Monday, May 21, 2018

Liberal Christianity. . . some thoughts. . .

The late Cardinal George of Chicago once said, “Liberal Christianity is a failed experiment.”  The only people who do not know this are liberals.  True enough, every church has a liberal faction or a progressive wing.  These folks are the ones who purport to care for people more than doctrine and who are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure the church survives and even flourishes.  At the same time, however, the people they care for are left without grounded hope and real truth and the church that survives looks little like the church of old and is an echo of the culture, though slow and behind the curve.

Liberal Christianity is always late.  It is late to jump on social trend and late to adopt fads of music, psychology, and culture.  It is tardy to the party but it does not see it.  When folk music finally entered the church, it was on the way out of musical fashion.  Contemporary worship is contemporary only in the minds of the boomers who live in the past.  Cool is lukewarm and the shine has worn of the chic for those who try to keep up with pace of change.  Everyone outside the church knows this and finds it all not a little amusing -- except those who keep putting the nickels in the praise bands and singing the same tired old refrains.

Liberal Christianity is neither new nor fresh but old and tired.  It does not innovate but tries to sustain a moment in time which has faded from view in the landscape of everyone else.  It lives in the past and confuses this past with the future -- not the ancient past of Scripture or the early church but the recent past of memory.  The way we did it when we were young. . .  It is not simply theological but liturgical, not simply about the faith but about politics.  It loves freedom but eschews those who refuse to march to its dated tune.  Its freedom is the worst possible bondage.

Liberal Christian exists primarily to protest against what it does not like.  It does not exist as a positive force but as a negative voice.  Liberal Christianity is like the child that never grew up and never grew past the complaints against parents and the raw deal of childhood.  Liberal Christianity is angry -- angry with those who insist that doctrine matters, that truth is historical, that words mean what they say, that reason is not the filter for God's voice, and that we have something to learn from those who went before us.  Liberal Christianity has trouble seeing itself objectively and takes itself too seriously. 

Liberal Christianity is not an ideology or even a philosophy but a methodology.  It is adaptive.  It deals with sin by removing behaviors from the category.  It deals with death by making the most of this life.  It deals with truth by substituting feelings.  It deals with fact by focusing on relationship.  It adapts itself to the world around it.  It adopts the sexual ethic of the moment (usually a protest against the past).  It adopts the cause of the moment (such as climate change).  It is individual and makes the individual not only the center of Christianity but the measure of truth.  It loves relevance but fails to see that it is irrelevant to the past that went before and the future unfolding right now.

Liberal Christianity loves individualism but underneath it is insecure and is a mob mentality.  Liberal Christianity envisions itself as the radical outside but it is so very much an insider.  You are free to be an individual so long as your individuality fits with the mold of the group.  It complains against those who insist upon walking in lock step with the ancient and catholic faith but it insists upon the same rigid and unbending uniformity.  Liberal Christianity is in this way not liberal at all but the most wooden and stiff version of the faith.

Liberal Christianity lives in the moment.  That means it is focused not on the world to come but this world.  It cares more about the environment than about heaven, more about improving social conditions than freeing sinners from their sins, and more about blaming those who are wrong than finding real remedies for the real wrongs people endure.  Liberal Christianity would rather have the government doing social work than the church running hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, and the like.  Liberal Christianity loves the public school system and is inherently critical of parochial schools as indoctrination centers.  Liberal Christianity loves diversity but mostly the diversity it promotes and not the real diversity where the Word and Truth meet to set us free from the bondage of sin and its death.

In the end, liberal Christianity is neither liberal nor Christian.  It is a betrayal of the true liberality of love that flows from the Christ and His cross and it is a distorted Christianity that bears little resemblance to the fathers of the faith and offers little hope for a real future.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Would a booth boost confessions? Luther's day the Confessional Booth was unknown.  It was not in common use until the end of the 16th century and was something of an innovation.  Before then the penitent confessed to the priest wherever the priest was, though the absolution often took place at the altar.  Some priests used a stool and the penitent knelt before the priest to make confession.  I am not at all sure where the booth idea came from.  Someone once suggested that it came from Lutherans.  While I cannot say this is not true, it would surprise me.

For nearly 400 years the confessional was a staple of Roman Catholic architecture.  Sometimes it was a simple wooden box and other times a rather elaborate piece of furniture.  It enabled the priest to be hidden behind a screen or drape while typically the penitent knelt in an open booth, seen by others but whose confession was in secret.  After Vatican II, this was often replaced by a reconciliation room in which penitent faced the priest.  Among some, the confessional booth is undergoing a revival.  Some have complained that the confessional booth was used by some priests as a cover for sexual abuse.  I am sure that this may have happened by disreputable and despicable priests but find it hard to believe that it was common.  In any case, the reconciliation room does not seem to have encouraged private confession among Roman Catholic.
The strange thing is that many Lutherans have said to me that they would prefer the confessional booth to face to face confession.  If they were going to get up the nerve to make confession before the pastor, the relative anonymity of a booth would encourage them.  It is, in their view, easier to confess sensitive things without having to look into the face of the father confessor.  I find this most interesting.  It seems that anonymity remains one of the conditions many would place upon restoring the ancient practice of private confession (whether Roman or Lutheran).  While I certainly understand it, it is rather foolish to think that the ear hearing the individual confession of the people of the congregation would somehow not recognize who was speaking.  I can recognize most of my folks when they call on the phone and do not need to have them tell me who they are.  I expect many pastors who have been there in the same parish a while have developed the same familiarity.  Yet, the reality is that some would prefer not to face their pastors when make confession and this might be holding some of them back from initiating their first confession.

Some pastors would insist that anonymity deprives the pastor of his ability to provide faithful pastoral care to the penitent and give Biblical counsel to those who find themselves repeatedly in the same sins (don't we all?).  It would, in their view, work against the whole purpose of confession and absolution.  I expect that most folks I have spoken with would trade some of the familiarity for anonymity and would be willing to forego the counsel in order to be able to get something off their chest without having to look their pastor in the eye.  It would seem that they have come for the absolution and not to be counseled about their favorite sins.

In any case, I doubt that the confessional booth will find many friends among Lutherans -- even though some have suggested it just might help to restore a practice that, while it never disappeared among Lutherans, has certainly been in decline.  It may surprise some Lutherans that it was once a practice so popular that concern for the pastor advised him to sit down because of the extraordinary burden of so many penitents.  That said, perhaps the people are onto something.  If they would avail themselves of this rich gift and treasure, then perhaps a booth would not be out of line even for Lutherans.  I will wait and see what happens. . . as I expect some of you will. . . who wish the whole idea of individual confession and absolution would simply just go away for good.

That said, some Lutherans and probably not a few Roman Catholics who find the whole thing distasteful and unnecessary seem to delight in making full public confessions on Facebook and other social media.  In some cases, the confessional might be the last place where sins are admitted rather than the first.  What a strange time in which we live.  The folks who find it hard to confess anything to the pastor, tell the whole world in detail what they have thought, said, and done.  And yet they do so without the prospect of any real absolution at all.  Could it be that the real problem with confession has nothing to do with venue and everything to do with the fact that we don't think our sins are bad enough to be wrong but bad enough to boast about to our nine thousand closest friends on Facebook.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Thoughts on membership. . . wonder if most pastors don't get a little crazy when the topic of church membership comes up.  On the one hand we are told that it matters greatly.  Consider the solemn words addressed to those who join and the equally solemn words addressed by those who join.  Far from suggesting that these words do not matter, these words call us to read them slowly and deliberately and to speak them with equal gravity.  Membership is a solemn covenant and a contract that presumes that something will flow from the address to and promises from those who join.  Indeed, death is promised as a preference to forgetting or taking lightly the call from the Lord to be gathered with His own around His Word and Table.

On the other hand, church membership does not seem to matter all that much.  It does not seem to matter to those who, despite the solemn address and their somber promises, are routinely absent from the Lord's House, the Lord's Word, and the Lord's Table.  They have, as Hebrews' preacher put it, gotten in the habit of neglect of the assembly that comes at the beckoning of the Spirit on the Lord's Day (His resurrection day, the eighth day).  It does not seem to matter much to churches since we all routinely keep people on the rolls, as it is said, long after they have grown stale and strangers to us.  All congregations have people on the official membership list who no longer even live in a local zip code and some of them, it is sad to say, have no active address on file.  Their whereabouts are unknown and not just on Sunday mornings.

That said, we often distance this membership in an organization from the membership that does count -- the one wherein our names are written in the Book of Life in the ink of Christ's blood.  And that is the strange thing of it all.  Instead of seeing a connection between the two rolls, the earthly community of faith and the heavenly assembly, we routinely distance one from the other.  The people absent from the Lord's house insist that they have not lost faith and church is not required and you can be a Christian, a good and faithful Christian, without having to get all hot and bothered about church.  They insist that their names are written in the Book of Life and that is all that matters. 

On the other hand, it has been the grave temptation of the keeper of the church rolls on earth to confuse a piece of paper in the church office with the company of the elect.  Sure, you do not have that confusion today nearly as much as it was made in the past but still it is easy to presume that the number of the elect is the same as the names written on the rolls, with the possible exception of a few names here and there.

Church membership matters not because the church says so but because our confession of faith matters.  Sadly, we live in an age in which people routinely belong to churches because of things other than what that church publicly professes.  I cannot tell you how many times people have come and asked to commune at our Lutheran altar and have given good, salutary, and blessed Lutheran confession of what is present there on the altar, how we are to receive it, and what it accomplishes in us.  But they belong to a church that does not even come close to confessing the same thing.  They live within the anomaly of a church that teaches one thing while they believe another.  But it does not matter since church membership and what you believe are frequently and routinely differentiated from each other.  Why?  Why do we presume that the individual confession matters more than the public confession of the assembly?  Why do we trivialize church membership in this way?  Should not we strive with all our power to be connected to an earthly community of faith that is the most faithful to the Scriptures and whose practice is a faithful reflection of that belief?  Is this not precisely why church membership matters?  It should be.

Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of emphasizing the invisible church whose borders and boundaries are not the same as earthly jurisdictions that we have come to the terrible place of diminishing the value, importance, and blessing of our earthly belonging to a community gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  In the face of a divided Christendom, in the complex confusing array of acronyms and denominational realities, we want to believe in a grand unity and that is understandable.  Our desire is met by the Lord who not only establishes this unity but gives it His promise and blessing.  One as the He and the Father are one.  Yes.  But that does not diminish the value of or lessen the urgency for our unity with those with whom we make common confession and witness before the world, to whom we make ourselves accountable, and together we hear the voice of the living Word and, as the baptized people of God, come to the place He has prepared at His Table where the past is made present and the future is anticipated. 

True, the real members of a church are those who gather, hear, confess, and eat but that does not mean there is no list, no roll, no record of our belonging.  Indeed, the challenge is that every Sunday the majority of Christians tend to be absent from their family home together with the Lord in His Word and at His Table.  The task before us is not only to reach out to those not yet of the Kingdom but to be the conscience of those who have forgotten what it means to belong.  That is both the problem of church membership and why it matters.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Mega Problem. . .

No one would be foolish enough to suggest that sexual indiscretions and abuse is a problem strictly for non-denominational churches.  That is ridiculous.  However, there are layers of accountability inherent to denominational structures that are absent in most non-denominational churches -- churches often built upon a single outsize personality or perhaps a family legacy.  Now it seems that allegations and suspicions are hanging over what might have been a happy retirement party for Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Church.

According to a report in Christianity Today Online:  “If you’ve been sexually harassed or harmed, your pain matters—to us and to God,” the suburban Chicago megachurch posted on its Facebook page, along with details about how to get help.  A handful of Willow Creek’s female leaders, including cofounder Lynne Hybels, also joined the Silence Is Not Spiritual campaign, calling on evangelical churches to stand up for women who had experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Now the megachurch may have a #ChurchToo problem, one that pits cofounder Bill Hybels against some of his longtime friends. A group of former pastors and staff members has accused Hybels of a pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct, the Chicago Tribune reported tonight.
The voices of those accusing are not people with a grudge against Hybels but folks who have been part of the core and center of the Willow Creek ministry and association of churches for a very long time.  There have been investigations and so far no charges seem to have stuck but the number of allegations and the individuals who are raising them is not going to go away soon.

Why does this matter?  First of all, the church, founded in the Willow Creek Theater in Barrington, Illinois, is an evangelical powerhouse with a worship attendance of more than 25,000 and an association that has cultivated all kinds of leadership programs and publishing encouraging other congregations to follow its lead.  Clearly the ripples extend well beyond the congregation itself.  So many have held up Willow Creek as a model organization that this will a difficult stain upon its reputation and influence to disregard.  On top of that, the retirement of the founding pastor and its central personality is always a test for megachurches and will certainly be one for Willow Creek.

That said, there is a central weakness in non-denominational mega churches that cannot be denied.  While it is certainly related to succession and the continued success of the enterprise as a whole, it is also related to the fact that most of their boards and governing structures are self-sustaining and tend to be populated by people who support the status quo.  There is little in the way of independent authority with the stature to challenge major leaders like Hybels when charges or allegations threaten.  We have already seen this happen in other similar churches time and time again.  While some are quick to condemn denominations and jurisdictional structures, they offer at least the real potential of holding church leaders accountable -- even charismatic and larger than life figures.  It is no guarantee that things will not go wrong (as they certainly did for the Roman Catholic Church and the priest abuse scandal) but it is more likely that the wrongs will be acknowledged and remedied when there are independent authorities in the church to hold people accountable.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

If it ain't baroque. . . everyone presumes that the Lutheran Reformation shifted the senses from the visual to the aural, from what is seen to what is heard.  It would be hard to argue against the primacy of the word, at least from the words of Luther the Reformer.  And yet this Reformation also fostered a rich tapestry of arts from music to painting to architecture.  Though the more radical voices of the Reformation of the sixteenth century were iconoclasts who insisted upon purifying the landscape of piety so that it was only aural, Luther was not among them.  Their purifying zeal tore down statue and broke glass and reduced to rubble the once great treasures of art in their churches (not in the least vestments), but not Luther. Martin Luther is falsely charged with iconoclasm and some of his theological heirs have attempted to hide or distract from the secret that he was not simply indifferent to the arts but an avid supporter.  Around the Lutheran territories after the Reformation there was not only the renewal of the spoken, preached, and written Word (sermon, catechism, prayer book,  hymnal, and Bible) but a visual culture that flourished.

The flourishing of Lutheran visual culture during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries remains a closeted truth even among Lutherans.  From the Cranachs to the Bachs, Lutheran patrons commissioned costly image and ornamented music as well as richly decorated churches.  Look at the architecture that was left in testament to the Lutheran love of beauty in such achievements as Dresden’s Frauenkirche, built between 1726 and 1743.  Look at the altarpieces that celebrated in paint the words spoken and preached. The seeds of such a rich visual culture (the Lutheran baroque) are the direct fruit of the seeds planted by the great reformer himself.  Luther became a defender of the arts and condemned the iconoclasm of those in his age and era, calling them fanatics.  Though it could be said that Luther was taking a stand for Christian freedom in this matter, Luther understood the role and value of the right graphic to accompany the Word.  He knew the power of the beauty seen by the eye to help communicate and teach the faith. His 1534 German Bible was filled with rich and elaborate illustrations, woodcuts that gave form to the Word and even served as means of interpreting the sacred text.

This was not simply due to Luther but to the culture and fabric of the day in which the arts were not on the fringes of people's lives but more toward the center of it all.  Images became the rallying points for those who, after the Reformer's death, sought to replace the conservative Lutheran reformation for a radical one.  In city after city the cry arose from those who kept the faith in part by resisting and condemning the Calvinists who sought to undo Luther's theology by the slash and burn of the images and arts and ceremonies preserved and even encouraged.  In 1615, Berlin’s Lutheran citizens even rioted when their Calvinist rulers removed images from their city’s Cathedral.  Yet, the iconoclasts were only slowed and were not stopped.  By the time of the mid-twentieth century, American Lutherans were not only indifferent toward the visual image but downright antagonistic toward anything that contradicted form that followed function.  Lutherans began to give up their churches to stark and empty utilitarian buildings before they began to surrender their liturgy and music until Bach became a stranger to those who were his heirs.
Images were not incidental even to Pietism, a new form of Lutheran piety promulgated during the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by such key figures as Johann Arndt. The crucifix in particular became an important and powerful devotional image. Crucifixes were the most hated objects of the Calvinist iconoclasts and yet they were part of the essential piety in Lutheran churches and homes.  Lutherans prayed, meditated, wept before them, and were comforted by them in their last moments on earth.  At least until Lutherans became strangers to their own past.

Princes, nobles, and the burgeoning middle class openly competed for a role in adorning Lutheran visual culture with arts befitting the noble place of the Word.  In seventeenth-century Saxony, Lutheran patrons chose artists who introduced the visual idioms of the Catholic baroque into their Protestant painting and sculpture. To be sure, there were places where a Calvinist court and the prominence of Pietism held in check the ornamentation of the Lutheran baroque (Brandenburg-Prussia).  Try reading some of the history of this all in Ernst Walter Zeedon's Faith And Act - The. Survival Of Medieval Ceremonies In The Lutheran Reformation or Bodo Nischan's Prince, People, and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg, among others.  As it has oft been said, Lutherans are inheritors of an astonishingly rich tradition but we have often acted with indifference or embarrassment against it.