Thursday, September 30, 2010

Angels and Messengers

September 29 was the date of commemoration for St. Michael and All Angels.  It is amazing how we as people can take something about which the Scriptures say little and make it the object of our fascination.  Angels (more accurately messengers) are the workhorses of God yet somehow we have made them into the romantic stuff of legend and imagination.  We don't want to go to heaven and receive the life that God has promised us.  We would rather be turned into angels (that is until we find out all the work that God has given them to do).  We have painted them as chubby little cherubs and blond haired/blue eyed winged Nordic demigods and for all our imagination, we are left further from the truth of their existence and the explanation of their purpose than ever before.

Christians have given angels to the world (even more so than Christmas).  They have become folklore and myth more so than religious figure or Biblical being.  We have whole books that purport to explain them, predict them, and experience them.  We have movies that offer the sweet and inspirational ideal, the comedic and odd view, and the dark and brooding version of these beings.  It is not so much important to us what Scripture does or does not say.  What we think and feel  has won the battle for these spiritual beings.

The one thing that Scripture does make clear to us is not enough to satisfy us.  Angels do God's bidding.  It is as simple as that.  Whether the big job of a Gabriel who speaks with Mary or the little glimpses of angels whom the Lord has given charge over us to guard us day and night, angels serve the Lord.  The other thing that we work so hard to unpack and have only made more confused is that they serve the Lord by extending His care to us.  I must confess that I do not want to know all that much about angels.  My curiosity has been satisfied in knowing that they work for God on our behalf.  That is enough for me.

So all I know about angels is made into prayer form by Luther:  Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.  Amen.  That is enough to know.  As God has placed people in my life for my care and protection, as God has given me His Word and Sacraments to convey Himself and all His gifts and graces to me, so has God granted me the protection of the angels against the evil foe.  They may look sweet but they must be able to handle themselves against the enemy or this petition would be a joke.  It is not.  All I need to know of them is that they serve the Lord and work on my behalf.  So I say, Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.  Amen.  But if you are not satisfied and are determined to know more, HT to Paul McCain for providing this little catechism on angels by Dr. Al Barry.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Promotional Sundays

I am sure that Lutherans are by no means alone in the plethora of appeals to designate this Sunday for this cause or that Sunday for that cause.  We have institutional Sunday appeals for Synod, District, for the individual boards or missions of Synod and District (World Relief, etc.), for the schools of Synod (college and seminary Sundays), for causes within the Synod (Black Missions, Native American Missions, etc.), and many more.  We have the Sunday appeals for RSOs (rostered service organizations) and this is an endless list of LWML, LLL, camps, social service agencies, mission associations, youth services, senior services, etc..  We have local causes and regional appeals.  We have congregational organizations and emphases up the kazoo. 

Of course, no one follows them all.  No one turns every Sunday into a fund raising appeal for this cause or that (at least I hope not).  Every congregation picks and chooses (mine limits these to 2-3 per year of appeals that correspond to special ties within the congregation to these agencies or to this work).  It is not like I think that the Church Year has been co-opted into a series of financial appeals (at least in most congregations) though I think that those agencies and endeavors which send out these appeals have no qualms about replacing the real Church Year with a string of financial appeals.

Once, not too long ago, I did watch a video of their Easter Sunday service from one of the largest congregations of Synod and in the middle of the sermon, the Pastor stopped preaching to ask one of the other staff members to put a plug in for a new program being launched there.  One of the biggest parts of his commercial was a request for email addresses.  Hmmmmm.  Jesus has risen from the dead... but first, a word from our sponsor...

We as clergy say that pray, pay, and obey are not the only things lay folk are good for... but these Sunday financial appeals seem to say pray, PAY, and obey...  It is no wonder that our folks have become cynical and callous when it comes to needs and appeals.  I believe that most Lutheran Christians desire to be generous in their support of the work of the Lord and want to be good stewards of the many gifts God has entrusted to them.  But the way we handle financing everything from scholarships and support of church work students to mission work seems to erode the good teaching of stewardship and distract people from generous and faithful support.  Instead, it only instills the idea that this money is mine and, if your cause is good enough, I might throw a little of it your way.  It is demeaning to the work of Christ's kingdom and it threatens the financial health of the congregation, District, and Synod.

There is another even uglier side of this.  It detracts from what happens on Sunday morning when the Lord Jesus Christ comes to us with the gift of Himself in the Word that is His voice and accomplishes His purpose and the Sacraments that convey Him to us and all the fruits and blessings of His one, all sufficient sacrificial death and glorious resurrection.  Jesus ends up playing second fiddle to this need or that, this cause or that cause, this appeal or that appeal.  It is no wonder our people have lost the sense of the sacred or the holy that is Christ coming to His people through His means of grace each Sunday morning!

One of the things I look for from a new administration in St. Louis is some leadership and teaching to help wean our church body off the sacred sauce of constant financial appeals.  I know it will not come quickly but I hope that this is one area in which President Harrison will lead us.  Christ's Church and Christ's work should not be reduced to begging for money or competing with this good cause or that.  Good stewardship and good churchmanship go hand in hand in this area. 

Let's just say "NO."  But, saying no does not mean we can ignore the work of the kingdom far and near in order to make sure money is spent at home in the congregation first.  That would only prove the appeals method works and it is the only thing people understand.  Faithful congregations will support the work of the kingdom beyond their own neck of the woods.  Period.  Whether large or small, we as Pastors and people in the congregations need to show that we are not two years olds with such attention deficit that if we do not have a bulletin insert, a pep talk, or a video about this need or that, this cause or that, we will forget about the work that God has called us to do -- together as well as alone.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stick to the Script

It is common to see Pastors ad lib during the Divine Service in an effort to reduce the formality and make the liturgy a bit more folksy.  Some of the more common offenses include "Good Mornings" by all the folks in the liturgy (usually done in the beginning to explain what is going to be happening but sometimes done by the reader when introducing the lessons and even witnessed at the introduction to the prayer of the Church).  Others include the exchange of personal greetings during the sharing of the peace ("Hi, how are ya?  How's your foot [or insert here other offensive member]? or "Missed you last week; where were you?").  Perhaps the most egregious include conversation at the rail as the Body and Blood of Christ are being distributed (everything from "Are you Lutheran?" to "Can he receive the wine?" to "I am so sorry to hear about your father.").  BTW, all that I referenced above I have heard with my own ears spoken by the clergy to lay during the liturgy.

Not all the offenders are the ministers of the service but the folks in the pew tend to take their cue from those leading the worship so I single them out.  It seems that even in traditional parishes that use the liturgy from the hymnal, the Pastor cannot resist the impulse to improvise, personalize, and comment upon what he is doing.  It would be one thing if these were simply well-meaning helps to understanding what is going on but the vast majority are the kinds of banter an MC might have on a variety show or the Oscars or such.  In between the "action" the dead silence is enlivened by a little light conversation -- usually humorous.  Most of it is frivolous, much of it banal, and all of trivial.  It diminishes who is there and what we are there for.  So I say -- no, plead -- stop.  Stick to the script.

It is one thing to say something mildly humorous from the pulpit as a means of making a point.  I have used humor to make a point.  But it is a commodity to be used seldom and in light doses, carefully applied.  Outside the announcements and the very occasional word from the pulpit, do not do anything to trivialize or detract from what is happening in the liturgy.  It is no wonder our people are confused.  On the one hand the person leading the Divine Service is talking like Jay Leno in his monologue and on the other the words of the liturgy are telling us that God is present, that in order to meet Him we need to be cleansed by absolution, prepared by the Spirit, and acknowledge the holy ground that grace has bidden us to tread upon.

It is bad enough when something spontaneously slips from the lips of the presider.  It is quite another when it is programmed in and planned out like directions on a set.  This competing script detracts from and fights against the liturgy.  And the worst of it all, the audience becomes the victim in this since they are left with a confused idea of what is happening in the liturgy -- are we hear to meet the Jesus who comes to us in His Word and Sacrament or here for some other less serious purpose?  The presider has a duty to make sure that people understand what is happening in the Divine Service and I have seldom had the experience that people take the presence of Christ too seriously and much experience that they are far too casual about the God who comes to us as He has promised in His Word and Sacrament.

Stick to the script.  How many times must we say it?  The point of Sunday morning is not, as my hometown newspaper ended all local coverage, "a good time was had by all."  The point of Sunday morning is for the people of God to meet their Lord where He has promised to be.  Only faith can prepare them for this but let us not confuse this faith by detracting from the solemnity by making it all a joke.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Certain Sadness

Those of you who know me, know my affection for all things British.  If it could not be spotted a mile away, I would have long ago developed a British accent as an affection to celebrate my love of the BBC, literature, movies, country estates, James Mason, the Queen and the Royal Family (except for Charles and bloody Camilla), etc. . .  I listen to Choral Evensong through the miracle of the Internet and have an extensive CD library of the English choral and hymnic tradition.  The sound of an English boy choir singing at Christmas in Westminster Abbey IS Christmas music.  I even like fish and chips (the real kind accompanied by a suitable pint of the appropriate beverage.  I cannot explain it.  So I will not.

How sad then to read among the millions of words covering B16's visit the facts that unmistakably reveal that all is not well in merry old England.  The facts cited by some to describe how terrible things are were sobering to an Anglophile like me. In 2008, 45 percent of British children were born outside marriage; 3.9 million children are living in poverty; 20 percent of deaths among young people aged from 15 to 24 are suicides; in 2009, 29.4 million antidepressants were dispensed, up 334 percent from 1985.

These are the signs of a society on the verge of collapse -- not because of an invasion from outside but because of a suicide of sorts from within.  The marginalization of religion, truth, and the Church may not be the primary cause but surely they contribute.  The fact that the population of England is on the dole to government or institutional support of one form or another is another contributing factor.  The fact that the things I associate with England are more the stuff touted to tourists than anything real or significant to modern British society and life, is another sad fact.

England is only going where Scandinavia has already gone and the rest of Europe is not far behind.  Which leaves us with the alarming truth that America may not be very far behind Europe.  The world is all following the slippery slope of a largely secular society, with truth that bows to the altar of political correctness, with diversity that refashions history to be what we think it should instead of what it really was, and with government increasingly seen as the entity to guarantee pleasure and bail us out of our mistakes.

Which gives rise to hope among the newer Christians who have no desire to be a toothless majority and are content to be a solid and creative minority.  These and the voices of those from Africa and other former mission outposts tell us that the sound of hope will not completely disappear into the dark night of valueless inclusiveness in which every vice is equal to every virtue.  But I cannot help a tear for England and hope that the signs of the times there are not lost on those who have the power to bring change and transformation.

So paint me sad yet with a sliver of hope for the future of global Christianity and its ability to give rebirth to the established Church so much in decline... Raise up, O Lord, a new St. George to slay the dragon of our own immorality and emptiness...

An Irritant

I occasionally read some of the stuff produced by those who have left Missouri (nearly all for Constantinople) and sometimes see lists of books (Lutheran) that these folks no longer want.  Once in a while I have purchased a copy of something I did not have in my library.  But it is a struggle because some of them, well, most of them, seem to need to bash Lutheranism in order to justify jettisoning their Lutheran libraries.  It is amazing to me to see and reflect upon the differences among those who have left Wittenberg for Rome or Constantinople.  Some are quite classy about and have succeeded in leaving without trashing what they were or where they were.  I think of Richard John Neuhaus whose high profile move to Rome was accompanied by very little Luther or Lutheran bashing.  In fact, his rationale for the move was a backwards compliment to Lutheranism ("How I Became the Catholic I Always Was").

It seems that some who have left have not left but continue to wage war upon their former home as if to justify their leaving.  I find this particularly sad.  For all they might find deficient in Lutheranism, many of these folks were exemplary Lutherans -- informed of Lutheran confessional identity, committed to that confessional identity and practice, and voices calling upon the less committed and less faithfully practicing to renewal.  Such folks would be far classier if they simply refrained from commenting at all upon their former home than to diss the very place in which their theological mind and heart was formed.  I would venture to suggest that if they believe that who they are now is something good, then who they are could not have been accomplished without their journey in, what they might call, the theological wilderness of Lutheranism.

If you choose to leave, well, that is your choice.  Lord knows that those who are Lutheran should find some sort of sympathy for the idea that you cannot go against conscience.  But if you leave, do it in a noble and classy way.  Leave quietly without making a spectacle of your leaving.  Leave honestly without attempting to draw others into your same choice.  Leave honorably without trashing your former home -- over and over and over again.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What An Amazing Thought

Sitting here early in the morning preparing for the Divine Service, I cannot help but think of those parishes and Pastors who are doing the very same thing right now.  All across the US and, indeed, the world, people are readying the Lord's table in order to come together at His bidding to be absolved of their sin, to hear His Word, and to eat His body and drink His blood.  It is overwhelming on the small scale of one parish -- the people gathered around this awesome and blessed mystery -- but it is incomprehensible on the larger scale of the Church catholic.

We hear from Scripture the same message over and over again -- you are not alone.  Today on Sunday morning we realize it in a most profound way.  The people of God are gathered in every place just as they are in this place.  No, we are not alone.  Not the little Lutheran parish on the prairie of Nebraska in a white clapboard building... not the cosmopolitan urban parish where people walk down the block to a stone structure that has stood there so many years... not the suburban parish in brick and stucco that followed the exodus of people from city centers and rural areas to row after row of cookie cutter homes... not the ethnic parish of Swedes or Norwegians or Germans that has a rich and common history to unite them... not the diverse parish of a people whose last names read like a globe... not the mountain parish where the landscape almost competes with the altar for the attention of the people... not the desert parish of adobe and sun baked brick...  no, none of us are alone... and on Sunday morning I feel the presence of so many who join like me to lead, who gather like the people in this place to hear and receive, and who join in hymn and chant and liturgy.

The "aloneness" of sin has been answered in the God who is Emmanuel, with us always and everywhere, and with a people who have become our brothers, sisters, and family in faith -- whether we know them personally or not.  Community is the word of the Church -- of bidden people who gather in Christ's name to receive His gifts and respond with praise, prayer, and thanksgiving.  On Sunday morning the world literally pulses with the heartbeats of Christians too many to count but God knows them each and every one.

This thought becomes powerful fact and reality to be apprehended with faith sight if not eye sight when, with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Thy holy name, evermore singing:  Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God Sabaoth!  What a glorious Sunday it will be and already is.

A Visit to a Church Supply Store

Friday after a visit to Cheekwood and the Chihuly Glass exhibit (amazing -- you must see) we turned a corner and ended up at St. Mary's Church Supply Store.  It is part of the system of Catholic Church Supply Stores and most parish pastors have seen their catalogs (big, colorful, and complete).  But it it quite another thing to actually visit the store.

One floor is entirely Christmas -- every kind of creche or nativity scene known to man (ceramic, carved wood, resin, and plastic).  If you love the decorations of Christmas that attest to the story in Scripture and the meaning of the Word made flesh, then this is the place for you.  Of course, you find some rather cheeky stuff but most of it is worth an ooh or and aahhhh.

The man entrance has icons, statuary, crucifixes, and crosses.  I could have spent an arm and a leg there.  If you do not have a decent crucifix in your home, you need to stop by and pick one up.  They have every size, made of every material, and for every "taste" (from the realistic to the more symbolic to the colorful to the plain wood).  Every home is incomplete without at least one good quality crucifix.  Plan to spend between $40-80 (depending upon size) but it is money well spent (considering the throw away stuff we buy at Wally World).

There are books, cds, dvds, vestments, church appointments, etc... All kinds of things to remind of God's House, of the Divine Service, and of the great mystery in which we are privileged to participate in the Sacrament.  Where else can you go and find all sorts and kinds of baptismal remembrances for a god child or confirmation remembrances for a youth or a pocket lectionary for the home, or a cd of chant for the focus of the soul at the end of a busy day...

Granted, not everything we as Lutherans might want to see (most of that is available at the bookstore right here in the parish) but a ton of other items inviting and salutary for the Christian home and family.  More than is in the catalog and you can see it before you buy it... What a good trip to make at least once!!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Some Thoughts on Brain Drain...

A million years ago, before many of my readers were born, the Missouri Synod suffered a schism in which the complaint was made that the people leaving represented the intelligentsia of the LCMS.  This was called the brain drain of Missouri when 801 (the old name for Concordia Seminary, St. Louis) became a ghost town and Seminex was set up at 1500 North Grand.  Considering that Missouri had deposited much of the teaching authority of the Church to the Seminaries (make that Seminary since Springfield was considered a practical "how-to" school instead of a full fledged seminary), it is easy to see how this conclusion might have been made. 

In the years following, there were some brains in Missouri but since these were the conservative brains they were not as brainy as the brains who left.  The Preus brothers, certainly brains but markedly conservative ones, were seen as villainous brains who should have used their schmartz for good instead of for evil.  Others, like Bohlmann and Scharlemann were considered brains who defected to the dark side.  It appears, at least in Bohlmann's case, that his defection was not fully complete.  Oh, well, I digress in the fun of painting these painful events in Missouri's history with a bad attempt at humor.

The point was that the brains who left were bright, outgoing, world engaging, highly respected, academic, and the future of Lutheranism types.  They took with them the best of Lutheranism's hopes -- the good was that some of them at least helped birth a new Lutheranism in the ELCA in 1988.

Now we swing 20 years after the ELCA and 36 years after Seminex, and we hear of another brain drain.  This one is made up of the intelligentsia of the ELCA who are abandoning Lutheranism mostly for Rome (though a few went to Constantinople).  They are decried as Lutheranism's bright lights who have left us empty of the folks with the kind of schmartz necessary to save Lutheranism from its ugly slide into the abyss of generic or mainline Protestantism.  But, these folks left not for wider gates and broader paths.  No, they left for the narrow way of no women's ordination, for the rigid imprisonment of the mass form, for a centralized hierarchical authority, and for a teaching magisterium with teeth.

Missouri's brain drain headed for open minds and open hearts.  ELCA's for closed minds and closed hearts (meaning to culture and its influence upon the Church).  Well, which is it?  Have the brains changed or the causes changed or is it possible that we decide brain drain on the basis of who that agrees with me left and who that agrees with me stayed?

Missouri's brain drain was overplayed.  We have at our Seminaries (Fort Wayne, in particular) world class theologians and Bible scholars who are the bright lights of Lutheranism in a sea of rather dim and dark lights (at least across Europe and America).  We have individual scholars in their own rights who choose to live in and exercise their pastoral gifts within the parish setting (the list of names here is phenomenal).  We have a resurgent publishing house putting out the reprints of the best of the past, new works never before available in English, and brand new works by many of these newer authors (both from within academia and the parish setting).  We have musicians and theologians and liturgiologists who put out now only a hymnal but a wealth of material surrounding it and an amazing technological feat to help the parish pastor apply it to the Sunday morning setting.

Yes, there are some folks I miss terribly... folks who left for the ELCA, for Rome, and for Constantinople.  Yes, there are some folks who we thought were one thing but whose actions since leaving have proven otherwise and, sadly, we have not lost much in their leaving.  Yes, some of those who made an exodus away have left a gulf of emptiness but it was quickly filled.  And the folks who filled the gap have proven to be very good for Missouri and for Lutheranism in general.  I need look no further than the Office of President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to point to one example. 

So, I am not so sure about this brain drain thingy.  Missouri has done okay.  I cannot say for the ELCA because the full impact of her choices are still being wrestled with and new church bodies have been formed in result.  But God has not left us with out brains enough to lead us ad fontes -- to the sources that both formed us, define us, and guide us in the way we relate to others and to the world.

Friday, September 24, 2010

When We Would Rather Be Wrong than Right

HT to Paul McCain for pointing me to Al Mohler's Blog about what was said in the rite of reception of lesbian pastors in the ELCA who were now placed upon the roster of that church body.  To be honest I have been ignoring this whole phenomenon because it is too easy to comment upon and it is something I have grown tired of hearing and tired of talking about.  But...

In that rite of reception, the church confessed “We have fallen short in honoring all people of God and being an instrument for that grace . . . . We have disciplined, censured and expelled when we should have listened, learned and included.”

Now the caveat in this whole thing is that this is a conscious decision to ignore Scripture, an unbroken tradition within the Christian Church, and Lutheran history and confession and choose to listen to the voice of the world, the culture, and feelings.  This is a inclusive vision of the church in which those not welcomed are precisely those who pay attention to what Scripture says, tradition has taught, and Lutherans have confessed.

By confessing the "wrong" of not ignoring Scripture, tradition, and Lutheran confession sooner, the ELCA has embraced the vagaries of marrying the spirit of the moment -- a relationship which requires divorcing and remarrying every time the age catches another spirit.  What is seen as the triumph of inclusiveness is in reality the triumph of self over the voice of God's Word, the triumph of the moment over standing with tradition, and the triumph of a nominal confession in which words and spirit are secondary to other agendas not found in that confession.

I have often asked my ELCA friends who protest if it is just about sex.  I am assured it is not.  But, one or two have admitted that it was not so much that the wanted a different ELCA but an ELCA which had not gone as far as it did -- a matter of degree instead of difference.  I applaud them for their honesty but it only reinforces the issue and problems there.  If we can venture a little far from Scripture, tradition and confession, a matter of degree instead of difference, then it is a timetable issue and not a fundamental disagreement with the rationale and decision of the ELCA.

Now, mind you, the LCMS is by no means perfect and we have a closet full of skeletons.  We too abandoned Scripture, tradition, and Lutheran confession when we gave status and legitimacy to lay presidency at the Eucharist.  This is the result of listening to the situation, culture, felt needs, and spirit of the age instead of the unchanging word of Scripture, the consistent voice of tradition, and the clear voice of confession.  So I am not vindicating Missouri here.  What is different is that Missouri's error, as egregious as it is, does not endanger the Gospel as clearly the ELCA decision does.

Who wants to be wrong and in style instead of being right but out of step with God?  We all do, of course; it is the voice of the old adam speaking still with a powerful voice of temptation.  To this voice we must learn to say no and to the times when we have heeded its words we must learn to speak repentance.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Liturgical Antinomians

Those who grew up learning curb, mirror, and rule/guide should know that Lutherans have not discarded the Law.  Those who are heirs of CFW Walther should remember that the proper distinction between Law and Gospel remains a current issue and need in the Church today as it was so long ago.  Yet when it comes to things liturgical or having to do with worship, we act pretty antinominan.

If you recall, Agricola, Luther's former student, had followed grace to a logical but irrational and unBiblical end.  He sought to guard Christian freedom by eliminating the proclamation of the Law entirely.  The Law, since it does not bestow the Spirit nor bring about repentance, is left to city hall and is banished from the Church.  Of course, Luther's answer reminds us of the paradox of life in the Spirit and yet in this sinful world.  As long as man lives in this mortal flesh and sinful world, the Law has dominion over him.  Agricola was an antinomian who fell victim to enthusiasm and pietistic moralism.

There are those who insist that there can be no rules when it comes to worship and things liturgical.  Rubrics may be offered as helps, convention resolutions may adopt positions (for weekly Eucharist, for example), and church bodies may produce hymnals, agendas, and liturgies approved for usage BUT... the congregation and its Pastor are bound by none of this and freed from legalism to do what seems good and right in their own eyes.  In other words, liturgical antinomians resist in principle the idea that any one can say what must or must not be done within the worship of a Lutheran congregation and seem duty bound to exercise their freedom almost to the absurd in order to prevent such legalistic requirement from taking hold.

Baloney!  As long as man lives in this mortal flesh and sinful world, the Church can and must have rules.  These are not the rules that require this or that for salvation but are the ordinary boundaries that define what is consistent with our Lutheran confession and identity and that which is not.  The congregation and its Pastor are NOT free to do as they choose unless they choose NOT to be Lutheran.

It is as much as scandal to our confession and identity that we have hymnal using Lutheran congregations without a weekly Eucharist as it is that we have contemporary worship Lutheran congregations with nothing even close to a Mass in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day.  Both are "against the rules" of our confession and our identity.  Now, it is true that these rules are not enforced in the way the secular realm enforces legal code or ordinances (with punishment, fine, or other punitive measures).  But the Church IS a Church of order and identity and the Church has the ability to hold up the rules as those boundaries which indicate where Lutheran identity and confession are compromised and even sacrificed in the vain pursuit of what the congregation or Pastor desire.

I think it is time we call the antinomians out for what they are and challenge them to heed the good counsel of the Church's confession and mark their practice with the identity that flows from this confession.  Not all things possible are beneficial and each congregation is not the whole Church nor is each Pastor its supreme Bishop, Patriarch or Pope.  We live in a relationship together in which rules and rubrics are for the common good even when it may seem they are not for the individual good.

Do the red.  Say the black.  (corrected)  This is not some appeal to a slavish uniformity which ignores all things local but an appeal against the dictatorship of freedom exploited for the sake of freedom alone that ends up exploiting people and our common life and identity for the sake of things some claim are indifferent anyway.  (And if indifferent, then why insist upon no order -- what is the big deal about giving in on this point?) The liturgy is not indifferent.  It is a mark of the Church and the Church's catholicity -- and this is not incidental but urgent and essential.  Without this catholicity we are but a sect and our confession is only as wide and deep as a moment.  This is far removed from the words of Jesus about a Church against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.

What we see manifested in things liturgical and in worship is an antinomian spirit, thoroughly in sync with the spirit of the age but thoroughly out of step with Scripture, tradition, and the Lutheran Confessions.  The Confessions are replete with reference to our unwillingness to abandon the tradition of the Church when it comes to the Mass, ceremonies, usages, and rituals that do not conflict with the Gospel but actually support that Gospel.  Why do we spend so much time explaining these away so that one parish may keep the dry mass (old page 5) with an occasional Divine Service and another can turn Sunday morning into a pentecostal free for all?  There can only be one reason, more important to us than anything else (as congregations and as Pastors) is the idea that nobody can tell me or force me to do anything I don't want to.  And that, my friends, is as dangerous to the faith as those who worship the form instead of the Christ whom the form proclaims.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Uproar Against the Breeders

I guess when your children identify you with the phrase in the hymn stanza "ancient of days," it means you are often the last to pick up on new things.  I do not know where I have been but it came as a shock to me how some who choose to remain childless now refer (with disdain) to those who have children.  They are called "breeders."  The online Wall Street Journal has an article on this called "The Breeders Cup."  Or, you can read another one in Psychology Today.  In another "breeders" complain that the restaurant menu is unintelligible to their children.  In another, an author complains saying "Breeders: your children do not make you superior."  Perhaps the most intriguing is from First Things Blog "rage against the breeders" which quotes articles in The Weekly Standard and the Washington Post.

The disdainful term "breeders" is shocking enough but the bitterness, anger, and rage among those choosing to remain childless is even more distressing.  Sure, who among us has not wondered in our hearts, get that kid out of church or out of the restaurant or out of the store when a parent is oblivious to the screams, rudeness, or loss of control on the part of their children.  But how did we move from frustration directed against the parent to an intolerance for children?

A number of the authors in these articles focused on the stress children cause their parents (duh!) or the financial cost (is this news?!?) or the supposed disappointment of parents with parenting in general (who has not been there?).  I read of the childless who think children should be kept locked up at home until they are adult and socialized (what happened to the folks writing this hogwash?).  I heard statements that those choosing to remain childless are in the upper tiers of income, education, and professional vocations (where do these folks think they are going to find people to wait upon them or serve them if there are no "breeders?").

But then I think of how many congregations banish children from the Sanctuary with the so-called "Children's Church" that keeps the kids away from adults so that the adults can do their thing unhindered by the need to teach, nurture, or care for their kids.  And then I think of how many folks insist that every time the church door is open, child care must be offered.  And I think of the myriad of children who run around church buildings while their parents sit gabbing over coffee (oblivious to where their children are or what trouble they are getting into).  Just maybe it is not only in the secular world that we have stopped viewing children as gifts from the Lord and parenting as the most sacred vocation within the home and community.

It is shocking to me that so many folks seem to think of kids as a huge burden upon them (even the children not theirs).  It is shocking that in so many ways the Church has subtly reinforced this by banishing the kids to their own version of church (neatly out of the way of the adults).  It is shocking to me that couples in premarital counseling often express uncertainty about whether or not they will have children and choose to delay children until other priorities in their lives are accomplished (most of them begin with ME).

Look around at the Sunday schools of our church body and you see empty rooms.  Look around at the parochial schools closing or religious high schools closing for lack of children.  Look around at the age of those who slap the sausage on your sausage biscuit or hand you your Big Mac at McDonalds.  We are genuinely anti-abortion and pro-life but that has not kept us from being influenced by the few or none children choice that so many of our couples are making.  Perhaps Rome is right, the availability and approval of varied forms of birth control have radically reshaped not only our understanding of marriage, but also of children.  In the end we are being pushed further and further from the Scripture and tradition and it is a bold new world that at least this person does not want to enter...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Transforming Congregations

One of the BIG programs of Synod is largely hidden and its name sounds innocuous enough -- Transforming Congregations Network.  It is a big program because we have so many congregations in need of transformation.  They are not growing, not baptizing and confirming adults, and not welcoming to new folks.  I have posted on this before so lest anyone suggest I am okay with a congregation directing its focus and ministry only to those currently in the pews, I am not.  I am adamantly against it.  However, the issue of HOW you transform congregations is up for debate.

Those who are experts in this sort of thing have surveyed the marketplace of religious ideas and practical helps and determined that we Lutherans do not have many tools to help us in this area.  We need to borrow from our Baptist friends and those in non-denominational churches -- the ones that are growing.  Some of the stuff we have borrowed is well and good (a lot of it common sense wisdom which, sadly, is not all that common anymore).  Some of it is, well, somewhat trivial but benign.  It is somewhat embarrassing but it is not much more harmful than that.  Other stuff is downright dangerous.  It changes more than practice but the doctrine that informs those practices.  Others have gone into detail and I am not repeating myself or them here.

I do think, however, that the great issue has less to do with how we do things than our understanding of who we are as the Church.  Quite frankly, too many of us do not think of the congregation as the Church.  It is much less in our minds -- a simple gathering of like minded folks for a common purposes.  We do not consider that we are here not because we have chosen to come but because we have been bidden by God.  I cannot for the life of me understand why Lutherans skip over those words "called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified..." in the Catechism.  Or, why Lutherans seem to think that these words refer to individual Christians but not to the Church of Jesus Christ.

It is my unpleasant experience that too often when Lutheran Christians come together, we expect less than the Church, we act less than the Church, and we get less than the Church.  We assume it does not matter too much if our needs are met (and in this even the most conservative Lutherans sometimes act and think just like the mega-churches that are here to meet people's needs).  The Church is not here to meet our needs.  The Church has been created by God to be the place where He bestows His gifts upon His people.  The Church is the arena of Word and Sacrament that accomplish His purpose and do what he sends them to do.  The Church is created by the means of grace and called into being where Word and Sacrament speak and act with the authority of Christ, indeed making known the very person of Christ.  He is not simply the bearer of gifts -- He is THE gift of God to His people.  We are here only because HE is here.

Far too often we forget that we are here because Christ is here.  We settle for a few words of good advice, a little comfort for our individual burdens, a little relief or distraction from our individual troubles, a little guidance amid our individual uncertainties.  So it is easy to be inward focused when we see the Church in this light.  But how is it possible for us to miss the impact of God planting His Church here in this place not only for our sakes but for the sake of the world around us?  How is it possible to meet Christ where He has promised to be (Word and Sacrament) and then go home as if the most important thing on our agenda were finding something good to eat?  Is this a matter of bad people or bad attitudes or is it a symptom of the fact that we have forgotten that the Church is not ours, we do not create it, and we are not the objects of the Church's existence. 

The Church is God's, established in Christ to be the place where He fulfills His Emmanuel promise to be with us always.  The Church is created by God when His Word speaks and His Sacraments act to make Christ and all the blessings of Christ present and accessible to us.  The Church is not simply God with us who are there, but the gift and means of God's presence to the world.

If there are congregations that need transformation, and Lord knows there are, we must begin by reminding them who they are, what they are, and why they are.  This is not simply the replacement of a "maintenance" mindset for an "outreach" one.  This is the rediscovery of what it means to be the Body of Christ, to be bidden by the God who makes His presence among His people through Word and Sacrament, and who sends them forth into the world proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  I am not so sure that we can learn this from the Baptists or from anybody else.  I know, however, it is there in the Catechism.

Hymnal in Every Home - A worthy goal!!

Since the arrival of Lutheran Service Book in August of 2006, over 1,000,000 copies have been sold. Celebrate the overwhelming reception of Lutheran Service Book in our churches by taking the hymnal home. Far more than a book for use only on Sunday mornings, the hymnal is full of rites, prayers, hymns, and other resources for use in our daily lives.

Read what A Guide for Introducing Lutheran Service Book has to say about the hymnal as prayer book:

“Here one finds words of Holy Scripture and even the Small Catechism, to be sure. But it is in the familiar words of the services and in the rich poetry of the hymns that the hymnal demonstrates its unique contribution to the formation of the faithful. If the Bible is the source of our knowledge about God and his works, and the catechism is the roadmap that guides us to the essentials in God’s Word, then the hymnal supplies us with the poetry of the faith. Here the Word of God and its teachings appear as verse wedded to melody, penetrating the heart and delighting the soul. Long before children have learned to read, they have sung. And as the elderly approach their twilight years, the melodies and texts of the church’s song are still recalled, even if their eyesight has faded and their fingers are no longer nimble enough to turn a page. From cradle to grave, the church’s song gives voice to the heartfelt cries and joyful strains of God’s children.” (page 55)

You can get yours HERE!

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Guiltless People in a Cashless Culture

Sermon Preached for Pentecost 17, Proper 20C, on Sunday, September 19, 2010,

    While waiting at the stoplight up the street, a veterans group was selling bracelets to support wounded vets.  I do not carry any cash.  I could not buy one if my life depended on it.  I have become like many in our culture – I shop with debit and credit and if you cannot get it with these, I don't get it.  Which is one reason why we may not get the story Jesus told in the Gospel today.
    You cannot serve God and cash – that is the message of the parable.  But that is not me?  I don't even carry cash!  So what does this story say to me?  We live in a plastic world where most of us never even see much cash.  It is an electronic age in which transactions are done online.  But that is exactly the problem.  This parable is not about the love of cash.  It is about the love of self – about the me who craves and wants and is not satisfied until I get what I want.  And surely this is not a problem for us, is it?
    The message of the parable is clear.  God does not audit our checkbooks or bank accounts.  He audits our lives.  We are judged not by our little altars to cash or plastic cards but by all our words and actions.  The first message of the parable is clear.  We are accountable.  Just as the manager in Jesus’ parable was accountable. We are accountable to God – not simply for our money or our financial decisions but our use of all of His gifts.  But we are still accountable to Him for the way we use our money – don't skip over that part.
    God cannot be fooled.  Like the manager in Jesus’ story who could not keep the deception going, God already knows what we keep hidden inside us. He knows our hearts, he knows our real needs, and he knows our wants.  He is not fooled by an outward appearance of holiness.  He sees our motives, our wants, and the manipulative ways we work to get what we want.  And He calls on us to be honest with Him and honest with ourselves.  Sin is about lies and deception.  Faith is about honesty and truth.
    He calls on us to let go of all those things that come between us and Him. Whatever it is that harms our relationship with Him, that has to go.  We cannot serve two masters, we cannot have divided loyalties, and we cannot live a life of deception.  It will all come clean and we will lose everything unless we are careful to choose the Master who loves us and has our best interests at heart.  Otherwise, our desires will betray us and sell us out.
    I watched an interview with Archie Manning talking about how proud he was of his boys – Eli and Peyton.  But today they play against each other and what does a parent do when you have to choose between your kids?  How can that be anything but a recipe for disaster – that is the power of divided loyalties.  They break our hearts.
    The goal of this parable is not to make you give more.  Now, mind you, I am the last person to say that is a bad thing.  But this particular parable is not about giving.  It is about investing.  God is calling us in Christ as Christian people to invest in heavenly riches and not just earthly ones.  He is inviting us to use earthly wealth for heavenly good, to use His resources wisely.  And He is reminding us that wise use means an investment.  He has invested in us – nothing less than the blood of Christ.  God has no divided heart.  Mercy and love have triumphed over justice.  He has broken down every barrier between Him and us.  If we are wise in faith, we will not erect any barriers by dividing our hearts but invest all of our hearts in the true treasure of His grace.
    Righteous wealth cannot harm us but only helps us.  Unrighteous wealth cannot only help us but can really hurt us.  If Christ is our treasure, then we are rich for all eternity.  If we have all the earthly treasures in the world, we will live in eternal poverty.  But this is the hard part.  Trouble is that we have bought into the lie that a little self-indulgence is not so bad and who does it hurt?  We have given into the idea that a little division in our hearts can’t hurt us.  We have treated our bank accounts like therapists by shopping more to find happiness and pleasure than to get what we need.  In the end, it is a lie and a dangerous one that cannot help us find contentment and peace but will hurt us and lead us to our ultimate destruction.
    It is as if God is saying to us, hold on to that which is good for you.  Not as the first of many things but as the only thing at all.  Grace is beneficial and heals and helps.  Every other riches steals, divides, wounds, and distracts us.  I am not telling you something you do not know but we do not heed this truth.
    Last week in the fellowship hall, we looked at Bishop Gulle as he told us of the explosive growth of the Lutheran Church of Tanzania, in southern Africa.  And as a back drop while he spoke to us was a bay filled with the leftovers of our yard sale.  We brought into the Church boxes and boxes of things no longer needed or wanted.  We could have another yard sale next week and the huge fellowship hall would be filled one more time.  You and I both know it.  Didn't it seem incongruous to see him stand there with our excess baggage behind him?  Wasn't it a bit embarrassing?  We looked at the riches of our things that we had so much to give away while he spoke of the riches of God's kingdom.
    Now God is no ogre who demands everything from us.  God is the loving Father who sent His Son to set us free from our captivity to deceit, from our bondage to things, from earthly treasures that take from us, and from hearts divided between the happiness of this world and its things and His treasure of grace.  God is here to point us to the one true treasure that does not fade, does not rust, does not diminish in value, and does not fail to satisfy.  And that treasure is on the cross behind me.  It is Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
    When you stand in line in the story, they say "cash or credit... debit or credit..." but what these words mean is "me first."  For those who call themselves Christians, there can only be one loyalty and one who is first.  First and only in the hearts of God’s people is Him who has revealed Himself to us through His Son, displayed His love to us in the sacrifice of suffering to grant us relief, shown forth His power in the death of the cross that imparts life to us, and displayed His mercy in the wounds of sin that grant us forgiveness.
    For us the issue is not cash or credit, credit or debit... for us the issue is God behind me, God with me, and God before me... Jesus Christ and Him crucified... the treasure of grace that cannot disappoint and can only overflow in our lives with true joy... eternal joy... unlimited joy...  Amen

The Radical Values of God's Kingdom

Sermon Preached for Pentecost 16, Proper 19C, on Sunday, September 12, 2010. 

    Every day we are faced with questions about what something is worth to us – do we go back to the restaurant to retrieve a cell phone, do we head back home to get a forgotten grocery list, do we dig through the trash to find the bill we discarded, do we pick up a penny or nickel on the side walk... What is it worth to you?
    Today we heard a shocking story of what Jesus values.  It seems like an affront to everything reasonable and expected.  Jesus tells a story of a shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to find one wanderer.... and a woman who turns her house upside down to find one lost coin only to spend it celebrating with family and friends that she found it... and of heaven that rejoices more over one renegade sinner who repents and a ton of righteous who think they are pretty good to begin with.  What on earth is going on here?
    These are the radical values of the kingdom of God; since we have been baptized into that kingdom and put in Christ in those living waters, they have become our values as well.  But these are values in conflict with the world around us and our own reason and wills.  Today is the call of the Spirit through the voice of the Word to acknowledge the radical values of grace that sought us out and made us God’s children and to embrace those same radical values as our own as we consider what God has called us to do.
    Jesus speaks of the joy that erupts in heaven over one lost sinner who repents from his ways.  Imagine the heavenly picture of angels and saints whose tears of joy overflow over the kingdom of God that comes to one sinner at a time.  God has placed the highest value upon you, the love of the Father fulfilled in the Son to seek you out and redeem you.
    God declares you of great worth to him – just one single, solitary lost soul who is found by the grace of God and born anew in the waters of baptism and washed clean...  One single sinner whom God declares righteous and just in Christ.  One soul lost and abandoned to sin now found by God, claimed for His family and given the gift of eternal life.
    Let us make this picture even more pointed.  The lost one is no lovable lamb but a renegade who has rebelled against the right, rejected the truth, willfully chosen the path of self and evil, and squandered every gift of God.  This is the one hard to love by every estimation.  Yet in the radical values of the kingdom, this very renegade sinner marked with death is loved by God – loved to eternal life.  This sinner whom the world has long since written off, God has continued to love and seek with grace and mercy.  He waits as the loving father of the prodigal for the return of that which was lost to Him.  This is the radical voice of the Gospel; these the radical values of the Kingdom of God.
    According to Jesus, this one lost one who is restored and reborn by the Spirit, is a greater cause for joy that those who appear to have it all together – the righteous who think they are good enough.  God is happier over the publican who acknowledges his sin more so than the righteous who are thankful they are not like those people.  Heaven’s joy erupts over the sinner who is sinner inside and out than the righteous who has only a thin veneer of holiness, masking a heart resentful of the generous grace of God that seeks and saves the undeserving.  Heaven has no joy over those who glory more in self than in the unmerited and saving work of Christ for them.
    We know what each individual sinner is worth to God – nothing less than the love of the Father and the saving death of His Son.  But what about us?  What about our congregation and our church body?  What are these lost worth to us?  Jesus has not come for the good and upright, but for those whom we have written off and rejected.  God insists that we lift high the cross is for those lost sinners so hard to love, that there is grace enough in Christ to recall, reclaim, and restore this renegade.  That the Spirit can and will bear the fruit of repentance and faith in the lives of these unlikely saint.
    We are here not only because we were the lost who were found by God’s grace in Christ.  We are here to spread the news of that saving grace to those still lost.  Could it be that we are too comfortable in our place as the redeemed of the Lord to care for those who are not yet among the company of God’s people?  Could it be that the joy of heaven over that one sinner who repents is lost on us, whose hearts have no room to rejoice in the good news of Jesus that reclaims and restores others?  If we acknowledge the radical values of the kingdom that sought us out, then do we not have a responsibility to embrace these radical values for us and our vocation of witness and service?
    Jesus is not ignorant of the 99 already in Church but the radical grace of God is not content to have some or even many.  The radical grace of Christ seeks every stranger, seeks every outlaw, seeks every rebel, seeks every outcast and delights in these renegades whom the Father loves.  These values are not merely academic points to ponder but the working values of a kingdom which will not be still until all the lost have been found and all those marked for death have been reborn into life in Christ.
    So look around these pews and see the empty spaces and think of those who used to sit there.  Do you see these folks as your responsibility?  Do you believe that seeking them out and calling them back is your responsibility?  Does your heart overflow with joy over every lost one restored or each stranger who hears the Gospel for the first time? We know what we and they are worth to God. What are they worth to us?
    This is not a guilt trip laid upon an unwilling heart but the privilege of grace that calls to you.  The radical values of the kingdom are yours because of Your baptism into Christ and the faith that lives in you.  This is not an appeal to the law to force you to do what you do not want but the call of the Gospel to those who values and priorities have been reborn in Christ.  For each of you were the one lost whom Christ has found, the fallen whom He restored, the sinner whom He has forgiven, and the dying whom He has given life!
    So I ask you again, What is it worth to you?  And I urge you to consider the grace of God that brought you here, planted faith in your heart, washed you in baptism, gave you ears to hear His Word, and fed you at this table.  Now I call you to learn with me the radical grace of God that rejoices over each lost restored, over each renegade reformed, over each sinner forgiven, over each heart reborn in faith.  For if heaven's cause for joy is over every lost sheep sought out and brought them home to the rich green pasture and still quiet waters of the Good Shepherd that are His Church and this place, should this not also be our joy, purpose, hope, and desire as well?  Amen!

The Ability to Disagree and Still Be Brothers and Sisters

My first parish experience was in an area where two circuits met together as one.  We were a rather diverse group -- one or two who quite probably could have left with Seminex, a pentecostal/charismatic or two, a couple regular old line bronze age Missourians, some other odd ones and then me, perhaps the oddest duck of all -- highly liturgical but conservative and confessional.  There were many disagreements -- both those spoken and unspoken.  There was much conversation -- some official and some private.  But the disagreements were still fraternal and not mean-spirited.  I remain closely connected to several of these fellows.  In the end what impressed me most was the churchly manner in which differences were approached and the fraternal way in which our relationships were focused.

Yesterday we had the voters meeting in which the budget for the next year was adopted.  I waited for folks to say something but hardly anything was said.  It is not because there was nothing to say.  It it because this congregation is still unsure how to express differing opinions while remaining churchly and fraternal in their relationships as God's people in this place.  So, even though I know there were a few things that some folks wanted to say, they did not say them -- at least within the context of an official meeting.

This makes me sad.  I came here a year or so after painful conflict was less resolved than the parties left (including an ELCA mission that grew out of one of the conflicts here).  One of the things I saw right away was that it was hard for folks to disagree because they associated disagreement with conflict and hurt.  It need not be that way and the fact that it is indicates we have much growing to do as a congregation.  People can disagree in Christ about many things without that disagreement bringing an end or changing the character of their relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I expect I will make a few phone calls and see about visiting some of the folks who might have said something but chose not to say it.  The point being not to help resolve ruffled feathers but to encourage them to speak their minds (the truth in love as St. Paul tells us), that our relationship does not have to be threatened by some of these disagreements (though there are other disagreements which do shake the very foundations of our life together), and that disagreements expressed in a healthy way are a sign of maturity and strong bonds within the congregation.

Perhaps our Synod is in the same boat.  We have disagreements about things that do not threaten our unity and life together but we do not know how to express them in ways that do not threaten our relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ.  So we resort to private conversations that sometimes border on character assassination (on both sides) and we make our disputes through publications and internet forums instead of speaking face to face.  We also have some disagreements which do threaten our unity and life together and these we have the same trouble talking about openly and honestly.

In the end, it is my hope for this parish as well as for our Synod as a whole that we learn to speak to each other, that we learn to speak honestly to each other, that we are mature enough in Christ to express our disagreements out loud and work through them, and that we learn how to remain brothers and sisters in Christ even when we end up on different sides of the debate.  For surely this is the mark of maturity and strong and healthy ties between those who claim as individuals and together to belong to Jesus Christ.  In the end, after expressing those disagreements openly, if we can prayerfully put the Church ahead of personal stake, then we have truly done the remarkable...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Some Thoughts About Catechetical Instruction

When I was the youth sitting on the metal folding chair in the church basement from 9-11 on Saturday afternoons for two years learning the catechism, I noticed that an abundance of time was spent on the commandments.  Maybe it was because I was particularly immoral at that time and the law hit me fairly hard or perhaps my Pastor felt that our class needed to hear instruction in the commandments more than the other chief parts of the catechism.  Actually, I believe it is because it is easier to teach the commandments than some of the other six chief parts.  It may be easier but I wonder if we do  not spend too much time on this and too little time on other parts?

If you look at the prepared curriculum for catechism instruction, you find a preponderance of time spent upon the Law, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer.  These seem to be the big three of the six chief parts.  I do not think that you can spend too much time on any of them but, given the realities of the time allotted, I suggest that we spend far too little on Baptism, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar.  Let me tell you why...

The Law needs to explained not for what it says but for what it means and here the real task of this part of the catechetical instruction is to teach the student, in a rudimentary way, to distinguish Law and Gospel.  Here the big issue is not what does it mean to kill but rather why has God given us the Law, what does it do and what does it not do, and how does it apply in daily life (instead of merely a rule book to govern in bounds and out of bounds behavior or surely we are preparing Pharisees).

The Creed needs to explained not what it says but for what it expresses -- the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the work of this Triune God on our behalf, and the faith/trust which meets the mystery but does not break it down into chewable chunks (lest we be preparing Calvinists who will explain and tie up every loose end of God).  We are Lutherans.  We live in the paradox of what reason says cannot be and what God says it is (like the Incarnation) and it will do no long term good to make God into propositional truth.

The Lord's Prayer needs to be taught not for what it says but for how to pray.  If our people are to pray, they must be taught.  The Lord's Prayer is not some magical prayer to be learned to be used when needed but the invitation to believe and pray throughout our lives that God loves and cares for us, surrounds us with His grace sufficient for the day, and gives us what is beneficial for us even if it is not at all what we desire.  Otherwise we risk setting our people loose in the bookstores of the world and looking at prayer as the Sacrament of getting what you want from an unwilling God or the means to unfolding a higher plane of existence (so we risk creating pentecostals or gnostics).

But in all of this we forget that the three arenas in which our identities as Christians and our life of worship take place are the next three components.  Here we fail our people miserably if we teach them a bit about baptism but fail to instruct them on how their baptism into Christ shapes and molds who they are as people, what they do, and how they live.  We can teach the doctrine of baptism and fail because we do not teach our baptismal vocation.  In the end, without fully investing in this part of the Catechism, we risk losing our people to the believers baptism folks because they fail to see who is acting in baptism and what is happening there or, on the other hand, we teach them that baptism is simply something in your past that has little to do with who you are today (an understanding too often shaped by the Law) and so we fail here, too.

The reason our people do not avail themselves of the gift of absolution is that they have not been taught private confession.  We skip over a couple of pages here as if this were an anecdotal nod to Roman Catholic roots which, thank the Lord, we have ditched like the excess baggage it is.  Instead, we could offer our children a means to keeping in good conscience the gift of God by the regular private confession and absolution that confronts the sinner with personal forgiveness and aids the guilty conscience so prone to damage us (youth and adults).  It might also teach them something about practicing this in reconciliation with others.

Finally, the reason that so very many parishes do not have a weekly Eucharist and so many Lutheran Christians do not see this Eucharist as central and pivotal to their spiritual lives and devotion, is because we gloss over the meal that Christ gave us as if it were an occasional snack instead of THE regular encounter with the crucified and risen Lord in which by eating His flesh and drinking His blood He dwells in us and we in Him.  Until we give the Sacrament of the Altar its due, our people will have a largely non-sacramental piety that is too prone to manipulation by the generic spiritualists (Oprah and Osteen) or the evangelical/pentecostals who spiritize the unspiritual and then ignore that which is Spirit and truth as ground and pattern for daily life in Christ.  If our people are not knocking on the doors to the Pastor's study demanding more frequent communion, then we are doing something wrong in this area of the six chief parts.

Well, now I feel better.... do you?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

If You Got It, Flaunt It...

The word reverence has pretty much disappeared from the working vocabulary of the modern day world.  The Pope cannot say Mass without folks chanting protests instead of the liturgy -- competing with God for attention.  It is not just in the religious sphere, we struggle to find some sense of civility in which we show respect for something or someone other than ourselves.  But it is in the area of religion and faith that this is more prominent than ever.

We come to God as we are, not as the sinners who lament who we are but as the proud who flaunt who we are.  If God cannot love us as we are, accept us as we are, and respect us for who we are, then it is His problem -- not ours.  This is shown in the formal way we bring to God our feelings, desires, and wants -- not for His evaluation but in order for Him to approve and provide for us what we desire.  Whether it is in the area of sexual identity or proclivity to one form of addiction or another, throughout the range of our human behavior we expect approval and tolerance from God more than redemption, forgiveness, and transformation.

Part of this is the endless parade of self-esteem, self-glorification, and self-identity talk from the pop psychologists who talk on radio, act on TV, and write the best selling books we love to read.  We are so enamored with their approval and excuse of our failings that we bring them into the Church and make them into cell groups, self-help groups, call them Bible studies, and expect the Pastor to emulate Dr. Phil.

The other part of it is that if we believe that we are gods, then we determine what is reverent and what is not.  If we are gods, then we decide what is honor and respect due -- not Scripture, not God, and not Tradition.  When I say we are "gods" I do not mean in a religious sense but simply the fact that if the world revolves around us, around our feelings, around our wants, and around our desires, then, in fact, we are "gods."

This is no more true than in what we expect to happen in worship.  We walk in our comfortable clothes because we are offended by any God who might expect from us something more than our comfort.  We sing the songs we want to sing because we are offended by any God who might expect that we sing His song or His story.  We do what we want to do -- sit and be entertained -- because we are offended by any God who would expect us to do what He wants.  We look for relevance from all of this -- which is a code word for that which fits us and our desires -- and are offended by a God who is forever the same and whose Word does not change.

You do not need to be a contemporary worship Christian to fall into this and it affects Lutherans as well as those of other religious stripes.  It is the ugly head of sin -- original and actual -- that for a time was seen as the problem, then an embarrassment, and now our glory.  If we think it, feel it, want it, desire it.... it must be good, natural and right.  For too many of us, we do the right thing on Sunday morning but we enter the world on Monday morning and melt right in.

When President Harrison called upon us to repent as a Church and as a Christian people, it is surely this he has at mind.  The terrible truth is that listen too much to the voice that does not want God's transformation to work in them and through them and we listen too much to the voice within that says I am good just as I am.  And when we sing "Just as I Am" we mean something different than the hymnwriter intended.

So repentance is exactly where we need to begin... to stop flaunting what we know is sin and to start learning by the aid of the Spirit to want and desire the transformation that only grace can accomplish and Christ can direct... that we might become like Him, who lives in us by baptism and faith, and less like the folks we began life as....

Friday, September 17, 2010

Maybe it is time to bring back the Confessional Closets

One of the things I hear most from folks who come from generic Christian backgrounds is that they were drawn to Lutheranism in part because of a longing to hear absolution.  No matter how we talk about living in a sinless world where nothing is wrong, we cannot escape our consciences.  Those consciences speak the law into our hearts and create the guilt and the longing for forgiveness that has moved them from churches that talk about having a better life to one that can speak clear absolution with authority.

I remember one who said that after many years of life as a Christian, they heard me say, "As a called and ordained servant of Christ and by His authority, I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."  The flood gates of peace entered their hearts and minds as had never been before.  It was this that had been missing from their Christian faith and life for too long.  And it was this that kept them coming back week after week.

Sadly, even where private confession is encouraged, it is used by only a small minority.  Lutherans say we have not done away with private confession but for all practical purposes, we have eliminated this from the practice and expectation of our lives.  Yet the folks who desire and use it most in my parish are those who are newer Lutherans, those who have come from no religious tradition at all or one where absolution is missing (in some cases, because sin is also missing).  They know and crave the words of absolution said with their name - a personal and unmistakable encounter with this wonderful grace.

What folks find awkward is often the setting.  For me, I place a chair next to the altar rail and read the Psalms while the penitent comes forward to kneel at the rail beside me.  We have the rite well placed in the hymnal and it is easy rite to learn for both Pastor and penitent.  But sometimes, it is hard in a building with a live acoustic and many visitors.  I have also used the prayer altar in the sacristy and, eventually, hope to use our chapel for the same.

Part of me likes the visual statement the old confessional booth made.  Sitting there in public view, it was a call to make use of this blessed gift of God, a testament to the role that private confession and absolution can play out in the lives of God's people, and a visual reminder to make use of this blessed opportunity often for a salutary benefit to body and soul.  Plus, it provides a private setting in which this might take place -- it need not be anonymous and most parish priests knew/know the people who came/come to them in churches that used/use confessional "closets."  But it is probably not going to happen... and without the visual cue, it means that some who might receive great benefit from private confession and absolution, will not...

Just a thought...

A Nice Little Video Montage on Witness, Mercy, Life Together...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More Words Do Not Necessarily Bring Clarity

There are those who suggest that the problems in the LCMS and, indeed, the Church at large, could be rectified by more statements or confessions to delineate, define, and address the issues at hand.  At one point in time I wondered if the time had not come for another Formula of Concord for our own age.  But I am less inclined the more I think about it.

I wonder if the problems are not made worse by more words.  When it comes to words, the Church has no shortage of them.  The LCMS has added a goodly share over the course of her own short existence of 163 years.  I wonder if this has not created more problems for us than resolved any.

We have mountains of essays to conventions (District and Synodical).  We have mountain ranges of resolutions offered, debated, and passed.  We have molehills of statements -- both officially adopted (A Brief Statement, for example) and unofficially adopted (CTCR opinions).  We have books upon books (both good ones that will endure and those for which we ought to mourn the passing of one more tree).  We have journals and magazines, periodicals and newspapers, rags and blogs (this one included) and there is no end to the endless supply of words we can throw at every issue, problem, challenge, or need.

What this endless supply of words has not done is end a conflict or bring to resolution a dispute or clarified a murky issue.  We often end up offering up more words to explain the way the previous words were understood, to clarify or adapt or change what we said when it seems that we said something wrong or something that could lead to a wrong conclusion.

I am not an enemy of words.  Those who know me know that I love words and keep no shortage of them floating in my mind or cluttering up my desk.  I am a collector of words (10,000 + books in my library, all the issues of all the journals I have subscribed to going back more than 30 years, computer files, paper files, and too darn many emails to find what I am looking for...).  But I know that my affection for words has not necessarily resulted in clarity or a conclusion to the ongoing debate on various things.

The time has come to put a moratorium on the Church adopting more position papers or making resolutions or making statements.  The time has come to sift through what we have and to see if we can come to the table around these basic and core confessions.  Maybe we should start with the first basic document of our Lutheran identity and work through it together -- the Augustana.  Maybe we need to start with fewer words more carefully considered and more faithfully followed than throwing more words at every issue that raises its head in the Church.

We adopt a resolution calling for close(d) communion and weekly Eucharist at nearly every Synodical Convention.  Who is listening?  We throw at theses after theses at the subject of worship, contemporary worship, liturgical worship, etc...  Who is listening?  I look at the ELCA and the inbox on my email subscription account and see how many social statements or political comments are made by their bishops (well, one, really the Presiding Bishop), and I wonder if anyone except the author has read them?  Surely, more words have not clarified the sea of mud that is Washington, DC; how have they clarified things in churches?

So I vote for fewer official words and more attention to the ones we have already adopted.  What do you think?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Change in the Way Folks Communicate

I grew up in an era of face to face communication.  On Sunday afternoons we would pile into the car and Dad would lead us on a drive somewhere but that somewhere always seemed to end up at one of our relative's homes where we would sit and talk and eat and laugh until the sun had long since set in the West.  In addition, my parents had many folks in their home.  I recall my Mom cooking for 40 people in a sit down dinner spread across the dining room, kitchen, and living rooms (with kids sitting on the stairs holding a tray on our laps for the plates and flatware).  It was a very social time and social meant face to face contact.  Our Pastor communicated to us in personal visits and conversation, too.

I have been a Pastor for more than 30 years and the times they are a changin.  People communicate differently and the face to face visits and conversations of old have given way to email, voicemail, phone, and social networking media.  I must admit that I have some concerns about this but the only folks who are interested in having me visit in their homes for conversation are those my age or older.  Everyone else is content to use email, voicemail, facebook, or phone.  If they really want to see me, they will set up at appointment -- either in my office or for breakfast or lunch.

My concerns have to do with the ease at which email, social media, and even phone conversations can turn to something different than these conversations would if you were staring someone in the eye.  I have tried to refrain from hitting the reply button so easily when folks email me with anger or complaint about something because I found my emailed responses tended to be defensive and abrupt even when I did not want to be.  I do not like the way privacy is turned public on the social networking media -- and I am not just speaking about pictures here.  People today say things, confess things, and express their feelings about things rather openly even about private subjects.  It could be my age or my experience but I am not so sure that opening up your live on facebook is wise or salutary -- especially when you do not know who is listening.  I am also concerned about the widespread use of voicemail to dump on folks our opinions and our anger when we find the phone leads us to a dead end.  I have been the victim of many of these voicemails and admit that I have also been the perpetrator of a couple of them.  The illusion of anonymity offered by speaking into a machine's memory instead of the ear of the hearer is not a helpful thing to effective and honest communication.

All of this combines to create a circumstance in which we find it easier to communicate indirectly rather than to speak forthrightly and openly.  I know this is true in my own congregation where too many conversations take place in the parking lot or whispered voices over coffee that should take place openly in meetings.  I know that email and facebook can turn someone isolated or incidental things into big issues as the trail of knowledge expands out of control, like a word tree in which new leaves of opinion appear in an exponential way.  I know that as a Pastor I spend a great deal of my day on the phone trying to reach people who use their answering machines, voicemail, or caller ID as a screening mechanism to avoid talking to me.  I know that as a Pastor I spend a great deal of my time repeating conversations or repeating information that could be said once if we had an actual meeting.  I know that while I was away I had hundreds of emails that accumulated (not including the spam), many text and voicemail messages, and many cell phone conversations even though I was on "vacation" a thousand miles away.

All of this combines to make it hard for us to know how to speak face to face, how to speak without the unbridled freedom of the illusion of anonymity that electronic, phone, and social media offer to us.  Why is it easier for us to comment on a wall than to speak what we think or feel at an open meeting?  One of the by-products of this change is the difficulty in bring reconciliation between wounded or angry parties.  If I see this in my parish, how much more true is it on the national scene or the Synodical level?

I know that it is not going to change... these times are changed as well as changing and there is no way to go back... but we must learn more effective and salutary use of these media forms or else the level of our public conversation will only further alienate, divide, and isolate us....  And this is a big concern for a Church where unity and community are key and essential values...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

For Those Who Did Not Watch...

The LCMS has posted video and photo galleries from the Installation Service for Pastor Matthew Harrison as President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  You can find them HERE

You can download a PDF copy of the Installation Service by clicking HERE.

Not SHOP till You Drop but WORSHIP till You Drop

From Israel of all places.  About the real source of happiness.  Read it for yourself, below

BEER-SHEVA, ISRAEL, August 31, 2010 – A new study conducted by a Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) researcher, together with a researcher from DePaul University, reveals that women in the United States generally derive more happiness from religious participation than from shopping on Sundays.   Additionally, the repeal of "blue laws", which allow stores to open on Sundays, has a negative effect on the level of religious participation of white women and therefore has a negative impact on their happiness. Interestingly, the authors did not observe any significant decline in reported happiness of other groups whose religious participation was not significantly affected by repeal.    The research also reveals that when Sunday blue laws are repealed, women who choose secular activities, such as shopping, are not happier. The repeal of blue laws decreases the relative probability of being at least “pretty happy” relative to “not happy” by about 17 percent.   According to Dr. Danny Cohen-Zada of BGU’s Department of Economics, “We found that there is direct evidence that religious participation has a positive causal effect on a person’s happiness. Furthermore, an important part of the decline in women’s happiness during the last three decades can be explained by decline in religious participation.” 

A Jewish university combined with a Roman Catholic one and now there is evidence.  If you want to be happy, don't shop on Sunday, worship on Sunday.  I always knew it.  Though now I am left with a predicament.  We do not worship because it makes us happy.  We worship in response to God's pleasure at sending His Son to become our Savior and bestowing upon us in grace what works could never win -- forgiveness, life, and salvation.  So, do I sit on this secret path to happiness or proclaim it to the world -- Don't worry.  Be Happy.  Go to Church!!

The Problem with Assumptions

Based on surveys Christie Barnes (author of The Paranoid Parents Guide) collected, the top five worries of parents are, in order:
  1. Kidnapping
  2. School snipers
  3. Terrorists
  4. Dangerous strangers
  5. Drugs
But how do children really get hurt or killed?
  1. Car accidents
  2. Homicide (usually committed by a person who knows the child, not a stranger)
  3. Abuse
  4. Suicide
  5. Drowning
 I recall reading somewhere a piece contrasting the fears of children today with the children of 1967.  The things kids worried about then were a mix of made up threats and real threats that had not risen to a code red.  We are talking about things like a boogy man under the bed, not getting a good grade, not making the team, not being popular, etc...  Fast forward to our own time and kids were worried about real threats that were a blinking code red in their daily lives -- suicide (themselves or a friend),  drugs (themselves or a friend), loneliness, divorce of parents, lack of one parental figure in their lives, etc...

Our children's fears have become adult fears -- real, honest threats upon their lives and well-being.  Meanwhile parents still think that the things they need to pay attention to are the presumed fears of the news headlines.  We need a meeting of the minds here to bring parents into the circle of their children's reality and to bring children into the circle of God's presence, grace, and peace.

I always think back to the promises parents make in baptism to raise their children in the faith, to teach them God's Word, to bring them to the services of God's house, to help them through catechism, so enable them to come to the altar rail and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and to make the home a place of blessing, peace, love, and prayer. 

We do not need to turn the Church into fun that distracts kids from what they are really facing and what they really fear, we need the Church to equip them to face what is real and threatening in their lives and to answer the power of fear with the power of the peace that passes understanding in Jesus Christ, our Lord.