Sunday, September 25, 2016

Collecting books is not hoarding. . .

"Let books be your dining table, 
And you shall be full of delights. 
Let them be your mattress,
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

There was a time when books were a treasure, something almost sacred and too valuable to be treated casually.  They were hand tooled in calligraphy and art, hand stitched, and elaborately bound with covers of finest leather. Today books are cheap and easy -- Wal-Mart sells and Amazon and you can easily find old and out of print books for next to nothing on the Internet.  Every year hundreds of books are published devoted to all topics and interests.  This is also true of the Church.  We have print on demand technology to aid the publishing house in keeping old titles still in print.  We have publishing houses (I think here of Concordia Publishing House) who do a bang up job of providing the good, the old, and the new to the Church.  You can find all things Christian between the covers of paper or book board --  theology, exegesis, liturgy, history, iconography, art, architecture, music, hymnals, catechisms, etc...  Additionally, hundreds of books are published each year simply because we can translate what was never before available in English.

Some of these are published by scholarly presses in conjunction with dissertations submitted and approved.  Others are published by popular book publishers.  Still others provided by those publishers who serve the discretion and pleasure of a particular denomination.  Some are the products of the so-called vanity presses who do not really promote the vain but more often what is not necessarily commercially viable for other concerns.

If I have a little extra money, I eat.  Otherwise I buy books.  Many books do not a hoarder make; instead a collector of words and pages preserves the past while investigation the future on behalf of those who have little time or inclination to do either.  So do not condemn me for my books.  Neither ask me to give up any of them.  I have retrieved them from yard sales, garbage cans, broken shelves, businesses going out of business, book sellers and internet sources of new and old.  If I read it in a book, I can probably find it again without too much trouble.  If I read it on a screen, good luck in me finding it again.  No, there is just something about holding a book in your hand, turning the page, smelling the pages, and putting it back on the shelf when you are finished.

Yes... I fancy books and fountain pens and lots of stuff on my walls.  But I am not a hoarder.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Born or Made. . . Perhaps there is an answer

A fairly definitive word to date has been issued specifically on the question of whether GLBTQ people are born this way or made this way (choice or environment).  It is about 140 pages long and yet worth your consideration.

Is gender identity (if we use this term at all) a matter of biology that is already fixed in the person by birth or is it a matter of decision or choice that can be affected by environment, upbringing, or individual decision?  Lady Gaga says she was made that way and this point of view has challenged the assumptions of many who would suggest that the myriad of identities could be assigned a hierarchy or value (good or not good).  Born must mean God had something to do with it, right?  I am not one who believes that this has much impact upon whether GLBTQ is morally the equivalent of the male/female marriage.  But.  But there are those whose whole perspective changes if they believe GLBTQ folk are born that way.  So when a study challenges the idea that GLBTQ folks are born that way, it does affect how many judge the moral value assigned to these relationships.

Some prominent scholars at Johns Hopkins University released a new in depth study that argues that there is not sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that lesbian, gay, or transgender people are born with this sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lawrence Mayer, a co-author of the report, told The Christian Post, "There are probably some people that identify as heterosexual that then later on identified as homosexual, so it goes both ways. The importance there is the fluidity and flexibility that these things change in time."  In other words, it is a disposition that is affected by external factors and individual choice and not simply the natural and inborn desire or identity that cannot be influenced or changed. This has profound significance for both those who believe that natural is normal and for those who believe that desire cannot be changed. 

Of course, the authors of this study are taking a position of grave risk to their credibility and stature in the academic community -- a community which is decidedly not neutral or easily influenced by fact in this subject.  Yet it is a sign of hope that we can and ought to reconsider what has become, in short time, an incontrovertible yet unsubstantiated fact for many.  For too long Christians who do not accept GLBTQ behavior as normal or moral have been accused of not being open to reality.  Now we might see whether the other side is open to a dose of reality.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The end of beige Catholicism. . .

Msgr. Charles Pope has hit it out of the ballpark with this one. . . 
There is a growing consternation among some Catholics that the Church, at least in her leadership, is living in the past. It seems there is no awareness that we are at war and that Catholics need to be summoned to sobriety, increasing separation from the wider culture, courageous witness and increasing martyrdom.

It is long past dark in our culture, but in most parishes and dioceses it is business as usual and there is anything but the sober alarm that is really necessary in times like these.

Scripture says, Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle (Psalm 144:1). Preparing people for war — a moral and spiritual war, not a shooting war — should include a clear setting forth of the errors of our time, and a clear and loving application of the truth to error and light to darkness.

But there is little such training evident in Catholic circles today where, in the average parish, there exists a sort of shy and quiet atmosphere — a fear of addressing “controversial” issues lest someone be offended, or the parish be perceived as “unwelcoming.”
But, if there ever was a time to wear soft garments, it is not now.

The Church of the 1970s-1990s was surely well described as the era of “beige Catholicism” (a term coined by Bishop Robert Barron, and not by way of flattery either). Those of us who lived through that era, especially in the 1970s, remember it as a time when many parish signs beckoned people to “come and experience our welcoming and warm Catholic community.” Our most evident desire was to fit in and be thought of as “normal.” Yes, Catholics were just like everyone else; and we had been working very hard to do that, at least since the early 1960s when John F. Kennedy was elected. Catholics had finally “made it” into the mainstream; we had been accepted by the culture.
Church architecture and interiors became minimalist and non-descript. Music and language in the liturgy became folksy. Marian processions, Corpus Christi processions, many things of distinctive and colorful Catholicism all but disappeared. Even our crucifixes disappeared, to be replaced by floating “resurrection Jesus” images. The emphasis was on blending in, speaking to things that made people feel comfortable, and affirming rather than challenging. If there was to be any challenge at all it would be on “safe” exhortations such as not abusing the environment or polluting, not judging or being intolerant, and so forth.

Again, if there ever was a time to wear soft garments, it is not now. It is zero-dark-thirty in our post-Christian culture. And while we may wish to blame any number of factors for the collapse, we cannot exclude ourselves. We who are supposed to be the light of the world, with Christ shining in us, have preferred to hide our light under a basket and lay low. The ruins of our families and culture are testimony to the triumph of error and the suppression of the truth.
But what Msgr. Pope has said about Roman Catholics is surely true about Lutherans as well.  We have lived in the era of a generic Christianity, a beige faith, that is bland and inoffensive but weak and shallow.  Lutherans have been as guilty of this as Roman Catholics -- treating the faith minimally instead of maximally.  We have attempted to save Lutheranism by killing it and making it as indistinct and pale as it can be -- a Lutheranism which knows little of its own Confessions and is embarrassed by what it does know. . . a Lutheranism which is ashamed of its own identity on Sunday morning and is content to wear a mask that distorts its face to the very people seeking truth, authenticity, and integrity. . . and a Lutheranism that tries to convince by offering nothing to challenge or offend and therefore is unfaithful to the Scriptures it claims to own.

Christianity will not survive by blending in or erasing anything that some might find offensive and why would God be pleased with a church that survives without its soul or heart.  Jesus wondered if there would be faith on earth when He comes again and the people asked Him if the number of those who would be saved would be few.  We seem intent upon making sure that He does not find faith on earth and that the numbers to be saved are few and we do so not by failing to teach but by teaching and passing off as Christian what are lies and half-truths.  We seem bound and determined to succeed by fostering a diversity which betrays any distinctive Lutheran identity and by promoting a faith that listens more to the pulse of the people than it does to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

From St. Peter to Constantine there were 33 Popes. Thirty of them were martyred and two died in exile. Countless clergy and lay people too were martyred. It is hard to imagine the Church in the decadent West being willing to suffer so. Surely our brethren in many less affluent parts of the world are dying in large numbers. But I wonder: After all these years of “comfort Catholicism”, would the average American parishioner or clergyman be willing or able to endure such loss?
I hear complaints from people in the pews who say that their pastors are too rigid, too insistent upon knowing and believing the faith, too stuck in the hymnal, and too focused on doctrine.  God bless them if they get such a pastor.  We have tried an ambiguous Christianity in place of a vibrant Lutheran identity and all that has done is bled off members since 1970.  If your Lutheran pastor are too rigid, too doctrinal, and too liturgical, you should be thankful for such a pastor who will not dilute the faith until it is unrecognizable nor smooth the rough edges of the faith until no one finds anything objectionable except Jesus.  We have gotten so accustomed to such a broad and bland faith that doctrine frightens us, the liturgy is strange to us, and a steadfast pastor is naive or hard or both.

I do not want to frighten anyone but, folks, the writing is on the wall.  Our culture has drawn lines in the sand and dared us to cross them.  Our government is promoting a diversity which has not tolerance for truth that will not be compromised and doctrine that will not be adjusted to fit the times.  We may not shed blood but we will certainly pay the cost of faithfulness in other ways.  What scares me most is not the cost of discipleship amid a world so unfriendly to Christ and the Scriptures but a church that will trade away faithfulness for comfort, ease, and compromise.  The creed will soon be much more than a mere confession of faith; it will soon become the hill on which we will sacrifice some of our affluence and complacency or the mound that marks the grave of a church that gave up Christ to be an inoffensive Christian.  What will is be?  You and I will answer in ways more profound than words.  Pray that we may be faithful!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Father Z Needs to Do Some Research

Father Z, noted Roman Catholic blogger and advocate for reverent worship and the Latin Mass, keep knocking Luther for things that Luther did not say or mean or even imply. 
Luther (failed priest and heretic) didn’t, in fact, write that every man is his own priest, but that phrase summarizes both his view and that of most of the writers of the National Schismatic Reporter (aka Fishwrap) and probably also the LCWR.  His radical view of the priesthood of all believers effectively reduces ordained priesthood to a role that community gives to him to do various things.  This is what modernists such as Edward Schillebeeckx wrote, which infected a generation of seminary profs and, hence, priests and, subsequently, people in the pews.
He got it right that Luther did not, in fact, write that every man is his own priest.  But Father Z got it entirely wrong when he said that phrase summarizes his view and he has radically reduced the priesthood to its functions and derived from the royal priesthood.  Anybody with a mind can read Luther and find that this is not the case.  But it is hard to blame Fr. Z since even some Lutherans have got it wrong (WELS has a functional view of the office - holding that the functions are divinely mandated but not the office itself).

Read the Augustana and tell me where there is a functional understanding of the Divine Office?  Luther's opinions are not binding upon Lutherans but our Confessions are.  In fact, the Roman Catholics were not all that concerned about what Lutherans had to say about the pastoral office because they believed there were differences of nuance but not substance when it came to the pastoral office.  Perhaps that was naive but the Lutherans had a high view of the office (at least until they suffered the encroaches of pietism and rationalism).

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Shrewd Trust

Sermon for Pentecost18, Proper 20C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, September 18, 2016.

Trust is very important to us. It’s part of who we are as human beings. All of us we’re born trusting. We trusted in our parents to feed us, to clothe us, to change us, to keep us safe and alive. As we grew, we continued to trust, but the older we got, the more difficult trusting in others became. Now trust is something people have to earn, we don’t just give it out to anyone. As our trust in others has decreased, trust in ourselves has increased. It’s very easy to trust in ourselves: in our abilities and in our possessions; but God calls us not to trust in these things, in “unrighteous” wealth. Instead, we need to trust in Him, in our Master’s mercy.

In Jesus’ parable, the manager trusted in “unrighteous” wealth, in his position and in the money he was in charge of. He felt secure in these things and he took them for granted, he abused his position. He wasn’t a faithful manager. He mishandled his master’s money, and when this wastefulness was brought to his boss’s attention, he lost his job.

At this point, the manager’s “unrighteous” wealth failed him. He no longer had the security of his job and title. He no longer had the financial means to survive. The master took everything back, and there was nothing the manager could do. He was alone and out in the cold.

Like this dishonest manager, our first trust is often in “unrighteous” wealth, in the things of this world. We trust in our health. The world today is filled with all sorts of fitness crazes and different diets that promise to produce long, healthy, vigorous lives. So, we eat right and exercise because we all know that it’s good for us. However, it doesn’t matter how many hours a week we spend trying to achieve the healthiest body, our health still fails. All of us have been sick, some more than others. Cancers and heart disease attack marathon runners and iron men. No one is immune to the common cold. And nothing, absolutely nothing can keep death away for ever. Our health fails us.

So we trust in our possessions and money. We work and work and work to acquire all that we can, to get the stuff that will make our lives enjoyable and carefree. We think to ourselves, “If I just had that new iphone 7 everything would be great,” “If we just lived in that new house life would be so much nicer,” “If my bank account had that much money in it then life would be easy.” But of course, all this fails. We never have enough and we’re never happy with what we have. New technologies come out every year. All our homes need repaired, and no matter how much money we have, there’s always another bill around the corner that needs to be paid. Our possessions and money fail us.

So we trust in our relationships, in our family and friends. We rely on loved ones to be there for us, to build us up, to take care of us when we’re in need. We expect them to be faithful, trustworthy, and true. But even those closest to us fail us. Family members let us down, friends crack jokes about us behind our backs, those we trust betray us. Our relationships fail.

And so we’re left trusting in ourselves, in our abilities. We do all that we can. We try hard to live godly lives according to God’s will. We want to be worthy of our heavenly Father’s gifts and graces. But we fail in this endeavor, because we’re sinners. We’re born sinners and sin is what we do. We can’t trust in ourselves and in our abilities because there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make us worthy before God, there’s nothing we can do that guarantees us life.

The worldly things that we put our trust in: our health, our money, our relationships, our own abilities; all these fail us. None of them provide us with the life we need. When our “unrighteous” wealth fails us, and it will fail us, all we can do is turn to Christ. All we can do is look to our Lord and Master, trusting in His mercy.

The dishonest manager realized this. When his position and wealth failed him, he had to trust in his master’s mercy. As he stood before his master, he didn’t try to justify himself. He knew he was caught, there was nothing he could say or do to get out of it. He was at the mercy of his master. The boss he’d been cheating would decide his fate.

It should be pointed out here that the master didn’t throw this dishonest manager into jail, even though that was well within his rights. Instead, the master had mercy on him, letting him go free, and in this, we see the true character of the master. He was merciful.

When the dishonest manager contemplated what he would do; he recognized his master’s mercy. He knew his master was a gracious, and he used this to his advantage. Before it was made known that the manager had lost his job, he called in the master’s debtors and reduced their bills knowing that because of who his master was, he would honor this reduction. The manager exploited the master’s mercifulness in order to secure himself a place among the debtors. It’s because of this shrewd and wise trust that the dishonest manager is commended. The master didn’t commend him for his deceitful business practices, but because this manager realized who the master was, trusting in his merciful character.

It’s at this point that Jesus explains this confusing parable. He said, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Lk 16:8b). What Jesus is saying is that unbelievers know how to play the game. They can use the system, the ways of this world, and they trust them to work. The dishonest manager trusted that the master would honor the reduction of the bills. However, believers, Christians, you and me, we don’t always trust in our Master and in His merciful character. We trust in everything else but Him, we trust in “unrighteous” wealth. It’s not until we’re at the end of our ropes, when everything else has failed that we come to Him. It’s only in the hospital rooms that we seek Him. It’s only when the bank balance reaches single digits that we call on Him. It’s only when we feel all alone that we reach for Him.

And thanks be to God, at these times, our Master is merciful, hearing us and coming to us. Our Master is merciful and gracious. Instead of punishing us for our sin like we deserve, He gave His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross so that we might be forgiven, so that we might have the promise of everlasting life. Christ our Lord and Master is there when all else fails...He’s there before everything fails. He’s there in mercy, calling us to repent, calling us to shrewdly and wisely trust in Him, because He’s the one thing that we can trust in, He’s the one thing that can’t fail.

Even though we constantly, and sinfully, put our trust in “unrighteous” wealth, our Master is merciful. He forgives us for Christ’s sake. His mercy and forgiveness never fail, and this is what we trust in. We trust in Christ’s saving death and resurrection for our life, for that is the only place in which everlasting life is found. So we daily pray for the Holy Spirit to keep us in this faith, to keep us trusting in God’s mercy, to keep us trusting in our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Some sobering thoughts. . .

I was tossing out some papers from the pile on my desk (that seems to multiply beyond my control) when a sheet of paper from a free magazine (so you know it was worthwhile) dropped out into my lap.  It was a publication from an evangelical generic source that tells you what you need to know to grow your church.  This was the introduction to an article on Growth Strategies to use to maximize your congregation.
  • White people are dying faster than they are being born
  • Whites make up 62% of the population but they account for 78% of the deaths
  • All minorities are growing but the non-Hispanic White population is declining
  • While the pace of US population growth is slowing, it continues to become more diverse
  • Non-Hispanic Whites were the only segment with a higher death rate than birth rate
  • Minority population gains account for 95% of the US population increase (due to Asian and Hispanic immigration and birth rate)
  • Millenials make up the biggest generation (those born 1982-2000) - 83.1 Million or 25% of the population; outnumbering the Boomers by 8 Million
  • For the first time in US history, Whites are a minority among those under age 5
  • Since 2010 the overall ages of those under 20 is declining while the numbers of seniors increase as well as those of working age
  • From 2015-2060 we will lose something like 23 Million US born Whites and gain 118 Million racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants
  • In 2060 non-Hispanic Whites born in the US will account for 40% of the population
  • Foreign born Americans will rise from 13% in 2015 to 19% in 2060
  • About 2040 or before native-born Whites will become a minority
For a long time now President Harrison has been preaching to the LCMS the changing demographics while people snicker about him saying all we need is to have more babies.  I am not ready to say we should not have more babies but clearly he is not pulling the statistics out of his ear.  The LCMS is about 93% White (the ELCA is even more White) and the statistical declines in numbers of children baptized and confirmed as well as the declining numbers of those marrying or sitting in the pews has something to do with numbers and a population trend such as this.

Demographics cannot solve the problem but it can tell us where not to spin our wheels. Of course the solution is not simply to have more babies (but where might we be if we had not adopted birth control as the norm, taken marriage out the realm of love and sex, and legalized abortion?).  But before we go beating ourselves up and saying that the reasons for our decline has to do with failing to be current, relevant, and contemporary (especially in worship), maybe we need to think about this a bit more.  The biggest church in the US (and the world) uses a liturgy very similar to ours, their priests wear vestments, and they have sacraments but they are growing.  Could it be that the problem is less about Sunday morning and more about our failure to speak the Gospel to those who do not look like us?  I am not talking here about foreign missions but the mission to the neighbor across the street who is not attending any church.  Could it be that we need to adapt ourselves less to the individual or group cultures of the unchurched and assimilate them into the culture of the faith -- speaking the Gospel, showing to them Christ's love, and being an example of faith and faithfulness?

The best cross cultural outreach is one which does not choose one culture over another but brings to people of every culture the transcendent culture of heaven on earth -- the Divine Service -- and proclaims the glimpse of heaven that is in our midst every Sunday morning.  How might things be different for us if we really believed this?  The Gospel is not simply cross-cultural but has its own culture that addresses every race and ethnicity.