Friday, December 3, 2021

A few unpopular thoughts. . .

In our abortion conflict, there are some, perhaps even many, who want to protect the life of the unborn but protect it without constraining abortion.  If you could figure out a way, that might be a grand compromise.  But it is impossible.  Protecting the life of the unborn inevitably involves restricting the right of the woman to chose to kill that life.  There is no bargain with the devil to be made here -- only the stark and hard truth that it either the life in the womb is protected or the life is subject to the whims of the woman.

But there is another path that is beginning.  With the Texas and Mississippi laws and all the rhetoric about restricting abortions or making them illegal or allowing seemingly disinterested parties to sue, we have forgotten one profound thing that this law and those laws like it do for the child in the womb.  They call the child in the womb a life, they recognize the child in the womb as a life with a right to life.  The beating heart part of that law makes it clear that under everything else, Texas is trying to mark the fetus as a child, define that fetal existence as life, and grant to that life the ordinary protections of any life.

I have no idea if Roe will ever be overturned.  It was wrongly decided on so many levels but even bad laws and decisions become normative over time.  Perhaps we will never get to a point at which our justices will say they were wrong.  But I do believe that the more we identity the life in the womb as a child and a life deserving of ordinary protections, the justification and case for abortion will grow so weak as to be untenable.  We may not be able to outlaw it but outlawing sin has not necessarily contributed to its decline anyway.  Instead, we might be able to do something more profound.  We might be able to get most folks to agree that with a beating heart and every possibility of that child's future already there in the child, that is life and just as every life has rights and deserves protection, so does this life in the womb.

Many pastors have told me and I know that many have taken hits from folks in the pews and media pundits for applauding the Texas law.  It is not unusual for even our supporters to tire of hearing about abortion all the time.  But by shifting the focus from what we are against to what we are for, we might have a new foothold on the climb to protect life as sacred, God-given, and worthy of our most basic and noble protection.

Now is the time to work to change the way we view the child in the womb.  Either that child is a sort of parasite within the right of the woman to purge from her body or that child is a life worthy of the full protection of society and our laws.  There is no middle ground here.  Though so much ink is spent on the fringes (rape, incest, the real prospect of physical or emotional health to the mother, the right to be wanted, etc.), this is but a grand distraction designed to make those opposed to abortion concede their own position little by little.  The vast majority of abortions have nothing to do with these narrow circumstances and have only to do with whether the woman carrying the child is willing to go through pregnancy and delivery or not.  The simple answer is that these women choose not to go through with it.  It is not that they could not but do not want to.  The issues of physical or mental health are often enlarged as justification to avoid the stark reality -- they do not see this baby in the womb as a child, a life, or anything worth protections or a legal status.  So the most profound answer to this is to focus on that life, the beating heart, and to get the nation to see the child in the womb as a child and as a life worthy of all the ordinary (not extraordinary but simple) protections of the law.  Whether the Texas law stands or falls, it has moved us toward this goal.  Whether the Mississippi law stands or falls, every conversation moves us to look at the child in the womb and make a decision.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

The cost of change. . .

It is soon that time of year when the sitting Synod President will decide whether or not to go for one more term.  Whether you adore him or despise him, such a decision is significant in the life of our church for many reasons.  It is not just about the man who seeks to lead the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod but also about those who are led.  This is not about this year or the man who must decide but the process and the impact of that process upon us as a church body.

With each succeeding change in leadership, there is a cost to be borne.  This cost is the distraction from the things of God to the politics of cementing new leadership from the top down.  For a while the only thing we are concerned about are roles and choices -- who serves where.  This cost is magnified in that we have so few pastors working in national offices.  The cost of change extracts a great deal from those who serve us in Christ's name and, because there are fewer of them, we put an even greater burden on their service and their leadership.  I worry about things like that -- knowing the faithful few who work in the International Center doing a great deal while consuming as few of the precious monetary resources we give them.

The cost that is paid by those who are already stretched thin in their work in the nation and in the world is similar to the cost that is paid by those in pews.  We do not have a visible or deep back bench.  We live at a time in which there are fewer and fewer national leaders in our church body -- perhaps in any church body.  Some of that may be due to cultural changes that affect the whole fabric of our society -- including church.  Some of it is due to the fact that we have fewer opportunities to develop nationally known leaders from whom the church can call her leaders.  The fragmentation of our political landscape is similar to the divisions we have experienced in our churches.  We have more leaders identified with ideology than we do leaders with the stature to bring together and heal the divisions among us.  While this is also true of our nation, it is no less true of our church body.

Because of the way the process is now structured, everything happens long before the delegates sit down at the national convention to address the rest of the elected leaders and to chart the course before us for another three years.  While I once thought this was a good thing, I am no longer so sure.  Without the clear and visible places for the church to look and listen to those who would vie for leadership positions, we lack the ability to raise up a leader from almost nowhere -- the way a convention could once be swayed by eloquent oratory or passionate speech.  

I wish I had a solution.  I do not.  I have only the lingering suspicion that until we figure this thing out, our leaders will continue to struggle to bring together the diverse positions and people that make up our church.  I fear that without people of stature to address those on the very edges, there will not be people who have the authority and gravitas to tell the extremes enough already.  We are fractured enough and already comfortable in our divisions, who and what has the ability to unite us in a strong doctrinal confession, a common liturgical expression, and a formidable force to share the Gospel.  While some may not care, I am convinced that national structures and leaders are not extraneous to our success but profound helps in the task of remembering who we are and why we exist as a church.

Yes, we have good leaders.  Many of them.  But few of them are well known outside a district or region or caucus.  We do need to work to figure this out or the backbiting, division, self-interest, and loss of momentum will prevail and the work of the Kingdom will suffer.  I will say one thing.  Now more than even we need someone who can preach Christ and rally us through the proclamation of the Word to the cause of Christ -- much more than we need an administrator to dot all the i's and cross all the t's.  A program is not what we need or lack but solid, reliable, faithful, and visible leaders across the span of our church body are needed.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The curse of affluence. . .

I spent some time with a neighbor who visited the Biltmore for the first time.  The neighbor was struck by the great distance between the haves and the have nots epitomized by the palatial house, the extensive grounds, the numbers of servants needed just to keep things going, and how this all contrasted then and now with ordinary folk.  The gulf between rich and poor never seems to narrow.  Not even socialism and communism can erase the gap even though they may be able to narrow it a bit.  But at what cost?  Rather than raise the standard of living, the great temptation is to lower it for everyone -- except the scandalously rich.  They exist in every economic system.

Though we hear it often enough, we Americans do not believe that the rich.  We hasten to protest the label and insist that we are middle class.  In every way that wealth is counted, we are wealthy and perhaps somewhat entitled to that wealth.  We love to protest but underneath the figures rests a people who can afford the newest technology, the latest entertainment, lavish health care, and high expectations from life.  Among us routinely are people who live on the very extreme edge of wealth -- from the techno giants of the Gates to the financial gurus of the Buffet empires.  Add to that the Bezos and others who can afford what whole nations cannot.  It is dizzying.  But the effect of all of this wealth has not been happiness.  Ask the divorced Gates and Bezos or the Hollywood stars tarnished by sorrow, addition, pain, and depression.

If you can afford everything, then nothing has any real value.  That is the curse of affluence.  Where it was once the domain of the few, the numbers of those for whom money has no real value continues to grow.  Watch Million Dollar Listing -- a TV series devoted to the excesses of those for whom a price tag means little.  As Everett Dirksen put it:  “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."  But how real?

My dad was fond of saying that unless you had a willing buyer ready to pay the price, nothing had any real value.  That is certainly true.  All those things I thought were so wonderful were left in the heap of my yard sale because nobody else valued them.  But the other side of this is also true. If you can afford everything, nothing has a price tag worth your notice and so it does not have any real value either.  That is the burden sin has put upon us.  We seem inclined only to over value everything or to give nothing any real value.  If there were any lasting good to come of COVID, it might be that we are beginning to crack this nut.  I am not sure that this is true, but I can hope.

Throughout the Gospels the disciples are enamored by wealth and convinced that the wealthy can do anything and everything.  Jesus, on the other hand, cautions them against this invincibility.  Like the proverbial eye of the needle and camel, Jesus warns against the presumption of wealth.  Like the story of the rich man with full barns who dies, Jesus raises the specter of being so full of things that you are empty of life itself.  Like the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus insists that there will be no second chance or momentary relief of a drop of water.  We live with our choices and sometimes we die because of them.   Yet Jesus is not simply a prophet of warning but the herald of hope.  For those who delight in the riches God has given will not be found poor in death.  That is the promise of faith.  It looks and sees what the things of this world can and cannot do and what the gift of God has done and does.

The if onlys of this life can be the worst prison of all -- living on hold while waiting for the cup to fill while refusing to rejoice in what God puts in that cup!  Consider the lilies.  They neither toil nor reap and yet who is arrayed in greater glory than these flowers here today and gone tomorrow?  Who indeed!  Christian do not forget that part of your calling and vocation is to manifest to the world the contentment that proceeds from possessing the one thing needful, the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in a field, and that which moth and rust cannot destroy.  Once we get this right, everything else does seem to find its proper place.  Get this wrong and nothing else is right.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

A wearisome caution. . .

It is a symptom of Lutheran angst that we seem intent upon cautioning against excess for just about everything.  From good works to ceremonies in the Divine Service to joy, we cannot experience the fullness of God's gifts and blessings and respond to them without some Lutheran warning us against too much.  It has been the bane of my Lutheran life that every aspect of pastoral life has come with the incessant warning against too much beauty, too much liturgy, too much ceremony, too much devotion, too much joy, too many adiaphora, too many vestments, too much piety, too many good works, too much of any of the good things I thought we were supposed to love and desire and appreciate!

One of the visiting pastors who made his way into our Divine Service last summer complimented the extras while at the same time lamenting that his people would never go for all that and his brother pastors would castigate him for being too Roman or something.  But he yearned for something more than minimalism as a theological, liturgical, and musical motif.  He was not the first nor the last to speak in this way.  How sad of us!  We Lutherans seem to appreciate food and drink well enough.  Why do we think that the best supper in God's House is austere and plain?  It is not like we as a Lutheran Church are in any immanent danger of abandoning truth for style.  The average liturgical parish in the LCMS is still what could be called low church in ceremony and music.  Our golden age of Bach and Brahms and Pachelbel and Walther have been replaced with worship absent of choir or cantor, mostly spoken liturgy, and a common body of hymns we share more with Methodists than with our Lutheran forbearers.  So why must we always warn against excess when a congregation or pastor begins to put forward something other than a minimum in the Divine Service?

Even when we do laud and honor the gift of art and music and our own heritage of artists, artisans, and musicians, we do so with a caveat.  Yes, these are all well and good, mind you, but you don't need them and they are extraneous -- not essential.  It is like the strange way we approach the rite of ordination -- it is, after all, only apostolic custom -- God forbid that apostolic custom should count for much!  This strange preoccupation with simplicity was not essentially Lutheran -- at least the early Lutherans were all in for art and music -- from the Cranachs to Luther the composer himself!  But at some point in time, we must have met a Calvinist who convinced us to be embarrassed by our Lutheran identity and in our shame we repented of good music, good liturgy, and good art.  Can you explain it to me?  Even in the comment threads of this blog, there are also those voices of concern cautioning me against any normative Lutheran tradition when it comes to an appreciation for art, music, vestments, ceremony, and the like.  This caution about art, music, liturgy, and ceremony is about as logical to our Lutheran identity as those who order a diet drink with their extra size fries and triple patty Whopper.  

Before someone from a less is more congregation decides to argue with me, I refuse to listen.  Your caution has been like a pain in my, well, side, for most of my ministry and I am simply tired of hearing your warnings.  The LCMS is in danger of abandoning truth for show about as much as America is in danger of forgetting the pandemic.  It ain't gonna happen anytime soon.  So I am announcing that from now on I will not listen or read or give place to those who voice caution when instrumentalists are added to worship or art is added to the sanctuary or musicians are paid what they are worth or time is spent doing things right or a bow, genuflection, bell, or elevation draws attention to the holy things of God that are supposed to be our joy and delight.  Instead, I caution you against a false humility which is really hubris as you delight in being a Lutheran version of spiritual but not religious -- simple Lutheran Christians who are Amish in liturgy and satisfied with what is plain and unadorned on Sunday morning.  In your faux piety and superiority you look down on congregations and pastors who want and do something more and you thank God you are not like those.  God has not called you to be the conscience of His people -- you have put yourselves into that place.  

And you pastors trying to offer more and do more, God bless you.  God bless your efforts.  God bless the fruits of those labors.  Your works are not in vain.  The day will come when people will awaken to the gifts of God in arts and music and ceremony and then, Deo volente, God's people will not be content to settle for the false dream that less is more.

Gosh, I feel better.  I hope you do as well.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Our Advent King. . .

The Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent (C) preached on Sunday, November 28, 2021.

Death clarifies so many things.  In death, the details of a person’s life are laid out to highlight only the things most important – date of birth, date of death, parents, spouse, children, family, place of funeral, and place of burial.  The high cost of obituaries only emphasizes even more the succinctness of what we publish about the dead.

In a month or so the news will tell us the list of all the famous folks who passed away in 2021.  If you are like me, you will be shocked – not only at those who died but at those you thought had died long before.  Famous and anonymous, death is no respecter of persons.  It comes to young and old.  I guess I have reached that point in life where I notice in the obituaries the ages of those who die – especially those younger than I am.

The news of the past year has been filled with death.  Terrorists, natural disasters, pandemic, accident, and the like.  They force us to think of what none of us wants to think.  Death is passed to all people.  Though we might wish not to die, death has passed to all people because of sin.  It is the unnatural natural condition of our humanity.  We have a moment in time when we are born and we have a moment in time when we die.  We cannot wish it away or ignore it.  But neither do we need to surrender to it.

Now, weeks before Christmas and its glow of love, gift-giving, holiday gatherings, special foods, and time with family, Jesus points us to the reason for the season.  He has come to die.  The Palm Sunday entrance of our Lord is not some distraction from His purpose but the very reason for His birth and life.  He has come to die, to take upon Himself the weakness of our flesh, to become like us in every way except sin, and to plant in death the cross of life.  This does not spoil the Christmas message but frames it so what we know what it is we are welcoming, what is the cause of our joy, and what it means that Christ was born of the Virgin in our flesh.

Our Lord rode the donkey into Jerusalem not for the adulation of the crowd but for the sinners, marked with death, who cry out “Hosanna!”  Lord, save us.  Help us.  Rescue us.  We carpet His way not only with palms but with our prayers to be released from the prison of death and the captivity of our sin.  We cry out not to prevent the reason why He has come but to urge Him on – “Ride on, King Jesus!
Ride on to the cross!  Ride on to die!”  Advent tells us right up front what life this baby was born for and what death He must die if you and I are to have any hope of redemption.  Jesus is not ashamed of this.  His whole life and ministry is focused on this future.  And if He is not ashamed or embarrassed that hidden in Christmas is Good Friday, why would we?

Jesus is clear about it.  Death is the enemy and sin is the cause of death.  There is no ignoring it or escaping it.  Death clarifies our lives and leaves us with a stark sense of what is important and what is not.  Isn’t that what the family tries to convey in the obituary?  What was important and, by omission, what is not?  In the same way, death clarifies what Jesus has come to do.  He has come to die the death that was ours and to offer us the life that is His.  To do this, He must break the back of sin, overcome the devil, suffer the taunts of this sinful world, and rise to show forth His victory, accomplished once for all.

We are the sinners for whom Christ has come.  We are the faithful who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, cry out to Him:  “Hosanna!  Lord, save us!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  We would rather ignore death or be satisfied to postpone it a bit but Jesus is not weak or afraid, like we are.  He has come to confront death, to meet it face to face upon the brutal agony of the cross, to lay alone in the cold, dark tomb, and to rise up with the surprise of victory.  Death clarifies everything – even Christmas!

For YOU our Lord has come.  For YOU He has taken on the weakness of our flesh and blood.  For YOU He has entered into this earthly domain of death and doom.  For YOU He has come so that you are not alone in death or on your own to deal with sin.  For YOU He has come and embraced every evil thought, every hateful word, and every shameful act.  For YOU He has come to answer the sinful desires that just want to be set free with the power to silence their old voices and teach you the new desires of holiness and righteousness.  For YOU He has come and carried the inheritance of Adam that we might receive His legacy of life.

He has come willingly and was not compelled against His will.  He has loved YOU more than His own life and in the surrender of His life to our death we learn what true love is.  He is perfectly in tune with the Father’s creative and redemptive will and purpose.  He knows what He is doing and what it will cost Him and for this reason He is born of the Virgin, laid in the manger, and lives the perfect life.
This is not the time to set aside talk of death until after the holidays.  This is not the time to pretend niceties that put a good face on a life lived in the long, dark, shadow of death.  No, my friends.  It is right now, at the start of Advent, making our way to the Manger, that remind ourselves and announce to the world that Christ has come to die.  Ours is not a good times God but a God for the worst that we face, the sin that troubles our souls and the death that kills our bodies.  That is what Advent says from day one.

Christ rides the donkey into Jerusalem not for a photo op but because this is the King He is – the King of life who dies that we might live in His kingdom of life forevermore.  Advent has become too easy.  We have no stomach for waiting and no patience.  We want our presents now and all the good times we dream about.  But the reality is that death is in the way.  If we cannot deal with it, somebody must come to deal with it for us.  That someone is Jesus.  

Silent Night is not the culmination of our song of praise but the warm up to the song of death and resurrection that is the beating heart of the Gospel and the only hope for sinners dead in trespasses and sins.  He who came as a Son of Man to Bethlehem and the manger but lives as Second Adam to undo what the first Adam did and rises up the New Man over whom death has no power and comes to us in Word and Sacrament that we might be born again, called and gathered, fed and nourished for the life that death cannot overcome.  And to this the Church cries out on the First Sunday in Advent and all the way to heaven’s gates:  “Hosanna!  Lord, save us!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!”  Amen.

Atheist chaplains. . .

Oh, the horror and shock of it all!  Harvard appointed an atheist as head chaplain.  I know that there are people wringing their hands in sorrow over it all.  But, frankly, it is old news.  Harvard long ago ceased being an institution that took seriously God's Word.  Sure, there may be a few voices among the many who privately hold to the orthodox Christian faith but to be on the faculty of Harvard or to be a student there is almost by association to stick up the proverbial finger to Christianity and its claims.  The time for outrage has come and gone, folks.  It is time to wake up and smell the roses.

There is a part of me that is happy about this.  After all, the veil is lifted.  We see the secular university (even those with religious heritage) for what it is.  It is not a place where God is welcome or His Word has any real significance.  Instead, the university has adopted the new faith of the co-exist movement with its suggestion of religious truth found everywhere (and therefore nowhere).  This is not a place for us to send our young and curious sons and daughters.  Nevermind the earning potential that comes with an Ivy League degree, if it comes at the cost of the soul what have we gained for our children and grandchildren?  There are alternatives and better educations.  Besides, we live at a time in which the power of an educational pedigree seems less significant on the future outcome of the young adult's life than ever before.  What matters the Harvard diploma to those who hunker down before their screens working at home to line the pockets of Jeff Bezos and his ilk?  No, we ought to be thankful for their honesty and we ought to respect it.

By the way, it is not simply the Ivy League universities who have abandoned their souls to the devils of diversity, wokeness, historical revisionism, sexual freedom, gender identity, and relative truth.  Catholic University of America, Notre Dame, and most all of the Jesuit schools may be slightly behind the pace of the once formidable Protestant schools but not that far behind.  Rome does not know what to make of her once glorious crown jewel schools.  Though they have chapels and religion departments, these seem to have little real influence over the rest of the school and they are, themselves, bordering on the edge of Christian orthodoxy.

In this way, I wonder how long the smaller church colleges and universities can survive with one foot in the world and one foot in the Church.  We in the LCMS are not alone in wringing our hands over those schools once acclaimed as our crown jewels.  We have not the dollars or the students to preserve them in the way that a Hillsdale has insulated itself from government patrimony and secular identity.  Some may survive as legacy schools but the rest will probably be swallowed up for their real estate or auctioned off as the broken dreams of a generation that did not see this day coming.  When the mess is finally resolved, then we just might get back to the real mission.  When we have disposed ourselves of the idea that we can be like Athens and Jerusalem at the same time, then maybe we might realize that the real choice is even worse and do something about it.

Parents might realize that their children's faith is more important that their financial welfare, that being good in this world is being godly, and that the best for their children eternally may mean some real sacrifices in this present life.  Churches might realize that there is a real war going on for the souls of our children and families and that we will lose unless we put up a fight.  Just maybe we will end our fascination with programing the people of God and feed them real food with the Word and Sacraments.  Perhaps we will also realize that you cannot simply preach justification and assume that sanctification will spontaneously result.  For that is part of the problem.  We have not warned our people or our children of the dangers or pressed upon them the urgency and importance of remaining faithful -- all the while producing the good works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous Light.

Harvard shone some light into the darkness -- it did not enlightened as Christ's light does but revealed enough of the sad reality of our failed religious veneer on secular entities to remind us that they are not of God.  Now, what will we do with this self-revelation?