Friday, August 29, 2008

Ecstatic over Palin

Suddenly I'm excited about politics again. Although there will likely be some things about Sarah Palin that I'll discover I disagree with here and there, John McCain made some giant strides today toward gaining my confidence that he'll make a good President.

I'm one of those conservatives, even "social conservatives," he knows he has to win over, and he hasn't done too much to win me over, seemingly taking every opportunity to distance himself from our kind, leaving us scratching our heads, wondering, what in the world is he doing? Somebody remind me why I am supposed to vote for him. And then remembering it was because the alternative would be far worse in a gazillion ways.

All that changed today.

I read about Sarah Palin several months ago, and thought, wow, she'd be a great president. I remember having the same thoughts about a certain Governor Ronald Reagan back in the mid 1970s. Governor Palin is strongly pro-life and anti-bureaucracy. She is a woman of high integrity, as far as I can tell. She was appointed to some oil commission, and when she found corruption there, she sought to root it out, and in so doing made many enemies among powerful people. At length she succeeded, and has gained the support of 80% of the people in her state. 80%! That's unheard of.

She's pro-family, pro-second amendment, and one classy lady. I still can't believe she got the nod. I'm thrilled to the bone, and suddenly find myself actually rooting for somebody instead of just against somebody else. Something good has just happened to American politics. Kudos to Senator McCain.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Preacher, IV: Nothing Personal. Please.

Today I was led to Fr. Greg Alms' marvelous little post on preaching, whose title says it all: "A Continuing Guide to the Self Delusion of Preachers."

I'd like to highlight these two points he makes:

Preachers know that 90 percent of personal stories in sermons overpower and obscure the theological point being made.

90 percent of preachers believe their personal stories are effective homiletical tools.

My guess, preacher, is that if you're one who likes to tell personal anecdotes as a staple of your sermons, you will likely never admit, even to yourelf, that your personal stories obscure the Gospel. And that, dear preacher, is because of your sin.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as much of a sinner as you are, but by the grace of God I am what I am: a preacher of the Gospel. Have you not read St. Paul? We preach not ourselves, he says most clearly. So why do you think it's ok to go preach yourself? We don't want to hear about you. And frankly, we don't want to hear your little make-believe anecdotes about somebody else, either. Is it too much to ask you you preach Christ?

Sometimes I have heard preachers do nothing but string stories end to end and call it a sermon, and I'm not exaggerating.

Preacher, consider the sermons in the book of Acts. You don't see St. Peter telling personal stories.

For that matter, consider Jesus' own preaching. Now his device is the parable, which, to be sure, is a kind of story. But these stories arise out of the rabbinic mold, and as such are themselves rich in content; and they're certainly not personal ones.

The typical American sermon has become the heart of all banality. I'm amazed that people can sit through such insults to their intelligence, and then tell the preacher what a great sermon he had today, when all they heard was trite little ditties like Little Johnny was lost in the wood for hours one night; his father went out searching for hours; and when he finally found his son sleeping under a thin blanket of snow, he awoke, stretched, and exclaimed, "Oh Daddy, I found you at last!" Who found whom?

Oh, gag me! Preacher, stop reading Herman Gockel, will you? Or whatever books you're looking at to get your little extended metaphors.

When you tell them, you'll surely impress some of your hearers, but alas, you've just wasted valuable preaching time in which you could have been delving into the mysteries of the Sacred Page.

So some will tell you how wonderful your stories are. Preacher, listen, they're probably just being nice. Either that, or they really need some serious catechesis in the Gospel, which is infinately richer than tripe about little Johnny!

You want to use some stories to illustrate your point? Fine. How about using a great book I've found that's chock full of them. It's called the Old Testament. You want to illustrate divine grace? How about using Gideon's army, or David the shepherd-boy. The point there is that the victories were not gained by the strength of man. See? There are the stories you may use to your heart's content. And you'll be teaching them Bible stories to boot!

Stop preaching yourself, or your own little time-wasting anecdotes. Preach Christ instead.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Carole Sanders Story

The following story is my leading article in our church's monthly newsletter for September. It has generated lots of interest, so I thought it worth reprinting also at this blog. The entire newsletter is always accessible online (to do so, click here).

No one expected her to live this long, let alone improve. But Carole Sanders continues to defy the predictions and prognostications of everyone, whether family or medical personnel.

Several years ago she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a rare lung disease that gradually (so we are told) renders the lungs nonfunctional, bit by bit, as scars continue to replace healthy tissue. We watched her go downhill, just as they said she would. They gave her two years to live at the most.

And so we began to pray for her, as Christians do, both privately and at Mass, for we knew that her dear Lord would deal with her as He saw fit, according to His own unsearchable wisdom and infinite power. With God all things are possible.

Soon she became confined to her home, and unable, except on a rare occasion, to go out. She loved her church, but was now a shut-in. Once in a great while we’d see her in church, if only on a Saturday night when less people are present. Yet her determination to keep up the fight was always evident, as we saw her, oxygen tank and all, approach the altar for the Blessed Sacrament. I could have brought it to her in the first pew, as I customarily do for some who have difficulty walking, but she preferred if at all possible to approach, climb the three steps, and make it to the altar.

Usually she had to receive her communion at home, where her husband Duane waited on her daily, an unflinching if weary angel always at her side. Duane was better for her than any nurse could have been, around the clock, constantly there for her, to be her stay. Months passed. Soon she entered Hospice care. She was losing her breath, she was going downhill. She was dying.

And so our prayers for her continued, even as we continued to expect the inevitable.

But she did not die. Six months passed, and so did the Hospice nurse. They don’t keep people on longer than six months; they’re expected to be dead by that time. And Duane and Carole decided it was easier and cheaper to manage things without Hospice, staying in close touch with medical personnel. I remember opining that none of us has any business predicting when she will die. Only God knows, in spite of what any professionals might think.

So she kept on at home, yet still going downhill. She routinely fell, even though she had a walker, and even though she never had far to walk. She just didn’t have the strength, because she didn’t have the breath. Her lungs were giving out. She fell, and bruised, and once or twice even cracked a bone. Her pain was mitigated some by pain medications, which made her groggy. I remember thinking that I had never seen someone dying so slowly.

Then one day last winter I got a call late in the evening from Duane. He couldn’t wake her. It seemed as though the end was finally at hand. I raced over to the house. Poor Duane was beside himself. We prayed. I brought to bear some of the most comforting passages of Scripture, of psalms, and of hymns. The nurse arrived, as did a family friend or two. After two or three hours, she did not stir, and her breathing was shallow. I had been at deathbeds before. Some days prior, she had already received her last communion, her viaticum, and now we were bidding her farewell. We were bracing ourselves for her last breath. Finally, when several people were keeping vigil, I decided I could leave for awhile, fully expecting to be called back shortly when death was more clearly at hand.

The call never came.

Next morning I puzzled over this, and went back to the house. There she was, to my great surprise, sitting up and smiling at me. Her hour had not yet come. Somehow, miraculously, she had revived during the night. Now doubly I know that nobody knows the hour of death. She had defied all predictions distant and recent. It was already well over the two years they had given her; I think it was almost twice that long. And still she drew her breath, and continued doggedly on.

Winter turned to spring, and spring to summer. My visits settled roughly into a weekly pattern. But my prayers, and the church’s prayers, continued at a daily pace, as ever.

Then came July. Another frantic call brought me out quickly to the house. This time she was losing her mind, quite literally. She was delirious, and completely unlike the Carole I knew. Suddenly she trusted no one but me, yet even I could not reason well with her. It was evident to me that her brain needed more oxygen, as I explained to her distraught husband. She was not herself.

Duane came to realize that she had to be moved, as she would not even let him care for her. This was the last thing this dedicated husband wanted to do; he had promised himself he would not let her live out her days in a nursing home somewhere, yet now he had no choice. It was a heartbreaking and agonizing decision. The years of care, and his labor of love, had taken their toll on him already. He had lost altogether too much weight, and was reduced to a mere shadow of himself. Now, in spite of his valiant determination month after month to continue the marathon, he was faced with defeat. Poor Duane! Poor Carole!

Yet we continued to pray, daily.

Then, in the past several weeks, something astounding began to happen. We had thought the move to Toulon Health Care would be the last straw. Perhaps it was for this reason, because every earthly prop had given way, that all at once things changed. She began the transformation from someone who was dying to someone who was living. Every time I saw her, which at first was daily, she was better than the time before. Not only was she no longer dying, she began improving, to the amazement of everyone. This was not supposed to happen. So extraordinary is her progress that even Duane, who visits her daily, is again gaining weight and strength.

Today Carole Sanders is again in her right mind, having not only accepted her lot in life, but rejoicing continually in the mercy of her Savior. Jesus has been with her, not only to comfort, but to strengthen both in body and soul. In therapy she walks farther than they tell her to walk. She is no longer waiting to die. She is living and breathing, and improving daily. She even hopes to return home some day, and to start coming to church again. Her remarkable convalescence to date really gives her no reason to expect otherwise. I can scarcely believe my eyes.

To be sure, it doesn’t generally happen like this. Faithful Christians die daily; they fall asleep in Jesus, and we mourn their loss, with the assurance that, as St. Paul has said, if in this life only we have hope in Christ we are of all men most miserable. So we don’t despair when earthly things are passed; we know of a life of the world to come; we know Jesus the Crucified, who was raised from the dead, and lives and reigns to all eternity. And we know we shall reign with Him. So we learn not to sorrow as others who have no hope, no matter whether we live or die. And we learn that this life is a vale of tears. Disease strikes and mortality makes itself known to us all.

Yet once in a while our Lord deigns to remind us, in sometimes remarkable ways, that He is in command of all things, and that He does indeed hear our prayers. In Him we live and move and have our being. And so it is that He has determined in His wisdom and mercy that it is not time for Carole Sanders to die. Not yet. In fact, she’s even showing signs of beginning to thrive.

If you wish to pay her a call, feel free. She’ll gladly visit with you and well you all these things herself. She is a living miracle, and reminder to us all that our God is always able to do abundantly more than we either ask or think.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Out of the Barn

Horses are now running wild and free.
Mavericks they are, one and all, shall they be.
And now there's another, for now yet again
Gottesdienst flies, she is out of the barn.

IN THIS ISSUE subscribers may look forward to two marvelous guest essays. The first, by Fr Richard Stuckwisch on "Singing the Church year with Paul Gerhardt," is a continuation of his brilliant study of this Lutheran giant's rich contributions to our hymnody.

The second, by frequent contributor Fr Larry Beane, asks, "Is the Papacy Still Antichrist?", a long overdue question, with incisive reasoning and plenty of confessional approbation to back up his answer. Hint: the answer isn't "Yes."

This is also our first issue with two new editors, Frs (and brothers) John and Peter Berg. We finally assimilated them (yes, rather like the Borg: "Strength is irrelevant, resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours."). Their short-lived The Motley Magpie has been resurrected, and is now a regular column in our journal.

Then there's an entry by your humble columnist called "Cheap Plastic." Guess what that one's about.

The lineup is rounded out by two fine sermons, from Fr William Weedon and Fr Aaron Koch, Fr David Petersen's article "Contemplating Missouri's Losses," Fr Karl Fabrizius's "Musing on the Mysteries," and my own "Pondering the Holy Liturgy."

One more thing. We don't have quite as many copies left over this time as usual, so if you want to subscribe before they run out, better hurry. First come, first served. Log on at to get the current issue.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fair Olympics?

Maybe it's just me--well actually, it isn't, because the NBC commentators seemed to be noticing the same thing--but there seem to be some sort of shenanigans going on among the gymnastics judges at Beijing.

I guess it's being overshadowed by the bigger contoversy swirling around the ages of the Chinese atheletes, and I must say that I don't really get that one. I guess if they're really young, they get some sort of advantage over the taller girls. Judging from appearances, it must have been only a few months ago that these kids learned to walk, let alone win Olympics medals.

I'm more concerned right now about the rather glaring score boosts these children, er, women, are getting from the panel of judges. First there was an obvious scoring "mistake" over the weekend which robbed, was it Shawn Johnson?, of a medal; then there was the tiebreaker win by China's He Kexin over all-around champion Nastia Liukin. Everyone thought that one was a matter of pre-set rules, but I question how He got that high of a score to begin with.

But ok, those are judgment calls, so who knows?

But now, as of yesterday, I'm really scratching my head. I refer to the event in which Shawn Johnson finally won her gold, and teammate Nastia Liukin took the silver. Good work. At last.

But how in the world did He Kexin take the bronze? She fell off the beam, for crying out loud. Off. You know, as in, Oops, that does it. How do you win a medal when you fall off? Nobody's paying much attention to this, but I'm wondering if some of the other athletes are, you know the ones who didn't fall off the beam.

Somewhere in my memory is the recollection of a judge who was found out in a recent Olympics. Something about having been paid off; it was either a Summer Olympics, or maybe figure skating. I distinctly remember some definite cheating going on in that case.

So I can't help wondering. She fell off the beam! Come on, how does that merit a medal of any kind?

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Preacher, III

I don't write sermons, I preach them.

This is related to my previous Preacher post, a corollary, really. For, as I believe to be well established, the Gospel is primarily meant to be proclaimed aloud before it is understood as something written down. This I have claimed and demonstrated in the previous post (Faith cometh by hearing, etc.), and Blessed Martin Luther has also shown. In his postil for the First Sunday in Advent, he explains that the meaning of Bethphage is "mouth-house," and goes on to explain that the Church is the mouth-house of God. The Gospel is meant to be proclaimed aloud.

So, although the Gospel certainly can be written down, and is written down, yet this is not the mode that is to be preferred for it.

Agreed, everyone?

If so, then perhaps we could also begin to suggest--in spite my awareness of the opposition of a long list of preachers whom I admire and respect--that the preferred mode for the entire process of the making and delivery of a sermon might also be oral and not written.

I do not preach from a manuscript, as many who know me are aware. And I rarely carry any notes into the pulpit.

I admit that I did so for a dozen years or so before I began preaching, as it were, without a net. But since then I have adopted the method of preparation that I understand to have been the method of St. Augustine. He did not write his sermons either. He mused, he meditated, perhaps several times, on the pericope appointed, and then he preached it.

There's a story of how once Augustine was supposed to preach on a certain psalm, but by some mistake the psalm read prior to his preaching turned out to be a different one than he expected. But after making a brief reference to this error, he simply went on to preach the psalm for which he was unprepared.

There's a saying that you can't understand what someone is saying until you know what he's talking about. This is most especially true of the Sacred Scriptures. And conversely, if you know what the Scriptures are talking about, you will have an easier time knowing what they are saying, and you will be the more capable of owning it, and preaching it.

I have heard the arguments in favor of a written sermon manuscript, and I often have found myself halfheartedly agreeing that there are many benefits. Indeed a preacher who is unprepared, or who, shall we say, has "an impediment in his speech" (St. Mark 7), might well be advised not to do what I am proposing here. After all, this is why Luther wrote his postils: not for himself (for he also preached without a manuscript), but for others to preach, who did not have the requisite capability.

But Preacher, I bid you to strive for excellence.

A friend of mine once commented that in order to preach without a manuscript, one must get into a zone. This is true. You must become united with the words on which you are preaching. If you don't understand them all (which is sometimes to be expected), don't preach on the parts you don't understand. On the rest, get into your zone.

Learn to own the Gospel on which you preach. Make it your own. Let it edify you in mind and soul as you meditate on it. Find yourself encouraged by it. Then find a way to put this into words. And then, learn to master the words you speak. Learn the art not of producing a sermon manuscript, but of preaching. Invest your energy in the latter rather than the former.

To be sure, sometimes my sermons are less than I'd like them to be. But the same can be said of manuscripts, as far as that goes. And, on the other hand, if I am not bound to a manuscript, I sometimes pick up things I had missed in my preparation, right during Mass, and have the freedom to incorporate them into the sermon. As I read the Gospel aloud for the people, I might notice something else, especially now that it is found in the midst of the live setting of its hearers, and within the context of the liturgy.

All of this takes work, of course. It is a developed skill, and it presupposes many learned techniques about public speaking.

Preacher, strive for excellence. Make it your aim to learn how to preach.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Preacher, II

Don't say "our text."

As in, "Our text for today . . ." Or in, "this is what our text is saying . . ."

In the first place, it is a bad idea to refer to the Gospel as a "text." A text is something written down, but, as Blessed Martin Luther said, the Gospel is primarily an oral thing, something proclaimed and not written. Jesus never wrote anything down. So therefore, although there are written Gospels, and certainly the Gospel in written form is valid and powerful, yet this is not the primary form in which it is to be used. Faith comes by hearing, says the Apostle. Therefore especially when preaching, we are in the business of proclaiming out loud the good news of salvation. This is not the time to be calling attention to a text.

Although we are certainly bound to the truth of the Biblical text as we proclaim the Gospel--it is our norm--still the power of the Gospel we preach is not dependent upon our making known that we have derived the message therefrom. The power is in the message itself, as it springs out of the mouth of the preacher and into the hearing of the people. This power is no text, and we belie this truth when we refer to the Gospel as a text.

Secondly, when the preacher says "our text," he is really meaning by the word "our" to be saying that it is under "our" consideration. Yet it is really the preacher alone who is considering this Gospel, and explicating it for the people. When he says "our" he really means "my." But that would sound too jarring, somehow too pompous. "Our" softens the blow. Yet the fact is that the preacher is here still meaning to say, "the text on which I am preaching." If he wishes to avoid inserting himself here, it would be better to say, simply, "This Gospel," as Luther does, or something similar.

"Our text" is a cliche. It's just another throwaway line. It's pedantic and dull. And so it turns off the ears. And "text" sends altogether the wrong message. Don't say it, preacher.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Dormition of the B.V.M.

Meditation on the Magnificat, which is the Gospel appointed for the Dormition of the B.V.M., may always be expected to be fruitful.

The Blessed Virgin Mary declares that all nations shall call her blessed. What gives her the audacity to make this claim?

She was told: first by the Angel Gabriel: "Blessed art thou among women," and second, echoed by Elizabeth her cousin, who said, "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb."

So now, as a third declaration, she says it herself, thus making threefold the testimony to the origin of her blessedness in the Triune God, whom she carries within her womb.

The Triune God is within her? Most assuredly, for in that she carries the Incarnate One, she carries the Eternal Son. Yet God is not divided, and though she does not carry the Father or the Spirit, still she carries God, she becomes the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the Mother of God.

Behold, the life she feels within her womb is her own son, her own flesh and blood; yet she knows within herself (for she has never known a man) that the angel's declaration is true: she carries the Almighty. She knows she will bear her Creator.

So within the tiny space of her womb is the meeting-place of heaven and earth, and in that she has given of her own flesh to this her Offspring, He has become forever her Son as well as the Son of the Father.

He will be now and for all eternity the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And so even after her sojourn on earth she remains His mother, and for all eternity she will remain the mother of God.

And He will be forever our Brother.

Deo gracias!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Preacher, I

Here begins what I expect to be a series of snippets and notes regarding preaching. Not snippets of sermons, so much as of technique and sermon construction and delivery.

There is no particular rhyme or reason to the order of the snippets, much as is the case with life itself, I guess.

The first such snippet is simply this:

Never say "you see." This applies not only to preaching, but to writing and instruction in general, I'd say.

"You see" is condescending, if only as an implication. It says, sit here and pay heed to me you impoverished little underlings. You uneducated infants, you poor souls who require my personal wisdom if you are to get anywhere.

For instance, never do this:

"Martha was troubled about many things, unlike her sister Mary. You see, there's a kind of anxiety that sets in when we get too . . ."

I'd suggest that "you see" is really not meant to be "you see" when it's used like this. It's a throw-away, almost rather like "you know." But while "you know" is only annoying as a repetitive substitution for "um," "you see" is more than that, I think. It's the verbal equivalent of stroking the beard, or making a tent with the fingers. It's condescending. Don't say it, preacher. Just preach.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Hey, that's me!

Whaddya know, I'm listening right now to myself on Pirate Christian Radio. It's out "St. Paul's on the Air" program, which airs on our local radio station at 7:30 Sunday mornings. It's now also on the internet at 7:30 pm CDT Mondays and repeated, I believe, at 7:30 am Tuesdays. Also for late-nighters, it repeats at 1:30 am Tuesdays. Anyhow, listen in sometime; the station is great; has a lot of very fine programming . . .