Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Haki & Isidore

On this day –the Feast of Saint Isidore of Seville- in the year 2000, my father died. Haki Resul Gaba was born in the Albanian town of GjirokastĂ«r on the 15th of February in the year 1919, and from there his life extended to an eventful eighty years. When he was in his mid to late twenties, ie., the 1940s, he fought against the Communists in a doomed attempt to overthrow that government, eventually settling in America by way of a several year sojourn in Great Britain. By contrast, when I was in my twenties I was pretty much doing what I am doing now, working and studying.

His life had an impact in several important areas, 20th century Albanian history, the Albanian Islamic community in this country, and of course family.

Ultimately, in the even broader view, his life stands as a testament to a very Lenten truth, one which we all must face. In the words of the 90th Psalm:

"The days of our age are threescore years and ten;
and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years
yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow;
so soon passeth it away, and we are gone."

With love for my father and his legacy, I must not let this day pass without remarking that one of the lessons of today's feast is that while we have family according familial bonds, there is a family which transcends even the strong bonds of biology and marriage, namely, the family which a Christian enjoys in the Church. Blood is thicker than water, it is said. And to that we must respond that as strong as the bond of blood relation is, an even stronger bond is the bond of unity which brothers in Christ share as a result of being baptized into the bloody death of Christ. His precious Blood, indeed, is our strong bond, stronger than death itself.

Thus, Saint Isidore is as much my father as Haki Gaba was. Like Haki, Isidore highly valued learning and study. A man of the late sixth and early seventh centuries, Isidore lived the same time as the founder of Islam, whose view of Christians was rather positive, but whose view of the Christian faith was unfortunately influenced by monophysite christologies en vogue at the time. Of lasting value was Isidore’s relentless struggle against just such false christologies. He was a true man of the Church, and he both preached and lived for the honor of Christ. Much more than a local bishop of seventh century Seville, Isidore is a man of the Church, and eminently relevant for our own time. And so today I am reminded that we honor both our fathers by family and our fathers in the faith.

The Male World of the Sacristy

What the Male-Only World of Altar Boys Meant to This Former Gay Man | ChurchPOP

I recently came across the piece linked above, and I find it to be filled with truths that are too often beyond the grasp of the modern Church.

I would have more to say on this, but for now, I'll just post this article here and commend it to your consideration.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Daut's Medical Expense Fund

Dear Readers & Friends:

I have created a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise funds for my brother & sister in law, to help with the massive expenses related to his medical condition. Daut suffers from a specific form of encephalitis. It affects his immune system, and has resulted in many other issues, such as memory problems, muscular pain, nerve pain (neuropathy), and weakened muscles.

If you would like to consider a gift to this fundraiser, you may give through this link:

Thank you for your generosity.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Stability as Teacher

The Rev. Larry Beane, in the pages of this web log, once wrote something which bears repeating and reflection. Just what does the liturgical innovation, instability, even chaos, which prevails in so many ways in Christ's Church today, do to our children? Fr. Beane wrote, in part:

"Of course, it does have implications for future generations, as younger people no longer have the image of the hoary-headed patriarchs and matriarchs, fonts of wisdom, and examples of dignified Christian piety...It's no wonder the children and grandchildren of these folks have rejected the faith all together or are so rudderless as to be groping around aimlessly in the 'emerging movement' desperately seeking 'authenticity.'"

His words seized my attention, for they drew my thoughts from the particular problem of bizarre worship forms en vogue among radical feminist Catholics to the more general problem of what liturgical innovation can do to our children, both now and down the road, and conversely, to the benefits of traditional and stable liturgy for our children.

Experts in child development have repeatedly warned of the harm that instability can cause to a child, and of the benefits of that which is stable and reliable in a child's life. Children love to learn; even when they try to deny it, their brains love to learn, and so does their heart, especially after you show them what they can accomplish. This includes challenging things like vocabulary and music, as well as rubrics and good manners. They love stable forms and routines as an environment within which to accomplish this learning. Children think they like a lot of television, video games, and web surfing, yet we now know that their brains do not flourish in an environment in which they are bombarded with a heavy diet of electronic sensory images.

Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, for example, in their book, The Minds of Boys, report the following disturbing data on p. 113.

"The average American child now spends 900 hours a year in school, but 1,023 hours a year watching TV. In the average American home, the TV is on 6.7 hours per day. By the time your son reaches eighteen, he'll have spent 22,000 hours watching TV, more than he spends in any other activity besides sleeping. The number of videos and DVDs families rent every day is twice the number of books read. By the age of sixteen, your son will have seen 200,000 acts of violence on television, 33,000 of them acts of murder. One-fourth of children under two years old now have TVs in their bedrooms. Two-thirds of preschool boys sit in front of screens for two or more hours per day-more than three times the hours they spend looking at books or being read to."

What does this do to children? One statistic that, in a sense, sums it up is given on page 112 of the same book: "In the April 2004 issue of Pediatrics, Dr. Christakis presented research that followed twenty six hundred children from birth to age seven and discovered that 'for every hour of television watched per day, the incidence of ADD and ADHD increased by 10 percent.'"

Conversely, Gurian and Stevens argue that there are great benefits to encouraging the development of vocabulary among children (130).

Yet "church growth" consultants have whole parishes and offices of church bureaucracy convinced that the way to cater to today's young and seeking churchgoer is to devise worship filled with electronic images, and lots of today's music, music of the most modern and irreverent sort, which contain banal and juvenile vocabulary. "Worship" of this sort is not designed to challenge or inspire. It will only serve to insult and ultimately bore perhaps everyone but its creators and their egos.

Let me cite another expert, one of my favorite writers in this area lately, Dr. Meg Meeker. In her book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meeker's particular concern is the father-daughter relationship, yet in a sense much of what she argues has application for children in general, and parents and authorities in general. She makes the case that daughters long, even when they don't consciously realize or admit it, for examples and role models, and they want and need a reliable, rock solid, environment in which to grow spiritually and intellectually, to learn modesty and faith, and to be challenged in the most healthy ways. A girl will even learn how to worship from the male role models in her life, especially the most important one, her father. Meeker writes, from a purely clinical perspective, on the benefits (especially in chapter eight) of an ongoing religious example for children. In this regard, she compares religious example with the absence of religion in a child's life. Based on these arguments I would suggest that the type of religious example you give your child will have an enormous impact on his view of God. Our "church growth" experts and "emerging church" gurus would have our children act in church as if God were a fickle MTV watching buddy with his own my space account. If you think we are being really creative in this regard, think again. We are simply resurrecting the ancient Greek phenomenon of fashioning gods who look and act like us.

Children need to know they can rest securely in a reliable and predictable environment. Within the safe parameters of that environment, they will then imagine, and grow, and learn, and question, and flourish. Without it, they might be entertained, but they will ultimately find themselves troubled and unable to grow properly. This is illustrated nicely by one of my favorite passages in Proust's Swann's Way:

"At Combray, every day, in the late afternoon, long before the moment when I would have to go to bed and stay there, without sleeping, far away from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom again became the fixed and painful focus of my preoccupations. They had indeed hit upon the idea, to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy, of giving me a magic lantern, which, while awaiting the dinner hour, they would set on top of my lamp; and, after the fashion of the first architects and master glaziers of the Gothic age, it replaced the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences, supernatural multicolored apparitions, where legends were depicted as in a wavering, momentary stained-glass window. But my sadness was only increased by this since the mere change in lighting destroyed the familiarity which my bedroom had acquired for me and which, except for the torment of going to bed, had made it tolerable to me. Now I no longer recognized it and I was uneasy there, as in a room in some hotel or 'chalet' to which I had come for the first time straight from the railway train."

The Church needs to inculcate in her children good habits, and before I go on, let me emphasize that habit is a good thing; so, one more time, allow me to continue my habit of quoting Proust in his Swann's Way:

"Habit! That skillful but very slow housekeeper who begins by letting our mind suffer for weeks in a temporary arrangement; but whom we are nevertheless truly happy to discover, for without habit our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless to make a lodging habitable."

A home is a place in which we ought to feel most free, most ourselves, most able to find our identity. In this sense the liturgy of the Church is an invaluable setting in which to foster good habits, so that reverent worship becomes our very habit, that is to say, that in which we live and find our being.

For many years now I have done odd things like make the sign of the cross when I worship, or kneel down at the consecration and in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord. Whether in churches where kneeling is the norm or in churches where it is not, I have kept up the practice, determining that the adults can handle the notion that there are Lutherans outside of one’s own parish, and they don't all have precisely the same practices everywhere. One of the things I did not expect to learn along the way, however, is that children notice me, and in the relationships I have been blessed to develop with some of them, certainly as Sunday School teacher at Zion in Fort Wayne, for example, they have shown themselves eager to learn and emulate.  I have found, as a sobering reality, but also as a delight, that it is not only the hoary-headed senior members of Christ's Body that have an influence on the young. We all do. There is much responsibility, and much potential here, for modeling good manners and reverent worship. I pray we will seize it, and with God's help make good use of it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Happiness in Worship

Father William Weedon has made the point that God's desire for you to be holy is not the same as a desire for some specific level of happiness. As Weedon blogged about five years ago, "The Lord doesn't want you to be happy; He wants you to be holy...He wants us to be holy so that we may be truly blessed; and blessedness is even better than happiness." I very much agree with his argument; it is a valuable insight.  It got me pondering happiness, and its unfortunately exalted place in the modern Church.  So I would like not merely to make the same argument, but to make it in my own way, and then apply it in certain particular ways.

Before proceeding any further, however, it is worth taking a close look at the word happiness.  On the one hand, happiness as it is most commonly used today has to do with a certain type of sentiment, that is, the feeling of personal pleasure.  It doesn't matter to what degree one feels this sentiment; it could be anywhere from an understated sense of contentment all the way to the sort of giddiness around which one can barely stand to remain for more than about a minute.  Nor does it matter what the cause or the particularities of the occasion might be in any given case; the happiness is no less real, valid, and genuine.       

On the other hand, happiness in its more literal and etymologically true use has to do with a sense of chance, or fortune, or luck.  Now, while some may be tempted to object that this use of the term is obsolete today, it is worth observing that this sense of the word does persist in our language.  It is why we have terms like happenstance (in essence, a chance circumstance) and perhaps (essentially the same as saying, by chance). 

Either way, the difference between worldly happiness and the sure hope we have in Christ, which is not dependent upon fleeting emotions, is unmistakable.  Nevertheless, regarding both of these senses of the term happiness, the emotive and the sense of chance, before we critique the use of these concepts among Christians, I believe it is worth also defending them.  For my view is a balanced one, which sees a place for both happy feelings and talk of good fortune among the faithful. 

If one is saddened, whatever the particular reason (and we all know they can range from the simple and incidental to the profound realities of death or other human tragedy), it is not necessarily inappropriate or out of line both to thank God for the experience and to ask Him to grant finally a reprieve from it, ie., to show the one experiencing it gladness once again.  With the Psalmist the Christian is happy to confess, "I was glad (Laetatus sum) when they said unto me: we will go into the house of the Lord.  Sometimes the insistence I hear from Lutherans about the distinction that must be maintained between happiness and joy strikes me as a bit overstated, absolutist, and overly literalist.  I am not condemning all such instances of this type of argument, just saying that it needs to be tempered with the understanding that our language is capable of nuances, and of terms being used in more than one sense; so that, for example, on the one hand, one might speak of "rejoicing" and have in mind being glad or "happy," even though the relationship between "joy" and "rejoice" is rather obvious, and on the other hand, one may certainly speak of being "happy," and have in mind the deep and abiding sense of contentment we have in Christ; all despite the insistence on fixed (and somewhat arbitrary) definitions of "happiness" and "joy," which I hear from some preachers. 

Likewise, I do not think it is absolutely wrong or inappropriate for the Christian to engage in language of chance or fortune or luck (the older sense of happy).  The Christian sees all gifts as coming from God, and we want always to be clear on that.  Nevertheless, on the one hand, some Christian uses of such phraseology are indeed meant in the sense of fortune and blessing that we receive from our Lord (such as Miles Coverdale's use of the word "luck" in Psalm 45, or in Psalm 118), and on the other hand, some of the greatest Christians of all time have used this sort of language, often in jest, and when having a bit of fun.  An example that sticks out in my mind is one of those particularly sassy passages in Luther's The Bondage of the Will:
I confess not only that you are far superior to me in powers of eloquence and native genius (which we all must admit, all the more as I am an uncultivated fellow who has always moved in uncultivated circles), but that you have quite damped my spirit and eagerness, and left me exhausted before I could strike a blow. There are two reasons for this: first, your cleverness in treating the subject with such remarkable and consistent moderation as to make it impossible for me to be angry with you; and secondly, the luck or chance or fate by which you say nothing on this important subject that has not been said before. 

Indeed, the literalists, if they were consistent, would surely be happy if we would cease using such terms as chance and even happy.

Now having said all of that, I want to affirm most clearly that Christians should ween themselves of the desire for increased emotional pleasure in life, and instead cultivate the desire for sanctification.  Even as the Christian looks with terror at his sins, he finds all joy and comfort in Christ alone.  This is the true and abiding hope which sustains us through life's trials, both the quotidian ups and downs and the true tragedies in this life.  And so while, as my discussion above shows, I would not condemn the use of the word happiness, or the focus on the concept of the same, in the Christian life per se, I would argue that praying for it, celebrating it, and all efforts to cultivate it should be kept out of our public worship, for much the same reasons outlined in Weedon's discourse. 

We could merely pick on the use of songs like "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands."  Indeed, we should pick on it, ridicule it, and roundly condemn it, in all Christian love (and also in Christian hate).  We could also pick on William Beck's dumbed down translation of the scriptures, in which "blessed" in the Beatitudes are replaced with "happy," a translation most unworthy of public worship, though I hardly think the AAT is much of an issue anymore.  I would suggest, however, that even in the Synod's approved worship resources, there are passages the wisdom of which should hardly be taken as axiomatic.  An example that comes to mind immediately is the Litany, which contains this petition:

To grant all women with child, and all mothers with infant children, increasing happiness in their blessings, we implore You to hear us, good Lord.

Good Lord, indeed.

This language in LSB's version of the Litany is taken over from LW (Lutheran Worship) before it.  And it contrasts rather starkly with traditional Missouri Synod usage, such as Liturgy and Agenda of 1921 (and The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941), which employs what I would argue is much healthier language.  To wit,

To preserve all women in the perils of childbirth, we beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord.

Has anyone thought to ask, what exactly is it for which we are praying when we ask for increasing happiness for mothers? Are we praying that women be deprived of the full range of their emotional life?  That would be asking that women no longer be women.  Certainly a husband's instinct would be the desire for his wife to be happy, whether out of pure love or partly for self-serving reasons.  Yet, the Church exists in part to be the objective bearer of Truth, for the family, and for the world.  Frankly, sometimes a woman experiences sadness; in some cases this is due to her fallen sinful nature, and in other cases it is because God has decided, for His own reasons, to allow a woman to experience certain sad situations.  He has a purpose and a plan, and it is ours to receive, to accept, to pray and meditate, to work through.  If a woman is experiencing truly debilitating depression, the Church ought to pray for her as she suffers such affliction; in such a case, it is not mere "happiness," however, for which we pray, but healing.  In Christ, the true Man of Sorrows, Who in His bitter passion and death suffered more than we can ever know, and Whose death and resurrection is our victory and life, we who are baptized into His death have ultimate and abiding hope and sanctification.  Let us pray that we may always remain firmly rooted in Christ, and His faithful Word, instead of praying for mere happiness.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Milwaukee Bucks and Life

The outcome of a sports contest, positive or negative, really has little impact on the life of the civilized and emotionally balanced man.  It’s not as though one’s life depended on it, after all.  Nevertheless, it can be fun sometimes to watch such things, and to let this be one small way in which one takes part in the culture of his city.  So obviously I’m a Bucks fan (that’s basketball, for those of you who are even less sports minded as I am).  Two days ago the Bucks had a game for the record books, for they lost in a rather spectacular way.  So it got me thinking, does the ugly loss the Milwaukee Bucks suffered have anything to teach us about life itself?  I think it does.  For if you’re going to do something, you may as well do it big, especially if that something has any value or worth, or if you hope to clarify whatever that value might be.  The Bucks didn’t just lose; they lost big.  In the end, the score was 120 – 66, the biggest loss in the history of Milwaukee Bucks basketball.  Admittedly, there have been other big losses in professional basketball.  Here are some of the more notable ones, which I found after doing a brief search online.  (Note that a couple of them were games where Milwaukee was the winner.)
  • 15 December 1985 - Milwaukee Bucks 140, Sacramento Kings 82
  • 29 December 1992 – Sacramento Kings 139, Dallas Mavericks 81
  • St. Joseph’s Day, 1977 – Golden State Warriors 150, Indiana Pacers 91
  • St. Stephen’s Day, 1978 – Milwaukee Bucks 143, Detroit Pistons 84
  • Christmas, 1960 – Syracuse Nationals 162, New York Knickerbockers 100
  • All Souls’ Day, 1991 – Golden State Warriors 153, Sacramento Kings 91
  • St. Joseph’s Day, 1972, Los Angeles Lakers 162, Golden State Warriors 99
  • Candlemas, 1998 – Indiana Pacers 124, Portland Trail Blazers 59
  • 17 December 1991 – Cleveland Cavaliers 148, Miami Heat 80

Indeed, Thursday's game wasn’t even the worst loss in playoff history.  That distinction goes to a game played on Saint Joseph’s Day, 1956, in which the Minneapolis Lakers beat the St. Louis Hawks by a score of 133 – 75.  I think the Bucks loss yesterday was second only to the St. Louis loss in 1956 in terms of playoff games.

But there can be no dispute that what the Bucks accomplished was a failure of historic proportions. And when one considers their record of the past couple years, including much of the second half of this season, it may not seem all that surprising.  Indeed, Chicago fans might also say that it is not surprising considering that the Bucks were playing the Bulls.  Personally, I buy neither of those arguments.  In this very playoff series, the Bucks showed that they can compete with, and beat, the Bulls.  One of their losses in this series came only after going into double overtime.  Then, they win in Milwaukee on a last second shot. Then, they win in Chicago rather handily.  The Bucks were not expected to advance far in the playoffs, or even win this series.  At the start of the season they were not even really expected to get into the playoffs.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that to lose in this way, where a team gets into such a hole and then spends the rest of the night just increasing the depth of the hole, cannot be explained by a difference in ability.  It can only be explained psychologically. 

We have all seen teams on a losing streak which included games they “should have” won, or batters going too long without a hit, or field goal kickers who seem to have lost their confidence. One gets into a losing situation, and then finds it hard to climb out of it.  It’s called defeatism.  And it’s easy to chalk it up to having “given up,” but I suggest that it is not quite that simple.  Experiencing the defeatist mentality, the mindset by which one really defeats himself, and learning to overcome it, these are valuable lessons for a young team with much potential.  But none of this is, in fact, about sports.  Nor is it even about “motivation” or vile notions of “success.”  It is merely to say that on the road one travels in life, while there are many obstacles and challenges on that path, often the biggest are those which are self-made, and internal.

Where would I be if I would have played the game that the seminary asked me to play?  I don’t know.  But although one could make the case that there was a certain injustice involved, ultimately, the failure to play the game was mine.  That’s my problem.  But it’s going on “ten years burning down the road.”  And I can’t refight any of that.  My calling is to walk the path which is before me.  Sometimes, indeed, in the midst of life’s journey, the path may seem more like a dark wood, in which the way has been lost.  And so, at least when we are wise, we keep with us the best companions we know, as Dante was able to bring with him (in life as well as in art) the wisdom of the ages as personified in the spirits of Virgil, St. Bernard, and Beatrice.  But the question must continually be asked whether an obstacle on the path, as monstrous as it may be, is external, or merely self-made.  If it is self-manufactured, then it should and can be destroyed just as surely as the sinful self can be conquered.  He, that is, the Old Adam or our sinful nature, cannot be tamed or transformed or converted, but must be drowned, killed, and destroyed, along with all the obstacles he conjures to beset one’s path. 

I do believe that of the Christian’s chief enemies (the devil, the world, and the flesh) the most underrated, and in a certain sense most dangerous, is the self.  One naturally wants to escape that which afflicts and torments him.  With David we confess:

“O that I had wings like a dove! for then would I flee away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I get me away far off, and remain in the wilderness. I would make haste to escape, because of the stormy wind and tempest.” (Ps 55)

Yet in our fleeing we still never really seem to escape. I am reminded of St. Jerome, who even after leaving the immoral culture of Rome and seeking to live ascetically in the desert, found to his chagrin that he was plagued perhaps more than ever by temptations of the flesh.  The problem is that the enemy David laments in the psalm we quote above is not merely the wickedness of the world.

“For I have spied unrighteousness and strife in the city. Day and night they go about within the walls thereof; mischief also and sorrow are in the midst of it. Wickedness is therein; deceit and guile go not out of her streets.”

There is, in fact, something more insidious going on.

“For it is not an open enemy that hath done me this dishonour; for then I could have borne it. Neither was it mine adversary that did magnify himself against me; for then peradventure I would have hid myself from him. But it was even thou, my companion, my guide, and mine own familiar friend.”

The one most familiar, the one who is your constant companion, the one closest to you, this one can be your worst and most treacherous enemy.  And for the Christian, we know that this is exactly what the Old Adam in us is.  What is closer than one’s own fallen (deathly) flesh?  And who, therefore, shall save me from the body of this death?  I for one thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  For by the paschal mystery the incarnate God has become even closer to me than my own flesh.  For I have been plunged into the paschal mystery of His death, and therefore also raised up with Him into the new life of His resurrection. 

But let us note well that new life in Christ means more than that heaven will be my home after this life is complete.  It means that I have the ability to trample Satan under my feet right here and now. Of course it is really Christ Himself who accomplishes this (Romans 16), for His conquering of Satan in His death (foretold already in Genesis 3) is a conquering that extends into my own life, and gives this little life great significance.  So I now have the ability, in Christ, to curse and destroy the most essential and dire enemies which come before me, and say of them, as David does: 

“Let death come hastily upon them, and let them go down quick into hell; for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.”

Or as we declare with David in another psalm (118):

“They kept me in on every side, they kept me in, I say, on every side: But in the Name of the Lord will I destroy them. They came about me like bees, and are extinct even as the fire among the thorns: For in the Name of the Lord I will destroy them.”

Believe it or not, dear reader, there are all too many Christians today who are embarrassed and scandalized by the fighting words in the psalms, like these.  How sorry I am for them!  For the enemies are real, and we are completely and perfectly fitted in Christ to take them on.  What matters in this conflict, in fact, is life and death, and as the Christian confesses in the midst of his afflictions with this same psalm, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.” That death defying victory includes victory over the phantoms of our own making.  The same obstacles we raise, we can raze.  They include the defeatist mindset. They include the power we grant to our past. They include the low opinion we give to the dignity of our own personhood. 

So while none of this is to say that success or wealth or secular prosperity are to be expected, it is to say that the devils which haunt us, as frightening as they are, do not get the final say, or the final victory, and in fact many of them will rather handily be blown away even in the here and now by the breath of God, as we exercise our right to invoke the live-giving Spirit, Whom Christ breaths upon His people from the cross. And that’s what the final Bucks game means to me.