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.