Sunday, April 26, 2015

The failure of teaching. . .

The approaching victory of same sex marriage and the bullying of its antagonists is seemingly unstoppable yet this alone will have zero impact upon the doctrine of the Church or the orthodox understanding of Scripture's clear and unmistakable voice on the matter.  That said, what is sure to happen is that churches will lose some people who are convinced that despite what Scripture and tradition says, an accommodation must be made to allow for diversity of thinking on these matters within the churches.  Some will resign their membership, some will move to other gay friendly churches, and others will simply stop coming to church.  In the end many will blame the onslaught of culture, the influence of the media, and the perversion of the sexual thinking of the day.  In small ways, this may be correct  but there is one area in which we have failed our own people.

For most of my own life, the church assumed the culture was friendly to the values of the kingdom.  We did not need to teach about the immorality of sexual promiscuity as long as culture frowned upon it (at least the overt expression of sexual license) and so we did not need to frame out why this was evil.  We did not need to teach about the lifelong nature of the marriage commitment and why it was essential to the teaching of marriage as long as divorce was seen as bad in the culture.  When this changed and states began to pass divorce friendly laws, we still failed to explain why this was wrong; we contented ourselves with saying that good Christian people did not do this and left it at that.  We did not need to teach about the value of children as long as our people were having many children and the government was encouraging large families (the need for labor and the hopeful prospect of defeating communism with bodies if not ideology).  So we did not teach about children as gift and blessing, we did not address the idea of birth control which the soldiers learned from the US Army when they came home from war with condoms in their pockets.  We merely assumed our people knew why it wrong if we said it was wrong.  We did not need to teach that homosexual behavior was contrary to God's will as long as it was confined to back alleys and dismissed as effeminate behavior by men "light in their loafers."  It was a subject simply not addressed so when culture began to question why it was not okay, we responded less by reasoned, Scriptural argument than by saying "it is just wrong." 

If the American culture is headed this way, it may be something we have little influence over and can do little about but if the people in the Church are following their lead, it is due mainly to a lack of catechesis.  We were so busy teaching people justification by the gracious act of God in Christ without any human work or merit that we stopped there and failed to actively teach what the shape of Christian life looked like.  Worse, we ridiculed those who did spend their time there as if eternity were the only real focus of orthodox Christian teaching.  Our people read authors not our own and developed a spirituality that was more than influenced by those who in a crass way believed that your best life was now and God's job was to make it happen.  Our people borrowed from so-called pastors who preached good sex, successful business, happy marriages, free thinking children, and the gospel of personal satisfaction with its god of personal preference.  Now we are reaping the fruits of poor catechesis.  Our people cannot explain why sex is good only within marriage, why marriage is only for man and woman, why homosexual behavior is contrary to God's creative intention, why children should be welcomed and not prevented, why abortion is murder, why the suffering elderly should not be put out of their misery, why the goal of faith is not to reduce suffering in my life, and why this life is not the primary focus of my faith...  They do not know because they have not been taught -- teaching requires more than saying something is wrong.

Let's face it.  If secular America follows the dead end of Europe, it is because there is no reasoned alternative to confront the tyranny of moment.  But if Christian people follow this lead, it is because they have not heard the clear clarion call of truth, not been catechized and nurtured in this truth, and not been taught why wrong is wrong.  Some of that blame, perhaps much of it, goes right back upon the churches, pastors, and leaders of the orthodox Christian churches who for too long assumed culture was friendly to the faith and to our values and could be counted upon to partner with us in keeping up the appearances of Biblical morality absent the teaching voice of church and classroom.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

I am not going to do it if you do it. . .

"“If you insist upon calling every element in the Divine Service ‘Romish’ that has been used by the Roman Catholic Church, it must follow that the reading of the Epistle and Gospel is also ‘Romish.’ Indeed, it is mischief to sing or preach in church, for the Roman Church has done this also…let us boldly confess that our worship forms do not tie us with the modern sects or with the church of Rome; rather, they join us to the one, holy Christian Church that is as old as the world and is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets." - C.F.W. Walther

Lutheranism has for much of its life lived with a fear of things Romish.  It is made us suspicious of bishops, tilted us toward democracy and congregationalism, kept us from embracing in practice the liturgical identity of our catholic confession, and made us long for the cover of Protestantism or Evangelicalism.  We have dealt with an embarrassment about our liturgical tradition even though we glory in the theological and doctrinal content.  And now we find ourselves somewhat fractured yet holding together. . but for how long?

In Lutheranism we have a few different perspectives that co-exist within most Lutheran denominations -- although I speak from the perspective of Missouri.  We have the evangelical wing of the Church of the Augsburg Confession.  These are the folks who seem somewhat tied to Lutheran doctrine in theory but who borrow freely from and look for inspiration to the Evangelicals.  These folks read all the latest and greatest books and are heavy into visioning, core values, cutting edge technology, and church that does not act, sound, look, or seem like church.  These tend to be more suburban parishes, posting larger attendance numbers, and are virtually indistinguishable from other big box churches on a Sunday morning.  They are LINOs -- Lutherans in name only -- who will probably join the rest of evangelicalism in gradually acceding to the cultural pressure on gays and lesbians, open communion, and the ordination of women (among other things).  They are extreme congregationalists in terms of the institution but network in practice with like minded folks of any denomination.

Then we have the broad squishy middle of Lutheranism.  These folks don't want to be evangelicals and they don't want to be Roman Catholic.  They have adopted Lutheranism as an identity but the Lutheranism with which they identify may not fully resemble the Lutheranism of the Confessions or Lutheran history and tradition.  They will tolerate a little ceremonial but look upon most of it and unnecessary, distracting, and at odds with the spirituality of the heart and mind.  They are not that into symbolism and like sermons that make sense, tie up loose ends, and present a reasonable face to the mystery of God and His deliverance.  They want their church to be Lutheran -- at least the Lutheran they knew growing up (even it that may not be an accurate picture of Lutheranism since the 16th century).  They are conservative but not too conservative.

Finally we have the Lutherans who call themselves confessional or evangelical (not to be confused with the way the word was used above) catholics.  These folks want to be the kind of Lutherans who exemplify in faith and in practice the fullest expression of our Concordia -- doctrinally, liturgically, and devotionally. These folks are usually written off by the first party because they believe these people love ritual more than Jesus and pure doctrine more than winning people for Jesus and repentance more than helping people live a better life now.  These folks are viewed with deep suspicion by the squishy middle because they are too chancel prancy and swishing on Sunday morning and they present a side of Lutheranism the vast middle would just as soon forget.  They are not conservative but radicals.  They will survive and gladly surrender the institutions of the church and its structures for the cause.

The problem is this.  The party of the first part has the media, the money, and the numbers.  Some of their parishes are like mini-denominations in what they do, the size of their physical plants, and the scope of people. Many in the church tolerate them because they fear this may be the distasteful future for Lutheranism to survive.  The muddy middle represents a Lutheranism that looks on paper like the dying mainline of American Protestantism.  They have the numbers in terms of congregations but their numbers are dwindling as people age, move, and die.  But they do have loyalty to the institutions of the church bodies.  The last group can be found in rural, urban, and suburban settings and seems to be growing.  It certainly has the nod of official Missouri.  It has the momentum and the passion but it faces the prejudice of people who don't like things Catholic.  It does not have much of the money.

So where do we do?  Well, it depends. . .  If a church body like the Missouri Synod decides that some things are beyond the pale of Lutheranism, then some evangelicals among us may leave or just simply distance themselves from the rest of us until it is a fait accompli.  On the other hand, if the confessionals are stopped from holding the line on doctrine and practice and ecclesiastical supervision remains a sham, then things are liable to get messy and some of the most vocal will end up probably leaving.  In the end the balance hangs with the fuzzy middle.  Do they want showcases of life that they find personally distasteful or do they give the benefit of the doubt to those whose liturgical practices curl their nose hairs.  At this point it is probably too soon to call. . . but I am hoping that we will try real Lutheranism and those who claim the legacy of Walther will get over their angst over ritual and ceremony and decide to bite the bullet and be as Lutheran as you can be. . . I guess you know where that places me. . .

Friday, April 24, 2015

Now that things have calmed down in the parish. . .

If you went to church on Easter, you probably saw a lot of new faces.  The problem is most of those new faces were not of people new to the area or new to the church.  They were the unfamiliar faces of those who tend to go to church only on the high holy days of Christmas and Easter.

Many pastors and parishes bristle at the prospect of folks like that showing up after missing most of the rest of the year (spring through the dead of winter).  Some pastors spend their time in pulpits castigating those who just showed up after a nine month hibernation.  Sometimes the people who are there every Sunday sneak a smile or two when the pastor really gives it to those slackers.  I probably used to be one of them.

Now, well, not so much.  I have softened a bit (maybe quite a bit).  I have become a secret optimist.  I not only hope but expect that some of them will be caught up in the spirit of the day by the Holy Spirit speaking through the voice of the Word and they will find their way back to their place at His table weekly.  It does not happen often but it happens enough to encourage my hope against hope.

A friend once told me that he prefers to call the unchurched (or dechurched) those not yet of the kingdom.  I like that.  I believe that I may not live to see it or ever know the fruits of the Word the Lord planted through my ministry but I am confident that the Word will not return to Him empty handed.  And I have see it happen enough to be excited by the prospect that the good news of the Lord's death and resurrection may just, by the Spirit's design, hit home again.

So if you are in a slump because the pews were full at Easter and now seem rather empty, do not give up hope.  The Lord is entirely unpredictable except that He always errs on the side of grace and hope.  So join Him in hoping and praying for those who came back after a lot hiatus from the Lord's House.  God has turned many dead bones into lively folks.  We need to stop conveying a sense of skepticism and doubt to the Lord and believe that what we preach and teach will accomplish the Lord's purpose.  He is faithful and He will do it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Some thinking. . . always dangerous -- seldom profound

The Indiana RFRA has certainly stirred up the pot.  Ever careful not to stir it up anymore, the Roman Catholic Bishops of Indiana weighed on with a predictable call to patience, calm, and respectful dialogue.  In other words, they said little except that by the end of their pastoral letter we could hear their sigh of relief expecting that they had successfully maneuvered through the mine field without causing more collateral damage.  You read it and see what if my characterization is fair.

One particular sentence stuck out at me.  The rights of a person should never be used inappropriately in order to deny the rights of another.  At first glance it appears to be a salutary truth but in reality it is a lie.  The rights of a person inevitably infringes upon the rights of another.  It is always that way.  Ours is not a nation in which every person enjoys absolute protection of their rights from the rights of another.  It is a nation in which certain rights have a guarantee of protection while other rights have a less solid claim before the law.  It is impossible for us to guarantee all rights to all without the exercise of those rights in some way infringing upon another.  In essence, our constitution and bill of rights has chosen carefully which rights have constitutional protection and which may not enjoy the same status.  Of course that has become a bit more muddled since the Supreme Court starting inventing rights not explicitly spelled out in either the constitution or its accompanying amendments.

Certain rights have explicit protection under the constitution and the bill of rights.  Among them is free speech (originally more seen as political speech but now generally given much freer reign).  With free speech is the freedom of religion -- not simply the right to worship without interference but the freedom of religion.  While government cannot establish one religion, it cannot abridge the free exercise of religion either.  Even these are not absolute and the SCOTUS has drawn a few lines in the sand to prevent this from being an absolute right.  The court has said that the state can restrict or constrain this right for a compelling reason but this is not to be taken lightly or treated casually.

Other rights which enjoy general acceptance among the populace are, nonetheless, not explicitly mentioned and therefore do not have the same claim to legitimacy as one of the guaranteed freedoms -- like freedom of religion.  You may think you have a right to marry whom you choose or to have sex with whomever you choose and however you choose but none of these are either explicit or implicit in the constitution.  At the time of the abortion decision, the court began reading into the constitution certain rights not explicitly mentioned but presumed to the modern day mind.  Among them the right of privacy which says that you can do what you want, with whom you want, when you want, behind closed doors and consensually.  And this has become the right that is wagging the tail of the constitutional horse today.

I am not suggesting that the government hide in your bedroom but simply pointing out that the freedom of religion is not something we read into the constitution but an explicitly mentioned and guaranteed right.  Maybe you think we need to rewrite the constitution (I am not in favor of it but it seems that the courts have done a pretty good job doing that without much of a mandate or authority from the people).  Maybe you disagree with the way the constitution is written (even our government does not think it salutary enough to be used as a model for fledgling democracies).  All I am saying is that if you have a beef with the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts dating from 1993 federally and passed at different times on the state level in most states, then you probably have a beef with the constitution and what is explicitly protected and what is not.

In the meantime, there is no possibility that freedoms can be guaranteed or protected without finding places and times and people who will have certain rights constrained in order to protect others our constitution considers more basic and essential.  The bishops are wrong.  We cannot have it all ways.  Certain rights will trump other rights.  We may not like it and it may offend us, our values, and our lifestyles, but it is simply the way it is.  Period. 

If you have read me before, you know that I consider democracy very messy, unpredictable, tedious, and fraught with problems.  It is probably the best we can do this side of glory (although I harbor the suspicion that a benevolent monarchy with the right king or queen is more efficient and effective).  Democracy is imperfect and it structures an imperfect people in search of a more perfect union.  But rights will continue to be traded off against each other.  There is no other way.  All I am saying is that explicitly mentioned protections and rights trump the others.  In this case, religious freedom is one of those in the upper hierarchy of values for which our founding fathers choose to write in constitutional protections.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Finding the real Jesus. . .

With Easter in the rear view mirror and its fruits before us, it is time to reflect a moment on the mountain of TV specials that accompany the Feast of the Resurrection.  Some of them are moderately friendly to the Biblical record of things but most are decidedly unsure about what we do know or what can ever be known about the real Jesus.  From AD to The Dovekeepers to Killing Jesus (three of the newest) to reruns of the familiar programs of old (Ten Commandments among them), we find ourselves inundated less by fact than by fiction, by the wondering thoughts of people who leave us hanging when the Biblical witness is anything but uncertain.

Who was Jesus?  Is the Bible reliable?  Did Jesus believe He was the Messiah or the Son of God?  Was Jesus married?  Was Jesus gay?  Did Jesus do the miracles ascribed to Him?  Did Jesus actually die?  Did Jesus actually rise again?  It is a feeding frenzy born less of religious conviction than the fact that these tend to be rather cost effective ways to play upon the season interest of folks inside and outside the Christian faith.  Strangely, these are promoted less by Christians and churches seeking converts than by media interested primarily in market share and pocket book issues.

In the end, perhaps Anthony Sacramone has it right.  In the face of all the questions, curiosity, and interest, the REAL Jesus is not some uncertain question but present in the mystery of His promise:  This is My body . . . This is My blood. . .  So maybe, if we can remember, we can counter all the intellectual pursuits with the reality of His flesh for the life of the world, given and shed for sinners and present in the Holy Sacrament of His Body and Blood. 

Where is the real Jesus?

The REAL real Jesus!

Would that we Lutherans believed what we say we do, what we confess in our Concordia, and what we teach according to Scripture. . . maybe if we did, there would be less need for our people to pursue the unknown because they know Christ where He has placed His promise. . .