Monday, October 24, 2016
Today is one of those days when the mission of the Church is plain and clear. Five boys are received into the Kingdom of God in the waters of baptism. Three families have come with their children to receive the cleansing of water and the Word of God. This is why we are here. This is what the mission is. This is why we lift our prayers, why we raise our voices in praise, and why we open our wallets to the offering plate.
Now this may seem super impressive if you have only seen baptisms one at a time. And it is. But the miracle of the Kingdom is the same miracle for one or five and it is the same miracle you count on whether you are two or ninety two. The miracle is this: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
On days like today it is especially great to be a pastor and it may just be that pastors become more impressive as five are welcomed into God's kingdom in one fell swoop. But you may not know that pastors go home every day and face their families who know that this miracle did not happen because of the pastor but because of the mercy of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. From a distance a pastor is impressive but his family knows he has feet of clay. Noah faced his shame before his family, Abraham had to face Sarah after Ishmael was conceived, and Moses put his staff behind the door when he sat down to eat with Zipporah, who knew all his flaws.
But not Jesus. Jesus was not flawed. He had no secrets to be found out that His family had to hide and He had no hidden sins for His enemies to gloat over. He came in righteousness for sinners great and small, young and old, famous and anonymous. His preaching and His life were perfectly synchronized on you, on Alexander, Collin, Declan, Westin and Watson, and on me. His family did not get it. The disciples who were supposed to be His friends did not understand Him or His kingdom – at least not right away. But Jesus gave them no excuse to reject Him except their own unbelief, their own sins and shame, and their own weakness to death. He came to meet us under the banner of the Law He kept perfectly for you and me, under the shadow of the cross where our sins would be paid in full, and in the shadowed darkness of a tomb where death would die once for all.
Jesus came without flaws for flawed people, the holy One for sinners. In the end, our unbelief is less a rejection of Jesus than it is a refusal to admit our sin, to confess our failures, to repent of our wrongs. The irony is that Jesus who had every right did not reject us, but we find excuses to reject Him and His mercy.
He put Himself in our place to death and rose to bestow on us a life none of us deserve. We think we are rejecting Jesus but unbelief is simply a refusal to believe that we are sinners who need a Savior, unworthy who require mercy, and the dead who need to be raised to life.
Though we want to make unbelief the fault of Jesus, it is not caused by Him. Christ cannot be blamed for the trouble we have believing in Him and receiving the precious gift of salvation. The darkness is ours and with it all our fears. But the miracle of it all is that Jesus came for that darkness, to shatter it with His light. He came to meet our fears and bestow upon us the peace that passes understanding.
Unbelief is ultimately borne of weakness – the weakness that will say anything but God be merciful to me a sinner... the weakness that cannot save us but can certainly keep us from the Savior who can save us... the weakness that insists upon credit for at least trying but finds it too hard to admit by grace, through faith, in Christ alone. Unbelief is weakness but that weakness is strong enough to close us off from God's grace.
Once so long ago a people thought they knew Jesus but they knew little of Jesus and even less of themselves. They rejected Jesus because they rejected their own need of a Savior. They refused to believe in a God who had to come to them and put Himself in their place even to death on a cross and save them.
Those who rejected Jesus were condemned not by Jesus but by their own unrepentance and the utter failure of their own good works to do them any good. Greeks complained that Jesus made no sense. Jews complained that Jesus did not do the mighty signs th at would have made them believe. The friends and family of Jesus complained that it was simply too much to believe that Jesus was God incarnate, God in flesh and blood – all except for Mary, of course, who heard the Word of God, pondered it in her heart, and believed that it would be as God had said.
Today we remember James. James came around. All the Word of the Lord Jesus spoke and the Spirit working in that Word broke down the barriers of His heart, convicting him of his sin and building faith to trust Christ alone. James was a sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ and saved by grace. James lived no gilded life. He met Paul and Peter in the midst of controversy in the Council of Jerusalem and tradition tells us he died a martyr's death. The miracle of His life is the faith that the Spirit worked and the redemption that came as undeserved gift to a sinner who was unworthy of any of it. But Jesus Christ came to save sinners.
Five boys met the Lord in the miracle of water and the Word. They came with nothing in their hands and no righteousness to offer. And Christ was pleased to meet them there where He has promised and to give them what they did not deserve. Just as He came for you, working through the Word upon your ears to establish faith in your hearts, with the splash of baptismal water to make you clean and the taste of His flesh in the bread and His blood in the cup to feed you to eternal life.
Sometimes things come into clearer focus. Questions like why we are here? What is the Church about? What is our mission? What do our tithes and offerings actually do? Today it is all made a little clearer. Today we leave behind our excuses, and lay down our protestations. Christ did not come for the righteous but for sinners. Not to be understood but to save. Not to reward the good but to offer hope to the flawed, failed, and broken. Not to get something from us but to give us what cannot be purchased, won, or earned. Christ Jesus came to save sinners. This was the scandal that Nazareth refused, the stumbling block for James, and the hill the Holy Spirit climbs before our hearts rejoice in this Gospel
Christ Jesus came to save sinners. And where sinners confess their sins, trust in the healing power of His blood, refuse the temptation to unpack or explain the mystery, and meet Him upon the solid ground of His Word and Sacraments, Jesus is still there saving sinners from their sins, rescuing them from their death, and restoring them to the Father. He comes for little boys in mother's arms and holding daddy's hands at the font. He comes for pastors with feet of clay. He comes for folks like you.
James was once not so sure to make of Jesus. But Jesus knew exactly what James needed. Nazareth was sure - Jesus was a carpenter’s son and not the Son of God. By the Holy Spirit James came to faith. Today with James of old, the saints of every generation, the newest who join us at the font, we cry out to Jesus. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Amen.
[In the church Christians] find delight not in the baleful [evil intentioned] songs sung by theatrical performers, songs which lead to sensual love, but in the chants of the Church. Here we hear the voices of the people singing in harmony the praises of God. -- St. Ambrose
There are those who insist that all music is neutral and all equally suited for use in the church and for the faithful. They would suggest that text is what distinguishes music -- not its form but its content and words. It is a common thought today. We have had everything from polka masses to jazz masses to folk masses to U2charists. Our people listen to Christian music in a whole variety of genres -- if not in church, then on radio, iPods, computer, and the like. So what is the big deal? Christian rap is differentiated from chant on the common basis of what the words say, right?
Although it is unpopular to suggest otherwise, not all musical forms are equally suitable for worship. Some forms inescapably are locked into sensuality in which words are secondary to the sound of the music itself. Some forms of music have not only an appeal in lyric but in sound to that which is, as St. Ambrose suggested, evil intentioned. Sensuality is sensuality whether the subject is virtuous or wicked. When the sound is what drives the music, no words can fully redeem or even overcome the impression of the sound or the form. Such sensuality is directed to the self and sees the role of music as a liberating force from the imprisonment of self or self-control.
The music of the Church appeals not to sensuality but to the Word, to the Gospel itself, and sings the story of God's redemptive work both in preparing for and then delivering up His own Son as Savior and Redeemer. Josef Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, put it this way in The Spirit of the Liturgy:
The music of the Church is not performance music but music in service to the Word, as Luther oft described it, the handmaiden of the Word. It has not agenda of its own but only serves the Word -- both to communicate this Word to the hearer and to allow the hearers to speak with one voice in confession of this Word before the Lord (and the world). It is not a competition of styles that we face but the confusion about music's very purpose and how music is to be used. Again, from The Spirit of the Liturgy:In liturgical music, based as it is on biblical faith, there is, therefore, a clear dominance of the Word; this music is a higher form of proclamation. Ultimately, it rises up out of the love that responds to God's love made flesh in Christ, the love that for us went unto death.
That is why singing in the liturgy has priority over instrumental music, though it does not in any way exclude it. It goes without saying that the biblical and liturgical texts are the normative words from which liturgical music has to take its bearings.The music Christians inherited was Psalm singing. Early on Christological hymns were added -- some of which became the ordinary of the mass (Gloria in Excelsis). Some are even alluded to in St. Paul (Philippians: At the name of Jesus. . . ). Gregorian Chant was the first fully developed form exclusively born from and designed for worship. Polyphonic music added to this and introduced instruments into more prominence but as support for both text and melody and not in competition for the stage or the mind of the hearer. Attempt was made to distinguish liturgical music, the music of worship, from religious music which is neither directed to the mass nor designed for it. It would be good for us to retain that careful distinction. Another quote from The Spirit of the Liturgy:
Not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship. It has its standards, and that standard is the Logos. If we want to know whom we are dealing with, the Holy Spirit or the unholy spirit, we have to remember that it is the Holy Spirit who moves us to say, "Jesus is Lord" (1 Cor 12:3). The Holy Spirit leads us to the Logos, and he leads us to a music that serves the Logos as a sign of the sursum corda, the lifting up of the human heart. Does it integrate man by drawing him to what is above, or does it cause his disintegration into formless intoxication or mere sensuality? That is the criterion for a music in harmony with logos, a form of that logiké latreia (reason-able, logos-worthy worship) of which we spoke in the first part of this book." (p 151)Finally, silence is itself a part of the mass and daily office. Living in a world in which music and sound dominates our lives, the music of the liturgy exists within silence that is not in opposition to the music but, like the appropriate music, a constitutive part of that Divine Service. It is almost impossible to escape the sound of something -- from TV to radio to iPod to traffic -- we are immersed in sound. Perhaps we do this because we think it important to make our presence known and felt. We dominate by shattering the stillness with organized or impromptu noise. Silence is not merely a pause between musical selections, silence is its own positive force allowing us to consider the reflect upon the Word that has touched our ears and hearts in speech and song and, by the power of the Spirit, is even now accomplishing the Lord's bidding. And that is an appropriate place to end -- for it is the Lord's bidding that is at the heart and center of the music of the Church. It is not program or tool for its own glory or for the goals and outcomes of the one making this music but always the domain of the Lord both in focus and in outcome.
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.