Sunday, December 16, 2018

A people called by MY name. . .

As you have heard, the Church of England is now encouraging its clergy to create baptism-style "naming" ceremonies for transgender people to welcome them into the Anglican faith by their new names and according to their chosen gender.  New pastoral guidance now advises clergy to refer to transgender people by their new name, though it is not quite a baptism it attempts to be its equivalent.

The decision approved by the House of Bishops details how elements including water and oil can be incorporated into the service to mirror what happens in baptism. The guidance notes: “For a trans person to be addressed liturgically by the minister for the first time by their chosen name may be a powerful moment in the service.”

Except that the point of the name is not to liturgically affirm the individual but to point to the fact that they now are named with a new name.  They wear the name of Christ and belong to Him.  No one comes to the font (or to some odd attempt at an equivalent ceremony) to be affirmed in the old identity but to break with it.  In the case of baptism, the old has died with Christ and the new person has arisen in Christ (Romans 6).  St. Paul is adamant.  You are not who you were.  You were bought with a price.  Glorify God in your body.  Seek not your own desires but the desire of Him who redeemed You with His blood.

Nothing is sadder than when we abuse the liturgical language of the Church to manipulate it into something it is not.  Remember when Nadia Bolz-Weber addressed the ELCA national youth gathering mirroring the baptismal questions renouncing, the devil, his works and ways, and turned them into affirmations of queerness?  It was offensive to abuse the baptismal liturgy in this way.  Now in England, the bishops are actually encouraging the use of a liturgy designed to mimic baptism in order to affirm not the new identity of the person in Christ but to give legitimacy and support to the chosen identity of the transgendered.  How long will it be before the Episcopal Church here follows this lead?  And what is left?  Is that all the Church has to say?  Be what you feel you are?

Should we take comfort in the fact that a more radical liturgical revision of the rite was prevented?  I fear that by manipulating the existing rite in service to the GLBTQ agenda more damage was done.  The rites and the liturgical language exists to call us to faithfulness to God's self-disclosure in Scripture -- the Word of the Lord that endures forever -- and not to reflect new ideas or understandings which depart from that Word.  

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The silly season takes a reprieve. . .

Having endured endless political ads that were quite adept at misrepresenting an opponent's position and equally adept at misrepresenting the candidate's record, I am happy to have found a somewhat quiet reprieve.  The end of the silly season was too long in coming and will surely not last for long until it begins anew.  Sadly, however, this silly season has been more brutal than most and is testament to the difficulty we have in debating positions instead of merely disparaging the candidates themselves.  Some attribute this to the post-Trump era and its hardened positions on the extremes.  I am not sure it has all that much to do with Trump at all.  Instead, I fear, it has more to do with the dead ends of the roads we have left in our pursuit of an illiberal liberalism and a conservatism that destroys more than it conserves.  Such is the end of those who have abandoned morality in favor of a pragmatism of what works.

How can it be that the legal default is the murder of the unborn?  How did we end up with a view toward a comfortable social contract that consumes an ever increasing portion of the federal budget while forgetting that fewer and fewer workers are left to pay the bill?  How is it that even conservatives have made their peace with divorce as a right, with contraception as the norm, with education that exists to each job skills more than learning, and with art that offends and insults?  What kind of world trades a male dominated world for one in which a female world also promotes a feminized masculinity as the only tolerable form?

As a Christian I should expect to be rebuked by the world for my intolerance but instead I find Christianity pleasantly open in comparison to those who refuse honest conversation in favor of a politically correct world in which certain things cannot be said without being labelled hate speech.  If there is ever a champion of the poor, of the oppressed, of the down-trodden, of the weak, and of the helpless, it is the Church of Jesus Christ where neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, or male nor female provide exclusive class before God or claim special privilege of His grace.  The world has attempted to marginalize our Christian witness and we Christians have too quickly surrendered our voices instead of raising up the cause of virtue to both sides of the political spectrum.

Though we certainly proclaim forgiveness to the sinner apart from atoning works he or she has done, we dare not excuse, justify, or deny these sins or they will stand apart from grace and leave the sinner naked of righteousness before the judgment seat of God.  Neither can we be faithful and be silent before the scandal of sin enshrined in civil law without the higher voice of God's will and purpose or lose our voices before those who insist that an impotent Christianity is the only legal form to be tolerated in our land.  We have come to live and we have resigned ourselves to a culture of coarse speech, to arts that lift up vulgarity, to media intent upon celebrating our basest desires, and to a culture in which virtue and morality are reduced to what feels good in the whim of a moment.  The world has not done it to us as much as we have allowed it to be done.  We dare not turn the other cheek to these things for we shall not simply be judged for ourselves but most profoundly for our stewardship of the blessed mystery of Christ.  Be silent no more, people of God.  Rend your garments before the world and your hearts  before God.  Speak the truth in love but speak it bluntly and in all its saving glory.  Holy people of God must speak as God has spoken, not to redeem a nation but to call its people to the cleansing of His blood and the promise of real hope.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Myth and image. . . or not. . .

When St. Paul said death reigned from the time of Adam (Romans 5:14), he was not speaking symbolically or even using images but spoke of Adam as historical figure and the fall as history.  Adam is not myth but person, the first person of God's creation, and not simply a archetype of the common man but the one man from whom all men have come.

There are all kinds of people who insist that you do not have to have a historical Adam to read Genesis or get its meaning.  I suppose that there is a bit of truth in this but it presumes an awful lie -- that God's Word is either unclear or downright deceptive.  While some may prefer to see Adam as mythological figure and to reduce Genesis largely to fable with a moral to the story, all over the Scriptures Adam is referenced clearly as an historical figure.  It may be interesting to talk about what Adam represents but it is surely more important to know who Adam was and how his story gives context for our world in which sin and death have become our default mode.  And it is not insignificant to see how the second Adam (Christ) references Adam as real figure and not simply myth or legend.

While the speculative might enjoy the question of whether or not we need an historical Adam, the reality is that we do have to wonder about it.  We know the Adam of history and the Adam whom the Scriptures know as a real man, the dust of the earth into which God breathed the breath of life.  We  may think that we are doing the skeptics among us a favor by dispensing with the need to buy into the historicity of Adam but we are doing nothing to help them meet the message that most certainly requires a bigger stretch of belief than the creation of a mythological creature from the mind of God.

I often wonder why it is so difficult to accept Adam as historical man and so easy to believe that Jesus is God in flesh who is come to suffer for the guilty, die for sinners, and rise to raise us to everlasting life.  Why, indeed?  The reality is that the historical Adam is far easier on the imagination that the prospect of sin so great no amount of noble intentions or good deeds can make a difference.  Adam presents far fewer problems to the skeptical mind than the mighty God over all the universe who inhabits the womb of a Virgin before ascending the throne of the cross only to bleed all over it.

The novel thought is to let the Word of the Lord stand and make no apologies for it.  The radical thing is not to explain away the rough edges of the kerygma but to confess its truth without complaint and trust that in the speaking the Spirit is at work to accomplish His purpose.  There is nothing more edgy than to hold to the truth of that Word in its literal and not simply its figurative sense and to insist that this Word has saving property for those who hear and believe.  So those who think they are rebels are being entirely predictable in their rebuke to the history they find so objectionable.  The only rebellion worth its salt is to believe the Word in what it says and, if you are ready for it, to believe that this Word actually delivers what it promises and does what it says.  That is the rebellion that has become my own personal cause and the one my church has adopted as its own.  But I thoroughly hope you will join us.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Not many popes among the saints. . .

I was reading a Roman Catholic author talking about how the canonization process has changed over the years -- even the rites themselves by which the candidates are enshrined among the noble heroes of old.  He briefly noted that the canonization of some modern figures, in particular popes John Paul II and John XXIII, was unusual.  They had not been dead that long and, in the case of popes, not all that many popes have been declared saints.  By Roman count some 265 men have been pope and of these popes, so far 81 have been declared saints (with Paul VI on October 14 of this  year).  Paul VI will become only the 8th papal saint since A.D. 1000, but the 4th of the 20th century, joining Pius X, John XXIII, & John Paul II. Why have only a third of those who sit on the chair of St. Peter or who wear the shoes of the Fisherman been declared saints?

Some lament that this whole process is troublesome -- trivial and silly according to some critics.  Even Francis, ever the stand up comic, is said to have joked  "And Benedict and I are on the waiting list."  We can all laugh.  But is this something about which humor should ensue?  Has the canonization process of Rome become politicized and therefore something less than what it presumes to be?  Is the pope speaking ex cathedra when he declares someone a saint -- infallibly?  Benedict XIV explicitly stated that "writing a name down in the Martyrology does not yet bring about formal or equipollent canonisation." 

52 of the first 55 popes became saints during Catholicism’s first 500 years.  That accounts for the bulk of the popes who are named as saints on the Roman calendar.  In 993, St. Ulrich of Augsburg was the first saint to be formally canonized, by Pope John XV. By the 12th century, the church officially centralized the process, so that the pope himself in charge of the commissions that investigated and documented the lives of potential saints. In 1243, Pope Gregory IX insisted only a pope had the authority to declare someone a saint. A version of that canonization process is still in place today.

Modern popes have canonized saints in huge numbers: John Paul II canonized 482 saintsmore than the 300 or so canonizations in the entire 600 years before him. Francis’ first canonization included 813 people – the “Martyrs of Otranto” – who were beheaded by Ottoman soldiers in 1480 after refusing to convert to Islam.  Saints originally came in two varieties – martyrs and confessors of the faith. Martyrs require the posthumous performance of one miracle to be declared a saint. Before 1983, confessors required four; now they require two.  So the standards have been lowered.  Even then Francis waived the second miracle for John XXIII.

Back to my point.  Why not declare that all popes are automatically saints?  Are not the best leaders  the holiest of men?  In fact, the truth is that leadership often thrusts people into the arena of unpleasant compromise and negotiation, of having to be harsh with friends and lenient with enemies, and of using impolite and uncomfortable means to necessary ends.  I wish it were not so.  I certainly am not suggesting that holiness is a bad thing or that our leaders, most especially church leaders, are not to be holy.  Only to say that a righteous man is not always a very effective leader.  This is true for Rome and it is true for many other churches as well.

I know that my own church body has struggled with leadership, switching leaders by a few votes sometimes -- votes that would effect great consequences.  Those from the sidelines love to second guess and question and even challenge the decisions of our leaders -- probably the way I am second guessing the way Rome and its popes call people saints.  What I am trying to get at is that the test of leadership in the Church is orthodoxy.  Every church leader's basic calling is faithfulness.  From parish pastor to presiding bishop (whatever you call him), the most important part of our calling is faithfulness.  When our church leaders fail, it is almost always not a failure of holiness but of faithfulness.  The failure of holiness is more easily seen and dealt with than the failures of faithfulness -- especially in a world in which truth is not seen as certain or eternal.  It must be truth spoken in love but it must be truth and not something masquerading as truth.

I would expect that Lutherans would admit that some of the popes were actually quite good -- even though we have problems with the office itself.  I would expect that we Lutherans might admit that some popes who were saintly in their personal lives were not to good as church leaders.  The Orthodox admit the same thing and count some popes as saints on their sanctoral calendar.  But it is not surprising to me that not all popes are thought saints or even half.  What is surprising to me is that the Roman process for declaring people heroes is adding so many names so quickly and that some of them are modern popes -- as fine as they were.  I think that it is not a good thing to equate leadership in the church with saintliness.  They are not quite the same.  Occasionally they might be found in one person but this is more a rarity than routine.

What you should not say to one desiring to be a pastor. . .

What you should not say to a young man who wants to be a pastor. . .

1. “Are you sure you wanna do that?”
2. “Won’t you be lonely?”
3. “I couldn’t do that.”
4. “They don’t get paid very well.”
5. “So you’re really in to that religion stuff?”
6. “Wow . . . never saw that coming.”
7. “Did you just go through a bad breakup?”
8. “What’s the matter? Don’t think you can cut it in the real world?”
9. “Wish I only had to work one day a week.”
10. “I think women should be pastors.”
11. "You used to be so cool, what happened?”
12. “You’re too young to do that now, wait until you have had a little fun.”

Maybe you can add to the list of things that could be said to discourage young men from considering the pastoral ministry.  I certainly heard most of them and think most young men desiring to be pastors have heard them as well.  Keep saying them and it may well be that they will give up on this vocation. . . if that is what you want to happen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Education is not the same as faith formation. . .

While ruminating about the state of confirmation in the LCMS and in my own parish, we were faced with a number of things to consider.  On the one hand, we face a complex and confused world with respect to the age of confirmation, the curriculum used, and the time spent in catechizing our youth.  Confirmation practices vary widely throughout the Synod but it is not alone responsible for the decline in youth participation and for the loss of young people.  In comparison to the practices of Luther's day, it could be said that our youth are better educated but not as formed in the faith.  We have Sunday school, VBS, catechism classes, youth group, children's Bibles, catechism books, videos, graphic catechisms, large youth gatherings, and all kinds of things to help -- all at a time when losses of youth mount.

I wonder if we have not confused and conflated education with faith formation.  Faith formation is first of all the fruits of a home life rooted in the faith and in the Church.  Faith formation begins not with church programs but with parents developing, modelling, and formally teaching the faith to their children.  The various programs of the Church only added to that effective program of faith formation that was largely the work of strong Christian parents and extended family.  We have kept all the educational programs (to one degree or another) and they have kept pace with technology and cultural trend but the one thing that has changed over time is the role of the parents, the faith formation within the home, and the support of the extended family.  Education about the faith as a child and churchly rites of passage into adolescence are clearly not enough.  The faith cannot be taught as theory by people who have read it from a book but needs to be personal from people who live what they believe, as imperfectly as that might be.

Let me begin by saying that I am not at all blaming the family for all our problems retaining youth and young adults.  It is not about blame.  It is about the realization that all the finest education programs in the world cannot in and of themselves do the work of faith formation.  That is because education in the faith is not the same as being formed in that faith (through faithful worship together at Church and in the home, for the faithful models who give good example to children and youth, and the strong example and support of a close, extended family.  So I am not at all saying that our education is wrong or deficient but that it is designed to impart knowledge while these other things actually form the faith implanted in baptism.

My own children lived far away from grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  It was the consequence of being a pastor and serving where placed and where the calls come from.  I realize now the additional burden placed upon the home by our isolation from faithful examples within the circle of our extended family.  Much of that was also shifted to my wife because she was in the pews while I was in the chancel.  That said, I am happy to report that my children have grown into people of faith.  They are not perfect but they have retained their baptismal identity, by their interest in and investment in the faith and the work of the Kingdom, and by their commitment to the Church (for them and for my granddaughter).  It is something in which I am ever so thankful to God, my wife, my family, and my congregation who helped to form this faith in my children.  I would like to think that I had a part in this as well but I know it takes many levels of support to accomplish this.  Even so, I worry about the future, about my grandchildren as they grow into youth, teens, and young adults.  I know they will face many and great challenges and threats to the faith.

What I am saying is that our response to the losses must be about more than educational programs but must have as a central component the intentional work of faith formation.  A recent conversation with a family whose children had all but abandoned the faith comes to mind.  They were lamenting all of this while I was thinking of how irregular their church attendance was when those children were young and of their spotty participation beyond the divine service.  I wondered what had happened in the home when those children were young and what kind of intentional and accidental witness took place within that home and their family life.  I had my suspicions.  The point is that faith formation needs more than a monthly attendance in the Divine Service, an occasional participation in other church programs, and a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible or catechism.  This family thought that taking the kids to church occasionally and making sure that somebody else taught them the faith would be enough.  It was not.  It is never enough.  Even if the kids got a great education in the faith, that is not the same as solid faith formation.

One last part of my rant.  Faith formation is not about feelings.  I am not at all saying we need to spend more time helping our kids develop a relationship with Jesus (whatever that might be).  I am saying that we need to be with our children and they with us in the Lord's House around the Lord's Word and Table on the Lord's day.  I am saying that we need to wake up to the faith conversations that could be all around us as our kids face challenges, struggles, and a world so clearly different from the will of Christ.  I am saying that we need to pray with our children every day so that they can learn to pray.  I am saying that we need to mentor our children with adult role models of faith on many levels -- something less about what we do for them than living out the faith in our own daily lives.  Faith formation is not about emotions -- not about likes, dislikes or preferences.  Faith formation is about our kids seeing the faith lived out in the home, on the job, and in the neighborhood -- and, of course, within the life of the Church.

Many people think you make pastors at seminary.  You teach them what they need to know to be pastors, to be sure, but the formation of a pastor relies upon home, family, friends, and the strong example of good pastors within the lives of those being raised for this vocation.  The same thing is true of making good and faithful Christians of our youth.  Church educational programs will help with knowledge but faith formation relies primarily upon faith in the home, family, and friends -- as well as the good roles and examples of church workers. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


Sermon for Advent 2C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, December 9, 2018.

               Right now, we’re preparing for the Lord.  We’re all getting ready for Christmas: buying gifts; planning dinners; making travel plans.  We think the holidays are supposed to be relaxing time, but they’re a lot of work.  They take a lot of preparation.  But this holiday preparation isn’t the preparation I’m talking about.  Right now, at this very moment, as you sit in those pews, you’re preparing for the Lord.  You’re getting ready to receive your Savior, not just on Christmas Day, but on the Last Day.  You’re preparing for the Lord right now by being prepared by the Lord. 
               It’s a fact of Scripture that the Lord prepares His people.  Ever since the beginning, when He made Adam and Eve, He’s always readied His people.  He prepared our first parents for life by giving them His Word of warning, not to eat from that tree.  He prepared Noah, telling him about the flood and instructing him to build the ark.  He prepared Moses, giving him the words to speak as he stood before Pharaoh.  The examples of the Lord’s preparation could go on and on.
But this preparation looks different from how we prepare ourselves.  We sit down, make a to-do list, and then get to work checking it off: buy the presents-check; bake the cookies-check; pack the bags-check.  Our preparation revolves around what we need to do.  But that’s not the way of the Lord’s preparation. 
God prepares His people by speaking to them.  He spoke to Adam and Eve.  He spoke to Noah.  He appeared to Moses in that burning bush and spoke to him.  Throughout all of Israel’s history, God spoke to His people of old by the prophets (Heb 1:1): Samuel; Isaiah; Jeremiah; Daniel; Malachi.  
The prophet Malachi wrote the words of the Lord saying: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me” (Mal 3:1).  The job of a messenger is to speak the message of his sender, to stand in his master’s place speaking the master’s words.  The prophets of old did this as they called people to repentance, to turn from their sin.  John the Baptist did this, fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy. 
The Lord sent John to be the last OT prophet, to prepare the way for Him, to call all people to turn from their sin.  This was the message of the Lord, but it was a hard message to hear.  John spoke God’s wrath saying: You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk 1:7-9).  The Holy Spirit worked through this message and brought many to repentance.  The people heard God’s judgement and turned from their sin.  And this is the same message that the Lord speaks to us today.  Like the people of old who heard John, we need to hear John.  We need to hear the Lord’s wrath over our sin. 
Sin is no small thing.  Sin means death, everlasting death.  We need to repent of our sin.  None of us is sinless; all have fallen short of the glory of God.  All of us have failed to bear fruits of repentance.  This is a fact we must confess at all times, just as we confess it every Sunday.  During that time of confession we pause for self-reflection, to examine our lives, to think about all our sin, to think about the punishment we deserve because of them.  And with the Spirit of the Lord working in us, we turn to the Lord to receive His forgiveness of.  We can’t get rid of our sin.  There’s no check list we can follow to cleanse ourselves.  Only the Lord can do this. 
               The Lord prepares you for Himself by bringing you to repentance, and He prepares you for Himself by answering that repentance with His forgiveness. 
Malachi spoke of two messengers in his OT prophecy.  The first messenger was sent to prepare the way for the Savior.  This was John.  The second messenger was the messenger of the covenant, the Savior Himself that was promised to Adam and Eve when they sinned.  This Savior is Christ Jesus, the very Word of God Incarnate, born on Christmas.
God continues to prepare His people through His Word.  In many and various ways, God spoke to His people of old by the prophets.  But now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son (Heb 1:1-2a).  Jesus is the Word of God.  He is the Lord’s Message and the Messenger, sent to proclaim forgiveness and salvation.  Like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap, Christ cleanses you from your sin.  He purifies you; washing you in His blood that was shed on the cross.  He makes you ready to stand before God on the Last Day.  He makes you ready to receive Him at His Second Coming.
The Lord’s preparation is accomplished through His Word: the Word of God who was sacrificed on the cross and the Word of God that is spoken to you.  The Word of absolution that Pastor Peters proclaimed is Christ’s very Word of Absolution.  In those words, God does what He says, He forgives you your sins for the sake of His Son.  In the words of promise that you’ll hear at the Lord’s Supper, you receive what Christ says.  As you eat the bread and drink the cup you receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  In all of this, the Lord makes you ready for Himself.  In all of this, He prepares you to live a life of repentance and faith. 
               The people who were prepared for Christ through the message John proclaimed lived a life of repentance and faith as they looked forward to the Savior.  This prepared life bore fruits of repentance.  You also have been prepared for the Lord, and you also live a life of repentance and faith as you look forward to the second coming of your Savior.  You bear the fruits of repentance, turning from your sin, doing instead those good works that God prepared for you.  You care for those in need, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.  You faithfully and honestly fulfill your vocations, not for your benefit or gain, but for the benefit and service of others.  All of this you do, not to make yourselves ready to receive Christ, but because you’ve been made ready to receive Christ.  These good works aren’t the to-do list that you check off to prepare, but they’re the good works you do because you are prepared. 
You’re prepared for the coming of our Lord by hearing His Word.  You’re prepared for our Lord by being purified and cleansed by the blood of Christ.  And you’re prepared for our Lord as you live prepared lives, bearing fruits in keeping with repentance, looking forward with faith to that Day when our Savior comes again.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Who non-Christians think of as a pastor. . .

If you want to know the problem orthodox Christianity has, just remember that for the vast majority of those not Christian, it is Benny Hinn, John Hagee, Marilyn Hickey, TD Jakes, Jessie Duplantis, Creflo Dollar, Jamal Bryant, Joseph Prince, Joyce Meyer, the Osteens and and the Copelands that they think of when they hear the word Christian or pastor. They are the most watched, most listened to, and , perhaps, the most influential Christian leaders in the United States.  What they teach and the church they represent is what characterizes the conception most people outside of orthodox Christianity have of things Christian and Christian pastors.  How embarrassing!!

Worse than embarrassing, this is perhaps the biggest challenge we face in evangelization.  Those who are not yet of the Kingdom think they know who Christians are.  They are not like the pagans of old who had no conception of the Gospel before St. Paul proclaimed it before the altar tot he unknown God.  They are not like the peoples to whom missionaries were sent in places far off.  They are not like those who are hearing the Gospel for the first time, they have heard it all before, they think, and they were not impressed by what they heard.  For those same folks have the same level of trust as the proverbial snake oil salesmen of old.  They are seen as self-important people who are more concerned with themselves than anyone else.  They are stars on a stage without credibility and even though they are always on TV, it is the channel nobody wants to watch -- except Christians who have been taken in by their smooth talking and outlandish claims.  This is the world orthodox Christianity faces -- a world of people who think they are the best Christians ever but whose Christianity is generally suspect even by those who know nothing of the real and authentic Christian faith.  Our work of evangelization must begin by unmasking those who are wolves among the sheep and actors on a stage who view the Scriptures as a tool and who presume to know the secret mind of God.

When orthodox Christianity panders to those outside the Church and mirrors their music, their ethics,, and their culture, those outside the Church hear and see those above named folks and feel absolutely justified in rejecting such hypocrisy.  That is why it is more urgent than ever to hold to the Scriptures, to remain firmly within the catholic and apostolic tradition in the doctrine we confess and the practices we do, and why anything we do that looks or acts or sounds like them will be rejected out of hand.  Creed and confession, liturgy and piety, sacraments and service must be authentic, born of the Scriptural institution and lived out in continuity with the faithful who went before us -- this is what we are called to do and to be and we can afford no less than the full truth of Christ.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Discernment. . .

Discernment is getting a bad name.  The Wiki dictionary says (in Christian contexts) discernment is perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding.  In other words, discernment is without judgment but seeks to transcend judgment with understanding.  If you are shaking your head now, you should be.  This is a false idea of discernment.  Discernment is not the suspension of judgment but precisely the judgment that discerns truth from error.  This is its simplest definition.  Discernment is nothing more and nothing less than the ability to decide between truth and error, right and wrong. Discernment is critical thinking, making careful distinctions in our thinking about what is truth. For the Christian, to think with discernment is synonymous with thinking Biblically. 

Legitimate discernment is never open-ended but begins with truth, in distinction against error, and moves to its application within the life of the Church.  But this is not how it is being used today.  Those who plead for the ordination of women ask for discernment -- even though Scripture, tradition, and the universal consensus has already said no.  Those who ask for consideration of the wants and needs of the GLBTQ community are not asking for the pastoral application of the truth but a suspension of that truth, an absence of judgment, and an openness to considering a different conclusion than the one Scripture and the catholic witness have given.

When legitimate discernment becomes the highest goal and standard for the leaders of the faith, the Church will hold together, built upon the promises of God and His Word that endures forever.  When false discernment becomes the method of operation within the Church and by her leaders, the Church will devolve into a faint echo of the will, desire, and judgment of the world.  We do not need to discern what God might be saying.  We need  to hold to what God has said.  Those who want us to pay attention to what God might be saying, imagine a God who speaks with a forked tongue, who changes His mind, and whose will and purpose are open to conjecture and change on a whim.  This is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of the Scriptures, not the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, and not the God of the apostles, prophets, and martyrs.

People of the pews and pastors in pulpits should rightfully be wary of the push to discern where God is saying/leading.  Underneath all the pious sounding words, the direction is generally away from what God has said and done.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Fading glory. . .eternal glory

Faded photographs, 
covered now with lines and creases
Tickets torn in half, 
memories in bits and pieces 
     Dennis Yost and the Classic IV 

Oh, we won't give in
Let's go living in the past
Oh no, no we won't give in
Let's go living in the past
      Jethro Tull

“My days of old have vanished in tone and tint.” 
     Last words of General Douglas McArthur

If you are old enough, you recall photos that faded from their crisp black and white to a shadow of an image, colors that turned orange and dark, paper that became brittle and fragile.  The photos of old were not a lasting impression of the moment they preserved in time but a temporary glimpse, preserved longer than some of the memories but not much longer.

In contrast to this, we live in the digital era in which the photos on our computers, cameras, and phones appear eternal.  They do not fade in color and their focus does not blur with time.  Yet they are not as permanent as we might think.  Ask anyone who has lost them to an errant finger on the delete button or to a program malfunction or a hard drive crash or a cloud anomaly.

We try too hard sometimes to live in our memories, those preserved within us and those refreshed by the photos of our past.  Bands head out on reunion tours to rekindle a past now long gone and they are met by fans who themselves bear but a passing resemblance to the youth who once crowded in to watch and listen.  Couples head to the spot where they first met, where the proposal was first offered and accepted, where a honeymoon was spent in the early moments of a youthful love but they are not the same people (thank God in most cases).  Old TV shows long gone are revived and old movies remade in an attempt to reignite the glory of that day. Retro products seek to prod our faded memories and nostalgia tries to imagine our past into the present. 

Sometimes when people come to Church and experience the liturgy of their youth, they are prone to equate it with the retro, nostalgic, comfortable past that often seems too distant to us.  But the unchanging pulse of the church year moving time toward its appointed end in Christ and the predictable plodding rhythm of the liturgy is not some attempt to hold on to a vanishing past.  The liturgy may be familiar and its melodies well known but it is a drum beat from God's mighty acts of deliverance to His mightiest in Christ through to the completion of His new creation.  We do not come to Church to find comfort in our memories and try to refresh them like we would repair faded photographs.  It is not the past that lives there but the future -- the future that is begun with the promise given once in time, fulfilled in time, and not yet finished until time itself ends.

Sometime soon we will use the familiar Divine Service 3 -- in part to rejoice over our heritage as we observe the 60th anniversary of our congregation's founding.  Some folks will smile as if they are putting on a old coat that had gotten lost in the back of a closet.  They grew up to page 5 and 15 and DS 3 is about as close as you can get to that past now two hymnals away.  Others will wonder where we got this service -- they were born after the previous hymnal was introduced and they look in wonderment at the folks who still talk about the new liturgy.  It is not new to them.  But both will find a familiar form and pattern, a familiar rhythm and pulse.  It is not a retro liturgy of a memory but the living faith of those who went before, whose voices now swell with the voices of those who have come after, to join in the once and eternal song of praise and thanksgiving for God's gift of His Christ to a people lost in sin and death and without hope.

The Church has no faded photographs, no brittle paper, no antique sepia tones, or yesterdays to rekindle or to repristinate.  We have Christ now, in the fullness of His saving glory, who is among us where He has promised in Word and Sacrament.  We have the saving power of the once for all cross of suffering and sacrifice still delivering its fruits of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  We have the Spirit of the crucified and living Christ still bestowing upon His Church faith to recognize the Good Shepherd, the light of Christ to shine in darkness, and the voices in Christ to speak in witness to those not yet of the Kingdom, and to anticipate the future already prepared but awaiting us as are those who have gone before.  A hymnal may be a symbolic reminder of a past or it may be an antique from a time before us but embedded within its page is the Word calling us to our future, gathering us around His font and table, enlightening with sight beyond sight, and sanctifying us to be a people for God's own.  We remember the past and God's mighty acts.  How could we forget?  On the night when He was betrayed. . . in the Passover with His disciples. . . He took bread and the cup. . .  But this is about the future, the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom without end, a foretaste of the feast to come, a glimpse and an anticipation -- dare I say rehearsal -- for the future Christ is delivering to us in delivering us to the Father forevermore.

Rejoice in Christ who was, who is, and who is to come. . . and we with Him in the glorious company of the saints in light.  Soon one more Christmas closer to the day that dawns with such eternal glory!!

Saturday, December 8, 2018


Curious.  The Roman Mass counts as Propers (in addition to the Introit, Gradual, Collect, Alleluia (or Tract), Sequence and Readings) the Offertory and Post-Communion Prayer.  Lutherans typically treat the Offertory and Post-Communion Prayer as part of the Ordinary and not a Proper.  Anyone know why Lutherans decided to treat these pretty much as Ordinary (though with perhaps a few choices)?  I wonder why this survived even after the Liturgical Renewal Movement and its deference to Roman practice.  Does anyone know of a reasoned explanation for this?

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Christmas Choral Program. . .

Christmas in Christ Chapel - Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

The problem of English. . .

I recall once thinking that it was high time to switch to the Revised Standard Version (yes I am that old) since the King James is so antiquated and so difficult to understand (perhaps I should have said it is hard to read).  Yet I have learned over the years that the problem lay not with the text but with the person holding it.  Some education helped (no, I am not talking about college here but middle school -- junior high we called it -- and high school).  Shakespeare helped.  Reading did even more.  As I spent time with those who knew the language and knew how to use it, I discovered that the text that once seemed so formidable was and is really rather accessible.  Let me go one further, the antiquated language of Cranmer, Book of Common Prayer, The Lutheran Hymnal, and the Authorized Version of the Bible are not easy but that is because they use well the richness of our language.  They have not succumbed to the great temptation to minimalism.  There is something to be said about that.

One of the great tests I apply when I visit a congregation is to listen to how the pastor reads (or chants) the collect of the day.  A collect is not simple but compacts a great deal into an economy of words to express much more than first seems possible.  Yet, to pray the collect requires you to read it (preferably out loud) a few times before Sunday morning.  It is often clear from the pastor leading us in prayer that he is not sure what we are praying for in that collect and if he is unclear, it stands to reason it is hard for us to add our Amen to the prayer.

Now to be clear, I am not suggesting the liturgical language be obtuse.  But neither am I advocating using a 3rd grade reading level as the target for the vocabulary, sentence structure, and complexity of the texts used in the Divine Service.  Liturgical language explores the riches of our language and is not content with a poverty of grammar or style.  That requires a bit from us -- those who lead God's people in prayer and praise and those who are being led.  We need to take care with liturgical language.  There is something wrong when, as one wag put it, we cannot read a sentence with more than 10-12 words in it.  The problem lies not with the words but with the reader and the hearer.  Worship requires a little work from us and part of that is preparation before leading worship and paying attention for those being led.

The problem with much of modern worship and contemporary Christian music is not that it uses language too well but that it barely scratches the service of the treasures of language.  It is simplistic -- not simple -- and so it becomes tiresome and old very quickly.  In contrast, the eloquent turn of a phrase never grows old.  The enduring hymns are not the seven word choruses being produced today but words that challenge us even as they inspire us:
Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by Thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.
 I make no apology for the eloquence of liturgical language and for the worthy hymns of old.  Grow up.  When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.  For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.  For every one that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.  Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.  I read these things somewhere?  Can you guess?

The truth is I am not sure who to blame.  Texting and social media may have exacerbated the problem but they did not cause it.  They are the fruit of our poverty of language.  Whether or not we find a convenient target to blame, we should not be content to minimalism.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Advent Housecleaning. . .

A while back my mother sent me some things that were made by her mother and her grandmother.  They were nothing special to most eyes but pure gold to me.  To think my great-grandmother, who died when my grandmother was only 13, has passed this bit of her stitching and handiwork all the way down to me and it survived in pristine condition.  Those are keepers and will be carefully preserved.  They belong not really to me but to those who come after me, a golden thread to tie us to our past.  In this case, an immigrant past from a man and woman who left Sweden behind to come to America and in doing so began a new life among strangers without any blood relatives here.  What a story!

My house is filled with these mementos of our history, from my wife's side and mine.  They are all over the walls and shelves of our home.  The folks from HGTV would tell us it is time to declutter and perhaps some would send over a therapist to talk to us about our hoarding tendencies.  It bothers others more than us but the clutter is clean and, in reality, quite organized.  It is really not as bad as I make it sound.  The point I am trying to make is how precious are these things, mostly without much financial worth, but of great value to us and to our family.  But then there are those Scriptures:
“He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them; so what profit have the owners except to see them with their eyes?  The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep. There is a severe evil which I have seen under the sun: riches kept for their owner to his hurt.  But those riches perish through misfortune; when he begets a son, there is nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return, to go as he came; and he shall take nothing from his labor which he may carry away in his hand” (Ecclesiastes 5:10-15).
Some would insist that God is telling us to travel light for we are all sojourners, without any abiding home here on earth.  After all Jesus told His disciples not to pack an extra bag or take an extra coat or pair of shoes when He sent them out.  There is, however, a difference between preserving the treasures of our past with thanksgiving and holding onto the treasures of this world with a grip until death.  The Lord is not telling us to cast off the things that tie us to our ancestors or connect the dots of our memories through the ages as if they meant nothing.  No, what He is telling us is that as precious as these things are and as precious as other things are in the world, none of these can pass with us through death and the grave.  They belong to this world and to this life and their value is not an eternal value but a momentary one. 

As Advent comes and we are told to clean our spiritual houses in preparation first for the remembrance of our Lord's first coming, and then to be renewed in His coming to us now in Word and Sacrament, and to consider His coming again in power and glory as Lord and Judge of all, it is time to assess what is precious and eternal and what we may treasure that is but temporal.  The distinction is important and confusing the two imperils our lives now and forever. 

Israel lived within this tension, sometimes more successfully than others.  They lived in remembrance of their fathers, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of the mighty acts of God's deliverance, of the prophetic Word and the promised future.  At times they valued the present too much and they lost it all in exile while others plundered their bounty.  At times they valued their past too much and sought a future which copied the glory moment of yesteryear.  At times these remembrances of their past and the circumstances of their present pointed them to the hope of a real promised land that could never be taken from them and a real Zion on high.  I am sure we are not unlike them.  That is why the Lord has placed the voice of His Word in our midst -- to call us to Him when past or present cloud the hope of the future He has prepared.

I love the treasures of my families and their past mostly because they were people of faith, they knew the hope within them as they left home and family for a new world, and they were comforted with this hope when disease, death, and the depression took so much from them.  They were heroic in this faith.  The ties that bind me these people of faith and to this past help ground me for all that comes in the present and rekindle within me the hope of a blessed reunion provided by Christ and His resurrection.  The mementos so precious to me now will not be with me in that future just as all the things I have done to prepare for retirement will be left behind but the faith endures and the people of faith endure.  A little housecleaning in Advent is not a bad thing if it points us to the pearl of great price that is Christ and His salvation.  Christ has come, Christ still comes, and Christ will come again.