Thursday, March 31, 2011

After the Benediction, We Are the Same

There is that great line in the Godfather movie (I cannot remember which one) in which Michael (Don) Corleone responds to Senator Pat Geary by saying they are the same, part of the same hypocrisy.  It is a powerful moment in which the illicit Mafia family stands at the same level as the level of an outwardly respectable public official.  We are the same -- a powerful indictment against the artificial divisions of respectability.

There are many in Lutheranism who would insist that those Lutherans who experiment with evangelicalism and those who worship from the book are the same -- a difference only in style but not in substance.  For too long we have allowed this artificial distinction to stand, something foisted upon us by those intent upon making us different and making sure that some Lutherans, at least, were going to be different, very different.  So the worship wars have spent countless words and ink fighting over issues of taste and culture and musical preference -- to the point where many, even passionate voices, have grown weary and tired of the whole darn debate.  But that is because we have assumed that we are the same -- at least after the benediction.  What we do before the benediction does not really matter because after the "Amen" and on our way out the door we are all the same.

But are we the same?  Can we be different before the benediction but the same afterward?  Or is piety inherent in what we do before the benediction as well as expressed in what follows the Divine Service?  Is it possible for us to have a split personality of American evangelical style worship and retain a Lutheran faith and live out a Lutheran piety after Sunday morning is over and done with?  [A caveat here, there are many, including people on both sides of the worship wars, who would argue that there is no such thing as a "Lutheran" piety.]

How we see the world, how we see ourselves, how we understand our purpose, what we value, what priorities we attach to the various aspects of our lives -- all of these are issues of piety but this piety is not indifferent to what happens on Sunday morning -- rather it flows exactly from what happens on Sunday morning.  Sunday morning shapes and defines and directs what happens after the benediction.  Part of the great problem with the worship wars is that we are ONLY arguing about what happens before the benediction and should be also talking about what happens following the "Amen" on Sunday morning.  Worship is not about aesthetics and therefore subject to taste or personal preference and neither should our piety be something indifferent to our confession.

My fear for Lutheranism is not about today or even ten years from now but decades down the pike.  What will our Lutheranism look like if our piety is at odds with our confession and Sunday morning is given wholesale over to a mainline Protestant agenda (ELCA) or an evangelical (perhaps fundamentalist) agenda (Missouri)?  What will our Pastors look like -- when, for example, the Divine Service that has been our Lutheran identity for nearly 500 years is unfamiliar to those who will preach, teach, and preside in our circles?    What happens to a Lutheran church body when the hearts and minds of its clergy are more at home in a piety, vocabulary, and song track that comes from and is shaped by something outside Lutheran confessional identity?

Historically, Lutherans have said that their clergy need to be resident at a Lutheran seminary in order to become Lutheran Pastors.  Until rather recently, and then mostly in the ELCA, you cannot go to Harvard Divinity School or Vanderbilt or Duke or anyone of the generic or nominally affiliated seminaries and then be ordained a Lutheran Pastor.  Why?  Truth to be told, there are some very fine teachers at these institutions and not a few of them are Lutheran.  Well, we have said that Lutheranism is not just intellectual property but piety as well.  Formation involves not merely head knowledge but being shaped by the daily office, the Eucharist, koinonia (life together)...  We not only expected this but required this of those who would bear the Pastoral Office in the Lutheran Church.

This was also part of the rationale for youth and adult catechesis.  Becoming Lutheran is not giving intellectual assent to a series of dogmatic or doctrinal formulations.  It involves an altar, a pulpit, a people gathered with you around these -- and not in the least of this is both script of the faith and soundtrack of the faith (hymnody).  This was the rationale for the RCIA in Rome when they began to realize that becoming a Roman Catholic was not merely a change of truths for the mind but the home of the heart.  We Lutherans may not have called it RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) but we had an idea of it when we brought people in through adult confirmation, connected them to Bible study groups, put the under the nurture of those already well established in the faith and congregation, and received them publicly through a rite of reception.

Now, it seems, that we have forgotten much of this and have come to the mistake conclusion that we are only discussing what happens before the benediction and that after the benediction we are the same.  We are not.  When our piety is shaped by American evangelicalism instead of the Church Year, the Divine Service, the Catechism, baptismal vocation, and an efficacious Scripture, we cease being Lutheran even though we may, intellectually anyway, hold to the doctrinal content of the Confessions.  Piety flows from liturgical identity.  But liturgical identity is also shaped by piety when that piety is different from or in conflict with that liturgical identity.  Is this not what lex credendi, lex orandi means?  Worship AND piety either head the same direction or a train wreck will occur and this is the looming cost of adopting the idea that you can have evangelical style and maintain Lutheran substance, or, to put it another way, to believe that after the benediction, we Lutherans are still the same.... no matter what happens before the "Amen."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Perfect Love that Loves Imperfect People

Sermon for Lent 3A, preaching on Sunday, March 27, 2011.

   I well recall when my parents gave me the gift of the record album called the Goldberg Variations by pianist Glen Gould.  Gould is regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all times and gave fresh interpretation to one of the grandest of Bach’s compositions – yet one that remained unfinished.  As good as Gould was, he abandoned his concert career at age 31 and never performed in public again.  The pressure of performance nearly crippled him.  Geoffrey Rush played David Helfgott in the great movie “Shine” about another pianist left wounded by both his early success and a relentless demand for perfection placed upon him.
    We might think that the pursuit of perfection is, after all, the very goal of religion.  We might expect that God demands the price of perfection before He will receive us as His own and love us.  Some see this as our quest in life – waiting for a perfect mate, perfect job, perfect happiness, a perfect life.  Now I am surely not one to discourage the quest for excellence and yet this demand for perfection is a hopeless end, leading only to despair.  God did not come to sift through humanity in pursuit of the perfect, holy, or good, but was determined to love sinners, to come for sinners, and to redeem sinners  – a perfect love for imperfect people.
    Christianity is not about the pursuit of perfection or our ascent to God but about the God who loved us while we were yet sinners and enemies and who descended to us.  This God loved a quarrelsome people called Israel who complained to Him relentlessly and disobeyed Him regularly. This God loved a Samaritan woman at a well who never married yet had many husbands and offered her the water of life.  This God loves sinners like you and me, who can never, ever measure up to His holiness and perfection.  It is the surprise of His perfect love that it flows for imperfect, flawed, failed, and sinful people.
    What we are talking about is the triumph of grace, the God who loves those unworthy of His affection.  God meets us on the ground of our own weakness, infirmity, and sin.  His love ought to be repelled by what He finds and yet His love moved Him to bear up our sin on His own shoulders and bestow upon us the grace of forgiveness, life and salvation.  He loves us where we are but He does not leave us there.  He declares us forgiven grants us the new birth of Holy Baptism.  He plants His Spirit in our hearts that our fears may give way to faith.  He directs our mind and hearts to that which is good, right, and holy, that this may become the desire we seek after with all our heart, mind, body and strength.
    When we meet this perfect love for us imperfect sinners, how do we respond?  The first mark of God’s perfect love at work in imperfect sinners is repentance.  Repentance is not our effort to impress God but His grace working in us to acknowledge our sin, own it by confession, and grasp hold of the forgiveness Christ gives.  The first fruit of His perfect love for imperfect sinners is always repentance.  We come empty to this love, bidden by the Spirit, and there God claims us, just as this morning we saw that perfect love reach out through the baptismal water to name Matthew and Natalie as His own children.  The living waters still flow to those who least deserve them and who know not where to find them until He directs us.
    The second mark of God’s perfect love at work in us imperfect sinners is that we are sustained in hope no matter what comes our way.  Through suffering and sorrow, in the midst of troubles and trials, beset by danger and death, we do not lose heart.  We do not despair.  The focus of our lives is not on the circumstances of the moment – be they good or bad – but upon the future God has bestowed upon us in this baptism.  The holy joy that sustains our journey in faith is not getting what we want now but possessing eternity in Christ even in the midst of life’s greatest wounds and disappointments.
    The third mark of God’s perfect love at work in us imperfect sinners is that we learn to love others as He has loved us.  As God did not wait for us to become perfect before He loved us with the everlasting love of the cross, neither do we wait for the folks around us to be perfect before loving them as He has loved us.  It is not that we are content with wrong, overlook evil, or accept sin.  We love people as they are but we do not leave them where they are.  We do not love the good or those who are nice or those who think like us or those who can do something for us.  We love the imperfect, flawed and failed as God has loved us and we love them by telling them of the place where living water flows, where grace forgives, and where life is bestowed.  We love them by sharing with them the good news of the cross and empty tomb.
    Jesus met a woman at a well.  According to the rules of holiness, He should have had nothing to do with her.  Instead He engages her in conversation.  He offers her to drink of the living water that gives eternal life. He exposes her sinful life but not to condemn her or push her away.  He speaks of the grace that transcends right and merit and takes flesh for the sake of such sinners.  This is the perfect love for fallen people, perfect flesh for sinful creatures, a holy Savior for unrighteous folks. This Messiah does not tell us what we must do but does for us what none of us deserve.  He grants us the living water that fully refreshes, completely cleanses, quenches thirst, and becomes a well springing forth eternal life in all who receive it.
    God’s love is perfect – He does not love us for who we are or what we could be but as we are  – sinners.  This is the love we meet in Christ.  This is what melts our stone cold hearts, so quick to judge and so slow to love.  Love does not wait for perfection but neither does love leave the sinner where it finds him.  Today we celebrate that love met in the holy waters that give life and in the holy meal where the undeserving sit in honored place.  Tomorrow we have the opportunity to show forth that love in the way we deal with one another.  We will surely fail in love’s work, but let it not be for lack of desire or effort from us.  And when we do fail, God meets us again with the perfect love that forgives and restores us to love one another again.  Amen

In case you were wondering...

We hear a great deal about the churches that are what we should be when we grow up (Saddleback, Willow Creek, Lakewood Church, Mars Hill, etc.).  I was going to say "sadly" but I feel just the opposite.  So "happily" most of us will probably never attend one of these congregations.  We may be influenced by their influence and envious of their "success" but most of the readers of this blog are Word and Sacrament, Law/Gospel, means of grace kinds of Christians.  So, since we cannot go there, perhaps we can vicariously experience a visit to one of them and it is a fine review of the experience and the content. 

So check it out at Musical Catechesis.

Water, Water, and More Water

A  week ago Jesus insists that unless you are born of water and the Spirit (Baptism) you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.  Then on Sunday He sits by Jacob's well and tells a Samaritan woman that He has water that will become a spring to eternal life in her and that if she has this water, she will never be thirsty again.  In the middle of this is the Old Testament story of Moses who hits the rock with his staff and water flows to a people complaining that they are thirsty.  It is a lot of talk about water.  But we don't talk like this.  Should we?

It is often said that Lutherans make too much of baptism.  I think that is wrong.  I think we do not talk enough about the water of God that becomes a well spring of eternal life in us.  I think we too often box up baptism and make it into an event in our past, a memory from yesterday (even if we have that memory only because we read what happened on a certificate or see evidence of it in photographs or have heard the story told to us over and over again). We do not talk enough about baptism.  It seems to be thoroughly woven through Jesus' Word and is hidden behind Scriptures even more often than it is obviously referenced.  But we don't think baptismally.  We do not see things through the lens of our baptism.  As an example of this, how many of us heard the two Gospel lessons (and the Old Testament lesson) in Church and did not first think "Ahhhhh, baptism!"  I would venture to say that most Lutherans heard both stories from John's Gospel and the story from Exodus without the light bulb in their brains blinking baptism.

Now my point is not that we need to preach more baptism (though surely we should) but that there is something wrong with us when we hear Scripture talk about water and the Spirit, new birth, living water, etc., and we do not instinctively think BAPTISM.  In a Monday conversation, I talked about baptism and these mentions of water and was told "You would see baptism there; but then again, Pastor, you see baptism everywhere."  Well not everywhere.  Often I see the Eucharist and not just baptism.  But I digress.

Why do we miss baptism in these texts?  Well, let me venture a couple of guesses.  One is that we read Bible versions that are selective in their translation and notes so that baptism and water are like two completely different subjects.  Could it be that the prejudice of the translaters was against sacramental baptism?  Another reason is that baptism merits only a mention in our catechetical instruction and is hardly mentioned when it comes to the nature of our Christian lives and vocations.  Another is that we listen to evangelical teachers, sing evangelical songs, read evangelical books and pray from evangelical prayerbooks and devotional literature.  They do not talk about baptism much since they generally see baptism as an ordinance or law and not as a sacrament in which God does something through an earthly element.  And maybe another reason is that we have an understanding of "spiritual" shaped more by the current thinking of the world than by Scripture, catechism, and Confessions.  And this is a problem.

When I have written and spoken about the need for the script and soundtrack of our lives to be consistent, there are some folks who suggest that I am either paranoid or sectarian in my thinking.  We Lutherans should not be isolationist and we should not believe that we have a corner on exclusive truth.  I agree.  We should not isolate ourselves and we do not have a corner on that exclusive truth.  But we should read and be nurtured by those who share our faith, who speak in the terminology of the means of grace, and who see our lives of faith through the lens of baptism.  It is not because this is Lutheran but because as Lutherans we claim this is what the Scriptures say.  Yet, the sad truth is that Lutherans are often strangers to their own faith -- some fault due to poor catechesis and some fault due to a lack of interest in the scripts and soundtracks that undergird who are we and flow from our Confessional identity.

Yes, it is the Pastor's job to remind us of the things we miss.  But it is also the job of  the people in the pew to seek out the theological perspective that is consistent with our creed and confession.  We do not lack for Lutheran authors and books, hymns and devotional literature.  They may not be on the shelves at Books a Million but Amazon carries them and CPH is very easy to order from -- on line or over the phone.  The people in the pews need to be conversant in the language and vocabulary of our faith.  It is not a matter of reading things into Scripture but reading these things out of Scripture.  Our Confessions claim to do just that.  We claim that these Confessions are faithful and true expositions of Scripture.

So, if you heard or read the lessons for the last two weeks and the baptism light bulb did not go on, maybe something is wrong... maybe that needs to be fixed... sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Grumpy Old Men

Why is it that old men in their high seventies carry away the youth of our churches, even in America, like Bultmann and Tillich? So wrote Sasse in a letter to J. A. O. Preus in 1962.

It is an interesting comment now some 50 years old and yet not untrue in our own age and generation. I once believed that it was due to the impetuous nature of youth, its doubts and rebellion, that the Church has gone so far astray.  But Sasse's comment has resonated with my own change in thinking.  To be sure, I do not believe and I am not sure that Sasse is suggesting that youth blindly follow old men in their fantasy of doubt and fear.  It is not that youth gives up its independence and its ownership in order to slavishly follow the whims and whimpering of a past generation. But the starting point of youth is forever being changed by the ending point of those old men.

The nagging doubts and suspicious natures of those old men sure that the Jesus of the Scriptures and the Jesus of the Church's kerygma and the Jesus of history were three very different people with a bit in common but much to distinguish them became the starting point for those who followed them.  The uncertainties foisted upon the Biblical text by those sure that there was a hidden and forbidden story underneath the neatly printed and carefully bound books called the Bible became the entry point for those who followed them.  In other words, the generations that follow pick up where the generations that came before left off in their doubts and fears about the content of the Scriptures and the reliability of those Scriptures as we know them.  They laid down a new starting point for those who followed them so that their flawed conclusions about what the Church has believed and taught and confessed were the beginning point of those whose distance from the core and center of the faith moved slowly and subtly away.

Instead of adding to our knowledge and understanding of Scripture, we are plagued more and more by doubts about the authenticity and reliability of the creedal affirmations.  The work of grumpy old men has not helped us unfold the story God has given us but made us increasingly cynical about it.  So what we preach on Sunday morning is more and more distant from the work of the scholars upon the texts and stories of those Scriptures.  Our children begin where we have left off and we have bequeathed to them more a legacy of our fears and doubts than any certain facts of confident confessions.

The quest for the historical Jesus has left us believing that Jesus is a mystery man about whom we know little for certain.  The pursuit of the Biblical text by the higher critics has left us believing that the authors are not who they were claimed to be and the books as we have them were manipulated to the point that nothing about the text can be read with confidence.  The focus on diversity of liturgical texts and history has left us blind to the remarkable unity and unanimity throughout the ages -- something that would encourage us on Sunday morning to identity with the saints who have gone before us.

I was never much enamored of Bultmann or Tillich or many of the crop of folks Sasse might name or others might list.  But I cannot deny that they have had a profound effect upon me despite my distance from their perspectives and conclusions.  They have influenced both the topics and tone of the theological debate for far too long and we still do not know how to silence them as they speak to us still from their graves and their published works.

You can see the same thing when it comes to the worship wars.  It seems those most passionate about contemporary worship are boomer age Pastors who are unable to let to of the culture of their youth and who have had the audacity to suggest that the Church's song must sound like what they listened to on the radio.  In this respect, the vast majority of contemporary church music is hardly contemporary but remains largely a folk idiom that has more in common with Peter, Paul, and Mary than it does with cutting edge musical sound.

You can also see how this has affected the areas of outreach, evangelism, and mission.  The doubts and fears of an older generation, certain that unless the Church changed its methodology, she would die, have guided us to look past our own history as a Church and choose modern business methods of marketing the Gospel.  They have built up schools designed to move the Church away from its status in the world to a mere reflection of the world around her -- in the mistaken thought that the Church's salvation lie in being what the world wants or expects or desires us to be.  And the strange truth is that the world does not want a church that looks like American Idol with music from their I-pod or pop psychology from the pulpit.  They want to hear about the mystery of the Word made flesh, about the cross where the reign of sin is broken, and of the empty tomb that speaks of life that knows no end.

You can see this in the areas of ethics, morality, and the social fabric of our world today.  The constant talk of sex, the refusal to reign in desire, and the self-centered approach to marriage and family that was our legacy (especially from the boomers) have left us with little choice but to sanctify that which had been judged sinful, to legitimize that which had been an aberration, and to celebrate that which had been confessed for repentance.  Once again we turn to the Scriptures and find nothing that speaks to us today because we are either convinced that the Biblical era did not know the circumstances we face today or because their words were borne of an outmoded and discredited idea of right and wrong.  So we make up an idea like the Gospel principle in order to do an end run around clear words of Scripture and allow the Church to tolerate, accept, and even approve behavior the Bible clearly condemns.

We are not free from our past -- the more recent past that reflects the last 200-300 years.  We began where the great teachers of doubt and the tutors of suspicion ended.  Is it no wonder then that we are in such a state today?  Without a clear clarion call to that which the Scriptures teach, the creeds confess, and the liturgy manifests, we are left to the muddling of opinion, feeling, and desire.

It is for this reason that so many of the theological works attractive to me were published in a generation far before my own time.  Old school no longer means the orthodox and faithful confession but these scholars of a more recent past whose lasting legacy has been one more of uncertainty than confident faith.  It is not that I try to repristinate the ancient past or reinvent us by resurrecting another era judged golden.  Every time and every place has been plagued by its own set of problems and challenges.   But Sasse is correct in affirming that youth often goes astray because youth begins where the grumpy old men of the past have ended -- with their doubts, fears, uncertainties, suspicions, and bitterness.  The end result is that we must not only deal with their conclusions but with their starting points and this has been the call to Biblical, confessional, and liturgical renewal among Lutherans -- not to reinvent who we are but to reconnect with who we were so that where future generations begin is not with our faults and failings but with what we have always believed, taught, and confessed as that which is the one, true, catholic, and apostolic faith and Church.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Bible is a dangerous book

I was watching the Tudors (reruns) as a vacillating Henry VIII would ebb and flow his reform and keep people guessing as to what kind of Church the Church of England was to be.  His last wife was a definite Protestant and was in conflict with the ardent Roman Catholic Bishop Gardiner.  In an outburst she speaks of the need for Henry to finish the reform of the Church -- all the while Bishop Gardiner sits near by.  In the course of the discussion, Henry questions his wife about her affection for the Scriptures.  She insists that her desire is for all the people to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves without need of interference or enforcement of the Church's position.  Henry is not so sure.  The Scriptures are, for Henry, a dangerous book when taken out of the Church and placed in the hands of unlearned people.

So what of Henry's conclusion?  Is he right?  Is the Bible a dangerous book when read by those unschooled in the faith?  Is the Bible a book that should be restricted  -- available only to those who have been trained to read it or who read it from the vantage point of that place within the assembly of God's people?  Lutherans have, historically, followed Luther's suggestion of the primary value of the catechism and the hymnal to the Christian home.  It is not that Luther or the Lutherans are opposed to the reading of Scripture -- far be it -- but at the same time, we do understand what has happened since the Reformation and how we have found the Christian marketplace crowded with tens of thousands of different "Christian" Churches all claimed to be Biblical, all insisting that their interpretation of Scripture is authentic and true.  How do we know and judge all manner of doctrine and interpretation?  Must the layman in the pew be a "Doctor" of the Scriptures in order to distinguish truth from falsehood, the catholic faith from a sectarian viewpoint?  Or could we say that this is precisely the reason why we have written Confessions, catechisms, the hymnal, etc.?

The clarity of Scripture as taught most famously by Luther in On the Bondage of the Will has been imported into the Lutheran Confessions.  We do not deny this.  However, the clarity of Scripture is not to be confused with simplicity or comprehensibility. Were the subject matter of Scripture, God's revelation of Himself, truly simple, it would not need to be revealed. That which is revealed, the peace of God and all that belongs to the Gospel, transcends human understanding and is profound at the very heart of it. [Quoting Erling Teigen]  In other words, Scripture is clear and its meaning plain.  It is not obscure nor its meaning hidden and it must be mediated, spiritualized, or rationalized.  Yet it is also true, as Luther asserts, "There is, therefore, another, an external judgment, whereby with the greatest certainty we judge the spirits and dogmas of all men, not only for ourselves, but also for others and for their salvation. This judgment belongs to the public ministry of the Word and to the outward office, and is chiefly the concern of leaders and preachers of the Word . . . This is what we earlier called 'the external clarity of Holy Scripture.' " [LW, vol 33, p 91] As Teigen concludes;  simply to repeat the words of Scripture, without dearly expressing their meaning, is to fail to assert a clear Scripture... 

The Bible is a dangerous book -- most dangerous -- when it is subject to the authority of personal reason or when it is mined as a spiritual vein of hidden truth inaccessible to most.  In this way Lutherans have carefully navigated between the fault of the Radical Reformers who would spiritualize its words and those in Rome who would make it an obscure book.  The vehicle of this via media is the Confessions, whose exegesis is doctrinal and whose doctrine is founded upon exegetical pillars.  Every doctrine necessary for faith and life is clearly taught in Scripture. This does not mean that every verse or word of Scripture is clear or that either in whole or part Scripture is easy to understand.  The key to understanding is faith worked by the Spirit.  The legacy of the Church is the faith and faithful teaching of the orthodox and catholic fathers, of creed and confession -- all working to answer the question "what does this mean?"  Not what does this mean to me or what does this mean now but what does this mean -- Christ being THE message and highest authority of the Word of God.  Outside this heritage of teaching and exposition, the Bible can, indeed, be a dangerous book.

Last week someone taped a jump drive to our church door.  On that drive was a 250 page manifesto of this person's faith, something of his history, and a call to repentance.  It was ever so Biblical in reference but it was entirely flawed in perspective and application of that Scripture.  For this man, the Bible was a dangerous book.  He read it subject to his own reason and understanding but without the advantage of creed, confession, and catechism.  We who are Lutherans should not be embarrassed by our creedal, confessional, and catechetical perspective and heritage.  These become the guide to help us see what Scripture clearly teaches and to reign in the great temptation let our reason and experience stand in authority over what Scripture says.

I think of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  The man read what the Scripture said but did not know what it meant.  As Philip illuminated and unfolded its meaning to that reader so long ago, we as Lutherans enjoy the benefit of the Office of the Ministry, creed, catechism, and confession to guide us to its full and clear meaning in Christ.

Some closing words from Teigen:  Paradoxically, the clear revelation of God in the external Word demands a dogmatical examination of the words of Scripture and an outward confession of what the words mean.To believe that the Scriptures are clear is meaningless without such a confession. The task of exegesis for Luther and the Confessions is to ask "What does it mean?" of any Scripture. [CTQ Vol 36, No. 2-3].

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pastors Guided and People Protected

God said it, I believe it, that makes it so...  Having seen that cliched Christianity at work in more places than the bumpers of dual wheeled pickups with gun racks in the back windows, I think it is high time that we as Lutherans distanced ourselves from this screwy Biblicism in which me and my Bible and me and my mind decide what is truth.  While it might sound that we Lutherans with our confession of God's infallible Scriptures have a lot in common with those of this fundamentalist persuasion, we do not have much common ground.

We are not a Biblical Church but a Confessional Church.  Now before you raise up your hands with stones ready to hurl one my way, think about this.  When we confess Scripture as the source and norm of Christian faith and practice, we are defining what sola Scriptura means.  But by saying sola Scriptura we have not yet defined what Scriptura means.  Scripture is not to be supplanted by reason or other authority as that which is the source and the norm of Christian belief and practice but neither is Scripture to be stripped of the "tradition" that surrounds it -- creed and confession.  Scripture is sola but not nuda -- not naked.  It is not some private domain of the individual but the Book of the Church and what it says is not the domain of one man's thought or speculation (not even Luther's) but the domain of the Church.

Sasse said it so much better than I just did.  The true church is gathered not around Scripture, but around the rightly understood, the purely and correctly interpreted Bible. It is the task of the church's confession to express the right understanding of Scripture which the Church has reached. Thus pastors are helped to proclaim only the pure doctrine, and congregations are protected against the whims of the preacher and the misinterpretation of Scripture. In this sense the church's confession is servant of the Word. [From Church and Confession (1941), English translation by Norman Nagel in We Confess: Jesus Christ (Concordia Publishing House, 1984) p. 84, with a HT to Pr. Mark Henderson for drawing my attention back to this statement.]

This purely and correctly interpreted Bible is the Scriptures believed, confessed, stated in creed and confession, proclaimed within the mass, and taught to catechumens through the ages.  As Lutherans we know this but we also tend to forget it.  We have been so influenced by the evangelicals and fundamentalists around us that we often end up talking like them.  I have not particular grudge against them here except that they are not Lutheran and we are.  We are a confessional Church in which we have preserved and proclaimed in those Confessions Scripture's witness purely and correctly stated and interpreted.

Pastors are not on their own before these Scriptures any more than the people in the pew are on their own with them.  We stand with the great teachers and confessors of old.  What we confess is no private interpretation but that which has always been believed, taught, and confessed, at all times and in every place.  We confess a catholic Scripture which is not the possession of the interpreter but the job of the interpreter is to make sure that this Scripture does not change its voice with every wind of change nor switch its teachings with every trend or fad.  We are anchored in this way and Pastors make formal tie to this anchor of the faith when they are ordained.

In this way people are protected from the speculations and internal doubts or fears of the Pastors who serve them in Jesus' name.  We are both directed by and held accountable to those Confessions and their evangelical and catholic witness.  We are thus protected from being sectarian or venturing too far away from this catholic voice of Scripture lest its truth be obscured and its saving power emptied by unrestrained rationalization, heretical speculation, and personal doubt or fear.

Our Confessions are not true because they might be faithful to Scripture but because they are faithful to Scripture and therefore hold us accountable not simply to a book but a Bible read and proclaimed through a particular lens (Confessions).  We do not read the Scriptures as if they had been read for the first time but from the vantage point of the faithful and orthodox confessors of every age.  We do not begin with a blank slate but with the creeds and confessions that have gone before us and that have been proven truthful.  Only in this way can the Scriptural truth be maintained in a world of individualism and subjective truth.  We believe, teach, and confess...  to guide the Pastor in his calling and to protect the people in the pew and to maintain in every age and amid every temptation what is yesterday, today, and forever the same.  As Lutherans this is not an embarrassment to us but the greatest of gifts and treasures.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Watch for it and listen to it...

video

An Age Comparison Table

I came across a table comparing the age of attendees at ELCA congregations with the general US population and it showed that the ELCA has significantly more attendees in the age groups beginning with age 45-90 than it does from age 0-40.  According to this table, the ELCA has about twice the proportion of people in the 70-74 age group as the general population and about half the attendees as there are people in the general population in the teenage years and young adults.  While I am only guessing here, I would suspect that the LCMS would not look radically different.  On Sunday morning, we have more gray haired people than the general population and fewer youth than the US population.

Now the truth is, I am neither shocked by these numbers nor particularly vexed by them.  I would suspect that folks age 45 and up are represented in higher proportion than younger folks.  When I look back on my own youth (would misspent be too strong a word?), I sure would not want someone to judge the whole of my maturity of faith and practice on the basis of a snapshot of my life from age 18-22.  It might be true that due to my experience with church colleges and seminary, I was more strongly motivated to worship attendance than others my age.  There would be something very wrong if that were not true.  But in total I would not want the whole of the Church judged by the numbers of teens and early twenty-somethings sitting in the pews -- not now and not in previous or future generations.

That said, it is clear that we have our work cut out for us.  Worship attendance is a habit and one that, if learned early, will encourage life long participation in the worship life of the Church.  It is a habit much more difficult to learn later in life -- especially in the teens and early twenty-something years.  With marriage being postponed to a later age or not at all and with children more and more optional to married couples, we find ourselves with fewer divinely appointed means to urge and call young folks back to the Church (or to seek it out for the first time).  But you have read things like this here on this blog before and I am not going to repeat myself.

What concerns me most of all about these statistics is that it means we are not doing a great job as parents -- modeling this behavior and imparting it to our children.  I was at a meeting of Lutheran Pastors when the question came up asking how many of our children (PKs) are still active in church.  As we went around the room, the news was nothing if not somber.  Only a small percentage of the children of Pastors were still actively attending ANY church.  Now I will admit to being very, very far from an exemplary parent and I know that as time goes on my parents look more and more like saints to me and I look less and less like one....BUT, I am happy to say all three of my children are regular Lutheran communicants in the communities where they are now located.  Even with a less than stellar father figure and the struggles and pressures of growing up as PKs, they are active communicants.  Now I do not say this to toot my own horn but to illustrate my own personal struggle in this regard and to suggest that if I can do it, I know that you as parents should not give up on your children.

Children do not decide if they will attend or not.  (Lord knows, if they are the ones making the decisions in the home, then there are other big problems looming on the horizon as well as worship issues.)  They follow the lead of their parents.  They learn the value of being together in the Lord's House from the practice of their parents and extended families.  That does not mean that kids who grow up without great role models are doomed or that kids who grow up in the right homes will automatically be faithful and active Christians.  All I am saying is that the place where the question of worship attendance is raised is at home and the parents are the ones who answer it.  So parents -- even if you do not think YOU need to be in church every Sunday, do it for the sake of your kids and grand-kids.  Give them a model to follow and show them the path to walk for themselves.

This statistical problem will not be solved by a book from Concordia or a program from the Synod or District Office or even by the Pastor preaching a stellar sermon on the subject.  The answer lies in the sermon preached in the home by parents who do what is right and salutary for themselves and for their children.  Their kids may depart from it but the foundation will always be with them.  Books from CPH and reminders from the Church at large and your Pastor are good, but you parents are the ones who set the pace for the home.  So set it.  Set it high.  Make it regular.

One other small point.  If you are a member or pew sitter and you see another member who has not sat in the pews for a while, approach them with this in a fraternal and loving way.  The best way that those who are missing are recalled is when the folks who sit next to them miss them, seek them out, and remind them of where they belong.  Pastors can and should do some of this and elders, too.  But the folks who make the biggest difference in this regard are their fellow pew sitters.  So speak up and seek out the lost from among us.  You are your brother's keeper.  And your sister's, too!

Friday, March 25, 2011

How to nurture a sense of reverence....

When you step through the doorway of a church you are leaving the outer-world behind and entering an inner world. The outside world is a fair place abounding in life and activity, but also a place with a mingling of the base and ugly. It is a sort of market place, crossed and recrossed by all and sundry. Perhaps 'unholy' is not quite the word for it, yet there is something profane about the world. Behind the church doors is an inner place, separated from the market place, a silent, consecrated and holy place... so writes Romano Guardini, Roman Catholic liturgical theologian and historian...  He goes to say that while we know with confidence God's presence in the world, we know access to the Lord and to His grace specifically in the sacred space known as the Church.

The Church is the entrance into the holy city, the New Jerusalem, through which even in this present moment we glimpse the everlasting life and light that is the fruit of His sacrificial self-offering on the cross and His life-giving resurrection.  As Ephesians reminds us, Jesus is the source from which all things come and the one in whom all things find their fulfillment, not in the least of which is you and me.  Worship is not something that comes naturally to us, although the desire to know God and live in His presence is certainly still with us, though distorted since the Fall.  Therefore God must first teach us, as He has done through His Word, so that we might know where to know Him and where He has made Himself known.  And those who know Him in His Word and Sacraments are then given the holy task of teaching this sacred domain and the means of grace to those outside the community of faith and to the children who are nurtured in their young lives of faith within that community.

Part of this task is the teaching of reverence.  Reverence is the training of the mind and also the body for the holy task and gracious privilege of worship.  It is not simply outward ritual, gesture, or posture but uniting both the outward form with the inward posture of the heart (we call it faith).  Part of this training in reverence involves learning a pattern of prayer.  Historically, the daily office was significant in shaping the life of prayer of the individual within the community life together of the Church.  But a pattern of prayer that involves a familiar form and a commitment or discipline may be adapted from a variety of sources.  Many are available within the Lutheran tradition (not in the least of which is the Treasury of Daily Prayer).

Familiarity and comfort with the House of God is also very helpful.  When we become at home within the church building and what goes on in the Sanctuary, then we become free to focus more deeply and completely upon the Word of God and the gifts of grace imparted to us within our Sacrament life together.  It is very difficult to nurture a sense of reverence when the surroundings and what takes place within them is new and unfamiliar to us.  In this way the rhythm of the Church Year and the uniformity of the liturgical ordinary are powerful tools that both foster and encourage this reverence.

We might say that the same is true of the ritual gestures of the liturgy.  Part of the value of these liturgical actions is that they become a part of us, an extension of our inward piety and devotion.  When we make the sign of the cross upon us at the invocation, benediction, and all the points in between, we express outwardly our constant identity as a baptized child of God.  When these gestures become instinctive, then they flow naturally from the prompting of the liturgy or the shape of our private prayer -- reminding us of the grace that first called us to faith and the grace that sustains us.  The more comfortable we are with them, the less they awkwardness we feel with them and the less they become simply an outward act or show.  The fruit of these liturgical actions is the posture of reverence.

Good church architecture provides focal points for our eyes in the rich tapestry of liturgical art.  It begins with the crucifix where we are repeatedly confronted with the all sufficient sacrifice of Christ that is both the cardinal teaching of our faith and the source of all the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation that God has generously bestowed upon us.  As one author put it, when the cross is no longer a scandal it no longer speaks of Christ.  Part of seeing Him as the Suffering Savior is remembering not only the gift but the scandal through which that gift comes to us.  Stained glass with its sacred images and stories framed in a window functions in the same way as prompter and shaper of our thoughts and prayer.

The truth is that when the focus is mostly on what we do or what others do, the worship service is at odds with the sense of reverence that is meant to flow from the place where we enjoin our life together with Christ and all those who bear His name.  When the only time we spend in the Sanctuary is time spent "doing worship," reverence is hard to find and, if found, difficult to sustain.  For this reason it is a good thing to come early enough to kneel for a time in prayer, to look around at the sacred images and religious art all around us, to read through the hymns before we sing them, and to become familiar with the lessons for the day before they are read out loud.  This godly preparation bears good fruit for us and for the faith that is nurtured by the means of grace within the context of our life together -- called, gathered, and enlightened by the Spirit at work in this place.

Just a few devotional thoughts about reverence and how to nurture it...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Having Forgotten to Remember... better late than not at all

Thomas Cranmer (2 July 1489 – 21 March 1556) was a leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and for a short time, Mary I.  During Cranmer's tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, he was responsible for establishing the first doctrinal and liturgical structures of the reformed Church of England. When Edward came to the throne, Cranmer was able to promote major reforms. He wrote and compiled the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, a complete liturgy for the English Church. His legacy lives on within the Church of England through the Book of Common Prayer -- not only for those within the Anglican Communion but also within the liturgical documents of most English speaking Christians.  Not the least of which, the Lutherans enjoy the legacy of his craft with words that continue to inform and shape our faith to this very day.

One reason for enduring character of Cranmer’s liturgical writings was his respect for antiquity as well as his ability to place into timeless form the phrases that, in our own day, have been rendered almost so vulgar and crude as to betray their lineage to his pen.  We would do well in our own age and time to remember his gift with words and to carefully and deliberately set out the liturgical language of the Church so fully and yet eloquently exploring the full reaches of language, grammar, and form.  Rome has only now done something about the flat and wooden language of the Vatican II mass and is attempting to repair what several generations have undone. The butchery done to the ancient hymn texts by those who would modernize the old has left future generations with the same need to re-learn a language that is as noble as it is successful in communicating what it says.

For those who would suggest that I speak too much for this man as God's gift to the language of the Church (at least in English), read through some of his more familiar and finer phrases.

The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of His son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always.

Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have wandered and strayed from your ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against you holy laws.
We have left undone those which that we ought to have done;
and we have done those things that we ought not to have done...

And we most humbly beseech thee of thy goodness, O Lord, to comfort and succour all them, who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.


Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.

Speak now or forever hold thy peace (what movie script could hold a wedding without these words?)

From all blindness of heart, from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness, Good Lord, deliver us...

 To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part...

 Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to sut; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name, Through Christ our Lord. Amen.



Ahhh... where are the poets and wordsmiths today to guide us to speak God's Word to one another and speak back to God what He has first spoken to us...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Script of Faith

Over the past several days I noted a blog discussion of whether or not to write out, take with you, and preach from either an outline or a full blown manuscript AND a question of whether or not someone can "read" themselves out of the faith by reading the wrong books.  It also connected with a line from the introduction of last week's sermon about the script of our faith.

It would seem that there are two very different kinds of theater -- one which is improvisation and the other scripted.  While there are those who very much like improv, the outcome is often unpredictable and consistency impossible to sustain.  While there are those who like a script, slavish dependence upon someone else's lines often sounds like the actor is reading a part instead of playing one.  The romance of the theater is definitely tilted toward improvisation -- the spontaneity, the thrill of its surprising twists and turns, and the sheer skill of the actors on stage.

When it comes to faith, our heart might be tilted toward improv but our heads should be firmly rooted in a script.  This is especially true for a confessional church like the Lutheran Church.  We are not good at improvisation nor are we comfortable with novelty and innovation.  We are best when we are who we have claimed to be and confessed to be (in words).  Our whole identity and our unity is based upon a common script from which we are all reading and in which we all have confidence.  When we deviate from this script we tend to go astray and lose not only our distinctiveness but also our basic identity as Lutheran Christians.

One of the great problems with following a script is that there are so many scripts to choose from.  Sure, there are those who say our script should be the Bible (the nude Scriptures) but surely we can all see how every Christian tradition, indeed, every heretic, has claimed to be following Scripture.  The Scriptures are never naked but are always surrounded by the orthodox creeds and confessions that identify what it is that Scripture teaches that is faithful and true (or, to use classic language, holy, catholic, and apostolic).  So it is not sufficient to say I follow Scripture without placing that Scripture within the context of that which is the catholic and orthodox tradition.  We as Lutherans hold to our confessions not in so far as these confessions are Scriptural but because they are faithful and orthodox expositions of what Scripture says.

It would seem to me that one of our modern problems is the script we are reading.  Too many Lutherans are reading scripts that either have nothing in common with our confessions or conflict with those confessions.  Take, for example, the reading lists of such agencies as TCN (Transforming Churches Network) or PLI (Pastoral Leadership Initiative).  It would seem that the bulk of this reading (the script) is by non-Lutherans and not by non-Lutherans sympathetic to the Lutheran confessions but either oblivious to or writing against what these confessions say we believe, teach, and confess.  Our vocabulary and our very identity are being shaped more by church growth methodologies and evangelicals than by the documents that we claim say best who we are and what we believe.  Even if what we read there is not in conflict with those confessions, by giving our attention to them and by investing them with authority, we distance ourselves from our own confession, history, and identity.

The same is true of the folks in the pew.  The abundance of books, magazines, and web resources by non-Lutherans have become a treasure trove of new found wisdom and insight by the people in our pews.  Their script has been shifted away from the Catechism and hymnal to other scripts and other authors who do not hold to the same confession and values we hold as Evangelical Lutheran Christians.  Some of it is not particularly evil or wicked but the problem is that we learn to speak in non-sacramental and non-creedal terms and we learn to value other things more highly than the Word and the Sacraments.  The internet is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to providing information to us (information whose source, presuppositions, and values we do not know and may not be in a position to evaluate clearly by ourselves).

It is our practice to ask of those youth to be confirmed that they write a two page essay on an assigned topic (such as "What is baptism and how does it shape my life as a child of God?").  Catechumens use a variety of sources and some from the internet.  Once I had to spend most of a day with a youth who inadvertently drew the majority of his source material from a non-sacramental source (actually Mormon) and was led far afield of the catechism and our Lutheran identity.  He did not know nor did his parents realize what was happening (perhaps they were mostly concerned that it simply be finished on time).

It is not that I disdain other scripts or believe them all to be lies.  If I read them, I must read them through the lens of my own familiar script as a Lutheran Christian (namely the confessions).  I must be careful when reading from these other sources lest I be led away from basic identity and the faith I have confessed.  The script we read our faith from is not something indifferent but of basic and essential importance.  I caution our folks (Pastors and lay) from reading these other things without a critical eye for what is being said and how that relates (or conflicts) with what it is that we as Lutherans believe, teach, and confess.  There are some dangerous things going on out there...

I once had a family whose child was dating a fine young person not of the Lutheran faith.  Over time, this Lutheran was regular in the Sunday morning, evening, and Wednesday worship services and Bible studies of this church.  They were young and in love, at least they thought so.  The parents were happy the teen was going to church so often.  Until doubts about this person's infant baptism, about whether they had been saved, about the formalistic sins of Lutheranism, and growing pressure nearly blew this family apart.  The child had been reading from another script, did not filter what was heard through the knowledge base that had already been supplied to them through the catechism, worship, and Sunday school in a Lutheran parish, and this had grave consequences.  Eventually the family fell away entirely and only after a move began to reclaim the faith they had once confessed.  Even so, this family and the youth (now an adult) are not nearly as regular as before this happened.

It is not all a matter of interpretation.  That is why we Lutherans have a written script (the confessions).  We are anchored in this faith and it is THE standard of doctrine and practice (not just in some formalistic sense but in the most practical way).  Watch the script you are reading and make sure that it is not calling you away from the script that you know confesses faithfully and Biblically the one holy, catholic, and apostolic faith.  This is not a small problem.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Devotion of a Few

Our parish has some families that drive very long distances to get here -- for some, way more than an hour and for more than a few more than 45 minutes.  It is generally true that those who drive the greatest distance are also those more regular in attendance.  I have been surprised on some "snow" Sundays (if you can have them in Tennessee) to look out in the parish and see those long distance folks present while the folks who live a few blocks away remain home, snug in their beds.  Maybe you have the same circumstance.

I remember one first service family introducing themselves to a second service family.  They mentioned how they were "early birds" and that was why they liked the early service.  The late service folks said they we early birds, too.  They were up and in the car by 7:30 am to arrive at the Church for Sunday school at 9:30 am -- they had nearly a two hour commute!  "Why would you do that?' was the first service reply. Why, indeed.

I am struck by those whose need for and devotion to our assembling together around the Word and Table of the Lord involves such sacrificial choices.  It seems that in some cases, when things are too easy, they are too easy to pass up.  It makes me think that perhaps membership is far too easy.  We all have paper members who have not been among the worshiping community of faith for a long time and show no signs of reappearing.  There are always excuses and I find being the father figure and holding them to account one of the more necessary but distasteful parts of the Pastoral ministry.

A number of things a person can belong to require certain services to be regularly used or their membership is rendered invalid.  Consider the places where we log in on our computer only to find out that since it was too long since our last log in, our identity has been removed and we have to re-register.  Could it be, should it be that membership in the congregation should be renewed on an annual or biennial basis?  I have long been troubled by the fact that people take their participation so casually. Perhaps a membership covenant that asked for regular renewals might serve as a means of affirming the ties the bind, so to speak.  We have several families - not formal members here although their membership resides in another LCMS congregation - but they are among the most faithful and reliable both for worship and service.  Are these not more "members" than those who attend sporadically or not at all?

It has often been said that folks do not realize what they have until it is gone.  In this respect, I have had countless folks move away only to find they cannot find a church home where the liturgy is there, the preaching Law and Gospel, and the kind of rich diversity in hymnody and music we know here.  Some of these folks have then moved back here for one reason or another and become more regular than they were in the past.  But others have learned the bad habit of non-attendance and their experience has made them less regular both where they were and when, on occasion, they have moved back.  The point being that we seem to learn more quickly the habit of non-attendance than the good habit of being regularly together in the Lord's House, around the Word and Table of the Lord, on the Lord's Day.

Just a few rambling thoughts on the overall theme of church attendance I began on Sunday...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Faith rests on grace -- grace that gives LIFE!

Sermon Preached for Lent 2A, on Sunday, March 20 2011.

     One of the big issues before us as Lutheran Christians is the fact that  the script of our faith is too often written by others.  Christian books and the internet give us a tempting and yet inaccurate reflection of what we believe, teach and confess.  In the same way, if faith has a soundtrack, then what we listen to can often contradict and distance us from the faith we confess from the Scriptures and the solid foundation of God's grace in Christ.
    An example of this is the way we define what faith is.  For many Christians, faith is defined in terms of knowledge, understanding, and consent. Too many Lutherans listen to this and get thrown off the Scriptural trail when it comes to defining what faith is or who can believe.  Some of those churches that claim to be Biblical, ditch the Scriptures when they defy reason and let their reason triumph.  It sounds good to us – surely God wants us to know Him in our hearts, to understand Him in our minds and explain Him to others, and to heed or obey Him in our daily lives.  But what faith is in the Bible is trust – trust given by the Spirit from which these things then flow.
    It is our great temptation to confuse faith with knowledge, to confuse knowledge with understanding, and to confuse understanding with consent.  Does God require us to know and understand Him before we can believe in Him or is faith the deepest level of trust that trusts in what is not understood?  Perhaps part of the problem is that we yearn to understand God and His ways.  We want to understand Him so that He is predictable, explainable.  However, God regularly reminds us that His ways are far and above ours and that our relationship with God rests not upon intellectual knowledge or understanding but trust – trust that has confidence in His grace when our eyes do not see that grace and our minds do not understand it.
    Today we encounter two very different people. Take a look at Nicodemus and Abraham.  Abraham's righteousness was not from His understanding of God but from His trust in the Lord.  Nicodemus sought to understand God and he came to Jesus looking to be instructed to know and understand Him.  Jesus, on the other hand, was not looking for Nicodemus to understand God or His ways but for Him to trust in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life.  Nicodemus wanted to build a staircase of reason and understanding to lead Him to heaven but Jesus was there on earth, the divine and heavenly Son of God was standing before him.  Jesus confronts Nicodemus with things that only confuse Him – born again from my mother's womb?  How can this be?
    Faith rests not on a reasoned understanding of God nor our agreement with the Lord or His ways.  Faith rests upon confidence in His grace and trust in that grace.  This confidence intervenes when our eyes do not see and our minds do not understand God's word and His ways.  God said to Abraham "go" and he went; you shall be the father of many nations and yet at age 75 he was still childless.  Abraham trusted not in His understanding of God but in God's gracious Word alone.  We do not meet God on a level playing field of knowledge but in the midst of grace that both scandalizes and surprises us.  God is not reasonable and His grace is unpredictably generous.
    God spoke to Abraham simply to call Him to faith.  He did not disclose to Abraham the how or why but invited him simply to trust.  When Nicodemus visits Jesus by night, Nicodemus thought he would get answers but instead he got the same call to trust in which he could not yet see or understand.
    Nicodemus was undoubtedly a better man than Abraham.  He was rigorious where Abraham was lazy.  He was well schooled as a Pharisee where Abraham was an amateur student of God and His ways.  Nicodemus had lived an exemplary life while Abraham had serious defects and sins. But Abraham got grace.  Abraham knew his unworthiness and if God was willing to give, Abraham was willing to receive that gift.  Nicodemus, on the other hand, wanted to with understanding before committing and trusting grace.
    Trust rests upon pure and unadulterated grace and grace imparts life –  life when all we see is death or all we imagine is this life.  Grace gives the life that is now lived out in the context of mercy – where sins that should be punished are forgiven and forgiveness that should be given out sparingly is poured out lavishly and generously on the unworthy.  Grace to pray not only for friends but for enemies.  Grace to forgive not the worthy and the deserving but particularly the unworthy and the undeserving.  This is how God deals with us so this is how we deal with others.
    Abraham is credited with righteousness not because he was a good and holy man but because he trusted God to do what He promised.  Abraham, with all his faults and failings, lived out his life in the context of God's rich and undeserved mercy.  Nicodemus wanted more – he wanted to figure God out.  So when Jesus offers him new birth, he wants to know how.  When Jesus offers him heavens treasures, Nicodemus wants to know why.  Yet according to Romans, it is Abraham who is declared righteous by virtue of faith while Nicodemus is left with his questions.  I wonder if that does not well describe our dilemma today.  We have all sorts of books purporting to explain God but it is mostly guess and opinion – and whose to say theirs is better than ours.
    Infant baptism clarifies the arguments.  Abraham would say, "It is up to you God, if you say infants have faith, I believe you gave it to them."  While at the same time Nicodemus would say, "How can infants believe if they do not understand?"  And so we find the Lutheran dilemma – do we rest our faith on understanding God or do we simply trust what God says in His Word?  We wrestle with such things as a six day creation and then breeze through the greater mystery of how God became flesh and blood in a baby to die on a cross for sinners and then to rise again to life on the third day.
    Abraham was inferior to Nicodemus in nearly every way.  But Abraham trusted the Lord and was declared righteous.  Nicodemus was stuck on the issue of how and why.  Jesus throws all it all back upon Nicodemus – "You cannot understand earthly things; how do you expect to understand heavenly things?"  We are always tempted to believe that God is shopping for great intellect or wisdom when that which He seeks is simple faith and the fruit of the Spirit's work in us is the same simple faith.  For now this trust escaped Nicodemus; but the vision of the cross must have finally broken through to him as we shall hear later this Lent.
    Where we meet God is not on the level playing field of our knowledge or our understanding or even our obedience.  Rather, we meet God where the question of "how can this be" gives way to the trust that says, "let it be to me as You have said, Lord."  The ground on which faith walks is pure grace – scandalous because it is so generous and surprising because it shows up where you least expect it and in the least deserving people.
    Moses lifted up a snake on a stick and the people who trusted in that ridiculous vision were healed. And those who wondered why and how, remained sick and died.   God raised up His own Son in the dying flesh and blood of Jesus on the pole of a cross and all who trust in the vision of that saving cross are healed for life now and for eternal life to come.  What will it be for YOU?  The cross stands before us calling us to trust in what Jesus accomplished there for us and our salvation.  The baptismal water, the voice of absolution, the bread and wine of the Holy Supper all call out to us – trust and receive...  Meet God where He is... meet Him with faith and trust in Him... nothing more and nothing less.  Can we do that?  The Lutheran way, while not particularly elegant is to meet God where God has chosen to reveal Himself and communicate His grace – in the Word and Sacraments.  So will we stand with Nicodemus who wants an explanation or will we stand with Abraham who prays, "Let it be to me as You have said, Lord.  Amen."

An Ordinary Lutheran

I had someone tell me not long ago that Grace Lutheran Church (where I serve) was a special congregation.  Having listened to enough of Saturday Night Live, the word "special" does not necessarily mean, well, "special."  So I queried the individual to find out exactly what was meant by the comment.

He first mentioned that the liturgical and musical practice of the parish.  Yes, we have a sung Eucharist twice each Sunday, a spoken Eucharist on Thursday mornings, sung Evening Prayer on Wednesdays, and Compline on Mondays.  Yes, we have a fine pipe organ and a fine organist.  Yes, we have a fine liturgical choir and fairly broad musical program.  Yet, aside from two services on a Sunday and the size of our pipe organ, none of these things is necessarily beyond the norm or should be unusual for any Lutheran parish anywhere.

He mentioned good preaching (here is where I felt humbly great by his comment).  Yet, good, solid Law and Gospel preaching, with enthusiasm and conviction (which is what I call "good" preaching) should not be beyond the average Lutheran parish and the average Lutheran Pastor.  It is not what I would think unusual for a Lutheran parish true to its identity and confessional faith.

He mentioned our facility.  Yes, we have a large building with ten large classrooms, an administrative suite, a large nave seating up to 400, a wonderful chancel with stenciling and plaster work, good solid (but not expensive) liturgical appointments, a large fellowship hall, additional rooms of various sizes, and a chapel seating about 60.  Yet, I have not found many structures that are inherently difficult for worship and could be made rather beautiful with some careful attention.  Our structure is utilitarian and, aside from the liturgical art, is not fancy at all.  Any Lutheran parish should be able to provide a structure commensurate with its size and need -- there is nothing particularly noteworthy about our building.

He mentioned a sense of mission.  Yes, we set aside 12-15% of all our income for mission beyond this local place (in the community around us, in the District, in the Synod, and to the world at large).  We did vote to send $9,000 to the Siberian Lutheran Mission, raised $1250 for the care of a Lutheran Pastor's daughter critically injured in a car accident, sent $1100 in Sunday school funds to our Lutheran partner in Tanzania (East of Lake Victoria Diocese), etc.  Yet this is not extraordinary either for our size or for any Lutheran congregation whose focus is oriented outward as well as inward.  A sense of the Church beyond your local borders is healthy for any Lutheran congregation and ownership of this mission focus is part of who we are as Lutheran Christians.

In the end, I find myself more and more mystified with his comment.  He gets around to a lot of Lutheran (nearly all LCMS) parishes across the states and for him to suggest that our parish is "special" is less a compliment to us than, perhaps, a cause for concern about the others.  For we are not extraordinary but rather ordinary.  We use the hymnal, we preach the lectionary, we invest in worship as the primary activity of God's people in this place, we care about those outside our parish and our community, and we use the Confessions and Catechism as the documents that both inform and norm our parish teaching and practice.  I would expect that every Lutheran parish would do so.  In fact, I would hope that we are ordinary, normal, and fairly typical for Lutheran parishes out there. 

The more I think about it, the more this whole thing bothers me.  I know that there are strange Lutheran incarnations out there but I have always believed that they were a distinct minority.  My hope, prayer, and, maybe, my private illusion, is that the vast majority of Lutheran parishes were not so different from mine.  I do not believe that I am more than your average Lutheran Pastor and I do not believe that we are special or unusual in all that many ways.  If it is true, then it is not a compliment to me or to my parish but a cause for serious concern about the health of Lutheran congregations and their Pastors.  So let me say it again.  I am an ordinary Lutheran Pastor and Grace Lutheran Church is a typical Lutheran parish.  Or it should be.  I cannot wish for more Pastors to be like me (believe me, I know my faults and weaknesses more than most of you readers).  But I do wish and pray that more Lutheran parishes would be like us in that their worship and teaching flowed seamlessly from their Confessional identity, that it was powerfully evangelical and faithfully catholic, that it was unashamedly and unabashedly Lutheran, and that it was deliberate and determined to be not only a Lutheran island where the parish is located but a Lutheran mission to shape, encourage, and live united with other Lutherans -- not as some minority splinter group but as the essential core and typical expression of our Lutheran identity within the congregation.  If I am wrong, please do not tell me.  Allow me this small waking dream of hope....

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Members Go to Church on Sunday

When I first came to this parish, now well more than 18 years ago, I was asked if I had a "vision" for the congregation.  I thought for a few moments and then said "Every member in Church every Sunday, and in Sunday school/Bible study..."  Immediately there was laughter.  It was not that this was a comic goal or vision.  It was no one expected such to take place -- it was a pie in the sky kind of goal or vision.  It might be nice... but it might also be nice if I won the lottery.

I am struck by how low our expectations have fallen when it comes to church attendance?  I am not sure why or when it became customary to expect that 30-40% of the average membership of a Lutheran parish might be in church on any given Sunday morning.  It has become not only an average but a typical understanding both of membership and participation on Sunday morning.  In other words, we do not look for more than this average number and we feel lucky when we fall within the average.

The first job of members is to go to Church.  Barring death or illness unto death, members are in Church on Sunday morning.  Barring work during the worship hour or another obligation which we cannot avoid, we are there each Sunday morning.  We do not wake up on Sunday morning and see how we feel.  We do not ask our kids if they want to go to Church.  We do not wait for a Sunday when we feel right, when we feel good, when the weather is halfway decent (but not too good to distract us by other things)...  We do not let perceived or real slights from other members or a problem with the Pastor or somebody else on staff to keep us from the place where Christ is -- in His Word and Sacrament.  We do not look to see what else we might be doing if we did not go to Church nor do we plan things for Sunday morning.

If it is Sunday morning, everyone who knows us and knows that we are Lutheran Christians should know where we will be.  We should not get cell phone calls on Sunday morning because everyone calling us would know that we were in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day and whatever they need to speak about must await our first and foremost appointed duty as the people of God -- WORSHIP.

If the first three commandments God gave to us have to do with worship (having no other gods, using the Lord's name rightly in praise and prayer instead of wrongly, and keeping Sabbath, then that should tell us something about the priorities that belong to those who call themselves God's people.  If we get past the first two uses of the Law that curb in our sinful, rebellious desire and show us our sin, then the third use as a guide should show us what ought to be the delight of our hearts and the good habit of God's people.

As the Psalmist says:  "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go unto the House of the Lord...'"  But where is our gladness?  If there is anything basic and common to any understanding of "membership," it ought to be together in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day.  If we have not yet found our way to this gladness, we should consider the warning of Hebrews who solemnly exhorts us "not to neglect the meeting together (worship) in the Lord's House as some have done..."  for there are consequences to the distractions, disordered priorities, and disputes that keep us from being where we belong.

Imagine what would happen to the life and identity of our congregations if nearly every member were in Church every Sunday morning?  We would truly be a church body not of some 900,000 but of the 2.4M and we would appear so very differently to ourselves and to those around us.  Imagine what visitors and new Christians might see if every Sunday they saw the crowded pews of every member in Church every week.  Instead of being shocked by the apathy of those who claim to have known the riches of the grace of God in Christ, they would be inspired by the faithfulness of those whom God has delighted to call His own by  baptism and faith.

Nobody in Seminary taught me this.  I learned this from my parents.  (And my parents are not "professional church workers" - whatever that category means).  They were faithful people who knew that come hell or high water, death or dismemberment, disaster or disability, Christians went to Church on Sunday morning and Lutheran Christians even more so.  I well remember one icy Sunday morning when we found out that about the only two families that ventured out in our town were the Peters family heading to Golgotha Lutheran and the Kirby family heading to the Roman Catholic Church (both out of town).  My brother and I mocked our dad for making us go but he found nothing funny or ridiculous about it.  Though we did not have the full measure of the "obligation of the mass" to push us, we Lutheran Christians knew where God expected us to be and where we needed to be on Sunday morning.

So if you are listening, go to Church.  Get up and go.  Sunday morning cannot be replaced by two minutes of prayer and a quick trip to the convenience store to pick up the Sunday paper.  Come on.  You know that Christians ought to be in Church on Sunday morning.  Period.  This is not for me or for your Pastor, but for the Lord.  This is not a human rule but the privilege of belonging.  This is no extra law placed upon us but the very practice that flows from our baptismal identity and our confession of faith.  And, in case you missed it, "as often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes..."  -- that means witness -- the witness of attendance that speaks to the houses you pass by on your way to Church and the witness to those who are new to the faith and the witness to those for whom coming to Church requires more effort or driving distance than your trip does.  If you do not believe you need to go for yourself (and there is so much wrong with that conclusion that we must address it separately), go for the sake of the other people you pass on the way or who sit in the pews with you.

The Sabbath was required and imposed upon us.  Worship in Christ is a gift and a privilege.  What is wrong with us that we packed more folks in to worship under the demand of the Law than we can muster with the freedom of the Gospel?  BTW, that freedom of the Gospel does not mean the freedom NOT to worship but the freedom to worship without the demand of the Law and the constraint of your own righteousness as the focus -- the focus being upon Jesus Christ and the gifts and graces won for us by His death and resurrection.

In case you missed my point?  Go to Church!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Doing Theology in an Internet Age

A friend/critic pointed me to an article on the Christianity Today website that speaks of the issue of doing theology in a facebook/blog/twitter/internet age.  It has some interesting questions for those who venture into this public forum.

The author reminds us Throughout the history of public theological debate, there was one constant—those debates only took place between a few select people—Moses, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on—who gained respect through a lifetime of scholarship. But the invention of social media, like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, created a radical departure in communication. In pre-2004 Christianity (that is, Christianity before Facebook was invented), only a small group of Christian leaders and teachers had access to the printing press—but today everyone has WordPress. In pre-2004 Christianity it was difficult to become a published author, but today everyone is surrounded by dozens of "Publish" buttons.

It is certainly true that the current avenues of comment afforded us by the technological age offer us a strange mix and even conflict between private opinion and public confession.  What is personal and what is public doctrine?  Is it defined simply by the status of the blogger -- lay folk have personal opinions and Pastors public doctrine?  Or is it possible for lay people to be accountable for their public confession via the media and for the Pastors to be expressing only personal opinion and therefore not forums for public confession?  

Again, the piece offers this rather solemn reminder:  What few of us realize is that when we press those "Publish," "Post," "Comment," and "Send" buttons, we are making the shift away from merely "believing" truth and stepping into the arena of publishing that belief. In doing so we are effectively assuming a position of leadership and teaching that prior to 2004 was not available to us.  James warned us, "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1, NIV1984). James goes on to graphically portray the incredible power that our tongues have both to praise and to curse especially in the context of teaching. He then says, "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life." (James 3:13). Solomon echoes similar wisdom, "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent" (Prov. 17:28).

I have already written of how effective this media is at helping us choose up sides and declare false the opinions of one side or another.  I have already written of how easy it is to take snippets of what people say and distort their statements.  But there are honest dimensions of the social networking and internet resources which we have not explored.  One is proliferation -- how quickly things spread and how far and wide things published on the internet may go.  I notice this simply by the image of our means of grace window which has become an internet image used by anyone and everyone.  If that is true of a simple jpeg, think how much more true it is of the words, comments, and tweets we publish.

I am not suggesting that blogs should be shut down or facebook access restricted or comment completely filtered.  In fact, I believe that one of the functions of the reader is not simply to agree or disagree but to hold the author and publisher accountable.  The issue here is not simply one of access but one of accountability.  If we who would publish are not accountable to anyone but ourselves, there is greater danger for the abuse of this media.  Accountability is the key here.  We who would presume to publish need to be accountable for what we say -- are we being truthful, are we accurate, are we speaking truth (Christian truth from the Lutheran Confessional perspective, in the case of this blog), and are we speaking that truth in love....

Real vents and rants may have their place but such are better exercised in private than the public media of the blogosphere and social networking sites.  Our words have consequences and they can harm not only others but can come back to cause us harm.  I know for a fact of a Pastor who got in trouble with his parish for comments on his blog and of another who is sure that the public commentary of his blog was responsible in good measure for him being passed over on a call list.  I am not in the dark about how my own blogging adventure may impact where I serve.

So I welcome your comments (even the ones I find hard to take).  I am not so welcoming for vents and rants that single out a word or a phrase on which to launch a tirade (but even then I generally listen).  I believe it is healthy to be held accountable and if you think I have stepped out of bounds, continue to tell me.  Without accountability, our words end up being rather meaningless and vain.  While mine may have been characterized as such, it is definitely not my intent.