Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Saint of the Month: Commander George Rentz (Reflections on Memorial Day)

George S. Rentz;colorrentz.jpg

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

I learned about George Rentz through my relationship with the late Howard Brooks who sailed with Commander Rentz on the USS Houston during World War II. I thought I’d share the commander’s story in honor of Memorial Day.

George Rentz was born in Pennsylvania in 1882. He graduated from Gettysburg College in 1903 and headed a call to serve Christ through ordained ministry in the Presbyterian tradition. Like all good Presbyterians in the Delaware Valley, young George took his theological training at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Graduating in 1909, the young pastor served several calls in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania before joining the US Navy when our country entered World War I.

It was Rentz’s experience serving Marines in the trenches of the Great War which gave him his true direction in ministry. After the war, he remained a navy chaplain and rose to the rank of commander in 1924. He served several posts on both land and sea. In 1940, he was assigned to the light cruiser USS Houston.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Houston was sent to Indonesia as part of a joint battle group with the Australian navy. In his book The Last Battle Station: the History of the USS Houston, Duane Schultz recorded that Chaplain Rentz was a huge favorite with the young crewmen, sometimes sneaking them nips of alcohol to revive their spirits when they’d served long watches.

In February of 1942 the Houston engaged the Japanese navy in the battle of Makassar Strait. In spite of fierce incoming fire, Chaplain Rentz appeared on deck and went from gun turret to gun turret to encourage the sailors. According to Schultz’s book, the chaplain’s presence both calmed and inspired the men during the heat of the battle.

Following the victory at Makassar, the Houston and the Australian cruiser HMS Perth headed for Ceylon on a mission to disrupt Japanese supplies. Unexpectedly, they ran into an enemy battle group in what was to become known as the Battle of Sundra Strait. Both vessels were sunk, costing the lives of over 800 of the Houston’s crew.

Commander Rentz abandoned ship and found himself clinging to an airplane float with several wounded sailors. He repeatedly offered the younger men his life jacket and place on the rapidly sinking float. None of the sailors would accept the chaplain’s offer. Finally, Rentz removed his jacket and presented it to a wounded sailor named Walter Beeson. A witness reported that Rentz told Beeson his heart was failing and he would not be able to hang onto the float much longer. After offering a prayer for the survivors, Rentz quietly kicked off the float and was lost beneath the waves of the Indian Ocean. For his act of gallantry he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the only chaplain to be so honored in World War II. In 1984, the US Navy commissioned a frigate, the USS Rentz, in the chaplain’s honor. The ship was decommissioned in 2014.

The information above is all available online on various websites. When I read about Rentz, I asked Howard Brooks if the stories of his on-deck heroism and final sacrifice were true. Howard replied, “Every word of it. I knew him personally. He was a fine man.”

Perhaps this is the message we need to re-learn every year on Memorial Day. Once upon a time, giants walked among us. They were men and women who cared deeply about principles and other people, and they were not afraid to sacrifice. The ongoing clown show of our current presidential election has discouraged many Americans with the endless onslaught of tasteless personal attacks and appeals to our innate selfishness. But our lives in Christ can only be genuine if they are dedicated to loving God by loving each other. The example of George Rentz and so many others who gave their lives in the cause of peace and freedom for the world should inspire us in that pursuit.

A Savior Out of Our League (Reflections on Pentecost 2, Year C)

“When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him…’” (Luke 7:4a)

My wife is a big fan of ABC-TV’s The Bachelorette. Shamefully, I admit to watching the reality dating series with her. I can only defend this by saying that I enjoy the travelogue aspects of the program, and I’m less offended by it than I am by the male protagonist version, The Bachelor. At least when the beautiful bachelorette sends some hapless suitor packing I don’t have to watch the guy cry. Of course, if he does cry, I have the luxury of condemning him as a pathetic wuss, whereas watching a rejected girl cry seems like cruelty to me.

On the recent season premier, one of the twenty-six well-dressed and unshaven male suitors (Don’t any of these guys own a razor? They all look like villains in a B western!) approached the charming JoJo Fletcher and—I’m certain in an attempt at compliment—blurted out, “You’re so out of my league!”

Do you know that expression “out of my league?” It’s what some fellow says about a woman who just seems to be too good for him. He’s not handsome, rich, athletic, successful, or otherwise accomplished enough to be worthy of the attention of such a goddess.

Poor slob. Nothing in the world stings like the feeling of being unworthy. In fact, I’ve heard it said (and I pretty much agree) that the source of all interpersonal conflict comes when our sense of self-worth comes into question. We turn chicken-head-eating psycho angry when we feel someone hasn’t taken proper note of our dignity or undervalued our contributions. We feel even worse when we secretly suspect the slights and insults actually reflect our own, true unworthiness. And maybe that’s why we are constantly in the useless act of comparing ourselves to others, constantly ready to nurse the assaults to our overly sensitive egos.

In the Gospel lesson appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 2 (Luke 7:1-10) a group of influential Jewish guys ask Jesus to do a work of healing for the slave of a Roman centurion. They tell Jesus that the centurion is “worthy” of having his request granted. Why? It seems that the guy has written out a fat check to the Building Fund of the local synagogue. Even though the centurion is a gentile and an officer in the army of the hated occupying oppressor, his act of largesse makes him pretty okay with the locals.

To be honest, I suspect that this is really quite a big, hairy deal in the world of this text. The Jewish leaders qualify their approval of the centurion by saying, “he loves our people.” (v. 5) Love for an unruly people one has been sent to conquer and rule looks to me like a pretty rare thing, and it certainly speaks well for our centurion. But what is implied here is that, had the man not shown any sympathy for the people his government had subjugated, he would not be considered a worthy candidate for Jesus’ compassion. And this leads us to the question over which good church folks still bicker: Who is worthy of Christ’s—or our—compassion?

I often argue with a certain church official about whether or not I should visit home-bound people who don’t donate to the congregation. Or, should I give a hand-out to someone who shows up at the church door with a sob story, even though they might spend the money on cigarettes and drugs? Should we accept people into our fellowship who have committed crimes? Should we baptize the babies of couples who aren’t legally married? (The Catholic priests in my neighborhood don’t think so!) Are LGBT people welcome here? Can children receive their sacraments in our church if their parents aren’t members of the parish? Just what makes a person worthy of the church’s consideration?

The really interesting feature of this Gospel story is the fact that the centurion does not consider himself worthy of Jesus’ regard. He’s probably showing some amazing sensitivity to Jewish ritual practice by not requesting that the Holy Man defile himself by entering the house of a gentile. He is, however, displaying an impressive amount of respect and belief in who Jesus is and what Jesus can do. And Jesus points out—probably with much relish—that this enemy foreigner, this outsider, has displayed more faith and respect than God’s chosen people often do.

Who is worthy? Our faith teaches us that none of us are. We’ve all messed up, and we’ve all been judgmental of other peoples’ screw-ups. We’ve tried to use honesty as an excuse for our hypocrisy. When I hear someone in church say, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way about so-and-so, but I do,” I want to respond “You’re right! You shouldn’t feel that way! So why aren’t you trying to change your attitude..??!!” But then I have to recognize that I’m just as guilty as anyone else.

And yet, I am beloved of God. In God’s incomprehensible way, I have been found worthy. It’s like being in love with a woman who is out of my league but who finds me adorable anyway. I can’t do anything but gratefully worship the One who has shown me such divine favor, continually praising such incomparable magnificence, and continually trying to improve my pitiful, unworthy self for the sake of my Beloved.

Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have paraphrased a portion of this Gospel story and used it liturgically. Just before the Eucharist is received, in preparation for the loving sacrifice of our Beloved, these words are spoken:

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word and I shall be healed.”

How beautiful, true, and comforting is that?

Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Reflections on the Feast of the Holy Trinity

My daughter is turning Hindu.

On the one hand, this is not exactly a glowing endorsement of my Christian influence. On the other hand, however, her spiritual journey has led to some of the best conversations I think we’ve ever had. It’s caused me to examine what I believe about ultimate truth and the nature of reality, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my daughter might just be discovering a new vocabulary for some things which I’ve long believed myself from our Christian tradition. To that extent, I think I actually prefer an observant Hindu (or Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or whatever) to a lukewarm, Christmas-and-Easter Christian who never gives any real thought to the tenets of the faith. It’s important—don’t you think?—to actually know what it is you say you believe.

This Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Trinity. In theory, it’s one of the six principal festivals of Christianity. In practice, I don’t think anyone gives a rip about it. The problem for me, of course, is that it commemorates a doctrine of the church and not an event or a person. I’m pretty much a story-teller, so I don’t really know what to do when there isn’t a narrative to talk about. Holy Trinity Sunday is usually a good time for a pastor to take a vacation so as not to have to preach a bone-dry, dogmatic sermon which will sound like a theology lecture and leave the folks in the pew staring glassy-eyed with occasional glances at their wrist watches.

Of course, there’s always the boring history lesson I can fall back on. I can tell folks about how the Emperor Constantine called for a church council in Nicaea in 325 A.D. to settle the question of Jesus’ relationship with God once and for all. I can explain the cute trivia that Nicholas of Bari (aka. Saint Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus) happened to take part in that initial convention. I can also point out that the motive for coming up with a settled doctrine was every bit as political as theological—which does not necessarily mean that those bishops in Nicaea got it wrong. But I can’t see that this would have much an effect on my listeners.

No. If this festival day is to mean anything at all, it has to challenge us each to come up with our own definition of what we mean by the word GOD. It’s only then that the doctrine of Trinity can mean anything to us, and only then that we can have a meaningful conversation with people of other faiths or no faith at all.

Yet here is where I have to make a disclaimer. Nobody, not a pastor, a church council, a pope, yogi, rabbi, imam, or saint can really comprehend God. In the Gospel lesson appointed for this feast in the Revised Common Lectionary (John 16:12-15), Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…” (v. 12-13a) This kind of reminds me of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men bellowing, “You can’t handle the truth!” And the truth is, we can’t. We have no real conception of the wonder and vastness of God apart from what the Spirit puts in our hearts. All we do for convenience is construct clumsy analogies. The trick is to try to use these clumsy analogies to lead us to a place of meaning and not turn them into doctrinal idolatry.

For a long time we in the church just said, “Hey. You want to be a Christian? Accept the doctrine of the Trinity. If you don’t, then you’re not really a Christian and you’re probably going to burn in Hell.” I’d hope that we’re progressing a bit from this. What does this doctrine actually mean at its core? For me, I’d have to say that it’s the experience of God as the great I AM. God just IS—God creating and being, God in love and compassion manifested in the person of Christ, and God as the connective tissue of all things. Our Gospel has Jesus say that the Father is in him, he is in the Spirit, and the Spirit is in us (vv.14-15).

That should be the challenge. If the Spirit of God—God’s breath which breathes life into all and the spirit of Christ’s compassion—is truly in me, then it has to be in everyone else, too. That means I have some real thinking to do about how I relate to creation and to my neighbor. If I sin against my neighbor, I’ve sinned against God and I’ve sinned against myself. And this thought drives me to my knees to pray for reverence for all people and all creation.

I’m not sure I get how my Hindu daughter sees God, but I feel pretty confident that contemplation of my own tradition leads me to a place of peace with hers.

Thanks for reading. God be with you.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Taught and Reminded (Reflections on the Day of Pentecost, Year C)


The Southeastern Pennsylvania Lutheran Synod Assembly was last weekend and, as usual, I had a great time attending. I loved hearing the speakers, finding out what’s going on with the other parishes in the five counties around Philadelphia, and participating in the inspiring worship services. It’s really cool for a pastor to be able to just go to church for a change and not have to worry about conducting the service.

At the Saturday morning worship there was an opportunity to ask for private, personal prayer. I approached the prayer leader—a compassionate colleague who had served in Philly—and responded to his question “How can I pray for you, Owen?” with “I’ve been pastor of my church for seventeen years. I have ten more to go before retirement. I am so tired.”

Okay. I admit it. Sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make it. My parish sits perpetually on the precipice of fiscal doom. My lay leaders are often inflexible and stuck in their ways. We have issues with the staff and with the building. On top of it all, we are still a collection of sinners, heirs to all the hurts which come from being born and living on old Mother Earth. So sometimes I need some prayer. Sometimes I wonder how this will all turn out.

And then a blessing. Usually, whenever I enter a contest or play a game I never win. But for the second year in a row my congregation won the Southeastern PA Synod’s “Forward Together in Faith” raffle drawing. This year we were given $1,000 grant to start an innovative program to collaborate with other ministries for the good of our community. We’re planning on turning part of our extensive church lawn (heretofore the local urban soccer field, garbage dump, and doggie toilet) into a community vegetable garden which neighbors would be welcome to cultivate along with church members. The produce we grow would be donated to Feast of Justice Ministries, the Northeast Philadelphia Lutheran Conference’s food bank and advocacy service located at one of our sister congregations. Feast serves about 2,000 local families with food assistance and has recently lost its produce supplier due to budget cuts.

My prayer for strength was answered in an unexpected way. Which, of course, makes me wonder: Was this the Holy Spirit at work? Just what is she up to, anyway? (Please note: since the words for “spirit” in Greek and Hebrew are both feminine nouns, I always, in a spirit of inclusion, try to refer to the Third Person of the Trinity by feminine pronouns. If this offends you…well..suck it up and deal with it.)

Our Gospel lesson for Pentecost in Year C (John 14:8-17, 25-27) tells us pretty much what the Spirit is up to. She has come to us to be part of us, to be God in us (v. 17). And because she is God in us, we will be sustained in weariness. We will be taught God’s ways and reminded of the ways and promises of Jesus (v.26). When we feel we just can’t, she’ll be there to remind us that we can, because Jesus has promised that we shall do the works he has done—and even greater works, too. (v.12).

Of course, I must quickly point out that she very often works in us collectively. Luther reminds us that she calls and gathers the Christian Church on earth (remember this from your Small Catechism?), and so the wonderful works which look so daunting to us as individuals are accomplished when the Spirit unites us in the body of Christ. In our first lesson (Acts 2:1-21) we see her turning cowards into charismatic preachers and xenophobic, insular Jews into international evangelists. She has sustained the church throughout the ages, and she will continue to do so in spite of our fears of declining finances and changing cultures.

Here’s one little example of her miraculous work: This October, as the “kick-off” of a year of celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation will hold a special worship service in the city of its founding, Lund, Sweden. The service officiants will include the LWF President, Bishop Munib Younan, LWF General Secretary Martin Junge, and—drumroll, please—Pope Francis. There may be some of you who never thought you’d live to see the day the Pope would be celebrating the Reformation with Lutherans, but this is what the Holy Spirit is doing. The Old Girl is bringing her church together.

For many churches in my denomination, Pentecost is a day to celebrate the Spirit coming to us. We can think of her descending on Jesus like a dove at his baptism, and be reminded that she descended on us at our baptism, too. It’s not surprising that many churches use Pentecost as the day to celebrate the Affirmation of Baptism or the Rite of Confirmation.  Whether or not we have babies or adults to baptize this Sunday or teens to make their Confirmation, this is a glorious time to sing praises for our faith and celebrate that God has come to be with and in us. It might be a very good time to confess Luther’s understanding of the Holy Spirit:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with (her) gifts, made me holy and kept me in true faith, just as (she) calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true. (Small Catechsim)

Or, we could join Luther in his simple prayer of gratitude, “I am baptized!”

However we celebrate the day, we celebrate in the peace of Christ. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid!

PS-If you want to learn a little more about the celebration in Lund, just click this link here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Freeing the Jailer (Reflections on Easter 7, Year C)

Among law enforcement professional, corrections officers are a rare and freaky breed. I once knew a lady back in Los Angeles who served on the LAPD. She’d started in corrections, but found after a very short time she had to get out. Jailers (guards, bulls, screws, turnkeys, or whatever they’re called) are regularly subject to the threat of physical harm or death, vile verbal abuse, and attempts at manipulation. They are overworked, underpaid, scrutinized constantly by supervisors, threatened by inmates, and need to be 100% vigilant 100% of the time. When they’re not being totally stressed-out, they’re probably bored mindless by the repetitive nature of their work. When I visit the local hospital and see the Philadelphia Department of Prisons officers sitting vigil outside the rooms of hospitalized prisoners, I always try to stop and thank them for their service. They’re often grateful for the gesture. When I’ve visited inside the county jail—and every urban pastor will do this at some point—the guards are far less pleasant. It takes a special individual to be able to do this job day in and day out. Many corrections officers just burn out or move on to other areas of law enforcement.

I rather feel sorry for the prison guard in the First Lesson appointed for Easter 7 in the Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 16:16-34). He has total responsibility over his jail—even over stuff he can’t control like the earthquake in verse 26. The poor guy has to see that the prisoners don’t escape. Should they get out for any reason, he is required—quite literally—to fall on his sword and kill himself. Can you imagine? The stress of this job must’ve made him one brutal s.o.b. Note that Paul and Silas, who have just been pretty savagely beaten, are put in chains in the dungeon without any medical attention whatsoever.

The un-named jailer has no conception of mercy. He figures that prisoners will always run when they get a chance, and he doesn’t even check their cell after the massive quake.  He just gives up. He figures they’re gone, and gets ready to off himself. Maybe he just wants the whole stressful business to be over with. But Paul and Silas don’t want him to harm himself, because his suicide will not glorify God. Prisoners or not, victims or not, they are in the business of proclaiming salvation, and salvation doesn’t speak through despair or revenge or fear.

Salvation speaks through love, and love speaks through compassion and forgiveness.

The mercy shown to this man through two imprisoned Christians caused him to ask the question, “What must I do to be saved (v.30)?” The answer given to him was to believe, which makes perfect sense if you consider that the opposite of belief is doubt, and doubt is uncertainty. We will learn to fear that which we don’t know, don’t understand, or can’t control, and the devil will ultimately teach us to hate what we fear. I love the fact that the jailer’s family rejoices that he has become a believer (v.34). I suspect he must’ve been very had to live with before two prisoners’ act of kindness brought him to salvation.

The jailer has been saved. The man who keeps prisoners sees his own bondage, and chooses to rise above it. He sees the prisoners no longer as enemies, but as fellow humans. He even dresses their wounds, takes them home, and feeds them—culturally acknowledging them as members of his family. Salvation, in this sense, is so much more than going to Heaven when you die. It is a liberation which comes immediately through our one-ness in Christ. This one-ness is unlike any other type of association, because it does not define us over and against another group. In Christ, there is no “them” and "us.” There is only “us.” And we are called to see Christ in others and be Christ for others.

The salvation which this man experiences lets the jailer out of the jail he and his culture have made for him. He is saved from suspicion, prejudice, guilt, depression, and an incessant need to dominate and control. He is freed from fear, because the promise of God’s love is certain.

Thanks for reading, friends. I always like it when you stop by. If you’d like to read a really cool insight on “salvation,” check out Peter Marty’s article in the current issue of Living Lutheran. You can read it online if you click his name here: Peter Marty. Just click on the table of contents and look for "Lexicon of Faith" on page 5.