Sunday, May 26, 2019

More words do not improve. . .

Remember the giant stack of pages that introduced and defined the Affordable Care Act?  Ever look at the mass of paper that is the federal budget each year?  More words and numbers do not bring clarity.  In fact they often contribute to more confusion and confound more than they instruct.

I remember when the Living Bible came out and a comparison was done of the number of words in that paraphrase versus the number of words in a typical translation and it did not take long to discover that Taylor's explanation (paraphrase) took far more words than the Holy Spirit spoke through the mouths and pens of Scripture's writers.  In many cases, perhaps even most, the words added to explain and clarify what the Lord said did just the opposite.  In some cases, the words actually contradicted and took away from what the Lord had said.

So, you may be wondering, where is this going. . .  Liturgical language is an economy of words, words well chosen not for their abundance but for their conciseness.  When you look at the Divine Service, you see few words that speak well.  But too often that is not enough for those who lead the Divine Service.  Ad lib has come to mean add words.  And that is the danger.  More words do not make for clarity but confuse and obfuscate the poetic language of liturgy and hymns.

My point to those leading worship is to stop improvising, stop ad libbing, stop trying to improve upon the language of the liturgy, and stop trying to act as a comic, commentator, or master of ceremonies for God.  You are adding words but not helping the cause.  In fact, your words make the service longer and people blame the liturgy for what you add.  You may think that you are improving upon the Divine Service but you are taking away from it and from the people's focus on the Lord's Word and Sacraments.

Don't try to make the liturgy more personal.  It is personal not because you make it so but because the Lord deals with us personally, encountering us through His Word and Sacraments with His gifts and grace.  It is personal because the Lord has become incarnate, lived among us as one of us (without sin) and suffered for us and in our place upon the cross.  The focus of the liturgy is Christ and not us.  We are not the center of it all, Christ is.  It is fake personalization when we try to make the liturgy more homey or personal.  This is Christ's job.  Preach the Word.  Administer the Sacraments.  God will do the rest.

This wisdom goes for directions within the liturgy.  If you have a worship folder, hymn boards, and a hymnal, you do not need to constantly tell the people what is going on before they do it.  They are not stupid.  They can read.  You only encourage them to be lazy and offend them as you presume they must be led like children through the liturgy.  Stop it and they will pick it up and go with it.  You are only demeaning them by presuming that they can neither read nor understand the words on the page.  Give it a rest.  If you must make a change to the order, do so at the beginning of the Divine Service so that you do not end up distracting God's people from what is happening within that Divine Service..

And one more thing.  If you are leading the service, your parts are well marked and so are the parts of the people.  Let them do their part.  It does no one any good when the leader presumes that the people will not respond either quickly enough or loud enough and so you must be both leader and respondent.  It only encourages people in the pew to be lazy and it suggests to them that they are not needed since the one presiding is doing all the parts himself.

Okay, do you feel better?  I do. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Rebels. . . without a cause. . .

Perhaps you have read me lament how our culture has worked so hard to make friends with death, at least a painless death which comes when you are ready for it.  In any case, it is still difficult for us to hide our fear of death -- no matter how hard we try to befriend it.  A good example is the way we treat age.  Our culture seems to dread old age more than death -- or perhaps because it reminds us of death!  We live in a world in which youth is adored and old age is something to be neither seen nor heard.  So we have old people acting like they are children and children doing just about anything and everything to prevent them from having to deal with old age.  What a world!

It is strange because we live at a time when the aged are increasing in number and in proportion to the population as a whole.  Could it be that we don't want to admit who we are?  Yet older folks are invisible in our culture.  Except, of course, the aged who betray their age with a youth that seems quaint while affirming the preference for being young.  We can tolerate a Betty White or a Tony Bennett who seem ageless but when it comes to those upon whom time has left its mark by way of broken and fragile bodies and minds, well, nobody wants to see that!

I get the AARP magazine and newspaper and it is filled with images of older folks (defined as those over 55) who are still youthful as if to tell the rest of us this is the way to age, growing old gracefully while masking as much as possible any of its cruel effects.  So issue after issue tells us of the aged (yes, those over 55) who are still sexy and athletic.  The implication is that this is the only way to grow old and if it does not apply to you, well, then maybe you ought to move to one of those states that allows you to pull the plug on life when it is no longer worth living.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the Biblical culture in which the hoary mane was a badge of honor and the elderly were seen as precious treasures of wisdom, experience, and life.  Instead of the stereotypical Eskimo idea of wandering off on the ice to die, the Bible lauds the aged as heroic testaments to the triumph of God's grace and the endurance of faith.  The story of the Presentation and Purification would not be the same with a Gen X Simeon singing about heading home from church instead of an aged prophet ready to die.  Nope, as much as we try to make friends with death, our refusal to honor the aged and the way we consider them a burden betrays our Achilles' heel -- we are as afraid of death as we are of growing old.

Movie quotes constantly remind us of Bette Davis who said growing old ain't for sissies.  She was right.  It is not.  It takes strength of will and character and faith to endure the onslaught of time and keep on hoping against hope for the God who is our help from generation to generation.  Perhaps it takes someone who has seen a few generations come and go to appreciate that.  In any case, it is high time that the older folks stopped being invisible (unless they did not act or look old) and all our culture stopped worshiping the fountain of youth.  God has not promised to make us forever young but to bestow upon us eternal life -- something far different from a moment in time repristinated over and over and over again.  I cannot tell you what it will be like but it is better than we can imagine and makes all our hopes and dreams of such a future pale in comparison.  Our glory is not in our past or in our youth but in the God who erases the sins and guilt of our yesterdays, releases us from the prison of the moment, and bestows upon us the gift of eternity.  As I said, I don't know how to describe that future but it will certainly be better than old butts in skinny jeans and wicked hair cuts that jump from the pages of the latest fashion magazines.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Lutherans and. . . Lutherans

So often people on both sides insist that the differences among Lutherans in America are not that great, that it is a matter of degree more than substance, and that it is a matter of time, some being slower and others being quicker to embrace change.  All of these are true, to a certain degree, about some aspects of those differences.  Nowhere is that made more clear than in the recent Forum Letter when Editor Richard Johnson chronicles the sad story of the evolution of Visions and Expectations to Trustworthy Servants of the People of God.  Now you may expect me to jump upon the obvious -- that the ELCA ordains GLBTQ folks without question and Missouri does not.  Though this is a clear and profound difference, that is not what I wish to reference.  Instead, hidden in the language of the new document is a radical shift in understanding marriage and divorce.  I wish I could say that this is isolated to the ELCA, and, at least officially, it is.  In reality the soft underbelly of any Lutheran congregation is the fact that divorce is no longer treated with sadness, regret, or entered into with the greatest reluctance.  It has become normal.

In V & E (of clergy), marriage is the normative relationship, established by God, and divorce is a reflection of sin, to be reluctantly allowed in some cases.  That evolved into an understanding in which divorce happens to the best of marriages.  In other words, any sense that divorce as something of great reluctance or regret is replaced with the simple reality that, hey, it happens.  Now, regardless of how often divorce happens or of who gets divorced, under it all the Church must maintain the Biblical model of family in which divorce is never normal but always met with the greatest regret and reluctance on the part of all.  When clergy no longer strive for or attempt to hold to the Biblical model of marriage and divorce, then they no longer reflect God to the people but all the brokenness and failings of the people to God.  It becomes like a threat to God.  This is the way things are so what are you going to do about it.  This is one difference between Lutheran groups.  Do the clergy strive to fulfill the Biblical model or do they settle instead to reflect the state of things about them?  Trustworthy Servants is clearly tilted away from the idea that clergy have a higher calling or that their marriages or divorces or have a duty or responsibility to reflect the Biblical shape of marriage and family.

One word is notably absent from the replacement for Vision and Expectations and that word is chaste (though to be accurate it appeared only twice in the previous document).  According to this new document (sent back for review but due out again by 2020), cohabitation is not good but there is no expectation or suggestion that sexual intimacy should be resisted or restrained until marriage.  Oh, to be sure, deepening levels of sexual intimacy should be accompanied by deepening levels of commitment (whatever that means) but it is clear that the idea that any clergy could be expected to restrain their sexual impulses is not only quaint but unrealistic.  That is the point.  The document to replace the 1990 version of that churches expectations of pastors was rejected not because it went too far but because it did not go far enough.  The first casualty of this war on Biblical morality is the word chaste.  Now Missouri has kept the word (at least in its catechism) but we do not talk nearly enough about the expectation of chastity to single and fidelity to married.  Though this is uniformly applied to straight and gay, the ELCA clearly finds it not only sexist but impossible.  In Missouri, we tend to avoid such blunt talk simply because it offends.  It is not that we no longer believe it but that we are not sure it will sell in the pews and so we pay lip service to this truth without actually raising up these standards for actual consideration and practice by both clergy and lay.

While I do not believe Missouri's future will involve following the ELCA's example in regularizing GLBTQ relationships within the clergy and the church, I cannot but notice that when it comes to fidelity and chastity and the idea that clergy should be held to higher standards than lay, we are behind the ELCA in time and degree but we are heading in the same direction.  That is something worth noting and changing so that our practices reflect more consistently our confession.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Potentially queer. . .

Apparently the Lutheran Church in Sweden (at least the Diocese of Västerås) has published a pamphlet to help those teens who are GLBTQ and who feel confused or oppressed because of it.  In the pamphlet, the teens are encouraged by Biblical examples of potentially queer people (they must be gay because they don't fit our stereotypes of straight).  It is a creative concept, for sure, but hardly anything more than the worst kind of novelty and unfaithfulness to the Bible.  It just might have been aided by the fact that the most recent Bishop elected identified as a gay man.

While one would have to give the effort a high grade for ingenuity, the whole thing offers teens legitimately wrestling with their desires nothing less than the worst kind of fake comfort and leaves them even more vulnerable than ever.  What kind of foolishness would presume to identify Biblical characters who just might be like me?  Instead of this, we have a Savior who was tempted in every way as we are tempted but without sin.  Should not this be the hook on which we hang our angst, our fears, our desires, our guilt, and our shame?  Is not the key here that we are not victims of our desires but in Christ are given strength for self-control?  Of course, this is not politically correct but it is Biblically true.  I am not sure when the decision to jettison Biblical for relevant and current was made but I am sure it was long before Bishop Mogren's consecration in 2015.

All of this, however, is less radical than Nadia Bolz-Weber's foray into sexual ethics called Shameless.  Her approach is not a tinkering with the Biblical morality and vision of sexuality but a wholesale rejection of it and of all the Christian morality that has come from it.  According to Bolz-Weber, it is always and only about sex and everything else must be submissive to sexual desire.  Hers is a shocking rejection of traditional Biblical, Christian, and Lutheran teaching of marriage, family, sex, and desire and the only thing more shocking is that she continues to be the diva of edgy and emergent ELCA style Lutheranism for youth as well as adults.  How long this can continue will depend less upon Biblical counterpoint than upon the stomach of ELCA people.  Apparently they can tolerate more than I thought possible.

I guess the Scriptures have been more true than we think since it is clear from Genesis that when sin entered the world it was first about sex and that remains one of the central issues where the sinful infection continues to cause us problems.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Shelf Life. . .

A while ago my household dug through to the ends of the pantry in our kitchen and found a few things with expiration dates that shocked and embarrassed us.  On the one hand, I am not the kind of person who pays all that much attention to best if used by dates and wonder if some of those dates are put on by manufacturers who want you to toss out and replace what you have not used recently.  But I do realize that not every food item is equal and some things really are best if used by.

There are things in the church that do have a shelf life and, if they don't have a formal expiration date, they have an informal use by date.  Things in worship should not shout the time frame in which they were composed or written.  As I have mentioned before, some of the fruits of the liturgical movement of the 1970s were dated in topic and style.  Read the old collects for the Roman Novus Ordo (prior to the more recent translations) and you see what I am talking about.  Liturgies that have a shelf life are liturgies not worthy of use in the life of God's people.  They should not be generational and liturgical innovation and change should, by definition, be deliberate and incremental.  You know what I mean, the hermeneutic of continuity (for you BXVI fans).

But the same is true of hymns.  Hymns that scream a date and a time are hymns unworthy of use in the Divine Service.  That does NOT mean that all the hymns need to be hundreds of years old.  It means that when we publish a hymn in a hymnal or commend its use to the churches, it better be a hymn worth singing more than once, more than this year, and more than this generation.  Perhaps that is why it is so difficult to find good hymnody that is modern -- contemporary music by definition has a shelf life.  It wants to be identified with a particular moment and even, perhaps, a particular place.  Like the playlists on our phones, contemporary Christian music is by definition tied to a moment in time and does not meet the expectations of a hymnal meant to last for at least a generation.

I would echo this sentiment for architecture, church art, and vestments as well.  Yes, I went through a tie dyed chasuble phase.  But I have repented and look for that which will fit the next generation without embarrassment or explanation.  You have undoubtedly read my comments about modern church architecture and the not to subtle clues from secular spaces which have little in common with the needs of a sacred assembly.  My own parish had a Fellowship Hall with burnt orange carpeting, lime green walls, electric blue sliding curtains, and bright orange doors and heating ducts.  Yes, it was repainted and needs it again, by the way.  When we build or create something to hit the peak of a trend, we burden our future with our shortsightedness.  And, to be frank, we don't have the money to waste to constantly be in style with the times.  Nor do we have the space in our worship books to waste on things we will sing once and nevermore.

So shelf life is an issue for the church.  We need things with a long shelf life.  Liturgies that last for generations upon generations.  Hymns that speak as profoundly to the next century as they did the century in which they were written.  Architecture that can stand through the ages without worrying about style.  Art that is as authentic and beautiful for the next generation as it was for the last.  Vestments that can be worn a long time without looking old.  So when you look at what the church does, where it does it, and how it does it, that which glorifies God and speaks to the moment best is that which is not married to a style that came and went yesterday.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Unchanging joy in an ever changing world. . .

Sermon for Easter 5C, preached on Sunday, May 19, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    There’s one constant in life: it’s constantly changing.  Everything changes.  Nothing stays the same.  A quick look through history proves that fact.  Our world changes.  Societies and cultures change.  Our values and popular morality change.  We change: our thoughts and opinions; our bodies.  Sometimes change is good and we should recognize that.  But there’s also times when change isn’t so good.  It can be painful and hurts.  During these times we may feel a loss, we may begin to despair, thinking there’s no hope for the future.  But there is hope, because even in the midst of all sorts of change, the Spirit of God gives you an unchanging joy. 
    We often don’t do well with change.  It’s not something we usually enjoy.  Sure, there are times when spontaneity and a little change can spice up our lives, but for the most part, we’re creatures who like things to remain the same.  Look at where you’re sitting right now.  Isn’t that the same pew you always sit in?  We want things to stay the same because there’s comfort and certainty there.  We feel safe in the same old same old. 
    But nothing stays the same old same old.  Our world and culture changes.  Just listen to anyone from an older generation talk about the good ol’ days.  These days are often brought up as they bemoan the current state of things.  The world isn’t like it used to be, it’s much faster now.  We’re always on the go, moving from one thing to the next.  The traditional values that marked our culture are different.  No longer are Christian morals the norm.  Now, everyone gets to decide on their own what’s right and wrong.  In this new world, it can be hard for us to see a future, at least a positive one. 
    But our world isn’t the only thing that changes, our personal lives change, and these changes are often the most painful and sorrowful.  Divorce, loss of job, the diagnosis of cancer, deployment and change of station, the unexpected death of a loved one, even the expected death of a loved one, all of these change our lives in many and untold ways.  When they happen, we don’t know what to do.  The uncertainty of the future rocks us to our core.  
    The disciples were about to experience this type of massive change.  In the Upper Room, before Jesus was betrayed, He told the disciples about changes that would come.  He said, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me...Truly, truly I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.  You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (Jn 16:16, 20).  With these words, Jesus was telling them about His crucifixion, and that this change would make them sorrowful. 
    After Christ’s arrest, His sham trial, and public execution, the lives of the disciples were changed; their future uncertain.  Just think about it, the prospect of going on without Christ, their Lord and Teacher.  The disciples were filled with sorrow as they contemplated going on without the One they lived with for three years, the One they saw perform all sorts of miracles, the One who promised the coming of the kingdom of God.  And yet, this change wouldn’t ultimately be for their sorrow, but for their joy!
    Hear again Jesus’ words.  “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me...Truly, truly I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.  You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (Jn 16:16, 20).  Jesus not only foretold the disciples sorrow, but He also promised them joy.  Their sorrow would be turned to joy, in Christ’s resurrection.  And not just any joy, but a joy that would never be taken from them (Jn 16:22).
    This joy is a constant joy.  This joy is an unchanging joy.  This joy is a result of Christ’s death and resurrection.  On the cross Jesus defeated all sin.  He overcome the disciples’ sin, the world’s sin, your sin.  He shed His blood to cleanse you.  And with His resurrection He won you everlasting life.  Jesus’ death and resurrection, this is a constant that never changes.  Jesus death and resurrection is a fact of the past, never changing.  He died once for all, and the life He lives He lives to God (Rom 6:10).  This redemptive fact affects your life: your past, your present, and your future.  Because of what Christ has done for you, God gives you the promise of life. 
    The joy of everlasting life that God has given you, that joy is your’s right now, at this very moment, even in this world filled with change and sorrow.  This joy isn’t a forced happy joy that never feels sorrow or pain.  This joy doesn’t super-glues an artificial smile on your face.  No, this joy recognizes the pain and sorrow in our world.  But this joy also knows the certainty of salvation.  This joy recognizes with confident hope Christ’s promises fulfilled.  And this joy rejoices knowing that the forgiveness of Christ and His promised everlasting life can’t be taken from you.  These are certain realities based on Christ’s death and resurrection, and no matter what you’re going through, nothing can change that! 
    The constant changes of life can bring us to tears.  We can feel lost and adrift in an ever changing world, uncertain what tomorrow will bring.  We can be filled with sorrow; and yet, at the same time, we have a joy that is unchanging, a joy that’s certain and true.  This joy is based on Christ and His death and resurrection.  It’s founded on His promise salvation.  No matter what twists and turns life throws your way, you belong to your Savior.  And the unchanging joy of everlasting life in Him, that is a gift that belongs to you.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.   

Little things. . .

When I was a child, my mother insisted that I take care of my toys and, most especially, pick them up and put them away.  It was her conviction that unless I learned how to take care of these things (the little stuff of the world), I would never be able to have or care for the larger things of life.  She was and is a wise woman.  Steeped in the work ethic and personal responsibility of her Scandinavian upbringing, she exemplified her mother's saying, If everyone sweeps her own stoop, the whole world will be clean.  Today people often giggle at such quaint ideas but there is a great deal of truth in her words and truth that can well apply to the Church.

Rubrics (literally red letter words) are often ignored, argued with, and intentionally broken but I think it is foolish to think that we can be found faithful in the great things of the Kingdom while playing fast and loose with the little things of God.  In fact, I have often found that those who are unfaithful in those little things are also unfaithful in the big things.  In this, our Lord finds the same connection.

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much (Luke 16:10).  This wisdom was also noted by St. Augustine.  Quod minimum, minimum est, Sed in minimo fidelem esse, magnum est. [What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing. But to be faithful in a little thing is a great thing.]
(from St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, IV, 35)

Rubrics offer us guidance in applying the truths we believe, teach, and confess to the practice of those things.  One example is how we care for the reliquae, that which remains from the distribution, or, even more significantly, the spills or crumbs that happen during the distribution.  Here Luther's own example is instructive even when his words may not be quite as clear.  Kneeling on the floor to literally suck up the spilled blood of Christ demonstrates unequivocally that Luther was neither a receptionist or one who believed in a symbolic presence over a substantial one.

On several occasions questions have arisen in winkels (local gatherings of clergy) in which what we believe has been questioned and I have asked "what do the rubrics tell us to do?"  For in the rubrics we see doctrine in practice.  You can laugh about those little red letter directions in the hymnal, missal, and agenda but you dare not take them lightly.  They were placed there for a purpose by people who understood (even when we forget) the connection between belief and practice that has been the core and center of our church's life since the beginning.

Little things matter.  As a parent, we often presume that it is the big stuff that tests our mettle but in reality the parent's most profound tests come in faithfulness in the little stuff.  As one example, teaching the doctrine of prayer is less significant than giving the great witness of parents praying, of praying with their children regularly, and praying at times of special need.  I would say the same thing applies to pastoral ministry.  We face our greatest challenges not in the once in a decade issues that confront us but in the daily prayer, teaching, preaching, presiding, visiting, counseling, and such.  Little things count and the Lord does not ignore those little things.  Jesus was not a big picture guy and neither should we be.  We must be both and the little things will matter even when we do not see it.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The way they love. . .

It is often suggested (even by those within the pale of orthodox Christendom like Fr. Jim Martin, SJ) that you cannot say you love or accept gay people (or substitute the gender fluid choice of the person speaking) and then reject the way they love.  In other words, to accept the person is to give place and approval to their sexual behavior.  Remember here that no one is condemned simply for having a same sex attraction but for acting upon that attraction.  That does not mean that this attraction is the equivalent to heterosexuality.  What it does say is that there is a distinct difference between thoughts and desires and the acting out of those thoughts and desires.  Not every heterosexual thought or desire is the same or without condemnation.  Sin has corrupted every person and every heart and planted within that heart desires that do not honor the Lord or reflect His ordering of us and creation.  That said, the pivotal idea here that must be challenged is the idea that accepting the individual means not only accepting their desires but granting approval to his or her behavior -- the behavior the flows out of those desires.

It is also said that since God made people the way they are, we must accept them as they are -- gay, straight, trans, or whatever.  What people may believe is not the arbiter of truth.  Believing it does not make it true any more than not believing renders it false.  While it may sound neat to say God made me the way I am, it is hardly Biblical.  Did God intend for people to be born with physical or mental handicap?  Did God intend for a baby to be born addicted to drugs?  Did God intend for people to be born with genes that might portend cancer or addiction or physical ill down the road?  Did God intend for people to be born into a world of poverty, want, need, violence, inequity, etc?  Our feelings sound good in certain lights but they sound terrible in another light.  Our feelings should be respected as feeling but they do not define or make truth.  God does that.  And we are privileged to receive that truth and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to believe it and to live because of it.  That is the Gospel.  Not that our feelings define us or must be accepted no matter what or honored as the ultimate truth.

Are there cultural things in Scripture that refer to a specific context and time?  Of course.  Not everything in Scripture is truth there for all time and for all people.  That does not diminish the Word  of God.  We are not forbidden for all time from eating shrimp and lobster or pork chops or bacon.  Everyone knows this.  To place God's creation of them male and female into the same category as shellfish or pork is, well, ludicrous. 

Finally, how you love is not a fluid thing or a flexible thing or something you define.  If that were the case, there could be no condemnation for anything consensual at all.  How you love is not something you define.  God has defined the shape of love, creating them male and female and commanding them to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and have dominion over all else He made.  Can humans screw it up?  Of course they can and regularly do (everything from sexual abuse to adultery to pornography to prostitution to bestiality to a host of other things imagined but not yet even formally invented).  And that is the point.  God has created a shape and an order of love -- one that He applies even to the Church the bride and Christ the bridegroom.  So enough with all the goofiness that loving the individual means accepting and approving all that they think, desire, say, or do.  If that were the case, Jesus Himself would be superfluous and we would all be good just as we are, deep in our sins.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

That is ugly. . .

I will never forget when a parishioner looked at a crucifix I had put up with shock and disgust, saying That is ugly.  Well, yes, it is ugly.  No cross was or is pretty.  We have cleaned up crosses and turned them into things of beauty but the reality is that the cross was never meant to be pretty.  It is the place where sin was borne upon the shoulders of the sinless -- a beautiful act of redemption but hardly a beautiful sight to behold.  The disciples ran in fear.  Only a few women and blessed St. John could stick it out before the cross.  It was ugly, to be sure.  But what do you expect???

We need to see the ugliness of the crucifix, the brutality of the scars, and the pain which our Savior bore to redeem us sinners from all our sins, repair the breech between us and the Father, and bring us home to His dwelling place.  Nobody puts up a crucifix because it is pretty.  Profound, yes, and awe inspiring but not pretty.

When St. Paul insisted that we preach Christ and Him crucified, St. Paul had in mind exactly that brutal and shocking image of Christ, the holy and righteous Son of God, wearing the ugliness of our sin and being obedient even to death on the cross to rescue us sinners by His blood.  We have a far too idealized image of the cross -- one without a body or blood or shame (earthly shame, that is).  Cursed is he who hangs on a tree, says the Word of God.  His visage was so marred that He could not be seen without cringing, says the Scripture of Him who would suffer and die upon a cross.

Nope, we have made the cross something it never was -- pretty.  But in doing so we rob the cross of its glory and we distort the profound character of the Gospel that Christ died for us while we were sinners and His enemies and not because He found something good in us or we deserved any of His redeeming love.  We want a happy Jesus but this happy Jesus is a fake Jesus.  The Jesus whom God reveals is the suffering servant of Isaiah, the wounded Messiah long promised, the flesh born to die, and the death that kills death once for all.  It is not pretty or beautiful but it is compelling and, if the Spirit is at work in us, we cannot but look upon that cross in wonderment and awe.  Who would do such a thing, bear such a price, and deliver such an unworthy people?  Only Christ, the Son of God, who was in plan for just that moment from the foundation of the world.

There are representations of the cross that are extra life-like (should I say death-like) and they are hard to look at but to look away is to miss the most eloquent love ever revealed on earth -- that Christ should die for you and me and for the sake of the whole world save us from the sin we had grown so accustomed to and so comfortable with!  We make friends with death but cannot look upon suffering and God hates death and bears the suffering of the whole world to release us from its curse.  Can anyone explain that?  No, no one can.  But we can believe it and rejoice in the power of such love.  And if we can do that, perhaps we will learn to find beauty even in suffering.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Not enough to stay two steps ahead. . .

Got another email. . .  You know how that goes.  This time there was a rather salutary truth.  A pastor complained that if all the churches were doing was trying to be one step ahead of another, it might last for a while and there might be some growth but in the end, the church may still die.  That is simple but profound.  Yet that is exactly what churches have been doing for ages and what many are doing with even more vigor now -- copying others and trying to stay one step ahead of the pack!  It is as if we have grown so accustomed to and adept at re-inventing ourselves, that we no longer notice any contradiction there.  We out program, out spend, out technology, out shock, and out vulgar until in the end the world does not know who Christians are anymore and Christians are not sure, either.  So I have a radical thought.  Maybe programs are like the pacifiers that do nothing but make us feel like we are doing okay, keeping busy, relevant, etc...  Maybe the real emphasis ought to be on the family.

No church can do much to make sure the faith exists beyond the generation in the pews UNLESS they teach the parents how to teach their children the faith at home.  In other words, the only program that counts is catechesis and teaching those who catechize -- especially parents for the sake of their children.  We have dumbed things down so that the Small Catechism is about as big as we tackle and it has become the domain of professional teachers in the churches instead of parents in the home.  We have turned pastors into professional pray-ers and forgotten that the work of intercession belongs to all the baptized.  We have turned the sturdy church music of old into eminently forgettable words and tunes that have a good beat but no meat and so our children are being entertained to death by people who think entertainment is the end that justifies the means.

Part of the reason we have NONES is that we did not catechize their parents well and they did not catechize their children.  It is not simply a new wave of agnosticism but a failure to teach the faith and teach it well and equip the teachers to teach the faith.  So it all became somehow less important and less real and less urgent than the pressing matters of this moment.  We forgot that the world was doing a very effective job of catechizing them into a life where pleasure, feelings, self, entertainment, experience, and technology can meet all their needs.  We forgot that the world was doing a very effective job of teaching morality without morals, the naturalness of death with dignity if you cannot have life on your terms, and to live for me only.  Kids are under great pressure to discount and reject the truths of the Christian faith and the Word of God and they cannot survive without a strong foundation, a living faith in the home, and the Divine Service calling them like a magnet to the places where God is, God gives, and God keeps them.  We put them in children's church or nursery or playtime with the youth group and used the church as a babysitter instead of giving them Christ.  So when they summon up their voice to say that they are a NONE, we are surprised???

Part of the reason we have DONES is that they left the faith and the church without being fully catechized in the first place.  I have seldom met people who left the church over serious doctrinal difference but I have met people all the time who were there once but gradually were pulled away because the forces pulling them away were stronger than the forces pulling them in.  Now, is some of that their fault?  Of course it is.  But we must also admit our own complicity in the matter.  We did not address issues of life and morality clearly and with the Word of God.  We did not speak to God's creation while science was inventing theories to explain it all away.  We did not give them the tools of the Scriptures and catechism to know the faith.  We let them sing nice songs instead of the sturdy chorales and hymns of faith that actually taught the faith.  We taught them nothing really all that big or important was happening on Sunday morning.  We gave them the idea that there is no difference between pastor and lay, one church or another, and that sincerity was more important than doctrinal clarity and truth.  So when they left, we were surprised???

Catechesis.  In the Church.  To the parents.  To the children.  The discipline of weekly attendance at the Divine Service.  The real Divine Service with real hymns that take most seriously Christ in our midst giving His gifts and speaking the language of the faith from the worship place to the home and carrying it all with them in the heart.  Isn't this the only program that really counts???

Friday, May 17, 2019

Presiding over the death of a church. . .

I have an acquaintance who spent more than a generation in a dying congregation.  He was a faithful pastor who stayed with his people until the decision was made to close the doors.  He was there for the final service and assisting the congregation in disposing of its property with the dignity that a house of God deserved.  It died not without his and the faithful efforts and energy of the people.  Of course, it is always true that more could have been done but he accorded himself both with dignity and faithfulness to the very end.  It did not take long before another congregation called him and he went to his new call to fulfill his pastoral vocation, though not without sadness for the congregation that had closed its doors under his watch.  He was a faithful shepherd nonetheless.  He will always be remembered for his work to keep what seemed inevitable from happening.  No one likes to be the last pastor out the door and yet sometimes somebody has to be that man.

In contrast, a month or so ago a man died after not only watching his church die but hastening on the death by gutting the church of the integrity of its doctrine and by relativizing its truth until there was little distinctively Christian left in her.  She still has buildings but they are largely empty and her once thriving Christian presence is now a hollow shell where faith once lived and now is gone.  But this man was a darling of the media and a power broker in the larger church.  In his death, many honored him for his work, though the work itself was one of the contributing factors in the death of his church under his stewardship.  The man was Cardinal Godfried Danneels and the once impressive Belgian Roman Catholic Church is a prime example of the emptiness of progressivism and the lies the progressives tell. He was a personable figure, well educated, fluent in many languages, and a prince of a guy -- except to the orthodox tenets of Christianity and to any orthodox morality and ethics consistent with this confession.  The man delighted in every wind of change and embraced them with vigor.  About the only thing, it seems, he could not stand is orthodoxy.

It is a tale of contrasts.  If a faithful pastor preaches and teaches the faith and exercises faithfully the ministry committed to him and a congregation (or more) dies under his care, there is no scandal or apology needed.  But when an unfaithful pastor distances himself from the very faith he is supposed to proclaim, works to enhance the breech between the church of old and the church of day (and tomorrow), that pastor has traded his integrity and, indeed, his dignity for a pot of lentil soup and betrayed the office and trust placed in him.  The greater shame lies with Pope Francis and others who continued to befriend and laud this man even after his retirement and the Belgian Roman Catholic Church was placed on life support.  This man failed the faith and the faithful failed this man by treating him as if he were noble and honorable.  There is no honor in doing everything in your power to kill what is entrusted to you as priest or bishop.

This is what I find so curious.  Why does the world continue to laud progressives who doubt the Scriptures and distort worship and play church as if it were a power game?  Why do men like these retain respect from those outside the faith and those within the confines of churches?  Why is it that it is so painfully obvious to everyone but those in the media and the progressive movement that robbing the faith of his historicity, tearing down the pillars of liturgy and morality, and erasing the distinctions between the Church and the world is sounding the death knell for the faith?  How many more empty church buildings and regional churches must be lost to inconsequence in the name modernity or progressivism or improvement?  Lutherans and others need to beware of those who come to save the patient (the Church) and who find they must kill her to save her.  The Church already finds the way to apostasy hard to resist; she does not need the powerful voices of leadership to help her on her way.  I know it is heresy today but the Church will not die because we have always done it that way before.  But she will die or at least lose her soul as we abandon her dogmas and her identity in worship to the prevailing mood of the times.  The world does not long need or show much interest in a hollow echo but the Word of the Lord will endure forever and out of the ashes God will bring the elect to their appointed destiny long before the foundations of the world were laid.

Sad to say it but the world does not need nor have those like Cardinal Danneels does anything on behalf of a Church that cannot close her ears to the whisper of change which leaves the faith and the faithful weak and vulnerable.  There is a lesson for here for us.  There is no dishonor in being faithful and faithfully serving the Word and Sacraments and the doors to a church building closing but there is no victory in dishonoring the faith and the faithful for the sake of every whim of doctrine and change.  In the end, they will have to account to a higher authority but their progressive works will follow them and stand as evidence of their failure to uphold the sacred deposit and pass it faithfully on those of the next generation.  Lutherans are not immune from such leaders, either, and we need to pay attention to the example set by those who ending up killing the Church trying to maker her relevant or palatable or modern.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

We just want to DO something . . .

In case you missed it, this year is the 50th anniversary of the New Mass (Novus Ordo) promulgated by Pope Paul VI under the stewardship of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini.  It seems that the later wrote an autobiography in which he revealed that the operating principle of the reforms, reforms that are labelled Vatican II but which came out after the Council and without the Council's knowledge or approval, were guided by the principle of participation.  In this Paul VI had already, apparently, complained that Latin and the shape of the Latin Mass were preventing participation of people and children and impeding the church's evanglistic efforts.  So the two cooperated in a very discreet (dare I say secretive) effort to remake the whole Roman Catholic Church (which they did).

What is interesting is not the Novus Ordo, which is rather tame and ordinary, but the idea that the people need to do something and want to do something in worship.  How many goofy and destructive things have been fostered in the spirit of giving people something to do?  Strangely, this principle which was behind so much of the movement to make worship more egalitarian and diverse and to give the people in the pew rights and responsibilities of leadership (time in the spotlight) has not been followed by entertainment worship.  In fact, the evangelicals seem to violate every principle of participation.  Their music is for entertainment purposes, led by professionals (kids, don't try this at home), replete with professional quality video and audio, on a large stage, with a pastor who preaches by entertaining using Scripture as a pretext for saying what he or she wants to say.  About the only thing the people in their cushioned seats do is drink their vitamin water or Starbucks and pay for the entertainment. 

We invented the ordination of women because our culture found equality to mean interchangability and was offended by the idea that a woman could not do what a man did.  We invented the GLBTQ churches because we found it offensive to think that marriage of one man and one woman (clearly the Biblical norm) was the God ordained form of family or that the church should sanction this above others.  We invented all sorts of roles (from lay readers to praise bands) to give our people something to do so that they would not be passive before God.  And in doing so, liturgical churches struggle to keep folks while the big box non-denominational evangelicals entertain their people to death while the folks just sit there (oh, and clap and sip their drinks of choice, and pay).  Could it be that our people did not want to participate?  Did the reformers get it wrong? We do everything in our power to erase the mystery and make worship practical and give people a part to play and still they have not packed the pews.  Could it be that we presumed a blip among boomers was the coming thing for all generations?

The only churches who have been able to hold their own in the exodus of Christians from the pews are those where distinct roles between clergy and lay are outlined, where mystery is emphasized, and where God's actions are held higher than our own in worship.  We thought (even Lutherans) that the key to growth or retaining our people was giving them something to do.  We were wrong.  It sort of reminds me when a member revealed that his preparation for first communion was the suggestion that nothing all that important was happening, the bread was not very tasty, the wine icky, and you would feel no different after eating and drinking the Lord's Supper.  Don't expect too much because nothing going on in worship is really all that important or earth shattering.  Yup, that person may be correct but it is not because they have read the Word of God right or know their liturgy.  And it is an easy jump from the idea that God is doing nothing to the idea that I am doing something and what I am doing is the most important thing of all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

I'm a person of faith. . .

In one of the quieter moments of Holy Week, the TV was on in the background and I heard one of the NBC Today anchors say I am a person of faith.  I did not think about it all that much but it started a discussion in our household.  Maybe I am an old has-been but I found it confusing, to say the least.  What faith?  What faith are you a person of?  If it is so important to suggest that you are a person of faith, why don't you just admit you belong to this church or that?  At the minimum, she could have said she was a Christian.  But instead all we got was the vagaries of modernity that mean something without saying anything -- except that they don't mean anything at all and by saying nothing, they are saying everything.

I am pretty confident that Christianity will not be and cannot be outlawed.  But that is hardly the point.  You do not need to outlaw a faith that can no longer be claimed openly in public.  The real danger is not that Christianity will be outlawed or that churches will be regulated (or, help us God, taxed), but that Christianity will become the religion that cannot be named in public and that Christians are protected in their faith only behind the closed doors of home or worship space (sounds better than church).  In other words, you do not need to directly challenge Christianity if you have made it unfriendly or offensive to speak its name in public or to identify a specific church by name.

Consider this.  After the terrible killings of Christians in Sri Lanka, former President Obama and wannabe President Hillary Clinton both condemned not the targeting of Christians but the attacks on Easter worshipers (and travelers).  It would be as if Muslims were not called Muslims or members of Islam but described as Ramadan worshipers.  It is a curious way to say it and even more curious in that both prominent people chose to phrase their tweets in exactly the same way.  When the 2016 attacks on GLBTQ folks were mentioned, the attacker was not condemned as targeting night club patrons but gays, lesbians, and transgenders.  Yet when Christians were clearly the targets in Sri Lanka, the prominent folk did a credible duck and save to avoid saying those who massacred them were aiming for Christians.

Any of this individually might be a mere curiosity but together it suggests that the time will come sooner rather than later when the very name Christian will be offensive enough to be banned from the public square.  Christians will be allowed to practice behind closed doors in home and worship spaces but they will not be accorded the privilege of being identified or owning their faith by name in public.  That is what I see.  And it is all revealed by the seemingly innocuous skipping of the name Christian or the identity of their church by folks casually conversing about the various things of Holy Week.  I am a person of faith.  Whatever that means.

Terry Mattingly of Get Religion pointed out that it took the journalists at USA Today 15 paragraphs before mentioning the word “Christian.”  Tell me that this was accidental.  If it is an offense to misgender (whatever that means), why is it okay to ignore the word Christian and to do everything in your power to avoid it (except when you can speak it in a negative light)?  Yes, I am being sarcastic and small but if we are to keep our integrity as Christians in the public square, we will have to point out what the media is doing to us (with the permission and cooperation of those who make the news).

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Jesus the Shepherd and Temple. . .

Sermon for Easter 4C, preached on Sunday, May 12, 2019.

    Though we seldom stop to think about it and rush to the familiar and comforting words of Jesus who says "I am the Good Shepherd," the John 10 text we read today as the Gospel for Good Shepherd Sunday has a context.  According to John, Jesus has made His way to the Temple for the celebration of the Feast of Dedication.  Of course, this feast has a prehistory but you know it best because it becomes later the Feast of Hanukkah.  It was on this day that Jesus said these words and this is the context into which Jesus places those words.

    The Feast of Dedication is literally a feast of reconstruction.  In the time between the Old and New Testaments, read in the Apocrypha, First Maccabees 4:36-56, there is a story every Jew would have known and loved.  Some 200 years before Jesus was born, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV had overcome Israel and occupied its land.  He rejected monotheism and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  So he turned the Temple into Jerusalem into a shrine for Zeus.  To make matters worse, he insisted upon being called Antiochus Epiphanes – that he is literally the manifestation of God. 

    In the wake of such devastation, Israel was filled with mourning and lament but it was also a nation divided and weak.  There were the Chasidim (like Pharisees), the holy ones, who added laws to the Law of God but held to the whole Old Testament and who believed in the resurrection.  On the other side were the Zadikim or righteous ones who held only to the Torah and did not believe in the resurrection.  They were the forerunners of the Sadducees. 

    A Chasidim resistance leader by the name of Judah Maccabees arose who was so successful against the Zadikim that they appealed to Syria for help.  They got more than they bargained for.  The Syrians were not allies of the Zadikim; they came to steal the nation away.  Antiochus gloated as the governor of Syria was killed and then took up the cause against Judah Maccabees and the revolt.  His every attack met with greater resistence from the Maccabees, until, with a force of 10,000, they vanquished Antiochus to make Israel an independent nation once again.

    Upon entering the Temple, they found the desecration and decay of the most holy site in Israel.  They cleansed the Temple, washing it olive oil, rebuilt the Altar of Burnt Offering, replaced the sacred vessels, and restored consecrated priests to Temple service.  With an 8 day celebration they rejoiced over the restoration of the Temple.  Now, 200 years later, Jesus stood there, recalling the great victory and the rejoicing over the fact that the forgiveness of sins might be the center of the Temple’s worship once again.

    It is in midst of all this then, they asked Jesus if He was the Messiah  When Jesus answered them, they were ready to stone Him for His blasphemy. Into this Jesus says:  “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.  I and the Father are one.”

    Now we begin to see.  Jesus was not simply claiming to God here but uses this occasion to proclaim Himself the Temple of the Lord.  He is God and He is where God is to be worshiped. Jesus had already said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.”  Jesus pushed the envelope hard.  All the Law points to Jesus.  The voice of the prophets speak of Jesus.  He is the Temple and His flesh and blood are the sacrifice.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Jesus is who He claims to be; you know this because He does what He says He will do.

    So when He says His sheep hear His voice and He knows them and they know Him, Jesus is exposing the unbelief of those who knew of Judah Maccabees but did not know the Law and the prophets.  For if they knew the Scriptures, they would know that the Scriptures testify of Jesus.  His disciples did not challenge Him but followed Him.  In return Jesus gives them more than the forgiveness of their sins but the surprise of everlasting life.  They belong to Him and neither death nor all the powers against Him can snatch His sheep from His hand.

    We like symbolic language, like when God likens Himself to a mother hen seeking to gather His people like a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.  Most appropriate on Mother's Day, you know.  But Jesus is not using symbolic language.  Jesus is not talking theory here but practices what He preaches.  He dies to prove that death cannot steal us from Him and He offers Himself as the sin offering to prove that sin cannot condemn us when we are in Him.  He over comes all our enemies to prove that we have nothing to fear.  He is on our side and now, by baptism and faith, we are His sheep, the flock of His hand, not volunteers for the Kingdom but those whom the Father has elected to salvation and given to Jesus to be His own.  No one can snatch us from Him.  Nothing can steal us from Him who has done all things so we might be His and live under Him in His eternal kingdom.

    And if Jesus is the new Temple, if He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, what does it mean to follow Jesus?  It means to be where the voice of Jesus speaks His Word to us and here where the sin offering has become our meal in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.  It means not an end to the Temple but its fulfillment and not an end to sacrifice but one all sufficient sacrifice which takes away the sins of the whole world.  It means standing together in this faith and worship, holding up this Gospel before the world – not a private faith or an individual before God.  What do we say?  As often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  This crucified and risen body and blood is our witness to the world.

    The Good Shepherd is not some symbolic identity but the real thing.  He has reconstructed the Temple in His flesh, crucified and risen.  Read in the book of Revelation and you will see that the Temple is not erased but fulfilled in Christ.  He is our Temple.  He is our Light.  He is our Life.  We know the Father through Him and the Father will send forth the Spirit in His name in order to bring home to our hearts and minds and lives this blessed truth.  This is what binds us to Christ and it is in this that we live and work and have our being.

    Faith is not a good feeling we get from Jesus but the assurance and the confidence that Jesus is who He claims to be and has done what He has promised to do.  God has reconstructed the Temple in the crucified and risen flesh of Jesus and God still speaks to us the voice of Jesus through the words of Scripture.  You stick with this Christ who gives us His flesh and blood as our food and you cannot be snatched form His hand by any power or any enemy.  You stick with this Christ who speaks that we may know Him and follow Him and no one and nothing can snatch you from His hand.  You be where Christ is in His Word and Sacraments and He will dwell in you.

    These are not conditions placed upon the promise but the means of grace through which that promise is fulfilled.  Christ is the Temple and the old building will pass away because it is not eternal.  Christ is eternal.  Christ is the sin offering through which the sinners are forgiven and made righteous.  No blood but the blood of Christ cleanses us from this sin.  Christ is the heart of the Scriptures and its voice so that those who hear the Word of God hear the living voice of Christ speaking and doing what He has said.

    For eight days the Maccabees rejoiced over their victory over Antiochus and the restoration of the Temple.  Easter is the 8th day, the beginning of a whole new reality. Our joy will not be limited in time but is now and will be eternal.  He will raise us up and He will be our Temple for all eternity.  This is what we see now through a mirror dimly but what shall be clear and plain on the last day.  This is the victory He has won and the gift He has bestowed on us by which any and all who will be saved shall be saved.  Thanks be to God.  He has done all things well.  Christ is Risen!  Alleluia!

Credit goes to Pr. David Peterson for inspiration.

Playing with the language of God. . .

For a while there was some craziness about the name of God.  It manifested itself in uncertainty of baptism when people were baptized not into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit but into Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier or, worse, Faith, Hope, and Love.  There were all sorts of possibilities in between.  Now the push is on to institutionalize the craziness in the name of gender inclusivity.  Not only must we name correctly the genders (more are being invented each day) of the people but we must recast God into the gender confusion of our moment.  While the first was disorganized and a type of flower child approach to theology, this more serious movement is even more threatening because it has the stamp of officialdom on it.  In carrying the imprimatur of a church body and those exercising episcope, it effectively challenges the Trinitarian name of God the Church learned from Scripture, applied in creedal form, and has guarded as the most basic foundation of orthodoxy from the earliest of days.

An example of this lies in the implementing resolution for a new ELCA social statement on the very topic of faith, sexism, and justice.  While it does not remove the Trinitarian name of God, it requires that the Church develop gender inclusive and gender expansive language for God.  This is much more than simply be sensitive to how things sound but requires the ELCA to make the ordinary name of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) merely one of many forms and names used by the church body to name God.  While some might suggest that this is not at all dangerous, it is will inevitably diminish the Biblical names of God and make orthodox trinitarianism optional.  And, as we all know, Neuhaus' law is well proven that where orthodoxy becomes optional, it will eventually be outlawed.

"To call upon the Conference of Bishops, synods, and the churchwide organization to use gender-inclusive and expansive language for God, and to direct the ELCA worship team a) to use such language whenever it commissions, curates, or develops new liturgical and related educational resources, and (b) to supplement existing resources toward that end."   Implementing resolution #9 for Proposed Social Statement “Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Lutheran Call to Action (p 47).”

I am NOT singling out the ELCA for this; I only wish that it was alone among the offenders.  I know that orthodoxy is constantly under threat even from church bodies that think themselves conservative (like the LCMS to which I belong).  The danger is not to the ELCA but to our ears and minds.  After we begin hearing as customary other names for God, the Biblical name for God becomes at least exceptional and perhaps even strange to our ears.  A year or so ago I listened to the ELCA Presiding Bishop being interviewed on Issues, Etc., and found her constant use of God or Godself to avoid using Him or Himself jarring but it does not take long before that becomes normal and Him or Himself becomes the exception.  Again, the problem is not merely substituting other names for God from time to time but learning to depart from Scripture.  This is not about how God is described (by His works, for example, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier) but about how God is named -- in prayer, worship, witness, catechesis, and confession.  It all begins, of course, with a departure from Scripture as both the source and norm of how we know and speak of God.  Where Scripture is but one of the norms that apply to the way we talk about God, it is no longer Scripture at all.

We cannot be casual about this.  This goes to the heart and core of our confidence in the words and actions of God.  When we tinker with God's name, is it still baptism?  When we tinker with the elements, is it still the Lord's Supper?  Who is to say?  And that is the point!  Who IS to say!  In other words, that about which we should be most confident is thrown into confusion and doubt.  This is what happens when orthodoxy becomes optional, when the Biblical name of God becomes one among many names, and when we apply to God and to Scripture the lens of the moment to define what we hear and how we repeat it back.  This is no longer about a few flower children trying to sow their 1960s oats but about churches, faith, and the people of God needlessly set adrift on a sea of doubt because we no longer hear the Word of God as unique or understand that Word to define our faith and our liturgical and confessional language about God.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Luther the Mariologist. . .

It may surprise many to discover that Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, was rather traditional in his doctrinal views regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary.  No, I did not write that particular sentence but I have written many similar reminders that Luther was no modern day Protestant (or even Lutheran!) with regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary but wrote lovingly and devotedly of the Theotokos.

The one who wrote that sentence is Dave Armstrong and you can read the rest of his words here.  I expect that this will fire off a storm of comments, complaints that this is from the early Luther and not the later Luther or that he disowned his comments in some secret Gnostic Luther text or that we should not follow Luther blindly (except when he can be employed to support your opinion du jour).

So because I have nothing better to do than to stir up trouble, I would suggest that the author is being very fair to Luther and that most Lutherans today would reject most of what Luther wrote of the Blessed Virgin.  It is the sad truth that modern day Lutherans define Lutheranism less by Luther or the Lutheran Symbols than by what their pastor taught them when they were confirmed (especially those confirmed before 1960).  We are subject to the misconceptions of Luther only because we tend to proof text using Luther's words more than read his words directly and know the man and his piety as well as his faith.

The irony should not be lost, however, that much of Luther is foreign to modern day Lutherans because we think he stood as prophetic figure for individual faith, for the judgment of reason over the Word of God, was determined to begin a new church, tolerated the Sacraments but elevated the Word and individual faith over all, and was uncomfortable about talking of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- none of which are true except in our own minds.

But I have said enough.  Read the article at the National Catholic Register and have at it all you who think Luther was and his kin should be closer to Baptists than Roman Catholics.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The breath is gone. . .

William Kilpatrick in Crisis while quoting another:
After visiting several Churches in France, including Notre Dame, Mark Steyn was struck by their emptiness: “One gets the sense that a living, breathing faith is just becoming, actually, a museum, an art gallery, a storage facility.” The cathedrals of Europe are truly magnificent and awe-inspiring, but the awe is for achievements that we no longer seem capable of because we lack the requisite faith.
The truth is that Notre Dame today has evolved as a building for good and for ill.  It was a wreck for a time, used for a time as a market, and has been rebuilt and adapted many times before the fire.  When it was used by Napoleon for his coronation, it was said the service had to be cut short because of the stench of rotting food and animal waste was overwhelming.  Some today commented on how fitting it was that the vault fell on top of the terrible Vatican II altar placed at the apse and their hope that this structure could not be replaced and certainly not within 5 years (when Paris will hold an Olympics and welcome many tourists).  Could we be in danger of resorting a building's form apart from its function?

Buildings are wonderful things and to all our ability we who inhabit them are shaped by them even as we shape them.  When it comes to their use in the Church, these buildings have an even higher calling to express both the beauty and mystery of the Divine and to give good shape to the space whose primary purpose is the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.  Yet no beauty remains when the building becomes a historical relic to something that was but is no more.  There is no nobility left when its space becomes a hallmark of national identity devoid of its sacred identity as a house of prayer.  There is tragedy greater than the value of all it holds when it becomes a museum or gallery and it ceases to live and breathe with the Spirit and heartbeat of faith.

Yes, buildings are symbols but they are relics unless what they symbolize lives within their walls.  Yes, buildings are treasures but when they treasure something surrendered to unbelief by the majority of those around her, their treasure tarnishes.  Yes, buildings are examples but when they become tourist sites more than houses of prayer they are no different than ancient spaces once sacred but now thoroughly secular.  Yes, buildings are achievements but when they speak more to the men who built them than they do the purpose for which they were constructed, their spires no longer point to God.

Let me be clear, I am not opposed to restoring Notre Dame and hope that it will happen.  But more than this, I long for the restoration of orthodox Christianity to Europe.  Where Lutherans are strong or a minuscule minority, where Roman Catholics are vibrant or a faded memory, Europe begs to be seen as a mission field for a culture and a people who once knew God but have now found Him optional at best and foolish at worst.  If Notre Dame is rebuilt, let this structure be restored as the cornerstone of a renewal movement designed to do nothing less than bring back the faith as well.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Style goes out of style. . .

Too long ago to remember, our publishing house put out a book entitled Evangelical Style, Lutheran Substance.  In it the author maintained that the problems Lutherans were already encountering in retaining children and appealing to the unchurched revolved around the choice of high culture borrowed from the past that folks no longer understood or appreciated.  His thesis was that Lutheran substance (doctrine) could just as well be communicated in other styles and that they key to vitality in the church was translating this doctrine to the folks in the community through the use of a style which was appealing or relevant to them.  It was not our first foray into the unknown of trying to retain the theory while altering the practice but it gave legitimacy to those who not only wanted the change but felt it was the only path to survival.  Through it all the proponents claimed that they truly loved and appreciated the rich liturgical heritage of Lutheranism but they were willing to make the personal sacrifice for the sake of the greater good -- the appeal to those not Lutheran (or anything).

Strangely enough, there were those who looked at our then hymnals, The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and then new Lutheran Worship (1982) and labeled these "high brow," that is, high culture, German culture, and the music high baroque.  The first point is that this judgment would come as a great surprise to those who put these worship books together, to musicologists, and the Bach family who was being yoked to the form of chant and hymns in both hymnals.  No one in their right mind who knew anything about liturgy and music would have said that the family LCMS form of the Common Service and its music were high brow or high culture or that they were German or Baroque.  Both TLH and LW were captive to their own times, included more English hymns than Lutheran chorales, and, outside of preserving the mass order, they were hardly a repristination of a golden era in Lutheranism.  Both books were ground breaking in their own ways but for different purposes and different outcomes.  Now, with Lutheran Service Book (2006), it is still a misnomer to label our worship forms, hymns, and music high brow, high culture, German, or Baroque.  Just because you might find a Thee or Thou somewhere in the text does not mean the whole thing resembles Bach and Leipzig in the 1700s.

What we too often forget is that the problem of style is that it goes out of style.  Sometimes it fades more quickly than others (think here some of the hymn accompaniments of LW) and sometimes it lingers around longer.  The worship books mentioned were deliberate attempts to be deliberate and not avant garde (though some refuse to believe this) and all of them succeeded in preserving as well as offering things new.  But that has never been enough for those who beat the drum of style divorced from substance.  Their pursuit of style is born of the conviction that style is neutral in value to embody the words and works of worship and equally suitable for the confession of doctrine and praying of that doctrine that is worship.  They would change forms much more rapidly than we change hymnals and make local changes that might make it hard for some from one area of the church to even recognize the forms used elsewhere -- all the while presuming that the people leading the worship and those in the pews are adept at recognizing, appreciating, and celebrating the doctrinal consistency (while it is largely retained outside the liturgical order and assembly) as enough to give unity to the churches.

Of course there will be change but the Church cannot be cleaning out her wardrobe of liturgical forms, hymn texts, and music the way people follow fashion or fill their closets to reflect the current taste (or size of their body).  We have no resources to constantly reinvent ourselves on Sunday morning and this would consume our energy and attention the way the evangelical style congregations consume budget with technology, worship staff, copyright fees, and a constant hunt for the new, different, and contemporary.  Yes, take a look at the budgets of those whose worship spaces are warehouses of screens, stages, audio and visual technology, and the liturgy of what is new.  These budgets consume many staff and much money trying to keep up with the pace of change.  In contrast, the so-called traditional churches find it hard to scrape together a few bucks to pay an organist, money for a decent instrument, and a new parament every generation or so.  Where will it end?  How current and how new is enough to be in style?  What happens when members of the same family or age group find different styles appealing?  In the end, style becomes a terrible burden upon those who must reinvent themselves for their ever elusive goal of relevance and friendship with culture.

Not to mention the fact that some styles are not simply styles but do carry their own baggage along with them.  It is not possible to embrace every style without adaptation to make it suitable for worship -- adaptation that would mask the style and make it unrecognizable to those to whom it is supposed to appeal!  What happens when the style around us grows increasingly vulgar or ugly or intolerant or personal?  What happens when we marry the spirit of the age and it turns out that the spouse we have chosen is opposed to or incapable of communicating the sacred mystery?  Again, where do we find the resources to accomplish such careful and judicious review of what is new and different, relevant and friendly?  And how does this work more than one parish and one pastor wide and deep?  Where is the episcope of ecclesiastical supervision supposed to play into this and how does this stretch the very fabric of our unity and common life as a church?

The very appealing thing about style is its weakness -- style goes out of style.  And that is one rather non-theological reason why it is a fool's errand to try and remake the church on Sunday morning to reflect the pace of change and what is in style now.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Fear of growing old. . .

“Let us ask the Lord to free the Church from those who would make her grow old, encase her in the past, hold her back or keep her at a standstill.”  So says the Pope named Francis (Frank?).  It is his conviction that the Church must be made ever new and fresh, lest she reach an expiration date and be cast aside as old news.  So sad it is that the Church must be subject to the same pressures of folks who visit the plastic surgeons and follow the changing dictates of current fashion and color their hair to hide the grey.  Nobody likes old people anymore.  Listen to the children, pay attention to youth, and emulate them at every chance.

There are many who would applaud Francis and who believe that this is the calling of the faithful today -- to rescue the Church from tradition, from the voices of the past, from the saints who have gone before, and from being your grandfather's Church.  Even Lutherans hear this mantra.  Times change, people change, the world changes and so must the Church.  The worst sin of all is to admit that we have never done that before.  Or so it would seem.  In our culture that adores youth and works to hide or mask age and esteem, we want our children to be adults and as adults we want to be  children.  The hoary head is fixed with a box of colorant.

In reality, it is a good thing that the Church hears the voice of those who went before, is slow to change, is seeming aloof from change and chance, and speaks with a voice common to every time and place the unchanging message of salvation in Christ alone.  It is not because we fear youth or things new but because we are bound to a timeless truth, expressed through the ages, and delivered to us as a sacred deposit to be guarded as well as put to use in our own time.  The truth is that the present has not been sifted through time and review and so it is raw and untested.  The voices of today may indeed be relevant and urgent but without discernment and the esteem of the faithful over the ages, the voices speak merely of and to the moment.

It is surely a good thing that many things have come and gone, the things that were thought at the moment to be transforming and profound have proven to be lame and goofy.  Think of hymns and how time itself and the voices of the faithful over time have sifted through the body of hymnody to preserve the profound and to forget those unworthy of our voices.  It is not fool proof.  Some stuff is retained that does not deserve to endure but it is a good thing over all that we are not bound up in this particular moment in time and that we are not captive to the voices of this moment.

And there is another thing.  The Church was not established by Christ nor placed upon this earth by God to be a listening post.  The Church is God's voice speaking through the voices of preacher and teacher, parent and friend, clergy and lay the timeless truth of Christ crucified and risen.  The Church is not some fact finding mission from God to figured out what is going on in the hearts of the people now but place where God dwells in His Word and Sacraments and where the unchanging Gospel of the Christ yesterday, today, and forever the same bestows forgiveness, life, and salvation to those who will receive this gift by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As one who has been at too many Bible studies where the question went around the room what do YOU think it says or who has been to too many meetings where, absent the facts, we stare into each others faces while asking what do YOU think we ought to do, it is clear the Church does not lack for input from the faithful but too often lacks from the input of the Spirit and Word of God.  It is not because God is unwilling but because we are preoccupied with ourselves.  No, Pope Francis is very wrong here.  The Church does not need to be forever young by the judgment of relevance from and the input of youth.  The Church is forever young because she is the outpost of the timeless Gospel with the power to absolve the faithful from their sinful past and to bestow upon the faithful the gift of a future death cannot overcome.  This is what she speaks and this voice must be heard or sin will condemn and death will reign while God seeks to save and resurrect.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Hard cases make good laws???

By the time Oliver Wendell Holmes said it, "hard cases make bad law" was already a well known adage and an accepted legal maxim. The phrase suggests that extreme cases are not good examples to us for writing general laws.  It seems hardly necessary to quote sources for this common sense phrase and yet it seems that it has become uncommon common sense in an age when extremes are used all the time to define law or rule.

Nearly every physician admits that there is hardly ever a case in which an abortion is necessary for the physical health of the mother and many suggest that the circumstances when the health of the mother is most at risk lie during childbirth itself.  Yet this is used so often as a way of challenging those who insist abortion is wrong.  In other words, the extreme case of the physical health of the mother is used to define the ordinary approach to abortion and therefore abortion ought to be legal, easily accessible, safe, and, most of all, free.

In other cases, the extreme is cited to challenge the ancient practice of close(d) communion.  In reality there are only rare instances when the sacrament is offered in an emergency and most of the situations are about preference or convenience.  Nonetheless, the argument is raised about the instance, no matter how rare, in which urgency and discretion violate the strict rule of close(d) communion and this is used to justify no boundaries to the Lord's Table whatsoever-- at least none beyond the conscience of the individual deciding whether or not to commune.  Again, it is a case of an extreme case being used to define regular practice.

Missouri faced this in 1989 when we decided to fudge a bit on Augustana XIV and regularize the exceptions and make it possible ordinarily for non-ordained to do what only the ordained had done.  No one can deny the history of exception and exceptional case and yet this was turned upon its head to become the new rule by which every case was an exception and every case was extreme.  The Synod ended up regularizing what had been rare and exceptional and it became a burden upon our church body that finally was resolved in 2016.

Those who appeal to a non-liturgical face for Lutheranism often cite the oddity in history or the exception along the way when the liturgy was abridged or even invented for the sake of a rather unusual situation.  Then they proceed to suggest that this extreme has become the justification to regularly and uniformly have as a legitimate option the abandonment of our liturgical tradition in favor of a liturgy du jour in which little is ordinary and everything exceptional.  Even Luther approached things differently, offering the Deutsche Messe as an alternative where Latin was no longer feasible or where circumstance required a less elegant option than the Formula Missae.  Luther himself was loathe to offer something to the church lest it become the rule.  So without something, each jurisdiction looked around and worked out something loosely based on Luther's example.  This gave rise to the idea that it did not matter and everything was possible.  Maybe not right away but later on the exception became the rule until the liturgy itself was considered adiaphora and Sunday morning became a free for all (at least for some)

Progressivism insists that extremes are fertile ground for new rules or laws and it shows itself in everything from morality to who communes to who presides to what Lutherans look like on Sunday morning.  Of course, Lutherans are not alone in suffering the government of the church by extreme case but we are not immune from it either.  It is high time we stopped using extreme cases to make ordinary rules and laws.  We are all the poorer for it.