Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I Wonder What You Do First

I have been thinking a bit about President Elect Matthew Harrison beginning his term of office tomorrow.  To be honest, I have not thought about this kind of thing much even though I have lived through several Presidents of Synod (Behnken, Harms, Preus, Bohlman, Barry, Kuhn, Kieschnick, and, now, Harrison).  I have a fairly good idea what you do when you begin your time in a new parish (have done that a couple of times) but I am not so sure what you do when you begin an elected term of office.

To be sure, Harrison has an edge on some since he has worked in the International Center and knows the lay out, the structure of the Church, the people who work there, and the processes of the LCMS rather well.  He has no real learning curve about this.  To those who came in from the outside, finding the bathroom and cafeteria and chapel might be daunting enough -- without the prospect of running "corporate" Synod (as some like to call it).  His assistants are likewise seasoned pros who know the layout of the IC, the structure of Synod, and, most importantly, know Harrison well and how he thinks and works.

Apart from the unpacking, what do you do first?  We have a host of issues before us -- not in the least of which is the gigantic task of restructuring the Synod around two boards, staffing those boards, and working out the kinks of the choices made in Convention in July.  Here Harrison has a bit of an unknown to work with and he will, for good or ill, shape and define how those decisions will be implemented for some years to come.  I do not envy him this task.  What would it be like if you came to a new parish and began at the very same time they moved, say, from a Voters system of governance to a Council/Board of Directors system and nobody was sure what they were doing or how to do it -- all the while the pressing urgencies of the day demanded action?

In addition, the elephant in the room is the divergent views of Synod and its direction -- well attested by the 51% to 48-49% split in adopting those restructuring changes.  The divisions of our church body are well entrenched and we all think we know what is best, what needs to be done, and how to do it.  Most of all, we are not shy about offering our advice to any and all -- whether they want to hear it or not.  With a limited term of office and such great challenges before him, Harrison has a lot to pick through and much to ponder.  We will judge him and we will probably judge him unfairly and too quickly -- can't escape that.

There are things in process that will need to be handled -- things begun in the past that now have to be completed (what do you do with Ablaze and Fan into Flame or the sale of KFUO FM, for example).  There are decisions that need to be rendered on a host of small but important subjects that carry over from the Kieschnick years.  A quick learning curve is needed here, to be sure.  The financial need that seemed to drive so much is just as pressing and it will not disappear quickly.  Not to mention how to continue the work of the many boards and commissions that were reshuffled by the Convention -- continuing their work while the structure is being redefined -- sample, World Relief and Human Care! And I could go on and on...

As a new Pastor to a parish, I concentrated on two things... the worship service and getting to know the people.  Since any Pastor sees most all of his flock on Sunday morning, I worked to make sure that those first services and sermons gave them a good impression (judgments are rendered rather quickly, you know) and a signal of the direction before us (Lutheran confessional identity and liturgical practice).  Getting to know the people is a matter of names and stories -- who are these folks, where did they come from, and what is going on with them...  As a new President of Synod,  I would not know where to start... but Matt Harrison will begin with my prayers and and I hope you will pray for him as well.  It would not surprise me, knowing him, that he chose to begin on his knees.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Gift of Work

Liturgy, from the Greek leiturgia, has an interesting history and meaning.  In secular usage, the leiturgia were like taxes or a response owed by those who enjoyed the privilege of wealth and property.  In this way we arrive as the customary English translation, service.  In secular usage, the leiturgia was a response to privilege bestowed.

In religious parlance, liturgy has been used to refer to a specific order of worship or to a classic outline of this order (the Mass form) or to the idea that the people of God render service (leiturgia) to him as their work.  The emphasis upon the work of the people was emphasized by the twentieth century liturgical movement.  While the emphasis or nuance of this word has been bantered about, it remains a service that responds to what God has done and does not initiate a work to seek His approval or favor.  In response to what God has done, His people render to Him the service of faith, praise, thanksgiving, and good works.  You may choose to put the accent on the people and their work but it is impossible to ignore that this is in response to God's work.

Lutherans have typically called the liturgy the Divine Service (Gottesdienst).  In LSB the name of the rites for the Eucharist is the Divine Service, in various settings.  For us as Christians, God's service to us is always concrete and never simply an idea or a feeling.  It begins with the concrete of a Virgin who carried in her womb the Son of God in our flesh and blood.  It continues with the concrete of suffering and death that is the Passion of this incarnate Lord, pursued to redeem a lost and condemned creation and restore to the Father the people of His own creation.  It is concrete in the Word of God that speaks with His living voice to call, gather, and enlighten His people, bestowing upon them the Spirit who teaches faith.  It is concrete in the splash of water with the Word that has the power to kill and give new life, connect to the cross and empty tomb, and clothe with righteousness those stained with sin.  It is concrete in the voice of absolution that speaks to those without merit or worth, "I forgive you."  It is concrete in the bread that gives the flesh of Christ with the taste of wheat and in the wine which gives the blood of Christ with the taste of the grape.  God's service to us is concrete and real, tied to person, fact, and event.  It does what it promises and accomplish what it purposes.

In the same way our work of response is not ethereal or aesthetic but real and concrete.  It is real in the faith that is born of the Spirit's work through Word and Sacrament and the AMEN of faith to all that God has worked for us and our salvation.  It is real in the songs of praise and thanksgiving that respond to the grace bestowed and Lord come to us in flesh and blood.  It is real in the offering of self, returned to Him to whom we belong as the perfect fruit of His gift of freedom, and of all the things that we call our own but are merely ours to manage in His name (money, time, gift, talent, etc.).  It is real in the mercy shown to the stranger, the hungry, the wounded, the outcast, the imprisoned, and the lonely.  It is real in the acts of compassion and kindness returned to the Lord by way of the poor, the needy, and the helpless.  It is real in the relationships that become the domain of our baptismal vocation -- from husband to wife and wife to husband, parent to child and child to parent, neighbor to neighbor, employer to employee and employee to employer...

Work is a gift from God in which we mirror His own work in creation as we care for all that He has made.  Work is a gift from God in which we respond to His goodness and grace and return to Him that which is His due and that which already belongs to Him.  Work is a gift from God that is liturgical, vocational, and relational -- not in the least of which is the work of witness by which we tell of His goodness and grace to those around us.  Liturgy is the work of the people, yes, but a work made possible only because of God's initiative and work that endures only because it is to His glory and from a heart of grateful faith.

The Freedom to Embrace Obedience

Sermon Preached for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, Sunday, August 29, 2010.

    One of the strengths of youth is also its weakness – the quest for independence and the freedom to do what you want.  It is a strength because the energy and indomitable spirit of youth have accomplished many things the old have given up on.  But it is a weakness because such independence and freedom are fleeting and work against family and faith.
    Think of the pioneer spirit that drove Americans to turn a wilderness into a nation.  Or, in more modern terms, the desire to boldly go where no man has ever gone before.  This independent and sometimes entrepreneurial spirit has been applied to many different arenas of life – even faith and the Church.  Think Joel Osteen and the way he turned his dad's pentecostal congregation into a stadium size mega-church and himself into a publishing success.  The only problem is that this success came at the cost of Christian distinctiveness; his distortion of that faith raises honest questions about his accomplishment.
    For the Christian, the temptations of independence and freedom are always tempered by the call to obedience.  Christ is the author and pioneer of the faith and we walk where He has led the way.  What we seek more than anything is obedience to the faith.  Obedience to the Scriptures as the voice of God, obedience to Christ to shape the path of our lives, and obedience even to death.  Today we remember the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist and his legacy of faithfulness and obedience, even to death.  What some see as the independent streak of his life is in realty the radical obedience of faith, following the word and will of God above all things, the fruit of the Spirit who transforms the heart.
    Obey is a tough word.  Men do not want to say it to God, women do not want to say it to husbands, and children do not want to say it to parents.  Sin has turned obedience into a killing word that would constrain our freedom and curb our independence.  Because of sin, we don't want to give up even an illusion of independence.
    The truth is that faith does not begin and end with us.  We do not create it or define it.  The Spirit teaches us to believe and teaches us to submit our wills and desires to the Word and Truth of God.  Christian faith is not tailored to fit the individual but is the one and unchanging truth of Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
    When I think of the obedience of faith, I think of Job who cried out to God in his wounds and asks for a simple explanation.  But God calls him to simple trust.  I think of John the Baptist who seems to have earned his stripes as a prophet only to submit to the word and will of Jesus.  In the waters of the Jordan John sees that this is all wrong – that Jesus should be baptizing him and not the other way around.  But Christ does not negotiate and John is obedient in faith to the will and purpose of God.  The Spirit created a new will and built a new heart in which obedience was now the desire and trust was the path.
    The call to obey is the call to silence the selfish heart that wants to do what pleases me.  Instead we learn, by the power of the Spirit as the hymn stanza says, that what pleases God that pleases me.  This radical obedience of faith kills the idea that what makes me feel good, is good; that what makes me happy is what I ought to do.  Faith opens a whole new door and the Spirit teaches us a new path, revealed in Christ Jesus:  "Not my will, but thy will be done."
    Now our sinful hearts are right to resist this obedience of faith because sin knows that trusting in yourself is not freedom at all but the worst kind of bondage.  Instead of sacrificing our freedom, the obedience of faith is the only real and genuine freedom there is.  So we cannot choose the obedience of faith for ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit can teach us that obedience is a good word, that God can be trusted, and that a cross shaped life is the right pattern of life.
    Obedience is not simply a Sunday morning word.  This is not about obeying the Pastor.  This is not an obedience born of fear.  This is about the Word and Will of God revealed in Christ Jesus and our trust in that Word and will.  Every day we are struggle to give up the idea that God must fit us and our definitions and every day the Spirit works to renew and transform our minds and our reason so that they are captive to His Word and a servant of His will.
    Sin turned us into enemies of God and sin keeps us there.  Only the Spirit can free us from this captivity; do not surrender this freedom to the bondage of our own wills and desires, apart from God.  If we are to live free, that freedom leads us to the obedience of faith, submitting to the will and purpose of God and the power of His transcendent love by the power of the Spirit.
    Our nation is filled with people who love things spiritual.  But spirituality is no inward pursuit to find our selves and what we want.  True spirituality does not exchange one bondage for another.  No, the Spirit leads us to find our lives hidden in Christ’s life and our purpose in following where He has led the way.  Where the Spirit is, there is this freedom, and there will be obedience, faithfulness, and service to the Lord – just like in John the Baptist.
    Obedience is also a matter of the heart.  There are those who think that if our desires come from within, these desires are natural and good and God must have placed them there.  There are those who think that whatever flows from our hearts is good.  But Scripture tells us that sin flows from the heart, from inside out and not simply outside in.  Scripture reminds us that the desires of our hearts must be cleansed and controlled or they will dominate us to destruction.  So God intervenes with grace and we are born again in baptism – from the rule of the sinful heart to the rule of Christ who sets us free.  In this way, we, like John of old, do not act out of fear but in joyful faith, so confident of eternity that the things of this life do not overcome us.
    The freedom God gives to us is not squandered on the pursuit of believing, doing, and seeking what we want at the moment.  The freedom God gives is wisely invested in the one path that cannot disappoint us.  Here again, John the Baptist teaches us that the only real freedom is the freedom to obey.  Christ must increase; I must decrease.  John spoke those words not with regret but with joy, he was free in Christ from the oppression of self and no longer captive to the fear of his wants and desires or the judgments of others.
    Obedience is not some awful, terrible word that constrains us but the only real choice which offers freedom to us.  The goal of faith is not for us to live independent and free lives but to live dependently upon the Lord.  The goal of faith is not freedom to do what pleases us, but to learn to delight in what pleases God and to live in obedience to His Word and will.
    Today we honor St. John the Baptist and the light of Christ that shone through him in life and in death.  He was a man of faith from the moment when he jumped in his mother’s womb to the moment when he died at the hands of Herod and his family’s wickedness.  He was free in Christ from fear and all captivity to self and this life so that He was free to receive the crown of righteousness appointed for him.  Today we pray that we may be such people of faith, free in Christ to serve Him without constraint, until we receive with Him the crown of righteousness and the wonderful “well done” of our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Leaving It All NOT to the Experts...

Some of those whom we might call experts, have an expertise which is too far removed from experience to be fruitful or useful.  I am not trashing experts but suggesting that some things are too important to be left only to the experts.  One of those things is the worship life of the parish.  While I do not presume to be an expert here, I do believe I possess a bit more knowledge than average.  The perspective of what I think I know has been shaped by more than 30 years of preaching and presiding in a Lutheran parish setting.  There some things to be learned there that cannot be taught in an academic setting or learned from books.

The Roman Catholic Church will soon begin a recovery of sorts from the direction of liturgical experts that dismantled generations of tradition in one fell swoop.  It was not only a move from Latin to the vernacular, but the disregard for the previous spirit of the liturgy and an infatuation with the moment that turned great collects into casual theme prayers, turned the liturgy into a disposable missalette printed on newsprint, and distanced the people from their centuries old musical tradition in favor of throw away songs no one bothered to memorize.  What we saw at work there is a reminder that the domain of the liturgy is not for one side alone.  Neither liturgical experts nor those who actively serve the parish can be allowed exclusive domain over what happens on Sunday morning.  It must be a collaborative effort.

We cannot afford the performance of the liturgy to become a spectator event in which the experts direct the drama.  We must be careful to make sure that every liturgy is authentic to its surroundings and does not attempt to recreate what is done somewhere else or to manufacture the liturgical action of a previous age.  The liturgy is not the work of the people to obtain God's favor or approval but as God's work's it does take place within a specific group  of people at a specific time.  It is God's work that enables the people's faithful response.  It is the careful role of the presider who knows his people and authentically leads them through the Divine Service, attuned to them, the circumstances of their lives, and the gracious gifts of God bestowed through the Word and Sacraments, that guide them in this faithful response.

In the same way, preaching is not some academic pursuit but the proclamation of the Law and Gospel to a specific people by one who knows something of them and their lives and so is able to apply the Word faithfully and locally.  It is a good thing to take courses in homiletics and to learn the craft of the preacher but this preaching is meant to take place among a people and at a place that expects and even anticipates the preacher knows his hearers just as he knows the text.

We have often said that every Pastor is a theologian by definition -- a theologian in residence among His people.  We could say that every every Pastor is a liturgiologist by definition -- a liturgical practitioner among His people.  I am constantly amazed at how the lines of theology, liturgy, counsel, teacher, preacher, presider, and Pastor crisscross across the landscape of my ministry.  Ivory towers do little good among the wounds, needs, questions, and hopeful faith of a people seeking God and His gifts where He has promised to be found.  But the opposite is equally true.  Not every decision about the liturgy or preaching is a practical one.  We have rubrics and church orders for good purpose.  We do not start every week with a blank page but with the outline delivered to us in the liturgy with its propers and ordinary and in the sermon with the lectionary and the Church Year.

It does no one any good to pit the scholar against the practitioner, the expert against the one who every week does what the experts study and write about...  This is a both/and situation that calls for scholars who know the history and can tell us what and why and the Pastors who put this to work in the parish setting week after week.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Great Quest for Spirituality

Nearly everywhere you go you find folks writing about the seemingly insatiable quest for things spiritual among the population, and, in particular, younger members of our population.  There is a deep spiritual hunger -- no question about that -- but this is not necessarily something easy to capitalize upon for Christians.  The hunger for things spiritual comes at the very same time there is a rejection for doctrine, objective truth, and the Church.  It is as if we want the husk of the ear of corn but not the corn on the cob and the cob is rejected because it provides the corn.  The spirituality that folks are left with is an empty shell, a pursuit without a goal, a means without an end, a process without a conclusion.

We need to be very careful how we proceed.  For us as Lutherans truth is not some floating reality but an embodied reality.  Ours is not a general truth but the specific truth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God in human flesh and blood.  We must be careful about the great temptation to divorce truth from Jesus Christ or to give the impression that faith is something other than our encounter with the God who came to us by the incarnation of His one and only Son.  Everything we confess about God we know through Jesus Christ.  Apart from Him, we have no God at all, no means of connection with the Creator and His intention of creation, and no answer for the great questions of life -- where did I come from, why am I here, what happens after death...  The spiritual hunger and quest among the American people may be an open door but we need to be careful how we open that door.  For too many, the idea of Christianity, like the idea of God Himself, has become the infatuation, rather than Christianity itself and the one and only God whose face is Jesus Christ.

This quest for things spiritual and this hunger to go deeper is often accompanied by a disdain for Scripture and the Sacraments.  These are the old means of the old face of Christianity and people are searching for that which goes beyond them.  The Word and the Sacraments, however, are not some surface area of Christianity, of which there is stuff deeper to be mined and brought out as the true treasure.  The true treasure is Jesus Christ.  The Word does not speak of Christ but is Christ speaking.  The Sacraments are not sacred rituals and symbols but the very means by which Christ comes to us with the fullness of His grace and gifts.  They are Christ just as Scripture is Christ.

Lutherans are, if anything, very incarnational.  Our understanding of the Sacraments and worship is incarnational.  Our theology is incarnational.  We know only one God and that God is the God who is Jesus Christ and all that is known about God is known through Him and His revelation.  The Sacraments are like Christmas all over again -- the marriage of the heavenly and divine with the ordinary earthly element and the result is the unique mystery of God and His presence, grace and gifts, forgiveness and life, rebirth and new identity.

It seems to me that we have not done such a good job of making this known.  The way we treat Scripture often results in the false impression that it is a guide book to the spiritual quest or a rule book to tell you how to live your life or a rule book to get what you want from life or, at worst, one path of truth for which there are many paths and many truths.  We act as if Bible study were about attaching our meaning to its truisms instead of encountering the Christ who is the Word.  We act as if the Sacraments are merely a sacred ritual of the gathered community instead of the source and foundation of each individual Christian life as well as our life together as the people of God.

Lutherans are vulnerable to the kind of semi-Christian literature that has flooded the marketplace.  Our people read devotional books that have disembodied Christ from His Word and the Sacraments from spiritual life.  Our people have given into the idea that Bible study is about finding hidden meanings in the text instead of meeting Christ there.  Our people live in the great temptation and confusion of a mind shaped by Lutheran catechesis but a heart which years to hear what Joel Osteen and others like him preach (a good news religion, more about here than heaven, about happiness than sin, about pleasure than death, and about getting what you want than meeting the God who answers your need...

We have some books and some authors... we need more.  We need those who can bring to bear the timeless truth of this creedal and catholic faith to bear in the present moment, with winsome and inviting applications of the yesterday, today, and forever faith.  We need Pastors to raise up expectations about and an understanding of what happens on Sunday morning.  We need musicians who can equip our people so that, as one author put it, the soundtrack of our lives is consistent with the confession of our lips.  It is not what Lutheranism lacks that is killing us, but our failure to fully exploit this wonderfully incarnational, Biblical, and catholic faith so that people see Scripture as the living voice of Christ and the Sacraments as the wells that spring forth with the living water of life...

This is what I hope for in a renewed Lutheranism, ready to exploit the opportunity of a people thinking about things spiritual but without a clue as to what that really means...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Christian Nay Sayers

Every now and then some of us Christians forget the power of grace and succumb to the dark side of negativism, nay saying, and misery.  It is hard not to fall into this trap.  I heard on the radio that some believe the DOW will be at 5,000 in a couple of years and that the economy is going to be far worse than the bad we struggle with today.  I open my newspaper and find stories of violence, hatred, and evil that are both far away from me and very local to where I live.  I read some so-called Christian sources for religious news and listen to the banter in some theological forums and it is hard not to give in to the power of "no."

Yet Christians are not called to be barometers of evil but bold proclaimers of the hope that is within us.  It seems that we have been far too content to sit on the sidelines and condemn and far too hesitant to speak honestly and joyfully of the hope that is ours in Christ.  The polls tell us that the world has grown to expect criticism, condemnation, judgment, and negativism from those who call themselves Christian.  In fact, it has become so prominent that many Christian voices are turned off as soon as they speak.

Christians... you know... they are the ones against abortion, against sex, against gays and lesbians, against equal opportunity for all to marry, against fun, and against getting a little crazy or carried away every now and then.  Unless I am mistaken, this was the accusation (perhaps rightly so) against Puritans but not necessarily against Christians.  Have Christians become merely the new prudes in our culture?

I believe that we have lost some of our voice because we have been shouting far too loudly at what is wrong instead of speaking confidently of the good and right and true that God has done in Christ.  I am not suggesting that we stop speaking the Law.  I am not suggesting that we avoid calling evil what it is.  I am asking if we have gotten a little too comfortable ending the conversation with the Law and its condemnation and the labeling of all that is wrong as evil.  We speak the Law not to condemn.  We speak the Law so that the hearer may be prepared for the Gospel.  We condemn sin not to have something to condemn.  We condemn sin because it has torn us away from all that is good and right and true for humanity as our Creator intended and Christ redeemed.  We condemn sin so that it does not get the last word -- the cross is the last word (at least here on earth).  And we Christians need to make sure that we get the last word and that we get it right.

People may be shamed into doing the right thing but as soon as our back is turned, they will abandon what is good.  Good works are the fruit of a positive faith, an affirmation of God's goodness revealed supremely in His Son, whom the Holy Spirit makes known to us.  We are to be people of good works and of God's good will.  But that is not how people perceive us.  Are the perceptions wrong or are we wrong?  That is the haunting question that each of us ought to consider.  For it is not enough to be against evil.  We are to be for the good that God has delivered to us and to the whole world in Christ Jesus.  Not all will respond to the prompting of the Spirit with faith but this is how God has chosen to extend the banner of His love to the world.

I think this is why Matt Harrison was elected.  His vantage point was not academic theology nor a narrow parochialism but the mercy seat.  His voice was the passionate voice of love at work as well as doctrine pure.  His track record was one of action on behalf of those least able to speak for themselves or care for their needs in disaster or crisis.  His face was the face of mercy and I believe that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod desires not merely to be known for its doctrinal purity but also for its passion for the lost and the least.  It is my hope that his call for conversation is not only about theological issues but about reclaiming the voice of hope and compassion for this Church.

So let us be people of good will, people of hope (not optimism but hope in Christ), and people who not only condemn the wrong but raise up its remedy with equal and exceeding passion.  I write these words first to myself.  It is easy to let a hard week get you into a funk, to steal away your joy, and to turn your demeanor to a scowl.  Yeah, it happens.  So whether you are Larry Peters or not, we who call ourselves Christians need to raise hope up, lift high the cross, and the love of Christ proclaim.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What Is Our Envy Is Also Our Weakness

Or, to put it another way... where your heart is, there will your treasure be also...

It seems to me that Lutheranism (and it may not only be Lutheranism but this is the Church of my experience) is vulnerable precisely where Lutherans are envious of others.  Our envy is our weakness.  So our weaknesses vary from person to person and place to place, depending upon what it is that we desire.

Speaking from the vantage point of a Pastor who was the lone employee at a congregation for most of my time there, I desperately wanted others to serve with me.  I desired a good organist and parish musician to direct the choirs and music program.  I desired a good pipe organ to lead the congregational song.  I desired a congregation large enough to support multiple services.  It was the thing I envied when I visited parishes which had these amenities.  Now I serve a parish where we have developed these over the course of my nearly 18 years here and I find that these very things that were my desire are sometimes the bane of my existence.  We have (with the preschool) some 30 people employed here.  Unlike the vision of my youth, a large staff is a bit like a small congregation and staffing and administrative issues take up much of my time (more than I would like).  A large music program, several pipe organs and other musical instruments cost something to administer as well as a blessing and having a fine parish musician means we do more and more with these resources on an every Sunday basis -- more planning, more evaluation, and more resources.  It is not that I do not enjoy these rich blessings but I realize that they have brought with them a particular vulnerability that I did not realized when I viewed them from afar.

So there are those whose heart is filled with desire and envy of filled pews.  Not a bad desire, mind you.  But with this desire comes a vulnerability.  Sometimes folks will do just about anything -- including forsaking Lutheran identity and compromising Lutheran practice -- to achieve the desire of their hearts.  With this comes the cost of maintaining this and Lutheran identity and practice are stretched even further as technology, trend, and temptation lead folks to borrow from others and to follow the paths of those who seem to know what is working now.

There are those whose heart is filled with desire and envy of order and place.  Not a bad desire, mind you.  But this, too, has its own vulnerability.  Sometimes these folks expect that every congregation will look and act and sound the same no matter where it is.  Sometimes these folks try or organize the Church and theology in such a way to tie up all loose ends but the weakness in this is that it means turning somethings into laws and rules are adiaphora and sometimes it means adding and rearranging theological loose ends in ways that are not Scriptural or Lutheran.

There are those whose hearts are filled with desire and envy for the reverence and respect they think was practiced in another time or is still practiced by other Christians.  Not a bad desire, mind you.  But this brings with it its own vulnerability.  Sometimes these folks will trade off theology for ceremony, truth for ritual, and confession for church usages.  And I could go on and on... about those who like antiquity... those who like relevance... those who like ecumenism... those who like a Gospel without the Law... those who like diversity...  None of these are all wrong as long as they are kept in balance or perspective... but whatever it is that is our desire, ultimately becomes our weakness.

I know Lutherans who so want to convert people and make Christians that their congregations no longer look or act or sound (or even are named) Lutheran.  I know Lutherans who have jumped ship for Rome or Constantinople and made a compromise in dogma for liturgical identity or antiquity.  I know Lutherans who have turned their ecumenical vision into a paper unity that ignores real and substantial differences.  I know Lutherans who want to back to a Missouri of 1947 with THE Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and a culture that was seemingly more friendly to faith than the present one is.  All of these desires bring with them their own weaknesses.  And that is our temptation... 

Different weaknesses and different temptations... as different as we are as people... so that task before us as individual Pastors and people is to know our desire so that we may know our weakness, to live in concert with those who can help us see when our desire leads us into temptation or error, and to be willing to receive fraternal support, direction, and, yes, correction.  In this respect, this is what the benefit of Synod is -- it formalizes this fraternal relationship not only for the good of others but for our own good, as well.

Who was it who said, "There are only two sane people left in the world, me and you.  And sometimes I wonder about you..."  W. C. Fields?  We will not find on earth the kind of unanimity and uniformity we hope for -- one in which our desires and our gifts are the same.  Perhaps this is not a good thing, anyway.  Like a marriage which can unite two very different people with their different strengths and weaknesses to become a stronger identity, so we walk together on the same path while at the same time working to keep us on that same path as part of the labor of the journey... at least until this flesh, the world, and the devil no more taunt us or tempt us away...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ask for the Ancient Paths, the Good Way, and Walk in It

Every now and then a text sort of hits you across the face and you wake up to it as if you had never read it before.  Such is the case this morning when I was reading in Jeremiah (the lamenting prophet).  In chapter 5 the prophet speaks the Word of the Lord in judgment against His people.  Their eyes do not see and ears do not hear.  They are foolish and ignorant.  They do not fear the Lord or respect Him for what He has done.  "Shall I not punish them?" asks the Lord.  A few words later in chapter 6, the prophet speaks the Word of the Lord about the impending doom coming to Jerusalem.  He calls upon His people to flee the coming disaster.  But no one is listening to the words of warning that God is speaking.  The Word of the Lord has become an object of scorn and derision.  They do not take pleasure in the Word of the Lord and their ears are uncircumcised and cannot hear.  Peace is proclaimed when there is none.  There is no shame left among the people....

And then, "Thus says the Lord: 'Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it and find rest for your souls..." (Jeremiah 6:16a)  Wow! If that is not a word for today -- especially for Lutherans -- I do not know what is...  Amid the doom and gloom of impending judgment and just in the face of the destruction to come, God speaks this simple sentence which offers direction, hope, forgiveness, and redemption all in one...

Lutherans are at the crossroads.  The ELCA dissidents against the actions of the CWA are meeting now in Columbus to chart the course for the remnant there.  Missouri has elected a President more grounded in our Lutheran identity and with a more catholic vision of Lutheran faith and practice than ever before -- perhaps one of our last opportunities to bring this denomination together before the fragmentation leaves us hopelessly divided.  And all across America Lutheran congregations struggle with the great temptation to become something other than Lutheran in order to survive (whether that be like a mainline but dying Protestant denomination, a church body without a doctrinal foundation like the UCC, a generic evangelical Christianity that does what works, or a fundamentalist faith with a liturgy). 

And there it is... the direction back from the abyss of sectarianism and from a cultural infatuation that renders us strangers to God...  Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is...  This does not mean attempting to return to a golden age in Christian or Lutheran or Missourian history.  This does not mean complete disdain for the opportunity and possibility rendered us by technology and an awareness of what is going on in the world around us.  This does not mean becoming like Missouri of 1847 or 1947 or trying to reinvent the ancient Church or recreating what we read about in the infant Church of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.  This means following the ancient paths and building them as a highway through the present age and toward the future.  It means keeping faith with the faithful along the way and not beginning with a blank page for structure, doctrine, faith, mission, or worship.  It means keeping and adding what does not conflict with the past but extends its truth and is recognizable as the offspring of those who have gone before.

"Walk in it and you will find rest..."  Here I think of rest and respite from the constant quest for a new morality which may be more in tune with the whims of the people at the moment but is discordant and dissonant with the abiding morality of Jesus and His Word.  Here I think of rest and respite from the constant worship wars in which contemporary and traditional become the main aisle to separate those in the household of God.  Here I think of rest and respite from the constant need to figure out what is going on in people and the world around us so that we can keep up with them instead of proclaiming the changeless Christ to a changing world.  Here I think of rest and respite from the constant invention of new gimmicks for evangelism or outreach and confidence in the Word that accomplishes its promises and delivers what it says.

I do not want to win any of these wars.  I just want us to be the Church whose identity, confession, and practice are consistent with the catholic principle of every age and every place.  I want to direct the energy and attention away from the nuances and fringe to the central truth of creed and confession.  I want to welcome the authority of those who supervise doctrine and practice and accept the collegial responsibility I have to brother pastors and other congregations as well as my own parish.  I want an end to the all or nothing, take no prisoner attitudes of some and to acknowledge the higher calling which trumps personal preference.  I want a Lutheranism which knows who we are (not just how things were when we grew up). Maybe you do as well...

It would seem that this passage has a lot to say to us... if we would listen.  If we do not listen, the same judgment and doom that the prophet proclaimed in his own time may be our future, too.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Will those who are saved be many or few?

Sermon Preached for Pentecost 13, Proper 16C, on Sunday, 22 August 2010.

    It is the eternal question that has dogged the Church since the days of the disciples.  Some people have been drawn to the faith out of fear of the answer to this question and others have been driven away from the Church because they could not deal with the answer or the uncertainty.  How many will be saved?  How few?
    When Jesus was asked this question in the Gospel lesson, the world was a small place, people did not travel, schools did not describe the geography of the planet.  Their world was small and this was the hopeful question of a people desiring that more than they could see or imagine might be saved.  Today the world is large, diverse, and well known to us.  Every hidden corner is known to us – for good or ill.  We ask this question almost as a challenge to God, almost a demand, that He save all.  It makes it more difficult for us to hear Jesus’ words today.
    We want to make this an all or none question.  How can we say we believe in a merciful God and some be excluded from everlasting life and light.  Or, how can we say we believe in a just God and he overlook the sin and unbelief in some in order to save them – against their will.  Here on earth we judge on the basis of what we see but only God sees in to the heart.  The question of how many will be saved is hard for us.  But it is not ours to answer.  The question is God's alone.  It is our task not to weasel some answer from Him but to trust in His grace and to be content with His judgement.
    The question is filled with shocking point.  Some who presume salvation will be lost and others we would judge unworthy will enjoy its eternal reward.  Some will start and will fall away.  They will begin their spiritual lives with great enthusiasm and passion but it will grow cold and they will drift away.  They insist they know the Lord but He does not know them.  This is hard for us but we know it and see it around us every day.  People once among the faithful, lose faith with God, turn away, and fill their lives with other pursuits.  They reject the Word and Table of the Lord. But. . . all who will be saved shall be saved through the mercy of God in Christ Jesus.
    The question we need be concerned about is not about how many will be saved but will we be saved.  Notice how Jesus turns the discussion away from the question of how many to the personal question of me and my spiritual life.  For this, Jesus urges us to strive to enter through the narrow gate, that is to keep the focus on His grace.
    Faith is not some deep feeling that exists buried deep inside of you.  Faith is not a belief that God exists but the personal belief of the God who is for you in Christ.  Such faith does not reject the Word and Table of the Lord but yearns for them and seeks them out.  Such faith does not fear God's judgment but delights in it and yields to it.  Such faith does not resent His generous mercy but counts on that generous mercy for the life lived today and the life that is eternal.
    If we would stand on our own merits, then we stand alone.  If we stand on Christ then we stand only on Christ – not a lot of me and a little bit of Christ or a little bit of me and a lot of Christ.  There is no room to for boasting in anything but Christ.  Some will be found in God's earthly house but they are still a stranger to the Lord.  The mystery of this question is surely hidden in the fact that the exterior of a person's life may be one indicator of faith but it does not speak unequivocally.  Who people are on the inside is often very different.  So we get no answer except the call to trust in God’s judgement.
    The point here is not to explain God’s judgment but to admit the limits of our own judgement and of our great need not to question but to trust in God.  We see outside; God sees all.  Some whom we would believe to be first will be last and others whom we believe to be last shall be first.  Such is the working of mercy and grace. Trust the Lord's judgment – that is enough.  Whoever will be saved shall be saved through the merits and mercies of Jesus Christ alone.  What I must focus on is striving to enter by the narrow gate.
    What I cannot know for certainty about others, God wants me to know for certainty about me.  Will I be saved?  This we can know and should know with confidence.  What does Jesus say?  Strive to enter through the narrow gate.  What does this mean? It means we should strive always to live with our lives fully centered in God’s grace, headed toward grace’s goal, without diversion or distraction.
    In other words, keep on believing and trusting.  Endure in faith and do not give up.  Do not give up on God’s grace.  Do not grow weary of well doing.  Do not lose heart.  Do not turn away from the goal of faith.  Do not reject the House of God, the Word of God, and the Sacraments of God.  Our confidence of our salvation flows from our confidence that God does what He says, keeps His promises, and accomplishes all that His Word proclaims.  Stay close to Him by staying close to His Word and Sacraments.
    Do not wear the righteousness of your own works but the righteousness of Christ which was placed upon you as clothing in your baptism.  Wear the robe of Christ's righteousness, live in Him, plead His merits, rejoice in what His grace has accomplished and you will enjoy the assurance of salvation.  That is why being here is important and why being our faithful gathering around the Word and Table of the Lord bears the fruit of confidence in His Word and the assurance that we are His forevermore.  From the House of the Lord we receive His gifts and wear His grace; here we are restored when we fall, uplifted when we are weary, and strengthened when we are weak.
    To strive for the narrow gate means to come regularly to the place where God comes to You in His Word and Table.  Concentrate on living close to the Lord where He may be found and the assurance you seek will be your joy and confidence as long as you live and even to eternal life.  Concentrate on walking with the Lord together with all those who walk in Him.  Faith is no solitary journey but the community of those who share a common life in Christ and walk with Christ toward their common goal of life everlasting.  Concentrate not on what cannot be known and focus instead on what God has revealed in Christ, and you'll be just fine.  No one can be a bold witness when consumed with questions and doubts.  It is from our confidence in God’s Word and our trust in His grace that our lives bubble over with hope for all to see.
    Who will be saved?  That is not your question to answer or mine.  Only God can answer that question.  This we know, any and all who will be saved will be saved through the merits and mercies of Jesus Christ alone.  So leave that question behind and instead focus on the more urgent one.  You, sinner redeemed in Christ, you strive to walk in the narrow path and enter by the narrow gate of grace alone through Christ alone. Here is our confidence and the source of our joy.  By grace, through faith, in Christ Jesus... This is God's yes.  The Holy Spirit teaches us to answer God's yes with our YES of faith.  The result is that our hearts spill over with this YES so that those around us see and hear Christ in us and through us!  For as long as we live this the anchor that hold us sure and the bold proclamation we make before the whole world.  Amen.

How Sad to Find It There

Saturday last we headed up to Guthrie to the Flea Market.  There is something about walking down aisle after aisle of antiques, fleas, and junk in pursuit of something yet to be revealed.  Often it is like a journey down memory lane as we find things from our childhood (dishes that remind us of home, toys we used to have, furniture like grandma's, or things from the early days of our own marriage and life together).  It is a great way to get away by walking along looking, picking, oohing, aahing, grimacing, and laughing.  That it until I spied something that made me ever so sad.

Every year for many years we have given out catechisms and Faith Alive Bibles to those starting in 5th grade (for the Bibles) or 6th grade (for the catechisms).  They receive these books before the congregation as a way of setting them apart in the hearts and minds of the people, visual keys to pray for them and their growth in the faith.  It is a proud moment when parents hand off the catechism to their children -- symbolic of the handing down of the faith from one generation to another (which parents pledged to do when they brought them to baptism).

There in the flea market was a Faith Alive Bible.  Inside was the name of the child and the date.  The book was in mint condition (not a good sign) and the child who had received it had not finished catechism.  The family pulled away from the Church and disappeared.  We met them in part through a visit to an antique mall that long ago was taken away by a tornado.  That is how it began and how this little girl (now a grown woman) received the Bible so many years ago.  And now there was the Bible sitting lonely on a table in a booth at a flea market.

So what was it?  An antique?  Not really.  A flea?  Hope not.  Junk?  Don't even go there.  What it was, what it is, is a broken promise, a lost opportunity, and a sad disappointment.  Sure, there are other kids and parents who drop out along the way but I never had to stare at the remains of this loss like I did that day, looking at the Faith Alive Bible from Grace Lutheran Church sitting there like, well, junk or excess baggage to be discarded.

Statistics tell us that many children are lost to the Lutheran Church from the font to the catechism and many more following Confirmation.  I know that.  It still makes me sad.  I am filled with the disappointment of so many who could have, would have, should have persevered but did not.  I feel a personal failure toward them as would any shepherd who has lost a lamb.  I think about them often -- sometimes while looking around the room at the catechumens I am teaching now.  I hope that others share this sadness.  I especially hope the parents share this sadness and disappointment.  What a loss.... for them as well as for the Church... for them as well as for the Lord.  It is my prayer that God will open a door in the future to rekindle their faith and teach them what His grace has purchased and won on Calvary.  It is also my prayer that this does not happen very often and that we as Pastor and congregation work to make sure, within the boundaries of our human frailty, it does not happen often.  For there is nothing sadder to see than a Bible given in hope and filled with promise, now for sale at a flea market, along with chipped dishes, worn tools, marred furniture, out of date cookbooks, pet carriers of all sizes, and forgotten toys in good shape and bad... How very sad...

Today, 30 Years Ago, This Pastor Was Installed In His First Parish

The pews were packed. Some 24 Pastors came to the installation.  A couple had to be there (the Bishop and the Circuit Counselor).  The rest told me they came to see what kind of fool it was who accepted the call to that congregation.  It was not like I had a choice -- the Church placed me there upon graduation from Seminary.  So the congregation had gone through some stuff.  It had a bit of a reputation.  But I did not know that.  Good thing, too.  Because I ended up staying there almost 13 years and found that leaving that place was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make in my life.  I have seldom been back but there is not a day that goes by that part of my heart is not back there in Cairo, New York, at Resurrection Lutheran Church.

We arrived in a blur, found the rectory by the moving van out front and the guys moving our stuff into this house (it was the age before email, mapquest, etc.).  The church building was not in the greatest shape.  The Pastor's Office had not been painted in many years and was a sort of band-aid pinkish color.  My wife and I found an original paint can circa 1963, stirred it up, and repainted the walls to cover up the dings.  Not great but, hey, it was better than we found it.  I guess 1963 was a good year for paint.

It was ever so hot that day we painted.  I was wearing shorts and a tee and was a mess of paint and sweat.  There was a huge desk in that office that took up 2/3 the space of the room.  We had it against the door to get to the walls behind it when there was a knock at the door.  By the time I got the desk moved and went out to the hall, I found an older woman dressed in hat, gloves, and she was growing impatient.  "I came to meet the new Pastor," she said.  I sheepishly admitted that I was he.  She did not say a word and turned and left.  As far as I know, she never came back.  I never did learn her name.  She was not interested in mine.  And so it began.

On good old St. Bart's day, the authority of the Word and Sacraments for that place was conferred upon an especially unworthy candidate.  Many of the people who were there to welcome us are now gone from this earth and have joined the heavenly congregation.  They wait for us there among the great cloud of witnesses whom God has appointed, the heavenly cheering squad just what a foolish and brash young Pastor needed to help season him for the work of the ministry.  I miss them.  Their names are written in the book of life but they are also written in my heart.  I realize now how blessed I was to know them and to serve them.  And I feel the very same way about this group of sheep whom I have been called to shepherd in Clarksville, Tennessee.  Their names are also written in the book of life but they are likewise written in my heart.

At this point in time I choose to remember the beginnings, auspicious or humble, more than to think upon endings.  Each week after the absolution, I say in blessing upon the absolved:  May He who began this good work within you bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is my prayer today as I look back on this one beginning.  May He bring me and all that I do in His name to completion.  A God of humble beginnings who works mighty things if only we let Him.  So today I will remember and give thanks for the chance to begin and for the God whose grace of forgiveness gives us many beginnings throughout our lives.  Soli Deo Gloria!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Begining and Ending with the Name of God...

Next week is our last session on the Bible in the Liturgy.  This Sunday morning study began with the name of God that we invoke, as He bids us, when the preparation for the Divine Service starts.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen 

The name of God once marked on us in baptism is raised up again as the baptized community of God's people come together at His bidding.  It is not a complete sentence but an invocation of that name.  We not only speak the name that God has given us through His Son to name Him and call upon His mercy.  We remind ourselves when that name was put upon us and the waters of baptism killed us to give us new life, connected us to the death and resurrection of Jesus, made new what was old, and clothed in righteousness what was sin...

When finally we come to the end of the Divine Service, we again come face to face with the Name of God.  This time the name is not from Matthew 28 but from Numbers 6. 

The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance (look upon you with favor) and give you peace.

According to the Scriptures, "So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them..."  Some might protest that we are not Israel but, of course, we are.  We are the NEW Israel, the people of the new covenant forged with the blood of Christ, who satisfied the requirements of the Mosaic Covenant and fulfilled all its righteousness, once for all.  By ending with this benediction we show the line which connects us to the gracious acts and Word of God in yesterday.  And still, He puts His name upon His people and blesses them.

Just as the invocation is often misunderstood, so the benediction is.  When we invoke God as He invites us to do, we are not being arrogant but doing what He has called us to do.  It is this name in which we gather, in which two or three are gathered, which communicates us grace because this blessed name opens to us His Word and Sacraments.  It is no magic formula but the people of God whom He has called by His Name now coming together under the banner of that Name to receive what that name offers to us --  grace upon grace in the Word that keeps it promise and the Sacraments that deliver to us Calvary's triumph, the empty tomb's hope, and the future life that death cannot transcend.

The blessing that ends the Divine Service is not some good word that pats us on the back and sends us forth expecting good things.  It does not make us sacred the way some think of blessing.  No, we end with the Name of God put upon us so that we, whom He declares to be the people of His Name, might wear that Name before the world, carry that Name with us through every struggle and sorrow of this mortal life, and be found faithful in that Name when mortal death opens as a gateway to the everlasting light and life which Jesus has prepared for us.

It is a wonderful thing to consider how that Name both begins and ends our time together, how it cleanses us to receive His gifts and then sends us with those gifts to witness them before those who do not yet know the Name above all names...  Framed with the Name of God, we gather, we are washed and cleansed, taught and directed, fed and nourished, equipped and sent...

I Will Accept No Bull from Your House...

Yesterday as the cantor intoned the Psalm, I listened to the familiar words waiting for this classic line with its double entendre.  Of course, the Lord is insisting that He will not accept the sacrifice of a male ox from the house of a people who have not kept faith with Him.  God cannot make fault with their sacrificial offering -- except for the fact that they have given to Him only what is already His.  What He seeks from them is eucharistia -- the sacrifice  of thanksgiving -- and faith which calls on Him in trouble and trusts Him to deliver them. (Psalm 50:1-15)

The other side of this expression is, well, you know its meaning.  I know what the Lord is saying here yet I also know the truth of its more vulgar side as well.  What Christians in America bring to the Lord is a load of bull -- there is no mistake here.  We come with our self-centeredness to make worship all about us.  I bet you think this song is about you but, of course, we do.  Too many of the songs we sing in worship are more about us than about the Lord.  I do not understand the patience and forbearance of the Lord who does not respond in kind to us for our unabashed self-centered ways.

We come with our arrogance as if God were merely a servant whose job is to come at our beck and call and make us comfortable, happy, at ease, and supply the good things we think are necessary for us to live full and complete lives.  We turn prayer into a shopping list and worship into a means of buttering up the Lord so that He can and will deliver to us the demands we bring to Him. I do not understand how the Lord can listen to our words and hear the thoughts of our hearts and still love us.

We come with our reason as a filter through which His Word enters our hearts and minds, putting off the things we find distasteful, disregarding the things we find unbelievable, and distancing ourselves from the things that we find offensive to our way of life.  We might believe in a God who comes in a human form but we cannot believe in a God who made all things in six days.  We might believe in a God whose mercy finally relents and allows everyone to be saved but we cannot believe in a God who is exclusive in Christ with His inclusive gift of salvation.  I do not understand how the Lord, whose ways are far above ours, can stomach the boundaries on faith which our reason places around us.

We come with our piety on parade as if God were impressed with what we have done.  I am not speaking of the genuine piety of faith but the piety which holds everyone else up to a perfect righteousness while excusing or justifying our own failings.  Our righteousness does not exceed the Pharisee but that has not kept us from believing that our righteousness makes us at least as good as others and certainly better than most.  I do not understand how the Lord allows us to trumpet our goodness, the goodness of mother earth, and the goodness of the human soul while ignoring His goodness and the goodness of His gifts to us.

But then the Lord acts not in the way of justice but the way of mercy.  I do not understand this either, yet it is my hope, my joy, and my salvation that He has not counted my sins against me, or stopped loving me because of who I am, or turned His back to me because of my arrogance.  It is the surprise of grace.  God accepts no bull from us but neither does he turn away from us because what speaks most loudly are our sins and sinful nature.  The Lord is not duplicitous nor is He a fool.  He is patient.  He is kind.  He is compassionate.  He is merciful.  He is gracious.  We do not understand all of this but it does not keep us from rejoicing in His gifts, returning to Him the song of praise and thanksgiving, and calling upon Him in the day of trouble.  We would do well not to presume that His patience or mercy implies He is ignorant, foolish, or uninformed.  It is that for now, in the day of salvation, His mercy speaks more loudly than anything else.  And it is to this faith responds, by the power of the Spirit, with the Amen to our confession of sin, Amen to His gracious forgiveness, and Amen to the grace in which we stand.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

How Would We Know

According to the news, Americans are more and more convinced that President Obama is Muslim.  According to Islam, he is.  He had a Muslim father and it matters not if he renounced the faith, he is Muslim -- maybe a bad Muslim but a Muslim.  There is something here in common with Judaism and its mix of active faith and genealogy in determining religious identity.  Nevertheless, in the interest of accuracy, I must remind folks that the President has firmly and steadfastly affirmed that he is a Christian.  Some of us might have qualms about the identification of a former member of a United Church of Christ congregation now afloat without a church harbor as Christian but that is a matter for another post.  The point is that the people making this mistake are looking for cues in the language and habits of the President to define his religious identity and they find few cues to point them in any real direction.

He says that he has chosen not to join a local congregation because of the interruption and interference a President in the parish might cause.  Well, we can understand that.  Reagan did not attend a congregation much in the eight years he was in Washington but his membership remained active in his home congregation in California.  Yet Reagan emoted a religious sense to his person and identity that Obama does not.  Why?  Perhaps it is due to the family values and social conservatism of Reagan.  That could be, but I think it is more.

The Obamas have two children.  Every religion and especially Christianity speak clearly of the role of parents as faith models who raise their children in the faith and in the Church.  If there is one significant difference between Reagan and Obama it is that Reagan had no children at home.  We tend to judge faith matters in part by the way parents attend to their spiritual duty of raising their children in the faith.  While it might be enough for Obama to pray privately and focus on his emailed devotions, is it enough for this to communicate and nurture the Christian faith in his daughters?  I wonder if this is not part of the problem of the public's confusion over his religion.

Certainly no one would say that all there is to religion and faith is going to Church on Sunday morning but this remains a strong indicator of what is going on in the heart.  The heart of faith yearns for and is strengthened by the community in which that individual faith was born, is nurtured, is given direction, is challenged and held accountable, and is fed.  We all understand that there are self-proclaimed Christians out there who eschew the Church or the communal nature of the faith.  But what an adult might choose for himself or herself is a very different thing than what a parent chooses for the child (children) they are raising.

This is one of the things that every Pastor of a congregation struggles to remind folks... the people who made promises to raise their children in the faith when they carried them to baptism and the people who know some of the Bible stories because of their own experience and yet who fail to see the need to teach them to their children.  I must admit that in my personal experience of more than 30 years as a Pastor I have found only a very few parents who did this instruction with their children at home.  Now, maybe I am just plain wrong about the Obamas and about those who choose to remain home on Sunday morning, but I don't see or hear much to challenge the notion that private religion leaves out the children.

And that is the problem with a private faith.  It might appear to be quite enough for the adult who reads and prays and gets devotions on his Blackberry but it is not enough if it does not impart the knowledge of God and His Word to his or her children.  It is not enough to pass on to those children a solitary faith that not only leaves them vulnerable but without a suitable faith support system in which to judge, challenge, and discern what is legitimately of the faith or not.

So I am not sympathetic to the Obamas in the confusion Americans have with his religion.  They do not have to prove anything to me.  I am not their Pastor.  But parenting is not a private relationship or role; it is very public.  Teaching values and imparting the faith from which these values come is one of the central roles and functions of parents.  So, I challenge the idea that you can do this well enough on your own without the agencies and assistance of the Church and other Christians.  I challenge it for the Obamas and for all those others out there (including Lutheran) who have stayed away from the Church for whatever reason with the end result that it weakens their children's faith and life.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Power of Well Written Words

On Sunday November 27, 2011, the world will change for Roman Catholics who worship in English.  On that day a new translation of the missal replaces the updated but version from the first English translation of the 1970s -- one that failed to capture both the meaning and the elegance of the words in their Latin original.  It will be a sea change for some, a welcome relief to others, and a shift from the rather stark, plain, and somewhat casual form of language we inherited from the tumultuous period of culture and learning in the 1970s.  It will take some time to see what the consequences of these changes are.

Let me illustrate what I mean (the first three are borrowed from Ft. Z at What Does The Prayer Really Say?).

Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis,
da populis tuis id amare quod praecipis,
id desiderare quod promittis,
ut, inter mundanas varietates,
ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia

Current Translation Used:
help us to seek the values
that will bring us lasting joy
   in this changing world.
In our desire for what you promise
make us one in mind and heart

Literal Translation:
O God, You who make the minds of the faithful to be of one will,
grant unto Your people to love that thing which You command,
to desire that which You promise,
so that, amidst the vicissitudes of this world,
our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are
Now, since most readers are Lutheran, let me put the collects from LSB and ELW in place to compare how language is treated.

O God, form the minds of your faithful people into your one will.  
Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, 
that, amid all the changes of this world, 
our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, 
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and forever.

O God, 
You make the minds of Your faithful to be of one will. 
Grant that we may love what You have commanded and desire what You promise, 
that among the many changes of this world 
our hearts may be fixed where true joys are found; 
through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, 
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and forever.

Lutherans went through the same troubled time and first proposed this version of the collect in the ILCW Lectionary way back in 1973:

O God,
form the minds of your faithful people into a single will.
Make us love what you command and 
desire the gifts that you promise,
the source of true joy;
through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. 

And in the interest of accuracy, the first English version of this prayer (1549) says:

Almightie God, 
whiche doest make the myndes of all faythfull men to be of one wil; 
graunt unto thy people, that they maye love the thyng, whiche thou commaundest, 
and desyre, that whiche thou doest promes [promise]; 
that emong the sondery [sundry] and manifold chaunges of the worlde, 
oure heartes maye surely there bee fixed, 
whereas true joyes are to be founde; 
through Christe our Lorde. 

Now my point is this -- language either communicates by lifting the words to their noble purpose or it descends to the barest form, the minimum of communication, that the plainest form of expression say what is said.  In preaching we need a bit of both -- eloquence that calls the heart and mind to ascend and plain expression that allows the hearer to know and take home the application of the Word to daily life through the lens of Law and Gospel.  But in the liturgy, the language must ascend, capturing the eloquence of our noblest expression while at the same time communicating to us the heavenly gift and grace that God has brought to us in the ordinary of human words, rushing water, simple bread, and taste of wine.

Today I do not want to argue so much or to foment discussion as to allow you to read through the various versions of the collect and see which both communicates well and nobly the prayer of this day.  I am personally thankful that the eloquent language of the collects was preserved with the desire to make them current and modern -- in a timeless way -- in Lutheran Service Book.  You pray them and think upon them, pondering the gift and power of language and how God would have us use His gift best...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Staying Ahead of the Competition

I was reading about a birthday.  It seems that Internet Explorer, the erstwhile browser from Microsoft was 15 years old on Monday (Aug. 16).  Since I use Firefox and I have been bombarded by ads about Chrome from Google, this birthday was not about birthday cakes and balloons.  Microsoft was top of the heap at one point but now it is competing against others and it is costing Microsoft money and time to stay neck and neck with their competition.  They say that IE 9 will be released sometime soon but, if you are like me, once you leave Microsoft, you seldom go back. It is hard to stay ahead of the competition.  Microsoft spends as much time evaluating their competitors as they do working on bug fixes, upgrades, and innovations for their own browser.  And some wonder if it is worth it all -- remember AOL and its once dominant force to plug you into the web?

The same problems are faced by those churches who compete with other churches, with secular entertainment, with the current techno craze, and the notoriously cantankerous prevailing moods of Americans.  You spend half your time evaluating the competition as you do working on your own stuff.  In fact, sometimes it seems like just when you thought you had arrived you find out somebody else is having better results doing something different.

In our local movie theaters (which I do not visit with great regularity) some churches advertise to the captive people waiting for their favorite flick to begin.  They all seem to say the same thing.  We are hip.  We are with it.  We are kewl.  We are where its at.  We are phat.  We are sweeeeet.  (Drat, I don't even know how to say cool anymore... that is the problem with change and keeping up with it all.)  Inevitably their buildings are warehouse style structures -- very modern, very stark, with only video screens and speakers as the obligatory ornaments.  Their Pastors are smooooooth and look good in a suit (or polo and khakis or jeans and a tee).  The musicians always seem to have a couple day's growth of beard (except the females who are so very fine).  Hands are raised, people are dancin, and it seems like everyone is really havin a goooood time.  They have happening names like Exit One Church or Faith Outreach or Cornerstone Church, etc.  They have stages and light boards and magnificent sound systems and the most current mics that barely show that they are hanging off the ear.

I get some email journals on church growth techniques and the like and they tell me where you can get the latest worship slides for your screen or worship software to control the images AND PowerPoint the sermon AND project the words to the songs.  The thing is that this stuff costs more per year than we spend on everything related to worship (including a cantor's compensation and choir music).  Plus I would have to read up on all of this and become intimately acquainted with the tech geeks in order to get it all up and running and then be able to use all the capacity I purchased for Sunday morning.

People like it though... the commercials don't pan the congregations but they sure looked full while I waited for the latest Transformer movies to cue up.  People like what is current and what is in -- you can get them in one Sunday but as soon as you fall behind the curve on what is new or cutting edge... they will ditch you for some other place that is less behind... Statistics tell us some of this is why these churches seem to thrive -- not so much converting many new folks and moving the same folks around and around again.

The sad truth is that the only reality we need to stay ahead of is sin and death.  And we stay ahead of this reality by proclaiming an age old message (well, at least 2K old).  We proclaim a Gospel several millenia old using worship forms that are almost that old and this is where God as (just as He has promised to be).  Which would you rather compete against?  The techo toys of the moment and the entertainment fads of the day or proclaiming to sinners where forgiveness is to be found and telling the dead where life is available and telling the lost where home is... by preaching Jesus Christ?

I like technology.  I don't like being on top of it all.  I seem to recall an old TV commercial in which a man went to great lengths to insure that the computer he bought at the store was the most current model and most current technology available.  On the way home with the top down on the convertible and a big smile on his face he looks up and a sign painter is putting a few words on the billboard advertising the computer he purchased.  The words were "Now New and Improved."  And the smile faded from the man's face because he knew that what he had in the back seat and what he had never opened yet was already out of date.

The Church cannot afford the financial cost of staying ahead nor can the Church afford the cost to the mission of Christ and being faithful to our Lord when we substitute trend for the Gospel, what is in at the moment for what Christ did once for all time, and what people want now for what they need for eternity.

Even Microsoft is finding the cost of staying ahead a big pill to swallow.... As my old friend used to describe it, how can St. John's by the Gas Pump do for the faith what Microsoft can barely afford to do with internet browsers?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What Happens When Lutherans Cease to Be Lutheran

Although it was a personal decision it does have far reaching consequences.  Dr. Michael Root, a lay theologian teaching at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC, has been received into the Roman Catholic Church.  This was an evolutionary choice for Dr. Root but outlines well what happens when Lutherans cease to be Lutheran in identity and practice -- they start looking around for other denominations which offer what the Lutherans lack.  In this case, part of it may have been a church body which stood for something.  While the situation in Missouri is not the same as the ELCA, we also run the same risk of loosing folks who grow weary of a church body no longer confident of its confession and identity.

The Seminary website lists the following bio for Dr. Root:

Professor of Systematic Theology at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC.  He served as Dean from 2003-2009, after having earlier served on the faculty from 1980 to 1988. He is also Visiting Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, where he served as Research Professor and sometimes Director from 1988 to 1998. 

He also has taught at Davidson College in Davidson, NC and Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH.   Since January 2006, he has been Executive Director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.
Root is a native of Norfolk, Virginia.  After attending public schools in Chesapeake, Virginia, he studied at Dartmouth College (B.A., summa cum laude), and Yale University (Ph.D. in theology).  He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Wittenberg University (Springfield, OH) in 2002 in recognition of his contribution to the unity of the church.  

Root is a member of the US  and international Lutheran-Catholic dialogues and has served on the US Lutheran-United Methodist dialogue, the Anglican-Lutheran International Working Group, and the Angican-Lutheran International Commission.  He was the Faith and Order Commission Observer for the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.  He served as coopted staff at the 1990, 1997, and 2003 Assemblies of the Lutheran World Federation and the 1993 World Conference on Faith and Order and was a consultant at the 1998 Lambeth Conference.  

He served on the drafting teams that produced the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and Called to Common Mission, which established full communion between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church.  He is the author (with Gabriel Fackre) of Affirmations and Admonitions (Eerdmans 1998) and editor of Justification by Faith (with Karl Lehmann and William Rusch, Continuum 1997), Baptism and the Unity of the Church (with Risto Saarinen, Eerdmans 1998), and Sharper than a Two-Edged Sword: Preaching, Teaching, and Living the Bible (with James Buckley, Eerdmans, 2008).

What is significant is that Dr. Root was a voice against the devolution of the ELCA from confessional Lutheran identity and practice and was a strong figure in the fight for those within the ELCA against the actions of the CWA in August 2009.  His departure surely weakens the position of those who believe that you can stay in the ELCA and make a difference.

There have been those in Missouri who left for Rome or Constantinople because they became convinced that Missouri was not serious about being the Church her Confessions claim her to be.  There is no one reason or argument for those who have left but the common conviction of those leaving was that Lutheranism no longer offered a viable choice.

While I would disagree with that conclusion, I am not insensitive to the issues and struggles within Lutherans to remain true to the documents which confess who they are, what they believe, and how they practice that faith in their liturgical life.  My point is this, what good is a Lutheranism detached from her confessional statements, a Lutheranism which no longer has confidence in her answers, or a Lutheranism no longer assured that God comes to us in Word and Sacrament to accomplish His saving will and purpose?  

The battle in Missouri is one that detaches style and substance from each other to allow us to believe like Lutherans while worshiping like evangelicals, evangelizing like fundamentalists, and practicing our piety like the local contemporary Christian radio station.  The battle in the ELCA is the same -- but the parameters are different.  The ELCA believes that you can worship faithfully in the form of the Mass with its attendant ceremonies and even have Bishops but that you don't have to believe the things these imply.  So you commune with folks who believe in the real absence of Jesus and you adopt as mission the cutting edge social justice movement of the day.

What happens when Lutherans cease to be Lutheran in faith and practice?  They start shopping for another version of Christianity that lacks the thing that attracts them most.  So some head to Rome for authority and liturgical tradition (though sloppily and lazily practiced in the local parish) and some head to Constantinople for antiquity (though somewhat isolated and ethnically frozen) and others head to the mainstream of Protestantism or the pulsing heart of evangelicalism in search of social justice or relevance.  And this is what has been happening.
We cannot afford not be the Lutherans our Confessions claim we are (in practice as well as belief).  The emptiness that is left is unsatisfactory to those on every side and will eventually die -- either by attrition in which the last left simply turn out the lights when they pass on or by becoming an empty shell that has an exterior but no heart or mind or soul or by exchanging Lutheran identity for whatever seems to be the prevailing (and therefore successful) theological fad of the moment.

Is there another choice?  Well, yes, we could try being the Lutherans we are.  I am not suggesting that we repristinate a specific era or epoch of Lutheranism (though Lutheran Orthodoxy appeals to me) but taking our theological identity, heritage, and conviction and living it out within the present moment.  That means for Missouri we must get over the idea that theology began and ended with the 100 years between 1847 and 1947 and for the ELCA it means getting over the idea that this is just history and nothing more.  We Lutherans ought to be vibrant, strong, and liturgical -- with our passion for the early church fathers, our commitment to catholic faith and practice, our penchant for reform and renewal, and out history of educating our people through catechesis and Bible study.  Couple that with the great history of Lutheran compassionate ministry and it would seem that we would be a powerhouse... if we wanted to be... the Lutherans we say we are...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Changing Demands upon the Church by a Mobile World

As a child I hardly ever went to another congregation besides my own.  It was simply not done.  First of all my parents believed that being in Church on Sunday morning was a moral if not legal obligation.  My brother and I knew that unless they found a cold, dead body in our beds on Sunday morning, we would be in Church that day.  Second because the culture of my small town dictated that except for family events like weddings, funerals, or confirmations, you went to your OWN Church on Sunday morning.  Period.  Third, mixed marriages in my home town were marriages between people of differing Christian traditions.  They were frowned upon and one party always converted (yes that was the word) so that both shared the same church home.  Fourth, most of my family literally lived within an hour's drive of my house and people did not do a lot of moving around (still true for the most part in the little NE Nebraska community in which I grew up).

My own journey in life is the antithesis of this.  I went to college 450 miles away and then college and seminary 750 miles from home.  I married a girl from a few miles further away than this.  We lived on Long Island, NY, Upstate NY, and now TN.  My children, unlike me, have never lived near their extended family.  I have worshiped in a host of congregations in which I was not a member -- in many of them I regularly worshiped.  My children's Godparents do not and have not ever lived near them.  I am Godparent to children (now grown) who live far away from where I live.  It is a different world.

Close(d) communion was not a big issue in Wausa, NE.  You went to the Church you belonged to, that was where you communed, and that was that.  Besides, you had to announce a week ahead and for much of the time growing up Holy Communion was either quarterly or monthly (not a good practice but it was the reality).  It is a big issue for the Missouri Synod today.  It is big because, in part, our people travel.  Every Sunday we have Lutheran visitors passing through or here to see family.  We have one of the larger military installations in America down the road and some 30,000 service men and women and their dependents are located here but from all across the nation (and even the world).  They visit, some join, and some do not.  They are here from anywhere from 1 year to 10+ years and sometimes support personnel come to Ft. Campbell and worship at Grace for as long as they are here.  And we have a weekly Eucharist so it is an every Sunday question for me to deal with.

Sunday school was not a big issue in Wausa, NE.  Everyone went -- whether your parents went to Church or even belonged to a congregation.  It was in the culture and the blood.  Sunday school was like Friday night football games on the prairie -- it just was.  Many of the children in my congregation and the child of those regular visitors are not regular in Sunday school.  They did not grow up with the habit of worship and Sunday school, sometimes worshiped in places where there was none, and are not familiar with the great Bible stories that Sunday school communicates.  Even among those who are more regular and rooted, divorce and split custody, Sunday sports teams, family travel and leisure, and a host of other interferences mean that they are not as regular in Sunday school as I was.

Catechism was not a big issue in Wausa, NE.  Every Saturday morning from 9-11 am for two years you knew where you would be when you attained that certain age.  On Palm Sunday Jesus was an afterthought and the center of it all was the Confirmation.  Don't forget the examination -- in public, the whole catechism was game for questions and you were in the hot seat for the answers.  My family rented the downstairs of the community auditorium for my confirmation party -- it was huge.  It helped that my cousin was confirmed on that same day 12 miles away in another LCMS congregation.  But catechism is not so big here.  We confirm on Reformation Sunday because it is not so big either and together it makes for a big October splash.  But getting the youth to class, fighting with sports, music, dance, divorce, military moves, and distracted parents is a hair pulling endeavor.

The liturgy was not a big issue in Wausa, NE.  In the country we used TLH 1941 and in town SBH 1958 but the same words were in both books.  We followed the rules.  Read the black.  Do the red.  It was the same everywhere I went.  Lutherans did the liturgy from the book, by the book, pretty much with the same ceremonial every where.  Here the liturgy is a big issue.  We have new people moving in from congregations that long ago abandoned the book, turned the service into an electronic extravaganza of entertainment, or did something different every week (no tradition at all).  So when they come here with pipe organ, hymnal, sung liturgy, weekly Eucharist and full ceremonial -- well, it is like teaching people who they are (or at least supposed to be).  Nearly all of them stay but it is for many an introduction to a Lutheranism they did not know before (but was always there).

I could go on...   So, President Kieschnick was right.  It is not your grandfather's world.  But the Church is still your grandfather's as well as yours.  It is the place where past, present, and future come together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  It is where the preaching applies in modern language the timeless message of Law and Gospel to bring about the same effect -- faith, faithful living, and faithful serving.  The demands upon the Church have changed -- radically -- but it does no good to try and keep up with all these changes.  What people need and what people still largely want, is a rich and gracious diet of God's Word passionately proclaimed, with Law and Gospel rightly divided, AND the Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and the Altar to deliver to them the sufficient grace that forgives them, restores them, renews them, equips them, sends them, comforts them, heals them, and transforms them....  And that is what the Church is here to give them... for the sake of Christ... for the life of the world....