Monday, February 24, 2020

We don't want to and you can't make us. . .

There is and has always been a little bit of a childish streak in Lutherans.  We are so loathe to have rules that sometimes we appear downright chaotic.  We are so adverse to requirements that our first inclination is to antinomianism.  Nowhere is the more true than when it comes to the ministry and the liturgy.

If the bishops would be true bishops [would rightly discharge their office], and would devote themselves to the Church and the Gospel, it might be granted to them for the sake of love and unity, but not from necessity, to ordain and confirm us and our preachers. . .Smalkald Articles; Part III, Article X. Of Ordination and the Call.  [emphasis added]

This is not from the pen of the more conciliatory Melancthon but from the fiery hand of Luther.  And yet it is clear. If bishops would be true bishops, we would have bishops  -- for the sake of love and unity.  But you cannot make us!  As soon as you say we must, we say we must not.  Now sometimes this is salutary.  Here the Reformers are making a point.  The distinction between bishops and priests evolved over time and was not the same in the early church as it had become at the time of Luther (or our own time!).  They would grant the evolution of the office and have bishops and even accept the Roman bishops if they would be real bishops.  Here Luther points to the essential role of chief teacher and preacher of the faith.  While some may quibble with the way Luther put it, historians would be hard pressed to disagree with how the office evolved over time.  As to whether the evolution of the office was of the bene esse of the church or the esse is another matter.

Yet as truthful as it might be to make this distinction, the idea has grown in Lutheranism that for the sake of love and unity is not all that important.  Some would bristle at the idea of bishops and insist that is not kosher for Lutherans.  Our divergent liturgical practice reveals that unity and love is second to individual expression (and here I am not talking about adding ceremonies to the liturgy but abandoning any hint of the liturgy and certainly not using the traditional hymnody of the church).  And, by the way, evangelical wannabes are not the only ones who do this.  Some of us traddies also appreciate our freedom to snub our noses as love and unity and do what we please.  Again, I am not all that concerned with additions to the Divine Service as much as I am omissions and, even worse, the elimination of the liturgy. 

To get a room full of Lutheran pastors to agree on anything is a monumental achievement when it comes to anything like vestments, liturgy, clerical collars, or the Office of the Pastor (and Bishop).  We are sometimes like a room full of rebellious children insisting that "you can't make me."  So what has happened?  Pastors dress their taste and their offices may not at all be evident from the way they look.  Congregations (led by pastors) worship according to their taste and their denominational identity may not at all be evident from what they do on Sunday morning.  Love and necessity apparently don't count for much and we all tend to do as we please.  But then we complain about the lack of brand loyalty among Lutherans and how hard it is to find a church that fits your taste. 

From where I sit, the old attitude of we don't want to and you can't make us has not born much good fruit for us and our great attempt to cover it with a grand theological word (adiaphora) has only hardened the divisions among us.  Kyrie Eleison.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Green Lent. . .

Over at the Church of England the faithful are being urged to turn their attention from Jesus and His atoning work or from catechetical renewal or from any calls of repentance from sin to other pursuits.  They are called to use the forty days of Lent to calculate the carbon footprint of the meal they just ate, to switch to a renewable power supply, or to plant a tree.  This is not the purple Lent or even the unbleached muslin Lent but a green Lent. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, issued this 40-day challenge to Christians to engage in God’s plea for us to “Care for Creation”.   Their environmental focus will be accompanied by a set of 40 short actions they might taken, sober reflections to accompany their acts, and prayers to pray to help them become more environmentally conscious.  How wonderful!

It is so mundane and ordinary to focus upon the Passion of our Lord or turn your attention to the basics of the Christian faith and creed or to struggle harder to resist the impulse to sin and to live the holy and righteous lives we were given in baptism.  Much better to take those forty days of purpose and focus them on the greater cause of climate change, environmentalism, and the protection of nature from the onslaught of mankind humankind.  Yes, we would all do well to consider joining our English cousins in this noble pursuit during the season of Lent.

Perhaps some might want to tell me how they plan to heed the call and take up the green flag in their march toward the Holy Zion of nature's pristine perfection?  I would most appreciate some practical hints on how this might be done.  Sadly, my pastoral formation took place so long ago and within the limitations of a more orthodox Christianity so I am not so acquainted with these more modern expressions of Lenten piety.  I can well imagine that her majesty will be whipping out the calculator on her phone to tally up the carbon footprint of her own meals and looking into solar panels and windmills at Buckingham and planting trees -- all the while singing the great Lenten hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.  It would do well for us Anglophiles to follow her lead.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Code words. . .

We live in an age of code words that seem to imply noble intention and even encourage consensus but in reality most of those code words are just window dressing.  I am thinking of the thousand and one times when there is disagreement in the Church, usually between progressives and traditionalists, and someone crafts a press release to suggest that with study, prayer, discernment, pastoral care, and mutual respect it is hoped that consensus will be achieved.  What this really means is that the traditionalists will be given some time and then they will have to jump on the bandwagon and get with the program.

This has been the fog that has surrounded every church body that has wrestled with GLBTQ+ issues.  The progressive wing, usually in control of the seminaries, offices, and structures, realizes that they need the traditionalists (or, rather, they need their money) and so change comes incrementally until finally it is nearly a done deal.  At that point in time, the traditionalists are given a sort of olive branch.  Stay and change your mind, stay and shut up, or leave.  That is what happened in the ELCA in the wake of the move to approve same sex relationships that led to the full adoption of the GLBTQ+ agenda and it is what we see happening right now in the not so United Methodist Church.  Put up or shut up or leave.  What makes this so interesting and so frustrating is that in nearly every case, it is those advocating change, a departure from the teaching of the Scriptures, and the witness of tradition who are on the short end of the stick.  It shows at one and the same time how the control of power structures, the press of the media, and the difficulty in bucking cultural change can work against maintaining the catholic faith.

There is only one reason why people would study, pray, and discern an issue and that is to depart from the position or statement of faith they had and embrace a change.  It has happened time and time again.  In the Lutheran Church in Australia, after the issue of women's ordination failed over and over again, the path was not to let the Word of God, Lutheran Confessions, and tradition have the last word (no).  Instead, the progressives were able to get the church body to study the issue further in an attempt to discern the Lord's will.  Apparently that will was not sufficiently clear before.  But there was only one reason to study, discern, and pray.  And that is always to give the progressives time to change minds and votes to depart from the faith and historic practice of the Church.

So does that mean I am against studying an issue?  Of course not!  The Church always benefits from studying an issue but that study must not be open ended, in which the outcome is allowed to transgress the holy ground of Scripture and tradition.  It is good to study an issue from the sources of God's Word and the faithful witness of the catholic tradition but we are the students here and not the teachers.  We learn from the Scripture and the historic faith -- we do not teach the fathers or attempt to instruct God.  That always leads to the dead end of heresy and apostasy.  It always did in the past and it always will in the future.  The sooner we figure this out the better.

But Pastor Peters, you say, this is what you have said time and time again on this blog.  You are correct but when people are not listening or hearing, you must repeat yourself from time to time.

Friday, February 21, 2020

On Auto-Pilot. . .

While making an extended trip recently, I rented a car that had lane assist, smart cruise control, and blind spot alarm.  Literally, you could lift your hands off the wheel (which I do not recommend!) and the car would drive itself, centering it in the lane, keeping appropriate distance from the traffic ahead, and monitoring the speed.  Wow.  At first I fought against these technologies.  Later I became more accustomed to them and even welcomed the second tier of oversight of my driving and the driving of those around me.  It is a precursor of that day when the driver of a car will not be directly involved in the moment to moment control of the car but a back up to the self-driving technology that is most certainly in the future.

Christians run the risk of the same kind of auto-pilot.  We can easily presume that we don't have to willfully do anything.  Good works will just happen.  We do not have to consciously work for them.  We will automatically know right from wrong -- we don't need to be guided by God's own words of instruction (the Law).  We will pray when and if the Spirit moves us to pray -- piety does not need to be deliberately scheduled or directed.  We will go to Church when and if we need to -- we do not have to do anything (we are under the Gospel, for Pete's sake, not the Law!).

Yes, there are people who actually think like that.  Too many of them.  Too many of them Lutheran as well.  It is as if our spiritual lives just happen.  For too many Christians, the will does not need to be shaped or directed or constrained.  It will happen.  Apparently St. Paul did not get that memo.  Read the words of St. Paul, the preaching of letters, to Christians where auto-pilot was not working.  He is blunt and sometimes painfully so.  He does not shy from commanding Christians to do what is good and right and true.  He does not presume anything but compels Christians to walk worthy of their calling in Christ.  He does not leave sanctification to chance but tells Christians to listen to the Word of the Lord and then to do it.  The same comes from the writer of Hebrews.  He does not leave church attendance to chance but compels those in his hearing NOT to neglect the weekly assembly around the Word and Table of the Lord.  St. James does not at all deny justification by grace through faith but also is very conscious of the old Adam still lurking in the shadows of the heart and so he says in the most clear of words "faith without works is dead."

We live at a time when people think of their lives in Christ as solitary and individual, where church is optional and where the voice of God speaks more clearly in their hearts than in His Word.  They suffer from the same passivity of the car with such wonderful tools that can fool the driver into thinking he does not need to do anything.  But we Christians cannot afford to be asleep at the wheel.  That is even more profoundly true for Lutherans.  Our heritage and treasure in justification does not preclude nor eclipse the training in righteousness which should and, indeed, must happen in us.  God justifies us without any cooperation on our part but our sanctification happens with the operation of the will.  And the fruits of this show up in our need to be together in the Word, at the Table of the Lord, and in prayer before His throne of grace.  Sometimes I encounter people, sometimes my own lapsed members, who think that church works against their spirituality.  They are on auto-pilot and have bought into the lie that they not only do not have to do anything, but anything they might do could and probably will work against their spiritual comfort.  And that is exactly what sometimes God is doing.  A little spiritual discomfort is the fruit of honest Biblical preaching -- making sure that we do not doubt the certainty of what God has promised but neither taking for granted His gifts by presuming we don't need to do anything to keep them.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The cost of doing nothing. . .

Was it Edmund Burke who said it?  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Or is it a version of Proverb's wisdom: "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it."  Whether or not Burke is the author of the first quote, this Biblical truth is profoundly evident when it comes to predicting the relationship of children to the Church as they grow into adults.  Where parents have been active in pursuing the faith while their children are in the home, it is almost always true that the children will not depart from the faith.  It is not magic.  There are children who rebel but statistically it is something like 85-90% true that children who are raised in the faith and attend church with their children while their children are growing up will remain active in faith as adults.

Unless their children marry outside the faith, that is.  In other words the Proverbial formula and the Burke quote are not absolutes and there are variables.  Marrying outside the faith is a big one and it definitely works against the faith learned in the home.  It was once thought that the Christian in the marriage would bring the non-religious spouse to the Church but the more recent experience is the opposite.  The non-religious spouse will most likely draw the Christian away from the Church and the faith.  Or so the polls tell us
A parent’s religious identity (or lack thereof) can do a lot to shape a child’s religious habits and beliefs later in life. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that regardless of the religion, those raised in households in which both parents shared the same religion still identified with that faith in adulthood. For instance, 84 percent of people raised by Protestant parents are still Protestant as adults. Similarly, people raised without religion are less apt to look for it as they grow older — that same Pew study found that 63 percent of people who grew up with two religiously unaffiliated parents were still nonreligious as adults.
Furthermore, it is even less likely that a non-religious person will marry or cohabit with a religious one.
In the 1970s, most nonreligious Americans had a religious spouse and often, that partner would draw them back into regular religious practice. But now, a growing number of unaffiliated Americans are settling down with someone who isn’t religious — a process that may have been accelerated by the sheer number of secular romantic partners available, and the rise of online dating. Today, 74 percent of unaffiliated millennials have a nonreligious partner or spouse, while only 26 percent have a partner who is religious.
And we can add to this the increasing age at which children marry.  What this means in practicality is that not only is the couple more likely to live away from their parents and where they were raised in the faith but also that, deprived of this family support, the couple, religious or not, will feel even greater pull away from the faith and the Church than closer.  What this means for the next generation is also significant.  Without the example and presence of grandparents and extended family, it is even more likely that the pull away from the Church and out of the faith will continue without challenge and without the encouragement and example of the family that remains.

  • For the many millennials who never had strong ties to religion to begin with, this means they will be even less likely to develop habits or  make associations that would encourage return to religion.
  • Young adults are also increasingly likely to have a spouse who is nonreligious; for young adults raised in the faith the secular worldview will be reinforced by the non-religious spouse and for those who are non-religious there will be little to challenge that secular worldview.
  • Changing views about the relationship between morality and religion work against any belief that faith or religious institutions are simply relevant or necessary for their children.
  • Absent the positive influence of parents, grandparents, and other extended family who are actively involved in religion, it is even more likely that their children will be raised with an exclusively secular worldview and a negative perception of religion.