Monday, May 31, 2010

Ordinary Time

There are some (and even some who visit this blog) who disdain everything Roman -- especially when it comes to the calendar -- but I sort of like the generic designation of the Sundays after Pentecost as ordinary time.  It is indeed the ordinary time in a practical way when compared to the feast and festival portion of the calendar which is anything but ordinary.  In contrast to this, the Sundays after Pentecost (or Trinity) are ordinary Sundays that unfold the Kingdom of God through the teachings of Jesus.  It may not be the normal part of the Church Year but it is the ordinary portion of that calendar.  And, truth to be told, I am ready for it.  Aside from a few saints days that will give us a distraction from this unfolding of truth in word, parable, and sermon, it is ordinary time.  No one can sustain a focus so festively marked as the first half of the Church Year (unless you are one of those who treats this section as ordinary time).  No, we need a time "off" of the festival cycle and I am thankful for the wisdom of those who ordered the Church Year in this way.  Now, granted, no Sunday is ordinary when Christ is present among us to bestow the promise of His Word proclaimed and feed us at His table, but I like this designation.  Ordinary time.  It's a keeper....

So How Do You Explain the Trinity?

I heard a preacher suggest that there is no way to explain the Trinity and that it is foolishness to try to do so.  He mocked those who attempt to explain it and suggested that those who might desire to follow this foolish path might need to fold up the copy of the Athanasian Creed in the bulletin and keep it in their wallets and desks at work -- just in case they want to explain the incomprehensible to someone.

All in all it was a rather strange sermon until the Pastor likened the way we know people.  We know folks not by eulogies of their lives but by the stories told over coffee and tuna salad sandwiches after the funeral.  We know people not by facts but by stories.  Here was a golden opportunity and the preacher missed the set up.

The truth is that we know the Trinity in the same way -- less by dogmatic statements than by what the Trinity does.  We know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by their actions and not by some academic thesis.  We know God by what He has done, by the words of His self-disclosure and by the actions that reveal Him to us.  We know the Trinity by the Word through which all things came to be, by the Word incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, by the Word crucified and risen for us and our salvation, and by the Word who promised the Spirit to bring to remembrance all the words that the Word had revealed.

We would do well on Trinity Sunday to spend less time saying what the persons of the Trinity are not and more time by what the Trinity does--- and this is a good thing.  For God has not revealed Himself through doctrinal statements but through His actions and His Word.  From the Word speaking in creation, to the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep, to the creation of a people from a man and woman to old to bear children, to the raising up of a promise first made in Eden where life was lost and then kept alive by prophetic utterance from one generation to another, to the census and journey to Bethlehem and the angels' song that brought shepherds to see, to the life so holy lived, to the life so willingly surrendered, to the life triumphant over death and the grave, to the Spirit come as tongues of fire and voices speaking the one language of salvation in Jesus Christ... yes stories but stories that continue to speak, act, issue and keep the promise of salvation and life...

The Trinity is not completely incomprehensible... only incomprehensible apart from His Word and Spirit and the actions and words of His self-disclosure...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Not in Vain...

I well remember the Memorial Day (we called it Decoration Day back then) rituals of the small town in which I grew up.  An assembly of the whole community at the park near the auditorium began the day.  With the old howitzer on the pedestal, the school band assembled to play the National Anthem (I directed one year), and the rows upon rows of white crosses decorated with American flags... I still remember my Dad in his army hat orchestrating much of the action.  And the kids.  Children upon children lined up to carry each a cross to every veteran's grave in the cemeteries of the community.  It was a big deal... The white crosses represented the grandfathers, fathers, and sons of this small town on the Nebraska prairie.  They would not be forgotten and they were remembered -- all together at least one day a year.  The final noble act was the playing of taps -- usually the best trumpeter in the band.  In the solemn silence of that moment, aged vets still living, some squeezed into their old service uniforms, some younger veterans of a war no one seemed to remember and a few from the first great war, all at the same time raised a crooked, broken, wrinkled, wounded, young and straight hand in salute.  Those who lived and died for the cause of our nation did not live in vain or die in vain.  I remember the tears flowing down cheeks of men and women, the aged and the children.  I remember the jerk of my neck to each volley of the gun salute.  I remember running over to where these men stood and shot their weapons -- to pick up the spent brass shells.  Not in vain did they live or fight or die... not in vain...  In towns across America the old ritual of Memorial Day took place.  The VFW and American Legion saw to it.  So did the people whose grandfathers, fathers, and sons left waving their hands only to return in boxes covered with flags.  Not in vain, no sir, they did not die in vain... This weekend I thought of it all and tears filled my eyes... a part of me wanted to be back there fifty years ago, led by my Dad and people like him, to remember with white crosses, solemn salutes, cracks of rifles, and the sad but noble strains of Taps... remembering and never forgetting the men (and women) who served our nation by making the greatest of sacrifices... for you... for me...

Regrets.... I had a few.... but not the ones you might think...

There was a time when I had it in my head that I would go to grad school and come out with a degree and teach and write books.  After the first year in my first parish, I was sure this was what I wanted to do.  The congregation had been split and things were tough – not to mention I was green – and if I had some money to pay for it all, that would have been my first option.  But I stayed in the parish.  A few more years of saying Mass and preaching, introducing a new hymnal, and vigorously teaching the Lutheran faith, and, well, grad school seemed more and more distant.  A few more years and the whole idea of giving up the altar and pulpit in favor of a classroom seemed goofy for me.

I always thought I wanted to teach and write and then I discovered that I wanted to teach in the classroom of the parish and not of some college or seminary and what I wanted to write were things like sermons, newsletter articles, and the like.  In short, I thought that the parish was a means to an end and found out that it was the end I had been searching for all my life.  I fell in love with the parish ministry, with the things of worship planning and leading, with standing at the altar and in the pulpit, with holding in my arms the children marked for God’s kingdom in baptism, with bringing new people on board with what Lutheran Christians believe, teach and confess, with unfolding Scripture to people who desired to know its voice more clearly, and with the ordinary and mundane of sick and shut-in visits and congregational governance.  As with any love affair, there are still many frustrations, complaints, and things I do not like to do... but when someone in my parish calls me “Pastor” and holds my hand to say “Thank you” it makes all the things I do not like worthwhile and all the things I love even more meaningful.

The greatest of my regrets have to do with where this ministry of Word and Sacrament has taken place and the distance my wife and children have endured from their family (and mine).  I so often lament that my kids did not grow up in the wonderful context of small town, rural, America.  It is not that I thought they suffered by their time in New York or Tennessee but that they did not know what my wife and I knew growing up – it was different for them.

I have been given many opportunities.  I have been privileged to know many important and impressive folks as friends, teachers, and mentors.  I have been allowed to participate in things that involved and defined things having to do with worship, witness, and administration on the parish, circuit, district, and Synod level.  Many folks who are far smarter and much more capable than I am have deigned to call me friend.  I have written much for the Church (not so much on an academic level but on a practical level and thousands and thousands have sung hymns I wrote or used liturgical resources I put together).

It just goes to show you that what we think at the beginning of our lives may change dramatically as long as we listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking through people of faith and the mouth of the Church.  In the end it is not about being pulled somewhere I did not think I wanted to go but learning to appreciate and even to love the place where the Church put me.  I am not sure what you call it, but I think it is a measure of wisdom that has come with some age and experience in the faith.  I hope that I am not alone...

Youth Ministry... or Not

I must admit that I am conflicted over this thing we call youth ministry.  I have read a few books on this – some from Baptist and non-denominational sources – complaining about what has been done in the area of youth ministry.  They lamented that youth ministry has become everything from babysitting to fun driven activities to Christianized versions of the same things available in the community (from sports to music to social networking.  The defenders of this always point you to the need to build youth and teen friendships with those who share the same values and faith, of the need to break out of the stereotype of somber, straight laced Christians who do not know how to have fun, and to promote a ”not your grandfather’s faith and Church” which equips young people for the future rather than a focus on the past.  I suppose there is some legitimacy to all of this but I do wonder if youth ministry simply means kids having fun at Church.  If this is all there is to youth ministry, then it is costly and not all that efficient.

Some of the critics of this have suggested that we are doing wrong by our youth by teaching them that Church is about fun or Christianized versions of the same things they do in the secular world.  They bemoan the Biblical illiteracy among youth, the separation of values from life choices (for example, some polls suggest that Christian faith makes only about a 6 month difference in the average age teens become sexually active).  They insist that youth ministry must be about substance and that we must engage these youth on the plane of beliefs and values that matter and make a difference in their lives.  They challenge the youth ministry models of the past and present and insist we must radically redefine our goals, purposes, and plans for ministry to pre-teens, teens, and college age folks.

Other critics complain about the way we have segregated youth to a youth room and isolated them from other generations and adults.  They insist that such isolation only reinforces the very false suppositions that the Church ought to be dismantling.  They urge congregations to include youth in all the adult things of the Church from governance to witness to teaching and to skip the emphasis on fun.  I am hardly an expert on youth ministry but I agree that we sell ourselves short by baby sitting our kids instead of engaging them in substantive matters of Christian faith, values, and life.  We hear all the time about the money these kids spend, the adult activities they engage in, the manifold choices they have before them, and all the time they spend alone or out of the company of adult supervision.  Surely it would be a good thing to confront these thing directly in the youth ministries of the Church.

I have heard all the good things that large group gatherings (like the national gatherings of the Lutheran church bodies) provide in terms of identity, socialization, and impact but I also know the high cost of such venues and the inordinate amount of time spent on entertainment, contemporary Christian music and make work types of service projects.  I am not ready to dismiss them but neither am I ready to say that it is worth the cost and effort to put together and to bring youth from across the country to these places.  I know that there are alternatives (Higher Things among them) but I have not had enough experience with them to fully evaluate them here.

I hear people say that we do not spend enough money and time on kids in the Church but given the time, money, staff, and energy invested in Sunday school, catechism, VBS, and youth programs, I find it hard to give credence to their complaints.  We seem to program more for youth and elderly and leave out the folks in the middle when it comes to programming and staff.  So there you have some of my concerns and some of the things I am hearing, but I wish I knew more...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Responsibility and RESPONSIBILITY

Over the past few weeks we have had conversations in the church office about the declining priority of Sunday school and catechism classes among parents and families of the Church.  It has included the usual frustrations of attendance, attention, and actions (meaning behavior).  In that ongoing dialog we have noticed a few things worthy of a larger discussion.

It is not true that parents and students are unwilling or unable to make commitments and then follow through on them.  At first this was where the conversation headed but then we noticed that kids are being hauled to sports practices and games, dance classes, extra-curricular events, and the like.  Parents and kids are making commitments – but those commitments are not to the church, not to Sunday school and catechism, and not to the faith in general.  The issue we must face is not why parents and families are not up to making and keeping commitments; they are and clearly do.  Rather the issue is why the Church is no longer high on the list of priorities, responsibilities, and commitments in these homes.

It is not true that parents are not as involved in the lives of their children as other parents in other generations were.  At first we thought the problem in the Church was related to a general distance parents have from their children but then we considered the amount of time they put in together at those sports practices and games (not to mention the travel time for some of these sports leagues).  We paid attention to the amount of time parents were spending in the car transporting their children to dance rehearsals or music lessons and then to the performance events.  Clearly they are spending a great deal of time together but it is also true that speaking, teaching, and sharing the faith has dropped down on the list of urgent priorities.

I spend several hours with parents prior to baptism and we include some discussion of the promises parents make to raise their children in the faith, to bring them to the worship services of God’s House, and to provide for their further instruction in the faith (what we call catechism classes).  There does not seem to be much difference in their attention to this counseling or in their ability to understand and make this commitment while the child is still very small and very far removed from some of this.  We talk about praying with their children every night as a discipline that bears rich rewards later when spiritual and life issues confront children and they look for people to talk to about them.
So what happens between those baptismal promises and the adolescent years when the parents have the most to do to make good on those baptismal promises?  You can tell me because I do not have much of an answer.  Parents still want to do right and do their best for their children but somehow the faith, the Church, and spiritual maturity in that faith are not connected with what is good and right and the best for their children.  The great Dale Meyer video (Easter Showers) includes a line in which a lay teacher in the congregation complains about parents who will pay good money for Stride Right shoes for their children but then won’t come in for an hour of baptismal counseling [or bring them to worship and Sunday school and catechism classes].  Parents want to do right for their children but their definition of “right” no longer includes Church, Sunday school, or catechism classes.  I wish I knew why.... and how to change it...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Family Time

I am spending some time visiting my parents (83 and soon to be 80), my brother, and my middle son – all who live in northeast Nebraska.  As I spend this time with some of my favorite people, I am struck by what a precious gift family is.  Do we argue or disagree or go through some tough times?  Of course, but my parents are the wisest people I know, their faith is living and strong and nurtured my own life of faith, and they are the most welcoming and loving people to be with.  Year after year I am more and more convinced that I have the best parents in the world.  I think the small town in which they live loves them almost as much as I do.

In addition, I get to see my brother at work.  He is not only works full-time, he is a paramedic and one of the few ambulance crew members in this town of volunteer fire and ambulance personnel.  He is an officer in the fire department and a good neighbor to everyone in town.  On top of this, he contributes more than most realize in the labor needed for our country Lutheran church and its in town parsonage.  He is one of those who do more than anyone knows and goes without credit for all that he does.  We are very different people but we are closer now than ever.

Then there is the time we get to spend with my middle son, who lives 45 minutes away from my home town.  He is well settled in a job, a net work of friends, a church family, and has a host of friends to be a support system.  It is a wonderful thing to see an adult child operate as an adult in his own environment.

All in all, time spent with family is time well spent.  I am so happy to spend these days with my family and to feel at home again with those so very dear to me.  One of the sad consequences of modern society, and church work in particular, is that it often takes you far from these folks.  Coming together to refresh the old memories, to re-connect with those so geographically distant, and to renew the bonds of love and family is a noble work and a very special activity.  I heartily encourage folks to take the time and make the effort and bridge the distance just to sit together, to reminisce, to laugh, and, of course, to eat... what a wonderful part of life.  It is a precious thing to be treasured and an opportunity not to be squandered...

On the Way Home

While on our way to Nebraska, we stopped in West DesMoines, Iowa, in order to take a look at a used Moller pipe organ.  The instrument was built in 1978 by what was America’s most prolific organ builder.  Moller had taken pipe organ construction from a hand built process to a mass production effort.  Literally hundreds and hundreds of Moller Artiste organs were built and still survive.  This was not an Artiste series but a unit organ that surely grew from the roots of this one size fits all idea of organ building.  The Artiste could be had from 3 to a dozen ranks of pipes, it was compact, reliable, and inexpensive.

To those who insist that real pipes are a luxury in churches today, I say take a gander at a good used Moller Artiste or one of its many derivations.  For a few thousand dollars they can be had.  A few thousand more in transportation and installation, and you have a reliable instrument that keeps it tuning and will serve well the congregation for many, many years to come.  Check out eBay or the Organ Trader or the ads in TAO magazine or the Diapason or you can look at the Organ Relocation Service.  Sometimes a phone call to organ service folks or regional organ builders will help you track down one of these little gems.

Less expensive than an electronic and yet very serviceable for most organ literature, you hear the sound of real music being made and not digitally sampled music being mimicked.  It is not that I am totally against electronic organs but that is not the only option open to most, make that all congregations.  In the end what we were looking for was an organ for our chapel to replace and slowly dying Rodgers electronic (non-digital) from the very early 1980s.  What we will end up with is a very serviceable instrument that will support the room, lead congregational song, and equip the chapel to serve its function for smaller services, weddings, and funerals (50-60 in attendance).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Matthew 18 -- NOT the Miranda Rights of the Church

Having had a little experience with the system of dispute resolution and reconciliation that replaced the adjudication structures based on a judicial model, I have learned a few things.  First of all I am literally tired of all the talk about Matthew 18.  Our Lord did not mean for this to become the Miranda Rights of the Church for those who have been offended.  He did not intend for this to be a legalistic means to enforce reconciliation.  He did not intend the various steps of Matthew 18 to be a rule book or SOP manual to be followed in order to make people get along.  I know there are those who will disagree with me, but I am beginning to wonder if we are not guilty of making too much of Jesus’s words here – raising these words to the level of a the ultimate law that governs our relationships and defines how we deal with conflict or dispute in the Church.  In doing so, I wonder if we have not lost some common sense.

I wonder if Matthew 18 is more about a question for our consideration – is the relationship more important or that which is in contention?  The answer is not automatic.  Sometimes the issue in contention IS more important than the relationship and sometimes the relationship is more important.  Surely Jesus is not saying to us that the relationship is always more important than the issue in dispute.  That would turn issues of truth and doctrine into secondary issues to the relationship between the people.  There must be a place for both in the Church – a means to reconciliation when the issues are deemed less important than the relationship and a means to hold to the truth when the compromise of that truth compromises the very Gospel that is His gift to us.

Yes, it would be great if we could gather together those in conflict or dispute and be objective about it all and each acknowledge our fault and beg each other’s forgiveness.  I am all for it.  But the truth is that some (some might say many) of those who have conflict and dispute with others are not inclined to honest reflection or objective review.  They want revenge.  They want vindication.  They want redress.  They want some sort of compensation for the wrongs they believe have been done to them.  They want the world to admit they were right and everyone else was wrong.  And that is NOT what our Lord had in mind when He spoke about the loss of a brother in Christ, the address of a wrong, and how the relationship might be restored.

Indeed, it might be a worth considering whether the “brother” who is seeking something other than reconciliation is, in fact, a “brother.”  When someone who feels wronged is out to hurt the one who wronged him, has he not forsaken the brotherly relationship?  Jesus’ says reconciliation is the result of the Spirit’s work through the Word, in the heart and life of God’s people.  Jesus did not give equal status to negotiation in which a little give and take can create a political solution to what is a spiritual problem. What creates reconciliation is not understanding but equal status under the Word of the Lord and openness to the working of the Spirit through that Word.

Jesus was not speaking from the vantage point of rights to be protected the way we speak today.  We have in our by-laws many words about the rights and the protection of those rights.  We structure the process to sort out the competing rights of the different parties to a dispute. Even if reconciliation cannot be achieved, we feel we have accomplished something by protecting people’s rights.  But tThe language of rights is not from Scripture.  It is from our modern culture (at least the last 300 years).  We demand our rights but the very nature of Jesus’ service to us is that He disdained what was His right in order do what was love’s privilege and give Himself up for a people who neither voted for him nor sought His intervention.  “While we were yet sinners and enemies” of God our Lord undertook to bear the guilt for our sins and pay the price for our redemption.  Is the way we look at rights and their protection a reflection of this Gospel or of our American culture with its guarantees of rights to all citizens?

In the end, I think reconciliation is a good goal and we ought to work toward reconciliation at the foot of the cross.  At the same time, we must acknowledge that those who want something other than reconciliation can and do hijack the intent of Matthew 18 and create a legalistic process more concerned about giving someone his due than what is right or wrong or how to reconcile those in conflict or dispute.

I do not think we kept the intent of our Lord by structuring a process which was more judicial than conciliatory but neither do I think we keep the intent of the Lord by turning settling for a reconciliation process which is more about the exercise of individual rights and their protection.... Just something to think about.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An Amazing Video

A friend directed me to Concordia Seminary website where they posted a silent movie taken at the dedication of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  It is an amazing news reel style record of what happened that day as well as a descriptive look at the Church we were in 1926.   First of all is the awesome realization that between 75,000 and 100,000 people came together on that campus for that momentous dedication day.  When was the last time we as a church body assembled that size crowd for anything?  In addition, since we were a church body numbering less than 1 M souls, this group is even more significant by comparison.  In order to have such an impact today, we would need to have more than 200,000 folks together to retain the proportions of that day, so long ago.

Second is the fact that a church body would gather to celebrate the rebirth of a seminary on a new campus so expensively constructed.  We all know that the buildings at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, were costly to construct.  What kind of priorities and discipline were required to undertake such a project (at a time when the vast majority of the cost of the Seminaries came out of the Synod budget as opposed to the small pittance that flows from Synod to our colleges and seminaries.  Today we do things on the cheap and our church body reflects this cost cutting mentality.  The trouble with this is that God is not cheap but lavish with His grace and mercy, his grace and favor.

Third is the genuine sense of optimism and accomplishment that both flowed from the majestic campus constructed and the purpose of this great investment to train Pastors for the Church.  Today the seminaries of the LCMS receive a pittance from the LCMS budget and do their own fund raising from a donor base of alumni, foundations, individuals, and an aging but well-heeled and pious demographic in Missouri.  The honest truth is that there are complaints from all kinds of folks about the high cost of training Pastors, the wisdom of a seminary based educational model, the effectiveness of a deeply academic and theological curriculum, and the cost effectiveness of two seminaries.  We look at these seminaries the way some folks look at the public school system – a costly expense that we do not want to bear and don’t think we need pay for anymore.  What a sea change in our Church body!

Incidentally, take a gander at the positively jovial faces of the usually dour and sanguine folks like Franz Pieper!  We have all looked at the photos of our Missouri for-bearers with relief that we do not look like them and this gives a very different view of some of those folks.  BTW, did you ever hear the joke about this? Snow White, Tom Thumb, and Quasimodo are all sad at the prospect they are not the fairest of the ladies, smallest of the people, and ugliest of all.  Their despair leads them to take their own lives and they appear before the pearly gates.  St. Peter takes Snow White in and when she comes out, she is glowing.  "I was the fairest of all the women!"  St. Peter then takes Tom Thumb in and when he comes out, he is ecstatic.  "I was the smallest of all the people of the world!"  Finally Quasimodo is taken in but he takes much longer with St. Peter than the others.  Finally when he comes out, his countenance is fallen and he is angry.  "Who the heck is C. F. W. Walther?"

Lastly, I was struck by the lack of clerical collars on the many clergy and church officials on that video.  In 1926, Lutheran Pastors looked more like business men than clergy.  We are far more apt to see a clerical collar on a Lutheran Pastor today than in 1926 and this is true even given the fact that khakis and a polo shirt have become the defacto uniform of many Pastors (even in worship).  That, given with the fact that most Lutheran congregations celebrated the Lord’s Supper only quarterly in 1926, makes me appreciate the work done by those who went before me.  I am in the debt of those who dared to raise up a more catholic version of Lutheran identity and practice when it was suspect and controversial in the Church.  Thanks be to God for those faithful Lutherans who read their Confessions not as an academic document or an historical one but as a blueprint for Lutheran parish identity and practice.

Follow the link to 'A Prayer for Concordia' from May 14, 2010.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Which Direction Are We Headed

One of the great questions before Lutheranism is not about who we were in the past or even who we are in the present moment but which way are we headed?  When we elect leaders, when we undertake great mission initiatives, or when we decide to review and change our structure, we make what are at best incremental changes.  Often the significance of those changes are not known or felt until years later.  But we can look at the direction these changes or leaders are heading and decide if that is the direction we ought to be heading.

I have often heard it said that the current Synodical President and his administration are all about mission, moving the sleeping giant to awaken and take some strides toward growth.  On the surface this may appear to be accurate.  We have seen the birth of the Ablaze movement with its focus on evangelism and outreach.  We have seen the adoption of grand goals of planting new missions and ministries (2,000 by 2017).  We have seen a large fund raising program begin to raise funds to support these mission goals (Fan Into Flame).  This administration can certainly be commended for putting this emphasis front and center.  Some have lauded these goals as the reason they support Pres. Kieschnick even though they might not feel personally or theologically in tune with him.

On the surface it appears that Missouri is on the move but the great question for us is “which direction are we headed?”  If becoming more mission minded means planting congregations that do not look or sound or act much different than the average non-denominational church in town, then maybe we need to be thinking about the cost of this mission focus on our Confessional identity.  If becoming more tuned to growth means being willing to become something different on Sunday morning than who we are in our confession of faith, then maybe we need to reexamine the principles underlying this move to growth and whether the methods and their presuppositions may be in conflict with our Confessional identity.

What concerns me as a Pastor is when it is presumed that the Church we are in our hymnal or catechism or symbols is no longer viable for mission and growth.  What concerns me is when we feel that in order to reach our goals we must change who we are – putting liturgical confessional identity in competition with or in conflict with the mission goal of witness and tangible growth.  The direction of our church body is the issue here – not the personal integrity of the leaders or the over all goals of a more effective, efficient, and energized LCMS.  Surely we would all be in favor of a church body more effective in the use of the resources and gifts God has given us to faithfully fulfill His purpose.  Surely we would all appreciate a church body more efficient in our ability to make decisions, implement programs, and carry out the mission of the Church.  Surely we would all like to see a Missouri Synod energized and excited about who we are, what is our history, and what God has called us to be and to do.  But it is a valid point to make to question how we get there, what we have to give up in order to get there, and what we have to adopt in order to get there.

I have little compassion or understanding of congregations that do not desire to grow – and we have a lot of them!  There are congregations that have put up all kinds of attitudinal and functional barriers that keep new people away and keep the focus of the congregation turned inward instead of outward.  I am not speaking primarily about those congregations on the prairie whose people have left the land and moved somewhere else.  I am speaking of congregations who have every opportunity to grow, to bring the Gospel to those around them, and yet choose to focus on themselves.  A number of years ago I had a call to congregation in a bustling suburb.  As the people drove me to the building, I noticed not one sign to direct people to the existence of this Lutheran congregation.  Before we drive onto the parking lot, someone had to get out, unpadlock the log chain that prevented access to the church property, and the secure it again once we had driven through.  A huge brush of trees and shrubs effectively hid the facility from the two busy streets on either side of the large property.  This was a congregation poised to decline.  A few conversations with the leaders and it was clear which direction they were headed and it was in deep conflict with my own perspective.  Did I want to fight with this insulated congregation or did I believe that God was probably calling me to a different congregation?

I do not believe it is a question of growth or no growth --  but whether or not the kind of growth or the means to this growth comes at the expense of our Lutheran identity.  This is and has been my concern for our Synod for several years.  The direction of the LCMS is away from our confessional and liturgical identity and toward a generic Protestant (mostly fundamentalist or evangelical) identity which could be shared with congregations with very different theological stances.  This is not about musical style.  It is not about vestments.  It is not about formal or casual.  It is about our evangelical and catholic identity, flowing from the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, and a practice consistent with those Confessions.

We all know which direction the ELCA has chosen to take.  The direction for the ELCA is to cast its lot in with what is left of mainline Protestantism - albeit with a high church appearance.  In Missouri we are headed in different directions (not only from the ELCA but within Missouri itself).  I do not believe any elected leader can save us but the direction he sets is a very important question.  Although I do not know Matt Harrison very well, the direction he seems to be moving in is a direction more consistent with our confession of faith and liturgical identity.  I hope that this is true.  I hope that if he is elected, this will be the tone and direction of the LCMS as a whole.  A movement of the rudder seems like a small change but it can create a radical change in direction for the ship as a whole.  God help us, we need to change direction without going backwards or insulating and isolating ourselves as a Church.

High Culture vs Low Culture

Once I had someone say that Lutherans were a high brow people -- high culture -- in a low brow world -- low culture.  The person said that the culture of the local Baptist congregation or non-denominational church was more reflective of the neighborhood and community.  This fellow told me that the church next door to us had a Bubba culture and we had a Bach culture and that this was the reason we had trouble getting traction in a Southern city even though our congregation had been there 50 years.

I thought about this and will concede that there is something to what he says although I do not believe it has a great deal of impact on things.  We have had trouble getting traction in this community because this Lutheran congregation was begun as a refuge of Northerners who found themselves, for whatever reason, living in the South.  When they built their building on the busiest thoroughfare in town they did not put a door facing that busy street and thus they implied to the people passing by that this was a closed group.  And it was.  They spent most of their effort finding Lutherans and less effort trying to reach out to the folks around them.  I am not faulting them but even the folks who were there when it began admit that this was the focus -- unintended but still the mindset.

Second I think that while we have some "high brow" music and ceremonial  that is different from the native churches of this Southern town, we also have a host of other music that is not baroque or even classical.  For pete's sake, we sang "Holy Spirit the Dove Sent from Heaven" and "Greet the Rising Sun" on Pentecost and heard the account read in Arabic (among other languages).  We have people in cargo shorts and t-shirts and even a few in suits and ties.  We have a large concentration of young families and singles.  I would not say that a high percentage of our people listen to classical stations or even particularly like classical music.  What I think is different about us is that we are a confessional and liturgical church and this is what makes us different from 99% of all the congregations around us (especially the native ones).

I am weary of those who try to paint the distinction between Lutherans and others as a cultural one -- I believe it is primarily theological.  We stick out because we are Word and Sacrament people in a sea of folks who are into entertainment worship and immediate Spirit's blessing.  We stick out because we are confessional in a sea of people who believe the faith is only one person wide and deep (that belief is intensely personal and individual).  We stick out because we are a community gathered around the font, table, and pulpit in a sea of people gathered around video, the music style of the day, and a preacher/personality cult style church.

So I will admit that the pipe organ is not Bubba culture but it remains the most effective instrument to accompany and to lead congregational song.  Its sound can be lush and romantic or brash and jarring or inspirational and heralding... and it is every Sunday depending upon the hymn, service music, or liturgy being played.   What makes us stick out is a good thing -- theology written and confessed over time to bind us to our beliefs as a community of faith and many congregations.... music that speaks the Gospel and is not for music's sake.... preaching that flows from the means of grace and back to them through the lens of a church year... sacramental presence which draws us in to the table and the font where we meet Christ and all His gifts... no, not high brow or low brow but confessional, liturgical, evangelical, and catholic... that would make us, ah, Lutheran?!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Confessions of a Hoarder

You may have watched one of those shows on TV about hoarders whose obsession has turned their homes into mazes of stuff, garbage, and trophies of their compulsion.  Perhaps you watched "Clean House' or one of the programs in which someone comes into the dirty, cluttered home to reclaim the space for living.  You may have wondered as you watched, "What kind of person does such things or lives like that?"  Now you can say you know someone like that.  It is me.  But my obsession is not about stuff or things.  I collect emails.  And, I confess, I do not know how to delete them (now, don't write me with instructions on how to actually delete them -- I am speaking of my fear that if I delete this or that email, I will surely need it and will not have it).

I did not fully realize how my obsession had progressed until a computer issue required me to back up my emails and I found that I had in excess of 4,000 emails cluttering the landscape of my Outlook Express (yes, I use that troublesome program that so many love to hate).  I suppose I could delete some of them, well, a lot of them, but that would require going through them and I just don't have the desire or time to do that.  My Inbox is like a file drawer of communications, information, and contact records.  I have grown accustomed to the way I keep these electronic records and I cannot get myself to a place to let them go....

So now you know... I keep emails.  I keep copies of the emails I send (don't have a count on them) and the emails I receive (4,000 plus -- not counting the advertising emails which I gladly delete).  They say that the younger generation is moving away from email to Facebook and the like but every day I get 30-100 personal emails from people regarding a myriad of topics, themes, and occasions.  And I keep them.  It is not like I do not have the space -- they take up barely any space and I have at least 100 Gig or so left for storing these things (and others).

Every now and then something happens to cause me to look up something from my ancient section of my Inbox and then I am vindicated for keeping all of this.  The last time I did any real serious housecleaning of my emails was, well, 2005 or so.  So pray for me... my obsession with electronic media has taken a socially unacceptable form and I know it but, well, I am a hoarder -- what can I say?  I believe I am the only one with this obsession from my family -- so maybe the gene did not pass on.... so it is just me... or maybe some of you share this dysfunction as well?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Transparency Requires Reading

One of the oft mentioned frustrations of Pastors is how often congregations are accused of "hiding" things that are there in full, public view -- a good example the newsletter.  The newsletter of our congregation includes a huge amount of information from snippets about the Church Year to the venerable Pastor's Column to mission updates.  But that is not all.  Nearly all the details of all the happenings in the congregation are there for everyone to see -- dates, times, places, and MORE!  And still there is more.  Requests for assistance, people, resources, information, and the like dot the pages of the newsletter.  Schedules of group activities and special events tell everyone who, what, when, how, and why (and even what it costs, if there is one).  A calendar and schedule of servants (from acolyte to ushers and everything in between) keeps everyone up to date.

In addition to the published newsletter, there is a 4x8 ft bulletin board just off the narthex that has all the financial reports, the minutes of the meetings, copies of the Synod publications (Reporter, etc.) and any other groups that the congregation belongs to and more... These are put up month after month as the new reports give way to the old (and the past 3-6 months worth of reports can be found under the current one.

BUT... and here's the rub... in order for this transparency to work, people have to READ them!  I am amazed at how often people will ask me about something that has been in the newsletter for months -- as if they have never heard it before?!?  I hate doing verbal announcements on Sunday morning but somethings are just not being read and it is important that they be heard even if they are not being read.  Even then people will ask basic questions about something that they just heard explained.

I really dislike announcements but I must admit that I should not complain about a few things said here and there.  I once watched a video of an Easter service at one of the largest parishes in Synod only to be blown away when the Pastor stopped his Easter sermon for, you guessed it, an announcement from another staff member.  So he gave several minutes of announcement on this forthcoming event and then yielded his time back to the man in the pulpit who finished off his sermon, as it were.  I guess that was an announcement they wanted all but those nodding off during the sermon to hear!

For all the good it does to make this information available, it accomplishes little good if no one reads is.  Of course, I do get a wicked kind of satisfaction saying to folks who ask about something, "Oh, well, it was in the newsletter for several months. Didn't you read it??????"

When the Church is accused of not being transparent it may be due to the lack of information available.  Or, it may be due to the fact that no one is reading what is there...  Either way, the folks in the pew are in the dark when they do not need to be.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Justice Is No Substitute for the Gospel

First there was the dust up from Glenn Beck and his dissing of churches involved in "social justice" and his claim that social justice is just a euphemism for radical liberation theology and the like.  Then someone pointed me to a video interview of two ELCA gay clergy who had been removed and then reinstated to the ELCA clergy roster as a result of the consequences of the CWA action some ten months ago.

 First my disclaimer.  I do not listen to Glenn Beck and am not a fan of the kind of sensationalist rhetoric that often is shown on networks which also do hard news (but without seeming disclaimers on both sides about what is opinion and what is news).

That said, Back has a point.  There is a segment of liberal Christianity which has substituted social justice and advocacy for the proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified for the forgiveness of sins and the application of His gifts of life and salvation.  We see it all around us.  Conversations about the proclamation of Jesus Christ tend to end up as calls to boycott this or advocate for that or work for justice for this oppressed or that.  There is legitimate social justice work which the Church is and should be involved in but not as a substitute for the proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  When the concern in churches becomes more about the improvement of this world or this life than about the proclamation of how the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, and die and on the third day rise and that forgiveness of sins be proclaimed in His name first from Jerusalem and then to all the ends of the earth -- then we have big trouble right here in River City. It is because of this Gospel that the Church is engaged in feeding the hungry and teaching them to grow food, providing medical care to the poor and teaching them healthy lifestyles, building shelters for the homeless and teaching them to work their way into self-sufficiency, and on, and on...But if the Church is content to improve people's lot in this life without proclaiming the life which is to come in Christ, the Church has not done the Lord's bidding and will have given them only a band-aid for a moment while leaving them completely unprepared for eternity.  It is both and not or -- a fact that those on both extremes of Christianity seem to have forgotten.

I believe that it is a good sign that the contender for President of the LCMS does not come out of an academic background or even an administrative background but from the office of this church body that shows mercy's work and that mercy works.  Perhaps he can teach this Church that it is truth, doctrine, and a rich liturgical life that leads us to care for those around us and to extend ourselves on their behalf -- and not just in time of emergency either.

That said, I am worried by the way that Lutherans seem to through about words like justice as if they were speaking the Gospel simply by calling out the oppressors and identifying with those oppressed.  Work for justice that fails to speak first the Gospel of the cross and empty tomb is empty work in the Church.  I do not know these ELCA clergy but from what I heard of their interview I do not want to know them.  They spoke of the injustice that they felt they endured because their PALMS relationship was not recognized by their own agreed upon vision and expectations of clergy ordained in the ELCA.  If they disagreed, why did they seek ordination under these rules?  Secondly, they did not speak of Jesus Christ once in this interview although they hid all the contemporary code words of social change and social justice.  They rejoiced in the solidarity they received from others who shared their view point and they rejoiced in the triumph of justice when they were reinstated.  For claiming to be Lutheran clergy, they did not speak like Lutherans nor did they speak anything about the Gospel of the cross and empty tomb. 

I know that you cannot fix the world but I also know that our Lord calls us to keep trying.  I know that you cannot fix the hungry by giving them a plate but it is a start.  I know that you cannot show forth good stewardship while arrogantly consuming a disproportionate share of the world's resources but ecology and economic justice are not the causes for which Christ died -- He died for sinners.  So I am not an advocate of praying away poverty or hunger or oppression.  I believe that we can and must be active against these things.  But such good works flow through us simply and only because the Christ of the cross and empty tomb lives in us by baptism and faith -- and we are witnesses of these things to all the ends of the earth.  But I cannot abide those whose voices for justice have no room for talk of sin and death, the cross and empty tomb, forgiveness and life.  Mercy that does not flow from the cross  and speak the cross is an alien mercy unknown to Christ and therefore unworthy of His Church.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Sad Exile of Pentecost

Sunday is Pentecost but you would hardly know it where I live.  First of all most of the churches are non-liturgical so they do not follow a calendar which might tell them what to name the day.  Second, so many things have displaced the feasts, festivals, and commemorations of the liturgical calendar, that some find it hard to remember the Biblical day in the face of graduations honored and other things from the secular calendar.  Finally, as we approach Memorial Day we are ready to proclaim it finally summer and with summer, a vacation from things churchly.  So if it where not enough to fight the things happening on the calendars at the end of the school year and the wedding season, we also have the onset of the very time of year when vacation, vacation home, and time off becomes a higher priority than the things of the Lord's House.  This is a sad day because Pentecost is so strongly tied to Easter (just as Ascension) and it is like leaving in the midst of the meal to duck out before the promise of the Father in Jesus' name is fulfilled among God's people -- the climactic end of the festival side of the Church Year.
When we gather on Sunday, we will hear part of the Acts 2 lesson in languages from Arabic to Danish to German and several more. After the languages each have their turn at verses 14-20, then all voices will speak together in English:  "And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'  This small little change in the way we read the lessons gives the hearer the image of how God has spoken the one Word that breaks through every division and barrier.

In addition we will receive new members and have an adult confirmation in the Pentecost liturgy so that we see with our eyes the effect of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all Truth and embolden God's people for witness, proclaiming Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins in His name to all the ends of the earth.

Two ten foot banners on either side wall of the chancel, the powerful red of the color of the day, and even a red cope, all help to give Pentecost the attention it deserves...  This is how the day informs the practice, how the lectionary provides a clue to what we might do in the liturgy to reflect what the pericopes say.  I would urge Lutheran parishes to focus on Pentecost and to restore this special day to its rightful place in the calendar and in the life of God's people.

The hymns vary from the wonderful "Holy Spirit, the Dove Sent from Heaven" which has a sound rather new to most Lutherans to the "Come Down, O Love Divine" with its prayerful bidding of the Spirit to visit and complete His work in the life of the Christian...

A blessed Pentecost!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Today 32 Years Ago

Thirty two years ago today I stood in the chancel waiting for the most beautiful woman in the world to walk down the aisle.  The processional hymn was "In Thee Is Gladness," the presider was the Rev. Charles Evanson, the vested deacon was the Rev. Gary Frank, and the setting was Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne, IN.  Following the Liturgy of the Word, vows were spoken and rings exchanged.  Then the congregation sang "Now Thank We All Our God."  We received the Sacrament of Holy Communion together as husband and wife for the first time.  And then we recessed to the Fellowship Room for a reception.

On that day I had no real idea what marriage was, what it meant to be husband to this woman, or for her to be wife to me.  I trusted her with everything, I valued her companionship as the best friend a person could have, I loved her as best I knew what love was, and I cared for her more than my life.  In 32 years of life together there have been many tests and trials, many joys and many sorrows, many moves and changes, but what has not changed is my belief that she was and is the best choice and decision I have ever made.  I know a bit more about what marriage is, what it means for me to be husband to her and for her to be wife to me.  I trust more than ever, I delight in being with her every moment, I love her more than life, and I care for her more than I ever knew I could care.  And that is what love is -- burdens shared, sorrows comforted, trials faced together, joys and laughter untold, honest conversation of the hardest things to speak, faith grounded and united in God, so that I cannot think of me without her... Thanks be to God for her and Happy Anniversary to my one and only beloved!

A Different Approach to the Role of Music in the Service...

It seems that in any conversation among Lutherans about the role of music in the Divine Service, there is lip service paid to the famous Luther dictum of music being the servant of the Word but that is often where unanimity ends.  The next step is seeing music as our gift to God, the expression of our praise and thanksgiving in response to what He has done.  In this way, music is a medium not for God's story but for ours -- to tell the Lord what we feel, what we think, and how we have been moved by what He has done.  From that flows another understanding of music as that which sets the mood or tone for the Divine Service.  We pick music (hymns, song, and service music) that express the mood of the service (joyful, somber, encouraging, reflective, etc.) and in this way music is primarily evocative.  And then there is the understanding of music as mood maker where the role of music is to bring together the assembly and bring them to one place.  Music is used to make the mood (often here the songs are both performed and sung repeatedly and the singing goes on continuously over some period of time as opposed to hymns or songs that are sung one at a time and in alternation with other parts of the service.  You might have other roles to add, I am just offering these for now.

It is my experience that you do not have to be into contemporary Christian music to see music and its role(s) in this way.  In fact, I know some organists and choir directors in liturgical churches who routinely speak of the role of music as expression of our feeling, who use music to set the tone for the service, and who plan music to achieve a certain outcome or goal on the part of the hearer and singer.  Though we who believe in the liturgy often accuse those who practice CCM of this, it is more prevalent than we might think.

In contrast to this, when Lutherans speaks of music as being the handmaid or servant of the Word, we are speaking of the role of music in communicating that Word of God.  Music is not merely some sounds around the text but, with the text, is woven in such way that text and tune become one fabric, one message.  The primary purpose of music is to communicate THE message of Jesus Christ.  If you page through Lutheran Service Book or Lutheran Worship or The Lutheran Hymnal, it is easy to see what I mean.  There are hymns there that tell a story over many stanzas, both summarizing and saying in the actual words of Scripture the message of the Gospel (and not only Gospel but also Law).  They are theological as well as doxological -- in fact we might say that in order to be doxological they must be theological, conveying and confessing the truth of God's own self-disclosure and revelation.

It is not that these hymns are devoid of our response to that Word, or empty of the praise and thanksgiving it engenders in us and from us, but that this is always secondary to their role as speakers of the Divine Word.  It is not that there is no difference in mood or tone between a Good Friday hymn or an Easter hymn but that this mood or tone is reflective of what the hymn says and not a value separate from its role as servant of the Word.  It is not that we do not "program" festive hymns for festive occasions but not as a manipulator of the mind and heart of people.  Rather, the choice of hymns or songs flows from the occasion, from the lessons for that occasion, and from the place of this service within the Church Year or the sanctoral calendar.  It is not that these hymns do not utilize repetitive elements (refrains, for example) but that this repetition flows from the form of the text and its message and not as a means to change or shape the mood of the singer or hearer by the use of a specific musical form or set of words.  So, for example, the repeated "Alleluias" of a hymn such as "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing" flow from the message of Ascension and the response of the Church to Jesus' place of glory at the right hand of the Father, a place earned by His suffering and death, which He takes as a reflection of the completion of these mighty acts by which we have been saved.  Different from that are the repeated "Alleluia" of the folk hymn by that name which has no other words than "Alleluia" and where the repetition of that one word becomes the medium, the message and a means of creating a specific mood in the assembly.

Luther's gift and, indeed, the gift of Lutheran hymnody, is its ability to bring together musical form and the message of the Word to faithfully mirror Scripture's own speaking in the voice of an assembly whose many voices are united not only in this speaking or singing but in the Word which they speak and sing.

George Weigel, noted Roman Catholic theological and social commentator, has noticed this as well.  Read what he has written:  I love hymns. I love singing them and I love listening to them. Hearing the robust Cardiff Festival Choir belt out the stirring hymns of Ralph Vaughan Williams at what my wife regards as an intolerable volume is, for me, a terrific audio experience. It was only when I got to know certain Lutherans, though, that I began to think about hymns theologically. 

For classic Lutheran theology, hymns are a theological "source:" not up there with Scripture, of course, but ranking not-so-far below Luther's "Small Catechism." Hymns, in this tradition, are not liturgical filler. Hymns are distinct forms of confessing the Church's faith. Old school Lutherans take their hymns very seriously.

Most Catholics don't. Instead, we settle for hymns musically indistinguishable from "Les Mis" and hymns of saccharine textual sentimentality. Moreover, some hymn texts in today's Catholic "worship resources" are, to put it bluntly, heretical. Yet Catholics once knew how to write great hymns; and there are great hymns to be borrowed, with gratitude, from Anglican, Lutheran, and other Christian sources. There being a finite amount of material that can fit into a hymnal, however, the first thing to do is clean the stables of today's hymnals.

Hymns are important. Catholics should start treating them seriously.

He gets what some Lutherans have forgotten or chosen to ignore. What we sing is either what we believe, teach and confess or it is simply what we think or feel.  While there is nothing wrong with feelings and passion in worship, what we sing is not an aesthetic experience, not an artistic experience, not a musical experience, but the place where the Word speaks and music assists the speaking of that Word.  We have all known hymns where the melody and the words become the inseparable and unified medium -- the melody is not simply some interchangeable set of notes but is so reflective of the message it becomes itself part of the message.  Certainly this is the goal of the music of the liturgy, the hymns and songs of the Church, and the anthems and service music of the choir, organist, and other parish musicians.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Creator's Tapestry

One more time the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations has issued a document attempting to shed more light than heat upon the relationships of man and woman in marriage and in the Church.  I have not yet read it through and am not commenting upon this document per se.  That said I have heard all sorts of comments about which means I will not read it without some partial judgment already in my mind.  Some complain that there were not enough or not the right women at the table when this was being prepared.  Some complain that it builds upon or simply rehashes prior documents.  Some complain that it was not written from a clean slate but within the rather narrow purview of existing thought from our Church.  Some complain that it is too general or vague and desire more specificity.  Some complain that the ordination of women looms as such a shadow in this that other dimensions of the relationship between man and woman suffer because of this elephant in the room.

It is no wonder that we have trouble speaking in this area.  Where was the first manifestation of the fall from grace in the Garden?  Was it not in the relationship between man and woman.  In a few short verses we end up with guilt, blame, and scorn manifest by the man who nonetheless needed and desired the woman and the woman who needed and desired the man.  A relationship gifted to them became a working relationship fraught with competition, fear, lust, independence, willfulness, and jealousy.  Roles once clear and without confusion or regret became rigid and bitter.  Love which once flowed freely became mired in the conflict between the desire for noble love and sacrifice and the reality of self-interest and a desire to balance the scale between getting and giving.

This is not to discourage the study of man-woman relationships in marriage and the Church.  Rather, this is to acknowledge that our discourse is forever constrained by the reality of sin and its limitation upon us and the whole fabric of our world.  It is a tapestry stained, worn, and crudely repaired that must suffice until our Lord comes to bring to completion all things He has began.  Perhaps then, when He has brought to fulfillment us and all things that are His own, then the relationship that first suffered because of sin will finally be released from its constraints.  Even then, it is not Eden to be restored to us but the step beyond Eden to a place where men and women are neither given in marriage nor married at all in the way that earthly definition gave to this relationship.  What we will be left with is a transcendent relationship that bears the faint image of what was but also bears the full image of the glory of God's heavenly plan and purpose.

I wonder, then, if we will lament the loss of what has become one very important conversation since that Eden error and regret that we have nothing left to talk about in the men from Mars and the women from Venus... For surely, we have expended many words on this subject here and there seems to be no end to the ink and voices yet to be brought to bear on the relationship between man and woman, either through the lens of Scripture or not.

I will get around to reading through it... though I harbor no illusions about it... it will not bring an end to the debate or silence the on-going discussion that has consumed the relationship of man and woman in and outside the Church for, well, ever.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Our waiting is directed by the Word of God to the Word made flesh...

Sermon Preached for Easter 7, the Sunday after the Ascension, 16 May 2010.

     Awkward moments are part and parcel of this life – the days when we known not what to say or do but feel like we ought to say or do something. In those awkward moments, silence can be deafening.  So it was for the disciples of Jesus.  Our Lord had ascended, the disciples were waiting upon the Lord, and while they waited they cleaned up the loose ends of Judas’ betrayal and death by electing someone to take his place within the Twelve.  In the meantime they waited.
    Waiting is also an awkward part of our lives.  But what do you do while you wait?  I guess that is why they have so many magazines in waiting rooms.  We fill our empty moments of waiting with what is familiar to us.  Where did the apostles turn in their time of waiting?  What was familiar to them?
    Just before Jesus ascended He opened the Scriptures to His disciples and taught them how the Son of Man was to suffer, die, and rise again, that forgiveness of sins be proclaimed in His name to all the ends of the earth.  By teaching His disciples in this way, Jesus turned the focus of their waiting to His Word, to Scripture.  Not some curiosity in Scripture but to the Scriptures as the Word that is unlocked by Christ, the Scriptures that lay out God’s plan of salvation, the Scriptures that show this promise kept in Christ, and the Scriptures that point us to Christ, the Word who fulfills its every word.
    As God’s people wait upon the Lord, their guide and hope is shaped by Scripture, the Word that spoke the promise fulfilled in Christ and the guide that leads us to the One who delivers hope to us sinners.  This is not some Simon says Word but the Word that is the power to do what it says, to bestow what it promises upon those who wait upon it.
    Jesus pinned His identity to that Word of promise proclaimed by the prophets.  He is the authentic Savior who alone keeps the promise given and kept alive in the ages.  How the true and only God is the One comes in flesh to fulfill the Word of the Lord.  The only Gospel which is genuine is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Either He is the keeper of every promise of Scripture or He is but an imposter, unworthy of our trust and powerless to grant us hope.
    When Jesus opened the Scripture to those disciples, He showed Himself as the One born of the Virgin, named Immanuel, the righteous One, who dies the one death big enough to overcome sin, who rises with the life big enough to raise all the dead.  This is what and who we encounter in Scripture.  God reveals Himself through His Son and the Son by the Spirit whom the Father has sent in His name.
    If Jesus has kept all the promise of Scripture, then we can trust Him for everything we need.  We learn Scripture because it makes Christ known to us, so that we can trust Christ... with the big hopes of our hearts and the little ones, with the urgent needs of our lives and long term ones, with the things that matter most to us and things that hardly matter.  Scripture is our focus not because it distracts us or fills the time of waiting, but because it points us to Him who fulfills time and delivers eternity to us time bound creatures.
    We generally start with little things and build up to the big ones – like a man and woman in their courtship seeking to know if he or she is the one or a child working up to the big request asked of the parent.  God works it all backwards.  He does not show Himself trustworthy in little things so that we might believe in the big, He begins with the greatest promise of all.  He keeps that from its fulness we might know we can trust Him for all things.
    You and I will spend much of our lives waiting upon the Lord.  We will not have explanations to reason our way through this time of waiting.  We will not see the face of Jesus with our physical eyes to guide us through this time of waiting.  But what we do have is His Word, the Word that reveals Jesus Christ and delivers to us what it, what He, promises.  That is why we are people of the Word.
    As we wait upon the Lord we face one critical question: Has Christ fulfilled the Scriptures?  If this promise is kept, then we can trust Him for everything else in our lives.  If this one BIG promise is kept, then what reason do we have to doubt Him for the little things of our lives.  Here on earth we start with little promises and build up to the big ones.  Scripture shows us another way.  The big promise that Christ has kept becomes the courage for us to believe that we are not alone, we are not without consolation, we are not so lost as to be beyond the reach of His grace...
    So in your lives of waiting, do not stand staring into the sky, do not gaze off into space waiting for hope to drop into your lap, do not try God out with a little thing here and there to see if He is dependable.  Instead turn to His Word, to the promise given by the Father and kept by His Son, and revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.  Focus on the Scripture fulfilled in Christ, look to the cross and empty tomb and hear the bidding of the Spirit: “if Christ can do all this, can He not be trusted now, for this trouble, for this trial, for this need, for this sin, for this death, for that hope, for this dream?”
    Our time of waiting we cannot escape.  We need not a diversion or a distraction but the Word that does what it says, the Christ who fulfills the Scriptures and delivers to us what we need most of all but cannot win or earn for ourselves.  When this is our focus, our waiting will not be aimless but pregnant with purpose and power to be steadfast in faith and courageous in witness and bold in mission.  Amen.

What are you looking at? What are you looking for?

Sermon preached for Ascension, 13 May 2010.

    What a strange sight it must have been.  Grown men standing staring into the sky with blank looks on their faces.  He was here... and then he was gone.  Where is Jesus?  What a strange experience it must have been for these disciples.  They had just been talking with Jesus and He had just opened to them the Scriptures, and shown to them how it speaks of Him and then in the midst of this conversation, he was gone.  Where did He go? And then the big Lutheran question: What does this mean?
    What were they waiting for?  What were they looking for?  For Jesus to come again?  For a world to be made right and perfect and good?  What are you waiting for?  For sins to be forgiven, for wounds to heal, for sorrows to be consoled, for sorrows to be comforted, for worries to turn out right, for questions to be answered...  We look to Jesus to keep the promise of the Father... but what is the promise of the Father?  That promise is nothing less then Jesus Himself and the Spirit whom He sends from the Father to reveal Him to us that we might know Him, believe in Him, and trust in Him.
    The promise of the Father is not some hidden wisdom, truth, event, or goal.  The promise of the Father is Jesus.  There is no hope or dream of sinful man that He does not fulfill – including saying NO to us when what we want from Him we should not have.  Jesus is the promise of the Father whose outstretched arms relieve the suffering of sinners like you and me.  Jesus is the giver of freedom who liberates captives like you and me from sin and its death.  Jesus is rich one who traded all His riches to pay down the debt of our rebellion, sin, and death, that all our duty and obligation might be paid.
    The promise of the Father is not some impossible dream we must believe in or some impossible truth we must accept but the Holy Spirit who comes in Christ’s name to visit our weary, stubborn, hardened hearts to teach us to see Jesus and believe in Him. The promise of the Father is not a goal we must reach, an achievement we must accomplish, or some greater event that the cross and resurrection.  The promise of the Father is Jesus and the Spirit of Jesus who gives to us the Christ of God in whom our every weakness, need or cause is met with grace unsurpassed and hope that cannot be destroyed.
    Many of us are tempted to stand like the disciples did, staring at God – or at least where we think He is – waiting until we see something we can believe in, waiting until we see enough little promises kept before we trust Him with the big things of our lives, and waiting until the world or we made different, transformed by something amazing.  If this is what we wait for, we will be disappointed.  But if we are waiting upon the Son who fulfills all things and for the Spirit who makes known this Son to us, then we will never be disappointed.
    Our lives are lived in the time of waiting between His ascension and His return in glory.  Our lives are filled with a waiting that sometimes seems aimless, sometimes seems long, and sometimes seems hopeless... a time of questions that have no answers, of wounds that continue to fester and hurt... of sorrows that tear at the fabric of our hearts... We can either gaze into the empty sky hoping to see something... Or we can focus upon who Jesus is, what Jesus Himself has accomplished for us, whom the Spirit has made known to us... That Jesus Christ died and rose again to bring forgiveness, life and salvation for all sinners, and most especially for you and me.
The question of Ascension is simple.  What will we focus on?  What will we look for?  What will we see?  Jesus has made it plain.  Unless He ascends, we will be left without the Counselor who will bring to our knowledge all that Jesus said and did for us and our salvation.  But He has ascended to do just that.  To make it possible for us to have what He has won, He leaves and sends to us the One who makes Jesus known to us.  Then we might view life itself through the lens of Jesus Christ, and there find revealed to us the presence that will not leave us orphans, the hope that will not disappoint us, the peace that passes all understanding, and the grace that is sufficient for all our needs.  Amen.

The Language that Soars

I am listening to Choral Evensong from St. Pancras Church, on the BBC weekly series, streaming audio.  How wonderful it was to hear the cantor intone "O Lord, make speed to save us..."  It reminds me of the different ways we use language.  Many are drawn to plain language that communicates in basic vocabulary without complex sentence construction.  I know there is a place for this.  I just don't think the place for this is the liturgy.  The language of the liturgy is not primarily to communicate clearly but to elevate this communication to the highest level of poetry, to the sublime and elegant -- a way of communicating that is seldom heard in America except on the BBC or perhaps a particularly moving political speech.  I can still hear the sonorous sounds of Reagan's eulogy of the Columbia astronauts (Peggy Noonan's promise mixed with the poetic gift of John McGee's High Flight).

Sadly, there is too little language that moves us upward and too much that is eminently forgettable when it comes to the worship of the Lord's House.  I am not speaking of something contrived (unless we deliberately seek to confuse and confound) but the ability to turn a phrase into a moment of grandeur that stays with you.  We all recall the phrasing of the classic collects (O God from whom all good things come..., for example).  This noble and elegant prose seems almost poetic in the way the phrases lift our attention and move us -- not in competition with what they say but saying what is said with the best of our gifts.  We can all bless the likes of Thomas Cranmer, hymn translators like Catherine Winkworth, and of hymn writers old and new (Martin Franzmann comes to my mind especially).

I lament the loss of languages gift with respect to Bible translations, much of contemporary hymnody and church song, nearly all of the home grown liturgy, and the prayers of the Church.  It is pedestrian language -- boring to the speaker and to the hearer.  Devoid of the elegance deserved by the words that speak of the Word made flesh, we are left with a flat tongue that says what it means but empty and mundane in the way it says it.

When I pray the Te Deum from TLH I am reminded of the power of language and of the great loss when we fail to use its gift well in service to the Lord and His House.  With each succeeding hymnal we lose more and more of the power of this language.  I am NOT speaking of thees and thous but of the ability to put together phrase and paragraph in a way that draws you in and leaves its mark upon your mind and heart.

Perhaps the sermon must speak more on the level of clear and concise communication but even there I feel like we fail to use one of the greater tools of the preacher when our language remains so, well, one dimensional.  I recall a Pastor whose sermons were woven as a rich tapestry of literature and Scripture, of message and oratory -- not affected but honest, from a mind well read and well schooled in Scripture.  I could listen for ages.  Alas, some within his parish though less of this and he was forced to speak more in the realm of ordinary speech.  I understand even though I was disappointed.

But in the language of the liturgy and prayer, let us speak with a noble tongue to elevate the level of our discourse to match its subject in Jesus Christ.

Franzmann's hymn O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth uses the full range of gift and language to sing the message of Scripture in a song both new and elegant, whose style endures.

LSB 834 O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth

1 O God, O Lord of heav’n and earth,
    Thy living finger never wrote
    That life should be an aimless mote,
A deathward drift from futile birth.
    Thy Word meant life triumphant hurled  Through every cranny of thy world
    In splendor through Thy broken world.
Since light awoke and life began,
Thou hast desired Thy life for man.

2 Our fatal will to equal Thee,
    Our rebel will wrought death and night.
    We seized and used in prideful spite
Thy wondrous gift of liberty.
    We housed us in this house of doom,
    Where death had royal scope and room,
Until Thy servant, Prince of Peace,
Breached all its walls for our release.

3 Thou camest to our hall of death,
    O Christ, to breathe our poisoned air,
    To drink for us the dark despair
That strangled our reluctant breath.
    How beautiful the feet that trod
    The road that leads us back to God!
How beautiful the feet that ran
To bring the great good news to man!

4 O Spirit, who didst once restore
    Thy Church that [she] might be again
    The bringer of good news to men,
Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more,
    That in these gray and latter days
    There may be those whose life is praise,
Each life a high doxology
To Father, Son, and unto Thee.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Some Thoughts on a Funeral

Perhaps because of our notions of privacy, we have come to believe that certain parts of life belong to us -- it is not that they are hidden from others but they do not belong to the public arena.  They are private.  We think of birth as private -- just try to get into to see a new mother in a hospital and even if you are a Pastor with a clergy badge, it is pretty close to impossible.  We think of death as being private in the same way.  In fact, death is so private that many, many folks die all alone -- even when they are in the hospital.  I cannot tell you how many times even families have chosen not to be with a family member when that person is near death.  The ultimate privacy, I guess.  We treat our names as private things -- spelling ordinary names in strange, new ways, making up names, and using words never meant as names to name our children.  We do not see the name as anything more than a private choice between the parent(s) and the child.

But birth is not private.  It is a public event.  Record of the birth is made with the state to document this birth and make this child's birth and this family's new addition a matter of the public record.  The birth giving may be private but the birth is a matter of public information.  This is not due to some prurient interest on the part of people but because society and the nation counts children as their own and not simply belonging to a parent or family.  Consider the census obligation as testament to this public interest in birth.

Neither is death private.  It is a public event.  Record of the death is made with the state to document the passing of this individual.  Death records are part of the public record.  The actual dying may be private but the death itself is public.  Again, the state has an interest in this -- and not just a small one.

Now when it comes to the Church, the same is true.  Birth and the subsequent reception of the child into the church by baptism is not some private act or ceremony.  Even when baptism takes place in very private circumstances, the baptism is still public to the entire community of faith.  I have baptized infants in the hospital immediately after birth and still the baptism is not private but announced to the church and, where death does not prevent, the child is received into the community in a public way following that baptism.  I am not an advocate of non-service baptisms.  Baptism is an act for the entire Christian community and belongs to the Church -- not to the Pastor or the candidate or the candidate's family.

In case you are wondering where this is leading, here is the part where I will lose some of you.  I believe that just as baptism belongs to the Church, so does the funeral of the baptized belong to the Church.  It is my earnest conviction that funerals of Christians should not be held in funeral homes but at the Church.  I believe that it is not simply a matter of the family's wishes that we need to balance but also the place of the deceased as a member of Christ's body the Church.  I am not trying to be callous against the desires of a family, but there is another family to which the baptized belongs and this family expects and deserves to be a part of the earthly completion of that baptismal beginning in the Christian funeral liturgy (which I would suggest should more often than not be a Eucharist).

I am not condemning or trying to heap guilt upon those who have done otherwise or who disagree with me.  I am trying to think this through from the perspective of our fellowship together as the baptized believers whom our Lord calls His Church.  We have certain obligations as members of the community.  Part of that involves sensing and seeing how the birth, public confession, joining, and death of the individual baptized involves the whole community of faith.  I would say that we have a duty to our brothers and sisters in Christ to hold the funeral in the Church and provide an opportunity for those who share in this household of faith to join us in commending the deceased to the mercy of God into which that person was baptized.  It is, as it were, the cycle of life within the Church and do deny the ending to the community of faith or to treat the funeral as a private act betrays this public connection.

My point is not to condemn what others have done or not done or to change by the means of guilt, but to hold forth the fact of our connectedness in baptism and the logical conclusion of that connection.  So, when people tell me they do not want any service for their loved one who was also a member of the congregation, I find myself caught between what people expect of me -- to honor the wishes of the family in order to assist their grieving -- and what is our duty to one another within the fellowship of believers -- to share in this grieving and to join together in hope in the liturgy of the Christian funeral.

I have had folks come to me and ask if they could have a grandchild baptized on the sly -- parents do not wish to raise the child in the faith and do not approve of the baptism but grandparents want to do the right thing.  I confess to them, as much as I would like to consent to their request, I cannot because baptism is not a private act.  I wish that I knew how graciously to say the same when family members say there will be no service or no public service or that this is what so and so would have wanted or this was the last request of the person or whatever.

We may not like or understand it but certain parts of our life and certain parts of our life as Christians are public -- they belong not simply to us but to the community.  This is true in the sense of citizens in a nation and it is also true of members of the Church by baptism and faith.  So I encourage us to talk about this and to think about the choices before us, and which of those choices is most consistent with our identity as a child of God by baptism and faith and a member of the Church...