Thursday, June 30, 2011

Casting Pearls or Protecting Pearls -- A Difficult Tension

Read a recent account of a visit to a "mega church" on Sunday morning.  A couple of the paragraphs of this Christianity Today story are quoted below (emphasis mine):

To say that the service was religiously "dumbed down" is not quite right. In fact, I wish that were the case, since the goal of comprehension sometimes demands that complex ideas be simplified. No, it seemed rather that the presentation aimed at finding a theological and cultural lowest common denominator in order to attract and engage the greatest number of people. As a result, there was no need to be a Christian to understand most everything that was said or sung.

While church leaders rightly want Sunday services to be accessible, they should also be asking about the limits of this strategy. Ironically, a common complaint 20 years ago was that churches alienated visiting nonbelievers with too much Christian jargon. This was a legitimate criticism. But now it seems the impulse toward accommodating the surrounding culture has pushed churches into making the opposite mistake. Has a passion for inclusiveness deluded churches into supposing that doctrinal or liturgical particularity threatens their mission to a religiously pluralized world?

The apostolic and post-apostolic churches—those nearest to the New Testament era—took a different approach. Modeled after the Old Testament tabernacle, the church was where believers encountered the "Holy of Holies." Thus worship could not be open to everyone. The churches of the third and fourth centuries observed what was called the disciplina arcana (the rule or practice of secrecy) with regard to worship gatherings. This was to ensure that only baptized Christians partook of the Lord's Supper and confessed the church's creed. Hippolytus, a third-century theologian, kept a list of vices and professions that would disqualify one from baptismal eligibility. In a great many churches, the un-baptized, even catechumens preparing for baptism, were dismissed before the church celebrated the Eucharist and confessed its creed.

At some point, style of presentation affects the substance of Christian identity and teaching, often by blunting its sharper edges. It is probably no accident that many contemporary churches offer a diet heavy in biblical images and metaphors, leaving actual biblical theology in short supply.

 When the apostle Paul became "all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22), he did not reinvent or re-orient the faith of which he said, "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received" (1 Cor. 15:3, ESV).

My words:

I do not fault the zeal of those who insist that anything and everything must be done in the Name of Christ to grow the Church and get the Word out.  But I do question the methodology which often takes our theology captive for the sake of the higher cause of saving the lost.  Specifically, I wonder if the means by which we make the Church grow may, in fact, forsake the Church and we will have attracted people to an idea but not to Christ, to a feeling but not to a place, and to a spirituality but not to the Spirit (who works through the means of grace).

I believe that the lost are lost, that those who die outside of Christ will answer to His judgment.  But I also believe that God has elected unto salvation those who will be saved and that we can, should, and must provide the means of grace (Word and Sacrament) so that they may hear and respond by the aid of the Spirit.  What I am uncomfortable about is the take no hostages approach to evangelism in which guilt and shame are used to move us, in which the liturgy and worship in general must be structured as openings for the unchurched to enter, and for the presumption that the Pastor is primarily an evangelist with a little side job of caring for the baptized people of God.

It disturbs me when there are empty pews.  I soul search all the time to reflect upon me and what I have done to make sure I am not putting myself as an impediment against the work of God.  I want my parish and my Synod to grow in numbers as well as in faithfulness and service to the Lord.  But all of this must live within a certain tension of the catholic and apostolic faith, the liturgy which serves as the framework for the means of grace, and the equipping and support of the work of the baptized in worship, witness, prayer, mercy, and service.

What is the greater scandal is when we trivialize this work of God by using gimmicks or bait and switch tactics to mask who we are by methods and worship forms out of step with our Confessions -- all in order to get people in so that we can count their numbers and go to bed at night with a clear conscience.  I bet I am not alone in this...  Lutherans are certainly not on the cutting edge of this but we seem to be excellent followers of those who are.  We are always one generation away from losing the very thing that the Reformation sought to restore and preserve and exchanging our Confession for the practical domain of what will pack them in.  I am not at all suggesting that Christian witness is unimportant or less important than the other aspects of our calling as the Church.  What I am suggesting is that we must be careful to make sure that actually have the authentic Gospel to offer to the people we seek. 

What is the fascination with minimums?

On an online forum a question was raised about a eucharistic liturgy reduced down to the bare minimum of the Verba Christi (Words of Institution).  In countless other places you find debates/disparaging comments about liturgical or high church Pastors and congregations with all their affection for smells, bells, and "gowns."  I have had countless comments on this blog from people who were grateful that "their Pastor kept to the simple Word and not go in for chanting, incense, funny vestments, kneeling, genuflecting, bowing, etc..." 

I am a little confused with this romantic affection for minimalism.  Am I to assume that authentic Christians order the cheapest, plainest food on the menu?  That they watch the blandest programs on TV?  That they drive base model cars without any frills?  That they only buy clothes at Wal-Mart or Goodwill (and stick to plain stuff)?  That they worship in facilities with cinder block walls, low ceilings, florescent lights, and no art work?  That hymns sound better on out of tune pianos or cheap electronic organs played by inept players?  Why, you would assume the Amish would be growing by leaps and bounds from all the complaining Lutherans who believe a little ceremonial is too much and ritual is a nasty word (that requires you to have your mouth washed out with soap). 

Honestly, what is the deal here?  Did I miss something?  Who forgot to send me the memo?  Could I have deleted the email?  You know -- the one that explained why less is more and more is less?  Why is it that God deserves only the mediocre, that the Lord of heaven and earth is less important than someone you invite for dinner and drinks, or that God is glorified when the only thing we are willing to give Him is sincerity?  We get frustrated when Presidents demean the Office they hold by their failure or casual attitude toward the public they serve but assume that God is happy enough if we show up in cut off jeans and a tee shirt, spend 45 minutes in no frills worship that cuts to the chase on everything (except the sermon), and that uses Christian muzak mostly to cover the silences.

The upside in all of this is that by keeping our expectations low, we are sure to reach them.  And surely we will inspire a new generation of people content to get by when it comes to matters of church, faith, and life.  In this way we will make sure that minimalism does not die with us and that future Christians will be just as inspire as we are to give God His due as long as it does not cost us much.  We are cheap people who have taught ourselves to be content with cheap grace, with cheap churches in cheap buildings doing cheap worship on Sunday morning.  We have turned moderation into the defining principle of who we are -- except that we have redefined moderation into mediocrity.  We are plain people with a plain God and we are content to leave it all at that. 

Okay, you got me.  I am ranting and raving.  It just about drives me crazy.  And this is the criticism that comes from fellow Lutheran Pastors and not just the folks in the pew.  Sighhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.  With such an attitude toward worship it is no wonder that our work as witnesses is failing, that our stewardship is down the tubes, and that our church is in decline.  We are shooting not for the stars but for the minimum necessary to get by.  Give us a gentleman's "C" in everything we do and we will feel better.  But will God??????

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I wish we had this rule...

Within the Orthodox Church, a number of canons safeguard the sacrament: the marriage must be celebrated in a Church – not outdoor, not in a barn, not in an imaginary romantic setting. It belongs in the Church because it is indeed a sacrament – a means by which God becomes present and we participate in His grace. The couple is also required to have counseling beforehand and to make their confessions before a priest as they prepare to receive one of the Holy Sacraments. One prays that such actions add to the sobriety of the occasion and draw attention towards God and away from the manifold distractions of our silly world.

Given how nearly every Pastor I know detests weddings, precisely because of the silly things and distractions of the world that find their way into them, I know of not a few who wish we had a canon or rule that we could cite to say to some couple who wished to pledge their love freely with spontaneously chosen words while standing out in a meadow filled with wild flowers:  No way, Jose!

But, because we may have a Pastor who makes his own rule or a parish here and there who will back him up (until the wrong family decides to disagree with him), we are stuck without the kind of authority to say, "The Church does not do this."  Period.

You may quibble with the sacramental theology used to justify why in the Church only and what needs to be done by the couple to prepare for marriage, but the sentiment of this canon is spot on (in my book).  Though you who are of a more romantic bent and who see weddings as fairy tale affairs of the heart between two people in lust with each other are free to disagree...

My Dad Was a Lutheran

A wedding a few days ago and I heard the typical comments for a Lutheran in the South -- "You are Pastor of what church???"  "Where is this Lutherian Church?"  "Now what kind of Christian is a Lutheran?"  "Boy, you don't find many of them down here!"  But my all time favorite:  "My dad [insert family member here] was a Lutheran..."

With so many dads, moms, uncles, aunts, grandparents, nieces and nephews Lutheran, you might think there would be more of us Lutherans.  But the emphasis is on WAS Lutheran.  From the comments I have received over the nearly 20 years in the South, I estimate that 60% of the people in this community have a close family member who WAS Lutheran.

But no more.

It seems that the Lutherans gravitated to Methodist churches more than any other denomination (from my own non-scientific sample).  Perhaps the Lutheran penchant for moderation left them in search of a more strict method.  Perhaps they had sung a gospel song that made their eyes tear up and they left in search of a place where they might hear more of them.  Perhaps they were offended by the Word of God and the Pastor's insistence upon preaching the whole counsel of God's Word (a sword that cuts both ways and incites family against family if you read last Sunday's Gospel).  Perhaps they got tired of going to Communion so often (or, in reality, got tired of acting so darn Catholic).  Whatever the reason, there are a ton of former Lutherans out there -- even in Baptist country.

It seems that nearly as many Lutherans found refuge in a Baptist congregation (again, this is non-scientific hypothesis).  Perhaps they always had issues with infant baptism and the unrealistic stress upon grace alone.  Perhaps they got tired of explaining to the gazillion Baptist neighbors what a Lutheran was/is and decided to go with the flow (at least in the South).  Perhaps they got bored with the same liturgy week after week and the hymns did little to perk up the pace and they sought out a place which puts on a better show (complete with Britney Spears microphones and great cd back up band).  Perhaps they had aspirations for political office or were climbing the economic ladder and figured that Lutherans have no juice in the South so your dreams might require a change of religious address.  Whatever the reason, there are a ton of former Lutherans out there who are fine upstanding Baptists in congregations with names like First, Hilldale, Spring Creek, Little Hope, etc...

A number of Lutherans changed because of marriage.  I had never understood St. Peter and his talk of the weaker vessel until now.  Lutherans, it appears, are the weaker vessel.  We change to conform to our spouses religious preference (confirmation vows notwithstanding).  Till death us do part comes into conflict when you pit the vows of marriage with the vows of a youth confirmed in his/her baptismal faith.  A few even became Roman Catholic (but they are generally pretty quiet about that fact -- both that they were once Lutheran and that they are now Roman Catholic -- you know the South).

In the end it seems that many, perhaps most Lutherans left for no place at all.  They belong to St. Mattress of the Home Church and their religious needs are met by pop gospel Christian music radio and the occasional tune in for Joel Osteen --- ohhhhhh, don't forget their half read copy of The Purpose Driven Life!  As long as you can squeeze the Pledge of Allegiance in there, stand for the National Anthem, and substitute stadium ceremony for religious ritual, you can get by without much churchy stuff (if you were a Lutheran).

It seems that Lutherans have a weak grasp on what they believe so they migrate to other denominations with little trouble... OR they get tired of being the only Lutheran in the room and crave some fellowship with predominate religious groups of the region... OR they gave up and went to church with the husband/wife and let it go at that... OR they took their toys and played at home either because they did not like the people in the playground, the rules of the playground or the playground monitor (Pastor) at the Lutheran congregation...  You can fill in the blank or answer the question "why," I am stuck wondering why we Lutherans have so much trouble keeping our folks.  Perhaps we might tackle this one before we fill the pews with new Lutherans to replace the old -- only to follow them in the drift toward other venues...  Just a thought...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Prairie Churches...

Growing up in a small, wooden clapboard building on the Nebraska prairie, this little video has touched a sentimental part of me that is hard for me even to talk about...

A Little Lesson on Christian Art from our Presiding Pastor at Historic Trinity

The Christian's Witness

When I first came to this parish, I was pretty much alone in the building most of the week.  It was a hard time and the loneliness was a shock to someone who had grown accustomed to a preschool and a parish which was, in many respects, the center of its people's lives.  I had a few visitors and a few phone calls but more visitors were folks looking for a hand out than people from the parish or unchurched folk in search of redemption.

Years went by and I had a steady stream of people coming to the exterior door just steps from my office.  It was even more strange because this was a side door and not well marked.  But they kept coming.  I nearly went broke the first few months until I had to scale back the assistance.  Largely because of this, I now do not carry cash so that I can direct but not supply cash to those who come looking for money.

When our parish celebrated a 35th anniversary we invited previous Pastors back to preach and to celebrate their time here (two were living, one deceased was replaced by his son).  One Pastor, the second of those to serve this parish, came early to walk through the building and talk.  One of the first things he did was go to that side door and check to see if the "mark" was still there.  Even under a couple of coats of paint, he found it.  What he found was a mark placed there by panhandlers who had found this parish and its Pastor an easy "mark" for some cash or other assistance.  "Hmmmmmmm, so that is why...."  "Sure enough," he said. "I nearly went broke the first weeks I was here."  Hmmmmm, that explains it... Those who had found little help here, marked the door so that future folks would know that there was a sympathetic soul to be found in side.  I had no idea that beggars (more or less professional) shared this information with others.

“We are mere beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.”  So said Luther (or something to that effect).  In that little sentence is more than a lot of wisdom.  Christian witness is simply tell others where we beggars have found the Bread of Life, the only bread that satisfies, the Bread of Heaven that is Jesus Christ.  We make much of evangelism and outreach.  It has become the cause above causes for congregations facing decline or church bodies desperate to plug the leak of members.  Even the Southern Baptists are experiencing a decline in baptisms and growth.  More and more the Church is apt to view the world as an untapped marketplace wherein we sell Jesus to people (after first selling them the idea that they need Him and all that He offers).  It is no surprise that we screw it all up when we are motivated by desperation and borrowing our models from the advertising and business industries.

Recently my own District has come up with a plan to pay Pastors $500 bucks to make 30 weekly contacts in the community, follow up on 15 of them, and pray for 5 of them (why we don't pray for all 30 is another question) over six months.  It is an embarrassing attempt to turnaround a District and parishes stagnant or declining in numbers.  More than this, it gets the whole thing wrong.  We do not witness because we have a passion for the lost or because there is something in it for us ($500).  We are beggars who have found the Bread of Life (or, more accurately, it found us).  There is bread there more than we could ever consume.  We, who have found such wonderful satisfaction of our hunger and need, cannot help but share the bounty with others.  We tell other beggars where to find this Bread.  I really do not get why this is so difficult or why this gets so screwed up.  We are not marketers nor are we soul winners.  We are beggars who share where is this bread that feeds you till you want for no more...  If we took this seriously, there would be no shortage of folks curious and hungry who pass the doorposts of our churches... Until we take it seriously we will attempt to use gimmicks and the wrong motivation to get the word out -- though when we are content with gimmicks and when we use the wrong motivation, it might be legitimately asked if we are witnessing the genuine Gospel or just another distortion of the Bread of Life that has come down from heaven, of which you eat and hunger no more....

Just a few thoughts this Tuesday morning....

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Business of Deconstruction

One commentator on the NY decision to sanction gay marriage has called this the fruit of a process of deconstructing marriage.  I think he is on to something.  Lets first define that word, "deconstruction."

It is a philosophical theory of criticism (usually of literature or film) that seeks to expose deep-seated contradictions in a work by delving below its surface meaning.  It is also a term French philosopher Jacques Derrida used to adapt Martin Heidegger's concept of Destruktion. Heidegger sought to tear back tradition and accepted reality in order to expose their "primordial sources."  Derrida worked for the deconstruction of classics of philosophy and the "socio-historical totality" of our civilization, and for the deconstruction of texts of the most modern social sciences (linguistics, anthropology, psychoanalysis), and even contemporary texts alleged to be scientific.  It can also be used in the context of physical construction, deconstruction is the selective dismantlement of building components, specifically for re-use, recycling, and waste management.

For all that, I would simply say that deconstruction attempts to break something down into its component parts, to determine the validity of those parts, and to suggest a changed reality on the basis of that examination of the component parts and an evaluation of their authenticity.  That said, it is impossible to actually deconstruct anything other than a building or other physical creation and know for certainty its component parts and exactly how and why it came together.  This is a judgement and not a scientific assessment.  It is also not devoid of the prejudice of modern ideas -- not in the least of which is that the end result is a butchered reality or distortion of the promise offered by the primordial or component parts.

So we take marriage and deconstruct it to the point where the only component parts are two people who choose to be married.  What we end up with is a matter of personal choice and definition and the simple request for justice so that all people may have access to this choice.  And that is where we have left it in our pursuit of gay marriage.  Procreation, sex, and even love have been looked at and tossed out as essential component parts (even seen as imposed upon marriage) and the only thing left is choice.  Boy, do we like choice.

Now some get all bent out of shape on this but we have been doing this with the things of God since the sweet that turned bitter taste of forbidden fruit.  It is the natural sinful process to take what God has given, tear it down, discard the component parts we do not like, and reconstruct it to be what we deem it to be.  But we have also been doing this in a host of other arenas.  History has been remade as well (don't believe me?  take a look at the history texts used in your local school system or college history classes).  Liturgiologists (is that a word?) have also been doing it for years (don't forget Dom Gregory Dix and the four fold shape of the Eucharist).  Why, we have even been reinventing the food pyramid, wheel, plate, etc... to the point that nobody knows what we should eat.  It is all deconstruction.

The problem with deconstruction is that when we are left with only the parts, we also leave it to others or to the moment to reconstruct those parts into something (and therefore leave it to another day to be deconstructed over again).  The end result of this is that our social institutions and values have broken down, we are even more fragmented as a people, and even more disappointed in what we have and our future.  Far from offering us stability or hope, the result of deconstruction is that we have been left divided, bitter, and captive to the prevailing wind of the moment.  We have no common morality or values to bind our diverse people together and we have no common vision of what the present or the future should be.

You would think that since deconstruction has borne such terrible fruit we might abandon it.  But alas, we cannot.  We have bought into it with everything we have.  Our whole identity is based upon it.  We cannot look into the mirror without deconstructing what we see.  We cannot read the Bible without deconstructing its words.  We cannot trust the media without deconstructing it into its sources.  We cannot look at Washington without deconstructing people and their positions.  We cannot look at marriage and family without deconstructing it and separating procreation, sex, love, and commitment from choice.  We should not be surprised.  The very hope and freedom we wanted in the Garden has eluded us from the moment we exercised choice and we have been redefining and reworking things ever since in a vain attempt to deconstruct what led to our undoing...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Measuring the Past and Predicting the Future...

A member sent along this link to an interactive map of population change comparing 2000 with 2010 and the break down of that population.  You can click on it HERE.  You may end up staying there a while -- I did.  I am no expert and I do not believe the Church needs to engage in business marketing models to grow, but it is interesting.  The stats for Clarksville and the surrounding county are revealing:

Population:   Up 28% over the past decade to 173,000 people.
Population of Whites up 21% and they represent 67% of the total.
Population of Blacks up 16% and they represent 19% of the total.
Population of Hispanic up 98% and they represent 8% of the total.
Population of Asians up 44% and they represent 2% of the total.
Population of Mixed Race is up 87% and they represent 3% of the total

It is no real surprise.  We knew the Hispanic population was booming and those of us who live here knew that we had grown by nearly a third over the last decade (housing starts, new apartment complexes, and traffic among other indicators).  What is significant is that the direction of Clarksville is a more culturally and ethnically diverse population.  This is true even when compared to surrounding counties. Part of this is urban growth and part of it is due to the military population of this county (ever growing as it is).  But what does this mean? I am not sure I know how to answer that.

One thing is for sure.  The growth of Hispanic population -- historically Roman Catholic -- will mean the largest congregation in town will grow ever larger (Immaculate Conception) and the Roman Catholic population will continue to move from the fringes of this city's identity into the center.  That also gives new legitimacy to the Lutherans (whom the rest of Clarksville has already deemed "catholic" by what they see on Sunday morning and hear from the Lutheran parishes).  Roman Catholics have lived a somewhat hidden life in Clarksville; not nearly as prominent as, say, First Baptist, though larger,  they have been under the radar for decades.  That may come to an end.  However, the Hispanic population itself is somewhat hidden so this will occur gradually.

The growth of the multiracial category will mean the largely segregated pews on Sunday morning will become less so and this is a good thing.  When I arrived here almost 20 years ago, a Black preacher told me, "Bro. Larry, if any black folk come to your church, you send them on to me and if any white folk come to my church I will send them on to you."  I laughed but found Clarksville was (at least passively) following that dictim.

In a practical sense, it means that some think we as a congregation should have grown by a fourth in order to have kept pace with the general population.  Alas, we did not.  We grew -- just not that much.  But I grow weary of such use of demographic data.  Evangelism carried out under the fear of the Law is seldom fruitful.  Witness borne of hope is much more successful over the long haul.  Anyway, it left me with some things to ponder... what will YOU make of the population trends within your state, county, or census tract?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sing Me to Heaven....

It was both painful and healing to sing at our wedding as the processional hymn, the same hymn that had been sung at the funeral of my wife's mother.  In Thee Is Gladness served as both the musical framework for a family gathered in grief at an untimely death and the pattern of joy for two lives to begin as one.  Singing belongs at both weddings and funerals.Sadly, we do not sing much at either.  Families often bring in soloists to sing for us and the songs are generally less than salutary -- the latest pop fad or Broadway musical hit (spare me the Phantom and  "The Music of the Night") or we hear cd versions of their favs from the ipod (Country Western tear jerkers abound in funeral homes in my neck of the woods).  But we do not sing.
In the Apostolic Constitutions is a collection of eight treatises, Church Orders, dating from 375 to 380 AD, probably from Syria, most likely Antioch. Its author is unknown, though  some suggest it was the same author of the letters of Pseudo-Ignatius, perhaps the 4th century Eunomian bishop Julian of Cilicia.  There is this marvelous direction to singing in the Apostolic Constitutions, in the funerals of the departed, accompany them with singing, if they were faithful in Christ. For “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” (6, 30).

One of my favorite anthems, set by Robert Gawthorpe, is a prayer written by Jane Griner, set to music.  The pleading is rather haunting and mystical:
If you would comfort me, sing me a lullaby
If you would win my heart, sing me a love song
If you would mourn me and bring me to God,
sing me a requiem, sing me to Heaven
. . .

I would encourage us to sing more at weddings and funerals.  Singing not the pop songs sung in the shower by the departed or screeched while heading down the highway with windows down and radio blaring, but the songs of the faith.  Sing the hope that is within us when we say sweet goodbye to loved ones whose journey is complete while we still walk (by faith and not by sight).  Sing of the faith and of the One who is the third string in the three corded union that is holy marriage (and not sentimental songs of love that is sweet but fragile and weak).

At one such funeral (memorial) a week ago, we sang "Beautiful Savior" and "Sing with All the Saints in Glory" and "I Know that My Redeemer Lives" and "Children of the Heavenly Father."  Even for a crowd which was mostly non-Lutheran and whose experience singing in church probably minimal, we found songs that were accessible and the songs of faith which the departed had sung in the congregation over the years.  At one wedding the bride wanted no less than a half a dozen hymns sung -- not wedding hymns per se but the wonderful sturdy hymns of faith that had nurtured her faith from childhood.  We settled on three.

Accompany the departed with singing... indeed.  And don't forget weddings, either.  What better way to frame the start of a new couple's life together as husband and wife than with singing (in my own case, "In Thee Is Gladness" and "Now Thank We All Our God").  Grief and joy combine for the Christian into a common denominator -- the church's song!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Get over it...

The present state of liturgics in the LCMS today is like a teenaged girl who has just discovered mascara.... the wisdom of a certain LCMS Seminary prof repeated by Eric Brown (HT to the Confessional Gadfly)...

It is a problem of excess... If a little is good, the a lot is better.  Most makeup mistakes seem to be rooted in too much.  Maybe teen age girls grow up watching too much of Tammi Faye Bakker or Jan Crouch (TBN).  Maybe they just don't know when to quit but the usual teenage practice is to overdo something until it is no longer cool or in (pardon me, I do not know the current lingo for this) ...

It is a problem of individualism...  Girls see make up as a personal expression.  It has little to do with beauty as much as it is "I gotta be ME."  They me they gotta be is generally seen as self-expression but it is always within limits -- following the fad or staying within certain parameters to make sure you are in the group and not outside.  Radical self-expression but not so radical you get pushed aside by the group...

It is a problem of change -- change that happens far too quickly to keep up...  I am sure that cosmetic companies and those who produce teen age clothing are happy about the pace of change.  It means that a lot of makeup is tossed out before it is used up and a lot of clothing sent to the secondhand store before being worn out.  Trying to be new all the time is stressful and wearying...

And so it is for liturgics in the LCMS...  It is a problem of excess.  At first it maybe adding in something not included in the hymnal  Then it becomes radical and wholesale renovation of the Divine Service that can render it much less Divine.  I recall how one word turned the world upside down at one LCMS parish I visited.  We were confessing our sins and the Pastor changed but one word in the confessional rite that changed the whole thing.  We confessed that we were in bondage to sin.... Where do you stop?  Before you know it, you are an addict.  Maybe we need a twelve step for liturgy writers -- it even sounds Lutheran:  Liturgy Writers Anonymous!!

It is a problem of individualism.  Pastors and parishes get the idea that they are unique and that the Divine Service must reflect this uniqueness.  Sunday morning becomes the place to display who I am (the "I" being Pastor, parish, performers, etc... you fill in the blank). So Sunday morning is stripped from the fabric of our confessional fellowship and from the liturgical year and lectionary and we end up with one off liturgies that bear but passing resemblance to the official orders of the Church.  We forgot that our uniqueness has taken second place to our confessional standard (article 1 or 2 in most constitutions) and we have voluntarily forsaken our individuality in order to walk together (even then, the hymnal offers us enough diversity within the options of the liturgy and the perciopes).  From the confession to the benediction we shed individuality in the liturgy -- we are all miserable sinners and in Christ the face of God shines on us...

It is a problem of keeping up with the non-denominationals and the churches down the road or on the internet.  Change happens fast and it is a full-time job to keep up with things so that you remain on the cutting edge.  Lutherans tend to define "contemporary" worship in ways that are well behind the curve when it comes to what's new.  We were still singing Peter, Paul and Mary style songs to folk bands when the rest of the world was into the sound of heavy metal (or something like Nova Jehovah).  The pace of change is wearying and all we have succeeded in doing is raising the expectations of some beyond what we can deliver, turning away those who are looking for constancy, and sending the rest down the block where the praise band is better and better, the technology is bigger and better, and the music is not yesterday.  We are serial polygamists or we go through our concubines like those with colds run through kleenex  -- marrying the spirit of the age, of the day, and of the moment, only to watch the time pass and we run behind to catch up...

Personally, I blame the copy machine and personal computer.  What was a mess to do on the old mimeograph any fool can do with a decent word processor and a halfway modern copier.  Remember the old into to the 6 Million Dollar Man?  Well, about the time most Lutheran congregations realized the big growth of the 1950s was receding, they got these new tools and began to think:  "The Lutheran Church is barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild it, we have the technology. We have the capability... we can make it better than it was before. Better. Stronger. Faster."  Other people blame other things.  Whatever the end result has not been pretty.  And we are definitely not better, stronger, and faster than we were before... not by a long shot.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Preview... The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Anticipated here at Grace:

The birth of John, like the birth of Isaac before him and Jesus after Him, is a story filled with mystery and wonder.  It bends the imagination.  But the key here is not the creation of a good story but the revelation that God’s will was at work in these births.  Not by the fleshly desire of husband for wife or wife for husband, but word and work of God through the Spirit. 

We long for stories of romance and heroic victory, overcoming all odds and winning the trophy.  But instead we find here the stories of old men too old to father a child and old women long past time to conceive or carry in their womb the promise of life.  We find instead a virgin whose purity simply says that it cannot be by ordinary means that this child has entered her womb.

We find stories of disbelief and fear, of disappointment and failure, and in the midst of them all, God is at work.  At first it might seem to us that these stories are too far removed from us to have any real connection to us.  Where are the fathers as good as dead and the mothers whose empty wombs were filled with surprise?  Where are the virgins who find the scandalous surprise of life planted within them by the Holy Spirit.

But these stories have everything to do with us.  First of all, they form the common thread that weaves the hope and promise of redemption to a world captive to sin and its death.  As part of that sinful and fallen creation, they speak not of some hope in time but the timeless hope that enfolds us and redeems us from our lost condition.

Second, they speak of the surprise of grace which is seldom where you expect to find it.  They teach us to peer into the baptismal water and see the churning water of life into which we cast the dead only to have them rise up reborn to everlasting life.  They teach us to listen to the voice that says “I forgive you” and to hear the personal word that lifts from our shoulders the heavy burden of our sin and our guilt and sets us free for the easy yoke of Christ’s service.  They teach us to look at the bread and taste in it the awesome mystery of Christ’s body, the bread of life of which we eat and live forever or the cup of wine that is flows both from the cross and from the heavenly table at one and the same time, the cup of salvation for you and for me.

Third they speak of our own lives so often filled with sadness, hurt, pain, disappointment, fear, and death.  Into this deadness comes the very life of God in Christ – the life that refuses to let tears flow, that refuse to let hurt steal our joy, that refuse to allow pain to preoccupy our hearts, that refuse to let disappointment take away our confidence in tomorrow, that refuse to let fear hold us captive anymore, and that insist death must not and must never be allowed to have the final word in our lives.

So we come today to remember the joy of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the surprise of a son who would give  voice to a priest and be embody the ancient promise of the prophets and prepare the way of the Son of God, speak redemption to lives held captive in sin and death, and call to repentance a people who had long ago given up hope in God.

Their joy is ours, the voice of their son calls to us, the promise of the Savior gives us the surprise of hope even in the midst of our lives too full of disappointment and pain.  Sin and death are done, done in by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and put down where and when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed.  This is better than some romantic or heroic story of human triumph... this is the Word that forgives, redeems, restores, and reclaims us, those who were meant for disappointment have been given hope.  Amen.

Parent 1 and Parent 2

Somewhere I read or heard that new US passports no longer list father and mother but parent 1 and parent 2.  Oh, yes, here it is.

A statement on the State Department website noted: “These improvements are being made to provide a gender neutral description of a child’s parents and in recognition of different types of families.” The statement didn't note if it was for child applications only.

As one wag put it, the next thing you know the second Sunday in May will become Parent 2 Day and the third Sunday in June Parent 1 Day (or if my numberings insult you, you may reverse them).  Or, perhaps we will do away with them entirely -- perhaps that would be best but, you know, it would put a a big dent in the greeting card, candy, flower, necktie, and restaurant industry.  So, keep it, at least until we are out of this darn recession.

While not entirely unpredictable, what is strange is the idea of gender neutral parenthood.  Do children with two female parents not call them "Mom" -- or do they prefer the generic parent?  Do children with two male parents not call them "Dad" -- or is parent more comfortable?  It was one thing to suggest that having two moms or two dads was still family; it is quite another to suggest that having parents who are neither mom or dad is an advance.

When my dad (excuse me, parent 1) brought home our first Amana Radarange microwave oven, it was a big box, not overly powerful, with an imprecise dial timer that made it hard to accurately input cooking time.  That was 1967 or so (my dad was an Amana dealer -- one of the oldest of the old Amana brand before it was sucked up into greater corporate America).  Now our microwave senses the food and picks a cooking time and style appropriate to the food.  It has a very exact digital timer.  It is about twice as powerful and much more compact.  That was an advance (though, sadly, this one is not built in the US but in some unnamed Asian country).

Who would argue that ditching the nuclear family, stretching the imagination of family to include every possible variation on the original model (well beyond the intention of the Inventor), and that making family impersonal parenthood represents advances to the first production model?  I do not mean to condemn single parents, grandparents raising their grandchildren, blended families, or the like.... just to suggest that these are make do attempts to pick up what is missing -- not attempts to improve upon the original model.  We are always making do with things that are less than optimal but this is hand we were dealt.  We are also guilty of making grave mistakes in the name of improvements that went astray (remember NEW Coke or the Edsel?).  
Whether you are religious or not, whether you are Christian or not, who would call adaptation to a fractured and broken circumstance an improvement?  If the State Department had come out with a change to ADD Parent 1 and Parent 2 to the designations Father and Mother, they could have easily justified it by saying that there are situations in which the terms Father and Mother do not fit.  We would have shrugged our shoulders and left it at that.  No, it is not what we like, what is best, but it is a reflection of reality (though, really, how many families are there in the US where there are two dads or two moms -- pardon me, two "parents?").  We are making an accommodation needed for a very small minority of families who might need it but by making this change we are, in fact, giving official legitimacy to a cultural movement to do just that -- replace mom and dad with a parent, and call it an advance.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ooooooh to be British....

While no one in their right might would point to Christianity in England, Scotland, or Wales as being the model for a resurgent faith, there are bits and pieces -- little tid bits -- that every now and then show us a remarkably different culture at work than the one we know here across the pond.

You can hardly get a singer to actually sing the National Anthem without turning it into some pop wannabe's audition on American Idol.  Half of them forget or butcher the words and the other half make us wish they had not sung at all (okay, so I exaggerate).  As bad as it is, it is the best we can hope -- a National Anthem sung at great patriotic occasions like sporting events.

Apparently in jolly old, where rugby and soccer replace baseball and football, in addition to the obligatory "God Save the Queen," they also sing a hymn before the game.  "Guide Me, O Thou, Great Jehovah."  Our own Lutheran situation got muddled when Jehovah was replaced with Redeemer.  A ton of folks were made sorrowful by the wisdom of musicologists (since LW) in replacing the glorious and beloved words of TLH with "Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer" and stealing the tune from "God of Grace and God of Glory."  While this disappointed many, the upside is that now we can sing with those across the pond, as they say, when they gather for rugby.

So watch them sing and listen to the worlds.  Take note of Tom Jones down on the field leading the song.  No hymn books.  No jumbo tron with a bouncing ball to lead the song.  Just a people who know and love these words as much as they know and love the game itself.

...a Welsh song that's been a great consolation and strength 'round these parts for many years -- the national hymn that doubles as a rugby anthem, sung here on the pitch... and led by the land's best-known export... For the record, when was the last time you heard a hymn at a sporting event? (And, no, "Fly, Eagles, Fly" doesn't count.)  So England VS Wales, Wembley Stadium, April 11, 1999....

Did I ever tell you I have a fascination for things British (if Welsh can be considered British)?  So watch it already...

HT to Whispers in the Loggia

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What's in a name?

Sermon for Proper 8A, preached for Holy Trinity, the First Sunday after Pentecost, June 19, 2011.

    What does it matter what you call God as long as you call on Him?  Right?  But it does matter.  Moses had to get the name of God before the people of God would follow Him to freedom and the land of promise.  Jesus had to get the right name at His birth because He was the embodiment of that name Yeshua (He shall save His people).  Now, as we heard in the Gospel for today, Jesus has given us the Name of God, the name of the Holy Trinity.  This name is strong – not because of how it sounds to the ear but because this name has the power to save us, to turn water into the means of salvation that ushers us into the life of God and into His presence forever.  Everything hinges around the right name.
    We say it and we hear it said all the time.  "I believe in God."  But what does this mean?  Are we saying that we believe that God exists – like the way we believe that there is such a thing as air and electricity even though we cannot see it.  Does God care if we believe Him real or not?  I don't think so.
    We say it and hear it said "I believe in God."  Does this mean we believe that God made everything?  The Old Testament lesson records the creation account. Does God really care if we believe that He can make stuff or that He can make really good stuff?  I don't think so.  This kind of faith is impersonal.  It is like believing in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  You cannot prove it and it still just an article of faith that has little meaning or impact on your daily lives.  It matters little to us to say “I believe in a creator being.”
    We say it and hear it said, "I believe in God."  And usually this is hardly more than sentiment or feeling.  I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows. I that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows. I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come to show the way. I believe above the storm the smallest prayer will still be heard. I believe that someone in the great somewhere hears every word.  Sounds nice and it makes us feel good but it is meaningless.  They have no power – not like the name of the Holy Trinity.
    These stuff is nice but it is fluff – words about God that have as much substance or value to us as cotton candy or marshmallow.  God gives not sentiment but truth, not feelings but the name that has the power to forgive and to save.  We do not simply believe in God; we believe in the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the great mystery of three in one and one in three, – a mystery given to us not to be understood but to be confessed, not to be explained but to be prayed, and not to be comprehended but to be worshiped.
    We confess not some generic deity but the personal God who is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Just as names are key to earthly relationships, God gives to us His name that we might enter into a relationship with Him.  His name is access – access to this personal God who addresses us personally with the grace that forgives our sins and gives us life stronger than death.
    We confess the Holy Trinity because this God is for me and for my salvation.  He is not primarily the God of the universe but the specific God of the font, of the Word, and of the Table.  He has called me by name.  He has named me as His own in the water of baptism.  When that name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was spoken over water, that water became like the ark for Noah, the vehicle and means of my very salvation. This God is concrete, accessible,  real, and addressable where He has placed His name, the means of grace.  This is the God whom we speak to the nations by telling what He has done and administering the water of His promise.
    We confess the Holy Trinity because this God is gracious.  He is not the unknown and fearful God of thunder clap or lightening bolt, of the roaring wind or waging sea.  No, He is the God who is gracious and merciful.  This God should damn us all to hell but has chosen to forgive and save us.  He should banish us forever from His presence but instead His name bids us come to the water of life, come into the grace of His presence and promise.  He should be so offended by our sins as to turn completely away from on us but this name tells us of Him whose face shine on us, the smiling countenance of grace, of love, and of favor.
    Many people believe in God.  Polls tell us that 80% of Americans believe in God.  That's nice.  But so is sugar and spice, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with strings and a host of other things.  God is not nice; He is God.  We would live in terror of Him except He has given us His name.  Yet we confuse Him and make Him into the toothless old lion in the zoo – a quaint curiosity.  There is no roar in this name anymore.  But without a roar, there is no mercy, grace, or salvation.
    The Son always points us to the Father.  The Spirit points us to the Son.  On this day when we honor earthly fathers, we rejoice in the Father whom Jesus points to and whom we know by the Spirit.  Here we find that fatherly love is not passive but active, the fount and source that is strong enough to be sacrificial, forgiving, and redeeming.  If in just a small way, earthly Fathers show us this love from God, then they have done a noble work.
    God is power and life.  His Word can kill and make alive.  Today we confess His name.  Where His name is, He is.  Where He is, is both terror and blessing.  Where He is, He unmasks sin and its death but He does not leave us there.  He comes with forgiveness, life and salvation, hidden in the Word, in the water of baptism, in the bread and wine of the Sacrament.
    Here we find out that His greatest power is not displayed upon the heavens but on the cross... and He is mightiest is not when He condemns the sinner but reaches into the pit of sin and death in Jesus His Son and redeems us through His blood... and that what He wants from us and what He seeks for us is to trust in this saving name, to rejoice in what He has prepared fo us, and to live our lives in delight of the mercy that is new each day.  A people who will call Him by name.... with faith that is personal and confident... with boldness in confession before the world... and with love in the mystery of worship.  This is what it means to say... I believe in God... Anything less is hardly worth our time...  Amen

How to get rid of Lutherans....

A cross post from Weedon's Blog because it was too good to pass up... the only thing better would have been if I had said it in the first place... unfortunately, I did not.... but Dr. Joe Herl of Concordia, Seward, did and Weedon was there to hear it... And this is why you need get your rear end to Seward in July (specifically 27-29)... 

..the year was 1616.  Johann Georg, Margrave of Brandenburg, converted to Calvinism and sought to enforce Calvinism on his very Lutheran territory.  What changes did he demand?

All images are to be removed from the church and sent to the court.
The stone altar is to be ripped from the ground and replaced with a wooden table.
When the Lord's Supper is held, a white cloth covers the table.
All altars, crucifixes and panels are to be completely abolished.
Instead of the host, bread is to be baked into loves, cut into strips, and put in a dish from which the people receive it in their hands; likewise the chalice is received by the people with their hands.
The words of the Supper are no longer to be sung, but rather spoken.
The golden chalice to be replaced by wooden.
The prayer in the place of the collect is to be spoken, not sung.
Mass vestments and other finery no longer used.
No lamps are candles to be placed upon the altar.
The houseling cloth is not to be held in front of the communicants.
The people are not to bow as if Christ were present.
The communicants shall no longer kneel.
The sign of the cross after the benediction is to be discontinued.
The priest is no longer to stand with his back to the people.
The collect and Epistle no longer to be sung, but spoken.
Individuals are no longer to go to confession before communing, but rather register with the priest in writing.
The people are no longer to bow when the name of JESUS is mentioned, nor are they to remove their hats.
The Our Father is no longer to be prayed aloud before the sermon, but rather there is to be silent prayer.
Communion is not to be taken to the sick, as it is dangerous, especially in times of pestilence.
The stone baptismal font is to be removed and a basin substituted.
Epitaphs and crucifixes are not longer to be tolerated in the Church.
The Holy Trinity is not to be depicted in any visual form.
The words of the sacrament are to be altered and considered symbolic.
The historic Epistles and Gospels no longer used, but rather a selection of the Bible by the minister, read without commentary.

You can see from what the Elector objected to exactly what Lutheran liturgical practice was like in Brandenburg in his day!  I'm happy to note that the Elector would be distressed with much of the worship at St. Paul's in Hamel [I might add with Grace in Clarksville, as well].  As Dr. Herl perceptively noted, the Elector believed that the only way to root out Lutheran doctrine was to change Lutheran worship, to get rid of worship that confessed in action what Lutherans believed in their hearts.

Monday, June 20, 2011

How does grace flow?

Sermon for Pentecost, preached Sunday, June 12, 2011

    Which way does the river of God’s grace flow?  We tend to think of it flowing primarily towards us.  It is a comfortable relationship.  He comes to us in our sins and He forgives them.  He comes to us lost and He lights the way.  He comes to us in our upset and despair and He gives us peace.  He comes to us in our sorrow and despair, and He gives us hope.  We may be tempted to think of Pentecost in purely personal and individual terms.  The Spirit who is mine.  But here the promise of Jesus speaks of a river of grace that flows not only to us but, by the Holy Spirit, through us.  The miracle of Pentecost is the gifts that God comes to His people with the rich grace that flows in rivers of love and that this river does not end with us.  It flows through us for the building up of the Church and for the calling of the elect from among all the nations.
    What is it that Jesus promises?  If you thirst, you can come to Him and drink.  First of all, even the thirst that wells up in us is itself a creation of the Spirit and God at work in us.  The thirst for God is not something we cultivate like fine wine.  It is a false idea of spirituality which posits us as seekers and God as the found.  The Spirit builds this thirst with us and it is the Spirit who leads us the only One who can satisfy this thirst – to Jesus Christ alone.  We treat spirituality as if it were a hobby and we act as if our quest can be met in many different places.  There is only one source of forgiveness, life, salvation and peace.  Anywhere other than Jesus and we will come away empty and disappointed.  Only the Spirit builds this thirst in us and only Christ can satisfy it.
    Even then, we would be helpless to obtain these gifts were it not for the Spirit who creates faith in us to receive what God offers us in Christ.  This faith grasps the gifts of God and clings to them.  Where our hearts were once closed and sealed by skepticism and fear, now the Spirit works to open them to Christ and to His gifts, that the things of God might become fully ours.  It may seem foolish for us to constantly repeat this but if we get this wrong, the things of God will be forever beyond our grasp and we left unable to fulfill His bidding.
    Just as too many of us think that faith is our own action, so do fall victims of our own pride to think we can make believers out of unbelievers.  The Pentecost account makes it clear.  We are not the causes of conversion but the means through which God’s efficacious Word and Sacrament do His bidding.  Where we speak His Word, He calls and gathers His elect.  Where we administer His baptism, He promises the Spirit will impart what this Word gives to the water. Christians do not witness because we fear people will go to hell, Christians witness because the Spirit has unleashed our tongues to speak of what Christ has done, of the hope that is within us, and of the wondrous grace of forgiveness and new life.  In this way, we cannot help but let the river of God’s mercy flow through us any more than we can stop the Spirit from bringing forth good works and His fruits in our lives.
    When the living water that is Christ flows to us and the Spirit works faith in us to receive His gifts and grace, then the result is that out of our hearts flow naturally rivers of that same living water to others.  The Spirit not only works in us but through us just as He worked through the apostles of old who were boldly spoke in languages they did not learn in the ordinary way.
    The Spirit directs the world to Christ through the witness of His people.  Our witness is not our holy living or our experience of believing but the very Word of Christ – of His suffering, death and resurrection.  And to all whom God has elected, this Word of Christ does what it promises and works faith in the hearts of those hearers.  The point here is that we cannot help but speak and what we speak is taught to us by the Spirit  - the message of the cross and empty tomb.  Listen to the Pentecost sermon of Peter.  He spoke of Jesus, crucified and risen.  That is the long and short of witness.
    Christian witness is not some new law or burden or obligation we must keep.  It is the natural outflowing of what God has flowed to us in grace.  The forgiven forgive, the redeemed testify to the Redeemer, the restored tell of their hope, the dead in trespasses and sin who have been made alive in Christ bubble over with this news. We are not lights in the sense of a source of light but mirrors and reflectors of Christ's light.
    Pentecost is not a self-serving miracle.  The Corinthians got it wrong. The Spirit was not given for some personal private experience, not for a devotional language or to establish our spiritual credentials.  The Spirit was given that we might build up the body of Christ the Church for the work that God has given His Church to do.  Building up the body of Christ or edifying the Church and giving witness to the hope that is within us are not competing aims but the very same goal and purpose.
    Baptism is the lens that clarifies all of this.  The call of Jesus to go and witness is directly tied to the giving of baptism’s power to His Church.  By baptism we receive the Spirit and the Spirit works faith in us to hold on to Christ and His grace.  In baptism we are given a new vocation as God's new people.  Worship, witness, prayer, works of mercy, and Christian service are the natural extension of what God has done in us.  Through us Pentecost ever continues – God calling, gathering, and enlightening.
    Grace flows to us and through us.  The Word of Christ we heard, we tell.  The forgiveness we have received, we use to forgive others.  The water of baptism is the meeting place of those whom the Spirit calls.  In Pentecost this becomes marvelously clear.  In the cacophony of many languages speaking all at once, one voice is heard – the language of Jesus.  He turns the many into one holy people, He empowers them to serve the Lord and do His bidding, and He makes us into instruments through which the rivers of grace flow through us to others.  What a splendid blessing!  Amen

Where all the children are above average...

HT to Joe Carter over at First Thoughts for pointing to this study of attitudes of college students.  You can read the whole thing here.   Carter ties calls this the Lake Woebegone effect.  I like the description.  You can read it all but I am struck by one paragraph:

In the study, the authors also argue that intellectual confidence may have been bolstered by grade inflation, noting that, in 1966, only 19 percent of college students who were surveyed earned an “A” or “A-minus” average in high school, compared with 48 percent in 2009.

Perhaps this is a result of the deliberate intention to use the public school system to impart self-esteem in our children. We grade up because it makes the kids feel better, it makes our educational system look better (on paper), and it makes us look better as teachers, administrators and parents.  This has not improved education nor has it equipped our children any better for work or for college.  What it has done is made degrees less valuable.  As so many have said before me, the high school diploma has been replaced by the bachelor's degree.  The masters now replaces the bachelors and the doctoral degree has become the equivalent of the masters a generation or two ago.  We are neither smarter nor well educated but we certainly feel better about ourselves.

Grade inflation has been pressed upon teachers by the way they are rated and evaluated and administrators who seek to make their institutions look better and by governments and parents who have to justify the huge costs invested in education.  Parents expect their kids to do better in part because they live vicariously through their children and in part because they have paid big bills (especially in college) and expect big results.

In the end we have robbed our children of real self-esteem and handicapped their identity and their growth into adulthood by this culture of what is owed to them.  As a parent of three children who are all very intelligent but not always equally motivated, I have tried to separate their self-esteem from the judgement of others or even their achievements.  Christians draw our self-esteem from the cross.  Our value is set not by society or even our parents but by the God whose love endured suffering and death to retrieve us as His own and restore us into communion with the Father. 

The whole nature of this gracious gift reminds us that despite our failures and not because of our successes, God loves us.  He loves us where we are and as we are but too much to leave us under death's long dark shadow and captive to sin's grasp.  This is the self-esteem that endures, that motivates the joyful and noble response, and that does not bounce around like a ping pong ball with the ups and downs of ordinary life.

We have failed our children by failing to teach them how to fail, what failure means, and from whence redemption comes.  We have left them with a distorted sense of self-worth in which they deserve good things, a superior attitude about nearly everything in life, the convoluted sense of failure corrected by a reset button and a restart, and the expectation that they should always succeed or their failure is due to the stupidity of others.  It is no wonder that the Word of the Cross does not square with them.  On the other hand, when they wake up to reality, the Word of the Cross is the one Word that really does speak to them.

I was not a straight A student.  I was a child of the 1950s in which "Father Knows Best" and I was sent to school because I did not know everything.  I was taught that even when you work hard you can fail and that failure was a teacher.  My parents constantly reminded me that their love was constant but that God's love was redemptive and restored those who fall.  I grew up confessing that I was a poor, miserable sinner but that God's gracious love came to me in my sin and death and saved me.  I am not saying this like the old curmudgeon who talks about walking 17 miles one way to a one room school and how it made him a better person.  I am saying this to identity how recently this shift has taken place.  In less than 50 years a revolution has taken place in education and the end result of this revolt has not been better educated children better equipped to serve as productive citizens.  Maybe it is time to relieve schools of the responsibility for imparting self-esteem and let them get back to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic (and a host of new disciplines not even conceived when I was in school)....

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Some thoughts about my Dad...

The mark of something good is that it becomes ever more precious to you and valuable to you as time passes.  If that is the case, then my Dad is very good.  Although there was a difficult time in rebellious youth when I was not so sure, I am more and more of the opinion that he is one of the most precious gifts God has ever given to me.  I hope and pray that we can all say this on Father's Day.  No, he is not without fault or sin.  No, he is not some unique genius.  He is just a Dad but saying that is saying quite a bit....

There was a time I could not wait to be on my own.  Now I often long for the day when I was just a kid and all the decisions rested on his shoulders.  Every passing year reminds me of the very precious gifts God has given me in my life, my parents being two of the most special.  As I look at my own children I am mindful of my shortcomings and my father seems even greater in comparison.  As the days come and go, many things change, but the grateful heart of this son only grows over time... Thanks Dad!

Some Thoughts for Reflection on the Holy Trinity

From another forum (ALPB) comes this summary of the distinction between East and West when it comes to the Trinity.  Most answers on forums or blogs (even this one) are forgettable.  I found this one to be a keeper.  All I can do is to pass it on to you to frame the Filioque debate and the nuance of perspective that separates East and West while suggesting that the fullness includes both. On this Father's Day, I offer it to you, words from "Brother Boris..."  Note especially the words to paragraph #3 and its way of describing Father as fount and source.  It is this aspect of fatherhood that Scripture offers us and this idea of source or fount that we find most difficult to accept today.  In our sense of mutuality, none if before another.  In our sense of time, none is first.  We have fought this in so many different places -- not in the least of them the role of husband and father in the family. 

You may not get it at first and you may not agree with all of it but the Orthodox brother has given us much to chew on here... So read it here:

1.  God is not an individual. That's right.  Our God is most certainly not an isolated individual. He is not a Monad. Jews and Muslims worship a Monad,.  Orthodox Christians worship THREE Diviine persons.  These three Divine Person form a Community with one another that we refer to as the Synod of the Holy Trinity in Greek or the Sobor of the Holy Trinity in Slavonic.  In English this would be best translated as the "Council of the Holy Trinity". 

2.  Why is there one God?  The Eastern Orthodox answer to that question is there is one God because there is one Father.  The person of the Father is the foundation for the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity, not some mystical Divine "substance" that all three share.  That's too philosophical for us.  It's too complicated and detached, and it just doesn't sound like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to us.   It sounds like the god of academics and philosophers: cold, removed and detached.

3.  So we have God the Father.  What can we say about Him?  Not much, actually. Because He is the most mysterious person of the Godhead. He hasn't revealed that much to us.  So we describe Him by way of the negative (by what He is not, called the apophatic method).  God the Father is neither created, begotten nor proceeding.  He simply IS.  He is the fount and source of the rest of the Holy Trinity.  All other persons in the Trinity are defined by their relationship to Him.  This is referred to as the Father's monarchy.

4. Then we have God the Son.   God the Son is neither created nor proceeding but eternally BEGOTTEN from the Father.  He is the Father's "face" so to speak and has come to reveal the mysterious Father to us. Since He is begotten of the Father, He shares in the Father's essence (Divinity) and is fully God.  Yet He is also fully human since he took flesh from the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary.  And His human nature and His human mother are of great importance.  For the Orthodox, the whole reason Israel was selected to be the Chosen People of God was to raise up a holy humanity in the person of the Theotokos, a person (as we sing in the Akathist Hymn) who would be the Divine Ladder by which God came down to earth, the Bride of God, the Burning Bush (burning with the fire of divinity within her womb, yet not consumed.) Indeed, all of Israel served to be a preparation for her who would be the Divine Tabernacle containing Christ the Heavenly Bread.  And the purpose for which God the Son came was man's theosis:  that is, to make man like God, to incorporate man into the life of God and rescue him from the bondage to sin, death and the devil into which he had fallen.

5. Then we have God the Holy Spirit.  He is neither created nor begotten, but eternally proceeding from the Father.  He proceeds from the Father alone and not from the Son because the Father is the source, fount, and unity of the Holy Trinity. To make him proceed from the Son, is, in Orthodox eyes, to subordinate the Holy Spirit to the Son.  And that cannot be done.  All three persons of the Holy Trinity are equal and fully God.  So we cannot diminish the role of the Holy Spirit by subordinating Him to the Son.  He stands on His own as fully God. And we cannot, as Augustine did, refer to the Holy Spirit as "the love between the Father and the Son".  To us, that is just hideous. The Holy Spirit is not an emotion. He is a Divine Person, and He has his own unique role that cannot be taken away from Him.  One of the Holy Spirit's roles is to be the Life giver, as we confess in the Nicene Creed: He is the Lord and Giver of Life. At the Incarnation it was the Holy Spirit who overshadowed the Mother of God like a cloud and made her conceive Christ. In the Holy Eucharist also it is the Holy Spirit who descends upon the Bread and Wine and transforms it into the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the one who makes Christ present. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Settled Questions... Established Doctrine

For the last several hundred years or more, it has been fashionable to rethink established doctrine.  We have taken this to a new extreme in the 20th and 21st centuries.  It has become the mark of educated and erudite Christianity to look at settled questions and start afresh as if the question or doctrine were not settled.  I am not talking about things on the fringe of the faith but even things at the core and center of established Christian truth.  It is as if the creeds are seen as childish answers to satisfy only the childlike.  The real thinkers and those who are therefore closer to God dig deeper.  Digging deeper may then lead to different answers than the creeds, than the confessions of old, and even than Scripture itself.

So, for example, this kind of thinking begins by suggesting that just maybe Arius was misunderstood and that he was not so far from the truth as may have been first thought.  Or, it might head down the path that other gospels were discarded and the Gospel that triumphed was thinking imposed upon the historical Jesus and not at all an accurate reflection of Him.  Or, the Scriptures themselves might be rethought to see if they are what they purport to be or whether the canonization process was instead a battle of ideas in which one side won and their version of authentic Scripture won.  Or, it may suggest that the modern day situation not even on the radar in the days of old and therefore neither Scripture nor Jesus ever spoke to such -- despite what it seems that Scripture literally says.

There are those who would try to make Christianity into a moralistic religion with much in common with other moralistic religions.  There are also those who would remake Christianity into a mystery religion not much different from other mystery religions.  There are those who see parallels in other religious expressions and therefore presume that Christianity (or Judaism, for that matter) is merely another version or derivation of the primitive source of them all.  There are also those who suggest that Scripture says pretty much the same thing as holy books and oracles of truth in various ages and religious expressions -- albeit with certain unique variations.

Once this was mostly an academic pursuit but it has entered the mainstream of Christian thought and practice.  From issues of sexuality to the role of women to morality, the folks in the pew are being inundated with new ideas that insist they are as old as Christianity and Scripture and that modern day "settled questions" and "established dogma or truth" cannot be trusted or accepted at face value.  The Bart Ehrmans of this world have taken their own personal doubts and points of view and baptized them in history in order to make them appear to be at least as legitimate as the catholic and apostolic faith -- if not more so.  In the end, we are left merely with doubt and fear -- doubt that what has always been believed and taught is correct and fear that we can ever know truth with any certainty or confidence.

Recently I have found more and more lay folks who have been taken in by these merchants of doubt and fear and I am troubled more and more by the fake legitimacy of their claims and the ease at which they impose their uncertainty upon ordinary Christians.  I do not consider myself any authority on anything but I have learned over the years that the pursuits of my youthful rebellion were more and more foolish and empty.  I find that I defer more and more to the great teachers of the faith -- those from early Christian history and those of Lutheran orthodoxy alike. The funny thing about it is that I appear to be the radical and the purveyors of doubt and fear seem to be the reasonable ones.  And therein lies the problem -- where reason triumphs, God's truth suffers.  Our reason reaches its highest when it hears the voice of God speaking through His Word and answers with the "Amen" of faith.

Lutherans have been less inclined to harp on things Lutheran (as opposed to that which is catholic and apostolic) and more inclined to that which has always been confessed and believed in every place and time.  If we are the only ones confessing something, then we Lutherans are inclined to wonder if we got it right.  It is to our joy that there are good Lutherans in every tradition who confess as we claim to, the evangelical and catholic faith.  Why we give those nattering nabobs of negativism (ala Agnew from Safire) to bother us is beyond me.  It would certainly make my job easier if I did not have to keep answering their latest diatribes.... unfortunately, it is less and less convincing to folks to give the answer that the Church has always believed.... this is catholic and apostolic faith and practice...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Nature's Mystique

Sitting here in my kitchen in the mornings, I have full view of one of my wife's gardens with its bird feeders, hummingbird feeder, squirrel feeder, and bird bath.  There are many who paint an idyllic picture of nature -- one of peace, harmony, and concord.  Apparently they have not gotten the message at my house. There is no politeness or cooperation in this small corner of God's creation.  In fact, it looks a lot like the human world.

Birds fight over the feeder hanging in the tree.  Cardinals, robins, and a host of birds whose names my wife knows, but I do not, are extremely jealous about their time in the bath or at the feeder.  They chirp and buzz each other with aerial acrobatics in order to keep others away.

The squirrels make the leap from the tree to the hanging feeder and drive away the birds while the feeder swings like an out of control pendulum.  With expert fingers they undo the wire lock I invented to keep the lid on the feeder and go at the sunflower seeds inside.  If they worked together they might enjoy a bit more bounty but their chatter and erratic behavior is designed to make feeding a solitary endeavor.

Even the delicate hummingbirds do not cooperate by feeding together.  They are some of the fiercest feeders and drive off their mates as well as others -- even though there are more than enough plastic flowers on which they might enjoy the sweet red nectar together.

Not to mention the deer who eat away at the hosta plants we paid good money for.  Some terrible stinking stuff made of vomit, dried blood, and a host of other most distasteful stuff might keep them away but there is no guarantee.  And the turkeys have found a feeder filled with corn the perfect height for them to feed.  I actually enjoy this but the turkeys won't oblige my desire and let me watch.

Occasionally there is a little cooperation, perhaps the better word is tolerance. Life is hard and competition is tough at the feeders outside our kitchen window.  Nature is not much different than the world or any congregation, for that matter.

We tend to think of the Church as pristine and idyllic, above the fray of the world and a glimpse of true fraternal, loving, cooperation, concord, and harmony.  I wish it were but the trouble is that congregations are filled with sinners -- jealous, competitive, easily offended folk who speak without thinking and think of themselves before others.  The heavenly part of the Church is not the perfect harmony and peace of the good folks in the pews but the gifts of God that defy earthly thinking and offer us the surprise of grace in unexpected places.

Now don't get me wrong -- I am not excusing our bad behavior nor am I painting an awful picture of life together as the family of God.  What I am saying is that we should not look to the lives of the people as the peepholes to view a glimpse of the heavenly glory of God's promise.  We should be looking at the Word and Sacraments.  The means of grace are the cracks and crevices in which we see God and His heavenly glory.  We can see this in the lives of people but I think most of those glances at glory are hindsight and not live, views of the past and not of the present.

Just as we do not see the footprints of God in our lives until we have those occasional moments of clarity as we look back over time, neither do we see much of God at work in us by looking at a snapshot of today.  That is why I like church history.  Some see only dirty laundry and earthly foibles but I see God working in and through His Church.  I see perfectly ordinary people in whom God's grace shows forth in extraordinary ways.  I see plots and twists and turns that seem to defy God's direction become the very means through which He works.

God sets His table among us and delivers to us grace upon grace and mercies new every morning and we tend to act like those birds and squirrels at my feeder.  We have our own agendas, our own perspectives, our own desires, our own weaknesses and they sometimes are displayed in a conflicted and broken life together.  We are not the Church because we have fully become the saints God has declared us to be but because we are living contradictions, saints and sinners --- one by declaration of God and the other by looking in the mirror.  I am constantly amazed that God has chosen to work in us and through us imperfect and inefficient people.  But that is one more surprise of grace.

My parish is real and this reality often shows us at our worst or most fearful.  We are a flawed people and we do not leave our flaws and failings like shoes at the door when we enter the House of God.  But God is among us as He has promised, He visits us with His grace, and He has deigned to work in us and through us the work of His kingdom.  Lord knows we get it wrong often enough but we also get it right -- just often enough for us to realize that is not me or us but Christ in me and Christ in us.  Far from hiding this from the world in order to portray a plastic picture of fake goodness, this is the Gospel at work!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Only Treatment for Sin

If you are addicted to sin and desire treatment, come to our meeting on Sundays at 8:15 & 10:45 am.  As Al Mohler said, the only treatment for sin is the atonement.  But that is not in fashion right now and some folks find it offensive.  So we seem destined to continue the path toward defining every sin as addiction, every trespass as a disorder, and every failing as a need for therapy.  So the Congressman in the news joins the ranks of those who have gone off (not to the woodshed) but to the clinic for treatment.

It is no wonder that our people do not get confession and absolution since they have learned from our culture and the media that sin is not really sin.  It is a disorder or addiction that requires treatment.  Confession does not fall within the realm of treatment and ego te absolvo does not fall within the realm of our definition of medicine, either.  So we are more and more confirmed in our sinfulness.  Perhaps this is exactly what Scripture means when it speaks of the hardening of the heart.  For nothing short of a direct hammer blow to this glass house can break through and we have made this glass pretty solid.

Every sin is at its root narcissism.  It is the violation of the first commandment that is behind all other commandments broken.  And the first commandment disowns narcissism -- when self becomes more important than God, than others, than morals, than values, than anything...  I suppose you could call Rep. Weiner stupid and foolish but in the final estimation only a vain and narcissistic person would constantly take pictures of himself and send them to others.  You can fault him for the clothing or lack of clothing in the pictures but why else would anyone take poor quality photos of themselves on their camera phone and send them to someone, to anyone?  Clothed or unclothed, tasteful or not, it is pure narcissism.  The Congressman is not a whole lot different than the two late twenty-something women who sat in front of my wife and I as we went to see Michael Buble a while back.  Every few moments they pulled out their I-Phone to take pictures of themselves -- not of the performer whose performance cost a decent amount of money but of them.  A couple of exceptionally large cans of beer only made it worse as the night went on.

You're so vain... she sang.  I am so vain...  The world is so vain...  Our vanity is not a simple affront to God but our ultimate undoing.  Only rightly ordered relationships can begin to hold this vanity in check... parent and child, husband and wife, citizen and neighbor. . . creature to Creator.  Christ did not come to do away with these relationships or to set us from from their limitations but to restore to us the right relationship which sin had stolen from us.  For it is only in light of these relationships that we know who we are.  Sin steals away this identity.  Rep. Weiner, Gov. Terminator, Sen./former Presidental Candidate Edwards.... not only forgot who they were but lost their identity in a sea of mirrors which inflated their egos and deflated their wisdom. In the end, we found out that they were not exceptional, like they wanted us to believe, but so full of themselves they thought they were above the Law (God's).  The first casualty of our vanity is usually our conscience.  The only treatment for this is Law and Gospel.  The only medicine is grace.  The only therapy is death and resurrection through the waters of baptism (and its daily dying and rising).

I do not speak from the vantage point of superiority.  I have taken the treatment and am not cured.  I am in a state of grace but it is a tenuous position -- not because God's grasp on me is weak but because my sinful nature is always looking over my shoulder -- not just away from God but into the mirror.  I am in love with my own reflection.  So are you.  It is what sin is and this mortal body will not be free of this vanity until we shed this flesh and rise to our new and glorious bodies to dwell with Christ in a perfectly ordered relationship resulting in perfect contentment for all eternity.  That is why confession and absolution, why the voice of the Word, why the food of the Lord's Table must constantly be supplied to me... or surely I will fall completely away and never even know it.  The saddest part of this all is not what Rep. Weiner and others have done but their complete failure to recognize what they have done, why it is wrong, and why something bigger is at work here than being caught.  My live is lived within the parameters of God's Word and Table; they are what keeps me from walking down the road of denial (in which sin requires treatment not repentance).