Monday, February 20, 2017

All in . . .

I don't play much poker, well, I don't play it at all.  Every now and then I watch the pros play poker on TV.  I realize it is not for real money -- the consequences are too high.  But it does put the game into perspective. Whenever you watch poker on TV, chances are it’s a no-limit Hold'em game.  That just means that there is no ceiling on the amount you can bet.  If you are bold enough, you may just push all your chips into the center of the table and go "all in."  All in means you hold nothing in reserve.  You have not hedged your bet.  You have taken the ultimate risk with all your resources.

The move is a game changer.  If made the wrong choice, you have lost everything.  If you are bluffing, then you really do have nerves of steel.  If you have surveyed the competition and know your hand, you have probably already won.

Once you are all in, there is no going back.  It is too late to decide that maybe another player had a better hand than you thought or there were too many cards missing to have brought the game to a quick end.  As Kenny Rogers sang, you got know when to hold em and know when to fold em. . . .

When you teach children the faith, you do not teach them to hedge their bets.  You teach them an all in faith -- Jesus Christ alone has salvation and there is no other.  You teach them that God hears their prayers and they can always pray.  You teach them God is the glue that holds everything together.  You teach them they are not accidents of nature but fearfully and wonderfully made.  You teach them that God forgives every repentant sinner -- no matter how far they have fallen.  You teach them that death is not the end and heaven is real.  The problem is that adults are more likely to hedge their bets and mix their faith with reason, science, and culture.  We have trouble being all in.  We have trouble because we know if you put all your cards on this bet, there is nothing else on which to fall back.

Converts to Lutheranism tend to be all in.  They ask me questions and want to know with Blessed Mary, "how can this be?" but they do not question or challenge what I teach them.  In many respects they are like sponges soaking up water for the first time.  They were not raised Lutheran and they may a choice to become Lutheran and they are not going to Lutheran Lite or half baked Lutherans.  They are determined to be "all in."

Some of the rest of us Lutherans, the lifers who have always been Lutheran for as long as we can remember, are less likely to invest everything in what Lutherans believe, confess, and teach.  We are forever telling people that Lutherans are like ____________ [you fill in the blank with the kind of Protestant you would be if you were not Lutheran!] and above all Lutherans are not Catholic!  Gosh no. . .   Ceremonies, ritual, liturgy, and a sacramentally ordered piety are often deal breakers for us.  We are forever wedded to the kind of Lutheranism we saw in the last or most revered pastor.  Sure, Lutherans can do those things but, well, who would want to?  Lutherans are not scary -- they are normal.  We lifers tend to like the Lutheranism we met growing up (especially in catechism class) and are deeply suspicious of those who suggest that we may not know as much about Lutheranism as we thought,  We may be all in to the version of Lutheranism that we like but we are not so sure we want to know about the Confessions and about anything that might challenge what we think we know about Lutherans.

So we a little excited when a novice Lutheran begins telling us stuff about Lutherans that we did not want to know.  And we think it rude for a Lutheran born on a mission field to presume to tell us that Lutheran Lite is not a legitimate form of Lutheranism.  But most of all, we fear putting too much on stuff we thought was not supposed to be important at all (adiaphora anyone!).  We like moderation and we are suspicious of extremists -- even Lutherans who are too Lutheran!  Let us be reasonable, now.  Let us be moderate.  Let us not get too wound up about anything. 

Worse than converts telling us what Lutherans really believe, confess, and teach, we don't like young pastors, pastors new to the ministry, all in our faces and excited about things we don't think any normal Lutheran should get excited about.  Newfangled Lutheranism is just as questionable as Lutheranism which digs too deep into the soil of our confessions, doctrine, and practice.  We make small bets so that we can afford to lose here and there.  We would never go all in!

But that is precisely what we need -- Lutherans who are all in.  Lutherans who believe that tradition may even be more important than spontaneity.    Lutherans who believe that Sunday morning ought to look more like what we say in our Confessions than what we in the pews find reasonable, comfortable, and normal.  Lutherans who risk it all on the only One worth the risk -- Jesus Christ our Lord.  The world cares little for Lutherans unsure of their Lutheranism.  The world wants to believe that there are true believers out there.  The world is enamored of those who fear God more than death and who are determined to be the Lutherans our books define us to be.

Lutheranism will not be saved by Lutheranism Lite.  Lutheranism will not be reborn by becoming somebody else on Sunday morning.  Lutheranism will not be made relevant by diluting our Lutheran identity, doctrine, and confession.  Lutheranism lives or dies as an all in faith.  Really, if you are not ready to go all in for your Lutheran-ness, why bother?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pastors and Pedestals. . .

There are not a few folks who think I run the congregation where I serve.  From their perspective, I suppose that is how it seems.  I am in my 25th year here.  I have become the pastor, the only pastor, the vast majority of my people have known (except for a visitation pastor and now an associate approaching the end of his second year here).  I am the keeper of the corporate memory.  I can remember how we did this what that happened and how we that when this happened.  I know where papers are stored, where the Christmas decorations are kept, how to renew the non-profit corporate status, how to renew the tax exempt status, when the voters meetings are held, and how many folks to expect when Christmas Eve falls on a Tuesday and Christmas Day on a Wednesday. . . I seem to be the voice of caution when new things are planned and the voice of change when the predictable is chosen yet again.  I remind them who we are, why we are here, what worship is and is not, and what a pastor is (and is not).  So, because they think I am almost as old as God, I must run the show.

The truth is I often wish I did.  I wish I could substitute my opinion for the will and desire of others (except, of course when neither of us wins and only God does!).  It would be easier not to have to coax reluctant leaders through the hard decisions and to simply make them myself.  Since I will probably be blamed if it does not work right, it would be easier if I could decide what course we shall pursue.  I do not know a pastor who does not think this way.  It is not because we are prone to arrogance or control freaks.  It is because we are here nearly every day of the week, every week of the year, for as long as it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.  For me, as for most pastors I would assume, it is not simply a job but a vocation, not simply a congregation but a family, and not simply a range of choices but the best option.

Although some folks probably wish that the pastor was not so intimately identified with everything, they also want it just this way.  They don’t want to get involved to the level of the pastor (and they complain that they cannot be expected to abandon jobs and family to do that).  They don’t want to give up their time, talents, and treasures if it might mean somebody might suffer (aren't we all that way?). They know that if pastor does it, they won't have to do it and that is often too attractive for their own good.  The pastor wants it because so much of his calling involved intangible things that every pastor likes to be able to point to something concrete and real and say "I did that."  Every pastor has a little desire to be father to their people (and more people than who would admit it also want the pastor to act like dad and remind them of the things they know they ought to do).  Many folks always feel a little uncomfortable with the pastor and his family so it does not bother them to keep them at a distance (even if that distance ends up putting the man on small pedestal).  So we feed off each other in the foibles of pastors too involved for their own good and people who want their pastors to be holy.

Everyone really knows that the pastor is not large and in charge.  They know that because they have dumped many problems into the lap of the pastor and the family was still broken, the child still rebellious, the money still tight at home, and the sick still died.  Part of the reason we want pastors to be on a small pedestal is the hope that he will come through every now and then with the miracle we do not think we can do or get or deserve on our own.  We all know it helps to have an ace in your hand.  So we ask the pastor to pray for us and to intervene in family wars, to speak to the errant child, to reconcile angry spouses, and to generally follow us around to clean up our messes.  No pastor I know would deny wanting to be able to do just that -- except that we can't and are mere mortals.

Pastors dream of self-sufficient congregations where the ordained need not know how to use a toilet plunger or repair the copier or fix a computer that refuses to boot up.  But we also yearn to be loved, respected, admired, and heeded and so it does not hurt too much when do what is no pastor's job description.  We want everyone to get along, for the church to prosper, and for God and everyone we serve to be happy (especially with us).  So it is okay if the pastor is a bit more invested in things at church and if the folks in the pew count on him.  What is not okay is if the pastor takes over and the people let him or want him to  -- we have different roles but we ought to be equally invested in and working toward God's purpose.

Some people think I run things but don't think I should.  Unfortunately, those are the same people who expect others to step up and do what is really theirs to do.  Some people think I run things and that is how it ought to be.  Unfortunately, there are both folks therein who just want to avoid having to be responsible and others who want me to be happy and think being CEO will make me happy.  So I guess it will always appear to some that I am in control and to some that this is okay as long as things keep going well.  In the end, it is my job to hold them accountable for what is theirs even as it is their job to hold me accountable for what is mine.  Our vocations do not replace each other but complement each other.  As hard as it is to explain, it is wonderful when it works.  As hard as it is to repair when it is broken, it is wonderful when, in spite of ourselves, it finds the sweet spot.   I have erred on both sides over the years and my people have forgiven me and I have forgiven them.  2017 is one more chance to try and get it right. . . again!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Remember him?

Less than a week after one of the Queen’s Chaplains spoke out against an Islamic Prayer denying the divinity of Jesus Christ being read out in a Scottish Cathedral, the senior churchman has tendered his resignation from that office. Former Chaplain to Her Majesty the Reverend Gavin Ashenden announced his resignation on his personal blog on Saturday night, anticipating that a BBC Radio 4 segment on him and the controversy surrounding the Quranic readings in a Scottish Cathedral to be broadcast on Sunday morning would reveal his resignation despite his requests to the contrary. Remarking that the decision to step down was “the most honourable course of action” and had come after years of “attempts to silence or defenestrate me”, Rev. Ashenden said he had spoken out in the past on controversial matters as a “matter of integrity and responsibility”.

How sad it is that when a Christian clergyman speaks in his role as priest, chaplain, and defender of the faith, he is being political and must resign being a chaplain to the Queen who is, by the way, the defender of the faith. I had reported on this originally but had failed to report on the consequence.  Sad.  But not unexpected.

A photo of reality. . .

Stock photos are like actors who portray a role for a commercial but then it is all diluted when a tag line admits that the people who provide the visual image do not suffer from the malady for which this medicine works or use whatever product is being hawked.  Somehow or other, when the tag line says that the folks whose faces you see are not actors but real life clients, there is a credibility which is missing in other circumstances.

I will admit that stock photos are unavoidable.  I use some of them on this blog (although I really do try to make the image fit what I am writing about).  That said, things become real when the faces are the familiar ones of those whom you know and love, when the situation is what you are facing right now, and when the generic becomes personal.

That happened for me in a very new way when I saw photos of the grandchild in my daughter-in-law's womb.  The whole issue of life and its protection became personal in a new way when I saw the unmistakable form of a child, currently biding the days awaiting the magic moment when the careful environment of the womb will be exchanged for the more uncertain surroundings of the world around us all.  It is one thing to think about the pro-life cause in a general way and quite another when presented when an image of the very real child moving and growing within the womb of mom.

Don't get me wrong.  This is no position change.  I was and remain adamantly pro-life.  I am against abortion and against the callous disregard for the person waiting to be born.  That said, it has been made ever more personal when that child whose image I see is my own grandchild, one who will wear my name and who shares my own genes.

Abortion is generally argued on the level of theory -- right and wrong that has no personal face.  All the images we use are good enough but to the people to whom they are directed, they are like stock photos who could be anyone.  When you look at what our modern day technology can show of fingers and toes, eyes and ears, arms and legs, and a beating heart, well, this is no stock photo that could be anyone, this is someone.

The pro-life cause is more easily argued when the womb belongs to someone we know and love, when the child within is someone we will know and love, and when the whole framework of the argument becomes personal.  As I look out on our congregation, I see many babies -- some of them determined to be heard amid the sound of organ, choir, chanting, and preaching.  I see some moms still awaiting the birth of their children.  I have held many of them in my arms over the water of baptism and will hold more soon enough.  The pro-life cause is best a personal one, in which we are invested in the lives and futures of those children waiting to be born.  But even when they are just names and faces to us, the cause is personal to the Lord who knit them together in their mother's womb, fearfully and wonderfully fashioning them and giving them life.

It is a good thing to move beyond the theoretical and into the tangible and personal.  For the issue of abortion, it is essential.  It has often been said that we have lost as many lives to abortion as there are people in countries like Italy, South Africa, or Tanzania.  I cannot wrap my head around the reality of that many people being gone in the blink of an eye.  But I tell you what I can imagine and what I cannot forget and that is the picture of the child who will become the newest member of my family!

Friday, February 17, 2017

A new editor. . . surprising choice. . .

"L'Osservatore Romano" (The Roman Observer) is the daily semi-official newspaper of the Vatican.  It does not merely cover religious news, which it does but also political and cultural.  It is not exactly the chief venue through which the Pope speaks but it does carry the Pope’s discourses, reports on the Holy See, and reports on events within the Church at Rome and the Roman Catholic community throughout the world. It is a semi-official newspaper of the Holy See, not an official organ for the Pope's views.  It does serve as a propaganda arm for the Pope even if it does not publish his encyclicals or allocutions.  It has published things which have not necessarily reflected the views of official Rome or the Pope.  But it is very significant.

With the new year, “L'Osservatore Romano” will be turning over a new leaf. It seems that Pope Francis was not at all satisfied with the weekly Spanish edition edited by the Argentine Silvina PĂ©rez.  So the Pope has prevailed with a new edition just for Argentina and a new editor, Marcelo Figueroa.The big news here is that Figueroa is not Roman Catholic but Protestant, specifically a pastor of the Presbyterian Church.  He has also been the director of the Argentine Biblical Society for some 25 years.  But his chief qualification seems to be that he has been a longstanding friend of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis).

So what does it mean that the editor of the unofficial, semi-official, daily newspaper for the Vatican published for Argentina, will be a Presbyterian?  Now that is the question.  While it is certainly usual for leaders to place into positions of influence people of their own viewpoint and to reward friends, what stands out here is that this man is not Roman Catholic.  How will it work that the almost official organ of Roman Catholics will be edited by a Protestant?  For that, we will wait to see.

It does bring up a question and an issue with which nearly all church journals or periodicals have been forced to wrestle.  Is this press objective or is this a house organ that speaks on behalf of the church's leaders?

While The Living Lutheran, for example, is the official periodical of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, its history has been to agitate and advocate for things under debate and not yet fully settled for the ELCA.  So in preparation for the CWA that would adopt sweeping changes for the ELCA in the way it dealt with same sex marriage and homosexuality among the clergy, the official organ of the ELCA was out in front championing the cause with pieces friendly to the change.  It has taken the official stance of minimizing the troubles the church has experienced since that eventful choice -- even when those repercussions threatened the very life of the ELCA (both in membership and finances!).

On the other hand, The Lutheran Witness has been much more in line with the official doctrinal stance of the LCMS and as an advocate of the practice that doctrine expects.  It has unfailingly tackled difficult subjects in order to speak what the LCMS has said, consistent with Synod resolution and our doctrinal confession.  It has done so with an unapologetic stance to defend the stance of the LCMS and to explain it for members as well as those outside the church body.  I cannot recall an article in which The Lutheran Witness advocated for something not already part of our convention resolutions or consistent with who we are and what we have taught as the LCMS.  That is not to say, however, that it has not also mirrored the particular emphases of the Synod President and administration.  But the LCMS does not expect that the two would be different.

I for one believe that the official periodical of the church should reflect what that churches believes, teaches, and confesses.  I further believe the function of this official organ is to teach the faithful every bit as much as it is to witness this doctrine to the world.  So I would suggest that there is a catechetical dimension to the work of an editor and the authors employed.  While I cannot speak for Rome, I find it hard to believe that the best editor for a church's media (official or unofficial) would be someone who believes and confesses differently than that church.  We have had a long run with a very successful editor of The Lutheran Witness, Adriane Dorr Heins, and our official periodical has shone brightly under her stewardship.  She will soon be replaced (at her own request) and the new person will have big shoes to fill.  I have no idea who that person will be but I know that person will be LCMS, fully committed to the doctrine of our Confessions, to the stance of the LCMS, and to its faithful practice.  I can conceive of no other possibility.  Though it may not be politic to say so, no Presbyterians need apply -- no matter what our fearless leader might think or who his friends might be.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Agenda driven Christianity. . .

According to the RNS:
A New York-based advocacy group called Parity is asking Christians who favor LGBT equality  — “queer positive Christians,” in their parlance — to show their support by wearing “glitter ash” on their foreheads to mark Ash Wednesday (March 1).

Ash Wednesday kicks off the six-week somber season called Lent that leads to Easter, and is usually marked in churches with the color purple. Traditionally, plain gray ashes, blessed by a minister or priest, are smeared on the foreheads of Christians to symbolize repentance.
“This is a way for queer Christians and queer-positive persons of faith to say ‘We are here,'” said Marian Edmonds-Allen, Parity’s executive director. “It is also a way for other people to be a witness to that and be in solidarity with them.”
Instead of repentance, flaunt it.  While it is hard to see that this will catch on among the churches that do apply ashes, it is not impossible to imagine that some Lutherans might exchange the solemn ritual for such comedic shtick.  Think her Her Church, anyone?  How sad.  Although it is impossible to predict what will be, truth is always stranger than fiction. . .

The Pope's Choir. . . the parish choir. . .

My own Cantor has had little good to say about the Choir of the Sistine Chapel.  Historically, he is correct.  They have been a collection of screechers and operatic voices that did not blend well into a choir.  This is one of the oldest choirs in the world and this choir is a professional choir, quite unlike the choirs of most churches which are made up of volunteers -- some of whom can barely read music at all!  That said, its professional cadre of singers have not been without complaint in modern times.  Who can forget the Midnight Masses of John Paul II and the screamers who seemed at one and the same time amateurish and a group of egos -- each making sure that their own voices were heard.

60 Minutes did a story on the Pope's Choir and did not shrink from the criticism that so many had heaped upon the Choir in the past.  But all that began to change in 2010 with a change in leadership.  Maestro Massimo Palombella was determined to prepare a choir worthy of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's.  They began intensive rehearsals and practiced basic skills under the heavy hand of a choir director determined to offer the Lord nothing but the best from himself and all his singers.  Click on the link and watch the 60 Minutes episode for free.  Even better, click afterwards on the link for the online additional footage not aired on the broadcast.  It is worth your time (though it may take a moment to load).

Popes historically were not chosen for their ability to chant or sing.  Often it has been rather painful to listen to popes and bishops attempt to sing the liturgy.  Not so with this choir.  Now the auditions and requirements are arduous.  Only a few are admitted each year.  Boys and men both have to justify their place within the choir -- so great is this newfound commitment to excellence.  The current Pope is not known for the quality of his own voice and yet he seems an enthusiastic supporter of the new voice of what has been called "his" choir.

I think it is absolutely wonderful to have a such "professional" choirs  — not only the Pope's Choir but the choir school voices of Kings College.  I love listening to the pop and more classical acapella groups from Pentatonix to Straight No Chaser to Voices 8 to Cantus to Chanticleer and many others.  I really do love listening to the well crafted harmonies and trained voices of such "professionals". At the same time, we must all acknowledge that this is neither the norm nor a possibility for 99% of all churches.  Every church choir will be made up of volunteers of unequal ability -- all striving for the best.  This is the 30-35 voice choir that I enjoy hearing in the Divine Service in my parish.  This is not merely what we must make do with but, if sacred music is to survive, it will be because of these choirs.  It is surely easier to conduct a choir of professionals who read music and know their own voices but there is profound magic in hearing a church choir like the one in our parish and reach for the stars.

There is too great a temptation and excuse to suggest that sacred choral music requires professional voices.  It is surely more difficult and taxing upon both choir and director, but the church music can not only survive but it can thrive in a parish with limited resources of people and funds.  All that is required are the dedication and commitment of the people (leaders and singers!).  It can be done.  Even when many do not read music.  On Christmas morning we heard Vivaldi's Gloria from a choir down some voices (due to the Christmas season) but faithfully offering their best to God's glory.  And the best part is that the rest of us get to listen in each week as they sing for God's ear.

We have no Pope's Choir here, no cadre of trained professionals, and no magic to make it happen.  Only a choir of faithful and committed folks with a talented and good humored director who make it all happen Sunday after Sunday and in all the special feasts and festivals.  As much as I love hearing good professional choirs and enjoying their improvement, nothing matches what I hear every Sunday from a wonderful group of dedicated singers and our Cantor.