Sunday, September 30, 2012

Toke the Ghost

It would be funny if it were not so sad, pathetic, and blasphemous.... 

Singing or Non-Singing

Lutherans hardly need to be reminded:  Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions… which control men or more often overwhelm them… Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to subdue frivolity, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate or to appease those full of hate… what more effective means than music could you find.   LW 53, p. 323.  We sort of put music into the Church -- well, at least a goodly share of congregational song!  We may not be the only game in town but few churches sing from the beginning to the end of Sunday morning.  It is the Lutheran normal.  Less music is the odd man out in Lutheran services -- and it feels odd -- strange to speak words you are accustomed to singing! I find the Lutheran service without music to be, well, less than Lutheran so to speak -- sort of like a wicked little step child that is there but not acknowledged.  It is not that we think of worship AND music but that worship by its nature is musical!

It hardly ever occurs to Lutherans that there are many Christians for whom music is not an essential and others for whom it is the oddity rather than the norm.  The music itself may be a subject for debate but its essential character as part of the Divine Service is hardly debatable -- at least for Lutherans.  Rome has a larger history of spoken liturgy sans hymns or choir.  Orthodoxy seems to sing worship more than speak it.  But outside of Christianity,   I have to admit I was surprised to find how little music there is associated with Islamic worship(other than the call to prayer which is hardly considered music at all).  Though not all Muslims regard music as such, many speak of music as haram (forbidden), and singing is not normally featured in the religious practices of many mosques.  I cannot say if Buddhists chant or the Hindi worship practices include music but I expect that congregational song is not necessarily found much beyond the pale of Christians and then more normally among non-Roman Catholics.

What I know is that when I think of worship I think of it with a soundtrack -- a musical one.  Nagel's classic introduction to Lutheran Worship again suffices as a conclusion to this thought.

The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Our Lord gives us his body to eat and his blood to drink. Finally his blessing moves us out into our calling, where his gifts have their fruition. How best to do this we may learn from his Word and from the way his Word has prompted his worship through the centuries. We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day--the living heritage and something new.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Odds and Ends...

Lutheran Southern Seminary has merged with Lenoir-Rhyne University.  That is old news.  The new news is that the university is hosting Bach Festival Days, October 7-10, 2012.  Hear about Bach and the Organ (narrative organ recital and chorale sing), Bach in the Year of His Promotion, Cantata 78 (both heard with a live performance and discussed in depth), Bach's Vocation and Ours, and "Performing Bach Cantatas in Worship... among other offerings.  You can check it out here....

The other new news is not so good.  It appears that the LSS merger required some layoffs.  David Yeago, a prolific author and faculty member since 1988, was let go.  He has been called one of the lone voices of orthodox Christianity among ELCA seminary faculty members.  Perhaps that is why he was slated for downsizing.  Even sadder is the fact that Daniel Bell, a United Methodist, is now the only professor of theology at a Lutheran seminary that, well, isn't so much Lutheran anymore.  Kind of sad, or better, pathetic.  Such is the state of Lutheranism in the world today.  And we wonder why the brand is in decline.  Yeah... well.

Religion did little more than make me fat...

The latest Forum Letter includes the sad story of a father and daughter, both ELCA clergy, who lost their faith and, with it, seem to have lost some sensibility as well.  On the one hand there is the story of the father, an ELCA pastor and bishop who retired and ended up leaving behind his faith when he moved on.  It is a sad story of an otherwise sympathetic figure who, not long after retiring, felt compelled to write a newspaper article calling into question the resurrection of Jesus.  He did not stop there.  In the end there was little left of his Christianity except an odd affection still for the church.

The other part of this story is the daughter.  She seems to have grown up in the church but gained less of its faith than not a little bitterness and blame for the church.  The church made her fat.  The church caused the problems in her clergy career.  The church left her nothing at all but her doubts about God and her certainty that not much about Jesus or God can be known, if they exist at all.  From all of this, she and her father found a certain commonality around their rejection of Christianity -- except she ended up with little of his fondness for the church.

This is not a new story.  I have written a blog post or two about this kind of thing.  But every time I read it I am saddened -- saddened by the prospect of someone preaching something they no longer really believed, saddened when this disbelief did not have the integrity to resign right away, saddened that the offenders seem duty bound to announce their doubts (with more vigor than they once spoke their faith), and saddened that the church ends up being blamed for the doubts, the troubles, and the final judgment that Christianity was without fact or truth.  Why can't these folks just remain in the background and fade away?  Why do they feel it necessary to cast shame and doubt toward those who did believe and whose lives were touched by their ministry and service?

Richard Johnson put it very well in this article.  I only hope that those who might one day follow this family in denial would listen and keep their doubts to themselves -- if not for the sake of Christ and His kingdom at least for the sake of those people who trusted them, loved them, received their ministry with joy, and counted on them.  I was not all that surprised when I saw the book Mommie Dearest and the movie came out with the shocking fact that the movie star was not a star quality mom but I am not sure why I had to have this confirmed by the book or shoved in my face by the movie.  Maybe it was therapeutic for the daughter to tell all but it seemed more like sour grapes to me -- oh, yes, and a trip to the bank.  In the same way I am not at all surprised that clergy lose their faith or become confirmed unbelievers.  But for the life of me I cannot figure out why they need to shout their doubts or disbelief from highest rooftop.

We all are caught in the tension between faith and doubt.  Peter was not exactly encouraging when he said, "Where else can we go?  You alone have the words of eternal life."  It was almost as if Peter were saying he hoped he did have an alternative but he knew he did not.  Jesus words are hard.  Faith is not easy.  Life as a Christian is filled with a few ups and many downs.  Lord, I believe.  Help Thou my unbelief.  That's all that needs to be said.  I read that somewhere...

BTW if you are not a subscriber, here is how you can become one.  Lutheran Forum and Forum Letter -- a great buy and a good read -- even when it just makes you mad!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Put your money where your mouth is...

A wise bishop once said that you can tell the central mission of a parish, or any organization for that matter, by looking at its budget.  In other words: where the money is, so too is the heart.  I think even Jesus might agree with that, don't you think?  I would go one step further and suggest that a look at a parish calendar is also illuminating about how the purpose and function of the Church is understood.

Take a look at many parish budgets and they would tell you that worship is not a very high priority on their life together.  I would venture that not even missions is a high priority.  We tend to spend most upon ourselves -- our own creature comforts.  Now I am not at all suggesting that we need to strip out the air conditioning or reduce the number of toilets -- that would be radical indeed.  Maybe we do not need to spend much less on these but I am suggesting that we spend MORE on worship.  It is the source from which all our parish life flows and it is the summit to which all our live together points.  I believe that part of the reason we have so few organists is that we do not esteem their craft highly, we pay them poorly, and we treat them abysmally.  Why is it that so few Pastors run through the liturgy before opening the book on Sunday morning (which explains why no one know what they amened in the collect since it was so butchered when it was spoken!)?  Why is it that we expect screw ups or embarrassments and have grown to expect a comedy of errors on Sunday morning?  Why is it that we put cheap imitation instruments into service to lead the people in the highest calling of music -- the praise of God and the service of the Word?  Why is it that we think casual and reverent can co-exist and an usher wearing a beer t-shirt or a young woman in suggestive top and short shorts are appropriate for the House of the Lord?  When we give worship the attention, the resources, and the priority it deserves, the results will show forth in the life of the Church.  One thing Americans cannot abide is something done poorly.  Surely the Church deserves better than the YouTube antics of class clowns!

Second, take a look at the calendar.  If the worship services are minimal or even missing from the calendar but every kind "fellowship" or "outreach" activity gets its due, something might be wrong.  When we advertise the ballroom dancing small group but do not post the times for prayer, other worship services besides the main one on Sunday morning, or sufficient Bible study opportunities, something is wrong.  When the "fellowship hall" or "gymnasium" dominates the skyline of the church facility and the space for worship is not prominent, something is wrong.  I am amazed at what the physical structures and calendars of some parishes have to say about what is important there or what they believe God has gathered them to accomplish.  The point is not to impress me but for us all to reflect upon the real reason for the Church.  When worship is but one of many tasks or offerings of the church, then it says that worship is neither the distinctive purpose of the church nor the domain where God delivers His gifts to His people (through the means of grace).  And that is just plain wrong.

I believe that part of the crisis in the congregations of our church body is because worship is neither the prominent priority nor the defining reason why we exist.  Where did we ever get the idea that what God wanted from the church was a group that parodied and mimicked the offerings of the secular world all in the name of the Lord?  If God had wanted this, He would have come up with a far better idea than a third rate praise band that tries to sound like Gospel rock from the radio or preachers who do monologues more than speak the Gospel or buildings that seem more designed to keep us comfortable than to focus our attention upon the means of grace where God comes to us.  It is time for us to do better.  Period!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

It should not be overlooked...

On 26 September 2012, at the close of Yom Kippur, the Canadian Parliament voted 203–91 against M-312. Children in the womb, for legal purposes, will remain non-persons whose lives may be ended with impunity.

That was the announcement over at a First Things blog.  I will pass it on without comment here...

Irish PM Enda Kenny cannot help but text away during Papal Audience...

I guess I don't feel so bad when I see folks texting during my sermons -- if they do it to the Pope, they will do it to me.  Worse is when we cannot take our minds off ourselves long enough to pay heed to the Word and Table of the Lord...

Oh well....

HT to Fr. Z

For a little fun... about those four little words and the prospect of Jesus having a wife (other than the Church)...

What would the ruins of your church say about the faith?

I was repairing a lost bookmarks list and it caused me to visit a blog or two I have not read in, well, a year or more.  One had an interesting question about what some future archeologist might surmise by the ruins of your church building.  It was more than intriguing for me to begin imagining someone digging through the remains of the churches I have served. 

I would guess that they would see the centrality of baptism, preaching, and the Eucharist since in all three these pieces of liturgical furniture are substantial and would  survive mostly in tact a good long time.  He would see the shards of stained glass -- all symbols easily identifiable with the Christian faith -- the Trinity, means of grace, vine and branches, etc...  He would find pipes from the organ and know that music was central to the cultus of this congregation.  He would find statues and a couple of crucifixes (crucifii) and know that the central preaching of this place was Jesus Christ and Him crucified (as Paul says).  He would find precious metals shaped into chalices, ciboria, paten, and the like and know that these were highly esteemed for their usefulness in the Divine Service.  He would find candelabra and figure that light was highly symbolic in this faith and worship.  He would find remnants of vestments (copes to chasubles to capa negra to albs to cassocks to cottas to surplices to stoles to a biretta or two) and would see how the priests had their personal identity covered by the clothing that points to Christ.  I could go on and on -- some of the things might be less than significant, from the number of toilets in the building to the size of the coffee pots!

I also began to think what other styles of buildings might betray of their tenants and tenets.  Alas, with comfortable seating and a stage, big screens and a trap set, it might be hard to distinguish some from either a theater, movie theater, or nightclub.  It occurred to me that some might be hard to differentiate from lecture halls or academic buildings with their central pulpits or lecterns and chairs arranged as one might a giant lecture hall.  It might seem that for some structures worship was all about words and little else.  For others, it might appear that worship involved entertainment with soloists and musicians to play and make merry.  In any case it is not a bad thing to stop every now and then and ask ourselves what our worship facilities actually reveal about what we think of worship.  Maybe, just maybe, it might cause us to be a bit more cautious about adopting the latest trend of music or culture or fashion.  But, then again, I might just be presuming too much about the kind of legacy we think we are leaving...  In the end, the greater tragedy would be if our buildings told a big story about us but left the God we worship a mystery, unknown and without hint in the ruins of the structures in which the people of God once gathered....  Just sayin....

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Power or authority? Lording or serving?

Sermon for Pentecost 17, proper 20B, preached on Sunday, September 23, 2012.

    It sometimes seems like the Church is powerless in the face of her enemies.  Many have lamented that Christianity is like a toothless tiger with a big roar but no bite.  Some Christians are frustrated that our Lord and our faith are kicked around like old garbage in the media, in the Middle East, and by our own government.  We often wish we had power to force people to respect us and take our faith seriously.  Have you felt that way?  I know that I have.
    Power, however, is a worldly thing.  It is of limited supply.  It must be jealously guarded.  It can never be shared or it will diminish.  It can never be given up or surrendered.  Authority, however, is the nature of the kingdom of God. Authority is not taken but given and conferred.  It is given away and multiplied in the process.  It manifests itself not in being served but in serving others.  Jesus insists that the kingdom of God is not one of power but one of authority.  Jesus not only speaks of this but demonstrates it.
    Jesus never claims His own authority.  He claims only what the Father has given Him... to speak and to do.  The words are the Father's and the works are the Father's.  Most of all Jesus does what is the duty of the lowest of servants.  He washes the feet of His disciples.  He eats with sinners.  He welcomes children.  Most of all He demonstrates His authority by suffering and dying in our place.  It is this authority which He has bequeathed to His Church and those who would serve her.  Remember Matthew 28 when, after His resurrection, He sends forth His Church saying “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me... go, baptize, teach...”  Or the Easter evening ordination of John 20 when Jesus breathes His Spirit upon His disciples and gives them the authority to forgive and retain sin.
    Jesus' disciples did not understand such power.  I am not sure that we understand it any better.  While they were arguing about power, Jesus was speaking of authority.  Later on while they were still arguing about power, Jesus insists that His disciples were not to exercise power – like the Gentiles whose rulers lorded it over others.  Here is the issue.  We are still arguing about power and missing the authority that Christ has given to His Church and His people.
    Every time Jesus disciples came across others who were preaching or doing miracles in Jesus' name, those disciples wanted Jesus to make them stop.  When a place did not hear the message of the kingdom, they wanted Jesus to rain down fire from heaven and destroy those people.  What they thought mattered most of all was a respect demanded of others and the power to make that respect happen.
    Power always operates by demand, threat, fear, and punishment.  It is the way of the Law to demand obedience, to threaten wrong doers, to make the people fear and to punish those who fail.  It is the way of the Law but that Law earned us nothing.  We were left condemned and marked for death.  The Law could not redeem.  It could only punish. 
    People who act by the Law insist upon everything that is their right or their due.  They demand that people treat them in a certain way.  They insist that with respect others serve them.  This is the way Israel saw God – the only way.  He was a God who must be obeyed or else.  They feared His power and so they served Him.  But power can never create love.  The Law can make us obey but it cannot force us to love.  This is why Jesus condemned them for an external righteousness but an empty heart inside.
    The authority of Jesus is the authority borne of His service to us and for us.  In the kingdom of God everyone is of equal value – kings and commoners, adults and children, men and women, rich and poor.  The least is just as important as the greatest.  The test of love is not how you treat the powerful but how you treat the weakest and most vulnerable.  The authority of Jesus never demands service but it always serves.  Just as Jesus who insists He has not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  The Church has this authority to serve in Jesus' name those not yet of the Kingdom.  The Church exercises this authority by preaching the Gospel of the cross, by forgiving sins in Jesus’ name, by administering the sacraments of His institution, and by doing the works of mercy which Christ has done for us.  In the same way each Christian has this baptismal vocation of worship, witness, service, mercy works, and sacrifice.
    We should not be hearing people demand their rights or compete for place.  In the Church we gladly give up what is our right to serve and compete instead for the privilege of serving others as Christ has loved and served us.  We so easily forget this and choose instead to take up some earthly power while forsaking the very authority Christ died to confer upon us – the authority to proclaim the Kingdom and to forgive one another in Jesus name.  We dare not exchange this heavenly authority to forgive sins for puny power that must be constantly attended to or it will be lost and we left with nothing at all.
    This whole thing is illustrated in this way.  In the Church a bishop can always acolyte but an acolyte cannot never presume to be a bishop.  Those of higher office can always serve in a lower office but those of a lower office cannot claim what has not be conferred upon them.  The greater the office, the greater the burden of service.  This is what the disciples missed and what we seem to miss far too often.
    Power is accompanied by expectations and demands that must be constantly enforced.  These are a crutch and a burden.  On the other hand, service is freedom and blessing.  Why do we Christians find ourselves lusting after the power we see wielded in the worldly realm but forget that the greater “power” in the authority of the Kingdom, the authority to forgive sins, to proclaim the cross, to love and show Christ's mercy to all people.  People will fear power but they love the authority to serve.  It may not be efficient or as effective in the short term but power is always fleeting and always temporary.  Only the authority borne of the cross is eternal.  Heaven and earth may pass away but the Word of the Lord and the authority of that Word endures forever.
    It is so easy to become frustrated by the seeming weakness of the authority of the Gospel and yet this is the greatest authority of all.  Jesus suffered and died to receive this authority to seek out us sinners, forgive us, and serve us with His lavish grace and favor. Now He confers it upon us.  Will we exchange this eternal authority of the Gospel for some earthly and temporary power?  Or will we glory in the authority of Christ that saves?

Orthodox Worship Versus Contemporary Worship

Within the past few decades, a new form of worship has become widely popular among Christians. Where before people would sing hymns accompanied by an organ, then listen to a sermon, in this new worship there are praise bands that use rock band instruments, short, catchy praise songs, sophisticated Powerpoint presentations, and the pastor giving uplifting practical teachings about having a fulfilling life as a Christian. This new kind of worship is so popular that people come to these services by the thousands. They go because the services are fun, exciting, easy to understand, and easy to relate to. Yet this new style of worship is light years away from the more traditional and liturgical Orthodox style of worship.

So begins a lengthly blog post from Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy on the subject of contemporary worship.  It is worth the read.  Even if you do not agree with everything he says, it is a thoughtful post and a good entry into the ever popular worship wars debate.

First we need to ask: Is there a guiding principle for right worship?  St. Stephen, the first martyr, gave a sermon about the history of the Jewish nation.  In this sermon he notes that Old Testament worship was “according to the pattern.”
Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert.  It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. (Acts 7:44 NIV, bolds added).  
This phrase comes up again in the book of Hebrews.
They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven.  This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”  (Hebrews 8:5 NIV, bold added)
The phrase is a reference to Exodus 24:15-18 when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai and spent forty days and forty nights up there.  On Mt. Sinai Moses was in the direct presence of God receiving instructions about how to order the life of the new Jewish nation.  Thus, the guiding principle for Old Testament worship was not creative improvisation nor adapting to contemporary culture but imitation of the heavenly prototype.

The article just keeps getting better.  Especially significant is the last line of the quote above -- imitation of the heavenly prototype.  That is something behind the whole essence of liturgical worship.  It mirrors not the culture of the day (as contemporary worship forms and music do) but attempts to prefigure, glimpse, and direct the worshiper to the heavenly realm which our earthly temple prefigures. If you want some good Lutheran reading on this, get yourself Art Just's great book Heaven on Earth:  The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service (CPH):

... in worship Christ is summoning us home to be with Him when He invites us to sit and listen to His Word with our ears or our eyes and then come forward and receive His flesh with our mouths. Our eyes are opened to His bodily presence where He offers us the best seat at the table and the finest food.  We have come home to be with God in the Father's house, a foretaste of our final homecoming at the Lamb's banquet in His kingdom that has no end.  Worship is our home, our own unique culture inhabited by Christ Himself, we we know by heart its language and its rhythms for we have immersed ourselves in its life because it is His life...  p. 245

Again, from Orthodox Christian Robert Arakaki:

This is a participation of the heavenly worship described in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8.  For the Orthodox Church this point of the Divine Liturgy is not so much an imitation as a participation in the heavenly worship.


If the Apostle Paul were to walk into an Orthodox liturgy, he would immediately recognize where he was — in a Christian church.  The key give away would be the Eucharist.  This is because the Eucharist was central to Christian worship.  In the days following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost the early Christians met in homes and celebrated “the breaking of bread” (the Eucharist).  Paul received his missionary calling during the celebration of the liturgy (Acts 13:2 NKJV).  He made the celebration of the Eucharist a key part of his message to the church in Corinth (I Corinthians 11:23 ff.).

If Paul were to walk into a traditional Protestant service with the hymn singing, the reading of Scripture and the lengthy sermon he might think he was in a religious service much like the Jewish synagogue.  He may not have much trouble accepting it as a kind of Christian worship service, although he might question their understanding of the Eucharist.  However, if the Apostle Paul were to walk into a mega church with its praise bands and elaborate worship routine, he would likely think he was at some Greek play and seriously doubt he was at a Christian worship service.  If the Apostle Paul were to walk into a Pentecostal service he would probably think he had walked into a pagan mystery cult that had no resemblance at all to Christian worship.

You just cannot miss the difference -- whether you can explain the theology of it or simply relate the radically different experience.  Good stuff in the ongoing debate about what Sunday morning should look like...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I remember when...

Remember when our [Lutheran] Pastors read these books

Instead of these?

Fortunately, we're slowly moving back to our confessional heritage, and Concordia Publishing House is helping to lead the charge with books like these:

Shamelessly copied from Stand Firm and the good work of Scott Diekmann ...

Monday, September 24, 2012

Beard or no beard...

Beards are more than an interest of mine.  I began growing my beard when I left for college in the Fall of '72.  I have not been without a beard ever since. My unimpressed parents have gotten used to it.  My wife and children have never seen me without one.  My first parish was not so sure a beard was a wholesome thing and I reminded them I had the beard before I had the call to NY.  That seemed to tell them which one was presumed (at least in my mind).

Now my beard is a beard and not the glorified stubble that passes for a heavy 5 o'clock shadow so popular today.  And my beard has changed -- though mostly in color.  A bit in shape but not much.  So it was with great interest I read Peter Berger's take on the relationship between beards and faith.  You can read it all for yourself but I have clipped a bit if it to this blog post so you get a flavor for it all.  If you pass through the portrait gallery of the LCMS historical display at the International Center you will find a few beards, a few mustaches (ala Harrison though not as Teddy Roooooosevelt as Harrison's), and a host of various mutton chops and other strange facial hair shapes and designs.  I would suspect most of it was due to fashion, personal taste, and what you could get away with and little of real theological significance.

There are significant differences between Latin and Greek Christianity. Bearded priests have become the norm in Eastern Orthodox churches; in the Roman Catholic Church, while there are some monastic orders whose monks wear beards, secular priests are normally clean-shaven. I don’t know whether there are “grooming regulations” in either case, nor do I know of any in Protestant churches. Mormons stand out: Young men going out on their two-year missionary stints must be clean-shaven, as must students at Brigham Young University. Beards have become the trademark of Orthodox Judaism, though the Torah does not command them directly (Leviticus only has rules for shaping the beard). I would imagine that there are different deductions from these rules in the Talmud. Jews in mourning, while “sitting shive”, don’t shave and let the stubbles sit during this period. Sikhs are very intent on their luxurious beards. Many Hindu ascetics have beards, but that is not so much a symbol as the result of their having no possessions, not even a razor (they do beg—is there no pious barber who can donate a free shave?). I have no knowledge of Buddhist attitudes to facial hair. But of course we are most aware of the role of beards in contemporary Islam. Beards are the male equivalents of female headgear. If young men in Turkey come out of the closet as Islamists and consequently drive their Kemalist parents crazy, their young sisters achieve the same result by covering their hair with the scarves that signify Islamic modesty. As far as I know, there is no commandment to wear beards in the Koran, though there is an authoritative tradition (hadith) according to which the Prophet Muhammad did issue such a commandment.

Apparently I am not the only one touched by this thought.  Read Gottesdienstonline.   For an in depth article, click here.  As for me, I close with Peter Berger's words again:   As to beards, often they symbolize nothing beyond themselves—as Freud did not say, but might have said: Sometimes a beard is just a beard. Beards have carried all sorts of symbolic freight. In the area of religion, it would be nice if beards symbolized moderation and tolerance.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Word to the Naysayers

In a piece on how we love to hate bishops (well, really any authority figures), Leroy Huizenga says this:  Just as we never hear about planes that take off and land safely, we are never confronted with news of bishops who fulfill their offices with quiet honor.  I resonate with those words. Notoriety comes more from error or sin than from goodness and virtue.  I do complain a lot on this blog (maybe too much).  But I am not simply a naysayer (at least I try not to be).  I am a constant and fervent believer that the Church lives hidden and less obvious than the places and people who grab our attention -- faithful Pastors and church leaders and workers who do their jobs faithfully yet quietly in parishes where faithful and pious Christian people gather to fulfill their baptismal vocations and be the Church.

For all the numbers of parishes where worship has become entertainment and Pastors have become entertainers and church music has become the Christian pop playlist, there are many more parishes worship is focused upon the Word and Table of the Lord, where Pastors served in their priestly roles within the liturgy, and where the music of the Church sings the Gospel to the singers.  They serve quietly yet nobly with the world looking past but God looking on... God bless em!

I just wanted to say this.  I need to be reminded of this from time and time.  So do you.  Just sayin...

Saturday, September 22, 2012

... the Bible is not just a collection of historical documents, but it is the book of the Church, ... God's word.  And so we do not read the Bible as isolated individuals, or in terms of current theories about source, form or redaction criticism.  We read it as members of the Church, in communion with all the other members throughout the ages.  The final criterion for our interpretation of Scripture is the mind of the Church.  And this means keeping constantly in view how the meaning of Scripture is explained and applied in Holy Tradition: that is to say, how the Bible is understood by the Fathers and the saints, and how it is used in liturgical worship...  Bishop Kallistos Ware... The Orthodox Way

Bishop Ware is complaining about the way we have come to view the Bible.  He is insistent that the Bible is not merely a "collection of historical documents" whose meaning, importance, and message can be authoritatively exhausted by academic scholarship.  In fact, this is the primary problem with higher criticism.  The major problem lies not in the conclusions of these methodologies but in the flawed perspective toward the Scriptures themselves.  The Bible was and is and will always remain the Church's book.  It can only be read and understood within the context of the faith and by the faithful.  What has happened to Biblical scholarship is that the churches have ceded the higher critics, academicians, and historians the lead role in defining what the book is, what it is about, and what it means.  This point of view can never answer these questions.  The Bible is first and foremost the Word of God and its purpose is to bring us into the mystery of God as He has revealed Himself.  These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing in Him you may have life in His name.  Whenever and whoever shifts the message to mere stories and facts or instructions on a happier life or even behavioral change has missed what the Bible is, what it is about, and what it says.  I am always reminded by the words of an esteemed Pastor who said that he had little use for most commentaries because they did not help him preach the text.  It is not only possible but probable that we know a great deal about the text without knowing what it says.  Unless it preaches, all that we know is largely theoretical and of little real value to the Church.

Israel kept the Scriptures within the church of the Old Testament and it became the vehicle not only of faithful transmission of the text but the faithful understanding of its message.  The same was true of the earliest days of Christianity.  Now we have the strange circumstance in which academics purport to know better than the Church (the preachers and teachers and the faithful) what the book says, whether it is true, and what it all means.  I must confess that many in Christendom have forgotten that the Bible is not some textbook or historical record but the Scriptures that live, that preach, and that save.  For this reason, the liturgy has always used the Scriptures as the primary text for worship.  Reminds me of that wonderful old Nagel quote in the introduction to Lutheran Worship:

“Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise.” “Saying back to him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Most true and sure is his name, which he put upon us with the water of our Baptism. We are his.” “The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol him. We build each other up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Our Lord gives us his body to eat and his blood to drink. Finally his blessing moves us out into our calling, where his gifts have their fruition”  (various quotes)

Without this lens we are left with a book that is at best uncertain and at worst completely unintelligible.  My one quibble with Bishop Ware is that he says the Bible contains God's Word when I think he means it IS God's Word... but his words on this are overall quite helpful.

Friday, September 21, 2012

MIA -- Spiritual Passion

The most recent issue of Lutheran Forum offers some reasons why Lutherans may be having some trouble relating to the current culture.  David Luecke, noted church growth guru and author of the unforgettable Evangelical Style, Lutheran Substance, is the one offering sage advice to existing Lutheran congregations and to mission endeavors.  What's missing in so many Lutheran churches today is spiritual passion... The key to Lutheranism's future is recovering spiritual passion in ways more transparent to contemporary culture...

With these words, Luecke identifies what he believes is keeping Lutherans (mostly LCMS) from success in revitalizing and growing existing parishes and planting successful new ones.  Predictably, he translates "spiritual passion" in terms of the Christian and his awareness of and ability to speak boldly of his spiritual journey and of the ability of Christians to begin and build deep, spiritual relationships with others.  I can only assume that many would nod their heads in agreement both with his assessment of the problem and his description of the solution.  Luecke ends by saying stories about discovering higher levels of peace or joy or love or patience are certainly worth sharing. Stimulating such personal faith sharing is the frontier for Lutheran church culture.

Guess what.  I agree with Luecke.  Well, let me clarify that.  I agree that spiritual passion is too often either absent or invisible in Lutheran parishes today.  Indeed, from the outside it may appear that Lutherans have a modern, carefree "whatever" attitude toward their faith, worship, mission, and the church as a whole.  My problem is with Luecke is that I do not define spiritual passion in terms of sharing faith stories or talking about your faith journey.  I challenge the idea that this is the spiritual passion we need to develop.  The spiritual passion I think is missing is our confidence in the Word and Sacraments of the Lord.  Passionate Lutheranism is always born of our absolute confidence in the efficacy of the means of grace -- whether or not we see the results with our naked eyes.

Lutherans did not always lack such confidence.  But, like Garrison Keillor's characterization of us Lutherans, our natural inclination is to defer to others, to downplay ourselves, and also our church, and to presume that others know better or have better ideas than we Lutherans do.  A few generations of this overall angst have led us to borrow indiscriminately evangelism programs, worship forms, theological vocabulary, mission planting strategies, and parish renewal methodologies -- ones at odds with our Confessions and our identity as Lutheran Christians.  It has left us so unsure about the wisdom, value, and certainty of our Lutheran answers that we have given in to the idea that Lutheran parishes are best for those who were raised in Lutheranism.  If we want Lutheranism to grow, we are going to have to offer the world more than a pale imitation of  generic Protestant or evangelical worship forms, evangelism methodologies, and church growth strategies.

I know I have repeated myself on this point but I must again point to a TIME magazine cover story on Lutherans in America (April 7, 1958).  Lutherans were growing like gangbusters (planting a new church and filling it with people every 54 hours!)  We were on the new technology of television, had the most widely heard radio religious program in America, and we were sure of ourselves, our message, and our identity.  I maintain that if we were as confidant and bold today, we would see the results -- not because of our name "Lutheran" or because of the methodologies we used but because the Word does not return to the Lord empty.  It always accomplishes His purpose.  Now let me be clear -- I am not talking about adopting one more new paradigm or missional focus.  I am talking simply about our confidence in the means of grace.  The spiritual passion we need is not some new found courage to talk about ourselves or our spiritual journeys.  The spiritual courage and passion that needs to be rekindled is confidence and courage to believe that God will do as He has promised if we use the resources of the Word and Sacraments as He has promised.  When this is behind our use of technology and when this is what we teach to those who have not heard, we do not need to spend our time wondering if this will be fruitful.  We have God's promise.  What is missing is our confidence in that promise and, from that confidence, the passion to share it without shame, embarrassment or hesitation.

If you think the world needs a watered down Lutheranism lite that mirrors what is already happening in most of Protestant America, you have a screw loose.  We are always a johnny come lately trying to learn and perfect what is already passe instead of being simply who we are.  We are people who confess the one, true, catholic, and apostolic faith.  That is what we say in our Confessions and what we believed without question once.  Why not try being Lutheran without the angst before we try being some church we are not?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Marvelous new magazine...

Lutherans Engage the World...

View it here.

What a great witness!  You can read it on line, down load it, or get it in your email...

What is Lutheran worship? A confirmand's view...

I have a practice of meeting a half dozen times with the youth to be confirmed (on the Sunday we celebrate the Reformation) each year.  I have them complete some assignments -- some reflective writing, a visit to a non-Lutheran church and a report, and an essay on an assigned topic (from the catechism).  We were discussing some of the strange worship practices of the congregations visited (strange at least to most of them).  One student, however, suggested that there are Lutheran congregations that do the very same thing as these entertainment style churches.  It began a discussion of what has to be there in order for the worship service to be Lutheran.  I moderated and asked some questions but they worked mostly on their own list of "essentials" for Lutheran worship in any Lutheran parish. 

In no particular order, they said:
  • confession and absolution were part of their prerequisites for worship to be Lutheran;
  • Scripture readings and, in particular, the reading of the Gospel;
  • speaking of the creed (either Apostles or Nicene, in their minds);
  • sermon to apply the Word to life (though not too long);
  • Holy Communion (they have grown up to our weekly Eucharist as the expected norm);
  • use of the Our Father;
  • at least some of the songs  being hymns from the hymnal
  • receiving an offering.
As we spoke about their list, some who have been to Lutheran congregations with worship practices missing some of these constitutive elements began to talk about those congregations.  "What about them?" I asked.  A few simply said, "They are not Lutheran."  Others were hesitant to say that but clearly leaned in that direction.

It was a moment that made me proud.  Instinctively they knew that not everything done in a Lutheran parish was automatically Lutheran.  And if it is not Lutheran, they knew what to say about it and what to do with it.  In the end, most of them agreed with the one who volunteered "After visiting another church, I have new found respect for my Lutheran church and for my Pastor" (it seems the preacher she heard preached an hour and 25 minutes compared to my typical 15-18 minutes and this swung the vote in my direction).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Four little words vs 2,000 years of unbroken tradition and witness

Four words in the 1.5-by-3-inch(3.8-by-7.6-centimeter) fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, King said. Those words, written in a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, translate to "Jesus said to them, my wife," King said in a statement.

Let me get this straight.  Four words on a scrap of papyrus, dated more than four centuries after Jesus, not in Greek or Aramaic or even Hebrew, of unknown origin, with an unknown author, addressed to unknown recipients, without attestation elsewhere, and unclear in its meaning... and that means, according to liberal scholars, Jesus had a wife!!

You can read the whole article here. Boy does it get my goat when one unattested voice is allowed to challenge what the Scriptures, Tradition, and the Church has consistently held.  But, then again, why should things be different on this point than the ordinary skepticism the media (we hardly need the adjective liberal anymore) treat established Christian truth, doctrine, and belief.

Now we will need to argue with them all over again as if we must prove again the truthfulness of the faith and its historicity every time some kook challenges it or some mysterious fragment of papyrus dating from a much later period suggests something else.  Never mind the fact that wife, as with sister, were terms that were often used in allegorical, symbolical, and affectionate terms without meaning the physical relationship which is the meaning we generally presume.

Oh, well... here we go again!

Update:  Read a good response by Dr. Jeff Gibbs of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, at Concordia Theology Today... 

You can also read a good response to the so-called evidence for this claim here.

UPDATE:  One scholar thinks this whole thing may be a forgery.  Read him hear in shorter form or there in longer form.

The Intersection of Church and State

We often hear the phrase "separation of church and state"—but what is the reality of the relationship between government and organized religion in the United States?

The Intersection of Church & State, a new television special from Lutheran Hour Ministries, addresses this tough question. Hosted by Speaker of The Lutheran Hour Rev. Gregory Seltz, the hour-long program explores how the First Amendment to the Constitution was crafted both to protect the church and the state and to provide a framework within which the two can work together for the common good.

The Intersection of Church & State features careful scholarship and lively commentary by experts on faith and citizenship. In addition to providing insightful educational content, the program also challenges citizens to stay alert to government activity that affects the institution of the church.

Available as a DVD purchase or on the FOX Business Channel as an hour long special, Sunday, September 30, at 4 pm Central Time.

Check it out. . .

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bring your doubts to Jesus...

Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 19B, preached on Sunday, September 16, 2012.

    Sometimes it seems you go to church only to get beaten up by the preacher.  You get told you are a sinner in need of repentance.  You are not trying hard enough to be holy.  You are not giving enough money.  You are not praying like you should.  Your marriage could be better and you could be better husbands, wives, and parents. On top of it, you have too many doubts and that is why your prayers are not answered and your faith is not stronger. 
    Well, maybe it is not quite that bad but that is what some think.  I certainly am not going to back off the call to repentance.  I know from my own life I do not try as hard as I could to be holy so you are probably similar.  I’ll skip commenting on the money thing for now.  Surely we could all agree to not praying as much as we want or should.  Well, if you don’t know our short comings as spouses, children, and parents, just ask our families.  They will tell you.
    What I find funny is how we lump doubts right up there with sins.  It almost seems like Thomas refusing to believe or Peter sinking after first walking on the water were just about the worst sinners of all.  On the other hand, listen to Jude who cautions the Church: "Be merciful to those who doubt."  Here is the recognition that doubts cannot be avoided, that doubt is a constant part of faith.  We can hide them but they will not disappear – only grow stronger.  It is only when we recognize and admit our doubts that we can confront them with the power of Christ.
    The Gospel lesson for today speaks to doubts – not the skeptical doubts of those who refuse any faith but the honest doubts of Christians who struggle to believe amid the troubles, trials, and temptations of everyday life.  We don’t live our faith in a vacuum but in the context of real life filled with sorrows and struggles that bring forth honest doubts and anxieties.
    Look at the Gospel reading.  Jesus' disciples were arguing.  A father had brought his mute son to them.  The boy had convulsions that terrified those who watched. But his dad looked on his son with love and compassion.  The disciples themselves were unnerved by all of this.  Their convictions were compromised by their fears and the demon proved more powerful than the disciples.  They all turned to Jesus for answers, a father seeking action and disciples seeking explanation.
    Jesus begins by decrying the faithless generation.  Jesus understands the problem here.  The problem is not an impotent God or the Word of God that is unreliable.  The problem lies with doubts which can paralyze faith. The father's doubts showed up in this way, "IF you can do something, Jesus..."  It is one thing to await the when of God's mercy but it is quite another to question if God's mercy will work.  "IF?!" Jesus says.  "All things are possible for the one who believes!"  The father wants to believe, but, like us, he has his doubts and fears.  He could have walked away and figured that Jesus would do nothing but he chose to bring those doubts to Jesus.
    "Lord, I believe."  He wants to believe.  He has tried everything else to relieve his suffering son.  Where else can the man go?  Like Peter, the man realizes that the Jesus is his only hope.  We come here today as people who have searched and tried anything and everything else but are left with only faith, only Jesus.  We  have no where else to go.  Jesus is our only hope to take away our sins and overcome death.  Jesus alone has the word of eternal life.  Is this not what we just sang?  Christ is not our first or even our best choice.  Christ is the only Savior and Redeemer.
    The disciples, however, wanted an explanation.  "Why couldn't we do it?" Jesus points to the power of prayer, to the prayer of faith that begins and ends with confidence that God not only can act but will keep His promises.  Our old Adam does not simply roll over and play dead.  He fights God's new life in us and constantly plants doubts in us that make our prayers the pitiful "what ifs" rather than the confidence "because" built upon God’s sure promises.  When we say "Lord, I believe" we acknowledge faith as God's work in us but we also acknowledge the doubts of the old Adam lingering within.  So to say “Lord, I believe” is not enough; we pray "Help my unbelief."  Doubt dogs faith at every step of the way.  It tries to separate us from Christ and leave us alone with our sin and fear.  Jesus comes not to reward those who do not doubt but to give to the doubting confidence and hope.
    Here we come week after week.  We do not hide our doubts or check them at the door.  We bring them right in here with our sins.  We bring them all to Jesus.  We have nowhere else to go.  Our hope is in Christ alone – the sinner seeking forgiveness and the doubter seeking confidence.  "Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief."  Unless we bring our doubts to Jesus, they will become the walls that isolate, tear down, and destroy our faith.  You cannot fight doubt on your own.  We face up to doubts and drive those doubts deep into the arms of Jesus.  We have nowhere else we can take them.  Jesus only.
    So we come today.  "Lord, I believe... help my unbelief."  It is not arrogant prayer of the skeptic but the honest prayer of a believer who daily struggles against doubt and fear that plots to steal our hope away.  This is the honest prayer of those who live out their faith amid the tests and trials of real life, within the tension of the old Adam of sin and the new person created in baptism.  Don't let these doubts drive you away from God's house or isolate you alone with your fears.  Bring them to Jesus.  He alone can shore up our hope.  I have know many Christians with doubts but I have never met a one who overcame them by staying away from God’s house, by removing himself from the hearing of God’s Word or by absenting himself from God’s table.
    Doubts are not faith's worst problem.  Over confidence in our own ability is our undoing.  God does not despise the weak but gives them strength.  It is the proud and haughty He sends empty away.  Beware of setting yourself up for a fall, says Scripture.  Bring your doubts to Jesus.  Bring them with your sins and your fears and your worries.  Bring them to the cross.  Let Him heal your doubting hearts.  Let Him calm your fearful souls.  Let Him be the power and peace to keep you fully planted upon Christ and Him crucified.  Far from disdaining this honest prayer –  "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief" – Jesus welcomes this prayer and welcomes the one who prays it.  Amen.

The true visible church on earth...

When Rome speaks of the Roman Catholic Church as the true visible church on earth, Rome means that there is no church but that church which is in communion with the Pope.  This is a visible church almost exclusively -- though it is not without is spiritual and less visibly identifiable character.  When Lutherans and others hear such a statement, we bristle at the hubris of Rome claiming that they are the one and only and, at best, the separated brethren outside of Rome are in error and live apart from this true visible church until they are united with it.  The Protestant resistance to the idea of such a true and visible communion has been replaced by a church which is primarily spiritual and therefore nearly invisible to the naked eye.  It can be occasionally glimpsed but it is more a spiritual communion of souls than the gathering of people in any one place or a confession of faith. 

The unity of this church which Rome insists is both from and back to the papacy is not so much a Protestant concern.  To be sure, the external reality of different denominations is a scandal and it would be better if we were all united and had one address for our church headquarters.  But... the great Protestant image of the church is less a one church than little bits of that one church divied up and deposited in various and different churches so that no one can ever claim the fullness and the most any one part can claim is a little chip of the whole.  Christianity has become like the various Bible versions -- an objective reality known only in spiritual or theoretical form with a subjective reality in differences and divisions in which none can claim absolute truth.  The so-called unity in diversity.

Lutherans have succombed to this kind of thinking and have begun speaking as if the great ecumenical endeavor were a physical unity before the world in which doctrincal differences are irritants that, while never fully overcome, are best ignored iin the belief that real unanimity is either impossible or not all that important -- since the best we can ever know is partial truth. So some Lutherans are content in being in communion with those who share no common teaching on Scripture, salvation, sacraments, etc., but who have decided to let the differences not be church dividing.  On the other hand, many of these Lutherans and those with whom they are in formal communion have raised up a standard more rigorous and important than common confession, namely, social justice in its manifold forms.

Some in Missouri have also given into the idea that we are but one among many, each with their own little bit of Christ and their own slant on the truth.  Until Christ comes, we cannot say which is right or wrong except in their most offensive and extreme forms.  Into this diversity party come the jarring voices of our past which insist that Lutheranism is not merely one version of the truth or one bit and piece of the church catholic, but the one, holy, catholic church on earth.  This church is not only spiritual and invisible but visible and concrete in the gathering of people around the Word rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered.  The one church is invisible in respect to the "who," and visible in respect to the "where."—Pastor Kurt Marquart, The Church, p. 23.

Even more bluntly.  It is claimed by our Lutheran fathers that Lutheranism existed before Luther (before Luther was, Lutheranism is).  We insist that the Confessions of our Church confess not part of the faith or one version of the faith but the evangelical and catholic faith received as the sacred deposit from the apostles and prophets and kept true and without error to the present age. Now the structures of Lutheranism may come and go and even the name of Lutheranism fully and finally disappear but the faith remains, endures, and will not be lost.

From the get go, the reformers' claim was not newness or novelty but fealty.  They sought to demonstrate that what is is that Lutherans believed, confessed, and taught was that which, from the beginning, had been believed, confessed, and taught. In the Augustana, they make the bold statement: “Our churches do not dissent from any article of the faith held by the Church catholic” (AC, Part II, 1) and in the Formula of Concord they insist that they confess “the simple, unchangeable, permanent truth” (SD, RN, 20). The later dogmaticians elaborate on this claim.  Johann Gerhard, whose four volume Confessio Catholica was written to prove the claim of catholicity for Lutheran doctrine and to give evidence of its presence in every age of the Church. Unless you disavow this intention, the very name Lutheran is itself an insistence that the orthodox, catholic, Christian, faith and doctrine confessed in this Confession is the faith the Church has held through every age.  Individual church bodies may err but this confession is faithful and true to the Scriptures.
This is not a claim of arrogance but of faithfulness.  It is not a claim that a particular church body or structure is error proof or that its boundaries define what is the true, visible church on earth.  But it is the claim that Lutherans are not a sect, do not possess merely a portion of the truth, or that they represent but one version of Christianity (equal to and not inferior to any other version of Christian doctrine).  Today more than ever, Lutherans seem to be uncomfortable with this and backtracking from the bold statements of their Confessions.

Marquart has it right.  The one church is invisible in respect to the "who," and visible in respect to the "where."  The where is defined not by claim but by confession, not by lineage but by faithfulness, not by size but by marks.  The name Lutheran is new but the confession is not.  I cannot understand why anyone would want to identify with a name that stood for any less -- unless they also believed that, for all practical purposes, there is no longer the evangelical and catholic faith but merely the leftovers of its history deposited here and there throughout the remnants of a Christianity which can never be fully known or known in its fullness (confession) or identifiable in its location.  That is the real meaning of a virtual church.
As long as there has been an orthodox Church on earth, so long there has been a Lutheran Church. It sounds strange, but it is true, the Lutheran Church is as old as the world; for it has no other doctrine than that which the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles received from God, and proclaimed. The name Lutheran, indeed, did not come into existence until three hundred years ago, but not the matter which that name signifies. Accordingly, the question, Where was the Lutheran Church before Luther? is easily answered, thus: The Lutheran Church was wherever there still were Christians who with all their heart believed in Jesus Christ and His Holy Word, and would not surrender this alone-saving faith of theirs in favor of human ordinances, or who made this Church their final refuge in the hour of death. (W. H. T. Dau in Four Hundred Years: Commemorative Essay On the Reformation, p.313).

Monday, September 17, 2012

The trigger of my insanity...

One of my favorite scenes from The Princess Bride is when there is a dust up over the word "inconceivable" and the supposed ignorant one tries to correct the allegedly intelligent one.

You keep using that word.  The political silly season has about driven me crazy and we have far to go.  One of the triggers of my distress is the abundant use by the Obama administration of the word "unprecedented."  It seems that nearly every dang thing about that administration is "unprecedented."  If you watched UN Ambassador Rice on the Sunday talk shows, she exemplified the Obama infatuation with that word.  There are a million other examples I could have chosen -- this being only the most recent.  The only problem is that whoever writes the talking memos has not bothered to look up this word.  This flagrant violation of usage is, well, unprecedented.

un·prec·e·dent·ed   [uhn-pres-i-den-tid] adjective; meaning without previous instance; never before known or experienced; unexampled or unparalleled: an unprecedented event.

I am no linguist and I make my share of unprecedented errors in grammar, vocabulary, etc., but this one just about drives me crazy.  I am inclined to vote out the people who abuse this word just so I won't have to hear it abused over and over again.  I know.  That is not a very good reason for voting for or against someone.  However, if it will keep me from the brink of insanity, could someone please make them stop!!!!!  

The power of sign, symbol, and ceremony....

We are constantly told in the Church that people have outgrown the tired old signs, symbols, and ceremonies that once accompanied the worship life of God's people.  Whether it is the allure of technology or the desire for pleasurable entertainment or the comfort zone of being a spectator instead of a participant, we are ever reminded that this is not your grandfather's church (as if that were the worst thing of all).  Yet people remain enamored with signs, symbols, and ceremony.  If not in religion, then in sports or patriotism, among other places. 

Think for example.  Ashes on Ash Wednesday are a throw back to an ancient and irrelevent symbol of inward repentance and, yet, they are still so popular that people who never come to church any other day come to receive the mark of the cross in ashes traced upon their foreheads.  Their penance and conversion from sin may not be all that front and center but they remain connected simply through this ancient sign and symbol. Bishops still carry pastoral staffs (crosiers), wear purple clericals, hoist a miter upon their heads, and have a pectoral cross around their necks and episcopal ring upon their fingers even though we live in an egalitarian age in which rank and heirarchy seem to be the antithesis of the modern mind. We still have candles in church (and at home and restaurants) even though we do not need their light.  We buy little battery tea lights that mimic the dancing flame of real candles. We still use water for baptism even though the modern symbol of cleansing has long ago been replaced by a squirt of hand sanitizer and the familiar aroma of its fake scent.  We know instinctively the common fare of bread and wine even though we have an array of choices never before known to us that we might use as substitutes.  I could go on and on.

The power of sign, symbol, and ceremony is that these things bring to mind that which they sign, convey a wealth of information, perspective, and feeling even though they are mere symbols, and give us both comfort and identity even though they remain external gestures, rituals, and ceremonies.  Far from outliving them, we seem to live at a time when they are in greatest demand.  Amid the changes and changes of this mortal world and the press of modern life, we long for that which connects us to a past of fond memory and which comforts us with the certainty of those things that do not change.

Recently there has been a buzz about the addictive character of worship which capitulates to the diety of change.  The experience itself can become the same kind of rush which other experiences and substances also deliver.  The answer is to return to sign, symbol, ceremony, and liturgy.  I have overcome worship addiction through the use of time-tested, ancient worship practices, aka “liturgy”.  So says one recovering worship addict.  These things can certainly become ends in an of themselves -- no one is denying this -- yet they sign, symbolize, and point to that which is beyond and yet accessible sacramentally -- the God who is yesterday, today, and forever the same.  This is the God whose steadfast love endures forever and the familiar and ancient signs and symbols which accompany the ceremony and ritual of liturgical worship convey this never changing grace and mercy in ways that newnesss, novelty, and change cannot.  Far from moving away from these, we need to reclaim what we have already lost and relearn what has become strange to us.  Not because these are ends in and of themselves but because these are subtle yet powerful reminds of the God who changes not and this God does not constantly reinvent Himself but delivers Himself and His grace to us in the places were He has promised.  We dare not miss this.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Light of the Dark Ages

This is an amazing video of the surprise of the Middle or Dark Ages, hidden artwork that was seldom seen even when first produced and hidden even more from modern eyes.  Worth your time!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Say it ain't so, Joe...

From Todd WilkenI understand that there is a question on the synod’s vicarage application asking the applicant if he is comfortable with any “contemporary liturgical elements.”  Of course, it’s a trick question. Like much of the information in the vicarage and call paperwork, this question is based on the assumption that might be something wrong with an applicant who simply answers “No.”But what if the honest answer is “No”?

Of course it is no secret that the same kind of question is on the Pastor's SET (Self Evaluation Tool) which is used by DPs to find out what their Pastors think of themselves and forwarded to congregations looking to call a Pastor.  In the SET as well as, apparently, the vicarage application, the question is not a trick question but a means of punishing those who do not agree with the direction toward contemporary worship forms and contemporary worship music.  For every DP who uses this information to make sure that he is getting a Pastor who will lead worship and use music consistent with our Confessions, there are a dozen who use it to make sure none of those narrow minded, judgmental trouble-makers get into their districts.

Let's be real here.  Flexibility on the issue of worship is considered an asset and anything else triggers a loud buzzer and blinking red light marked REJECT.  It is a shocker that this sieve is being used already in vicarage to separate out the wheat from the chaff (the chaff being those who think worship by the book).  In the end what counsel would you give?  Nothing much different from what Todd Wilken suggests -- lie and figure that you can live with about anything for a year and then bite your tongue until ordination and installation are complete.  An alternative would be to say that I uphold the Synod's Confessional position on worship forms and music.  That would delay the inevitable question and probably assure you of a call to make an appointment with the Vicarage Director at the Seminary but I doubt it would get you off the hook.

By a few measures I am considered a "successful" Parish Pastor -- I have served in two parishes whose membership, facilities, ministry, and finances have grown substantially during the time I have served there.  I wonder if I would make it through the vicarage and placement process today without severely curtailing my tongue and hiding what I really think.  Is this what it has come down to?

I do not blame the seminaries.  They have to place these vicars and candidates and in order to do so they need the support and cooperation of the District Presidents.  They are at the narrow end of the funnel and determine what gets through and what does not.  We already know of Districts which refuse candidates and vicars from Ft. Wayne (or deeply restrict their access).  Now we have one more hurdle placed before the seminaries -  it is as if we all must play the game of contemporary worship and music or we will be disqualified....  Let's pray and work for this to change!

Traditional and Modern... what does it mean?

If you have read much on this blog you know of my interest in architecture, specifically in the design and execution of space set apart for the liturgical assembly.  I have some rather strong opinions on this and yet I am not a traditionalist who believes that the most successful modern architecture is the repristination of ancient forms.

I ran across a comparison between the architectural statement two different Roman Catholic cathedrals new to the American landscape.  At first glance it is easy to see which is traditional and which is modern.  One eschews every tradition in form, shape, materials, and design to produce a design which is unmistakably 21st century.  The other seems a throw back to an ancient form, a modern repeat of something already existing in the past of cathedral design.  In the end it is not quite that simple.

The more modern design is not modern but rather radical.  It borrows from the shapes, materials, and details of an airport terminal or mall or public building but for what purpose?  Its accouterments have no logical value or symbolic purpose.  They are new and fresh but only in comparison to that which is old and familiar.  In fact, compared to the rest of what one often sees upon the urban landscape of buildings destined for public use or assembly it is rather traditional and predictable.

The more traditional design is not simply traditional.  It is rather modern.  The shapes and materials are familiar but the walls and ceiling and ornamentation bear the marks of a reserved brush, palate, and design.  It achieves a modern appearance and sense while foregoing the stark, cold, and empty feeling that so many complain about in modern architecture.  Perhaps many would have filled in the blank spaces with ornament for the sake of ornamentation's sake.  In any case, the architects have a remarkable reserve while allowing the very space itself to make the statement.  In case you are wondering, its statement is thoroughly comfortable for the purpose of this space, for the liturgical assembly.

Surprisingly, one is humble and one is infatuated with its own grandeur.  The surprise is that the traditional building expresses a fundamental humlity of design and follow through while the modern building goes to excess in ornamention that exists for no purpose whatsoever -- it is certainly not symbolism related to the faith or the Mass which goes on within its walls.  But don't just listen to me.  Read it all for yourself.  It is all right here....

The quality of the discussion within this little article is exactly the kind of thoughtful and careful conversation which needs to happen among those who design and build churches today.  I wish that my own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod had this kind of reflective evaluation ongoing over the various buildings being built by the congregations of my own communion.  Good job!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Human judgment or Divine...

Sermon preached for Pentecost 15, Proper 18B, on Sunday, September 9, 2012.

    We all have our ideas about what a Christian should look like or who fits into the kingdom of God.  Today Jesus stretches the imagination of those images and holds up two very unlikely characters as worthy of the Kingdom of God by grace.  It is the story of two Gentiles, of two outsiders who have no lineage or claim but to whom God showed His rich mercy.  One is a Syrophoenecian woman whose daughter is possessed by a demon and the other a deaf mute..  Neither seems a good candidate for God's grace.  At best they were both dogs sniffing after the leftovers of God's grace that was meant for the children of Israel.  Yet the kingdom of God is never about what you deserve and is always about the grace of God for the unworthy and the undeserving.
    Grace is always gift – those who receive grace are always unworthy.  It does not matter how they appear on the outside.  Some folks do look good on the outside but the grace of God is reserved for sinners.  Our external righteousness may impress the world but God sees the heart.  We may think that God has come for the good, for those who deserve His favor, but Scripture tells us God is no respecter of person’s lineage or address or accomplishments.  Here lineage certainly matters.  It matters who your ancestors were, where they came from, and what they accomplished.  Though we have no real monarchy in America, we still have dynasties where the same family figures prominently into politics or the boardroom or finance.  Last names open doors and family connections count.  But not in the kingdom of God.  We can lay no claim to be sons of Abraham for God can make stones into His sons if He wishes.
    If lineage counts for part of it, another part of what counts is location.  The power of an address.  Who can forget the contrast of Green Acres with Park Avenue or the little bit country versus the little bit rock and roll?  I recall being impressed when the District Office where I first served had the address of 360 Park Avenue South. We all make judgements on the basis of where you live or where you come from – but not God.  We have all made our dream drives through the neighborhoods with the big new houses or the tree lined boulevards of the old estates.  We know the score.  We know the power of an address to say you are somebody or you are nobody but God counts none of these.  Instead He seeks repentance.
     If lineage or location are important, the final thing that matters is what have you done?  It is not merely in mountains of money that lives matter but in accomplishment.  The age old definition of worth has something to do with what you have accomplished or what you have accumulated.  Our age is no better.  As I like to remind folks, the golden rule is that he who has the most gold rules.  In the same way, stature makes a difference.  In terms of lineage, location, and life, the two folks who came to Jesus had nothing to approve them before God.  They came with only the hope that God’s grace would be given to undeserving and the unworthy.
    Divine judgment does not mirror human judgment.  God is not swayed by lineage.  God can turn stones into sons of Abraham.  God is not impressed with location.  Israel had everything and yet suffered exile over and over again because their everything did not translate into faith.  Life accomplishments and what you accumulate does not move God.  God is not impressed with our stuff or our accomplishments.  In divine judgment, grace alone matters.
    Grace is accessed of confession and faith.  The woman who came to plead with her daughter did not argue with Jesus.  "I am not a dog."  Instead she admitted that she was unworthy but in this unworthiness was also the faith that was content with the leftovers and crumbs of God's grace and favor.  We come before God not to argue how bad a sinner we might be but to confess that we are sinful, unclean, and unworthy of His grace.  When we admit in humble confession that we come as the unworthy and undeserving, the heart of God is always moved to mercy. 
    Confession is not simply something we do to get it out of the way but the repentant attitude of the heart that shapes and defines the whole of our Christian faith.  The worst of sins is when we act as if confession was for beginners in the faith and maturity moves us beyond humble confession.
    Faith is so often defined in human terms – what we know and how well we understand it and our choice or decision to abide by it.  This is a terrible definition of faith, about as good as the political promises we have already tired of hearing because we know they are not worth much.  Faith is trust, trust not in yourself but in God.  Trust that Jesus can and will do as He has promised.  Trust that what Jesus says is truth.  That water saves, that this bread is His body and this cup His blood, that we are forgiven by His blood...
    The woman who came pleading for her daughter came in faith asking Jesus to do what she believed He could and would do.  The people who brought the deaf man to Jesus brought him there not because they believed might do something but because they trusted that He would do something for this man in need.  Trust is what a child knows better than an adult and trust is what the Spirit works in our fearful and stubborn hearts.  Trust is the currency of the realm of God's kingdom – trust in the Lord and not in rulers or princes or this world’s treasures.
    Finally, note the response to God’s mercy.  The people zealously proclaimed what God had done.  They were astonished by the fact that Jesus' actions lived up to His words.  He has DONE all things well.  Tragically we talk to the world more about us than about God.  We talk about what we think or what we like or what we want.  Faith proclaims what God has done, lifting high the cross before the world, so that God can draw all people unto Himself.  If our witness is not working, could it be that our words are more about us than the Word of the Lord made flesh?
    The fatal flaw of Judaism was that it attempted to define the kingdom of God by lineage, location, or life.  God defines His kingdom as grace given to the unworthy and undeserving.  James says the danger of forgetting this fact and treating people differently here on earth.  We might also point to the danger of presuming God judges as we do – merely by what we see.  To the poor and rich alike, the call is repentance and the joyous claim is to grace.  Jesus has not come for good people but for sinners.  He seeks not to be impressed but the humility of faith that confesses sin and trusts in the mercy already make known by the cross.  Where Jesus finds this humble heart of faith, grace is without limit to forgive sin, to restore the fallen, to equip the sinner with righteousness.  God grant it.  Amen.