Lectionary, Liturgy, Preaching

Over the past three years several pastors and congregations have expressed interest in my use of the Narrative Lectionary. This post gives some background on reasons for using, and the challenges and delights of using it.

Introduction

My life has been lived with the liturgy and the lectionaries (systems of Bible readings selected for each Sunday in the year). Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I worshiped in a church that used The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH, 1941) and the one year lectionary.

One Year Lectionary sample from CPH
One Year Lectionary sample from CPH

The 1970s were a time of transition (I was in the Navy). By 1982 when I began seminary and began preaching every third weekend, I was introduced to Lutheran Worship (LW, 1982) and the three year lectionary. That has been my worship life—until 2012. It was in January of that year that my lectionary life changed.

Exploring Options

I began serving my current congregation (in southern California) in August 2011. It didn’t take long to discover that this area was not the typical Midwest, church-life saturated community. The unchurched rate of the area is about 98%, and many who were coming into the church had little to no background in the Bible and Bible history.

In late 2011 I was preparing the Epiphany season (2012) readings and sermons. It dawned on me that the sequence of the readings would not necessarily connect to people. Here are the OT readings for that time period with the Sunday, and then the general time period of each reading:

Epiphany 1 Is 42:1–7 (7th century BC)
Epiphany 2 1 Sam 3:1–10 (12th century BC)
Epiphany 3 Jonah 3:1–5, 10 (8th century)
Epiphany 4 Deut 18:15–20 (15th century BC)
Epiphany 5 Is 40:21–31 (7th century BC)
Epiphany 6 2 Ki 5:1–14 10th century BC)
Epiphany 7 2 Ki 2:1–12 (10th century BC)

Granted, the Gospel readings are in sequence for Mark’s Gospel during that time frame. But if preaching on the Old Testament during that season, then the out-of-order sequence becomes not only noticeable but confusing. And throughout the year, the Gospel readings are not consistent in terms of sequence.

I considered alternative lectionaries such as: the Eisenach Selections, the Thomasius Selections, the Synodical Conference Selections (1912), and the Soll Selections. (Sermon Texts. Ernst Wendland, Editor. (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1984) The Soll Selections is unique in that it offers two Gospel readings for each Sunday. Each of these offer variations of the standard lectionaries, and each might be worth examining for lectionary use. But they still have the same problem with out-of-sequence readings particularly in the Old Testament.

It was at that point that I wondered whether there was something more helpful for our congregation. In my exploration I came across something called the Narrative Lectionary (NL). On the web site, the NL was introduced this way: “The narrative lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. On the Sundays from September through May each year the texts follow the sweep of the biblical story, from Creation through the early Christian church.”

Why the Narrative Lectionary?

The NL seemed to be a possible answer to the dilemma I noted in the other lectionaries. So why the Narrative Lectionary? The short answer is simply: Because knowledge of the biblical story is crucial to a maturing Christian faith. But most Christian preaching assumes that worshipers already know the basic biblical story—and thus most Christian preaching does not seek to equip people to know the biblical story. The NL seeks to be one part of an approach that seeks to equip people to know God’s story—to discover God’s story and to find in that story the love of God in Christ for all, especially the reader/hearer.

Premise of Narrative Lectionary

A lectionary is a set of readings from the Bible for each Sunday of the church year. Lectionaries have been used since the time of the early church. Most, if not all, Lutheran congregations have been using either the one year lectionary or a three year lectionary. These lectionaries cover quite a bit of the Bible. However, most, if not all lectionaries used over the past 1600 years assumed a church and Bible knowledge. What happens if most people coming into the church have no such background? The NL is an experiment to help congregations with that very question.

The NL is a four year series of Scripture readings for Christian worship, which moves through the overarching biblical story in a nine-month period. The series starts in September and ends in May. The summer allows a variety of topical preaching, or even sections of the readings not covered during the year. At the same time, the narrative lectionary respects the traditional Christian church year, with its principal festivals and seasons — Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

Fall: NL moves chronologically through the Old Testament story—beginning in Genesis around the start of September and culminating with the promise of the Messiah during December (Advent).

Winter: NL moves in order through one Gospel—tracing the story of Jesus in canonical order from birth, through ministry, passion, and culminating with the story of the resurrection at Easter. There are four years to the cycle, so NL covers all four Gospels. Thus, year 4 focuses on the Gospel According to John. In other lectionaries, John is relegated to a few readings to fill in gaps in Mark.

Spring: NL engages part of the story of the early church, as told in Acts and other New Testament writings.

Summer: This is not provided by the developers of the Narrative Lectionary. So pastors have some options. One summer I preached on additional texts in the Gospel for that year. Another summer I preached on two short New Testament books.

What makes the Narrative Lectionary different?

This lectionary is not simply a series of stories; rather, it is a series of stories that provide an understanding of and appreciation for the broader biblical story. The NL differs from other lectionaries in several ways.

1. The NL seeks to tell the biblical story in historical sequence that is also in basic canonical order, in a nine-month cycle. It moves rapidly through the biblical narrative, in canonical order. The Old Testament segment covers the sweep of history in 16 weeks. Thus, with four years, the theme for the 16 weeks remains the same, but readings vary within that theme. Let’s look at Week 1, with the Creation theme:

Year 1 (Matthew) Gen 6:16-22; 9:8-15
Year 2 (Mark) Gen 2:4b-25
Year 3 (Luke) Gen 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8
Year 4 (John) Gen 1:1-2:4a

Thus, the Creation theme is explored in four ways. Week 2 focuses on Abraham, Week 3 on Jacob and Joseph, etc.

2. By the very nature of NL, the primary focus is on narrative passages. The exceptions would be prophetic writings toward the end of the Old Testament segment.

3. The NL focuses on one reading each week. While only one reading is provided, we have three readings plus a Psalm (see below, Filling the Gaps), but the main reading and sermon will focus on that pivotal text provided in the basic structure NL.

4. Because the NL is shaped this way, one concern had been the church calendar. Thankfully the basic church calendar is not abandoned — the birth of Christ Jesus is still celebrated at Christmas, the resurrection of Christ is still celebrated at Easter. The time of Advent is kept by focusing on the promise of the Messiah. Appropriate readings have been chosen for church commemorations, such as Reformation, All Saints, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Week.

Filling Gaps in NL

As I began seriously exploring the Narrative Lectionary, I noticed some gaps in what was provided on the web site. Is one reading sufficient for a liturgical, lectionary program? I didn’t think so. Likewise, there was no support work that would complement the liturgical text. Thus, about six months prior to beginning the NL, I spent time filling those gaps.

One reading per Sunday provided

Filling the first gap, the use of only one reading per Sunday, required considerable time to go through each week and supplement the one main reading with the “missing readings.” The year we began in the congregation was actually year 3 in the NL cycle. So for the first Sunday in September the Old Testament reading (theme: Creation) was Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8. I added the Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel readings (Psalm 130, Romans 5:12–19, Luke 11:1–4) that fit with that theme. (Sample is not complete, but for illustration purposes)Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.45.42

I have done that for every Sunday since September 9, 2012. I usually plan these at least six months ahead. For instance, I completed the post-Easter readings through the end of August about February 1. So I have years 3 and 4 completed. As we begin year 1 in the fall of 2014, I have already prepared several of those additional readings.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. But there is an added benefit to me as pastor. I find that it helps me in long term planning, as well as preparation for each Sunday. Even more, I knew the full set of texts so well, because I had read every reading several times to make sure they fit together for each Sunday. On occasion as part of my sermon preparation I have added or changed a reading in the week or two prior to the actual reading.

Prayer of the Day

I should note that the Narrative Lectionary website now offers Prayers of the Day to match the NL. However, when I began I did not find any of the prayers. Therefore, because the Sunday themes in NL did not match the one year or three year series, I began writing a Prayer of the Day for each Sunday to match that specific theme. That was a challenge for me, but I plunged ahead. Early in the process of preparing for introduction of the LN, Pastor Hank Simon (LCMS) contacted me about using the NL. In the conversation, we agreed that I would supply him with the additional readings, and we would share writing the Prayer of the Day for each. What a blessing he has been in this specific phase of NL implementation. My prayer writing (and prayer life) has been enriched because of his thoughtful, clear, appropriate prayers. Our congregation has been blessed by his work as well.Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.46.33

In our congregation we have one person who has been a prayer partner. This last fall I asked the person to consider helping me write some of the prayers. The person agreed and has written one quarter’s worth of prayers. I proof-read each prayer, making suggestions, but leaving the general thrust of the prayer in place. This has been of great benefit to me, the congregation, and this person. As we finish the full four year cycle in in the spring of 2016 (we started with year 3), we may revise some of the early prayers. In that case, we now have three other individuals in the congregation who have demonstrated a deep prayer life and who love to write. My goal would be to incorporate them into the reviews and rewritings of the prayers.

Introducing NL

Serving as a pastor over the years I have been aware of the importance of preparing a congregation for any change in worship. Depending on the changes, it might take a few weeks or a few months to prepare. In the case of the NL, I looked at six months as the time necessary to implement the transition to using NL.

The first step of preparation was to go to the Elders and then the Church Council and explain the use of lectionaries, and the most common lectionaries in use (three year and one year). In these two meetings I helped the leaders realize the gaps in our peoples’ knowledge of the overall Biblical history, and then the difficulties of the reading sequences in the three year and one year lectionaries filling that gap. The entire leadership, Elders and Council, were 100% committed to moving toward using the Narrative Lectionary. It was at this same time I began preparing the additional texts to be included each week.

In the three months prior to beginning the NL I would include a bulletin insert that explained the purpose of the NL and its application in our congregation. At regular intervals during the summer I announced the NL that would begin the Sunday after Labor Day. During the last month we included a bulletin insert with the Fall themes for each Sunday.

Introductory Powerpoint for NL
Introductory Powerpoint for NL

The first Sunday I introduced the topics by means of a timeline (on Powerpoint). Each week I added a new theme. That way the worshipers had a reference to previous weeks’ themes. Again the purpose was to give that unfolding salvation history according to a basic timeline. This visual orientation was more critical in the Old Testament segment, given the vast time periods covered and the multiple Old Testaments books used. In the Gospel segment (Christmas to Easter), each week’s reading came from the Gospel, strictly in canonical order, although not every passage of every Gospel was covered. If the Epistles were used as the primary teaching, then a simple New Testament timeline could be used.

Complementary Resources

As I considered using the Narrative Lectionary, I realized that it could only be part of the solution to providing a Biblical framework for understanding the texts. Back in 1989 I was one of the 70 pastors who introduced LifeLight into the LCMS. About the same time I was developing similar Bible studies for my own congregations. By 1991 I had completed development of an 11 week Old Testament Survey class and an 11 week New Testament Survey class. I have taught these in several congregations over the years. So I decided to use these study guides to complement the NL.Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.50.32

The same week we began using the NL, we began the Old Testament Survey class. I taught it on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday morning. Although I had not checked how the Survey course would match the NL readings, as it turned out, the sequence fit very well together. Although the Survey course finished the week before Thanksgiving, it was a blessing for all who participated. The combination of the Survey and NL gave the needed historical and canonical framework for better understanding.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.50.54

After Christmas I began two sessions of the New Testament Survey. The correlation with NL wasn’t as tight as the Old Testament because the Survey covered all the New Testament, whereas the NL covered only the Gospel According to Luke. Nevertheless, the Survey was useful for all participants.
I plan to offer the two survey classes about every third or fourth year. This will catch up new people in the congregation and provide a useful review for those who have taken the courses in prior years.

Reflections on Narrative Lectionary

After 3 ½ years of using the NL, my overall assessment is that it is well worth exploring for any pastor or congregation. For congregations, I definitely think it offers people new to the Christian faith a good framework for following the Biblical story; this is particularly important in the fall season with 16 weeks with the Old Testament themes. And for those who have been Christian for years, this is either a good review for them, or even the first time they have been able to follow the Biblical narrative.

For preaching purposes, I especially liked the opportunity to preach through John’s Gospel. The one year and three year series offer relatively few pericopes from John. Because most of John’s Gospel is “new” for preaching, it allowed me to explore the Gospel in a refreshing way. In the Synoptic Gospels the introductions tied together the historical sequences leading up to the current text. But for John’s Gospel my introductions each week focused more on relating the thematic structure of the Gospel to the current pericope.

To me, the use of four readings (OT, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel) in a liturgical service is strongly recommended. I was disappointed that NL did not really offer anything for that aside from one or two verses in the Gospels to correspond to the Old Testament readings. My initial thought was I can choose additional readings as I go forward. That sounded nice at the beginning, but once I got into the use of NL, at times I was a little overwhelmed (timewise, as I have another position besides pastor) with choosing additional readings. I should note, too, that because of the length of a few readings, I have on occasion omitted either the Old Testament (non-fall period) or the Epistle reading. This happens only about once or twice in a quarter’s worth of pericopes.

Over the past 25 years I have always worked out a grid for planning sermons at least three months ahead. This is even more crucial for the NL. So, it is now April and I am beginning to add readings for the Fall season, Year 1. At the same time, I have benefited from this detail work of finding readings. Once I finish Years 1 and 2 I will have four readings for all four years of the NL. That will make the next cycle easier for planning and preparation. So also with the Prayers of the Day.

One thing that I will pursue in the coming years is to perhaps reach out to other pastors who use NL. I would like to connect with them, perhaps meeting once a month for an exegetical and homiletical exchange and discussion. Since I teach seminary classes using live video, that might be an appropriate venue. The closest Lutheran church is about 50 miles away, so face-to-face meetings would not be practical. But I do think this would benefit me as well as the other pastors.

In summary I find the switch to and the use of Narrative Lectionary to be a very positive benefit to me and to the congregation. At the same time, I have gained an even greater appreciation for the historic one-year lectionary and for the three-year lectionary.

As for the future, I am looking at what to do this summer. Do we continue the Narrative Lectionary? Or do we use the one year lectionary or the three year lectionary? I will decide by Easter 2016.

Genesis 22 and Surprise

640px-Book_of_Genesis_Chapter_22-7_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)For my devotional reading today I read Genesis 21-24. I have read through the Bible many times over the past several decades. But this time Gen. 22 stood out because of the recent reading of Rare Bird, my own reflections of our older son. And now one more significanmt memory, specifically linked to this text.

Genesis 22:1-14 (NAS)

1  Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”

2 He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”

3 So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. 5 Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

8 Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. 9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”

12 He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

13 Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. 14 Abraham called the name of that place The LORD Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the LORD it will be provided.”

Bible Study Surprise

More than 20 years ago I was teaching a Bible Study, specifically a survey of the Old Testament ( 11 week course I had written for congregational use). We had 20+ people in the weeknight class, and the requirement was to read the texts and answer questions each day of the week before coming to class. Those questions and answers formed the basis for teaching and discussion. They were just getting into the study, and the discussion was drawing people out to share their answers.

Then we came to the study of Gen. 22. No one really said much as I provided an overview of the entire Abraham story. Then I made the comment, that although our son had not died, but he was in prison, I could not imagine what Abraham experienced when God told him to offer “his son, his only son, his son whom he loved.” How horrible that would be.

And there was silence!

Slowly several people began to weep (8 of out 20+). And then each began to speak—eight of these people had experienced the death of a child. I was stunned, because I knew of only one couple who had a son who died in a car accident.

Immediately I determined that we would not proceed with the outline study. There was something far more important to attend to. As they began to talk, at their own pace, others began ministering and caring for them, crying with them, hugging them. For some that was the first public Christian support that they had received since the weeks following the deaths (some had just joined the congregation).

But God was working in all of us that night. I had never experienced anything like that. This was before our son went missing, but in a way now looking back, it was as if God was even preparing me for the future years.

The Bigger Surprise

As the discussion continued we began focusing on God’s plan, even before the time of Abraham. Namely, God would sacrifice His Son, His only Son, the Son whom He loved. Yes, God would arrange for His Son to die.

But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering (Isaiah 53:10)

The agony of Jesus’ death has often been the focus of that Good Friday death almost 2000 years ago. But on that day God the Father was suffering the loss of His Son, by His own choice, not by accident, not by living a full life. When Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” His father was putting all His wrath against sin for all time to be poured out on His own Son.loveissacrifice

And God did that for sinners, people who did not deserve any kind of favor. Paul wrote about this way:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 NAS)

Abraham spoke to his son, when Isaac asked about the lamb for sacrifice. Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen. 22:8)

And God provided the lamb, for Abraham, but even greater He provided the sacrifice of His own Son as a substitute for every person, for every sinner, for you, and for me.

God did that so that we might be His sons and daughters for eternity. He provided everything for us.

We ended that night with that kind of assurance from God’s Word. The Bible participants were comforted, loved, and encouraged by everyone. But especially they were comforted, loved, and encouraged by God Himself. God Himself understands exactly how we all feel in our losses.

Yes, they lost their children to death, but they were not lost to God. Jesus, God’s Son, died as planned from eternity. But Jesus also rose from the dead, victorious over sin, death, and the devil. That means when we believe in Jesus, we receive that same promise and that same eternity. For us the promise of Revelation 21 is ours, right now:

God Himself will be among them, 4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4 NAS)

Many others since that time have experienced similar losses of children. Loss, even though agonizing and heart breaking, seems like an eternity, but it is not. But gain was for all time. May we always go back to the promises of God, for “The LORD will provide” far beyond our expectations.

Rare Bird — quotes

Quotes from Rare Bird

My review of the book led me to realize I seldom quoted Anna. So, this post is a string of quotes from the book that are especially meaningful to me.

Anna’s thoughts about what she said at Jack’s funeral.

As I read the words I’ve written, I feel filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s as if I can speak forever, and I want to. I am full of light and energy. I want to run to the rear of the church and lock the doors, keeping us here for all time, remembering Jack and what made him special, and talking about God and eternal life.

In that moment I am sure of the hope of heaven, and I don’t want anyone to leave until they are too.

Later I’ll lament to Tim that there was so much more to say about Jack that I’d forgotten, but while I’m speaking, it feels as if God is using the words in a way that reaches beyond the simple little stores of home and life I share. I hope those listening get a glimpse of Jack and God, and will somehow be changed. (pp. 74-5)

Death changes Anna and how to view life, and especially church.

But what about the rest of the church? Is Jack’s death going to be just another sad story, a blip next to concerns about worship styles and staffing? Even in my shocked state, it’s clear to me that God is on the move through Jack’s death. I am able to recognize this because the inconsequential, everyday concerns that have always distracted me have fallen away in the wake of the accident. I’m not sure how long this will last, and I don’t want to squander anything I’m learning. It needs to be shared.

But I am the most unlikely person for the role. I have neither the stamina nor the inclination to proclaim any new revelations. I am tired. I am hurting. I don’t feel like being God’s cheerleader. And what’s the point of sharing anyway, when this knowledge has come at so high a price? That living our lives as if we are in control is an illusion? Won’t every person who lives be able to learn these truths on his own, through the inevitable losses to come? (pp. 91-2)

A highlight for Margaret, Anna’s and Tim’s daughter, comes later when she meets Justin Bieber backstage, and attends one of his concerts. Smiles all around, until…

The first act comes out and launches into a song called “If I Die Young.” Our family and friends watching at home must have let out a collective gasp. I bite the inside of my cheeks, willing myself not to cry as they sing about a mother losing a child and the child asking God to send a rainbow to shine down on her mother.

I listen to the words, still in disbelief that I buried my child. Outside, the torrential wind and rain finally stop and the sky clears. A friend visiting the city snaps a photo of what she sees over the concert hall as we sit inside. A rainbow. (pp. 128-9)

Reflecting about those who grieve:

I used to be fairly unsympathetic with grievers, at least on the inside. This could have been because I’d lost my mom so early and realized that since grief was going to come to everyone in time, people should just learn to deal with it.

Maybe I was afraid that exposing someone’s pain to the light acknowledging it would somehow make it worse. That it would cause them to dwell on it rather than live life. Maybe I thought they would then want too much from me. It it could be that I was just woefully bad at math

….

Of course I never said any of these out loud. I guess I just didn’t get that you can’t apply math to grief. Loss is loss is loss. Of I realize I have a healthy daughter and husband. I love them deeply. But the balance of the two here cannot negate the loss of the one “there.”

Stupid math. (p. 146)

Anna reveals more of the longer term realization of loss.

Children died in flooded creeks, hospital beds, refugee camps, and the family minivan. It happens. I fear I may have another lesson in letting go. I don’t want to let go of our past. I don’t want to let go of the family I dreamed of and worked for and prayed for. And I don’t want to let go of this idea of fairness that somehow lingers from my childhood, even though it now feels stupid. Because it says that I can do something. That my love and hard work and what I pour into my children will amount to what I think it should. But when I get caught up trying to make life fair, it threatens to mire me in anger and bitterness.

Where does faith fit in? Can I somehow have faith that God sees the bigger picture? That justice is His job, not mine? That He will make all things beautiful in His time? That I was not put here to play God, to decide who is safe enough and who is reckless, who lives and who dies? (pp. 174-5)

Identity in light of loss…

Someone points out to me that there is no label or title for a person has lost a child. Widow, widower, or orphan won’t do. Is this lack because child loss is so repugnant, so out of the natural order of things, it can scarcely be named? Can we not dig and find a Latin or Greek root that could lead us to a term for ourselves?

I’m not sure if labels help anyway, as we struggle to figure out our identities in light of loss. (p. 180)

Anna writing about the group of moms grief group, all who lost a child.

I’m not sure how sharing the broken, hurting pieces of our lives helps us, but it does. Rather than wallowing in despair, this group of scrappy women cheers each other on, determined to find a way to live the lives we have now. And in sharing our loss, we somehow gain. That is the mystery of a community that grieves. (p. 186)

Anna writes about the house and what it meant and means for moving forward, and the tension between past, present, and future.

How being in our house brings comfort because it is Jack’s home, but it hurts so much that I can’t seem to thrive here anymore. How Jack’s death has brought many people closer to God and to their children, but has left us lonely and bereft. How can I feel disappointed at God in the same moment that I marvel at His care for me? (p. 188)

Anna as she explains the move to a different church. This is very close to home for me.

It feels a bit weird to be at a different church, even just part-time, but if we’re learning anything, it’s that life is weird. I take communion, but I don’t serve it anymore. I am not here as a leader or a giver. I don’t go out of my way to meet new people and make them feel welcome and comfortable, as would be my instinct. Instead I am here to partake and absorb and let God’s words fall down on my head. I soak up the truth of who He is. I tell Him I am open to receive grace and comfort. I remind Him I trust Him, even though His ways are not mine and I am still sad and hurt. (p. 190)

Breaking the bowl (read the book to find out about that one)… and more.

I guess the only thing that is certain to me now is that the small God I followed before, the one I must secretly have believed would spare my family pain if I just didn’t ask for too much or set my sights too high, is somehow not big enough to carry me now.

That little God isn’t the one who comforts me when I despair. Not, it’s a big God, who loving voice reminds me of my mother’s, who gently whispers to me, “I know, Anna,. I know, honey. I know.” (pp. 218-9).

These are just a few highlights that really resonated with me, helped me rethink and reflect on my own losses (two immediate family deaths and two other deaths of people very close to us within 6 months).

Thank you, Anna, once again.

Rare Bird — Book Review

The book no one wants to write… the book everyone needs to read.

I have read many books over the past 55 years, ranging from theological to history to biography to technical. Of all of them I would have put two books in the above category, until now.

Weak and Loved by Emily Cook (about her daughter’s seizures)

And She Was a Christian by Peter Preus (about his wife’s suicide)

Now, the third one, Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson (about her son’s death). This is a book about her son’s death and the family’s journey in the trail afterward. 514slwUS0PL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_

I had read her blog accounts over the past 4 years, getting bits and pieces of the story. Yet I did not have any further insights. This book covers the details of Jack’s death, and immediate reactions. But even more Anna reveals the depth of the loss and the path that she and her husband followed, and their daughter.

Anna writes in such a way that she draws the reader to want to be at the river’s edge shouting for someone to help Jack, or Anna, or Margaret, or Tim… She reveals the torment, the futility, the “what-ifs” that inevitably arise in such circumstances. The tale of tragedy and the brokenness of life was gripping, and I wanted to read it all in one sitting.

But I could not. The pain, the agony was too much. At one point I couldn’t read it for 5 days, it was too overwhelming for me. I can’t even imagine the days for Anna and the family. She couldn’t put Jack’s death and her life aside for even an hour, like I could with the book.

Anna offers insights throughout a 2-3 year process of living with this. As a pastor I have seen people respond with love for the family when a death occurs, but often the continual support begins to wane after a few weeks or months. She doesn’t give us a short snapshot of this process. Because there is no short snapshot. Instead she walks the reader through the long path of grief. Anna also describes the changing nature of her grief, letting us see the depth of grief, but also the extent of the grief. Not very often do people learn about what she went through without having gone through the experience itself. Anna provides a flashlight through her own experience so that we can walk that path, yes, in a sense with her, but more importantly with someone close to us who is walking that path.

We lost our son for many years, not through death, but through prison and then him going missing for 17 years. Many times in my own despair I thought, “If only it would end. The unknown is too difficult.” We grieved throughout that period. But after reading this book, I realize that even an end does not stop the hurting, the loss, the grieving.

In another way, though, Anna helped me to realize something of our grief based on what she experienced. There were things, events, etc. we could not participate in or go to. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries were not celebrated because the pain was too much. Sometimes people were constant reminders of what we lost. Anna describes this sense of loss so well.

I also found that I could not share with many people what I was experiencing (it took many years for me to learn how to communicate), because I realized that many people didn’t understand, and sometimes what they said was hurtful (even though not intentionally). Anna also shares with the reader the sense of gratitude for those faithful people who stood by them in the darkest days, weeks, months, and yes, years. Loving, helpful people who sometimes just allowed her to cry. We experienced Christian friendship like that, too.

When I was stationed in the Navy in 1974, my only uncle died at age 49. My grandmother was 64 at the time (two years younger than I am now). I remember standing beside the casket and she said, “No parent should ever have to bury her child.” That memory is clear to me today as it was 41 years ago. And Anna’s book is a monument to those words.

And yet… my grandmother continued to live through that. And Anna has lived through this loss. This book is a book of loss, despair, anger, frustration, courage, and strength, all because of God. As Anna explored aspects of death and coming to grips with it, she shows to the reader, the winding path she is on, but ultimately the path which Jesus walked with her. This is a book of help and hope for everyone. It is memoir of loss and love, and the God who is present through it all.

Looking back now, because the sense of loss was so close to me, yet nowhere near the loss that Anna and her family experienced, I don’t think I could re-read it right now. It is too emotional for me. I marvel that Anna could even write what she did. And I am very grateful for what she did. It truly is…

The book no one wants to write… the book everyone needs to read.

Thanks, Anna, for opening your heart on such a personal, deep level.

Reflections on Christmas

This year Christmas has been a true blessing. Christmas Eve worship was God-honoring and a blessing. Christmas day was the same. And then today, we had the most in worship in a while. Great music all three services, great congregational singing. After divine service on Christmas day, we had an enjoyable meal with friends.

This was also a lonely Christmas. In April, we learned of the death of our sons’ birth mother. She actually died in late 2013 (in Korea) but we didn’t find out about that until the end of April. It affected our younger son more than we thought. And in the process, it was a loss for us as well. In a way it was surprising loss for me, but as I have pondered this, I realize that even though we had never met, we had a very close connection. We pray for our sons’ sister as well, since she no longer has her mother, and has never had a connection with her brothers. Maybe God will open doors there as well.

In June, my wife’s younger brother died after several years of battling cancer. We had the privilege of knowing he came back to faith in Jesus earlier this year. So our visit with him in June (just a week before he died) was filled with Scripture, prayer, pleasant memories, and a warm but also sad goodbye.

We also saw my mother in June, celebrating her 88th birthday. Very good time of conversation, love, and sharing Jesus. She died near the end of August, dying less than 18 hours after moving into an assisted living facility. In my time of reflection since then I realized she was the closest relative I had, a person who knew me and could me my moods, etc. Yes, loneliness, but also a deeper joy of knowing her, and being known by her. In the same way , but deeper what Paul wrote: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Galatians 4:9).

Then one of my closer friends growing up, much like an uncle to me, died in October (my only uncle died in 1974 and I had only seen him 4-5 times in my life). So many good memories of our time playing guitar, and even more he was always encouraging in my playing. We worked together a few times. He was big, strong, and a hard worker; and he was a devoted follow of Jesus.

Then there is our family in the church here in California. The people are so kind to us, welcoming us from the beginning. We celebrated with a group one night playing guitar and singing, plus feasting on great food. Even more, they have been very supportive and encouraging throughout the 4½ years we have lived here. They are true brothers and sisters in the faith in so many ways.

Then there is the larger fellowship in The American Association of Lutheran Churches (TAALC) who have been a true blessing. At the National level Dr. Leins (Presiding Pastor), Pastor Dean Stoner (Missions and Development), and Bonnie Ohlrich (Executive Secretary to Presiding Pastor and Seminary President) have been a joy to serve alongside. Then we have the seminary professors and all our seminary students. They continue to challenge me in my faith and in my teaching of the faith. What a joy and blessing to know each of them.

This Christmas has been a special blessing: remembering the birth of our Savior, and all the gifts God continues to shower on us. And then to have shared lives with several people who are no longer with us. But each has enriched my life, and I learned more about them and the God who loves unconditionally in Jesus Christ.

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MEV Layout & Readability

I have considered Bible translations for the past 30 years. Obviously solid translations handle issues in all these areas: words, phrases, syntax, linguistics, etc. Another area that is important to help the reader (silently or orally), which is not a translation issue per se, is the layout of the translation. I think God’s Word translation has the best layout design of any translation (including using only one column). See here for a discussion of layout, aural connections, and readability be sure to read comments).

We see the changes in layout over the centuries with the manuscripts, the move from all capital letters with no spaces between words, to small letters to spaces between words. The story of the birth announcement to the shepherds looks a little different in the two ways ( had to add breaks in the first example in order to display properly in the blog):

 INTHESAMEREGIONTHEREWERESOMESHEPHERDSSTAYINGOUTINTHE
FIELDSANDKEEPINGWATCHOVERTHEIRFLOCKBYNIGHTANDANANGEL
OFTHELORDSUDDENLYSTOODBEFORETHEMANDTHEGLORYOFTHELORD
SHONEAROUNDTHEMANDTHEYWERETERRIBLYFRIGHTENEDBUTTHE
ANGELSAIDTOTHEMDONOTBEAFRAIDFORBEHOLDIBRINGYOUGOODNEWS
OFGREATJOYWHICHWILLBEFORALLTHEPEOPLEFORTODAYINTHECITYOF
DAVIDTHEREHASBEENBORNFORYOUASAVIORWHOISCHRISTTHELORD

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ cthe Lord.

Layout and design do make a difference, and that has been an issue especially noticed in the print era.

Contemporary layout issues

For more formal equivalence translations, I like NAS and NKJV (much better than ESV) and have used both translations in readings this past year and for sermons. However, both use a layout scheme that can be confusing for reading. In poetry sections, both translations use capital letters to begin each line, regardless of the preceding punctuation (if any punction). And neither translation uses indentation to help the reader. Note this example from NKJV for Psalm 49. NAS has the same problem.

Psalm49NKJV
NKJV Psalm 49

 

 

 

 

As I have been reading and using MEV, I noticed almost immediately the different layout that MEV uses with regard to each of these problematic areas. Here is the same Psalm 49 in MEW. The lack of capitalization and the indentation makes it easier to read and follow with the eyes.

Psalm49MEV

Another layout issue

Despite the better layout of the MEV, there is a problem with the layout, in terms of paper weight and bleed-through (NKJV has same problem). Notice in the both photos that the print from the other side shows through. Keep in mind, that it appears worse in the photo below than in real life. But with MEV’s smaller font size, the bleed-through becomes more noticeable. Here is an enlarged view of the same MEV passage.

Psalm49MEV

Some thoughts on MEV

I will have more comment son MEV translation this coming week. Overall, I can say that I am very pleased with it. My wife and I have used it for our nightly devotional reading the past two weeks. Further, we will use MEV for our readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There is a familiarity with rhythm and cadence. At the same time MEV has improved some of the words choices (better than NKJV).

 

Fall Qtr 2015 Finished

Grading completed for Fall Qtr—Yay! Excellent students, great discussions, much learning. Blessed with young students in seminary (almost all much younger than me!);

Great professors of theology:

The Rev. Dr. Curtis Leins
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Pulse
Dr. Adam Francisco
The Rev. Dr. Craig Henningfield
The Rev. Richard Shields

Pastor Dave Spotts (teaches Greek and Greek reading class)

Thanks to everyone to male ALTS what it is today. Special thank you to Bonnie for making it all work behind the scenes.

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