The Euphemist

Reflections on Jewish Studies and many other subjects big and little, by a perpetual student who sometimes searches a little too long for just the right word ...

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Location: Minnesota, United States

Christian, truth seeker, husband, son, brother & uncle, Lutheran pastor, musician (cello, etc.), Jewish Studies grad student, intellectual historian, aquarium enthusiast & pet owner, philologist, astronomer, Norwegian-American, Ford pickup driver, buffoon.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

"Diary of a Reluctant Dissenter, Part I" - First Communion

Some Lutherans believe that Confirmation (about age 13-14) is the right age to start taking Communion. Others begin at an earlier age, such as in the 5th grade. I believe that 5th grade or even younger is OK, which makes me a semi-lonely dissenter in my church body. The vast majority (but not everyone) in our church body practices the First-Communion-at-Confirmation policy. Some are very confident in their conviction that children are not ready earlier than the early teens, and that it's "liberal" or something to suggest otherwise. In seminary I remember a classmate stating this conviction rather dogmatically. I stuck my neck out, piped up and said, "I began taking Communion in the 5th Grade, and I was ready." My neck didn't get chopped off, but I doubt his mind was changed. I think the subject changed quickly, however.

The locus classicus of this issue would be I Corinthians 11:28, "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup." (NIV) The word "man" here ("person" in the ESV) is translating the Greek word anthropos, which can mean, among other things, an adult (male or female), someone who has come of age. So the argument is that you need to have come of age sufficiently to be capable of self-examination. How we really know when that is is beyond me. What if, instead of excluding the "introspectively challenged", it simply meant that adults need to examine themselves but children don't need to, before taking Communion? That would put a different spin on things! Apparently that's the position of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as they give Communion even to infants - hard to label it as "liberal", since they've been doing it for centuries.

My first church after ordination had the First-Communion-at-Confirmation policy. I would have loved to change it, but I believe policies like that are something that a whole church needs to decide together, rather than the pastor just setting his own policy (such unilateralism is rarely good pastoring anyway). I defend the prerogative of the local church to set policy, even though I don't always agree with the policy. I think some in my first church would not have been ready to change without a fight. They didn't know it, but my inner conflict about Communion policy was a factor in my departure (and in my unsuccessful attempt to leave pastoral ministry). I had the painful experience of explaining to a conscientious and precocious 2nd grader why she couldn't take Communion yet, and though she accepted the answer without complaint, I would really have rather gone ahead and given her Communion.

It's hard to be a searcher and a pastor at the same time. Being a pastor involves keeping an ordination/installation promise to dish out the teachings of our Faith according to the understanding of our church body. And that's perfectly appropriate, but being a deep questioner (not the same thing as a skeptic) means that sometimes I'm enforcing policies which I personally doubt. It must be nice to be a "true believer" and really believe that our church has it right on these things. I tried to leave parish ministry a few years back, in part so that I could escape the pain of these inner conflicts about enforcing church policy. But my attempt to flee to Tarshish was unsuccessful, and I've learned that there are even deeper pains, so now I'm back in the saddle, dealing with the same Communion issue in a new and interesting way.

I preach at two churches, which I'll call the Town Church and the Country Church. I've been at the Town Church for 4 years, and they have the traditional "First Communion after Confirmation" policy. Just to make things exciting, the Country Church, where I've preached for a little over a year, has held first Communion in the 5th grade for a number of years. Hence, an exercise in diplomacy. In my heart I'd love to see the two churches have the same policy - it would make things a lot easier - and in my heart I believe that 5th grade is plenty old enough. But I'm not ready to try to nudge the Town Church to lower the age - once again I don't think certain people would be ready to change without a fight, and right now such a fight would be a worse problem than the Communion policy. In spite of my personal convictions, I had secretly hoped that perhaps the Country Church might change their policy, at least temporarily. Until a few weeks ago, we didn't have any current 5th graders, and I wondered whether the family of our current 4th grader would be OK with us delaying his First Communion to match up with the "Town Church" kids.

But God has now blessed the Country Church with a couple of new families, including a family with three kids, one of them a 5th grader, who already has taken Communion in the Catholic Church since 2nd grade. So, in accordance with Country Church policy, I've told them that after instruction in the meaning of Communion, he may begin taking it at the Country Church.

I teach the Town & Country Church kids together in one Confirmation class. Most of them go to school together. At the Confirmation Info Meeting I tell the parents and students forthrightly that the two churches each have their own Communion policy, and each church has the prerogative to set its own policy. Town Church kids are asked not to take Communion if they ever happened to be at the Country Church on Communion Sunday (so far it hasn't happened) and Country Church kids are asked not to take Communion at the Town Church before they're confirmed (a couple of them were there on Easter). So far we haven't had any problems with the "Two Policy Policy", but I worry that someone might be offended sometime, thinking that I'm not treating them equally or something. It also means that I avoid having Communion at any joint services of the two churches (which is a kind of a loss). Last Maundy Thursday we had a Passover Seder at the Country Church, partly because I thought it would be an edifying thing to do, partly so we could have a "Communion-y" joint service without actually having Communion. For the foreseeable future I think it would be a good tradition to sustain for our joint Holy Week observances.

So I pray that until the two churches both have the same policy, that Christian good will reigns. I suppose, given my conviction, I should (slowly but surely) explore if the Town Church would be willing to change sometime. But to tell you the truth, I'm chicken.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Fishing for the big one

Giant Squid

While we pursue our daily mundane chores, the pursuit of science proceeds unabated. Apparently a team of Japanese scientists have taken pictures of a 26-foot-long giant squid in action, and it sounds like you wouldn't want it to mistake you for a meal. You may read more at:

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Prayers for those suffering in the Gulf Coast region, bracing for another hurricane.

Prayers for a young woman having a very difficult time adjusting to the rigors of basic training in the USAF.

Prayers for a family who have just lost a loved one to leukemia.

Prayers for a 5-year-old girl dear to us, severely dehydrated from the flu - it's happened before.

Prayers for a man recovering from an injury.

Prayers for a nearby town of 2,000, rocked by a senseless murder of a 26-year-old wife and mother - the first murder there since 1983; prayers especially for her family, the family of the perpetrator, and the perpetrator himself - Jesus died for him, too.

LORD, have mercy.
CHRIST, have mercy.
LORD, have mercy.

What does "church membership" mean, anyway?

Perhaps all you theology mavens out there could help me with a puzzle I'm pondering. The basic question has two parts:

1. What, according to the Bible, constitutes "church membership?"
2. When in church history would be the first appearance of any operational definition of "church membership" other than being a baptized Christian who hasn't been excommunicated?

Let me try to explain where I'm coming from. In churches such as mine, "The Free Lutherans", or a similar church body, "The Lutheran Brethren", it's possible to be baptized and participate in the life of the church (taking communion, teaching Sunday School, etc.) and not be on the official membership list of our church, or any other church for that matter. For example, according the the constitution of one of my two churches, a child of a member becomes a member upon being baptized here, but a child of non-members does not. The Lutheran Brethren have a concept of "pure church membership" unique among Lutherans, so that, for example, baptized children are called exactly that, "baptized children of the congregation" and don't become members until a voluntary profession of faith later in life. In Lutheran Brethren jargon a "parishioner" is someone who has come of age and participates in the life of the church without taking the step of being a member; the basic difference made by membership is eligibility to vote and hold office.

Just lately I started to wonder what the early Christians would have made of modern church membership concepts like these. If someone believes, is baptized, serves God, communes, uses his/her spiritual gifts in the life of the church, etc., why wouldn't we call him/her a "member?" Part of the modern policy reflects the fact that most churches (at least in the USA & similar countries) are legal corporations, and I can see why as such they need to define their legal membership lists. But I refuse to believe that churches must be legally incorporated to be churches; otherwise the Church would not exist in countries where Christianity is illegal.

Anyway, Biblical and historical light on this issue is invited. The aforementioned "Free Lutherans" and "Lutheran Brethren" are virtually identical on most points, but differ on a few, most notably concepts/policies on church membership. Even small differences can become magnified in importance when they are among the only differences between otherwise identical groups; after all, if these differences aren't really important, there's cause to question whether our separate existence is justified. As for me, I'm starting to wonder if both our groups have missed the boat. Could our century-long disagreement on church membership really be two versions of the same error? (Don't get me wrong - I've belonged to both groups, love them both, and think that, by and large, they're two versions of the same excellent thing). To me the bottom line can't be better expressed than in I John 4:15, "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

So, what did I learn?

After a bit of a delay I finally received my grade sheet and graded essays back for the course "Jewish Theology" at Spertus. It's a welcome relief to see my "B+" grade in writing. I'd been told in a voice mail message that I had a B+, but a part of me feared that I'd heard it wrong, and it was really a D+.

Overall Dr. Sherwin's feedback was very positive, calling my essays "clear, precise, and well-documented." His main bit of constructive criticism was that it was often "a bit too terse, with concepts noted but neither adequately explained or analyzed." Overall not bad, considering how I procrastinated until about 3 days before the end of the term before I hunkered down and composed my essays. You are invited to read them via the link on my sidebar.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned in this course is the concept of "polarity", that Hebrew/Jewish thought operates in terms of complementary, contrasting polar opposites; humans made of dust/humans created in the image of God, Israel chosen/Israel rebellious, etc. Also, related to this concept, that Hebrew thought works in terms of description rather than definition. The long-standing preoccupation of Western thought is to define concepts, and to suppose that once we've defined something we understand it. Some Jewish thought has been influenced by this Western perspective - Philo, Maimonides, etc. - but the Jewish heritage of thought offers an escape from definitional reductionism and instead is comfortable with paradox.

In my previous course, "The Religion of Biblical Israel", Dr. Dulin had given me some strong advice on how important it is to interact with the primary sources (in this case involving the Bible and "Ancient Near Eastern Texts"), and not just to quote commentaries. This advice has stuck with me, and it proved very helpful while composing my essays.

I also learned just how much of a beginner with things Jewish! In one of my essays I said, "The Mahzor (prayerbook for the High Holy Days) reflects continuous development of worship over the centuries." She wrote in the margin, "So does the Siddur!" That's how I found out about the Siddur, which happens to be THE basic prayerbook for Judaism, as central for the Jews as the "Book of Common Prayer" is for the Anglicans. It probably looked a bit funny for me to have written an essay on Jewish worship without acknowledging the Siddur or even knowing that it exists. I quoted from the Mahzor for the simple reason that I happen to own one. I probably acquired it while I lived in St. Louis Park, MN 13 years ago - I sometimes came home with books from garage sales when I went for walks.

Well, now I'll be registering for the next course, which will be "Medieval Judaism."

Monday, September 19, 2005

Nick-O-Mickeyan Ethics

I thought I'd start off this blog with a bit of intellectual tomfoolery from my first college semester, the Fall of 1983, when the world was young. I was taking a Philosophy course in "Greek Foundations of Western Thought", and I was preparing to write course essays on Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics." The assignment sheet was tampered with in my absence by my roommate Bryan (who always played Felix to my Oscar, and has since held a very respectable software engineering job in Columbus, OH for many years now - he's also the first one to dub me "The Euphemist"), and you may view the results below. To set things up a bit, my historic nickname is "Mickey", and another student named Nick was our dorm floor neighbor and was taking the same course; hence "Nick-O-Mickeyan Ethics."


Click image for a larger view.