Sunday, June 28, 2009

REVIEW: "I Trust When Dark My Road" by Todd A. Peperkorn

The topic of depression can be contentious in Christian circles. Numerous Christians believe that their brothers and sisters in Christ have no business being depressed, that if we just had more faith, we would never have to worry about depression . . . or fear, doubt, pain, anxiety, grief, or anything else. More than that, many Christians and even many pastors believe that pastors have no business showing any sort of weakness.

Into this atmosphere and culture steps Pastor Todd Peperkorn, Pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with his timely and important book, I Trust When Dark My Road. Pastor Peperkorn shares the account of his own struggles with depression and its physical, mental, emotional and spiritual ramifications for himself, his family and his congregation. He takes us on the journey from pride and accomplishment, through sturggles to keep up appearances and ultimately his inability to fake it any longer, into diagnosis and treatment and the reality that he will struggle with this for the rest of his earthly life.

Considering the stigma attached to pastors who show any sign of weakness or difficulty, writing this book under his own name and sharing his own story was especially courageous. Pastor Peperkorn did the Church a great service in sharing his story. We Christians need to get past the antiquated notion that mental illness--and most weaknesses, for that matter--are in and of themselves signs that a pastor is unfit for the Office of the Holy Ministry. As St. Paul writes concerning the thorn in his flesh (and which Pastor Peperkorn quotes in his book):
So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 2:7-10, ESV).

I highly recommend this book to both pastors and laypeople. As a pastor, it's important to recognize that you are not some sort of superman, and Pastor Peperkorn points his readers toward helpful resources in recognizing and dealing with depression. For laypeople, this book is a poignant reminder that your pastor is a fellow brother in Christ and a fellow sinner who faces the same struggles and frustrations and even illnesses as you do. He needs you love, your understanding, and especially your prayers.

Thanks be to God for Pastor Peperkorn and this fine new resource!


Monday, June 22, 2009

A week in the life of a part-time steward of the mysteries

"This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work." -- I Timothy 3:1

This past week was a very interesting week, speaking in terms of my role as a pastor.

It started this past Sunday, June 14, the Second Sunday after Pentecost. For the second straight week I preached at St. Paul Lutheran Church in New Orleans, Louisiana--not that St. Paul, the other one . . . on Annette St. (Yes, there are two LCMS congregations in New Orleans named St. Paul, which caused some confusion in speaking to the organist of the other St. Paul Lutheran Church when I was at a pastor's installation in Mandeville two weeks earlier.) Back in February, Pastor Ertl who serves St. Paul asked me to fill in for him this month, and I take pretty much every opportunity I'm offered to preach. What Pastor Ertl didn't mention was that this is predominantly an African American congregation. This was my first time in such a congregation. We used Divine Service Setting Two from Lutheran Service Book for the liturgy, and they used hymns from both LSB and an Augsburg Fortress hymnal called This Far by Faith: An African American Resource for Worship. They were far more comfortable with the hymns from TFBF. Now, I don't know if every congregation made up mostly of African Americans is this way, but I found it a little unnerving at first during my sermon to hear "Amen" and "That's right" and "Uh huh" in response to the highlights of the sermon. I found myself getting into a rhythm with the feedback, finding a cadence, my voice rising and falling in emphasis. By the second week I hardly noticed at all, except when I said, "Maybe God needs to find a better way of doing things," and received an "Amen" in response. Putting that aside, I was amused that a choir of six people sang louder that half the congregations I've preached in or visited as a pastor, including a congregation that boasted over three-hundred people in one of their Sunday morning services. They were focused during the sermon, their attention never wavering. All in all it was an interesting and lovely experience for me. They gave me warm welcome, and I hope they ask me back when they need someone to fill in for them.

I moved on to Salem Lutheran Church in Gretna, Louisiana, on Wednesday, the 17th. Father Larry Beane is the pastor of Salem, and if you'll look at his blog and this post at Gottesdienst Online where he is a regular contributor, you will see that, among other things, he is a staunch proponent of traditional liturgy and the ceremonies that have traditionally gone along with traditional liturgy. I am also a proponent of traditional liturgy--that's a blog post for another day--though I am not nearly as staunch as Father Beane. However, his liturgical practice at Salem allows me to be as ceremonial as I like. At most congregations I do not genuflect at all. I have no wish to distract the congregation by doing something they might consider "too Roman Catholic", so I refrain from the practice of my own piety so I do not disturb their piety. But since Pastor Beane does so at Salem, I felt no such restraint was necessary. I chanted the liturgy, including the Lord's Prayer and the Words of Institution. I made the sign of the cross over myself without compunction. We had a Gospel processional. And I genuflected during the consecration of the elements--and not just a quick tap-the-knee-on-the-floor, either, but a rest-the-knee-on-the-floor-for-a-good-five-seconds kind of genuflection. Again, as a guest pastor I would not do these things in every congregation I visit. I tend to try to match my practice to that of the congregation's own pastor so i do not disturb their practice of piety. But when the opportunity arises--when I'm preaching at Salem in Gretna or at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Brandon, Mississippi in particular--it's nice to be able to let it all hang out, so to speak. Thank you, Father Beane and the brothers and sisters in Christ at Salem, for giving me welcome.

Thanks be to God for these diverse opportunities to preach the Word! Though I greatly desire to be a parish pastor and be able to serve one parish, the congregations to whom I have brought the Word and Sacraments over the past three years have taught me a great deal about the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church . . . and about myself and my love for parish ministry. When I was considering the Call to serve in Ohio I had thought it a blessing and an advantage not to have to preach every Sunday. Never again. Never again, God willing, will I take the opportunity to preach the Word for granted.

Thursday was the nine-year anniversary of my Ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry. This day went by mostly unremarked, except for the card I received from the Southern District office reminding me of the stole placed upon my shoulders on the day of my Ordination. "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . . . " Nine years, nearly four of which I have spent not yoked to a congregation. I'm ready, Lord, whenever you are. Thy will be done, of course, but you do know my thoughts on the matter, and I hope you don't mind if I remind you frequently.

On Friday I drove to Baton Rouge to attend part of the convention of the Southern Distirct of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. I missed the whole first day--having a full-time job, I didn't feel I should take two days off to attend the whole convention. Having missed so much of it, I can't comment much on what went on in terms of convention business, except to say that it seemed we didn't have a whole lot to get done. But while I was there, I got the chance to speak with President Schultz about my situation. I asked Pastor Rudnik, my pastor and now my circuit counselor, to join me, and we sat down with President Schultz for about twenty minutes. I am currently on candidate status, which means that I don't have a Call to a particular congregation at this time but am eligible to receive and accept Calls and to preach and teach as requested for congregations in need. That candidate status runs out in October, and I was worried that I would not be able to receive Calls once that happened. Oh, we're allowed to apply for reinstatement, of course, but I was worried that someone would try to Call me while I was on non-candidate status and that I would be unable to receive or accept a Call. President Schultz assured me this would not be the case, that non-candidate status does not preclude a pastor from receiving Calls, and should I not receive a Call in the next four months I would still be able to receive and accept Calls and in the meantime fill in for congregations upon request. I still would like to receive a Call, of course, as soon as possible--please, God!--but I don't have to worry that it has to happen immediately.

One last word. I must thank my wife for her patience and her willingness to watch me drive off to these various places, leaving the Terrible Toddler Twins in particular in her care. She has been a true helpmeet these past four-and-a-half years, and I look forward to the day when I can introduce her to the congregation I have been Called to serve and say, "This is my wife," and watch them welcome her as a sister in Christ.

"Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." -- I Corinthians 4:1

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It Is Well With My Soul (remake of "When Peace Like a River")

As loathe as I am to mess with what is an old favorite, I find myself dissatisfied with “When Peace Like a River.” Like “I Love to Tell the Story,” which doesn’t actually tell the story of Jesus and His love, “When Peace Like a River” doesn’t actually explain why “It is well with my soul.” I put pen to paper, and this is the result. I’m sure it won’t get any use—people don’t like it when you mess with their favorites—but I thought I’d try.

It Is Well With My Soul

1. The Word in the water does wash sins away.
That Baptismal grace makes me whole.
And though I still sin I can faithfully say,
“Jesus Christ makes it well with my soul.”
(chorus) It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul.

2. The gift, Absolution, comes from Christ Himself—
He touches my lips with a coal.
I kneel and confess all my sins—wretched filth—
And His Word makes it well with my soul. (chorus)

3. His body and blood in the Supper will feed
My spirit and body—the whole.
These gifts—means of grace—they provide all I need
For my soul—thank the Lord!—for my soul! (chorus)

∆ 4. O Father in heaven, I’m yearning to feast
Where sin, death and hell take no toll.
You reign with the Spirit and Christ, our High Priest.
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! (chorus)

© 1873, 2009 Horatio Gates Spafford, Alan Kornacki, Jr.
11 8 11 9 refrain
Occasion: Cross and Comfort 

Friday, June 05, 2009

Sermon for 6/7/09 -- Feast of the Holy Trinity (LSB 1-Year)

Sinners in the Presence of God
Isaiah 6:1-8

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sometime about 750 years before Jesus was born, a man named Isaiah received a revelation from the Lord God Almighty. God brought this man into the heavenly Temple and right to the very throne of heaven itself. And so, Isaiah stands before the Maker of heaven and earth—or as we confess in the Athanasian Creed, “the Uncreated, the Incomprehensible, the Eternal”. No sinner can look directly into the face of God and survive; and Isaiah knew it. He knew that even Moses was not allowed to see the face of God. And yet, there stood Isaiah in God’s divine presence.

It is not an easy or comfortable feeling, to realize that you are a sinner in the presence of God. This isn’t some random petty official who can be bought off with a bribe or who would be satisfied with a paid fine. God is the righteous, incorruptible Judge, and we have no defense before Him. The Judge has just one sentence to pass for sinners: death.

Isaiah was one of God's chosen people when the Lord brought him into the heavenly Temple. Still, following the Lord's calling of this son of Amoz into the Kingdom of God, Isaiah remained a sinner and he knew it. “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Isaiah had nothing to offer God to stay the arm of judgment and wrath—no good work, no sacrifice, nothing. His continued existence in the very Presence of God was due solely and only to the mercy and grace of God in Christ Jesus.

You have come here this day to the House of God, to this sanctuary which is a place consecrated to the Lord. You have come here to be in the very Presence of the Lord God. But you are no less a sinner, no less unclean than Isaiah. You dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. Do you realize what you have done by appearing here and seeking to be in His Presence? Do you understand what you have said when you added your "amen" to the Invocation? You have presented yourself here invoking His Name, the Name declared unto you on the gracious day of your Baptism: the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. And in doing so, you have left yourself open to His righteous judgment.

Here today, in the Presence of God, you made confession of your sin. You have nothing to offer God to stay the hand of condemnation and wrath—no good work, no sacrifice, nothing. You can only plead “guilty”. Your continued existence here and now in the very Presence of God is due solely and only to the mercy and grace of God in Christ Jesus.

This guilty plea has a strange and unexpected result. After Isaiah confessed his sin, one of the Lord's angels, one of the messengers, flew to Isaiah, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched Isaiah's mouth with it, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged."

It worked the same way this morning. After you confessed your sin, one of the Lord's messengers, one of Christ's under-shepherds, announced to you, "Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and In the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." Instead of requiring a live coal be touched to you, the Word of God is sufficient to remove the iniquity of your sin. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is enough. Instead of the righteous sentence of death, we are shown mercy and are given a full pardon.

Now, with all our sins removed as far as the east is from the west, with all our transgressions forgotten by the God Who knows all things, we are ready to enter into His Presence where we are permitted to sing The Sanctus: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” Then, for those who are prepared, one of God’s messengers takes the very Body and Blood of Christ. He places it in your mouth and says, "Take and eat, this is the Body of Christ given into death for you. Take and drink, this is the Blood of Christ shed for you.” It has touched your lips. Just as it happened with the water applied to you with the Word in Holy Baptism, just as it is with the holy word of absolution, so it is with the Lord’s Supper: your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.

It’s no coincidence that we find Isaiah in the middle of a worship service. You see, that’s what heaven is all about. Every image we have of heaven in Scripture is of the hosts of heaven gathered around the divine Presence to worship God. Whether it’s in Isaiah in his book, the angels as they appear to the shepherds in Luke, or John in Revelation, the hosts of heaven are in the midst of worship, praising God for what He is and what He has done and continues to do for His people. Whether we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth”, or “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth”, or “Worthy is Christ the Lamb who was slain” as we did this morning, we are joining in the hymns of heaven, in praise of God. When we gather at the altar to receive the body and blood of our Savior, we gather “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.” We have gathered here in the name of the Triune God, invoking His holy name, and even as Jesus promised, where two or three are gathered in His name, He is in our very midst! We stand here in His presence to receive His gifts and to thank Him for those gifts. We stand in the presence of God in this place, and by His grace, we live.

Like Isaiah, you also have been chosen by God. He has called you by name, and He has forgiven you by the power of His Name. You need not fear to be in the presence of the righteous God; your sins have been forgiven, and you have been freed to do the work for which God has chosen you. May He continue to grant you peace in His presence from now unto eternity. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.