Friday, July 31, 2009

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I just finished reading several blogs that had unrelated posts but some common points. One had a discussion of the generations of his family. All of his brothers and sisters attended Church (all but two Lutheran). Jumping down the next generation, he listed 10 Lutherans, 14 miscellaneous other Churches, and 10 who do not attend. All grew up in faithful church going homes. One explained that they were "deeply spiritual but just did not attend church." He wondered what caused this disconnect and it grieved him deeply.

Another post described criticisms of the ordinary church with its out dated music, fake piety, plastic friendliness, and moralisms from the pulpit -- all suggesting that church was dull, boring, and irrelevant so why wouldn't people stop attending. But the writer insisted he was deeply spiritual.

Another mentioned the wisdom of C. S. Lewis. When people stop believing in God, it is not that they believe in nothing -- they believe in everything. Lewis is right on here. The quest for a spirituality without a formal understanding of God, a book of God's Words, and a gathering of God's people is not an abandonment of belief in general. It is instead the willingness to define everything as spiritual, to make every activity spiritual, and to substitute personal authority for any external authority like Scripture or Church.

Close encounters of the third kind -- that is what this kind of spirituality becomes. The divine becomes like the fragmentary, momentary, undefined, and misunderstood but compelling glimpse of the aliens in the movie. Experiences did not translate well so each was pretty much alone until the end when a light from above drew them in and they were transported from here to there.

We have people all around us whose spiritual lives are grounded on nothing but their own feelings, interpretations, ideas, and momentary glimpses of what they define as the divine (nothing organized enough or narrow enough or clear enough to be called "God"). Spirituality becomes like the uncertain experiences of something from beyond ("did you feel that? Did you get that?" etc). It does not help that some of the churches have such a fleeting experience of God that they too urge people to "feel the presence" or "can you feel what God is doing today?"

In contrast to that some liturgical and sacramental churches focus on the things that are done in such a way that God becomes the victim of mechanics. Hold your hands this way, repeat the magic words, and God has to do what we say.

For Lutherans God is not under the thumb of my interpretation, of my feelings, or of my will. God comes to us within His Church, in the places where He has attached Himself (Word and Sacraments), with the power to keep His promises and accomplish His purpose (forgiveness, life and salvation). God does not live within our minds as words whose meaning can change. God does not live within our feelings as that burn hot or cold. God does not live within us as wisdom subject to our approval. God lives within us as the Word planted in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, working not in some magical reality but in the concrete of the Gospel spoken, water that washes, bread and wine that is eaten and drunk.

God is not a close encounter of the third kind but the constant presence of the Savior who is always with us, who will not abandon us, whose grace is sufficient for all we face, whose mercy is the most important constant in our changing lives, whose forgiveness is bigger than every and all sin combined, whose life stronger than death is resident in us even though we wear mortal frames, who loves us as individuals but loves us enough to connect us to those who are our brothers and sisters through the font and faith. We don't move through life trying to experience glimpses of God here and there. We have our eyes opened and the scales of unbelief peeled away by the Spirit so that we see God everywhere but we access Him and His grace in the places where He has attached Himself -- His Word, His Water, His Table...

Perhaps the worst thing we can do is forget where God is, where our lives in His grace are grounded and make Christ equal to our reason and experience when He is the authority over our reason and He is the experience through which we see everything else.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Work, Worship, Play

"Most middle class Americans tend to worship their work, to work at their play, and to play at their worship. As a result, their meanings and values are distorted. Their relationships disintegrate faster than they can keep them in repair and their lifestyles resemble a cast of characters in search of a plot." (Gordon Dahl. Work, Play, and Play in a Leisure-Oriented Society. Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 1972.)

Oft quoted, sometimes disputed, always worth thinking and discussing, these words are 27 years old but not so old that they are not relevant to the present day. The task is not to keep all of these things neatly separate and distinct in our lives. How can that be? Should we not work at our play -- hobbies -- so that we improve at them? Think of the golfer who works at his craft, or painter who paints, or pianist who practices -- working to become better. Do we not play at work? We read, we think, we daydream, we blog -- such creative play is productive, too.

There are problems with this. When we define ourselves as people, more often we define ourselves in terms of our work -- what do you DO? Maybe we ought to define ourselves more in terms of who are are as Children of God by baptism and faith. Work and play do become competitors for God in our lives and sometimes idols in and of themselves. When getting ahead and making the buck and living to spend it on ourselves become the driving forces in our lives, then something IS wrong.

What is most damaging to us, however, is when we play at worship; when we treat God as a hobby or distraction from the routines of work and play. It is obvious that worship has become for many entertainment and worship has become theater. Too many Christians sit in their theater style seating around a stage to watch a show, to witness great performers, to hear dramatic music, and to have fun. Too few of us expect to give ourselves into what we do on Sunday morning. Too many of us expect to come waiting to get and generally settling for what makes us feel good or makes us happy.

Someone said to me once, "You must be exhausted when you get home from Church. I know I am and I only go to one service. All that singing, all those stanzas, all that standing, kneeling, sitting, all that listening... it makes me tired." Of course it does. We ought to be tired after Church on Sunday morning -- not the weariness of a labor that bears no fruit but the good tired of having lost ourselves in the wonder of God's grace, grace freely given to us through His Son in the means of grace that communicate Jesus to us (Word and Sacraments). The good tired of a people who have not simply had a great time, but who have given their all in response to Him who gave His all for us (on the cross).

I think of the person who said to me, "I need to take a vacation after coming home from vacation because I played too hard..." Would he do it again? Sure. He was tired but the good tired of one who was thoroughly immersed in that play. Should it not be so for worship as well. Yes we are tired -- but the good tired of one thoroughly aware of Christ's presence in His Word and at His Table, thoroughly overcome by the gifts of grace that flow to us through these means, thoroughly overwhelmed by the richness of God's mercy, and thoroughly emptied by the praise and thanksgiving returned to Him who has loved us so. Think about it...

The Poisoned Cup?

Recently the swine flu (okay, you know what they want you to call it but...) has been in the news again. The great concern for the future is that this flu strain may come back in greater fury than we knew months ago. In the face of this threat, some churches are putting together protocols for dealing with a possible pandemic. Some of the attention has been turned to what to do with Holy Communion.

The Church of England has responded with the suggestion that the Church remove the chalice from the distribution of the Sacrament. Millie Hemingway in GetReligion addressed this and so did her LCMS Pastor in a column on his blog. Since I know I will get (and have gotten) questions about this, I am making a preemptive strike here.

[If this is not a concern of yours, you are free to skip this post and stop reading.]

First of all, studies have shown that there is virtually no danger of any transmission of disease through the chalice. Tests have been done on the chalice before, during, and after Holy Communion and the results are clear -- we have nothing to fear.

Second, if you do have a concern about the transmission of disease, you ought to be concerned not about the chalice but about YOUR hands. This is the great passenger ferry through which infection and infectious disease travels. Every Sunday I disappear into the Sacristy during the offering and wash my hands. I know my hands are clean when I distribute the Body of the Lord to you -- are you so sure? In fact many are suggesting that receiving the host directly in the mouth and not in the hand is the better practice if you have fears in this area.

Third, a little personal experience is relevant. For more than 30 years I have been the LAST one to receive from the cup, consuming all that remains in that cup at the end of every service of Holy Communion (generally twice a Sunday). In that time I have never missed a service due to illness (one mid-week service I missed due to a back problem but that is it). If there were anything to be concerned about, don't you think I would have fallen victim to it -- after all I consume what remains in the cup after some 100-125 people have received from it every week!

Fourth, and most importantly, is the question of whether or not God would endanger us His children by His gift of this Cup? Remember that those little glasses did not come about until early in the 1940s when the temperance movement and Welch's grape juice had left most Protestant churches without wine in the cup of the Lord. So for most of Christian history, God's people have gathered around one cup of His blood just as they received the one bread which is His Body.

In practical terms, this is a faith question -- would God endanger us His people by His gift of this Sacrament? YOU answer that question. I will leave you with the answer from hymn writer Samuel Rodigast (1649-1708) who wrote:

What God ordains is always good:
His loving thought attends me;
No poison can be in the cup
That my physician sends me. (LSB 760:3)

There is no poison in this cup. None at all. You may have fears, but God has grace sufficient and power greater than our every enemy... here on earth and forevermore... and His grace comes to us in the Cup where His power to address sin, nourish faith, impart fellowship, and offer eternal life is given and offered to all who commune.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Power of Gestures

Some are suspicious of gestures and postures during worship -- fearful of a religion which is formalistic, in other words, that worships form without substance, form without spirit. Their concern is based upon a faulty understanding of Scripture's promise that those who worship Him will worship Him in Spirit and Truth -- as if this were somehow in opposition to form, ritual, gesture, or posture.

Where I came from in Nebraska is home to the one finger wave (NO, not that finger!). Driving down the road you raise your pointing finger off the steering wheel and it signifies, "Hi, how are you... how are things going... have a good day..." I still find it hard not to practice this gesture of friendship (given to strangers as well as those you know) but Tennessee does not understand it.

I think of the many gestures that form part of our unwritten communication -- ways in which we say things without words. It happens in the sports arena and in the mall and in schools and a thousand other places. It also happens in Church.

Worship involves gestures, gestures that have meaning because they are born from hearts filled with faith. When we kneel, it says something about our humility and about God's majesty. When we stand, it says something about honor and respect of Him who is God and Lord of all. When we fold our hands in prayer, it speaks of trust, devotion, and love. When we extend our hands in the sharing of peace, it says something about fellowship and friendship. When the chalice is elevated at the consecration, it says something about who is present in bread and wine.

No one suggests that these gestures have meaning or significance without faith. But in faith, they speak without words what we confess in our hearts regarding sin and its death, God and His majesty, Christ and His mercy, the Spirit and His grace.

When someone folds his or her hand over the heart at the national anthem, something is said. We all acknowledge this is a gesture of meaning and significance. So let us also acknowledge that part of the worship of God's house happens without words being spoken or lips moving... in the way we carry ourselves, in the posture we show, in hands folded or uplifted... These too are worship... in Spirit... and in Truth.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Culture of Ignorance

A friend told the story of jogging past a Roman Catholic Church which had a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The statue features Jesus holding his chest, with the wounds of his hands visible, and in the center is the image of His heart with a cross outlined upon it. Another jogger was taking his time with his young son in tow. As they passed the statue, the boy asked his father, "Why is that man holding his chest?" "I dunno," said his dad. And on they went...

That man. Is it that difficult to identity that man as Jesus? While the history of the Sacred Heart of Jesus may not be easily rehearsed by most people (even Roman Catholics), is it so hard to unpack some of the meaning of the Jesus who stands with His heart exposed and the cross upon that heart?

Yes, it is. We live in a post-Christian era. Around us the majority of people did not attend Sunday school, were not baptized as infants, and have never attended a religious service more than for funerals, weddings, or the occasional Christmas or Easter. We live in a time when there is a huge hole in the knowledge of who Jesus Christ is, what He has done, what the Bible is, and what it says.

More than that, we have come to promote this culture of ignorance. People who are in the know about such things are often viewed with suspicion as religious zealots, extremists. We as a nation like getting our religion in bits and pieces, unconnected truths and facts, unsupported opinions, and, best of all, with no one to tell us we are wrong.

Christians, even those who go to Church every Sunday, often contribute to this culture of ignorance. How? Think of all the children in Church who do not attend Sunday school... or the children who attend Sunday school but do not go through catechism... or the adults who are in Church but not in Bible study... or the church-goers whose contributions to religious conversations range from "I dunno" to "Oh, I don't believe that either" to "Well, I guess what is really important is living a good life and getting along..."

Satan may not be the undoing of the Church but it just could be that God's biggest problem are with Christians, who believe truth to be relative and changeable... who believe that you can be a good Christian without knowing all that much about the faith or Scripture... who believe that saved by grace and saved by your good works are really not so different... who give in to their children and don't "make" them go to Sunday school or catechism.

Could it be that people pass the cross every day and "dunno" what it means? Could it be that we as Christians are not so sure what it all means? Could it be that both are content with their limited knowledge or half-truths about Jesus Christ?

You do not need to save the world. Jesus has already done that. But in order to fully benefit from all that Jesus has done, God asks us to know this Gospel truth, to believe in this Gospel under the prompting of the Spirit, and to be willing to daily live as the student of the Word which proclaims this Gospel. And one more thing. To share this good news with others.

I cannot make the world so that everyone will pass by the cross heeding its message of hope and life... but I can work to make sure that no one will pass by the cross without a basic knowledge of what it means. I may not be able to make everyone say "I believe" but surely I can help others so that they do not say "I dunno." And it starts with me, with my children in Sunday school, in catechism, and with me in worship every Sunday and participating in a Bible study.

Monday, July 27, 2009

For the God Who Sings

I think I want to move to Australia. They have a marvelous public radio network and every Monday morning I listen to my favorite program, called "For the God Who Sings." It connects the great music of the Church to the lessons for the Sunday just past. Is there a grander grand way to let Sunday slip into blessed memory than the music built upon the Word for the week?

Click here (I use RealPlayer) to listen to a musical feast. (If that did not work is the web address.)

The commentator spends a few moments with the lessons and tying them to the musical selection being offered and then you are left with your thoughts as the music speaks for itself.

I was asked once if I thought the music I liked should be used in Church. I said no. Not because I don't want to hear the great classics of Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Pachelbel, Walther, Palestrina and the wonderful modern classics of Scott, Rutter, Fleming, and so many others. I said no because the music of worship is not about taste (good or bad) but about the WORD of God. The music serves the Word -- it is not there simply to adorn the service, to appeal to our likes, or for its beauty to be an end in and of itself. It is music for a purpose -- the handmaiden of the Word.

Music may be primitive, baroque, romantic, victorian, classical, modern, contemporary -- it is all judged by the same criteria -- does it overpower the Word and make itself the center? does it distract from the Word and create something that competes with what is said or sung? does it support the Word in tone and melody? does it marry to the Word so that the music and Word become one medium, one message?

The grand debate about music in the Church today is not some discussion about contemporary or traditional -- it is a heated dialog about what purpose music serves, and, to be honest, there are differences of opinion about that purpose. For us as Lutherans, there is but one purpose to music -- to glorify God by marrying tone and melody to the text so that one message is spoken. Music is not for performance or musical appreciation but for its ability to speak the Word in song, tone, rhythm, and chord.

If a hymn does that, for example, it becomes not just a song sung by many voices but a sacramental medium in which what is communicated is nothing less that the voice of God in human words and melody. If choral music does that, it is the same unique marriage of Word and music, performed for God, in response to His Word, to which we as congregation get to listen in, as if we were children listening at the door... God allows us this listening post but the music is not for us -- it is for Him whose Word is the object and purpose of music's song.

It is to this that one of my favorite anthems appeals with its title, "Sing Me to Heaven" -- if you care to listen (Sing Me to Heaven).

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Art and the Faith

The relationship between art (and the arts) and faith is a deep one. For most of history the Church was the patron who made the arts possible. From instrumental music to choral music to stained glass to textile to painting to sculpture... the Church was the to direct the craft to its divinely intended purpose -- Soli Deo Gloria...

Sadly, most modern church buildings are completely devoid of art -- except for performance art. Walls are plain and empty... windows (if there are any) are transparent to the exterior without any image to lift the eye and mind up... music is from a CD player... how utterly unusual... Given the elaborate instructions God delivered to those who would build His temple long ago... of the depth of the riches and majesty of the God who was born as one of us -- heaven's child in earthly frame...

Today we had a family that so admired our stained glass that they took pictures of each window. I handed them the booklet that describes the meaning and symbolism of them all. Another person wanted to know where we got the banners that give color and dimension to the Chancel. Another family lingered as the sound of the hymns and order began to die away... with some tears about the hymn's message of connection and fellowship they shared with me of their son soon heading to Afghanistan.

Art (and the arts) are so important to worship and to the faith -- it is not that worship cannot take place without them... but why not provide images, sounds, and smells that are fitting to the mystery of what takes place when Christ comes to us in Word and Sacrament???

The arts and artists and artisans are important to the life of the Church. God bless them -- from paraments to pipe organs to voice to silver to brass to bronze to paint and plaster.... God bless those who work with their hands to create images that teach the mind through the eye... that inspire the heart through the ear... They remind us of the astonishingly rich tradition that has been passed down to us... may we pass it on faithfully...

Saturday, July 25, 2009


I was sitting in my office on a Saturday morning when the phone rang. It was from a family traveling through Clarksville, wanting to know the times of service and how to get to the church location. In the course of a conversation about the typical things (is Holy Communion offered, what size is the congregation, etc.) we shifted to people. "Do you know. . . ?" As we spoke I knew of some of the people they knew. I could sense immediately a shift in tone when the personal ties between us were revealed.

That is one dimension of the Church that we dare not minimize. The Church is a place where we are known and we know others. The Church provides and sustains us in these connections by which we find that important sense of belonging to accompany God's Word of welcome.

These are things so often missing today -- especially in an urban or even suburban environment. We are strangers in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and shops. But we don't want to be (sure, sometimes we want to be anonymous but most of the time we will exchange that anonymity with solid relationships). Our culture has attempted to replace these connections with familiarity -- a casual attitude toward our name, dress, etc. We are all on a first name basis in our modern world -- but that does not mean we are connected.

The gift of baptism is the gift of roots. We are rooted and grafted into Christ (the body, the vine, the family...). We are connected to Him. But that is not where it ends. We are connected THROUGH Him to one another so that we are no longer strangers but family, sharing in the life and blessings of Jesus Christ, our Brother, who leads us to address God as "Father."

That is why I wonder sometimes why we do so much to weaken these connections -- like the way we spread out in the seats so that we are never too close to others. If connections are important to God and to us, why not sit together? Why is it that we seek out the faces we know and stare at the ones we don't? If connections are important to God and to us, why not seek to make the new faces part of the family album of those whom we know and count as brothers and sisters in Christ?

Connections are important... which is why I try to call those who commune by name... which is why we share the peace made possible through forgiveness... which is why I stand at the door and shake hands... which is why we spend so much on coffee (the lubricant of friendship, it seems)... so that we may manifest the connections the God has declared and put in place by our baptism into Christ and into the family of Christ, the Church.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Your Children Are Always Your Children

Once my grandmother told me that the older your children get, the bigger their problems, but they are still your children. I laughed. It seemed foolishness to me - but I was just a kid. Surely you need your parents more when you are a baby than when you are 25 or 35 or 55. At least that is what I thought until I became a parent.

Your children are always your children. That is what my grandmother was telling me. As long as she lived, my mother was her daughter. She loved her, prayed for her, and cared for her just as much when this girl married and had her own children as she did when she was but a little girl growing up on the farm. You feel for them in their problems, you cry with them in their sorrows, you laugh with them in their joys, you worry with them in their uncertainties... It is a relationship which never ends.

Now I have three adult, gulp, adult children. They make their own decisions but they call on me for help, advice, and ideas. They are making their own place in the world. They are accepting responsibility. They are not mirror images of me or their mother. They do not always think or act or speak like me or my wife. But the days of baby sitters or curfews are long gone.

Yet they are still my children. The older they get, the bigger the choices before them and the problems life (and sometimes they) dump on their doorsteps. I will always love them as my children. I hurt when they hurt. I cry when they cry. I laugh when they laugh. I worry with them when they are anxious.

Whether you are a good parent or a not so good parent, a good child or a not so good child, through this relationship we learn to understand what it means when John reminds us that we are God's children -- that is exactly what we are. And when Jesus invites us to pray saying "Our Father." And what Luther meant when he wrote, "God would by these words tenderly invite us to believe that He is our dear father and we are His dear children."

We are His children. Just as we are wounded for our kids, He bears our wounds. He hurts when we hurt. He laughs when we laugh. He knows our fears as well as we know them. This is not simply an image of how God is toward us, God is our Father. We are His children.

The great dimension of His love for us is revealed in such a simple statement. We are God's child and God is our Father. It is this Fatherly love that was not content with sin's distance or death and which moved the heart of the Father to send His Son/ It is this great love which moved the Son to willingly embrace all our weakness and sin so that once again we might be known as God's own children.

I have adult children and yet sometimes the most secure I feel in life is when I talk to my parents about what is going on, about the problems I am facing, asking their wisdom, inviting their prayers... It is not that God's relationship is a bigger form of this relationship... but that our earthly relationship is a shadow of God's relationship to us...

I am long past the days of living at home with my parents but one of the great comforts of my life is knowing that I will always be their children... The gift of this adopted relationship into God's family which is accomplished in Christ Jesus gives me the same assurance of love, security, and peace. The greatest comfort of my life lies in knowing that by baptism and faith I will always be God's child. This is what grace is meant to feel like...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Change and Adaptation

Remember the words to "Abide with Me?" "Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me..."

There are several ways to approach this change all around. Some would run away from it. Some would ignore it as if nothing had changed. Some would cautiously explore the changes to see if they needed to change because of the changes. Some would welcome change and become agents of change. Some would quickly drop the status quo embrace what is new just because it was new or different.

For the record, I have read, "Who Moved the Cheese," and as interesting as that book was, I am not sure the Church is in the same position as a business still selling vhs machines in a blu ray world.

I suggest there is another alternative. That alternative is to adapt what you have and who you are to the changes (as best you can without losing who you are and what you have). It seems to me that many churches today are changing. They are changing Scripture so that it fits what people think (about sex, about happiness, about family, about sin, about life, about death...). They are changing worship so that it is more what people want out of worship (spectators, entertainment, upbeat themes focused on success and achievement, pop music, comfortable theater seating, Star Bucks on the narthex, uh entry). They are changing the Church (into a self help group, a therapeutic session, a rally to pump up sagging spirits).

A wise man once said, "The Church who marries the spirit of the age will find herself a widow in the next generation..."

We do not need to change -- but we do need to adapt. The fact that you are reading this pastoral blog on the Internet is adaptation to change -- this is how people shop, communicate, learn, and connect today. So we adapt to use the medium without changing the message.

When I began as a Pastor, people expected that I would spend a significant amount of time visiting members in their homes, having coffee, talking about what was going on... Today the home is less a place open to people than it is the place you go to get away from folks. We watch cooking shows that tell us how to entertain but for more and more of us we heat up prepared foods in the microwave and seldom sit down as an entire family at the same time. These families don't want a Pastor dropping by but they will meet me for coffee before work, email me their situation and ask for help, call me on the cell phone... So Pastor's adapt. The older folks, like me, who grew up in a different world, think Pastors waste too much time on the phone or in their offices or on the computer. But that is the way people connect, communicate, and learn today. So we adapt.

The Church always needs to adapt. Language changes so we carefully adapt to those changes so that the Gospel may speak clearly to the mind and heart of the hearer (less use of the traditional language of justification, etc. and more descriptive methods of saying what one word used to say). Technology changes (though, believe me, the Church is always about 5-10 years behind) so we have a web site (which about 30-40 NEW people hit on each month)... and we send info out by email and PDF documents where we used to use snail mail... and we have services and sermons on cds so that people can listen in their cars or homes to Sunday morning...

The Church needs to adapt. Women are in the workplace today so we need to work Bible studies and church activities around the demands of work. For example, our VBS is held in the evenings and preceded by a meal precisely because many of the teachers work during the day and cannot teach except in the evening and the kids have no transportation to the Church during the day until evening when mom or dad comes home...

Adapt, yes.... Change, no... A nuance of difference that makes all the difference...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Results Oriented

"I'm a bottom line kinda person," the man said to me. "Just cut to the chase and give me the bottom line..." Maybe you are a bottom line kind of person, too. Sometimes when I try to explain things to my kids or described what is wrong with my wife's car, I get from them the look that says, "Just tell me what you want me to do..." or "I just want to know how much it will cost..."

Business needs bottom line kinds of people -- not the ivory tower folks but the bean counters who can tell you at the drop of the hat how much the widget costs, what would it cost to change it, how long it will take to set up the factory and ship to retail, and how much they can expect to make on each widget. I understand that. But in the Church, the bottom line can confuse and distort who we are and what we are about.

Some have tried to make the chief concern the bottom line. Every year I send a summary of Grace Lutheran Church to the national office in St. Louis. Most of the information they ask for is "bottom line" sort of info. How many members do you have now? How many did you start the year with? How many new members? How many members lost, died, transferred? How much was your income? How much were your expenses? How much for at home needs? How much for missions?

Church meetings are often about the bottom line. How much money do we have to raise? Are we ahead? Are we behind? Do we have money left over at the end of the year? What is our attendance? Were there more at Christmas last year than this year?

Of course we need to be concerned about these things. But can the life of the Church be summarized simply by numbers? Can the whole the Church's life be defined by how much money comes in the plate or how many folks were there on a given Sunday? Let me explain a few things.

We live in a highly mobile culture and an even more highly mobile community (Clarksville). I recently looked back over the last dozen or so years at how many new people came through the door and how many left. I was startled to find out that if 2 of every 3 people had stayed right here in Clarksville and not moved, we would have some 900 people on a Sunday morning instead of under 300. Every year we need to bring in some 30-40 families each year just to keep the same size -- all due to the high number of those who move (due to military and industry).

Naturally it is my goal to increase our average attendance every year... but the reality is that you cannot simply look at the bottom line to see if we grew or not. There are other things we much take into account.

Add to that questions of faithfulness -- were we faithful in preaching the Gospel, in sharing the faith, in using His gifts, in administering the Sacraments...

If the bottom line is the only thing we consider, we could get rid of objectionable parts of the Scriptures and proclaim only what is popular... We could turn the focus of worship from God to us... We could transform from being participants to spectators... We would stop talking about sin and death and start talking about happiness and pleasure... the bottom line would improve but at what cost?

Faithfulness requires many things... it means faithful labor and work... faithful teaching and truth... faithful participation and service... And the promise underneath this faithfulness is that if we are faithful, God will do as His promises and His Word will bring forth the fruit He intends... Maybe not when or where we see it but in His time and according to His will... And this is true not only of the Church but of our daily lives as Christian people.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Never Believe in an ISM

There is that great line from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Ferris is in the shower and drops off this little bit of wisdom. "Never believe in an ISM." It is simple and yet profound. Think communISM, socialISM, capitalISM, humanISM. . . Never believe in an ISM.

The Church is not an ISM -- though some try to make her into one. Some try to make the Church a movement for moralism as if the whole purpose of Jesus Christ was to lead us to behave better. Indeed the whole history of the Church has been a pendulum swing from one ism to another -- from rationalism that is mind over matter to pietism which is feeling over mind and a few dozen other isms thrown in for good measure.

Some have made evangelism the main purpose for the life and being of the Church. As good as it is, it is still an ism. The Church of Jesus Christ does NOT exist to make disciples. There I have said it and am waiting to be tarred and feathered. Until the buckets of tar are heated up let me unpack what I mean by this.

God makes disciples. We do not. The Church of Jesus Christ does not exist to make disciples because we cannot do this. We certainly can and should witness to Jesus Christ, speak the Gospel in words and deeds, show forth the reason for our joy and give defense of the hope that is in us. But even this is NOT the main or chief reason for the Church's life and existence.

The Church of Jesus Christ exists to worship the Triune God, a worship made possible only in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our mission activities are the means by which God expands the number of those who worship Him. The Word and the Sacraments are the means of grace through which we and the whole world are called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified to be God's own and to live under Him in His kingdom -- a life of worship that has its source and summit in the worship He makes possible.

Some have made the chief and indeed the only purpose of the Church to bring others to know Jesus Christ -- yet this is something we cannot do. This is not just semantics here. This is not a word game. Evangelism is not the domain of committees or programs within the Church. Evangelism is the work of the Spirit -- first and always. It is the grace of God that we are invited to participate in this work by making known the good news of Him who has called us from darkness into His marvelous light. It is the grace of God that God works not through magic but through ordinary means (if evangelism were a sacrament we would be the earthly element but the grace would still come through the Word). It is a marvelously inefficient way for God to work but it is the way He has chosen. Yet even so, evangelism is the raison'd'tre for the Church.

God has called His Church into being to live in communion with Him -- a communion made possible only because He bore the burden of our distance from Him. He lived the obedient life we were to live and died the sacrificial death that paid the price for sin and rose to bestow the only life stronger than death. The Church is the means of grace through He bestows His gifts so that we might be His people, that we might worship Him in Spirit and truth, and serve Him in willing obedience.

I get nervous evertime people (usually preachers) start heaping guilt upon us about all those bound for hell unless we get off our cans and do something. I get uneasy by those well-meaning mission statements which boldly proclaim it is our mission to make disciples of all nations. This only confuses what God does and what we do (or cannot do).

The Church exists to know Jesus Christ where He has chosen to be known -- through His Word and Sacraments. The Church exists to draw us into the life of Christ so that we might be His own and live in communion with the Father through Him. The Church is the domain of the Spirit for we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him. We are utterly dependent upon the Spirit to teach our fearful hearts faith and to keep trust in Christ alive in us.

It is not that I am not concerned about our witness -- I am greatly concerned with those who do not yet know the goodness of the Lord as He has revealed it in His Son. But we do a marked disservice to the Gospel and the Church of Jesus Christ when we take upon ourselves what is His to do.

Remember when Scripture says, "As oft as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes?" In other words, the most profound witness we make to the world is heeding the call of the Spirit to be gathered in His name, in His house, around His Word and Supper. Everything else flows from this... not the other way around.

If evangelism is our chief cause and purpose as the Church, then rightfully anything and everything which gets in the way of this purpose we must be willing to sacrifice for the sake of making disciples of all nations. That means everything. Is it God's will and desire that we "become all things to all men" by becoming nothing specific at all? St. Paul's words must be seen in the context of his rebuke of false spirits, false sacraments, false gospels, and false teachers who make everyone feel better and pack the pews but are empty of the hope and redemption which is Jesus Christ.

By the way, Matthew 28:18-20 is not the seat of doctrine for the Church. God does not establish His Church by the Great Commission. The Church is established in Jesus Christ and by Him to be the place where His Word and Sacraments make Him known. "Where two or three are gathered in My name [that is where His name is -- around Word and Sacrament], there I am in the midst of them..." Indeed Matthew 28 confronts us with the truth that we do not make any disciples. Go... make disciples... HOW? By baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all things I have commanded you... In other words, by preaching/teaching the Word of Christ and administering the sacraments of Christ.

The Church must resist the great temptation to make herself an ism -- she is the Body of Christ, the domain of the Spirit working through Word and Sacrament, to call and gather and enlighten people to know the Lord through His Son and to be sanctified in Christ by the power of His Spirit.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Apt to Teach

Scripture reminds us that one of the qualifications of a Pastor is that he be apt to teach. We use that word in different ways. Apt can mean prone to. Here is definitely means able to. Teaching is different that preaching. I know some great preachers who are terrible teachers -- and the other way around. Preaching and teaching are two things that Pastors do regularly so it is fair to assume that they might improve in these areas with time and experience (though not always so).

I have had some marvelous teachers over the span of some 20 years in school (elementary, junior high, high school, college, and seminary). Some have been big name people who have authored books and are known as experts in their fields. Others have been relatively anonymous. One teacher in particular stands out in my mind. His name is Dr. George Fry. I can still recall some of the classes in which he kept me and the rest of us galvanized by his marvelous teaching ability, his grasp of the subject, and his sheer delight in the teaching task.

As a student, I know from personal experience it is not just about how much you know that makes you an apt teacher. It is also a gift and a skill in communicating what you know. It involves knowledge of people (in general if not the specific folk listening to you) and it is involves an awareness of the culture and times around you.

A teacher needs to place himself or herself into the teaching but in such a way that he or she elevates and supports what is taught and does not distract from it. Teaching is a very personal experience and the person of the teacher is part of the teaching process (though not in any way dominant). A little humor can help but it is always good if the humor is self-deprecating (like the way Reagan joked more about himself that others).

The point of the teacher is not to impress the student with his or her knowledge or mastery of the subject material but to communicate that material so that the student will hear, understand, and be able to apply that knowledge.

My teaching ability is affirmed most when people hear what is said and digest it so that they can use it to teach others. Recently someone said that they took a point from one of my Bible classes and hoped to recall it and use it because it crystalized what this passage meant.

Parents are teachers whether they wish to admit it or not -- the teaching of a parent is much like the teaching of a Bible study. Your point is not to impress the learner or simply impart information. Your point is to help the child grow in knowledge, understanding, and application. That is what Pastors do when they teach Bible study. We teach so that the learner will grow in knowledge, in understanding, and finally in application of the Truth of God's Word to their daily lives in Christ.

All of life is an educational process -- a divinely intended environment of learning, growth, maturation, and application of God's truth to my life. If the teaching is successful, he will be learning at least as much if not more than the learner through this process. And so it is with me. Every class begins with the desire to teach others and in the process I learn, grow, understand, mature, and apply God's truth to my life. If only I could predict it a bit more and sustain/retain it all... But none of us has a line of progression that is linear or consistently upward. It is a series of starts, stops, declines and advances. That is why we never grow out of a need to learn. This is especially true of Christian faith and life but also applicable to all of our life as people.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What Does a Pastor Do After Church?

Some folks are always curious about the oddest things. I was asked recently, "Pastor, what do you do after you finish at Church?" Let me begin by saying that I am not as wild and crazy as I once was -- be that good or bad. So it is all rather routine.

Today I listened to The Splendid Table on NPR as I drove down the road. I saw the gas gauge was on empty (didn't know how long it had been there) so I made an executive decision and stopped for gas. When I arrived home, I put on my street duds, talked to the family, and took my lovely wife and daughter on an outing to Kroger for a few groceries (always ends up being more than a few). I got a bug about making lasagna so after we packed things into the larder, I set out to accomplish my Italian gastronomic delight.

I boiled some noodles, processed some sausage, fiddled with some jar sauce, whipped an egg into the ricotta, opened the bags of shredded mozzarella, chopped some fresh parsley and then assembled it all. It was too much (I tend to over prepare) and made a small one for the freezer as well. Popped it into the oven and when I took it out to rest, popped in a pan of brownies. Then we ate (good but some thought the sausage a little hot and spicy).

Cooking on Sunday afternoons is my favorite wind down -- a long with reading every page of the Sunday paper (which is less and less of a feat each year for The Leaf Chronicle).

When I say wind down, what I mean is that after being so busy with things on Sunday morning, it seems a little strange for me to just sit. Often I take a Sunday nap (age has taken its toll on me -- no, wait, I enjoyed a nap when I was 29, too). It seems strange to me to have been the mountain top, so to speak, and then, boom it is over. So I often try to busy myself with things so that the let down is not as abrupt. The truth is that I hate it when the liturgy is over.

It is ever so sad to walk through a building once brimming with people but now silent except for the creaking and groaning of expansion and wind. I want it to go on. I want to sing the hymns again, to listen again to the lessons read, to hear God's people pray (Lord, in Your mercy... hear our prayer), and to walk from person to person ("The body of Christ for you, Tom... Jan..."). What a sad sound when the bellows lets go of the reservoir of air that once made the pipes sing. It is over... for now.

The mass is ended. Go in peace. Serve the Lord. It reminds of the hymn, "Too soon we rise, the vessels disappear..." It is always too soon for me... so a minute to rest and read the paper and then to find some business to distract me from the fact so sad to me... The mass is ended. Go in peace. Serve the Lord.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Memorable Music

I listened again to Doyle's Non Nobis that is the background for the memorable victory scene in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V.... From Psalm 113, the words say "not unto us, Lord, not unto us but to thy Name be all the glory.." It is marvelous how in the scene the King demurs about gloating over a victory in which more than 18,000 French died but only 25 English... No, the glory is not ours, the King insists but God's... and then as he carries the dead body of a boy and they clear the battlefield of the fallen, one single voice sings "non nobis Domine..."

Music is a powerful medium. It is used to convey an attitude, to speak a message without words, to bring emotion to bear, and to support words so that they soar in memorable melody as well as phrase... For this reason, music must be carefully chosen for it can easily overpower the words. Think of the burning image of the movie "10" and Ravel's Bolero -- the music has been tied to an erotic and sensual image that overpowers everything else about the piece.

So how do we choose music for worship? Is it the music we like to hear? Music that is relevant to us (contenporary)? Music that achieves its desired result or outcome (inspiring, calming, etc.)? OR is it music that marries the text of the Word to sound that makes it but one medium -- music that is a tonal expression of the words being sung?

This is what Luther says is music's purpose and the burden that must be born by those who choose music for worship. When this music is successful, it invites the voice to sing out it and makes within the heart a place for what the Words say and the music conveys -- a lasting melodic form to Word that transcends the moment. It matters not if this music is baroque or romantic or victorian or modern (or contemporary) -- when it does this, it has achieved the purpose for which God established it and man's creative ability has been harnessed for its Divine purpose.

For me this happens with Jerry Coleman's The Lamb as well as with Franck/Cruger's Jesus Priceless Treasure as well as with Starke/Holst We Praise You and Acknowledge You...

When it happens in the secular world, we call it magic... when it happens in worship we call it mysterion -- an almost sacramental moment... God help it to happen every time we gather in the Lord's name and in the Lord's House...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Disaster Lies Before Us

"We live in the days when overthrow of the Churches seems immanent..." Can you guess who wrote those words? There is no shortage of voices today echoing that sentiment. In our own Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, our President spoke to us of the "trouble" in "River City" threatens the work of the kingdom and the very well-being of our Church. In blogs across the world, people post complaint after complaint, express frustration after frustration, and offer insistent directions of what "must be done."

They are not unlike the conversations that take place in congregations across our country and within our Synod where people are faced with more empty pews, fewer children in Sunday school, declining enrollments in parochial schools, and shrinking dollars.

We have no shortage of voices expressing the fear that disaster will soon be upon us. Some of those folks are angry because the Church seems so slow to change, so slow to react to change, and increasingly irrelevant to a fast changing world. Some of those folks are frustrated because the Church has changed too much and given too much to the call to be new and different ("not your grandfather's church/Oldsmobile"). Some are the purists whose greatest difficulty with the Church is that she is made up of mortals, sinful mortals, who constantly disappoint and betray the pure ideals of what the Church of Jesus Christ should be.

By the way, that quote came from Basil the Great (died 379 AD).

Only three centuries removed from the time when Jesus and His disciples walked and talked and doom and gloom were foreseen with often smug certainty. Well, baloney. I would say another word (one born of life on a farm but some of you city folk might think it impudent). Baloney! "The gates of hell shall not prevail against [My Church]..." says Jesus.
Disaster? Immanent overthrow? Don't you believe it. The Church has always been one generation away from complete annihilation and she always will. The guarantee of the Church's existence is NOT what we do to change or react to change around us. The guarantee of the Church's continue life is Christ. He speaks not as One outside who protects something inside but as the Head of the Body, the One in whom the Church has here life and being. It is because Christ is within her that she shall not be overcome.

Would it be nice if we were making visible gains against secularism or false religions? Sure. I have no argument there. I wish the graph of new members, people in Bible study and children in Sunday school, and finances were a steady incline, a steady and dramatic incline UP... But that is not what insures the continued existence of the Church that Jesus Christ calls His own. He is what makes it true.

As Christian people, we would be helped immensely if we had a bit more confidence in Jesus Christ. First of all, we might sleep a little better. We might act not out of desperation but out of faith. We might be more authentic in speaking of our hope. And we might pay more attention to that by which the Church grows, matures, and accomplishes her God's given task -- the Word and the Sacraments.

So if you hear me talking as if I were Pastor Chicken Little insisting the sky is falling, tell me to take some more time with the Book and to pay attention to what it says... and if I hear you crying out doom and gloom, you will know why I will tell you the same thing... We live in days when the overthrow of the churches seems immanent, but don't you believe it...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Many Gifts...

Every Sunday I see the congregation in a very different way than the people around them see. I look into hundreds of faces -- all ages, very different backgrounds, diverse situations... On any given Sunday morning I can see the tension in a single mother's face who fought to get her children with her to Church that morning. Around her sits a man whose once fluid movements are now painful and jerky but his face still seems to glow at making it to God's House one more day. I see the carefree looks on a young couple so new to their love that nothing else seems to matter to them. Behind them sits a single soldier who is in that pew every Sunday he is not deployed or on duty -- a marvelous dedication for a 22 year old guy whom others might think has better things to do with his time. I gaze upon people who have spent most of their adult life in this congregation and others whose lives and their lives in Christ have barely begun. There are children who love to acolyte and they are carefully watching (and probably unkindly critiquing) the job the current acolytes are doing. There are folks looking around for new faces because they want to make sure they welcome them and others so intent upon the sights and sounds of the chancel that they appear to be looking right through me.

But there are other things I see. I see many gifted and talented people. Teachers who can touch a child's heart and mind in the most special of ways. Wise individuals who do not speak often but I always listen when they do. Effective planners who are always dreaming -- never bothering to wait for one to finish before they have begun a new one. Folks with green thumbs (and fingers, and toes, and...) who know how to turn a cement court into a flowering courtyard. There are the tired who have fought many battles and are now more prone to go along than get their way and those so excited they want everyone to think and see things just like they do. I see people who know much of God's Word and who are always at Bible study to learn more. Among them are several special folks who see every problem as a mission and every trouble as an opportunity. Their hope and exuberance have won over many a skeptic. There are those who have learned the Kingdom of God was there before they came along and will still be there after they are gone. They seem a good balance for those who want to do everything in the next ten minutes.

I see these folks week after week after week. They inspire me. It is their presence that forces me to make sure that in Word and Liturgy, in Gospel and Sacrament, I serve them as faithfully as I know how -- offering the richness of a deep tradition with the vitality of today. I am inspired by them to preach faithfully (often finding small ways to improve the 8:15 sermon at the 10:45 service -- because to do less would demean those whom God calls His own).

I hope they too are inspired -- to offer their best... to get involved in the work of the Kingdom as well as the worship... to place their talents and abilities in service to the Lord where He multiplies for His purpose and accomplishes His task with the energy, gifts, and faithful responses we offer to Him.

In the end, there are only winners when we mutually inspire one another to aspire to our best for His glory... It is the way God works and builds His kingdom. Maybe not the most efficient but it is His way... and every now and then as I look out over all the faces, I remember to say "Praise be the Triune God!" for every one of them... for every one of YOU!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Finished But Not Complete

Someone once told me that if you want people to evaluate a Pastor, pick housewives (or house husbands). They explained that Pastors do pretty much the same things week after week and often have little concrete results to show for all their labors. You finish one sermon and begin another. You finish one class and begin teaching another. You finish visiting the sick and begin visiting again the next day. Housewives (and house husbands) understand this because their work is repeated in the same way. They finish laundry and begin a new load. They finish cleaning and begin it anew. The finish cleaning up only to start cooking and serving a meal again...

In contrast to this there are many men and women whom I know whose work leads to concrete results. For example, we have some builders in our congregation who can drive down a road and say "I built that house." We have teachers who watch children come and go and can say, "I taught that boy English or that girl algebra." We have nurses who can say, "I worked to bring that person from near death to life" as that person walks out of the hospital.

As I thought about this, I began to realize that in contrast to the concrete results, Christian life is repetitious. We do the same things day in and day out and often it seems we are making little headway. Like the ever growing pile of laundry, we look in vain for signs that we have improved or become better or holier. We confess our sin, receive absolution, only to sin and require confession and absolution again. We finish one prayer only to begin another.

Sometimes as Pastors, we become disappointed that we have no concrete results -- we cannot always point to the ever increasing numbers of members or financial figures. Sometimes they even decline. As Christians we are in the same boat. Our lives in Christ are not clean lines of improvement in behavior, piety, holiness or even faith. We gain and lose every day -- the cycle of repentance that defines our Christian lives acknowledges this movement back and forth.

But that is okay. We finish but are not complete -- in other words, we end one task or one day in our Christian lives (as lay people or Pastors) and we acknowledge that we are still not complete. So at night we rest in the confidence -- not that we are completed -- but that for now, we are finished -- until God begins His work in us anew with morning comes.

As time goes by I find this more comforting and less frustrating. Maybe I have gotten used to it all... or maybe I have learned in this to be content, knowing that I may finish a few things but God has not completed His work in me or through me... until that day comes when I close my eyes in sleep here on earth and awaken them in glory in heaven.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vessels of God's Grace

Carl Daw was born in Kentucky and spent most of his young life in Tennessee following around his father, a Baptist preacher. He taught English for a number of years before entering an Episcopal seminary (University of the South, Sewanee). He served three congregations before working with the committee that produced The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal) and, since 1996, ha served as Executive Director of the Hymn Society of America.

The Lutheran Service Book includes four of his compositions but this hymn (#678) is one of my favorites. It is notable for being in the section of "The Church Triumphant." It speaks of those unknown and unnoticed saints who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and lived out their lives without drawing much attention to themselves. They were content merely to serve as "vessels of God's grace."

There is something quite profound in these anonymous saints. No cathedrals or country churches are named after them. They are gone and mostly forgotten (except to God). This is not some sad and regrettable thing -- it is not like they are due justice for the forgetful memory of the Church. They were content to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ and sought out none of the limelight. To us they are unsung but to the Father in heaven they are His beloved.

Since I fall into the class of the relatively anonymous saints and most of God's people whom I have served can be characterized this way, I take heart to the poet's words. They describe a certain humble nobility of those living stones whom God has used to build up His House. Every day I aspire to be the kind of person that Daw wrote about -- the bereft of earthly fame, the faithful one who offers back his life to God in whatever circumstance we are in. And is content. To God be the Glory!

We Sing for All the Unsung Saints

1 We sing for all the unsung saints,
That countless, nameless throng,
Who kept the faith and passed it on
With hope steadfast and strong
Through all the daily griefs and joys
No chronicles record,
Forgetful of their lack of fame,
But mindful of their Lord.

2 Though uninscribed with date or place,
With title, rank, or name,
As living stones their stories join
To form a hallowed frame
Around the myst’ry in their midst:
The Lamb once sacrificed,
The Love that wrested life from death,
The wounded, risen Christ.

3 So we take heart from unknown saints
Bereft of earthly fame,
Those faithful ones who have received
A more enduring name:
For they reveal true blessing comes
When we our pride efface
And offer back our lives to be
The vessels of God’s grace.

(c) Hope Publishing Company; Used by permission. OneLicense.Net A707981

Monday, July 13, 2009

Another Monday Morning

I know many Pastors take Monday as their day off. I suppose there is some logic in it -- given the busy weekends that are part of the schedule of most clergy. Mondays are not my favorite days in general. Based on half a century of experience, it is my considered opinion that the end of the world will occur on a Monday, sometime about mid-day, when despair takes over and you have an idea how the whole week will be going.

I do not take Mondays off -- I prefer to face the music when it comes rather than post-pone it all by 24 hours. I am not sure whether that makes me a coward, a hero, or a fool. You can choose.

On Mondays Pastors reflect upon all the things that were whispered to them as people passed by the door shaking hands after the Sunday liturgy. "Did you know..." or "Did you hear..." or "I hate to be the one to tell you this but..." It sometimes seems overwhelming. But I am glad to hear of it all -- not the bad news -- but that God's people tell me what is going on in their lives and what burdens they bear in their hearts. It is a sign of their trust in their Pastor that they tell me these things. It is also a sign of confidence that with prayer and the labor of God's people, some of these burdens may, indeed, be lifted.

Administrative details seem to dominate Monday's agenda but my heart is back at the door where people speak in hushed tones of the family members hospitalized or the loved ones who have gone on to be with the Lord or family struggles or of impending moves or of jobs that disappeared or of children going through trials... My heart is back at the door because that is where I identify most as a Pastor -- being with people in their troubles and trials and being with them in the place where we are powerfully reminded, "I am with you," says the Lord.

Most folks do not expect me to fix the trouble or make it go away. They are generally willing to suffer the burdens of life in this world but they do not want to be alone. So they invite me into their hurts, wounds, pains, and sorrows. Even as they invite the Lord into these by their prayers. On the whole it is a most salutary thing -- to ask the Lord to stand with you when you find it hardest to stand at all... to ask your Pastor to stand with you as well...

I willingly admit I am no miracle worker. But, if invited, I will always stand with God's people in their pains and losses. On Monday morning my prayers go up to His throne of grace on their behalf -- for things I know and for causes and concerns not yet fully known to me. Sometimes all it takes is the look on a member's face for me to know. Pray for him or her today.

The administrative details that dominate Monday morning are part of the necessary burdens of the office of Pastor but the remembrances of those little whispers shared at the door -- well that is part of the delight of the office -- I join you in standing before the Lord in whom we have grace sufficient for all of life's day and even the whole week.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Little Light

The world is filled with darkness. An acquaintance of mine wrote a book chronicling his bout with clinical depression. That is darkness. I spent some time with a family going through a divorce. That is darkness. Another report of a family in the parish which has lost income due to the economic times. That is darkness. Weeks of attention given to Michael Jackson. However great his talent, his life was lived in the darkness of many troubles, trials, illnesses and addictions. Open the Sunday newspaper -- darkness adorns the headlines and not only on page one.

But there is a little light. Right here on Sunday morning the Light shines. Jesus Christ is here in the vehicles of His Word, His Water, His Voice of Absolution, and His Table. The darkness has surrounded us but it has not overcome us. Christ the Light is here. He forgives our sins and lifts the load of so much guilt. He reminds us that we belong to Him in baptism. He nourishes our weakened faith by the voice of hope and the table of grace. He gives us His very self -- body and blood in bread and wine. There is a little Light even in so much darkness.

We carry that Light of Christ with us through the doors as we head home, to work, to school, to the store, to the park, and everywhere else. We shine with borrowed light -- the light is not ours but Christ's. We don't have to come up with light -- we mere reflect the Light of Christ we have experienced in this wonderful Sunday morning mystery called the Divine Service. We reflect back to Him and to those around us... the Word that forgives, restores, and releases... the promise of baptism that gives new life to what was dead... the fellowship of a family called, gathered, and enlightened by the Spirit so that He might work His holiness in and among us...

A little Light... Thanks be to God!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

New! Quick! Easy!

I just glanced at some junk mail that came to the Church. It ranged from NEW confirmation programs to QUICK ways to build up financial giving to an EASY way to set up a web page (and this one also mentioned it was inexpensive). Even in the Church we are attracted to things new, things quick, and things easy --and if they are cheap, well, then they are even better.

I guess that is the way of life. We spend extra money on new things and even wait in line for them. We all love things quick (from weight loss to meal prep). We want to be able to do thinks quickly -- without waiting (from learning a language to playing a musical instrument). And who does not love a bargain.

But... It strikes me that few things worthy while are new, quick, and easy. In fact the most important lessons in life are things tried and true, things that take an investment of time and energy, and things that require something of us.

The same is true of Christian faith and Christian worship. Some folks worry about faith and worship being made too difficult for new people. Some are all bent out of shape because the hymns need to be learned, the liturgy is unfamiliar, and even the language is jargon that must be learned anew. I must confess that I do not worry much about this at all. To be sure, I worry that we are not welcoming, that we are not attentive to new folks and that we are often unwilling to take them under our wing and teach them -- but I seldom worry that it is not new, quick or easy.

Just the opposite -- I worry that we make faith and life in Christ too easy. So easy that when the first trouble or trial rounds the bend, the people are quick to dump their new found faith because it was not as easy as they had been led to believe.

Christian faith is hard -- recall the disciples always saying to Jesus "This is a hard saying -- what does it mean?" Faith is hard not because it requires so much from us -- the Spirit does the heavy lifting here. Faith is hard because it requires of us that we let go of our incessant demand to control and manipulate. Faith is waiting upon the Lord -- Lord knows we don't like waiting.

Worship is not quick or easy. I resent the unwritten rule of 59 minute worship services. We spend more time than that in the bathroom in a given day. Why must God punch a time clock? We spend in worship the time we need to spend to be fair to His Word read and proclaimed and to be fair to His Table. We do not rush things -- when you rush them you miss too much a long the way. And it is not easy. It takes repetition and doing it many times over before it becomes easy. That is not wrong -- it just is. So I counsel new folks to come often and participate fully for a long while before making any judgments.

Christian faith is not new; we do not reinvent the wheel every time we get in a car -- neither do we reinvent our lives of worship every time we walk through the door to the Church. We take was has come before us. We add to it from the best of the present age. We pass on to those yet to come this richness of tradition and the best from the present. Christian faith is not quick -- it is not like learning the rules to a new game. Faith is a long process of becoming where God is the power and the agent at work in us by baptism. Through Him, with Him and in Him we live out the life restored to us as a gift of Christ in baptism. It is always a work in progress -- at least until we fall asleep in the arms of our Savior only to awaken to eternal life. Christian faith is not easy. It requires from us the hardest thing that we do -- confession, repentance, and dependence upon grace.

So you won't find any promises of some thing NEW this Sunday... or something quick (instantaneous self-gratification)... or something easy... We will work at receiving what has been passed down to us, work at the practice of this thing call Christian life, and buckle down to give our all to singing, speaking, praying, and serving.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Money Pit

Remember the Tom Hanks movie by that name? It was a disaster story -- everything that could go wrong did go wrong with their picture perfect house. I laughed at the movie. Now my house is 17 years old and I am not laughing any more.

In the past two weeks I have washed down the fascia and soffits with bleach (mildew), painted the fascia and soffits, painted half the windows, painted the shutters, replaced one window sill starting to rot due to moisture damage, and the list of projects is still a mile long.

While here on earth we need heavy duty maintenance -- on houses 17 years old (or younger or older) and even bodies 55 years old (or younger or older). We need heavy duty maintenance to try to make the things of this world last for their anticipated life span. It is not that these things are eternal -- they will all pass away -- houses, cars, furniture, computers, internet, and our bodies. A little maintenance and things will age more gracefully. But we need more than paint or even major body work. We need a new life and a new home.

Thanks be to God who gives us just that -- a new life in which death is not the end and a place to dwell (without regular maintenance needed) that is eternal. This is the rich blessing of the Savior who promises mansions (rooms) prepared for us. This is the wonderful news of a crucified Lord who speaks to the guilty thief next to Him "Today, with Me, in Paradise..." This is what gives hope to the maintenance modes we live in for now -- some day, by the grace of God, the promise will be fulfilled, and me and my life will be transformed... the old will have passed away and the new (read that the eternal) will have come.

I am tired of painting. Can't come too soon for me.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sunday Mornings vs the Rest of the Week

An acquaintance once told me how much he enjoys counseling in his service as a Pastor. I do some counseling (I prefer to call it pastoral care of the soul so that people understand I do not do the kind of therapy often assumed by the term counseling). But it is not a highlight of my service as Pastor. I enjoy teaching, but it, too, is not the center and high point of my service as Pastor. What I live for is what happens when the people of God come together around His Word and Table. The Sunday morning experience is what makes Mondays through Saturdays tolerable. I hope it is the same for the people in the pew.

Sunday is source and summit of our lives in Christ. It is the source of those lives in Christ as He comes to us through His Word and Sacrament. It is the summit to which our lives look (and return) at the end of the week. It is this weekly rhythm of source and summit that defines me as a baptized Christian and as an ordained Pastor.

Sunday afternoons find me tired -- the older I get the more I enjoy a little Sunday afternoon nap -- but it is a good tired. I have seen the majority of the flock under my care. I have shared with them the Word of life, recalled them to the water of life that gave them new birth through confession and absolution, and fed them the food of eternal life in the Eucharist. Two full sung services on Sunday separated by a Bible class and countless short conversations, appointments made, and greetings shared -- you bet I am tired on Sunday afternoons. But it is the best tired of the week. It prepares me for Monday and keeps me going through Saturday. And then the cycle begins anew.

I look forward to Sundays most of all... And I hope and pray that God's people in my care have the same perspective.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Treasure of a Good Book

I love books. I have so many there is barely room for them in my office. I like looking for books in book stores, in used book shops, and on line. I like buying them. I can hardly wait for them to arrive when I have place my order. When I open a book for the first time it is the start of an adventure. Some of them are read as soon as they arrive. Others put away for some future spare moment. Still others are not meant to be read -- at least not in the sense of starting at the beginning and reading through to the end. They are to be referred to as one searches through an encyclopedia for information on a specific point.

An acquaintance is all excited about something called Kindle -- a library of 3,000 books in a little electronic tool with a screen that scrolls up the paragraphs. I like electronics but I cannot see that some device with a screen will ever replace the wonderful feel of a book in your hand or the joy of page quickly turned in anticipation of another, or the end of a chapter and the start of a new one. There is just something about paper sealed between two covers that makes it so inviting to me.

If the book is good, it is a sad thing when I turn the last page and the journey of words is ended. If the book is great, it is tragedy that can only be undone by a second reading, or a third. If the book is but mediocre, it is still not time lost or wasted. Sometimes what begins as a routine read becomes a great surprise -- the delight of a true treasure hidden among altogether ordinary words.

It is a good thing to like books, to love reading. God has given us a book, the Word in written form. In fact it is not just a book but a whole library of books -- some history, some poetry, some preaching, some correspondence. I find that sometimes when I look up something specific, I find myself distracted by a sentence I had not read exactly that way before. A few moments in God's Word becomes an hour of reading complete with verbal "ahhhs" and even a some "wows" thrown in. I find it hard to read just the appointed reading or to stick with verse at hand. The Word leads to more words and I guess that is exactly how it should be.

While living in New York, I listened to Dick Estell and the Radio Reader and heard novels read on the air. As I listened to him read, I noticed that there is big difference between hearing and reading. I caught things from listening that I missed when I read. Maybe it is because I read too fast or my comprehension level is not what it should be. Maybe it is because when you listen, you are dependent upon the reader and your mind cannot push ahead so easily.

Scripture is meant to be read, surely, but even more it is meant to be heard. It is a book whose words are most at home when they are spoken to us and we hear them fall from the lips of the reader. In the Orthodox Church readers read Scripture in place of what we in the West might call "preservice music." The readers read the Word of the Lord as the people enter and make their way to their place, while they pray, and as they prepare for the liturgy. It is a marvelous practice.

The lessons for each Sunday are generally printed out in most congregations (Lutheran and all types) -- as they are in mine. But I wish they were not. Scripture needs to heard as well as read. I understand why we have printed out the lessons but I still believe that we miss something by keeping our noses down on the paper instead of our ears up to hear the Word. Books in general and The Book are experienced best when we hold the covers in our hands and read down the page and when we close our eyes to listen -- in both instances savoring the words and The Word as treasures that make us rich beyond words.

So there you have it. Words. The Word. Written. And Heard.

Not Sermons, At Least Not Yet

I remember someone telling me once that thinking is a dangerous occupation. Perhaps. I find myself thinking a lot. While driving down the road, after reading a few lines from a book or a blog, while waiting in a phone que. Some of those thoughts are best forgotten. Some of them worth remembering. A few of them worth sharing. So I am going to take a few moments to share some of my random thoughts in a meandering conversation. It is my prayerful hope that they will spur on your own reflective thinking. Don't expect something profound. Occasionally I hope to say something worth remembering. If the regular duties of a Parish Pastor are urgent, you may not hear much from me. But I will try to give it a few minutes a week. Anyway, here it goes!