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!”

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The Precious Gift of Life

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“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” That’s how the book of Genesis describes the beginning of life on earth.

Since the time of creation, mankind has survived tragedy and trauma, death and devastation. People have experienced joys and sorrows, blessings and difficulties, victories and defeats.

Through it all, the precious gift of life has been passed from one generation to another. The normal cycle of life is for babies to be born and for old people to die. But things don’t always happen as predictably as that.

This week Terry and I attended a memorial service for the daughter of a longtime friend, Nita Horn. I buried Nita’s husband 33 years ago. In the past few years she’s also lost her son, son-in-law, and daughter. That’s not the way things are supposed to be, even for a 90 year old.

Also consider the seemingly countless number of recent incidences of unexpected violence. Yet another one occurred this past Sunday at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Like many of the 3,000 small towns in Texas, Sutherland Springs was virtually unknown until last Sunday. Now this small community about 30 miles east of San Antonio is etched into the memories of people around the world, all because of the demonic act of one man who killed 26 people in a church. Many of them were children, with most of their expected life ahead of them.

In all cases where life is lost, especially unexpectedly, I’m struck anew by the precious gift of life and how fragile that gift really is. So take a moment to call, write, or in any way possible to tell someone you love how precious he or she is to you. And thank God for bringing that person into your life.

Death and Life

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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!

 

+Dr. Jean Garton+ and +Dr. Betty Duda+

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Near the conclusion of the Year of Our Lord 2016, I share the news of the passing of two very dear sisters in Christ, Dr. Jean Garton and Dr. Betty Duda. Jean went to heaven Friday, Dec. 23 and Betty followed on Saturday, Dec. 24. They now rest in peace, free from the illnesses that beset them, rejoicing eternally at the throne of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Each of these gifted women served The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod faithfully, tirelessly, humbly, and courageously in numerous capacities:

  • Jean became a world-renowned expert on pro-life issues, testifying before the U.S. Congress. She wrote the book Who Broke the Baby?and traveled the world speaking before royalty, government leaders and even at gatherings of three or four people to deliver the message God entrusted to her. Jean was the first woman to serve on an LCMS board — the Board for Public Relations, and chaired the LCMS Task Force on Women, President’s Commission on Women, Office of Government Information Advisory Council, and Task Force on Ministry with Families.
  • Possessing significant leadership and organizational skills, Betty served as president of the national Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, the Florida-Georgia District LWML, and as chair of the boards of Concordia College New York, Lutheran World Relief, and Lutheran Association of Missionaries and Pilots. She also served on the boards of Concordia University Chicago, Concordia University Minnesota, Wheat Ridge Foundation, Aid Association for Lutherans, People of the Book Lutheran Outreach, and Mill Neck Manor. In addition, she was a board member of numerous Florida civic organizations, chairing many of them.

Both Jean and Betty also served a number of years together on the Board of Directors of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Their support, encouragement, and dedicated service during my term of office as LCMS president were remarkable, especially during a time of stress and conflict in our beloved Synod. They steadfastly espoused an evangelical direction for our beloved Synod for which I will always remain deeply respectful and truly grateful.

At a significant point in his life Old Testament King David acknowledged in prayer to God: “We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.” (1 Chron. 29:15)

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

Terry and I thank God for Jean Garton and Betty Duda. This year they celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus in a manner you and I can only imagine! It’s a celebration that knows no ending!

+Vernon Dale Gundermann+

vern-gundermannAfter a valiant battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease, Rev. Vernon Dale Gundermann left this earthly life on Friday, September 16. He was 78 years, 11 months and 16 days of age.

Vern served for many years as pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Missouri. Among other positions, after retirement he also served as Chaplain at the International Center of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).

My first contact with Pastor Gundermann was in 1991, when I was elected president of the Texas District of the LCMS. The 41 members of the Council of Presidents met at the International Center, near Concordia, so most of us walked to church for the 8:00 a.m. Sunday service.

We were privileged to receive assurance of God’s love and forgiveness from the heart, head and hands of Vern Gundermann, who had become Senior Pastor at Concordia that same year. He always seemed incredibly sensitive, spiritually mature and pastorally competent.

In addition, the man could preach! I’ve come to describe Vern as one of the best preachers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I never heard a bad sermon from this man and can think of few other preachers, including myself, about whom I can say the same.

Vern was also a sensitive and caring pastor. Particularly during some difficult days as national church president, I received communications from and attended 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, surreal, perhaps even supernatural way of knowing and feeling the struggles we were experiencing. Upon returning from such difficult meetings and encounters, I was almost always greeted with a phone message from Pastor Gundermann, assuring me, and Terry as well, of his prayers, love, support, encouragement.

Vern is survived by his beloved wife Betty, their four children, and 11 grandchildren. Memorial services will be held at Concordia Lutheran Church, Kirkwood, MO, on Sunday, September 25, at 4:00 p.m. and at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Fulda, MN, on Tuesday, September 27, at 1:30 p.m.

Well done, good and faithful servant!

The strife is o’er, the battle done; now is the victor’s triumph won; now be the song of praise begun. Alleluia!

Lord, by the stripes which wounded Thee, from death’s dread sting Thy servants free, that we may live and sing to Thee. Alleluia!

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!

Spring Break and Holy Week

CrossesSpring break and Holy Week each attract millions of people annually. That’s where the similarity ends. Consider the following differences and disparities between the two.

Several newspaper and TV reports this week have focused in a graphic way on recent spring break activities. Video clips have shown raucous and even lewd behavior of young people by themselves or in small groups in the midst of huge crowds of barely clothed humanity.

In almost every case mass consumption of alcohol is involved. One method of such volumetric booze delivery is a beer-filled plastic funnel attached to a tube that goes straight into the mouth of the consumer. Another shows scantily clad young women and men chug-a-lugging gin or vodka straight from the bottle. Other methods might be both more creative and destructive.

Tragically, those reports include news of seven young people being shot last weekend in Panama City Beach, Fla. During February and March up to six million young people visit that small town of 12,000, which has been dubbed “the Spring Break Capital of the World.”

Other reports are of young spring breakers who have died from excessive alcohol consumption or drug abuse. Contributing factors include a large number of under-age drinkers and widespread availability of heroin, together with an increasingly popular club drug called Molly.

Contrast that dangerous and deadly scenario with the meditative, reflective, penitential mood of Holy Week. Celebrated by billions of Christians worldwide, this week’s events include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, the Festival of the Resurrection.

Scripture and worship throughout this week will focus on the passion of Christ, including:

  • The Passover in the upper room, with Jesus initiating the Lord’s Supper
  • The suffering and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane
  • His trial and sentence of death before Roman authorities
  • His crucifixion on a hill named Calvary, also called “the place of the skull”
  • His embalming by faithful women and burial in a borrowed tomb
  • His miraculous resurrection from that grave three days later!

Spring break focuses on the unchecked and uninhibited natural inclination of mankind toward self-gratification. Holy Week’s emphasis is the sacrificial act of Christ for the forgiveness of humanity’s self-centered failure to live life according to the purpose for which God created us.

Terry and I join each of you, especially this Holy Week, in thanking God for his Son Jesus! Soon we’ll all be saying: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”