Monday, March 31, 2014

Have you been shriven yet?

Shrove Tuesday was a bust here.  Snow and ice turned the day into a stay home day for most folk.  Very hard to eat the fat (Fat Tuesday) when you are stuck at home.  But the shriven part of Shrove Tuesday does not need Lent or any particular day.  It is something good all the time.  To shrive isto hear the confession of a penitent, to impose a penance upon a penitent and grant sacramental absolution, or to confess one's sins in order to obtain sacramental forgiveness.

It may be something that we Lutherans have forgotten.  No one has done more to restore private confession and absolution to Lutheran practice than the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Korby.  Listen to him speak of the practice and its value both to the penitent and to the Church.

Private Confession is the unspoken and unappreciated part of the Catechisms of Luther. Though Lutheran hymnals include a rite for Individual (Private) Confession, those pages are the most underused pages of every hymnal.  If you do not believe me, check out the pages of an old Lutheran hymnal that has sat in the pew and been worn down.  What pages are the most pristine left in the old book?  If it was true in Dr. Korby's time at Seminary, it was also true of my own time.  Private Confession has a history of silence among Lutherans.  Some falsely approach it suspiciously as a Roman Catholic holdover.

I cannot improve upon the words of Dr. Korby.  They remain words which convict me so many years after I first met the man and heard his call to a restored and renewed practice of private confession.  So this Lent, take some time and listen to him.

Confession and Forgiveness, Part 1.

Confession and Forgiveness, Part 2.

Confession and Forgiveness, Part 3.

Confession and Forgiveness, Part 3.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lead by example. . .

I was pleasantly surprised to see Pope Francis, while leading a corporate service of confession, go to a priest and make his own private confession, before hearing confession himself.  What a great example!  This is one reason why it is so important that the Pastor model piety before the congregation.  The ceremonial of the liturgy is something people understand best by seeing it done rather than by tedi0us explanations of words only.  As important as this example is to Roman Catholics (and, do not forget, Lutherans have kept private confession and commend it for us in our confessions and by our faithful theologians), it is equally important that the Pastor model good practice before the people.  If they see how important it is to him, they will learn to follow.

Wicked but pious. . .

The words were rather flippantly said by a Lutheran Pastor to describe himself as a seminarian.  Wicked but pious.  I love it.  They are the words that describe me to a "T".  Wicked.  That is my heart.  It is filled with wickedness.  From the heart proceeds all sorts and kinds of evil.  Scripture says it.  I know it -- not as theory but as the terrible truth of a guilty conscience.  As one writer put it, if you are going to eat soup with the devil, you need to have a long spoon.  Ah, would that distance from the devil were my problem.  It is not. All my bravado hides a sinner unable to change his sinful heart, a sinner unable to prevent my mouth from speaking sinful words, and a sinner unable to keep my body from doing sinful acts.  Wicked.  That is me.  As another author put it.  Ah, the devil... I have done much business with him...  Yes, yes, yes... That is me.

But I am not a sinner only.  I am a pious individual.  Pious, that is, devoutly religious.  I am religious, devout, God-fearing, churchgoing, spiritual, prayerful, holy, godly, saintly, dedicated, reverent, dutiful, righteous.  I am all these things.  I hate my sins even while committing them.  I hate myself as a sinner even while committing them.  But that is not all of me.  I am a sinner for whom Christ has died.  I am sinner whom Christ has forgiven.  I am a sinner washed clean in the blood of Christ.  I am a sinner who has been declared righteous and clothed with the holiness of another, an alien purity belonging to Christ but bestowed upon me, unworthy and undeserving though I am.  Therefore I am wicked and a sinner but not only this.  I am a child of God, born anew of water and the Word, given the Holy Spirit, and declared justified through the merits of God and the mercy of Christ alone.

There is an inherent conflict between wicked and pious but it is the conflict that I cannot escape until I die and am with Christ.  It is this simil justus in which I stand, this tension and paradox that serves to describe me so well.  I wish I were only the pious child of God but my heart betrays me.  I fear that I am only wicked but the Word of Christ in that water refuses to allow me to despair and resign myself to my guilt and its righteous condemnation from God.

I come to the Lord's House as one who has nowhere else to go.  There is only one door open to me.  It is the door of Christ and His grace.  I kneel before the Lord in confession because to deny my sin would be the most presumptuous lie of all.  We all know it.  I listen to the voice of God speaking through His Word (and Absolution) because it is the one voice that speaks hope to my guilty conscience and grace to my sinfulness.  I come to the Table of the Lord because there is only one food that feeds the sinner with forgiveness, life, and salvation and this food is mine, says the Lord whose flesh and blood it is.  Given and shed for YOU for the forgiveness of sins.

I suspect I am not the only one who finds himself caught so... not the only one who loathes his wickedness and clings to the life-preserver of Christ's death for my sins and His new birth in baptism... not the only one who feels completely out of place in the Lord's House yet blessedly so for God says "come, listen, eat, and drink"... not the only one who daily struggles within this tension of sinner and son of God, the guilty who believes, and the dead in whom Christ's life lives...  If you are like me, run to the Church.  Run with your sins and lay them before the altar.  Run toward the voice that speaks life, hope, and forgiveness.  Run because you have only one place to go... every other place is a dead end.  That is what Lent is really about.  It is the remembrance of that which we want to forget but cannot and the remembrance of that which we never want to forget but too often do just that.

God be merciful to me, a sinner.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Why I changed my mind. . . More from Australia

kleinig—by Dr. John W. Kleinig

Those who know me know that I am firmly opposed to the ordination of women. Yet many of them can’t understand why I am so adamant on this, since it seems such an unimportant issue and so contrary to common sense. How could I be so unreasonable? They are even more puzzled when they discover that I did not always have a strong conviction on this matter. I have therefore been asked why I have changed my mind on whether women may be pastors, and why this matters so much to me.

The answer is quite simple. Despite my conviction of the equality of women and men before God, close attention to God’s word has made me change my mind. And that with some difficulty as it has meant taking a culturally unfashionable stance! Yet I have done so joyfully because I am confident in God’s word and certain that many blessings flow from obedience to it. Since Christ has spoken on this matter I must listen and obey for the good of the church and its mission to our broken world. In that light I would like to spell out for you, as clearly and briefly as I can, why I am conscience bound to uphold the traditional teaching of the whole church on the ordination of women.

To read the whole article, click here. . .

My comments. . .

There are those who might suggest that being against the ordination of women is being against women.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Unlike those who claim St. Paul was a misogynist, the actual truth is that St. Paul did more to liberate women from the unrighteous tyranny of male domination than any of the modern feminists.  Yet, St. Paul himself addresses the reality of some things that are simply beyond the pale of our authority to change.  These represent God's order, the means that He has chosen and therefore not changeable by will or desire of any who be faithful to His Word.  Dr. Kleinig has shown us that objections to the ordination of women are based upon theology, upon Scripture, and upon the unchanging order with which God has chosen to work.  Far from being some against women, such faithfulness honors women and men with the godly vocation and callings that ennobles us and never diminishes us.  In the face of a false idea of equality which demands that gender and vocation be ignored, distinctions which God has placed upon our service to Him neither diminish nor elevate us above one another or above Christ (as some are wont to do).

A hurt crime?

What happens when sin no longer means anything?  The only thing left is offense (not the Biblical kind which shakes a person's faith but the trivial kind which happens when truth that we do not wish to hear gets spoken out loud).  The worst thing of all becomes the affront and indignation of those who are "hurt" by what is said or done.  When we can no longer talk about real sins, we are left to clean up the conversation in such way that it says nothing that can be in any way, shape, or form be found offensive.  This is the crime of political correctness.

Although I understand the intent, I have always been dubious about the idea of or definition of hate crimes.  When are crimes not perpetrated by hateful people who scorn law, liberty, and life?  So why do we call some crimes, the very same wrongs, "hate" crimes?  Yes, I know what the intent is but the way it pans out is not always the way we intend.  When crimes are committed by certain kinds of people against other kinds of people they are more often designated "hate" crimes than in other cases.  I understand this.  But I am not at all sure that such distinctions are helpful or reasonable or impartial (the law is supposed to be impartial).

It might not have been foretold but it seems that the natural conclusion of a "hate" crime is a "hurt" crime --   when those who find our words or our deeds hurtful...  So, for example, some would insist that unless you agree with me, give me unqualified support, and work against any and all whom I deem to be my enemy, you cannot love me.  This is the oft repeated argument against those who do not approve of gay marriage.  You cannot love gays unless you agree with gay marriage.  This line of thinking has been successfully pushed by the GLBT lobby for some time now.  Those who would disagree are bigots not to be tolerated in business, education, or government.

One columnist with First Things suggested that because he is on record he could never get a political appointment, a job in government, or much of a job in industry.  So effective is this lobby that hate has come to mean anyone who does not wholeheartedly and unreservedly support everything on the gay agenda.  Another voice, Al Mohler, has spoken of “the rise of erotic liberty at the expense of religious liberty.”  His point is that the sexual behavior of few has now become of greater value than the religious liberty of the many.  Another columnist at First Thoughts spoke of an Iowa college president who was reprimanded and forced to apologize for her hurtful words that admitted ending sexual assault probably was not realistic “just given human nature.” The offense here was the supposed hurt some students might hear at the prospect of not being able to formulate a perfectly safe and just world.

When sin is no longer the subject of conversation, we replace it with that which ruffles our feathers, upsets our sensibilities, and hurts our feelings.  When sin is no longer the domain of the Law, it is left to whatever seems right or wrong in our own eyes.  Such is the sad state of affairs in Protestantism that we are more concerned about wounding someone's feelings than their eternal torment in hell.  Or, to put it another way, when we shut up all talk of sin and death in order to talk of what we like and don't like.  Truly they are blind who will not see.  Lord, save us from ourselves.  Literally.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Now is not the time to sound retreat. . .

'I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.' The words of Francis Cardinal George. . .

If you have not heard these words, you must have been living under a rock somewhere.  Among all the sources on the internet and in print, even the good Cardinal was forced to correct the record and state clearly both what he said and what he intended.  I bring it up here only because it is the kind of language that forces us to see the dramatic changes that have taken place all around us.  When I grew up (less than a generation after the Cardinal) it was common to see nuns in habits and priests in cassocks.  It was not unusual even for a Lutheran like me growing up in a small town without a Roman Catholic parish.  We saw rosaries and heard angelus bells all the time.  Whether or not we were Roman Catholic, these sights and sounds signaled the familiar, welcome, and comforting presence of the faith in the public square as well as in the privacy of church and home.  It seemed, at least for a time, that our culture also welcomed these images of Christian faith.  But the world of old where church bells did not violate noise ordinances and where the presence of clergy in religious dress was not viewed with suspicion or contempt is long gone.  The purpose of this column is not to condemn the secularization of our world and our daily lives but to challenge us to see the role and purpose of the church within the increasingly hostile atmosphere of culture and society.

What I recalled most about the good Cardinal's words were not the descriptive images of religion that has become embarrassment, offense, or threat to culture and  society.  What I resonate with is the part of his quote that is so often forgotten.  The Church will still be there.  The shards of a ruined society and broken civilization are the awful signs of decay but they are also the fodder for God's hope to be replanted and rebuilt among us.  We cannot afford simply to lament the changes in our culture and the way the Christian religion has become a pariah on the contemporary stage of life, work, and leisure.  We must move beyond the predictable lament and proceed to plant hope where despair reigns, to shine Christ's light in the darkness, and to speak with confidence of Him who is the resurrection and the life.

All churches (except, of course, those who have chosen to mirror back to the society its own expectations, values, and voices) are facing the threat of persecution, of being marginalized away from the microphone and stage of modern life, and of the threat of being silenced.  All churches (except those who cave in) will have to come to terms with this threat either by hiding away and providing a refuge for others who want to meet behind closed, locked doors... OR by courageously standing firm as the Church has done in the past and boldly speaking the Gospel to a world unfriendly to it.  Perhaps growing up in the 1950s I did not know the meaning of Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount "blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you on my account" -- but I have learned them.

The great temptation is to see the 1950s and the seeming rapprochement of church and culture and society as the norm.  It never was.  It was a brief moment which was more an illusion than a reality.  Now we are under no illusions and we face the reality of living through a time when Jesus' words will be felt in the slap of the world across the face of the faithful.  The temptation may be to turn inward and to hide Christ's Light from the world but we dare not.  We must speak the "no" when it must be said but we must also speak the "yes" of Christ crucified along with that "no".  We dare not silence our dissent from the culture of death, of self-centered life, and of pleasure pursued with abandon.  But we must also speak as passionately of Jesus Christ the Son of God, coming in flesh as our Savior, and of the gifts and graces He has bestowed upon all who will hear His call and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, believe.

It is too easy to closed the doors, lock them behind us, and shiver in fear for our selves, our children, and our grandchildren.  Yet we are not a people captive to fear.  We stand, if we stand at all, in Christ who has vanquished all fear.  May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ make us bold to be faithful under duress, to endure despite hardship, and to speak in the face of threat... for the day is coming when the world will despair of its ruins and in that kairos, in that pregnant moment of opportunity, the name of Christ will openly gather the remnant and rebuild broken and restore the lost -- just as He continue to do in a more hidden manner when it seems we are always on the defensive.

We all know the first part of the good Cardinal's words.  Let us not forget the second part.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Beating up on the clergy. . .

It is a common sport among some Christians to blame every problem on the clergy, to complain about their pastors, and to condemn all clergy for the sins of the few.  I read where a couple of more brothers whom I know are now without call, having come through a difficult time and resigned.  Now, to be sure, I am not saying clergy are blameless, only convenient targets for those who bring all their upset, disappointment, and frustration with them into the congregation.

I cannot complain about it personally.  That is not to say I have not have and do not now have my thorns in the flesh who love to point out all my flaws and failings.  I do.  But these have always been such a distinct minority that it has been easier for me than most.  But I do know many congregations with a reputation as clergy killers.  One even has the word "love" in the name of a Lutheran Church.  I also know too many clergy who have made some mistakes, even a few whoppers, but who have found the congregation unwilling to forgive and definitely unable to forget.  Most of these were new pastors when they spoke at the time they should have remained silent or were silent when they should have spoken.  None of these would rise to any reason for their removal but the atmosphere was so poisoned against them that they soon left.  Who would blame them?  Especially when their family got into the cross hairs of those who demanded more than they could deliver.

Beating up the clergy is not new nor is it unusual.  Once when I was flying to a conference a brother in the ministry ended up sitting next to me.  I knew his dad as well.  This fellow was ever so hard on his brother clergy and insisted that such lazy clergy should be drummed out of the ministry while those with his kind of initiative ought to receive more financial reward (and incentive).  At the time I was about ten years into a small parish (my first call) and I took much of what he said personally.  It was one of the loneliest moments of my ministry.

As much as some might like to think it is a Lutheran sport, it is even more rampant among those churches that hire their clergy (and fire them) at will.  Even Roman Catholics have bishops and brother priests who love to beat up on others.  And there are problem parishes even in Roman Catholicism.  Some have taken offense at the way Pope Francis seems to have singled out priests and bishops for a strong public rebuke.

Pope Francis is capable of speaking with great tenderness about those far from the Church.  When discussing his brother Jesuits, even those who sent him into exile and were active obstacles to the mission of Jesus Christ and the Ignatian charism, the Holy Father speaks with nuance and delicacy. Yet when he speaks of the parish clergy, his remarks are almost always critical, inveighing against the lazy priest in his rectory, unmoved by the suffering of the afflicted in need of mercy, reduced to a functionary who has become an obstacle rather than a conduit of God’s grace.

I am not saying that pastors are perfect, that their failings should be overlooked, or that their flaws do not matter.  They are sinners, just like the folks in the pews.  But just as preachers find invectives from the pulpit are hardly effective communication or motivation, neither does constant and nitpicking criticism do all that much to help the situation.

If you are one of those who feels you have much to complain about in your pastor,
  1. Pray for him.  Take it to the Lord in prayer before you pick up the phone, send off an email, or have a whispered conversation about him in the parking lot or over coffee in the fellowship hall.  Pray for him.  Pray not specifically for his flaws but for him as a person and for God to work through him in spite of those flaws.  Pray for the flaws and for God to help him become a better pastor.  And then pray for yourself that you be given the ability of looking beyond the man's flaws and be given a forgiving heart.
  2. Do not make it worse.  Do not go to him and say "Pastor, a lot of people are talking and they all agree that you. . . "  Do not be a self-appointed representative of the malcontents.  If you have a problem, talk to him privately -- not to vent but to encourage him in whatever is his weakness or flaws as a pastor.  If you hear of people complaining, encourage them to also go to him and speak to him privately.
  3. Encourage him in what he does well.  No pastor is a complete failure.  Whatever it is that he does well, encourage him in it.  Let him know that you recognize his abilities as well as his sins and failings.  Help him figure out how to translate abilities and skills in strong areas into the tools to strengthen his weaknesses.
  4. Relieve him of some of the extraneous duties and responsibilities that soak up his time and energy and detract from his pastoral work.  Make sure the properties folks are doing their jobs so the pastor does not have to plunge the toilet, replace the light bulb, and fix whatever else is broken.  Make sure that the church officers are complementing the pastoral work by shouldering the burdens of the temporal affairs of the congregation and not just complaining about them and dumping on the clergy.  Show up when you are scheduled and serve enthusiastically in whatever roll and task assigned to you.
  5. Stop comparing.  No pastor can live up to the sainted qualities of the pastors who were there in the glory days (the pictorial wall of shame fame every congregation has of its previous clergy).  No pastor should have to be constantly compared to other pastors down the road or in the news who have excelled at this or that or who seem nearly perfect on cursory overview.  St. Paul had his problems, too.  Corinth was one of those problem congregations.
  6. Get over it.  That is the favorite counseling phrase of a classmate of mine.  Get over it does NOT mean put up and shut up.  It means stop dwelling on your discontent, your disappointment, and your frustration.  Dwelling on these things becomes just as big a problem as the flaws and failings of a mortal man who serves as your pastor.  Why is it easier to look past these things in some folks but not in others?  Maybe that is worthy of a bit of your prayerful contemplation.
  7. Sort out the big problems from the small ones.  If your pastor is a mediocre or bad preacher that is one thing.  If he preaches false doctrine or fails to preach Jesus Christ crucified, that is another.  If he needs organizational skills that is one thing.  If he refuses to visit the sick, teach the Word, and provide pastoral care to the sinner, that is another.  If it is a *biggie* then go to the Visitor (Circuit Counselor) or Bishop (District President) asking for help (not merely to complain).  If it is not a "biggie" then get down on your knees and thank the Lord and ask Him what you can do to help.
It is not a complete list or a particularly enlightened list of what you can do, but start there.  Beating up on clergy is fun for all ages (at least for a time), diverts the attention away from some of the real issues, and is a sport requiring little training.   But it has the downside of not only killing clergy, it kills your congregation, and it will kill you.  Bitterness cannot be spread without its effects coming back to haunt you.  I do not beg for pastors to coddled or for their flaws to be ignored.  I only ask that they be accorded the same grace and mercy that God has shown to us.  Maybe we would all gain from that, ya think?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What part of communion do you not get?

Every now and then I page through stuff on my desk.  Today it was a catalog by, of all things, a Roman Catholic church supply house.  They were offering up special products they thought might help with the observance of Lent.

They had two forms of a Personal Devotion Communion Set available.  Basically it is a box of hermetically sealed containers with a crumb of bread or cracker and a sippy cup of grape juice all in one.  It is an individual wafer and Concord grape juice set packaged with a devotional booklet so that people can use it at home, having communion just Jesus and one person.  You can get it with 30 days worth of devotions and celebration cups or a 40 day supply.  They begin at a very reasonable $21 bucks.  You can be assured that  with its patented push up and pull back tab and 12 month shelf life, this is the most hygienic product available. Of course, it is FDA approved.

So the point is this.  You pop the top at home, read the devotion, and much on a piece of cracker and a few drops of Welches and you and Jesus have your special moment.  Dare I call it "communion"?  I don't think the word applies since nobody here believes that you are getting Jesus, just a sign and symbol of Jesus to jog your memory or your heart strings.  So the communion is not in the body and blood but in the feeling and the thought.  It cannot be communion since you are not with another person but doing this all by yourself (makes the part about if your brother has anything against you a bit easier to deal with). 

Sadly, some liturgical Christian (poorly catechized or simply choosing to ignore what he knows) will buy this with a copy of Warren's 40 (Forty) Days of Purpose and figure they got a real winner here.  Or, perhaps it will be some well meaning Pastor who thinks "why not?" and goes with it before he thinks or talks himself out of it.  My point is why exchange an empty sham of a devotion for the rich liturgical and sacramental life around the Word and Table of the Lord?  Really!  Why?  I can only think of one answer.  It means I don't have to go to Church, don't have to interact with a pesky preacher and problematic people, and can satisfy my religious needs in the shallowest and most "me-centered" manner possible.

Truth is always stranger than fiction... but the tears of God must be flowing at the foolishness we do with His holy gifts... truly. . .

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rejoicing in suffering. . .

Sermon for Lent 3A, preaching on Sunday, March 23, 2014.

    Warren Buffett, the oracle of Omaha and one of the world's richest men, does not think inherited wealth is a good thing.  He vows to give most of his fortune away.  Part of me would like to prove him wrong and show him what I could do with all that money.  How about you?  But under it all we know the truth of what he says.  The old saying is that error and hardship are great teachers but success leaves little wisdom in its wake.  So it is with faith.
    Part of us would like to believe that faith grows best when insulated from hardship, pain, temptation, trial, and suffering.  But the truth is that faith grows best when tempted, threatened, and tried.   God permits this suffering because it teaches the faithful and it prevents the greater ill of eternal suffering.  All of that is easy to say when life is going okay.  It is not so easy when we find ourselves tried, tested, tempted, and in the midst of suffering.  Like the children of Israel in the first lesson today, we cry out “where is God?  Is He with us or against us?” when sufferings, struggles, and trials touch out lives.
    Today we heard St. Paul suggest the unlikely statement that we rejoice in suffering.  Who in their right mind would ever say that?  Perhaps we prefer to think of God as a doting grandfather instead of the disciplining father described in the book of Hebrews.  We prefer a God whom we can fool and manipulate instead of the God who sees and knows all things.  But those whom the Lord loves He chastens and those whom He chastens He loves.
    St. Paul draws the lines.  Sin and its eternal death are a greater danger than the suffering and trials of this mortal life.  Suffering in the hand of God builds us up in grace, strengthens our faith, and is a tool of the Spirit for our sanctification.  Suffering produces endurance.  None of us knows our weakness or our strength until tested.  Suffering teaches us where our strength comes from, that what is impossible for us, it not only possible with God but a sure thing by His promise.  This is the grace on which we stand and not our own strength or power.
    From this endurance, our character is built up in faith.  We trust in Him who cannot fail us and we give up trusting in ourselves or the things of this world.  For as sure as suffering takes something from us, God gives us grace greater than what this suffering has stolen.  The character of faith that is produced by endurance is hope.  Not optimism or a cheery outlook but real and genuine hope in Christ, in His death, and in His resurrection.  Hope not of a good outcome but hope born of our conviction that we know the outcome.  We live our lives backwards – from the ending which we know in our own joyful resurrection to eternal life and reading this backwards into the struggles, sorrows, and sufferings of this present day.
    We rejoice in suffering, says St. Paul.  Then he proceeds to place our own sufferings in the context of Christ's suffering for us, a redemptive suffering that won our salvation.  God showed His great love for us that He sent His only Son to die for us – not because we deserved or were worth this investment of suffering even to death. No while we were still enemies and sinners under His wrath and condemnation Christ died for us.  Knowing what His suffering won, we know our suffering in Him is not in vain.
    Furthermore, by our suffering we participate in His suffering (not to add to or complete what He has done but as a people who live out our lives in the shadow of the cross).  Our suffering produces its own redemptive fruit and blessing in our lives.  This is the privilege of faith.  Only because the love of God has been poured into our hearts and the Holy Spirit given to us can we see suffering differently.  Only because we know that there is a curse greater than suffering can we rejoice in the suffering that produces good effect in us and our faith.
    It is completely unnatural to talk about suffering in this way.  Only those who have the new nature born of baptism’s living water and God's life in us can rejoice in suffering that produces endurance that produces character that produces hope which cannot put us to shame.  Therefore, knowing this, people of faith see the whole thing differently than the world around us.  Like the discipline of the parent that is born of love, we acknowledge that suffering is not without its fruit in our daily lives.  It helps to keep us in Christ.
    In the face of suffering, the world cries out "why?"  We do not.  We know why.  We confess that we are sinners who deserve only condemnation and punishment.  We are not only born into a sinful world where death reigns but we add to that sin by our own thoughts, words, and deeds.  We know where suffering comes from – suffering for our sinful choices and suffering even for the sake of the Gospel.  We acknowledge the grace of God that gives us not what we deserve but mercy, grace, and blessing.  We rejoice to see what Jesus' own suffering has born for us – our very salvation.  Therefore we do not look at suffering as the ultimate evil.  No, living apart from God and His salvation is the greatest evil to befall any of us.
    We will meet the sufferings of this mortal life as Christ did.  As the verse for today says, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross. . . “ Christ saw the end and bore the suffering of the moment in view of its outcomes.  Do we who live in Him by baptism and faith do any less?  Seeing the hand of God at work in us even in suffering, sure that we will not be overcome by the burdens laid at our door by a sinful world and sinners by their sins, we refuse to allow these sufferings to shape the character of our lives.  By this suffering our faith is ever more focused upon Christ, whose strength is made perfect in our weakness and whose healing power sustains us in every trial.  And we will grow ever more confident of the hope that is within us by our baptism into Christ and the faith the Holy Spirit works in our hearts to grasp hold of this gift.
    Our eyes are not on the suffering but the prize – not the prize in the sense of a reward for our suffering or even a consolation prize to make up for what we bear here below.  But the prize! What Christ has won for us and gives graciously to us in the living waters of our new birth and by faith.  Eternal peace with God in Christ and our own joyful resurrection to everlasting life, wearing the blessed new flesh and blood of God's righteous people justified by faith.  Because we know the end, we do not lose our way through the struggles, sorrows, and sufferings of this mortal life.  Even more so, they keep us upon the way of Christ, the way of life and salvation. This is why we rejoice and suffering cannot steal this joy away from us.  Amen.

Luther on the Annunciation. . .

On the Annunciation, it would do well to listen to Martin Luther on the Blessed Virgin Mary:

Martin Luther is well acquainted with the Immaculate Conception (long before it was defined by a Pope):

“It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary's soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God's gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin"   -Martin Luther (Sermon: "On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God,” 1527).

Along with virtually all important Protestant Founders (e.g., Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer), Luther accepted the traditional belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary (Jesus had no blood brothers), and her status as the Theotokos (Mother of God):

"Christ, ..was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him... "brothers" really means "cousins" here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers."   -Martin Luther (Sermons on John, chapters 1-4.1537-39).

"He, Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary's virginal womb.. .This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that."  (Ibid.)

"God says... "Mary's Son is My only Son." Thus Mary is the Mother of God.".  (Ibid.)

"God did not derive his divinity from Mary; but it does not follow that it is therefore wrong to say that God was born of Mary, that God is Mary's Son, and that Mary is God's mother...She is the true mother of God and bearer of God...Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God, etc. For God and man are one person, one Christ, one Son, one Jesus. not two Christs. . .just as your son is not two sons...even though he has two natures, body and soul, the body from you, the soul from God alone."  -Martin Luther (On the Councils and the Church, 1539)

"She is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin—something exceedingly great. For God's grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil."   -Martin Luther (Personal {"Little"} Prayer Book, 1522)
Luther preached on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the sermon of August 15, 1522, is the last time:

"There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened we do not know. And since the Holy Spirit has told us nothing about it, we can make of it no article of faith... It is enough to know that she lives in Christ."  -Martin Luther (Sermon, Feast of the Assumption of Mary, 1522)

Luther highly esteemed Mary and his piety and devotional practice of the veneration of Mary were sustained throughout his life:

"The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart."  -Martin Luther (Sermon, September 8, 1522).

"[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ. ..She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures."   -Martin Luther (Sermon, Christmas, 1531).

"No woman is like you. You are more than Eve or Sarah, blessed above all nobility, wisdom, and sanctity."   -Martin Luther (Sermon, Feast of the Visitation. 1537).

"One should honor Mary as she herself wished and as she expressed it in the Magnificat. She praised God for his deeds. How then can we praise her? The true honor of Mary is the honor of God, the praise of God's grace.. .Mary is nothing for the sake of herself, but for the sake of Christ...Mary does not wish that we come to her, but through her to God."  -Martin Luther (Explanation of the Magnificat, 1521) 
Luther speaks of the Blessed Virgin Mary as also the "Spiritual Mother" for all Christians, the first of the Christians who consented to the Angel's Word, pondered all these things in  her heart, and whose own soul was pierced as Simeon prophesied:

"It is the consolation and the superabundant goodness of God, that man is able to exult in such a treasure. Mary is his true Mother, Christ is his brother. God is his father."  -Martin Luther (Sermon. Christmas, 1522)

"Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees...If he is ours, we ought to be in his situation; there where he is, we ought also to be and all that he has ought to be ours, and his mother is also our mother."  - Martin Luther (Sermon, Christmas, 1529).

Whoever possesses a good (firm) faith, says the Hail Mary without danger! Whoever is weak in faith can utter no Hail Mary without danger to his salvation. -Martin Luther (Sermon, March 11, 1523).

Our prayer should include the Mother of God.. .What the Hail Mary says is that all glory should be given to God, using these words: "Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Amen!" You see that these words are not concerned with prayer but purely with giving praise and honor.. .We can use the Hail Mary as a meditation in which we recite what grace God has given her. Second, we should add a wish that everyone may know and respect her...He who has no faith is advised to refrain from saying the Hail Mary. -Martin Luther (Personal Prayer Book, 1522). 

Martin Luther (like most theologians Reformation and Roman) condemned any Christian who regards Mary as equal to Jesus or who implies that Jesus was less than equal to the Father and the Spirit.  But if there could be a second status, below Jesus, but elevated above the noble saints and ordinary Christians, Luther would have placed Mary there.  Luther's Commentary on the Magnificat remains the fullest treatment of his Mariology.

In number 75 of the 95 theses Luther places blasphemy against the Virgin as a sin so great that papal indulgence cannot set it aside. Luther preached on Mary on all her feast days, perhaps with more faithfulness that do many Roman Catholic priests today. Many of these Marian feasts remained not only on the calendar but faithfully observed for a century after Luther’s death. Luther kept images of the BVM in his churches where they remained until the time of “Enlightenment” in the 18th century when the images began to be removed or covered.  Modern day Lutherans are much more reserved in their treatment of Mary than Luther or the Lutherans of the first couple centuries after the Reformation.

My point is not to shock or embarrass Lutherans but to point out that Luther was very catholic in his faith and piety and, though some of this changed or diminished slightly by the end of his life, Luther did not find appreciation for the Blessed Virgin Mary something in competition with Christ.  Just the opposite, it was the Blessed Virgin herself who sang, inspired by the Spirit, that all generations will call me blessed.  True honor and devotion to the Virgin Mary does not detract from Christ at all but honors Him.  She from whom He took His human flesh remains an example of faith and trust for all who would follow her in following Christ as Savior.  On this day when we remember the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a little reminder of the devotion to Blessed Mary which Luther expressed is well needed among the heirs of Luther who sometimes fear to speak her name out loud.  
To the nervous Lutherans reading this let me say.  Of course, and let me say it again, of course none of these affirmations not explicitly stated in Scripture (immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, or the assumption) could ever be required belief or be set as doctrine along side, for example, the creed.  No Lutheran and not even Luther was saying this.  But that did not and does not preclude one from believing such.  Where Lutherans differ from Protestants is that we allow these traditions to be held as private opinion which, while not found in Scripture, do not contradict it.  Roman Catholics, on the other hand, do not affirm Scripture as both source and norm of all doctrine and therefore regard tradition to be an equal source of doctrine (tradition which does not conflict with Scripture).  For Lutherans it is a matter of private faith but for Roman Catholics it is a matter of public doctrine.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Unreformable. . . Or not. . .

It has not been without interest on my part that some with the Roman Catholic Church have wondered about the progress the "reform of the reform" that began under Benedict XVI.  As a few have observed, Benedict XVI deservedly has been called the Father of the New Liturgical Movement and its critical reappraisal of the documents and practices that we tend to lump together under the heading of Vatican II.  Certainly Benedict's practice as well as his writings have reflected a vastly different path from the radical disconnect of the past.  Whether his liturgical hermeneutic of continuity will live on remains an open question both with the concern over Francis' commitment to and and agreement to what Benedict began and the entrenched nature of the poor liturgical practices of the post-Vatican II period.

Many have come to agree that Whatever else might be said of the reformed liturgy—its pastoral benefits, its legitimacy, its rootedness in theological ressourcement, its hegemonic status, etc.—the fact remains: it does not represent an organic development of the liturgy which Vatican II (and, four centuries earlier, the Council of Trent) inherited.  What some are also coming to conclude is that the reform of the reform may also be impossible.  The tide of those who believe the ‘reform of the reform’ is not realizable because the material discontinuity between the two forms of the Roman rite presently in use is much broader and much deeper than . . .imagined.  With this may well come a new reform which requires abandoning the Paul VI radical reform and the development of a reform which represents both continuity with and deference to the pre-Vatican II liturgy (1962 Missal) that is simply not possible with the rites promulgated by Paul VI.

You can read more here. . . and also here. . .  Both authors seem to have come to this lamentable conclusion with a great deal of sadness.  Both recognize that something more than the reform of the reform is a much larger proposition than the repair of an existing rite and its abuses.  Where this will go is unknown to me.  It is of interest to me but I have no real stake in it.  However, it has made me wonder about some of the folks I know who have given up on Lutheranism and those who are pessimistic about the ability of Lutherans to reclaim their confessional, liturgical, and doctrinal heritage.  Can we reform the reforms or has it gone too far already?

It seems the that first step to leaving Lutheranism is the lament that the Lutheranism of today is too far removed from its Confessions to reclaim its once vigorous orthodoxy and liturgical integrity.  I will admit that I wonder this sometimes.  There are always moments when it seems like a losing battle to hold for a dogmatic orthodoxy and a liturgical recovery when so much is at stake and there are so many who seem both unaware of the issues at stake and unwilling to change their practices to be consistent with those Confessions.  However, we have reason to hope that the reform of the reform in Missouri has more chance of succeeding than not.

Only a month or so ago the LCMS remembered the 40th anniversary of the Seminary community leaving the campus of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and entering a self-imposed exile complete with the start of a new Seminary in Exile (Seminex).  While many will lament the blood on the hands of both sides and the seeming inability of Missouri to grow beyond its contentious past, the truth is that Missouri was one of the few traditions to face a growing liberalism with its suspicion about the truthfulness of Scripture and its use of a form of Biblical criticism that began with skepticism about the Biblical record.  Missouri not only faced it but turned the tide.  Seldom have denominations so soundly reset their course as Missouri did then.

Secondly, one Seminary in Missouri has produced thousands of Pastors since who were nurtured not only in Lutheran orthodoxy but in a liturgical Lutheran piety.  Forty years had made a powerful difference in Missouri.  Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, had a more consistent track record of producing Pastors with both confessional and liturgical orthodoxy, though it seems now much more open to contemporary, non-liturgical worship, and to church growth style agenda.

Finally, Missouri not only restructured its national organization but left this task in the hands of those who remain unwavering in their commitment to Lutheran confessional orthodoxy and Lutheran liturgical integrity.  So far it seems that the Synod has given its blessing to this recovery twice in the election of a Synod President who has been unapologetic in his affirmation of Lutheran dogmatic and liturgical vitality.  There seems little real or organized opposition to this national stance (though we all recognize that it is not universally held among Missourians).

So to those who might be tempted to say the reforms that have led Missouri away from our Lutheran theology and liturgical practice and into a more evangelical identity are unreformable, I say say "not so fast..."  Sound liturgical and confessional identity is no retreat but the advance of a church body only now beginning to remember that Lutheran is a positive statement both in terms of theology and its worship practice.  We have the edge.  We should not be proud or arrogant about this but neither should we discount the tremendous movement that has already taken place to reclaim and renew the dogmatic mind and the liturgical heart of this church body.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Objective and Subjective Scholarship

[NOTE:  For whatever reason, this did not post yesterday.  Here is the missing Sunday post.]

There are those who believe that the seminary is the place where the facts of Scripture and its truth is reviewed and evaluated against all claims both to and against its content.  In this kind of setting, any and all tools can and should be used to determine what the text of Scripture is, how it got to us, what it said then, what it might say today, and what can be substantiated (and, by implication, what cannot).  In other words, the Bible is to be treated not simply as any other book but with an even more rigorous and skeptical review because its claims are so important.  In this viewpoint, the seminary will introduce the prospective pastor to the scholarly endeavor distinguishing the Jesus of history from the Jesus of the Church (and of Scripture).

Scripture is approached as a problem to be solved or a mystery to be untangled.  Inherent in this academic pursuit is the separation of historical fact from the kerygma or preaching of the Church.  So what if things did not take place exactly as the Bible has them, what is important is the meaning and not the actual record or words.  So what if books are not what they claim to be but in reality edited versions of various notes, authors, and perspectives; what is important is what this means to us today.  So what if there are errors of time and place, what is important is the meaning over all.  It is no secret that this divorce of text from fact leads to a gospel that is about morality, a better life today and a better world than we found it.  Anything and everything that does not contribute toward the great goal of morality is suspect or non-essential.

Scholars and scholarship of this kind do not belong in the seminary.  I do not mean to suggest that the pastors of the church should not be prepared to answer the critics.  I am saying that they should not be taught by them.  The objective scholarship of modern historical criticism that does not believe the text and the radical textual criticism that seeks to undo the text as we know it belong in the secular atmospheres of schools of religion.  Let them play with the Word of God as if it were just a book whose historicity matters little to its overall message of morality.  In the seminary we need subjective scholars who believe the Word of the Lord, who are captive to that Word for doctrine, teaching, and preaching, and who prepare men to speak faithfully and apply authentically the Word of Life to sinners captive to death.

I will grant to you that it is possible for one to use these tools of higher criticism and to approach the Scriptures from the position of skepticism about its claims and truth and still end up with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Of course it is possible.  I believe the Word is efficacious and can do just that.  I also believe it is more likely that one who begins with these tools will end up rejecting any and every claim of miracle, fact, and truth and be left with a Jesus who helps us make better choices rather than the Christ who died for the sins of the world and was raised to open the door to eternal life.

Some 40 years after the walk out at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, we see where the unfettered use of such a skeptical approach to Scripture and the tools of higher criticism has left the world.  The Gospel has become a way to enjoy a better quality of life now or a path to a higher morality.  The facts on which the true Gospel is based have given way so that the creed is no longer a statement of what we believe, confess, and teach but words distinct from and separate from any historical reality.  The Word of the Lord has become a spiritual buffet in which scholars and ordinary folk pick and choose what appeals to them.  Christ is less the unique Son of God in human flesh than a role model of non-judgmental and love principled acceptance of anything and everything. 

The emptiness of the mainline Protestant Gospel is fueled largely by its abdication of truth and the truthfulness of Scripture.  Faith has moved from the because to a what if and these churches have hemorrhaged great numbers of members in search of a different truth or a better one.  Evangelicalism has largely switched its focus from the facts of our salvation history to the moment and to the feelings and self-improvement that make today better for me and for others.  Instead of salvation, evangelicals want and get sermons on how to have better marriages, raise better children, get better jobs, and have a better quality of life now.

Modern historical-critical investigation of the NT has been around for about 200-250 years. Its scholarly methodology developed over this time is firmly entrenched. One of its key figures, Ernst Troeltsch,  formulated three principles of critical history, which, in practice, governed all his historical inquiry. First, the principle of criticism required that all historical judgments are open to revision and, therefore, can only attain a greater or lesser degree of probability. Historical knowledge can never be absolute and, in Troeltsch’s view, cannot be the foundation of faith. Second, the principle of analogy maintains that historical judgments presuppose an essential similarity between our humanity and the humanity of the past period. Thus if people do not typically rise bodily from the dead in our contemporary world and experience, we have no basis for assuming that any perrson could have done so in the past. Third, the principle of interrelatedness (correlation) understands a historical event  in terms of its antecedents and consequences and not separate from its environment. 

These principles continue to impact the scholarly study of Christian origins, ancient Christian documents, and the history of Christianity and have presided over the great decline not only of confidence in the facts of the Bible but in morality itself.  It is well past time to expose the shallow underpinnings of modern thought and to insist that those who teach and those who learn begin with the Scriptures and their own claims of truth and truthfulness.  Far from bringing a scholarly consensus, the modern higher critical movement has left the playing field of Biblical interpretation even more wide open while failing in its primary purpose of helping the one who is called to preach the Word of the Lord to the people of God.  Scholarship that has failed the preaching task is of little real value to the Church or to the faith.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Of hobbies, I've had a few. . .

Normally I am not one to disparage the choice of hobbies or sports interests some have made.  But there are few curlers in my congregation and I must admit, though I have watched this so-called sport, I don't get it. Curling is old.  Okay, I get that.  It was begun in areas where people have lots of rock, lots of time, and seemingly little else to do.  I get that.  Maybe it is fun for those who do it, but watching curling is about like watching the a front loader move sand from one pile to another -- pointless.  I know I risk offending some of my readers but I find curling the oddest of attractions.  On the other hand, it seems to be a sport especially suited for Lutherans (which is why I wonder sometimes why I do not like it).

Lutherans are by all accounts rather dull and they live somewhat unexciting lives.  They are thrilled with things like lutefisk and tuna and noodle casseroles.  They follow a liturgy which is predictable and routine.  They sing hymns many in the world have chosen not to sing, anymore, at least.  They have no superstar figures in politics, sports, or religion.  So I guess it would be obvious that the sport for Lutherans is curling.  Hence my dilemma.  Why do I find this "sport" so irritating when it seems the perfect hobby for me, a Lutheran?

But lo the winter is near past and the voice of the turtledove will soon be heard in the land... which means that the Olympics are over and curlers will put away their stones for the year and all this tension and excitement over some ice, a broom, and a rock will dissipate and life will return to normal in Lutherland again.  At least that is what I hope...

Not simply a recovery. . .

Often the accusation against the liturgical traditionalists is that they attempt to recover something of the past, a pristine form before corrupted or a golden age of worship and music.  This accusation is not entirely off base.  There are some who are searching for a moment, for a snapshot from the past that embodies for them the best of the best.  These folks often are the Latin Mass folk of Rome who would have Palestrina as the only music of the liturgy or the TLH crowd of Missouri who posit this form of the Common Service and the hymns within this book as the crowning glory of Lutheranism.  Though I have much in common with this crowd I am not one of them.  That is not to say I do believe we have much to recover.  We surely do.  We are not who we were and that is a real problem.  We need to recover our confessional identity as a liturgical practice.  But there is no moment from the past that epitomizes the glory moment for me.

A blog comment (tongue in cheek) asked me how I could be a confessional Lutheran and use the three year lectionary.  There is much good in this lectionary just as there is much good in the one year lectionary.  I do not disdain all the unfolding flower of the liturgical movement as something evil or even a distraction.  We use the Common Service (LSB Divine Service, Setting Three) but we primarily use LSB Settings One and Two.  I do not find an inconsistency here.  The liturgical movement for Lutherans was not simply about a recovery but also about the faithful addition of the best of the offerings of the present moment, consistent and in continuity with what we received but not simply a repristination of the past.

We love to quote Nagel's Introduction to LW, and I admit I love it and quote it often, but we often forget the part where he wrote:  . . . we may learn from His Word and from the way His Word has prompted His worship through the centuries.  We are heirs of an astongishly rich tradition.  Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day -- the living heritage and something new.

As if this were not clear enough, the Introduction continues withe recitation of what was received from the past in the Divine Service and of morning and evening prayer offices and how therein is provided the widest range of orders of service for English-speaking Lutherans -- wide in range but unmistakable in preserving the essential form (the ordo) of the Mass and the daily offices within a liturgical hermeneutic of continuity.  It is even more clear in the section on hymnody.

In its hymnody each age of the Church reflects what it returns to God for the great blessings it has received from him. Some of the Church's song is always derived from a previous era. The early Church developed its music from the psalmody of the synagogue, to which it added the strophic hymns of Greek and Roman converts. When the liturgy became the sole property of the clergy, there arose a need for hymns in the language of the people. Thus there came into being the great body of Latin hymns introduced and promoted by Bishop Ambrose of Milan and his followers. In time these again became the property of the clergy and hierarchy. The Lutheran Reformation once more restored the Church's song to the people in their native tongue. From then on the Lutheran Church became known as the "singing Church." The song of this Church has weathered and withstood such influences as pietism, rationalism, modernism, and universalism in one form or another. Lutheran hymns draw on the vast treasury of Christian hymnody old and new, with words that speak God's law and Gospel and express our faith's response and with music that nourishes both memory and heart!

We dare not act in discontinuity with our past and fail to pass on the great treasure of liturgy and song as part of the confession and faith that is the legacy of one faithful generation to another.  But neither must we be content ONLY to recover or pass on what we received.  We must always also be creative and produce new forms that express faithfully the living tradition within the best of our ability to compose and create, the best of the present with the best of the past. To reject what is new simply because it is new is neither faithful nor  truly honoring our heritage.

Of course, there will be disagreement (often more about personal preference than objective value) and there will be testing and discernment ongoing throughout the life of the Church as the new is evaluated to see if it is worthy of the Gospel.  Of course, there will be scrutiny given to make sure that newness is not itself either the primary nor the sole criterion to commend these.  Of course, time will prove a good helpmeet to the critical and objective eyes of the present.  But I have every confidence that faithfulness to the past requires nothing less than the messy, difficult, and frustrating task of creation, evaluation, and integration of the best of the day with the best of the past.  We cannot simply let liturgical or confessional renewal be merely a recovery.  It will begin there, to be sure, but it will not end there.  God help us in this holy endeavor that we may honor the tradition handed down to us, keep it faithfully, and pass it on with the living voice of the present day, as Nagel so eloquently observed now more than 30 years ago.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Facts to teach, heroes to copy, or grace to reveal. . .

I must admit that I am weary of the many well intended but generally flawed efforts to engage evolutionary theory with the Genesis record.  Compromising the two and correlating them seems the most foolish of the paths.  Arguing constantly has gotten us almost nowhere.  Believing the Jesus who is the eternal Son of God once conceived, carried and delivered from the womb of a Virgin to suffer, die, and rise again, whose death is counted as payment for all the sins of the world and all its sinners but then wondering how God could create the world in six days seems the ultimate irony. The Scriptures are filled with facts that God clearly intends to be taken as facts, literal and historical.  But that is not the purpose of Scripture.  If you win the facts war, you have still not won the purpose for God's self-disclosure in His Word.

In the same way, I am all about saints and heroes.  Lord knows we have too few noble people to raise up the hopes and sights of our youth today.  But as wonderful as the lives of the saints (in and after Scripture), the Bible is hardly given to us as a blueprint of the kind of life we could, should, and would lead if we were good enough, tried hard enough, or believed sincerely enough.  Heroes to copy is hardly the purpose of the Scriptures.  The saints are to be remembered and their stories told but not as role models or at least not primarily as such.  They are recalled and their lives told as evidence of the grace of God sufficient for every need, calling us to His purpose with the promise that all things (read that adversity, tragedy, and sacrifice) work together for good for them who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose (read there baptism and its resultant vocation of new life in Christ).

No, the Scriptures are the book of the church because they reveal to us the grace of God.  This is not some theoretical or philosophical grace for us to ponder but the grace revealed in all creation endowed with His purpose and living for His glory, the grace of love that refused to abandon what He had made even when His mightiest creation did, and of the grace that was spoken through the ages until it became flesh and blood for us and our salvation.  Grace to reveal -- that is the story of Scripture -- amid facts, history, a plan of salvation before the world began, unfolding through moment, epoch, and era according to God's kairos until the glory of the Lord is manifest in the flesh and blood of our Savior and in His flesh and blood given and shed for us to eat and drink still as the foretaste of the feast to come.

Don't get me wrong.  The Scriptures are filled with facts and the stories of our heroes.  But they all serve one purpose -- to reveal to us grace of God in which we stand.  Unless we get this right, the other stuff matters very little at all...

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Photo view of a day in the life of Concordia Theological Seminary. . .

Click here for a nice set of pictures giving a glimpse of one day in the life of the students, faculty, and staff of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana. . .

High, Low, or Broad. . .

Often you will hear someone refer to a church as ‘high’ or ‘low’church (or even ‘broad’ church) and  wondered what does that mean.  The terms come out of Anglicanism (specifically the Church of England) although they are used all over the place.  They date back to the 17th - 19th centuries and, although usually they are used liturgically, they also represented theological stances over the shape of the Church in England after Henry VIII.  They are about ecclesiology (the Church), the theology of the church (leaning Roman Catholic or Protestant), the authority, the role and necessity of the episcopacy, and, of course, the sacraments.

It does not take a history geek to know that from the time of Henry VIII the Church of England has had a somewhat split personality with respect to doctrine, structure, and worship.  On the one hand it has a definite Protestant side (here low church) and on the other it has always had a very catholic side (think Anglo-Catholic and high church).  From the late 17th century, the term ‘high church’ described those who emphasized the Church of England’s historical continuity as a branch of the catholic church and with ‘high’ views of the authority of the church, the authority of bishops, and the nature of sacraments as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.

"Low church’ dates from the early 18th century and was coined in contrast to ‘high church’. With the rise of a very Protestant and evangelical movement in the day, ‘low church’ folks tended to place a 'low' place to the claims of the episcopate, the priesthood, and the sacraments and generally stressed the more Protestant beliefs of the church.  Those in between became the 'broad' church folks -- the so-called center majority whose views tended to mix up things a bit and draw on elements of both sides.

While the above is not meant to be a definitive review of the terminology, it suffices to popularly explain where they came from.  How they were borrowed by Lutherans and became common among Lutherans is another matter.  Perhaps because of a lack of terminology from our own confessional vocabulary or the ever present desire to use short-hand terms for more complex truths, Lutherans began using these Anglican terms.  Some complained and still do.  Other Lutherans use them without hesitation.  What all Lutherans should recognize is that these terms distort the role and place of liturgy and ceremony within Lutheranism.

Unlike the Anglicans, Lutherans have been specific, clear, and bold with regard to the liturgical practice that reflects our Confessional identity.  We have gone so far as to compete with the Roman Catholic party as to which group keeps the Mass more faithfully.  We have insisted that outwardly (ceremonially) the Lutheran Mass is no different than the Roman Mass.  We have refused to make ceremonial laws binding upon the conscience for salvation but have insisted that these are not unimportant matters.  Doctrine is reflected in practice and practice displays doctrine, we confess. Adiaphora does not mean unimportant but rather those things about which the conscience cannot be bound.  Adiaphora does not mean everyone is free to do as he or she pleases and that every parish is free to shape Sunday morning as it wills.  Among Missouri Synod Lutherans this is even more narrowed by the common consent that all agendas (books of liturgical and sacramental rites), liturgies, and hymns must be doctrinally pure.  We publish our own liturgical books and hymnals to satisfy that definition.

I have an acquaintance who defines himself like this:  Once, off the top of my head, when asked to describe my liturgical position, I labeled myself as on the higher end of mid-church.  When folks come to my parish, they often label me as 'high church' because we chant, genuflect, bow, use Eucharistic vestments, have weekly Communion, etc...  Part of me bristles at this because none of these practices that today would be labelled 'high' are anything but usual and normal for a church of the Augsburg Confession from the time of Luther and well into the 19th century.  In some places, it has never been any different (Sweden).  Yet here and now we are quick to label.

Any cursory reading of the Lutheran Confessions would see that there is no 'low' church envisioned for Lutherans.  There may be a 'broad' church presumed by the use of a hymn mass like the Deutsche Messe but not in doctrine and even then ceremony is not a thing indifferent according to Luther who put it together.  Though our own Lutheran history of the last several centuries would contradict it, the Confessions know only a 'high' church practice.  Some of us as Lutherans might not like that or even refuse to admit it, but I find it impossible to read the Lutheran Confessions and end up with the idea that what you do on Sunday morning does not matter and a Sunday morning that does not look like the Mass is okay with those who wrote those Confessions, those who agreed to those Confessions, and their expectation of those who follow them who ascribe to those Confessions.

Read the Confessions.  What you find there is 'high' church without rigid rules requiring every ceremony, bow, hymn, etc... being exactly the same in every place.  Historically, any diversity within Lutheranism was NOT from parish to parish but from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Oddly enough, 'high church' within Lutheranism should refer to those places where a liturgical choir leads the liturgy versus the 'low church' where no choir is present.  Read Joseph Herl's Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict.  Read Bodo Nischan Prince, People, and Confession:  The Second Reformation in Brandenburg.  Read Walter Zeedon  Faith and Act - The Survival of Medieval Ceremonies in the Lutheran Reformation.

If we have to resort to using Anglican terminology to describe Lutherans as 'high' or 'low' church, we have forgotten not only our history but our Confession.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I have no pants. . .

When Pastors dream, do they dream of their sheep?  Sometimes, though not often, in my experience.  But I do have a reoccurring dream, a nightmare of sorts, about the sheep pen.  It is typical of dreams that treat the subject of our fears, our inadequacies, and our failings.  I had the dream again not long ago.  I have had this same dream often enough so that I do not even have to be asleep to have it.

It begins with me waking up on the first Sunday at my new parish.  I had just accepted the call and moved there (though this is never actually part of the dream).  I wake up late for church (every Pastor's fear at one point or another though some of my friends have actually lived out this nightmare).  Anyway, I wake up late and rush to the church with out shower (or pants, as the dream has it later on).  When I get there, this is a mission congregation and the facility is a rented movie theater.  People are sitting out there in their padded seats sipping a soda and munching on pop corn and theater packs of JuJuBes and Dots waiting for the new guy to enthrall them.

When I get there I realize I have no vestments, which would not be such a big issue if I had put on my pants but now that I have no pants on, the vestments become an even greater urgency.  I walk around trying to find something to wear, anything, God help me (a pink apron, a can can, a pair of overalls, a long trench coat...).  All of this takes enough time to stretch out into a dream that never ends, never resolves, and always leaves me in a cold sweat.   And then I wake up.  Strangely, I am not even comforted by the reality that it was all just a dream (well, nightmare).  The fear of being unprepared is a threat that remains even when the dream is but a memory.

Though I have been a Pastor for 34 years, I live with the constant awareness of all the things that make me unfit to be a Pastor.  Some of them are the ordinary flaws and failings of personality and temperament.  Some of them are the particular fears of having people know the struggles of my heart and the worries about what they might think if only they knew my weaknesses.  Some of them are the evils within my own heart that I must daily war against with the weapons of the Spirit.  And some of them are the typical anxieties of the faux pas and misspoken words (like the time I repeated sWWWord instead of letting the W be silent).

I have not polled the clergy to find out whether this kind of thing is normal of not but I would be suspicious of any Pastor who did not daily wrestle with some of these things.  Pride goeth before a fall.  I have enough pride to result in a ton of falls.  But underneath all that pride, bravado, and confidence, there are the ordinary fears of failing those whom I serve.  Lord I believe; help Thou my unbelief.  Those are the words that resonate within the nightmares and daydreams of my weaknesses and flaws.  Deliver me, Lord, lest I become more hindrance than help to the work of Your kingdom.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Born again or baptism or the same?

Sermon for Lent 2A preached on Sunday, March 16, 2014.

    Except you be born of water and the Spirit, you cannot see the Kingdom of God. . .  Can it be that we hear Jesus' words in this Gospel and NOT think baptism?  It is amazing how much we miss as we spiritualize texts that are meant to be concrete and real!  Nicodemus understood water and washing.  Every Jew dealt with water used practically and symbolically all day long – from the washing of the feet to the cleansing of the food from the market.  Nicodemus also understood the Spirit.  As a vaunted teacher, he knew better than to deny the expansiveness of God who fills all things whether we see or acknowledge this or not.  What he did not get is water AND the Spirit.  This was new.  That the Spirit of God would be attached to a concrete earthly element like water was the surprise of grace Nicodemus did not get. . . and maybe we miss it, too.
    The greatest danger to the faith is the spiritualization of the Kingdom of God and the grace that gains us entrance into that kingdom.  Unless we have the concrete forms of the means of grace, we meet God only on the plane of feelings, choice, and emotion.  Jesus insists that God is only known where He reveals Himself.  We know that He has revealed Himself and tied Himself to the concrete forms of the means of grace – the Word and the Sacraments.
    The kingdom of God is about grace but this grace is tied to mortal form –in the flesh of Jesus.  The incarnation is behind all sacramental theology – from the water of His promise to the bread and wine of His body and blood to the living voice of His Word that speaks and bestows what it says.  What surprised Nicodemus and us is that God hides Himself in earthly forms and works through them.
    Born of water and the Spirit, says Jesus.  I think Nicodemus knew that Jesus was pointing not to some vague spiritual idea because he asked how he was to enter his mother's womb and be born anew.  Jesus points to a new womb, the womb of baptismal water and a birth not of flesh, from below, but of the Spirit from above.  But here is where it gets pointed.  Refuse the earthly form that gives this heavenly grace and there is no kingdom left.
    This is the shock.  If you will not meet Jesus where Christ has chosen to be met in the Word and Sacraments, then there is no Jesus to know, no kingdom to enter, and no access to grace.  But. . . and here the but awakens our hope. . . but trust the mystery of the grace of God hidden in earthly form and the Kingdom of God is YOURS forevermore.
    We have disfigured the face of faith and turned it into an individual's feeling, emotion, or choice.  It is all me.  My feeling, my choice, my emotion, my decision.  Where is God in this?  Where is His grace?  If we choose it, then we can unchoose it.  If we create it by believing, then we can destroy it by our refusal to believe.  This is not how Scripture speaks.  This is not what Jesus says.  The Kingdom of God comes in the concrete forms of the means of grace.  It is there or it is no where at all.  It does not depends upon our believing but our benefit from that grace comes only to those who believe.
    To be saved is no private relationship or choice.  It is God bringing us into His kingdom through the entrance of baptism.  We do not come to God.  God comes to us.  God opens the door through which we enter into the community of His chosen people, the people of His promise.  We wear the promise as the mark of baptism and the sign of the Kingdom.  We belong not by choice but by God's call and by the door to that kingdom which we enter through the means of grace, specifically, baptism.
    It is here we meet the promise of an eternal future prepared for us.  Nicodemus did not challenge this but asked the typical question of those who would confuse faith with understanding.  How can this be?  Jesus ridicules the question by asking him how a teacher of Israel could have forgotten this most basic truth.  Jesus points to the preview of the sacraments when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.  How were the people healed?  By faith.  They trusted in the promise of the Lord visible and accessible in the sacramental form of that staff and bronze serpent.  Jesus says so it is with Him.
    Faith meets God where God has promised to be.  Faith does not create or establish this meeting.  Faith trusts the promise of God.  The promise of God comes to us not as vague words but the specific Word attached to water, to bread and wine, and to the voice of absolution.  It is outside of us and comes into us by the work of the Spirit.  We are its objects.  This Lent we are called to return to the place where we met the Lord and entered His kingdom – returning to His baptismal promise in water.
    The sacraments are not given to us to understand.  God does not ask us to understand Him but to meet Him upon the plain of simple trust.  The means of grace are and remain mysteries to us.  But they are the mysteries where the Kingdom of God comes to us like an open door, with the voice of God's Word bidding to us come. . . be baptized. . . and believe.  What baptism calls to us, the Spirit makes possible.  We come not to understand God but to trust in Him.
    Our strength in temptation, our refuge in trouble, and our confidence in doubt are not a decision or a choice we made or a feeling we have.  Temptation, trouble, and doubts rob us of these things and call into question everything we want to believe.  There is only one thing that endures.  The Word of the Lord.  The seal and promise of baptism is that whatever befalls us, we belong to Him.  His Word is not conditional.  His promise is not temporary.
    Nicodemus thought he understood water and thought he understood the Spirit.  What he did not understand was Water AND the Spirit – baptism.  But this was not given to us to understand.  Baptism was given to us that we might meet the Lord where He has placed His promise, that through this means we might see the Kingdom of God, enter it by grace, and be equipped by the work of the Spirit to live in this grace.  It is our assurance that we are God's people now and it is the pledge and promise of the eternity He has prepared for us, the people of God.
    As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.  In baptism there He is, lifted up, that believing we might see and seeing we might believe and be saved.  Amen.

Overburdening the Seminary

It seems that at the very same time we have reduced funding to the seminaries of our church, we have also added to their burden responsibilities that are well beyond their pale.  This, in addition to the inherent contradiction of having the teachers of the church examine the candidates and approve them for ordination, means that our seminaries have way too much on their plates.

A gazillion years ago when I was a student at the colleges of the LCMS in a pre-sem program, the seminaries did not have to recruit.  They did not spend all the much time seeking students.  The church had provided them a reliable pipeline of students through the junior colleges and Senior College.  There were others seeking to enter the ministerium as second career individuals and this, too, was a steady stream that did not require much effort for recruitment.  The sems received those whom the church brought to them.

Of course, in the tumultuous 1970s with the exile and such, sems did recruit but less from the perspective of recruiting candidates to consider the pastoral ministry than to get those already in that pipeline to choose their route over another route, their campus over another campus.  Seminex, Ft. Wayne, and 801 were all recruiting from the pool in an effort to survive (for 801 and Seminex) and in an effort to expand (Springfield/Ft. Wayne).  That was an anomaly.

When the feeder system of junior colleges and Senior College was swept away, with it came a brand new responsibility laid upon the seminaries.  They now became recruiters for the Office of the Ministry.  I do not recall ever having been recruited by anyone.  I choose Winfield and then the Senior College.  The recruiters were the local Pastors, Circuit Visitors (Counselors), District Presidents (an ordinary responsibility for the Bishops of the church), and parents who believed that the brightest and best should consider first the highest office, that of Pastor.  No more.  The colleges recruit students.  Period.  Where they go from there is not much of their concern as long as they attend and pay their tuition bills.  The seminaries now recruit candidates for the Ministry.  They have recruiters who come by in an annual swing to talk to those who might be thinking of being a Pastor.  The church has come to expect them to recruit and they recruit (like the colleges) because they have bills to pay and a need to justify their own existence.

Listen clearly.  I am not condemning the seminaries.  I am lamenting what we have done to them.  We have placed on them the whole burden of identifying potential candidates for the pastoral office, figuring out a way for those students to pay the cost of the training that the church expects, and then examining and commending them to the church at the end of this whole process.  The seminary spends too much of its time recruiting students and raising money to finance the whole shebang.  They must, however, because that is what we have told them to do -- if not by actual command then by default.

The seminaries are not the ones who should be approving candidates for ordination and call.  In understand why they do it but it is not the best practice.  First of all they can only qualify candidates as having completed the academic qualifications which they themselves require and then approving them as having done nothing during the seminary and vicarage years to question their personal aptitude for the office.  They cannot examine them from the perspective of the church and they cannot determine whether or not these individuals are axios (worthy).  This is not because there is something wrong with the seminary but that this responsibility belongs not to them but to the church.  We have delegated it because we have no means of doing it apart from the seminaries and because it is a convenient way to blame them for any failures who happen to slip through.  Approving a candidate for the ministerium is not the same as judging them academically qualified and/or having no obvious or discernible personal hindrance to the office.  But that is what it has come to mean.  Could it be that some congregations have trouble accepting their Pastors because they have not been clearly told and in unmistakable terms that these men are worthy (axios) under the judgement of the church (bishops, visitors, etc...)?  Just a question worth asking, I think.

I do not fault the seminaries.  They are under incredible stress to pay their own way and accomplish all that we have delegated to them.  But it is too much.  We have ended up then with people whom the church does not know or does not know well being approved for ordination (some rightly and some wrongly).  We have ended up making the seminaries fund raisers and the students have ended up bearing the lion's share of the cost of the very preparation the church requires.  The old system cannot be reborn.  A new system must be put in place.  Seminaries must have some guaranteed funding so that they can accomplish the responsibilities we assign to them.  Students must be relieved of the great burden of financial cost in addition to completing the academic requirements for the pastoral ministry.  The church must step up to the plate and do the job of both recruiting (brightest and best) candidates for training and then be there to judge them worthy or not for ordination and call.  The solution does NOT lie with on-line classes and an alternative route of reduced classwork for the church will surely be shortchanged in the long run by allowing a non-residential seminary program and a short cut to ordination.

Maybe I live in la la land.  Some folks think I do.  But this is far too urgent and important a subject for us to simply keep on doing what we have been doing and expecting a different and a better result.