Human life: Dignity or Quality?

Early in my ministry, I had a conversation about an allegedly-Lutheran Hospital. A clergy-member had served on the staff there at one point as a chaplain, and was involved in discussions that eventually became their policy on pregnancy terminations. He spoke emotionally about the difficulty in crafting a policy that weighed all the different competing factors: our commitment to love all people, our duty to show compassion in difficult circumstances, and the tragic cases of permanent disability, deformity, or low quality of life that sometimes are shown by pre-natal testing. It was obviously a deeply personal thing for him to discuss, and the other pastors in the room nodded sympathetically at all the right moments.

My declaration that he had helped to craft a eugenics policy was not well received. I was assured that these were all tragic cases. That the lives would be short, filled with suffering and pain. That they would have reduced mental capacity. The parents would likely expend enormous amounts of time/attention just to keep them alive for a few short years.

I pointed out that this was the very definition of eugenics – not as moral judgment, but according to the definition of the word.

Apparently, eugenics carries with it a moral judgment, regardless of whether the term is used properly.

It should. It is a reprehensible thing. But failing to call eugenics by its name does not make it less morally reprehensible.

This was brought to mind by recent mainstream Media reports that “Iceland is getting rid of Downe’s Syndrome” and Patricia Heaton’s observation that killing all those who have a condition is not the same as getting rid of the condition. It is eugenics. You can call it compassion. But it is eugenics. You can call it difficult cases. But it is eugenics. Calling it something else does not change what it is.

The word itself means “good genetics” or “good birth”. The implication is that there is also “bad genetics” or “bad birth”. We want to get rid of those. Either by selective breeding – as we do with cattle or dogs – or by selective termination – as is sometimes done with malformed livestock. (Do you see a pattern…)

Of course God knows of no such thing as a “bad birth”. There is life – which is created by God. He is the author of life. There is plant life – created for man’s use without regard for feelings or emotional state or ability to feel pain. That is, plant life exists to be used only according to patterns of responsible behavior that allow it to continue propagating. We need not take the feeling of the plant into account as we work. We can cut branches and graft them, we can reshape and rework the plants to our hearts content . There is animal life – also created for man’s use, but with regard for the condition of the animal. So, we use cattle for food, but treat them humanely when they are alive. We kill disease carrying vermin, but we must weigh effectiveness of treatment against the suffering the animal endures. When animals are in constant pain, we euthanize them: They can not understand the value of suffering. They do not comprehend the value of rehabilitation. They only know that they hurt. They can not reflect on it, learn from it, grow from it.

People are different. They are created by God to be the rulers of creation. They are given life by God as well. But that life has inherent dignity and worth; it is the most precious thing. We can not create it; we can only begin the life of humans according to the limits set down by God who created – and continues to create it We facilitate the creation of new life, but it is always God that gives that life.

There is no such thing as a “bad human life.” And yet, in many places, those who are deemed “unworthy of life” or terminated. Sometimes this termination is self-imposed (suicide or assisted suicide). Sometimes it is externally imposed (euthanasia, abortion, etc.) In discussions of this sort, we are less likely to hear about “the dignity of life”, and more likely to hear about “the quality of life.”

Not every discussion of quality of life is bad. Doctors, nurses, therapists want the best quality of life possible for their patients who are sick or disabled. They speak of “improving the quality of life…” That is a good thing for measuring the quality of care patients receive – which is to say, for evaluating the medical professionals. But its most common use is as an  evaluative instrument for the patients themselves. This is a bad use. We don’t speak of “quality of life” in determining whether someone should live or die. We speak of “the dignity of life” – the inherent value each life has. This can not be measured. It is given by God, and we dare not trespass onto this holy ground. We must acknowledge it, and live according to it. And suffering does not diminish the dignity of life. There is value in suffering, even if it is not a pleasant process for the individual or those around him.

This does not mean we never allow death to occur. There is a difference between a person who is disabled and one who is dying. Medical advances may blur that line. I’m sure there are hard cases. But as a pastor I see a lot of people die. And it is always (or at least almost always) quite clear when that line is crossed. As Christians who believe in the resurrection, we don’t keep bodies alive just because we can. But neither do we hasten their deaths. We don’t give so much morphine that a patient dies. But neither do we withhold morphine so that a patient suffers

All human life is precious in the sight of God, and so also must it be precious in our sight. We help those we can help, we comfort all – especially the dying. But we never move from “comforting those who are dying” to “comforting the suffering by helping them to die.”

And we certainly never encourage killing the less able. Because at some point, there will be someone who is more able than yourself. And that would give them the right to kill you.

That’s eugenics. No matter what euphemism you use for it.

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Reformation 500 Resources: Life of Luther

There are a lot of biographies of Martin Luther out there: Scholarly, thorough, filled with the latest research, and lots of historical detail. I recommend one that does not have those things. Life of Luther by Gustav Just, is a great book for congregational study of the Reformation.

It’s brief – perfect for a book club or bible study at church.

It’s simple.

It’s not so much historical as it is theological.

It does not have the latest research because it was written over 100 years ago.

Put that all together, and you have the best reason of all: It’s a classic.

“The Life of Luther” was originally intended as a brief introduction to Luther and the Reformation – I suspect for use in schools.

It isn’t fair and balanced. It doesn’t try to play devil’s advocate about Luther. It is not a sophisticated attempt to explain Luther’s influence in terms of political and economic theories, and show how Luther’s influence on government institutions even today is significant.

Because none of that really matters.

Luther is the angel prophesied in the book of Revelation “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”

That is the premise of the book: Luther was given to the church by God to restore the pure Gospel. And that is what he did.

Because it was written at a time when people stood up for what they believed without flinching, Life of Luther treats all of Christian history as the story of Christ and His Gospel. The Reformation was the moment that God restored that Gospel, the moment when Luther stood with Saint Paul, and refused to accept any other Gospel than the one proclaimed in the Word of God.

Life of Luther places Luther in the context of the church – the teaching, and people, the history of salvation being proclaimed to the world. It gives Luther’s life the proper Gospel context, instead of the historical, sociological, economic, or political context.

There are certainly more complete biographies of Luther. There are better ones for pastors and scholars to read. But Life of Luther does everything a pastor wants to do when teaching the Reformation in the parish. If you are looking for a good study for Reformation 500, you might consider Life of Luther, by Gustav Just.

You can view it online through Google books. But the Lulu version is a new book (with minor updates), and it’s only $5. At that price, you can order enough for everyone in the class to have a copy. (The updates mostly relate to the recent history of the LCMS at the end of the book.) It also includes crisp scans of all the woodcuts. They really do add a note of beauty to the story. The print of Luther’s Wedding is framed and hanging in my home. The 95 Theses is hanging in my study at church.

Here’s a short sample from a couple of chapters. You can see one of the engravings as well.

If you are planning a study of Luther or the Reformation, consider Life of Luther by Gustav Just.

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The Greatest Dad and the Greatest Teen

According to a mug, hat and Father’s Day card I have received over the years (although sadly, no tie), I am the World’s Greatest Dad.

With the exception of Michael Scott, no one takes such statements seriously. Most fathers will, at some point, get at least one item from the “World’s Greatest Dad” collection. I don’t aspire to be the greatest dad in the world, or even in my little town. I aspire to nothing more than being the greatest dad in my home. When it comes to competing for the title of “Greatest Dad”, I wouldn’t be willing to put myself out there against the men in the local police drunk tank. I am, for the most part, content with my strengths and weaknesses. I do what I can, and what I lack my wife usually covers for me. And, to my knowledge there are no competitions of that sort. But there are other competitions. And my daughter found one.

Think back for a moment to High School. Think back on how difficult those years were. Now imagine a contest to determine who is really outstanding among high school students. I would sooner put myself up against Saint Joseph himself in the Greatest Dad competition than to be evaluated based on my high-school self.

That’s what my daughter did this past week. She went to a hotel filled with outstanding teens from across the nation. She put herself up against them in a contest. Her goal was to make the finals. No one from Wyoming had done it before. I like to think she missed it by the skin of her teeth. But, regardless of how close she came, she didn’t get there. 80% of the girls didn’t. Among the best and most outstanding teens in America – of which she is already one – she missed the top 20%. So did 80% of her pageant sisters.

She got up every morning at 6 am and biked ten miles. She worked with me every night for an hour or more on her talent. She put painful chemicals on her teeth to make them just as gleemy as they can be. They practiced questions and answers every day in her free time. It wasn’t quite enough. She’s among the top 50 outstanding teens in America, not the top 12. I’m ok with that. And I hope that she is, too.

Because this competition was the big time. There were girls with professional vocal trainers, and pageant gown designers, and interview coaches. For talent my daughter had her dad that was in a couple of choirs two decades ago. You get the idea. A talented and dedicated amateur was going up against professional caliber beauty queens.

(If you are curious how such things usually, go, here’s an account of a newspaper reporter training for a couple of weeks and then playing football during an NFL scrimmage. It didn’t go well. He lost yardage in every play in one scrimmage, and the NFL commissioner banned him from the next.)

My daughter, with only her wits and her talent, and her dedicated but amateur parents to guide her, managed to keep up with them. She didn’t win. But most of the girls didn’t win. She was good enough to look like she belonged. And that’s not nothing.

As for her rapidly passing tenure as a teenager, I can promise that, compared to me, she is doing a lot better at… well just about everything teen related than I did at that point in my life.

I could go on about all the awesome that is my oldest daughter. But a picture is worth a thousand words. So, here is 2000 words of collage to show how much more outstanding my daughter is at being a teen than I was. I give you, with full knowledge of the repercussions, senior pictures:

Not even the 80’s can explain everything wrong with that photo. I’m willing to own that. If you had told that geeky kid that some day his daughter would be among the nation’s elite teens, included and accepted by them, he would have told you to get lost and stop picking on him. Who’s more outstanding as a teen? Res ipsa loquitur (The thing speaks for itself.)

Ultimately, our teen years pass into adulthood, and then the real work (husband/wife, father/mother, worker/employer) begins. Hopefully, you manage to help others in any/all of those roles. As for my own teen years – I must not have been too bad as a teen. After all, I’m now the world’s greatest dad.

Pride may go before a fall. But I’m proud of what my daughter has done.. I’m proud of how hard she worked, how many mornings she didn’t turn off the alarm at dark-thirty, how well she smiles (even when she doesn’t particularly feel like it), her determination to cover as much of the expense herself as she could, her ability to wave in parades. All of that. Also, and I know I’ve mentioned it before, how much she cares for the people that everyone else overlooks. The professional pageant world is an elite world: money, networks, connections, quid-pro-quo. Not that the people aren’t good people. Not that they are not also caring. But my daughter stops whenever she sees someone being ignored. She’ll talk, make them feel special. She is, above all, loving.

And I can’t think of higher praise than that.

Right now, she’s on the final leg home from her grand adventure (covered in cheese ball dust and Cheez-its – inside joke, sorry)It’s has not been easy watching from the sidelines while your child puts herself out there. I’m so glad that I’ve had the chance though. Because I think she’s outstanding. And I think everyone should know it.

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Sermon for Trinity 7

For the disciples, the numbers don’t look good. Miles from the nearest town. At least 4,000 people. Seven loaves, a few fish. It’s not just an inconvenience. It is quickly turning into a humanitarian crisis. The entire population of Wheatland, plus at least 500 more, and no food in the town. The thought of closed roads, possibly for days or weeks, is why most people in town have a pantry that a good sized restaurant would envy. It’s not that we fear the imminent collapse of society. But over the years, from time to time, such food stoppages have happened. Even a full grocery store gets cleaned out pretty quickly when there are no trucks to replenish the shelves.

For Jesus and the disciples, it’s a real problem. The people are hungry – they’ve already run out of food. They are to the point of exhaustion. And yet, Jesus tells the disciples that food will be available for all.

Jesus isn’t very good with statistics, apparently. Seven loaves. A few fish. 4000 people. Too little to help with the enormous – and getting bigger every minute – problem. It really isn’t enough to even help a dozen of the people. Yet Jesus thinks it is enough to help them all. Continue reading

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On Church Attendance and My Quest to Lose Weight

Not an actual photo of someone in church.

Every summer I try and exercise. It usually doesn’t go very well. If I have a goal in mind, I sometimes manage it – sporadically and for a little while. But once the goal is reached, it’s back to the couch and the brownie pan for me. A long winter of enlargement lies ahead.

This summer has been different. I’ve been exercising almost every day. How is that possible?

I stopped trying to exercise every day.

One morning, I got up – early, early, early, so very early – and exercised today. The next morning I got up, and exercised today. The next morning, I got up… etc.

I stopped with “When this or that happens, I will exercise.” I stopped with “I’m going to exercise <NUMBER> of times this week.” And I began just exercising today. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is too far away. But if I exercise today, I begin to make the change I want.

I stopped gaining weight, I’ve actually begun losing weight, and I am getting in better shape all the time. I have more energy, I get more done. But it’s not because I started “exercising every day.”

So, how does this apply to my normal topic – life in the church?

Over the years, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have the best intentions about coming to church. They just never actually make it. “After this event”, “After I’m done with that”, “When this happens” They want to come to church every week. But not this week. Well, that’s really the same as never.

If you want to make a change, stop planning to go to church every week. It will never happen.

Instead, go to church this Sunday. When the alarm goes off, if you’ve only been asleep for 4 hours, go to church. If you had the worst day yesterday, and you need to recover, go to church. If you are on vacation, and the schedule is just too crowded to find the time, go to church (locator.lcms.org or lutheranliturgy.org). If you are not feeling well, go to church (unless you are hospitalized or have a fever/vomiting).

The important thing is, you need to be in church. You may know it. You may not. (If you don’t think you need church – this is a warning sing that you are really sick – GO TO CHURCH!!!) But trying to go to church every Sunday is too hard. Going to church THIS Sunday, even if it’s really, really, really, horribly inconvenient, is possible.

I never thought I would be able to exercise more than three days a week. But I have – almost every week this summer. And I did it by giving up on exercising three times a week, and focusing on exercising today.

This may sound more like a motivational speech than a sermon. It is, I suppose. But there is biblical support for this plan. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” It turns out, Jesus knows how the mind works. He should – he created it.

So, if you have been finding it hard to get to church every Sunday, give up. But this Sunday – no excuses. See you there!

NOTE: If you like this post, you may like “What Every Christian Must Know: Outlines of Luther’s Large Catechism.” It makes a great study guide for a Reformation 500 bible study.

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Slow Roll Out

I didn’t plan for a slow roll out. But it’s turning out that way.

The good news is that you can order “What Every Christian Must Know” as a paperback! Right now! 

It’s available at the Createspace store. (I thought that was Amazon – apparently not)

It will be available at Amazon soon. Very very soon!

 

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Thoughts from a Pageant Dad

Not an actual photo of my daughters

I’m a Pageant Dad. That is, my daughters are pageant girls.

I’m proud to be a pageant dad. Usually, that just means supporting them when they leave, welcoming them when they come back, and staying out of the way when they prepare. But sometimes I get to do something.

Both of my daughters won state pageants this year. I’ve driven them in parades. (I accidentally ended up entering my car into a car show.) I’ve been working with one daughter helping her prepare for her first (and only) national pageant. The other daughter will be at a parade this weekend, will meet the governor, and go to a rodeo. I’ll be her chaperone for that, since her mother and sister will be at nationals.

I want to explain what it means to work– and succeed – at pageants. My daughter asked me why I, as a pastor, would want to write about pageants. To which I replied, “There are a lot of good scriptural things about pageants.” “Of course Dad.”

Excellence. Saint Paul encourages us “if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” Pageants encourage my daughters to strive for excellence. And not just in hair or makeup. Actually, those are the least of the things my daughters have learned. They both have talents that they perform. Like any talent, hours and hours of practice go into 60 seconds or so of performance. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find anything that is so carefully prepared, per second of on-stage time. In the last month, close to 60 man-hours has been devoted to a less-than 90 second talent (time limits strictly enforced). That’s just the last month. She’s generally works on a talent for about 9-12 months to get it up to speed for those 84 seconds.

And pageant girls are not only about pageants. Athletes, dramatists, musicians, artist: they are all represented in the pageant circles my girls have been in. They excel across multiple fields, and still find the time to work on their pageant skills.

Interviews. They have to be able to answer any question asked of them under tremendous pressure, they have to answer immediately, and the answer has to be coherent. Sure, you can look up Youtube videos of girls who freeze or misunderstand the question, or just outright bomb. I don’t find them very funny (although my daughter’s do). But I defy anyone to answer a question under those conditions: it could be any question, about any topic, with no time to prepare or think, you can not start your answer with “Like” or “Ummm”, or use them at all during your answer, and it must make sense. Yes there are spectacular fails. Just as there are in sports. But no one claims that Michael Jordan is a bad basketball player because of that one time someone blocked his shot. And the most intelligent answer I’ve heard an athlete give to a question is “I’m going to Disney World” – an answer that was scripted and paid for. Pageant girls are generally very well spoken, and show a lot of poise and grace. My daughters will never in their lives struggle with a job interview.

Brains. Academics are part of the evaluation in most pageant systems – those who do well in pageants usually do quite well academically. They have drive and ambition. They usually attend college having earned significant scholarships (academic and otherwise).

Winners. The goal is obviously to win. In the younger classes (3-5 years old), everyone gets a crown. But by age 6 or 7, it dawns on the girls that one person wears a “queen” banner, and no one else does. There are winners and losers. It is clear which is which. Those who win learn to do so with humility. Those who do not learn to be gracious and to support and cheer the victor, even if they are bitterly disappointed. The world can use more people who show such sportsmanship.

Beauty. (The most obvious one) I know, it’s only skin deep. Inner beauty is more important. No question that it is true. But in today’s culture where art is transgressive and deconstructive, it is nice to see anything that acknowledges the simple truth that beauty does exist, and then celebrates and exalts that truth. Who has demonstrated more talent? Totally subjective, the culture tells us. And yet, they are judged and evaluated and given a specific number. Better talents get higher scores. Better answers get higher scores. Those who walk more beautifully and with more poise and grace get higher scores. Sure you could argue over whether it is this number or that. You might disagree about who should have finally won. But you can’t argue that some do it better than others. That some exhibit more skill than their competitors. And while they practically never use the word “beauty” anymore, I am glad that something in the world still celebrates that which is beautiful.

My daughters have made friends, improved their own ability to speak, learned poise, grace, and appreciate beauty. These are all historically feminine traits. I am glad to encourage them in this. As an added bonus, they get to occasionally dress like a princess.

World Peace. The classic pageant goal. Every girl who does pageants picks a platform. It is rarely world peace. But it is something they are passionate about, something they want to do to make this world a better place. One daughter chose vandalism. She spent a day painting over stupid vandal-marks at our local park. I still chuckle when I think of the young punk who went to all the trouble to mark an art-mural, only to have it restored within a week. It hasn’t been vandalized since.

My other daughter champions the seniors in our community who are forgotten. She volunteers at the nursing home. She helps the seniors in my parish. She talks to them, and stops by their homes. When we did a parade in a different town, it went by the senior center. She wanted to stop the car and get out to visit with them. In other words, she shows love for her neighbors, and has found a platform for encouraging others to do the same.

You can laugh at pageants, call them simple, shallow, a product of a bygone era. But we live in a world where much of our free time is spent celebrating the movement of round bits of leather around fields – whether kicked, thrown, or hit with sticks. That’s fine for those who do that. I wish them well. But I think in such a world, there’s still room for something that teaches girls to be women with dignity, to celebrate their femininity, to speak positively about others, and to show love to those around them.

My daughters are proud to be pageant girls, representing the state in which we live. My older daughter will soon be off to meet young women from every state. They also aspire to what I have written about. They’ll compete as friendly rivals. One of them will be chosen to represent them all, as the most skilled. My daughter has been working hard for months on this. If she comes home with nothing but memories, I’m still proud of all the work she has put into this – just to be the best she can, and to support the eventual winner, whomever it may be. I think she’s pretty outstanding for that. In my opinion, she’d do an amazing job as that national ambassador.

Of course, I’m biased.

I’m her pageant dad.

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