Saturday, March 31, 2012

A healthy, vital church....

My parents often laughed at me.  "You've got champagne taste on beer money, my boy."   The whole rationale for Champale -- remember that one?!  I would draw up the facades and specifications for pipe organs doodles and Joel Kuznik told me "You are dreaming up the wrong tree.  Won't happen."  When I came to visit this congregation after receiving the call, I must have made an impression.  One of the council members told me he was looking for a picture of cows looking up from munching on the meadow after the train had already passed by.  He said that was his impression of the questions I was asking them.

Oh, well.  Dream big or not at all.  Maybe as a high schooler I was too impressed with the words of Bobby Kennedy whom his brother Teddy eulogized saying "Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?"  [Quoting George Bernard Shaw]  I admit to being a dreamer -- but the dreams that I have are seldom about me or for me.  I dream especially of and for the parishes I serve and the church body that has nurtured my life and in which I have served for more than 32 years.  I dream of God's people freed from their fears and hesitations to take seriously the Word and promise of God in Christ and unshackled from self-imposed limitations to serve Him and others in His name -- without limit.

On another forum a topic about vitalized congregations was posted.  I am not sure what vitalized was supposed to mean.  I took it to mean healthy, vigorous, active... anyway, this is what I posted -- the dream I have had for the parishes I have and continue to serve and for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod...

  • a Lutheranism that folks can be rightly proud of... 
  • one which is confident in the Scriptures and their message of Christ crucified... 
  • one which is sacramentally vibrant with the Divine Service as the regular Sunday gathering, with baptism regularly a part of that Divine Service, with private confession encouraged as gift and blessing, and with an appreciation for the Word that is efficacious -- doing what it says... 
  • one which welcomes the stranger in a healthy atmosphere of dignified but not rigid formality... 
  • one which both expects and encourages full participation in the worship and study life of the parish so that the baptismal life of witness, mercy, prayer, and service may be fully lived outside the building... 
  • one which is interested and invested in mission beyond the shores and down the block (by mission I mean one that names Jesus and spreads the Gospel by word)... 
  • one which knows and addresses the poor and those in need or threatened (whether the name of Jesus is mentioned or not -- food pantry, feeding the hungry meals, caring for children, etc.)... 
  • one that sees life as lifelong catechesis and which provides regular opportunity to grow in what it means to be a LUTHERAN Christian (read that catechisms and Confessions)... and 
  • one that lives in partnership with others congregations yoked through circuit and district and does not go it alone...
So mark me a dreamer... but this is what I hope and pray for... here in Clarksville, Tennessee, and throughout our nation where Lutheran Christians gather around the means of grace so they may gather others into the flock through the living voice of the Gospel witnessed in word and deed...  Dream big... or not at all.  I do not dream about an answer for this crisis or that problem but the larger goal of a people secure enough in their Lutheran identity to practice it boldly without fear and to proclaim this dynamic gospel to the world with energy and confidence...

I wish we had a few more dreamers... it seems we have so many complaints and so much conflict and so many troubles... If we looked beyond them, we might see the surprise of grace hiding behind these low flying clouds that mask the bright horizon of life together in Christ...

Who to impress and how?

Every Lutheran preacher finds this a daunting time of year.  Same old message, many new occasional faces, and the desire on both preacher and hearer to be stirred by the message.  Ahhhh, what shall I say?  The stories are not new nor are they particularly unfamiliar.  But that is not why folks are headed to Church Palm Sunday through Easter (especially Easter).  They are there to hear the old story that is so familiar with its redemption and hope in the unlikely place of a cross designed to kill and a grave designed to enshrine death.

The strange thing of it is that the seasonal variations are less about adding new things for the big days than subtracting things for certain days.  All during Lent we have subtracted from the liturgy the alleluias, the Hymn of Praise, and substituted in the place of the grand event, the simple call to repentance. Easter is the usual -- the alleluias, the Hymn of Praise, and the unveiled images of the crucified and risen Lord.

In many respects, the goal is to bring us back to the routine of the Divine Service and this is the preaching task as well.  We are not there to convert the ordinary into something manifestly greater but to restore the manifest greatness of what happens each Sunday and of the Lord who is present there according to His promise, working through the means of grace to do what He has pledged to do.

I have long since given up the hope of a home run on the big occasions of Holy Week and Easter.  Maybe it was too many hits and too many misses.  Maybe it is maturity (better late than never).  Or just maybe it is the wisdom of my fathers in the faith whose sage counsel now seems to be just rite.  I think of Pastor Charles Evanson whose sermons were hardly exciting but whose faithful content drew you up from the abyss of your sin, guilt, and despair into the heights of God;s amazing gift and grace in Christ.  He did not compete with the lessons.  He let the Gospel be center and willingly took up his supporting role to give it voice.

I think of the many faithful, mostly sainted Pastors who counseled me over the years to know the texts as well as you possibly can and then to know the lives of your people as well as you possibly can and you will never lack for what to say or for the hearer who hangs on your every word.  Or the one who said to me, "Preach to pain and you will not lack for hearers."  I have preached to my own pain often enough to find out others were also wounded and sore in need of Christ's healing balm.

Then there is the other odd circumstance.  Every sermon I have thought to be a killer turned out to be rather, well, less than a hit while the ones that I labored upon and left the pulpit lamenting in my mind proved to be the ones people commented upon most.  It is testament to the fact that the Word of God is not tame or docile.  It is wild.  It is not within our control.  All we can do is speak it faithfully -- Law and Gospel.  Over time the Word seems to need less of me and my help and I need more of its guidance and grace.  As a preacher it is a good thing.

The pews will probably be fuller than usual.  There will be people in church multiple times over the space of Palm Sunday to Easter morning.  But it is probably good to remember what another wise Pastor once said.  Norman Nagel was quoted as saying, “God is there every Sunday. You should be worried about disappointing Him and stop trying to impress the people who show up on Easter.”

A terrible confession. . .

There is a mighty debate going on in Rome about hymns.  The "new" old Mass is re-exerting the primacy of liturgical texts and the propers, without the possibility of substitution of hymns.  What this means is that the Mass before 1970, replete with introit, gradual, verse, offertory, etc., has been reborn -- at least in its approach to the music of the service.  Where once you might find Roman parishes substituting "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" for just about any liturgical text, now that freedom is being constrained.  Liturgical texts and the propers shall not be displaced by hymns.  For the Roman Mass, hymns are both non-essential and essentially non-liturgical.  Not a few Roman Catholics are troubled by this return to the older approach to the Mass.  They are fairly accustomed to singing Lutheran hymns, Methodist hymns, and hymns of other traditions.  They have grown up with the cottage industry of Haugen, Haas, and Joncas (among others) who have provided book upon book of "Gather Us In" style songs for the modern man.

Not a few Lutherans insist that we should feel the same way.  Some of those who comment here lament the loss of the introit as the standard "entrance hymn" as well as the loss of the pericopes appointed for gradual, verse, offertory, etc.  Most Lutheran parishes probably do not use them or do not use them regularly.  Even the Psalm of the Day is often replaced by other texts or hymns or music.  Some credit this to the adoption of the three year lectionary system learned from Rome after Vatican II.  Some insist that we tend to follow Rome no matter how much we protest otherwise.  Some believe that it is the Protestant ideal to have hymns replace these texts usually sung by cantor, choir or celebrant.

I have not gotten into this debate much because I am torn.  The great Lutheran chorales and the sturdy hymns of old have become central to my piety.  I shudder at the thought of a Divine Service sans music.  I hear the complaints of folks who say we sing too much and I think to myself "why don't we sing more hymns."  I confess that the great Lutheran chorales and the marvelous legacy of hymns that we have borrowed from others are two big reasons why it would be swimming against the current for me to head to either Rome or Constantinople (along with some other things).  I do not advocate the regular substitution of hymnic paraphrases of the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei but neither do I insist upon the appointed introit instead of an entrance hymn.  I like and see advantages to both.  I guess in this way I am a child of my age.  Though a definite conservative when it comes to such liturgical matters, I am not a radical conservative.

It is in this area that adiaphora seems most applicable -- not whether you use the form of the Divine Service (in any one of its derivations in the hymnal) but how you apply the details in the options inherent in the liturgy and in the use of chorales and hymns judiciously to replace some of the appointed texts (after all, the Deutsche Messe is the father of hymnic substitutions which are hardly close paraphrases, i. e. Sanctus).  I am happy to allow freedom and diversity here (most of it falls well within the rubrics) even though I am highly agitated about Lutheran parishes which have abandoned the Divine Service and Lutheran people who know not one or more services from our official hymnal(s).

If I were Roman Catholic, I would bristle at the loss of the ecumenical and catholic treasure of hymns and as a Lutheran I resist the impulse of some to insist upon only the liturgical texts appointed.  I guess in this I am a fence straddler.  Oh, my, that is a terrible confession, indeed.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Well, what do you say to that?

It was never easy, but it is particularly difficult to be a good parent these days. The temptations facing young people, the peer pressure, and the badges of perceived affluence make it challenging for parents to instill values in children and teens while balancing those values with opportunities that most parents today didn’t enjoy growing up.

As a very public, recent example of the challenges facing modern parents, President and Mrs. Obama sent Malia, their 13-year-old daughter, to Mexico for her spring holiday unaccompanied by either parent (though she reportedly enjoyed the company of twenty-five Secret Service guardians). I am unsure that most parents would have made such a choice, but then again, few of us travel with a security detail. So, where are the Obamas to look for guidance in child rearing? Should the President speak to Dr. Billy Graham, or Rev. Rick Warren or even Cardinal Timothy Dolan?

Fortunately, President Obama and Turkish Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have become such close friends that the prime minister is giving President Obama advice on raising his daughters. President Obama met with Erdogan on Sunday, March 25, at the nuclear summit in South Korea. According to a White House statement, the two discussed Syria’s civil war and the Iranian nuclear weapons program, but also talked about the president’s two daughters. President Obama said, “The bottom line is that we find ourselves in frequent agreement upon a wide range of issues… [and] because he has two daughters that [sic] are a little older than mine — they’ve turned out very well, so I’m always interested in his perspective on raising girls.”

HT to Touchstone for this...

I must admit that I am stunned by this... on one hand the sending of a 13 year old to Mexico for spring break ALONE... on the other, the parental support group that includes the Presidents of Turkey and the US...   I will leave this alone for your comment....

Bishops Got Talent...

Just for fun...
March 16, 2012

The Church of England has confirmed that the new Archbishop of Canterbury will be selected via public phone vote on a TV talent show hosted by Ant and Dec.

'Bishops Got Talent will bring the Church of England into the 21st century,' said executive producer Simon Cowell. 'It's high time people got to choose their Archbishop according to who can perform the best song and dance routine. I'm no theologian but I'm pretty sure it's what Jesus would have wanted.'

Bishops from around the country will compete for the coveted title by performing in front of a panel of religious experts: Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and regular 'grumpy judge' Professor Richard Dawkins. Poor performing bishops may be 'buzzed off' by the panel: each buzzer illuminating a holy cross above the bishop's head. Three crosses in a row and the bishop will be forcibly dragged off stage by a giant crosier.

Favourites for the title include Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu who will ride around on a unicycle while simultaneously attempting to cut up his dog collar and juggle a number of hot potatoes, including women bishops and gay marriage.

Meanwhile Bishop of London Richard Chartres will perform a break dance routine alongside his crew of street dancing clergy, Ecumenical Diversity. 'The ability to body pop is crucial for the role,' said Chartres. 'Every Archbishop of Canterbury needs to be able to spin on his mitre and perform an endless number of backflips.'

However, many believe that Cowell has already rigged the contest with his own choice, a bishop boy band called One True Path. 'I think it is only right that young people get a chance to be Archbishop as well,' said Cowell. 'The Church of England need some fresh faced young boys at the helm. It would certainly appeal to the teenage market and would probably put a stop to a lot of priests converting to Catholicism.'

Bishops Got Talent begins next week on ITV1 but will be going head to head with a new BBC show, The Holy Voice, in which another group of bishops perform a sermon for Tom Jones. 'We hope people will stick with Bishops Got Talent,' said Cowell. 'Ratings are important and the last thing we want is a schism.'

Whether I'm right or whether I'm wrong... I'll do it my way...

Remember that woman denied Holy Communion at her mother's funeral?  Remember how she was offended that she was excluded from the Sacrament because she was a lesbian living with a woman?  Remember how it then turned out that she was Buddhist?  Well, it seems this woman is well enjoying here fifteen minutes of fame and trying to extend it.

She is now speaking of the road back to Catholicism that she has been on.  She indicated that she has been coming back to Catholicism for a while now but that she will return on her own terms.  Hmmmm. On her own terms.  What does that mean?  Does it mean her own timetable?  I could understand that.  Or, does it mean returning not to Catholicism to be a Catholic but to return to some form of Catholicism which she finds amenable to her own predispositions of doctrine, truth, and piety?  Me thinks it is the latter.

Of course the media loves it when ordinary folks stick it in the face of those princes of the Church who think that doctrine and practice are not self-defined by the individual member but of the essence of the Church.  It does not matter what religion you claim as you own, the media not only delights in but expects that you will remodel this faith so that it is unique to you -- in this respect, irrelevant of the religion, we all come to God on our own terms (at least a liberalism and the media might define faith).

According to Johnson, that decision is up to her — a stance that Catholic leaders label with one simple word, which is “Protestant.”  As a member of a church body often called Protestant (though it is not really, at least as modern day definitions of that word define it), I am both offended by this characterization and saddened at the regrettable truth of it all. 

Luther had no desire nor idea that the legacy of the Reformation would be a fractured Protestantism divided in doctrine and practice and subject to the definitions of almighty human will and decision.  If he had, he may well have chosen silence rather than speak up against the abuses which had largely silenced the Gospel in his day.  For the tyranny of a church in which the Gospel is warred against by the sacrificial understanding of the Mass, by the scandal of indulgences, and by the corruption of the church structures would be balanced at least by the content of the liturgy which clearly speaks the language of the Gospel.  The sad truth today is that without the liturgy and lectionary to bind the creative juices of clergy, we have seen Christianity transformed into an entrepreneurial system modeled more after Wal-Mart than anything else.

Freed from any constraint, worship has glorified in self more than the sacrificial and atoning death of Jesus Christ.  It has harvested the Scriptures to turn the truth of the eternal Word into helps for a better life now, a better family, and a better job.  It has let the individual mind and conscience rule over Scripture to determine what is orthodox and what is relevant (and cast off the ancient creeds and confessions as mere historical appendages that have little impact upon what is believed or taught today).

Sadly, the lasting legacy of the Reformation is marred by the reality of its terrible abuse and the glorification of self that insists any path to God must be made on my own terms and not on His nor subject to the boundaries of Scripture and tradition.  I am loathe to admit it, but the Catholic leaders who characterized Johnson's coming home to Rome on her own terms as "Protestant" are nor far off the mark.  It is not whom Protestants have claimed to be but it has become what Protestants are.  Sometimes the truth hurts.  Well, most times.

BTW in case you are thinking otherwise, my solution is not to row to Rome across the Tiber but to reconnect our Lutheran identity so fully with our Confessions and marry our practice to those Confessions that we will reject the tyranny of ego and remain captive to the Word of God.  Our own terms gladly sacrificed for the sake of truth and obedience, we will find renewal and restoration solely through the means of grace that deliver to us Christ and Him crucified -- complete with all His gifts and grace.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

To drink His cup... and enter His baptism...

Sermon preached for Lent 5B (also the Annunciation), on Sunday, March 25, 2012.

    Today is both the Annunciation of our Lord, the commemoration of the visit of the angel to Mary when our Lord was conceived within her womb, and the fifth Sunday in Lent.  The Sundays in Lent take precedence.  The traditional name for the fifth Sunday in Lent is Judica; it comes from the traditional Introit of the day: "Judge me, O God."  I think most of us would rather talk about the event that comes nine months before Christmas than inviting God's scrutiny over us.  But here we are in Lent, calling God to judge us.
    Who would dare invite the scrutiny of God over our lives?  Why we have forgotten more sins than we remembered to confess.  Who would be foolish enough to ask the IRS to take a second look at your income tax return?  That is exactly what this Sunday is all about but we are not the ones asking for God's judgment.  Jesus is!  He is headed to Jerusalem with a face like flint to face the judgment of God for our sin.  Who dares to face sin and death square in the face?  Not me.  Not you.  But Jesus is determined to face them for us – even if it means His death.
    The disciples did not get it.  They were too busy daydreaming about glory while Jesus spoke of His coming betrayal, death, and resurrection.  They did not hear Jesus say: "I am going to die..."  Blinded by dreams of glory, they were focused on who would get the good seats in glory, the places of honor in heaven, looking down from on high on the common saints below?  They were so focused on this glory, they did not hear Jesus speak of the glory of the cross.
    What about us?  Which glory is our focus?  Are we just as blinded by the dreams of present glory that we miss the glory of the cross? Blind to the glory of His suffering and death, are we as caught up in the moment as those disciples of old?
    The truth is our focus is always on the present moment.  We are always asking Jesus to do this for us or give us that – as if these things were the most important things of life.  We treat the things of the moment as if they were the greatest treasures and then we treat the gift of heaven as if it were a dollar store trinket.  It is simply the nature of our sin blinded hearts that we suffer from the short sighted vision that sees today clearly but eternity only darkly.
    Like the disciples of old, we are always tempted to choose the happiness of the moment over the eternal contentment and peace Jesus has come to give.  But Jesus loves us enough to awaken our hearts and minds to the glory of the cross.  He loves us enough to point us to the cross even when we don’t fully understand what we are looking at.
    James and John did not hear Jesus talk about the cross but they knew well enough that Jesus had the power to do mighty things.  When they asked for seats of glory, the other disciples kicked themselves for not also asking Jesus to make their dreams come true.  Jesus could have dismissed the whole thing as foolishness but He took James and John seriously.  "Are you able to drink My cup or be baptized with My baptism?  Asked Jesus.  Just as blindly, James and John insist they are ready, willing, and able to do what it takes to get what they want.  They did not realize that Jesus' cup and His baptism were the cross and death He had spoken about.
    Jesus loves us so much that He sends us His Spirit to break the binders of sin. He not only awakens us to the eternal things of His kingdom.  He offers us eternal things in this present moment.  He allows us to drink from His cup and to be baptized with His baptism – not as a Savior who dies for the sins of the world but as the saved who receive what His death has won and as those baptized into His death to receive His gift of life.
    None of us can die for the sins of the whole world but all of us will surely die.  Each of us will face the scrutiny of God's judgement.  Either we die alone and face God's judgment alone or we die in baptism our death with Christ to rise with Him to new life and we face God's judgment wearing the new clothing of Christ's righteousness in that baptism.  None us will drink the cup of death for sin on a cross but in Christ we come today to drink Christ’s cup and receive the blessing won on that cross in forgiveness, life, and salvation.
    Jesus dares to invite the judgment of God for our sin upon His shoulders.  He willingly walks to the death of the cross for you and for me and for our salvation.  We who share baptism into His death and who drink here the cup of His blood stand with Him both as the recipients of all that He won for us and as His people sent forth in His name to serve others as He has served us.
    Apart from Christ the only glory there is empty glory, false dreams, and illusions that never come true.  In Christ we have the true glory.  From the cross His glory shines to us.  It is not the glory of our dreams but the greater glory of His gift.  He gives us the privilege not only of receiving its gift, but bearing that gift in cross shaped lives toward our neighbors.  We daily die to self and rise up in Christ to manifest this profound love back to the Father from whence it came and out to the world for whom Christ also died.
      That brings us back right back to Judica, to those who invite God's judgment and scrutiny upon them.  In Christ we have no fear of God’s judgment or His scrutiny.  Baptized in Christ, we rise up in righteousness to stand before Him and serve Him.  Drinking the cup of Christ in this Holy Supper we are made new through forgiveness.   As the baptized and those who drink from Christ’s cup, the Lord recognizes us as His own... for today.... and for eternity.  Amen.

The Common Service. . .

I grew up singing TLH page 5 mostly and TLH page 15 first quarterly and then monthly.  My home parish did not have hymnals in the pews until 1972 or so.  You brought your hymnal from home.  A couple of extras were around for those who, horror upon horror, forgot theirs or the occasional visitor.  I used the Common Service when first a Pastor (until early 1983 when LW was introduced).  It is sort of like my default service.  When all else confounds me, I still revert to the memorized texts and ordo of the Common Service.  I love it and we use it still occasionally although predominantly Divine Service, Settings 1 & 2 from LSB.  My home parish never bought anything in between and went directly from TLH to LSB and noticed little real change in their customary order.

One of the great myths of the Common Service is that this represents pure Lutheranism and everything else is born of our slavish copying of things Roman (Divine Service Settings1 & 2 cut and pasted from the Novus Ordo and the liturgical renewal movement).  As with all myths, there are truths hidden in those myths but the falsehood tends in the exaggeration.  The new forms of the Divine Service which owe themselves to ILCW and LBW, then LW, and now LSB are not copies of the Roman Mass in English in the early 1970s and the old form of the Common Service is not pure Lutheranism at its best.

The recovery of the Common Service (1888) among Lutherans represents a benchmark of Lutheran unity when it comes to what happens on Sunday morning.  Though LBW was created in the cause of Lutheran unity, the most uniform expression of worship among Lutherans owed more to the Common Service in the various forms of Service Book and Hymnal and TLH than to LBW and its successors in the ELCA and Missouri since.  But it was, after all, a COMMON Service for which Lutherans had no common or ordinary form prior to this.  Yes, the ordo was in common but even there were deviations among the Reformation Church Orders of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.  Lutheranism NEVER spoke with one voice when it came to the Divine Service and judicatories gave their imprimatur to various forms in Germany and Scandinavia.  The Common Service is common because prior to its formation, Lutheran liturgical practice was in nearly complete disarray among English speaking Lutherans in the USA and even among many still holding to their ethnic linguistic and cultural identities.  It was common here but not necessarily among the Norwegians, Swedes, or Germans across the ocean.

I fear that some among us forget this.  I also fear that our liturgical mess today makes us pine even more for a Common Service that would rescue us from the chaotic nature of what you might expect in a Lutheran congregation on Sunday morning.  I understand this and part of me wishes we could recover or simply agree on another Common Service to fix our diversity gone awry.  The other part of me bristles at those who would insist that the only purely Lutheran form is the Common Service, specially that form embodied in TLH on page 15.

The Common Service was borrowed in part from the Book of Common Prayer tradition (and we could have easily have chosen a much less noble and eloquent aid to transforming Lutheran worship forms into the English language) but there is an Anglicized character to the Common Service and its pericopes which we care not deny or ignore.  Again, I well understand.  Translation of liturgical texts into English by those for whom English was not preferred was a difficult task aided by the ready presence of texts already rendered in King James English and with a hint of Lutheran past (Cranmer) in them.

The myth is that the Common Service employed in TLH is the purest form of Lutheran liturgy.  Lutherans have no pure standard by which to measure or gauge this purity.  Each form Lutherans have used must be examined and judged on its own terms.  Certainly, it is a familial identity which all the Reformation Church Orders share but not the rigid uniformity of Rome or the goal of some Lutherans today.  The truth is that it did represent a benchmark of Lutheran identity and a pure form to replace the chaos and confusion the reigned over the Lutheran landscape prior to this.  But to those who want to say page 15 only, I beg to differ.

The goal of liturgical uniformity will be lost for sure if we raise up the Common Service as the one and only standard of Lutheran liturgy.  What we need is both more difficult and yet more possible -- that is a Lutheran identity which recognizes the various traditions inherent to our Lutheran history and seeks to live within that stream instead of branching off on its own by adopting liturgical forms alien to our Lutheran Confessional identity or disavowing any liturgical form in pursuit of a spiritualized worship that is ultimately captive to feeling and our own desire to be center stage.

Wittenberg Walk Through with Pres. Matthew Harrison...

The Wittenberg Boys’ Latin School was founded under the watchful eye of Luther and Melanchthon in 1533 (there was a girls’ school as well). In 1564, the school moved to a new building, across from Luther’s church, the Stadtkirche (also known as St. Mary’s or Town Church in English). That building, like many centuries-old buildings, has survived a number of iterations, including life as a publishing plant and a clothes factory, having now stood empty for nearly two decades. It was built on the site of the old Wittenburg ossuary. The Christians whose bones have been found in a dig beneath the building await the trumpet call when Christ will return and bring their bones back to life. Similarly, as the carcass of this old building is brought back to life, the dead, dry bones of unbelievers will come to life as the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ once again issues forth from this building.

Part of the original plan for the building was to house a museum called the Martin Luther Experience. That portion of the plan has been scraped due to monetary constraints. While a museum would have been nice, I can’t help but be excited about the enduring legacy that will be created by present and future Lutherans who will come into contact with the Gospel here. The building is currently being remodeled, with appointments for
  • Educational and cultural programs
  • Short-term guest housing for visitors, scholars, teachers and students – especially from LCMS universities and seminaries
  • Research and writing
  • Historical exhibits
  • Dining and fellowship
  • A welcome center
The Wittenberg Latin School will teach once again, as the Lord restores dead, dry bones to life through His Gospel. Here’s a video taken by President Matt Harrison which shows the interior of the building:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not to be served.... but to serve.

A sermon from President Harrison:

Who is worthy?

Although I have no particular affection for former VP Dick Chaney and I certainly wish him every blessing in his recovery from a heart transplant, his transplant, or rather the commentary on that transplant, has given rise to a comment or two.

I have heard repeatedly the concerns of his age and previous ill health and the suspicion that he was somehow or other bumped up from the bottom to the top of the transplant list because of who he is.  His more than 20 month wait, I am told, is actually a bit longer than usual.  Underneath this challenge, however, are two things.  One is political.  People who opposed his politics are more likely to believe that he was not a good candidate for that transplant.  In the discussion is another, even more alarming perspective.  That is the judgment that he was unworthy of this heart and it was a waste of the resource due to his age.

Perhaps I am taking this personally.  My father was 83 years old when he had both knees replaced.  It was an expensive procedure and, of course, Medicare paid for it and for the rehab that followed.  Now, nearly two years later, he continues to work from early morning until supper time at the business he began, a hardware store and doing HVAC, electrical, and plumbing work.  Now my Dad was 12 years older than Chaney was at the time of his surgery and, if a case could have been made that Chaney was too old, surely my Dad was "too old."

Apart from that, the whole idea of worthy or productive is foreign to Christian thinking in general.  We recall how it was while we were yet sinners and enemies of God, Christ came.  We confess that there was nothing of merit in us which deserved the largess of God's mercy and grace showered upon us.  We affirm that it is purely by grace and not by works or merit or worth that we have been saved.  We insist that this mercy principle is the defining nature of the good works we do in Christ that glorify God and manifest to others what we ourselves have received from God.

Now, I am NOT saying that everything must or should be done medically for every patient.  I am saying that each patient must be approached individually and the best interest of that patient may mean that treatment may be provided or may not.  We apply our Christian values to the particular situation, guided by the morality shaped not by usefulness or productivity or worth but by the love of Christ and the recognition that life is God's, that we are stewards and not masters of this sacred trust of life, that we must do no harm first and foremost, and that physical death is not the end but the gateway to the everlasting life that is His gift to us in Christ (to us and all believers in Christ).

But... we must be careful here about treating life as a commodity, about placing artificial values upon life, and about using cost effectiveness as the primary or even one of the most important values brought to bear upon health care decisions.  We already have seen reproductive technology used to eliminate fetuses which are thought to have physical or mental defect.  We have already heard of how health care law may be used to determine which procedures may be precluded because of age, health of the patient, or cost effectiveness.  My point is this:  once we begin to decide who is too old or too sick or too defective or too expensive to treat, we have turned God's gift of life into merely another commodity like others on the store shelves or traded in the marketplace.  Is that not the very thing that wars have been fought to prevent?  How can it be that we who lived through the transformation of Blacks from fractional humanity of marginal worth to full citizenship suddenly now turn around and suggest that this person or that is less than fully human and therefore worth less than our full attention or care.  It is life that is worthy -- not the potential within that life or its return to us or even its cost to us.  There has got to be a better way...

A sad story... though not surprising

Some years ago we watched as Twitty City (a monument to Conway Twitty and a tourist destination for die hard CW music fans) became a Trinity Broadcast Network campus(Trinity Music City USA) and home to the flamboyant if not odd husband and wife Jan and Paul Crouch.  BTW it may interest you to know that Paul Crouch tells the story of the Lutheran who gave him a million or so when his empire was just beginning and allowing him to buy his first real TV station... so sad...

Well, anyone who has watched should have known that this was a disaster in the making and that Jan and Paul might not be fully transparent in the morals and money departments.  The whole nature of this enterprise is suspect -- if only because it lacks any real accountability or honest oversight to the excesses that seem to be endemic to such "ministries."  And now we know it was "too good to be true" (not exactly how I would put it).

Read here:

The world's largest Christian TV channel, the California-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, has become embroiled in a multimillion-dollar financial scandal after members of the family that founded it alleged widespread embezzlement.

The claims – by Brittany Koper, whose grandfather Paul Crouch founded TBN, and by Joseph McVeigh, another family member – describe exorbitant spending on mansions in California, Tennessee and Florida, private jets and even a $100,000 (£63,000) mobile home to house the dogs of Crouch's flamboyant wife, Janice.

The network, which claims to broadcast in every continent except the Antarctic and has 18,000 affiliates, was set up by Crouch in the 1970s and preaches a "prosperity gospel" which promises material rewards to those who give generously.

Two years ago it declared a net worth of more than $800m, although in recent years it has faced increasing financial problems. Details of the claims are contained in cases filed with the California courts by McVeigh, who says he was targeted by the network, and 26-year-old Koper, who was fired in September.

According to the lawsuit, reported in US newspapers, Paul Crouch Sr obtained a $50m luxury jet for his personal use through a "sham loan", while church funds – many of which come from donations during events like its "Praise-a-thons" – paid for the dogs' mobile home.

TV has not been necessarily helpful to the Christian cause and a couple of more scandals do not make it easier for those who may legitimately use this technology for the honest work of the Kingdom.  That said, I still cannot figure out why folks out there would trade an authentic Christian congregation, Pastor, and mission work for these glitzy and kooky fakes -- like TBN.  They would get nowhere unless folks were there sending in the cash.  I wonder how many Lutherans have sent in money (while at the same time stiffing their local parishes!).

That's what I want... but not what I need...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Conviction or expediency...

A nod toward religion from an administration not so friendly to Christianity... a change of heart or perhaps just for election reasons?  You decide...
The Obama administration is asking the Supreme Court to allow a 43-foot-tall cross that serves as a war memorial to remain atop Mt. Soledad in San Diego, arguing that the cross has been there since 1954 and is not an endorsement of religion.
The government should not be required “to tear down a cross that has stood without incident for 58 years as a highly venerated memorial to the nation’s fallen service members,” Solicitor Gen. Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said in a new appeal to the high court.

He urged the justices to reverse a decision last year by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that said the cross was primarily a Christian symbol and therefore unconstitutional. Its prominent display on public land in La Jolla amounted to an official “endorsement of religion” in violation of the 1st Amendment, the panel of judges said in a 3-0 ruling.
If the Supreme Court takes up the case this year — which is likely — the justices could be forced to finally resolve whether religious symbols, such as crosses or depictions of the Ten Commandments, can be prominently displayed on public land.
Two years ago, the high court rejected a challenge to the display of a small cross in the Mojave National Preserve, but the five justices in the majority disagreed on the reasons. The 9th Circuit’s latest opinion mostly ignored that ruling.

Since 1989, lawsuits from several veterans have challenged the Mt. Soledad cross, arguing that a single religious symbol did not speak for all veterans. But the San Diego city government and, more recently, Congress have intervened to preserve the cross.

The Sacramental Word...

Again, Bo Giertz:

The Word works sacramentally.  It emerges from God as the flow of life.  When this [Word] reaches the person, God is there -- whether the person wants or recognizes is or not.  [For in the same way] a person at the Lord's Table -- totally apart from his or her state of mind or faith -- receives the body and blood of Christ -- either for life or for judgment...  God's Word [and Sacraments]  require a response -- either a response in faith, gratitude and obedience OR indifference, impenitence, and defiance... If the means of grace have no effect, nothing else will help him/her.  Without the Word [and Sacraments, the means of grace] there is no salvation for this suffering world.

This is the very truth that so many Lutherans have forgotten or chosen to ignore.  They either believe that God's Word is but a rule book or guide book for creating social justice or imparting a better life here (however they would define it) or else they believe that they must assist the Word by offering gimmicks to lure in the people and to hook them or the Word will have no effect upon the world.  One branch of Lutheranism has chosen a guide book for social justice, equating salvation with their version of a better world order.  As bad as this is, it is no less evil to abandon confidence in that Word to do its bidding and to replace the Word with a certain kind of music and an entertainment posture that becomes its own focus for the church.

If anything, there seems to be a shortage of those who actually believe what we Lutherans have believed, taught, and confessed -- that the Word of God works sacramentally.  It is precisely here that renewal of the Lutheran parish and renewal of the Lutheran brand will come.  It will not come by simply going through the motions on Sunday morning while putting the full energy into creating a new social order of justice, equality, and guaranteed rights (as if these replaced forgiveness, life, and salvation).  It will not come through borrowing or adapting the successful business and entertainment models so abundantly available from outside Lutheranism and from hiding the confessional and liturgical identity that marks us as Lutheran Christians.

As my friend Pr. Wil Weedon has often said, "perhaps we ought to actually try Lutheranism before we conclude that it just doesn't "work."

Monday, March 26, 2012

A wonderful visit...

The 31 members of the Concordia Wind Ensemble from Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan, gave a concert at Grace Lutheran Church, Clarksville, Tennessee, on Saturday, March 24, and then played in the worship services on Sunday, March 25.  Under the direction of Matthew Wolf, the Ensemble distinguished themselves not only as musicians but as great folks.  Our people were so impressed by the character of these fine men and women and they made a big impact on us.

We enjoyed their accompaniment of two of the hymns of the Divine Service as well as the service music (prelude, offertory, and postlude).  They accorded themselves very well both as instrumentalists and as great young men and women.

If you are interested, you may want to explore the Kreft Arts Program at Concordia or one of the many fine academic disciplines represented there.  Concordia has gone through a few tough years in the past but, if their visit is any indication of the school, it has a very good future ahead.

I would heartily recommend giving them a call, if you are a prospective student or the parent of one.  The ensemble was highly represented by pre-sems, future music educators, and a host of other careers.  They made a very positive impression upon us and we pray that we made a good impression on them -- given that the Mid-South is a long way from home for folks whose home bases are probably closer to Canada than to Tennessee!

Missing Table...

Evangelicals will be incapable of responding to the specific challenges of our time with any steadiness or effect until the Eucharist becomes the criterion of all Christian cultural thinking and the source from which all genuinely Christian cultural engagement springs.  These words were penned by Peter Leithart in FIRST THINGS.  He is Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, Moscow, Idaho.  My heart first warmed to his words challenging evangelicals to refocus their attention on the Eucharist.  Who would not warm up to words like these:

The church is called to keep our Lord Jesus, his death and resurrection, as the focal point of worship, witness, service, and mission. How do we protect ourselves from darting off after each fresh fad? Jesus didn’t think Christ-centered preaching would be enough. He left his church not only a gospel to preach, but rites of water, bread, and wine to practice. It’s difficult to forget Christ and his cross when we proclaim his death in the breaking of bread at the climax of every week’s worship. When the Sign seals the Word, the church becomes a communion of martyrs ready to bear the cross because they have consumed the cross.

After all, I regularly ruminate upon the same themes right here in this blog.  So why wouldn't I be encouraged with a Reformed Pastor with some clout echoes a similar thrust in the influential First Things blog?  But the more I read the less encouraged I was.  It was great what was written -- don't get me wrong -- but after thinking about what was written and what is there in the Eucharist, these evangelicals are focusing upon a sign without the power to deliver its promise and that is so very sad and disappointing.  It is like setting the table to eat with your spouse and sitting down with food only on one plate because the husband or wife is absent from the meal.  The remembrance is part of the supper, to be true, but it is no substitute nor is it with much importance or meaning apart from the Real Presence of Christ in that bread and in that cup.

Lacking a rightly ordered Supper, modern Christians wrap nationalism in a veil of sanctity, with sometimes-horrific results.   Well, yes, Pastor Leithart is correct.  But what is missing in evangelicalism is not a rightly ordered Supper but the very Supper of the Lord itself.  The theology of this movement, as diverse as it is, is united in precluding the possibility that this bread may hide Christ's body or that in this cup of wine is His very crucified and risen blood.  Lutheran dispute with Rome had only to do with the manner of explaining the presence of Christ (transubstantiation) and not with the reality of that concrete and full presence in the great mystery of the Eucharist.  This same theological affliction affects baptism and leaves it a shell of the promised means of union with Christ of Romans 6.  It also prevents confession and absolution from being the regular means through which lifelong repentance is lived out in the life of the believer.

As the Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann pointed out long ago, the Supper discloses the purpose and destiny of all creation. Not only this bread, but all bread, all products of human work, can be means of fellowship with God and one another. Further, we receive these products of human labor, with thanks; as a gift of God. Thus the table discloses the mystery of the creature’s participation in the Creator’s creativity, and this participation produces goods that are ours only as gifts received, goods to be shared and enjoyed in communion.

Either Pastor Leithart has not read or understood Schmemann or else he is blind to what it is in that Supper that discloses the purpose and destiny of all creation.  The Supper is not Christ focused but the vehicle of Christ's presence, with His gifts and grace, accessible to the believer and the power to effect the communion of the Church that she may be the Sacrament of Christ to the world. 

Evangelicals move away to Constantinople or Rome at an alarming rate, often because they lose hope of finding even a glimmer of liturgical piety in Evangelical churches. They’re hungry, and they believe they have found where the banquet is happening. Luther and Calvin would be aghast, for in their eyes the Reformation was an effort to restore priestly food to all of God’s priests as well as an effort to recover the gospel of grace.

I laud the intent and I rejoice at the recognition of this emptiness within the heart of evangelicalism and yet, at the same time, I lament that these theologies are not yet ready to meet Christ on HIS terms in the real food and real drink of His flesh and blood given and shed for the life of the world.  It is not priestly food that the people need or the Church is called before and gathered by the Spirit to receive.  It is the Priest who is the food and therefore this food has the life that it promises and delivers the gracious gift that Leithart's good words speak about but never fully address.  Until evangelicalism can sing these words and believe them and see in the Eucharist the means of grace, it can recover only an empty form without the promise to deliver upon its hope.

At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
Praise to our victorious king,
Who has washed us in the tide
Flowing from his pierced side.

Praise we him, whose love divine
Gives his sacred blood for wine,
Gives his body for the feast
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.

Where the paschal blood is poured,
Death’s dread angel sheathes the sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Through the wave that drowns the foe.

Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,
Paschal victim, paschal bread;
With sincerity and love
Eat we manna from above.

Mighty Victim from the sky,
Hell’s fierce powers beneath you lie;
You have conquered in the fight
You have brought us life and light.

Now no more can death appall,
Now no more the grave enthrall;
You have opened paradise,
And your saints in you shall rise.

Easter triumph, Easter joy!
This alone can sin destroy;
From sin’s power, Lord, set us free,
Newborn souls in you to be.

Father, who the crown shall give,
Savior, by whose death we live,
Spirit, guide through all our days;
Three in One, Your name we praise.

Surprising Legal Opinion...

Wading into sensitive church-state territory, a Missouri judge has ruled in favor of an independent-minded Catholic church that claims ownership of its property and autonomy from the Archdiocese of St. Louis.  The ruling upholds St. Stanislaus' ownership of its property and its right to craft bylaws that limit the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over its governance.

Judge Hettenbach relied on so-called "neutral principles of law" -- secular documents like deeds, constitutions and bylaws that govern individual churches as organizations. In using the neutral principles approach, Hettenbach rejected the traditional approach of civil courts deferring to the internal legal mechanisms of a church.

In 1891, the members of St. Stanislaus formed a corporation under Missouri law in order to secure a loan for a new church building. The civil corporation, called Polish Roman Catholic St. Stanislaus Parish, existed alongside the parish itself. The lay board overseeing the corporation would be allowed to control the property and assets while the archbishop would appoint the board members and pastor.  The corporation's original articles of agreement, signed by the pastor and five parishioners, said the "purpose" of the corporation was, in part, "to maintain a Polish Roman Catholic Church."

Hettenbach's decision rested on his interpretation of whether St. Stanislaus has remained true to that purpose. Specifically, the judge needed to decide if the church's original mission had been undermined by recent revisions to its bylaws. Those changes stemmed largely from a request in 2003 by then-Archbishop Justin Rigali that the church undergo a legal restructuring. When Rigali sent a vicar general to carry that message, his methods served only to deepen the church's resolve to be independent.

Read more here...  You can reference the legal opinion here.

While this ruling does not represent a precedent, since few Roman Catholic parishes have the separate incorporation status that this one did, it does represent a surprising decision on the part of a civil judge to intervene in which is largely an internal dispute.

In most cases, the whole purpose of civil law is to make sure that the churches follow their own rules and, in this case, has determined that the diocese did not.  We shall wait to see if the ruling stands...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Annunciation of Our Lord

A while back there was some interesting banter on what to do with the Annunciation of Our Lord since it falls on a Sunday this year (March 25).  There were those who thought it was proper according to the somewhat idiosyncratic rubrics of LSB to observe it even during Lent (for those using the 3 year series but not the historic, one year series of lessons).  Others insisted that nothing ever displaces a Sunday in Lent.  I suppose it is all rather boring and inconsequential to most of you but I can assure it is neither (at least to me).

Pr. Heath Curtis (author of the Daily Divine Service Book and therefore an "expert") wrote:
No - nothing trumps Lent, even the Annunciation. When the latter falls on a Sunday, it is transferred to the first free weekday after Easter.  LSB allows the supplanting of a Sunday in Lent, but this is indicative of LSB's general permissiveness toward widespread practice and should not be read as a suggestion of what the best practice might be. The Historic Lectionary's Lent is a logical progression and something more than just one Sunday is lost if one Sunday is replaced.

Pr. Weedon (an expert who soon will sport the Synodical job title to go with his expertise) wrote:
Which has priority?  I'd draw attention to the rubric found on page 960 of Lutheran Service Book:  Altar Book: It is appropriate to observe this feast day in all its fullness during Lent.  However, according to historical precedent, when the Annunciation falls during Holy Week or on Easter Day (or also on the Fifth Sunday in Lent in the one-year series), it should not be observed at those times but may be transferred to a weekday following the Second Sunday of Easter.  

Thus, acceding to our rite, it would be appropriate for those of you who follow the Three-Year lectionary to observe the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 and simply omit the fifth Sunday in Lent.  However, since those parishes that follow the One-Year lectionary enter into Passion-tide on the fifth Sunday in Lent, it is NOT appropriate for Annunciation to replace the observance of Judica.  Thus, just as there is a difference between the lectionaries on the observance of Transfiguration, so there is also a difference this year on the priority of Annunciation.  Three-year folks may (and really ought*) to celebrate it; one year folks will have to wait till after Judica to celebrate it.

*See the footnote on p. xi of Lutheran Service BookThe observances listed in boldface are principal feasts of Christ and are normally observed when they occur on a Sunday. 

[I am sure you all noted how I put the discussion of the rubrics in red -- since that is the root meaning of the word rubric.]

Anyway, my point is this.  The choices made in the lectionary are not simple preferences but bring theological import to bear.  Certain feasts and festivals are of the first order because they are feasts and festivals of Christ or very closely connected to Christ.  In other words, there is a pecking order at work here.

Pr. Rick Stuckwish explains the perspective of LSB as:
Regarding the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, it is one of the most difficult feasts to deal with, in terms of its priority. It is one of the most venerable and important feasts in the church's calendar, yet it occurs in the midst of Lent (a fact that rather invites reflection upon its theological significance). We also have to contend with the fact that the approach of the actual congregations of the Lord's Church to the observance of festivals is not what it used to be, for good or for ill. Nor is Lent observed in the same way, even if one considers only the broad differences between the historic and three-year lectionaries. So attempting to lay down absolute or universal rules of precedence is a particular challenge. As in most aspects of the LSB, especially where the pew edition is concerned, we took a minimalistic approach and exercised a "light touch" in regards to such rubrics.

And that is my point.  The Annunciation of Our Lord is by all accounts one of the most ancient and venerable feasts on the Church's calendar yet, because it falls during Lent, it is seldom even acknowledged.  And why do we keep this feast?  Because it relates to one of the most significant and grandest mysteries of the faith -- the Incarnation of our Lord.  You cannot have a baby without a conception and that is why, nine months before Christmas, we have a conception through the Word of the Lord, by the power of the Spirit, with an Archangel bearing the consequential news.  Interestingly, the date of the Annunciation may well have set the date of Christmas -- and not the other way around.  But that is for another post...  Suffice it to say that Lutherans should not forget this important feast whether it is transferred to another day or observed on its Sunday.  It is very important to our confession of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ...

All theology is Christology and all heresy/error begins with Christology...

To refine my title, someone once said to me that all heresy is rooted in a denial of the incarnation.  While I fear exaggeration often precludes the very clarity it seeks to provide, this is one case in which the statement is truth.  All heresy is rooted in a denial of the incarnation.  So, on this Annunciation of Our Lord day, it is good to read reflect upon the full measure of our incarnational theology.

I was reading in Bo Giertz the other day:    (in the book Christ's Church)

God is in our midst!  Just as Jesus once entered the world as God's outstretched hand, as a visible revelation of God's invisible being, and as an audible message of that which no ear has heard, so God's hand is still stretched out at the baptismal font and the communion rails, and so the Word still sounds, not as a mechanical repetition of what the Master once said but as continually repeated message from the mouth of our Savior... It is the same way with the sacraments.  They are not symbols and metaphors but Christ's way of to deal with us today, just as real and tangible as He once dealt with people on the fields of Galilee and the streets in Capernaum...

The miracle that took place in the incarnation when the Word became flesh continues in the church and the sacraments. He who does not understand the incarnation will not understand the sacraments and he who does not understand the sacraments will not understand what Christ has done for us... Living and genuine Christianity is in its innermost essence faith in the incarnation and the atonement.  It is in its innermost essence sacramental... 

Bo Giertz certainly has hit the nail on the head.  Failure to acknowledge the incarnation is the seedbed to disavowing the sacramental presence of Christ in the means of grace.  You cannot confess the incarnation and reject the Sacraments (means of grace).  They go hand in hand.  One cannot exist without the other and the other defines the first.

It is meaningless to confess God's presence unless you can confess that presence HERE in baptismal water, in absolution's voice, in bread and wine.  To put it as I often do when teaching parents, stop pointing to the sky when you teach your children where God is and point instead to the Word and Sacraments, for these are the places where God has attached Himself, made Himself present and available for us.  We do not need a God out there.  We need a located God -- in the incarnation and in the means of grace (sacraments).  We are not imposing this upon God but He has bound Himself to these external forms out of love for us and to deliver to us the full measure of what Christ accomplished for us and our salvation.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I must be too bland...

Recently I saw my physician outside the office.  I waved.  He waved back.  When I saw him in the office shortly thereafter, I mentioned it and he said "I thought it was you."  I responded, "Now Dr. __, how many patients do you have who wear all black and a clerical collar?"  "Not too many," he said.  "Probably only me," I responded.  "You are probably right," he admitted.

Now I live in a city of some 150,000 people.  Certainly less than 10 clergymen wear a clerical collar in this town -- probably closer to a half dozen.  In general, clergy garb is not big in fashion in the South.  In fact, you are more likely to see black clergy in a collar than any form of white Protestant ministers.  So I would guess that I am part of a very, very small minority but apparently not a very visible one.  It never occurred to my own physician that I was his only patient who regularly wore a clerical collar.

Normally you might think that less than a dozen clergy in black tab or full collar clerical shirts might just stand out in this sea of Southern Baptists, Church of Christ, Nazarene, and other assorted brands of Christianity more prone to be found south of the Mason Dixon line.  At nearly ever ecumenical gathering I go to, the standard clergy garb is more likely a polo and khakis or a suit and tie.  Frankly, I think that I am obvious to the point of ridiculousness.  Maybe not...

Maybe we live in a world which has stopped paying much attention to such things.  Perhaps distinctive clergy attire, like Christianity in general, is no longer a given in our culture.  More than that, it just may be that in an ocean of tattoos, piercings, multicolored hair, and assorted odd dress, a clerical collar seems rather pedestrian and ordinary.

I wonder if this is not symptomatic of Christianity in general.  We think we are distinctive but in reality we blend in rather well.  Christianity was once a distinctive sort of religion but it seems to be less and less distinctive today.  We Lutherans tend to be blander than most Christians when it comes to distinctives so it is even more likely we, among the many varieties of Christians, fade into the background.

I say this only because from our perspective we think we are so different.  From the perspective of those on the outside of Christian faith, we must not be nearly as noticeable as we assumed.  Which means that today, piety and Christian distinctiveness (not a hypocrisy of perfection or an arrogance of judgment but genuine distinctiveness of faith and life) needs to be more nurtured and deliberately taught among us.  It is one of those times when Christian piety and practice becomes an issue of witness and confession as much as personal identity.  How well can they know us if we are so easily overlooked or ignored?

To banish the cross from the public square...

The result of every growing secularism in England and Europe can be seen in the following article in the Times... The whole article is available here  The impetus is clear:  The government does not believe that Christians have a right to openly wear a crucifix in the workplace.  Such a violation is subject to dismissal by the employer.  This is the current status of freedom of religion in Europe and England, and, if many get their way in America, we will see it soon here... unless the SCOTUS refutes such egregious violation of our rights...

In a highly significant move, ministers will fight a case at the European Court of Human Rights in which two British women will seek to establish their right to display the cross.

It is the first time that the Government has been forced to state whether it backs the right of Christians to wear the symbol at work.

A document seen by The Sunday Telegraph discloses that ministers will argue that because it is not a "requirement" of the Christian faith, employers can ban the wearing of the cross and sack workers who insist on doing so.

The Government's position received an angry response last night from prominent figures including Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

He accused ministers and the courts of "dictating" to Christians and said it was another example of Christianity becoming sidelined in official life.

The Government's refusal to say that Christians have a right to display the symbol of their faith at work emerged after its plans to legalise same-sex marriages were attacked by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain.

A poll commissioned by The Sunday Telegraph shows that the country is split on the issue.

The Strasbourg case hinges on whether human rights laws protect the right to wear a cross or crucifix at work under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance."

Friday, March 23, 2012

A real estate lesson...

Anyone who lives in the heart of the city knows the high price of urban real estate.  Having been raised in the wide open spaces of Nebraska, I was shocked to find out rental costs for a small apartment in NYC when I first arrived for my vicarage some 34 years ago.  It is even worse today.  Yet as we visited the city on my day off, my wife and I noticed that much of the pricey real estate was given over to non-profit enterprises, you know, churches.  All across Manhattan very choice addresses were held by churches -- and not small little chapels either.  From St. Pats to St. Barts to St. Thomas to St. Mary the Virgin, to the hundreds of other churches, I was impressed that some of the choicest addresses in the city were occupied by churches.

The greatest value in the tight spaces of the city is not given to the high rises that seem to touch the sky, but the lower buildings.  Churches are lavish extravagances in a city which values space so highly.  They stand tall not because of physical height but because we afford them some of the best of our addresses and the most expensive real estate known to us and we indulge them this largesse even though the "air" space above their buildings is itself a valuable resource.

Where real estate is at a premium and limited space pushes up the skyline, there’s nothing more luxurious than a low-lying building.  While seeing a steeple in the shadow of a skyscraper suggest the domination of church by commerce, it actually indicates our society’s collective willingness to sacrifice massive economic gains to preserve a space for worship. That land is very valuable and, in a strictly economic sense, would be put to much better use by the construction of yet another stack of offices of condominiums. It is a typically modern inversion that the steeple overawed by the skyscraper represents a real and costly decision in favor of faith.... says Matthew Schmitz at First Thoughts.

He is correct.  A good sign of the place of religion and faith in the city is when pressure is put to bear to tear down these churches and replace them with tall buildings that take advantage of the upward value of upward space.  But it is equally true that when churches sell or abandon those properties, it is a sign of the Church writing off the urban space more than the secular world laying claim to what was the domain of the religious.  The sad truth is that in cities everywhere churches are abandoning the city, cashing in on the valuable real estate, and heading for the suburbs -- or simply closing down altogether.  This is a bad thing in many ways.  When the city and its commerce and culture are left without a tangible presence of the Christian faith, the result is the victory of the secular -- no matter if the churches are pushed out or give up.  We cannot afford to let this happen.  The renewal of the city will happen only by the renewal of the churches in the city.

Recently there were complaints that Cardinal Dolan is at the same time closing down parishes no longer viable and yet pouring tens of millions into the refurbishment of St. Pat's.  I fully understand the lament of those whose parishes have been or are being targeted for closure.  Yet at the same time I fully understand the need to keep the visible icon of faith in good shape for the next hundred years.  The network that occupies the real estate directly across from St. Pat's needs to have this marker of Christian faith and life to balance off the media bias against it -- if only in the symbolism of the extravagance of giving over such valuable real estate to a church.

Could this be the reason?

Methodists were once a robust people in America.  Today their ranks are at least a third less than they once numbered, their churches hardly a bastion of traditional moral order and creedal confession, and their future more in doubt than ever before.  Could this be one reason?  You tell me...
  • 166 We believe in God, Creator of the world; and in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of creation. We believe in the Holy Spirit, through whom we acknowledge God’s gifts, and we repent of our sin in misusing these gifts to idolatrous ends.
  • We affirm the natural world as God’s handiwork and dedicate ourselves to its preservation, enhancement, and faithful use by humankind.
  • We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.
  • We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.
  • We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.
  • We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.
  • We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.
 (It is recommended that this statement of Social Principles be continually available to United Methodist Christians and that it be emphasized regularly in every congregation. It is further recommended that "Our Social Creed" be frequently used in Sunday worship.)

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2000. Copyright 2000 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On the Stations of the Cross and their origins...

Undoubtedly, the early Christians held the sites of Christ's sorrowful journey to the cross in highest esteem.  For some years, there would still be those who walked the steps with Him and who stood at the foot of His cross -- including the Blessed Virgin  Mary and St. John the Apostle (who lived much later).  It would be expected, then, that Christians would visit the places where Christ walked on the way to Calvary and even pray at the hill on which our redemption was won.

These early Christians knew well the various stops along the way.  They regularly saw the stairs and praetorium where Christ was tried by Pontius Pilate.  The place of our Lord's Crucifixion and Resurrection would have been well known to them. Pilgrims coming from the West desired to see these places and desired to know how Christ traveled from the place of His unjust condemnation to His Crucifixion - the Via Dolorosa or Via Sacra. The Stations of the Cross had their origin in the actual locations in Jerusalem and in the ordinary desire of Christians to honor the way of Christ's walk to the cross.

Early pilgrims to the Holy Land brought these stories of the places and their devotion home with them. In the 400s, Saint Petronius erected a series of chapels in Bologna, Italy, dedicated to the important shrines of Jerusalem. During the Crusades, when pilgrimages and travels to the Holy Land resumed, there was a renewed interest among Europeans in the Via Sacra. By the 11th century, these pilgrims had popularized the devotion. The Franciscans, who were granted administration of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem in 1342, increased its popularity.

In the 1400s, the Stations of the Cross became extremely popular in Europe.  Unlike the artistic expressions found in churches today, they were usually a series of outdoor shrines with a walk way or path to follow.

In 1686, Pope Innocent XI granted the Franciscans the right to erect Stations of the Cross within their churches. It was only as late as 1862 that the right to erect Stations of the Cross in non-Franciscan churches was extended to bishops throughout the Catholic Church.  So what we know today has its roots more recently than often thought, though the practice of walking the stations as part of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is, indeed, ancient.  It may be of interest to note, however, that the Eastern Christians have no direct correlating history or practice to the Stations of the Cross.

The traditional stations include both Biblical and non-Biblical events.  Some more modern stations include only Biblical events and some often include a 15th Station for the Resurrection.  The traditional ones are:
  1. Jesus is condemned to death
  2. Jesus bears his cross
  3. Jesus falls the first time
  4. Jesus meets his mother
  5. Jesus is helped by Simon
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls a second time
  8. Jesus speaks to the women
  9. Jesus falls a third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of his garments
  11. Jesus is nailed to the Cross
  12. Jesus dies on the Cross
  13. Jesus is taken down from the Cross
  14. Jesus is placed in the tomb

Law and Gospel in C. S. Lewis....

Few know of the letters of CS Lewis to Fr. Don Giovanni Calabria, in part because they were in Latin.Although an English translation was published in 1998, they remain in relative obscurity. The full collection is available here: The Latin Letters of CS Lewis  The letters are classic Lewis but speak directly to the secularization of Europe and the failings of Christianity and, though written in the 1950s, seem prescient about the situation we find more than 50 years later.

(Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953)
But God who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. We must not despair. And among us are not an inconsiderable number now returning to the faith. For my part, I believe we ought to work not only at spreading the Gospel (that certainly) but also to a certain preparation for the Gospel. It is necessary to recall many to the law of nature before we talk about God. For Christ promises forgiveness of sins, but what is that to those who, since they do not know the law of nature, do not know that they have sinned? Who will take medicine unless he knows he is in the grip of a disease? Moral relativity is the enemy we have to overcome before we tackle atheism. I would almost dare to say, “First let us make the younger generation good pagans, and afterwards let us make them Christians.”

As you read his words, you hear the clear sound of Law and Gospel even though he does not use those exact terms.  But I am intrigued by the last line... "first let us make the younger generation good pagans, and afterwards let us make them Christians."  Perhaps his genius is shining through this sentence even more powerfully than some of his more famous works.  His point is that most of the loss of faith has taken place still under the aura of Christianity and spiritual pursuit.  Because it is cloaked in the guise of liberal Christianity ripped from the Scriptures and divorced from the creedal character of the faith over history, those pagans do not see themselves as pagans.  They believe that this vapid spirituality with its Christian references is a decent substitute for the catholic faith borne of fact and event and prophetic promised fulfilled that those held captive to sin and its darkness and death might be freed by the death and resurrection of the Son of God in our human flesh and blood.  They are not ripe candidates for witness because they believe the differences between the real Christianity and their own Christianity lite is one of perception, choice, and feeling (without a truth objectively true for those who believe and those who do not).

Lewis is absolutely right.  We must make them good pagans before we can make them Christians.  In other words, we must strip away the exterior veneer of Christianity from this paganism being spewed forth by liberal Christianity and the me-centered preaching and teaching that dominates so many successful preachers today and call it what it is.  It is not an authentic version of Christianity paganism sure and true.  Only when we are convinced of our sin and living the lament of its darkness and death can the Spirit speak to us the sweet hope of Christ and His redemptive work in the Gospel.  It is exactly the Law in its raw force that is absent from so much preaching today and repentance has become simply living at ease with the person you are.  Lewis is framing the secularization of the world and its potential redemption precisely in the Lutheran frame of Law and Gospel.  In other words, you do not have to be Lutheran to speak in those terms and to recognize the value of this very Lutheran way of speaking.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Happy Birthday Johann!

First, let me save us all a lot of reading and simply urge you to purchase Michael Lawrence marvelous DVD called Bach & Friends.  You can order it online here.  You waste more money on stuff far less interesting or worthy so cough up the cash and get it.  Period.

Second let me point to a couple of outtakes from the Bach & Friends DVD that did not make the cut.  You can listen here.  Holy Moly!  If these did not make the cut, you can only imagine what WAS included.  Again, charge it and get it and play it a couple of times -- at least!

He is arguably the most famous Lutheran in the world, perhaps more famous than Luther himself.  He was a most worthy bearer of the Lutheran legacy of confession and music.  Where would we be without Bach?  No, literally, where???

Happy 327 Johann!