Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I wouldn't say it but it is good she did. . .

From Adriane Dorr's blog (you know her, the managing editor of the Lutheran Witness). . .

take my jacket

Ladies, we have a real problem. It’s our clothing. And, in particular, it’s the clothing we wear to church.

I get that there are certain kinds of clothes that make us feel better about ourselves, that give us a waist, that show off our curves, that make us feel feminine and confident.

But despite what the culture told you, it’s actually not all about you. There’s these other people in the world (they’re called men), and often times, the clothes we wear doesn’t exactly help them focus. That’s not helpful. In fact, it’s so not helpful, it’s hurtful.

The problem is exacerbated when we show up to church in clothes we shouldn’t. I’m not recommending women button up like we’re Amish or start wearing floor-length jean skirts. That’s not feminine either. But if your skirt is so short that it reveals your gender when you sit down, honey, it’s too short.
And think about your pastor. Young ladies, how’s he supposed to be preaching God’s Word to you when your skirt is so tight you can read its size on the label?

Or nursing moms? Please cover up. No pastor needs to turn around and see you adjusting all your feminine glory for your child. (And honestly, I don’t want to see it either.)

Or middle aged ladies? Put a tank-top on under that blouse. Your pastor has to bend over to give you Holy Communion, and he’s got enough on his mind to not have to deal with seeing all your girl bits too.

Dressing modestly isn’t the same as dressing like a frump from the 1980s. This doesn’t mean that you can’t feel good or look feminine or have a figure.  You don’t have to wear a burqua, and you should never, under any circumstance, take to wearing oversized, lumpy sweaters that make you look like a dude.

You don’t have wear long dresses Little-House-on-the-Prairie style. It doesn’t mean you can’t go to the swimming pool. It simply means that you don’t have to let all the parts of you that are uniquely feminine cease to be un-unique by showing them . . . constantly . . . to the whole world.

Besides, covering up a bit adds some mystique. Turns out you actually don’t have to give everything away in a guy’s first glance at you.

Lutheran ladies, we can get ourselves back out of this mess. We can work on our wardrobes and choose to wear things, especially to church, more suited to being in the presence of the God of creation who comes to meet us there. And we can choose to think more of our neighbor, of our pastors, of the guys we interact with than we do of ourselves, and then dress in a way that bears witness to the beautiful creations God made us to be.

Let’s get to it.

How to grow your church... smaller

I got a couple of emails saying I should read this and how right they were.  There is a great deal of wisdom in this little article on the Huffington Post.  You can read it all here for yourself.  But that will not keep me from a couple of good quotes.

Success is a slippery subject when it comes to the Church. That our ultimate picture of success is a crucified Messiah means any conversation about success will be incompatible with a "bigger is better" mentality. Yet, bigger and better is exactly what most churches seem to be pursuing these days: a pursuit which typically comes in the form of sentimentality and pragmatism.

Sentimentality and pragmatism are the one-two punch which has the American Church on the ropes, while a generation of church leaders acquiesces to the demands of our consumer culture. The demands are simple: tell me something that will make me feel better (sentimentality for the churchgoer), and tell me something that will work (pragmatism for the church leader). Yet it is not clear how either one of those are part of what it means to be the church.

And more:

Perhaps more than sentimentality, pragmatism is ravaging the church. Pragmatism has led to a fairly new niche industry I call the Church Leadership Culture. Taking their cues from business, church leadership manuals are more than willing to instruct the interested pastor in how to gain market share. I once heard church consultant and leadership guru Don Cousins say that you can grow a church without God if you have good preaching, great music, killer children's ministry, and an engaging youth minister. Cousins should know. He helped build Willow Creek Community Church and the church leadership culture. In the pragmatic church, there is only one question that matters, "What will work to grow my church?" 

I was especially intrigued by the sentence:  You can grow a church without God...  Isn't that exactly what we are trying to do?  The church growth movement has tried to identity growth characteristics and turn this into a marketing strategy.  It is an evolving and ever changing strategy because as soon as you implement it, the world around you moves on and you have to move on to keep up.  Sadly, in too many Districts of the LCMS and for a time in the holy city (St. Louis) we thought we could grow the Church and did not need much help from God.  We thought that we could grow God a Church and then hand it to Him while expecting to receive thanks and commendation.  When we do this, we forget our own theology.  What is it that Luther said, "I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him..."  Even if we believe that we cannot bring ourselves to faith, we have certainly deluded ourselves into thinking we can bring others to faith and grow the Church with little help from the Savior.

I went to Don Cousins' web site and pulled off this sentence:  Results change when the approach make sense. But isn't that the very problem?  The Gospel does not make sense.  It is not rational or logical.  What is required is not convincing of the mind but the Spirit's breaking down of the walls of the heart that we might trust in that which makes no sense at all -- that God comes in human flesh and blood to take our place in suffering and death that we, the unworthy and undeserving might be declared forgiven, righteous, and holy.

And finally:

So, God save us from the successful church. Give us churches who shun sentimentality and pragmatism and aren't afraid to face the inevitable shrinkage which comes as a result of following Jesus. God save us from church leadership strategies.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How long have the warning lights been blinking?

Sermon preached for Advent 1B, on Sunday, November 27, 2011.

    If you listen to Car Talk and the folks who call in because they have been hearing this strange noise in their car, you might remember the first question the brothers ask.  "How long have you heard the noise?"  After an awkward silence the inevitable answer is "a long time."  It seems that many of us wait for a long time hoping that it will just go away and we will not have to deal with it.  But this is not just a car problem, it is a life problem.  We find it hard to control our anxiety awaiting the good things that are coming but we are in no rush to deal with the real problems that sit right in front of us.
    Today as we begin a new church year of grace and prepare for the coming celebration of Christmas, we recall how our Lord entered Jerusalem amid the palms and hosannas of a people who could not wait for Him to arrive.  Why is He come?  Not because they were good people seeking reward or a people happy to ignore their troubles.  No, because they had been in their sins a long time and they could no longer ignore them or wish they away.  So they welcomed Him who came to them in their poverty and need, with hope, with forgiveness, and with life.
    It is not easy to face up to this.  It is easier to celebrate a Christmas about a birth of a baby than the birth of the Son of God in human flesh and blood to become our Savior.  For surely, our Lord is come not to receive the palms and hosannas of the crowd but to make His way to the cross and suffer and die to set His people free from the sin and its death.  It is easier to celebrate a  shallow Christmas of a birthday or a birthday party instead of digging deep into the real message: we are sinners who cannot save ourselves and He has come for us.  Advent begins with this call to repentance.  To be ready to receive the Lord is to be penitent and faithful, trusting in Christ even as we confess that we have been in our sin a very long time.
    Too many of us Christians make our way through life like driving with all warning lights on the dashboard blinking – blinking to warn us of trouble for a long time, yet we keep on driving through life hoping it will fix itself.  Instead of facing up to guilty consciences crying out for relief, we comfort ourselves that we are all in the same boat.  Instead of realizing that we have grown hoarse from the constant perfunctory apologies, justifications, and explanations we make for our sins; we continue to think that it will all go away if we say some magical words.
    Instead of seeing how broken down our lives are under the weight of sin and its death, we patch things up hoping that if we look okay on the outside, we will be okay on the inside.  Instead of admitting that death is a terrible thief to steal from us the lives our Creator intended, we talk as if death were normal and natural – consoling ourselves with some sentimental idea of the circle of life from birth to death to birth.  But we have been too long in our sins and its death to really believe that everything is okay.
    Advent begins with a dose of harsh reality.  You cannot just turn off the warning lights and expect the problems to go away.  You cannot hope for the best.  This past month we have seen our human dilemma played out on a grand scale in Washington.  There people have faced a deadline for dealing with the deficit and have chosen to procrastinate, to band aid the problem for others to deal with, to play the blame game, and to minimize the problem.  Where did our elected representatives learn this?  This is how we have been tempted to deal with sin and death.  But it won't work in Washington and it won't work for you and me.  Advent is the wake up call that it is not enough to prepare for a holiday, we need to prepare for the holy day of Christ’s coming.  We need repentance and we need a faith that will welcome the one and only Savior big enough to fix the broken hulk of our lives.  We do not have a Savior who merely diagnoses our problem.  He has come to bear the full brunt of that fallenness and to repair us lost and condemned sinners.
    Advent begins with Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem because that is where His birth is pointed – to the cross.  Jesus has not come for Himself but for us – for the sin that has stained us with death and the death that keeps us captive to fear.  Jesus has come to be Savior and Redeemer – even thought that means suffering in our place on the cross and dying our death for sin.  We are here to welcome a baby but what we met in the manger was the Son of God cloaked in our flesh and blood.  We are satisfied with parties and presents but He is here to bear the burden of our sin and death that have long held us captive.
    The shouts of hosanna today are not idealists in search of some spiritual guide to greatness but the realists who know they have been in sin a long time and who know there one and only chance for freedom lies in Jesus Christ alone.  Those waving palms today are not using them as brooms trying to clean up our little messes or tidying up our broken lives.  We lay them down as a carpet of gratitude that God has heard our cries for help, He has shown us His mercy, and He has not spared His one and only Son to be our Savior.  This is the call of Advent.
    The welcoming crowd was not there to meet a curiosity but a Savior.  They were a people crying out in hope of Him who has finally come to fulfill all of God's gracious promises.  These people cried out with the voice of death to the only one who can speak life, with the voice of sin and unrighteousness to the only one who can declare us just and holy, with the voice of defeat to the only one who can win them victory.  Today as Advent begins we stand with them crying out “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”
    We have been in our sins a long time....   We have waited long for the Savior...  But our waiting is not finished.  His sacrifice is complete.  His death has accomplished its saving  purpose.  His resurrection holds forth the promise of our own resurrection to new and eternal life.  But the great day of the Lord is not yet here.  So every Advent we take up the call to repentance.  We wave our palms and cry out hosanna.  Not only for what took place 2,000 years ago but as a people seeking Him to finish then the new creation begun by His death and resurrection. We look not for a birthday but for the final day, the end at last for a waiting people, for God to finish it all.
    We have not been left on our own.  He has given us the tools of our waiting in the Word and the Sacraments.  Through these means of grace we are connected to Bethlehem's manger, to Calvary's cross, and to the empty tomb.  By these means of grace we are kept in the faith, sustained through trial, and daily rescued from our sins.  Until this long wait is over, until time stands forever still, until today is gone as yesterday and the eternal tomorrow is begun, we take up the cry: Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Repentance prepared the people for Jesus first coming; repentance is the fruit of His coming among us now in Word and Sacrament, repentance is what we wear as clothing to meet Him when He comes for the last time.  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

I hear ya! I'm with ya!

Gene Edward Veith describes himself as a humble layman.  He is humble but hardly simple.  He has blessed us with good books, good commentary, and good leadership within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  In his column about the Internet Monk's sojourn into ELCA, Veith has posited some words worth pondering for Missouri types.  I have copied some of them:

Say you are a disaffected “post-evangelical” who hears about Lutheranism.  It sounds like the kind of Christianity you are yearning for.  You are especially fed up with what passes for worship where you are now, and the sacramental spirituality that you are reading about in Lutheranism is more than compelling.  So you visit the local Missouri Synod congregation.   Isn’t it true that it is extremely likely that you will walk into a contemporary worship service with a pastor that is trying to out-evangelical the evangelicals?  You will go into an LCMS congregation looking for Lutheranism, but it may well be that you won’t find it!

I don’t know how many times I have heard about this happening, including from people who read my book Spirituality of the Cross:  The Way of the First Evangelicals.  (In fact, I know that this happened with some of you regular readers and commenters on this blog.)  So if someone finds Lutheranism in another synod–WELS, ELS, even ELCA–do we have the standing to complain?

What percentage of LCMS congregations do you think follow the historical Lutheran liturgy?  Half?  Less than half?  In some areas of the country, far less than that?   I have been in lots of Lutheran services and heard lots of sermons, not all of which distinguished Law & Gospel or even preached the Gospel.  Some of them were as therapeutic and as “theology of glory” and as “power of positive thinking” oriented as Joel Osteen.

I know these congregations all pledge allegiance to the same doctrinal standards, to the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions.   But do they really hold them in actuality?  Perhaps someone could explain to me, humble layman that I am, why, if we demand doctrinal agreement for pulpit and altar fellowship, we can commune with a congregation that exhibits no visible Lutheranism in its public teaching but simply is on the same LCMS roster.

My own personal complaint has been that experience shows me that the more liberal ELCA is more likely to worship by the book (LBW or ELW) and use the liturgy as written than the more conservative LCMS.  I am not talking here about little deviations (such as my own shift of the sharing of the peace to right after the absolution or the use of one of Missouri's published Eucharistic prayers instead of the canon(s) in LSB).  I am talking about the contemporary worship craze that has and continues to rob our Lutheran Church of its face and identity on Sunday morning.  This same anomaly is true on college campuses.  My daughter graduated from Gustavus Adolphus and chapel there pretty much follows the book (Morning Prayer, daily office, etc.) while I know from her friends and from children of my friends that Missouri campuses are generally no book (hymn, reading, sermon, prayer) or fully contemporary (praise band with non-hymnal music).  It is a weirdness that I have trouble understanding (with Veith) that the conservatives do their own thing and the liberals follow the book.

In addition, President Harrison's complaints about the preaching he has heard are well taken.  I have sat through theological lectures without application of God's Word (correct but pointless), moralisms about love or evangelism or the like (not incorrect but not the Gospel), mandates about what we should be doing (law parading as Gospel), happy talk (Gospel without the law that ends up being pointless), and boring, boring, boring sermons.... I am not holding up myself as a perfect example of what others ought to do but clearly the preaching in our churches has devolved from the once high standard and notoriety that marked the Lutheran in the pulpit (or roaming around if you cannot stay still).

If you go into an LCMS congregation will you find Lutheranism?  Good question, Dr. Veith.  I wish the answer was not in doubt.

Goal and Centerpiece of Evangelism is Life Together in the Eucharist

The centerpiece and goal of evangelization is, of course, to incorporate people into the Sunday Eucharist with fidelity.... or so states a Roman Catholic Bishop.  Funny, we Lutherans seem not to be so sure about that statement.  When we talk evangelism or church planting, we speak a great deal about proclaiming the Gospel, about creating a place where they can belong, about identity and responsibility within the community, about lives transformed, about love expressed (I am reading some of the catch phrases from a District church planting promo piece)...  but NOTHING about incorporating people into the life of the community gathered at that Table of the Lord....

Hmmmmmm... Could this be a church planting conversation in your neck of the LCMS...  Don't be so quick to say "no way."  There are no attempts being made either (hate to use this phrase, but it was turned on the presenter) to brand our Lutheran identity so that the unchurched folks who are being targeted know who Lutherans are. Doctrine (not sure whose doctrine) is more important than Lutheran. Word and Sacrament are being used (sort of) in new and dramatic ways, using new language, at the discretion of the planter. 

1) Mission has a church, not the church has a mission;
2) Church must restructure itself to reflect discipleship in a radical minimal commitment to Love God, Love People (in your fusion groups), serve community.
3) The community is the witness -- many people have heard the Good News, but most have not seen Jesus.

People are to be accepted into the church without question, so that they feel connected. Belonging is the first principle. Believing and changes in Behavior come next. After all, Jesus met with some pretty nasty characters, prostitutes, tax collectors, etc. God loves everyone just as they are, no matter what. That is who these plants go after -- the bikers, tattooed, alcoholics, drug addicts -- people that would never grace our church doors. 
Traditional church focuses on Behave, Believe, then Belong -- that is behave a certain way to enter the building, believe what and the way we believe, then you will belong. Such things as doctrine (confession) and worship (liturgy and Eucharist) are insignificant since the most important concern is to get the Gospel to the unchurched, to share the love of Christ with people.

The problem with this is that the most powerful expression of Christ's love for us resides in the Eucharist and in Confession and Absolution... the love we have for others flows from the means of grace and the love that is borne of the Holy Spirit's work flows right back to the means of grace.

I wish just once someone involved in evangelism and church planting within Lutheranism (District and Synod) would say so clearly what the Roman Catholic Bishop said above -- that the goal of evangelism and its fruit are the incorporation of people in the Eucharistic life of the Church.  Period.  No, ifs, ands or buts... This is why was plant congregations and this is the goal of the love of Christ we display before the world -- God's call that takes fruit in our life together at the Word and Table of the Lord (through the incorporation of baptism)...

Any other goals or purposes, no matter how pious they may sound, are at odds with Scripture, our Confession, and the command of Christ to go, baptize, and teach.  Period.  It seems we are so busy with the methods and models, we may have forgotten this as Lutherans.  We have become so enamored with statistics and numbers that we forget the greatest success of the Gospel is the person called through the voice of the Word, cleansed in the waters of Baptism, sustained by the regular reception of grace through confession and absolution, and met together in the communion/participation in Christ's body and blood.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Not from abundance but from need proceeds the thankful heart...

Sermon for the Day of National Thanksgiving, preached Wednesday, November 23, 2011.

    Thanksgiving has become a hollow day.  Read how the presidential proclamations have devolved from real calls to give thanks to God and the rehearsal of His manifold blessings to us and our nation... into to a pat on the back and the urge to share the bounty.  But thanksgiving never was about a day.  It was always an appeal to an attitude.  It was born of the realization that we cannot credit ourselves for what we have.  It is the national embodiment of the individual hearts humbly acknowledging that what we have is what we have been given.
    Undoubtedly this Thanksgiving you will hear many calls to count your blessings.  Perhaps you have heard them from me in the past.  But I have grown weary of the calls to count our blessings.  I am not convinced that counting your blessings does anything to make you grateful.  Listing all the reasons why we should be thankful is gratitude born of shame and there is no glory to God in this.  At the same time, we only need take a gander at other people’s situations and find ourselves depressed that we do not have all that they have.  Or, worse, if we find that others have less, we can stand like the Pharisee in the presence of the Publican and thank God that we are not like others, but better... or at least better off.  This is not thanksgiving either.
    Real thanksgiving comes not from appreciating blessing but from the same perspective as repentance.  It flows from our appreciation of our great poverty.  It is not because we have much that we are called to be thankful for if this is the case, such a call to thanksgiving would disappear in poorer circumstances.  With unemployment so high and the economy so uncertain, it might mean we could skip being thankful this year.
    No, this year you will hear no call to count your blessings – at least from me.  This year I call on you to instead count your unworthiness.  For it is only from the perspective of being the unworthy and undeserving that we see the true treasure of God’s grace and gracious favor to us.  And this we learn from an unlikely one who returned to Jesus to acknowledge his unworthiness of the inestimable gift that Jesus had given him with all that he knew to give Him – gratitude!
    As Jesus entered the city, He saw from afar the lepers.  These were people who had been segregated away from their family, friends, and community.  Their illness was feared and so fear had ripped up family and stolen their culture and place in society from them.  They were alone in their misery, consoled only by those who shared their plight.  They knew better than to approach Jesus.  So they cried out to Jesus from a respectful distance.  “Lord, have mercy on me.”  And so Jesus did.  He told them to go and show themselves to the priests – who alone could sign off on their healing and enable them to rejoin their family and friends and community.
    But one disobeyed Jesus.  He was walking along to do as Jesus had told him when He saw the rush of healing grace flow through him and his dreaded disease gone.  So he did not go to the priests.  He could not.  He was not moved by the blessing but by the awareness of his great poverty.  What had he done to deserve or merit this miracle of grace?  It kept him from any sense of peace or joy in this merciful gift of grace – until he returned to Jesus to lay down before Him in gratitude and thanksgiving.  He was moved not by being impressed with the generosity of Jesus’ gift but by his own unworthiness.
    The perspective of repentance bears the good fruit of a grateful and generous heart – something no list of blessings can every accomplish.  So today I do not bid you to count your blessings but to think upon your unworthiness.  God has given to you not because you are worthy but because of His great and steadfast love.  The gift He has given you most of all is that He has esteemed you as His own child.  He has heard your call for mercy and, like the lepers we just heard about, He has not turned away.  He has come to you with grace sufficient for your every need.
    Yet there were nine in the Gospel reading who received the gift of healing along with the one who was a Samaritan.  They went to the priests.  They got their approval to return home, to return to the community and to their place within the Temple and synagogue.  Yet a part of me wonders if they did not end up like the Pharisee in the temple – forgetting their need and poverty, forgetting their own history, and satisfied that what they got from God is what they deserved.
    This will surely kill off the grateful heart and wear down any faith that lives within us – the idea that all the good we have is what we deserved from God.  So I bid you to return to your homes as the lepers who deserved nothing but who got everything in Christ.  I challenge you to consider most of all not the blessings which may be greater or less than others but the poverty that deserves none of it.  For in this humility and poverty is born true thanksgiving.  For we were enemies of God, unrighteous, and proud and still He loved us – not with the momentary love of this blessing or that but with the everlasting love that took our place on the cross and in the empty tomb and delivered to us sinful lepers everlasting life.
    America is no exceptional nation whom God loves more than most and we are not exceptional people whom He loves more than others.  Pride of place will kill thanksgiving and kill faith every time.  But in our confession of our need and unworthiness, the Spirit plants the true and blessed gift of a grateful and merry heart, that will not be deceived by abundance nor destroyed by lack.  Amen.

Accepting People as They Are?!?

It is the mark of the Gospel that God accepts people as they are.  It is also the mark of the Gospel that He does not leave them as He found them.  We as Lutherans have cast off the oppressive burden of the Law and insist that it is not what we do that enables us to find favor in God's sight.  It is by grace alone.  Yet we have become guilty of thinking that this means that God must approve of us as we are and leave us as we are -- without change or transformation by the Spirit.  So if God finds us in one pet sin or another, God must change and broaden His love to accept not only us but that pet sin (whatever one you want to fill that definition).

For the ELCA this means adoption of the GLABT agenda as the agenda of the Gospel itself and God's work.  For other Christians it means accepting the consumer mentality that loves things more than anything.  For other Christians it means substituting the green revolution for the way of the Cross.  For other Christians it means insisting that God must address the wounds and wrongs of this mortal life to improve it and make it happier, easier, and richer so that we have our best life now.... I could go on...

N. T. Wright, in his book Simply Christian addresses this point well:

"We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church ... where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire."
Redemption has become God's adoption of our pet sins and foibles and His approving of them so that we are little different after faith than before.  In contrast to that, the real Gospel speaks not only of the transformation that God makes in us by the Spirit working through the means of grace, but that this transformation is exactly the change of our wills and desires (affections) so that they reflect Him and not us.  Is this not what we pray the ancient collect:

Almighty God, who alone can bring order to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity: give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen!

Where do we know God?

If God were a theory, the study of theology would be the way to understand Him.  According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  But God is not a theory.  God is alive and real.  To understand Him is to worship Him and to worship Him is to be invited by Him into His presence where He discloses Himself to us that we might respond with faith, prayer, praise, thanksgiving, love, and service.

It would seem that over certain points in history we forgot this.  Academic theology saw God as a puzzle to be solved or a hidden mystery to be revealed.  In the end the pursuit of the goal became as important as the goal.  Methodology became as important as the truth being sought.

Today we seldom find theology as the goal outside the university and spirituality has taken its place.  Spirituality is less about God than about us, about finding that part of us that is not material.  So religion, church, and faith are less important than feeling.  We have become a nation of spiritual people for whom God is an option, the church is an extra, and doctrine an impediment to the pursuit of our wholeness of self and identity.  Even our behavior is unrelated to this spirituality.  We can sin like crazy and still define ourselves as spiritual people and we can live at odds with the theoretical values of our morality and still say we are spiritual.

While Judaism had the first radical understanding of the God who is met on the holy ground of worship, it is the fulfillment of the prophetic promise in Christ that sets Christianity apart.  We are not a spirituality cult nor an intellectual pursuit of God.  We are a people to whom the call of God has come.  By this Word, His Spirit has awakened in us faith to see what our eyes cannot and trust that defies the ordinary skeptical and cynical way we approach the world and life in general.  It is in worship that we know Him because it is in worship that He comes to know us in the Word and Sacraments.  Our individual lives of faith flow from the community gathered by the name of Christ in the means of grace.  It is this community of faith that calls our scattered individualism into the collective Body of Christ so that faith never decays into a me and Jesus identity.

The religious world of the day seems divided into camps of which Lutheran is not comfortable.  Lutherans may move toward one of these identities but it is a conflicted identity in which confession and practice are at odds.  Some Lutherans have rejected the liberalism of truth that is subjective for a fundamentalistic version of Lutheran identity.  Truth propositions, proof texting, and a radical Biblicism have made this a faith defined by assent to propositional truths.  Some Lutherans have rejected the cold intellect for the warmth of the heart and pursue a face of Lutheranism which is about a feeling God who teaches us to feel.  They are perfectly at home in the evangelicalism of America and conversant with all the books and authors currently in fashion.  Some have decided that the best approach to success is to remake Lutheranism into a mirror of the culture.  These are further divided by those who have embraced the suburban model of a smiling face and happy optimism for finding a better life now -- the Osteens.  The others have the harder edge of a youth culture that borrows from the city its musical heart and styling cues.  For them church is belonging and faith is love that accepts me for whom I am -- a radical "I'm okay and so are you" for those who love technology, who have rather edgy tastes in clothes and appearance, and who do not resonate with the traditional American dream of a home, yard, spouse, kids, etc.  Some have exchanged the word gospel for social justice and their version of Lutheranism is a welcoming center in which formerly oppressed minorities find home, place, voice, and acceptance to express who they are.  For them love replaces all boundaries of doctrine, morality, and law.

In response, the "conservatives" are divided into repristination camps of folks trying to re-create a bygone era of life, church, and faith (the bronzies of the LCMS) or into the liturgical folks who are intent upon letting our confessional identity create the authentic community of faith gathered in worship around the means of grace.  The only problem with the former is that their numbers are shrinking as fewer and fewer can recall the Missouri of the 1940s or 1950s and sometimes they sound like mean parents for whom love and mercy are just words.  The only problem with the latter is that some have tried to make rules where there is freedom and others have attempted to make freedom where there should be some rules.  It is from this liturgical group that disillusion and disappointment often come, a certain loneliness and fear that as romantic as the identity is, it may not be real enough to survive much less conquer entrenched church bodies entrenched in their diverse identities and in pursuit of their own paths and goals.  It is from this latter group that most of the defections to Rome or Constantinople have come.  They have given up on a Lutheranism that is intent upon being Lutheran in confession, piety, and worship.

I continue to hold out hope.... for now.  We have a President of Synod who gets it - confession, identity, worship, and mercy.  We have one seminary solidly leaning toward this identity (Ft. Wayne) and another that tacitly endorses it (St. Louis).  We have a growing number of books and authors and translators who will provide our church body with the resources to fuel this push to recover a lost or distracted Lutheran vitality rooted in our confidence that God's Word does what it says and the Sacraments are the vital and dynamic parameters of our spiritual lives and Christian identity.  We have the technology (cheap and available) to disseminate this to the world around us.  It remains to be seen if this is but a minor course correction for Missouri or a definite new direction.  Time will tell. 

Heschel is right, however.  We have treated God as a subject of study, an academic pursuit of knowledge, an idea less than real, a spirituality to fill our emptiness, a means to improve our daily lives... now is about time we remember that God is living among us and that He has made it possible for us to know Him through His Word and Sacraments, the means of grace.  We need not what we think we need or should have but what God in His love and wisdom have provided for us.  The new creation of our old lost lives, through the death and resurrection of baptism... 

And the catholic faith is this... that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Colors and Seasons

There was much discussion about the color chosen for Advent.  More classically, the purple for Advent distinguished the season from the violet and more penitential season of Lent.  Rose was used for the Third Sunday in Advent.  Then blue got into the mix and some ran and jumped upon the bandwagon and others circled the wagons to complain about this new intrusion into the old tradition.  In addition, the Anglicans had some tradition of using a Lenten array not of purple or of violet but unbleached muslin.  Blue was an old practice of using blue in Advent (the Sarum and Mozarabic (Old Spanish) Rites used it, but they didn't really exist anymore).  In the East, blue is one of the primary liturgical colors (but we are not Orthodox).  Others point to its ancient use in the Church of Sweden.

My point is not to present a long history of the colors here or to insist upon one practice or another.  The colors of the season were not written in Scripture or given to the Church with direct revelation to one of the Apostles.  The use of color evolved with the major choices laid down between the sixth and twelfth centuries -- with variants in different places.  (Though some wags insist the whole thing is a marketing conspiracy by Almy to get parishes to part with money!).

The color of Advent is a church usage about which differences should not cause problems.  It is precisely this latitude that adiaphora has in mind.  Though some of you might not believe it, I am not very fussy on this point.  It is a point about which people may disagree and this disagreement cause no problems at all.  My first parish used purple.  My present parish uses blue (although a deep indigo blue that distinguishes Advent from the lighter blue usually associated with festivals of the Virgin Mary).

I had a person wonder why we had blue and I have had people wonder why we do not have purple but I have never had a person ask why not the pink of Advent III.  So colors are not set in concrete but are part of the evolving tradition of the church.  There is nothing wrong with this but this is something wrong about insisting that one path or another be the only choice.  Actually, in this day and age, I am happy just to see paraments in use at all (or vestments worn by the clergy!).

Playing the numbers game...

Brother Weedon has reminded us of a great gem from Wilhelm Loehe:

"The Lutheran Church is so unconcerned about numbers that she looks around and asks: 'Who doesn't belong here?'" Three Books on the Church

Oh, that we were so blissfully ignorant of statistics.  I know not what happens in other Districts, but in mine the District Office requests quarterly updates on the worship attendance, new members, baptisms, etc.  I understand the need for numbers and I think most of us are okay with the annual parochial report but it seems so easy to become preoccupied with those numbers.  As a circuit counselor I got to see the disarray in some parish registers and know the lament of the District when it comes to orderly record keeping.  I am also disappointed to find out there are so many parishes who have failed to send in the timely report each year and so their information is woefully out of date.  I have even been on the receiving end of a call only to find out that the numbers quoted in the Lutheran Annual and on the call documents were from years ago and did not present an accurate picture of the congregation as it was (usually much smaller than reported).  But we cannot afford to become addicted to the record keeping function and to numbers as the final determination of the Church's success or health.

It occurs to me that the times of greatest growth in the Church were also times when numbers were not the primary indicators of achievement nor were they the things that shaped the church's understanding of who we were or what we were to be about.  In the 1950s our church body was opening up and dedicating a new building and filling it with people a couple of times a week or more.  Yet we did not have the internet or computer to chart, communicate, or focus the numbers of the mission.  We just did what we were called to do. 

The other thing about this quote was the question.  We have tended to use numbers and statistics as a means of shaming us into doing the right thing.  Our poor statistical health has become the constant litany of communication (at least in this District) and remains one of the reasons why we are so apt to borrow outreach methods and programs from other church bodies (indiscreetly, I might add).  It is like waving the unpaid bills before the congregation and calling it stewardship!  Loehe suggests another perspective.  He would have us focus not on who is missing but who does not belong.  He would have us see those outside the Church less as the sinners on the express train to hell and more as those NOT YET of the kingdom of God.  It may sound like semantics but it is not.  It is a sea change of attitude and motivation. 

Some time ago I suggested that a paper by Heath Curtis on election was a good starting point.  From that paper we are reminded that the number of the elect is for God to know and not to preoccupy us here on earth.  Our judgment and focus upon the unchurched should rather be as those not yet of the kingdom of God -- who is to know -- so we speak the Gospel and proclaim the Word of the Cross not to the huddling masses of pagan and heathen but to those for whom Christ also died that they might rejoice with us in the grace and mercy that has sought us out and saved us by grace.  The church's mission motive and point of proclamation is always positive, hopeful, and gracious.  Even the call to repent is not itself a judgment against the unrepentant as much as it is the means by which they are convicted as to their sin and come to appreciate and trust in the redemption which is of Christ's own doing.  God alone can judge and we are not given either to substitute our own judgment or to participate in that judgment.  This is something the Church has often lost sight of and whenever we do, it is to our poverty and weakness.

It is like the preaching to the choir that goes on when sermons rail against those who are not in the pews to those who are.  We tend to beat up on the people who are there for those who are not.  We also tend to preach panic about everything from money to mission as if desperation is the godly motivation for witness, service, and stewardship.

No, I think we need to get appropriate numbers but we also need to make sure that numbers are not in the driver's seat for the larger church or the local congregation.  If numbers were the only thing or even the primary thing, it would be easy enough to sacrifice faithfulness on the altar of expedience and fill the pews by giving the people what they want.  Yet if we do that, we filling the church building and the nave of hell by speaking to them anything and everything except the Gospel and by giving them anything and everything except Jesus Christ (through the means of grace).  We cannot afford to play the numbers game because everyone loses...

Nuttin Says Advent Like Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland

"Savior of the nations, come,
Virgin's Son, make here Your home!
Marvel now, O heav'n and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth/

Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh--
Woman's offspring, pure and fresh.

Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this was shown:
God was there upon His throne.

Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began.

God the Father was His source,
Back to God He ran His course.
Into hell His road went down,
Back then to His throne and crown.

For You are the Father's Son
Who in flesh the vic'try won.
By Your mighty pow'r make whole
All our ills of flesh and soul.

From the manger newborn light
Shines in glory through the night.
Darkness there no more resides;
In this light faith now abides.

Glory to the Father sing,
Glory to the Son, our king,
Glory to the Spirit be
Now and through eternity."

Text: Ambrose of Milan, 340-397; German version, Martin Luther, 1483-1546; tr. William M. Reynolds, 1812-76, sts. 1-2; tr. Lutheran Service Book, 2006, sts. 3, 6; tr. F. Samuel Janzow, 1913-2001, sts. 4-5, 8; tr. Gifford A Grobien, b. 1973, st. 7

Tune: Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland; Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn, Wittenberg, 1524, ed. Johann Walter; setting: Lutheran Service Book, 2006 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Sign of Things Not So Good In Judaism

From New Voices:  Brandeis University terminates the Hebrew Major... Zephaniah 1:10 "On that day," declares the LORD, "a cry will go up ...

Faced with the increasing financial challenges of the ongoing economic crisis,  Brandeis announced in 2010 the termination of the Hebrew Language and Literature Major, beginning with the students of  the class of 2015, who began school this semester. The cut came as only one of many faculty and departmental changes that administrators estimate will save the university $3.8 million per year.
Though students will still have the option of pursuing a Hebrew language track within the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies major, which also offers concentrations in Judaic Studies and Bible and Ancient Near East, options are now more limited for students seeking a  Hebrew-intensive curriculum. While some students are able to fill most of their requirements with the courses taught in Hebrew, the track allows students to take up to five of the 10 course requirements in English. And with one faculty member cut this year, just five Hebrew professors are left to cover the 14 Hebrew courses offered this semester.

“They were looking at programs that do not have enough volume in order to see if we can cut faculty from them,” said  Vardit Ringvald, the director of the Hebrew Language Program who has taught Hebrew at Brandeis for 27 years.
“So it’s true that we don’t have a lot of majors in Hebrew, but we have a lot of students who are taking the language,” she said. Over 100 students are enrolled in Hebrew courses this semester with similar enrollment for next semester. While some are simply looking to fill their language requirement, others are looking to explore their Jewish identity and connection to Israel through the language.

“One vital contribution to my decision to apply early to Brandeis was its offer of intensive Hebrew classes, a Hebrew major and a Hebrew minor,” said Doreen El-Roeiy, an undergraduate departmental representative for the major. “I felt that the Hebrew Language and Literature major at Brandeis University was something unique, a major that could offer me a flexible degree, which could be applied to many career paths,” she said “For a school that advertises their Judaic studies field, it’s a disappointment for people to come and not be allowed to further their Hebrew knowledge through the variety of courses they used to have in the Hebrew major,” said Michelle Sinnreich. Sinnreich, a junior majoring in Hebrew, chose the major during her sophomore year after seeing bigger improvements in her fluency in just two years of study in the Brandeis Hebrew department than she had during the several years she spent studying Hebrew in a Jewish day school and during a gap year in Israel.

But despite student interest in the Hebrew courses, the University cut a faculty member this year along with the major. The change has made it increasingly difficult for the Hebrew department to offer all the courses they want for those who are still interested in studying Hebrew without the major.

“We have to compensate. And we’re trying. We’re very creative and we’re trying to do it,” Ringvald said. “But we work extra hard, extra hours. We take advantage of what the university is offering us in order to be able to really tell the students [they] can still have a wonderful program here.”
The department has worked to redesign the program so that they can still offer the same courses and provide students with the options they want. To avoid cutting courses from the curriculum, each of the five remaining Hebrew professors now teaches five and a half courses per year instead of only five. Certain classes that used to be offered every year are now being offered every other year or every two years so the faculty is able to cover all the original options. Some class sizes increased to accommodate all the students taking Hebrew courses within what is now a smaller department. 

While 14 Hebrew language courses are being offered this semester, including upper level classes focused on conversation and writing skills, Ringvald believes that the lack of students who choose to major in Hebrew is a result of the former major’s structure, which required students to take Near Eastern and Judaic Studies classes taught in English. Those classes include a foundational course in Judaic Studies and options such as Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic Hebrew and Modern Hebrew literature. Though they often analyze Hebrew texts, such courses often serve as deterrent to students looking for total Hebrew immersion.

Whither and Yon

So the news is up.  The Anglican Ordinariate will be functioning as of January 1, 2012, to receive disenchanted Anglicans who can retain some of their Anglican heritage while formally being in communion with the See of St. Peter (Rome). 
The news is out. The Anglican Ordinariate will be established in the USA on January 1. Read more about it here and from Rocco Palmo here. As I predicted, there are more priests coming over than congregations for them to serve. They will, no doubt, serve in local Latin Rite parishes while they build up an ordinariate congregation. Goody Goody! I'm pretty excited by this. I know I'm biased, but they're going to bring in some good stuff to the Catholic Church. It's called "the Anglican Patrimony."
Here are a few of the good things:
1. Good hymns
2. Good education
3. Good sense of self deprecating humor
4. Good taste in dry sherry
5. Good understanding of the importance of lace and incense
6. Good literary sense
7. Good boost to the Western tradition
8. Words like "vouchsafe"
9. Good Choral evensong
10. Good knowledge of architecture
11. Good Englishness
12. Good sense of the need for Evangelization.
13. Good missionary spirit.
14. Good hats
15. Good down to earth spirituality.

At the same time as I read of this, I also read that it is not true that Anglicans do not have doctrine.  Maybe you can decide which is more accurate.
Contrary to Maurice Wiles’ opinion that Anglicanism has no identifiable content, Philip Turner states that, “the doctrinal content Anglicans share is embedded primarily in liturgical practices the purpose of which is to form the character of a communion of believers. Its liturgical and formational setting means that the doctrinal content of Anglicanism is, as it were, scattered through a complex of practices rather than focused in a specifically theological document.”
Turner is careful here, noting that if one says that the primary focus of Anglicanism is “liturgical practices,” then one is also saying in the same breathe that the heart of Anglican theology is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. For at the center of the Book of Common Prayer is the “prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.”
Now as you probably know from reading this blog, I am firmly in the camp of re-establishing the office of bishop and giving the bishop some authority and some teeth.  Of course, there are those who whine like babies about the lack of authority or teeth among those who do have bishops -- and more than this, the lack of orthodoxy as some would suppose an episcopal structure should encourage.  I make no such argument that an episcopacy either encourages or discourages orthodoxy.  I just believe it is the more Scriptural and churchly form of governance for the Church.
It surely does strike me as odd, however, that a church body with such great respect and ceremony for the office of bishop is also home to so many who seem intent upon ignoring the content of their own creedal and liturgical heritage in order to keep and pass on simply the outward forms and ceremonial of that identity.  On the one hand it surely should be enough to say that the doctrine of the liturgy and inherent in that liturgy is the confession of the church and the faithful.  On the other hand, the doctrine in that liturgy and of that liturgy is neither sufficient for or complete in its confession.  There are hosts of issues not directly addressed or even tangential to the liturgy or the creed and yet they require the Church to speak, confess, and bear witness to the truth.  Lutherans with their big heavy book of faith in the Concordia never claim that every issue or dogma is contained within its pages and that the Church must continue to confess and bear witness to that which is not directly referenced in her written confessions or liturgical tradition (abortion, for example).

The liturgy is a good start for those who hear and heed with utter seriousness and piety what is confessed there in prayer form but it begs for more.  It is this that Anglicans seem to have forgotten.  So they hold to a book as a form without doctrinal content that has teeth, ceremonial which is catholic in nearly every aspect except the faith that accompanies such ritual and tradition, and to a structure which is ancient and Biblical yet entirely incapable of speaking pointedly when false teaching and false teachers arise.

Back to the main point...  at the very same time some are trying to insist that Anglicans have enough doctrine in the liturgy and prayer book there are Anglicans who are seeking union with Rome (with an identifiable Anglican piety) because they cannot express or hold to that piety in their own tradition.  Rome will gain the best of Anglicanism and Anglicans while the ECA will be left with those whose Gospel has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus, whose mission is social justice, and whose identity is synonymous with the most radical of political, theological, and cultural agendas.  But they will do a nice job of celebrating the liturgy whose content they have abandoned and they will head toward apostasy with miter, staff, cope, purple trimmed cassock, mosetta, and zuchetto leading the way...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Take a good, long look at Rome... After Sunday it will never be the same...

Among the many naysayers are most prominently, American Roman Catholics, who delight in complaints about the supposed end to the Roman Catholic Church as we know it... all because of some liturgical changes in language and song.  Beginning with the First Sunday in Advent, a new translation of the Latin will take effect -- one that is more literal than dynamic.  It will certainly return a more traditional vocabulary to those attending Mass but, if you read the blogs and news media, it portends nothing less than the complete undoing of Vatican II and the breath of fresh air introduced into the Mass by Paul VI.  In reality, the changes are more incremental than monumental.  Yet the media is playing this up and implying that there will be mass revolt (pun intended).  Perhaps more noticeable are the changes in the rules which no longer permit the free substitution of hymns, songs and other music for the chants of the Mass.  Although these may be hardly noticed since it is clear that many parishes will be ignoring this rubrical change.

My point... simply that the media loves to predict the demise of the Church or Christendom as we know it and seems to delight in every opportunity to poke at the Church (Roman or otherwise) when tradition is respected, doctrine is followed, and rules are kept.  But, then again, the media has hardly ever had the health or life or faithfulness of the Church as one of its primary interests...  Just reminding you of this fact as they whole thing gets ramped up for the end of one translation (and its demise) and the start of a new one...

One columnist described it as a death, a funeral for the last vestige of Vatican II and its rather trite and wooden liturgical legacy.  Those on both sides have used this imagery and in each case it is an overstatement, an exaggeration designed to incite rather than illuminate.  You can find such folks in Lutheranism as well.... the only problem is that we have no mechanism for enforcement of the liturgical rules and so you can do little to reign in the excesses of parishes and pastors who do what is right in their own eyes....

By Will and Deed. . .

I have been reading The Anglican Digest for some 39 years.  It is not quite what it was but neither has it gone off the deep end into the great abyss -- a fate that has befallen too many Anglicans in this country.  Over the years, I have stolen artwork, copied articles, reworked writing into newsletter articles, etc.  Not so much of late.  One of the sections I always appreciated was the section called "By Will and Deed."  It chronicled the bequests of the faithful to church, school, and ministry upon their death.  I found it hard not to read about these folks whom I did not know but, nonetheless, of whom I was encouraged and inspired.

They formed an odd conglomeration of bishops, priests, deacons, wardens, vestry members, organists, choir directors, Sunday school teachers, choir members, etc.  Their only commonality was that they remembered in their wills their home parish or some ministry dear to their hearts.  It warmed my heart to read of a woman who never married but sang in the choir for 67 years and taught Sunday school for same period and then left thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure her parish continued the good work of which she was a part.  Or to hear of the priest who deposited every honorarium or gift and then, upon his death, returned to the congregation he had served for so many years a princely sum of hundreds of thousands of dollars that they may continue on long after his death.  Or to hear of the man who had raised six children in the faith and left a million dollars to a seminary so that there would be faithful priests to serve his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and their sons and daughters.

It is a profound mark of a generous heart that you look beyond yourself and your own needs to provide for those whose faces you will never see and whose lives will never cross your own.  By Word and Deed was a story of faithful church goers and workers who believed that it was important that the work of the kingdom be supported in their death as it was in their life.

As Lutherans we have the same opportunity.  We are not nearly so comfortable with this as those Anglicans but we should learn to practice up on our giving by will and bequest.  It is especially true that in this age of dwindling congregations and pressure to adopt contemporary worship and music that we who appreciate the liturgy and the church's song would give this cause our generous support even after we have departed this life in the faith.

So if you are reading, select your recipient and make your gift.  Endow the choir or the maintenance on the pipe organ or the building maintenance and repair or pay down principle on the mortgage or assist in a mission endowment that future generations may rejoice in your faith by dispersing the funds to a worthy mission of the Church each year.

On this day when hoards have heard and heeded the call to early bird bargains and shopping specials, I plead that you may leave a legacy in death as you showed forth your witness in life.... That the good work may go on undistracted by the need to raise funds or pinch pennies.  Go for it... really!!

PS  If you want to have some real fun, do not wait until you are dead.  May a bequest now that you may see it fulfilled and kept and now leave that surprise to those who will administer your estate!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Now Thank We All Our God

Nun danket alle Gott - Woodwind Quintet from Todd Marchand on Vimeo.

Happy Thanksgiving

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our sasety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;-- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


As with so many things in life, the liturgy flows...  It is not a disjointed connection of disparate parts but the flowing from one to another so that the whole is a seamless garment.  Though not technically part of the liturgy, the Confession and Absolution begins the flow by cleansing us from the sin, distance, and distraction that makes it impossible for us to turn our hearts and minds to the Lord.  Repentance flows to confession and flows from confession.  It is not a perfunctory thing we do.  From the entrance rite (Introit or Entrance Hymn, Kyrie, Gloria) to the Collect to the lessons, sermon and creed, there is a progression and a progressive unfolding or flow.  It is not a matter of starts and stops but of movement, like the water of a stream moves, twists, turns, flows over rocks and around them, several streams and then one... we come together before the Word of the Lord that is not only true but efficacious.  The Sacramental Service continues this flow to the apex of the movement with the Word coming to us in and with the bread and cup.  From there it is like a waterfall down, a quick and sudden movement to the end and out the door to do mercy's work in the world.

The good and wise presider will work to keep the liturgical flow going, without intruding or distracting from the unfolding of Confession to Word to Meal to Sending.  That is, I often think, the gift of presiding at the liturgy -- knowing when to speak and when to keep silent, what is needful to be said and what just happens and, well, flows.  Far from assisting this flow, the constant flow of announcements, explanations, and page numbers turns this flow into a faucet that is on and off, on and off, jerky and disconcerting.

The Psalmist also seems to see this in the passage of time (90 in Watt's wonderful paraphrase O God, Our Help in Ages Past).  So the rivers of Babylon and the heavenly city, Jerusalem on high, mark our thoughts and identity among the children of God.  Scripture unfolds and flows -- at least when seen through the lens of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Life ebbs and flows with God always the one who makes it flow and who directs the flow of our lives through the river of His grace, that we may finally reach the end where each of our own individual streams flow as one into the one river of God's gracious favor in Christ.  If we get this it is not hard to understand what it means to long, groan, and even impatiently anticipate this great and wonderful day.

As many have often said, this is why the organ has become the preferred instrument to support the congregational song.  Unlike the piano or wind instruments or just about any instrument, the pipe organ sustains the pitch with a seeming endless supply of air.  It breathes with us and thus helps us tune our breath to the song that is ours to sing.  A good organist knows this but I am not always sure how to explain or teach it.  People instinctively recognize this. The piano is a percussive instrument whose sound continues only by the pressing of the ivories.

For the liturgy and the Church, there seems to be an ontological priority that the sustained or continuous enjoys over the discrete, spontaneous, or sudden.  This is not accidental.  The unfolding of Church history is just that  -- a continuity that from time to time must be recovered but which is the essence of our life together as the people of God.  We receive from those who have gone before, the Scriptural sacred deposit or tradition.  We hand off to those who follow what we received.  We may carefully add to our expression of it (hymn, confession, etc.) but the content is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

I wonder if this is not why I prefer the fountain pen and its flow of ink on to the page -- the thoughts becoming words becoming lines on paper that turn into words and thoughts that can be passed on.  Printing is, in my mind, a poor substitute for cursive and it ends up being a devolution of lines and disconnected forms until, if you print much, you finally cannot read it at all.  It takes much longer for cursive to deteriorate.  For this reason, my sermon prep always includes the hand written first draft of the sermon by fountain pen -- and only then hits the computer for editing and change (which pen and paper do not do well).  As an aside, let me simply acknowledge that printing is less personal and easier to forge while cursive is more personal and more personally expressive.

On the other end of the spectrum is the typewriter and its successor in the word processor (computer).  This is communication using the mechanical agent of typing and a keyboard. The motion is purely percussive and can even border on violent.  The person is entirely hidden (save for font choice and the attempt to personalize what is, in essence, the least personal of all forms of communication).  The keyboard allows little in terms of disclosing the essence, personality, or individuality of the author.  This is why it is so difficult to determine original from copy, forgery from truth.

Just a few assorted thoughts from a meandering mind on a day when I have had some time to think...

The Mega Church Bubble Is Bursting

The Tennessean (with pretty good religious coverage) had a big article in the Sunday, November 20, paper on the mega church bubble -- wondering if it might be bursting.  You can read it all for yourself.  It is not earth shattering news but the solid reporting of what happens when churches and the pastors who lead them become so intertwined that the church cannot exist without the pastor.  We have see it often enough.  The Crystal Cathedral is but one current example but it does not take much to see how applicable are the lessons of Schuller and the deterioration of his once thriving evangelical empire.

I remember hearing of Rex Humbard and his Cathedral of Tomorrow from Akron, Ohio.  A one-time itinerant preacher, he became one of the best-known television evangelists in America.  At the height of his popularity his Cathedral Of Tomorrow program was seen on more than 600 stations. In the 1950s he dedicated his $4 million domed Cathedral of Tomorrow  -- a huge, plush 5,000-seat circular sanctuary complete with velvet drapes, hydraulic stage and a 100ft-long Cross suspended horizontally overhead, studded with thousands of light bulbs in red, white and blue.

Humbard's weekly broadcast (Cathedral Of Tomorrow) mixed preaching and music, the principal performers being his wife (an accomplished gospel singer), their children, a 48-strong choir and the immaculately-groomed Cathedral Quartet. Humbard himself, in a sharp business suit, would contribute folksy songs on his guitar, preach a sermon, offer prayers and utter blessings along the lines of "God bless you real good".  By 1994 it was all gone and the Cathedral sold.  

He was but one of many who saw the rise and fall of fortune upon their evangelical empires.  The Bakkers, Jimmy Swaggert, Oral Roberts, and so many others found failure either through the moral weakness or the inability to pass on what was a personal appeal to children or other successors.  Whether local, regional, or national, the problem is the same -- church and preacher have become one and the same.  How does a mega church transition to other leadership?  It is not something I worry about but I can guess it is on the minds of the Rick Warrens, Bill Hybels, Joel Osteens, and J. D. Jakes of this world.

Yet while the media is readily pointing out the failures of those once invincible churches and preachers, some church bodies are thinking that their model is still worth following.  Not a few in Missouri are building mission starts with the same grand vision of satellite campuses and a dynamic leader whose charisma and personality are copied from place to place in an attempt to start out big (instead of beginning small and working your way up).  It makes me wonder if we will not be left with the same kinds of empty shells of the visions and plans of these energetic leaders whose legacy may be more personal than churchly and their shoes pretty hard for anyone to fill.

In the Twin Cities, one of the largest Lutheran congregations in America will be working on translating what has largely been the fruit of one man's leadership on to those who now take his place.  With his father, Paul Youngdahl built what became the nation's largest ELCA congregation, but his ministry remained very personal. It is this personal nature that makes it hardest for a successor to build upon the legacy of Youngdahl and continue the Mount Olivet miracle.  At 6-foot-7, Youngdahl not only was a towering figure on the basketball court but his skill as a leader made him a towering figure in the church.  He leaves some mighty big shoes to fill after personally serving this parish since 1968, as senior Pastor since 1974.  Many will be watching to see if the transition will be successful.

Although the parish I serve is fairly small (250-300 in worship attendance), I wonder how difficult the transition will be when I am no longer here.  I have already begun my 19th year here and, unless a surprise from God comes, will probably finish my full-time service here.  That could mean that this parish would have the same Pastor for nearly 30 years.  This is not a problem for me but it might become a problem for those who cannot imagine another Pastor serving them.  But the issues faced here are minor in comparison to the problem of sustaining multi-million dollar budgets, maintaining hundred million dollar campuses, and keeping thousands of seats filled each Sunday...

How easy it is for us to displace Jesus and put ourselves center stage.... And how hard it is for us to separate ourselves from our egos...  Lord, keep us from becoming our own worst enemies and working against what is Your Church and Your work!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What is the business of the Church?

Every now and then when I am bored (which, if you are under 30, appears to be most of the time), I take a blog expedition and follow link after link.  There are a ton or Roman Catholic oriented blogs out there and most dioceses and most bishops have a blog.  It has become apparent to me that bishops in the Roman Catholic Church spend a goodly amount of their time saying Mass.  It may not be a surprise to you Roman brothers who venture over to my Lutheran meanderings but it continues to strike me at all the pictures and commentary devoted to saying Mass by those episcopal and diocesan blogs.

Funny.  You could spend your whole life traversing the landscape of Lutheran blogs (official or not) and you would find few visual images of the Mass (okay, Divine Service).  Hardly any of them show the bishops (okay District Presidents) saying Mass (something that is slightly changed by our Synod President and Bishop (he is a practicing parish pastor) Matt Harrison.  Even so, Harrison has barely dented the pervasive image of national clergy in business suits or polo/khaki Friday casuals.

It seems that in Rome the Mass IS the business of the Church -- at least that from which all the other business flows.  Not so for us Lutherans.  We tend to see devotions as perfunctory things that we need to get out of the way as quickly as possible so that we can talk finances or declining numbers or prospective programs to revitalize the church body or how to deal with this issue or that problem.  The average Pastors meeting or District confab or Synod convention or church council or voters meeting offers a perfunctory prayer and a few spontaneous words with perhaps a verse or two from the Bible before we get on to the BIG agenda.  Even when Pastors or the Districts or Synod gathers in larger groups, worship is one small part of what we do (one Eucharist out of a three day or week long gathering).  I wonder if we have it wrong.

Perhaps one of the reasons why worship in our church body is so contentious and the situation in such disarray is that we have come to believe that the business of the Church is something other than worship.  At least that is what our practice says.  We worship because we are supposed to but our hearts are in such things as convention resolutions or PowerPoint presentations or Q & A sessions, etc.  We see the business of the Church as business and worship as, well, the prelude to the real business.

So our DPs tend to be even more uncomfortable at the altar as they are in the pulpit.  Our agendas are filled with the busy-ness of business stuff.  Our hearts are just not in it -- worship, that is.  God forbid that when we gather as Synod in convention each day might begin with Matins and lead into the Divine Service just before lunch and end in Evening Prayer (full liturgies with the full resources of the book, choir, and good pastoral leadership).  Lord help us for the sorry soul who suggests to the District that each day of the confab have time for Word AND Sacrament that the assembly may not merely give lip service to the praise of God which is primarily focused in the faithful reception of His gifts.  Keep the stares from those who might suggest that at least 20 minutes of the parish meetings (council, voters, committee, board, etc.) be given to one of the Daily Offices.

No, you would not get it from the pictures or commentary of our official blogs that the primary business of the Church is worship (the Mass).... because, in spite of what the Confessions say and early Lutheran practice reveals, we just don't believe it....

My recommendation for a Synod in trouble, a District seeking unity of parish and Pastors, a congregation expressing in local site the evangelical catholicity of the Church -- the Mass, the daily offices, and sacramental and Biblical preaching!  Think how much money we might save on all those parachurch groups peddling the latest and greatest revitalization programs... and how trivial so much of the crap we do as a church and church body might seem in comparison to the Lord who comes to us through the means of grace....

When and where did I see you, Lord?

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29A, preached on Sunday, November 20, 2011.

    So now we come to the end of the Church Year.  We went through the preparation of Advent to the celebration of Christmas to the revelation of Epiphany to the repentance of Lent to the rejoicing of Easter to the awe of Pentecost to the mystery of the Trinity to the lessons of the long, green season of Sundays after Pentecost.  And now it has come to an end.  The lessons now speak to us today of something many of us dread or dread talking about – judgment.  We would rather celebrate; heck, we would even rather repent than ponder God's judgment of our lives.  Yet, this judgment cannot be avoided.  Yet as we reflect upon the words of Jesus in the Gospel, we are reminded that we meet this judgment from the perspective of faith and confidence and not fear and doubt.
    Do you remember Thomas and how he saw so clearly his doubts and fears?  Because he saw what he was afraid of and what he doubted so clearly, he could not see Jesus.  We run the same risk.  If we live out our lives seeing through the eyes of our fears and doubts, we will miss what is most certain and sure.  But if we look at things through the lens of faith, we will see what is most true and sure.  What distinguishes those who receive the surprise of grace from those who receive condemnation is this perspective of faith.  Truly Jesus does not speak of some simple external judgment of deeds.  The righteous and unrighteous are separated not merely by their deeds but primarily by the heart from which these deeds proceed.
    The unrighteous understood seeing is believing.  If they had seen Jesus they would have fed Him, given Him drink, welcomed Him, clothed Him, and visited Him.  They did not see Jesus.  They never saw Jesus in the whole of their lives.  They were too busy trying to figure out who was legit, who was scamming them, who was honest and who was lying, who was worthy of their love and who was unworthy of their attention.  They thought their best service to God and to themselves was to judge.  So they spent their lives judging by what their eyes could see.
    If they had seen Jesus, they would have acted differently.  Because they did not see Jesus they were surprised that they were held accountable for the way they treated those in need.  They saw the needy as a burden.  They saw their own need as greater than the needs of others.  Charity begins at home, you know.  They saw people trying to get what was theirs, what they had worked for, and what they had earned the right to call their own.  They saw people inconveniencing them with their needs, with their timing, and with their demand for attention.  But they did not see Jesus.  Because they did not look through the lens of their faith, they saw only what their eyes could see.  Nothing more...
    In contrast to that, the righteous are those who saw everything through the lens of faith.  It is not that they saw or recognized Jesus in the face of the poor or needy.  No, they too were surprised when Jesus pointed out what they had done for him.  They did not see Jesus in one place but they saw Him everywhere.  They considered themselves the hungry, wounded, sick, imprisoned, naked, and alien for whom the Lord became their brother in flesh and their Savior in death.  Their whole lives were lived in response to the love that came for them and their need. They marveled how He had suffered and died for them – unworthy, undeserving, and unlovable  though they were.  They saw the cross everywhere they looked and their hearts were moved by the vision of the love that had come for them.  So from this love, they learned to love others, to care for those in need, to take on the burdens of others, and to inconvenience themselves for a people unworthy and undeserving of their time, effort, or material gifts.
    They did not ask Jesus where He was because if they had seen Him, they might have acted differently.  No, they asked Jesus where He was because they saw nothing in their hearts or lives that should single them out for honor or notice.  They saw themselves as the recipients of His grace and favor and so they could not help but be open to those around them, who, like them, were hurting or needy.  The problem was not that some saw Jesus and others did not.  The problem was that the righteous saw themselves as the poor and needy for whom Christ came and unrighteous saw themselves as deserving and worthy of everything they got. 
    And that is where we come today, at the end of one year of grace and the start of a new one.  Do you see Jesus?  I don't mean do you see Him here or there but do you see everywhere by faith?  Do you see yourselves as the poor and needy for whom Christ came?  For it is only when we see this that we are equipped and prepared to extend Christ’s love to those around us.
    The righteous in Jesus' story did not merely see needs.  They saw the resources God has supplied to them.  They saw grace all around them.  They saw the abundance of God's blessings so they could not but share with those in need.  Faith directed their vision.  The righteous in Jesus' story did not see the wounded and hurting as problems to be solved or responsibilities to be fulfilled.  They remembered the wounds and hurts that Jesus bore for them on the cross.  Their vision was so shaped by their awareness of what Jesus bore for them, that they could not but bear with those in need – whoever they were.  They could not but act in kindness because the kindness of God moved them.
    The righteous in Jesus' story saw through eyes of faith all that God in His grace had done for them.  And this grace spilled out and over and into their lives.  They were not moved by worthy causes or legitimate needs or sob stories.  They were moved by the love of God planted in their hearts.  Mercy was not their duty, it was their privilege – all because of the mercy that first found them and now found others through them.
    Now you might think that this was a pep talk from Jesus about how we should care for our brothers and sisters and neighbors in need.  But it is nothing of the sort.  Jesus is calling us to see our whole lives through the lens of the cross, from the vantage point of faith.  For it is then and only then that good works well up and spill out into the whole of our lives.
    We as Christians are too likely to tell God that if we see a real need, we will respond.  If we are convinced that we can do something, we will do something.  But God is not looking for people who see the difference between the worthy and the unworthy, the real needy and the scammers.  God is looking for people who have received His grace and who respond with grace, who have received His mercy and who show forth that mercy, who have known His kindness and who act kindly.  This is not about good works that are forced or motivated by guilt or fear.  This is the story of a people so impressed with the mercy of God toward them that they act in mercy toward others.  This is about believing that is seeing, faith to see Jesus everywhere.
    Today we pray not that we might be more generous or accepting or even caring.  Today we pray for faith to see us as the wounded and weak for whom Christ came.  Then we will see and know what opportunity God gives us when we see another in the same need as we have.  And then we will know how to respond – with the grace and mercy of our Savior.  Amen.