Wednesday, September 30, 2009

BBC and Bach -- What WE Lutherans Should Have Done...

Borrowed from my friend Paul McCain... Catch the YouTube Videos while you can...

This is a recent documentary that offers a fairly good overview of the Reformation and the work of J.S. Bach as the servant of the Lutheran Church that he was, laboring away in near obscurity, using limited resources. It’s kind of quirky, in a typically British way. It is good that it focuses on the music as Bach actually wrote it and for the purpose he wrote it. Everyone is familiar with Bach’s instrumental works, but in fact his massive cycles of Church cantatas are his greatest achievements. This documentary “gets it” as well, if not better, than anything I’ve seen before. There are some great scenes filmed in St. Mary’s Church, Wittenberg; St. Thomas, Leipzig, and St. George, Eisenach. The churches are not always clearly identified. It’s a shame they didn’t subtitle the chorales and cantatas as they were sung. But that’s often the way it is: people focus more on the music and not the words, which, to Bach, were the most important reason why he wrote his music. The Word of God was conveyed by Bach’s music in powerful ways, but it is not the music, per se, that is the thing, it is the Word of God, and … most importantly and significantly of all Bach was interested in conveying Christ and Him crucified. This aspect of his work is hinted at but never specifically articulated. We can only assume the American Lutheran pastor who is interviewed in this piece did explicitly confess Christ, but his remarks were edited out. That’s usually how it is with Bach. People grow increasingly uncomfortably the more specifically Christian the talk gets. But Bach’s great church music was all about Christ. They can’t help but tell us that when they feature the popular chorale from Bach’s Cantata 147, Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Renowned actor and former chorister Simon Russell Beale explores the flowering of Western sacred music in this documentary series for BBC FOUR. Simon’s travels bring him to Germany where Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation led to a musical revolution and ultimately to the glorious works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Luther, a Catholic monk who was also a composer, had a profound effect on the development of sacred music. He re-defined the role of congregational singing and the use of the organ in services. Crucially he also developed the hugely important tradition of singing in the vernacular which would characterize protestant worship for the next 500 years. Martin Luther’s reforms – and the century and a half of music that followed – shaped the world of JS Bach. Although today he is considered by many to be one of the greatest composers in history, in reality Bach spent most of his life working for the church and unknown to anyone outside of a small part of Germany. Simon’s journey includes Eisenach, in Eastern Germany, where Bach was born and the extraordinary space of the Thomaskirke in Leipzig where the composer spent much of his career. Here he discovers how Johann Sebastian Bach was in many ways a one man music factory, who for many years produced for the church work of the very highest quality, week after week after week. Bach wrote over a thousand pieces of music, and nearly two thirds of them he produced for the Lutheran Church. Throughout the programme, in the period setting of St George’s Lutheran Church in East London, conductor Harry Christophers leads singers from ‘The Sixteen’ and a small group of baroque instrumentalists through some of the key repertoire – including: ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’, one of Bach’s most celebrated religious works, which is based on a Lutheran hymn tune.

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Form and Substance...

In reading about Lutherans and other Christians (especially evangelicals) who have chosen to swim the Tiber or the Bosporus (i.e. go to Rome or Orthodoxy) I find myself increasingly thinking in terms of the problem of form and substance.

The truth is that many who seek out Rome or Constantinople are coming out of churches that have neither form nor substance. They do not have form -- the liturgy, creed, confession, Eucharist, priesthood, etc. They do not have substance -- the fullness of the catholic faith in proclamation or in teaching. For many of these people the journey is one that begins with the emptiness of what most of Protestantism has become (whether mainline or evangelical). With worship centered on the "me" of the person in the pew - uh make that theater seat -- and with preaching and teaching that has evolved into social justice or personal happiness, their rebellion leads them to find something that has roots, depth, Truth...

For Lutherans (and Episcopalians) the journey is somewhat different. It is not so much a turn from emptiness to something as it is a determination that either form or substance is lacking in their tradition and so they seek that which they believe is gone. For Lutherans it is often a move toward form -- a tradition in which the Mass (Divine Liturgy) does not have to be introduced, defended, or justified. It just is. For Lutherans it is often the frustration of substance (present in the Lutheran Confessions and the catholic identity of the Great Reformation and its most significant teachers) that is not reflected in practice (non-communion Sundays, contemporary worship without identifiable liturgy, and a me-too ideal that gravitates either toward non-denominational evangelicalism or mainline Protestantism).

For Episcopalians it is the form that increasingly lacks substance -- the Prayer Book, liturgy, the three fold ministry of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon -- in a church body that seems to stand for nothing specific and tolerates such a diversity of truths that the one Truth of Jesus Christ is missing.

I understand the frustration. It is tiring to have to remind Lutherans who they are -- over and over again. Or to teach them who they are for the first time. Our Confessions have become distant from us -- they are there, they are the doctrinal standards of our Synod and congregations, yet we so often do not know them well enough so that they truly inform and define the practice of our faith (the form).

I understand the frustration. My own parish stands out not only from the Baptist/Church of Christ/Nazarene landscape of the city in which we reside but also from the bulk of other Lutheran and LCMS churches in the surrounding cities, states, and District. It is a constant fight to keep our liturgical identity rooted in our catholic confession. I know all too well that the work I have undertaken for nearly 17 years here could all be gone if another kind of Lutheran Pastor replaced me.

Yet I am not so sure that a boat trip across either the Tiber or the Bosporus would yield any substantial gains on either front -- form or substance. I love the liturgy, the Western Mass, which is the heart and soul of Lutheran and Roman Catholic worship. Truly the Roman does not have to defend the ceremonial practices of the liturgy as a Lutheran must. But... I am not so sure that Gospel speaks so loudly and clearly in the average Roman Catholic parish as it does in the average Lutheran parish. My own experience is that the form itself has been corrupted by a lack of participation of the congregation, a lack of singing, a shallow musical tradition of anything goes, and a determined need to get 900 people through the Mass, communed, and on their way home in 55 minutes or less. I believe that even in form, the trade off for leaving is really an exchange of one set of problems for another.

When it comes to substance, I think a swim in either direction of Rome or Constantinople, may bring with it a certain fuzziness about this Gospel that means, again, the exchange of one set of problems with another. Rome's reintroduction of indulgences even as Lutherans and Roman Catholics were supposed to have some solid agreement on justification stands out as a sign of this fuzziness. The ethnic and cultural identity of Eastern Orthodoxy as it is practiced in most parishes is often a hidden barrier to anyone whose worldview and perspective are distinctly Western. The tradition of a church body shaped by the first seven Ecumenical Councils is noble but 1200 years have passed since that last council and Orthodoxy has suffered much from that distance.

I continue to believe that a liturgically vibrant, confessionally confident, theologically informed, and liturgically catholic Lutheran parish offers me the best combination of form and substance. And I would offer it to those frustrated with their current church home... give us a look see...

Like Transformers... more than meets the eye...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Watch What You Read

On Sunday a member handed me a photocopy of a devotion from a devotional book she was using. This person is well informed, well read, and Scripturally competent. The devotion was on immersion and the author had a line in it about the abominable and terrible doctrine of baptismal regeneration which Scripture does NOT teach. In addition, the passages he marked with the word immerse were not in any way connected to baptism at all -- according to his opinion. We spoke briefly about it and my answer to her question about this was fairly simple - He is wrong!

Which brings me to these points. We live in a world when there is big money in publishing religious books and most of the book publishers of religious books are no longer in any way affiliated with a church. In fact, most are profit making companies whose interest in the religious market is one thing -- money. So the first rule of the religious marketplace is that books are published not because they represent truth but because publishers feel they can make money publishing them.

Second, there is no doctrinal review of these books so as long as it sells this is the only review of the content that takes place (unlike our own Concordia Publishing House which submits all of its products to theological review and clearly marks those items that have worthy material in them but come from other or non-Lutheran sources). So caveat emptor -- buyer beware, or, in this case, reader beware. The truths in these books may not square with the Truth of God's Word and the faithful confession of the Church through the centuries. This is especially true in any subject that deals with the end times, the last days, the rapture, etc...

Third, if you read something that sounds wrong, don't let the wrong headed stuff sit in your mind without finding out what is True. The longer these wrong headed things sit in our minds, the more we begin to question, doubt, or even disregard what is faithful and true. Deal with these questions and seek out answers which rest on something more than an authors opinion. Seek the wisdom of the Church, the church fathers, and the church teachers whose orthodoxy is without question.

Fourth, when it comes to what faith is, matters of Law and Gospel, the Sacraments, the means of grace, etc... if it bears the imprint of a general publishing outfit or a for profit religious publishing company, it is probably incompatible with Lutheran faith and teaching. Lutherans do not get published by these folks. And in case you are wondering, you are not in the minority as Lutherans in your take on these areas -- the vast majority of Christians disagree with American evangelicalism, with the Joel Osteens of this world, and with the lunatic fringe (like the Copelands, for example).

Fifth, if you find a few things that stick out, things that do not square with the faith, get rid of the book. It is not worth your time. Read something that gives you more and not something that offers you less. Dig into Luther. Dig into the Lutheran dogmaticians (Chemnitz, Gerhard, Krauth, etc...). Dig into the current offerings at Concordia Publishing House. Take note of the big four (Lutheran Service Book, The Lutheran Study Bible, Luther's Small Catechism, Concordia - the Lutheran Confessions) and when you master them, you will be alert to the stuff that floods the religious marketplace with fluff, half-truths, distortions, and downright lies.

Just because it has been published, it does not mean it is credible... We Lutherans are creedal and confessional people. We insist we are not innovators. We do not cotton to theological novelty. We stick with the Truth that has always been confessed. We are catholic and not sectarian. We are Law/Gospel people... That is our strength... don't let it become our weakness by paying too much attention to those authors and those books that challenge, demean, distort, or dispute what we know to be Truth, catholic Truth and evangelical Truth... in the best sense of those terms...

Monday, September 28, 2009

On Separating Jesus and the Kingdom of God from the Church

After about the hundredth time I heard someone say the Church is not the same as God's Kingdom or we should be more concerned about bringing people to Christ than bringing them to the Church, I decided to ramble a bit on this subject...

It has become fashionable to distinguish the Kingdom of God from the Church gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord, to separate bringing people to Christ from bringing them to the Church. While I understand the reasoning behind this, it makes me very uncomfortable. This distinction ultimately leads us to where I don't think any of us wants to go -- with a private Christianity in which the Church is reduced to me and the faith is only as big as me. And that is a problem.

We can and do speak of the invisible Church -- realizing that the fullness of the Church is never visible to us. It bridges time and space and at any given moment we only glimpse a portion of the Church. Another portion of the Church is never visible to us until we become part of it in heaven. We can and do speak of the Kingdom of God in a way that transcends any one local gathering of God's people around His Word and Table or any one denomination. That is all well and good but the Kingdom of God is most visible to us and accessible to us in the gathered community of faith we call the Church. We can and do speak of bringing Christ to people (to the nations) -- but unless we bring them to the Church, we have not given them all Christ intends for them and we may leave them dangerously vulnerable and adrift from the very moorings to which Christ has attached Himself.

It seems that Lutherans have become fairly adept at this separation -- as if making Lutherans were somehow antagonistic to making them Christians or the Lutheran congregation is something less than the Church of Jesus Christ or the Kingdom of God is a separate and distinct group apart from the Church. When I read Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, I do not see such comfort with these distinctions -- at least not in the way they are used today.

What is the Church? Is it not the community of the baptized gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord? What relationship does this gathered community have against the Kingdom of God? Is not the Kingdom of God visible and the Church present where Christ has placed His name and two or three are gathered (which, by the way, means specifically the Word and Sacraments which are where Christ has placed His name, His power, and access to His grace).

We as Lutherans should be pretty clear on this matter. Yet sometimes we denigrate and even show disdain for the Church as if the Church were optional at best or a distraction from Christ and His kingdom at worst. What kind of foolishness is this? Yes, the Church on earth includes manifest sinners and those outside the Kingdom (until the Lord separates the sheep and the goats) but it is not as if we have taken Jesus gift of the Church, established by His blood, and made it into something sectarian and awful. It is and was God's intention that on earth the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest when He will separate them. Jesus' caution about taking it upon ourselves to separate the two is well taken. I say this not to be content by this but to be content that God and His grace are still at work in the Church of Jesus Christ despite this apparent weakness and failing.

The visible Church, the community gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord, is where God means us to be as Christian people. We are too seek out that gathered community whose confession is faithful and true. We are to place ourselves in partnership with the others of this community in service to the Lord and His Kingdom. We bring forth our tithes and offerings within this gathered community and offer them to the Lord by offering them to His Church.

Perhaps if we spoke more highly about the Church, if we made sure that we did not just share the faith but connected these people to the gathered community, and if we raised up the Church as we do the Kingdom of God, they would look more similar to us and to the world around us...

Faith is not a private matter between me and the Lord. Faith is very public and we wear our faith on the outside as well as on the inside. Christians cannot be content with a me and Jesus approach to life. We need to be connected to the Church, to the gathered community, because that is where Christ is in His Word and Sacraments. It is from this Church that we bring Christ home to our houses and neighborhoods and with us into our work places and schools.

No Sermon This Week But. . .

There is no sermon this week since I did not preach (Pastor Childress did and he can post his sermons on his blog... ha ha ha). But that will not stop me from some musings...

As I read the lesson from Numbers (first service) and then heard it read again (second service) I was struck by how much these words apply to ME... and I do not mean in a good way... Let me see if I can share what went through my mind when I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day...

The people of God are called a rabble. Miriam Webster said a rabble is a disorganized, disorderly, confused, and angry crowd of people. Have not checked the Hebrew but this is enough for now. What an eye opening view of the people of God. Disorganized, confused, and angry -- well, that sums it up too often. Reminds me of the old joke about people who don't believe in organized religion -- well then join the Lutheran church because it is the most disorganized religion I know.... Disorganized, yes, when compared to the sleek and savvy business models. Disorganized, yes, when compared to hierarchical structures like the military where somebody above snaps and everything else below jumps.

Disorderly... well, yes, even the Book of Acts describes a church meeting so disorderly that no one could hear others speaking anymore. Unfortunately, that sounds familiar. Confused... well, yes, we are often confused about what path to take, how to accomplish the mission, and easily tempted by the slick parachurch/business models the promise success in earthly terms... as well as often confused by the very things in Scripture we should be clear about... Angry... well, yes, we are often angry... at God, at the Church, at the Pastor, at other Christians...

Yes this is who we are but God is still with us, still among with His Word and Sacraments, still gracing us with His Spirit to teach, to lead, and to confirm us in His Truth. And I am reminded that these rabble words are most true of us when we forget and take our minds off of the Lord and think only of ourselves.

According to Numbers Moses heard about it and knew God was displeased and so Moses was upset too. And this is where it gets personal for me. Moses did not share the complaints of the people but lamented to God that he had to bear up the burden of this rabble all by himself. His whining sounded way too familiar. Moses insisted that these were not HIS people but GOD'S people and it was about time that God carried the weight for their needs. And he ended with a "better dead than how things are now" that was not exactly the model of Christian hope for the life to come.

Ouch. Sometimes Pastors... uh, let me rephrase that, THIS Pastor has been known to feel and even express out loud some of these same sentiments. But at the same time, I often choose my own misery rather than share the burden of this office with anyone else. So my misery is often self-imposed. Which sort of takes away my right to complain...

And what did God do? He raised up the seventy elders of Israel, put them in a circle around the church (tent of meeting), to stand in support of Moses, placed some of the Spirit He had given Moses upon these seventy, and they prophesied as the sign of the mantle of leadership which God had placed upon them (not Moses).

Instead of being threatened by all of this, Moses wished that all of God's people were prophets! Note to self -- don't be threatened when God raises up faithful and competent people to share with you the leadership mantle of God's people in this place.

As if this were not enough. In the Gospel lesson we heard Jesus calm the fearful disciples who thought that there competing leaders for the Church. "He who is not against us, is for us..." said Jesus.

So, all in all, it was a good Sunday for this Pastor NOT to talk but to do some listening. Wisdom! Attend! The Reading of the Word of God! Amen!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Children In Worship

A member of my parish dropped off a clipping from the Nashville (TN) paper reporting that one of the larger non-denominational congregations there has decided to exclude children from worship. Children instead go to children's church of the appropriate age category.

It goes without saying that everyone of us has been in worship when a child's cries interrupted the service. It has often gone without saying but needs to be said here that the issue lies more with the parent than the child. I have had lots of folks tell me that children don't belong in worship because they detract from what is going on. I do not agree. Sure, there are parents who don't know when taking a child out is the better part of valor but for the most part, I want children in the pews on Sunday morning.

We have a cry room, with speaker from the Sanctuary, with a one way window to view what happens in worship, but this is an emergency place -- for a diaper change, nursing, calming a fussy child... it is not the place where kids are supposed to be during worship.

We have a nursery with a paid staff. It is well equipped with cribs, toys, restroom, tables, activity books, etc. It is a place for children having a bad day when parents have gotten to the end of their ropes. It is not the place where kids are supposed to be during worship.

The Divine Service is for all the people of God. Every age group needs to be there -- together, around the Word and Table of the Lord, in the Lord's House, on the Lord's day. In fact, I often find children to be the most attentive to what is happening. If given the chance, they watch and pay careful attention to every movement, action, and ceremony. They often get it when adults are focused elsewhere. When they come to the rail, they watch my every move. Many of them can repeat every word of the liturgy by heart and often sing the songs of the ordinary with great gusto. That is one of the great things about the liturgy -- it teaches simply by being there, paying attention, and participating.

I often wonder, however, why parents choose the back pews. If you are a small child, what do you see from the back pew -- you see several hundred rear ends. If you have seen one, you have seen them all. It is no wonder children in the back of the nave are bored and easily distracted. They see nothing. Move them up front.

We have quiet bags with books on the liturgy to help children pay attention when they are distracted. These are great teaching tools -- not just coloring books or the like but the kind of things that pull them back into what is happening -- not distract them from what is happening.

And if they cry... well then they cry. Who are the adults here? If adults cannot focus out on an occasional outburst by a child, then something bigger is wrong than a teary eyed child. Besides, every time a child cries, we are reminded that the whole family of God is present - complete with all our foibles. That is a good thing to remember.

So parents....WELCOME to the Lord's House! Move up front. Point out things to your children. Help them to be part of the whole community. Encourage them to sing by singing yourselves. If they get too much to handle, head to the cry room for a time out. If they are having a bad day (and we all have them), use the nursery that Sunday. But bring your children with you to worship.

We don't need to baby talk them through the liturgy or even talk down to them. They learn by doing, by repeating, by exploring... just like we do. So give them something that encourages them in their lifelong learning... that begins even as a child in a parent's arm... in the pew... in the Divine Service...

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Slow Drift Is the Change that Is Hardest to Stop

Change in the Church is often slow in coming. In college we would snidely sing "Like a herd of turtles moves the Church of God..." We were full of it -- mostly ourselves -- and believed it was time to make change felt in the Church. Funny. The change we were fomenting for was a return to things that had been but had been changed -- like the weekly Eucharist... like historic vestments... like historic liturgy... We were bold and brash but we were up front about the change we thought needed to happen.

When we approach change directly and when we consider all the consequences about that change, we make informed decisions. They may still be wrong decisions but at least we making decisions and introducing change face to face.

The slow drift toward things new and different is generally the harder change to deal with and the most dangerous of all changes. This slow drift is generally not faced directly, often it is met with a shrug of the shoulders, and no one considers the implications of such drift until the damage is done.

The ELCA is a good example. The change in the ELCA has come in small steps, generally not faced directly, and mostly as a slow drift away from what was toward a goal never formally identified. The decisions at the recent CWA are the most dramatic marks of the long drift away from historic and confessional Lutheranism. Even then this decision by our Lutheran cousins was hardly faced head on. No, the church is not changing, they were told, just allowing some congregations and some synods to change -- and not doctrine... just practice. All of this bound conscience talk was designed to avoid facing up to the dramatic shift that was underneath the words in the reports and resolutions. The ELCA had been drifting this way for years. All the CWA did was legitimize this drift in a way that tried not to offend the silent majority.

Missouri has its own example. The move toward contemporary worship has been going on at the same time the Commission on Worship was developing a new hymnal supplement and hymnal, at the same time convention after convention affirmed the cause of the liturgy. We have been drifting this way for years and years without formally addressing it or facing up to it. The consequences of this drift have been felt as the rift has grown deeper and deeper but the silent majority has been assured that styles change but not substance, that practices can change but not doctrine.

If either Missouri or the ELCA faced up to these as a whole body confronting the change, considering the implications, and making a formal decision, things might have gone differently for both. If congregations in the ELCA had to vote on the CWA actions or if Missouri faced up to some of the abominations that go on in the name of "contemporary worship" then the outcome might have been different for both.

The change I fear most for Lutheranism and for Christianity in general is the slow drift kind of change... Like a boat without an anchor, the drift seems innocuous until you begin to realize that this slow movement has sent you far out to sea with land no more in sight, so does this drift threaten doctrine, orthodoxy, and the voice of Scripture.

Some folks fear church conflict and fights. I fear this slow drift toward change that will leave us completely unsecured from the anchor of Scripture, the living tradition of the Church, and, eventually, from the Gospel and the means of grace. God help us from the things we choose not to face head on...

JDDJ and Other Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues

It has been ten years since representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church attached signatures to what was proclaimed a landmark document on what Lutherans refer to as the article on which the Church stands or falls. Later Methodists affixed their own approval to the document that has been heralded as the crowning achievement of several generations of dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. It is called the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (hence JDDJ).

You can read the document HERE and you can read the LCMS response to it HERE. I am not going to address the document in any detailed way but to express a concern for the way this declaration differs from previous documents.

I literally grew up as these dialogues were taking place and the people who sat at table were giants of the faith -- I think instantly of Dr. Piepkorn from Missouri but the list is impressive on both sides. It was the most productive of the dialogues the Roman Catholic Church has had with its ecumenical partners (the Anglicans, etc.). What was its genius was that both sides had at the table those who represented the brightest and deepest thinkers and that their goal was to represent their tradition as accurately as possible. Piepkorn had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Lutheran Confessions which often instructed the Lutheran participants as well as the Roman Catholic dialogue partners. Their purpose was not so much agreement but to represent as faithfully and accurately as possible the traditions at the table -- this was not the place where exceptions or oddities or trivialities ruled but the full meaning of their church's teachings explored. Where unity resulted, it was because the differences were honestly approached and the theological treasures deeply mined. The agreements were secondary to the primary purpose of representing their church's teachings well.

The later dialogues were not as fruitful in part because documents of agreement seemed to take a higher priority than this honest confrontation of difference and this honest representation of who we are, what we believe, teach and confess. So ten years after the JDDJ document on justification and faith, neither the Lutherans nor Roman Catholics have done much with this (except to sign it and attach a few provisos to that). This is in part because neither the language nor the agreement carries much weight with either side. Lutherans tried to speak in Roman Catholic language and Roman Catholics tried to use Lutheran language -- like a person with two years of high school Spanish on holiday in Barcelona, it did not work and the traditions did not speak as well or as clearly as they did when they spoke their own language.

In a sense I am saddened that ecumenical dialogue has become the domain of the agreement writers and less the place where the brightest and best of our churches boldly speak what it is they believe, teach, and confess, and why. It occurs to me that if the kind of unity of expression that so many desire is actually to be found, it will be the result of honestly and bluntly speaking about who we are, what we believe, and why... not by trying to find common ground (that usually ends up in being words that neither side is fully comfortable with and therefore the end result becomes a footnote in a history book instead of a formational document toward real unity).

When I read the first 5-6 books that resulted from the early Roman Catholic and Lutheran theological dialogues, I am taught about my own tradition from those who represented the best of my own tradition and I still go back to those books from time to time. It occurs to me that in contrast JDDJ will be honored with an anniversary but it is not the same kind of document and its impact has yet to be felt -- in part because no one is really comfortable with the end result of what both sides say.

It occurs to me that when Lutherans dialogue with other Christians, we need to be the best Lutherans we can be at the dialogue... and we had better expect the same from those who sit across the table. For agreement to last it must be forged from the honest confrontation of what is not agreed. And then, perhaps, under the power of Scripture's light and within the realm of the catholic teaching tradition of the Church, we may just find that elusive agreement. But it will definitely NOT come from trying to be somebody other than we are when we sit at the conference table with our ecumenical counterparts.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Knowing for What Purpose...

When I reflect back upon the differences between my grandparents time and my own, I am reminded that my grandparents lived in a far smaller world than I do. They did not have TV with 24 hours news cycles to bring everything that happens everywhere into their living rooms. They did not travel as I travel and stayed much closer to the center of the circle of their home area than I have. They did not have a large library of books to call their own -- a library fueled by the ridiculously cheap prices and easy access of an -- as I do. They did not carry cell phones or do email or surf the Internet as I do every day.

My point is this, it is not simply that they knew less than I know, but that what they knew they knew well and their knowledge was meant for use. So much of our knowledge today is trivial and nearly all of it passive knowledge. We know about things but we seldom are called to use this knowledge for any real purpose. We know about things around the world but we are still far removed from these places and so the knowledge does not move us to action as much as it satisfies curiosity. We find out so much about things through all the electronic media available to us but what do we do with this information? Do we act upon it? Do we file it away for a someday that never comes? Do we read it only to replace its information with other stuff? Are we growing in knowledge so that we can accomplish things or do we collect information as if it were just another obscure hobby?

I am thinking in particular about Bible study and the learning about God, God's work in history, the Church, etc. It occurs to me that people can do Bible study on line, they can have it tweeted to their cell phone, they can use software designed to access every unusual word in Scripture in a moment, they have access to a library at their computer terminal, they have millions of sermons available to them at a moment... But at the same time, we struggle to find Sunday school teachers or youth group leaders or church leaders. What are people doing with all this knowledge if they are not applying it as teachers, leaders, and servers for the cause of the Gospel?

My fear? Well, my fear is that we have become rather passive about all this knowledge, about all this religious knowledge. We read it all but it does not motivate or move us. We are well informed but do not apply this information in any substantial way. We like have our curiosity satisfied but we are not so sure about taking up the mantle of teaching others what we know.

All the time I hear people say, "Oh, Pastor, I don't want to give up being in your Bible study to teach Sunday school; I would miss too much." Well, maybe yes and maybe no. As Christian people we cannot always be hearers... James reminds us that we are also to be doers. What we miss in one place learning, is made up by what we accomplish teaching.

I fear that we are raising up generations of rather selfish Christians who place self-interest above the call to serve. If that is true, we need to re-examine what we are doing. Knowledge of Scripture and the Christian faith should result in servants for the Kingdom, equipped to do God's bidding.

We live in a wonderful time when information and great materials are easily accessible to every Christian-- even among our own LC-MS we have a very promising new Lutheran study Bible, the Concordia readers edition of our Confessions, the Treasury devotional book, a new and well done hymnal, catechism resources in addition to the catechism itself... I do not mean to suggest we should not use these wonderful resources. I am wondering if we are failing to challenge, encourage, and call upon our people to use all these resources for the purpose of serving the Lord in all the various places where faith intersects with life (both in and out of the congregation)... Just some thoughts...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Still Fresh after So Many Years...

Though it is not without its own controversy, the Eucharistic prayer or anaphora of the Apostolic Constitutions, ascribed to Hippolytus, and dating from 215 AD, offers us one of, if not the, earliest complete prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy. It appears in different languages, in different geographical areas, and in different liturgical traditions. I learned of it first through the Worship Supplement of the Missouri Synod (1969) and studied it in more depth in college. It is fascinating to me that we have a complete text or canon of the Mass dating from within a century and a half of the first Eucharist and it speaks so well so many centuries later. It remains one of my favorite prayers of the Eucharist even though, for whatever reason, it does not contain the Sanctus.

We give You thanks, O God, through Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, whom You did send to us in this end of the ages to be our Savior and Redeemer and the Messenger of Your Will; Who is Your Word, inseparable from You through whom You made all things and in whom You are well pleased; whom You did send from heaven to the Virgin's womb, who was conceived within her and was manifest as Your Son in flesh, born of the Holy Spirit and a virgin; who fulfilled Your will and won for You a holy people; who stretched out His hands in suffering in order to free from suffering all who trust in You. Who, when He was betrayed to His voluntary suffering, in order that He might abolish death, break the bonds of the devil, tread hell underfoot, give light to the righteous, establish a memorial, and manifest the resurrection,

on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks + He broke it and gave it to His disciples saying, Take, eat, this is My body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.
After supper He took the cup and when He had given + thanks, He gave it to them saying, Drink of it all of you. This is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Do this often in remembrance of Me.

Remembering, therefore, His death and resurrection, we lift this bread and cup before You, giving You thanks (making Eucharist) that You have counted worthy to stand before You and to serve You as Your priestly people.
And we pray You to send down Your Holy Spirit upon Your Church and gather into one all Your holy people who partake hereof; fill them with Your Holy Spirit to confirm our faith in the Truth, so that we may praise and glorify You, through Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, through whom all honor and glory be to You with the Holy Spirit in Your Holy Church, both now and forevermore, world without end. Amen.

The richness of the imagery continues to amaze me. It is timeless and timely. Think of it... whom You did send to us in this end of all ages to be our Savior and Redeemer... What was understood then is true even more so now. The last days and the end of the ages are the days of Jesus, the days He ushered in by His incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection.

The Messenger of Your will... perhaps we might substitute Angel for messenger in order to emphasize the early Christology of this anaphora. Who is Your Word... the Logos of John's Gospel... through whom You made all things... the pre-existent Son of God at station in the creation of the world... in whom You were well pleased... touching on the Baptism of our Lord and the voice from heaven -- echoed again at the Transfiguration...

The creedal structure of this prayer is powerful... Whom You did send from heaven into the Virgin's womb... Who was conceived with her and was manifest as Your Son in flesh born of the Holy Spirit and a virgin... let there be no mistaking this orthodox confession of Jesus' divinity and humanity several hundred years before Nicaea...

And we cannot mistake the whole of the Gospel present here in prayerful form: Who fulfilled Your will... Who won for You a holy people... Who stretched forth His arms in suffering to release from suffering all who believe in You... The Gospel literally screams from these words into the ears and hearts and minds of the people of God gathered around the Table of the Lord.

But it keeps going... betrayed to His voluntary suffering... break the bonds of the devil... tread hell underfoot, enlighten the righteous, establish a memorial (anamnesis) and manifest the resurrection... And that is exactly what He did and exactly what He provides to those who come to His Table... Do you hear the echos of Scripture in this section "For as often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes..."

Jesus says "Do this in remembrance of Me (for My anamnesis)" and so we lift this bread and cup before You, giving thanks to You (making Eucharist to You) because You have counted us worthy to stand before You and serve You as Your priestly people... We are redeemed for a purpose -- to serve as the priestly people of God, the Church, doing His bidding in the world...

And the Epiclesis calls down the Spirit in witness to this holy anamnesis or memorial the Son has commanded us to make, calling, gathering, uniting, and confirming the holy People of God in the Truth to the praise and glory of the Father, through the Son with the Holy Spirit, in His Holy Church forevermore...

To all who would put pen to page to write "liturgies" these words stand as solemn warning against the trite, the trivial, and the mundane. So old these words and yet so fresh, I cannot help but be in awe of them. These words bridge the nearly two millenia between the pre-Constantinian Church and today. When I pray them at the Table with the people of God gathered around me, I cannot help but think of those who went before and join in this holy moment of union and communion only God is capable of accomplishing... and I hope those around me feel the same sense of tie to yesterday, connection today, and legacy passed to tomorrow...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Marching in Step... or Doing What Feels Right?

It seems to me that the choices often set forth for church unity are false ones indeed. On one hand are those who insist that if we walk together at all, we much march in step -- in other words there must be absolute uniformity. Missouri has a few of these who believe that in every chancel tape marks should outline where the Pastor stands and that every statement of faith must use the language of, say, the Brief Statement of 1932. On the other hand there are those who believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and, aside from some core basics, congregations and clergy should be free to structure, define, and practice as they see fit for their own circumstances. Those who march in step insist that every other alternative will lead to chaos and anarchy. Those who feel they should have the freedom and latitude to do what seems right insist that the only alternative is a gestapo church body in which everyone informs on the transgressions of others.

Of course, few are accurately characterized by either extreme... but there are legitimate questions raised by both sides. From those who wish more conformity, there is a legitimate question of where you draw the line between freedom and doing what is judged to be right for the moment or the situation... and... what is unacceptable? And who gets to draw that line?

We all have been in Lutheran congregations where anything goes, where worship is fruit basket upset from week to week, where you checked on the bulletin or sign post to make sure this was a Lutheran congregation or an LC-MS one, in particular. I know I have. I have sat through worship services without creed or Our Father, without the Sacrament or a regular order, without recognizable hymns or songs (at least to me), and without much Law or Gospel. No matter how careful some folks are in their exercise of freedom, there are those who will not be careful. Who tells them they have gone to far? Where is the line in the sand -- is it written and formal or, like one justice's definition of pornography "I cannot describe it but I know it when I see it..."

Lutheranism does not have structures that deal well with this authority and our congregational structure seems the antithesis of someone, anyone, saying to a congregation "Too far..." So those who advocate more conformity raise a legitimate question. We need to have boundaries. We need to be able to say to those who go beyond the pale of Lutheran identity, confession, and liturgical practice, "You are no longer one of us."

Those in favor of less conformity and more freedom to do what seems right, they do have a legitimate question. Congregations are different and the geographical settings of congregations are different. My home congregation on the plains of Nebraska and its stable but aging community of people generally related to one another at some point along history has a setting distinct from an inner city congregation on one of the coasts, a multi-lingual congregation of recent immigrant cultures, or even a suburban congregation in a place where Lutherans are largely unknown (like where I serve). This is not a matter of what works but of taking into account this setting in the structure of the parish, the liturgical life of that congregation, and the challenges facing their ministry.

We have said in our Lutheran Confessions that ceremonies may differ but we have not well defined what ceremonies might differ, what structures might differ, and within what tolerance those differences might be allowed or even encouraged. So again, we face the challenge of what differences are allowable among congregations walking together and who gets to define what is allowed and what is not.

Ideally, this is the distinct and specialized role of the Bishop (or Overseer if you have an aversion to the Biblical term). But most of our Bishops are not Bishops -- they are Presidents elected every couple of years less to exercise authority than to serve as problem solvers, visioners, and fund raisers. Personally, you could not pay me enough to do this. They are called in whenever conflict flares, they cast their vision before the Church as saviors who have the keys to reverse the slow decline of Missouri, and they serve as pitch men for Ablaze, Fan into Flame, District budgets, mission support, scholarship for church workers, etc... They administer but they do not oversee. They are not in the parishes enough to know what is going on in them, they do not really know the clergy well enough to know who they are and what they do in the parish, and they spend most of their time in meetings local and otherwise. We have saddled them with an unpleasant role and so many of those who might be great Bishops are neither attracted to the job of District President nor willing to serve there.

In addition, we have structured this administrative group into a Council that does not vote or play a visible role in the national conventions of our denomination. I am not sure that administrators should be given such place but if we had Bishops acting as Bishops I would want to hear from them and I would want them to have great impact upon the church body as a whole.

So this is Missouri's dilemma and, without a solution, this is why there will be battle after battle between those who insist upon conformity and those who insist upon freedom. The pendulum will swing back and forth slightly, but the impetus is clearly with those who wish freedom. Over time congregations will become more and more isolated, money will be spent more at home and less to the national church, the colleges and seminaries will be semi-autonomous organizations, and parachurch groups will fill in the gaps (by organizing for cause or ideology)...

That is not what the Church needs... but such is the conundrum we find ourselves in... We are still at heart a reform movement looking for the Roman Catholic Church to heed the call to reform and less like a church body that stands alone -- though in our hearts we feel pretty good about being Lutheran (even if we might define that word very differently). And, by the way, the prospect of Rome accepting these reforms is not so promising either. So here we are. Trying to live as a congregational but not congregationalistic church, trying to be Confessional but not sure how to define Confessional, trying to be American but not just a mirror of the latest American poll or trend, trying to be democratic but not with the Word of God... It is not a good place to be... but, if there is any consolation, there are worse places to be...

Monday, September 21, 2009

The humility that exalts...

Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 20, preached on Sunday, September 20, 2009

The news media has told us of banks too big to fail, of industries too large to go under, so they must be bailed out. How big is too big to fail? Who draws the line? Where did we get such ideas? Business is not alone in this thinking. Schools have determined that failure must be avoided and so children are passed on without learning the material. We live in an age when no one fails – when we all succeed. It is what some have called a T-ball world in which you get as many strikes as you need, when no score is kept, and instead of outs we take turns.

To these notions of too big to fail comes the call of James to confront failures, not avoid them. We are bidden to confess our sins and to find in such confession and absolution the classroom of the Spirit who teaches us even through our failures. Jesus calls us to humble service that delights in others before self. In a world that puts ME in the center of everything, this message may seem out of step. Today we are told humility – no character defect but the domain in which God works to forgive, teach, and direct His people. Pride is what leads to destruction but a humble heart that confesses sin is the place where God displays His mercy and gives to the unworthy the blessed gift of grace.

Let us live under no illusions – we are not too big to fail, not too big to serve, and not so important that others cannot come first. This is the radical new life of the Kingdom, made possible through the Gospel, apprehended by faith, and displayed in the pattern of Christ’s own life. His example of humility of heart shows us the way of the cross, the way of life.

Humble yourselves... If we could, would it be a source of pride? What kind of humility? The false kind that deflects honest compliments while hiding pride underneath? Or is it something different? The humility spoken of in the lessons today is the work of the Spirit. It is the work of the Spirit who opens our eyes to what we are and leads us to admit “I am responsible.” Only the Spirit can help us face up to what sin and pride have made us. The first mark of a genuinely humble heart is our acceptance of this responsibility: It is the Spirit who teaches us to accept responsibility and confess: “I am a sinner.”

Humility is the work of the Spirit teaching us to accept responsibility and to say “I am guilty.” In a world which avoids guilt and blames others, only the Spirit can teach us to admit that it is my fault. A long time ago the penitent would beat his or her chest three times in private confession: “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...” My fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault. Humility is when we blame no other but ourselves; when we stand before the Lord in painful admission, “I am a sinner. I am guilty.”

But this Spirit driven humility does not leave us to wallow in our regret. For the Spirit leads us to trust in the Lord even in this confession. From the Spirit we learn to say, “I am sorry.” This is not the same as “I am sorry I was caught or I am sorry that somebody else found out.” This is the genuine sorrow which not only regrets but laments who we are and what we have become. It is a humility that is not content with this broken life of sin and that calls out to God for mercy. Contrition laments what we have become and cries out to God to repair what we cannot, to overcome what we cannot. From the Spirit we learn to say to the Lord, “Make me clean as only You can...”

To a people on bended knee comes the God who exalts us – not rewards us – but exalts us with His love. Forgiveness is not the reward for taking our medicine. Forgiveness is the triumph of God’s love over His wrath, the God who refuses to leave us in our misery. To the humble on bended knee, God shows a greater humility. It is the voice of Jesus who says, “I will take your place in suffering.” The great paradox of the sinless who dies for the sinner, of the innocent who makes Himself guilty for us.

To the humble on bended knee, God displays a greater humility in the voice of Jesus who says “I forgive you all your sins...” His forgiveness is no reward for confession or promise conditioned upon our faith. For us and for the whole world He died that absolution may be spoken. The surprise of grace is that God reaches out to us brought low by sin and guilt and death – and He raises us up through absolution. This gift so free to us cost our Lord His all on the cross. But what He paid so dearly for, He gives to us without price or charge. “I forgive you.”

To the humble who acknowledge they deserve nothing, a greater humility is heard in the Jesus who says, “I restore you from you failure.” Not only sin is forgiven but the Spirit works in us to bring forth the new life He died and rose to give us. What He earned in righteousness and holiness becomes our clothing so that we may stand before God, restored, renewed, and forgiven. He lifts us from our humility and gives us the high place at the Table of the Lord, the prodigal returned by grace, the lost found by His relentless love, and the wounded made whole by mercy’s power.

Greatness is not the fruit of pride, accomplishment or a little image polishing. Greatness is born of those who do not hide their faults but confess them... those who do not a fair shake but cry for mercy... those who expect no reward and are surprised by grace rich enough to reach down even to them.

It is this grace in which we leave behind the life we once knew and to embrace the new life that can only be known in Jesus Christ. It is this grace which teaches us to renounce pride and self-centeredness. It is this grace that seeks to be what love has claimed for u, that seeks to serve others as love has served us, and that delights in forgiving as Love has forgiven us. It is this love that enlarges our hearts beyond our own self-interest so that we seek the greatness of service, learning to lose our lives in Christ to gain them for eternity. It is this that Jesus was talking about on the road while His disciples were arguing over which of them was best, which was greatest.

We have a God who notices the humble and does not see the proud – the exact opposite of the world which notices the proud and walks all over the humble. The humble whom He notices, God serves and forgives. From this experience, we learn to notice the humble. The path to greatness begins in the humility of confession and our delight in absolution’s rich gift. There we are taught to love God above all, to love neighbor before self, and to serve this God by serving others in His name. Amen

What I Want or Like Does Not Matter

I have served as Pastor to two congregations -- one north of NYC for nearly 13 years and here nearly 17 years. Neither congregation was liturgical prior to my arrival. Neither congregation had a weekly Eucharist. Neither congregation was especially Lutheran or even fond of the name and heritage of Lutheranism. I could have simply changed things right away (to a weekly Eucharist or a fuller liturgical expression). I did not do that. It is not because I was wise. Others before me had led these congregations away from the liturgy and encouraged them to be content with a monthly celebration of the Lord's Supper. The last thing I want was for them to change to suit me. If I believed that where I was leading the congregation was the right direction, I could not afford to have this understood as what "Pastor wanted or liked..." It had to part of the very identity of these congregations -- how they understood Lutheranism and how they saw themselves as a Lutheran congregation -- for these to stick.

For years I preached about the Eucharist until people in both places said to me, "If you point to the altar one more time and there is nothing there, I think I am going to scream. Why can we talk about the Sacrament but we cannot have the Sacrament?" I did not radically change what the people did, but they saw in my pastoral leadership the reverence, joy, and comfort in the liturgy. I taught them the Catechism and Confessions. And it came... not in my time but it came... and it has stood the test of time... in both places...

Even when what I want or like is the right thing, what I want or like does not matter. That is true of the Pastor who shepherds the flock of God and it is true for any sheep within that flock. We as Lutherans are not liturgical or Eucharistic because that is what we want or like. We are not liturgical or Eucharistic because we think it appeals to people. We are liturgical and Eucharistic because that is who we are. Period.

I welcome those surveys that suggest that young people are interested in liturgy. But that is not why we are liturgical -- we do not use the liturgy to appeal to these young people or to anyone else. The liturgy is what we have been given by those who went before us, it is rooted in Judaism and the Synagogue and in the Upper Room. The Western Rite was not the concoction of a Pastor trying to appeal to people but the wisdom of the Church through the ages of how to set Scripture to verse and song within the twin peaks of Word and Sacrament. It is what identifies us with those who went before us and it is the domain of the Lord and His gifts (hence Divine Service).

Even when people want and like the right thing, that is NOT why we do it. Because it is not about wants or likes -- it is about worship that is faithful to our confession and confession which is lived out in our worship. It is about identity -- Word and Sacrament, Law and Gospel, Catholic and Evangelical. It is about faithful providing the pattern which embodies the means of grace (both Word and Sacrament) within a framework of Scripture (explicit and paraphrased) that is not Lutheran but catholic and the proper possession of all churches (even though few acknowledge or see the blessing in this treasure).

In order for these two congregations to be liturgical and Eucharistic after I am gone, it has to be part of their understanding and identity. We have got to stop talking about wants and likes (even when they are right on) and we have got to begin talking about faithfulness and confession. We don't pick hymns on the basis of wants or likes but based upon the lectionary so that these hymns become an integral part of the whole of the liturgy. We don't pick choir anthems on the basis of what we like or want but on the basis of the place of the texts and tunes as one piece of the liturgical whole. We don't preach what we want or like but what the lectionary provides us so that the people in the pew get a complete diet of the Word of God and not our own personal preacher favorites. What we do on Sunday morning is not the dictate of desire or feeling or appeal -- it is rooted in Scripture, expressed in our Confessional identity, consistent with catholic tradition, and true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything less than this and there is little room to justify whose wants or likes are better or worse than others except taste -- and what happens on Sunday morning is not driven by personal taste, not even mine.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Decline of Civility

I have read any number of comments and blog posts about the decline of civility and the nastiness that seems to pervade discourse in the public sphere. I have to admit that sometimes I wonder about this. Read some of the vitriolic argumentation of past debates on matters political and religious and maybe it is not so bad. Still, our manners have slipped precipitously and the whole nature of our public life has been degraded.

We have all heard the cell phones go off at just the most inopportune moments. Even worse are the people who answer those cell phones (in my case in the front pew of the Church during the sermon... "Hey I am in Church... what do you want?" for all the congregation to hear... I for one get tired of hearing people talk to me in supermarkets or on the street only to find out when they turn their heads that they are talking on blue tooth. At the symphony once I heard a woman humming loudly (and poorly) the music being played on stage -- it was as if she could not merely listen. Maybe that is part of our affliction.

In the service I note people whispering in not so muted tones and too often the subject of their conversation has little to do with what is happening there. People seem to have to use the toilet more often than ever before and think nothing of interrupting the reading of the Word of God or prayers with their scurry to the rest room. So often the people whom I know to have problems with a bladder or chronic pain sit and wait for a moment when their movement will not be noticed while everyone else runs around as if their personal needs were the only concern.

I cannot speak to the reasons for all of this but certainly the casual attitude toward worship is something our current age is highly in favor of -- a casual attitude toward the worship of God's House which often betrays a casual attitude toward God Himself and the gifts of God that He gives to us in the Divine Service.

It reminds me how hard it is for us to turn our attention away from ourselves -- even for a moment. Could it be that the real work of worship is just that -- focusing away from ourselves for a few moments? It is not simply that our attention spans are shorter -- as some have offered -- because we seem to lack nothing when it comes to focusing our attention on how we feel, what we want, what is wrong, or what we have to say.

Manners and decorum are not high priorities in our teaching. But these are not simply things indifferent. The things we treat casually betray a casual attitude toward them and the priority we attach to other things. I hope that these are not signs of the times or previews of even greater casualness. There is a point when casualness becomes downright rude.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Crisis of Confidence...

A while ago I was asked by someone skeptical of the liturgy, "Why would you keeping on doing what you have always done knowing that it was not working?" Ignore every other aspect of what this person was saying and concentrate only on that last point -- "knowing that it was not working?" He brings up a legitimate point -- how do we know if it is working or not?

Many years ago, a parishioner who now rests from her labors came to me upset about something. I not only noticed that she was agitated but that her face was well beyond red and veins were bulging. Knowing that she had chronic high blood pressure problems, I asked her about her blood pressure. She informed me that she no longer was taking her medication because she did not feel any different when she was on it as when she wasn't. So she reckoned she would take it again when she felt the need. We took one moment to deal with whatever it was that had her upset and then I turned to the issue of her blood pressure. Since my wife is a CCRN and has educated me a bit on matters medical, I counseled her to speak with her doctor and to go back on her blood pressure medication right away. I suggested to her that she may not feel the medicine working but that, indeed, it was and that by the time she felt she needed the medication damage may already have been done (even catastrophic damage like stroke).

The Church may not feel the liturgy working or see signs of it working but the surest way to find out what it was accomplishing is to take it away. For nearly all of church history the liturgy has been an anchor of orthodoxy, a beacon of the Gospel, and the powerful rudder steering the Church to the solid path of Word, Sacrament, Law and Gospel. During all that time there have been heresies, false teachers and false teachings, distortions of the truth, and innovations that cast a dark shadow over the faith. These were not only the distinctions of academics but things that touched the very heart and soul of the lives of the individual Christians within the Church. Yet through it wall, the liturgy was there. When the pulpit was captive to false truth or no truth, the liturgy spoke clearly and powerfully. When pulpit and altar were together on the same plain, the life of the Church was richly fed.

It occurs to me that numbers are not the best way to gauge of things within the Church are working or not. Sports events garner huge crowds yet the combined total of all the attendance at all the events would not equal the number of Christians who sit in the pew on any given Sunday. So first we might be honest about the numbers...

It also occurs to me that gathering people in and keeping them there, keeping them growing and maturing in faith and life in Christ, may be at cross purposes. When the liturgy is there, when the lectionary drives the lessons, hymns and sermon, when the focus is on the Word and Sacrament, the stuff that Christians need is there. When creed and confession inform worship and piety and when worship and piety reflect creed and confession, the Church is anchored fairly securely in the means of grace.

I for one do not want to find out what happens when generations of people grow up in the faith without the liturgy, without the twin foci of Word and Table, without the rhythm of the Church Year lived out in pericope and hymnody, without the Law and Gospel voices so clearly planted in these ancient patters and faithful words... I don't want to find out what the Church will be like without these anchors of orthodoxy in confession and life. It is bad enough with all these things in place -- what will happen when worship becomes a program, when outcomes drive the content, and when relevance is more important than faithfulness?

Is it working? If the Church is still here, if people are still being fed the Word and Supper of the Lord, if sins are still being forgiven, if creed still invites confession of faith before the world, if sermon still conveys the whole truth of God's Word (the double edged sword of Law and Gospel), and if music still speaks the story of Jesus (and not our own personal stories), then it IS working -- better than we know -- to keep us on that narrow path that leads us to life everlasting in Jesus' name.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Not As Good As I Could Be...

Several folks have dropped off bulletins from other Lutheran congregations and as I looked them over I have noticed a marked trend in the way we confess our sins. For Lutherans confession and absolution are a usual preparation to the Divine Service. Though forms for confession are appointed in all Lutheran service books, this is one area in which many Pastors are tempted to be "creative."

In those bulletins in which a "creative" form of confession was used, what was confessed was more a lack of good than the presence of evil. In one the congregants confessed that they had "not lived up to their full potential." Well, duh. You don't have to believe in sin at all to confess this. In another, "we have not done all that is good in Your sight..." Again, duh. It is a little like the kid bringing home the report card and confessing, "I am sorry I got a B+. I am sorry. Next time I will do better..."

These things are not confession. When all we can confess is that we are not as good as we could be, the Law has not had its way with us and our hearts have yet to be convicted by the Holy Spirit. Sin is not a lacking in us. The sin we confess is the evil that we have said, thought and done. This evil is the evil that is not only evil in God's eyes but evil in our own eyes. We are not like politicians who apologize to anyone who might have been offended by their words. We are the ones, under the guidance of the Spirit, who lament the evil within us, that has escaped our hearts and come out through our mouths and given form in our actions. It is not that God might see these as sinful -- we see them as sinful.

We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We confess that we are sinners (not victims). We confess the evil that we have thought, said, and done. We confess the good that we should have done but we left undone. We confess that we are miserable sinners -- victims not of the influence of others but of the evil within our own hearts and minds. And we are helpless -- helpless to free ourselves, repair what is wrong within us, make up for our sins, or restore ourselves before God, before our neighbors, or even before the mirror in which we see ourselves.

To confess anything less is to make a mockery of the cross and the sacrifice Christ was required to make. He did not die for our lack of good. He was incarnate, lived, suffered, died and rose to redeem sinners who were marked with evil, burdened by guilt, imprisoned by death, and unable to free themselves. What we forget is that when we diminish sin, we also diminish the power of grace and the gracious gift of God that is ours in Jesus Christ. We turn Him from Savior into role model of how we too might live a better life.

I do not believe that these creative Pastors are consciously trying to minimize the reality of sin or the gift of God come to us through suffering and death. I think that we have gotten used to speaking the language of the world when it comes to the way we deal with sin and evil. What we need to do is stick with the language of the Church and Scripture.

A very long time ago we confessed... Mea culpa... Mea culpa... Mea maxima culpa... My fault, My own fault, My own most grevous fault. Later we confessed we were poor miserable sinners. We did this not because it was easy to say or because there was any glory in it. We said this because it was true -- truth apparent to us only through the guidance of the Spirit working in our broken hearts and lives. And to this confession of evil, of sin, of guilt, and of responsibility comes the Father to apply the healing balm of the cross and clothe us in the righteousness of Christ where finally we are clean.

Paul and Luther knew this sin... they confessed it clearly... I am a worm and no man... We are beggars this is true... If we would stand in their line, we must first learn to see as they did the evil within our hearts, lament it under the guidance of the Spirit, confess it in blunt words, and hear the joyful and liberating words of our Savior... Ego te absolvo... I forgive you... Amen.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Chiseling Names Deeper Into the Grave Stones

I am reminded of the character of Old Mortality in a Sir Walter Scott novel; he traveled about Scotland with a chisel deepening the lettering on ancient gravestones lest the names be forgotten.

It seems that much of what we do here on earth is chiseling names a little deeper into the stones of life so that our names are not forgotten. Some of try to be remembered for what we have done, others for what we have said, but both are fleeting remembrances, to say the least.

Like the proverbial "Gone but not forgotten" on the tombstone that is broken and fallen over, with every sign of being not only gone but truly forgotten, we vainly struggle to be remembered in a world quick to forget.

That is why we need something more than chiseling our names deeper upon the stones that mark our graves. We need the life that is stronger than death, that has cheated death of its victory and the grave of its sting. We need to be born anew into that living hope that endures when this world is passed and its memory lingers no more. We need to be remembered by the One whose remembering has the power to bring us through death to life everlasting.

A few simple words spoken from one dying man to another, "Remember me..." and words that shook the gates of hell and rattled death with its own death rattle... "Today, with Me... in paradise."

That is what we long for -- to be remembered. This God offers and more. For when the Lord remembers the past is reborn as the present and the ending limits of the future are removed so that we can, in some way beyond imagination, become immortal by His grace and guarantee...

Here on earth we struggle with our chisels to deepen the impressions that time erodes but it is a hopeless task and an endless duty... until He who comes with life and power calls us from death's prison to life's rich green pasture and still quiet water and rich banquet feast for all eternity.

Lord, remember me...

Pithy, Positive, and Perky

I recently read a satire on the frustrations of the man whose job it is to write the fortunes slipped into those cookies at the Chinese buffet. I wish I could remember where I read it. The man was bordering on the brink of insanity as he tried to come up with vague but specific, general but personal, wise but humorous, serious but upbeat sayings -- all that fit on a piece of paper roughly 3/8 inch by 1 1/2 inches.

It occurs to me that sometimes we as Pastors find our selves in much the same boat. Though we have a bit more space than the shred of paper placed in those fortune cookies, we are under pressure to produce pithy, positive, and perky "talks" that can easily be summarized on a tweet (the electronic version of the fortune cookie).

It is a prison imposed not by the call of God mediated through the Church or even by one of the various boards or committees of the congregations we serve. This prison is often of our own construction though we have plenty of help from a world captivated by a few seconds of video and thirty seconds of sound bites.

I will admit that the positive and perky part is more from us than the world. We don't want to appear mean or curmudgeonly and we don't want to be judged to be negative. Like the parent who wants to be friends with their children, we as Pastors want to be liked -- oh, heck, we want to be loved. Let's just say it out loud.

We have come down off our Herr Pastor pedestals because we were willing to exchange admiration for affection. People tend to like it either positive and upbeat or yelling at somebody other than those present. It gets old yelling at people who are not there so we settle for being perky in the pulpit.

This point came out to me when some of those to be confirmed this year noted that I seemed to be different people in the chancel than in the classroom -- not night and day but different. I asked them what they meant. In the classroom they thought there was more of my own personality coming through but they thought it was more hidden in the liturgy. And well it should be.

In the classroom setting I do not shy away from humor or a good story but in the pulpit I tend to stick with Scripture -- unraveling and applying the texts from the lectionary for that day. I think that vestments are a good helper in maintaining the distinction between the Pastor who leads God's people in the liturgy and who proclaims to them the Word of God and Larry Peters the man who occupies the office. I think the clerical collar also helps in this regard. As long as I wear these things I am reminded by this clothing that it is not me but the office I occupy that is important.

But don't let any Pastor fool you -- we are all tempted to shed the collar and the vestments and stand in the spotlight to make you laugh, to inspire you, to get you to know how wonderful we are, and to leave you with a short, pithy, positive, and perky phrase to highlight the rest of your day -- in short, we want to be liked and loved. It is this weakness that can be our terrible downfall. We need to be loving but the affection of those we serve is not our goal -- rather, faithfulness to the office and faithfulness to the duties of that office. I fail miserably in my vocation as Pastor if I forget the importance of the office and the unimportance of the person (me).

And just maybe there is some hope for confirmands who noticed this... these kids often amaze me even as they challenge me and teach me as I teach them...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

To Whom Is He Speaking?

There are things I say to people I know well that I would not say to people I have never met -- this is not simply a matter of privacy or of trust. A relationship of some depth allows people to speak to one another in a different way -- often with fewer words that mean more. Sometimes it means we can speak bluntly in a way that would appear rude if used with folks we do not know. We do this all the time but seldom think much about it.

The same is true of Scripture. Jesus is not being two faced when He speaks one way to His intimate circle of apostles and another way to those outside the household of faith. Jesus is simply acknowledging that relationship and using it to speak boldly -- even bluntly -- with those who know Him by faith. In contrast, He speaks differently to those not yet a part of the company of believers -- in part so that they might become part of that family of faith.

When we look at the words of Scripture, it is not a bad thing to ask ourselves "to whom is God speaking?" Are these words addressed to believers or to those outside the Church? It is helpful for us to note, for example, that when Scripture tells us "Behold, I stand at the door and knock... if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him..." (Rev. 3:20) it is often used to describe how the Lord address the hearts of unbelievers, calling them to believe in Him and to open themselves up to Him. But in verse 14 we find out that these words are NOT written to unbelievers but to the CHURCH at Laodicea. That radically changes how we understand those words.

Sunday morning is not an evangelistic event -- evangelism may take place as people hear the Gospel (perhaps even for the first time) but Sunday morning is not an outreach gathering. It is a gathering of the Church. What the Pastor may preach to those who come together as the Church gathered in Jesus' name, He cannot say to those who do not yet belong to this gathering.

Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, once said that the Church must always speak its own queer language in worship but in the world the common language of everyman. He was speaking of the difference between what is said to those who are part of the community of faith -- even though they may be new -- and those not yet a part of that assembly of believers.

When, for example, we speak of repentance within the Church, we are not speaking of the kind of repentance that was the staple of revival preaching of old. This is not the preparation for the Gospel that man must do before he can accept Jesus Christ. We are speaking to those who are already marked for the kingdom in baptism and in this context repentance is nothing other than the return to this baptismal gift with all its blessings and the renewal of baptismal vows to live in covenant faith with the promises that came with its water. Never mind that such talk of the revival tent distorted and even prevented the right understanding of repentance.

On Sunday morning we take the word of those assembled that they are part of the community of faith. They have been baptized, they have confessed their faith, and this is enough for the preacher. We do not preach to convert (even though there may and probably always will be unconverted sitting in the pews with the people of God). We preach to restore, to renew, to rekindle, and to raise up the Christian to what God has called him to be, declared him to be, and made him to be by the working of the Spirit through the means of grace.

There is something wrong when we forget to whom we are speaking -- and preach to the people of God as if they were not and to the people who are not as if they were. Sunday morning is not an outreach event. It is the people of God gathered at His bidding to receive His gifts with faith and to respond with the praise that only His people can give Him. That this assembly includes those not currently members of the household of God does not shape what happens there.

I have often found myself in stores or other places, speaking to people who appear to be talking to me, only to find out they have one of those blue tooth things in the ear I did not see and the conversation was not with me but with the people on their cell phones. What was a confusing and unintelligible dialog was clear to those who had been invited and included in the conversation. The same is true when we read Scripture and when we gather as the Church on Sunday morning. Apart from faith what is said and what is done in worship is uncomfortable, confusing, and perhaps unintelligible to those outside the faith. That is not a problem to be fixed by changing what happens in worship. Better it is repaired by addressing the unbeliever with the Gospel so that the Spirit may work to bring them to faith and make clear what was not.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

But Will It Fly?

I recall a nature documentary on the humble bumble bee. According to the experts, it should not fly. This creature does not possess the right characteristics or aerodynamic qualifications to fly. Except that God wills it to fly. God's will triumphs engineering declarations every time.

It seems that we have come to a certain juncture in history when many in the Church have become convinced that God's Word as it has been read will not fly with the people. It is antiquated, out of touch, irrelevant to, and distant from the judgments of modern day man. It may have once been vital and vibrant when folks thought the earth flat or had no distractions of entertainment and pleasure but not in our world of choice, sophistication, learning, and self-confidence. It will not fly, they have decided. It must be so.

Those of us who see empty pews on Sunday morning fear that perhaps this judgment may be correct. Those of us who have labored to faithfully proclaim the Gospel in unbroken solidarity with the apostles often have our own anxieties fueled by what seems to be a lack of progress or success within our parishes and communities. We may not be ready to exchange the yesterday, today, and forever Jesus with the Christ who wears a current wardrobe of opinion, culture, and values... but we do face up to our questions and fears from time to time.

Many have gone well past the point of fearing. They have decided that something must be dared in the name of God to save Jesus from being a historical footnote. Some have decided that it is best to confront change and to simply admit that we were wrong and now we have changed... changed about evolution and creation... changed about sin and death... changed about abortion and life... changed about sexuality and marriage... changed about eternity and this temporal reality... These are those among the most liberal of "Christians" who meet and vote or who simply make on their own the changes that update Christianity to keep it from becoming irrelevant. "God is doing a new thing," they say. And boldly they embrace what is contemporary, entrepreneurial, and innovative. It is as if they are striving not just to keep up but to get ahead of where they perceive the culture is going -- the cutting edge of proclamation, ministry, and belief.

Some have chosen not to publicly make such a judgment but in more subtle nuance have adjusted the message. These have quietly began preaching a message of me in which sins are more hindrances to my full pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment than, well, sins. So what is confessed are those things that keep us from becoming all we want to be and worship becomes the learning center where we grow past these impediments to fuller humanity. And the Church becomes a large self-help group with the pastor the chief motivator and prognosticator of looking at what makes you sad, ditching it, and finding what makes you happy (usually it works out to more money at work, fewer kids at home, freer responsibilities in marriage - or none at all - and a life defined by all the experiences you can pack in). The Thee of Christianity has become the ME of pop psychology and life coaching for better choices.

Others have made the truth so relative that it exists in bits and pieces of every religion and spirituality is about picking and choosing from the buffet of all religion to find the thing that centers you in the universe. Some of these have turned religion into a green revolution in which the goal is saving the planet -- not the people. Animals and plants have lives and feelings and value on the same plain as people for these radical reformers.

A few have become bitter and angry. Their words to the world are doom and gloom and they speak of the Savior in such brutal terms that it is a religion of fear that few want except those ideologues so determined that nothing else will do. These folks do not really want to save their neighbors as much as condemn them. Their weakness is their own seeming lack of sin or failure but so often those who are the hardened believers in this movement of triumphalism come out of the most wounded or sordid pasts.

And then there are those who struggle to be faithful -- faithful to the message and the mission of Jesus Christ. I suspect that there are far more of them than we think. People like the vast majority of those in my own parish and my own denomination who come every Sunday to confession because they know the destruction and death breeding power of sin in their own lives. They come kneeling and confessing because they year to know freedom in the peace of a conscience washed clean by the blood of Jesus. They pass the font every Sunday knowing it was there they were caught and claimed by the compelling love the flows from the cross and through the water to mark us for the Lord and for life in His kingdom -- now and eternally.

They sing sometimes with faltering voices and sometimes bold and strong. They sing not because they like the music or because they love the melody. They sing because the words tell the story, the old, old story of Jesus and His love. They sing in praise of what God has done for us in Christ, of the forgiveness that answers sin's pointy finger of guilt and of life that laughs at death's seeming defiance of God's purpose and plan. They listen as they sing and sing as they listen -- voices of today that echo the voices of yesterday and teach the voices of tomorrow.

The listen to the sermon not because they are looking for help for this problem or that... not because they think a new way of living will bring them more happiness or fulfillment... not because they want to be confirmed in their sins... They listen for Jesus Christ and they glory when they hear the message of the cross and empty tomb. They are silent as they listen but their hearts are filled with the "Amens" of a people who have come to hear the cross, who hear it for their joy and salvation, and who pray they may take it and speak to those outside the doors of this sanctuary.

They come to the Table of the Lord to receive what is promised -- knowing not how to understand this mystery but knowing to receive it with faith and all its blessings flow freely and fully into their mortal frames preparing them for immortality. They come to eat the bread come down from heaven given for the life of the world and to drink the cup of salvation that points to the heavenly banquet yet to come. "Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face," they sing -- because they do see Him where He has promised to be and it is a glorious glimpse into the presence of God, the face of mercy, and the hand of pure grace.

They go home, in part tired for the all the energy expended in this House of the Lord on the Lord's Day and in part invigorated by the experience of it all. They wonder why the pews are not filled with people looking as they do at the richness of the mercy, the wideness of the grace, and the blessing of such participation in the means of His presence among us. But they are not so much disheartened as they are confused by the way the world chooses a moment of false hope over a lifetime of real hope... by the way the world is content for a message of the moment when it might have eternity spoken to them... by the way the world is looking for pleasure when the joy of the Lord is what fills the heart no matter the circumstance around you...

I must admit, despite all my wonderings about why the pews are not fuller, this is how I come each week to the place of God's presence, to the people bidden by His Spirit, for the purpose of His pleasure, to give us His gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation.

Like the bumble bee, this message of the cross should not fly. But then, God wills it to fly and so it shall. Whether we see all of its wings in flutter or its meandering journeys. This Gospel will fly and will accomplish the purpose for which He sends it forth. His Word has wings.