Monday, February 28, 2011

The Galesburg Rule...

History is filled with loose ends and lost opportunities.  One of those represents the loose end and lost opportunity of some closer tie and even fellowship between the General Council (under the leadership of Charles Porterfield Krauth) and the Missouri Synod.  In the backdrop of the General Synod and its more "liberal" approach, Krauth prepared a series of theses on pulpit and altar fellowship. It became known as the “Akron-Galesburg Rule (short hand - Galesburg Rule),” and it basically said “Lutheran pulpits are for Lutheran ministers only, and Lutheran altars are for Lutheran communicants only.” This Rule was not without its permitted exceptions but it was  a watershed moment in the seemingly relentless drive of Lutheranism (General Synod) toward ecumenical relationships that ignored, overlooked, or wrote off Lutheran distinctives. 

The dates for this are long ago:  the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the General Council) began in 1867 at the efforts of seven regional Lutheran bodies who had left the General Synod.  Krauth stood in opposition to Samuel Simon Schmucker (not the jelly and jam kind) who had led Lutheranism in America away from its Confession and toward a theological understanding more at home with the Protestantism of the US at that time.

History is a cycle and if we fail to learn its lessons the first time, it will come around again and offer us another shot at it.  So we face a situation remarkably similar today.  On one hand we have a Lutheranism willing to forgo all sorts of Lutheran distinctives in favor of a broad ecumenical endeavor in which diversity is more the organizing principle than unity of confession.  This same group has jumped on the bandwagon of social change and expressed support for same sex marriage and opened the ministerium to gay people in PALMS (publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships).  On the other hand, we have a Lutheranism which is united in opposition to these but not so much united together (LCMS, WELS, ELS, et. al.).

Which gets me back to the Galesburg Rule -- once a hallmark of Lutheran identity and confession.  We continue to await a person like Krauth who can rally those opposed to the Schmuckerisms of our present day situation (in the ELCA toward mainline Protestants and in Missouri toward evangelicals) and lead us back to some unanimity and unity about what it means to be Lutheran in this place and at this time.

We are in a crisis situation -- a crisis of leadership.  This is not only because we face of dearth of individuals with national identity, authority, and persuasive character to lead us.  This is also because we do not want to be led.  It seems now more than ever we are content with the fractures as long as they hold out a place for each of us as Pastors and parishes in which to hide and do our own things.  We in Missouri face a group of people who are constantly moving the markers of purity to make it a smaller and smaller path.  They in the ELCA face people who are constantly moving the markers of openness until no one is excluded no matter what they believe (except perhaps, traditionalists).  Yet we have not united or sought the unanimity which allows us to become a force for reckoning the way the Galesburg Rule became a force to rally and reframe the American Lutheran identity for years to come.

Ahhhh for a Krauth to be raised up today and take advantage of the environment in a way that our fore bearers did not in the middle and late 1800s....  

Just some Monday thoughts as it rains cats and dogs outside...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

You Don't Have to Be a Pastor to Get It...

Last week I spent a day with my wife and we walked through antique malls and the like.  On our way back home, we decided to stop at the Burlington Coat Factory store in Nashville.  I was wandering down the pants aisle and stopped to look at a couple of pair of pants (but did not buy).  It was then I heard a conversation.  The men would standing only a few feet away and were not talking in whispered tones.  The topic of their conversation was compelling, surprising, and encouraging.

The two guys were in their early twenties, good looking, well dressed young Black men talking about church.  One took the lead inviting the other to come to church with him.  The other was leery of it and not shy about saying why.  "I am sick and tired of going to churches that talk about how to be blessed and get wealth or success.  It is the same message nearly everywhere I go.  Believe this, do this, pray this and God will give you money and bless you.  They talk about an anointing of money and success.  Well, I go out dancin and I drink (sometimes too much).  I don't pray all that much and I am doin better off than some of my friends who try to be good and all that."

He gets it.  If Christianity is about getting ahead financially or materially or in terms of happiness, and you are doing okay now, then why would you need it?  He was expressing burn out from churches that all say the same thing and offer the same "blessing."  But he was still interested in faith.

He went on to say, "I don't know where to find a church that is interested in me and not my money.  I wish I could find a church that would talk to me about something more than how to get ahead or stay ahead or be happy.  I know I need God but most of the churches that I have gone to think all I need is a blessing of money from God.  If I could find me a church like that, I would be interested."

The Christian who had invited this man to go to church with him was now on the defense.  He denied that his church was like that (and I don't know anything to doubt him).  But he did insist that talking so much about money and happiness was a trick to get folks into the church (but in this case, it did not work so well).  He did not give up and began to describe how Christianity was a blessing to him.  About this time another guy showed up, seemed to be a friend to one or both of the previous fellows, and he entered the conversation.

I was just about mustering up the nerve to offer him my business card and say when he was wanted to find a church interested in his soul, in the forgiveness of his sins, in the emptiness of a life that could end in death at any moment, or that offered him the fullness of the mystery of God's presence through the Word and Sacraments, he should give me a call...  And then the three of them took off for a different part of the store and they were gone...

But this is not simply a post about my lack of courage... this is a story of a man who "got it."  He got it so much he was sick of it all.  If all that "church" offered him was how to get a financial anointing or a blessing for success or a pathway to happiness, he did not need it.  And I would suspect he was speaking for a lot of folks his age who might think of church in the same way they think of the pressing need for health insurance or disability insurance or nursing home insurance.  But it was clear that he was looking for a church that had a spiritual center (and one not inside the person of the believer).  He might have been ready for a church that offered him the presence of God, hidden where He has made Himself accessible, in the Word that does what it promises and the Sacraments that convey the gifts of grace.  If I had the nerve to interrupt their conversation, private but not quiet, I might have given him something to consider.  I console myself in that it was not a conversation to which I had been invited and it was 60 miles away from where my parish is... but that is another story.

This guy had been to a number of churches that claimed to be Christian and found them all the same -- interested in making this life more abundant with more money, more success, or more happiness... or interested in getting more money, success, or people for their churches.  What he had not yet found was a church that proclaimed the Word of the Cross.  I am convinced that this is exactly the issue with Christians, and with some Lutherans, today.  Instead of proclaiming the Word of the Cross we have taken over the message of the Osteens, Warrens, and Hybels of this world, whose Christianity is an enhancement of the mortal life and not primarily the gift of eternal life, the application of forgiveness to the guilty, the restoration of the lost to the family of God, and the grace sufficient to sustain us through the ups and downs of this life...

It was just a few minutes near the dress pants sale aisle of the Burlington Coat Factory but it told me a great deal.... When Christians proclaim a "gospel of success" (theology of glory) that is hardly different from the other gurus of happiness, she ceases being the distinctive community of faith, built upon grace, centered in the cross that Christ established....

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Too Embarrassing...

I read with interest a brief conversation in which a Roman Catholic asked an anonymous priest to hear his confession.  "Why don't you go to your own parish?" the man was asked by the priest.  "Oh, Lord, no.  It has been a while since my last confession and my sins are too embarrassing to say to my own priest..."

Ahhhh, but that is the point, isn't it.  Sin is always embarrassing.  It shames us and stains us.  What is the worth of confessing sins that do not embarrass us or cause us shame or burden us with guilt?  This is a good thing when sin creates such a stir within us, a panic of shame and guilt.  That is the good work of God within us.  It is the solid voice of the conscience in which the Law still speaks and the heart is still wounded.  When this happens, we are made ready for grace.

The problem is not with sin that embarrasses us.   The problem is when our sins no longer embarrass us.  The problem is when we can slough off our shame and dust off our guilt and go one with nary a prick to remind us we are the walking wounded, the living dead.  When this happens the voice of the Gospel is silent to us because our hearts remain hardened to God's voice.  If we cannot hear the prickly voice of the Law, we surely cannot hear the sweet sound of grace and mercy.

During the confession on Sunday mornings, I instinctively beat my chest and with bowed head confess that I am by nature a sinner, that I have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and what I have left undone...  At that very moment I feel most unworthy of the name given to me in baptism, of my place as child of my parents and husband and father in my own home, and of the office I wear as Pastor to these people.  What others do not know, I do know and it is the most uncomfortable feeling that there is.  I know the hidden sins that are there even if I do not see them.  I know the secret sins that are known only to God and to me.  I know the public sins that people could stand up and shout out loud right then and there.  It is a moment of self-awareness that I wish I could escape but one that I must endure if I am to find release and peace.

When I make private confession, not often enough, by the way, I am almost unnerved by the prospect of speaking out loud those things that continue to trouble my heart even though I have heard absolution over and over again.  Shame, guilt, and embarrassment are the currency of sin and we cannot find peace until we are prepared to spend them honestly in confession to the Lord.  But we are never left there.  What the Law has cut open, grace excises.  What the Law has exposed, grace heals.  What the Law has laid  bare, sin repairs and covers over.  That is the healing power of the absolution, a sacramental word that does not speak about forgiveness but delivers forgiveness to the wounded, bleeding, dying sinner until he is gone and only life remains -- the new life that is ours in Christ.  This is no mere second chance but redemption paid for with the priceless blood of our Savior so that it may be full and free to you and me.

No, the problem is not with sin that embarrasses, shames, and guilts us... the problem is when it fails to do this.  Then we are in deep trouble for the conscience designed by God to bring us to our knees has been held captive to the lies we tell ourselves and to the illusion of freedom we get when we hide behind explanations, justifications, and qualifications...  Grace always heals but for it to heal, the Law must prepare the wound.

And for those who want consolation without the shame and embarrassment of confessing before another person, there is also an app for that.  You can confess to your I-phone and receive techno absolution without the unpleasantness of having to enumerate those sins out loud.  A couple of clicks on the touch screen and it all goes away.  But of course, a confession app is hardly what the Lord had in mind in Matthew 16, 18, and John 20.  But that has never stopped us before so take a look and see if it "works for you."

I remember a Lutheran who said to me that she could never go to private confession because it would be too embarrassing to admit her sins to a Pastor.  Is is more embarrassing to admit them to a Pastor than it is to God?  To those against whom we have sinned?  Now, there is something wrong with that picture... wrong, indeed.

I think the movie was called "Heaven Help Us."  The setting was a Roman Catholic boys school in Brooklyn in 1965.  The boys were lined up for confession.  Kevin Dillon's character is the typical big man on campus.  He checks the cheat sheets of the boys going to confession and tells one of them, "You can't say that."  But, of course, we can.  We should.  The truth is not our enemy.  Denial is.  Where sin is truly spoken, there grace speaks greater still.

Friday, February 25, 2011

In Pursuit of Virtue

Virtue has become almost an impediment to normal human development and is either judged beyond our reach or provincial and passe'.  We love to talk about goodness and holiness and purity but we seem to prefer being bad, living in sin, and being dirty.  I am certainly not the first or the only one to notice this.  But what troubles me is that we as Christians seem to give passing, if grudging, agreement to the idea that virtue is either unattainable or not worth the trouble (given the world in which we live).  No matter how you slice it, this is a sad and troubling day when even Christians no longer seem excited about or pledged to pursue the path of virtue.

A friend of mine alerted me to the new app for your phone that alerts you to the nearest place where you can obtain free condoms.  Apparently lust is not only rampant but urgent -- not to mention cheap.  Sad day when you won't even spring for the cost of a prophylactic in order to indulge your desire.  We seem resigned to the fact that no one of any age has any will or desire to resist the urge to have sex.  Abstinence programs are seen as either religiously incongruous with free choice or ineffective when fifteen year olds think it is time to "do it."  If that is the case, and even Christians confess the implausibility of abstinence, then we have not only surrendered virtue, we have given up on that which distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and the nobility God claims to have placed within us.

I could mention a thousand other areas in which the path of virtue is either no longer taken seriously or deemed an impossible burden but the phone app for free condoms seemed too easy a target.  In all of this the point is not about sex but about the nature of our will and virtue as both gift and goal of moral and Christian life.  As Lutherans we are quick to remind folks that they are forgiven, that no sin is greater than God's mercy, and that God dwells and eats among sinners.  But are we as quick to raise up the higher path of a virtuous life as not some silly pie in the sky goal but the genuine and real aim of our Christian lives?

Judging from the great unpopularity of private confession and also on the basis of the pseudo contemporary confessions used in so many worship services, we seem to want forgiveness without actually admitting that we are poor, miserable sinners.  As I have often reminded, we are not miserable because we try sinning and just cannot seem to get the hang of it in order to do it well.  No, we sin because we are miserable sinners, as Dale Meyer would put it.  It is who we are and what we do since the Fall.  No denying that.  But what of the baptismal death and resurrection in which we died with Christ the death to sin in order to rise in Christ as His new creation?  Is this not also real?  Is this new life and the transformation of our minds, wills, and desires only a dream?  Or, is it real enough for us to seek out the path of virtue and, by the grace of God, attain it from time to time?

It seems to me that we Lutherans (me included) need to raise up goodness and righteousness a bit more.  We would do well to preach the goal of our lives in Christ as well as the reality of the justification and redemption that is ours in Christ (third use of the Law, anyone?).  Virtue may be hidden but it is alive and well.  There are folks even within my own family and parish whose lives constantly inspire me.  They do not settle for the mean or the average or the base of mortal life but are people of good will and good spirit in Christ.  I wish that I was more like them.  I am not.  But that does not keep me from holding myself to a high standard and from encouraging virtue upon me and those who are called with me in those baptismal waters.  I know that in my own heart expedience is too often the substitute for virtue, and one I that I settle for too easily.

This is also the source of great frustration for some in my parish - not that we are sinners but that we seem too content in this sin and too comfortable with who we are instead of striving to be something more.  I am not unsympathetic.  Sometimes the nature of our conversation even in the halls of the church building is coarse and vulgar.  Sometimes we sound way too much like tax collectors with a tinge of guilt instead of sinners who, by the aid of the Spirit, long to be holy.

Some recent circumstances in my life have caused this to boil over.  In theological conversation with family, we talked about this.  Time and time again we spoke of sin as a poison on our souls and it is not just forgiveness we desire but to be rid of the desires that give birth to our guilt and shame.  We long to be holy not simply because it is good and God-pleasing but because unholiness is like an open wound, bleeding and weakening and infecting every aspect of our daily lives.  Virtue is not simply the path we should seek but the path of hope in Christ, of love in Christ, and of grace from Christ.  Virtue is the pursuit of our humanity, stolen from us by sin in the fall and restored to us in Christ when we were baptized.  So let us aim higher and preach for this higher goal -- not in exchange for the preaching of the cross but because the preaching of the cross either empowers us under the Spirit to reach for this or it has not been heard at all...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Heaven of Our Best Memories

This week included sharing a moment with a couple on the anniversary of their fourth child's birth and death (one day apart).  It was shocking to me that a whole year had passed.  I knew it in my mind but not in my heart.  I expect it was the same for them -- only so much more so intense.  For one brief, fragile moment, they both had and lost this child of promise.  The very moments that were so very hurtful in that short two day life were now the most precious of their memories.  Strange how that works out -- almost like God planned it that way....

C.S. Lewis once suggested that heaven is a place where we may in fact recreate our best memories.  It is a remarkable quote.  And ever so true.  Heaven is a place in our imagination and it is reserved only for our best and warmest and most wonderful memories.  But those memories were often once hurtful and painful.  Only God can shave off their sharp edges and turn the wounds of our yesterdays into our best memories to carry into tomorrow.

As I look back on a mind filled with snippets of more than 30 years as a Pastor, in two different congregations, I find that the remarkable memories that remain were once fearful and sorrowful but have become the blessed memories that I want never to forget.  Sure, my mind is also filled with those memories that were never wounds but only joys.  And I am thankful for them.  But I am most thankful for the way God has granted me to recall what was once hurtful and to find these memories softened and remolded by His grace so that they, too, occupy the little bit of heaven I have created in my imagination.

I think of taking a wife and four young daughters in to say good bye to their dying husband and father, a man whose mother I had buried, whose father I had found dead in his home and sat vigil there for hours waiting for a rural coroner to come... I think of standing at the cemetery biting back tears as I laid to rest a woman who had become family --the last word that I blurted out was "Christ is risen" and instinctively the people responded "He is risen." and then after speaking the comfort of the resurrection, I turned away to sob at the wound of my own loss... I think of a late night phone call from an elderly parishioner whose 97 year old husband lay ill in the hospital -- "Pastor, I just heard Jesus say 'Today you shall be with me in paradise;' Fritz is gone."  I argued with her since no call had come from the hospital.  But when the hospital called they said Fritz had died at the moment in her dream when she heard Christ's words...  In life God has surrounded us with His love and care and in death we are not on our own.  So powerful are these once sorrowful and now blessed memories that they have become a part of the little heaven I carry around in my imagination.

Russ Saltzman over at First Things has written of the "Shangri-La" effect of a Pastor's first call and how, for most of us, that place occupies the most sacred space in the canopy of heaven that we carry with us.  For sure this is true of the heart, if not the mind.  But more than this, the windows to our future often are formed by God in the blank walls of our past wounds, hurts, and failures...   Ahhh, what a gift God has given us in these precious memories.  If they are but a small portion of the heavenly vision that awaits us, truly St. Paul has spoken well -- it is beyond imagination the joy and bliss that awaits us.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Beauty and Ugliness

I love art -- uhhhhh, let me rephrase that -- I love good art, art that is noble and beautiful.  Not all art is that.  Not even all religious art.  Some of it is crap.  It is ugly and its ugliness offends not only God but each of us as children of God.

We live in an age in which we spare no expense for creature comforts -- even in religious buildings -- but we do not spend money on that which is beautiful, that which inspires the soul and helps us aspire to things noble.  Nowhere is this more true than in the many ugly churches out there.  I am not talking cheap and ugly -- beauty is not always extravagant -- but just plan ugly.  This kind of ugly happens in churches large and small, with big budgets and with small ones.  I am amazed at how ugly many modern religious buildings are -- like glorified stadiums designed more to give everyone a good seat for the entertainment and, absent that, a good view toward the screen where the live action is replayed via technology.  We spend all sorts of money on this technology, on sound systems, and praise bands and then stick them in huge barn-like structures that are so darn ugly.

The miracle of all of this is that Christ deigns to come even to ugly places.  He does not reserve His presence for the beautiful or noble places where His people dwell.  He comes to us in our plain spaces and even in our ugly buildings.  It is a miracle of grace that He comes to places that are almost offensive to the beauty of His holiness and the majesty of His grace.  Yet this is not a reason why we should keep on building ugly buildings and filling them with ugly things and call it religion.

A Melkite Catholic once called the Roman Church “industrial-scale Christianity that turns the Mass into a Eucharist factory.” I picked up this quote from another blogger and loved it.  Industrial scale Christianity.  Hmmmmm.  Now that is a phrase you can get your hands around.  The new buildings of many churches are just that -- industrial scale."  And what takes place within those facilities are less the mysteries of which God has allowed His priests to steward and more the production line of grace where getting them in and getting them out in 59 minutes has become as tightly choreographed as the modern production line.  Now does this affect the validity?  No, Christ is where two or three are gathered in His name and His name is where His Word and Sacraments are.  So our ugliness does not prevent Christ from working as He has promised but neither does the ugliness we offer Him befit Him or honor Him.

We seemed poised for worship to offer ourselves the expensive oil that anoints us with AC in summer and heat in the winter, with chairs that sit well and have cup holders, with the latest and greatest technology for audio and visual... but are we ready to offer Him the expensive oil of our best, our noblest endeavors, our greatest works of art and music, and the beauty made by our hands inspired by His grace?  It is about time.  Long after the fragile industrial grade religious structures of today are torn down and forgotten, the great buildings of other eras will continue to stand, their glass shine with the images of the faith, and their artwork call our eyes to the faith...  Christ does not require our best or great beauty in order to fulfill the promise of His means of grace but He is surely worthy of no less from us...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Rules of Real Estate and Biblical Interpretation

When you talk to your realtor about buying or selling a house, renting an apartment, etc., he will tell you that there are three things most important in determining price, desirability, and a quick close:  Location, Location, Location.  I have watched enough house and garden TV to know this.  But what the realtor tells you is also the exact same thing that the Biblical exegete tells you -- only he uses another word for location:  Context, Context, Context.

When people come to me as Pastor to ask about specific passages in Scripture, the problem is almost always one of context.  When we pull passages out of their context, what they mean may change and may change dramatically.  When we say Scripture interprets itself, part of this means that a passage is made clear to us by its context, first of all, and then by other Scripture passages in the same book, and then finally by other passages from the whole of Scripture.  Location, Location, Location.

Part of the problem with the way we read Scriptures is that we approach them with the same enthusiasm as reading the directions for putting together the pieces of furniture we bought at the home store.  We dive in and start assembling until we run into a problem and then we run to the step that is causing us the problem, forgetting that each step before this lays the context for what we do in, say, step 12.  So when we as Christians only know God's Word with a vague familiarity, we tend to rush to (or through the concordance seek out) specific passages that may be appropriate to our question or need.  Often, after we read them we are left with more questions than answers.  Why?  Well, in part because we do not see the passage through the lens of its surroundings.

For those in the three year lectionary, this has particularly been true during Epiphany with its extended sojourns into the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel.  If we pull out a passage here or there, we are left with a far different understanding of what it says than if it all hangs together.  Which is why I have been quoting from previous weeks of sermons as we make our way through the end of this Epiphany season.  Context, Context, Context.

Pres. Matt Harrison put it pointedly when it comes to prayer.  Quoting Luther and applying the Word to our present day situation, he tells us the reason that we do not know how to pray is that we do not know God's Word and therefore do not know the promises contained in that Word and thus do not know what to say when we pray -- except an endless list of our self-identified wants and needs.  Knowing the Word of God is not theoretical but practical -- it informs our prayer life and shapes our hearts for that life of prayer.

In that respect, I am not so much a fan of reading the whole Bible through.  It is a good thing to do after you have spent time in specific places.  By spending time, I mean reading a book over and over again until its words become familiar to you.  It is then that you find how things fit together, how the message hangs together, and what the context is for the specific passages you have read.  So I would never counsel someone to begin their journey through the Scriptures by starting at Genesis and then reading through to Revelation.  I would instead suggest beginning with one of the Gospels and reading it through several times (Matthew, in particular).

Prooftexting is often the methodology of those who know the Scriptures least of all.  Stringing together an endless litany of passages in order to prove your point is generally a case of using Scripture to say what you want to say and not necessarily letting Scripture speak for itself.  It is by far better to know one whole book well than to know bits and pieces of it all, drawn out of context, cut and pasted together as if Scripture were  source material for a paper you were doing.

For this reason being in the Word of God is not a mere matter of reading a snippet of Scripture, like a calendar with a passage a day.  Being in the Word of God means being captive to that Word, reading, knowing, and inwardly digesting it (could not resist that old collect).  I would suggest that we remember the rules of Biblical interpretation (Location, Location, Location) and become intimately familiar with specific sections (like the Gospel according to St. Matthew).  This is the best start for those who want to know the Word.  Of course, don't stop there but that is a great way to begin.  Until, hopefully, the day comes when the Word read on Sunday mornings comes to you as the familiar voice that you have often heard and not the startling voice of a stranger whom you do not know...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Justice or Mercy

Sermon preached for Epiphany 7A, on Sunday, February 20, 2011.

    Many of us complain that the justice system in our country is broken.  It seems the justice takes way too long, that guilt is not punished, and that the punishment is inequitable.  In those moments we long for the Old Testament justice of an eye for an eye.  In a sense, that is exactly what the Sharia law of Islam offers – blind, swift, and equal justice.  When you are the victim, an eye for an eye sounds great.  But when you are guilty, it does not sound so good.  Today Jesus confronts us with the difference between justice and mercy.
    Justice is the realm of the Law.  Mercy is the new domain of the Gospel in Christ Jesus.  Now, the problem is this.  We cannot live in one domain toward God and live in another domain in the way you relate to one another.  The realm of justice is fair and equal punishment; the realm of the Gospel is mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
    Justice is blind.  Remember the statue of lady justice holding the scales?  Her eyes are covered.  Justice is blind – so that justice is not affected by how a person looks or how much money he or she has.  For justice to be equitable, justice has to be blind.  It is only in this way that everyone is treated just as he or she deserves – not by who you are or what you have.
    Justice is black and white.  There are no ambiguities or extenuating circumstances.  There is no room for justification or excuses of the wrong.  Right is right and wrong is wrong.  Period.  You always know where you stand with this kind of justice.  You always know what to expect from this kind of justice.  It may not be what you want or desire, but this kind of justice is perfectly predictable.
    Justice offers no recourse, second chances, or do-overs.  There is only the fair and appropriate punishment to fit the wrong.  Justice is neat and tidy but it is also blunt and brutal.  There is no justice like this on earth – no objective and perfectly equitable justice.  Ours is always flawed and, in the case of our country, flawed on the side of mercy.  Only God's justice is perfect.
    But do we want God's justice?  From the Garden of Eden the law has been perfectly clear: Do this and you will die.  And from the Garden of Eden on the justice of the law has kept us captive.  We die.  There is no escape.  There is no excuse or justification or explanation.  Death has passed to all because of sin.  This is our heritage from Adam and this is the truth made perfectly clear in the law of Moses.  Wrong is wrong and wrong is punishable by death.  We did not like but we understood it.  We even constructed the laws of nations and states and cities as a reflection of this justice we learned.
    But justice cannot save.  Justice cannot redeem.  Justice may be blind but the eyes of mercy are always wide open and see ever so clearly through the lens of love.  These are the eyes of Jesus who saw what the cross would demand from Him to save us and who saw our redemption as the fruit of His death.  This is the miracle of Christ whose love forgives even those who are killing him/
    Justice is stingy but mercy is lavish and generous.  Mercy gives to the unworthy and the undeserving what they do not deserve and dare not request.  Mercy does not discount the wrong but love pays the price of that wrong so that forgiveness may flow, full and clean.  Justice is black and white but mercy is only white – the white robe of Christ's righteousness that covers up all our sin and wrong.
    Now, don’t get me wrong.  Mercy does not overlook sin as if it does not matter.  Mercy pays the penalty for that sin and wrong – not the guilty pays but the innocent who is Jesus Christ. In this way, mercy always is the last and final word–it trumps justice every time because it pays the price justice demands and then gives away its freedom and grace.

    The heart and core of Christianity is the cross where God shows us not His justice but His mercy, where love is revealed by our Lord who stands where we should stand, the innocent for the guilty, paying our price for sin with His suffering and death.  Sin does not just go away.  It either has to be punished or forgiven.  It is the miracle of mercy that we are not punished but forgiven.   This mercy was won by Jesus' obedient suffering.  God has promised never to change His mind.  Mercy is His final word in Christ Jesus.
    Now the question that comes to us is this: where will we walk?  Will we walk on the path of justice or mercy?  By forgiving us, God has invited us to walk with Him the path of mercy.  This is not merely a one sided relationship with Him but a path in which mercy flows through us to those around us. Forgiving each other as He has forgiven us does not mean we overlook or discount sin and wrong.  What it means is that we look beyond it through the lens of mercy and walk the second mile that only grace can lead us to.
    Mercy is not weakness but the greatest strength of all.  We forgive not because we are weak but because we are strong.  Just as God's greatest strength is not the power to cause disaster or his wrath but the mercy that pays for our sin and release us from its chains in Christ Jesus.  So we are not being asked to be weak nor to ignore sin's wrong.  We are being asked to look to the cross where forgiveness and mercy flow.  To us... and through us...
    Nations and governments must live by the law for our protection.  We abide by those laws as dutiful citizens and we accept the punishment those laws meet out because these are the rules we live by.  But as the family of God the Church and as individual Christians in our relationships with those around us, we live by a different standard.  We live by mercy and forgiveness. Our enemies are won over not because we are right, but because we act honorably and mercifully.  Our reward is not because we are right, but because we are faithful in showing to others the mercy we have in Christ.
    Justice may be neat and tidy but mercy is always messy.  This means that our relationships are made messy by the fact that we are not always repentant or forgiving.  Mercy is not a new law or demand placed upon us but a gift and an opportunity.  Here on earth, mercy means that we may forgive some in our hearts but a lack of repentance means we cannot speak this word face to face until repentance prepares the way.  It means that we are called to act in good faith with all those around us and where others do not respond in the good faith and good will of Christ, we nevertheless pray for them and pray for day to come soon when mercy will reconcile us on earth as Christ’s mercy has brought us peace with God.  When mercy cannot win over our brother or sister, let it not be because we are unwilling to show it.
    If we would choose to let justice govern our relationships here on earth, our lives in Christ enjoying His mercy are a shame and false.  Rather let us be faithful in showing this mercy, in praying for our enemies and those who persecute us, and let us pray fervently for that day when every barrier may be removed and we may show on earth the warm embrace of reconciliation and peace that we have received from God in Christ Jesus. 

Do not be infants in the faith... Grow up.

Sermon preached for Epiphany 6A, on Sunday, February 13, 2011.

    One of my favorite series of commercials is the baby who talks for eTrade. It is always funny when a baby talks about things no child is supposed to know like the stock market. The other side is not so funny - when adults act like children. Today we are reminded that there is nothing cute in remaining infants in the faith and we are called to grow up and mature in faith. As a child grows, we tailor the food to the ability to digest it. So a baby moves from breast milk to formula to cereal and baby food and then to bits of food from the parent's place and finally to his or her own plate and a regular meal.
    Now the child is not so keen on all of this and in fact nearly all children would rather stick with the bottle than to progress to solid food. It is a struggle sometimes to wean a child off the bottle but parents do it because they knew it is in the child's best interest. Unfortunately, there are too many Christians content with baby food when it comes to Scripture and the faith. Too many are content being spoon fed instead of digesting the solid food of God's Word and living out this faith in lives of spiritual maturity and devotion.
    Today St. Paul tells us what, undoubtedly, we heard from our parents when we were children: Grow up.  But this call is about growing up into the solid food of God's Word.  You see exactly what he is talked about in Jesus' words in the Gospel reading for today.  So today we are admonished by St. Paul to chew upon the solid food of God's Word and to begin to digest that food with solid Biblical understanding.
    Too often the faith is often dished out as baby food - which is well and good for infants in the faith but we cannot stay there. “Jesus loves me this I know” is certainly the kernel of the Gospel a child may understand but this is not its fullness. If that was all we needed, that would have been all God gave us.  He gave us much more and so we are to progress from baby food to  spiritual maturity of understanding and of commitment. Nothing else will do.
    In the Gospel Jesus confronts this very thing.  The teachers of the Law had taught the Law in a childish way where avoiding wrong was the same as doing right. The Pharisees thought faith was merely a matter of avoiding the bad. So they crafted an understanding of the Law which made it possible to keep the commandments. They were comfortable in their error and shocked when Jesus insists it is not that simple.
    Murder is not simply causing the physical death of someone but any killing words designed to harm and wound. Peace with God is not some escape from the calI to live in peace with those around you. Adultery is not simply the act of unfaithfulness but lust born of impure desire. Divorce is not simply about following the rules of Moses but about living faithfully when love is difficult and hearts grow distant. Swearing is any use of God's name outside or prayer, praise, worship, and witness.
    Jesus taught a deeper understanding of what the Law requires, of what sin has done to us, and what it means to walk on the path of the Gospel. Baby food turns faith into a shadow of reality and ignores why the cross was needed and what the fruits of the cross are meant to bear in our daily lives.  Our Lord calIs us to the solid food where we dig into His Word for our selves and learn to distinguish Law and Gospel, recognizing what demands from us and what is God's accomplishment, declaration, and gift to us. Our Lord seeks Christians who will not be shifted on the changing sands of teaching that blows different with every breath of change but Christians who hear the difference between truth and falsehood and who follow the truth.
    Our Lord insists that faith is not window dressing designed to fix up the outside of our lives. Jesus is not interested in external makeovers but in cleansing the desires of our hearts so that the Spirit may bear His good fruit in our lives.  Jesus is not interested in manufacturing a righteousness we can all attain but in giving us His own perfect righteousness to live on the inside and shine on the outside of us.
    So then repentance is not some simplistic call to be better people or live better lives but the fruit of God's redeeming work within us by the Spirit. It flows from the death we die with Christ in baptism and blossoms in the life we have in Christ because of baptism. We often act as if God were shallow enough to be pleased when we do what is right but our hearts are not in it. The call of the Lord is not to an external make over but to the death and resurrection of baptism that makes us new in Christ, that transforms our minds and understanding in Christ, and that leads us to walk with Christ in our daily lives.
    Here forgiveness is not a selfish possession to be hoarded but the very currency of love which we spend freely and lavishly upon one another - just as God has spent it on us. In this way our lives together flow not from some external rule but from hearts reborn in love to manifest this love to others.
    Our life together is shaped not by what we have to do or even what we should do but what God has done for us, in us, and now works through us. This is mercy's call to live as understanding people, mature by the Holy Spirit, living out in faith what baptism has declared us to be.
    So I call upon you today. Do not be content to live as infants in the faith, children in your relationships to one another. Do not be content with a childish understanding of God's Word, living on the fringes of the faith instead of here, at the center, where Christ gives us the gift of Himself. Do not be naive in your thinking, believing that God is only concerned with how you relate to Him and not how you relate to each other in Christ or that His only concern is with how you appear and not what flows from your heart.
    It may seem fun and easy to live as children but when adults act like infants in the faith, it is not cute but downright ugly.  You and I are called to grow up into Christ who is our head, to reach for a mature knowledge and understanding of His Word, to relate to one another in the very same way He relates to us – through love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  This is a hard word and yet a hard word we need to hear.  Too many of us are not deeply rooted in Christ, in the Scriptures or His Church.  We live as infants in the faith instead of heeding His call to grow up into Christ who is our head.  We cannot afford to live in this lie any longer.  Pray with me, brothers and sisters in Christ, that the Spirit work to grant us maturity of understanding and commitment, that we may life faithful and fruitful lives in Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Last Best Hope

Lutheranism is alive and well but the specific incarnations of Lutheranism are not in such uniform great condition.  As you survey Lutheranism in America, you find that this is even more true.  On the one hand you have the radical success of books proclaiming the confessional Lutheran identity and the thousands upon thousands of Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions volumes sold -- largely to the lay.  On the other hand you have the boneheaded actions of Lutheran bodies such as the ELCA and its antinomian rejection of Scripture and natural law in order to accept and promote a radical social agenda.  And to be fair, you have Missouri's dalliance with evangelicalism (and, perhaps, fundamentalism) because there are those who have lost confidence in the means of grace.  On the one hand you have more Lutheran congregations observing a weekly Eucharist than ever before but you have some Lutherans intent on a communion policy that seems to say "y'all come" while others solemnly close the door to the rail in front of you.  On the one hand you have Lutherans talking more and more about the Bible but on the other you have some who laugh at taking the Bible literally and others who will fight to the death for its inerrancy but have lost confidence in the efficacy of the Word.  I have no doubt that Lutheranism will survive but sometimes I am not so sure about the physical incarnations of Lutheranism in the national Lutheran judicatories.

That said, I believe that this is Missouri's moment.  In many respects, Missouri represents the last best hope for a national Lutheran church body that is confessional, evangelical, catholic, Biblical, and liturgical.  I wish that I saw the same opportunities in other Lutheran bodies in America, but I do not.  The ELCA has many fine Pastors and many fine congregations but there is a different spirit there that does not take to speaking of the Scriptures as infallible or to the third use of the Law which means that certain things are always wrong -- no matter where our culture and society are headed.  I have many friends in the ELCA but few of them are really interested in Missouri.  They would be content with an ELCA minus the sexuality decisions of August 09.  They are not ready to roll back the ordination of women or a Biblical perspective which interprets Scripture differently from other books or literature or history.  In the end, I do not see that an ELCA rolled back to before the summer of 09 will end up in any different place.  Sadly, you can often find the liturgy observed more liturgically in the ELCA than in Missouri (with all of its contemporary worship) yet it seems that some are going through the motions and not listening to the Word in that liturgy or the Scriptures read from the lectionary.

Missouri is by no means perfect -- far from it.  What Missouri has going for it is a conversation that is still saturated with confessional language, perspective, and authority.  We may not have arrived at the end of this dialog but at least we are getting the vocabulary right.  This is, in good measure, because theology is not only a clerical enterprise but we have lay folks who are reading good Lutheran theology and holding their Pastors and church body ever more accountable to the Lutheranism they are reading about.  In addition, we have a pastoral theologian as our President.  Pres. Harrison is a theologian (something Kieschnick never claimed to be) but more than that -- he can preach it.  His gift is not his intelligence or his wit (both true) but his ability to speak it pastorally and yet pointedly to call us home to who we claim to be in our Confessions.  He knows the Word and it overflows in His presentations.  He is not canned but genuine -- a man with flaws but also with perhaps the right gifts for this moment.  If we will listen to him, he will draw us into the kind of theological conversation designed to bring us together not around him or any others but around Scripture and our Confessions.

We have a publishing house which has been pumping out volumes of good Lutheran theology -- both reprints of old works and new books from young authors.  I am amazed at how many CPH books I have in my library.  It was not that many years ago, CPH seemed to have lost its way as the publishing arm of our Synod but now it is leading us through so many fine resources.  We have a fine hymnal filled with treasures new and old -- a hymnal that is certainly connected to our past and a bridge to that past yet not some repristination of yesteryear.  It offers the Pastor and congregation a book with plenty of options and resources to enhance the Sunday morning experience within the creative parameters of both catholicity and faithful confession.  And there is more to come.  And most of our congregations are using this book -- happily!!

We have two fine seminaries (though I am naturally partial to Ft. Wayne) and they are poised to offer us both theological wisdom for the tensions and temptations of this modern age as well as their primary mission to prepare and form Pastors for the Church.  Our colleges are not yet where the seminaries are but they are improving (especially Mequon).

So when I say I am Missouri Synod, I do not say with with the regret of someone whose heart is longing to be somewhere else.  I am not beating my chest.  We have a long way to go and I am not naive about the dangers and difficulties before us.  I am Lutheran and Missouri Lutheran by conviction.  And when I say Missouri is perhaps the last, best hope of Lutheranism in America, I am not trumpeting Missouri as an institution nor insisting that revival cannot come to other Lutheran bodies.  I am merely saying that I believe right now many things have come together to make this Missouri's moment.  And with that, I might ask, what we will do with all that God has given to us, right now, today?

So when I criticize my church body, it is not the despair of someone who believes the old gal is dead or dying.  It is the hopeful criticism who believes we are not yet what we can be and should be -- given the gifts, resources, and faithfulness that is our heritage and, hopefully, our legacy, too.  I am not generally a negative person.  I have strong feelings and opinions (no surprise to you, there, huh).  But I am truly hopeful and thankful for this moment -- this window of opportunity.  So I hope you will join me in some joyful celebration of the many things that have come together for us now, in being hopeful for our future, and in holding each of us accountable for the hope and grace that is ours right now.  Let us not squander this opportunity or these gifts our Lord has supplied but run with faithfulness the race that is set before us.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

And I Thought I Was Doing So Well...

Tonight I looked at my blog and the post I had made from this morning is no where to be found.  So much for the wonders of technology.  I thought I was doing so well, too.  Now, if only I had a roadmap into the obilvion that is cyberspace so I could retrieve my now lost words.  Oh, well...

Perhaps this is more than a techno blip.  Perhaps this is a moment of painful awareness.  Perhaps this is a mirror of my own failings.  Perhaps this is an opportunity to hear the Gospel.  Well, if it were, then I might be able to hear some sort of vaccuous expression of support that would try to tell me that my failing was not so bad, not so bad at all.  I might be comforted by the fact that many other bloggers have also found themselves victims of this original sin.  I might also be encouraged to admit that I am not as good as I thought I was so that I might also be comforted that I am not as bad as I thought I was.  Either way, I might feel better about it all and chalk it up to a learning experience and pray that it would never happen again, even though I know it probably will, so that when it does I might be told again, "been there, done that, could be better, not so bad, probably happen again." And then this not so private admission might result in a not so specific consolation parading as an absolution.  And then, well, I just might have been in church somewhere in America this morning...

Nahhhh, it was just a glitch.  Nothing really to confess and no need for absolution.  It was just a glitch, a bump in the road.  I thought I was doing so well. then I found out I wasn't, but life goes on...  You know that this blogging stuff may cause you to take things way too seriously.  So, let's just act like nothing really happened... because, well, it really didn't.  Okay?  Good, that makes me feel so much better!  All I can is "Amen."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Programming Is Killing the Church

Okay, so the title is a bit provocative -- even, perhaps, exaggerated.  But the point is that we are being programmed out.  Every day I go through the mail I am deluged with new programs designed to make what we need to do easier, to help us do what we are not doing, or to redress the failed programs that are paralyzing my congregation (and me as a Pastor).  I am talking about programs like the generic Master Greeter program or a new community involvement program from District or an old program like the Stephen Ministry or a specific program like the Pastoral Leadership Initiative or a radical program like the Transforming Churches Network or an essential program like the Joyful Stewards program...  The programs that are thrust upon us from outside and inside our own church body are multiplying to the point that it seems this is about the only snail mail I get.

Of course, most of it ends up in the round file (or, in my case, the recycle bin).  Part of me hates to throw those things away -- the weak and vulnerable side of me wonders if I have not thrown away the invitation to the one genuinely good program that will make my life easier, make me more effective as a Pastor, motivate my congregation more, and make my congregation more effective.  It is the sinful human nature in me that wants a program to do what God has given me to do, what He has given the parish to do, or what He has promised to do.  In my weakness I want a magical cure to all the problems I face as Pastor and my parish faces as a congregation.  In the beginning of my ministry, I thought it was all financial -- if only we had enough money to do this or that...  Now I know that this is one of Satan's big lies -- both that all our problems can be solved with more money or that we do not have enough in the Church (like God is short of cash and has to borrow it from us).  But still it catches me up from time to time.

The biggest danger in all of this is that the most essential things that belong to us as a congregation have ended up being labeled as programs or viewed as programs by Pastors and the people in the pew.  Worship has become a program and so we can evaluate it, we can adjust and direct it, we can define who we are trying to reach with it, and we can change the core values that govern it.  Baloney.  Worship is about the means of grace.  What we do in worship is Word and Sacrament.  It is not a program -- it is God bidding us into His presence, bestowing upon us His gifts, and sustaining and transforming us with His grace.  As soon as we call it a program, we turn it into something that proceeds from us, exists for us, and is defined by us.  When that happens, worship, for all intents and purposes, ceases.

Catechesis ends up being a program.  The whole educational endeavor becomes a curriculum, a goal, and a means to that goal instead of the kind of ongoing life of catechesis envisioned in the Scriptures.  The Word of God becomes merely a tool in this process (as does the Small Catechism) and knowledge or understanding or feelings become the arenas in which we define success.  The success of catechesis is faithfulness in worship and the baptismal vocation lived out in daily life -- nothing more and nothing less.  What is your program for adult catechesis or youth catechesis or Sunday school, etc.?  When the conversation becomes more about these as a program instead of being in the Word, at the Table, and living out the baptismal vocation then catechesis becomes simply methodology.

Evangelism is the one area that has suffered most by becoming a program.  We have adopted or adapted methods that have ended up defining evangelism than the Scriptural call to be always ready to give account for the hope that is within you or to be Christ's witnesses.  I began my parish life under the constraints of what was called the Abdon Plan and its organization of the congregation around way too many boards and committees.  Its greatest weakness was in introducing the idea that some people are evangelists and most people are not and the evangelism program is best directed to finding out who has the gift and working only with them.  Strange that it would take until the 1960s before the Church would figure out that witness was not part of the baptismal vocation but the specific gift of a few.  And to think that until the twentieth century congregations did not even have evangelism committees!

Even mercy and service are not immune from the programming mentality.  Imagine that -- mercy and service are programmed and not simply the reflection of God's mercy and service to us!

I am not suggesting that there are not good programs out there or that we should not use them.  I am challenging the idea that the ministry and mission of the Pastor and of the congregation are programs in and of themselves.  I think this idea is killing us -- trying to sift through the good from the bad, the ones that work from the ones that don't -- and killing our congregations -- by erasing the distinction between the things that are part of our identity and how we do the things we are given to do....

What do YOU think?

Friday, February 18, 2011

How to Read Luther

February 18 is the day we Lutherans pay homage to our leader.  Reformation is supposed to be less about Luther and more about the Reformation but today is about Luther.  On this day he fell asleep in the arms of His Lord, having fought the good fight.  The only problem for us is the question of how to read Luther.

Interpreters make much of the differences between the early Luther and the later Luther.  Some things are more clear in this regard but in other ways the later Luther and the early Luther are the same.  It seems clear, for example, that Luther held to the ever virginity of Mary and even the immaculate conception of Mary late into his life.  These oddities have caused some angst among those who desire a very Protestant Luther.

There is a movement for a "new" Luther that has arisen from the Finns and there has been much debate about seeing Luther and the issue of justification largely through the lens of "union with Christ."  I am not going to debate this here except to suggest that Luther may be dead but our understanding of Luther is definitely not static.

Bainton, a Congregationalist, had the definitive Luther biography for years [Here I Stand].  Now others, some Lutherans included [Kittelson, for example] have added to and even replaced this book.  But Roman Catholics have also ventured to review the life and legacy of Martin Luther, the obedient rebel.  Now another book, this one by Franz Posset, attempts to find the REAL Luther.  Apparently, the real Luther still holds some mystery to us.

Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press partnered in the monumental endeavor of bringing Luther's works into the English speaking world.  Theirs was not a finished effort and CPH is working on its own to finish the job with many more volumes yet to come.  In addition, the number of Luther biographies and theological reviews of Luther is greater than the number of books translated into English.  This alone could keep a publishing house busy for quite some time.

I would propose something far different.  I think that we must read Luther through the lens of the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Some would try to reverse that and read the Confessions through Luther's works but I think this does a disservice both to Luther and to the Confessions which are his priimary legacy (even those he did not author).  I believe that Luther himself would defer to those Confessions as the documents which both define and give an identity to the movement he helped to begin and to the church which, for good or ill, bears his name.

It may be naive on my part or reveal a lack of critical scholarship from a parish pastor who sometimes thinks himself more learned than he is, but I believe that for Lutherans, the Luther that counts most of all is the Luther who is revealed to us in those Confessions.  This Luther is not the wild eyed rebel who wrecks havoc upon the church of his day but the evangelical and catholic Luther, careful to preserve the faithful heritage that passed down to him, concerned enough to make sure that this deposit of faith was not tainted by invention or innovation, and foresighted enough to make this the formal legacy of those who lived and died with him and who followed after him.

Pelikan, an erstwhile Lutheran who, it is said, left Wittenberg when he feared it had become a protestant sect, wrote a book entitled Obedient Rebels.  This title encapsulates the perspective I have of Luther and, I believe, the perspective of the Confessions.  Luther rebelled in order to be obedient to the faith, to the Scriptures, to the Gospel, and to the catholic identity bequeathed to him from the church that came before.  His obedience to that living tradition forced him to make the radical departure from the boundaries of the Roman Church -- at least to risk this expulsion.  Lutherans, at their best, have always maintained this perspective.  We insist that the Reformation was not about rebellion but about obedience, not about personal interpretation but about the Gospel that is yesterday, today, and forever the same, and not about Luther or authority or power -- but faithfulness.

That is why I get so upset when modern day Lutherans see the Reformation and Luther as primarily a rebellion and rebels who sought to free themselves from the shackles of tradition and do something new, something free, and something unbounded by any rule or law.  This antinomian spirit has resulted in worship that betrays our Lutheran and confessional identity, in a view of sexuality in which clear words of Scripture are trumped by a Gospel principle, and in a radical congregationalism which refuses authority, accountability, and relationship with others.

Luther, I believe, would have us see as his primary legacy the formal Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  So if we would read him, let us read him through the lens of these Confessions.  Whether Roman or Congregationalist or Lutheran, those who read Luther are obligated to connect him to those confessional statements which he regarded as defining and binding upon the movement that bears his name. So, if we would beat our chests in pride over Luther, let us show it most of all by taking seriously and observing faithfully those Confessions.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Peril (& Myth) of Pastoral Prerogative

As I have often said, after our new building was complete, a parishioner came up to me while we were staring into the nave of our new building, following a worship service, and said, "Well, you finally got the  building you wanted."  Ahhhhh, well, no.  "What makes you think this was the building I wanted?" responding with another question.  "Well, ahhh, I mean, you were on the committee, you were a leader in the whole thing, and you seemed to know more about it than all of us.  I was not complaining.  The building is beautiful.  But, well, aren't you happy now that you have what you want?"

In the long conversation that ensued, I had to cool my temper a bit and keep telling myself to respond thoughtfully and gently.  This was not my building and it was not built to please me.  The architect and his committee met for hours with every leader and individual church member and the whole voters assembly -- on several occasions -- to ascertain what the people were looking for.  The architect took the budget, the many diverse desires of the people, and a sense of Lutheran identity in worship and practice and came up with the plan we now have as a building.  It is wider than it is long but still reverberant.  It is filled with light from clerestory, rose, and Trinity stained glass windows.  It is warm in color and tones.  It is a very nice building.  But it is not MY building.

If you knew me you would know that I prefer buildings which are long and narrow, very high ceilings, stone walls, and on the dark side both in light, color, and tone.  If this building were built for me, it would have looked very different.  That is not to say that I have not worked to make it as worshipful, as consistent with Lutheran integrity of theology, confession, and practice as possible.  That is not to say that I did not encourage ideas from artists working with us to paint the canvas of the structure with rich symbols and treats for the eye.  That is not to say I did not work to obtain a pipe organ when it was available and within our budget.  That is not to say I did not foment for liturgical hangings (paraments and banners) that would synthesize the traditional and yet modern sense of the building with the identifications of season and Sunday that belong to the church year.  That is not to say I did not fight for kneelers to be installed so that those who wish might (while those who choose not to kneel, are not forced to comply -- so that neither side would choose an option that would prevent the other).  That is not to say I did not work with the building committee to make sure we got as much bang for the buck as was possible.  That is also not to say I did not make mistakes, have serious errors of judgment, and did not sweat the whole darn thing.  I did.  But the force behind it was not a building of my desire or choosing.

Sadly, it is a common belief in the pews that what Pastor's do is shaped by their personal desires and wants, that the Office they hold gives them the prerogative to shape the congregation by their own personality and tastes, and that this is one of the perks of the Office that makes up for some of the, well, non-perks.  Sadly, it is a common belief because most of these folks have been in parishes where the clergy did just that -- shape things not by theological identity, confession or faithfulness but by personal desire and taste.  Sadly, it is true that parishes often become mirrors of the personality of their Pastors (not always in a positive way because there is something laudable in the Pastor worth emulating but in the negative way of displaying all his own weaknesses).

Sadly, it is the way we figure things work in the world, so that is also the way they must work when it comes to the parish.  We think this about worship "style," hymn and musical preferences, and a host of other issues that have become battlefields within the life of the modern church.  So it is assumed by folks in the pew that Pastors who chant, like it and this is why they do it.  That Pastors who move them to weekly Eucharist, like it and this is why they do it.  That Pastors who wear more vestments, like it, and this is why they wear them.  Etc...  So it is equally true that when Pastors change, folks expect that everything else changes with him (liturgy, hymns and music, vestments, Eucharist, chanting, etc.).  It has become a common and damningly true fact that Pastors work to shape a congregation to fit what they want, then leave to turn another parish into a mirror of themselves and the guys who follow them are there to undo what has been done as they work to stamp the image of themselves upon the congregation.  And the people in the pew are caught in the crossfire.

Let me first say that I abhor this whole idea.  I have worked and taught so that none of the changes I have made are reflections of my personal preference or desire or personality.  I chant because chanting is presumed and expected in the liturgical tradition and hymnals of our church body.  Speaking is the odd option -- not singing.  Personally, I prefer a service where I am completely passive and absorb it all (priest, preacher, choir, etc.).  But it is not about me.  So the worship service of this parish is about who we are as Lutheran Christians.  I love the daily offices (sans sermon, by the way) but our confessions insist that we celebrate the mass every Lord's Day and whenever our people desire it.  The weekly Eucharist is not because of me but because of our confessional Lutheran identity.  I would prefer a monastic habit of simple black cassock or so but our confessions insist that we respect the church usages of the past and have not abandoned them and our theology insists that vestments identify the Pastor with the Christ he represents and not himself as an individual.  So I wear the traditional vestments of the Church, which Lutherans have always worn (though not necessarily as a majority in most places).  It is not about me.  It is about the Office of Pastor, the liturgical and practical identity consistent with our Confessions, and about, ultimately, Christ and His means of grace that are behind it all.

It is also not about people in the pew.  That is why we do not offer a smorgasbord of different worship "styles" to fit everyone's personality and taste.  We are here because God says we belong -- we belong to Him in Christ and He has declared us His own in baptism and declared us worthy to stand before Him and serve Him, receiving His gifts and then responding by the power of the Spirit.  We are not here because it fits us or we feel at home here.  This is our home because Christ was incarnate, live obediently, died sacrificially, and rose victoriously that the scattered and exiled might be brought back to God's House to be and live as His family, His body, the Church, and witness this miracle of grace and mercy to the world.

I get tired of explaining this but in the end I wonder if this is not one of the most important things that needs to be explained over and over again.  Congregations are not the mirrors of their Pastors and worship is not the mirror of our personal taste or preference and music is not primarily an expression of our feelings.  It is all about Christ -- the Christ whom the Pastors represent to their people so that they might represent Him to the world.... the Christ who bids us come and feeds us upon His Word and Sacraments and imparts the Spirit who teaches us to respond with the Amen of faith... the Christ whose story is our song and whose Word are the words of our liturgy... and the Christ who is the center of the building, erected not as a memorial to Him but as a working temple in which He dwells through Word and Sacrament and equips us to become the people we were declared to be in our baptism....

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Who Do Mission Trips Benefit?

There are tons of opportunities and scads of enterprises putting together short term mission trips for all ages.  It has become a real cottage industry in our own church body as well as throughout the USA.  In my city alone there are always people coming and going to one place or another on a short term mission trip.  Some of these involve more local geography (Mexico, Latin America, Caribbean, and South America) and some of these take folks half a world away (especially Africa).

I have written before about my uneasiness about mission trips.  I have heard from any number of folks on the mission field, involved in mission and relief work, and in congregational leadership.  They all admit to some concern about the large amount of money spent to send people over with few unique or special skills, to do things that local people could do, and to pre-occupy the attention and resources of the mission field from their work to the short term "missionaries."  It is not uncommon for a group of 20 to have invested $60-$80K in basic expenses for one mission trip of 10 days to 2 weeks, say, in Africa.  I have written here before about the wisdom of spending that kind of money on the trip and the rather "make work" things that these folks do on the mission field while leaving the indigenous church still in need of the cash to construct church buildings, pay for basic operating expenses, etc.

I wonder if it is not time to be honest here.  Mission trips are religious vacations for the people going.  The trip organizers are more like tour directors than mission directors.  The work that is done is intended to give the people who go a taste of the mission field -- not to do real mission work.  The money spent is largely entertainment, perhaps some educational value.  Let us be honest about this.  This is pretty much what the whole idea of mission trips is about -- entertainment, some education, and a little bit of experience.  In some respects, it is not unlike visiting a national park here or one of the presidential museums or Washington, DC -- a lot of fun, some great experiences, and a little learning along the way.  So let us be honest.  Mission trips are religious vacations.

Now as long as we are honest about this, as long you do not ask me to pay for your vacation, as long as you do not preoccupy or distract the missionaries from their real work, and as long as you do not consume scarce resources on the mission field that might better serve the work of the kingdom, well, okay.  Go, and have a great religious vacation.  But let us not confuse or deceive ourselves.  Two weeks on the mission field (absent any real specific or unique skills needed there) are not going to make much of a difference.  And, given the cost, it is a pricey way to speak through an interpreter the Gospel to a few folks, to build or rehab a building, or to witness the same folks being baptized over and over again for effect.  In this day and age, we can do most of this more cheaply through media (and pay the locals who need the work to build and rehab the buildings).

But, if these "mission trips" disrupt or distract the missionaries from their work or keep needed funds from that work (money that ends up being spent on our religious vacations), then don't go.  Don't encourage others to go.  Don't support those who decide to go.

I must be honest.  I have never gone on a mission trip.  I have spent time in Mexico.  I have been in mission settings in run down urban areas across the Northeast.  I have served on boards and committees in Districts and been charged with some of the responsibilities of the mission work of our churches (particularly in the areas of finance).  I would love to go to Africa.  I would love to visit India.  I would love to go to Germany.  I would love to go to a thousand other places and some of the reasons are religious.  But most are not.  I want to go for me.  Why can't we just be honest about this when it comes to "mission trips."  If we begin with this honesty and can do them without detracting from the work of the congregation here or the mission there, and if we are already giving a tithe or more to that local church and offerings above to the mission work of our church body, then go.  I will be happy for you.  I hope you will learn something.  I pray that when you get back you will marshal the support of God's kingdom from among those not to excited about that work.  But let us be honest.  Lets not call them "mission trips."  Okay?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Seward2011.Org A Worship Conference for YOU...

In order to continue equipping and resourcing pastors and church musicians on worship-related topics, St. John Lutheran Church and Concordia University, Nebraska, will be co-hosting a conference in summer 2011. Sing His Praise, His Love Declare is a three-day event that will include sessions for pastors and musicians, both the professional church musicians and those without extensive training or experience.

You might recognize one of the presenters.... shameless plug!


Dr. Carlos Messerli & Paul Bouman  River Forest, Illinois
Rev. Charles Blanco Concordia University, Nebraska
Dr. Jeffrey Blersch Concordia University, Nebraska
Organ workshops and reading sessions & Effective hymn leadership
Dr. Elizabeth Grimpo Concordia University, Nebraska
Piano literature for the parish musician
Rev. Terence Groth Concordia University, Nebraska
Dr. David Held Professor Emeritus, Concordia University, Nebraska
Dr. Joseph Herl Concordia University, Nebraska
Rev. Dr. Paul Holtorf Concordia University, Nebraska
Deaconess Pamela Nielsen Senior editor for Sunday school, youth, & family materials, CPH
Rev. Larry Peters Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Clarksville, Tennessee
Professor Pete Prochnow Concordia University, Nebraska Lead sheet notation / Piano adaptations
Mrs. Kathy Rausch Calvary Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA
Teaching children to sing beautifully with hymns and liturgy
Rev. Dirk Reek Concordia University, Nebraska
Rev. Mark Rockenbach Executive for Church Worker Health, LCMS Nebraska District
Pastor and church musician relationships
Rev. Dr. Leon Rosenthal Christ Lutheran Church, Norfolk, Nebraska
Mr. Don Rotermund Minister of Music Emeritus, Zion Lutheran Church and School, Dallas, Texas
Professor Andrew Schultz Concordia University, Nebraska
Involving beginning brass players in worship
Working with Finale music notation software
Mr. Paul Soulek Director of Parish and School Music, St. John Lutheran Church, Seward, Nebraska
Rev. Dr. Dien Taylor Pastor, Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bronx, New York
Dr. Kurt von Kampen Concordia University, Nebraska Choral workshops and reading sessions
Improving tone in the church choir
Betsy Werner St. John Lutheran School, Seward, Nebraska
Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller Pastor, Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, Colorado
Author of Final Victory: Contemplating the Death and Funeral of a Christian (CPH)

Registration Information

Online Registration: Early promotional materials mentioned that online registration would be available February 1st. In order to gather session and seminar information from presenters, this date has been moved back to mid-to-late February 2011. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
Registration Fee is $95 and covers all conference sessions as well as the banquet on Thursday evening. (See below for conference foodservice options.) One-day registration is available for those not able to attend the entire conference. The one-day registration fee of $50 covers sessions on a given day as well as meals.
Housing is available on-campus at Concordia University, Nebraska. Housing options on the University campus are within walking distance to all conference events. All Concordia housing options are air-conditioned. Rates are $30 per person (single occupancy) and $15 per person (double occupancy). Both standard dorm (shared bathroom per floor) or suite style (shared bathroom per 2 rooms) options are available. Other housing options in Seward include the East Hill Motel, Super 8, and the Liberty House. Blocks of rooms have been reserved at the Super 8 and East Hill Motel. Mention the “Seward Worship Conference” to receive the special conference rate.
Meal plans are available to conference participants. The meal plan cost of $32 includes meals beginning with breakfast on Wednesday and ending with lunch on Friday. Continental breakfast is served at St. John Lutheran Church in the fellowship hall; lunch and dinner are served at Concordia University’s Janzow Campus Center dining hall. The catered Thursday evening banquet will be held in the St. John Lutheran Church fellowship hall; cost of the banquet is included in the basic registration fee.
Transportation to Seward from Lincoln and Omaha airports will be available. Specific information will be included at a later date.
Online registration and credit card payment will be available in February 2011. If you need a printed registration form, please contact the St. John church office at 402.643.2983 or e-mail

Lutheran Summer Music... One of the Best Kept Secrets in Lutheranism!!

Special Discounts
Lutheran Summer Music (LSM) 2011 is filling fast, but we need a few more students in specific areas to balance our ensembles.  To that end, we are offering a 10% tuition discount ($300) for students in the following areas:LSM Trumpets

  Male Vocalists
This discount, combined with an early application discount of $100 means an initial discount of $400Additional assistance may be available.

To claim the scholarship, students must add promo code TSM11 on their online application. *New LSM students only.

Other Instrumental & Vocal Placements
LSM male vocalistsWe are receiving applications daily for the remaining band, orchestra, and choir openings.  If you have any other interested students, have them apply soon and we'll try to get them in the 2011 academy.

Last Early Application Discount
Students who apply online by February 28 receive a $100 tuition discount.  This is our last early application discount of the year!

Free Materials Available!
Need some brochures and posters for your church?  We're happy to help.  Simply email us with your request and we'll send them out priority mail right away!

District Pastoral Conference Presenters and Topics

Being involved in the program of the fall District Pastoral Conference, I thought we had it down until the program for the spring conference was announced and it appears to duplicate what we had planned.  So back to the drawing board...

I would be interested in hearing from Pastors of the Synod as to who they have had as speakers, the topics addressed, and how helpful and engaging both the speakers and the topics...  Thanks for giving me a hand!

First Communion Instruction

As we are beginning a first communion program here, I am curious as to what material other Lutheran congregations use for first communion instruction.  We have talked about it for a while and it represented a big shift for this parish so we have moved rather slowly.  First communion instruction will coincide with the start of catechism and constitutes about 8-10 added hours of instruction, including both the youth and the parents.  After looking over some of the published material and being somewhat disappointed as to the actual content offered, I put together my own material based upon Luther's Christian Questions and Answers from the Catechism.  Since this is in the hymnal, I am teaching them to use this each we as they come to the Lord's Table following this period of instruction.  At the end of the instruction, we will not have a mass first communion but each child and parent will discuss if both feel ready and prepared for this step, the youth will come to me privately for examination and confession, and then they will begin participating individually following completion of the aforementioned items.

Please let me know what you use for curriculum and how you handle it, if, indeed, you and your parish has a first communion program...

Monday, February 14, 2011


I can well recall my introduction to the mobile nature of the community in which I live and the congregation where I serve.  I had been here only weeks before a discussion ensued about those who pushed for the building of the fellowship hall and then left (military or industry transfer) -- leaving the bill to be paid by the more permanent folks.  I have had a number of conversations with a few folks who suggested in fairly strong terms that I not spend much time on those people who will not be around here very long (translation military families and middle level managers from industry).  I also recall a pointed query from an angry parishioner who asked me why I was spending so much of my time on "those kind of people" instead of tending to the "regular" members.

Now, to be fair, these were not mean folks.  They had lived in a community whose economy had been dominated by the boom and bust cycle of the military, then, most recently, the Kuwaiti conflict.  At one point in time, the city had been a ghost town as nearly all the resources of the local post were deployed to the desert.  Businesses and churches suffered much during that period (although not in comparison to the suffering of those soldiers and their families).  They knew that because of the nature of this mobile community, it is hard to count on people whose time here may be more closely measured in months than years.  One year may be boom with many Lutherans coming into town and the next year may be bust when they all leave with only a few to replace them.  Anyone who has lived in a military town or where business has a high turnover rate knows this.

The folks here were not intending to be unwelcoming but did not want me to think that because one year was boom, it would be that way the next year.  They were trying to give me some perspective.  And, to be fair, I have learned some perspective.  When I arrived here there were more than 8 Lutheran chaplains on post and there have been 1 or less in the last five years.  I have witnessed years in which 1 of every four people in church on Sunday morning turned over due to military and industry moves.  I have personally invested much in preparing people for lay leadership positions in our congregation only to see them move before they could even begin their elected service to the parish.  Every year our Financial Secretary has trouble knowing what to do with the offering envelope statements for people whose address has been lost and they only moved 6-8 months ago.

In the end we worked to do both -- to function as a congregation without planning on the basis of the boom years and to keep from being handicapped by the bust years of military and industrial moves.  We did this by welcoming all people (the few whose tenure here has been measured in months, the more whose time here may be measured in years, and the few who have made their permanent home here -- at least as permanent as can be when heaven is our home).  We still have our ups and downs but we have stopped addressing them as "those kind of people" and we have accepted them for however long they will be here.  In many cases this means receiving people in the earliest stages of their spiritual development.  We have had a number of adult baptisms and a ton of adult confirmations.  In many cases we have bid them tearful good bye at the very point in which their faith seemed ready to blossom into full bloom.

Now to reward your patience for reading so far...  For a long time I thought of this circumstance as unique to military or industrial communities where mobility was endemic to the nature of that town.  Now, after more than 18 years here, I am finding that this is becoming more and more the rule in urban, suburban, and even some rural areas.  Churches find themselves with revolving doors (and not due to conflict or church shopping but due to the rapid turnover of people due to jobs, family situations, and retirement).  This does not appear to be a declining trend but an increasing phenomenon in American culture and society.

We have people of all age groups coming and going all the time.  This will require from the congregation and the Pastor a different approach.  While I am not happy about it, membership in terms of transfer and acceptance and a name on a list has become less important than the people present on Sunday morning.  Very few of our mobile people (those who may be here 3 years or less) actually transfer their membership.  The majority have a church home of record (ours is that for many folks) but have a worshiping presence and connection to a parish nearer where they live.  Now this does NOT diminish what we do for catechesis but it does mean we are not so quick to put the paperwork into motion when new folks come our way.

It also means that it is hard to know where people are at once they leave our area.  I have sent letters to their new address after they have moved only to find out that they had one or two more addresses in the 3-6 months since they left us.  Email may be more important to locate folks than snail mail addresses.  More often than not military and industrial email addresses remain the same no matter where the person is physically located.  Cell phone numbers remain the same no matter where people actually reside.  Half of our new people have a cell phone number with an area code different than the region in which they live.  Our newest and most mobile folks are searching for a bit of permanence and g-mail, yahoo, or hotmail and the cellular provider offer them the most reasonable options for a permanent address and phone number.

It means that our people come to us from so many backgrounds -- even within Lutheranism -- that it is often hard to know where to start for adult and youth catechesis.  They have often had little solid experience with Sunday school or Bible study and you cannot count on the Scriptures being well known to them.  So this means basics have to be offered for those pursuing youth confirmation and for the adults who come with a ton of church homes in their past.  It also means that the differences so important to long time Lutherans are less well known or appreciated by those new to our parish (LCMS vs ELCA vs WELS).  I am not saying they do not care about the specifics of the faith but the ordinary understanding that we might associated with those initials are often lost on these folks.  I do not believe it builds you up to tear down other Lutherans but it does require us to be honest about the differences since they will be leaving us at some point and searching out another Lutheran church home.

Finally, the matter of worship "style" must be addressed.  Our people are accustomed to a weekly Eucharist, a full sung Divine Service, a well equipped choral and music program, and solid Biblical preaching and teaching (their own words).  They have often struggled to find a Lutheran congregation where the liturgy is traditional, the Eucharist is weekly, and preaching is Biblical (their own words).  Sadly, they often find the liturgy in the ELCA but long for sermons that are textual and Biblical.  They sometimes find the hymnal in use in Missouri but neither a weekly Eucharist nor passion in the pulpit.  They usually find in both Missouri (and the ELCA to a slightly lesser extent) a contemporary service without the use of the hymnal or the liturgy, without a weekly Eucharist, and with preaching that is, well, more relational and motivational than Biblical.

So those people who come and do not stay long, fall in love with the liturgy and expect the weekly Eucharist and anticipate passionate proclamation of the Law and Gospel in the pulpit... but then leave only to have to search for something that comes close.  I should say that we are not unique or uniquely qualified to do what we do -- it is just that so many Lutherans have chosen to do and to be something else.  And this is the painful side of that mobility.  Too often I hear from them that they have not found another "Grace" and they are not referring to me or the building or the pipe organ or the people in the pew -- but to a Lutheran place in which liturgy, Eucharist, Biblical preaching and teaching (with a Law/Gospel emphasis) predominate...  And of all the things about these mobile folks, this is the saddest...