Monday, January 31, 2011

The Loss of a Parish Church

A parish is a territorial unit historically under the pastoral care of one parish priest, who might be assisted in his pastoral duties by a curate or curates - also priests but not the parish priest - from a more or less central parish church with its associated organization.  By extension the term parish refers not only to the territorial unit but to the people of its community or congregation as well as to church property within it.  So says Wikipedia.

There was a day when a goodly share of our congregations were also parishes.  If you lived in a specific area, you belonged to the church within that area.  The parish church included all the people within the geographical unit of that parish.  It was a simple structure, easy to understand and somewhat easy to administer.  The parish church was the center of the lives of the people there.  The bell pealed out its call to the daily offices, to the Divine Service, to the hours of the day, to the occasions such as funerals and weddings, etc.  In this way the people knew what was happening at the center of their lives (the church) even when they could not attend or be a part of these services.

In some respects, my first congregation was a parish church.  It was the center of the people's lives in a way that my suburban congregation is not.  Though part of the reason may be that my current congregation draws people from an hour or more away, there is a social dynamic to a parish church which I miss.  Some of it may be nostalgia and some of it may be myth, but there is something uniquely wonderful about a parish church.

I know that many urban churches were parish churches.  They had little or no parking and people walked to the church building on Sunday morning and for the extended schedule of activities that marked its parish life.  Today a building without parking is an anamoly, a dinosauer in our world of automobiles.  We do not walk anywhere so if we are to go anywhere, abundant parking is an essential ingredient to our commuiting pattern of life.

The parish I serve is really not a parish church but has more in common with the mega churches that draw from huge geographical areas.  There are not a few folks who drive past other Lutheran and even other Missouri Synod congregations to get to Grace Lutheran Church.  For some this ride is an hour or more one way.  They make their way to this congregation because of the liturgical life, music, and full schedule of activities within this church.  They know that distance is an issue and will definitely impact how often and how deep their participation in the life of this congregation will be.  But they have made the choice.

I respect this choice even though I know it interferes with some of the things I hope for in this congregation.  Distance means that our people generally do not see each other at work or socially outside of Sunday morning.  It means that the kids in catechism class or Sunday school are strangers except for Sunday morning or Wednesday evening when their lives deliberately intersect.

Could it be that we struggle with some of our congregations because they live in the tension between the goal of a parish church and the reality of a commuter church?  I do not know but it seems to be true especially in urban areas.  There are many congregations where none of their members live within 1, 2, even 5 miles of the building.  In some cases, their ethnic background, language and culture has long since left the immediate are of the building and now they are an island of mostly white faces amid the various colors of the community. They are commuter churches but many of them are, at least in their heart and desire, a parish church.  They attempt to function as if the folks lived down the street and walked to church on Sunday morning.  Part of me wonders if the cost of transportation and the growing availability of public transportation may occasion the renewal of parish churches in the future but I am not sure I will live to see it.

We have some things scheduled as a parish church and most of the rest scheduled as if we were a mega church.  The daily offices depend upon folks who live nearby.  The larger events within the parish life expect that people will drive in from somewhere else.  In the end this is both a strength and a weakness of our congregation (and I expect of many congregations like us).  We have a split personality and in our heart of hearts we want to be what we will probably never be -- a parish church which is the center of our people's lives, where they hear the bells peal for the daily offices, Divine Service, and occasional services, and where their circle of acquaintances and friendships are centered.  Yet at the same time we value what blessings accrue to a church because people come from significant distances in order to be here and therefore can afford to support such things as a music concert series, a diverse and rich musical life, a large pipe organ, and larger staff.
Maybe it is my age or maybe the romance of a time when the parish church was the majority of situations in our church body (or just about any other one).  I read with longing the descriptions of the parish life in Leipzig at the time of Bach or the parish life described by some of the Reformation Church Orders I am familiar with or the circumstances still found in some (admittedly few) small, mostly rural, communities in which the Church is the center of the community life and the focus of the individual lives of the people. For whatever reason, I find myself caught in this pull between competing realities in the congregation and unable to free myself...

A Creative Tension which Can Also Be Destructive

The Church lives always between the twin tensions of purity of doctrine and practice AND ecumenism and outreach.  At times the tilt is decidedly one way or another but in other ways the Church has proven remarkable adept at keeping squarely in the middle.  Though it is not without its faults or failings, the idea of this tension is, I believe, helpful in the way we deal with Scripture and its calls to both to maintain the truth of the Confession without compromise and yet remain an organization open to those not yet fully a part of it.

Certainly when the Missouri forebearers came to the USA and saw the state of Lutheranism here, they thought the tilt had headed in the wrong direction.  Part of the strenth of Missouri was the clear call to doctrinal truth and fidelity in a world in which compromise and the loss of identity had eased some of Lutheranism from the certainty of their Confessions to the more messy business of tolerance and an identity and practice more in keeping with the reality of the American landscape.

Yet the other remarkable thing about these Missouri forebearers is that they not without a commitment to mercy, service, and outreach.  This is reflected in the phenomenal growth of a church body that began mostly with the passengers of a few small sailing ships and ended up a hundred years later heading toward its second million in size.  It had also moved from a large rural to a much more urban and suburban church body during the same time period.  The parochial school, system of colleges, and commitment to handling the flow of refugees from the fatherland pointed to a church not only with a head for truth but a heart of love.

At some point in time, the pendulum began to swing and purity became more important that mercy -- at least to some.  When that happened tensions were created internally that began to threaten the very identity of this church body called Missouri.  Those who wanted to err on the side of outreach and engagement were seen as liberal and those who were suspicious of other Lutherans and, perhaps, even fearful of this whole American experiment, claimed to be conservative.  So we ended up in 2011 with a division in Missouri that saw those in favor of outreach and engagement as the heirs of the "moderate" Missouri of the 1970s and the term confessional became synonymous with those who fought that battle for the Bible and won.

I am not so sure that this is all that accurate -- to be sure those who left Missouri in the 1970s were more liturgical and churchly than many of those who operate as evangelicals in confesional clothing today.  And, it could be said that those who fought and won in the 1970s may just have a bit too much in common with fundamentalists in American than they care to admit.  In any case, the health of our church body and the positive future we seek is tied to the recapturing of the healthy balance between purity and mercy, between maintaining the faith faithfully and reaching out in love to those who are not at all like us.

If anyone is well poised to lead us back to such a tension in balance, it may well be Pres. Matthew Harrison.  For many years he worked as a parish pastor in an inner city setting, as director of the organization for world relief and human care services for our entire church body, and at the same time maintained an exceptional career as author, translator, and teacher of confessional Lutheran theology.  I certainly welcome our church body reclaiming its identity more in the middle of this tension.  It is NOT that I believe we should discard or water down our confessional identity or theological stance but that I believe we must at the same time reclaim our heritage and activity of mercy and service. 

The truth is that I find myself often between those for whom no one can ever be too pure and those for whom no one can be too compassionate and welcoming.  Just because I am against the watering down of the faith in order to paper over churchly divisions or to win Amercans to faith from our increasingly secular culture, does not mean I am insensitive to the fact that many of our congregations are not welcoming communities of faith and are isolated from the people around them and, too often, unwilling to serve them in any meaningful way.  What will prove destructive to us as a church body is if we choose one side of this tension over the other and what will help our rebirth and renewal is when we can find a way to be faithful in doctrine and practice while at the same time enthusiastically and cheerfully doing mercy's work and Christ-like service within our communities.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Innovation is not always our friend...

While innovation is generally regarded as the primary American contribution to the world, innovation in the area of religion and faith is not always, I would go further and say seldom, is a good thing.  While it is true that we as Americans have innovated our way from one product to another, from one industrial leap to another, we have also been responsible for innovations that have caused great harm to the Christian faith and to our Lord's Church.  Sadly, Americans seem to be better at innovation than production, for as soon as we perfect something new, it seems to head outside our borders to be mass produced by someone else.  And therein lies its problem with respect to religion and faith.  We are very good at new things but not so good at keeping faith and keeping old things going.

On one level this means that American Christians are as enamored with the newest congregation and the latest trends in worship, music, and education as they are with the lastest trends in fashion, technology, etc.  There has been some work that shows that for all the new churches begun in America, the membership of these new churches reflects more a shuffling of people out of one church and into another than making a big impact upon the unchurched.  Christians in America seem to be great at adapting to new things but not so good at sticking with them.  So they shop for a new church when the current one they attend seems to be getting old, familiar, or predictable.  Look at the lifespan of some of these new churches and you see that some of them are considered very old if they have been around for 25 years.

It seems an American perspective that everything can be improved.  Like the $6 Million Man of TV long ago, "We can rebuild him, we have the technology... better than he was before, better, stronger, faster..."  -- only what we are rebuilding is not some bionic man but a Christian faith and identity.  Where this attitude is a virtue and blessing in some areas, it is terribly destructive in others.  The Christian faith is not some product to be improved with truths and facts that must be changed.  No, the faith is something we need to rediscover because the work of sin, temptation, and trial is always pushing it away from us.  This faith is not raw material to be formed but that which forms us with its changeless truth.

On the store shelves we walk by old familiar products with "New and Improved" on the label.  The great temptation for us as Americans is to take our grandfathers faith and church and make it new or improve it.  But that which makes it new and that which improves it are not the efforts of a modern day people looking at an age old church.  No, that which improves it is nothing less the return to our roots, to the source.  That source is Christ, rooted in history as man incarnate and timeless as the Son of God whose Word spoke all things into existence and to whom all things flow toward their final completion.

Doctrine is not some evolutionary truth as some would say (i. e. old "friend" Bart Ehrman) but the priceless pearl which must be daily reborn within us through repentance and the power of the Spirit, to which even the Church must daily return.  Doctrine and faith are not evolving or changing but rather that which does not change and which we regularly mine in the bottomless truth of the Scripture.  We truly know the depth of the wisdom and fullness of God only in part, through a mirror dimly, but it is not the mirror that needs to be changed and transformed by its truth and power -- rather those who stand before this mirror looking, searching, and seeking.

"What's new?  Not much...." so says the storied introduction to a popular radio show.  We might well echo the same truth -- not in the regret of a people who have not made it better, innovated, or transformed the Church and her faith but with the confidence of a people who know the changeless Christ even in the midst of our constantly changing world.  This is the hallmark of who we are.  The hard truth in all of this is that with each passing generation we become more distant from the Biblical times and the changes of our culture and life make it more difficult to read the Scriptures.  The only lens that can clarify what change and distance have clouded is the Holy Spirit and He is come not to reveal all things but all things in Christ.

Just a few thoughts as we are about to begin another Sunday in the Lord's House....

Saturday, January 29, 2011

An Offhand Comment Finds Deep Trouble

An offhand comment in a Bible class about the Baptizer's call to "Look to the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world" and how we sing those words to the Christ who is present in bread and wine set off an interesting and rather far flung discussion.  On the one hand I discovered a deep denial of the Real Presence (not from intent but from a failure to connect the dots or consider the consequences).  On the other hand I wonder if there is an almost denial of the incarnation -- that God could choose to become flesh and blood within the limitations of that mortal body.

Anyway the conversation began with a question about adoring the Christ who is come to us in the bread which is His body and the wine which is His blood.  Surely we do not worship bread.  But Christ is in the bread in such way that we from our earthly vantage point cannot separate them.  Lutheran Eucharistic theology is very incarnational at this point.  But we cannot worship bread.  Would we worship Christ standing before us in His flesh and blood.  Well sure, but Christ is not standing before us in His flesh and blood.  But surely He is as His Word does promise "This is My body... This is My blood."  Well, that's different.  And here we come to the main issue of the person.  The Christ who is present in the Sacrament is not quite the same Christ who is incarnate and the presence of Christ in the Sacrament is not of the same reality or corporeal nature as Christ incarnate.  I am summarizing a conversation that went on for much longer.

The issue is that we have failed to teach people the doctrine of the Real Presence or else we have taught it in such a way that some have gotten the distinct impression that the Christ who comes to us in the Eucharist is a different Christ or at least His presence is less real, less concrete, less, well, corporeal, than the Christ who walked Galilee, who mounted the altar of the cross, who suffered, died and rose again.  In essence, a spiritualized presence in which it is, at least to them, idolatry to venerate Christ during the Agnus Dei or apply to the Christ who is present in the bread and cup the words of John.  Here the liturgy functions as it is supposed to function -- the corrective and the positive doctrinal statement that guarantees and affirms what Scripture teaches and our Confessions affirm.

Now I know that receptionists will flood the comments with the idea that Christ is not zapped into the bread and cup until the contents are taken in the mouth but for this error I would again point to the liturgy and its corrective and teaching function.  What sense is there to the Agnus Dei if Christ is not located where His Word says He is at that time?  It is foolishness to sing about the Lamb of God who is out there somewhere while bread and wine have been set apart by the Word (dare I say voice of Christ speaking through the Pastor).

I know this is somewhat disjointed but so was the conversation and it is a startling reminder that no matter how much we say or how often we think we say or how clear the liturgy is in proclaiming this truth, we are up against much in maintaining and confessing both the Real Presence and what effects that presence.  This was a surprising reminder to me that what we often assume can be a more powerful agent to inform faith than what we have been taught.  So again, I would say, the catechism still needs to be heard -- even among those who have been Lutheran all their lives.

Friday, January 28, 2011

You Must Also Read the Things in Red

Rubrics.  A rubric is a word or section of text which is written or printed in red ink to highlight it. The term derives from the rubrica, meaning red ochre or red chalk, and originates in Medieval illuminated manuscripts from the 13th century or earlier.  Rubrics are authoritative rules of conduct or procedure or glosses in the text (explanations or definitions of an obscure word in a text) or directions for the conduct of Christian church services (often printed in red in a prayer book).
If you look through the hymnal or missal, you find these red notes all over the place.  They tell us such things as when to sit or stand or kneel... when to make the sign of the cross... when to sing a hymn...  They tell the Pastor when to face the people and when to face the altar, among many other things.  They direct the usages or practices of the Church (colors of the season, directions for preparing the elements for the Sacraments, and even what to do with what remains of the Eucharist (the reliquae).  And I could go on and on...

Brother Weedon has been publishing some of the rubrics from Lutheran Service Book in his wonderful blog.  I have been reading them and even posted a comment there.  The whole thing reminded me that too often the Pastors and people only read the stuff in black and too often forget or even ignore what is printed in red.  It is printed in red to get our attention.  As so many have noted, we are to do the red and say the black.  It is hardly complicated but, unfortunately for our Church, it is a simple thing too often overlooked at the expense of faithful doctrine and practice.

I venture to say that you have not read the book if you have not read the rubrics.  If you do not know the rubrics, you do not know the liturgy.  They go hand in hand -- the words which we say and the directions that tell us how and what to do.  They are not incidental because our practice is formed by our faith and our practice reflects what it is we truly believe.  So, for example, if our practice is sloppy or slovenly, then we are in essence telling people that what we are doing is not important.  Lord knows that there are already too many messages about the stuff of worship telling our people that this stuff is not important.  Pastors do not need to encouraging them or adding to these hints that how we do things is of little consequence.

The sad truth is that we did not pay much attention to the rubrics back when the hymnal was dated 1941 and the directions were in black italic and we do not pay much more attention to them today, even with the nice, deep red color to draw our attention to them.  It is to our poverty that we ignore the red.  Those who ignore the red seem prone to rewording the black.

We have a perfectly good way to introduce the lessons but so often the person reading (lay or ordained) seems determined to make up something new.  One of the worst habits formed from ignoring the red is the idea that we should greet the people with  a hearty good morning before we plow into the Word of God.  It makes me wonder what goes through our heads sometimes.  Reading the lessons means reading the Word of God so that the attention is on the Word and not the reader -- so why draw attention to who you are by hollaring out a "Goober says hey" before the reading?  Better to borrow from the Orthodox if we must ad lib:  "Wisdom!  Attend!"  But the easiest thing of all would simply be to pay attention to the rubrics.

The rubrics are put there not because some anal retentive type insists upon uniformity -- some German attribute of lock step precision drilling.  They were put there because it is not enough to care about doctrine in the abstract.  We care about it in the specific and concrete of the liturgy -- what we do and how we do it.  Some folks think I am terribly persnickety  Really I am not.  I know some folks who really get into the nitty gritty of rubrical conformity and precision.  I am not one of them.  But I care about what we do and how we do it -- I care because it reflects upon the Word and Sacraments of God.  We hold that good practice is an extension of faithful doctrine.  It is really that simple.

It is not that the rubric police will show up and cart you off if you ignore the red while making up your own black.  It is not that heaven will fall to the ground and the work of God's kingdom will crash to a halt because you skipped a liturgical direction printed in red.  It is not that the means of grace will be rendered impotent because you forgot a bow or turned the wrong way.  Nobody is saying this.  I am not saying this.  But if what we are doing as representatives (ikons) of the Lord is important, if we believe that God actually works through His Word and Sacraments, then a little care about how we do what we do and what we do is not only good, it is salutary and beneficial.  And, believe you me, people notice. 

People learn through seeing how we do what we do as well as what we do.  I once watched a waitress pick up a knife off the floor, wipe it on her apron, and place it back on the table.  Now I am a firm practitioner of the five second rule when it comes to things dropped.  But it is a little unseemly when you catch somebody practicing the home rule in public.  So Pastors remember that you are not at home, you are in public.  People are watching.  Read those lines printed in red.  See what they say and try to follow them.  Read them often enough so that you know them as well as you know to say "In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit."  The better you know them, the easier they are to follow.  These things printed in red are really pretty good stuff.  They actually make sense the more you do them.  So give it a shot, won't you?!

A Problem Becomes A Blessing

We have some nasty bug critters here in Tennessee that do a number on the paraments if we do not keep them in check.  One of the ways we keep them in check was an open box of moth balls -- just open enough to keep the bugs away without that putrid moth ball smell.  At least that is how it worked until I kicked over the box of moth balls (accidentally) and the smell left the box with the moth balls.  After gathering up those pesky moth balls, I thought the main damage was done.  But no.  The moth ball smell continued, at first weak and then growing stronger.  Ahhh.... what to do.  God should not smell like moth balls, that is sure.  Oh, well, a problem becomes an opportunity and even blessing in the creative grace of God.  So I got out the thurible and fired up the coals.  Over the span of several days (snow days when some of the ordinary parish activities were suspended because of the school closing) I dumped spoon after spoon on those coals until finally today when I walked through, the smell of moth balls had given way to the real smell of God -- incense!

It is remarkable how often we present the Lord a problem and He turns it into an opportunity.  In this small way I got to fire up incense burner even when services were not scheduled and the sweet smell of incense reigned again in the House of the Lord.   Ahhh, life is good even in the midst of some small screw ups.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Gagging of God

First of all you may want to peruse the blog that occasioned this commentary.  You can read it HERE.  It is a report of the top ten most frequently searched Bible verses, at least according to Google.  It is an interesting mix, fairly representative of Scripture, except for one thing.  You have to head way down the list before you encounter any verse than mentions the dreaded three letter word -- SIN!  Even then, it mentions sin in the context of how to get rid of it (at #19) and how everyone has it (#20 so how bad can it be).

Interesting.  I wonder if it were possible to Google all the sermons preach in America or the world, how far down the list would you have to go before encountering the word sin.  Even then, would we meet much of sin in terms of its destructive power to rob and steal the nobility of our life, to mark us for mortal death and condemn us to eternal death, or to build walls between us and each other and between us and God?  Or would we meet sin more in the context of our failure to reach our full potential, or our failure to be all that we can be (oh, duh, that's the Army), or our failure to get out of our life all that we should?  Hmmm... not so much interesting any more as sad... very sad.

The article mentions a book I shall have to read The Gagging of God.  Ultimately this is not so much an organized gagging of the Lord as it is a casual silencing of God by simply skipping over the things we do not want to hear.  I can understand this.  There are plenty of Sundays after I have read words of Jesus like "do not think I have come to bring peace on earth" or "I have come to set brother against brother..." or the like and have wondered why do we want to hear this?  It is as if I feel I should turn into a question the end of the reading "This is the Gospel of the Lord?"

What we do not want to hear are often the very things we need to hear the most.  I have friends who are diabetic (not fully compliant diabetics) who hear exactly what they do not want to hear from their physicians -- but if they do not hear and heed his words, it does not bode well for them.  I absolutely hate going to the dentist and the little game I play with the hygienist about "how often have you flossed?"  It is most unpleasant for me to have to fuzzy out the truth and listen to her tell me how important it is to floss.  But I do not have great teeth and if I am going to keep them, I had better hear and heed her words.  I could not stand it when the guy rotating my tires told me that they were bald and I needed new ones -- at $135 a pop, plus alignment.  But I am glad he told me.  I needed to hear and heed his words if I were to head me or my family down the road safely.

Both in terms of our preaching to the folks in the pew and to those not yet of the kingdom of God, we need to say what they do not want to hear.  It is not because we delight in telling them what is bad but only by stark confrontation with what sin is and what its death means can they hear the Gospel.  I once wondered if the reason people did not want to hear certain things is that they figured the people telling them got some sort of sick delight over saying bad news (the tire guy or dental hygienist).  But I no longer think that way.  I think we want to be liked and loved and so we try to avoid saying out loud the things that might interfere with this like or love from others.  So the physician often sugar coats the bad news or couches it in medical speak -- not because he wants to but because he is afraid of the consequences of giving us the unvarnished truth.  And preachers are often the same way.

The Law is not the final word of God and sin is not where the sermon should end, but the Law must be spoken and sin must be preached or we will have kidnapped God, put Him in a corner, gagged Him, and allowed Him only to speak what we want Him to say.  In the end, such a God is mere creature and we have broken the first commandment -- broken it in such a way that the Gospel will remain hidden to us and grace inaccessible -- no matter how wonderful our talk about reaching high, fulfilling our goals, living up to our potential, and getting what we want from life...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why I am not in favor of evangelism...

I hope the title got your attention.  It was meant to be provocative.  In part because the whole nature of the Church's mission has been co-opted by those who believe that we are here to bring non-believers into a relationship with Jesus Christ.  This is the kind of the stuff I hear all the time (even from within my own church body).  I will say it bluntly.  That is not the job of the Church.  We exist to draw others into the community of faith through the means of grace by which faith is born, people die and rise with Christ in baptism, sins are forgiven, hearts and minds are nurtured for the kingdom of God, and they are fed and nourished upon the bread which is Christ's body and the cup which is His blood. 

I cannot trace when it happened but at some point in time evangelism became an abstraction.  It became a program or a direction seemingly unrelated to the Church as the community of faith and the Body of Christ.  Somehow Christians began to get the idea that a relationship with God was possible apart from and outside the realm of the Church, the assembly of God's people around the Word and Sacraments through which God has promised to work His saving work for us and for all who will be saved.  The point is not to figure out where this mistaken idea came from but to confess that it has predominated our thinking as Lutheran Christians for some time.

We felt the need to set up evangelism committees and board structures to handle this work of evangelism.  In some cases, we identified specific individuals with the gift of being an evangelist and removed from the faithful the task of witness and left them with worship, prayer, mercy, and service.  (Recall of the Abdon plan and constitution?)  They were not angry by the removal of this part of their baptismal calling -- even somewhat relieved since they saw evangelism through the eyes of the fundamentalists and evangelicals who knocked on doors and wondered what would happen to those folks if they died tonight -- a distinctly unLutheran question.

Lutherans about this time began to see Sunday morning in a different light and wanted the worship service to be accessible to and warm and friendly for all who showed up -- no matter how far they were from the kingdom of God.  Lutherans began to watch how Billy Graham packed them down through the altar call and heard some of those who prayed so sincerely the sinner's prayer and were almost ashamed and embarrassed at their own liturgy, hymnody, and focus on the means of grace.

Collver also spoke about the witness of the Church, her mission, not as abstract love for and seeking after the salvation of souls but the specific and concrete mission which brings the sinner into the domain of our Lord's saving mercy through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, the means of grace that alone deliver Christ's gifts to the sinner.  In other words the mission of the Church is to bring people not into some abstract relationship with Jesus but into the concrete relationship founded not on feeling or choice but upon a specific font, pulpit, and table. 

All of the people of God are called to witness -- not just those who show the aptitude for it.  None of us can escape the call and responsibility to give account of the hope that is within us and to locate the source of that hope in the Gospel the flows from the means of grace -- Word, water, and table -- of a specific place.  It is not that evangelism is wrong but the idea of an evangelism that is concerned about the souls of people without being concerned with their life in the community of God's people gathered around His Word and table.

The people of the world wonder about a Christian who wants to share a product but without sharing where the product is to be found.  If I tell someone about a great frozen pizza I found and leave them to feed on this pizza in their heart without sharing where this pizza can be found and what is its name, I have given them nothing at all.  As Lutheran Christians we believe, and we believe that this is the true apostolic and catholic faith, that God works through His means of grace, He does what He has promised to do where He has placed His promise.  So it can never be our goal to tell them about Jesus unless we bring them to the Church where Jesus is present in His Word and Sacraments, doing what He has pledged and promised to do.  We cannot allow evangelism to be disjointed from the task of bringing people into the Church where the Word is rightly proclaimed (the Law/Gospel dialectic is most helpful here) and where the Sacraments are administered according to Christ's command and institution.

We do this not out of guilt or duty but because it is our joyful and grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ, because of our confidence in God's efficacious Word and Sacraments, because we know where Christ has located Himself in these means of grace, and because the Church is not some affinity group but the called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified people of God in Christ -- who is not content with the 99 who are present but continually seeks after the lost one that he or she may be found.  Far from being a burden, this is the natural outgrowth of our life together around these means of grace -- to tell everyone what He has done, to proclaim the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and to make sure every brother and sister knows, "we have found the Messiah (Christ)."

The truth is I do not have the foggiest idea how to have a relationship with Jesus Christ apart from the Word and Sacraments in which Christ has hidden Himself and revealed Himself.  Unless I am completely mistaken, the only way to know Christ is to know Him where and as He has chosen to make Himself known.  It is for this reason we keep saying "means of grace" -- not because it is some confessional mantra.  The only grace we know is the grace made known to us in the Word of the Cross, the water of life, the voice of absolution, and the bread and wine of His table.  It is not here or somewhere else.  It is here or nowhere else.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rumors, Quarrels, Factions, and Divisions

Sermon preached on Epiphany 3A, on Sunday, January 23, 2011.

    Nothing good starts with a rumor.  When somebody comes to me and says "Rumor has it that..." or “I heard it on the grapevine...” I instinctively know that it is bad news.  Rumors are easy to start but almost impossible to stop.  They offer the anonymity that allows people to whisper what they were never be caught dead saying out loud, to say in private what they would never say in public.  Rumors are hard to track down.  Who started them is about as impossible to define as how to stop them.  Rumors are lies that become the truth we expect or want to hear.
    Today St. Paul confronts rumors.  Rumors of quarreling... of factions... of divisions... of people choosing sides against each other and choose leaders as a way of publicly choosing sides.  Imagine that rumors and quarreling and factions – in a Church, for God's sake!  But not here.  Does anybody here admit to starting, hearing or passing on rumors?  Does anyone here admit to quarreling or conflict?  Does anyone here admit to factions or divisions?  See, I told you.  We don't have any of that here, now, do we... Well, if we don't, wait until the rumor mill grinds up on Monday morning something after this sermon... and people begin wondering why did Pastor preach about that?
    St. Paul confronts what no one wants to admit – that we are often influenced more by the unfounded suppositions of rumors than by the clear, unvarnished truth.  It happens in Church because we are sinful people.  We may be forgiven but we are still sinners.  The old Adam in us delights in things whispered, in unsubstantiated allegations, in conflict and division.  St. Paul confronts rumors, quarreling, divisions and factionalism but not with the latest and greatest tools of the psychologist or motivational speaker or church conflict consultant.  No, he confronts rumors, divisions, quarrels and conflicts with the Gospel.  The only power to overcome what divides is the Gospel of the blood of Jesus Christ.
    God calls us to unity of mind.  But this unity of mind is not forged in consensus or debate.  It flows from the mind of Christ which was placed within you in your baptism.  The mind of Christ is not lies or deceptions but the truth that is forever the same.  This truth we call doctrine.  It is not the fruit of our reason or understanding but the revelation of things long hidden and made plain in Jesus Christ.
    God calls us to unity in the Word of Christ.  It is not the skill of the preacher or the efforts of men that bear the fruit of unity but when the hearts and minds of God's people are thoroughly rooted in Scripture.  When that Word of the Cross is their public testimony and confession before the world and when it forms and shapes their witness to those not yet of the kingdom of God, the fruit of that Word at work is unity of faith and witness.
    God calls us to unity in the work of the kingdom. Part of the reason why we have time for rumors and quarreling and division and conflict is that we are not busy enough about the work of the Kingdom.  When we are not focused upon the works of mercy that show forth Christ's compassion nor the works of service that display the cross shaped pattern of His life, then we have time to turn the attention to us and to the things that divide us.
    God calls us to unity of doctrine and truth, to unity of confession and witness, and to unity in works of mercy and service.  This is the very call of our Synod in the new emphasis of witness, mercy, and life together.  We won't end the reign of rumor or the tyrrany of division by talking it out but we will overcome them by being one in doctrine and faith, one in witness and mercy, and one in our life together at the Table of the Lord.  Here the Spirit works to accomplish what we cannot and to bring us all together in the mind and heart of Christ our Lord.
    God's call springs forth from the place where His Word and His Table are the central pillars that hold up His Church and support His people in their baptismal identity and faith and in their work as His people.  God's call to unity is the result of Christ at work in us and among us, the power of forgiveness to erase the hurts and bitterness of past divisions and wounds and the power of grace to turn our attention away from ourselves and on to Jesus Christ, whose gifts make us His people and whose work is our goal.
    God's call to unity results in a passion not for ourselves or our place or earthly honor or recognition but the passion for Christ, for His work, and for the eternal future He has prepared for us.  In the face of passion for Christ and His Work, and the passionate pursuit of the goal of eternal life, there is no crack for rumor to exploit, no opening for quarreling or division to take hold of, and no opportunity for us to focus on our selves instead of Christ.
    How do you end rumors?  Even the truth cannot still our quest for words that wound and hurt.  Only by making something else more important or urgent, can we still the voice of rumor.  Only when there is greater allegiance to the heavenly goal than to earthly individuals and divisions can we bind together the diverse company that is the Christian Church and all her members.  How do you end factions except when we identity and seek first the kingdom of God and all its righteousness over the human voices and causes that would divide us and create competitive causes among us.
    The truth is we do have rumors here at Grace Lutheran Church. We do have quarreling.  We do have factions and divisions.  Every church made up of sinners will have them.  Now you can either focus all your attention upon them or take the wind out of their sails by turning your attention upon Jesus Christ, whose doctrine, witness, and mercy service are our goal and purpose.

Look at the Lamb!

Sermon preached for Epiphany 2A, on Sunday, January 16, 2011.

    Strange that in our mostly urban, technological and modern day world, where most of us have no direct farm experience, where most of us have only seen lambs in pictures or perhaps at a petting zoo, that the image of the lamb continues to be a powerful and profound image in Scripture. We like the picture of the Lamb of God even if we really don't know much about lambs or sheep or shepherding. We will ever give up the image of God gathering us lambs in His arms or give up the 23rd Psalm at funerals.  But today is not about an image.  Today is not about a picture.  Today John points us to Jesus and says, “Look there, He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
    But what about this Lamb?  And why does John tell us to look at the Lamb? These are the questions we face so early in Jesus' ministry and so early in the church year. Today we heard in the Gospel lesson how John, after Jesus baptism, points to Jesus and declares Him to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Now if those words are familiar to you, we sing them every Sunday several times, first in the Gloria in Excelsis that echos the angels’ song at Christmas and again as the host which is His body and the cup which is His blood is lifted up before us.
    “Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Look at Him.” says John. Apparently some were listening because they dropped what they were doing, sought out their family members, and told them, too, "We have found the Messiah." So if we are to be gathered into the household of the Lamb, if we are to remain faithful to the Lord in the midst of troubled times, and if we are to know what to say to the world about Jesus, we better know a little bit about this Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
    Jesus is the Lamb of God - the Lamb of Sacrifice. He is the spotless Lamb without blemish or stain who is offered for those marked with sin for death and stained with guilt and unrighteousness. Jesus is the Lamb of God meant for sacrifice and every lamb sacrificed before Him looks to Him.
    Remember that ram stuck in the bushes when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac?  Remember the Passover lamb whose blood marked the doorpost of God's people so that the angel of death passed over them? These are types or figures of the Lamb to come, of Jesus  the one and only Lamb whose blood can take away sin.  In this way all the Old Testament stands with John in pointing to Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
    Jesus is the Lamb who will shepherd God's people. From Ezekiel we hear the lament of God who has seen the failures of the shepherds appointed to care for His people.  He promises one to come, who will not be a like a hireling who cares only for himself or runs from danger. No, God will shepherd His people, the Lamb will become the shepherd, the Good
Shepherd, who lays down His life for His people. From the Shepherd psalm
to the words of Jesus about the Good Shepherd in John's gospel, we meet in this Lamb THE shepherd who will shepherd His people even at the cost of His own blood.
    Still the story is not yet complete. We have the sacrificial lamb long promised, the lamb who shepherds His people even laying down His life for them, but there is still the heavenly Lamb who sits upon the throne. This is the victorious Lamb who earned His place by His perfect obedience, who gives to His people the fruits of His victory, so that they may be with Him where death no longer reigns and evil is finally and fully overcome. This Jesus is the Lamb of God who gathers the lambs in His arms not for a moment but for all eternity. He will not rest until all are gathered and leaves the ninety nine so that even one lost one is restored.
    John told the people long ago, “Look at this Lamb.” He tells us the same thing today. “Look at the Lamb.”  Look at Him with faith to believe He is who He claims to be, He has fulfilled all that was promised of Him, and He delivers upon all He promises to give. Look at Him through the eyes of faith. As long as the Lamb of God is on your lens, you will not go off the path and find yourself lost or alone. Keep the Lamb in your vision, and you will never lose your way.
    John told the people long ago and still tells us today, "Look at the Lamb." This is the focus of our worship. Not on preacher or presider or people but on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and my sin. From the confession of sins that begins our time together, to the lessons that speak God's Word to us, to the offering in which we bring forward what belongs to the Lamb (our very selves), to the Sacrament where we kneel to receive in His bread and in His cup the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – the whole focus of the Church's life is looking at the Lamb.
    John told the people long ago and still tells us today, "Look at the Lamb." This is the focus of evangelism and outreach. We are careful to tell the world, “Do not look at me or my sin or my holiness or my thoughts and opinions. Look at the Lamb.” This is our proclamation and witness: “Look at Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the Messiah long promised. He is the hope of people caught in hopelessness and despair, lost and alone in a world of darkness and sin, helpless to fix what is wrong.  Look at the Lamb!”
    In Word and in Sacrament, we continue the call first given us by John - look at the Lamb! It was this that was John's witness to the world. It was this that he spoke to his own followers after he baptized Jesus and Jesus began preaching the kingdom of God was here. It was this that people looked for and saw in Jesus - the Lamb of God who pays sins price, who sets the prisoner free from his sins, who gathers the lost for kingdom of God, who comforts the sorrowing with the hope that does not disappoint, and who protects and defends the people of God against all their enemies.
    If there is any word we need to hear today, with all the distractions we face and the temptations before us, look at the Lamb. If we find ourselves looking at our wounds or our accomplishments, we need to be told again, look at the Lamb.  If we find ourselves staring into the face of injustice and despair, we need to hear it anew, look at the Lamb.  If we wonder where God is in our moments of greatest need and loneliness, we need somebody to point us to the Word, point us to the baptismal water, and point us to this altar.  Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Amen.

I am chosen!

Sermon Preached for the Baptism of Our Lord, 9 January 2011.

    Who among us has not stood on a playground waiting to be chosen, waiting anxiously for someone to choose us to be in his or her teams.  Waiting and waiting until our names were called, we learned the anxiety and fear of being alone.  We often think of faith in terms of our choice for God, for good over evil as if faith were choosing sides between those the Lord and His own and evil and its cohorts.  But this is a false analogy.  The whole nature of what sin has done to us makes it impossible for us to choose God.  What is important is not which side we choose, but which side God chooses.  And today Jesus stood and called our your name as He entered into the waters of the river Jordan.
    There in the waters of the Jordan Jesus chose sides and He chose you and me.  John was not so sure about this but Jesus was absolutely certain.  God had chosen in Christ not to write off us sinners to His anger but to forgive and redeem us.  At His baptism, Jesus chose us even with our sins, accepting our sins as His own burden and placing upon His shoulders the full weight of our guilt, disobedience, and death.  It is the fabulous surprise of grace – Jesus chose you and me!
    We are not the ones who choose God.  Jesus is the one who chooses and He chooses us.  It is as if we were standing alone on that playground, fearful of rejection and abandonment,  and then the Lord called out our names as He went down into those waters.  We belong to Him.  It cost us nothing to hear the sweet sound of that voice laying claim to us but it placed upon Jesus an impossible burden that only the Son of God in human flesh and blood could fulfill.
    Jesus stood in those waters as the righteous one who came to redeem the unrighteous.  His holiness was earned in perfect obedience to the Law but in baptism He has given it to us as His gift.  Jesus stood in those waters as the sinless One who came for sinners.  He bore no guilt of His own but He became the guilty for us – a choice marked by His step into those waters to take on all our dirt so that we might step into the same waters and come out clean.
    Jesus stood in those waters as the Lord of life whose Word brought all things into being and yet He has willingly exchanged His life for the life of all those dead in trespasses and sin.  Now this is no casual choice.  This is the informed choice of the Lord who knows what it will cost Him to choose us, what price He must pay to redeem us, and what burden He must bear in order to set us free.  And the surprise of grace is that He accepts it all and chooses us in love.
    And Jesus is still choosing us.  Not by His baptism at the hands of John but when you and I were called to these waters of life, there to exchange our death with His life, there to leave behind the original sin that first claimed us and all those willful sins we have added to them.  He accepts them all and gives us in exchange the forgiveness won by His blood shed and His body given into death.  In our baptism, Jesus is still choosing sides, choosing us for Himself and clothing us with His righteousness.
    Jesus still chooses us in baptism and granting to us the Spirit so that we have the voice and power to affirm His choice with the AMEN of faith.  He not only chooses us but gives us the grace that enables us to respond to His choice with faith to grasp hold of His gift and make it fully our own.
    Jesus still chooses us and in that choice He unlocks the door to a whole new life for us.  We are given a new vocation as the people of God.  Our lives are not the journeys of chance lived by those outside the faith, the brief struggle to amass possessions or power or pleasure.  No, our lives are free – free of death and all its fears – so that we can live today in fullness, the abundant life that Jesus promised.  This life is defined not by what we have or what we accomplish or what we like.  This life is lived out in Christ, for Christ.  All our days and deeds become grateful offerings to Jesus in thanksgiving for what He has done.  Our calling and vocation is one of worship, witness, fellowship, and service.  It begins here in Jesus house, but its goal is the world out there.
    We might like to frame life as two teams – one belonging to Satan and one belonging to Jesus and we choose which team to play on.  But the truth is that we do not choose.  Because of sin, we were already marked for Satan's team until Jesus chooses us in baptism, steals us from the grasp of sin and its death to be set free, forgiven, and granted new life.  Then and only then is there the possibility that we might know the Lord, live under Him as His child, and live out the new and eternal life that is His gift to us.  We do not choose.  We are the chosen.
    It first began when Jesus stood in the waters  – not as one needing to repent and be redeemed but as the Redeemer who brings to us the power of repentance.  He chooses us and all our weakness and stands in those waters of old as one clean who has come to be clothed with our dirt and death, that you and I might be set free.
    Baptism is not some once in a lifetime event and then it is over.  Baptism is the choice of God to be our God even with all that it would cost Him.  It is the means to our redemption and it gives us the grace of new life.  When we walk by that baptismal font and recall our baptism into Christ, we celebrate the choice Jesus made to set us free and we honor the grace that no works or merits could earn.  Baptism is free grace.
    Today as dipped our fingers in that water and made the sign of the cross we remembered Him who choose us to be His own in baptism.  When He stepped into those waters of the Jordan, He chose us and He chooses us still through His living water, just as Riley did this morning, even with all our sin and death He chooses us.  He clothes us with His righteousness, grants us the Spirit to enable us to respond with faith, and sets us apart for a new vocation and calling in life as His children and His witnesses.  It just does not get any better than this.  Not at all.
    God’s own child, I gladly say it.  I am baptized into Christ!  Amen.   

A Thought For Missions...

I believe it came from Albert Collver's excellent paper "Walther and Missouri's Other Fathers."  It should have been an obvious statement to us Lutherans but it tells us something of the times in which we live when this ordinary wisdom has become a profoundly new thought.

Our Lord is far more concerned about missions than we are and would not have given us doctrine and faithful practice that conflicted with His love for the world, for which He died, or their salvation, which is the fulfillment of His good and gracious will...(not an exact quote but as best as I can recall)

Hmmmm... now there is a novel thought -- our doctrine is not antithetical to nor does it inhibit the work of mission. Now why would this seem like a radical statement to us today? Could it be that we have been told for a generation that mission work must boil things down to bare essentials, that some of the teachings of Scripture to which we have held for millenia, are antagonistic to the modern world view and therefore to the work of mission? Could it be that we have been told for a generation or more that in order to impact the world around around us or the world across the globe, we must ditch the faithful practice of this Word and Sacrament faith and its application in the liturgy, the stewardship of these mysteries, and the great deposit of hymnody and music bequeathed to us by the faithful of those who have gone before? Could it be that we have heard for a generation that confessional doctrine and practice are directly in the way of church renewal and church growth?

Now Albert Collver is a smart guy, well read, and a good guy at that.  But why is it that we have forgotten such a basic fact and have to be reminded of this truth?  Could it be that those we have entrusted leadership in the area of missions, outreach, and evangelism have been well meaning folks but have learned from the wrong people -- people to whom doctrine, churchly and confessional character, and faithful practice are bad words?

I have known and appreciated the good efforts of many who have led our church body in the areas of mission and outreach but I think we have saddled them with an impossible task.  We have abandoned our trust in the means of grace and have left them with an empty shopping cart with which to find a strategy, methodology, and means to grow a church body that lacks basic confidence in the media through which God has promised to work.  Lacking full that confidence and courageous boldness that flow from the efficacious Word, water, and table of the Lord, they have given us their best and we have tried to grow a Lutheran Church without being Lutheran in identity, confession, and practice.  It has not worked. 

For more than 35 years, we have shopped for strategies, terminology, and practices that other churches have used to grow their churches and we are still losing members.  More than that, this infatuation with the latest and greatest fad and trend from the church growth experts has left us confused about who we are and helped to create a muddled identity about what it means to be Lutheran.  So the fruits of our search for something that works has left us without full confidence in the means of grace, with a partial openness to decision style conversion, with an embarrassment or shame about our doctrine, with a fear that if we are honest with folks they will not like us, and with the flawed conclusion that in order to grow we have to abandon that for which our Reformation forbearers fought and become like the non-denominational fellowship down the road.

It is time for us to reclaim our heritage.  This does NOT begin by fighting again the age old battle with those who argue against the truthfulness of Scripture.  Let the fundamentalists fight this battle.  Our battle is with the efficacy of Scripture and the Sacraments.  Does the Word do what it says it does?  Does the water do what it promises?  Does the table deliver on what it claims?  Mission begins with full confidence and a courageous boldness built upon our confidence not in us but in the Lord's Word and Sacraments.  This is what Collver is reminding us about -- the very things that God has given us are the sources of our growth as well as good pastoral care.

While it seems I am rather curmudgeonly about things (you can read they comment from the person who said I could not fly to Fort Wayne because I could not find a plane with two right wings), the truth is I am trying to be more positive about the efficacy of the means of grace than I am negative about the other things.  I know it may not come off that way, but this is what I have to say to those who throw around terms like new paradigms and missional and transforming/renewing congregations -- it starts with our confidence that what God has given to us will do what God says these things will do -- plant, nurture, and grow His Church.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Who are you reading?

I will admit that it is dangerous for me to go to Fort Wayne in the dead of winter.  It has nothing to do with weather and everything to do with visiting the Concordia Theological Seminary Bookstore and and even larger display of books set up for the Symposia.  I am weak and not even the spirit attempts to be strong when facing tables upon tables of books and shelves upon shelves of even more books.  I blew the old book allowance big time (even with special pricing and a 20% Pastor discount -- one of the few left in the world).

Not all of these are books meant to be read.  For example, a commentary is more likely to be used as a resource for specific causes (sermons and Bible studies) than to be read from cover to cover.  Some of them are not books at all ( broke down and purchased TLSB for computer -- read that The Lutheran Study Bible).   Some of them are books for personal edification (bought the Valerius Herberger volume).  Some of them are pure theology (a new book on natural law).  Some of them are history.  I could go on...

My point is that Pastors need to read -- read things that are of the faith, that challenge your faith, that equip you for your task (preaching, for example) and that build you up and edify you as an individual.  But don't stop there.  I read and follow very closely a dozen or so blogs and then occasionally visit another couple of dozen blogs.  I read news and commentary.  I read sci fi and I read classics.  I read and I read because I forget too much.  But it is what helps me keep the preaching fresh and my approach to things fresh and new.

If you are a lay person, why not give your Pastor an Amazon gift card or make sure that the church budget includes money to provide such resources that will help him keep fresh, keep encouraged, and keep new.  $500 sounds like a lot for this but it may only purchase 15 books or so.  Journals have pricey subscription costs and average about $30-40 per year per periodical.

I hope you will join me in getting some new books, sitting down and working through some of them, and using some as new reference books to inform your pastoral responsibilities and equip you for the daily task...  It is a deep and abiding responsibility that is made easier when we open a book or two or a dozen or two...  Try it sometime.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Tyrrany of the Cell Phone

You'd think.  A gathering of some 600 Lutheran Pastors and lay folks, a smattering of seminarians, and some scattered Seminary professors might be sensitive to the sound of a cell phone ringing during a scholarly presentation.  You'd think that was the case.  But you might be wrong.

As much as I loved the Symposia at Concordia Theological Seminary, I did not love the folks sitting in Sihler Auditorium who believed that they were so important they had to keep their cell phones on AND the ringer set on loud and obnoxious.  You might think that Pastors who had been victims of the cell phones of parishioners might be a bit more circumspect about their own cell phone habits.  You'd think that might be the case but... you might be wrong.

Yesterday my cell phone died.  Well, that is not exactly accurate.  I went to make a call and found the phone worked beautifully except that the cracked screen made it impossible to know who I was dialing, texting, taking a picture of, etc...   There for a time I had a couple of options rolling around in my head -- one of which was to get rid of the damn thing.  The other was to use my old cell which basically only makes and receives calls (you can do more but it ain't pretty how you do it).  Then my wife and my son told me to buck up, shut up, and get to the store and replace the phone.  Humbled by their logic and broken by their refusal to commiserate with me, that is exactly what I eventually did.  But, part of me thinks I wimped out.  I should have gone without a cell phone.  Maybe that is the Luddite (old Adam) in me... or, perhaps, the need for the cell phone is the old Adam... I am still working through that one...

My point is that cell phones, like many of our electronic gadgets, have taught us that we are more important than we are.  We carry them around like the world might come to an end if somebody could not call us and ask us "What are you doing?" or "Where are you at?"  We assume a self-importance that belies the truth.  We are all dispensable.  I was actually gone for a week, had minimal contact with the office, and, guess what, the Church was still there when I got back.  Amazing that my staff and parishioners actually got by without me -- the Grand Poobah of Important Clergy!!  Oh, dear, what a blow to my ego.

We carry around our cell phones (and Blackberrys and I-phones and netbooks and notebooks and laptops) because we cannot afford to focus on something besides ourselves.  Sure, and I will admit this because some of you are business folk who must be in contact with your job, some of us need to be connected.  But most of us don't.  We have been fooled by our own sinful flesh and the sinful world around us, whispering in our ears, that we are so darned important that we must be in touch with everyone on our friends list all the time.  Talk about curvatus in se!  (In case you do not read Latin, google it on your phone, net book, notebook, or laptop.)

Part of the regenerate life is being able to shut off the cell phone and its false sense of importance and I vote you begin in Church on Sunday morning.  Just say "no!"  Shut it off.  Let it go, Luke, let it go.  The force will be with you.  You can do it... If for no other reason that God deserves our full attention and if for no other discipline than allowing that just maybe we are not as important as we think, shut it off.  I realize that this is difficult so I will compromise.  Turn off the ringer and put it on silent.  That way your self-importance will not disturb prayerful attention of the folks sitting around you.

Ahhhhhhh... rant for the day over.  Cross that one off the to do list (conveniently carried around with me on my cell phone).

Saturday, January 22, 2011

He Knows His Place...

I once overheard a conversation in which several of the folks in the pew talked of their Pastor and described him as one "who knows his place."  At first this seemed a derogatory comment not unlike some I have heard from folks who have no high regard for the Office of Pastor or for those men who occupy that office.  But as I listened their conversation betrayed something far different from my first impression.  What I thought was an insult, proved to be the highest of compliments.

They went on to say that this Pastor had begun a degree program with thoughts of leaving the parish in order to teach in some university or seminary setting.  At some point in the program, he had abandoned plans to finish his work and receive the degree.  The decision was first occasioned by a health issue within his immediate family but when the time provided another opportunity, he had decided against it pursuing the degree and came to the conclusion that he was meant for the parish and not for the podium in college or seminary setting.  These folks were not being antagonistic to this decision but affirming it with their greatest compliment:  "He knows his place."

Having once entertained thoughts of academic greatness and equating success with students and publishing honors, I resonated with both the Pastor's choice and with the appreciation of his people.  Finding our place in this world is not only a sacred journey but, it seems, the pursuit of a world searching for a place to belong and fit in.  This Pastor learned where he belonged and found his place.  This was affirmed not by his own judgment but by the judgment and appreciation of the people he served.  It has been for me, as well.  When I found myself most uncertain about my future, the people I was serving shared with me their own certainty and confidence about where I belonged and what was my place.  I continue to be ever grateful for the folks in Cairo, New York, and the people now in Clarksville, Tennessee, who continue to help me know where I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to do.

It is for this reason that I venture to places like Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the dead of winter.  There I taste a completely different atmosphere, amid colleagues and classmates whose calling has led in different directions than mine.  It is there I come face to face again with the choices I have made and come to terms with those choices.  It is there I see the other side of the fence and am encouraged again to believe that this is my place.

Sometimes it comes in the profound thoughts and sometimes it comes in the simple ones.  While singing Evening Prayer at the Seminary Chapel, I found it almost impossible NOT to sing the parts assigned to the one leading the office.  I mentioned this to a Pastor friend next to me and he admitted shared the same difficulty.  Ahhh, to know your place.  It is a gift from God, encouraged  by your own talents and abilities from God's gracious giving, focused by the people around you who often see what you do not, and affirmed in various ways throughout life.  And NOT for those in churchly vocations only but for all Christians who love and serve the Lord where they are, doing what God has called and equipped them to do in life, but as the fulfillment not simply of human decision but sacred vocation, springing from God's giving love and richest grace, and returning to Him in Christ as the fragrant offering and living sacrifice of the faithful...

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Power of a Good Hymn

One of the things I appreciate most about Concordia Theological Seminary is the worship life centered in the Daily Offices at Kramer Chapel under the leadership of Dean Paul Grime, Kantor Richard Resch, and Organist and Composer in Residence Kevin Hildenbrand.  The services are well thought out but do not over reach.  Even with a chapel full of Pastors for a conference, the simple structures of the Daily Offices are left in place, supplemented with the rich and wonderful tonal offerings of the Schola or Kantorei and occasional instrumentalists.

In particular, I was impressed with the way the hymns connected with the lessons and, where offered, the homily.  The hymns were introduced with elegant simplicity, carefully using the powerful resources of the Schlicker organ. 

In one of the services, a commemoration of the faithful departed, Evening Prayer included several movements from Brahm's German Requiem.  A small orchestra provided all the support needed to allow the voices to predominate and yet both worked together well.  It was a deeply moving moment for me for the last time I heard this blessed piece there, it was the final Choral Vespers of Concordia Senior College, a requiem for an institution killed by Synodical convention.  With Herb Neuchterlein conducting some 80 voices and the full resources of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra, it was one of the most moving choral experiences of my life.  This was the same music but in a much smaller setting -- and it fit.  Perhaps one of the greatest surprises was the skillful way the organist seguied into the final hymn, using the Requiem theme to introduce "Abide with Me."  Hearing the hundreds upon hundreds of voices sing stanza four in harmony was the capstone of the evening.  Again, a familiar and beloved hymn but skillfully set in conjunction with occasion and lection.

Never content to use simply the old and familiar, many were introduced to one that has become a favorite of mine -- "O Savior of Our Fallen Race" [LSB 403].  This is a poetic masterpiece that has become, for me, inseparable from Epiphany just as is "How Lovely Shines the Morning Star" [LSB 395 -- and, yes, I know the words are different there but I prefer the old].  I could tell from the way people were looking at their hymnals that this was new but the skillful introduction and musical leadership from the organ console made it easy for them to learn and, I expect, grow to appreciate its imagery and fitting melody.

"Hail Thou Once Despised Jesus" [LSB 531] was drawn together with the service and homily by the careful partnership of preacher [Dr. Dean Wenthe] and the organist.  It is not a new hymn but to have one of the hymn stanzas used in the homily drew you back again and again so that the hymn came to both reflect and summarize the proclamation from the pulpit.

I could speak about other hymns and other services but I will stop for now.  Let me plead with you Pastors who pick the hymns for your parish.  Pick them early so that the parish musician may have time to work on the hymn and give it the effort that due them.  Pick them so that they fully reflect where the lectionary and homily is headed so that they form a path to direct the people in the pews toward the focus of the day, reinforcing this theme over and over again throughout the service.  Do not choose hymns on the basis of how well known they are or whether you like to sing them.  Do not choose hymns quickly but work the hymn texts through your mind a while, singing them either to your self or out loud.  Pray the hymns of the hymnal and you will find it easier to choose hymns for the service (and your people will bless you and appreciate you for it).  If you do not want to do this, face up to the fact that your sermon will probably stick out (or the hymns) instead of fitting together like pieces of a puzzle, good and wonderful each in themselves but together a richer, greater, and more compelling whole than its individual parts.

A good hymn, well chosen, and played so that the people are encouraged to sing, becomes a snapshot of the liturgy, pericopes, and sermon that people carry with them throughout the week.  I have been able to recall the homilies of the chapel because of their connection to the hymns and the hymns have remained with me because of the skill of a musician who did not make himself or the organ the focus, but, like the tune itself, worked that his playing and the resources of the instrument would be a handmaiden to the Word.

Just thinking... and singing over and over again in my mind... like I hope the people of my parish do week after week... I pray God that this is the fruit of the added time connecting the hymnody of the liturgy to the homily and lessons and am confident that this time is well spent...

So Much to Think About....

Well, we are headed back to Tennessee today and my mind is filled with things... some are the points, questions, and suggestions of the fine presenters who gave exegetical and historical papers (in this case circling around CFW Walther)... some are the thoughts and perspective of a ton of folks in conversations public and private... and some are the fruits of some journal articles and books that I am carting home to be read at a future date.

I like to think (if you want my perspective on this, search this blog for my thought book post).  I make no claims about their originality, eloquence, orthodoxy, or profoundness.  They are just thoughts.  Thinking back on days gone by, I recall how the teacher would sometimes catch me staring off into space with a glazed look -- the problem was not nothing on my mind but too much.

Sometimes I do have too much to think about but then, again, the Scriptures and the faith are bottomless.  None of us mines the vein clean but merely scratch at the walls, going a little further than some and remaining closer to the surface than others.  It is not that we are accumulating a bucket of wisdom about God and His ways that was unknown to the fathers of the church and the apostles and prophets before them.  We do not.  In some cases, we are merely trying to get back to where they were.  In other cases we are working within the confines of a very different culture and applying the truth of God's Word to situations that may, at least at first glance, seem far removed from the Biblical milieu.  The Scriptures are bottomless and the mind of God will never be fully mapped out for us.  We go where we can go, guided by that Word and the work of the Spirit, in an effort to say Amen to what God has said and done -- which is the ultimate goal of faith.

I am mindful of the wisdom, erudition, and commitment of those who were and are my teachers, some of which I am privileged to also count as friends.  They are like the tour guides who help me find my way and show me the paths of the fathers that I may follow in the way of wisdom.  So that is what Pastoral Meanderings is about... today and, God willing, for some tomorrows to come...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Question for you...

I am sure that ours is not the only nave and chancel with lightbulbs some 30 feet or more in the air -- that need to be changed from time to time...  What do others of you do when it is necessary to traverse the boundaries of space and change a bulb?

A couple of years ago we combined several projects and rented scaffolding to replace the spots at the very peak of the roof (37-40 feet in the air).  The cost was about $1,000 for all the materials, delivery, pick up, and it required us to tear down and set up three different times (with a half dozen men) to get it all done.  Now we have some other lights out.  These are hanging fixtures over the altar with a single down spot and the bulbs have lasted over ten years of very rigorous usage. 

We are thinking about getting a lift of some sort...  Sams has a vertical lift with a working use of 31 feet without having all the weight of a scissors lift... cost is high ($7K) but it could be used for many things around our parish... Just thinking... does someone reading have a better idea?

We would rent but our local rental agency does not keep something like this in stock and we would have to pay to have it shipped in -- on top of the rental charges -- and would have to fit our schedule around its availability...


I will admit that I go to the Ft. Wayne Symposia as much for the conversation as the erudite papers given.  One of the things about living so far from other Lutheran clergy is that I miss much of the conversation that both edifies and relieves, up lifts and counsels, encourages and corrects.  That is not to say we do not have 6-8 circuit Pastors' gatherings and the rapport and atmosphere is good.  I mean that being together with some 600 other Lutheran Pastors, additional faculty, staff, and seminarians, gives me access to the wider conversation of the Church in a way that I do not have in the more parochial setting of a parish in Tennessee.  So when I get to Ft. Wayne, I spend a great deal of time reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances and connecting with new folks.  It is a great and grand conversation that often continues through some of the other media.

One of the things that I have noticed is how this conversation has waned over the years.  Where I entered the parish ministry, the Atlantic District, we had a crazy conglomeration of folks from pentecostals to genuine liberals, from bronze age Missourians to evangelical catholics of the Augsburg Confession.  It was a place of great conversation and in this conversation rancor and mean talk gave way to honest and passionate speaking and debate.  Under it all was a level of collegiality I have not experienced in this church body for a long time. 

The split in Synod in the 1970s (which now more than half our clergy did not experience directly) contributed to the break down of this conversation.  The polarizations since have inhibited this free discourse and now it is more likely for people to peel off into little conventicles of liked minded folk than to engage others with the great and grand conversation of the faith and of the faithful.

It it this that I hope Pres. Harrison has in mind for the koinonia project.  It is for this that I head to Ft. Wayne i the dead of winter (braving, this year, black ice and snowflakes) in order to enjoy.  In one of those I was standing with a Pastor who spent much of his ministry in the Lutheran Church of England, with the Archbishop of Latvia, with a couple of Pastors from Ghana, with a classmate who is a sem prof, other class mates who, like me, are in the parish, and with a deaconess, seminarian, several District Presidents, and the Senior Assistant to the Synod President.  Ahhhh.... the great and grand conversation of the faith, for the faith, and with the faithful....

BTW you do not have to be a Pastor to enter such conversations.... these are the conversations that characterize the lively fellowship of God's people, proceeding from their place kneeling at the altar rail and extending through the fellowship hall, Bible studies, and personal connections throughout the week.  Work at these... seek them out... contribute to them... and enjoy them... they are essential to the life and character of the Church as the Body of Christ and to each of our lives within that Body as its members, created in Christ Jesus for good works.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Are you having fun yet?

I am thinking about giving up fun for Lent.  I really do not know why we spend so much time, energy, and money on having fun.  Half the time we are not even sure we are having fun when we are doing something.  It is only later that we begin to figure out that what we were doing was fun and we would like to do it again.  Other times we are sure we having the most fun we have ever had but when asked if we want to do it again, we are not so sure.  I mean, how much trouble is it to figure out if you are having fun or not?!

Then there is the problem of once you have had fun, you want to have fun all the time and life is not capable of constant fun -- sometimes you have to work to pay the bills, take out the garbage, wash the dirty clothes, clean the toilets, etc... So what misery do you make for yourself if you have found out what it is like to have fun and then have to go back to doing those things which are not fun?  Wouldn't it be better if you had no fun at all than to while away all those hours doing things you do not like while thinking of all the things you could be doing that would be fun?

I was really thinking that it would be a healthy thing to give up fun for Lent and lower the expectations and pressure on life in general.  That is until I was reminded me that we are Lutheran and Lutherans are fairly dull and boring people and about the most fun we have is going to work, taking out the trash, and cleaning up the table after supper.  Yes, indeed.  I am glad I am a Lutheran.  It takes away a great deal of the pressure that other denominations put upon you.  Just about the worst thing in the world is when I tasted lobster and wanted to eat it all the time.  My parents told me I knew better than to think that.  They were right.  If you grab a little bit of fun now and then, well, okay.  But just don't get used to it.  Let it go.  Go back to what you are supposed to do and be -- before too much of this fun business causes irreparable trouble in your life.

I hope that this has caused you to smile.  But don't get carried away.  Wipe that smile off your face before somebody sees you and think you frivolous -- one of those people who don't take life seriously.   Jeepers, that would be bad.  So look around you right now, close this browser window, and get back to your work.  Make it as difficult as you can as penance for any moment of pleasure you might have had smiling about this... before you thought better and went back to your ordinary blank look or scowl.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A first...

This past week or so, my mother attended her first voters meeting in my home congregation. She has been a member of this congregation since 1950, when she was instructed as an adult, prior to marrying my father. For nearly all of those years since, the voters were only male, mostly her relatives by marriage. A few years ago the voters were opened to women but hardly any attend. When I asked why she was not going, since she had never been shy about her opinions on things, she indicated that was sure it would be dull and boring and she could predict what just about everyone who attended would say on this or that, so why should she go? She was not planning on attending this week. It was just that the roads were not good and since my dad and my brother were going to stay for the meeting after church, she felt like maybe she should not venture out on her own. So she went to a voters meeting. Her big surprise? That the men there seemed to have such a good time, that there was some joking and laughing, and that was not what she had expected.  She could not recall what was spoken about or decided upon but then this was not a meeting born of a contentious spirit or which required a painful choice.  They had a new Pastor and folks were pretty content.  It was not always that way and there will be times in the future when things will not be like this, but for that Sunday, for that first meeting, mom was surprised...

Sometimes folks are disappointed when they come to church meetings.  Perhaps it is the expectation that narrow minded people govern in the church and that every meeting is about as exciting or as enjoyable as pulling out a nose hair.  Perhaps it is the idea that most meetings proceed from great unsolvable problems and that most of the time church leaders spend together is trying to fix what cannot be fixed.  Perhaps it is the fear that most church meetings have money on the agenda -- not simply how to spend it but where to get it when you don't have it and you need it because you are in a crisis situation about this or that.  Perhaps it is the assumption that meetings are attended by those who have big egos and the main part of the meeting is either massaging those egos or wrestling them into corners when they come out in fighting mode.  Perhaps it is the hope that these meetings have great and pious items to deal with, that they are handled by great and pious people, and that as lofty as this is, it is probably about as boring or as dull as counting cross stitches.  I see it often on the faces of newly elected folks.  They did not know what to expect, they had a few thoughts about what they might encounter, and what they ended up finding out is that the average meeting has a little bit of everything mentioned above -- and, if they are lucky, a whole lot of self-deprecating humor by folks who know that with man all things are impossible but with God all things are possible... even more than than that, they are probable...

Maybe mom might try another one.  We can only wait and see.  At age 80 some folks never tire of trying new things...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Don't You Just Hate It When...

I came up  to the altar on Sunday, bowed down and kissed it, went over and opened the missal, and there was a lady bug on the missal.  I gave the little critter a flick with my finger and it popped him straight up in the air.  I guess he was righting himself after being so rudely interrupted when I sucked in a breath with my mouth wide open, just about to intone the Gloria, when I realized that I had actually sucked in the ladybug and swallowed her down.  Needless to say I butchered the beginning of the Gloria and was rescued by the organ and the congregation as they came in on cue.  Meanwhile I laughed hysterically at the altar, with my back to the congregation, thinking to myself "Boy, wouldn't my wife love to know what just happened."  Apparently my laughter was not quite a subtle as I thought and my adult son was the assisting minister and he began to laugh (but he was laughing at my terrible intonation of the Gloria).  He was in the process of gathering his composure when he glanced at my wife, who was also laughing, again at my flawed attempt at musicality when it came to intoning the Gloria.  Well, by the end of the Gloria I had again regained my composure, as had my son, and my wife was well on her way, as well.  Meanwhile I felt a little squeamish at having eaten the innocent bug (or maybe not so innocent since I do not know if the bug had gone to confession or not).  And then I thought about the fact that this meant I had eaten before receiving the Sacrament, something I just about never do, and began to wonder in my mind if this would count at breaking the fast in preparation for the Eucharist.  By the time I got through this it was time for me to intone the salutation and return my mind to the thing at hand...Oooooh what a bad day it started out to be...  Fortunately, second service was uneventful.