Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Another Consequence of Delayed Marriage or Prolonged Singleness

I recall reading (where I read this I cannot recall) that another consequence of the delayed age of marriage and the prolonged state of singleness is the declining numbers of younger folks in the Church.  I must confess I had not thought about it that way but there is much to this.

In days gone by, sexual maturity occurred fairly close to the average age of marriage (removed by no more than 5-6 years) and so the rebellion of youth was soon restrained by the responsibility of adulthood.  The time in which teens and early twenty-somethings left to pursue the objects of their curious and insatiable hearts was not only reigned in by marriage but also by the prospect of and the arrival of parenthood.  It was as if God provided these as natural doors through which the young were called back to Church for a wedding, baptism, and child-rearing.

Now we find that the average age of first marriage for men is nearly 28 in the US (32 in France, 30 in Canada, and higher than the US in most of Europe as well).  The low recorded over the last hundred years was 22 in the US.  For women the gap is even more pronounced.  The average age today is about 26 (it was as low as barely 20).  In Europe and Canada the age gap between men and women at their first marriage is barely noticeable.

So we have gone from a few years of youthful rebellion out of the Church to a decade or more (for those from religious households and even longer for those who grew up in nominally religious homes or distinctly non-religious households).  What was a distant but not forgotten habit to a 22 and 20 year old, has become an ancient memory to those who marry almost at the end of the 20s and, if they have children, start a family years after that.

The statistics for singles in Church is particularly dismal.  Those of all ages who are intentionally single or non-married are nearly absent from the Church and, without a wedding or baptism to call them back, they tend to remain distant from the Church and hard to win over.

Nearly all the statistics show that this trend of increasing age for first marriage and the growing number of those who choose not to be married will continue unabated over the near future (and probably long term).  All of this creates a circumstance in which the Church is more and more on the fringes of life and thought for those in the 20s and 30s in America (as well as the rest of the West).

I do not have any magic carpet to reaching these people -- just a presumption that the home in which our children dwell is the most important place for establishing their faith and creating the good habit of worship.  Speaking as a parent of three in their 20s, none yet married and yet all actively in Church, I would like to say that the most important responsibility of Christian parents is to bring up your children in the faith.  I would like to say this, but I fear that a host of other areas compete with this responsibility and even good, solid Christian parents feel the pressure to focus on other things before faith development.  So, if you are a parent out there, let me encourage you to be faithful in deed as well as in word.  Let your children see the importance of weekly worship by your own habit (and therefore the family's routine).  Let your children see you pray and take advantage of the many doors provided in ordinary conversation to bring faith into those conversations.  Pray not only for your children, but with them -- from early on.  Let them know that faith is not a veneer on an otherwise rich and full life but the foundation on which any good life must be built if that life is to endure.  Don't give up because of any lack of concrete evidence that such practices are making a difference.  Do not be discouraged.  Give them a foundation, and they have something to return to... leave them to dig their own footings and they may just build a house on the sand instead of the rock which is Jesus Christ.  Just do it...

Good Luck Finding an Organist

For fully one third of the history of Christendom, the pipe organ has led the praises of God's people as they assemble to sing hymns, chant the liturgy, and hear the choir.  In the last fifty years or so the pipe organ has been supplemented by electronic substitutes of varying quality but which still require the same basic skills of the organist.  Now, it seems, many organs have gone silent due to a lack of people skilled to play them.  Well, actually, it is a lack of skilled people who are willing to put in the hours for what has become a low paying and high maintenance job.

This subject is personal to me.  I served as organist in my home parish (14 rank Estey tracker), in college, substituted in several parishes, played every Sunday at one service on vicarage, and still fire up the pipe organ from time to time (mostly for my own enjoyment).  In addition, I have been instrumental in obtaining a new organ (pipe or pipe electronic) in every parish I have served -- from vicarage through this present congregation.  So when I read a report on the tough times faced by congregations in search of an organist, I read every word.

The ABC News story begins in Oakland, Nebraska, not far from my home town.  The organ at the First United Methodist Church in this largely Swedish community has not been played since their 80 year old organist "retired" almost one year ago.  The story moves to Redeemer Lutheran Church, St. Clair Shores, Michigan, and a seminary classmate reports that this 400 member church is scheduling substitutes because they cannot find a permanent replacement for their last organist.

In our own case, we went through a similar journey.  We had two organists when I arrived but both of them left (following their military spouses) leaving us without an organist for quite some time.  We eventually found a temporary part-time organist for one service and depended upon pianists for the rest of the services.  We advertised and advertised without success.  After purchasing a used grand piano from a piano performance student at the local college, we got our first "permanent" organist -- though he had never played the organ before but was a gifted and quick learner.  When college was coming to an end, we advertised up the hilt for our part-time position and had a few applicants.  Nearly all were really looking for a full-time position which we were not capable of (at the time).  The applicant whom we hired turned out to be the perfect match and his interest and enthusiasm have multiplied our music program and helped us acquire two pipe organs (one, 65 ranks for the sanctuary, and another 12 ranks for the chapel).  But I still fear for the long term future.

The cause of this organist crisis is not primarily due to the growing number of churches using a praise band, as some would like to say.  We have a large number of organists but only 1% of all the positions are full-time and the pay is abysmal.  Both part-time and full-time organists face a big job description and responsibility in the worship service for what ends up being minimum wage or less.  Too many congregations are trying to be cheap in an area where you get what you pay for and you go begging when that pay is sub-standard.  I, for one, believe that the most important budget line in the congregation's spending plan is the section that covers worship -- staff, benefits, music, maintenance, and supplies.  Worship is the heart from which all other aspects of the congregation's life and work flow.  If that heart is well cared for and strong, the rest of the congregation's life and work will probably be strong.  If that is weak, the whole rest of who the congregation is and what that congregation does will surely suffer.

This is not about organists.  This is about putting our money where our mouth is.  We say worship is the most important activity, the central focus of our Christian lives as individuals and our life together as the people of God.  Why is it that we are so unwilling to pay a living wage to those who are key leaders in the worship services -- specifically the organist, parish musician, choir director, or cantor?  I actually heard of one demented Pastor who, in his search to make the parish financially viable, decided to make the organist position an hourly position -- with the clock commencing at the time the organist began playing and ending with the final note of Sunday morning (or other service) was sounded.  It would be like paying this Pastor for the time in pulpit but refusing to consider sermon prep part of his official duties.  What is wrong with us sometimes?

It is certainly true that there are less pianists out there as a potential pool of organists.  It is certainly true that some congregations are giving up organ for "keyboard" and the praise band.  It is certainly true that many congregations are financially hard pressed on all fronts.  I am not denying this.  But if our priorities are centered upon the worship service, some of these factors might fade away in our struggle to find someone to lead God's people in praise from the organ bench.  Why not offer to pay for organ lessons for a piano student (youth, teenager, or adult)?  Why not check the salary and expectations and make sure you are not asking for the impossible when employing an organist?  Why not consider job sharing and adjusting the service times to allow those congregations with one Sunday service to share and therefore provide adequate compensation for some organist who would need only one part-time job to make it a go?

Lastly, and then I will get off my soapbox, the organ is uniquely qualified to lead congregational song.  We do not have well trained singers in the pew and so they need certain and solid melody to encourage their singing.  The piano, being an acoustic instrument, does not hold the sound and emphasize melody in the same way an organ does.  Praise bands are great if you want people to listen to music but they are generally ill equipped to lead hymns (and most of the time they simply serve as back up to the lead solo singers -- generally female -- who sing center stage where the focus is on them and less on the song).  The organ can be a solo instrument and some organists act as if it is all about them and their sound,  but they are few in comparison to the total number of organists.  Think about the role of music within the Lutheran Divine Service tradition, the high place of hymns and sung liturgy, and the theological underpinnings of music within the liturgy -- we can either gripe about it or do something about it to make sure that the people hear the sound that calls them to sing the praise of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light...  Try going a few weeks without any music at all and you may begin to realize what you are missing. . .

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Word Isaiah Saw...

Sermon preached for Advent 1, on Sunday, November 28, 2010.

    We think of words as either being spoken or read.  If the author is good, the written word can paint pictures in our minds but we seldom think of actually "seeing" a word.  When I was growing up the media were much less explicit about sex and violence; the scariest movie I saw left all the horror to the imagination of the viewer and showed little on screen.  Today we leave less to the imagination.  In some respects, this diminishes both the power of the word as well as dulling our senses to the ability of that word to impart a visual image.
    Today as we begin our Advent journey and a new church year, we heard Isaiah tell us of the Word of the Lord that he saw.  Now take just a moment to think about this.  What did Isaiah actually see?  Did Isaiah see words written on a page that built images in His mind?  Did Isaiah hear a voice whose words vanished into silence and melted away with nothing but his memory of what he heard?  No, Isaiah SAW the Word of the Lord.  In other words, God's Word is concrete and real, the Word that accomplishes its promise.
    Isaiah saw the Word of the Lord concerning Judah and Jerusalem. The Word that he saw was that God keeps His prophetic promise.  He set apart Israel for a purpose and His plan was revealed in small steps throughout Israel’s history.  What Isaiah glimpsed was a small part of this grand plan unfolding according to God’s timing.  Isaiah saw that this was not a word to fill his imagination or a word meant only to live in his memory.  This Word was concrete, real, and powerful.  According to Isaiah, this Word would come to the womb of a Virgin, be born, live, suffer, and die.  The Word that he saw was the Word that is Jesus Christ.
    Did Isaiah understand what he saw?  Did he imagine the creche and Bethlehem? No, the mystery of God in incomprehensible; we do not get an insider’s view into how God works but He reveals Himself in bits and pieces.  Nevertheless, Isaiah believed what he saw and he understood that this was the concrete and powerful Word had to be spoken to Judah, Jerusalem, and world.
    The Word of God that we see is beyond all imagination  – that God would come and dwell among His people is more than His people could ever hope for.  What Isaiah saw was the God not of distant mountain tops but the God who walks in the valley of the shadow of death – with us and for us.  What Isaiah saw was not the distant light of a far off God but the nearer Light that shines in our darkness and that darkness cannot overcome it.  What Isaiah saw was the God who is not created by human imagination but whose imagination created us and all things, preserves us, and has become our Savior.
    Isaiah did get a good story to tell or a picture image to paint, but a glimpse of one small slice of God’s ever unfolding plan of salvation and the unveiling of His love.  It was at once terrifying to Isaiah that God would dwell among His people and comforting that He would dwell among them as Savior and Redeemer.  What Isaiah received from the Lord we see in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.  He is the Word that has dwelt among us full of grace and truth – not as the holy Word to terrify but as the comforting Word to serve us with salvation and save us by grace.
    This is what we see every Sunday morning.  We are not here to have our imagination’s fed so that we can paint our own picture of God.  We are not here to listen to a word that fades into silence and is alive only in our memories.  We are here to see the Word of God made flesh where He makes Himself known:  in the water of baptism, in the cleansed conscience of the forgiven sinner, and in bread and wine that delivers grace now and promises a banquet of grace to come. We come as those whom God calls His own to see everything through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.  He is not an idea or a feeling of God but God in flesh, among us, that we might behold His glory, believe in Him, and dwell in the light of His life and favor forevermore.
    The Palm Sunday crown saw this same Word.  He was in appearance just a man and yet more than flesh.  They saw in Jesus the promise of the Father and the bringer of salvation for them and for all who would receive Him.  They did not understand the cross or empty tomb but cried out in welcome to the Word made flesh.  They cried out in welcome and laid down palm branches not for another earthly king who demanded respect and authority, bu as heaven's king who came to save.  He was Isaiah's suffering servant and prince of peace at one in the same time.  He was the child given in flesh as Lord and Savior for all.
    Jesus Christ is not some word on a page or an idea to be known or a feeling to have.  Christ is THE Word, living, active, and powerful.  We meet this Christ as the Word made flesh, the mighty God in humble flesh and blood.  He is the Word who battles our enemy death, who bestows grace that triumphs over sin, and who delivers life beyond death and the grave.  We see in Him the payment for all our debt so that we might be free to live out our new lives, in grateful response to Him and by the power of His Spirit.  We see in Him the God who is not only near to us and but accessible in the means of grace and approachable in the intimate conversation of prayer.
    Today He bids us "come, and walk in His light and in His life..."  Now we must open our eyes to see what remains hidden to our earthly eyes.  This once for all Word not only has the power to set us right before God, it has the power to build bridges between us angry, bitter, and divided people.
    We Christians must stop trying to turn Jesus into propositional truths for our minds to which we give mental assent.  We need to stop thinking of faith as emotions to fill our empty hearts.  We need to stop trying to make Jesus into a new law that makes us moral or a spiritual guide to make us good.  He is the Word who spoke creation, who whispered into the prophet's ear, who was raised up as God’s once and future redeemer, and hid that redemption in the cross and empty tomb, who built a bridge between earth and heaven, that the dying might life, the wounded be made whole, and the dirty might be cleansed.
    We are here to see the Word of God – not to understand it or to give our consent to it.  We are here to see that Word made flesh in Christ, to believe and trust in that Word made flesh, and to walk in Christ all the way.  Today that journey begins in Advent’s promise, it takes us to the Christmas manger, it leads us to the Lenten cross, it shows us Easter’s glory in the open tomb...and then we find out it is all ours for today and for eternity. This is the Word that for now is seen only by faith until the day when we shall see it with our eyes forever.  Amen.

A godly, peaceful, quiet and dignified life...

Thanksgiving Sermon preached Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010.

    As our nation prepares to assemble in homes from coast to coast and island to island, we take a moment to remember, to consider, and to give thanks for the blessings God has shown to us in our land and the purpose for which God has established government and leaders – what Lutherans call the “kingdom of the left.”  It is a difficult time worth pondering.  There is still trouble in the Middle East, we still have soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, now we hear sparks of conflict in Korea, and travelers faced the choice of a scope or a grope at the airports... It might be a good time for us to think for a moment on what is the purpose of government and why God has appointed leaders for our nation, as well as giving thanks for our freedom and so many rich blessings.
    It is easy to say that we have these things in order that we might have a good life.  The problem usually arises in trying to define what makes a life good.  God does not define a good life as one that is measured by wealth or an abundance of things (like those early bargains on Black Friday morning tempt us to think).  God does not define a good life as either the abundance of wealth or its absence or the abundance of things or a poverty of things.  Rather, a good life is a life lived in faith and in faithful response to God's grace in Christ Jesus.
    We might be tempted to define a good life as one filled with accomplishments.  Who can forget the poignant scene in the movie Mr. Holland's Opus when he comes face to face with his retirement, wonders whether his life has made a difference, and then sees a band full of students from the whole of his teaching career.  Oh, that we all had such tangible proofs that our life accomplished something that will endure beyond us!  But as touching as this is, that is not how God defines as a good life.  Accomplishment is nice enough, but a good life in God’s eyes may not find any notice, appreciation, or earthly monuments.  The good life is that life we live in Christ and in response to Christ's gracious gift of salvation.
    As we heard in the Epistle, a good life is peaceful and peaceable.  This peace is not the absence of conflict or trouble but the peace of which the angel's sang on Christmas morn.  It is the peace of God's favor richly and lovingly bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus, His Son.  It is a peace received in faith and extended to those around us – be they familiar as family or distant as strangers.  God's peace freely given in Christ and given away in Christ's name.  This is the good life.
    A good life is godly and quiet.  It is not a life made profane by the fleshly pursuit of whim or desire or a loud life that screams ME FIRST.  A godly life is lived in worshipful response to the grace that can never be repaid and to the gift that makes us always debtors to His love.  A quiet life is lived out in the peace of Christ, where attention and boasting are occasioned by God’s rich gifts and blessing and not who we are or what we have done.
    A good life is dignified.  Dignity is not solemnity or formality but the gracious nobility that is God's gift to us of His esteem and favor.  It forms and shapes our character and integrity so that what flows to us in Christ, flows through us to others in His name.  This also means that we seek not what is vulgar, base or common, but what is sacred and noble and excellent.  We strive not for what is minimal but the best we have to return to the Lord because He has given His excellence to us in Christ our Savior.
    This day brings out both the worst and the best in us.  The worst is the self-indulgence that fills our bellies while our souls starve, more hungry for earthly blessing than heavenly grace.  The worst in us is the self-centeredness that presumes we earn or deserve the blessings so abundant in our nation.  The good life is not the pride of the Pharisee but the humble joy of the publican who kneels in humble awe of the God who has chosen to love him, forgive him, and restore him.
    The worst in us is the selfishness that thinks of me before others and before God.  What is in our interest is not what defines the Christian life but what is good and right and true, what glorifies God and is true to His grace, and what promotes and extends His gracious reign of love and compassion.
    What is the best in us is nothing less than faith that hears and responds, that receives and rejoices in all that God's mercy provides us.  What is best in us is nothing less than a grateful heart which overflows with thanksgiving that we get not what we deserve but grace upon grace and mercy new each and every morning.  What is best in us is nothing more and nothing less than living in faithfulness to Christ even when this path is unpopular, misunderstood, and causes us to be persecuted for His name's sake.
    So what is the role of government except to provide us a free arena in which we have the liberty to live out this peaceful, quiet, godly and dignified life of faith?  This is why God has given the sword of His authority to the leaders of the nations – not to bring His kingdom on the earth by human might but to provide the freedom and opportunity for us to live unhindered and unconstrained, the good, the peaceful, the quiet, the godly and the dignified life that Christ has made possible by His dying for sin and His rising to everlasting life.  Such a government not only protects the weak and the vulnerable, seeks justice and equity, and encourages virtue, it allows us the freedom to be the people God has called us to be in our baptism.  This is the government for which we give thanks tonight and for which we pray daily.

When Christ is not in your windshield but in your rear view mirror...

I ran this a very long time ago but since Narnia 3 The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is coming, I thought it might be time for a re-working of an old thought...  Watch 10 December 2010...

When the second film of C. S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia came out, the screenwriter suggested the meaning of the film as what happens when people “lose faith, when you don’t see Aslan in your windshield and he’s in your rear view mirror...”

Obviously he was being vague about something that Lewis was specific – Aslan may mean many things to many people but to his author Aslan is the God who redeems His people by His death and resurrection – Jesus Christ.

In the movie all the people save one little girl have stopped seeing Aslan.  Aslan moved from the windshield to the rear view mirror.  In real life many cry out where is God and many have stopped seeing God in their daily lives.  For them, God is no longer in their windshield but only a past whose image resides in the rear view mirror – in the yesterday that is already gone.

Some have described this movie as being dark – not so much the mysterious and glorious triumph of good over evil as the first movie was.  But that is exactly the point.  When God is no longer on our windshield but consigned to the rear view mirror, life is dark.  Where is hope and goodness without God in the picture?  What do we read in the news or hear on TV – it is a story of growing improvement or is it the story of ever present and deeper failure?  Sin is, after all, the one doctrine that needs no Scripture to prove.  It is eminently verifiable by seeing and listening to what is around you (and in you).

That is why Scripture uses the word repent – literally to turn around.  Life is a daily cycle of repenting – of turning around so that God moves back from the rear view mirror into the windshield.  It is the theme of Prince Caspian and it is the theme of Christian life.  It is not an easy turn around but a great battle for our hearts and minds.

Life in Christ is that daily act of repentance by which we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ by turning around, returning from where we have strayed, and being restored from our falls.  And one of the simplest ways to describe it is just what the screenwriter said... it is what happens when people “lose faith, when you don’t keen Aslan in your windshield and he’s in your rear view mirror...”

I seldom meet an atheist (the Pew Study of American’s beliefs found that more than half of self-described atheists believe in God!).  But I meet a great number of folks who no longer see God, who no longer expect God, and who no longer look for God to be part of their lives.  These are folks for whom God has become a memory.  He resides no longer on their windshields but in their rear view mirrors.  He played a role in who they were or where they came from but no longer shapes who they are or where they are going.  To them we say what we must daily say to ourselves... “Come back... repent... turn around...”

C. S. Lewis is an author who aptly describes our modern predicament and who gives us the answer we need: No matter how far we stray, there is only one way back.  Christ is that way, repentance is that path, and the Spirit is the power to bring it all together.  He works through the Word and Sacraments (and even through people like you and me when we speak that Word).  Thank the Lord that He is not content to be a memory but insists upon being our present and future.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Has Life Gotten a Little Noisy???

Go into a restaurant alone and sit for a while.  Between the conversations going on around you and the music blaring from a dozen hidden speakers, you may find it rather noisy.  Head into a movie theater and you will hear people talking and cell phone conversations while the movie plays.  Sit in a concert hall and you will probably hear the same thing.  Sit in church on Sunday morning and you hear all sorts of background noise – from the not so whispered conversations to the cries of babies to the sound of kneeler’s and books dropping and paper crinkling.  Most of this noise is accidental.  It is not deliberate.  It is not planned.  It just happens.

There is also a great deal of planned noise around us.  When we turn on a radio or CD player or switch on the TV without sitting down to listen or watch, we are adding planned noise.  It is still background noise but it is not the surprise of a phone ringing or a baby’s cry.  We have been conditioned by the noise in our lives to need that noise.  I know of people who cannot sleep without a TV or radio on.  The sound of silence has become an alien sound to a people surrounded by noise.

Sometimes we added planned noise into the worship service as well.  One writer suggests that we are afraid of losing the attention span of people accustomed to noise so we program noise into the worship service to keep folks from drifting away.  The sound of silence often makes us uncomfortable.  We don’t know what to do during silence.  It is awkward to a people whose lives are defined by noise and activity.

There was a time when silence was more common, when lives were filled with the sound of nothing.  Before work became a 24 hour activity, before electricity made lights and sound cheap and accessible, and before we found a constant need to be entertained, people of all ages knew a good bit of silence in their daily lives.  The down time we cry for has become a foreign and uncomfortable reality.  Silence leaves us too exposed.  So we plan noise.

Churches often plan with the idea that folks are excited to be there, look for the good seats, and expect to excitement – expect something worth clapping their hands to or for.  So many try to give what they think folks expect.  It may be what folks expect but is it what they need?

I wish that I could get away with planning 15 minutes of silence into the Sunday liturgy.  I know that even I would find it awkward - at least at first.  But we need such “down time” to think, to reflect, to meditate, to ponder.  The Gospel is not light entertainment but the story of sin and grace, death and life, loss and redemption.  God has entered space and time with a purpose and plan that will not be complete until suffering has suffered and death is dead.  This is a profound message with great consequences for us.  Isn’t it worth a few moments of quiet reflection?

Amid a world filled with so much noise, it might be intimidating to listen to the sound of silence but it could be very fruitful.  As one author put it, “there was a time when our job was to be quiet, to think about God, to ponder our sin, to pray for forgiveness...”  Instead of rushing to stand up and say something, maybe we need to take that extra time for some quiet.  In the face of such a powerfully story of suffering, death and resurrection it is unnatural and naive to think that we can rush on into the next part of the service.  When God welcomes us with the voice of grace and forgiveness, perhaps the most significant thing we can do is to sit quietly as the Spirit works within us the fitting response of faith.

Advent is a great season for some silence.  Alas, we have trouble with silence and when it occurs in the liturgy I see people look around, wondering, “Who missed their cue?”  But I urge you to take a chance and turn off the radio, turn off the TV, close your mouth, and sit in silence... for a little while anyway...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sunday Brunch or Sunday Worship

I recently came across an article by a woman who had been gone from Church for more than a decade.  She had filled her Sunday mornings with Sunday brunching, the newspaper, and TV and felt little guilt or loss for being out of the Church.  Then came a baby and she decided to start church shopping.  She traded in her jeans, flip flops, omelets, and paper for her Sunday best, a worship bulletin, and for potlucks.  What she found there was not what she had expected.

She and her 31 year old husband and baby found they were celebs – like Jessica Simpson – amid the sea of gray hair flowing from the pews and the empty nursery.  They were overwhelmed with emails, letters, phone calls, and visits to tell them they were welcome and they had come to the right place.  They were regaled with calendars of activities – a Bible study on the politics of the Iraqi War, volleyball on Wednesdays, yoga on Thursdays, a health food coop on Fridays, and a Super Bowl Party with your favorite snacks.

In the end she said they felt like she was being rushed by a nerdy sorority.  After spending years more comfortable with brunch than religion, she was inundated with things profoundly unreligious.  She was confused.

She had grown up without religion.  Her parents were anti-religious and raised their children with out benefit of even Christmas nor Easter worship, without Sunday school or even a prayer at meal times.  Her husband was a lapsed Baptist and his return to the pew was certainly easier than hers.  But she was still confused.

She followed the same outline with a number of visits from a number of different clergy.  The big question for her were the theological requirements to belonging.  She put it bluntly, “What is the absolute minimum I can believe and still belong.”  The most she got were three items.  Both her husband and the pastors look at her expectantly.  They were all thrilled to tell me how little I would need to believe and how easy it would be to belong.

Many in her generation are beginning to check out Church – after years of being away from Church or never having been at all.  They are looking to give up their lazy Sunday mornings for hymns and sermons because they want their children to have a moral compass, because they want them to know a benevolent and loving God, because they want them to be anchored amid the storms of change and challenge in life – they want them to be spiritually literate even if they choose not to believe for themselves.  But instead they are being told that Church is easy, that beliefs are minimal (optional), and that their lives really don’t need to change all that much.

This woman asked out loud, “If I am going to give up my old Sunday morning sleeping in, eating late, and lazily perusing the Sunday paper, it better be because of something more important and imperative than a religion where faith is optional.  It better be because of life and truth.”

It is too easy to join a Church?  Maybe we do spend too much time making Church accessible for people.  Maybe we do not expect enough of those who join (who have sat in the pews for ages!).  If Church is not worth much in terms of faith or life, why bother at all?  If all Church means is that the brunch will have to follow a service of optional prayer, belief, and devotion, why would anyone join.

Those who come looking are here because they want/need something profound and life changing.  They may not know it yet, but what draws them is the prospect of believing the unbelievable and shifting a whole life around because of such a faith.  They want a truth that does not change with every wind of trend and fad.  They expect they will have to give up some things.  They know they will have to learn many things.  So don’t try to hook them by telling them Church is easy and faith is easy.  That is a lie – or at least it is a fraud compared to the faith of Jesus!

Why do we offer new people a cheap and easy faith that returns very little to them – when we could offer them Jesus and the life-changing experience of grace!  It is something to think about!

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Hornet's Nest

Judging from the comments posted and emails received, the issue of receptionism vs consecrationism (for lack of better terminology) has stirred up the pot a bit.  That is not all bad.  If Lutheranism means anything it means a willingness to examine faith and practice to make sure that we are consistent within the best of the evangelical and catholic tradition and faithful to our own Confessions.  If a post encourage such a discussion, it is a good opportunity for all involved.

Unfortunately, we are not all open to listening to the voice of that tradition or the words of our own Confessions.  I admit that there are somethings I am not open to hearing.  I would expect that each of us could make the same admission -- certain things are so deeply seated within us that they are beyond debate or question.  To raise a question about them, is more personal affront than conversational and educational enterprise.  That is the weakness of discussion -- not all parties to the discussion are as open to honest consideration of the matters before them as others.

Typically, Missourians tend to identify with a particular side or issue or person and we tend to follow that line whereever it leads.  For me, that path is the Second Martin (Chemnitz) and the catholic vision of Lutheranism that flows from the Augustana to the Formula.  The people whom I identity with are those who identify within this part of Lutheran identity.  But I think it is important for me to honestly consider the fullness of the points and perspectives that are brought to the table when this identify engages other identities that equally claim to be Lutheran.

Also typical to Missouri Synod Lutherans is the fact that we abhor the weaknesses or foibles of our favorite people.  It seems to make us more rabidly for someone or some issue when others question or challenge that person or that perspective.  So many of our Lutheran discussions tend to be simple restatements of our positions instead of real debates.  Which leads me to think that if we hope to have good fruit from Pres. Harrison's koinonia discussions, we need to figure out a way to bring something more than our defensiveness to the table.  We need to be able to articulate our positions, for sure, but we also need to listen to and consider the positions of others.  This is hard to do.  It is made even more difficult when these things become personal or attach to the most deeply held tenets of our beliefs.

I was honestly surprised by those who disagreed with me with respect to receptionism.  That said, I have been looking more at the points raised and the quotes offered and found that there was more wiggle room than I expected even among some Lutherans with otherwise great pedigrees.  It just goes to show us again the problem of identifying with a person or a "party" when what binds our identity are the Confessions of the Lutheran Church and not specific Lutherans (even Martin himself).  I am not disdaining the great Lutheran teachers of old or more recent origion.  All I am saying is that neither Walther nor Pieper are what Lutherans are bound to and the same hold true for those who came before them and those who have come since.  We are bound to the Confessions.  I appreciate those teachers of every age and time whose faithfulness continues to live and speak in courageous witness to us Lutherans now.  We ought to read them and identify with them as much as we can.  But we must not forget that what is binding upon us are those Confessions which we call the Concordia.  These occupy a position of authority and provide a teaching magisterium for the Church that we dare not ignore or disdain.

Pastors need to realize that we sometimes find ourselves in the same position as than when someone in the pew comes up to us and says "That's not how Pastor so and so said or did it or explained it..."   Pastor so and so may have been a fine and good Pastor but he may also have been wrong.  What forms and shapes our confession and practice is distinct from those who teach us that confession and whose practice we see growing up (or in college and seminary).  So in our discussions, it may help to point to a particular teacher and say this is what he says but the final authority in our discussions is first our Confessions and second the catholic and apostolic tradition which is presumed in those Confessions.

Just something to think about . . .

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Norman Rockwell Holiday

I grew up in a small town in Nebraska, surrounded by extended family and friends.  Nowhere is this idyllic image of small town America more powerful than during holidays like Thanksgiving.  Even though my family was small, two boys and my parents, we were a large group gathered around the table at every special event or holy day. Actually, until more recently, that meant some of us were not at the table per se but at TV trays or holding plates on our laps sitting on the stairs.  But that is fodder for another post...

Whether or not we actually tried to mimic the famous Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving Day in America, we did strive to reflect the values of that powerful image.  There was food in abundance reflecting the abundance of a rich and resourceful land -- the very reason for Thanksgiving was to give thanks for national blessings upon us as Americans.  There were people of all ages around the table reflecting the extended family gathered together in one place and the familial building block of American history, culture and life.  There were images of our prosperity but it was a humble image and reflected the values of humility and deference that were inherent to a Swedish-German town on the prairie (and to America as a whole -- at least a couple of generations ago.  There was the picture of politeness and nice manners as a family sat calm and patient waiting for the food to be served, the prayer to be prayed, and the pecking order of respect to be observed.  There was a sense of roles and responsibilities that made it clear we knew who we were and we were comfortable with who we were (women cooked and set the table and men worked and brought home the bacon -- not in a sexist sense but as people who learned from their past and grew into the roles and responsibilities defined more by servant roles than authority or dominion).

In conversations I heard about the folks who are eating out today (some by choice and not because of lack of family or friends who issued invitations).  I listened to those who eschewed the familiar turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie in favor of pork loin and a ton of other alternatives as they make the holiday their own.  I know about families divided by miles and intention for whom Thanksgiving is no reunion event.  Some of these are military families in my parish but many of them reflect the diaspora of our modern day world where distance is not only a reality but a choice made against the values of community and closeness that once defined us.  I thought about the many single who had no family even as I spoke to my middle son who lives out of state and who will not be at my table (though he will be with his grandparents and extended family).  I could go on...

My point is this.  Rockwell's American Thanksgiving is not just an image of the past, it is a past which many in America are intent upon rejecting (either formally or informally).  We have become a culture at war against who we were, whether we understand it this way or not.  I once thought that Rockwell's Thanksgiving remained the desire of people even though they had to live with limitations and the deficiencies of a circumstance in which parents and grandparents were not local and jobs and cultural mobility tended to isolate people.  I don't think so anymore.  I think for many Americans, our Thanksgiving traditions reflect a rejection of the Rockwell era.  Family is more and more me and the person I live with.  The kitchen is a beautiful and well equipped place where we heat up food made by others.  Family are folks you call a couple of times a year but not people you live with or even want to live near.  Marriage is struggling as much because we are not so sure we desire to be married as it is because of other factors. Roles are confused and conflicted as much because we refuse and reject the old patterns as it is because of necessity or circumstances.  Responsibilities are forced upon us but we bristle at the imposition of thinking about or serving others.

If Rockwell were painting today, would he paint a picture of people camped out for the bargains early Friday morning?  The interesting thing about this picture, is that we are shopping as much for ourselves as we are for others in those early morning bargain hunting expeditions on Black Friday.  I am concerned about this -- not so much concerned about those who find their Rockwell holiday impaired by circumstances beyond their control as I am those who no longer see the importance of the values of family, community, responsibility, and humility.  We are uncomfortable in our old skins and still not comfortable in the changing skin of the day but we are determined not to go back, never to go back.

It is no wonder that the Church is more and more out of step with our culture and the patterns of the world around us.  We continue to speak of family, community, responsibility, unity, and humility as these gifts and this pattern of new life flow from Christ -- but we are speaking to people who have embraced the values of me, individuality, diversity, difference, license, and aggressiveness.  We have come to like a culture of vulgarity, crudity, and self-interest and this not only mars the old portrait of Thanksgiving, it has created a very difficult barrier to speaking the Gospel in our world not convinced that there is anything wrong with the direction of life and culture.

I did not mean this to be such a downer... but thought I would share a few thoughts as my own family, still many miles away from our extended family, tries to live out the Rockwell Thanksgiving still. . .

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Consubstantiation, Receptionism, and Other Myths about Lutherans

Christ was the word that spake it.
He took the bread and break it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.  

Those words of Elizabeth I are not half bad. The focus of Lutheran teaching with respect to the Sacrament of the Altar and when we can be assured that Christ is present in His body and blood with the bread and wine is an issue of the efficacy of the Word. Does the Word do what it says, deliver what it promises, and make that of which it speaks? Either yes or no...

Sometimes there are those who make this a transubstantiation issue but it is not. Transubstantiation has nothing to do with the sacramental moment but everything to do with trying to explain the what of Christ's presence. It insists upon a change (to the essence or substance, hence the name, while allowing the appearance or accidence to remain the same) which goes beyond Scripture. It is needless and fruitless as far as explanations go. It does little to assure and is, at best, a muddying of the waters. It pits what the eye sees against what the mind understands and in the end attempts to uncloak the mystery of the presence that can never be comprehended or explained but only believed and received.

The point here is the efficacy of the Word of God. Can we believe that it does what it says? It was a later generation of Lutheran dogmaticians that began to waver -- again in an attempt to distinguish Lutheran teaching from Rome. This was a foolish and dead end road that created more problems than it solved and posited the impetus for Christ's presence away from the Word of Christ to the mouth/faith of the receiver.

Much in the same way, Lutherans have been long accused of consubstantiation which holds that during the sacrament, the fundamental "substance" of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and wine, which remain present.  Advocated by the medieval scholastic theologian Duns Scotus, consubstantiation has been erroneously identified as the eucharistic doctrine of Martin Luther.  Luther refused a philosophical construct to define Christ's presence and simply called it the sacramental union.

The connection for Lutherans is incarnational theology -- just as the union of the human and divine became the one person by the word, so that in Mary's womb the Son of God became human flesh by the power of the Spirit, so by the Word, a sacramental union is created in which the flesh and blood of Christ are united with the bread and wine of the Eucharist in such way that the bread and wine are not lost or overcome nor the body and blood of Christ in any diminished.  Lutherans understand the epiclesis to be implied in the agency of the Word and do not require a separate epiclesis apart from the way the Spirit works through the Word. Lutherans leave the mystery intact and let the Word be the focus and assurance that what is distributed by the hand of the priest (Pastor, if you prefer more modern parlance) and given to the communicant is nothing less than what that Word has promised -- hidden in bread the body of Christ and hidden in wine His blood just as in the incarnation hidden in human flesh is the fullness of the divine nature in the one flesh and blood person Jesus Christ.

This Word of Christ in the Words of Institution is no magical formula to effect the presence of Christ as some incantation to which Christ is obligated to submit but the Word He has given to His Church so that what He has given may be received.  This Word is not captive to man so that any sort of unbeliever may speak it over bread and wine and confect the presence of Christ nor would children "playing church"  inadvertently call down Christ's sacramental presence and it can also be said that when those who speak it have no intention of Christ's sacrament, there is no sacrament even though the Word be there and the elements be there (such as the Zwinglians who do not believe or intend the meal to be sacramental but merely symbolic).

So what supports this?  I Corinthians 10:16:  "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is not a communion of the body of Christ?"  AND Augsburg Confession, Article X:  "1] Of the Supper of the Lord they teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed 2] to those who eat the Supper of the Lord; and they reject those that teach otherwise."  AND Apology Article X "55] And we have ascertained that not only the Roman Church affirms the bodily presence of Christ, but the Greek Church also both now believes, and formerly believed, the same. For the canon of the Mass among them testifies to this, in which the priest clearly prays that the bread may be changed and become the very body of Christ. And Vulgarius, who seems to us to be not a silly writer, says distinctly that bread is not a mere figure, but 56] is truly changed into flesh." [NB the word "changed" there] AND the second Martin, one of the authors of the Formula of Concord adds: "Therefore it is not a man, the minister, who by his consecration and blessing makes bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but Christ Himself, by means of His Word, is present in this action, and by means of the Word of His institution, which is spoken through the mouth of the minister, He brings it about that the bread is His body and the cup His blood.. .." Martin Chemnitz, Examen (English translation,Part II, CPH).   Too long to be posted here, but look up Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VII.73-90.

This is what the Confessions speak to and how I was taught Eucharistic theology... While I know of other that claims to be Lutheran, this is what is true to the binding word of our Confessions...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Our Practice Consistent with Our Faith

This morning I read Elizabeth Scalia on her blog on First Things called The Anchoress and was once again impressed with the sensibility of this woman and her commentary on the practices of the faithful...

Yesterday at Mass, my husband noticed that on the floor of our pew, by our feet, was a quarter of an unconsumed Host. He picked it up and consumed it.

Discussing it on the way home, my husband chose to think the best, not the worst. “Maybe [at a previous Mass] the wedge was part of Consecration Host, and it somehow got picked up with another one and missed, or dropped onto a sweater, or something.”

My husband is always quick to think the best, especially when a matter is too troubling to consider, otherwise. We don’t want to think the worst, that someone simply threw the Blessed Sacrament on the floor, or had casually nibbled at the Host, as though it were a cookie – although such things do, sadly, happen.  Nevertheless it brought home to us, again, the reasonableness of receiving the Eucharist by mouth, rather than by hand.

Ms. Scalia is a perceptive individual but her comments are not merely reflective of the practice of the Roman Catholic faith.  What she and her husband saw and the reaction of her husband was entirely consistent with and consonant with the faith and practice of Dr. Martin Luther.  Sadly, it is not the ordinary practice of those who call themselves Lutherans today...

That which is believed is either confirmed in the practice of the believer or contradicted by practice.  In the case of Lutherans, we have a history and heritage of reverence and devotion to the sacred species of the Sacrament that has distinct implications for our practice.  Luther once took a hatchet to wood that was stained with the blood of Christ from a chalice spill.  He was known to take to task and raise holy hell with those who treated consecrated hosts as unconsecrated and vica versa.  He came down consistently on the side of consecrating only what is though to be needed for the Supper and for the consumption of all that remains (though Lutherans debate where this must take place immediately within or after the Communion or later in distribution to the sick or others not at the Eucharist).  But, again, such is not the regular and normal practice of Lutherans today...

I have been a communicant at parish Eucharists and circuit winkels in which the host box was overflowing with hosts -- far in excess of the number of communicants present or even possible in that setting.  I shuddered to think what happened to that which remained (the reliquae).  Stacks and stacks of trays of individual cups adorn the altar just in case and what happens to that which has been set aside with the Word of Christ and prayer?  Who knows?!  We have much to clean up in our practices...

In both parishes where I have served, I have taught the Altar Guild to individual cleanse every individual cup which has been drunk from and at the altar I have the assisting minister pour the contents of each unused individual cup back into the cruet and then the Altar Guild cleanses those as they would the ones used by a communicant.  This has naturally made most members of the Altar Guild less than thrilled by the continuance of the individual cups (which are used less and less each passing year without my words to encourage but only the faithful practice to point to the better choice).

As an aside, I was told by a seminary professor that he used the toilet off the vestry to take care of what was left from the Sacrament... Granted this was going on 40 years ago and things have changed but the shock of this admission has continued to stand as a warning marker against practices unfaithful with our Confession.

It has been my practice to carefully wipe all the crumbs of the paten and ciborium into the chalice and then consume all the remains of the chalice at the altar (during the final hymn or post-communion canticle).  When spills take place, and they seem always to happen despite our care and diligence, we react immediately.  The congregation has seen me pick up a dropped host and consume it.  The people at the rail and in the pew have watched me drop to the floor and cleanse a spill with the purificator (an extra one is on the altar for just such occasion). 

Ms. Scalia and her husband instinctively knew what to do with a piece of a host they found on the floor.  Ick... some might think... but piety trumps this consideration every time.  Would Lutherans know to do this?  Would they act in an instinctive way as did these Roman Catholics?  We should.  Our faith and the practice of the Reformers would expect us to act in this manner when faced with such a circumstance.  If our people do not think this way, it is perhaps the tip of the iceberg toward an understanding of the presence of Christ in the host and cup that are in violation with our Confession.... Just something to think about. . .

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Sign of Devotion

Too many years ago to count I began attending Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  The first time I was there, Herb Lindemann was the Pastor.  He was a giant of a man both in energy and stature in the field of Lutheran worship.  I still recall the first service I attended there while he was their Pastor -- 1973, on a visit to Concordia Senior College.

My closest association with this parish occurred when I matriculated to the Senior College.  I still have vivid memories of the installation of Charles Evanson as Pastor.  Who could forget the image of Adalbert Raphael Kretzmann with his giant gold pectoral cross complete with a large ruby!  I had read his The Pastor at Prayer and The Message of the Symbols and was suitable impressed with the new Pastor simply because A. R. was there to read the Gospel as he as installed.

I was there when the stark, modern paraments and banners gave way to the Jacobean frontals and the chancel had an appearance more consistent with its architecture (something that has continue to refinement both in the chancel and chapel).  I communed there, taught catechism there, was a part-time janitor there, served as occasional organist there, and spent hours in the Pastor's study.  I was ordained a deacon there in November of 1976 and served at the altar and visited sick and shut-ins until the end of my Seminary years in Ft. Wayne.  I was married there by my Pastor Evanson in 1978.

As poignant as those memories are, I often think back to something far different.  For most of those years, in the front pew before the lectern, sat an elderly woman.  She was there most Sundays and other services as well.  She had great difficulty walking and her general mobility was limited.  I watched her both from the vantage point of several pews behind her and from the sedelia of the assisting ministers to her left.  Often I could not keep my eyes off of her.  She held the hymnal in her arthritic hands and it was a labor to hold the book but she would not let it go.  She sang with the hymns even when no sound issued forth from her lips. She insisted upon standing and kneeling throughout the service.  Anyone who saw her face could see this was painful and severely taxed her energy but it seemed that she was determined to keep up the effort.  I know Pastor Evanson had spoken to her about not needing to do this.  I had as much as said to her "What is worth all that effort?"  But still she continued.  I do not know for how long because after my first call my visits were mostly once annually and eventually I noticed she was gone.

Some might say "Why" to this woman who worked so hard to stand and kneel as part of the congregation -- it is not necessary and, some might add, it is not worth the effort (since she was behind the rest of the folks most of the time).  But I grew to admire her and to greatly appreciate the piety and stubborn will that would not relent or give in to the limitations of age and mobility.  She was there to worship, to worship as she had for many, many years.  She was not going to give up -- even if continuing were painful and laborious.

So often the outward actions of our piety are easily discarded.  We give up such things as meal time prayers, bed time prayers, and other things learned from our families as part of the practice of our faith.  We cast aside the familiar rituals and routines of old when they become too demanding to us or when we feel we have outgrown them.  We disdain the physical actions of worship as mere formality or ritual in favor of a personal and individual piety that is more "spiritual" but certainly less physical or concrete.  We abandon our familiar places in the pews to find seats more comfortable.  We stop kneeling as soon as we can come up with an excuse.  We sit and do not stand through the service because we have aches and pains.  We don't even bother to open the hymnal when we feel the book is too hard to hold and we stop singing as soon as a tickle in the throat suggests we might be coming down with something.  Often, we are left with worship that is, at least in our minds, "spiritual" but what it really has become is worship that is easy, that does not require much effort on our part, and one that makes us feel comfortable.

The older I get the more I appreciate this woman's example.  A few years ago my one knee was acting up so I gave up the genuflection during the creed (at the incarnation) and substituted a profound bow.  It was liturgically correct but the memory of this woman's fierce devotion and piety made me feel foolish for giving up the ancient practice simply out of fear of twinge of pain.  So now I genuflect during the creed (even though some Sundays I honestly wish for a cane to help me back up).  I do not have to do this.  It is a personal rebellion to the fleshly side of me which insists if it hurts it must be bad, if it is hard I should find an easier way, and if it requires too much from me I should give it up. 

I will continue to kneel and stand and sing out (with what my family often finds as a voice too loud) even when these are taxing upon me... It is because they take something from me, that I find them so valuable...

A note of follow up...

Now don't get me wrong... I am not saying that those unsteady on their feet have to go against reason and medical advice.  I am simply saying that piety is by nature a sacrificial act and the actions of our piety are often uncomfortable to our bodies or foreign to our culture.  I simply refuse to give up because of inconvenience, difficulty, or pain... Each of you must make your own decision and choice in this.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thoughts on Advent

The Church always seems to rain on our parade.  The world is pushing headlong into Christmas and it started a month or two ago.  We are ready to rush toward Christmas as well.  There is so much to do and so much to think about -- the presents, the cards, the decorating, the parties, the family gatherings, etc... Our souls cry out not for more time to wait but more time to get everything done.

Let me just assure you that Pastors feel the same pressure.  On our minds, we have Sunday school programs and Advent services... We have the stark realization that a ton of people will be in Church on Christmas who are not in Church regularly at other times and the sermon better be good...  We have the ordinary routine of sick calls, shut-ins, funerals, and maybe a wedding thrown in the mix (why do folks have the nerve to get sick, die or get married at Christmas --whew... just too busy).  The administrative load increases (did I hear parochial report will be due in January?!?).

The point of Advent is not to slow us down (for we would surely use any extra time to try to get more done, wouldn't we).  The point of Advent is to direct us to another event.  I don't remember where I read it but it was stunning to me -- "Every Advent brings us one year further away from Bethlehem and one year closer to the Day of Christ's Coming."  We are not preparing for a birth or even a birthday but for the Day of our Lord when time will finally stand still.

The last weeks of the Sundays in Ordinary Time have been preparing us with the words of Jesus about the Day of His Coming.  Now in Advent we move more deliberately to this theme.  Will there be faith on earth? asks the Scriptures of Jesus' return.  Will there be those whose palms and hosannas welcome Him again as once they welcomed Him of old?  Will voices cry out in our dark night "Prepare the Way of the Lord?"  Will there be ears to hear and eyes to see what the Lord has done to usher in His coming kingdom?  Will we who know the Emmanuel of Word and Sacrament hear, heed, taste, and see His sacramental presence so that we are fit to receive His glory in its fullness?

Advent is not delayed gratification of Christmas but the flashing neon sign that says the manger event is already complete.  Don't get ready for Bethlehem, let Bethlehem get you ready for the great and awesome day of the Lord when the beginning finds its eternal ending.  It is for this reason that we keep Advent as its own season and not merely the prelude into Christmas...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Competing Calendars...

I know many folks who carry two cell phones (one for work and one for personal use).  Often they are the very same model and I have watched with some giddy satisfaction as one or two have tried to figure out which was ringing and which was not.  It is not that I am unsympathetic about trying to keep home and work separate -- I try to do the very same thing!  But it often ends up in a confusing tangle of competing loyalties that is appropriately symbolized with both phones ring at the same time -- which gets answered and which does not?

I believe that Christians often find themselves in much the same circumstance with the competition not between work and home calendars or cell phones but between the church's calendar and the world's calendar.  It seems that this competition is generally a win for the world and a loss for the Church.  What we are speaking about here is not simply a calendar duel but the distinction between God's time and our own time, between the kairos of His full or ripe moment and the chronos of the clicking clock.  This is one area where too many Christians have given up and Sunday is almost unintelligible to them in comparison to the rest of their lives.

It is not surprising that folks do not know the liturgical calendar (why, there are an abundance of Lutheran congregations in which this calendar is hardly followed).  It is somewhat surprising that so many Lutheran Pastors do not know the calendar.  They have no clue to the progression of the lectionary and its themes through Pentecost and the close of the Church Year and they do not know how or why we have seasons like Advent or Epiphany.  It seems Christmas and Easter (and Lent as prelude) are obvious enough but is Advent more than delayed gratification and is Epiphany more than biding your time until Ash Wednesday?  Too many cannot say for sure about either.

The point of my words is not to be angry or jump on these poor souls but to point out why it is that Lutherans are so tempted to millenialism and to the preoccupation with the present that you find in either spectrum of Protestantism.  It is left mostly to the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and a smattering of Lutherans and Episcopalians to see how God's time is so at odds with our own pressing schedules and to view what happens on Sunday morning as the move of God's people out of one sphere of time where work and self dominate and into the sphere where God's Word and works dominate.

The point of the liturgical year is not simply education, which it is, but the introduction to an understanding of time which is not shaped by earthly concerns but the God's plan of salvation that was laid down before the foundation of the world and unfolded step by step in Christ.  And it is still unfolding toward the consummation of all things in Christ's return in glory.  This is a fluid time and a moving calendar in which we do not merely repeat the same calendar over again year after year with different lessons to fill in the blanks (three year series) or exactly the same lessons (one year series).  We are moving toward God's fullness and if we are in Christ we not only are prepared for it but to participate in that unfolding time.  Outside of Christ there is only now and this is the what pulls at us Christians who are in but not of the world.

What does the hymn say?  Time like an ever rolling stream... flows not toward fate or destiny but that which Christ has prepared according to the Father's plan of salvation laid down before time itself began...  This is what the Church Year works to instill within us -- an appreciation of this time running not by minutes or seconds or even months and years but step by step as God unfolds it.  To live within the Church's calendar is to be ever confronted with this time and its unfolding toward fullness and consummation.  This is why we need to be conscious of this calendar and of this sense of time... or we will be left only with the present, with the memory of the past and with fear of the future...

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Week Of Masses

Because of certain circumstances, some unusual and some not, the past week I have presided at more Eucharists in this parish than I did in the first two months here as Pastor.  Then the Eucharist was celebrated every other week and now it is at both services on Sunday and at least one weekday.  Because of a circuit winkel, for example, the number can increase.

According to the Catechism and even looking historically, Lutherans have a sacramental piety.  The place of baptism has been and is central to Lutheran piety (not that Lutheran piety is particularly distinctive but speaking here more as a reflection of what we see in Lutheran practice).  The place of private confession, flowing from this baptismal center and as a manifestation of our daily repentance, is also classically Lutheran piety (even if it is not yet a fully integrated practice in the average Lutheran parish).  No one would deny that Lutherans were people of the Word but this was not because of a personal and individual understanding of Bible interpretation.  Rather, the Scriptures were central to Lutheran piety because the Bible is the book of faith, the Church's book, from which flows the catechetical life of instruction and the Service of the Word in the Divine Service.  This might not be as true today with the overarching emphasis on personal Biblical interpretation that strongly influences even Lutheran piety but it is still fair to say that we are people of the Word because that Word is efficacious and not simply true -- it does what it promises and accomplishes what it proclaims.  Even when the frequency of Holy Communion was less, Lutheran piety toward the Sacrament was strong.  Now, with the fruits of liturgical and confessional renewal, the practice of the Eucharist is catching up with the theology of the Sacrament.

My point is that a week such as this one, with many Eucharists and many communicants in many settings, I am able to see how different this sacramental piety is from the piety of mainline Protestants and from evangelicals.  This is a Lutheran distinctive that we need to foster and encourage.  Our piety is not rooted in an individual spiritual quest for the other (as some Christians and other religious speak today).  Our piety is not shaped by the focus of meditation on things external or internal (as we have seen in the mixing of Eastern forms of religious expression with Christian ideas added).  Our piety is not reflected by behavioral change like we might see among the Amish (in extreme) or others whose outward dress and lifestyle is distinctively different from the norm of culture.  Our piety flows from who we are and what is done in the Divine Service.  It is this Sunday morning experience that flows throughout the rest of the week to shape and form us by extending to us what we have met there in the Christ who comes to us through His Word and Sacraments.

Although I have been talking about this for a long time, when suddenly you preside at a half dozen Eucharists in one week, it becomes very clear that the Word proclaimed there and the Sacrament received there are not simply an intellectual foundation of Lutheranism, but the practical expression of our piety and life together.  This is what pervades the Lutheran Confessions and the Catechism in particular.  This is what we read and sing in the hymns of the great Lutheran authors (sixteenth century to modern day).  This is who we are and how the faith born in baptism, equipped by the Spirit to hear the Divine Word of Scripture and this Divine Word speak in absolution, is fed and nourished in the common table of uncommon grace that is the Sacrament of the Altar.

Last evening the choirs of several churches sang in a concert designed to raise funds for the local Pastoral Counseling Center (of which I have been associated for more than 12 years).  As the various church choirs got up to sing, including the one from my own parish, I saw this difference expressed in profound subtlety.  The choir from my parish sang anthems from the Divine Service -- song formed for use in the Divine Service and appointed to fit the lectionary.  I knew instinctively what Sundays on which these anthems had been sung and the vocal quality of the performance emphasized the choir -- not soloists -- and the Word (text) not the aesthetic of the sound.  It was not simply that this choir was as good as or better than the others but distinctively different.  In the music chosen and the character of the performance, I could have closed my eyes and in a moment I was there in the Divine Service -- something which could not have been said about the other choirs or the anthems they performed for this concert setting.

This week was a crystal clear look at the distinctive of Lutheran piety that we work so hard to speak about, proclaim, and nurture as Lutheran Pastors in a Lutheran parish.  Both the many opportunities to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord and the conversation with the choir after the concert indicated that I think this picture of our piety is gaining ground.  T/hanks be to God!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Straighten Up. Look Up. Your Redemption Is At Hand!

Sermon Preached for Pentecost 25, Proper 28C, on Sunday, November 14, 2010.

    When I first moved here, I was driving down a street trying to find the home of one of our members.  She had given me directions but the house numbers were not clearly marked and, in typical Clarksville fashion, streets had one name on one side of the intersection and another on the other side.  Her directions did not so much point me to her house but to a certain business, that I needed note in order to be ready because her house was just a few doors down from there.  The business was the marker she used to get me ready.  And I made it there just fine.
    As we approach the end of the Church Year we hear things about the end times. Now some preachers might focus on figuring out the hidden day and interpreting the signs (perhaps with elaborate visual aids).  Others might focus on warning or Law to scare people about the coming day.  But I want us to take another path this morning.
    In the Gospel for today Jesus tells us to look or we will miss it.  Miss what?  The end?  No, nobody will miss that!  Jesus gives us the signs of the Kingdom not as a mystery to unpack or a secret message to decode but rather as the markers which point us to His kingdom.  Like the marker the woman gave me to find her house, Jesus gives us markers as wake up calls against complacency, boredom, and laziness.  We need to be ready always and not to allow the distractions, cares, and the self absorbed lifestyles we lead to dull us or make us complacent or we will miss the Kingdom (not the end).
    The Kingdom of God is not some hidden thing which is to come; the Kingdom of God is already here in Christ.  The Kingdom comes to you in the Word of Scripture and in the visible word of the Sacraments.  These are glimpses of what will be fully revealed when He comes in His glory at the last day, bringing to completion all that He began.  We don't need to know the when in order to be ready.  Rather, we need to keep our eyes on the markers He has provided to show us where the kingdom is now so that we are prepared when it comes in its fullness at the end of time.
    Jesus says the kingdom of God is urgent.  This is not a shot across the bow to make us afraid but a wake up call to the opportunity the Kingdom provides for us right now. Now is the day of salvation.  If we are awakened to the kingdom of God now, then its salvation will be our comfort and strength now as well and we will be ready for the gracious fate that God has prepared for us in Christ.  Now is the day of salvation.  If we are awake to the salvation which is proclaimed to us in the Gospel and present to us in baptism and Holy Communion, then we need not fear what is to come.  The means of grace are the markers of His kingdom.  If we know them now, we know all we need to know about the end.
    Faith is always aware and awake to the ticking of God's clock.  Remember here that Jesus is not talking about the watch on our hand or the calendar on the wall but God's time.  His time is not measured in months or years but in fullness or ripeness.  Like the grocery store where we feel the fruit to find something that is not too green, so does God give us these markers that we might be prepared for that ripe moment when ticking clocks end and God’s time comes in its fullness. For now it is enough to know that God's clock is ticking or unfolding, what He has given us to hear, see, taste, and be part of that Kingdom now, so we will not be caught unawares when the time is full – like Israel was when the night rang out with the sound of an infant's birthing cry and the Savior was born.  Faith that sees time in God’s fullness is faith born of and directed back to His Word and Sacraments and ready for whatever and whenever God reveals then.
    The point of this is so that we will not miss out on what God is doing.  What He is doing is not the fearful thing that causes us to be afraid but the wonderful completion of our redemption.  We know who is coming again and He is the same Lord who was born for us, who died for us, and who rose for us.  We know who is coming again and why – these are faith's gifts and so we do not dread that moment but look forward to it with longing and hope.
    The Kingdom of God is urgent but it is also immanent.  Now that is a word you don't use all that often.  Sounds like Immanuel, doesn’t it.  God with us.  What it means is that the Kingdom is not some distant reality we are waiting for but the present reality we know by baptism and faith.  The Kingdom of God is already here but its fullness is still underway, waiting to be revealed when Jesus comes again in His glory. What is coming is the completion of what is already begun in us and for us.
    It is not far off and distant from our daily lives but near to us.  The kingdom of God unfolds right now before us and among us, through Word and Sacrament. Grace is not some vague promise or premonition but our wonderful gift and possession now by faith.  But it is not yet complete in us or for us.  It is not like a video God has put on pause – as sometimes it seems to us – but it is the ever playing drama of God bringing His plan of salvation to its divinely appointed destiny.  We have heard its call in the Gospel, glimpsed its reality in the water of baptism, tasted its future in the Eucharist, and we await its completion and fullness.
    Until the day of His coming unfolds, we live in the day of opportunity to live out this kingdom and to proclaim this kingdom to the world.  We are not placed here as doomsday prophets to condemn but as voices of hope to invite.  Sure, there must be words of warning and rightful condemnation of all that is against God’s gracious kingdom but never can we substitute this warning for the proclamation of what God has done in Christ for us and for the sake of the whole world.
    So today Jesus calls us to look for His kingdom.  Expect it.  Anticipate it.  That is how faith views Christ's coming again and the signs of that coming.  This is not like the robot who cries out "Danger Will Robinson Danger."  This is the voice of God saying "I am here... I am with you... You are mine... Don't be deceived or distracted by the life you now lead... the promised future is coming... I have told you what it is so you do not fear and now I am telling you it is coming so you will be ready.
    The greater enemy of the Christian is not the evil one with all his lies and deceit.  No, the greater enemy of the Christian is complacency – living as if Jesus had never come, as if His coming makes no difference to our life, and as if He were never coming again.  We are too comfortable in our present day lives; this is a great danger to our faith.  We cannot afford to be distracted by the things that go wrong in this life and all its cares anymore than we can afford to be distracted by all that is good and all of life's joys.  Either way we will miss out on God's purpose.
    This world is already passing away... step by step... as God's plan and His timing dictate... Too often Christians act as if they are more happy to see the wicked receive their due than for the redeemed to receive the completion of Christ’s hope filled promise. Are we like kids who cry out to the world, “Wait until dad gets home and you will have to face the music and get what you deserve...”  OR are we like the children whose minds are so full of Christmas that we cannot sleep on Christmas Eve – we keep alert and watchful for the hopeful joy that is to come.  So today Jesus tells us to wake up, for the Kingdom is here, our redemption is at hand, and we have been given this moment as the opportunity to proclaim this wonderful hope to the world.  Amen.

Do You Think???

Statistics, being what they are, may or may not inform but they surely give us a chance to speculate.  Under all this speculation must be some measure of wisdom and truth for us to ponder -- though I am not so sure what it is.

I read where the Methodists have continued to lose people.  The church has lost 2.89 million members in the United States since 1970, dropping to 7.8 million today. The authors of a report on this loss say the drop is killing the church's effectiveness.  Perhaps they have it wrong; the church's effectiveness (faithfulness?) in proclaiming the Word of God may be killing the denomination and causing its loss.  Just a thought...

Dan Dick, Methodist blogger and former researcher for the Methodists' Nashville-based General Board of Discipleship, agreed. "If we don't know what to do with the ... people we already have, there's no reason to believe that we'll do any better with another million people."  Now there is an honest statement.

Thomas E. Frank, professor of religious leadership at Wake Forest University, said developing better Christians, not more churchgoers, should be the goal.  "I am concerned about a creeping theology that says what's important is to get people into the church," he said.  Hmmm... What a terrible theology, indeed, that would suggest it is important to get folks into the Church.  Could such an awful theology might be part of the problem or, just maybe, its solution?  Just a thought... 

Now, before you go ragging on those Methodists, I am sure we could find equally inane comments by Episcopalians and Lutherans on the cause and effect of losses within these denominations as well.  It is a curious fact that when we focus on statistics, we often find the purpose of the Church blurred and our attempts to undo the spiral of loss often pushes us further and further away from clarity about who we are as the Church and what we are supposed to do...

It occurs to me that the answer to such problems cannot and will not be found by staring at our statistics or by looking over the fence to see if there is any green grass there.  It occurs to me that we might look into the Word of God for some answers.  It occurs to me that it would be good to take up the cause of preaching, sacraments, and the liturgy.  But I am sure that occurred to the reader long before I mentioned it...  Sadly, it will probably not occur to those who are right now pouring over the sad statistics of their own denominations.  And that is why the impetus from most national headquarters will do little to stem the tide of loss...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

VOTE TO END all prejudice against Pharisees NOW!!

We need to have boogie men or we are not satisfied.  We need to set up somebody to take the hit or we are not happy.  And I am tired of it.  Pharisees have acquired a less than honorable reputation and I am here to tell you all to cease and desist of your unkindness toward Pharisees.  While many of you may attribute your uncharitable view of the Pharisee to Jesus' stern rebukes, I am telling you to back off.

Pharisees are good people.  They make great neighbors and good citizens.  They do not steal, cheat, or lie.  They are not given to idleness and are, in fact, quite industrious.  They are not deviants and harbor no prurient interests.  They don't cheat on their spouses and are really good parents to their children.  They go to PTA meetings while the rest of us are home in front of the TV and they organize sales and fund raisers for all sorts of good causes.  They go to church religiously, they pray and don't just talk about it, and, best of all they tithe -- dutifully!!  They are fair and just to friend, foe, and stranger all alike.  So stop crapping on the Pharisees!

Pharisees are good, solid folks.  They are believers through and through and they put their money where their mouth is.  They are not depressed or anguished souls but happy -- happy with God and happy with who they are.  They don't whine or complain but hold everyone to the very same high standard they hold for themselves.  They are solid middle class types who work hard, who don't waste their money on foolish things, and who are generous with those in need.

Why compare the Pharisee in working clothes, driving his Chevy, to that flashy Publican in a shiny suit and gaudy tie, riding in a chauffeur driven limo, drinking high priced booze, smoking real Cubans, with a couple of $1,000 flashy trash on each arm and which one do you want moving in next door or slipping down the pew to sit next to you???

You have just met up with a person on a personal quest against the unfair characterization and denigration of the fine, upstanding Pharisee.  If you don't want them, send them to me.  We need volunteers to weed the church gardens and clip our bushes.  We need painters for our worn walls and teachers for our Sunday school, and cooks who bring huge pans of hot, delicious lasagna to our pot lucks.  We need ushers and choir members, Bible study attenders and greeters -- who don't look down their noses at a pledge card when it is offered to them.  Yeah, give me your tired, your Pharisees yearning to serve freely... I'll take as many as I can get.

Seems to me they have only one problem and it is not with me.  Their problem is not with me but with God.  You see, they look great and do good.  But it just ain't good enough or great enough to impress God.  All that darn scandal of grace stuff... You have to check your works at the door or you don't get in with God.  Why, the Pharisee looks better than anybody else but it is not enough.  You have to have more righteousness than a Pharisee to open God's gate.  In the scandal of grace, the Pharisee and the Publican are the same.  The best looking rat in the rat race is still a rat.  So says, God, anyway...  Goodness gives way to grace as the only card accepted at the heavenly gate -- grace, pure grace, and only Christ's brand will do...Grrrrrr.... Argggggg.... Ahhhhh...

What more can I say than "On Christ the solid rock, I stand... all other ground is sinking sand..."

A few thoughts inspired by Capon on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican who went in the Temple to pray. . .

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Lapses Unintended...

One of the things I dislike about the Lutheran Service Book (or about any hymnal) is that often it detours from old and familiar word patterns.  It is not that I have a particular issue with some of the wordings in the liturgy, collects, etc. (well, that's wrong, I do with some) but that most of the time I have grown accustomed to other wordings and so, if my eyes glance away from the page as I am speaking, the old forms come out.

For example... all availing sacrifice may be a fine way of putting it but I guess I have too many years of saying all sufficient... so I inadvertently embellish upon the printed text by usually saying all sufficient where all availing is printed.

It is the same way when it comes to the pericopes and particular versions.  I like lively hope in First Peter and I like I am persuaded in Romans.  These things have become familiar to me by use and sometimes I cannot help myself.  It is for this reason I often slip up and go into King James on Christmas Eve while reading Luke 2.  It is nothing particular against what is printed but a stronger voice within me that cries out to be spoken.

Now don't get me wrong -- I am not adverse to change.  Sometimes I think it is well past time for us to learn a new version of the Our Father and to let trespasses be sins and holy be God's name.  I wonder why we welcome so many other changes and hang on to this.  Again, this is not a point I am pushing -- I am relatively content either way.  Part of me wonders how many more centuries we will isolate the language of the Our Father more from the conversational vocabulary of most folks.  But even as I am content with the Our Father as is, I am also curious about the lifespan of certain turns of a phrase.

Which brings me kind of to a point in all of this.  In one sense no particular version of Scripture of setting of the Divine Service is fully embedded in anyone's mind.  We have cross fertilized to the point where we are multi-lingual in liturgy and in Scripture.  At times I find myself pasting together old and new and varied translations of Scripture and settings of the Divine Service into one thought.

I understand why for example, my mind continues to say "And also with you" even though in my heart I want to learn "And with your spirit."  Or, why I continue to use several of the Eucharistic prayers (of Worship Supplement, Hymnal Supplement 98, LW, and LSB) even though part of me likes the idea of one canon of the mass. Or, why I find it harder than ever to speak from memory familiar words that have undergone several versions in succeeding translations of Scripture or editions of the Divine Service.

I vividly recall the noonday Eucharist around the altar in Kramer Chapel at the old Senior College -- especially when Dr. Walter Wente presided.  His eyesight being rather bad, the texts were not exactly rendered as written though often undeniably eloquent.  He could quote Edgar Goodspeed word for word or Irenaeus paragraph by paragraph but sometimes the word patterns of the ancient fathers were so entrenched in his mind that the words of the page had to give way.

It is not a bad thing -- it just is.  Such inadvertent lapses are hardly problematic except by the rubric police who insist that it must be word for word as printed.  Such is the domain of how language in worship changes... a mix of the old and a blend of the new that together becomes the current song of the Church, owing to its heritage in the past and even now shaping what the future will be.  This is a fluid process and not neat, step by step process of change.  We move the way a river does... carrying with it the water from its source while being added to by every rain and stream and brook that empties into the mighty course.  We need to be accepting of this even as we need to be careful that it is not wholesale adaptation or ad lib monologue of the MC that takes over and renders the texts themselves unrecognizable...

Just a few thoughts after a few flubs last Sunday...