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.