Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A walking billboard. . .

Clarksville is an unusual Southern city in some way and typical in others.  One of the ways it is typical is that hardly ever do folks here encounter a pastor or priest in the clerical collar -- at least outside of what happens on Sunday morning!  We live in a community where the pastoral uniform varies from a sport jacket and tie to a church personalized polo and khakis to a tee shirt and jeans.  It is the rare occasion when people see a black shirt and narrow or neckband collar.  When they do, it is usually my associate or me or one of the few Roman priests in town.

I know that the collar is still eschewed by some in Lutheran circles, perhaps many.  I know that many still think of it simply as personal preference.  In reality it is more serious than a fashion statement.  A clerical collar clearly marks you as a minister of Christ's Church and is a walking billboard of liturgical, confessional, and orthodox Christianity.  I have no proof but I have the deep suspicion that the real reason some Lutherans do not wear the collar is that they do not want to bring that attention to themselves.

It is attention.  Nearly everywhere I go in the community someone will either recognize me or my parish or the Christian faith because of that little bit of plasticized fabric worn around my neck.  I get asked for money, for prayers, for advice, for counsel, and a host of other things -- only because they see my clerical collar.  I have had babies dumped into my arms on airplanes and even a mother ask me to take her son into the restroom (obviously pre the abuse scandals!).  But most of the time people come up to to me with concerns for the faith, with questions about doctrine and piety, and with stories of their own struggles in the faith over time.  The clerical collar opens mouths up even if it does not open many doors anymore.

If I could have my way, I would make it a rule that every Lutheran pastor had to wear a clerical collar.  It will never happen, of course, even if we were about to pass laws on such a thing.  Lutherans instinctively resist authority (even the authority of God!).  Nobody would give me the time of day after such a rule was laid down!  But the reason I believe it should be made has nothing to do with personal preference.  It has everything to do with the fact that the pastor in clerical collar is a walking billboard for the faith and for the Church even when he says nothing or does nothing particularly religious or winsome.  If for this reason only, it would be worth it to make every pastor purchase and wear a clerical collar.

But you are free to disagree.  You may be wrong but I think I am pretty much on target with this.  Pastors and priests who ditch the collar are trying to preserve the anonymity that will prevent them from being outed as a man of the cloth when they want to be incognito.

Monday, November 18, 2019

A U-Haul Truck. . .

Living in a highly mobile community, there are U-Haul places all over the place.  From trailers to trucks, you can't drive more than a few miles without seeing a franchise.  The cost of them varies.  When too many trucks and trailers are coming to a place, the cost of them goes up.  When too many of them are leaving, the cost of bringing them in drops.  People are moving in and moving out all the time and the surest sign of it are the U-Haul trucks and trailers waiting for folks to rent and the U-Haul trucks and trailers you encounter driving down the road and parked in the neighborhoods of this city.

There are about as many churches in this city as there are U-Haul places.   I fear that perhaps we view them like the franchises that provide us with the move by yourself equipment.  They are not ends in and of themselves but simply tools to help us get where we want to go, safely but also cheaply.  Could it be that the reason formal association with religious communities and attendance at worship is in decline is because those who are interested have found self-help resources elsewhere?  Perhaps the internet, video streaming, and social media?

Most folks have some sort of desire to see a destination to their mortal lives but increasingly the Church is seen as less and less essential for this journey and other resources or tools equally helpful in getting you where you want to go.  Some of this, let us be frank, is the fault of those churches who fail to offer a compelling reason to belong and be there.  Those churches walking in lock step with culture and who adopt as their causes the social and environmental causes of the day fail to provide a reason why one needs to belong or attend in order to participate in accomplishment of these goals.  It leaves these religious communities with fellowship as the sole purpose for uniting with and being a part of Sunday morning and beyond.  This fellowship is not the encounter with the divine but the support and encouragement of like minded folks who seek the same things.  Even this aspect of what they offer is hardly compelling.  Social media is the ordinary means of fellowship in the digital age.

Those churches who offer help to achieve other goals (personal edification and contentment, improved relationships, and guidance to accomplish goals of employment and experience) offer a similarly less compelling reason to belong or attend.  In this instructional purpose, live-streaming and podcasting are at least as effective as putting on clothes, driving to a location, and sitting through other things before fast forwarding to the reason that brought you there.  For these communities, the digital age raises serious questions about the need for assembly, a building, or an institution.

Sin and forgiveness, life and death, chaos and order, and our encounter with God where God has made Himself accessible are categories that make it difficult for virtual churches to compete with the Church gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  The more orthodox the message, the more difficult it is to substitute digital access for being there, belonging, and participating in what God is doing.  It is harder to classify these churches as U-Hauls that take us where we want to go and much easier to see them as destinations. 

For those who would insist that the Church itself is transitory, how can we reconcile this with Jesus' promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her?  Is not the vision of St. John in Revelation the glimpse of the Church as she shall be from the vantage point of how she is here and now?  The Church is not some means to an end but an end.  What we see now is not what shall be forever, of course, but that does not mean that the Church will be replaced with something other. 

Inherent in this is the understanding that no self-help vehicle can help us get there.  Only God working among us through the means of grace can do that.  We do not come at our own volition but at His bidding.  We do not come where we desire but where He has made Himself available and accessible.  We do not do what we want but are captive to God's own purpose in order to receive His gifts.  No digital footprint or virtual reality can displace the need for this Church and for what goes on therein.  The whole idea of who the Church is and what God is doing in the Church begs us to set aside technology for truth, virtual reality for that which endures forever, and our own agenda for the purpose of His kerygma. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Listening to angelic music. . .

Monteverdi gives us the full gamut of human passions in music, the first composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailties and to aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven. But it is Bach, making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God—in human form. — John Eliot Gardiner

I don't know whether you agree with Gardiner or not.  Perhaps you are not even sure who those names refer to or what kind of music they may have composed.  But his words tell us something of the purpose and power of music.  It is not simply music to move the soul or appeal to personal taste or entertain or provide background noise.  It is to give us the voice of God.  How easy it is to forget this.

We live in an age in which music has become personalized.  We all have our own playlists and favorites.  We listen in the ear buds while the world around us is silenced.  We use music to calm our nerves or comfort our anxieties or pump us up.  But God's great gift is the music that accompanies the Word of God into our ears, minds, and hearts.  That is music's ultimate purpose.  It is not selfish for us but selfish for God's purpose and design.

How easy it is to presume that music was created and given to us merely for our pleasure or enjoyment.  What a shame that we are so self-centered to believe that any of God's gifts were merely tools for our own pursuit.  Music was given to be a servant of the Word, at least according to Luther.  But Luther did not stumble upon this.  He, unlike others of the Great Reformation, saw that music was always connected to the people of God, to their lives of prayer and worship, and to the way they heard the Word and it was written into their minds as well as their hearts.  As Augustine once so famously said (or is presumed to have said), He who sings prays twice!

Gardiner is spot on in seeing that the epitome of this was the life and work of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Schooled in the Lutheran doctrine and faith from childhood, he lived in the Word and the Word lived in him and through him in a body of work unparalleled by any other composer.  Mozart could captive God's laughter but Bach was able to capture the nobility of His love poured out for us in Christ not as sentiment but as profound gift and blessing.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Challenging a false perception. . .

There are those in Rome who know little of the Reformation but who love to blame Luther for everything that went wrong with Rome in the 16th century as well as everything that is going wrong today (including labeling Pope Francis a "Lutheran."  This would be laughable except that some of the people falling into this error of history should know better and they are muddying the waters in part on purpose.
And there is no doubt, then, that from the beginning the Reformation was a protest in the name of the word of Christ and Rome charges the Reformation, day after day, of being the actual origin of subjectivism and individualism, of autonomy and anarchy, which now apply to all domains. And Immanuel Kant, who first formally articulated this autonomy, is therefore called the philosopher of Protestantism by Roman Catholics. his apostles against the deviations that had invaded the Roman church in the domain of life and doctrine. It was principally different from humanism, building a dam against the unbelief that continued to reach out further from Italy, and later, just as Rome [did], it protested against the Aufklärung [“Enlightenment”] itself. This Aufklärung, which is not stronger and which won no larger a following in Protestant countries than it did among Roman peoples, is not to be explained from the Reformation but rather from an abandonment of the principles of the Reformation.

Kant is, therefore, not to be mentioned in the same breath as Luther. They each moved in entirely different circles of thought. For Kant there is nearly nothing left of the great truths of Christianity, wherein Luther found his power and peace—as far as content, Kant’s faith consisted in the trilogy of rationalism. Kant was the philosopher not of the Protestantism of the Reformation but of the Aufklärung; he was a kindred spirit not of Luther but of Rousseau.

—Herman Bavinck, Christian Worldview, edited and translated by Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, Cory C. Brock (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019) -- a book published a century ago but only now translated into English.
Some bloggers and others on behalf of Rome charge against the Reformation all the ills of our modern day, including but not limited to the origins of subjectivism and individualism, of the idea of personal autonomy and anarchy or lawlessness, which now afflicts most Christian.  As any real student of history should know, it was Immanuel Kant, who first formally gave voice to these ills and who ought to be called the great Protestant philosopher.  You can blame Luther for a lot of things but it is neither fair nor credible to blame Luther for the modern ills that affect Lutherans and just about everyone else.  Wake up, Rome, and smell the roses of history and fact.

Friday, November 15, 2019

After the Fall. . .

One of the things we learn from God after the Fall of Adam and the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden is a hard lesson.  That is the truth that there is no goodness that is not born of or lead to suffering.  That is the plight of the world post Fall.  Of course, the cross is the prime example of this but we are called to take up the cross and follow Jesus and warned not to expect smooth sailing but rejection, persecution, and even death.  We, however, reject this path in order to follow the path of least resistance and adopt the lure of the illusion of an easy life.  We are shocked when suffering happens to us.  It is not fair, it is not right, and it is not just.  Did not Christ suffer so that we would not?  It is not God's duty to insulate us from the pain of suffering and help us find the hidden way to love without cost, happiness without sacrifice, and life without service.  Sure, we know better (and so guilt is born) but knowing with the mind that something is true does not translate into changing the desires of our hearts. 

Our desire to find a path without suffering is, in part, the reason why we seek a "Christian" society or nation in which morality has the force of law and culture is either an unwitting or intentional ally.  If we have a society in which common values and goals are shared between church and state, then it is less likely we may be asked to give up anything for the sake of faithfulness or sacrifice anything for the sake of a larger good.  But a culture in which “Christianity” dominates through force and majority rule may not be one of great virtue but merely a reflection of the ordinary truth that the strong rule the weak.  In the same way, the faith is not triumphant when sacrifice or suffering is excised from the walk of faith.  Neither faith nor the Church is made stronger when the way is eased for a more comfortable Christianity.  In order for lives to change, hearts must change and with this change must come the willingness to suffer for the sake of doctrine and practice of the faith. The heart does not have to change if behavior is enforced by fear of punishment.  So the path of Puritanism ended up with laws ruling but hearts still filled with wrong desire.

What we have forgotten, the early Church knew only too well.  If a Christian walks in the way of the Cross, suffering will ensue.  The faithful must be prepared to lose, at least as the world counts it, in order to be faithful.  This is clearly what Christ teaches.  Today we find ourselves in a world in which faith has been manipulated into a means to get what you desire out of life and where the sign of God's blessing is to resolve the problem of suffering and relieve the person from loss.  In the early Church, the stories of the faithful were the accounts of martyrdom in which the threat of death did not shake the resolve of the faithful to remain true to Christ.  The heroes of these early years were not those who found accommodation but those who suffered all rather than fall away.  In contrast, today we celebrate the rich and famous, the sports figures and entertainers, who seem to be able to have it all and to do is their way.  In this scenario, however, the Church is hardly different than the world around her and resembles the creation of Christ's blood hardly at all. There was, after all, a reason why the earliest canonical heroes (saints) are mostly martyrs.  While we may idealize such devotion today, none of us wants to be placed in the cross hairs of such a choice.

The Gospel does not make us into better consumers but teaches us to sit in the lower place, to serve as Christ has served us, and to suffer gladly with Christ in confidence of the great reward that this world may not see or know.  God is not where suffering is absent but hidden in suffering.  Someone said to me years ago that if you are not covered in blood you are not standing close enough to Jesus.  While rather crass and blunt, the point is well taken.  Jesus did not promise us a rose garden but He did warn us of the rejection, persecution, imprisonment, and death to come for those who seek to know Christ and Him only.  Our life does not manifest worldly marks of success but flows from the Cross and the Cross alone.  Is this not what the Benedict Option is about?  Is this not a challenge to the kind of institutional Christianity in which God's job is to make us so successful and happy that the world will want to know what makes our lives so rich and so easy?  Luther's theology of the cross is not cliche or slogan.  It is the way of Christian life.