Friday, April 30, 2010

Favorite Anthems

If I had a cd of the anthems of our parish choir, it would surely include some of the following anthems (alas, I have found them on YouTube done not by them but by others, yet the example speaks of the character both of the Cantor's musical judgment and the choir's accomplishment)...

If Ye Love My, Keep My Commandments by Wilby

Stay With Us by Hovland

 Beautiful Savior by Christiansen

The Lord Is My Shepherd by Rutter

Before the Marvel of this Night by Schalk

Joy to the Heart by Scott

Enough for this post . . . 

A Lutheran Tea Party Movement

A St. Louis Post Dispatch article attempted to frame the election fervor of the Missouri Synod in terms of the Tea Party Movement within Lutheranism -- anti-incumbency, disillusionment with larger goals, frustration with a grand restructuring idea, and an idea that the leadership developed an arrogance out of touch with ordinary folks.

I am no political insider and have no secret knowledge here but I do not think the two are related at all.  If anything, I believe that the recent events in the ELCA causing a rift in that church body and the resulting ripples in the sea of Lutheranism have brought to the surface issues that were there for a long time.  BUT I do not connect this to Barry and his administration or to the movement of the 1970s under JAO Preus.  Missouri is not rehearsing its past again (which she has done before).

What I sense is a growing frustration with the way the Lutheran landscape has been laid out.  It was much easier for Missouri when the enemies could be easily identified but that is not the case today.  It is not a personal battle here between an incumbent confessing evangelical style Lutheran and an evangelical catholic style Lutheran but the clash of two souls within the body of Missouri.

On one hand we have a combination of folks who have embraced the evangelical identity (some on the more fundamentalist end and others on the more non-denominational ideal).  Some are like liturgical Baptists who speak the language of inerrancy as conservative Baptists do but act like people of the book on Sunday morning because they like the order and that is what Lutherans do.  They are not sold on their liturgical identity as much as they hold to their conservative identity.  Some are like Rick Warren or Bill Hybels or even Joel Osteen in Lutheran dress.  They are willing to do whatever to fill the pews and they borrow from whomever has what they think will make that happen.  They shape their mission and identity to fit the culture (both in music/style and in substance) and they preach a message less about law and Gospel than about personal happiness, success, and purpose.

On the other hand we have a combination of folks who have embraced the confessional identity -- some as catholic in both creed and worship.  These folks believe that Lutheranism is not some fruit of a radical reformation but the conservative and careful reform of catholics who love their past and are willing to sort through the error to preserve as much as can be faithfully kept.  Other confessionals are not so liturgical or catholic but they do want to be confessional to the core.  They  fence the altar, the pass their neighbors through the sieve of their rigid conservatism and they re-argue past theological controversies as if they were sill going on and as if they were the real causes for Lutheran problems today.

On the other hand, we have folks on the fringes and people in the middle.

What will Missouri be?  Will she be an evangelical Lutheran identity rooted in a confessional fundamentalism or a catholic Confessional and liturgical body?  Will she move toward the cutting edge and emergent side of evangelical Christianity or will she be defined by her more recent past (1847-1944)?  Who will Missouri be for the future?  This is not so much a Tea Party battle as it is a wake up call that our big tent (not as big as the ELCA mind you) is fracturing, that the financial crisis cannot be fixed by structure changes, that a clerical collar does not make you confessional and a polo shirt does not make you an evangelical, that we can have all the best resources in books and educational institutions but if we are not fully utilizing them, that we have congregations in crisis and decline but is the best fix the borrowing of a Baptist idea or the renewal of confessional identity within a complementary liturgical practice....

The other side of this story is the independence of Missouri congregations and the freedom Missouri Pastor's feel to do whatever is pleasing in their sight -- without reproach from others.  Such a congregationalism makes it hard to settle any of these issues.  They may be gone from the news for a while but they are alive under the cover of the individual locale and the conventicles organized by quiet like minded folks....

It may not be that everyone articulates it like this but I do think that this is less about the mood in Synod than it is about the heart of Synod... and there is plenty enough fear to make this a pivotal moment in our church's life and future to say that the decisions made in Houston in July will not necessarily end the argument or the angst.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some Words on Hymnplaying...

A disclaimer:  I took many years of organ instruction but have not played anything but hymns for mostly 25 years and I am by no means an accomplished organist -- a frustrated one -- but you know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing...

Tactus... the tempo of hymn playing... I wish we could teach it... It is really something to be felt.  You cannot get it from the time signature on the music or extrapolate from one hymn to another.  It is intimately connected to the text as well as the tune.  It is affected by the singing of the people in the particular place you are located.  It is a hidden component to the successful musical leadership of the congregation.

I was in Minnesota a few weeks ago and am still trying to catch my breath.  The tempo was way too fast.  Breath and you lost at least a couple of words and perhaps a whole musical phrase trying to catch up.  Still and all I like it better than the opposite.

I was at an event in Synod and a noted organist was on the console and, well, I could have been filing my nails while I waited for the organist and most of the people to catch up with me... It was way too slow and discouraged not only the singing but any appreciation of the text and tune whatsoever.

We have a wonderful parish musician.  He tends to play about right most all the time -- though he can slow down a bit for me (especially if he is uncertain how well the people know the tune and as the second service gets near the end).  But I am the typical Pastor with the loud booming voice trying to get the folks to keep up.  I am sure this bugs him some of the time (if not all).  But tactus, the sense of tempo, rhythm, and how the text and tune combine is the key here.

Perhaps the bad rap on hymns with many stanzas and hymn singing in general has more to do with bad hymn playing than anything else.  It is an art and it is not helped with the organist does not have the art -- and congregations are not willing to pay for their training to equip them to better assist the singing and probably do not pay them adequately in the first place...

It is a wonderful thing when the person on the bench knows how to make it easy to sing... last Sunday I felt it from the less known hymn Our Paschal Lamb, that sets us free... to the familiar The King of Love My Shepherd Is... to the beloved Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Me... There is no way to overvalue the gift and art of accompanying the liturgy and hymns... not with esteem or money... so parishes take note and people wake up...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My Frustration...

Had a discussion with a staff member about the erratic Sunday school attendance of many of our children and the erratic attendance of their parents at worship...  I will admit that too many years as a Pastor have left me without much sympathy in this regard.  When I see my sheep in the Wal-Mart and they have not been in the rich green pastures of His house recently, I no longer dance around the question.  "Where have you been?" I ask without shame or embarrassment or fear.  But as often as I confront and phone calls are made and visits hold forth conversation on these absences, they continue.

I think that part of the reason is that not enough of the folks in the Church -- including those in the pews nearly every Sunday morning -- actually believe that this is where you are supposed to be.  It is as if worship is till an optional activity -- even to those who believe it is important enough for them to be there every week.  I am convinced that the routine absences of so many will not change we all agree that it is the absence which is the anomaly or aberration and that the norm for Christians is to be together around the Word and Table of the Lord, in His House, on His day.  Period.

I have been here for over 17 years and still people smile when I say that the expectation is that every member will be here in worship and Sunday school every Sunday.  Yeah, sure, Pastor.... Well, I am not kidding.  This is not my expectation but the Lord's.  And it ought to be ours as well -- each Christian holding one another accountable to this goal and expectation.

It does not comfort me to know that the homily we call the Book of Hebrews mentions that this problem was an early problem of Christians -- neglecting the gathering together of God's people every Lord's Day around His Word and Table.  It may be an old problem but it is a problem getting worse.  We may have more distractions, more choices, more time for ourselves, more of an expectation of freedom to do what is pleasing to us and important in our own eyes -- more than in previous generations -- but this is not necessarily a good thing.  We are too free to stay away.

I am not advocating a legalistic attendance policy (although I am old enough to know when chapel attendance was taken and a skip might find you in the Dean of Students Office).  What I am advocating is the expectation on the part of everyone that God's people will be together with the Lord every Sunday (and, yes, we have a variety of service times even on non-Sundays to cover those who work).  This is the great work of my life and ministry as a Pastor -- to instill this expectation and goal in the lives and hearts and minds of every member of this congregation and everyone who joins.

I am not alone.  One member family told me of the member who followed up on them week after week when they were still learning to this expectation and counseled and encouraged and challenged them -- like a conscience in a good way -- until the habit of faithful worship bore its fruit in their lives as well.  Such should be the ministry of those in the pew as well as the sharing of their faith with those who do not know Jesus Christ and the invitation of friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others to come with them to worship on Sunday morning...

Inspiration and Inerrancy

I must confess that I do not understand all the fuss from those who insist upon belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture but see the Bible as a book.  It amazes me that people would argue so hard for a book as if that were the meaning of the inspiration of Scripture and its truthfulness.  I know some of you readers of this blog will have heard some of these words before but they are worth another look.

The word inspiration literally means God breathed.  What does that mean?  The breath of God is not some magical force for human inspiration.  The breath of God is His life, breathed into creation and especially into the dust of the earth that man might live - a living being formed in the image and likeness of his Creator.  I don't get very excited about a God breathed book.  What I am in awe of is a living voice, that is filled with the breath of God to call forth life in the hearer, that speaks forth the Word of God (Christ), and has the power to do what it claims.  The amazing reality of Scripture is not that it comes from God or that it speaks without error.  These are all well and good, I suppose, but they pale in comparison to the efficacy of Scripture.  It is a living Word, a life giving Word, that brings forth what it proclaims, does what it promises, and gives what it speaks.  It is alive not because of something in the character of the book or its words but because Scripture is the mouthpiece of God and the voice of Christ, the Word made flesh.

We spend way too much ink and energy trying to protect the Bible.  From whom?  If it is God's book, let Him protect and defend it.  It is not a treasure we are to guard against devaluing.  It is a living voice we are called to hear, that by hearing we might believe, that by believing we might be forgiven, restored, and reclaimed to the life with God that He intended -- a  live without end, distance, tragedy, sorrow, or pain.  We need to spend more energy and effort proclaiming the efficacy of Scripture and worry less about those who attack its credibility or question its source.  Reason is a wonderful gift of God but no one is ever reasoned into the kingdom of God.  Faith cometh by hearing and hearing the Word of God... it was drilled into me in catechism some 43 years ago.

Those who do not understand Scripture to be efficacious must circle the wagons and protect Scripture from its detractors, argue the fine points of inspiration and inerrancy, and hold it up as a book of truth (but with the fear that if any error can be found, the whole house will fall like cards).  Lutherans are not comfortable with propositional truth.  Our truth is living and active, mystery and paradox, received and believed though not fully understood until paradise releases us from the barriers mortal life and creaturely understanding now limits.  We believe in a sacramental Word that is itself a means of grace -- the gracious Word that does what is says and delivers on all its promises.  This is the Word that is God breathed and breathes God to us, that forgives, restores, uplifts, encourages, sustains, nourishes, nurtures, and still more.

We are forever trying to box up God in the cardboard of human reason and too often inspiration and inerrancy are merely two of the sides of this box.  We do this to our harm.  God is not to boxed up in a neat carton but unfolded and delivered to the world, the Word that we pray may not be bound, but have free course and be preached to the joy and upbuilding of Christ’s holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve You and in the confession of Your name abide unto the end...

For this reason, I believe that our adoption of the language of fundamentalism and Protestantism in the Synod (some relate back to the official position of Synod from the words of Missouri's Brief Statement of 1932) is a tragic mistake.  We do not have much in common with most of those who banter about these words of inspiration and inerrancy because what they relate to is for us not a book of words but the living Word, the God breathed and God breathing Living Word who makes known the Word made flesh and leads us from death to life in Him and through Him.

I do feel better having said this... but I feel like you cannot ever stop saying this... not ever...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Troubling News

Although I am not one to peruse the many blogs of those wired into the political campaign for Synodical President or those seeking to make a stand on BRTFWHATEVER restructuring proposals, I have heard a number of disconcerting things related to Synod, the election of President this summer, and the transformation of the LCMS structure.

First and most important is the sad news that between 20-40 seminary graduates do not have calls.  While there are those who say that work is being done to secure calls for those without and that a summer placement is still possible, it highlights a serious disconnect between image and reality.  For years we have been hearing the push for more seminarians, we have invented ways to short circuit the seminary route (DELTO, SMP, etc.), and we have been raising more and more money to cover the costs of preparing these men.  Why?   Because we have been told the need is urgent, that many are retiring or near retirement, and that many Pastors are leaving the ministry for a variety of reasons.  It turns out that such is not exactly the case.  We have a very small number of congregations issuing calls for Pastors from the field (something less than 100 for all of Synod!!)  We have an ever increasing number of non-calling congregations who are not planning to call a Pastor but remain permanently "vacant" (choosing to cover their needs with part-time or retired Pastors serving as needed or deacons -- many of which doing Word AND Sacrament ministry in violation of our Confessions).  We have a shrinking number of call situations also because Pastors who own their own homes are not as mobile as those who used to live in rectories or parsonages (especially as the housing market has declined).  And we have an increasing number of non-candidate Pastors on our clergy roster (those without calls, not seeking calls, or employed outside the Church). Things are not good in this department -- all the way around.

Second is the issue of the election.  A St. Louis newspaper article interviewed the current President, Kieschnick, who is quoted as believing he has high job approval numbers even thought he was trounced by nominee Matt Harrison in the nominations tallies from the congregations.  Another source has him saying "I will win; I have a plan" (perhaps secret or not).  This is disconcerting because while there have always been political overtones to this election to churchly office, this represents an over the top political campaign which is distinctly unchurchly.  In addition, we have had character defamation on both sides and vitriolic publications on both sides -- all increasingly more unseemly.

Third is the restructuring issue.  Come to find out that a half a million -- read that $500,000 -- was spent on consultants relating to the packaging of the restructuring proposals, surveys of opinion, and the best way to market these proposals to the larger church as well as the convention delegates.  The study is confidential and only bits and pieces have come out but the whole thing has the stink of a political movement.  While not everything can be transparent, this is an area where transparency is essential.  We as a church body are being asked to make wholesale change in who we are and how we work.  Much of it will end up centered in the office of Synodical President (staff control and accountability, direction and oversight, and budgetary control).

While I do not know who to blame or who to laud at this point, I know that it is time we prayerfully giver answer to these issues and challenges.  The life of this church body will hinge on decisions made in Houston in July... and Houston, we have a problem...

What Was Thought Beneficial Became the Destroyer

As I posted earlier about the problems with my PC, I have been without it since Wednesday evening, April 21.  After expert help and some not so expert expertise from me, I come to find out the issue was McAfee (which came free with the computer for 3 years).  It turns out that McAfee, an anti-virus mega software, did not test out an update -- an update that froze up and rendered inoperable hundreds and hundreds of thousands of PCs by addressing essential Windows software code as a virus and removing it.  In the end I spent perhaps 15 hours working on the fix, including 5 hours spent on tech support with a crackly connection to a lady in India.  And I am angrily awaiting the website to put up compensation request forms and the free McAfee for 2 years that they have promised to those so infected (after all, who better to have as your anti-virus program than one who screwed it all up and is watching its Ps and Qs because of the terrible mess it made).  Any way, it is running so far... though to be safe, I will eventually put in the new hard drive I bought and do a fresh XP Pro install.

The point is that this is a perfect analogy to the path of sin.  What Eve (and later Adam) saw as beneficial became their destroyer and we suffer the ill effects of this destruction as do all mortals (except Jesus, immaculately conceived).  What was thought to be beneficial, stole the present life with all its benefits and replaced it with a battle and struggle that has impacted every aspect of God's creation.  What was thought to be a gift turned out to be a curse worn by flesh and blood since the beginning of God's creation and mankind's first attempt to live in the tension between freedom and obedience.

Sin has stolen us from God, that is sure, but more than this, sin has turned what is truly beneficial into our enemy and we have distrusted God ever since.  The only trustworthy one has been covered with a veil of suspicion in our hearts because of sin and what is untrustworthy and deceitful has become the instinctive one we believe (our feelings, the lure of the temptor, the glitter of the world, the press of our peers, and that which is always hidden in darkness).

All in all, it was a terrible week for me and my PC... but it provided a helpful illustration that anyone with a PC can understand... those of you with MACs are like the Orthodox, you live in the West but you speak another language and therefore the analogies do not easily transfer...

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Hymns of Good Shepherd Sunday

Surely the hymns we sang yesterday have to be some of the greatest and grandest of all the hymns...

Our Paschal Lamb, that sets us free,
Is sacrificed. O keep
The feast of freedom gallantly;
Let alleluias leap:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Again
Sing alleluia, cry aloud: Alleluia! Amen!

Let all our lives now celebrate
The feast; let malice die.
Let love grow strong anew, and great,
Let truth stamp out the lie.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Again
Sing alleluia, cry aloud: Alleluia! Amen!

Let all our deeds, unanimous,
Confess Him as our Lord
Who by the Spirit lives in us,
The Father’s living Word.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Again
Sing alleluia, cry aloud: Alleluia! Amen!  

I have printed out the words above because this hymns is not as well known as it deserves to be.  Add to that the sublime The King of Love My Shepherd Is and the choral setting by Thomson of My Shepherd Will Supply My Need and the lessons and sermon are set between such rich and wondrous hymns that it is sheer delight to sing them.  Then during the distribution we encounter the marvelous text and tune by Gerald Coleman, The Lamb, the Swedish delight of Children of the Heavenly Father, the well sung traditional setting of Psalm 23, The Lord's My Shepherd I'll Not Want, and then we are led home with the sounds of  Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.  

I will admit to extreme prejudice and frustration at why LSB chose NOT to include the Henry Letterman text to Brother James Air that I love so much -- The Lord's My Shepherd, Leading Me.

The delight of it all when we work together

Last evening the Senior Youth heading to New Orleans for the LCMS National Youth Gathering had an auction of items and services.  We had just under a hundred or so items and services to be auctioned off and a room full of anxious bidders.  There were a few big ticket items (two quilts, for example) but the majority were bread and butter stuff like youth offering 4 hours or yard work or house cleaning or pet sitting or cooking, etc.  What a great evening it was to pull it off together, parents, children, and congregation!  What a great delight to have all those folks working together for the larger goal... and $3000 raised to seal the deal as far as the costs of this trip and provide good seed money for the bank account for the next trip (whatever that might be).  Thanks to all who worked so hard, who worked so well together, and for the delight of being part of it all. 

The Lamb Who Is Our Good Shepherd

Sermon Preached for Good Shepherd Sunday, Easter 4, April 25, 2010.

If you want an interesting conversation, ask the secretaries in my office about their attempts to correct my grammar in the printed media from our Church Office.  I write like I speak and this sometimes causes some consternation because my speaking does not follow all the rules of grammar.  But I did learn some things in school and one of them was don’t mix your metaphors.   So what gives with Jesus – Is He the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world or is He the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep?  We know He cannot be both... or can He?
    Although at first it seems to be foolish to call the Lamb the Shepherd, there is something perfectly understandable about it all.  If Jesus is both the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd, then He truly knows and understands not only the world in which the sheep live, but He knows the needs and danger the sheep face.  And if He is the Good Shepherd, then He has the power not merely to empathize with the sheep but to act on their behalf to protect, to feed, to nurture, to defend, and to care for them.  Shepherds do not normally speak sheep but ours does.  The Lamb who is our Shepherd speaks our language -- not English but the language of life in a world of sin, death, injustice, disappointment, sorrow, and struggle.  He is Good Shepherd in part because He comes from us.  He is the Lamb, who was one of us in flesh and blood, who walked our walk in this world, and who addresses us as one of our kind.
    Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  This is not a title He claims for Himself but the very promise of the Father through the prophets, down to the last prophet, John the Baptist, who proclaimed Jesus:  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  This is the reason He was born – to become the real sacrificial Lamb whose blood can cleanse from sin every sinner and whose death can pay the price not for one but for the whole world.
    He was born to be this Lamb for us, the perfect sacrificial victim.  Each of us could have died and eternal death for sin but our death would have covered only ourselves and left the rest of the sinful world of sinners to atone for their own trespasses.  Our death cannot free another, not a child or parent or spouse.  Jesus is the perfect Lamb of God, without blemish or defect of sin, holy and righteous.  So His death has the power to atone for all the guilty – not just a few.  The one and only innocent whose death can atone for a world full of the guilty.
    He is the Lamb of God who died our death to pay the full price of our sin but it did not end there in death.  This is the Lamb of God who visited the cold emptiness of death and called out victory over our every enemy, and then rose again to defeat the death that the wages of sin earned.  He rose not for Himself but for us, that death may not have the final word in our lives.  He rose to life that can never be stripped from Him and now He gives that life as gift to all who will receive it by faith.  What better Lamb can He be than the Lamb whose death pays for all and whose life has the power to raise up all?
    He had every right to depart from us sinners after doing what He came to do and accomplishing what the Father purposed.  He could have done for us what He came to do and left us alone; but that He did not do.  He did not abandon us to our own devices or to the evil and sin still bound and determined to take one more bite out of us and out of our lives.  No, this Lamb became the Good Shepherd of His sheep.  We sheep have a Shepherd who speaks our language, who walked our walk, who met and overcame all our enemies, and who now walks before us to lead us to still quiet waters and rich green pastures.
    Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep.  This is no distant God who nods His head at all our laments but the tearful Lamb who is wounded as we are because He is one of us and one with us.  Like us in every way but sin, He was born, lived, suffered, died and rose again.  He knows us.  He knows us intimately – the hidden, the dark, the shameful, the hurting, the embarrassment, the sadness, the lament and every opposite emotion that makes us soar to the heights before we crash to the depths.
    Jesus not only know us, His sheep, but He knows our enemies.  He does not live distant from our world but within our own boundaries.  He knows our enemies as intimately He knows us -- everyone and everything that works against us, that seek to destroy us, and to rob us of the divine contentment we were created to know.  Jesus knows us and He knows our enemies.  He faced them on the cross and still He walks among us with His Word and Sacraments to guide, protect, feed, and nourish us.  He is among us to bear our burdens with us and for us; He stretched out His arms in suffering to release from suffering all who trust in Him.
    Jesus is not merely the forgiving Shepherd who is there for us to run to when we screw up, He is working in us and through us.  He is the Good Shepherd who continues to walk with His sheep and get dirty with them in order to clean them up again.   How does God deal with our dirt but by becoming dirty Himself.
    I have not had much time with sheep but I know the farm.  We knew where to step and where not to step and we also know we would stink at the end of the day because you simply cannot avoid stepping in it.  We need a Shepherd who has become dirty for us and for us who can clean us and restore us again.  We do not need an ivory tower Shepherd who smells clean and looks pretty.  We need one who has become dirty for us.  This is why our Good Shepherd still wears the marks in His hands, feed, and side.  He got dirty for us.     Even at the cost of His own life, our Good Shepherd wears our dirt, the dirt of death, and walks our walk of death.  The Lamb of God has become our Good Shepherd and He earned His right to this title and office.
    The Lamb of God is greater than all our enemies and His grip on us is so tight that no one and nothing can snatch us from the Father’s hand.  That is the kind of Shepherd the Lamb of God is.  He has us so tightly in His grip that no one and nothing can come between us.  We belong to Him.  He will not compel us against our will and will sadly allow us to walk away from Him and all His gifts, but no one and nothing can sneak in and steal us away from Him.  We are secure in His grasp.
    A mixed metaphor – maybe.  A powerful description of the God whom we call Jesus Christ – for sure.   The Lamb of God has become the Good Shepherd... and we are the ones who benefit.  The Lamb IS our Shepherd, wise to our needs, knowledgeable of our condition, smarter than our enemies, more powerful than our predators who can keep us from falling victim as prey... the Lamb pays the ultimate price, winning the right to shepherd the people of God. Can it get any better?  The Lamb is our Shepherd.
    The imagery that Jesus chooses is clear, the metaphor is not mixed, it is the great paradox that turns into the greatest of all blessings.  The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the sheep is the Good Shepherd of those sheep.  So what is left for us?  To listen to the sound of His voice, to know Him as He knows us, and to follow Him to eternal life.  Amen

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why Are We Here?

Living in the South where Christians answer that question "to save the lost," it might come as a surprise to some that the question is not that simple.  We are here to worship God, the Triune God who has made Himself known as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Worship is the first and highest calling of all people -- even those who do not know it, who reject it, or who choose another priority before worship.  Our Confessions inform us that the true and highest worship is faith -- but not faith in a vacuum but faith called forth by the Divine Word speaking through Scripture, addressing us with redemption in the water of baptism, and feeding us with the foretaste of the feast to come that is our sustaining food for this mortal life at His Table.  Because our path of sin and rebellion interrupted this highest and holiest of callings, God restored us to the purpose for which we were created by giving Himself to us in the form of His one and only Son.  Jesus Christ was born as one of us yet without sin in order to pay for us the cost incurred by our sin and overcome the death to which sin made us captive.  Having secured the atonement that paid the price for all our sin and having overcome death and the grave, He has bestowed upon us through the Spirit the blessed knowledge of His redemptive work and taught our fearful hearts to trust in Him.  In victory He ascended into the heavens to take up His rightful place beside the Father and continue to act as our High Priest mediating our cause before Him -- but not before He charged His people to make known all that He did for us and for the sake of the world, that they, too, might be granted this blessed knowledge through the work of the Spirit, come to faith in Him and in the Father whom He makes known, and become one with those who worship the Lord as their highest and holiest of callings and purposes.

We do not speak the Gospel in order to save the lost soul but to bring to the lost the blessed knowledge of what Christ has done that they might take their place with us and worship God with all their heart, mind, soul, body, and strength.  Worship is the goal of everything -- it is the defining purpose of who we are as the Church and it is the reason why we were sent into the world in Christ's name.  This description has a communal aspect to us that is so lost in so much of Christianity today.  We were lost because sin took us out of communion with the Father and kept us from fulfilling our calling in creation to worship the Lord.  We were saved because Christ took upon Himself our nature (yet without sin) in order to heal the breach, restore communion, and then restore to us the holy calling for which we were first made and now redeemed.

Until Lutherans begin speaking in this way, we sound to the world like ritualistic Baptists who are concerned for the salvation of the soul and who worship God in some quirky way that is irrelevant to modern society and out of step with the times.  Every time we speak and act with the same methods and vocabulary as generic Protestantism -- no matter what form that may take -- we only heighten the distance between us and the identity we have around the Word and Table of the Lord on Sunday morning.  And worship becomes a matter of taste or style preference instead of the community of God whom He has called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified through His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit who makes Him known (or He will not and cannot be known).  Worship is our highest and holiest calling, restored to us in baptism, and fulfilled not when we do what is pleasing to us or what fits the desires of our own hearts but when we speak back to Him the Word He has spoken to us, when we gather in invocation of that name applied to us in baptism's water, when we extend the right hand of fellowship through the absolution pronounced upon us and which we extend to one another in His peace, when we come to His Table to eat what is His body and to drink what is His blood hidden in bread and wine, when we respond with the prayers of a grateful heart and the song of praise that we learned from those who went before us and to which we add our own voice and song -- the best of all we have and are.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Competition and Competition

I actually remember when nearly all the mission work of the LCMS (except that done in the US) was done through the auspices of the Board for Missions.  As time when along, this was supplemented by PMS - great acronym - Personalized Mission Support.  The Board for Missions became a clearing house in part, so that individual congregations, for example, might take on the support for specific missions.  Then RSOs (that would be recognized service organizations) got into the mix.  The Lutheran Heritage people, for example, and a host of others took on mission work in addition to (sometimes coordinated with) the Board for Missions.  Jump to 2010 and we have a host of agencies, organizations, and structures that do what the Board for Missions does and more... and less... The money comes basically from individuals and congregations of the LCMS.  But instead of one chairman or one board or one agency deciding what work will be done here or what money will flow there, we have many people making those decisions in and with and in competition with the Board for Missions.

The same can be said for the ELCA and LCMS World Relief and Lutheran World Relief (the pan-Lutheran one).  We have competition both for the dollars and where they come from as well as decisions about who they will go to.  Each church body raises its own money, each supports the LWR pan-Lutheran agency (an RSO of the LCMS -- are you keeping up with the acronyms now).  Again some is done in concert (The Lutheran Malaria Initiative) and some in competition with each other.

I am not speaking politically here but organizationally... how is it that we compete with and against each other for the same donor pool and donor dollars as well as for work in the same or similar places?  Of course I know that part of the reason is political -- people who have grave reservations about the way the Board for Missions is doing its job or its doctrinal practice or reservations about the RSOs and the way they are doing their work and the beliefs that support it.  Interesting is the fact that RSOs can only become RSOs by their agreement with LCMS doctrine and practice and the LCMS approval of their doctrine and practice -- so at least in theory we are all on the same page.

I am not trying to question motives or challenge what these various groups do but so admit a certain level of frustration as a Pastor in a parish where we are solicited by various groups for the donor pool and the donor dollars that flow from our congregation and our people.  Not to mention Fan into Flame and Ablaze...  It is wearisome to sort through it all.  It is also both healthy and unhealthy to us as a church body.

We would not allow a MorningStar Music to become and RSO and compete with CPH for LCMS approved church music or another group to compete with Sunday school materials... but when it comes to missions, I guess we all agree more organizations translates into more money and more mission work done... at least in theory.

I am not advocating an exclusive franchise nor am I suggesting that there is something wrong with the official mission franchise of the LCMS but I am wondering how healthy it is for us long term to have so many groups doing the same or similar things and competing for the same recognition and donors and dollars...  Is this the way it should be?

Some More Thoughts...

When I made my last post I thought sure that I would encounter angry opposition more than support for the idea.  Just a few follow up comments.  The first time I broached the subject I was told that my idea was downright unAmerican, that it would promote lazy and unproductive Pastors who would have no incentive to work hard, that it was socialist, that it was foolish to discount the experience and and wisdom of age, that bigger congregations were much more work than smaller, that if you screw up in a big congregation it has greater consequences than smaller so with bigger risk and responsibility must come bigger compensation.... and on and on...

As I have said, I have been in both situations -- where I was the only real "employee" and one in which I am the senior staff of some 30 folks.  I resonate with the number of meetings and the way you relate to people the larger the congregation gets and I am sympathetic to the struggles of those who receive much smaller compensation because they are on a smaller parish.  All of these things represent different issues and different circumstances which are not necessarily reflective of any need or justification for different compensation.  Yes the cost of housing is different throughout the country and this might be a reason for going back to the old parsonage or rectory practice (which did make it easier for Pastors to move than the current situation in which Pastors own homes -- some in markets where housing is not moving and where a loss might be incurred which would prevent future purchase.... I agree that housing means comparable housing for all so that the ideal of equality is honored

Some of the comments are truly helpful -- I have not thought about administrative posts or leadership posts in Synod, etc, but it would certainly be logical that if we are speaking all clergy that would mean those folks would receive the same and equal compensation as well.  I do like the comments which have pointed out that the difference in compensation is an unavoidable factor in choices and decisions both for congregations and for Pastors...

You have sharpened my thinking on this and I would hope that it might be an idea which would take off... but honestly, I know that some who might be publicly for it would secretly vote against it if they thought they might suffer any loss from such a policy...Keep the comments coming...

Friday, April 23, 2010

An Odd Progression

Because we model things in the Church so much upon the things of the world (and business in particular).  For example we pay Pastors based on the size of the congregation and his "performance."  If you have a big church and its growing, you get a bigger salary than someone in a smaller congregation.  I have long advocated that all the clergy in the church should receive the same salary with only housing differences applicable to the region of the country.  It is radical and my salary might go down but I think it is more in keeping with the values of the Church and more consistent with our role and place in the world.  For all the talk against the world where success is measured with a dollar sign, we do it in the Church as well.  But this is for another post.

I am speaking today to the ordinary practice of placing a new Pastor in a small congregation and how each succeeding call goes to a larger and larger congregation until when he retires the Pastor has reached the zenith of accomplishment in a large congregation.  Now I know this is not true in every case but it is still the ordinary pattern in the minds of most of us.  When a Pastor takes a call to a smaller parish, and it does happen, it is often seen as a "step down" or demotion. It is counter to the way we have learned to think.

As the Pastor of a larger parish (with a staff of 30 including the Preschool), I have some experience with the bigger picture and as a Pastor of a small parish (attendance of less than 75 in the beginning), I have some experience with the smaller setting as well.  I have a radical proposal.  The Pastors of larger congregations have additional staff to support them and assist them.  They can afford to be specialists and often specialize in leadership, preaching, and Sunday morning worship -- with assisting clergy to visit the sick, do the funerals and weddings, and the other stuff that Pastors do.  Again, I am generalizing.  A Pastor in a smaller parish is almost always the only full-time person there and is a general practitioner who wears many hats and does everything -- including those things that are never in the call (a Pastor's job description among Lutherans).  He must do many things well.  So why do we put inexperienced Pastors where they must learn to do many things instead of placing them in larger congregations where they can afford to specialize?  Why do Pastors move from small congregations to larger ones when it would seem logical that the more experience and skills they develop along the way would prepare them for the generalist role of a smaller congregation?

And, the truth is, I am thinking this way... there is a part of me that longs to be in a smaller parish (granted this small ideal parish is in my mind only and I do not know where it actually might be).  I find that in the last 10-15 years of my full-time vocation, I would like to be in a setting where I know each family in the parish very well, where I am involved more in their daily lives, and where I can capitalize on the full range of experiences, wisdom, and skills developed over more than 30 years of church work.  I think that we might have it wrong and should continue to move down in size until we reach that very small congregation which is in most need of someone with many generalized skills and abilities for the many hats a Pastor in a small parish must wear.  And if salary were not a part of this whole equation, it might take the incentive to move up away and free up some of us to move down without cost to our reputation or pocketbook...

So there you have it.... a few radical ideas.... not well thought out, mind you, but the germ of an idea which has been ruminating in the back of my mind for a long time.... what do you think?

Sing Me To Heaven

Friend Wil Weedon said song is the language of heaven and I cannot endorse his words more heartily.  I have been at services where nothing is sung and it leaves me wanting song even more.  I have been at services where only hymns are sung and it is like the taste of something wonderful which you must eat in small bites, leaving you wanting more.  The high mass is high not because of the ceremonial but because it is sung -- the full sung liturgy -- with the full complement of assisting clergy (deacon and sub-deacon) and liturgical choir.  For Lutherans we are content mostly with a missa contata or sung mass, with limited array of assisting ministers and minor clergy (except at Grace where we have two vested assisting ministers, 2-3 acolytes, and others on most Sunday mornings.

The text that comes to mind with Weedon's post is, of course, Sing Me to Heaven.  Following the text is the wonderful setting by Daniel E. Gawthrop. 

Text by Jane Griner 

In my heart's sequestered chambers lie truths stripped of poets' gloss
Words alone are vain and vacant, and my heart is mute
In response to aching silence, memory summons half-heard voices
And my soul finds primal eloquence, and wraps me in song

If you would comfort me, sing me a lullaby
If you would win my heart, sing me a love song
If you would mourn me and bring me to God,
sing me a requiem, sing me to Heaven

Touch in me all love and passion, pain and pleasure
Touch in me grief and comfort, love and passion, pain and pleasure
Sing me a lullaby, a love song, a requiem
Love me, comfort me, bring me to God

Sing me a love song, sing me to Heaven.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

So What Shall We Say Then to This???

If God be for us, though Microsoft be against us, we shall prevail... but unfortunately that probably means a new hard drive and re-setting up my office desktop.  I got nearly all the data off and I have it on a stand alone drive and I have the Church laptop to function with until things get repaired, it is a terribly helpless feeling when an error message comes across the screen.  Then, what I can do to fix it is limited because whoever set it up (and for the life of me I cannot recall), they put in a separate administrator password that none of us has ever seen...

It is amazing how much of my work is done before a computer screen... I have had phone calls from folks who said "didn't you get my email..." and voicemail messages that said "I sent you an email but I did not get a response..." and the secretaries are asking me if I put this on the server or that... and I am sitting here sighing, groaning, and getting hot under the collar (literally) because it is not working out today as I had hoped... maybe because it all began in the Dentist's chair...

Oh, well, we were able to say the Eucharist without need of a computer.... and we will finish the sermon for Sunday... and, God bless it, tomorrow is my day off... so I am going to forget about it all... for a day...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Understandable God Requires Us to Worship with Understanding

One of the strange conversations that flies in the face of all that we think should be, is the conversation Job had with God.  "Why," asks Job, presuming that understanding his plight and God's role in it would enable him to accept it.  In response God comes across almost like a bully -- "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world?  Would you be My counselor or advise me in being who I am?"

But, of course, we presume that understanding is exactly what God wants from us.  Think about how we as parents have often thought that if our children really did understand us, they would love us more and do what we say and agree with what what we think.  Parents worth their salt have long since learned that you cannot wait for your children's understanding or consent to parent them.  You do what must be done whether they understand it or not, accept it or not.  Who among us has not seen a semi-intelligent parent trying to reason with a 3 year old when a simple "no" was all that needed to be said?

God does not want understanding from us but trust.  Worship flows not from understanding but from trust.  So those with the screwy idea that everything in the Church must be reasonable and understandable to those who just walked in off the street have it all wrong.  Understanding does not lead to faith -- faith leads to understanding.  We do not need a teacher to break through the barriers of our understanding so that we might believe, we need a Spirit who can break through with trust to hearts conditioned by sin and life in a sinful world not to trust.

God is and will always be a mystery to us.  He was not being callous to Job but challenging Job's false idea that understanding leads to faith.  Faith leads to understanding.  And in the end, Job got it right, didn't he?  "I know that my Redeemer lives and on the last day when He comes upon the earth I shall see Him face to face..."  Job thought understanding would settle his heart and make things better and he found out that trust brings peace and this peace is resident even when life itself is hellish.

We do not need to explain God to the world but to proclaim Him.  We do not need to unpack the mystery in order to worship the God who is mysterious, but to worship the mystery.  Sometimes we think that if we can make the faith more rational, the world will run headlong into the Church.  The truth is that if we proclaim the faith more faithfully -- mystery and all -- God will do as He has promised and work through this Word to accomplish His saving purpose (bring the unbelieving to faith in Christ).

Sunday morning does not have to be nor should it be an educational activity.  We are teaching as we lead God's people in worship but teaching is not what Sunday morning is about.  Sunday morning is about the mystery of God plunked right down in our midst.... the Triune God who is proclaimed... the Incarnate Savior who is present... the Word that does what it says (efficacious), the Sacraments that deliver what they promise, the fellowship born of those who share a common baptismal life, confession of faith, and place at the Table... all mysteries which the Pastor is called by God and confirmed by the Church to steward among His people (not explain away)...

I do not want a God who can fit in my mind -- I can be that God but what good does it do me?  I need a God who is so big that I cannot contain Him in my mind but who can fit Himself into flesh and blood through His Son, live to die that dying I might live, shed His blood as a life-giving stream that cleanses, nurtures, and feeds, dies the real death to be raised to a life more real... how on earth can I understand such a God?  I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him.... but the Holy Spirit enlightens my darkened heart to believe, calls me from darkness into His marvelous Light, gathers me to where God is (in Word and Sacrament, the means of grace), and keeps me in this faith (that I would soon abandon if I were all alone) to eternal life...

Leave the job of explaining God to the Reformed... We must not follow this foolish end.  God does not want us to explain Him or justify Him or excuse Him... simply to believe in Him (trust) and proclaim Him (witness to what He has done, what comes to us through what He has done, and where what He has done is accessible to us), and this is enough.... more than enough...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Apparently God Did Not Get the Memo

All the dust and ash problems from Iceland’s errant volcano remind us that for all the pollution and particulate we send into the atmosphere, it takes only one “act of God” to create a situation that wrecks havoc upon our commerce, travel, and safety.  We have been told for so long that we are the culprits in nearly everything that goes wrong with the earth and its ecological health, that it comes as no small surprise that God did not get our memo and thus is ultimately responsible for allowing or causing such a dirty adjustment to our atmosphere, culture, and accessibility.  Someone should have told Him that we are not doing that kind of indiscriminate pollution anymore and certainly not without a permit.  God will have to wait in line with all the other polluters to gain permission from the powers that be to introduce such harmful particulate into the atmosphere and will have to post a bond for clean up and for the ancillary other costs of such a work stoppage created by an ash cloud out of control.  Clean up your ash, God, and don’t ever do it again. Signed, the Green Police who are protecting your world from those who treat it without respect...

A Paradox to Ponder

The truth is that congregations of the ELCA tend to be liturgically more solid than congregations of the LCMS.  What this means is simple.  Congregations of the ELCA tend to use their worship book pretty much as it is written – LBW or ELW – for the Eucharist and the rites of the Church (baptism, for example).  Congregations of the LCMS are more likely to use non-hymnal orders for the Eucharist and the various rites (pieces of the liturgy may come from the hymnal – TLH, LW, or LSB – but the order is often constructed with bits and pieces from various sources).  Now I am not suggesting that this is ordinary for the LCMS but a very significant portion of the congregations of this body – much higher than the ELCA – do change the rite (and I am not speaking of music here but of text as well as tune).

This is also true of college campuses.  It is somewhat more likely that a student on an ELCA college campus will find Morning Prayer (or another of the hymnal rites) as the order for that day’s chapel while it is somewhat more likely that a student at an LCMS college will find either no order or a variation on the CoWo (contemporary worship for you non-bloggers).  I have this from a number of students on campuses of both church bodies and from the personal experience of my family and the reports of many others.

I might also suggest that the faith of these congregations is directly opposite.  The ELCA congregations tend to have very open communion, to presume no one believes in the six day creation, never to use a work like inerrant, and to speak of the Gospel in terms that include such things as advocacy, ecology, justice, and social work (either in addition to or in place of sin and forgiveness, law and grace, etc.).  The ELCA congregation uses the creeds as they are written but tends to believe the words are not necessarily literally true while the Missouri congregation might use a homemade creed but believe every word of the ecumenical creeds.

The ELCA congregation is more likely to emphasize the welcome of all people (without respect to creed, race, sexual identity, etc.) while the Missouri congregation is more likely not to speak of such diversity at all – much less make it part of their welcome.  The ELCA congregation is more likely to have a “green” committee to deal with such things as their carbon imprint and a diversity committee to help them make sure no barriers are encountered by anyone who might visit (and no offense given) while the Missouri congregation is more likely to have an “evangelism” committee and to deal with questions of eternal salvation and insist upon doctrinal agreement and a common faith before the welcome mat includes too many privileges.

What a strange paradox?  The one which is admittedly more broad in its understanding of the faith is more narrow in its liturgical application while the one that is admittedly more narrow in its faith definition is more broad in its liturgical application.

It reminds me of the fact that when I began in Synodical education, those who were interested in or cared about what happened in worship were considered “liberal” while those who spoke of doctrine were more likely to use the hymnal but not know why or even care – just that it was the official book.  Now some 38 years later, those who care about worship are considered “conservative” doctrinally and those who believe in things indifferent when it comes to Sunday morning are considered “moderate” (the Missouri equivalent of liberal).  I do not think I have changed all that much but the meaning of the categories has and with it my place in the Church has moved... even though I am standing in the same place...  What a paradox?

A Certain Sadness

Two Roman priests were among the passengers on the plane I took yesterday.  One of them an elderly priest in rumpled coat, pants, clericals, and pub cap.  The other in his early 30s wearing a dapper suit and vest.  Both spent their time waiting for the plane by reading in their breviary.

In the past they might have been the occasion of great affection, deference, and attention.  Because of the tremendous media focus and public awareness of the sex scandals, I found them to represent a certain sadness in me.  Both were gracious, courteous, and gave a good public face to the Church but there was a certain distance there that I can only explain in terms of the scandal.  And this is what made me so very sad.  Sad indeed, that the abhorrent behavior of such a few could affect so many -- and I do not mean to minimize the terrible nature of their crimes, but to admit that among them as victims we must also those faithful priests who do their work, fulfill God's bidding, and carry out the priestly ministry faithfully, laudably, and honorably... but still under a cloud. Yes, it is sad.

The State of the Spring Tulips

Tulips of the floral variety have reminded me of Calvinism and the famous five points that form the acronym tulip.  As much as we face this Calvinistic bent throughout the American religious landscape, it might do us well to recall what those five points were and are:
  1. Total depravity of man -- The nature of man is so corrupted as render us incapable of loving God with the whole heart, mind, or strength; capable only of loving and serving self, and always reject the rule of God and the path of love for neighbor.
  2. The unconditional election means that from the beginning God freely chose those whom He would bring to Himself  -- not as a reflection of their virtue, merit, or faith but as an unconditional act of His free will and because of His mercy alone.
  3. The doctrine of limited atonement assets that Jesus' substitutionary atonement had limited scope to apply only to the elect, since it would be unjust and contrary to God's sovereignty for Jesus' death to apply for the benefit of those who will not be saved; therefore His sacrifice was applicable only to those who will be saved.
  4. Irresistible grace means that God's actions are effectual, that is, He overcomes the resistance of those who will be saved so that they may obey the call of the Gospel and be brought to faith. The working of the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted and therefore the working of the Holy Spirit is limited to those whom God has already elected unto salvation.
  5. Perseverance of the saints is the belief that those who are set apart by God's election and granted the Holy Spirit will be saved and that God's sovereign will cannot be frustrated or compromised.  Those whom God has called into communion with Himself will continue in grace to their salvation and not fall away.  If they appear to be saved but fall away, they either never had faith to begin with and were not the elect or they return to faith but unseen/unknown to those on earth.  This is not the same as a free grace which allows the elect to do whatever they will or become apostate and still be saved.
Wikipedia has a neat table which attempts to organize this.  I have copied it below.  The only problem with this all is that Calvinists and not as Calvinistic as they once were and this may or may not strictly apply.  The other problem is that Wesleyan Arminianism has seemed to dominate the Protestant landscape.  Presbyterians and Southern Baptists are divided by this.

Lutherans and Roman Catholics both have diminished the arbitrary predestination of Calvin and insist that the remedy for this excess is the means of grace, the Sacraments, which give assurance through the unequivocal word of the Gospel as it comes in sacramental form.  Though for Lutherans this took the form of a profound nineteenth century debate.

Nevertheless, this continues to reach out into current religious identity and practice.   We don't much like a God who is filled with mystery -- at first it is interesting but we tend to like answers and reason in our theological definitions.  While Calvin certainly removed much of the mystery, what we were left with is the eternal question of why some and not others.  Vexing as this has been, the question of salvation has also led to an evangelistic zeal that continues unabated among Protestants.

Topic Lutheranism Calvinism Arminianism
Human will Total Depravity without free will Total Depravity is that man's free will is bent to sinfulness Depravity does not preclude free will
Election Unconditional election to salvation only Unconditional election to salvation and damnation Conditional election in view of foreseen faith or unbelief
Justification Justification of all people completed at Christ's death. Justification is limited to those elected to salvation, completed at Christ's death. Justification possible for all, but only completed when one chooses faith.
Conversion Through the means of grace, resistible Without means, irresistible Involves free will and is resistible
Preservation and apostasy Falling away is possible, but God gives assurance of preservation. Perseverance of the saints, once saved, always saved Preservation upon the condition of persevering faith with the possibility of a total and final apostasy.

153 Fish

Jesus died and rose again.  The disciples were there to see it all.  A couple of times for the Risen Jesus.  So what did they do in response.  They went fishing.  When faced with things too much for us, we often resort to the familiar, to the routine things of life, to find comfort, solace, and some time to crunch the numbers in our head (the Lutheran question - "What does this mean?").  So Peter and the rest of the disciples are having coffee and Peter suddenly gets up and pours out his cold coffee on the ground and announces, "I am going fishing."  And they all jump up with him.  "Me too."  At this point the story sounds very Midwestern and very Lutheran.

They caught nothing.  For all the hard work of it, maybe their hearts were not in the goal, just the process.  Whatever.  They caught nothing except a back ache and nothing in their upset hearts and minds was made any clearer either.  No resolution.  Maybe a few beers thrown in to ease the nerves but that was not so satisfying either.

A stranger on the shore says to them "Hey kids, how'd you do?"  Ouch.  Bad enough to fish all night and come up empty only to have some guy on the shore call you a child, a novice, a baby at this game.  "Put your nets on the right side of the boat."  More insults.  Sure, we know that fish prefer the right side of any large floating object so it is reasonable to assume that this would make all the difference.  But, what the hay... get it a whirl.

And then the net strained, the boat would have sunk if they had hauled it in, and it was clear this was no ordinary bloke on the shore.  "It is the Lord!"  Gadfry, you just can't get away from this Jesus -- neither locked doors nor a boat out on the water can keep Him away.  Peter forgot about the boat, the fish, and the disciples out there and took off in the water toward Jesus.  Thankfully, the other disciples were not so rash.  They stayed with the boat and the fish to bring them both in.

And there is Jesus, making breakfast on the shore, with a little grill and some fish, and maybe a bagel, yea, that would be good.  "Get some of your fish and we'll eat together," said Jesus.  Oh, the fish.  Yeah, right.  And Simon Peter doubles back to finish bringing the catch in.  153 fish.  Every fisherman knows how many he catches no matter what kind of lies he tells afterward.  153.  And big ones.  Not bait fish but the real big ones that, if they were not so valuable, you might have mounted above the fireplace in the den. 

Again nothing is resolved.  They did not ask Jesus anything.  Jesus did not tell them anything.  They ate in good Lutheran fashion.  Quietly.  Deliberately.  All the while thinking and thinking.  But that was the genius in all of this.  It was not words that would explain it all but being with Jesus, in the familiar setting of the boat, the fish, and the early morning bite on a beach.  Yeah, it was familiar enough alright.  By golly, it was Jesus.  Yeah, it was Jesus.  He wasn't dead either.  He looked pretty alive to me.  What about you?  Me, too.  You know, it seemed like things were over with... except for the ghost appearance... but, you know, it is not over.

That was all they needed to know.  It was not over.  There was still work for these disciples and not out there on the water, either.  Feed My lambs... Tend My sheep... Feed My sheep... it was not over.  They had a job with God after all.  Long term employment at that.  Job security.  Lots of stray sheep to gather in.  Lots of hungry sheep to feed.  Lots of lambs to wean and grow.  Lots of green pastures to lead them to and quiet waters to visit and sheepfolds to gather them in... 

What had seemed like a fishing trip to escape from it all and reason it all out became one more mission encounter with the Good Shepherd who also knows something about fish and fishing.  The disciples did not have to understand it or rationalize it to the world.  Just proclaim it.  Preach the Gospel.  Follow Jesus.  That was it...  still is... even though sometimes we forget what it is all about... this life in the Kingdom...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Heading Out into the Mission Field

Well, we are headed from Lutherland of Minnesota back into the mission field that is the state of Tennessee.  It represents a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, it is sad to leave a place where Lutheranism is a known quantity and where you don't have to launch into a history lesson every time somebody says "Lutheran?  Is that like Mormon?"  On the other hand, it means that Lutheran is already defined and set by those who have a point of view (here the big 3 Lutheran bodies are supplemented with several more smaller Lutheran groups).  This means that I do not have the privilege of defining Lutheranism but must work with the definitions that are already there -- and this means the evangelical and catholic identity which is faithful to the Confessions must compete with different versions.

I am not sure which is the most desirable.  At the time you might ask me, my answer might change depending upon what is going on and what kind of mood I am in...

There you have it -- the blessing of the mission field is that you get to define the Church you are planting... the curse of the familiar is that you must live with the definitions that others have planted... Tonight I long for the familiar... but tomorrow you might get a different answer....

Be An Ananias

I heard a good sermon talk about being a helper in a whole host of situations and therefore being an Ananias to others as well as remembering those who were an Ananias to you.  It was a great pep talk, well written and well delivered, based clearly upon Acts 9 but absent of the Gospel and of any meaningful mention of Jesus.  Now the setting could have been any Lutheran congregation (regardless of Synod) but the actual place is irrelevant.  The point is what Jeff Gibbs was talking about at the COWO POWOW in St. Louis in January ( you can read this HERE).

Gibbs was talking about the crisis in preaching.  On one hand we have preachers who give the same sermon week after week in which the cross is proclaimed but little application given to the issues of life -- only to the hope of heaven.  On the other, we have preachers who speak only about the issues of this life (from the liberal agenda of a green earth to a family agenda of how to have a better marriage, raise better kids, get a better job, etc) with little real talk of sin and death, redemption and salvation.  In both cases the preacher is not making the grade (obviously I would prefer the first failing to the latter but both are failing in the preaching task).  In addition we have preachers who ignore the lectionary and preach topic sermons or sermon series in which the liturgy and the sermon are disconnected from each other and it prevents the people from seeing how the proclamation flows from within the liturgy as is natural and faithful to both.

So we have a great task ahead in liturgical education and formation but we dare not neglect the renewal of the sermon as integral part and flowing from the liturgical celebration.  It is not ideal, I grant you, but where the liturgy is faithful the Gospel will be faithfully proclaimed even if the sermon misses the mark.  In the case I mentioned above, the Gospel was proclaimed in the hymns and choir anthem.  Even so, if you had been sitting there without benefit of a formed faith and liturgical experience, you would probably have missed it and assumed that the Gospel was just as much about being nice and helping as it was about the specific word to forgive sins, open the door to heaven, and enable a baptismal vocation to serve the Kingdom of God. 

Just an observation on a Sunday morning sitting in the pew....

Saturday, April 17, 2010

When the Big Picture Misses the Snapshot

When I was a youth, Walther League was the name of our youth group (Luther League the Augustana congregation's equivalent).  Somebody somewhere decided that Walther League was out and we went through a succession of monikers until we have nothing nationally named or identified within the Missouri Synod today.  In the meantime, those old Walther Leaguers are still holding reunions to celebrate the strength of ties bound over a youth group that have endured decades and decades and decades after the group itself died.

While the ELCA is imploding, there are still congregations from within this body who proudly wear their heritage as Augustana Lutherans -- referring to the Augustana Synod that once bound together Swedish Lutherans in America until somebody decided that the ecumenical perspective required merger, the loss and burial of this past identity and the adoption of several identities over the years until the most recent (ELCA as of 1988).  Funny how the ecumenical vision of unity required dismantling the ties that had so successfully bound and solidified an immigrant people, faith, and culture in a new land.

These are but two examples of the way we have dealt with rather successful identities and then destroyed them in pursuit of the big picture -- all the while losing the snapshot of history that was strong, clear, and effective.  We could go on about how mega churches are successful in the big picture of selling their mall size facilities and full menu of facilities, programs, and connections but not nearly so successful as smaller congregations in providing care, follow up, personal welcome, and responsibility.  It is the same thing, really.

The ecumenical vision has correlated well with the economic image of bigger is better.  But is it...  Remember when Pontiac was longer, lower, and wider?  And now there is no more Pontiac.  When we callously dismantle structures that have previously served us well -- only in the name of merger, bigger is better, and economy/efficiency of scale ideas -- we may not gain much at all.

I wish that we had a structure in place that could serve my kids as well as the Walther League served its generation.  Maybe it was another time... but it was also a desire to move beyond what was considered old and outdated but what was new and relevant did not last at all.  Maybe we need to think this model through a bit more before we discard even more associations and identities, whose strength is not realized until its structures are gone and impossible to rebuild...

Not a good pew sitter

On Sunday I will visit another Lutheran congregation and sit in the pew.  I will admit up front I am not a good pew sitter (it has nothing to do with the sitting but rather my complaints about what I am usually sitting for).  I have a high standard for the places where I come to worship -- some would say too high.  I expect a well planned and well executed liturgy, attuned to the season and Sunday, and richly adorned with the various resources of the hymnal in use to that season, Sunday, and pericopes.  I expect a well written and well delivered sermon in which the Gospel predominates and which is faithful to the text without being a Bible study and faithful in preaching without being anecdotal or story only.  I expect good music -- an organ well played to serve the texts of the hymns and liturgy, a choir well rehearsed and a well chosen anthem that connects to the pericopes, season and Sunday, and hymns that allow me to sing what I hear in lessons and sermon.  I am not a good pew sitter -- and I do not say this out of arrogance against those in whose houses of worship I find myself.  Rather, I say this because worship is our highest and most privileged calling and if we carry it out, we better do the best we can.

But I am also a realist.  I am many times disappointed though I do not mean to be critical of inability -- more so unwillingness to do the work than inability.  I do not expect a cathedral from a country parish and I do not expect something beyond the capability of that parish and parish pastor though I do expect everything that they are capable of giving.  And I expect to be disappointed -- not because I want to be but because to do well in this thing called worship requires more work than most pastors and parishes are willing to invest.... and this is sad... So I am just warning you... as I prepare to sit in the pew this Sunday morning.... I may have a few things to say and some of them may not be kind...

This is not because I intend to be hypercritical or smug... it is just that I expect a great deal from the opportunity and the responsibility that is worship in the evangelical and catholic setting of the Church of the Augsburg Confession....

A Minnesota Conundrum

I am in Minnesota visiting my daughter at college (she has a flute recital and banquet and she is a junior so we figured we needed to make the trip).  We are having a great time but every time I come here, I am faced with the complex quilt that is Lutheranism and the political culture of this state.  There are few states that have as high a percentage of Lutherans in their population as does Minnesota. Open the newspaper and nearly every obituary references Lutheranism -- either the folks were baptized or confirmed in a Lutheran parish or are being buried from one -- and yes they do print that stuff out in the newspaper).  Open the phone book and it reads like a Swedish, Norwegian, German scrabble game.  In Mankato, where I am writing this, there are something like 4-5 different Lutheran denominations represented (a city of what, 40,000).  In addition you have colleges representing three denominations within 15 miles (and all seem to be doing well).  You know you are in a Lutheran heartland when you come here.

BUT... what kind of Lutheranism?  It is generally politically liberal (independent sometimes as well).  For example, the champion of Minnesota politics was Hubert Horatio Humphrey, the Democratic Farm Labor Party leader.  They have consistently elected liberals like Paul Wellstone and weirdo liberals like Al Franken.  They have elected strange independents like Jesse Ventura.  Polls tell us that Lutherans are more conservative than liberal -- but here it is different.

I read where Minnesota is putting foot washing stations in public restrooms to accommodate Islamic folks who must wash their feet to pray.  I read where there is a very high number of gay and lesbians collected in the Twin Cities area (in fact an article in a magazine I was reading on the plane described the large subculture of this city and the "gay friendly" character of the area.

Lets take, for example, a Lutheran Pastor who lives down the street from my daughter's college -- the Rev. Herbert Chilstrom.  He is a native of Litchfield, Minn., born October 18, 1931, from 1958 to 1962 Chilstrom served as pastor of the Faith Lutheran Church in Pelican Rapids, Minn., and Augustana Lutheran Church in Elizabeth, Minn. In 1962 he became a professor of religion and academic dean at Luther College, Teaneck, N.J. He held that position for eight years before accepting a call to be senior pastor of First Lutheran Church, St. Peter, Minn., in 1970. In 1976 Chilstrom became bishop of the Minnesota Synod. He was graduated in 1954 from Augsburg College, Minneapolis, with a bachelor of arts degree in sociology. He went on to receive a bachelor of divinity from Augustana Theological Seminary in 1958. In 1966, he was graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a master of theology degree.

I would expect that he came from good conservative Lutheran stock, people with personal responsibility, a healthy sense of guilt and grace, who appreciated their heritage and culture, who worked hard, who saved rather than spent their money, did not live in showy houses, went to church because they know they needed it even if they did not want to, and felt a sense of duty and service.  They probably worried about Herbie headed to New Jersey and what kind of folks he might find out there in the strange East Coast but they figured they raised him well and he was solidly grounded.  He probably never ever knew a gay person.  He hardly knew any minority individual well -- not because of prejudice but because of lack of contact.  And he believed what Scripture said and preached the Gospel because he knew Jesus was the only way to heaven.  And then what happened to him?

He has become a champion of gay and lesbians in the church, contributed to a book about it, appointed a sexuality study that eventually brought forth the fruit of the ELCA decision to accept and ordain gay and lesbian (albeit within the context of committed relationships).  He has written passionately to those thinking of leaving the ELCA that the decision in August of 2009 was right and was the only path for the ELCA to go.  He attends First Lutheran (where he was once Pastor) and this graying congregation includes the welcome of gay, lesbian, and any sexual identity as part of their mission statement.

This is Minnesota... too.  Would somebody tell me how to reconcile all of this?