Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Formal Lutheran Path to Rome???

This just in on the eve of the Reformation:

The president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity said in an interview that the Vatican would entertain a hypothetical proposal by Lutherans to establish ecclesial structures modeled on the ordinariates developed for Anglican communities that wish to enter into full communion with the Holy See.

Anglicanorum coetibus was not an initiative of Rome, but came from the Anglican church,” said Cardinal Kurt Koch, referring to the 2009 papal document that established the ordinariates. “The Holy Father then sought a solution and, in my opinion, found a very broad solution, in which the Anglicans’ ecclesial and liturgical traditions were taken into ample consideration. If similar desires are expressed by the Lutherans, then we will have to reflect on them. However, the initiative is up to the Lutherans.

Full interview here.

The problem is that Lutherans do not have a long standing formalized hierarchical structure.  Nor do Lutherans have a united liturgical tradition in the same way as the BDP among Anglicans.  Finally, Lutherans are much more Protestant in identity than the Anglo-Catholics attracted to Rome.  What Lutherans find attractive in Rome requires nothing less than the formal abandonment of the very Reformation principle of obedient rebels in a tragically necessary renewal movement.  Anglo-Catholics can see Rome as the formal end to what they believed was the Anglican identity all along but Lutherans do not have the same dynamics.

Still in all it will be interesting to see how this plays out. . .

Why Luther was not an evangelical. . .

From Carl Trueman via Justin Taylor...

Carl Trueman, writing against our tendency to romanticize Luther, remaking him in our own image, offers 9.5 theses about the man and why he might have a hard time fitting into the typical evangelical church:
  1. Luther saw church leadership as primarily marked by servanthood.
  2. Luther understood worship as rooted in repentance.
  3. Luther did not care for the myth of cultural influence nor for the prerequisite cultural swagger necessary to catch the attention of the great and good.
  4. Luther saw suffering as a mark of the true church.
  5. Luther was pastorally sensitive to the cherished practices of older Christians.
  6. Luther did not agree to differ on matters of importance and thus to make them into practical trivia.
  7.  Luther saw the existence of the ordained ministry as a mark of the church.
  8.  Luther saw the problem of a leadership accountable only to itself
  9.  Luther thought very little of his own literary contribution to Christianity.
Here’s the 9th thesis in full:
Shortly before he died, Luther declared that only his 1525 response to Erasmus, On Bound Choice, and his catechisms were worthy of preservation. If he were alive today, it is very doubtful that he would be running a website devoted primarily to promoting his own books and pamphlets. He would thus be unlikely to make the grade in the modern American evangelical world. Nor would he indulge in such shameless self-promotion by calling it explicitly ‘shameless self-promotion’, as if the labored attempt at postmodern irony somehow makes the self-serving nature of such venal vanity acceptable. I suspect he would think that it actually makes it worse, adding the sin of ‘insulting the reader’s intelligence’ to the obvious one of ‘shameless self-promotion.’  

Freeom from... Freedom for

Sermon for Reformation (Observed) preached on Sunday, October 28, 2012.

    The third most remembered marketing slogan is American Express: Membership has its privileges...  In other words, this is no mere plastic credit card, it is a sign of belonging and confers status.  Perhaps we have learned that idea a little too well in our culture.  We are always talking about our rights.  Even church membership has become all about status, privilege, and perks.  We are very clear about what we think the Church owes members but less clear about the responsibilities incumbent upon members.  In Scripture, however, belonging is not about special  privilege but about freedom to take on responsibility.  We are not a privileged class but a people set free by Christ's death to live more fully the Christian life of sacrifice and service.
    We heard this illustrated in the Gospel for today.  Jesus speakes the Word of the Gospel that sets a person free from the fear of the Law.  Those who listened to Jesus did not hear this.  They claimed their privilege.  "We are Abraham's children" – we are not “nobodies.”  They saw their chosen-ness as something which elevated them above others.  "We have Scripture and the Commandments" – but they did not know that Word or they would have actually heard what Jesus was promising.  So blinded by a freedom defined by status, they did not see the freedom Christ offered as a path to service in which holiness becomes not merely duty but delight.
    I wonder if we do not see our membership in the Church in the same way.  We can talk all day on what the Church is to do for us but we are often tongue tied when it comes to what we have been set free to be and to do.  When faith speaks the language of rights, it speaks with the self-centered voice of me.  This is what I want.  This is what I have done.  This is who I am.  But Jesus speaks of a radical opposite.  For Christ freedom manifests itself in service.
    The language of faith is not the language of privilege or rights but always the language of service.  We are not set free for our own pursuits but for the new obedience of faith in which the Law becomes our guide and counselor.  Faith does not run from responsibility but runs toward it.
    Faith is never content with an exclusive relationship with God.  Faith tells the world what Christ has done that all might become His children by baptism and faith.  Fellowship is the language of faith – fellowship first made possible in baptism and expressed in our life around the Word and Table of the Lord.  This is the vertical relationship with God which Jesus has made possible by His death and resurrection but it is also the horizontal relationship toward neighbor.  Fellowship with God moves us from worship to witness.  We cannot but share what we have been given by Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.  Without any merit or worthiness on our part, Christ served us with His life on the cross and now we gladly take up that banner of service and sacrifice.
    Faith speak the language of truth – not an momentary word empty of lasting value but the living and powerful word that endures forever.  Faith speaks the objective and unchanging truth of the Gospel in a changing world.  Faith seeks the constant renewal in this truth.  Daily we renew this life through our repentance from sin and joyful grasp of Christ’s forgiveness.  A life made new by the means of grace is regularly renewed by the means of grace so that we may live this life fully – doing what Christ did for us, mercifully serving our neighbors as ourselves.  The freedom of the Gospel shapes us for service.  This is not some thing theoretical but the practical living out of faith in daily life.
    The power of the Reformation lies not in the renewal of a special class of people who believe God owes them something; but in the common life of God's people strengthened and renewed around the Word and Table of the Lord for sacrificial service to our neighbors.  Sin turned love into a fearful thing.  What Christ did was to made it possible for us to love in word and in deed without fear of loss.
    The Gospel has restored to us  our service of praise and thanksgiving to God by loving and serving our neighbors as Christ has loved and served us.  Now nearly 500 years after Luther issued a clarion call of reform and renewal, we find ourselves almost back where he began.  We look at faith as currency to get what we want from God.  We look at worship in terms of what we want or life.  We look at the Church for what "it" does for us.  We have exchanged His perfect freedom for the same old bondage to self.  For freedom Christ has set us free.  This freedom is not for trivial or selfish pursuit.  It is for the great call of God to take what He has given and live it and give it to love others in His name.
    We have come full circle.  Like the Jews of old, we speak the language of rights, demand  respect, seek to be noticed, and expect special treatment.  The freedom we have been given was for the joyful surrender of self to love God above all and our neighbor as our selves.  As Luther says, "That we may be His own and live under Him in His Kingdom."  We have grown far too comfortable with a membership that is about personal privilege instead of our joyful call to live in Christ and under Christ this mortal life for noble purpose.
    To those confirmed today and those who sit with them in the pews, I say that membership is fresh out of privileges to make us feel better.  You and I have been called by God, washed in Christ's blood, and set apart in faith to love and serve within limit, making Christ's work our joyful duty in faith.  The Reformation never proclaimed a selfish freedom from service but the freedom to serve – rightly as response to what Christ has done for us - not as a means of obtaining  righteousness.  We are loved to love, forgiven to forgive, served to serve.
    Now few of us parade our righteous before God as did the Jews to whom Jesus spoke and we are less likely to feel despondent by our guilt as in Luther’s day.  Instead we seek God’s approval for the lives we live for ourselves and our pleasure.  All are equal prisons for which Christ has come to set us free.  That freedom always manifests itself in service – taking what God has given to us in His Son and serving others in His name with that same mercy, grace, love, forgiveness, compassion, and joy.  So what will it be – a people enslaved to the moment and to self or a people set free for noble purpose?  God grant us the faithful response.  Amen.

Who abandoned whom?

On Monday, October 15, 2012, Bishop Mark J. Lawrence, the 14th Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, was notified by the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, that on September 18, 2012 the Disciplinary Board for Bishops had certified his abandonment of The Episcopal Church.  Read more here....

Imagine that.  Someone in the Episcopal Church actually is paying attention.  They have not only noticed but are doing something about it.  Sadly, having gutted the Episcopal Church of its doctrinal authority, having relegated its confessions, creeds, and liturgy to the status of mere historical documents, and having embraced immorality at the highest level of the church's hierarchy, now they decide enough is enough.  Perhaps in order to be Episcopalian anymore you must abandon the church that wears that name.  It is the sad betrayal of a nobler past and the promise of an empty future.

Lest we sit smugly on the sidelines sniffing at the stink that comes from the decay of a church with a much prouder past than its present allows, we Lutherans run the same risk.  The ELCA is poised to finish swallowing the poison pill it received from the Episcopal Church through its reciprocal fellowship agreements and its oneness of faith with liberal mainline Protestants.  Missouri flirts with evangelicalism as some replace the liturgy with happy time with Jesus and others find solace in the theological works of fundamentalism and others embrace the church growth strategies of business and industry.  We all have our weakness.  That said, perhaps Missouri is better poised to stem the tide of liberalism and those who would replace confession with feelings.  If she is better situated to turn back the tide, it will require something more than simply condemnation of the practices so easy to despise and the rediscovery of our theological soul so well practiced in the evangelical mass.

Ours is a positive confession.  True enough, we condemn error and errorists but the force of our Lutheran confessional identity is positive.  This we believe... this we teach... this we confess.  When the Pastors in the pulpits begin to preach and teach without apology or embarrassment the Scripture truth embodied in our Lutheran Confessions and embrace with full enthusiasm the liturgical identity that flows from those confessions, we will have something to crow about.  When the folks in our pews begin to exert their voices in expectation and insistence that our Confession be more than name only and our practice give more than lip service to its liturgical expression, then we may cast stones.  For now we can only shed tears for those who have lost their way while we tread carefully the path of orthodoxy and struggle to keep from the sin of pride that will be our fall.

We are only and ever one generation from apostasy.  We trust the Spirit but we know that the Spirit expects and compels us to faithful catechesis and faithful Divine Service.  He has given us the means, let us use them as He intends, and we will have nothing to fear.   Sing with me the good words of blessed Martin Franzmann:

Weary of all trumpeting,
Weary of all killing,
Weary of the songs that sing
Promise, nonfulfilling,
We would raise, O Christ, one song;
We would join in singing
That great music pure and strong,
Where-with heav'n is ringing.

Captain Christ, O lowly Lord,
Servant King, Your dying
Bade us sheathe the foolish sword,
Bade us cease denying.
Trumpet with Your Spirit's breath
Through each height and hollow;
Into Your self-giving death,
Call us all to follow.

To the triumph of Your cross
Summon all the living;
Summon us to live by loss,
Gaining all by giving,
Suff'ring all, that we may see
Triumph in surrender;
Leaving all, that we may be
Partners in Your splendor.


Not on the sanctoral or ferial calendar

I have copied here a posting from a Roman Catholic blog because it records the confusion even Romans have with the two Cajetans.  I have oft heard Lutherans complain that the opponent of Luther was canonized for his opposition to the German monk.  Now, it appears, even a Roman Catholic publication has made the same case of mistaken identity.  So I post the whole thing here for your illumination.  Whatever they may have had in common, the Cajetan who opposed Luther is no saint but the founder of the Theatine Order is.  I am sure you were dying to know this.


” The saint who opposed Luther”?

Well, this is curious. Today [August 7] is the feast day of one Saint Cajetan, one of the “Spirituali” and a member of the Oratory of the Divine Love along with Carafa (who would become Pope Paul IV), Pole (who would become the Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Mary) and Contarini (who would confer with Melanchthon at the 1541 Regensburg Colloquy) – the relationship between the four and their role in the early days of the Counter-Reformation would make a very good book. St Cajetan, with Carafa, was the founder of the Theatine Order, and his dates are October 1, 1480 to August 7, 1547 (which is why today is his feast day). You can find his Catholic Encyclopedia entry here and his Wikipedia entry here.

The one thing you will not find in his Catholic Encyclopedia entry is any record of his meeting with Martin Luther in 1519, because, as his Wikipedia entry says, Saint Cajetan “is not to be confused with his contemporary, Cardinal Thomas Cajetan”. It was the Domincan Cardinal who met with Luther, not the Saint. (Just as an aside, it is very interesting to note that from Tetzel to Cajetan to Eck, Luther’s opponents were almost all Dominican – which gives some support to the idea that the Reformation was, in its early days, an issue between the Augustinians and the Dominicans, much as later there would be conflict between the Dominicans and the Jesuits over the doctrine of grace; Pope Leo could have been quite correct in assuming that it was all a “squabble between monks”). Cardinal Cajetan was born in 1469 and died in 1534. His Catholic Encyclopedia entry is here. If one consults the his Wikipedia entry, one will find a similar warning to that found in Saint Cajetan’s entry: that “he is not to be confused with his contemporary, Saint Cajetan, the founder of the Theatines”.

Given this simple and repeated warning on Wikipedia, it is a little surprising that this article in the Catholic Herald does just that. To be fair, article itself only notes that Saint Cajetan “was, like his contemporary Martin Luther, deeply concerned by the worldliness and decadence he saw among the clergy.” But it seems that an editor made the error of connecting today’s Saint with the Cardinal who met with Luther in 1519, and hence gave the article the title “The Saint who opposed Luther” and illustrated it with a picture of Cardinal Thomas Cajetan OP.

One sometimes encounters the complaint that Vatican appears oblivious of facts that could be learned simply by consulting Wikipedia (the Williamson Case comes to mind). The Catholic Herald is not the Vatican, but the same holds true. A simple consultation of Wikipedia would have spared the venerable journal this embarrassing mistake. However, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I have myself in the past confused the two. I won’t do it again!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

God’s office is at the end of our rope....

I read that recently.  I am not sure of the source.  But it is a powerful statement.  How many times don't we think or say "I am at the end of my rope here..."?  It is often an exaggeration but it is often a very real expression of being at the limits of what we can handle, what we can deal with, and what we can bear.  Another statement in a similar vein says that when we get to the end of our ropes and we cry out to God to intervene, one of the things He might do is tie on additional rope.  In other words, even though we fall further, we are not without His lifeline of strength, power, and peace.  Most of these are the kind of Hallmark lines that hit us with sentiment but usually leave us without much substance.  I am not so sure this is the case with either of these.

The truth that we do not want to admit is that Christians most often live within the confines of their own strength and ability.  We handle it.  Whether these are the pressing matters of job or family or home or personal crises, we deal with it.  We deal with them.  We use our minds and we think about what we need to do and we consult with friends and family to make sure they are on board.  And then we do it.  God, if He is at all involved in this, acts more as consultant than guide and as reserve more than primary strength.  If God seems distant from us in our time of need, it may very well be that we have kept Him at a distance.

When we pray we more often direct God to the solution or course that we have determined than we pray to be content with His will and His direction.  So it is no wonder that we think God's hearing of our prayers is somehow tied to our receiving the answer we hope for.  When we do not get the answer we desire, we so often assume that God was just not paying attention.  It is somehow hard for us to imagine that God could hear us out and then reject our plan or the path we have chosen.

In order for God to act at all, we so often have to be at the end of our rope -- at that point when all the props holding us up have fallen down, when all our abilities and favors have been used up, and when we have no other way than the way of the Lord.  That is why it is said that God's office is tat the end of our rope.  Office hear referring more to the sense of God at work and less the location or address for God.  God is not accessible to us until we find ourselves without a choice but to depend upon His grace.  We resist this as long as possible, in part, because we know that God's will may have nothing at all to do with our desire or decision.  Yet nothing at all demonstrates what faith is about more than when we have no choice but to depend upon God's grace.  That is why the message of Scripture is so often that His grace is dependable -- we can depend upon it to answer our need even when we cannot depend upon it to agree with the answer we desire and have sought.

We have come to assume that suffering is a sign that things are going wrong in our lives and so we think that if we can find the cause and fix it, the suffering will go away.  In fact, it might be said that when our lives are most at risk and we are most distant from God's promises -- this is when we are most at risk.  We are standing on our own strength instead of standing in the strength of the Lord.  It could very well be just the opposite -- if we are not suffering, something is wrong.  Over and over again Jesus cautions His disciples not to expect glory.  If the world will not allow Christ to walk without challenge and suffering, how can we expect those who live in Christ to walk without these same afflictions?  We must be careful to make sure we are not suffering for wrong but suffering for Christ.  At the very same time we are not overcome by these afflictions borne because of the name of Christ.  We are not overcome because God is with us in the midst of our troublesome journey.

The life of the Christian has come to mean a path without a hitch or drawback -- one constant improvement upon another.  Where can you find such an incline toward glory in the Bible?  The real life of the Christian is one of constant ups and downs -- often with us mistaking what is an up and what is a down.  The remarkable thing about grace is that the Lord shows it to us in our worst moments.  Like the angel who told the disciples to make sure and tell Peter that Christ is risen, God's office is at our lowest, at the end of the rope, when we have no where else to go.  But, as Peter learned to say, "Lord, where else can we go?  You alone have the words of eternal life."

The vast danger of so much of contemporary Christianity is that the focus is on fixing the wrong and improving our lot in life.  God is the one with the directions and perhaps the tools but the work is largely ours to do.  There is no Gospel in this.  Worse, there is no hope for those who best intentions and efforts yield no fruitful results or rewards.  When things are going well on our own, we don't need much help from God (or so we think) but the great truth of tragedy and failure is that when we deserve it least, God is there.  So Christ has bridged time and eternity to deliver to us the promise of Emmanuel -- the God who is with us... even at the end of our hopes... especially then!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Canon law does not define or determine confession...

Lutherans do not have canon law.  Some rejoice at this and others lament it.  What we do have is constitutional law.  Constitutional law has become the canon law of Lutherans (I am especially speaking here from the perspective of the Missouri Synod).  For several generations dispute in our church body has come from and its response has been directed from constitutional article and by-law.  As I have posted before, this is not a good thing.  When we are left to discuss theological truth merely from the vantage point of constitutional law, we are left with no abiding theological truth at all.

In reading an exchange between an eminent canon lawyer (Ed Peters) and a cardinal on the subject of the ordination of women to the diaconate, I discovered a sentence that would be worth repeating among Lutherans.  Canon law does not determine, but rather, upholds doctrine and theology.  What Ed Peters was reminding Roman Catholics is that canon law neither defines doctrine nor espouses theological truth.  Instead, it upholds and, shall I say, enforces the catholic doctrine and theology in its practice and expression in the church.

We in Missouri sometimes argue more about constitution and by-laws than theology but our canon law (constitution and by-laws) cannot conflict with our doctrine and exist only to uphold this catholic confession and to promote its faithful practice.  We can appeal all we want to article and by-law but these are neither the source of truth nor the expression of that truth.  They merely create the working rules in which the catholic confession is supreme and its faithful practice is promoted.

The Commission on Constitutional Matters has become something of a Supreme Court in Missouri and it has wide ranging opinions which have the force of law among us.  Yet even the CCM cannot define doctrine or formulate its confession.  It merely makes sure that we follow the rules in dispute and that we have structures to call out error and confront it.  Our doctrine flows from Scripture, is confessed in the Book of Concord, and is consistent with the church catholic (the basic underlying claim of those Confessions).  Yet the CCM can no more overrule our doctrinal standard than can the Synod in Convention conflict with our Confessions.  We insist that Scripture and the Confessions reign supreme. 

Perhaps we have forgotten how to dispute Scripture and Confessions as theology and doctrine so our conversation has become merely about rules of our own creation which have no objective authority or identity beyond that which we commonly give to them.  In any case, it would do well for us as we face the Koinonia program and engage in discussion of what divides us and what is disputed among us that the rules do not define us.  It is our doctrinal standard and what Scripture teaches and our Concordia has confessed that are the issues.

BTW while some things are neutral, others are not.  What we can do with respect to our own version of canon law is not necessarily what we should do.  The principle of freedom is, therefore, less important than the issue of faithfulness and the goal of what is best (in view of what we believe, confess, and teach).

Just a few thoughts as our Synod makes ready for another convention about 9 months from now....

Sunday, October 28, 2012

For Reformation Observed

What pastoral care has come to mean...

"Pastoral care” is a common subject among Lutherans.  We send seminarians out on vicarage to teach them the art of pastoral care to accompany their academic instruction so that they may be well formed Pastors.  We appeal to pastoral care often -- from the complaints of those who say the Pastor or church was not "there for them when they needed them" to the description of Pastors to congregations seeking to call one. Good at pastoral care has come to mean someone who heads out of the office and meets people where they are -- a visiting Pastor.  It is also the term we generally invoke when we want to break the rules.  For example, responsible pastoral care is when we either offer exceptions to those not normally included to the Lord's Table or when we by-pass close(d) communion entirely -- it all depends upon your perspective.  It is all pastoral care but we are not all agreed on what constitutes faithful and responsible pastoral care.

Those on the more liberal side of things seem to love the term more than those on the conservative side.  The liberals like the idea of erring on the side of charity while the conservatives seem a bit uneasy with the whole subject -- this is true of Roman Catholics as well as Lutherans.  In the end, those who love the term “pastoral care” and who appeal to it and use it try to control its definition.  Those on the other side are wary of it precisely because it does not have a uniform definition.

Whereas in Rome proponents of "pastoral care" might appeal to the "spirit of Vatican II," those in Missouri might appeal to the more moderate and nuanced era of church leadership and those in the ELCA might mean open communion, gay and lesbian friendly, and not too judgmental on the cohabiting heterosexuals.

 Whether we mean to or not, “pastoral care” has become a caricature.  To many, “pastoral care” is a euphemism for “tolerance”.  That is not what the words really mean but the manner that we have come to use them.  The term “Pastoral care” does not, however, mean anything of the sort.  It was and can only mean the care of the souls with the resources God has supplied -- the Word and the Sacraments.  Pastoral care is and should be a term that clearly communicates care given through the resources of the means of grace.  As our Confessions remind us, the goal of this Pastoral care using the means of grace is faith, forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Period.

Augustana V:  That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, 2] the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear 3] the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake. 

What pastoral care has come to mean is exception.  This parish has exceptional circumstances which justify breaking and bending the evangelical and catholic practice of our Confession.  This mission goal has exceptional circumstances which justify breaking and bending the evangelical and catholic practice of our Confession.  This person has exceptional circumstances which justify breaking and bending the evangelical and catholic practice of our Confession.  It is as if the ordinary practice has become exceptional and the exception has become the norm in some places.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not for eliminating pastoral discretion.  That is a legitimate exercise of real pastoral care appropriate both to the circumstances and to evangelical and catholic practice of our Confession.  I am not saying that this word should be banished from our vocabulary.  I am, however, wary of its continued use as a good word for flexible, tolerant, accepting, open, easy, etc...  If this is what we mean, why not be honest enough to say it.  When a parish says they want a pastoral sort as their shepherd, let them say what they mean.  They probably do not mean they want a guy good at pastoral care; they want a flexible, tolerant Pastor who will continue and leave unquestioned some practices that probably should be questioned and evaluated.  When Pastors describe other Pastors as a good pastoral care guy, lets be honest.  So often what we mean is a guy who bends -- not some rigid sort of fellow who challenges things but someone who bends to the wishes of the people or the exceptions that have become the routine.

I know that there are times when certain Pastors get a reputation for, well, not being pastoral.  Mostly likely this has nothing to with their preaching, teaching, sacramental administration, or their role as father confessor to the penitent.  It has to do with rigidity or inflexibility and these have become the greatest sins of all.  I also know that there are Pastors who are just plain hard to get along with -- both among their peers and within their parishes.  I just wish we could jettison the euphemisms and speak forthrightly -- for the benefit of clergy and congregation.

The debate over how we exercise this responsible pastoral care will undoubtedly rage on in our church and in others but let it be an honest battle in which we speak honestly instead of hiding behind nice sounding terms that have come to mean something different than what they really mean.  We must not allow this word to become a Trojan Horse that hides something of which we choose not to speak around another good and honest word.  Pastoral care should mean pastoral care -- the ministry of the means of grace which Pastors bring to the congregation and the individual Christian under his care and all that flows from this.  Period.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Neither anomaly defines it...

How much error can creep into the Church before the Church loses its catholicity?  How much catholicity can you find outside the Church before it makes it the Church?  How many calories can you steal away from potato chips and they remain potato chips?  These things are the subject of endless debate -- well, maybe not the potato chip question although I am certainly interested in it!

There are those who stand before the Church like the Israeli PM before the UN Assembly drawing red lines.  This far and no further.  But, of course, it is never as easy as a red line and the definition of how far is too far depends upon a great deal of things.

Augustine is helpful here.  "There may be something catholic outside the Church catholic.  The name of Christ could exist outside the congregation of Christ, as in the case of the man casting out devils in Christ's name.  There may by contrast exist pretenses within the church catholic, as is unquestionably the case of those "who renounce the world in words and not in deeds," and yet the pretense is not catholic.  So as there may be found in the church catholic something which is not catholic, so there may be found something which is catholic outside the church catholic."  -- Against the Donatists

Augustine is essentially saying that there are things catholic outside the Church catholic -- such as the prospect of finding catholic statements and practices in churches that in no way, shape, or form intend to be catholic.  You can find, for example, Trinitarian belief where the creed is not only refused but its very existence seen as error.  We would all agree that absent the creeds the Trinity is more likely to be confused or abandoned as the identity of God but I also think we would agree that it is possible to find thoroughly Trinitarian belief in places where the creed is omitted by intent.  That does not make these churches catholic.  The presence of truth among the erring does not erase or vindicate the error.  It is, rather, the felicitous inconsistency that the error you might expect is missing and the truth, surprisingly, is present.

On the other hand, there also exist errors within the Church catholic without the error being catholic or the existence of that error vitiating claim and truth of the Church's catholicity.  Where error exists as an anomaly, in the same was as the presence of catholic identity within the erring, this does not define the whole -- as long as the error is not embraced as truth and becomes part of the confession.  We all know that there is no perfect Church this side of glory -- in which the faith that is rightly and purely confessed is also practiced rightly and purely.  It is most often in the practice that error is found.  So, for example, that there are Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregations whose practice violates the catholic principle of close(d) communion does not in itself taint the LCMS -- unless and until that aberration becomes the norm and is confessed as such.

What we do not need is a witch hunt or, better analogy, an inquisition to find error.  What we need is to work to make our practice conform to our catholic confession (Book of Concord).  Now, to be sure, there are public pronouncements of our church body which are, indeed, in conflict with our confession.  Take the whole issue of lay ministry and deacons and the authorization of laity for Word and Sacrament ministry.  There is no way possible for this to be consistent with the clear and objective teaching of the Lutheran Confessions.  Yet this error is not yet established teaching as long as it remains disputed and the good offices of the Church work to undo the wrong.  The Church may not need to repent but we certainly need to reverse this wrongful practice so inconsistent with our Confessions and the example of catholic practice by Lutherans in history.

There is a distinct difference between catholic confession where the practice of it fails or even its definition from time to time may be faulty and where there is no intent to retain the catholic confession and where error is embraced as truth and the catholic truth rejected.  Missouri's muddy waters with respect to the ministry of Word and Sacrament represent an error which the congregations and clergy have worked to undo from the get to.  In addition, this error was never embraced by all the districts of the LCMS nor was it forced upon those who refused it.  In contrast, when the ELCA adopted and embraced gays and lesbians as legitimate Christian expression and changed the visions and expectations of clergy to conform to this, it did so knowing full well and admitting publicly that this represented a radical change and shift.  It was not only allowing error (an error which had been unofficial for some time) but it also used the full forces of its authority to impose this error on congregations and clergy who disagreed.  The conscience clause soon became merely a personal right to dispute and not the allowance that there were other conclusions and other opinions equally valid in this matter.  In other words, the truth was replaced with error not only tolerated but promulgated.  It was this that effectively violated the claim of catholicity for the ELCA.

As Cyprian says, "Nor yet because men once have erred must there be always error."  Charity and patience can be shown to those who are captive to the Word and who are willing to be taught the truth in place of their error while no charity and patience can be shown to those who insist that the error is truth and the truth is error.  That is why neither Missouri nor the ELCA is without error and yet they are very different.  In one the error is at least acknowledged and remains disputed while in the other the error is publicly taught and enforced as the only acceptable truth.  Let me point it another way.  Missouri has sins in its own back yard which remain contested while the ELCA allows, for now, a conscience bound truth to exist in their back yard while error has become its public teaching and identity.  That there exists error in both is certainly true while the nature and extent of that error and its consequences are far different for each church body.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The posture of piety...

It happened again.  This time in catechism class.  A young catechumen asked me why I knelt down during the creed.  It is my practice to genuflect at the incarnation through and was made man.  Others may have a slightly different practice.  But this is not about the actual words at which you either bow or genuflect.  It is about the postures of our piety and how they reveal what we believe.  The discussion expanded into the areas in which we kneel during the Divine Service (at the Confession of Sins and for the Prayers at my parish -- still not yet up to introducing kneeling for the Canon).  It was a good discussion.  By the end we were talking about whether and how what we believe is reflected in what we do -- especially in worship but not exclusive to worship.

As the discussion expanded several noted that my head was bowed approaching the altar.  Some noticed that I did not look at the people in the congregation during the consecration.  The spillway began to unfold and it was clear to me that things I had never spoken about to them or to the congregation were still noted and registered in their minds as not random acts but the, well, posture of piety.

I am relatively libertarian about the extent to which the people in the pew embrace the fuller ceremonial -- we have people who cross themselves but the majority do not, we have people who kneel and probably half do not, we have people who come early to pray but the majority slip in just before the start of service, etc...  But I do model for them a fully ceremonial so that they see and become accustomed to the more, shall we say, catholic postures and actions of the Divine Service.  It is my practice to cross myself at the appropriate places, to kneel, to genuflect, to bow, to divert my eyes, to make the three crosses and pray before the Gospel, to kiss the Gospel book after the reading, to cleanse the ciborium and paten of all crumbs into the chalice, to consume what remains in the chalice, to re-vest the chalice with burse and veil, etc...  I do this not for show but because this has become my piety and, yet, it does show forth to them that what we believe, confess, and teach is not insulated from our practice nor is it isolated into the deep recesses of our hearts so that it does not spill over.

The young seem to grasp this better than the old.  To the old their are all sorts of value judgments that accompany these -- too catholic.  To the young it is the curiosity of faith that makes such an impact that, regardless of what others do around you, these gestures and rituals express externally what is internal.  I am amazed at how secular our piety has Lutherans has become.  For example, a simple question about meal prayers pointed out that nearly all the youth in catechism will pray at home with the family at the main meal but do not pray during their rushed breakfast or in the school cafeteria or when out to eat.  I did not challenge this but simply asked why the difference.  It was meant to be more a question for reflection than for answer.  It is no wonder that if we no longer bow our heads to pray at meal times that we will find it curious that a Pastor will bow each time he walks before the altar or genuflects before the tabernacle or observes the various postures during the Divine Service.

The absence of such external marks of piety is not a reflection of our greater spirituality as much as it is a marker of our defection to what is considered normal or accepted by the culture around us.  Perhaps Christians have always thought about this but I wonder if there has ever been a time when we worked so hard to make sure we were not noticed?  The practices and postures of piety cry out for notice -- not to impress people but because they draw attention to what it is that our lips confess, our minds understand, and our hearts believe.  I believe we run far less risk of the dangers of praying in public for the notice of people (as Jesus rightly warns) and much more the risk of having a piety so hidden that it has little influence over what we actually look like or do in the world.  We have, as Lutherans, gone to the opposite extreme.  We have so disdained the external piety of the Pharisee that we practice the faith like Nicodemus who came to Jesus only under the cover of darkness so that his faith might remain hidden.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

As one raised with the rod...

I grew up knowing the stick intimately.  I was a rebellious child, devious in my disobedience, and I deserved far more than my parents (read that mom) gave me.  I do not believe I was disciplined to hurt me but in view of the greater pain that my disobedience would or did cause to myself first and to others as well.  I must confess that I was not much for physical punishment with my own kids.  Oh, they might say they could remember this time or that time but, on the whole, I was not very good at spanking.  So do not read this as either defense of corporal punishment nor as the suggestion that physical punishment has no place in the modern family.  My point is that how you define pain can have radically different consequences.

Perhaps you have heard that the State of Delaware approved child welfare legislation that effectively makes not just spanking a child criminal but causing any impairment of physical condition or pain (lawyerly language for just about anything a parent might do except speak to a kid).  The language is very subtle, perhaps deliberately broad, so that it is up to the court to define what constitutes
“Physical injury” to a child shall mean any impairment of physical condition or pain.
The legislature has kindly provided a summary of the legislation at the end of the bill:
This bill establishes the offense of Child Abuse. These new statutes combine current statutes and redefine physical injury and serious physical injury to reflect the medical realities of pain and impairment suffered by children. A new section provides special protection to infants, toddlers and children who have disabilities. The statute also expands the state of mind necessary for certain offenses against children allowing for more effective prosecution of parents who subject their children to abuse by others and fail to protect their children. The bill also re-numbers the definitional section making clear that the definitions apply to all crimes in the subchapter.
Now I abhor the atrocities of physical abuse that some inflict upon their children in the name of loving discipline.  I reject the idea that any parent has the right to define physical punishment as he or she desires.  But I also believe that the intrusion of such well-intended legislation offers the opportunity for nearly any physical contact between a parent and a child in the context of discipline an impairment of physical condition or pain.  It is not an objective standard at all but allows the state to define it -- much like the rather vague definition of pornography offered by the infamous Supreme Court jurist.  He knows it when he sees it.  I would not want anyone to construe these comments as approving the physical abuse of children but I think the big brother school of government in which each and every parental decision becomes a criminal matter will be the undoing of our families and our society.  How far this will be employed is up to the prosecutor and the police and that, my friends, is the big problem here.

One playful blogger wrote of a brief conversation about this with one of his own kids:

Daughter:  What are you guys taking about?
Dad:  The State of Delaware has passed a law saying that parents can't spank their kids.
Daughter:  That's silly.
Dad:  Why?
Daughter:  Parents need to spank so their kids will behave.
Dad:  What do you think will happen if parents can't spank their kids?
Daughter:  The kids will probably end up voting for Obama. 

I am not being partisan here.  But it is highly more likely that an Obama notion of family welfare is at the root of the Delaware legislation than the parental wisdom of others in the political marketplace.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A good ordination sermon...

I hardly ever post sermons by others, links yes, but sermons, no.  Yet I feel compelled to post this ordination sermon.  I did not know the ordinand.  I know very little of the congregation in Worden, IL.  I know of the preacher.  That is all unimportant.  The words here speak well to any Pastor -- newly minted or aged with wear and tear.  Good words like this beg to be shared... so I will oblige...

Rev. James Ambrose Lee Ordination
Trinity Lutheran Church Worden, Illinois
John 20:19-23
September 26, 2012 A+D

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Aquinas thinks that the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body is a necessary antidote to the forbidden fruit. Our first parents brought terrible misery upon us by eating. Fruit, meant for knowledge, was abused and taken by force, bringing guilt, need, and death down upon us. Our Lord responds not merely by taking these things into Himself, substituting His law-keeping for our law-breaking and His innocence for our guilt, but also by providing His very Body as Food to replace that which we stole and to undo its effects. His Body removes guilt, satisfies our hunger, and bestows life. 

In some ways, His Body gives what was falsely promised to Eve: it makes men like God. There is irony here to be sure. Men lusted to be like God. So God, to fix the thing we broke, took up what we despised. 

All the Greek myths, by the way, can be understood in this way. Man goes awry when he seeks immortality. Icarus wasn't meant to fly. That was reserved for the gods. Pandora wasn't meant to open the box but chafed against being merely human. And wasn't Eve's lust also partially for knowledge that only God should have?

Perhaps the Greeks better perceived the natural law than we thought, or, as descendants of Noah, they retained a confused version of the truth.

We lusted for God. We wanted to be immortal and above the Law. So He took up that which we despised: mortality, weakness, hunger. He became a Man, a creature, born under the Law, that we might be elevated and be like Him. Do we not now know, in Christ, both good and evil?

So Eve gets what she thought she wanted, the object of her temptation. It is bit like David keeping Bathsheba. It certainly seems wrong. Uriah is dead at David’s hand. David’s son is dead for David’s guilt. But he gets his cake and eats it too. He keeps Bathsheba. He gets, in a sense, what he wanted. That is more than kindness. That is high injustice: that, however, is grace.

The Body of Jesus given in the Sacrament gives precisely what we tried to steal from the tree of knowledge. We are like God because God is more than like us: He is one of us. He has a Body and He has Blood and in it He unites us to Himself.  We reap not only where we did not sow, living in houses we did not build, but we get the inheritance by killing the Son. That which we sought to steal is declared a gift. We are welcomed into the family of the Holy Trinity.

It is no wonder the Romans thought we were hedonist cannibals and atheists. We wanted to become gods so god became a Man and declared us His sons and His Bride for killing Him.

Put your feet up, baby, it is Christmastime. Welcome to the happy insanity that is Christianity. I was listening to Johnny Cash sing the little drummer boy on the way here. The song is high on schmaltz, to be sure. But consider for a minute how unusual a piety Christians have that they can write such songs. A dirty little boy can approach God almighty and give Him a worthless gift without fear and even with the correct expectation that God will accept it. The Muslims don’t write any such songs about Allah. This is a distinctly Christian ability and it is because our God has made Himself a Man precisely that we might approach Him. He is not angry with us despite our sins. He forgives us. David gets to keep Bathsheba. This is the happy insanity of Christianity, of grace.

In any case, I think Aquinas is on to something with the connection between the Sacrament and the Fall. And I wonder if the character of the Fall isn’t also seen in the institution of the Office of the Holy Ministry. Death sent an ambassador into the garden, an angel in the form of a snake, who beguiled Eve with clever lies and false promises to tempt and seduce her. The living God responds by sending ambassadors, called angels in St. John's revelation, into the wilderness of our exile to speak the Truth and proclaim God’s promises, not only to expose the lies of the devil, but also to break the bonds of temptation, to reconcile rebels to their God, to declare them righteous and welcome them to the feast in the garden. Men were seduced by words to eat. Men now are called by words to eat and live. 

All pastors sent by God as anti-devils, undoing with words what the devil did through words. Perhaps that is why the primordial and creative breathing is repeated in the Upper Room. Ash Wednesday's curse is not quite true. We returned to dust in the Fall but God rebreathes live into us again through the Apostolic Ministry. What is breathed into them but the new Adam which they breathe out again in preaching? Dust we were and to dust we returned, but the Holy Spirit comes and revives us again through preaching and absolution. The preachers undo the lie, undo death, by telling the truth. They remove the curse by proclaiming the promise, and their words are carried on the breath of the Holy Spirit. That is why preaching leads to the Sacrament . The devil lied and pushed Eve into the thorns through eating. The pastors tell the Truth and take Eve by the hand, gently leading Her to the Life of God in His Blood. 

So that is your charge, James: tell the truth. Lead the Bride to the Supper, to the Bridegroom. Undo the curse. Breathe the Holy Spirit out upon dusty men in need of Good News and Life with God. And God will be with you even as in you He will be with them.

In Jesus' Name. Amen.   
Preacher:  The Rev. David Petersen of Redeemer, Ft. Wayne, IN

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Man's impossibility is God's freely given treasure...

Sermon preached for Pentecost 21, proper 24B, preached Sunday, October 21, 2012.

    The reading we heard in the Gospel for today is familiar enough so that it was part of the jokes traded by Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama at the traditional Al Smith Dinner this past week.  But as familiar as these words are, their meaning is not necessarily clear to us and they are easily misunderstood.  With all respect to the candidates, I think these words deserve a careful look and that begins with context.    
    Last week a rich man came to Jesus seeking eternal life only to leave completely disillusioned.  The disciples listened in on that conversation and thought about what they heard.  Now the conversation continues.  But instead of relieving their fears, Jesus only made their confusion worse.  Our faith in the golden rule – he who has the most gold rules – has hardly wavered – though we are often unsure whether God is as impressed with it as we are and, if not, what does impress Him.  If the rich and powerful cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, who can?  And that is exactly the point.  It seems that riches and power can do anything here on earth and get away with it, but not before God.  There is a reason we say "rich as God."  The Lord who owns all things is not swayed in the least by the treasures that tempt us.  But this is not merely about the inadequacy of money and possessions to win over the heart of God.
    Jesus insists that with man it is impossible.  Jesus is clear here.  It is not that salvation is difficult.  It is not that it is hard and requires concerted effort.  It is not that the price tag is high and requires all that have of value.  It is that the Kingdom of Heaven is impossible.  The rich cannot afford it and the powerful have no influence over it.  The kingdom of heaven rests in the hands of the Lord alone.  He does not set a price on it but, because of sin, it has been priced beyond the reach of anyone.
    The kingdom of God is not for the getting but for the giving.  The kingdom which cannot be bought can only be given – a gift of priceless value requires payment in a priceless currency.  The only thing that can pay for the kingdom of heaven is, as Luther reminds, not silver or gold but the holy and precious body and blood of Christ.  The kingdom is entirely inaccessible apart from Christ.  Now you might think that such a priceless treasure would be guarded away.  Far from being stingy with such a priceless treasure, God has been gracious to give to the unworthy, the undeserving, and the sinner.  With man it is impossible and that is the Law but the Gospel is that all things are possible with God.  Now this is not theory here – what might or might not be possible but what is made possible by the act of God in His Son Jesus.  His suffering and His death have paid the priceless cost for the priceless gift and now He lovingly gives to us what we could not purchase, earn, or merit.
    Riches cannot purchase grace and neither can poverty earn it.  Good character cannot merit God's favor and neither can good works merit the Kingdom of God.  That pretty much makes it unreachable and impossible for us.  If all our riches are not enough and if people of good character are not good enough and it good works are not enough, then we are left to trust only grace and only mercy.  Jesus does not sugar coat the problem.  And it is no wonder that the disciples sighed in despair.  If the rich cannot afford it, good character cannot earn it, and good works cannot merit it, then what hope can ordinary people have?  What about us, they wondered?  The answer is in Christ Himself who is both payment for this kingdom and giver of its grace to all who believe.
    The disciples despaired because they had nothing.  Peter pleads their cause.  "We have left everything to follow You, Jesus?  What of us?"  Perhaps we come here Sundays with the same question.  We may not have much but what we have we have left to follow You, Jesus, what can we hope for?  But Jesus is careful to point us not to what we have done – whether we think we own it all or whether we think we have given it all up.  With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.  The message is clear – radical faith in radical grace.
    When Jesus asked the young man to leave behind his possessions, He was asking Him to leave behind the false comfort these temporary treasures hold out.  It was a call to radical faith in radical grace.  When Jesus asked the man to follow Him, it was not because Jesus wanted more groupies.  Jesus was calling Him to radical faith in radical grace.  When Jesus promises reward, Jesus is not pledging to make up for all that this world steals from us or to balance out the cost of discipleship with heavenly reward.  No, Jesus is calling us to radical faith in radical grace.
    In this radical grace, the first in this world become the last and the poor who are last of all become first.  In this radical grace, those things which distinguish us here on earth count for nothing and we become equal in the blood of Christ.  In this radical grace, God is no respecter of persons and counts no earthly distinctions.  Only faith.  Only grace.
    It is not the leaving of things that counts but the clinging to Christ that saves.  It is not following Jesus that earns us anything but the trusting in Jesus so that we follow the sound of His voice speaking through His Word that counts for anything at all.  It is not the good works that merit eternal reward but the reward given by the cross that moves us to good works.  That is the message of Jesus.  Radical trust.  Radical faith.  Radical grace.  It shocks and challenges the mind and makes no sense to us but it is the path of God and the path of the Kingdom of God.
    The Lord asks for your money and your time and your talents not because these mean so much and are of such great value.  He asks for them because they mean nothing at all.  We do not give to the Lord these tithes and offerings to show that God is so important to us we will give what is most precious to us.  No, we give these tithes and offerings to the Lord precisely because they are not precious to us at all.  Only the Kingdom.  Only grace.  Only the cross.  Only these are important to us.
    Have you ever seen a U-Haul being pulled by a hearse?  Ecclesiastes is blunt here.  We come empty and with nothing and we can take nothing at the end.  What matters is not what we do in the middle.  No, our lives are not measured by what we accumulate or what we experience. In plenty and in want, in youth and in old age, we come to the Lord the same – trusting in His mercy and rejoicing in His grace.  What is impossible for us is possible for Him.  The priceless cost of a priceless treasure is paid so that it might be given freely to you and me and to all who believe.  And that, my friends, is the power of love.  See what great love that the Father has for us that we should be called the children of God.  And that is exactly what we are.  Amen

When the journey is more important than the destination...

I must confess that I am too fixated upon the goal to understand those who see only the journey.  I am not just along for the ride.  I am headed toward a destination.  For that reason, I cannot fathom why on earth one would choose any religion if they reject the idea that faith is a path to a specific place.  So the Unitarians remain an enigma for me.  Why have any religion at all if your faith speaks nothing of God, nothing of life after death, and nothing of the encounter with the Divine here on earth?  Because Unitarians have no real doctrines and competing and even conflicting perspectives live side by side in this, well, church, there is little to offer except folks to share in the journey.  For that you could gather a group of friends at Starbucks or at a pub (my preference) and talk about yourself and your life.  You don't need songs or worship services or clergy or the other trappings of religion that remain.

That said, the Unitarians seem to disagree with me.  They have an interest in religion that is as broad as the horizon and seem to find comfort in the sense of community they experience without any real agreement or objective truth about the God who they may or may not worship.  Unitarians, however, do not live up to their name.  They do not worship or believe in one God or even a God.  There are as many different deities and dogmas as their are people and perhaps it would be more accurate to call them Multipaniarians.  In any case, it seems that they are not geographically far from us.  There is a congregation just down the road from mine and Bob Smietana has written interestingly of them in Tennessee.  He is a good reporter for the so-called God Beat and he writes well of what people seem to find in their Unitarian congregations.

Instead of a common theology, Unitarian Universalists have a set of common values. They believe in the worth and dignity of every human being. Conscience, rather than a creed, guides their spiritual life. Ethical living matters more than correct theology.  “We are the church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand,” Seavey said. “We always try to pull those things together.”


The other main draw is a sense of community. The faith draws people who want to figure out spirituality on their own terms — but even independent thinkers need a spiritual family.

And finally:

“We don’t have an answer for death — we just show up and love you,” she said. “When you need love that badly and you are given it — it changes how you see everything.

Well, that's nice and all but I prefer the love that has a face, a name, blood to shed and feed, and flesh offered for the life of the world and as the food of eternal life.  But that's just me.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shamelessly stolen....

HT to Fr. Z

My library is filled with teachers, counselors, and friends...

I think it was Pope Benedict XVI who said the books in his personal library were his trusted advisors.  I might need to be corrected on this and he could very well have been quoting someone else.  The point is not who said it but the truth of those words.  As a young man (boy) in college, I found myself constantly questioned and I questioned nearly everything.  I suppose it is unavoidable.  Fortunately, I had a good circle of friends who kept me grounded.  More than these, I also had the beginnings of a library of teachers, counselors, trusted friends, and advisors.  They spoke to me the truth that I often found easy to question and gave me answers to the manifold questions that surrounded my college years.  You want the names of some of those library resources?  Try Regin Prenter's Spiritus Creator or Sasse's Here We Stand or Bainton's Here I Stand or Krauth's The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology or Pelikan's Obedient Rebels or Franzmann's The Word of the Lord Grows or Bo Giertz The Hammer of God...  These are just a few of my early library acquisitions and they have proven to be wise, faithful, and trustworthy advisors.

Near the end of the college years and entering into Seminary, I added hundreds of books.  I bought whole libraries from retired or deceased Pastors and books from the campus bookstore with every spare dollar I had.  Remember that a good book back then hardly ever cost more than $10!!  I encountered Gustaf Wingren and Gustaf Aulen.  I read Iranaeus and Athanasius.  I found Luther Reed and Paul H. D. Lang and Paul Z. Strodach.  I learned Schmid and Chemnitz and Luther.  I rediscovered Walther firsthand after reading some less than interesting and less than accurate attributions to him.  Each new addition was one more voice to the chorus of voices instructing, counseling, challenging, guiding, and encouraging a young man (boy) on a journey to the red stole.

By the time I was in my first parish, I had two full walls of books that had to be carefully packed into book cartons and loaded on the van with other, I must confess, less important earthly possessions and then opened and organized and walled around me again as classroom, chatroom, and fortress of wisdom and truth.  By the time I left my first parish (13 years), I had so many books that 12 foot wide bookcase reaching to the 8 foot ceiling could not contain them all.  Now I look around at more than double this number -- including some books no longer in print -- whose voices have become eerily silent outside the confines of the few who have them.  Others have been reprinted in nice new duds to speak freely to a new generation waiting to acquaint themselves with these old friends.  But not all my books have antique pedigrees and some of them, many of them, have recent birthdays.  It is always the marvel to find a friend so much younger than yourself and it comforts me to believe that voices of the present will become for others the same kind of friends, counselors, teachers, and advisors that some of my older works have been for me.

You can tell a great deal by a Pastor's library -- these books represent more than paper and ink and cardboard and binding.  They represent the voices that he listens to, the counselors who guide him, and the kind of friends that surround him.  Parishes would do well to heed the advice given so long ago to mine and provide a modest book allowance to help their shepherd find friends and family to support his pastoral vocation.  Mine has been more than generous -- now $1,000 per year.  Some of my folks have said it is the best investment they have made to keep this 20 year tenure fresh and new, solid and stable over these two decades of change.  I willingly defer to my teachers on the shelves of my office as the source of any wisdom and profundity they have learned from me.  I am still their student and will be for as long as I can read and even then as long as I hear them in my mind.  Most of my reading is not for pleasure or for personal interest.  I read to hear the Gospel spoken to me, to be instructed in my deficiencies, to be guided in my uncertainty, and to be counseled in my distress.  The Word of the Lord is the supreme counselor to be sure but I am ever and always encouraged by the manifold voices who have and still speak that Word to me through the books on my shelves.  The Word of the Lord grows.  Indeed.  And with it, my circle of friends, teachers, counselors, and advisors.

Let him that is taught in the Word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.  Gal. 6:6

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The words matter...

One of the typical detours in any conversation about worship words and forms ends up with the inevitable conclusion that God cares more about substance than form, sincerity than the actual words.  Spirit and truth have been used against the form and words of the Divine Service as if the two were competing in not contradictory.  In the same way, Jesus characterization of the Pharisees whose external righteousness was as good as it gets but whose hearts were empty of faith and love has become a choice rather than a corrective direction.  Thus Jesus has been seen as removing the form and words of the worship service and replacing as the chief the criteria for judgment sincerity.  We have also heard those who equate Jesus' clearing of the Temple to an act of inward cleansing, restoring sincerity to its rightful center over the raw command for sacrifice and prayer that defined what took place within the Temple.

Strangely, however, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus does not give generalized direction but specific words and along with the command, "when you pray, pray Our Father..."  In other words, Jesus is saying that if we want to talk to God, words count -- not just motivation or the attitude of the heart.  If we would talk to God, we must begin by listening to what He says, teaches, and directs, and this becomes the sure word that we speak back to Him.  So, you want to talk with God.... well, Jesus has given us the words.  If the words Jesus has given do not define the complete extent of that which we can, are allowed to, say to Him, surely they are at least normative and the starting point of the conversation.

No one except the lunatic fringe is arguing the importance of the actual words for the sake of words alone.  These are not magical words key to the potion or incantation.  These are not the passwords which unlock the hidden gate or give secret access to the one who speaks them.  But... they are the words that He has given to us which we know He will hear and answer because He has given them to us to pray in faith.

In the same way, only the lunatic fringe is arguing that a certain set of words alone can be used in worship -- equating the liturgy only with a page number and only one page number (more often than not page 15 of the oldest of the current hymnals in Missouri's history).  When we say the liturgy, we are speaking inclusively of those pages numbers  but not exclusively as if liturgy were tied to one page number and one alone.  We are not arguing for merely words but for words that have authority, that have been conferred some authority.  It does not take much to see that the words of the Divine Service (in any of its page renderings or hymnals) are words drawn from Scripture itself.  Liturgy is sung and spoken Scripture -- much of it word for word. 

Second, these words and the forms have long history among the people of God.  Judaism and the synagogue history for the Liturgy of the Word and the Upper Room for the Liturgy of the Meal or Sacrament.  Even though we may not identify one set of words as the only words which can be used, we can recognize the authority of words to speak to us the Word, the efficacious Word that gives the Divine Service its nobility and, more importantly, its power to deliver what they promise.  It is not that these are better words than other words (a relative choice) or the exclusive words (sort of a magical choice) but they are authoritative words.  That carry with them the authority of the promise of God and the legitimacy of a long standing history of use within the community of faith down through the ages.

If God is so careless about the words used in worship, why would Jesus give as a prayer to pray instead of mere principles to apply as we see fit?  If God were so jealous to accept only the exact make up of certain words, why would the words of the worship service not be defined in Scripture.  Instead we have the genius of both -- specific words with authority that must be used as God has defined them (Scripture, baptismal name, absolution, and Words of Institution) and words with authority that have always had a certain level of fluidity and yet similarity from age to age (the much maligned Ordo).

Spirit does not matter only but the words and form.  Words and form matter but are empty without the Spirit who gives them voice and life and power.  It is not a choice.  They do not compete.  They compliment -- the Spirit and truth (words),. words and form, liturgy and the page numbers where they are found.  I just do not see why this is so hard to get... or teach... or define...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

For the heavy lifting...

Hymn or ditty?  Personal taste?  Subjective appeal?  We are constantly told that this concern for the music of the faith (hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs) is a relative thing, a matter of personal appeal and musical taste, in which all of them are fairly equal options for our choosing.  Maybe not. 

Chaplain of the International Center Pastor William Weedon has put it concisely and clearly.  The difference between the sturdy hymns of old and those blessed new added to the heritage AND those eminently forgettable little ditties we sing only for a moment is their ability to do the heavy lifting -- to carry us in time of greatest darkness and even death itself.  We sing the ditties when we are in the mood.  Big whoop!  When we face the moments of greatest struggle and sorrow, these discardable ditties will not due.  We need something stronger.  And that is why the great hymns of faith endure.  They carry forth the noble victory song of the faithful by speaking clearly and powerfully the Gospel of the cross.  They sing in no uncertain terms the hope that is within us, passed down to us by the faithful who came before, and passed on by us to our children and our children's children.

Listen here to Pr. Weedon speak (from his Issues, Etc. liturgy series) so simply and profoundly about this difference.  When I hear things like this said so plainly yet eloquently, I am edified greatly.  I hope you will be as well.  Here Weedon's words parallel the great words of Dr. Norman Nagel who introduced Lutheran Worship with this timeless truth.

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. Music is drawn into this thankfulness and praise, enlarging and elevating the adoration of our gracious giver God. 

Saying back to him what he as 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. This we acknowledge at the beginning of the Divine Service. Where his name is, there is he. Before him we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness. His forgiveness is given us, and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim him as our great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words he has used to make himself known to us. 

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. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

I do not say it often enough...

Baptism has become an event to us.  An unimportant event as a nod to tradition to some.  An important event to others but not the trigger of a completely new identity.  Even the stranger to the Lutheran service will note the seriousness and profound character of baptism from its liturgy or rite.  Unfortunately, too often the depth of the words is lost in a sea of tearful Kodak moments in which the flash of cameras and phones trivializes the timeless event in time which is baptism.

I am more and more convinced that the problems in Lutheran piety and church growth stem from our failure to take seriously the Word of the Lord that does what it promises.  No where is that Word more central to what happens than in the baptism of an infant.  With nothing to comment the child to the Lord, nothing to bring, nothing to offer, and no promises to make, we are left only with the promise of the Lord which He has kindly attached to this water.  For this reason Luther found the most apt demonstration of grace hidden right there in the obvious of the baptismal event.  It is truly an event but one which has lasting and life-changing consequence for the baptized.  Unless, of course, we cede that event merely to the past and treat it as merely an event in time.

Lutheran piety is meant to be profoundly baptismal.  Lutheran faith is rooted in the Word that keeps its promise, the efficacious Word.  I do not mean to take away from the devotional reading of Scripture or the regular weekly reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  These also powerfully shape and define our Lutheran identity in the practical realm of "me."  But it seems to me that each day it is both test and opportunity to speak, confess, and live the promise of that watery death and resurrection called baptism.  That each day we struggle to believe and say, to say and believe, "God's own child gladly say it!"

We could do worse than to content ourselves with the Our Father and Luther's morning and evening prayers as the basis for our daily devotion.  I might add only one thing that we learn to know and to pray as well as say -- God's own child I gladly say it!

1    God’s own child, I gladly say it:
    I am baptized into Christ!
He, because I could not pay it,
    Gave my full redemption price.
Do I need earth’s treasures many?
I have one worth more than any
    That brought me salvation free
    Lasting to eternity!

2    Sin, disturb my soul no longer:
    I am baptized into Christ!
I have comfort even stronger:
    Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.
Should a guilty conscience seize me
Since my Baptism did release me
    In a dear forgiving flood,
    Sprinkling me with Jesus’ blood?

3    Satan, hear this proclamation:
    I am baptized into Christ!
Drop your ugly accusation,
    I am not so soon enticed.
Now that to the font I’ve traveled,
All your might has come unraveled,
    And, against your tyranny,
    God, my Lord, unites with me!

4    Death, you cannot end my gladness:
    I am baptized into Christ!
When I die, I leave all sadness
    To inherit paradise!
Though I lie in dust and ashes
Faith’s assurance brightly flashes:
    Baptism has the strength divine
    To make life immortal mine.

5    There is nothing worth comparing
    To this lifelong comfort sure!
Open-eyed my grave is staring:
    Even there I’ll sleep secure.
Though my flesh awaits its raising,
Still my soul continues praising:
    I am baptized into Christ;
    I’m a child of paradise!

© 1991 Robert E. Voelker

Or just sing it along with this assembly: