Thursday, May 31, 2012

The power of the Lutheran Confessions. . .

Hey, can it get better than this?  A guy walks into Borders, picks up the Concordia: Readers Edition (some have so maligned) and read it until it led him to the light of Lutheranism...  Listen up!

Ritual is, as it were, a solemnized habit.

I heard that a few did not like the video suggesting we should not be robots.  All well and good.  You are thoroughly free to disagree with me.  That does not mean you are right.  But it does not mean I am wrong, either.

It would seem that liturgical churches walk a fine line between ritual we do without thinking and and regular review of that ritual to make certain we know what it is we are doing.  I expect that this is the genius of the liturgy -- that it is common enough to be habit, albeit solemnized habit, and yet ever fresh and new because the words convey the very things they sign and symbolize.  All in all that is the tension in which we live.

Habits can be good or bad.  Habit is a neutral term.  Some do not like habits.  They wish to be spontaneous at all times.  We all know this is an impossibility.  Spontaneity is an even more onerous vice than predictability and one surely harder to satisfy.  We cannot avoid habit.  From the moment we get up in the morning until the last sigh before sleep overtakes us, we are creatures of habit who follow the ruts of our habits (good or bad).  Ritual is, as Peter Berger put it, solemnized habit.  This is good habit.  This habit allows the potential for a community to speak and act together and on cue.  It keeps us from the proverbial invention of the wheel all over again.  By following the commonly known path, we all walk together.  None of us need to stop and figure out the way.  The way is what allows us to act in concert with one another.

I like habits and routine.  They are the comfortable boundaries that allow me the security to extend myself and the refuge I return to when that experiment goes awry.  I guess this is exactly why the liturgy is so important.  It is the family and comfortable habit of the faithful that allows us the security to expend ourselves before the world in witness and service.  It also is the very place where we return when our foray into the world fails to bear our hoped fruit and it is the means of our sustenance that equips us to try again to bear the good fruit of the kingdom that endures.

Some churches have decided that what was old is by definition bad.  Because they can sing a new song to the Lord they must sing only new songs.  They are so intent upon preventing robotic repetition of the familiar sacred texts that the have done away with most all of those holy words and actions.  In doing so, they have created a familiar ritual of the new, which is not entirely unpredictable but rather routine as well.  It is not that they think too little of worship but make too much of it.  Worship becomes the only thing so it is packed with everything that could be done (without bothering to think what should be done).  Half the time is spent in music to address the heart.  It is music chosen for the feeling it imparts and used to create a mood or setting they think conducive to worship.  It involves all kinds of visual stimulus.  Because we can do so much with technology and theater, we must do it.  So the new is predictably filled with dance and drama -- thoroughly documented and directed by video and its soundtrack.  Finally there is the message.  The messenger is dressed for the part with either the tailored cut of a fine suit or the casual look of the latest fashion from one of the purveyors of current style (A & F, Gap, etc.).  It is new but predictably new -- habit has a way of creeping up on even the most creative.

In contrast, the liturgical churches do not invest a lot in worship.  The forms and postures and ritual are just, well, there.  It is neither the reason nor the goal but it all points to Christ.  It is predictable simply because Christ is predictable.  We do not guess where He is this Sunday or what He might say to us.  We know.  So the worship is about Christ, it points to Him and not to itself.  We do not disdain habit.  We honor the good habit that directs us to that which is good and right and true.  We fall out into the form as people finding their place -- not because our place is so important but because Christ is.  We know who we are and we know the predictable path that has brought us here and where our gathering will lead.  More importantly, we know who Christ is and where He has made Himself accessible to us.  The Word and Sacraments are heart and core of what we do and of who we are as Christians because these belong to Christ and convey Christ, the bearer of His good gifts and grace to His people.

What makes it fresh and new is not that Christ surprises us with something unpredictable, but that He is predictable.  He is always where He has promised to always be.  Amid a world of disappointment and broken promises, this is our refreshing joy.  Jesus is where He has pledged to be, He gives what He has promised to give, and He does what He has promised to do.  Period.  The ritualized habit called liturgy keeps us on the same page... Christ's page.  Simple enough.  Every now and then we do need to be cautioned about becoming too casual about the familiar and every now and then, when we long for something new, we need to be pointed to the one and only thing that is new -- Christ's gracious and merciful gifts where He has placed His name (Word, water, and meal). 

Just a few thoughts on the solemn routine that is fresh every Sunday morning...

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A little gem... Adiaphora and fig leaves...

Adiaphora: The Fig Leaf of the Old Adam

In a May 10 Issues, Etc. segment, Pastor Wil Weedon, Director of Worship for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, began a multi-show discussion of the historic liturgy. This was a great segment. Here's a taste, where Pastor Weedon explains adiaphora, which he calls "the fig leaf of the old Adam":

Listen here for the short segment.

You can listen to the whole segment here.

I stole this from Scott

What is a Pastor to do?

Over the years the issue of what a Pastor is to do has caused no small amount of discussion, debate, and disagreement.  There are those who talk about the role of Pastor as vision caster, the one who defines the future, who rallies the people to the cause, and sets in place the means to obtain that future.  There are those who speak of the Pastor as evangelistic model for the people in the pew -- one who spends a good deal of his time at Starbucks or the Mall or wherever unchurched people are.  There are those who see the Pastor as a CEO running the congregation as an efficient business to achieve the goals that congregation has set for itself.  There are those who see the Pastor primarily as preacher (and, by extension, teacher) whose job is to mediate the Word of God to the people in the pew.  There are those who see the Pastor more as priest who proffers the sacramental grace of the Church to the people as appropriate and needful.  There are those who see the Pastor as agent of change for moribund congregations spiraling to doom.  There are those who see the Pastor as anchor of eternity for a people and parish facing the constant changes and challenges of a world never the same.  There are those who see the Pastor as moral guardian both of the values of the Kingdom and ethics police to make sure that the people in the pew operate according to the right rules.  There are those who see the Pastor as counselor and guide to help the people achieve their own goals and dreams and desires (the life coach kind of Pastor who helps you focus on what you want and aids you in obtaining it). There are those who see the Pastor primarily as chaplain who comes in moments of need, crisis, or uncertainty to hold up the folks who face these events or issues in their lives.

I could go on.  There seems to be no shortage of ideas about what a Pastor should or should not be doing with his time on duty. Of course, there are those who would insist that the good Pastor will do all of these things (and be faithful husband, father, neighbor, civic minded citizen, hobbyist, and maintain good boundaries and personal time to balance all these competing and conflicting roles).  I wonder if we are not killing the Ministry and maiming the ministers by our confusion over what the Pastor is called to do and to be.  It certainly seems like we have fewer young men seeking ordination as their first career and more men of all ages either dropping out or drifting away into obscurity in the black hold of the CRM status.

Into this is the press to write up job descriptions (apart from the call documents), to set annual goals for the Pastor to concentrate upon to be more successful, and to do performance evaluations on Pastors as a report card on how well they have done what was asked of them.  I have found most lay folk uncertain about this side of things (rightly so) and uncertain about how to do what Districts and others are pressing upon them.  I have also found that the people who want to do this stuff are about the last people on earth I would want writing out my job description, setting my agenda, and grading my performance afterwards.

Pr. Heath Curtis has a few words on this subject (his latest can be read here).  I repeat what he has formulated from the call documents and vows of promise made by Pastors (ordination and installation). 

 These are the essential things that the Pastor is called to do and to be:
Lead a godly life
Diligently study the Scriptures and the Confessions
Be constant in prayer for those under your care
Preach and teach in accordance with the Confessions
Administer the Sacraments in accord with the Scriptures and the Confessions
Instruct young and old in the faith
Forgive the sins of the penitent and not divulge their sins
Minister to the sick and dying
Admonish and encourage the people to confidence in Christ and holy living...

I cannot improve upon his list.  What I can say is that our confusion of the role and calling of the Pastor is shaped in no small part by the fact that we do not value these things as highly as we once did or as we ought. More than this, we have lost confidence in these (the Word, our Confessions, the means of grace, etc.).  This, with our insistence upon treating the Church like a person on a diet and weighing in every day to see what we have gained or lost,  have left us at minimum confused and, worst, at odds with our very history, identity, and official definition.  Certainly this is what has contributed toward the plethora of local deacons doing all sorts of things not diaconal and of SMP programs designed to make you a Pastor with as little interference from the seminaries and the Church as possible.  But the bottom line for the folks in the pew and the Pastor in his study is that we are no longer sure what a Pastor is, much less united in what we think he should do.  We have spent too much time on the functions and not enough on the office (not the room in the church building).  We are to blame for this mess but part of the reason for it is that we have looked everywhere except at things Lutheran to figure out an answer to the question of what a Pastor is to do.  (And if we don't know who Pastors are or what they are to do, it is certainly expected that we are just as uncertain about how they are to dress... but that is for another post.)

“This is another fine mess that you've gotten us into Ollie”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Yesterday's abnormal becomes today's routine...

The new normal is yesterday’s abnormal: what was seen as bizarre, if not literally crazy, is now seen as normal. The converse is also true: those who still value the judiciously exercised role of shame, guilt and modesty are now seen as representative of the new abnormal.

We could spend a week exploring the dimensions of this truth in culture.  I want to point us for a few moments in how this relates to liturgy.  When Sunday morning becomes a surprise, when the music of the liturgy or the liturgy itself is unpredictable, this abnormal circumstance gives birth to a new normality which begins where the abnormal leaves off.  This is so common sense and such ordinary truth that it might be shocking to some of you.  But this truth is one we need to take very seriously.

At some point in Lutheran history, the abnormal circumstance of a non-communion Sunday morning became the norm for Lutheranism.  When I grew up, morning worship was usually without Holy Communion.  It was the unusual aberration for the Order of Morning Worship to include Holy Communion.  At first it was a quarterly exception and later a monthly one.  This abnormal circumstance bears no resemblance to what Lutherans said about worship in their Confessions and it was the odd exception to the practice of Lutheranism for at least the first hundred years or more.  The aberration that became the norm did not happen overnight.  But it began when the abnormal became acceptable as the norm or ordinary for the life of the Church.  In many respects, Lutheran have spent the last several hundred years trying to recover what was lost when the exception became the rule.  It is still a work in progress and the recovery of our former identity is not without its own threat.

The liturgical movement bore some good fruit for Lutherans.  Part of this good fruit has been the move toward more frequent communion.  But the process has been long and slow and not without its setbacks.  Yet the whole contemporary worship movement in Lutheranism threatens to return us to a normal understanding of Sunday morning with sermon but no Sacrament, with a worship outline but no real liturgy, and with a rich musical tradition but one that bears little resemblance to the great hymnoday of the past.

Yesterday's abnormal is always waiting in the wings to become the norm or routine for the present moment.  This is not merely a matter of exchanging one thing for another but threatens us in an even more menacing way by lowering the shock value of our loss of what was.  The reign of the casual attitude, dress, and attention to what happens on Sunday morning has left us vulnerable to even more shocking and destructive things than a failure to acknowledge the presence of God among us through the means of grace, a less than formal manner of dress, and a desire to make us the center of all that we call worship.  Like the dulling of our senses to what is morally shocking, we have grown so accustomed to the odd and weird that we expect to be surprised, shocked, and are even disappointed when it does not happen.

Such is the reason why some Christians move from church to church.  Searching for what is new, relevant, unusual, and even exceptional (dare I say weird), they are Presbyterians one Sunday, Lutherans the next, Methodists later, and non-denominationals by the end of the month.  We have grown so accustomed to the shock and surprise of what is new and different and we have worshiped for so long at the altar of the trite, the trivial, and the banal, that we have little patience for the routine or predictable.  We have turned what is new and different and exciting into an idol -- an idol even more destructive and deadly than when the one the Israelites raised up in the form of golden calf.

So what then shall we do?  One of the first things we must do is to stop our heedless and senseless slavery to the new and the novel.  What keeps Wal-Mart on top is not what keeps the Church on top.  Wal-Mart may have to invent new products to get us to keep coming back to the same old warehouse stores but it is the predictable presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament delivering to us the promised gifts which are the fruits of His all sufficient suffering and His life-giving death and His victorious resurrection that keep us coming back on Sunday morning.  Replace this with something new and different and we will find ourselves moving further and further away from that which is true and can bestow upon us what it promises.  

Monday, May 28, 2012

I have given you the Helper...

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday (B), preached on Sunday, May 27, 2012.

    We have many ideas about the Spirit and we attribute many things to the work of the Spirit – miraculous power, healing, telling the future, speaking in tongues, conversion, etc...  In our desire to know the Spirit we give to the Spirit the wrong kind of attention.  The Spirit refuses this attention.  He is sent and He is come not to draw attention to Himself but to make known Jesus Christ, who, Himself, has revealed to us the Father.  The Spirit’s work is hidden – He draws us to Christ by working in us faith, faith to acknowledge Jesus and His gifts and trust in Jesus with all our heart, mind, body and strength.
    It is not that we neglect the Spirit by keeping the focus on Christ.  The Spirit is, after all, the Spirit of Christ and of His resurrection.  He is the one whom Jesus has promised.  He is the Comforter, Counselor, Paraclete, and Helper.  He is the one to reveal to us all things in Christ and make known to us all that Jesus said and did for us and for our salvation.  He is the power to opens our hearts and minds to hear, and hearing, to believe in Him whom the Father has sent.
    The greatest work of the Spirit is not some miraculous suspension of the natural order.  We may focus upon healings or speaking in tongues or a mass movement of conversion; the Spirit focuses upon Jesus Christ.  He works to open the closed hearts and minds of the sinner to know Jesus Christ and to know all that He accomplished to forgive us of our sins, to save us from our lost condition, to impart to us life everlasting, and to equip us for the good works of worship, witness, prayer, and mercy to the world.
    St. Paul insists that even our faith is not a work for which we can take credit.  That we believe at all is the work of the Spirit.  This is what we confess in the catechism.  "I believe that I cannot be my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, gathered, enlightened and sanctified me in the one true faith" – all  through the means of grace.  Believing in Jesus is beyond us except for the Spirit’s work in us.
    Once the Spirit has worked faith in us, the Spirit works to keep us in that faith.  We are not of the world, but we live in the world.  As long as we live in the world, we face a myriad of temptations, trials, doubts, persecution, and fears.  We would certainly be lost to faith were it not for the work of the Spirit to keep us in this faith and life in Christ.  He is the glue that keeps us connected to Christ the vine and He is the power to shape our words and our works into the good fruit that glorifies God and fulfills His own purpose.
    How does the Spirit work?  This is perhaps the ultimate question.  We are under great temptation to believe the Spirit works because we prayer for the Spirit and that He works directly upon us.  Both of these tempt us to shaky ground.  The Spirit does not come to us because we bid Him but because Christ has sent Him.  Our Lord has given to us the means of grace.  In these Word and Sacraments He has placed the Spirit so that this Word and these Sacraments may accomplish the purpose for which God intends them – that we believe in Jesus Christ and have life in His name.
    The Spirit is not some side show in God's circus nor is He some strange power or being. The Spirit is the counselor and comforter whom Jesus promised so that we might believe in Him whom the Father has sent and have life in His name.  We are to look for the Spirit not in flash and thunder or sign and wonder but through the ordinary means of grace.
    It is true we Lutherans often do not speak as much of the Spirit as we ought.  Perhaps it is because we do not think we know enough or perhaps it is because we rightly confess that the focus is upon Christ.  But we should be speaking of the Spirit for it is the Spirit whom Jesus has promised and the Spirit whom the Father has sent through Him.  The Spirit works through the Word of God, written, proclaimed, and witnessed.  We do not depend upon technology or church growth marketing plans or our intelligence or even our savvy wisdom.  Our witness has power because wherever the Word of Christ is spoken, the Spirit is at work calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying people to become the people of God by baptism and faith.  To speak of the means of grace is to speak of the Spirit.  To come with faithful hearts to hear and receive the Word and Sacraments is to come under the grace of the Spirit and with the Spirit’s gift of faith to acknowledge, rejoice, and receive His grace for life now and forever.
    The Sacraments are the means of grace not only because Christ has given them to us and attached Himself to this water, bread, and wine.  The Sacraments are the means of grace because the Holy Spirit of God is in them and works through them – just as Jesus has promised.  When we disdain the Word and Sacraments, we disdain Christ and the Spirit.  It is like turning away from the gifts God has given only to ooh and aah over the trite and trivial things of this world, our own accomplishments and glory.  We keep the focus upon the Word and Sacraments because this is where Christ and His Spirit come to us and work in us forgiveness, life, and salvation.
    To be spiritual then is not a matter of right praying or having some outward spiritual manifestation.  To be spiritual is to be attentive to the Word and Sacraments where the Spirit works . . . to make Christ known to us that we might witness this Gospel and make Christ known to the world.  The Spirit works repentance in us and we are saved.  He works faith in us that we might know this and trust this Gospel for all things. 
    What transformed the fearful disciples into the bold voices of witness was nothing less than the Spirit.  These were ordinary and mostly uneducated men and yet their witness turned the world upside down – all because of the Spirit working in them and through them.  Today we are under great temptation to believe that we make our witness attractive and we can build the Church through our own means and methods.  In both cases, we have forgotten the work of the Spirit.  We face today a crisis of faith.  We have lost our full confidence in the Word and the Sacraments, in the Spirit’s working through these means of grace, and in the promise of God that these will not return to Him empty but will accomplish His own purpose in sending them.  Today we come to reclaim this confidence and trust, that the Lord may call and keep us in faith and call the world to repentance by our witness to the Gospel.  That by believing the Word of the Cross we might have life now and forever and that by speaking this Word to the world many may come to faith and have Christ’s life in them, with us... for now and for eternity.  Amen.

Decorating the graves...

I made an unexpected visit to my hometown just before Memorial Day.  While I was taking my time with my mother and a doctor's visit, my wife and middle son were out in the cemeteries fulfilling the obligation of decorating graves.  It seems that many cemeteries discourage or prohibit flowers (not surprising since many now forbid any but flat tombstones).  Not where I come from.  It is a solemn annual duty to remember the dead and to decorate graves.  It may coincide with Memorial Day and the decoration of the graves of soldiers but it goes well beyond this patriotic duty.  It is love's effort to remember and never forget those whom we love who have died.  So she and my son went from grave to grave decorating the tombstones of family members but it was  not a burden.  It was a privilege.

Remembering the dead is not morbid.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  It is one of the most important characteristics of living that the dying are remembered with thanksgiving to the Lord.  I know of old time Easter sunrise services that took place in the cemetery.  Again, this was not morbid at all.  It was a wonderful affirmation for Christians of something we have celebrated for many, many centuries.  As Israel identified the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so do we remember with thanksgiving our fathers in the faith as affirmation of the truth that they live in Christ.

We do not have any graves where we live.  We live far removed from family.  So being near the graves of loved ones who have died in the Lord is a privilege we do not take lightly.  I hope that we communicate this to our children.  It is love's duty to remember, recall, and rejoice in those who have died in the Lord and now rest from their labors...


Rome has a long way to go... perhaps we Lutherans have a way to go also...

How important is the homily [sermon]?  Funny how high this rates in the minds of the hearers and how easy it is for us in the pulpit to diminish the power of preaching.  Here are the words of a former Baptist preacher who became Roman Catholic laity. His words resonate well for us Lutherans, too.  Consider the following:
1. The Sacred Scriptures emphasize the central importance of preaching to the overall ministry of Church.  In an apostolic exhortation from St. Paul to St. Timothy, the Apostle to the Gentiles writes:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge...(2 Timothy 4:2a)

Let’s stop there for a moment.  St. Paul really piles the words on top of one another, doesn’t he?  “In the presence of God … and of Christ Jesus … who will judge the living and the dead."  Rhetorically, he’s building up to something.  What he’s about to say is important.  So, what is it?
Preach the word.

This is what he writes:
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage —with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Timothy 4:2b-5).

Preaching is important—vitally important.  According to this passage, good preaching helps prevent apostasy.  It is central to faithful ministry and evangelization.

There are many other passages in Sacred Scripture that testify to the importance of preaching.  These include, but are not limited to: Mark 16:15; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 21, 23; 14:1-20; 1 Timothy 4:13; Titus 1:3; Acts 9:20.

2. Bad preaching is a main cause of spiritual dullness and leads people away from the Church.  In a recent article in the National Catholic Register, Fr. Robert Barron identified bad preaching as a main reason that people leave the Catholic Church:
A second major concern that can and should be addressed is that of bad preaching. Again and again, people said that they left the Church because homilies were “boring, irrelevant, poorly prepared” or “delivered in an impenetrable accent.” Again, speaking as someone who is called upon to give sermons all the time, I realize how terribly difficult it is to preach, how it involves skill in public speaking, attention to the culture, expertise in biblical interpretation and sensitivity to the needs and interests of an incredibly diverse audience. That said, homilists can make a great leap forward by being attentive to one fact: Sermons become boring in the measure that they don’t propose something like answers to real questions.

All of the biblical exegesis and oratorical skill in the world will be met with a massive “So what?” if the preacher has not endeavored to correlate the “answers” he provides with the “questions” that beguile the hearts of the people to whom he speaks.  Practically every Gospel involves an encounter between Jesus and a person — Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, etc. — who is questioning, wondering, suffering or seeking. An interesting homily identifies that longing and demonstrates, concretely, how Jesus fulfills it. When the homily both reminds people how thirsty they are and provides water to quench the thirst, people will listen.

As a former Protestant who has benefitted from a lifetime of listening to solid, compelling, passionate sermons, I know first-hand what a blessing it is.  I can't imagine what it would be like to listen to week after week of homiletical drudgery.  So, I can understand why Catholic people who are hungry to hear good preaching are tempted to leave the Church.  But of course, as a convert, I now realize that means leaving behind the fullness of the faith and the real presence of Christ.  What a tragedy!

But imagine another scenario:  imagine a Mass where a hungry soul not only received the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus, but was also educated and motivated by a Scripturally-sound, profoundly relevant, Christ-exalting homily.  What an experience that would be!  The Church would be transformed—and would go forth to transform the world.

3.  Pope Benedict XVI has called for a revitalization of Catholic preaching—and has linked its importance to the Eucharist itself.  In his post-Synod Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, he writes:
…[Given] the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved … The homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives. It should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic liturgy. Consequently, those who have been charged with preaching by virtue of a specific ministry ought to take this task to heart … The faithful should be able to perceive clearly that the preacher has a compelling desire to present Christ, who must stand at the centre of every homily. For this reason preachers need to be in close and constant contact with the sacred text; they should prepare for the homily by meditation and prayer, so as to preach with conviction and passion. [59]

Pope Benedict XVI goes on to state something quite extraordinary about the nature of the Word of God, preaching, and the homily:
[Scripture] itself points us towards an appreciation of its own unbreakable bond with the Eucharist…Word and Eucharist are so deeply bound together that we cannot understand one without the other: the word of God sacramentally takes flesh in the event of the Eucharist. The Eucharist opens us to an understanding of Scripture, just as Scripture for its part illumines and explains the mystery of the Eucharist …. For this reason “the Church has honored the word of God and the Eucharistic mystery with the same reverence, although not with the same worship, and has always and everywhere insisted upon and sanctioned such honor" [54-55].

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Another View of Valpo...

There was a time when I very much appreciated the point of view of Frederick Niedner.  After all, his dad was the District President of my home Nebraska District for some time.  A commenter on this blog pointed me to another memory of growing up Lutheran -- this one by Frederick Niedner.  I must confess that I was greatly disappointed by his words in the Advent 2011 Cresset.  You can read them here.

At Valparaiso University, we occasionally remind ourselves that the Lutheran Reformation grew, at least partly, out of the ferment of learning that went on in a university, most particularly the emperor’s new university at Wittenberg where Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon served as young faculty members. We hope that universities today, including ours, can continue to serve as places where the continual reformation a healthy church requires draws some of its energy. Although Valparaiso University has always been an independent university, not owned or operated by any Lutheran church body, it sees itself as intimately connected to the church. It needs the church, most particularly because its thriving depends in part on having students in whom the church has formed a baptismal identity. Much of the time, however, the churches act as if they do not need a university. While they may need training institutions and programs of indoctrination and professional formation, it often seems they do not want their young people studying where no questions lie out of bounds. 

In what ways do Lutherans today see themselves as beneficiaries of scholarship and the scholarly life? In what ways do Lutherans see themselves as free? Do Lutherans who repeat the shibboleth about “faith alone” really live by faith, or by something else? For almost seven decades I have lived among and watched Lutherans closely. The history I have witnessed and shared suggests that we Lutherans have a complex relationship with the rhetoric by which we publicly identify ourselves. Like most others in the world, our walk does not consistently match our talk.

Niedner recalls his time growing up on the prairie with a great deal more disgust than affection.  He characterizes Lutherans as a people who are so contentious that they can agree on little or nothing.  He remembers all the foibles and flaws and failings of the past but, apparently, none of the grace, none of the blessing, and none of the faith.  Perhaps he has been so embittered by the history of Missouri that is all he can see.  If that is the case I do not so much condemn him but feel sorry for him.

In particular, he speaks about the Lutheran-ness of Valpo in the same angry terms.  For him, training in doctrine is "indoctrination" with the worst of its connotations.  For him, the job of the university, even one of the church which Valpo claims to be, to be one of raising questions where the Catechism, the liturgy, the faith, and the Church have given answers -- as if growing up Lutheran were a thing to be undone by academia and not affirmed (sort of like those who think virginity a problem to be rectified and not a virtue affirmed).

I am certainly not ignorant of the manifold ways we have failed to live up to our Confession, of the petty disputes that have plagued Lutheran history (at large and parochially), and of the divisions that have resulted from it all.  But I find in Niedner none of the hopefulness, faith, and conviction of O. P. Kretzmann or other giants who have walked the Valpo campus.  Does our walk match our talk?  No argument there.  No, it does not.  But we don't need Niedner to remind us of this.  It happens every Sunday in the preparation where we confess a sinful nature that has so often and so recently fallen short of the glory of God.  But thanks be to God that He responds not with condemnation or bitterness.  He comes among us with grace.  It is this very grace, rooted in the cross and manifest in the means of grace (Word and Sacrament) that are Lutheran distinctives so severely lack in the present day incarnation of Valparaiso University.  I certainly am not ready to take up the cause of making Valpo Missouri but I thought it was inherent in the job of the Lutherans who run the place and, specifically, the Lutherans who teach there to at least make it Lutheran.  Apparently, I am asking too much.  Niedner seems intent to cast off the very Lutheran identity that has formed this university and made it a once great Lutheran university.  It may still be a good university (though perhaps pricey) but it is certainly no longer unashamedly Lutheran.  That is the tragedy of Valpo that I lament and many others from all sorts of Lutheran jurisdictions also lament the loss of its Lutheran-ness!  Perhaps they need to read again the motto on Valpo's seal.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Untidy dying...

Pr. Russ Saltzman has written something of the experience of the remains of his father's goods and the distribution of those things following his death.  He calls it the "residue of death."  I am sure that those who are placed in the position of cleaning up the loose ends and details following the death of a family member or loved one will resonate with his words.  I probably will too, someday.  But for now I resent the idea that death should be tidy and neat.

The minutia of the dead is a wonder. Depending on how well the dead prepared themselves for being dead, the countless bits and pieces they leave come in greater or lesser amounts. My father was among the former. He was untidy about dying. A will never made sense to him, and even if it had his distrust of lawyers put paid to that option.  So writes Saltzman. 

We want death to be tidy and neat so that we can put it behind us as soon as possible.  We don't want to be burdens to our children or heirs (though they were certainly burdens to us from the time they were born).   We feel the highest form of love is to keep those who come after us from having to bear the heavy weight of cleaning up from our untidy living and dying.  So we preplan our funerals, put the estate in trusts, add the names of our kids to bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and other assets.  We make it so that all they will have to do is remember us with thanks that our dying did not disrupt their lives too much.  It makes me sick.

This kind of love is not the love we meet in Christ.  He came to clean up all our untidiness and to care for the details that we, in our sin, had forgotten or chose to ignore.  The mark of the love God has for us is that the details of our death became His glad burden of love -- not because He loves to be burdened but because love carries the burdens of our all messes without regard to what He was getting out of it all.  He died for us while we were yet sinners and His enemies -- with nothing to offer Him and nothing to compensate Him for the priceless cost of His suffering and death.

Death is untidy.  It is always untidy.  We cannot insulate those whom we love from death's details by signing all the proper documents and disposing of all but the heirlooms we know our loved ones will want.  In fact, grief is not helped by having all these minutia carefully sewn up by those who die.  Grief and life is met in these untidy details.  They cause us to remember what is painful for us to recall.  They force us to live again the memories of those who have lived and now are dead.  This is not a bad thing.  This is love at work.  What kind of love do we have for those who die before us if we find dealing with their death (on any plain but spiritual) a terrible burden we should not have to bear?  Life is messy, too. Cleaning up the messes may be part of life but the pursuit of a life without these messes is the pursuit of what can never be, an impossible dream that will destroy us.  In the midst of our suffering, God is present.  That is the surprise of grace!

Now before you go ballistic, I am not saying we should make it hard on those who must deal with the residue of our death.  That is spite and not love.  All I am saying is that dealing with the untidiness of death is itself the act of love, the final act of loving those who have died.  We have turned over too much of those details to others whom we pay to act in our stead (from funeral directors to estate planners to lawyers, etc.)  All that left to us is to sign next to the post-it note marking the place, give away the few things we think worth keeping, and get on with our lives.  When we make death so tidy and neat we deny its reality, diminish the memory of those whom we have loved, and distort the very meaning of love.  Cleaning up the untidiness of death is our responsibility no less than those who hastened the burial custom for Jesus and then rushed to the tomb on Sunday morning to complete love's final duty.

Friday, May 25, 2012

I wish it were a joke... I hope it is... Please God, make it a joke...

From George Weigel at First Things... You can read it all here...

Posed as ever on the cutting edge of the politically correct and theologically dubious, the Episcopal Church–U.S.A. will soon consider adopting a Burial Service for Beloved Animals, in which the following two Collects appear:

At the burial of a farm animal

Most gracious, good Lord, we are the people of your pasture and the sheep of your hand: We thank you for placing among us the beasts of the field and allowing us to care for them, and to receive from them food and clothing to meet our necessities. We grieve this day the death of A., and we return to you a creature of your own making, one who served as an effective sign of the generosity of your love for us; through Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

At the death of a wild animal

Almighty God, who make the beasts of the wild move in beauty and show forth the glory of your Name: We grieve the death of this creature, in whose living and dying the power of your Spirit was made manifest. We reverence the loss of that which was never ours to claim but only to behold with wonder; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A former Vatican official known for his prowess with a deer rifle commented on the latter: “I have my own prayer at the death of a wild animal. It begins, ‘Bless, O Lord, and these thy gifts . . .’” Another priest, seeing this, said “There’s plenty of room for all of God’s creatures . . . next to the mashed potatoes.” To which Former Vatican Official replied, “Don’t forget the gravy.”

When more can actually be less...

Read this very fine article from Touchstone in which David Lyle Jeffrey writes:  From the perspective of one who values freedom of choice, individualism, and the market, the proliferation of new translations and paraphrases of the Bible must seem, on the whole, a good thing. From a perspective that places a greater value on theological probity, spiritual understanding in the laity, and coherence in the witness of the Church, however, the plethora of English translations and the Babel-like confusion of tongues they create is arguably a calamity. While every new translation is evidently a “market opportunity” and may express in some way the particular slant or voice of individual denominations on certain doctrines, the dissonance and “white noise” of competing Bibles tends to confuse rather than clarify discussion across denominational boundaries. In fact, the “Babel effect” intensifies the confusion. 

Jeffrey also puts this plethora of translations and editions of the Bible into the perspective of capitalism:  All of these makeovers of Holy Scripture are—at least in part—market driven. It is clear that most of them make money, but it is much less clear that they serve to enrich, let alone unify, the Christian Church. Even less is it clear that they assist even the most forbearing reader in seeing in what sense the Scriptures are given as “one Word of God,” pointing to Christ and not to us, or, as St. Paul puts it to Timothy, “given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Many of the niche editions seem rather to be packaged in such a way as to justify, in some measure, current fashions and practices of the sub-groups to which they are directed. This makes them profitable for the publishers, but not so “profitable,” at least in the sense intended by the Apostle, for the Church.

I encourage you to read the whole article.  It is really quite good. The King James Bible endured for more than 300 years before any competition came along and it showed up in a slight revision of the KJV, the Revised Standard Version (1946, 1952).  As lacking as these may have been both in terms of manuscript source for the translation and the changes that too place in language since their publication, we have not profited mightily from the explosion of Bible versions and editions since the early 1970s.  Every Pastor knows how much time is spent in the distraction of those who say, "That's not what my Bible says..."  Plus the impression is given that no one really knows what the Bible says -- we all have our ideas or guesses that cannot be passed off as more than mere opinion.

Add to this, says George Weigel, "the hegemony of the historical-critical method of biblical study has taught two generations of Catholics that the Bible is too complicated for ordinary people to understand: So why read what only savants can grasp? Inept preaching, dissecting the biblical text with historical-critical scalpels or reducing Scripture to a psychology manual, has also been a turnoff to Bible study."  You can read it all here...   
We could argue all day about the value or ruination wrought by the historical-critical method but I think it is self-evident that one of the fruits of this methodology (intended or unintended) is to make us much less sure that we know what Scripture says or that anyone can know for sure what Scripture says.  As Brevard Childs has pointed out, the story of the text and what its hearers might have understood it to say or mean is all interesting and exciting but the Church must deal with the text at hand and preach from this canon.  The historical-critical method has not done much to help the Church in this regard and may have done great harm to the task of preaching by raising its questions about what we can know and how certain we can be about what we know of Scripture as text and kerygma.

I can only commend the whole thrust of both individuals in their quest for some commonality and confidence in the Biblical text proclaimed in worship on Sunday morning, used for study in the teaching ministries of the Church, and used for devotional use in the practice or piety of the faith at home.  Here again is Jeffrey:  Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his essay “On the Different Methods of Translation,” observed the tension with which all translators must wrestle: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible” he writes, “and moves the reader towards him; or, he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.” It will be obvious by now that I am among those who think that much of recent Bible translation has veered too far in the direction of leaving contemporary culture undisturbed. 

Jeffrey concludes:  There is a solution, problematic as the secularized language of the surrounding materialist culture may be as an impediment. It is to become one of those who recover and learn to speak with understanding the language of Holy Scripture at the heart of the Church, striving to teach patiently, at every opportunity, its richness and truth. This can be done, if we wish to, by a principled inclusion of accurate definitions of sacred terms in every homily and catechetical context. I think we must, as J. R. R. Tolkien once said, engage in a willed act of recovery of sacral language if the sacred sources themselves are not to be elided by cheap philological and symbolic facsimiles.
Just as we must recover from the historical-critical method's resulting confusion over which Scripture, what that Scripture might say or mean, and whether we can have confidence in that meaning, we must also recover a sense of the sacred in the language of those Scriptures.  In this result, clarity is certainly one important consideration in translation but not the only one.  Beauty and the spiritual sense or image of the words must also be taken into account.  Finally the primary place of Scripture has always been worship where it is more heard than read.  In contrast to this, we have made the Bible less the living voice that speaks to us as much as another ancient text to be deconstructed, deciphered, and demythologized.  So it is no wonder that the folks in the pew have gotten the idea that this hard book is best left to the critics and the best we can offer them is some market-driven edition with notes, helps, and commentary to fit every person, every need, and every theological perspective.  We all agree there are more Bibles on the bookshelves of the world than ever before but, in the case of America, that does not mean we have a better sense of what Scripture is or says or have any confidence that anyone can answer those questions.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

New architecture moves the church backward...

Some in Rome are wondering if the new push toward more traditionally styled church buildings may not be a step backward.  They are often folks who believe that the fruits of Vatican II were all positive and the architectural implementation of those fruits was one means of making permanent these changes.  Or maybe not...

One article very generously suggests the church did not need to erase all physical traces of its past to reform or renew itself.  The direction of this article as architectural.  In other words, a modern building can include nuances of its past while still being thoroughly modern.  This is a most generous offer.  It is logical and reasonable to assume that architectural changes would be deliberate and slow since a building institutionalizes a perspective on worship and imprisons the church to this perspective for generations.  How kind that we are now told it is okay to have small nods to our past in all the new buildings we erect for the church.  But, of course, can it be any other way?

I think that the balance should be tilted more toward the past than to the future.   That does not mean that church buildings cannot be modern.  What it does mean is that being modern does not mean ignoring or failing to acknowledge a couple of millennium of preexisting history.  Yet this seems to be the impetus behind every church building committee and on the agenda of every church architect -- how can we break every tie to the past and erect something tied to the particular moment.

The modern idea of a church building has come less from historic and religious buildings and attitude than it has the ordinary commercial space envisioned for the moment.  In fact, we often consider only the moment in shaping the image of church architecture and leave those who follow us in the years to come with buildings that are soon outgrown or require major reconstruction to be useful.  It is about time that we cast aside the idea of using the mall as the architectural model for the church  and consider a bit more the architectural form that will support and serve us over the long haul.

Industrial style may not be the worst thing to hit the church but it is far from being benign.  As long as we shape the image by borrowing from the marketplace and public square, we will also accept the idea of borrowing theological truth and moral values from the same secular world.  It may increase the church's size but it will surely kill the church in the long run...

Are the introverts winning?

Because I know from my own family the differences between an introvert and an extrovert, I also know that at times (maybe most of the time) it is also a competition -- even a battle.  At one time it seemed to me that extroverts were dominant.  They surely had all the reasons to dominate -- outgoing, winsome, naturally gregarious.  I wonder now if social media have not changed it all.  It would seem to me that the manner in which we communicate and friend one another leans toward one more comfortable to introverts and more difficult for us extroverts to dominate.

With congregations tending toward the larger side, it is easier to be anonymous even while being "connected."  Church has always been easier on the extrovert than the introvert -- except those churches where the focus is on something besides the people (I bet introverts love the Latin Mass).  Church is often organized and run by extroverts who seek to impose and capitalize upon their out going natures, with seemingly little appreciation or understanding for the introvert.  Now the internet has made it possible to go to church without, well, going to church.  Given the press to use this technology to its fullest, churches just be may be giving the edge to those who like fellowship without leaving the confines of their homes or their pj's.

With more and more communication being done through texts, email, blogs, and, of course, the elephant in the room, Facebook, we spend far less time than in the past speaking directly to one another, face to face, or before groups of people.  We shop on line as well as having our major social intercourse through on line forms and forums.  This is truly an environment in which the introvert is less at the disadvantage.  But in leveling the playing field, the social media may have also made some extroverts (if they had the opportunity) into more introverts.

It is just a theory of mine...  Feel free to disagree.  You do not have to talk to me about it (at least not directly).  Post a comment.  Friend or defriend me.  You can do it all from the safe confines of your computer, smart phone, or other electronic device.

BTW a "friend" sent me this on being an introvert... read it all here.  I have copied the choice parts below.

The Top 5 Things Introverts Dread about Church
(written so extroverts may understand)

5. “Welcome! Shake a hand, give a hug, share a name!”

In every church I have attended, this has been a precursor to the beginning of the service. What I want to know is why. There is no way that anyone is going to remember anyone else’s name in the 2.7 uncomfortable seconds it takes to say, “Good morning! My name is so-and-so. God’s peace.”

And has anyone considered what that is like for people who have never stepped foot in that church, or any church at all? I’ve been in church my entire life, and this entire process ties knots in my stomach. I understand the rationale behind it (we want to be a friendly, welcoming community), but isn’t this accomplished in a less forced manner before and after the service, over donuts and coffee?

Awkward encounters are so much easier with caffeine and sugar.

It is for this reason that I really love running slides or doing some other manner of work for the church during the beginning of the service. Can’t shake your sweaty hand if mine are busy doing something else.

4. “Chelsey, what do you think?”

Okay, look. I will tell you what I think once I want to say it. Trust me, I am very opinionated. Just because I am sitting quietly in this group of people, listening to all of them talk about their lives or this Bible passage or this idea, doesn’t mean I have a rock for a brain or that I’m too scared to speak up. Or, even worse: that something is wrong with me.

The worst offenders for this one are small group leaders and youth directors. And I know that for a fact, because I am one. Take it from me: if an introvert isn’t speaking, it isn’t because nothing is going on upstairs. It’s because they’re thinking. And once they feel comfortable enough, they will share. And yeah, that might take a couple minutes. A couple weeks. Maybe even a couple months. Their silence isn’t a reflection on your leadership! Leaders like me need to be secure enough in ourselves so that we can let the silence happen. It's not "awkward" until you make it awkward.

3. “Let’s get into groups and pray aloud and/or tell each other our deepest, darkest struggles.”

At this point, you may be wondering if I actually like people. I like people. I really do.

Introverts tend to have deep relationships and friendships. They are often very few in number. Case in point: when planning our wedding, I told my husband Ted that I wanted three bridesmaids: my sister, my best friend, and his sister. He gave me his best puppy dog face and told me that he wouldn’t be able to go lower than 9 groomsmen. People just love Ted. I get it, obviously. (We ended up having 7 bridesmaids and 7 groomsmen, and I love and cherish every single one of them.)

At the church where I work, we meet weekly to pray over the prayer requests we receive as a staff. We separate into groups of 3 to 5, go to separate corners of the church, and begin to pray over the list. I have a mini-panic attack every single time. I hope I’m adept enough to cover it. I’m probably not.

2. Spontaneous Public Prayer

If you could see into my head while I pray aloud, it would look something like this:

“Dear Jesus: I am completely blanking right now. I know that when we usually talk, the conversation never ebbs, but all these people are looking at me and listening to me and I feel like I’m naked and I’m going to hyperventilate. If you love me – no, I know you love me – please give me something intelligent to say in front of all these people. That I work with every day. Who are expecting me to form a coherent sentence. If it’s fancy and a little theological, too, that would be great. Thanks a million. Amen.”

Recently, one of the pastors at my church gave a devotion about how people pray out loud. He said that if a person asks for things that God has already promised, like his presence or his faithfulness, then it’s foolish and they probably have a pretty weak faith.

Right. As if I wasn’t already self-conscious enough.

Jon Acuff’s post about introverts, one very well-meaning woman tried to give an introvert some advice about praying out loud:

“Sometimes I have an apprehension of going to the bathroom in public with someone who is the in the stall right next to me. Sometimes it is really hard to avoid. However, I know I have to go, so what I do is close my eyes and just go with the flow. I would say the same to you the next time you are asked to pray out loud in front of others: Just close your eyes and go with the flow. He promises that as we open our mouths he will fill it with his words. I have found this to be true not only in my life, but also in the lives of others I know.”

I'm convinced that "go with the flow" is a distinctly extroverted phrase. Also, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to use the phrase “go with the flow” again.

1. ”You should be more…”

Talkative. Friendly. Open. Or, my personal favorite: “You should be more like your sister.”

I once had a very influential camp counselor tell me that. My sister and I are very close now, and I would love to be more like her, because she is clearly cooler than I am.

When we were in high school, my sister was a beautiful, blonde, popular, fashionable, outgoing cheerleader. I was a somber, dark-haired band nerd who wore jeans and t-shirts and hated high school. Of COURSE I wanted to be more like her! Who wouldn’t?!

You would think that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me anymore, but it does, actually. Even at 23, an age in which I am actually secure in my personality, this conversation takes place:

Me: “Yeah, I’m an introvert.”

The other person: “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

No vote taken does not mean the answer is no....

United Methodists concluded their General Conference last Friday (May 4) without voting on gay clergy or same-sex marriage, a surprising end to a disappointing week for gay activists.

On Thursday, the nearly 1,000 delegates gathered in Tampa, Fla., soundly rejected two motions that would have amended the United Methodist Church's book of doctrine and rules, which calls the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." After those votes, protesters flooded the convention floor, briefly shutting down the conference.

Conference planners, evangelical leaders and gay and lesbian advocates met later on Thursday and determined that there was little use in holding additional contentious debates on homosexuality, according to several sources. Proposals to ordain gay clergy and bless same-sex unions held little chance of passing, the parties agreed, and so were pushed to the back of the agenda, essentially assuring that they would not be debated.
"Leaders of the demonstration were told that the legislation was postponed to avoid more harm to LGBT people and their supporters," the Love Your Neighbor Coalition said in a statement. "The United Methodist Church had an opportunity to offer love, grace, and hope," the coalition said. "Sadly, we did not take that opportunity."

The UMC's policy remains that ministers cannot marry same-sex couples and churches cannot host same-sex weddings. Clergy in same-sex relationships are likewise banned.

Leading up to General Conference, which convenes every four years, gay advocates had argued that momentum favored their cause. About 1,200 United Methodists clergy have agreed to break church rules and marry same-sex couples, surveys show young Christians favor expanding gay rights and other mainline Protestant denominations have adopted gay-friendly policies in recent years. But the UMC, which is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the country, is shrinking in the U.S. while growing in Africa and Asia, where conservative views on homosexuality predominate.

Apparently the Methodists decided that better to have no winner and no loser than to face the issue head on... it is thinking like this that means it will surely come up again... and again... and again...  We have taught ourselves that truth can change -- only the timing of that change may be in dispute.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I have given them Your Word....

Sermon for Easter 7B, preached on Sunday, May 20, 2012.

    How easy it is for us to think that God has forgotten us or abandoned us.  For too many of us, God is mostly absent from our lives.  We think He is not there until we summon Him.  So prayer has become the great sacrament that we under take to bring an absent God to bear upon our needs and problems.  But this goes in the face of the promises of Christ.  The disciples who watched Jesus ascend did not wait for uncertainty to become clear, they waited upon the promise of Christ to be fulfilled.  They had His Word as their comfort, consolation, guide, and power.
    Now 2,000 years later, we act like we have nothing until we call upon God, no promise and no Word to fulfill that promise.  We point to heaven as if God were out there somewhere.  We are not sure where God is but we know He is not here.  We pray and He comes.  Oh, we have the Spirit but the Spirit is not who we want.  We want Jesus.  And for us Jesus is away from us in heaven until He is bidden.
    Interestingly, Matthew's Gospel does not even record the Ascension.   Mark's longer ending tells us that Jesus was taken up to be present in the proclamation of the Word.  Luke alone gives us the details of Jesus' Ascension. John's Gospel does not record the Ascension but here we have the high priestly prayer of Jesus on behalf of His disciples and those who will believe through them.  It is in John's Gospel that we are told these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God and that by believing you might have life in His name.
     Jesus prays for us saying, "I have given them Your Word."  Remember that Jesus delivers to us the Word of the Father and keeps the Father's will. Jesus insists that He has not left us alone or vulnerable; we have His Word.  Jesus' Word and Jesus are not different things.  Here on earth we say one thing and do or mean something else.  But not Jesus.  Jesus Word is His bond, His promise.  There is nothing more true than the Word of Christ.
    Jesus is present among us through His Word.  This Word is not a text book about Him but His own Word to us.  It is a living Word, a voice that speaks and not words on a page that is read.  It is the Word that does what it promises.  Jesus works through His Word.  Through His Word He keeps His promises to us and delivers what He has said He will give to us – even His very self.  We have for too long assumed that to know the Word of God is to know words on a page, chapter and verse.  But to know the Word is to know Christ.  We learn His Word not because we pursue knowledge but in order to know Christ and the power of His resurrection.
    You may feel alone but you are not alone.  Christ is here in His Word, the written Word of Scripture, the visible Word of the Sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and the proclaimed Word of witness we bring to the world.  We are not alone and we have no mere consolation prize.  We have Christ and the power of His Word.  That Word continues among us to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify us, to wash us and make us new, to feed and nourish us.
    What we bring to the world is not some second hand word about some thing or someone.  What we bring to the world is this life-giving Word that is Christ.  It may be the preacher's mouth on Sunday morning but it is Christ's Word speaking through it.  It may be your mouth on Monday morning but it is Christ's Word speaking through it.  This is what gives our witness its power – not our winsome character or eloquent language but Christ who is the Word we speak.  Jesus ascends into heaven so that we might give us His Word, so that He might speak through this word and witness to the world.  Jesus has given us the Father’s Word.  The Spirit makes known Jesus’ Word.  And the witness we give to the world is to speak this Word that the Spirit may engender faith in the hearer and move them to repentance.
    By ascending, Jesus keeps His promise.  "I have given them Your Word."  His Church now stewards this Word.  Look at what Jesus prays.  He uses Word and Name interchangeably.  I have given them Your Word.  I have given them Your name.  Where two or three are gathered in My name, He says, there I am.  The community of faith gathers around this Word, this Name, and this Word and Name is our witness to the world.  Here is Christ and here Christ is known among us and here is what we are called to bring to the world.  Not thoughts or opinions but His Word.  How sad it is when somebody misses church we act as if they have not missed anything special.  Christ is here.  In His Word and Sacraments.  Can there be anything greater?  Can we miss anything more?
    Christ works through His Word.  It is not how fervent our prayer or how pious our hearts that makes Christ present.  It is His own promise to work through His Word.  He works through His Word in Church where that Word calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us.  The Spirit is in that Word equipping us to respond with faith and repentance and to be renewed in faith and repentance.  We may distinguish between the written Word of the Bible, the oral Word of preaching and witness, and the visible Word of the sacraments, but Christ does not.  He works in and through them all.  The Spirit is not some consolation prize because Christ is gone.  The Spirit enables us to recognize His voice in His Word and to trust in that.  The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and of His resurrection.
    It is there He guards us against our enemies.  It is in His Word that we are united as one people.  Unity is the fruit of His Word and not the result of negotiation.  It is here in this Word that our hungry hearts are fed, our weak souls are made strong, our weary hearts are uplifted, our uncertain minds are guided.  We are people of the Word.  To say that is to say we are Christ's own people.
    We are not alone – not here on Sunday mornings and not all the rest of the days.  Christ is with us in His Word.  We are not on our own to figure it out.  Christ has give us His Word.  That is the Word we are to speak.  That is the Word that accomplishes its rich purpose, never returning to God empty handed.  That is the Word that does what is says so that we need not even see it fulfilled to know that it is done.  Either this Word is the center of our lives and the power of our witness, or we are no Church and no Christians at all.

Not doctrinal but pastoral...

The problems facing Lutherans are largely not doctrinal.  Notice I did not say we do not disagree about doctrine.  I confess that we do -- and not just between notoriously different church bodies or theologians (like ELCA and Missouri, Becker and Scaer, for example).  But this disagreement is not because doctrine is unsettled or has a history of dispute.  It is settled, primarily for Lutherans in the Book of Concord but also in the great evangelical and catholic tradition which we claim as our own.  It is that we dispute this settled doctrine and this is a pastoral problem.

I was reminded in something I read that Pope John XXIII believed the problems of Rome to be pastoral but not doctrinal and his vision for Vatican II was to address those pastoral issues (not in the least of which was how the Roman Church was to face the radically different landscape of the world following World War II, the Cold War,the economic success of the1950s, and the cultural challenges of the day.  What happened was that the Council had people who believed that the issues were not pastoral at all but doctrinal.  Whether through the direct means of the Council decisions or the implementation which was done largely outside the Council, Rome has awakened to a Church no longer sure of its doctrine and whose practice has fostered a diversity that was never intended by the Council itself or the humble man who called Rome's bishops to meet.

To connect this to the situation in Lutheranism today, I would suggest that we run the same risk.  If we let our problems become doctrinal then we open the door to ruin in which everything settled by Scripture and tradition becomes suspect and open to reinterpretation (at minimum) or redefinition (at worst).  This is what the ELCA has done.  It began with a pastoral issue and it became a doctrinal issue -- one that was settled not by Scripture or tradition but by the prevailing mood of the moment and a practice inconsistent with what we had believed, confessed, and taught prior to the current day.  The ELCA should have known better.  The same thing happened with the ordination of women.  A pastoral issue became doctrinal and, without theological justification or reason to depart from the unchanged consistent confession and practice of the Church prior to 1970, a decision was made that radically departed from that unchanged consistent confession and practice.  In many respects, that women have been ordained among Lutherans is not in dispute but why remains an open question.

Many of the big issues facing Missouri -- if not most -- are pastoral.  The unsettled mess of who shall commune is a pastoral issue.  Pastors and the congregations they have taught and serve have chosen to dissent from the established tradition, not only of Lutheranism, but of the Church prior to Luther.  The why of this change must not be allowed to become the issue.  The issue is the dissent and its consequences of disunity, confusion, and offense.  BTW, I mean not only those who will commune everyone but also those who are in selective fellowship with only some of Missouri and who practice their own brand of selective communion that seeks to close the door rather than find the fullness of our common faith and life together at the table.

The disarray of what happens on Sunday morning is not doctrinal but pastoral.  Pastors and the congregations they have taught and serve have chosen to dissent from their own constitutional requirement for the exclusive use of doctrinally pure hymnals and agendas as well as from our common liturgical life which is not an adiaphoron.  Why they have departed from the tradition of the Divine Service and its published forms within our own hymnal tradition must not be allowed to be the issue.  The issue is the dissent and its consequences of disunity, confusion, and offense.  All of us, me included, owe it to one another and to our common identity as Missouri Synod Lutherans to practice consistently with our confession and liturgical tradition.  How elaborate or simple the ceremonial may be open to local decision but the form of the Divine Service, following one of the lectionaries, and the church's hymnody are essential components in the Sunday morning life of every Lutheran, especially every LCMS, parish.

The lack of consistent and faithful catechesis for young and new to the faith is not a doctrinal issue but a pastoral problem.  How we fulfill the calling to catechize and disciple the people of God is a matter of some freedom and flexibility but the content of that catechesis is not.  The fact that in some of our parishes every last detail of the faith must be taught and believed and in others the barest outline is required is a problem that will manifest itself over and over again in our future as we forget who we are and find that none of us are sure what a Lutheran is.  Pastors and the parishes they teach and serve bear the responsibility for the decline of preparation for membership which has left the folks in the pew confused about what we believe, confess, and teach -- or worse, believing that it does not matter.

The failure to speak to those who fall away and call them to repentance is not a doctrinal issue but a pastoral problem.  With it is our lamentable practice of private confession and absolution and our lack of forgiveness and reconciliation as brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have the surprising circumstance in which nearly all Lutherans believe that private confession is not Lutheran or no longer faithful Lutheran practice and we have the tragedy of people who are not called to account and of sinners who carry the burden of the grief and shame as an unbearable weight without relief.  As an example of this is the hijacking of Lent's call to repentance and catechesis for forty days of purpose with Rick Warren.  The Pastors and the parishes they teach and serve have left us unable to distinguish which is Lutheran and which is not.

I could go on but I won't.  Again, my point is that the issues before us are not doctrinal issues awaiting resolution or definition but pastoral problems of dishonest dissent and of the disrespect for those who have gone before us and our common life together as the people of the Lutheran Church (in my case, Missouri Synod).  The ultimate pastoral problem is both the perceived freedom to whatever seems right in our own eyes and the isolation from review and accountability for that departure from the faithful practice of the Church.  We do not need to find doctrinal consensus.  The doctrine is clear both in terms of the Lutheran Confessions and Scripture (not to mention the evangelical and catholic tradition that is our claim as well).  What we need is faithful pastoral practice.

Monday, May 21, 2012

One more Lutheran body heads toward Geneva...

There seems to be no shortage of Lutherans ready to abandon the Lutheran confession for something else -- mainstream Protestantism, evangelicalism, non-denominationalism...   Isms are always troublesome.  In this case it is an unlikely nod.  We have few true offsprings of Geneva in the US.  Not so in France.  Here is the scoop from, of course, Ecumenical News International.  You can say it was just a small group and it was.  But defections still hurt the cause. 

Paris (ENInews). After years of preparation, a new Christian denomination will be formed this week in France when two synods meet in the eastern town of Belfort, a location historically important in the growth of Protestantism.

The Reformed Church of France (ERF) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of France (EELF) are merging to form the United Protestant Church of France. The new entity will be a reality after the churches' synods meet 17- 20 May, said Pastor Laurent Schlumberger, president of the ERF's national council.

"The new church begins right away juridically," he told ENInews, adding that parishes would have a year to implement the final phase of decisions and statutes before the first national synod meets in 2013 in Lyon.

The synods will formally vote on all "reference texts" or constitutional statutes of the new denomination, after having approved them in principle earlier this year at an assembly in Versailles.

"We expect the new church to have higher visibility in today's society to give witness to the Good News," said Pastor Joël Dautheville, EELF president. "Union gives greater strength and authority to the church."

The reason for the merger is not for "economies of scale" but to ensure a "better witnessing of the Gospel," Schlumberger said. He acknowledged that the road to the new church has been a long one, and not without bumps.

The merger was first proposed in the 1960s, Schlumberger told ENInews, but fears by Lutherans that they might be absorbed resulted in failed talks. A new proposal was re-launched in 2001, and the decision to merge taken in 2007, "almost unanimously," he said, despite scattered individual resistance.

Some in the Protestant community have criticized the proposed new name, saying it implies this is the only Protestant church in France. But "a united church does not mean a unique (single) church," says Schlumberger. "The name is not perfect but it already exists in other countries."

Since 2007, the Reformed and Lutheran denominations have been working on revisions and recommendations to achieve a final text that will govern the United Protestant Church's doctrine. Church leaders have stressed that the merger will not suffocate "the legitimate diversity" of their traditions.

"There is no desire for one to absorb the other, but to live together and become stronger," Schlumberger said.

In a speech prepared for the synod meeting but made available to ENInews for limited use, he stated, "We are called to witness, without being identical. This means putting Christ first, and doing it in our own way, with the freedom of accepting who we are."

The new church unites some 272,000 parishioners, of whom 250,000 are from the Reformed Church, and it comprises 456 pastors and 960 active places of worship. It brings together two different histories and styles.

The Reformed Church has its roots in the 16th century Reformation and is the largest Protestant church in France. After having their first national synod in 1559, believers faced persecution during the 17th and 18th centuries and thousands fled to other countries and regions. The current ERF was created in 1938; the doctrine is Calvinist and confessional, and the church is present throughout France except for the Alsace-Lorraine-Moselle and Montbéliard regions, near the German border.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church was formed in 1927 by parishes that had quit the main church over doctrinal disputes. It is based on the theology of Martin Luther and is present mostly in the Montbéliard region and in Ile-de-France. Both churches are members of the Protestant Federation of France, and had offerings from their members totaling some 25 million euros in 2009.

You don't have to swing at every pitch...

The mark of a good ballplayer is that he knows that you don't have to swing at every pitch.  A little patience, a little perseverance, and some careful judgement and even an average hitter can do better than average at the plate.  It is the lesson that also comes with time for any Pastor new to a parish.  You don't have to swing at every pitch.  A little patience, a little perseverance, and some good, wise, and careful judgement can help a Pastor turn a good beginning into a great tenure in the parish.

The only problem with this advice is that it is not our tendency to let a pitch go by.  As Pastors we often feel the need to clean up every mess, deal with every issue, and answer every challenge in the first few weeks after installation.  I know I had that inclination and I will bet I am not alone.  There is nothing that irritates folk more, however, than a Pastor who has an opinion and a decision for everything that comes his way.  People respect the wise and pastoral judgement that lets the pitch go by without a swing.  I often have trouble in this regard.  Age and experience (with a little weariness) have forced me to learn this lesson but my instinct sometimes still gets me in trouble.

Perhaps it does not help that I have a bit of my dad in me.  He has the remarkable ability (not universally appreciated) to avoid conflict.  Don't get me wrong -- it is not that he does not have an opinion on just about everything.  He does.  But he also has an instinctive aversion to conflict and this has left him well equipped to step back from the brink before his words get him in trouble.  Whether he always chooses well what to avoid and what to react to, well, I will let another be the judge.  I am sure he has some regrets -- things he should have been more forceful with and others that he should have let go.  We all do.

I guess the problem is that sometimes the soft underbelly of Pastors is our need to be loved by everyone and also to be right all the time.  Neither is a helpful vice.  Both will get you into big trouble.  I recall Jack Lemmon's character in Mass Appeal and how his need to be loved kept him from speaking out when things unpleasant needed to be said and to act when actions might be misunderstood or opposed.  Playing opposite him in that movie parish was a young candidate for ordination who wanted to take on everyone all the time -- even the kindly blue haired old ladies who were the backbone of the parish.  In the happy ending, Jack Lemmon learned to stand up for the right even if it was unpopular and the young priest learned that the people in the pew are not your enemies.  I wonder if that is not a movie script close to the situation for every Pastor.

It is nearly ordination season when red stoles will be placed upon the shoulders of 139 graduates placed by our Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  Most of them will go into parishes in which they serve alone and this makes them especially vulnerable to the weaknesses of needing love and needing to be always right.  I pray for them as they begin their ministry.  I pray that the Lord will give them the wisdom of Solomon to discern when love and when being right must reign.  I pray that before any real conflicts develop, he will have a chance to let the folks in the pew know that he loves them and seeks only what is good and right and true for them and for the congregation he serves.  I pray that when the unpopular truth must be said, it is said in love and received in love.  I pray that he will let a few pitches slip by and not react to every one that passes over the plate.  I pray that he will learn quickly that being a Pastor is often a lonely path of service but that none of us are ever alone.  I pray that he will seek out peers who think like him and others who don't so that he will learn how to converse, how to debate so that the truth and not winning is foremost, and how to lose graciously (especially when you are wrong).

There are too many times at bat when I let a good pitch slip by and coulda, shoulda hit one out of the park.  There are too many times at bat when I swung wildly when I shoulda and coulda waited and watched it go by.  Regrets like these are health when they become the lessons the Lord uses to shape us and mold us for His service.  I do not regret the regrets but I regret those whom I have hurt by being too quick to swing.  In the same way, I regret the confusion I caused when people expected a hit and I let the good pitches go by.  It is a difficult thing to find the path when our instincts are prone to take us down the dead ends.  But the Lord has not called us to success -- only to faithfulness.  And the mark of faithfulness is honest confession of wrongs as much as humble pride in the right.  It is a lesson learned over the long haul but one which we wish we learned right away...