Thursday, June 30, 2016

The fallacy of pro-choice. . .

Choice is the word chosen to define those who believe that no law can be allowed to infringe upon a woman's right to an abortion -- not even one which would simply require those officiating at the abortion to have the same ordinary qualifications of any other doing surgery!  Of course this has stirred the base of candidate Clinton and others who laud the decision of the Supreme Court to reject the requirements placed upon abortion providers in Texas (and other states).  But as careful as they are to call this a pro-choice position, there is no real choice allowed.  In the end the pro-position is not pro the prospect of a reasoned choice but only the choice TO abort.  That is the intolerance of the self-proclaimed tolerant.  The pro-choice side of this allows only one choice -- the choice for abortion, for the unrestricted access to abortion and the elimination of any barriers to this free access (from consent of spouse or parent to financial cost to distance).  The pro-choice movement has only one goal -- a locally available abortion provider, without any requirements/restrictions but the whim of the woman, and free (at the cost of the taxpayer).

It was said long ago that there was some common ground between pro-choice and pro-life.  It was once claimed that the pro-choice position believed that abortions should be safe, legal, and rare.  It might have been thought that the emphasis upon rare meant it was a choice but only a final choice under extreme circumstances.  Now the illusion has been shattered.  By insisting that any restriction or regulation of abortion is unacceptable, the liberal pro-choice movement have become the exact same entity as their dreaded opposite -- the pro-gun movement.  In reality, I am not at all sure that it can be said that pro-choice people believe that abortion should be rare; I am fully confident that they believe it should be safe, legal, local, and free and that abortion is a salutary choice -- as salutary, moral, and virtuous as carrying the child to term and delivering the baby. And that effectively removes even the prospect of any common ground between those who laud the choice to abort and those who condemn it.

The SCOTUS has overturned logical, reasonable, and protective regulations for the sake of the mother.  Perhaps these were occasioned by those seeking to put the brakes on abortion but these same restrictions have not prevented the choice -- only made it safer and moved it within the pale of other medical procedures and their preventative rules.  By rejecting this argument, the liberals on the court have shown that they do not believe abortion is a right or a choice but the right course and the right choice -- along with those who say that they are pro-choice when they are in reality only pro one choice.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Keys to success. . .

I was reading an English blogger tracing some of the history of Roman Catholics in officially non-conformist England and came across this little tidbit:

Cardinal Manning’s verdict on Northampton [w]as “the dead diocese”. But the situation changed with the appointment of Bishop Arthur Riddell in 1880. In office for 27 years, he was determined to open new mission centres and to halt the decline of his diocese.

He opened 25 mission centres, 18 stations (where Masses were celebrated) and 14 chapels. By 1896, the numbers of clergy had risen from 25 to 61 and the churches from 35 to 61, alongside another 17 chapels and communities. There were also 41 Catholic elementary schools and a seminary. By the time of the bishop’s 25th anniversary the congregation of his diocese had risen to 12,744, with 70 priests and 35 parishes. Riddell’s evangelising methods followed a tried and successful pattern: at first, renting a room for a priest; then establishing a small oratory; subsequently collecting donations to buy land to build a church.

I mention Professor Charmley’s chapter and the energy of Bishop Riddell in particular, because it shows what a far-sighted and determined bishop can achieve in unpromising circumstances. He gave a clarion call to his fellow Catholics in his diocese which is worth quoting, as his message is still very pertinent today: “What is our duty? It is to be thorough Catholics, Catholics in name and in deed; practical Catholics, fulfilling all our duties to God and to our neighbour, praying, hearing Mass, frequenting the Sacraments, keeping the days of fasting and abstinence, avoiding sin, practising virtue, loving God; this is the way for us to assist in the conversion of England, and there is no other.”  (emphasis mine)
I am always intrigued by the stories of renewal in places where churches have been stagnant.  It is too often the case today that we have all the sociology, all the demographics, all the marketing skills, and all the technology to bring about renewal but we continually get bogged down in searching for a gimmick or in redefining the faith or changing worship or making religion not really a religion at all.  So for all our energy, enthusiasm, and expense, we end up hardly changing the decline at all or increasing the speed at which we have emptied our churches.

The message of this Roman Catholic bishop in Protestant England was not novelty but ordinary common sense.  I wish we had more of it today.  For those Lutherans who look to the evangelicals to save us or who embrace the skepticism of the scholars to make faith less threatening or who mirror the culture in order to be friendly, I think we can learn something from old Bishop Riddell.

What is our duty?  It is to be thoroughly Lutheran, Lutheran in name and in deed; practical Lutherans, fulfilling our duties to God and to our neighbor, praying, going to the Divine Service, frequenting the Sacraments, keeping piety at home, avoiding sin, practicing virtue, loving God... for this is the way for us to assist the Lord in the conversion of America (or anywhere else), and there is no other.

I am boringly dull and I lead a boringly dull life.  I am ill-equipped to be the one who would grow the Christ's Church in Clarksville, Tennessee, or anywhere else, for that matter.  I am a sinner painfully aware of my sins and constant need for grace in which to stand.  If the work of God depends upon me, God is surely doomed.  But the Lord has never released to His Church or His ministers responsibility for growing the Kingdom.  He does not trust us enough to sit idly by and watch us undo what He has done.  He knows us and what we are capable of and what we are not.  He asks of us not that which we cannot do but what we can and should and ought to do as His baptized people.  He asks us simply to be who we are.  He has promised no Word will return to Him empty, no water with His name will fail to wash clean, and no bread and wine set apart by His Word will fail to feed us Christ's flesh and blood to forgive our sins and impart to us the foretaste of heaven's eternal glory.  He has bluntly (perhaps too bluntly) warned us of our enemies and the threats against us because we belong to Him and yet He has even more bluntly insisted that He who is in us is greater than He who is in the world.  He has given us the tools to live the new lives we received from the baptismal water and imparted to us the Spirit to bend our wills and teach us the holy joy of the obedience of faith. 

If fulfill our baptismal vocation to God and serve our neighbor and pray and go to the Divine Service (faithfully) and receive the Sacraments frequently (including absolution) and keep our piety at home and work to avoid sin and practice virtue and love God.... well, that is all we can ever do.  Better than even this, He has promised to do the rest.  As my friend Will Weedon is want to say, "It is not that we tried Lutheranism and found it wanting but that we have not yet tried it..."  This is the glaring verdict which rests over too much of our Lutheranism.  We have failed to be true to our confession, to the practice of the faith in our lives and our life together, and to do what IS given us to do (instead of trying to do what is still and always God's to do). 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Looking Forward to Faithfully Follow. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 8C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, June 26, 2016.
    Walking in a straight line can be difficult especially when there’s so much to look at.  With all the sights and sounds of the world around us, whether it’s nature or the city, there’s always something for us to look at.  It’s near impossible to walk straight if you aren’t looking straight ahead...and this is how it is with us as we follow after our Christ.  If we don’t look forward, setting our faces on Him and Him alone, we can’t faithfully follow after Him. 
    When Jesus walked the earth, He walked straight, always looking forward.  From the very beginning, He was all about one thing, doing the Father’s will.  As a twelve year boy He knew His place was at the Temple, and now once again He knew His place was in Jerusalem.  But this time, He wasn’t going to the Temple, the place where animals were sacrificed daily.  This time He was going to the cross, the place where He would be sacrificed. 
    Luke tells us that Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51).  Christ looked forward without distraction.  He was resolute, walking a straight path toward the holy city, walking a straight path toward the cross, and nothing was going to stop Him.  He was determined, unyielding, and unwavering.  Christ made His final journey to Jerusalem with one thing on His mind...His never-ending and unconditional love for you.  This self-giving love is what drove Christ to the cross.  He would not turn aside from this path because He walked it in love for you.
    Our Lord purposefully went to the cross to die for you, to set you free.  His sacrificial death was and is the final sacrifice for all sin.  As Jesus shed His blood on that crossed shaped altar, He paid the price for sin, for your sin.  He atoned for your transgressions, and with His death He set you from death, He set you free from sin.  No longer are they your masters.  No longer do they consume your life.  Now your life is in Christ and He has called you to follow Him, to set your face on Him, to walk straight in God’s kingdom.
    As Jesus made His way to Jerusalem, people followed.  More than just the Twelve walked with Jesus.  One of the men Jesus met said, “I will follow you wherever you go” (Lk 9:57).  This man was confident in his ability and commitment to Christ.  But following after Jesus wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be comfortable.  Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58).  And this is the same for those who follow Him.  Jesus was a sojourner here on earth.  Earth was not His home.  His home is next to the Father, and so too is the home of those who follow Christ.  Your citizenship is here, but in heaven.  That’s where you’ll find your everlasting dwelling place, that’s where your comfort and joy is even now in the midst of the discomforts of this earth, the discomforts of sin and death.
     After Jesus called this man to follow, He called to another, and this man was also confident. He also would follow Jesus, but first he had to take care of some things: he had to bury his father.  But the Lord said, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.  But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60).  This man was concerned with the things of this world.  His face wasn’t set on Christ, but on death.  He was not ready to focus solely on Christ, to look toward the everlasting life in God’s kingdom.
     Now I don’t want anyone to get confused with Jesus words.  Christ isn’t saying not to bury our loved ones who’ve died.  Instead, Christ’s words are a call to follow after Him first, with a willingness to put Him and His kingdom above all else, even above our family.  And this is the same message He gave to the third man in our Gospel.
     This man also said he’d follow Jesus, but like the second, he too had other things he needed to do.  His first priority was to return home and say goodbye to his family and friends.  He too was still focused on the things of this world, and again Jesus said this would not do.  “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).  
     A plowman who looks back won’t do a good job.  Plowing is a difficult task, especially plowing by hand.  It requires one’s full attention to hold the plow and maneuver the animal at the same time.  If the plowman is distracted, not looking forward but backwards, his rows won’t be straight.  This isn’t good for planting, and it’s certainly not good for faith.  Like the plowman, we must be focused solely on Christ, setting our face on Him, looking forward. 
      The men in our Gospel were confident they could follow after Christ, but this was false confidence.  They were incapable of setting their face on Jesus.  They were distracted with everything else, with the things of this temporary world...and so are we.  We may think we can confidently follow after Christ, but we too are easily distracted.  We focus on the things of this world, the natural cares and priorities of this life.  There is so much that demands our attention here on earth, and we attend to these things first.  We believe the things of today are more important than the things of tomorrow, than the things of faith and God’s kingdom. 
     All our efforts of strength and determination can’t keep our focused eyes straight ahead on Christ.  Our sin, the world around us, and the devil distract us.  They avert our eyes to other things, to the things of the flesh as St. Paul says.  They lead our feet off the path of righteousness.  So we need a guide, someone to lead us.  We need a helper, someone to make us fit for the kingdom of God.  This someone is the Helper, the Holy Spirit.  He leads you where you need to go.  He leads you to Christ alone.  He creates within you a new and clean heart, a heart of faith that desires Christ and His kingdom, a heart that desires to walk straight.  He gives you faith and keeps you in it, and He daily and richly forgives all your sins.  With the Holy Spirit leading you, you can and you do follow Christ without looking back.  You stay focused on Him, looking forward to the everlasting life that He has won for you on the cross. 
     In order for us to follow Jesus, we have to set our faces on Him and Him alone, just as He set His face on the cross for us.  We can’t be partial, with one eye looking at Him and the other looking back at our old life.  We can’t be distracted with the natural cares and priorities of this life.  We can’t look back to our old sinful ways and pursue them again.  We can’t look at death and be afraid of it.  We can’t let the world and Satan avert our eyes from Jesus.  With the Spirit leading us, we must look forward with the eyes of faith that we’ve been given.  We must focus our full attention on God’s kingdom, on Christ and His salvation, and on the new life that He gives to us.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Shock! Scandal! What will it mean for humanity?

The world is up in arms.  A curling scandal has erupted that might call into question the once and ancient sport of pushing a piece of granite down an icy path.  It turns out the star player was supposed to be the granite pusher, now technology has threatened to overshadow him and make the stars of the sport those guys standing on either side with brooms in their hands.  What will the world come to if such scandalous things are allowed to continue unhindered?!?

The broom, you might think, has little room for improvement. Take a handle and some bristles, fasten together, and enjoy a perfectly competent cleaning device.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes fame and fortune become the adoptive parents. As the sport of curling has professionalized since its reintroduction to the Olympics in 1998—that’s the competition where stones are slid along the ice with two players furiously sweeping the preceding terrain—the investment in broom R&D has gone up, too. (Independent of Proctor & Gamble’s Swiffer, mind you.)

Therein arose a problem: Broomgate, as it’s predictably being called. Until last November, the World Curling Federation hadn’t really regulated the type of brooms curlers could use. This is, after all, a sport that still mines the quarry of an uninhabited Scottish island for all its micro-granite stones.
In this vacuum of regulation arose something called “directional fabric,” which permits more extreme course-changing down the lane. One company in this market, Hardline Curling, touts its icePad’s patent-pending technology that brushes only the small ice pebbles atop the lane. The president of Balance Plus, an industry leader, responded in an open letter urging an unnamed company (cough cough, Hardline, cough cough) to “Do The Right Thing and stop using directional fabric.”

Any novice who’s stumbled onto a televised match has probably wondered how much control the sweepers really have in generating enough friction to change the stone’s trajectory. Well, as former world champion Glenn Howard told SportsNet in Canada last fall, “It’s a type of fabric that allows you to virtually steer the rock. I use the phrase ‘joystick’. I can now joystick right, left, forward, back.

“Up until 18 months ago, it was 80 percent shooter, 20 percent sweeping and now in the last year and a half, it’s become 20 percent shooting and 80 percent sweeping. It’s just not acceptable.
Stupid me thought that curling was invented by drunken Scandahoovians who had nothing else to do during the long dark winter of the northlands.  Turns out they were cultivating the true athletic competition.  This is, however, a sport any good Lutheran can enjoy -- fitness is not essential but an alcoholic drink is, ice is cheap and readily available, momma's broom is handy, and there is no shortage of granite.  Yup, this is just the kind of thing I could get into -- except for the fact that controversy and scandal have tarnished the cache of this sport.  I will have to wait and see where the ice dust falls before jumping on this bandwagon! 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Guess who prayed this prayer?

“Allah bless us and bless our families and bless our Lord. Lead us on the straight path – the path of all the prophets: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Peace be upon them all Amen.
“In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful, let us praise the Lord. The creator of the universe, the most merciful, the most compassionate and the Lord of the universe who has created us and made us into nations and tribes, from male and females that we may know each other, not that we might despise each other, or may despise each other. Incline towards peace and justice and trust in God, for the Lord is one that hears and knows everything and the servants of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful, gracious are those who walk in the earth in humility and when bigots and hateful and Islamaphobes address them, they say peace. Peace be upon them and peace be upon Allah.”
If you would have guessed the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), then you would be correct.  As the first order of business it offered prayers to the Islamic deity, Allah, led by a representative of the Muslim community on behalf of the Presbyterian Assembly.

Wajidi was taking part in the assembly’s scheduled time of remembrance for those killed in the recent Orlando terrorist attack and those killed last year in the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C. “In the days leading up to this assembly we all know that our nation’s peace has once again been ripped apart by an act of mass violence,” said Heath Rada, moderator of the 221st General Assembly, when introducing it.  The violence, he said, “tore at each of our hearts as it reminded us of too many tragedies and too many victims. We are all touched by the tragedy of violence in some way. Being from North Carolina, I am reminded of the Chapel Hill shooting of Muslims, and I am concerned of course as I recognize that yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the shootings at AME church in Charleston.

Rada said that Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons requested the staff leadership of the PCUSA’s ecumenical and interfaith ministries — Robina Winbush, Laurie Anderson, Rick Ufford-Chase and Laurie Kraus, — “ to provide for us as a first order of business an opportunity to lift up these tragedies that are so much on our minds.”

It was supposed to be an exercise of ecumenical friendship in a time of remembrance for national tragedy,  sponsored by the interfaith staff of the PCUSA, but I guess that offending the Triune God is one small price to pay for extending the hand of welcome to Muslims by Presbyterians.  Honestly folks, it just does not get weirder and more offensive than this -- truth is always stranger than fiction!

Watch at the 14 minute mark. . .

General Assembly convenes in Plenary, Business Session 1 from Office of the General Assembly on Vimeo.

Some Swiss Chard. . .

Or make that Swiss weird! 

Heaven forbid that we might ask a Christian to come and bless the opening of a tunnel.  Nope, that might be too, well, religious.  So, left to the committee on observing the opening of civic projects, subcategory tunnel, why not take an ancient legend and bring it to life?  Lets observe the world's longest and deepest tunnel by creating a drama starring the devil and a goat.  Weird, yes.  Typical of a culture unfriendly to Christianity but seemingly open to anything else, yup.  Oh, well, who can call the Swiss dull now!  They are anything but boring here.  Makes you wonder why old John Calvin might think about it all?!  I did notice that there were no representatives from the Swiss papal guards.  Maybe they had already used up their travel budget. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hybrids that dilute our identity. . .

Peter Berger, Lutheran sociologist, wrote:  Religion scholars use the term “hybrids” for groups that put together their faith and practice by taking bits and pieces from previous religious traditions. If one wants a suggestive picture, think of a child assembling a little house by taking Lego pieces from several boxes. A synonym for “hybridization” is “syncretism,” though that term has a pejorative undertone, as when theologians deplore the pollution of the allegedly pure faith by alien accretions. Hybrids have existed throughout history, but where today religious pluralism coincides with religious freedom all sorts of hybrids emerge. 

While Berger may be more interested in more organized forms of religious hybrids, what he describes is happening all around us and without much control or even notice.  The advent of the internet and the invention of social media have had profound impact upon the religious beliefs of the folks in the pew.  The growing congregationalism (for all denominations) has made it possible for pastors to literally invent their own versions of what it means to be, say, a Lutheran.  While this was always true in the past, the present day has seen a flourishing and a new found legitimacy to such unofficial hybrids or, as might be more accurate, syncretism.

We could condemn such things but the real issue is not the tendency for people to infuse their own faith with influences from around them.  No, the real issue is ongoing and faithful catechesis.  The sad truth is that too many of our folks are so unsure as to what we believe, confess, and teach that they do not know or realize that their version of Lutheranism bears little resemblance to the reality of our Confessions.

Lutheranism in theory is always better and less messy than its practice.  That said, it does not justify the lack of a clarion sound to gather the people in an informed and deliberate way to raise them up in the faith of their baptism, confirmation, and church.  This is not incidental or trivial but part of the key to maintaining and sustaining the faith from one generation to another.

While I have no great expectation that our members will ever be well schooled in the entire Book of Concord, I do believe that they should have thorough familiarity with the Small Catechism and more than a passing awareness of the Augustana.  These are by far the two most pivotal parts of our confessional identity and these ought to be the ongoing concern of pastors and people in every Lutheran parish.  I would hope that from this interest in and instruction in some of the other documents of our Confessions would follow.  The Concordia version put out recently by CPH provides enough added information, context, and explanation to make the whole Book of Concord accessible for every lay person.  We have sold dozens upon dozens in my parish and I do encourage the reading of these documents that give the most profound expression to what we believe, confess, and teach as Lutherans. 

This is also the bulwark against the erosion of our faith.  The less we know about who we are, the easier it is for popular people and books to distance us from who we are and what we confess.  This is no small problem for the average parish pastor and it should be the concern of those who supervise doctrine and practice in our churches as well as those who prepare church workers for service within our churches.  The dilution of our identity is a constant threat and there is more to this than mere denominational loyalty.  It goes to the integrity of the Gospel and the unity of our faith and life -- both within the parish and across the boundaries of the church body.

Hybrids will always exist but they cannot be allowed to exist without an ongoing catechetical process to challenge and inform the syncretism that threatens to erase the very basis of who we are, what we believe, what is taught among us, and our public confession before the world.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Once Christian England. . .

Though I am a self-confessed Anglophile, it has not escaped my notice that a landmark moment in Britain has just passed. For the first time in recorded history, those declaring who claim no religion outnumber Christians in Britain. Although some 44% claim to be Christian and 8% another religion (Islam, most likely) a surprising 48% claim none. This decline of Christianity may well be the single greatest change to British identity, society, and culture in the past century. We all know that for some time Christianity has had a tenuous hold on the loyalty of its people and the precipitous decline in church attendance has made it a stretch to call Britain as a Christian country. Now it would seem that the statistics would require us to call Britain a secular nation with once prominent but now fading Christian institutions, loyalty, and identity.

This has not been an overnight surprise and although it has been slow in coming the final blow to Christian identity has come rather suddenly to many of us. For several generations it was claimed that although they were not attending church, there was still a deep and profound Christian identity among the populace.  The remnants of this once profound Christian identity still show up in public life and conversation -- some sort of spiritual life relates to the teachings of Jesus, children are still given a "Christian" name, and folks still say "God bless".   These things have come to mean less and less in terms of belief and practice and may now be mere remnants of a once strong Christian culture that has faded away, leaving Christians as a minority.

Less than a generation ago, but 15 years ago, 75% of Britons regarded themselves as Christians.  Whatever happened to erode this Christian identity and transform a once silent majority of private, non-churchgoing believers, the day has come.  Just 5 years ago, the number of Britons claiming no religion was only 25% and yet that has seen a stellar rise to the point where it may soon become an absolute majority.

While this has profound implications for life in Britain, it has even deeper implications and consequences for the Anglican Communion.  Surely those missions in Africa now look upon their mother church with more than sadness as they see how liberalism and a skeptical view of Scripture and tradition have slowly but surely turned a nation of predominantly Christians into an atheistic or agnostic land.  The tensions within the Anglican communion are made even more difficult by the fading glory of the Church of England and the people who once filled the pews.  I am ever so saddened by the decline of Christian identity there and in the rest of Europe and yet I cannot look across the pond, so to speak, without taking serious stock of what is happening within America.

Christianity is on its way to become an alien culture, a stranger to our land and values, and an exile communion.  It has surely been hastened by the same kind of shallow religion that was virtually inseparable from American civil religion (just as it was in Britain).  It will require many changes as we become a minority, even an unwelcome minority, in a nation and among a people intent upon ridding themselves from Christian identity and morality as if it were just so much baggage hindering the free exercise of will and desire.

When everyone does what is right in their own eyes, it is not only religion that suffers but the whole fabric of national identity and its common life of morality and civic virtue is soon to follow.  Pray, my brothers and sisters, that we remain faithful enough and strong enough to speak forth the Word of rescue to a culture intent upon killing itself.  And pray for Christians who remain in Britain and the rest of Europe.  He who endures to the end shall be saved....

Friday, June 24, 2016

Compare the pop Christian music to the Psalms...

Where have all the dark themes of sin, death, struggle, suffering, and pain gone?  You cannot find them in most pop Christian music or in the contemporary songs used by evangelicals (and others) in worship.  Listen to the Christian music of radio and praise bands and you will soon notice how light and fluffy popular Christian music has become.  It does not echo the deep wrestling with sin, struggle, and death like the great hymns of old and it surely represents a disconnect between the Biblical song/hymn book of the Psalms.

One author has called pop Christian music the cotton candy of modern Christian piety and worship.  He is not far off.  Too many make the worship wars over music a matter of style or of the instruments used to accompany this music.  That is not the case.  It is surely and strictly a matter of content -- do the joyful love songs of pop Christian singers and praise band worship show any connection to the hymns of old that dealt with pain, feeling distance from God, struggles and doubt, and even death?  Do the modern hymns wrestle with the dark side of mortal life as do the Psalms?  Does this present a false or distorted view and expectation of Christian faith and life?

A few weeks ago we sang "Be Still My Soul" and on the way out so many were dabbing tears from their eyes and bolstering themselves in the face of words that speak to the wounds and worries of authentic Christian life and to the power of the Gospel to speak peace when there is no peace.  That is not the only hymn to do so -- indeed the Lutheran Service Book is filled with them.  But this is not a mere contrast of pop Gospel songs with the sturdy hymns of old.  This is also about the disconnect between what many Christians listen to on their Ipods and phones and what they experience on Sunday morning with the Psalms, with Scripture itself.

Last month I had a couple of funerals and used in one Psalm 106 and in another Psalm 90.  Psalm 106 includes the urgent prayer for the Lord to remember the wounded, those who grieve the struggles of this mortal life and the loss of those whom they love.  Psalm 90 speaks not only of our hope but of the wrath of God, of the reality of sin, and of the God who would not only rescue us from our struggles but teach us to number our days and apply our hearts to wisdom.  Unless you limit yourself to Psalm 23 alone, the Psalms must be edited to prevent them from admitting and confessing the burdens of this mortal life, the reality of our daily and life-long struggles, and the sin that would surely condemn us for an eternity were it not for the mercy of God.

The problem with most pop Gospel music is not how it sounds (though the sensuality of the sound can indeed be an issue) nor is it with the instruments used to accompany it (though the lack of melodic instrument does condemn some of this music to hearing and not to singing).  The problem with most pop Gospel music is that it gives a completely false picture of our lives in Christ.  To put it in terms of CS Lewis books, where is the problem of pain, where is grief observed. . .   Brahms Requiem is certainly not the typical requiem in form or text and yet it is blunt, painfully blunt, about the we who have gone astray, about the flower that fades, about the number of days with which the Lord has afflicted us.  Read through the great hymns of old and they are certainly not Disney fantasy like so much of pop Christian music has become. 

Our people need to sing with the Psalmist and with the great hymn writers of old -- sing through the suffering, sing through the pain, sing in the longing for comfort, sing the plea for God to remember and deliver, and sing the promise of relief which we yearn to know.  Life in Christ is not easy.  It is not a cake walk.  When everything is going well, it often seems like we need God very little but when life comes crashing down upon us, when we know not how to pray or praise or what to say, then we need to hear from the Psalmist and from the hymns of old:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

We practice rites to know. . .

In a review of Dru Johnson's Knowledge by Ritual, Peter J. Leithart invites to a renewed connection between ritual and knowledge -- not the customary ritual and belief but ritual in serving of learning.  It is not a common connection to be sure but it is deep and profound.  Johnson's book is now on my reading list and I expect that many who practice ritual and teaching will be very interested in the ties.

In the end it is should not be a surprise.  Do we not learn by repetition and do our repetitions not form a stylized ritual?  I think here of a child learning his abc's or multiplication tables.  Or, if you want to reach back in time, my own learning of cursive by the repetition of stylistic cues from the old Palmer method and its icons of alphabet and form.  Leithart reminds us of the pianist who learns by repeatedly practicing the form and notes as a ritual of rehearsal that does not merely remind but informs and, informing, renders competence.

Epistemology and ritual are rarely considered together. They are often opposed (“mindless ritual”), and ritual is more often associated with belief than with knowledge. At best, ritual is understood as an expression of knowledge that has been arrived at by other means. Dru Johnson doesn’t think these positions do justice to either ritual or epistemology. In Knowledge by Ritual, he argues that human knowledge is “ritualed.” Ritualed knowledge isn’t some bizarre mystical form of knowledge but a central feature of scientific learning, modernity’s paradigm of knowledge acquisition. 

Johnson works with a general definition of ritual: It is “a practice that is scripted (usually by an authority) and performed by a subject.” In short, “rituals are something scripted and something done.” Epistemology has neglected ritual because it often assumes a mind-body dualism and has little interest in physical action. It focuses on propositional knowledge in the mind: “‘The sky is blue’ is true if the sky is in fact blue.” But this captures only a small slice of what knowing is. Drawing on the work of philosophers and neuroscientists, Johnson insists that our knowing is connected to what we do with our bodies. We don’t know as disembodied minds; without bodies and the tools by which we extend our bodies, we couldn’t know at all. Further, we don’t come to know in isolation but in community—specifically, in communal rites.

The rites and ritual of the Divine Service (Mass) are the deepest and most significant ways in which we not only practice what we believe but inform that faith, learning from the repetition knowledge as well as expressing our trust.  I confess that my children knew the liturgy well enough for them to sing its words in the car as we headed in the long trips to the grandparents.  While other children might be singing the theme songs from their favorite cartoons, mine were singing This is the Feast or the Sanctus or even the hymns (most assuredly adult and yet not far from the ability of a child to learn, sing, and rehearse the faith in this way).

One of the greatest dangers of the aliturgical forms of worship so popular among evangelicals and the evangelical wings of liturgical churches is that the loss is not merely to the memory but to the body of knowledge of the faith.  I can well recall sitting at a pastor's meeting debating some point when a pastor who had been silent asked, "what do we sing in the hymn?"  He then pointed us to the answer in the form of the words to a familiar Lutheran chorale that we routinely sang in our own parishes and together as a winkel.  I can well recall visiting in the nursing home and encountering residents whose memories had largely left them until we repeated the familiar words of the old Divine Service and the many stanzas of hymns memorized for catechism and then sung throughout their lives.  It was not merely a recollection of the past but the rehearsal of knowledge that was accessible to them by the rote of many Sunday mornings.  I could go on.

Any attempt at a sacramental theology that regards the authority of Scripture must reckon with this principle: we practice rites to know.”

That is exactly the point.  We practice rites to know -- to know who we are, what we believe, teach, and confess, and what it is that is eternal in the face of an ever changing world.  This is why it is so important to be in the Lord's House on the Lord's day and for the Divine Service to remain consistent even as it may incrementally change.  This is why it is so important for raising a child in the faith to bring them to the worship services of God's House.  This is why when our faith is tested and when our lives are in turmoil, we return to the old and the familiar we have learned so that the words may continue to instruct our hearts when we struggle most to believe and to endure in the faith.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Desecularization. . .

Maybe our current problem is therefore not that society is secularizing but rather the opposite—that the American church is finally being forced to desecularize. This will be painful. It will involve hard choices. It will involve increasingly obvious differences between the church and the world. It will not allow for compromise. But in the long run these will be good things.  From Carl Trueman writing in First Things. . . 

Carl Trueman is always a good read.  This is no different.  Amid the many advocating the hunkering down of a Christianity departing from the public square, Trueman raises a legitimate question.  Has the Church been secularized to the point where we have been far too comfortable with the culture in ways that have had less affect on them than it has on us?  I think he is on to something.  The pain that we feel as Christians being told to put up and shut up is as much the pain of a people accustomed to folks listening to us and to having some sway now having that access and seeming influence taken away from us.  That is to be sure but it is more than this.  American Christianity has allowed the culture to influence church and faith to the point where we feel this slight more personally.  After all, we adapted the Scriptures (and continue to adapt them) to fit the changing social mores of American life.  Having made accommodation, we feel the slight even more.  But rather than complaining, it ought to offer American Christianity the opportunity for some introspection and evaluation.  Or, to put it bluntly, as Trueman does, it may require us to desecularize and live more truthfully and faithfully to the Gospel than we have of late.

Accommodation has been for a long time the path of American Christianity.  We have too easily and too quickly become comfortable parading as the civil religion of American culture and life and have not felt the discomfort as we ought in wearing this ill-fitting clothing.  We have too easily and too quickly deferred to the prevailing winds of current morality and values which should have been called into question by our faithfulness to Scripture and tradition.  We have allowed the government to become the agent and means to address care for the orphan, widow, poor, immigrant, and every other social need -- even acceding to the requirements to minimize the imprint of the faith upon the programs we administered on behalf of the government.  Now the crunch time has come and American Christianity must decide whether to bow before the dictates of law and judicial opinion when they conflict with Scripture and tradition.  It will be interesting, though most certainly disappointing, to see where the individual denominations fall.

Trueman is absolutely correct in calling not merely American culture to account for its unfriendliness to the Gospel but he is even more profound in calling American Christianity to its own renewal of faith and life by desecularizing its kerygma, morals, values, and truth.  If we listen to the prophetic voices like Trueman there may yet be an opportunity for a great renewal of American Christianity though there is no guarantee whatsoever that such a renewal will ever result in the restoration of the seemingly friendly relationship between culture and Christianity that was once presumed.  Perhaps this would also be key to a new ecumenism not of minimalism of doctrine and truth but of a renewed commitment to Scripture and tradition.  As much as I hate to admit it, the prescription for our future lies less with forcing the public square to back away from its challenge to religion and more with our own renewal of faith, doctrine, and life in faithfulness to the Word of God and the catholic tradition.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What's in a name?

Sermon for Pentecost 5, Proper 7C, preached on Sunday, June 19, 2016.

    Names are not unimportant or incidental.  Names are the doors through which we know others and they know us.  Names are keys to community.  God makes Himself known to us by giving us His name, first to Moses to lead the people from slavery to freedom in the promised land and then to Jesus to leave us from slavery to freedom and then in baptism to mark us as the sons and daughters of God, freed from sin’s death in Christ to serve Him in all righteousness.
    Names are important.  The demons know Jesus by name and that names strikes fear in the demons.  Even demons have names.  In the Gospel for today Jesus is called by name by a demon and He calls out a demon by name and the result is that a man is set free.
    Demon, what is your name?  Though the power of evil would love to hide in the shadows, even demons have names and are called from darkness to light in Christ.  The devil appears to be anonymous to us but he cannot hide behind anonymity before God.  The Lord breaks through all barriers.  Even the demons cannot hide from God’s name or escape His power.  There is no refuge in this world, no place where God cannot see, and no power immune from His power.
    The demon presumes to have the upper hand.  He knows who Jesus is.  He threatens Jesus by exposing Him before the Lord is ready.  He will tell everyone who Jesus even when Jesus says to tell no one.  But Jesus shows His power.  He calls the demon to account.  What is your name?  It is not that Jesus did not know this demon but that Jesus shows His power by forcing the demon to expose his secrets.  Jesus addresses the demon by name and calls him from the person and sends the demon to his destruction.  This is no symbolic story.  God has come to call evil to account.  The Lord has come to address hell with His power.  The demon cannot resist or escape.  Neither can you.
    The Lord knows demons by name but God also knows YOU by name.  All the desires of our sinful hearts and the promise of technology not withstanding, there is no anonymity, no place to hide, nowhere to escape what God is doing.  We are either for Him or against Him, the enemies whom He will vanquish or the forgiven who He will save.  So, sinner, what is YOUR name?
     God has called you from your secret sins, from your fears and loneliness, from your hiding place and anonymity.  He has called you by name in the waters of your baptism.  He knows your sin and has owned that sin upon the cross.  He has marked you as His own, to live under Him in His kingdom now and even forevermore.  You are not a stranger to Him.  He has called you by name.
    His purpose is not to break you or to destroy you but to save you.  In His presence and under His name is grace that forgives the sins of the sinner and restores the fallen by absolution.  God knows our names and calls us by name to save us from our secrets.  He exposes our sin to His light so that the blood of Christ can cover us.  And we walk in the light so that secrets and sins and fear can no longer tempt us or destroy us.  We are His.
    In Christ the anonymous have a name and are called to life by that name.  Though the cemeteries are filled with people who are gone and forgotten, God cannot forget and when He remembers, He delivers the dead to everlasting life.  God has written your names in the Book of Life.  You cannot be forgotten and neither can God forget those who have gone before you and now rest from their labors.  God’s name is our hope and He knows our names so that He might redeem us forever.
    On this day when we remember the earthly vocation of those who would show us the heavenly Father, let us remember that there is no more solemn or sacred duty of a Dad than to teach his children to know the name of the Lord and to pray in the Lord’s name, the Lord’s word, Our Father who art in heaven. . .  This is the only eternal gift a father can give to his children.  Do all other things well but fail in this duty and a Dad has forgotten what ought to be first and foremost.  The child may fall away but give him something to come back to; trust the Spirit to work through the Word.  Speak that Word to them and teach them the only saving name under heaven and on earth.
    We live in a world of fear.  We fear turning on the news.  We lock our doors in fear.  We fear for what may happen to those we love.  We fear the evil that seems to be swallowing up our world.  Where do we turn?"  Do not fear.  God knows the demons by name.  He knows the hiding place of wickedness.  Darkness cannot prevent the Lord from calling evil to account.  God knows the names of all our enemies.  They have no place to hide from Him.  The day is coming when He will imprison the power of forevermore.
    Until then, be not afraid.  God knows YOU by name.  You wear God’s name by baptism and faith.  Your worries rest in the arms of the God who has promised to be your comfort in trouble, your peace in turmoil, and your security in the face of evil.  Do not be afraid.  His Spirit is with you.
    We have a God who calls us by name, who gives us His name so that we may pray to Him, who has promised to hear us in the name of Jesus, and has given us this name to speak boldly in witness before the world.  Do not be afraid.  God is triumphant.  Evil is undone. The demons are exposed.  God has made light to shine in the darkness.  Your names are written in the Book of Life with the ink of Christ’s blood.  You are not alone.  You are not on your own.  God cannot forget you.  His name rests upon you.  Do you fear.  The Lord is with you.  Amen.

Less stigma and more experimentation?

The results of a new study indicate that the numbers of exclusively gay men and women remain very small but the numbers of those who have experienced gay sex has increased -- perhaps an increase of bisexuality more than homosexuality.

A growing number of Americans are having gay sex, or at least admitting to it. And that's OK with more and more of us. "People over time are reporting more same-sex sexual experiences than ever before," said Brooke Wells, a social psychologist at Widener University's Center for Human Sexuality Studies.

The behavioral trend, reflected in an annual survey conducted between 1973 and 2014, was fueled largely by people who had sex with both men and women. There has been little change in the number of people reporting exclusively homosexual behavior.  The changes were reported Wednesday in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The research team included faculty from Widener, Florida Atlantic, and San Diego State Universities. A total of 33,728 people answered the survey over the 41-year period.

The number of U.S. adults who said they had at least one same-sex sexual partner doubled between the early 1990s - that question wasn't asked earlier - and the early 2010s, from 3.6 to 8.7 percent for women and from 4.5 to 8.2 percent for men. Bisexual behavior rose from 3.1 to 7.7 percent, accounting for most of the change.  The survey found that only 1.7 percent of men and 0.9 percent of women said they had exclusively homosexual sex.  Meanwhile, the percentage of respondents who said they believed same-sex behavior was "not wrong at all" rose dramatically, from 11 percent in 1973 and 13 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 2014.

Among men, the youngest and oldest generations had the smallest proportion reporting same-sex sex from 2010 to 2014: 7.5 percent. That compared with 8.2 percent of baby boomers and 9 percent of those in Generation X.  For women, same-sex experiences are much more common among those who are younger. Only 2.4 percent of women born before 1945 said they had had sex with another woman. More than 12 percent of Millennials and 11 percent of Generation Xers said in the latest surveys that they had done so.  Women who attended church once a month or more were less likely to have sex with other women.

Wells said there's no way of knowing whether behavior has changed or people are now more comfortable admitting what they're doing. It is probably some combination of the two.  The survey did not ask until very recently whether respondents identified as gay or bisexual, so researchers don't know whether respondents considered their behavior an experiment rather than a function of stable sexual orientation. The complex sexual attitudes of young people make that kind of labeling particularly difficult.

"More and more young people today are sort of rejecting those very strict labels of gay, straight, or bisexual and saying, 'I'm fluid or queer,' " Wells said.  "People are increasingly complicating the measurement."   Sexuality researchers say female sexuality tends to be more fluid than male and can change, in both directions, throughout the life span.

About 10 percent of Midwestern men reported same-sex experiences, compared with 4.5 percent in the East, 7.1 percent in the West, and 9.4 percent in the South. Among women, 11.3 percent of those in the West said they'd had a same-sex experience, compared with 7.4 percent in the Midwest, 7.9 percent in the East, and 8.3 percent in the South.
The freedom to experiment without necessarily labeling the person clearly does contribute to the results of this study but how much is hard to ascertain.  The fluid shape of sexuality (now no longer even remotely connected to love, marriage, or children) is surely another factor.  The changing landscape of friendship, the role of social media, and the decline in the support networks of church, friends, and family are also factors.  What we have is raw material to suggest that there are not all that many strictly gay men or women but there are growing numbers of folks who no longer feel any constraints against acting on sexual impulse or desire.  What is a surprise to me is that the higher numbers for men are found in the Midwest?!  So much for the old idea of solid Midwestern values and mores.  Or it may be testament to the fact that the Midwest is changing.  Somebody else will have to figure that one out.  What is clear is that the witness of Scripture and the teaching of Christian ethics is being effectively countered by the increasingly permissive and approving trend in society for people to do what feels good and not to feel bad about it or necessarily to be defined by it.

Monday, June 20, 2016

I loved death. . .

I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.
ST. AUGUSTINE, Confessions

If you remember those words from St. Augustine, then it gives you insight into why our world is so filled with evil, unabashed and unashamed evil.  The evil itself needs no enticement or instruction.  It is the nature of our hearts since the Fall of Adam.  We need no prompter to learn to sin and we need no tutor to learn the delight of it all.  St. Augustine is not speaking here theoretically but as one who went down that path without pause or hesitation.  He indulged himself not for lack of good parents or Christian upbringing or churchly instruction or moral example.  No, evil needs no excuse.  His self-destruction was his delight.  Perhaps we can learn from him.

We live in an age of vulgarity in which the things once merely whispered about are shouted at the top of the lungs, in which perversion is as familiar to the eye as it is to the mind.  We live in a time when good manners if not good morals might have kept some of this from the silver screen or TV or printed page or internet site.  Those good manners have left us and in their wake we see that there is no strong moral voice to counter the strong voice of self-indulgent wickedness.  We have no savior waiting in the wings to rescue our age from its own desires.  We have only us.  

The forces who will reclaim our world from its delight in the vulgar, sensual, and evil are the same forces who have always run counter to the prevailing winds of our self-destruction.  They are moms and dads who teach their children well, who impart to them the knowledge of God's glorious creation and instill in them a reverent sense of wonder, and who accompany this with the faith that both acknowledges our sin and rejoices in God's saving love in His Son.  The home was and always has been the fortress against the onslaught of evil that would steal our children's consciences and stretch their moral fiber to its breaking point.

We cannot await a national leader nor can we look to the Church to provide a messiah figure who will fix what is wrong.  It was and always has been keyed into the life of the home -- husband and wife whose love is strengthened by the confession and forgiveness of Christ and whose children learn from them what it means to believe and live as God's own baptized child.  
We can condemn what we see around us but we cannot forget that sin will test the heart until Christ comes again to finish His new creation.  Condemnation has to be heard for our sake as well as for the worlds but we need more than a "no."  We need to speak and live God's "yes" of mercy to forgive every sinner no matter how great the sin, of the new will strong enough to begin to control the mind, the heart, and the voice, and, of course, of the life that death cannot end and wickedness cannot doom.  We are the redeemed of the Lord, washed clean in the waters of baptism, confessing our faith in word and deed Sunday and every day.  We will always need to hear again what the world needs to hear for the first time.

That said, we cannot hide in some safe place of refuge.  God has not placed us here as the defeated awaiting our enemy but as those whose victory is assured, who are made bold to engage the world even at risk of persecution and martyrdom.  We are not here to hide the light or hoard the salt.  There is always risk in this but it is the risk of the faithful convinced that faithfulness is our only calling.  It may force us now and again to ask ourselves if the risk is worth it and we will surely need to rehearse the story both of the curse and the blessing, the destruction and our Savior.  But that is how it has always been -- at home in the family and together in the family of the Church.  We speak back to God and in the hearing of one another what God has first said to us -- the surest Word of all -- and it this speaking the Spirit creates faith, sustains it, and keeps it to everlasting life.

Evil needs no excuse or justification.  Faith needs no apology.  Once we learn that evil is not a problem solved with a program but with God's regeneration of the sinner dead in trespasses and sin, we will understand the fight.  Once we learn that faith is not an apology for God or for evil or for our weakness but its medicine and remedy, then we will understand what we need to do.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Unhindered. . .

I was reminded recently that the final word in the Greek text of the book of the Acts of the Apostles is (akolytos), an adverb that means unhindered.  The ordinary English text I use also ends Acts with this word, here translated without hindrance.  It serves as the fitting conclusion to Acts -- a book that begins with the unfolding of the promise of the Father and the gift of the Spirit in the name of Jesus.  With tongues as of fire and languages unlearned, the Gospel is first spoken to the world with the Holy Spirit infused in the words and the preaching.  From there we see how, as Franzmann so poignantly put it, the Word of the Lord grows.  It is the history of the unfailing and unstoppable progress of the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the place where the events of it happened, Jerusalem, to Rome, the imperial seat of government. It did not stop there.  Look at a map of where we think the apostles might have died and you see evidence of the Lord's fruitful Word.  Of course, this does not mean that the proclamation of the Gospel was easy, that the early Christians faced no opposition, or that its progress did not come at great cost to the witnesses (martyrs).  Yet in spite of opposition and enemies, in the face of persecution and threat, and in a world unfriendly to its cause, the Gospel triumphed in heart and home and within a few generations began to reshape the face of the entire world.

We so easily forget this history and the many roadblocks the Gospel had to traverse.  It is too easy for us to lament the times in which we live, to complain about the difficulty of our task as witnesses, and to write off the world with our righteous judgement.  It is too easy a thing to confuse earthly dominance with the advance of the Kingdom and to live in fear of those who can kill the body but cannot destroy the soul.  It is too easy a thing to run in desperation to the latest, newest, gimmick because we no longer have full confidence in God to do what He has promised.  It is too easy a thing to wrest from Him the control of the Kingdom and to replace the Word and the Spirit with programs and paradigms, efficiency and our own energy.

The disciples were surely disappointed when Jesus did not promise the restoration of Israel and an earthly kingdom of power, might, and glory.  But at some point their downcast hearts grasped hold of the promise and they were able to return to Jerusalem with joy.  That is surely the struggle we face today.  This is the silly season of churchly grandeur meeting in solemn assembly, acting through pious debate, to pass important motions.  I do not mean to mock or make fun of it at all.  It is surely serious business.  But the actions of the LCMS will not ensure the survival of the Gospel or the Church.  These belong to the promise and power of God alone.  Sometimes the best thing we can do is not to hinder them.  We do that by boldly confessing what is unpopular and out of step with the times but faithful and true for all eternity.  We do that by speaking without embarrassment the one and only saving Gospel -- not only to the world but to the baptized in the liturgical assembly around Word and Table.  We do that by striving for unanimity of confession and practice so that we do not present a confused picture to the world around us but a clear and positive portrayal of what it means to be Lutheran.  We do that not by trying to be new and different but consistent and predictable in preaching the Gospel faithfully, administering the Sacraments faithfully, and faithfully praying for and caring for the baptized (as clergy and lay).  We do that by being joyful in our task precisely when it appears that the statistics do not look good for the Lord will bring to fruition what we begin in His name and not the other way around.

The Gospel is unhindered not because we have unlocked the keys to marketing success or because we have mastered the task of making disciples.  No, indeed, the Gospel is unhindered only because it is the Word of the Lord, the domain of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord is at work where two or three or thousands are gathered and where the Scriptures are proclaimed faithfully.  The Church will endure but the LCMS may not.  And if we do not endure, let it not be because we were distracted by novelty or were disillusioned by the outcome because we presumed that faithfulness would be accompanied by earthly dominance.  Structures will come and go but the Word of the Lord, the Kingdom of God, and those whose names are written in the Book of Life are forever (according to God's design and promise).  If we focus on this Gospel with confidence that the Lord will finish His new creation as He desires, then the end of the LCMS need not be mourned.  If every few years or so we get together to remember this and to commit ourselves anew to faithfulness in witness and in life together, then that is the best thing that can come from our convention.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Will it happen or not?!?

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod meets regularly -- every three years now and possibly every four after 2019 if the delegates agree.  It is a huge endeavor involving pastoral and lay delegates from all the Circuits of the LCMS and a host of details involved in it all are more than I can consider.  Yet for all that has gone into the plans for the 2016 LCMS Convention in Milwaukee in July, it is nothing compared to the leg work that went into the planning and preparation for the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church.  This event has been in process for for more than half a century and, we think will take place at the Orthodox Academy of Crete on June 19-26, 2016. The dates of the Council were unanimously approved by all autocephalous Orthodox Churches in March 2014.  So you would think this might be smooth sailing, right?  Maybe not.

Now there is word that some churches are withdrawing and others are contesting the rules and fighting the details of what the council is supposed to do and how it will render any decisions.  I guess maybe the infighting in Missouri is not quite as bad as I thought.  Well, it could be that the Orthodox are simply out of practice on how to meet and fight and smile at the same time.  In any case it makes for an interesting thing to watch.

The decision of several churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, to withdraw from the Council reveals a difference of opinion and intention among the churches. A majority of the local churches desire to “walk together” (the literal meaning of the word “synod” or council) towards unity, while a minority desire ethnic isolation. The Council must not and will not be postponed due to this minority. Nor will the nonparticipation of a minority invalidate the proceedings of the Council.

While the official representatives of all Orthodox Churches have supported the idea of conciliarity in principle, some have attempted to block the conciliar process in practice. Importantly, the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) have insisted on a very strict interpretation of the consensus rule by which all conciliar decisions are to be made. The Moscow Patriarchate would require the total unanimity of all church delegations—and even of every bishop within each delegation. This interpretation of consensus departs from the Church’s tradition, in which decisions are made by majority vote or public acclamation. For example, the local council and the bishops’ council of the Russian Orthodox Church require a quorum of two-thirds of members, not total unanimity. 

On the basis of this strict interpretation of consensus, the Moscow Patriarchate argues that the Council cannot go forward, because the Churches of Bulgaria, Antioch, and Georgia have all withdrawn, citing disagreements over Council documents and procedures. Under these conditions, and given its definition of consensus, the Moscow Patriarchate sees no reason to hold a Council. It argues that a conference should be held instead, to settle the contested issues so that the Council can be held at a later date with all churches in attendance.
I would say to watch the internet for live coverage but I expect there won't be any.  I would say that this is a once in a lifetime event for those of us who have not ever seen such an assembly but it is still threatening to unravels.  So watch for the news or the lack of it from Crete (BTW not Crete, Nebraska, home of Doane College, nominally Lutheran, but the island in the Mediterranean).  It is supposed to begin on Father's Day and end the following Sunday.  Imagine how you would feel if you had planned for something for 50 years and thought all the ts were cross and every i dotted only to find out there were some serious hitches after all.   I do not know about the rest of you LCMSers but it all makes our triennial convention seem rather pedestrian.  All in all, I would rather have been in Crete on June 19 than in Milwaukee on July 8.  Just sayin. . . .

Friday, June 17, 2016

So much sadness when one departs the faith. . .

Anthony Sacramone is an author whom I have much enjoyed over the years.  From Strange Herring to First Things to simply Anthony Sacramone, he has delighted us with wit, with curiosity, with erudite thinking, and with honest questions.  That said, I am sad to report that he has left the faith and abandoned all thought of God and religion.
Since roughly 2001 I’ve been writing about religion—specifically Christianity, more specifically my journey from Lutheran acolyte to teen skeptic to evangelical to wanna-be Catholic to Lutheran again. The links below reflect as much a struggle with what constitutes the Faith as they do an affirmation of that faith. Some time in 2015, however, that struggle ended, pretty much where it began in my teens, in utter skepticism.
One day, should enough people care, and the proper venue provide itself, I will attempt a more thoroughgoing explanation of what happened, of the internal revolution that has left me with no more confidence that the New Testament is reliable, inspired, true, or “inerrant” than I do that astrology, Marxism, or the Happy Healthy Vegan Kitchen is reliable, inspired, true, or inerrant.  If you are surprised or stunned by that last sentence, believe this: no more than I.
 If you want his whole story, you can read it here. . .

For what it is worth, he is not alone in wanting a sanitized version of Christianity, without competing claims, without competing denominations, without questions, and without doubts.  We would all love that.  But that is not what we have.  We have a messy history of sinners who have repackaged God's Word with their own intellectual wonderings and presuppositions.  We have a messy church complete with sinners who are intent upon excusing and justifying their own sins while they demonize and highlight the sinners of others.  We have a messy life of faith in which doubts, fears, and temptations constantly assault our faith complete with the powerhouse of evil and its demonic force to wrest the kingdom from us.  What we have is not a nice neat story or a Scripture without debate or a holy church of righteous people.  We have the Savior who redeems us and the Spirit who leads us to the Father and to our restored relationship with our Creator.  We have the Church where Christ has made Himself known and accessible through the means of grace.  The ever present question in the mind of every Christian is, is this enough?

If I were to fault Mr. Sacramone or others whose intellect and reading have helped to encourage the doubts, it would be the complaint about giving into the skepticism of modernity and into the presumption of intellectual progress that thinks we are better placed to question truth than those who went before us.  I believe Mr. Sacramone deposits too much weight to the intellect and gives too much deference to reason and a reasoned truth behind the revelation.  Reason need not be an enemy of faith but it usually is.  They say that the last part of us to be converted is our wallets.  I think the wallet is easy to reach than the curiosity of the mind and its design for a thoroughly reasonable and logical God, Church, and faith.  While we yearn for consistency and clarity in truth, history, Scripture, morality, and righteousness, we have only the consistency of the God yesterday, today, and forever the same to hold onto as our anchor of hope.

No one can read themselves into believing.  The Spirit is the key to faith.  Sacramone knew this once as a Lutheran (Luther's explanation to the Third Article of the Creed remains pivotal in this:  I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.)  We can certainly read and think ourselves out of the faith but it is the Spirit who imparts this faith to us, who keeps us in this faith, and who will deliver us blameless before the throne of God on the day of judgment.

I grieve for those who once knew with joy the promise of the resurrection along with the gift of forgiveness but now are empty of faith and hardened to the Spirit and belief.  Jesus Himself spoke of this when describing the seed of the Word and its various soils.  If not the cares and concerns of this day, then the curiosity of the intellect and the presumption of reason will eventually choke off and kill the budding faith the Spirit has planted -- unless we are willing to trust what our eyes cannot see, what our minds cannot comprehend, and what our reason finds eminently unreasonable.  Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.  I know of no more urgent and practical prayer than this.

Yet I am not as willing as Mr. Sacramone to consign his faith once confessed as aberration and history.  God is not finished with us yet.  If you know him and are part of the household of faith, pray for him.  If you do not know him, pray for him and for all those who have reasoned themselves out of believing, choosing the certainty of doubt over the confidence of faith.  They are many.  They are friends and family, sons and daughters.  We have surely disappointment them with our petty squabbles over insignificant things and our casual attitude toward the profound truths of God's Word.  We have bickered ourselves into camps that compete as if it were a game in which God will smile upon the smartest and smuggest of us all.  We have forgotten or chosen not to acknowledge the catholic faith over the whim of the moment and made feelings the highest measures of faith and life in Christ against the means of grace themselves.  We have handed God, faith, and the Church to our brightest and most intellectually gifted people as if these were projects of our own creation and refinement.  We are to blame for this but this is not the ultimate reason why people fall from faith.

People fall from faith because they choose to see with eyes more than faith, with the reason of the mind rather than captivity to the Word, and because they allow skepticism and doubts more room in them than the Spirit who works faith in us.  Mr. Sacramone has the intellectual honesty to admit that his path from faith has been fueled by authors, skeptics, and deniers who have published their doubts as if they were the truest of truths and have laid all of this at the doorstep of unbelief rather than surrendering them to the cross and to the Spirit.  There but for the grace of God go most of us.

Ultimately I believe not because I choose to, but because I have no choice.  I am captive to the confines of this mortal life and subject to death.  I have watched my loved ones die in my presence and I burn for hope that this is not the mere measure of their existence.  I am fearful of the darkness within my heart and the evils I cannot control and am compelled by this fear to seek Him who is greater than my sins, my wicked thoughts, my selfish desires, and my dalliance before the altar of pleasure.  I am a Christian because I have no other place to go.  Like Peter of old, I have surveyed the landscape of humanity, the timeline of history, the choices around me.  You, Lord, have the words of eternal life.  So here I am.  My doubts in hand, my fears following behind, and my limitations painfully acknowledged.  God have mercy upon me, a sinner. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Matthew Harrison is re-elected!

The Bylaws of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) instruct the Secretary of the Synod to notify the candidates in the Synod’s presidential election of the results of the balloting at least two weeks prior to the convention. The candidates were informed earlier today, June 15, of the results of the June 11–14 ballot, and those results are now made public as received from Election-America, the Garden City, NY company that provided the Internet voting site and conducted the balloting.

For President:     Matthew C. Harrison      3,507 votes (56.96%)

                          David P. E. Maier                393 votes (6.38%)

                          Dale A. Meyer                  2,257 votes (36.66%)

Total Votes Cast:       6,157

Total Electorate:       7,348

Percentage Voted:     83.79%        

A majority of votes cast is required for election. Matthew C. Harrison, having received 56.96 percent of the votes cast, is the President-elect of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod for a third term of office, 2016–2019.

Raymond L. Hartwig, Secretary

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod


The election of a President for the Missouri Synod is by nature political (as it is for most church bodies that elect officers). Politics is not necessarily a bad thing; it can be. To say that it is a political act is simply to affirm that the judgment of who should serve as the leader is a decision and choice made by the polis, by the people or citizens. In our Synod we replaced the convention delegates as electors in favor of a pastoral and parish vote (provided that they attended the District Convention prior to the election). There is a movement to expand the electors to include every congregation and not simply a parish (which may be made up of two or more congregations yoked together with one or more pastors). I believe this will probably pass and with it the removal of a requirement to attend the previous District Convention of which the pastor and congregation hold membership.

That said, politics involves competing ideas and values. While some fear this, I believe that it is a good thing for us to consider not only the character of the man we elect to lead our church but also the ideas and values that shape his vision for our church body. Where politics falls down is when threat, innuendo, and charges are used to taint one or more candidates. This always happens to one degree or another. This is not a good thing. If there is a substantive reason why someone should not be a candidate and a party knows facts that would call into question the character and integrity of an individual, that becomes an issue that cannot simply be used as fodder for the campaign for or against another. Such charges deserve a fair hearing and should not be used to discredit someone simply for the sake of an election.

This election cycle saw some of the typical campaigning and some extraordinary things as well. Unlike other elections when groups commonly sent forth missives to change minds and affect the outcome of an election, this time we saw a couple of people, a group of district presidents, and a single individual try to affect the outcome. I certainly do not deny their right to campaign for their ideals and for the individuals they believe are best suited to advance those ideals. What characterized some of this campaigning was more than advocating for positions but personal attacks on an individual's character. In the end, I do not think such things aided the cause of those who wished to change the direction of Synod and unseat Pres. Harrison. I think that the people found such attacks to be unseemly and discouraged them from taking their points seriously or finding their charges credible. It is my hope that this will discourage such last minute attacks and remind us that for the process to have integrity, the people involved in that process must act with unassailable integrity.

Those who know me know I believe Pres. Matthew Harrison remains the best man for this time in our Synod's life. I have known him to be a scholar, a theologian, a good judge of character (seen by those whom he has selected to lead with him), and a man of integrity. I also believe Pres. Dale Meyer and Pres. David Maier to be honorable men. I believe our church body was privileged to have good people to choose from and now that this choice has been made, it is my prayer that we unite together toward the larger work of what our Synod was formed to do:
1. Conserve and promote the unity of the true faith (Eph. 4:3–6; 1 Cor. 1:10), work through its official structure toward fellowship with other Christian church bodies, and provide a united defense against schism, sectarianism (Rom. 16:17), and heresy;
2. Strengthen congregations and their members in giving bold witness by word and deed to the love and work of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and extend that Gospel witness into all the world;
3. Recruit and train pastors, teachers, and other professional church workers and provide opportunity for their continuing growth;
4. Provide opportunities through which its members may express their Christian concern, love, and compassion in meeting human needs;
5. Aid congregations to develop processes of thorough Christian education and nurture and to establish agencies of Christian education such as elementary and secondary schools and to support synodical colleges, universities, and seminaries;
6. Aid congregations by providing a variety of resources and opportunities for recognizing, promoting, expressing, conserving, and defending their confessional unity in the true faith;
7. Encourage congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice, but also to develop an appreciation of a variety of responsible practices and customs which are in harmony with our common profession of faith;
8. Provide evangelical supervision, counsel, and care for pastors, teachers, and other professional church workers of the Synod in the performance of their official duties;
9. Provide protection for congregations, pastors, teachers, and other church workers in the performance of their official duties and the maintenance of their rights;
10. Aid in providing for the welfare of pastors, teachers, and other church workers, and their families in the event of illness, disability, retirement, special need, or death. (emphasis added).