Monday, March 19, 2018

St. Joseph Guardian. . . role model to men. . .

Man up once meant to tough it out and just do it.  My father lived by this motto.  He worked until just weeks before he died, on this date, just before his 88th birthday.  In fact that is just about all he ever did.  He worked in the business he built.  He worked for his congregation.  He worked in the community.  But under it all, he worked for me, my brother, and my mom.  Don't get me wrong, he was not perfect.  He had plenty of flaws.  But he excelled in modeling the faith and a generous spirit (too often at odds with the well-being of his business and his family's security).  He did not get many breaks in life but he did not brood on this injustice.  He did plenty of things for people who did little in return (including me) but he was not bitter.  He just got up every morning and read in his Bible, Luther's Catechism, sometimes the Book of Concord, always the Portals of Prayer, and prayed.  It was before breakfast or work or anything else.  As a child I sometimes watched him.  As a teenager I wondered why he found it all so compelling.  As a man I wished for the same kind of unflinching dedication and devotion.

On this day we recall St. Joseph, Guardian of our Lord.  His life is rather sparsely sketched out for us in Scripture.  The debate rages between those who see him as a young man and those who insist he was older, perhaps a widower, when he considered putting Mary away quietly before the Spirit called him to take her as his wife and care for her son as his own.  I have my own opinions, to be sure, but there is one thing unmistakable.  He is the model of the faithful father figure.  When the Lord spoke, he listened.  When the Lord directed, he did what the Lord said.  But most of all, he made sure that Jesus grew up in the synagogue and in the temple.  Faith was not peripheral to Joseph and not to his household.  Whatever else, the Lord knew he had entrusted His only Son into the care of a man of faith.  Not perfect, mind you, but a man of faith.

I say to men unsure of their responsibilities or unwilling to surrender their independence or uncertain whether the rewards of being husband and father are sufficient to fill your life -- man up.  Men have gotten a bad rap lately, much of it well deserved, because we act like immature boys.  We snicker at life and its real responsibilities like little boys giggling over somebody's stinky fart.  We treat women like toys and then toss them aside when we tire of them.  We easily forget our duty as dads to the children we have fathered but then abandoned.  Look at society.  Look at the numbers of children who have no Joseph in their lives, no men who will do what is right when it is neither easy nor popular.  Where are the men?  Why do men find it so hard to man up and do what we were created to do?

Every Sunday I look out in my congregation and see young men with babies -- some of them in the army only month from or months till deployment.  I see them bring their wives and sons and daughters to church and it gives me hope.  I know the men my sons have become and my daughter married and I am encouraged.  It may not be popular and it is certainly not yet a movement, but I can see men like Joseph who hear and heed the Word of the Lord, who love their wives more than themselves, who care for their children as gifts from God. 

We need young men like this in a world in which men have become old adolescents whose lives revolve around their technology and toys.  To those who have floundered in their roles as husbands and fathers, it is time to repent and rededicate yourself to doing your best for them.  To those fearful of becoming a husband and father, it is time to trust the Lord and become like Joseph, an honest and decent and godly man.  To women who have decided they cannot wait for men to be men, it is time to give some of those men a chance to be men, not for them but for you and for your children.

On this St. Joseph's Day, I think of my dad who died on this day in 2015.  And I pray that I am the kind of man he was.  And I pray that men will reawaken to the noble character of their calling as men, for the sake of their families and for the sake of their church and for the sake of their communities.  It is time for all of us men to simply man up.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

What if it feels strange. . .

Every Sunday we include the following statement in the Sunday worship folder:

DON’T UNDERSTAND THE WORSHIP SERVICE? If it is your first time, some things may seem foreign.  Worship does not come naturally; we have to learn it. It does not come on the first try; the first hour in a foreign country, the language and customs may be foreign. The liturgy is the special activity of the baptized people of God.  It has its own special language like we do in our workplaces.  It has its own customs like we do in our families.  Every Sunday we learn more of worship and faith. The liturgy is where God reveals Himself to us and gives us His gifts.  Here we learn who He is and how to respond to Him. The words of worship come from the Scripture and its form has been used for 2,000 years. So don’t worry if it all seems strange.  You learn by practicing – being here every week!

It acknowledges the fact that the liturgy does not come naturally to us (even worship has become entirely foreign since the Fall).  We must be taught, tutored by the Word and by the tradition of the Church which is rooted and testifies to that Word.  It is a habit.  Regular worship and faithful worship is a habit -- every bit as healthful and good as brushing your teeth!  Even more so, because in the Word and Sacrament that are at the core and center of all we gather for in worship, forgiveness, life and salvation are promised and delivered to us.

Pastor Jared Melius of Mt. Zion Lutheran Church, Denver, CO wrote the following on the stages of coming into the Lutheran Liturgy.  They, too, are helpful as we remember that this is a learned habit and that we move from stage to stage by frequent participation in the worship life of the Church within the Divine Service.  I pass on his words here:

  1. Confusion – where am I? what page? am I supposed to be standing or sitting?
  2.  Boredom – This is the most dangerous phase. At this phase, people begin to conclude that because the liturgy is repetitive, that it is therefore non-spiritual. This conclusion is hardly ever thought out as such. It is just a matter of impressions and feelings. This “feels” dry, dull, non-spiritual. And therefore, it must be from man and not from God.
  3. Love of the liturgy itself – If phase 2 didn’t drive people away from the liturgy, it is usually and ironically replaced by the love of the liturgy for the liturgy’s sake. Here people begin to love the “feeling,” the “reverence,” and the connection to history. They have a sense that this is old and therefore good. People in the depths of this phase can spend hours researching whether the Creed should come before the sermon or after, trying to find out which practice is more “ancient.” Truthfully, many pastors get stuck in this phase and endorse liturgical worship because it is older, more reverent, etc. Some of them leave for the Eastern church or the Roman church because they think they can get it more pure there.
  4. Love of the content – The liturgy is a conduit for Word of God and the means of grace. There isn’t, in my opinion, a better such conduit on the market. If there were, I myself would adopt it. In this phase, one uses the liturgy for the sake of the Gospel itself, not for the sake of the liturgy itself.
 My point is this -- don't give up and don't expect too much too quickly.  It took you a very long time to do the mundane things of feeding yourself and using the toilet.  Do not presume that infinitely greater things will come instantly.  Go to Church.  Go often.  Participate.  Read.  Learn. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The curse of practicality. . .

In the modern world, the liturgy is often treated as a thing. It may be an important thing but it is still a thing, something to be done.  It is handled the way you would a meal.  It may be simple or it may be more elaborate but it is, underneath, a practical thing because we eat and eating is essential to life.  In this respect, it is easy to focus on the practicality of the liturgy or its basic function in such way that it gets boiled down to something minimalist. Lord knows, we have all eaten meals in which the focus was on quick, easy, and basic food that simply fills the stomach.  But we seldom want to make this the norm.  We need the nutrients but we also need more than simple nutrition.  We need the meal and not just the food.

Funny how when it comes to THE meal, Lutherans tend to be more minimalist in taste.  Lutherans, at least many Lutherans of late, have taken to seeing the ceremonies of the mass and the ritual to be non-essential and even antagonistic to the essential purpose of that Holy Supper.  We tend to think of these things as getting in the way of the focus on Christ.  Strange.  When it comes to eating, less is seldom more but when it comes to liturgy, it would seem that less is always more.

This minimalist approach deals with the worship of God from the standpoint of what must be done.  The whole conversation about Lutheran worship seems to be a conversation of what is the least that must be present to satisfy Lutheran identity.  How strange that we would approach the largess of God giving us His Son in flesh and blood and this flesh and blood in bread and wine in minimalist terms!  Whether we speak in terms of adiaphora or whether we speak in terms of what is essential to Lutheran worship, the whole approach is rather dangerous.  The liturgy is not a thing but the place where God speaks in His Word and feeds us Christ's flesh and blood in the Eucharist.  It is not an indifferent thing even though certain aspects of church usage or ceremony may not be uniform from place to place.  The liturgy is not the place to be pragmatic. 

Chesterton reminds us that there is a difference between what is practical and practicable.
If we mean by what is practical what is most immediately practicable, we mean merely what is easiest. In that sense St. Francis was very impractical, and his ultimate aims were very unworldly. But if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi)
There is little that is strictly practical in worship.  If it is practicality we seek, then the most practical shape of worship is individual and private and not corporate and public.  What is practical about coming together to hear together the Word preached -- especially in an age in which we can do everything at home and on our own?  What is practical about coming together to eat together the bread that is Christ's flesh and the wine that is His blood -- especially at a time when people have anything and everything delivered right to their door?  What is practical about candles when we have electric lights that turn on with a switch or singing hymns chosen by another when we have our own musical preferences?  What is practical about praying together when we have closets at home in which to pray?

Before he was Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger wrote:
A Church which only makes use of utility music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. . . . For her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of glory, and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos, itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” in The Feast of Faith)  
The point is well made.  What is practical about the temple, the ark of the covenant, the worship of sacrifice and altar, the shape of priest and prophet, and prayer and praise?  We meet God not on our terms but on His, not where we desire but where He has placed His promise, and with the means God has chosen and not our preference.  We come pleading with Him for understanding before mystery that confuses and confounds us, begging for wisdom to repair our foolishness, and seeking nobility where we can furnish only mundane and ordinary.  God does not simply come to us in our poverty but makes us rich.  God does not merely make Himself known in ordinary flesh, Word, water, bread and wine, He makes these ordinary things extraordinary.  God does not merely meet us where we are but leaves us transformed by the majesty of His saving glory.  We are not left who we were but have become new.  That is what happens in the Divine Service. 

As we make our way through Lent, perhaps we ought to repent of our practical natures that seek the gift without the Giver, that ask God to listen without being willing to hear, that command God to think like us when we refuse to think like Him, and that seek to transform God to fit us without being transformed to be like Him.  It could very well begin in worship with our penchant for minimalism before a God who is lavish and our determination to be practical before a God who is so generously impractical -- yet who saves us in spite of ourselves!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Worth remembering. . .

“We need to remember that tolerance is not a Christian virtue. Charity, justice, mercy, prudence, honesty – these are Christian virtues. And obviously, in a diverse community, tolerance is an important working principle. But it’s never an end itself. In fact, tolerating grave evil within a society is itself a form of serious evil. Likewise, democratic pluralism does not mean that Catholics should be quiet in public about serious moral issues because of some misguided sense of good manners. A healthy democracy requires vigorous moral debate to survive. Real pluralism demands that people of strong beliefs will advance their convictions in the public square — peacefully, legally and respectfully, but energetically and without embarrassment. Anything less is bad citizenship and a form of theft from the public conversation.”   -Archbishop Charles Chaput

Tolerance is no virtue if we sit idly by as death is reigned down upon those unborn or the aged or those whose lives are judged unworthy of the cost of sustaining them. . .

Tolerance is no virtue if we sit idly by as injustice claims its victims when we know better and can speak. . .

Tolerance is no virtue if we sit idly by as error masquerades as truth and truth is no longer claimed possible or preferential. . .

Tolerance is no virtue if every religion is claimed as basically the same and Christ is buried under a sea of sentiment, good works, and sincerity. . .

Tolerance is no virtue if we sacrifice our identity to be successful or betray that identity to find an easier path of existence. . .

Tolerance is no virtue if the tolerant do so out of fear and accept the silence of that which is right for the domination of the wrong. . .

We should not be rude, we need not be arrogant, but we ought not be indifferent to the plight of the Word that endures forever in the face of a world which has lost its taste for right, for truth, and for life. . .

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Sharing the faith is. . . messy. . .

Evangelism or evangelization, you choose the term, has fallen on hard times.  On the one hand, we have a competing marketplace of religion or none to fight against when we are set to proclaim the Gospel.  On the other hand, we have a world of people who once believed but now have fallen away and this presents a very different target than a culture of people who have not yet heard the Gospel at all.  In the midst of it all is the so-called Christian virtue of toleration (I say so-called because I do not believe toleration of error or acceptance of those who are perishing is at all Christian!).  Gone are the days of Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion and the many wannabes that followed his lead.  Gone are the days of an organized group of people knocking on doors (in some places you cannot even get into the apartment or condo building to get to the door).  So what has replaced it all?  Sadly, not much at all.  While many still feel that the faith is worth sharing, they are not at all sure what to share or how to share it.

Roman Catholics are less likely to share their faith than evangelicals or Christians of other stripes.  Lutherans, never quite at home with Dialog Evangelism or another baptized Kennedy program, are caught in the midst of desire, fear, and uncertainty.  We would like to believe that works replace words (so we don't have to actually say what we believe -- just in case people might argue or, worse, ask us what that means).  We wax eloquent on the pseudo statement of St. Francis:  “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” So why don't we evangelize?

Cultural Christianity: Too many of us assume that religion is like ethnicity -- you are born into it.  So we figure if you are German or Swedish or some other Northern European, you could be Lutheran.  If not, well, then why would you want to be?

Worship Anxiety: This is the fear that people will not get who we are on Sunday morning and so we fear asking them to come with us to Church.  In other words, this is the justification for abandoning the liturgy and trying to find a non-threatening (read that non-Christian) form of worship which won't make people ill at ease.  Plus, what do you do with closed communion?  How unwelcoming can you be to invite people to the meal and not feed them?  At least that is the fear. . .

Instruction Illusions: What do we do to instruct people not "born" Lutheran (well, nobody really is "born" Lutheran!).  We are not sure that we are not insulting people, especially people who may already be Christian but not Lutheran, that they need "instruction."  Meanwhile Pastor Bob at the Dream World Emergent "church" says, “Y'all come; just show up and you are in.” Besides, does anybody really know what the word "catechesis" means and do you really believe it is necessary?  (After all you have not learned anything since confirmation and you are just fine!).

Are Inviting Them To Church or Jesus? Church is fine for those who want it. . . or need it. . . but we all know that you can be a fine, upstanding, and godly Christian without it.  Right?  So what is the real reason we invite people to church?  Ahhhhh, you know, cause we want their money more than we want them.  At least this is the fear that people have (even those who do go to church every Sunday).  We see a big distance between getting to know Jesus and coming to church and so we are not really sure what we want them to do.

Social Gospel: Better to love them to the Lord than preach them, right?  Too many of us feel like the church is not doing all that much to love people into the kingdom and we think that the effort put on such things as feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick, bringing justice to the oppressed is better than and substitutes for actually saying the name of Jesus.  The problem is that without the name of Jesus, no one knows why we are doing all that good stuff or whom to show their gratitude.  Soup kitchens are good.  Food pantries are good. But actually speaking the Gospel is also good and necessary.

Dare I Say It?  Ignorance: Too many of us (who have not learned anything since catechism days of yore) simply do not know what we believe much less how to share it.  This is a big problem.  We have to know our faith well enough to share it.

Better Let the Professionals Do It: Isn't that why we hire a pastor?  Isn't that why we have deacons or councils or boards or committees?  For too long we have suggested that sharing the faith is soooo difficult that either you need tons of training or, better, leave it to the professionals.  It is as if living the faith is easy and sharing it is hard.  Sharing it is not as difficult as living it.  Training is good but everyone of us ought to be ready to give answer for the hope that is in us.  That even sounds Biblical!  And just to make it clear, shepherds do not give birth to sheep.  Sheep do.  Sheep well provided by their shepherds, guided by those shepherds, and guarded by those shepherds.

How Many Resources Sit Unused?  It is not for lack of resources that do not evangelize.  Goodness knows that we have prepared and published and put out videos up the kazoo but they are not going to do anything unless we use them.  In the same way, we go to Bible studies so that we can use what we learn to share the faith (with spouses, children, neighbors, strangers...).  You can produce all the professionally produced, orthodox, relevant, attractive, interesting, and dynamic resources you want but unless they get used, it is a waste. There are plenty of good resources; what we need are good people who will use them.
 I Am Not Sure I Care: The sad truth is that too many of us are indifferent to the need or the reason for sharing the Gospel.  Perhaps we presume that everyone believes the same thing anyway (or will get to heaven no matter).  Perhaps we believe that if people wanted to go to church they would.  Perhaps we feel that as long as they are sincere it does not matter what they believe or if they go to church.  In any case, we would be wrong.  Churches do not believe or teach the same thing.  In too many of them, Christ crucified is not proclaimed.  Salvation rests in sentiment or sincerity or something else.  Wake up!  The cause is urgent and the time is now.  God works through His Word and His Word is spoken through our voices.

I Am Not Sure What I Do Matters: If you are not indifferent, perhaps you are not sure anything ultimately matters.  It could be that you believe in universalism — the teaching that God loves everybody and will relent in the end so that no one will ever go to hell. Perhaps you believe that nobody can really know for sure if their "way" is right or not — so in the end nobody has enough truth to evangelize anyone.  Perhaps you believe that hell should not or does not exist — that if God were merciful, He would open the doors to anyone and everyone without bothering to check belief or works.  May it does not matter to you that Scripture clearly says salvation is in Christ alone.  Or maybe you are not sure Christ is the only name of salvation.  In any case, you have decided you can't do much so you need not do anything.

These are the lies and half-truths we tell ourselves to give cover to the fact that we really don't want to speak the Gospel in words (or in deeds).  And then we wonder why nobody is doing anything and somebody is not doing something. . .