Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Blessed Eve of the New Year and Prayer for the Night

Thy little ones, dear Lord, are we,
And come Thy lowly bed to see;
Enlighten every soul and mind,
That we the way to Thee may find.

With songs we hasten Thee to greet,
And kiss the dust before Thy feet;
O bless├Ęd hour, O sweetest night,
That gave Thee birth, our soul’s delight.

O draw us wholly to Thee, Lord,
Do Thou to us Thy grace accord,
True faith and love to us impart,
That we may hold Thee in our heart.

Until at last we too proclaim
With all Thy saints, Thy glorious Name;
In paradise our songs renew,
And praise Thee as the angels do.

Happy Holidays!

The Franking Commission has banned House of Representative members from saying "Merry Christmas" in emails or tweets. The Commission statement put Congressmen (yes, that's inclusive for those of you who live in Pelosiland) on notice for possible House ethics violation should they disregard the ban. The statement reads: "Currently, incidental use of the phrase Happy Holidays is permissible, but Merry Christmas is not."

Given the state of affairs in Washington, the great issue is not what you say to your friends but if you have any friends left to which you can say "Happy Holidays!"  BTW the Franking Commission is the one that allows the members of Congress to send out media without paying the freight (or postage) and they are, therefore, in charge of media watching the House and Senate.  I am going out on a limb here but tt seems that these members were probably not appointed by a Republican -- although it could be possible.  This is hardly the kind of thing that ought to get us riled up but it does prove the absurdity of the political correctness police and how little things can distract people from their greater responsibilities of the public good.

HT to the reader who forwarded this to me...

Friday, December 30, 2011

BIG New LCMS Advertising Campaign!

We are going to be prayin in thanksgivin for our smokin hot wives and praisin Jesus with the best in Nascar thanks to a generous Schwan's grant....

Don't write or call... it is a gift of humor from our Synod President!

New Minutes... from the MNS BoD

You can read it all here... more words, nothing new or positive... I could note somethings but nothing good. I would draw your attention to the conditions applied to ULC getting anything in the way of assistance from the District toward their relocation (note they still cannot take the organ or interior appointments!) and I could not skip this paragraph...

A motion was made and seconded to amend the motion to add: that in the spirit of 1
Corinthians 6 we ask President Harrison to assist the Minnesota South District and
University Lutheran Chapel to resolve this dispute in a God-pleasing manner.
The motion failed.

They did agree to ask for Reconcilers... but I guess this pretty well says what they think of Pres. Harrison... I am sorry for being so cynical but.. well, you know...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A tale of two very different greetings....

A friend sent me these and I listened to each.... they need no comment and you are free to draw you own conclusions as you compare the Christmas greetings from President Obama and Queen Elizabeth...

Scripture is sufficient. . .

The early church had no doubt about the sufficiency of the Scriptures and never tried to go beyond [them] and always claimed not to have gone beyond [them].'

George Florovsky (1893-1979), 'The Authority of the Ancient Councils and the Tradition of the Fathers', in Glaube, Geist, Geschichte: Festschrift fur Ernst Benz (Leiden: Brill, 1967, pp177-88). 

Sola Scriptura is at its core the confession that the Scriptures are sufficient for both the individual and for the faith and life of the Church to which the individual Christian belongs by baptism.  There are those who try to make this into a competition with tradition but that betrays the intention of the Reformers who insisted that what the Scriptures taught was not a message that changed or developed or evolved the but one consistent truth.  Tradition has its source in Scripture and grew up around the Scriptures as the faithful confession of generations who heard and believed the Word of the Lord.  The authority of tradition was not separate or distinct from Scripture but flowed from Scripture itself.  Scripture normed this tradition just as it norms the community of those who have been called into Christ's life through it, bidden to the waters of baptism where, by death and resurrection, they were born anew.  It is foolishness to speak of Scripture as naked or apart from the faithful community that Scripture's voice has gathered and always will gather.  The Word is not something we have in theory but the practical Word that is efficacious as well as true.  We need no further nor distinct revelation apart from Christ and from the Scriptures which speak of Him (promise and fulfillment).

At Christmas this truth is even more clearly attested.  In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old but now He has spoken through His Son.  Just as Christ is sufficient, His sufferings need no addition nor does His righteousness lack anything, so the Word is sufficient.  It conveys what it promises and when it speaks, it does what it says.  To speak of Sola Scriptura is to speak of Christ's own sufficiency as Savior and Redeemer, of Prophet, Priest, and King.  Such should not have been a sticking point with Rome.  The Church has always confessed the sufficiency of Christ's merits to win salvation for us.  When we confess Sola Scriptura we are making a parallel claim and confession.

Florovsky recognized this claim of the Reformation as a catholic claim, one known well in the early Church and one which every orthodox community of Christians has known, acknowledged, and confessed.  Lutherans stand within the great catholic faith when we confess this.  We show no disdain for tradition -- only for its misuse which attempts to set tradition apart from the Word that gave it its birth and still gives it its life.  St. Paul wrote of this sacred deposit, of the good tradition, of the faith once delivered to the saints.  Yet, somehow, we find ourselves discontented with Paul's affirmation.  On the one hand we have attempted to strip Scripture away from the community which the Word itself gathers and calls into being (Protestant) and on the other hand we have attempted to set up tradition as if it were an authority of equal weight and stature apart from Scripture.  When we do either, we fall victim to the great tendency to define separately what belongs together and has always been together.

In II Thessalonians 2:15 is one of the clearest supports for Paul’s understanding of the sufficiency of the apostolic witness.  Before it was written and contained in what we call the New Testament, the oral proclamation of the Word existed.  Indeed, St. Paul did not know of a canon of 27 books and yet he knew fully of Scripture.  At no time does Paul make one was superior to the other for they reflected the same Word and truth of Jesus Christ.  If anything, it is far more significant that Paul includes letter here as a reference to his own self-understanding and the understanding of the Church that what was written (indeed what he wrote) was of equal weight and footing with the oral Word of the Apostles that came before it in time and yet stood together in truth as the one and the same Scripture: So, then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
The early Fathers of the Church understood it the very same way -- those who came as the written Word was first understood to be Scripture and those who knew only the written Word as Scripture.  From a few of the early Fathers. . .

"The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth.  St. Athanasius (Against the Heathen, I:3);  "Regarding the things I say, I should supply even the proofs, so I will not seem to rely on my own opinions, but rather, prove them with Scripture, so that the matter will remain certain and steadfast."  St. John Chrysostom (Homily 8 On Repentance and the Church, p. 118, vol. 96 TFOTC); "Let the inspired Scriptures then be our umpire, and the vote of truth will be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words."  St. Gregory of Nyssa  (On the Holy Trinity, NPNF, p. 327); "We are not entitled to such license, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings."  St. Gregory of Nyssa (On the Soul and the Resurrection NPNF II, V:439); "We are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers.  What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of the Scripture."  St. Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 7, par. 16)

Going for broke...

Bill Hybels, the guru of Christianity lite and entertainment worship, decided to skip the light and frivolous and preach some substance on Christmas.  Hmmm... what a novel idea?  You can read it all for yourself.  I know that I would be exactly like Bill Hybels and pursue the false and empty dream of giving people what they want--- except for the Confessions, the Creed, the Liturgy, and the Lectionary.  Every Sunday and, especially, Christmas Eve and Day, they force me to come to terms with the great and wondrous message of Scripture in the Incarnation of our Lord.  Though I sort of delight in berating the Bill Hybels of this world, I know the truth.  Were it not for the godly constraints of confession, creed, liturgy, and lectionary, I would be walking down this path, too.  Every Pastor knows in his heart of hearts that he wants to give the people what they want more so than what they need (what God thinks they need).  We are all Jonahs tempted to run away from the hard but true Word of God.  What binds us to the preaching task is that Word and the confession of that Word in the Concordia, creed, liturgy, lectionary, and, yes, hymnoday.  Remove these and we (I) would be left even more vulnerable to the desires to please and the whims of our own feelings.

BTW if a Pastor tells me that he does not secretly want to please people in what he says and does, I either think that man a liar or unworthy of the office.  I have met some Pastors who delighted in preaching the hard Word of the Law and who dispensed the Gospel as stingy Scrooges depleting their own treasure chest by sharing the Good News with others.  I would rather have a flawed Pastor whose heart was a people pleaser but who lived within the constraints of confession, creed, liturgy and lectionary to be faithful than a perfect Pastor who delighted in socking it to the people of God.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Update on the Date of Christmas...

Someone sent this to me in response to my post a few weeks ago on the date of Christmas.  It is an attempt to prove December 25 from Scripture only.... Take it for what its worth....

Here is something from Benedict the XVI on the subject.

And a column from the ever popular sage, Terry Mattingly, on the subject.

In many and various ways... but NOW His Son!

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Morning, preached on December 25, 2011.

    I hesitate to say this because the Lutheran birth rate is already low enough, but, well, here goes.  When you have a child, you lose all sense of spontaneity.  It takes you an hour to get ready for a ten minute errand.  The best laid plans come undone with a baby's whimper, cry, or stuffy nose.  Couples spend their lives wishing for a baby and then spend the rest of their lives lamenting the loss of simple, easy, and spontaneous choices.  Wishes and regrets collide and meanwhile life goes on... Oh, well...
    It is the same about God.  Part of us wishes for a God who is unpredictable and spontaneous.  We hope for an interesting God whom we cannot put into a box.  The thunder of the mountain or the burning bush that is not consumed or the water of a sea parted before us or dreams and visions of ladders to heaven, and the like... But on the other hand, we want to be able to figure God out, to predict His presence and actions, and to know where to find Him when our hearts are laden with cares.  We want to know where He is at all times.  The romance may be in the burning bush or parting waters or thunder or lightening, but the reality lies somewhere else.
    In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old...  Ahhh the myth of it all.  The Old Testament reads like a movie script of scared people who get popped down to size by an unpredictable and powerful God.  But we have read it all wrong.  God was unpredictable only because they lost faith with Him.  This God made Himself predictable through the Word of the prophets.  The glimpses of His plan laid before the foundation of the world were always there.  He did not keep His people in doubt, they chose doubt and fear – an easy choice because of sin.  He was always speaking to them of what was to come but they did not see or trust or believe.  They feared Him as the unknown God but all the while He was revealing Himself and moving toward the day when He would be manifest as plain as a baby’s flesh and blood.
    In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old but all the while He was still pointing to Christ.  That is what the people did not get.  But now He has spoken through His Son unmistakably and clearly.  He has spoken through the Word made flesh to dwell among us full of grace and truth.  He has spoken through the Child who is His own Son, in the flesh.
    This Christ is not the imagined Lord of our mind or memory, but the revealed Lord of the Word and the Sacraments.  He is not some God who is locked in the mystery of unknown but the revealed God who has planted Himself in the means of grace, that we might know Him and receive His grace and mercy.
    The Word that we speak to others, the Word that is read on the pages of the Bible, the Word that is proclaimed from this pulpit is not opinion or thought about what we think but the very voice of God telling us of Himself – the unchanging truth of Himself.  My sheep hear My voice and I know them and they know Me, said Jesus.  That is not some romantic thought of the past but the present reality of the God who still speaks but who says the unchangeable Gospel that is yesterday, today, and forever the same.  The Word of God is the locus of His presence among us.  We are not only hearers of this Word; Christ speaks through our voices too as we speak this Gospel to those around us.
    The Sacraments are not mementos of the past, treasures of what once was.  They are the hands and feet of Jesus who continues to claim us in water as His children and feed and nourish us upon His own flesh and blood.  Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face... sings the hymn.  In the bread is Christ in His flesh and in the cup is Christ in His blood.  We commune with Christ and abide in Him that He may abide in us – in this way our faith and life is fed and nourished through trouble, trial, and test.
    The guesswork of God is gone.  God has taken the "what if" from the equation and made it a "because."  He has made Himself utterly predictable.  He is no more hidden in vagaries but concrete, clear and plain in Christ.  The unknown is made known, the hidden revealed, the mystery disclosed in Christ so that we might receive it with faith, respond with obedient hearts, and keep this Word faithfully. 
    Everything else is constantly changing.  Those little babies we held in our arms grow up and leave home and may bring back their own children.  We look in the mirror and we see time’s passage in our own faces.  We cannot stop this change and we are often batted about by this change like a piece of wood floating upon the open sea.  We don’t need a spontaneous God who changes like the world around us.  We need a constant God who is predictable both in message and presence.  We need an anchor for the storms of life and an unchanging refuge of grace amid the changes and chances of this mortal life of sin and death.   We fantasize about a liturgy which is a Sunday morning surprise but what we need is not new and different but the Jesus Christ who is yesterday, today, and forever the same.... whose Word and Sacraments in this liturgy are as unchanging as is the message of grace they deliver to us.
    The world is the same.  They just do not yet know it.... They are still lost in excuses and fears... perplexed by their own questions so that they miss God's answers.  In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old, but no more...  Now He has spoken through His Son.  NOW He has spoken to us through His Son.... now and forever.  Faith is no “who done it” where we wait until the end to see the outcome.  The outcome is revealed to us in Christ... What He is, we shall be... Where He is, we shall be... So, my friends in Christ, do not let your joy become captive to questions that have already been answered.  God is here.  In this place where two or three are gathered in His name... His name in the water of baptism, in the bread and wine of the Holy Supper, in the living voice of the Word... calling us, bidding us, saving us.  Merry Christmas!  Amen

From the Internet Monk - Grace flowers amid adversity

The Internet Monk reported this and I was so moved by it that I just had to share it. . .

One of the great love stories of my lifetime is that of Robertson and Muriel McQuilken.

Dr. Robertson McQuilken was a respected Bible teacher, author, and missionary leader who was president of Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) from 1968 to 1990. During the 80′s his wife Muriel began showing signs that her memory was deteriorating. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but continued to try and live as normally as possible.

Gradually, however, Muriel began losing her life. First, she could no longer do her radio program. Then she had to give up speaking and all forms of public ministry. She tried to keep counseling the young people who came to her and stay involved in the community, but it wasn’t long before those efforts failed. Even the letters she wrote to her children were becoming incomprehensible.

In 1990, McQuilken wrote, ‘Muriel never knew what was happening to her, though occasionally when there was a reference to Alzheimer’s on TV she would muse aloud, “I wonder if I’ll ever have that?” It did not seem painful for her, but it was a slow dying for me to watch the vibrant, creative, articulate person I knew and loved gradually dimming out.’

At age 57, Robertson McQuilken approached his board and encouraged them to begin searching for his successor. If Muriel were to need him full-time, he planned to make himself available for that. But it was a struggle for the college president. He had devoted his life to Christian service. Dear friends and colleagues reminded him of that and encouraged him to arrange for care for his wife so that he could continue to serve Christ and his Kingdom. After all, did not Jesus say that sometimes we must “hate” those nearest and dearest to us for his sake?

Against this counsel, Robertson McQuilken resigned from Columbia in 1990 to care for Muriel.
When the time came, the decision was firm. It took no great calculation. It was a matter of integrity. Had I not promised, 42 years before, “in sickness and in health . . . till death do us part”?

This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.
Perhaps Robertson McQuilken’s heart is seen most fully in these unforgettable words: “She is such a delight to me. I don’t have to care for her, I get to.”

By 1993, Muriel McQuilken could no longer recognize her husband. In 1996, Robertson wrote, “Love is said to evaporate if the relationship is not mutual, if it’s not physical, if the other person doesn’t communicate, or if one party doesn’t carry his or her share of the load. When I hear the litany of essentials for a happy marriage, I count off what my beloved can no longer contribute, and I contemplate how truly mysterious love is.”

He cared for her until her death in September, 2003.

Love truly is mysterious and wonderful. It looks at people and situations and, when others might say, “Do I have to?” love says, “What a privilege! I get to!”
• • •
The following is a slide show of the McQuilkens, with audio from his moving resignation speech in 1990.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christ has come for YOU!

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, preached on December 24, 2011.

    Last year, those who headed into New York City by way of Lincoln Tunnel were confronted by a billboard showing a manger scene and underneath it all "You know it's a myth."  Those same folks headed out of the city, they saw another billboard with the same manger scene but under this one it said, "You know it's real."  So, which is it?  Real or myth? You are caught coming or going – what do we believe?  Every Christmas the media trots out specials that attempt to tell us the real story of Christmas but seem to leave us with more questions than answers.
    Is that all we have to go on?  A guess?  A hope?  A dream?  I have no clue how many of you really believe and how many of you are here either because it is tradition or your spouse dragged you here.  I am reminded of the book  Spiritual Envy in which the unbelieving author admitted that he once believed in God but lost his faith to skepticism and doubt.  His story is pretty typical.  "I wanted it to be true, " he writes.  "I wanted to believe in God; I miss the comfort my faith provided; I wanted to believe but it wasn't there anymore..."
    Maybe this is you.  We want what Christmas offers and so we come even when we are not sure we even believe anymore, when our lives are tested and tried by the ups and downs of real life.  We want it all to be true but we wonder how we can be sure.  The British author Julian Barnes once said, "I don't believe in God anymore but I sure miss Him..."  May that is you.  In search of a lost faith, in pursuit of a reality to balance off the harsh reality of a world with too many detours and dead ends, too many disappointments and defeats.  In this we may be all the same – all in search of a hope and a truth to counter the disappointment and disillusionment of too much of life.
    Everyone of us has borne the scars of life and everyone of us has been buffeted by the seas of change and uncertainty.  We have carried too long the shame of our failures. We have the hard callouses of disappointments too many to count.  We hide the dark secrets of thoughts, words, and deeds we pray will never be revealed. We turn off the news because it is always bad.  We want to believe in God.  We want to believe that He is there somewhere.  We want to know comfort stronger than our pain and a God who does more than just watch us screw things up. 
    That is exactly what tonight is about – not our search for God but God’s search for us. This is not about what we think of Him but His loving heart toward us.  Here is the God who knows and sees our hearts – the good and the bad.  Here is the God who loves us not for what we can do for Him, but for what He can to do for us.  Here is the God who comes to keep His promises, to dwell with us sinners no matter how bad it gets, and who can do something to fill the emptiness we carry around inside.  We may have come tonight asking if this God is real, if we can trust in Him, if we can count on Him, but this night is about the God who came to us and for us – who saw us in our need and became incarnate to rescue us from sin and its death.
    What happened?  The prophets sketched out a plan and a promise laid out over centuries.  The script for Christmas was not written when Jesus was born.  It was written thousands of years ago.  What we are here to see is not the promise we have to wait for, but the pledge kept and the promise fulfilled.  What happened?  God came to us in the flesh of a child planted in Mary's womb by the Spirit.  What happened? Joseph in his broken heart was ready to walk away from the pregnant Mary until the Spirit convinced his fearful heart to trust. What happened?  Mary pondered the unbelievable words of the angel and kept these words in her heart  - God has come for You.  What happened?  Elizabeth who had given up hope for a child had the baby in her womb jump when Mary came by with Baby Jesus in her womb.
    What happened?  A village closed its heavy eyes in sleep while the child they had no room for entered the world like every other child and yet like none of them.  Shepherds found their lonely life interrupted by angels's song. What happened?  Wise men from the East took the journey of a lifetime to be shown the Savior who was come for them and for all people.
    Our big worry is what we can see of God – but this night is not about your search for God.  It is about what God saw.  And God saw YOU.  He saw right into your heart, into the regrets and disappointments, into the shadows of sin and the mark of death upon you, and the tears that flow down your cheeks.  God saw YOU and acted decisively, deliberately, with plodding precision over eras and epochs to bridge the great divide.  He came to us, as one of us, wearing our flesh and blood.  He was born as the second Adam to undo what Adam did to us and for us by a simple choice that destined us all for death.  He came for us as the arm of God, reclaiming for our heavenly Father the lost and prodigal children whom He could not let go. 
    What happened?  God saw YOU and your suffering and He took your place in suffering and bore the weight of your sin and its death.  He opened up the dark night of your disappointment to the light of His love and His abiding presence.  He made known to us the hidden face of God.  What happened?  God saw YOU.  And came for YOU.  You may not be sure of any thing right now – except the hurts and wounds and fears you carry within you.  You may be afraid to believe, afraid to hope, afraid to trust.  But this night is not about your search for God or for hope; it is about the God who sought you out, who came as one of you, to redeem you from your fears, your sins, and your death.
    Now don't get me wrong.  Faith is not easy.  It is much easier to live within your doubts and fears, to let the bitterness of your disappointments keep you from hope.  Faith involves the great risk of trusting in something other than what you see or control; in someone other than your self. The marvel of this night is the God who saw you in your need and who came for you.
    This is no fairy tale.  There are no sentimental happy endings.  What you have is not the what if of a magical world but the reality of sin, death, and disappointment met and borne by the Savior who lies in the manger.  The crosses you think you bear, God has determined you shall not bear alone.  He has come to take over the load of our discontent and the drag of our sin even if it means death on the cross.  This God is not a God of good words but of deeds.  His Word tells us what He has done, how He came for us, to save us from ourselves.
    A long time ago when the promise of this was just unfolding, somebody was afraid of the disappointment of life just like we are.  He was too afraid to ask God for anything.  God kept inviting him to ask but Ahaz the King refused.  He may have cloaked it all in a veneer of piety but I think it was because he was afraid of God’s answer, afraid of being disappointed one more time.  It is always easier to bear the burden alone or to spend your life blaming others for it all.  Yet all the while God kept saying "Ask Me... ask Me...  Ask Me!"  Finally, the Lord refused to wait and gave the sign.  “A virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call His name Immanuel, which means God with us.”  The sign of YOUR future lies within the manger, within the flesh and blood of a child so like us and yet unlike us, the Son of God incarnate, whose blood washes us clean, whose sacramental food feeds us eternal life, and whose Word does everything it promises.
    We assume that tonight is about our search for God...  But it is really about God’s search for us.  This night shines with the brightness of the one true and unchanging Light of  Christ. Darkness and death cannot overcome it.  So come and meet Him in this manger, the God whose love has planted us in hope, forgiven us all our sins, lead us through death’s shadow, and right into His presence...  Merry Christmas!  Amen!

Former Lutherans Outnumber the Active Ones

Someone once said that 1 of every 100 Americans WAS a Lutheran.  Probably a goodly number of them, ex-LCMSes.  If only we were more cult like we could merit a web site and support group for all those former Lutherans!  But, alas, they just leave via the back door, side door, or for a brave few, the front door.

The landscape of Republican candidates is populated with former Lutherans.  Ron Paul was raised Lutheran (has a couple of brothers who are Lutheran Pastors, I hear) and is currently Baptist.  We all know of Michele Bachmann's hastened exit from the Wisconsin Synod for non-denominational land.  Newt Gingrich was raised in the LCMS and departed for the Southern Baptists before rediscovering his liturgical roots and ending up in Rome.  Although no one ever heard of him, Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico, was briefly a GOP presidential candidate and is a non-practicing Lutheran (code for no longer Lutheran). Vern Wuensche, a name I had never heard before, was, apparently, a declared GOP presidential candidate and is Lutheran (wow, practicing, too, but who ever heard of him?).  This is typical of what we find in the world around us.  A non-Lutheran with Lutheran connections is Jon Huntsman, who, though a Mormon, went to a Lutheran school in Los Angeles.

I was shopping the other day and in the midst of a conversation the gentleman explaining something to me asked me what I did for a living.  Short end of the conversation -- he was a former Lutheran, former LCMS, and from a parish I knew, not far from the one I served in NY.  You cannot throw a stone without hitting a dozen or so former, ex, or non-practicing Lutherans.  If we had kept them all, we just might be the second largest block of Christians in America.  But we have not...

Why have we lost so many?  There are the standard answers.  The change from ethnic church to American, the upward mobility of immigrant Lutherans, the move from ethnic neighborhoods or rural areas to suburbs, the squabbles along the way, the mergers which compromised history and integrity for the sake of unity, the divergent social stands amid social change, the tears and rips in the fabric of the American family, culture, and political life, etc...  We have gotten quite adept at explaining why so many are no longer Lutheran.  But I still do not get it?

How is it possible to exchange the theological vibrancy of an efficacious Word for one that is theoretically without error but powerless to do what it claims?  How is it possible to give up the sacramental presence of a God located among us in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist for one largely absent until called upon and then only vaguely present when we bid Him come?  How is it possible to forget the unforgettable Lutheran hymns that sing the faith into our hearts, minds, and memories for the sentimental songs of Gospel harmony or the repeated but shallow choruses of contemporary Christian music?  How is it possible to choose the veiled presence of the Pastor (himself a means for the means of grace) for a church in which the preacher is the star and the worship service warm up for the prince of the pulpit?  How is it possible to grow frustrated with a church that takes what we believe, confess, and teach so seriously that we debate and argue about it as if it were the most important thing in life (which it is, isn't it?)?  How is it that people can make a geographical move in which they exchange a church home in which they were Sunday school teachers, choir singing, ushers, counters, greeters, council members, and fully invested to go shopping for a church as if they were buying a new TV?

I can only think of a couple of reasons.... a lack of catechesis and the failure to believe what it is that we confess and teach.  Too many have left in ignorance -- not knowing what it is that Lutherans believe and confess.  It is partly to blame on both sides of the rail -- Pastors who failed to teach passionately the faith confessed in creed and lived in liturgy on Sunday morning and people whose itching hears were not listening.  Too many have assumed that Lutheranism was an ethnicity instead of a Church, a choice instead of a confession, an intellectual point of view instead of a way of worshiping and living.  There is plenty of blame to go around here but my point is not to blame (too late for that).  The other is that we have forgotten to hear what we say and sing, to believe what we confess and teach, and to give to this life as a child of God within the Church the priority that is due.  Perhaps we as Pastors have too frequently confessed our own doubts and fears instead of concentrating on the kerygma in our preaching and teaching.  Perhaps we have listened too closely to the doubts and fears of our culture and let the growing confusion about who we are as Americans confuse and confound our faith.  Whatever the reason, the Church ceased to be about the Truth that transforms everything and become the domain of feelings and opinions as individual as the taste of diet or dress.

We cannot afford to keep on making these same mistakes.  The numbers of former Lutherans or non-practicing Lutherans already outnumbers the tally of active Lutherans.  But this is not the reason or rationale for why or who we are.  We are people of the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace that deliver that of which they speak and do what they promise.  This is the essence of Lutheran identity.  The Word and the Sacraments are not a stairway to God (as Rome often speaks) but the means by which the hidden and distant God comes to us to deliver what we dare not ask and know we do not deserve.  These delightful and priceless gifts of grace bestow the Spirit as well as the blessings of the cross and empty tomb and enable us to receive and respond to God's bidding.  They compel us with love to the community in which the Word and Table of the Lord are central and the font is entrance gate.  It is here that we understand communion is not only nor primarily vertical but horizontal -- not in a vague spiritual sense but in the concrete mercy and service meant for others as Christ has shown mercy and served us.

Faith is not intellectual assent to propositional truth or an experience resulting in certain feelings but an identity thrust upon us as God has literally ripped us up from one kingdom to plant us in His kingdom, by baptism and faith.  Faith is not a quest for answers that rationalize or organize the loose ends of all the whys or whats of our curiosity but God's impetus in confronting us with the mystery of who He is and what He has done for us.  Grace is not just a word for us but the taste of bread and wine which is Christ's body and blood.  It is the personal word of absolution that confronts and compels us as sinners to honesty and then surprises us with the embrace of the waiting Father loving, forgiving, and welcoming back His prodigal children.  Mercy is not one sided or one dimensional for us.  What we receive, we must give -- not out of duty or obligation but as the joyful privilege of those who have known grace first hand.  It is quiet work in which the attention is not upon us but upon those to whom this mercy is shown and the God from whence this mercy comes.

I admit to having no secret method to keeping Lutherans and preventing the peeling off of Lutherans to other churches or, more importantly, to no church at all.  But our confession and faith is primarily positive.  We are not here because we fear hell (though we do).  We are here because of the joy that calls us and creates us a people of joy, who cannot get over the fact that God loves us and has accomplished for us what we could not do -- saving us from our sin, death, and selves to be His own, to live under Him in His kingdom both now and forever, the recipients of His gracious favor whose privilege it is to respond with praise, thanksgiving, and love.  We who are Pastors have a marvelous opportunity every Sunday to remind Lutherans of this blessed truth -- and not for us only, but for the life of the world!  We who are in the pew are those who make known this blessed truth in the words and deeds of faith that fulfill our baptismal vocation in the world.  What marvelous opportunity, indeed!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Why do we love bad news so?

I happened to read a blog about the evangelical love affair with bad statistics -- particular the ones about how terrible young evangelicals are with respect to their views and habits of sex.  You can read the whole thing here.  It occurred to me that there is much truth in this -- and not only for evangelicals.  Sure, it is true that Barna is the magnum oracle of bad stats and every time he opens his mouth evangelicals both cringe and relish the terrible picture his polls paint of their faith, their people, and their future.

I wonder if we Lutherans are so different.  It occurred to me also that while we have much to be concerned about, we as Lutherans have tended to largely forget Luther's admonition to put the best construction on everything.  Maybe I am guilty of that in this blog.  Well, that is not true -- I know I am guilty of this!

When Pres. Matthew Harrison issued his Advent call to repentance, I wonder if he did not have some of this in mind.  Now, to be sure, we have many cracks in our foundation that we need to address and these weaknesses will not go away by looking the other way, but I wonder if it is not true that we have learned to secretly delight in how bad things are.

Contemporary worship and music have a firmly entrenched place within the LCMS -- there is not denying it.  It is not Lutheran and, in some cases, barely qualifies as Christian.  It is as wrong for what it lacks as for what it has.  BUT. . . in thousands of parishes across the land, LCMSers gather around the Word and Table of the Lord, using mostly the services of LSB, singing the hymns in that book.  They hear Law and Gospel from competent but not always exciting preachers.  They tend to each other's needs and concerns as brothers and sisters in Christ.  They teach the children in Sunday school and gather as adults to be in the Word of God.

Stats say our people are graying and that we do not have as many children as we used to... but that reflects the culture and the state of the nation around us.  Before we begin to break down every presumed barrier that might prevent the stranger on the street corner without a hint of faith or background from feeling right at home in the pews, maybe we need to step back a bit and think about what we are doing.  Bringing new people into the life of the Church gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord is not impossible.  The Church has been doing this for a couple of thousand years admit persecution, with largely illiterate and often superstitious folks, as outposts of hope amid the world's darkness.  Our Church is not dying.  Where the Word and Sacraments are, there is the Church and there are the resources to keep the folks alive in the faith and to welcome new folks into the faith.  We have the resources.  We know the Church will go on.  The shape of Missouri may change but the Church will continue.  The Word and Sacraments will make it so as God has promised.

Everyone knows that finances are tight in Synod but by and large we multiply the resources of money that end up in the plates.  Lutherans tend to be frugal and it is my experience that we make the dollar go along way in the work of the Lord.  I am convinced that people in my own parish and parishes like mine do not appreciate how far each dollar goes as wise and careful folks work to make sure that the money is multiplied and not divided by the way we spend it.  On college campuses, in Lutheran schools, and in Lutheran parachurch organizations, we make sure that what the people of the Lord have entrusted to us goes a long way.  We need to celebrate this instead of constantly complaining about bloated bureaucracies and empty programs.  We paint the good with the bad -- that is not the eighth commandment!

We do have young people (teens and twenty-somethings) who fall under the spell of the world and whose attitudes and practices with respect to consumerism, sex, morals, truth, etc., are not what they should be.  BUT we also have faithful and pious young men and women who fight the battle of the flesh and who quietly keep the faith within the bounds of their human frailty.  I can name a few dozen off the top of my head and they are right here in my own parish.  I could name more if I spent some time.  I bet you could, too!  If you find yourself depressed about the state and future of young folks in our church body, head to Higher Things or Lutheran Summer Music, just a couple of examples, of places where those young people will inspire and encourage you!

If we care about the Church, it is our nature to focus on the wrongs that need to be righted instead of rejoicing in the good that is there all the time...  I know I am guilty of this.  I bet you are, too!  So, maybe we need to heed a bit more the good words of Luther and think the best before we assume the worst.  Sure, we may be wrong in thinking good where there is mostly bad but what a wonderful thing it is to rejoice in good news -- even when it comes in small quantities.  I don't believe much in resolutions for the New Year but it might be time for us to at least give equal weight to the good, dontcha think?  If you agree, put a "Ya, you betcha" in the comments.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The services of the Holy Day are done...

Well, my aching body and dull senses have told me what I already know... the seasons of the Holy Day are done.  Two full Divine Services on Christmas Even and one full Divine Service on Christmas Eve plus a Friday wedding and a baptism coming up -- and I am tired.  I have a full belly, some achy joints, and the mind  is frozen -- all locked up on lyrics from Christmas anthems, hymns, carols, etc....

We had an atypical Christmas.  First of all, the services of Christmas Eve were largely attended by inactives, new folks, and out of town guests.  It was just plain weird.  So many of our regulars were on the road due to the timing of Christmas over a weekend.  Christmas Day was mostly regulars (as expected).  The sermon was designed for those for whom the Mass is not familiar territory and for whom the Gospel is not automatically recognizable.  Which turned out to be a good move.

We opened our presents, ate our fill, and are now vegging out.  Times like these make me think of those many who follow my meandering pastoral thoughts, who comment or not, and who have told me how much they appreciate my blog.  So let me turn the tables and let you know how much I appreciate you.  This little hobby has become a chance to think out loud with a couple of thousand folks listening in, calling me down when I flub and encouraging me when I get it close to being right.

Have a blessed day, a blessed 12 days of Christmas, and keep reading... and I will keep writing, FWIW.... God bless you every one!
     The twenty-fifth day of December.
    In the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world
    from the time when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth;
    the two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seventh year after the flood;
    the two thousand and fifteenth year from the birth of Abraham;
    the one thousand five hundred and tenth year from Moses
    and the going forth of the people of Israel from Egypt;
    the one thousand and thirty-second year from David's being anointed king;
    in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;
    in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
    the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;
    the forty second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
    the whole world being at peace,
    in the sixth age of the world,
    Jesus Christ the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
    desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
    being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
    and nine months having passed since his conception,
    was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary,
    being made flesh.

    The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

A Blessed Nativity of Our Lord!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

What a blessed gift....

O Holy Night that Shines with the Brightness of the One True Light

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

The Gospel according to St. Luke 20:1-20.
Thanks be to God!

Where Shepherds Lately Knelt...... There is still room and welcome there for me... and you...

Can it be Christmas without the Christmass?

It is astonishing to me how many LCMS congregations will not have the Sacrament on Christmas.  In my early childhood the Sacrament was quarterly, later monthly, and now a couple of times a month.  In that evolution has come the restoration not only of catholic practice but of the high esteem and place of the Sacrament without the devotional life of the people.  Admittedly it is not a new development but a restoration.  I have blogged about it before.  But it seems that for a number of Missouri congregations, the Sacrament has not yet made it to Christmas.  My home congregation now has the full Divine Service on Christmas Day (not on Christmas Eve).  There are many without Christmas Day services and without the Sacrament on Christmas Eve.  I wonder why?

In my own case, many "regulars" from my parish will be absent from our Christmas celebrations due to travel and family gatherings far away.  This has always been true.  Nevertheless, we will have upwards of 500 on Christmas Eve and another 100 or so on Christmas Day and all the services are the full Divine Service.  There are those who believe that close(d) communion makes it hard to offer the Sacrament on those occasions when many non-members will be present.  I wonder why?  We have not had this problem.  Of the 400 or so who will commune, all but a handful are well known to me.  Some are family members who grew up in this parish and have returned home to celebrate with family.  Some are the C & E folk whose church attendance seems forever linked to December 25 and the current date of Easter.  Some are the new folks for whom Christmas has been the occasion to begin establishing or renewing their relationship with a local Lutheran congregation (often military families).  Only a few dozen are the technical strangers whom no one knows.  That is why I am accessible before the service to seek them out and find out who they are and help them determine if they are welcome to commune.  All but a few have been understanding and agreeable with this process over the 32 years I have served as a Pastor.  About the only ones who have tried to make or cause offense over it are those who knew better than to commune (I remember a Unitarian minister and his family, for example, and still to this day cannot understand why he even came!).

Some are troubled with the length of the service when so many are in the pews.  We plan on about 80-90 minutes for each liturgy -- filled with choir music and the full Divine Service.  We do make a nod to more efficient communion by going to a continuous distribution (part of our rail is obscured by Christmas trees).

Some hold special services designed for folks outside the Church.  I suppose this is one I could understand but even then it might tell those outside our communion a bit more about who we are by having them witness the high regard of the Sacrament of the Altar.

I would hope and expect that all our congregations will hold a Christ Mass on Christmas.  Can we do less?  Is it Christmas without the Christ Mass?

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Lament of the Loss of Christian Culture

I know that it has become fashionable this time of year to lament the unfriendliness of our culture to things religious and especially to things Christian about Christmas.  Folks have forwarded a ton of emails to me about the creches removed from the public square, the holiday greetings that have displaced "Merry Christmas," and the secular character of this holy day (even among Christian practices in the home and marketplace).  I once thought this was also a terrible thing but now I do not get so excited about it all.

First of all it was never the job of culture to preserve Christ in Christmas.  It was and has always been the job of the Church.  So if Wal-Mart does not say "Merry Christmas" and K-Mart markets tasteless Christmas gift ideas and Old Navy only has "holiday gift cards" that do not say Christmas on them, so what?  When was it ever their job or their place to market the faith for us Christians or for the Church?  It has always been up to the baptized and believing people of God and to the structures of the Church to keep the Christ in the Christ Mass -- something we have been rather lazy about and have grown too comfortable deferring to the state and to the marketplace.

Second, whoever said that a culture can be Christian?  Only people can be Christian.  Nations are Christian not because of heritage but because their people confess Jesus Christ.  To say that a country is Christian is to acknowledge the faith of the majority or the largest minority of a people in which no faith has a majority.  Nations cannot be Christian.  Christianity is not a legacy but a faith, born of baptism and confessed in word and deed, and marked by the gathering of the baptized around the Word and Table of the Lord.  People are Christian.  Not nations. Not culture.  To be sure, culture may be influenced greatly by the Christian people who did and do express that culture and shape it.  But culture is not Christianity.  The means of grace (aka Church) and the people set apart by those means of grace -- they are Christian and that is Christianity.

We all know that the American consumer culture uses Christmas to turn a profit.  Some of you think that this is worst thing on earth.  What are the options?  Putting all those people who work at Wal-Mart and Target and the Mall and the shipping companies and distribution centers and manufacturers out of business?  Perhaps it would be better if people did not blow their whole wad at Christmas and then borrow more to make it even better.  I am not arguing that.  Culture is not responsible because culture does not shop.  People shop.  So let Wal-Mart et al have the holiday but make sure that Christians and the Church keep the holy day.  If we are faithful in keeping the holy day of the Nativity of Our Lord, we will not have to worry so much about what goes on in the marketplace.  Instead of dealing with what is ours to care for, we rant and rave about the terrible injustice of school "Winter Breaks" or office "holiday parties" or "Season's Greetings" on the marquees and gift cards across America.  We end up spending all our energy trying to make culture and country Christian and have little time or energy left to make sure that the Church and her members keep the Christ Mass with repentant and believing hearts, rejoicing in the eternal gift of a Savior who is God's Son in human flesh and blood, and re-telling His story to a world of people groaning in want and need of redemption.

Russ Saltzman said it better here.  So did Todd Wilken here.  Todd's point is well taken.  Why is it that Christians get their noses bent out of joint at the secular character of the Christmas holiday and then settle for a Christ absent from the preaching and liturgical life of too many churches all year round?  If we cannot clean up our own act and make sure that the Christ of the manger and the cross is the center of our proclamation and His presence in the means of grace the center of our worship, how can we ever expect to stand up to the Wal-Marts of the world in reshaping the culture and the nation for the Christ whom we believe, confess, and teach?

How can we keep Christ out of Christmas.  It is not a choice we can make between a religious celebration or a secular one.  It is a truth we recognize and confess by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Let them do what they will with the holiday.  If we surrender the Holy Day, it is not because of the encroaching secular culture.  It is because we have voluntarily surrendered the faith and given up our hope in Him who came.

Am I miffed that the world has become a far more complex place than when I was a child?  Sure.  Does it get to me that the schools and marketplace work harder than ever to NOT mention Christ at Christmas?  Sure.  But what really bothers me is that churches that claim to be Christian preach anything and everything except Christ and Him crucified, that worship has become religious entertainment, and that Pastors have use it all to become the chief personalities of their congregations.  And it really gets to me when this happens among those who claim to be Lutheran....

A tale of two Christmas origins....

The romance of Christian history likes to say how Christians took a basically pagan holiday and turned it into the most successful Christian holy day ever (even if it has reverted somewhat in more modern day times). Now, there is another point of view. This point of view suggests just the opposite -- the invention of a holiday in the hopes of stealing away Christmas from the Christians (already in the 270s AD). You get you pick of origins. I will have to admit that I have changed my mind. A million years ago I would have picked up on the romance of a Christian conversion of a pagan day but I am more and more convinced that this is wrong and the opposite it true.

If you want the romance of a pagan conversion, then this appeals to you:  

Scholars have no idea when Jesus of Nazareth was born, except that it may have been around 4 BC, the last year of the rule of Herod the Great. The New Testament gives us neither a specific date, nor even a month. The tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 originated in the fourth century, around the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Church, however, didn't officially adopt this day for another 200 years. Because early Christians didn't have a specific date in scripture, they chose one with metaphorical significance that also coincided with two preexisting Roman celebrations. December 25th was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar -- the shortest day of the year. Sunlight grows stronger and longer each day following the solstice. Picking a day that represented the transition from dark to light would have been an appropriate symbol for those who saw in Jesus the birth of a man who would lead them to salvation. 

The Bible abounds in symbolic language of Jesus represented as light, a metaphor found for the divine in every other major religion as well. The choice of December 25th also worked for the early Christians because it corresponded with two Roman celebrations centered on the winter solstice. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration that originated two centuries before Christ, began on December 17th and ended on the 23rd. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn and was marked by feasts, merriment, the hanging of evergreen cuttings, the lighting of candles, and gift giving. How would the people of Rhode Island have reacted if the governor had called the tree a "Saturnalian Tree"? Many Romans in the fourth century also celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25th, marking the occasion with a festival. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Christian tradition of Christmas naturally absorbed elements of these popular pagan celebrations.
If you are like me, and think the opposite, then William Tighe has done a good job of laying out the case:  

The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel. 

In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar​, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him. There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes. 

As things actually happened, Aurelian, who ruled from 270 until his assassination in 275, was hostile to Christianity and appears to have promoted the establishment of the festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” as a device to unify the various pagan cults of the Roman Empire around a commemoration of the annual “rebirth” of the sun. He led an empire that appeared to be collapsing in the face of internal unrest, rebellions in the provinces, economic decay, and repeated attacks from German tribes to the north and the Persian Empire​ to the east. In creating the new feast, he intended the beginning of the lengthening of the daylight, and the arresting of the lengthening of darkness, on December 25th to be a symbol of the hoped-for “rebirth,” or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire, resulting from the maintenance of the worship of the gods whose tutelage (the Romans thought) had brought Rome to greatness and world-rule. If it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.

You make your choice... I believe Christmas came before the pagan attempt to steal away the Nativity of Our Lord...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Just for fun....


The much beloved Charlie Brown Christmas special has warmed the hearts of so many.  We have a set of Charlie Brown characters that play instruments with solo and ensemble Christmas carols in the jazz style of the special.  It is one of our favorite "new" Christmas mementos. 

Some things you probably did not know about this 46 year old special were pointed out to me here so I  pass a few tidbits on to you....

1 - Most of the voices came from kids in the director's neighborhood...

2 - Some of those children were so young they did not read - so they had to be coached almost line for line...

3 - Charles Schulz refused to allow CBS to insert a laugh track...

4 - Schulz did not like jazz music and initially thought the music was "awful" (from his autobiography)...

5 - The most important speech in the entire special -- Linus' "True Meaning of Christmas" was almost cut...

6 - Many of the network execs disliked the special so much that they expected it to air once and disappear...

7 - The producers feared this would be a flop and ruin Charlie Brown forever...

8 - Snoopy got most of the action scenes because he was the easiest to animate...

9 - Some early runs included product placements from Coca-Cola, its chief sponsor...

10 - It is the second longest running Christmas special of all time (second to Rudolph)...

Just a few fun facts to cheer you in this holy season of holiday specials on TV...  HT to Danny Gallagher...

Why has worship been dumbed down?

I know that this video has been making the rounds -- four people sent it to me just this past week!  But as I listen to the humor (which is grand) I am struck by the painful truth behind the comedy.  The comic, John Branyan, began by saying that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of some 54,000 words and the average adult today has about 3,000 words.  Whether or not the stats were made up or the distance between the extremes narrowed by reality, his point is one which the Church must take seriously -- part of the reason for the dumbing down of worship is the trouble we are having with our mother tongue (English, or if you are from England, American).  Clearly this is an issue for liturgy, for Scripture reading, and for the language of creed and confession.

The unmistakable point of the new translation of the Roman Mass is that the nod is given to a greater vocabulary, even if it means an initial hit for clarity or comprehension.  Incarnate and consubstantial are not impossible words to know or understand but they are not typically found in the working vocabulary of the average American adult.  Rome has decided they should be -- at least for those who attend Mass.  I think that in this, Rome is right.  The nod should be given not for the shrinking of the vocabulary of liturgy, creed, and confession but expanding that vocabulary.  Language has a difficult enough time communicating the mysteries of the faith without shortchanging the task by reducing the number of words available to the task.

Honestly, I do not get the issue of vocabulary.  Everyone in American culture lives within the realm of a number of dialects each with its own jargon.  We learn fairly quickly the language of the internet, the computer, the word processor, the smart phone, texting, etc...  We learn it by using it until it becomes second nature to us.  If the language of Scripture and the liturgy are foreign to us, it is less a problem of language than it is of familiarity.  I spent a catechism class unpacking the language, symbolism, and imagery of the hymn, "Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face."  With some leadership the middle school youth learned to open up the compact vocabulary of this hymn and explore the richness of the hymn writer's verse as if it were treasure to be mined.  I expect that they will not soon forget it since we sing it often enough.

So laugh if you will at the comic, his point is well taken.  We do no service to our children or those new to the faith to reduce the vocabulary to that which the average man on the street can recognize.  I believe it was Karl Barth, the theologian and not the District President, who said something to the effect that in the world the Church proclaims the Gospel in the language of everyman but when she gathers in worship she uses the queer language of Scripture and the faith.  We would do well not to forget the distinction.  The dumbing down of education, culture, and religion is not without its consequences and for Christians, people of the Word, we should not give in to the great temptation to reduce the working tools of our trade by giving up good words simply because they are not included in the average Joe's vocabulary...  Perhaps for Christmas a religious word a day calendar is not such a bad gift idea...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thanks but no thanks....

While at the same time acknowledging a history of mission support, the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of the Sudan has determined that the Anglican Church in North America is the legitimate expression of the Anglican Communion in the USA -- not the Episcopal Church.  Read more here...

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan in its meeting held in Juba from 14-16, November 2011 in the context of General Synod has reaffirmed the statement of the Sudanese Bishops at the Lambeth Conference in 2008 as quoted below:
“We reject homosexual practice as contrary to Biblical teaching and can accept no place for it within ECS. We strongly oppose developments within the Anglican Church in USA and Canada in consecrating a practicing homosexual as bishop and in approving a rite for the blessing of same-sex relationships.”
We are deeply disappointed by The Episcopal Church's refusal to abide by Biblical teaching on human sexuality and their refusal to listen to fellow Anglicans. For example, TEC Diocese of Los Angles, California in 2010 elected and consecrated Mary Douglas Glasspool as their first lesbian assistant Bishop. We are not happy with their acts of continuing ordaining homosexuals and lesbians as priests and bishops as well as blessing same sex relations in the church by some dioceses in TEC; it has pushed itself away from God's Word and from Anglican Communion. TEC is not concerned for the unity of the Communion.

The Episcopal Church of Sudan is recognizing the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) fully as true faithful Orthodox Church and we will work with them to expand the Kingdom of God in the world. Also we will work with those Parishes and Dioceses in TEC who are Evangelical Orthodox Churches and faithful to God.

We will not compromise our faith on this and we will not give TEC advice anymore, because TEC ignored and has refused our advices.

--(The Most Rev.) Dr. Daniel Deng Bul, Archbishop and Primate of Episcopal Church of Sudan, Juba, 12th December 2011 

HT TitusOneNine...

The point of this is significant.  Anglicans have been as loath to unsettle the status quo in their relationships as different parts of one communion as they have been to actually stand against the watering down of this once noble church.  Now we see the cracks developing along the fault lines of the issues that divide the liberal end of the Anglican Communion (US, Canada, England) from the more conservative end (Africa).  Perhaps this will become, like the LCMS in the 1970s, a real movement to reclaim a church from the hands of those who would change it by ignoring Scripture and breaking with catholic doctrine.  We could see the start of a real backbone here.  And to think it came from a Samaritan Sudanese corner of the Anglican Church.  It will be interesting to see the spin on this since the Anglican Church in the Sudan is larger than the Episcopal Church in the US.  Although significantly poorer in terms of material resources, it may turn out to be far richer in faith.  As I have said often, I have no horse in this race but it does not keep me from cheering on the traditionalists...

What you will not hear at Grace Lutheran Church!

Quoted from the Cranmer blog:

Royal Holloway College, in the University of London, held its Christmas carol service in its own College Chapel, presided over jointly by the College's Chaplain – an Anglican vicar, the Rev'd Cate Irvine, and a Roman Catholic chaplain from the local church, Fr Vladimir Nikiforov.

And what did the assembled festive throng hear? The prophecy of of Isaiah? 'For unto us a child is born...'? The Gospel of Luke? 'There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus...'? A reading from Micah, perhaps? 'But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be Ruler in Israel'?

No, none of the above. Instead, they got the Qur'an:

Behold! the angels said "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus the son of Mary held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah.

"He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity and he shall be of the company of the righteous."

She said: "O my Lord! how shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?" He said: "Even so: Allah createth what He willeth; when He hath decreed a plan He but saith to it 'Be' and it is!

"And Allah will teach him the Book and Wisdom the Law and the Gospel.

"And (appoint him) an Apostle to the Children of Israel with this message: I have come to you with a sign from your Lord in that I make for you out of clay as it were the figure of a bird and breathe into it and it becomes a bird by Allah's leave; and I heal those born blind and the lepers and I quicken the dead by Allah's leave; and I declare to you what ye eat and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe.

"I have come to you to attest the Law which was before me and to make lawful to you part of what was before forbidden to you; I have come to you with a Sign from your Lord. So fear Allah and obey me.

"It is Allah who is my Lord and your Lord; then worship Him. This is a way that is straight." (Qur'an 3:45-51)
Fantastic, eh?

To which I say:  With followers like these, Jesus surely does not need enemies....

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The highest obedience is faith (trust). . .

Sermon for Advent IV, preached on Sunday, December 18, 2011.

    Unless you are radically different from me, you probably think that rules are made for others.  But our problem is not with rules – it is with the fact that rules expect obedience.  And obedience is like a four letter word to us.  Nobody wants to obey.  Today we hear about the obedience of a King to the Word of the Lord and the obedience of a Virgin to the Angel of the Lord.  What we find is that obedience is not about rules or demands.  Obedience is about faith.   Obedience comes only from faith, faith comes only from God’s gracious action.  Obedience is the fruit of faith, the natural outgrowth of the heart that trusts in the Word and will of the Lord.
    David’s righteousness was not his obedience but his trust.  Mary’s righteousness was not her obedience but her trust.  As St. Paul says to the Romans, this is faith or trust credited as righteousness and from this bud flowers obedience.  If we have trouble with obedience to the Lord and His Word, it is not a rules issue but a faith problem.  Where we resist the Word and will of God, it is because we do not trust the Lord or His good and gracious will.
    David wanted to do something for God.  He figured the Lord deserved it.  He thought that he could figure out what God wanted. But God surprised him.  Only God can make obedience possible and for this to happen God must reveal His will to us.  Think how it went down.  David had it in his head to build a fitting house for God as if God were some how lacking because He had no permanent dwelling place.  After all, David had a nice house and he wanted to something nice for God.  But God stops David's plans right in their tracks.  Wait one minute, David. Faith does not presume, it trusts.  This sort of blows all that talk of “what would Jesus do,” doesn’t it.  We do not presume to know the mind of God; we know the mind of God because God has disclosed Himself to us.  This is what the Lord reminds David.
    I sought you out, David, says the Lord.  I knew you before you knew Me, says the Lord.  I had plans for you before you ever dreams of building Me a house.  God recounted His history as a gracious and merciful God.  Grace always makes obedience possible and God recalls to David the history of His gracious acts.  Obedience begins not with what we think God wants, but with what God has done for us, what God has made known to us. God continues to remind David how He has walked with him, how He has carried him through everything, and how He has delivered him from every enemy and trouble. 
    The Lord reminds David that not only was his past accomplished by God's grace, but God in His grace provides David a future, too.  The Lord will give to David an eternal throne.  No enemies will triumph over him and nothing can steal away the throne from which the son of David will rule for all eternity.  This whole thing started out with the desire of David to do something for God and it ended up with God recounting the history of His promises and what He had done and will do for David.  The grace of God makes obedience possible.
    An angel came to a virgin named Mary.  Mary might have wondered what God would ask her to do but the very greeting of the angel told Mary this was not about what God was asking from her, but what God would do for her, in her, and through her.  Before God asks for obedience, God delivers grace.  So this whole conversation began with grace. Mary has found favor with God.  His grace is with her.  The Lord is with her.  Mary was not being asked to bear some terrible burden because God demanded it but she was being set apart for the privilege of grace.  She was to bear His own Son who would be given for the life of the world.
    Mary probably expected to live out her mortal life in complete anonymity.  Instead God told her of the great and heavenly purpose of her life.  God would show forth His grace to the world by delivering from her very womb His very Son in human flesh and blood.  Through the fruit of her womb, the whole world would know redemption, forgiveness, and eternal life.  Grace always precedes obedience.  Before God asks Mary for obedience, God delivers to her grace.
    Mary understood this.  She did not worry about the what – only about the how.  She responds not by lamenting what God is asking of her, but rehearsing her own limitations.  She was a virgin.  How can this be?  But, of course, with God all things are possible.  Grace tears down every barrier and makes all things of God’s gracious will possible.  With these words God puts her fears at ease; established on the foundation of His grace, she is able to respond with the voice of faith - “Let it be to me as you have said.”  Grace comes first and from that grace, faith is born, and this trust leads to obedience – in fact, this faith is the highest obedience of all.
    To both David and Mary, God spoke to them of His grace and from this grace, obedience was born – the obedience of faith. "Do you believe Me?  If you believe Me, walk with Me..."
    We forget this all the time.  We treat the call to obedience with the same enthusiasm as a traveling salesman ringing our door bell.  What do you want from me now, God? But obedience never begins with what God wants from us.  Obedience always begins with what God has done for us.  Obedience flows from faith, faith is both the fruit of God’s grace at work in us and the highest act of obedience we can give Him.
    What do you want, now God?  I give You Sunday mornings!  I put my tithes and offerings in the plate!  I pray!  What do you want now, God?  We always seem to assume that God is working all the time to try and get something from us or to get us to do something we do not want to do.  But the very things God wants from us, He provides for us by grace.  “Trust in Me,” He bids us.  “Walk with Me.”  Grace begets faith and faith begets obedience... that is the pattern of God.  He does not ask you to figure out the impossible or impress Him with your creativity or ingenuity.  God gives you the very tools to do what He asks of you.  What He seeks from You is what He sought from David and from the Blessed Virgin – to trust in Him and walk with Him in the obedience of faith.
    We make it all a joke when we paint God’s will and purpose as some secret we must figure out in order to impress Him or receive His approval.  His approval is what it is all about – the gracious favor towards us sinners that we neither deserve nor dare ask.  This is His gift to us.  With that gift, comes the Spirit that we might believe in His favor, trust in His Word and will, and walk in His ways.  As once God spoke to David the promise kept in the womb of Mary, so do we come to this last stop of Advent on our way to the manger, remembering what God in His grace has done, and praying that we may receive His gift with faith and trust in Him so that we may walk in His ways.... for now... and for eternity...  Amen.