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Ted's Timely Take
Preparing to Die, Part 1
Our world is alive with death. In the last 15 months 3.6 million people worldwide have died from Covid 19. This includes almost 600,000 of our friends and neighbors in the United States. The scythe of the Grimm Reaper swings mercilessly at 108 deaths per minute.
Even without SARS-CoV-2, we have known all along that our appointment with the Grimm Reaper is unavoidable. That each of us will die we know for certain. When is as yet undetermined.
Plagues such as ours were not uncommon in 16th century Europe. Death awareness was ubiquitous. Every family knew what it meant for someone to die suddenly. So, in anticipation, each person prepared for death. When young Martin Luther was stressing over the canonical proceedings against him in 1519, he was asked to prepare a brief handbook on the art of dying, Ars Moriendi. Despite his busy schedule, he consented and wrote, “A Sermon on Preparing to Die.” Now, just what did Luther say?
On the one hand, Luther was almost insensitively practical: get your affairs in order! On the other hand, Luther sensitively entered the inner harbor of our soul to attend to our anxiety, fears, doubts, and apprehensions. In what follows, let me offer some advice that borrows and builds on Luther’s art of dying. Here in the first part, we will discuss practical preparation for dying. In the second part, we will turn to spiritual preparation.
When my father passed away leaving only my brother and me to survive, we sat together in the attorney’s office to settle the estate. The business of the meeting was punctuated by my brother’s frequent jokes and the even more frequent nodding of our heads in agreement. Everything was amicable, just as my day-to-day relationship with my brother had been. Once all the papers were signed, the attorney delivered a lengthy speech.
“You two brothers amaze me,” he said. “I
see no greed or jealousy or conniving or demanding.”
Puzzled, we asked the lawyer to explain.
He reported that whenever settling a deceased person’s estate, the surviving
relatives “always” fight to get a larger share of the inheritance.
“Always?” I asked.
“Yes, always!” he trumpeted.
Even though I think of myself as knowledgeable about human nature, this still surprised me. Once I began to give it some attention, I quickly saw that the attorney was correct. Survivors always…well, almost always…fight with their relatives and friends for the largest slices of the inheritance pie. It appears Luther had already gained wisdom in this regard.
So, here is my pastoral advice. Long before you lay down on your death bed, think ahead. What will likely happen immediately following your death? Oh, yes, your spouse and progeny are loving and kind and fair and generous. Oh, yes, that’s true. But, just to be certain that squabbling is minimized, provide as much specificity as you can regarding the legacy you leave. To say it bluntly, make that will a thorough one!
What about your burial arrangements? Make them in advance. Cremation rather than getting buried six feet under is becoming the more ecologically sound option.
When finished with the outline of the service, I returned to the church and filed it. When she subsequently died, we pulled out the order of worship to plan the memorial. Yes, a trumpet played revelry. Like Ruth, I recommend that you ask the pastor to help you make plans like this.
In the church office I’ll place a two-page End-of-Life form, “Funeral/Memorial Planning,” which we could use for ourselves or for a loved one.
We have just finished the practical preparation. In the second blog, we will turn to spiritual preparation for dying.
 Martin Luther, “A Sermon on Preparing to Die” (1519), The Annotated Luther eds., Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert (6 Volumes: Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015-2019) 4:283-305, at 290.
Posted By: 6/8/2021 12:07:41 PM
|Preparing to Die - Part 2|
Death of the Sinner
Hieronymus Bosch 1490
When Jesus knelt to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, he pleaded with God to allow him to escape his destiny. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). I feel like Jesus whenever this topic of death arises: “Let this cup pass from me.” I detest the thought of dying and missing out on next year’s World Series.
Yet, Jesus concludes his Gethsemane prayer with courage: nevertheless, “not what I want but what you want.” At some point, we must give up resistance and surrender our very being to our creating and redeeming God. Actually, this is sound advice for everyday living, not just on our deathbed.
In Martin Luther’s “A Sermon on Preparing to Die” of 1519, he stresses that we should put ourselves into the right frame of mind. Rather than allow our mind to be overrun with poisonous memories of petty slights and missed opportunities and could-da-beens, we should turn our mind toward God’s generous gifts of grace, beauty, and joy. Instead of asking for more, Luther recommends we say “thanks” for what we’ve had.
Let me turn now to spiritual preparation for dying. Luther lists twenty spiritual turns for us to take when preparing to die. Let’s look at a shorter list.
Oh, and by the way, we don’t need to wait until our final breath is nigh. We can begin this preparation for dying right now, today.
First, forgive everyone who has wronged you. Everyone? Yes, everyone. Even those you only suspect might have wronged you. Now, it’s okay to cuss them out briefly as you recall the unnerving incident but keep that portion brief. Then, twist your heart until you wring out pure forgiveness, understanding, and even compassion for the wrongdoer.
Republicans, forgive Democrats. Democrats, forgive Republicans. Really? [Ouch! Could I postpone this one?]
That’s not all. There’s more to this matter of forgiveness. “For God’s sake,” writes Luther, “earnestly seek the forgiveness of all those whom we undoubtedly have greatly offended…This is necessary lest the soul remain burdened by any concerns here on earth.” This may require you and I to make a large number of phone calls from our hospital bed. Keep the mobile phone charged.
Then, of course, include a prayer to the God of grace, asking for forgiveness for your sins against God. Ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. It is Christ who atoned for our sins and liberated us from sin, death, and the power of the Devil. A thank you addressed to God for forgiveness is most fitting here.
Second, turn your mental eyes away from the threats of evil. “There are three such evils,” says Luther. “First, the terrifying image of death; second, the awesomely manifold image of sin; third, the unbearable and unavoidable image of hell and eternal damnation.” Do not dwell on these thoughts or brood over these evils. Instead, gaze mentally on Jesus Christ who descended to hell, conquered sin, and triumphed over death. Christ’s victory becomes our victory.
The God into whose trinitarian life you have been baptized lives both on this side and the other side of death. This God of grace will not let you go. Ponder this. Think about this. Remind yourself of this repeatedly.
Third, “since everyone must depart this earth, we must turn our eyes to God alone.” Stop looking backward. Look forward. Yes, the path through the dark valley of death is frightening. We anticipate becoming lost in the abyss of nothingness. But just like our first birth when emerging from our mother’s womb, so also on the other side of death’s darkness is the new light of a new day.
many years ago and snapped this photo. As Jesus rises from the grave on the first Easter, he reaches out his hands to draw up Adam and Eve with him. Adam and Eve, rising out of their tombs, represent you and me. As God raised Jesus on the first Easter, so also will God raise you and me on the Last Day. That is our future. The beauty and elegance of that future dwarfs our past miseries while it reconciles all estrangements from our life here on earth. Turn your eyes to this future.
Fourth, delight in the sacraments. You’ve already been baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You have dined at the Lord’s Supper and imbibed the body and blood of Christ which not only suffered death but also became glorified in the resurrection. The sacraments have been and continue to be a means of grace. “God wants the sacraments to be a sign and testimony that Christ’s life has taken up your death, his obedience your sins, his love your hell, and he has overcome them. Moreover, through the same sacraments you are included and made one with all the saints. You thereby enter into the true communion of saints so that they die with you in Christ, bear sin, and vanquish hell.”
“The Eucharistic Candle”
Look very carefully at the candle wax.
Asking for Holy Communion to be brought to you in your home or hospital room is a fitting request. Your pastor will be more than happy to make this visit.
Fifth, when the Grimm Reaper arrives to count your very last breath, remember that you are not alone. “Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord” (Psalm 32:10). Jesus already trod this path through the narrow and dark portal of death to what God has in store for us on the other side. The living Christ accompanies us on the same path. “In the hour of death,” councils Luther; “Christians should not worry that they are alone.”
 Ibid., 291-292.
 Ibid., 290.
 Ibid., 299.
 Ibid., 302.
Posted By: 5/17/2021 10:19:34 PM
|Are Lutherans Evangelical? Liberal? Progressive? Just who are we?|
Not everyone thinks alike, to be sure.
During our Tuesday Zoom Bible Study we share thoughts and opinions, and we quickly discover that many different perspectives keep the conversation lively. The ELCA has no magisterium or inquisition to police our ideas or thoughts.
Nevertheless, we share some basics. We rely on the Holy Scriptures as the source of our beliefs. We also rely on the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed and Augsburg Confession to help formulate what we believe. But the Bible and those confessions appeared in history long before evangelicalism and liberalism were born. What happened to us then?
First, it was the Lutherans that coined the term, evangelical, in the 16th century. Even today our confreres in Germany are not called “Lutherans.” Nope. They’re called “Evangelicals” (die Evangelischen). With this word, evangelical, our ancestors emphasized that our churches would place the gospel in the center of everything we do. The gospel is the story of Jesus told with its significance, and the gospel’s significance is that by God’s grace we are forgiven of our sins and destined for a resurrection like Jesus’ resurrection. Lutherans do lots of other things too, of course. But a Lutheran is not a Lutheran without the gospel. That’s what makes us evangelical.
There is another kind of Evangelical, the American Evangelical. This evangelical tradition began with Jonathan Edwards in the 1740s and the Great Awakening. This was followed by the Second Awakening from 1805 to 1835. Yes, indeed, these evangelicals proclaimed the gospel that included the forgiveness of sins and the immediate renewal of our life. Transformation. Sanctification. Today’s evangelicals—whether Baptists, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, or independent churches —come from this powerful tradition.
In short, there are two kinds of evangelicals, Lutherans and American Evangelicals. [BTW: this does not imply that Lutherans are not Americans. We are American Lutherans.] Both center on the gospel. And, to confuse things even more, there are two kinds of liberals. Pour another cup of hot coffee. It’s going to get complicated for a minute or two.
Let’s start with the classic liberal in polics. Everyone reading this blog is a classic liberal. It was liberal thinking during the Enlightenment that gave us our democracy based on reason, equality, human rights, and freedom from oppressive government control. The key word for Ben Franklin was “liberty.” The motto of the French Revolution, recall, was liberté, egalité, fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). Today we substitute the word, “freedom,” for “liberty.” These liberal beliefs were spread especially in America, England, France, and Germany.
Classic liberals believe that each of us has been given intelligence or the ability to reason by God when we are born. When we go to school, the task of the teacher is to liberate our reason from ignorance. The task of the teacher is to liberate any innate potential—potential for art, music, athletics--so that it comes to flourishing as we grow up. Liberals liberate.
As an aside, did you watch on TV the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd? Did you hear the judge use the term “reason” again and again and again? That’s because Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill is a liberal of the classic 18th century tradition. Reason limits bias, controls passion, and directs our feelings toward justice. This explains why Judge Cahill was so upset at a congresswoman from California who tried to stir up anger among Minnesota crowds: if she would not get the verdict she wanted there would be violence. That’s a threat against the court, against reason. If you’re a liberal, reason paves the road to justice, not mob passion.
Today, both Republicans and Democrats are liberal in this classic 18th century sense. When Republicans and Democrats squabble, it’s like brothers or sisters squabbling within one family.
Now, watch very carefully. Where to American evangelicals fit politically? Since 1980, most American evangelicals have claimed to be conservative Republicans. But, in fact, American evangelicals are also liberal in their support of democracy, in support of classical liberty.
Are you ready now for a second kind of liberal? The liberal Protestant? If you’re growing feint, refill your coffee cup.
The liberal Protestant tradition began in 1799 in Berlin with a pastor named Friedrich Schleiermacher. Don’t try to pronounce his name. We’ll just call him, Fred. Basically, Fred did not like the liberal emphasis on reason. So Fred turned to feeling. Our basic feeling for God begins with das Schlechthinnige AbhängigkeitsgefÅ±hl. Germans like big words. Well, Fred meant to say that our religious affections begin with our intuitive feeling of absolute dependence on God. Here is the split: the classical political liberal politician relies on reason, whereas the liberal Protestant relies on feeling. Both are liberal, but liberal in different ways.
Did the Lutherans show up at the liberal Protestant banquet? By and large, no. Some did in Germany, but no Lutherans in America dined at the liberal Protestant table. So, we’ll leave that story here and jump down to our present time in California.
Is our ELCA a liberal church? Yes, in the classic 18th century sense. No, in the liberal Protestant sense. Then, who are we?
Most of us in the ELCA are progressives. One does not need to be a progressive to be a Lutheran, to be sure; but in recent decades our Lutheran leaders have imbibed the progressive fare. Progressives in the 21st century continue the liberalism of the 18th century, demanding that our society make good on its commitments to justice, equality, human rights, and democracy. Reason, not so much. Justice, big time.
If you’re not completely bored with this topic, I recommend that you read the blog by Roger Olson. Roger is an American evangelical theologian who is also a progressive. Roger distinguishes nicely between “liberal” and “progressive.”
Now, we’re ready to ask: just who are we in the ELCA? First, we’re evangelical. Without commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ as center, we lose our identity. Second, we’re liberal in the classic 18th century sense of supporting democracy and liberal education. Third, we’re progressive in the contemporary sense of pursing justice and equality in the wider society. Fourth, we’re nice to one another. Right?
Posted By: Pastor Ted F. Peters4/26/2021 10:16:01 PM
|Pastor Ted’s Timely Take: Martin Luther and Our Covid 19 Plague|
Did you know that a plague struck Wittenberg, Germany, between August and November 1527? The repeated plagues of the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries took three forms: (1) the Bubonic plague with bubble-like (hence the name, Bubonic) lymph node growths; (2) the pneumonic plague that infected the lungs with a 100% death rate; and (3) the Black Death, called this because of black boils that appeared on the skin. In the plague of 1347-1351, one third of Europe’s population perished.
As with our current pandemic, infection was spread primarily as aerosol through the breath, although in some cases by rat fleas. During the Reformation period you might invite a plague doctor to come to your home. The mask the plague doctor would wear looked like a bird’s bill to protect both the doctor and the patient from breath exchange.
Martin Luther was ill at this time in 1527, although not sick from the virus. He rolled up his sleeves and did what he could in Wittenberg to nurse those who were sick and dying. His prince asked him to move to Jena where the university was being transplanted; but Luther refused in order to remain in Wittenberg to help other citizens.
It is fascinating to read Luther’s thoughts now five centuries later. Luther did not have the equivalent of Dr. Fauci or Dr. Collins to explain the science. Luther thought that the virus was sent by Satan aided by the stupidity of infected people who refused to quarantine themselves to prevent the spread.
Should a devout Christian run away in order to escape infection? No. Luther wrote an essay in 1527, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” Stay and be of help to others, he trumpeted. “Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together…so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another.”
Luther also recognized that some of us are too weak in faith to muster the courage. If you lack a strong faith, then it would be okay to flee to the farm or to an as yet uninfected city.
Like Dr. Fauci, Luther believed that those testing positive should wear a mask in public (or the equivalent) and quarantine themselves. “Those who become infected will stay away from other people.”
Now, get this. Terrifying news broke. Some Germans were behaving then like Texans are today. These terrorists refused to quarantine. Rather, they deliberately risked their own lives and others to spread the infection. “I have been told that some are so incredibly vicious that they circulate among people…and wish to carry [the plague] in, as though it were a prank…I do not know whether we Germans are not really devils instead of human beings…the judge [should] take them by the ear and turn them over to Master Jack, the hangman, as outright and deliberate murderers.” If Luther were alive today, he would dub such people “murderers” and demand the death penalty.
It seems that human nature today is much like it was in sixteenth century Germany.
Now that we in Sonoma County have spent an entire year with Covid 19, we remember those who have fallen ill and those who have died. We also call to mind the struggle on the part of our leaders to persuade us to behave in the best interests of our own health and the health of the community around us. And, most importantly, we lift up the courageous doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, food handlers, cashiers and others who have engaged Covid 19 head on. We thank President Trump for the Warp Speed funding to develop vaccines; and we thank President Biden for oiling the gears on the delivery machinery so that you and I can benefit from the vaccines.
The fundamental symbol of the Christian faith is Jesus’ cross. On this cross Jesus suffered and died. Our faith does not paint a rosy picture of human life free from pain, anxiety, poverty, sickness, victimization, or even death. We pass through all these vicissitudes in order to get to resurrection. Our faith is a realistic faith. And we thank God for it. Martin Luther, "Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” The Annotated Luther, eds., Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert (6 Volumes: Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015-2019) 4:385-410, at 398.
 Ibid., 405.
 Ibid., 403.
Posted By: 3/16/2021 1:09:09 AM
|A Walk-a-Day Keeps the Ambulance Away|
Pastor Ted’s Timely Take:
A Walk-a-Day Keeps the Ambulance Away
There is nothing better for your body or your spirit than a vigorous walk in the morning. When sheltering in place every day to defend yourself against Covid 19, it may feel like your body’s decomposing like a compost pile. It may feel that your spirit’s turning from light gray to dark gray and then something even darker.
So, what’s the cure? A robust walk! After only five steps, your blood begins to circulate at a higher rate of speed. The speed of your heart increases; and this gives you an energetic feeling. The blood in your brain races through your cerebrum, oxygenating your synapses so that you think much more clearly. When you think clearly, you feel spiritually fit. You even cheer up.
Shortly after I arrived at Faith Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, to serve my year’s internship as a pastor, an elderly man showed up at my office. He introduced himself as George Bracher. He asked me for names and addresses of shut-ins. He planned to visit them and cheer them up.
We chatted. He told me that at the age of 65 he had suffered a heart attack. His cardiologist told him that if he wanted to live long he would have to keep his heart strong. Walking could do that. So, Mr. Bracher resolved to walk three to five miles per day. “Just about every day since, I’ve walked those miles,” he told me. “So, I visit people all over northeast Portland so I have some place to walk to.”
“You’ve done this every day since you were 65?” I asked to get clarity.
“Yes, indeed,” he said triumphantly.
I then asked the obvious, question, “How old are you, Mr. Bracher?”
His answer: “96.”
Posted By: 3/1/2021 11:52:13 AM
|From Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust|
Pastor Ted’s Timely Take:
From Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust
“Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is what the pastor says to you when inscribing an ashen cross on your forehead each Ash Wednesday. This reflects Genesis 3:19; and up until recently it was said in Latin, “"Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris."
In Genesis 2:7 God creates the first human being by taking dust from the earth and breathing into it. “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” God shapes the dust into human form just like a potter molds clay. God is the potter, and you and I are the clay. God breathes into the clay figure the breath of life. And we become a living being.
This means you and I are a combination of soil and spirit, dust and breath, earth and heaven, The word for ‘spirit’ and the words, ‘air’ and ‘breath’, are all the same: ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek. The first sign that we are dead is that we no longer breathe. When the breath—that is, when God’s spirit—departs, we die. We become only soil, only dust, only clay.
If we get buried, we literally return to the soil. If we get cremated, we then turn into ashes. When we are dead, no breath is in us. No life.
On Ash Wednesday and through the 40 days of Lent, we think about our birth and death, our origin and destiny. We match our own life with the life of Jesus. Jesus, like us, was born with the breath of God and then lost it in death. Yet, on the first Easter Sunday, God re-breathed into the dead Jesus the breath of eternal life. Jesus rose never again to die. Hallelujah!
Christians East and West for centuries have marched through Lent at a deliberate pace, pausing daily to recall: “Jesus suffered and died; and so will I.”
To remind us of this inescapable fact, we change a habit or two. We practice abstinence—that is, we deny ourselves something we cherish so that we maintain an awareness of our vulnerability. Jesus was vulnerable to persecution, suffering, and even death. When we maintain this awareness of vulnerability, we can identify with Jesus.
If you want to diet, give up chocolate for Lent. Health enthusiasts recommend intermittent fasting: stop eating anything for 16 or 24 hours twice per week. However, the purpose of Lenten fasting is not to lose weight. Rather, fasting or any other kind of voluntary abstinence provides us with a daily reminder: “Jesus suffered and died; and so will I.”
Some years ago I spent Holy Week with a congregation of Rumanian Orthodox. Rumanian Orthodox churches belong to the Byzantine or Eastern tradition. We at Cross and Crown belong to the West, to the Latin tradition. The Eastern tradition developed many customs that differ from what we find familiar.
I experience how they treated Holy Week and Easter. From Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday I fasted. I ate no meat. I ate nothing all day until supper. I became a vegetarian for one week. Then, on Easter Sunday we celebrated with a hearty lamb feast.
At midnight on Holy Saturday leading to Easter Sunday, the Rumanian Christians shot off fire works and sang loudly out in the snow. They broke their fast and greeted Easter with great joy.
The joy of Easter contrasted sharply with abstinence and fasting. In fact, the little bit of self-denial made Easter all the more exciting for me. Easter announces that even though you and I face death and the loss of breath, God promises us a new breath and a new life. An eternal life.
Posted By: 2/15/2021 10:25:08 PM