Monday, February 29, 2016

How to thoroughly misunderstand. . .

Writing in Commonweal, Cathleen Kaveny has taken the charge of division to none other than Richard John Neuhaus.  She does not blame Francis for the clear divisions within the Roman Catholic Church but insists that the neo-conservativism of Neuhaus both politically and theologically sowed the seeds of discontent now inherited by Francis.  It would be an amusingly frivolous charge if it were not so typical of those on the liberal edge of so many things.  Conservatives of any stripe are badged as malcontents, voices of discord, and disrupters of the unity of nearly everything.
Some conservative Catholics have blamed Pope Francis for sowing division among the members of the Body of Christ. But the charge is more properly lodged against one of the heroes of conservative Catholicism: the late Richard John Neuhaus. 

It was Neuhaus, after all, who advanced the view that conservative Roman Catholics have more in common with orthodox Jews and Evangelical Protestants than they do with progressive members of their own religious communities. In fact, that view was an operational premise of First Things magazine under his leadership. This approach is based on a thoroughly distorted view of religious realities and commitments.

It is not unlike the charge often labeled at religious conservatives across the board -- they are nothing more than loud Tea Party types whose incessant rant of "no" impedes progress and unity.  So you can pretty much guess that the author then accuses Neuhaus of being barely religious and mostly political -- a ridiculous assertion for anyone who knew him or has actually read any of the many things he wrote!

Ultimately, Neuhaus’s focus was on nurturing these commonalities in the American political context—he was building a political movement. For a variety of partially overlapping reasons, conservative Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and orthodox Jews were inclined to vote Republican in political elections. Along with George Weigel and Robert George, Neuhaus coached Republican politicians in Catholic-speak to win national elections. 

Again, it is a charge often applied to the religious conservatives all over the place.  They are not really religious or spiritual at all but merely curmudgeonly naysayers who want a political revolution more than anything else.  I would certainly not deny that there are folks like this but the great majority of those who raise questions about the liberal drift of their church bodies and the emptiness of a Scripture whose truth cannot be ascertained are legitimately complaining about the wholesale hijacking of their churches by those who do not believe in objective truth, morality, or values.  Against this vacuous character of the modern public square Neuhaus certainly did rally the troops to take back their churches and to enter the political debate anew.

I am extremely tired of those who try to paint every conservative theological position as one born of fear, with a desire to stifle learning and progress, and to repristinate some long lost glimpse of time.  The vast majority of us do not want to raise up a particular moment to return to (not in the 1950s or 1550s) but we do take seriously the call to pass on faithfully the sacred deposit once delivered to the saints within our own generation, lest the confidence of faith be replaced with an unrealistic hope built largely upon the myth of human progress.

Pope Francis isn’t trying to drive conservative Catholics out of the church. But he has decisively put a stop to their efforts to eject everyone else.

Ah, now we come to the final condemnation -- pursuing doctrinal certainty and moral conviction is a smokescreen for kicking people out of their church.  Yup, you got it.  That was the agenda all along.  We who agitate for truth only use this as a guise for eliminating folks we don't like.  Except that the most intolerant voices in the church and in the public square come from those who claim diversity and toleration!  Indeed, the only true unity worth having is a positive unity built upon truth and conviction -- the truth of God's Word, the conviction of creed and confession, and the resonant morality that flows naturally from them.  Anything else is a sham like those who claim that open minds and questioning hearts are the keys to authenticity in church and state.  Oh, well, rant off and now I can go back to working to boot out of the country and the church all those who disagree with me! Ha! 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lessons in mortality. . . opportunities for hope

So what to make of all the outpouring of grief for such folks as David Bowie or Glen Frey or Leonard Nimoy or Alan Rickman or the many others who died over the past year or so!  What to make, indeed!  Far from trying to psychoanalyze the phenomenon, the Christian knows that the death of the famous only amplifies the mortality of us all.  If even those whose fame transcends time are also caught up in death, then how much more the rest of us whose anonymity offers neither comfort nor refuge?

“It is appointed unto men once to die.”  So says the writer to the Hebrews.  Death is what commonly unites us uncommon folks.  All men are but mortal and all will die.  It is not a matter of if but when.  Though the world would just as soon ignore this fact or try to make a friend of death as natural and good, in our heart of hearts we know the truth.  Death is always ugly and an enemy of our Creator's intention even when He allows it to mercifully come to the suffering.  Death is not God's plan nor was it intended in His purpose for us.  But death has passed to all men and none of us can escape it without the intervention of the God who took on our death by killing it and emptying not only His grave but the tombs of all who die in Him.

Just as the death of the famous touches a nerve in us about death itself and our own mortality, so it can become an occasion for real comfort and hope.  God has not made His peace with death and neither should we.  Instead, the Lord has twisted death into a tool for His own purpose that we who pass its gates may enter into the life where death dare not come.  If every now and then we must focus upon the death of the famous to recall our own mortality, that is not a bad thing.  For it may also become a tool in the hands of a merciful God determined not to let death get the last word.  And if we would meet this God in His Son, the Spirit will lead us to the hope that will not disappoint us and to the life that death cannot overcome.

Ultimately lives matter not because we attach any meaning or importance to them but because God does.  Life comes from Him -- even the lives wasted in the ruination of fame, fortune, and fun.  Life matters because God has decided that life matters.  He has not given to us the mystery of life -- oh, sure, we can tinker with the technology and show all kinds of bluster in our accomplishment but we are mere technicians in a realm where God is Lord.  He has resigned Himself to death in general or ours in specific.  Indeed, the whole of the Christian Gospel is about life and death and resurrection's merciful surprise to those who grieve their own mortality, the fragile lives of their loved ones, and the public deaths of the large and famous.  He died that we might live.  He took on our death that we might be swept up in His life.  In baptism the death He died becomes our own and the life He lives is planted in us.  Death cannot steal it even though we are free to surrender ourselves to death even after we have been marked for life.

So let us keep watch over the famous and the forgotten who die and in these deaths rekindle our hope in the one whose death has transformed death and left us with more than a memory that spans the breif expanse of this mortal day.  Just as life matters, death matters.  We need not paper over death with the illusion that a life well lived and celebrated is enough to soften its blow and cushion its hurt.  We have more.  We have Christ.  We have life.  We know the outcome even before we know the full reality.  Now by faith. . . one day face to face.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Turning the accusers into the accused. . .

Read in Reuters about how the Planned Parenthood lawyers turned those who made videos into the accused and proved the old adage that the key to prevailing in the justice system is a savvy lawyer.

Read it here. . . or the snippets below:

An aggressive legal strategy pursued by U.S. women's healthcare provider Planned Parenthood may have been critical in turning the tables on opponents who were seeking to prosecute it in Texas for allegedly profiting from sales of aborted fetal tissue.

In a surprise move disclosed on Monday, a grand jury in Harris County not only cleared Planned Parenthood's Gulf Coast affiliate but also indicted the two anti-abortion activists, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, who had prompted the probe in the first place.

They have both been charged with using fake driver's licenses and Daleiden for violating Texas' prohibition on the purchase and sale of human organs - the same law he accused Planned Parenthood of breaking - when he sent an email to Planned Parenthood seeking to buy fetal tissue. Their lawyers say they have done nothing wrong.

Planned Parenthood's legal strategy was in some ways similar to how corporations facing major white-collar criminal investigations often cooperate closely with prosecutors to try to influence the outcome.

From the start, Planned Parenthood and its Houston lawyer Josh Schaffer settled on a strategy of cooperating with investigators, said Rochelle Tafolla, a spokeswoman for the affiliate. It included volunteering documents and encouraging prosecutors to interview employees, as well as giving prosecutors tours of the Houston facility, according to Schaffer.

"We certainly began the process as suspects of a crime, and the tables got turned and we ended up victims of a crime," Schaffer told Reuters in an interview.

And then we wonder why people (like me) are so cynical about the justice system!  According to the report:  Although what happened during the grand jury's secret deliberations may never be known, Schaffer said it did not vote on whether to indict Planned Parenthood.  In other words the original thrust of the investigation was successfully sidelined and another target put in its place so that Planned Parenthood's possible guilt was never even voted upon by the Grand Jury.  Once again the injustice of abortion and the voices of its victims were not heard in a court of law.  Justice may be blind but she can sniff out an expensive lawyer from crowd of those trying to exposed the hypocrisy of an agency ostensibly for the cause of women.  God help us!

Friday, February 26, 2016

ACNA, LCC, and LCMS "On Closer Acquaintance"

The participants in ecumenical dialogue between the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC)  released an interim report entitled “On Closer Acquaintance.” After some six years of work together, the document is the brings to bear the topics of discussion between the three church bodies and gives testimony to the significant doctrinal agreement discovered between the Anglican and Lutheran participants.  While it is surely not yet enough to even begin to talk about altar and pulpit fellowship, it is significant because the participants are not dodging the thorny issues that have divided them in the past and both are approaching this seriously and with the goal and intent of a more fruitful common life and witness.  This is not for show but an earnest reappraisal of history and of the circumstances that have left both groups on the outside of their own traditions in a time when the typical path of church bodies is to diverge from Scripture, doctrine, and objective truth.  Their nervous words that belied fears that nothing would happen have been answered by a warmth and progress that has surprise them and their own church bodies.  It is a surprise of joy which should give us all pause.

When our open-ended conversations began six years ago, some of the signatories to this report approached our task with a mixture of low expectations and a certain nervousness before the unknown. All of us are somewhat surprised to have discovered the deep common bonds between us in the Body of Christ, and to have registered the large measure of consensus that we have documented above. We regard these things that we have discovered together as a gift of the Lord, and trust Him to use our findings to His glory and to the good of the universal Church. 

As we commend this report to the people and clergy of ACNA, LCMS, and LCC, we encourage Lutherans and Anglicans to remember each other in prayer, embrace one another in Christian love, to encourage each other to confess Christ boldly in our ever darkening times, and to support each other in mission and outreach in faithfulness to Him who has laid the same Great Commission on us all.

Those are the words that concluded that statement by the Anglican Church in North America and Lutheran Church Canada and Lutheran Church Missouri Synod representatives from an extended conversation that was remarkable in both tone and content.  Though they admit that the groups are in a state of imperfect communion,  the groups are intent upon serious discussion of the differences and commonalities of two groups that share a different past but, it seems, a future that will draw them together.  In an age in which minimalism is the theme of doctrine and truth, both groups are determined to forge a consensus based upon the maximum confession of doctrine and truth in all its articles.  Perhaps this will become the model for the future as conservative groups within the broader Anglican communion and Lutherans unwilling to go the route of reconciled diversity seek to find strength in unity and unity built upon Scripture and faithful confession.  Time will tell.

I can only encourage you to read the entire report and to give the dialogue your prayerful support.  It represents a unique moment for both Lutheran groups in a minority among liberal Christian bodies in America and for Anglicans who shaking off the jurisdiction and order to face the more urgent issues of what is to be believed.  Who would have thought that a day like this might come when serious minded Christians intent upon affirming the Scriptures, catholic doctrine, and truth would begin to turn their paths toward one another?  I certainly did not foresee it. 

For those who continue to fear such serious minded ecumenical conversations, I would encourage you to look at the caliber of the individuals who represent all sides.  These are serious individuals, not prone to whim or fancy, who are committed not to a quick fix but a long term process in which the integrity of the work will stand and whatever unity results will be positive and bear good fruit.  I commend them.

The Rev. Ronald Allen, Anglican Church in North America
The Rev. Dr. Frederic W. Baue. Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod
The Rev. Peter Frank, Anglican Church in North America
The Rt. Rev. David L. Hicks, Anglican Church in North America
The Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod
The Rev. Canon Dr. Jonathan S. Riches, Anglican Church in North America
The Rev. Dr. Lawrence Rast, Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod
The Rev. Dr. John Stephenson, Lutheran Church–Canada
The Rt. Rev. Ray R. Sutton, Anglican Church in North America
The Rev. Larry Vogel, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod

Worship Wars. . . ancient and modern. . .

We are so accustomed to framing the divergent worship styles of LCMS congregations in modern terms that we forget the historical roots of such liturgical chaos.  Joseph Herl (see his monograph on Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism) tells us of the very beginnings of Lutheran divergence on Sunday morning but another area to be mined is the transitional time from German into English.

The liturgical chaos of the American Lutheran situation was always more true of English than German language services but it was still true for the German idiom.  When the Synod came into being, the Saxon Agenda and Walther's hymnal brought much uniformity -- at least to the Missouri brand of Lutheranism.  However, when the Synod began its shift into the English language, the division that resulted was not merely linguistic.  German speaking parishes generally retained their uniformity using Walther's hymnal (with its overwhelmingly German hymn content) and the German agenda.  44% of the LCMS worshiped predominantly or exclusively in English with only 23% worshiping predominantly or exclusively in English in 1922.  Within fifteen years those German speaking parishes represented only 12% of the LCMS congregations.  This sudden shift to English left parishes with a choice of hymnals and editions of those hymnals and no where was the diversity more than in the hymnal content (1912 Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book and 1917 Liturgy and Agenda).

While there were certainly liturgical differences, the parishes adhered to the liturgical rites with a higher degree of loyalty than in the area of hymnody. That same year, 1922, lists of hymns that serving pastors through LCMS men preparing for the ministry should know or memorize was almost exclusively made up of generic Protestant hymns and the foothold of German hymnody was already minimal.  The LCMS had already found the roots of division that still survive to this day.  The transition from German to English ended up with some loss of liturgical tradition (chanting being one) but with a dynamic loss of a common core of hymnody that had tied the Synod's parishes to their earliest Lutheran roots.

When work began on The Lutheran Hymnal in 1929, the Synod was already facing a desperate situation.  While TLH was very well received, its liturgical section did not plow much new ground and is mostly repackaged existing liturgical material from the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book.  The hymn section, however, did not begin to restore the German Lutheran chorale and cemented the inclusion of general Protestant hymnody within the life of the LCMS.  Indeed, some considered the liturgical section too catholic but were comforted by the many texts and tunes in the hymn section that were blessedly Protestant.

The point is this being that the shift from German to English and the diversity of the published materials and practices available in English did much to entrench Protestant hymnody into the character and worship life of the LCMS.  TLH may have stalled the progress but it did so chiefly by surviving an astonishingly long and unchallenged life and usage of more than 60 years.  Lutheran Worship introduced in 1982 never gained a dominant status either for either its liturgical or hymnic resources and was tainted by the conflict in the LCMS that had preceded this revision of the Lutheran Book of Worship and the Battle for the Bible that had left the LCMS still nursing its wounds.

This further illustrates how the official resources and their use have a great influence upon the confessional character of our congregations.  The LCMS retained a confessional liturgy and hymnal longer than any other Lutherans in America but the lists of favorite hymns for the folks in the pews continue to testify to the popularity of English and American hymns held in common with most generic Protestants and the unfamiliarity with the Lutheran chorales and German hymnody that had once been the hallmark of Lutherans on Sunday morning.

We may have slowed the process for a time but the LCMS was poised for the invention of contemporary Christian music which has stolen even more our liturgical and confessional heritage and distanced another generation from the Lutheran hymnody that was once well known by all who called themselves Lutheran.  Ask a typical pew sitter in Missour what their favorite 10 hymns are and you may not find the same Protestant titles as was common a hundred years ago but you will certainly not find many more Lutheran chorales or German hymns on the list.  I dare say that a poll of pastors might not be substantially different.

Long before the advent of contemporary Christian music on the radio and even long before it became common in Lutheran churches on Sunday morning, the LCMS was already struggling with a head that said Lutheran but a heart that sang Gospel songs and Protestant hymns with affection and gusto.  While the published liturgical orders of our hymnals has maintained a catholic identity on Sunday morning (for those who use those liturgies), the songs we hum and the words we love to sing are less Lutheran than generic Protestant (even when the liturgical framework is preserved and the hymns are not contemporary in nature, the American and English hymns predominate).

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Choose as many as you want. . .

So a school in Brighton (Brighton College) has decided to abolish gender altogether and allow students to self-identify with the old Chicago election mantle -- vote early and vote often.  Whatever you may think you are at the moment, the self-admitted purpose of the Brighton College, according to its headmaster, is to make you happy...  I wish somebody would have told me that when I was laboring under the oppression of tests, papers, and rules (like mandatory chapel attendance)!

Education remains the area in which we exhibit the most far flung manifestations of our overall lunacy.  How odd it is a child's self-identity would be identified as the radical route to happiness, as though the natural world were designed so that the personal fulfillment of subjective feelings is the optimal path to the ultimate individual good.  How incredibly old-fashioned of St. Paul to have learned in all things to be content, whether in plenty or in want.  He must have been extremely clear in his gender definition in order to be so confidently content!  I guess the rest of us will have to muddle our way through the muddle of our mixed up gender identity (as felt in the moment) as a substitute for the will and purpose of God promised in His Word!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

White and Western. . .

With two words you can dismiss nearly everything that has to do with Christianity. . . at least if you want to.  It is all white and all Western, Eurocentric to the core.  At least that is how a great many of the church's critics (both inside and outside the church) have attempted to tear down the church's history, legacy, and witness.

Of course, there is always truth to every fallacy.  There is truth to this.  The worst of many things in the church has come when Western culture was equated with all that is good, normative, and pure.  But this is a fallacy.  The Mass was formed and shaped not by a Western culture but by the culture of the Middle East.  It surely did transform as it was lived out within the culture of the white West but it did not originate in Germany or in England or in France or even in Italy.

Inculturation often begins with the task of stripping away all that is white and Western in the church to get to some core that is pure ecclesial culture and then allowing this core to be manifest in other cultures and allowing them the same privilege of adapting it all to their own voice, sound, and society.  This inculturation is a mistake and proceeds from a false idea of what the mass is and the role of culture toward the mass and piety of the people of God.

The complaint is often made less by those from the non-white and non-Western cultures than it is by those within it who have become the harshest critics of the church.  No where is this revealed more clearly than the liberal disdain of those in other cultures who have the nerve to disagree with them.  At the very time when these are issuing calls to diversity, the missionary churches that have taken root and now exhibit a vitality the white West has long since forgotten are challenging liberalism by holding up the doctrinal shape and liturgical identity of the church and the moral confidence that flows from them.

I will admit that there is within Christendom a history of equating European culture as the rightful home of the faith and some of the mission impetus has been to export this culture with the faith as if they were inseparable.  But I will also insist that the mission churches who were planted within the last century or two have done a remarkable job of seeing through this smokescreen and identify not only catholic doctrine but catholic practice as being part and parcel of what it means to be Christ's own by baptism and faith.

We do not need a white church or a Black church, a Western church or an Eastern church... what we need is a church true to the faith, steeped in the culture of Scripture, rejoicing in the heritage that has faithfully been passed down to us, and intent upon adding only that which is best and faithful to those who come after us, wherever they might be found.  We need a church that transcends cultures with the Christ who gave Himself for the sake of the whole world.

It is my hope and the hope of many that the erosion of Christian faith and values that has characterize the white West will be challenged by our brothers and sisters in Christ in Africa and in Asia.  When Europe forgets, their children and grandchildren a continent or two away will have to remind them.  When America forgets, we will have to be held accountable by those churches we planted in an era when confidence was ripe and skepticism of the Scriptures and the faith was less universal.

I for one am not so quick to dismiss so much of Christian identity, worship, and confession as white and Western and I am also grateful for the unwavering witness from so many of our pious brothers and sisters in the once mission fields now bearing so much fruit.  If Anglicanism will continue, it will be born on the backs of those who believe in the words of the Scriptures as much as the prayerbook.  If Lutheranism is to continue, it will be born on the backs of those who insist that our Confessions norm what we believe even as Scripture informs that belief (and norms the norm).  All in all, I remain hopeful that the tide of those who love to demonize the church as too white and too Western will be turned as we see how they have employed culture and diversity to strip the faith of its very cross-cultural identity.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Salvation from ourselves. . .

Sermon for Lent 2C, preached by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, February 21, 2017.

Have you ever seen a young child deliberately ignoring their parents’ directions?  They look at their mother as they slowly grab that forbidden cookie.  Do you know of a teenager who’s broken the house rules?  They quietly sneak in an hour after curfew, trying not to wake mom and dad.  Or have you been with an adult who knowingly broke a law; even one may seem small?  Driving past the 35 miles an hour speed limit sign, they accelerate to 40. 

Of course, all of us can answer “yes” to these questions.  We all know of people, both young and old, who’ve ignored and rejected the words of those who’ve been set in authority above them; and when we look at ourselves, we see that we’ve done the same, in our younger years, and even today. 

We do this because we’re by nature a rejecting people.  Because of our sinful nature, we don’t like being told what to do and what we can’t do.  We reject the authoritative words of others, and in their place, we follow after our own words.  We want to decide moral right and wrong for ourselves.  We want to decide what to do and when to do it. 

There’s no authoritative word that’s rejected more than God’s Word.  Ever since that day when Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word and instead followed Satan’s word and their own desires, God’s Word has been rejected by us each and every day, over and over and over again.  The world’s history is filled with us humans, God’s creation, rejecting Him and His Word.  We hear of this rejection in our readings today. 

In the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26:8-15), we hear that the priests, prophets, and all the people wanted Jeremiah killed because he proclaimed God’s Word.  God sent Jeremiah with this message, “Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to listen to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently, though you have not listened, then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth” (Jer 26:4-6).  The people of Jerusalem didn’t like this message, so they rejected it and rejected the man who brought it.  They grabbed hold of Jeremiah and said, “This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city: (Jer 26:11).  They wanted the messenger of God dead because he spoke God’s Word, and they didn’t like what God’s Word said.  And this is the same for us.

Now I hope none of us have ever tried to kill anyone who’s spoken God’s Word, but there are times when we reject them.  We hear a pastor speak the Law and we hate him for it.  He points out our sin and we turn on him.  We call him names and we talk about him behind his back, criticizing everything that he does.  We attack this messenger and reject the message he speaks.  We say, “Well Pastor, that’s just your opinion.”  Or we claim that God’s Word was only relevant for 1st century people because we’re more educated and knowledgeable today.  We deny that Scripture is still authoritative and still applies today.  We ditch it for other words, words that we consider more acceptable, pleasing, and right.

Jesus laments over our rejection of God’s Word, just as He lamented over Jerusalem’s.  He cried out over the city, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  Behold, your house is forsaken” (Lk 13:34-35a).  The people of Jerusalem were notorious for rejecting God’s Word.  Over and Over again they turned their backs on it.  They rejected the prophets who spoke it, like Jeremiah, and now they were rejecting Jesus, the true Prophet, God’s Word made flesh.

Christ lamented how the people of Jerusalem refused to be gathered and brought back to God under the protection of His Word.  Repeatedly, God sent prophets to call the people back in repentance, and repeatedly they refused.  And then He sent His Son to speak, to gather His people, and they still rejected Him.

And this is the same for us.  God continually calls us back, wanting us to be gathered under the protective wings of His Word, but instead, we run away like baby chicks with our heads caught off, going this way and that.  We refuse to be gathered into His church where we are protected with His true Word and Sacraments.  Instead, we follow after false words that say we can find Christ anywhere.  We reject God’s definition of marriage and life and we accept the world’s.  We deliberately ignore His commands and do the opposite.

All this rejection isn’t without its consequences.  Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem was a lament over her sin; but it was also a lament over the destruction that awaited her for it. 
Our rejection of God and His Word leads to our destruction.  St. Paul puts it like this, “For many...walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).  When we reject Christ, when we refuse to listen to God and His Word, when we resist being gathered under Jesus’ protection, we’ll receive the destruction of hell.  When we seek instead after our own thoughts, when we listen to ourselves and make ourselves gods, we’ll eternally suffer with no hope of relief.  We’ll  receive an everlasting death, we’ll be forsaken, just as the city of Jerusalem was.
And we certainly deserve this.  We rightly should be punished for our continual rejection of God and His Word.  If someone refused you over and over again, you wouldn’t give them the time of day.  But God doesn’t do this.  Even though we repeatedly refuse Him and reject His Word, He still comes after us.  He still calls us back in repentance.  That’s why He sent His prophets over and over again.  That’s why He sent Jeremiah, so that the people would hear God’s Word and mend their ways and their deeds (Jer 26:13).  And that’s why He sent Jesus, His only Son, the Word incarnate, so that He might overcome our rejection of Him. 
God saves us from ourselves, He overcomes our rejection by rejecting His own Son.  As Jesus hung on the cross He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34).  God the Father turned His back on His Son, He rejected Jesus because Christ was carrying the sin of the whole world.  Jesus took all sin, He took your sin, all your rejection, and on the cross He suffered your destruction.  In the ultimate turn-about, God forsook Christ so that you might not be forsaken.  In love, grace, and mercy, God sentence Jesus to death on the cross in your place, so that you might be gathered under the Jesus’ protection, so that you might be saved from destruction by Jesus’ blood. 
And this sacrifice of Christ on your behalf is acceptable to God.  Instead of being rejected by Him, you’re brought into the kingdom of heaven.  You've been made a citizen of the new Jerusalem.  Paul writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:20-21a).  Right now, we live in a world filled with sin, rejection, destruction, and death.  But this earthly life is only temporary.  Our true citizenship is in heaven, paid for by Christ’s blood.  And when the time comes for us to be called home to our true city, we’ll no longer experience the sin, rejection, destruction, and death.  Instead, we’ll be under God’s protective wings and we’ll rejoice in His Word forever. 
During this Lenten season, we contemplate our rejection.  We examine ourselves and repent of all the times we’ve refused to be gathered by Christ, for all the times we’ve ignored God’s word.  During this Lenten season, we look to the cross where Jesus sacrificed Himself, where He endured the Father’s rejection, so that He might save us from ourselves and destruction.  During this Lenten season, we thank God for continuing to seek after us, for continuing to send messengers with His Word, for gathering us into His church, and for making us citizens in heaven.  In Jesus name...Amen.


Elevated diction. . .

If you are like me and are glued to the telley for every unfolding episode of Downton Abbey, you undoubtedly noticed that the final season is sloughing off the remains of the formal era of living, eating, drinking, and dying as if it were a moth eaten old waistcoat.  They got a wireless to listen to the King and then everything else seemed to go downhill... a daughter married the chauffeur, another daughter had a child out of wedlock, and another daughter is a snob with a raucous past of lovers dying in her bed and suitors being tried out as lovers before husbands...  well, you know.  The problem is not that these things occurred -- of course they did back then as they do now.  But they are almost becoming a thing to celebrate while the decorum and diction of a more polite era are treated as the real scandals and offense.

A whole column could be written by Julian Fellowes' efforts to divorce faith from the series (when everyone who is anyone knows that in reality it was imbued into every aspect of life.  But I will forego that point for the time being as I relish the last tidbits of the series that has grown into something of an obsession for me and the other anglophile in my household.

There was a time when how you said something mattered as well as what you said.  Some have described it as an era of politeness and formality.  In reality it was never merely about being polite or being formal.  It proceeded from the idea that there actually such things as elevated ideas and elevated ways of speaking about them. It was not a perfect time, to be sure, but one idea that is worthy of our consideration today is the idea that somethings deserve more than common and vulgar speech but well crafted words that fully use the resources of language to address God.  Such elevated diction is no less authentic to us than the common and even base words that proceed from our mouths and represent a more thoughtful approach to the things of God.

Thomas Cranmer certainly set the high standard for elevated diction.  His collects remain as the gold standard of prayer in English.  We hold the King James in high esteem more so for its elevated diction than for it ease of understanding and so it continues to garner a significant piece of the Bible book market while other translations offer a more obvious version of the Scriptures in English.  We continue to sing the hymns whose words are not only timeless but compact into the few words of careful poetry the riches of the images and truths we sing.

My point is simply this.  We have tried to be common and ordinary, relevant and contemporary, vulgar and base and none of these has done much to improve the state of worship, prayer, hymn, or preaching.  Maybe it is high time we thought about elevated diction, about the fuller use of language that requires us to spend at least as much effort in mastering its craft as we do sensing the pulse of the moment.  Maybe it is time we recalled the sound of a well crafted collect or a King James Psalm or a timeless hymn and gave it one more chance.

As I entered adulthood, liturgy was a trial balloon, when liturgical songs were bound in newsprint without the expectation that they would last, when we listened as much to what people sounded like in pubs and bowling alleys and such as much as we listened to the language of the prayer books, hymnals, and Bibles of old.  It evolved into throw away items never meant for more than a generation or a moment.  Now we have borrowed the sounds and ambiance of our culture to the point where many churches no longer have any real tradition to pass on.  In the midst of all of this, the elevated diction of the past calls us to reconsider what we too quickly cast aside.  Sound bite politics has given way to sound bite religion and sound bite worship and I am not convinced that it has born any good fruit at all in any of the arenas where sound bites have come to dominate.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Anglicans interested in Lutheranism. . .

From The Rev. Al Colver, Chief LCMS Ecumenical Officer and Assistant to Pres. Harrison:

...Bishop Elijah Arok from the Anglican Church of South Sudan visited the International Center in St. Louis. He came on behalf of Archbishop John Machar Thon. The Anglican Church of South Sudan was formed in 2004 as a breakaway from the Anglican Communion. Since that time, the ACSS has discovered the Small Catechism and is interested in becoming a Lutheran church body. The ACSS seeks to gain rich and full knowledge of Lutheran theology through study of Luther’s Small Catechism and the Book of Concord, several copies of which have been shared with the church leaders and have been enthusiastically received. In many ways the church body has shown its eagerness to learn more about Lutheran doctrine as taught in the LCMS and to have a close working relationship with the Missouri Synod.

The Anglican Church of South Sudan (originally, the “Anglican Church of Sudan”) was established in 2004 in separation from the Episcopal Church of Sudan over the issue of accepted homosexuality in the clergy and church hierarchy. A large number of bishops, clergy, and congregations (probably approaching 50%) left because they deemed the accepted practice was unbiblical. After the independence of South Sudan was declared in 2011, the new church body made its area of emphasis in South Sudan and modified its name accordingly. Through the subsequent years of war, the church body has continued its faithfulness and has ministered to the multitudes of Sudanese refugees in neighboring countries and to the many who now make their homes in Australia, Canada, the United States, and other Western countries. The ACSS has approximately 1 million members.

The next step for the LCMS is to visit Juba, South Sudan, and see the church in person. The goal would be to establish theological education in the Lutheran Confessions and Lutheran Doctrine.

Clearly, churches should not have to choose between episcopal structure and orthodox doctrine, between faithful liturgy and right confession, or between catholic doctrine and catholic practice.  Yet neither is itself a guarantor that the whole will be sustained.  Anglicans have a history of confession (though the 39 Articles are hardly mentioned except as historical documents) and they have a long and storied episcopal structure (but have been plagued with bishops who chose disconnect rather than continuity with the faith) and they have enjoyed a wonderful prayer book tradition of liturgy done generally very well.  Now they reach out for the orthodox confession of creed, confession, and doctrine.  Thanks be to God that we can assist them and perhaps they will aid us in our own struggle, also. 

My point is simple.  We should not fear engaging others on the ecumenical scene.  Where there are faithful people who faithfully confess the catholic faith and maintain the catholic practice, there will be those who survey the ruins of their own churches excursions into social advocacy in place of the Gospel and social justice that ignores the clear voice of Scripture.  Let us not be arrogant but neither let us be hesitant.  The world around us is filled with people who would warm to a place where the Gospel is proclaimed faithfully and forcefully, where liturgy is reverent and catholic, where confession is robust and absolution is joyfully given, and where the people welcome those curious who may or may not be fully invested in the catholic doctrine and practice envisioned by the Augustana.  We have something to offer.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Oh, my. . .

The Holy See Press Office has announced that Pope Francis will travel to Lund, Sweden, on October 31 to take part in a joint Lutheran-Catholic ceremony commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther made his 95 Theses public on October 31, 1517. The commemorative year begins a year earlier in Lund, the city where the Lutheran World Federation was founded.

“The LWF is approaching the Reformation anniversary in a spirit of ecumenical accountability,” says Martin Junge, the Lutheran World Federation’s general secretary. “I’m carried by the profound conviction that by working towards reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics, we are working towards justice, peace and reconciliation in a world torn apart by conflict and violence.”

“By concentrating together on the centrality of the question of God and on a Christocentric approach, Lutherans and Catholics will have the possibility of an ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation, not simply in a pragmatic way, but in the deep sense of faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ,” said Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

“The ecumenical situation in our part of the world is unique and interesting,” added Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, a convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism who grew up in Lund. “I hope that this meeting will help us look to the future so that we can be witnesses of Jesus Christ and His Gospel in our secularized world.”

Well, now, won't that be cozy!  The anti-Christ and the Lutherans least sure they believe in Christ are going to have a party!  Okay, snark off.  Really, though, who is advising Francis?  It is all well and good that the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (I will omit the word Protestant because it no longer is a word descriptive of the Church of the Augsburg Confession) will bring papal and Lutheran representatives together.  Wouldn't it be grand if the breach were repaired!  If Rome declared Augustana a Catholic confession and Lutherans actually agreed to abide by their confessions, could anyone hope for more (unless it be that both were actually serious in all that this would entail)?  But the place for this to begin is not with the churches of the Lutheran World Federation!

The LWF has become a global Lutheran communion of those who take least seriously the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.  They have gladly abandoned the Lutheran hallmarks of justification by grace through faith, the infallibility of Scripture, the apostolic ministry, and the morality of sexuality and family.  In fact, the dilution of the Lutheran brand has become so serious that African Lutherans are rushing to reconsider and even abandon their once solid relationships with their liberal Lutheran cousins in Europe and America.  If the Pope wants to talk to Lutherans, why not try talking with those who still hold and heed the voice of Luther and the orthodox Lutheran dogmaticians.  For one, there might actually be more commonality between these confessional types and Rome on many areas of substance (ordination of women, the acceptance of GLBT lifestyle and ministers, the creeds and their affirmation of Virgin Birth and historical resurrection... among other things.  Oh, sure, there would be some unpleasant areas of discord to be dealt with but rather to be honest about disagreement than to paper over the greatest event in history as if it really did not mean all that much. 

So Francis, why not go to the international confessional Lutherans and visit St. Louis instead of Lund.  Benedict might have understood this but I fear Francis and his advisers do not.  Instead what we will end up with is a photo op that points to all that is wrong with both Rome and Wittenberg instead of a substantive and honest discussion over the issues that gave birth to the Reformation. 

BTW I loved the last line: witnesses of Jesus Christ and His Gospel in our secularized world...  When the churches embrace the secular world's skepticism of faith, hesitance about Scripture, departure from the historic, Judeo-Christian morality of sex and the shape of the family, and place human reason and insight over dogma, the faith becomes a sham and the witness is merely a mirror reflecting back to the secular world its own tarnished light.  Francis and the Lutherans ought to do better -- 500th Anniversary or not!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Some good and some not so good. . .

Former Archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America John Heropoulos, who left the holy priesthood almost nine years ago, was married to a man on Saturday January 9. The civil ceremony took place at The Neighborhood Club of Quincy, MA with relatives and friends in attendance. . .  Heropoulos was a charismatic and able clergyman with excellent administrative ability. He began his Church service as Deacon to the late Archbishop Iakovos. He then became assistant priest at St. Nicholas parish in Flushing NY, presiding priest at St. Paraskevi in Greenlawn, NY, and presiding priest at St. George in Hartford, CT. He also served as director of the office of Archbishop Spyridon and as chancellor of the Metropolis of Detroit. While everything seemed to be going well he informed Archbishop Demetrios that he was leaving the holy priesthood and requested to be defrocked. He went to Boston and worked for six years for the Children’s Tumor Foundation. Today he is working in the development office of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. . . Asked if he is concerned that some in the Greek-American Community would be scandalized, he said “I left the Church respectfully. Whether someone agrees or not that ultimately ones has the freedom to make that decision, there is nothing I can do about that.”  Heropoulos revealed to TNH that he goes on Sundays and worships in an Orthodox church and that he receives Holy Communion. He said, “yes of course I go to an Orthodox church and yes I receive Holy Communion.”

This is the report of a former Archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and it might have been merely social news except for a couple of things.  The good part of this was that Heropoulos was celibate while a priest and insists that he did not break his vow of celibacy.  The good part of this is that when Heropoulos decided that he was gay and desired to live as a gay man, he resigned from his office and requested to be defrocked.  While to some that might seem harsh, it was the honorable thing to do.  The fact that he could not continue in his priestly role in the hypocrisy of one who stood for one thing and lived another is laudable and worthy of praise.  Would that those who found themselves in moral or doctrinal conflict with their churches did such an honorable and self-sacrificing act for the sake of the church and for the good of others before self.

The not so good thing is that Heropoulos continues to attend Divine Liturgy and to commune regularly in an Orthodox parish.  Clearly he is neither apologetic nor repentant of his present life as a gay man now married to another man.  He lives in violation of the canons of the Greek Church and in contradiction to its public stance.  But what he could not abide in the public role as Archimandrite, he now continues in the private role of communicant.  And therein lies the problem.

Of course there are gay and lesbian folks who commune regularly at the altars of churches that neither affirm nor support the lifestyle.  Yet even when these folks fail in their desire to order their lives according to the unmistakable teaching of the Judea-Christian morality of marriage and family and the clear reference of Scripture, they do so as people who are struggling with their weakness and who fail in temptation as people committed to fight against carnal desire and manifest self-control over their desires.  They come fallen but repentant to the means of grace and they are well received as are all the sinners who come pleading only the merits of Christ and nothing of their own righteousness.  But this is a far different thing that those who insist upon having it both ways -- living in public denial of their church's teaching and Scripture's word but seeking to receive the flesh and blood of Christ without repentance. 

I certainly do not know Heropoulos personally but the account of his service as Archimandrite, his resignation and removal from priestly office, and his marriage and communion as a layman all represent a disconnect.  This is not so much about him as it is how the error becomes tolerated and eventually normative for the churches.  Hardly ever does this happen through the front door but nearly always the departure from solid Christian teaching and Scriptural truth sneaks in the back door, sits in the back pews, and does it often enough to become first tolerated and then acceptable.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Missed from Feb. 15, but worthy of your consideration. . .

Today, February 15, 2016, we remember the twenty-one Coptic Christians that were martyred for their faith by ISIS one year ago. Take courage! The Lord has told us what is to come and we rejoice at the confession of these Coptic Christians who did not deny Christ, though swords were at their throats.

Hardening of the heart. . .

James R. Rogers again:

Speaking to this intellectual and social muddle is the challenge of the Church today.

One response is to succumb, and embrace the regnant relativism of much of elite American culture. Churches doing so largely just dissolve into that culture. After all, why get up on Sunday morning to learn there’s really no point to getting up on Sunday morning? 

A second response is also a form of capitulation, although subtler. Seeker-friendly churches aspire to be instrumentally valuable to Americans imbued with the commitments described above. They tone down the Christ talk, tone down moral imperatives of a new life in Christ, amp up the music and ramp up the talk of “how to be a better you.” These churches may continue to attract congregants, but their message often reflects and resonates with this mindset more than challenging it.

A third response is to double down on established practices. The premise, a descriptively accurate one to my mind, is Evangelical churches experience the presence of Christ – epiphany – mainly through the sermon. According to this line of thought, the remedy to the subjectivist muddle is for the churches to preach better sermons – which is mainly suggested to mean the preaching of more doctrinally-substantive sermons.

I don’t disagree with the aspiration to improve sermons – I’m one of those Bible nerds who actually enjoys long, dense sermons. And I agree preaching and teaching the Word is a uniquely significant means by which the Word is made present.

What this view neglects, however, is the subjectivism in American society developed in large part as armor against the Word. The Bible calls this process “hardening one’s heart.”

This Texas layman and professor at Texas A & M has hit it right on the head.  Many, too many, churches have caved in and merely reflect back what they see and hear around them.  So what is the point?  Others have directed the Gospel into the realm of self-help motivation designed to improve you, your life, your job, your family, or your well-being.  And there are those of us, me included, who insist that we need to preach substantively as well as winsomely the full counsel of God's Word.  But Rogers has raised an important caveat.  American culture and many Americans have developed a tone deafness to the Word of God, what Scripture calls a hardening of the heart.  We cannot preach our way through this but must depend upon the providential work of God and the aid of the Holy Spirit to open up the closed minds and closed hearts of those around us.  Preaching and praying must also be accompanied by practice and piety. 

Too many American Christians have loved the privilege of believing that God is in the business of forgiving sins and it is our job to give Him something to forgive.  We have not seen our doctrinal orthodoxy or our liturgical renewal accompanied by the faithful living out of our baptismal vocation and by the quest for the holiness we wear by baptism.  Until this happens, we will find ourselves dismissed by those who not only reject the Scriptures but reject any supposed Gospel which does not have any power to transform and change the daily lives of those who claim to believe it.

Yes, there is much more here to consider.  Read Prof. Rogers in First Things for yourself!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lenten Video. . .

A perfect solution. . .

A group of Finnish Lutherans were offered Holy Communion by priests at a mass held in St. Peter's Basilica following a meeting with Pope Francis on January 15, according to a report by the Finnish periodical Kotimaa 24.  Lutheran bishop Samuel Salmi was visiting the Vatican as the head of a delegation that included a youth choir that was to perform there. Salmi says he met privately with Pope Francis.  After the personal audience with the pope, the delegation was present at a celebration of the Catholic mass. According to Salmi, at the time of communion the non-Catholics placed their right hands on their left shoulders, a traditional way of indicating that they were ineligible to receive the Eucharist. However, the celebrating priests insisted on giving them communion. Salmi told Kotimaa 24 that “I myself accepted it [Holy Communion].” He added that “this was not a coincidence,” and nor was it a coincidence when last year the pope seemed to accept the notion of a Lutheran woman receiving communion with her Catholic husband. 

I got it!  A perfect solution!  Francis can become Pope of all liberal Lutherans since that seems to be where his heart is and that will satisfy the rest of Rome as well as giving the liberal Lutherans (from a variety of jurisdictions) a certain cache and legitimacy they cannot find in their confessional documents and their lukewarm subscription to the creeds and confessions that would normally define an orthodox and catholic faith.

Cardinal Kasper and his minions would, no doubt, join the Pope in his ecumenical journey since it is pretty clear that instead of sustaining the faith these kinds of folks are intent upon modernizing the faith and ditching the last gasps of Scripture to condemn the social and sexual GLBT agenda.  But that would hardly be a problem.

Remember when Pope Benedict XVI said that in order to remain faithful the church might have to grow smaller?

Some who accuse me of being a closet Catholic (when the reality is that I am an out and proud catholic of the Augsburg Confession) might think I am happy about the presumed communion and its inherent recognition of Lutheran legitimacy by Rome.  I would be happy IF this meant that both churches were intent upon being fully catholic, apostolic, and orthodox but I am most unhappy when ecumenism happens by forgetting what is believed and confessed and tossing aside Scripture, creed, and confession.  There is no joy for Rome welcoming Lutherans to a table when it means Rome is ignoring what they said they believed and the Lutherans are forgetting what they say they believed.  You should be offended by the same kind of ecumenism lite.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The crippling power of doubt. . .

Sermon for Lent 1C preached on Sunday, February 14, 2016.

    We often presume the goal of Satan is to encourage us to be bad.  In reality, he cares less about whether or not we are bad than driving a wedge between us and the Word and promises of God. Satan’s method of operation is to call into question God’s Word and promises.  Is that REALLY what God said, what God meant? If you are hungry, doesn’t God want you to be full?  If you can avoid pain, would not God want you to take the easier path. If God says He has your back, why do bad things happen to good people?  How can it be wrong when it feels so good -- even Valentine’s Day fits into the scheme of the devil to plant doubt about what love is and to equate love with lust.
    Our Lord could not be tempted as easily as we are.  He is the Son of God.  So Satan had to use physical temptations.  Yet even in these there are spiritual implications.  Satan does not have to destroy God to wrest us from God’s grasp.  He has instead only to plant seeds of doubt in our heart about what God has said, done, and promised.  When we doubt God's Word and promises, he has done his job. 
    Though we are tempted to think that great men have great doubts - that doubts can be useful and fruitful.  Doubt is never the source of good and neither is it benign.  It will drive us from the faith unless we can answer it with the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  Wed require nothing less than the Spirit to keep our confidence in God's Word and promises.
    Temptation leads us to doubt God’s provision for our lives.   Eve doubted the goodness of the garden God had given them. We figure God helps those who help themselves and we go for what we want, worrying about later if it is good or right.  How can it be bad when it feels or tastes or seems so good?  Wouldn’t God want me to have it, to be happy, to be satisfied?  Surely that is the minimum?!?
    Temptation leads us to doubt God’s promises to us.  Abraham doubted that God would keep His promise and chose to create his own heir.  We look with our eyes and presume that eyes see more clearly than faith.  We lament God’s wisdom, His timing, and His judgement and so we justify our end runs to get what we think we deserve, what we think God should have done.
    Temptation leads us to doubt God’s providence in giving us the kingdom.  Like the prodigal son we refuse to wait for is to come.  Maybe heaven will not be as good this moment is.  Fearing that God’s future may disappoint, we pursue our own tomorrow.  And then we offer to God the ruins when it falls apart.
    So what is the answer?  The Word of the Lord endures forever.  This is no theoretical statement but the most practical of needs for a people captive to a world of change and fickle hearts.  Jesus answers temptation for us; He answers all our doubts with confidence in the Word of the Lord.  By the way, all of Jesus’ answers are Law, all from Deuteronomy.  Man shall not live by bread alone, you shall worship the serve God alone, and you shall not test the Lord your God.  The Word of the Lord endures forever.  In the crisis of doubt and fear, this is our confidence and this is our hope -- not feelings or what ifs.
    Did Satan really expect Jesus to give in?  Surely He knew that he could not match wits with the Son of God.  Satan knew the weakness of the Lord (His flesh) but Jesus knows the strength of God (the Word that endures forever).  Doubt rears its head in the pain of our hunger, in the heartache of our disappointment, and in our fear of the future.  Satan could afflict Jesus’ flesh but He could not  deprive Jesus of the comfort of God’s Word, promises, and gracious will.  How Satan tried to isolate Jesus from God is what Satan tries upon us.
    Doubts deprive us of all our strength, wasting our time on the what ifs instead of the what is of God’s actions.  Jesus does not give us clues how to be strong on our own but instead clothes us in His strength.  We see in Christ not an example to follow but the anchor of His Word and promise.  God will deliver His people, protect His own, answer those who call to Him, stand with them in their trouble, rescue and honor those who trust in Him...  If we stand in Christ, we stand firm.
    “Is it enough?” whispers Satan.  The answer to that lies in Jesus arms outstretched in suffering and His triumphant rise from death and grave's prison. It is enough to stand in Christ who gives us His flesh for bread, who reveals the depth of God’s love that we might worship Him without fear, and who endures the test so we may be endure to eternal life.  God is faithful.  He will do it.  Is this enough?  The cross says yes.  The Spirit says yes.  In the face of temptation, we answer yes.  The Word of the Lord endures forever.  Amen.

What will it finally take. . .

So the Anglican Communion has censured and suspended the Episcopal Church.  Yawn.  It has taken the Anglican Communion forever to respond to the sectarian actions of one of its members. The problem of maintaining an Anglican Communion is neither new nor has it ever been easy.

Once there was a split coming between the Anglo-Catholic wing (high church) and the evangelical and broad church wings.  But somehow or other the conflict did not divide the Anglican Communion as it should have.  Instead the trusty old Brits and their colonial counterparts figured out a way to drink some tea or sherry and calm things down.  To those of us outside Anglicanism, the high church vs. broad and low church wings were not merely liturgically at odds but differed at the very core of their faith and confession.  It seems no one seems to pay much attention to the 39 Articles but if they did perhaps they might have been forced to decide whether the Anglican tradition is more catholic or more evangelical.  But this did not happen.

When the GLBT issues came calling, Anglicanism again tried to tread water.  While the Archbishop of Canterbury may have had a personal affection for one side or another, his main job is plugging the leaks and keeping the good ship afloat.  There were many voices from within that insisted the Anglican Communion could not exist when the tension was stressed this far but most of those who objected were viewed as over reactive people who did not realize that the Anglican Communion was not much about faith after all.

Apparently it did not matter that the Africans objected.  After all, to most Northern Europeans and Americans, Africa is often treated as a child who must be tolerated rather than a legitimate voice and representative presence of the Church.  The Africans, some smugly suggested, were not fully informed, unsophisticated, and naive -- send them some cash to buy their silence.  But the African voice of Anglicanism refused to be silent or to be bought off.  God bless them!

Now that the Anglican Communion has noticed that the Episcopal Church is itself bleeding off members and congregations (even a whole diocese!), some of the upper crust have also become leery of tolerating the most liberal voice of mostly very liberal churches.  In the end it seems a toothless lion and the punishment is less about substance than it is about face saving -- the Episcopal Church saves face by solidifying its liberal social stance and refuses to give in while the conservatives save face by appearing to actually having done something to stem the tide.

While we are at it, we might mention an Episcopal partner church where the same stuff has gone on...  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has itself followed the siren call of nearly every liberal social cause and there are many, too many, good people in that church who have buried their heads in the sand and remained when they should have walked.  It is impossible for a church body to maintain an objective unity when its own people neither agree nor can they stand each other.  First it was the issue of women's ordination and then it was the stacked deck of the quota system designed to denigrate the local congregation and even the bishops who hesitated against the liberal agenda.  But as long as it is not in my backyard, these people have stayed when they should have walked.  Otherwise the ELCA would have dropped another million or so members.

The denominations that the ELCA has spun off are themselves problematic.  The Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ is a hodge podge of semi-Lutheran evangelical wannabes in which congregationalism is extreme and church body is minimal -- thus attracting different folks who only agree on not having any kind of centralize bureaucratic structure or overarching confessional identity.  The North American Lutheran Church seems to have proven that it never was about being Lutheran but about sex.  Most of the folks in the NALC only wanted to turn back the clock a bit and hardly any of them really desired to build up a new church body that was anything but the ELCA before 2009 and minus some of the strangoids (Her Church, anyone?).

So you can see I am somewhat bitter... well, mostly bitter.  I had many good friends and solid priestly men in the Episcopal Church at one time.  I grieve for them and for the death of their church.  I had many good friends and solid pastoral men in the ELCA as well.  I grieve for them and for the implosion of their church.  I fear that any church body could suffer the same fate and so I am insistent upon my own church coming to terms with those who refuse to live within our confessional identity and take seriously what we say we confessed and what we still confess still. I believe in a hermeneutic of continuity.  For those who want to insist upon a Lutheranism that began with Walther or one taught only by Pieper, I respectfully remind them that Lutheranism's claim is neither new nor sectarian but catholic faith and catholic practice.  We cannot afford to do or be anything less -- not Lutheran Lite nor Lutheran substance and Evangelical practice.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A significant death. . .

We spend a great deal of time talking about significant lives, debating over the value and legacy of such lives.  We too often miss the significance of a death.  The death of Antonin Scalia is one such significant death.  It comes at a time when the Constitution is nearly dominated by those who disdain originalism and insist that this document of American identity must undergo a face lift every now and then.  It is done under the guise that this is a living document.  Few intellects have been able to match the scholarly might of justices and law schools and politicians in the pursuit of a constitution which is bare framework upon which the times may hang their own definitions and interpretations.

President Harrison called Scalia a friend of the LCMS and our own stalwart defense of life, family, and faith in the public square.  Scalia would surely demure.  Unlike the LCMS, his was not the pursuit of an ideology to define the document for the sake of causes but rather a minimalism in which the words mean today what they meant then and the intent of the framers was preserved in order to allow their own structure of legislative and executive powers to address the needs of the day.  Yet in one way his was a cause allied with our own.  For the very nature of life is that it cannot undergo constant redefinition without sacrificing itself to the expediency of pocketbook or preference.  The framers original intent will not guide the moral compass when technology and culture offer up new definitions of family and new genders and new powers over life.

His is a significant death because SCOTUS has walked a precarious balance beam in which the composition has prevented one side or another from wholesale ownership of the Constitution and what it says.  Now that will certainly be called into question.  POTUS will demand that he be allowed to do his constitutional duty and his opponents will endeavor to prevent him from placing someone on that bench who will vitiate Scalia's very legacy of erudite thought, original intent, and prickly conscience.  There are, however, no guarantees that the right person will be elected in November, the right candidate found, and the recent history of judicial activism halted.  Remember that Eisenhower famously regretted his own recess appointment and formal nomination of Earl Warren, under whom the Court took a decidedly leftward turn.

In a strange turn of events, a longtime acquaintance of mine often vacationed with Scalia and his wife and our conversations about Nino made it almost seem like I knew this fellow more than by reputation.  It is a wonderfully odd thing when lives cross and the people in the news become more than stick figures but real people.  In that sense, I mourn his death not only for us as a nation but for his friends who are mine as well and for a shadow of greatness who became a voice in my own circle of acquaintances.

Scalia's death is significant because it reminds us that the cause of Christ, the cause of virtue, and the cause of life rest not with political hope or judicial hero but uniform Christian solidarity and witness.  Listen to Scalia in his own words. . .

“God assumed from the beginning that the wise of the world would view Christians as fools … and he has not been disappointed. … If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.”

50 Years of Dialogue. . .

Mathew Block, editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine, communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada, and editor for the International Lutheran Council, has written carefully about the 50 years of official Lutheran and Roman Catholic dialogue.  He reminds us that the situation in Rome has changed since the conversations began and the situation among Lutherans has changed dramatically -- even to the point where you might wonder who is across the table from the theologians and bishops representing the Pope.

The dialogues began before the Lutheran World Federation became a communion.  Before the ordination of women became normative for LWF members.  Before the same sex marriage and clergy divergence from historic Biblical and Judeo-Christian morality.  Before the rise of the African Lutherans whose size soon will dwarf Lutherans in North America and most of Europe.  Before the skepticism toward the Scripture had nearly stripped it of much of its claims of fact and history.

In the early days of LWF and the Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogue, Franklin Clark Fry and Fredrik Schiotz were the world leaders (who would hardly recognize the churches and the state of Lutheranism today), the Lutherans were in a heady state after the dramatic growth of Lutherans in North America up to the mid to late 1960s, and they had a track record of able partnership in the rebuilding of war torn Germany and the rest of Europe.

Rome was embarking on a new direction with Vatican II and its huge assembly of bishops gathered by one pope and overseen by another.  Though the official statements of Vatican II were not nearly as radical as the changes in the wake of the council, it was clear a new wind was also blowing in Rome.

Of course, all this has changed.  The dramatic growth and vitality has shifted from the groups now seen as the liberal leading edge of Lutheranism and the conservatives on doctrine, Scripture, the ordination of women, and the GLBT issues have experienced a resurgence due in no small part by the rejection of the liberal agenda by African Lutherans.  Rome has seen experienced a hermeneutic of continuity both in theology and liturgy but most especially in morality under John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Block is correct.  Now is a good time to re-evaluate not merely the dialogues but the documents produced so far and to do it under the new found seriousness of the International Lutheran Council and its more confessional identity and the convergence of Rome and the ILC churches on such issues as the ordination of women and the GLBT agenda.  That is, if Rome wants an ecumenical partner who is serious about what Scripture says and they believe.

Take some time to read Block.  His words are careful and his wisdom worth your time.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Cultivated ambiguity

Often my reading will find a single sentence or phrase that pops out at me.  In this case the phrase is cultivated ambiguity.  It is a great combination of terms.  And it fits the whole character of the way so many have come to approach the Scriptures and the faith.

We live at a point where modernity finds itself more and more at odds with the catholic consensus of doctrine and practice that was once not a starting point but an ending one.  Whether it comes in the area of doctrinal certainty, Scriptural authority, or consistent practice, modernity has addressed the witness of the past with a scrutiny designed not merely to pursue truth but intent upon rejecting what had been believed, confessed, and taught.

Instead of ambiguity, years of conflict have lead to clarity.  Consider how the dispute with Arius resulted in the Nicene Creed and a clearer and more specific confession of what the Scriptures taught (and teach) about God and specifically about Christ and His two natures.  Or consider how challenge forced the Church to become clearer in its understanding and application of what was and is.  It never was that the Lord was ambiguous in His revelation of Himself but the eruption of challenge and conflict forced the Church to speak in ever more clearly what the Scriptures confess -- not as development of doctrine but as the mature manner in which this doctrine is taught and the vocabulary that defined in shorthand what this doctrine was and is (think here homoousias).

The other word in this phrase certainly points out the bias of the skeptical attitude of modernity toward Scripture and the catholic doctrine and practice that flows from that Scripture.  This ambiguity has been cultivated by a mindset that presumes the facts of Scripture are not facts, that the history described is not equal to secular history, and that facts and history matter little to the presumed spiritual or allegorical meaning of words and events.  More than this, modernity seems intent upon disregarding what Scripture says and the Church has taught from that Scripture as being impossible to believe, naive or unsophisticated, and shaped more by an educated and even superstitious.  The way that liberal Christianity views the conservative witness of African Christians to the Scriptures and sexual morality is both dismissive and arrogant -- not unlike the way it view the Scriptures themselves.

No, the phrase is both apt and accurate.  The modern mind seeks not an accommodation with the truth of the Scriptures or the catholic doctrine that flows from it but to change the Scriptures and to adjust doctrine to reflect modern values and mores.  While we have been told the same lie for ages -- namely that the Church must modernize to grow and failure to change with the times will kill the faith -- the opposite is true.  Wherever this cultivated ambiguity has been at work, the Church has declined both in evangelistic fervor and in size and relevance.  Look no further than the mainline liberal Protestantism that has toyed with Scripture and picked away at it as if none of its words could be accepted at face value or adopted every fad, trend, and social movement -- even those that directly contradicted the explicit passage of the Bible.  Where the Church has grown and prospered it is because of a vigorous faith that highly esteems the Word of God and the catholic tradition that has accompanied this Word from the beginning.  Where the Church has grown it is because the faithful have been captive to the Word, faithful to creed and confession, and insistent that practice flow from what is believed, confessed, and taught.

The Bible is not nearly as vague and ambiguous as people have been led to believe.  It is remarkably clear and blunt -- the problem is that we don't want to hear its voice.  The Scriptures and the faithful have enjoyed a unanimity of doctrine and understanding about so many things that live in conflict with modern values.  It is not God who has changed but we who have changed and dragged the Lord and His Word with us in our journey from clarity into vagueness and from conviction into uncertainty.  Whether Rome or Wittenberg or St. Louis, the great question we must face is whether or not we will stand with the Word of the Lord that endures forever or set our anchor in the shifting sand of modern uncertainty!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Writing to bring out my thoughts. . .

As I see the counter continuing to rise and the number of people who read this blog expand, I am both flattered and embarrassed.  My thoughts are hardly organized, mostly not original, and generally forgettable.  Yet there are those who enjoy reading them.  I called this Pastoral Meanderings because that is exactly what they are -- the meandering and often convoluted thoughts of a Lutheran pastor.  Period.  I am hardly a beacon and mostly a mirror -- sometimes the fun house kind of mirror that reflects but distorts.  This blog was begun to share sermons and a few thoughts and now has grown into its own -- at a time when it seems blogging itself has become passe.  Oh, well, no one has accused me of being on the cutting edge of anything for a long time.

I was recently reminded of some very good advice from none other than John Henry Newman.  The Victorian divine and convert Cardinal was full of good lines.  Newman eventually wrote 40 books and 21,000 letters that survive so he is something of an authority on writing.  I did not consciously consider him or his words when I began writing but I think his advice is good and solid:

First, a man should be in earnest, by which I mean, he should write, not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts. He should never aim at being eloquent. He should keep his idea in view, and write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words. He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers. He should use words which are most likely to be understood—ornament and amplification will come to him spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.  John Henry Newman in a letter to a student. . .

I have thoughts.  Too many of them for my own good.  Too disorganized to publish much more than paragraphs.  Too inconsistent for me to be called an ideologue.  Too diverse for me to be called an expert in any one thing or more than one.  And so it has been.  Thank you for reading.  Thank you for agreeing and thank you for disagreeing.  Thank you for challenging me.  Thank you for allowing me this little hobby.  If it has done nothing for you, I do think it has contributed something to my sanity (if it can be said I am sane).

I am no John Henry Newman.  I have no desire to swim the Tiber.  I am not a person of consequence.  I have no place in history.  But some folks say I am beginning to resemble the old man (minus the cardinal's red, or course).  It could be worse.  I could be looking more and more like CFW Walther, I guess.  In any case I am just me.  Pretty ordinary and mostly unmemorable.  But as Newman put it and my blog exemplifies:   A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.  

Saturday, February 13, 2016

We don't have a money problem. . . but a people problem.

Frankly, our problem in the Catholic Church today is not one of money, but of people. When only 30% of Catholics go to Mass and many of those give less than 2% of their income to the Church, many activities, buildings, and institutions can no longer be sustained or maintained.

Monsignor Charles Pope has written much about the saturation level of the Latin Mass without effort to expand, evangelize, and recruit new people to that form of the Mass.  He has written passionately and bluntly -- especially for people who think that holding a Latin Mass is all you need to do to fix most of the problems within the Roman Catholic Church.  That clearly is not the case.  Yet much of what he wrote translates also to Lutherans who face similar problems.

Frankly, the problem in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is not one of money either.  It is a people problem.  We have some parishes where the percentage of attenders is higher than 40% but most of our parishes would be thrilled to death if 30% of the names on our registers actually showed up on Sunday morning.  The reality is that our people who do attend, generally attend less often than a generation or two ago, and there are more and more who attend only occasionally (once a month or less).  They are regular but not frequent in their attendance at worship or the reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord.  Our church body and every one of our individual congregations would enjoy a remarkable resurgence of vitality and life if we had 50% or 60% or dare I hope for 75% of our people in worship on Sunday morning!

Along with the problem of infrequent attendance lies the problem of the family and Sunday morning.  On one hand we have more families in which either husband or wife does not attend and is not Lutheran.  This is an undeniable drain upon the family as a whole and their participation and place within the parish's sacramental life and worship.  Second we have fewer children being born and different attitudes about how important it is to raise children in the faith by regular and frequent church attendance, Sunday school participation, and catechism training.  With fewer children being born, we have fewer to whom we pass on the sacred deposit and faithful tradition as St. Paul spoke of repeatedly.  With the participation of these children in competition with sports and other activities also on Sunday morning, the children who do attend regularly may not attend frequently.  This has a profound impact upon their own life as adults and their own expectations and that of their families down the road.  With the large number of divorced families, Sundays get lost in the mix of visitation weekends and it is not unusually for children to have a potential to attend only every other weekend due to this tragic reality.  We also have less importance attached to catechetical training and confirmation so that it is not unusual for children to by-pass catechism class and confirmation with the full understanding and approval of parents who do not wish to force or compel their children about things religious.

Yes, we have a people problem and some of it hearkens back to the door of the pastor's office and to the church in general which has sought quiet accommodation with these social trends instead of calling our people to account and encouraging in stronger terms how important it is to raise our children in the faith and to model the faith at home and at church.  I am NOT blaming the people only but acknowledging that there is blame to go around yet this should not stop us from reclaiming the noble purpose and shape of faith lived out in marriage, family, and church.

At the end of the day, for any particular movement, prayer form, organization, or even liturgy, the job of promoting it must belong to those who love it most. Shepherds don’t have sheep; sheep have sheep.

Pope has hit it on the head.  Too much of a pastor's time and too much of the energy of congregation is spent trying to promote the things that should be obvious.  Our place in God's House on Sunday for worship and learning His Word should not have to be sold as if it were a product you were being convinced to buy.  Neither should we have to market the church as if it were a business providing a service to consumers who must be convinced to try it and purchase it.  We should not have to sell the value of our common life together centered in the Divine Service.  When it all boils down to what am I going to get out of it... well, the argument is already pretty much lost.

I do not believe that there ever was a pristine moment in our history which we need to recapture but I do believe that we can learn well the consequences of our inactive and our failures to herald what is the most central and basic mark of the faith -- our life together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  When we look back in history we can see repeatedly what has happened when these values have been assumed and not taught, when we in the Church have accommodated instead of called out God's people to stand up and stand forth, and when we have left the teaching of values and the shaping of the family to secular institutions and movements.

Pastors need to repent of our unwillingness to speak forthrightly and faithfully the importance of participating in the Divine Service weekly and investing family time and the time of children in teaching and shaping them for the faith at home and at church.  People need to repent of the way we have drifted away from the values and practices that mark and strengthen faith in the individual and family.  Everyone needs to be encouraged that it is not too late to renew and redouble our efforts to reclaim the people for the church and the home for the faith.  This is less a matter of dollars that need to be spent than honesty from the pulpit and honest hearing in the pews as we work together to do a better job than we have done.