"Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony?" (Job 28:29)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Filling Vacuum?

A SPRING morning long ago was great for my Saturday travel. It was a warm Saturday just before Easter in 1966. My family had been invited to share dinner at a co-worker’s home near Mapleshade, NJ. Bill, a lunch buddy from work, had worn many grinding wheels to dust alongside me. For a month we had been fitting a stubborn ’67 Chevy fender stamping die as we progressed through Tool & Die apprenticeship in Philadelphia. We worked the evening shift together for a few months in the Budd Co. machine shop.
 We shared dinnertime in the company break room. We talked of many interesting topics. As I now remember these times, the conversations between us typically seemed to center around women, hunting, guns, and cars. During one of our half-hour meals during the month of March, he had asked what I had planned for Easter weekend.
 “Nothing much…” I said.
 That’s when we were invited to Bill’s home. He took a pen from the pocket of his dirty khaki shirt and gave me directions to his small New Jersey farm. To sweeten the invite, however, he promised that his place had plenty of room for us to do some skeet shooting.
 A great morning shotgun competition took place between the two of us after my arrival there. Our families were nestled in the farmhouse, getting the Easter feast together. In the smell of spent low brass shells mixed with a delicious meal cooking, we found that we too quickly had dusted off a full crate of clay pigeons. By the time we were done our shoot, however, shoulders hurt from hand launching targets and enduring several boxes worth of 12 gauge shotgun recoils. We were ready to eat. And eat we did. Bill said grace, and the meal was delicious . . . complete with yellow cake and chocolate icing.
 Afterward, Bill and I each garnered a cup of coffee and sat on the back porch. We could hear the women talking and the children playing with Lincoln logs. That’s when Bill started to talk about Eyesore.
 You see, the beast was hidden under a tin roof that hung out from the side of his barn. Eyesore sat in the shade. A faded black 2-door ’47 Chevrolet sedan, the old mule was woefully clad in rust. Eyesore was an heirloom of sorts for my friend. It had been parked in that spot by Bill’s father. The elder man had planned to one day having the engine repaired. However, the patriarch of his family had died without ever moving the car from its stall.
 Bill sipped from his cup and knowing that I had a keen interest in old cars, he asked whether the sedan was worth anything.
 “Not much.” was the answer I gave. The faded black lacquer, rust spots and flat tires did not bode well in my appraisal.
 “Does it run?” I asked.
  “Yep, it runs. It’ll start . . . but the engine knocks when it gets hot.”
 Bill flicked the ashes from his Salem menthol cigarette, took another sip of Chase and Sanborn, then added . . . “The shifter doesn’t work right either. I can’t get it into second gear without grinding.”
 Looking hard at the old car sitting there in the shade, I noted the dented small center hubcap on the front driver’s side wheel. I then piped two observations. First I said, “It’s probably full of mice.”
 Then I added, “Those old Chevy six cylinders had splash oiling to the connecting rods. Even when in good shape you have to keep the revs up high or the engine will spin a crankshaft bearing in no time."
 “Really?” Bill piped.
 “Yeah” I said. The shifting problem is minor, most likely a vacuum trouble.”
 “You’re kidding.” he answered.

 I told him then about my father’s friend who had the same year, make and model car, except for two more doors. As the guy accelerated and had to shift, he coasted a bit to let vacuum build in the reservoir canister so he could get to another gear. Dad found his trouble in a leaky vacuum reservoir can.
 Then my buddy Bill laid it on me. He said, “Tom, I don’t have the time to mess with the old bucket. If you can do anything with that Chevy you can have it.”
 I took him up on the offer after I lifted the hood and looked at the shift column. There they were . . . aged, cracked and leaky vacuum hoses. At first, the old horse did seem fixable. We spent the rest of the day repairing the hoses and getting the old six cylinder engine cranked up. I then drove it some 60 miles to get home before dark. Having arrived home at dusk, the old stove bolt six went about ten feet into my driveway and finally went “CLUNK!” A connecting rod had broken and the engine never started again. On Monday, while grinning a bit about the whimsy, I kidded Bill about how Chevy engines broke and that the vacuum sucked.
 My friend chuckled a little. But then I learned about my friend’s ambitions and why he didn’t have time to work on the Chevy. You see, unbeknownst to me, he had been going three mornings-a-week to college classes at Drexel University. He was studying for a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Therefore he felt well-qualified to tell me that vacuum didn’t suck. Teaching me the science of pneumatics, Bill taught me that vacuum is just an air pressure that is lower than atmospheric pressure.
 My friend explained that a gas engine is just a self-propelled air pump running with a hand on its mouth. It tries to pump in air, but the throttle plate limits the air and thus the amount of fuel it gets. That way we can easily control the power and speed of the engine. But, since the air flow is restricted, pressure in the intake manifold drops. The resulting low pressure is what we call vacuum. Using that difference between high and low pressures, making it work on pistons and diaphragms, we apply the vacuum to operate such things as helping to work shift levers, move windshield wipers, and even the heater doors in my Oldsmobile Cutlass. The Olds hardtop used several pneumatic servo motors to get the job of air routing done.
 Thinking about these wondrous workings of high and low pressures that come along even in our local weather systems, I was amazed at how these natural occurrences can work in the world for our benefit. Further astounding me about the matter, was the occasion of learning biblical Greek while in the seminary. I found that when we were told about Jesus talking to Nicodemus, the same word was used . . . “pneuma”. I now know the word means “spirit” or “breath”. Jesus said . . ,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:5-9)

 So often we figure things backwards, like my supposing that vacuum sucks. We think we have our lives under control. But we fool ourselves. We run around in a vacuous spiritual void. We often crave some divine pressure in order to get our lives working right. If we pay attention to biblical teaching, like I paid attention to Bill… we find that what really is happening is that God is the source of all power. We need divine pressure!
 To attempt control, however, we sinful humans try to shut down the flow of the Spirit. We try to block the power that God would have over our life. We thus make our lives into meaningless vacuums.

 You see, from the time before our birth we live only by the will of God. From when the weight of the atmosphere is felt upon your pregnant mother’s body to the last breath squeezed from your lungs, God has placed you in a realm that requires you to strive within his creation. Working within that environment we collectively have a choice of sorts. We can go along with the divine flow, by recognizing our wondrous Creator, or we ignore or rebel . . . fighting the Spirit with no lasting success.
 However, to be born of the Spirit means that we are called by God to ask forgiveness for our disobedient ignorance, and then we may begin to breath the clean, free air won by the grace of God as given through Christ Jesus.
 For proof in what I say, let me give you this example. Just as vacuum gives way to higher air pressure, through the recognition of our powerless condition our lives, we can make way for God’s strength. Only by having our Creator’s guidance can we hear clearly the words of Jesus spoken upon the cross. You see, as he died making payment for our sinfulness, Jesus worked the miracle of salvation for us. He took our place. Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God said, “It is finished.” He pressured the Father for our sake; then he breathed his last.
 But the story does not end there, for this Jesus has been appointed as Lord of lords and the King of kings. Because he gave himself for us, God raised him from the dead. After his Resurrection he sent to us his Holy Spirit in fullness.
 Know that the Spirit is called the “hagios pneumatikos” in Greek, given so that we too might breathe of eternal life deeply. I say to you then, “Thanks be to God for the gift of pneumatics, for through that science we make an old Chevy shift . . . even while our Lord uses these natural laws to make shiftless humanity into saints.”
 Before you wend their way to summer car shows, therefore... check out this message, entitled, "Hold My Bier!"

May the blessings of God be with you and yours!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Lenten Fast?

STEEL GREY days turn our collars up. March can keep us buttoned tightly. A defensive posture to be sure, a sharp cold often keeps us trapped while tilting toward spring. Such was the day when I drove past the local dirt track during March a few years ago. Bleachers were covered in a foot or more of snow. A person’s tilt would have surely been needed in crossing the fairgrounds parking lot.

 Windy moments challenged anyone on foot to try. The tilt needed to walk that day seemed like even standing would require a front spoiler, just to hold tight like a race car. On that day, I drove up to the blinking red light signaling “STOP” at the nearby crossroads. Sitting there at the edge of town, I looked in all three directions and only saw dirtied winter roads. Each way was smothered in corrosive salt and ashes. Having once loved winter as a child, I wondered why so. I resolved to verbally assail my wife about our decision not to go to Florida for a clergy retreat.
 However, a bright spot lay ahead for me. You see, on that afternoon I drove across our town to see someone I admired greatly. His name is Bob, or “Old Bob”. . . as spoken of fondly by many persons who have known him. In the midst of the sullen grey beneath the stoplight, I thought that just seeing him should lift my Lenten season spirit.
 You see, Lent is traditionally a downer. . . a season of self-reflection. In church tradition, it brings us to realize that we have no light of our own. We are certainly a sinful lot. The self-image that many rightly secure in Lent is that like the chrome engine on a steel-grey pickup that I saw this past summer. During sunshine, the power plant was bright and attractive. However, on cold, cloudy days when storm clouds gathered, the twinkle was surely gone. Then the bland blend of silver grey and chrome did not show the sleek truck’s proper beauty. Being fast was all that was left to be claimed.

  I visited Bob in his room at the residential home on that particular afternoon. We maintained a nice warm conversation for a little while, but my parishioner friend soon tired. You see, Bob was in his late eighties in years. He had been around a long time, and he had seen both deep darkness and Light.
 I know this last surely, for Bob was shot down over Germany during WW2. A bomber flight crew member then, he was quickly captured by soldiers of the Third Reich. Being a member of the US Army Air Corps, notably a belly-turret gunner, he subsequently spent several years in a Prisoner-of-War (POW) camp, held until his release came when the war ended. His imprisonment was over, and since those days he married, had a great family, and worked diligently to make a good life for his loved ones.
 During that lifetime that he spent so well, he and dear ones went to church regularly. They attended Sunday School, learned catechisms, and each child took their places alongside parents at the communion rail. As the children grew and married, they had children of their own. And so it went, the life of a faithful Christian man of many seasons.
 As I consider the precious time we spent on that drab and dingy day, I remember leaving with deep thoughts rolling through my mind. This land that Bob fought for seems now to be in deep, dark trouble. I was reminded of the words of the Preacher…

 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun. For if a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 11:7-8)

 A depressing time is hard upon us this Lenten season. Hearing solemn news this year from reliable sources about persons murdered by those who are distorted by a stilted image of God, does not brighten our days. In some way, I am glad that Bob did not live to see this day. News images of Christians beheaded and burned now sear our minds. Words concerning the “end times” crosses the lips of many Christians during Bible studies. They witness of promised unfolding wrath written by John of Patmos in the biblical book of Revelation. These words press hard upon us.
 Yet, as Christians considering our future in this hazardous nuclear age, in the midst of somber grey days we read also…

 And I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”
And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
 Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
                                                                                                   (Revelation 5:1–6)

 Thus it is that we who are sinful and mortal are given hope as we read these words of Holy Scripture. Though each lives in a modern world where bad news travels faster than a drag car on a quarter mile track, we still have hope. You see, this good news gift had been a part of everyday life to my elderly and thoroughly American veteran, affirmed as he had received communion. Forgiven our trespasses, we marvel alongside such men as Bob, with hope that surpasses all human understanding. The greatest power that made and strengthens all things is found to be securing us through God’s Word.
 As Lutherans, during the Lenten season of late winter and early spring, we find that we are called to prayer and fasting. We know by faithful words spoken that we are but dirt trackers, and to dirt we shall return. As these dim weeks of Lent pass by, we consider the brutal noise of the world’s exhaust. The political din often seems like a blast coming from a nitro-methane fueled hotrod’s pipes. We may think ourselves as fast… that we can outrun the bad, but we are not fast enough! You see, both you and I often look for relief from cold winds in bad habits and faded glories. We meekly wait and rightly repent… turning to wait upon God to deliver us.
 When we received the ashes of somber repentance on Ash Wednesday, we are told that baptism into Christ Jesus washes away the dingy and the drab. You see, for Christians, the ashes are applied over the same spot where oil once marked our foreheads at baptism. That wondrous oil, not holy on its own, gives us a holy reminder, beneath those ashes of condemnation. Beneath the dirt, God yet has already redeemed us. So we can go home and wash our faces, knowing baptismal grace.

 We are thus reminded that God has done a great act through Jesus, his Son. Through him, we who are sinners become polished and sparkling before our Savior. Like the fiery dragster fuel that etches the cylinders and piston rings of an engine, the Holy Spirit grabs out of us the spiritual dirt down to our very bones. We get etched. We get scorched! Consequently we are convicted and cleansed. This sure cleansing is not because we deserve any grace, for we are yet sinfully wayward. But God knows, that if we are left to our own devices, we’d spin uselessly out-of-control like a NASCAR driver who just lost it in the corner at Daytona.
 You see, as Old Bob could have reminded, we only are pardoned and our rightful place restored for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Believing this, I continually hope to sit along with them one day at the winner’s banquet, praising God for what has been done.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Christian Alignment?

As Christians we are called by our Lord to go forth in unity. This mandate requires us to work together for the sake of gospel proclamation, a task that our past history reveals has been difficult for us. Our wheels into the future have not always been steering toward the same direction. We must then ask ourselves what can this mean for us and our message to the world around us.
 To illustrate my pastoral concern here, I borrow from my previous career field, Please note that a few decades ago various automobile manufacturers produced vehicles which contained race-bred innovations. As example, you'll find that the famed Audi brand… of historic Auto-Union legacy... once advertised a new passenger car steering system. Its appearance was marketed during the late ‘90s. That wondrous engineering caused all four wheels to steer the car.
 Aptly named “Four Wheel Steering” (4WS) by many, and also entitled “All Wheel Steering” (AWS) by others…the new steering systems caused the vehicle’s rear wheels to turn and help change the motivational direction of the car. The dynamic result was a better handling vehicle and much, much improved tire wear. In these vehicles, the rear wheels responded away from their traditional straight ahead position and worked in concert with the front wheels in order to take steering action. The change in rolling direction altered according to the driver’s steering wheel position and the speed of the car. At low speeds, the rear wheels turned slightly in the same direction as the front, and at high speed… they would turn opposite. The fervor for the improved concept even found its way into such as the domestically-produced Pontiac and Chevrolet high-end vehicles.
 Unfortunately, the 4WS idea did not endure beyond a year or so of production in a few special models. Apparently increased manufacturer costs, more frequent wheel re-alignment requirements, higher maintenance and unforeseen repair complexities would not economically compute. This proved true even when the option was restricted to the more expensive vehicles.
 I bring this example to your attention here for a reason, however, so to introduce a recent conversation about an alignment quandary for the Christian Church. Recently, I found myself informed of apparent parallel mishap. The problem was noted by me in conversations held during regional meetings in my own denominational expression.
 Now, let me first present that I strongly favor coordinated, ecumenical church steering that should be always aimed at the proper evangelical mission of the Christian church. However, history reveals to us that even from our spiritual beginnings, we’ve not always been rolling forward together. Protestant Reformation-era tumults and more recent divisions over human sexuality and child birth... highlight our gross wanderings from center. As humans we sinfully come by this scattered penchant naturally,. but this should not be our future course for the Church.

Are We Being Historically Hypocritical?
 Experts in biblical study point out that even the first apostles and disciples had differences in their over-the-road steerage. This was exemplified by the arrival of the “Hellenists” faction to see Jesus during his ministry, and also the inherited religious jealousies of the Hebrews. This tension is evidenced thoroughly by such writings as the following…

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. (Acts 6:1)

 We also see that many difficulties were experienced by Saint Paul in Galatia and Jerusalem as he strove for acceptance over against Peter, James and John. These also speak of early discord.
 Railing against such behaviors, we read the scriptural admonitions from Paul to the churches…

… for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely men? (1 Cor 3:4)

 In keeping with the Spirit of common faith, therefore, we Christians are to instructed to first take our disagreements directly to one another and attempt reconciliation. Failing that, we are told to point out our misalignment to the elders, and let them decide the future track to be taken. Thus, we of the church yet try to motor ahead. We look toward rightfully and collectively declaring both the Law and the Gospel to the world around us.
 However, reconciliation is not always forthcoming... and a particular entity may be declared by leadership as unyielding and apostate. The offender then becomes an outside, evil force standing in opposition to the scriptural mandates given to the Church. Of such apostate definition is my stance made against the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). My claim as a Lutheran pastor rests in proper opposition that their penchant toward the ordination of LGBTQ ministers, who exist in dubious “married” relationships… and also their rather rampant endorsement of pro-choice politics and funding of abortions through their clergy medical insurance... run counter to scriptural mandates.
 Given this, though my expressions tendered about these two issues have lessened somewhat over the last several years, several recent regional meetings heightened my hearing of latent road noise. Within that meeting it was said that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh (PA) was planning to participate in a joint 500th Anniversary Celebration of the Protestant Reformation… alongside the local SWPA Synod of the apostate ELCA.
 Now to me, if accurate… what this means is that for the apparent sake of furthering ecumenical dialog with that apostate entity, the pro-life Catholic Church is going to sweep both the ELCA’s egregious polity toward pro-choice abortion and its scripture-contrary ordination praxis… far beneath the church's alignment rack.
 Please realize that both of these rank specifications listed, I see as providing gross directional confusion in the public square. Disagreements over abortion, for example, publicly wears the church’s witness down and strips the tread right off our evangelical tires. Therefore, in concern for our direction, I contacted the Catholic Diocese about my objection. I have also messaged anti-abortion advocate Father Frank Pavone concerning the apparent deviation from proper steerage. So far, I have only received his tentative response that he would check into the situation.

 I have considered a more acceptable Reformation alignment as to our ministry for the gospel both at low speed and high. I would immediately prefer that the Catholic Church would forego its ecumenical participation with the ELCA… and not pursue any continued relationship. That being said, I would also offer that the NALC and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) should be more properly considered as church entities which roll forward in the proper scriptural direction.
 Collectively, to be sure, we need be concerned with holding the theological road tightly. In this effort, I pray that our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier... our God who guides the alignments of even the stars in the universe, may see fit to unfold our collective future unto His peaceful kingdom. I dare venture that future conversations held between our denominations should be re-aligned toward promoting life-giving family security, and not be an endorsement of growth resistant heresy. So it should be… and so I pray. Amen.