Nov 30, 2018

Books for Every Lutheran in Your Family: A Gift Guide

By Anna Mussmann

I love choosing Christmas presents. Finding just the right item for each person is a lot like cooking, sewing, or any other creative endeavor: it takes time, thought, and effort; and the results are satisfying. Of course, I am also blessed with an extended family inclined to gratitude and joy. That makes it all much more fun!

My family-of-origin likes to give moderate gifts. This year we gathered to exchange them at Thanksgiving because we won’t all be traveling for Christmas. I gave books to everyone. Books are an admirable gift. They are suitable both to those who already have a lot of stuff and those who don’t. They fit easily into a suitcase (or a Kindle) and provide travelers with entertainment for the flight home. They can be found second-hand or on sale throughout the year. They are--or should be--part of everyone’s life. I myself am always on the hunt for new book recommendations.

Should you be looking for titles to wrap this year, here are suggestions based on things I’ve recently read and/or gifted.

Nov 15, 2018

Struggling to Forgive? God Brings His Strength to You in Word and Sacrament (Part III of III)

By Katy Cloninger

Forgiveness (both the giving and receiving of it) is an essential aspect of the Christian life. In Parts I and II of this series, we’ve discussed the need to forgive our neighbors and explored some truths about forgiveness that, once realized, can help us let go of our anger and forgive. Today, we will look at the very source of our ability to forgive—that is, where we get the forgiveness of our own sins and the strength of the Holy Spirit to forgive those who sin against us.

Stay grounded in the Word of God, the Sacraments, and the whole life of the Church. First of all, we should go to church every Sunday. In the readings, the sermon, the hymns, the Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, our loving and forgiving Lord comes to us and heals us. Through His Word, He convicts us of our sins and makes known to us our forgiveness. Our brothers and sisters who sit with us in the pews can also give us great comfort and support when we are hurting.

Individual confession and absolution can also be tremendously helpful as we process our pain and anger. Here we confess that we, too, are sinners who deserve the wrath of God and eternal punishment. Yet as the pastor places his hands on our heads and pronounces forgiveness in the stead and by the command of Christ, the burden of our sins is released and we find freedom from guilt and shame. When we know and believe that our sins are forgiven, it is much easier to then forgive our neighbor. Of course, talking with our pastors outside of a formal confession setting can be immensely beneficial as well.

Reading the Bible daily at home is also important, for we need to be fed every day. The psalms in particular reflect a wide range of human emotion while teaching us to trust in God to bring about justice and His will. The psalms lead us to confess our sins and to acknowledge God as the One who will vindicate us in His own time and way—either bringing our offender to repentance in this life, or punishing him in the next. (Of course, we should pray for the former, for that is what God in His mercy desires for all of us.) Whatever book of the Bible we read, we can find much comfort and help in processing our emotions. As we read about God’s actions in history, His will for us, and His promises which we have received through Baptism, the Holy Spirit will work in our hearts and lead us to pray, “Thy will be done.” In God, we find all our needs met and all our anxieties and distresses put to rest.

Nov 2, 2018

Characters Who Need God's Strength (Review of Soldier On and Author Giveaway)

Review by Rachel Kovaciny

Soldier On
By Vanessa Rasanen
Crab Apple Books (October 2, 2018)

This book is intense.  

Neither I nor my husband have ever been in the military, but I have several friends and relatives in various branches.  Because we live not that far from Washington, DC, and there are Marine, Air Force, and Army bases close by, a sizable percentage of the people who attend our church are either current or former military personnel.  So I can identify really well with this book in a second-hand way.

Meg Winters thinks she'll survive her husband Charlie's deployment to the Middle East just fine. She's been through deployments before. She's got good friends nearby, a warm and loving church family to help her, and besides, this is the modern day.  She can chat with her husband online, face to face, quite regularly.  It'll be a milk run.

Charlie Winters is a little disappointed that his main mission overseas is to drive convoy trucks back and forth.  He's been deployed before, and he has a lot of combat training and some combat experience.  He feels like he's being wasted on these boring truck routes.

That could all be a recipe for a cozy, sweet, cheerful look at how living through a deployment isn't so bad.  Or it could be the perfect ingredients for a story about the dangers of leaning on your own strength instead of God's and being careful what you wish for.  Rasanen chooses the later path, and Soldier On dives deep and dark fairly quickly.

Nov 1, 2018

Forgiveness: It Can Be Messy (Part II of III)

By Katy Cloninger

As stated in Part I of this series on forgiveness, our fallen nature means that we are constantly sinning against one another and constantly needing to forgive each other. Sometimes forgiveness is easy when the offense is not severe, but other times, when we have been hurt deeply, forgiveness is much harder. Whether your spouse has left you (as in my case), or some other injury has occurred, forgiveness is a necessary part of living as redeemed people in a fallen world.

In today’s post, we’ll look at three more truths about forgiveness that can help us put our pain in perspective and bring us to the point of forgiving the one who hurt us.

1. You do not have to be completely healed emotionally in order to forgive. In fact, forgiving our offenders will actually help us heal. Because we are sinners and our hearts are hard, we may have to do some healing first before we soften up enough to forgive from our hearts. But we should not try to wait until we have fully healed before we forgive. If we do that, complete healing may never come, and the wound will get more and more infected. 
Forgiveness is a lot like childbirth. It takes some emotional labor to give birth to forgiveness, and the intensity of the pain may wax and wane as contractions do. But just when we think we will never get through it, we are, with the help of God, finally delivered of this burden, and we begin to feel relief, then joy, now that most of the pain is gone. All that remains at this point is the afterbirth—releasing whatever is left of our bitterness, and anything that was feeding our resentment—and then our healing will proceed apace. 
2. Forgiveness is not necessarily a once-and-done deal. When someone has hurt us deeply, particularly someone we must continue to deal with frequently, there may be times we feel that we have forgiven the person or are close to doing so, only to have a memory resurface or a new offense occur that leaves us reeling in pain and anger again. 
This has been my experience. Part of the solution is to recognize that, as we discussed in Part I, forgiveness is not a feeling. Sometimes we may feel forgiving, but we haven’t done all the cognitive work of acknowledging each source of hurt, accepting that it is in the past and cannot be changed, and then giving it up to God. This process often requires hard work over time, not just spontaneously feeling a certain way. 
And of course, if new wounds are being inflicted on us, there will be new offenses to forgive. If we haven’t yet forgiven the initial offense, subsequent ones will be even harder to forgive. However, the more we make up our minds to forgive and let God work in our hearts, the less deeply the new offenses will hurt us. 
Forgiveness is a decision we must walk in every day—and while we are still learning to walk, it may look more like limping or crawling! Each day, we ask God to purify our hearts, commend our offender to Him, and commit ourselves to forgiving the offender. For us hard-hearted sinners, the path to full forgiveness can be a long and winding one, and like love, it takes ongoing effort and determination. (Hmm, could this have something to do with loving our enemies?) 

Oct 26, 2018

Forgiveness: A Journey Worth Taking (Part I of III)

By Katy Cloninger

Because we all daily sin much, forgiveness is an important aspect of our vocations.

Sometimes forgiveness is relatively easy: a tiny human ball of energy recklessly slams his skull into our mouth for the umpteenth time today—then, with big eyes and infuriating cuteness, he lisps, “I sorry, Mama.”

Other times, forgiveness is not so easy: someone hurts us deeply, perhaps deliberately, and the trust we had in that person is permanently shattered. How can we forgive in a situation like that?

Forgiving my ex-husband and his second wife has been the hardest part of recovering from my divorce. Though I’ve never desired to take revenge on them, it has taken me a long time to overcome my anger and bitterness over the effects of their actions on me and my son. Even two and a half years after my husband left me, I am just now reaching the point where I can honestly say I’ve forgiven them, and my wounds are still tender. But with the help of God, I have come a long way and learned a lot about forgiveness.

Whatever injury we have suffered, realizing certain truths about what forgiveness is (and isn’t) can help bring us to the point where we are willing and ready to forgive. In this first of three posts on forgiveness, let’s take a look at some of the most basic of those truths.

Oct 3, 2018

Like King David, Let Us Love God's Law

By Heather Smith

As part of our daily devotional routine, my husband and I read a psalm, or a portion thereof, before breakfast.  Recently we made it to Psalm 119, and in the week or two we spent on it, I was daily struck with its joyful praise for the Law of God.   I remember as a child being taught that Psalm 119 was “a love-song to the Law,” but this time through I was awed to realize more deeply what this means.  

I have often encountered the reminder in regard to Psalm 119 that the term “Law” can refer to the whole of Scriptures.  That is, it can be a shorthand for the whole of “the law and the prophets” rather than always taking on a Waltherian “Law vs. Gospel” tinge.  No doubt, the psalmist’s expansive meditation on the Law does encompass a broad love of the whole counsel of God.  Nevertheless, arguing that Psalm 119 does not focus on the psalmist’s love of the moral law is disingenuous.  Over and over he expresses his love not simply for the “Law” or “word” of God, but for His rules, statutes, commands, precepts, and decrees.  This psalm is an astonishing serenade to God’s righteous commandments.

Seeing this in my recent encounter with Psalm 119 has made me wonder if Christians in general, and Lutherans in particular, sometimes forget that “the Law of God is good and wise” in the midst of reminding ourselves that it “dooms to death when we transgress” (“The Law of God Is Good and Wise” by Matthias Loy, st. 1).  While it is true that sinner-saint Christians cannot escape the condemnation of the Law against their sinful nature’s deeds, it is also true that the more they read and understand the Law, the more their sanctified hearts will rejoice in its goodness and wisdom.  Like the child who grows to appreciate his father’s household rules, the Christian who learns to value the Law of God will find his love and esteem for the heavenly Father continually deepening.

Reading through Psalm 119 (yes, it’s the longest psalm, but it still will not take you more than 15 minutes!), one cannot help but notice the abundance of affectionate terms which the psalmist lavishes on God’s Law.  He longs for it (v. 20, 40), rejoices in it (v. 162), deems it wonderful (v. 129), and finds in it joy (v. 111), peace (v. 165), safety (v. 117), favor (v. 58), sweetness (v. 103), blessing (v. 56) and comfort (v. 50, 52, 76).  

Sep 28, 2018

Hints on Child Training by Henry Trumbull

Originally Published 1891
Review by Anna Mussmann

It is incredibly helpful to read parenting advice from other eras. Often it’s wise advice. Alternatively, sometimes it’s quaint or silly, and this is good too. We need to remember that today’s parenting standards might be tomorrow’s chuckle and stop getting stressed out if we aren’t doing all the things The Book of the Year told us to do.

This particular volume is from the nineteenth century and was interesting in three ways: 1. The thesis is a good one. 2. The author’s comments about “parents today” demonstrate that the weaknesses of modern parenting aren’t as new as we might think. 3. Some of the author’s concerns and emphases correspond with ideas from Charlotte Mason’s writing.

Trumbull says that we all recognize the need to provide our children with knowledge, but we must also recognize the need to train their habits. The word “training” is likely to trigger a certain reaction among some readers. During my childhood, popular Christian authors and speakers used the word to emphasize training children in obedience. However, the sense in which Trumbull uses the word  is not quite the same.

He says that teaching causes someone to know, and training causes them to do. “Teaching brings to the child that which he did not have before. Training enables a child to make use of that which is already his possession.” The two go together. We can teach a kid about the theoretical importance of good nutrition but should also shape his eating habits. Telling a kid what is good and right isn’t enough--it is our duty to actually make him do it while he is under our care. Yet this should be done gently and kindly. Our goal is to win him over and create love of what is good, not simply to enforce our own will.

I appreciate the discussion. I see many modern parents act as if their job lies primarily in issuing plaintive verbal statements, kind of like liability disclaimers, without actually getting up and changing the behavior of their kids. We moderns tend to think that we can’t do much to change children’s preferences, demeanors, or desires. Perhaps this is because we confuse “personality” with “habits.”

In contrast, Trumbull urges parents to shape their children’s mental, moral, physical, spiritual, social, and dietary habits. I’m inclined to think he may swing a little far. He is rather fond of saying that “many a child has been ruined for life” by this or that error of inattentive parents, as if a child were a blank slate upon which parents shouldn’t misspell any words. Yet we must remember he wrote in an era in which “mom-guilt” wasn’t the term de jour--he clearly felt the need to prod parents to see their role as important.

Aug 29, 2018

A Lutheran Novel Based on the Lives of Reformation-Era Christians

A Flame in the Dark by Sarah Baughman
Concordia Publishing House, 2018
Review by Caitlin Magness

Lutherans know the tremendous impact of the Reformation on history, Christianity, and the Church, but what was its impact on ordinary Christians living in the sixteenth century? Sarah Baughman explores this question in A Flame in the Dark, a novel set in Wittenberg when the gears of the Reformation were just beginning to turn. The novel follows Heinrich Ritter, a young man studying under Luther at the University of Wittenberg, as he comes to a deeper understanding of grace, faith, and God’s love. A large cast of supporting characters aid, hinder, and challenge him in turn, all while struggling with their own burdens and vocations.

At the beginning of the novel, Heinrich is living in Wittenberg with his host family, the Diefenbachs. An intelligent, studious, disciplined man, he has a bright future; beneath the surface of his enviable life, however, his mind is in turmoil. Although a law student, he longs to study theology, but his commitment to caring for his younger sister after their parents' death prevents him from pursuing this dream. He harbors romantic feelings for the Diefenbachs' oldest daughter, Marlein, but she is too busy caring for her family to respond to his tentative attempts at courtship. Heinrich's life is further complicated by the unexpected arrival of his sister, Brigita, who shows up hungry, frightened, and hiding a secret that may put her and Heinrich's future in jeopardy. With the counsel of Luther, Heinrich must learn to stop relying on his own strength and look to Christ in the storms of life.

Readers will appreciate the rich detail with which Baughman renders the world in which her characters live. While her prose occasionally falls into the principal temptation of historical fiction—focusing on the setting at the expense of pacing and plot—readers will have no trouble imagining Wittenberg and the daily lives of its people. In particular, the ins and outs of the Diefenbachs' candle-making business are shown with keen attention to detail and vivid sensory description. I'm no historian, so I can't judge the accuracy of the novel's portrayal of sixteenth-century Wittenberg, but its depth and detail certainly ring true.

Aug 15, 2018

St. Mary, Icon of Vocation

By Katy Cloninger

Martin Luther famously wrote that faith “is a living, busy, active thing. . . . It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them.” This is not to say that we never struggle against our Old Adam to perform good works—Romans 7 and experience tell us otherwise—but we have this struggle only because, in our fallenness, we do not possess perfect faith. Nevertheless, as baptized Christians who, according to the New Man, delight to do good works, we indeed rejoice in and seek out opportunities to love and serve our neighbors. There is perhaps no finer example of this “faith active in love” than Mary the Mother of Our Lord.

For all the ink spilled over Mary, there are precious few words written about her in the New Testament. Yet where she is mentioned, Mary is usually depicted either as receiving from God or serving the people around her. In her receiving role, for instance, she hears the message of the angel Gabriel and accepts it (Luke 1:26–38), and she is commended to John, whom Jesus appoints to care for her in her old age (John 19:26–27). Examples of her serving include her going to help Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–56) and seeing that plenty of wine is provided for the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–5). In response to the woman who praises His mother merely for her biological connection to Him, Jesus doesn’t disparage His mother, but He praises that which is most praiseworthy about her and all who emulate her faith: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28; cf. Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35, and Luke 8:21). Scripture shows us, in Mary, someone who receives God’s Word,  meditates upon it (Luke 2:19, 51), and acts upon it in a way that is simultaneously submissive and bold.

Aug 13, 2018

Finding Good Books for You and Your Kids: Sources and Lists

By Anna Mussmann

Regular readers of this blog have no doubt noticed that it’s been slow lately. As in, for the last five months. I am still finding it difficult to juggle three kids and my writing time. However, the baby has recently started napping at the same time as the big kids’ quiet hour, which is amazing. And promising!

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading more than usual. The children and I have also been getting to the library fairly regularly. I have fond memories of browsing the local library shelves when I was a kid. Usually I gravitated to my favorite authors--Bill Peet and Beatrix Potter in the early days, then Louisa May Alcott or Eloise Jarvis McGraw, among others. Now that I’m a parent, I’m a bit more leery of browsing.

So many of the picture books are just. . . meh. Many are filled with badly-behaved children trying to figure out how to get their way. There’s a lot of B-level writing and mediocre illustrations. There are weird, well-intentioned allegories obviously intended to help kids process various tragedies.

For us, it works best to find most of our new reads by consulting book lists and then putting those titles on holds. We have been able to enjoy a wealth of wonderful stories this way.

Here is a compendium of sources I find helpful as I select books for my children (and, later in the post, you'll find sources I use for my own reading life too). I thought it might be useful to you as well.
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