WORDS FROM THE PASTOR: Of Salamanders and Synods
One of my very favorite summer activities is to look for amphibians–frogs, toads, salamanders and newts. The nature preserve near Smithtown is a great place to find frogs. Salamanders are harder to spot on Long Island; the native species here are very reclusive, and I’ve never actually seen a Long Island salamander in the wild. (Searches in the Calverton preserve have yielded ample deer ticks, but no amphibians!) Salamander hunting, then, usually requires a trip to Pennsylvania. But I truly would walk a mile–or drive many miles-- for an amphibian, because I find them captivating.
What makes amphibians so fascinating? Many things: the unique way their skin absorbs water from their environment, for instance. (This makes amphibians an “early warning” system for environmental problems. The malformed frogs from a pond in the upper Midwest, for instance, were an indicator of hazardous materials in the water. Worldwide, the amphibian population has been declining dramatically, a grim sign of environmental deterioration).
But it is above all its unique life-cycle that makes the amphibian especially interesting. Most of them begin their life in the water–they hatch as tadpoles and breathe through gills. Then, slowly, they transform–little legs sprout...the shape of their bodies alters...they develop lungs...and then, eventually, they become adult frogs, toads, salamanders. (I watched this transformation one summer in my childhood when I brought a bunch of tadpoles from the country into my backyard and kept them in a little metal wading pool. Slowly they turned into toads, and then eventually hopped forth to populate the neighborhood. Thus did a ten year old transform forever the ecology of southeast San Antonio.)
We often associate amphibians with sinister things–the warts that supposedly one gets from touching a toad...the witch who adds “eye of newt” to her potion. But actually, because of their unique life-cycle, the amphibian has often been seen as a Christian symbol. The amphibian symbolizes transformation. It begins as an humble fish-like creature, then is radically changed into a frog, a salamander. For ancient Christians, this transformation actually suggested the resurrection of Christ–after His death on the cross, he was wondrously transformed and rose into new life. The transformation also suggests what happens to us Christians–we humble sinners are transformed by God’s forgiveness into new creatures. “As the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like Him and reflect His glory even more (I Cor. 3:18).
Significantly, an amphibian’s transformation happens in water. The humble tadpole lives an aquatic life while it changes. Doesn’t this make a point about baptism? That it is through our baptism that God transforms us? Through the water He unites us to the crucified and risen Christ, and Christ makes us into new creatures!
There is an old fairy tale about frogs...and interestingly enough, it’s a story about transformation. A witch’s curse turns a handsome prince into a frog. Only the kiss of a beautiful maiden can turn him back. But most maidens were repulsed at the thought of kissing a frog. But finally a maiden came along whose love and commitment was so great that she was willing to make the sacrifice of kissing a frog. Kiss him she did–and he turned back into the handsome prince. And, of course, they lived happily ever after!
Someone once pointed out that the Gospel message is hidden in this fairy tale: I was created a beautiful creature, but as a sinner, I am under a curse. Sin makes me spiritually ugly. I can only be transformed by love–by holy, divine love. But how can holy, divine love in all its beauty touch a repulsive sinner like me? But Jesus Christ’s love for me is powerful, and He makes a sacrifice even greater than that of the maiden who kisses the frog–He takes my repulsive sin upon Himself, and suffers and dies for me on the cross. And when His wondrous love touches me, I am transformed! His forgiveness enables me to regain my spiritual beauty!
If you run across some frogs or toads or salamanders during your summer travels, think a bit about what wondrous creations of God they are. And be reminded of how God is at work in your life with His transforming power!
The Missouri Synod Convention
As you’re probably aware, the 9/11 attacks caused a firestorm in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. When our district president, Dr. David Benke, attended the “Prayer for America” event at Yankee Stadium and offered a prayer there, it enraged a faction in our church who feel that we should only pray in public with those with whom we are in complete doctrinal agreement. That faction sought Dr. Benke’s suspension–and attained it, for a time, until he was cleared by a Missouri Synod tribunal. After Benke’s vindication, the ultra-conservative faction looked toward the July 2004 convention. Their goal was to unseat Missouri Synod President Gerald Kieschnick, who had approved Benke’s presence at Yankee Stadium.
The results? Dr. Kieschnick was reelected, and the extreme conservatives lost three of the vice-presidencies they held. They retain control of the Synod’s Board of Directors, but both sides agree that keeping the Board was a hollow victory. The convention also definitively closed the Benke matter by upholding his vindication.
By attacking Dr. Benke’s attempt to comfort a hurting nation, the extreme right made themselves look unpatriotic and unfeeling, and it cost them dearly.
It’s good to know that the Synod has put the Benke case in the past. As interesting as Missouri Synod politics is, though, for us the real action is here at St. Paul’s. It is here that Jesus Christ meets us in the Word and Sacrament with His presence, His power, His love. It is said that, while most Americans dislike Congress, most Americans also love their own congressman. Similarly, the gyrations of the Synod over the past three years have been disturbing and disconcerting–but we still love and treasure our local congregation, St. Paul’s. Whatever happens in St. Louis, right here in Amityville we are touched by the saving power of our crucified and risen Lord!
God loves you and so do I!