Tuesday, October 7, 2008

blog recommendation

I just discovered a blog worthy of your time, namely, Hymnoglypt, a blog by Matthew Carver (Matthaeus Glyptes). Matt is a Lutheran worthy of the name of the Blessed Reformer. He is an artist and a translator, with an appreciation of the Church's liturgy. That's my kind of Lutheran layman.

I have seen and appreciated his intelligent contributions to some of the discourse that takes place online. And I know you will gain from his perspective as well. His blog will be included in the Blog List at the right.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Pope Benedict & Luther on Paul

(I originally posted a shorter version of this entry earlier today, but now that a have a few minutes, I want to expand my thoughts somewhat.)

Pope Benedict XVI, known in the scholarly theological world for decades as Joseph Ratzinger, is a theologian, that is to say, a man of constant prayer and study of the Word of God, with a mastery of all of the important theological writers, and then some. As such, he is able skillfully to participate in the Great Theological Conversation as part of the ongoing work of teaching and pastoral care, which is his office as bishop and theologian. Fair minded men have known this about him for some time, and therefore it should come as no surprise that he would be found quoting Martin Luther, especially in the way in which he does so. In terms of how far Rome has come, though, and in terms of the perceptions of narrow minded partisans on both sides, this is newsworthy, at least as newsworthy as anything else Benedict writes or says.

My thanks to David Schutz for being perhaps the first on my blog radar anyway to point this out. Please find Pope Benedict's comments here.

Allow me to just add that I don't think we should dismiss the potential significance of this reference. First, keep in mind that Pope Benedict regularly attracts thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, for his regular Wednesday audience. That is a phenomenon in itself for a pope who supposedly is unable to relate to people. Some sources claim that the crowds he draws rival and surpass those of the charismatic John Paul II. One writer has said (at this moment I don't recall who) that people came to see John Paul II, but they come to hear Benedict.

Second, working in the book world for a while, I can tell you that there are publishing companies, such as Ignatius and Our Sunday Visitor, that routinely publish collections of Pope Benedict's addresses and audiences, etc. There is a volume, for example, on his series of talks on the Apostles, there is one that covers his talks on the early Church Fathers. So comments like his positive, irenic, and sober minded references to Luther will at some point be bound in print, and will reach many Catholic homes. They will plant intellectual and spiritual seeds, the fruits of which cannot be fully known to us.

Luther predicted that his enemies would use his own words against him, even as this had already begun in his lifetime. While Lutherans in the LCMS and ELCA are apologizing for Luther's writings, here we have the pope quoting Luther favorably. In such a circumstance, Luther would be pleased. He would be pleased with such a reasonable and theologically engaging man with whom to dialogue. I don't think he would respond by saying, "Let's not forget, you are still the Antichrist." What manner of progress can be made, if such a statement is peppered into every sentence a Lutheran makes about Rome? Are Catholics, after all, not worth our witness? Must we only cater our message to the neo-evangelicals?

Such occasions as Pope Benedict's Wednesday audience we cite here are moments to rejoice, and build upon. It is also quite simply a good example for us. Our goal should be to know Luther's lectures and commentaries as well as Benedict does.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Stephen Wiest & the Mendicant Nature of the Gospel

The Missouri Synod's service book, Lutheran Service Book (LSB), has for the month of October such commonly known feasts and commemorations as "Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Pastor" (that feast is kept everywhere, right?), "Abraham" (I can't tell you how many delightful memories I have of that feast growing up), and "St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr," which some preachers, unfortunately, will use as reason and occasion to preach that the Virgin Mary gave birth to children other than the Christ.

As much as I would normally like to explain my concerns about some of the feasts/commemorations I mention above, what really strikes me today about the sanctoral calendar of LSB is that for some reason it was deemed wise not to include the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth century Confessor and founder of the Order of Friars Minor, a beloved feast of the Western Church for centuries.

It shouldn't surprise us that Francis is ignored by the LSB. After all, one of the great themes of Francis' life was his complete embrace of poverty. He wanted only to be despised by the world, and to promote Christ. In another sense, we ought to think of this snubbing of Francis as a scandal, for such a beggarly, or mendicant, outlook on life and faith is wonderfully reminiscent of Luther's own theology and way of life. Here we may mention, in particular, Luther's last words, "We are beggars, this is true." We stand before God with nothing in our hands of which to boast. Our place, spiritually, is that of the beggar. How blessed and ultimately liberated are those who are so poor, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." For our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, fills us up with the forgiveness of our sins, he clothes us lavishly with his righteousness, and he enriches us with the inheritance of His eternal life.

Of course, inheritance has a cost. It costs the one bestowing the inheritance his life. Christ, in other words, became for us the ultimate poor man, the man of poverty, the Man of Sorrows. He gave His life in bitter suffering and death, so that we may conquer death, and live in Him forever. To obtain that inheritance, we needn't do anything. It requires, rather, a passive sort of righteousness. Or as Saint Paul would put it to his Roman hearers (6th chapter), we need only be incorporated into Christ's death. We are plunged into the Paschal Mystery sacramentally, and thus raised up to new life. This implies, let us always remind ourselves, a cruciform life in this world. If we stand coram Deo with hands utterly empty, as beggars, He will give us all we need, all we could ever dream of and more, but that gift will bear the image of His suffering in this life. In other words, Our Lord Jesus will take those empty hands, and give them a holy stigmata of sorts, so that we can say with Saint Paul, "From henceforth let no man trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."

So the "poor man of Assisi" was blessed after all, by being conformed to the life of Christ. The imitation of Christ was accomplished in him by Christ Himself, Who now lives His life in us (Gal. 2). Having forsook his father's business, and all worldly treasure and honor, Francis was alone with a few of his spiritual brothers when death took him as he chanted Psalm 141. It was the evening of 3 October, 1226. His feast is kept on 4 October, for on that day his body was carried in procession to the grave.

St. Francis' Day is also, and quite fittingly, the day in which my pastor, Fr. Stephen Wiest, fell asleep in Christ. Though it is not easy to compose my thoughts about him on this occasion, I must say I find it very cool, and even helpful to me in some spiritual way, that this year the days of the week line up the same way they did five years ago, when Fr. Wiest died.

It was the middle of the fall quarter of my first year of seminary, on a Monday morning, with the autumn leaves the Michaelmas feast was upon the campus, which admittedly didn't mean much (I can't even remember who preached that day), and in the library that morning I was alerted via e-mail that Fr. Wiest had taken a sudden turn for the worse, and was checked into the hospice.

Just two days earlier, on Saturday, the feast of Sts. Cosmas & Damian, I was in his south side living room. He looked weak, from suffering the fierce return of his lymphoma, yet surprisingly spirited and lively. He even showed off his recently acquired Johnny Cash album, "The Man Comes Around." It would be the last time we would speak to each other. So when I heard that he was taken to the hospice, I guess I wasn't really thinking straight because I decided to drive back to Milwaukee that afternoon, forgetting to bring anything with me but the clothes on my back.

That week in the hospice room there was a continual flow of visitors. Among the variety of people in and out of that room, musicians, Catholic and Episcopalian theologians, family, and acquaintances, were also a few good priests who proved to be good comforting presences. Toward the end of that week, I decided I had to return to Ft. Wayne. And on Sat. evening we received a call at home from Fr. Hill. Fr. Wiest, stripped bare of worldly fame, power, and glory, stripped even of his very life by cancer, ended up alone with his brother, who, praying the psalms beside him, watched him give his last breath.

Stephen Wiest gave up everything, and put on Christ. This blessed beggarly attitude toward the entirety of life Fr. Wiest impressed upon me deeply, by both preaching and example. Following the blessed example of Stephen and Francis, O God, grant that I may despise earthly goods, and ever be glad to partake of Thy heavenly gifts, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

For another reflection on Fr. Wiest, do read Fr. Cota's blog.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Getting Around Milwaukee: Riding the Bus

Generally speaking, one usually has two options in Fort Wayne, drive a car, or stay home. Even sidewalks are hard to find, outside of the older residential districts. No bicycle lanes to speak of, and frankly, the bus system is not designed to be convenient and accommodating for a commuting populace. It seems, rather, to be the last resort when all other options are exhausted. And if you find a route, expect to wait a while for the bus to show up. I don't condemn Fort Wayne for these quirks, per se. It is a culture with which its life long residents seem quite content.

Being from a city like Milwaukee, such an environment only made me miss the options I had before I moved to Ft. Wayne. Now that I'm back in Milwaukee, I have been riding the bus lines of the Milwaukee County Transit System almost daily. Let me share what I experienced just today.

I was on the 10, which I catch just one block from my apartment. It becomes apparent soon after I step inside that certain aspects of the bus ride are different from my experience years back. One is that there are three cameras, obviously placed on the ceiling. And though I have already seen a couple of reports in the local news about attacks and muggings taking place on the bus, the more modern feel of the bus, and the cameras, contribute to the current system feeling just as safe as it was in the past, maybe safer.

Another new feature is that there are now three monitors, which display various advertisements, as well as information about the route the bus is taking. I personally find this to be mostly unnecessary and more importantly, a distraction to my reading. It used to be, in my younger days, that if someone tried playing his "boom box" on the bus, the bus driver would warn him to stop, and if he continued to cause trouble, he would be ejected from the bus. So I find some irony in the fact that while today such activity doesn't seem to happen (people tend to listen to music through ear pieces now), one still hears unnecessary noise, only now it is coming from the bus TV monitors.

Nevertheless, I don't mind too much. It's just one of those elements of modern public life we must get used to. So I sit down, and before I pull out my reading material, I take a moment to notice the wonderful diversity of urban humanity on this bus. I must admit, though, that none appeared to be Iowan Farmers, so Fickenscher is still right about me. I notice three different people, at the same time, reading The Onion, one of them an older man in a business suit. One of those characteristically Milwaukee things, by the way, is the availability and popularity of The Onion right on the street. There are newspaper boxes on street corners where one can get The Onion right along side the Shepherd Express, the UWM Post, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The only one that costs money, by the way, is the Journal Sentinel.

So I pull out my library copy of Anthony Trollope's The Warden, and begin reading. (A few days ago we lunched with our friends the Hills at their place, and I noticed in their library a set of books by Trollope. I admitted that I had not read any of his works yet, and so they argued convincingly that I should do so. I am beginning, therefore, with The Barsetshire Novels. Thanks very much to Fr. Michael & Mrs. Hill for the advice.) After a couple pages I look up, and notice that those monitors I just mentioned are now displaying literary quotes. So as I'm riding down Humbolt Avenue I have the pleasure of reading the following quote by Henry David thoreau in bold letters on the monitor just inches above my head: "Of what significance are the things you can forget." I thought, Well, okay, that is worth pondering.

As I am thinking on the worth of Thoreau's claim, I notice that the monitor is displaying a new quote, this one by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Ideas must work through the brains and the arms of good and brave men, or they are no better than dreams." This one I immediately like, because it seems to strike a necessary tension between our ideas, which must soar in the heavens, and the hard work that must be done on the ground, with real hands and muscle, to turn dream into reality. The old Milwaukee work ethic combined with the poetic ideals of the most poetic is one of the things that makes a city like this so great.

Eventually, I'll settle down and get real reading accomplished on a normal basis when I ride the bus, but for now, I admit, I am happily distracted, not only by literary quotes, but also by the people. There are students, workers, business men, a young lady dressed for the gym, an old lady with groceries, all contentedly sharing this space together as they go to their own destinations. My attention is also caught by the scenery. As the bus winds its way down through the East Side, we go past Brady Street with all its unique shops, coffeehouses, and of course the imposing St. Hedwig Church, a beautiful Gothic and Romanesque building of cream city brick. Before long we are riding up "the avenue" (a Milwaukee short hand for Wisconsin Avenue, the cultural east west main artery of the downtown). Past the Pfister Hotel, past the Iron Block building, past the old Gimbels building, and in short order I arrive at my destination on 6th Street. I ring the bell and suddenly I'm back on the street.

How the Church Best Learns Her Liturgy

The practical dynamics differ between Lutheran parishes on the one hand, which tend to use hymn settings that are well known to the congregation, and modern Catholic parishes on the other, which are more oriented toward a music director for guidance. Yet I find this piece by Michael Lawrence over at the New Liturgical Movement blog very insightful nonetheless. For I think he hits upon a basic truth. Namely, the most natural way to learn the liturgy is to listen to it over time, to participate as best you can without clutching on to the crutches.

A good goal, in my opinion, would be to get to know the liturgy so well as to be utterly comfortable leaving the book (and handouts) in the pew racks, and just worship, freeing your eyes to look upon the altar, the statuary, the priest, or to close them from time to time; freeing your hands to hold them together in prayer, and to make the sign of the cross; freeing your body to more easily genuflect and kneel. Yet I think that some Lutherans must have developed an almost psychological need to read the liturgy, because I notice that some do so in traditional TLH parishes, where things haven't changed in decades. I don't blame them; as I say, I suppose it is almost psychological. It is a habit. The liturgy itself, however, should be our habit, ie., that in which we live and find our being, our livelihood, our home. And the pastor can help guide the people in this over time.

One thing that doesn't help at all is when people stare at their books and printed handouts because they must do so in order to keep up with the changes that take place (I mean even in the Ordinary) from week to week or season to season. The most uncalled for changes in this regard are the textual ones, but I find the changes in the musical setting to be unnecessary and disruptive as well. Do we really need our people to become experts in four or five utterly different forms of the Mass?

These are ideas which are not meant to condemn and alienate. They certainly go against much of today's modern Lutheran church culture. Yet it is a line of thought that is worth introducing. Much would have to be sacrificed in our effort back toward a more stable traditionalism, such as our misguided notions of being relevant. But the sacrifice would be worth it. Every segment of the Church, from young to old, from PhD to the cognitively handicapped, from recent convert to long time Lutheran, will be grateful, for they will benefit in ways we cannot even know.

(By the way, thank God for blogspot, which saves what I am writings every few seconds. The power momentarily went out here, and I would have lost everything.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Katherine Scheuer the Soccer Girl

Sunday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending my niece Katherine's soccer game. Katherine, the daughter of my sister and brother in law, Fatime and James, is a third grader at Mount Olive Lutheran in Milwaukee, and let me tell you, this girl has a level of energy and athleticism that both inspires and frightens. In other words, don't get in her way. I once saw Katherine climb a tree and hang upside down from it in a matter of seconds.

So this past Sunday afternoon found my way to Nash Park, just blocks from the hallowed halls of the South Wisconsin District headquarters of your grand children's synod. As I reported the other day with regard to Cyrus Gaba's football game, watching children play team sports is a funny experience. Not exactly the sort of game where high stakes betting takes place (one would hope). It even seemed to me that various players basically took turns playing goalie. Katherine played goalie for a while, and also took the field.

My sister Fatime and her husband James are, let us say, slightly into sports. While we are watching Katherine's game on the side line, there is one radio set to the Brewers' game, and another set to the Packers' game. It is indeed good to spend time with my sister and her family. I haven't yet mentioned Logan, who is in his freshman year at Milwaukee Lutheran High School, and Brett, a sixth grader at Mount Olive, perhaps most notable for his love of the Detroit Lions.

Anyway, Katherine, keep up the good work, or play, or whatever you call it.

Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop

One of my favorite bookshops is Milwaukee's Harry W. Schwartz on Downer Avenue. When I was a young man just trying to get by on the streets of Milwaukee (much like now except I'm not so young anymore) I would frequent the Harry W. Schwartz store downtown. That is the bookshop I knew and loved in those days. It took up the first floor of the Iron Block building at the corner of Water & Wisconsin. In 1997 Harry W. Schwartz moved out of that downtown location and up to its current Downer Avenue spot on the East Side. In doing so, Schwartz returned to its Downer Avenue roots. There are now several Harry W. Schwartz bookshops in the Milwaukee area. I've been in one or two of the newer ones, and I admit they feel a bit too "suburban" for my taste. But the Downer Avenue store remains an important aspect of the literary East Side culture.

You may find the Schwartz web site here.

In particular, I encourage you to read the brief account of the history of the company here, and if you do, you will find an interesting connection between Milwaukee and my second favorite city, New Orleans.

Finally, the Downer Avenue shop has its own blog, which I commend to you. This, of course, is not to say I would endorse everything one may find there. I always support enterprises, however, which help open the mind to the literary landscape available to us.