Friday, October 30, 2009

The Warm Embrace of the Church at the Funeral

A conversation with a funeral director revealed that 98% of his non-Roman Catholic funerals were at the funeral home. Although he personally liked having them at the church, his perspective was to give the grieving family what it wanted. As I listened to him I felt a great deal of sadness in which he said.

The whole notion of comfort in the time of loss has boiled down to giving the family what it wants. But isn't what the family wants to have life restored to the one who is dead? Or are we willing to settle for something else, something far less, something that makes us feel better in our moment of greatest need? As sad as death is, that we are willing to settle for anything less than life is sadder still.

If he is correct, then what makes us feel better is to spend our public grief in a place marked with death -- a place none of us would go to except death has called us there. If he is correct, then what makes us feel better is the satisfaction of having death covered up in make up and nice clothing, in a box befitting that person, surrounded by flowers. If he is correct, then what makes us feel better is sentimental music that makes the tears to flow. If he is correct, then what makes us feel better are eulogies instead of sermons, the past instead of the future. If he is correct, then what makes us feel better is getting it over with and going back to our lives.

How sad that so many are willing to settle for so little! In the moment of our grief, the place that should call us is the place where we sat together to hear the Word of God and where we knelt together to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord. In the moment of our grief, what will make us feel better is not a papering over of death's wound but the address of life within the room where Easter's news is celebrated with great joy each year. In the moment of our grief, what we need is not the past to comfort our sorrows but the real promise of life -- not some vague and uncertain life but the 'because He lives, we shall live..."

Thirty years ago you could find a cross, even a crucifix at funeral homes. Thirty years ago you saw in the funeral chapel an imitation of what folks might find in a church. Now even Christian families have given into video screens and living rooms to fill the void that death creates. How sad. The place that we need to be is the place that speaks to us Christ and His life. We need to walk past the font where the living waters first named us as God's own and imparted to us the mark of the resurrection to lives sin had marked for death. The surroundings that scream hope to us are the familiar surroundings of the pulpit where forgiveness, life and salvation are spoken and the Table where we feast upon heaven's bread and salvation's cup.

What have we done in ceding the role of comforter to the funeral home, its surroundings and its staff? Why do we Pastors not challenge more this idea that when death comes near we need to draw near to the sacred space where Easter hymns are sung, where the voice of the absolution rings out forgiveness, where names are written into the book of life through the baptismal pen, and where the wedding guest are fitted with the garments they need to wear for the blessed meal that celebrates the marriage seal between the mortal and Christ's immortality?

I must confess that I tell people over and over again where it is that Christians feel the warm embrace of hope in our time of loss, of the wisdom and blessing of being together in God's House when we lose someone we love. Yet somehow the press of culture and the culture of sentiment has distracted God's people from what I have to believe they know they should be to feel the warm embrace of hope and comfort at the funeral.

Of all the signs of how Protestant we have become as Lutheran Christians, the shift from the Church to the funeral home looms as a large one. How is it that we can settle for something less than all God seeks to give us in our time of loss? Why is it that we are content to be served by the professionals we do not know instead of the folks at Church whom we do know? What is it that draws us to the house of death when what we need is to be in the Lord's House of Life?

Yes, I know that you can proclaim the good news of the resurrection in a funeral home. I am not arguing that it is impossible to speak the Gospel in this setting. What I am arguing is that the Gospel is spoken in more than words when we gather in the House of the Lord to celebrate the end of the journey begun in baptism.

Tomorrow we will gather in the Lord's House for the funeral of one of our members and that is how it should be for those who belong to the Lord by baptism and faith. In the burial of the dead the Church places death in the context of the cross and empty tomb. In the liturgy of the funeral rite the Church extends the warm embrace of God to our grieving hearts and reminds us that we are not to grieve as those who have no hope. We are not ignorant but knowing -- we know death and we know Jesus Christ who is Lord even over death. So why is it so hard to get people of the Church to go there when death touches us or our loved ones?

For as long as I can remember the funeral home in the town where I grew up was small and awkward. There was only enough room to fulfill the essential duties of the funeral director to the body and the family. The church was the place where visitation took place. It was at the Church that the coffin was closed for the last time, the family ushered into the pews, the pall placed over the casket, and the strains of the hymn rise up as the body was brought in for one last time to the House of the Lord (here on earth). Now a new funeral home has been built and even on the plains of Nebraska where you cannot spit without hitting 20-30 Lutherans, the funeral home has become a funeral location.

I wish it were that our first thought was to be together in the church for the funeral instead of a living room of a funeral home. I wish that our first thought was to go where we first heard the familiar Scriptures that have spoken life and hope to us instead of the funeral home. I wish that our first thought was to be together in that place where our memories were formed at the font, the pulpit, and the altar rail, instead of bringing snapshots of those memories to a stranger's house.

98% of non-Roman Catholic funerals are held at the funeral home... Sighing, I admit that it may be an uphill battle... especially in the South... but the Church is where Christians ought to come to rejoice in the completion of what was begun at the font... where we Christians can learn again in faith to acknowledge with Paul, whether we life or die, we belong to the Lord... where we Christians can gather in our moment of loss and tie together our place on earth and the promise of heaven as every Sunday it is declared, "therefore, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising You and singing: Sanctus dominus deus sabaoth!

A Glimpse of Heaven

Most of us know of the oft repeated story of Russia's conversion to Christianity. It is said Vladimir consulted with Jewish envoys (who may or may not have been Khazars), and questioned them about their religion but ultimately rejected it, saying that their loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God. Ultimately Vladimir settled on Christianity. In the churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Constantinople, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported, describing a majestic Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, "nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it."

The charge that is placed against people like me is that I am arguing for a liturgical fussiness, that attention to the smallest elements of rite has clouded my judgment with respect to the greater goal of worship. So, some charge that the liturgy, its ceremonial, its music, its hymnody, and its pattern get in the way of the larger purpose of worship -- namely to bring at l east one single solitary soul to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. I have often heard people say that if ditching all of these can help bring one person into the church, it is worth it. Thus the worship wars are often evangelism wars with those in favor of contemporary worship basing their choice on expanding the kingdom vs those maintenance Pastors and congregations which seek merely to maintain the status quo. I have spoken about this elsewhere.

But I wonder if there is not another dimension to it all. Less and less does worship within most Protestant churches look like heaven and more and more does it resemble what part of this world we feel most comfortable in and we enjoy most of all. We like movies, we like theater, we like to watch (sports events, TV, movies, reality shows, DIY projects, cooking demos, pornography, poker, etc.). So we structure what happens on Sunday morning to fit this spectator perspective -- worship is passive, people don't sing much or talk much or do much, there are stars who speak to us, artists who bring the arts to us, etc. We have turned worship into the best entertainment Christianity can make. It is not evil or demonic but it neither is it anything like what Jesus was accustomed to, or what Jesus instituted in the Upper Room, or the Church has known and practiced for nearly 1900 years.

The perspective of Israel with its hidden altar, smokey incense, sacrificial gifts, sung Psalms and prayers, and church year was much closer to that glimpse of heaven the Russians saw in the Greek liturgy than to the entertainment venues popular today. In the same way, the early Christians gathered with this sense of mysterion, of a larger than life moment in which heaven's glory was delivered to earthly people and the surprise of grace revealed the hidden face of God in Word and Sacrament. Though decidedly less formal a setting than a baroque cathedral, it was still formal, still liturgical, still filled with mystery and awe. Read the extant accounts of those who participated and led the worship of the primitive church and you know exactly what I mean.

This glimpse of heaven is not of human manufacture. This is not a Christian version of a haunted house which defines heaven by what we see in our own hearts (the way the Halloween versions look into the fears within to scare us). No, the glimpse of heaven that comes to us on Sunday morning is from the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace by which God invades our ordinary with heaven's grace and glory. The glimpse of heaven that happens on Sunday morning is not the result of a well written worship service or highly skilled musicians or practiced leaders, it flows from and back to the means of God's presence which give us access to heaven's grace and heaven's glory. We glimpse heaven not because of the building or the pipe organ or the practiced ceremonial. We glimpse heaven in the Word which speaks forgiveness and life in Christ, in the cleansing water which drowns and gives life, in the rich food of a meal made extraordinary because the Body of Christ comes to us in bread and the Blood of Christ comes to us in wine.

Those who speak like me are not interested in liturgical fussiness but in the restoration of this glimpse of heaven to a world bound in earth's sin, suffering, struggles, sorrows, and death. It is a bad rap that we are only concerned about which way you turn or how you hold your hands or which page number you turn to... I used to hear people say snidely "are you a chancel prancer." But such a charge is not enough to cloud the basic issue before us. This smokescreen is tiresome and detracts from the central issue and focus of what happens on Sunday morning:

Is this where God comes to us in the means of His grace that deliver heaven to our earthly assembly,
is this where we generate a vision of God's presence that flows from and is directed to our feelings, context, and desires?

I personally grew up in a most unliturgical congregation that followed the hymnal religiously but had not a bit of ceremony. It was an anti-catholic perspective. BUT... despite the liturgical ambivalence of the people and their Pastor, heaven was there as the Word spoke its glorious truth within an orderly setting where the preacher did not overshadow the text and the occasional Sacrament was treated with reverence if not awe. Before I realized how to describe what happened there, I saw it and it is the ultimate reason I am a Pastor today. At each stage of the journey I have glimpsed this mystery -- from majestic chapels to ordinary auditoriums, from highly adorned sanctuaries to plain A-frame chapels.

I seldom have people tell me they had a wonderful time in worship but I have people say every week "I saw heaven open and the glory of God come down." I wonder what it is that people say from most Protestant worship experiences. Sadly, it maybe nothing more profound that the tag line at the end of the community news in my hometown paper... A good time was had by all...

What does it say when we have a great time but miss the glimpse of heaven and the foretaste of the feast to come which God offers us there?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rest in Peace Paul Manz

A million years ago a young boy on the plains of Nebraska heard for the first time the music of Paul Manz and his life was changed. It was me but it could be said of thousands of young men and women throughout the Lutheran Church who heard the passion, fire, and drive of this composer, organist, and improvisor. Like Bach so long ago who had become bored with the plodding way that the great Lutheran chorales had been played, Manz was intent upon revitalizing the place and role of hymnody within the Church. I wish I could recall which of his improvisation/publications I first heard. All I remember is that once I heard one, I had to hear more. He will be remembered for many things but I will remember him best for his hymn festivals in which the star was not the man at the console but the very hymn itself.

Some were short and simple and others were elaborate and well refined but the hymn improvisations of Paul Manz reflected his love for the text and the tune, the delight when you find that perfect marriage of text and tune, and the wonderful curiousity employed to reflect all the nuance of text and tune with the full tonal resources of the pipe organ.

His collaboration with Herman Schlicker brought so many new and exciting instruments to Lutheran congregations and schools. Although the acoustical environment of Mount Olive were not the best, it was this instrument that Paul and Herman built which impressed so many. The lush strings, sturdy principals, almost wicked mixtures, and fiery reeds made me want to have such an instrument. Though I will never be remembered for my musical ability, it is to the credit of people like Paul Manz that a new piipe organ has been installed in every congregation I have served. When I hear the 60 ranks of the instrument here at Grace Lutheran Church and watch Cantor Rocky Craft play Manz' Aria or Variations on O God, Our Help in Ages Past or his use of God of Grace and God of Glory to introduce the hymn, I think back to the first time I heard Paul Manz. The Church is richer by far for people who use their talents and skills to enrich what happens on Sunday morning -- a more noble pursuit I cannot imagine. So let me sing a Te Deum Laudamus for Paul as All Saints Day approaches.

Listen to his music and shout a "Thanks be to God."

The Good and the goods...

In conversation after conversation with folks about prayer, it is clear that we have somehow detached prayer from the Kingdom of God in such way that when people think of good, they think more of the goods they desire than THE good of the Kingdom come to sinners desiring forgiveness and the dying desiring life.

Whenever we read in Scripture of that which is "good" it is too easy to separate this from THE good who is Jesus Christ and THE good that He has done by His righteous living, sacrificial dying, and life giving rising. In Scripture the good that we are to aim for in life, the good and right and true that we are to seek after is all tied to the cross and empty tomb. The greatest good is life in Christ, life made possible by the cross and empty tomb, life lived out in the shadow of that cross and life overflowing in the abundance of His gifts of grace that were won by that living, dying and rising again. But I don't hear this among our people.

When most of us pray for good we have in mind good things -- long and healthy lives, resolution of the conflicts and struggles of this life, enough money to supply our needs and a bit more, etc. I do not mean to suggest that these things are bad, but they are not THE good that is the source, focus, and goal of our lives as Christian people.

Take for example the question of why my prayer is not answered. Of course, we know on one level that God answers every prayer but that still leaves me with my illness, with my bills, with my tension at work, and with the struggles in my family. So what gives? The things I have prayed for are good things -- they are not sinful things or evil things so why is God not answering my prayer? Learned from Protestantism is that the problem lies with me and my faith. I am not praying earnestly enough, often enough, confidently enough, boldly enough, demanding enough, etc... If I improve my praying, I get what I want and ask for from God.

Then there are the words of Jesus "What ever you ask for in My name, you will receive..." Well, I have asked for a whole lot of things and I ended every prayer "in Jesus' name" and still I came up empty handed from God. What gives? The things I asked for were not evil or immoral or even trivial. Why do we say God answers all prayers and still I have come up empty handed? Jesus did not say my prayer will be answered but the answer will be "no" -- Jesus said whatever I ask for in His name I will get. Period. So where am I going wrong? Or, just maybe God is doing whatever those Northwest pilots were doing and is distracted from hearing my prayers???

What does it mean to pray in Jesus' name? Surely this means to pray from the vantage point of our lives planted in Christ by baptism, deeply rooted in Him by faith, nurtured and fed by His Word and Sacraments. What this means is that in Christ I am not who I was; I have become (not fully but begun) the new person that lives in Christ who lives in me. Before we even get to the righteous life I begin to live in Christ and the power of His righteousness, we begin with my own will and desires. To pray in Jesus' name means to pray for that which Christ desires, to adopt His own will and goal as my will and purpose.

The good that I pray for is not the good defined by me or judged from my perspective but the good that is Christ and the Kingdom He established by His death and resurrection. When we pray for this good, the answer from God is never "no" but always "yes." What we struggle with is that this yes may not come in the timely fashion the chronograph on our wrists measures but the kairos of God's fullness. But we rejoice in knowing that the answer is yes even though the when is not yet revealed to us.

The goods that I pray for are not what Jesus had in mind when He said "wherever two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven." In other words, if I want a BMW and can get several other faithful Christians to pray with me and for me in this goal, I can sit on my front porch and wait for that shiny new to arrive. This is the stuff that screams through the airwaves to our people. Prayer that makes things happen, prayers of agreement that demand answers from God, prayer that claims the promises of God and takes them to the bank (literally)... this is what people hear about and read about when it comes to prayer.

But... they do not read about or hear much about THE good that is Christ -- the source of our praying and the goal of our prayers -- to live in Him by faith, to live under Him in grace, and to live for Him for life...

I do not mean to diminish in any way the prayers of family members for their sick and suffering loved ones... or to demean the prayers of the poor for money and food and shelter and medical care enough for their family... or to imply that our material goods are not God's concern at all... what I do intend is to frame all of these within the context of that which is good and right and true in Christ, His Kingdom, His gracious rule and reign, His merciful acts, His desire that all come to faith, His cross planted for everyone and for all, and His life raised from death to raise all the dead... This is the good the drives the Christian. This is the good that becomes our own goal, purpose, plan, and will in Christ. From this good, flow the goods that we need and desire -- along with the faith to place the requests for these goods for Him to give what is needful and beneficial -- in order words, Thy will be done.

Somehow in prayer, our shallowness and weakness is exposed but so often we do not see it. We look upon it as a shopping list of things we want from God... as a forum to convince God we are worthy of or deserving of what we have asked Him to give... as a formula for making sure that God knows and will give to us what we want... as a place of last resort when we can no longer control things or make them work toward our desires... When our hearts are planted in Christ by baptism, rooted in Him by faith, fed and nourished by His means of grace (the Word, absolution, and the Meal), there is but one good before us -- the good of Christ and His kingdom... come to me and come to all. God grant it for Jesus' sake.

O God, from you come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Case for the Liturgy

We repeat what should never be forgotten. -- St. Caesarius of Arles, Homily 9 Those were a part of a quote on the blog of my esteemed colleague Pastor Will Weedon. As I read them I was struck both by the simplicity of this statement and its eloquence.

About the author: St. Caesarius (d. 542 AD) was from Gaul. He entered the Monastery at Lerins at age 13 but lived in conflict with them over the level of austerity appropriate to monastic life. When a protest fast proved harmful to his health, he was sent to Arles where he found kinship with the Bishop and established a monastery there. The issue of the time was semi-Pelagianism and his prominence as a theologian was shown when he presided over the Council of Orange (529) which dealt with grace and good works. Among other things, he published several volumes of sermons, from which the short quote was taken.

Not having read the entire sermon, I limit my comment to how well this brief sentence puts the case for the liturgy. We repeat what should never be forgotten. Period. Almost immediately my mind is drawn back to the Nagel Introduction to Lutheran Worship (the hymnal):

Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. Music is drawn into this thankfulness and praise, enlarging and elevating the adoration of our gracious giver God. Saying back to him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Mos true and sure is his name, which he put upon us with the water of our Baptism. We are his. This we acknowledge at the beginning of the Divine Service. Where his name is, there is he. Before him, we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness. His forgiveness is given us, and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim him as our great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words he has used to make himself known to us...

Like the child who repeats to himself what he has been sent on the errand to get, all to make sure that he does not forget and therefore fail in his appointed duty, so do we as the Church gather where God has bidden us, to repeat back to Him what is most sure, and to make sure that we never forget it. Where His name is, there is He. This is not some mere formulaic "We are here in the name of..." but our acknowledgement of where He has placed His name and for what purpose He has placed His name. Where He has placed His name is not in feelings but in water, bread, and wine. So when Jesus says "Where two or three are gathered in My name..." Jesus is Himself referring to the gathered guests around the Word and Table of the Lord. We call this worship or the Divine Service or the Liturgy or the Mass. This is where He is, where His name is, and where He has made Himself accessible to us. This is where the fruits of His righteous life, life-giving death, and tomb rending resurrection are made available to us.

It is recognizable by the Word and the Table but also by the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Table. Just as we do not invent the Word or the Table but have been received this gift from the Lord (as St. Paul said, "I delivered to you what was entrusted to me... on the night when our Lord was betrayed..."). It is the testament of the Lord and not the gift of the Church that bids us come and meet here the means of grace that deliver to us what they promise. Therefore we keep not only the broad, general outline of the Divine Service but the specific words (the Verba and the Our Father among them).

These words we repeat. This is not the incantation of words meant as magical spell nor are they a mantra to cleanse and clear us for a deeper spiritual connection. We repeat them because they are Testament -- the anamnesis or remembrance our Lord has commanded us to make and the means through which He works His promise to us, among us, and through us.

We repeat what should never be forgotten. That is the case for the liturgy -- for a measured consistency that allows us to remember what we dare never forget. As long as what happens on Sunday morning is new and different, the people are deprived of their opportunity to repeat and remember. As long as worship entertains with people (and musicians) that perform, the people are deprived of their opportunity to repeat and remember. As along as the music sings about my feelings instead of His Word and Gospel, the people are deprived of their opportunity to repeat and remember. As long as the preacher is the focus (or anyone else), the people are deprived of their opportunity to repeat and remember.

Why do we exercise such are in changing the form of the creed or keep the antiquated language of the familiar Our Father? Why do we keep the Words of Institution the same instead of varying them? Why? Because, as even the most outspoken voices for change admit, there are sacred words which we cannot change or we deprive the people of what is theirs. What we as Lutherans have said from the beginning is that the words of the Mass (Divine Service) are also those words, which, with the Our Father and Verba, belong not to the presider or the people but to the Lord and His Church. We repeat them back to Him and in doing so we say what is most true, most sure, most relevant -- the Words that will not pass away even when heaven and earth are gone. We repeat them back to Him but we also repeat them so we never forget them.

The danger of the wholesale tinkering with what happens on Sunday morning is that we forget... we forget what the Word that gives us life, that does what it says, that one thing in life that must be remembered and never forgotten.

We repeat what should never be forgotten. -- St. Caesarius of Arles, Homily 9 . . . He got it right in just a few words. . . do you suppose we will get it right in our own time?

BTW if you liked the above try Wax on, Wax off or 7 Reasons Why No "I Just Want to Worship"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Adolescence Ends at Age 18... and other myths

The age of maturity has been permanently enshrined into law as age eighteen (except for the consumption of alcohol, when it is delayed to age twenty-one). I suppose there is no getting around a codified end to childhood and the announcement of maturity. The law is not equipped to judge each person individually (although in a criminal matter it is an act of judicial discretion to determine whether minors will be tried as adults or as children).

Adolescence is part biology, part maturity, and part culture. It is a mix of many factors and therefore no single factor can answer the question when does adolescence end. It seems to me we presume a great deal about the end of adolescence when there is no single mark that determines the transformation is over.

That said, I wonder if selflessness is not a mark that might be used to apply. In many ways, adolescence is a time of self-centeredness -- not always selfishness but always self-centeredness. As children we see the world through our own eyes alone. The adolescent views everything through the lens of me. Time and its length is long or short depending upon how I feel. Things are good or bad based on how they affect me. Happiness is a momentary mood to the adolescent and so is sadness. I am the lens through which life is viewed. When a child learns to look past the me in all of this in order to see the impact upon others, that is a sign of the maturity that will soon leave adolescence behind.

I am not labeling the adolescent when I suggest that adolescence is much like original sin. Sin has placed its mark on us by making "me" the lens through which I see everything. Our sinful world once seemed embarrassed by such self-centeredness but now we are much more open about it. In fact we glory in it. How we feel, what we want, what we think we need, our freedom to pursue these things, and our right to be whoever we want to be and do whatever we want to do -- these have become the hallmarks of our time.

We carry cell phones because we have to be in touch -- though the majority of cell phone conversations have little of substance or urgency to them. We have the internet, instant messaging, social networking sites, and twitter to convey the most trivial of our thoughts and feelings -- because we believe that others need to know them and it makes us feel better to share them. These technological toys appeal to our me centered lives and encourage those self-centered lives.

The antithesis of this "me" centered perspective of sin comes not from our own maturity or coming of age, it comes from Jesus releasing us from the prison of "me" to see God above all things and our neighbor before ourselves. The Law could not accomplish this release from captivity -- it could only surround us with the guilt of knowing what we felt was wrong and the helplessness of sinners made miserable because they cannot fix themselves or rid themselves of this guilt. Only the Gospel working through Word and Sacrament by the power of the Holy Spirit can reshape our perspective, literally replacing the lens of "me" with the lens of "Thee" (Jesus Christ).

The mark of our screwed up spirituality is that instead of addressing this self-centeredness, the modern spiritual gurus teach us to look at God and religion and spirituality all through the lens of me. Whether Oprah or Osteen, religion and spirituality have become tools to get in touch with who we are, what we want, and how to get what we want. Their great appeal is to our adolescence and the adolescent within us likes what we hear from them.

Even the secular culture still appreciates the mark of maturity when an adolescent finally begins to see things beyond self -- the way, for example, Mother Theresa was honored in life and in death for her saintly selfless life even though we do not rush to follow her example. When me is balanced with we, the world appreciates that maturity has come.

For the Christian, love for God and love for others -- impossible apart from Christ -- become the twin goals of our lives. Indeed, the mark of the Spirit in us is that we are freed from our captivity to "me" to see ourselves objectively in the mirror of the Law, to see with trust and gratitude what Christ has done to answer the power of sin and death, and to begin to live on the narrow path of eternal life where this love is lived out.

So much of contemporary Christianity is an adolescent religion that manifests itself in adolescent worship and raises up as the ultimate goal of life and faith -- the freedom to be me. Such is the inherent weakness of it all.

We will spend thousands of dollars to go on mission trips across the sea that allow us to feel a part of it all but we will not use those dollars to pay for the urgent needs of the mission field. We will pay whatever is required for a weekend with an expert to find out how to raise better children or have better marriages but we won't teach Sunday school or get to know the young couple experiencing the ups and downs of a new marriage and a new baby. We will rejoice in the unlimited grace of God but only until the gourmet coffee runs out and then this becomes more important than anything. We will spend hours doing what we want in worship or listening to music that makes us feel good but we grow itchy if we find ourselves in a liturgy in which God and His gifts are the center of it all.

I sometimes wonder if God does not think what I have thought as a parent... "Why don't you just grow up?" He has provided all the gifts and the resources to real maturity of faith and life in Christ but we have found it easier to manufacture a spirituality and religion which caters to the "me" instead of trying to transform it...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Slaves or Free?

Sermon for Reformation observed on Sunday, October 25, 2009

How many times haven't you heard it – the more things change, the more they stay the same? It is another way of saying that the truth is still the truth even when circumstances change. Long ago Jesus confronted a people who denied the truth and chose to live instead of the land of lies and deceit. Today we remember the lies and deceit that had hidden the Gospel and the good work of Martin Luther to raise up the truth of the Gospel for a whole world to see. Could it be that we heirs of Luther's legacy still live in denial of the fulness of that truth? We don’t want to believe that we are captive to sin but we also don’t want to believe that Christ has set us free to begin to change who we are. So who are we? Slaves to sin and unable to free ourselves or those who have been set free in Christ to live out His new life? Are we slaves or free?

Jesus said to the Jews who believed in Him – in other words not to people outside the Church but to believers – to you and to me: "If you live in My Word, you are truly My disciples and you will know the Truth and this Truth will set you free." These are powerful words of promise but the people refused His gift of freedom because they would not admit that they were slaves to anyone. They rejected the gift because to accept it would have meant admitting a truth to painful to admit. Jesus made it clear. Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin and a prisoner of death. But they refused to admit Jesus was talking about them. Who me? A sinner? No way! Sin’s deceit works in us the denial of this truth.

Dale Meyer once put it this way: Are we sinners because we sin or do we sin because we are sinners? We are tempted to say we are only sinners when we do wrong, rejecting sin as a condition that has passed death upon us and kept us captive to its power. When I sin, then I am a sinner. When I don’t sin, I am not a sinner. But this is a false understanding of our sinful condition. We are not neutral people who can lean one way or the other. Scripture teaches that we sin because we are already sinners, we were born into this sin, and it has corrupted our nature so that whether we acknowledge it or not, we are sin's slave. We are not sinners because we do bad things – we do bad things because we are sinners.

When we deny what sin is, we only confirm the error. Is sin merely a wrong choice we make in the thoughts we think or the words we speak or the actions we take? Or, is sin also a captivity which has corrupted our nature and limited our choices only to that which is evil? If sin is something we do wrong, then the presumption is we can fix it by NOT doing the wrong. Like the Pharisees of old we are tempted to think sin can be fixed with a little tinkering with our moral compass.

Into these denials Jesus comes with truth. You are a sinner by nature and sin has held you captive to choose only evil... but I have the power to free you. Jesus points us to His righteous life, His life-giving death, and His resurrection to life without end. Here is your freedom. Now live in it. Live in the power of my Word and Truth. Live in the grace of forgiveness and love.

You might think we would welcome such a gift of freedom. But our sinful natures are not done with us yet. Christ offers us freedom but we are not so sure we want it. With this freedom comes responsibility. That is something we are not so sure we want. We are comfortable with the sin and we are not so sure about this freedom. As long as we are sinners and cannot change, we have an out – someone to blame and an excuse for our behavior. Like the old joke, “The devil made me do it.” But if Christ has set me free then with that freedom comes the responsibility to apply that grace to reshape our sinful lives.

First we deny that we are sinners or all that sin is all that bad... then when Christ sets us free, we deny that He has really set us free. Fear has trapped us in the realm of two denials. We deny that we are sinners and we deny His gift of freedom can make a difference to change us. We have excuses for why we aren't that bad and why we aren't that good.

Why do we insist upon living as slaves when Christ has set us free? There is the challenge laid at the feet of Christian people, born anew by baptism and living in grace! Why are we more comfortable with sin’s misery than Christ’s freedom? Why is it easier for us to keep on sinning than it is to try to resist the power of sin and live out Christ’s gift of new life?

Have you ever found yourself asking, “If Christ has restored me as a child of God, why do I live in the gutter? Why do I dabble at sins as if it were more fun to sin and to do what is good and right and true as a child of God? If Christ has saved me, why do I act as if I am still lost?” First we denied that sin was so bad we needed a Savior who would suffer and die. Then we deny that Christ’s freedom makes any difference in our lives. We are at home in the land of denial.

Fear keeps us captive. We may not want to live in the darkness but we are not so sure we want to live in the light either. Only the Holy Spirit can coax us from our fears. Only the Holy Spirit can coax us from darkness into Christ’s light. In that light our sin is exposed but exposed so that Christ may forgive us and set us free. Once set free in Christ, the goal of faith is to live always in the light where goodness and truth dwell.

Once we have been connected to the cross of Jesus where forgiveness, life and salvation are given to us, then we begin to live in the new realm of Christ’s freedom. Here is where we explore with Christ's power how to say no to our sinful thoughts, words and desires. Here is where we learn self-control by the teaching of the Spirit. Here is where we learn to desire that which is good and right and true. Here is where we begin the struggle to answer sin with Christ's righteousness. Here is where the me of sin begins to give way to the Thee of Christ alone. Freedom in Christ is not easy but it is the path we walk by faith.

So there we are – caught between to poles of denial and captive to the power of our fears. We fear acknowledging the sinful desires of our hearts and our captivity to sin that leads to death. But the path to freedom begins with our confession of this bondage, with our trust in the gift of freedom in Christ, and with the struggle to live as the people God says we are. We cannot afford to become too comfortable in sin’s misery. There is something wrong when we find it easier to be the old people we were than to trust in Christ and by the power of His grace become the new people He has called us to be in baptism.

Today He calls us to lay down our fears. Lay down the fears that would keep us from the honest confession of who we are because of sin. And lay down the fears that would keep us from honestly confronting and living out the new lives we were born into by baptism and in which we live by faith.

Did you hear on the news of a couple of prisoners whose sentences had been fulfilled, who had done their time and paid their debt to society... but who asked the warden to let them stay in prison. They were afraid to live as free men because of the responsibility that accompanies such freedom, because the work would be hard to find in this economy, and because the misery of their bondage was safer to them than their freedom in the world. Could we be like that? Could we be those prisoners who feel too comfortable in sin’s bondage to live in the freedom Christ has given to us through His death and resurrection? Today God calls us to acknowledge our sin and offer up its chains to Jesus and power of His suffering and death... and at the same time God calls us not to live in chains anymore. Brothers and sisters, the path of freedom and new life in Christ is a hard path and a narrow one... but any other path is the way of lies, deceit, fear, denial and death. Amen.

Walk Softly But Carry A Big Stick

Teddy Roosevelt said something like this (at least I think he is the author). It had to do with diplomacy and military might -- the combination of the two. When I was installed as Pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church, Cairo, New York, on St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24, 1980, I got a big stick. The Bishop, the Rev. Ronald F. Fink, went out into the woods of the church property and got a big stick. It was rough and rustic -- stripped of the bark but nothing more than a big stick. In the installation he gave me this big stick as he said to me "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, not for dishonest gain, but willingly..." (1 Peter 5:2).

For nearly 30 years I have kept this five foot tall big stick and have resisted every impulse to sand down its rough edges and finish it. I have carried it in procession many, many times (especially on Good Shepherd Sunday). It used to tickle the fancy of some of the folks in New York and I would get all sorts of comments, like "What good is a big stick unless you are prepared to use it..." I suppose Teddy got the same. I would often joke about being the Bishop of Cairo and pull out my staff to prove the point.

This past Sunday when we celebrated Reformation Day and confirmed eight youth, I carried this big stick in procession. Just before the service I realized that two folks from my NY congregation were here visiting in Tennessee and were surprised but gratified to see the old stick still in use.

When the time came for the Rite of Confirmation, each youth came forward and knelt before me. I had the big stick in my left hand and my right hand on each of their heads as I said the words now so familiar to me "n_____, God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, give you His Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge, of grace and prayer, of power and strength, of sanctification and the fear of God." Then I anointed them with oil saying "God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has given you the new birth of water and of the Spirit, and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with His grace to life everlasting. I anoint you with the salutary oil of eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ." And then read the confirmation verse I chose for each youth.

I first saw the staff and confirmation in the Episcopal Church where the Bishop confirms. Intrigued by the image of the confirmand kneeling, the Bishop seated on his episcopal throne, and the staff standing as both symbol of the flock and the Shepherd, I contrasted that with the visual image of my own confirmation rite -- one that seemed to communicate graduation more than incorporation. So I have used that staff to add to the visual image of what is happening in the Rite of Confirmation.

Lutherans do not believe that Confirmation adds anything to Baptism nor do we accept the idea that Confirmation is essential in order for those baptized as an infant to give their own voice to the promises once made for them. What we do believe about this Rite (one that Luther had a great deal of problems with), is that it represents another stage in the life long journey of faith, begun in baptism and recognized at different points for the learning that has accompanied this journey and for the responsibilities accepted at each stage. That is why the staff seems to visually portray what is happening in Confirmation.

Those confirmed are already part of the flock by baptism and now we hear their public confession in order to affirm with them these baptismal gifts and the faith which the Holy Spirit has brought forth in them. We affirm who they are -- not so much as individual Christians but as the flock of God. It is a communal rite in which the congregation affirms them and they affirm their place within the congregation. We have given them a hymnal at the end of this catechetical process and described to them the significance of this book and their voices joined with the voices of the many who sing and speak together its words as the flock of God gathered at the call of the Good Shepherd, to receive His gifts.

It is a churchly rite and a churchly moment. So I pulled out the big stick because it too is a churchly symbol -- not only of my role as undershepherd of flock the Lord has given into my care but of our place as the sheep in the Good Shepherd's flock. Sheep are mentioned 247 times in Scripture. In many and various ways God uses this imagery. Here, with the confirmand kneeling before the assembled congregation, and me seated with one hand on the staff and the other on his/her head, I think of one particular passage: Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:1-3).

Once those words were very familiar to us in the words of the Venite in old Matins (TLH). And that is what was happening in that Rite of Confirmation. We were affirming that we are His people and the sheep of His pasture -- not because of anything we do but because of the Good Shepherd who has sought out His lost to bring them home, has placed Himself between His sheep and their enemies, has suffered even death to protect them from what would steal them from His grasp, and has restored them white as snow.

There in that moment of Confirmation, it all came together for me. Psalm 100 has brought its promise home to Lilly, Lainy, Allison, Andrew, Maranda, Briton, Devyn, and Tristan. Standing before the altar in the white albs that remind us of His righteousness they wear by baptism, kneeling before the staff, I saw this confirmation rite through the lens of Psalm 100. That is what was happening -- the affirmation that that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture -- something neither they nor we would know unless the Good Shepherd came to accomplish it and reveal it to us by faith.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The New Reformation

While many others and I, myself, have spoken of the great need to return to the Lutheran Confessions, to a renewed catechetical emphasis within the parish, and to the Divine Service as the basis for the liturgical life of the parish, I want to make it clear that it is not Luther's Reformation that we need to fight again. The world has changed, people have changed, and the battle before us is far different than that battle of Luther's day.

Everyone believed there was a God in Luther's day -- but most believed this God was an angry ogre who would rather punish than forgive, who forced people to jump through hoops to satisfy Him, and whose Word was more Law than anything else. The Gospel had been shrouded in Law to the point where its voice was hidden and almost silent within the average parish. Fear had replaced trust. Luther's own personal struggle was a reflection of the fears and concerns of the people of his day.

Today we live in a different world. The God of today is no consuming fire or even a present force. The God of today is distant from day to day life, who holds to no abiding truths except love and acceptance, and who treats sin and rebellion with the casual shrug of an indifferent deity. The God of today is an individual creation with ingredients from many holy books, philosophers, theologians, and spiritual guides -- a conglomeration of of pieces stitched together and restitched in the minds of people -- to fit the prevailing mood.

Where once people were captive to the voice of the priest and the words of the Mass, now they are captive to the voices of their own hearts. Though with information in abundance, they have become Biblically illiterate and therefore susceptible to the mood of trend and change in the ebb and flow of human ideas and ideals. They have the Gospel but are not so sure they have sin. They have the resurrection but choose to overlook the death.

We do not need to battle the Reformation of Luther's day all over again. We have a new battle and it requires a New Reformation. This Reformation is not a representation of old ideas but an embrace of that which is yesterday, today, and forever the same -- the abiding truth that alone allows us to abide in Him and He in us. This Reformation is a ship adrift on a sea of uncertainty seeking to hold anchor in the truth that does not change. This Reformation may require more Law before the Gospel can be heard again, the conviction of sin and death and our desperate need before we can rejoice in the holy hope that the cross and empty tomb affords.

This Reformation needs no friend in culture but needs to confront the old friend in culture which has betrayed her and mark the boundaries. This Reformation needs no Luther to tip the scales but millions of faithful who will walk in the steps of Luther, and those before and after him, who dare to speak the whole truth of God, to live before Him through the Word and Sacraments, and to proclaim to the world the need of a Savior and the one and only Savior who is Jesus Christ. This Reformation needs to learn how to use technology as well as it is being used to promote the empty and self-serving truths of today that last only as long as we want them and are only as big as we want them to be. This Reformation needs to be concerned not only with the Church but with the parachurch, with those things that live around the Church and in many cases pass as the Church (so much so that people follow them and ignore what takes place on Sunday morning where two or three are gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord).

Yesterday's confessions need to be heard again but new confessions may need to be written that speak to a world where education has worked to separate us from what we believe, where science has become the smug enemy of faith, where sophistication laughs at church going, where humor can belittle no one except Christians, and where morality is the feel good moment justified.

Lutherans approaching Reformation Day cannot afford to speak of what was once and how it was changed... unless we are also willing to speak of what is and what must be done to confront the deathward drift of a faith unleashed from Scripture and Truth and unfocused upon the Cross and Empty Tomb.

This is how the Church will reclaim its power and place in the world... and without it I believe the Church will become the hospice center that is herself dying. This is no doomsday prediction but a call to take up the mantle of the prophets and apostles and engage the world around us with the one and only Word that brings life and the one and only Savior who can rescue and redeem us from all our enemies... but mostly from ourselves.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Finding the Lutheran Church

The other day I met with a young woman (20 something) who had been attending a Lutheran congregation, was deployed to the Middle East, came back after a year away, and found that this Lutheran congregation had changed. The organ was replayed by a praise band, the hymns had been replaced with praise choruses, the sermon had become a "life talk" and the liturgy had largely disappeared. It was the same building, mostly the same people in the pews, but suddenly, she said, she no longer felt like it was home. More importantly, this young woman felt it was no longer Lutheran.

What happens on Sunday morning is the public face of a Lutheran congregation -- any congregation for that matter. We identify who we are by what happens there. This is a young woman who is not the typical poster child of traditional worship drawn by advocates of worship that reflects culture -- she is a rough and tumble person who has been well out in the world. What she was looking for was a Lutheran congregation. Where she had been had more or less fit that estimation but now, a year later, things were different.

I am sure that things like this happen all the time. My point is this. This young woman with only her catechism and basic instruction in the faith knew that the changes that had taken place were changes in substance and not just in style. Her confusion lie in that it was the same address and name but not the same faith that she come to know and believe. She could not articulate it like a theologian, she was not a classical musical enthusiast, she was looking for the liturgical practice that was the counterpart to the faith confessed.

Because I do not know the congregation she came from or exactly what happens there on Sunday morning, I am not making them the focus of this comment. What I am turning our attention to is the fact that our Lutheran Confessional identity has a counter part in our liturgical practice. While many might make this about musical tastes, I believe this is about the Word and the seriousness with which we take this Word that has the power to do what it promises. While many might make it about personal taste or likes and dislikes, I believe this is about a vibrant sacramental identity in which the Table is central to what happens (not some trap set surrounded by a Plexiglas sound partition that occupies the prime spot down front). While many might complain that there are also people who like this stuff and are attracted to it, I believe this is about worship that is at odds with our identity as Lutheran Christians.

Longer ago than most of you can remember, the Kennedy Evangelism Explosion model was being Lutheranized for use through out congregations of the LCMS. My objection then is the same objection now to so much that goes on during Sunday morning -- forms are not neutral, they have values and communicate identities. We cannot use this "form" of evangelism outreach without giving up some of the values and identity we have as Lutheran Christians. We cannot borrow from what is happening in non-denominational churches and other "contemporary worship" congregations without giving up some of the values and identity we have as Lutheran Christians. That is what this young woman was saying to me. If she can recognize this, why is it so difficult to get Lutheran Pastors and musicians to agree on the trade offs that this requires.

If you are willing to make the trade offs, if you are comfortable giving up some of the values and identity intrinsic to our Lutheran Confessions and litugical history, why keep up appearances by holding on to the name "Lutheran?" If you go into a Roman Catholic Mass, you get the Mass (whether in Latin or English, with Marty Haugen or Gregorian Chant -- it is still the Mass). When you go to an Eastern Orthodox liturgy, you get incense, Chrysostom or Basil, et al, icons, and a cappela singing (whether under a Byzantine dome or a modern A-frame -- it is still the Liturgy). If you go into a Lutheran Divine Service, you get the Divine Service (whether the Pastor faces the people or not, whether chanted or spoken, whether Lutheran hymnody or generic hymns and song -- it is recognizable as the Divine Service).

Liturgical identity and Confessional identity connect, they are parallel, they reflect each other... but some Lutherans insist that what they do on Sunday mornings and what they believe, teach, and confess are separate -- as separate as style and substance (as one author has put it). Even a young woman in the pew knows that they are connected. She is an independent, modern woman, but she expects to find a Lutheran liturgy in a Lutheran congregation. Is that too much to ask?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Learning How to Pray

After one more silent moment listening to a public prayer, it occurs to me that for all the talk about, books on, and practical practice, we still do not know how to pray... or at least pray well. It occurs to me that we learn how to pray by praying the prayers of others first. Now to those outside a liturgical tradition that might be a heretical statement. It is my contention that the liturgy teaches us to pray, that our lives of prayer flow out of and lead us back into the prayers of the liturgy (from the collect to the intercessions of the people to the final concluding collect).

My own prayer life is learned daily through such devotional resources as the Treasury, Doberstein's Prayer Book, For All the Saints, and the little Lutheran Book of Prayer I received when I was confirmed. I went through that phase when the prayers of others were rejected as unauthentic and contrived but noticed that without the voice of great pray-ers (people who pray) to instruct me, my own words became trivial, trite, and rather predictable, even mundane. I can hardly pray without the phrases drawing from the great prayers of the Church (the collects) and the classic prayers of Christians (Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open...).

We have all been there when someone began to pray and instead of a prayer we got an update on some one's medical condition or a justification for why we were asking this of God or a series of rather pedestrian statements usually beginning with the words "we just..." We have all been there when prayers took on the character of long speeches -- especially prayers following the sermon that are used to review the salient points of the sermon, one more time, this time in the guise of prayer. We have all been there when paragraphs of prayer waxed eloquent but in the end we were not quite sure what it was that we were saying our "Amen" to. The problem is that these are often held up as model prayers that we should aspire to -- when the model prayer is, of course, the Our Father, an economy of words that directs our hearts to voice spiritual needs when we are generally focused upon physical ones.

Spontaneous praying is assisted when we have learned to pray the prayers of others first. Then we learn how to give voice to our own hearts. I have some personal favorites. One in particular is a prayer by the sainted W. Harry Krieger. I keep it close to me and its words have helped give voice to my own weaknesses and have shaped my cry for the help of the God of the ages who has made Himself known to me through God man Jesus Christ.

Teach me, O Lord, not to hold on to life too tightly. Teach me to hold it lightly; not carelessly, but lightly, easily. Teach me to take it as a gift, to enjoy and cherish while I have it, and to let go gracefully and thankfully when the time comes. For the gift is great, but the Giver greater still. You are the Giver, O Lord, and in You is the life that never dies; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen

Prayer is not a debate with God to win Him over to our side. Just the opposite. Prayer is the recitation of God's good and gracious will so that we will have confidence in that will, and no matter what the desire of our hearts, be content with that will... And that the desire of our hearts will be nothing more or less that what God wills...

In the liturgy we pray this way. The collect with its succinct statement of the themes of the lessons in prayer form. The intercessions with their straightforward requests for God's blessing upon His Church, the work of His kingdom, the workers of that Kingdom, the nations and their peoples, the sick and suffering, the poor and needy, our own gracious use of God's gracious gifts, and, finally, our worthy communion at His table. These biddings invite us to pray not with an abundance of words but with words that call us to trust in Him who has shown us His heart through His Son. These intercessions do not pray to convince or convert God's heart to our cause but that our hearts may be content in His good and gracious will. Behind these is the simple, but most profound prayer of Scripture. "Thy will be done."

It seems to me that this is the point of prayer. No conversation among equals but the creature kneeling in confidence before the Creator, surrounded by His mercies, trusting in His grace, asking for that which God has promised to give to us in Jesus' name... to which the Holy Spirit grants us the courage to and teaches us the confidence to say "Amen..."

When people ask me about prayer, I suggest buying a good prayer book (the Hymnal is a great place to start), and praying the words of others until we learn from these prayers to give voice to our own hearts...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Roman Catholics, Anglican Rite

It occurs to me the strangeness of those who wish to become Roman Catholic but to take with them their own rite (s). From the seventh century on and most especially in the Council of Trent, the unity of the Roman Catholic Church was a liturgical unity and, for lack of a better term, uniformity. Now we find that both Rome and Constantinople are offering converts a way to enter communion and retain the distinctive features of their Western and/or parochial rites.

Perhaps it started with the Byzantine Rite Roman Catholics, who, as most know, have their own distinctive liturgical tradition as well as married priests (but celibate bishops). Anyway, it now has spread to the possibility of Anglicans entering communion with Rome and retaining the distinctive features of their own liturgical tradition and married priests (but not married bishops and married priests only so long as their wives are still alive because they cannot remarry).

Some know that the Antiochians have a Western Rite group within the Orthodox Church - complete with their distinctive liturgical tradition and vestments. Father John Fenton, formerly LCMS, is one such priest in the Detroit area. His parish uses a western rite and even statues. I do not have a great deal of knowledge of this parish and its practices but I know people who know him and have visited his blog and website often.

My point is this -- when you leave the tradition you are in to enter communion with another, why would you want to keep your liturgical tradition? Is not the essence of Rome manifest in the Mass of the Roman Rite? Is not the essence of Constantinople manifest in the Eastern liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil?

I wonder if being allowed to keep the rite is not one way of bringing legitimacy to their lives prior to entering communion with another church and allowing the appearance, at least, that is it not a big change but an evolution both natural and logical. In other words, if I can keep my Anglican rite and priest, then it is as much as saying that it was catholic in both the small c and big C sense of that term. So for the Western rite used by those who enter communion with Eastern Orthodoxy.

If that is how communion with Rome works, then why would Rome not offer a Lutheran rite, Methodist rite, and Presbyterian rite, as well? For these liturgical rites (at least the traditional ones) are fairly close to the Roman rite and no more out of the tradition than the Anglican. This way we can be Roman and Lutheran (insert your tradition here) at the same time (I say this tongue in cheek).

It seems to me as a Catholic who is non-Roman and as an Orthodox who is non-Eastern (that ought to muddy up the terminology waters a bit), that if you wish to enter communion with another church, it must involve, at bare minimum, adopting their liturgical tradition. So if you enter Rome, be Roman on Sunday morning... and likewise Eastern Orthodoxy... These traditions are not doctrinal statements that sit apart from or distinct from their liturgical expression so in adopting the faith, it is expected that you adopt the piety and practice.

Which is my beef with those who want to believe as Lutherans but worship as non-denominational, quasi-denominational, or anti-denominational free churches. If you want to be Lutheran, worship like a Lutheran... (you fill in the blanks for other traditions). Otherwise, why accept the beliefs and reject the liturgical tradition that practices that faith on Sunday morning?

It leaves me scratching my head...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Check below for more on the obituary on Alice Ellis

The Memorial Service will be at Grace Lutheran Church, 2041 Madison Street, on Saturday, October 31, at 1 pm.... Resquiat in Pacem...

On Constitutions and By-Laws and Rules

The wise man once said that constitutions and by-laws are only important in conflict. Most congregations consult their constitutions and by-laws only when there is a question or a challenge. The rest of the time lip service is paid to these rules that define and govern us but as long as no one objects we do what we want. But when disagreements arise, then the almighty rule book becomes more important than anything else.

The constitution and by-laws of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has grown to some 200 pages following a major revision in 1998 which was put into effect in 2004. The only problem is that this was not a neat and clean process so there are overlapping rules, confused processes, unclear responsibilities, and conflicting provisions. All of this will, of course, be corrected when a top down restructuring of Synod takes place at the Convention in Houston this summer (did you wince? I did).

Individual congregational constitutions are also in play. In part this is the result of local rule books which must be consistent with the national rule books. In part this is because congregations are using all sorts of structures -- from Pastors running the show as virtual CEO's of the congregation (ala PLI and other groups) to the old fashioned voters assembly without such modern amenities as a council, boards or committees -- just elders and trustees.

Of course all of this would be made easier if common sense were less uncommon and there was more churchmanship in the church. Rule books are being made increasingly difficult because the common good, the common interest, is so hard to hold on to in an age of competing groups, self-interests, and insistence upon "my rights."

We have youth ministry, senior ministry, couples ministry, family ministry, singles ministry, campus ministry. . . well, you get the picture. I wonder if we have not fractured the church around these ministries to the point where there is too little held in common by all? We have traditional, blended, contemporary, and seeker services to cater to changing tastes and whims. We segregate Bible studies by age, marital status, family size, life point, etc... We have musicians down front, center stage, and treat the worship service as if it were America's got talent -- because everyone deserves a chance to show off in front of everyone else.

I do not mean to suggest that things have been much different ever -- they have not -- but what we have done of late is institutionalize these things and legitimize these divisions and identities to the point where rights become the predominant perspective -- and when we find ourselves talking exclusively of rights, we inevitably talk constitutions, by-laws, policies and procedures.

We have harvested forests of trees for the Congregational Treasurer's manuals, the Handbooks for this and that, the volumes of SOP (Standard Operating Procedures), and the rule books to explain the rule books. It has forced us to define our life together less from the stand point of grace and more from the perspective of me, my wants, my desires, my rights...

Don't get me wrong -- I am no antinomian. I think it is a good thing to have a constitution and by-laws. I would just prefer them to be brief and to the point -- leaving room for flexibility as well as adjustments for the future. Sort of the genius of the American constitution?! But I know that as soon as there is a disagreement, we will hear the cry to batten down the hatches and seal up all the loose ends. Except that you can never do that in life.

So I prefer to live in grace... and if that means charity instead of walking in lock step, then I vote for charity, with personal responsibility, and with the view that the individual is not of greater worth than the whole. It seems that one of by the consequences of following Paul's logic about the body parts who cannot reject each other or live apart from each other, is that the whole of the body is greater than each individual part. It goes against our American ideal of individuality and rights that protect even the minority of one but it is Biblical.

I wish that we could approach some of the conflicts and problems in the church more with view of what is good for the whole body and less with rules, articles, sub-articles, and by-laws. But that might require more of that uncommon virtue of common sense and more of that churchmanship that is in seemingly short supply in the church. We are not Methodists with our Book of Discipline (though I am told this book has lost some of its cache'). We are not Roman Catholics with canon law and canon lawyers. We are Lutherans and our Confessions were not meant to be rule books but evangelical calls to life together in which Word and Sacrament, Law and Gospel, speak to us, shape us, identity us, and guide what we do. Increasingly detached from them we rely more on rule books and constitutions and by-laws. That saddens me.

Well, there is my rambling for today... take it for what it is worth...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Precaution or Fear

I watched in horror on a TV morning news program as they people on the couch, egged on by a medical professional of some kind, droned on about the dangers of passing the flu (regular and H1M1) in worship, and specifically, in the common cup (chalice). For some time now the news has highlighted congregations where hand sanitizers outnumbered crosses, where latex gloves were used by those who serve the altar, and by the elimination of the sharing of the peace. All preventative measures since, now hear this, NO PROOF HAS BEEN OFFERED TO SHOW THAT ANY OF THESE WERE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TRANSMISSION OF THE FLU...

Precautions are one thing. We ought to take precautions. We ought to wash our hands, cough into our arm pits, use tissue, stay home if we have symptoms, etc... I agree with all of this. But precaution has given way to fear and somebody has to yell STOP!

Studies have shown us and current literature and expert medical advice have concluded:
1) sipping from the common cup represents a minimal risk of transmission of contagion;
2) sharing a handshake in the exchange of the peace presents a minimal risk of
transmission of contagion.

Study and Findings #1

A report by Sault Ste. Marie Marie cardiologist David Gould was distributed across Canada by Anglican bishops. Dr. Gould was asked to update the report he initially wrote in 1987 for the church's faith, worship and ministry committee, of which he is a member.

Back then, the focus was on dealing with people's fear of catching AIDS from the common cup. In fact, a person with AIDS who may have a highly depressed immune system immune system has much more to fear from his fellow parishioners than the reverse.

The first thing to realize, according to according to Dr. Gould's report, is that it appears to be remarkably difficult to contract any illness by sipping from the chalice. If that were not the case, one would expect regular reports of one disease or another rifling through a congregation. "In some 2,000 years of the practice, there's no episode that's ever been suggested to be due to the cup," Dr. Gould said in an interview.

Similarly, priests, who tend to drink more wine from the cup than anyone else in the congregation, would be calling in sick with one illness or another all the time. The research suggests the opposite is true.

"No episode of disease attributable to the common cup has ever been reported," Dr. Gould writes. "Thus for the average communicant it would seem that the risk of drinking from the common cup is probably less than the risk of air-borne infection in using a common building."

Dr. Gould notes in his paper that exposure to a single virus or bacterium does not result in infection. Rather, for each disease there is a minimum number of the agent (generally in the millions) that must be transmitted before infection can occur. Experimental evidence shows that wiping the chalice with the purificator (cloth used to clean the chalice after the celebration of the Eucharist) reduces the bacterial count bacterial count by 90 per cent.

"Our defenses against stray bacteria are immense and can only be overwhelmed by very large numbers of the infective agents," Dr. Gould writes. "Each infective agent has its own virulence and each individual has his/her own `host factors' which determine that person's susceptibility to infection. The interaction of the two determines the risk of infection for the individual."

Thus, people with active AIDS or who are on chemotherapy, are far more prone to infection with small amounts of bacteria. "Those people conceivably could be at risk," Dr. Gould said. "But we have no proof that anyone has ever contracted anything that way."

Other churches, notably the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, have also researched the issue extensively and found no problem, he said.

It is a myth that the mouth is more dangerous than the hand, Dr. Gould said. "Medically, we know that hands are much worse transmitters of infection than lips. Our mothers always told us to wash our hands before eating, because our hands pick up germs. And they had a good reason for saying that."

In fact, the bread is more likely to spread contagion than the cup because it is in contact with hands of the people, Dr. Gould said. There is much less risk of contagion if the priest places the host in the mouth than if the people receive it in the hand.

In order to ensure the risk of any disease transmission is as small as possible, the report offers advice to servers about proper hand washing and chalice cleaning. If intinction (dipping the host) is used, a single person should dip the bread, taking care to avoid touching the wine with his or her fingers.

Thus for the average communicant it would seem that the risk of drinking from the common cup is probably less than the risk of air-borne infection in using a common building.

Study and Findings #2

The Center for Disease Control says it has been answering the question for more than 20 years. In 1998, the CDC included this statement in the American Journal of Infection Control:

For more than two decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated an official position to inquirers (e.g., lay public, physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals) about the risk of infectious disease transmission from a common communion cup. Although no documented transmission of any infectious disease has ever been traced to the use of a common communion cup, a great deal of controversy surrounds this issue; the CDC still continues to receive inquiries about this topic. In this letter, the CDC strives to achieve a balance of adherence to scientific principles and respect for religious beliefs.

Within the CDC, the consensus of the National Center for Infectious Diseases and the National Center for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, and Tuberculosis is that a theoretic risk of transmitting infectious diseases by using a common communion cup exists, but that the risk is so small that it is undetectable. The CDC has not been called on to investigate any episodes or outbreaks of infectious diseases that have been allegedly linked to the use of a common communion cup. However, outbreaks or clusters of infection might be difficult to detect if: (1) a high prevalence of disease (e.g., infectious mononucleosis, influenza, herpes, strep throat, common cold) exists in the community, (2) diseases with oral routes of transmission have other modes of transmission (i.e., fecal-oral, hand-to-mouth/nose, airborne), (3) the length of the incubation period for the disease is such that other opportunities for exposure cannot be ruled out unequivocally, and (4) no incidence data exist for comparison purposes (i.e., the disease is not on the reportable disease list and therefore is not under public health surveillance).

Experimental studies have shown that bacteria and viruses can contaminate a common communion cup and survive despite the alcohol content of the wine. Therefore, an ill person or asymptomatic carrier drinking from the common cup could potentially expose other members of the congregation to pathogens present in saliva. Were any diseases transmitted by this practice, they most likely would be common viral illnesses, such as the common cold. However, a recent study of 681 persons found that people who receive Communion as often as daily are not at higher risk of infection compared with persons who do not receive communion or persons who do not attend Christian church services at all.

In summary, the risk for infectious disease transmission by a common communion cup is very low, and appropriate safeguards -- that is, wiping the interior and exterior rim between communicants, use of care to rotate the cloth during use, and use of a clean cloth for each service -- would further diminish this risk.

Study and Findings #3

As a United Kingdom health journal put simply and clearly in 1988:

No episode of disease attributable to the shared communion cup has ever been reported. Currently available data do not provide any support for suggesting that the practice of sharing a common communion cup should be abandoned because it might spread infection.

So. . . let us practice precaution but let us not act in fear, ignorance, or panic. This is not the plague. We have nothing to fear in the practices of our congregation. We have nothing to fear from the Lord -- quite apart from science, do you think that God would bestow upon us a Sacrament whose practice would in and of itself bring risk or danger to us? If you do, you believe in a very different God than I do.

Enough said.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sermon for St. Luke's Day, preached October 18, 2009

For generations poets have asked how many ways you can say “I love you.” Maybe you can remember Paul Simon singing about 50 ways to say good bye to the one you love. Today we face the question of how many ways God can say “Heal.” How many different ways can God speak to us the welcome of His grace that brings healing and life. How many ways can God say “save” or “The Kingdom has come near you.” Today we remember the life of a physician who learned from Jesus that healing is not a matter of fixing the body but fixing the person for eternal life. This physician become evangelist teaches us where the Kingdom of God comes near, there is the healing word that welcomes sinners, restores the broken, gives life to the dying and saves us.

We are conditioned to think only in medical terms, to frame healing in the context of that which repairs this body and lengthens this life. When we go to the doctor we expect a prescription or procedure that will make us feel better – that is the only healing we care about. But today God enlarges our understanding of healing and connects it to His Kingdom in Jesus Christ. He moves us to see healing the context of salvation. Where His Kingdom is, there is healing for all our ills, for sin, and even for death. Where His kingdom is proclaimed, forgiveness takes place, life stronger than death is bestowed, and we are made whole through the grace revealed in Jesus Christ. God gives us more than a band-aid to bind us through but the life that steals away our death so that we might live forevermore.

So how many ways can you say “Be healed... or Be forgiven...” Today we learn that healing comes to us through the Kingdom of God which has come near to us in Jesus Christ, to repair us for life now and to prepare us for life to come. And the great thing about it is that you and I not only hear this word of hope and promise, we actually become the speakers whose voices proclaim this hope and healing, forgiveness and redemption, life and life everlasting. We do this in word and action - as Jesus did when He brought this grace to us.

The good news we need to hear is that: “The Kingdom of God is come near you.” The Word that brings the Kingdom is the word that speaks of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The Gospel Word is not some vague sentiment but the fact of Jesus suffering and death to bring us life and salvation. This Word accomplishes what it says. While some battle for the truthfulness of Scripture, the question remains what good is a word that is true but has no power to do what it says. Scripture is efficacious. That is a medical term. Medicine that relieves pain as it promises is efficacious. Well God’s Word is efficacious – it delivers what it promise and does what it says. So when we proclaim this Word, healing takes place, sins are forgiven, lives are reborn, and death is overcome.

In Word we hear not simply the message of the cross but receive the blessings of that cross applied to us even though they were earned by Jesus Christ. When we speak Jesus Christ and Him crucified, there the treasures He won for us are unleashed to work in us, among us, and through us. In Word we receive the new life that Christ won for us by paying the price of our old lives. In Word we hear the promise and pledge of God to be with us throughout this earthly journey and more. He stands at death’s door to open that which sin closed and to impart to us the life that sin and death cannot touch – the new and eternal life of heaven, which Jesus has prepared for us and which He gives to us freely and willingly - to all who believe.

When God brings His Kingdom near to us, He brings to us this healing Word of the cross that keeps its promises and does what it says to heal us from sin’s wounds and death and to impart to us His forgiveness and life. But the Word can also speak through actions. Just as Jesus formed some clay to open the ears of the deaf and touched the sick to heal them and even called the dead to life from their grace, so does God speaks to us through actions. We call these means of grace, where His Word is attached to the element – water in baptism and bread and wine in Holy Communion. In the waters of baptism He says “The Kingdom of God is come near you.” At the rail where we receive the body and blood of Christ, God says to us: “The Kingdom of God is near you...”

When the sick hear that Christ is present with them in their time of need and does not abandon us in our weakness, when we realize that illness is not God’s mark of personal displeasure against us but the fruit of our sinful and fallen world, and when God sustains the wounded and hurting with grace, that is healing.

When the tempted remain faithful despite the lure of temptation, when they seek the strength of Christ to stand firm in faith, and when they resist the enticement of the devil, the world, and the flesh with the Word of Christ, that is healing. When the poor, the needy, and the unloved feel the warm embrace of God’s working through His people, when they learn the Kingdom of God is not distant or remote but near and close, bringing love and care to lift them up, that is healing.

When sinners come with a load of guilt and hear absolution in Jesus’ name, where God unpacks the heavy weight of sin’s burden and takes its load upon Himself, that is healing. Where we speak to one another the healing word of absolution to rebuild our relationships just as it has rebuilt our relationship with our heavenly Father, that is healing.

St. Luke the Physician became St. Luke the Evangelist but his purpose remained the same. He exchanged one limited understanding of healing with the expansive understanding of Jesus, whose Word brings healing for the body, healing for sin, healing for life, and healing for death.

St. Luke’s Day is a traditional day to focus upon God’s healing acts in all their forms – those that take away our physical burdens, those that bring healing to our wounded spirits, those that heal our souls through forgiveness, and those that heal our death marked bodies for eternal life. They are not different graces but the one healing grace that flows from Christ and the power of His cross. In many and various ways God speaks healing to us, today we learn that where His Word and Sacraments are, there is His Kingdom come near to us, and there is our healing Lord at work in us and through us. Amen.

And In the Hour of Our Death...

It has been my privilege many times to be with someone in their last moments before death. For some, awake and alert, the focus was on the comfort, consolation, and assurance. Reminding them of their baptism and of the promise and pledge God gave to them there, I gently moved them to see how this was now the completing of that baptismal grace. For some, with few cues to what they heard, the focus was more upon the family gathered in vigil around the one they loved. But again the same focus -- what God began in baptism is now made complete.

For most of these times I used the form for the Commendation of the Dying (from the Little Agenda of Lutheran Worship). I have not gotten used to the Pastoral Companion to the Lutheran Service Book and besides I almost know the old rite by heart. The part that I like best is when the Pastor lays his hand on the head of the dying Christian and says:

God in peace (name). My God the Father, who created you, my God the Son, who redeemed and saved you with His blood, may God the Holy Spirit, who sanctified you in the water of Holy Baptism, now receive you into the company of the saints and angels to live in the light of His glory forevermore.

Then that wonderful stanza from "Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart"

Then let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram's bosom bear me home
That I may die unfearing.
Within my earthen chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That my own eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my ground of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, Oh, hear my prayer;
Oh, hear my prayer. Thy love surround me ev'rywhere.

It is the greatest of privileges to sit with a family and bring to them the consoling word of the Gospel in the moment of a loved one's death. It is a cherished moment for me as a Pastor. I dare not squander this moment in small talk or sentiment. Nothing less than the Gospel will do, the Word which gives life in the midst of death.

Too often people die alone in hospitals or nursing homes. Sometimes families do not want to be there. My wife is a nurse in a critical care unit and more than I can count she has stayed by the bedside of one dying so that that person is not alone. We need to sing a Te Deum for those who care for our loved ones in their dying hours. But I wish that more families and more Pastors could be there with their parishioners for this final act of love's duties.

"Now and in the hour of our death..." is a well known phrase from the Rosary. I steal it here to commend the practice of keeping vigil with those soon to depart this life. Far from being the victory of death, the Christian sees this moment as the triumph of Christ's life. That we carry in our bodies this victory until finally we are sealed in its power and transported from death to life is one of the great comforts of Christian faith and life. That we may echo Job's words with our own voices "I shall not die but live" is the hallmark of this moment.

As one who has been at that bedside many times, who has kept vigil over a body when family is not around, who has waited for the coroner and the legalities when shut ins have been found dead, and who has brought many families into a hospital room to allow them to say their good byes, I cherish the trust these people place in me and the solemn yet wonderful duty a Pastor keeps when you are with those in the hour of their death. Pray, yes... but speak calmly and forcefully what we already know but may not remember in the clash of emotions and tears... I look for in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come... Amen.