Thursday, June 30, 2016

The fallacy of pro-choice. . .

Choice is the word chosen to define those who believe that no law can be allowed to infringe upon a woman's right to an abortion -- not even one which would simply require those officiating at the abortion to have the same ordinary qualifications of any other doing surgery!  Of course this has stirred the base of candidate Clinton and others who laud the decision of the Supreme Court to reject the requirements placed upon abortion providers in Texas (and other states).  But as careful as they are to call this a pro-choice position, there is no real choice allowed.  In the end the pro-position is not pro the prospect of a reasoned choice but only the choice TO abort.  That is the intolerance of the self-proclaimed tolerant.  The pro-choice side of this allows only one choice -- the choice for abortion, for the unrestricted access to abortion and the elimination of any barriers to this free access (from consent of spouse or parent to financial cost to distance).  The pro-choice movement has only one goal -- a locally available abortion provider, without any requirements/restrictions but the whim of the woman, and free (at the cost of the taxpayer).

It was said long ago that there was some common ground between pro-choice and pro-life.  It was once claimed that the pro-choice position believed that abortions should be safe, legal, and rare.  It might have been thought that the emphasis upon rare meant it was a choice but only a final choice under extreme circumstances.  Now the illusion has been shattered.  By insisting that any restriction or regulation of abortion is unacceptable, the liberal pro-choice movement have become the exact same entity as their dreaded opposite -- the pro-gun movement.  In reality, I am not at all sure that it can be said that pro-choice people believe that abortion should be rare; I am fully confident that they believe it should be safe, legal, local, and free and that abortion is a salutary choice -- as salutary, moral, and virtuous as carrying the child to term and delivering the baby. And that effectively removes even the prospect of any common ground between those who laud the choice to abort and those who condemn it.

The SCOTUS has overturned logical, reasonable, and protective regulations for the sake of the mother.  Perhaps these were occasioned by those seeking to put the brakes on abortion but these same restrictions have not prevented the choice -- only made it safer and moved it within the pale of other medical procedures and their preventative rules.  By rejecting this argument, the liberals on the court have shown that they do not believe abortion is a right or a choice but the right course and the right choice -- along with those who say that they are pro-choice when they are in reality only pro one choice.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Keys to success. . .

I was reading an English blogger tracing some of the history of Roman Catholics in officially non-conformist England and came across this little tidbit:

Cardinal Manning’s verdict on Northampton [w]as “the dead diocese”. But the situation changed with the appointment of Bishop Arthur Riddell in 1880. In office for 27 years, he was determined to open new mission centres and to halt the decline of his diocese.

He opened 25 mission centres, 18 stations (where Masses were celebrated) and 14 chapels. By 1896, the numbers of clergy had risen from 25 to 61 and the churches from 35 to 61, alongside another 17 chapels and communities. There were also 41 Catholic elementary schools and a seminary. By the time of the bishop’s 25th anniversary the congregation of his diocese had risen to 12,744, with 70 priests and 35 parishes. Riddell’s evangelising methods followed a tried and successful pattern: at first, renting a room for a priest; then establishing a small oratory; subsequently collecting donations to buy land to build a church.

I mention Professor Charmley’s chapter and the energy of Bishop Riddell in particular, because it shows what a far-sighted and determined bishop can achieve in unpromising circumstances. He gave a clarion call to his fellow Catholics in his diocese which is worth quoting, as his message is still very pertinent today: “What is our duty? It is to be thorough Catholics, Catholics in name and in deed; practical Catholics, fulfilling all our duties to God and to our neighbour, praying, hearing Mass, frequenting the Sacraments, keeping the days of fasting and abstinence, avoiding sin, practising virtue, loving God; this is the way for us to assist in the conversion of England, and there is no other.”  (emphasis mine)
I am always intrigued by the stories of renewal in places where churches have been stagnant.  It is too often the case today that we have all the sociology, all the demographics, all the marketing skills, and all the technology to bring about renewal but we continually get bogged down in searching for a gimmick or in redefining the faith or changing worship or making religion not really a religion at all.  So for all our energy, enthusiasm, and expense, we end up hardly changing the decline at all or increasing the speed at which we have emptied our churches.

The message of this Roman Catholic bishop in Protestant England was not novelty but ordinary common sense.  I wish we had more of it today.  For those Lutherans who look to the evangelicals to save us or who embrace the skepticism of the scholars to make faith less threatening or who mirror the culture in order to be friendly, I think we can learn something from old Bishop Riddell.

What is our duty?  It is to be thoroughly Lutheran, Lutheran in name and in deed; practical Lutherans, fulfilling our duties to God and to our neighbor, praying, going to the Divine Service, frequenting the Sacraments, keeping piety at home, avoiding sin, practicing virtue, loving God... for this is the way for us to assist the Lord in the conversion of America (or anywhere else), and there is no other.

I am boringly dull and I lead a boringly dull life.  I am ill-equipped to be the one who would grow the Christ's Church in Clarksville, Tennessee, or anywhere else, for that matter.  I am a sinner painfully aware of my sins and constant need for grace in which to stand.  If the work of God depends upon me, God is surely doomed.  But the Lord has never released to His Church or His ministers responsibility for growing the Kingdom.  He does not trust us enough to sit idly by and watch us undo what He has done.  He knows us and what we are capable of and what we are not.  He asks of us not that which we cannot do but what we can and should and ought to do as His baptized people.  He asks us simply to be who we are.  He has promised no Word will return to Him empty, no water with His name will fail to wash clean, and no bread and wine set apart by His Word will fail to feed us Christ's flesh and blood to forgive our sins and impart to us the foretaste of heaven's eternal glory.  He has bluntly (perhaps too bluntly) warned us of our enemies and the threats against us because we belong to Him and yet He has even more bluntly insisted that He who is in us is greater than He who is in the world.  He has given us the tools to live the new lives we received from the baptismal water and imparted to us the Spirit to bend our wills and teach us the holy joy of the obedience of faith. 

If fulfill our baptismal vocation to God and serve our neighbor and pray and go to the Divine Service (faithfully) and receive the Sacraments frequently (including absolution) and keep our piety at home and work to avoid sin and practice virtue and love God.... well, that is all we can ever do.  Better than even this, He has promised to do the rest.  As my friend Will Weedon is want to say, "It is not that we tried Lutheranism and found it wanting but that we have not yet tried it..."  This is the glaring verdict which rests over too much of our Lutheranism.  We have failed to be true to our confession, to the practice of the faith in our lives and our life together, and to do what IS given us to do (instead of trying to do what is still and always God's to do). 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Looking Forward to Faithfully Follow. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 8C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, June 26, 2016.
    Walking in a straight line can be difficult especially when there’s so much to look at.  With all the sights and sounds of the world around us, whether it’s nature or the city, there’s always something for us to look at.  It’s near impossible to walk straight if you aren’t looking straight ahead...and this is how it is with us as we follow after our Christ.  If we don’t look forward, setting our faces on Him and Him alone, we can’t faithfully follow after Him. 
    When Jesus walked the earth, He walked straight, always looking forward.  From the very beginning, He was all about one thing, doing the Father’s will.  As a twelve year boy He knew His place was at the Temple, and now once again He knew His place was in Jerusalem.  But this time, He wasn’t going to the Temple, the place where animals were sacrificed daily.  This time He was going to the cross, the place where He would be sacrificed. 
    Luke tells us that Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51).  Christ looked forward without distraction.  He was resolute, walking a straight path toward the holy city, walking a straight path toward the cross, and nothing was going to stop Him.  He was determined, unyielding, and unwavering.  Christ made His final journey to Jerusalem with one thing on His mind...His never-ending and unconditional love for you.  This self-giving love is what drove Christ to the cross.  He would not turn aside from this path because He walked it in love for you.
    Our Lord purposefully went to the cross to die for you, to set you free.  His sacrificial death was and is the final sacrifice for all sin.  As Jesus shed His blood on that crossed shaped altar, He paid the price for sin, for your sin.  He atoned for your transgressions, and with His death He set you from death, He set you free from sin.  No longer are they your masters.  No longer do they consume your life.  Now your life is in Christ and He has called you to follow Him, to set your face on Him, to walk straight in God’s kingdom.
    As Jesus made His way to Jerusalem, people followed.  More than just the Twelve walked with Jesus.  One of the men Jesus met said, “I will follow you wherever you go” (Lk 9:57).  This man was confident in his ability and commitment to Christ.  But following after Jesus wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be comfortable.  Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58).  And this is the same for those who follow Him.  Jesus was a sojourner here on earth.  Earth was not His home.  His home is next to the Father, and so too is the home of those who follow Christ.  Your citizenship is here, but in heaven.  That’s where you’ll find your everlasting dwelling place, that’s where your comfort and joy is even now in the midst of the discomforts of this earth, the discomforts of sin and death.
     After Jesus called this man to follow, He called to another, and this man was also confident. He also would follow Jesus, but first he had to take care of some things: he had to bury his father.  But the Lord said, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.  But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60).  This man was concerned with the things of this world.  His face wasn’t set on Christ, but on death.  He was not ready to focus solely on Christ, to look toward the everlasting life in God’s kingdom.
     Now I don’t want anyone to get confused with Jesus words.  Christ isn’t saying not to bury our loved ones who’ve died.  Instead, Christ’s words are a call to follow after Him first, with a willingness to put Him and His kingdom above all else, even above our family.  And this is the same message He gave to the third man in our Gospel.
     This man also said he’d follow Jesus, but like the second, he too had other things he needed to do.  His first priority was to return home and say goodbye to his family and friends.  He too was still focused on the things of this world, and again Jesus said this would not do.  “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).  
     A plowman who looks back won’t do a good job.  Plowing is a difficult task, especially plowing by hand.  It requires one’s full attention to hold the plow and maneuver the animal at the same time.  If the plowman is distracted, not looking forward but backwards, his rows won’t be straight.  This isn’t good for planting, and it’s certainly not good for faith.  Like the plowman, we must be focused solely on Christ, setting our face on Him, looking forward. 
      The men in our Gospel were confident they could follow after Christ, but this was false confidence.  They were incapable of setting their face on Jesus.  They were distracted with everything else, with the things of this temporary world...and so are we.  We may think we can confidently follow after Christ, but we too are easily distracted.  We focus on the things of this world, the natural cares and priorities of this life.  There is so much that demands our attention here on earth, and we attend to these things first.  We believe the things of today are more important than the things of tomorrow, than the things of faith and God’s kingdom. 
     All our efforts of strength and determination can’t keep our focused eyes straight ahead on Christ.  Our sin, the world around us, and the devil distract us.  They avert our eyes to other things, to the things of the flesh as St. Paul says.  They lead our feet off the path of righteousness.  So we need a guide, someone to lead us.  We need a helper, someone to make us fit for the kingdom of God.  This someone is the Helper, the Holy Spirit.  He leads you where you need to go.  He leads you to Christ alone.  He creates within you a new and clean heart, a heart of faith that desires Christ and His kingdom, a heart that desires to walk straight.  He gives you faith and keeps you in it, and He daily and richly forgives all your sins.  With the Holy Spirit leading you, you can and you do follow Christ without looking back.  You stay focused on Him, looking forward to the everlasting life that He has won for you on the cross. 
     In order for us to follow Jesus, we have to set our faces on Him and Him alone, just as He set His face on the cross for us.  We can’t be partial, with one eye looking at Him and the other looking back at our old life.  We can’t be distracted with the natural cares and priorities of this life.  We can’t look back to our old sinful ways and pursue them again.  We can’t look at death and be afraid of it.  We can’t let the world and Satan avert our eyes from Jesus.  With the Spirit leading us, we must look forward with the eyes of faith that we’ve been given.  We must focus our full attention on God’s kingdom, on Christ and His salvation, and on the new life that He gives to us.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Shock! Scandal! What will it mean for humanity?

The world is up in arms.  A curling scandal has erupted that might call into question the once and ancient sport of pushing a piece of granite down an icy path.  It turns out the star player was supposed to be the granite pusher, now technology has threatened to overshadow him and make the stars of the sport those guys standing on either side with brooms in their hands.  What will the world come to if such scandalous things are allowed to continue unhindered?!?

The broom, you might think, has little room for improvement. Take a handle and some bristles, fasten together, and enjoy a perfectly competent cleaning device.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes fame and fortune become the adoptive parents. As the sport of curling has professionalized since its reintroduction to the Olympics in 1998—that’s the competition where stones are slid along the ice with two players furiously sweeping the preceding terrain—the investment in broom R&D has gone up, too. (Independent of Proctor & Gamble’s Swiffer, mind you.)

Therein arose a problem: Broomgate, as it’s predictably being called. Until last November, the World Curling Federation hadn’t really regulated the type of brooms curlers could use. This is, after all, a sport that still mines the quarry of an uninhabited Scottish island for all its micro-granite stones.
In this vacuum of regulation arose something called “directional fabric,” which permits more extreme course-changing down the lane. One company in this market, Hardline Curling, touts its icePad’s patent-pending technology that brushes only the small ice pebbles atop the lane. The president of Balance Plus, an industry leader, responded in an open letter urging an unnamed company (cough cough, Hardline, cough cough) to “Do The Right Thing and stop using directional fabric.”

Any novice who’s stumbled onto a televised match has probably wondered how much control the sweepers really have in generating enough friction to change the stone’s trajectory. Well, as former world champion Glenn Howard told SportsNet in Canada last fall, “It’s a type of fabric that allows you to virtually steer the rock. I use the phrase ‘joystick’. I can now joystick right, left, forward, back.

“Up until 18 months ago, it was 80 percent shooter, 20 percent sweeping and now in the last year and a half, it’s become 20 percent shooting and 80 percent sweeping. It’s just not acceptable.
Stupid me thought that curling was invented by drunken Scandahoovians who had nothing else to do during the long dark winter of the northlands.  Turns out they were cultivating the true athletic competition.  This is, however, a sport any good Lutheran can enjoy -- fitness is not essential but an alcoholic drink is, ice is cheap and readily available, momma's broom is handy, and there is no shortage of granite.  Yup, this is just the kind of thing I could get into -- except for the fact that controversy and scandal have tarnished the cache of this sport.  I will have to wait and see where the ice dust falls before jumping on this bandwagon! 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Guess who prayed this prayer?

“Allah bless us and bless our families and bless our Lord. Lead us on the straight path – the path of all the prophets: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Peace be upon them all Amen.
“In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful, let us praise the Lord. The creator of the universe, the most merciful, the most compassionate and the Lord of the universe who has created us and made us into nations and tribes, from male and females that we may know each other, not that we might despise each other, or may despise each other. Incline towards peace and justice and trust in God, for the Lord is one that hears and knows everything and the servants of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful, gracious are those who walk in the earth in humility and when bigots and hateful and Islamaphobes address them, they say peace. Peace be upon them and peace be upon Allah.”
If you would have guessed the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), then you would be correct.  As the first order of business it offered prayers to the Islamic deity, Allah, led by a representative of the Muslim community on behalf of the Presbyterian Assembly.

Wajidi was taking part in the assembly’s scheduled time of remembrance for those killed in the recent Orlando terrorist attack and those killed last year in the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C. “In the days leading up to this assembly we all know that our nation’s peace has once again been ripped apart by an act of mass violence,” said Heath Rada, moderator of the 221st General Assembly, when introducing it.  The violence, he said, “tore at each of our hearts as it reminded us of too many tragedies and too many victims. We are all touched by the tragedy of violence in some way. Being from North Carolina, I am reminded of the Chapel Hill shooting of Muslims, and I am concerned of course as I recognize that yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the shootings at AME church in Charleston.

Rada said that Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons requested the staff leadership of the PCUSA’s ecumenical and interfaith ministries — Robina Winbush, Laurie Anderson, Rick Ufford-Chase and Laurie Kraus, — “ to provide for us as a first order of business an opportunity to lift up these tragedies that are so much on our minds.”

It was supposed to be an exercise of ecumenical friendship in a time of remembrance for national tragedy,  sponsored by the interfaith staff of the PCUSA, but I guess that offending the Triune God is one small price to pay for extending the hand of welcome to Muslims by Presbyterians.  Honestly folks, it just does not get weirder and more offensive than this -- truth is always stranger than fiction!

Watch at the 14 minute mark. . .

General Assembly convenes in Plenary, Business Session 1 from Office of the General Assembly on Vimeo.

Some Swiss Chard. . .

Or make that Swiss weird! 

Heaven forbid that we might ask a Christian to come and bless the opening of a tunnel.  Nope, that might be too, well, religious.  So, left to the committee on observing the opening of civic projects, subcategory tunnel, why not take an ancient legend and bring it to life?  Lets observe the world's longest and deepest tunnel by creating a drama starring the devil and a goat.  Weird, yes.  Typical of a culture unfriendly to Christianity but seemingly open to anything else, yup.  Oh, well, who can call the Swiss dull now!  They are anything but boring here.  Makes you wonder why old John Calvin might think about it all?!  I did notice that there were no representatives from the Swiss papal guards.  Maybe they had already used up their travel budget. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hybrids that dilute our identity. . .

Peter Berger, Lutheran sociologist, wrote:  Religion scholars use the term “hybrids” for groups that put together their faith and practice by taking bits and pieces from previous religious traditions. If one wants a suggestive picture, think of a child assembling a little house by taking Lego pieces from several boxes. A synonym for “hybridization” is “syncretism,” though that term has a pejorative undertone, as when theologians deplore the pollution of the allegedly pure faith by alien accretions. Hybrids have existed throughout history, but where today religious pluralism coincides with religious freedom all sorts of hybrids emerge. 

While Berger may be more interested in more organized forms of religious hybrids, what he describes is happening all around us and without much control or even notice.  The advent of the internet and the invention of social media have had profound impact upon the religious beliefs of the folks in the pew.  The growing congregationalism (for all denominations) has made it possible for pastors to literally invent their own versions of what it means to be, say, a Lutheran.  While this was always true in the past, the present day has seen a flourishing and a new found legitimacy to such unofficial hybrids or, as might be more accurate, syncretism.

We could condemn such things but the real issue is not the tendency for people to infuse their own faith with influences from around them.  No, the real issue is ongoing and faithful catechesis.  The sad truth is that too many of our folks are so unsure as to what we believe, confess, and teach that they do not know or realize that their version of Lutheranism bears little resemblance to the reality of our Confessions.

Lutheranism in theory is always better and less messy than its practice.  That said, it does not justify the lack of a clarion sound to gather the people in an informed and deliberate way to raise them up in the faith of their baptism, confirmation, and church.  This is not incidental or trivial but part of the key to maintaining and sustaining the faith from one generation to another.

While I have no great expectation that our members will ever be well schooled in the entire Book of Concord, I do believe that they should have thorough familiarity with the Small Catechism and more than a passing awareness of the Augustana.  These are by far the two most pivotal parts of our confessional identity and these ought to be the ongoing concern of pastors and people in every Lutheran parish.  I would hope that from this interest in and instruction in some of the other documents of our Confessions would follow.  The Concordia version put out recently by CPH provides enough added information, context, and explanation to make the whole Book of Concord accessible for every lay person.  We have sold dozens upon dozens in my parish and I do encourage the reading of these documents that give the most profound expression to what we believe, confess, and teach as Lutherans. 

This is also the bulwark against the erosion of our faith.  The less we know about who we are, the easier it is for popular people and books to distance us from who we are and what we confess.  This is no small problem for the average parish pastor and it should be the concern of those who supervise doctrine and practice in our churches as well as those who prepare church workers for service within our churches.  The dilution of our identity is a constant threat and there is more to this than mere denominational loyalty.  It goes to the integrity of the Gospel and the unity of our faith and life -- both within the parish and across the boundaries of the church body.

Hybrids will always exist but they cannot be allowed to exist without an ongoing catechetical process to challenge and inform the syncretism that threatens to erase the very basis of who we are, what we believe, what is taught among us, and our public confession before the world.