Monday, April 30, 2018

We have been robbed. . .

The SCOTUS told us that the creche was not a religious symbol.  In other words, a dad, a kneeling mom, a few wisenheimers, some animals, and a baby with a nimbus is not about Jesus.  Okay.  If it meant keeping the creche on public soil, some were ready to agree.  No, it is not a religious symbol. world has taken over the cross and it has become a symbol that no longer has much to do with Christ and Him crucified.  Crosses are no longer offensive.  They are pretty.  We wear them as jewelry and on our clothing.  They have eased their way from the offensive sign of Christ's suffering and death into an almost generic symbol of hope.  Probably not a religious symbol anymore.

The internet has transformed all symbols so that they are less about what they once stood for and are now simply things we like, we find inspiration, meaningful, or, well, nice.  All sorts of religious symbols have lost their religion and now are just nice signs or symbols.  They mean what we want them to mean.  Not a good day for religious symbols.

My own congregation has a copyrighted round window.  We designed it, bought it, paid for it, and installed it.  We thought it was ours but then it has shown up as cover art for a self-published book and, perhaps most curiously, as bulletin cover art with a giant carrot (yes, you read that right) over it.  What does that mean???

Watch the ads on the sides of vans or on TV or listen to them on radio and religious symbols are being used to promote commerce.  Some of it, ostensibly enough by self-proclaimed Christians, but others as a means of claiming authenticity and integrity sort of by osmosis.  All of a sudden we know which cars God drives, which plumbers he uses, which exterminators kill His bugs, and all sorts of things.  I once went to purchase a freezer and was lectured to by the salesman on the value of tithing, how he would tithe on the value of my purchase, and how God has given him more and more than he has paid out in tithes.  It was quite the racket.  I skipped on the freezer there and bought one from an ordinary sinner who did not trade on God's good name or His promises.

Neil Postman, in his pointed critique of late-twentieth-century American culture, Technopoly, wrote that modernity and technology have been hard on symbols.  He called it “the great symbol drain.”  I cannot argue with him.  He was correct.  Another writer put it this way:  "A technological culture such as ours, he wrote, devoted to efficiency and consumption, has little regard for tradition and its symbols—symbols that represent ancestral values and commitments, including sacred values and commitments. In a technological culture, people feel free to use symbols any way they like, which has the effect of emptying the symbols of their meaning. It’s not an act of sacrilege; sacrilege suggests that people recognize the symbols and mean to insult them. It’s an act of trivialization. In a technological society, nothing is sacred, so everything can be exploited."

Postman's point as well as the comments of Mark L. Movsesian are right on point. Symbols have become the fodder for our manipulation so that they do not mean the same thing to the same people but are individual and personal. . . and. . . it would seem, becoming worthless as a means to communicate anything of substance.  This is surely our loss.  Christian symbols have been released from their moorings in Scripture and tradition and have become captive to the person who sees them.  Their references have been rendered trivial, so trivial, in fact, that the rest of us hardly even notice when someone is playing on a religious symbol to market a product to us or to tell us something.  Though we might complain when this happens by mass marketers in pursuit of profits or by  advertisers who find it too difficult to be innovative, we are also guilty of it all.  Even if we did not directly misuse these symbols, we stood by and let them be stolen from us.

Maybe some Christian should have stood up and told the SCOTUS that, damn it, we don't want to put up those creches if they don's mean anything anymore.  Maybe the rest of us ought to rise up and walk when an advertiser or a commercial concern tries to play on our Christian sympathies and identities for some purpose other than the Gospel.  Are you with me, folks?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

It is not enough to preach Jesus. . .

I guess I got your attention.  That was my intention.  We live in a curious time in which there has been said to be a preaching crisis.  Perhaps that is overstated.  Perhaps not.  But we are talking less here about the obvious bad preaching (sermons about anything and everything else but Jesus) but rather the less than obvious preaching that is still, to use a word, defective.  This preaching preaches Jesus but it does not call people to repentance nor does it call the repentant to live holy, upright, and godly lives.  It does a fine job of accusing the sinner of his sin, of eloquently describing what God in Christ has done to pay the price of that sin and set the person right before Him, but it fails in that it does not urge the sinner to "go and sin no more" nor does it lay before the sinner the voice of the Law that charts the path to such a life.  It ends too sin, no matter how long the sermon goes.

If it is true what the polls tell us, namely that Christians, in particular Lutheran Christians, do not live much differently than non-Christians (except that they go to church once in a while), why is this the case?  Of course, no one is saying that Christians are perfect or sinless.  The point of this is not to say that Christians ought to be living without sin compared to those who are not Christians who live in sin without fear.  Could it be that Lutherans have become so comfortable with the simplistic formula that it is God's job to forgive sin and my job to give Him something to forgive that we do not even try to live holy, upright, and godly lives?  Could it be that in the preaching of Jesus but mainly justification, the people have either the mistaken idea that sanctification will automatically come or, worse, it does not need to happen at all?  Could it be that the people in the pews have gotten the idea from our preaching and catechesis that God meets us where we are, saves us as we are, and leaves us where we are?  Could it be that we have done such a profound job of preaching and teaching the bondage of the will that people have gotten the idea that the saved can say only one thing to God, "no"?

Everyone of us knows that accusation of those outside the Church who complain that if it were only Jesus they would be interested but because Christians also come with the deal, they are not so inclined to Christian faith.  In other words, the oft repeated charge is that Christians are such a sorry and sinful lot that it does not give much weight or power to the Gospel to change lives.  Yes, I know it is an excuse.  Yes, I know that even if Christians were perfect once they were saved, those outside the Church would find something else to blame for why they do not hear or heed the Word of the Lord.  No, I am not suggesting that the reason for holy, upright, and godly living is to remove this impediment from those who would believe except for the failure of Christians.  Rather, I am suggesting that to preach only justification is not to preach Jesus faithfully or fully and this fails those who do hear and believe.

If only to read St. Paul, the preacher finds that the apostle's focus and interest lay not simply in the precious Lutheran verses of salvation by grace through faith but in living holy, upright, and godly lives, doing good works, and being the new creation born of baptismal water.  How is it that St. Paul spends so much time and ink on the cause of urging Christians to let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:27).  Count the number of verses in which St. Paul proclaims justification and then count the number of verses in which he urges the people of God by baptism and faith to live a holy life.  Is the preaching of a holy, upright, and godly life a tangent or is it, in St. Paul's estimation, preaching Christ and Him crucified?

In our Confessions, we do not shy away from preaching this full counsel of God.  In Article VI of the Solid Declaration:
Although those who believe in Christ are truly motivated by the Spirit of God, and do the will of God according to their inward person from a free spirit, nevertheless the Holy Spirit uses the written Law on them to teach them so that through it believers in Christ learn to serve God, not according to their own ideas, but according to His written Law and Word which is a certain rule and guiding principle for directing the godly life and behavior according to the eternal and unchanging will of God.

Listen to what Luther taught:
“The gospel is simply the promises of God declaring the benefits offered to man. Among these benefits are those declarations of God’s commandments and the exhortations to keep them, which Christ made in Matthew 5, 6, and 7.” (Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows [1521], LW 44:256)

That is what my Antinomians, too, are doing today, who are preaching beautifully and (as I cannot but think) with real sincerity about Christ’s grace, about the forgiveness of sin and whatever else can be said about the doctrine of redemption. But they flee as if it were the very devil the consequence that they should tell the people about the third article, of sanctification, that is, of the new life in Christ. They think one should not frighten or trouble the people, but rather always preach comfortingly about grace and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and under no circumstances use these or similar words, “Listen! You want to be a Christian and at the same time remain an adulterer, a whoremonger, a drunken swine, arrogant, covetous, a usurer, envious, vindictive, malicious, etc.!” Instead they say, “Listen! Though you are an adulterer, a whoremonger, a miser, or other kind of sinner, if you but believe, you are saved, and you need not fear the law. Christ has fulfilled it all!”

Tell me, my dear man, is that not granting the premise and denying the conclusion? It is, indeed, taking away Christ and bringing him to nought at the same time he is most beautifully proclaimed! And it is saying yes and no to the same thing. For there is no such Christ that died for sinners who do not, after the forgiveness of sins, desist from sins and lead a new life. Thus they preach Christ nicely with Nestorian and Eutychian logic that Christ is and yet is not Christ. They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach de sanctificatione et vivificatione Spiritus Sancti, “about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,” but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extoll so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, he has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men— we die unto sin and live unto righteousness, beginning and growing here on earth and perfecting it beyond, as St. Paul teaches. Christ did not earn only gratia, “grace,” for us, but also donum, “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin. Now he who does not abstain from sin, but persists in his evil life, must have a different Christ, that of the Antinomians; the real Christ is not there, even if all the angels would cry, “Christi! Christi!” He must be damned with this, his new Christ.

Now see what evil logicians we are in sublime matters that are so far beyond or remote from us that we simultaneously believe and disbelieve something. But in lowly matters we are exceedingly keen logicians. No matter how stupid a peasant is, he soon understands and figures out this: he who gives me a groschen is not giving me a gulden. This follows as a matter of course, and he sees the logic of it clearly. But our Antinomians fail to see that they are preaching Christ without and against the Holy Spirit because they propose to let the people continue in their old ways and still pronounce them saved. And yet logic, too, implies that a Christian should either have the Holy Spirit and lead a new life, or know that he has no Christ. Nevertheless, these asses presume to be better logicians than Master Philip and Aristotle— I must not mention Luther because the pope was made to feel only their logic— they soar far too high for me! Well, then, the logic of Nestorius and Eutyches is a common plague, especially with reference to Holy Scripture; but in other matters it acquits itself better, although it plagues jurists and rulers enough in subtle matters, where they have to hear a yes and no at the same time and have difficulty in distinguishing the two.   (Blessed Martin Luther, On The Councils And The Church; AE 41:114-116)
Luther's Small Catechism reminds us:
What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.  This is most certainly true.  (or read the Table of Duties at the end of the Catechism)

Read here an article by the Rev. Edward Engelbrecht.

Read here an article by the Rev. Todd Wilken.

Listen to Dr. Kurt Marquart on the subject of the Third Use of the Law here.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The second new Roman Catholic Cathedral within a year. . .

In East Tennessee, the Diocese of Knoxville has dedicated the country’s newest cathedral, March 3, during a special Mass in which prelates and parishioners celebrated the growth of the Roman Catholic Church in this region of the United States.  Bishop Richard Stika, only the second bishop of a diocese created by Pope John Paul II in 1988, greeted the gathering of more than 1,000 with a simple phrase after the three-year building project: “Well, we made it.”

Five cardinals, 21 bishops, more than 100 priests, 58 deacons, and 39 men and women religious took part in the three-hour dedication Mass along with more than 800 East Tennessee Catholics.  It cost $30 Million and features a 144-foot-high dome with murals of the Twelve Apostles and 16 saints. A 25-foot portrait of Jesus with the sacred heart is the largest image in the dome. The cathedral’s art and architecture also includes a 45-foot-tall baldacchino, or canopy, over the altar.

In July the Diocese of Raleigh dedicated its cathedral.

So what does this mean?  It means that Roman Catholics are growing, at least in the South, and that this growth comes at a time when other churches in the area are struggling.  It means that Rome is far from over and out, except in regions where the chief reason for existing seems to be opposing what their church has believed and taught (Europe).  It also means that all this talk about praise bands and screens and top 40 style music and such may not be what churches ought to pursue. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

In case you have not heard. . .

This was reported on the website of Luther Seminary:
Luther Seminary has received a grant of $999,999 through Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Thriving in Ministry Initiative. The funding will be used to establish a new program called Leadership for Faithful Innovation, which will create cohort-based learning communities for pastors, synodical/judicatory leaders, and lay leaders to re-imagine models of ministry that form Christian faith in the 21st century. . . In their grant proposal, Zscheile and Jacobson noted that, as contrasted with decades ago, American culture is significantly less supportive today of Christian practices and participation in church life. As part of the grant program, cohort groups will integrate theology, innovation theory, and practice in community in order to discover breakthrough practices for faith formation.
So Luther, already deep in financial trouble and with an ever decreasing student body, has been tapped with a Lilly grant to figure out how to re-imagine models of ministry for the21st century.  Wow.  Like they have done such a fine job in doing just that for the ELCA that now they need to spread their wisdom to the rest of us.  Fortunately for the rest of us, Luther will pave the way to find the kind of breakthrough practices for faith formation that have been so effective at turning around the ELCA and its membership decline over the last few decades, well, pretty much since it was formed in 1988.  Can't wait.

Luther is the same seminary that has undertaken a program of "mandatory employee training, Transforming White Privilege." As we all know the ELCA is among the most focused on diversity (while remaining the whitest of white church bodies).  Could it be that the problem lies with the inherent racism of those white members?  Not at this seminary!  Read up on the curriculum:
The Transforming White Privilege (TWP) curriculum is designed to help current and emerging leaders from a variety of sectors better identify, talk about, and intervene to address white privilege and its consequences.
The curriculum includes lessons plans, handouts, PowerPoint slides, and video clips covering a number of key concepts, tools, and strategies for change. For example, the curriculum helps groups explore dominant cultural assumptions and perspectives about what is considered normal, appropriate, desirable and/or valid. Dominant culture narratives or norms – e.g. what constitutes a “family,” who is considered dangerous, intelligent, acceptable, and whose perspectives are valid – are codified in customs, laws, institutions, policies, and practices. They reinforce stereotypes and limit fair access in terms of who belongs inside and who remains outside circles of human concern (as the concept is used by John Powell and others). In addition, cultural assumptions are part of what continue to advantage some groups and disadvantage others. And, even when those inequities are persistent and obvious, the history and current policies and practices that drive them often may not be. The deep investigation and chance to “work with” these ideas can help build participants’ capacity to identify, talk productively about, and act to address white culture, white privilege, and their consequences in their spheres of influence.
Watch for yourself some of the stuff involved in this curriculum.

January 19, 2017 webinar recording about the “Transforming White Privilege: A 21st Century Leadership Capacity” curriculum from ELCA on Vimeo.

And. . . further east at the new union of Gettysburg and Philadelphia, another ELCA Seminary is in the news. . .  You can read local press here.  But the gist of it is a leadership crisis because the president of the LGBTQ-affirming school, the Rev. Theresa Latini (first president of United Lutheran Seminary) apparently once was a leader of an organization that said gay Christians should change or at least resist same-sex attractions as a temptation to sin.  As we all know this is strictly verboten for any church on the cutting edge of societal change, like the ELCA, and even though she now repudiates that philosophy, saying it was “fear-based, controlling, and particularly marginalizing of LGBTQ+ persons,” that might not be enough for those who insist that only true blue believers in the GLBTQ agenda who have always held this viewpoint are good enough.  Makes you think. . . about tolerance. . . which, I guess, is really rather one sided?!?

Even before I posted, it appears that the Board of United has determined that there was too much blood in the water and the seminary that declares itself "A Confessionally Rooted, Ecumenically Connected, and Culturally Competent School of Theology" has terminated Pres. Latini (as of March 14).  To which Latini responded: "I have been scapegoated by an historically divided institution resistant to unification and have been given little chance to respond to the accusations against me."  Clearly the ELCA has constituencies whose voices carry more weight than others.  Although it might be possible to be on the theological fringes of the ELCA and be a leader, it is not permissible to be on the fringes of its social stands.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Non-news. . . but newsworthy. . . February 23, 2018, a district court ruled that the federal government cannot force a Christian college to provide reproductive services (including the morning-after pill) in its healthcare plans because it violates the college's religious beliefs.  It took a five year battle between Wheaton College and the Department of Health and Human Services to settle this challenge to Obamacare’s birth control mandate. It comes as President Trump is scaling back the mandate and trying to find ways to effectively end Obamacare even if the law itself is not changed.  The judge in the case, Bush appointee Robert M. Dow Jr. of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois issued the ruling. Filed in 2012, it finally protects Wheaton from any future application of the HHS’ mandate, and provides precedent for other institutions not given standing under the original Obamacare exemptions.

It is a significant victory, late, to be sure, but still timely.  Yet there was virtually no news coverage about it.  In fact, there was a flurry of news activity when Wheaton had a dust up over a faculty member who claimed Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God.  This was rather small potatoes politically, at least compared to the legal challenge to the Obamacare reproductive mandate that had previously only given exemption to churches.  But that is how it goes in the media.  The sins of Christians are well reported but little else.

This is a small victory in one sense but it is a big victory in another.  Yet it is clear that this legal advance has come at the same time as many other defeats for religious liberty in a land which enshrined such freedom in the Bill of Rights.  It is not a freedom of worship but a freedom of religion, not simply to churches but to agencies of churches and to individuals who exercise this right by living in accordance with the tenets of their faith at home and at work.  We will wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Not a hireling. . .

Sermon preached for Easter IVB, on Sunday, April 22, 2018.
    No one quickly forgets disappointment.  We long recall every thing and every one who has disappointed us, betrayed us, or let us down.  It is not only if you want it done right but if you want it done at all, do it yourself.  The pain of being abandoned by those we counted upon is an ache that does not quickly go away.  So we have become skeptical and callous, hard and suspicious.  Life is filled with disappointments and with disappointing people.  You know it. I know it. We all know it.

    It is in this context that Jesus assures us He is not a hireling.  He is not the one who runs at the first sign of trouble and who abandons us when the going gets tough.  He does not flee from us even when we flee from Him.  He is the Good Shepherd who knows His own and whose own know Him. He does not figure losses into the profit margin but gives Himself up so that no one whom He has elected would be lost.  Not one.  Remember how He prays in the High Priestly Prayer:  I have lost not one whom the Father gave Him.  Even the sheep who are not of this fold but are the Gentiles wild and lone without the voice of the Law of the comfort of the Prophets.

    I take this text personally because as so many accused me, “You are just a hireling too.”  Ouch.  It is true that pastors have not always faithfully shepherded the flock of God committed to their care. I am not unaware of my own failings and failures to you and to those who have fallen away from the faith under my tenure.  For those faults and failings I beg you to forgive me, to absolve me from my many sins, and to give me another chance.  Every pastor wears the wounds of his failures to the lambs the Lord has redeemed as scars to humble him and solemn reminders that without Christ we are only hirelings.

    But the Word that I preach to you is not my own.  The water with which I wash you and your sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters it not my water.  The bread that I give and the cup I offer is not mine.  Jesus does not surrender His authority even to pastors but works in them and through them to bestow upon the people of God the riches of His gifts. We who wear the stole of the office cannot help but be indicted by the verdict of God against the shepherds of Israel who failed to speak the Word of God, to absolve the people by the blood of the sacrifices in the Temple, and who did not prepare the way so that they would recognize Jesus.  Yet at the same time we rejoice that God has become His people’s Savior, that it is His Word we preach and His sacraments we administer.  For these are the means through which the Good Shepherd calls, gathers, and enlightens His flock still.  These are the means by which He calls His flock unto Himself and keeps them to everlasting life.

    Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  But His goodness lies not with how affectionate He is or that He is gentle and kind or that He likes us or even that does what we want or makes us happy.  He is the Good Shepherd because He lays down His life for them.  His life is not stolen from Him but He lays it down, willingly, with the strong love that dies so we live.

    He is the Good Shepherd who lays down of His own accord His very life.  He has met our enemies and He did not run but laid down and allowed them to take His life in order to protect us, His sheep.  Jesus is not the Good Shepherd among others who might be good but He is literally the only One who is good, the only one who loves His sheep more than life itself.  He is the true Shepherd amid a world filled with false shepherds whose promise fails and whose Word does not endure. 

    When St. Paul says we preach Christ and Him crucified, St. Paul is speaking of the Good Shepherd who alone lays down His life for His sheep.  Our Lord is surely perfect and without sin but His authority and, indeed, His claim to being the Good Shepherd is all about laying down His life for His sheep.  This is not about words or about sentiment but about what He did.  What He does, as the crucified and risen Savior.  Our Lord does not beat down the wolf or simply do battle with Him.  Our Lord offers up Himself into the mouth of the wolf, the devil, in our place.  Jesus is not a warrior Shepherd but the Good and True Shepherd who gives Himself up for us.  He is good not because He is affectionate but because He sacrifices Himself for us.

    He does this not because we are sweet and lovable lambs.  He does this not because we have proven ourselves worthy to Him or even indispensable.  He does this not because there is something in it for Him.  He does this because this is His Father’s will and Jesus submits Himself to that will.  He is the true Son and the true Shepherd who does the will of Him who sent Him, even to death on the cross.  He fulfilled the saving will and purpose of the Father.  That is why He is good.   We do not call Him good or judge Him good but the Father whose will He does.  

    In the same way pastors are not good because they are kindly or affectionate or compassionate or giving.  They are good because the preach Christ crucified and teach the one and only true Gospel.  They are good because they speak to us the hard words of the Law as much as the good words of the Gospel.  They are good not because they lay down their lives but because all they talk about is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep.  They are good only because they know the sheep are not theirs but they belong to Jesus the Good Shepherd, and they will be accountable to Him for what they have preached, taught, and administered.

    This is hard for us in two ways.  On the one hand we have been so wounded by the many who have disappointed us or let us down that we believe only half-heartedly even the promises of the Good Shepherd.  We constantly wonder if we are really forgiven, if God really loves us, if heaven is real or hell, if the Bible can be trusted, and if there really is life after death.  We are stubborn and willful sheep who forget every blessing of the Lord new every morning but who remember every time we have prayed and did not get what we wanted or begged the Lord for something and did not receive it.  This we need to repent.  This we must surrender, our disappointments as well as our sins, so that we may be restored in faith.

    The other way it is hard is that we have so defined love by affection that we do not know anymore what it really means to love.  Women divorce men who are not affectionate enough even though they provide for them without fail, are faithful even when tempted, and protect them in danger.  Men divorce women because they no longer are attractive to them or because someone new has come along even though their wives have been faithful wives, faithful mothers, and faithful helpmeets.  Parents insist they love their children but not enough to give up any of their happiness for them, not enough to stick together in life’s roughest moments, and not enough to give them themselves instead of something they purchase.  True love is not affection at all but He who lays down His life for the other.

    We hear this in marriage when St. Paul says husbands love your wives like Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her and when St. Paul says wives respect your husbands as God’s man in the home.  We hear this in family when Scripture calls parents first of all to raise their children in faith, to bring them to baptism, and teach them to know the Father through the Son.  We hear this when pastors are ordained and given the charge to preach the Word in season and out, to administer the Sacraments faithfully, to teach the young, warn the erring, absolve the penitent, visit the sick, and bury the dead.

    Jesus is not the Good Shepherd because He likes us and we like Him.  To whom else shall we go?  Who has the Word of eternal life?  Who lays down His life for His sheep?  Who forgives us our sins?  Who leads us to green pastures, beside still waters, sets His table among us, and makes it run over with grace upon grace?  Sentiment does not make for a Good Shepherd and sentiment does not make for good under shepherds or good sheep.  What does is the Word of truth.  He lays down His life for His sheep.  Where you hear this Gospel there is Christ gathering the lost, redeeming the sinner, and giving life to the dead.  Where you hear this, no matter how you feel, there is hope, there is life, and there is salvation.

    Perhaps it is too much for us to completely forget life’s bitterest disappointments or to forget those who have betrayed us or abandoned us.  Perhaps it is too much for us to think of love that is not affection but a life laid down for us.  I pray it is not.  For the only thing I have to offer you as an under shepherd is the Gospel of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection and the only thing that will redeem you is the Christ who suffered, died, and rose for you.  He does not only know your name, he knows your sins.  He died for them.  You know His name not because it feels good but because He is the only one to lay it down for you.

    Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Will there be another? since Billy Graham died, the question of a successor has inhabited the minds and curiosities of many folks.  But another question has also been making the rounds, will there be another Billy Graham?  Of course the predictable responses focuses on the changed media environment that might prevent such a pivotal figure to be raised up again or the changed social environment that might make it hard for even a worthy figure to gain the ear of the people.  What I find most curious is not if there will be another Billy Graham but why we think we need one singular individual to rescue us from the abyss of skeptical modernity, individualism, secularism, preoccupation with sex and gender, immorality, and despair?  Do we not already have the One whom God has raised up to rescue us from our enemies without and within?  

It is great to have profound and eloquent leaders who can sense the moment, reach into the hearts and minds of people, galvanize support, and lead us to a better place.  I am not against such leadership.  But such leaders come along once in many generations and, it often seems, they are more rare in modern times than before.  Do we wait for another Billy Graham?  Do we sit on our hands until another national figure comes along who can bridge the divides with a voice and presence to unite us?  Does the Church sit in limbo until a mighty figure arises who transcends denominational divisions?

Speaking in general here, I wonder if we do not over estimate the impact of a single leader and under estimate the impact of many faithful folks regularly gathered around the Word and Table of our Lord and seeking, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to live in Christ the new life He has given them.  I personally long for the days when we had leaders who could galvanize the attention and point the Church to the urgent cause before us.  I know in my own denomination we had some mighty figures in our past.  But I also know these were not isolated people.  They did not live or act alone.  There were many anonymous folks through whom the impact of these leaders was measured and it was and still is easy to over estimate the impact of the one and underestimate the impact of the many whose names and work we do not know.

There was no Walther or Behnken or Luther who brought me to the waters of baptism and saw to it that I learned the Catechism and Scripture and was brought to the Table of the Lord.  My parents, extended family, Sunday school teachers, and pastor did that.  The most profound shapers of my spiritual life as a child and youth and young adult were not people who held official offices or whose names were even known beyond a fairly small circle of people.  In that, the situation has not changed today.

Though many place great expectations on our big name leaders and hold them responsible for things beyond their power and blame them when things do not go as they should, the real work of the Kingdom is done locally in homes where faithful parents teach their children well and in small classrooms where Sunday school teachers teach the great stories of the Bible and in hours spent memorizing the catechism and in the many Sundays in the pew (where Word, liturgy, sermon, and sacrament provide profound catechesis) and in conversations with the saints whose word and example testifies to Christ.

I am not saying we do not need great leaders.  We do.  But the future is written not by great leaders but by faithful single people, faithful spouses, faithful parents, faithful church workers, faithful volunteers, and faithful servants of Christ wherever God has placed them.  Once we begin to believe this and act accordingly, the work of the Kingdom will not only benefit but we will have better leaders because we will be shaping them starting right now before anybody knows who they are.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A company of do-gooders. . . the German bishops ready to commune non-Roman Catholics and against the backdrop of those who see the Church as primarily a community of do-gooders, German Cardinal Brandmüller had a response.  You can read him in his own words.  Thankfully not everyone in Germany is ready to exchange the soul of Christianity for some good feelings in the moment.  There is a great deal of dishonesty going on that must be pointed out. 

Cardinal Brandmüller first states that it is important to discern what is meant when we speak about the “Church.” Is this “a company to help make better the world? An NGO for aiding people in life?” Answering these questions himself, he says that “the ‘Church’ is a reality” which does not think in these terms. “The Church is a work of God, she is the visible, experienced form in which the Risen Christ continues His salvific work in the world.”
I like the questions he raised.  Is the Church a company to help make a better world?  Is the Church an NGO for aiding people in life?  But that is entirely the issue.  Liberal Christianity has, in effect, abandoned the Gospel rooted in the incarnation, obedient life, life-giving death, and triumphant resurrection of Christ for the redemption of the world and has put in its place a community of do-gooders who aid the down-trodden, herald the cause of the oppressed, advocate for those whose cause is not in favor, and protect the environment against the onslaught of humanity.  None of those are necessarily bad things, of course.  We ought to help the poor.  We ought to advocate for the child in the womb and the aged in their frailty.  We ought to cry out against the injustice of war, violence, and oppression.  We ought to call for faithful management of God's creation.  But none of these are the Gospel and none of these are the specific reason for which God has established His Church (it is HIS Church last time I checked).

The reality is that it is hard to keep our focus on Christ, to keep preaching Christ crucified, and to keep raising up the goal and shape of our lives here, in preparation for the real and eternal life to come, AND do all these things.  Somehow or other, it is easier to put off saving the soul in favor of saving the earth, to confuse helping people to a better life and proclaiming to them the gift of eternal life, and to exchange the cross for whatever cause happens to be in fashion in our culture today.

The danger is not that the poor will be ignored or injustice forgotten or the earth raped.  The danger is that we will do everything in our power to make a better today only so that the people will not be prepared for the Day of Judgment and therefore deprived of God's desire to give them everlasting life.  We do good works because Christ lives in us and He seeks to live in all who hear His voice and, by the Spirit's power, believe.  We do not do good works because there is something more important or urgent than this salvation by grace through faith. 

I will admit that sometimes we forget to feed the belly while we are feeding the soul.  But what good is it to feed the belly while the soul remains empty?  We can do everything in our power to make the Church more acceptable, hospitable, and friendly to those not yet of the Kingdom but we dare not abandon the very Gospel itself for this cause.  That is what liberal Christianity has done.  Whether it comes from the educated elite who find the Scriptures no longer credible or the evangelical star preacher who finds it no longer relevant to the wants of people in the moment, we exist to proclaim Jesus Christ in whom there is life and salvation and in no other name under heaven and on earth. 

I am sure that there are many things the good cardinal and I disagree on but when it comes to the Gospel of Christ as that which defines the Church and shapes her purpose in the world, we are probably not so far apart.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Shape of Progress? this is the shape of progress?  Before any Protestants gloat over this, take stock of the state of their own churches in the same areas.  The call has been made by some Roman Catholics to reclassify Europe as a missionary field, much the same way the US was until early in the 20th century, in which decisions are not simply left to those who have overseen the mass exodus of people from parishes and, it would seem, from the faith itself.  Whether that would be the salvation of European Christianity remains to be seen.  But some more effective strategy must be invented better than simply closing down church buildings and reducing staff.  As Garrison Keillor joked, Lutherans are all for downsizing but downsizing yourself out of existence is hardly progress.

According to an announcement by its bishop, the Diocese of Trier in Germany will reduce its number of parishes from 172 to 35 by the year 2020.  Add to this other announcements of parish closings or reorganizations.
  • Berlin: 105 parishes to be reduced to 35 “pastoral spaces”, with unused churches to be sold off and 40% of clergy and lay staffers reassigned, thereby alleviating some of the Diocese’s $140 million debt
  • Vienna: 660 parishes to be merged into 150 hubs served by a handful of priests
  • Luxembourg: 274 parishes reduced to 33
  • Clogher, Ireland: 37 parishes cut to 14 “pastoral areas” coordinated by teams of just two priests and six laypeople
  • Utrecht: 326 parishes to just 48 hubs in which only one church will serve as a “eucharistic center”

This is a radical wake up call for the shape of the Christian witness in the heart of the Western world.  It is a prospect of our own future in the US and in Canada (perhaps already headed there).  The future of Christianity may not be in doubt (that is, after all, God's business) but the shape of the churches who bear His Word and offer His sacraments is looking extremely bleak.  And it has come not because we have tried to be faithful and failed.  Rather, it has come because we have abandoned faithfulness for the sake of relevance and for the sake of being consistent with the path and direction of the culture around us.

If there is a statistic that compels us to consider the Benedict Option again, this one ought to hit home.  In the places where the Church has tried being non-threatening and tolerant, the result has not been a vibrant faith but a hollow and empty one, just like the hollow sound of the once grand edifices where people used to gather in mass at the beckoning of the Word of the Lord to receive His Body and Blood.

We may be tempted to find a way to extend a warm handshake to the world but without Christ the handshake is empty and it offers nothing of value to those who sit in darkness.  Light always hurts and burns when someone has sat in darkness for a long time.  But in the end, where the Light of Christ burns brightly, the darkness will be banished.  That is not hope or optimism.  It is the promise of the God who sent His Son into the world to bring the Light of life to those living in the darkness of death.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A little while. . .

Sermon for Cantate, preached on Thursday, April 19, 2018. little while.  So Jesus says.  A little while and you will see me no longer.  But it is not a little while to us.  It was an interminable three days of sorrow and pain as those who watched our Lord suffer and die awaited the third day.  It was an interminable time of waiting that led some to sift through tea leaves and consult their crystal balls and then bring with them some of the faithful to hills certain that on this day they would see Him again.  In our own age, Harold Camping, the founder of Family Radio, tried to predict Jesus’ return a couple of times.    And before Him a long list of people who had enough of the little while Jesus spoke about.

A little while is too long for us.  The disciples who walked with Jesus could not stand a little while of praying before they gave into the temptation of sleep.  The children of Israel could not give the Lord a few days before complaining about their tortured time in the wilderness.  We follow in their train.  We come to church today less to be prepared for eternity than to be equipped to live in the moment better.  We judge sermons that tell us how to be happy or successful today better than sermons that would prepare us for the eternal tomorrow.

Perhaps it is that we fear that Jesus will not come again anytime soon.  But I think it is that we are not sure we want Him to come back at all.  After all, the sinful part of us likes this world and enjoys the good lives we live.  We fear that the coming of Jesus will deny us the good we have socked all that money away for or the good memories we cannot wait to make or time with our children or grandchildren that we have waited so long to enjoy.  The sinful part of us is not sure we want Jesus to come again soon since we have so much we still want to do.

But when terrible things happen, then we complain.  Where is God in a world filled with terrorists and terrorism?  Where is God in a world filled with injustice and oppression?  Where is God in a world filled with the gender of the day and the evolving definitions of marriage and family that send our minds into confusion?  Where is God in a world where tweets are more important than facts and feelings more precious that truth?  When we begin to think about this side of our world, then we want Jesus to come and do something about it all.  To bring justice to an unjust world.  To bring sense to a senseless world.  To bring something real out of a world filled with made up things.

A little while, says Jesus.  He is going to the Father and you will weep and lament and the world will rejoice.  Both the world and Christians will conclude that because you cannot see Him, Jesus is not here.  Both the world and Christians will decide that spiritual things will have to do because there is no physical presence of Christ to grasp onto anymore.  And this is where it hits us so hard.  We are not sad because Jesus has not yet come to finish His new creation. 

No, indeed, we are sad because we fear we are all alone and have no one to accompany us in the great moments of life we want never to end and the terrible moments  we cannot bear any more.  We are sad because we cannot see Jesus with our eyes or touch Him with our hands.  We feel alone and that is why we lament.

Jesus is blunt.  You will be sorrowful.  There will be tests and trials.  There will be persecution.  There will be pain.  Faith is not panacea of remedies for all our presumed ills.  Christian life is not about happy escapes from challenge and wound.  It is a struggle to endure, a race against self, a marathon in which the long haul is victory and the sprinter only gets tired.  But that is not all.

As a woman in labor feels her pain for a purpose, so do the troubles and trials of this mortal life have purpose.  They are equipping you and purifying you for the life that has no end.  They are cleansing and sanctifying you for the life in which there is no need of forgiveness because there is no sin and there is no need of hope because there is no despair.  There is only joy.

Jesus says it is a little while.  That is what parents say to children who have grown tired of waiting or children say to parents when told they have chores to finish.  Nobody wants to hear it.  But it is not abandonment.  And we are not alone.  And the days do not pass without purpose.  They are marching toward Zion just as we are.  We are being prepared for joy that has no end and for the life that does not die and for the tomorrow no one can take from you or diminish. 

And in the meantime, we have Jesus.  He is there in His Word and in His Sacraments.  He is present in His mercy and grace, forgiving us still and restoring us when we fall and holding us up when we are sure we cannot stand anymore.  He is present among us still and we shall not be overcome.  The Lord is good to those who wait for Him.  That is the lesson of faith.  Wait for the Lord.  And while you wait, consider again and again and again what He has done.  For the source of our joy, both the joy of this moment and the joy of eternity, is Christ and what He has done.  And focus upon the outcome.  The salvation of your souls.

Time is not random and the days are not without purpose.  God is at work.  He has reclaimed the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  He has reclaimed you in the waters of your baptism.  You belong to Him.  That should be enough for a people who live the freedom of this Gospel in service to their neighbors and enough for a people who finds they suffer unjustly.  It is a little while.  At least in comparison to the eternity that God has prepared for you.  And so we pray at the same time, “Come Lord Jesus” and “May He who has begun this good work in you bring it to completion when He comes in His glory.”

Baptism of Respect. . .

The Sunday Times reported on the then pending baptism (christening) and confirmation of Meghan Markle at Kensington Palace by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. According to the paper, the baptism will see Meghan – who was raised Protestant - join the Church of England.  Ms Markle has made it clear that she is becoming an Anglican out of respect for the Queen, her future grandmother-in-law, and her role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
It is certainly nice that she has such great respect for the Queen and wishes to prevent any disrespect for her and her role as head of the Church of England.  It would be even nicer if she were to follow the example of the Queen in faith and piety.  And it would be the nicest thing if she had the same deep and profound respect for what baptism is and what it bestows.

I have nothing against her and would not wish her any harm.  That said, it is less than salutary to be baptized for the sake of the feelings, approval, or respect of a person without intent to live out the new life bestowed in baptism.  I know.  It happens all the time.  Grandpa or Grandma or some other relative is on the case of the parent until finally the unbelieving or unobservant parent relents and brings the kid to the font.  I know.  You do not have to marry into the royal family in order to encounter the tension between respect for and the expectations of in-laws with respect to religion.  But none of this makes it good, right, and salutary and baptism is made into something cheap and meaningless when it is offered not for the sake of receiving what Christ offers but satisfying some sort of duty or respect to an individual or even a family.  The same is true of confirmation.  I know.  It happens all the time.  Youth are made to attend the catechism classes and before they know it are perched at the rail to confess that they will suffer death rather than fall away from the faith -- even though they have no realistic idea of what they are promising.  But Meghan is an adult.  Unless she desires to keep the promises inherent in her confirmation, it is a cheap and rather tawdry thing to confirm her.  Even for the sake of Grandma.

She will certainly join the Church of England -- at least in the sense of having her name recorded in the records of the C of E and her name appearing on a membership list.  But will she join the Church?  Well, therein lies the problem.  Baptism incorporates her into the Body of Christ and her confirmation locates her within that jurisdiction so, whether she intends to fulfill the promises or not, she is a member.  Hopefully she will not become a delinquent member. . . too soon.

That is the same path so many have trod.  They become members without the intention to fulfill membership.  The calling of the Church is to prepare the person for what baptism bestows and what confirmation promises mean.  That is what every parish pastor (worth his salt) does.  Hopefully Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, has accorded his very famous baptismal candidate and confirmand as well.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Late bloomers or the new norm. . .

The age old question has long been when does adulthood begin.  Any parent knows the urgency and relevance of this query.  I know my own parents wondered if the day was ever going to come for me and my own children married, got a permanent job, and began family life later than either me or my wife.  For some time people have been targeting the age downward -- the age to drink, to have sex, to buy cigarettes, to move out, to get married, to have children, to go to war, etc...  Now it seems that the age is swinging upward and it does not appear to have an end point in sight. 
According to an article in The Telegraph, adulthood does not begin until 24.  They report that some scientists have factored in the longer time in college and delayed marriage and parenthood to come to this conclusion. While the traditional age range for adolescence has been from 10 and 19, this was based largely on the onset of puberty and biological growth.  Now some are pointing to other factors such as the age at which the brain matures (beyond age 20) and even point to the fact that wisdom teeth do not generally come in age of 25.  Some places show that the average male enters a first marriage at 32.5 and female at 30.6, an increase of some eight years since the 1970s.

Age definitions are always arbitrary but some complain that the current definition of adolescence is "overly restrictive.”  These social scientists believe that 10-24 is a more accurate description of modern day adolescence.  Others wonder why being in school longer, single longer, or without children longer automatically means a delay in being a fully functional adult.  Some worry that delaying the expectation of adulthood and providing protections to those in their 20s that normally accord to juveniles would only undermine maturity and would work against adulthood.

In the Church we face a significant challenge.  Boys and girls reach sexually maturity earlier than in the past, are without marriage and family longer, and face the daunting challenge of what to do with their desires between those two markers.  Some have given up on youth and insisted that there is nothing anyone can do to stop the train toward full sexual license.  Others have comfort in readily available birth control to prevent undesired outcomes from this sexual activity.  A few, and seemingly fewer than ever, still hold up the Biblical model of fidelity in marriage and chastity outside out of marriage for all.  In the meantime, people are delaying marriage and having children (if they have them at all) at a later age than ever before.  Certainly this has a profound impact on the family shape of most church ministries (from Sunday school to Bible study to social groups).

In addition to this, the Church is looking for leaders from within the groups often missing from the demographics of Christendom.  The ages 16-24 are not well represented in most congregations and it is clear that some of the best means of addressing those who have fallen away is through those of the same age group who remain faithful.  What impact would the shift in adulthood and expectations of maturity have on those already missing in action among the pews on Sunday morning?

Finally, what impact does this have on the moral shape of the Christian life?  Does extending adolescence also mean delaying the accountability of living within the ethical dimension of Christian identity?  Does it mean that we do not hold folks in this age group responsible as informed and mature Christian people who are called to love righteousness and hate evil?

Big questions. . . Big challenges. . .

Thursday, April 19, 2018

April Update with Pres. Matthew Harrison. . .

April Life Together News Digest with Pres. Harrison from VimeoLCMS on Vimeo.

Mission Field USA. . . some helpful information

Subtitled a flexible framework for Lutheran church planting, this is an effort of the LCMS Office of National Mission to work with districts (and circuits, the most local judicatories) to assist in their church-planting efforts.  This church planting happens through mother congregations (historically the most viable), sponsoring circuits or church-planting networks, or districts to provide the support to get things started.  This initiative also seeks to help develop formal partnerships between struggling congregations — in the inner city and in rural areas — and healthy congregations that desire to help these ministries restart.

A very hopeful sign that we are not burying our heads in the sand but taking stock of the work ahead for the sake of our heritage as a mission church and, much more importantly, for the sake of the Gospel and those who do not yet believe in Jesus Christ. Look it over!!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Not now. . .

Within the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States (that is, The Episcopal Church) there is within the structures of General Convention, the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music. Their mandate is (according to Canon I.1.2(n)(2)):

A Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. The Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer shall be a member ex officio with voice, but without vote. It shall be the duty of the Commission to:
  • (i) Discharge such duties as shall be assigned to it by the General Convention as to policies and strategies concerning the common worship of this Church.
  • (ii) Collect, collate, and catalogue material bearing upon possible future revisions of the Book of Common Prayer.
  • (iii) Cause to be prepared and to present to the General Convention recommendations concerning the Lectionary, Psalter, and offices for special occasions as authorized or directed by the General Convention or Convocation of Bishops [sic].
  • (iv) Recommend to the General Convention authorized translations of the Holy Scripture from which the Lessons prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer are to be read.
  • (v) Receive and evaluate requests for consideration of individuals or groups to be included in the Calendar of the Church year and make recommendations thereon to the General Convention for acceptance or rejection.
  • (vi) Collect, collate, and catalogue material bearing upon possible future revisions of The Hymnal 1982 and other musical publications regularly in use in this Church, and encourage the composition of new musical materials.
  • (vii) Cause to be prepared and present to the General Convention recommendations concerning the musical settings of liturgical texts and rubrics, and norms as to liturgical music and the manner of its rendition.
  • (viii) At the direction of the General Convention, to serve the Church in matters pertaining to policies and strategies concerning Church music., the SCLM has recommended against revising The Hymnal 1982. That would make this hymnbook one of the oldest in use among churches using a hymnal -- without at least a moderate revision. The claim is that the Prayer Book should be revised first. The committee cited The Hymnal Revision Feasibility Study produced in 2012 by the Church Pension Group in which nearly 13,000 respondents gave overwhelming approval to the hymnal and the SCLM found this perhaps a red light to proceed with any revision with the utmost caution.

The General Convention had told the SCLM to continue its multitriennium project of revising the 2003 edition of the Book of Occasional Services (everything from seasonal blessings, to a Christmas Festival of Lessons and Music to a service for All Hallows’ Eve. The committee's revision modernizes “archaic language” and adds new material that includes such diverse rites as one to change one’s name (perhaps after changing one's gender), the requisite climate change rites, and even a rite for Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead!  They were also asked to produce a set of prayers for racial reconciliation and justice (which they have done).

Perhaps of greater interest, the 78th General Convention (July 2015) changed the canonical language that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman (Resolution A036) and so the SCLM was told to develop two new marriage rites with same sex (Resolution A054).

One of the most curious complaints, however, was that the SCLM said over and over again that it was not given enough money to do what it was told to do.  Some things never change.  Oh well, they waited 42 years for the last hymnal.  Another 42 years would make it about 2024.  They have plenty of time to find the money and put it all together. . . along with some other probably changes to reflect the times which are a changin. . .

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A different Leo. . .

Lutherans are somewhat prone to be suspicious of anyone with the name Leo.  You can figure out why by checking again and seeing who signed the eviction order for then barely famous German monk.  That said, another Leo, not X but XIII, did write something rather profound.  This Leo begs to have his words noticed and heeded. “There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition.”
We presume that the most dangerous enemies of the faith are those who contend that nothing is true, nothing is good, and nothing is credible about Christianity.  But the atheist is not nearly so dangerous as the voices within who insist that most of it is true. . . but not all.  This drop of poison is far more dangerous than the media and its skepticism about miracle and sign and fact.  This drop of poison comes from those who, one might presume, are doctors offering salutary medicine.  They are not.  The worst heresy is the one hard to see and hear, the one which offers only seemingly minor deviation from orthodoxy, and the one that insists the important things are true but it does not matter if the rest are.  For who decides what is important and who says which things are true and which are false?

Nearly everyone is enamored with  much of Christian ethical tradition -- even it they do not get it or get why it is so laudable.  The idea of mercy (which most read tolerance) that trumps doctrine is inherently appealing to those among us who cheer the underdog before the overlord.  Yet the heart and core of Christianity is NOT the ethical tradition but the doctrine and dogma from which it proceeds.  The Word through whom all things came into being now become flesh by the Virgin and the Spirit to suffer as the innocent for the guilty, to pay the awful price of sin with His own blood, and to die in the place of those marked for death.  This is what the world finds objectionable.  Oh, sure, if you want to believe it you can but you may be psychotic or mentally ill (check with Joy Behar on that one).  The world loves the ceremony but only as long as it is symbolic and means nothing and is based on nothing real and delivers nothing tangible (except good feelings, perhaps).  The world loves virtue but will challenge the definition of virtue that deviates from the Shakespearean to thine own self be true.  The world insists that what you desire and what you feel are far more important than what is true -- indeed, these are the only truths worth holding. 

Christianity will not be undone by beasts from without or from hate-filled folks who want to apply the same solution to us as Jesus' enemies did to Him.  No, that will not be our undoing.  But what might be are the seemingly virtuous saints whose voices plant the smallest doubts into believing hearts and who distort but a few words in order to make the truth a lie.  Well meaning, though they may be, they have the power to lead many astray.  So not only beware but be prepared.  Know the faith and the Scriptures and pray the creeds as well as confess them.  Be able to sniff out the drop of poison before it spoils all that is good and right and true.

It all reads like St. Paul who insists that Jesus' resurrection, real and physical, is not peripheral but essential or Jesus' own promise that only the truth shall set you free or Luther who taught us to sing
Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill,
They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He’s judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.
Think of this when you remember Easter morning and consider the promise of Christ raised from the dead.  It does not take much wobbling before all that is left is a spiritual resurrection rich in symbol but without much help, aid, or comfort as the dirt is shoveled onto the casket.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Where Benedict Option issues hit the road. . .

While some have tried to paint the so-called Benedict Option as a retreat, an exile away from engaging the world, others, including its famous author, Rob Dreher, have insisted it is a radical form of engagement in which the Church refuses to cower against the enemies of the faith.  Why all the fuss?  Consider this. . .

In a startling development, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the titular head of the Anglican Communion, partnered with noted atheist Richard Dawkins to register opposition to a change in governmental policy that would allow the Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain to open new schools.  Dr Rowan Williams co-signed a letter to the editor sent to the Daily Telegraph, in which he said it was “difficult to bring to mind a more divisive policy, or more deleterious to social cohesion” than removing an admissions cap that prevents new faith schools from selecting more than half of their intake from their own religion.  The government's cap prohibits the student body of a religious school from having more than 50% of students from its own religion.  This has proven to be an effective tool preventing the Roman Catholic Church there from opening new schools.  Once those schools reach the 50 per cent limit, they are forced to turn away Roman Catholic students -- something that violates canon law.

The point is this: the world is not about to let bygones be bygones.  The world is not about to let religious ascendancy go without challenge and will use every governmental means to prevent this.  What is remarkable is that here the former leader of the Anglican Communion and the presiding bishop of the Church of England has sided against such religious schools.  In effect, Rowan Williams has spoken out in favor of measures preventing any change in the status quo.  It is the faith against the faith, unless you believe Rowan Williams has abandoned all sense of Christian identity.

The point of the Benedict Option is that accommodation cannot be faithful to God and there is no place to hide.  The call today is to unite in the fervent cause of faithful Christian witness and life -- especially because the opposition is working overtime to force such accommodation.  It is not a matter of retreat but regrouping, not a matter of hiding but of being faithful, and not a matter of toleration but of living with those intolerant to the Christian faith.  When the structures of Western Civilization decline to the point where their Christian roots are rejected and even abhorred, then is when Christians must show their true character and resist.  It has happened on the continent, is making its way through Britain, and has already arrived at our saltwater shores.  What will we do in response?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Ya'll Come. . . or maybe ihr kommt. . .

In an article by Msgr. Hans Feichtinger over at First Things, the German bishops have announced that they will soon publish new guidelines for reception of the Holy Eucharist. In the future, non-Catholics married to Catholic spouses and attending Mass with their families could, in certain cases, be admitted to communion if they profess the Catholic faith in that sacrament. By this the Roman Catholics (at least some of the ones in Germany) are doing two things that have become super problematic for us in the Missouri Synod.  They have individualized belief AND made belief in the Real Presence the prerequisite for receiving the Sacrament.  Both of these have made close(d) communion one giant hassle for those in the LCMS and now the German Roman Catholic bishops seem intent upon following the same playbook.

The problem with this is that the faith is not one person wide and one person deep.  It is the faith that transcends the ages, confessed in time in creed, and defined by doctrine held in common.  Our faith is not a "me'n'Jesus" faith but a communion of saints, transcended in time and expanded in space.  The marks of the Church are not individual piety but the Means of Grace.  Where the Word and Sacraments are, the Church is there and the Church exists where the Means of Grace are.  Through the waters of baptism, one becomes joined to the many because they are united with Christ (and through Christ to all who share this new birth of water and the Word).  Sure, there are irregular situations in which one may rightly believe, having heard the Word in which the Spirit is at work, but not yet be baptized AND there may be those who are baptized who have refused the Spirit and do not believer, but these are not normative.  And the baptized, who join in common confession of what it is that they believe, confess, and teach, are gathered also around the Table of the Lord.

The other problem with this is that the Catholic faith in the Sacrament (the Real Presence and ???) cannot be isolated out of the whole of what is believed, confessed, and taught in such manner that those who do so, despite other differences, are united enough, at least, to eat together the flesh and blood of Christ.  The bishops are not promoting irresponsible inter-communion.  No siree, they certainly would suggest that pastors (stewards of the mysteries) should make a reasonable effort to discern in each individual case whether their admission as a non-Catholic to communion would be permissible.  According to these bishops, those who would desire to receive Holy Communion must profess the Catholic faith in the Eucharist. How odd, however, since that Catholic profession, at least until now, pretty much said that no non-Catholic may receive communion in a Roman Catholic Church.  In order for them to receive Holy Communion as a non-Catholic, it would be required that they at least   belong to a church in which all sacraments are considered such and valid (the list is not long here), and that one must be in the state of grace, which in normal parlance means going to confession once in a while (sooner rather than later is also better).

Ahhhh, the problems of trying to be ecumenical!  No one wants to be an inhospitable host -- not even to people who disagree with your faith and may, in other circumstances, wish a pox upon your house.   So most churches have given up.  Faith is one person wide and one person deep.  As long as you believe Jesus is somewhere in the room, it is enough to chomp down with us.  It is so terribly mundane.  It makes Jesus and His meal so ordinary.  It makes it seem as if it is no big deal -- not what you believe nor what you eat!!!  It is just appearances.  And if it is just that, then why bother -- to hell with it (one of my favorite Flannery O'Connor quotes).  If welcoming those who do not share the faith or who have not been examined and absolved and can receive rightly the gift is preferred over being true to what the Sacrament is, then O'Connor is correct.  To hell with it.  But that is what the German Roman Catholic bishops and some within the LCMS (one of the few remaining non-Roman churches to retain a semblance of close(d) communion) seem to want to make it -- nothing all that important at all. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Who reads the newspapers anymore. . . has been said that C. S. Lewis never read newspapers. Perhaps he was prescient since people have been predicting the death of the newspaper for some time.  In my own city, it was accomplish years ago and the paper produced serves as little more than a conveyor of advertising (which may have become the primary purpose for newspapers although I, for one, regret it). Lewis suffered the consequences of his lack of information—he somehow had the idea that the Yugoslav dictator Tito was King of Greece—he did not feel that news was essential to his intellectual and spiritual health. As one author put it, Lewis believed that if something really important happened, somebody would tell him about it.  Given what is in the media these days, I feel more sympathetic for Lewis' belief and practice in this regard than I once was.

The real danger to the media today is that our people tend to be much better informed about what is in the news (at least what the media have chosen to cover and how they cover it) than the substance of what informs their values and shapes their beliefs.  So it does not take very long before people who sit in church every Sunday to begin to wonder why not gay marriage (it begs the question of equality) and why not save the earth (as much a cause for the Gospel as forgiving sins) and why not adopt tolerance as the primary Christian virtue (over mercy which calls a sin a sin but covers the sin with righteousness and pays its price).  The real danger is not simply the media but the fact that our people struggle to know why we do not sanction gay marriage or why we do not follow the liberal social agenda with regard to gender issues or why saving the earth is not the equivalent of saving the soul.  The danger is not the media but the media alone, its comprehensive and all consuming presence, against the backdrop of a people who have long ago forgotten the Catechism and are not sure anyone really knows what the Bible says except in the form of an opinion or guess.  That is the danger.

C. S. Lewis did not know what was in the newspaper but he did know the Christian faith.  He knew it from the inside out.  He knew it well enough to write of it while writing some of the most compelling stories of the modern age (The Chronicles of Narnia).  He knew it not simply as fact but as living voice, not simply as truth but as truth that forms and shapes, and not simply as right and wrong but as the Gospel that saves.  There may have been issues with Lewis on one point or another but by and large his is an authentic voice of Christianity against the background of a already secularized culture and media.  Our world has radically transformed both its estimation of truth and virtue and the way we view the Scriptures and the Christian tradition.  The argument is even more compelling for us today.  We cannot allow our world view or our moral compass to be charted by the media, not by any media, nor can we endure living in ignorance of what the Scriptures say and the Christian tradition has passed down to us.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Contradiction in Terms. . .

Did you get your invitation to the first consecration of a female Catholic bishop?  Too bad.  Neither did I.  But the media was abuzz about it all.  Of course it was since the media delights in giving dissidents prominence -- especially when those dissidents adhere to the sacred political agenda of the media (feminism, same sex marriage, gender identity, etc.). here is the story (from their own website).  Spiritus Christi is an inclusive, mission-driven Catholic Church in Rochester, New York.  The community officially began on Valentine's Day, 1999.  1100 people attended the Masses that first weekend. Most of them had previously belonged to Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Rochester, but they had found themselves unwelcome there following a Vatican crack-down on the parish the previous year. [The Vatican took issue with a woman concelebrating the mass with their priest, the support of homsexuality and, indeed, the celebration of gay and lesbian weddings (though not on church property), and an open communion policy.]  The Diocese of Rochester, under pressure from Rome, fired the leaders and ended these inclusive practices. 

This happened back in 1998.  In 2001 the dissidents (a goodly number, some 1200-1500 people) gathered to re-establish their old identity but as an independent Catholic church (whatever that means).  They ordained the woman who has been acting as a de facto priest before and have continued to the present day.  There is no doubting that the congregation is appealing and has a steady membership of over 250 families and that they are very active -- in many good and laudable causes but also and very prominently in support of a pro GLBTQ agenda.  The old Roman priest is back, no longer Roman, but an associate pastor of the group.  Now one of their number has been consecrated a bishop, Denise (MeMa) Donato.  You can read it all for yourself. 

You can also notice the prominent coverage given to the group by the so-called National Catholic Reporter (here, here, and here).  Which is my point.  Rome is filled with dissidents who have not left and who are agitating still for the same old causes (many dating back to the 1970s).  Here is a semi-official voice of the Roman Catholic Church giving big coverage to this particular dissident group of people who fought and left but still claim the identity.  It is as if these were the heroes in the eyes of this journal and the Church was the oppressing force of wrong.  It is also a hint that the problems in Rome are not simply a guy named Frank who wears a pallium and is called papa and who lives in the Vatican.  No, indeed.  There are many (many boomers of my vintage) who have older but not weaker voices in favor of a church that mirrors the movement of culture.  But there is no future for the Church in becoming a pale echo of the sins of the world around us.  Yet the cause of faithfulness rarely wins any publicity contests.

Finally there is that phrase:  an independent Catholic church.  It is a contradiction in terms.  Catholic is a word that means nothing less than no independence but rather dependence upon and adherence to the catholic tradition.  We Lutherans recognized this early on.  We insisted in our first public confession that we have not departed from the catholic faith in doctrine or practice.  It is this contention by which we insist we must be judged.  But this community, Spiritus Christi, that insists that faithfulness requires departure from the catholic tradition and faith.  Indeed, they have made this the litmus test of faithfulness.  And this is where it all ends up so strange.  They claim to be catholic but they have rejected every catholic dogma with regard to the pastoral office, to the sacred nature of marriage between one man and one woman, and the cause of sexual purity (over sexual indulgence).  That they have a following is no surprise.  The world loves the show more than it has loved the faith for a long time.  They love the image of being the church while at the same time rejecting the basic truths that define and shape the church's faith and life.  But make no mistake.  This is not the path of faithfulness.  In this case, the trappings of church are being used to foment error.  And they are not alone.