Tuesday, April 20, 2021

If. . .

If you can go to a grocery store, you can go to Church.

If you can go to the pharmacy, you can go to Church.

If you can go to the doctor's office, you can go to Church.

If you can go to Wal-Mart, you can go to Church.

If you can go to a restaurant, you can go to Church.

I am not saying this to guilt you into going to Church, but to challenge your presumption that somehow going to Church is inherently less safe than anything else.  The media may have done an exceptional job of making folks believe that going to Church is risky, but the facts do not bear them out.  Outside of a few crackpot pastors in crazy churches that no one should be going to in the first place, every congregation has roped off pews, had masks, put hand sanitizers every fifteen feet, and adjusted their normal activities in some way to ensure the safety of our people.

A survey of three dozen Roman Catholic bishops predicted that worship attendance would remain 25-40% below its pre-COVID numbers.  Many, if not all, Protestant churches have witnessed similar statistics.  Our own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Grace Lutheran Church is concerned that the numbers are not rebounding.  Part of the problem is not that people most at risk are staying home -- just the opposite!  Those who some think should not be in worship are the ones who have been in Church since pandemic began.  

In our own case, a handful of people over the course of March 2020 through March 2021 have unknowingly been infected and went to Church and we can trace 1-2 folks who got their COVID from someone in the pew.  This is despite the fact that we have never stopped having worship services and have had VBS, a congregational picnic, a yard sale, and music concerts all the way through that same time!  I am confident that neither Kroger nor Wal-Mart can attest to such a good record!

So if you have been staying away out of fear that Church is a dangerous place, let me challenge you to take another look.  The more you miss Church, the less you will miss it.  The longer you go without being in the Lord's House, the more likely it is that you will not return.  Nobody cares about statistics but your pastors and fellow members of the Body of Christ are most concerned about the state of your soul, about the means of grace to nourish and sustain your faith in such times of trial, and about the personal connections that reflect our unity in Christ.  YOU need the Church way more than the Church needs you.

Look at what you are doing, how you are providing for essential needs, and ask yourself why you have not returned to Church.  For despite what the government has tried to tell you, the Church is essential and what you receive here, you receive nowhere else.  Think about it.

Monday, April 19, 2021

The changing face of membership. . .

Sitting around with pastors complaining about the pandemic and what it has done to our congregations is something that does little to fix the problem but the venting is not without its own benefit.  It was during one of those conversations that an idea popped into my head -- though I am sure I am not alone in thinking this.  It began with glowing reports of how many people were watching services online from one parish.  The pastor jokingly suggested that they had more people in church online than they had ever had in church in person ever before.  The number was in the thousands. So, the joke went, maybe it would be better if they never had in person worship.  Of course, this kind of gallows humor is stock and trade during the stresses of this pandemic.

It got me thinking, however, that there might be a market for an online only congregation.  It would be just the kind of congregation most people want -- cheap and easy to fund, one you can shut off and tune in again without anyone making some snide comment about missing you, one you can sleep through without having anyone notice, and one that asks hardly anything of you.  Who would not want to join such a congregation?  And that is the point.  How long before our congregations end up with an online presence that is larger and perhaps more significant than their in person operation?  How long before people in one state or country watching online will request to become official members of their online congregation?  Is it possible to have a congregation with a mostly online membership?

I think you already know what I think of such an endeavor.  So I will not repeat to you the bitter words I have for people who right now might be salivating at the prospect of such a church.  But I will suggest to you that the day is coming and perhaps already is when such congregations will exist -- even within denominations formally opposed to such virtual parishes.  It is an inevitable outcome of some of the poor choices we have made and the awful judgments rendered by and upon the churches during this pandemic.  Worship is not essential, online is the same as in person, sacraments may be handled remotely and virtually, and hits are the most important barometer of parish success.

Just think about it.  We could sell off all those properties expensive to maintain and run and have a church for the cost of some decent bandwidth.  We could get rid of all those in person programs and their volunteers and leave it to people to Facebook message or text each other for fellowship, zoom for instruction, and download for information.  It would be truly a virtual church!  The only people needed are the social media people and a few spare hours of some pastor's time.  We have the technology.  We could do it.

Remember what St. Paul said about the possible not being the beneficial?  I wonder how long it will be before the folks at the head of our churches either suggest what I have said or insist it should not be done.  How long will we want?  Some congregations and districts are fairly close to the whole idea of virtual parishes and virtual ministries.  And if we can do it, why would we not?  Therein lies the rub.  We would be pounding nails into our own coffins.  

The whole definition of a virtual church is that such a church is not real.  Real churches have real pastors, people, water for baptism, bread and wine for the Eucharist, and fellowship that flows from this though the assembly and out into the world.  Oh well, I will be retired by the time this really catches on and maybe I can supplement my retirement income with some side gigs online.  I can work at my leisure and don't even have to wear pants.  The camera only needs a head shot, after all, and that is what the digital media is good at -- making real people into talking heads.  Perhaps the only one disappointed by this would be Jesus.  But we can outvote Him. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Time to clean up a mess. . .

Lately I have been seeing more frequent commercials for those companies that clean up messes -- burst pipes, roof leaks, etc.  It seems that in the wake of Texas and a cold winter that there have been messes to clean up.  Not to mention the messes created by protests and riots.  Lots of messes!

To those outside the Church, that is what religion is for.  The job of churches is to clean up messes.  When people need money, the job of churches is to give them the money they need.  When people need food, the job of the churches is to give them food.  When people need shelter for the night, the job of the churches is to give them shelter (or pay for a place for them to shelter in).  When people are oppressed, the job of the churches is to advocate for them and protest against their oppressors.

There was a time when the job of the churches was to take care of the widowed and orphan, to care for the mentally ill, to run hospitals and sanitariums for the sick and chronically ill, to care for the aged who cannot care for themselves, and to bury the dead.  Things have changed.  Now government rules and laws have radically altered the playing field.  Most of these things are now done by other agencies and, it seems, by businesses.  After all, if the government is paying the bill, there must be a profit to be made.  So nursing homes, child welfare agencies, psychiatric hospitals, medical centers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, funeral homes, and cemeteries are now for profit vehicles to provide a service and make a profit on the side.

But the idea still exists among those who were Christians or who never were that the only good church is one that cleans up societies messes.  If they don't, they ought to be taxed.  Where did they get this idea?  Could it be from Christians who presumed that it was not enough to bring eternal good to the wounded soul and that in order to justify their existence, the churches must make a difference for those who need help?  An eternal difference seems not to matter much in the face of a world filled with messes and few real solutions and eyes that look on churches as cash cows who play upon the fears and weaknesses of the simple and the frail.  At least that is the perception.

There are people who have left my congregation because we were not doing enough in the community.  Well, what does that mean?  It is not enough to provide forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation by the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of Christ's Sacraments.  It is not enough to teach our children the faith, teach those new to the faith, teach those who have forgotten what we believe, teach, and confess.  It is not enough to bring eternal comfort to moments in time of suffering, fear, worry, doubt, and pain.  It is not enough to raise the hopes of the hopeless for something more than a better day tomorrow.  It is not enough to actually be at work in the community in mental health centers, soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters, cash assistance programs, etc...  What exactly were we not doing?

The point is this.  To those who do not know the comfort and joy of sins forgiven, of lives reborn in
baptismal water, of the direction of the Word to light their way, and of the food for body and soul in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar, there is no justification for the Church.  Except to clean up their messes.  Sadly, sometimes the people in the pews and the pastors in the pulpits presume that this is our job as well.  If we are not making things better in our community, then what good is eternal salvation (say some folks in the pews)?  If I cannot help make a difference to a person in need, then what good is preaching the Gospel (say some pastors about the ministerial offices they hold)?  Apparently we are not reading the Scriptures.  We have fallen into the trap that says the eternal only matters of the temporal is made better in the process.  Square that with Jesus' prediction of persecution, suffering, and even death for the sake of Him and His Gospel?

Let me say this.  Loving your neighbor is not the job of the Church as an institution but the vocation of the baptized in that Church.  Doing justice and showing mercy are not the job of the Church but the vocation of God's people as they live out the kingdom in and before the world.  Jesus does not speak much about institutional roles but He has much to say about the role of the Christian in society.  Could it be that we love to blame the Church for not cleaning up our messes because it relieves us of any personal responsibility to hear and heed the command to love one another as I, the Lord, have loved you?   The Church is not Servpro.  The Church is not God's fixit company to clean up our messes and then disappear from our lives until we screw up again.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

What we want. . . what we need. . .

What we want to believe is that marriage is marriage no matter who it is getting married.  What we want to believe is that a parent is a parent, whether mom or dad or two moms or two dads or people whose gender may be fluid.  What we want to believe is that difference can be celebrated and fostered without affecting unity and fellowship.  What we want to believe is that democracy brings consensus.  What we want to believe is that everyone's voice is of equal weight and value.  But, of course, none of these things have proven true.  

The marriage of husband and wife is not the same as a same sex couple and the changes to marriage brought by same sex couples have not simply been about the same sex couple but have significantly affected all marriages -- not necessarily for the good.  The family of mom and dad and their children is not simply an ideal but the best and divinely appointed structure and that none of the variations are as salutary for the family and the children as the traditional one.  Diversity may be a reality but it cannot supplant the power of common values and common expectations in the building of consensus and a common social and political life.  Democracy does not necessarily bring consensus and may provide a means for deep divisions to continue as elections and leaders reflect the differing goals and purposes of those who cast a ballot for them.  Everyone may have a voice but not every voice is wise nor is every voice is worth our attention (and, it might be said, the loudest voice is not necessarily the voice we need to hear!).  

All of these things are truths that we have witnessed in the fragmentation of our national identity and the hardening of differences both political and social.  So far, the most we have been able to do is to lay blame at one side or another for the mess we are in.  As satisfying as it is to level charges against those we would hold responsible, it is not effective in the building of a national consensus or the repair of what is wrong with our culture and fixing what is broken in our common life.  All of which has left us wondering where we go from here.  I wish I knew.  Neither political side can dismiss the other and no unity will be formed by prosecuting opponents.  In the same way, the penchant for diversity is stretching the very fabric of our national identity to the point that our union is frozen by those different views.  It is almost comedic how we swing back and forth, doing and undoing by executive order what our constitutive assemblies cannot do or undo.

As if this is not a bad thing for our nation, the same factors have been incorporated into the Church's life.  We have no real or solid Christian identity or common orthodoxy that gives weight and substance to Christendom.  We are divided by opinions that cannot live together in the same communion and we have no voice weighted with enough power to address our divisions -- not even the voice of Scripture.  While I can only speak as a Christian in America, it seems that we have imported the worst of our political and social ills into the life of the Church while exporting none of the blessings of God's Word and an ecclesiastical community built upon something larger than self-interest.

Is this new?  Certainly not.  As one student of Augustine has taught us:

The local Catholic Church in Africa had come to a standstill: divided by schism, exposed to the Manichaean heresy, its bishops had settled down as local dignitaries with limited gifts and ambitions. They were content to secure official privileges and seemed capable of displaying energy only in litigation. (For Augustine, at Thagaste, the life of a bishop seemed to consist merely of business-trips; and the duties of a priest seemed roughly those of a legal agent.) In church, they would be content to celebrate the Liturgy; outside it, they would arbitrate lawsuits.  Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 1967

Wow.  That is scarily familiar.  Yet this is a record of church life more than seventeen centuries removed from where we are today.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.  Yet the burning question for us today is whether we are working to change this state of affairs or whether we have accepted that it is the new normal for our times.  Sadly, I have yet to see anyone in politics or society do more than agitate for their positions and I wait, hopefully not in vain, for voices within the Church to go beyond their bunkers.  Ideally, this would be the realm of bishops -- those with a teaching office and with a charism for leadership that advances God's Word and purpose over our own.

Rome has all the structure to do this but they have a pope who, in the words of an anonymous bishop, seems to gain great delight in poking people in the eye.  The bishops have authority but we have witnessed the use of this authority more to cover their own butts than to be a cause for renewal and integrity.  Sure, there are good guys out there but they seem woefully overshadowed by the loud voices of discontent.  It does not help that corruption and cover given to immorality has not yet ceased to be standard operating procedure.

Lutheranism has none of the structure but they once had an integrity built upon a written confession that normed faith and practice.  Now confessional fealty means what we want it to mean and we find every cover for promoting everything but the cause of the Gospel and the life of God's people around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Yes, we have some very good leaders but we live in a time when it appears not only are all politics local, so is the Church.  In the meantime, Sunday morning seems to showcase differences more than our common liturgy and life.

COVID has made the fact that things are not working even more apparent.  It may not be the cause but it is the agent that has hastened our awareness of our weaknesses and failings.   I have no doubt but that the faith will endure but it would be nice if we did not have to rebuild the structures of the Church over and over again.  Is it too much to hope for that Christianity is a leavening agent within the world?  Or is it even too much to hope for that the Church will coalesce around a creedal, liturgical, and confessional orthodoxy that will help to rescue us from ourselves?

Friday, April 16, 2021

What we once fought for and now fight against. . .

According to Joseph Herl's Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation and Three Centuries of Conflict, the narrative often accepted today is not the record of history. Whether you are talking about some miraculous movement from being silent in the Mass to singing like Baptists or about the ceremonies of worship cast off with glee as yesterdays shackles, the story I thought I knew is not the story that accords with reality. Herl is one voice but not the only one. Bodo Nischan's record of Brandenburg is another (Prince, People, and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg). A Roman Catholic voice is another, Ernst Zeedon, Faith and Act -- The Survival of Medieval Ceremonies in the Lutheran Reformation. Though some would insist that the retention of a fuller liturgical life was the exception rather than the rule, the record seems to indicate other wise. An example of the resistance on the part of the lay people to the removal of images, the elimination of the ancient ceremonies, is in the way Johann Georg, Margrave of the the Silesian duchy of J√•gerndorf had attempted in 1616 to reform Lutheranism. He insisted upon the removal of such things as:

All images are to be removed from the church and sent to the court.
The stone altar is to be ripped from the ground and replaced with a wood table covered with a black cloth.
When the Lord’s Supper is held, a white cloth covers the table.
All altars, panels, crucifixes and paintings are to be completely abolished, as they are idolatrous and stem from the papacy.
Instead of the host, bread is to be used and baked into broad loaves, cut into strips and placed in a dish, from which people receive it in their hands; likewise the chalice [in their hands].
The words of the supper are no longer to be sung, but rather spoken.
The golden globlets are to be replaced with wooden ones.
The prayer in place of the collect is to be spoken, not sung.
Mass vestments and other finery are no longer to be used.
No lamps or candles are to be placed on the altar.
The houseling cloth is not to be held in front of the communicants.
The people are not to bow as if Christ were present.
The communicants shall no longer kneel.
The sign of the cross after the benediction is to be discontinued.
The priest is no longer to stand with his back to the people.
The collect and Epistle are no longer to be sung, but rather spoken.
Individuals are no longer to go to confession before communing, but rather register with the priest in writing.
The people are no longer to bow when the name of Jesus is mentioned, nor are they to remove their hats.
The Our Father is no longer to be prayed aloud before the sermon.
Communion is not to be taken to the sick, as it is dangerous, especially in times of pestilence.
The stone baptismal font is to be removed and a basin substituted.
Epitaphs and crucifixes are no longer to be tolerated in the church.
The Holy Trinity is not to be depicted in any visual form.
The words of the sacrament are to be altered and considered symbolic.
The historic Epistles and Gospels are no longer to be used, but rather a section of the Bible [selected by the minister] read without commentary. (Herl, Worship Wars, p. 111)

Read through the list. Lutherans once fought to retain such things and to resist the move to cleanse the Divine Service and finish the job in some Reformed manner. Yet today, even though much progress has been made to recover such things, there are Lutherans who gladly give up such things and who insist that those who would retain them are not real Lutherans. Both pastors in the chancel and people in the pews are deeply suspicious of what we once fought to retain. If a liturgical legacy can be so quickly and easily dismissed, it stands to reason that the doctrinal heritage behind it can also be surrendered in the face of changing tastes and values.

I maintain that you cannot separate the liturgical legacy from the doctrinal heritage -- that both go together and neither survives apart from the other. Together they form a strong bond and support each other but on their own both are more vulnerable. The Anglican history has shown us that the form without the content is no guarantee of anything more than a stylish heresy. The Reformed have shown us that without the structure of the liturgy and sacramental vitality, doctrine easily gives way to an evangelical entertainment hour.