Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Congrats, President Rast!

In case you haven't heard by now, Dr. Lawrence Rast, one of my favorite seminary profs, was elected to serve as President of Concordia Theological Seminary this past Saturday.  So excited for him.  I know that CTS will be blessed with him at the helm.  Here is a video of the announcement:

Heaven Is For Real

A few weeks back, a dear parishioner brought in a copy of the popular book, Heaven Is For Real:  A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, and asked me to read it to see what I thought of the claims made in the book.  So, I did.  I sat down in my chair one evening a few weeks ago and began my journey through the book.  Four hours later, I finished that journey, and my initial reaction was that it was a very touching story which made some very intriguing and interesting claims.

I was surprised by the fact that I actually enjoyed reading this book.  Having read other books in this "gone-to-heaven-and-returned-to-tell-about-it" genre, I didn't think I would.  But, the story told in this book is one that drew me in and touched me.  That's probably due to the fact that I can sympathize with what the Burpo family went through in almost losing their son.  When my daughter, Sarah, was six months old, she had to have major heart surgery to repair a large hole in her heart.  Those hours of waiting as they operated on my little girl were the scariest hours I have ever had to endure.  And, then, when the word came that the surgery went great and that we could visit her, the relief I felt was quickly turned to great fear again, for just a few minutes after we walked into the room to see her, she flat-lined and we were quickly whisked out of the room as several doctors and nurses rushed in to work on her.  Thanks be to God, they were able to resuscitate her quickly and she never had another problem again.  In fact, besides the scar she still bears on her chest, there is no indication at all that she ever had a problem with her heart.  But, man, was that a scary time back then!

Anyway, I'm sure my experience with almost losing my daughter had much to do with this book touching me as it did.  But, there is also a measure of sincerity in this book that is absent in other books like it.  As Rev. Todd Burpo, a Wesleyan pastor, tells the story of how he and his wife came to learn that their four-year-old little boy, Colton, had taken a trip to heaven and back while undergoing life-saving surgery due to a burst appendix, he comes off as completely sincere and believable.  If things happened as he recounts them in the book, no one could blame him for reaching the conclusion that his son really had this experience.  The problem is that, as sincere and believable as he appears to be, we simply can't be sure that things did happen exactly as he recounts them.  And, even if things did happen exactly as he recounts them, we still can't be sure whether or not Colton actually visited heaven and came back to tell about it.  

Nevertheless, there are several aspects to the story that are intriguing, in addition to the sincerity and believability of the one telling the story.  How is it that four-year-old Colton knew where his parents were and what they were doing when he was undergoing surgery (his dad in a room by himself yelling at, and praying to, God; his mom in the waiting room praying and talking on the phone)?  According to Rev. Burpo, neither he nor his wife had shared what they were doing with anyone, including each other.  Or, how is it that Colton tells his parents that he met his older sister who was miscarried and never born when, according to Rev. Burpo, there was no way for their little boy to know what a miscarriage is, let alone that they had suffered one?  Or, how is it that Colton recognizes a photo of his great-grandfather, who died years before he was born?  After telling his parents that he met his dad's grandfather in heaven, they show Colton a picture of him as an older man, just before he died, but Colton doesn't recognize him.  Later, they show Colton a picture of his great-grandfather when he was younger, and Colton says, "Hey, how'd you get a picture of Pop!"  And then there's the whole deal about identifying what Jesus looks like.  Curious about this (and who wouldn't be?!), whenever they see a picture/painting of Jesus, Colton's parents ask him if it's what Jesus looks like.  He always says, "No."  They get to the point where they don't even ask him if the image looks like Jesus, but rather, "Okay, what's wrong with this one?"  But, then, one of Rev. Burpo's parishioners alerts him to the fact that they had just watched a special on television about a little girl named Akiane, who claimed to have had a similar experience to Colton's, and had painted a picture of what she claimed Jesus looked like.  So, Rev. Burpo does a little research into this, acquires a picture of Akiane's painting, and shows it to Colton, who enthusiastically confirms that it's a picture of Jesus.  Here's what Akiane and Colton claim Jesus looks like:

And so, there are lots of things in this story that are intriguing and leave the reader entertaining the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this little boy did go to heaven and came back to tell about it.  But, there are also things revealed along the way that leave those who have read and studied the Bible scratching their heads.  For example, Colton claims that everyone has wings in heaven - everyone but Jesus.  And, no, he's not claiming that we become angels, just that we have wings in heaven, like the angels.  That's a little weird.  There's also the claim that the angel Gabriel sits on a throne on the left side of God the Father's throne, with Jesus on a throne to His Father's right.  Huh?  And what of the claim that Colton was given homework during his class in heaven, which was taught by Jesus?  There is school in heaven?  These, and other tidbits along the way, give pause to the reader who knows his Bible.  At the same time, we're only given brief glimpses of heaven throughout Holy Scripture and there is much about it that remains a mystery to us.  So, who knows?

There is not a lot to shake my theological stick at in the story.  There's nothing that just pops out as blatant heresy, as is the case in many other books like this, and the things that made me a little itchy, including the things mentioned in the previous paragraph, were not enough for me to dismiss the story as completely unbelievable or obviously false.  I'm cautiously skeptical, but I'm not willing to say that Colton didn't have the experience his dad tells us about.  I just don't know.  It's possible.  But, then, there are numerous other possible explanations, too.  That's the problem I alluded to earlier - we just can't know for sure.

This, of course, is the reason why we don't place our trust in books like this.  The testimonies and experiences shared in them may be interesting and even compelling, but they're not something upon which to build our faith.  We don't get our theology from the unverifiable experiences of others.  We have God's Word, which is the sole source and norm for all that we believe, teach, confess, and practice.  Thus, we do not need books like this to confirm or prove anything to us.  We have Moses and the Prophets and Christ and His Apostles - let us listen to them (cf. Lk. 16:19-31).

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs, professor at Concordia Seminary, published a critical review of the book, which I read yesterday.  He offers three main criticisms of the book:  1) There is no effort to verify the book's claims; 2) Holy Scripture's authority is presented as less important than the testimony of Colton; 3) Heaven is presented as the eternal destiny of believers, rather than the eternal kingdom to come when Christ returns in glory on the Last Day.

Regarding his first criticism, I wonder what effort could be made to verify the book's claims.  Dr. Gibbs uses the example of John Paul II's recent beatification by Rome, and states how they take the process very seriously and require verification.  Then, he compares and contrasts that process with how we're asked to simply take at face value the extraordinary claims made in this book.  But, I really don't see the distinction.  In both cases, at the end of the day, there can be no real verification.  And, I'm not so sure I buy the idea that Rome approaches the process of beatification with a seriousness and a "holy skepticism" that is absent with Rev. Burpo.  Why?  Because Rome puts together an investigative team to go out and investigate the claims made by people that miracles have been done via the meditation of a dead saint and, in the process, rule out many of those claims?  So what.  At the end of the day, they end up finding three "valid" miracles and put them before us as proof positive that the dead person through whom those miracles are supposedly done is ready for sainthood.  This is just as much a shaky foundation as is the testimony of someone like Rev. Burpo.  I just don't think this comparison is either appropriate or fair, especially considering the fact that Rev. Burpo has stated time and time again that he was very skeptical when his son began sharing details of his experience in heaven.  And, while he didn't have a Vatican-appointed team of investigators to question his son and seek validation, the whole book he shares with us is about him investigating his son's claims.  Rev. Burpo testifies that he started to believe that his son had really gone to heaven when his son began telling him things that he simply couldn't know.  That was validation for him.  It can't be for us, as I've stated numerous times above, since we just can't know for sure.  But, to be honest, I'd be far more inclined to believe the testimony of someone like Rev. Burpo than I would the testimony of Rome, since it is far more believable to me that someone could be given a vision of heaven than that dead saints mediate to perform miracles to offer verification that they're ready for heaven.

As for Dr. Gibbs' second criticism, I agree with him that one of the problems with this book (and others like it) is that the testimony of someone's supposed experience is put forward as more important than the authoritative Word of God.  That's a very dangerous path to trod, to be sure.  As I stated above, God's Word must be, and remain, the sole source and norm of all that we believe, teach, confess, and practice.  However, I think we need to be careful here, lest we give the impression that Rev. Burpo and his family somehow needed Colton's experience to confirm what they already believed, or that they were willing to accept their son's testimony as authoritative apart from the authority of God's Word.  One of the things I appreciated about the book was how Rev. Burpo continuously checked what his son told him against the authority of Scripture.  And, let's be honest, most of what Colton shares with his dad can be reconciled with Scripture.  It is not as though the kid came back from his trip to heaven with one outrageous and unScriptural account after another.  And so, while Dr. Gibbs' point here is well taken, I didn't get the idea from reading this book that "the testimony of the prophets and apostles and Christ himself in Scripture was not enough" for the Burpo family, as if they somehow needed their son's experience to seal the deal for them.  Rather, I got the impression that their son's experience simply confirmed for them what they already believed on the basis of Scripture.  There is a difference.

Dr. Gibbs' third criticism resonates most with me.  I had the same reaction when reading the book, namely that the idea is presented that heaven is the final destination for believers, which is a false belief held by many unknowing Christians.  But, we know from Holy Scripture that heaven is not the final destination for us.  We know that Christ will return on the Last Day and usher in the new heavens and earth, in which we will dwell bodily forever.  Heaven is for real.  But, it's not forever.  Our spirits go to heaven when we die to await the consummation of all things when our Lord returns.  And so, for me, the most dangerous aspect of this book is that it may further cement the faulty belief many already hold that we are destined to spend eternity in the current heaven where our spirits go upon death.  But, we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the + world to come.  Of course, this doesn't mean that we can simply dismiss the claims of Colton Burpo.  While we know that heaven is not the final destination for us, we do know that it is real and that our spirits do go there upon death.  Beyond that, Scripture doesn't tell us all that much.  There is far more revealed about the new heavens and earth to come than there is about the current heaven, even while there remains far more that is a mystery to us.  The problem is that many people mistake many of the descriptions of the new heavens and earth (the eternal kingdom to come) as descriptions of heaven.

In the end, I don't know what little Colton Burpo saw and experienced.  Maybe he did go to heaven and came back to tell about it.  Maybe heaven is a far more wondrous place than we who look forward to the new heavens and earth sometimes consider it.  Maybe we don't just "rest in Christ" and worship and pray until the trumpet sounds and the Last Day arrives.  Maybe our spirits have wings and we have school and homework and such in heaven.  Or, maybe not.  Maybe Colton has a very active imagination or maybe he had vivid dreams while under the knife and mistook them for reality, and maybe some of the things we're told that he couldn't possibly know were told to him unbeknownst to his parents.  We simply cannot say.  And so, at the end of the day, this book can be nothing more than a fun read which makes interesting and intriguing claims.  That's what it was for me.  Nothing more, nothing less.

For, again, we have Moses and the Prophets and Christ and His Apostles.  Let us listen to them.    

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Confirmation Pics

This past Sunday was Confirmation Sunday at Peace.  Our two confirmands, Sierra Luplow and Aaron Messer, answered a series of Scriptural and catechetical questions during the Order of Matins with Public Questioning at 8:30 a.m. that morning, and they did a fabulous job, answering every question asked of them correctly.  Then, at the Divine Service at 9:30 a.m., they were confirmed during the Rite of Confirmation, as they publicly confessed their faith in Christ and vowed to remain in that faith, by God's grace, before their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Some pics:

Sierra and Aaron holding their beautiful Wolfson Creative Confirmation Certificates by the beautiful banner made by our Ladies' Guild

Aaron with his godfather, Mike

Aaron with Grandma Kull and Aunt Juanita

Our four children - all now Confirmed!

Aaron with Grandma and Papa Messer

Aaron with great-grandma Joyce

Sierra with Grandparents, Terry and Coaline, and siblings, Myka and Zane

The Prophet Harold Camping Explains

The Prophet Harold Camping released a statement yesterday explaining why the secret Rapture did not occur as he predicted. Here it is:

Okay, so that wasn't his real statement, but it's no less ridiculous than the statement he did make yesterday, which you can read about here and here

And you thought the fact that the Rapture didn't occur a few days ago proved that Camping was wrong.  Silly people.  He was absolutely right.  It did occur, just not in the manner he predicted it would.  God decided to call an audible.  Instead of secretly zapping all believers in Christ Camping out of this world at 6:00 p.m. on May 21, a "spiritual judgment" took place at precisely that time.  You can't blame Camping for God changing His mind at the last minute.  It's not his fault that God decided to go in a different direction.  But, the dates were correct, that much we know for sure.  And, since those dates are correct, we know with absolute certainty that the date for the final destruction of this world and ultimate return of Christ is October 21.  This actually shows the mercy of God, since His original plan was to secretly Rapture all believers on May 21 and then have five months of "hell on earth" for those "left behind" until the apocalypse came on October 21.  That was going to be really, really bad, like slowly removing a large band-aid from a hairy arm.  But, now, in His mercy, God has decided to just leave that band-aid on and rip it off quickly on October 21, so that the world and all unbelievers will be instantaneously annihilated on that day.  Much better for all involved, really. 

So, what to do until October 21?  Shall we preach the Good News about Jesus Christ in the hope that many will be saved from the coming destruction?  Well, no.  That's quite impossible now.  The "spiritual judgment" took place a few days ago.  The fate of all was sealed on May 21 at 6:00 p.m.  There is no longer any need to preach or to warn the world.  So, please, do not waste your money on putting up billboards or painting your vehicles with the date of October 21 on them.  It's all unnecessary now.  The deed is done.  And, for those of you who spent your life's savings on those May 21 billboards, good job.  That was a wonderful and faithful investment and God will reward you for sounding the trumpet of warning before the final "spiritual judgment" took place.  And, besides, you only have five more months, so it's not like you needed that savings anyway.  Just hang in there until October 21.  It will all be over then.  Trust me. 

Enjoy your last five months, everyone!  

Friday, May 20, 2011

Only 27 Hours Left . . .

until the secret Rapture of the Church Campingites occurs.  Why is Church crossed out?  Well, because if you belong to the Church, you will not be one of those special persons who gets mystically whisked away and secretly vanishes from the face of the earth tomorrow at precisely 6:00 p.m. (oh, and don't ask which time zone - somehow the Lord will work it out so that it is magically 6:00 p.m. at the same time all over the world, or something like that).  Sorry.  If you believe in Jesus and belong to His Church, you are doomed.  You must believe in the Prophet Harold Camping and his prophecy to be one of the select few to get a seat on the Secret Rapture Carpet Ride tomorrow.  As for me, I think I'll stick with Jesus and His Church (you know, the Church about which He promises that nothing shall prevail against, not even the gates of Hades, or the prophecies of a deranged lunatic).  I'll stick with the Word of God, rather than the word of an obvious false prophet, the Word that assures me that Jesus lived the perfect life in my place and paid for all of my sins on the Cross and rose again from the dead on the third day to open to me and all believers the way to everlasting life; the Word that assures me that the way I get in on the salvation Jesus won for me is in the Holy Word and Sacraments delivered to me in (a-hem) His Holy Church; the Word that knows absolutely nothing about a secret Rapture of the Church (let alone the secret Rapture of a bunch of goofballs who claim to know what even our own Lord confessed to not knowing), but makes it vividly clear time and time again that when our Lord does return on the Last Day, it will be in great glory, with the voice of an archangel and trumpets blaring; the Word that assures me that our Lord did not come to establish an earthly kingdom, but that His kingdom is not of this world (could he have been any clearer about this?), and that He is not coming back to establish His kingdom here on earth and rule over it for a thousand years, but that He is coming to usher in a new heavens and earth, in which He and all His saints and angels will live forever.  Yeah, I think I'll stick with that Word.  If that means I miss out on whatever party is planned for the Campingites tomorrow, so be it.  I'll live - forever!

Anyway, this whole goofy episode with Camping and his deceived followers, which is just the latest in the long line of past goofy episodes from many a false prophet who thought he cracked the "Bible code" and set a date for our Lord's return, brought to mind an article I wrote a few years back for our local newspaper.  I thought it might be prudent to share it here:

Published in The Morning Sun on Saturday, August 1, 2006

Greetings in the Name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father . . . Therefore, keep watch, for you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matt. 24:36, 42). 

It never fails!  Every time there is a conflict in the Middle East involving Israel, the self-proclaimed “prophecy experts” come out in full force preaching the imminent return of Christ.  These are the “Christian” leaders and preachers you see on television and hear on the radio quoting Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and other prophets, exhorting people to believe that their prophecies are being fulfilled before our eyes in the events unfolding in the world, and especially in modern day Israel.  These events (or “prophetic fulfillments”), they say, are setting the stage for the return of Jesus Christ. 

It is not that these so-called “prophecy experts” are silent when Israel is not involved in a major conflict.  On the contrary, they are always busy watching headlines and equating current events in the world with the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  Most of them devote their entire ministry to this task.  And, most of them, by the way, are very “successful” in their “prophetic” ministries.  Their books are best-sellers and their television and radio programs attract hundreds of thousands of unknowing and unsuspecting Christians who tune in to get the latest scoop on when Jesus is going to return.

What amazes this pastor is not that people are attracted to the sensational, tantalizing, and urgent messages preached by these modern “prophets.”  After all, nearly all of them adhere to a false system of theology known as Dispensationalism, which presents a picture of the return of Christ and the end of the world as we know it that would make Steven Spielberg and George Lucas envious.  The science-fiction-like scenario of the end put forth by these false prophets, complete with a secret rapture of the Church, a seven-year tribulation period (for those Left Behind), and a literal, thousand-year reign of Christ on earth is sure to attract people.  The fact that these teachings originated in the mid-nineteenth century and have absolutely no basis in biblical truth provides little competition for a people who have fallen in love with Hollywood and its special effects.  So, it does not amaze, or even surprise, me that people are attracted to the message preached by these false prophets.

What does amaze this pastor is that people continue to cling to these “prophecy experts” even when they have proven themselves, time and time again, to be wrong.  Many of them have set specific dates and many others have provided general timeframes for the return of Christ which have come and gone.  And yet, their ministries go unscathed and continue to grow.  I do not have the space here to provide numerous examples (I wish I did!), but here is one:

In the first week of the war in Iraq, which began March 20, 2003, I was flipping through the channels and came across Benny Hinn and John Hagee appearing together on TBN.  Reluctantly, I watched and listened to them as they made it clear that the Holy Spirit had told them that the return of Christ to “rapture” His Church was very near.  They could not give a precise date, but both said that it would occur sometime in the next few months and definitely before six months had passed.  Well, here we are, nearly two and a half years later and, unless we have all been “left behind,” they were wrong.  And yet, the “ministries” of Benny and John go unscathed.  They continue to pack stadiums full of people.  Amazing!

My friends, here is the sober and simple truth.  Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, will return someday in great glory to judge the living and the dead.  This belief is a fundamental article of the Christian faith.  But, the “when” of our Lord’s return is completely unknown.  Furthermore, the events unfolding in the world today, even in Israel, are not the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  They are not specific signs pointing us to the imminent return of Christ.  The signs we are given in the Bible are purposely generic (wars and rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, etc.) so that every generation of believers will ready themselves in constant expectation of our Lord’s return.  The enduring message of our Lord to all believers concerning His return in glory is this:  Keep watch and be ready at all times, for you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  

Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word, that we may always be ready for, and look forward to, Your glorious return.  In Your Holy and Precious Name.  Amen.

In Christ,
Rev. Thomas C. Messer, Pastor
Peace Lutheran Church ~ Alma, MI

Pr. Tony Pittenger shares some thoughts here, and Pr. William Cwirla writes on the subject here and here.

And here is Pr. Jonathan Fisk's take on it in today's Ask the Pastor episode of Worldview Everlasting:

Catching Up - A Fisk Foursome . . .

A Couple More Lutheran Satire Videos . . .

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Gray Hairs

I looked in the mirror this morning and noticed a whole new crop of gray hairs that were definitely not there yesterday.  Believe me, when you have as little hair on your head as I do, changes like this are easily noticeable.  Whence the new crop of gray?  First, as hard as it is to believe, and as impossible as it seems, yesterday my youngest daughter, Samantha, turned 17 years old.  One gray, two gray, three gray, four.  Second, this same birthday girl got all gussied up and headed out for her first Prom.  I much prefer seeing her in her basketball and volleyball uniforms boxing someone out to get a rebound or rising above the net for a spike or block.  Five gray, six gray, seven gray, more.  Third, around 11:00 p.m. last night there was a nasty accident right at the end of our road on M46.  Sirens blaring, lights flashing, five or six police cars and an ambulance all within view.  Instant prayers ascended and phone calls went out.  Sarah, who works down the road at the local movie theater, was due home around this time, and Samantha was supposed to be coming home around 11:30 to change clothes before heading over to an after-Prom slumber party with her friends (but, my worry-filled brain entertained the possibility that maybe she left Prom early).  To make matters worse, neither of them answered their cells.  Nor did they return my texts.  Eight gray, nine gray, ten gray - well, you get the idea.  Thankfully, both of my girls did eventually return my calls and assured me that they were okay, and they both showed up at home not long after.  But, the grays were not done.  Both girls were home safe and sound, but only long enough to change and head back out, Sarah to see her friend playing in a band and Samantha to her slumber party.  I wanted to tell them both, "Sorry, but you're in for the evening; go to bed now!"  But, I didn't.  Sarah did her Superman-in-a-phone-booth quick change thing and was quickly back out the door.  Samantha lingered for a bit, but it eventually came time for her to depart, too.  This is what I said to her, loudly and clearly (and, slowly, I might add):  "Samantha, you call me the moment you get to Amanda's house."  Samantha:  "I will, dad."  Me:  "Samantha, don't forget.  As soon as you get there, call me."  Samantha:  "Dad, I know.  I will."  Knowing that it takes about ten minutes for her to get to Amanda's, I listened intently for my phone to ring at the ten minute mark.  Nothing.  Fifteen minutes.  Nothing.  Twenty minutes.  Nothing.  Twenty-five minutes.  Nothing.  So, at the twenty-five minute mark, I called her cell.  Nothing.  I waited a few minutes and called again.  Nothing.  I repeated this every few minutes for the next fifteen minutes.  Still, nothing.  Oh, I should add that I threw a couple of text messages in there, too, but got nothing back.  So, having gotten through the worry of the accident out front earlier, now my brain is back in worry-mode again (which is like Miracle Grow for the grays).  I grabbed the slip of paper upon which was the number for Amanda's mom.  I had called her earlier in the day to make sure there was going to be supervision at her house last night.  As I started to punch in the numbers, my phone rings.  It's Samantha.  "Dad, I just remembered that I forgot to call when I got here."  Me:  "Samantha Ann!  Did I not tell you NOT to forget.  I have tried your cell a hundred times!  You're killing me!"  Samantha:  "Oh, yeah, um, I think I left my cell in the car.  Sorry about that."  Twenty gray, thirty gray, forty gray . . .

Some pics of the Seventeen-year-old Prom girl: