Thursday, November 26, 2015

Honest Thanksgiving. . .

As we sit before the well stocked table of food we will consume to excess, only to rest up afterwards to shop until we drop, we often drop a few pious platitudes so as not to forsake entirely the spiritual character of this day of thanksgiving.  So instead of leaving you with my own pious platitudes or worse, my own angry frustration, I will leave you with one of my favorite poems on thankfulness -- one written before there was an America and before there was a Thursday in November designated as a national day of Thanksgiving.

GRATEFULNESS  +  by George Herbert (1593- 1633)

Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee       By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And says, If he in this be crossed,
All thou hast given him heretofore     Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst    To save.

Perpetual knockings at thy door,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,   And comes.

This not withstanding, thou wenst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay thou hast made a sigh and groan    Thy joys.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, than groans can make;
But that these country-airs thy love    Did take.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankful heart obtain     Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be     Thy praise.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Best Practices. . .

Our Synod is trending another new idea -- all over the place.  The theme is best practices and throughout Synod and its Districts best practices conferences are being held, newsletters written, and blogs posted.  All in all it is a good thing.  So much of what we do in the parish is designed to get us by and is not therefore the best we can or should do.  It is a good thing to be encouraged by best practices instead of what will pass for the moment.

Though you might think that best practices is largely a creation of the missional element in Synod, confessionals are also getting on board.  The appeal is to learn what others are doing well so that we do not have to reinvent the wheel and the benefit is that some of the pitfalls and kinks have been worked out before you start.  I always google an idea we have to see if somebody is already doing it and to see if we might learn from them rather then trudge on through our own comedy of errors in order to make it work.

What intrigues me is the very name best practices.  It implies that other practices are not the best, perhaps not even good, and possibly harmful.  That not always something we are quick to acknowledge.  We Lutherans have clung to the idea that adiaphora means anything goes, everything is equal, and nothing is too bad.  That, of course, is just plain wrong.  Even when Scripture does not command or forbid something, that does not mean that every choice we make is equal.  Adiaphora may mean that a command from the Lord cannot be applied but it does not follow that whatever we decide is equally good, right, and salutary.

In fact, some of our worst worship practices in Lutheran parishes are justified with just this idea -- adiaphora means freedom to do what we please, whatever is right in our own eyes, and whatever we decide to do is just fine.  Adiaphora mean mean that no absolute rule can be applied but it surely does not mean that every practice is equal.  There are many things which are adiaphora in the Divine Service but best practices require us to aim for a higher goal -- that which is most faithful to the spirit and word of our confession (here it means the exegetical key to the Lutheran Confessions which claims that we have not departed from catholic doctrine and practice).

BEST practices then means that we keep the ceremonies that do not conflict with the Gospel, our practices are consistent with the Church that went before us, and that we give vote but not veto to those who came before us.  I wish that we Lutherans could agree on this -- heck, I wish all Christians could agree on this!  Innovation, creativity, and spontaneity are not marks of the Spirit's life within the Church but faithfulness is.  I cannot for the life of me figure out why we agitate so against this.

Best practices also trumps likes, dislikes, and personal preference.  We have gotten into the awful habit of rating things -- from hymns to chanting, from vestments to preaching.  Not everything that is best is appealing to us.  In fact, it is usually the opposite -- that which is best is often that which conflicts with our wants, desires, and preferences.  We need to aim higher than what we could do and work for that which is best -- the most faithful expression of our Confession.  When we begin here I think some of our identity confusion, some of the band-aided worst practices, and some hopeful unity will be the happy result.

In any case, we must challenge the foolish idea that because nothing is commanded, everything we might do is equal in weight, value, and faithfulness.  That is the hidden lie behind those who seem intent upon ignoring everything in our Confessions except those references to adiaphora -- the refusal to require this for the unity of the church.  We ought to be concerned for more than just the esse of the Church's doctrine and life but also for the bene esse (essential or minimums vs best practices).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Somehow I must have missed the installation of the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Michael Curry, on All Saints' Day.  In any case, I must not have been the only one.  His installation included the requisite nod to diversity (The Native American Drumming Prelude by the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians of Maryland) but conspicuously absent was any presence by their ecumenical partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Perhaps they were lumped in with the Moravians who participated. Hmmmm.  Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man played in what was, if anything, an uncommon liturgy for a decidedly uncommon occasion.  A Rabbi prayed a prayer from Proverbs and an Imam prayed.  Another nod to diversity.

They prayed for an end to the patriarchal arrogance of the past and for the entire human family -- not only those of the household of the faith.  (O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne.)  Surely we would all do well for an end to arrogance and hatred!

God was addressed as Transforming God, not a name or even an attribute usually associated with prayer in Scripture.  The Great Thanksgiving began in Spanish and the Sanctus was a Spanish language hymn paraphrase.  Everyone got to be a soloist in the sung Our Father in the familiar Malotte setting.  They sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a choir sang Deep River and, of course, a Marty Haugen distribution song was sung.  At the end, the familiar words of the James Weldon Johnson hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing sent the folks on their way.

There was a welcoming party of clergy, an asperging party of clergy, and a seating party of clergy.  There was a deacon of the table, chaplains to the Presiding Bishop, intercessors, oblation bearers, and ministers of communion.  There was surely a great show -- nobody knows how to throw a party like the Anglicans -- but it was a curious installation into a curious communion at a curious time, both in global terms and in local American terms.  It reminds us of a church with a great past and a very uncertain future.  But I guess that is exactly what the Episcopal Church in the US is -- a communion with a great past but a very uncertain future.

For my part I think that if he has better taste in vestments than Bishop Jefforts Schori did, it will be an improvement.

BTW if you have a spare 3 hours and 46 minutes you can watch it all here. . .  The Episcopalians can always be counted upon to put together a good show, even if some strangeness and hollow words raise a question or two about what is actually happening. . .

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Sunday with many names, but one truth!

Sermon for the last Sunday of the Church Year, preached on Sunday, November 22, 2015.

    This is a Sunday with many confusing names - Christ the King Sunday, the Sunday of the Fulfillment or Consummation, the Last Sunday after Pentecost.  It would seem that we have a name for every taste and preference for this end of the Church Year.  But if the names are a mishmash, so are the readings.
    In the Gospel Jesus tells us many things - a bit about fig trees, something about the signs of the times and the need to read them, and something about staying awake lest you be caught unawares.  What binds it all together and that which underlies all Jesus says is “Heaven and earth may pass away but My Word will NOT pass away.”  This keys everything together.
    Jesus’ claim separates Himself from everyone else on earth.  You will not remember my words tomorrow or next week or next year.  You won’t recall what you ate or did today when the time passes.  And that is okay – well, except that you should remember what I say!  Things come and go.  We are used to this.
    Things come and go, they change, they move in and out of style, and they move in and out of our memories. But there is one thing you cannot afford to forget. That is the Word of Christ.  His Word endures forever.  When everything else that we know is gone, His Word remains.  That is our hope!
    Jesus does not just say “My Word endures forever.”  Jesus fulfills the promise of that word by rising from the dead.  His resurrection proves the truth of Jesus’ word.  That death cannot claim Jesus or hold Him is not a curious fact.  It is, according to St. Paul, the foundation of all that we know and believe, of our forgiveness, of the hope of salvation, and of the gift of eternal life.  If Christ is not raised, His word is a lie and we are doomed.
    But because Christ is raised, His Word is the pivotal reality that defines and shapes who we are and how we live and what we hope for in the face of death.  On this the last Sunday of the Church Year here is the word and promise on which the whole of faith rests.  Christ is our risen King who lives and reigns for all eternity, who will call us before His throne of grace for the final judgment to give to us and all believers eternal life.
    I love it when a wordsmith can put a mighty truth into a few words.  Jaroslav Pelikan did just that with this claim of Jesus. He said “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters.”  If Christ is risen, our sins are forgiven, we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness, we have an Advocate before the Father, He has gone to prepare the way for those who belong to Him.
    If Christ is risen nothing else matters – not a darn thing!  Only the Word of the Lord endures forever.  So do not be dismayed by the troubles and trials of this mortal life.
You are destined for something better.  Do not be deceived by the glimmer of today’s glory and happiness, there is more and better glory to come.  Do not despair that the world seems your enemy and life is a struggle, your victory lies not in things going your way here and now but in the eternity no one can steal from you.  Do not fear the loss of this world’s treasures, for the treasure God has given you, none can take from you.
    And the converse is also true.  If Christ is not risen, nothing else matters.  No matter how much happiness or success you can achieve for yourself, your heart will never be satisfied and death will steal it all back in the end.  No matter how great your accomplishments or glory, you will be forgotten in the annals of history and you will still be dead.  No matter what great things you have done, your sins will still define you just the way we are taking down statues of yesterday’s heros because their sins speak louder than their accomplishments.
    It is the Word of Christ that changes everything.  Sinners stand forgiven.  The defeated are made victorious.  The small are deemed great.  The guilty are made righteous.  The short-lived are given eternity.  The dead are raised.  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  That is the fulcrum on which our hope rests, the promise of our future hangs, and the comfort of our Gospel rests. This is what binds together the day and gospel.
    The lesson of the fig tree is that when it sends forth its leaves, summer is coming.  Christ’s resurrection is that leaf, the sign for our future and the sign of our future.  You can ignore many things in this life and nothing matters but you cannot ignore this or everything falls.  If Christ is risen, nothing else matters – everything will pass away and only what is Christ’s will endure.  If Christ is not risen, nothing else matters.  Every thing will pass away and nothing will endure – least of all you.  So stay alert.  Live today in this eternal hope.  You belong to Christ Your King.  Your future is in Him.  Everything passes away but Christ and His Word and because you live in this Word by baptism and faith, YOU are eternal.  Amen.

No news is good news. . .

I have come to dread the 24 hour, 7 day a week news cycle.  I cannot remember a morning when there was not breaking news on my local TV stations and none of it is good.  I often listen to satellite radio in my car and I can listen to any number of news programs but more and more the choice is classical music.  The stress of hearing about every bad thing that happens throughout the world is often more than I can bear -- amid the bad news from hospitals, doctor's offices, funeral homes, etc... of the folks in my parish.

It makes me wonder what kind of toll this is all taking on us a society.  Bad news travels too fast and it gets to the point where we are not sure whether or where to hide from it all.  As bad as this is for adults, what are we doing to our children?  I was talking with parents who describe the fears their children express -- fears not of monsters under the bed but of the real death and loss of the parents, siblings, and loved ones.  I cannot recall my own children expressing such fears and it makes me wonder whether any of us realizes the intense stress and anxiety we are placing upon our children who absorb bad news like a sponge and often without knowing what to do with it all.

As hard as it is for me, once a confirmed news junkie, to say this -- I think it has gone too far.  I think it is high time to exercise a little discretion and to allow our children to be children for a while.  We have placed academic pressure upon the preschool, the kindergarten, and the elementary school to the point where we drug every antsy child, ditch recess in favor of prep for standardized tests, and insist that they choose a vocation by age 7 or they will fall behind the learning curve of their peers.  We have stolen their fun and steal every game which threatens to leave them with a hang nail or else we impose rules upon the game designed to prevent winning or losing.  Even recess is no fun anymore.  And then we leave them to the mournful sounds of tragedy, trouble, trial, and terror that is the news.  No wonder we are prescribing anxiety medicines to our kids!

No doubt the pressures on moms and dads in this regard are greater than were upon me or my parents.  They may not be able to escape fully the constant press of bad news, the onslaught of fear, and the accompanying anxiety but their role as parents requires them to provide a childhood for their children.  Part of the comfort of the children flows from their confidence in God's providential care, in the presence of God when fear and terror are also found, and the power of God to fight for us that we may endure the twists and turns of this mortal life and remain faithful.

I am not suggesting that we raise our children to be naive but I do believe that we should carefully discern the amount of bad news they absorb from the news.  We cannot prevent them from hearing or experiencing the reality of our fallen world but we surely owe them the full benefit of Christ's steadfast and enduring love as their strength, support, and security in uncertain times and amid the real despair all around us.  From ISIS to sex predators to hidden enemies, there is no shortage of fear.  What there is a shortage of is confidence in God's providence, courage of faith amid disappointment and within the darkness of the times, and the consolation of God's mercy when things are bleakest.  If you are a parent, do your children a favor.  Make sure they know even better God's merciful love and protection as they know the things that foster the power of fear and terror in their lives.

Our children see way too much violence, they are dulled by the constant barrage of erotic images, they learn too quickly what the little blue pill does but not to delay medical treatment for an erection lasting more than four hours, and the constant disappointment of our leaders, our institutions, and our role models... they do not hear enough about God's goodness, about His never-failing love, about His mercies new every morning, about the wonder of His creation, and the surprise of grace.  If there is a kid at your home, think about what they see and hear from others and what they need to see and hear from you.  Children are resilient but they are not indestructible.  Whether yours is a picture perfect household or a broken home with one parent barely keeping it together, don't let your children grow up to a constant string of bad news.  It steals their childhood and, even worse, it embitters and poisons their adulthood.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Everything is awesome!

One of the things I have noticed is that there is plenty of what Alan Greenspan once termed irrational exuberance going on in the church.  It is irrational exuberance to adopt diversity as the primary goal of witness and worship.  It is irrational exuberance to borrow indiscriminately from all sources and presume that there will be on consequences upon doctrine and confession.  It is irrational exuberance to believe that practice is just practice and that we can change, move around, and adapt practice without affecting what it is that we believe, confess, and teach.  It is irrational exuberance to welcome every advance in technology and adopt it into the worship life of the congregation and make it the primary platform of mission.  It is irrational exuberance to think that the best way to make people come to church is to make church less like church and more like what they are already doing on Sunday morning.  It is irrational exuberance to insist that every idea have equal status and every voice is equally true when it comes to who we are, what we believe, and how we live as church.  It is irrational exuberance to believe that the savior of the church is coming in the next trend, the next wave of technology, or the next fad of worship.

Now there are surely those who think that I believe no new idea is a good one.  They are wrong.  I use Instagram and blog and utilize technology more than most.  But I do not attach to these any hope that they will make the Gospel or my ministry relevant or successful.  I am fully convinced that God and His Spirit make things happen and that our role is to faithfully proclaim the Word so that God can do what He has promised.  I think there are plenty of good ideas out there but the ideas are not our savior, they will not rescue a moribund church, and they will not transform us from faithful minority into mighty majority.  Confidence that God will work through the means of grace and courage to be faithful to the Word of the Lord -- these will be our hope, our future, and our victory if only we will manifest such confidence.

There is a certain naivete among many in the progressive wing of most all churches.  We saw it in the LCMS in the 1970s and our conflict, we see it in Rome and its less than fruitful Synod on the Family.  This naivete seems to devalue the means of grace and God's work through them and to expect that culture, society, trend, and what people think in the moment are the places we need to focus to reinvigorate the church and her mission.  There is no down side in this way of thinking.  The progressives have made their peace with change and have rested their hope for the future in that change.  Everything is awesome if we just get along, celebrate our differences, flaunt the values of diversity, and adapt to what is happening and what is being thought right now.

The theme song of the progressives in every church seems to be the same:  Everything is awesome!