not counting our trespasses against us.”  (2 Cor. 5:19)

We do so Upon this Rock, the statement of faith uttered by Peter, a man whose stalwart commitment to Christ was marred only by his notable failures. We, too, as sinful human beings, are called to repent, to confess and to rejoice in the assurance of forgiveness of sin, life and salvation through Christ our Lord.

May that assurance fill your hearts and direct your thoughts and decisions these days.

Political and Ecclesiastical Nominees

Luther's Coat of ArmsOnly those who have been living in a cave for several months are unaware of the remarkable distinctions among the candidates eager to occupy the Oval Office in the White House. Areas of disagreement exist, both within major political parties and across party lines. These differences include positions on everything from the economy to immigration to Supreme Court appointees to foreign policy and more. Some differences are minor. Others are vitally significant.

Perhaps not quite so obvious to some are similar distinctions in the ecclesiastical world, particularly that of my own church body, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Nominees for the office of national president to be elected in the coming months have been announced. All three candidates are clergymen in good standing on the Synod’s roster of ordained ministers of the Gospel. They all also strongly profess allegiance to the authority of Holy Scripture and to the Lutheran Confessions as a correct interpretation of Scripture. We would expect and accept nothing less.

That commitment works well where basic matters of faith and life are concerned but not so well for issues on which Holy Scripture and the Confessions may be silent or non-conclusive or on which varying interpretations simply are not in agreement. Basic general commitment to these important documents does not necessarily imply concurrence among these men on matters of importance for the future of the LCMS. Here are some topics on which LCMS nominees might differ:

  • View of the role of the church in society.
  • Flexibility or rigidity in worship style and content.
  • Interpretation of the biblical doctrine of eternal election.
  • Attitude toward clergy participation in public civic events.
  • Application of biblical principles of inter-Christian relationships.
  • Understanding and commitment to the mission of Christ’s Church.
  • Approach to biblical interpretation of the role of women in the church.
  • Evangelical or stringent attitude toward administration of the Sacraments.

In addition to that list, other important considerations differentiate candidates from one another in both the political and ecclesiastical arenas. These include personal integrity, courage, management style, leadership effectiveness, ability to work well with others, trustworthiness, collaborative spirit, loyalty and moderation in all things. A basic question many people ask is whether they would be proud to be represented by the person elected to the office of president of the nation or the church.

In the political arena, personal attacks and ad hominem criticisms prevail. In the ecclesiastical arena of the LCMS, what used to be a highly politicized process for electing a national president prior to and during the triennial national convention has been replaced by an electronic balloting process several weeks prior to the convention. More than any other factor, that new process has contributed greatly to the peaceful climate of recent national conventions.

My prayer is for that kind of spirit to prevail, both politically and ecclesiastically, and for the leader selected in each realm to lead and govern faithfully, responsibly and effectively!