Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Local Story to Me...

You can read the story here in the Memphis Commercial Appeal but the summary conclusions are shocking, indeed.  Of the 167,968 children under 18 years of age in the city, 56,158, or 33.4 percent, are being raised in a "husband-wife family," according to data from the 2010 Census released last week. A far greater number -- 77,338, or 46 percent -- reside in single-parent households, while 30,854 others are being raised by grandparents or other relatives.

Or, let me put it another way.  Of 167,968 children, about 100,000 are not living in a home with their father present. Whether this statistic may be skewed due to its urban setting, the local nature of things in Memphis, the overall decline in the family, even the situation in Black families -- well, it really does not matter.  We are left with the situation in which the vast majority of the children in Memphis (and where else, we might wonder) have no significant father figure in their lives.  More than 5 of every 8 children, 63%, have no father present in the home.  Unless we are blind to shocking statistics like this, we face a situation in which the heart and soul of the family in America is under severe stress and the place where it shows most of all is in the children.

But lets forget the statistics.  You must know at least 8 children.  Now imagine 5 of them -- you pick out which ones - have no father at home -- not their biological father, not the husband of their mother...  You take a look into the faces of the children you know and imagine how that impacts their lives and how it will impact the lives of their children...

What a bold challenge to a faith in which we are taught to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven..."

What can finite beings say about an infinite God?

The spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams, strongly affirmed "we need the creeds and we need to have a place to stand." With respect to the Nicene Creed, he stated that "we can say, yes, this is how God has shown Himself and not be embarrassed about that." As if there was any fuzziness in his answer, he went on to state unequivocally: "when I say that the Savior is of one substance with the Father, I mean exactly what I say, and I believe it to be true and I believe my life depends on it." To one accustomed to hearing nuance and qualification from the Anglican communion of late, I am happy to hear this from the Archbishop.

You can listen to him HERE.

What can the Church be... What must she be?

I happened upon a series of lectures by the eminent Orthodox Bishop (now retired) Kallistos Ware.  A former Anglican, Ware is a very interesting fellow who speaks with a marvelously deliberate manner in an eloquent accented voice.  In the first section of his first lecture the Bishop raises this question as central: What does the Church do that no one else can do?

There are many memorable phrases in his lecture but this one has stuck with me.  What does the Church do that no one else can do?  It is stark in its simplicity yet the question is not simplistic.  It at one in the same time begs us to search Scripture to know what it is that only the Church can do and to challenge the popular idea that the Church does what other institutions do but with a difference.

In effect it seems that today we try very hard to make sure that the Church is relevant by doing what our society and culture do – only better.  We have attempted to replicate the theater in worship, the lecture hall of the university in the classroom, the music of the radio as our soundtrack, and the architecture of the mall for our temple.  Instead of providing something distinctive, we provide something similar but with a difference.  We introduce God into the ordinary concerns of mortal life – employment, marriage, family, success, happiness, health, etc.  In the end, God is less central to than an additive in the recipe for receiving what it is we desire.  Those churches that do this successfully grow.

The mega-churchs with sufficient resources to pay professionals and provide the highest quality of spectator music, religious drama, personal motivation, mall-style facilities and abundant parking.  It shows and they do it well.  In contrast, the small parish struggles with volunteer praise bands, unrehearsed skits, less professional teachers, less all encompassing facilities, and such.  They work to find their niche in order to make up for the fact that they cannot be all things to all people.  In some cases this works and in most it comes up a less than pleasing imitation, a juvenile manifestation which hopes to grow up and be just like the big guys some day.

In contrast to this, Bishop Ware asks “what does the Church do that no one else can do?”  This is not a back to the basics call but a piercing reminder that the Church is established by Christ to deliver to the world what only Christ can offer.  In this respect, the Church has an exclusive franchise, without competition from any other source.

I fear that we have forgotten this, or at least we have lost confidence in this exclusive franchise.  We tend to feel better by providing the resources others can provide and we draw our confidence -- even our self-esteem – more by being relevant to the people than faithful to the Lord.  We entertain the people to whom we are called forth to deliver the Kingdom of God (in the means of grace).  We babysit their children with youth programs more about pizza and paintball than about Christ.  We assist the marrieds in feeling better about their choice of spouses and we educate them in how to achieve their goals in marriage without ever speaking of what God created marriage to be or what marriage reveals about Christ and His Church.  We spread balm upon their guilt by mission trips that show them what their dollars are paying for or by assuring them that you can buy fully into the consumerism of the marketplace without losing your soul.

For Lutherans this question points us back to the marks of the Church (the means of grace).  These are not bare minimums to point out the Church from the rest of the landscape of society but the peculiar gifts that belong only to the Church and through which God does for us what only Christ can do.  Word and Sacrament is not a slogan but a definition, a boundary line, and that which makes the Church of Christ His, authentically His.  Missing those marks, the Church is not the Church at all.  She is merely human creation and her good, no matter how good, cannot answer the snicker of death or wash clean the guilt stained soul or restore the hopelessly lost or make righteous the evil born into and added to daily... No, we Lutherans resonate to this question:  What does the Church do that only the Church can do?

The good Bishop has made me think.  What does the Church do that no one else can do?  He points me to the Word and the Sacraments, to the grace of God that bestows forgiveness, life, and salvation, to the mercy of God revealed on a cross, to the nobility of a life of mercy and service, and to knowledge of God (and not simply about God).  His words remind me of the predominance of programs in fellowship halls and classrooms and gymnasiums that replicate what can be found elsewhere in our society and of the lack of energy and resources we have left specifically for the work of the Kingdom.  I cannot but look at my own parish and wonder if we do not justify what we think we should be doing instead of looking to Christ for what we must do.  I hope that his words have challenged you as well.

Our congregations and our church body would be mightily different if we focused less on what we could do or should do and more on what we must do because of the Gospel.  May our Lord prick and prod us when we become too comfortable being merely a religious version of a secular form and may His Spirit guide us to become what He has called us to be and what only His Church can be in the world and for the world.  Anything less and we are merely spinning our wheels.

    O Spirit, who didst once restore
    Thy Church that [she] might be again
    The bringer of good news to men,
    Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more,
    That in these gray and latter days
    There may be those whose life is praise,
    Each life a high doxology
    To Father, Son, and unto Thee.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Cross Post from Pr Wil Weedon's Blog and the ALPB Forum

From ALPB.  This seemed to have generated some response and a number of folks said it was helpful.  Figured I'd post it here as well:  [I am posting this because it raises substantive issues with respect to fellowship and the church.  - Pastor Peters]

I'm not sure it will clarify or not, but for what it's worth.  We in the LCMS do not accept denominationalism.  We do not believe in the branch theory of the Church.  We recognize that our practice of closed communion is exactly what would be appropriate for the entire visible Church on earth.  We believe that what we believe is precisely what every jurisdiction/communion SHOULD believe, because it is - we hold - nothing other than what the Scriptures teach.

In other words, we don't regard those who hold to a different Confession as just "another denomination."  We regard the other confessions to the extent they differ from ours to be falsifications of the truth.  As offensive and prideful as they may sound, it's not intended to be anything less than what (until very recent times) EVERYONE believed about their own confession.

So we act in our communion discipline *as if* we were the legitimate heir and successor to the Catholic Church of the West.  That's a self-understanding derived from our Lutheran Symbols.  We do not claim to be the only jurisdiction in this Catholic Church of the West, purified by the Gospel.  We recognize other particular churches around the globe in whom the same faith resides - from the churches of the Archbishop of Latvia, to the churches of the Archbishop of Kenya and the Bishop of Southern Africa and the President of the LCC, and a bunch of others.  Consequently the notion that our altars are closed to non Missourians is actually not at all accurate.

In the corrupted state of the Church in which doctrine that we cannot but regard as false and dangerous is enshrined in the confessions of other jurisdictions, this leads invariably to acknowledging in them that while members of the Church Catholic may well reside in their midst (in fact, most certainly DO), nonetheless those Churches by the acceptance of various falsehoods alongside the truth of God, cannot be acknowledged as true sister churches on a par with our Synod.  Again, I know it sounds horrific to the ears of those who think denominationally, but if you think confessionally it makes perfect sense:  confessions can be entirely pure, somewhat corrupted, or totally destructive of the Christian faith.  We tend to put almost all the other confessions (Anglican, Reformed, Roman, Orthodox) as "somewhat corrupted."  Totally destructive would be something like a Mormon or JW confession.

So back to the assumption that an LCMS person holds the pure confession - that IS the assumption we would make, unless the person in question gives evidence that his participation at our altars is in fact a lie - that he disagrees with our Lutheran confession of the Christian faith as expressed in our Lutheran Symbols.

I've probably offended all my ELCA friends and many of my Missouri ones by the above, but I think it's clear that until we can get the differing ecclesiologies understood, there's no hope of anyone understanding our practice of responsible communion (my preferred term), which takes seriously into account the nature of one's public profession at a given altar (where, as Pr. Speckhard says, he or she is willing to accept correction).

It Just Sounds Better...

It has become fashionable to include the English lyrics to operas, even to project them above the stage while the opera goes on.  If you purchase operas, you have the option of having the English translation scrolled on the bottom of the screen like captions.  I love opera.  I do not love the scrolled English above or below the stage, either on screen or live.  I know that often the most wonderful arias and duets of opera are about ordinary and mundane things but I choose to ignore this and imagine that the words match the lilting melodies of the greats (Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, et al).  I listen to opera in my office (I have all the collected works by Puccini, my favorite as well as a hundred or so other opera CDs) and the music commands my greatest respect.  But... it just sounds better in Italian (or any language, save perhaps, German, I recall those lines from Amadeus:  "Italian is the proper language for opera. All educated people agree on that").

Anyway, the funny thing is that this is often the complaint about the switch from Latin to the vernacular in the Roman Mass.  I well recall my dad's old Roman Catholic friend and fellow businessman in town who, after going to his first English Mass complained and was disappointed to find out "that the words in Latin have been the same words in English that the Lutherans have been saying for 400 years!"  It just sounded better, more lofty in Latin.

To a certain degree I would agree.  It does sound better.  We cannot let go of the sound of Latin -- at least not entirely -- so we call the parts of the ordinary the Gloria in excelsis, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei.  I think nearly everyone who has sung a Christian carol imagines the angel singing, "Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis" -- not "Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth..."

Yet it is not in how it sounds that we find comfort, inspiration, and grace.  It is in what it says.  This is the great conundrum.  We may prefer the sound of the words in Latin but it is in what they say that we are edified and encouraged.  Now if we know Latin sufficiently well, this is not a problem.  For you Lutherans out there, the good Dr. Martin did not envision a time when Latin would not be the primary language of worship but he did make provision for the uneducated who did not know Latin (the Deutsche Messe).

Perhaps this is exactly the dilemma we find ourselves in when choosing a version of Scripture to be read.  The sound of the King James rings even in the ears of a youthful people no longer accustomed to its archaic forms so my own church body has used the English Standard Version -- in part because of its accuracy and in part because of the way it reads out loud.  Other versions may be just as accurate but sound wooden when read aloud or even casual and humdrum.  The language of worship and the version of Scripture used in worship has to be attentive to the sound of this language as well as everything else.  Is this not the reason why nearly every family prefers the King James for Psalm 23 while standing at the grave side?

Just a muse today... nothing theologically earth shattering... a preference for the way something sounds in one language over another, while at the same time acknowledging that it is not how it sounds that is most important to us (except perhaps in opera) but in what it says....

Monday, August 29, 2011

But in the heart of hearts, what church do you want to be?

My posts and the comments on Lutherans leaving Lutheranism has certainly aroused a great deal of interest and not a little passion.  In a series of private conversations with some who have left Lutheranism, I heard somethings that I found worthy of passing on to you.  This is a conglomerate of conversations and not just one Pastor speaking.  I beg your patience while I put together and unfold some of what was said.

This Lutheran Pastor left not because of he is enamored of another church body but because he became convinced that in her heart of hearts, Lutheranism did not want to be the Church of her confession.  He began his search for another church home only when he grew suspicious of the great talk but he saw that the congregations of Lutheranism had grown very comfortable with who they were and were not going to change -- despite all the talk of the Confessions.  As long as he felt that in their heart of hearts Lutherans wanted to be the Lutherans of their Confession and were moving in that direction, he was able to live with the inconsistencies.  But as time went on the inconsistencies became the norm and Lutheranism that looked, acted, and sounded like the Confessions became the exception.  This left him with a nagging question met more by his doubts and fears than any confidence in the Pastors and parishes (much less regional and national jurisdictions).

He was raised in Missouri.  It was his home.  He looked at the other versions of Lutheranism out there and found that Missouri was his best hope for a Lutheranism today that looked like the Lutheranism of its confessions.  The ELCA was already more comfortable with mainline Protestantism than Missouri -- sort of a dressed up form of American mainline Protestantism that honored the heritage but then departed from it whenever the culture or its own ecumenical designs suited it.  WELS was its own culture and its Lutheranism was a strange mix of pietism and orthodoxy.  It was too small to be Lutheran's guiding light.  The even smaller splinter groups offered little more than a miniature Lutheranism and would not be home unless he could bring his congregation with him.  So, he decided, it was Missouri or not Lutheran.

He had connected with some Pastors who shared the desire for a Lutheranism that was true to its Confessions.  The internet allowed him a fellowship that he would not have locally.  But in the end, this was not the fellowship he either wanted or desired.  He felt less and less at home in the winkel and district gatherings and, even though he cheered the election of Pres. Harrison, his doubts and fears did not ease up.  His own parish was small but open to his leading.  They were not in a place where they might expect great growth but they were making it.  It was a slow process and nearly all the folks were on board.  They were loving and kind and patience to him and he was prepared to stay there forever if the Lord willed it.  But a few circuits away a brother who had spent nearly 25 years building up an evangelical and catholic parish, rooted and shaped by the Confessions and parish practice consistent with that faith, was torn apart when the succeeding Pastor came in with another "agenda."  They seemed quick to jettison the very things that had once been the mark of their worship and life together in favor of a Lutheranism Evangelical [capital E] and not at all catholic.  It was not the music that bothered him but the way they shelved their Eucharistic piety in favor of one rooted in feelings, the way they forgot their Lutheran identity as the price to pay in order to grow and become a bigger fish in their small pond, and the ease at which they packed up the hymnals, took down the crucifix, and ditched the weekly Eucharist.  It was as if this situation spoke to him saying, "we will go where you want us to go but that is not who we really are..."  He began to fear that this was exactly what had happened in the parish he had served and it became impossible not to think of his own people saying "this is not who we really are..."

In the end, he became convinced that the parishes and Pastors who desired to be the Lutherans of their Confessions were the odd ducks and no matter how much their quacking, the rest of the flock was not going to head in that direction.  Lutheranism would tolerate its confessional identity and the practice that flowed from that identity but was not going to change.  "That is not who we really are...  "  As long as he believed that Lutherans wanted to be Lutheran and were heading in that direction, he could live with the inconsistencies.  When he became convinced that Lutherans were not heading back to their Confessions and back to a liturgical life, piety, and parish practice shaped by that vision of evangelical catholicity, he began looking for another church home.

In the end he is content in Rome -- not happy but content.  He would have preferred a Lutheranism thoroughly at ease with itself (at least as those Confessions identified it) but since he did not think that was to be, he accepted other inconsistencies in favor of the form of the mass and, with the new translation coming in Advent 2011, a church home moving in the direction he wanted Lutheranism to move.  Right or wrong, it was this that led him to look elsewhere and finally to leave...

For me, this story resonates well with my experience.  I cannot come to the same conclusion and I have no desire to leave Missouri but I sympathize with his point of view.  As a Lutheran who has stuck out in every place where I have been, I know the lonely feelings expressed above.  I feel the same tension.  I write this only to prod and push us as Lutherans not to ditch our Confessional identity, not to shelve our liturgical tradition in favor of what "works" and not to grow content in the more Americanized and Protestant emulation of the church that has marked our Lutheran brand for a couple of centuries.  In this I am a true believer hoping and praying that my church body is as well.

Lutheranism has lived within the tensions of its catholic expression and Protestant image, sometimes favoring one side more than the other, but the overall movement has definitely been toward the Protestant side (at times fundamentalist, often liberal, and usually evangelical).  I only hope that we can find our way home as a church body or I fear that the number of those leaving will continue to grow.  Each has made an individual decision but more, rather than less, have found the burning question "which Lutheran Church we want to be in our heart of hearts?"

Marriage Yes but Marriage Reshaped and Transformed...

For years the argument was for equality -- even justice.  Give gays what straights already have.  Give them the right and the opportunity to be married.  Some of the cynics thought this was more about tax benefits, insurance, and the like.  Others found the justice in the same rights for survivors accorded to the married and the same rights for determining medical care, visitation, etc. for their "spouses."  Still others wondered if there was much of a marked for a traditional style marriage among gays and lesbians.  I did a post weeks ago on the low number of gay men who are seeking marriage as opposed to lesbians seeking to be married (where it is now legal).

A friend passed on this article from The Advocate [the World's Leading Source for GLBT News].  Now I do not know much of this news source except by reputation and I have never read anything in it.  But the link that was passed on to me was very interesting.

Anti-equality right-wingers have long insisted that allowing gays to marry will destroy the sanctity of “traditional marriage,” and, of course, the logical, liberal party-line response has long been “No, it won’t.” But what if—for once—the sanctimonious crazies are right? Could the gay male tradition of open relationships actually alter marriage as we know it? And would that be such a bad thing? With divorce rates at an all-time high and news reports full of famous marriages crumbling at the hand of flagrant infidelities (see: Schwarzenegger, Arnold), perhaps now is the perfect time for the gays to conduct a little marriage makeover.

You can read more of the article here. The writer is suggesting that perhaps gays do NOT want the kind of marriage that we have known but that they are quite willing for the sake of GLBT and straights to redefine marriage and reshape the institution that they now have access to in a handful of states.  In other words, thanks but no thanks.  The marriage that they are entering is not the same monogamous relationship in which fidelity is prized as one of the highest expressions of love.  Instead the marriage that GLBT are entering is not so monogamous as it is monogamish, sort of.  It is “mostly monogamous, but there’s a little allowance for the reality of desire for others and a variety of experiences and adventure and possibility.”   It is marriage which embraces the occasional dalliance as long as it does not get too crazy and does not put their partner at risk.

Here's more:  “The 1950s family, with a mother, a father, and 2.2 kids was very much a representation in popular culture, but it wasn’t necessarily representative of real life. There was still divorce, nonmonogamy—consensual and non-.” In other words, the one man, one woman (or one man, one man) forever ideal may not be the most realistic or attainable model for everyone, and a little leeway can go a long way. 

It appear that this is not so much a choice by some of the partners but an accommodation.   One explains. “But I’m open to this because of who I’m with, not necessarily because of who I am. But I’d much rather be in an open relationship than be sexually frustrated or divorced. I’d far, far rather be in this situation than be in any of the supposedly honest alternatives.”

One thing is clear.  Gay marriage is not just about gays marrying.  It is about a giant step of change in the transformation of marriage.  In part, it accommodates the changes already hidden under the surface of marriage and family in America (for example, the recent statistic I read that suggests more children come home from school to cohabiting parents than divorced parents).  We have a long road ahead of us as marriage continues to be reshaped by states making decisions to legalize gay marriage but this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Even more nefarious changes are lying under the surface. 

In the time travel movies, travelers are warned against doing anything to tamper with history since such changes have consequences that cannot be predicted.  Such is what happens when we transform the societal structures to fit momentary desire and forget that these changes will have impact no one can forsee.  And the victims in all of this are most certainly the children who will bear much of the brunt of our experimentation and then will pass on the broken pieces to their children.  

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What are the external markers that make us stand out?

That question was raised by Archbishop Dolan in the discussion of whether or not to re-institute the obligatory meatless fast on Fridays the whole year round and not just during Lent.  The subject of the fast is not the subject of this post but the thoughtful question raised in the midst of Bp Dolan's comments.  It is not one which Lutherans have escaped.  What are the external markers that make us stand out?

We Lutherans have, by most estimations, a secular piety.  We drink (moderately).  We dance (strangely).  We go to movies (when they are discounted).  We eat meat and fish (in quantities too large for our own good and not according to a church schedule).  We go to Church (most Sundays but not all, hardly ever on Wednesday or Sunday evenings).  We pray (but do not have beads).  We sit and stand in Church (but hardly ever kneel).  We confess our sins (but not very often specific sins and to the Pastor privately). We do not stand out in the world by our piety.  By most standards, we Lutherans do not do anything out of the ordinary from the rest of the population -- at least not because we are Lutheran, anyway.

In contrast to our invisible Lutheran piety, Roman Catholics (used to observe) Friday abstinence from meat; seriousness about Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; fasting on the Ember Days; saints names for children; confession at least annually; loyal membership in the local parish; fasting for three hours before Holy Communion; wear veils (women, anyway), etc.  Compare us to the Baptists who (used to) abstain from alcohol, dancing, movies, makeup (on women), go to Church 2-3 times a week, etc.  Now, I will grant you that other denominations are finding that they too blend in more and more to the secular world around them but it is a worthy question.  What are the external markers that make us stand out as Lutherans?

I guess we are moderates -- hardly extreme about anything.  Though this is not necessarily a good thing.  So it is our moderation that stands us apart -- we will indulge in nearly everything (as long as we do not overly indulge or we will not be found out for indulging).  Hmmmm.... Not exactly what I would hope for as an answer.

I would venture to say that Lutherans in the 16th-17th centuries did stand out.  Read the schedule of services and it seems that Lutherans were in Church all the time.  Matins, Mass, Vespers... these were the normal markers of our common life together as the people of God.  But that is not the case today.  In my search for the things that would stand out, I guess the catechism is probably one marker of our piety that we truly do share in common and that defines us in an external way.

Lutherans are Law - Gospel people.  We have Walther's book and Luther's insight but as much as I would like to claim this, I am not so sure that our people can clearly identify Law from Gospel or even define the terms.  This probably goes back to our failings in the paragraph below.  We have not been as deliberately catechetical as we think and it has begun to show -- in the pulpit as well as the pew.

We are means of grace people.  We believe that God is accessible and that He comes to us as He has promised in the Word and the Sacraments.  These frame our identity and our piety.  It is more the under girding than the deliberate conversation of Lutherans and, this too is a problem for us.  We have willingly flirted with people who do not believe in the means of grace (evangelical and fundamentalists) and we are reluctant sometimes to even admit our sacramental piety.  But it is there... buried a bit and underused but it is there.

We as Lutherans seem to own the question, "what does this mean?"  I am not so sure we own the answers as deeply or as confidently but we do own the question.  This is a good question for our time and I believe one worthy of more opinions than mine.  So if you will think about it and posit some answers in the comments section, I would be very interested in what you have to say.

A posting from another blog...

Samuel G. Beltz is a new Pastor, at St. John Lutheran Church of Oskaloosa, Iowa.  He began his blog as a seminarian and this post in his still very new life as Pastor shows that he has a lot of wisdom for someone just beginning his pastoral ministry.  I posted his entire commentary here and commend it to your reading....

 A Bust of a Symposium. And it hasn’t happened yet!

The St. Louis Symposium is a little over a month away and already it is a bust in my mind.  Here is why.  Having just graduated from St. Louis (that is I think I graduated even though I have not paid my final bill) I have a very clear account of just what kind of homiletical instruction goes on there.  Now, for sure, my account of things will be skewed.  I struggle with the lack of respect I have for the practical department instruction going on in St. Louis.  Sadly, this also makes me, more often than not, transgress the fourth commandment.  I am saying this for myself and anyone like me.  But still, the Symposium will be a bust.  Let us start with the title.
“Rediscovering the Art of Homiletics” This title seems adventuresome, brave, pioneering even.  However, in my mind, I ask “has the artfulness of homiletics gone someplace that it needs to be rediscovered?”  No.  It has not.  If there is one thing that is very apparent to me as I have seen and heard the homiletical noise from pulpits in my short life it is that artfulness is in no need of rediscovery when it comes to homiletics.  In-fact let us bury some of what we currently possess.

As I see it there is no shortage of performance art, quivering voices, winsome laughter, visual aids, jokes, and/or stories that fill the time when a man speaks from the pulpit.  I have seen M&M’s and the worn out Life Saver used to death. I have seen Biblical Role Play (I can only handle attempts at reincarnating Paul or Moses so many times).  Passionate diatribes about the beauty of marriage where two persons come from the back wearing a Tux and Gown, this extends then to the violence of divorce where the couple has a fight in the middle of the sanctuary and storms out.  In my opinion formed by experience, let us bury some artfulness rather than rediscover any more.  But, what am I saying, and what am I not saying?
What I am not saying is that preaching is to strive for boredom.  I am not saying that at all.  Good presentation, clear speech, clear points, even interaction with the congregation, all these might be beneficial for the preacher and the hearer.  I am not saying preaching is to be boring.  I think what I am saying is that our preaching has become so artful that we no longer need and pointers on finding more ways to make it artful, especially from St. Louis Seminary.  After all, isn’t this a “Theological Symposium”?  Then let us find a new name to call it and let the presentations begin!

How about, “Rediscovering our reason for Preaching”?  This sounds like a good title which leads to what might be a hearty, fruitful discussion.  “Why do we preach anyway?”  I wonder if the practical theologians have had to answer that question?  I wonder if the Systematic Theologians have had to answer that question, because if this is a Theological Symposium, would it not behoove us to have a theological discussion?  Yes, I think it might.  What are the foundations for preaching in the first place?  And then, what is/are good answer to that question, if there is more than one.  To my mind this is a more fitting, more theological, discussion to be had.  Because I am convinced the artfulness of our preaching has increased to cover over the reality that many are lacking any good reasons for preaching in the first place.  I am afraid many are lacking a good reason because they might not have been given a good reason to preach in the first place.  I know most of my homiletical training had to do with Grammar, and properly color coding Law & Gospel within the body of writing.  Again, I am afraid this is inadequate, the instruction and the symposium, for where we are in the Lutheran Church and her preaching pastors.  In any case, we need no more art.  We abound with art.  We have a greater stockpile than New York and Paris combined.  Let us bury some and rediscover why any of us pastors might dare get in a pulpit on Sunday in the first place.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Danes Go for Gay Marriage

The Danish government’s minister for church affairs has announced that he will introduce a law granting homosexual couples the legal right to be married in the Church of Denmark (Folkekirken)   [Lutheran and formerly known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark]. The law will be introduced after the parliamentary election, which must be held by November 12.

Minister for Church Affairs Per Stig Møller said he did not think this should be an issue in the election campaign. The Social Demokrat opposition also supports this proposal, so it will be introduced regardless of the outcome of the election.  [The Church of Denmark is a state church that is ruled directly by the Danish parliament (Folketinget).] Once the law is adopted, the Danish bishops will be tasked with developing the church ceremony. Evidently the ceremony for homosexual weddings may differ from the traditional wedding ceremony.

Møller emphasized that the proposed law will have a “conscience clause” providing that a pastor may refuse to conduct a wedding. Bishop Steen Skovsgaard of Lolland-Falster Diocese (islands in Southeastern Denmark) is quoted in Christian newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad as saying he has always opposed church “blessings” of registered partnerships, but he accepts the Minister’s statement as an accomplished fact.

“It is also important to stress that pastors are allowed to refuse to marry homosexuals,” said Skovsgaard. “I am also glad there is room in the Church for me, as a bishop, to say no.” Other bishops welcomed the announcement.  Bishop PeterFischer-Møller of Roskilde Diocese noted that the issue had been discussed in committees, but he was happy that the Folketing was now taking responsibility for the decision. “I am happy to call this a wedding, but one might note that we are talking about two different ceremonies.”

--Translated and sent by Chris Barnekov from a longer article in Kristeligt Dagblad (23 August 2011).

The more that we tolerate and become accustomed to error, the easier it is to embrace it and proclaim it, without any shame or embarrassment, thinking that this is what has always been, forgetting that we have breached our tie to the Church before us and made a giant leap of faith that God is doing something new, in violation of what His Word says and His Church has believed, taught, and confessed.

It must be that Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (September 8, 1783 – September 2, 1872), for whom the great church Grundtvigskirken is named, must be surely  sighing and groaning in sadness over the Church he loved.  He who wrote "Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand" now sees the sand foundation of his beloved Church shifting with time, culture, and trend.  When I was in college we used to ask what kind of Lutheran you were -- a Kierkegaard or Grundtvig style Lutheran?  A holy Lutheran or a happy one?  Well, it seems that holiness is as lost as is the true happiness of faithfulness to Christ and the Danes have exchanged Truth for what they think is true for the moment.  And they are not alone....

A bit too casual...

One Priest has wondered aloud about the demeanor and dress of his parishioners if just maybe they are stopping by the church while on their way to other activities they consider more important than Mass.  Hmmmm....sounds familiar, ya shure!

One bulletin item proclaimed, with a gag headline: "PLANS FOR PARISH SWIMMING POOL SCRAPPED! After much study, our finance committee has determined it would not be feasible to construct an indoor swimming pool in our church. ... As a result, we can now announce with certainty that those who have been arriving for Mass as if dressed for the pool need not do so. Also, we hope to keep the air conditioning cranking all summer long. So you do not need to wear shorts, halter tops or bikinis to Mass."

You can read the whole piece by Terry Mattingly here.  His words are entirely appropriate to the scene in Lutheran congregations as well.  Personally I do not get it when folks dress down for Church -- when I know that they have a closet full of perfectly fine clothes.  I wonder if the first line of this post does not have a lot to do with it.

Over the years I have struggled with tube tops that revealed way too much -- especially at the communion rail.  I have spoken about it in general but have not had enough nerve to tell a woman or man directly that their clothing is inappropriate.

One Sunday a group of Harley boys from our congregation were heading out after Sunday school on a motorcycle ride and a few showed up in beer t-shirts and jeans (leather chaps).  I made a little joke to them but they all had family here and could have made a quick change in the restroom and sent their good clothes on home with their families.  I honestly think that we live in a casual office, casual business attire, casual wedding, casual funeral mentality so much so that people do not even think -- and that is the point.  They do not think.  What does what I am wearing say about me?  About what I am doing now?

This is NOT about clothes but about attitudes.  Again, our best for His glory.  Nuff said.

I believe in the resurrection. . .

What do the modern day Jews believe?  The Orthodox position, according to Yitz Greenberg, a leading Orthodox rabbi, says: “Belief in the afterlife—a world to come in which the righteous get their true reward and the wicked get their deserved comeuppance—is a central teaching of traditional Judaism.”   Other segments of American Judaism differ significantly from this.  Peter Schweitzer, a rabbi from the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York, put his personal faith in this way: “Most people I know believe that this is the only life we’ll ever know.”

The Orthodox position connects well with both traditional Christianity and Islam, in which the resurrection of the dead to an everlasting life is an essential component of the faith. The "Abrahamic consensus" stands against some of the other religious traditions.

There was a time when the average individual Jew, not able to aspire to be Elijah, took comfort in the thought that he would lived on in his descendants.  For this reason the loss of your children or infertility was more feared than death itself since it meant that your existence ended.  This, in part, explains why Deuteronomy 25:5 states: "If a man dies childless, his brother is commanded to produce offspring with the widow, so “that his [the dead man’s] name may not be blotted out of Israel”.  The son born of this brotherly duty carried on the name of the dead man, and he lives on through this "son" who continues his name.  In contrast to this the Book of Ezekiel speaks of a future resurrection.  In addition, unambiguous reference to individual physical resurrection is found in the opening lines of Daniel 12.  No one can mistake the words of Job 19.

"Most people I know believe that this is the only life we'll ever know."  I am not sure what kind of people Rabbi Schweitzer hangs with but the vast majority of Americans of every religious stripe or non-religious perspective believe in some sort of afterlife.  While it may be said that some of those who believe in an afterlife also believe in the strange oddities of spirit existence and reincarnation, I think it is safe to say that Americans long for and want to believe that this is not the only life you will ever know.  Whether it is formed and shaped by the clear word of Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life and whose own resurrection represents the first fruits of those who sleep, the first born of the dead of many who will to follow Him, or something vague and uncertain, we want more than yesterday and today.  We want to be certain of a real tomorrow where tears no longer flow, death no longer reigns, and contentment and peace rule.

It seems to me one more mark of just how of step the liberal religious segment of our culture as well as its secular counter part are with the average American (no matter what religion he or she professes).  That said, there is but One who raised the dead and whose own resurrection is the seal and guarantee of our joyful resurrection with those whom we love who have departed in the faith, to live with Christ in the blessedness that He has prepared for all those who love His appearing.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Diminishing Presence...

Having served now for more than 18 years next door to one of the largest Army posts in the US, I have seen the number of Lutheran chaplains drop considerably.  At last count the ELCA had 70-80 and Missouri about 90-95 or about 150 all told who wear the Lutheran brand.  I have been told that there are approximately 35-40,000 (dated about 2006) Lutheran service men and women spread out over so many ships, bases, posts here and abroad that I cannot even imagine.  The point being that the numbers of Lutheran military chaplains has been heading down for some time.  Those who serve our nation deserve better.  There is hardly a Lutheran presence at Ft. Campbell -- a post nearly 30,000 active duty service men and women call home -- plus their dependents).  I know that the Roman Catholic Church is in even worse shape.  They have perhaps ten times the number of service men and women and something around 200 or more chaplains.  The vast majority are from non-sacramental denominations, Baptists and other chaplains.  Clearly, we need to do better.  Pray for the increase in active duty chaplains to serve our good men and women in uniform and encourage them with a Lutheran presence on post, base, ship, or combat assignment.  Just thinkin....

Academics doing theology. . .

“Theology may be the only academic pursuit where one can seemingly be considered a theologian without actually having to know the subject matter,” he said. “It would appear at times that a theologian need not actually know God.”  John L. Allen, Jr.  Read more here.

Lamenting upon the damage done by "theologians" to the Church and to the cause of the Kingdom, Mr. Allen has hit upon a point that we often miss -- especially the media when it seeks someone to interview about what is going on in matters of religion or the Church.  We live in a strange time in which many theologians for very many church bodies are academics without any real connection to the Church and without any real connection to the faith.  Some of them are nebulous believers, at best, and others are outright deniers of the very faith of which they claim to be theologians.  They inhabit universities and religion departments of schools that once might have had a tie to the Church but now exist in the same secular, doubting world of science and academics where religion is less about God than about sociology.  Yet their voices are too loud and their doubts and denials are heard way too much by the faithful who do not realize that they stand outside the pale of Christian faith.

I have for many years complained about the so-called historians of the Church like Bart Ehrman who can grab a microphone with the same fierce grasp as Chuck Schumer!  But he is merely one of many.  And the Church (legitimate) suffers under the weight of their spotlight in the media and their many denials and distractions from the Truth.  Allen speaks of the situation among "Catholic" theologians but he could be speaking for us Lutherans as well.  "Much Catholic theology has become “an attempt by reason to pass judgment on the content of the faith as if it were of human origin,” with theologians as “judges who stand above the faith and arbitrate what is to be believed and what is not.”

On another forum we have a Pastor supposedly in good standing with our own church body, the LCMS, who insists that the ordination of women is an open question in the LCMS and who insistently demands that a debate take place for the purpose of allowing this to happen in Missouri.  Nevermind that convention after convention and book after book in the LCMS has said this is a closed question and it is not up for debate.  Nevermind that Missouri's answer is "no" now and forever.  This fellow taunts the church to which he belongs and to a 2,000 year unbroken history (to which Rome and Constantinople and the vast majority of Christians adhere).  But this is only one small case of the same kind of thing at work in many other places within Lutheranism in general and Christianity as a whole. Allen got a good line on it, though, when he said that theology is the one discipline where it seems the practitioners need not know its subject -- God. 

Among other things, however, is the same disconnect between what is taught in the parish and proclaimed from the pulpits of the congregations.  Oversight (the meaning of episcopal or bishop) has been practiced far too loosely over the years and it is made increasingly difficult by the growing isolation of parishes and their Pastors.  As long as they do not make big public waves, they can create all sorts of storms of conflict and dispute, doubt and mayhem.  Under the radar, as long as the checks go into the regional office, they can cripple a church body and destroy the unity and unanimity of the faith that we profess in the creeds.  "In the Church, there has been relatively little exercise of discipline of the Faith in schools and pulpits as far as teaching is concerned, and little oversight in some places for liturgical worship."  Boy, you can say that again!

The voices of the Church's theologians should speak for the faith and not against it, in conjunction with the Church and not in conflict with her.  The individual places where the Church gathers around the Word and Table of the Lord are not independent or free zones to do as you please but the local manifestations of the evangelical and catholic faith.  When at last we remember this, we may find that our voices become the singular voice that speaks with authority, the same authority of the Word of God that the people heard in Jesus and which caused them to marvel.  The voices of doubt and the denials of the faith and truth of Scripture ought to come from outside the Church and not from those who claim to be within.

It all reminds me of that great clip from the old BBC series "Yes, Prime Minister."  "The word modernist is code for non-believer....  when they stop believing in God they call themselves modernists..." Or, perhaps, theologians?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

And so it goes...

The rubrics for this rather sarcastic but not entirely fanciful description of the worst in worship (Roman Catholic in this case but you might be able to substitute other traditions as well)...

The people who are church gather in the shared worship space while singing a suitable hymn, protest song or praise anthem. Suggested music choices are We are Gathering in this Place, We Would Rather Gather, Gather them In,  Bill Gaither's Trio, Let Us Blather as We Gather, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, I Dreamed a Dream, and other suitable songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Oscar Hammerstein.

You can read it all HERE. . . and a little weeping and moaning and gnashing of teeth may accompany the read...  I pass this on because I am not the only cantankerous curmudgeon who has used the blogosphere to complain about what passes for pious and faithful worship in some of the parishes...

Would that this all were merely a case of extreme rarity!  But, sad to say, it is not... 

The Offensive Canon

Luther's liturgical surgery upon the mass was largely limited to the canon of the mass (specifically, what we call today the Eucharistic Prayer).  He pointedly objected to the language of sacrifice which had transformed the mass from the gift of God given to the people of God into the gift of God's people and their re-presentation of Christ's [unbloody] sacrifice to the Father on our behalf.  While we might spend hours here talking about this, the words were largely unknown to the laity of Luther's day.  Spoken in Latin, the language of the elite or academic, and spoken in a whispered voice, silent before the congregation, his excision of these offensive words was something that would have gone unnoticed to the vast majority of people in the pews.

Even today, unless you are attending Mass in the Extraordinary Form (the Latin mass), you hear just about everything the priest says.  For many centuries, however, the Roman Canon was said nearly silently -- audible only to those assisting the priest at the altar and unheard by the people.  One commentator said:  When you hear Eucharist Prayers at Mass, remember this: the priest is not talking to you.  He is addressing God the Father on your behalf in the way that only an ordained priest can.

Luther did not remove as many of the sacrificial elements from the Mass as it is sometimes stated.  There are many who make great importance of Luther's liturgical reforms of the mass but most of this was lost to the congregation.  They were tuned into to what was going on and when by the ceremonial of the mass, by the ringing of the bells, and by the cue of the priest (he speaks the phrase "Nobis quoque peccatoribus" in a slightly audible voice, and says or sings aloud the final phrase of the doxology, "per omnia saecula saeculorum", so as to let the server or the choir know when to say or sing "Amen").  By these markers, they knew where they were -- literally -- in the mass and tailored their response in the appropriate way.  Because it was offered silently, Luther could omit most of the Canon of the Mass without upsetting the people. The most dramatic of Luther's liturgical changes was that the Words of Institution were to be sung aloud to the same tone as the Gospel was chanted.

While I am not here to argue with Luther's critique of the mass, or what it had become, I marvel at those who make much of his liturgical legacy when, to the naked eye of the people of Wittenberg, little was heard or seen that sounded or looked different from the Roman mass -- save that one point.  Luther had the Words of Institution chanted on the Gospel tone -- a move sure to identity the Verba Christi as Gospel and not Law.

Luther was not insensitive to this and in fact insists that as little be done as possible to disrupt what people expected within the mass (in words and actions).  So while we today make much of his liturgical legacy, the people at Wittenberg and the surrounding area did not recognize that much of a change when it comes to the canon of the mass (or Eucharistic Prayer).  The ceremonial that they had come to expect was largely there.  The elevation was there.  They still watched with their backs to the Pastor and what would surely have stood out was not what was missing but what was present -- the Verba Christi sung aloud.  It is quite amusing in this regard to listen to the complaints of Lutherans against that “catholic” chanting of the Words of Institution. Rome has never done so! It is a Lutheran innovation!

Interesting also is the complaint of traditionalist Archbishop Lefebvre who insisted that Vatican II had followed Luther's errors in the shape of the new mass.  Indeed, Luther's response to the Mass was shaped by his reading of Scotus and Biel.  Luther, not primarily a patristics man or liturgical theologian, found the teaching therein offensive.  What is then ironic is that some today complain that Luther was ever the medievalist when he excised the canon and left the bare minimum, the Words of Institution.  As St. Thomas Aquinas says:
The Consecration is accomplished by the words and expressions of the Lord Jesus. Because, by all the other words spoken, praise is rendered to God, prayer is put up for the people, for kings, and others; but when the time comes for perfecting the Sacrament, the priest uses no longer his own words, but the words of Christ. Therefore, it is CHRIST’S words that perfect the Sacrament.... The form of this Sacrament is pronounced as if Christ were speaking in person, so that it is given to be understood that the minister does nothing in perfecting this Sacrament, except to pronounce the words of Christ. (Summa, III, Q. 78, Art. 1).

Now a sacrifice cannot occur without the immolation, or “offering up,” of a victim. St. Thomas Aquinas says, “It is proper to this Sacrament that Christ should be immolated in its celebration.” (Summa, III, 83, 1). In the Sacrifice of the Cross and the Sacrifice of the Mass, the primary sacrificing Priest, namely Christ, and the sacrificial gift are identical. Only the nature and mode of the offering of the two are different. Each and every valid Mass recapitulates – makes present once again – the same Sacrifice which occurred at Calvary. The only difference is that Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross was bloody, that of the Mass is unbloody. The sacrifice of the Cross and that of the Mass are nevertheless one and the same Sacrifice. As the Catechism of the Council of Trent states:

The bloody and unbloody Victim are not two, but one Victim only, whose Sacrifice is daily renewed in the Eucharist... The priest is also one and the same, Christ the Lord; for the ministers who offer Sacrifice, consecrate the holy mysteries, not in their own person, but in that of Christ, was the words of Consecration themselves make clear; for the priest does not say, “This is the body of Christ,” but, “This is My Body,” and thus acting in the person of Chris the Lord, he changes the substance of bread and wine into the substance of His Body and Blood.

While Luther would not argue that the body and blood of Christ present and received (without much explanation as to how and therefore the rejection of transubstantiation) was, indeed, the very sacrificial body and blood of Christ once offered on the cross and now made present, the offense was that the direction of this offering was primarily toward God and not to the people of God.

So, to bring this all to a close... for those who make much of Luther's insistence upon this point, it must be difficult to know that at the very same time Luther worked to make much of the transition to the evangelical (a classic word) position as seamless and smooth as possible, that his changes were largely unseen and unheard by the people in the pews, and that, for all intents and purposes, the chanted Verba are the one lasting and enduring innovation -- now the spoken form out loud regularized by Rome as well.  What might Luther have done if he had been a patristics scholar (more like Laurentius Petri in Sweden), we can never know; he might have distinguished the language of the canon from the use of a canon.  Nevertheless, Lutherans equally as committed to the sacramental character of the Eucharistic presence have worked for generations to restore the prayer of thanksgiving that accompanies the Words of Thanksgiving (the Verba) of Christ.

I am just sayin.... well, I do not need to tell you.  I bet you already know where I stand on this....

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A comment from a Roman Catholic layman...

Catholic laity are treated like mushrooms
- kept in the dark and, every so often a load
of crap is dumped upon them!
This was sent to me by a Roman Catholic layman in response to my post about uninformed does not mean unintelligent.

I expect the first word in the caption might be exchanged for the church du jour and many laity might resonate with the sentiment expressed there. Though it is my hope and pray that this represents more humor than reality... And to those who feel otherwise, please do not deprive me of my pious illusions...

Why do we confirm? What are the goals of the catechism instruction of the youth?

Pr Eric Brown provided me the perfect introduction to some rambling thoughts on catechism instruction...

What totally new substance our confirmation instruction would receive if it again became sacramental instruction and the Fourth and Sixth Chief Parts did not just make up a more or less unrelated appendage. And don't let anyone come up with the excuse that the children are not yet mature enough or that they would misunderstand it. where that sort of thing is said, it may be assumed that the teacher is not yet mature enough. How one can say these things to children one can learn, with the necessary changes, from the Catholic instruction for First Communion. That is what we can do. The rest God must do: awaken the hunger and thirst for the Sacrament, which is always at the same time a hunger and thirst for the Word of God.
      Herman Sasse - Letter to Lutheran Pastors No. 6, in "We Confess: The Sacraments" - pg. 110 

I wonder what we might find from parents and the rest of the people in the pew if we polled them on the purpose of catechism and confirmation.  If some of the things I hear are representative of the feelings of the folks, it seems that they hope for catechism and confirmation to provide/deepen:
  • a personal relationship with Jesus Christ... 
  • develop a moral sensibility to help them face life's choices...
  • know the Bible and what it says...
  • become more fully identified as a LUTHERAN Christian...
  • know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord...  
The goals of many Lutheran folk for their children and grandchildren in catechism instruction and for their confirmation are not a whole lot different than the goals for youth ministry at the local Baptistomethopentecostal church (okay, delete LUTHERAN from the second to the last item on the list).

It seems that many publishers of Lutheran catechetical material agree with these goals. Most of the time is spent on the Commandments, a significant amount on the Creed, some time spent on Prayer but not a whole lot on Baptism, the Keys, or the Sacrament of the Altar. We are heavily invested in these areas but barely touch on such things as the way of worship, the church history that bore the fruit of the Lutheran Reformation, or our piety centered in the Divine Service and manifest in a life of regular private confession and absolution.

We want catechism to help our kids say "no" to premarital sex (or any other kind outside of marriage) and drugs and we want them to be pious but more a piety of prayer than one centered in the Word and Table of the Lord. We expect that those confirmed will have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and confess Him as Lord as well as Savior and live obedient lives to the commandments. But this does not sound very Lutheran at all.

Sasse's quote is spot on. The purpose of catechism is not to fill in a missing morality, teach obedience to the commandments, or develop and encourage a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior and Lord. The purpose of catechism is to equip the baptized children of God to live out their life and faith within the realm of the means of grace (Word and Sacraments). Personal morality flows from baptismal identity. Obedience flows from the gifts of grace received by faith. Piety has its source in and flows from our life together around the Word and Table of the Lord and within the framework of confession and forgiveness.

Our kids have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" through baptism and the faith imparted there by the Spirit.  This is not a decision or choice on their part.  Our kids develop a "moral sensibility" from their baptismal identity as the children of God, from their experience of confession and absolution, and from the 3rd use of the Law in which the commandments function as guide to those declared righteous.  Knowing the Bible and "what it says" means knowing Jesus Christ who is in every page and in every word of Scripture and Him we know by baptism and faith.  If to "know" Jesus as Savior and Lord means to ask Jesus into your life and surrender your life over to Him, then we just might have more problems than the hundred or so hours spent in catechism instruction can handle.  How better to know and "identify as a Lutheran Christian" than by knowing how and why we worship as we do, the character of the hymnody that forms the soundtrack to this faith, and the efficacy of the Word and Sacraments that actually do what they promise?

We have for too long held up entrance into communion as the carrot to get our kids through catechism and confirmation and yet when they receive first communion, they do not know how this relates to their identity and life as a child of God by baptism and faith.  As a Pastor I have dealt with kids who were not confirmed until sophomores in high school because their parents were not sure they were ready -- if they were not ready, whose fault is that.  I well recall a Roman Priest who told me "Give me a child until he is 10 years old and he will be a Catholic his whole life..."  Sadly, we Lutherans sometimes give a child to the Pastor for a year or two when they are young teens and then we look at the stats of youth that fall away and wonder what went wrong.

I write this not merely to Pastors and their churches but to parents and family members as well.  If you wait until your child is approaching high school to talk to them about God (or sex), you are too late.  Period.  If you want your child to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and fail to instruct them in or give them the means by which our faith is nourished, sustained, and strengthened, you are swimming upstream.  Teach them of their baptism from birth.  Teach them of the Sacrament of the Altar from birth.  Simply read to them the Word of God and help them read it for themselves.  Bring them to the worship of God's House and instruct them in the Divine Service, the Church Year, and hymnody.  Then bring them to catechism and present them for confirmation.  What a difference that might make!

Our Fascination With Zombies

I had no sooner posted the post on the laity when I read Peter Leithart's piece on Zombies and then read Ethan Cordray's follow up.  What is it with Zombies?  We have sure come a long way since the cult classic Night of the Living Dead but the whole movie and TV fascination with Zombies (and werewolves and vampires) seems insatiable.

The zombie phenomenon is very interesting theologically, as it’s sort of a “return of the repressed” way of recognizing the deadness of appetite-driven modern culture. As we become more and more zombified, as our culture becomes ever more adept at amplifying our desires through advertising, pornography, and a media culture obsessed with gratifying every appetite, we can see the inevitable results of that process shambling along on their rotting legs.

Cordray sounds positively depressing.  And there is more!   Zombies themselves are not actually all that dangerous. They’re usually slow and clumsy, almost never use weapons, and are too mindless to formulate any tactics. They just plod forward toward their victims, and only their numbers, persistence, and resilience to damage make them much of a threat.

And then there is this:  The theological lesson here is that it’s the frailty of our human wills that gives the sarx its power over us. When we’re faced by naked appetite, we are all too often defenseless and paralyzed. And of course, the worst fate that can befall the victim of a zombie—far worse than being eaten—is to be turned into a zombie oneself. What seems at first like merely an external physical threat can get inside us, corrupt our humanity, and turn us into just another mindless, ravenous drone... So zombies tell us more than just that Hollywood likes to come up with new ways to show gore. They also tell us about our own souls. 

But they were not always Zombies!  What happened to them?  What happened to us?  Who are the Zombies?  I have met the Zombie and he is me.  In Pauline terms, they are the sarx in its purest form. Without a soul to control it, the flesh is a slave to its own desires.

Could it be that it is not just guiltless, senseless violence that attracts us to Zombies but the recognition of our own weakness and single minded desire?  Could it be that the Zombie has become the icon of an age of self-indulgence in which nothing needs to be thought out or well considered but simply acted upon like impulse?  Could it be that the Church has become so fearful of this culture that we are like the hysterical figures in these movies -- who forget what is real and simply live in the realm of their own fears and panic?

The hero figures in the movies could have easily withstood the besieging zombies if they had stayed cool-headed and followed their most intelligent member’s plans. But instead they degenerate into infighting and hysteria, and that gives the zombies an opening to overwhelm them.  So can we in the Church... unless, of course, we let our fears overwhelm us and hysteria overwhelms us...  Doomsday prophets are a dime a dozen (like blogs, like this one)  but redemption and salvation have not disappeared.  What will we in the Church choose to focus upon and how do we see the resources (read that Means of Grace) that God has given us for redemption and salvation (including our own)?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Uninformed is not the same as unintelligent...

There are not a few, including some who comment on things on this blog, who think that the laity need to be protected.  It is as if the laity are fragile and stupid and so we must treat them like children.  Because they have limited understanding and little discernment, we must make sure that things are absolutely clear -- lest they get the wrong impression about something. 

If we publish the Apocrypha, we must be careful to plaster "NOT THE BIBLE" on every page and set up the pages to look radically different than, say,  The Lutheran Study Bible OR the laity will be confused and mistake words for The Word.  If we use the word "catholic" in the creed, the lay folk will be confused and think ROMAN Catholic since they cannot make a finer distinction such as the small "c" and big "C" and what it means.  I could go on and post some things from the comments section of this blog.  You get the point.

Many have made the same point about people outside the church and how we must not confuse them with ritual or liturgy and the like.  Everything in worship must be absolutely clear and drawn from the secular world in which these people live or we will turn them off simply by virtue of a different vocabulary, musical style, liturgical culture, etc.

I am offended by such thinking.  Far from being protective of the laity and having their best interests at heart, I believe it is demeaning and disrespectful.  The folks in the pew are not stupid, just untaught.  They are not unintelligent, just uniformed.  The point is not to reduce everything in church to its simplest form or words but to engage and teach the lay folks to hear and discern the Word of God, the Gospel, the music and culture of the Church.

People may sometimes be lazy but that is because we treat them like children.  The Church has become like the helicopter parent who does the kid's homework, fights all the kid's battles for them, and makes every decision for them (lest they make a mistake).  I require those being confirmed to visit a non-Lutheran church for worship and to complete a survey form about what they can discern of that congregation's faith and practice.  One family informed me that on a visit to a local contemporary worship Baptist congregation, the kids complained that the minister and worship leaders "did everything for us" and that there "was nothing left for us to do" but watch and listen.  In other words, they "got" it; they missed the liturgy and the hymns.  They felt cheated because either they were not smart enough or good enough to really participate.

Our people (and our children) are not stupid.  They interact with all sorts of technology all day long.  They manage households and budgets.  They work in all sorts of intensive environments (from saving lives to building houses to manufacturing goods to repairing our broken technology to high finance).  They tune into cable news 24/7.  They write blogs and order things on line.  They make countless decisions every day.  They can handle getting into the Bible if we teach them... They can handle their part of the liturgy if we teach them... They don't need to be spoon fed; they need to be taught the faith.  We need to equip them to fulfill their baptismal calling of worship, witness, prayer, mercy, and service.  We do not need to dummy down Bible study or the Divine Service.  We need to teach, catechize, equip, and expect them to learn, grow, and become discerning of the things of God, the voice of His Word, and the work of the Kingdom.

Part of the reason our church body is in such a fine mess is that we have dulled the senses of our people by failing to teach them or by implying they will not understand or get it.  Without instruction in the liturgy, they accept pale imitations for the real thing... without instruction in God's Word, they cannot distinguish the voice of the wolves from the Shepherd... without instruction in the catechism, they do not know what we believe, teach, and confess as Lutheran Christians nor are they able to differentiate what we claim is the proper understanding of God's Word from one that is not faithful to Scripture...

Sometimes those within the Church's leadership act like the politicians in Washington who tell us what we say to them in polls because they believe we are either too stupid or too distracted to handle the nuances and depths of the real problems facing our nation.  That has got to stop.  On this blog I try NOT to do that but to engage people on the depth of the meaning and understanding of what it means to be faithful Lutheran Christian.  We do not need a religion for dummies which turns God's Word into Scripture Lite or the Divine Service into worship lite.  We need the real thing.  Period.  I have every confidence in our people in the pew as long as we engage them faithfully in the depth of God's Word and our Lutheran Confessions.  Only then will they be equipped to fulfill their important role of discernment as hearers of the Word and their rightful place as doers of that Word.

Pre-Vatican II Voices...

From Pius Parsch:
The Mass came to be less and less appreciated as the sacrifice of Christ. Instead, the adoration of the Eucharist was greatly developed, and thereby the spiritual energies of the faithful were in the course of centuries turned away from the sacrifice itself.

We must try to keep in mind that,
during the Mass and in particular at the consecration, the primary and essential thing is the offering of the sacrifice; the adoration of the Species is entirely secondary. We should strive to impress ourselves and those committed to our care with a deep understanding and appreciation of the sacrificial action. The Mass is not a “devotion,” it is not the adoration of the Eucharist: it is the sacrifice offered by Christ, and in this offering we are actually participating since it is also our sacrifice. We come to Mass, not so much to adore Christ in His divinity as to offer the body and blood of the divine Lamb to our heavenly Father.   [July 1938 issue of Orate Fratres]

Though it has been the complaint of some that the sacrificial character of the Roman Mass was obscured in Vatican II and the decline of the Latin Mass, Parsch is suggesting that the adoration or veneration of Christ in the host had begun this turn away from the sacrificial long before Vatican II, even centuries before.  Interestingly absent in this discussion is the sacramental nature of the Sacrament.  For this reason the continuing witness of the Lutheran Confessions needs to be heard and its corrective voice remains to address the Roman Catholic Church.  Neither the offering of the sacrifice nor the adoration of the Species are the foremost or central focus of the sacrament but "given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins" and received by faith as the gift of God and the richest treasure of His grace.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Real Christian Stewardship...

Sermon preached for Pentecost 10, Proper 16A, on Sunday, August 21, 2011.

    This has been the silly season, as one friend put it.  Churches have gathered in convention to pass all sorts of resolutions that have little really to do with the faith.  Most of them have passed predictable calls to end the burning of coal, in favor of electric cars, against global warming, bullying, and gender injustice.  Without confidence in the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, liberal Christianity has had to search for a message.  The green revolution seems to be one of them.  Christians speak of reducing the use of fossil fuels or recycling or healing living as if this were the message of the Gospel.  In doing so, the cross has been pushed to the sidelines and real Christian stewardship has been distorted.  Today Jesus rains on this silly parade and reminds us that the Kingdom of God is about the cross and empty tomb.  It does not matter how pristine we keep this earth if we forget the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
    Christian stewardship is not about fixing what is wrong with this world but about using the physical resources God has entrusted to us for the sake of and in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In other words, our stewardship motivation is not how can we preserve the earth and its resources but what are the consequences of being in Christ by baptism and faith?  How does our live in God’s kingdom affect and shape our lives on earth?  How then do we live as the people of God whom God has redeemed in Jesus Christ?
    The Gospel is not ambiguous.  The Gospel is clear.  Who do you say I am?  The question is clear and the answer is clear.  You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.  You are the Messiah, the One long promised through the prophets and witnessed by the patriarchs.  Don’t forget this.  The Gospel is not some principle to guide us but the person of Jesus Christ.  This God through whom all things were made became flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, as we confess in the creed.  This Lord came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many on the cross.
    He rose again that forgiveness, life and salvation might be proclaimed in His name to all the ends of the earth.  He is One and Only who forgives our sins, who delivers us from death and hell, and who gives us the life that is everlasting.  This is the Gospel and there is no other Gospel worth believing or proclaiming.  It is this Gospel and this Gospel alone that gives us salvation.
    But.... this Gospel has consequences.  This Gospel affects how we live. This Gospel transforms us and our way of life.  We can no more believe in this Gospel live the same old lives that we can fix for ourselves what is wrong with us and our world.  This Gospel has traction.  It changes everything.
    So now we see that the earth is not ours to exploit or spoil but to use for the glory of Christ.  The earth is not some monument God has given to us to care for and pass on.  The earth is one of the resources we have been given to USE for the work of the Kingdom and the glory of Christ.  There is nothing wrong with recycling or being green but the earth is not our focus – Christ is our focus.  He has given us all the resources we need to do His work.  The earth and all its resources are part of these resources to use for His purpose and for His glory.
    In the same way, healthy living is not some path to immortality.  Our bodies have been redeemed by Christ.  We are not our own but have been bought with a price. Our bodies then are not ours to corrupt either by sinful living or unhealthy living.  Our bodies and our souls belong to Jesus Christ.  He purchased and won us by the currency of His own holy and precious blood expended on the cross.  We care for them because they are not ours but His and they have a purpose – His kingdom and His glory.  We ignore this at our peril and make His sacrificial death an empty gesture when we care for our bodies as if they did not matter.
    In the same way, all that we have belongs to the Lord.  He is the Giver of all things and all our things and resources return to Him for His glory. He does not come and take them from us but we are given the very privilege of returning to Him what is rightfully His.  This is Christian stewardship.  We acknowledge that we belong to Him and everything we have is His.  We return to Him what belongs to Him as an act of faith and worship.
    Every Sunday we pass the offering plate but the most important thing we place in that plate is not our money, it is our very selves.  Christ has made this stewardship possible – this is what we heard in the Epistle today: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  The sacrifice of the mass is this – returning to God our bodies and very selves with all the resources He has entrusted to us, out of faith, with confidence that He supplies all our needs for this body and life, and because He has redeemed our lives from sin, death, and hell.
    The world is on a green revolution – electric or hybrid cars, compact florescent bulbs, recycling... but for the wrong reasons.  The world acts out of fear that we will run out of the resources we need.  Christians do not act out of fear.  Time is running out but not for our destruction.  Time is running out and the clock is ticking for the new creation to be made complete and the old to pass away.  It is not our fear of a worse tomorrow that moves us and shapes how we care for the earth, our bodies, and all other things.  It is our faith and confidence in God’s mercy and grace.  This good earth is a sacred trust not to be maintained but to be used for His glory.  Our bodies have been redeemed for His glory.  Our lives have but one purpose – for His glory.  As the hymnwriter once put it: Ever, only, all for Thee!
    Dear friends in Christ, if we were able to stand at judgment day and return to the Lord this earth in the same pristine condition as when God made it, we would have failed as miserably as the poor fellow of Jesus’ parable who buried his talent out of fear.  The highest esteem is to be declared the children of God in Christ in our baptism.  The highest gift is to receive the forgiveness of sins, the blessing of life, and the completed salvation born of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The highest calling is to live not as our own but as those who belong to Him, using all our time, talents, skills, abilities, and the resources of this good earth for the work of His kingdom and for His eternal glory.  This is also our highest privilege.
    The Gospel is not some vague principle but the clear confession of Jesus the Christ, incarnate for us and our salvation, and raised that forgiveness, life, and salvation may be joyfully proclaimed to the whole earth.  This is the unchanging rock on which the Church rests.  Our goal and purpose as  baptized believers is to live in faithful response to this Gospel, living in Christ for Christ.  But St. Paul put it much more eloquently than I have: From Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  And that includes you and me.  Amen!

Because I knew you would want to know...

If you will recall Tennessee was on the cusp of changing attitudes (not necessarily a good thing) nearly a century ago.  The Scopes Trial—formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and informally known as the Scopes Monkey Trial—was a landmark American legal case in 1925 in which high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach evolution.Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality and he was never brought back to trial. The trial drew intense national publicity, as national reporters flocked to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Now, Tennessee again is ahead of the game.  Vanderbilt University's Office of Religious Life recently sent professors a calendar of 2011-12 "religious holy days and observances" and a related policy on student absences. The faith listed next to four of the days on the calendar is "Wicca/Pagan."  You can read more about it here.  Vanderbilt is in Nashville, Tennessee.  And you thought all the craziness came from the coasts.  Just goes to show you....

Then and Now...

In 1967, nearly 45 years and two generations ago, Johns Hopkins University did a story of some 1000 grade school children to find out about their greatest fears.

In 1967 the greatest fears of children were:
    ∙    animal attack
    ∙    being in the dark
    ∙    high places
    ∙    strangers
    ∙    loud noises.

In 2003 they repeated the same study among another set of 1000 grade school children and discovered the worst fears that confront children today.

This list showed children were afraid of:
    ∙    divorce of their parents
    ∙    nuclear war and terrorist attack
    ∙    cancer (or other terminal illness)
    ∙    pollution and natural disaster
    ∙    being mugged, kidnapped or assaulted.

Most of the things our children feared in 1967 were imaginary fears (darkness, loud noises, etc) or ordinary fears (high places, dog bite, etc).  In contrast to that the fears identified by children today are real fears – knowledge of which has been fueled by the news media and their real threats all around them.

Marriages fail at the highest rate in history; our children have something to fear.  More children live in homes affected by divorce than those who don’t. Many children live largely on their own even when they have two parents still married (but each work one or more jobs).  I read one statistic that said 70% of all Black women are presently unmarried (single, widowed, or divorced).  Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars  in Afghanistan and Iraq all remind us that our children’s fears of war and terrorist violence are real.  They do have something to fear.

Cancer, AIDS, SARS, and worse than average flu seasons all combine to threaten children with fears about their health.  These are honest fears.  Pollution and natural disasters are all around us – from the global warming and climate changes to forest fires, our children have real fears about real problems.  The increase in violence that touches the lives of children is well reported.  Some have a greater chance of suffering violent attack than they do reaching the age of 21 (especially Blacks).  

The Lord is my helper... I will not be afraid... Children now more than ever need the comfort of the love of God and His presence to support and protect them.  Yet since 1967 church attendance by children has dropped 20%.  At the very time our children need to know the grace and mercy of our loving God, they are further and further from the places where that love is revealed and shared (in worship).

If we need to see the relevance of Sunday school, church youth groups, and children’s ministries, all we need to do is look at the survey of a child’s worst fears.  Is there any more important or relevant ministry we can provide than to teach our children well the God who is with us always and whose love is our strength and our shield forever?  This God, whom we know in Christ, forgives our sins, calms our fears, and leads us through trouble and trial.