Thursday, April 27, 2017

Essentials for congregational change. . .

So, I opened up my email and found this in one of them.  I was told that every day leaders wake up knowing that their congregation must navigate change or. . . the congregation will distance itself from being a vibrant community with wider influence.  And the problem is:  Inertia. . . that wakes up even earlier every day and has already resolved itself to fend off any feeble attempts at desperately needed change that would challenge status quo.

I guess this is an email for me -- since we use the hymnal, have a tradition and foster a sense of continuity, preach rather traditionally, teach the catechism, and, well, look like your grandpa's church.  Inertia looks like my parish.  All around me are big box evangelicals and Southern Baptists who look like them and they have bought into everything from screens to vision casting to the last words of any dying congregation -- we've never done it that way before.  But not Grace.  We have not moved the cheese and it is still where it always was (Word and Sacrament).  Our liturgy clearly ties us to the once and ancient church and to our Confessions.  The last trend we embraced was to have soup and bread on our Lenten and Advent schedules.
So, here are 3 essentials the leader(s) must deliver for congregational change!

Give people an inspiring, motivating, uplifting vision that’s big enough to overcome the “just stay here” status quo. People are afraid to try new things…afraid they’ll fail…afraid it won’t work. Give them a picture of what could be.

Clarify why we can’t stay on the present path. Name reality. Don’t make excuses. Don’t call it something that it’s not. People need to have a burning conviction that it would be unconscionable for us to do nothing and to be content with status quo.

Clearly articulate the first few steps down the path from “here,” where it would be unconscionable to stay, to “there,” the vision of a new and different reality.

So for congregational leaders this is not easy. You need…

  • Clarity around your own identity and purpose.
  • A God-inspired sense of vision or direction…not a used, borrowed one from another congregation.
  • A team of leaders…the board, the staff, the ad hoc committee that can straighten their backs and summon courage and resolve to lead together.

Church members want stability, especially when the world around them is unpredictable and unstable. (Some of the others became frustrated and discouraged and have already left your church.) They’ll pursue status quo until they die, never realizing that status quo is killing them…until they die.

  • Initial, emotional resistance causes most leaders to flinch before a thoughtful consideration of facts can be made.
  • It’s more difficult than you think…some days gaining ground, other days slipping backwards.
  • These are areas that should have been resolved a few years ago. There are other areas that have emerged that you as leaders don’t want to admit even exist.
But. . .

The miracle is we are growing.  Like 6 7 baptisms during the Easter Vigil (pretty old school service) and most of our members join through adult confirmation and we have loads of young people -- both young families and young singles.  We wear vestments (pretty traditionally styled) and we sing to the sound of a pipe organ and we have a weekly Eucharist.  And the people keep coming.  The status quo is not killing us -- it is part of the reason we grow!!

No, we are not perfect and we have oodles of problems.  We screw up and fail at things all the time.  But our people are friendly and welcoming and the Divine Service is tied to the pursuit of our best for His glory (in everything from music to preaching to liturgy and facility).  We are not all that we could be or should be.  But the growth is the fruit of the Word proclaimed faithfully and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's institution.  We do what we can do but we trust the Lord to do what only He can do and what He alone has promised to do.

There are contemporary congregations that are dead and traditional congregations that are dead but that death is awakened to life by the Word.  Know who you are and be who you are.  That is my plea to Lutherans from a Lutheran who struggles every day with just that.  Don't be spending all your time looking over the fence to see what others are doing in their back yards.  Do what the Lord has called you to do and be faithful in that calling -- from pulpit to pew and back again.  Parents teach your children well, husbands and wives love and serve one another, be friendly to the stranger, and serve your neighbor in need.  Yes.  But be faithful in worship, hear the Word of the Lord (and pastor, preach it!), and receive the Lord's Supper with a repentant heart believing in the promise.  It is one package.  Do it all and if you grow, God is the reason and if you are not growing, do not give up and lose heart.  The Word will not return to Him empty handed.  We say it.  Lets act like we believe it in the Church.  I am not sure the Church needs leaders but I am very confident the Church needs pastors who faithfully fulfill their calling and people in the pews who faithfully fulfill their baptismal vocations.  And those who do this are the leaders God calls and the world needs.  The Spirit is the change agent of God and the means of grace are how the Spirit works.  Leaders maybe we are but to be sure we must first be the led!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

No honor among. . . academics. . .

Whether you agree with him or not, it would be difficult to deny not only the parish success but the great influence of Tim Keller -- an influence well beyond his own smaller denomination!  He is someone Lutherans listen to as well as evangelicals across the board.  It is a no brainer to acknowledge the long shadow Keller has cast over Christianity in the past two decades.  He is not only well known but well published as well.  So when Princeton Theological Seminary decided to honor him with the annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness (named after a famous Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian), it was also a no brainer.

Then Princeton Theological Seminary reversed course and said Keller will not receive the honor after all.  In an email to faculty and students on March 22, the president of the once conservative and now liberal mainline Protestant seminary, the Rev. Craig Barnes, was backtracking all the while insisting that Princeton and he remain committed to academic freedom and “the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community.”  Well, to a point, it seems.  Barnes wanted to distance Princeton from Keller lest the award “imply an endorsement” of Keller’s views against the ordination of women and LGBTQ people.  Lord knows, we can offend conservative Christians all we want but no one dare challenge the sacred cows of women's ordination and the LGBTQ agenda.

“We are a community that does not silence voices in the church,” Barnes wrote. “In this spirit we are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry. Reverend Keller will be lecturing on Lesslie Newbigin and the mission of the church – not on ordination.”  No, Princeton may not silence voices but they do everything in their power to discredit them and to deny them -- even one as significant as Tim Keller.  Keller was gracious enough to agree to offer the lecture even without the award but this is about much more than that.  Can a Christian theological seminary, much less a university of any stripe, accept the viewpoints of those who were once mainstream only a decade or so ago but have now quickly been sidestepped by the new intolerance of feminism and gay rights?  That is the issue.  Increasingly the answer is "no."  The views that were once mainstream Christian doctrine and practice a decade or so ago have now become a pariah on secular university campuses and even those of so-called liberal Christian universities and seminaries.  So quickly and deeply have these become the litmus tests of new orthodoxy that no one may be allowed to offend.  That is the intolerance of the tolerant.

Just in case you do not know who Tim Keller is, look at his book credits below. . .

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Seeing is not believing -- hearing is!

Sermon preached for Easter IIA on Sunday, April 23, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    Of the five senses that God’s given us, the one we trust the most is our sight.  Sure, we use all our senses to gather information, but there’s just something about seeing with our own two eyes that gives us a sense of truly knowing.  When we hear about something that seems just a bit too outrageous, we respond with a sarcastic “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  When we witness something amazing we say, “I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it myself.”  Having a photo or seeing a video gives us trust beyond doubt.  For us, seeing is believing.  But is this true when it comes to our faith?  When it comes to trusting in Jesus Christ, our risen Lord and Savior, IS SEEING BELIEVING?
    For the disciples, especially Thomas, seeing was believing.  They trusted in what they saw, and what they saw was an empty tomb.  When the women told the disciples about Jesus’ resurrection, they didn’t believe their words, they seemed like a tall tale.  But Peter and John ran to the tomb wanting to see for themselves, and they saw it empty, but they didn’t understand. 
    The tomb was empty and the women told the disciples why: Jesus rose from the dead.  This should’ve been joyous news.  Their teacher, their leader, their friend was alive, but the disciples were afraid.  They feared the Jews and locked themselves in a room.  Why?  Why were they afraid?  Because they saw an empty tomb.  They feared the Jewish authorities would come and arrest them for supporting Jesus.  They feared they’d be brought before the Romans and falsely accused of stealing Jesus’ body.  They feared for their lives.  But that fear went away when Jesus appeared.
    Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered the room and physically stood in the midst of the disciples and said “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19).  He showed them His hands and His side, the holes of the nails and the gash of the spear.  Seeing Jesus, their fear disappeared and they were glad, and they went and told Thomas, the one disciple who wasn’t there to witness the resurrected Lord. 
    Thomas heard the news, but he didn’t share the gladness of the others, he didn’t believe.  Like us he said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  He needed physical evidence he could see, he needed physical evidence he could touch. 
    Like Thomas, we want to see evidence before we believe.  We want the assurance of our eyes.  Our whole legal system is based on this, and this is a good thing.  Someone charged with murder isn’t sentenced to life in prison or executed based on the word of one or two witnesses.  There has to be physical evidence.  Likewise the field of science requires evidence.  We need to study measureable data.  And this too is a good thing.  Great leaps have been made in technology and medicine because we’ve search for physical proof.  God’s given us our sight to help us navigate and find truth in this earthly life.  It’s a gift.  But our sight can become a problem when we rely on it for faith. 
    Thomas needed to see and feel Jesus before he’d believe He was risen from the dead, and so do we.  We want to see Jesus.  We want Him to appear in our midst and show us His hands and side.  We want to feel Christ’s presence in our heart.  We want to feel His love.  We want Him to perform miracles in our lives that we can see.  We want a photo and video of it.  But this isn’t how faith works, this isn’t how trust in Christ works, and that’s a good thing.
    If we can only trust in Christ and His salvation if we see Him then we’d never have faith.  If we can only trust in Christ when we see great miracles, what happens when we see bad things happening?  If we only have faith when we feel the love of God in our heart, what happens when we don’t feel good?  Does this mean that Christ didn’t die on the cross for your forgiveness and rise from the tomb for your life?  Absolutely not!  Our sight doesn’t produce faith.  Seeing isn’t believing...hearing is.  Hearing the Good News of Christ dying and rising for you produces faith.
    The author of Hebrews writes, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).  The things hoped for and the things not seen are God’s gifts of forgiveness and everlasting life, given to you for the sake of Christ who died on the cross and rose from the dead.  You can’t see God’s forgiveness, you don’t see everlasting life.  But these things are there and true, and we know they are there and true because God has said so.  He’s promised them in His unchanging Word. 
    At the end of the Gospel reading, John tells us why he wrote what he wrote.  He said, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:30-31).  Scripture is written so that you can hear the Gospel of Christ and believe.  The Spirit produces faith in you through God’s Word: His Word read, His Word preached, His Word of Absolution, and his Word in the Sacraments. 
    Faith comes from hearing God’s Word and He’s given us men, pastors in the Office of the Ministry to speak that Word.  When Jesus appeared to the disciples He said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  Then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn 20:21-23).  Here is the institution of the Office of the Ministry.  Christ sent out His disciples to speak His Word of Absolution and to proclaim His life and death, and God continues to send out men to do this, so that you might receive the gift of faith, faith that trusts in Christ your Savior. 
    God’s pastors speak to you His Word.  They read the Scriptures and preach the Good News of Christ, and the Holy Spirit works through this.  As you hear Christ crucified and risen for you, the Spirit gives you faith, faith that trusts in Christ, faith that receives God’s promised gifts of forgiveness and everlasting life.  These gifts that are unseen God gives to you in the Sacraments: in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Here the Lord has tied His promises and gifts to the visible: water, bread, and wine.  These are God’s Word made visible, administered by His pastors, delivering to you His gifts, gifts received in faith. 
    One week after Jesus appeared to His disciples in the locked room, all the disciples gathered again, and this time Thomas was with them.  And again Christ miraculously appeared in their midst.  Jesus greeted them all with peace and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe.”  Thomas saw the risen Lord, and he heard His Word and said, “My Lord and my God.”  Jesus replied, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believed” (Jn 20:26-29).
    Like Thomas and the other disciples, we live in an unbelieving age.  We require physical proof, a photo or a video.  The attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” is alive and in control.  This is well good when it comes to this world, to science and the legal system, but when it comes to faith, seeing isn’t believing, hearing is.  Trust in Christ, trust in His saving death and resurrection, comes from hearing God’s Word; that’s why He had His prophets and apostles write it down, that’s why He’s given you pastors; that’s why He’s given you the Sacraments, so that you would hear and believe.  Blessed are you who haven’t seen and yet believe, for you’ve been given everlasting life.

Have you decided to attend yet???

Monday, April 24, 2017

Whigs and Tories. . .

I love the old terms Whig and Tory.  Whig and Tory came about in 18th century England.  Opposing views on the succession of the monarchy gave birth to two opposing political parties in England.  But before they were politically correct terms to describe parties, they were terms of abuse and derision introduced in 1679 amid the heated struggle over a move to exclude James, duke of York (afterward James II), from succession to the throne. Whig—it was an originally a Scottish Gaelic term—seemed to have meant a horse thief.  Never without a religious application, it later applied to Scottish Presbyterians, non-conformists who claimed the power to exclude the heir from the throne. Tory came from Ireland where it meant something of a papist outlaw and it applied to those who supported the hereditary right of James -- in spite of his Roman Catholic faith.  Ahhh, England!

Whig and Tory do not quite mean what they did.  The agreement upon a constitutional monarchy seemed to salve over the wound of succession.  For a while the Whigs were aristocracy and the Tories were Anglicans.  Then there were the new Tory and Whig parties in the late 1700s.  Now the Whigs seem to be but a memory and the Conservative Party has often used the moniker Tory (though without much precision as to why and what it means).  But it was good while it lasted.   Even Americans used those terms (at least around the time of the Revolution).

Our terms today are less descriptive and much more pedestrian.  Liberal and conservative dominate the political discussion.  Traditional and modernist seem to describe our cultural divide.  Confessional and moderate are used for Lutheran distinctions within my own church body.  What ever happened to good words like Whig and Tory?  Why can't we invent better terms to describe ourselves and our opponents (never mind the venue) than relative terms?  Liberal and conservative are almost meaningless (hence our flirtation with populist, progressive, and libertarian).  Traditional and modernist may hint at the great differences here but they do not help to identify them clearly.  In the Missouri Synod moderates insist they are confessional and confessionals are, to some degree, at war with each other as much as the, well, moderates.

So my challenge for a while is to invent better terms, short concise but descriptive terms to be used in our political debate, in our culture conflicts, and especially within my own Missouri domain.  If you can help me, send me your best alternatives.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Lutheran Worship: another view. . .

The March 2017 Forum Letter (why don't you subscribe?) features 8 pages from an old voice complaining about the more liturgical face of Lutheranism.  In it, David S. Luecke provides a predictable review of his previously published critiques of liturgical renewal along with some interesting tidbits sure to evoke the ire of many in the LCMS and encourage others.

His first point is that the liturgical movement was a fringe movement that became dominant in Missouri (something he finds incredulous).  Although he claims to have done extensive research to bolster his position, Luecke apparently has not delved back much into Lutheran history and worship or he would recognize that what he calls liturgical renewal is in reality a restoration of what was normal and normative Lutheran worship practice from the earliest days until the end of the 18th century.  His complaint that liturgical renewal substituted for the needed spiritual renewal seems to distance the Spirit and God's work from the Word and Sacraments from which spiritual renewal proceeds (perhaps he should read Bo Giertz on the topic of Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening).

His personal view is, of course, that Lutherans took a wrong term.  He blames the precipitous decline of Lutheranism in America on liturgical renewal and claims it violates the Pauline dictum of all things to all people.  He quotes Epitome, Formula of Concord X to claim that every church in every locality has the authority to change ceremonies (but fails to note that this does not, in context, mean individual congregation but refers instead to church in the larger sense of jurisdiction).  No one has ever claimed otherwise.  Yet he fails to note the manifold other places in which those same Confessions insist that worship is not a thing indifferent and ceremonies teach and confess in themselves.
We on our part also retain many ceremonies and traditions (such as the liturgy of the Mass and various canticles, festivals, and the like) which serve to preserve order in the church. (Augsburg Confession XXVI:40 [German])

We are unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. Without boasting, it is manifest that the Mass is observed among us with greater devotion and more earnestness than among our opponents. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:9 [German])

We are perfectly willing for the Mass to be understood as a daily sacrifice, provided this means the whole Mass, the ceremony and also the proclamation of the Gospel, faith, prayer, and thanksgiving. Taken together, these are the daily sacrifice of the New Testament; the ceremony was instituted because of them and ought not be separated from them. Therefore Paul says (I Cor. 11:26), “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death.” (Apology XXIV:35)
From this description of the state of our churches it is evident that we diligently maintain church discipline, pious ceremonies, and the good customs of the church. (Apology XV:4)

We gladly keep the old traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquillity, and we interpret them in an evangelical way, excluding the opinion that they justify. Our enemies falsely accuse us of abolishing good ordinances and church discipline. We can truthfully claim that in our churches the public liturgy is more decent than in theirs, and if you look at it correctly we are more faithful to the canons than our opponents are. (Apology XV:38-39)

On holy days, and at other times when communicants are present, Mass is held and those who desire it are communicated. Thus the Mass is preserved among us in its proper use, the use which was formerly observed in the church and which can be proved by St. Paul’s statement in I Cor. 11:20 ff. and by many statements of the Fathers. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:34-35 [German]) Since, therefore, the Mass among us is supported by the example of the church as seen from the Scriptures and the Fathers, we are confident that it cannot be disapproved, especially since the customary public ceremonies are for the most part retained. (Augsburg Confession XXIV:40 [Latin])
He also has a big thing against the word "liturgy" and says that the Lutheran term is "mass" (which he defines as something other than "liturgy" and certainly not Introit, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Dismissal -- which begs me to ask if that is not "mass" what is)?  He presumes to know the mind of Luther and insist that Luther preferred a simple preaching service but was reined in by the ignorance of the peasant folk and, well, had bigger fish to fry anyway.  Curious, indeed!  Even more curious since the kind of service Luecke prefers has a praise band, a host of sound engineers and lighting specialists, performers to entertain, and everything from parking lot attendants to coffee baristas to serve up the sacred brew!

His claim that in Saxony there were 75 different church orders presumes that any difference, however slight, constitutes a "different order" when the reality is that they, while different in nuance, were remarkably consistent -- not only in Saxony but throughout Lutheranism.

Of course, it did not take long for vestments to enter his discussion.  He longs for the Geneva gown (black in winter and white in summer, fall and spring depend upon the weather, I guess).  Never mind that art shows us Luther in eucharistic vestments and the early Lutherans retaining such vestments.  The truth is that eucharistic vestments never disappeared from Lutheranism even though they may have disappeared from specific places.

Luecke does not care much for the early church, specifically the time of the church following the legalization of Christianity.  Strangely, his description of words used for worship in the New Testament involves posture -- bowing and kneeling -- something he thought Article X of the Epitome declared unimportant.

But the last part of his article is the most interesting.  Bowing down is for Luecke a euphemism for contemporary worship and music -- singing the Word in "rhythms and tunes heard on the radio, often now in Country and Western style... [and] singing a love relationship with God" with a "spirit" bowed down before His majesty.  This is meaningful to him but not so much the rites and rituals of the mass.  The pathways that should define worship, he suggests, are best described by Gary Thomas in Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul's Path to God.  He believes these God-given temperaments to be equally valid and that the job of the Lutheran service is to appeal to those temperaments.  Hmmmm.  That is something out of left field for a church that insists God comes to us not where and how we desire but where He has promised (Word and Sacrament).   According to Luecke, we need to open ourselves up to the Spirit (closer to what the first Christians did) and live more in the spirit world between God in heaven.

It is a good thing to read Luecke's words because so often it is easy to think that the worship wars were and are merely arguments over taste and preference.  Clearly they are about much more.  What is at stake in these disputes is not merely what appeals to whom but how God works, the mark of faithfulness through the ages, and the worship consistent with and flowing form our confession of faith.  I have heard David Luecke speak and read his books.  It is hard to reconcile his perspective to the Lutheran Confessions or to history of how Lutherans have worshiped in the Divine Service from Luther's day to the present moment.  If anything, Luecke's point of view represents the fringe of Lutheran identity and practice.  I only wish it were a smaller fringe.  Lutheran angst and insecurity have left us vulnerable to the next wind blowing through the Christian landscape and too many Lutherans have found the breeze hard to resist.  If Lutherans are all over the page on Sunday morning, it is not a good thing.  In fact, it is one of the things that we will someday soon have to resolve if being Lutheran is to mean more than theory.