Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How long can a true hold or toleration exist?

Ross Douthat has written of Pope Francis rather rambling, folksy, and confusing  new Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia (AKA The Joy of Sex Love).  In doing so he notes that nearly every church body has become divided on the subject of modernity.  Most Protestants have suffered serious hemorrhaging of members over the issues of sexuality that have so quickly moved from the fringes of culture to mainstream.  Rome is no different.  But Rome seemed to have found a means of uniting those who disagree with each because they agree to the papacy.  That toleration has left Rome with distinctions that cannot be resolved -- some doctrinal ambiguity and a great deal of difference over practice.  The shaky truce that escaped most denominations has found some sort of success in Rome but at the same time this true was understood to be a problem in and of itself.  It was an anomaly that most believed needed to be resolved.  Most folks knew where B16 landed and it has seemed rather apparent that Francis has not come down in the same place.  Douthat believes that Francis has institutionalized the uneasy truce and given it papal sanction and blessing.  He is rather convincing.

But there is also now a new papal teaching: A teaching in favor of the truce itself. That is, the post-1960s separation between doctrine and pastoral practice now has a papal imprimatur, rather than being a state of affairs that popes were merely tolerating for the sake of unity. Indeed, for Pope Francis that separation is clearly a hoped-for source of renewal, revival and revitalization, rather than something that renewal or revival might enable the church to gradually transcend.

Again, this is not the clear change of doctrine, the proof of concept for other changes, that many liberal bishops and cardinals sought. But it is an encouragement for innovation on the ground, for the de facto changes that more sophisticated liberal Catholics believe will eventually render certain uncomfortable doctrines as dead letters without the need for a formal repudiation from the top. 

This means that the new truce may be even shakier than the old one.  In effectively licensing innovation rather than merely tolerating it, and in transforming the papacy’s keenest defenders into wary critics, it promises to heighten the church’s contradictions rather than contain them. 
And while it does not undercut the pope’s authority as directly as a starker change might have, it still carries a distinctive late-Marxist odor — a sense that the church’s leadership is a little like the Soviet nomenklatura, bound to ideological precepts that they’re no longer confident can really, truly work.

A slippage that follows from this lack of confidence is one of the most striking aspects of the pope’s letter. What the church considers serious sin becomes mere “irregularity.” What the church considers a commandment becomes a mere “ideal.” What the church once stated authoritatively it now proffers tentatively, in tones laced with self-effacement, self-critique.

Francis doubtless intends this language as a bridge between the church’s factions,  just dogmatic enough for conservatives but perpetually open to more liberal interpretations. And such deliberate ambiguity does offer a center, of sorts, for a deeply divided church.

But not one, I fear, that’s likely to permanently hold. 

I think that Douthat has hit upon something that affects (afflicts) other church bodies -- even the LCMS.  We have lived with a seeming truce between the missionals and the confessionals that is tested every Convention year.  We have tolerated a great diversity of practice when it comes to Sunday morning (not only liturgy but who may commune) for a long time that has only marginally moved with the occupants of the Synodical President's office.  But this truce is tenuous at best and the toleration we have sustained is something we cannot sustain.  The time is coming when Missouri will have to decide (and most other Lutheran groups) what it means to be Lutheran in doctrine and practice and then we will see how the whole thing unfolds. 

We have no means of sustaining this truce held up by a string because we have no papacy and we cannot simply go back and forth from convention to convention or from one SP to another SP.  I believe that our SP knows this and is trying to prevent us from see sawing back and forth but desires us to take small but serious and lasting steps to decide what kind of church we will be.  I laud him for it though I know it is a path fraught with problems and potential issues of self-destruction.  Part of us wants to sustain the incongruous diversity of what a Lutheran is and does on Sunday morning if only because we fear the other side in ascendancy and the other part of us does not care who will be lost if we are more uniform and united in doctrine and practice.

What fragile truce Rome is enjoying under Francis (technically holding to the doctrine it espouses but attempting to frame it in some sense of local discretion and appearing flexible to those outside the church) is not something that we Lutherans can follow.  What binds us together is not an office of a pope but we believe, teach, and confess.  We must find a way around the impasse of deliberate ambiguity.  Sooner rather than later.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Can you guess the author?

Prescient words. . . written more than 85 years ago but ever contemporary:

America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so much overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broad-minded. The man who can make up his mind in an orderly way, as a man might make up his bed, is called a bigot; but a man who cannot make up his mind, any more than he can make up for lost time, is called tolerant and broad-minded...

Another evidence of the breakdown of reason that has produced this weird fungus of broad-mindedness is the passion of novelty, as opposed to the love of truth. Truth is sacrificed for an epigram, the Divinity of Christ for a headline in the Monday morning newspaper. Many a modern preacher is far less concerned with preaching Christ and Him crucified than he is with his popularity with his congregation. A want of intellectual backbone makes him straddle the ox of truth and the ass of nonsense, paying compliments to Catholics because of “their great organization” and to sexologists because of “their honest challenge to the youth of this generation.” Bending the knee to the mob rather than God would probably make them scruple at ever playing the role of John the Baptist before a modern Herod. No accusing finger would be leveled at a divorce or one living in adultery; no voice would be thundered in the ears of the rich, saying with something of the intolerance of Divinity: “It is not lawful for thee to live with thy brother’s wife.” Rather would we hear: “Friends, times are changing!” The acids of modernity are eating away the fossils of orthodoxy...

The final argument for modern broad-mindedness is that truth is novelty and hence “truth” changes with the passing fancies of the moment. Like the chameleon that changes his colors to suit the vesture on which he is placed, so truth is supposed to change to fit the foibles and obliquities of the age. The nature of certain things is fixed, and none more so than the nature of truth. Truth may be contradicted a thousand times, but that only proves that it is strong enough to survive a thousand assaults. But for any one to say, “Some say this, some say that, therefore, there is no truth,” is about as logical as it would have been for Columbus who heard some say, “The earth is round”, and others say “The earth is flat” to conclude: “Therefore, there is no earth.” Like a carpenter who might throw away his rule and use each beam as a measuring rod, so, too, those who have thrown away the standard of objective truth have nothing left with which to measure but the mental fashion of the moment...
In the face of this false broadmindedness, what the world needs is intolerance. The world seems to have lost entirely the faculty of distinguishing between good and bad, the right and the wrong. There are some minds that believe that intolerance is always wrong, because they make “intolerance” mean hate, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry. These same minds believe that tolerance is always right because, for them, it means charity, broadmindedness, and American good nature...

The Church is identified with Christ in both me and principle; She began thinking on His first principles and the harder She thought, the more dogmas She developed. She never forgot those dogmas; She remembered them and Her memory is Tradition. The dogmas of the Church are like bricks, solid things with which a man can build, not like straw, which is “religious experience” fit only for burning. The Church has been and will always be intolerant so far as the rights of God are concerned, for heresy, error, and untruth affect not personal matters on which She may yield, but a Divine Right in which there is no yielding. The truth is divine; the heretic is human. Due reparation made, the Church will admit the heretic back into the treasury of Her souls, but never the heresy into the treasure of Her Wisdom. Right is right even if nobody is right; and wrong is
wrong if everybody is wrong...
Though written in 1931, they speak just as clearly today to a situation in which tolerance as false virtue has been set against truth to lead us to believe that there is no truth -- only the morass of desire, feelings, choice, and preference.  In case you cannot figure out the author, this little gem comes from the Archbishop who had a program on ABC TV in the 1950s....  None other than Fulton J. Sheen...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Lutherans -- the odd sort. . .

Lutherans are the odd sort, so often accused of a secular or at least invisible piety.  We have seemed to the world to be a bit too comfortable in the world and maybe a bit too at ease of the world.  With brat and beer in hand and an oompah band too loud to ignore, Lutherans appear far too at ease with their seemingly shallow piety.  So it is natural that some Lutherans would react to this by adding in a piety that makes the sacred and secular distinction a bit more plain.  It also stands to reason that, although Germans might warm up to this pietism, the Scandinavian Lutherans would turn up the heat on this pietistic reaction. 

I am not at all sure that such a characterization of Lutheran piety is all that accurate or that Lutherans needed the pietism to manufacture holiness not inherent to our Confessions and worship.  In fact, I believe just the opposite.  Lutherans have a profound piety, rooted and growing from a vibrant understanding of Scripture as the living voice of God addressing His people and from a vital sacramental life in which the signs actually deliver what they sign (without a need for much in the way of explaining the mystery).  Our sacramental theology is incarnational and our liturgical theology begins and ends with Christ delivering His gifts to His people with the response of those people, at the Spirit's prompting, hidden in the midst of it all.

Luther's two kingdoms of church and state is no attempt to neatly divide sacred from secular but polar extreme of our modern penchant for the naked, secular public square and the quiet privacy of faith.  No, indeed, Luther's two kingdoms infuses both church and state with the divine presence and authority (and not in the least, accountability).  He merely attempts to distinguish them so that neither preoccupies itself with the other and therefore neglects its own domain and purpose.

In the same way, the recovery of vocation as the order of God in creation recaptured in Christ and restored to God's people in baptism reflects the same antagonism against such neat distinctions between the sacred and secular.  God's people manifest their vocation not in mimicking the role and work of the priest or pastor but in husbands devoted to their wives and wives who are devoted to their husbands, parents and children living in sacrificial service, neighbors living not merely in the world but manifesting mercy to a world that finds mercy foreign and irrational, and citizens whose duties before the law are the obedience also of faith.

Lutherans, however, are stuck between two worlds that are ever distant from each other and more and more at odds with one another. On one hand, the Lutheran finds himself within a broadly secular culture, largely suspicious and indifferent to the claims of the transcendent.  The eternal values of this culture are in counted in increasing denominations of money, pleasure, and power -- though not without some guilt or at least fear that there needs to be a spiritual character to such indulgence. We Lutherans find ourselves surrounded and outnumbered by the voices of this broadly secular culture --  in mass media, on the internet, in patterns of permitted public speech, in the social expectations of the ordinary domestic orders and institutions of society, and in the aims and operations of governments that largely do what the Christian and the Church did in the past. Lutherans living in modern America are awash in a secularity that we find disconcerting and yet strange.  Some have chosen to accept it all and redefine both church and gospel in terms of social advocacy and a changing landscape of what sexuality, family, and goodness mean.  Others are tempted to the Amish option and wish to disappear from the landscape of the world.  Some are trying to find a renewed voice through which to speak the Gospel and a renewed sense of mercy in which to live it before the world in the hopes of recalling our wayward future back to some semblance of its original order.  If nothing else, it is an attempt to preserve the presence of the divine, though different and for different purpose, in both church and state.

We have come to sound shrill and uncaring to a world already thoroughly invested in the supreme value of pleasure, the sacred gift of preference, and their peace with death.  That is not necessarily because we are this way or because the piety and obedience of faith must appear this way to the world but because this is how the world has characterized us.  Like living with the name Lutheran, this has stuck to us and it does not appear it will change soon.  Yet that cannot keep us from speaking and we must not abandon the cause of true piety -- vocation.  Living within the home as those who love others before self and manifest this love with willing sacrifice, living within the neighborhood as people of charity, mercy, and truth, and living in the nation as honest and honorable citizens will probably not win the world but it is how we live our faith.  Living within the Church with the means of grace as the fountain and source, summit and goal of our lives, we will probably always appear strange before the world but this is how we live out our faith.  With man it is impossible.  It always was.  But with God all things are possible.  More than that, God is faithful and God will do what He has promised.  This is not merely our comfort as we lick our wounds from the world's bite, it is our confidence as we persist for the faith, endure in the kingdom, and remain faithful until Christ comes in His glory to finish His new creation.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Learning a lesson from our forbears. . .

In the US few seem to grasp the appeal of a Donald Trump.  Though I am not a supporter of Trump, it is not difficult to understand his appeal.  We live in a nation in which change has become rapid and in which we feel distant from our past and from the institutions that provided an anchor for our lives and a direction for our hope.  The cultural elite have promoted a political correct kind of nation in which choice is devoid of moral value except the need to disdain the sins of our past (mostly oppression).  In this vacuum there is little for the ordinary American to hold onto -- until someone comes along who speaks out loud what many have whispered, who does not seem intimidated to the gods of diversity and politically correct speech, and who dares to throw it all in the face of the media and the powerful ruling class which decides what ideas will and will not be tolerated.  It is a culture of outrage from folks who feel like they have few places left to express their indignation.

What is happening in other places (in England, for example, and the working class there apt to blame their plight on Thatcher's resurgence of the free market), is happening in America as well.  Schools are talking more about bathrooms for transgender than about teaching children the three R's.  Workplaces have become battlegrounds for existence.  Police and legal authorities have been painted with the broad brush of bigotry and oppression.  Food police are telling us what we can eat and drink.  Obamacare defines what we want from the health care system.  Even though a woman may very well become President and a Black is our President, we are everywhere charged with mysogyny and racism.  Certain lives matter but not the unborn.  Religion is better not seen and best not heard in the public square.  Businesses are shut down for refusing service to people who could easily find others to satisfy their wants without much trouble.  Terrorism that is clearly born of one religion and one ideology is treated with kid gloves.  In Cuba the arrest of dissidents is deemed the equivalent of a lack of jobs or health care for all and our own President does not disagree.  What are we to think?

Immigrants are doing better in all of this because, unlike the white working class, immigrants have retained the social and religious institutions that promote cohesion, identity, and provide them support.  While I am not unsympathetic to the challenges faced by blue collar workers and their families, I wonder if this dearth of social and religious institutions to support them and sustain their identity is not one of the bigger challenges to face us as a nation.  As a nation we no longer enjoy unanimity when it comes to our values.  Diversity has left us unsure if we really do have things in common and the result is suspicion and fear.  The campaign of the progressives to allow religion only to challenge their definition of oppression has left us feeling isolated and without a voice.  The pace of change and the marginalization of once important institutions like the church have left many of us angry, frustrated, and fearful.

The decline of the neighborhood, the disbursement of the family across the nation and globe, the challenges to family, the myriad of choices that pull us in different directions, and the individualization of faith are all as significant as the economic troubles that face the working class.  Add to that the weakened structure of the family, the absence of strong male role models, and the negative portrayal of masculinity and we are ripe for an election that is more than anything else a protest and the outcome which will inevitably satisfy few of the voters who cast their ballot for change.  Obama's promise of the change you can believe in left us more divided than ever.  We want America to be great again but I wonder if this is possible unless and until we address the lack of social and religious institutions and structures that are essential to the well being of any group but especially at a time when the white working class fears their place and dreams are slipping away from them.  The answer cannot simply be economic.  It must also address the common values and the common esteem for church that once marked Americans across the board.  Fixing the wallet will not repair the isolation, end the reign of fear, and turn off the anger against those who have decided that faith is only good if it is private and silent.

Friday, April 29, 2016

A video tribute to Elizabeth II at age 90. . .

Keep us sober. . . and on the horse. . .


Good words from our Synod President:  Keep us sober. . . and on the horse.

Keep Us Sober and on the Horse

by Matthew C. Harrison
“The world is like a drunken peasant. If one helps him into the saddle on one side, he will fall off on the other side.” — Martin Luther (Luther’s Works, vol. 54, pg. 111).
Sometimes the Church can be “like a drunken peasant” too.

Jesus says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). This text comes at the end of the account of Jesus’ visit to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus was just the sort of unlikely character that Jesus sought out, and boy did the “religious experts” complain about it (v. 7). But Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (vs. 9–10).

Luke’s gospel makes a particular, joyful emphasis on the “the lost who are found.” In the parable of the wedding feast (Luke 14:7–11), the “master” invites the guests to the great banquet. Those invited repeatedly come up with excuses, so the master commands that his servant go “to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23). Then follows the sobering teaching: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). And after that comes the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1–7). The point? “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Next the woman finds the lost coin. “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:9–10). Then the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) with its fabulous conclusion: “‘This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 24).

Throughout all of these, who does the finding? It is certainly God the Father and also God the Son in these and many other texts.

How did Jesus in His earthly walk “seek the lost”? He went! He preached! He healed! He also appointed apostles (“sent ones;” Luke 9:1–6), and the 72 (Luke 10:1–12). The Book of Concord rightly states, “The office of the ministry [preaching office] stems from the general call of the apostles” (Treatise 10, German). But folks who encountered Jesus and who did not have a vocation as an apostle also had a tremendous hand in “seeking the lost.” Think of the woman at the well. She went home, told others about Jesus and “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). Or consider the Gerasene. After Jesus sent the demons named “Legion” into the swine, “The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away . . . And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:38–39). These lives were radically changed by Jesus’ Gospel, and they stayed in their communities, told others and many believed.

Here’s the “drunken peasant” part. We are prone to pit the glorious gift of the spiritual priesthood of all believers (with its right and privilege of speaking the Gospel in the context of everyday life) against the Office of the Ministry, which has the responsibility of serving at the behest of Christ through the call of a congregation. The former exists so “that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). All of us as spiritual priests have the right and responsibility to speak of Jesus to those in our lives and communities and to invite them to church! As pastors, some are given the responsibility of shepherding, proclaiming the Word and giving the Sacraments to the gathered flock. Both activities are part of the mission of Jesus “to seek and to save the lost.” When we pit these two offices or vocations against each other, we are on the wrong track.

To fall off one side of the horse is to say, “Lay people don’t have the right and responsibility of speaking the Gospel” or worse, “The Gospel is only effective when spoken by a pastor.” To fall off the other side is to assert, “We don’t need pastors. And men who are regularly preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments don’t need to be pastors.”

God keep us sober . . . and on the horse!