Sunday, October 31, 2010

If We Would Claim the Reformation

If we would claim the Reformation as our own, then let us stand with the Reformers of old for the Church, renewed by the pure medicine of the Gospel, that no labor of our own or claim of right be allowed to stand among us...

If we would claim the Reformation as our own, then let us confess anew the old Confessions which encapsulate this Gospel against errors and hold in trust the true and genuine faith of the Scriptures therein so that all churches may learn to speak this common, catholic, and evangelical truth...

If we would claim the Reformation as our own, then let us refuse in our own age all temptation to novelty and innovation that would discard the Mass washed clean by the Gospel so we might replace it with something more fitting to us but less faithful to Christ and end up with a confession that has no practice, an intellectual truth that has no pattern of praise...

If we would claim the Reformation as our own, then let us refuse the tinkering with the Pastoral Office that would delegate its essential responsibilities to others or disburse its duties of Word and Sacrament to another by some other means than ordination...

If we would claim the Reformation, then let us sing the hymns, chants, and songs that flow from the Gospel and give voice to the story of Christ and lay claim to all that He has won for us and our salvation and let us leave behind the discardable music of a moment whose subject is more me than Thee...

If we would claim the Reformation, then let us not simply wear the Luther rose as jewelry but as a banner of faithfulness to one among many whom God raised up to lead His Church to dust off what had lain as forgotten treasure in the attic of His Church and pray that every age and generation have those whom He shall raise to lift high the Cross...

If we would claim the Reformation, then let us not meet as Christians to patch over what divided and still divides us but to wrestle with Scripture and the catholic tradition and make sure that if we find agreement it is the strong and study consensus that flows from the Word of God and honors the Gospel...

If we would claim the Reformation, then let us not merely teach the Catechism to the young as if it were rite of passage but let us each and every one mine its faithful words as the rich and fruitful ore that builds up the Church in Christ and all of us as Christians until we find the strength and security to reach beyond us with its message of forgiveness, life, and salvation...

If we would claim the Reformation, then let us not choose between pure doctrine and passionate witness or forget the compassionate mercy we are also called to reveal to the nations but embrace the faithful confession, the vigorous proclamation, and the charitable acts that mark this Church and her people as truly Christian...

If we would claim the Reformation, then let us not beat our proud Lutheran chests but kneel in humble confession of our sins, repent of our fallen ways, desire the grace that alone forgives and restores, and earnestly pray by the power and aid of the Spirit that we may not fall again...

If we would claim the Reformation, then let us not wear it as a costume but let its Confessions and faithful practice mark and shape our identity or we have no right to call ourselves heirs or to claim the legacy as our own heritage...

With the name Reformation and with its legacy come responsibility that we dare not forsake simply because the times are different, the positions unpopular, and the choices available to Christians manifold; either this Reformation is a grand work of God to bring needful renewal to His Church by the restoration of the light of Christ and the fullness of His Gospel, or it is the most shameful history and schism of all... If we believe the first, then let us not act like the latter...

Saturday, October 30, 2010

General Absolution vs Private Absolution

There has long been a conflict going on within Lutheranism regarding the very common general confession and general absolution (as opposed to the simple declaration of grace) and the private confession and absolution so lauded but seldom used.  I understand the concerns and they are easy to describe.  On one hand you have a general setting with people all over the map, so to speak, with respect to their conscience, their confession, and their contrition.  Yet we lump all of them together and seem to say without distinguishing, "I forgive you all."  Some have attempted to shade this a bit by either the use of the declaration of grace which informs the sinner of God's disposition to those who believe on His name and have made contrite confession.  Others have longed for the older and less commonly used caveat at the end of the general absolution.  This reminds the impenitent that their sins are not forgiven and that they remain unforgiven until they repent of their sins.

We could spend a few hours of cyber time tracing the history of the general absolution, when the conditional absolution dropped out, and the usage of the general absolution as opposed to the declaration of grace (in my own personal experience the declaration was more often used on "non-communion" Sundays or the majority of the time and the general absolution was used when the Divine Service was used -- quarterly, then monthly where I grew up).  But I am not going to spend time with that here or now.  Instead I want to focus on the pastoral dimensions of the use of the general absolution.

There are those who are (rightfully) concerned that those who come without repentance are given the impression in the general absolution ("As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit") they are, well, off the hook.  They do not need to search their hearts to see if they are penitent, the general absolution releases them from all the consequences of their sin -- contrite or not.  It is not that I do not believe this happens.  I do believe that there are those every Sunday who walk away thinking that forgiveness is a relatively easy transaction.  You show up and God forgives you and you can walk out to return to your ways of sin -- guilt free.  BUT I believe that these are very few indeed.  And I do not believe that they would leave feeling any differently simply because a conditional absolution were pronounced or only a declaration of grace spoken.

This is a problem and an issue which requires more than tinkering with the absolution formula in order to repair.  The preaching of the Law and the Pastor's counsel to the individual sinner are perhaps the better place to address these things.  What concerns me more is the idea that the absolution voiced by the Pastor is nothing more than nice words.  I have found more often that people find it hard to believe that the general absolution actually does what it says -- that forgiveness is applied with heavenly consequence as well as earthly one.  This is one reason why I believe it is important for the Lutheran Pastor to be heard saying in unmistakable terms, "I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit."

What I hear from the folks in the pews is that they long for and wait all week to hear these words and then work to believe what these words have said is done as they said.  I find that persistent guilt is more of a problem than people regularly in Church but impenitent over their sins.  I believe that we live in a culture of guilt that we think slides off of us like grease off of teflon but, in truth, sticks like glue to our souls.  We are beaten up by the media telling us that we are fat and ugly and stupid and lazy and helpless... We compare ourselves to size 2 models on the runway or six pack abs, to those in the teens or twenties (our youth oriented culture), and to the exorbitant successes of the few rich and famous.  We are depressed in part because we cannot measure up.  We may not frame this in terms of sin or forgiveness but we carry around a load of guilt and failure.  So it is important that the people in the pew hear that absolution to identify the Church as the place where forgiveness is offered even as it is important that they hear these words as their absolution.

I tend to think that the Church as the place where forgiveness is offered is not high on the scale of things that people associate with the Church.  Perhaps because of the failings of some and the false characterizations of the media, the Church is more often seen as a judgmental place where guilt is heaped on rather than the place where guilt is removed through an absolution powerful enough to do what it says.  I may be wrong.  I so often am.  But I think the general absolution is striking and goes to the heart and core of what the Church was established to be.  I have noticed that when people come (from outside a sacramental tradition) what sticks in their minds are those shocking words of absolution.  They are struck by them because they have not experienced Church as the community of the forgiven or thought about absolution as the sacramental Word that bestows what it promises.  If for this reason alone, I think it is important that we not discard this general absolution but keep it as powerful witness and testimony to what the Church is as well as the Word that does what it promises and bestows the forgiveness of sins.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Not a Family Chaplain

A number of years ago, an extended family was having a multitude of troubles.  Everytime trouble knocked at their door, somebody from the family called up Pastor.  It was a plea for Pastor to fix it, to guide them to fix it, or to listen as they unburdened themselves of the problems associated with it.  So I got the call.  And, to be honest, I was flattered that I was so needed.  It did not take long for word to spread about my involvement with this family and the multitude of problems they were facing.  I thought I was making a real difference.  I thought I was solving their problems for them and helping them out of the holes they had dug themselves into.

In the midst of my feelings of importance and accomplishment, a member thought it was time to remind me that I was not called to that congregation to be a family counselor to one family but to be the Pastor of the whole congregation.  At first I was offended by the thought that I was not doing my job, fulfilling my vocation faithfully... Why, who do they think they are questioning what I was doing and why I was doing it???

Then I realized that they were right.  For a while I had begun  feeling that what I was doing as Pastor through the ministry of Word and Sacrament was not enough or not fruitful enough.  I began to realize that I had sought out the position of family therapist because it was there I thought I was making more of a difference for the kingdom of God than by the work of preaching and teaching His Word and administering His sacraments.  I was so wrong for all the right reasons...

I believe that many Pastors find themselves in much the same position I was in -- we come to discount or diminish the value of the work we do as preachers, teachers, and presiders and to emphasize the work we do as counselors.  For me it became easy to think that if I was helping a couple to salvage their failed marriage or help a family repair their screwed up relationships, I was being more fruitful that if I were teaching and preaching God's Word, baptizing, hearing confessions, and presiding at the Table of the Lord.

The hard truth for us is that we want to be liked, we want to make a difference, we want to be respected, we want people to see the value of what we do as Pastors, and so we gravitate toward those areas of our service which show us the bigger fruits (mistakenly believing that bigger fruits are better fruits).

Now, don't get me wrong.  I am not advocating that Pastors stick to pulpits and altars in the chancel or podiums in the classroom.  We can and must be counselors in our work as Pastors.  But we dare not confusing the counsel which comes from applying the Word of God to the issues at hand with the therapist's work of probing feelings and turning over the moss covered stones of our lives.  Speaking the whole counsel of God's Word, teaching that full truth, and applying that Gospel truth to the people in whatever place they find themselves is not therapeutic but it is being faithful to Jesus and doing the work of His kingdom.

We as Pastors sometimes impose the burden of our own weaknesses upon the work we do as Pastors of the Church.  We sometimes act as if the bulk of our work is to do what the Holy Spirit does not seem to be inclined to do for the Lord -- sort of a clean up crew for the deity.  The truth we do not want to admit is that the work of the Kingdom through Word and Sacrament is the most fruitful work of all.  We seem intent to demonstrate that we are the reason for and have contributed to the extent of all our success.  And the place where making a difference seems most possible is when we adopt the problems of the people as our own and act as family chaplains to repair and heal what is broken or wounded. 

So, despite the temptation, we must resist the impulse to act as family chaplains and counselors and remain as Pastors charged with the responsibility of Word and Sacrament.  I was once associated with a large congrgation in which the sole Pastor saw himself as family chaplain and therapist.  There was great need for one and the people lined up at his door.  He seemed to be pretty good at it.  He was new to this congregation and this was an urgent need and an area he could distinguish himself from his predecessor who did no counseling.  In the end, his role as private chaplain and therapist led to an implosion in this congregation and the Ministry of Word and Sacrament was neglected to the point that the attendance dropped by half, a hugely successful Sunday school fell by the way side, and the school developed its own identity so separate from the congregation that the two merely shared a building instead of a ministry.  It has stuck with me even when I do not always follow the lesson this experience taught me.  Family chaplain, individual therapist, counselor to the troubled... no, but I will hear your confession, counsel you from God's Word, baptize, teach, confirm, preside, preach, bury, and exhort the erring - my primary responsibilities.  And if I do this job, then God's people will be equipped to fulfill their vocation of witness, service, prayer, and love to the family close, the neighbor nearby, and the stranger on the street corner.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Like Abel or Cain? Which are we?

Sermon preached for Pentecost 22, Proper 25C, on Sunday, October 24, 2010.

    Once a Baptist and I were joking about a woman who won millions in the lottery.  He said he told his Pastor to call on that woman but I told him that would be sheep steeling.  That woman did not know it yet, but she was already Lutheran.  We laughed.  I said that Baptist integrity would keep them from accepting money from gambling but we Lutherans accepted most things in moderation.  We could take her money without any pang of conscience.  We laughed. Another person nearby stopped the laughter.  He said that he had not yet met a church which would refuse money from anyone, no matter where it came from!  Ouch!
    Today we encountered a story of two offerings, one accepted by God and one refused by God.  This account of Cain and Abel offer us a familiar if some what confusing story.  Why was one offering accepted and one rejected?  Why did Cain get so angry, he killed his brother?  And what does this have to do with us today?
    Offerings are about as popular as visits to the dentist.  Why is it that giving has become such a burden to us as people?  In Abel we saw a man who found the offering to be the privilege of faith, returning to the Lord the best of what the Lord had given him.  I tend to think that we all take more after Cain than Abel when it comes to the offerings we bring to the Lord.
    If you look at the story, you are left with only two conclusions.  Either God preferred the offering of a lamb over the first fruits of the harvest... OR there was something in the heart of Cain that distinguished his offering from that of Abel.  I am going with the latter.  It was not the offering that made all the difference but what moved that offering.  Abel saw the offering as a privilege and Cain saw it as a duty.  God saw the delight of the offering born of Abel’s faith and the resentment of having to give that came from Cain.
    Abel gave the Lord his best.  Cain gave God what he had in abundance.  Abel's gift cost him something because it was the best he had to give - a sacrifice that was moved not by the demand of God but the delight of faith. Cain resented what he gave because he felt he had worked for it, earned it, and gave it from a sense of duty or obligation rather than faith.
    Abel gave out of joy – as one who had learned to delight in the gifts God surrounded him with every day.  When he looked at his life, he saw not what he lacked but what God has given to him.  Cain saw it differently.  Cain felt he had earned all he had, that he had no more than most other folks had, and that it was a great sacrifice to give to the Lord something he had worked so hard for.  Their offerings were brought by very different hearts.
    I vividly recall visiting a congregation in which the Pastor got up before the offering and told the visitors not to give an offering, that giving was the privilege of membership.  What a different perspective than we usually encounter!  In the early church, those who were not yet baptized left the congregation before the offering because only those who were baptized had the privilege of giving an offering and receiving the Sacrament.  How different from the way we think today!
    We are talking about Gospel giving and law giving here.  It is the difference between an offering given because it is supposed to be given and an offering born of faith and given in joy. When we bring our best to the Lord, moved by faith, God knows it.  When we bring to the Lord our resentment, out of a sense of obligation, God knows it.  When we bring our best, moved by faith, God is glorified and we are blessed in the giving of what we bring.  It is a true offering, borne of a grateful hearts, offered with joy to the Lord, as an acknowledgment of His gifts to us, and made as a sign that we are grateful for His grace and we trust in Him by faith.  Anything less and the gift, no matter how large or impressive, is not an offering but the payment of a bill.
    Too often we approach the whole subject of stewardship from the perspective of the Law – what is required of us.  Here we see the perspective of the Gospel and faith as the power of faithful stewardship.  Too often today, we Christians give like Cain – from our abundance, out of a sense of duty, and then we wonder why it is such a painful subject.  It was this pain that grew into the resentment that caused one brother to rise up against another.
    If there is a giving problem among Christians, it is not for lack of resources, but for lack of faith.  It is for a lack of vision to see what we have as God’s gift to us.  It is for lack of joy and gratitude for God’s daily care of this body and life and His eternal gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.  So we tend to be more like Cain than Abel.
    What you bring is money but it is also much more.  You bring the offering of yourselves, the offering of your time, the offering of your abilities, and the offering of your worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God.  This is not given to earn God's favor but as a reflection of knowing His favor and grace in Christ, of the new birth that is ours in baptism, and of the faith that joyfully proclaims what is His gift of grace and mercy.
    Can was fearful of giving, selfish of all that he called his own, and both jealous and resentful that his brother was able to give cheerfully, freely, and willingly.  This bitterness conspired to bear the terrible fruit of death in his life.   Because he could not stand the limitations of his own heart and because he resented the giving heart of Abel, he turned on his brother and murdered him.  But Abel's faith and joyful offering is raised up for us still.  
    So, what about us?  In addition to the gifts we bring today, what do we bring in our hearts to the Lord?  It is one of the great miracles of grace that every Sunday our Lord takes what we bring in faith and lifts it to the Father through His own sacrificial offering on the cross so that it becomes the sweet incense of a prayerful, thankful, and grateful offering of the faithful.  And we bask in the glory that we have been privileged to give our best for His glory through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Fostering a Sense of Reverence...

I was walking through the nave the other day following Compline and noticed something bright and shiny under one of the pews.  When I reached down to pick it up, I saw it was a Pepsi can.  It is not the first time I have retrieved coffee cups, bottles of water, cans of soda, or candy wrappers from under the pews.  Sadly, it will not be the last.

A few weeks ago, for the hundredth time, I listened as a member of the parish complained about how noisy it was in the nave during the preparation time just before the service begins.  This pious person just wanted some quiet time to pray and was "bothered" by laughter and loud conversations sent across the rows of pews by those "fellowshipping" with one another.  I nodded my head.  It was not that this person thought I could do something about this casual attitude toward God's House, but simply that we could nod our heads together and wish that there was a little room for the sacred, for silence, and for reverence among the people gathered for worship.

Some weeks I cringe at the flip flops (quiet but too informal) or the high heels (formal but definitely not quiet) worn by the acolytes.  I have long since gotten over the garish colors of the sneakers and have breathed a sigh of relief that the style of untied shoelaces shoved into the shoe has passed.  Worn down by parents complaining that is all their children have to wear and by the years of exposure to these "shoes" I find myself relieved when they are all white or mostly black.

On the other hand, I have acolytes who bow every time they pass in front of the altar and a few who genuflect (I did not teach them).  It is not like you can paint with a broad brush but look at different perspectives from within the same community of faithful gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Some of the more reverent ones come from families that have no long history in the church and others come from those families where the church building is as familiar to them as their own home.  Go figure.

So how do you foster a sense of reverence, whereby the gifts of God become common to your life without being commonplace? How do you foster a sense of the sacred that is not some, stiff, imposed formality but the honest awe of a people who know they stand on the holy ground of God's presence?  How do you instill in your people a sense of wonder at the mystery of God who makes Himself known to us in the Word and in the Breaking of the Bread each Lord's Day while at the same time encouraging them to see this mystery as one that beckons and bids them instead of causing them to run in fear?  How do you build a community in which this wonderful sense of reverence and mystery are present even while the high mobility of the people in the pews means that this is an ever changing assembly?

We have a congregation of people somewhat divided (those who have been Lutheran the longest and members of this parish the longest tend to attend the early Divine Service while those newer to Lutheranism and newer to Grace Lutheran Church tend toward the late Divine Service).  With a high number of military families, we have people from all over the world who, on average, are here for between 2-5 years, may have a family member deployed for a year or more during that time, and who view home as a place different than where they reside.  We have a great disparity along the educational and economic spectrum (with university faculty, blue color workers, business folks, military, and retired).  We have a big mix of ages with, perhaps, more children and young marrieds than the average Lutheran parish but these folks also tend to be in church less frequently than the older age folks without children at home.  I know this impacts the sense of reverence and contributes to the mix of piety and experience of the folks in the pews.

I know it is an ongoing struggle, with no magic bullets, that is taught and exemplified Sunday after Sunday in the liturgy and attitude of those leading worship as well as communicated through the preaching and teaching of a parish.  It is just that sometimes I wish I had a better handle on accomplishing this goal more effectively and efficiently... sometimes it seems for every step forward, we take one behind.

I was happy to read from Fr Wil Weedon that he has found that in his parish the increase in membership does not result in a proportionate increase in attendance.  That certainly is the case here.  Yet knowing this is a more common problem does not necessarily make me feel better about it.  Perhaps I am forever colored by the experience I had growing up and the faith and values planted within me by my parents.  It makes it hard for me to understand such casual attitudes about attending the Divine Service and such a casual informality being within the Divine Service that it grates against the sense of reverence, mystery, and awe inherent to what we believe, teach, confess, and practice...

Ahhhh.... if only my mailbox were as full of programs promising to fix this problem... the way my mailbox is filled with offers to help me use PowerPoint better, welcome visitors so that they return, manage volunteers, keep up with the latest in contemporary church music, and stay ahead of the technology curve in the church... Well, there you have it... but I would welcome any hints or suggestions from the peanut gallery.

Interest in Pipe Organs

The arts group in our city put together a quick organ "crawl" featuring Grace Lutheran Church (65 rank, installed 2001), Madison Street Methodist, Trinity Episcopal, and First Presbyterian churches.  Each congregation offered its resident organist with a program of perhaps 25 minutes.  We produced a color brochure on our pipe organ but had no idea how many would come and the thing was given limited publicity (an article in the newspaper on the Saturday before and a few posters for the congregations participating).  We ended up with 150 people and most of them had never been in our facility before... Not bad publicity, it turns out.  It was also an occasion to show off what was by far the least expensive pipe organ as well as the largest in town (costing less than 25% of each of the other three).  Pretty good day, last Sunday!

More organ pics can be found HERE and the organ specs for Grace Lutheran Church can be found here (PDF format).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Catalog Season

Like children awaited the arrival of the Sears, JC Penney or Spiegel Christmas catalog in generations gone by, so do some of us love when October and November bring out the plethora of new church supply catalogs.  A few of them come from supply houses with whom we have done business and still maintain a relationship but others come without an invitation.  I am now looking at the stack waiting to be placed on the shelf in the office, last year's version removed for recycling and replaced with the 2010-2011 edition.

While CPH has a few pages devoted to church supplies, most of these catalogs are two handers.  They are big and thick and full color.  Their index is as large as some whole catalogs from other sources.  Chalices, cruets, altar linens, paraments, vestments of all kinds, books, trinkets, jewelry, hosts, wine, candles of all kinds, brassware, altars, pulpits, lecterns, ambos, fonts, thuribles, candelabra, processional torches and crosses, wall crosses, sanctuary size crucifixes, statues, ahhhhh, the list goes on and on and on...

You can find a simple but classic style stainless steel chalice for a mission setting or a full set of chasubles in every style (from simple to modern to brocade to gaudy) or a portable altar that folds up or a large size wooden rosary for teaching small children... The pages are filled with things expensive and cheap, priceless and discardable, heirloom and weird...  There is something for every taste -- on brassware alone there are pages upon pages of every different style and size of candlestick, cross, and missal stand.  Of the tabernacles, you can find Jesus a comfortable but small bungalow size one or a cathedral size sakrament haus that will set you back $50K and give Him ample room for every circumstance.  There are ornate and oversize monstrances which almost seem embarrassing to the One who preferred the title Son of Man and the simple little luna holder that seems more apropos to the Son of a carpenter.

We are in process of replacing the albs for the assisting ministers (some of them more than 20 years old and the most recent about a dozen).  In the process we looked at the albs used by the acolytes and came to the same conclusion:  they need to be updated, too.  So we cracked open the wish books to see what is offered and how much it costs.  Made a choice to go back to cassock and cotta for the acolytes (both aesthetic and practical reasons).  Almost forgot to look for the albs there was so much more eye candy for the Pastoral mind to distract us... Ahhhh, indeed.

I sometimes wonder if these things are all in stock or merely one off designs that will have to be constructed if you actually placed an order... Or are there religious elves who make these things in some remote mountain village where it is very cold and they keep churning them out while waiting for us to pick up the phone and call toll free or order over the internet (seems tacky to order a tabernacle over the internet... buying a house for Jesus deserves at least one personal conversation)... There are so many choices... Ahhh, but they must stay on the shelf so that I can do what I was called to do... maybe if I get all my work done for today, I will allow myself a little indulgence... literally!

How do YOU respond to the catalog season?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Purpose of Church Architecture

In the New Oxford Review, Michael Rose suggests that church architecture must be durable, evoke the heavenly and eternal, and bring the gospel to life.  Wow.  Three short phrases that are packed with meaning.  Unfortunately, we do not pay much attention to this when we sit down to design a building to house the assembly of God's people for worship.  I blame architects who impose their thinking or ideas upon churches and building committees so often driven by their slavery to the budget.  But more than this, I fault our own confusion about what takes place in worship -- if we are not sure what takes place in the Divine Service, it stands to reason our buildings will reflect that confusion.  Take a look at the picture.  Confused???

Rose says the building must be durable.  Too often we build our buildings today with a view to a lifespan -- this is not something typical of churches only.  We build them NOT to last and they show it.  I am not strictly speaking of the materials we use but the idea of building a structure designed in a novel way or a trendy style as well as one constructed cheaply.  Too many church buildings look like mirrors of a style in architecture that came and went.  Unfortunately, these buildings remained and the congregation was forced then to live in a building that screams "fad."  I think of buildings I have been in -- A frames, fish styled, round, concrete boxes, etc...  They may have been fashionable in their day but they have saddled the people of God with a structure that has not grown over time but, instead, wears like a leisure suit in 2010.

Buildings must be durable because we speak of a God who is our help in ages past and our hope for years to come.  The structures we raise must resemble this timeless God and changeless Christ.  There is also a practical as well as spiritual reason for building durable structures.  Congregations are notorious for not spending money on maintenance and cheaply built structures are cheap to build and costly to maintain.  Either we will spend the money now to build credible buildings that will age well or we will spend our future on face lifts for sagging structures and time worn facades.

Rose says that buildings must evoke the heavenly and eternal.  Look at the buildings we build and call "church" and tell me what those buildings say.  Most of them speak not of God but of us.  Our concern most of all is accessibility, comfort, and convenience.  I would suggest that these are legitimate concerns but not the primary concerns.  We need structures that cause us to look up, away from ourselves, and toward the God of the heavens who has come low to us in Christ.  We need structures that emphasize our community gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord -- the central pieces of furniture must be central.  I vote for a well placed and significantly sized cross and corpus (crucifix or, at least, a Christus Rex).  The building must direct our attention to the place where water marks us for the kingdom, where God sets His table among us, and where the Word is proclaimed that the hearers might be saved.

It would seem that technology drives our structures more than anything else.  This is a sad reality.  We can use technology without worshiping at this idol altar.  Christ must be central and just as the building must be durable and substantial, so the appointments of the Church must be durable and substantial.  I vote against novelty (skip the odd shaped altars, fonts, and pulpits over something more timeless -- modern need not be strange or weird).

Rose says the buildings must bring the Gospel to life.  Well, what brings the Gospel to us?  What imparts to us the power of Christ's life, death, and resurrection?  Surely this is an easy question for Lutherans to answer -- the Word and Sacraments.  But why does it seem that the Word and Sacraments are not presupposed by those designing these structures?  Why do we have chancels too crowded to be useful?  Why do we have altar rails so small that the distribution is painfully slow and encumbered by restriction?  Why do we have pulpits that are small and mobile (what the Word of God is NOT)?  Why do we have structures not amenable to the sound of singing and music, to the voice of proclamation, and to the voice of praise?  Acoustics are not a side issue but one of the ways a building is deemed successful or a failure in its purpose as the place for God's people to worship Him.  Carpeting and odd shaped buildings work against sound and create the need for sound amplification.  If the structure is well designed, sound may need to be reinforced for the sake of some voices, but it need not be amplified in order to be heard (choirs should never need to be miked).

We have a somewhat odd shaped structure (wider than it is deep) but it is traditional and modern at the same time.  The acoustics are good and reinforce the music of the liturgy and the preaching that is the center of what we do on Sunday morning.  The chancel is large and expansive.  It is not perfect but it is not bad.  If I would have had my druthers, I would have built something FR Weber would have approved of (his old monograph The Small Church is still a high point for church architecture, in my humble opinion).  The appointments are solid and substantial.  The stained glass is liturgical.  I offer this not as a prototype but as an example of what we should be doing even as I speak of what we should not be doing...

Increasing Allergies Among Lutherans

If you want to know how many of your folks have allergies, simply try using incense and all of a sudden the hacking and coughing will soon drown out organ, choir, and every other sound in the Sanctuary. As one liturgical pundit put it: "Why is it that no one was allergic to incense prior to the Reformation?" I have been to Eastern Orthodox Churches in which thick clouds of holy smoke envelope the whole congregation, and there is no coughing or gagging. However, the least little puff of smoke from a thurible can cause coughing fits among Lutherans. Why is this?  It can only be that we Lutherans have become allergic either do to uncontrolled inbreeding or inexplicable viral contamination.

The liturgical use of incense is well documented in Scripture. Who would deny that in the Jewish Temple there was an altar of incense (and the amount of incense was profound in comparison to the couple of puffs of smake found in Churches today).  Read blessed John's vision of the Heavenly Kingdom and you find it is full of fragrant smoke which represents the prayers of the saints. Its use in Christian worship flowed from the history in Jewish worship.

Incense symbolizes the Church's offering of prayer and our reverence to God. Psalm 141 makes abundantly clear the powerful imagery of incense. ["Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice."] So what's the big deal? Why do so many Lutherans get their noses out of joint over a little incense? 

Could it be that its association with Roman Catholocism is more of the objection than the smoke of incense? Our people can tolerate things that do not directly affect them (Pastors wearing vestments, the sign of the cross by some, chanting, and, perhaps, even the Sanctus bell.  They draw the line at incense. That might be one explanation.

Are some folks allergic to incense? I am sure there are such folks. People with asthma may be effected by it if they breath a lot of it into their lungs. How many folks are legitimately allergic?  Not as many as those who just plain do not like it in.  Perhaps this is an aesthetic issue but I wonder if it might be also a spiritual implications.  Lutherans, by the way, used incense regularly on Sunday morning in many places right up through the 18th century.

BEFORE you jump on me for ramming something down the throats of unwilling Lutherans, we use incense regularly only on the Wednesday Evening Prayer services of Advent and Lent for which we also have service opportunities when incense is not used (Compline on Mondays and the Eucharist on Thursdays).  The incense is forty feet away from most folks and the HVAC is turned off so that it does not spread the "holy smoke."  So far it has not reduced the attendance at these services.

It would seem that are more salient arguments FOR the use of incense than against. In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to offer incense in worship. Pure incense is the resin from certain trees found in limited areas of the Middle East like Ethiopia and Eritrea. In ancient times it was obtained only at great expense. In the book of Exodus (Chapter 30), God commanded Moses to make an altar of acacia wood for the burning of incense. Aaron is to burn incense morning and evening. Moses is given special instructions for making the incense to be used exclusively for the worship of God (Exodus 30:34-38). One of the many ingredients given in God's list was frankincense.  Among the gifts of the Magi given to the baby Jesus was frankincense--a gift worthy of a king.

Incense is a symbol for the prayers of God's people.  "Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. . . ." -Psalm 141:2  The people would pray outside of the Holy of Holies while the priest inside offered incense upon the golden altar.  “And the whole multitude of people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” -Luke 1:10

In the Old Testament, God established a formal, liturgical type of worship. Historic, formal liturgical Christian worship services have sometimes incorrectly been accused of being derived from Judaism. In fact, they are derived directly from the New Testament---from the worship in Heaven that the Apostle John reveals to us in the book of Revelation.  "An angel came and stood at the altar, with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden Altar before the Throne of God; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the Saints from the hand of the angel before God." -Revelation 8:3-4

In the Bible, clouds are often used as a sign of God's presence. Another characteristic of incense is that it forms a cloud. A cloud in the Bible often reveals God's presence. The Israelites were led by the pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:22). A cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled it (Exodus 40:34).   During the Transfiguration of Christ, a cloud appears and the Voice of God is heard from it (Matthew 17:5). In the book of Acts, Jesus is taken up into a cloud (Acts 1:8).

The smell of incense in a home in Bible times signaled the impending visit of someone of importance.   In ancient times incense was used to sweeten and purify the air before an important visitor arrived (only an important visitor, because incense was very expensive, and so could only be used on special occasions).  Christ taught us that He is in the midst of us wherever two or three are gathered in His Name (Matthew 18:20). Who is a more important visitor than our Creator? Our Lord may not be physically visible, but He has promised to be present. The beautiful aroma of incense reminds us to be aware of His presence.  "And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savor." -Ephesians 5:2

Our Lord was buried wrapped in incense. Incense was used when sacrifices were made in the Old Testament. When our Lord died, no incense was burned. Instead, He was buried wrapped in incense. The aromatic clouds of incense we smell during our times of worship remind us that our Lord was sacrificed for our benefit. The Apostle Paul applies this same metaphor to us when he says that we are the aroma of Christ to God. Paul says that we are God's incense. His Gift, both to Himself, and to the world.

"For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish:
To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?" -II Corinthians 2:15,16 
Quoted from

My point is this.  Why does incense cause such a knee jerk reaction of rejection among our people?  Is it that we truly have so many folks who are allergic?  Is it that we are anti-Roman enough to say here is where we draw the line and show our Protestant side?  Is it that we are so health conscious that we must remove anything that just might cause a problem?  Is it that we do not like things that remind us of the mystery of God in the way that incense does?  Is it that our personal taste (smoking or non-smoking) drives our response?

I have seen no literature to suggest that Lutherans are more prone to respiratory allergies than say the Roman Catholics or Orthodox (whose mounds of smoke make what I use look simply pitiful).  I know that there is a great deal of anti-Roman sentiment among some Lutherans but thought this was more a product of a by-gone era than today.  If we are so health conscious, why do we hug and kiss our friends or drink coffee in droves or pile up the plates at the pot lucks -- all things known to cause some health issues.  If we disdain the mystery of God's presence among us in Word and Sacrament, then why are we Lutherans in the first place?  If personal taste, then what might we sacrifice next on the altar of personal preference?  Music?  Sermons?  Lessons from Scripture? Any move from the sitting position?  Worship with other people?

Okay, I am being sarcastic.  I just want to know.  Why do Lutherans get so touchy when it comes to a puff of smoke?  You tell me... I genuinely want an answer?

Monday, October 25, 2010

What Shall We Do?

A phone call this week brought up one more question in a string of questions about what to do with folks who are allergic to the gluten in the host or unable to handle the alcohol in the wine.  To be honest, in more than 30 years as a Pastor, I have only had a handful of circumstances in which this question arose but it appears that either it is arising more frequently or congregations are attempting to be proactive in this question.

First a clarification:  dislike is not the same as a medical reason why a person cannot receive the wheat based host or the wine in the cup.  This is NOT about personal preference or taste.  So if someone comes to me and says "I really do not like the taste of (wheat bread) hosts or wine, so can I have a non-gluten host and grape juice?"  The answer is simple.  No.  This is not about taste or preference.  The only legitimate question here is what to do with those who cannot for legitimate medical reason eat the gluten in the host or the alcohol in the wine.

So what shall we do?  I know that there are many who are very quick to make a change in which a rice base host is offered as an option to the gluten based host and grape juice offered as a substitute for the wine in the cup.  Folks have brought me bulletins from Lutheran (and Missouri) parishes in which these options are noted so that people can make the choice for themselves.  Some are rather tastefully done and others simply embarrassing (the one in which a pregnant female Lutheran Pastor says to take the cups closest to her "belly" as the ones with grace juice).

I know that there are Roman Catholic supply stores where you can supply non-alcoholic wine (mustum) and non-gluten hosts (soy and rice flour based).  But, if you look you find a note of warning indicating that this is "not approved for use by the Holy See" or not legitimate to substitute for the ordinary elements of the gluten host and wine.  There is one company that produces a host nearly gluten free which Rome does allow.  There is also a provision for a non-alcoholic wine in which fermentation has been suspended but the essence unaltered.

Some of you are wondering now, what is the big deal?  I mean we have non-alcoholic beer, so why can't we substitute something else for the host and cup in order that the people may have what they want or need?  This is something that cannot be changed by preference or need. This is part of the divine constitution of the Eucharist, the matter of the sacrament that our Lord has given to us.  It is not that to use these substitutes means that Christ is not present but rather that we have no assurance that if we depart from His institution and command Christ will be present.  So, we keep to the elements of Christ just as we keep the Word of Christ, so that we may be assured that this bread is His body and this wine His blood as He has pledged and promised.

So what do I do?  If someone comes with a gluten issue, they commune under the cup only.  If someone comes with an alcohol intolerance (usually related to a medicine being taken), they commune under the host only.  We do NOT believe in a divided Christ.  Lutherans contended that to withhold the cup from the laity was a violation of Christ's command and intention but that this did not mean that those who had communed only under one species had somehow received no communion or only half of Christ.  This is not a case of either element being withheld but of medical necessity which precludes a communicant's participation in both.

So, there is my answer... what is yours?  What do YOU do?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What Happened to Singing

Check out most music programs at public middle and high schools and you will hardly find one that teaches choral music.  In my own community, solo work or sing-a-long with cd accompaniment is the norm (and the singing is melody only).  Our own parish purchased tons of sacred music from a school that was confident none of it would be used there again.  It is not that people do not like to sing -- they sing all the time.  All ages know the words and melodies of their favorite songs and sing with radio or mp3 player or cd all the time.  Why then has choral singing seemingly disappeared from the public school system?

I am sad to say that most of the Lutheran parishes around me (even in a very wide radius) have no regular choir and not a few have seasonal or festival choirs for the high and holy days.  When I look at the ages of the choir members in my own parish, too many of them are on the other side of age 50 and not enough of them are on the underside of age 30.  Part of this is due to the fact that singing in parts is alien to many of those under age 30.  They have to learn this in order to sing in the parish choir (not that it cannot be learned -- it can and I heartily encourage folks who have never sung in parts before to give it a try).  Part of it is due to the fact that churches have abandoned so called "traditional" worship in favor of praise bands where everyone is a soloist and everyone sings melody.  Plus the miniature microphones that flow out of the ear toward the mouth are just too cool for words.

Choral music is a particularly Lutheran domain.  We have the giants among the field of composers (Bach, Schutz, Praetorius, etc) as well as great representation among the newer composers (Schalk always comes to mind).  I have often spoken of the need for a sound track to match our piety to our confession and choral music is one particular area where Lutheran piety is well-expressed.  My own day begins with choral music for an hour or two in the early moments of the morning before everything else steals the day away.  I feel the lack when this time is lost to me.

So I would encourage all those singers out there to join your parish choir.  I would also encourage folks to purchase some cds of choral music and listen to them.  I enjoy every Sunday morning at 5 am listening to Sing for Joy in which the lessons of the day are presented from a musical (choral) perspective.  This is not a matter of a lost art being recovered or even an aesthetic appeal but a call to remember why God gave us this things called music, why He equipped our voices to sing, and what glory there is when His name is raised in choral song.  No, I could not imagine liturgical life without music, without hymns, and without choral song. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Integrity of the Service

Everyone out there has a preference (one setting of the Divine Service, for example).  That is well and good and there should not be much debate out there since all are legitimate and sanctioned in our hymnal.  But there is a tendency on the part of some to treat the liturgical resources of the hymnal more as a liturgical smorgasbord in which you pick and choose various parts to come up with a Mr. Potato Head end result -- a little from here and a little from there.  This is especially true of those liturgies for the festival occasions (Christmas, Holy Week, Easter, dedications, ordinations, installations, etc.).

While I am not in favor of adding a rule to this effect, I would plead for those tempted to respect the integrity of the Divine Service.  When we treat the liturgical resources of the hymnal as raw material in the construction of something new, different, and, well, special, then we dishonor the integrity of the service.

Example, it may seem neat and kewl to insert the Words of Institution into the liturgy of Matins or Morning Prayer, but it is merely novelty and rather disjointed novelty, at that.  Is is another thing to borrow the glorious Te Deum as a hymn for the Divine Service but it misunderstands and disrespects the integrity of the daily office and the Divine Service to mix and match.

Now there are occasions when things different are joined together -- I can only point to the Easter Vigil which ends with the Divine Service (albeit somewhat abbreviated due to the fullness of the liturgy that precedes the Divine Service.  This is not some mish mash but a service with integrity and history.

There are occasions in which rites are inserted into the Divine Service.  I can think of the baptismal liturgy as one and the rites of confirmation, reception of new members, installations of officers, installation of a Pastor or other called worker, etc...  When this happens the liturgies are not mingled but one includes the other.

There are occasions when the Divine Service may be directly preceded by Matins or Morning Prayer or Vespers or Evening Prayer.  These offices do not technically connect to the Divine Service but it is fine tradition to hold these daily offices on Sunday prior to the Divine Service (or, in the case of an evening service, possibly after the Divine Service).

I further caution against looking at bits and pieces of the Divine Services and cutting and pasting them together so that you end up with Divine Service Setting 18 (including snippets of 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5) as one of many variations on a theme... This is a bad idea for it promotes the idea of novelty as if the Divine Service needs to be shuffled up like a deck of cards from time to time in order to keep it "fresh."  For surely it is "fresh" because Christ is there in the Word and at the Table and for no other reason.

Think of it this way.  There are certain recipes that must be followed as they were intended or the outcome will not be the same.  I would suggest that we hold to the integrity of the daily offices and the Divine Service understanding them to be somewhat similar to the recipe handed down within the family over the ages.  We do not tamper with them (except where the options inherent in the liturgy are provided for).  Again, my point is not a rule but simple request for those planning the services to respect the integrity of the service.  Period.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Lutheranism for Dummies

CPH has produced a winning product with a title drawn from an academic setting:  Lutheranism 101.  It has the look and feel of the popular Dummies series of how to books that teaches folks everything from software hints to how to home improvements to learning a foreign language to finding out about a religion.  Although I have not used it much yet, it seems complete, easily accessible, and thoroughly winsome for presenting a pretty in depth cross section of Lutheran Christianity.  We have already sold 10 in my parish and now CPH tells us that they are out of stock awaiting delivery -- tells you something, doesn't it?

My point, though not directed specifically at this book, has to do with the whole premise of the for Dummies style of finding out about something.  As people we like quick looks and brief introductions that can give us the gist of something without really knowing it at all.  Consider, for example, the popularity of the Scriptographic booklets (on every subject from religion to pregnancy to flag etiquette).  And, yes, I admit to using them from time to time when it seems this is the best means of getting people to read and think a bit a Lutheran understanding of baptism, for example.  I have not used any of the for Dummies series.  I sincerely hope that we who use these resources are careful to use them to point people to the direct sources and not as a substitute for getting to know something from the inside.

My post today has more to do with Pastors than it does the people using these resources.  I know how easy it is to feel overwhelmed with responsibilities and duties to the point where we are all looking for a quick and easy way to do this or that.  I don't want to know HTML programming.  I just want to update the web page.  I don't want to know how my word processor works.  I just want to get the newsletter article done.  I don't want to bring an arm load of books to new member class.  I just want to give them a brief but thorough introduction (for now).  The problem is that sometimes you have to know a bit about HTML to know why the web page is not loading like you want it to look and you need to know something about how the word processor works to know why there the extra space on the page or the graphic is not staying where you initially put it.  And, sometimes we need to confront our people with the direct sources as well as books about or books that explain things without but a passing reference to the sources themselves.

When I first came to the parish, the Life with God adult instruction materials were pretty popular.  I bought them and tried them once.  It is not that they were so bad but they were so incomplete.  These materials presented a generic Christianity which may or may not look like Lutheranism, a Christianity lite without much of the heavy stuff that one must also wrestle with.  I understand why.  This was an introduction.  But I soon found that even with 12 weeks of introduction, people tended to stop where I left them.  Some, well, most of them, came to Bible study but as far as their Lutheran identity was concerned, they seldom progressed beyond where I left them.

So my challenge to us who teach is to make sure that we direct people to the sources (ad fontes).  I purposefully bring in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New to every new member class.  I bring in the Small Catechism and Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions.  I bring it the Apocrapha and NT Pseudopigrapha.  I bring in several biographies of Luther (Kittleson's generally).  I bring in a Lutheran prayer book (now Starck's).  I bring in a volume of Luther's sermons, Paul Maier's version of Eusebius history, and Lutheran Service Book.  I have a stack of things for them to look at as well as lots of web links and internet resources.  I use PowerPoint to give them icons and altar pieces, crucifixes and chalices, portraits and paintings, maps and time lines.  I want them to see and touch and dig into the sources.  Yes, we begin with surveys and that is about all we have time for but even in a survey we can pull things from the direct sources so that people know these things are not just for doctrine geeks or history nerds.  These things are for THEM.

Too often we try to give a brief introduction to Lutheran Christianity in a way that leaves our people ill equipped to know where to turn to find the sources or the answers or how to practice the piety that flows from this catholic and evangelical identity.  So go ahead and use Lutheranism 101 even if that is all you plan to offer your people -- it is a better resource than instructional tools like the old Life with God or other introductions.  But I plead with Pastors everywhere not to stop there.  You show these things to your people and lead them into the sources.  Put up a display in your Church library or bookstore (we have sold tons of these resources to our people).  Direct them there.

In a Thursday Eucharist I happened to mention the problem of who is James, brother of Jesus and it began a whole discussion with a half dozen folks about Mary, Mary's ever virginity, the case for half brothers and sisters, and the implications of those conclusions.  They wanted to know.  I sent them to the sources in our parish library and some of them came back to me to dig further (on related subjects of how Theotokos is more about Jesus than a title for Mary, for example).  These are the great conversations of faith that seldom happen if we present answers without sources or give people ONLY the books that give answers without directing them to the sources.  It is my experience that lots of new to Lutheranism folks and lots of old Lutherans want to know... and they will learn and grow if we help them by directing them beyond the introduction to the sources.

So I applaud CPH for putting together one fine resource in Lutheranism 101 but at the same time I plead with Pastors not make this a substitute for the direct sources.  Instead use this tool to lead them there!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Which is easier to confess...

Teaching catechism last evening, we pondered the difference between confessing that we are disobedient and confessing specific acts of disobedience.  In order to see how they understood the difference, I asked first, "which is worse?"  At first they thought that being disobedient was worse since it might include more actual acts of disobedience.  Then they decided specific acts of disobedience were worse since this was not about an attitude or an inclination but actual events.  It was an interesting discussion from the minds of 12-13 year old youth.  Perhaps they are more perceptive than adults are.

When we make confession, we tend to speak in generalities.  We are a disobedient people.  The problem with confessing that we are disobedient is that it is kind of like confessing that we are like everybody else, since every one is disobedient at one time or another.  It is a somewhat lame confession.  Yeah, I am disobedient... but no better or worse than most folks.  Aren't we all disobedient?

We tend to confess more of what we lack than what we have actually said or thought or done wrong.  We have not been as good as should... The problem with confessing the lack of goodness is that it effectively allows us to continue to hide the actual sins we have committed.  It is also very easy to confess something that we are all prone to and, therefore, a relatively safe and easy confession to make.

Confession is less about generalities than it is specifics... less about lack than about evil we have thought, spoken, and done.  The kids picked up on this right away.  When we confess simply that we could have done better, we have not really confessed much at all.  We are merely admitting that we are part of the great race of fallen human creatures who have not fully lived up to our potential.  Blah.  Blah.  Blah.  The kids got that this was a cop out confession and that what God seeks for us to admit are the specific things that we know about, that cause us guilt, and that stand between us and God and between us and our neighbors.  Who feels much guilt about generalities prone to us all?  But who among us does not carry around the guilt for things that continue to haunt us, follow us wherever we go, and poison us still?

If there is one marked difference between the private confession before the Pastor and the public confession that prepares us for the Divine Service, it is the distinction between specific events we confess and the generalities confessed as one voice among the many.  It is amazing how perceptive a group of kids can be on seeing the difference and understanding how that difference plays out in the life of the Christian.  God wants us to be specific -- not because He is attracted to the lurid details of our transgressions but because the sin that troubles us and afflicts our souls are those specific thoughts, words, and deeds that stand out so vividly in our minds that we know their every detail.  Hiding them cannot disarm them.  Running away from them cannot make them go away.  Generalizing upon them cannot minimize their damage and their power to wreck even more trouble and trials upon us.  Only confession can bring them out into the open where God can deal with them.

I was rather impressed with these 15 or so youth as they worked their way through the sacramental gift of confession and absolution. They got it without much prompting on my part.  Pretty good class...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Scripture leads to truth . . .

A simple statement which most of us would accept without much fuss but I believe a dangerous one.  It is always dangerous to separate Scripture from its message and truth, as if it were merely a means of conveyance.  The truth of and in the Scriptures is Jesus Christ.  Christ is the Word that speaks and what that Word speaks.  We have the same problem with the Sacraments.  When we view them merely as pipelines that deliver something to us, we miss the whole point of them.  The Sacraments are Christ in our midst just as the Word is.  It is through the Word and Sacraments that His claim to be Emmanuel is fulfilled and His promise not left to the emptiness of a notion or feeling or spiritual presence.

As Lutheran Christians we tend to borrow vocabulary more from Protestants than from Rome or Constantinople and in doing so we undercut what it is that we say we believe, teach, and confess about the Word and Sacraments of our Lord.  They bring us Christ.  That is their power and their gift.  Where Christ is there is forgiveness of sins and where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation. 

It is the same when it comes to worship.  We act as if worship were either all about us and what we do and bring or simply a peripheral connection to Jesus.  What happens on Sunday morning is that Christ comes to us, according to His promise, and in the Word and Sacraments of His promise, He delivers nothing less than His very self to us -- the living voice that absolves us of our sins, the living water that gives life to what is dead, and the living food that feeds us to eternal life.  He is the Giver and the Gift, the Priest and the Victim.  Until we recover this understanding, it will continue to be easy for folks to miss Sunday morning and then to ask "Did I miss anything?"

Scripture does not lead to truth -- it is no treasure map given to us to lead us to something hidden and rich.  Thy Word is truth.  It is truth not in the sense of propositional truths to which we must given our assent, but the truth which is Christ incarnate.  It is a decidedly Protestant idea and the fruit of the radical reformation to make this distinction between the truth and the Word that speaks it (just as they build a brick wall between the earthly elements of the Sacraments and the Christ who established them as His means of grace).

Only the Spirit can open our eyes to see, our minds to understand, and our hearts to believe this.  It is the unreasonable conviction that screams impossibility and the mystery that cannot be comprehended.  It can only be believed and, believing, received for our salvation.

I still recall the shock on one parishioner's face when he asked me, "What did I miss?"  And I responded, "You missed the Son of God enter into the congregation, forgiving our sins, transforming our minds and hearts, feeding us heavenly food, and set us apart as those whom He has sent to bear His name to the world..."  And his response, "No, really, did I miss anything..."   No, I guess not.... sigh...

Why Don't Lutherans Like Babies?

I was talking with someone about my vicarage congregation on Long Island and teaching catechism there.  I believe I had about 100-120 in class (both years were taught together) so 50-60 were confirmed that year.  It was a huge group and the service had to be shifted to the gym because the nave only sat about 200 max (we had 5 services a week).  I think I can safely say they do not have such large classes still.  As a matter of fact, I am pretty sure that the numbers are closer to 10 than 50 or 60.

What has changed in 30 years or more?  Lutherans have stopped having babies.  In part this is because of the aging of the people in the pews but it is also due to the fact that Lutheran families capable of having children are having fewer children and many are having none at all.  Now some of you green people will think this is a good thing.  I think it is a terrible thing.  The chief reason Lutherans are not having babies is selfish -- we want to conserve and consume our resources for ourselves.  We no longer see children simply as blessings and gifts but more as burdens and responsibilities that accompany these blessings.  We complain about kids not being still during worship and we have come to believe that it would be better if children were not seen as well as not heard.

In the run up to Lutheran Book of Worship/Lutheran Worship hymnals, much was made of the baptismal rite and whether it should presume infant baptism with option for adult baptism or presume adult baptism with option for infant baptism.  LBW opted for the presumption of adult baptism with option for infant.  LW opted for infant baptism with option for adult.  While there was and is much to discuss in this, the very occasion for this debate was the growing realization that the number of Lutherans having babies was already going down, down, down.

In the more than 30 years I have been a Pastor I have noticed a shift in priorities in congregations.  Parochial schools are diminishing in size and even closing.  Preschools and day care facilities run by Lutheran congregations are filled with children from non-Lutheran homes and these things tend to be run as businesses to make money more than ministries to children and their families.  Where once it was assumed that any budget request or fund raiser for a child or youth program would be accepted and successful, some are complaining about the cost of children's and youth work in the congregation.  Even the National Youth Gathering dropped about 25% from over 30,000 in attendance to about 24,000.  Which brings up point two.

We as Lutherans are not doing a very good job of retaining the babies we do have.  Obviously this is directed more at the families of these children than the children themselves, but, the point is that we are misplacing large numbers of these children.  They are not around by the time catechism comes along and those confirmed are dropping out as well.  Look at any Sunday school roster in any Lutheran congregation and you see names of children who are never there or seldom there.  Their parents know how to make commitments (to programs for children and youth sports, dance, music, etc.) but they are not making that commitment to the Church.  This is not just their problem.  It is OUR problem.  What are we doing wrong that these Lutheran parents are thinking that sports or other youth programs are better for their kids than church, catechism, and Sunday school?  What are we doing wrong that these Lutheran parents are thinking they are good parents while failing at the job of raising their children IN the faith?

I am reminded of Jesus' words that he who is faithful in little will be given much to be faithful over... and that he who is not faithful in the little will have even the little he has taken from him...  Is it because we are not being faithful that Lutheran families are on average almost childless?  Is it because we are not being faithful that we are losing so many of these babies before they become children, and losing these children before they become youth, and losing these youth before they become teens?

You tell me... what are we doing right and what are we doing wrong?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pre Church, Churched, Post Church

The Rev. Robert Newton, sometime District President of the California, Nevada, and Hawaii District of the LCMS, has been making the rounds talking about a new paradigm for transforming churches.  He speaks from the vantage point of the mission field and the changes in American culture that present a different landscape to Lutheran congregations.  He has credentials (missionary, sem prof, parish pastor, and now DP). And, some of it is helpful explanation.

Pre Church is like the mission field.  The community (world) is a closed community to the missionary.  Separated from them by language and culture, the missionary (church) is the outsider looking for ways to permeate the closed community with the Gospel.  The missionary is hardly a candidate for gaining entrance into this closed community so the best hope is to find a few influential folks who will listen, believe, and then take the Gospel with them into the closed community to provide a means of entrance whereby the missionary may bring the Gospel to them all...

Churched is when the church itself becomes part of the closed community.  Having been adopted into the community, the church becomes part of this closed system.  Some might think of America in the 1950s when being a Christian was "expected" of politicians, leaders, and citizens and when faith was seen as a "good" thing for the community.  Congregations were welcomed into communities to build buildings and their support was solicited for major social change or legislation.  Some folks, particularly in the Bible belt, may still live in such a churched community but Lutherans are still generally outsiders to this community.

Post Church is like post modern -- a world in which the community has expelled church and faith from main street of ideas and the side streets of modern life.  Religion and faith are intruders, unwelcome by the people, and their teaching and very identity viewed with suspicion and disdain.  The community is once again a closed system and the church is not a part of it all.

His point is that the congregation can no longer presume to be in a churched world and the way the church proclaims the Gospel changes when the church is no longer welcome in or trusted by the community.  This is not rocket science (his own admission) and it is not earth shattering (except to those congregations presuming to live in the 1950s while time has marched on).  Yes, the church must learn how to speak the Gospel in different ways -- ways that may often mimic the mission field and the pre church setting.  Yes, yes, we get all that...

But then his point becomes confused...  He suggests that things like schools no longer attract people to the church but only to the school and he suggests that the church must invent new ways of reaching people.  Well, I suppose that is true if that is all you are offering -- an education -- but if you are teaching the children the Gospel and giving those children the setting of Christian faith and love witnessed in action as well as words, then you are evangelizing exactly the way the missionary might in a pre church setting... so I did not get his point here...

Then he goes on about how the church must not close its borders but must remain permeable to the community (and its culture).  This is where I became very confused...  The church has only one door to its community -- that is baptism.  There are not many doors by which people may enter the church -- there is only one and that is baptism.  Jesus and the NT make this plain.  Further, the goal of the church is not to be open to the community and culture but to permeate that community and culture with the witness of the Gospel.  When that witness happens, people will be drawn to the church. 

This is where I am even more confused.  The church that is faithful to this Gospel must not erect more barriers to gain entrance than Jesus has called His church to have BUT neither can this church strip away barriers that are part of its faithfulness to the Gospel.  Example:  the liturgy.  Sunday morning is about the Divine Service (whether organ or guitar is a rather small issue in comparison here).  Sunday morning is not an educational endeavor or an evangelistic outreach but the gathering of God's people around His Word and Table.  The liturgy is not a barrier to new people entering -- it is WHAT they are entering for... it is WHAT they have come to be a part of and from which they receive the gifts promised by God.  The liturgy is Word and Sacrament -- fleshed out in the inheritance of the tradition to which each age adds the best it has to offer (see that wonderful Nagel introduction to Lutheran Worship).

Newton is suggesting that "traditional" (code for liturgy and hymnal) have to disappear if the church is to engage the people who are coming out of the community because it has been permeated with the Gospel.  He calls this "recalculating."  What do they have to come out for if what happens on Sunday morning is a mirror of the very culture, music, and media they left?  People who leave the community in search of that new community which is called, gathered, and nurtured by the Gospel can only be disappointed when they find out it was not much different than some of the stuff they left behind.  If Joel Osteen, some good singers, a fine band, and a stadium feel are the best we have to offer those who leave the gated community of the world to follow the voice of the Gospel, they will not stay long.  And this is exactly what studies have found of those congregations (see Willow Creek's own surprising admission about the failed mechanism of their attempt to grow these folks from church that is a religious reflection of their secular world into something different and deeper).

So I appreciate Newton's aid and assistance in diagnosing the problems we face... I simply disagree with his prescriptions in how to respond...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Preach the Word.

Sermon for Pentecost 21, Proper 24C, preached on Sunday, October 17, 2010.

    Most of us know that we live in a world where words don't mean much.  We expect people to break the promises to us and we are no longer shocked when people deny truth to promote lies.  We live in an age of vulgarity when it is hard to find a movie that the whole family can watch without embarrassment.  But people justify this all the time by saying that they are just words and words don't mean anything.  We don't even argue about it anymore. Word don't mean much – whether you like it or not.
    We could leave it at that but this is a big problem for a faith in which God reveals Himself through His Word.  Without this Word that makes us wise unto salvation, the Church is but a social club or self-help group.  We could offer hints and helps but not the truth that transforms or the forgiveness bigger than sin or the life that is eternal.  All of these come to us through the Word of God.  Therefore, we need to be people of this strong Word to the world, a Word that speaks life and salvation, that delivers on what it proclaims, and that does what it says...  Or, we have nothing at all to offer the world.
    So what does Scripture claim for itself?  According to the Epistle for today, all Scripture is inspired – literally God breathed.  Here is the problem: inspired to us means good idea - like the light bulb that goes off above the head in the cartoon. But that is NOT what it means here.  Inspired means its source is in God and not in the ideas or will of man.  It is inspired because He gives the Word its life and power just as once, long ago, He reached down to scoop up some soil, breathed into that dust and it became a living being, and God had made man.  This is what inspired means.
    Scripture speaks a Word which is profitable – it delivers on what it says with something good and beneficial, salutary and blessed.  We do not mean a word which can give you something to chew on, some good ideas about life, or something to help you get ahead.  It is profitable because it teaches – that means doctrine.  It is profitable for teaching because it speaks with authority to sin and its death, not as the guess of a man's mind but the certain truth of God that answers sin with forgiveness and death with life.
    Scripture corrects error.  It exposes lies.  It confronts competing claims.  It trains us up in the way we should go.  It reveals to us the righteousness of Christ, it clothes us with that righteousness in baptism, and it builds us up in that righteousness.  It is not that the dirty person goes down into baptism and comes up clean – but the same old person.  No, this Word puts to death the old person and makes it possible for a whole new person to arise – born through the new birth of water and this Word.
    It is not some message that Scripture imparts to us but the Christ who is the Word of God, incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.  The Word imparts the Word.  Period.  Christ is the voice and Christ is the message.  That is why this is a living Word, Christ is speaking it.
    Scripture equips God's people.  But with what?  There are those who say that Scripture is like a psychology textbook to lead us to better self-images, to more positive outlooks, to happier marriages, to better family life, to achieving our hopes and dreams...  Baloney.  We have a lot more wrong with us than not being happy.  We are dead in sin and helpless to save ourselves.  Scripture equips us with the remedy for such sin and death.  The Word of God equips us to bring forth the fruit of good works in our lives.
    You heard it here.  A Lutheran speaking positively about good works.  Sadly, it does not happen enough.  You are sinful.  You are dead in your sin.  Your works cannot save you; only Christ’s work can save and justify you.  But the Word of God has become flesh to save you from your sins and to redeem you to new and everlasting life.  And now you can begin to do what you could never do before.  You have been remade by the power of the Word to want what was once forced upon you by the threat of the Law.  You have been re-created to bear the good fruit of good works in your lives.  The works are the same but you are different because of baptism and faith.  The Word has accomplished this.
    This is WHY we preach the Word of God.  And this is WHAT the Word says.   This message cannot be allowed to sit on the sidelines of the Church's life or the individual Christian's life.  This Word cannot be cast aside when it appears to be out of step with the world or irrelevant to the what the world thinks at any given moment.  It is in these moments when the Word is needed most of all.  This Word must speak whether it fits the mood of the hearer or is in synch with the times... or not.  This Word must be proclaimed in season and out of season.
    The Word speaks whether there are who will hear or not.  This does not mean that sometimes the Word will seem powerless or impotent, discarded on the side of life’s road.  What this means is that people do not make themselves ready to listen to the Word of God.  We do not make our ears, minds or hearts ready for the Word of God.  God imparts His Spirit through the Word so that ears will hear, hearts will be convicted, and minds enlightened.  God works through His Word to make the hearer ready for that Word.
    We do not have the option of plan B if it seems that people are not responding to God’s Word.  We have no back up plan or bag of tricks.  Our job is not to figure out what works but to faithfully speak the Word of God keep the visible Word of the Sacraments.  If there is any success for the Church, it will come because we faithfully speak God's Word.  If there is any fruit to our labors, that fruit will be born of the seed of the Word as it is spoken and lived out in the Church and in the lives of Christian people like you and me.
    As we recall today the noble mission of the Lutheran Women's Missionary League, we are mindful of the fact that this mission flows from the Word of God – not from the will and desire of people.  Where God's Word speaks, there will be people called, empowered, and set apart to do His bidding.  The first call of the LWML is to be in the Word of God; this is the place where God equips us to do His bidding.  That is true not just for the LWML but for everyone in this congregation.  Either our mission flows from the Word of God or all we are doing here is busy work that accomplishes nothing at all.
    God's Word is truth – He does not lie.  This is the foundation of our hope as Christian people and of our life together as His Church.  This Word means what it says, does what it says, and says what we need to hear.  It is not true because we believe it, we believe it because it is true.  It is not faith that gives us this confidence, but God’s faithfulness in the Word that does what it says – this is what beckons us to faith.  His faithfulness is the solid ground on which our lives of faith and service are built.  His Word is the faithful means that builds us to bear fruit.  Today we pray that the Spirit may come to us, open our ears, enlighten our minds, convict our hearts, and equip us to bear good fruit in our lives... and it all comes through the Word and the visible Word of the Sacraments.  Amen.

Too Weird to Make Up

Perhaps you've heard of the clown Eucharist. Or the U2charist. Or, for that matter, the pirate Eucharist

Now there's a new spin on the sacrament:

A Seusscharist?!?!

Check out more about this event on the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh's website.

HT to Fr. Bryan Owen (Creedal Christian) for the, ah, news...

Now lest you think this trivialization of the Eucharist flows only one way, we Lutherans have had clown Eucharists, polka Masses, and enough other oddities to, well, fill a hymnal... so to speak.  Maybe some Lutherans could go and tell us how to, ah, do one in our own parishes, eh?

Are We Better Off

When I instruct new members, I always speak of the drift of Lutherans from a myriad of separate groups divided by language, culture, location, and history into several larger groups (well, basically three or so, the ELCA, LCMS, and WELS).  Of course that is changing now due to the splits off the ELCA and I may have to do some adjusting.  Usually, people are surprised and pleased by the movement from many into several -- evidence of the ecumenical spirit and intensity of Lutheran efforts at reunion, reconciliation, and reorientation.  I usually let it go buy without much comment but lately I am wondering...  Are we better off because of all the mergers and reconfigurations that moved us from many smaller Lutheran church bodies into fewer and larger ones?

Missouri is the anomaly in this since the growth of the LCMS did not come from mergers or wholesale absorptions of existing bodies.  Missouri's growth came from planting congregations and growing them (at least until the late 1960s when the growth slowed, stopped, and then leaks started appearing).

My point is this.  Smaller church bodies, like smaller congregations, are much more adept at keeping track of their people, their programs, and their identity than larger ones.  When I look back to the turn of the twentieth century, Clifford Nelson notes no less than 20-25 different Lutheran church bodies in America.  Sure, many of them were loosely aligned in the General Synod, General Council, or Synodical Conference, but they were fully independent bodies with their own colleges, seminaries, missionaries, publishing arms, etc...  Now we are down to a very few larger bodies and a dozen or so very small bodies (my favorite is named ELF and an elf it is with but a couple of congregations).

Now I do not have access to attendance data from this earlier period in Lutheran history in America and I am not even sure that such information is even available.  My hunch is that in each of these smaller bodies the percentage of those attending the Divine Service (or "dry mass" as was more popular) was substantially higher than the percentage of members in the current bodies.  We speak of the ELCA with 4+ million members but only a relatively small percentage of them are in church on any given Sunday morning -- a million maybe.  Missouri does not fare much differently with something like 800,000 of our 2.4 million counted members actually in worship.

When most of these church bodies established colleges, they did so in order to help prepare people for the work of the kingdom.  The colleges were missions of the church bodies and kept close to the churches both in terms of student recruitment and financial support.  Now most Lutheran colleges are Lutheran in name only and their Lutheranism, like their ethnic background, is a heritage element and not part of their core identity.  The vast majority of students at these Lutheran colleges are not Lutheran and most of them no longer have "church worker" preparation programs.  Those that still do have only a small, small percentage of the student body enrolled in these majors or concentrations.

I could go on but I think it might be worth considering if we are really all that much better off for merging and uniting the many smaller Lutheran bodies into larger ones.  This has surely hastened the path toward a more liberal Lutheran identity in America, it has distanced the national offices further and further from the local parish, and, in many cases, led to great conflicts between the churches on a national level and the parochial one.  Who would disagree that the national scene offers us a distinctly different Lutheran identity today than a hundred years ago -- whether you would argue this was good or bad?  In addition, we have and continue to lose, misplace, or forget about thousands upon thousands every year (just look at the statistical reports published annually by nearly all of these bodies).  Sure there were theological controversies and conflicts but at least people took theology seriously.

So I am not so sure that the move of the Lutheran family from many, smaller, more ethnic and isolated church bodies into larger ones has borne much good fruit...  Makes you wonder about the whole ecumenical mission of one church with one headquarters and one mailing address...