Archive for the tag “Office of the Ministry”

From Hitler’s Wolves to Christ’s Lambs: The Chaplain to Nazi War Criminals

 

They walked to the gallows together, pastor and penitent. Each step up took them closer to the abbreviated, fatal fall to come. The criminal stood above the trapdoor. Moments later, it would open to rope himfence-444416_1920 into eternity. An officer asked him if he had any final words. “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul,” he said.

Then he turned toward the man who had been the shepherd of his soul, his confessor, his preacher, the one from whose hand he had received the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper. To this pastor, he said, “I’ll see you again.”

Then noosed, hooded in black, and legs tied, he dropped out of this world into another.

As gripping as this account is, no doubt many similar scenarios have played out in the course of history. Condemned men have found repentance and faith when certain death loomed nigh.

What makes this story remarkable is that this man, along with others hanged that day, was among the most hated men in human history. He was guilty of atrocities so horrific only words forged in hell could adequately describe them. These were Hitler’s men. His closest confidants. His very own pack of wolves. Yet in the months leading up to their executions or imprisonments, many of them had been transformed from Hitler’s wolves into Christ’s lambs. Thanks to the ministry of a farm boy from Missouri, who grew up to be a pastor, and who reluctantly agreed to be the chaplain of the fifteen Protestant war criminals during the Nuremberg trials at the close of World War II, these men heard the Gospel.

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Chaplain Henry Gerecke

Henry Gerecke was in his early 50’s when he went, cell by cell, to introduce himself to his infamous “congregation.” He invited them to chapel services. Some refused, others wavered, and still others promised to be there. Of the fifteen chairs set up for the first service, thirteen of them were filled. Scriptures were read, sermons preached, hymns sung, prayers prayed. And, through it all, hearts were changed.

Soon some of the very lips that had once barked, “Heil Hitler!” spoke an Amen as they knelt to receive the body and blood of their forgiving Lord. They expressed a desire for their children to be baptized. One of them began reading the Bible to find justification for his unbelief, but ended up being led to faith by the very same divine words. So reliant did these men become upon their pastor that, when a rumor surfaced that he might be relieved of his duty and allowed to return home, they wrote a letter to Mrs. Gerecke and begged her to ask him to stay. On that letter were the signatures of all these former Nazis. Men who had enjoyed power and rank were now humbly beseeching a housewife in America, who had not seen her husband for two and a half years, to let him stay.  In her brief reply to her husband, “They need you,” is packed a whole volume about sacrifice and love.

Pastor Gerecke’s story has already been told (see links below), but it deserves to be retold, again and again, to every generation, for two very important reasons.

The first has to do with the men to whom he ministered, the ones who repented and believed in Christ. The scandal of Christianity is not that these men went to heaven; it is that God loved them so much that he was willing to die to get them there. Had it been a human decision, many would have thrown these men into the flames of hell. But the truth is that people are not condemned because they murder, or steal, or lie, but because they reject Jesus as the one who has already endured hell for them on the cross, and earned a place for them in heaven. Should an opportunity arise in the future for the Gospel to be shared with ISIS militants who have been captured, this same Good News would be for them. They too would need a chaplain like Pastor Gerecke to call them to repentance, to preach Christ’s grace, to declare to them the mercy of God. There is no one who is so vile that he is beyond redemption, because the redemption of Christ envelops all people.

Another reason Pastor Gerecke’s story needs to be remembered involves his vocation, and those who share it. What pastor, knowing he was about to visit men such as these, would not have struggled to find any hope in their possible repentance? But Gerecke visited each cell anyway. He invited each man to hear the Word and left it to the Spirit to do the work of making new creations of these hardened criminals. Nor did he mince words, surrender his convictions, or water down the truth for them. On the evening before he was to be hanged, one of the men, Goering, asked to be communed, just in case he was wrong and there was some truth to the Christian claims. But Gerecke refused to give the Sacrament to one who so obstinately refused repentance, who treated the Supper as if it were an edible, just-in-case, insurance policy. When Christ calls men into the office of the holy ministry, he calls them to be faithful—not successful, not popular, not practical, not winsome, not cool, but faithful. They are to preach even when they doubt it will bear fruit. They are to give the word of Christ to sinners, and let the Christ of that word do his work. And he does. He convicts, he calls, he saves, he baptizes, he feeds, and, finally, he welcomes one and all into his kingdom with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

In 1961, at the age of sixty-eight, Pastor Gerecke passed from this life into the next. He entered that innumerable company of saints who had gone before him. Some of them had been among his flock during his years of ministry. One of them, standing atop the gallows, had promised, “I’ll see you again.”  And he did.

Online Resources:

I strongly urge you to click on one or all of the links below to read Pastor Gerecke’s story.  The details and quotes I included above are from these resources.

Gerecke’s story, in his own words, was published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1, September, 1951, pp. 18-19, under the title, “I walked to the Gallows with the Nazi Chiefs.”

Don Stephens, in War and Grace:  Short biographies from the World Wars, (Evangelical Press, Faverdale North, Darlington, DL3 0PH, England) devotes a chapter to Gerecke and his ministry.  The chapter is available online at:  http://www.messianicgoodnews.org/henry-gerecke-chaplain-to-nazi-war-criminals/

In 1950, Gerecke was called to be Assistant Pastor at St. JohnLutheranChurch, Chester, IL.  That congregation’s website includes audio files of Pastor Gerecke speaking about his experience.  These can be listened to by following the link below, and clicking on the audio files on the right side of the website. http://www.stjohnchester.com/Gerecke/Gerecke.html

Other Resources:

Tim Townsend, Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis, HarperCollins, 2014.

F. T. Grossmith, The Cross and the Swastika, Henry E. Walter Ltd., Worthing, England,  1984, which tells Gerecke’s story.

N. M. Railton, “Henry Gerecke and the Saints  of Nuremberg,” Kirkliche Zeitgeschichte,  Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2000, pp.126-7.

Many of the primary sources about Gerecke, including his own My Assignment with the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg, Germany, are found at Concordia Historical Institute, St. Louis, MO, the official archive of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

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What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

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Ten Ways You Can Help Your Pastor Be an Even Better Preacher

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View from the pulpit

If you sit in the pew on Sunday morning, part of you also stands in the pulpit. Whether you realize it or not, you have a hand in shaping every sermon that your pastor preaches. That’s because the word of God that your shepherd is expounding is not a one-size-fits-all message; he specifically tailored this sermon to fit the life situations of the saints whom he serves. He has you in his mind, and on his heart, when he preaches.

A Blessing and a Challenge

This is a blessing, but it’s also a tremendous challenge. It’s a blessing because who wants a sermon that’s like a Hallmark card, written vaguely enough to apply to just about any situation? Paul wrote very different letters to the churches at Rome and Corinth and Ephesus for a reason: each congregation had unique struggles which required different applications of the divine word to their situation. It’s no different today.

But this blessed, precise preaching is a weekly challenge. Your pastor, above all, wants his proclamation to remain true to the word of God. But he also wants it to remain fresh, creative, understandable, and applicable to his flock. When it comes to facing and overcoming this challenge, you can either assist your pastor or make it even more difficult for him. The part of you that stands in the pulpit with him can either be a help or a hindrance.

Here are ten suggestions on how you can be helpful, how you can make your pastor an even better preacher.

1. Spend time with your pastor outside of church. This can be as simple as enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee together during the week. Pastors cannot really get to know you if they know only the Sunday-morning you. Welcome his visits to your home. Include him and his family in your family’s life. The better he knows you outside of church, the better he will preach to you inside of church.

2. Be open with him about your personal struggles. If you’re sick and want your doctor to help you, you can’t sit there on the table, fully-dressed, smiling, and telling him you feel like a million bucks. He needs to know where you hurt and how you hurt if he’s going to help you. The more he knows about your sickness, the better he’ll be at prescribing the right medicine. So it is with your pastor. The more you tell him about your struggles, your sins, your addictions, your regrets—all the ills from which you suffer—the better physician of your soul he will be. This may take place in a more structured format such as private confession and absolution, or it may be in a less liturgical setting. Wherever it happens, this deeper knowledge of his flock will in turn deepen the pastor’s preaching, for the better he knows what’s going on inside his hearers, the better he will be inside the pulpit as he applies the healing balm of the Gospel.

3. Give your pastor honest feedback about his sermons. Very often the only substantive feedback a pastor gets about his sermons is from his wife. As helpful as that may be, he needs to hear from you, too. And a word to you pastors: pray for humility and thick skin so that you will receive this honest feedback—be it positive or negative—with gratitude. Hear me well: I’m not advocating that parishioners critique sermons like a movie critic rates the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Rather, you should freely communicate with your pastor if anything about his sermons troubles you, seems unclear, or just plain doesn’t square with your understanding of the word of God. To remain silent about preaching that could be improved, clarified, or corrected, only gives voice to apathy. At the same time, express to him how thankful you are for his bold adherence to pure doctrine, and for placing before you, week after week, the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected for you. Like any Christian, pastors too need vocal encouragement to remain steadfast and faithful in their vocation.

4. Ask your pastor questions about the sermon. This dovetails with the point made above concerning feedback. Some biblical texts are harder to understand than others. And if you think these biblical knots are hard to untie, try preparing a sermon on them! It can be a formidable task. So if you listen to a sermon on one of these passages, or any text for that matter, where certain issues still remain difficult for you to understand, then don’t be afraid to ask your pastor about them. Chances are he has many insights into that passage of Scripture that he chose not to include in the sermon. Your post-homily conversation will give him a chance to explain the biblical story more fully, and you to understand it more clearly. And your questions will reveal to him ways in which he can provide even greater clarity to his hearers about this passage of Scripture in his ongoing proclamation of it.

5. Be a faithful student in the Bible Class your pastor teaches. I cannot overemphasize this point. To put it quite simply: the deeper knowledge you have of the Bible, the deeper understanding you will have of biblical preaching. And the deeper understanding you have of both the Bible and biblical preaching will enable your pastor to be a better preacher for you. Imagine how frustrating it would be for a high school teacher who wants to introduce his students to the beauties and intricacies of Shakespeare, to discover that many in the class only want to read the CliffsNotes. Unfortunately, a parallel situation often exists in congregations. The pastor wishes to lead his hearers more deeply into the Scriptures, but many of them only want to skim the surface. Immerse yourself in the word of God with your pastor, ask him questions, listen to the discussions, ponder how all the biblical stories fit together in Christ. What you learn from your pastor in Bible class, as well as what he learns from his interaction with you and other students of the word, will have a direct and positive impact on his preaching.

6. Encourage your pastor to study God’s word with other pastors.  The best pulpits are crowded pulpits. Surrounding your pastor are patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, college and seminary professors, fellow saints and sinners—everyone whom Christ has used to shape your shepherd’s preaching. Especially helpful to your pastor are his fellow proclaimers. Like him, they wrestle weekly with the word, know the angst of the office, and strive to preach faithfully in their own parishes. These men lean on and learn from each other. If your pastor regularly studies the Scriptures with other pastors, encourage him to continue to do so. Indeed, encourage your fellow members to respect that time he has with his brothers in the ministry. What they learn from him, and what he learns from them, will enrich the preaching that you and your fellow Christians hear.

7. Protect the time your pastor needs for sermon preparation.  One of the earliest recorded problems faced by the church was that the apostles were so overburdened that they were in danger of neglecting the real duties of their office (Acts 6:1ff). It wasn’t right, they said, for them to “neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” The duties of the office of the ministry are weighty enough without your pastor also being asked to make sure the church lawn gets mowed, the budget prepared, pews dusted, and a thousand other responsibilities that someone else can take care of. Protect the time he needs to be fully engaged in the real duties of his office, which includes study of the Scriptures on which he will preaching. The more time he has to prepare a homily, the better his proclamation to you will be.

8. Gift your pastor with helpful, trustworthy preaching resources. There is a wealth of material available for pastors who are looking for fresh and faithful ways to preach. There are journals and books, seminars and conferences, as well as online resources. The only problem is that there’s a price tag attached to most of these. And the ministry not being the most lucrative calling there is, sometimes that cost is prohibitive. Every pastor has a birthday, an ordination anniversary day, and he too sets up a Christmas tree. Why not ask him if there’s a preaching resource he’d like as a gift? Not only will he profit from that gift, so will you as you see it bear fruit in the pulpit.

9. Be “all there” when you’re in the pew. Imagine what your reaction would be if you placed a costly gift into the lap of your child, only to have him reach for his phone to text a friend, or yawn then fall asleep, or turn to a friend to begin a whispered conversation, all the while ignoring the gift you had worked so hard to give him. Every sermon your pastor preaches is his gift to you; indeed, it is the Lord’s gift to you, His saving word wrapped in your pastor’s words. He places that gift in your lap every Sunday. Receive it with attentiveness, thankfulness, faithfulness. Make eye contact with your pastor as he preaches. What you communicate nonverbally says volumes about what you think of his preaching. And, believe me, he notices every yawn, every whispered conversation, every head down not-so-secretly texting or Facebooking or tweeting or whatever else you might be doing that amounts to a despising of the divine word you are ignoring. You took the time to be in church; when you’re there, be all there.

10. Pray for your pastor. It’s common for pastors to spend a few moments in prayer before they enter the pulpit. Perhaps they pray something like Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight.” Echo that prayer with your own. Ask the Lord to bless your pastor’s words, to give you repentance and faith to hear them aright. And continue to pray even as he preaches. Translate his words of law into prayers of repentance. Respond to his words of grace with prayers of thanksgiving. Preaching is not a monologue; it is a conversation, partly spoken aloud, partly prayed silently, between you, your pastor, and Jesus Christ. Before, during, after your pastor preaches, endeavor to pray for him and yourself and all who are present, that the words from your pastor’s mouth and the meditations of every heart present, may be acceptable in the sight of the Lord of the church.

There are, no doubt, other ways besides these ten suggestions by which you can help your pastor become an even better preacher. And, if you are so inclined, I encourage you to write about those ideas in the comment section of my blog. I offer these, however, as some ways in which you can help the man whom God has called to serve you in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ.

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If you enjoy my writings, and would like to read more of them, check out my two recently published books, one of hymns and poetry, and one of meditations and sermons. The Infant Priest is a collection of about 20 hymns and 90 poems. Christ Alone contains brief meditations and sermons that are steeped in the language of creation, the Passover, the worship life of Israel, and the Gospels. Click on either of the titles, or visit Amazon.com, to read more and find out how you can purchase a copy. Thank you for your interest!

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