Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day Sunday

Do this as my anamnesis... (in remembrance of Me)... So says Jesus in the Words of Institution by which the bread and wine are set apart to be, as He has promised, His very body and blood.  I read a blog that suggested that Memorial Day has lost its meaning -- it is not Veterans Day or the Fourth of July but the day to visit the graves of the war dead, of soldiers who have given their very lives for the sake of our country.  The same might be said of Sunday morning -- it is not a day for us or about us but the day of the Lord (not in the sense of Sabbath but in the sense of the House, Word, and Table of the Lord).

We are here for His anamnesis.  What is that anamnesis (remembrance)?  It is the body and blood of Christ.  This is what our Lord has bequeathed to His Church.  This is not something we invent or decide but what He Himself has given.  Worship is not for us or about us but for the Lord to distribute His gifts through the means of grace and for the Spirit to enable us to receive them by faith.  It is about Christ and what He has done to provide forgiveness, life and salvation for us.

In this way, every Sunday is memorial day -- the day on which the focus lies upon that which Christ has given us to be His anamnesis -- His body and blood.  What St. Paul received and solemnly passed on is the source and summit of all that we are here for -- grace pure and free and grace that is efficacious and accomplishes His purpose.  The function of the liturgy is to maintain this focus against our constant temptation to turn the attention from Him and His gifts to us and what we desire...

The Law that guides as well as curbs and convicts...

Sermon Preached for Easter 6A, on Sunday, May 29, 2011.

    Ask just about anyone and they will say instinctively: The Law is bad and the Gospel is good.  We have done a very good job teaching this.  Lutherans  are pretty comfortable with the Law curbing in the sin of the sidewalk and roadway and, though we don't like it, with the Law as a finger pointed at us to show us our sin.  The problem is that there were three images of the Law's use: Curb, Mirror, and Guide.  It is the last one we are not so comfortable with – the Law as guide to holiness.  It is what we call the third use of the Law.   We know where we stand when it comes to justification but we are not as comfortable speaking of sanctification.
    Today Jesus speaks of the Spirit who will change our whole perspective on the Law, teaching us to desire what it says and to seek its path of goodness and holiness for our daily lives.  What changes is that in Christ we no longer are motivated by the fear of its punishment but rather the new desire of faith, the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit moves us to desire what we feared from the Law and equips us to begin to keep out of desire what the Law had threatened us into doing.  These words could only be spoken in view of His death and resurrection and in light of the promise of the Holy Spirit.
    Though it might seem that Scripture is clear, the Church has often fallen victim to several errors with respect to the Law.  The first is legalism.  This is when the Gospel is overshadowed by the Law and faith becomes a religion of rules and demands.  Here the Gospel of forgiveness becomes a safety net or back up plan to the Law's demand that we do right.  Here our motivation is the same in or outside of Christ – fear of getting caught and fear of getting punished.  Here rules and rule keeping become that shape of Christian life and piety – shaped more by what we cannot or should not do than what we were set apart in Christ and set free to do.  This is the old time religion.  The Law has us under our thumb like the fidgety child held in check by the strong arms of his father.
    The opposite is equally as bad.  Antinomianism is a religion without any rules and without any conscience.  The anti-Law perspective insists that Christ has set us free – free to do and be whatever we want.  This is like the kid who no longer is controlled by his parents and now heads to college to indulge in every forbidden pleasure without any regret or fear.   Here the Law is replaced with freedom or licence to do what we please and this perspective assumes whatever we please is good.  This is what is happening in too many churches today when they refuse to say no to any fleshly desire.  Here is where nothing is wrong except the denial of what you want or the idea that you should sacrifice your desires for a higher cause.
    The third use of the Law is the Law as God's Word or guide – to show us what is good and right and true and holy.  It is the same old word and Law but we are not the same old people.  In Christ, we stand as not only the forgiven but the ones God has declared holy and in whom God has placed His Spirit to transform us mind and heart.  What we once thought we wanted, we no longer want.  The old flesh is no longer in charge.  The new person created in baptism both desires and seeks what is good, holy, and right.
    Hearts have been changed by the Spirit to desire to walk in the Spirit – that is to walk in the path of Christ.  Our minds once considered the Word of God foreign and alien to us.  They saw God as imposing His will upon us.  Now in Christ, we recognize that God's will is good and gracious, that the Law also serves as a guide to this good and gracious will, and that what we want is what God wills.  This is the perspective known only by faith.  It is like the teenager who thinks his parents stupid until he grows up and his own child is laid in his arms – suddenly the perspective has changed and his parents have become the wisest people he has ever known.
    Keeping the commandments is no longer an act of fear – fearing both getting caught by them and fear of getting punished for breaking them.  Now keeping the commandments is the fruit of the Spirit at work in us and the desire of new hearts recreated in the waters of baptism for these new desires.
    Legalism was once dominant – both in a Judaism that had been blind to the grace of God and in a Protestant Christianity that was more a religion of rules than the domain of Christ's love.  In this kind of Christianity, believers wanted what they should not do and lived in the grip of guilt.  Antinomianism or the refusal of the Law is now ascending and has begun to dominate Protestant Christianity today.  God wants you to be happy and the only that wrong is that which prevents your happiness.  In this, there are no rights or wrongs, if you desire it or it feels good, you are freed to do it.
    The third use of the Law begins not with the commandments but with YOU.  You are not who you were.  In Christ you are died and rose a new person.  You are not who you were but the Spirit has worked in you by baptism and faith.  What was once required of you has become the delight of your heart.  What was once obtained from you by fear and guilt, now you seek in joyful response to what God has done for you in Christ.  The Law is the same Law – what has changed is YOU.  You are different.  Transformed by the Spirit and made new in baptism, you have learned to love them, to desire what is good and right and true, and now set free from your bondage, Christ works in you to keep them.  Our prayer is that our Lord may teach us to love what He desires and to desire what He loves and to keep His Law in holy and upright lives.
    We are a religion not of rules that must be kept but of the Word which not only convicts us of our sin but guides us to what which is good and right and true.  We are not a religion of rules that fence us in but of the Word that guides us to what honors the Lord and leads us into joy and contentment.  In a day when our nation's heritage is tested by our failure to share a common morality and our Christianity is tempted to believe that happiness is the highest goal, this is a word we need to hear.  If you love me, says Jesus, you will keep my commandments... Amen

What greater works can we do?

Sermon Preached for Easter 5A, Sunday, May 22, 2011.

    Of all the mystifying things Jesus could say, today we heard Him say, "Whoever believes in Me will do the works that I do and greater works than these, he will do... in My name." What we do would surely pale in comparison to all that God has done!  From the grand miracle of creation to the ordinary miracles dotted throughout Scripture to the incomparable miracle of God in flesh in the manger, the works of God boggle our minds and imaginations.  So what then does Jesus mean when He says, "Great works than these, you shall do?"  What things?  Should we expect to be changing water into wine, feeding thousands from a little boy's lunch, healing the sick, raising the dead?
    The first thing we need to say is this.  We do not do anything on our own. Whatever works we do are not ours but Christ's own work, working in us and through us.  Like St. Paul says, it is not me that do them but Christ in me. We can't do anything to please God except what Christ does in us and through us.  He has sent us the Spirit to equip and enable this.  So Jesus is not talking about who we are or what we do outside of Him but who we are and what we do as His own people by baptism and faith.
    Second whatever works we do are not done with our own power or might but with the power of Christ and the might of the Spirit.  Therein lies the surprise of grace.  God could do whatever He wanted without us.  He has the power to do whatever He wills without us.  But the surprise of grace is that God has chosen to work in us and through us.  He calls us partners in the Gospel but certainly not equal partners.  It is the nature of His gracious love to work through us and to honor what we do as if it were done on our own, when in reality, the works we do are Christ working in us and through us.
    Third, these are not the works of our own choosing but the works of His choice.  We do not set the agenda for the work of the kingdom.  This is one of the biggest problems in Christendom today.  We act like we get to pick and choose what we will for the Lord.  It is the very nature of faith to defer to Christ and His choice and His priorities.  The perspective of faith is always "not my will by Thy will be done."  Love does not speak in any other way.
    Okay, if Christ is at work in us and through us, if it is by His power and grace that we accomplish anything for His kingdom, and if we are called to do only the works of His choosing, we are still left with the Lutheran questions: What does this mean "greater works than these you will do...?"  What makes them great?  Is it that what we do is huge in comparison to what Christ has done or is it that what we do expands, amplifies, and extends Christ's own work to more and more people?
    What works we do are not substitutes for Christ's own work of forgiveness, life and salvation but extensions of what He has done.  We receive what He has won and what He has given to us and we multiply it by giving to others in His name.  We speak the Word of the cross and the elect hear and respond.  This is the first and foremost work of the kingdom.  What God has done for us in Christ, we speak to those who have not heard and God works in this speaking to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify His Church.
    Second, we show the love of Christ to those who have not yet felt the warm embrace of their Savior.  Christ's love is not theoretical love but practical.  He reaches out and touches us with this love in the wet splash of water that cleanses, in the voice that calls us by name with absolution to relieve the burden of our sin, and in the bread and wine that He gives to us, His body and blood to forgive, strengthen, renew and restore us to Him. Even more, His love surrounds us with compassion and kindness new each day. 
    Ours is a God who supplies daily and richly all things we need for this body and this life just as He supplies us with the grace of eternal life.  Showing the love of Christ to those who have not yet felt its warm embrace means that we are not merely concerned with the spiritual lives of people but with the wounds, needs, and troubles of this mortal life.  The healing balm of the Gospel addresses not only the need for life after death but the nature of the life we live here and now.  This is mercy's work and service that flow from and extend Christ's love and mercy and service to the whole world.
    Finally, the works we do are the works which share the gifts of Christ with those who have not yet received them.  You can call it stewardship but the reality is that everything we do with what Christ has given us is a faith decision and a faith choice – not just time or talents or treasure.  The gifts that God gives us are not meant to become personal possessions that we hoard but the currency through which the Kingdom of God is revealed, witnessed, and extended here on earth.
    This is why we pray forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  This is not a threat against us being unforgiving, but the powerful reminder that what God has given us is a gift we give away to others in His name.  Forgiveness is multiplied when the forgiven forgive others.  Love is multiplied when those who are loved, love others.  These are not little things we do for Jesus but the greatest works of Christ who works them in us and through us.
    Funny how what we think are the BIG things are small before God and what we think are small things are BIG before God.  The great cause of our live is to receive Jesus Christ with faith, respond to His gracious mercy with thankfulness and praise, and extend Christ to others by faithful worship, witness, prayer, acts of mercy and sacrificial service.  We tend to think of mortgage payments, lawns mowed, laundry done, and all the other things of life to be great and urgent and the things of God to be less so.  We tend to think of the great things of God to be those places where nature is suspended by God’s mighty actions.  In truth the things of His kingdom are the greatest and the things of His kingdom are the domain of Word and Sacraments (not thunder, lightening, etc.).
    And what happens – as many as He has elected, hear and believe and confess Him Lord – all through the faithful actions of His disciples, like you and me.  So do not minimize these works as inconsequential, do not take credit for them as if you were doing them on your own, and do not let the Word and work of Christ stop with you... for by accepting the works of Christ as great and mighty even when He does them in you and through you... and by giving the glory always to Jesus Christ, and by extending to others what He has given you, you are doing the greater works that Jesus has promised and called us to do.  Amen...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Anonymous But Profound

Memorial Day we remember the anonymous -- not the famous whose stories fill the pages of history in their battles and bravery.  No, today we recall those whose names and faces escape us but whose dedication, heroic effort, and valor fought and won the battles for our freedom. Hidden in trenches, slumped on beaches, laying in the tangled death of crashed plane or sunken ship, these men and women paid and still pay the ultimate price for our liberty.  No place better symbolizes what Memorial Day is all about than the Tomb(s) of the Unknown.  We honor them not because of their name but because of their sacrifice.  It is, after all, what marks the bonds of citizenship in our free land -- sacrifice for the sake of others, for the noble cause of freedom and justice, and for the future the wounded and dead will never see but have provided.

I was in my hometown this past week and looked at the memorial being erected beside the auditorium in the small downtown of a small plains village in Nebraska.  On the granite were the names of all those men and women from this little town who have served in the armed forces of our nation.  Some, like my Dad, served and lived long lives.  As I traced my finger over his name, my heart was moved.  Some, like my cousins, served in a most unpopular war and were happy just to return from the jungles of Viet Nam.  I saw their names.  Some, like the folks my children's age, served and are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  One was a name written on a plaque in my home church narthex and his tombstone lies in the cemetery down from that Church.  He left a young man filled with hope and he came home from Europe in a coffin, leaving to us the legacy of his hope, sealed in his blood.

I serve a congregation regularly attended by soldiers and their families.  I have watched as their families have struggled under the test of long deployments and schedules that taxed everyone's patience.  Hardly any of their stories will ever be told but in every one of them is a hero whose sacrifice has helped to build the house of freedom.  I never served and neither did most Americans but it is no less our solemn duty to honor the anonymous who did and to responsibly live out their legacy of liberty in ways that honor them and the price they paid.  We will have no future as Americans unless we remember and unless we raise up men and women whose values mirror the past defenders of our nation and our precious freedom. 

As a child I carried those white wooden crosses applied to the graves of our soldiers.  I did not fully comprehend the meaning of it all then, but I saw the seriousness in my father's face and watched as hands saluted, rifles cracked, and the lonely bugle played.  It is one of our most sacred duties to pass on this awareness and this solemn appreciation and to make sure that the nation we are does not betray the lives of those who were before us...

Pragmatism as a theological discipline

Over at Cranach (Gene Veith's blog) I read:

If postmodernists are right in saying that there are no absolutes of truth or morality, how can they function?  The answer, according to both the masses and philosophers such as Richard Rorty, is pragmatism.  Just do what “works.”  Don’t worry about what is true or what is good, just pursue your practical agenda.

Now pragmatism is a philosophy, an ideology, and a worldview that is utterly opposed to Christianity.  And yet many Christians adopt it unthinkingly, determining the way they worship and the things they teach according to the tenets of pragmatism.  (We want to get more people to join our churches, so let’s eliminate the obstacles to that, whether in practice or theology.)

His article went in another direction but these two paragraphs are true gold.  Those who are on the "cutting edge" of church and evangelism seem driven by an ideology when the reality is that they are pragmatic and have elevated pragmatism to the level of a theological discipline.  It is, after all, the discipline that trumps every other discipline.

Biblical theology changes from what does the Scripture say to what appeals to people, what is relevant to where people are at, and what will pack them in.  Systematic theology shifts from the connection of doctrine and truth from the Scriptures to whatever hodge podge of truths and values apply at a given moment to the situation and needs of the people and what will fill the pews.  Homiletics moves from saying thus saith the Lord and this is how it applies to our daily lives to this is what helps you achieve your goals, hopes, and dreams.  Worship is transformed from something that is directed by God and to God to what appeals to folks, what is the musical language of their heart, and what will entertain them.

Of course, I am being cynical here.  I am not following Luther and putting the best construction on this.  But as I reflect upon the myriad of things presented in District communications and conventions, in pastoral conferences and journals, and by the para-church organizations around us, the point is simple:  This is what works; do it and you will grow.

Those uncertain about the value of such pragmatism have attempted to challenge the outcomes -- no, it does not work -- when we need to be challenging the assumption that pragmatism is a valid theological discipline.  The results are not where the battle needs to be fought but in the presumption that as long as it works, it is good.  Most of the literature (books and articles) from the church growth purveyors is only peripherally connected to Scripture and doctrine.  It is very practical, very pragmatic.  Much of it follows growing churches and then attempts to distill methodology and means of duplicating what works in one place and transferring it to another. 

God knows, I want the Church (my congregation especially) to grow and it is very tempting to use at least some of what works to pack the pews.  I believe every Pastor is so tempted.  But the issue here is not how to fill the church on Sunday morning but what Gospel is proclaimed, what truth is taught, and what Church it will be.  We can easily avoid these messier questions and opt for what works, but the end result will be a full congregation of people without much of a truth or redemption to offer. Pragmatism does not work well as a theological discipline.  In fact, it erodes and destroys everything in its path until the only principle left standing at the end of the day IS "what works."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

An Easy Decision but a Hard Choice

Word has it that Catholic Charities of Rockford announced Thursday that the agency will halt its state-funded foster care and adoption services Wednesday — the day civil unions take effect in Illinois.  The decision is the first of what could become a domino effect of Catholic Charities leaving the foster care and adoption business to avoid liability if state law requires them to place children with parents in civil unions — either gay or straight.

Now will come the test for Lutherans... except that Lutheran agencies doing the same things are joint with the ELCA which welcomes the Illinois action... So I fear that the only choice we might have is to pull out of the joint work which had  been done with the ELCA through the Lutheran Social Services network OR perhaps allow the LCMS and ELCA to be separate when it comes to this aspect of their joint work...

For the Catholic Charities of Rockford, this means a loss of about half their entire operating budget, with drawl from work with more than 350 children, and a blow for the cause of children at risk and in need.  Yet, it seems they know that there is a line and the Church cannot cross it -- even when it risks the very cause of the church agency or the holy grail of the budget.  While I am saddened by this necessity, I applaud the courage of the Catholic Charities in holding to their position in spite of what must have been great pressure (both from within and without).

So goes the situation in Illinois...
Without a specific provision protecting religious agencies, church officials said, the agency can't risk losing state contracts or facing lawsuits if it turns away gay couples or others in civil unions. State funds make up about half of Catholic Charities of Rockford's $7.5 million operating budget.

"While we understand leaving this work will be very painful for our client families, employees, volunteers, donors and prayerful supporters, we can no longer contract with the state of Illinois whose laws would force us to participate in activity offensive to the moral teachings of the church — teachings which compel us to do this work in the first place," said Frank Vonch, director of social services for the Diocese of Rockford, which includes Kane and McHenry counties.

Lawyers for Gov. Pat Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services have been examining whether religious agencies that receive public funds to license foster care parents are breaking anti-discrimination laws if they turn away openly gay parents.
Several attempts have been made in Springfield to pass an amendment that would exempt religious child welfare agencies, but none have made it to the floor for a vote.  According to the Chicago Tribune.

And so goes the situation in many other states headed down the same path.... I guess it will be long meetings and hard decisions does the road....

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A 12 Step for Clergy

Hi.  My name is Larry and I'm a Pastor.  Hi, Larry.  So goes the standard opening line of the twelve step I am starting for Pastors who are either embarrassed or ashamed that they are Pastors OR for those who wish they were not Pastors.  I am sure I will not have much trouble drumming up members of my little group.

First we have those who refuse clerical collars and insist up dressing "just like everyone else" (translation, khakis and polo or tee).  They insist that being a Pastor does not make them different and so they eschew anything that might distinguish them as Pastors -- especially vestments or a uniform.

Second we have those who refuse to be called Pastor (often in concert with those above).  They bristle at being called Reverend, Pastor, Father, or Brother and rather enjoy being called Larry.  They see the moniker of Pastor (or other similar title) to be distancing from people and they would rather just be one of the guys.

Third we have those who will dress up like a Pastor on Sunday but look like Bubba every other day of the week.  They dress up like Pastor out of guilt or duty but they don't like it and they certainly would ditch the Pastor clothes or vestments if they could get away with it.  Often, these like to be called Pastor but they want people to know that they can be holy on Sunday and just one of the guys the rest of the time.

Fourth we have those who entered the ministry for whatever reason and actually wish to leave but their education prepared them for little else and they need a paycheck after all.  They also do not want to face the guilt of turning their back upon God (remember Jonah) and so they are Pastors but it is pretty clear to the folks they serve that they are not comfortable in the Pastoral role.

Fifth we have those who believe that it is a false piety to be called Pastor or to look like a Pastor and so they show their genuine piety in that no one could ever mistake them for clergy.  These people might actually believe that being a Pastor and looking like one is a lower rung of the righteousness ladder than just about any other legit vocation.

Sixth we have those who love being Pastors and don't know what it is like to take a day off or time away or wear ordinary clothing.  These are the real addicts.  Family, friends, home, and life all come way down on the totem pole of priorities.  We have them come just to sit and make the rest of those at the meeting feel even worse.  Actually, these are our role models.  Lord knows we all really want to be like them!!

Let me know if you want to join me.... we meed Sundays at 1 pm (after the charade is over) and our meetings last only about an hour... (or as long as it takes to commiserate about our dilemma)...

Friday, May 27, 2011

What do the polls really say about us?

Gallup has a first time ever approval of gay marriage poll.  Now a majority of Americans approve of gay marriage as opposed to a very high majority disapproval only 15 years ago.  There are many who will suggest that this represents a severe reversal of thought for America.  It may be true.  But I also wonder...

It has always been curious to me that a denomination like the ELCA, with its roots in austere Scandinavian homes where self-expression and self-interest have always taken second place to others and to the community, would be among the first to approve same sex relationships.  I have a great deal of trouble believing that these roots in family, children, and grandchildren as well as community values and goodness would suddenly give way in favor of the prevailing trend of moral change.  It makes me think that perhaps the roots of this church change has more to do with niceness than it does anything else. 

The graying picture of ELCA pews suggests people who are nice, who bring casseroles to neighbors sick or mourning loss, who work for community betterment, who pay their taxes because they believe children and grandchildren are the greatest assets of the community, who liberally support Lutheran World Relief, who pull out their wallets for every kind of good cause, and who come for dinner with a home-baked present in their arms...  Such people believe that however their personal feelings might be, it is not nice to say "no" to others.  So I wonder how much the actions of the ELCA or the polls over gay marriage are shaped by the perennial niceness of folks who personally do not think something is good or wise but also believe that others come first and, as long as it does not directly impinge upon their own lives, are willing to live and let live... I grew up in a small Swedish city where niceness shaped a great deal of responses to things that the folks did not personally approve of...

Or it could be that I am just off in my own world...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Concerns Do Not Change

There is much made of the different needs and requirements by Christians and from congregations in different regions of the country.  For a long time it has been the sacred truth of the churches that urban and rural ministry is distinct and different, for example. I am not suggesting that this is entirely false and that there are not some distinctives to various places.  I serve in an area in which Lutherans are a profound minority, often viewed with suspicion.  I grew up in Lutherland and I do understand that these things do impact the Pastor and the Church.  However, I would suggest that the things in common far outweigh the things that divide.

The fact is that the expectations of the people in the pews are not materially different wherever you go.  They look for faithful, Biblical, Law/Gospel, passionate and personal preaching.  They might like to listen to the latest and greatest orator every now and then but most want a Pastor who knows them and who speaks Jesus Christ to them -- in their need, in their sorrow, in their struggle, in their joy, and in their successes.  They want someone who can look them in the eye and apply God's Word to them and to their situation.

They want faithful, pastoral care from the font and the table.  They are not looking for the next American idol of the chancel but for wise, pious, reverential, and strong leadership within the liturgy -- a Pastor who is at home in the chancel as in the pulpit.  They want an anchor in the consistency of the liturgy amid the constant and driving changes of their lives.  They want someone who knows the hymnal and who can pull together the hymns with the propers so that Sunday morning is woven together into one fabric.  They are not looking for a party but for the presence of Christ where He has pledged Himself -- the Word and the Sacraments.

The people of God come with consciences burdened down with faults, failings, and failures and they want to know the gracious voice of absolution.  When their hearts are blind to the wrongs of their thoughts, words, and deeds, they want a Pastor who can speak to them as Nathan spoke to David -- not delighting in their fall but extending to them the arm of God to restore them through repentance and forgiveness.  The people of God come with constant death on the news and in their lives and they want to know that death is not the last word.  They are not asking for a pie in the sky hope when you die but the hope that we carry with us now -- in these mortal bodies -- even as we await the life which is to come.

The Church does not need a soul winner or a great administrator or even a great PR person in the Pastor.  The Church needs the Pastor who will teach the catechism to their children and to new people waiting at the door, who will stand with them in the hospital room and funeral home, who will counsel the bride and the groom in the promises they make, and who will listen to them pour out the burdens of their hearts even when there is no fix for their problems (the ministry presence).  It does not hurt if the Pastor can do other things but his primary role is not as therapist or CEO -- it is as Pastor, Priest, and Teacher.

The Pastor who loves his people will lead them even where they do not want to go but will earn their trust before asking them to follow to far afield of what or where they were before he came.  He will teach and gently lead, without threat or compulsion and without a hint that this is his personal preference, choice, or desire that is the goal.  This Pastor will be strong and loving with the people, knowing that the two words are not mutually exclusive but flow from the same pastoral heart and calling.

This is what my dad is looking for from his Pastor on the Nebraska prairie.  This is what the folks on Long Island sought from their suburban Pastor.  This is what the people of a Catskill Mountain community wanted from me in my first parish.  It is what the people of Tennessee expect from me now.  I am convinced that this is what the people expect from their Pastor no matter where they live or what the circumstances of their lives.

Word of Layoffs

KFUO-AM, the AM radio station of the LCMS, has announced the layoff of 5 staffers.  This comes after the huge flap over the firings of staff and the cancellation of Issues, Etc. a few years ago and the hasty decision to sell the FM station with little money up front and the hopes of a balloon payment (with us holding the note).  On the one hand, it indicates that our Church does not have a real plan on how to use these assets and so we end up acting hastily and, often, foolishly.  On the other hand, I can only hope that this is not the case of punishing the voice of some (Issues, Etc.) or of chasing an illusive $ sign (KFUO-FM) but the deliberate and thoughtful change in our use of this asset and resource.  So far I do not have a clue about the reason for these firings but I can only hope that we will wake up to the many resources in our church body and of the need to use them more wisely than we have in the past...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reading God's Tea Leaves

At the same time a skeptical world (Christians included) waited for a timetable to judgment predicted for May 21, we have watched in shock at the devastation and continued storms throughout the US.  Even those who were not inclined to believe Mr. Camping's timeline, might be inclined to wonder about the storms and the mighty acts of God in nature and whether they preclude something more than just weather.  It all brings to mind how hard it is to read God's tea leaves or to discern much from the apparent signs all around us.  In the end, it is amazing how quickly we would retreat from the things that God has spoken clearly in order to fixate upon the things we see through the mirror dimly.  A world of curious and yet disdainful critics of the faith want to know what cannot be known and refuse what can and should be known from God's revelation.  We might expect it from those not yet of the household of God but why do we Christians also lean in that direction?

In balance, we should be drawn by our uncertainty to the things of which we are certain.  In those moments the words of the catechism should echo in our ears about the daily and richly care God provides those whom He has made, about how precious we are to Him who spared not His own Son in order to purchase us from sin and its death, and about the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us and all the elect -- and that no one and nothing can steal us away from God's grasp.

Uncertainty is a killer which prowls about the realm of disaster and seemingly certain prophecies about the future. When we face such uncertainty, we should be driven into the arms of that which is most certain and most true -- we retreat into the Word of God, what God has said, we repeat as those things about which we may have most confidence.  That is, we return to the cross and empty tomb, to the love that will not let us go, and to the grace that is the one unchanging foundation on which God has built us into His house.

So wars and rumors of wars.... disaster upon disaster.... they come and go but Christ remains and in Him is our hope and our joy... This is not a refuge we run to when we have no where else to turn, it is also the place in which we live when we have all sorts of choices and options. 

Varying Views of Reform

An interesting paper I am reading is tracing the history of reformation before the Reformation as well as differing views of reformation by the various church perspectives.  On the one hand are those who see a linear view of the doctrine and faith.  The faith actually develops but in linear fashion.  The truth is not static then but always in motion.  The key to reformation lies in making sure this development takes place within certain boundaries.  Reformation is then not a return to a former position but the restoration of the forward movement to a certain linear plane.  The Church does go backwards but ever forwards.  I would use the image of a freight train that keeps adding cars but remains the same train and headed in the same direction.  This is in essence the view of Rome.  Thus Rome does not disdain or reject developments from her past but attempts to reform by keeping them within a certain boundary.  Controversy allows the Church to more clearly articulate her position and this enables the Church to come to fuller understanding or development of the faith.  The only problem with this is that the baggage becomes very weighty and, like a train, the Church begins to slow down under the weight of all the cars added over the years.

On the other hand is evangelicalism and classic Protestantism.  Here there is deep suspicion of the Church and skepticism of the faithfulness of the Church as an institution.  The faith is always up for reconsideration and the viewpoint of the past holds no normative value for the Church – only Scripture.  The time of the apostles represents a kind of baseline in the thought or expression of that faith.  In this viewpoint even the creeds and confessions represent unhealthy development or divergence from the apostolic ideal.  In this case the Church is always reaching backward to the pristine era before controversy, development, and divergence diluted or contaminated the faith and the Church.  Reformation is the constant return to the apostolic age or position.

Orthodoxy represents a similar but more complicated understanding.  On the one hand there is development and the faith moves in linear fashion but the extent of this development is much more limited than in Rome – limited to the first seven ecumenical councils but able to reactivated if and when the ecumenical era of episcopal, conciliar leadership were restored.  If, for example, Rome and Constantinople could come together and bring those elements of the Church which have a valid ministry and orthodox confession together, the ecumenical era could reconvene and doctrine, faith, and understanding pick up where it was left, frozen, or paused, in the past.  At the same time, Orthodoxy has a much more pivotal role for Scripture and has been somewhat insulated from the Western controversies and higher criticism of Scripture.

Lutheranism is a different course all together.  For Lutherans the Reformation is not a return to a pristine apostolic era but neither it is a nod to a linear development of the Church’s faith and belief.  Rather, Lutherans see ongoing reform as the normal mode of the Church.  Reformation is when the  faith expressed in the Scriptures and by orthodox teachers throughout history and the faith confessed at any given time are brought closer.  So the Church may suffer from times of institutional deterioration and unfaithfulness but God works to reform His Church by raising up men and movements to bring the current confession into line with the Scriptural witness.  The Church is always undergoing a correction process in which the faithful fathers and the Scriptural witness is brought to bear upon the present moment.  Reformation is not a course correction in the development as much as it is a restoration of the once for all faith to the Church at a particular time -- something that happens not here and there but always.  But neither do Lutherans see a pristine era as the golden age to which the Church must return in order to be “pure.”  For Lutherans reformation is not innovation but revival and this occurs even within Lutheranism, the great reformation movement itself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Glimpse Into Our Culture

The infamous former Governor of New Jersey who resigned because he was a "gay American" penned a biographical perspective entitled The Confession (which I have not read).  But I did read a news story about it.  They drew two quotes from his book and the interview about it and his life to date.  Both quotes are telling but not so much for Mr. McGreevey as for our culture in America today.

Mr. McGreevey admitted to having a lifelong addiction to “having a public,” and described his new ambition as attaining “a life organized in harmony with my heart.”"Having a public" certainly means being in the public eye, calling attention to himself, being seen as important or significant in the general population, having access to the public media (both because he is "public" and because comments on public things).  However you read this, you cannot help but recall Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" and see how thoroughly this has been absorbed into our culture.  I should talk, right, cause I write a blog.  And I suppose there is truth to this.  We all seek to make our lives significant in some way and one of the ways we verify our significance is the fact that others pay attention to us.  In this way Mr. McGreevey is hardly different from the typical American.  We use the social networking media in order to elevate our exposure and we judge our success from the number of friends we have.  Even among Christians it is hard to take our identity and self-esteem from the baptismal declaration of God.

Under this is a very empty soul seeking to be exchange this emptiness for ultimate meaning.  However successful we might be at having a public, our quest for significance and our desire to be noticed will hardly be satisfied by the momentary view of others.  It is a desire which must constantly be fed.  We delight in the elevation of solitary life, of living apart, to the beat of a different drummer, but in the end we march in step with our presumed public in search of more and more ways to connect.  It is a quest for community and friendship that drives us but in the distorted way of sin it ends up settling for having a public.  What will satisfy us is nothing less than the real community afforded by the friendship of God in Christ and the koinonia or life together afforded by Him and sustained by His through the community gathered around the Word and Sacraments.  Which makes Mr. McGreevey's case even more ironic because is desire to have a public is now shaping his question for the priesthood (albeit in the Episcopal Church, a decidedly more gay friendly place than his form Roman Catholic home).  If he is successful and continues to seek a public by being a priest, he will fail in the first and have corrupted in the second.

And then there is the great line about attaining a life in harmony with my heart.  Romantic, emblematic of our culture, noble in its expression.... but a proven way to lose your self.  It is not our heart which needs to shape our lives but Christ.  It is not harmony with the heart that brings blessed peace but harmony with God through the reconciliation worked in the death and resurrection of Christ.  I could spend paragraphs on this but, again, the point is so ironic.  He who would be a priest is in search of a life in harmony with his heart.  If anyone should know that this is foolish and empty, it should be a priest.  But alas, he is not much different than the rest of us who figure out what we believe and then seek after a faith and a life that reflects this homemade faith.  Christianity condemns this not because it is idolatry (which it is) but because it leads to nothing and only the revelation of Christ leads to the something that truly does bring harmony and peace that passes understanding....

Monday, May 23, 2011

Scripture OR Confessions

Charles Porterfield Krauth, the great 18th century orthodox American Lutheran teacher, put it about as clearly as it can be put.  The Scriptures CANNOT err and therefore they DO NOT err.  The Symbolic Books [Lutheran Confessions] CAN err but they DO NOT err.  Our Confessions do not claim infallibility and we do not say that they could not be wrong.  We only say that they are not wrong.  That is, that they do faithfully confess what the Scriptures say and are an accurate reflection of that Scriptural truth.  The Scripture can not err by their very nature.  The Confessions have no such guarantee by their nature yet they do not err and therefore are trustworthy.

The Confessions flowed out of Scripture, brought into existence by the urgent necessity of the Reformation by orthodox teachers.  Once having been drawn out of Scripture, these orthodox Confessions are thereby able to guide future generations in what those Scripture say because they bear witness to the truth.

Lutherans do not choose Confessions over Scripture, in our Confessions we bear witness to the Scriptures.  It is not an either/or proposition but a both/and.  These Confession can norm our faith because they are faithful witnesses to the Scriptures.  In this way, by our Confessions, we are always carrying forth the witness of the Scriptures to the particular needs of the moment and addressing the errors of the current moment with the unchanging truth.

A Slow Leak from the Good Ship ELCA

When first the vote was taken in August 2009 for the ELCA to change its standards for clergy, in effect, opening the door to same sex marriage and same sex clergy, many voices proclaimed the ELCA would bleed congregations at rapid rate.  So we are coming up on two years and one source has placed the number at 600 congregations who have taken their first or second successful votes to leave.  Probably a lot less that many thought, some hoped, and some feared.  I believe that it is safe to say that the farther we move from CWA of 2009, the slower the rate of loss will be.  Some have been unsuccessful in their votes, some have decided to wait it out, and some have decided as long as its not in their own backyard, they may be able to avoid/ignore it.  Whatever the reason, it is clear that this whole battle was mostly about sex and not so much about other issues (authority of God's Word, for example).  If the ELCA had figured out a way to avoid the same sex approval measure, hardly any of those congregations would have left.  I am sad to say that it seems that many have had the bluff called and they backed down.  A little righteous indignation is a good thing, on the whole, but it seems that it may not be enough to move congregations or clergy from the status quo.  Given this sad reality, it seems that Hanson is a shoe in for Presiding Bishop (unless he chooses not to run) and that whoever eventually succeeds him will share pretty much all the same theological, ecumenical, and moral positions as Hanson has and does. I am sure I am not the only one disappointed by this.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

First Article Season

A small, new, green tomato appeared on the plant potted on our deck -- the first one of the season.  As I think about this wonderful transformation from bloom to fruit, I am reminded of how much that spring and summer are First Article seasons.  God's creative work continues to abound for our gracious appreciation and consumption.  That which He began, He does still -- bringing fruit to the earth and, in spite of the fall and sin's stain over His good creation, there remain many occasions for us to rejoice in how very good His work is.

I remember at an uncle's funeral the Pastor (who did not know him) spoke of him as a farmer kneeling down and running the soil through the earth and giving thanks to God for the miracle of creation.  But of course, my uncle did not do that.  As a typical farmer and Christian, he questioned God when the rain did not come or when it came too much.  He fretted and worried about sweltering heat of the day upon the crops he had work so hard to plant. He was frustrated when blight or pest threatened his livelihood.  He tossed and turned all night at the prospect of prices dropping and his crop not being worth as much as he had hoped.  That is how we all do it.  We see our labors and expect much in return but God is the mystery and God is the key.  For all our labors and all our hopes of harvest, God is the miracle in between that turns the seed into plant and the bloom into fruit or grain.  Even when a sinful world out of skew with God's design steals some of our planted treasure away, God is still God and God is still merciful.

Of Creation.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
What does this mean?
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

Daily and richly.... Luther got that right.  He provides for this body and this life, protects from all harm, guards and preserves me from all evil... all I can do is acknowledge His merciful care, give thanks as an unworthy but grateful recipient of His largess, and share His bounty with those around me...  A summer setting for a truth good all year round...

If you really want to see Jesus...

As the good brother Tibbetts put it, if you really want to see Jesus come to [Grace Lutheran Church] at 8:15 and 10:45 am Sunday and you will find the Lord where He has promised to be -- in the Word that completes its promise and bestows forgiveness, calls us to faith, and enables repentance.... AND in the Sacraments that bestow grace hidden in earthly forms (water that drowns and gives birth, bread that is His body, and wine that is His blood)...

As much as we are interested or curious or even fascinated by the end times, the present times are the domain in which we live and in which Christ comes as He has pledged to.  Here He gives His Spirit from the Father to give us faith to grasp hold and never let go what He has given us graciously and without any merit on our part.  Here is the Word that convicts stubborn sinful hearts and here is the Word that offers the healing balm of the cross to our wounds of sin and guilt and death.  Here, every Sunday, for all who will come, He will be there...  See you later this morning???

A New President Survives the Last Day

Congrats to old friend Dr. Larry Rast upon his election to the Presidency of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne.  While no surprise, I know that nothing is as predictable as surprise.  Also, I think it bodes well for the Seminary since he survived what was his first day, that being the day that was supposed to the be the last...  Blessings to Larry and to the whole crew at the Fort. 

BTW there were those who thought that perhaps the time had come to bring in an outsider and shake up things... personally, I think that it is foolish to shake up things when things are going well and they are certainly going well at CTS, where mission, seminary training, pastoral formation, use of technology, and appeal across the oceans have combined to make it a great place, indeed.

Finally, HT to Tampani Simojoki upon receiving his STM from my alma mater, CTS!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It Was a Joke

Well it is May 21 and I am still here.  I thought perhaps I would not have to wake up and write a blog but then when the sun came up it was all too apparent that today was not the day or I was not going to be among the ones raptured.  But I am okay with that.  I'll have my pick of great cars left behind by those who left and expect that the world will be a little less crowded.... oh, wait... there appears to be somebody at my door... wow, it must be going to rain since the sky looks wierd... oh my gosh.... you have to see it.... oh.... ahhhhhh.... keyboar... w3rImg twon3#4....

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tommorrow a New President at Concordia, Ft. Wayne

It seems a lifetime ago when this college student surveyed the Seminary scene in the Synod and found one Seminary limping along after a mortal wound and another preparing to be uplifted from its home and transported to a new campus in an earlier hometown but at the expense of a wonderful college and a whole structure of theological education in our Synod.  It seems a lifetime ago and it almost was...  St. Louis survived and has regained its preeminence in Synod (at least in terms of size) but Ft. Wayne has flourished in her new digs and has shed all the vestiges of the old put down of a "practical" seminary for those not, ah, academically gifted.  Both campuses have had their troubles and trials but my home and the place that will always bear the warmest of spots among my homes, is the campus at 6600 North Clinton Avenue.  The faculty that taught me has mostly gone (a few retired, most called home).  The faculty there now includes classmates and some younger guys who were still in high school when I was in my first parish.  They are talented group and share a dedication to the Lord and to the Church that has helped shape many men into fine Pastors.  For many years one of my first professors has led the school; his pastoral heart and patient wisdom have served the school very well.  And tomorrow we will know who will follow him.  I can only pray that whoever it is, he will mirror the campus where the chapel is the center of everything -- architecturally, educationally, and liturgically.  Thank you, President Wenthe, and God bless the man whom the Church elects as the next President of Concordia Theological Seminary...

A Wedding Remembered

A processional cross led the bridal party down the candlelit aisle.  The congregation rose to sing, "In Thee Is Gladness."  A deacon in dalmatic and the presider in cope stood at the altar.  A groom and his groomsmen stood waiting... and singing.  The arm was passed from father to groom and the Word of God was read.  The rite echoed the sound of the English from the old Book of Common Prayer as promises, vows, and rings were exchanged.  A nuptial Eucharist fed the newly formed husband and wife.  "Now Thank We All Our God" we sang.  Then blessing to the couple and benediction to the congregation and the organ sounded the festive postlude.  It was not recent.  It was not in Westminster Abbey.  It was 33 years ago at Redeemer on Rusidill in Ft. Wayne, when the Rev. Charles Evanson, mentor and friend, spoke the life changing words, "I pronounce you husband and wife, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What will make you happy?

Many are what some have called a "brand whore."  They refuse to settle for anything but the premier, premium brand.  In technology, there are folks who prefer Sony, for example, and will either find a Sony that fits their needs or wait until Sony comes out with one.  Sometimes we are that way with car brands (though the ones I prefer are so far beyond my financial reach that I am left merely to covet what I cannot have).  After one of my rants and raves on this blog, I had somebody ask me once (in an email), "What will make you happy?"  The point of the question being the presupposition that your standards are impossibly high and your perspective so unattainably narrow that nothing will make you happy when it comes to the state of worship in the Lutheran Church.

Well, first of all, it is not ME who needs to be satisfied or made happy.  Whatever happiness I obtain from the faithful practice of our confession in the context of Sunday morning is derived from the doing our best to His glory.  Not unto us be glory but to His holy name.  We glorify His holy name best when what we do on Sunday morning is a reflection of our faithful confession of the Gospel, the practice of the presence of God through whose Word He continues to speak and act in grace and in whose sacraments He bestows the blessings of the cross and empty tomb for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  The Spirit's work is to bring this all together so that with heart, mind, voice, and hands we may respond in faith and faithfully to what Christ continues to give, bestow, and lavish upon us, unworthy though we are.

Second, I do not have some perfect ideal that I think everyone ought to shoot for -- not architecturally, not liturgically, and not musically.  What I seek is nothing more or nothing less than what our Confessions both expect and presume -- the Divine Service with the best of hymns, ritual and ceremonial that reflects what the words we pray and praise actually say, and piety deeply rooted and shaped by the Holy Supper of our Lord.  We do this in the context of the Church Year and we do this to the best of our ability, reflecting the ordinary diversity of place, resources, and abilities.  I cannot point you to one page number but to several, not to one hymnal but to a couple judged orthodox and faithful by our Church, and not to one kind or style of hymn but to the rich and diverse treasure of hymnody passed down to us and to which we have added, each generation singing the new song.  I do not require uniformity of every gesture nor would I ever expect that the Church would walk in lock step on its Sunday morning path to the altar.  Yet, I do expect knowledge of and attention to the rubrics and the desire to keep them or keep the spirit of the rubrics (especially when exceeding the ordinary minimums they require).  I do not have a standard wardrobe of vestments that must be worn although I refuse to allow personal taste as a cause for disdaining the priestly vesture of the Church.

Third, it is not my desire to be the secret liturgical police and yet I am saddened that in so many places that may be exactly what is needed.  Pastors are lazy and sloppy and too casual in their demeanor and posture in the chancel.  Lay folks have learned this bad habit and treat the House of God as they do the inside of the movie theater (eating, drinking, texting, phoning, talking, getting up whenever the mood hits, and even walking out when you grow bored with what is happening there, etc.).  It is not my place nor my purpose to seek out such offending Pastors and people but to call us all to faithfulness, devotion, and deliberate piety that befits what we confess and teach.

I do not insist upon a choir or a pipe organ but often wonder if our excuses why we cannot gather a choir or find a cantor or afford a suitable instrument to lead the people's song is merely a smokescreen for our indifference to the House of God and our utmost for His highest.  What is not required should surely not be written off as unattainable or extravagant unless we would also disdain with Judas the waste of expensive perfumed oil upon the Lord when we have so many other worthy causes around us.

Finally, I would hope and would think it not too much to expect that wherever Lutherans gather, in whatever language they speak, in whatever setting the Divine Service takes place, it would follow the form and pattern of the mass so that every Lutheran might feel at home and recognize the familiarity of its rhythm and form.  For such is not a fault of weakness but the surest mark of our strength, that we are fully united in the Divine Service even though we practice and enjoy a great diversity within the way we celebrate it in any one place. 

I would expect that Lutheran altars are for Lutheran communicants and that when Lutheran Pastors make exception out of pastoral care and faithful practice, the brothers will not kick and stomp like the gravest error or heresy has been suffered.  However, I would ask of those making exception to make it exceptional and not ordinary lest the fellowship of the Lord's Table become common, ordinary, and profane by the inclusion of those who do not believe, teach, and confess with us in one voice and practice.  I would expect that Lutheran pulpits are for Lutheran Pastors and for Lutheran sermons (make that Law/Gospel, sacramental, vibrant, and passionate preaching).  In attention to the preaching of the Word and a casual attitude toward the preaching task continue to wreck much harm among Lutherans in the pew who no longer are sure what it is that Lutherans believe, teach, and confess.

This is not for me.  I am not the Synodical President, a District President, Circuit Counselor, Pope, or Bishop (except to the flock I am charged to oversee here in Clarksville) -- it is not me that needs to be pleased or made happy but the Lord who at bare minimum expects us to take seriously what we confess and teach and how we live out that faithful confession and proclaim that unchanging truth with the realm of the means of grace and the Divine Service.  When we do that, our diversity will not divine and our unity will flourish.... and, I would expect, our parishes would grow.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Straddling the line between enlightenment and ignorance....

ESPN did another story on a gay athlete coming out; not a whole lot new there since the story follows the typical line.  I have no comment about the athlete himself or about those whose lives were affected by his decision to come out.  What I did find interesting is a line attributed to the athlete and his continuing struggle with his homosexuality.  It was said that as a Christian and a church goer he himself still struggles, straddling the line between enlightenment and ignorance. What I found telling about this is the way this was framed -- those who believe God's Word does not mean what it says are deemed the enlightened ones and those who believe that Word says what it says and means what it means are ignorant.

Now this is hardly an earth shattering revelation -- especially in a media story in which being true to self trumps everything else (recall the New Jersey Governor who had his wife at his side while he announced he was a "gay American").  I am not shocked by this but have come to expect something of this sort.  But it still represents a definition of enlightenment which, if not novel, is certainly new.  To be enlightened now means to disdain the boundaries of accepted morality, to ignore the clear Word of Scripture, and to place self-interest above all other interests.  If this is the path of enlightenment, then I am greatly tempted to pray for some medieval darkness.

Over and over again, the religious are painted as ignorant or foolish.  Now this is not always true -- the media has a certain affection for some groups.  CBS did a wonderful story of the Orthodox monks on Mount Athos and did not call them ignorant once.  In fact, the report was so sympathetic to the perspective of the monks that at times it seemed the reporter almost wanted to join them in this great spiritual endeavor.  I find the treatment of the Amish almost similarly respectful.  Whether it is the shock of those who refuse nearly all modern technology or the awe of those whose personal relationships as a community of faith are given higher place than individual freedom, the media seems to give them a pass in a way that they don't for most other religious groups.

But of course there is a big difference. The monks on Mt. Athos and the Amish are interesting but not all that threatening.  The monks will not be invading our space anytime in the near future and the Amish are equally content to live on the fringes of culture.  Where Christians engage the culture and where they speak with any voice other than acceptance of the culture, those Christians are threatening and it seems the media must take them down or paint them as extreme.  Funny, though, Islam gets some respect in the media and the only thing I can think is that the media respects Islam because Christian objects to Islam.  (The enemy of my enemy is my friend...)

I take it as a hopeful sign that the media is still insistent upon getting in a dig against Christianity.  It means that they are still threatened by Christianity.  It means that there is enough Christianity around us that the media feels it must take an antagonistic bent against Christian faith and Christian churches (except, of course, those "enlightened ones" who follow the cultural lead and surrender their values and morals to the prevailing wind of change).  It is as if the only way the media will NOT paint Christianity as extreme, ignorant, narrow, judgmental, or foolish is if the media deems the faith and the churches no longer a threat to the liberal values and interest that dominate the media.

Arnold the Govinator admitted to fathering a child by another woman some ten years ago.  Everyone is up in arms.  Not necessarily because it was a terrible thing -- more because we did not know about it sooner.  After all, Clinton got a pass on his oval office sex romps and John Edwards was treated forgivingly (at least until the cancer made his wife's cause a bit more sympathetic).  It seems that as long as people agree with the media, their indiscretions are treated in an enlightened way.  If they are "conservative" or "Republican", their moral failures are a much bigger issue (less because of religion than the fact that we like to expose the ignorant and narrow minded for being hypocrites).  Personally, I find ignorance and enlightenment have little to do with our sinful human nature and how all people sin because all are sinners.  I take no pleasure in the public failings of any but I do watch at what these folks do in response to their fall -- a little repentance is the only remedy for both religion and public redemption.

The media may have chosen -- enlightenment for those who disagree with the Scriptures and Creeds and ignorance for those who believe in them -- but I am happy to report that the subject whose coming out began this post is still straddling the line.  The fact that he cannot feel fully comfortable among the enlightened without some guilt and fear is testament enough to the work of God in conscience.  That gives me hope for even the most public sinners just as for the anonymous ones.  And it is this pang of conscience which seems to explain why the media wants so desperately to paint the great divide in terms of enlightenment and ignorance instead of faith and unbelief.  I can only hope that the media reporting such stories feels the burden of conscience as much as the people about whom they report...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ad Orientem

The expression ad orientem (Latin for "to the east") is the eastward orientation of a priest celebrating Mass. The perspective here is to face the rising sun which symbolizes the rising and return of our Lord. The posture ad orientem is often used not to mean facing literal east but facing the apse or wall behind the altar, with priest and people looking in the same direction, even if they have their backs to the actual direction east.  To put it simply, ad orientem is when the priest always faces the altar, the same direction as the people face, whether or not the altar is against the wall or freestanding.

The opposite of this is called versus populum, in which the celebrating priest faces the people (at least during part of the liturgy, most generally during the Eucharistic liturgy).  For this the altar must be free standing and have room for the priest and other assisting ministers to stand "behind" it as they face the assembled people.

In effect both terms are somewhat misleading.  It is not about the priest facing the people or the wall but about a liturgical east which has supplemented the actual orientation toward the east.  When the priest faces the people, it is more correct to say he faces liturgical east.  So at St. Peter's in Rome the Pope faces the people because the building faces west and for him to face east is to face the people.

In the earliest days of the Church, the Eucharist appears to have been celebrated on portable altars set up for the purpose. Some historians hold that, during the persecutions, the Eucharist was celebrated among the tombs in the Catacombs of Rome, using the sarcophagi of martyrs as altars on which to celebrate. When Christianity was legalized under Constantine the Great, formal church buildings were built in great numbers, normally with free-standing altars in the middle of the sanctuary, which in all the earliest churches built in Rome was at the west end of the church.  This did not mean that priests faced the people but this did allow for censing the altar on all sides.  The Eastern Churches maintain a freestanding altar but celebrate ad orientem.  As the sacrificial understanding of the mass predominated, so, it seems, did the altar move further back until it was against the wall, at least this is what some have postulated.

The present-day Roman Missal does not forbid the ad orientem position for the priest when saying Mass and provides that new or renovated churches make possible the facing-the-people orientation (versus populum): "The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible." For this reason many beautiful and massive stone and wooden high altars were virtually abandoned following Vatican II and a cheap, ugly, and insignificant little table placed in front of the "high altar" to allow for versus populum orientation.

Rome faces the odd circumstance that in some ancient churches the ad orientem position is physically impossible, and in others it is impossible for the priest to face the people throughout the Mass.  When Benedict XVI celebrated ad orientem in January of 2008 the fire for the return to ad orientem and to the Latin mass was kindled even more.  It is customary for this Pope to celebrate versus populum and yet the altar is set with candles and crucifix between the celebrant and the people. Rome is filled with the buzz over a return to Latin in regular use, with heated discussions over orientation, as well as a host of other liturgical issues.  But Rome is not the only place where this is all the buzz.  Lutheranism is also rethinking the orientation of the priest.

For the Lutheran this involves the discussion of the sacrificial and sacramental acts in the Divine Service. The all sacrificial acts are directed to or speak to God and therefore are said facing the altar.  The sacramental acts (God addressing us) are said facing the people. The sacrificial  parts of the liturgy are generally agreed to be the invocation, confession of sins, introit, kyrie, gloria, collect, gradual, creed, offertory, intercessions, proper preface, sanctus, our father, verba, nunc dimittis, post communion collect. The rest are sacramental where the pastor faces the people -- except for the elephant in the room, the Verba.  There has been more than a little ink spilled over the historic designation of the Words of Institution as sacrificial, that is, prayer or prayed proclamation.  Rubrics tell us in the pastor faces the altar for the consecration.Some would suggest that this is not a question of turning your back to the people but all facing the same direction during prayer.

Brother Weedon said once: Finally, about those free-standing altars. Luther early on expressed a preference for them and for the pastor facing the people from behind them. But the Lutheran Church largely ignored his preference and until the 20th century most Lutheran altars were against the east wall and the pastors faced them whenever a "sacrificial" part of the service took place. 

I grew up ad orientem, both churches I attended during college and seminary and both parishes I have served are versus populum (including Redeemer Ft. Wayne under Fr. Evanson).  Quite frankly, I cannot get excited about this argument.  It is with not a little amusement I read the dripping commentary from Rome and I am saddened to say that some Lutherans have begun to make this a big issue and addressed it in the same biting way.  Just like those who are convinced the Common Service (TLH style) is the ONLY legitimate Lutheran liturgical expression and the the other Divine Service formats of LSB are less than legitimate.  I cannot get excited about this debate either.  I am interested in the legitimate theological perspectives which shape the discussion on both sides -- just not convinced that it is worth becoming as entrenched in this debate as is Rome (and, by extension, its brouhaha over Novus Ordo or Extraordinary Form).  I love Latin, too.  But I am not thinking that Latin needs to be reintroduced as the language of the mass.  Surely all would agree that the English translation of the Roman mass is abysmal but that could be corrected without returning to Latin.  If there are errors in the way that free standing altars are used among Lutherans, surely they can be addressed without tearing them out and restoring the altar against the wall.  At least, that is how I see it...

Habitat Question....

Our congregation is looking to partner with Thrivent and do a Habitat build in our community.  The work of Habitat is well known and, in our case, would give good, positive publicity about our congregation.  Though we have been in this community of now 140K for fifty years, Lutherans and Roman Catholics tend to be somewhat invisible or live under the radar in the South.  We thought this might be a way to help raise the profile.  This would be a new build and we would be tackling this pretty much alone (but with Thrivent funding help).  If you have worked on a Thrivent build or have any good pointers as we begin this planning (toward a 2012 build), please let me know...

Monday, May 16, 2011

It takes more than pizza and video games to give young people a faith that endures.

Worth reading for anyone interested in or involved in youth ministry (especially to teens).  I applaud the honesty in this article as one among the many voices who suggest that we are amusing our kids to death while failing at the central task of teaching them the faith...

We all should review what we are doing with our children in light of the points he has raised and the critique of others who suggest that youth ministry has become shallow and devoid of real substance, the Gospel that inhabits the youth room a sham and shell of that which the Scriptures preach...  Could THIS be one of the reasons why our kids are disappearing?

Excellent article in Christianity Today. The Red Bull Gospel... check it out!

Life with abundance or life in abundance?

Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday, Easter 4A, preached Sunday, May 15, 2011

    We love the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd carrying the lambs in His arms but we often struggle with where Jesus is taking us, with what kind of life and abundant life He has promised.  What does Jesus mean?  Is it life with abundance or life in abundance?  What does the Good Shepherd offer to us?  Some have tried to tell us that it is life with abundance - with an abundance of health, of material things, of friends, of happiness, of accomplishments.  Certainly this is an appealing idea of abundant life but is this what Jesus promises to us?  Others say this is not about this life at all but about the eternal life that begins when this life is over.  Is this what Jesus promises?  Or could it be that Jesus speaking of life IN abundance – both now and forever?
    Even those who talk about naming and claiming your blessings from God are fearful of promising good health, lots of wealth, and much happiness to everyone.  I think down deep we know that Jesus is not promising us everything we might want, everything that the world uses to define what is a good or well equipped or well lived life.  But we still struggle to know what to expect from our Lord, what kind of life this abundant life is, and how this squares with the reality of sorrows, struggles, troubles and trials which we heard about in the Epistle lesson for today.
    If Jesus is promises life with abundance, with all the things we desire to make our lives rich in things and happy as the world might define happiness, then what do we do with those words from Peter?  What about Jesus' own talk about cross bearing?  What about His warnings of suffering and persecution to come?  If it is life with abundance, why do the Scriptures speak so much about the poor?  Why does Jesus tell us to share what we have and give away anything extra to the poor?  No, if Jesus is talking about life with an abundance of things, of wealth, of good health, of accomplishment and of happiness, then the rest of His words seem completely out of place.
    If Jesus means that our mortal Christian lives will be free from distraction or any limitation, what about St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh?  He tried to reason with God about how much more he could do for the kingdom if he were rid of it but God seemed unconvinced by this argument.  This affliction caused him no small amount of agony limited his idea of how he could serve the Lord but God did not take it away.  Instead, He gave Him grace sufficient to endure it and a strength made perfect even in the midst of Paul's weakness.  If Jesus is promising us life with abundance, then these words seem starkly out of place.
    But if Jesus is promising life IN abundance, then His promise is not compromised by the limitations and afflictions that we bear in our mortal lives.  Just the opposite, this life in abundance is the hope that carries us through all our earthly disappointments, limitations, trials, and troubles and cannot keep us from the heavenly joy that we know now in part and will know soon in full in heaven.
    Life WITH abundance is all about the present moment but life IN abundance is not limited to the present moment and lasts beyond the grave.  Jesus cautions us against judging our lives on the basis of whatever affliction or sorrow or struggle that would drag us down in this present moment or whatever triumph would cause us to ascend.  Neither success nor failure defines or detracts from the life IN abundance that He is come to give us.  Jesus gives us this life IN abundance to live NOW while at the same time preparing us for even more in the life which is to come, when we shall pass with Christ to our own joyful resurrection.
    Life IN abundance is life where sins are forgiven and where this gift of forgiveness comes to us as free grace through the cross.  Life in abundance is life where our sins no longer bind us like chains but are borne by the innocent Savior who bestows upon us guilty His righteousness by baptism and faith.  Life in abundance is grace, free grace, given to us in Christ and revealed to us in the death and resurrection of our Lord.  This abundant life is life reclaimed from death and its power in baptism where we died and rose with Christ.
    Life in abundance is life declared just and righteousness to those who stand in Christ by baptism.  The Good Shepherd offers Himself for His sheep and bestows upon them what is His alone to give.  This life in abundance is life fed and nourished in the food of the Eucharist, the table set in the presence of our enemies, where heaven's food becomes the food that sustains us mortals until we too are raised with Christ to the new and ever-lasting life He has promised.  Life in abundance is life not earned or deserved but given to the unworthy and undeserving, owned by faith for all eternity.  Here in the Eucharist we receive this abundance to carry us through the present and as pledge, promise, and foretaste of that which is to come.
    Secure in the grasp of this grace, we are not consumed by what comes our way in this mortal life.  We are not consumed by lack or overcome by trial or overwhelmed by struggle – nor are we deceived by our earthly triumphs.  We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  The Good Shepherd has us secure in the grasp of grace so that He makes us strong in our weakness and carries us through with the all sufficient grace of His suffering, death, and resurrection.
    The funny thing is that we still think of abundant life as life with full pockets and we are often disappointed when we do not get all we want or expect.  Even though we may not go home with full pockets, we leave God’s House with full lives, where sin’s stain is washed clean, where death’s sting is removed, and where the grave no longer is the spoiler that steals away all that is good in life.  We come for life with abundance and yet we receive life in abundance – flowing from the cross and filling the void of that empty tomb.  This is what our Good Shepherd gives us.
    We long for life WITH abundance – lots of stuff, lots of happiness, lots of health, lots of friends, lots of accomplishments to point to... who wouldn't?  But we carry His gift in earthen vessels.  Life with all its struggles and limits.  Still we are not overcome and we are not defeated.  When we search for signs that we are blessed, we point not to things or health or money or achievements but to Christ the Good Shepherd.  Even in sufferings, He is there.  Even in our lack, He makes us rich. In our loneliness, He watches over us.  In our peril, He protects us.  In our poverty, He supplies us.  In our sin, He forgives us.  In our failure, He restores us.  In our death, He gives us life now and forever.  Our Good Shepherd carries us lambs in His arms to the life that is full and free, born of His suffering and death, marked on us in baptism where He has called us by name, and refreshed in us at His table set in the presence of our enemies.  Lord, give us this life now... and always.  Amen.

Another Story... Same Plot...

Yesterday we had another visit from a family looking for a "Lutheran" Church -- not one with the name "Lutheran" but whose Sunday morning is distinctly Lutheran in identity and yet welcoming.  In this case the family drove for an hour just to get here.  This family is not the first nor the last of those drive past "Lutheran" congregations in their search for a congregation with Lutheran confessional identity and consistent Lutheran practice.  It comes as little surprise to those in most urban or suburban areas that "Lutheran" churches tend to offer at least the option of non-liturgical contemporary worship or to offer at the earliest possible hour a "traditional" service while moving the rest of the worship times to contemporary worship.  It is that way in Middle Tennessee and I would expect that you would find it that way across America.  It is the common complain from the many military and mobile industry families who leave Clarksville:  Where can I find another congregation like Grace?

I wish they were talking about something we were exceptional at but I know what they are talking about is majestic and reverential worship, using the liturgy, using the full musical resources of the hymnal, accompanied by strong Biblical preaching.  Such was once thought to be the hallmark of Lutheran congregational identity.  No matter the size of the congregation or its location, the Lutheran Church was a bellwether of sacramental and liturgical practice shaped by confessional and Biblical preaching and teaching.  Some say worship wars and others say missional identity.... I say consistent sacramental and liturgical identity and practice accompanied by Biblical and Confessional preaching and teaching.  Where this is, the work of the Lord continues as He has promised, the Church grows, and the people of the Lord grow.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Finances and the Larger Church

By now you should have received the Lutheran Witness special edition focusing on the finances of our Synod and the pressing issues before us in the areas of finance and stewardship.  I would urge you to reach them over thoroughly and pay sincere attention to the information and to the challenge laid out for us there.

A couple of observations. . .
  1. This is not a new problem.  In fact, our unrestricted income from Districts and congregations of Synod is less than or about the same as the unrestricted income from the Districts and congregations in the early 1970s -- exactly the same in real dollars and unbelievably less in dollars adjusted for inflation.  So this problem pre-dated most of our theological controversy and cannot be assigned to either the theological left or the right.
  2. This problem was exacerbated when inflation and other factors increased the costs to the local congregation.  Some of you may recall when you paid 15% on your home mortgage and when CDs were earning you 17% or more.  Those years of rapid inflation quickly sapped up parish resources and made it harder for marginal congregations to cover the cost of full-time Pastoral care AND put money in the budget for missions.  Add to this several rounds of oil embargoes and gas hikes and the cost of the local congregation escalated quickly and well beyond the ability to adjust without painful choice.  The easiest of those painful choices -- give up a mission budget in order to keep a Pastor in the parsonage.
  3. Districts grew quickly and grew fat on the idea that they were providers of parish programming.  Districts which once had part-time District Presidents who were also full-time Parish Pastors soon gained large program and support staffs.  Full time DPs were supplemented by several F/T executives in the areas of education, stewardship and finance, congregational services, etc.  They came with secretarial support, a car, and a host of other necessities some might call perks.  But parishes liked having District people close in time of trouble and they did not balk at the rapid expansion but paid for it by decreasing the money that went to the national church and missions.
  4. Building booms, capital campaigns, and expansions of colleges were the norm on the parish, District, and national level.  Some were essential but some were less so.  District offices became self-standing buildings to house the larger staff of the District.  Congregations built and built (remember the family life center boom?).  National church structures also built a national headquarters, buildings for support functions (LCMS Foundation, LCEF, etc.) but the colleges built and the Synod ended up covering the entire debt for a portion of this building boom.  Forgotten amid some building programs were factoring in the costs of maintaining and using these structures which also sucked out the excess out of the budgets and the most common area to cut was missions or direct support for colleges and seminaries.
  5. Giving has been treated as a program and so people have come to expect and have grown resistant to programmatic methods of addressing the problem.  The "time, talent, treasure" idea was a thinly veiled way in which the leaders could say to the sensitive "no, we are not talking about money" when, "yes we are talking about money."  The end result is that people stopped listening or listened only to find out how creatively the money issue could be buried under talk of faith and values and the like.  Stewardship is not a committee issue or a programming concern.  Stewardship is a faith and life issue and needs to be treated as such.
  6. Our attempts to increase funding by sidestepping District (and, to a lesser extent, congregation) with direct appeals has grown a restricted budget very well but left us captive to economic upturns and downfalls that always affect this kind of giving.  Our use of foundation monies to replace restricted income from Districts and congregations has left us captive to Thrivent or Schwan concerns and has not helped at all the drying up of the Synod's leaking ship.  We have expanded a number of things through this foundation giving but we have forgotten, as good as it is, it is not the regular source of income to fund what our Synod has determined is our calling to work together to fulfill.
  7. The death of the parsonage and the rise of Pastors owning their own homes has also contributed in a small way to this (I am writing as one who owns his own home).  Who would deny it is both cheaper to the congregation and easier to move Pastors around when the congregation owns the real estate.  The boom of Pastors owning their own homes has brought with it higher costs to the parish (especially in high cost of living areas) and had an impact on the mobility of Pastors.
I would suggest that some of these things need to be part of the discussion as well.  I write this as one who has worked with several congregations to increase giving to District and Synod from zero to about 10% of the total annual income, has added special mission projects (both local and international) to expand this figure, and built on buildings.  I am no expect (far from it) but the problems can be overcome.  In order to do so, we have to ditch funding from the worship wars and doctrinal skirmishes being found among us and raise this cause up so that it is so important it does not become a casualty of our discontent.  Secondly, we need to address some of the continuing reasons why money is sucked up at several levels before it ever gets a chance to fund the Synodical things we mandated as part of our life together.  Thirdly, we need to call part of this problem what it is -- smug selfishness that suggests that we know better and should spend more on a local and regional level than those bureaucrats in the national office (whom we treat with about as much respect as we do our Washington politicians and lobbyists).