Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I have found a new place to delve into confessional Lutheranism from a bird eye view (pun intended)!

I've mentioned Pastor D's blog (The Sober Peasant) many a time and have recently mentioned the two other pastor blogs I have added to my list (Thinking Out Loud and Lutheran Logomanic). The latest one I have added is this completely amazing, intimate collaborative blog by a cadre of brother pastors: Four and Twenty+ Blackbirds

Now, you do have to approach this blog a bit differently, knowing that some of the content will be very deep in scholarship and understanding that the bulk of the blog is actually not in the entries (more on that later). At first glance, especially with the current entry on Lohen, Numbers, Majority, and Mission Clarity, this appears to be a one-hit-and-leave stop. But, oh dear reader, I would encourage you to ignore the impulse and dive right into the riches of Gospel, Grace, and Fellowship in which this blog is steeped.

A perfect example is Pastor W's entry on his Struggle of Vocations. He was invited to post by Pastor S, the one who wrote the sermon I posted on Sunday and yesterday's essay I used (rightly or wrongly) to further my own point. Pastor W's post is below:

At the encouragement of brother Stuckwisch, I would like to ask a question to the esteemed brothers of this blog. But first, I would like to say it is an honor to be asked and included in/on this blog. I have very much enjoyed reading the past and current posts. I also have to confess after reading some of them I am a little intimidated at the caliber of Pastors, thinkers, and debaters.

With that out of the way here is my question. My wife, Keri, and I have been blessed with triplet girls. Keri has been relocated to
Fort Wayne out of concern for her health and the triplet’s health. She is doing well thus far and so are the triplets. The congregation I serve is about an hour and half away from Fort Wayne. I am struggling with my God given vocations as Husband, Father, and Pastor.

The members of St. Matthew have been more than supportive and understanding though all of this so far. The issue(s) I am having is simply that I am struggling to feel I am living up to my vocation as Husband, Father, and Pastor. When I am home I am watching my almost two year old daughter, and living like a single parent. Again St. Matthew has been nothing but wonderful. When I am
Fort Wayne I feel guilty for not being in Hamlet fulfilling the duties of the office, when I am in Hamlet, I feel guilty for not being with my wife who is on bed rest and can do little to nothing for herself.

I know there is God’s holy absolution for my consciences, and I am free in Christ to serve my wife, my daughter, and congregation. I also know that I am only human and fall short of all that is given to me to do in any and all vocations.

How do we as Pastors sort out our vocations in service to God and neighbor through all of life’s situations?

[emphasis mine]

Now, personally, I thought it was brave of him to post so openly about his struggles, especially since so many of the pastors of my past seemed keen on maintaining the mystique of the office. Peace and Joy at all times. Unshakable Faith. Unending Patience. Freedom from Struggles.

Instead, here, Pastor W's plea to his fellow brothers illustrates just why those who serve as our undershepherds need to be encouraged and uplifted. We need to see them as men even as we look to them as pastors. My goodness, how hard it must have been to choose between a pregnant wife and an entire flock! How incredible is God's mercy that He has provided a venue in which Pastor W could receive such love and grace and support.

What? Where is that, Myrtle? Why, it is in the real meat of this blog: the comments!

Now I am not much of a comment reader, although I have added two or perhaps three, I believe, more so for encouragement than anything else. I would say that I am more interested in the author than the readers. However, in this blog, the authors are the readers!

Now there are some lay people who post comments as well, but much of the comments are conversations, gentle arguments, exhortations, and questions flung out among those blackbirds.

What I found interesting in this particular entry was the range of comments that arose around the topic of vocation and the depth of teaching and breadth of blessings that were bestowed upon Pastor W in the process. Dare I add...upon me in reading this exchange.

You could say that I was drawn to this particular topic because of the chastisement I received from my "responsible party" yesterday. This afternoon, I called his wife to a) thank her because I wanted her to know that I fully and completely understood it was both of them helping me on the two days he carted me to Surgeon No. 5's clinic--she being both his business partner and the mother of his children, she being the one who afforded him the hours and hours first the appointment and then the procedure took and b) to ask if she or he would be willing to help one more time--to perhaps be on the list of those who would be willing to visit me while in the hospital so that I will not be alone there come major-reconstructive-surgery time.

She was, I believe, touched at how thankful I was that she, too, helped me. Her husband had apparently regaled her with nearly every bit of the two trips, because when I mentioned that while I had not thought he was the best choice for my "responsible party," he was certainly God's choice because I obviously was in need of his chastisement on vocation at least.

She chuckled heartily at my comment, knowing just what I meant. I told her that this entire day at work I could not escape his words, God's Word to me, and was humbled that He would drive the conversation of my life so, even in such a time as that.

At the risk of digressing, she also let me know that his wearing of pants was on purpose, that he was very thankful I had (rather bravely I would proffer) mentioned to him when he showed up the first time that it would be easier for me if he were not in shorts. At the time, I was horrified to hear the words pop out of my mouth, even as I wished I were sitting in the back seat instead of so close to him. Instead of insulting him, he was honored to know of a way he could help me, to learn of a way to avoid harming me no matter what the reason. I could barely speak at that moment.

But the best part of the conversation was that she told me, after a fashion, that the two half-days of seeing to my needs was actually good for him, a way to give to another, a lesson of his own. I wanted to laugh in disbelief when she first spoke such a thing, but her comment was followed by a fuller explanation that gave me pause. I actually helped him? How in the world could that be?

If you asked me before I talked with his wife, I would have stated rather adamantly that I would prefer for that which he and I talked about, when I was crying and otherwise, to have remained left behind. Keeping the bulk of my past a secret helps maintain that social contract. Instead, he took our conversations home and shared what he learned, what he observed, with his wife. Such is a normal and natural thing. But he did so in a way that was not passing on the news, but rather reflecting upon what God was doing in his life, in their lives, in mine... Her response to knowing some of that which is supposed to remain hidden was not normal to my experience. She was not revolted. She was not critical to have to bear that burden of knowledge. She was, instead, grateful that her husband had the opportunity to help me and to learn something himself. She was glad that she now knew me better. And she asked me to promise to keep asking them for help.

Yes...you guessed it. I did not make that promise. I did, however, manage to not start bawling on the spot, to thank her for their many kindnesses, and promised to both think upon her words and to let her know the next steps in the whole medical hoops process.

So back to vocations. His chastisement primarily took one of two message threads that followed every "but" he offered back to my own comments: 1) I have a salary and health insurance and ought to be darned thankful for them and 2) I have work that was given to me to do, even if it is not the work I would choose; it was given to me.

SIGH. I have been so very ungrateful for the vocation God has given me, for the means through which He is seeing to my bodily needs at present. I probably need JM to chastise me regularly so good is he at it!

[I would be remiss if I did not add that he also encouraged me greatly by declaring quite fervently that while I might bewail what I have lost cognitively, he believes my mind to be still far, far greater than "average," much, much more than anyone's "regular brain." I know...you are floored by such magnificent compliments. Trust me, the awe on his face was far more eloquent than that the words that popped out of his mouth when trying to explain to me that he admires how much and how deeply I have grasped this Lutheran stuff and how he rather enjoys when I participate in bible study. Since I more often than not feel the interloper, not only was his compliment on my brain a balm to the sorrow of that which I know I have already lost to this blasted disease, but it was also a warm embrace of welcome to one who feels the stranger.]

[On a separate note, I would also like to add that he taught me something of forgiveness that he learned from Pastor D. But, before I do, I should add that the...uhm..."heated disagreement" that I had with Pastor before he left on vacation actually took place in JM's restaurant. That...uhm..."heated disagreement"...was NOT missed by JM and his wife and has provided many a moment of awkwardness in conversation while my "responsible party" was helping me. He distinctly remembers much raised voices and my tears. He remembers hearing Pastor yell at me, "You are wrong!" and thinking that Pastor D doesn't yell like that. What have I done? SIGH. But back to forgiveness: In the context of confession/absolution, he had asked Pastor what about someone who died without confessing his sin recently, without asking for forgiveness. Was that person still forgiven? Pastor shared a simple analogy that had something to do with a child spilling something on his mother's dress and not asking her to forgive him for ruining it. The confessing of the child and the absolving of the mother would be good for the child, but should he not do so she was not going to withhold forgiveness. She loved him. He was her child. He already had her forgiveness. Simple, I know. Probably a bit theologically problematic with the retelling of the retelling, but I am sure that, however Pastor D explained it, all parts would have fit beautifully. My first thought was that I wonder, in all the times I have asked him about forgiveness, why in the world he did not he did not give me the simple analogy. My second thought was a fleeting glimpse of the magnitude of Objective Grace.]

That's great and all, Myrtle, but what about Pastor W? Well, to be honest, I would much, much rather you read through all the comments, that you take this one dive into this wonderful fellowship of pastors, from blog entry to the very last comment (appropriately enough from Pastor W himself) to see the richness of such exchanges--from convivial chiding, to teaching bathed in the Gospel of Christ, to honest and deep questioning. So, to wet your whistle, so to speak, I am putting two of the comments that taught me most of what I needed to hear about a struggle in vocation: comments of Gospel and Grace. Perhaps you can glean for yourself what I learned after considering what I have written here about my work. But, more importantly, may you be encouraged in your own struggle with vocation.

Pastor B wrote:

Dear Brother Wright,

My first contribution to the blog since its inception is a response to your struggle on vocation. You can judge whether or not it is a curse or a blessing. You have touched on an area that concerns me greatly.

Let me say this, first, to you: You are a free man in Christ! There is no condemnation for you, for you are in Christ Jesus and His righteousness covers all your sin and inadequacies. Furthermore, you were called to be a husband and a father by the grace of God and not because of any merit or worthiness on your part. Therefore, it is going to be God's free grace in Christ alone that sustains you.

You have also been called and ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry by grace alone and not because of your talents, abilities, or merits and it is the grace of God in Christ that shall sustain you in that calling or you won't be sustained at all. When we speak of our vocation as Christians we almost always look at our calling in terms of the Law--What I am supposed to do, my responsibilities and obligations. This is NOT the foundation of our vocation.

Vocation is first and foremost a reference to the call of the Gospel and how each of us is called to live by faith in the grace of God in Christ wherever He has placed us in this world. This means that the strength of our vocation is in the call to live by faith in the Gospel, rather than a call to live by faith in the Law or in how well I am living up to the "obligations and responsibilities" of my office.

The truth is, we all fall short daily. Our joy, comfort, strength to persevere, and freedom come from the Gospel alone and never from the Law or our own accomplishments. What this means, practically, for you is that if your congregation supports you in love during this difficult time (because of their faith in the Gospel I might add), God be praised! Serve, therefore, as you are able with no pangs of conscience. And, if your wife, also, supports how you are able to tend the flock, watch over the children, and see to her needs while she lays pregnant in Fort Wayne (something that she, too, is able to do because she believes the Gospel), then God be praised! Serve your wife and family as you are able.

The bottom line is this: the Gospel sets us free to do what we can within our vocation and to commend the rest to God. Indeed, we commend it all to God in Christ since He is the one who has placed us into our respective offices in the first place. Vocation is chiefly about where God has called us to live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself to us. For your comfort and encouragement I urge you to reread Luther's, "The Freedom of a Christian." I don't think we can reread that little tract enough.

Finally, give thanks to God that He gives you the opportunity to live by faith in His grace in the midst of seemingly unbearable circumstances. When you get home at the end of a day, or return in the evening after visiting your wife who is pregnant with three little babies that you don't deserve, drink a beer and give thanks to God for His mercy and grace by which you stand righteous and by which you lack nothing.

Pastor C added:

I would like to add my hearty "Amen" to what Peter has written. Vocation is a gift of grace, not some onerous burden. Peter has rightly and eloquently reminded us that we are free men in Christ.

I would add the following thought. Vocation is the offering of our bodies in the form of our work, worship, and play as a spiritual sacrifice to God, holy and acceptable through His mercies which are in Christ Jesus (Rom 12:1-2). We are called to serve our neighbor in a variety of capacities, whether husband, father, pastor, son, citizen, etc. What we are given to do at any particular moment, and whom we are given to serve at that moment, is our calling. And it will be most fulfilled as we give that task, that person, our undivided attention and energy. Everything else can wait, trusting that the Lord will provide.

So when you are with your family, at that moment, forget about your congregation. They are in the Lord's hands, and you are not their Savior. When you are working to provide for your family, you are doing your vocation as husband and father; put everything else out of your mind. The Lord will take care of the rest. When you are visiting a shut-in or preparing a sermon, put everything else out of your mind and enjoy the moment for the blessing that it is.

One of the tricks the devil plays with us is guilting us into thinking we should be doing something else. I should be doing this, I should be reading that, I should be visiting so and so. Fie on that! Don't let the devil rob you of the joy of the task at hand.

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