Friday, July 9, 2010

We Don't Know What We Have

One of the great tendencies among Lutherans is to minimize what we have and over value what we see around us.  We simply do not realize what treasure we have in our Symbols, hymnody, liturgy, and theological tradition.  And the sad truth of it all is that we have shopped in the religious marketplace to see what others have, borrowing things that are foreign to our confessional identity and confusing that identity both within our congregations and people and outside as we related to the community around us.

In the last post I pointed how we as Lutherans have taken up with those who talk about faith without realizing or making clear that we are speaking about a very different understanding of faith.  We use the same word but do not mean the same thing -- at least not in our Confessions, although it might be said that the more we use this term among those who mean something different, the less sure we are about our meaning.

When we speak of faith, we are speaking of trust.  This is not how most Christians define faith.  They would say faith is knowledge, understanding, and assent.  So in infant baptism the issue is less with baptism than it is with faith.  They basically say that infants and small children are incapable of faith.  We Lutherans have tended to apologize or backtrack on our understanding of faith to the point where we, in effect, deny that infants and small children are capable of it.  Clearly Jesus is more confident about the faith of these little ones who believe in Me than we are.  But there are some among us who continue to speak of decisions for Jesus or to treat faith as if it were a moment of clarity and understanding instead of the trust that Scripture speaks of.  When we enter the ecumenical conversation without defining our terms we tend to blend in and lose our identity among those who think otherwise and leave our people confused -- as if Lutherans were merely evangelicals who worship a little differently.

When we speak of grace, Lutherans speak from the vantage point of the places where this grace is made accessible to us.  We do not so much speak of grace in general as we speak of the means of grace where Christ comes to us with His Spirit to bestow upon us all His gifts.  Grace and the means of grace are like both sides of the same coin.  Yet the sad truth is that more and more we speak of grace without including in this conversation the means of grace (the Word and the Sacraments).  When we do this, we sound like generic Protestants talking about a God who inhabits our feelings and our reason more than the water that gives new birth, the voice that releases us from sin and its guilt, the Word that addresses us with salvation, and the bread and wine that are Christ's body and blood.  For Lutherans, grace is not a concept but the reality of baptism, absolution, Eucharist and the living Word.  We tend to act as if these things were incidental to our identity instead of integral to our confession and life as Lutheran Christians.  In consequence, other Christians see us as generic Protestants who hang on to an outdated liturgical practice that can (and should) be ditched as irrelevant and out of step with our modern world (and so many Lutherans have come to the same conclusion).

When we speak of Scripture, we seem to have a natural affinity with those who affirm that Scripture is without error.  Yet by adopting the inerrancy terminology of the fundamentalists and by identifying with their arguments we mask the fact that we do not see God's Word as they do.  We do not believe that God's Word is a book of rules or information that must be guarded against assault but the living voice of God which does what it promises and accomplishes what it purposes.  We believe that God's Word is truthful not because of some mechanical process of inspiration or some sacred protection down through the ages but because God speaks only truth and does not lie.  His Word is the means by which He works and this truth of God and from God is the powerful truth that does not speak about forgiveness but forgives, that does not speak about salvation but saves, and that does not speak about new life but bestows that new life.  I find it shameful that somehow we have been lumped together with fundamentalism when the Scripture we are speaking of and the what it does are in conflict with the way fundamentalists see the Word.  In effect we confuse our people and those around us by sounding as if we were fundamentalists locked into a liturgical tradition that is like excess baggage which might and should be jettisoned. 

I could go on and on.  My point is this.  We are not like Protestants or evangelicals or fundamentalists.  We are Lutheran.  At one point in our history we believed that this was the faithful and catholic identity once hidden in Rome's inventions and now restored by a movement born of God's reforming power.  Now we act as if the Reformation did not go far enough and the Radical Reformers were right after all.  Now we act as if our liturgical practice did not flow from our Confessional identity but was foreign to it or extraneous to this identity (and, therefore, optional).  Now we shop in the religious marketplace for ideas because we have lost touch with our own identity or lost confidence in the means of grace to accomplish God's purpose among us.  We leave our people with a piety shaped by TV preachers, radio Christian contemporary music, and Bible studies that draw us away from instead of back to the liturgy and then we wonder why they are drifting away.

We do not know what we have.... and when we realize it, we treat it as an embarrassment instead of our strength... for Lutheranism to be reborn, we must re-discover who we are, what treasure we have, and how that is lived out in the wonderful dynamic of the Word and Sacrament setting of Sunday morning...

7 comments:

ErnestO said...

Pastor Peters:

It is undoubtedly true, that the Lutheran Church is languishing not for leaders but for the right kind of leaders; for the wrong kind is worse than none at all.

In effect they confuse people when they try to lead others where they have not been. Their assumed appearance of superior sanctity frequently accompanies a total absence of all vital godliness.

I fully agree with your statement "for Lutheranism to be reborn, we must re-discover who we are, what treasure we have, and how that is lived out in the wonderful dynamic of the Word and Sacrament setting of Sunday morning..."

Dan Pharr said...

"Yet by adopting the inerrancy terminology of the fundamentalists and by identifying with their arguments we mask the fact that we do not see God's Word as they do. We do not believe that God's Word is a book of rules or information that must be guarded against assault but the living voice of God which does what it promises and accomplishes what it purposes."

Unfortunately I've encountered not too few Lutherans--clergy even--who do see and use God's Word as "they" do.

Another word that gets tossed around is Word. It seems as if our terms have become little more than shiboleths.

Steve said...

Pastor,
I wish I could tell you how much I have appreciated and agreed with your last several posts. I read your blog mostly to learn but lately your posts have meant much much more; they are why I came to the Lutheran church. They are Christianity as it is in truth. We can call it Lutheran to identify it but I believe in my heart of hearts it is what our Lord wants for us because it is what the Word and Sacraments teach.

I'm not sure what is going to happen at the convention. I do know our Lord will take care of his Bride because he says so. True Word and Sacrament will remain because he has said his Church will always have a remnant.

Steve Foxx SSP

Anonymous said...

I suspect that a part of the problem is that very attractive pietistic notion of a “personal relationship with Jesus”. We hear from many of our pastors that it is the ideal toward which we should strive. The value of the gifts we have received and continue to receive through the Word and Sacraments has not been made clear to us, as it has in your posting. If “He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own” and if He “Holds me in His arms’ how much more enticing is that than to hear of His promises and to take part in the Sacraments?

Although our Lord knows each one of us by name, and he knows when one of our hairs falls to the ground, He has told us that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there will I be also.” This means that He wants us to have relationships with our fellow members in the Kingdom, or, as the Confessions say, in the Church. The “personal relationship” tends to emphasize our emotional experience, and to lead to the conviction that this is a unique, personal revelation for us. Luther called this “Schw√§rmerei.”

Finally, although I am devoted to the historical liturgy, I do not think it is a solution to the problem. I suspect that an understanding of the pure Gospel leads one to appreciate the liturgy, but not vice versa.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

George, The liturgy is not THE answer but it is the place where THE answer is lived out and without the liturgy what we are left with only further dilutes the treasure of our Lutheran identity and confession and distances us from who we have claimed to be for nearly 500 years. We believe, teach and confess is expressed on Sunday morning within the framework of the Word and Sacrament, the liturgy as our Confession defines it. What I was getting at is that when Sunday morning is so radically different from our confessional standard -- in vocabulary, identity, expression, and teaching -- what we are left with is an intellectual agreement to something that has no practical expression...

Padre Dave Poedel said...

Excellent, as usual, Fr. Peters. This morning I was reading on Facebook a post from John Michael Talbot, well known former Methodist turned Roman Catholic musician and founder of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, a monastic community with married, single and celibate expressions. He was rather strongly expressing his discontent with the state of Roman Catholic liturgy as he travels the country. The beauty has become perfunctory and routine, and that is to be more than lamented.

I can't help but wonder how much of our lack of wonder, the search for piety with the Evangelicals and the personal relationship language is that we, too, have made our Liturgy something that is done in a haphazard way, without reverence and awe. When I was traveling a lot, and worshiping in LCMS parishes around the country, I was appalled at the poor presiding.

I was delighted to read of a new worship "lab" at CTS to teach future pastors how to preside properly. Would that we would place the same emphasis on presiding that we do on exegesis!

No, that will not be the panacea that makes all things right in the Church, but perhaps if we as Presiders took our role more seriously our people would become more aware that the purpose of gathering in community is not to be entertained, or even mainly to worship God, but instead to be served by God Himself through His life giving Word and grace-full Sacraments.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. My point is that those “who are so radically different from our confessional standard” are so because they do not understand the Gospel as our Confessions define it and as our Lord proclaimed it. That is the thread that is common to this posting and the Phillip Cary article in the previous one. It is a matter of identifying the correct cause and effect relationship. Making these people use the proper liturgy is as effective as learning to excel in billiards in order to become as wise as Emanuel Kant, who was purported to be expert in the game (old anecdote from Philosophy 101). When they experience that the liturgy proclaims the “objective” promises of God, which bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then they will no longer yearn for the “subjective” emotional highs of the enthusiasts.

I can think of no better example to illustrate this fact than the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is as traditional and beautiful (both because of the words and the music) as any I have known. But if you look back through the last 1,000 years of its history, you will only find occasional glimpses of the Gospel in that church. Their gorgeous liturgy has become an empty ritual, precisely because they do not understand the Gospel, and persecute anyone in their church who comes close to understanding it. There are those who suggest that the whole tragedy of Russia’s history lies in the fact that its people never acquired the values, which exposure to the Gospel would have given them – not as a result of intellectual conviction, but as the “objectively” promised fruits of the Spirit.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart