Monday, August 31, 2020

Lecture Halls or Churches. . .

CFW Walther once complained that the churches of America looked more like lecture halls than churches, places that appealed to a cerebral Christianity but not places where the people of God met before His Word and Supper.  If that was true long ago, it is still true.  Americans build our churches with a focus toward the stage at which the action takes place and provide comfortable seating complete with cup holders so that everyone can enjoy the show.  Though music is a big part of the typical Protestant service, most of it is warm up to the main event.  The sermon is still king although I am not sure you can call it a sermon in the way that term was once used.  These are more inspirational talks built upon a tidbit of Scripture stolen from its context and used to encourage the people to believe that cares for them and wants them to be happy, healthy, and have all the things they desire.  Though the seats were once laid out in grand stadium style, COVID 19 has moved us to the galleries of home, complete with lounging furniture, watching it all unfold on the screen.

I am not sure I like pews.  Oh, I get why we have them.  The service is long and not only the elderly need to have time to sit.  But I am not sure that pews have helped what happens in the worship services of God's House.  In many churches the seats are placed so close together that it is impossible to kneel and hard to stand and difficult to pass by someone already seated there.  When seats are too comfortable we are moved to spectate more than participate and when seats restrain us we feel even more distant from what happens in the Divine Service. 

Pews tend to be latecomers to the design of a church.  Seating, when there was seating, was in the form of spare benches.  Although some might suggest that seats evolved for comfort, I wonder if that is true.  When we visited Colonial Williamsburg and the Bruton parish church, we were reminded that seats were for the wealthy, bought and paid for or rented out.  Both the seat and the placement of the seat were as much about prominence as comfort.  The Jews knew nothing of seats in the Tabernacle courts or in the Temple itself -- although every synagogue you see today is arranged just like every Protestant church.  I read somewhere that pews did not start showing up in force until 1100 or thereafter.  And, if I recall, these were choir stalls or seats where monks prayed the daily offices.  Now we have largely given up pews for individual seats and for many, theater style seating, because worship has move from being a lecture hall to an entertainment venue, further reinforcing the idea that you are here to watch others do things for you.  Sizes have grown possible as technology allows us to throw our voices and project our images so that everyone has a good view.  As true as this is for non-liturgical churches, it has become the single most important architectural criterion for sacramental churches as well -- a good line of sight to the action up front and a clear path for the sound.

I am not suggesting that pews be abandoned.  I am only observing that we need to take care with the seats so that they assist the Divine Service and do not impede it.  We do not want to be too comfortable and we should not be too restricted to prevent the liturgical calisthenics of standing, kneeling, sitting, and proceeding to the rail for the communion.  It should be less about how many folks we can pack into each square foot of space but how well the entire space works to fulfill its purpose.  Perhaps COVID 19 has reminded us that a little distance can be a helpful thing although I would hate to design our churches to accommodate a pandemic.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Comments on a comment. . .

In comments on a previous post, an anonymous contributor has added the following quotes:

“There is much false emotionalism in Lutheran circles over receiving Communion. It is seen as greater and more powerful than the Word preached, taught, read, and trusted – perhaps because it involves our actions and looks more impressive than just listening to and living in God’s Word. But the act of receiving the Supper can easily become a cursed work of the Law, if preaching does not preserve it, so it is administered correctly. The bare act of physically receiving the elements does not make one a Christian or grant faith – quite the opposite – it requires (besides faith) self-examination and some knowledge of Christ to benefit from this specific gift of forgiveness, whereas Baptism does not (See 1 Cor. 10-11).

“So no one needs Communion, nor is it necessary in any scriptural sense. To make it required, is to impose a law upon the Gospel. Even the idea of weekly Communion can be an idol – a legal mandate and cursed law. The forgiveness of sins must be free, it cannot be compelled or shoved down anyone’s throat. Communion by itself, without faith, does not help, instead it harms. But the push in high church circles to commune very young children, without full instruction, and even infants in some cases, is somewhat parallel to virtual attempts at communing in separate meals, while pretending to be together by linked computers. Both sides miss the point of the Supper: to promote faith in those who already believe – it is not for everyone and it is certainly not the center of our religion – Christ has not limited His help to a meal. Forgiveness is not limited to the Supper. It can always be desired, but it does not have to be received at every instant for you to have comfort.”

It is the classic case of the straw man.  Who is saying what is being attacked?  Where has anyone said that receiving Communion is greater and more powerful than the Word preached, taught, read, and trusted?  Who says that?  Where have I ever said that?  I have never read any Lutheran who said that. 

And then there is a solemn warning:  the act of receiving the Supper can easily become a cursed work of the Law. . .  Well, of course.  Is not that one of the core issues of the Reformation?  To whom is this warning directed?  Toward people like me who suggest that there is something wrong with a holding to a Confession in principle without holding to it in practice?  I have never heard or read of any Lutheran who would disagree with the warning but the warning is placed against whom?

The idea of weekly Communion is thrown around as if the witness of the Augustana does not suggest that this is, indeed, the norm of those who hold to this Confession.  Does the comment mean to suggest that when we had quarterly observances of the Holy Sacrament we were more Lutheran than when offered the Sacrament more frequently?  Remember here that this is about offering Holy Communion and not about receiving it.  Reception does, indeed, depend upon the communicant being examined, absolved, and desiring to receive what the Sacrament offers -- faith!  I do not know of anyone who inveighs against those who do not receive the Sacrament weekly.  I do know of many, including myself, who suggest that offering the Sacrament less than weekly is not in keeping with the Augustana.

So no one needs Communion, nor is it necessary in any scriptural sense.  I am not at all sure what to do with such a statement and I am having trouble with the idea that a Lutheran wrote it.  Of course the Sacrament is necessary.  Not because we make it so but because Christ has bequeathed this wonderful Sacrament to His Church, attached Himself to the bread and wine set apart by His very Word in according with His own testament and command, and delivers through this means the forgiveness of sins (and where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation).  No, the Lord does not mandate how often we must receive but, as Luther suggested, regular reception is expected if we value and esteem the Lord, the Word, and His promises. 

The forgiveness of sins must be free, it cannot be compelled or shoved down anyone’s throat.  Again, where is this a problem?  Christ has not limited His help to a meal. Forgiveness is not limited to the Supper. It can always be desired, but it does not have to be received at every instant for you to have comfort.  Of course, forgiveness is not limited to the Supper.  Who says that?  But forgiveness IS promised in the Supper.  And the Supper is commanded.  So what is the problem?  God has bound Himself to the sacraments, but He is not bound by the sacraments.  Of course, we Lutherans not only admit this, we believe it wholeheartedly.  Because it is the truth.  Yes, we have the Word and the Word does not lack for anything nor ever fail to do what it says.  But we have not only the Word.  We have absolution.  It is not an extra but part of the very essential gift Christ has given to His Church.  We also have baptism which neither competes with the Word nor fills in what it lacks.  Baptism is not some little added extra but Christ's essential gift to His Church.  Holy Communion is not some little added extra we attach to the Word now and then but lives in complement to the Word as Christ intended.  We are fools for trying to pick and choose or to dissect why Christ has given so much.  Do we begrudge Him His generosity?  We must stop talking like this.

Yes, we have to address issues like infant communion and the temptation to set a pecking order for the means of grace.  But not by setting up straw men.  And not by demeaning anything Christ has given or commanded. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Fashionistas. . .

I suppose most pastors get emails from vestment tailors offering masks in the color of the season, complete with gold crosses.  At home a direct mail vendor wanted me to order masks with my monogram on them, in fine black with gold fleur de lis!  How impressive.  But I will not get them.  And it is not because I am cheap.  Which I am.  It is because I refuse to make a fashion statement out of a mask or to turn something which is supposed to be a piece of medical equipment into a fashion accessory.  If we are wearing a mask because it is medically necessary or even just hopefully helpful, wear the mask, by all means.  But don't make it out to be another fashion statement like the clothing you wear.  I will resist it to my death -- literally!

I don't like confusing one reality with another.  I do not think we are helping anyone by suggesting that church is fun, that it is entertaining, or that it is relevant.  Those are other things, as valuable as they might be, whose purpose and end is different from worship.  Confusing one purpose with another will only come back to haunt us.  I do not think it helps stewardship to promote the idea that God will restore what you give more than the amount you gave.  Tithes and offerings are not given to get something in return.  Don't confuse the two by speaking of what God gives and what we give in the same breath.  It will only come back to bite you in the kiester.  

I also don't like making things into commands and then attaching love to them.  As a meme once put it, "First we wore masks because they might help, then we wore them or granny would die, then we wore them or we would die, and now we wear them because we love Jesus."  These directives, however good they might be, are not made stronger or helped by the idea that if we really loved Jesus or our neighbors we would wear masks.  Hogwash.  It only confuses people and confounds them and in the end it will make them angry.  If you really loved Jesus you would stay at home, wash your hands, sanitize, distance, and wear a mask.  Jesus never mentioned wearing masks or any of these other things we have come to deem as good practice in the age of COVID.  Don't put words in Jesus' mouth and, for Pete's sake, don't ever wear a mask with the letters WWJD on it (what would Jesus do, for you slow ones).

One more thing.  Don't send me daily emails on how you are dealing with the COVID crisis at Wal-Mart or Walgreens or the dentist's office or the doctor's office or the gas station down the block.  Do what you think should be done and leave it at that.  I am not impressed by your extra attention to things you should already be doing and I will not shop there because I want to reward your conscientious campaign of information telling me I can shop there and be sake.  Especially when there are governments still telling me that I can protest and riot safely but not go to Church without putting myself and my fellow man at grave risk.  Hogwash.

If you are going to make mask wearing into a fashion statement, for goodness' sake you better be prepared to keep on wearing it long after COVID's danger passes.  If it is not tied to best medical practice, then why are we doing it?  If we are doing it because it is good medical practice, why make it into something it is not.  We cannot allow or encourage masks to be taken in any other way except extreme practice for short term.  Once we normalize them, we will begin bringing in a whole host of things who are against the very idea of being together in the Lord's House.

So you caught me on a bad day.  Sorry about that.  But I am tired of the goofy stuff we do to get us do what ought not to be goofy at all.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The tool is tainted. . .

As schools figure out what to do, it appears that everywhere online instruction is the primary or only back plan (and for some is already the only plan) for educating our children.  It is sort of like those who did not feel the pinch of not gathering for worship because they believe technology and virtual gatherings are a fit and even equal substitute for the assembly of the faithful.  We are so wedded to our screens and our technology that we presume these are always an equal and fit substitute for the things that once required physical presence.  From churches to schools, we are, it would seem, relatively resigned or impressed with what happens via our virtual connections.  But I am not so sure.

I fear the very tool we use for these digital equivalents is a tainted one, so married to other pursuits that it does not move seamlessly into an instructive and worshipful usage.  After all, the screens on which we pin our hopes for education and worship are not primarily or even secondarily associated with or used for these purposes.  So the tool on which we are resting the educational future of our children and the future of religious life is not simply the same screen on which our children and families play video games, share photos, watch shows, check Instagram, send text messages, order food, get directions, and tweet.  No, it is used exclusively for these.  At least until COVID 19.

We expect our children to understand the difference.  We are pinning their future on their ability to distinguish the screen on which they study, read, write, watch educational films, communicate with their teachers, do homework, take tests, and everything else associated with their school work from their use of screens for pleasure, entertainment, social media, and as a distraction from boredom.  Is this realistic?  And is it realistic for the families to do exactly the same thing in distinguishing their screen usage for worship from its usage for everything else?

Our parish has a Vimeo account and has used Facebook throughout the pandemic and still.  But we saw the soft underbelly of such dependence upon technology.  The folks accustomed to fast forwarding, skipping parts, and moving on to something else are doing exactly the same things when they watch the Divine Service.  Only about 1 in 4 actually watch it through to the end.  If this happens in the religious usage of technology, how do we expect our students not to do the same things when it comes to the online education which is either the only back up or already the exclusive method of educating them?

Folks sitting in church for the Divine Service surely have wandering minds and are distracted but they cannot fast forward or skip parts and they have the pulse of the liturgy and the live voice from the pulpit pulling them back from their isolation.  Children sitting in classrooms are distracted in the same way by a thousand things but they have the setting around them and the voice of their teacher constantly pulling them back to what is happening around them.  Technology offers nothing of this and is at the beck and call of the person on the mouse, keyboard, and screen. 

Further, education has become less the imparting of information and knowledge but the deference to the student not only to decide what he or she thinks of this but what they believe is true, relevant, and valuable to them AND they are put in the positions of being the interpreter of all the information.  This is a position for which children are accustomed when it comes to play, pleasure, and communication but not when it comes to facts of history, the rules of grammar, the means of solving mathematical problems, or the discovery of information in areas from biology to civics.  Yet we have thrust them into that drivers' seat and pinned our hopes on their success at learning via technology the way they learn in the classroom.  In the same way, we have taken people out of the Divine Service and placed them into roles where they direct, define, and decide what is true, relevant, and valuable to them as they watch the worship services of God's House.  In both cases they are not participants but spectators.  That is what makes the whole idea that online is a fit and equal substitute for in person settings so questionable.

Worse, we will not realize the damage done until a year or more has passed.  And churches remain empty and classrooms give way to a feed on their device.  God help us! 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Behind enemy lines. . .

Those who think the Church weak or passive and God a toothless lion often forget one fact.  The Lord has built His Church upon ground that is claimed by Satan.  He has established His Church not in some safe neighborhood where children play and parents snooze.  No, indeed, our Lord has placed His Church behind enemy lines and everyday the Church militant fights against the devil and all his minions, against the world and its own instinctive rejection of God and His reign, and even our own sinful hearts and their default distrust of God.  For too long we have assumed something that is not true -- that the Church lives in some family friendly suburban setting in which success and growth are pretty much guaranteed.  For too long we have presumed that marketing strategies and the effective use of media and technology and the careful echoing of cultural trends will keep us ahead of the game.  There is no game.  But there is a fight and we cannot allow ourselves to be complacent or lazy.  Nothing less than faithfulness will suffice.

Every pastor is on the front lines of this battle.  Every parish, no matter what their mailing address, faces the enemy who is wounded by dangerous, intent upon reclaiming his domain.  That does not mean we are weak or without weapons.  But our strength is not the might of man and our weapons are not the weapons of an earthly battlefield.  Our strength is the Lord and our weapons are His Word and Spirit.  We are not the generals in war rooms trying out strategies or imagining how battles will go.  We are all of us foot soldiers doing the Lord's bidding where we are.  We are singles struggling to remain faithful to the Lord against so many and so great temptations.  We are the married whose fidelity is daily tested by the desires within and the opportunities without.  We are parents who not only raise our children well but teach them to know the Lord's name and favor as the ground of their very existence.  We are the church members who wrestle against skipping the Divine Service, with keeping focused in prayer, and learning to know God's Word.

Sometimes things are obvious.  Governments who shut us down while allowing essential functions to continue.  Outrageous attempts to silence our voice from the public square.  Pressure from alternative genders and orientations to accept them against God's Word.  But most things are not so obvious.  Doctrine's worst enemies sneak in the back door instead of confronting truth head one.  Piety borrowed from secular sentiment.  Music that seems indistinguishable from the rhythm and beat of popular music.  Reality which becomes virtual and technology that substitutes for the Word preached into the ear and the knee bowed down before the Altar of the Lord.  You know what I mean.

The point here is not that God needs us or that His Kingdom depends only on us or that His divine enterprise will fail.  No, we have no such power to cripple God's Church.  But we will be lost to the Kingdom and with us, those whose lives we are responsible for, if we become complacent to the battle or lazy before the call to faithfulness.  We are in as much danger for thinking there is no battle as we from thinking the battle is up to us to win.  God's promise is clear.  The gates of hell will not prevail.  But it may be lost to us if we choose feelings over truth and sentiment over the means of grace and the voice of culture over God's Word.  COVID 19 is not the worst that could befall the Church but it could be an opportune wake up call for a Church unsure how essential she is and for a Christianity that has grown fat, lazy, and bored with who she is and what God has given her to do.

The prescription for the Church is faithfulness, taking seriously the Gospel and trusting in the means of grace.  There is nothing less that God deserves, that God expects, and that we owe ourselves as God's children.  That is about all there is to say.   Unfortunately, there are those who find the military imagery offensive.  They would believe that love is defined best by tolerance, acceptance, and affirmation -- that the best and only course left open to the Church is to offer a pale echo of whatever the world thinks, says, and does.  But the love that won us over is strong and powerful.  The Savior who marched through hell before ascending to His place at the right hand of the Father has power to forgive the sins of the worst sinner, to fulfill all His promises, and to deliver His people to the place He has prepared. May the Lord grant us such confidence in His saving will and purpose that we may not fear but rejoice, even in the day of trial.  For the Lord who began this good work in us will bring it to completion on the day of His coming.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020


Although I will admit that in the beginning I was enamored of the options presented by the fruits of the ILCW work, the ever present or has outstayed its welcome.  Now, as I look back, the choices were most beneficial to students of the liturgy who understood why one Hymn of Praise might be used one time and the other Hymn of Praise at another time.  Likewise the choices for Offertory and Post-Communion canticle, among other things.  I am not sure that much of the rationale for the choices is known to the people in the pew any more than I am confident anyone notices or can explain the omission of the Hymn of Praise during Advent and Lent.  Options work best when the people using them (note I did not say choosing them) understand the significance of the choice.

It occurs to me that most options in the past, except for the omission of the Gloria in Excelsis, for example, were tied to the pericopes.  The ordinary seemed less ordinary when the pericopes included such things as the Offertory and the Post-Communion Collect.  When Lutherans made the Post Communion collect less seasonal and more ordinary, a few things suffered in retrospect.  First of all, it was left to the pastors to choose and those choosing had likely no driving criteria than personal preference and brevity.  In fact, I was told long ago by one such pastor that his choice of options was driven by the length of the readings -- not by their content.  Second, the pastor often did not choose at all but simply used the first choice on the page.  So when more options presented the pastor with more choices, often the choice was made without rhyme or reason but simply on the basis of personal taste or brevity or placement on the page.

While the initial result of more options meant that each congregation had a more local approach to the choices for the liturgy, it also heralded the day when choices were made that were not exactly included among the options presented to the planner.  So any hymn may suffice as a worthy choice to replace any of the parts of the ordinary or something other than a hymn.  In one parish bulletin I saw that the Hymn of Praise for the Day of Pentecost was a soloist singing "On the Wings of a Snow, White Dove."  I did not even know Ferlin Husky was Lutheran!  In the end, it was no longer about options within the liturgy but the liturgy itself became optional.  Every pastor did what was right in his own eyes and you know the rest of that story (among Lutherans, anyway, but not exclusively!).

It is not that I do not avail myself of the options available.  I do.  I do it judiciously and do not change it up week after week.  Set forms have value in and of themselves both for comfort and instruction.  Repetition is somehow worse when it happens on Sunday morning than when it happens elsewhere.  Surely no one wants to order a Big Mac and find a Filet'o'Fish hiding under the bun!  Consistency means we know what to expect.  When optionitis takes over, nobody knows what is coming.  While that might work well for a theme park with its thrill rides, it defeats the purpose of the Divine Service and robs the liturgy of part of its gift -- regularlity!

In an effort to control the spread of optionitis the rubrics serve as a sort of fence on the spontaneous creativity of the liturgical planner.  That is, if the planner knows and pays attention to the rubrics.  (Read my post on Rubrics and the Red Thread.)  The genie is out of the bottle and it is impossible not only to rein in the option hungry spirit and make new every Sunday what was valued most for its consistency, it is impossible to restrain the creative spirit from borrowing anything from anyone -- until no one really knows what a Lutheran church looks like on Sunday morning.

Just a rant for me to begin my day.  God bless you and for God's sake put the brakes on change for the sake of change!

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Boldest Confession of Christ


Sermon for Pentecost 13, Proper 16A, preached on Sunday, August 23, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

We’re called to give a bold confession of faith.  Earlier in this season after Pentecost we heard Jesus say, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:32-33).   At all times, we’re to confess our Lord, to proclaim His name.  And it seems like today we need this more than ever.  People need Jesus, and we, the Church, we’re the only ones who can share Him with them.  We’re the only ones who can boldly proclaim Him to be the Savior: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  We do this with our words, and we do it with our actions. 

                We heard Peter’s great confession.  Halfway through Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  (Matt 16:13).  Who do people say the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ is?  The disciples gave the popular opinions. 

Some believed Him to be John the Baptist, the one who first came on the scene proclaiming the kingdom of heaven was at hand.  But John couldn’t be the Son of Man because John denied this.  Without any reservation John confessed, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20).  Others thought that the Son of Man would be the return of one of the great prophets, like Elijah or Jeremiah.  God’s Word did promise the arrival of a prophet before the coming of the Lord.  At that time, just like today, there were many ideas about Savior. 

Hearing these opinions of others, Jesus then directly asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15).  And then comes Peter’s great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). 

Peter often gets a bad rap for opening his mouth when he should keep it closed and keeping his mouth closed when he should open it; but here he’s right.  Peter opens his mouth and he speaks a bold confession.  He speaks a confession that was given to him, revealed by God.  Seeing all the miracles Jesus’ had performed, all the healings, the miraculous feedings, the walking on water and calming the storm; hearing everything Jesus was teaching and saying, through all of it, God was revealing Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the one who was foretold and prophesied, the promised Savior who’d save His people.  This was Peter’s Spirit filled confession, and this is our confession.

We too confess Jesus to be Lord.  We confess Him to be the very Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary.  We confess Him to be the Savior of the world, saving us from sin, death, and the devil.  We confess His work of salvation, His suffering under Pontius Pilate, His dying on the cross, His burial in the tomb, and His resurrection three days later.  We confess Him to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, giving us everlasting life through His Word of promise, through His washing of Baptism, and through His Holy Supper.  We confess all of this by Spirit given faith.  We confess it with the words of the creeds.  We confess it to our children as we raise them in the faith.  We confess it as we talk about our faith with family and friends, with neighbors and co-workers.  We confess it when we seek forgiveness.  And we confess it when we forgive.  Forgiveness is the boldest confession of Christ!

                Peter boldly confessed Jesus as the Christ, the very Son of God.  This was a great confession, and we follow in the same.  But we can’t stop there.  Notice Jesus’ response.  He blessed Peter and promised that on that confession He would build His never-ending Church.  But then He gave Peter and the rest of the disciples a responsibility.  Because of that confession, because they knew the truth of Christ’s identity, they now had the holy obligation and blessing of speaking Christ’s forgiveness. 

Jesus gave Peter and the rest of His apostles the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  He told them whatever they bound on earth it would be bound heaven and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven.  With similar words He spoke on Easter night, telling His disciples to forgive repentant sinners.  This forgiveness is the direct result of who Jesus is.  If Jesus wasn’t the Christ, if He didn’t die on the cross to pay the penalty of your sin, if He didn’t shed His blood to cleanse you of your sins, then there’d be no forgiveness.  But because that’s exactly what He did, because that’s who He is, the Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, there is forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the boldest confession of Christ. 

Every Sunday, when you come into the Lord’s house and kneel with humility, seeking God’s forgiveness, confessing all your sins in thought, word, and deed, by what you’ve done and by what you’ve left undone, you’re making a bold confession.  When you hear the words of Absolution spoken by the pastor, those words that say, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” as you hear those words and trust in them, you’re making a bold confession.  When you confess your sins to somebody you’ve sinned against, seeking their forgiveness, you’re making a bold confession.  And whenever you forgive another person, sharing the forgiveness Christ won on the cross, again, you’re making a bold.  Forgiveness is a bold confession of Christ because that’s why He died on the cross, so that you’d be forgiven, so that you’d be saved. 

With faith Peter confessed Jesus’ identity, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  This was a bold confession.  But even bolder than that was the confession Peter gave as he forgave repentant sinners.  And we do the same.  FORGIVENESS IS A BOLD CONFESSION OF CHRIST.  Every time we kneel in humility, confessing our sins, seeking Christ’s forgiveness, we boldly proclaim Him to be our Savior.  Every time we forgive others who’ve sinned against us, we boldly proclaim Him to be the Savior.  There can only be forgiveness because of Christ’s death and resurrection.  We forgive because we’ve been forgiven.  This is a bold confession of Christ.  So boldly confess.  Seek God’s forgiveness in Christ, and freely forgive, as you’ve been forgiven.  Confess with Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Who are we talking about?

A while ago (I have a large stack of unread mail) Christian News published a piece by the Rev. Paul Harris on Lutherans Going East (June 6, 2020).  The editor of CN introduced the item with these words:
Many Lutheran laymen and pastors are fascinated by Eastern Orthodoxy, and the stories of Lutherans “going East” are abundant. They have a type of conservatism, a venerable stability, a great respect for tradition, and a conservative moral mindset. But the real draw is to leave the incessant, tedious doctrinal divisions of the West for the liturgical-based theology of the Eastern church.
I contend that some high church, conservative-appearing Lutherans are basically Eastern in thinking already (evidenced by the fascination with infant communion and the blind devotion and adoration of optional liturgical forms), so to fully commit is not a huge leap. This new school of confessionally-minded Lutherans eschews doctrinal clarity and precision for liturgical niceties and describes adiaphora (external things things neither commanded, nor forbidden by God in Scripture) in mystical, absolute terms. Actions and tradition take precedent naturally over Scripture’s teaching of grace and justification by the Gospel, to these new-age Lutherans—doing and seeing replaces speaking and hearing.
The first paragraph is, in my view, a good assessment of the attraction to Orthodoxy.  It is deep in history and appears, at least, to be mostly unaffected by the doctrinal divisions that have plagued the West.  Though I am not sure that this last statement is true.  Some of the folks who have headed East have found that this is not only a tradition with distinct and deeply entrenched cultural and ethnic divisions but also doctrinally somewhat divided.  There were those not too long ago who suggested such eloquent voices for Orthodoxy like Ware, Schmemann and Meyendorff and even, perhaps, the whole school of St. Valdimir's represented a different Orthodoxy.  But not being Orthodox (Eastern, anyway) I cannot attest to the claim.  The point only that the appearance of a united doctrinal communion and its actuality are, as we all know, not quite the same thing.

Indeed, Lutheran suffers from nitpickers and individuals who insist that Synods, theologians, and even Confessions are not all that important and should not be weighted with much authority and that only Scripture alone can convince.  I think this is a foolish overstatement.  Of course it matters what the Synod says, what its teaches and our Lutheran forbearers taught, and the Confessions say.  Why else be Lutheran?  But it is also true that the decisive authority is reserved for Scripture alone.  Though here, it would take an idiot to suggest that Scripture is so convincing that every doctrinal argument and dogmatic controversy can be settled in a church body by saying Thus saith the Lord.  Would that it would be so but it is not.  It is not for Lutheranism in general and it is not for the Missouri Synod.  It is not a failing of the Word but our failing as sinful people.

But the second paragraph refers to things that have no real basis in fact.  Yes, there are individuals who have left Missouri, indeed, Lutheranism!  I would be curious to know how they could be classed together as a unified or homogeneous bunch as to have the character of a group.  I know one who is Orthodox but uses a Western Rite and others who have not been ordained and others who have left their new home in search of still greener pastures and others who have found a home in and are happy having swum the Bosporus.  I do think that those who left shared a seriousness with regard to worship, a deep sensitivity to the lex orandi lex credendi expectation, a fear that the claim of Augustana to be catholic in doctrine and practice has given way to a Lutheranism as a brand of theology and liturgy, and a longing for unanimity and unity through time and geography.  Only a fool would suggest that you can find such an idealized identity in WELS, ELS, or LCMS and I would suggest that it cannot be found in Rome or Constantinople either.

The part I believe is anecdotal and not accurately reflective of reality is this:  This new school of confessionally-minded Lutherans eschews doctrinal clarity and precision for liturgical niceties and describes adiaphora . . .in mystical, absolute terms. Actions and tradition take precedent naturally over Scripture’s teaching of grace and justification by the Gospel, to these new-age Lutherans—doing and seeing replaces speaking and hearing.  I find it not credible to suggest that there is such a school much less to substantiate the charge that this school prefers doctrinal ambiguity over liturgical uniformity.  Every confessionally minded and liturgical concerned person I know in Synod is adamant about the desire for and the very need for doctrinal clarity with liturgical integrity.  After all, this is the day in which worship where anything goes and solemnity live side by side in Missouri, when some Missourians are having virtual communion while others are maintaining the fullness of the Divine Service, and some Missourians are advocating methodologies of church growth that fly in the face of our Confessions while others insist that nothing less than the full confessional identity will help us grow at all.

The main article by Harris is something else and needs its own treatment by someone much more familiar with and able to compare Rome and Constantinople but the introduction to this article in CN is worth its own harder look to see if the charge made can stick.  The last line of the intro is worth its own judgment and I would ask you to weigh in:  Fort Wayne seminary graduates, even some of my own classmates, having not been grounded on the entire body of Lutheran orthodoxy have been especially susceptible to the kinder, gentler heretical “orthodoxy” of Easternism. If what the editor says of the seminary failing to ground those studying to be pastors in the entire body of Lutheran orthodoxy is true of Ft. Wayne, then it is even more true of St. Louis.  And this is where I say I do not see it.  I do not believe it.  It has not been my experience -- either with the pastors who have been formed by the Seminary over the years and the faculty, many of which I count as long-time friends.  No seminary is perfect and no candidate is as fully prepared as they might be and it is impossible to ascertain from even three years of academic training and one year of vicarage whether or if someone will drift away from the pledges made at ordination.  But I say it is an unfair and unsubstantiated charge against one of the most faithful institutions and learning communities of the Synod!

Monday, August 24, 2020

A note from your pastor. . .

Social media can be remarkably unsocial.  But then we all know that.  On the other hand, social media can communicate things we may not want to communicate to people we may not want to know what it is we are thinking, saying, or doing.

For example.  As a pastor I read the rants and raves of my people when they sound off on social media.  As enlightening as the content of the posts may be, the language used can also be revealing. 

Or when people tell me that they have been sticking close to home, what with the COVID 19 stuff and all, and then post their pictures of vacations or weekends away or block parties.  It appears that their isolation is tilted more toward staying away from church than it is other people and places.

Or when people who have not bothered to tell me that they are leaving the church are posting pictures of their baptism by immersion in another church and their public rejection of their baptism as an infant.

Or when people announce on social media that they are newly single or they got married by a justice of the peace at some destination wedding venue or they are moving out of the area or making some other significant change in their family status that they have not bothered to tell their pastors or their church about first.

Or when someone is having a crisis of faith and, instead of asking their pastor for counsel, they appeal to their social media friends to tell them what they ought to believe or what they ought to do or which church they ought to join.

Social media is not the appropriate place to unburden yourself of secrets or to announce in public the things that should be first communicated in private.  It is not a replacement for a phone call or personal conversation.  If you want spiritual advice, why not call the guy God has given you to help you make wise and faithful spiritual choices?

My frustration is that the assumption is made that announcing something on Facebook is the same as picking up the phone and telling your pastor.  Too often, the church and the pastor is the last to know, usually having been informed by somebodies Facebook friend who tells the pastor or church office something they thought they already knew.

People tell me all the time that the Church is not the kind of family it ought to be and then avoid dealing with the family when family issues and circumstances are involved.  Every now and then somebody will complain that the Church was not there for them when they went through this or that.  What they generally mean is that their pastor was not there for them.  I wish I could read minds or look into a crystal ball and figure out what is going on in the lives of the people in my care but the reality is that I depend upon them telling me what is happening.  Every pastor depends upon the people telling them.  It is not necessarily personal to me or to my congregation but a problem we have with communicating needful information to help their pastor serve them better.  So consider this a plea to pick up a phone and tell us what is going on so that we can help you work through it.  We pastors are not like your school principal and when  you visit the pastor you are not being called to the principal's office.  This is most often not about anything near discipline but it is about the shepherd caring for his sheep and the sheep receiving the faithful care of their shepherd.  Help your shepherd serve you and you will find the flock more comfortable and the shepherd's care more than helpful.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The god within. . .

There is much talk among the spiritual but not religious crowd about the "god within.” While I am sure it is the pleasant talk of people who like to talk the happy talk of feel good religion, it is not without its influence upon Lutherans.  Although the goal is to ennoble man, it does nothing of the kind.  In fact, instead of making man bigger, it does just the opposite.  It makes God small, ordinary, and rather cheap.  Of course, Scripture does speak of Christ within us and this is not something which is meant to appeal either to our feelings or to our dignity but to the profound work of God in making and keeping us His own. 

Certainly some Lutherans have spoken more than others on our baptismal union with Christ, however, this is not a subject we should avoid and one which ought to be more central to our thought and life as God's own.  God is no external force upon us but, in baptism, God works within us by the power of His Spirit.  God is not like a helper who comes to our aid every now and then when we need Him or call upon Him.  God works within us.  Who we are and what we do as the children of God is always in union with Christ. 

So, as St. Paul reminds, we can take no credit.  Our works are are not ours but the works of our common life -- our live with Christ and in Christ.  This goes so far as our prayers.  When we pray, it is not we who pray but the Spirit who teaches us to pray and who lifts those prayers to the Lord and gives us the courage and confidence to add our Amen to those prayers.  As St. Paul so often reminds us, the good we do is Christ doing good in us and through us.  Christ in you, the hope of glory, is the mystery once hidden and now revealed.  Again, St. Paul, our salvation is worked out with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

As important as this is, it is not what is meant by the god within.  This phrase deifies the flesh and will and humanizes the divine in what is a false characterization both of Scripture and of the truth of Scripture lived out in us.  Like the sects who would describe God as once what we are and we someday as God is or who treat Christ as one of many sons of God, we need to be careful about how we banter about terms that may have an orthodox meaning and a false one.  Our union with Christ is not accomplished by the power of our will or the force of our desire but God's act alone working through the means of grace.  In baptism, we are joined with Christ, crucified with Him and raised in Him, and in the Eucharist Christ abides in us and we in Him in the koinonia of His flesh and blood.

We should not minimize the good for the sake of being wary of the bad.  Our people deserve to know the full counsel of God's Word while being warned about what conflicts with Scripture.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Not the Psalms. . .

Not having any familiarity with The Message translation by Eugene Peterson, I was quite surprised when a parishioner dropped off a Sunday bulletin from another Lutheran parish and the Psalmody was drawn from The Message.  I found it more than strange and actually quite peculiar.  Although I am more in favor of timeless translations of Scripture and the liturgy, this is very timely, almost captive to a particular moment in time.  I am not sure of its shelf life but I suppose it might speak to those who love the lingo of this second.

The Psalm was 91 and it read, in part, like this:

You who sit down in the High God’s presence,
    spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow,
Say this: “God, you’re my refuge.
    I trust in you and I’m safe!”
That’s right—he rescues you from hidden traps,
    shields you from deadly hazards.
His huge outstretched arms protect you—
    under them you’re perfectly safe;
    his arms fend off all harm.
Fear nothing—not wild wolves in the night,
    not flying arrows in the day,
Not disease that prowls through the darkness,
    not disaster that erupts at high noon.
Even though others succumb all around,
    drop like flies right and left,
    no harm will even graze you.
You’ll stand untouched, watch it all from a distance,
    watch the wicked turn into corpses.

Well, at first this did not seem so radical.  I did not drop like a fly but figured it might be serviceable enough.  But then I looked at more examples.  Why not hit up the big one first?  The 23rd Psalm:
God, my shepherd!
    I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
    you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
    you let me catch my breath
    and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through
    Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
    when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
    makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
    right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
    my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
    every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
    for the rest of my life.

Hmmm.  You let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction.  Well, it seems close enough but it hardly seems like something that a family would want me to say at a funeral or standing at the cemetery before a hole in the ground.

Then I was perusing the Psalms only to hit Psalm 8.  Now there is a Psalm for the 21st century.
God, brilliant Lord,
    yours is a household name.
Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you;
    toddlers shout the songs
That drown out enemy talk,
    and silence atheist babble.
3-4 I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
    your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
    Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
    Why take a second look our way?
5-8 Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods,
    bright with Eden’s dawn light.
You put us in charge of your handcrafted world,
    repeated to us your Genesis-charge,
Made us lords of sheep and cattle,
    even animals out in the wild,
Birds flying and fish swimming,
    whales singing in the ocean deeps.
God, brilliant Lord,
    your name echoes around the world.

Macro skies and micro self.   Hmmmmm.  Your handmade sky jewelry.   More Hmmmmmms.  And then Yet we've so narrowly missed being gods, bright with Eden's dawn light.  Wow.  I can see it theologically but philologically, well, not so much.  It seems to require unpacking more than the original.  I am not sure what benefit there is in a translation that begs to be explained more than it explains.  

Then there is the Lutheran Psalm, 51, and, well, you tell me:
Generous in love—God, give grace!
    Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.
Scrub away my guilt,
    soak out my sins in your laundry.
I know how bad I’ve been;
    my sins are staring me down.
 Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
    scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
    set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes,
    give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me,
    shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
    or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile,
    put a fresh wind in my sails!
Give me a job teaching rebels your ways
    so the lost can find their way home.
Commute my death sentence, God, my salvation God,
    and I’ll sing anthems to your life-giving ways.
Unbutton my lips, dear God;
    I’ll let loose with your praise.

Well, I could say more but suffice it to say that I will not let loose with praise for this version.  And I have only hit on a few Psalms -- much less the familiar Lutheran proof texts of the Catechism or the passages almost word for word from Scripture in the liturgy!!