Sunday, December 16, 2018

A people called by MY name. . .

As you have heard, the Church of England is now encouraging its clergy to create baptism-style "naming" ceremonies for transgender people to welcome them into the Anglican faith by their new names and according to their chosen gender.  New pastoral guidance now advises clergy to refer to transgender people by their new name, though it is not quite a baptism it attempts to be its equivalent.

The decision approved by the House of Bishops details how elements including water and oil can be incorporated into the service to mirror what happens in baptism. The guidance notes: “For a trans person to be addressed liturgically by the minister for the first time by their chosen name may be a powerful moment in the service.”

Except that the point of the name is not to liturgically affirm the individual but to point to the fact that they now are named with a new name.  They wear the name of Christ and belong to Him.  No one comes to the font (or to some odd attempt at an equivalent ceremony) to be affirmed in the old identity but to break with it.  In the case of baptism, the old has died with Christ and the new person has arisen in Christ (Romans 6).  St. Paul is adamant.  You are not who you were.  You were bought with a price.  Glorify God in your body.  Seek not your own desires but the desire of Him who redeemed You with His blood.

Nothing is sadder than when we abuse the liturgical language of the Church to manipulate it into something it is not.  Remember when Nadia Bolz-Weber addressed the ELCA national youth gathering mirroring the baptismal questions renouncing, the devil, his works and ways, and turned them into affirmations of queerness?  It was offensive to abuse the baptismal liturgy in this way.  Now in England, the bishops are actually encouraging the use of a liturgy designed to mimic baptism in order to affirm not the new identity of the person in Christ but to give legitimacy and support to the chosen identity of the transgendered.  How long will it be before the Episcopal Church here follows this lead?  And what is left?  Is that all the Church has to say?  Be what you feel you are?

Should we take comfort in the fact that a more radical liturgical revision of the rite was prevented?  I fear that by manipulating the existing rite in service to the GLBTQ agenda more damage was done.  The rites and the liturgical language exists to call us to faithfulness to God's self-disclosure in Scripture -- the Word of the Lord that endures forever -- and not to reflect new ideas or understandings which depart from that Word.  

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The silly season takes a reprieve. . .

Having endured endless political ads that were quite adept at misrepresenting an opponent's position and equally adept at misrepresenting the candidate's record, I am happy to have found a somewhat quiet reprieve.  The end of the silly season was too long in coming and will surely not last for long until it begins anew.  Sadly, however, this silly season has been more brutal than most and is testament to the difficulty we have in debating positions instead of merely disparaging the candidates themselves.  Some attribute this to the post-Trump era and its hardened positions on the extremes.  I am not sure it has all that much to do with Trump at all.  Instead, I fear, it has more to do with the dead ends of the roads we have left in our pursuit of an illiberal liberalism and a conservatism that destroys more than it conserves.  Such is the end of those who have abandoned morality in favor of a pragmatism of what works.

How can it be that the legal default is the murder of the unborn?  How did we end up with a view toward a comfortable social contract that consumes an ever increasing portion of the federal budget while forgetting that fewer and fewer workers are left to pay the bill?  How is it that even conservatives have made their peace with divorce as a right, with contraception as the norm, with education that exists to each job skills more than learning, and with art that offends and insults?  What kind of world trades a male dominated world for one in which a female world also promotes a feminized masculinity as the only tolerable form?

As a Christian I should expect to be rebuked by the world for my intolerance but instead I find Christianity pleasantly open in comparison to those who refuse honest conversation in favor of a politically correct world in which certain things cannot be said without being labelled hate speech.  If there is ever a champion of the poor, of the oppressed, of the down-trodden, of the weak, and of the helpless, it is the Church of Jesus Christ where neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, or male nor female provide exclusive class before God or claim special privilege of His grace.  The world has attempted to marginalize our Christian witness and we Christians have too quickly surrendered our voices instead of raising up the cause of virtue to both sides of the political spectrum.

Though we certainly proclaim forgiveness to the sinner apart from atoning works he or she has done, we dare not excuse, justify, or deny these sins or they will stand apart from grace and leave the sinner naked of righteousness before the judgment seat of God.  Neither can we be faithful and be silent before the scandal of sin enshrined in civil law without the higher voice of God's will and purpose or lose our voices before those who insist that an impotent Christianity is the only legal form to be tolerated in our land.  We have come to live and we have resigned ourselves to a culture of coarse speech, to arts that lift up vulgarity, to media intent upon celebrating our basest desires, and to a culture in which virtue and morality are reduced to what feels good in the whim of a moment.  The world has not done it to us as much as we have allowed it to be done.  We dare not turn the other cheek to these things for we shall not simply be judged for ourselves but most profoundly for our stewardship of the blessed mystery of Christ.  Be silent no more, people of God.  Rend your garments before the world and your hearts  before God.  Speak the truth in love but speak it bluntly and in all its saving glory.  Holy people of God must speak as God has spoken, not to redeem a nation but to call its people to the cleansing of His blood and the promise of real hope.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Myth and image. . . or not. . .

When St. Paul said death reigned from the time of Adam (Romans 5:14), he was not speaking symbolically or even using images but spoke of Adam as historical figure and the fall as history.  Adam is not myth but person, the first person of God's creation, and not simply a archetype of the common man but the one man from whom all men have come.

There are all kinds of people who insist that you do not have to have a historical Adam to read Genesis or get its meaning.  I suppose that there is a bit of truth in this but it presumes an awful lie -- that God's Word is either unclear or downright deceptive.  While some may prefer to see Adam as mythological figure and to reduce Genesis largely to fable with a moral to the story, all over the Scriptures Adam is referenced clearly as an historical figure.  It may be interesting to talk about what Adam represents but it is surely more important to know who Adam was and how his story gives context for our world in which sin and death have become our default mode.  And it is not insignificant to see how the second Adam (Christ) references Adam as real figure and not simply myth or legend.

While the speculative might enjoy the question of whether or not we need an historical Adam, the reality is that we do have to wonder about it.  We know the Adam of history and the Adam whom the Scriptures know as a real man, the dust of the earth into which God breathed the breath of life.  We  may think that we are doing the skeptics among us a favor by dispensing with the need to buy into the historicity of Adam but we are doing nothing to help them meet the message that most certainly requires a bigger stretch of belief than the creation of a mythological creature from the mind of God.

I often wonder why it is so difficult to accept Adam as historical man and so easy to believe that Jesus is God in flesh who is come to suffer for the guilty, die for sinners, and rise to raise us to everlasting life.  Why, indeed?  The reality is that the historical Adam is far easier on the imagination that the prospect of sin so great no amount of noble intentions or good deeds can make a difference.  Adam presents far fewer problems to the skeptical mind than the mighty God over all the universe who inhabits the womb of a Virgin before ascending the throne of the cross only to bleed all over it.

The novel thought is to let the Word of the Lord stand and make no apologies for it.  The radical thing is not to explain away the rough edges of the kerygma but to confess its truth without complaint and trust that in the speaking the Spirit is at work to accomplish His purpose.  There is nothing more edgy than to hold to the truth of that Word in its literal and not simply its figurative sense and to insist that this Word has saving property for those who hear and believe.  So those who think they are rebels are being entirely predictable in their rebuke to the history they find so objectionable.  The only rebellion worth its salt is to believe the Word in what it says and, if you are ready for it, to believe that this Word actually delivers what it promises and does what it says.  That is the rebellion that has become my own personal cause and the one my church has adopted as its own.  But I thoroughly hope you will join us.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Not many popes among the saints. . .

I was reading a Roman Catholic author talking about how the canonization process has changed over the years -- even the rites themselves by which the candidates are enshrined among the noble heroes of old.  He briefly noted that the canonization of some modern figures, in particular popes John Paul II and John XXIII, was unusual.  They had not been dead that long and, in the case of popes, not all that many popes have been declared saints.  By Roman count some 265 men have been pope and of these popes, so far 81 have been declared saints (with Paul VI on October 14 of this  year).  Paul VI will become only the 8th papal saint since A.D. 1000, but the 4th of the 20th century, joining Pius X, John XXIII, & John Paul II. Why have only a third of those who sit on the chair of St. Peter or who wear the shoes of the Fisherman been declared saints?

Some lament that this whole process is troublesome -- trivial and silly according to some critics.  Even Francis, ever the stand up comic, is said to have joked  "And Benedict and I are on the waiting list."  We can all laugh.  But is this something about which humor should ensue?  Has the canonization process of Rome become politicized and therefore something less than what it presumes to be?  Is the pope speaking ex cathedra when he declares someone a saint -- infallibly?  Benedict XIV explicitly stated that "writing a name down in the Martyrology does not yet bring about formal or equipollent canonisation." 

52 of the first 55 popes became saints during Catholicism’s first 500 years.  That accounts for the bulk of the popes who are named as saints on the Roman calendar.  In 993, St. Ulrich of Augsburg was the first saint to be formally canonized, by Pope John XV. By the 12th century, the church officially centralized the process, so that the pope himself in charge of the commissions that investigated and documented the lives of potential saints. In 1243, Pope Gregory IX insisted only a pope had the authority to declare someone a saint. A version of that canonization process is still in place today.

Modern popes have canonized saints in huge numbers: John Paul II canonized 482 saintsmore than the 300 or so canonizations in the entire 600 years before him. Francis’ first canonization included 813 people – the “Martyrs of Otranto” – who were beheaded by Ottoman soldiers in 1480 after refusing to convert to Islam.  Saints originally came in two varieties – martyrs and confessors of the faith. Martyrs require the posthumous performance of one miracle to be declared a saint. Before 1983, confessors required four; now they require two.  So the standards have been lowered.  Even then Francis waived the second miracle for John XXIII.

Back to my point.  Why not declare that all popes are automatically saints?  Are not the best leaders  the holiest of men?  In fact, the truth is that leadership often thrusts people into the arena of unpleasant compromise and negotiation, of having to be harsh with friends and lenient with enemies, and of using impolite and uncomfortable means to necessary ends.  I wish it were not so.  I certainly am not suggesting that holiness is a bad thing or that our leaders, most especially church leaders, are not to be holy.  Only to say that a righteous man is not always a very effective leader.  This is true for Rome and it is true for many other churches as well.

I know that my own church body has struggled with leadership, switching leaders by a few votes sometimes -- votes that would effect great consequences.  Those from the sidelines love to second guess and question and even challenge the decisions of our leaders -- probably the way I am second guessing the way Rome and its popes call people saints.  What I am trying to get at is that the test of leadership in the Church is orthodoxy.  Every church leader's basic calling is faithfulness.  From parish pastor to presiding bishop (whatever you call him), the most important part of our calling is faithfulness.  When our church leaders fail, it is almost always not a failure of holiness but of faithfulness.  The failure of holiness is more easily seen and dealt with than the failures of faithfulness -- especially in a world in which truth is not seen as certain or eternal.  It must be truth spoken in love but it must be truth and not something masquerading as truth.

I would expect that Lutherans would admit that some of the popes were actually quite good -- even though we have problems with the office itself.  I would expect that we Lutherans might admit that some popes who were saintly in their personal lives were not to good as church leaders.  The Orthodox admit the same thing and count some popes as saints on their sanctoral calendar.  But it is not surprising to me that not all popes are thought saints or even half.  What is surprising to me is that the Roman process for declaring people heroes is adding so many names so quickly and that some of them are modern popes -- as fine as they were.  I think that it is not a good thing to equate leadership in the church with saintliness.  They are not quite the same.  Occasionally they might be found in one person but this is more a rarity than routine.

What you should not say to one desiring to be a pastor. . .

What you should not say to a young man who wants to be a pastor. . .

1. “Are you sure you wanna do that?”
2. “Won’t you be lonely?”
3. “I couldn’t do that.”
4. “They don’t get paid very well.”
5. “So you’re really in to that religion stuff?”
6. “Wow . . . never saw that coming.”
7. “Did you just go through a bad breakup?”
8. “What’s the matter? Don’t think you can cut it in the real world?”
9. “Wish I only had to work one day a week.”
10. “I think women should be pastors.”
11. "You used to be so cool, what happened?”
12. “You’re too young to do that now, wait until you have had a little fun.”

Maybe you can add to the list of things that could be said to discourage young men from considering the pastoral ministry.  I certainly heard most of them and think most young men desiring to be pastors have heard them as well.  Keep saying them and it may well be that they will give up on this vocation. . . if that is what you want to happen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Education is not the same as faith formation. . .

While ruminating about the state of confirmation in the LCMS and in my own parish, we were faced with a number of things to consider.  On the one hand, we face a complex and confused world with respect to the age of confirmation, the curriculum used, and the time spent in catechizing our youth.  Confirmation practices vary widely throughout the Synod but it is not alone responsible for the decline in youth participation and for the loss of young people.  In comparison to the practices of Luther's day, it could be said that our youth are better educated but not as formed in the faith.  We have Sunday school, VBS, catechism classes, youth group, children's Bibles, catechism books, videos, graphic catechisms, large youth gatherings, and all kinds of things to help -- all at a time when losses of youth mount.

I wonder if we have not confused and conflated education with faith formation.  Faith formation is first of all the fruits of a home life rooted in the faith and in the Church.  Faith formation begins not with church programs but with parents developing, modelling, and formally teaching the faith to their children.  The various programs of the Church only added to that effective program of faith formation that was largely the work of strong Christian parents and extended family.  We have kept all the educational programs (to one degree or another) and they have kept pace with technology and cultural trend but the one thing that has changed over time is the role of the parents, the faith formation within the home, and the support of the extended family.  Education about the faith as a child and churchly rites of passage into adolescence are clearly not enough.  The faith cannot be taught as theory by people who have read it from a book but needs to be personal from people who live what they believe, as imperfectly as that might be.

Let me begin by saying that I am not at all blaming the family for all our problems retaining youth and young adults.  It is not about blame.  It is about the realization that all the finest education programs in the world cannot in and of themselves do the work of faith formation.  That is because education in the faith is not the same as being formed in that faith (through faithful worship together at Church and in the home, for the faithful models who give good example to children and youth, and the strong example and support of a close, extended family.  So I am not at all saying that our education is wrong or deficient but that it is designed to impart knowledge while these other things actually form the faith implanted in baptism.

My own children lived far away from grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  It was the consequence of being a pastor and serving where placed and where the calls come from.  I realize now the additional burden placed upon the home by our isolation from faithful examples within the circle of our extended family.  Much of that was also shifted to my wife because she was in the pews while I was in the chancel.  That said, I am happy to report that my children have grown into people of faith.  They are not perfect but they have retained their baptismal identity, by their interest in and investment in the faith and the work of the Kingdom, and by their commitment to the Church (for them and for my granddaughter).  It is something in which I am ever so thankful to God, my wife, my family, and my congregation who helped to form this faith in my children.  I would like to think that I had a part in this as well but I know it takes many levels of support to accomplish this.  Even so, I worry about the future, about my grandchildren as they grow into youth, teens, and young adults.  I know they will face many and great challenges and threats to the faith.

What I am saying is that our response to the losses must be about more than educational programs but must have as a central component the intentional work of faith formation.  A recent conversation with a family whose children had all but abandoned the faith comes to mind.  They were lamenting all of this while I was thinking of how irregular their church attendance was when those children were young and of their spotty participation beyond the divine service.  I wondered what had happened in the home when those children were young and what kind of intentional and accidental witness took place within that home and their family life.  I had my suspicions.  The point is that faith formation needs more than a monthly attendance in the Divine Service, an occasional participation in other church programs, and a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible or catechism.  This family thought that taking the kids to church occasionally and making sure that somebody else taught them the faith would be enough.  It was not.  It is never enough.  Even if the kids got a great education in the faith, that is not the same as solid faith formation.

One last part of my rant.  Faith formation is not about feelings.  I am not at all saying we need to spend more time helping our kids develop a relationship with Jesus (whatever that might be).  I am saying that we need to be with our children and they with us in the Lord's House around the Lord's Word and Table on the Lord's day.  I am saying that we need to wake up to the faith conversations that could be all around us as our kids face challenges, struggles, and a world so clearly different from the will of Christ.  I am saying that we need to pray with our children every day so that they can learn to pray.  I am saying that we need to mentor our children with adult role models of faith on many levels -- something less about what we do for them than living out the faith in our own daily lives.  Faith formation is not about emotions -- not about likes, dislikes or preferences.  Faith formation is about our kids seeing the faith lived out in the home, on the job, and in the neighborhood -- and, of course, within the life of the Church.

Many people think you make pastors at seminary.  You teach them what they need to know to be pastors, to be sure, but the formation of a pastor relies upon home, family, friends, and the strong example of good pastors within the lives of those being raised for this vocation.  The same thing is true of making good and faithful Christians of our youth.  Church educational programs will help with knowledge but faith formation relies primarily upon faith in the home, family, and friends -- as well as the good roles and examples of church workers.