Sunday, May 31, 2015

Romance and Reality. . .

The Romance of Protestantism, not lost on Lutherans, is the idea that we have a laity so thoroughly versed in the Scriptures and doctrinal teaching of the faith that they are well equipped to judge the preaching and teaching of the ministers and hold them accountable.  But of course the reality is that people are sheep, they go where the desires lead them and too often are the witting and unwitting victims of apostate preachers and heretical teachers.  Take a gander at a certain stadium/church in Houston, Texas.

The Romance of Protestantism, not lost on Lutherans, is that the laity are well catechized and well trained to know, to understand, and to defend the church's faith against any and all attacker and enemies.  The reality is that our people, if they were once well catechized, have traded in the catechism for the latest and greatest pop psychobabble from the more recent face to hit the stage.  They consume the generally doctrine free sentiment and the doctrinally suspect works from those whose names and faces have turned religious publishing into a  lucrative business.

The Romance of Protestantism, not lost on Lutherans, is that Sunday morning does not matter much as long as the faith is faithfully preached.  The reality is that faithful preaching is not exactly a hallmark of our age and people like story telling, jokes, and inspirational life coaching from the pulpit more than they desire an exegesis of the text, a doctrinal application of the lection of the day, or a call to repentance.  The idea that Sunday morning can get by with practices at odds with what we say we believe is old and deeply embedded in the psyche of modern Christianity of all stripes.  The hard truth is that what we regularly pray soon defines what we regularly pray.  That is the lex of truth unpopular and unpleasant to people who do whatever is right in their own eyes on Sunday mornings.

The Romance of Protestantism, not lost on Lutherans, is catechesis does not necessarily need to happen on Sunday morning.  The reality is that if it does not happen IN the Divine Service, it probably will not happen at all.  In every congregation, including Lutheran, the majority of our people are not involved in any real Bible study through the week, read popular Christian literature more than catechetical or apologetic Christian works, and listen to the sound of generic preaching, teaching, and music as the soundtrack of their daily lives (if they listen to anything religious).

Nope, for Lutherans, as well as Roman Catholics and most other Christians, the Divine Service is the most significant catechesis they experience in their Christian lives.  So what happens on Sunday morning has deep impact on the content of their faith as well as the practice.  It is high time we woke up to the fact that if the Divine Service (the liturgy with its rhythmic order of propers and ordinary within the framework of the church year) IS and will always be the primary place where the faith is formed and shaped.  Pastors who dismiss this reality are also dismissing their people from the means of grace where faith is formed, nurtured, nourished, and strengthened.

The Romance of Protestantism, not lost on Lutherans, is that our people are being fully formed by a rich and profound devotional life and that Sunday morning is an important part of this piety but not an overly significant part.  It is just the opposite.  The Divine Service (liturgy, mass, whatever you want to call it) is the source and summit of our lives of faith as the people of God.  It is by God's design that the content of this Divine Service is not human choice but the Divine Word and Sacraments designated and endowed by Christ with His Spirit and promise.

It is high time for us Lutherans to dispense with the romance and deal with the reality.  If our people do not encounter the faith within the Divine Service on Sunday morning, there is no certainty that they will meet it anywhere else throughout the rest of the week.  I know this is not how it should be but this is how it is.  Before we can begin to turn the reality into the romance, we must acknowledge and maintain the Divine Service and its rich accompaniment of faithful hymnody, the lectionary, and the church year to speak the Gospel, deliver Christ, and bestow His rich gifts upon His people.  The most important time of the week for our people is the time they spend together on Sunday morning.  We cannot short cut this in terms of content or time.  If we do anything less, we will most certainly consign our people to the predators who come with enticing words and sentiment but steal from God's people the truth that is forever sure.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

A visitation sermon. . .

Sermon for the Visitation, preached in anticipation of the day, May 31, 2015.

We tend to view the sanctoral calendar and all its obscure saint’s days, feasts, and festivals as peripheral to the main stuff.  But even then we typically think of the main stuff as having more to do with making today happy, ensuring a good tomorrow, and finding a way around troubles – more this than the business of sin and righteousness.

So the visit of Blessed Mary to St. Elizabeth, her cousin, is not a big day for more of us.  Never mind that it is filled with surprise and drama. Two very unlikely mothers – one barren and one a virgin – who end up together for a visit.  More than this, one is pregnant with the last of the prophetic voices of the Old Testament: St. John the Baptist, whom Our Lord calls the greatest of those born of women, and the other is pregnant with the Son of God in human flesh and blood. Before either is born, they are already together in the great plan of God to save His people.

John is already proclaiming Jesus, this time with a jump in mother’s womb.  Jesus is already known as the Savior long promised.  Until this moment it seems only Mary pondered and believed the messenger of the Lord.  Joseph had to be convinced.  Elizabeth is not so hesitant and insists the Blessed Mary is blessed among all women to be the mother of our Lord.

Strange, not many would call a pregnant unmarried woman blessed.  More today than then but in either case, blessed is not a word customarily used for a woman who proclaims her virginity while her belly grows great with child.  But Mary is blessed for believing that the Word of God is true. Her faith has made her blessed.

And that is still what makes us blessed. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe!  Mary did not see but she believed.  She has become the model of our own faithful believing.  Faith meets God not where reason or logic lead but where the Word speaks and faith trusts what it says.

We must meet the Lord by faith just like Mary.  We were baptized in water but it has left no obvious mark on us that we belong to the Lord.  We trust that the Word of the Lord does what it says.  We are forgiven of our sins and yet we daily struggle to renounce sin, resist temptation, and renew our lives of holiness.  It often seems like we make little progress we can see but we trust in this by faith.  We taste the bread and the wine but not the body and the blood.  We trust that what the Lord says is here, is here as He has said.  Like Mary, we meet the Lord by faith.

The visitation of Blessed Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth is a model of our own relationship with God.  We meet Him by faith, trust what our eyes cannot see, and live in the light of His promise.  Yes, we like Elizabeth and Mary are people who trust in the Lord when eyes and minds neither see nor understand what God is doing.  There is no way around it.  Christians live by faith.  At times I wish it were not so – haven’t we all hoped for proof or signs to ease the risk of believing. 

But God gives us only one sign, His Son, in whom we trust and by whom we live – though always by faith.  Just maybe this odd day on the calendar is not so odd.  For it reminds us that those who would follow the Lord walk always by faith, trusting in His Word and promise, especially when eyes do not see, minds do not understand, and hearts do not appreciate God’s will and His ways.  The just shall live by faith.  It was Luther’s wake up verse.  It describes how old and barren Elizabeth carries a prophet in her womb, Mary the virgin carries the Son of God in hers, and you and I carry the Lord and His Spirit in our hearts.  By grace. . . through faith.  Amen

The Germans act independently. . .

You may have read here before reports of the German wing of the Roman Catholic acting independently, or perhaps of Cardinal Kasper's insistence that the Germans are not merely a division of Rome.  Now it appears a majority of the Roman Catholic Bishops in Germany have acted to show their independence.  Read the whole story here. . .

With potentially far-reaching consequences, the bishops of Germany have voted by more than a two-thirds majority to relax Church labor laws to allow civilly remarried employees or those living in same-sex unions to retain their jobs with Church institutions.

In an announcement Tuesday, the German bishops’ conference in Bonn said the majority of bishops had ruled that immediate dismissal will only be a “last resort” for employees who are divorced and subsequently “remarry” or those living in a registered partnership.

Until now, such employees were required to be dismissed from such employment, although the rules were often ignored. The Church is the second-largest employer in Germany.

“An automatic dismissal may now in future be ruled as out of the question,” said Alois Glück, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, the country’s top lay Catholic organization. From now on, he said, any public violation of loyalty to Church teachings must be examined on a case-by-case basis.

The amendment, when enacted by a bishop, explicitly overturns a 2002 ecclesiastical law, which stipulated that all Church employees need to be loyal to the magisterium. Glück said the change “represents a substantial paradigm shift in the application of ecclesiastical law,” adding that the new regulation will “open the way” for decisions to be made in accordance with “human justice.”

In essence, the German Bishops have simply formalized their practice of ignoring the rules and have decided that this must be done ensure “compliance with lived practice,” that is, people are doing it so what else can we do but accept it.  The federal court in Germany ruled in favor of current Church labor law regarding dismissal of a divorced-and-civilly-remarried employee -- perhaps to the consternation of the hierarchy.  In an act designed to put pressure on the upcoming Synod, the Germans have characteristically shown not only their independence but also their liberalism -- in a country in which church taxes make this one of the wealthiest jurisdictions within Rome's umbrella but also one in which the mass attendance has declined significantly. 

The issue here is whether or not a church can hold its employees accountable to church teachings and practices.  It is the same issue often to hit the news in the USA.  In Germany, however, the Roman Catholic Church is the second largest employer!  So whenever changes are made the consequences are extensive!
Thought you wanted to know. . . By the way, the Bishops are being accused by others of acting like Protestants.  It seems the ultimate insult.  However, the Bishops do not seem to mind.  Lutherans, however, have little room to complain.  The state of Christianity among the Lutherans is no brighter.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Picked up some notes from a Sasse class and started reading. . .

"In what sense are our churches really and truly houses of God?  We can desire nothing more beautiful and greater for our houses of God than that they be places where the Holy Supper is celebrated according to the institution of Christ, and a believing congregation is gathered about the altar to receive the true body and the true blood of our Lord. Only then will the church of the Gospel, the church of the pure doctrine remain among us. Only then will it remain, but it will truly remain, 'and the gates of hell shall not overpower her' [Matt 16:18]. And everywhere a congregation is gathered about her altar in deep faith in the one who is her Lord and her Head because he is her Redeemer, where she sings the Kyrie and the Gloria and lifts her heart to heaven and with all angels and archangels and the entire company of heaven sings, 'Holy, holy, holy' to the Triune God--there will her church be a true house of God, a place of the real presence of Christ in the midst of a boisterous and unholy world. And this text will apply to her: 'The LORD is in his temple! Let all the world be silent before him!' [Hab 2:20]."

Hermann Sasse, "The Holy Supper and the Future of Our Church," in The Lonely Way, vol. 1, pp. 487-88.

Over and against Rome, Luther fought to keep the Sacrament a pure sacrament or gift and blessing bestowed upon us by the fulfillment of Christ's command to eat and drink in remembrance of Him and receive forgiveness, life, and salvation in the communion of His body and blood.  Over against Geneva Luther fought to keep Christ in the Sacrament and not limited to feeling or memory but the corporeal presence of the crucified and risen flesh and blood mysteriously but really present in and with the bread and wine as His Word promises.

For Rome the Word was an appendage to the Supper and for Geneva it was the Supper that was an appendage to the Word.  No church can remain true to the Word of Christ and continue to possess the saving truth without the Sacraments.  Reduced to a mere spiritual fellowship of mind and heart, the church has no real point of access to the Christ who comes to bestow His gifts -- especially when the heart and mind are distracted or overwhelmed with the cares and troubles of this mortal life.  When the Word is reduced to mere record of events as if it spoke about but does not bestow that which is promises, the very Sacraments themselves are called into question for it is and has always been Christ's water and Christ's bread and wine, set apart by His Word and made into the means of grace by the application of that Word to the element.

The Lutheranism of the Reformation era and the post-Reformation era -- even through the time of Bach -- knew this.  But when Pietism and Rationalism had finished with us, the Sacrament was dying.  Sasse recounts how from 1701-17-10 some 196,526 people had communed in Goerlitz but by the end of that century the number had declined by 100,000.  What would Luther say?  A church without the Sacrament as its source  and summit is not much better off than one in which the Sacrament had been replaced by sacrifice and the act of being a spectator for the offering of Christ the equivalent of a communicant.

Into this era Lutheranism in America came into being.  When in 1839 the Saxons came to America and got a first hand look at a Lutheranism in which the Sacrament of the Altar was absent on Sunday morning and got to know Lutheran people for whom Holy Communion was more novelty than central to their piety and life as Christian people under the Augsburg Confession.  They were immediately accused of being Romanizing.  With their catholic liturgy, vestments, ceremonies, private confession, devotion to the great Lutheran chorales, and their radical sacramental piety, these fore bearers of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod stuck out like a sore thumb among the Protestantized Lutherans already here.  But instead of being scandalized by their distinctiveness, they called the Lutherans present in America to task for abandoning their very identity.  What was once held with bold conviction has, we are sad to say, become our Achilles' heel.  We are not sure we want to stick out, to risk being called Romish, or to be true to our Confessional identity -- if doing so means we are out of step with the mainstream of American style Christianity.  Perhaps the only thing that will force us to choose is the prospect of the government no longer tolerating a Christianity which is orthodox and faithful.

"Where the Supper is no longer celebrated, there faith in the Son of God as the Lamb of God who consequently bore your sins dies.  And where this faith dies, the church also dies.  There her profound, blessed mystery is no longer understood..."  When this happens, the church becomes a philosophical fellowship wherein the religious man finds his spiritual needs satisfied and, if he discovers other fellowships that appear to do this better, he leaves the church in pursuit of his needs being met.  This is not the Church that St. Paul called the body of Christ in which Jesus Christ, both High Priest and sacrificial Lamb of God gives us His body and blood to eat and drink, where we were incorporated into Him and into His death and resurrection  in Holy Baptism, and where the Spirit works to sustain the faith of the baptized through the means of grace.  "Behold there the tabernacle of God is among men" [Rev. 21:3].  Though hidden in the means of grace, what God has prepared for our future is already present here in the Word of God and the Sacraments of God.  What we have already is the glimpse and deposit of the not yet fully revealed of what God has prepared for those who love Him.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The worship of the sleepy. . .

We have all witnessed the sight of a child curled up in a pew asleep or wistfully sleeping away in a mother's arms in the pew or even at the rail.  We have all seen children whose eyes have glazed over during the sermon and are ripe for the rest and renewal of sleep.  Sometimes people wonder what kind of benefit these children get from being in church.  Often those same people are subtly suggestions that they do not belong at church at all but in a nursery somewhere.  I disagree.

Children belong in church.  Even sleeping.  We do them a grave disservice when we shuffle them off to a nursery or stay at home because we fear they might make a little fuss or fall asleep anyway (how many parents have secretly wished their infants and toddlers would sleep away their time at church!).  Yes, it satisfies those who seek order in everything and those among us who think we cannot think without absolute quiet but there is something sad about a completely quiet church -- devoid of muted sound of children curious, interested, distracted, unhappy, singing, and, yes, sleeping.

The worship of the sleepy is not without its value.  I don't know about you but some of my best prayers are prayed in the weary hours of the night when rest overtakes me before the "amen" is said.  For that is exactly how we come to the Lord -- weary with the heavy burdens of this mortal life after the fall and in desperate need of the rest of a clear conscience through forgiveness and the peace of Christ to rule our hearts.  We are too often kept awake by the very things the liturgy is designed to ease -- the burdens of our shameful thoughts, words, and deeds and the fears of things we cannot control but only dread.  Rest is the outcome of faith that cannot see tomorrow but knows the good and gracious will of God witnessed in Christ our Savior will not and cannot disappoint us.

The child sprawled out in the pew blissfully sleeping away or dozing in the arms of the parent has exactly this -- rest.  The arms of mom or dad become the arms of our Savior who gathers His lambs in His arms and carries them home.  Perhaps we object so to these sleepy children because we do not know such rest and we doubt the wisdom and power of the Lord and of His grace to answer the dreads and wounds of our mortal lives.  In any case, these children witness what it is that we seek from the Lord -- such clear consciences that we can sleep in peace and such rest that we know real refreshment of heart, mind, and body as a result.

I well recall one of our members who came to church after a twelve hour shift and a long commute at the end of that shift.  There was hardly a Sunday in which sleep did not over take them at one point in the Divine Service or another.  Some might have said "Go home, sleep, this is doing you no good...." but not me.  The worship of the sleepy belongs with the rest of us who are wide awake.  I am not advocating napping during church (at least for adults) but I certainly get why children would feel safe, secure, and comfortable in the liturgy.  It is the safest and most secure place for us all.  Hopefully we all grow ever more comfortable in the rhythm of the ordinary, punctuated by the changes of the pericopes and the variable parts of the Divine Service, within the beat of the church year, with the goal of a clear conscience and perfect peace.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Spirit will. . .

Sermon for Pentecost B, preached on Sunday, May 24, 2015.

    The reality of life is that we are so busy in the present, we forget that we have a future – not simply tomorrow but the forever future Christ won for us by His death and resurrection.  The Spirit brings to remembrance what Christ has accomplished in the past so that we might know and be ready for the future Christ has prepared for us.  The role of the Spirit is not whispering secrets we do not know but to bring to remembrance the eternal Word of God that has reshaped our yesterday and to direct us to the eternal tomorrow God has prepared for those who love Him.
    Jesus says the Spirit will guide you into all truth.  The Spirit cannot lie to us nor can the Spirit deceive us.  God gives us the Spirit so that you and I might be grounded upon and build our lives upon the truth that endures forever.  In an age of liars, lies, and deceptions, we need a voice we can trust.
    This truth is not some theoretical or philosophical truth but the flesh and blood truth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God in our flesh and blood.  He became incarnate, suffered, died, and rose again to forgive our sins, to save us from death, and to give to us eternal life.  This is the saving truth the Spirit makes known.
    This truth is embodied in Christ and is made known through His Word.  The Son and the Spirit do not have other words but only the Word of the Father.  Jesus insists He is come to make known the Father’s Word; the Spirit speaks this Word.
    The Spirit will declare what is to come – not as some crystal ball into the hidden future but the future made plain in Jesus Christ.  This is not some secret we must stumble upon but the promise that saves.  You have this future – you will not die but live and declare the wonders of Him who has called you from darkness into His light.  You will rise in the new and glorious flesh of Christ to live with Him and in Him in perfect bliss and peace forever.
    We know this future.  It is not some treasure at the end of a map or a lifelong journey but our present hope.  One of the worst things that has been done to us is this awful idea that God has a secret plan and purpose for your life and you have to figure it out.  What kind of God would torment us like this?  God has a plan and a purpose for you but it is not hidden.  It is that you believe by the power of the Spirit and that you seek to live as God's own, obey His commandments, and be found faithful when Christ returns to finish His new creation.  You do this right where you are -- as husband and wife to each other, as parent and child to each other, as neighbor to neighbor. . .
    When Christ comes to finish His new creation, the Spirit will prepare you for Him.  The Spirit calls you to repentance, to owning your sin in confession that Christ may atone for it with His holy suffering and life-giving death.  The Spirit keeps you in this faith and in this repentance so that when Christ returns you will be found in Him, holy, blameless, and without spot.  This is God's plan and purpose -- a life of daily repentance letting go of sin and grasping hold of the forgiveness in which you stand now and forevermore.
    The Spirit will glorify Jesus.  This is not some vague and mysterious glory but the glory of people who have learned by the Spirit to believe in Jesus Christ.  The work of the Spirit is to break down the barriers of our fears and teach us to trust in Christ alone.  The work of the Spirit is to call us out by convicting us with regard to sin and to call us up to the holy life of faith and good works, following Jesus to day and forever.
    You are not on your own.  You are not left to your own devices.  You are not abandoned by God.  He has given you the Spirit, the Comforter and Counselor to guide you into all truth.  The Spirt has extended Christ to us and Christ has extended to us the Father.  The work of the Trinity comes together on the cross, in the Word of the cross, and in our faith in that promise of that cross.  The Father sends His Son, the Son accomplishes His Father's saving purpose, and the Spirit makes known this glorious Gospel that we might believe it and live in its joy today and forever.
    And all of this is so that we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, doing what He has called us to do today while there is time, so that we may receive the well done of the Father in all eternity.  Where is the Spirit?  Where Christ is made known in the Word of the Gospel, in the water of baptism, in the voice of the absolution, and in the bread and wine we eat and drink as Christ’s body and blood.
    And the Spirit is one more place -- in YOU.  Teaching you to renounce ungodliness, to live self-controlled lives where your desires do not rule your hearts, to do what is good and right and true and not simply live as victims of sin and its unrighteousness, and to tell the world that there is hope, there is life, there is forgiveness, and there is salvation in Christ and in no where else.  What else can we say except, make it so, Lord.  Make it so, Lord.... make it so.  Amen

One issue conversions. . .

One issue conversions (or reasons for leaving one church and joining another) are seldom enough to satisfy the one leaving.  For a long time I have suggested that many of those who left the ELCA did not leave the ELCA but merely desired to leave behind the sexuality decisions of the 2009 CWA.  They were leaving in the hopes of placing one issue behind them.  Those who leave Lutheranism for Rome or Constantinople generally have an issue that becomes the trigger.  This last straw was the one thing they could no longer abide (I have heard many:  infant communion, size, history, a magisterium, frustration with democratic structures common to non-Roman communions, liturgical matters, etc...).  The truth is that Missouri was begun by a group of people who took the radical step of not leaving a church behind but a country and a culture to find a new home where they could be the church they could not be in Germany.  In every case, there have been mixed results.

The NALC has not become the huge magnet for disaffected ELCA types and there are questions still being resolved -- not in the least of which what does it mean to be in fellowship with the very church body they left in protest?!  The LCMC has become a hodge podge of strange and unusual -- things Lutheran and things Protestant and things Evangelical.  It is not so much a church body as a loose group of cooperating churches who function independently of one another.  Issues of fellowship are likewise as informal and loose within this group.

Those who have left for Rome or Constantinople have left with dreams only to find that any more is an exchange of one set of problems for another.  No one who says otherwise is being honest.  It is a matter of what problems you choose to live with and what problems force you to leave.  Some have quite willingly and cheerfully shaken the dust of their former Lutheranism from their feet -- running from more than running to a new church home.  Others have been much more circumspect (thinking here of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus who never really renounced his Lutheran identity and life but saw his conversion as the ordinary outcome of his Lutheran-ness).

One does not even have to think on a denominational scale to see this.  Splits over single issues seldom produce healthy churches in the short term.  It may be enough to force you to leave but a single issue is not enough to help you face the future with a positive identity and picture of what you are here to accomplish.  We have had folks who left the two congregations I have served but less than half of them ended up being regular attenders or people who fully embraced their new church homes.  Single issues and a move from rather than toward has resulted in very uneven fruits.  Even those who leave a liberal Christian denomination for one that unashamedly affirms Scripture's infallibility may not be prepared to embrace the liturgical, sacramental, and theological consequences of their move (I am thinking here of one family who left a denomination which no longer affirmed the truthfulness of Scripture but is still uncomfortable about the infant baptism they encountered in Lutheranism).

It is much easier to run from something than to run to it.  To a certain extent, many Christians are running from their own churches and church bodies -- even while they remain active members.  The clear and unbroken historical position on marriage, for example, becomes an issue people run from when a child, grandchild, or other relative or friend presents themselves with a same sex partner desiring to be married.  The clear and unbroken position on abortion, another example, becomes an issue when people have a child, grandchild, or other relative or friend who faces an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy or seems ill-equipped to care for a child.  People are always saying about their churches "Oh, I know our church teaches that but I don't believe it..."  Even congregations have chosen to de-emphasize aspects of their historic confession (say Lutherans who have outgrown the liturgy and worship like Evangelicals).

The truth is I think Lutheranism -- that is the faith confessed in the Lutheran Confessions and proclaimed by generations of orthodox teachers, preachers, pastors, and musicians -- is better than the actual Lutheran church bodies that claim that confession.  Most of us do.  So what do you do with that?  In my case, I agitate for my parish and my church body to take seriously their own Confessions and to exercise more discipline (personally and ecclesiastically) to let those Confessions inform and govern doctrine and practice.  It is an ongoing struggle but I think in the end it is a positive one.  I hope that I am not running away from something but running toward a positive affirmation of an evangelical and catholic faith that reformed and continues to reform the dogma and practice of our life on behalf of all Christians but within the specific sphere of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

I would be happy if all denominations did the same thing -- struggled with Scripture and the catholic tradition to make sure their own church body was as faithful as it could be.  In the end I think this is much better ecumenical model that overlooking differences or deciding that such differences are somehow or other no longer impediments to being one at the altar.  None of us gains anything by having those who discount or are embarrassed by our confessional identity lead us or engage other Christians on our behalf.

Lutherans have never said that the borders of the church are coterminous with any particular Lutheran denomination -- only that the faith expressed in our Concordia is the catholic and apostolic faith and not sectarian in any way.  I am regretfully prepared to accept that any Lutheran denomination will disappoint me but I am yet to be disappointed with the Lutheran faith as confessed in our Concordia.  For that reason it is less likely I will leave than those who have drawn a line in the sand and said no more.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What can the west learn from the success of Chinese schools?

Seventy teachers from the UK were sent to Shanghai to study classroom methods to investigate why Chinese students perform so well. Upon their return, the teachers reported that much of China’s success came from teaching methods the UK has been moving away from for the past 40 years.

The Chinese favour a “chalk and talk” approach, whereas countries such as the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand have been moving away from this direct form of teaching to a more collaborative form of learning where students take greater control.

Given China’s success in international tests such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, it seems we have been misguided in abandoning the traditional, teacher-directed method of learning where the teacher spends more time standing at the front of the class, directing learning and controlling classroom activities.

Read it and weep. . .

As schools across America let out for the summer, it is a good time to re-think what we are doing wrong in the American educational enterprise. The lies we have told ourselves and the tragedy we have heaped upon our children who bear the cost of our foolishness. . .

  1. The ways of the past have not served us well.  Enthusiasm for discovery learning is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favors direct instruction.  In other words, our experimentation with more innovative and experimental styles of teaching, including basing learning on children’s interests, giving them more control over what happened in the classroom and getting rid of memorizing times tables and doing mental arithmetic, has not helped our children learn but only wasted their time and ours on the foolish distractions of modernity.
  2. Instruction dealing with new information should not be explicit and direct.  In other words, children sitting in rows of desks, listening to teachers, has been false derided as passive learning which should be replaced by active methods of instruction which involve the children and our aversion to memorization of facts actually hinders our children from recalling basic content and allowing them to integrate this into other areas of instruction and learning.
  3. Lavish praise is the key to effective learning.  The psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.  More than this, too much praise actually hinders their capacity to learn and even to think critically.
  4. Every child learns in his or her own way and at his or her own speed.  Instead of consuming the precious time, energy and resources to individualize instruction to meet the supposed individual learning styles of every child in the classroom, it is more effective to employ more explicit teaching strategies and to spend additional time monitoring and intervening where necessary.
  5. More money will solve the problem.  Unlike our American classrooms replete with the latest technology in new and fresh facilities, the Chinese classrooms use antiquated methods like chalk boards in cramped quarters and still their children outpace ours in the basic educational skills.  Money is not the problem; wasted money is the problem.
  6. There is no room for failure in the classroom.  Inflated grade systems and the press to pass children who have not mastered the basic skills of their grade have not helped anyone but have created a morass in which mediocrity rules and the whole educational endeavor seems to encourage telling our failing children that they are doing just fine.
I am certainly not intent upon duplicating the Chinese but in abandoning our ever present desire to reinvent education and to rediscover our own educational history and success -- when the children in American schools were at the top of the world class and our schools the envy of the world.  Discipline, memorization, attention to basic skills and the mastery of basic facts seem old-fashioned in our world of individualized learning where no child is allowed to fail but they may be the only means by which we can rescue our educational institutions from those who throw dollar after dollar at new, untried, and failed ideas.  We certainly cannot do much worse!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Remember. . .

On this Memorial Day weekend, two scenes are etched into my memory.  At my father-in-law's funeral a single row of war veterans, the same vintage as Al, made their long way down the aisle before the funeral began and solemnly saluted their fallen comrade.  At the cemetery they took turns firing the rifles whose sound shattered the silence.  And they stood in rapt attention as the flag was folded and on one knee presented to my mother-in-law in recognition of Al's service to his country and from a grateful nation.  Little did I know that the whole thing would be repeated seven hundred miles away when my own father died.  Honor guards, soldiers folding a flag, and a bended kneed holding forth that folded flag in honor, thanks, appreciation, and gratitude from a grateful nation -- this time for my own father.  They are two poignant moments of very emotional times.  But this is not about emotion.

We spend too much time talking about and paying attention to feelings.  We are more consumed with how we feel than just about anything else.  Those soldiers who served without hesitation, who paid the cost with haunting memories, the loss of friends and family, chronic wounds and loss of limb, and especially those who died on hills, in fox holes, in the air, one the sea, so far from home. . . they deserve more from us than good feelings and even gratitude.  If their serve and their sacrifice means anything to us, then it calls us as a nation to stop the foolish feeding frenzy of presumed slight, to demand an end to the crazed reaction to injustice that loots, steals, and destroys, to refuse the senseless litany of rights demanded by those unwilling to pay even the smallest cost of liberty, and to challenge the selfish slavery of the moment by remembering those whose support of freedom was paid in blood, sweat, pain, and death.

Our political conversation is dominated by questions of what the candidates will do for me.  Our terrible treatment of those who would be candidates almost guarantees that the best people will not seek to run. Our fear of the future betrays the America that led countless soldiers to defend freedom on every field in unpopular conflicts amid the worst possible conditions.  Our nation is only as strong as those who will hear and heed the call to service -- formally in the armed forces or informally as responsible citizens.  Our punishment will be to get the kind of society we fought to prevent -- unless we are willing to work together as hard as those who are working to tear down and destroy the fragile liberty but one generation away from surrender to those who refuse to follow where our ancestors walked.

Just a few thoughts on Memorial Day as I remember two of the greatest generation and pray that they and their like are not the last. . .

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Of two minds. . .

The etymology of the word “doubt” is from the Latin word dubius meaning “uncertain” (also a word in English).  Look more deeply, however, and you find the word rooted in the Latin word duo (two). Dubium means a choice between two things. Another way of looking at this is to compare doubt with double, a word that comes from the same Latin root (dubius). To entertain doubts is to be undecided, to have two minds on the matter.

This is useful because it well describes us as Christians today.  We say we want the truth but the truth is we run after every falsehood that appeals to our minds and hearts.  We say we want to be confident of that truth but we allow every naysayer to disarm this truth and leave us with uncertainty.  We say we want to hold on to that which is larger than the moment and even eternal but we cave to the whim of desire nearly every chance we get.  We insist that we are our own people and go our own way but seldom risk this lonely path without the support of others.  We insist we are individuals but we walk in herds -- in step with those ahead of us even when we fear they are going the wrong way.

We are like this not only in the matter of religion and faith but life itself.  We love and hate our jobs.  We love our friends but spend most of our time with them filtered through media.  We love healthy food but give into our guilty pleasures.  We honor people of principle but we tend to surrender our principles on the altar of desire and go for what feels good.  We want accountability in government but only if our politicians tell us what we want to hear.  We want the rule of law to apply equally unless we are guilty of an infraction and then we have all sorts of reasons, excuses, and justifications why it should not apply to us.

I am just as guilty as the rest of us.  Doubt is the fruit of sin.  Before it stains us with guilt, before it marks us for death, before creation has become a battleground, and before God became our enemy, it all began with simply doubt.  Did God really say. . . Does the Word of God really mean. . . Does God really want you to. . .  These became the cracks filled quickly with guilt, shame, regret, and bitterness.  We became of two minds toward God back in Eden and it has not changed.

The Christian is the new person, created in Christ Jesus from the waters of new birth in Baptism, as a child of God and heir of salvation in whom the Spirit lives, works, and speaks.  But the old Adam has not shut up and continues to plant doubt in our minds about God's promises, His reliability, His trustworthiness, and the certainty of His grace. 

These doubts either drive us into the arms of Christ or out of them.  No one is ever brought to more certainty by abandoning the fellowship of God's people gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.  No one is ever made more secure in the arms of God's grace by getting what they want, what they pray for, or what they think will make their lives perfect.  Adversity does have the power to drive us from the sufficient grace of God but it also has the power to drive home the truth that this sufficiency is the only security we know this side of glory.

We lie to ourselves by insisting God would not want us to suffer and so we indulge in what we know is evil and wrong -- choosing a moment of sinful pleasure over an eternity of joy.  We lie to ourselves that if God really loved us then all these bad things would not be happening to us -- choosing to believe that God's purpose is merely the clean up crew who fixes our own self-indulgent wrongs and the struggles of living in a sinful world clearly at odds with His purpose and plan.  And then we feel justified in rejecting God while finding that such rejection has not authored any word of peace for our hearts but only the poisoned fruit of bitterness and despair.

What will you do with your doubts?  That is the question.  Will we stew and fret in them until the only thing we know is uncertainty?  Or will we surrender them to meet the Lord where He will be found -- in the rich green pastures of His Word and the still quiet waters of His Sacraments.  This is what I struggle with every day and, I suspect, it is where you live also.  If I have learned one thing over my life, doubt offers me no refuge, no peace, no promise, no future, and only the most painful regret.  Faith is always a risk but its risk cannot be as empty as the alternative of doubt, despair, and death.

On this Pentecost morning we rejoice that God has sent to us the Spirit of truth to make known to our fearful and double hearts the true Gospel and to break down the walls of our hearts to believe.  On this day we pray as a Church and as individual Christians:  Lord, I believe. . . Help Thou my unbelief.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Pastoral words to pastors from our Synod VP

Pastor Mueller offers words of
encouragement and comfort for pastors

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:6–11).
Brothers in Christ:
Grace and peace to you in Jesus, the Living One, who died and lives forevermore, who holds the keys of death and hell (Rev. 1:18)! We are writing specifically to pastors today, but much of this applies to all of us, brothers and sisters alike.
Every three to six weeks, I sit down with my pastor. Generous with his time, he usually gives me 90 minutes or more. We talk about our families, about our joys and burdens, about our temptations. We then read and discuss Scripture, pray and, if necessary (when is it not necessary?), confess and speak Christ’s word of forgiveness. I do not believe it is possible to serve very long as a pastor without hearing for yourself the precious word of Christ on the lips of your pastor, “Your sin is forgiven you! Go and sin no more!”
Why? Simply put, as Peter writes, the devil is prowling about, seeking someone to devour. Does that include pastors too? Oh, yes, it does—in spades! And if you think it doesn’t, you are actually in even greater danger. Time and time again, we’ve seen how both the devil and the world target pastors and their families. If they can take a pastor down, they can often take others down with him. What is more, we pastors, like everyone else, have beating in our own chests a heart full of sin, “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Why so negative today? Jesus explains: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20–23).
So when Satan comes with his temptation, he has this natural ally in me, in my heart. In other words, my sin problem is not merely a surface anomaly like a skin blemish easily removed with a laser. Instead, it’s like a metastasized melanoma, not just on the surface, but infecting the whole body with its deadly effects.
What are some of the tactics Satan uses to play with our sinful flesh, often when we least expect it?
  • He almost always takes our pride and twists it to his purposes. “It won’t happen to me.” “I’m immune to these temptations.” “I have progressed beyond that.” “I’m on to the devil’s schemes.” “I’ve got this licked.” “Let’s focus on the good things, not the negative.” “I’m okay. At least I’m not as bad as . . .” “You work for the Synod. You’re good!”
  • Sex is like a powerful river. Within its proper banks, within a marriage of one man and one woman for life, it is a glorious gift of God. Outside these boundaries, it quickly becomes destructive, narcissistic. Used as God designed, for husband and wife to give themselves to serve each other in love, it is a source of great joy and blessing from God’s hand. But when our appetites lead us to use others for ourselves, it turns into an idol that often runs wild, becoming an all-consuming desire that is never satisfied. With the Internet, accessing debilitating pornography (debasing to women and men alike) has become so easy. We toss God’s gifts into the trash, causing great pain to ourselves and those we love.
  • Sometimes those with great intellect are tempted to think that they can solve just about any problem if only people will listen to them. When people do listen, we become enamored with our own wisdom. When they refuse to hear us, we blame it on their “stupidity” or “hardness of heart,” claiming that they have thereby refused to hear Christ. We become proud of our accomplishments. Or when we suffer, we blame others.
  • Great wealth or lack of possessions, take your pick. The devil can use either one to consume our hearts and minds. We don’t have enough. We are blessed, but we want more. We focus on what we don’t have, instead of receiving in thanksgiving all that God has given us. But the thing about idols and obsessions is that God has a tendency to grind them to bits. He tolerates no rivals!
  • The devil tempts us with the fear of man. We know the right thing to do or to say, but we are afraid people will not like us if we say it, so we soft peddle. We compromise. We give in. Pray God would instead give you both the wisdom and discernment necessary, as well as the Spirit-worked courage, to speak the Word of God with loving boldness. Let the fear of God drive out the fear of man.
  • Can pastors develop a haughty spirit? There are many opportunities the devil takes to play on our sinful flesh in this regard. “This church is growing because of me.” “If everyone followed my methods, this Synod would take off!” “My people are a bunch of dumb sheep who know nothing of the Word of God.” “They’re not worthy of a man of my talents.” Any one of these thoughts will indulge our sinful pride, but each of them is deadly.
  • We could also write volumes about the tongue, what James calls “a fire, a world of unrighteousness . . . no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:6, 8). Heed his warning: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue [or his fingers on the keyboard!] but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
What a list! And I’m only scratching the surface. Satan’s purpose in all of these temptations is to separate us from Christ, to drive others away from Christ or to destroy our ability to serve in the pastoral ministry. What is God calling us to do?

First, repent. Turn from the lies you tell yourself. Turn from following your own desires. Turn from the idols you have created. Turn in the pride. Give up to the Lord in confession all those sinful thoughts. Turn away, by the Spirit’s power, from those sinful actions. Give up the sinful, prideful words. Put away the fear of man (again, idolatry) to fear, love and trust in God alone.

Second, even more importantly, remember that the Church lives only by the forgiveness of sins. You and I need Christ’s forgiveness as much or more than our people. Hear for yourself the poignant words of John: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2). That’s how you can be sure this is also for you.

God in our flesh and blood, Jesus, became the sacrifice that takes away our sins. He soaked it all up. He is the propitiation, the sacrifice that made us whole. He absorbed all that sin and death could do. All the wrath, all the destruction—He took it all for us. He did it all for real sinners. He did it all for you and me.
All this works a wonderful exchange, an exchange actually finished from the cross. When we come, stained and dirty, dying with our sin, Jesus says, “Here, I will take what is yours, will take all your sin, I will become the sinner for you, in your place!” He gathers all our sins, carries them all and is nailed up to the cross for every last one of them. Now raised from the dead, Jesus says, “Here, now let me give you what is Mine, My life, My peace, My mercy, My grace, My heaven, all for you, for you are my beloved!” And the Father looks at us and sees only Jesus—for us!

All this is delivered to us in our Baptism, in absolution, in the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for us. As a pastor, you deliver these gifts to your people in the Word of God. But you need the gifts too. No one, including you, can live without them. The greatest help in temptation is our Lord’s promise: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). You are loved in Christ, washed clean in His blood.

Forgiven by the Word of the living Lord Jesus, we are now called to be “humble . . . under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” We are to be “sober-minded; watchful” against temptation (1 Peter 5:6–8). In essence, by the Word of God and prayer, as we are accountable to one another, we are to guard our hearts. We take seriously the warning, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). This is why God provides you with brothers in the ministry, with a board of elders, to help you stand. This is why God gives His Spirit, in His Word: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Look for it. Look for the way of escape He gives. Trust Him. Know that Satan is already defeated. He has no power unless we allow it. That’s why Peter tells us to “resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:9–10).

When you sense you are being drawn into temptation, get help. Don’t fight alone. Call a brother pastor. Talk to someone. The devil loves loners. They’re easier to “pick off.” Guard your heart. Watch what you take in. Be careful what you look at. “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). Be accountable for your devotional life. Call your circuit visitor. Visit regularly with your pastor, your father confessor. Put safeguards on your computer if you haven’t done so. Start or become part of an accountability group. Ask a brother pastor to hold you accountable. Talk to a Christian counselor (many districts provide help in this). The Concordia Plan Services Employee Assistance Plan can help too (1-866-726-5267). No matter what, remember this promise: “Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20).

Why are we belaboring this? Satan has two more dastardly tricks. He will often lead you to think it’s no big deal, you’ll get away with it, no one will know, no one will recognize you. He will tempt you to become what you most despise. And then he will turn around and accuse you: “You think God can love you after you did all that? You’ve got to be kidding!”

But hear and take to heart God’s Word: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:32–34). And that also includes you, whoever you are! Trust Him. Lean on Him. He will never fail you.

One more thing: You can stake your life on these words. They are trustworthy and true. “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).
May that peace of God be with you all—in Jesus!

The Rev. Dr. Herbert Mueller
First Vice President
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

Ah, we once knew how to build churches. . . too bad we forgot.

Compare and contrast. . . St. John Lutheran, Forest Park, IL (Chicago):

And this. . .

You pick the one that is consistent with Lutheran Confessional, liturgical, and sacramental identity. . .

Friday, May 22, 2015

Under the sign of the cross. . .

Sermon preached to the Circuit Brothers, upon the Commemoration of Sts. Constantine and Helena, based on 1 Corinthians 1:22-31 & John 15:1-11.

Today we remember and given thanks for Emperor Constantine, Christian Ruler and Helena, Mother of Constantine.  Constantine I served as Roman Emperor from A.D. 306 to 337. During his reign the persecution of Christians was forbidden by the Edict of Milan in 313, and ultimately the faith gained his full support. Constantine was not inattentive to the teaching of the faith and called for the Council of Nicaea in 325 to bring an end to the challenge to orthodox Christianity by the Arians.  His mother, Helena (ca. 255-329) was a strong influence on her son’s life and she was one of the first Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.  Her visit led to the identification of many of the holy sites we acknowledge in Jerusalem and Bethlehem to this very day.

According to the tradition, while at war with Maxentios, Constantine had the vision of the Holy Cross and fighting under the sign of the Holy Cross, he won his battle. Though Constantine was not baptized until close to death, this was not an uncommon practice of the day, preferring a baptismal date which would preclude major sins that would defile the baptism.

It's an odd story, to say the least.  Today we are hardly bothered by the idea of sins that would stain our baptismal new life.  In fact, we expect it.  We tend to see sins as our job and forgiveness as God’s.  The pursuit of holiness is not a high priority on our daily lives.  We Lutherans in particular are often seen as having an invisible piety – that is, we live relatively anonymously in the world with little to draw attention to our faith and lives in Christ.  To live under the sign of the cross is not only to rejoice in what Christ has done for us but to endeavor by the power of the Spirit to live the new life baptism has imparted to us.

The world is looking for signs, that is surely true, and we live in an age that runs to every story of a boy who visits heaven to every other strange anomaly as perhaps proof of the divine.  The sign, however is simply Christ.  His death as the payment for our sins and His resurrection as the promise of our own resurrection to eternal life – this is what God has given us. As good as this is in theory, when life comes crashing down or guilt continues to shame us or we shudder from persecution for what we believe or we simply call evil good, there is a voice in us that continues to ask for something more than Christ crucified and risen, for a sign, any sign, that will bolster our believing and make faith less risky.

Constantine fought under the sign of the cross.  Victory meant God was good, was on his side, and even an emperor knew enough to pay back a debt.  Well, brothers and sisters, you fight under the sign of the cross, too.  It is not a symbol but a sacrament, water and the word.  You were crucified with Christ into His death and you were raised in Christ to His new life.  That is your sign.  That is my sign.

When you were placed over the water, when the sign of the cross was made on your forehead and heart, you were marked as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified, the Spirit was given you to break through the barriers of your heart and plant faith where doubt and fear once reigned supreme.  In your every day life as husband or wife, parent or child, employer or employee, you fight the good fight of faith under this baptismal sign of the cross marked on you.  You belong to Him.  Your life right now is hidden in Christ and one day it will be revealed to the world that has rejected Him and in front of them God will lead you to the heavenly place prepared for You.

Until Christ comes again to finish His new creation, you conquer under the sign of the cross.  You live successfully by living faithfully.  Your piety is repentance lived out within the boundaries of the church, where you confess your sins, where you receive absolution, where you recall your baptism, and where you feast upon Christ’s flesh and blood.  Would that we took this more seriously.  For then we would honor our baptism with a bit more effort at holiness than our usual half-hearted attempts to refrain from sin.

Now don’t get me wrong – your confidence does not lie in your life of holiness and it should not ever.  But if we fight the flesh, if we fight the world, and if we fight the devil with the sign of the cross, we have the power in Christ to do better than we have done at manifesting the new life Christ has imparted to us.  And God has good purpose in seeing us live the new lives of self-control, of holiness, and of obedience.  For He has placed us as His people to be signs to the world of His grace, mercy, and power.  Where we live out our lives in repentance, clinging to Christ and Him crucified, and living by the Spirit the new life of our baptism, God is at work showing the world His gracious character through us.

The sign of the cross is on you.  The Spirit of Christ is in you.  You are in Christ a new creation.  Take up the sign and show it to the world.  Live not in fear of your enemies but in confidence of Christ by the Spirit.  Cast off the works of your old life and live your new life in Christ.  Live not in the darkness of yesterday but in the light of the eternal tomorrow.  And then, brothers and sisters, whatever happens to you, you will conquer.  Amen.

So fearful of things catholic that we cease to be Lutheran. . .

A recent discussion of the practice of raising the chalice and host within the Words of Institution, at the Per Ipsum, at the Pax Domini, and finally during the Agnus Dei brought forth the fear on the part of some Lutherans that this bordered on idolatry.  I was shocked as I heard Lutherans fear that raising the chalice and host where the Church has raised it for century after century would be equated with idolatry.  Shocked because this fear represents a misunderstanding both of the elevation and a misunderstanding of the adoration rightly offered to Christ who is come to us in the bread which is His flesh and the cup of His blood within the mass or Divine Service.

I would quote a couple of folks in response.  First is the Rev. William Weedon, now Chaplain at the International Center and Director of Worship for the LCMS.

Where the Lutherans continued the elevation it had the meaning of a confession of the real presence of our Lord's body and blood. Dr. Luther spoke of it this way: "We do not want to abolish the elevation because it goes so well with the German Sanctus and signifies that Christ has commanded us to remember him. For just as the sacrament is bodily elevated, yet Christ's body and blood are not seen in it, so he is also remembered and elevated by the word of the sermon and is confessed and adored in the reception of the Sacrament. In each case he is apprehended only by faith; for we cannot see how Christ gives his body and blood for us and even now daily shows and offers it before God to obtain grace for us." AE 53:82.

Where [elevation] really came into force and into its own was in Lutheran Brandenburg, where in the 17th century the prince tried to smuggle in Calvinism. The Lutherans there insisted on the elevation as a vital confession of the real presence of our Lord's Body and Blood and even added some words to the action: "Dear Christian, this is the true body of your Lord, born of Mary, and this is the true blood of Christ, poured out for you upon the cross." This was called the Ostentatio. The Calvinists, of course, screamed bloody murder over the practice.

In our day and age, the elevation with the adoration of the Lord's body and blood, is a fine protest against "receptionism" which would teach that our Lord's almighty words do not effect His presence until the bread and wine are bodily tasted. Rather, the Lutheran Symbols, quoting St. John Chrysostom, speak of our Lord's body resting upon all the altars of Christendom! Thus, we kneel before Him to whom every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, and we confess - as Luther says - that though hidden from our eyes, He is present in His body and blood among us, just as He has promised.

Let it be clear here that the folks who objected to the elevation and adoration were not the Lutherans who feared transubstantiation but the Reformed who refused to locate the presence of Christ in the bread and wine.  Some of the Lutherans also felt uncomfortable about this and receptionism tried to distract the attention away from the consecration and onto the actual communion itself.  Luther is no friend to this movement.   "For as soon as Christ says: 'This is my Body,' his body is present through the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. If the Word is not there, it is mere bread; but as soon as the words are added they bring with them that of which they speak." AE 36:341

" one, unless he be an Arian heretic, can and will deny that Christ Himself, true God and man, who is truly and essentially present in the Supper, should be adored in spirit and in truth in the true use of the same, as also in all other places, especially where His congregation is assembled." (Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, VII, The Lord's Supper, 112, 126)

Luther, writing only a few years before his death, makes it even more abundantly clear:  If Christ is truly present in the Bread, why should He not be treated with the utmost respect and even be adored?" Joachim, a friend, added: "We saw how Luther bowed low at the Elevation with great devotion and reverently worshiped Christ. (Mathesius, Table Talk, Leipzig, 1903, 341)  Writing a year later, calling the Sacrament of the Altar the adorable sacrament, Calvin directly accused Luther of idolatry.  

What are we doing when we sing "O Christ, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world; have mercy on us"?  These words are addressed not to Christ in general but to the specific Christ who is present according to His promise where He has pledged to be -- the bread and wine of His Holy Supper. “There is no question that the Agnus Dei is specifically a prayer of adoration to the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. Here it is not incorrect to defy even the externalists, and kneel. The Agnus Dei is certainly not a joyous hymn of praise. It was rejected only by those who feared that it might lead to an adoration of the Host, rather than of the Saviour Himself” (F. R. Webber, Studies in the Liturgy, 153).

Finally, we would be careful about attempting to separate, even though we might distinguish, Christ's flesh and blood from the earthly elements of bread and wine, to which He has attached Himself in the Holy Sacrament.  For such separation of the Lord from the mortal flesh and blood of His incarnation is gross heresy and the denial that He is one Lord and one Christ.  Such is the problem with consubstantiation as an attempt to replace transubstantiation or as a short hand way (wrongly) of describing what it is that Lutherans do believe and confess with regard to Christ and His presence in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

When the fear of giving offense distorts the Gospel. . .

When I was in seminary (too long ago) it was common for the tone of the preacher not to be accusatory.  The "you" of the sermon was customarily replaced with the royal "we" that made sure everyone knew the preacher included himself in the indictment of the Law.  Sort of like that scene from the old movie Mass Appeal when the seminarian was counseled by the priest [Jack Lemmon as Father Farley] to do just that:  When giving a sermon, never say "you," always say "we." Less confrontational that way.  The seminarian replied that he did not have blue hair (his was an accusation aimed at grandmotherly types -- today their granddaughters have the blue hair). I must admit the idea of being non-accusatory has sat so deeply in me that I have to almost force myself to use the word "you" when preaching that which indicts, convicts, and condemns. 

Now as we wind our way through the Easter season and the bits and pieces of Peter's sermons in Acts (the first lesson for the season of Easter comes from Acts), I am mindful of the fact that the apostles had no such directive from their seminary homiletics profs.  Rather, they pointedly and unashamedly use the word "you".
Acts 2:23, 2:36, 4:10. . . and Romans 10. . . "whom YOU crucified. . . " 

Now it would seem that a more winsome witness would be to include the royal we there since indeed Jesus was crucified for the sins of all no matter who actually gave the directive to the executioner.  But Scripture does not do this.  Scripture is blunt about sins and blunt about the indictment of the Law.  We [speaking with the broad swipe of Christian preachers today) are not so clear in our preaching today.  We speak of sins more in terms of failings than sins and we do not speak of the eternal consequences as much as we tend to emphasize the momentary consequences.

When the preacher preaches the accusatory voice of the Law, it is the blunt voice that demands the clear and unabashed pointy finger.  The preacher is not excluding himself from that verdict even if he uses "you" instead of the royal "we".  I wonder, however, if our preaching has not lost some of its edge and bite in particular because we do not address sin directly nor do we speak with the forceful and pointed voice of the Law in directing the force of that Law. 

Surely the Gospel has little impact where sin is not felt, where the sinner finds little need of repentance, and where excuses, denials, and justifications have blunted the force of the Law to accuse and convict us with respect to sin.  Yet where the sinner is laid bare by the all-seeing eye of God in His justice, there is both the desire and the plea for the only covering that counts -- the cover of forgiveness which cleanses us from all sin and the righteousness of Christ that is our clothing in the new life Christ has bestowed upon us by baptism.

The more we blunt the voice of the Law, the more distant the urgency of and the blessing of the Gospel of Christ crucified.  We have learned to speak in rather broad terms but the consistent preaching of the early Church is blunt, specific, and pointed.  It is this blunt character of the preaching and confession of the church that is missing and perhaps is one reason why it seems so easy for the world around us to dismiss our proclamation.  Good preaching -- both to the faithful and to those not yet of the faith -- is provocative, pointed, and professes without embarrassment the fullness of the message of Christ crucified.  Any talk of sin is offensive to a world which chooses to turn wrong into right, hide sin, and excuse it.  But unless we risk giving such offense, we risk preaching a homogenized and pasteurized Gospel that has little to offer sinners in the clutches of death.  Faithful preaching is confrontational -- at least as the world interprets it -- but just as it bluntly confronts sin so it deliberately confronts the repentant sinner with the healing balm of Christ's wounds.

I note that this hesitation to speak so bluntly the force of the Law is less apparent from more recent graduates of our seminaries (at least in my limited experience) and this is a good thing but I fear the burden of speaking pointedly of sin and its consequences is still hard for preachers.  God asks us for nothing less than the full witness of Law and Gospel from the pulpit and has promised where this is faithfully proclaimed, He will work through the Spirit to engender faith, to comfort the sinner, to restore the wanderer from his error, and to equip His people to do the good works of Him who has called them from darkness into His marvelous light.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The loss of faith. . .

Recent surveys of Roman Catholic laity and priesthood have found that only 54 percent of priests [in Germany] go to confession even once a year; only 58 percent of priests pray daily; 60 percent of parishioners don't believe in live after death; 66 percent don't believe in Christ's ResurrectionYou can read the whole dismal report here.  Suffice it to say that there is more than a problem but a growing crisis within the Roman Catholic in Germany today.  You can read an English translation of the report here.

Far from showing the German Church as one struggling with problems, this report gives the bleakest view to the health, life, and future of Roman Catholicism in Germany.  Before any Protestants point fingers, it is pretty much the same dark and depressing state among the Protestant Churches of Germany.

There is the regular drumbeat of those who insist that the future of Christianity lies in adapting the church to the prevailing views and opinions of the "faithful." The truth is the opposite.  In every case when the churches have succumbed to the mood of the people for doctrine and practice, the church has become the very victim of its modernity.  This is a warning shot  across the bow of American Christianity and other places where secularization has moved more slower and where the churches have to one degree or another retained their integrity with the Scripture and the catholic doctrine and practice of the past. This loss of faith has moved by degrees with the people of the faith left pointing fingers at each other and scurrying after the illusive goal of relevance while lukewarm Christianity continues to cool.  There is no time left for the luxury of blame or the constant reinvention of the church.  We must rediscover our anchor in Christ, the Scripture, and the catholic tradition before we drift so far into destruction that there is nothing left to reform.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I have lost not one. . .

Sermon for Easter 7B, preached on Sunday, May 17, 2015.

    We are forever losing things  -- keys, wallets, notes, cars in parking lots, things put away for safe keeping. We lose things so often, we are accustomed to it.  We expect it. So when you read about someone who found a long lost love letter or wedding ring after it went missing for many years, it surprises us.  We do not expect to see the things we lose again.
    But the Lord cannot lose YOU.  We can walk away from Him or reject what His love offers.  We can lose Him, forget Him, choose to disregard Him, and decide we no longer want to remember Him, the way to His Church, or how to pray.  But the Lord will not and cannot lose us.
    In the Gospel for today the Lord is praying for His disciples and for those who will believe in Him through them.  He is praying for you and me.  This prayer comes in the final moments before the cross.  In it all, Jesus does not lose track of you or me.  He prays, “I have lost not one except Judas, the son of destruction, who betrayed Me.”  That ought to come as great comfort to us.
    Jesus does not misplace us or lose track of the urgent prayers of our hearts.  That does not mean He is obligated to make things work out like we want.  But it does mean there is one who will not leave us alone in suffering, alone in doubt, alone in fear, or alone in sorrow.  He cannot forsake us in our hour of need.
    Even when we fall into grave sin and live with its shame, Christ will not desert us.  Whether we see Him or not, whether we see Him at work or not, whether things work out as we desire or not, this is certain: we live in His grace and favor and He will enable us to endure through this life to the eternal life -- to the eternal place He has prepared for us.  We fear God might forget us but we are the ones who are forgetful.
    He will keep us from the evil one -- not simply from the momentary disappointment of plans that do not go as we desire or happiness that proves elusive.  Here is where we often have it wrong.  We have greater enemies than dreams that turn into disappointments or laughter that becomes tears.  Jesus is addressing the greater enemies the devil, the world, and even the voice of our stubborn and sinful will.
    The world is not a fairy tale place where happy endings seal every day.  The world is by nature a place at odds with God’s purpose and an enemy of His people.  The devil has lost but he will not go down without creating every bit of hurt, doubt, and pain he can in those for whom Christ died.
    The Lord is not with us only when all is well.  That is the devil’s greatest lie.  Remember Job.  The Lord is with us when everything else is gone.  When all the props of life have let us down, Christ is there forgiving, redeeming, healing, and saving for eternity.  When all the troubles of life heap their worst, Christ is there restoring, strengthening, and sustaining His people by grace.  When we are left bruised, broken, battered, and bleeding in life, Christ is there.  We are not lost or left on our own.  Christ is with us by His Spirit.
    He will not surrender us to our enemies.  He will not give us up to despair.  He will not allow death and the grave their victory over us.  He will not give the devil the satisfaction of stealing what belongs to the Lord.  We have a greater glory ahead of us than finding a way to band-aid this present life.  We have an eternal future prepared for us in Christ and He will guard, guide, and give us what belongs to us by His promise.
    Because we lose things, we fear God can too.  So we pray as if God was not listening and then we complain that our prayers are not answered.  We pray our doubts and fears because we are not sure God is there instead of praying God’s promises and then we complain things are not going like we wanted.  God is not the forgetful one; Jesus will not lose us.  We are the forgetful ones who lose heart when we should stand firm.  Jesus' words are solemn promise.  He cannot lose us.  Let us not lose Him.  He has made His home among us in the means of grace.  Abide in Him in His Word and Sacraments and we will prevail in Christ.
    To be sure, we will feel the final bite of the enemies Jesus defeated.  We will face illness because these bodies are not eternal.  We will face financial struggles because our treasure is in heaven.  We will face worries about success because we find it hard to believe that faithfulness is the standard for us.  These are not signs of God's displeasure but the struggle of a people in but not of the world, a people marked for God in baptism, who live not by sight but by faith, and whose confidence is the promise of Christ that can never fail us.
    Our contentment and joy will always be compromised here by a world at odds with God’s purpose -- at least until He comes to finish His new creation, to stand upon this earth and deliver us to His Father forevermore.  Our hope lies beyond the moment.  Christ will not lose us.  He has fought the devil and won, He has won forgiveness and sin cannot have the last word, and He has given to us an eternal future beyond all imagination.  You are not some toy or temporary interest of God but Christ’s eternal focus. There are moments in life when we lose sight of this, but Christ never loses sight of us.  Now, brothers and sisters, do not lose sight of Him.  Keep the faith.  We will endure.  We will prevail.  Christ has invested too much in us to abandon us or lose us.  In this confidence, we hold onto Him.  Amen.

C. M. Almy -- 150 years of service to churches and clergy. . .

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Rape and Murder of Middle Eastern Christianity

While political pundits wage wars of words over how to deal with ISSL and leaders of nations fret over how to resist without actually getting their feet dirty, the radical effect of what has happened in the Middle East is the rape, pillaging, and murder of what was once a vibrant and longstanding Christian presence.  From Iraq to Iran to Syria to Egypt, the sad truth is that Christians were better off under brutal dictators than they have been either through the wars fought by the West, the Islamic governments, or the chaos of civil and regional conflicts that are only escalating.

The loss of property, art, and history pales before the loss of life and the death march of refugees who leave everything behind to find a place of relative security -- perhaps to return or never to restore their Christian presence in their homelands.  Too often the news stories have been about high profile kidnappings or about battle tactics (think drones here) or about how much the West and the non-ISSL states of the Middle East are willing to invest to stop this plague.  Hidden in those stories is the tragedy of Christians who have become the unwitting victims and targets of many sides in these battles.

Here Newsweek tells a little bit of the story.  It is not much, it is too little, but it is not too late to chronicle those who have paid the worst price for the political missteps of the West and for chronic warmongering of Islam (radical or not).

The ancient cities of Nimrud and Nineveh that they visited proudly to show their children the glories of the Assyrian empire from which they claim descent – soon these will be bulldozed by ISIS. They leave behind the treasures of Assyria in the Mosul museum – ISIS will loot the smaller antiquities for the black market and smash the statues too big to sell. And on the way to Mar Mattai, they pass the monastery of Mar Behnam: its gates are already barred by ISIS. From the steeple flies the black flag. In a few months, it will be destroyed.
What they carry with them is their liturgical music. It preserves strains of the earliest religious chants of Mesopotamia and of court songs sung for Assyrian emperors 2,000 years before Christ. Its antiquity is matched by its simplicity: clergy and congregation sing together, dividing between boys with high voices and older, bigger men who sing more deeply. Beyond this there is no distinction of note or pitch, and no melody. The call and response format is thought to enact a conversation between man and God.
Tonight, they will again sing the old songs. They make for the inner rooms: the hermits’ cells burrowed into the cliff--face; the Saints’ Room, with its reliquaries set in niches in the rock; the chapels dug deep into the holy mountain.

Read it and weep. . .