Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Music for the Changing Calendar

Is Christ enough?

Sermon for Holy Innocents, Christmas 1B, preached on Sunday, December 28, 2014.

    What a sad story to hear in the shadow of Christmas and all its joy!  But there it is.  Christmas is for this, for grieving moms and dads and wounded children and broken people, tested by suffering, wondering where God is in it all.
    The Magi had the star to guide them.  The priests of the temple had the Scriptures.  The people had the voice of John the Forerunner.  Herod had them all.  But the weeping mothers of Bethlehem were lost only with their grief, loss, and pain.  And with the same questions that nag us.  What kind of God cannot or will not intervene to prevent the innocent suffering and death – especially of children?  Where is this peace on earth and where this good will toward men?
    The grieving parents of Bethlehem had only what we have – faith in the promise of God to comfort and console them.  The question is not whether there is more but whether this is enough?  The ways of God are mysterious to us.  Anyone who says otherwise is a liar.  It is a sick idea that our grief can be comforted by explanations.  It is false comfort when we are told that the hurtful things of life happened for a reason.  What kind of reason could there be for allowing the death of the lost boys of Bethlehem OR for any of the tragic sorrows of our own lives?  The ways of God do not satisfy our desire for a reason for what happens, or an order to the seeming chaos of life, or some way to predict God.
    The ways of God are mysterious to us.  They do not allow us to explore God's wisdom as if we could comprehend Him or His ways, nor do they allow us to meet somewhere as equals to discuss or resolve the issues we face.  The ways of God are mysterious to us.  They do not explain the injustice of the world around us and they do not explain His seeming silence before it.
    We sing about the mystery of God and His ways.  "God works in a mysterious way His wonders to perform..." but it is not a consoling hymn to those of us who seek reasonable explanations or carefully thought out explanations for all our questions, doubts, and wondering thoughts.
    No, the ways of God are mysterious to us.  Only one thing is plain and clear.  That is Christ.  God is hidden in mystery except in Christ where He unfolds His heart, His purpose, and His will. And this is what we meet in the Christ of the manger.  He gives Himself to the violence, suffering, and death of our mortal lives. He allows Himself to be the victim for us of every wound, pain, sorrow, and hurt we face.  And this is what saves us from our wounds, pains, sorrows, and hurts.
    He appears weak before the world's enemies only because He refuses to fight fire with fire, to become evil to overcome evil.  He insists upon meeting wickedness, evil, and sin in the humility of a man, born of a woman, like us in every way except sin, in order to redeem sinners from the prison of their sins.
    His strength is His humility, self-control, and willingness to serve even if sacrificial death is the cost of service.  That is what still confound and confuses us - who still try to make love self-serving and who fear giving up anything for anyone.  No, the ways of God are not our ways and our ways are not His.
    He offers us comfort not in safety from every adversity or pain of life or ease from every cost or sacrifice.  No, He offers us comfort in His victory born of suffering and His life triumphant in death.  That is why the only approach to Jesus is by faith.  Reason cannot bring you to Bethlehem and intellect cannot come up with the cross.  Only faith.
    The lost boys of Bethlehem and their grieving families cried out to the Lord and He answered by setting them free.  Too early for us they died as do our loved ones.  But in their death is a witness.  They received the eternal reward Christ alone can prepare. 
    They will never suffer disappointment in life that does not live up to expectations; their hearts will not break because of friend's betrayal, their hopes will not be dashed upon the rocks of injustice and evil, and they will never have to stand at the grave to bury their sons or daughters or moms and dads.  When in death we surrender our loved ones to Christ we are giving them not to an end but a beginning beyond imagination.  Only faith finds comfort in this even though nothing can explain away the hurt.
    For us Christ lived.  For us He died.  Whether we live or die, we belong to Him. The Lord gave.  The Lord has taken away.  And faith still insists: “Blessed be the name of the Lord”.  Friends, this hard Christmas message reminds us, that our hope does not lie in crude explanations or pious platitudes or imaginary fairy tale endings but in Him whose suffering has won us hope. . . for sins forgiven, for wounds to heal, for sorrows to find joy, and for death to give way to life. 
    The question is not whether there is more to answer our questions or soften our hurt but whether this is enough?  Whether Christ is enough.  We come here to the manger acknowledging the wounds of our hearts and hands and lives.  We come here painfully reminded that here on earth we walk not by sight but by faith.  And that is enough.  It is not all we want, but it is enough.  For the wounded parents grieving over the lost boys of Bethlehem so long ago. . . for the wounded who still grieve, who still hurt, and who still sorrow. . . It is not all we want, but it is enough.  Christ is enough.  For the grieving parents of Bethlehem.  For you and me.  Amen.

Another Barna survey. . .

Barna has surveyed now the unchurched (now called the churchless) and has found a number of things worth some thought. . .

1. The number of unchurched people in America would make the 8th most populous country in the world.
As of 2014, the estimated number of people in the U.S. who Barna Group would define as “churchless”—meaning they have not attended a Christian church service, other than a special event such as a wedding or a funeral, at any time during the past six months—stands at 114 million. Add to that the roughly 42 million children and teenagers who are unchurched and you have 156 million U.S. residents who are not engaged with a Christian church. To put that in context, if all those unchurched people were a separate nation, it would be the eighth most populous country in the world, trailing only China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the remaining churched public of the United States (159 million).

2. In the past decade, more people in the U.S. have become churchless than live in Australia or Canada.
Barna tracking research has seen significant shifts in church involvement over the past decade. During that time, the number of adults who are unchurched has increased by more than 30%. This is an increase of 38 million individuals—that’s more people than live in Canada or Australia.

3. The vast majority of America’s churchless have attended a church.
Very few of America’s unchurched adults are purely unchurched—most of them, rather, are de-churched. Only about one-quarter of unchurched adults (23%) has never attended a Christian church at any time in his or her life, other than for a special service such as a wedding or funeral ceremony (though this number is on the rise; in 1993, only 15% of unchurched adults had never been connected to a church). The majority of unchurched individuals (76%) have firsthand experience with one or more Christian churches and, based on that sampling, have decided they can better use their time in other ways.

4. While the churchless are primarily men, the percentage of women in their ranks is on the rise.
It remains true that churchless people are somewhat more likely to be men than women (54% of the churched are men, compared to 46% of the churched), but the gap is not huge and has been steadily closing. For instance, in 1994, 58% of the unchurched were men. That percentage reached 60% in 2003 before it began consistently declining, until stabilizing the last few years around the current level. In other words, the gap between men and women has plummeted from 20 points in 2003 to just 8 points currently.

5. The unchurched in America tend to be less educated than the churched.
While it may seem counterintuitive to some, the unchurched tend to have completed fewer years of formal education. But again, the gap is not huge: 50% of the unchurched have gone no further than high school graduation, compared to 45% of the churched. Overall, 22% of the churchless have completed a four-year college degree, only slightly less than the 26% among the churched.

6. The Pacific Coast is home to the largest percentage of churchless per capita.
Geographically, there is a separation of just a few percentage points among the churched and unchurched. The biggest gap is found in the Pacific Coast states, where residents comprise 20 percent of the nation’s unchurched and 14 percent of the churched. The average gap between the churched and unchurched in all nine U.S. Census regions is only 2.5 percentage points.

7. The unchurched are more likely to be unmarried.
Among the unchurched, less than half (44%) are married, while the number is closer to six out of 10 among the churched. A greater proportion of the unchurched (29%) than the churched (22%) has never been married. Unchurched adults are also about four times more likely to be cohabiting than the churched (11% and 3%, respectively). Both groups are equally likely to be divorced, separated or widowed.

8. The younger a person is, the less likely he or she is to attend church.
While it’s true there is a generation gap among the churched and unchurched, the difference is not as dramatic as you might expect. Among the churched population, Millennials (born 1984-2002) make up 11%, Gen X-ers (1965-1983) are 33%, Boomers (1946-1964) make up 35%, and Elders (born in 1945 or earlier) make up 22%. Among the unchurched, the percentages skew slightly younger: Millennials make up 15%, Gen X-ers are 36%, Boomers are 33% and Elders are only 16%. However, the actual gap is only a few years (a median of 47 years among the unchurched, compared to 51 among the churched).

9. Unchurched adults are more likely to be white.
The ethnic and racial distinctions that once separated the churched and the unchurched are less substantial than they once were. However, it is still true that the unchurched are more likely to be white than are the churched. Overall, 70% of the unchurched in America are white, 12% are Hispanic, 10% are black and 6% are Asian. Among the churched population, 65% are white, 14% are Hispanic, 16% are black, and 4% are Asian.

10. The majority of the churchless in America claim Christianity as their faith.
When asked to identify their faith beliefs, 62% of unchurched adults consider themselves Christians. Most of the churchless in America—contrary to what one might believe—do not disdain Christianity nor desire to belittle it or tear it down. Many of them remain culturally tied to Christianity and are significantly interested in it. More than one-third (34%), for example, would describe themselves as “deeply spiritual.” Four in ten (41%) “strongly agree” that their religious faith is very important in their life today. More than half (51%) are actively seeking something better spiritually than they have experienced to date. One-third (33%) say they have an active relationship with God that influences their life and are most likely to describe that relationship as “important to me” (95%), “satisfying” (90%) and “growing deeper” (73%)—only one in six (16%) would describe it as “shallow.”
Read more here. . .   What we have learned is that these are hardly the pagans who have never heard the Gospel or even, necessarily, those who have fallen away (at least in their own estimation) but those who have dropped out of church even though they consider themselves Christian.  What does this mean?  It means a failure of catechesis. . . it means a failure of incorporation into the sacramental life of the Church. . . it means that faith was disconnected from the place where faith is heard from the Word, where the water of baptism bestows new life, and where this faith is fed and nourished by sacramental absolution and the Eucharist. . .  it means we had better be learning what to do with the people still in church or they will certainly follow these folks out the door. . .  It is not too late for those inside and for those who have left.  Renewal always begins with a call to repentance and a re-invigorated life starting with the basics.  Pastors, take heed.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An honorable man. . . a good bishop. . . a great friend

In 1978 I was awaiting the second most important news of my career -- where I would serve my vicarage (3rd year internship from seminary for all you who don't know the lingo).  As I watched the procession of District Presidents into Kramer Chapel, I watched in horror at the sight of gaudy sport jackets, wild ties, and leisure suits. . . and then one guy in a three piece gray suit with a full clerical collar.  He had a beard and long hair and I knew nothing of him (he was a very new District President) but prayed he would be the bishop of the district where I would serve.  In an odd turn of fate, he was.  His first words to me announced that my supervisor (loosely called bishop in our parlance) had just died within hours and I would go to the congregation alone, supported only by neighboring pastors.  It was overwhelming to a seminarian facing a congregation with nearly 800 in attendance and 600 in Sunday school but he was always there to gauge the landscape, guide me with his wise counsel, guard me against hurt or error, and give me praise for my meager triumphs.

My wife and I sat in the parking lot of St. John Lutheran Church on Greene Avenue in Sayville, Long Island, New York, with a U-Haul hitched to the car.  We got there too early for anyone to greet us.  It was a beginning filled with fear.  We were alone for months until the pastor they had called (the Rev. George Finsterle) arrived but we were not alone.  The Rev. Ronald F. Fink was an LCMS District President who took his episcopal responsibility seriously.  Never mind that this Atlantic District had just suffered the removal of its former DP, the loss of 30 congregations in the LCMS split of the 1970s, or that this guy was young and inexperienced in the ways of Synodical politics, he had time for lowly Vicar and his wife.  A lot of time!

The vicarage year came and went and the most strenuous moment of a pastor's life was again upon us -- it was placement day and we would hear where the Lord of the Church had decided to send us.  The familiar face of Bishop Fink was there to tell us where we were going (it was hard to find on a map but it was there, halfway between West Point and Albany, in the Catskills).  At my installation he went into the woods around the church and picked up an old pine branch.  He handed it to me with the words "Guard the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseer (bishop)."  It was not a pretty stick but a working staff -- something to remind me that the bulk of the pastor's work is not pretty but messy.  That stick is 34 years old and every now and then I carry it in to remind me and the people of that day, of the charge, and of the grace of God in which both of us trust.

Ron was a frequent visitor to our home -- well, lets face it, Ron was on the road all the time.  He put more miles on his car in a year than most of us put on a vehicle in five years.  He always wanted to know how I was going, how my wife and eventually kids were doing, and how the parish was doing.  He listened to complaints, gave wise and godly counsel, preached in my parish often, heard me preach often, and was a combination mentor, bishop, and friend.  I always felt bad for Millie and the kids since he gave himself so freely to his pastoral vocation but I think he gave himself as fully to them.  We were no strangers to his home or to his pool.  I learned to make a martini to his liking and we ate many meals together, went to many meetings together, and worked together on many different projects.

When he took a call to Orlando, Florida, I knew things would never be the same again.  And they were not.  I knew and know his successors (Zwernemann and Benke) and they did and Benke still does a good job but Ron Fink remains the epitome of bishop for the Atlantic District.  I have known other DPs over the years and all of them were and are sincere and gifted people but Ron Fink remains the benchmark of pastoral care, episcopal ministry, and faithful DP.

So when I heard that Ron had died, a part of me died as well.  He was my first and best bishop, an honorable man, a faithful pastor, and a great friend.  It had been a few too many years since we last spoke but it really never occurred to me that this day would come when no call could be made.  I will miss him in more ways than I can write here but the impact this man made upon me as a new, green, and terribly inexperienced pastor will never leave me.  Thank you, Bishop, and may your soul rest in peace according to the mercy of God....  I know the picture below is old, but it is the way he looked when I first met him. . .

The Rev. Ronald Frank Fink  +  1937-2014

Another Lutheran Swims the Tiber. . .

Another Lutheran has swum the Tiber.  Russ Saltzman, erstwhile Lutheran Pastor and commentator, has signaled his intention to be received into the Roman Catholic Church, with his wife Dianne.  In the end, when Lutheran pastors leave Lutheranism, it is seldom to find something less but the something more the Lutheran Confessions expect but one sees all too infrequently among the parishes and jurisdictions of Lutheran bodies -- namely, evangelical catholicity.

Evangelical catholicity, as I said on another forum, is summed up best in the Augustana itself:  "That in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic."  Evangelical catholicity is doctrinal and liturgical - not a choice between them.  Missouri often seems to choose doctrine over practice, insisting for example upon a quia subscription to the Symbols but then entirely comfortable with an occasional Sunday Eucharist and a liturgical minimalism which would be completely foreign to our Lutheran fathers.  ELCA often seems to choose liturgy over truth, willing to allow full diversity of what is believed, confessed, and taught but more likely to follow the book and have a full sung Eucharist on Sunday morning.  Evangelical catholics cannot choose between the theory and practice but insist upon both.  They do  not believe in the need to reinvent the church or redefine away her truth for the moment but neither do they pick a moment in time or a particular person (say 1847 and Walther) as the Lutheran zenith.

In this respect Lutherans are still coming to terms with their own confessions, content on one hand to be  Evangelicals with a peculiar penchant for semi-liturgical worship or Protestants who say words they neither believe nor profess.  Evangelical catholics want nothing more and nothing less than Lutherans fully consonant with and consistent with the Lutheran Confessions.  We can find pockets of such evangelical catholicity in places but so far no Lutheran body fully fills the bill.  I would say, some might say selfishly or pridefully, that Missouri offers more pockets and more visible leadership in this direction than any other Lutheran body. . . for now.  Many Lutheran pastors who leave find the pockets too few and far between and have judged the leadership of the various Lutheran bodies as unable to restore what Lutherans lost to pietism, rationalism, Evangelicalism, and mainline Protestantism.  They have decided that a better chance of finding evangelical catholicism is in Rome (or perhaps Constantinople).  Naturally I disagree.

That said, when Lutheran laity leave, it seems more because they are looking for less rather than more.  They have been poorly catechized and so cannot see any difference between Lutheranism and the various other churches that dot the landscape.  They never got what the Word was and so they are too quick to give up the Law and Gospel for a religion of preference, feeling, and desire -- God approving and giving us the great nod that all is okay as long as we are sincere in whatever we seek or want.  They never got the Sacraments and so they quickly exchange what are only symbols for other symbols they manufacture or find more meaningful than the means of grace which deliver to us Christ and His grace.  They never got the liturgy thing and so they are all too willing to ditch what always seems foreign to them anyway.  The last thing most of them want is an evangelical catholic Lutheranism.  They want something out of the mainstream, a mixture of culture and spirituality vague enough to accept nearly everything and broad enough to see a little bit of truth in just about anything.

In other words, both Lutheran pastors and Lutheran laity who leave have given up on Lutheranism for different reasons.  I blame those who catechized most of the laity who leave and I blame the impatience of the Lutheran pastors who are unwilling to wait for the fullness they desire and so exchange one set of disappointments for another.  I know that Lutheranism is better in theory than in practice.  It is painfully reminded me over and over again when I look around Lutheranism.  But I am not ready to believe that Rome or Constantinople offers better.

If I were to head to Rome and stay in the city where I now live, I would find a Roman parish hopelessly overrun with people, running through the liturgy as fast as it can be done, relying on laity to do what priests once did, and with an abysmal program of liturgical music and congregational song.  If I were to head to Constantinople and stay in the city where I now live, I would find a small mission that is barely sure the light bill will be paid, sparse attendance at the services, and a shell of the robust liturgical life claimed by my Orthodox friends.  In the end, the little corner of my own parish offers a more robust evangelical catholicity, closer to what the Confessors envisioned, than either option.  If I were to head to one of the big box churches in town I would be selling out to the very things our Confessions decry -- Word-less, Gospel-less, Sacrament-less faith, too swept up in feelings and preferences to see the God whose is where He has pledged to be and doing what He has promised to do.

I believe more progress can be made sticking it out with the tools of the means of grace than to find a slightly different shade of grace on the other side of the fence.  So here is where I will be. . . trying to keep myself focused upon the means of grace and not me. . . trying to catechize my people so that they will be focused the same place I am. . . in the hope and expectation that this is where God wants me to be. . .

HT to Matthew Block for another thoughtful response to one swimming the river; read him with my own words above or just read him. . .

Monday, December 29, 2014

Yeah, it's old and has made the rounds but it is still funny. . .

Merry Christmas, from the Pope. . .or not

So the Pope gathered the Curia and wished them a Merry Christmas. . . except there was little that was merry in his address.  According to Francis, the Curia, like the Church, cannot live 'without having a vital, personal, authentic and solid relationship with Christ. And a member of the Curia who does not draw from that every day will become a mere bureaucrat. He added that we will talk about the list of diseases which, following the Fathers of the desert, will aid us in preparing for confession.

The disease of feeling 'immortal' or 'essential''A curia that does not practice self-criticism, does not keep up to date, does not try to better itself, is an infirm Body'. The Pope mentions that a visit to cemeteries could help us see the names of many who 'maybe thought they were immortal, exempt and essential!'. It is the disease of those who 'turn into masters and feel superior to everyone rather than in the service of all people. It often comes from the pathology of power, the "Messiah complex" and narcissism'.

The disease of excessive activity
It is the disease of those who, like Martha in the Gospel, 'lose themselves in their work, inevitably neglecting "what is better"; sitting at Jesus' feet'. The Pope recalls that Jesus 'called his disciples to "rest a little", because neglecting necessary rest brings anxiety and stress'.

The diseases of mental and spiritual 'petrification'
It is the disease of those who 'lose their internal peace, their vivacity and audacity, to hide under papers and become "procedural machines" instead of men of God', unable to 'weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice!'.

The disease of overplanning
'When the apostle plans everything in detail' and believes that, through this, 'things progress effectively, thus becoming an accountant. Good planning is necessary but without falling into the temptation of wanting to enclose or steer the freedom of the Holy Spirit... it is always easier and more convenient to fall back on static and unchanged positions'.

The disease of bad coordination
It is the disease of members who 'lose the community among them, and the Body loses its harmonious functionality' becoming 'an orchestra producing undisciplined noise because its members do not cooperate and do not live communally and have team spirit'.

The disease of spiritual Alzheimer's
That is a 'progressive decline of spiritual faculties' which 'causes severe disadvantages to people', making them live in a 'state of absolute dependence on their, often imagined, views'. We can see this in those who have 'lost their memory' of their encounter with the Lord, in those who depend on their 'passions, whims and obsessions'.

The disease of rivalry and vainglory
'When the appearance, the colour of  the vestments and the honours become the first objectives of life... It is the disease that leads us to become false men and women, living a false "mysticism" and false "quietism"'.

The disease of existential schizophrenia
It is the disease of those who live 'a double life, a result of the hypocrisy typical of mediocre people and of advancing spiritual emptiness, which degrees or academic titles cannot fill'. It often strikes us that some 'abandon the pastoral service and limit their activities to bureaucracy, losing touch with reality and real people. They thus create their own parallel world, where they set aside all that the others harshly teach' and live a 'hidden' and often 'dissolute' life.

The disease of gossip and chatter'It takes hold of a person making them "sowers of discord" (like Satan), and, in many cases, "cold-blooded murderers" of the reputation of their colleagues and brothers. It is the disease of cowards, who do not have the courage to speak upfront and so talk behind one's back... Watch out against the terrorism of gossip!'.

The disease of deifying the leaders
It is the disease of those who 'court their superiors', becoming victims of 'careerism and opportunism' and 'live their vocation thinking only of what they must gain and not of what they must give'. It might also affects the superiors 'when they court some of their collaborators in order to gain their submission, loyalty and psychological dependence, but the final result is real complicity'.

The disease of indifference to others
'When each one thinks only of themselves and loses the truthfulness and warmth of human relationships. When the more experienced ones do not offer their knowledge to the service of less experienced colleagues. When, because of jealousy or cunning, we rejoice in seeing others fall, rather than lift them up and encourage them'.

The disease of the funeral faceIt is the disease of people who are 'scowling and unfriendly and think that, in order to be serious, they must show a melancholic and strict face and treat others - especially those, whom they think are inferior - with rigidity, harshness and arrogance'. In reality, adds the Pope, 'theatrical strictness and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity about themselves. The apostle must strive to be a polite, serene, enthusiastic and joyful person...'. Francis invites people to be full of humour and self-irony; 'How beneficial a healthy dose of humour can be!'

The disease of hoarding'When the apostle seeks to fill an existential void in his heart by hoarding material possessions, not because of necessity, but only to feel secure'.

The disease of closed circlesWhen belonging to a clique becomes more important than belonging to the Body and, in some situations, than belonging to Christ himself. Even this disease starts from good intentions, but in time it enslaves all its members becoming "a cancer"'.

The disease of worldly profit and exhibitionism
'When the apostle turns his service into power, and his power into a commodity to gain worldly profits, or even more powers. It is the disease of those people who relentlessly seek to increase their powers. To achieve that, they may defame, slander and discredit others, even on newspapers and magazines. Naturally, that is in order to show off and exhibit their superiority to others'. A disease that 'badly hurts the Body because it leads people to justify the use of any means in order to fulfill their aim, often in the name of transparency and justice!'

Now, the Curia is certainly worthy of some renewal and reorganization but it appears that Francis, like a certain American President, is impatient that the structures do not allow him to do what he wants, when he wants it.  It is also clear that Francis is not a team player.  One insider to the current papacy suggested that Francis often accepts only reluctantly the advice of others and hardly ever the counsel of the Curia.  I am not an insider here and know little to nothing of the inside workings of the Vatican or the Curia.  But it does sound to me as if Francis is not a progressive at all.  It sounds like he is a radical.  That is unsettling news for those in Rome or in communion with Rome. . .

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Not the first victims of our technology. . .

A friend sent me a link to Father Hunwicke's blog and specifically to this posting on the struggle to retain historic orders when new technology (in this case the printing press) had made innovation and deviation not only possible but fashionable.

Father Hunwicke:

There are two pervasive myths about S Pius V's liturgical interventions which will doubtless go on being purveyed until the Eschaton.
(1) That he suppressed the local rites of the Middle Ages, only permitting the survival of those which had existed for more than 200 years. He was a centraliser and a standardiser.
(2) That his actions, following on from Trent, are closely analogous to, and provide a close precedent for, what Paul VI did after Vatican II.
Each of these myths is a travesty of history. Each results from a reading of History with the hindsight of knowing What Happened Afterwards, instead of trying to understand events in their own historical contexts. Since devils reside in details, and since I have written before about what he did with his Missal, I shall focus today on what he did to the Breviary.

The papal document Quod a nobis, which introduces the 'Tridentine Breviary', repays careful reading. The Divine Office put in place by Gelasius and Gregory and reformed by Gregory VII had, S Pius tells us, diverged ab antiqua constitutione. So the pope wishes it to be recalled ad pristinam orandi regulam. Some people had deformed this praeclara constitutio by mutilations and changes; an awful lot of people (plurimi) had been seduced (allecti) by the brevity of a Breviary produced by the Spanish Cardinal Quignon. Even worse, in provincias paulatim irrepserat prava illa consuetudo ["that depraved custom"], namely, that bishops in churches which, from the beginning, had used the Roman Office, were producing privatum sibi quisquam Breviarium.

What S Pius V is dealing with here is the chaotic liturgical result of a century of printing. It may be difficult for us to appropriate imaginatively the differences that this invention made. Only in the age of this new technology could trendy clergy buy and use in vast numbers the new slick and fast Quignon Breviary; only now could meddling bishops, full of Good Ideas, thrust their latest clever novelties with ease upon their helpless dioceses. The words of S Pius seem almost to describe the chaos which was to follow under Pius XII and his successors: "Hence the total disruption of divine worship in so many places; hence a complete ignorance among the clergy of ecclesiastical rites and ceremonies; so that numberless ministers of the churches carry out their duty unbecomingly, not without enormous offence to the devout".

S Pius was reacting to to this technology-driven chaos by a reinstatement of Tradition; by the elimination of novelty and by a return to what had been received. Hence, he provided a form of the Roman Breviary carefully emended by the best scholarship available to him. It was, of course, a paradox that his reform was itself carried through by the use of the same technology which had created the problem!! But that paradox does nothing to change the fact that his action was an assertion of Tradition, a repression of innovation.

S Pius V's reform was thus an act of deliberate and profound conservatism. This is shown by his treatment of local usages which dated from well before the invention of printing. . .   [read the rest here]

My words:

It was fascinating to me to think of the church in the century following the invention of the printing press having to deal with the same issues of technology that have erupted since desktop publishing.  Here, however, the direction of the church is interesting -- technology breeds innovation, novelty, and invention but the role of the church is in preservation, slowing down the pace of change, and acting as sentinel when the technology gets too far ahead of the church.  That is surely the same struggle we have today.  But, like then, the complaint is centralized authority, the desire to dampen down creativity, and the risk of becoming irrelevant to the progressive world around you.  As it has proven so often, antiquity and a hermeneutic of continuity is hardly a danger to the faith once delivered to the saints and faithfully passed down to the generations that follow but innovation, creativity, invention, and novelty ARE a real danger to the faith.  So I would caution against labeling everything the same -- some preserves and some departs from the tradition of the fathers and this is where we need to pay great attention. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

God our Emmanuel. . .

Sermon for Christmas Morning, the Nativity of our Lord, preached on December 25, 2014

    Creation is not all bad.  It is a terrible lie to say that nothing good remains.  Food smells and tastes great even though it spoils and decays.  Our lives are filled with sorrows but they are not without joys.  In fact, the bruised fruit of the earth and our own bruised lives only heightens our sense both of what we lost to sin and our desire to see it all restored.  This is part of what Scripture means when it describes creation groaning in expectation for the future Christ came to prepare.
    Here on earth we are prone to wish away things we don’t want to face.  The noise in the car, the ache or pain we feel, the leaking roof – we deal with them by ignoring them until they can no longer be ignored.  But not God.  He does not focus on the joys and wish away the damage.  He faces us for us.
    His justice cries out to be satisfied. . . so He sends us His own Son as the Savior who satisfies the justice of God who demands that wrongs be punished.  His wrath still burns against sin. . . so He sends us His own Son as the sacrificial offering to bear the full cost of our sin and the full fury of His anger over it.  His will still seeks righteousness. . . so He sends us His own Son as the Righteous One who gives us His holiness to wear as our baptismal clothing.
    We might wish to ignore the decay and be satisfied with the sweetness left in bruised fruit or bruised lives but God cannot. He faces all of this for us by sending His Son to bear the full burden for us and deliver to us salvation.  This is what it means to say the Word was made flesh. . .
    God is with us in our suffering.  He cannot watch our pain without being wounded.  He cannot but feel the hurt we feel.  So He was moved to act.  The Word that brought forth creation is now incarnate to rescue His lost creation.  That is the Gospel of Christmas.  God cannot watch us while we wear the pain of sin and death and He cannot ignore the reality of sin and death so He sends His own Son into our flesh to rescue us from it all.
    Christ is Emmanuel – the Word made flesh to be with His lost creation, to seek us out in our shame, and to call us and carry us home to the Father.  Christ is Emmanuel – the Word made flesh to save us by bearing the full weight of our sinful and lost condition – even to death upon the cross.  Christ is Emmanuel – the Word made flesh to carry us home to our heavenly Father and to the future He has prepared for us.
    We come at Christ not for a wonderful story or even for inspiration.  We come to meet Him who wears our sin for us, who dies the death we should have died, and who leads us home to our heavenly Father again.  He does it by coming as one of us.
    Such a God cannot turn His back on all that He made.  He showed us a glory far more profound that heaven’s mystery, that is the love that was made flesh for us and our salvation.  Such a God has now invested too much in us to leave us to our own devices.  The cost of salvation may be free to us but it cost our Lord everything in His incarnation, life, and death.  Such a God has poured too much into our rescue to write us off.
    Such a God does not stoop to giving us sweetness that still decays or let us settle for a bruised life that ends only in death.  Such a God must fight to take back by force what sin stole from Him and the devil has now claimed as his – even if it means becoming flesh to save us.  This is the Emmanuel we come to meet in the manger, in the cross, in the baptismal water, in the powerful voice of His Word, and in the bread and wine which is His flesh and blood for us and for the whole world.
    Christmas peace is not imagined or imaginary, not an escape or dream, but the Word made flesh to rescue what was lost to God and to us.  Blessed Christmas, my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Amen.

Does our earthly liturgy bear resemblance to the heavenly?

Benedict XVI wrote:

With its vision of the cosmic liturgy, in the midst of which stands the Lamb who was sacrificed, the Apocalypse has presented the essential contents of the eucharistic sacrament in an impressive form that sets a standard for every local liturgy. From the point of view of the Apocalypse, the essential matter of all eucharistic liturgy is its participation in the heavenly liturgy; it is from thence that it necessarily derives its unity, its catholicity, and its universality. (Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 110-11)

The truth is we screw up our understanding of Revelation when we miss the liturgical character of this book of comfort and we screw up our understanding of worship when we fail to see that the earthly liturgy anticipates and inaugurates the heavenly liturgy.  Many commentators have missed the boat by ignoring or by being completely oblivious to the obvious liturgical cues inherent in him who writes while in the Spirit on the Lord's Day.  Not a small amount of damage has been done both to the reputation of Revelation and the fearful way Christians approach the Marriage Supper of the Lamb which has no end because these ties between the heavenly liturgy and the earthly liturgy have been missed.  I would say just the opposite is equally true -- the what and how and why of Sunday morning has become a free for all within the domain of personal preference and stripped from the dominion of God and His grace when we fail to acknowledge that what we do there is fundamentally related to the heavenly liturgy prepared for those who love Him.

The oft repeated (though apocryphal?) story of how the emissaries of the Czar were impressed by the Byzantine liturgy is but one way in which the essential parallels between the earthly and heavenly liturgy prefigure and glimpse the future God has prepared for us.  Yet the sad truth is that much of what happens on Sunday morning does not even intend to bear any relationship to the holy character of Revelation's liturgy -- much less live up to that identity and future.  What has happened is that there has become an unholy disconnect between what happens in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day among the baptized people of God and what they hope and expect in the future prepared for us.  Will some of us be disappointed by the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end?  If God were to allow it, it might very well describe the disconnect between the promise and our expectation.  If for this reason alone, we should be mindful of their essential unity.

Scott Hahn writes in The Lamb’s Supper: “I suspect that God revealed heavenly worship in earthly terms so that humans—who, for the first time, were invited to participate in heavenly worship—would know how to do it” (122).  These are words for us to consider -- especially those who have anything to do with the planning, preparation, and performance of the worship of Sunday morning.  Sadly, too many Christians are transported nowhere but into the domain of personal preference and happiness on Sunday morning.  We not only pick and choose our churches by our likes and dislikes, we judge churches primarily by Sunday morning and what we find enjoyable or meaningful.  Never mind that faithfulness is the only reliable way to judge what  we see and experience on Sunday morning!

It might do well for those who sit down with a blank sheet of paper to write out what will happen on Sunday morning to spend some time in Revelation and in the consideration of what God desires from and has provided for His people.  We have abandoned architecture which flows out of the liturgy and fashion our churches to match the marketplace and malls of America and with it instilled in our people the idea that the function of Sunday morning is to make us feel better, happier, or more inspired about who we are, what we want, and how we might achieve our dreams.  We have also ditched the liturgy in favor of a Christian kind of variety and entertainment show designed more to put a smile on our face than deliver to us the gifts of the Kingdom.  The rapture we need to deal with is not the one that some think may lead to driverless cars and empty seats but the one that delivers to us faithfully the means of grace and Christ who is in them and works through them!

For most of the early Christians it was a given: the Book of Revelation was incomprehensible apart from the liturgy. … It was only when I began attending Mass that the many parts of this puzzling book suddenly began to fall into place. Before long, I could see the sense in Revelation’s altar (8:3), its robed clergymen (4:4), candles (1:12), incense (5:8), manna (2:17), chalices (ch. 16), Sunday worship (1:10), the prominence it gives to the Blessed Virgin Mary (12:1-6), the “Holy, Holy, Holy” (4:8), the Gloria (15:3-4), the Sign of the Cross (14:1), the Alleluia (19:1, 3, 6), the readings from Scripture (chs. 2-3), and the “Lamb of God” (many, many times). These are not interruptions in the narrative or incidental details; they are the very stuff of the Apocalypse. (The Lamb’s Supper, 66-67)

Friday, December 26, 2014

More than fun. . ..

Sermon preached for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014.

     It’s hard to deny that this is a season of excess. Since August the stores have pointed us to Christmas, tempted us to empty our wallets on decorations, gifts, and holiday food and drink. Our children have been manipulated by every new technology and toy promising them happiness.  Guilt-ridden parents have lined up at the check out counters and the internet cues to make them happy – no matter what it costs.  Carols have worn out their welcome in our ears. It is hard to ramp up enthusiasm to sing them even tonight.  People complain about Christians and Christmas even as the Supreme Court says it has little religious meaning left!  Even Muslims are celebrating trees and gifts!
    We lament that Christmas has been stolen by retailers, the secular culture, and other religions, but is it a waste?  Why was Christmas stolen and exploited?  It is an easy target because it is fun!  What is fun about a month of fasting or a godless world where life is only accidental.  Christmas is an easy target because it IS fun, and the world is in search of a little fun.
    Christmas IS fun but it is more than fun.  It is a season of holy joy that flows from God’s rescue of His creation.  The birth of Christ divides all of human history.  It is the seminal event that the past anticipates and that creates the future. 
Yet the world gets it wrong.  They pander to fun, get you buy and sell and gift wrap fun that merely distracts you from your troubles and to pleasures that only cost you your values & souls.      We cleaned up and romanticized the Bible’s Christmas story but the truth is, it was never pretty.  Mary was a virgin whose womb held the Son of God.  Even Joseph did not buy her story and God had to intervene to convince his doubting heart.  Her family shuffled her off to her cousin, Elizabeth’s to hide her growing belly.  She delivered in a stable and laid the child in a manger not because it was cute but because she had no choice.  She awoke with fear to rush her child to Egypt because a psycho named Herod would shed as much blood as he could to kill him.      By cleaning up the story we made it possible for the world to steal it away.  The manger became quaint; even Santa kneels beside it confusing the stories.  We Christians bought into it all.  We settled for a Christmas of the latest fashion wear, the newest technology from Apple or games for X-Box or PlayStation.  We cooed over the newest kitchen gadgets or the latest “as seen on TV” fad.  I don’t want you to feel worse but I don’t want to leave you with the idea that this kind of fun is all Christmas is. 
    The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, says Isaiah.  The grace of God has appeared with salvation for all, says St. Paul.  Behold Your salvation comes, says Isaiah. 
The goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior has appeared for all mankind, says Paul.  And an angel says, “Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy for unto you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
    We can spend money we don’t have, eat more than is good for us, and drink to forget our pain.  We can tear up at the childhood stories of St. Nick or the movie life of George Bailey.  But don’t settle for this when God gives you much more.  “For to us a child is born, a Son is given... to a waiting people, the glory of God has dawned.  The Son of God is the gift of mercy.  In Him our salvation is born.  Here is a child born to die, the boy who is man enough to undo sin’s curse and death’s prison.  Here is the innocent Savior who comes for guilty people like you and me.  Here is the life that death could not hold nor the grave keep.  Celebrating Christmas is more than fun.
    Christmas is the pledge and promise of hope to clean up our messy lives and fix what is broken, for sins too ugly to admit that cry out for atonement, for words that should never have been spoken that beg to be forgotten, for guilt that shames our pride longs for a clean conscience, and for death too real and too close for comfort that asks for more.  Here is the God who is not too distant to feel our pain, who loves us too much to ignore our plight. 
Here is the injustice of a holy Savior who saves an unholy people, for the undeserving who would probably settle for a little fun if they had not been given so much more in the manger and cross.
    If is for this Christ was born.  It is for You He has come. Like the shepherds of old, you left your homes, shops, and parties to come and see anew this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known...   Christ our Savior has been born.  He is the keeper of all God’s promises.  Angels and shepherds have nothing on us.  We are here and this is our Bethlehem.  He who was laid in a feeding trough is here to feed us His flesh and blood in this blessed sacrament, to forgive our sins.
    Our joy is no mere momentary feeling or imaginary but romantic story or picturesque scene... our joy is Christ in flesh to save us and here in bread and wine to feed us.  The bread of heaven has come down to feed us till we want for nothing more.  This bread is His body, through which we mortals taste immortality.  This is why we are here.  Not for fun but for joy!
    From last minute shopping, from endless parties, from overindulgence of food and finance, we have had our fun.  Now it is time for joy.  The joy of sins forgiven, of lives reborn to hope in baptism, of guilt removed, of shame covered, of heaven come down to mortals that we might ascend in Christ to eternity!  Shall we not stay?  As did the shepherds of old, we will go back home... but we return to our homes glorifying God and praising Him for all we have seen and heard.  And in our home goings, Christ will go with us and joy will accompany us.  The joy does not remain here.  It follows those who follow Christ.  And we will come back here to meet this Christ again in Word and Sacrament.
    The world thinks Christmas is fun.  Who am I to argue?  But we know it is much more.  For when the world has had enough of the fun, put away the decorations, discarded the toys, and sought out a new distraction, Christ will still be with us.  The grieving find hope.  The wounded find healing.  The guilty find forgiveness.  They dying find life.  And we will still possess His joy. . . the joy of the Lord!   Joy to the world, the Lord is come!  Amen

Good words on Eucharistic hospitality. . .

ELCA liturgical theologian Frank Senn, always an interesting author, has laid down the challenge for those within the ELCA who are leaning toward a radical Eucharistic hospitality in which any and all may commune (including those not baptized).  It is claimed that such inclusivity is a radical Gospel imperative and bases it upon the Scriptural accounts of Jesus' feeding the masses.  The only problem is that the Eucharist, while hinted at in these miracles of loaves and fish, was instituted within the most closed community of the twelve in the Upper Room.

Anyway, I appreciate Senn's instructive commentary on the history of fencing the altar (especially since I was only recently grilled by someone who labeled me as one of those kind of Lutherans who refused to communion his family (Methodist).  You read what he says and see if it is not well written and challenging to those in any denomination who would disassociate communion hospitality with doctrine and discipline.  The whole thing is here.  Snippets are reprinted below.

Never in the history of the Church has the sacrament of the altar been made available to everybody and anybody. I will reflect on the biblical and theological rationale for radical hospitality and give my assessment of the arguments. But first I think it is important to check out the history of fencing the table—of excluding certain people from the Lord’s Supper.

The earliest teachings on the Lord’s Supper are in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and the very first instruction in that letter is about fencing the table. In chapter 5 Paul deals with the case of a member of the congregation who is sleeping with his father’s wife and no discipline has been applied. Since the congregation has not acted Paul pronounces judgment and imposes a ban. In a previous letter Paul had told the congregation not to associate with such an immoral person. Now he adds, “Do not even eat with such a one.” Since the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in the context of an actual community banquet, this is excommunication. This is also the context in which Paul says, “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (Paul 5:8)
Sharing the bread-body of Christ and the cup-blood of Christ unifies the many members of the one body. There is a connection between the sacramental body and the ecclesial body. We who drink from the same cup and eat of the one loaf are one body in Christ (See 1 Corinthians 10:16-17).The issue in chapter 11 is that worldly social divisions are being maintained at the Lord’s Supper. So what ought to be the sacrament of unity has become the source of disunity. The congregation is not discerning the body. “Body” here clearly refers to the interconnection between the Eucharist and the Church. Failure of discernment brings judgment on the church. “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (11:30). There is an area of taboo surrounding the Lord’s Supper precisely because of the presence of Christ whose coming in the sacrament as well as on the last day brings judgment. It is not unlike the zone of holiness that surrounded Mt. Sinai when Yahweh was present (Exodus 19). This situation of sacramental malpractice is the context in which Paul recites the institution narrative (11:23-25).
The restriction of Eucharistic fellowship to the baptized is ancient. The oldest Christian catechism at the end of the first century says, “You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the Lord’s Name” (Didache 9:5). Justin Martyr reports to the Roman Senate, ca. 150 AD that no one is allowed to partake of “the food we call Eucharist” except one who “believes that the things we teach are true, and has been washed with the washing that is for the forgiveness of sins and rebirth, and is living as Christ enjoined” (First Apology 66). The Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (ca. early third century) not only excludes the unbaptized (catechumens) from the Eucharist; they are also excluded from the offering and the kiss of peace (“their kiss is not yet pure”). In the liturgies that developed after the fourth century the catechumens were dismissed after the liturgy of the Word (which came to be called “the liturgy of the catechumens”). The kiss of peace and offertory marked the transition to “the liturgy of the faithful.” The communion table continued to be fenced off, especially in the Eastern liturgies, with the invitation/admonition “Holy things for the holy people.” One becomes holy—a person is dedicated to God—in Holy Baptism. In the ritual process of Christian initiation, Baptism leads to the Eucharistic Meal. Holy Communion is actually the goal of Christian initiation. One is not fully a member of the church until one receives first communion.
Werner Elert, in Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries (1954; English trans. 1966), shows how the Eucharist came to define church fellowship. Local churches were in fellowship with other local churches if their bishops were in fellowship. If the bishops excommunicated each other (for example, as the bishops of Rome and Asia Minor did during the second century because of disagreement over the dating of Easter—a schism later resolved by Irenaeus of Lyons), their churches were out of fellowship. Individual Christians traveling throughout the Roman world brought letters from their bishop requesting admission to the Eucharist in the churches they visited on the travels. The idea that the unity of the local church is expressed in the bishop’s Eucharist is as old as Ignatius of Antioch (110-115 AD). Receiving Communion in the Catholic Church even today means that the communicant is in communion with the local bishop who is in communion with the bishop of Rome. The same Eucharistic ecclesiology is practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Light shined and the darkness has not overcome it. . .

Luke 2

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Lesser Known Christmas Songs and Carols. . .

Twelve Of The Best Christmas Songs You May Not Have Heard

Most public places don’t play real Christmas songs. We do.
It’s the time of year when, everywhere you go, Christmas music is playing. Or is it?
A lot of what you hear in the stores and on the radio in December might be better named Christmastime music, since much of it has little to do with the historical event it is supposedly celebrating.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the fun stuff, too. Occasionally a few actual Christmas songs do make their way into the playlists, whether favorite carols like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or more recent standards such as “Do You Hear What I Hear?” But there is a rich heritage of sacred Christmas music both old and new that the broader culture neglects. Even Sirius/XM radio has cut its classical Christmas station from a month-long run a few years ago to a pathetic three days in 2014.

Below is a sampling of some of the best Christmas music you don’t hear unless you know where to look for it. If you aren’t familiar with these pieces, they may not even sound like Christmas songs to you. Yet each is a profound poetic and musical expression of the miracle of the Incarnation. Enjoy—for the first time or the hundredth. (“The Messiah” could be its own list, so has been intentionally left out of this one.)

Go to the Federalist here. . .   Or you can put up their YouTube playlist here. . .

I will simply post two of my own favs from their list:

and, of course, perhaps the best Lutheran anthem of the last hundred years or so. . .

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Thoughtful and thought provoking. . .

I am neither an artist nor am I a cartoonist but I can recognize the art in a good cartoon that is both thoughtful and thought provoking. . .  Every once in a long while I post a cartoon here.  In particular, I commend Dave Walker at who is very kind in making such occasional use of his work both easy and free.  If you are looking for a good source of supply, check him out.  You may not always agree with or like his cartoon or his humor or his point but it is always well crafted.  He is reasonable for those who are looking for more regular use ($55 per year is a general license).

Check him out. . .

The Good Enough Marriage. . .

From Henny Youngman's old joke Take my wife. . . please to the oft repeated zing, I have been married 40 years, 6 of them happy, marriages have long been the fodder for humor and humorists.  The truth is, however, that we have high expectations of our spouses and of the institution called marriage.  Many shy away from marriage because they fear their expectations will not (or cannot) be met.  They are probably right (not to shy away from marriage but that our unrealistic expectations will probably not be met).

There is nothing essentially wrong with wanting it all but it will most certainly lead to disappointment if we are unprepared for the routine and ordinary side of marriage.  Indeed, the essential character of marriage is that of a sacrificial calling -- by its very nature.   Our pursuit of the great and magnificent marriage may leave us victims of an unfulfillable dream and cause us both to despair and ditch marriages that are anything less than our hopes and dreams.

Mark Regnerus, blogging for First Things, has begun a conversation about a marriage which may not be star quality but which is "good enough".  I think he has done us a service by asking some good questions.  As we prepare for another stressful holiday season, some of those married may wonder if it is not about time to depart from marriages that are not reaching the heights of glory, deciding that good enough is no longer enough good to justify remaining therein, and seeking something better.  A "do-over" that starts with a divorce and another stab at marriage may seem attractive but it brings to bear its own problems.  Would it not be easier to try a do-over with your spouse now? 

Read Regnerus and see if you do not come out asking with me: “Wouldn’t it be better to limp to the finish line, with the help of others, than quit the race?”   It is our great temptation to idealize, romanticize, and fantasize about marriage.  Living in the dream world of such impossible goals, it is also our great temptation to diminish and demean our spouses and our lives together.  Such are surely recipes for despair and, at the same time, recipes for future disappointment.

Frankly, I do not know many people who don't think "I am not happy with my marriage" at least every other day.  It happens.  Marriage is where the masks come off, where the stresses and struggles of the day are unloaded, and where we dump on one another -- not out of meanness or rudeness but because it is the place where we have a listener and a support to depend upon.  If marriage is a place where we practice the kind of sacrificial giving that Scripture envisions, then marriage will also require labor and cost us something.  Most certainly there will be times when our sinful nature asks if we are getting a decent return on our investment.  Yet it is at times like those when marriage is most noble and beautiful -- love that does not count the cost of loving!  Surely this, too, is a Christian mark of marriage.

Some studies suggest that the more we try to tune into ourselves, define and pursue our individual happiness, and weigh the costs and benefits of marriage, the greater the danger that we will give up on our marriages.  Interestingly, those deep into social media are seemingly less happy about their marriages than those not into these things.  In the end, there are a thousand reasons why to ditch a marriage and there is one very large reason to stay, to work it out, to tough it out, and to endure. . . for better or worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish til death parts us. . .  Marriage that judges beyond the snapshot of the moment has a much better chance of enduring and marriage that endures is a good thing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The favor of the Lord is upon you. . .

Sermon preached for Advent IV B on Sunday, December 21, 2014.

    The giggling girls and boys of middle school whisper to one another “he likes you” or “she likes you”.  “The boss likes you,” says the seasoned veteran to the new employee.  See how many Facebook friends I have, we preen.   “He loves you,” says the friend to the woman blushing with desire.  “She wants you,” pushes the voice to his shy friend.  We spend our lives in pursuit of love, of like, of the favor of others.  We want to be known, to be respected, to be admired, but most of all loved.  Now, the last Sunday in Advent, we hear words of God’s gracious favor but these are not like the love we tend to seek after.
    The words, spoken through an angel, a messenger, whom the Lord sent, were the message to transform history.  God’s messenger speaks to calm doubting and fearful hearts today -- just as He spoke once to the Virgin long ago.  This is the communication not of the affection of a moment but love that is eternal.  It was first spoken to Mary by an angel entrusted with God’s Word but in Christ it is the Word for the world, for you and me.
    The Blessed Virgin was not chosen because of her perfection or her holiness, but the Lord did have high regard for her faith.  That is the same plane on which God meets us.  It is faith that counts us righteous before the Lord according to Romans.  Faith in God.  Faith in God’s promise.  Faith in God’s mercy.  Faith in God’s purpose.  Faith in God’s plan.
    The curse of Eve whose desire brought the bitter taste of sin and death for all her descendants, now is undone by the she who trusts in the Word and plan of the Lord to save us.  The old creation, once lost to sin and evil by the rebellious act of Adam and Eve in the Garden, is now undone by the consent of the Virgin to the saving will and purpose of God.  And with this act of consent, a whole new creation is born that death can’t touch and sin cannot stain.
    It was a Word spoken once to Blessed Mary, but it is also a word spoken to you and to me.  WE also have found favor in the sight of God – not because we are special or holy or righteous or good.  We are none of these things.  But we heard and saw God’s Word in His Son, we believe in the Savior whom God has sent, and we have confidence that the Word of the Lord will deliver to us what it says.  We live in God’s favor by living out our baptismal faith as the children of God.
    In our confession we admitted that we are the children of Eve, we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and left undone.  But we are the children of Mary as much as we are the children of Eve.  We are the children of Mary who ponder, trust, and consent to the saving will of God just as Mary did in order that a whole world might be saved.  She has taught us what faith is.  It is not keen intellect.  It is not pure virtue.  It is not deep understanding.  It is not mighty initiative.  It is trust.  Childlike trust in the will of our Heavenly Father revealed through His one and only Son.
    We are the humble who have been raised from our low estates, the hungry who have been fed, those who have seen the strength of His arm stretched out in suffering on the cross, who has remembered His mercy but forgiven and forgotten our sins, and who has declared us blessed as the verdict of pure grace.
    Favor is not the verdict rendered upon the inspection of our hearts and lives found pure but the declaration of the God whose Word makes happen what it declares.  You have found favor with God.  In your guilt, God has made you clean.  In your death, God has given you eternal life.  In your good works, God has declared them holy.  In your believing, God has judged you righteous.
    Mary said, “let it be to me as God has said. . .”  This is what we say today as we gather in the name of the Lord.  This is what we struggle to believe amid the upsets, disappointments, and dead ends of this mortal life.  This is what we cling to when our feelings dry up, our hearts bleed, and life seems too hard to go on.  “Let it be to me as God has said...”  We meet the Lord not on the ground of our goodness but on the ground of His promise. 
    It is enough...  You do not have to understand God’s ways or agree with them...  You do not have to act as if your life is perfect...  You do not have to give up your tears of longing  and loss.  God is present and His favor rests upon us even when things go wrong...  Just trust in Him, in His timing, and in His purpose. “Let it be to me as God has said...”
    This favor is not the stuff of adolescent fancy or adult lust but the love willing to suffer to save us, to exchange righteousness for sin, to die that we might live, and to live to bring us with Him eternally.  This is the favor of God that we celebrate today.
    The favor of the Lord rests upon you.  Do not be afraid.  Do not give up.  Do not grow weary.  God has done the impossible.  He has come to us as our Savior.  He has been born of the Virgin’s womb to suffer and die upon our cross.  That is enough.  It is enough to carry us through, to sustain us, to enable us to endure...  And this we trust when nothing else is left.  The favor of the Lord rests upon you.  All that is left is to rejoice in faith's answer:  Let it be to me as God has said.  And it will be enough. . . for today. . . for tomorrow. . . and for eternal life.  Amen.

Pay the tax and you can live like you please. . .

Reading from LifeSiteNews:

Germany’s Catholic Church, the second-largest employer in the country, may be set to remove the requirement that its employees order their private lives according to the Church’s moral teachings, a rule that currently officially bars active homosexuals and divorced and remarried Catholics. The German bishops were scheduled to vote yesterday on a proposal to allow those in homosexual or adulterous relationships to work for the Church, but have put it off until April amid criticism.

The decision comes in the wake of a German Constitutional Court ruling upholding the firing of a doctor from a Catholic hospital in Düsseldorf who had entered a second, civil marriage.

Writing for Breitbart, Vatican journalist Edward Pentin said that “a majority” of the German bishops, including the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who also serves on Pope Francis’ “cabinet” of nine cardinals, was set to vote in favour of the measure, with only a small number of “conservative” bishops against it. Pentin notes that the change has “been devised in secret” by the German bishops and that many “homosexuals and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are already working for the Church.”

Pentin quotes an unnamed German Catholic Church source, saying that the bishops believe it is “simply enough to pay the [Church] tax. … They feel there’s no need to scrutinize people’s private lives.” The source said that some faithful Catholics fear that the change could lead to those who uphold the Church’s teaching being dismissed from their employment for being “too Catholic” and thereby creating a “negative atmosphere.”

In other words, brought to you by the same folks who tried to get the recent Extraordinary Synod in Rome to approve welcome for gay and lesbian Roman Catholics and change the rules regarding divorced Roman Catholics...  While this is not my church speaking, it is illustrative of the typical thinking that is subverting churches of all kinds.  Who are we to judge?  What does it matter what goes on in the private lives of people?  Why not just get with the times?  What harm can we do by looking the other way on some of these, well, sensitive issues?

Again, my point is that the same kind of voices can be found in nearly every Christian church today.  Change the Word to fit the circumstance...  The Gospel and the love of Christ requires us to suspend all judgment against sins... We risk becoming irrelevant if we do not get with the times and catch up to where our people are at...

The other issue in all of this?  Preserving the economic status quo!  Better to have a prosperous Wal_Mart style Christianity in which we keep people happy and giving than to stand up for truth and risk offending people with the words and teaching of Jesus.

Let me say it again, there is no love, no compassion, and no kindness shown to anyone if truth is ignored for the sake of personal preference.  I am in no way suggesting that we should be Pharisees or hypocrites and presume we are sinless when we hold up the truth of Scripture but we must, as St. Paul counsels, speak the truth in love.  Anything less betrays our identity as the baptized people of God and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

On bended knee. . .

I have often written her appreciatively of the writing Anthony Esolen and he has not disappointed me once again.  Writing of the callous way we deal with the sacred and holy, how we trivialize what is awe-full, and how we create environments that betray their purpose, I can only suggest that you read what he wrote...  it is good stuff!

You can read him here:  Liturgy:  On Bended Knee. 

Okay, if you can't wait, let me reprint a paragraph or two to whet your appetite. . .

“Unless you accept the kingdom of God as a little child,” says Jesus, “you shall not enter.” The lintel to that kingdom is low. We must be emptied of ourselves to be filled with God.

The language of our bodies is not wholly arbitrary. We cannot say, “We’ll stand on one foot and hold a forefinger to the nose, and that will signify that we long for the fragrance of grace.” No one will understand that. We ourselves will not believe it. We cannot say, “We will adore God by slouching in the pew, arms and legs spread-eagled.” It can’t work.

We cannot say, “We will emphasize the holiness of the Eucharist we are about to receive, by milling about the aisles to pass small talk with friends.” Our bodies will contradict our purported intention. The “emphasis” will be at best notional. We will not feel it in our pulses.

READ it. . . 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Are you the One?

Sermon for Advent 3B, preached on Sunday, December 14, 2014

    In the stir occasioned by the startling appearance of John the Forerunner, the question everyone wanted to ask was “Who are you?”  This had nothing to do with John’s parentage but everything to do with what his coming signaled.  “Are you the One?”  In other words, we have been waiting a long time, are you the One whom we have awaited for so long?
    It is our question, too.  Like those long ago, we have found ourselves disappointed so often.  We are almost afraid to hope. From political leaders to religious leaders, we have raised our hopes only to see them dashed upon the rock of disappointment.  We are afraid to trust, afraid to believe, and afraid to hope. 
    So the question that came to John so long ago still fits.  “Are you the One?  Are you the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?  Can we trust you not to disappoint us?  Will you fill our empty hearts?  Will you repair our broken lives?  Will you comfort our sorrows?  Will you heal our sick and dying bodies?   
    We can relate.  Too many have played with our hopes and dreams and left us cold and empty inside.  We want to believe but we have been disappointed so often, it is hard to believe.
John does not shrink from the hard truth.  I am not the One but the One whom you seek is coming.  You will know Him not merely by His words and promises but by the way He keeps His promises and delivers what His words speak.
    The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me. . . These are the words Jesus fulfills.  He comes not as a wannabe but as One who was sent.  Sent to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken, and to free the captives.  Later when some of John’s followers have second thoughts, Jesus does not convince them with words or arguments but the prophetic word fulfilled.  What do you see and hear? 
    Like the crowds of old, we want to know if Jesus can do it.  Can He deliver upon all our needs and do for us what God has promised?  The mark of Jesus and His answer is not words or promices but the actions of righteousness and redemption.  This we know not by uncertain evidence but clear truth.  Just as John was not sent with only his opinion to share, neither are we subject to mere opinions or hunches.  What does Jesus say and do?  What do you see and hear in Him?
    Christ is not some distant deity whom we must find but the Savior whom the Father has sent.  He stands among us hidden in the clothing of flesh and blood, born of the Spirit and the Virgin.  If our eyes might miss Him, faith does not.     Christ is the incarnate Word of God who does what He says. This performative Word does just what it says.  It is powerful enough to speak and bring forth all creation and it is powerful enough to speak and rend our hearts to believe in Christ.
    Christ is the incarnate Word who lives in baptismal water and makes it deliver to the dying who are brought to the font the fullness of Christ’s life and forgiveness.  Baptism is not a symbol.  In fact, as a symbol it offers us little of value.  But it is water and Word, churning with the grace and mercy of God.  It kills what the Law has already declared dead in trespasses and sin and it bestows eternal life so that death cannot overcome us.
    Christ is the incarnate Word whose voice calls to bread and it becomes the very flesh of Christ for the life of the world.  He is the incarnate Word whose voice speaks to wine and it flows red as blood.  We meet a God who acts, who delivers, who transforms...  And there is forgiveness for sins too many to name, righteousness to cover the darkest guilt and shame, and life strong enough to withstand all the forces of evil and death.
    It is strange that the things most certain in our lives are not those seen with eyes or touched with fingers but that which we know, confess, and believe by faith.  We hard the words of those who saw the glory of the manger and journeys half a world to meet Him who is born Savior of the world. 
We heard the reports of those who heard the voice from heaven when Jesus came up out of the baptismal water.  We heard from those who saw Him suffer and watched Him die on the cross.  We heard from those who saw the body laid in the grave with all its coldness and death.  We heard from those who went to the grave and found Christ risen never to die again.
    In Advent we come – asking, begging, and pleading... “Are You the One, Jesus?”  We want to know if He can do for us what we want and need.  We want to know if He has stuck with us even when all we ever did was screw it up.  We want to know that nothing and no one can drive Him away or cause Him to give up on us and our broken lives.
    That is Advent’s promise.  He is still there.  He has not abandoned us or written us off or forgotten us.  He has come to us with great power and He still wields that power to redeem and save us.  He who calls you, He is faithful and He will do it. There are few things in life that are sure – death, taxes. . . and Jesus, even more sure.  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!

An impressive report. . .

Lisa Ling has a new series on CNN called This Is Life.  On November 16 she reported on a story of religious renewal, priestly vocations, and faith passed down from parents to children.  It was entitled Called to the Collar.  It was a very inspirational story.  I urge you to watch it.

What impressed me most was the delight of parents whose sons had chosen to become priests.  They clearly honored their sons and their faith with the greatest of joy and reverence for those whom the Lord calls.  Some may call it old fashioned.  I think it is inspiring.  So also the stories of these young men were inspirational moments that spoke well to the very Lutheran understanding of vocation or calling.

What troubles me is that while this chronicled the ascendency of seminarians and new priests in a church body that has heard too much bad news, we Lutherans are finding the numbers of seminarians down, along with the numbers of those preparing for pastoral vocations (at least at Synodical colleges and universities).  This is indeed troubling.  Enrollment to the residential programs at both Fort Wayne and Saint Louis are down (though the drop is somewhat countered by the growth of the non-residential SMP program).  I am greatly troubled that we as a church are not urging the brightest and best to consider church work vocations (especially men to the pastorate), that parents are neither as thrilled by their children's choice of church work vocations nor as supportive as they once were, and that the church has further dampened the enthusiasm by foisting more and more of the total cost of education upon seminarians and those in undergrad programs of church work.

Maybe we need to watch more stories like this one by Lisa Ling.  I know that I was inspired by figures in the media in my era (going back almost to Bing Crosby and the Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's along with Shoes of a Fisherman, The Cardinal, etc.).  Church work, and specifically the pastoral vocation, are noble callings and we need to encourage all our children (especially our best and brightest) to consider the calling.  The support of the family is key to anyone's consideration of the pastoral ministry or other church work vocations.  I know it was a major help to me.