Wednesday, March 31, 2010

They weren’t just being intentionally evil....

I read on another blog a discussion about Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ and complaints were made about the way, in this reviewer's opinion, the role of Satan was exaggerated in the movie.  The reviewer complained about how some people see Satan behind every wickedness or evil.  In this particular instance, he said that the chief priests and rulers of the Temple were merely trying to protect Israel (the nation and the faith) against what they saw was an attack.  They weren't intentionally just being evil...

That phrase caught my eye.  "intentionally being evil..."  It occurs to me that most of the evil in the world is not intentional.  Even the most psychotic and brutal figures in history have seen themselves not as evil but as a force for order.  Granted this is a self-justification or excuse of their demonic deeds but the point here is that how much evil and wickedness is intentional and does it have to be intentional to be demonic or of the Devil?

Clearly the early Church Fathers saw Satan as the orchestrator of the actions and events that led up to Jesus' passion and death.  They did not excuse the leaders of Israel from their duplicity or responsibility for the role that they played but they identified this evil as demonic.  But we today are much more hesitant to describe the wickedness we find around us or the evils of this world as of the Devil.  We think, perhaps, that we are too educated and sophisticated to think in such simple (and ?superstitious) terms.  For us evil is just evil and wickedness is just wickedness.  It has become banal, commonplace, and ordinary.  We explain it, we look for a cause to explain it, and we reason it away as simple cause and effect behavior.  Or, we assign psychological explanation to it (as if all evil or wickedness were the result of some personality disorder -- the number of such disorders being multiplied regularly).

When we as Christians assign evil and wickedness to Satan, we are not be overly dramatic nor simplistic in our approach to this terrible stuff.  We are being honest, speaking honestly from a world view shaped by Scripture.  It was Satan who tempted Jesus.  It was Satan and his legions whom Jesus confronted over and over again.  It was Satan who entered the heart of Judas.  It was Satan who smugly thought this was the demise of his nemesis (going back to the Garden and the Fall where this cosmic battle was first spoken of).  This does not diminish the role and responsibility of those who acted intentionally to end Jesus' interference or input into Israel's identity and faith.  They may not have been intentionally evil but evil they were and this evil is not some generic evil but the wickedness spawned by Satan and his ways and influence over our weak and fragile human hearts.

So it is with evil and wickedness in the world around us.  We can explain it away in terms of cause and effect relationships.  We can justify it by placing it within contexts that might make the terrible more understandable or reasonable, a response to terrible done to them, for example.  We can assign it to a psychological disorder and make it an illness that needs to be understood and dealt with compassionately instead of condemned.  We can make everyone who disagrees with us a messenger of Satan and reduce the complicity of the human will and heart after the Fall.

Or we can admit that intentional or not, evil and wickedness are the fruit of sin, the fruit of Satan's garden and seed that has corrupted the garden of God's planting and all who live in it.  We can acknowledge the guilt and responsibility of those who are complicit with the evil that springs from their own hearts, from the evil of the world, and from the evil born of Satan's dark power.  And then we can see them acting and working together, a concert of demonic and sinful creating the awful music of death and destruction.

It seems to me that this is the path of Scripture.  We are contending against fleshly evil that we face in the mirror, with the fleshly evil of the people around us in a world askew from God's creative purpose, and with the spiritual evil of him who orchestrates darkness for its terrible purpose as a conductor would lead musicians to work together for a larger purpose.  This is Scripture's witness to us.  It does not undermine or diminish our own responsibility but it acknowledges that the evil and wickedness faced by Jesus and faced by each of us who bear His name by baptism is more than just some bad choices.

On this silent Wednesday, when we hear nothing from Scripture of what Jesus said or did as the week approached its destiny, I can only believe that Jesus was left to pray... for Himself facing the evil one and for the God whose will triumphs even in the face of all Satan's wickedness and helpers of evil... for His disciples who would be tested by this darkness and found weak themselves (Peter)... for Judas whom He loved but knew his heart was corrupted by evil... and for the wonderful result of such terrible suffering -- a message to be preached to all the world in His name...  So we might pray... for Christ to stand with us in the darkness, to shine with the light that the darkness cannot overcome... for contrition and repentance from our complicity with evil and wickedness... for wisdom and discernment to recognize the forces we face as Christian people... and for the world that lives its life in the shadow of this evil and death...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

We Need to Spice It Up a Bit...

Some years ago I was asked by another Lutheran Pastor what I "did" on Easter.  He was thinking that things were beginning to get a little routine and dull and said, "We need to spice it up a bit..."  Maybe some of you have thought like this as well.  After all it is Easter (or Christmas) and we should not just do the same old stuff we do every other Sunday.  We need to find something to spice it up a bit and make it special.

The problem with this thinking is that the liturgy here is seen as a tool (in the hand of the Pastor or parish musician or worship committee or whomever...).  In this respect, the Pastor who spoke with me viewed worship through the very same lens as those who practice CCW (contemporary Christian worship, for the non-initiated).  What you do in worship is merely a tool to get you somewhere, to facilitate something else.  Now the Pastor who spoke with me was very "traditional" and never strayed too far from the hymnal, yet, he saw the liturgy as routine, dull, and even, perhaps, boring.  At least too much so for Easter.

The problem with this is that despite which tools you use (form of liturgy or lack of a form) the liturgy is merely a means to get you somewhere.  Therein lies the problem.  The liturgy is the place where you need to go -- it does not take you somewhere else but is itself the destination.  This is NOT because the liturgy claims this for itself but because the liturgy IS the Word of God sung and said, the liturgy is the framework on which our Lord speaks to us the voice of absolution for our sins, the voice of truth in the lessons, and the food of His body and blood in the Supper.  This is what the liturgy is -- Word and Table -- structured and supported over the centuries through the words of Scripture and the voice of the Church (summarizing that Word) so that it is the destination.

This is what is so misunderstood on both sides of the worship wars.  The liturgy is not some human form foisted upon us but the pattern (and even words) of the Synagogue and Upper Room, the worship Jesus participated in while He walked this earth (the Liturgy of the Word) and the worship He instituted (both the absolution and the Supper).  The liturgy conveys Christ to us.  It does not exist for its own sake as if some traditional form was worthier than some modern day form.  We value it and its value to us is because it conveys Christ to us, as it has across the millenia of the Church's existence and life.  There have been times of renewal and times of loss within the Church and her history but the steady constant has been (and we pray shall always be) the Liturgy of the Word and of the Table.

This fellow wanted to spice things up.  This we do not do.  Sure, we may had brass or special choral music or palms or a host of other things... but not to spice things up a bit.  No, if and when these things detract from the liturgy itself and from the Christ whom the liturgy reveals, then these things must also be removed.  When the Church gathers on Easter to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord, the liturgy ensures that it is this crucified and risen Lord who is in our midst (through the Word and Sacrament, the means of grace) and that the focus is on Him who was dead and now is alive forevermore.  If this is not enough for us, a little spice is not going to improve what it is that is present in the liturgy and the Christ who comes to us through His Word and Sacrament (which is the flesh and blood of the liturgy).  The additional ceremonial or attendant actions or music flow from what it is that is being celebrated (such as Easter) but the liturgy is always enough for whatever the season, feast, festival, or day.

Those who promote the liturgy are not promoting a form or style but the Christ who is the center of the liturgical assembly, whose absolution prepares us to enter the holy of holies, whose Word speaks efficaciously, and whose Table feeds us upon heaven's food of bread His Body and wine His blood.  This is the steady constant in the lives of the people gathered and in the life of the Church over the centuries.  To lose it, is to lose our very identity and Christ's presence among us.  We dare not treat it as a tool toward an end or regard it as something routine that needs spicing up for special effect.  Christ is that special effect.

We do not believe in Holy Communion in general.  We believe in THE Holy Communion of a people gathered in the name of Jesus, in the House of God, around the Table of our Lord.  It is a doctrine which we participate in, not some general truism.  The same for the Word.  We believe in THE Word that speaks as it has always spoken, the life-giving Word that does what it says and accomplishes His purpose in speaking it.  It is the Word which draws us in and sends us forth, transformed by grace. 

Well, enough meandering for today. . .

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Surprise in Tennessee

Palm Sunday brought to its close our 50th Anniversary Year at Grace Lutheran Church.  We began with Dr. Dale Meyer, included Dr. Paul Maier, and ended with The Rev. John Nunes as Guest Preachers.  Today is that actual 51st Anniversary date but, well, we transfer things in the Church when the calendar does not fit our needs...

First let me express our thanks and appreciation to those who worked so hard during this anniversary year of celebration (especially Kay Haase, who chaired the committee).  Let me also express our thanks and appreciation for the good words brought to us by Meyer, Maier, and Nunes.  Just in case you were not there or were not listening, each of them spoke very highly of this congregation, grateful for the liturgy and music, supportive for the strong sense of mission, and encouraged by the welcome and obvious connections they felt as someone new coming into this parish.  I am personally grateful for the supportive and encouraging words they spoke about my own ministry here.

My point here is not to puff us up.  My point is to challenge us.  For a long time I have felt that we do not appreciate all that God has done and is doing in, with, and through us.  We think too small of God and of ourselves.  We are constantly aware of limitations but not so fully aware of the unlimited grace of God that has abounded throughout our past and will certainly abound in the today and tomorrows to come.  We have grown accustomed to the good liturgy, good music, and Gospel preaching and teaching that these individuals recognized as our strengths.  Indeed, our greatest weakness is that we seem intent upon diminishing what we could do and what we should do as a congregation of people set apart by God for His purpose.

Pastor Nunes directs Lutheran World Relief -- a giant enterprise of development and support.  He meets with all sorts of people all the time (many of them news making politicians and celebrities).  He has literally flown all over the US to bring the good word of the good work of LWR and has preached in hundreds of parishes of all sizes and kinds.  He acknowledged that he was surprised when he came to Tennessee.  He did not expect to find a parish so filled with the life of the Spirit, with the good news of the Gospel, with the richness of a vibrant and authentic liturgy, and so much going for it.  He was surprised.  We were surprised because we do not see ourselves quite as He sees us.

Although I am speaking of this parish, I think my words hold true to many parishes of our church body.  We presume that better things are happening elsewhere and we diminish what is happening among us and through us.  I believe the time has come for us to stop assuming that we are too little, too lacking in resources, too off the beaten path (in the South) to invite and welcome new people...  I believe that we need to look into the mirror and see what God has given us, what we could do if we really marshaled all the resources of His grace, and what we should do as the Christ's Church and people in this place.  I only wish that we could see the surprise that Pr. Nunes saw and take to heart its possibilites...

What could we be if every one of us were in Church on Sunday morning?  It begins with the surprising expectation that everyone SHOULD be here every Sunday (and this we do not yet have).  We are too content to let people drop out and too slow to go after them and to hesitant to challenge them about where the people of God belong on the Lord's Day.  What could we be if every one of our children were in Sunday school and every adult in Bible study each Sunday?  It begins with the surprising expectation that this IS where everyone should be (and this is something we do not yet believe).  So we allow these things to be optional instead of essential to our individual lives in Christ and our life together as His people, His Church.

What could we be if every one of us gave faithfully, sacrificially, and cheerfully to the work of God's Kingdom?  It begins with the surprising expectation that all we have comes from and belongs to the Lord and that its most important purpose is for His work and His glory (which we do not yet believe).  So we limp along toward the work of sharing the Gospel, extending the compassionate care of Christ to community and world, providing the people who might effectively lead and support this work, and caring for this marvelous facility.

We expect less of ourselves than we should... Pr Nunes was surprised by what he found here... I wish we all were surprised like he was... for them we just might do a better job of using these God given resources...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Holy Week and Easter

Could there be a more busy time in the whole church year?  Between the preparation of worship bulletins, sermons, baptismal preparation of the Vigil candidates, and the services themselves, it is overwhelming from the perspective of the Pastor.  It can also be overwhelming from the perspective of the folks in the pew.  In my first parish I re-introduced Lenten services and introduced the full compliment of Holy Week services.  As the Easter Sunday crowd was leaving the building, one of the charter members of the congregation was standing there waiting for his wife who was gabbing with someone.  So I went up to him full of pride and asked, "Well, John, what did you think of the Holy Week and Easter services?"  I was not prepared for his answer.  "Too d____ much church."

He was not prepared for the full unfolding of the Triduum (Holy Thursday through the Vigil).  It was more than he was ready for.  At the time I was wounded and disappointed.  Now I see what he was saying.  He was overwhelmed by it all and coming one service after another, he did not have time to think or reflect or even react to what was happening in the Church.  He gave it a try again the following year with better results but it was more than he had experienced before and it was still jarring.  I take that not as criticism but as a reflection of how far we live our lives from the paschal mystery.  It IS jarring because it pulls us into a mystery we have but dabbled in and it makes us a participant in that mystery as it unfolds and is lived out in the liturgies of this week.

I once was disappointed when folks did not think that Holy Week and Easter were the best of all the services and the best of all the times in the church year.  Now I am not so disappointed.  It is not that they do not get it -- what they get is more than they have gotten before.  To a people who live our lives with God on the fringes and with ourselves in the middle, it is a challenging experience.  It is not just that the celebration of the Passion and Pascha was not done before or in this way before.  It is that too often what happens on Sunday morning barely touches on the death that gives life and the life that cannot die.  Between the programs and theme Sundays (from all over the Church) and the secular calendar and the ordinary things of our daily lives, we have grown distant from the Passion and death of Christ and so to celebrate it as the Church does is an abrupt shift for many of our folks.  Easter has become a once a year message instead of the life giving and life changing event that forever shapes our identity and perspective anew.  So when it all comes boiling down upon the folks, it is no surprise that it is overwhelming to them...

So be patient with those who pick and choose of the services, who find it all more than they expected, and who might not be as effusive in their praise of this liturgical week as you are... they are learning and growing to see through the lens of these services... and what they learn and see is the Paschal Mystery lived out right before their eyes and present to them in the Word and Sacraments... Christ has died... Christ is risen... Christ will come again...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Schedule

Palmarum - Sunday of the Passion
8:15 and 10:45 am - Blessing and Procession with Palms at both Eucharists
   Guest Preacher:  The Rev. Dr. John Nunes of Lutheran World Relief
   9:30 am - Dr. Nunes will report on the good work of LWR
12:30 pm - Potluck at the Final Celebration of our Anniversary Year
1 pm - Easter Egg Hunt

Monday of Holy Week\
7 pm - Compline

Wednesday of Holy Week\
12 Noon - Devotion Downtown (Sanctuary of MSUMC)

Holy Thursday
11 am - Eucharist (spoken)
6 pm - Soup and Bread\
7 pm - Eucharist and Stripping of the Altar

Good Friday\
12 Noon - Devotion at the Cross\
7 pm - Service of Darkness

Holy Saturday\
7 pm - Vigil (four baptisms scheduled)

The Resurrection of Our Lord - Easter Sunday
7 am - the First Eucharist of Easter Sunday
9 & 10:45 am - Festival Eucharist with Brass and Choir
     8 am - 10:15 am - Breakfast in the Fellowship Hall

Easter Monday
7 pm - Compline

Frustration and Fragmentation

Though there are not many anymore who can recall this, the atmosphere within the Synod was different prior to the unpleasantness of the 1970's.  I do not mean to say that there was no disagreement or that this disagreement was not heated (or passionate if you prefer).  It was all of this.  But it was much more likely that the people who disagreed so, well, passionately (or heatedly if you prefer) were still personally friendly after the dispute.  There was conversation after the argument.  We are much less likely to find that today.  Today it often seems that once the argument stops, the conversation stops.

I wish I knew the reason for this.  I have my suspicions.  One of them is related to the dramatic change in teaching and training Pastors that was the outcome of some of this conflict.  The end of the feeder college system, of the Senior College for the vast majority of pre-sems, the change from first career to an even number of second career Pastors, and the change from the majority of seminarians coming from a parsonage or teacherage to the majority coming from non-church worker homes all have contributed to a loss of colleagiality and a loss of civility.  The other is that the isolation that followed the unpleasantness of the 1970s has made more attractive for both Pastors and parishes to simply do your own thing and hide out off the radar scope.  So there are larger numbers of people who have no part in the conversation at all.

Another thing is the increasing compartmentalization of our lives, our culture, and our churches.  I recall coming into my first District Pastoral Conference and being welcomed by the gray hairs who had been there forever.  They spoke to me and I returned the conversation and we got to know each other.  I notice less and less of this going on.  Older guys tend to have a "wait and see" attitude about the newbies.  Newbies tend to think of the gray hairs as out of touch with the world/church/technology of today.  I recall being at a District Pastoral Conference soon after I moved to Tennessee.  I knew hardly anyone and found myself without anyone to eat with when everyone took off to the restaurants for lunch.  I ended up eating with the church growth crowd and after a minute of introductions the conversation veered away and I sat and ate in silence.  I am not saying they were rude but they had an agenda, they were agenda driven, and I was not part of the agenda -- an economy of words and time dictated that I was the odd man out.

Not everyone I am friends with sees eye to eye with me.  One of my closest friends forsook Lutheranism for Anglicanism for Orthodoxy for Roman Catholic - Eastern Rite.  Obviously I have not shared that journey but the divergent paths did not do as much to our relationship as his time living in South Africa.  Many of my friends use the hymnal but are low church in ceremony, casual and even conflicted about their feelings for the liturgy.  Yet our friendship is not harmed by disagreements.

If Gerald Kieschnick walked into a restaurant and there were places at the table among his opponents, I am fairly certain they would not invite him over to sit with them.  If Matt Harrison walked into the same restaurant and there were places at the table among his opponents, I am fairly certain they would not invite him over to sit with them.  This is not a good thing.  In fact, it is precisely this that will prevent our Synod from enjoying peace and good will.  I am not accusing everyone or painting with a broad brush, but unless and until we can confront the serious theological divide within our church body and do this as brothers in Christ (and sisters), the rancor and division will continue long after the theological conversation is ended.  In the same way, unless and until we stop papering over our theological disputes with some artificial "why can't we all just be friends," no amount of this kind of friendship can or will bind together the divergent theological opinions.

When St. Paul took St. Peter to task in Acts, it was not a personal dispute but a theological difference.  Apparently the Church was not divided by this and, if I am allowed to add on to the corpus of the NT, I might suggest that they both met for some brats and beer after the Council and continued the conversation begun under more official circumstances...

So I would encourage us to speak... to speak honestly... to speak openly... to speak with those we disagree with... to speak with those we do agree with... and to continue the conversation long after the theological debate has ended for the day... but especially to be people of good will... who will give our relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ at least equal passion with our voicing of our positions over theological differences...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Why Does It Take So Long for Children to Grow Up?

Horses drop out and start walking around... even elephants stick with their parents only a few years... We are neither the largest nor most numerous of all of God's creation yet we take the longest to grow up.  It takes forever to teach a child to walk and then you wonder why you rushed it.  It takes forever to potty train a child and it takes longer before they appreciate all your efforts.  You may send them out into the world (or college at least) at age 18 but parents are never sure their children are really ready or mature.  You watch them get a job and get married and we wonder how they will do it... But nowhere in nature does this angst and turmoil take place over decades the way it does among us children of men.

Why?   Why would God design is so (or are you ready to chalk it all up to sin and its effects)?

Could it be that this was by God's design?  Could be God's intention that we people take so long to grow and mature before we stand on our own?  If so, why?

I had been pondering this question for some time (being a parent of three children and having been a child myself once still) when I realized that the home is the place where we (are meant to) learn of God.  The home is the principal religious school of the Hebrews and of us Christians.  I am not all suggesting the Church is optional or non-essential but that the first place I learned God's love was through my parents actions and words.  It was in their care for me that I first felt the embrace of God's love and the warmth of His merciful touch.  It was from them I learned to call Him Father and to pray "Our Father..."  It was from them I learned of the cross and what took place there for me and my salvation through Jesus Christ.  It was from them I learned to call Jesus MY Lord as their faith taught my own heart to believe by the power of the Spirit.  It was from them I learned that faith's values extend to the way we speak and live.  It was from them I found forgiveness was not just a word.  It was from them I learned to call God's House my own home.  It was my parents who brought me to the waters of baptism, brought me to Sunday school and catechism class, who took me with them to the services of God's House, who taught me to be responsible for that house by giving it respect and care as the special place of His Word and Sacraments...

Is this chance or was this by design?  The home was meant to be the primary place where faith is imparted, nurtured, and it matures IN CONJUNCTION with the Church.  Was this not the case for Jesus who was born into a home of faith, nurtured in that faith, and introduced to the Temple and synagogue by Joseph and Mary?  Is this not what Luther understood when he wrote the catechism for parents to teach their children?  Is the home not the strength (or by its absence) the weakness of the Church?

No, God knew what He was doing in making it take so long for children to grow up and mature and leave home to establish their own... It was by God's design that the home might be that place where a child is raised in the faith so that he or she will not depart from it but carry it with them wherever they go.  They may choose to reject what has been given to them as a gift but they cannot erase what faith has placed in them.  This was God's plan all along...

When we find that the home fails to provide what God intended, we find the weak link that proves a large barrier to Christian faith and life.  It is not enough to do all other things well in raising your children only to leave out what equips them for eternal life in additional to earthly life.  Ultimately, unless we are prepared for eternity, we are handicapped for this present life.  So encourage parents in their godly role and purpose as agents of faith and, parents, be encouraged in this most important part of who you are and what you are to do... it is a great blessing and benefit that lasts long after we as parents are gone...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The exchange of meaningless words...

Now let me put it up front that I am not antagonistic toward diplomacy.  I do believe in the value of conversation between those of differing viewpoints.  But in order for real diplomacy to take place, the words in that conversation must have meaning and power.  They must be honest words.

In the beginning, the ecumenical task was to begin a conversation with people who had not been doing much talking.  I can well recall reading the first volumes of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic conversation and marveling at what was the substance of that conversation.  These were deep words, words that both described and communicated well what was believed, taught, and confessed.  Maybe it was the caliber of the participants or the fresh air of these initial dialogs, but whatever the reason they produced substantial documents that I still refer to from time to time.

Somewhere along the way, this ecumenical conversation changed.  Instead of summoning up the courage to confront what different communions believed, taught, and confessed, it became an exchange of meaningless words.  Yes, there may have been something learned in the exchange but this became secondary to the agreement that agreement was so important, differences should not be allowed to prevent it.  So we went from those early conversations with the likes of Piepkorn, Gartner, McSorely and Tavard (among the many names on the list) to the kinds of conversations that ended up saying Methodists and Presbyterians could commune with Lutherans (the ELCA variety, at least).

I for one welcome the pull back of Rome with respect to the Joint Declaration on Justification -- it is not because I do not want or seek or pray for such unanimity of confession, no, it is because I know that such unanimity can only occur when we speak honestly our convictions and not when we tailor the words to fit the audience.  In this I credit both John Paul II and Benedict XVI for reiterating what Rome believes and teaches.  It is not an ecumenical set back when we confront these differences but it is a betrayal of honest ecumenism when we paper over them for the sake of appearance.

In many respects, the final effect of this shift has been felt internally as much as externally, within the church bodies as much as between them.  There is no shortage of words.  There is a shortage of words with meaning.  Read through the essays and papers that once marked the Free Conferences among Lutherans or those presented in Synod Conventions and you see solid and substantial positions expressed.  Now, we often find ourselves speaking less about substance and more about style, having neatly divided faith, worship, and piety so neatly.

It occurs to me that we will spend $2+ million on the next Synodical Convention and who much of the time and words will be the meaningful words of a solid theological debate and how much the exchange of meaningless words?  The same could be said of many other gatherings of Missouri churches -- from youth gatherings to women's auxiliaries to men's groups...

If we cannot speak meaningful words, then the only words left for our conversation are those that do not carry much meaning.  When that happens the very power of the Church and her witness is compromised.  We are here because God spoke and things came to be.  We are here in faith because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.  We are here together because someone spoke this Word to us so that the Spirit might work faith in our hearts (the spoken Word or the Visible Word of the Sacraments).  We are here to speak the Word the cleaves the darkness, the two edged sword that kills and gives life.  We are Word people (written, oral, with water, spoke in absolution, and in bread and wine).  When we begin living contentedly with meaningless words, there is nothing left to call us, gather us, enlighten us and sanctify us from assembly to congregation, from people to Church.  When the character of our conversation moves from "this we believe" to merely an exchange of ideas, it really matters little what we say within our communion or between communions.

I spend way too much time reading words that are essentially meaningless.  Whether the techno speak that continues to through new words out (missional, paradigm, transformational, etc.) or the old vocabulary of the Church minus our conviction, such words waste our time.  It is better to read the wrong but believed words of those with whom you disagree than to read the meaningless words that puff the moment but leave us nothing to grasp hold of before they are gone...

When preaching, it is a good thing to use the full toolbox of the communicator but in service to the meaningful Word of the cross.  When writing in newsletters and church bulletins, it is a good thing to promote and chronicle the parish agenda but understanding that this is the most serious of business for the Gospel is to be proclaimed not only among us but through us to the world.  When programing and planning it is a good thing to consider how best to accomplish the goal but the goal must be nothing less than to proclaim the full counsel of God's Word so that hearts may be convicted by the Spirit with respect to sin and reborn in faith by the Spirit by the power of the Gospel.

Let us resolve to be people of substance, whose words have meaning and power and speak truth and life in Christ.  Let us resolve to speak them passionately and compassionately both within the communions in which we live out our faith and between communions as we seek the honest unity of doctrine and truth.  Let the Church not be accused either falsely or truthfully of exchanging meaningless words anymore...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How Can This Be?

I read online about incense from the Prinknash Abbey in Gloucester (read that England).  Anyway, I ordered some to try it out and behold it got here from Great Britain... in four days regular mail... YES, 4 DAYS!!!  REGULAR MAIL!!  What???  I cannot even get a letter to St. Louis (four hours away) in 4 days...  

"Suprise, suprise, suprise...." said Gomer.... (and no, I did not misspell it)...

When we Shine, We Shine...

In response to the actions of the ELCA Church Wide Assembly in August of 2009, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has produced a document both fair and eloquent in addressing the issues.  It makes me proud when a group of people with a diversity of views in Missouri and work together and speak so well.

You can read the ten page document (PDF format) by clicking on this LCMS Link.  I would urge you to read it and to think on the well reasoned and Scriptural response that was crafted here.  Clearly, if we can marshal the resources to speak with such clarity and conviction to our brothers and sisters in the ELCA, we have the ability to muster the theological resources to speak to some of the burning issues within our own church body...

Kudos to the authors and to President Kieschnick for making this statement possible...

The Call of God Beckons Us

Sermon for Lent 5, Preached Sunday, March 21, 2010.

Well past five years since Katrina, reports have it that New Orleans is still 1/4 smaller in population than it was prior to the storm.  There are thousands of exiles from New Orleans who are living comfortably in other cities across America for a variety of reasons.  Some of them may return down the road, others will be exiles from their home forever.

The same was true of Israel of old.  For a variety of reasons, Israel found many of its people carried or sent off in exile.  Even though Rome brought peace and economic stability to the region, the Jews remained in the homes of their exile rather than returning home.

As I look out on our congregation, I see a lot of people who are like me and my family.  We too are exiles.  We are living far from where we grew up. Whether military or industry or chance has brought you here, you are living as exiles, distant from your home and family.  As hard as it was to uproot yourself and live in exile, it is not easy to go home, either.  We live in the tension of a comfort with where we are and a desire to find our way home.

That is how it is with some who have stopped attending worship, with those whose faith has grown cold, or with those who move into this community yet never seem to connect with a church home.  They live with an exile identity and yet they are comfortable enough with their exilic home to resist the call to come home.  The call to come home is exactly what we hear from the Lord today.  Come, home...

The home that God promises to us is rest from our enemies.  All the battles that we fight in life and all the skirmishes that mar our days – these all find an end in the home that God has prepared for us.  God promises us peace from all the disappointments of our yesterdays.  All the broken promises of others and the failed intentions of our own lives are met finally and fully in Jesus Christ.

The home that God promises to us is grace to answer all the longing of our hearts for peace amid the turmoil and upsets of this life.  He promises joy that will carry us through all the down turns and sorrows of this life.  All the things that would steal away our peace and rob us of contentment and joy, these are met in the God who reveals Himself to us as Savior and Lord in Jesus Christ.

Our God promises restoration of that which was lost to us by sin.  The lives that we must now live in a broken world and under the long dark shadow of death cast over our every day are restored – not simply to the condition of Eden but better.  The loss of our identity and purpose when the gate of Eden was closed to us – these are now restored to us in the baptism.  The people whom God formed for Himself have been restored by Him to their holy calling of declaring His praise to all the ends of the earth.

To be God’s own, to live under Him, to serve Him, and to declare His praise in all that we do and in all that we are – this was stolen from us by sin’s exile.  Because we have grown so comfortable in the misery of a life where death rules and sin compromises our hope, we forget what we have lost and we miss what He has restored in Christ.  He is our hope – not the bringer of hope but He is our hope; our lives rest in Him.

He has become an exile with us and for us.  He has left the marvelous glory of heaven to enter our world.  He has met our enemies of sin, death, the grave, and the devil.  Christ has kept the promise of the Father and fulfilled the promises etched in Scripture’s words over generations.  He has come to bring the exiles home that we might be restored in hope and life as God’s children and serve Him with all that we are.

Christ is our freedom – our freedom from want and desire, from need and pleasure.  He gives us all that is His – all that He won by His suffering and death, all that He earned by His willing obedience, and all that He accomplished by His death that gives us life and His life stronger than death.

He is the one who makes the orphans God’s children once again, who restores to us the possibility of living noble and godly lives, who makes it possible for us to declare the eternal glory of the Father by our witness.

This is the God who makes a way in the wilderness for the exiles to return, who takes from us the fear that would make us choose today over eternity, who breaks down the barriers of fear that would choose to live to fulfill our own selfish desire instead of living to fulfill the glory of Him to whom we belong.

In Jesus’ parable of the tenants in the vineyard, we see what happens when we forget our exile and decide to claim today for ourselves.  It was selfishness that made them choose the things of the moment for eternity.  It was desire that led them to do whatever it took to preserve what they had.  But these were born of fear – the fear and desire of the exile whose heart who has chosen today over eternity, a life to fulfill self instead of serving the Lord, and rejected the beckoning call of God to come home to Him.

Are we like this?  Do we live so comfortably in our exile here and in this life marred by sin that we would reject God’s gift of eternity?  Could it be that we also turn away God’s overtures to us because, like the tenants in the vineyard, we want to possess today more than we desire His eternity?  Have we grown so comfortable living outside of the Lord that we resent returning to Him what is His – I am not speaking of offerings that we steal to pay for our own wants... I am speaking of our very selves, the lives that were born of His creation, redeemed by His love in Christ, and restored to the purpose and place we had in creation of serving the Lord with all that we have and are?  Exiles who have grown so comfortable living away from our home in the Lord have nothing but the moment and their memories.  But God bids us come home to the grace that gives us the present life for which we were created and the eternal life beyond imagination.

The reaction of the tenants is understandable to us.  They had worked the ground and harvested the fruit – why should they not get it all?  Why would they give the owner anything when they labored for the harvest?  That is the language of exiles talking, exiles who have become so comfortable with their home in exile that they no longer desire what home offers.  But the language of faith sees today for what it is, acknowledges our lost condition, and rejoices in what God has done to give us the today in which we live and also the everlasting tomorrow Jesus has prepared for us.

Paul’s words remain a mystery to us as long today looms so large in our hearts that we no longer burn or desire for the eternity God has provided for us... ‘whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ...”  But if we build our life for today and for eternity on the cornerstone which is Jesus Christ, we will have today and forever.  We are exiles in this present life.  We can enjoy what it brings us and we can live in the regret of its brokenness, but we dare not hold on to it too tightly or we will miss what today is supposed to be and the tomorrow that we never dreamed of. We are exiles and our dwelling place is with God for all eternity.  Our purpose here is to tend the Lord’s vineyard and return to Him the fruits that are His.  Only Christ makes this possible.  And the surprise of grace is that God grant us eternal possession of the heavenly vineyard. This is what our focus needs to be to overcome fear, to let go of our regret, and to know peace that passes all understanding and joy even amid sorrow.  Amen

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Who are we? Playing both sides against the middle...

When I teach my Intro to Lutheranism classes one of the areas I struggle with most is how to define us with respect to the other (thinking here, mainly two) Lutheran groups in America.  I am not inclined to go over a checklist of everywhere we agree, disagree, agree to disagree, or disagree that we don't agree... I think that kind of misses the point of what people are looking for -- something more short hand and easy to apply...

So I have said... the ELCA approaches things with the view point that whatever Scripture does not expressly forbid is therefore permitted and even then, somethings that Scripture forbids we permit under the rule of the Gospel principle trumps specific law...  the WELS approaches things with the view point that whatever Scripture does not expressly permit is therefore forbidden (hence Scouts, etc...) and then Missouri's approach is well, it all depends on what we are talking about... If Scripture speaks then it is answered and if it does not speak expressly to this, we must apply what Scripture does say to the particular issue...

And I have said the ELCA has chosen to identify with mainline Protestantism in America (Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians)... they have tied their identity and their future to this trajectory...  The WELS has chosen to identify with a conservative Evangelical identity rooted in the inerrancy of Scripture and a high standard of fellowship... and Missouri has .... and this is where I fall down... are we the happy clappy Evangelicals or the evangelical and catholic people of the Augsburg Confession.... I know what I would like to say but I also know that is not the whole truth...

So, without going over a checklist of individual areas of agreement or disagreement... anyone got a better quick answer to this whole thing???

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Curse of the General Against the Specific

When we do not like the specifics, we often tend to find some general perspective or principle we can take away.  With respect to the Confessions, I think it is abundantly clear that the presumption is that the Church of the Augsburg Confession (hey there's a new name for Missouri) will continue the Mass (in slightly revised or altered form - about which there is ample commentary within the Confessions themselves).  None of the authors of the Lutheran Confessions could envision a time when the people of God would not gather on the Lord's Day for the recognizable form of the Mass.  Sure, there were things dropped (like the Canon) but most of these things were not things immediately recognizable to the people in the pew.  The Canon was prayed quietly at the altar, the language was Latin, and the priest often separated from the congregation either by distance or other clergy.

Some suggest that the Confessions do not prescribe a liturgical format, and, to a certain extent that is true, since they do not contain the text or form within their documents.  However, they describe what is going on among the churches that confess the Augustana.  When they say, "this is what we are doing" (or We are falsely accused of having abolished the Mass), they are not saying "This is what we are doing now but that might change soon" or "This is what some of us are doing" or even "This is the first stage in the reform of the Mass which is ongoing among us...."  Their descriptive language is in itself prescriptive since nowhere in the Confessions is their any signal of an intent to vary or deviate from this fundamental statement that is put in confessional form.

Now, whether bells are used or not... whether or how the elevation takes place... the chanting or speaking of the Mass... the inclusion of hymns by the congregation... the vestments worn by the priest... the number or lack of assistants in various roles... whether music or not... whether genuflection or bowing or not... these practices may and did vary from place to place without the violation of the unity expressed in that Augustana.  Why?  Because the form was there.

Luther had opinions about the liturgy but resisted the idea that he should make the model.  He did not feel this was a strictly congregational choice but a reflection of the Christian liberty inherent to the Gospel (even though he did understand that regional choices might be different enough that some would find it straining upon the fabric of unity) but as long as the mass form was there, an evangelical church would find accommodation.  The 16th century church orders indicate that these were not congregational but regional jurisdictional choices.

Today it is as if Lutherans think that the Confessions only say "we have not abolished Holy Communion."  It is as if it were the Sacrament that was being retained, with full and complete freedom to determine how that Sacrament would be celebrated or how often.  It is as if people read the specifics of the Confessions, did not like them, and changed them into general directions -- with the requisite nod to the desirability of uniformity of order and similarity of ceremonies.

This is a great tactic but it deals with the Confessions falsely.  We do not subscribe to a bunch of general or generic statements that we can apply as we see fit.  The Confessions are remarkably specific and tie the practices to specific affirmations of faith (as in this case the false accusation of abolishing the Mass becomes the assertion that we celebrate the Mass with more fervor, faith, and faithfulness than our opponents.

So those who might make this a worship war unseemly fought over things about which the Confessions are silent or offer wide latitude are mistaken.  These worship wars are battles over very specific things, and very specific things in our Confessions.

Now the Lutheran Church has been extremely averse to mandates or requirements (all that Law stuff we feel so uncomfortable about) and this has led to great abuses (more chief among them the infrequent celebration of the Sacrament even more so than contemporary Christian worship) but that does not mean our hesitance to insist upon what we have said means we did not really say it.  We did.  And someday we will have to face up to it...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

If you can't get rid of it, celebrate it...

A little while ago I got a note in the mail about a person I knew who had died.  The information on the death concluded with this line:  Because [name] enjoyed life to the fullest and would not want us to wallow in our sorrows over his death, there will be no funeral.  Instead we invite you to come to a celebration of his life.  If you cannot be present, click on the link to add your own (hopefully) humorous stories about how [name] loved and relished every moment of his life...

Now the rub.  First of all, last time I had spoken to his individual he was a Christian -- though no mention of this appeared in this death notice and description of the "arrangements."  Second, this person died an agonizing death to cancer and, although I do not have proof, I am certain that he did not love and relish every moment of his life.  In fact, I know that his last days were tormented by pain that was only slightly relieved by massive doses of pain medication.  Third, if all we have to hold on to when death claims someone we love are a few laughs, well that is pretty sad and no laughing matter at all.  Finally, in the hour of death we do not need a celebration of life.  No, we need the promise of life given to us in the wood of the cross and the hollow sound of an empty tomb.  We need that life sealed to our own lives in baptism where we died with Christ and rose with Him to new life.  We need not a celebration of life but the voice of the Gospel to speak in the midst of death's darkness, pain, and sorrow.

There was a time when I really appreciated the move from the black paraments of a funeral and the requiem aspect of the service to its predominant theme of resurrection and life in Christ.  I thought the move to white paraments (the color of Easter) was a good and needful way to highlight the connection between the rite of Christian burial and our own joyful resurrection with Jesus Christ.  I guess I still do except that I am not so sure that this is what people are getting from this shift.

In an ancient time when paraments and vestments were black, the seriousness of death was clearly acknowledged.  Death is no friend to us but always the enemy.  Now the surprise of grace is that God makes it possible even for an enemy to do His bidding.  In this case, death's end becomes the gate or door to life everlasting through our Lord Jesus Christ.  But this does not erase or diminish death's terrible reality.  Death is still contrary to God's good will and gracious purpose.  Maybe we need to go back to black to remind people that death is not the final stage of life.

And then there is this business of [name] would not have wanted... In this case the man was a retired church worker.  He spent nearly all his adult life serving the Lord in the Church.  Yet even this does not give us the right to decide how our death will be treated by those who survive us.  I do not really care what he would have wanted.  This man was a child of God in Christ -- the identity that trumps all other identities for those who are baptized and believe.  What he would have wanted is not the issue but how the Church  leads us through death to life in Christ through the funeral liturgy.  Besides, he would have wanted not to die this painful death. That is what he would have wanted.  Since he died this painful death, the least we can do is dignify this death by acknowledging its painful reality AND the answer to death which is Jesus Christ and His resurrection.

Let me end with this crap about a celebration of life or of his life.  This is silliness.  Yes, of course, there is a place for and it is highly important for the grieving family and friends to gather and speak together in remembrance of the deceased.  But this is not the last word we speak or surely we will have hoped as those who have no hope and will grieve as those who have no prospect of life and eternity.  A happy memory cannot erase the pain of death or close its mortal wound.  Only the Gospel can speak hope to those who gather to remember someone whom death has stolen from them.  Only the proclamation of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, can speak the Word that makes a difference to tears and broken hearts.  Yes, happy memories are a gift from God and a wonderful gift at that... but this is not what we hang our hopes on at the brink of death and the grave.  There has to be more.

It is not a celebration of his life but a celebration of HIS life (Christ's) that must be spoken.  Remember and recall, rejoice and laugh, cry and commiserate... this is what we do when death comes too near to us... but this cannot replace the answer to death which God has given to us in His Son... nosiree...

It may be comforting on one level to surround the casket with things that relate to that person's life, but the whole point of the shift from black to white was to focus on the clothing of Christ's righteousness which enables us to stand before the Lord and be welcomed by Him into the resurrection and eternity.  A couple of fishing rods or his Harley-Davidson or some other ornament related to his past has only the power to turn us to yesterday... but the Gospel spoken and the ritual of the Christian funeral point us toward the eternal tomorrow which is ours in Christ... and it is to this mercy that we Christians commend those whom we love... and nothing less!


Saturday, March 20, 2010

From Pig's Pods to a Fatted Calf...

 Sermon for Lent 4, preached Sunday, March 14, 2010.

What’s in a name?  Well, when you name something, you decide who is emphasized.  In this case we decide who  stars in the parable by the way we name it.  If we call it the parable of the Prodigal Son, then the focus is on him.  If we call it the parable of the Bitter Older Son, then the focus is on him. But if we call it the parable of the Waiting Father, as Helmut Thelicke has named it, then the focus is on the loving Father.  He is the story.  So despite what you have been taught, let us not name this parable after either of the sons but after the Father whose loves brings it all together.

Often we approach a parable by figuring out which character we identify with in Jesus’ story.  Which of the characters comes closest to you – is it the rebellious son who takes the gift of his father and runs... or is it the dutiful son who daily did his father’s bidding but with a bitter and empty heart.  There may be great fun in figuring out which one of these two sons the person sitting next to you is like – but it is only fun and does not lead us to the point of this parable.

The younger son is the one we love to hate.  He sounds to selfish and spoiled.  Gimme, gimme, gimme.  He is not even content to wait until his father dies.  He wants his inheritance now.  He wants the freedom to do with this money as he pleases.  In other words, he wants it all.  Who could love such a selfish, self-centered, childish person?  Who indeed.

This son was running from something and he thought if he got the money he demanded and spent it however he wanted, he might find what he was looking for.  Instead he discovered that what he was running from someting still inside of him.  His heart was empty of the contentment and happiness he thought the money would buy.  His longing for pleasure became the dull ache of regret as he surveyed what his life had become.

Alone with his guilt over the waste of all the money and time, alone with the regret of having burned his bridges with his father and home, and alone with all the shame of his failures, what could he do?  When this Jew founding himself slopping hogs, his failure screamed out in words he could not ignore. 

But, could he go home again?  He knew he would find a better life at home as the least of all his father’s servants than he had slopping hogs.  But could he go home again?  What kind of welcome waited for him at home?

So I ask you.  Is this a description of you and your life?  Do you want it all now and refuse to wait for anything?  Do you see the world through the lens of self so much that you look at everything in terms of what is in it for you?  Are you running from an emptiness that is within you, that you cannot run away from.  Do you wonder if you can go home, if you can ever go home again?

Or maybe that is not you at all.  Maybe you are more like the older son.  A lot of church folk identify with the older son.  These are the folks who try to do the right thing even when they don’t want to.  Their lives are governed by a sense of duty but their heart is not in it.  These are the responsible people who do what must be done and all they want is a little credit at the end of the day.  Is this you?  You work hard and you just want somebody to notice?

Are you resentful of the big deal made of the guilty slob who made a turn around?  Does it bug you that folks waste their lives and money and then get bailed out when they run out of it all?  Do you secretly wish that everyone got what they deserved – because down deep you know you deserve better than this ne’er do well who blew his wad of cash and nothing to show for it?

A lot of us are like the older son.  We resent the special treatment some of the bad folks get when show a little humility.  In comparison, we cannot for the life of us figure out why nobody pays attention to how hard we work or how often we do what we are supposed to.... Underneath it all we have long wanted to run away and live it up – but we talk ourselves out of it.  We come to our senses even if our hearts still would rather do what is fun, what pleases us.  Is this you?

No matter which one is you – the spoiled son who wasted His father’s gift or the dutiful son who gave up happiness for holiness and then thought he got a raw deal – no matter which one is you, the focus is not on YOU but on the Waiting Father.  He is the key.

It is the Father who is the star of this story.  He is one who loves his sons equally yet treats them differently as they are different.  He is the one who loves his sons so much that it is hard for him to say no to anything.  He is the one who shows love and mercy even though his love and mercy is mistaken for weakness and he is falsely thought a pushover.  The father is the key to this story.  He is the one who loves, who forgives, who gives... but we misunderstand his love, we begrudge His forgiveness, and we try to frame Christianity in terms of what is fair and equitable.

It is the Father who is the start of this story.  He forgives every day the little things that we shrug off.  He restores us when we screw up – whether the big screw up of a lifetime or the daily little screw ups.  He rejoices over every little good we do, over the repentance that transforms our hearts, and over the guilt and regret that may us run toward home whenever we are in trouble.  He loves us over and over again – waiting and watching for some small sign that understand what His grace has bought and what His mercy has purchased and won for us.  The sign we call faith.

A few of us are the rebellious types who seek our own way and then want somebody else to pay the bill of our independence.  More of us are the dutiful  types who do we are supposed to but our hearts are not in it and we don’t seem to get any credit for it anyhow.  But both of us find the surprise of grace in this story of the Father whose heroic and redemptive love reclaims the lost for the family.  We celebrate today the Father whose grace surrounds our every day lives, who knows the desire of our hearts and forgives us, and who welcomes us home in mercy no matter how far we have strayed.  Jesus is the one whom the Father has sent to make it possible for us to come home.  He is the voice of welcome to the lost, the voice of forgiveness to the sinner, and the voice of celebration when repentance turns the hearts of the fallen. Jesus is come to make known to us this loving, waiting Father.  To bridge sin’s gap, to pay sins’s price, and to speak forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption to us – no matter what our plight...

Whether our lives were buried in selfishness or self-pity, the star of the story is the waiting Father who loves and forgives and restores us all through His Son.  This loving Father has provided forgiveness, redemption and restoration for all our sins by the cross of Jesus and His empty tomb... Jesus has come to direct us into the waiting arms of this Father, to trust in Him for all things, and to delight in His mercy and grace...  Jesus chronicles a journey from one content to eat pig food but who finds the feast of the  fatted calf awaiting him in the surprise of grace.  This is not A story... this is OUR story... and the hero of this story is the Father whose love redeems us all and the Savior who shows this love to us.  Amen

Building Tradition...

Now let me begin with a disclaimer.  I am not minimizing or discounting the ministry of Pastors who do not stay the long haul in their parishes.  What I am affirming are the benefits of long term pastorates.

If you want to build tradition in the parish you serve, it requires a long term investment.  Tradition does not accrue in speed bursts but in slow, deliberate, and, sometimes, delicate, steps.  I say this about musical tradition, liturgical tradition, mission tradition -- you name it. 

If you want to build a musical identity within the parish, it will require a long term investment of yourself and your energy toward that goal.  For example, the parish I serve has a music series (Music at Grace).  It began 9 years ago when we installed and dedicated our pipe organ in the new Sanctuary (60 rank Casavant).  We brought in a premiere name and he played to a packed house.  We began a tradition.  We have had all kinds of musical groups from the middle Tennessee region (choirs, orchestras, organists, pianists, bluegrass, barbershop, etc...).  It was conceived as an outreach focused series (bringing people into a Lutheran church for a musical event in a town in which Lutherans were suspect as Roman Catholics or, worse, a cult like the Mormons).  It has worked as planned and the majority of people who attend are NOT from our congregation.  We have gained members from this, sure, but the main thing we gained in our community was credibility.  The 60 attendance has grown to an average 2 to 3 times that -- depending upon event and the timing.  Two of those events feature our own choir (this year in an Epiphany lessons and carols style culmination to the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle and tomorrow with the Faure Requiem with orchestra and soloists.

If you want to build a liturgical tradition, it means a long term investment of yourself and your energy toward that goal.  We began by reintroducing the sung Divine Service to a congregation that had grown away from it.  We added musicians and shaped the choir to serve as a liturgical choir and not just special music.  We added things from time to time (processions, new paraments, architectural details, etc.)  We introduced the full compliment of liturgical services for Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, etc... This included ashes, scarlet paraments (new this year), individual absolution, stripping the altar, Easter Vigil (this year it shapes up to have 6-8 baptisms including an adult), etc.  This was a slow and deliberate progression that included Evening Prayer, Compline, etc. Over time these became identified as belonging to our congregation and not simply the desire or "taste" of the Pastor or others planning worship.

If you want to build a mission tradition, it means a long term investment of yourself and your energy toward that goal.  When I came here I realized that for a variety of reasons nothing was being given toward District or Synod.  That has blossomed from nothing into about $40,000 per year or, over the 17 years I have been here, close to $400,000 in total.  This came from deliberate steps by 1/2% of our income year by year and holding the line when we encountered tough financial years.  In addition, we added a number of local missions along the way so that another $15,000 goes to our local Pastoral Counseling Center, the cash assistance cooperative program of our Clarksville churches, work in the local soup kitchen and money for its expenses, and a host of other local agencies.  We had a mission of the month for our Sunday school offering that adds something like $300 per month to everything from LCMS World Relief to our own parish food pantry (that feeds an average of 10 families per week).  Mission has to become an extension of a parish's identity or it will just end up being another bill to be paid.  This is the development of tradition.

This also extends to reaching out to make new members from the community around you.  How you do it and what you do have to become a part of your parish identity and culture or they are just programs that come and go.  All of this requires building a tradition of outreach, of welcome, of people in the pews bringing family members and neighbors and co-workers -- confident that these folks will be welcomed, taught, and encouraged in the faith that we believe, teach, and confess.

So I am well into my 17th year here and I expect I will still be here years from now... building tradition.  That is one profound benefit of a longer term pastorate... I wholeheartedly encourage parishes and Pastors to work in this direction... the blessings are manifold and the traditions built are how the congregation changes from simply being a place where you go to who you are...

Friday, March 19, 2010

Let My Prayer Rise Before You As Incense...

I love our Advent and Lenten services of Evening Prayer...  There is something deeply profound about the nature of this service with its sung responses and quiet moments.  At the beginning of the service, the people turn to the back for the Service of Light.  Standing next to the baptismal font with the light held beside me by the acolyte, this culminates in the Phos Hilaron and the Thanksgiving for Light.  By this time we have made our way from the font by the entrance into the Sanctuary to the chancel where the altar lies in shadows and torches sit on either side of the lectern.  And then in silence the congregation sits while I spoon the incense upon the hot coals and soon the lines of sweet smoke begin to fill the chancel and the organ intones the refrain from Psalm 141.  (After so many years I have figured out how to keep the smoke going through the entire Psalm without choking the nervous Lutherans who on one hand like and on the other are put off by incense.)

A second Psalm is intoned antiphonally with a cantor and it, too, is followed by a Psalm prayer (had to adapt it from ELW since LSB decided not to do them).  The Office Hymn this week was To Jordan Came the Christ Our Lord (we are looking at Luther's catechetical hymns during this Lenten season).  A cantor helps the congregation by singing the first stanza solo.  (I love the melody, a Renaissance style melody that almost begs to be played on lute, recorder, regal, dulzian, sackbut, and herdy gerdy.)

Lesson (Matthew 3 on which Luther was preaching while he wrote this, and probably his last, hymn), catechetical address, Magnificat (with female cantor on the verses), quick offering, and then to the prayers -- those wonderful prayers that teach as well as pray.  And then, our tradition at the end, the antiphon to the Nunc Dimittis from Compline and the last hymn is always LSB 937, Lord Bid Your Servant Go in Peace, followed the the antiphon and then silence and the lowering of the lights as we leave in silence... to go and rest in peace...

We end up with between 40 and 60% of the Sunday congregation at this Evening Prayer tradition.  (A Thursday morning Eucharist and Monday evening Compline give the non-smokers their chance to worship throughout the week (and they do)...

Wow.... no wonder I am sad when Advent and Lent come to a close.... Maybe we will figure out a way to keep it going all year around... like the Thursday and Monday services...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Faithfully Attend the Church of Nature

I was listening to a program on architect Frank Lloyd Wright and there were snippets of an interview with him.  The questioner asked if the man was religious.  Yes, he said, he was very religious.  Which church do you attend?  I attend the church of nature, the great architect answered.

It never fails to surprise me how many people feel comfortable in the church of nature.  And why not?  The god whom they worship in nature is majestic, mysterious, mighty, and manifold in his expressions.... but he is also distant and inaccessible to us as people.  The god of nature is like the architect - a designer and builder whose great appeal is not the god but his work, his creation.  The god of nature is like the photographer or videographer who captures what he sees as an image but cannot unpack that image with any thing real that might touch or transform the watcher's life (except to be awed by its grandeur and perhaps wounded by its cruelty).

The god of nature is passive about people but active in the great woven fabric of flora and fauna.  He is like a painter who gives us a picture to behold but leaves us with the question "What does that picture tell us about the painter?"  As anyone who has taken an art appreciation course, there are no doctrinal answers to a question like this.  So the god of nature is not a god of truth or dogma but principles and expressions.

There is no surprise that the god of nature whom Darwin saw was a cruel god who saw the survival of the fittest, the tragedy of the death of the innocent and weak, and the triumph of the devious who learned from his mistakes.

But this is not who we are.  We do not learn from our mistakes but repeat them over and over and over again.  So what consolation can be derived from the god of nature except the comfort of knowing that this god will  not look over your shoulder, second guess your decisions, interfere with your choices, or hold you accountable at the end of it all.  Who would not want a god like this?  When we need him we trot him out as the god of answers (broad, general, but seldom personal).  When we want to worship (which, truth to be told, is not often -- unless we are worshiping self), we look out the window, or walk in the garden, or make our way through woods or meadow... or in the absence of this experience, we turn on the TV for a vicarious experience of the same.  When we want answers, he allows us to interpret him and he does not challenge our conclusions.

I once thought a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright's work.... over time I have gotten over it.  I have only one book on his architectural style... I have dozens on the great cathedrals and the great artists of Christendom -- just got a new one called The Bible in Pictures featuring the art of Lucas Cranach.  I may admire the god of nature, but nature's God is the one I need... living, active... the God of truth and power and might... the God who has a face in Jesus Christ, a message in the cross, and the power to redeem my own lost mess of a life lived in the shadow of death.   I don't need the god of nature.  I need nature's God and that God whose Word spoke and made all things is the God whose Word was incarnate of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit to be near me, to deliver me, to hold me accountable that He might redeem me, a lost and condemned creature.  The worship of this God happens not in nature's sanctuary but where the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments administered and Pastor and people gather at its call to become what it names them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Requiescat in Pace - one of my predecessors at Grace Lutheran Church

We received word that the Rev. Dr. Donald James Cherney, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Clarksville, TN, from 1970-1978, died in North Myrtle Beach, SC on Saturday, March 13, 2010.   He was 78 and died after a long battle with cancer.  The funeral will be Sunday, March 21, at 2 pm at Christ Lutheran Church in North Myrtle Beach, SC.  The Lee Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.
Cherney was born Dec. 22, 1931, in Milwaukee to the late Anthony and Pauline Cherney. He served in the U.S. Air Force overseas during the Korean War. He was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1961 at Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield, Ill.

Cherney earned his master’s degree in 1972 from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo. He earned his doctorate in advanced counseling in 1976 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Cherney completed specialized clinical education in 1979, and was a S.C. Society of College of Chaplains member, licensed master social worker, and professional counselor.

His service record to his Lord included (but was not limited to) pastor, Trinity-St. Paul and Trinity Parish Lake George and Guthrie, Minn., 1961-64; pastor, Our Savior Lutheran Church, Morristown, Tenn., 1964-68; pastor, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, East Troy, Wis., 1968-70; pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Clarksville, Tenn., 1970-78; chaplain, South Carolina Department of Mental Health, Columbia, S.C.; chaplain and clinic director, Waccamaw Center for Mental Health, 1979-94.

At the behest of his Lord, Cherney led the construction of new church buildings in Morristown, East Troy and Clarksville. His own carpentry and construction talents were other gifts bestowed him by his Lord.  Cherney volunteered as chaplain for American Legion Post No. 186, VFW Post No. 10804 and Little River Elks Lodge No. 2840 where he has kept very busy for the past many years. He performed hundreds of marriages, funerals and invocations for countless organizations and individuals.

He was proceeded to heaven by his parents; sister, Lillian Treder; brother, Frederic Cherney; and brother, Anthony James Cherney.  Cherney is survived by his wife of 55 years, Betty Jane Cherney; his son Alton (Tony) Cherney, and wife Julie, with grandchildren Shannon and Sean of North Myrtle Beach, S.C.; daughter Ruth Lohra Ballard and husband Barry of Apex, with grandchildren Ethan of Apex and April Kresken and Andrew Quattlebaum of Columbia.

The Wine that Goes with the Host...

While growing up my home congregation used good old King Solomon Kosher Sacramental Wine -- a rich, sweet, dark red wine.  It was and remains the alcoholic equivalent of Welch's grape juice.  (Couldn't find a photo, Manischewitz will have to do.)

In my first parish we used something similar but a tad less sweet -- just as deep, dark red.  We switched to an amber wine, a muscatel that was neither sweet nor dry.  At first I heard complaints that it did not look like blood.  I reminded them that only those who believed it was a sign which should look like what was being signed cared about this and that for Lutherans it was the Word with the element that gave us the confidence that this wine was Christ's holy and precious blood.  The altar guild loved the change.  A cranky old German in the congregation told me nobody cared what the altar guild thought, that it was just a bunch of women anyhow, and to go back to the previous wine.  We did not.  Not a few folks admitted that early on Sunday morning the previous sweet wine was a smell almost too much to take and they, too, appreciated this switch.

In my second and current parish, I found them using concord grape wine that was both sweet and deep red.  After a time we switched to another amber wine, much less sweet but certainly not dry, from the same vintner and also from a concord grape (albeit white).  It is not my favorite flavor but it is serviceable.  Again I found a few who thought the wine should look like the color of blood but again I explained to them that this was a Reformed idea and not a Lutheran one -- it matters not what the wine looks like (though it does matter if it is grape or not).  Our confidence that this cup is the cup of blessing and our participation in the blood of Christ comes from the Word with the element.

What wine does your parish use?  Is it red, sweet, white, dry, amber, semi-sweet?  Are you satisfied?  What would you use if you could change (price, availability, etc. all being equal)? 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Whole Lot of Little Breads...

Click on the link to see a video story about the Host with the Most -- it is a fascinating account of the Cavanagh Company of Smithfield, RI, which produces some 850 million hosts each year -- hosts that become the Body of Christ received by about that many Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians (and a few others).  I had to laugh when the company mentioned a line of "hosts" for the Baptists that, unlike the hosts produced for liturgical churches, would make a fine soup cracker.  Read it here for yourself.

It is something to behold... a company that can chart the health of the eucharistic faith and piety of liturgical Christians in the US simply by checking on sales!

We use them.  Do you?

Monday, March 15, 2010

An Easy Religion...

One of my great frustrations is how we are caught between people's perception of themselves and congregation's perceptions.  When it comes to "membership" we find Gallup telling us that there are some 12-15 million Lutherans out there - at least by their own perception.  Unfortunately, Lutheran congregations reporting membership figures can account for about half that.  Even more regrettable is the fact that only 1/3 of those are actually in worship on a given Sunday.  Makes you wonder what it means to be a member, huh?

We (and I include myself in this) have worked very hard to make it easy to be Christian.  I tell the people that God's expectation is every member around the Lord's Table in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day.  I say over and over again that Scripture is not to be some dusty encyclopedia but the familiar Word of the Lord and that this happens only when you are in the Word (reading and in Bible study).  But if you are not, we do not kick you out.  We do just the opposite.  We spend countless hours and energy speaking with you, writing to you, and working to draw you back in.  If you wanted attention, it seems to me, you would stay away from worship and Bible study because that is how you get attention.

Now I am not saying we should kick people out when they miss nor am I saying that we should use the LAW as a weapon to guilt or shame people back into the Church.  What I am lamenting is that we have taught people there are no consequences for missing.  What I am lamenting is that we have taught people to believe that Christianity is an easy religion.  You do nothing to save yourself -- God does it all.  You have to do no good works -- you are saved by grace and not by works.  You do not have to avail yourself of confession -- God forgives you as quickly as you sin.  You do not have to contribute anything -- God only wants your money if you want to give it.  You do not have to do anything -- you can be Christian at home by yourself just as easily as being together in a congregation.  As Lutherans we perhaps the logical ones to blame for this epidemic of cheap grace that is no grace at all.

Apparently half of all those who self-identify as Lutherans do not feel that they are missing anything by not being a member of a local congregation.  And apparently more than half of those who do become a member do not believe they are missing anything by not worshiping or reading/studying God's Word or by speaking the Gospel to others etc.  Who gave them that impression?  Did we IN the Church?

I remember somebody suggesting that they should make it harder to get married and easier to get a divorce and then maybe there would be less divorce.  I am not so sure that it might not result in less marriages.  Period.  So I am not suggesting that if we made it harder to become a member, the members would stay active.  I think we would just have fewer new members.

What must be done is a sea change of attitude.  We cannot allow Christianity to become an easy religion which asks nothing of you, gives you everything, and then allows you to be as distant from the faith as you want to be without losing any of the benefits.  We must do this by raising expectations.  I am not so sure that Pastors can do this.  They can start it and they can support it but they will simply be voices crying in the wind until the cause is raised up by the folks who are in the pews every Sunday.

Christianity is not a low maintenance faith.  It is a high maintenance faith.  Until this changes we will have low maintenance Christians who grow ever more distant from the Word and Sacraments that impart to them Jesus Christ and the fullness of His gifts and graces.

Yes it is a counter-culture movement but it is an urgent one.  We keep packing people in the front doors to Lutheran congregations but we are ignoring the mass exodus leaving by the back door -- in every Lutheran group from the liberal ELCA to the very conservative WELS and in the Missouri in the Middle (maybe that should be the new name of our Synod).

Cheap grace is no grace at all.  Until we begin to realize it we can all be Ablaze but all we will do is burn ourselves up and we can Fan into Flame but it will be a destructive fire that offers heat but no light.  We need more than chits on the wall to show how we share the Gospel.  We need to bring people to God's House, explain to them what is happening in the liturgy, teach them to know Law and Gospel, the theology of the cross and the theology of glory, and the means of grace.  Cheap grace has not served us to well over the years.  It has turned Christianity into an easy religion that requires nothing, expects nothing, and supplies nothing (over the long haul).  We dare not foist this cheap grace upon those who grace our doors for the first time or hear the Gospel from us.  They don't need an easy religion.  Neither do we...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Learn Some Hymns, For Pete's Sake

I was looking through the copy of Lutheran Worship that we used to mark the dates when we sang the hymns in that hymnal.  I was surprised that from 1982 (or whenever it was introduced to this parish) through Pentecost 2006, we sang nearly every hymn in that book.  There were a few I did not try (I was not valiant enough to try "All Who Would Valiant Be" here but we sang it in New York).  In addition there were countless other hymns we used from other sources (the hymn collections of Jaroslav Vajda, Stephen Starke, Herman Stuempfle, Martin Franzmann, Timothy Dudley-Smith, Brian Wren, Fred Pratt, and especially GIA's Hymn of the Day book).  We sang new words to old tunes, new tunes to old words, new words to new tunes, and old words to old tunes.  When faced with several choices, we often sang both (such as A Mighty Fortress -- rhythmic on Reformation always and isometric other times).  We sang nearly every hymn and Psalm setting from Hymnal Supplement 98 as well.  I was amazed at how much ground we had covered.

It is a great thing to keep tabs on which hymns you sing.  I used to have my secretary write on the margin of one copy the dates when that hymn was sung.  Now we use a database -- although I miss the visual of looking at the hymn while perusing the dates they were sung.

When sharing some of this with another Pastor (also Lutheran) I was dismayed to find a different spirit.  He said that there were so many things that people complained about, he gave them the hymns they wanted to avoid giving them ammo for another dispute.  According to his facetious count, they sang about 12 hymns in alternation (with the addition of Christmas carols).  Boo Boo Boo

We have what, by all accounts, would be considered traditional worship -- sung liturgy, Eucharistic vestments, etc. -- but we have a very rich and varied hymnody from week to week.  I cannot understand the choice not to use new hymns.  I would say on average one hymn a Sunday is new or new enough so that people are not fully comfortable with the melody.  We just keep singing them until we have them and then they move from the new to the familiar.  I am amazed at how quickly some become beloved favorites.  I am amazed at how some never become favorites.  We use hymns from other cultures and we often use instruments from those cultures (who can sing Holy Spirit the Dove Sent from Heaven without thinking Mariachi Band?).

I challenge the congregations out there to learn some hymns, for Pete's sake.  Practice, rehearse -- we do before the service begins when we have one that will take some time to learn.  Use solo voices to sing them until they become familiar and then use solo voices to introduce a stanza or two so folks can hear the melody.  Use hymn-tune preludes and postludes that will reinforce the new melody in the minds of the hearers.

For Pete's sake, experiment with some new hymns.  Try a hymn of the month so that you sing it four Sundays in a row.  Give people a CD to listen to (nearly every hymn is on some CD collection or available in MP3 form on the Internet.  But learn some new hymns.  Keep track for a couple of months to see what you are singing and then break out and try some new hymns (even though they may be old in terms of history - if they are new to your congregation, try them).

Another time I will address HOW we pick hymns... but for now, open the door and venture out into the uncharted territory and explore the hymnal... Start there and once you have begun exploring the hymnal, you just might look at one of the collections mentioned above...  I must have 30 hymn collections or hymnal supplements that offer a variety of hymns -- mostly all tuned to a particular text or occasion to help you pick them out.  Buy the books, sing them yourself to try them out, but for Pete's sake, learn some hymns.