Thursday, October 1, 2020

Midwestern attitudes. . .

How quaint it is to have traditional and Biblical morality equated with Midwestern attitudesIs that the best you can do?  Is the worst charge leveled against those who take seriously the Biblical ethic against the confusion of letters that form the current plethora of sexual choices, genders, attractions, and desires that these are simply Midwestern attitudes?  The good people of the Midwest deserve better than this.  It is not because they are Midwestern that they have such attitudes.  It very well could be that they have these attitudes because they take seriously what Scripture says, they listen to the Word of the Lord, and they are formed by that Word instead of forming what it says or means for themselves.

I grew up in that Midwest.  People were generally reticent to complain about their neighbor.  It is not that they did not have opinions, they did, but they also had restraint.  They may not outwardly object to some of the craziness of the coasts, but neither did they follow this kind of craziness either.  Sure, there were cities with a different spirit -- Nebraskans love to dream about giving Omaha's attitudes to Iowa.  Iowans love to imagine dumping Des Moines together with its opinions out of sync with rural and small towns.  Minnesotans tire of having their state characterized by what happens in Minneapolis.  Across the landscape of small town and rural America, most are reflective of those Midwesteran attitudes of personal responsibility, accountability for your mistakes, the sanctity of marriage, the treasure of children and grandchildren, and going to church on most Sundays.  I struggle to find fault with this.  In fact, most folks across America and outside the cities might think that this is the kind of stuff that made America great.

My point here is not to glorify Midwesterners.  They seek no such glory.  My point is to wonder out loud how such once universal values have become something derided as Midwestern when they are, if anything, Biblical and churchly.  It was not that long ago when nearly everyone in America would have agreed with the things mentioned above.  Urban, suburban, small town, or rural, the people across this land had a much clearer and more universal moral consensus than we have today.  We have become a people divided and conflicted by those divides.  We are an angry people -- over the obvious of COVID 19 and its consequences but also over the pace of change and the dizzying effect of waking up to the new normal of every kind of sexual identity, of sometimes violent protests on our streets, of children who seem banished from school for another term or maybe year, and a political culture which is downright nasty.  If this is progress, well, who wants it?

All of this commentary began with an article on how seminaries have welcomed all kinds of LBGTQ+ folks only for them to find the pulpits across our nation are not quite ready for them.  While these seminaries have encouraged them to explore their spirituality, the hurdles they face out in the church remain.  This should come as no surprise.  The churches have generally always lagged behind the seminaries in their embrace of new things.  What is a surprise is how quickly this has moved from being labeled traditional or Biblical objection to the regional quirks of an as yet unenlightened people.

Returning to the chapel of Luther Seminary, one such individual found a welcome he had not found in the wider church.  “I got to preach on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, the idea of coming out and being unbound. And there was a really good reaction to that,”said Austen Hartk.  I can imagine he was somewhat disappointed that to the folks in the pew the story of Jesus raising Lazarus had little or nothing to do with coming out and being unbound and everything to do with the prefigurement of His own resurrection and the promise that in Him all who are dead in trespasses and sins can look forward to the resurrection and eternal life.  But it is a quaint notion that the Scriptures address mundane things like sin and forgiveness, death and resurrection, and faith and trust.  Perhaps too quaint for those who believe every story of Jesus is a story of their own judgment free journey of discover.  The reality is that the ELCA and most all liberal Protestant denominations are bleeding members and money right and left.  Some say that is about prejudice which is giving way to openness and freedom and acceptance.  Others are pretty sure it has to do with a once Biblical church having lost its Biblical moorings and chosen to float with the cultural tide.  Those darn Midwestern attitudes need to be woke, I guess.  I pray that they can hold out long enough to cause a thorough redress of a morality no longer Biblical and a faith in which Jesus is less a Savior than an idea.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Where theology is done. . .

In our age we have come to believe that theology is done best in institutional settings.  The colleges, universities, and seminaries of churches have become the domain of the serious theologian.  As Lutherans we fostered this idea with the baggage of the gymnasium and university brought with us from Germany.  But it was never true in any real sense.  As the sainted Martin Franzmann put it, Theology must sing.  All theology is doxology or it is not true or real.  I think that this is at the core of what David Scaer means when he says all theology is Christology.  For where do we meet Christ except in the Word preached, the water of life splashed, the whispered confession heard, and the taste of Christ's body and blood on our lips.

I remember reading the explanation of why one academic returned to parish life.  I’m leaving the academy to return to the parish in order to do theology. The parish is what theology looks like.  Wow.  I wish we actually believed it still.  For it is true whether the parish is a lively place of theological discourse or mundane place of programs that work (or not).  The parish is where theology comes into the cross hairs.  If it does not happen in the parish, it will not happen on the ground of higher educational settings or it will become the domain of mere theory.

The seminary cannot really form pastors but it does prepare the man for the formation of life long vocation in the parish.  I am not one of those who would smugly suggest that there are no pastors in colleges or universities or seminaries but if theology happens there it is because men bring it there from the parish and not the other way around.  Our conversations as pastors together and with our people are the most important conversations of this world and this life.  When this no longer happens, theology itself suffers.  Where it does happen, the Church flourishes whether numbers or influence wax or wane.

I have no confidence that we have seen the worst and things will improve.  But neither do I believe that the challenges we face are all that different and certainly not worse than the Church faced in her first decades of survival.  When the voice of the apostles was still heard, there was challenge and controversy.  When the voice of became a memory and the Word of the Lord a book, there were challenges and controversies still.  When temporary structures became permanent institutions, there were challenges and controversies.  When churches had buildings and property and influence and money in the bank, there were challenges and controversies.  When our structures are threatened and we no longer have a place at the table in the halls of power, we will still face challenge and controversy.  But it dare not be focused upon what we have lost that gave us standing and stature in a worldly sense.  It must be about theology, the confession of Christ in a a world unfriendly and always unfriendly to Him and His ministers and His people.

St. Paul was not distracted by travel, torture, persecution, imprisonment, and the like.  This was his calling.  St. John was not constrained by exile but this was his calling.  We are not being restricted by the pressures upon us for this is our calling.  Structures and institutions come and go but the Word and Sacraments remain and whether they are, there is the Church.  This is the place where theology lives not as ideas exchanged but as people who come to receive the Holy Mysteries.  There, in the hands of flawed men and from their voices, comes the Word that gives birth to faith, the water that imparts life, the absolution that gives the good conscience, and the body and blood of Christ that feed us the foretaste of the eternal feast to come.  It is here, in this entity, in the parish, that Christ entrusts with the whole mission of the Kingdom of God.  

The parish is not one small part of the Kingdom but the footprint of that Kingdom in that slice of space, time, and geography.  Everything the Church is in a cosmic sense is manifest in the local where people and their bishops still meet on the Lord's Day, in the Lord's House, around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Theology is not a discipline of the academy but the conversation of the parish, the house of God among His people.  If theology does not live here, it will not live anywhere.  This is not some accidental truth or an inconvenient detail which must be rescued or fixed but the design of God.  Theology must sing.  And sing it does in the parish.

I must confess that when I enter a pastor's study, I look to his bookcase first.  The theological task is fed by wonder and curiosity and these aid and abet conviction and equip service.  If his shelf is filled with the latest how to books or pop psychology or feel good trash, it is hard for me to imagine how the man preaches with conviction the Word of the Lord that endures forever or welcomes the people of God to the banquet feast that anticipates heaven.  

Theology is our enterprise not as a distraction from ministry but because the ministry is theological to its core.  We believe, teach, and confess.  We do it within the community of those called out and gathered before the presence of Christ where He has pledged to be.  Our past is His and our present is His and our future is His.  And He has warned us of those who cry "Lord, Lord" and those who like weather vanes move with every wind of change and those without roots.  My brother pastors, we cannot afford to be practical and we must dare to be theological.  

Things will get worse but the Church will abide.  We kneel not before an image of power but a cross, not before a philosophical system but a crucified Savior, and not with intellects to comprehend but with faith to trust.  This is theology.  This is the theology that sings.  And where it sings, people will come and the gates of hell will not shut this down.  Christ has already triumphed. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

In pursuit of an earthly kingdom. . .

The idea of a Constantinian shift is not new but it has been taken up and renewed in the modern day by Stanley Hauerwas, among others.  The tension between the kingdom in the world but not of the world and a kingdom which transcends the world is neither new nor easily resolved.  In antiquity the debate began about the value offered to the Church by access to the Emperor and the sanction of the imperial authority.  No one but a fool would suggest that the conversion of Constantine and his secular power has been anything but a mixed blessing at best.  At worst is the suggestion by some theologians and historians of antiquity that the political and theological consequences of the 4th-century Constantinian integration of the imperial government with the Christian Church has beguiled the Church and distracted her from her first mission.  

With the First Council of Nicaea the so-called Constantinian shift is dated. The term itself is probably best credited to the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.  His claim, however, and the whole idea of a  Constantinian shift has been disputed and by some rather big names.  Peter Leithart wrote a book to argue that while there was a "brief, ambiguous 'Constantinian moment' in the fourth century", there was "no permanent, epochal 'Constantinian shift'".   Defending Constantine is the name of Leithart's 2010 book to answer to Yoder.  Leithart argues that Constantine was a real Christian.

To put it bluntly, the whole idea is that when Christianity becomes mainstream it sacrifices its identity and its message.  The suggestion here is that the Church is weak and naive in contrast to the shrewdness of Caesar who woos the Church in order to make Christ to serve his own purposes.  I wonder if at the root of this is the whole fear that the mere idea of “Christendom” has been a bad thing for the Church.   

Integralism is a Roman Catholic theory about how the church should exercise political authority over earthly rulers.  The term has been used against the “modernists“ and any idea of a synthesis between Christian theology and the liberal philosophy of secular modernity.  The proponents of this Roman Catholic political integralism believe that all social and political action should flow from the faith and be shaped by that faith. What is common with the idea of a Constantinian shift and this integralism is a rejection of any separation of church and state.  What is at odds is whether the driver of this car is the state or the Church, with the Roman Catholics arguing, of course, that  Roman Catholicism should be the proclaimed religion of the state.

Now none other than Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has entered the debate with a book entitled A Gathering Storm:  Secularism, Culture, and the Church.  His argument is that liberalism has proven to be a failure, that its poisoned fruits have been a "caustic secularism" that is destroying our culture and undermining our very existence.  Mohler believes that it is up to Christiansto restore the Biblical foundations to the culture.  He is not without his critics for this evangelical version of integralism.

In a book review, Greg Forster calls out Mohler for swallowing lock, stock, and barrel the idea of this integralism.  Forster does more than simply defend liberalism.  He insists that its key ideas have been derived from Christianity, especially its views on universal human rights and natural law.  Foster posits these in medieval theology dating from the 12th century.   Mohler is charged with inciting a culture war that would, in effect, give birth to an evangelical Christian nationalism. 

I am not a fan of either Constantinian shift ideas or integralism.  I do believe that in the vacuum created by the fall of Rome, the Church did step in and became an imperial religion and I do admit that this has been the cause of no small problems for the integrity of the Christian doctrine and the life of the Church.  I am not at all suggesting that it was unavoidable but I am suggesting that it has created pendulum swings of power that have at least distracted the Church and her message and at worst have corrupted the Church and her Gospel.  I do believe that the great temptation of the government to harness the resources of religion for its purposes and the Church to control the state for her advantage has been hard to resist.  Now the whole idea is more tenuous than ever before.  Christianity was never meant to transform earthly institutions and not in the least to give new birth to the state.  

As a Lutheran I must admit that Luther, in a better position than most in this connection, has bequeathed to us a legacy of church and state ideas that have proven harder to hold when that state has shown its true colors and become an outright enemy of the Gospel.  Is there anyone who believes that Trump will do anything more than slow the press against orthodox Christianity?  Does anyone really believe that there will be some accommodation on marriage, gender confusion, abortion, or the labeling of the Gospel has hate speech?  We have had a reprieve but hardly more and it takes but a Biden and one term to undo whatever gains have been made.   We have no Frederick the Wise or John the Steadfast.   

Christianity began under persecution and conflict from a variety of sources but those who argue that Christianity was never meant to be ostracized or threatened by culture, the state, and the ever changing face of modernity are, I think, naive. The Gospel works on the person and is not some grand force of God to undo Eden's stain and rescue us from ourselves for a period of earthly triumph.  Every generation has faced this temptation and every generation that has remained true to the faith has had to abandon such ideas in order to survive.  In the end it is not he who triumphs but he who endures who will be saved.   

Early Christianity had little in the way of an institutional existence or window of stability. Churches were centered in the home, gathered around the bishop, to hear the Word read and preached and to receive the body and blood of Christ.  Everything else was risk and vocation was anything but comfortable (in an earthly sense).  At some point this was replaced with virtual security and with it came the opportunity to be attentive to the world around them in a way not possible before.  In the aftermath of COVID and in the flourishing of a progressive movement that challenges the very foundations of orthodox Christianity, the Church may lose the luxury of institutional security.  We may not be confined to our homes but we will be a kept people, kept from the public square and kept behind the closed doors of our churches.  The illusion of stability and a place at the table will give way to risk once again and, with it, we will have to decide whose we are.

The wreckage of time has given birth to good stories but no happy endings.  From Luther and his friendship with the Frederick and his heirs to the tattered rags of Constantine's Christian empire to the idea that America was a Christian nation, we have been all too willing to sacrifice dogma for the sake of influence and to give up the voice of the prophet to give comfort and aid to secular Zion.  Ours is a mission of survival for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel -- not for earthly gain or progress or political power.  

We have always had to hold our nose in the voting booth though sometimes the stink has been harder to mask.  Today is no different.  But we vote where we must for whom we must not for the sake of some better world but for the preservation of the Church and the freedom to proclaim the Gospel (including the good works toward neighbor that do make a difference).  We must always be cautioned to remember that today's political friends will become tomorrow's theological enemies.  This is not cynicism.  This is the reality of living in the world but not succumbing to it, in pursuit of the heavenly kingdom and not distracted by the idea of an earthly one.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree. . .

Apparently, in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit it was discovered that a baby was baptized using the wrong formula (we baptize vs I baptize) and after consideration by the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith, it was decided that this baptism was invalid.  The priest who watched the video of his baptism saw the error and found he had not been, as the CDF determined, validly baptized.  So the concern is that all of his priestly administrations are also invalid.  Or perhaps only illicit.  But either way a problem.

Sacraments have our confidence because we do not go off the reservation in playing with the formulas or the elements.  So it is not a small thing when people mess with the formula or the elements.  It is something that degrades the confidence we have that the Lord is doing what He has promised to do.  He has not given us a broad directive to figure out what works for us, what appeals to our feelings, or what fits the circumstances.  He has given us His Word and Sacraments, plain and simple.

Now, it seems, some have used this issue in Roman Churches to suggest that all baptisms outside of Rome are suspect (with the exception of the Orthodox, of course).  Funny how a Roman Catholic error is used to cast suspicion on Protestants and, perhaps, Lutherans, as well.  

But what about Protestant baptisms. Prior to Vatican II when Protestants converted to Catholicism, they were at least "conditionally" rebaptized because there was some concern about the validity of their Protestant baptism. 

If some deacons and priest use invalid words, despite the fact they are told to use the correct words in fact it isn't optional, it is required by their ordination's obedience, how many more Protestant ministers improvise in prayer and baptismal forumulas and no one knows it even if a baptismal certificate is possible to obtain, which it isn't for some Protestant denominations?

I recommend now, that all Protestants be conditional baptized prior to be received into the full communion of the Catholic Church.

Well, there you have it.  If Rome sneezes, we must presume that Protestants have a cold.  I am quite sure that there are Protestant baptisms worth questioning.  Only a fool would vouch for things he does not or cannot know.  Yet raising questions where there is no direct evidence is never good.  It does not do anyone any good to second guess everything on the basis of an error now.  Especially one with a Roman flavor to it.

I have encountered some, perhaps even many, who have asked to be baptized conditionally because they either have no record of their baptism or no assurance that this baptism was in water in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  But to meet all baptisms with such suspicion will never have a good outcome.  Baptisms are not guilty until proven innocent.  It will surely come back to haunt them and us.  Trust but verify.  Reagan was not a theologian but he got this much right at least.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The death of a headquarters and resurrection of the parish. . .

It is no secret that national headquarters are suffering.  For years we have built up the idea in business, industry, arts, entertainment, and, yes, religion, that it matters more what is done on the larger scale than it does on the local level.  That seems to be fading.  We found out that big business is so big it does not even know what happens outside of its institutional center.  We discovered that people could work from home or not work at all and what mattered was the people ordered and products were delivered.  The ordinary man in brown became as important as the head of Ford or GM in the grand scheme of things.  Industry struggled and the ordinary truck driver became the most important link in the chain -- along with the folks on the assembly lines.  Arts and entertainment taught us that those folks who are paid so much to produce, direct, and star in movies can be as essential to life as the closed anchor store in the darkened mall.  And just maybe, those who press for churchly things on the national level have discovered that the parish is the most important place in the life of Christianity.  And this may be the key to it all.  

If the parish rises to its always essential but too often forgotten place at the center of it all, then just maybe there is hope for Christianity after all.  We have been so busy building mega churches and small earthly kingdoms to justify our existence that we have all but ignored that where two or three are gathered in His name, there He is, there is the Kingdom in our midst, and there is the gate of heaven.  In the end, it is this that is key to the life or death of Christianity.  You will notice that Hebrews does not challenge us to maintain the endless zoom meetings or not forsake the conference calls but not to neglect our meeting together (THE assembly, ecclesia, and qahal) where Christ is present according to His promise, distributing the gifts He has pledged to us.

I hope and pray that we may attention to this.  The challenges whose answers might have led us to wait for the call from the bishop or to listen to the pronouncements of national headquarters to figure out our way through the pandemic had to be confronted on a local level.  How we deal with the judgment that the Kingdom of God is not essential will not be argued by lawyers in courts as much as it will be decided by the people who put on their masks (or not) and come to be where Christ is, willing to risk this mortal life for the eternal.  We will not be saved by PPP programs or other temporary financial measures but we shall be saved by the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all our sins.  And that blood is poured out for us into the cup we must drink if we are to be Christ's own and live under Him now and eternally.  We will likely be smaller but less distracted by programs or stuff that too often competes with the Divine Service for central place in the life of the Church and in the hearts of God's people.  If our sports leagues and yoga classes and self-help groups fade, it just may allow us to see again why we are the Church and what we as the Church are to be about.

Popes and bishops, presidents and superintendents, whatever you call them, did not mean as much as the local pastor or priest.  That is always how it was, though it is sometimes forgotten.  We were failed by most of our institutional incarnations of the Church but we have been rescued by courageous pastors and people who insisted against all professional advice that the Church must continue to live by the Word of the Lord which endures forever and the Sacraments of life and worship.  But God has not failed us.  He is still where He has promised to be.  As long as we are there, too.