Wednesday, June 30, 2010

No Looking Back...

Sermon Preached Pentecost 5, Proper 8C, on Sunday, June 27, 2010.

    Do you ever watch the TV shows where people shop for a new home?  It is amazing how people will go into a home and make their decision over whether or not they like the paint colors on the walls or the arrangement of the furniture.  When you make a house your home, you personalize it.  You take the bare rooms and make them look like you.  By the way, when they try to sell a house, the realtors say to remove the stuff that looks like you so that the people looking at your house can imagine themselves in it.
    We are tempted to do this with the faith as well – to see it as a bare wall to be decorated or a canvas to be painted.  But does God desire us to personalize the Christian faith to make it our own?  Is God looking for our input or simply to add the "Amen" of our faith to what He has done?  Do we change Jesus to fit us or do we simply apply what Jesus has done to us through the Spirit's working faith in us to trust what He has done... in essence to lead us to see and say, "He did it for me?"
    We live in such an age of personalization that it is hard to resist the temptation to personalize the Christian faith.  But as soon as we tinker with the faith to make it look more like me, we also begin to empty it of its power to forgive, to save, and to bless us.  Think about what we heard in the Gospel lesson for today.  People liked Jesus. They wanted to follow Him –but on their terms.  The Gospel lesson tells us that Jesus face was set for Jerusalem – that means the cross.  As soon as the people saw the cross was the center of Jesus' mission and message, they dropped Him like a hot potato.  They wanted Jesus but the Jesus they wanted was a Jesus whom they defined–not the Christ of the cross.
    Jesus made it easy for them by being very blunt.  Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has only the cross.  We did not hear much from that guy again. Jesus was neither the Savior he wanted nor the Savior he thought he needed.  He wanted an adjustable Savior and a flexible Lord, somebody who would fit him, where he was at.
    Jesus expected to be taken on His terms.  The folks around Him had their hearts and minds on today with all its things, all its needs to be attended to, and all its affairs to be handled.  Yes, Jesus, but first... was their answer to His call.  Sort of like children when parents ask them to do something – “Sure, but first...”  Those whom Jesus called wanted to follow Jesus but first.... Let me take care of my family first or let me say good bye first or whatever.  Jesus in not insensitive but knew their hearts.  No one can follow Him with regrets and no one can follow Him while distracted by all the things of this world and life.
    Jesus is not a flexible Savior.  You receive Him on His terms, not on yours.  "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God."  You know what happens when you head forward while looking backwards.  No, to follow Jesus, no regrets, no distractions, no competition.  Jesus only.
    Jesus had the cross before Him.  The cross was not for Him but for us.  He had come to give us salvation and that salvation could only come through the path that led to the cross.  It sort of reminds you of John's Gospel.  He came to His own and His own knew Him not but to as many as received Him and believed on His name He gave the power to become the sons of God...  He is surely not the Savior we want – we would prefer one who minimized our sins – they are not so bad – but what we need is a Savior strong enough to confront them and to deal with them.  Your sins are great but my grace is greater still.
    Jesus is a cross-eyed Savior.  He is a Savior with the cross before and the cross behind.  For the whole of His life on earth, the cross was His destiny and He did not run from that destiny even though He knew what it would cost Him.  And after the cross was born for us, He set apart a people who would proclaim that cross and the salvation it won to all the ends of the earth.
    Would that we were like Him – people with the cross behind and the cross before us.  What He has done is our glory and what we trust in and what He has done is the goal and future ahead of us.  We are to be a cross eyed people who see everything through the lens of Golgotha and the empty tomb.
    We do not shape Jesus to fit us, Jesus shapes us for the cross and for all that cross has accomplished for us.  We do not have a personalized faith but a personal faith in Jesus Christ.  Anything else is really no faith at all.
    Few of you are old enough to remember when a horse would be hitched up to single bottom plow and a farmer hold on to the reigns to turn over a furrow in the earth.  But the same thing happens when you drive a tractor and have a huge piece of farm equipment behind you.  Well let me help you with that image.  Who of us can steer forward while looking backward?  We will be all over the road.  We need to be looking where we are headed in order for us to stay the path.  It does us no good to follow Jesus if our hearts are filled with regrets or distractions or the desire to change Him so He fits us and our needs better.  If there are other things first in our hearts, they will keep us from Jesus, maybe not now but eventually.
    Now I am speaking to you as people of faith.  The Lord has already called you to faith, made you His own in baptism, clothed you with His righteousness, forgiven you of your sins, and turned you around so that you might walk the path of the Kingdom.  I am not speaking to those who are outside the pale of His mercy but to Christian people.... Christian people tempted by the world to put other things first, tempted by our hearts to remake Jesus in our own image, and tempted by our desires to make Jesus wait until other we have the time or intention to focus on Him.  Don't let it happen.
    The Gospel is not given to us to personalize but to believe.  Jesus is not raw material to shape to fit us but the mighty Lord of life and death who alone can offer us what we need most of all.  The Christian faith is not a bare home to be decorated by our own desires but a mansion of many rooms where Jesus has prepared a place for you and me.  Today we come to meet Jesus here on His terms, in the places where He has attached His promise... in the water of baptism, in the voice of the absolution, in the Word of Scripture, and in the bread and wine of His Holy Supper.  If we meet Him on His terms, where He has promised, He will be there... with mercy bigger than all our sins, grace bigger than all our troubles, life bigger than death...  In Jesus' name.  Amen!

The Babble from Babel Continues

Of late I have read several things with similar ideas about dominion, over the definition of dominion prior to the Fall in Genesis 3 and what it came to mean afterward.  Most of this is related to marriage and the relationship between man and woman but I think that there may be a point in all of this that goes beyond the domestic setting.

Part of the danger and threat of our technological prowess is our utter confidence in our selves.  We live in a world where we break all the rules.  We build buildings that should not stand, bridges that should not support the weight... We manufacture babies in test tubes, medicine to prevent aging and death, and toys to fill our boredom... We raise up monuments to out abilities in the size of what we do, the scope of what we do, and the quickness in the way we do it...  Surely there are segments of our population not so enamored by such self-confidence but the future seems determined to expand and not contract our bravado.  We have taught our children to believe in what we can accomplish, in fixes born of science and technology, and to glory in these achievements.

God's dominion over creation is a dominion of care, His perpetual and intimate involvement in what He began.  He does not manipulate or control but tends, nurtures, and sustains His garden and all those who live in it.  He does so in mercy -- not because those in it deserve or have earned His affectionate care but because of His fatherly divine goodness and mercy.  Once He invited us to share in that dominion -- to have dominion in His name over all the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the creatures of the earth, and all its plant life.  Because we were cut off from Him already because of sin, we conceived of this dominion as a competition.  First it was a competition against creation, fighting for food with weeds, weather, and pestilence.  Then it became a competition against God to use His gift for our own purposes and our abuse of His resources became a scandal and a threat.

In our modern world, it is less a competition against God as much as it is a competition against our problems, our limitations, and, ultimately, ourselves.  We dare and challenge ourselves to bigger, better, and faster in ways that boggle the mind.  Those near the end of their lives shake their heads in disbelief at the pace of it all and those early in life want to ramp up the speed of life and the invention of things in which to might glory.  So it is no wonder that God seems largely irrelevant to our modern lives and an option you can avoid without any loss to who you are or what happiness you can find.

At the bottom of all of this is the probing question of worship.  Is worship still possible within the framework of this modern culture -- so confident in ourselves and so enamored with our technology and toys?  For the worship of God presumes a need and dependency upon Him to know the full reaches of our own humanity and to know how to address the great world He made.  Worship has become more and more difficult to justify.  When Bill Gates suggested that he had better things to do with his time than religion, he was only saying out loud what a whole world around him had been thinking for a long time.

We have had several responses to the potential for worship.  One has been to turn the focus of worship away from God and on to ourselves.  Here we make God our servant, our gofer, to fill in the holes we cannot fill in for ourselves.  He is like our ever present sidekick who defers to us in all things except where we need a hand and ask His assistance.  He exists to help us realize our own goals and purposes, to extend the reach of our dominion over disappointment, disease, darkness, and death.  He sets us free from the limiting reach of guilt so that we can justify the exploration of our desires unhindered.  He gives approval to what we think, feel, and want so that we can listen to the voice within and call it better than religion -- spirituality.  Those churches who have adopted this view point are in the ascendancy right now and even though Lutherans are always behind the times we know where things are headed and we seem to be following along this path -- only a little slower than our culture.

The other response is to disdain completely this technology, to see it as a burden and even enemy of our humanity.  From the Amish to the strange blue creatures of an ecofriendly Avatar, machines and people who build them are the ones to be overcome in order to save us from ourselves and find redemption.  We are living in a world of green everything where what is good is that which has no pesticides, consumes no fossil fuels, uses no man made fertilizers, and composts back to the earth quickly after use.  But this is a privileged class for we cannot sustain our world and all its people or the kind of lives we prefer to live if all of us turn green -- at least not now.  But until then we can worship God by growing our own vegetables, making our own electricity, driving a Prius, composting our waste, and living large by living small.

The more difficult response is to shatter the illusion of independence, to raise up the reality of sin, and to focus on the redemption that cost the Son of God His life to save our own.  This is the only viable choice but it is a radical choice in the face of all that is around us.  To do this is not to shape the liturgy to fit us or the age but to be shaped by our encounters with the God whose voice is His Word and whose grace is accessible only where deposits it (Word and Sacrament).  We can tinker with worship all we want but what needs tinkering with is not the liturgical form but the people called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified by it and through it.  We are the ones who need to be transformed. 

The liturgy is the means to such transformation because the Spirit works through the means of grace.  Worship needs to be less about us and our world and more about the heavenly which comes down to us within the Divine Service where heaven and earth are one in singing "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord Sabaoth" to the God incarnate who is incarnate for us in bread and wine as He has promised.  Evangelism and catechesis will either flow out of this liturgical encounter with the living God or else they will draw us away from it or work in competition with it.  Compassion and service to neighbor are either the fruits of this encounter or mere do-gooding without purpose or goal.  In this liturgical encounter we find ourselves by seeing God and the faith which gives us this vision is neither our accomplishment or our choice but, again, the Spirit's gift.

This seems to me to be the great crisis facing us as Christians... and the only way out is to give up trying to be a holy version of such self-glorification or escape from it to some new green world of self-sufficiency and to meet God where God has decided He will be met.... the Word and the Sacraments. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hymns of Faith.... No Faith = No Hymns

Our evening Vacation Bible School is now heading into the third day (having begun on Sunday evening with hamburgers and hot dogs before class).  The adults are in a class called BACH:  The Man, The Faith, and The Music.  We spent the first night barely finishing an historical outline of Bach's life.  Last night we spent the whole class listening to the marvelous Michael Lawrence film Bach & Friends (available from  It is a very current reflection on Bach's life and music (by such luminaries as Joshua Bell, Bobby McFerrin, Philip Glass, Peter Schickele, Mike Hawley, Hilary Hahn, Christoph Wolff - to name but a few).  I highly recommend it.

Tonight it is Bach the Christian, the believer, the Lutheran, the theologian, and the churchman.  We will discuss Pietism and Calvinism (the two poles between which Bach's Lutheranism was set).  We will discard the myths of a dry, dull, passionless, and heartless Lutheran orthodoxy with the evidence of a flourishing liturgical and devotional life in Bach's day.  We will look at that faith in part through the theological side of his many cantatas.

I was sent a YouTube link (might have picked it up on First Things, can't recall) about a jazz thing at which Steve Martin offered the remarkable observation (in song, of course) that athiests don't have no songs.  You can catch it HERE.  All it all it fits very well with our study of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Here is a man whose faith is reflected in his music in such depth and profundity that he is a mystical genius whose gift is almost unknowable and untouchable except in the context of the Lutheran faith in which he was raised and which he so powerfully confessed throughout his life.

Bach is often called the Fifth Evangelist - not a title he assumed to himself but the reflection of his admirers based upon the way that he told the story of the faith largely through the Passions (St. John and St. Matthew).  His music proved to be a superb canvas on which to paint the most poignant and yet Scripturally faithful pictures of Jesus in His suffering, agony, and death.  The Savior's Passion sang in the words and music of Bach (and with the cantatas) have given us a great glimpse into the man and the religion of himself, his church, and his world.  I would suggest that Bach can be appreciated but hardly known outside of this living, deep, and powerful Lutheran faith and identity.  It was the sphere in which he lived and the sphere in which he worked.

But there are no songs for atheists -- no hymns to marshal the cause or herald its truth, no chant to join the myriad of voices into one voice, and no musical expression fitting of the emptiness of a heart where no faith at all is resident.  In the movie Amadeus we heard Mozart arguing about what subjects to use for opera -- the old fogies insisted upon Greco-Roman mythology and the uplifting of virtue while Wolfgang snicked about the gossip heard at the hair dressers being more interesting.  Even in pagan religion, virtue and god go hand in hand.  Mozart was portrayed (unfairly so) as rather profane in that movie but it points to the crux of the matter.  Without God as our focus and faith to raise us up from ourselves, we are generally left with images that soon bore us, with subjects that describe our failings more than our virtues, with portraits of humanity's carnal desire, and with snapshots of our behavior that degrade us instead of ennobling us.

The music of Bach flowed from a heart of faith.  It is said that he did not so much compose it as let it out and for Bach this was the humble offering of a sinner whose glory was Christ and whose life was for God's glory alone.  No, I do not think it insignificant that athiests have no songs.  And I do not think it surprising that the songs of faith (here I would posit the great Lutheran chorales most of all) become not only our personal expression but the Church's joyful chorus of praise to God that is also witness to the world.

It is something to sing about. . .

Monday, June 28, 2010

Re-Used and Repurposed...

Anyone who has spent any amount of time browsing through church supply catalogs knows that these things are not inexpensive.  Decent church furnishings are often beyond the reach of smaller parishes and not even close for mission parishes.  Typically, churches without sufficient funds to purchase quality new furnishings are often left with choosing between going without, settling for something sub-standard, or attempting to build their own.  I would submit there are other choices.

Choice one is eBay.  You can find any number of quality church furnishings on eBay for a pittance of the cost of new.  My own parish was able to purchase two sterling silver chalices (matching in style but from different sellers).  The cost of these sterling chalices ended up being less than $600 each when the cost of refurbishing was included (no dents, just a desire to make them look new and this was not essential but our choice).  These are heavy silver chalices originally made by Gorham in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Neither of them had an inscription and now both happily serve the Lord here.  We also found on eBay a bronze tabernacle in pristine condition (still selling for $3,000 but purchased for $178 shipping included), a simple set of stations of the cross (selling for $1600 but purchased on eBay for $39 shipping included), and four solid oak prie dieux and matching sedelia (clergy chairs for $600 shipping included).

I have seen wonderful wood carved crucifixes of substantial size (8 foot cross and 5 foot corpus) that sold for under $2,000 and would have been ten times that new.  We have also purchased musical instruments (check out the pipe organs often available for a song).  My point is this, for those on a limited budget, eBay offers a choice.  The inventory changes rapidly and you must be ready to act quickly but it is there...

Choice two are those who specialize in removing church furnishings from parishes being closed.  These resellers are experts in the removal of these items and, while not as inexpensive as eBay, they do offer a wide selection of very high quality items.  Jason's Church Salvage has an eBay store (click here for a look).  King Richards is a full service design and manufacturing business as well as church salvage reseller (click here to check them out).  There is no shortage of places.  You can start with eBay but do not stop there.

Choice three involves watching in the denominational newspapers of your denomination, district, or diocese for those church structures no longer in use.  I have personally been to auctions in which the whole kit and caboodle was literally sold as in -- pipe organ included -- from an historic Episcopal building no longer in use.

My point is not to be exhaustive but to suggest that you can find great quality items to re-use in new places from old places being closed down (from parishes to schools to seminaries to monasteries to convents).  This is not a make do choice but often the makes available to the smaller congregation or a mission quality church furnishings.  Do some shopping.  You might be well surprised...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Some Thoughts on Vestments...

Thirty years ago my home parish gave me money for vestments which I used to purchase kits from C.M. Almy and which my blessed wife stitched together.  They were presented to me at my ordination -- a two fold gift from both Golgotha Lutheran Church and from my wife.  I have cherished them and used them and use them still.  Good vestments, well kept, last a long time.

A little background... I grew up in a black gown parish.  Later I saw a surplice over the black gown (I did not know that this one was not an academic gown but a cassock).  Until I went to college, I had hardly even seen anything but black academic gown or cassock/surplice.  Once at college I was amazed at albs and stoles in the color of the season and chasubles to match.  I came home full of enthusiasm for what I had found, and the ladies of my home church ordered the kits and stitched together stoles.  I spoke to the Pastor about an alb and when I returned for the next break, lo and behold, he was wearing an alb and stole.  My home parish was never on the cutting edge of this vestment thing but was open.  Whenever I celebrate there, I have always worn an alb/chasuble; whenever I have led only the Service of the Word, I have worn cassock/surplice.

The one who taught me most of what I know about vestments is the sainted Dr. Edward F. Peters.  I knew him as teacher, mentor, and friend.  It is not that St. John's College was a hotbed of vestment experimentation but a few folks (Dr. Andrew Harnack and Dr. Peters) wore Eucharistic vestments.  At the Senior College I learned even more (even a tie dyed chasuble -- well, it was the 1970s and I was living on the wild side).  At Seminary I saw the culture shock as some of the profs who had come from black gown Central Illinois were suddenly introduced to the vestment collection at the Senior College.  I am happy to see that things have improved greatly from those first days of its return to Ft. Wayne.

At Redeemer on Rudisill I learned even more from another teacher, mentor, and friend -- The Rev. Charles Evanson.  He was there to move a parish that had been experimenting with some of the more edgy stuff to a classic style that fit its building and the Divine Service there a bit more.  He did it with much grace.

I have always worn alb/chasuble for Eucharistic services and cassock/surplice for non-Eucharistic services.  It is the way I was taught.  I also wear a cope for festival services (again, I defer to the sewing skill of my wife or I would not have had a cope).  I am not rigid about it but it is my customary practice.  The choice of vestments is a matter of taste (check out for those in not such good taste) but the wearing of vestments is something commended by our Lutheran history and Lutheran fathers.  Why?  Well, one good reason is that the wearing of vestments reminds us that the Pastor is there not as person but as office bearer to represent Christ to the gathered community through the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments.  These vestments tend to minimize personality in a way that street dress maximizes.  What we wear as clothing choices is reflected of our personality and taste.  The wearing of clergy shirts and collars and vestments is, to some measure, a means of masking the personality and taste of the Pastor and draw attention to the office and to the Christ who works through the Pastoral Office to distribute His gifts through the means of grace.

I am not legalistic in this but think it is one of those things that is good, right, and salutary -- it is the tradition of the Church but not without reason and it is a practice that we ought to consider before discarding.  In nearly every congregation that has some form of blended or contemporary worship, the Pastor is generally sans vestments, sans clergy shirt and collar, and even sans suit.  A tee or polo shirt and khakis have become the de facto vestments of the day -- all in the name of being casual.  In some respects, there is nothing casual at all about dress that draws attention to you as a person.  In some ways, the most casual way for a Pastor to appear when leading worship is in vestments -- casual in the sense that who he is as a person is masked or hidden by the vestments of the Office he bears.

Now I know that there will be those who reject my words or who think me presumptuous or even pompous about this.  I am making no rules but simply suggesting that the practice of the Church is wise, salutary for the Church and the Pastor, and in keeping with what we believe, teach, and confess.  And I am remembering the awesome gift given to me 30 years ago when the underwriting of my home parish and the skills of my beloved wife presented me with a set of vestments which I still wear quite happily...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Welcome vs Feeling at Home

I have often stayed in the homes of people (not my relatives).  Sometimes I have stayed in the homes of people I did not even know before showing up at their door (such as when visiting a parish after a call).  In every case the folks have been welcoming and friendly.  But as welcoming and friendly as they were, I did not feel at home.  I did not presume to open up the cabinets to find things or graze through the fridge for a bite to eat or dig through their dvd or music collection for something to watch or listen to...  They defined my space -- not because they were unfriendly or unwelcoming people -- and I respected these boundaries as a guest.

There are some who believe that in order for us to be welcoming, new folks must feel perfectly at home in Church.  There are those who would say that if someone off the street -- who had never been in a Lutheran service before -- walks in on Sunday morning, they should be as "at home" in the service as the folks who have been there for a look time.  Advocates of this run the gamut from those who practice extreme non-liturgical (contemporary) worship and those who do use the liturgy.  I do not believe welcome and feeling at home are the same.  In fact, I believe it is largely impossible to structure what you do on Sunday morning so that the stranger off the street feels entirely at home.  More than this, I think that if we do structure what happens during worship on Sunday morning so that the unchurched stranger feels at home, what you are doing will make it so that God is not at home in His own house.

The liturgy of the Church will always seem strange to the unchurched or to those who come from non-liturgical churches.  You cannot avoid it.  You should not avoid it.  It is a radically different experience to worship within the Divine Service than it is to come to a concert or listen to a teacher or watch TV (the things which might come closest to church in the life of the unchurched).  To mask what the Divine Service is in order to make folks feel at home is to strip the Divine Service of the things that keep the liturgy faithful to the Lord.  The most offensive components to the Divine Service that make unchurched folks feel not at home are the Word and Sacraments.  Remove the means of grace and you might be left with some things that might feel more akin to the experience of the unchurched but what you have left is absent the means of grace that make it the Divine Service.

It matters little to me if people feel at home in the Divine Service.  It may well be that folks who are Lutheran and who are accustomed to the liturgy will still not feel at home with the particular way the Divine Service is celebrated here as opposed to there.  What does matter to me is the welcome we offer to new folks (whether churched or not).  It is the welcome that we need to strive for and, if they will give it a chance, feeling at home will follow. 

The welcome that some Lutherans give is wonderful.  I am not talking about having folks stand and be recognized or the distinctive name tag that says "I'm new here."  It is good to have official means of welcoming new folks to make sure that they do not slip through the cracks.  But the welcome that is most important is the natural welcome that happens when someone walks in the door and friendly folks greet them and guide them through their visit and throughout the liturgy.  It is this natural welcome that is most important.  Sure, it is great to see and converse with old friends and family within the Church Family but it is a greater grace when we seek out people we do not know to say hello, to introduce ourselves, to welcome and even to shepherd them through their time together with us in the Lord's House.

Not all Lutheran congregations or congregants do very well with this welcome.  It may be because of tensions within the congregation that have left people in the corners.  I have served congregations whose history of conflict has made this welcome strained and made it easier to hide than to stand up.  It may be because the folks who are members of that congregation are nearly all related in some way.  I grew up in such a congregation where the distinction between blood relatives and non-blood kin was blurred.  Because we were family, we acted like a family with some of the quirkiness and standoffishness (is that a word?) that you find in families.  It may be because people want to be anonymous.  I know of folks who purposefully arrive late for worship so that they can avoid the handshaking and backslapping stuff of before (and after) the service. 

But it may also be for another reason.  The bigger problem is when we figure the Church is for us, that the Lutheran Church is for Lutherans, and this Lutheran Church is for these Lutherans.  When the congregation takes on the air of club and the atmosphere takes on a certain clubbiness, then that is a distinct problem.  And one which must be addressed head on.  It is this that hinders the mission of so many congregations.  When we have been there so long we cannot even conceive of the place through the eyes or experience of a stranger, when we a new face is an oddity rather than an opportunity, and when we greet the people we know and like and avoid everyone else, that congregation has a serious problem.

I do not think that the liturgy is the problem in some of our congregations which are not growing.  I think it has to do with the welcome they give.  You do not have to feel at home in order to be welcomed.  But there is no way you will feel at home if there is no welcome extended.  This is the crux of the dilemma facing some of our congregations.  We have got to learn how to be welcoming without substituting one set of things on Sunday morning for another (such as a praise band for an organ or a seeker service for the Divine Service).

Sadly, more than it should, the personality of the Pastor affects this.  When the Pastor is gregarious and outgoing and friendly, it seems to help the congregation to relearn the art of welcoming the stranger.  When the Pastor is not good at this, it seems only to confirm the cold and even aloof feeling that some folks get when the enter some Lutheran congregations.

To those who feel we must structure Sunday morning in a way that will make the unchurched feel at home, I would point to the Orthodox congregations -- most of which seem to be growing.  There is no way an unchurched person or even a churched person from a Western perspective feels at home in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Yet these churches are growing.  This is what one Orthodox individual said about new folks in the Divine Liturgy:

Here's what we do for first time visitors:

1. Tell them to put the Liturgy book down and WATCH and ABSORB the service at first.  Don't worry if you don't understand something.
2.  Ask questions (esp. during coffee hour) after the liturgy about things they didn't understand.
3.  Listen to the sermon.
4.  Note that the service, although it seems complicated, consists of two simple parts: The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
5.  Once they can distinguish between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, give them a service book and let them follow along, paying careful attention to the words.
6.  Forget about bowing, crossing, kissing icons at first  ... focus on memorizing the liturgy.
7.  Once you get comfortable with the liturgy and when it starts to feel natural, start crossing yourself, as you feel moved and at direct invocations of the Holy Trinity.
8.  After several weeks or months, begin to venerate the icons when you enter the church. You might even light a candle.
9.  If they are still interested, give them a catechetical book that explains the faith, and let them start reading it.
10. If they finish that, ask them if they are interested in the priest's catechumen class.
11. If they complete the catechumen class, ask them if they are ready to make their first confession.
12.  Hear their first confession and receive them into the Church and start communing them.

Perhaps we can learn something here.  Do not apologize for being Lutheran, for believing Lutheran, for worshiping consistenty with our Lutheran Confessions... but do not assume that being Lutheran is a substitute for being welcoming.  Folks may not feel right at home in our churches or in the Divine Service but if they are welcomed, nurtured, guided, assisted, and supported.... well, do we not believe the Word and Sacrament will accomplish their purpose and achieve the goal for which Christ gave them?  I do...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cell Phone Ministry... Airport Ministry

I have known several DPs of the Missouri Synod and in conversation with them and with some acquaintances in the IC (that would be International Center), I learned of the scope of the many meetings that fill the schedules of our DPs.  I know from my own experience that when I get a call from my DP it is generally on his cell phone as he is traveling somewhere or getting home from some meeting or another.  Now who I am to suggest that maybe some of this travel and some of these meetings might be unnecessary?  Since I am not intimately familiar with the agendas of these meetings, their purpose or urgency, I will not attempt to say anything that might suggest this meeting schedule might or should be curtailed.   Nooooo, that would wrong......

So what I will do is suggest that since these full-time people are being kept too busy to have an altar and a pulpit (except for one of them in the Atlantic District), perhaps we could figure out a way to give these men a cell phone or airport/airplane ministry.  Perhaps they could set a confessional or just a little booth (like Lucy in Peanuts) and use their time to provide sage advice and counsel or to hold Bible classes and such while waiting for the boarding call.  After all did not the Hare Krishna folks inhabit the airport terminals in their pursuit of their "ministry"?  Well, it is just a thought.

If that seems too far out, why not install a web cam in each of the DP's cars and they could conduct even more meetings while traveling on the road?  Imagine a Skype meeting while traveling down I-40 for those endless long trips from Memphis to Bristol (in my geography) or waiting in traffic where you live.  There are Skype apps for phones out there and I am sure the technology is available to put video with the audio.  Why there is no end to the number of meeting that a DP could crank out while on the road.... consider the possibilities....

There are parishes and Pastors who face the same kind of endless schedule of meetings.  Once we get this perfected for the 30 some DPs of the Missouri Synod, we could market it through CPH and its Concordia Technologies division.  Why they could make some real money and our Pastors could really take advantage of their time in cars doing nothing but traveling.  I really think I am on to something here...

OR... just may be can cut out some of the meetings.  It is a shame that those who are to serve as Pastors to the Pastors and the Overseers (some are afraid of the word Bishop) of doctrine and practice in their areas must forsake the important business of knowing their Pastors and knowing the parishes in their districts in order to attend meetings that take up a great deal of time but often do not accomplish much.  I am one of those who complain about the administrative detail and conflict resolution time that DPs must spend instead of doing their primary ministry of oversight of doctrine and practice. 

I would welcome a DP spending time in my parish, considering my preaching and teaching, offering me suggestion and counsel (even correction) but the thing keeping him from doing this is a schedule of important meetings that he is expected to attend.  I believe that our Church could benefit not from larger districts to facilitate larger staffs to bridge the great distances between the parishes but smaller districts with fewer staff who are nearer the people and parishes they serve.  I believe that the economy of scale that bigger always promises is largely a myth (who is getting better service from Thrivent since AAL and LB merged?).  So lets not turn the districts into larger and larger corporate divisions with endless meetings multiplied to steal the time away from the primary purpose of having a DP or episcopresident or bishop.  Lets do just the opposite.  Lets create a circumstance in which these men of good intention can actually fulfill the calling.  To do that we have to set them free from some of the administrative burden and the unwieldy meeting schedule which seems to drain their time and availability away from the most important of their duties.

By now you realize that my cell phone and airport ministry idea is sarcasm and a plea for us as a church body to wake up and smell the roses.  Do we want to be a church built on a corporate model or do we want to be a church.  Period.  It is not really a question but a thought for the day... especially as grow closer and closer to the days when delegates will vote on specific proposals that will have powerful ramifications for the way our church body looks and how it conducts the Lord's business...

Listening to the Augustana on the Occasion of Its Presentation

I received an email about a special program that begins today where you can HEAR the Augustana - one article will be read each day and you can get it all on Pastor Philip Hoppe's blog:  Meditations of My Heart.  Check it out...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Too Hard and Too Easy

For a long time I have been thinking that we make it too difficult to become Lutheran and too easy to remain a Lutheran.  Now some of you are probably scratching your heads about now, but let me explain.  I know of Lutheran congregations and Pastors who require 26 weeks or more of instruction prior to membership (that is 26 weeks of 90 minute classes).  In other words about 40 hours of in depth instruction is required before you cross the threshold.  I am not sure where some of these folks live but I know that I would have a tough time getting even pious families to attend 26 Wednesdays from 7-8:30 pm.  I have shifted my instruction into fewer blocks but larger blocks of time (the introduction to Lutheranism is from 8 am - 3 pm on a Saturday).  I wonder if we are not placing barriers here that are simply beyond what many people can do even though they would like to become Lutheran.  The emphasis among traditional Lutherans has always been great preparation but the weakness has always been the follow through after membership.

My point is this.  Why do we make the threshold of joining so high and then leave the requirements for remaining so low?  Look, in essence we say to pre-teens that if you go through catechism (some offer 2 year, some 1 year, and some just 6 months), you are good to go for the rest of your lives.  As long as they were confirmed, we do not require much of anything for them to join the congregation -- not right after their confirmation and not fifty years later -- the satis est of Lutherans for membership is confirmation (preferably youth confirmation).  We do not require much more than occasional church attendance and a few bucks in the offering plate and we generally leave these folks alone.  We may desire to see them in Bible study or more frequent communion or deeper participation in the life and work of the congregation, but we do not require any of that.  We make it difficult to get in and then very easy to stay in.

In my vicarage I received a stack of 3x5 cards of delinquent members that my bishop required me to visit.  Never mind he had died months before, I got the cards and made the visits.  One angry woman sent me packing by saying even though she did not attend, she paid her dues every month (her exact words).  Her dues were rather substantial ($400 per month and that was more than 32 years ago).  When I came back to the elders and suggested that we give her the money back and ask her instead to come to worship, I was laughed at and then scolded when they realized I was serious.  I have never been in a congregation that felt comfortable saying to the absent member that they need to be there every week.  It is like being a parent and having to lay down the law to your kids -- even when we do it, we hate it.

So we require that new folks jump over this great hurdle to join and then we leave them alone to their own devices.  Am I the only one that thinks there is something wrong here?  Did not Philip baptized the Ethiopian after one conversation?  Should we not emphasize ongoing participation in the Eucharistic life of the Church and in Bible study and in the work of the kingdom MORE than simply raising the bar for those who join?  I am beginning to think that we should make it much easier to join and much more difficult to remain a member.  I am not talking legalistically but fraternally.  Surely membership is not merely a name on a roll somewhere.  Membership must mean to the folks in the pew that they are weekly to be around the Word and Table of the Lord in His House and weekly together in His Word and weekly a part of the work that God has called us to do as a community of faith.  Then it will spread to the new members -- the expectation that initiation into membership is not a hurdle to be jumped but a lifelong process of catechesis, of worship within the community through the means of grace, of learning, knowing, and understanding God's Word, of learning, knowing, and understanding the confessions of our church, and of participation together in the work of the kingdom which goes forth from this place.

Maybe I am being a little stupid here and need a good thump on the head, but I am concerned that much of our failure to attract new people is directly related to our failure to keep the old ones.  We make it too hard to join and too easy to remain a member.  Again, my point is not some legalistic minimum but the fraternal counsel (not just from the Pastor) that to be a member means deeper levels of participation and commitment than we have been accustomed to expecting.  Although a Pastor can teach this, it is the expectation of the people in the pews that will make this work.

Perhaps that is the whole point of RCIA (the Roman Catholic adult instruction and assimilation program).  Perhaps that is what I am looking for.  I am not sure the shape of it all, but I am sure of one thing.  When we set the bar very high to get in but set it very low to remain, we will end up with few people joining and more people members mostly in abstentia.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Come Down, O Love Divine...

Augustine wrote:

Where your pleasure is, there is your treasure.
Where your treasure is, there is your heart.
Where your heart is, there is your happiness. 

It is not often that we think of them all today:  pleasure, treasure, heart, and happiness.  But they are all intertwined and connected.  That which is our pleasure is that which we value most of all.  That which we value most of all is what occupies our hearts.  That which fulfills the desire of our heart is what will bring us happiness.  Of course, Augustine was not thinking in terms of things or experiences but of God -- the God who alone could bring rest to his restless soul and heart. 

God has come to us through His Son to be our pleasure, that which we value most of all.  This is not because of God's jealousy but that we might through him find happiness, contentment and peace.  If God is the pleasure we seek, the treasure that occupies our hearts, then He will deliver to us the happiness and contentment we seek most of all.  This is not some romantic description of things but how we were designed and how we find again our peace and our place.

It saddens me that even Christians tend to see God as a means to an end rather than the end itself.  We tend to view our relationship with God as a means to obtain what we want in the hopes that possessing what we want will bring us happiness and a contented heart.  What we so easily forget is that God is the end we were created for.  Though sin has kept us from knowing the fulfillment of who we are and thus obtaining that pleasure and contentment we seek, the longing remains in us unfulfilled until it is fulfilled in Christ. 

We will build idols and create gods to fill the emptiness within.  We will increasingly pursue a pleasure which is more and more riskier in the hope that it will return to us the peace and contentment we seek.  We will turn every gift and every activity into an unrelenting goal in the desire to fill what is missing within us.  And all of this we have done and continue to do.  Consider how we like to scare ourselves with movies, books, and experiences that take us to the edge.  Consider how we worship our work and work at our leisure until we lie exhausted but unsatisfied in our beds, restless in our sleep as well as our daylight hours.  Consider how use drugs and alcohol and sex as a way of running away from our lives and running toward the elusive dream of pleasure.

Augustine's own life is the story of such a restless pursuit of things and experiences that would fill his emptiness.  It is not a symptom of our own time but a chronic need expressed in every age and people that we want what is not good for us and we desire what cannot satisfy us.  And so we come to God, often at the end of a life wasted in the vanity of our endless desire and in the pursuit of a goal these means cannot provide.  It seems like a dramatic moment, a conversion experience both sudden and powerful.  What we miss is that God is wooing and coaxing us all the time.  His Word and His people, His grace and His mercy, His Spirit and His power are at work all around us and if it would seem sudden to us it is not because God only then noticed us and had compassion upon our plight.  We are the ones who wake up to His call as if His voice had never spoken before and who think that Christ is new and the Gospel a novelty of this moment.

So we would be mistaken in our presumption but it is a common mistake.  And a mistake easily forgiven.  But the main thing is that we learn what only Christ can teach.  The pleasure we would seek is His good pleasure, the treasure we would possess is the treasure of His grace, the desire of our heart is what is transformed by the triumph of His grace, and the happiness we have longed for so very long is the happiness that delights in Him.  Truly the restless Augustine had it right -- there is no rest for the pursuit of pleasure, for the desire for treasure, for the emptiness of our hearts to be filled and for the happiness that brings contentment.... no rest until it rests in Thee.

1     Come down, O Love divine;
    Seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing;
    O Comforter, draw near;
    Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

2     O let it freely burn,
    Till worldly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
    And let Thy glorious light
    Shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

3     Let holy charity
    Mine outward vesture be
And lowliness become mine inner clothing—
    True lowliness of heart,
    Which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

4     And so the yearning strong,
    With which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the pow’r of human telling;
    No soul can guess His grace
    Till it become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.

Go Home and Tell What God Has Done

Sermon preached Sunday, Pentecost 4, Proper 7C, June 20, 2010.

     Listen again to some of the words from the pen of Martin Franzmann.  Truly the poetry of “O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth” is rich and powerful.  But that is what you expect when you come to church.  You expect to sing hymns, pray prayers, confess sins, listen to the Word and a sermon, come to the altar for Holy Communion, receive a blessing and go home.
    As a child I grew up thinking that church was a place you went and that when the benediction was given worship was over.  I could not have been more wrong.  One of the great fallacies of the faith is that worship ends at the door of the Church – that when it is over, we go back home to our old ways, to commit our same old sins, and to the regular stuff of daily life.  It was not the fault of my parents, or my Sunday school teachers, but somehow I got the screwy idea that after Sunday lunch, church is done, worship is done, and the routines of life return.
    Perhaps this is our greatest failure as a Church is that we have somehow or other taught our folks that worship ends with the benediction, that it is over when you shut the door as you leave the building.  What a false idea!!  The worship that goes on after the benediction and after you leave this campus is NOT a substitute for what we do here on Sunday morning, but the extension of what God has begun among us in His Word and Sacrament.  What happens beyond those doors flows from our encounter with the living Christ in the voice of absolution, the Word that does what it promises, and the Sacrament that feeds us heaven’s bread and salvation’s cup.
    In the Gospel lesson for today you heard how Jesus healed a man with demons.  It was a dramatic event.  A near naked man had been living as a wild man among the graves and when Jesus crosses his tracks, the demon spoke to Jesus in the man's voice.  "Get away from me and do not torment me," the demon cried out to Jesus.  In a powerful show for force, Jesus sends the demons into a herd of pigs who rushed over a cliff into the water and drowned.   As a grandson of hog farmers I have a little sympathy about those who owned this herd of pigs... but that is something for another sermon.
    Today we focus on the man whom Jesus set free from those demons.  The man whom Jesus had cleansed of demons wanted to go with Jesus, literally to join the band of those who went where Jesus went.  It was an understandable request.  He had been a pariah among the people of his town for some time.  He was abandoned by his family and friends.  The people there would not quickly forget this man's demonic possession and would naturally want to steer clear of him.  He might find more acceptance following Jesus and Jesus might point to him as proof of His power, but Jesus would have none of it.
    Jesus tells the demoniac whom He healed to "Go home."  What Jesus was telling this man is that the place where this man would best serve the Lord was right where he lived.  "Go home," says Jesus.  There are those who believe that in order to serve God you have to leave home but that is not what Jesus said.  There are those who believe that in order to serve God you have to do what a Pastor does but that is not the message we get from Jesus.  The worship that begins in the assembly of God’s people is completed in the places where God’s people go when they leave God’s house.  In the house of God, the Pastor is your priest but in your house, you are the priest and that home is the first place where God has called you to declare what He has done.
    It might be easier to share your faith with a stranger than with people who know your past, know your faults, and know your history, but this is where God has placed you to serve.  The worship service does not end at the benediction but it continues as you go home and do God's bidding, fulfilling the royal priesthood of all believers within your household, in your neighborhood, and in the world around you.  Don't expect the Pastor to pray in your house or fulfill the call to witness to those near you.  This is YOUR responsibility.  You are God's priest in your home, neighborhood, and world. 
    The truth is that I don’t hang around with many unchurched people.  I hand around mostly with you and I would prefer to believe that you are churched, that you are believers.  My ministry is to equip you with the Word and Sacraments so that you can fulfill your priestly calling.  And you live your lives around all sorts of people who do not know Jesus Christ.  This is no accident but this is the domain where God has placed you and each of those around you who does not know Jesus Christ is an opportunity for you to fulfill your calling of witness and service.
    What does your priestly ministry look like?  On Sunday morning the Pastor wears vestments and we sing hymns and hear sermons and give offerings and pray and receive Holy Communion.  But when you leave this place, your priestly ministry is a little different.  You pray and witness, serve and care for those around you, declaring what God has done in Christ!
    Going home is not the end of worship on Sunday morning, but a change of venue and a switching of roles, as you fulfill your priestly duties of witness, service, intercession, and care for those in your household, those in your workplace, those in your school, those in your community, and, indeed, throughout the world. 
    What do you say to those whom God has called you to serve in His name?  Jesus gives us the answer.  Declare what God has done.  Not how you feel or what you think but what God has done.  What has God done?  He has delivered you from the demons of sin and death by the sacrifice of His body and blood on the cross.  He has granted you the Holy Spirit so that you might know Him, believe in Him, and have the courage to declare His redemption to the world.  He has enabled you to live in faith this mortal life, to live with Him as His own possession, and to live for Him for the cause of the kingdom of God.
    This worship responsibility is not in competition with what happens on Sunday morning but flows from this place where you encounter Jesus Christ and His liberating grace through Word and Sacrament.  What you do as a child of God in service to Him is not a substitute for what happens on Sunday morning but the extension of Sunday morning where you bring Jesus Christ, into your homes, workplaces, schools, shopping areas, and neighborhoods.
    Fathers, let me speak pointedly to you this Father’s Day.  You are not fulfilling your fatherly duty when you provide everything for your child’s physical health and welfare and fail to speak Jesus Christ to them.  This is your fatherly duty... in the home God has placed you there to proclaim what Christ has done.  This is your worship – to take what happens here and declare it at home, to your children, in the workplace, among your friends and family, and to the world. This is the responsibility of fathers, of all parents and of all Christians.  My priestly service as Pastor primarily takes place within this house of God but yours brings what has happened here to the whole world around you.
    In the Gospel lesson we heard Jesus tell a man to do just that: Go home and declare how much God has done for you...  And what happened?  Scripture tells us that he went away proclaiming through the whole city how much Jesus had done for him...  What about you?  Amen.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

We Live in an Opportune Moment for Lutheranism

Some 38 years ago when I started out my college prep for the Pastoral Office, the bookstores at seminaries and colleges were filled with works by Tillich and Moltmann.  These were the cutting edge names of theologians and these were the things that dominated the marketplace of ideas.  You could still find Henry Esther Jacobs or Charles Porterfield Krauth but you had to dig through stacks of other works to get to them.  There were wonderful little books available by Ernst Koenker but in order to find them you had to dig through liturgical works of a more speculative and fringe nature.  You could still find Paul H. D. Lang and Frederick Webber around but they were passe' by then.  Now the marketplace is filled with the reprints of the classics from the past and wonderful new works by confessional and liturgical authors.

I remember how hard it was for me to find a copy of Regin Prenter's Spiritus Creator or Von Schenk's The Presence and now these are rather easy to come by.  I recall sitting in front of that large microfiche viewer at articles that were long out of print and unavailable in paper form and now the internet is filled with pdf copies of such things.  I cannot forget typing for hours (3 times no less) all 202 pages of my master's thesis with its requirement of less than 3 corrections per page (can we say carpal tunnel) and now I sit down and push out articles for a daily blog, write mini-treatises on theological forums, and finesse sermons with the aid of cut and paste.

No, if Lutheranism finds itself under the gun, it will not be for a lack of the richest library, the deepest periodical pool, and the widest selection of resources available.  We can give thanks to some of the good folks at Concordia Publishing House for their amazing turn out of new and old books (a real power house of late) and some smaller publishing houses (Repristination Press, ALPB Books, Ballast, Wipf and Stock, and the Luther Academy (to name but a bare few). Oh, it is true that some of the mighty have fallen (witness the deterioration of a once wonderful and strong publisher of orthodox Lutheran works -- namely Fortress Press).  Overall, however, we are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition that is largely still available and accessible to us in print.

We have great new authors pumping out books that both inform and challenge us (think Art Just for example) and translators making things available in English that were once lost to us (unless we could translate Latin or German).  We have more of Luther's works underway and commentaries and commentators galore to open up the full treasure of the Scriptures, study Bibles to assist our reading and learning of God's Word, hymnals and their accompanying resources to make us as conversant with what is on the page as were those who brought out the LSB.  We have spiritual guides and prayer books to help us maintain a regular and rich devotional life (think Treasury or John Kleinig).  God bless us for the tools... can we develop the skills to us those tools?

But are we reading them?  What good are these treasures of they are not mined?  What good are these resources if they are not used?  What are we left with if we listen only to the moment and not the voices of the fathers (early and Lutheran included)?  I lament that we live in such an opportune time and yet so often the richness of this moment is lost to us.  We rush out to buy the latest church growth promise in paperback form or can eloquently discuss the latest Parish Paper from Lyle Schaller or know intimately that latest tracks from the newest Christian diva, but we do not know our own tradition.  We talk in a language foreign to us instead of the vocabulary of the Confessions so that Lutherans actually speak of decisions for Christ, for example.

No, it is not for lack of resources.  For we live in a rich moment and one of the most opportune times for Lutherans to learn about Lutheranism and come to terms with who we say we are...  You can find things on YouTube about Bach and his witness through music, you can purchase facsimiles of the ancient papyrii or Dead Sea Scrolls, you can download to podcasts of great teachers, and you watch dvds of great teaching series on the six chief parts... but unless we are conversant with these great resources, we are like those who choose fast food to answer a craving for boeuf bourguignon and then wonder why all that we eat tastes the same.  There is a richness and depth to the Lutheran fathers that is completely lost to us -- not for lack of resources but for our lack of interest.  Here is a voice to say read, learn, and inwardly digest...

Monday, June 21, 2010

To the Victor Belong the Spoils...

It appears there is some buzz about moving up the election of the Synod President so that it does not follow the votes on the BRTFRGHIJKLMNOP restructuring proposals... it seems that some are thinking that if Harrison is elected, the proposals could be jettisoned and if Kieschnick is re-elected it will help them sail through... plus the political end of it all... If Harrison were elected, the Kieschnick supporters would not want him to wield all the power that the proposals now place under the Synodical President.  This might give the Kieschnick supporters the ability to prevent the restructuring and therefore deny the vast oversight and appointment powers given to the Synodical President in this restructuring document.

All of this combines to suggest that if the election can have such play on the proposals, maybe that is a good indicator that the proposals are not ready for prime time.  I have long said that there is a distinct centralization shift of oversight, appointment, and policy away from elected boards and to the office of the Synodical President.  This may be efficient and effective but may still NOT be in the best interests of our church body.  In addition the major unresolved issues include renaming the Synod, restructuring the Districts, and the role and accountability of the Commission on Constitutional Matters -- all of which are, in some ways, far more significant than the current proposals and yet still up in the air.

I am not a fan of the current structure and believe it is bloated with people in the middle and replete with overlapping responsibilities but I think a little tinkering could resolve most of these.  We are a slightly smaller church body than we were 40 years ago but our bureaucracy has increased substantially since then (and I am not including the LCEF, Concordia Plans, and Foundation which used to all be run out of the same building -- including a claims staff that processed each and every one of the medical claims!).  We can surely do well with a somewhat leaner staff and structure but one more accountable to the whole church.  BTW the one proposal I thoroughly endorse is the election of the Synodical President by congregational ballot and NOT by Convention Delegates.  That would be a great improvement.

Sprucing it up a bit

After a year or so I decided to take a moment and spruce up the page a bit... let me know what you think... It is a work in progress.  I have often wanted to include an image of the Means of Grace Window that is above the altar of Grace Lutheran Church where I serve.  It was not fitting right until this template and style came along and I love that it is available for all to see.  I realize that this image has been stolen all over the internet but it is a real window, copyrighted image, belonging to Grace Lutheran Church, Clarksville, Tennessee, who has kindly allowed my use of it...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

You are what you do...

We all have perceptions of ourselves that are not objective or truthful.  We see ourselves more often as we want to be than as we are.  That is true of congregations and church bodies as well.  But the reality is that what we do is often a better revealer of our hearts than what we say.  Partly this is due to inconsistency but moreso to the fact that we see what we choose to see, how our experiences shape us, and according to the values we hold dear to us.

Each congregation and each Pastor face this challenge.  We are what we do.  We can say that we hold this or believe that but if it is far removed from our prayer and practice, it will be equally far removed from our beliefs and faith.  So, for example, we can say that we hold the Eucharist in high regard but when it is only occasionally celebrated or occasionally received, our practice counters our words.  We can say we believe the Word of God is efficacious but when we direct and manipulate that Word toward a specific goal we are admitting in practice that we believe the Word will not do what it promises unless we direct it so.  We can say we believe that God's Word is truth but if it is an unused and unapplied truth, then our practice says something different than our confession.

Within Lutheranism there is rather broad latitude about some practices.  Some Lutherans have bishops and some do not.  Some Lutherans have voters assemblies and others do not.  Some Lutherans have schools and some do not.  Some Lutherans have active social ministries of care and compassion and some do not.  Some Lutherans have six month long catechism classes and others 3 years and others nothing.  We can argue for or against these things and still be well within the range of Lutheran identity and practice.

Within Lutheranism there are other practices about which there is no similar latitude. This is not because a particular taste or preference is Lutheran but because these practices go to the heart and core of what Lutherans believe and teach and confess.  To violate them is to live in conflict with the core values and identity of Lutheranism.  Some of these include the Law/Gospel dialectic, the ecumenical creeds, weekly Eucharist as the Hauptgottesdienst, infant baptism, justification by grace through faith, etc.

We do not get to choose which practices are broader or narrower -- these are defined for us in our Lutheran Confessions.  While we can approach with fraternal admonition those within our fellowship whose practice borders the fringe or exceeds the boundaries of our Confession, discipline is not personal but belongs to the Church.  While we may desire to impose personal desires upon others, they cannot bind the consciences of others.  Only the Church can restrain our freedom to apply the Confession to a place and time and the Church must do this or there will be no effective boundaries at all.

I have often said that if you want to know what people think in their heart, ask them to name their favorite hymns.  In this way what we do shapes what we believe -- despite our words to the contrary.  Or, you can put this another, more classic form... lex orandi, lex credendi.... Either way the point is the same -- you are what you do...  For this reason practice is a legitimate arena of judgment and for this reason our practices  continually are examined and bound to the Confessions of the Church... and this is how it should be...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

How We Plant Mission Congregations Represents a Glimpse of Our Future

I live in the South and I suppose that might have something to do with it but what I hear from other corners of our Synod tells me this is not so much a factor as one might think.  More and more mission congregations are being planted that are less and less Lutheran in form and practice.  What I mean is this, there are more and more mission congregations which eschew the name Lutheran on their signboards, do not use the hymnal or any liturgical form on Sunday morning, and borrow their methods and practices from whatever works in the idea marketplace dominated by evangelicals, fundamentalists, and non-denominationals.

Mission planters are continually held up as the cutting edge of our church and mission congregations are held up as the shape of all congregations to come.  While you may debate this conclusion, I believe it is safe to say that if these congregations grow as they have been planted they   become strong influences over District and Synod and over the other Lutheran congregations around them.  Over time they will have great impact in changing the shape of the Lutheran landscape without any resolution being passed, any convention focus being reviewed, or any referendum being held.  What happens in the mission congregations is changing the Church in a way that people have not and often cannot stop -- it is change through a side door without the full implications of this change being debated and resolved.

I believe it is probably fairly universal among mission execs in our Synod that in order for the Lutheran Church to grow we need to plant congregations that look and act like the mega or nondenominational congregations around them.  Methods are borrowed from these churches without the Church considering how their use will eventually change us as a Church.  These generic missions with their cutesy names (The Alley, LakePointe, etc.) are current in all the technology and we can tune in to YouTube to see what they look like and what is going on there.  But... what we see looks nothing like the majority of Lutheran congregations on Sunday morning.  You do not see a hymnal, liturgy, church year, creed, etc. You do not see the symbols of the Church (but you do see large video screens).  You do not see vestments but you do see Pastors in polos and tees whose personality and personal identity is often the driving force in these missions.

What bothers me most about this is not that this is happening but there has been no debate in the Districts or Synod about this.  The changes our mission styles are bringing are entering the Church unchallenged and unevaluated except by those who are convinced of their value and effectiveness.  Not in the least of this is the way we judge everything by what works -- and what works is what fills the seats (cannot say pews because they do not have them).  I would like a public debate about this and if the Church votes to embrace this, then I will know where I stand with my Church.  But at least I will have had an opportunity to speak to this issue.  Change which comes in the back door nearly always comes back to bite you in the behind and this is largely because it has not benefited from a full and honest debate.

If you want to see what Missouri will be in the future, you do not need to look at either Kieschnick or Harrison.  Just take a gander at the kind of mission congregations being planted by our church body with your mission dollars.  That is what the future will look like -- for good or for ill. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Missing Creed...

For a long time I did not realize that it was a problem of any magnitude but now I realize that is is a problem, and a big one.  I am not writing about non-creedal churches but about Lutherans and even Missouri Lutherans who have either consigned the creed to occasional use or use creedal statements other than the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian).

On one hand I know of several congregations that use the liturgy from the hymnal but routinely omit several elements of the ordinary of the liturgy in order to save time (from the Kyrie and Hymn of Praise to the Creed and Sanctus).  These folks are not anti-creed but have gone astray on their quest to get the crowd in and out in the shortest period of time.  Sadly, the time saved by omitting parts of the ordinary is needed because of ridiculously small altar rails for the communion or, worse, to give the Pastor more pulpit time.  For whatever intention, the choice to regularly eliminate portions of the ordinary and the creed is a wrong headed practice.  Period.

On another hand I know of more than several congregations who use home-made creedal statements in place of the ecumenical creeds.  One has the confirmands each write a creed as part of their catechism instruction and then the congregation uses theses creeds on Sunday mornings.  While an exercise of writing a creed might be an instructive tool, it is bizarre to have the congregation use these personal statements in place of the Church's creeds.  In other congregations they have confessed creeds borrowed from others (I recall seeing a Korean Creed in one bulletin) and their pastors have written things to emphasize on thing or another (often the practical of stewardship and service over confession and doctrine).  The creed does not belong to an individual congregation or the clergy -- the creed is the Church's possession and no one has the right to alter or re-write these creeds.  Secondly it is a surefire way to make orthodoxy optional and replace it with some fuzzy, local, personal perspective on things.  Recall Neuhaus' law that Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed."  The creeds are part of the liturgy that instructs and places bounds on orthodoxy.

And then there are the musical substitutes for the creed.  While I am less concerned say by the occasional use of sung creeds such as Luther's Wir Glauben All within the context of a Deutsche Messe, I am concerned with the ordinary substitution of any hymn in place of the creed or contemporary songs that similarly lack the classical creedal formations by which we confess the Triune God.  

Even more troubling, however, are those many congregations -- especially those using contemporary worship and music -- who hardly ever use the creed as part of the worship service.  I know of some who never use a creed except for a baptism.  I know of many who find a creed "elitist" or "unwelcoming" and since they target the service toward unchurched people and use the worship service as an outreach tool, the creed is omitted on a regular basis.  For these congregations and for the folks in these congregations, the creedal norm of how we define and confess God is missing and with it the most substantive tie to the Church that went before them.

The point of this all is a reminder that the creed is not like the choice of a hymn -- it is part of the ordinary.  To those whose congregations routinely omit the creed, I challenge you to reconsider and restore this essential element to the Sunday morning assembly... that the faith may be retained in its historical, Biblical, and classic form and passed on to those just learning the faith...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rest in Peace, Ernie

Requiascat in pace.... Ernie Tonkin, longtime member, usher, and brother in Christ, died Wednesday, June 16, 2010, at Gateway Medical Center. The funeral service will be at 11:00 am Saturday at Grace Lutheran Church with Rev. Larry Peters and Rev. Dr. William Childress officiating. Burial will be in Flint Memorial Cemetery, Michigan. Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the funeral home and from 10 a.m. until the time of the service Saturday at the Church. 

Ernest Tonkin was born November 3, 1930 in Flint, Michigan son of the late Bert Tonkin and Clara Powell Tonkin. He was preceded in death by his son Raymond B. Tonkin. He was a member of Grace Lutheran Church and retired from Fisher Body I in Flint. He was a US Army Veteran serving during the Korean Conflict. Survivors include his beloved wife, Lorna Tonkin; three daughters, Carlla Poe, Flint, Michigan; Wilma "Wendy" Livington (Phil), Kelley Callender (Stan), and daughter-in-law, Maria Tonkin, all of Clarksville; fourteen grandchildren and seventeen great-grandchildren. 

He was received into the Lord's kingdom in baptism and marked as a child of God, confirmed in that baptismal faith, and a longtime member of the Lutheran Church (in Flint, MI, and then in Clarksville, TN).  On most Sundays you could find him at 8:15 at Grace Lutheran Church, name tag in place, dressed for the Lord's House, greeting friends and family (and new friends), and serving the Lord wherever needed.  We will miss his smile and the unpretentious manner of this man of faith.

Memorial contributions may be made to Grace Lutheran Church Memorial Fund, 2041 Madison Street, Clarksville, TN 37043.

Reading Between the Lines

On another forum I have been following another long discussion of non-liturgical worship with the use of contemporary worship vs liturgical worship with the use of mostly hymns.  It is so painful because this debate has been going on on different threads in that forum for, well, ever.  It shows no signs of winding down and both sides are entrenched in their positions.  One of the things I consider as someone who has both participated in this debate and someone who has stayed out of it for periods of time, is the remarkable way that we as Lutheran Pastors are personally connected to these positions.  Especially those who write their own stuff for Sunday morning!

Those of us who use the liturgy and the great volume of the Church's hymnody (new and old) do so from a fairly secure position.  In other words, it is less about our personal preference or choice than it is about the Church's confession, history and practice.  In many respects this is a safe choice theologically.  We do not have to pour through everything that is done on Sunday morning to see if it is reflective of our confessional identity, consistent with what we believe, teach, and confess as Lutherans, and consonant with what Lutherans have done through the ages.  By using the hymnal and its rich body of hymnody and the liturgy and its deep historical identity with Christians assembled, we stand well within that evangelical and catholic tradition no matter which hymns are chosen or lectionary used. 

For those who prepare an essentially new order each week, to talk about what they do is to speak personally about them, about their strengths and weaknesses, about their personalities and tastes, and about their "Lutheran-ness."  When you presume to write what the Church will do when she gathers in worship, you presume a great responsibility that some do not fully comprehend.  The Church's worship on Sunday morning is the Christian's faith on Monday morning.  While those who do this are searching for relevance and culturally attractive and appropriate ways to use the Sunday morning experience as an entry point for those not yet in the Church, they often forget that they are also determining who the Church is, what she believes, and how she looks to the world.  For the Church's identity in worship is the Christian's identity Monday through Saturday.

Often they point to numbers as affirmation of their practice and justification for their cause.  I will not question or even deal with numbers but the very fact that they are looking for what works to fill the pews is itself an indication of the fragile foundation upon which some of these houses are built.  When you choose to stand outside the Church's catholic and evangelical tradition and depart from the order that the Church has known from the earliest of days, then you must find support for and reason for such departure to explain and justify such a disconnect with the Church's identity and life.  That is generally an appeal not to Scripture or to the Confessions or even to Luther but to the numbers -- the liturgy does not work and what I am doing does work.

Those who know me know that I have no shortage of ego.  Yet I am extremely fearful of what would happen if I were left unconstrained by the path of the Church's tradition and practice.  I know that I would love it on one hand and would believe that what I am doing would be better than what anyone else is doing, but it would be a terrible tyrrany upon the people to have them subject to Larry Peters or what Larry Peters thinks they want or need week after week after week.  And if someone found fault with what I had prepared, it would not be a simple matter of the way a text were treated or which hymn were chosen, it would be a challenge to who I am and how well I know my people and what they want or need.  If attendance wavered from week to week, I would be left with the soul searching question of what I did wrong the Sunday before or the Sunday before that and what I need to correct in order to correct the drop in attendance (if numbers is the primary definition of faithfulness). 

All of this relates why such a discussion of contemporary music and non-liturgical worship vs liturgical worship and the music of the Church gets so personal, so heated, and so bitter.... for those who invest themselves and their identities and understandings of the people in determining what happens on Sunday morning, any question about their practice is a personal challenge.  And that is exactly the weakness in all of this.... the worship of the Church is not personal to the Pastor or personal even to the congregation but to Jesus Christ, His Word and Sacraments, and the Church's confession and identity.  That is the personal that ought to be front and center in our discussions.... and not ourselves.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Beyond Disrespect

For a long time I have thought about how our public behavior has degraded with more than a simple lack of courtesy or respect.  I am not only talking about the Church.  The last time I went to a movie (months ago) a person in the next row answered and made cell phone calls through the entire movie and was less than discreet with the volume and tone of her voice.  While at the symphony a month or so ago, a woman sitting behind us proceeded to hum along with the orchestra (though she was not a featured soloist nor was she an accompanist listed on the program).  I have watched people actually answer their cell phones during worship and proceed to talk (in one case while sitting in the front pew on the lectern side).  During pot lucks and other food events in the congregation, we have had to resort to telling children they must be accompanied by a parent and parents they must watch and limit what their children take (and then throw away because they do not want it) because we have had instances when the folks at the end of the line (usually me, my family, and other church staff) did not have any food left to choose from.  I have watched as people have defaced public and private property on a whim and had parents of children who did this cover it up.  I could go on...

This is not a simple cast of disrespect.  This is a bold and unapologetic definition of the world in terms of ME -- my wants, desires, whims, and tastes.  Certainly it is true that people may not be any "worse" than those of other generations but it is true that we no longer hide our selfish and self-centered ways.  We are bolder and bolder in our public behavior of manners and actions that betray how we see the world, others, and ourselves.  We no longer find any shame in seeing the world through the lens of me.  So what we do or say or want or think or feel becomes the primary if not only lens through which we see the world around us and by which we define how we relate to one another.

All of this makes the Church's voice for morality, polite and respectful behavior, and deferment to others before self even more out of step with the times.  We as a nation and and a culture no longer feel compelled to hide what we have always thought but knew it was impolite and rude to display -- me first.  The loss of this public morality with its constraint has left us with a cruder and more vulgar culture and people.  Our children are the victims of all of this.  Both in language and in behavior we have injured them and passed on a grave handicap by the lack of a public morality to constrain what has been inside of us all along.

While some argue for a religious revolution, I think what they mean is the return to a public standard of morality in which the base desires of self are constrained in our public dealings and relationships with others.  I wish that those who decry what has happened were actually looking for a renewal of the faith but I fear that what they really want from religion is the restoration of this public standard of morality which places boundaries upon the words and actions of others.

If the Church consents to give society this instead of giving them Jesus Christ, we may have applied a band-aid for the short term but we have failed in our mission and purpose as the heralds of the kingdom of God.  Now don't get me wrong -- I am in favor of working for a renewal of our public face of morality with its accompanying constraints upon the display of our selfish and self-absorbed ways.  I think it is a good thing and I long for the days when the media felt constrained not simply to display reality that degrades but to serve to ennoble us as people and herald our virtues.  This was the whole reason why opera, for example, used the Greco-Roman mythology and virtue as its subject matter for so long.  The media of the day saw its purpose as an agent to uplift, constrain, and encourage -- toward that which was good and right and true.  But that is not the purpose of the Church.  We are not here to be a facsimile for a public morality that has been lost. 

The Church is here to proclaim Jesus Christ.  In this respect we are most inefficient -- we work not as a great movement of people but as one person at a time hears the Word of the Lord, is transformed by the work of the Spirit, repents of his or her sins, and works with the Holy Spirit to amend his or her sinful life.  I think that both the Christian right and left look on our culture and desire to make a difference -- albeit from very different perspectives.  They each have their own ideas of what is the good that should be but they both see the Church basically as an agent of cultural change and renewal.  In reality the Church is an agent of individual and personal change and renewal -- not by the imposition of a new law but by union with Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

As citizens I hope and pray that we will work to renew a sense of public morality that will constrain the excess and take from the public eye the approving view of self.  But as a Christian I hope and pray that the Church will not forget who we are in Christ and what we are here to proclaim.  For this reason we act in but not of the world, working for the improvement of every condition of society as people who live in this world, yet having a full understanding of our citizenship in heaven and the goal never to be realized until this flesh give way to the new flesh and blood that we have see in Jesus, the first born of what we shall be.