Saturday, August 31, 2019

Turn off the radio. . .

It was one of those situations in which you did not have the opportunity to object.  As I sat there all I could do was listen to the Christian (nominally, that is) radio station playing in the background.  It was the same kind of lighthearted banter you would hear between hosts of just about any kind of radio program in the morning.  Interspersed with the contemporary Christian music (nominally, that is) were discussions about life as a Christian and the hardest things for Christians to do.

One of the hosts suggested that one of the most difficult things for Christians to do was to love themselves.  The other opined about the importance of self-love -- after all how can you love your neighbor as yourself if you do not love yourself.  And it got worse.  From self-love came the whole subject of self-care.  Time for yourself, away from spouse and family, to heal yourself, calm yourself, and center yourself in a world where so much of life takes from you (like your spouse, family, job, home life, etc.).  God was not particularly mention except as a cover for the whole conversation.  God would want me to be happy, whole, at peace with myself, and taking care of me.  Right?

It was positively sickening to sit there where I could not speak and yet wanted to shout to whomever was controlling the radio, Shut the damn thing off!  Of course, it did not help that I was there in my clerical collar.  Every now and then, when it was impossible for me to respond, I was told how much I hear this and how much I say this very thing to the people in my parish.  You have to love yourself first!  Not!!

Therapeutic deism is not a myth or even a theoretical concept.  It is real.  We are surrounded by it.  The radio that purports to be Christian and the hosts who parade themselves as experts and the music with a beat that sings the pablum into our ears... I could scream!  Honestly, it is the worst part of living in the Bible belt.  That horrid Christian radio station is on 24/7.  I fear that it is worse than the secular stuff on the other stations.  Why?  Because it has the aura of legitimacy, the hint of sacred truth to its lies, and the churchly sanction to its words.  It must be true because it comes from a Christian radio station and from the lips of Christian talk show hosts.

I hope and pray that people have this on in the background without really listening to it but I fear they are listening and that this kind of saccharine sentimentality has become the meaning of Christian for them.  God wants me to be in touch with my feelings, my desires, my wants, and my self.  God wants me to make time for just me, to take care of my self and to indulge myself every now and then.  Is it really possible that somebody thinks this is what Christ died for?  Jesus became incarnate and live the holy life we could not live and died in our place upon the cross and rose on the third day so that we could get in touch with our inner selves, talk endlessly about ourselves, judge things by feelings more than truth, and learn to love ourselves even more.  Yeah, right.  That's it.

Okay.  Rant off.  Christian (so called) radio is big business, to be sure.  It is pervasive in some areas.  But it is a lie.  It portrays a Christianity unknown to the Scriptures, unconfessed by creeds, and unrecognizable to tradition.  If your church is the radio, if CCM is your playlist, if you drink in the poison thinking this is authentic Christianity, you need to read the Bible and the fathers and learn the creeds and the sturdy hymns of old.  And if you are Lutheran and you are doing this, you really do have no idea who Lutherans are and what we are about -- time for Lutheranism 101.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The shadows of a past. . .

Entrepreneurial religion was once the thing.  Run the church like a business.  Market the church like a product.  Embrace the possibilities of all emerging technology.  So we in the other side of Christianity, the confessional and orthodox folk, learned our lessons well -- late but well.  We began a full on embrace of this idea of the church about the time the cracks in its hastily poured foundations were beginning to show.  From the Church Growth Movement to the Saddle Backs and Willow Creeks, we bought into the premise based upon the rather false assumption that we could use their methodology without subscribing to their theology (or lack thereof). 

We watched as those who seemed to raise up a moribund Christianity into a lively force came and went.  The Mark Driscolls, James MacDonalds, Tullian Tchividjians, C. J. Mahaneys, Josh Harrises and Rob Bells who churned out books and who were treated as the minor deities of their day have come and gone.  It is not simply that their paper empires have fallen but that many of them have departed from the faith, more than happy to have jettisoned any vestige of orthodoxy.  Many of them have fallen not simply from the reasoning of the faith but from its moral heart.  Most recently the guy who championed giving up dating has abandoned his marriage of 19 years and decided that if he believes at all it is not the Christian faith he once taught.  Money, power, morality, and ego have been the downfalls of those who raised up an evangelicalism not unlike the giants of American business.

It is high time that we who call ourselves heirs of Luther, the church of Bach, and theologians in the pulpit give up our slavish pursuit of celebrity religion.  We must stop looking under the remains of the social and religious movements that came and went to find out who we are and what we are to be about.  The gurus of our demise are our own hesitance to believe what we confess and our willingness to sacrifice substance for style if we think it will pack people into the pews.  Lutheranism is not failing because we have been too faithful, pious, and orthodox.  It is failing (where it is) because we willingly surrendered our identity to pursue what seemed to be working for others or to offer back to the world a tepid version of themselves (while this version was itself at the end of its shelf life).  We worried more about being judged irrelevant by a culture of despair and death than being judged unfaithful by the God who had rescued us from darkness and placed us into the realm of His marvelous light.  We treated everything as negotiables -- from the language of our confession to the liturgy to church music and to technology.  We were like the unpopular boy or girl in high school who thought a new set of clothes would make us everyone's friend. 

What were we thinking?  What are we still thinking?  (Do not for a moment presume that even their public failures will wean us from our dogged pursuit of easier religion, better church, and better statistics.)  When we look at the ruins of the big box mega churches who were built upon the promise of celebrity, the presumption that size makes wise, and success at any cost, we are tempted to blame the fallen heroes but we are to fault.  We have forgotten who we are and what we are here for.  We have distanced substance from style until the first no longer informs the second at all.  We have traded a great treasure for which generations contended for the cold porridge of a Ponzi scheme.  We cannot blame others for the fact that Lutheranism is struggling.  We never gave it a chance.  We were so convinced it was not up to the task that we never lived and acted like the Lutherans we said we were.  Our people stopped going to church because we stopped acting like the church and speaking clearly the Gospel into their ears and offering them the sacraments of Christ that bestow the Kingdom.  I don't know if they will come back but I think it is fairly obvious that trading our souls for the delusion of success and relevance is not the way.  Start by faithful catechesis.  Turn the focus of worship away from us and back onto Christ.  Preach the eternal Word.  Employ music as servant of that Word.  If Lutheranism has any future, it will be this future.  If we fail in this way, at least we went down with our integrity mostly in tact.  But that is the point.  I am convinced that this path will never fail.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Like clarified butter. . .

If you know me, you know I like to cook and, if I am not cooking or eating, I am watching those who do on the food channels.  Early on I discovered many lauding the benefits of clarified butter.  This is not butter rescued from its uncertainty of identity -- as if it might have thought itself margarine.  This is butter without its impurities, without the solids and the water that naturally left in butter until it is purified.

Clarified butter is milk fat rendered out of butter, separating the milk solids and water from the pure butterfat. Typically, this happens by cooking the butter, that is by melting it until the various components will naturally separate by density. The water evaporates, some solids float to the surface to be skimmed off, and the remainder of the milk solids sink to the bottom and are discarded when the butterfat is poured off.  Why bother you might ask?  Well, for one clarified butter has a much longer shelf life than fresh butter and for another it smokes and burns at a higher temperature so it is better for many cooking applications, such as sauteeing.

There is no shortage of voices raising the sound of alarm for Christianity in America.  The Nones are increasing the the faithful decreasing.  Or so the media frenzy has put it.  In a generation Christianity will not exist as a significant force in America.  And the Christians huddle in fear, retreating to their closed door sanctuaries to lick their wounds and pray.

Except that it is not so.  The kind of Christianity in decline is barely Christian.  Moderate Christianity, or better, lukewarm Christianity, is not only under challenge but it is in real and steep decline.  The Church is not simply being tested but sifted and those who believe Christian truth to be simply one truth among many or whose piety mirrors the culture around them are falling away.  Numbers are down but it is significant to note among whom those numbers are down.

Could it be that instead of in decline, God is, in effect, clarifying His Church?  Could it be that the times are causing the Church to be purified -- not of sinners as in the old understanding of purification but of impurities of doctrine and faith unsure if the truth of the Scriptures is enough to hold onto.  Are we, in fact, witnessing as God is using the tests and trials of our modern secular culture to clarify both what it is that we believe, confess, and teach, and how we live out that faith in the world?  For the Christianity in decline is nominal Christianity, that is, those whose liberal theology hardly even grants the existence of truth and who have long ago given up on the factual basis of the faith.  These are not only not religious, but they are hardly spiritual.  Their piety is governed by the voice of their own desire and not by the voice of God in His Word.  Their truth is sifted through reason, experience, and feeling rather than by the epiphany of the Spirit.  Those who are leaving the Church are those who, in many cases, did not really have a faith to begin with.  They were not fully catechized in the faith, they lived on the fringes of the Church's liturgical life, and they did not seek to be holy or desire to belong to God.  Their faith was a crutch for weakness to be discarded when strength returned and a fire extinguisher to be used only in case of real fire -- which was rare enough.  They believed in technology, they trusted the voices within them, and they sought to have their desires baptized by God rather than brought forth anew by the Spirit.

Ironically, the greatest enemy of Christendom has never been those outside the Church who seek to kill it but the fake friends within the Church who seek to improve God's design and couch the truth in believable and relevant words and transform the focus of worship from God to us.  In the end, it may well be that the whole effect of the loss of these nominal believers  is that the faith is stronger, the Church is made more clear and pure in her doctrine and life -- and her witness before the world.

Now the great temptation has always been for us to do this.  But Jesus is clear.  When we sift between the wheat and the tares, we only do damage.  Holiness movements in the past, whose purpose has been to purify the Church, have succeeded more in propagating a sense of false pride rather than genuine repentance.  Leave the wheat and tares to grow together until He decides, says Christ.  So it is that this purifying is not our design but God's work.  We cannot decide the timing or how it will work but God will surely cleanse His lukewarm people of their uncertainty and raise up a Church to burn hot and bright with the truth of the Gospel, with confidence in the orthodox dogma of Scripture confessed in the living tradition of creed and piety, and with a determination to live in but not of the world, a people set apart for His holy purpose.

It is this that Benedict XVI and Francis Cardinal George and others have spoken about.  It is this to which Bonhoeffer refers in his charge of grace made cheap and easy.  It is this, I believe, that we see at work around us.  Far from moving us to despair, it should move us to be ever more certain in our confession, ever more Biblical in our identity, ever more faithful in our liturgy, ever more passionate in our preaching, and ever more holy in the shape and direction of our piety.  If the Church is being purified by God, then it is one more sign that God is at work within us, that He has not given up on the remnant of faithful and orthodox people, and, no matter how tainted the Sodom's of this world and even the dark corners of the Church, God's mercy is still ours and He is bringing us to the day of the Lord when all things will be completed and brought to their perfect consummation.  Until that day, our concern is not figuring God out but holding fast to the truth in love.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

No mere cultural adornment or historic legacy. . .

France remains staunchly secular with something like 5 percent of French Catholics regularly attending mass.  The fire in the cultural icon of Paris hit at the heart of French identity but it did not cause the cold, dead heart to beat with faith.  Oh, to be sure, the French and their lives are still deeply shaped by Roman Catholicism’s social and spiritual forms but these represent national and cultural tradition and not so much the faith.  By and large, the French continue to observe the sacramental rites of baptism, marriage, and funerals -- here more than in some other European countries.  And, yes, they require a certain number of clergy to perform these rites.  But to presume that these rites or their cultural affection for the image of their own national identity has made an impact upon the soul of the French is a stretch too far.

The new France includes a significant number of recently arrived immigrants.  Though from Africa or Asia and more typically Muslim or Buddhist, these immigrants do speak the language and claim a place within the culture.  To them, the cathedral and its fire have even less significance.  Theirs is but a historical or cultural connection and for them there is no history of faith even to recall.  It would be for them a cultural fixture but not an internalized passion.  Perhaps no more French than Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.  This is certainly true of the immigrants but it is becoming even more true for French with longer history in the land and toward the culture.  Such things are worn on the outside of their identity but do not get too deep into the person.

The French expect more of their government than the churches that dot the land.  They have agreed to the high cost of taxes in the presumption that the government will take care of them and their culture.  Far more than in America, the French hold the government responsible for their own welfare and for the state of life in the country (whether rightly or wrongly).  Though the cathedral was a symbol for the nation and its destruction a national wound, they have not exactly learned generosity for its rebuilding.  It is the government's job to repair the national identity and to keep in repair the cultural symbols of the nation.  The French seem more willing to have their government and the donations of Americans and others repair Notre Dame more than they are willing to contribute toward it.

I write this because I wonder if sometimes Christians are not so tempted even here in America.  We depend far too much upon the cultural Christianity of the past and too little upon the urgent catechesis and solid preaching to cement the lives of our people to God, through the means He Himself has provided.  We have the false idea that laws will return America to some grand image from the past.  I am not at all suggesting that we should abandon our efforts to protect the unborn but I wonder if we have not drunk the kool-aid that suggests a change in the law will change people.  I fear that the law could change (though some states would certainly continue their assault on life) but we might forget what must be done to change the mind and, even more, the heart of our people.  Blue laws cannot make us honor the Lord's Day and morality laws cannot make us holy.  Only Christ working through the Spirit can do this.  We do not want the government to be our partner -- all we ask is that the government stop being our enemy!

We do not want to become the kind of country in which the government is the source of solutions to our problems, the guiding light of what is good and right and true, or the parent who takes care of us (as long as we surrender our choice).   For example, I think the fight for health care accessible to all people at a reasonable cost is a laudable fight but I worry when the government decides what life to save and what life is not worth saving, when the government decides how far to fight for the life of a child and how long to care for the life of the aged, or how much to spend and when to cut off the flow of dollars for the care of the sick.  I could also refer to the dangers that lie when it is the government decides what speech is worthy of the public square and what is forbidden.   I certainly do not want God banished from the school but I am not at all sure I want the teacher in the classroom to be the teacher of religion our students turn to in order to find out about God.

It seems more and more Americans are willing to surrender a higher portion of their paychecks in order to have government responsible for their welfare as individuals and for the welfare of the state.  When that happens, the church becomes a cultural symbol of the past more than a profound force in the present and America's tremendous capacity for philanthropy will dry up.   We are not there yet but Christians should be careful.  We cannot simply raise our voices against what is wrong and we must compel the people to faith with more than the force of our arguments.  We must believe what we confess and live what we believe.  There needs to be among us a striving for holiness (within the frailty of sin) and a genuine charity of Christ evident among us so that Christianity is not simply an intellectual choice or a moral one but truly the way and we the people of the way.  The church is not a social club or even a gathering of like minded individuals.  She is the Body of Christ, created and called into being by the Spirit working through the Word and Sacraments.  If she is seen as any less, she will become less.  That is not the fault of those outside but the blame will lie squarely upon the shoulders of those who claim to be Christian.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Marriage as an estate. . .

In the olden days when marriages were announced by the publishing of the banns, marriage was understood as something sacred entered into by a man and a woman.  Yes, I know that this is considered borderline hate speech today but please keep reading.  The presumption here was that marriage existed as an institution, an order, and an estate before the particular couple chose to be married.  A man and a woman would enter the estate of matrimony, a holy and honorable estate which was established by God and which symbolizes the union betwixt Christ and His Church.  The bride and groom did not establish the marriage but sought to enter into the holy estate.  They did not so much act as the priests of this sacramental union but their priestly act of consent was the first step in the conferral of the estate.

Marriage has gone through many changes over the years but the most profound evolution has turned marriage from an estate to be entered into a private relationship between consenting individuals.  In effect, marriage has become a solely private relationship and an estate defined by those who desire to be married.  While there are many ways in which this is illustrated, few are as clear as the idea of destination weddings that take place not only outside the Church proper but apart from family and friends.  These have become the epitome of a private ceremony.  That they are presided over by people who may be authorized for sole purpose of this wedding or by the self-officiant (as Washington, DC, allows) is further evidence that marriage is no longer seen as an order or estate into which a bride and groom enter but solely a private estate or relationship.  Those outside the Church are not the only ones who have begun to think of marriage in this way.  Christians are also beginning more and more to see marriage in this light.

The changes in marriage then are not so much to an institution but to the freedom of the couple to define for themselves what it means to be married.  So the liberalization of marriage to include same sex couples (and other versions across the spectrum of gender and identity) is not the only change or even the primary change in marriage we have witnessed in modern times.  In truth, this change in who gets married could not have been possible without the privatization of marriage first of all.  In the past it was not the choice of whether to marry or not (marriage was almost universal) but only who to marry.  Marriage was a public estate and the bedrock foundation of the society as a whole and the shape of culture presumed marriage as just such a public estate to which individuals might enter but an estate larger than the couple and one that pre-existed the desire of this man and this woman to marry.

Where marriage once had a standard meaning, today the word itself no longer belongs to the Church or even to the society as a whole.  It has been surrendered solely to the domain of those who marry to define.  Who marries and what it means to be married now are added to the list of responsibilities resting upon those who marry.  They must negotiate the shape of this relationship, how long it will last, and the factors by which it will be judged worthwhile or successful.  It is worth noting here that the old concepts of fidelity and procreation are nowhere to be seen in the basic blueprints of marriage from which each couple defines for themselves what marriage is and how it is lived out.

Christians and Lutherans have, in some respects, already surrendered to the individual couple the right and responsibility to define for themselves what marriage is to be.  In the marriage rite itself, the Church has conceded to the couple the freedom to define what will be included and what will not (like the word obey) as well as the vows that form the promises witnessed by the congregation.  In fact, it could be said that the old lines that once began the rite (in the presence of God) are now mere formality without any real substance or meaning.  Even the presence of witnesses has some to mean little more than spectators who will later be guests at the party that follows.  The idea that the people sitting in the congregation have any duty to pray for or help hold the couple accountable to their marriage when the worse, poorer, and sickness tests the bounds of their commitment.  In essence, the idea of a no-fault divorce was the first fruits of such a privatization of marriage and the effective presumption that the couple being married are in charge.

To reclaim marriage means at least to re-establish the fact that marriage as an order, estate, and institution exists apart from and prior to the decision of and the rites that bind this man to this woman.  That marriage is public and not private is the greater battle -- greater even than the battle against the idea of same sex marriage.  Those churches refusing to allow same sex marriage may have already surrendered the reasons why marriage is between one man and one woman by ceding the privacy of marriage against its public nature and identity.  We would all do well to think about this as we attempt to hold our ground against the press to marry whomever wishes to be married.  If marriage is private, no church has the right or authority to define who is included or who is excluded.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Our Father leads us home. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 11, Proper 16C, preached on Sunday, August 25, 2019 (prepared by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich).

    Watching the HGTV shows you find out the value of curb appeal.  Front doors are for more than entrance.  This hit home when we built onto our building and people in the community said that you could not see a front door from Madison Street.  Though we knew most folks would enter by the parking lot entrance, it was important for the cars driving by to see a door so that they knew where to enter and that they were welcome here.  The entrance is not just a door but the way to all that is inside, to the house of God and the things of God and the gifts of God.

I.    In the Gospel reading today, Jesus was asked a question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (Lk 13:23).  Though there is no context given for this question, it is a question sure to be on the minds of many people of God.  We want to know, too.  Who is in and who is out?  That is why the internet is so popular – you can find out anything on it.  And we want to know.  Why are some saved and not others and will heaven be full or empty.               

    You will notice that Jesus did not really answer that question.  He did not give a number or even a general idea.  Jesus turned the question right back on the one who asked it.  It may be curiosity to know if there will be many who are saved but it is a completely different thing to know YOU are saved.

    Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.  For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Lk 13:24).  The door to heaven is not wide and easy but narrow.  Jesus tells the person to strive to enter through this narrow door.  That means to struggle with, fight for, and expend great effort to enter through this narrow door.  It does not mean to push one’s way through, forcing your entrance into heaven, but to make sure that you enter as God has provided, that you come through the door as God has opened the door. 

    So you cannot get through the door claiming your right.  You did not earn your way through nor do you deserve what awaits you.  Your works cannot pay the entry fee and your sins keep you and every sinner from entering. . . EXCEPT where God makes it possible.

    The door has no place for the self-righteous.  It only has a place for the penitent.  The narrow door has no place for those who presume they belong but it does have a place for those who enter through the humility of faith, pleading Christ’s merits, and trusting in His promises.  The door is not simply a door but a judge – it determines whether the person belongs or does not belong.  The only ones who belong are those who are in Christ Jesus, who have been washed clean in the waters of baptism, who recognize the voice of God in His Word as the voice of the Good Shepherd, and who discern Christ’s presence in His Holy Supper.   You have to know Jesus to enter.

    Jesus says this bluntly.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.  Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  The door only opens to Christ and to those who are covered by His righteousness, washed in His blood, and given His new life.  Jesus is that door.  He is not come to justify the sinner or excuse the sins but to forgive the sinner and to pay the full penalty of that sin.  And the Spirit reveals this to us so that we may believe it and by believing it be able to enter to be where Christ is.

    Our Lord fleshed this out with a parable.  “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’  Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’  But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from.  Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’” (Lk 14:25-27).   This is not about what you know but about who you know and about how you know Him.  Luther once said, “For even though you know that He is God’s Son, that He died and rose again, and that He sits at the right hand of the Father, you have not yet learned to know Christ aright” – unless you believe that He is God’s Son for you, that He died for you, that He rose for you, and that He sits at the right hand of the Father for you.  Even Satan knows all the details about Christ – perhaps even better than the best of us.  But knowing Christ here means trusting Him for salvation.  It means knowing Him by faith.  It means trusting the facts of Jesus’ life are for you.  It means believing and trusting that He did everything for you.  His birth is for you.  His death is for you.  His resurrection is for you.  This faith is the only way through the narrow door.  This faith is how you’re led through that door. 

    When Jesus said “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” He wasn’t telling us that salvation happens because of your efforts but was talking about the necessity of knowing Him by faith, living in this faith, and trusting that He has accomplished all things that you may be forgiven of your sins, declared holy and righteous, and be welcomed into everlasting life.

    Faith is not the easy way.  The easy way is to make salvation into a simple transaction whereby we do something and God acts in response to give us something.  Faith is hard because it means trusting in what you cannot see and believing what seems completely unreasonable to your mind.  This faith requires the gift of the Holy Spirit or we could not believe at all.  But because God gives us His Spirit and works in us to teach our fearful hearts to believe and to trust in Him, the door opens and heaven and all its glory is ours.  That is what it means that we are saved by grace – grace in what Christ has done and grace given so that we might believe it.

    II.    In the collect of the day we prayed, “O Lord, You have called us to enter Your kingdom through the narrow door. Guide us by Your Word and Spirit, and lead us now and always into the feast of Your Son, Jesus Christ.”  You know that many things can be learned by praying the collects of the Church.  So in this prayer we acknowledge two things.  First, that God has called us to enter His kingdom, and second, that He guides and leads by His Word and Spirit.  God must lead us through the narrow door and He does so by teaching us to know Christ as our Savior.  This happens when His Word is preached, the word of Christ and Him crucified and risen.  This happens where we are connected to Christ’s death and resurrection through the Waters of Baptism.  This happens where we hear His voice absolving us of our sins and we are given the gift of a clear conscience.  And this happens when we hear Him address the bread of His Supper as His body and the wine as His blood and bids us eat and drink with joy in our hearts.   By the means of grace, God takes us by the hand and leads us to Christ and through Christ leads us to everlasting life.

    Now the person wondered if many will be saved or just a few. But Jesus directed him not to the what ifs of theory but to the concrete of His own path of faith and life in Christ.  How many will be saved is God’s to know.  But that you are saved is yours to know and to rejoice in, especially when the world is hard and life is difficult.  Remember when God asked Abraham to count the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the shore to count His children?  But it began with the promise of one child, one son.  As Abraham saw through his one son Isaac the full promise, so we do we see in our own gracious welcome of God the welcome of the many who shall be saved by grace, through faith in Christ.  We see the whole by seeing ourselves first as the people of His promise and the recipients of His grace, walking through Christ, the narrow door, to everlasting light and life.

    The door is not narrow because only a few fit but it is narrow because entrance only comes through Christ.  Christ is the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life by which any and all who will be saved, shall be saved.  Doors are more than curb appeal, but the entrance into the whole house.  That is true of our homes but it is also true of God’s House.  Christ is the door, He opens that door to us and He leads us through that door home, homes to the Father, and home to the place prepared for us before the foundation of the world.   In Jesus’ name...Amen.

I AM religious. . .

We have all heard those who insist they are not religious but they are spiritual.  I have written enough about that.  What is curious, however, is that there are many who are religious and spiritual who likewise find the term religious somewhat distasteful.  It is to some an awkward word with less than positive connotations that is used rather regretfully because there is no other word to suffice that is quite succinct.

That said, the word “religion” is actually quite positive in its origins.  It appears to be related to the word “ligament.”  From the Latin root meaning “to bind together,” it would be difficult to narrow down exactly what originally was being bound together.  On the one hand, it is thoroughly possible that this referred to the binding of a sacrificial offering to an altar.  It could also refer to the binding of a person to truth with an oath.  The ancients loved to debate such things seemingly ad nauseam.  It is enough for us to remember that behind the word “religion” is the understanding that people have been bound together.  Religion as a word is about a people with common truth, common belief, common confession, and common life.  It is not a word that imposes but rather reflects that which binds people together.

It seems to me that this only strengthens and solidifies the value and benefit to the word so many love to hate.  To be spiritual is not to be bound to anything specific – not to doctrine or to piety.  But to be religious is to be bound to doctrine and to a piety that flows from this doctrine.  It means to live an accountable life – accountable to the faith confessed, to the common confession of this faith, and to the common life of those who share this faith.  I am religious.  I live in a bound relationship to a specific confession.  I am accountable to others.  I live under an altar and pulpit with others who live in the same kind of relationship.  Far from being a negative term, I think the term religious is very positive.  I think it is about time to rehabilitate this term and restore its use. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Lord, teach me to pray. . .

I have been ruminating on the Gospel of a month or so ago when His disciples asked the Lord to teach them to pray.  I am not at all sure they were expecting a prayer.  It is more likely, in my humble opinion, that they were thinking methodology or process or even, perhaps, key words to use to accomplish what we all want -- to get God to give us that for which we have asked!  But Jesus taught them to pray by teaching them a prayer, THE prayer.  By it we all are still learning to pray.

Some have described my prayers as wooden, even worse, like praying for a book.  At first I took this as a compliment but it did not take much time to discover that it was not a positive statement.  In the eyes of the people who complained, prayer is best (and maybe only real) when it is spontaneous, when the words flow from the heart and not the mind, and when they are distinctly personal and situation specific.  In other words, rehearsed prayer is not prayer and prayer that flows from the mind or from the life of the Church and her voice in prayer over history is not real prayer.  It makes you wonder if they do not view the Our Father in much the same way!  Not real prayer because it is learned, spoken from memory, and comes from a book.

Prayer is not something natural.  Oh, to be sure, it is completely natural to ask God (or gods or the great whatever in the sky) to give us what we want.  It is completely natural to believe that life is lived out among hidden powers and forces that just might be coerced into giving you what you desire or bargained with as if it were a business transaction.  It is completely natural to think of prayer as a tool to get what you want when you want it.  But prayer as God would define it or Scripture knows it is not at all natural but learned.  Jesus taught His disciples to pray.  John taught His disciples to pray.
Parents teach their children to pray.  We learn to pray by praying and we learn to pray by praying the prayers of those who teach us.

In that collect from a month or so ago we prayed, O Lord, let Your merciful ears be attentive to the prayers of Your servants, and by Your Word and Spirit teach us how to pray that our petitions may be pleasing before You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.  In that collect we asked God not simply to teach us to pray but to pray so that our petitions may be pleasing before Him.  We do not need much prompting to sound off on what is on our mind -- not to God or the whole world (as we do in social media).  But we do need prompting and instruction on how to pray for what pleases the Lord.  Part of praying is not only learning how to pray but what to pray for.

I continue to maintain that the ancient collects do exactly that -- they teach us how to pray AND what to pray for (that is pleasing to God).  I would urge the person hesitant in devotion to turn to the rich treasury of prayer in the great collects of old -- both those appointed for the liturgical year and those on topics or subjects common to the Christian in his or her daily life. 

You cannot go wrong by praying:  O God, the Protector of all who trust in You, without whom nothing is strong and nothing is holy, increase and multiply Your mercy on us that with You as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

It is not all in the hands. . .

Because I found it so interesting, I am reposting this material from the company's own website -- not to advertise on their behalf but to promote the magnificent work of master sculptors who have served the Church and the faithful for generations.  

The "Mussner G. Vincenzo" studio is located in Ortisei, the main village of the Val Gardena, nestled in the Dolomite Mountains of northeastern Italy. This small valley is known as "the valley of woodcarvers", because throughout the last four hundred years local people have earned their living making all kinds of carvings from wood. Religious art is an important category of this work, and it is in this field that the Mussner family has a long tradition. That tradition encompasses four generations of family members who have acquired an enviable reputation for creating and carving exquisite statues, crucifixes, stations of the cross and other items intended for use in churches.

Back in the year 1892, Giacomo Mussner (James Mussner), one of the well known and innovative master sculptors of the Val Gardena, founded a studio under the name of "GIACOMO MUSSNER, BILDHAUER". His eldest son Vincenzo, Sr. learned the sculpting art from master and professor Ludwig Moroder, as well as from his own father. As a result, in 1932 Vincenzo, Sr. took over the studio and changed the name in "MUSSNER GIAC. VINCENZO, SCULTORE".

In 1971, Vincenzo, Sr. retired, and his oldest son Vincenzo Giacomo, also a certified master sculptor, began running the studio, and managed it until recent years. Today, the shop is run by his elder son Gregor, another master sculptor, with assistance from Vincenzo. At present, and throughout recent decades, carved works which are to be colored are painted and gilded by Carlo Mussner, Vincenzo's younger brother and master artist in his field.  Many of their artistic creations can be found in the United States and in other countries.

All commissioned work of art begin life in discussions between artist and client, since it is essential that the sculptor know the client's desires, and the latter will want to consider the artist's ideas regarding presentation. The tentative plan which results from the consultation step is then translated into the tangible form of simple sketches, and also, in many cases, into a small scale clay model. The model is especially desirable, inasmuch as his three-dimensional character aids visualisation of the final piece, and the easy workable material facilitates incorporation of needed or requested modifications.

In the next step of process, the sculptor fabricates a blank of the appropriate shape and size by joining together planks of well seasoned and dried wood with good synthetic glues. The woods most used in our studio are linden and pine, but sometimes chestnut and walnut, which are much harder to work, are employed.

Transformation of the blank into the desired artistic work begins by roughly drawing the chosen figure on the wood, then using an axe or a chainsaw to remove large masses of waste wood, i.e., wood which will not be part of the sculpture itself. Next, the desired figure is formed and shaped, first using large gouges and a mallet, and then switching to smaller tools as the final shape is approached.
After the rough-hewn form of the sculpture has been achieved, the piece is inspected by an expert from the Chamber of Commerce, who inserts in the base a metal disk carrying the trade mark for entirely hand carved pieces. Later, when the piece is complete, an official will reinspect it and issue a certificate attesting to its completely hand carved nature. All of our sculptures are certified in this manner.

In the last phase of carving, small gouges guided by the expert hands of the artist are employed to smooth rough surfaces while producing the exact final form of the piece, and to incorporate fine details. This is the phase in which intensive schooling and training and long experience are most important, because good results depend solely upon the deft touch of the sculptor.

Once sculpting is complete, the work is transferred to the painter for finishing. Some pieces require a natural look, and they receive only a layer of wax or a light wood-tone dye. However, most sculptures for display in churches will be colored, using traditional oil colors and fine gold leaf.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The future is present. . .

In many and various ways I have described the great and grand mystery of the Eucharist when we are  made one not only with those around us (a miracle nonetheless) but united to those who have gone before and, even more, to God and His eternity.  We sing this in the canticle Worthy Is Christ when we sing of the Feast to Come even as we eat the foretaste and drink the cup of salvation.  I suppose there are some who think of this as picture language.  If it were only symbolic it would be awesome.  Like our visits to the great paintings of the masters in museums across the world, we could stand before the altar and marvel at the sight of it all.  But we are given more than a glimpse, we are given the taste of eternity.  We are given the crucified and risen Body of Christ as our food and the blood of Christ shed to cleanse us from all our sin as our drink.  Like the woman who begged for crumbs from the table or Lazarus who begged from the rich man or the man whose wounds were claimed as his own by the Good Samaritan, we are recipients of such great mercy from God that the unworthy and undeserving have a place at the Table, are given the food of the Kingdom to eat and drink, and in that eating and drinking to have our eyes opened to see and know the eternal future made present for us now.  How great is the mercy of God!

Sunday after Sunday this miracle unfolds before us and, sadly, we too often greet it with the shrug of the shoulders and the sigh of boredom.  Our lives are filled with the moment and so full of today that there is little room for tomorrow.  Our plates are already too full.  We hunger for nothing (except that which we need most of all!).  Every week the Word must remind us of this and call us to repentance before we meet the Lord where He has promised to be present. Every week the bell calls the faithful to come.  Every week the organ sounds the call to sing.  Every Sunday we are cleansed in confession and absolution to receive the peace of God and share it one to another.  Every Sunday the voice of the Good Shepherd speaks and we hear, recognize, and rejoice in its voice.  Every Sunday we are bidden come to the feast, the good and the bad, come and be glad.  Every Sunday we are enabled to respond with words and songs of praise and thanksgiving, with tithes and offerings thankfully and cheerfully brought, and with prayers raised in confidence that God will hear and answer with what is good, best, and salutary for His people.  It is the entrance of eternity right here into the moment. In this moment we discover that it is not full but empty and that only God can fill it – which He does.  He fills us and fills the moment with the future He has prepared and to which we have been called.

I was reminded of this by Pastor Gottfried Martens who addressed our convention last month.  In an address on joy and thanksgiving he told the story of those who had been in darkness but are now in the light in Christ and who called us to see and know this deep and profound presence.  The future is not simply ours in the future but is present here and now where Christ, the yesterday, today, and forever Lord, is.  This is the profound immediacy of the means of grace.  They actually convey what they symbolize and bestow what they sign.  They are not pictures but a real reality into which we are thrust by the God who takes mere mortals and fits them for eternity.   It is this we seek and this for which we pray as Scripture has said, may He who began this work within us bring it to completion on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Next time you sit in worship and look at your watch or visit your phone or are tempted to nap, remember this.  God is here, in this place, delivering to YOU His gifts sufficient for all your needs, within this Word of life and this bread which is His body and this cup which is His blood.  Next time you sigh in frustration because the hymn has many stanzas or the Scripture appointed for the day is long or the pastor’s sermon seems to drag, think of this.  The next time you are tempted to ditch worship for another activity, think about this.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Pastors who formed me. . .

While standing in the exhibit hall talking with an old friend and his family, it was mentioned that his wife was the granddaughter of Bill Wild.  Pastor William Wild was the Pastor of St. John German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Yonkers, NY, for many years.  He was bold and robust with an unmistakable German accent to his English.  He died at the age of 100, Thursday March 20, 2014, in New Britain. Born in Germany, Pastor Wild is a graduate of the Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield, Illinois, and served several congregations in New York, and St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in New Britain, CT, from 1963 to 1967.

It had been so many year since I thought about Bill Wild.  I well recall driving down to St. John when I was first elected to a position in the Atlantic District and installation had been farmed out across the District.  That year Bill Wild hosted the service.  He was a gregarious individual and filled with hospitality for those who had the occasion to visit.  I was there when he retired in 1999.  Perhaps there was nothing particularly notable about Bill or his long life except that he was a faithful pastor.  The congregation which I associate with him is no longer here.  The building dated to 1874 as St. John's German Evangelical Lutheran Church in a day when the German American community was robust and its demolition is one reflection that the remaining vestiges of this community are also now gone.

Howard J. Lincks was another such individual.  Pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church on State Street in Hudson, NY (now remodeled into an expensive home), Howard Lincks was never the pastor of a large parish nor was he ever associated with a very successful one (at least by the standards of size and money).  His legacy lies in being ordinary.  He was simply a good and faithful pastor.  I have in my office a gift he gave to me.  It is a Christus Rex, carved in Oberammergau, Germany, in the years shortly after WW II.  He was there and purchased the good sized crucifix and had it shipped to America.  I still have the wooden box with the custom stamps on the outside and the German straw on the inside.  It may have some value but it is precious to me as I enter and leave my office day and see it as a reminder it is all about Jesus Christ. I think of Howard almost every day.  I am glad to have thought about Bill again after so many years.

It reminds me that pastoral formation is not simply the domain of the Seminary or vicarage.  Pastors are being formed long after the hands are laid and a stole is placed on them.  This formation happens through people of influence.  Surprisingly, they are not always the large figures whose names are well remembered but individuals close to being forgotten as the days pass.  I think of people like Bill Wild and Howard Lincks.  The list could go on and on.  I am not the product of a seminary as much as I am the product of faithful pastors whose impact upon me shaped my understanding of the faith itself and who a pastor is and what he does.  I am still being impacted and shaped now close to 40 years after ordination day.  Nobody begins their life as a fully formed pastor no matter how many folks call him by that title.  So today as I recall Bill and Howard and think of the many others whose life and conversation have had profound effect upon me, I give thanks to God.  If you are a pastor like me, I pray God will give you many Bills and Howards to form you along the way also.