Tuesday, May 31, 2016

An embarrassment. . .

As the cantor of Leipzig, Bach was responsible for composing music for Sunday services, which produced reams of choral music, mostly cantatas. Because of this, it would be difficult to find a composer who wrote more sacred music. Like Victoria and Bruckner, Bach’s works stem from his own devotion. But more than any other composer, Bach uses complex music to articulate theology.
Readers who enjoy Bach’s music and want to understand this interplay between music and theology better will be grateful for Markus Rathey’s new book. Rathey has taught at Yale for many years and collaborated with great interpreters of Bach, including Masaaki Suzuki. Like Suzuki, he has an appreciation for Bach’s faith and has formally studied theology as well as musicology. 

Many introductions to religious literature and music presume that the reader is skeptical and secular. An implicit apology must be made for the author’s faith, an assurance that, yes, this is religious but it can be understood and appreciated by people who are not religious (everyone who is normal and cultured). Faith is embarrassing, and it needs be sent away like a bothersome child.                  From a review by Nathaniel Peters of Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy  by Markus Rathey published in First Things. . .
The third paragraph of his review is a gem.  It highlights the way we dance around the theology of those whose contributions we love but whose inspiration we cannot quite stomach.  Everyone from Harriet Tubman to J. S. Bach.  The people whose faith was not private or insulated from life but public and whose lives were shaped by the power of belief, conviction, and truth that endures forever. 

It has always irritated me when I go to the symphony and read the program notes in which the faith of the composer is sidelined to mere insignificant detail in their life and career.  Once hearing the Reformation Symphony of Mendelssohn I read in the notes not one reference to the musical theme (A Mighty Fortress) or the occasion (anniversary of the Reformation) or to the fact that Mendelssohn (alas I cannot get behind the new surname Bartholdy) was Christian and Lutheran!  Why, you might think that faith were hidden or absent from the creative mind and musical genius of this man.  So it is with Bach.  He is unfathomable apart from the knowledge of and the appreciation for this man of faith.

The truth is that we are mostly embarrassed by the faith of those heroic and gifted folks who went before us.  They shined in certain areas but it is always in spite of their faith and not because of it.  Our own skepticism and cynicism must redefine their faith in terms of spirituality (a concept largely unknown to people of faith) and treat faith at all as mostly an impediment to their personality and a burden they had to overcome to achieve greatness.

We cannot abide the idea that faith is deep, profound, and active in the lives of people -- that their accomplishments were informed by and their lives shaped by the power of this faith.  We try not to name God and certainly do not name the Trinity.  We treat Jesus as if He were mere inspirational hero and not Savior, as if sin were no big deal, and death were normal.  For if these were true, then we would need no Savior and no salvation and faith could be whatever we want it to be.

The erudite and elite treat faith the way you would a misbehaving child -- something that must be endured up to a point and then disciplined -- if necessary, put away when it draws too much attention.  So Bach remains loved for a musical genius no one can explain unless they discover what S. D. G. means and begin to sort out how this man lived his gift and craft within the liturgical life of a very Lutheran Church. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

A small detail overshadows a profound moment. . .

A few weeks ago an AP story on the death of Navy Seal Charlie Keating tarnished the whole significance of his heroic and noble sacrifice by turning the focus from him and onto his grandpa.  Probably not all that many folks even recall Charles Keating and his role in a financial scandal of the 1980s but the Associated Press wanted to make sure that this was remembered right along side the noble but tragic death of his grandson in Iraq.  No matter that the grandpa had died in 2014 or that the youth had no role in all of this but to love his grandpa as any grandson would.  Nope, the AP decided that there was a larger story in all of this.  There is a larger story but it was missed by the AP.

Charlie Keating is not alone.  I am privileged to serve a parish near Ft. Campbell, KY, and there are so many gallant and selfless young men and women who daily serve the duty of our nation's freedom and security every day.  They do it without much fanfare, without much financial compensation, without much complaint, and without much notice.  Their spouses and children wait and pray with their moms and dads while they are deployed in danger zones and in harms way.  They serve lonely and difficult schedules in which their families bear a significant burden with them -- whether in time of war or in peace.

Charlie Keating is not alone.  Cemeteries are filled with tombstones and bronze plaques that mark the heroic and sacrificial service of our veterans.  My dad and my father-in-law were veterans and I still feel the goosebumps of the rifle salute, of the soldier on bended knee, presenting the flag to my mom and my mother-in-law on behalf of a grateful nation.  I remember growing up and going through the solemnities of the Memorial Day celebration of a small town in Northeast Nebraska -- the band playing the national anthem, the guns sounding off, the click of the heels as soldiers proudly wearing their uniforms of generations before, and the white cross with poppies we set off to place on the soldiers' graves.

Charlie Keating is not alone.  Service men and women die in the line of duty.  Their lives are stolen from them by terrorists and insurgents, by rebels and warriors, by enemies and despots.  They lay down their lives and spill their blood from shore to shore and field to field.  Their remains are brought home to somber reception and are left far from the places where they grew up, lived, and their families remain.  They are remembered and forgotten, by memorial and plaque, by inscription and loved ones.  They have paid the ultimate price in devotion to the cause of liberty and for the sake of their country.

At least on this day a grateful nation can say "we remember and we will not forget."  But let it not be simply a day to pause between hotdogs and potato salad, between water sports and lawn darts, between our fun under the sun. 
  • Let it be a goal and a cause we live everyday.  
  • Let us be more noble citizens of this great land because of and in thanksgiving for those who gave their lives to secure, sustain, and seal our freedom.  
  • Let us not squander their legacy on foolishness but live with common sense so uncommonly found the great opportunity each day provides.  
  • Let us bequeath to those who come after us the sacred memory of the fallen as well as the noble responsibility to live honorably and for holy purpose the gift of citizenship, liberty, and justice.  
  • Let us remember them in tears and take up their example of passionate love for country, for the cause of what is good, right, and true, and what will preserve and protect us as a nation and people to whom God has given so much.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Nagelism. . .

Luther has fun telling of Jesus fetching for his mother water and beer and the meat.  He lugs timber and sweeps up the shavings.  Luther is here preaching vocation and the Lord's obedience under the Law.  In his being there and in the fact of his love, Jesus is truly God.  For only God could love us so, be human, weak, obedient, and suffer so much.  This is the opposite of the way sophists and natural religion think of God.  The attributes of God which are negations of our creatureliness imply regret that we are human.  Salvation is then dehumanizing deification.  What is wrong with us is not that we are human but that we are sinners. . . The Seven Headed Luther, by Norman Nagel

It began in Eden.  The enticement of the serpent was an implied notion that humanity was insufficient, that there was something wrong with being just human.  Eve swallowed the bite and so did Adam.  Humanity was not a gift but a curse.  Better to be like God than to be content in your humanity.

Ever since we have swallowed that thinking hook, line, and sinker.  We equate humanity with sin and we are in a panic to shed our humanity more than our sinfulness.  We struggle to cast off death with medicine and healthy living instead of meeting death where it was born in the doubt of the Word of the Lord and the desire to be something more than human.  We live with a death deemed natural and normal rather than confessing that we brought the horror of death, the fragility of life, and the tyranny of the moment upon ourselves with one smug act of uncivil disobedience.  We would rather celebrate life in the funeral home than enter the Church to be told the wages of sin is death.  We have defined sin out of our vocabulary so that we are disordered people with a diagnosis and an earthly remedy rather than poor, miserable sinners who cannot free ourselves.

What is wrong with is not that we are human but that we are sinners -- how bold and yet obvious!  Far be it from us to choose obvious wisdom over the convoluted ideas with which we justify ourselves and still play God.  Humanity is not the thing that must be answered and ultimately jettisoned.  Sin is our problem.  Sin bore death as the wicked, evil, and ugly stepchild of one simple act of doubt, disobedience, and delusion.  We do not need a way out of our humanity.  We need a Savior from sin.

Too often churches shy away from this and preachers would rather tell us how to have a better today and a happier tomorrow.  Too often we have adopted the silence of the world with respect to sin and wrong.  Fearing the judgement of others more than God, we have come to agree that humanity is the problem and sin is a minor issue.  Churches have become rehab centers where people go to get a quick fix from their problems, a quick diversion from their troubles, and a quick delusion about how easy it is to change and become the successes we want to be (translate that gods we want to be).

The vocation of humanity is deemed demeaning.  It is not enough to be husband to your wife or father to your children.  Life should consist of more.  It is not enough to be wife to your husband or mother to your children.  Life should consist of more.  Notice how the more is always "ME".  But this vocation is not a prison for our humanity.  It is the locus where we live and work and have our being as creatures of the Creator.  Christ did not enter time and history to release us from the inhumanity of our vocation as creatures living in relationship with spouse, children, and neighbor.  No, our Lord came as one of us to remind us that humanity is not the problem but the arena in which we live under God and in His kingdom until we are delivered fully from sin and death to awaken in glorious flesh in the new heavens and the new earth.

Only God could love us enough to become what we abhor -- human -- and then atone for our sins so that we could become once again what we were created to be -- human.  The sad truth is that the greatest impediment we face is that we too often regret our humanity more than our sin and so Jesus is hard for us to get and the Church seems out of touch and irrelevant to our lives.  In reality, we are the ones out of touch with the real issues of our lives and we desire that which is irrelevant to the problem and the God-given solution at hand.  The cross is not about God rejecting Jesus' humanity and therefor us but about sin atoned for, its debt paid, and its curse of death overcome.  Our creatureliness is not the problem.  It is our desire not to be human and the longing within to be gods that is the issue.  Our humanity is not the problem.  It is our sin and the death that sin has inflicted upon us.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Who said that?

We live in an age that calls itself enlightened but in which there is an astonishing ignorance in the area of religion... even of those who call themselves Lutheran..."

I am so often impressed with the prescient wisdom of people who look across the landscape and are not overwhelmed by the trees to see the forest.  I wish I were more like that.  The quote in question dates from 1846 and it was written by a Lutheran fairly new to the US who came here to flee a Lutheranism under siege by those who insisted that doctrinal differences did not preclude unity.  You know him.  CFW Walther.  As he stepped off a boat and surveyed the landscape of Lutheranism in America, he found a different challenge than he left in Germany.  Here it was not enforced unity but a willing surrender of the ancient and confessional heritage that had been Lutheranisms identity and reason for being.

It was done in the name of enlightened thought but it was the rudest and barest form of ignorance.  Lutheranism in America was a liturgical and confessional mess of people who did not know what it meant to be Lutheran in witness or in worship.  Walther's appeal to Old Lutheranism was not an appeal to a date in history or a pristine era but to a Lutheranism undeterred by fear of what people thought (papish) and unshaken in witness to the faith once and always believed, taught, and confessed.

Today we live in an equal crossroads.  We are told that confidence in the Biblical text is no longer possible because the Scriptures are simply wrong about too many things.  We are told that science is a more reliable teacher than the Spirit and reason must judge the Word of God.  We are told that whole sections of Scripture are just plain wrong or they have been misunderstood the whole of their history and now the faith is friendly toward GLBT etc...  We are told that feelings and preferences matter more than truth that endures forever and you choose a church home like you choose a comfortable pair of shoes (no matter that they may be bad for your feet or destructive to your faith).  We do so not because we think ourselves shallow or self-serving but because we think ourselves enlightened, intelligent, sophisticated, erudite, and creative.

Around us is an astonishing mountain of ignorance about the real issues of consequence that face us as churches and as a culture.  Abortion is not just a choice.  Sex is not just sex.  Marriage is not open to regular redefinition.  Children are not toys.  Science is not unanimous in its conclusions nor more reliable that Scripture and the faithful who have heard and believed its voice.  The environment is not a god or the primary cause of the God.  Liturgy is not to make us feel good.  Confessions are not open to regular re-interpretation or to updating as truth changes and the social conscience of culture shifts.  Truth is not a mile wide and an inch deep but pretty much the opposite.   Faith is not for a better life now and Jesus is not a life coach.

Even we as Lutherans are divided and confused before the world because we cannot agree among ourselves.  So we have an Amish option which pretty much disengages from the world and turns church into a refuge or we have the adapt or die option which embraces every social change or cause (eventually).  And then we have Missouri which harbors nearly every opinion depending upon which congregation you attend and to which pastor you speak.  Walther looked and saw pretty clearly the landscape then.  God help us to see it now as clearly.  And then to confess more boldly, worship more faithfully, and live more holy.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Lutheran is more than an occasional reference. . .

Me thinks thou dost protest too much. . .  

There are too many who think that being Lutheran is an occasional reference point to a past event or in a present day conversation.  Like those who insist they were baptized Lutheran (no such thing, can't be done, and if it is, it means that there is no baptism).  Or those who can tell you the pastor who confirmed them and commiserate about how hard it was to stay awake in catechism class but do not attend now.  Or those who wax eloquently about being Lutheran but who are so distant from the faith of the catechism or such a stranger to Lutheran Confessions that they would not recognize them if they hit them in the face.  Or those who can date their last real time spent in church to a hymnal or two prior to the one currently in the pews.  O those who define Gospel as the current issues that concern them or for which they are currently fighting (poverty, women's rights, sexual liberation, etc...).

It was not that long ago that Lutherans knew what to expect from the jurisdictional structures and their churches knew what to expect of those called Lutheran.  It was not a perfect era but the Lutheran identity was both stronger and more positive all the way around.  Today we struggle in this basic area.  Our definition of Lutheranism is broad and shallow and bears little resemblance to the Lutheranism of the Reformers or of our Confessions or our great-grandparents.

So, for example, when I read the second issue of The Living Lutheran I read a young woman describe herself and her Lutheranism in this way --
  • she found her faith when she came to college and to the the Lutheran campus ministry where she developed a passion for social justice along side her faith. . .
  • her first experience with church was baptism but she did not connect until in her 20s. . .
  • she strives for a balance between tradition and progress. . .
  • she is fighting for economic security for women and families (access to education and health care, freedom from violence, adequate pay and financial assistance). . .
  • she hopes fellow young women will feel empowered to become engaged in issues of social justice. . .
  • she sees the church living in spaces differently than it does now -- outside the four walls of a physical sanctuary. . .
  • she believes in people and our common humanity. . . 
  • she is a Lutheran because the church should be a welcoming and inclusive place (like her campus Lutheran church). . .  
I am sure she is a fine young woman but where is there anything concretely Lutheran in her self-description of what it means for her to be one?  Where is there even a mention of Christ, of God, of Word and Sacraments, of grace, of mercy, of sin, of forgiveness, of death, and of life everlasting?  How does this definition explain Lutheranism in general or her own Lutheran identity?  BTW I am not at all suggesting that you could find the same generic social gospel identity in a different Lutheran jurisdiction and that is what has me fearful.

If we do not know what Lutheranism is or how to explain it to the world (in a way that mirrors our own self-description in catechism and confession), how do we expect to pass this faith on to others?  Remember that this column was in the ELCA's denominational journal.

The other day my associate and I spent a couple of ours talking to a young man preparing for baptism as an adult about baptism, the faith, and the church in which he will be joined to Christ's death and resurrection and we never remotely covered anything mentioned above.  Instead we spoke of the cross, of Christ's suffering and death, of the means of grace, of the new life born of the baptismal encounter with Christ's death and resurrection, of the liturgy and the shape of a life of worship, of source and summit of Christian faith and life flowing from the liturgy, of the daily repentance that keeps us connected to and confessing of what God did to save us, etc. . .  I guess we come down hard on the traditional side of things.

What shocks me most of all about Lutherans are not what others think of us but how we define ourselves both inwardly as a community of faith gathered together and outwardly in witness to those who do not know us or Christ.  It is as if the cross were a footnote and the issues of sin and death were fringe to the bigger and better stuff of social justice, personal satisfaction, and our passions in life.  This is first of all a sign of bad catechesis.  Second it is the fruit of shallow preaching which neglects the Word of God and doctrine.  Finally, it is the confusion of a people taught by confused people about what it might just mean to be Lutheran -- the skeptic who is surprised after teaching skepticism that people do not believe much.

It is not rocket science.  Try cracking open a Catechism.  Try opening the Hymnal.  Try reading the Scriptures.  We can do this folks and we better or there will be no one who know what Lutherans are. . . and are not. . .