Sunday, October 23, 2016
We say that idle hands are the devil's workshop. Speaking again of pictures, how many shots have been spoiled by someone's lame attempt at humor and some finger horns placed above somebody else's head? Hands can get us into more than a little trouble. Ask anyone who has been caught red-handed, so to speak, with the goods they did not pay for!
When someone is not so mechanically inclined, we often described them as unhandy while the one who does well with tools is called a handy man. Hands are good things even if they sometimes get us into trouble. No where are we more troubled with what to do with our hands than in worship. Even the pastors sometimes find themselves awkwardly trying to figure out what to do with hands that seem either out of place or uncomfortable no matter how you hold them. It is one of the reasons I long ago went to the classic fingers and palms touching pose of prayer for all those moments in the liturgy when the place of our hands is left unspecified. Without this practice it is a great temptation to either organize things (hymnal, bulletin, etc...) or wring my hands unconsciously. It is a small discipline to keep them together and focus on other things. I wish more of us felt the need to solve the problem of what to do with our hands. Some of us feel the constant need to do something with them -- anything -- and it is nothing but distracting for those folks around us.
Often we might describe someone as working with their hands. My dad certainly did this. He was a plumber, electrician, and HVAC man who owned a hardware store for 58 years. He worked with his hands though not only his hands. We as Christians also work with our hands. Our hands joined in prayer symbolize part of the work of the baptized, our calling or vocation. We are called by God to pray not only out of need but out of concern for the people and things of value to our world. Prayer is part of the baptismal vocation, the right use of God's name is, after all, to call upon Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. The children of Israel may have lifted hands in prayer, we fold them as we endeavor to so the same thing -- to pray.
Emotions find their way into our hands -- from the fist gripped in anger or fear to the open palm extended in welcome to dancing hands of a happy heart. You see this also in the way pastors hold their hands at certain points in the Divine Service -- extended, folded, uplifted, etc... I guess I am just old fashioned enough to wish that more pastors were taught to fold their hands in the classic position of prayer throughout the liturgy. Hands can be distracting. If it is a good discipline to teach our children, it is good enough for us to practice also. Hands give us subtle and some not so subtle messages. It is good when our hands before us reflect the posture of heart and mind -- especially within the Divine Service.
1 Timothy 2:8 - I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. Psalm 63:4 - Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name. Luke 24:50 - And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. Ezra 9:5 - And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the LORD my God. . .
Saturday, October 22, 2016
I did not say anything at the time but it has since bothered me more and more. The whole idea of a person's passion as that which defines them is a false one. Now I am not saying I do not have passion, but my passions are hardly the lens through which I make sense. In fact, just the opposite, I fear my passions only confound and confuse who I am. For in most cases, my passions are not the faithful steeds who pull me to greatness but the rebellious stallions who must be controlled and kept under bit and bridle or they will undo me.
That does not mean that all passion is sin but that passion itself is dangerous. Passion is impetuous and indulgent. It skews the values we should assign to certain things and tends to turn life upside down by our new found want or desire. Passion is more than anything else the pursuit of happiness (or pleasure, if you can separate that from happiness).
We live in an age in which we are told not to settle for a job but to find a place to pursue your passion (and one hopefully that will pay you extremely well to go after what makes you happy). But what about all those unpleasant jobs that must be done? Are there people whose passion really is snaking out a plugged up drain or spraying for pests and varmints or looking at people's diseased feet and rear ends? Life is filled with things that have nothing to do with anyone's passion but they are still worthy things that must be done. No parent relishes changing a baby's blow out mess in a diaper which has barely contained the toxic substance but this, too, is part of parental vocation.
Don't ask what the pastor's passion may be. You don't want a pastor who has only passion. You need a pastor who may not do all things well or with equal enthusiasm but who does them all -- from preaching to teaching to administering the sacraments to visiting the sick to burying the dead to catechizing the youth and those new to the faith, etc... What happens if your pastor's passion is really video games? Or golf? Or fishing? You had better hope that he has something more than passion and it would help if he had some self-control or do you plan on paying him to play video games, tee up on the green, or haul in a prize walleye?
Truth told, we would all be better off with a pastor who in most things is average but who has a strong sense of duty and self-control. Passion is overrated. Consistency and constancy is underrated. The people were following the typical path of trying to find out who is the real guy behind the personal information forms they received but they were mistaken. We are not defined by our passions. We are characterized by the things we do not want to do but we make ourselves do over and over again because they need to be done -- the messy, dirty, unpleasant but essential things to life and work.
The sad truth is that our passions are usually for things that do not matter all that much. We have a passion for social media but it has not satisfied our desire for friendship and we are online but still lonely. We have a passion for pleasure but the shape of this pleasure seems to be solitary games on smartphones and tablets and computers as well as porn that substitutes for true love. We have a passion for self but the cost of such self-centeredness is often the pursuit of anything more than the feeling and whim of the moment. The reality is that your dream job may only ever be a dream, that your perfect spouse may not exist in flesh and blood, that your passions are better the good things that you must learn to value more than innate instincts and desires.
Passion is overrated. Steadfastness under pressure and in the face of unpleasantness is underrated in church and home and life. It is just as dangerous to talk about faith as passion or it may be as distant from us as the unfulfilled dreams that occupy our idle moments. If we only go to church when we feel like it, we will not go at all. If we do not pray except when we cannot avoid the urgency or when we really want to pray, we will never pray. If we take personal devotion time only when we have the time or the desire, our spiritual lives will grow stale and sterile. If we read Scripture only when we are passionate about it, the cover will gather dust. Passion is overrated. Force yourself to do what is good and right and salutary and pray the Lord that these may become your new and true passions.
Friday, October 21, 2016
The lower storey was the arena of work and family life, sort of a first article domain. The upper storey was the domain of values that attached to things physical and concrete but did not derive from them. As long as there was some sort of commonly ascribed upper storey, the various differences of race, ethnicity, and vocation were not threatening and, in fact, were drawn together. When a common religion could not be replaced by another common system of values, then we were left with more troublesome contradictions to deal with in the physical realm. When the same secular identity of the first storey became the criteria also of the second storey, the whole thing began to fall apart. What modernity has been doing slowly at first and then with more rapidity is the bleaching out of positive values and religious identity to make both the lower and the upper storey values neutral and religion free.
The outcome of this has left our culture with a mass of contradictions and the inability to resolve them. The the aftermath of his erosion of common values and religion has left us with conflicting truth and values that divide us and leave it to the politicians to bridge the gaps -- between individual liberty and the common good, religious liberty and politically correct vocabulary that attempts to silence even religious disagreement, and the new values of personal expression and diversity that had no precursors in the old, more homogenous world-view that went before. So something had to replace values and religion.
In place of values and religion, the upper storey has become dominated by psychology, the pop psychology variety which appeals to intangible things like feelings, desires, and wants. The non-sacramental world that has replaced the poles of sacramental reality and ethical certainty has left us merely a collection of individuals whose individual consciousness now defines and orders our whole sense of what is real and good. Reality has become a psychologized notion in which the supreme values are assigned to ideas, thoughts, desire, and feelings (personal expression) instead of an objective deity and external notions of right and wrong, virtue and vice, truth and falsehood.
Personality has come to define all things in a world where nominalism is its organizing and governing philosophy. The only and all-surpassing good is self-expression and freedom must be adjusted to allow this self-expression without hindrance (except in the most extreme cases of harm). Our modern world has become a global network of “relationships” or affiliations, formal and informal, real and virtual. We use this web of relationships as the means of finding our own personal value among those who value us. It is no surprise, then, that the “experience” of a person's gender is more important than the actual biology of one’s gender, that this is a fluid reality because it is based upon feelings and desire more than upon physical reality, and that this is the greater defining characteristic of who we are than nearly anything else. Marriage then has less to do with sex, children, or even love and becomes a consensual attraction and affirmation of a psychological relationship tied to the goals of personal happiness and self-expression than it does with any traditional sense of the union of a man and a woman.
We look in vain to find a way to reconcile the substitution of psychology with values and faith. Though some have sought to join these together, the end result has always been that God has become merely an idea, religion condensed to sentiment, and the moment the defining factor in both doctrine and morality. In the past we wondered who was upstairs. Now we are no longer at all convinced that any personal being is there and so we are left to wonder what is upstairs -- the what of feeling, thought, desire, and idea. In such a reality, there is little reason to argue over specificity since nothing can be known or proven on any factual or real level. Coexist becomes the only path and, if hope endures, that coexist will become a more single and ordinary principle giving expression to the triumph of self.
The problem with this, of course, is that Christianity does not know a two storey universe. It knows only one domain, the seen and unseen, in which the Father created all things, the Son has come in flesh to rescue, redeem, and restore what was lost to the Father, and the Spirit engenders both the awareness and faith in this saving act and instills the desire for communion with the Father and life ordered according to His will. My point is that compromise will gain us nothing in a worldview that has eradicated God and truth and replaced it with feelings, desires, ideas, and pleasure. We can do only one thing: proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified!
Thursday, October 20, 2016
That is the temptation of Lutheran pastors but we are not alone. Every age and every group and every individual who has sought to reform or just tinker with the liturgy has faced the same enticement to treat the liturgy the way science treated the broken body of Col. Steve Austin in the old Bionic Man series. As good as our work may be, it lacks the one thing that the liturgy has -- the test of time and history. It has withstood the test of many eyes and many hands and proven its endurance.
"Our great danger is to throw away things that are excellent, which we do not understand, and replace them with mediocre forms which seem to us to be more meaningful and which in fact are only trite. I am very much afraid that when all the dust clears we will be left with no better than we deserve, a rather silly, flashy, seemingly up-to-date series of liturgical forms that have lost the dignity and the meaning of the old ones." Thomas Merton
The fruits of our many meddlings into the shape and text and melodies of worship are not good. We have lost any sense of liturgical unity -- note I am not saying uniformity. We do not all know the same words, the same ordo, or the same songs of the liturgy. Nowhere is this more apparent that when planning for large gatherings in our church body. We end up with a forced minimalism because we know that a certain number, perhaps even a significant number, of our people will be unfamiliar with the liturgy we choose. Because we really do not want to learn the liturgy or its setting at the same time we gather for larger events (think Synod Convention), we tend to hymn settings of the Divine Service instead of sung or chanted liturgy. We may even speak the entire service except for the hymns in an effort to get all of us on the same page.
Second, we have lost a connection to our own past, to the people of our past, and to our very identity as people walking together. Not your grandfather's church has come to mean the abandonment of the very things that once characterized what it meant to be Lutheran. So our creations tend to distance us or even cut us off from our ancestors who once confessed with us the same faith we claim today. This may not seem significant but when we continue this from one generation to another it effectively isolates us from each other and prevents more than a single generation from participating in the Sunday morning service. We already have enough division due to preference of time or "style" but to divide us according to age or generation imposes a division we need not create.
Third, we have failed to acknowledge that there will be those who come after us. We do not bequeath to them anything more than "well, this is what we did" and we leave them on their own to invent what has already existed and to develop outside of the tradition of faith and life what is our tradition. It would be as if we abandoned every ordinary thing of life and said to the generation to come "you figure it out." From creed to confession to liturgy, we almost require those who come after us to start from scratch and figure out what works for them without the benefit of any guidance from the past or any help from the present.
Finally, we must ask ourselves how much of our liturgical invention proceeds not from an enlightened sense of what worship is but just the opposite -- a poverty both of information and desire? Merton again: [Because they do not] understand the treasure they possess they throw it out to look for something else .... Let me given an analogy. An aunt of mine passed away and her house was a treasure trove of photos, newspaper articles, and family trinkets. However, when her sons got around to cleaning out her house, they tossed nearly everything. They did not see the significance of most of it, did not value much of it, and so they simply got rid of it. They were sure of one thing, if they did not see why to keep it, they were sure no future generations would see the value of those things either. Sadly, they were correct. If we do not see the value of these things, it is certain that those who come after us will not either.
From Robert Taft, S. J.:
For over a century now the Christian Churches, first of the West, then also of the East, have been preoccupied with liturgical renewal, under the influence of what is known as “The Liturgical Movement,” a worldwide effort dedicated to making Christian liturgy better. But good liturgy is liturgy that glorifies God and sanctifies those glorifying him, and that is his gift to us, not ours to him. For we can glorify God only by accepting the unmerited gift of sanctification he freely gives us. If it is God who does it, how could it be better? It could be better from our side, for we too have a part in the liturgy, which is neither magic nor unconscious. So God’s part would better achieve its aim if we would drink more fully from the saving waters he offers us in the liturgy via a participation that would be more active, more conscious, more communal.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Very rarely are Jesus' parables as straightforward as this one. From the very beginning we're told it's meaning: always pray and don't lose heart (Lk 18:1). Hearing this parable, we're to follow the example of the widow, we're to be persistent in our prayers. But why? Is it because persistence pays off? Is it because if we continually pray and come before God pleading our desire every day God will give it to us? NO! This isn't why our Lord tells us to be persistent. We're persistent in our prayers because our Judge is righteous and He always give justice to His elect. It's because of who our Judge is that we don't lose heart.
I. The widow in the parable had been wronged and she sought out justice from a judge. However, this judge didn't have the upright kind of character that we expect judges to have. He was an unrighteous man and "neither feared God nor respected man" (Lk 18:2). He had no moral bone in his body; he didn't care about what was right or wrong, he didn't care if justice was served or not...he only cared for himself.
And because of this, he ignored the widow's plea. He refused to give her justice. But she wouldn't give up. The routine of pleading and refusing went on for a while, until finally the judge had it. He gave in and performed his duty. He gave her justice; not because it was the right thing to do or because he had a change of heart, but because he got tired of the widow nagging him.
Hearing this parable, our sinful natures' first inclination is to interpret it as a lesson on the power of prayer and how to get what we want. We see how the widow got her desired justice by being persistent in her plea. So, we think to ourselves, "If I pray hard and long enough, just like this widow, then God will relent and give me what I want." But this is a wrong and even sinful view of prayer. This makes prayer a self-indulgent endeavor, no different than the whining of a child who kicks and screams in a toy store, pestering his parents until he gets the toy he wants. This thinking twists the gift of prayer into a way of strong arming our Father into giving us what we want.
That fact of the matter is that we can't rightly pray on our own. Our sinful nature, our Old Adam only knows how to pray for what he wants. Left to ourselves, we pray for all the wrong things, the things of our fleshly sinful desires.
But we're not alone in prayer. The Holy Spirit is with us, teaching us what to pray for, teaching us to pray for daily bread, for deliverance from evil, for forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit helps us to continually pray for justice against our adversaries: the world, the devil, and our sinful nature.
This trio of adversaries beats us down. They put the weight of temptation, sin, and guilt on our backs. The world provides us with ample temptations to sin. Television and the internet, society and culture, our jobs and careers, even our friends and families lead us to sin. They lead us to think, say, and do things that break God's holy commands. They lead us to fear, trust, and love things other than God. And our sinful nature is more than willing to comply. We easily give in because our Old Adam wants to. Then, once we give in, Satan attacks us with guilt. He convinces us that we're all alone in our sin, that there's no hope. He leads us into despair, telling us that God can't love sinners like us.
These adversaries attack all the time, day and night; and there's nothing we can do about it, except pray. We pray with the help of the Spirit, coming day and night to God, crying out for justice from our righteous Judge (LK 18:7), pleading Him to avenge us against our adversaries.
II. The judge in the parable wasn't a good judge. He delayed in helping the widow. He had no desire for justice; and yet, even though he was unrighteous, he still gave her justice. Christ, through this parable, is teaching us about God's character. He does this by contrasting it with the unrighteous judge's character. Jesus said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?" (Lk 18:6-7). Of course not! Of course God will give justice to his elect, because He is righteous.
God desires justice, that's His will. He cares about what's right and wrong. He's the righteous Judge who can't tolerate lawlessness. Because of His righteous character, He must punish those who sin against Him and His perfect law. Those who hurt others and don't respect man, those who care only for themselves and who don't fear God, they must receive their punishment. They must be repaid for their sin. The wages of sin is death, sinners must receive their death sentence. This is justice. In order for justice to be served, sinners must die...and this includes you and me.
Each and everyone of us is a sinner; we're like the unrighteous judge who doesn't fear God nor respect man. Our sin is our sinful prayers. When we think we can strong arm God into giving us what we want, this shows we don't fear Him. When we pray only for the things we desire and want, instead of the needs and wellbeing of our neighbor, this shows we don't respect man.
The Righteous Judge demands death for our sins. But God is also gracious and merciful, and in this mercy, He sent His only Son to serve this death sentence for you. Jesus, the God-man, sinless and perfect, died the death that sin requires. Christ our Savior willingly took your death upon Himself, and with His death, justice was served. Christ took your guilty verdict and you're declared innocent. With His death, God gives you forgiveness and you're avenged against your adversaries.
The unrighteous judge delayed in giving justice, your Righteous Judge doesn't. When you come to Him, pleading for justice, He's there with the forgiveness that overcomes your sin; He's there with the innocent verdict that takes away your guilt; He's there with the death and resurrection of His Son that defeats Satans. Through the words of His Gospel, through the waters of His Baptism, through the Meal at His Table, your Righteous Judge gives you justice. And this justice preserves you as you stand against your adversaries.
III. We have justice through Christ our Lord right now, but we don't always see it. Our adversaries continue to torment us. We still suffer from their attacks, and because of this, it's easy to lose heart, to give up the faith, to stop praying to the Lord. But we mustn't. We must be like the widow who persevered in her prayer. She never lost heart in her pursuit for justice even though it seemed like she'd never get it. At times, it seems like we won't receive justice. The world continually tempts us; the devil never rests in his pursuit of pulling us away from God; and our sinful nature is always with us. But God doesn't delay in giving justice. It's already been served in Christ. And because of this, we don't lose heart. We come before our Righteous Judge, knowing He hears us, giving us justice. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we persevere and stay strong in the faith. We continue to stand up against our adversaries, we continue to come before God, because He is gracious and merciful and He's provided justice in Christ. In Jesus' name...Amen.
As much as these are true, the sleep at the end of the day that our bodies need and our minds yearn to enjoy is also an act of faith. Sure, it does require faith to live but we live in possession of our reason, understanding, strength, and will. We have choices to make and actions to take that too often mitigate against the idea of living on pure faith. But when we lay our heads on the pillow at night, we surrender the powers of reason, understanding, strength, and will and we entrust all to God. It is the ultimate act of faith for certainly none of us knows when we close our eyes in sleep that we will wake up the next day. Every night is therefore an anticipation of the day when can never know for certain, of the last day we no more will awaken here on earth, and when our lives can no more be improved or salvation worked out with fear and trembling.
I love the night hymns and the evening prayers that meet this rest and its uncertain future with the hope and confidence of St. Paul -- whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. It takes faith to live but I wonder if it does not take even more faith to rest, to sleep, and not to know for certain what the end of that sleep will be.
Luther has taught us to pray: I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day; and I pray that You would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.
We also pray: O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Abide with us, Lord, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent. Abide with us and with Your whole Church. Abide with us at the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world. Abide with us with Your grace and goodness, with Your holy Word ad Sacrament, with Your strength and blessing. Abide with us when the night of affliction and temptation comes upon us, the night of fear and despair, the night when death draws near. Abide with us and with all the faithful, now and forever.
Merciful Father, whose guiding hand has brought us to the completion of this day, we humbly pray You to stay with us and shelter us in quiet hours of this night that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this passing world, may rest in Your changeless peace; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Gracious Lord, we give You thanks for the day, especially for the good we were permitted to give and to receive. The day is now past, and we commit it to You. We entrust to You the night and rest in Your peace, for You are our help, and You neither slumber nor sleep. Hear us for the sake of Your name.
Lighten our darkness, O Lord, and by Your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of Your only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
We praise and thank You, O God, for You are without beginning and without end. Through Christ You are the creator and preserver of the whole world; but above all, You are His God and Father, the giver of the Spirit, and the ruler of all that is, seen and unseen. You made the day for the works of light and the night for the refreshment of our weakness. O loving Lord and source of all that is good, mercifully accept our evening sacrifice of praise. As You have conducted us through the day and brought us to night's beginning, keep us now in Christ; grant us a peaceful evening and a night free from sin; and at the end bring us to everlasting life through Christ, our Lord; through Him be glory, honor, and power to You in the Holy Spirit now and always forever and ever.
We praise and thank You, O God, through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, that You have enlightened us by revealing the Light that never fades. Night [is falling / has fallen], and day's alotted span draws to a close.The daylight which You created for our pleasure has fully satisfied us, and yet, of Your free gift, now the evening lights do not fail us. We praise You and glorify You through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord; through Him be glory, honor, and power to You in the Holy Spirit now and always and forever and ever.
Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in Your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of Your only Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Eternal God, the hours both of day and night are Yours, and to You the darkness is no threat. Be present, we pray, with those who labor in these hours of night, especially those who watch and work on behalf of others. Grant them diligence in their watching, faithfulness in their service, courage in danger, and competence in emergencies. Help them to meet the needs of other with confidence and compassion; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Abide with us, Lord, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent. Abide with us and with Your whole Church. Abide with us at the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world. Abide with us with Your grace and goodness, with Your holy Word ad Sacrament, with Your strength and blessing. Abide with us when the night of affliction and temptation comes upon us, the night of fear and despair, the night when death draws near. Abide with us and with all the faithful, now and forever. Amen.
We pray when we go to bed, therefore, because sleep is itself an act of faith. We pray that we will enjoy the rest and meet it with a clear conscience. We ask Almighty God to help us see what we have done well and to keep us from pride, to see what we have done badly and to forgive us, and to see what we could have done better that we may learn from it. We ask the Lord of all mercy to forgive our sins for the sake of Christ, our Lord. Then we pray that if the Lord does grant us the gift of another day, we may glorify Him in it and if we do not receive another day, that we may be received into everlasting light and life through the merits and mercies of Christ alone.
Living does require faith. But sleeping perhaps even more. At least the good sleep that rests the mind and refreshes the body.