Genesis 22 and Surprise

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.

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.

 

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.

ALTSlogo

Seminary Update

Longer PerspectiveALTSlogo

The start of a new year is a good time to step back and look at American Lutheran Theological Seminary (ALTS). More importantly we look forward to further strengthening and expanding of our seminary.

We are blessed to have two routes for pastoral service in our church body. One is the the on-campus route and the other is online. Each route offers excellent opportunities for preparing men to serve as pastors; these routes are not contradictory but complementary, each with its own strengths.

On Campus

Through our arrangements with the LCMS, our students have the privilege of studying on campus at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN (and Concordia Seminary, St Louis, MO). The students gain the benefit of top notch professors, they also study in an environment with daily worship and daily dialog with other students.

The first two years are on campus with some participation in a local congregation. The third year the student, now called a vicar, serves full time in one of our congregations. The fourth year the student returns to campus to complete the Master of Divinity degree.

Online

Over the past five years we have developed an online curriculum for the Master of Theological Studies. At the 2014 Convention the program was approved as an accepted route for appropriate pastoral training leading to service as pastors in The AALC. The students also have the opportunity for continuing service to congregations as part of their pastoral formation.

While there are differences between the programs, there is significant overlap of study. Each approach has distinct advantages for training pastors.

Current Status

On Campus Status: We currently do not have any students on campus; but we have two candidates for probable enrollment in Fall 2016. If you know of men who might be interested in seminary, please have them contact me.

Online Status: For Winter Quarter we have 22 men enrolled in the pastoral track, three women desiring theological education for service apart from the pastoral office, and two lay leaders. We currently have six professors teaching theology and another teaching Greek. With this approach, we hope to offer every online class at least every other year, and possibly more often.