Sunday, July 23, 2017

Consumer oriented religion. . .

The marketplace is a buzz with words on what the Church is doing wrong, how we are failing as a welcoming community for all people and not simply for the traditional family, and what we can do to improve the lot of our people.  Underneath it all is a betrayal of the very raison'd'etre of Christianity and the Church.  The Church has become a sort of social enterprise whose goal is the accumulation of people from the desired demographics and the tool to reach them has become a marketing technique.  The Church has become its programs instead of the body of Christ and success is gauged more by the happiness of its people than by its faithfulness to Christ.  We all know this.  I am not herald of unknown wisdom.  It has been the history of evangelicalism and of their wannabes for a long time, perhaps generations, but it is even more the domain of a consumeristic religion that fits our American ideals of a free marketplace and of individual choice.   Even Rome is being influenced by those who want it to be the Church for gay Catholics and for others who do not fit the traditional family mold.

A Christian community is not recognized for the way it deliberately and effectively reaches out to all people to reflect their wants, values, preferences, and desires.  No, indeed.  A Christian community is oriented not to people and their desires or preferences but to Christ and His Word.  Perhaps it is true that the Church has shaped itself toward a desired market but that is not something we should be celebrating or lauding.  Our goal cannot be to make people feel at home.  Our goal must be to address them with the means of grace through which Christ works and through which the Spirit plants faith.  Our goal cannot be to satisfy a market niche or even every market.  Our goal must be to create a place where the Word of God is preached in all its truth and purity, where people receive the Sacraments through which Christ delivers Himself and all the fruits of His atoning work, and where they are called to the new vocation of life as the baptized children of God.

The Church will not succeed with new programing or different programing or even with any programing (that exists for any goal except knowing Christ and making Him known).   We were not established to be an effective community organization or to promote relevant and effective programs or to satisfy the desires or wants or preferences of any and all target groups.  Christ has established His Church, His bride, to be faithful to Him.  This faithfulness is identified by fealty to the Word.  For whatever reason, perhaps most because we simply do not trust Christ to do what He has promised, we in the Church feel compelled to supplement the Word or even displace it with something more welcoming, more relevant, and more akin to the expressed wants and needs of the people we are trying to reach. 

Even when trying to be faithful to Christ it is easy to be sucked into the idea that programs are the goal, effective programs and even faithful ones.  Even faithful goals and purposes like catechesis can become the kind of programs whose appeal is designed more for the satisfaction of the participant than faithfulness to the Word.  Even worship, perhaps especially worship, has become a tool, a program, and means toward another end -- something different from being the arena of the Word and Sacraments through which Christ sends forth His Spirit and calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies His Church.  Some churches are programing geniuses and the rest of us live in envy and jealousy of the grand and glorious way they appeal to people, answer their wants, make them feel at home, and supply them with whatever it is they think they need at this moment.  But under it all their success is the failure of the Church to be the Church.  Marketing the Gospel or the congregation is hardly what we need to be about.  As if the Lord depended upon our marketing expertise to bring His product to market and make it a sales success!  What the Lord asks of us seems to be the thing we find it hardest to give -- trust, faithfulness, and obedience.  But if that is what the Church will give Him, He will accomplish what He desires and we will have had a part to play in it all.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

8 Modern Errors to Know and Avoid. . .

Some time ago, Msgr Charles Pope, always well spoken, wrote in the National Catholic Reporter of 8 errors of the modern age that have crept into the Church.  It is not a list for Roman Catholics only.  We can find enough evidence that Lutherans suffer from the same errors.

It is a list worth sharing (I have shortened the original post but you can read it all here):

8 Modern Errors Every Catholic Should Know and Avoid

These are only eight. I am just getting started. I hope you will add to the list and define carefully what you identify. But for now, consider this eightfold list of modern errors that are common even in the Church.

1. Mercy without reference to repentance – For too many today, “mercy” has come to mean, “God is fine with what I am doing.” But true mercy does not overlook sin, it presupposes it, sees it as a serious problem, and offers a way out of sin. God’s mercy is his way of extending a hand to draw us out of the mire of sin.

One of the chief errors today is the proclamation of mercy without reference to repentance. Sadly, this is common, even in the Church. It is far too common to hear sermons on mercy with no reference
This error of mercy without reference to repentance is widespread in the Church today and leads to the sin of presumption, a sin against hope.

2. Staurophobia – The term staurophobia comes from Greek roots and refers to a fear of the Cross (stauros = cross + phobia = fear). Within the Church this error emerges from reticence by Catholics to frankly discuss the demands of discipleship. It reveals a strong hesitation to insist that even hard things are often the best the proper thing to do.

Many Catholics, including priests and bishops, are downright fearful when pointing to the demands of the cross. When the world protests and says, “Are you saying that those with same-sex attraction cannot get married or be sexually intimate but must live a kind of celibacy?!” The honest answer is, “Yes, that is what we are saying.” But since that answer is hard and rooted in the Cross, many Catholics are dreadfully afraid of a straight-forward, honest answer. The same is true for other difficult moral situations such as Euthanasia (in spite of suffering, we are still not free to take our life or that of another), abortion (despite difficulties and even in cases of rape and incest we are still not free to kill a child in the womb), and divorce and remarriage (in spite of unfortunate developments in a marriage, this does not mean that one is free to leave one marriage to enter another).

Staurophobia also makes many hesitant to issue correction within the Church and in families. There is almost a cringing fear of insisting on any demands or requirements or of even issuing the mildest of punishments or corrective measures. Things like this might upset people and that is one of the worst outcomes for a staurophobic who fears any sort of suffering, for themselves or others. They fail to see a redemptive quality in insisting on the demands of the cross.

3. Universalism – Universalism is the belief that most, if not all people are going to be saved in the end. This is directly contrary to our Lord’s own words wherein he sadly attests that “many” are on the road that leads to destruction and “few” are on the narrow and difficult road that leads to salvation (See Matthew 7:14, Luke 13:23-30). Dozens of parables and other warnings also come from our Lord in this regard and the straight-forward teaching of the Lord makes it clear that we must soberly accept that many, and not a few are going to be lost unless we, by God’s grace urgently summon them to Christ and to authentic discipleship.

4. Deformed Dialogue – The term “dialogue” has come to mean an almost endless conversation. As such it lacks a clear goal to convince the other. It usually just means “talk.” In our culture merely talking is given a lot of credit.

While talking is not bad per se, it can substitute mere action for a true goal. In the New Testament is it used more often in the context of giving testimony and of trying to convince others the Gospel (e.g. Acts 17:2, 17 and 18:4).  But, as noted, in our times dialogue can actually stall conversion and given the impression that all sides have valid stances and that merely “understanding” the position of the other is praise-worthy. Understanding may have value, but mostly is of value to lay a foundation for conversion to the truth of the Gospel.

Dialogue is a tool, not a goal, it is a method, not a destination. And as a method, dialogue (in its original meaning) is a vigorous, dynamic and joyful setting forth of the Gospel, not a chatty and (seemingly) endless conversation.


5. Equating Love with Kindness – Kindness is an aspect of love. But so is rebuke; so is punishment; as is praise. Yet today many, even in the Church, think of love only as kindness, affirmation, approval, encouragement, and other positive attributes. But true love is, at times, willing to punish, to insist on change, and to rebuke error.

Yet the modern age, equating love with mere kindness says, “If you really love me you will affirm, even celebrate, what I do.” In this sort of climate, when Church teaching does not conform with modern notions of sexuality, for example, the Church is accused of “hate” simply because we do not “affirm” what people demand we affirm. Identity politics (where people hinge their whole identity and dignity on a narrow range of behaviors or attributes) intensifies the perception of a personal affront.

But instead of standing our ground and insisting that setting love and truth in opposition is a false dichotomy, most Catholics cave and many also come to believe that love can be reduced to mere kindness. Many of them take up the view of the world that the Church is unkind and therefore mean or even hateful. Never mind that Jesus said things that were, by this standard, unkind, and that he often spoke quite frankly about sin (beyond mere social justice and pharisaical attitudes to include things such as sexual sin, adultery, divorce, unbelief and so forth). No, forget all that, because God is love, and love is kindness and kindness is always pleasant and affirming. Therefore they conclude that Jesus couldn’t really have said many of the things attributed to him. This error reduces Jesus to a harmless hippie and misconstrues love by equating it with mere kindness and unconditional affirmation.


6. Misconstruing the nature of tolerance – Most people today equate tolerance with approval. Therefore, when many demand or ask for “tolerance” what they really demand is approval.
But tolerance is from the Latin tolerare: to put up with, countenance, or suffer. As such it refers to the conditional endurance of, or at least non-interference with beliefs, actions, or practices that one considers to be wrong. One might tolerate them to some degree to prevent, for example, severe enforcements or draconian penalties, unnecessary intrusion into privacy, etc. But if the objection component is missing, we are not speaking of “toleration” but of “indifference” or “affirmation.”

It does not properly reverence God’s moral vision. Instead of joyfully and zealously announcing the truth as revealed by God, many adopt a false tolerance that is indifferent to truth or even affirms error. And then, to top it off they congratulate themselves for the “moral superiority” of their tolerance. In fact, it is more likely sloth that is at work. Sloth in this case is an aversion to undertake the arduous task of speaking the truth to a doubting scoffing world.

Catholics also need to sober up a bit and realize that when many today demand tolerance from us, they have no intention of extending it to us. Many of the same interest groups that demand tolerance are working to erode religious liberty and are increasingly unwilling to tolerate religious views in the public square. Our consistent caving to demands for false tolerance have only help to usher in a great darkness and pressure to conform to or approve of serious sin.

7. Anthropocentrism – This term refers to the modern tendency to have man at the center and not God. It has been a long tendency in the world ever since the Renaissance. Sadly, though it has deeply infected the Church in recent decades.

This is especially evident in the Liturgy, not intrinsically, but as practically and widely celebrated. Our architecture, songs and gestures, incessant announcements, and congratulatory rituals are self-referential and inwardly focused. The liturgy, as commonly celebrated seems more about us than God.  It is never good, especially in the Church, to consign God to the margins. This marginalization of God is evident not only in the liturgy, but in parish life which is often top-heavy with activism rooted in the corporal works of mercy, but little attention to the spiritual works of mercy. Social organizations predominate, but it hard to find interest in Bible Study and other spiritual works devoted to God.

Announcing God through vigorous evangelization work is also rare and the parish seems more a clubhouse than a lighthouse. Human beings are important, Christian humanism is a virtue, but anthropocentrism is a common modern error rooted in excess. The worship of God and the spread of his kingdom is too little in evidence in many parishes. Parents too seem more focused on the temporal wellbeing of children, on their academic standing and so forth, but less concerned overall with the spiritual knowledge or wellbeing of them.  God must be central if man is to be truly elevated.

8. Role reversal – Jesus said that the Holy Spirit whom he would send to us would convict the world (see John 16:8). And thus, the proper relationship of a Catholic to the world is to have the world on trial. St. Paul says, Test all things. Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thess 5:21-22). So, again, the world is to be on trial based on the light of the Gospel.

But too often Catholics have things reversed and put the Word of God and the teachings of the Church on trial, judging them by the perspective of the world. We should judge all things by the light of God. And yet it is common to hear Catholics scoff at teachings that challenge worldly thinking or offend against worldly priorities. Many Catholics have tucked their faith under their political views, worldviews, preferences and thoughts. If the faith conflicts with any of these worldly categories, guess which usually gives way.

Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels. (Mk 8:38). But many are ashamed of the Lord’s teachings that do not conform to worldly and popular notions.

All of this amounts to a tragic role reversal wherein the world and its notions overrule the gospel. It should be the world that is convicted by the Holy Spirit. Instead we put very God himself in the role of defendant. It should not be so. Do not be deceived: God will not be mocked. Whatever a man sows, he will reap in return. The one who sows to please his flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; but the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Gal 6:7-8)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pro LBGTQ Priest Appointed Bishop






Fr. John Dolan, a pro LGBT priest, has been appointed by the Vatican to be an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of San Diego.

In the announcement of Dolan’s appointment, his pastoral work with the LBGT community was repeatedly mentioned.  Dolan has been the diocesan vicar for clergy and pastored two churches, including the welcoming St. John the Evangelist parish in the Hillcrest neighborhood where many of San Diego’s LGBT residents live. Bishop Robert McElroy last year acknowledged the parish as a place where LGBT people have said they “feel particularly welcome” and, according to McElroy, “that’s a very good thing.”

Dolan has described his experiences with LGBT communities at St. John the Evangelist as “an eye-opening experience. . .but also a joyful experience.” These experiences led him to suggest LGBT issues were the “elephant in the room” at San Diego’s 2016 diocesan synod. Highlighting problems in how the church approaches younger Catholics, Dolan commented:

” ‘There are two different forms of doing church. . .One is very dialogical, from a dialogical sense, and the other is from a monological sense. And we have dealt with that monological world: Things come from on high, they get shelved in some pastor’s corner, then there’s some thought that comes down, but ultimately it’s all ‘We’re going to tell you what to think.’ . . .  "‘Young adults have an acceptance of the LGBT experience. It is simply a part of their world, and they look at us, and say, “What is the problem?” ‘ “

Notably, Bishop McElroy also affirmed the need to address such issues; McElroy is himself a Francis appointee.  The pope’s influence on the U.S. episcopate is continuing to grow. Among the “Francis Bishops,” Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky offered scriptural reflections at New Ways Ministry’s national Symposium, and Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich has made repeated positive comments about LGBT people. There are presently eight vacant dioceses, and several dozen bishops approaching the age of mandatory retirement.


Sooooo. . . does anyone have any real doubts about the intentions of Pope Francis?  It seems that he is moving to change the way the Roman Catholic Church deals with gay Roman Catholics and their families but it is not only a matter of a change in practice.  Furthermore, the LBGT community is not  about to be contented with images and wants concrete change -- from the regular communion of gay Roman Catholics who are married according to secular rules to the outright approval of same-sex marriages within the Church.  Wait and see. . .

Thursday, July 20, 2017

I scream at screens. . .


Technology begs us to follow and, too often, we do.  We rush down the untrod path of what is possible without a thought to what the cost might be down the road.  I love screens -- the bigger the better!  At least at home when I am watching Netflix or TV.  Who wants to watch a big screen intended movie on a handheld device?!  Or try to follow sports on a small screen where a bug or spot on the screen ends up being bigger than the player?! But not at church.  Give your people a break from their technology.  Don't clutter up a 19th century gothic chancel with some slick screens above or on either side (perhaps both?).  But this is not about aesthetics.  This is about the cost you pay when the hymnal is cast aside in favor of a big screen.  Far from freeing us from anything, the screen holds us captive to our technology and steals from us a corporate memory and witness handed down on the pages of the hymnal.  The cost of screens is greater than you might imagine.

You lose touch with those who went before you.  A hymnal embodies the witness in song of the saints who went before you.  The hymns collected through the ages are generally the best of the best.  They have been vetted for content and proven by usage so that they represent the best of the past.  No one is suggesting that we not add to the body of hymns we have received from those who went before us but great hymns are not revealed by their popularity in the moment.  The hymnal adds to the body of our hymnody carefully and only after a hymn has been judged worthy both in the faith it sings and its ability to be sung. A new hymnal is produced every generation or so and this prevents the songs of the people from becoming captive to one generation.  Do you want to be judged by one snapshot moment of your life?  Should we judge the faith and worship by such a moment captured in time?  It is good thing to learn the songs of the saints before you put pen to paper to write your own.  Ditch the hymnal and it is much more likely (almost universal) that you will exchange the witness of the saints before for the newest and most popular in the moment.

You lose the ability to memorize the songs.  The screen has no memory.  Those who are captive to the screen have the memory of the screen.  We know plenty of new songs through the screen -- songs that have not yet made it into print and published into a book -- but we lose our familiarity with the songs of faith we know.  Remember those movies when people were lost on some desert island?  They tried to remember the sacred texts of old and kept repeating them as they thought they went but without books they were left with a mishmash of things remembered.  Our memories are corrupted and emptied unless we refresh our memories and nothing does that more powerfully than reading (singing) from a book. How many of us can keep the great hymns in our memory without regularly singing them or reading them from the pages of a hymnal?  PowerPoint screens are great for a visual image but hard on our ability to know and recall the hymns of old and the songs of the moment.

You lose the ability to sing and the desire to sing.  Contemporary Christian music is sung best by the band and its song leader.  Unlike the metrical hymns of old, CCM is filled with accidentals and suspended rhythms and begs us to listen more than it compels us to sing.  Add to this the fact that schools do not teach us to sing as they once did and we find ourselves as people in the pew without the ability and lacking the desire to add our voices to those bellowing at us through the giant speakers that accompany those giant screens.  Volume has become the substitute for knowing the lyrics and melody.  We hear the background more than we hear the voices.  We feel the beat more than we sing the words.  The use of screens in combination with CCM begs the congregation not to join in but to clap along or sway to the rhythm of the song.  Churches have become concert halls and the music of those churches has become entertainment.

You lose the ability to carry the songs of faith with you.  Without WiFi or music on our phones, the songs of our faith are absent from where we are throughout the week.  Perhaps that is why it is so gosh darned important that we have data on those smarphones and free WiFi wherever we sip our Starbucks or eat our scones.  Though hymnals tend to be found in neat little racks on the back of pews, books are portable and do not require much technology.  Plus we do not need bluetooth speakers to share them.  Hymnals are made to be shared.  At home, in the classroom, in the hospital room, and wherever else we do.  Perhaps the greatest loss we suffer due to screens is that the hymnal no longer informs or shapes the common devotional life of the family.  Whether Lutheran or Pentecostal, the home was once a place where the faith was sung together and one of the most profound means to passing on the faith to our children was singing from a hymnal at home.

Argue with me if you want but the sad truth is that Lutheran screens are dominated not with the great hymns of old but with the newest of worship songs.  The ability and desire to sing has waned as music in worship has become more for a spectator group than a participating congregation.  The faith that once shaped us through our hymnals and informed our devotional lives at home is now informed and defined by the popular Christian artists of the sound track or radio.  Like the tendency for contemporary worship to abandon the rich and deep body of Scripture that surrounds us in liturgy, readings, and sermon and replace it with a theme text, CCM in worship has become a theme song that feeds us with little samples while the 20 course meals of the hymns with that many stanzas fed us for a lifetime.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Prayer for Growth. . .



Sermon for Pentecost 5, Proper 10A, preached on Sunday, July 16, 2017, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich

          Today’s prayer is a memorable because it’s a vivid prayer.  In the Collect of the Word we pray that God would grant us to hear, read, mark, and learn His Word.  We vividly pray that we’d inwardly digest His Word, that we’d eat it, taking it into our bodies for nourishment.  Like our table prayers where we thank God for our food and ask that it nourish our bodies, in today’s prayer we ask God to grow and nourish us in His Word, giving us a faith that overcomes, a strong faith that holds on to Christ.
          The basic necessities of life are pretty simple: food, water, and shelter.  Amazingly at the root of all these necessities are seed and water.  We get our food from seeds.  We eat plants and we eat animals that eat plants.  Of course water is needed to grow seed and keep us hydrated.  Our shelter even comes from seed, homes built from the wood of trees.  Seed and water are needed for life on earth, and they’re also needed for our lives of faith in the kingdom of heaven, and today’s parable illustrates this. 
Jesus used parables, illustrative stories, to teach the truth concerning God’s kingdom.  In the Parable of the Sower Jesus tells the story of a man who went out to plant seed, but he didn’t plant seeds like we do.  We spend time precisely planting seed in perfectly tilled fields and gardens.  This man didn’t do that.  He simply went out and threw seed everywhere, letting it land where it may.
Some of the seed fell along the path was immediately eaten by the birds.  Other seed fell on the rocks.  It sprang up quickly, but it also died quickly.  Because it had no depth of soil it was scorched by the burning sun.  Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns choked it out.  Finally, some seed fell on good soil.  This grew and produced grain. 
After speaking this parable, Jesus explained to the disciples its meaning.  The seed is the Word of God, which is to be sown everywhere for all people to hear.  The seed that fell on the path are those who hear the Word of God and don’t understand it, and Satan snatches it away.  The seed on the rocks are those who hear the Word and joyfully receive it, but when troubles and persecution happen, they fall away from the faith.  The seed choked out by the thorns are those whose faith is choked out by the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches.  Finally, the seed that fell on the good soil represents those who hear the Word of God, believe it, and bear fruit that shows faith. 
With this parable Jesus explains that God’s Word is the seed of faith.  Like all seed this seed needs water to grow, and this water is also God’s Word.  The Lord said, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but is shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Is 55:10-11).  God promises His Word will produce faith.  His Word is the seed and water of faith.  And after hearing this promise and parable, we pray that God would produce faith in us, faith that overcomes. 
          We pray for faith that overcomes Satan as he tries to snatch God’s Word away from us.  The devil doesn’t want us to hear God’s Word.  He’d prefer us to be like the Pharisees who heard Jesus but rejected Him.  Satan wants God’s Word to go in one ear and right out the other.  He wants us to question God’s Word.  This was the foundation of his temptation in the Garden; “Did God really say?”  The devil twists God’s Word and takes it from us.  He delights when it isn’t spoken truthfully and when people are prevented from hearing it.
Because of this evil, we pray that God would keep us in His Word.  We pray we’d continually hear the truth of His Word, spoken and preached faithfully.  We pray we’d be able to read His Word, over and over again.  Because Satan never lets up in his attacks, we ask God to continually plant the seed of His Word in us. 
We pray for faith that overcomes our flesh, which wants an easy life.  We want to enjoy life.  We don’t want to suffer.  Hearing God’s Word promising us life and salvation, we joyfully receive it, thinking life will be great.  And then the rocky troubles of life come: stress, cancer, loss of job, divorce, death.  We start to experience persecution because of the faith.  Life’s not easy and because of that our sinful flesh tells us to give up the faith.  With shallow faith we quickly turn from God and His Word seeking out something else to satisfy our flesh. 
And because of this weakness in us, because of our sin, we pray.  We pray God would grant us to mark His Word.  We want to study it deeply so that the roots of our faith would grow deep.  We pray for the strength of faith to trust in Christ no matter what troubles of life we’re going through, even persecution for the faith, persecution that will come and is already here. 
We pray for faith that overcomes the world with all its cares and deceitful riches.  This world is filled with a lot of cares.  We all have responsibilities: family, friends, work.  There’s a lot to do and there’s only so many hours in the day.  All these cares wear on us.  And to add to it, there’s the promises of riches that will make life easy.  So we work extra hard to earn these riches to get rid of our stress, but it only creates more.  These cares and deceitful promises of riches quickly overgrow our faith.  They’re all we think about and the Word and our faith is choked out.
So we pray that the Lord will protect us from this.  We desire to continue to learning God’s Word so our faith and trust wouldn’t be in the things of this world but in Christ.  We pray that our faith would be nourished as we look to the everlasting life in God’s kingdom, the life Christ has won for us with His death and resurrection. 
          These are pleasing prayers to God, and He answers them.  He gives you faith that overcomes Satan, faith in Jesus who defeated Satan.  Fulfilling His promise in the Garden, Christ crushed the devil’s head on the cross.  With His death and resurrection, Jesus undid the sin and death that Satan brought into this world.  Satan can’t win, Christ already won the victory.  And with faith in Him, you resist the devil when he tries to steal God’s Word away.  With faith, you continually hear the Good News of Jesus who defeated Satan for you. 
          God gives you the faith that overcomes our flesh as He gives you His Spirit.  Having received this Spirit of adoption in your Baptism, as a child of God, you put to death the deeds of your flesh.  No longer do you seek to fulfill your sinful desires, seeking only the easy life.  Instead, continually hearing Good News of everlasting life in Christ, you willing suffer all, even persecution, because you know nothing compares to the glory of everlasting life in God’s kingdom. 
God gives you the faith that overcomes the world, giving you the hope of everlasting life.  This hope isn’t wishful thinking, it’s the confident trust in Christ’s salvation.  This hope looks to Jesus and desires His true riches: forgiveness and life.  This faith resists the thorns of this world that try to choke faith and God’s Word out. 
God’s Word is the seed and water of faith.  It’s the seed from which our faith grows and it’s the water that nourishes it.  Without the continual hearing and reading of God’s Word, our faith will be weak.  Without study, without marking and learning God’s Word, our faith will be shallow and wither.  Without inwardly digesting God’s Word our faith will starve and die, and so will we.  Therefore we pray for growth.  We pray that God will continue to send His Word to us and we thank Him for His answering of this prayer.  God has given you faith in Christ and through His Word, He grows that faith.  In Jesus name...Amen.

Coexist. . .

Imagine my surprise (okay, I was not all that surprised) to receive the June issue of The Living Lutheran (denominational magazine of the ELCA) and find on the cover a version of the familiar coexist logo that puts all religions on the same plane.  It was the photo for the cover story entitled, "E Puribus Unum Deus -  Out of many, one God."  The article began with a rehearsal of ELCA efforts to bridge the gap with non-Christians.  Some of the accomplishments:
  • apologizing to Jewish people for Luther's anti-Semitic writings
  • creation of a Lutheran-Muslim relations panel
  • creation of an interreligious task force
  • highlighting an interreligious service program of an ELCA affliated college
  • Sharing space with a Muslim worshiping community in Pittsburgh
  • An Army chaplain's work interfacing religious leaders across the spectrum
  • noting Muhlenberg College's observance of Holi (the Hindu festival of color and love)
  • etc. . . 
The logo noted on the cover was created by a 15 year old member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Monroe, CT, and featured teens with tee-shirts featuring symbols of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, LGBT pride, gender non-conformity, and disability rights.   The teen spoke of her own friendships across religious and atheistic lines and how proud she is that her pastor will allow anyone to come up for communion no matter who you are.  She was quoted as saying "Diversity is a beautiful thing."

It sounds wonderful.  So what kind of a curmudgeonly sort would say anything negative about such a kid and the cause for diversity and coexistence?  I guess that would be me.  I do not fault the teen.  She knows what she has been taught and she belongs to a church body that glories in diversity, that consistently confuses social advocacy for witnessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, and insists that truth is known in bits and pieces where you find it (no church is more in the know about God and love than any other or even the non-religious!).  Certainly I neither advocate nor condone violence based upon religion.  God is ashamed of the way we have used His name to justify and advance our own prejudice and bigotry.  We all know that.  But the answer is not sacrificing the genuine truth of Christ crucified and risen in order to foster a beautiful coexistence in which no one may be right but neither is anyone wrong.  Strangely, the violence against the unborn remains safe ground, especially for a church body that finds it harder to say yes to the child in the womb than it does no to the exclusivity of the Gospel.  And that is a problem for the official line from a church body that claims to confess without hesitation the creeds and to hold to the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

But peruse the journal a little more and you find an article entitled "Unity in Diversity."  The article heralds the 20th anniversary of an agreement to disagree, the full communion declaration between the ELCA and three Reformed bodies.  This mutual recognition of orders, sacraments, and ministries is old news but the fruits of it have now been felt by a generation in a church body that has seen its membership decline by nearly a fifth and still bleeds off people.  My point is not to demonize any non-Lutherans but to question the idea that any church can retain its doctrinal integrity in the face of such deference to ecumenism.  Better that which unites than that which divides, they say.  If doctrine divides, then that doctrine has to be relegated to the backdrop so that unity can be affirmed at all costs.

How can any church body like this retain any sense of embedded unity except by throwing away all values applied to their doctrinal stance?    Christianity is not a movement but the faith, the only faith which discloses God as He has revealed Himself.  Ours is certainly a truth in love but can never be merely one voice among several or many.  Jesus insists that He is the way, the truth, and the life.  That no one comes to the Father but through Him.  Love for neighbor is not a replacement for this Gospel nor is it the Gospel.  Without this Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen through whom any and all would be saved, love rings hollow.  When a denominational journal fails in this, it raises serious questions whether the denomination itself knows the difference.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Encourage your pastor. . .

Every pastor goes through times of weariness, sometimes it proceeds into a kind of depression, and it can lead to despair.  Those who desire to be pastors are in general those who want to make a difference in this world and they want to make a difference for the Lord in particular.  This is both a strength and a weakness.  That it is a strength is rather obvious.  It is a weakness, however, because seldom does the pastor see signs of that difference and the work of the pastor is the same work done over and over and over again.  The number in the pews may not grow and may even decline.  The parish finances may present a constant problem.  The trends in culture press against the work of the pastor.  It is not hard to understand why a pastor might grow frustrated.

The pastor is "on" when almost everyone else is "off."  Pastors work weekends when most of our parishioners are off.  Pastors work holidays when most of our people are off.  Pastors work in the times when the circumstances take us from our work -- illness and death, especially.  In addition, pastors are on call all the time.  There is not a pastor who has not put family plans or personal needs second to an urgent situation involving a parishioner (and even a stranger on the street).  We carry the every so difficult burden of divided loyalties between family and church.  It is not hard to understand why a pastor struggles.

The pastor is constantly facing temptation from all sides.  The devil is ready to strike the shepherd and see the sheep scatter and the world is increasingly filled with contempt against the gospel that the pastor is ordained to speak, teach, and manifest in the means of grace.  The world is filled with new things born of a technology that cannot even begin to meet our appetite for stuff and the typical pastor is paid on the low end of the spectrum (especially in comparison to those professions that require the same kind of educational training as a prerequisite for ordination).  It is not hard to understand how a pastor might be tempted.

The pastor is constantly loaning out his faith to others whose own faith is being tested by circumstance.  We speak hope in the face of decay, comfort in the face of affliction, peace in the face of turmoil, life in the face of death, and truth in the face of the judgment of feeling or preference.  It is not hard to understand how a pastor might find his faith weak or fragile before so many who yearn for confidence, comfort, hope, and peace.

Every pastor has some who know especially how to support him.  There is a small number who demonstrate well both their appreciation and their friendship with the pastor and his family -- in every parish and in every community.  There are more who support the pastor but hidden in their own prayer closets when they lift him and his family up before the Lord.  God bless those who remember to pray for their pastors.  But, speaking as one of those pastors, let me identify one of the most profound ways to support your pastor in his ministry.  Go to church.

Given the trials, temptation, and risks facing any and every pastor, the sight of the faithful kneeling at the altar rail to receive the flesh and blood of Christ with such reverence is a blessed encouragement to me and, I expect, to all pastors.  The presence of the faithful kneeling to receive the Holy Supper of the Lord reminds us that what we do and what they are doing, is of the greatest importance -- a solemn and blessed occasion in which we meet the Lord where He has pledged to be found.  The reverence of my people when I, in my humility, bestow upon them the body and blood of our Lord according to His plan and by His command, never fails to encourage me.  The children who follow my every action and hang on my every word, the parents holding babies in their arms, the aged struggling to kneel and yet refusing to choose the easier path, and the eyes of the faithful who behold Christ in this bread and cup, well, it is more than just helpful for a pastor.  It is inspiring.

Do you want to make sure the doors to your church remain open?  Do you want to make sure the pastor is there and ready to address any and every circumstance with the Word of the Lord?  Do you want to encourage the pastor in his ministry?  Then do for yourself and for him the duty and delight of being in church every Sunday, kneeling to receive the blessed food of His flesh and blood, and prayerfully and financially support the church's work and the pastor who has been set apart for it.  It is no small thing.  It inspires me and I am sure every pastor would echo this.  Your faith and faithfulness encourages my own faith and faithfulness.  God bless you!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Intelligence, smarts, and wisdom. . .

Over the last few months I have read several accounts of professors in university settings who write a paragraph of gibberish over a pint or two or five of good beer and then place the paragraph before their students for attribution and for comment.  In most cases the students were effusive in their praise of the wisdom and eloquence of the gibberish.  The theological students seemed to attribute their gibberish to Tillich -- easily understood since most of his work and those of his ilk are think and impossible to understand.  In every case, however, wisdom and intelligence was mistakenly applied to the mess of meaningless words.  The presumption being if you have trouble understanding it or if it is impossible to make sense of, it must be the smartest thing on the planet.

Carl Trueman suggests that the opposite is true.  Intelligence and smarts and wisdom show themselves not in making the simple complex or the complex completely incomprehensible, but just the opposite.  When the teacher can make plain what is complex, you see the power of true wisdom at work and you have encountered the gift of intelligence and smarts applied as it ought to be.  Trueman sees a lesson there:
Perhaps the dumbest man in the room is not the man who cannot understand gibberish, but the man who cannot see gibberish for what it is. And perhaps the most dangerous people on campus are those who understand this human weakness and take full, cynical advantage of it. Our political problems have deep educational roots. Until the matters of jargon and gibberish are addressed, I suspect that things are unlikely to improve.
How much of academia is bound up in the false idea that the wise are obtuse and the truly intelligent incomprehensible?  How much of our modern day penchant for fake news and fake wisdom and fake learning is bound up in the false idea that if you cannot understand it, it must be true and the speaker must be smarter than you are?

Youth may swallow up this foolishness but true wisdom dare not defer to that which sounds smart but makes no sense at all.  If we are equipping our youth with made up wisdom about gender and diversity and erudition and learning, we will end up with a generation of dummies.  Worse, we will have paid an arm and a leg for the privilege of being rendered stupid.  Those who teach bear the difficult burden of making plain what is complex, plain enough so that it can be grasped, anyway.  And if it cannot be, then perhaps the fault just may lie with the teacher and the thing thought wise is not so wise at all. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Another set of leftovers rehashed and served up anew. . .

It is not much of a secret that the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, as well as its flagship journal Lutheran Forum and the Forum Letter, is generally a voice for, well, shall we say, the progressive side of Lutheranism.  Though it was born largely of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and its conflicts and controversies, it is now more pan-Lutheran than ever.  So it comes as no surprise that we would find an article revisiting Missouri's unpleasantness and Eugene Bruegemann's article in Lutheran Forum, Summer/Pentecost 2017, does not disappoint. 

His "A Missouri Memoir in Three Episodes and a Moral" presents a typical but one-sided perspective on the series of events that have been rehashed by both sides many times before.  Predictable seems a bit unfair to some but it is just as true of this article as it is of the many articles on the other side.  My point here is not to rebut the assertions line by line or even to deal with several points but rather to address the central theme.

Already in the third paragraph we get a hint of this theme.  . . . perhaps Missouri should show the way to meet the challenges of the mid-century church, which it did.  For a few short years.  That is his point and the point of many who were inside Missouri during the times of the struggles as well as those outside or afterwards.  Missouri was a church isolated by its doctrine and its own internal preoccupation with purity that was ready to flower -- at least until it was hijacked by the forces of fear, well-meaning though they might have been.  Missouri was experiencing its own fresh breeze that just might evidence that fresh currents in theology and mission were stirring in Synod, fed by the refreshing shower of God's grace.  In other words, the fresh springtime of Missouri's life was not accident or coincidence but the act of God bringing this church body out of its winter of discontent (kicking and screaming, if need be).

The article also does not fail to describe those who were the agents of God's breath of fresh air and those who belonged to the stale and old air of Missouri's past.  There is no shortage of bad guys and good guys in Missouri's difficult time but who they are depends upon your perspective, of course.   One of the most profound issues remains the Scriptures and that pesky word inerrant.  In contrast to the Scriptures and its eternal truth.  The freedom of the gospel to study the Scriptures in the light of new knowledge of the wonders of God's  creation like cosmology and geology was what was at stake.  This gospel shower was undone by a Biblicism that was foreign to Lutheranism.  At least that is what is claimed.  And then the article ends rather predictably again.  ". . . the Synod as a daring gospel-centered church in its theology and mission is no more.  The gospel shower has passed.  We can only pray for its return and thank God for its presence elsewhere in His church.  Again, the moral is no surprise.  Missouri is but a dried up shell of a church, having exchanged the living gospel for a dead doctrine of Scripture. 

The problem in all of this is that this living gospel IS the message of that Scripture and its preservation is the key to this living gospel breathing its life into the church and empowering its mission to the world.  It is a rather false dichotomy.  Pitting the Word and its unchanging truth against the gospel, its message, is a fools errand and offers no promise to ours or any church.  Surely it is true that there are those who use Scripture's infallibility and the cause of doctrinal integrity as a wall or barrier around the church, designed to protect us more than equip us to do God's bidding.  But this is a personal issue and not one that should undermind our concern for the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture.  It is also as true that those who focus upon gospel freedom have abused this freedom to justify the embrace of every social movement -- no matter how disconnected it is from Scripture or how much in conflict with what has been believed, taught, and confessed through the ages.  Yet it is not the fault of the gospel that those abuse it by pitting this gospel against God's Word.  To sing God's Word they still shall yet remain is to sing at the same time salvation unto us has come.  When we begin to understand and believe this completely, then the springtime rain will cause the kingdom to flourish among us and through us again.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Networks or denominations. . .

One of the most amazing developments across the landscape of Protestantism is the shift away from denominations.  The beginnings of this denominational decline go back some time ago, of course, but the creatures arising from the ashes of its former structures and identity.  After many years of mergers and the ecumenical vision seeming to bear some fruits, things have begun to splinter off rather dramatically.  Presbyterians have birthed new groups after each dispute.  Episcopalians have a shell of a church body left.  The ELCA has dropped from nearly 5.5M to 3.7M and a couple of denominations have spun off in the wake of it all (though their numbers do not add up to what was lost).  Methodists continue to bleed off people and parishes. All the older denominations that were clustered under the name Protestant have declined in membership even if they did not spin off new denominations.  Why even the Southern Baptists have seen disappointing numbers.

What has begun, perhaps to take their place, are networks that are not really denominations but are more than simple arrangements or partnerships.  It is the triumph of practice over doctrine and what works over what is believed.  So congregations even from seemingly different confessions can join together in what works, what makes things happen.  Since the growing churches in the USA are generally seen to be mega churches, many of these associations or networks are tied to those mega churches and their star-studded cast of celebrity preachers and leaders.  Some examples are the old and familiar Vineyard Association or the Saddleback group or the Willow Creek network but added to them are Andy Stanley's Life.Church Open Network Community or T. D. Jakes  The Potter’s House International Pastoral Alliance.  I assume that there are many more I know little about.  You tell me.

What is a question worth pondering is whether or not these networks or associations will become denominations, replace denominations, exist along side denominations, or some other version of this structure we have not yet conceived.  What is not a question is that the diminishing of doctrine over practice will surely continue in many, if not most, shapes of Protestantism.  Missouri surely is faced with the same pressures and we have caved in various ways (borrowing worship from evangelicals, evangelistic techniques from whomever seems to be packing them in, and embracing a diversity which finds it hard to prevent doctrine from being diluted).  If Missouri continues to throw off the great temptation to join the party and dance with whomever seems enticing, the LCMS will definitely being going against the tide.  But that is kind of Missouri's history.  Hopefully we will not forget.  For the future of Protestantism cannot lie with muddy associations content with sharing the latest techniques while dogma is pushed to the side.  Jesus did not say that whosoever has a good time on Sunday morning He will acknowledge before the Father but those who acknowledge, confess, and give unfailing witness to Him as the crucified and risen Savior.  The thing that gave birth to denominations was at least in large measure a desire to do just that.  Unity was certainly important but not for the appearance of being one. No, unity was not an exchange for truth but the expression of it.  Maybe we will remember that someday.