Saturday, July 31, 2010

If Anyone Is Listening...

As anyone who knows Missouri knows, there is a great disparity of size among the 35 Districts into which the Synod is divided.  The smallest number between 50-70 congregations and the largest number between 300-400 congregations.  The difference here is not just in number of congregations but also how those congregations related to each other and to the District President and staff.

The next leg of the restructuring of Synod will, if followed, take up District size and structure.  While I do not know if this will take place or not, I am going to weigh in on the matter on behalf of a smaller sized District.  I believe that somewhere between 60-80 is an adequate size to provide resources to serve and yet maintain an intimate relationship with the clergy and congregations of the District.  It might even make it possible for these Districts to have a part-time District President (Atlantic does with about 100 congregations, so does Oklahoma with about 80, and the SELC/Slovak does does with about 55).  Whether or not to be full or part-time is a matter for the District to determine but it would be possible with smaller Districts.

Although we are accustomed to having District Staff to handle a host of things for us, it was not always so.  Districts grew as Synod grew and now some want Districts to grow as Synod downsizes.  Either way, on the District level we spend a great deal and invest much in people, programs, and structural costs associated with these people and programs. I am not suggesting that those who work in that level are bad folks or not doing a good job.  I am merely asking whether this is the way we want it to be and the way it should be.

The goal, in my mind, is to have a District sized so that the District President can provide informed episcopal oversight of doctrine and practice and know the clergy and congregations under his care as deeply and intimately as possible.  That cannot happen when you have 200 congregations and it certainly cannot happen when you have 400 congregations.  Part of the breakdown of our Synod is the weakened ties between District Presidents and the places and people they serve (as overseers of doctrine and practice).

It would also relieve the District structure and staff from the many levels of administrative work and the many layers of meetings that go on incessantly in Synod.  Ask any District President to visit and you will find a calendar loaded down with so many, many meetings and you will hear the frustration of trying to find time to schedule what needs to be done locally.  I do not fault the people but I think the structure does not well serve the goals and ends I mentioned above.

Now there are always those who speak of economy of scale and the financial benefits of larger groupings of congregations.  According to what is passed through Districts to Synod and how much money is absorbed on the District level, I think it can safely be said that large Districts consume large budgets.  There is not much of a choice there.  One goes with the other.  I guess our question is this -- do we want Districts the size of small denominations which replicate the programs and functions of these small denominations or do we want to focus on the relationship and oversight of doctrine and practice which is possible only with smaller groupings of congregations?  I think you know where I stand.

In the District where I serve, it is literally two days travel time from East to West and one day from North to South.  Even though the District Office is somewhat centrally located, I know that those on the edges of the District feel distant from nearly everything.  Sometimes those not so close to the edges feel the same way.  It is not the fault of the man or the congregations and their Pastors but the effect of a structure stretched so far.  In contrast to this distance, I believe a close knit relationship fostered by a structure of smaller congregations grouped together might help us answer some of the larger issues of division and disagreement in Synod...

Well, you have had my two cents worth, so what do you think?

Friday, July 30, 2010

History Is Bunk

Industrialist Henry Ford is the source of the quote but it could be reflective of a ton of folks today.  Even if we do not believe that history is bunk, people tend to be fairly illiterate about history.  We have Christians who do not know basic Bible history.  One professor told me that 90% of the freshmen in his college intro to religion class could not tell the story of Noah and the ark.  We have all known about this for a long time.  Biblical illiteracy is the reason why some preachers get away with such outlandish and strange interpretations.  Remember Benny Hinn who described Adam as a superman who visited other planets, etc.  A little knowledge of the Scriptural story and Bible history would help put such foolishness into its proper perspective.

What I am writing about is a general lack of religious history.  Christians in general do not have any idea how we got from twelve apostles to hundreds of Christian denominations (at least in the USA).  In my new member instruction I spend a good deal of time surveying Christian history to connect the dots.  For example, many presuppose the current religious landscape with early Christianity and assume a denominational map that is much more recent that people know.  Living in the South it is a shock to Baptists to find out that their denomination (if you can call it that) is only about as old as the US -- young in comparison to the Reformation Churches.  It is also a shock for many Protestants to find out that many of the things that identify ROMAN Catholicism are the fruit of the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent.  I had someone argue with me over the fact that papal infallibility was the dictum of the First Vatican Council in 1870 and that it has been invoked only once -- in 1950 -- to declare as dogma the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (that she did not die a physical death but was bodily assumed into heaven).

Another area of ignorance is the impact of frontier America upon the religious landscape of this country.  I owe a great debt to C. George Fry, one of the best classroom teachers I have ever had.  He told the story of America's expansion and its relationship to the churches of America in a way that was both informative and fascinating.  Entrepreneurial religion and revivalism was born of this frontier without borders, law, or organized society.  Its migration to the media and TV preachers is still evidenced in folks like Joel Osteen.  In conjunction with this is the impact of the freedom of religion and how it has given birth to a Christianity narrowly defined and unhooked from its historical moorings -- something that is America's gift and blight to the world.

The other great shock to many is that Islam is such a recent religion, having roots in the seventh century but coming into its own much later.  There are those who assume that Islam and Judaism have been battling it out since Abraham was faced with two sons and had to banish one to keep the other.  While this is certainly the ethnic history of the Middle East, the religious history between the peoples was much more recent.

I would plead with Pastors to give an introduction to religious history to their new converts and to old Lutherans alike.  The historical context for the Reformation is key to understanding it and its success.  I am always amazed at the "a ha" moment when they realize that the Leo X had a declining Holy Roman Empire that was then only the Germanic states, a fragmented and often hostile European monarchical system, a new world being claimed by competing nations, a huge debt, a desire to be remembered in the stone of St. Peter's Cathedral, an Islamic empire poised to take on Europe with a good chance of victory, AND a disruptive German monk who wanted to talk theology.  Luther and his siding with the nobles in the Peasants Revolt or the almost defeat of Lutheranism in Germany until Gustavus Adolphus landed in there in 1630 to turn the tide of the Thirty Years War -- these are some of the stories that need to be told to frame out who Lutherans are and where they came from. I spend time talking about Lutheran liturgical history and the rich liturgical life in Leipzig and the Lutheran liturgical, preaching, and musical piety that gave birth to a Johann Sebastian Bach.

I am not advocating ignoring Scripture but I am pretty certain that you can teach the Scriptures and impart a knowledge of the faith but still leave converts somewhat crippled by a lack of historical connections that helps them to frame out the history of God at work through His people and His Church.  After all, we Lutherans are not the Radical Reformers who rejected God's work in history and who believed that they must recover the origins of an Apostolic Christianity and start the Church all over again.  We Lutherans believe that even with its sordid twists and turns, God was still at work in and among His people in every age and place where His Word is proclaimed and His Sacraments administered in accordance with His Word.

Don't assume that people know much about history in general, Bible history and Christians history in specific.  Teach it to them... and teach it well.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Circ de Soleil -- From Church to Circus

The entrance rite for large church gatherings and even for some congregational settings has grown from procession to something less church than circus in content and style.  Whether for national church gatherings or conventions or youth events, the entrance rite has become a Las Vegas style extravaganza -- and this is not solely the domain of the Lutherans, either.

I recently watch a video from the formerly stodge Presbyterians that shows they are no longer your grandfather's stern church.  You can watch it HERE.  Compare it to Roman Catholic spooky puppets HERE or a thousand other YouTube vidz and you get the idea... And it is not just limited to youth oriented gatherings.

The point of this is that the entrance rite is just that -- the entrance.  It is not a circus or a parade.  For the festive Sundays and holy days of the church calendar, that entrance rite is enhanced -- BUT with the accouterments of the liturgy and not with all the outlandish and goofy stuff we can find.  The ordinary procession may include processional cross/crucifix and candles and we may add to this banners, the Gospel book, incense, choir -- even a second processional cross/crucifix.  I am not fond of but think that very tastefully done and well prepared liturgical dancers can possibly be added.  But where on earth do we come up with those giant, spooky puppets (sure to cause nightmares for young and old alike)?  When was it decided that a hundred streamers (more like the old wind socks that people used to hang on their front porches) were a good fit?  When did it begin to be good taste to multiply the numbers of participants and the things brought it during the entrance rite?

And another point... When did the procession become THE focus?  What began as the somewhat utilitarian need to bring the participants in the Divine Service to the Chancel has become its own focus and the parade has been magnified until it detracts from everything that comes after it.  The entrance rite is not the focus but just that -- the entrance rite.  Let the music not accompany this rite but be the primary focus -- a processional hymn perhaps with choir additions and not simply accompaniment to the movement.  It is a scandal the way these things have turned into their own focus and the entrance rite an event that towers over the main event of Christ's presence in Word and Sacrament.

You can all add your own examples and when you read these words, you may remember the most egregious examples of such overdone circus style church events.  Through it all we might do well to remember St. Paul's valuable words about moderation in all things and the constraint of wisdom that says "all things may be possible but not all things may be beneficial" and, I might add, profitable unto salvation.

Consider the difference between this photo above and this photo to the right. 

Bach's Faith & Gift

HT to Lutheran Kantor  -- Begin the video at 08:55 for the Final Chorus...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Can We Still Call Ourselves the Church of J. S. Bach?

I recall reading a complaint about music in Lutheran Churches today and the lack of a decent organ (pipe preferably) and as best I recall it was said that the music of Lutheran's chief musician cannot even be played any more in Lutheran congregations... (Maybe somebody out there can dig up that Schalk?  Bunjes?)

On this day in 1750 Johann Sebastian Bach was received into the arms of His Savior and into the blessed light of everlasting glory, where his musical genius suffers no lack of appreciation and where his goal and purpose is fulfilled without hindrance or distraction -- Soli Deo Gloria...

We Lutherans love to beat our chests in the limelight of our greatest heros (Bach, perhaps chief among them) but if we would remember him with thanksgiving before the Lord, we might also ask ourselves if the music of the average Lutheran parish is still worthy of the high ideals of faithfulness to Scripture, glory to God, and excellence in performance.  I fear that the answer is a resounding "no."

In too many Lutheran parishes we are without a decent organ and without a competent organist.  Sure I will hear about the cost of an organ (pipe or electronic), about the relevance of organ music to the modern day ear, and the lack of good organists (affordable, too).  But, we have dug our own hole here and now we stuck in it.  Look at the average congregation's budget and the amount spent on worship (music, resources, instruments, organists, etc.) and you will find it to be a disconcertingly small percentage of the total. 

When I came to my present congregation the budget for worship was $1800 and this bought choir music, paid for two organists and a choir director.  When all of them moved away, it is no wonder we could not find replacements.  In one year we proposed going from $1800 to $12000 and the gasp in the voters assembly could be heard in St. Louis and the sighs blew so hard the pages of Bach's Bible fluttered in the Concordia Seminary Library where it is housed.  But the congregation did it.  And increases tripled the salary and increased the budget until today we reap the blessings of nearly 15 years of making worship not only a spiritual priority but a budgetary one as well.

I consider myself cheap but we are too cheap as a church body to put resources where the priority should be.  We would not consider going without air conditioning in the heat of summer but we regularly go without an organist and the bottom line is generally money.  If there are no good organists available, it is largely because nobody can make a living at it anymore.  That is the fault of the congregation and our poor priorities when it comes to worship and music.  If there are no good organs in our parishes, it is because we consider this tool too expensive for us (never mind the things we will find the money to support or purchase!)

In too many other Lutheran parishes, the great ideal of music that speaks Scripture has given way to music that entertains the people and gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling.  We pick and choose hymns based on what folks want or like and not what the words say.  We move to contemporary musical sounds because that is what people listen to on the radio and we want them to feel at home in church as they are sitting alone in their automobile with no particular place to go but music blazing all the way long.  We use canned music and put in expensive audio and visual systems so that our song leader can sound like Michael W. Smith and we put images up to frame the musician and the words in flattering backdrop.

In too many other Lutheran parishes we are content with what passes and do not strive for excellence.  If the Pastor thinks about it, he might read through the pericopes before Sunday morning but often not.  If the praise bad has time, they may practice a little more and even out the balance between the bumping bass and the driving drums, but often not.  If the pianist or organist has a chance they might practice that newer hymn but since no one really knows it and we probably won't ever use it again, who would notice...  Much of what is wrong in worship is fixable with some practice, with a goal toward our best for His glory, and with desire to offer God nothing less than our most excellent effort.  I used to say to my kids in school, I don't care what grade you get if you are doing your best but if it is not your best even an A is not good enough.  What might be the outcome if God said that to us?

Soli Deo Gloria... It was not a slogan for Bach.  It was his lifeblood.  If we would honor Bach and glory in the fact that such musical genius, rich spiritual life, and dedication to his craft were formed in a Lutheran piety steeped in Word, Sacrament, and worthy music... then let us work to make sure that we are working to implement these in our parish life today...  Whether the music comes from the 17th or 18th centuries or the 21st century, it needs to be our best, it needs to speak the Word and serve as musical handmaid to that Word, and it needs to glorify God and not entertain the human heart... or our remembrance of Bach will be like the uncovering of a footnote in history instead of a light that shines throughout the generations....

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Pastoral Care Done by the Laity; Lay Work Done by the Pastor

Unless you have been living under a log, you have undoubtedly heard of the Stephen Ministry training and program and there are many others designed to equip lay people to provide pastoral care to people in need.  There are many churches in which clergy occupy staff leadership roles but the care of members is largely handled through smaller groups in which one or more lay folks act as shepherds of their small groups.  This is nothing new here in that regard.  What is new is that with the push toward larger congregations with but few clergy on staff, it seems designed so that these Pastors have little to do with the daily lives of the people in the pew.  Walk into any hospital and you will find a host of lay folks doing the "visiting" that in the past would have been done by Pastors.  Check the schedules and you will find self-help groups to provide pastoral care of those going through grief and loss, divorce and recovery, addiction and recovery. 

In the worship service, you find the same thing.  The role of the Pastor has, in many places, been limited to preaching the sermon and, if sacramental, presiding at the Lord's Table.  A host of lay folks fill in the rest of the roles (from reading lessons to chanting to leading the various parts of the liturgy or service).  In fact, for those who practice contemporary worship (hate that moniker), one of the most important roles in worship is the song leader and praise band leader -- nearly always a well trained but lay position.

Interestingly, the roles ordinarily filled by lay folks are being done by the clergy.  In many congregations, the Pastor functions as a CEO who handles the administrative affairs of the congregation, oversees all the staff of the parish (including support staff including maintenance, custodial, etc.), and boards have been replaced with a board of directors (largely dominated by church staff) who handle policy.  In many other congregations, the Senior Pastor refers to the chief vision caster who decides and determines the will of God for who that congregation will be (core values) , how its ministry will be carried out, and what staff will be used to achieve the goals that support its mission statement.  The Pastors of some congregations have exchanged roles -- leaving the spiritual care of the people to lay folks and handling the administrative responsibility themselves.

I actually remember a time when the Pastor came to a quarterly voters meeting, did the devotion, and gave his report... and then went home.  The rest of the meeting was handled by the lay folk (dealing with property, maintenance, budget and finance, etc.).  Now I am not advocating such a clean division but I wonder why it is that the spiritual care of members (what we used to call seelsorger) is being carried out more and more by lay folks and the ordinary structural and administrative care of the parish is being carried out by Pastors.  I am not speaking here only in generalities but specifically in the LCMS.  Certainly elements of the Pastoral Leadership Initiative (PLI) and Transforming Congregations Network (TCN) move in this direction.  Both advocate (either for short term or permanent structure) the bypassing of the ordinary structure of our congregation with their service board structure and church council and the use of a smaller policy board in which the Pastor is not only accountable but also its primary leader.

I often find myself handling administrative affairs (business affairs) of the congregation that I wish others were there to handle but most lay folks are not there day in and day out and so emergencies often fall on my lap (from preschool toilets that are broken to burned out ballasts in the fluorescent fixtures to HVAC units that are not doing their jobs).  But I find the idea that Pastors cede the spiritual care of their people to others in favor of keeping these duties a disturbing trend, indeed.  Pastors are less priests than business managers and the people are often left without the real pastoral care that their Pastors are supposed to do (from private confession and absolution to the counsel of God's Word to the teaching of the faith and the admonishing of the fallen away).

I for one do not believe this is a healthy trend.  I do not think that this is what our people want, either.  I think that most folks want their Pastors to be the primary sources for the spiritual care of their souls -- assisting by lay people, certainly, but not replaced by it.  Secondly, I feel that lay people are given the false impression that pastoral care is what they must provide to their brothers and sisters in the parish when what they really need is to provide the family care for one another.  It is not pastoral care alone to notice when someone is not there on Sunday morning or to inquire about what is happening in their lives or to be attentive to the signs of difficulty in individuals or families in the parish.  This is what family members do for one another.  It seems that lay people are being taught to provide pastoral care in part because the ordinary family care that ought to be happening within the family which is the congregation is not happening.

I maintain that we do not need to substitute lay people for Pastors in providing pastoral care, that Pastors do not need to take over administrative leadership to the exclusion of the pastoral care of the souls under their charge, and that people in the pew do have personal, spiritual and family responsibilities to their brothers and sisters in those pews (not "pastoral" care but personal care of those within the same family of faith that is the church).

Would not the church be healthier if Pastors primary concerns were providing the pastoral care of the Word and Sacrament to their people, if lay people accepted the implications of and the responsibilities incumbent upon their common life together within the family of God, and if we stopped exchanging roles and confusing terminology?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Like Going to the Dentist

I will admit it up front that I am a scaredy cat.  I do not like going to see the dentist or his evil cohort the dental hygienist.  Nothing personal. It is just that I would prefer having my toenail ripped off with a pliers.  I still go (largely through the intimidation, guilt, and embarrassment offered me by my loving family).  But if I had my druthers, I'd skip these visits with the good Dr. and his crew.  Some of you might resonate with this (or some other distasteful task).

Why is it that for Christians sharing the faith, witnesses to Jesus, talking about what they believe, serving the Lord in His Church, and talking about or actually doing tithes and offerings is much the same as my perspective on visiting the dentist?  Why is it that we must be intimidated into, guilted into, shamed into, embarrassed into sharing our faith or witnessing to Jesus or talking about what we believe with those who do not believe?  Why is it that somebody must corral us into serving the Lord in some way through the local congregation (from teaching Sunday school to being a youth counselor to visiting the sick to weeding the flower beds at the church)?  Why is it that we must treat stewardship the way the dentist does when he slips that syringe up beside your head and before you even see it shoves into the gum to deaden the nerve on that tooth he is going to drill away to oblivion... (well, I did not mean to get so graphic or carried away... but anyway)?

Is the only way we step up to the plate to share the hope that is within us if we are guilted by the prospect of thousands heading on a one-way trip to hell every moment unless WE do something?  Is the only way we support missions (as generously as we provide money to pay for the air conditioning in the heat of summer) if someone puts the gun of intimidation and shame to our heads?  Is the only way we will serve the Lord through the Church is if we are made to feel the situation is desperate and we have to step in (at least over the short term)?  Is the only way we give to the Lord the tithes and offerings He is due is if we have so much money we don't know what to do with it all or we figure it is our fair share to pay for this or that or we will make sure that the things we want or need from the Church are funded?

In Synod as a whole, in the regional location of District, and on the local playing field of the congregation, we tend to motivate people by guilt and intimidation -- shaming them into doing the right thing.  Sure it works... but it works over the short term and not the long haul.  Even the prospect of people riding the freight train to eternal torment can cause us to glaze over if we have heard it often enough.  What I would like to see is the Church (on all levels) teaching us to joy in doing what is good, right, wholesome, godly, and faithful BECAUSE it is good, right, wholesome, godly, and faithful.  What I would like to see is risking all to lay out before the people of God the joyous possibility of sharing the hope within us in Christ or serving the Lord with our time and talents or giving to the Lord because of His generosity toward us... and keep on doing it until it becomes the primary motivator and the ordinary way we talk in the Church...

It should not be that we have to coax people into worship the way the dentist points to the consequences of not seeing him (those dreaded gingivitis or pyorrhea posters).  It should not be that the way we coax people into mission support is a vision of hell instead of the picture of blessing and grace right there before us in the Word and Table of the Lord.  It should not be that we force people to take jobs they do not want because they feel they must instead of finding places for people to serve who feel their service IS the privilege of belonging to Christ and His Church.  It should not be that we encourage offerings by scarring people into the prospect of no youth leader for their kids or no toilet paper in the bathroom or no Pastor to bury their loved ones...

No, I do not like going to the dentist.  It is not his fault or the fault of those who work with him.  It is my fault.  And so it is for the Church.  We create our own flawed outcome by insinuating to folks that no right minded Christian would share his faith or worship faithfully or serve the Lord in His Church or give a dime or a dollar to the plate UNLESS it were a distasteful thing that guilt makes you do...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Affection for Animals But Not for Babies

One of the great conundrums of many, shall we say, more liberal churches, is their great affection for animals while at the same time expressing disdain for laws or rights on behalf of the not yet born.  Some of you probably heard of the Anglican Church in Toronto in which a dog was communed with its master (both new to the church and the dog as yet unbaptized).  If, by some miracle of chance, you did not read it, you can find the story HERE.  We have all seen the many congregations on the more liberal end of the spectrum who offer the blessing of animals in the Church but, as yet, this remains the first communion of a pet.  Jesus would have loved it, said some who thought it wonderful.  I remain unconvinced.  Our dogma has truly gone to the dogs.

How is it that Jesus would have loved Fido making his first communion but finds no scandal in never allowing the infant in the womb to be born to receive his or her first communion (after baptism)?  Again, the point here is not what Jesus would have loved but how we interpret His love and what we find easy to love and hard to love.  Pets are generally easy to love, it seems.  Children are not.  And so our age has seemingly gone the full circle from the dominical command to be fruitful and multiply to abort the baby but commune the pet.

This would not be so sad if it were simply an anomaly but the truth is that it is not some isolated event.  It is the natural outgrown of those who value the lives of animals over those not yet born -- itself a reflection of the higher value place on the animal than on human life but more than this, making a value of the faith.  To be sure, we all love our pets (three animals call home the abode whose mortgage payments we make).  Why is it so hard to love the not yet born with the same unequivocal love and unfailing sense of protection?

I do not believe in the violent sort of witness that some do in the face of the abortion scandal (it sort of defeats the whole idea of pro-life in my book).  But every now and then something happens to make you angry enough to take up a brick and give it a toss.  For me it is the inconsistency of those who value the lives of their pets more than they value the lives of the unborn.  The whole idea that a priest of Christ's Church would place a host on the wagging tongue of a four legged friend is abhorrent to the faith and yet the fact that so many find it cute or innocent drives me nuts.  We have surely defined the fringes of Christian faith, doctrine, and morality when an animal's life is welcomed, protected, and respected but we believe that it is a personal choice on the part of the mother if she wants to continue or discontinue the pregnancy (notice how well I could avoid any terminology that actually admitted there was a life at stake...).

I am ambivalent about the blessing of pets.  I am rabid over the scandal of an animal's life being more important than the life of the unborn.  I am shocked that this is a liberal position.  Surely Richard John Neuhaus had it right that pro-life should have been the liberal position but instead the right of the mother to make her own choice (without a conflict of values) became the liberal cause.  It is a blight upon our nation but it is a sin in the churches and congregations where Fido has more standing than the life of the unborn.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Speaking with a Different Tongue

Though it may not be typical to put it this way, often I feel as if Lutherans speak with a different tongue when we talk to people from generic Protestantism.  When we talk of faith, when we speak of confession (of faith), when we speak of grace, when we talk of the Sacraments, even when we speak about God's Word -- more often than not we speak a different vocabulary than those who come out of non-sacramental, non-liturgical, and non-confessional backgrounds.  Often I think it is easier to speak to those who have to learn these words and concepts anew than it is to get those who learned them differently to discern what we as Lutherans mean by them.

Over and over again we must remind folks that faith is trust and not the general Protestant definition of knowledge, understanding, and consent.  Over and over again when we speak of God's Word, we must distinguish a Word who is a living voice from one that spoke once a set of propositions to be believed or behavioral rules to be followed.  Over and over again when we speak of the Church, we must distinguish a group of people who came to the same conclusions on the basis of their reading of Scripture from those who see the people of God gathered around His Word, Table, and Water. In some respects I find it almost easier to speak with those who come without any history (even though we must often break through false and misleading perceptions).  Am I wrong in this?

I know that there are many who desire to learn the new (to them) vocabulary of confession, efficacious Word, Eucharistic center, and grace accessible where God has placed it... and it is thrilling to see and hear people grasp hold of these and let them ruminate a while inside of them....   In the end I wonder if this is not what really divides us from other churches -- our words are the same but they mean different things.

Which reminds me that faith is not some quick and simple conversation but the ongoing dialog of God's people, gathered around His Word and Table.  We cannot afford to presume that everyone who uses the same words means the same thing but neither can we dwell only on this aspect of prolegomena in our witness and instruction of those not yet a part of us...

Sometimes I think that the radical disconnect means that the people often do not become comfortable with Lutheran identity until they learn the difference in our vocabulary.  But this is the daily struggle of the Church, isn't it?!  We speak and speak again, state clearly and clarify, speak out and speak winsomely of the hope that is within us -- not because we see things changing but because this is the cross-shaped pattern of our Christian lives and the means by which we make known our living hope to those around us...

What a blessing to speak God's Word to six folks new to the Lutheran faith...WOW...

Starting Another Class

As I sit here this morning, I am about to begin introducing six to what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess.  This is truly one of the great delights of the Pastoral Office I bear and I look forward to each and every opportunity to speak the faith to those not yet of it...

I may post something more later but for now, gotta go!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Distinction and Difference

Many years ago I served a small parish in the Catskill Mountains as my first call.  It was a young mission compared to some of the other Lutheran congregations around us (they celebrate its 300th anniversary this year).  One of them was served by a Pastor formerly Missouri Synod and we knew him and his wife well.  So it goes without saying I was interested when I read something about these parishes in the most recent issue of The Lutheran magazine of the ELCA. The Pastors who were there have left and it is clear that pastoral change is not the only change that has taken place.

The article described the observance of No Fossil Fuel Sunday on August 1 -- an event designed "to send a message of accountability to oil companies."  It mentioned three congregations of the ELCA -- three of which I knew (well, used to think I knew).  According to the article, the three congregations (Atonement, Saugerties; St. Paul, West Camp; and Christ (Woodstock) were plan on observing "No Fossil Fuel Sunday" by pledging to use no lights, organ, air conditioning, fans, etc...  Refreshments will be made without electricity (unless made the day before).  They will urge people to carpool and one Pastor is walking 15 miles for the cause.

After living just down the road from these congregations, having been friends with those serving as their Pastors, and thinking I knew them, I do not know what to make of these ELCA congregations.  Have things changed so much in the nearly 18 years we have been gone from New York?  At one point in time, I did not think the gap between these then LCA and my Missouri parish was so great.  Now it seems we are a world apart.

I am not saying we are on opposite political sides; we may well be.  What I am reacting to is making such an observance the agenda for Sunday morning worship.  Surely it represents a distinct and great difference between what a member of the LCMS and a member of these ELCA congregations expect on Sunday morning.  While we might both have a stewardship Sunday asking us to re-examine how we use the resources God has supplied us, this goes beyond stewardship.  In fact, it replaces the proclamation of God's Word and the announcement of His kingdom with current events and trendy politics, substituting an agenda of Word and Sacrament with an ecological viewpoint as if the two were the same.  I confess I do not know what to think.

It is very disconcerting to me and makes me fear for the Lutheranism that wears the ELCA brand.  When local congregations substitute such blatant political posturing for the proclamation of the Gospel, it is no longer possible to assign blame merely to Higgins Road and the headquarters of this church body.  It is as if we no longer speak the same terminology.  What is the Gospel?  When advocacy for or against certain fuels and a green agenda are seen as the equivalent of proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified, we have almost lost the ability to speak a common language and dialog together about the things that divide us.  Such is not the language of the Confessions and represents the sad betrayal of a once great church body.  I am relieved that I now live a thousand miles away for it would be even harder to watch up close this sad demise.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Conversation

Recently my wife shared a conversation she had with a Roman Catholic.  It was the typical kind of conversation in which people describe their church body in terms that might make it somewhat unrecognizable to the hierarchy of that body.  I have had these conversations as well.  "You know that Roman Catholics don't really believe...." or "Presbyterians really do believe..." or "Well, I always thought that Lutherans believed...."  In the process of the conversation, the person said something to the effect, "Well, it sounds like Lutherans are the Catholics Roman Catholics are supposed to be..."  Ahhhhhh, clarity!!

That is the point of the Lutheran Confession.  We do not claim to be Protestants.  We do not claim to begin a new church.  We do not claim to innovate or create novelty.  We do not claim to anti-tradition.  We do not claim to be the true visible sect in which salvation alone is found.  What we claim is that the faith we affirm is not uniquely ours.  We claim that we stand with the faithful of the Church of every age and place.  We claim a Scripture that is truthful and bounds what is believed.  We claim a Scripture which is a living Word which is efficacious and accomplishes its purpose according to God's Spirit and power.  We claim the rich and living tradition handed down to us in faithful creed, confession, liturgy, church usage, ceremony, rubric, and prayer -- the one which does not norm the Scripture but which is normed by it.  We claim that we are not new but the confessors in our own time of the timeless truth and the faithful confession found from the early church through the present day.  We claim that we have not innovated or created novelty within the catholic faith and we disdain those whose novelty and innovation have detracted from or conflicted with the Gospel.  We claim that the faith we believe, teach, and confess is the one, holy catholic and apostolic faith but we allow that we are not the only ones who believe, teach, and confess it (others do and do not know that they are already Lutheran!).  We claim to be the Church Rome should be, Geneva should be, Constantinople should be, Canterbury should be, and Wheaton should be.  This is not the arrogance of man but the timeless, truthful, faithful confession which is our heritage and had better be our legacy or we have no right to the name Lutheran.

It is for this reason we hold up being Lutheran as a good thing.  If being Lutheran meant anything less, it would be a scandal and a shameful claim.  The Confessions we hold so dear are not our own per se but the ecumenical treasure of all Christendom, truly ecumenical documents and not sectarian in any way. 

I know that Amy smiled when she heard that response... "Well, it sounds like Lutherans are the Catholics Roman Catholics are supposed to be..."  I did, too.  If only I could bottle it and share it when people ask me "What is a Lutheran?"

What Do Kids Want

Having picked up 13 from the airport and hosting another 25-30 National Youth Gathering kids on their way home, I asked them high points and low points of the gathering.  I got the most detailed answers from the kids who belong to my parish but over all it was a surprise.  The bands, the music, the drama, and the worship were not the high points you might expect.  The servant activity (for our kids, gutting a New Orleans house of drywall and plaster), the fellowship with others who share your church and your faith, and the impact of sheer size were the primary high moments.  Overall, my kids panned the worship as being foreign to them (we use the sung Divine Service from LSB), understood but did not fully appreciate the extravaganza stuff that accompanied the worship, and found much of the music too loud and too distracting.  One comment wondered why the cameras were insistent upon showing the singers on stage instead of the sand sculptor or the Jesus painter more prominently.

Those who would insist that the future of the Church lies with contemporary worship, with music that sounds like what folks might here on their radio or I-Pod, with drama and liturgical innovation, and with an unchurchy style might not be right after all... At least the kids from my parish were not convinced that this is the way to do church -- and I did not coach them at all.  One of the youth leaders suggested that our kids were unanimous that not all things possible are beneficial, salutary, and worthwhile when it comes to worship.   Just thought I would pass that on...

The next step in our evolving youth ministry will be to explore Higher Things...  We had a chance to go to Nashville for their 2010 event but our kids did not want to put the two so close together and, well, frankly, going 40 minutes down the road is not like going somewhere... if you know what I mean... 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gotta Hand It to the Methodists

Methodists have found the secrets to vital congregations.  An extensive report that consulted with thousands of Methodist congregations, cost thousands of dollars, and may or may not be applicable to other denominations has noted four areas that signal (or measure) vitality within Methodist congregations.

The report identified four key areas that fuel vitality: small groups and programs; worship services that mix traditional and contemporary styles with an emphasis on relevant sermons; pastors who work hard on mentorship and cultivation of the laity; and an emphasis on effective lay leadership. The study did turn up some surprising results. According to the data, it did not matter whether ministers held seminary degrees; whether pastoral ministry was a first or second career; or how long the minister had been engaged in pastoral ministry. In addition, the number and types (global or local) of outreach programs did not have a significant impact on vitality, so long as a congregation had some sort of outreach program. Read more at BeliefNet.

Let me see... where to begin... could they have saved some money and some midnight oil, perhaps.  Good worship with relevant sermons and pastors who work hard to partner with the people in their parishes... hmmm well, we have never thought these might be good indicators before but, well, lets go out on a limb and say that maybe we can say these things are important to the health, life, and vitality of a Christian congregation.

The surprise for me is that some kind of outreach -- but not what kind of outreach -- is key.  I would have thought, and still think, that people who are regularly fed on the rich diet of Word and Sacrament and who raise up the baptismal vocation of witness and service would have a BIG commitment to outreach on a number of levels... but, well that is just me...

Hopeful Optimism and Unhelpful Pragmatism

Many, including myself, have offered a cautious and hopeful optimism about the future of the LCMS.  On one level we can rejoice that we are talking more honest theology than we have talked for a long time.  But this is not a momentary conversation.  It is a dialog for the long haul.  Conversation that has real effect is honest, it is regular, and it is built upon trust.  The people who were elected are good people but the Synodical President has not and will not be installed into office until September 11, 2010.  Until that time it is my hope and prayer that the conversation before, during, and after the Synod Convention will continue on every level of our church body. 

With that conversation, we would do well to temper the irrational exuberance of some with a patient view toward a long term effort to rebuild consensus, to keep the conversation about theology and not personality, to prioritize the subjects of this conversation, and to keep the conversation positive AND pointed.  That said, some are not so sure that they are willing to wait, that the changes wrought in Houston this past week will come fast enough or go far enough.  I am concerned about this because this is the very thing that can and has derailed the good efforts of some in the past.  They and we need to be careful.

Some have determined to couch their hopeful optimism with some unhelpful pragmatism.  The organizing has continued following the convention and now one group is proposing an association of like minded confessing congregations which is self-described as a "loving challenge to the LCMS."  They are planning a "constituting convention" and have sent a fraternal letter of admonition to every LCMS congregation (though we have not received one), and they speak as an action group and not a discussion group.  If you exchanged the acronyms you might think this was formed by folks from within the ELCA to counter the controversial and radical actions taken nearly a year ago at their CWA.  But it is not.  It is a largely lay group from within Missouri.

I guess this is where my concern comes... Those who tried to suggest that the election of Matt Harrison was about a purge or housecleaning of Missouri were told over and over again that this is not the way of real change that endures -- rather theological consensus borne of honest, substantial, and serious theological conversation.  Yet some of those who are speaking for this new group (unofficially since it is not yet constituted), sound as if the goal is more removal of those who disagree than changing minds through common confession.

Anyone who knows Matt Harrison's career knows that he is a theologian, a historian, a pastor, an administrator, and a leader.  He has the gravitas to argue theology with just about anyone at anytime and he has a wit and winsome personality to frame this debate in fraternal terms.  So what is up with those who are presenting their loving challenge to the LCMS -- are we in for a bad cop good cop routine... or are some not content to wait for the conversation to even begin... or are some who were for his election not so sure they can count on him?  Whatever the answer to this, I think it might be pragmatic to do this but not beneficial to the Church as a whole and the opportunity given by solid election results.  So, if anybody is listening, I say, step back and wait a bit...

I am not against organizing, or studying the Confessions, or challenging practices inconsistent with the Confessions... but let's leave the structures for later and hold off on the shots across the bow... Not everything that is possible is beneficial... I think I read that somewhere....

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Congregation as locus or focus

We have rightfully made the congregation the primary locus of the Church -- the Church is where the means of grace are, where people are gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  In this respect any child knows where the Church is and can point to it (as Luther says).  In our search for God and His presence in this world, the congregation is the natural locus.  It is here that the water of Jesus calls, kills, and gives life by uniting the candidate to His death and resurrection and making that person radically new.  It is here that the Word of Christ speaks through the voice of the Pastor the absolution that removes the heavy burden of sin, guilt, distance, and death, and places the easy yoke of forgiveness, clear conscience, restoration, and life.  It is here that the Gospel is proclaimed and preached from pulpit to pew, a conversation that includes the discerning faith of the hearer and implementation of the Word by faith in life and practice.  It is here that the Table of the Lord is set, the unworthy moved from lower place to honored position, and the true and essential body and blood of Jesus given in is the mystery of bread and wine set apart by His Word and power.  It is here where office is not some article of faith or philosophical debate but the personal office of one man, set apart by Word and prayer, to be Christ in the midst of His people and those people Christ to their neighbors in the world.

The congregation is the locus of the Church, it is true.  For all our talk about the indivisible Church and its hidden-ness, this does not give us access to the grace in which we stand.  It is when we locate the visible Church that we have access to the means of grace that enable us to stand before the Lord within the world as His own children, by baptism and faith.  We are rightfully directed to the place where Christ has located Himself in our midst, in the assembly of those to whom He has given His name, His Word, His Spirit, and His Sacraments.  But the congregation is not our only focus.

Our focus is much larger than the congregation.  It is for this broader focus that Synod was begun and Church is not simply confined to one place and one people.  The focus of the Church rightfully includes our partnership with other congregations to do together what we cannot do alone, or what we cannot do effectively alone.  Our focus includes the work of preparing, certifying, and placing Pastors among us who are well equipped, examined, and capable of faithful preaching, teaching, liturgical presiding, and being the spiritual leaders of the people of God.  Our focus includes the preparation, publication, and distribution of faithful resources (print and other media) so that we can teach this Gospel, reach out to those around us with its truth and power, and send its voice into places where we as people cannot go.  Our focus includes the work of mission beyond the neighborhood, community, state, and even nation -- extending the work of the kingdom from the congregation and through this partnership to the world around us.  It is not that it is impossible for one congregation to do but it is certainly inefficient and ineffective when compared to the resources of many congregations working together.  Our focus includes responsibility to and accountability to others with whom we share this confession and faith.  The path of independence is in essence a selfish path that eschews this interconnection in which we aid our weaker partners and the correction and encouragement which we are to provide to those within our fellowship and relationship as congregations.

While I understand those who insist that congregation IS the Church -- and I agree -- I do not understand the way we tend to distance ourselves from Synod as Church as well.  It is Church in the sense that is the arena of our focus while not necessarily being the locus.  In other words, Synod is the extension of one congregation and the many congregations together -- not delegating responsibility or authority but applying it and acting upon it to accomplish the larger work that we cannot do as individual congregations.

When I sent my kids to school, I told them what my parents told me.  That teacher and principal are the extension of the parent in that place.  Don't expect me as parent to take your side against them.  If you get in trouble in school, you are in trouble at home.  If you are disciplined in school, you can expect discipline at home for the same infraction.  If you have assignments in school, you are responsible for doing them.  Of course there were times I disagreed with the teacher or felt that they had made a mistake.  I addressed this without drawing the child into the discussion and having the child see me take his or her side against the teacher.

That missionary on the field represents me as a Pastor and my parish as part of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  That professor at college or seminary of the LCMS represents me and my parish.  That relief worker and editor at CPH represent me and my parish.  They are extensions of me and my parish in places where we cannot go or doing work we cannot do here.  In this respect they are the Church.  For this reason I hold them accountable and they hold me accountable.  For this reason they are responsible for maintaining the confession and for practice consistent with that confession just as I am to them (and to the other congregations and Pastors of the Synod).

We have woven our parishes together in the fabric of Synod and this is a good and salutary thing.  For this reason we Pastors and parishes cannot think of ourselves as independent and isolated but connected and bound in this fellowship of faith, confession, practice, and work.  Yes, if you ask where the Church is, the place where font, pulpit and table are located and where people and Pastor gather around them is the locus of the Church but her focus is not simply congregational.  For this reason we as a church body share the wounds and the glory of unfaithfulness, failure, fidelity and success.  I believe this is what our new President was saying in his first remarks after being elected.  So for this reason we must be careful how we talk to one another -- we can neither afford the barbs of hate and bitterness anymore than we can afford the silence and indifference of those who would let anything go or who wish to be a part of nothing.  But talk we must.  Talk that is theological, confessional, corrective, and encouraging.  Talk that is born of a larger focus even within this congregational locus of the Church in one place.  So I would encourage my Synod, the Pastors and parishes who comprise this Church, and those who lead this Church, from the fields of the Dakotas to the urban arena of Manhattan to the California sun to the hills of Tennessee, to be engaged on every level in the work that we do together, in our common identity as Lutheran Christians, and to have a stake in both win and loss, triumph and defeat. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Who Is Responsible...

There has been much giddiness in happy town among those whose hopes and dreams for this moment in Synod were realized in the elections at the Convention in Houston.  There has been much talk of the United List and its effectiveness and Issues, Etc. and its role as leader of this "revolution" in our church body.  First of all, I do not want to detract from anyone or anything but I prefer to credit the sea change in Missouri to something else.  Yes, I know that there are no movements without leaders and that some of this change is due to the fact that "conservatives" lined up pretty much together instead of shooting at the issues with buckshot.  Yes, I know that the communication tool of Issues, Etc. and other media were able to get the word out in a very effective fashion. BUT...

I would prefer to credit the cause itself for the changes.  I would prefer to believe that it is ad fontes which is responsible -- going to the sources of Scripture and Confession.  I would prefer to believe this is a resurgent movement in which Lutheran confession and liturgical identity are center stage and NOT people and personalities.  WHY?

Because if it is people and personality at work, then it is quite possible and, historically predictable, that things will change.  If the "other side" finds a new leader with charisma and enthusiasm and puts in the ground work to building identity and support for this individual or these individuals, leadership can and will change.  It is my hope, however, that this is NOT a leadership change but change in the direction of our church body.  It is my hope that what we have seen is a resurgent Lutheranism, confident of her confessions, convinced of Scripture's truth and efficacy, courageously expecting and anticipating the means of grace to do what they promise, and cautious enough about change to be patient and deliberate in getting this message out.

Church bodies change for many reasons -- among them the cultural changes in the world around them, a shift of values that intrudes into the church from outside, desperation over the harsh reality of decline and loss, a change in demographics, and the influence of charismatic and convincing leaders.  They also change because they have been renewed from the inside out, taking seriously their confession of faith, being confident of this confessional and liturgical identity, and shaping their practice from these values.  I choose to believe that what happened in Missouri is the latter and it is my hope and dream that we as a Lutheran church body will find that the key to our future, to our growth, to our effectiveness, and to our unity will be this renewed and resurgent confessional and liturgical identity.

What does this mean?  That is THE Lutheran question and it is about time we began looking at the issues facing us and asking the Lutheran question about the various choices and answers before us.  With this in mind, I honor those elected, rejoice in God's faithfulness, and express my own cautious optimism for the future of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod over the long haul and not merely the next triennium.

Laughter Amid Tears...

Sermon preached for Pentecost 8, Proper 11C, on Sunday, July 18, 2010.

    I watched a TV show recently about women found out they were pregnant when they were delivering their children.  I would not have believed it but I did visit a woman in the hospital and asked what brought her there.  She said she had a baby.  I admitted I did not know she was pregnant and she said neither did she.  So what do you say then?  Would you like to pray now?
    Today we remember a woman who was promised a child but no child came – not until she was well past child bearing years, anyway.  Imagine Sarah hearing the promise of a child.  Here was a woman caught between laughter and tears at the prospect of finally bearing a son to Abraham so late in life.  Surely there was laughter at the irony of it all – a child coming when they had given up hope and decided that this part of their life had passed them by.  But there were also tears – tears of joy at the prospect of finally having a son after a lifetime of tears of disappointment for waiting so long for a moment that now comes near life's end.
    Between laughter and its disbelief and tears and their joy – that is the place we find ourselves so often as Christians.  We find ourselves caught like Sarah between the heart that wants to believe and the mind that says “give it up.”  All because of that basic question:  "Is anything too difficult for God?"  We come to the Lord with so many impossible situations and part of us fears that there is nothing He can do, just as there is nothing we can do.  We come to God with disappointments and are never sure whether we should be reconciled to their loss or keep on hoping for them to see our hopes and dreams fulfilled.  We come to the Lord with His promise on one hand and the circumstances of our lives on the other – which one do we trust?
    God can do all things, we say.  We say it but we seldom really believe it. Part of the pain we feel in life is when we speak these words with our mouths but in our hearts have given up on God and given up on the situations we face.
    God can do all things.  This is not some nice little saying found in a greeting card but the truth we confess by faith.  It is not some philosophical statement but the personal and practical conviction that when our minds see no way through this and our hearts have almost given up hope, God can do all things.  These words are bolstered by His track record in doing all things.  Isn’t that the purpose of the Old Testament?  To see how God has kept His promises so that we learn from it that God can be trusted NOW?
    He can give a child to a man and woman too old to have their own.  For the story of Abraham and Sarah is the story of the God who keeps His promises, who does all things, and for whom nothing is too difficult.  Not even physical impossibility.  And this should remind us of another surprise and miraculous pregnancy.
    He can give a child to virgin, but not just any child – His own Son in human clothing.  He can give His own Son into the womb of a Virgin and she can bear the child who will become the Savior of the world, taking away the biggest sins from a guilty people and restoring the most lost and fallen of all God's creatures.  No, the story of Abraham and Sarah is not the final chapter of God's surprising grace but merely the down payment of the greater surprise of the Virgin who bears a son who is the Son of God.
    He can give a life stronger than death.  From the first days of life after the fall, God's people have marked the passage of time under the curse of death.  We have eaten health food, invented drugs, sought the lifestyle that might ward off death but have not found its cure.  Not until God gave us the One in whom there is life stronger than death, so that those once marked with death and the grave might be born again to be His own for today and for all eternity.  Jesus was raised from death as the first born and down payment of all those who will rise through Him to new and everlasting life.  Whether an unlikely child or a life stronger than death, grace doesn't disappoint us!!
    And what do you and I need in order to receive this surprising grace?    He requires of us no impossible journey but simple faith, faith formed by the Spirit and shaped by the power of His Word.  Faith that is trust, that believes in the bottom line of the God who can do all things and will do all He has promised.  Faith that sees His Word not as some informational textbook or a book of history and facts – but the record of promises kept – unlikely and impossible promises kept.  A son to an old man and an old woman... A baby in the womb of a Virgin... A death that can pay for all of life's sins.  A life strong enough to reach into the grave and pull us from death's grasp...
    All God asks of us is trust... Trust Him with the sins your guilt knows only too well, have been overcome in Christ... that the life you know will end in death will be reborn in Christ to eternity... that the most real life of all is not this present moment or the things and events of this world, but the forever that you were marked with in your baptism and the life that proceeds from the cross and empty tomb.
    In the movie Steel Magnolias there is that great line "laughter through tears is my favorite emotion..."  Is this not the perspective of faith?  God offers us laughter (the surprise of grace) in the midst of and through the tears of all our disappointments (especially the dead end of life)?  We daily live out this laughter amid our tears, clinging to the surprise of grace that is hidden even in suffering, sorrow, and struggle.  “Is anything too difficult for me?” asks the Lord.  And then He points to an old man and an old woman and the child in their arms... to a Virgin who bore His own Son in human flesh and blood... to a cross where death seemed to win and an empty tomb where the surprise of life triumphed... to sins that seem too big to be forgiven and too hurtful to be overcome and the blood that paid its whole price and paints us with reconciliation as one people forgiven in Jesus Christ.
    We come here today to meet the God for whom nothing is impossible.  We bring into this room all our disappointments, all our fears, all our wounds, all the things that we have given up hoping and dreaming about, all that we have been unable to accomplish for ourselves and by ourselves... We come here today with the word of the world that has told us it is time to cut your losses and let your hopes fade away... in order to hear the Word of Christ who says look at Me, look at the record of the promises made and kept, at an old man and old woman to whom as son was given... at a Virgin to whom the Son of God was given, that He might redeem us... not only from our sin and death... but also from our hopelessness and disappointments.
    What is too difficult for God?  Nothing.  We laugh because it seems impossible and we cry because it seems too good to be true... but Scripture speaks, the cross shines forth, the empty tomb has the last laugh, and Christ's mercy shows this is no pipe dream... this is the truest reality of all!  Amen.

Love that is not merely words....

Sermon preached for Pentecost 7, Proper 10C, on Sunday, July 11, 2010.

    It is hard preaching on the Good Samaritan parable.  First of all we all know this parable and have heard it so many times that we tend to glaze over then we hear it again.  Second, the guy who came to Jesus was a lawyer and none of us wants to give a lawyer a break.  Finally, Jesus tells us the story of someone we know we all should be but none of us really wants to be.  So there you go.  Well, let's give it another try.
    A lawyer came to Jesus concerned about his eternal life.  On some level I gotta like this guy – after all he is worried about his salvation.  Lord knows there are few enough people, much less lawyers, worried about their salvation.  It makes me to cut the guy a little slack.  But his first question did not help him.  He asked Jesus a question he should have known the answer to.  He was a lawyer and he was a Jew.  He should have known what the law said and that he must keep it perfectly in order to be saved.
    So when Jesus gently chides him for asking what he already knew, he felt he had to justify his question.  We can all sympathize with that.  You ask a dumb question and get called down on it, so you back track and try to make up for it.  Except in this case, he made a fatal mistake.  Everyone who has watched Perry Mason or any other lawyer show on TV knows that the first rule of law is never ask a question you do not already know the answer to.  This guy broke the rule and so he got more than he bargained for as an answer.
    Now here is where a little Lutheranism needs to be interjected.  The Law makes love a duty or an obligation but Jesus has turned it into Gospel.  What the good Samaritan showed was love and love is born only of the Gospel.  The love that delights in service is always Gospel and is never Law.
    So what Jesus did was tell a personal story – a story about Himself.  HE is the Good Samaritan who did for us in love what duty and obligation could never require.  He gave Himself.  He gave Himself into our suffering and death in order to redeem us from our lost condition.  Now He invites us to do as He did for us.  Only the Gospel can create Good Samaritans.  Only Christ.
    Who is my neighbor?  Sounds like an easy enough question but it is one we constantly wrestle with.  We like neighbors who look like us, who sound like us, who live like us.  We are not so sure about neighbors who are different from us.  But Jesus did not die for the good people or the religious people or even the nice people.  He died for all – especially those hard to love.
    So the answer to who is my neighbor is hard.  He is the one I know and the stranger I do not know.  He is the one I like and the one I cannot stand. He is the one from whom I could expect help someday and he is also the one who will never be able to help me back or repay my kindness.  He is the one who agrees with me and the one who challenges me.  He is the one in whose presence I am comfortable and he is the one who makes my skin crawl.
    Jesus died for all such folks.  He is both the Good Samaritan and the one who defines for us who is our neighbor by dying for those it is not easy to love or like.  As uncomfortable as it is, our enemy is also our neighbor, the one who hates us is our neighbor.  What do we owe this neighbor so hard to sympathize with and hard to love?
    I owe my neighbor what Christ did for me.  Now that gives us pause.  The debt I owe to my neighbor is the debt Christ paid for me.  I owe my neighbor forgiveness.  I wish I could get by with a bag of food or a $20 bill but love shows me that forgiveness is the currency in which good neighbors work.  As Christ paid the debt of my sin, so am I to forgive the sins of others – fully, freely, and without regret.
    I owe my neighbor love.  It is not law's duty to love but love which defines how we relate to those around us.  Love does not have minimum required standards.  Love does not ask how little can I get away with here.  Love does not wait until it is easy to serve.  Love acts – as Christ acted for you and for me.  Love is not a requirement from God but the fruit of hearts made new in baptism, that hear Christ speaking in the Scripture, and that are fed and nourished at the Word and Table of the Lord.
This love is not concerned simply about spiritual life or well being but the whole of the person – the way Christ died for us in order to ransom our lives from death, heal the spiritual illness of sin, and restore to us the relationship with the Father that was lost to us in Eden.  Love’s concern is the whole of us – body, soul, and spirit – not simply earthly need or eternal salvation but ALL of it.
    And why?  Why do I bother to love my enemy or love the stranger or love the poor?  I do not love because I must or even because I can.  I do this because this is what Christ did for me.  Love is not only what we do, it is the motive for doing.  You and I both know that some folks will never appreciate what you do for them.  We both know that some folks who come asking are lazy and worthless types.  We both know that some folks who want from us are taking advantage of us.  But that makes no difference.  For Christ died for us before we even knew much less appreciated His gift to us.  He came for us when we had given up on ourselves.  He forgave those who crucified Him even though they felt no regret.  Are you getting the picture?
    I do not worry about the Church being used or taken advantage of... but I do worry about a Christianity that has become hardened to the face of need. I worry about a Christianity that loves only the nice people, the good people, and those easy to love.  I worry about a Christianity that has compassion for and helps some but not others.  I worry about a Christianity in which forgiveness is reserved for those who earn that forgiveness instead of it being full and free as it comes to us in Christ.  I worry about a Christianity in which we give to those who will give back or love those who will love us back.  The neighbor in need whom we need to focus upon is the one hard to love, just as we are, until Christ loved us even unto death.  
    In a just a little while we will walk out the door and head home.  The Church and this assembly around Word and Sacrament is the inn where Christ has bound up our wounds, forgiven our sins, and addressed us with the gift of life everlasting.  Whatever the cost of this redemptive love, Christ has paid it willingly and lovingly for you, for me, and for the whole world.  So when you walk out the door, remember that Christ has set you apart to be the same neighbor to the world that He has been to you.  And when you leave today, recall Jesus words, "go and do like wise..."  so let us love not in word only but deeds. Amen.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Be Careful Whom You Invite

You can click on this link and see how the one church convention got more than they bargained for.  The Presbyterians got a surprise when an Orthodox Priest from Belarus was invited to the podium at their general convention.  He spoke not the typical meaningless greeting of someone who treads carefully over disagreements but as an honest friend.  His words were not mean or rude but they were blunt and forthright.  Most of the time when we invite ecumenical guests to the convention hoopla we invite them for show -- to show that we are nice and people think we are nice.  Thank God that one guest had the love to overcome this false nicety and speak the truth in love.

Among other things, he challenged the filioque in the creed, the morality that was being defined to include recognition for gay and lesbian and gay and lesbian clergy, and the idea that those who hold to the unchanging truth cannot grow. 

“Christian morality is as old as Christianity itself. It doesn’t need to be invented now. Those attempts to invent new morality look for me like attempts to invent a new religion — a sort of modern paganism.

“When people say that they are led and guided by the Holy Spirit to do it, I wonder if it is the same Spirit that inspired the Bible, if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the Holy Orthodox Church not to change anything doctrinal or moral standards? It is really the same Spirit or perhaps there are different spirits acting in different denominations and inspiring them to develop in different directions and create different theologies and different morals?

“My desire is that all Christians should contend earnestly for the faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints, as St. Jude calls us to do (Jude 1:3). And my advice as an ecumenical advisory delegate is the following: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ ” (Romans 12:2).

If we Missourians were so bold as to speak thus to the ELCA about their sexuality decisions and about their communion fellowship choices, things might be different.  If the ELCA were so bold as to speak thus to Missouri about the oddity of lay people regularly preaching and celebrating the sacraments, things might be different.  It is not that what we have said to one another in the past is wrong, it is not as pointed and truthful as this Orthodox priest spoke to those he also called friends in the faith.

Finally, even though he spoke this about the actions of the Presbyterian assembly, he was willing to work together in externals where faith was not compromised.  Certainly this too is a lesson for those in Missouri who seem insistent upon eliminating any cooperation (in externals) with the ELCA.

Be careful whom you invite to your church conventions.... sometimes they might surprise you with a candid assessment, the truth spoken in love, and an honest confrontation of the differences that cry out to be addressed (instead of merely niceties exchanged)...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Some Words about Presiding

You have often heard me speak about the need for Pastors to be as comfortable presiding at the altar as they are preaching in the pulpit.  Today I would turn you to the need for a group like the Synod Convention to be led by a good presider at the lectern.  We witnessed a very fine job of wielding the gavel from Synod President Jerry Kieschnick.  He exhibited humor, mastery of the facts, humility, wit, and fairness from the podium.  Whether or not you supported him for President and whether or not you supported the restructuring proposals he brought to the convention, you have to admire the good job he did in leading the delegates through a very long week of work.

I am convinced that this is one of the big problems in congregational meetings (both attendance and effectiveness).  The ability to lead a group of people through an often complicated agenda is not something possessed by all those elected.  A good presider can make it easier to get through and give the group the sense that all sides got to speak and the outcome was fair (even if it was not the one you sought).  So often this is why congregational meetings end up as gripe sessions.  When the agenda is not nailed down and the one presiding does not have that special gift, the result is that those who have complaints are given the forum and the opportunity to complain.  As bad as that is, it is worse when it appears that there is no real business to contract and that this meeting was a waste of time.  The complainers may cause moans and groans but the meeting that has no purpose or agenda only teaches people that there is no reason to be there in the first place.  Both gripe sessions and wandering meetings with no purpose discourage the involvement of the people in the pew in the work of the kingdom and this is not good.

I wish that someone could produce a short video on how to preside at meetings.  It would be a great help to those who must (often for the first time) lead a congregation through an often difficult agenda.  In our own congregation the first meeting which the newly elected President oversees is the budget meeting -- one which can and often is somewhat contentious.  It is a baptism by fire and sometimes the one baptized ends up being burnt.  Sometimes the people sitting in on the meeting end up being burnt.  So if any of you have an article or video on the fine art of presiding at meetings, send it my way...

A Messy Business

Like the old quote about democracy being the worst possible form of government but it is the best we have come up with so far, the messy business of church conventions stretch the definition of both church and convention.  It is tedium as the endless speaking and amendments come and go.  It is boring as time is spent doing things that do not relate to the urgent business and as even the urgent business becomes old and tiresome.  It is long normally (and in this case even longer because of the restructuring business).  It is a messy business but in the end I am not sure what or how to replace it with something better.

As we wind down into the final day, we continue to pray for those elected, for resolutions passed but not yet carried out, for commissions formed, and for positions taken... as well as in thanksgiving for those who served, for the work of the past that brought us to this present day.

And we get the joy of knowing we will be doing this again in a couple of short years...  ah, well, this is an acquired taste (or is it distaste)...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Some Thoughts about Japanese Beetles

We have some ornamental trees in our yard and they are appreciated not only by us but by the Japanese Beetles in our neighborhood.  When it became apparent that they were eating away at the leaf structure and could harm the trees, we trotted out the tried and true bag and lure to draw them away.

According to Wiki: The beetle species Popillia japonica is commonly known as the Japanese beetle. It is about 15 millimetres (0.6 in) long and 10 millimetres (0.4 in) wide, with iridescent copper-colored elytra and green thorax and head. It is not very destructive in Japan, where it is controlled by natural enemies, but in America it is a serious pest of about 200 species of plants, including rose bushes, grapes, hops, canna, crape myrtles, and other plants. It is a clumsy flier, dropping several centimeters when it hits a wall. Japanese beetle traps therefore consist of a pair of crossed walls with a bag underneath, and are baited with floral scent, pheromone, or both.

And so we have captured bag after bag of these disgusting creatures in order to prevent the ornamentals in our yard from becoming a skeleton of branches devoid of leaves.  It is the scent that attracts them to the trees in the first place and it is the scent that attracts them to the traps.  Once in the traps, they seem unable to find their way out and eventually die and begin to rot under the heat of the sun.  The solution is even more disgusting than the little critters are.

I sometimes wonder if the latest trends and fads in the church are like the scent that attracts Pastors and church workers.  They want effectiveness, they want efficiency, and they want success -- the same things we all want.  But in their impatience for the kingdom of God to grow through the means of grace, they are always seeking those methods, programs, and practices that they believe might hasten the work of the kingdom and assist the means of grace (or even replace them).  They fly from church body to church body, from parachurch agency to parachurch agency, from book to book, from article to article -- in search of the newest and latest thing.  They are earnest people and I do not doubt their sincerity.  But in the end, the scent of what is new or what works becomes its own trap.

In the end the Church, the tree, is left wounded by the constant feeding after things new and different.  Youth ministry, educational programs, and evangelism outreach are constantly remade -- over and over again -- and the Church grows weary from the constant change --- though some folks seem to thrive on it and move from congregation to congregation, from denomination to denomination, from independent to non-denominational group all in search of the newest thing.  Their movement seems to skew the numbers a bit and make it seem that such constant striving after new, different, and edgy works.

Studies done at the University of Kentucky suggest that traps attract more beetles than they actually trap, thus causing more damage along the flight path of the beetles and in the vicinity of the trap than may have occurred if the trap was not present.  I did not know this.  It is making me wonder if those bag and lure traps are all they are cracked up to be.  Maybe the pheromone is simply marking my yard for these beetles as THE place to stop on their journey of defoliation. 

I wonder if perhaps the enemies of God have not dreamed up some of this all to make for the kind of bag and lure traps that entice us and our attention from the means of building the kingdom that God has bestowed upon the Church -- the Word and the Sacraments.  The pursuit of these things has become its own goal, overshadowing the work of the means of grace (not by the intention of the folks who invent or are attracted to them but as a result of our growing frustration with the pace of the Word and Sacraments in doing what they are supposed to do).  In the end we attract folks who are attracted not to the faith itself but to the the things we have, the technology we use, and their own culture we are mirroring.  It is like looking at this kind of religion as a mirror and since it reflects back what you think about yourself, it is no wonder we find it attractive.

Don't get me wrong -- I am not justifying congregations that exist only for the sake of those who already belong, communities closed to new people, hidden buildings, Pastors who are preoccupied or even lazy about the need to teach the faith, teach people to share that faith, and be examples of those who give witness to the hope within them... I know these places exists and they do need to be challenged to do the work of the kingdom in their community and not simply serve their own community of faith.  BUT... I do not think that the constant borrowing of things foreign to our theological confession or seeking of programs from denominations antithetic to our confessional and liturgical identity are the solution.

I don't have a solution to Japanese beetles... I do think that our solution as Lutheran Christians is to BE Lutheran Christians, with all the rich resources that our Confessions and liturgical tradition afford.  To BE Lutheran Christians yet with a welcome to the stranger and a heart for those not yet among the household of God. To BE Lutheran Christians whose heritage of faithfulness is not something we glory in but the inspiration for being faithful in our own time and in our own neighborhoods.  We have institutionalized the Gospel that our Confessions proclaimed instead of proclaiming the Gospel that forms and shapes the institution of our church body.  We do not need to do this as wannbe Baptists or Pentecostals or evangelicals or fundamentalists.  We can do this as the Lutherans we are...

BTW I have not even explored how some of the techniques, methods, and means of inviting folks have become our own bag and lure trick... by bringing the false scent of the world into our churches we are attracting people not to the Gospel but to the themselves and the culture that they love...