Thursday, July 31, 2014

False ecumenism is also false catholicity. . .

An essential part of the gospel is that it is catholic—that is, the Good News is given to all people. And the church the Holy Spirit creates is catholic.Putting the matter like this may make some Christians squirm. Many Protestants affirm, either weekly or semi-regularly, the Nicene Creed, proclaiming, "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church," but many balk at that word, catholic.

So says one Mark Dever in Christianity Today. You can read him in his own words (at least if you subscribe).  But what he also says that negates what he is trying to affirm is that denominational differences based upon doctrine agitate against the catholicity of the faith.  That is the oft cited position of many -- on both sides of the liberal and conservative divide.  It is certainly the position of the media.  But is it correct?

Catholicity, if it means anything, means not the diminishing of doctrine and practice but taking very seriously what is believed, confessed, and taught and how it is lived out within the church.  It is not that catholicity is some commodity of commonality which different groups share in bits and pieces but that it is a strong and ordered catholicity of the faith, whole and undefiled, except which no one can or will be saved.  

Matthew Block put it succinctly:  Belief in the invisible Church does not, however, mean that denominational affiliation is unimportant—and it’s here that I take exception to Dever’s article. “Since we all profess the same faith in the same Lord, the denominational lines that distinguish us from other Christians should never mark an ultimate separation,” he writes. “Insofar as denominations do not breed an uncharitable and divisive spirit, and allow Christians to work for the kingdom, they can be helpful. But what unites us as Christians must always be valued more highly than the things that distinguish us.”   

Catholicity is not devaluing where we disagree and emphasizing where we do (this is called reconciled diversity).  Catholicity is the striving at all times and in all places to confess the fullness of the one, true, catholic and apostolic faith and never content with a bare minimal confession.  Catholicity is never minimalistic but is always a fullness -- a fullness sought out and a fullness expressed.  Scripture is the norm of all doctrine and life but Scripture is not so muddled as to preclude any agreement or catholicity except in the barest of forms and the most minimalistic of expressions.  This is not only an affront to catholicity but its betrayal -- and so often it comes at the hands of those determined to protect catholicity and promote it.

Again, Matthew Block:  Denominations which reject such catholic teaching therefore, in essence, reject part of what it means to be catholic.  Any church determined to be catholic up to a point is not catholic at all.  While in Mr. Dever's case he is speaking from the Baptist perspective, these words ought to be carefully mulled over by those who most presume to be catholic -- Confessional Lutherans.  When Lutherans say that agreement in the Gospel and its articles is sufficient for fellowship and unity among Christians on earth, we are not suggesting that Christianity can be boiled down to a set of minimums or that catholicity can be approached bite by bite in part.  No, catholicity can only mean that we endeavor the fullness and will never be content with bits and pieces.  Where people of different denominations begin with this endeavor, there will be fruitful conversation.  But where people begin with the choice to be only partially or even mostly catholic or where they end with the belief that a little unity makes up for a diversity of contradictory confessions, there is an ecumenical ride to nowhere God wants to go.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The gates of hell shall not prevail against it. . .

Here is the sad story of a Roman Catholic church building (St. John's in the Minneapolis St. Paul diocese) which was closed, sat empty for a year, and then sold to an Islamic group to become a mosque and Islamic center.  Our Lord said the gates of hell shall not prevail against His church but apparently He did not say anything about the church selling off its property to those who deny Him.

I understand that church buildings become superfluous and that this must be dealt with.  What I do not understand is how the $900,000 debt to the diocese could be so important that a building in which Christ was once preached, His baptismal water showered upon the sinner, His voice of absolution offered to the penitent, and His body and blood given to the communicant could now be desecrated by another god, another gospel, and another faith.  Would it have not been better to demolish the structure and sell the land than to leave the building in place for a non-Christian group to promote a faith that contradicts the cross and empty tomb?

Roman Catholics are not alone.  I watched as a child when a Lutheran church building was sold, moved to a farm, and became a hog house that we were forced to look at every Sunday as we made our way to church.  I know of Episcopal buildings being sold to Islamic groups among other things.  One church became a notorious gay night club.  How embarrassing, shameful, and scandalous! Is our servitude to the almighty dollar so great that we will sell our treasured buildings to the highest bidder without regret over the witness that we give to the world when a known Christian building becomes home to those opposed to the faith?

It may be one thing for such a building to become a community center, art museum, etc...  At least it is not likely a religious purpose opposed to the faith would be the normal activity of such a use of the facility.  But when we willing surrender buildings that once stood for the faith to those opposed to the faith, we not only scandalize the faithful but we give a false witness to the world (such as Christianity and Islam are either equal or complimentary).

Tear it down and return the rubble to the earth but do not surrender historic church buildings to those who would mock Christ by what they do with that structure and confound the world as to the true treasure of grace that we value most of all!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The importance of baptism. . .

From Roger E.  Olson, Water Works: Why Baptism Is Essential | Christianity Today:
The Evangelical Free Church of America provides latitude on whether baptism should be required for church membership. Based on the denomination’s autonomy, it’s a local church matter.And some congregations believe the only requirement for church membership is simply being a born-again Christian. . . .

Some Christians, such as Quakers and members of the Salvation Army, reject baptism entirely. And recently, one Texas megachurch pastor reported that nearly a third of the people who receive Christ in his church are never baptized. One response to the multiple views of baptism is to reject or neglect it entirely. Especially in large independent churches, baptism is often relegated to relative unimportance.

 If something is not essential, it is optional.  If, in the estimation of nearly all Protestant churches, baptism does not impart, do, or change anything, then why do it?  Apparently that is the conclusion of many who "receive Christ" but never follow through with baptism.  Frankly, I would probably be one of them if I were one of those Protestants.  Symbols are significant and meaningful only to those who like them, desire them, and use them.  If baptism is not your "thing" then its symbolism is optional.  Never mind the Scriptures or tradition -- since everything is oriented toward "me", if I judge baptism insignificant, I see no compelling reason to be baptized (that is the decision of many who live within the confines of evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America.  Rules do not have the bite they once did.

In some respects, we Lutherans find ourselves in a similar predicament.  Baptism has become like the wedding -- put off until all the family can attend and the celebration goes on.  I do not expect that my circumstance is all that different from the average Lutheran Pastor who can no longer count on Lutheran children moving into the parish to have been baptized.  I have to ask.  Often the sheepish reply is that the family was waiting for a great moment that never came and suddenly finds themselves with a pre-teen or teenaged child, about ready for catechism class, who hides the deep dark secret of never having been baptized.  And I am not merely speaking of families whose association with the church is tenuous. I begin my youth catechism class by asking the child to find the baptismal certificate and come back with the date, place, and sponsor information.  More than I care to admit the child has come back and admitted (often to his or her horror) "I was never baptized!" Looking back on my ancestry records I find that most of my Lutheran relatives were baptized within a week or two of birth -- many as the first real trip outside the house after birth.

Like the couple who lives together as the norm until they save up enough money and can get all the family together for a perfect wedding, families are tempted to wait for the right time but that day seems never to come.  Distance and schedules combine to make it hard to find a perfect Sunday when everyone can be there.  So the family gradually forgets about trying for the right time and the whole thing gets pushed aside in the busyness of life.  We Lutherans confess the miracle of baptism -- the water with the Word, the Spirit working through this sacrament, the old life drowned, the new life born, forgiveness given, faith imparted, the clothing of righteousness covering sin, the entrance into the community of faith (the Church)...  We have the theology right but we are slipping in our practice.  Baptism is not made effective by who is there from family or friends but the Word in and with the water.  If family cannot make it, they will have to do with pictures.  If sponsors are unable to attend, then a witness or two will have to stand in for them.  But baptism is too good to postpone for less than urgent and essential reasons.  Or... we run the risk of becoming just like the Protestants -- a church in which baptism is optional and not the highest priority.  For the record, the Scriptures and tradition cannot conceive of a church in which baptism is optional!

For those who think about postponing, read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8:26-40. After his encounter with the Word of the Lord, the first thing was baptism.  "What is there to prevent me from being baptized?"  When the Word of the Lord addresses the heart of the sinner and the Spirit opens that heart to faith, the first steps will be to the baptismal font to receive what God promises there.  If this does not happen, something is wrong.  The progression for those old enough to hear the Word is to hear it and proceed directly to baptism.  For the children born to the baptized, as soon as possible those children should be brought to the family of faith (the church) to be received into God's Kingdom through baptism.  Sure, there are some reasons why one might wait but are those reasons compelling enough to keep from the child what God has promised in baptism?  Good food for thought!

Monday, July 28, 2014

The true treasure. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 7, Proper 12A, preached on Sunday, July 27, 2014.

   Everyone knows the best place to hide things – the most obvious places, wide open, where it is seen but easily overlooked.  We search our homes for lost keys, cell phone, and notes and they are nearly always right where we laid them.  So it is for the Kingdom of Heaven and the treasure of God’s grace.  These are obvious but so easily overlooked.  The riches of God are obvious to the eyes of faith but hidden before the world. 
    Jesus began His parable talking about those who long to see but do not.  They do not see because they have no faith.  They long to hear but without the ears of faith they are deaf to grace, to the working of God, and to the miracle treasure of the cross.
    What faith bestows most of all are the eyes and ears to see and here the treasure.  The pearl of great price is grace – a treasure too costly and valuable for anyone to afford and yet freely given by our loving and merciful Father.  This pearl of great price called grace is hidden in plain sight – hidden in the sufferings of Christ for you and in His death for you.  Without faith it is only the pain of a man.  Without faith it is only a brutal instrument of death.  Faith sees what God has hidden there – the sufferings that pay the terrible price of sin and the death that sanctifies our graves and bestows upon us the life death cannot overcome.
    Where are these hidden treasures today?  They are right here in your midst.  They are hidden in the ordinary of water with the Word of God that becomes a grave to kill our sinful selves and a womb to give us new birth to eternal life.  They are hidden in the voice of absolution that speaks to us sinners week after week: I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  And in that speaking the chains of sin and its shame of guilt fall away.
    Where are these hidden treasures today?  They are hidden in bread that is Christ’s body and in the cup that is His blood.  We feast upon these hidden treasures and they become heaven’s food, the foretaste of the feast to come, as well as that which nourishes and strengthens us to everlasting life.  They are hidden in the Word of God which is far more than a book of truth.  This Word delivers what it says, does what it promises, and bestows the gift of which it speaks.  This efficacious Word is not mere facts from history but the living voice of God addressing the world with His Son and the Gospel that gives life to dead sinners.
    Faith sells everything else.  Faith gives up every other possible treasure to have Christ and Him only.  Faith sees that every other joy in life is fleeting but the joy of the Lord.  Faith sees that every other treasure moth destroys, rust consumes, and inflation devalues EXCEPT this treasure of the cross and the Christ who died there for you.  Faith sees that your salvation is far too important to be left to feelings or sentiment.  We need more than memories to console our grief, more than earthly ease to make us happy, and more than earthly triumph to win the day.  We need Christ and Him only.  We need baptismal water that does not fail, the Word that does not lie, and the food that satisfies hunger and quenches thirst.
    Unless you are prepared to sell everything else to hold onto this treasure of grace, you are unworthy of the Kingdom of God.  It cannot be both/and.  It is always either/or.  Either this is our one and only or we are like the one who plows looking backward.  You cannot live your life with regret over what you could have, might have, should have done.  You need a treasure that releases you from this sorrow and anxiety.  You need Christ alone.
    Do you get it? Asks Jesus.  I am not so sure we do.  We have heard the words from His mouth but I am not at all sure we get it.  We straddle the fence with one foot in the kingdom of God and one foot squarely planted in this mortal life.  If we get what Jesus is saying, we can’t go home from Church on Sunday morning empty and lament we got nothing.  Where His Word and Sacraments are there are the pearls of great price, the grace of life and the mercy of forgiveness.  If we get it then we cannot value property, land, and money so highly that it is a struggle to give tithes and offerings and to help the neighbor in need.  If we get it, then we cannot let it fall to somebody else to witness the cross to the stranger or to another to teach our children of Jesus.  If we get it, then we have to give up being so full of ourselves that we have no room left for Jesus, priceless treasure.
    If Jesus is our treasure and this treasure is our joy, then we cannot go through life in search of another happiness or pleasure.  Christ is our treasure.  If Jesus is our treasure and this treasure is our joy, then we cannot go through life complaining about everything that is wrong.  Christ is our treasure.  If Christ is our treasure and this treasure is our joy, then we cannot go through life bedazzled by the world and treat the things of God as if they were ordinary and common.
    You are here in God’s House.  Christ has spoken to you through His Word.  Christ has addressed you with forgiveness in the absolution spoken by the Pastor.  Christ has laid upon you His clothing of righteousness because you are baptized. These are the pearls of great price in the grace of God too pricey for us to afford and yet lovingly given to us without cost, paid for by Christ’s holy and precious body and blood.  Are you willing to let go of everything else in order to possess this treasure of Grace?  Christ refuses to be one of your many treasures.  He is jealous for you and for your salvation.  He has earned this right to be jealous because He died that you might life.  He insists that He reign alone in your heart.  Today we simply pray... “Make it so, Lord Jesus.... make it so.”  Amen

A work in progress. . .

There is great temptation to take a snapshot in time and make rash judgments about what we see.  But the truth is that all a snapshot can be is but one glimpse of something constantly moving.  Youth tends to bring with it such impatience but even old men are not immune from the lament that things are moving too slowly.

Liturgical Change

Both on the parish level and nationally there are many in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod who lament the slowness of liturgical change.  While some of them are those who want to rid the church of the excess baggage of the liturgy, most of the frustration is from those who are weary of the worship wars and wish that we could declare victory by divine fiat and return to the more uniform practices of a bygone era.  Now in my 34th year since ordination and my sixth decade of life, I have deliberately tried to quiet my heart against such frustration.  Liturgical change has borne many fruits.  We have more parishes with more frequent Eucharists than ever before in our Synod.  We have more pastors in Eucharistic vestments than ever before.  We have a piety more deliberately oriented to the means of grace than in my memory.  There are more great books available in this area than ever before (both reprints and new works).

Doctrinal Unity

Having grown up in the rather insular 1950s only to see the bloody battles of our church body in the 1970s, I know we are not exactly on the same page throughout our church body BUT we are on track to restore our unity in a more positive sense than at any other time in recent memory.  I credit many things.  On the one hand I credit the profound influence of Concordia Theological Seminary and its graduates along with some great and blessed teachers from Concordia Seminary (thinking here alone the lines of Hummel, Feuerhahn, Nagel, etc...).  I also give credit to the congregations and pastors who elected the Rev. Matthew Harrison and with it ushered in a renewal of our unity of doctrine, practice, mission, and service in our church body.  None of these is the result of one person or even a few but a combined effort to speak the unchanging truth anew in our own time.  I believe that we have made great strides forward (not far enough for some and perhaps too far for others).

Mission Outreach

Remembering when missionaries were considered the highest of church callings and when we sent forth full-time missionaries all over the world, I can also recall how this all changed as money and men moved our focus away from full-time service on the mission field.  The number of full-time missionaries had dwindled sadly and our mission enterprise seemed to have lost its steam.  Perhaps the worst moment being when the name of a personalized mission program became the ungainly acronym PMS.  All of that seems to fading into the past as we are sending forth some of our brightest and best to renew the work of the kingdom in places near and far.  It is a good thing.  We should rightfully rejoice and, it would not hurt, renew our funding of missions and missionaries higher than it is today so that this renewed effort will not also lose its steam. 


Our church body as well as our parishes and pastors are works in progress.  We must be careful not to let a particular snapshot steal our hope or lead us to unrestrained exuberance.  God works incrementally, looking toward the far view more than the glimpse of the moment.  Yes, we should rightfully point out those things that must and need be dealt with, improved, and resolved.  But we should also rightfully rejoice at the work the Lord is doing right now.  It may not seem like much in the moment but it will be enough to accomplish His purpose if we are faithful.  God grant us that and He will take care of the rest.  So let us encourage one another to faithfulness, stir up one another to stand firm upon the good Word of the Lord and to the good works that glorify Him, and that will be enough.  The Church is not ours but is and will always remain His,  If He allows, we may glimpse giant strides forward but most of the time our pace will seem painfully slow and it will be hard to see much progress.  That is the time most of all to encourage faithfulness and trust the Lord for the rest.

Just a few thoughts from a man on his way to becoming old, DV!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Modest Success. . .

Some years ago when this began, it seemed an uphill battle.  How could the behemoth combination of Obamacare the law and the seemingly unstoppable move to limit religious freedom to only the right to worship finally be slowed or even halted.  It has been three weeks or so and the ruling by the Supreme Court went in favor of closely held corporations and represented a modest success in re-establishing a beachhead for religious rights.

On the day it was announced, President Harrison wrote

Thankfully, the wait is over. The Supreme Court has ruled, and the verdict is in: In a landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious liberty, specifically in regard to closely held corporations (those with a small number of shareholders and offering no public stock, such as corporations that are family-owned, not operated by boards).

While we rejoice in this strong upholding of religious freedom, this decision does not signal an end to this discussion. It simply emboldens us carry on, doing what we do best as Christians: praying, confessing the faith and living it out in our daily callings.

He is absolutely correct.  This is not an end to anything.  At worst it represents only one victory but at best it signals that the cause we have been fighting for is not lost.  We live in a culture awash with contraception and abortion.  We may never fully prevail in the public square but we cannot and we must not allow this challenge to the faith to remain unchecked.  We truly ought to be emboldened by what has happened at the Supreme Court but we dare never to become complacent by such victories.  The cause of life and the rule of morality will remain in the cross hairs of those who speak a different language and who worship a different god.  This is what we should never forget.  So we can celebrate a modest victory even while acknowledging that the road is long and there is much to travel before the cause of life will be secure for all people, especially the unborn.

A word of warning. . . it was by the slimmest possible majority this decision was rendered.  It can just as easily be undone.  What should have been 9-0 was merely 5-4....  Be encouraged but do not give up the fight!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Can't, Have Trouble With, or Won't. . .

The same gesture (or lack of it) can say different things.  In the same way, the intention behind the gesture can say many things.  I recently read some liturgical instructions issued by a Roman Catholic bishop to his flock.  In it, among other things, he addressed the change from a genuflection before the tabernacle to a profound bow.  It was a perfect example of how something exceptional became normative (exceptional here meaning against the rule).

...a profound bow — made purposefully and reverently from the waist — can be a fitting way to reverence the Divine Majesty, but only if one cannot genuflect, which is not always the same as having some difficulty genuflecting...

We have come to equate the inability to do something with the dislike or distaste for doing it with a difficulty doing it.  They are not the same, as the good bishop noted.  Incapacity does not relieve the individual from the duty but merely prescribes a different form to fulfill the duty.  The person who cannot walk, for example, is not exempted from genuflecting but satisfies the duty with what he can do -- a profound bow.  Truth be told, anyone who has trouble walking would gladly genuflect over and over again if with it came the restoration of his ability to walk unimpeded.

Difficulty doing something means that it is not impossible to do but requires much effort and perhaps the endurance of some pain to do it.  It is my experience that those with difficulty doing something tend to try to do it no matter what.  I have written before of an elderly woman who labored to kneel in worship and, when offered the chance to bypass the liturgical posture, refused to give up trying.  Some might say pride was the reason but I tend to believe it was genuine piety.   The Lord who endured such pain for us deserves more than a perfunctory effort on our part.

Dislike or distaste for something is very different.  The person here does not seek to fulfill the duty at all.  It is, in many respects, an act of defiance against the duty.  I refuse to genuflect (or bow or whatever).  The problem here is not the failure to genuflect but the attitude that refuses the reason to genuflect. 

Lutherans love to insist that we are not bound by such rules as the bishop wrote about.  We don't hafta do nuthin!  On one level, it is true.  But underneath our insistence upon liberty in all things is often hidden a refusal of the duty.  How often I have heard people say "God would not want you to be uncomfortable..."  Baloney.  Our defiance of God can take many forms.  We may refuse the outward actions of piety that honor Him and His presence (no bowing, kneeling, or genuflecting for me!).  Or, we may refuse to believe that God is worth our discomfort in any way, shape, or form.

I do not worry about people's inability to do something or even their difficulty.  I trust them in both cases.  But what does worry me is our refusal to believe that God would want us to be uncomfortable.  That is a defiant act in which we have placed self-interest and personal preference above all things. And it is all too common today for us to equate personal comfort or preference with that which glorifies God.  Ultimately this is not about standing, sitting, kneeling, or genuflecting but the insistence upon something being found meaningful for us before we will accede to doing it.  It certainly has had profound implications for worship but it is not limited to worship alone.

It is good to be reminded that inability, difficulty, and the refusal to do something are not at all the same things.  It would also be good for us to examine our hearts and come before the Lord with repentance for the pride that insists we don't find something meaningful or the arrogant belief that we don't believe God would want us to be uncomfortable in our Christian faith, piety, worship, and life.  For us as Lutherans, this hits pretty close to home.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Perhaps the President most unfriendly to the freedom of religion in America. . .

New Executive Orders on LGBT Discrimination Don't Exempt Religious Orgs
Image: Getty Images

An executive order President Obama signed Monday prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in federal hiring may not immediately affect many religious organizations, but leaders are still raising their eyebrows.

The executive order amends a 1965 order prohibiting some forms of discrimination by federal contractors. The old text forbade contractors from discriminating "against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Obama's revision adds "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" between "sex" and "national origin."

Many religious organizations, such as World Vision, World Relief, and Catholic Charities partner with the federal government, but often receive grants, not contracts, so are not affected by the order, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.

Religious organizations with federal grants are currently protected: A 2007 religious exemption memo from the federal attorney general's office says the Religious Freedom Restoration Act "is reasonably construed" to exempt World Vision (and other religious organizations that administer federal funds through social services programs) from religious nondiscrimination requirements on other federal grantees.

The executive order also lets stand a George W. Bush-era provision allowing religious contractors to hire employees "of a particular religion," said Thomas Berg, a professor of law and public policy at the University of St. Thomas (Minn.).

"Several federal courts have held that this language, incorporated from elsewhere in antidiscrimination law, allows religious organizations to have standards concerning employees' conduct if those moral standards stem from the organization's religious beliefs," Berg said.

These past orders add up to a patchwork of protection for religious organizations, said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia.

"And very important, [the] executive order creates no right for anyone to sue anyone else. So gay rights groups cannot organize litigation against religious contactors," he said. "Only the contracting agencies can enforce this order, and they may quietly enforce it with attention to religious liberty—which is what this administration has mostly done so far."  However, that may not always be the case, said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, a federal grantee.

Hidden in the generalities is the situation of Gordon College, a respected Christian institution, which has been thrust into the fray for requesting a religious exemption from the president’s executive order prohibiting any one doing business with the government to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.  It is of note that the Hobby Lobby religious exemption for Obamacare contraception coverage explicitly declared that the ruling did not apply in cases of discrimination.  The next great issue of religious liberty issue may well be the situation of Gordon College.

This represents the continuing quest of the Obama Administration to reduce the constitution freedom of religion to a mere freedom to worship and this require that every other aspect of any religious organization or church conform to all federal restrictions, regulations, executive orders, and laws without regard to their status as religious organizations.
Either this President is the most unfriendly resident of the Oval Office to the freedom of religion in America or else he is determined to make all religious organizations subservient to his own views.  This action is a dangerous precedent for the narrowing of the right guaranteed under the Bill of Rights and could be the signal for more retraining of the rights of churches and Christians to live by their faith freely and unencumbered by federal regulation or requirement.

A joke. . . but which one?

From the interview Il Messeggero had with Pope Francis:

M: You speak, perhaps, little about women, and when you speak about them you take on on issue only from the point of view of motherhood, woman as spouse, woman as mother, etc.  But women by now are heads of state, multinationals, armies.  What posts can women hold in the Church, according to you?
Francis: Women are the most beautiful things that God created.  The Church is woman.  Church is a feminine word [in Italian].  One cannot do theology without this femininity.  You are right that we don’t talk about this enough.  I agree that there must be more work on the theology of women.  I have said that we are working in this sense.
M: Isn’t there a certain misogyny at the base of this?
Francis: The fact is that woman was taken from a rib … (he laughs strongly).  I’m kidding, that’s a joke... 

It would seem that Francis says little without saying much.  It certainly reflects his unwillingness to be drawn into a debate over women priests but at the same point in time he acts as if he might be a bit embarrassed or hesitant, perhaps, to speak up for the Roman Catholic Church's position on the matter.  All in all, it is frustrating when we dance around the things we know will be seen at least as controversial if not a scandal and offense.  The position of Rome (pretty much of most of Christendom) with respect to women priests is a scandal and an offense to the modern mind.  For that reason alone Rome and those who also believe it is not given to women to be priests to stand up to their position, to speak forthrightly of the reasons why, and not to shy away.

Then there is the weird comment if the joke of woman taken from a rib of man.  Perhaps he is referring to one of the many variants on a long standing joke about that.  Or, worse, it could be that he does see the Genesis account of the creation of woman as a joke (worst) or symbolic myth (least).  In either case, it was an unfortunate comment that might belie a graver issue.  The creation of man and woman and the story of the fall are are not jokes or symbolic stories or myths or legends.  They are the Word of the Lord.  I do not say that.  Jesus did.  He referred to Adam and Eve and did not give hint to any consideration of the story as anything but truth and fact (certainly with real as well as symbolic consequences).

Again, it is as if the Church was embarrassed by Scripture.  That is an untenable position for any group that proclaims an efficacious and sacramental Word that delivers what it says and performs what it promises.  We need to speak carefully in the public eye.  Francis should know better.

Got to hand it to the Anglicans. . .

When Lutherans start something, we usually start if off bare bones.  Our congregations are given birth in makeshift buildings (usually very unfriendly to the liturgy), with borrowed stuff, without decent instruments to lead singing, vestments, hymnals, and even the liturgy, and often with irregular ministers. When we begin a Lutheran church body, we tend to do the same thing.  It is easy to think that the fullness will come later when we have the time, the money, and the luxury to focus on them.

Of course, that was not the intention of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  We had a boat packed with damask for paraments, vestments for the clergy, a pipe organ for singing, musical instruments for playing, the Eucharistic vessels befitting the body and blood of Christ, etc...  Unfortunately (or a felicitous and fortuitous accident -- depending upon your point of view), this boat never made it to Saint Louie.

How many congregations have been born with nothing and even after many years still lack some of the ordinary accoutrements of the liturgy?  How many times haven't Lutherans defined ourselves according to the make do resources of our need -- even regularizing the lack and justifying never making up for the invention of our necessity?

The Anglican Church of North America is but a sliver of the size of the Episcopal Church USA.  Yet that has not stopped them from beginning with a full compliment of offices and office holders. The House of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has elected the Rt. Rev. Foley Beach as its second archbishop in succession to the Most Rev. Robert Duncan.  Meeting in a private conclave at St Vincent College in LaTrobe, Penna., on 22 June 2014 ACNA’s bishops joined by the Primate of the Church of Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Kampala, elected Bishop Beach by secret ballot.

In other words, it already has had its second archbishop.  Only five years old, with barely 100K members and 1K congregations, they have already gone from one archbishop to another.  Got to hand to those Anglicans.  They will not let small size or the problems of beginning a church body prevent them from all the bells, smells, and whistles.

Would that we Lutherans were not so accustomed to making do with little or nothing.  Less is not always and not usually more.  It is less.  I wish we recaptured the same churchly senses that accompanied our move to America (before it all went sour).  I wish we did not seem to glory in not having anything but what is bare necessity in church, church structure, and church life.   I wish we had not had the angst about being the church that seemed to elevate provisional status to the norm.  It has left us prone to diminishing anything but the bare minimum and, to quote Garrison Keillor, to "downsizing" what God is trying to upsize.  We Lutherans are still at the point of insisting that if we don't have to have something, we don't really need it at all.  This disdain for fullness does seem to inhibit our choice of homes, wardrobes, vacation plans, automobile choice, etc...  It seems that nothing is to good for me but everything is too good for church.  Maybe we don't absolutely need an archbishop or even bishops... or pipe organs, art work, vestments, etc...  But there is no glory in refusing what are gifts and blessings used rightly and well.  We seem to have a natural disposition to being plain people in plain buildings with plain pastors on Sunday mornings.  It is as if we think such self-denial is good, at least in small measure, and Sunday morning is one way to hold on to a principle without having to suffer with this decision the rest of our lives...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I wish the liturgy were more accessible. . .

"Wow!  That is a lot to take for someone who has had only a passing association with church before!"  So said one visitor to a Sunday morning Divine Service at my parish.  She did not say it but clearly her comment meant "I wish the liturgy were more accessible" to a stranger to the church like me...

It would not be the first time someone has uttered those sentiments.  It IS a great deal to take in for those who have not had much association with the church before.  I will not deny it one bit.  Neither will I suggest that it is a fruitful pursuit to try and find a way to dumb down the liturgy just in case there may be (and there always are) people who are strangers to the church and to the mass).  I am sure it is overwhelming and even shocking.  I would be disappointed if it were not -- for what would it say of us if the Divine Mystery of Christ (both efficacious Word and Sacrament) were easy enough to get and dismiss out of hand!

I tell such folks not to make a judgment quickly but to return to the liturgy over and over again.  Only then, with familiarity, can come the deep appreciation for the mystery and its grace bestowed upon us by Christ through His Word and Spirit.  The liturgy is one of those things learned by doing as much as by studying.

If you are an avid reader of this blog, you know that I do not quote Aristotle -- not ever -- but one of his tidbits of wisdom certainly applies to the Divine Service: 
              “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
                                              -- Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 

Though some find it offensive that any person off the street, a stranger to God and His worship, cannot enter the church and feel perfectly at home, I find just the opposite offensive.  If a stranger to God and His worship feels at home in the liturgy, there must be something wrong with the liturgy.  The liturgy or mass is off putting -- not because it is designed to offend but because it goes against all that the sinful heart values most -- easy, comfortable, feeling oriented, self-centered pleasure.  What is most disarming about the liturgy or the Divine Service is that it compels us to shed ourselves and to become focused upon and open to the work of the Lord through His means of grace.  Such is the domain of the Spirit and not simply the training of the human heart but, that said, it is discipline whose value is learned by experience.

We tell parents all the time that the repetition of the liturgy is helpful to the child learning by the experience of it who God is, what He has done, and how He communicates to us the fullness of His grace and gifts.  Would not the same be also true of adults who come as infants into the presence of God in the holy ground of the liturgy?

Hardly any sport is transparent or obvious upon first view.  Watching the game being played is one of the most important ways we learn its rules and an appreciation for the sport.  In the hospital we have interns and residents who continue their education by watching and doing -- believing that this is the most effective way to train our doctors.  Why do some insist that we must make worship cogent for and accessible to the unchurched who know little of God or His ways?  Why do some visit once and presume that they have seen and learned enough to make a reasonable judgment against the church?

To the stranger come upon us, I say stay here long enough to get to know the liturgy.  Study it and learn the faith from it, to be sure, but resist the great temptation to judge what you see or experience until you learn its words, its rhythm, and its tempo.  To the parent worrying about a child growing distracted from or bored with the liturgy, I say hang in there.  Children learn by doing and they are absorbing from the liturgy more than is obvious to you.  Reinforce what happens in the Divine Service, to be sure, but do not reject what happens as they experience the church's liturgy and song over many years of growing up.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

They all look alike. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 11A, preached on Sunday, July 20, 2014.

    A harried parent in the summer doldrums sent the demanding child to the garden to weed it.  Forty-five minutes later the shocked parent looked as all the carefully tended plants of her garden were pulled up and the weeds left in place.  The response of the child was simple – "But they all look alike..."  And the child is correct.  The most successful weeds look like the plants we want.
    There has always been a great temptation to weed the church like you would weed a garden – to get rid of all but the true blue believers.  Maybe the church would be better off without those Christmas and Easter folks or those with such obvious problems in their lives. There have ben chose who tried to turn the church into a purity cult of holy people whose perfect lives attested to their genuineness.  The Puritans were such a group.
    We may also be tempted to do just that.  And we would be in good company.  The  disciples wondered if Jesus did not want them to pull up the weeds and get rid of the them; like the elders of Israel, they were concerned about those who were not one of them.  But Jesus says "No."  In fact, Jesus insists that judgment does not belong to the church or to individual Christians but to the Lord.  God has determined that His church will remain among unbelievers until the day of judgment.  Only then will the weeds be exposed and will God separate the wheat from the chaff, and not before.
    Weeds?  In the church?  You betcha.  Where did they come from?  The devil, of course.  He sows the weeds and steals the seed of God's Word (as we heard last week).  Who are they?  Not the obvious characters but sometimes the people whose outward life looks pretty good.  But we cannot see into the heart.  We cannot tell the actors from those who are genuine.
    Why not get rid of them?  The risk is that they look like believers.  We cannot see the heart – only God can – and so we cannot risk harming the good in order to get rid of the bad.  In addition, we are not given the right of judgment.  God has reserved that for Himself.  He who has saved us will sit as judge and this He earned by being faithful to death on the cross.  If the Church were given this duty, we would surely forget the call to be witnesses and speak the Word of Christ to the world.  Judgment is a consuming power in our hearts.
    What will happen to the weeds in the church?  God will judge them – perhaps the better word here is expose them.  Once exposed, He will condemn them to the eternal fire.  But we dare not rush this or presume that we can do this judgment.
    What about the wheat?  The wheat in Jesus' story are those who hear the Word of God and keep it by faith.  They are those whom the Lord has sowed through the seed of His Word and in whom the Spirit has worked saving faith.  God insists they belong to Him.  He knows them.  He protects them.  He sustains them through the Word and the Sacraments.  We are secure.  We will endure by His grace to the harvest day.
    Why not deliver the wheat – the faithful – from the weeds – the unfaithful?  God says the time is not yet.  Just as the world waited for thousands of years before the promise was kept and Christ took flesh and blood to enter our world, bear our weight of sin, and die to deliver us from our bondage to death, so the great and awesome day of the Lord will come in His time.
    Instead of worrying about who or when, Jesus directs us to the what.  What will happen to the faithful?  God will harvest them – He will harvest US – to eternal life.  Those whom He has called by His Word, washed in baptism, and set apart by faith He will keep to the day of judgment and He will deliver from this world of death to His kingdom of life – forevermore!
    Here is the good news of the Kingdom.  God has it in hand!  He does not need us to clean house.  He does not need us to decide who is a true believer and who is not.  He does not ask our advice nor does He give us to know what is only His to know.  In other words, we live not by sight but by faith, not by judgment but by trust.  Our call is to live by faith in the holy Word of the holy Lord and that is enough.
    Our focus is not the harvest (which God says the angels will handle and not us) but with the sowing of the seed.  If we speak and live His Good News before the world, He has promised that His Word will not return to Him empty but will accomplish His purpose in sending it.  And that starts with you and me.  Convinced of this promise for ourselves, we speak it to the world.
    Now let us be clear.  We cannot judge the heart but we are called to judge doctrine or teaching.  You are called by God to know His Word well enough that you can discern truth from falsehood – whether from this pulpit or a classroom or what you hear on TV or read on the internet.  The Word is our guide to sift through the whispered and even shouted voices speaking lies, half-truths, and deception.  We do not judge the heart but we had better judge what we hear by the standard of God’s Word and what has been believed and confessed since the cross – the creed does just that.
    This is not simply a parable to explain why unbelievers and believers coexist until God determines the day but a call to trust the Lord and His Word to do what He has promised to do.  We wrestle with this call to patience and trust but such is life in the kingdom of God.  We have not everything but we have enough.  We are not given the authority to judge but we are given the authority to baptize, to forgive sins, to proclaim the Gospel, and witness what God has done.
    The problem is that we are not content to wait upon God but always tempted to act first and trust Him later.  We are not content to wait upon the Lord but always tempted to judge because either God is not judging fast enough for us or we fear He does not know really know the playing field of this earth.  We are not content to wait upon the Lord because ultimately, just like in the Garden of Eden, we want to be in charge.  But we are not.
    Ours is to sow the seed of God's promise and then to trust in that promise that it will not return to Him empty.  We are so darn full of ourselves that we fear God cannot handle things without our assistance.  But we are the ones in need.  In need of patience... in need of trust... and in need of focusing less upon the authenticity of the saints below and more upon the genuineness of the grace that is from above.  This is what we pray.  Give us faith, trust, and patience.  NOW!

A clear pastoral dilemma. . .

Children irregularly conceived present a dilemma to the church which will be ultimately answered not so much by decree or theological opinion but pastoral discretion.  I am referring to the explosion of children conceived in vitro (Latin literally within the glass) versus in vivo (within the living), children conceived with donor eggs and sperm, children born of surrogates (whether or not contributing their eggs), children born to lesbian and gay, and so on. . .  This is not just the stuff of the big city or the far coastal urban areas.  This is increasingly common throughout the heartland as well.

On top of this is the more ordinary conundrum of how to deal with children of cohabiting parents or children born to a woman without a father named (or, perhaps, known).  We have had this phenomenon presented to pastors for many, many years.  Although the issue is not new, its regularity is more recent -- the increasing normalcy of such births and the acceptance of such circumstances as ordinary within society is newer.

This is not a question of how to deal with the adults in such circumstances but the children.  Bluntly, do we baptize these children or not?

Whereas the pastor was able to deal with such things more discreetly in the past, the very public nature of the lifestyles and the tolerance and acceptance of such lifestyles make it increasingly impossible for the pastor to deal with these requests discreetly.  While no one in the church suggests that by baptizing the children irregularly conceived constitutes approving of the circumstances of their conception or the status of the parents, it is difficult to separate the practice toward the child from the situation of those presenting the child for baptism.

Yet discretion is exactly the urgent need when situations such as these present themselves to the pastor.  The child is not to be punished for the intentional or unintentional sins of the parent.  Where the parents present the child and make promise to raise the child in the faith (for Lutherans this means promising to raise the child to know and confess the Apostles Creed, to know and confess the Small Catechism, and to be prepared to receive the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood), the church must be careful about refusing baptism to the child.

Unlike some who would insist that baptism is the capstone of a progressive piety of faith, witness, decision, and promise, we acknowledge that God is the only actor in baptism and that it is purely grace at work in the water.  Baptism is not an accomplishment or personal achievement.  We come naked with nothing to commend us but our sin and living in the shadow of death.  We are met by the gracious Lord who bore our sin, entered our death, bestowed upon us forgiveness, life, and salvation -- all apart from our worth or merit.

Nevertheless, the church and the pastor must take care not to celebrate the event in such way that it confuses our witness to the world or causes scandal and offense to the faithful.  Discretion and discreet practice will be the rule of the day when such children (for lack of a better way to put it, irregularly conceived) are presented for baptism.  It will also mean that each case must be treated individually.  It will be impossible to establish a rule to cover every eventuality.

This will mean that pastors will not practice this discretion uniformly and we will find ourselves tempted to second guess one another and to subject the judgments of others to our own scrutiny.  This will certainly test the boundaries of the faith as much as the pastoral discretion of close(d) communion does.  The rampant pace of legalization of gay marriage and the prevailing approval of much of our society mean that these issues are on the fast track even for a rather stodgy, rural, and Midwestern denomination like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  I would only suggest that while pastors in previous eras may have had difficult circumstances presented to us the challenges before us today represent an even greater burden upon those entrusted with the stewardship of the mysteries.   Pray for the church, for pastors who must make such decisions, and for our faithful witness to the families involved and to the world watching what we do.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Do you hear the people singing?

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes.

In the wonderful movie adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables these lines are sung just before the battle begins.  Do you hear the people singing?  Well, I am sure there cannot be more than a few folks in the entire world who do not know its melody.  Powerful stuff...

In Acts 16:16-40 we read about singing.  About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.  

Singing was once the hallmark of Christians both in worship and in witness.  Music, if it has any purpose whatsoever beyond personal pleasure, is given us to raise songs to the Lord in praise and thanksgiving for His grace and favor.  But not so much anymore. . .

Christians today more often hear others sing than sing themselves.  Liturgies that were once mostly sung are now mostly spoken.  Hymns have given way to praise songs.  Choirs to worship divas.  The world does not hear us singing like it once did.  There is something wrong here.

Why do so many Lutherans stand with mouths shut as some around them sing but they do not?  Why do so many of us struggle with words and notes to the great hymns that were once sung without heads in a book?  Why is hymn singing limited to the first, third, and fifth stanzas of hymns that once sang out all 15-20 stanzas?  Why do we follow the bouncing ball on the screen for a repeated refrain instead of raising full voice to the hymns and spiritual songs that once caused a world to stop and listen?

I have little patience for those who do not open a book or their lips on Sunday morning.  Sometimes I have to look away from the people to keep my composure.  And our congregation sings better than most!  I have been in churches where I was sure I was the only one singing.  Yes, acoustics are often targeted for control of sound (meaning amplified sound) and so the rooms in which we sing do not echo the sound of our singing like they once did.  But that does not explain why we are content not even to try to sing.

Don't tell me you cannot sing!  You sing the complicated lyrics and melodies of pop music or Christian contemporary artists.  You can sing the jingles of a thousand products advertized on TV and radio.  The melodies of the vast majority of hymns are easier than these and the multiple stanzas give you the chance to learn what you might not have known in the first stanza.  Sing people.  Try it -- not with the timid voices of the uncertain but with the confident voices of those who know the grace and mercy of God.  Sing the story of His love.  Sing the Gospel to a world still captive to sin and its death.  Sing the hope that is in you.  Sing to your children, with your children, and they will sing in your place when you are gone.

I could throw a hundred Bible passages at you to compel you to see how the Lord expects, anticipates, and is glorified by the songs of His people (singing back to Him what He has said to them -- the surest word of all!).  But I truly think the most powerful is from Acts 16.  Do you hear the people singing?  That is what the jailer and his family work up to ask.  They heard.  And before the night was through, the song of Paul and Silas became their own.

Monday, July 21, 2014

I believe in the resurrection of the dead. . .

[Moreover], funerals l[in the Church] concentrate on the deceased’s eternal future because participants have faith that he still lives! (O’ Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?) In contrast, by focusing primarily on the deceased’s now-past life by posing the body as if still so engaged or by making a political statement in how the body is handled, more contemporary dispositions attempt to deflect the ultimate reality of human mortality. The dead are gone forever, such approaches imply, but at least we can act as if they are still alive.

Well put!  Read more here. . .

It is absolutely amazing to me how many funerals of Christians include perhaps a line or two from Scripture (never about the resurrection of the flesh or eternal life), some of the desceased's favorite music, and testimonials about what a good person the dead was by family and friends.  I blame the funeral industry in part but most of all I blame Christians who have either forgotten about or given up on the promise of the resurrection of the dead and the gift of eternal life.  It is as if we have drunk the koolaid of modernity and believe that not only is your best life now but the only real life of consequence is now.  So in death we are left only to comfort ourselves with the remembrance of that life and some vague pious platitudes about living on in memory or reunited in the somewhere out there.  Worse, we draw upon the theology of The Lion King to talk about the circle of life.  I actually was at a funeral where a granddaughter who had given birth about the time of her father's death spoke about the comfort the "circle of life" gave her -- a daughter born as her father dies.

How goofy we have become in our practical theology!  Comfort is distance and life is now so we prop up the dead as if they had not died and proclaim how we will always remember them.  Well, cemeteries are filled with people who are gone AND forgotten.  This is not our comfort.  Christ is risen!  That is our comfort.  Every funeral includes those words so associated with Easter Sunday.  Christ is risen!  Because He lives, we live also.  That is our consolation.  Thank God we have memories but praise the Lord even more that we are not left to memories as our comfort in death.  The dead in Christ live.  They wait with us for the great and awesome day of the Lord when we shall wear the new and glorious bodies Christ already wears, when we shall enter into the joy of our Master, and when He shall open to us the rooms in our Father's house which He has prepared for us.

Not every appeal to the heart is sentiment!  Jesus comforts the heart but not with sentiment.  Do you believe this?  He asked of Martha.  At the funeral we raise our voices in response to the voice of the Lord.  Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the resurrection and the life.  That he who dies shall live and death cannot take from Him what You have won and graciously bestowed.  Come on, Christians, make sure that the Christian funerals of your loved ones speak this hope we confess in the Creed every Sunday:

I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins,
and I look for the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen


I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Christian Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

And a good time was had by all. . .

In ancient times every social engagement was fodder for a brief but predictable newspaper story.  After the details of who was there, what they ate, why they gathered, and what they did, the little stories all ended the same:  a good time was had by all.  Well, of course.  How could it be otherwise in the Lake Woebegon's of the Lutheran homelands?

Nobody reports on this stuff anymore.  In my daily newspaper there is less news than there was in my weekly newspaper growing up.  Mostly ads dominate the sections (often no more than one page folded into the four sides).  Even if they did we would not read such banal stuff.  We are above that -- except when it comes to church.

It seems hard for me -- even after 34 years as a Pastor -- not to work so that a good time WILL be had by all who attend.  It seems hard for those in the pew -- for the parents with children and the other folks without -- not to expect and hope for the same thing  -- a good time.  It seems the prevailing preoccupation of Christian worship today is our desire for all to have a good time.  We pick hymns to appeal to various folks, we preach uplifting, humorous, and lighthearted sermons that are at least good for a smile, and we strive to get them in and out before boredom sets in.  That is the perfect picture of a successful parish pastor and parish!

I will admit it.  I don't have a good time at church.  Some Sundays I can barely find the strength to get up and drive home after two services and a full Bible class in between.  I am exhausted.  I have trouble remembering all the information passed to my ear as I was shaking hands or walking down a hall.  I don't even know what to say to the sad stories I hear or the disheartening updates on who is about to leave the church, move for a better job, get a divorce, start cancer treatment, etc...  I walk out with the lingering feeling that I have not been as faithful as I should (usually spot on).  I drive home with the haunting disappointment that I might have, could have, should have preached a better sermon.

But I do not count it as failure or loss.  I was not supposed to feel hunky dory after working at worship, leading folks through the Scriptures, and shepherding my people all morning long.  I have looked in vain for the promise of God that if I work as hard as I am able to preach the Word in season and out, instruct the young and the erring, apply the counsel of Law and Gospel to the situations people place before me, hear the confessions of those weighed down by sin and its guilt, and preside as faithfully as the Holy Eucharist deserves I will feel better at the end.

It is the worst lie you can tell a reluctant kid -- church will be fun!  You will have a good time!  Yeah, how gullible do you think I am????  It is the most foolish expectation to have -- we will feel the hammer of the Law beat us right dead center in the forehead and still have a good time... we will be cut by the two edged sword of the Word of the Lord and be patched up to feel downright grand afterwards... we will surrender our wills and desires to Him whose will and desire was our salvation but it won't hurt, it won't cost us anything, and in the end we will be happy we did.  What are you smoking?

Worship is NOT a feel good activity.  We should feel manhandled by the Word from time to time.  We should feel convicted because of sin and convinced of our unrighteousness as well as forgiven and in awe of such a gift of holiness we cannot afford.  We ought to feel exhausted -- if we don't it means were were not paying much attention to the Word of the Lord (always a mighty effort to stop thinking of ourselves even for an hour or two) nor were we singing very much or praying very seriously.  The response to God and His Word empty us before they fill us and they do not fill us with cotton candy and marshmallows -- the food of the Lord is solid, chewy, and something to gnaw on for a while.

That is not bad.  That is good.  It is good to be exhausted after worship.  It is good to have worked hard to give up your preoccupation with self long enough to actually hear the voice of God and respond.  It is good tired -- like when you have worked to accomplish something and are happily tired to view your accomplishment.  We are the happy tired who have emptied ourselves in response to the bidding of the Lord, the gifts of the Lord, and the grace of our Lord.  Going home tired does not mean the pastor or the liturgy failed us -- just the opposite.  It is success!

Sadly we have bought into the old lie that if worship is good,  a good time will be had by all....  Even in His comfort, God is not easy.  Even in His mercy, God is not casual.  Nope, no good times here.  It is work just to keep the mind on the voice of God.  It is work to sing, to pray, to speak, to meditate, and to sit down, stand up, kneel -- over and over.  But it is the good work that bears rich fruit in the life of the baptized.  Try it once.  Work so hard at listening, praying, singing, speaking, and meditating that you are actually weary after the encounter with the Lord in His House on His day.  You will not settle for a feel good moment ever again!

Peppy little ditties instead of the sturdy hymns of old, joke telling preachers who leave you laughing, music that keeps you clapping or crying it is so tender, creative little rituals to replace the old stale broken bread of Christ's body and the cup of His blood shed... this is not Church.  This is not faithful.  This is not fruitful.  It is a sugar high that must be regularly pumped up or it will leave you empty.  Do not settle for this pale imitation of the real means of grace which strike us down in awe of mercy beyond imagination freely given for the sake of Christ.  Nope, a feel good moment will not suffice once you have had it real and true with the Word that slices and dices even as it trims and prunes or the worship that drains your energy because you cannot do enough in response to the pure grace freely given!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

How uncomfortable are you. . .

I’m uncomfortable with church doctrine that excludes women from the pastoral office and calls GLBT lifestyles sinful. 

First of all.   I am uncomfortable?  Is this the language of the Church?  Have we devolved the great conversation of Scripture and tradition to the innocuous vocabulary of feeling.

Secondl  Church doctrine?  Does this imply that the Church's doctrine is separate from or distinct from Scripture and tradition?  If is it, then show where it is.  If it is not separate from Scripture and tradition, then your discomfort is not with the Church per se but rather you have a fight to take up with the Lord Himself.

Third.  Where is your discomfort with sin?  Where is your discomfort with the arrogance of the sinful heart that insists the Lord of heaven and earth must subject Himself to the whims of our feelings?  Where is your discomfort with the rebellious attitude that places reason over Scripture, feelings over tradition, and personal preference over catholicity?

Yeah.  I get a little testy when people tell me they are uncomfortable with doctrine and truth, sourced in Scripture and confessed faithfully until the most modern of moments.  It drives me nuts.  Have you ever noticed that the same folks who talk like this are never uncomfortable with themselves or their opinions?

I will admit it openly.  There is much in Scripture that makes me uncomfortable.  I do not like being hit between the eyes with the rock of the Law, condemning my intentions, my desires, my words, and my deeds.  I am very uncomfortable with a Gospel that begins with the presumption that I am helpless to redeem myself and that my condition is so far gone that it required nothing less than the Son of God to become incarnate, to suffer, and to die in my place.  I am most uncomfortable with a holiness of life which challenges the desires of my heart, insists upon self-control, and directs me away from my self to God above all things and to my neighbor before me.  I am distinctly uncomfortable with a God who tells me what He wants me to know but seems completely oblivious to my quest for the answers to the strange and oddest of questions that somehow I believe are more important than even the story of the cross.

God makes me uncomfortable.  In fact I think it is the whole point.  Unless and until I am uncomfortable with sin and uncomfortable with the price of my redemption, I am blind and oblivious to the whole darn problem.  I think of what C. S. Lewis wrote in response to a critique written by Norman Pittenger:

The statement that I do not ‘care much for’ the Sermon on the Mount but ‘prefer’ the ‘Pauline ethic’ of man’s sinfulness and helplessness carries a suggestion of alternatives between which we may choose, where I see successive stages through which we must proceed. Most of my books arc evangelistic, addressed to tous exo. It would have been inept to preach forgiveness and a Saviour to those who did not know they were in need of either. Hence St Paul’s and the Baptist’s diagnosis (would you call it exactly an ethic?) had to be pressed. Nor am I aware that our Lord revised it (‘if ye, being evil…‘). As to ‘caring for’ the Sermon on the Mount, if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’ or enjoying, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it. Who can like being knocked flat on his face by a sledge-hammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of the man who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure. This is indeed to be ‘at ease in Zion’.
      C.S. Lewis, “Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger,” God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 181-182.

Funny how comfortable with are with the things that God thinks should cause us discomfort and how uncomfortable we are with the things that cause us to defer to and trust in the wisdom and beneficial will of the God who risked ultimately uncomfortability in becoming flesh and blood for our salvation and dying to accomplish what all our living an dying could not!

It would seem to me that we ought to be uncomfortable more and comfortable less.  We ought to learn to be uncomfortable with the things of sin and its death.  We ought to be more uncomfortable with ourselves and the paltry righteousness that so inflates us.  We ought to learn to be more uncomfortable with our feeble efforts to resist temptation and sin.  Whoever said that faith makes your comfortable?  Where did God ever speak the great wisdom to us that His goal in all things is to remove all our discomfort?

Well, I am uncomfortable with your discomfort... and with mine... and I have nothing to know and no place to go to find anything but distress EXCEPT to the cross where there is one discomfort that bore holy and blessed fruit even for sinners such as me... 

We worship when it is convenient for us... we wear what is comfortable to us... we participate as we find it relevant, pleasing, or meaningful... when the reality is that the most comfortable place in the world is outside the Church, on the broad and easy highway to hell in which we can be consumed with only one thing... how comfortable we are... for now.... 

Or as one LarsWalker put it:  Faith is trusting God and telling your feelings to sit down and shut up. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. . .

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in her own words: "I’m like a lioness when it comes to protecting children. . .  This is exactly how Ms. Pelosi sees it.  She is a protector of children.  When it comes to abortion, however, she has rejected the doctrine and counsel of her Roman Catholic Church and defied every consistent position of morality and ethics in order to promise the tyranny of a woman over her body at all costs -- including and especially the right to kill the child in her womb, to prevent a fertilized egg to attach, and the free and easy access to contraceptive resources to enable safe and unrestrained sexual freedom.

“As you probably know by now, that when it comes to the children from my standpoint, I’m like a lioness,” she said. “Just don’t mess with the children, okay?”

Ah, but you can kill all the unborn you want and the lioness will not roar, not even whimper.  But if you mention even one area where this all-encompassing right of woman might be abridged, even ever so slightly, the lioness will roar and come after you....

The sad truth is that those who think like Ms. Pelosi do not see the tragic irony of their words.  There are none so blind as those who refuse to see. BTW this is the same Nancy Pelosi, who was awarded the Margaret Sanger Eugenicist of the Year Award by Planned Genocide! 

The Wrong Time to Publish a Hymnal

The 1960s awakened Missouri to the fact that our hymnal was well past the age of majority and if it were a person could vote, drink, marry, etc...  So we decided it was time to begin a process to update our old book.  Our previous update had lasted nearly 30 years (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnbook of 1912 being the predecessor of The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941).  It was time.  But it was the wrong time.  The world was changing all around us in the mid-1960s and no one was sure where or how things would settle out.  But we pressed on.

The Common Service of 1888 was not enough for Lutheran unity.  So it was deemed worthy to invite other Lutherans (even those who had just finished the Service Book and Hymnal in 1958) to join us in this brave new endeavor.  In an uncharacteristic show of ecumenism, the LCMS invited and the ALC and LCA agreed it was a good thing to publish a common hymnal.  It was time.  But it was the wrong time.  Lutheranism was changing all around us.

The Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship was spitting out transitional books on everything worshipful for the cooperating churches to chew on but things were also at work moving the cooperating bodies further and further apart.  The fellowship between the ALC and LCMS would take a weird turn when the ALC would join the LCA in ordaining women.  Missouri exploded off the AELC and its internal structures imploded as a Seminary got way ahead of the folks in the pew and was called to task for it.  Missouri's culture of a collegial clergy and intermarriage of historic families could not prevent a nasty schism.  It was time.  But it was the wrong time.  Rome was also radically reinventing its Sunday morning self.

The lectionary, the vocabulary of the Mass, celebrants versus populum, stark modern architecture, missalettes, the vernacular, and a memory of church music erased -- all of these were the in the koolaid being drunk in Rome and sipped in Lutheran churches as well.  All of a sudden there was a pristine epoch of liturgical history to shoot for (early church) and a predisposition against the culture of the liturgy (the snobbery of the modern).  It could not help but impact what Lutherans were doing half a world away.

So Lutheran Book of Worship was born in 1978.  All in all it turned out better than it might have considering some of the strangeness of liturgical explorations done during its gestation period.  But it did mark a distinctive break with our past -- so distinct that Missouri had trouble accepting it.  Not in the least of it was the loss of a hymn tradition at the same time as a liturgical tradition.  It was time.  But it was the wrong time.  The Common Service of 1988 pretty much had us all on the same page as Lutherans but a period of liturgical exploration, the advent of the photo copier, and the coming dawn of desktop publishing and the personal computer would mean that the Common Service of 1888 was an uncommon moment of unity in an increasingly fractured Lutheran liturgical world.

In the end, we find ourselves now at a strange juncture.  Conservatives in the ELCA and folks in the NALC hold on to LBW as if it were Gideon's fleece.  The rest of the ELCA has left the LBW in the dust with a new book (Evangelical Lutheran Worship) that is neither evangelical (Gospel centered) nor Lutheran.  It is instead a political book putting into liturgical and hymnal language the feminist views of man, God, sex, power, etc...  Instead of a common service, CLW has 10 different orders.  Missouri tested the waters with a Hymnal Supplement in 1998 and found a consensus that produced a radically different book from the ELCA -- Lutheran Service Book in 2006.  It worked with the history of LW and TLH and magically merged them into a book that nearly everyone in Missouri adopted.  Not perfect but good enough to bring us to the same book (those who were using a book, anyway).  It was time.  It was the wrong time.  But God worked within the parameters of all our distress, confusion, and division to bring us a good book, a Lutheran book, a book to fit the rural culture of Nebraska, the alien setting of a Lutheran in Tennessee, the urban haunts of New York and Los Angeles, and the techno strangeness of Seattle.

It was the wrong time to publish a hymnal.  Evangelical Lutheran Hymnbook came before WWI.  The Lutheran Hymnal came as WWII consumed us all.  LW came after a split in the LCMS and at the dawn of private liturgical practice.  LSB came when people were not so sure anyone would need or use a book like that again.  It was time.  God worked in it and used each effort in different cause and purpose.

The only thing left to do is to figure out a way to get those who want nothing of a book to use this book (LSB) so that Lutherans who say they value liturgy, tradition, custom, and rubric might actually try to look like they are related to each other after all.... But that is fodder for another post. . .

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Acting Catholic While Remaining Lutheran. . .

There is always the charge against the liturgical that they like to act as if they were Catholic [when, since they are Lutheran, of course, they are not].  Play acting.  That is the point some snicker in the pews or from the vantage point of other Lutheran parishes when they watch a Lutheran who takes the liturgy seriously and our confessional insistence that the mass is better kept among us than Rome. 

For whatever reason, when I was installed into my first parish on August 24, 1980, my bishop, District President Ronald F. Fink, walked out into the woods surrounding the church building and came back with a piece of pine.  It is rough and stained and not too pretty but he thrust that staff into my hands when he bade me to watch faithfully over the flock to which the Holy Spirit had made me bishop (overseer for those who don't like the catholic terminology).  I still carry it in the procession on Good Shepherd Sunday and a few other times during the year.  Once, a visiting Lutheran cleric chided me for acting Catholic and, in particular, for presuming to be a bishop.  He had a grand smile on his face like a parent who had caught a child play acting some adult role.  Gotcha!!!

But that is precisely the point.  Lutherans are not play acting at being Catholic; we are deadly serious in our insistence that we are catholic!  “The churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith,” so Melanchthon declares in the Augsburg Confession presented to define the position of the Reformers. “There is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman Church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.”  This was and remains our affirmation in spite of those more comfortable with a Protestant face to their Lutheran identity.

Writing in the last century, Herman Sasse, hardly a friend of medieval Roman Catholicism, insisted that this was and remains not only the claim but the essential identity of the Church of the Augsburg Confession: “It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages...” and “The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Ireneaus once belonged.”

I love how Matthew Block put it:  I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic.  That might sound flippant or even nonsensical. It isn’t intended to be. “But what does it even mean?” you ask. I’ll explain, but before I do, let me explain what I do not mean: I do not mean to say that I think Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism are similar enough that I can simply “act” Catholic while remaining Lutheran.

The first Lutherans saw no disagreement between their faith and the faith of the Catholic Church down through the ages. They write, “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers” (AC 21:5). They believed themselves to be faithful to the historic Church’s teachings even as they rejected theologically errant innovation that had arisen in their own time. “Our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic,” they write, “but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons” (AC 21:10).

“Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation” (LW 52:39-40).

This is the Catholic Church. This is the Universal Church—the company of believers. I will not abide any visible church drawing the broad boundaries of the invisible Church more tightly than does God. The dogmata of the Roman Church do just that, and so I reject them; I’m too damn Catholic to be Catholic.

Lutherans being Lutheran may appear to be acting Catholic but they are really being catholic -- the catholics we insist we are in our Confessions.  That is exactly the problem.  The people most unnerved by Lutherans being authentically Lutheran are those who are afraid of the catholic identity that Lutherans claim.  To see a Pastor in Eucharistic vestments, to hear the sound of chanting, to smell the sweet smoke of incense, to witness genuflection, kneeling, and bowing, to hear the sound of the sanctus bell, to adore the Sacrament in the Agnus Dei before we are bidden to eat and drink, to see through the light of candles than are not there for ambiance, to worship according to the ancient form of the mass, etc... -- the shock of these things is not that someone has found a Lutheran Pastor who likes to act Roman Catholic but that this is exactly the evangelical and catholic face of Lutheranism that the Confessions insist is the only authentic identity for the Church of the Augsburg Confession.  This is what we fear admitting -- not that somebody likes to play act what he is not but that he just maybe correct in identifying who Lutherans really are!  Evangelical and catholic!!