Thursday, May 13, 2021

The forbidden. . .

While reading an article on French sociologist Michel Foucault (d. 1984), the author reported on this poignant observation.  In the mid-1970s, Foucault noted the significant shift in modernity in which death is no longer either public or normal but it has become private.  Death "has become the most private and shameful thing of all" and, in this way,, has replaced sex as the object of our cultural taboos.  This is a very significant observation.  And true.

Nothing sexual is taboo or forbidden or even a scandal to talk about or experience.  Desire reigns supreme and experimentation is encouraged.  Not even biology is allowed to challenge or define gender.  It is not that modernity talks so much about sex (it does) but sees everything in sexual terms.  At least when it comes to power, Foucault would acknowledge this.  But he would also insist that it has not necessarily contributed toward freedom or pleasure.  Liberation brings with it its own constraints.

On the other hand, death has been removed from the public eye.  Children do not go to funerals anymore and their initial personal experience of death can often wait until their adulthood.  On the other hand, they live in a world of video games and digital entertainment in which death is rampant but it is not real -- it is a make believe death that disappears as quickly as the game is over.  Funerals are not funerals in which death is center place but a celebration of life with fun and funny experiences the focus -- and for most folks it is an improvement to their lives to treat death with happy memories rather than confront death as the end of anything.  Obituaries speak more about memory than the reality that the person is dead.  A sense of life well lived permeates everything so that death is a welcome relief to the living when their loved ones become frail or fragile in body or memory.  Even celebrations of life are not well attended and COVID only hastened the idea of digital check in's to replace personal presence with the bereaved.  Even the dying refuse to be a burden to anyone and go quietly to hospice or hospital rather than impose any need upon the living -- perhaps more because death is an embarrassment more than reality!  Suicide aided by physicians once committed to do no harm has become the sacrament of this modern life -- fading away without pain and when you decide it is time to go.  Where you go seems to be not so important -- whether there is a life or no life after death seems not to trouble the mythology of death.  Even when it does, sentiment is more profound than doctrine and preference or desire more powerful than fact or history.

Modernity paints up the dead not just with make up to disguise it but with sentiments and imagination that makes death less an enemy than a transition.  At the other end, however, when death cannot be controlled (as with the pandemic), there seems to be no shortage of what will be done to keep death as far away as possible.  No economic cost or drastic measure is too much to pay to protect us from a death we have not chosen -- which works mostly because we have already replaced in person relationships with social media friendship and digital sex.  Modernity seems content to live through screens the lives we live today and death becomes merely one image on our screens.  Even reproduction has become science and abortion is defined not in terms of killing the infant as much as it is about controlling your body and your life.  Abortion is now therapeutic -- valuing our own well-being above that of the child in the womb.  Those opposed try to frame in the contrasting colors of death but I honestly wonder how long people will even pay attending to death at all.

Christianity is better fitted to the landscape of the past when death was real and the process of dying consumed so much of our time and emotions.  Then, hope was not so easily satisfied by controlling death as it was enamored by the idea of life stronger than death.  Now some Christians are so wedded to the parameters of the culture and values of the moment that they find this prospect of life stronger than death something less than transformational.  They would rather have a Christianity that helps them get what they want out of life and show them how to end it without pain or regret when they feel their time is up.  Easter preaching should call out the lies of modernity and remind us that God has through His own Son, delivered to us not a better life but a life no longer domination by death.  But before we rejoice to hear such a sermon, that preacher better remind us how dominated by death our lives truly are.  Just a few thoughts. . .

In contrast to this, most every age before us could not escape from death.  It was too real.  It was so real, it cast a long and dark shadow over every aspect of live.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Truest Friend. . .

Sermon for Easter 5B, preached on Sunday, May 9, 2021, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.


We don’t live in isolation. We have relationships. Some of these relationships we get to choose and some we don’t. We have family relationships: husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. Today we recognize and thank God for one of those specific family relationships, our relationships with our moms. Without our mothers, we wouldn’t be here. Literally wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for them; and for that, today, and really every day, we thank God and our moms for their love and care. That mother/child relationship is a great blessing.

We’re also blessed with friendships. This is one of those relationships that we get to choose. Take a moment and think about everyone who you call a friend, and not just your Facebook friends. I mean actual friends you have physical interaction with. What do those friendships look like? Oftentimes, those relationships are built around some kind of commonality, like similar interests and hobbies or fandom of a team. Friendships can come from sharing similar beliefs and opinions or connections made from the school we attend or the company we work for or the church we worship at.

One of the hallmarks of friendships is that they include encouragement and support. But this encouragement and support isn’t just sentimentality. It isn’t emotion and words only. This encouragement and support comes from doing, it comes from actions. Friends do things for friends.

All relationships require action. Whether we choose those relationships or not, in order for it to work, in order for it thrive, in order for it to survive, the people in it have to do something.

All of us know what it means to be a good friend. A good friend is someone who thinks about us. They remember specific things about us, what our likes and dislikes are. Good friends are there for us when we’re in need: whether that need is something simple like an extra set of hands to help move our stuff into a new house, or something more serious like letting us live with them for a time after our house has been destroyed by a flood. Good friends are always there, whether it’s to celebrate the joys of life or to mourn the sorrows. We all want friends like these.

But of course, if we know what good friendships look like, we also know what bad and hurtful ones look like.

Bad friends think about themselves first, they’re more concerned with what they can get out of a friendship instead of what they can give. These kinds of friends will be there to celebrate, but when it’s time to mourn, they’re nowhere to be found. Bad friends make promises they don’t keep. Hurtful friends betray trust. All of us know these kinds of friends...and if you don’t, then look in the mirror.

None of us are perfect friends. We fail our friends. We fail in all of our relationships. We sin, thinking of ourselves first. That’s our default concerned with what we can get out of the relationship. We say hurtful things to those we call friends. We promise things and don’t follow through. And because of these sins, and so many more, we have to confess that we fail at being good friends. We don’t deserve to be called someone’s friend. … But, that’s exactly what Christ calls you.

All of us are friends. All of us here, together today, in first service and in second service, everyone in the Church at large, all of us are friends, because that’s what Christ has called you. Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:14-16). You are Christ’s friend, and in that friendship you’re called to be a good friend, to do what He has commanded you to do; to love one another as He has loved you.

When Jesus talks about love, He doesn’t talk about how we talk about it. Too often love is just an emotion. It’s either the romantic feeling that exists between two people, or it’s the favorable emotion we have for something trivial, like loving ice cream or pizza. Rarely when we speak about love do we think of it as a commitment to someone that requires action and self sacrifice on our part. But that’s exactly what Christ means when He talks about love. His friendship is built upon His love for you, what He has done for you.

Christ’s friendship isn't a Buddy Jesus relationship. Christ’s friendship isn’t sentimentality. Christ’s friendship is the truest friendship. His love is the truest love. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). Christ’s friendship is His self sacrifice for you, giving His life up, on the cross to pay for your sin to save you from death, because that’s what you need.

When true friends see their friends in need, they act, no question and no delay. You’re in need, in need of rescue from your poor and failed friendship. You’re in need of saving from your sin. You’re in need of the life that only Christ can give. And so Christ met that need. He did for you what you can’t. He chose to be your friend.

Friendship is a choice, and Christ made that choice for you. You didn’t choose to be Jesus' friend. I didn’t choose to be His friend. The disciples and others who followed Him didn’t choose to be His friend. He chose you. He chose us, people who are terrible friends, people who sin and think about themselves first, people who fail in every single relationship that we have. And yet, with unconditional love and mercy and grace, He chose you.

Our friendships are often conditional, and so that’s how we hear Jesus’ call of friendship. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” We assume that our friendship with Christ is conditional. As long as I continue to follow His commands, then He’ll keep calling me His friend. But that’s not what Jesus is saying.

There’s no stipulation with Christ’s friendship. It’s not that Christ calls us friends because we’ve keep His commands. No, we keep His commands because He has already called us friends. We keep His command to love because He has first loved us. Remember, He chose you, while you were still a sinner (Rom 5:8). And because of that kind of love, we want to share that love of Christ with others. Jesus calls you friends. But to say He is your friend doesn’t mean He’s Buddy Jesus. Jesus isn’t just one of the guys. He’s your truest friend, acting in love. He’s your friend doing the one thing you need the most, dying for you, giving up His life for you, and gaining for you everlasting salvation. What a friend we have in Jesus. In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Curious logic. . .

I could not resist an article written by a Roman Catholic with the title Who wrote the Bible?      Especially when it promised three perspectives on Biblical authorship.  

The first paragraph:  

Catholics like I often find ourselves defending the authorship and historicity of the New Testament. While professors at my esteemed University, for example, may teach that the Gospel of Mark was anonymously written and later named after the prominent Christian, we point out historical records indicating that Mark is the true author. When atheist college students claim that Jesus Christ never existed, we explain that the Gospels are ancient biographies whose reliability is established by the non-Christian historians Josephus and Tacitus. The instinct to defend authorship and historicity is essential for our defense of the New Testament, but it may lead to a harmful attitude toward the Old Testament. The Old Testament was not, as some believe, authored by a few divinely inspired prophets such as Moses, Solomon, and Isaiah. As this article will discuss, the past two hundred years of scholarship and church teaching have revealed a complex network of authors and oral traditions which developed the Old Testament over the course of centuries.

The conclusion:

Further, it does not secularize the Old Testament to realize that its books were for a large part not written by the names on their covers. In fact, the Old Testament becomes far richer when studied as the collective story of an entire people, guided always by God in Wisdom first to an earthly promised land and finally to the promised land of eternal life. The types of Christ, motifs of God’s love, and narrative unity found throughout the Old Testament become more profound when seen as God’s ever-developing word of love to his people. The story of salvation told itself even as it unfolded.
It is a curious position, to say the least.  On the one hand to presume that if the NT names a writer or a name is attached to a book, then that NT book is written by the person named BUT if the same thing happens in the Old Testament, then it must not be taken literally and the only intellectually honest thing to do is to admit that the OT books are by mostly multiple anonymous authors despite what the books presume or the tradition has claimed.  I cannot say that I have ever found an argument compelling that says believe the Bible when it says this but do not believe the Bible when it says that (remember that the NT presumes these books were authored by the individuals).  In addition to all of this, is the claim of integrity of reason in listening to the so-called clues with the OT books to hidden authors but refusing the same claims when it comes  to NT books.

Finally, there is the claim that the Roman Catholic church has weighed in officially in favor of the documentary hypothesis -- meaning it is not Roman Catholic to believe that Moses did write the Pentateuch! If the papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Inspired by the Holy Spirit”), released in 1943, determines the official Roman Catholic position and requires them not to “neglect [any] of those discoveries, whether in the domain of archaeology or in ancient history or literature, which serve to make better known the mentality of the ancient writers, as well as their manner and art of reasoning, narrating, and writing” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, paragraph 40), then Rome has officially cast doubt on the claims of the NT writers about OT authorship or else it has Jesus and others complicit in a ruse based not on fact.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Round collects. . .

A few months ago, my friend Pastor Will Weedon had a lament for a collect that was not simply edited for the Lutheran Service Book but replaced with something rounder.  Yes, that was his term.  Rounder.  After thinking about it, I can see what he means.  Rounder, of course, in the sense that the unpleasant hard edges of our plight and God's merciful condescension had been written out of the collect entirely.  Now, as he said, the replacement was a decent prayer in its own right but it was not quite a fair swap for the original.  You can check his words on the Gottesdienst website.  What I am focused on is the term for what comes rather natural to us nowadays.  We take the hard things of our sinful situation and God's undeserved mercy and try to rework them so that we are less marred by sin and somehow more worthy of God's investment of grace.  It is what we do, along with sin, but it does not do well either for us or for God to round off the edges.

That is, after all, the nature of sin.  It minimizes the sin and makes the sinner less of a lost cause.  It is not simply that we are prone to sin if given the choice but that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  It is not simply that we did not want to repair what sin had broken but that we could not.  Both of these are rather unpopular judgments and, if given the chance, we will surely abandon them in favor of ones more pleasant and appealing.  Those judgments will make us look better and, in the process, will end up diminishing the magnitude of God's mercy in saving us while we were yet sinners and His enemies.

The reality is that we see a lot of things as around that God sees squarely.  Just look around us at the cancel culture, gender choice, abortion, and entitlement views so much in fashion.  We refuse to believe that our feelings might be suspect or our desires might be corrupt or our judgments false.  It is always God's problem.  We don't need to change -- we are perfectly lovely and lovable as we are.  God is the one who needs to do the changing.  If He only saw things from our earthly point of view or walked as we walk in our flesh, He might think differently.  Oh, wait, He did.  He did not to experience the perfectly grand state of our lives but to embrace every tidbit of our fallen natures and carry on His shoulders the full burden of that weight so that we might be set free from the prison of our feelings, desires, and judgments.  We are always rounding out what has sharp edges.  In the end, however, we are blind to see what rounding things does.

Rounding off the sharp edges of sins seems innocent enough but it makes the suffering and sacrifice of Christ to be well intended but unnecessary and ultimately renders the cross to be a sham or a joke..  When we recognize the sharp edges, we also recognize the immensity of the love that saved us.  Only God could love a creation He knew would rebel against Him and bring upon the whole that God had made sin and death.  Only God could proceed with this creation knowing all along the cost of redeeming His lost creation and restoring their broken state.  Let the sharp edges be.  They may seem to slight us but they honor God for doing what only God could and did do.  What we need to do is tinker less with the remodeling of those sharp edges and rejoice with the Amen that delights in God's merciful goodness.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Death is easy, raising the dead is not. . .


Though it should not be any more than common sense, we have forgotten this wisdom:  death is easy, raising the dead is not.  I say this after a pandemic has killed so much of the Church's life and energy.  We have succumbed to the idea that in person worship is not only not essential but no better than online versions.  We have adopted the false idea that saving your life for today is worth abandoning the medicine of immortality that convey to us the power of Christ's death and resurrection.  We have given into the power of fear to discourage us from what is possible in favor of what we believe is absolutely safe (as if that ever existed).  All of this as the Church is shrinking among us.

If you are in a congregation suffering conflict, remember this before adding your voice to the causes of division.  Congregations are easy to kill.  Often it begins with whispers that are too cowardly to be said openly or directly to those whom the whispers demean.  As soon as the focus is on what is wrong instead of what is right, congregations begin the slow decline into death.  The more we are aware of that creeping death, the more the conflict divides and conquers us.  If you are fighting in a congregation, it had better be for the cause of the Gospel or you are contributing to the death of your church.  I am not suggesting that doctrinal aberrations or falsehoods be tolerated but we all know that most divisions are not over dogma or truth but over hurt feelings, the wounds of not be recognized for what we think we do, and the conflict of preferences over truth (especially when it comes to worship).  Don't stir up things for nothing and expect something good to come of it.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.  I Cor. 1:10   

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. 2 Timothy 2:14-17

I say the same to those who love to speak against their pastors.  While no one should countenance false teaching and error, as Luther reminds us, we are to put the best construction on everything -- especially the man of God placed in your midst to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments.  Pastors have been worn out by this pandemic and their families are suffering with them.  I can understand that when things are not good, it is easy to commiserate.  But it does no one any good to complain about and blame those whom God is using to serve us with His gifts and grace.  It needs to stop.  In too many cases the complaints about pastors are from people who either cannot or will not speak to their pastors directly.  It is easy to kill the messenger (look at the history of the prophets!).  Maybe your pastor is not an extrovert, not good at small talk, not attentive to your feelings, or not a good fundraiser.  Worse, maybe your pastor is trying to make Lutheran practices and beliefs that have strayed from our Confession but the people are not sure they want to be Lutheran anymore.  If you are hearing God's Word faithfully proclaimed and being well served with the Sacraments, consider yourself lucky.  You have a good pastor.  If there are things he does not do well, how can you support him or help him out?  Do you pray for him (not praying to change him but simply praying that he be the best pastor God wants him to be)?

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.  Hebrews 13:17   

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  1 Thess. 5:12-14 

The same goes for pastors and church workers who disparage the congregations they serve.  Stop it.  It is so easy to kill a congregation and to discourage church workers.  Raising the dead is not easy.  Be careful for what you do.  The same things I mentioned for those in the pews applies to pastors.  

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  Acts 20:28  
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 1 Peter 5:1-4 

It is so easy to kill something because it is not perfect.  But good is not the enemy of perfect.  It is so easy to mortally wound the parish or pastor who serves there because you are discontent or disgruntled.  But raising up that dead congregation or restoring a broken man of God is so much more difficult.  I wonder if the Lord would not find His work among us so much easier if we were not working against Him and His purpose -- all the while presuming to think we were on His side!


 

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The sound of silence. . .

In the depths of the pandemic, the cities were quiet, the streets empty, the sidewalks deserted, the shops and restaurants abandoned, and even the churches were uninhabited.  For some it was a welcome silence.  The world is, to be sure, filled with noise.  But it should also be filled with the sounds of life.  It was this sound of life that was missing as people confined themselves to their homes.  Buildings which once hummed with the sound of business, industry, and academia were left unoccupied as people not only lived at home but worked from home and their children went to school online.

I thought I would enjoy the quiet but the truth is it drove me crazy.  Especially the quiet at the church.  I found the absence of the preschoolers, study groups, scout troops, meetings, and people stifling.  It was as if the world had come to a stop.  The biggest casualty of this unplanned silence and unwelcome quiet was joy.  Maybe you found also that interaction with people (both good and frustrating) was part of what filled your day with meaning, joy, and comfort.  Instead, I was alone with my fears, stresses, anxieties, and angst.

It got me thinking a bit.  In the past I have longed for more silence in the liturgy.  Now, with fewer people in person in worship and people not coming early and leaving right on time, there is more silence.  But the silence is not the helpful silence in the face of something awesome and mysterious.  It is the silence of loss as we reflect on what was before the pandemic and what is now.  This silence is more a mark of what was but should not have been than the silence that fits the liturgy.  Within all of this, I recalled a passage from Revelation.

“Babylon, the great city, is cast down with violence, and will never be found again. And the voice of harpists, musicians, flute players, and trumpeters will never be heard in you again; and no craftsman of any craft will ever be found in you again; and the voice of the mill will never be heard in you again; and the light of a lamp will never shine in you again; and the voice of the groom and bride will never be heard in you again” (Revelation 18:21-23).

This silence was a mark of judgement not of blessing.  How aptly it described what happened within the churches during the long haul of lock downs and restrictions!  Then it occurred to me that the Church is meant to be a place where the voice of harpist, musicians, flutists, trumpeters, organs, and choirs sound out before the world the song of faith, of Christ's death and resurrection, and of the life that is His gift to the unworthy, undeserving, and guilty.  Maybe I have longed too much for the sound of silence and only realized the blessing of the sound of joy and thanksgiving when the sanctuaries were closed and silent.  Maybe the Church is not meant to offer the world the contemplative life.  Maybe the whole point of the Church is to offer the sounds of new life filled with joy and thanksgiving because Christ is among us, bestowing His gifts, and delivering grace and mercy to a people surprised by God's love.

It has made me wonder about how solemnity and joy can work together.  Solemnity before the mysteries of God is not somber, drab, dull, austere, or severe.  It is not restrained but exuberant joy.  This joy is not chaotic but ordered by God and it is not confused but clear -- drawing from Christ and pointing to Him.  This joy is not in conflict with an ordo or liturgy but flourishes in the songs that the faithful learn to sing.  

Worship is always defiant -- it defies the silence of death and shame, the confinement of life to the moment, and the condemnation of death.  The risen Christ is defiant and triumphant and even within the most somber moments of Ash Wednesday or Good Friday we do not forget this.  Before the world, this is our gift.  We are a people of joy, a people who celebrate (in an orderly manner) how God has broken into the noise and the silence with an ordered joy, with a cause for music, and a reason for song.  The silence that needs to take place before God is not quiet but the silence of our voices presuming to be righteous, covering our sin with noise, and demanding of God what cannot be demanded.

As much as sometimes we love silence, Christian worship is less about contemplation in quietude but about joy expressed in the Church's song accompanied by the many voices of instruments.  God gave us music for this purpose and we stole it from Him to make it ours but in worship He claims it back again and we, by faith, see the wisdom of it.  More than this, the Spirit works to open our hearts and minds to this sound and gives our voices to join its song, today, tomorrow, and forever.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Survey says: When it is safe. . .

As most of you know, the shape of the Church post-pandemic has been on my mind a great deal -- perhaps it is an occupational hazard.  In any case, I am not the only one thinking about the lessons (good and bad) learned from COVID.  Lifeway is one organization with its fingers on the pulse of things (at least from the Protestant side of things).  According to their study of 1,000 U.S. Protestant churchgoers, a surprising 91% said they planned on returning to in-person worship -- with the caveat -- when it is safe to do so. Therein lies the problem.  When is it safe and how do you determine this?  Lifeway Research says churchgoers are eager to return to pre-pandemic worship practices but little more than half of those who wish to return actually attended in January of this year.  And about as many as want to return to in person worship watched livestream instead.  Perhaps as more and more are vaccinated, this will translate into more bodies in church.  We will have to wait and see.

About the only good news is that only 5% of churchgoers switched churches during the pandemic and only 3% changed churches because of moving.  There has been a large number of church hoppers among Protestants and perhaps the pandemic will slow it down.  We will see.   The bad news is that although some congregations will trim back their online services as the situations change, most congregations will continue the hybrid model.  Some of them are convinced that their impact is greater with online -- especially if they think they have a new or different audience for their online offerings.  Perhaps the online contributions from their viewers will sway their decision to keep the hybrid model or the lack of that financial support encourage them to go back to in person only.  We will see.

One thing is sure.  The pandemic will not help and will probably speed up the decline Protestant congregations are already experiencing.  I am not sure what this will mean for Lutherans.  We are not quite Protestants (like Baptists or mainline) but that has not made us immune to the same kind of numbers decline.  In the end, a lot will depend upon what people are returning to -- a memory they are trying to recreate, the same old preference driven style emphasized worship of the past, or a compelling sense of God's presence speaking through the Scriptures and sermon and bestowing His grace in the Sacraments of confession, baptism, and the Eucharist.  If people are to return and remain there, the only thing that will draw them permanently is their awareness of and anticipation for the efficacious words and gifts of Christ.  Anything else will not be strong enough or dependable enough to keep them there.  What we should learn is that technology, borrowing worship styles from others, and constantly changing what happens on Sunday morning is not a strong enough glue to hold our folks.  They need nothing less than to know and rejoice in the God whose presence bestows the riches of the grace and favor won by Christ's obedient life, life-giving death, and triumphant resurrection.  It will require that the preacher learn to speak again the strong language of Scripture in addressing sin and death with the forgiveness and life that we have received in Christ.  And, it will need the congregations to focus on what happens on Sunday morning -- for if this is not the source and summit of the life of God's people, nothing else good will follow.  And if we do all of this and the Church still declines, then it is God's will and not our well-intentioned but flawed efforts that will have killed it.

 

Friday, May 7, 2021

It's complicated. . .

Every time someone begins a conversation with the words It's complicated... I get nervous.  It could be a couple coming to talk with the pastor about the problems in their marriage.  It could be a teenager trying to figure out the path between their erupting hormones and confused desires.  It could be a parishioner uneasily reporting on discontent in the pews.  It could be a church council meeting trying to figure out where the leak in the roof is coming from and how to fix it.  It could be a vaccine that promises everything to a people living for more than a year under COVID but with some history of aborted fetal tissue or cells.  It could be a congregation talking to their Circuit Visitor or District President about why they think their pastor needs to leave.  It could be a doctor trying to tell the bad news to a patient who is expecting none of it.  It's complicated.  Well, of course it is.  No one is saying it is not.  But that is not usually what the phrase It's complicated means.  Usually it means that there is not right or wrong, no black or white, and no moral authority requisite in the situation.  Only feelings.

Of course life is complicated.  The pandemic did not create this complication.  It merely added to it.  All the technology in the world has not made the world simpler -- only increased the speed and complexity of everything that is going on around us.  Sin is not a more toward order but disorder -- not toward the increasing improvement of all things God made or even the preservation of the status quo.  Instead, sin has moved more and more toward the deterioration and decay in which the things of God are more and more out of sync with the world around us and with the desires of our sinful flesh.  God is not making things more complicated.  We are.  And the declining nature of all that is around us.  And the devil and his minions working more and more to increase the shadows in which evil is most at home.

That is not to say that the Gospel is simplistic.  It is not.  There are few easy sayings of Jesus.  There are few oblique words of Christ that have become clearer in our progress.  Just the opposite.  As we drift further and further from the world into which Christ was born and the values and purposes of the world in which we live are more and more at odds with the values and purposes of God and His kingdom, things cannot be made easier or clearer.  We depend less and less upon the grand advances of knowledge and more and more upon the heritage of the fathers, the wisdom of the saints, and the legacy of the living and rich tradition of the faithful.  Thus the Church finds herself more and more out of step with the world around us, more easily relegated to the fringes of a world not interested in voices that do not mouth back what it says, and more and more misunderstood by that same world.  It is complicated.  It is not simplistic.  But the Gospel is so plain that any child can hear and believe it and so deep that we can ponder it a life time and still not cross the great expanse of its wonder and mystery.

As time goes on, I get tired of people reminding me how complicated things are.  I have found that this judgment is seldom followed by the desire to understand and more and more the permission to disregard and write off the truth.  Science has rendered us great service and yet contributed little to the clarity of who we are and why we are here.  Sex was from Eden the first place where sin's disorder caused its problems and we have not made any headway by opening sexual feelings, desire, and gender up to the control of desire.  Churches have great resources for resolving conflict the Biblical way of confession and absolution and yet there is more and more conflict and antagonism in our parishes today.  The long awaited vaccines have not quite eased all our angst over a pandemic that has ruled our hearts, minds, and lives for more than a year.  Doctors still have trouble answering our basic questions when bad news comes.  Parishes and pastors caught up in a spiral of decline find it easier to blame each other than to trust the Lord.  Marriage and family are not made easier by easing the constraints of gender and turning moms and dads, husbands and wives, into generic pieces of a puzzle.  I know it is complicated.  What I fear our people do not know is that feelings and offense and hurt do little to sort out these complications and everything to make them more difficult both to unravel and to live with.

Life is complicated.  So what?  Live with it.  And if you are a Christian, rest your frustrations and fears upon the gracious heart and merciful deliverance of the God who has saved you with His love.  Instead of trying to make sense of or control the world around you, grasp hold of the world to which you belong since your baptism.  Live not by bread alone but by the Word and Table of the Lord.  Confess, repent, and believe the forgiveness which is yours not because you deserve it but only because God is good.  Christ did not some to make life less complicated but to shine the light of His goodness and love in the darkness of our world.  Rejoice in this.  And maybe the complications will seem less complicated and the truth that endures forever more clear.  And stop trying to make the complications of this life into a smokescreen designed to let you do what you want with impunity.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Church has no power. . .

There have been numerous times when the power goes out in our neck of the woods.  It does not always happen when storms come but when somebody hits a nearby pole in a car accident or when the demand skyrockets and the system is overloaded.  It can be quite humorous.  The pipe organ does not simply go silent (the way an electronic instrument does).  Instead, it sighs long and loud until the last gasp of noise signals the end to the air pressure.  Inevitably it happens at an awkward time -- especially if you are the organist on the bench.  But even though the Church has no electricity, we still have power.

The fact of the matter is that singing is often better when we cannot depend upon a strong accompaniment. Perhaps it is because we feel our voices are need or the instrument simply is louder than we are.  But I love when the people rally to the cause and keep on singing.  Although we have a grand piano only steps from the organ console and always have a back up, I rather enjoy it when it is just the people singing.

It has happened when storm (especially ice storms) cut off power to more than a neighborhood and folks will call and ask me the awkward question,"Pastor, does the Church have power?"  I know what they mean but I often want to answer the other question hidden in those same words.  Of course, the Church has power.  We have the keys of the kingdom, the peculiar power to forgive sins, the power to bind the sins of the impenitent, and a host of other powers.  Sure, the world may not be impressed with these powers but that does not mean they are not real and, well, powerful.

I love in the movies where people sit at table when the monarch sits and stand when the sovereign stands, eat while the one who sits upon the royal throne eats, and stops when the king or queen stops.  It is power.  Not much, think some folks.  But people are noticing and even if they don't want to, their meal is tied to when the royal sits and eats and when the royal stops and stands.  Not much in the face of a world with red buttons to press that might unleash great destruction but a great power nonetheless.  In fact, for the Christian this is the power of powers, the greatest of powers!  The Church speaks into death's deep, dark hole the Word of Life.  It is powerful.  To stand at the grave in the cemetery and to announce to the world that they have not seen the last of the one who has died.  Well, that is power.

In reality, Christians treat this peculiar power as if it were nothing much at all.  We stay away from worship with impunity and we go to God's House with nary a thought about what would be appropriate for us to wear or the posture that should reflect our faith or the penitence that should mark our hearts.  Strange how even Christians practice a piety that would suggest there is nothing real about the faith, no real power, but it is all symbolic or picture language.  That is not what Jesus says.  Heaven and earth may pass away but not the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  Fear not those who can destroy the body but you better pay attention to the One who can destroy the soul.  

The world may not recognize the power of the Word as much but we know different.  It is the greatest power of all.  For it reached into a world of despair and implanted itself in the womb of the Virgin, cried out in birth, lived with a holy and clear conscience, entered death without fear, and rose to show the world a power stronger than death.  Nope, we know different.  The world may not get it or get us but we get it.  Christ, the first fruits of them that sleep, is the first-born of the dead and He addresses us with the power of life death, disease, darkness, and the power of the devil cannot overcome.

Why don't we act like this IS a real power --- a profound power?  I wish I knew.  Instead we rely too much on feelings (which are not bad but never have the strength upon which to build our lives.  That, my friends, is the greater power -- the power of life.  And some say the Church has no power.  Indeed!


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Prove to me. . .

Where does the Bible tell us to. . .  I cannot tell you how often I have heard that question.  It usually comes in reference to some historically or traditionally Lutheran practice that was not in style when they grew up in the Lutheran church but has since been restored.  Chanting, weekly Eucharist, Eucharistic vestments, elevation, bowing or genuflecting in the creed at homo factus est, or any one of a few dozen other things.  The comment insists that unless the Bible insists that this be done, it should not be done.  The problem is that this is NOT a Lutheran way of thinking.  This is a Reformed perspective on things.  The Lutherans want to know where Scripture expressly forbids such practice -- not where it commands such practice.

When Lutherans are challenged about their liturgy, ceremonies, rituals, and traditions, we do not insist that Scripture require these of us but instead demand that those who are offended or dislike these prove where this is contrary to Scripture. It was not the Lutherans but the Calvinists who reformed the liturgy and the practices of the church with the rule that unless such things were commanded by Scripture, they must be excluded or forbidden by Scripture. It is high time that we face the fact that our attitudes toward so many things are not shaped by our Lutheranism but by a Calvinistic perspective that we have learned from others. The reality is that what our Lutheran pioneers confessed and lived has become somewhat foreign to many Lutherans today. As much as this is true for the obvious deviation from Lutheran faith and values in a denomination like the ELCA, it is just as true for those whose liturgical sensibility insists upon a minimum of ceremonial and ritual and is as comfortable in evangelical clothing as in the Lutheran garments the Divine Service.  

As a pastor who has spent his whole ministry trying to restore what well meaning but misguided Lutherans have abandoned, I have faced the charge of being a Romanist and had people insist that I was not Lutheran because I could not prove that Scripture commanded us to use do these things. Some people have left congregations I have served because they believed that a pure Lutheranism was cleansed of anything and everything that might be called catholic. They knew nothing of Luther or the Lutherans who follow him or of Walther and the beginnings of Missouri. What they knew was guided by their own preferences and especially by a perspective on things that was and in completely foreign to Lutheranism.

At the outset again it is necessary, by way of preface, to point out that we do not abolish the Mass but religiously retain and defend it. Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord’s day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved. We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things. (Ap XXIV:1)
We keep all that can be kept except those things Scripture forbids. That is the confessional Lutheran perspective on liturgical forms, vestments, ceremonies, church usages, etc. Lutherans are known primarily by what they have kept and not simply by what they have rejected. Calvinists and most other Protestants are known by what they have rejected and not by what they have kept. It ought to be remembered that at least half of all Protestants do not even affirm the ecumenical creeds or use them. Lutherans ought to stand out from those for whom even a creed is suspect.

Indeed, the very mark of Lutheran liturgical practice is that we not only keep the forms and words and ceremonies and liturgies -- we believe what they sign, symbolize, and pray. We are not formalists who value the form over the content but a people who value the form because we believe the content. It is about time that we as Lutherans remembered how Lutherans approach these things. For we and our confessions are in danger from a foreign principle masquerading as something Lutheran but which is not. And one of the dangers comes in the form of a Calvinist principle hiding under a Lutheran word: adiaphora. By treating liturgical things as suspect where we Lutherans have affirmed the value and place of forms, usages, ceremonies, and the like, we elevate minimalism above our confession.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The issue of service. . .

Inevitably the issue of whether or not to have girl acolytes comes up.  In the parish I serve, I am not sure there was ever a time in which acolytes were only boys.  In fact, nearly every office or role has been open to both sexes (excluding Elders and President/Vice-President).  Depending upon the year, without girls also serving as acolytes it might have been necessary for one or two boys to serve every service for 6 months or more and there would not have been enough for a reasonable complement of youth for a procession.  Some years, it would not have been a problem and some of those boys would have gladly served every service but most years there would have been a problem with the boys or their parents.  There are some issues more urgent than others and, in my mind, this has not been one of them.

I admit that I do love it when we process behind a male crucifer and torchbearers.  I do think that this is one way in which some are encouraged to consider the pastoral vocation.  But I will also admit that it is seldom seen in this light by parents of girls.  In fact, some of our most pious and devoted acolytes have been female.  So what is a person to do?  Having dealt with other issues much more urgent and significant, I have chosen to focus on other issues.  Perhaps my successor will choose to change this but there have been too many other areas that needed my attention for me to make this a high priority.  Undoubtedly some will read this with disappointment.  I know that there are some pastors who make this an urgent and important focus in their ministry.  I do think that this is one area in which we need to allow a bit more local and pastoral discretion.  When you come into a situation, every pastor has to pick and choose which things need attention and may have other issues thrust upon him apart from his desire.  I am not willing to paint this issue as a negative or positive.  It just is.  

In case you may not remember it, the Roman Catholic Church directed that females could not even sing in choirs.  Pope St. Pius X in 1903 declared that all the rest of the liturgical chant belongs to the choir of levites, and, therefore, singers in the church, even when they are laymen, are really taking the place of the ecclesiastical choir…. On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.  In case you did not get it, all singing is done by those with the particular office for singing and this, by nature, excludes women.  Apparently the situation had changed by 1955.  Pius XIII changed this rule;  Where it is impossible to have schools of singers or where there are not enough choir boys, it is allowed that “a group of men and women or girls, located in a place outside the sanctuary set apart for the exclusive use of this group, can sing the liturgical texts at Solemn Mass.  Obviously this Pope did not see this as an improvement but a choice born of necessity. 

While Rome is not the rule maker for Lutherans, this development is not without instruction.  At some point over the 50 years between 1903 and 1955, boys were in short supply and the culture around the church was changing as well.  And that is the point of this post.  Many of the changes in the Church are due less to what we think ought to be but out of necessity.  Of course, there are those who made female singers and girl altar servers a big deal but in many cases it was the lack of men and boys that led to the change.  Sadly, we face this all the time.  In the Church so many decisions are made not because we truly believe that these are in the best interests of the Church or the faith but because we are left with no choice.

While it is true that there are those who have agitated against many of these things (male only choirs or acolytes or ushers or church officers or council members), it is so often the fact that men (and boys) have not stepped up to the plate that decisions were made to open up these roles to women (and girls).  So while this might have begun with survey of who could or should serve as an acolyte, it will end with a plea to men and fathers and their sons not to shrink from serving the Church where you are able.  Do not abandon these important roles and leave it to the wives, mothers, and daughters to fill in where you are unwilling to serve.  You have a responsibility to serve (and, by serving, to lead) in the Church.  No one's interests are being served when any group shrinks from service and leaves it to somebody else.  Now, more than ever, the Church needs faithful men to step and serve and lead precisely for the benefit of the boys and young men who are watching and wondering where their place is.  I know that most women in my parish would welcome their husbands, brothers, and fellow pew sitting males to step up and serve. 

There was a time when the Church had a robust core of men to teach in Sunday school, to sing in choirs, to serve as acolytes, ushers, officers, and councilmen.  Sadly, it has been a long time in many congregations since there were men willing to serve.  Our men and boys have become lazy or unwilling to step up to the plate.  It has left the burden to women and girls to serve while men complain that the Church is too feminine.  Well, men, step up and get involved and be a good example for your sons.  It is not a competition.  There are plenty of roles and responsibilities for all.  As far as it goes, voting may seem to be important but the most important avenues of service in nearly every congregation do not involve yeas and nays at all.  Doing the work behind the scenes, enlisting others for service, and fulfilling your baptismal vocation are all much more important than voting on anything.  And if these things are done well, voting will not be so important.  I wish it were more true in our congregations and across our Synod.

 

Monday, May 3, 2021

The vine and vinedresser. . .

Sermon for Easter 5B, preached on Sunday, May 2, 2021.

At first glance, it might just seem like the vine and the vinedresser are at odds with each, in competition, even enemies.  Surely the job of the vine is to put forth branches – as many branches as are possible!  But the job of the vinedresser is to cut back the growth of branches in order to promote fruit bearing.  We have all had plants that looked great but gave us no fruit.  So the vine is out there sending forth branches and the vinedresser is there ready and waiting to cut them off.  Or so it seems.

The real job of the vine is not to produce branches but to produce fruit.  If you will remember, the seeds of the vine are in the fruit – not in the foliage.  It does not matter how nice the plant looks but how much fruit it bears.  This is the key to the survival of the vine.  Fruit.  Plain and simple.  

We have become accustomed to the idea that how we look to others matters, even to God.  Appearance is everything.  Even though we dress down and not in formal clothing, we are a brand conscious people and we choose our look to fit our personality.  Even the Church is judged by appearances.  How many of us would be here today if this building were broken down and in need of repair or replacement?  Churches need to look successful in order to be appealing – need to look like they have people and money in order to attract people and money.  At least that is the business model.

God is not so superficial.  His interest is not in looks or appearance or even our comfort.  He has one concern – fruit.  While it might seem that the easy and happy and successful Christian life might attract people to this preaching and this congregation, God does the unthinkable.  He warns us against ease and comfort and insists that you and I will face persecution, rejection, and perhaps even death for the cause of the faith.  How can God expect to succeed in the competition for numbers with such a message?

That is the point.  God is not looking for big bushy churches but fruitful ones.  He is not looking to prune us like people take a perfectly good bush and turn it into a topiary of a dog or a cat or whatever.  God is looking for fruit, plain and simple.  He will prune back our lives so that the energy and life flowing to us and through us produces real fruit, good fruit, and abundant fruit.  Think about that the next time you complain about your life.  This pruning is painful, to be sure, but it ensures the right result.

My friends, some of what happens to you that is painful is borne of the devil who seeks your harm.  To be sure, we have enemies of the faith and it is their intent to injure us and our faith.  But the pruning of the Lord is not without its own pain to our sinful self.
We have been told a lie for so long it is almost impossible to challenge – that lie says you can have it all.  You can be single and not be chaste, friends with benefits.  You can be married and still be free to pursue what interests you.  You can juggle spouse, job, career, kids, and hobbies and have time for it all and do it all well.  You can be a Christian without being holy or seeking holiness, without giving up your worldly pleasures or surrendering your worldly values.  These are the things the Lord prunes away from us that our faith may be strong and produce abundant fruit – for our good as well as God’s glory.

The source of these lies is the devil who seeks the ultimate harm – to steal us from our heavenly Father, to render impotent the power of faith and the Spirit in our lives, and to make Jesus one of many and not our only Savior and Lord.  The devil will tell you that your sins are not so bad, you can fix things on your own, and that you can indulge in sinful pleasures and wear the facade of righteousness.  All of these are easy lies because we want to believe them.  But they are the most destructive lies of all because they teach us to give up the Lord and His baptismal identity and give into our sinful passions and fears.  The devil wants a fancy bushy plant with lots of leaves but few buds or fruit.

God will not harm us.  His pruning will not destroy us even though it causes us some pain.  It is His work to make us confront our sins and despair of our ability to answer their guilt and shame.  It is His work to plant us by the cross where the blood of Christ cleansed and still cleanses us from all our sins.  It is His work to warn us of the consequences of living with one foot in the devil’s world and one foot in God’s kingdom.  It is His work to make our lives bear the fruit of holiness, righteousness, and goodness, delighting in the lamp of the Law to guide our feet upon the way of truth.

In the past pandemic, what the devil meant for harm became a test put to our faith.  How much do we trust in the world around us, the voices of science who may preserve our lives but at what cost, and the government that insists the faith and the Church are not essential to who we are, to how we live, or what it most valuable.  But it does not take a pandemic to bring about these kinds of tests and trials.  We face them everyday.  We are constantly making choices in which we must decide to be faithful or faithless, to be holy or to give into the ways of sin, to endure in righteousness or to indulge in evil, to trust the Lord we can see only by faith or to trust more what we see with our eyes, and finally, to trust the voice of the Lord in His Word or the voice of our own desires, wants, and passions.

Yes, my friends, God is pruning you.  God is taking away the comfort of the world so that you will trust in Him only.  He is taking away our unfailing confidence in science, in politics,  and in technology so that we may trust only in Christ.  He is taking away the ease of our American lives in order to teach us what fruit Christ’s suffering bore on the cross and how living a cross shaped life will mean suffering but result in readiness for His coming again and being fitted for our eternal lives in heaven.

My greatest failures as a child, a man, a husband, a father, and a pastor have never been the many times I have said yes but my failure to say no – fearing what those to whom I say no will think.  God is not afraid of taking away what we want but what is wrong or unnecessary.  That is the pruning of the Lord designed for your good and mine.

Do not be afraid of the Lord’s pruning.  This is the growing pain of faith, the pinch of the moment that delivers the ease of eternity, and the sacrifice of the present to grasp hold of the forever life that we have in Christ.  It needs to happen.  Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. - Romans 5:3-4  These are not empty words.  God is at work right now and in you and in the Church today moving us from suffering to endurance, from endurance to Christian character, and from Christian character to honest hope in Christ.  He is pruning away what we do not need and what will distract us from what is our greatest treasure.  

Do not be afraid.  For God is at work in this pain and from this pain will be borne the good fruit that will last, that is our calling and vocation, and what will glorify God and honor the noble character of our lives as God’s people.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

    Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Really Real . . .

In this age of cancel culture and gender confusion and sexual choice, reality is not necessarily in the concrete or real of history or biology or order.  There was a time when ideas and feelings were dismissed as less than real but not today.  Today these are the most real things of all.  Yet as much as we would grant to ideas and feelings reality, it seems we have problems doing the same to Sacraments.  Sacraments are, in the minds of many, what you want them to be.  There is no objective reality in them apart from your desire or belief.

Some years ago C.S. Lewis attempted to explain how angels could pass through walls.  He suggested that they could pass through walls not because they were somehow less substantial, but precisely because they were more substantial.  Their reality was greater than the wall just as a rock is more substantial than water or air.  It was a theory he posited from himself and not from Scripture so you cannot read into it something more than his imagination.  Yet it is not without merit.  What the Scriptures and the Church describe as “mystery” is exactly that which is real, more real, and really real -- even more so than what we observe with our eyes or smell with our noses or taste in our mouths.  Christ in water and bread and wine are not images or symbols or ideas but the very real reality that is not less substantial than the water or bread or wine but more so.

St. Paul hints at this:  …for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:18)  The apostle does not discount the reality of the things that are seen but impresses that which is unseen (except by faith) with a greater reality -- one that exists not only in the moment or simply in time but eternally.  In this, St. Paul would call out those who keep the form but dismiss the substance or content.  We all know those who mouth the words to the creed but shrink at the idea of God in the womb by the miracle of the Holy Spirit.  We all know those who like the idea of the Eucharist but who refuse to deposit anything more than symbolism in the eating of the bread and cup.  Of course, these sacraments symbolize what they do but they fulfill the sign and do not leave the rest up to us and our imaginations.  They do what they sign and deliver what they promise.  They are the most real things of all for they transcend the moment or time to bestow an eternal gift and grace.

I fear that we miss that.  Even when we believe and confess Christ present in and with the bread and wine, our tendency is to see the power of this in individual terms and largely sentimental ones.  That is because we see everything in that light.  From our personal identity to our sexual preference to our choice of gender, life has become merely individual and feeling based.  So it is and should be shocking to us that this real reality of the sacraments doe snot depend upon us and our appreciation of them.  Irrespective of anyone's personal belief, Christ is where He has promised to be and not merely the idea of Christ but the Lord Jesus in all His fullness, bestowing the riches of His cross purchased gifts and grace.  Of course it matters if we believe this -- for what benefit and blessing is there in such communion without faith!  But the reality of what is there does not depend upon our believing -- only our fruitful reception of this mystery.

Sadly, we too often reduce God's gifts and grace to mere help so that we can accomplish this.  We give credit to God but we presume to believe that what God supplies is the little bit that is missing in us and in our works.  We forget that every reality is real only because of God's will and purpose and there is nothing that exists apart from His will and desire and power.  For Lutherans this showed up in the brief period in which receptionism was taught.  Christ is present only in the actual eating and drinking and not before when the Word is addressed to the host and cup and not after in what remains following the Communion.  The end result of a salvation in which we contribute most but God pushes us across the finish line and a sacrament in which we must supply something for Christ to be present is the same -- a theology of works that cannot redeem but will only condemn.

The problem of the Pharisees was they they presumed their efforts and even their understanding had to contribute to God's grace and they were offended by the thought that with man nothing is possible but with God all things are possible.  They were offended by the whole idea that those who had contributed little or even nothing would receive anything.  This is why Jesus' parables of the laborers who receive the same reward was so outrageous to them.  While this surely scandalized the whole idea of saved by grace, it also affected their rejection of Christ's sacramental grace wherein He promised something more than was there -- more than the bread and wine that were the result and gifts of the faithful.  

St. Paul himself found this offense when his imprisonment shocked and scandalized some of those to whom He had proclaimed the Kingdom of God.  They were offended by the idea that the Kingdom of God could exist while its apostle was captive and in chains.  In this respect, we find that the health and wealth preachers who have paraded as faithful servants of the Kingdom have fallen into the same trap.  God's grace must result in earthly blessing and benefit or how can it count at all?  Sometimes we find ourselves in the same trap.  We presume to put words in God's mouth.  God would not want us to suffer or God would not want us to endure poverty or God would not want us to lack resources.  We miss the mystery.  There is a reality greater than the one we experience now.  We are in this world but not of it -- given birth in baptism to a life greater than death and fed and nourished in this life by bread which is not just bread and wine which is not just wine but the glimpse of the eternal and its foretaste here in time.  In so many ways it hinges on the idea that there is a reality more real than the one we see or touch or think or feel.  And this is the reality we meet in the efficacious Word and the mystery of the Sacraments -- that which really real, which bestows in this moment what only eternity can behold in full.

 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Sameness. . .

Routines are sometimes seen as confining.  Our familiar patterns can feel like shackles holding us down.  It is easy to long for surprise and unexpected endings.  We might be forgiven for our desire for things new and different but sometimes we find ourselves longing for old routines and sameness.  It is more than a year since COVID changed our world and turned things upside down.  For some of us things were radically different; for others of us things were more inconvenienced.  But many of us found ourselves more than inconvenienced by the loneliness, masks, distancing, and lost routines.  We found ourselves rather adrift -- loosed especially from the moorings of church and faith.

Sameness may not be exciting but it is comforting.  The familiar may not be spontaneous or fresh but it is like a wonderful old blanket in which we can wrap up ourselves.  The liturgy is that blanket for me.  The familiar of the Divine Service is the home God has made for us to bestow upon us His grace and favor.  It offers us no surprise but the predictable promise that never fails.  God is where He has pledged to be.  He is always there as the voice of His Word, as the cleansing power of water, as the absolution that restores the fallen, as the bread that tastes His body and the wine His blood.  The shock and surprise is that He is exactly where He has promised to be always -- no other promise is so sure.  We would test it just to see if there might be chance God will not be where He says He will be but He cannot break His Word.  

Routines can be frustrating and even boring but they can also be the familiar rhythm of our lives that keep us in time and on time.  Everything has a beat and a cadence.  Life does.  Work does.  Rest does.  And so the Church Year is the rhythm and march of our new lives, born from baptismal water.  They are one of the means by which the Spirit works to bring to our remembrance all that God has done to save us.  His mighty act of deliverance shapes the part of the year we know only so well -- from Advent's promise to Christmas miracle to Epiphany revelation to the Lent's cruciform shape to Easter's glory to Pentecost's power.  And then the rest of the year repeats the familiar miracles and teaching that unfold through the lectionary.  Even the pattern of the hymn of the day contribute to the pace of time in which Sunday gives way to Sunday and we make our way from the Eucharist and back to it.

This pandemic year has robbed us of that.  Most folks missed Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Easter 2020.  They dribbled back into worship as fear and restriction gave way to hesitant courage and governmental permission.  The Church did not return to God's House with a bang but a whimper.  Even in places like Clarksville where the lights never went out, small groups of 10 met in the vast space that once had standing room only.  Even if we worshiped in person on Easter, we kept our distance and did not dare to eat Easter breakfast together.  Unlike here at Grace, most congregations skipped Sunday school and VBS and summer picnics and all the other old stuff that did not seem to be all that important until they we missed them.  Even if they were held, the numbers were small and the routines had to be adapted to meet the requirements of life lived in the shadow of a virus.  Even though a full year passed, Lent and Easter 2021 were in no way normal.  Too many of us missed the great choir and the sound of brass and limped our way to the cross and empty tomb (at least in comparison to our usual celebrations).  And we missed it.  The old routines beckoned to us and we yearned for the sameness of the familiar patterns of our life together around the Word and Table of the Lord.

For too long we thought the liturgy was like an chair in need of some new springs and upholstery.  And then a pandemic comes along and all we want to do is sit in the old, comfortable chair again.  The people in the pews feel it.  So do the pastors.  We will never recover what we have lost but our hope is not simply in the routines.  Our hope lies in the thing that makes the routine -- God is always there where He has promised to be.  Now all that matters is that we are there where He has promised to be.  And then the cycle will be complete.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

What kind of trad are you?

Somebody sent me a few borrowed lines from another author.  He was complaining about people like me.  He did not appreciate those who longed for something different than what we have and especially he did not cotton to those who described themselves as traditional.  I will admit that traditional is not necessary an accurate descriptor.  Bronze age Missourians are traditional but I would not classify myself in that group.  I am not exactly nostalgic because there is no pristine moment I would like to reincarnate.  But I would like to see us take more seriously the heritage of the saints who went before us -- a more catholic view of who we are, the faith we confess, and how we worship.  

I believe it was Scott Hahn who described traditionalists as mad trads, rad trads, and glad trads.  Sometimes I am a mad trad.  Things do have a tendency to get under a person's skin after a while.  But I find it hard to be mad very long.  Some think of me as a rad trad -- radically traditional and hopelessly out of step with the times.  I suppose that is how I appear and I do often speak of radical faithfulness but in the context of the faith, faithfulness is hardly radical.  It ought to be the norm.  I think overall I am a glad trad.  I am glad of the legacy of the saints who went before.  I am not envious of others, other times, or other places.  I am glad to be where I am now.  I am glad that we have such a rich and gracious God who daily and richly blesses me and all Christians with so much more than we deserve.  I know I have my moments but they are the complaints of someone who cares about the Church and the faithful, who loves the Church and the faithful, and who believes that the only hope for the world is a faithful Church and faithful people living out their baptismal vocation.  

Much of modern Christianity is remarkably shallow.  It is like trying to swim in a few inches of water.  There is not much room.  It is hard to get going.  The Word of the Lord is treated more as a reference point or meme than the Word in which the Spirit is at work accomplishing God's saving will.  The Sacraments, if they are treated at all, are seen as sentimental and individual moments, more private than communal, and more about what you bring to the Table than what God gives you there.  It is a bland Christianity that grows old fast and makes you wonder if there is anymore than this.  It is a beige Christianity that has no color and no passion at all -- it is hard to dislike but it is hard to like as well.

Much of modern Christianity is as bland as the warehouse buildings they call churches.  Sprayed black ceilings of industrial framing and HVAC equipment, windowless and defined by their screens, we sit on the same uphostered chairs lined up on plain concrete floors, it is thought to be chic but it is dull. In contrast, traditional churches with their stained glass, statuary, wood carving, and appointments provide an interesting canvas for the eye.  Some people think it is busy but it offers all kinds of glimpses of the faith.  Just like the fuller ceremonial of the Divine Service, it is not bland or dull but rich and deep.  That is what we need.  A deep faith, a deep Church, and a rich faith in a rich Church (no, I do not mean rich in money but rich in the things of God and in the joy that flows from His gifts).  That is the glad trad way.  I know I am not alone but it is a struggle sometimes in the face of those who think our only future is the beige way that blends in instead of standing out.  So call me a trad.  I don't care.  But if you want to be accurate, at least call me a glad trad.

Don't let your sons grow up to be pastors. . .


While I am not sure moms are as hesitant to see their sons grow up to be pastors as our their dads, the fact that first career pastors continue to decline is due in significant part to the fathers of those sons.  It would seem that many dads today have learned well a bad lesson from Hans Luther, father of Martin.  From my own anecdotal experience and from the stories many other pastors have told, the scenario often played out in the homes of high school boys is that the youth is interested but the parents, in particular, the dad, is not.  Clearly, the signal some, if not many, of our boys are getting is that it is too difficult, too unpleasant, and too hard to earn a living being a pastor; so serve the Lord somewhere else.  

Some of the stories I have heard second career guys tell bears this out.  They might have gone to seminary directly from college but they were discouraged to by family and so entered the business world until they could no longer deny their vocation.  By the way, this blog post does not in any way diminish the role and value of second career pastors (or other church workers).  But looking at the numbers preparing for full time church work in our colleges and universities and the break down of those entering seminary, clearly we are not doing a credible job of encouraging young men to be first career pastors.  Why is the ministry not a choice career in the minds of dads (and moms) today?   I might suggest a few reasons.

  1. Pastors complain about their jobs.  If the dads and moms in our pews have concluded that the pastoral office is not a good vocational choice for their sins, it had to come from somewhere.  Have we as pastors poisoned the well?  Do we speak only of the challenges, problems, and frustrations of our calling and forget to also speak of the joys?  In our lives and conversation, do we give the impression that we would rather do anything else but be a pastor?  I do not know but I suspect that since misery loves company it stands to reason that pastors have shared the misery of their office (especially in the trying times in which we live).
  2. People complain about their pastors.  I have often said nobody joins a church because of a pastor but people blame the pastor for leaving a church.  In general, we seem to criticize everyone today -- from politicians to media people to those who work for us.  It us reasonable to assume that when the pastor has an off day in the pulpit or blows his cool or forgets to do something, mom and dad bring their complaints home (rather than to the pastor).  In addition, when things are not going well (and the pandemic was not the only shadow to hang over Lutheran congregations), pastors are either seen as the saviors of the congregation or the reason for the trouble.  What do moms and dads tell their children about church work by the way they speak of their pastors (and other church workers)?
  3. Media portray pastors as idiots, fools, or dastardly, self-serving, bigots.  It has been a long time since a popular media figure portrayed an admirable pastor or priest in the movies or on TV.  Instead, the media sees pastors as either shallow and stupid or smart and devious.  In either case, nothing there encourages a young man to explore his interest in becoming a pastor.  For that matter, the media portrays Christians in a negative light most of the time.  It is bound to affect the youth of our churches and especially those discerning their place in life.
  4. Money is what matters.  Congregations constantly complain about the cost of having a pastor -- salary, housing, health insurance, retirement, etc....  What a drain on a congregation's finances!  Congregations searching for cheaper options do not hold out much hope for a pastor to make a living, feed his family, and have the freedom to devote more fully his attention to the work of the kingdom.  There seems to be jealousy among some lay people who think pastors have it too easy.  Interesting.  This when I have not had a single vacation day in more than 18 months!  At some point, pastors began to be seen as costs to be paid instead of blessings from God to be enjoyed.
  5. Money is what matters.  Parents want their children to have a better life than they do/did and so they hope for a vocation in which they will make scads of money, have plenty of time off from work, be able to do lots of things, and pay the bill happiness costs.  We have taught our children well.  If you cannot afford to have every technological toy or to have Amazon deliver four times a day or to take expensive vacations AND be a pastor, well, then, don't be a pastor.  For what it matters, I have been a pastor for nearly 42 years and have been pretty well-treated by my congregations and have never missed a meal.  Pastors do okay unless money is the only thing or primary thing that matters.  Oh, and there is that thing called student loan debt.
  6. The things of God are just not as important to us.  We live in an age in which regular attendance means once a month in worship, in which church is non-essential and online is a suitable substitute for in person worship, and in which our wants are more important than the church's needs.  The sad reality is that church just does not mean the same to most folk today as it once did.  We can skip worship more, give less, and disagree with God's Word and still consider ourselves devout and pious Christians (even the President of the US does it).  So perhaps moms and dads are saying that it is good to have a church but you should not sacrifice yourself and your wants and dreams for the sake of a church -- aka don't be a pastor.

Maybe there are more but these might be high on most lists.  All of them are bad reasons -- except in the minds of the people who give them.  At least some of them explain why our need for pastors, for the best of the best to be pastors, seems to go unheeded today.


Friday, April 30, 2021

Ancient and Ever New. . .

We are told that the content of the faith must not change but the liturgy must.  At least that was the mantra of the liturgical movement.  While some may acknowledge some slow and incremental changes over many years, the liturgical movement fomented abrupt change over very few years.  Literally, the faithful went to church on Sunday morning one week as generations had done before them and then the next week they found themselves in great disconnect with the saints who went before.  While this is most profoundly true of the Roman Catholic Church and the great shift that took place between the Tridentine Mass in Latin and the Novus Ordo in relatively common English (or other vernacular) the next, it is also true of Lutherans.  While some of those changes were important and had to happen, the fact that they happened as abruptly as they did vitiated against the very good things that were being introduced.

In the end, however, the most profound change to the liturgical churches has been the fact that the liturgy has been treated more and more as if it were a rough draft of options to be sorted out and implemented locally.  Again, this is true of Rome but, in many cases, even more true of Lutherans.  It is not simply that our liturgical identity has changed as a group but has given birth to changes so local as to defy branding Sunday morning with Lutheranism.  What is done and how it is done has become so diverse as to undermine the very unity of the faith.  In this, I am not thinking of the additions to the Divine Service but the omissions.  It is not simply what is added but what is subtracted from Sunday morning -- for the sake of relevance or brevity or taste.  

Further, the justification for these changes is said to be missional.  The goal of making disciples is a more lofty goal and more noble purpose than maintaining the liturgical traditions of our Confession.  Even among more confessional souls, the by-word of our times is adiaphora -- anything goes since nothing is required.  The conflict of mission and piety, outreach and worship, has been coming for a while but now it is so entrenched that I wonder if it has not become part of the sacred but oral tradition that we hand down -- and one more powerful that the written ones (like rubrics).

It must be wondered how many empty pews are due to the abandonment of the liturgy and the loss of the mystery of God's presence replaced with toe tapping music and a down home casual attitude toward the presence of God.  I well know that liturgical formality has been the scapegoat of several of the last generations and in an effort to loosen things up the liturgical was blamed instead of the people in the chancel or in the pews.  How foolish it was and is to blame the form for the sins of those using it!  We have embraced the idea that diversity is good and local option is better than national identity to the point where we may never recover a sense of who we are or ought to be on Sunday morning.  The genie is out of the bottle and technology has allowed us to go where we never went before.  What we are lacking is any sense that what we can do is not what we should, that what is possible may not be beneficial.  I read that somewhere.

The pandemic has contributed its share of liturgical anomalies to modern views of worship and liturgy and they will not be quickly forgotten.  The further deterioration of our liturgical identity as confessional Lutheran people will come as the bad or merely expedient things we learn from COVID 19 are woven into the fabric of our already locally optioned version of the worship book.  What we will have lost is the perspective of what is ancient and yet ever new -- the witness of the saints who went before us and our unity with those who passed onto us the sacred deposit.  As Dr. Nagel put it in the old hymnal, we are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition.  Unfortunately and to punish those who come after us, we have disregarded that tradition in favor of things no older than our last thought and no more relevant that the previous whim we dropped everything to follow.  The saints may wince and Jesus may cry but the real suffering is foisted on those who hear and believe and are simply looking for a place where what they heard about is lived out.  That is the goal and purpose of the local congregation -- to give the faithful (young or old) the place where the inheritance of the saints meets the confession and excitement of the moment to extend what was first given us and more may receive it still.

We all know what happened with New Coke or any other new and improved brand that has sacrificed its identity and integrity for the chance to call itself nothing like it was before.  We can only pray that the very name does not become tainted with the worst we invent to replace the best of what went before.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Who will we follow now?

Becoming a pastor in 1980, I saw the fascination with Evangelicalism first hand.  We began to listen to church growth gurus who promised revitalization and growth to a stalled and stagnant church body.  We learned a new vocabulary and began to speak like people who did not share our confession.  We watched how evangelicals worshiped and learned to skip parts of the liturgy or abandon it entirely.  We turned the sermon into therapeutic words designed to help people reach the goals they set for their lives.  We silenced the mighty organ and replaced it with a band that played with a beat much like the songs we listened to in our homes.  We practiced new songs that sang less Christ and what He did to save us and more about how we felt about Him.  We saw that the evangelicals were the rising stars in American Christianity and wanted to join them in their journey to popularity, power, and influence.  Encouraged by district officials and even Synod programs that mirrored the evangelicals and their church growth methods, we began the process of remaking our churches to be what we thought the people around them wanted to be.

We were not alone.  Lutherans were not the only ones watching and learning.  Much of American Protestantism joined the movement to dress up their churches in the borrowed clothing of evangelicalism.  Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Dutch Reformed, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and even Episcopalians all started to look eerily similar.  We all agreed that though this was not who we were in confession, it was who we needed to be to jump on the growth train to rescue us from oblivion.  As the stagnation became decline, the numbers pushed us to desperation.  It was our duty to do whatever was necessary to make the church grow.  The cause of Jesus was, after all, more important than creed, confession, liturgy, and piety.  It began to seem shallow and self-serving to choose faithfulness over outreach.  Those who did were painted with the harshest judgment of all -- maintenance workers.  Jokes were rendered about who would turn out the lights and lock the door when the last old man or old lady still clinging to their hymnal died.  Books were written to make light of our dullness -- how many Lutherans does it take to change a burned our light bulb?  None, we never change anything.

But now, it seems, America is no longer in love with the evangelicals or their wannabes.  The election has cast a shadow over evangelicals because of their overwhelming support for Trump.  It did not help that prominent stars in the evangelical spotlight have had their reputations tarnished for financial or sexual improprieties.  It did not help that evangelicals were divided over abortion and the cause of life.  It did not help that evangelicals have been slow to join the woke culture and adopt the full LGBTQ+ agenda.  It did not help that the growth of the nones has diluted the prestige of the evangelicals as a social force or voting block.  It did not help that the evangelicals found themselves a less exclusive group when more and more Protestants and even Roman Catholics began to mimic their style.  But the end reality is that most Christians no longer have evangelicals as a group to emulate in the hopes of rescuing themselves and their denominational structures.  The shine is off their star.  So who will we follow now?

I cannot guarantee what jurisdictions and leaders will do but I would suggest that now might be a good time to be who we are.  The lie of separating style and substance has never served us well and many who sought hope in evangelicalism were half-hearted enthusiasts at best.  We all knew that this is not who we really were.  So how about trying to be who we actually are.  In worship, in creed, in confession, and in identity, let us be the Church of the Augsburg Confession.  Let us stop apologizing for who we are.  If who we are is not Biblical, if it deviates from the catholic faith (as Augustana insists), let us reform the reform so that it is in accord with Scripture and the great tradition.  But if we read our confessions, confess our creeds, and pray our liturgy because they are faithful, let us not be embarrassed by this.  This is not our crutch but our foundation, not our weakness but our strength.  The Church that grows by lies and deception is not the Church established by Christ.  The truth still sets us free.  So let us cast off every constraint of fear over what those outside the faith might think of us or a path devoid of crosses and work and follow Christ, being the Church in its fullness.  The world cannot overcome and the devil cannot stop the work of the Spirit acting through the means of grace.  If that Word and Sacraments are the beating heart of who we are, whatever God chooses will endure and we will be just fine.