Saturday, May 28, 2022

Fruits as consequence. . .

As we make our way to Pentecost it occurs to me that too much ink and time has been spent on the gifts  of the Spirit and too little on the fruits of the Spirit.  Frankly, coming into the ministry in the midst of the charismatic movement's ascendancy in nearly every denomination, I am tired of talking about speaking in tongues.  If you have not had to deal with this, you owe the Lord a Te Deum.  At one point in time it was about the only thing talked about.  Spiritual gift surveys were given out like time and talent surveys and I can recall recruiting Sunday school or VBS teachers only to be told oh, that is not my gift; my gift is blah...  I am ever so thankful we are not so preoccupied with such things now.  But at the same time I truly regret that we are not more occupied with the fruits of the Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  Gal. 5:22-23

Fewer words than the ink St. Paul and the rest of us have spend on spiritual gifts but probably more important ones.  Much of the time St. Paul spent on spiritual gifts was to correct, rebuke, and reprove the abuses.  I doubt that he had to spend any time doing that for the fruits of the Spirit.   The fruits of the Spirit are not so much the willed decisions  or choices on our part as they are the consequences of those willed decisions or choices.  The fruits of the Spirit are not fruits that we must plant but the planting of the Spirit; we do not nurture them in the sense of practicing them or desiring them.  Rather, they are the natural fruits that come from and flow out of our time spent in the Word of God and through the means of grace.  Being in the Spirit through the means of grace is the means to bearing in our lives the fruits of the Spirit.

We do not will the love of God into our hearts or make us be joyful anymore than we set our hearts with peace.  We do not will patience into our impatient hearts or become kind by choice.  Goodness is not the fruit of choices we make.  Faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are not the result of improved effort.  Rather, these come from God and it is by being with God in His Word and Sacraments that the Spirit grows these into our hearts, minds, and lives.  We do not learn them from earthly teachers or therapists (which is what too many presume the role of pastor) or life coaches.  Pastors aid this through their preaching and teaching of God's Word and by their administration of the Sacraments but it is the work of the Spirit to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit.

Finally, something ought to be said for prayer.  A rich and full prayer life is not only salutary for the commending of the desires of our heart to the Lord but to prepare us to receive from Him what He has promised.  The fruits of the Spirit are the consequences of more time spent in prayer and do not find their way in us through short cuts or abbreviated times of devotion.  The work of God in us are not instantaneous but deliberate.  In truth we see them best by looking back rather than by looking in the mirror now or by trying to clear up the fog of the future for our plans.

Friday, May 27, 2022

When we see through our feelings. . .

Though I am hardly the first to say it, it is clear that we have lost our ability to laugh at ourselves, to take important things seriously, and to take unimportant things (like self) not so seriously.  It has been documented in too many different ways to ignore.  The whole existence of satire humor such as the Babylon Bee and the Onion is a call to take a break, take a chill pill, and to relax.  Nobody needs this more than Christians who are prone to depression and despair as they look at the state of the world and the state of Christianity today.  We are gravely tempted to mirror the way the world operates among things that offend -- to have hurt feelings, to be a victim, and to decry how meanly or insensitively we were treated.  But that does nothing except exacerbate our feelings of depression and despair and prevents us from remembering that God is God and we are not.

The first mark of the progressive agenda is to pay too much attention to feelings.  Indeed, the whole GLBTQ+, gender identity, cancel culture, rewrite history, sanitize the public square, and label humans as enemies of nature agenda is driven more by feelings than anything else.  The sexual revolution is the result of the if it feels good do it generation.  Gender identity says the body cannot define and is not to be trusted in the pursuit of identity.  Cancel culture and history revision is done precisely because facts get in the way of feelings or offend those feelings or must be altered because of their potential to offend.  Sanitizing the public square, providing safe space for university students, and the very label of hate speech is all about feelings and not much about a sense of humor or even common sense.  Making humanity an enemy of nature is taking an offense to the point of absurdity.

Our feelings are gifts from God but when they become the preeminent things that identify us and the criteria by which we judge everything else, those feelings become a prison.  They hold us captive to something not objectively truth or real apart from the truth or reality we give to them.  In the Church it is a sad and regrettable truth that we reject what God says because we find what God says offensive -- especially with regard to sex.  That cannot be what God says because I either do not like what it says or because what it says hurts or offends me.  In the congregation, how many people leave because of feelings hurt by pastors who are claimed to be insensitive to them and their needs or the failure of people to recognize, appreciate, or acknowledge them?  How many Christians walk out the door of the congregation because they did not feel welcomed, accepted, or esteemed by those in the pews with them?  At the same time, people will remain in congregations that preach and teach unfaithfully and even heresy because they do feel welcomed, accepted, or esteemed?  The problem here is not if this is God pleasing but if this serves us well as Christian people.

Much of this is because we have learned to take very seriously our feelings and less seriously the objective truth and voice of God speaking through His Word.  We listen more to the voices inside us (another name for feelings) than we do God's voice and then we complain because God appears to ignore us or remain silent in the face of our desires.  It is sort of like that old Babylon Bee post which shows a man sitting at a table with a Bible in front of him while complaining that God is not speaking to him.  If people are saying something with which we disagree, does that mean that they are not speaking or that their speaking is filled with hate or offensive?  

Politics and community have also been profoundly impacted by our failure to laugh at ourselves and our insistence upon trusting our feelings as the most trustworthy and authentic truths and voices of all.  Consider the disdain with which the political parties hold one another, elected officials hold other elected officials, and we hold those who disagree with us.  How do we work together for common good when we hold each other in such deep derision?   

I certainly take most seriously what God says and, although I do not always take it, I well recall the advice given me as a young pastor not to take myself too seriously but to take the office I hold and the means of grace as the most sacred things of all.  So, if you have read this, don't be so quick to feel offended, to complain that you are not appreciated or taken seriously, or to lament that you are not fully appreciated.  If you are a Christian, you are in the company of Christ who was Himself the subject of much misunderstanding.  At the same time, these things do not last but you will.  Because Christ has made you His own in baptism, fed and nourished you upon His Word and Sacraments, and will not surrender you to the world in which you live or the devil who roars about like a lion seeking someone to devour, you are in good hands.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

A sermon, a sonnet, and some stanzas...

Accordingly, dearly-beloved, throughout this time which elapsed between the Lord's Resurrection and
Ascension, God's Providence had this in view, to teach and impress upon both the eyes and hearts of His own people that the Lord Jesus Christ might be acknowledged to have as truly risen, as He was truly born, suffered, and died. And hence the most blessed Apostles and all the disciples, who had been both bewildered at His death on the cross and backward in believing His Resurrection, were so strengthened by the clearness of the truth that when the Lord entered the heights of heaven, not only were they affected with no sadness, but were even filled with great joy. And truly great and unspeakable was their cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the Nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels' ranks and to rise beyond the archangels' heights, and to have Its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the Eternal Father, It should be associated on the throne with His glory, to Whose Nature It was united in the Son. Since then Christ's Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven, and have gained still greater things through Christ's unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil's malice. For us, whom our virulent enemy had driven out from the bliss of our first abode, the Son of God has made members of Himself and placed at the right hand of the Father, with Whom He lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.  Pope Leo the Great

 

 

Salute the last and everlasting day,
Joy at th' uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash'd, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth He by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter'd heaven for me!
Mild Lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark'd the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.  John Donne

 

 

LSB 495 Look, Ye Saints, the Sight Is Glorious


 

1 Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious;
    See the Man of Sorrows now!
From the fight returned victorious,
    Ev’ry knee to Him shall bow.
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
    Crowns become the victor’s brow.
    Crowns become the victor’s brow.

 

2 Crown the Savior! Angels, crown Him!
    Rich the trophies Jesus brings;
On the seat of pow’r enthrone Him
    While the vault of heaven rings.
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
    Crown the Savior King of kings.
    Crown the Savior King of kings.

 

3 Sinners in derision crowned Him,
    Mocking thus the Savior’s claim;
Saints and angels crowd around Him,
    Own His title, praise His name.
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
    Spread abroad the victor’s fame.
    Spread abroad the victor’s fame.

 

4 Hark, those bursts of acclamation!
    Hark, those loud triumphant chords!
Jesus takes the highest station;
    Oh, what joy the sight affords!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
    King of kings and Lord of lords!
    King of kings and Lord of lords!


 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

One Church. . .


Though the Reformation is often blamed for the fracturing of Christianity, the truth is that the Christian Church has been divided many times and from the evening of the apostolic age.  Read of the problems St. Paul encountered and of the warnings and admonition given to gospels other than the Gospel he proclaimed, of the Supper of the Lord which was not a Lord's Supper because of their actions, and of the divisions to be marked.  Add this to the call to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and you have the circumstance of clear division.  Although not all congregations the one who is least of all the apostles planted caused him troubles, it is unmistakable that some did and were not of the same doctrine and faith as St. Paul.  Indeed, we know of this problem from the First Epistle of St. Clement and from St. Ignatius.  

Everyone, including those marked heretics, believed the Church to be one and theirs to be that one Church.  While St. Paul did not shy from appealing to his apostolic authority, it was and remains the doctrine that binds the Church as one and not persons, personalities, or particular offices.  Our oneness at the altar receiving the Eucharist has been and remains broken.  The first and larger breach came when East and West refused communion to each other and, although conversations have been held more recently, no progress had been made on its healing.  That said, our oneness is not nor has it ever been an achievement of man negotiating and conciliating consensus.  The unity of the body of Christ is and always has been from the perspective of Christ who knows His own.  The broken state of affairs we see should not ever allow us to be complacent about such division nor should it ease the burden upon us to make sure that such divisions are over substance, when and where they must be for the sake of the Gospel itself.  Yet it must also be said that such a state of broken communion was not and is not a judgment upon the faith of the individual.  Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.  As true as this was and is, it is just as true that until time ends, not all who call on the Name of the Lord will be united at the same altar receiving the same Sacrament.

The episcopate, the canon of Scripture, and the regula fidei (tradition) were three norms of authority to benefit the orthodoxy and continuity of the one, true, orthodox and apostolic Church but only a fool would suggest that they were successful in preventing division.  And yet, it is doctrine that is the unity of the faith and the faithful -- doctrine sourced in Scripture, taught by the apostles, and confessed through the ages.  It is this that has and always will both unite and rightfully divide when error, falsehood, and other sources of revelation conflict with Scripture and the doctrine that flows from it. Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved, but when it comes to those who sup together at the Table of the Lord, a common confession is the minimal requirement of such visible unity and koinonia.  

While doctrinal debate is often castigated as fighting over words or trifles or babbling to hear one's self speak, doctrine is the kerygma (see Iraneaus) which like the sun, shines with the only and one true light so that all people might shine like the sun by coming to the knowledge of the truth.  For myself, I hate the modern day translation of didaskalia as teaching and think the King James got it right by using doctrine in nearly every case when that word appears in Greek.  Nobody over time and history confessed that they believe what their bishop believes but everyone -- even heretics! -- claim to confess what Scripture says.  In this regard, doctrine is confession.  When in Nicea they confessed we believe they were not venturing an opinion or taking sides or offering a perspective but insisting that this is what the Church believes, teaches, and confesses; what has been handed down through the ages; what is still taught by those who stand in Christ and with Scripture.  It is this that is the catholic and apostolic faith and this by which those who come to the altar are examined and admitted.  It is this Church that is the One Church -- not the one with a legacy or a Petrine Office or tradition or statistics.  It always was this way and it will always be.  While that says nothing against the clear confession that all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved, it admits that this is not how the familial fellowship of the Table works.  That the two must live side by side is itself a confession of the fractured state of Christianity that can only and will only be mended by Christ when He comes in His glory.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

A blunt question. . .

Although Lutherans say that they have not abolished private confession and hold it in higher regard than their opponents, the history does not quite support that -- at least in practice.  Oh, yes, in theory we are all about individual confession and absolution but much of that is talk and not much of it is practice.  In the edition of the Small Catechism used when I was catechized as a youth, there was not even a rite for it and it was barely mentioned.  While that has been rectified, the practice remains on the fringes of Lutheranism and an anachronism for most Lutherans.

The absolution is, as Luther maintained, the heart and gift of private confession.  The focus is not even on penitence as precondition and certainly not on any kind of satisfaction.  The core and center not only of the rite but of the sacrament (which Lutherans have called it) is in the absolution.  Indeed, it is the reason why we confess.  We come not as a people uncertain what God will do with our confession but because of His mercy we confess, knowing that He will forgive and restore us.  

You can read of a recent effort to bring this sacrament to the mind of the faithful that they may avail themselves of its gift and blessing but it remains a hard nut to crack.  The truth is that this was a hard sell long ago.  Consider Luther's treatise Of Confession, where says, " I will let no one take away private confession and would not exchange it for all the wealth of the world, for I know what strength and comfort it has given me."' In his eighth sermon against Carlstadt (1522), who had abolished private confession in Wittenberg during Luther's absence, Luther preached "I know the devil well. If you had known him as well as I, you would not have thrown private confession so quickly to the wind." Also, in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church Luther writes, "Of private confession, which is now observed, I am heartily in favor, even though it [the requirement] cannot be proved from the Scriptures; it is useful and necessary, nor would I have it abolished; nay, I rejoice that it exists in the church of Christ, for it is a cure without equal for distressed conscience."   Luther rejects the ecclesiastical rule which requires confession in an absolute sense. It cannot be made a law, but it is, at one and the same time, an indispensable form of the gospel. It is therefore not a requirement but rather a gift which we cannot do without -- the law that cannot relieve the sinner compared to the unmerited mercy that can and does.

While Luther and the Reformers had much to say against what confession had become in Rome, the Lutheran doctrine confessed was not the creation of an opposing doctrine to Rome.  It was, to be sure, a correction of abuses, not simply in theology but in the received practice of the day.  It would be a false characterization of Luther and those who followed him that the adherents to the Augsburg Confession went about establishing a new doctrine and practice antithetical to Rome. The Lutheran doctrine placed confession, which is the work of man, over against absolution, which is the work of God. In his brief admonition to confession, Luther says, "Now mark well what I have said often, that confession consists of two parts. The first is our work and doing, that I lament my sins and desire comfort and renewal of my soul.  The other is a work which God does, who absolves me from my sins through His word spoken by the mouth of man. This is the most important and precious part, as it also makes it lovely and comforting. Up till now the confession has all been our work without going any farther than recognizing a good confession, and the other most important part was not recognized nor preached, quite as if it all were a good work with which to pay God. And whenever the confession was not complete to the last detail, then absolution could not be effective nor sins be forgiven."'

However, the problem of restoring private confession lies, in part, with the identification of this sacrament's benefits as solely with the absolution.  Is there a Lutheran pastor who has not been asked Do I need to confess my sins to a pastor for Confession, or can I simply say sorry to God in my head?  

For our God, the God we have, is not so stingy that he has left us with only one comfort or strengthening for our conscience, or only one absolution, but we have many absolutions in the gospel and we are richly showered with many absolutions. For instance, we have this in the gospel: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” [Matt. 6:14]. Another comfort we have in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses,” etc. [Matt. 6:12]. A third is our baptism, when I reason thus: See, my Lord, I have been baptized in thy name so that I may be assured of thy grace and mercy. Then we have private confession, when I go and receive a sure absolution as if God himself spoke it, so that I may be assured that my sins are forgiven. Finally, I take to myself the blessed sacrament, when I eat his body and drink his blood as a sign that I am rid of my sins and God has freed me from all my frailties; and in order to make me sure of this, he gives me his body to eat and his blood to drink, so that I shall not and cannot doubt that I have a gracious God. Thus you see that confession must not be despised, but that it is a comforting thing. (Sermon of 16 March 1522; LW, Vol. 51, 97-98)

The center of private confession is absolution but the benefit is the comfort of the troubled soul, the counsel given to those who struggle to recognize and confess their sins with excusing or justifying them, and the clear conscience to those who feel so deeply the shame of their sin.  Again, Luther in the Smalcald Articles (VIII, 1): "Confession or absolution ought by no means to be abolished in the church, especially on account of [tender and] timid consciences and on account of the untrained [and
capricious] young people, in order that they may be examined, and instructed in the Christian doctrine." In other words, private confession is meant to be an essential instrument of pastoral care.  It is here that the pastor knows his people and what lies upon their hearts -- all the while he hears their confession and is privileged to be the voice of our Savior in absolving them of their sins.

How foolish of us to presume that the preaching of the Gospel, the baptism into Christ, the general absolution in the liturgy (though much later), and the reception of the Sacrament of the Altar are all simply redundant means of grace that offer exactly the same thing and therefore offer the penitent a choice!  How even more foolish of us to presume that the private prayer of the individual to God, while effective in both offering repentance and receiving God's mercy, is an exact substitute of the gift and blessing of all the means of grace in general and private confession in particular!  We have an embarrassment of riches from God but they are all distinct and, though the forgiveness of sins is at the heart of each, they offer additional gifts and blessings particular to them.  It has not helped us in any way to heighten the focus solely on the forgiveness of sins while neglecting the other benefits and blessings associated with each means of grace and, in the case of private confession, this has been an effective force in detracting from that which our forebearers considered essential.  In reality, both in John 20 and in the ministry that proceeds from that Easter evening ordination, forgiveness and the pastoral care of the penitent and impenitent is at the heart of the Lutheran office of the ministry every bit as much as preaching and catechesis.

Monday, May 23, 2022

The face of strangers. . .

I do not know how it for you, but on most Christmases and Easters, I look out on the face of strangers.  Yes, some of them are well known to me because I have been here almost thirty years and their attendance is limited to the high and holy days.  They have become familiar strangers but strangers none the less.  In some places it is that way on Ash Wednesday and on Confirmation Day (whenever that is observed).  If you will permit me this lament -- I hate it.  It is not because I am looking into the faces of the familiar alien to the House of God but that these are the people who should be here every Sunday.  It is the lament not of those who are present on the high and holy days but of their absence from the rhythmic life of the Lord's people in the Lord's House around the Lord's Word and the Lord's Table on the Lord's Day.  They are the occasional visitors whose names may be recorded on membership rolls somewhere and who may fulfill the duty of at least a couple of communions and attendances per year but they are not really members.  They are occasional, even regularly occasional guests.

I am sure that many know the feeling.  Almost every pastor or priest has looked out into a congregation that is barely recognizable to him and yet not quite visitors or guests.  Among them are many familiar faces of those who regularly attend irregularly.  What an oddity!  It is the curse of membership statistics and rules that set minimums for belonging but it is the letter and not the spirit of those intentions.  Yet, as sad as this is for those on the altar and pulpit side of the rail, it is even more sad and lamentable for those on the pew side.  They are strangers.  Like the guests at their first formal dining experience, they watch to see what others are doing because they do not know what to do.  They read the bulletin looking for cues to what is familiar and almost instinctive to others.  It is not simply that the Church greets them as strangers but they find strange and odd the ways of God's House.  This is not because the liturgy or pastors have changed over the years (good grief, the liturgies in LSB, like most hymnals, have been pretty much the same for more than two generations!).  It is because they have so seldom participated in them that they are like ill-fitting clothing rather than the comfortable and well worn garments of salvation.

If this is true of the liturgy, how much more true is it of God's Word?  It is not that people do not recognize a few of the familiar passages from Scripture -- even pagans and heathen do in this day and age.  It is that they do not recognize these words as being the living voice of the Good Shepherd addressing them as His beloved sheep.  Again, they are as strangers with the voice and the words that should be as familiar as their own.  While it is a loss lamentable to Him who speaks, it is a loss even more lamentable among those who hear but do not recognize who or what they are hearing.  That is the the state of things for many who count themselves among the flock of God but are not regularly gathered within the sheepfold.

If today is anything, it is a time of sifting.  The time is coming when those bloated membership rolls will no longer define the Church but the regulars who gather around the Word and Table of the Lord will manifest the identity of Christ's Church at this time and in this place.  The time is coming when it will no longer be desired for the familiar strangers to gather at all -- not even on the high and holy days.  It is this kind of thing that many are speaking of for the future of the Church and I am but an echo of their warning.  In a way, it may be a relief to some.  No longer will we have to presume a connection that is, for all intents and purposes, not there.  But for me it will also be a time of great loss.  As long as the familiar strangers show up occasionally, there is the chance for the Word and Spirit of God to address them and work in them to bring them nearer God's presence in the means of grace.  I have witnessed just this renewal many times.  But as the familiar strangers are pressed by culture to distrust or find less interest in the Church and a cost is attached to even their occasional belonging, many will have to make a choice.  For those without the habit of meeting together (Hebrews 10), the choice they make will be to forego even the occasional presence for the feasts and festivals a couple of times a year.  And when that happens, we will remember that the Church has always been and will always be a Church Militant, an outpost of God in an alien and foreign place, in but not of the world.  When the sifting is complete, the Church may be substantially smaller but more determined to be the Church then ever before.  Such is the hope of one who believes that all things work together for the good of those called.  The wheat from the chaff may not be one cataclysmic event but a gradual process that will not be seen until the Lord announces it is done.

  

Sunday, May 22, 2022

The problem of patience. . .

God comes by His patience naturally.  He does not cultivate it as virtue or character trait but it proceeds from His nature.  God is patient.  We say this all the time even though we may use different words.  There are different words that get translated as “patience” in the Bible. In Nahum 1:3, the prophet says God is “slow to anger”—greatly patient—yet the acknowledgement of His patience does not leave us without the promise that He “will not leave the guilty unpunished.”  Wickedness will not go unpunished by God but it happens in His own timing and not ours.  One of the most beloved statements in Scripture is that God is  “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This means that His restraint is tied to His saving will and purpose and not simply a mark of His personality.  The word used to describe Christ’s patience in 2 Thessalonians 3:5 is “steadfastness,” or “perseverance;” or even “patient endurance.” Check your translation.  In any case, it is again tied to His saving will and purpose.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  I Peter 3:9-10  Again, the patience of the Lord is tied to His saving will, a mark of His mercy, and the goal of it is our repentance.

God is patient until He is not.  The people in Babel, in the days of Noah, in the forty years of the journey to the promised land, and in the exiles, among others, found out that God's patience is not without limit.  It comes to an end -- unpredictably so.  He does not give us a three minute warning or send a shot across the bow -- unless you consider the voice of the prophet calling the people to repentance such a warning.  In any case, Scripture is also replete with examples of how God came to an end with His patience and His wrath was visited upon those who have presumed God's patience to be indifference.  God's longsuffering nature is a blessing and a problem.  It often becomes a stumbling block for the hard-hearted who choose to abuse that patience and ignore the warning and the call to repentance until they find their end at the hands of God's destruction.  Solomon perhaps warns us of this, ‘A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy.’” 

I wonder if it is about time for us to rethink the patience of the Church with those who refuse correction, who ignore the reproof of God's own Word, and who persist in their own understanding even when it conflicts with His clear revelation.  The Roman Catholic bishops have long had patience with Roman Catholic politicians who openly and defiantly refuse the teaching of their own church with regard to sexual desire, gender identity, abortion and the sacredness of life, and a host of other things.  The politicians wait for friendly bishops or popes or those who love worldly power and prestige more than they love the truth of God's Word and what has it bought Rome?  Little good.  Instead the non-famous in the pews have presumed the silence of Rome and its patience to be license to push the limits even further and ignore the teaching of Rome without recrimination.  So we end up with Roman Catholics who cohabit, practice birth control, abort, approve of the GLBTQ+ agenda, support the violation of secular law for political purpose (like immigration), and now do not even believe that the Christ is present in the Eucharist.  How has that worked for Rome?

Before Lutherans smile smugly, we have had our own patience problems.  We have presumed that if you can agree on some generic thing about Jesus nothing else matters -- it does not matter how much of Scripture you reject, who you welcome at the altar rail, who is ordained, how you worship, if you worship, etc...  Look at the ELCA.  They have gone from being against but politically neutral on the issue of abortion to now insisting it is the right of the mother, indeed a civil right, that must be protected at all costs.  They went from typical Lutheran Eucharistic practice to an open table that offers merely a symbolic Christ to those who only believe that far.  They went from a liturgy that must be preserved because of what it says to words that sound nice but do not intersect with actual faith (Virgin Birth).  They went from allowing theologians to say that the historicity of many things in the Bible did not matter to an insistence that even when the Bible speaks clearly it does not mean what it says.  Missouri is not quite there yet but we are headed on the same strategic trajectory -- if only because ecclesiastical supervision has become rare and when applied, selectively used.  Think here of the furor created when a person who openly taught and fought for such things against Scripture and Missouri's confession as the ordination of women and the historicity of Adam and Eve was challenged and finally removed.  Think here of the way we struggle to find the line between what can and cannot be taught and practiced on our Lutheran universities.  

Those cohabiting have seen the patience of the Church as proof that marriage does not matter.  Those using the patience of the Church to have sex without marriage and marriage without love have been confirmed in this error.  Those who allow questions about Scripture to overpower what Scripture clearly says have learned that God is a toothless lion and His Word powerless to do anything unless and until we give it power.  So maybe the time of patience has come. . . and gone.  At least it is time to consider if our patience and our silence have worked against the cause of repentance instead of for it.  Again, I do not presume to have all the answers but it is worth our time to have a serious conversation about what we are saying, how we are saying it, and what people are hearing -- inside and outside the Church.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

When we forget history. . .

On the radio I heard that there is a movement to establish a national COVID memorial day to remember those who died, those who are living with the lasting effects of the virus, and the pain we bore for this terrible event.  Without in any way minimizing the suffering of people, nations, and our culture due to this pandemic, it is clear that we have forgotten our own history.  When we forget our history, we forget those who suffered far greater than we did for the last few years and, even more so, what it means to suffer at all.  Unlike other pandemics and economic disasters, we survived with prepared food delivered to our doors, with the constant service of USPS, UPS, Prime, and FedEx bringing everything else we wanted to our front porches, with the internet and cable to entertain us, and with online medicine still treating our aches and pains.  Yes, we did endure uncertainty, some shortages of goods and services, and even rationed hospitalizations due to COVID.  But this was not the kind of event where you will tell your grandchildren and great-grandchildren where you were with the world came to an end.  Unless you have forgotten what it means for the world to really come to an end. 

What we lost was, in part, willingly surrendered.  We traded so much in pursuit of personal safety but we traded it willingly.  No one stole our liberty from us or locked us in our homes or shuttered our churches without our consent.  We gladly gave it all up because we thought we were preserving a way of life and even life itself.  Most folks considered it an even trade -- money, freedom, masks, vaccines that cannot quite prevent what they were supposed to stop, in favor of a life insulated from the unknown and risk.  Is that what we will be memorializing?  If we are willing to admit and confess what we did and what we did not do, what we allowed to divide and isolate us, and what we thought was true that turned out to be not quite truth, then maybe we need a memorial day for COVID.  But if we are looking for another memorial day to grill some food and pursue our leisure while lamenting how bad it was and how hard it was on us, I vote no.

Ask my mom and dad and their parents about growing up and living through the depression, trading coupons for scarcities, and working like dogs only to see the crops dry up and the soil blow away.  Ask them about the Spanish Flu and the 50-75 million who died throughout the world.  Ask those who went before them about the Black Death in 1349 that killed about half of all Londoners and between 30% and 60% of all Europeans. Ask about the war dead from the Thirty Years' War or the Napoleonic wars or the Great War or the War to end all wars.  Ask about the millions killed in Chinese conflicts or the many African conflicts.  It is not only the death toll that ought to teach us something but the devastation that followed these great conflicts.  But perhaps we don't want to ask and would rather live with the illusion that our suffering was the worst that humanity ever knew.  It makes for a good story -- even if it is not true.  We live with the lies also because we do not know any better.  With lives so centered on the moment and ourselves, it might be worse than a pandemic to give up our sacred delusions.  

Without minimizing in any way the cost in lives, suffering, and the economy, we survived with less inconvenience than those who went before us and with more resources and choices available to us than those who went before enjoyed in good times.  Every now and then it might do us some good to wake up and smell the roses.  We have grown so accustomed to describing the bad things that happen to us as horrible, the worst ever, and more than we can bear that we have began to believe our own words.  It does not help us in the long run to dote on our feelings and live within our misery.  A healthy sense of history and the sufferings of others and some perspective may be better medicine than anything else.

Friday, May 20, 2022

The Forty-Four. . .

Forty-four years ago today I stood in the chancel waiting for a beautiful woman to walk down the aisle and begin a new chapter in both our lives.  The processional hymn was "In Thee Is Gladness," the presider was the Rev. Charles Evanson, the vested deacon was the Rev. Gary Frank, and the setting was Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne, IN.  Following the Liturgy of the Word, vows were spoken and rings exchanged.  Then the congregation sang "Now Thank We All Our God."  We received the Sacrament of Holy Communion together as husband and wife for the first time.  And then we recessed to greet the family and guests before heading down to the Fellowship Room for a reception.

I thought I knew everything.  But the reality was that on that day I had no real idea what marriage was, what it meant to be husband to this woman, or for her to be wife to me.  Love was untried and untested, filled with expectation but without any track record.  I was fortunate.  The woman I married was first my friend before she became my love.  I trusted her with everything, I valued her companionship as the best friend a person could have, I promised to loved her as best I knew what love was, and I learned to care for her more than my life.  In the forty-four years of life together love was learned through many tests and trials, many joys and many sorrows, many moves and changes, but what has not changed is my belief that she was and is the best choice and decision I have ever made.  I know a bit more about what marriage is, what it means for me to be husband to her and for her to be wife to me.  I trust more than ever, I delight in being with her every moment, I love her more than life, and I care for her more than I ever knew I could care.  And that is what love is -- burdens shared, sorrows comforted, trials faced together, joys and laughter untold, honest conversation of the hardest things to speak, faith grounded and united in God, so much so that I cannot think of me without her...   

This is not one of the big anniversaries -- the ones that have numbers or special colors on the cards and gifts.  It is one easily overlooked.  But so are the things that make a marriage and make it endure.  They are not the big things that compel you as much as the daily things that become richer because they are shared.  The times are different now.  The home is without children (as it was when we began).  There are a couple of grandchildren to delight us.  There is only one parent left (my mother) so we have become the elder generations on both sides of the family.  As much as I thought I knew everything forty-four years ago, I have learned more than I could have imagined about her, about what it means to love and be loved, about the resilience we did not know we had for the worst of times and about the best of times that can be bested by the better times still to come.

Thanks be to God for her and Happy Anniversary to my one and only beloved!

 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Forked tongues. . .

Part of the growth of the educational system in America has been fueled by the desire among some to move the primary means to role model and influence values from the home to the school.  Though it is often framed as a matter of need, it is a need fueled by an unhealthy desire.  While flipping through stations on the radio, I heard an interview with an advocate of the takeover of preschool education lauding how this is a civil rights issue for minorities, an economic issue for those in poverty, and an equality issue for everyone from feminists to rural populations.  I am sure it is from one point of view.  There is no doubt that preschool helps bring disadvantaged and those with fewer educational choices to the table on a more equal basis with those who enjoy the benefits of stable/supportive family, good income, school choice, and suburbia.  But that is neither the sole nor the primary purpose in this endeavor.  For with the money, comes purse strings to tie that money to an agenda that is formed not by the local school board but by hidden experts in Washington, DC, who are the products of and whose thinking reflects the progressive and liberal agenda of the university.

The assaults on local control of curriculum are many.  You recognize them: CRT, GLBTQ+/Rainbow Pride, Intersectionality, Climate Change, Gender Identity, Common Core, and Social Emotional Learning, among them.  Add to that the fruits of the pandemic and its push to make the classroom also a counseling center in which the depression, fears, anxiety, and such are treated by teachers (untrained for this role and task).  All of this has been aided by the influence and funds of global benefactors the likes of the Gates Foundation that distributes the Microsoft largess to peddle a point of view.  Only a fool would suggest there were no bits and pieces of truth in this puzzle but the truth is in service to a worldview and a cause.  What the government gives with one hand, it takes away with another.  That is the cost to this.  It is not free money at all but money redistributed for the sake of a purpose -- social change.  

Those concerned about a short labor market are also on board -- free childcare makes more people available for the jobs that are now going begging.  Business, industry, educational elite, the thinkers and movers of a liberal and progressive worldview, and the desire on both sides of the governmental fence to live in a nanny state have all combined to push for this step in a series of long steps designed to fence in our liberty and surrender some of our freedoms for the sake of what is promised to be a greater good.  Through counselors, educators, physicians, bureaucrats, elected officials, and business we are being spoken to with a forked tongue and being fooled by the illusion of something in the best interests of a better world.  By the time we have tried the koolaid it will be too late to stop the speeding locomotive of this social change.  Let us admit that we have already lost a generation or two to this because it was planting the seeds of a new social order a long time ago.  

The movement to rewrite history and the shift away from the 3 Rs are but two aspects of the program of social engineering that will leave little room for God, for Scripture, and for the Gospel of redemption through the cross.  The serpent's whispers are filling many ears.  Everyone whose voice is raised against this will be labeled an insurgent and the words hate speech.  When you cannot win in an open debate of ideas, you are left only with forced compliance and obedience to promote your cause.  Even when we are not forced by law, we are constrained by mandate and by the flow of easy money.  If this is not what you want for you, your grandchildren, and your church, maybe you ought to pay more attention.  Our leaders who advocate for these are speaking with forked tongues, giving us what they tell us we need while taking from us what many died to preserve.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

An unlikely future. . .

Lately I have been thinking some on the ministry I have been privileged to provide to the saints of the Lord gathered first in New York and now in Tennessee.  Without any slight to the places I have served, both of them had suffered much prior to my coming.  Both had gone through conflict and some division.  Both faced an uncertain future and one more likely to see the struggles continue than resolve.  Though they were in different parts of the country and in very different locales, they had learned not to expect much from their future.  Both were suspicious of that future and worried that the best had been and what was to come was more of the struggles they had known in their recent past.

Surprisingly, both parishes were planted in that great missionary period of Lutheranism at the end of the 1950s.  Both had been surveyed by the missions executives of the District in 1958.   Both were begun as missions of the District.  The one in New York got a freshly minted pastor from the seminary to do the work of mission developer.  The one in Tennessee got an experienced church planting pastor from Wheaton, IL, and Muskegon, MI, to do the same here.  Both had great promise.  Both flourished very quickly.  Both built buildings and had ambitious plans for a second stage to add on to that initial structure.  Both congregations were begun by pastors who were not highly liturgical but who wore cassock, surplice, stole, and clerical collar -- not necessarily the norm for the end of the 1950s in the LCMS.

The next stages brought with them a slowdown in the growth they had experienced and with it some sense of stagnation.  Eventually, a couple of pastors later, they experienced enough conflict that attention turned away from the mission, away from Christ and His gifts, and onto their troubles.  Whenever that happens, it seems all the energy and excitement of a congregation can be sapped by such things and expectations of the future seem to wither away.  It is also not uncommon for membership to stagnate and financial troubles to become the focus.  When these happens, people literally stop hoping for more and simply wish that their troubles might lessen.

I was privileged to come at a down time in their lives.  Both parishes were not expecting a dreamer and a schemer who was sure that our future was not going to be defined by our past.  Within a very short time, both parishes undertook a capital project of some kind and the success of that project taught them to hope for and anticipate more.  In both cases, they went from a typical broad church liturgical character of the Divine Service to one which introduced and championed a more liturgical, ceremonial, and rich shape to their worship lives.  Both went to a weekly Eucharist very quickly.  Both saw a pastor in full Eucharistic vestments for the first time (and many of them heard chanting for the first time).  They saw the sign of the cross, genuflection, and bowing -- sometimes considered strange or unusual for certain Lutherans.  Both saw with real ashes on Ash Wednesdays and real palms on Palm Sunday.  Both experienced the rich liturgical character of Holy Week for the first time -- stripping of the altar, adoration of the Cross, and the Easter Vigil.  Both got new baptismal fonts whose size now reflected the importance of Holy Baptism.  Both got a crucifix, processional cross, processional candles, and a chalice.  Both installed new organs, found a new parish musician, and vastly multiplied the musical groups within the parish.  There was much adjustment -- on both sides.  Both also learned to turn away from the hurts of the past to become more intentionally welcoming toward the stranger.  And both grew in numbers and finances as well as in mission. 

Neither of these places were likely candidates for a hopeful future -- at least by every human estimator of things.  At both of my installations I encountered a pastor who told me he showed up in part to see who was fool enough to accept the call to be the pastor of this place!  There were calls that came with more hopeful prospects but I had a certain stubbornness in me that was convinced that this was where God wanted me and He had a future planned for each place.  My point is this.  When you get to a congregation, it is easy to look backward or to fear that the past was too strong to be ignored when looking for a future.  With man it is always impossible -- but not with God.  I remain convinced that God's Word will not return to Him empty but will accomplish His purpose in sending it.  Both congregations went from being small to medium sized and in the upper contingent of the congregations in the districts where they reside.  I take very little of the credit for this success (except to acknowledge that I was and am a dreamer).  It can happen.  It does happen.  Don't write off the present because of the past and don't let the past deprive you of the future.  God always has more in mind that we do.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The problem with desire. . .

We have too many desires.  We are constantly flitting from one shiny thing to another.  It works perfectly in a culture of convenience in which what we want becomes entrepreneurial opportunity.  But does it work for us?  Is our lack of happiness, our fixation on security, and our willingness to surrender liberty to a government that will provide for us healthy?  Does it bring the contentment our heart yearns to know?

The problem with desire is that it does not remain desire.  Desire begets thought begets word begets action.  In an instantaneous society when we demand and expect things to happen immediately, there is no chance to filter out wrong desires or change our minds.  We are consumed by the mere availability of things.  That has catapulted Amazon to its status and forced the brick and mortar stores to copy in order to survive.  Whim has replaced thought and want lives unconstrained within us.  

Perhaps the devil knew what would happen to the heart once released from its focus on God.  In any case, the devil capitalized on our many itches and insisted that we scratch where it itches.  Certainly those who lived before us were also affected by the unrestrained desire of the heart but they were constrained by opportunity.  When life was defined by work and technology was a means of making the work easier (but not necessarily briefer), the possibility of our desires were left more unmet than explored.  But our generation has come face to face not simply with the strong temptation of desire but its accessibility.  The things we want, we can have -- today!  Ours is a consumer culture in which success has come from honing our skills at both eliciting and then satisfying those desires. 

We laugh about it but it is not funny.  We speak it and Siri and Alexa investigate it, catalog it, and then bombard us all day long with advertisements designed no only to satisfy that desire but to arouse even more desire.  They scope out its availability and tell us how quickly and how cheaply we can have what we want, in the size and color and with all the features we want.  If what we want is not available or out of our price range, we are given options so that we need not wait (until we change our minds).   You can do it all from your phone!  The job of consumerism is not to tell us that something we want is not good but to tell us we can have it all whenever we want it.  It is a lie, of course, but a convenient one and one we all seem willing to accept instead of the harder truth that things will not satisfy the longing within -- anymore than experiences.

Our problems are not lack but desire.  We live in a culture of overindulgence, over stimulation, over individualization, and over personalization.  Why else would we struggle so with such things as obesity, addiction, sexual misconduct, depression, fear, insecurity, and greed?  These are not the problems of a lack of anything but too much -- too many things, too much availability, and too cheap the initial cost.  The end result is that we find it hard to focus on any one thing and have squandered our attention spans on the memes of Facebook, the videos of TikTok, and the news that fits in 15 seconds.  We have turned stones into bread at the whisper of the devil but we are not content.  Jesus rebuke of the devil reminds us that things cannot satisfy our longing.  Man does not live on bread alone.  Life is not a circus and a buffet for couch potatoes. A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Lk 12:15).  It is the bread of God's Word that satisfies and the wonder of His unmerited grace and unlimited mercy that turns our hearts to praise and contentment.  

We are helping no one when we encourage them to explore the desires of their hearts or to find contentment and joy in the things and experiences of this mortal life.  God helps us by confronting us with all that these things cannot do while at the same time pointing us to that which does satisfy.  His Word that tabernacles in our hearts by the power of the Spirit... His water that cleanses not only externally but from within by creating a new heart within us... His absolution that reclaims us from our detours and dead ends of sin... His body and blood that satisfies our hunger and quenches our thirst with the promise of what is to come.  If we learned anything in Lent and drew any comfort from Easter Sunday, it ought to derail our unrestrained pursuit of desire for it can lead only to death -- the living death of the tormented and the eternal torment of death without end.

Monday, May 16, 2022

If we have Christ, we want for nothing more...

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (C) preached on Sunday, May 15, 2022.

The day is coming when our prayers will ask God for nothing.  On that day, He will have given us everything.  Because we have this everything from His gracious hand, we will lack nothing and our prayers will only be thanksgiving for all that God has given.  But that is not today.  Today we come to the Lord with all sorts of lists and beg Him for all sorts of things we think we need.  We plead with Him that we cannot go on unless we get what it is that we have prayed Him to give us.  But, whether He gives us what we ask or not, we are not empty handed.  If we have Christ, we want for nothing and have everything we need.

In the Gospel Jesus promises that His disciples will not have to depend upon their memories or their instincts or their wiles.  He will deliver to them the Spirit of Truth to guide them from error into all truth.  He will make known the words of the Father Christ spoke.  He will guide them to where Christ is and equip them to speak as His witnesses before the world.  The promise to the apostles is also to us. The Spirit will keep on glorifying Jesus, giving to Jesus’ own people all that belongs to Jesus, and the people of Jesus will declare this Gospel to the world.  

I wish we believed it.  We come to the Lord with weak and wavering trust, uncertain if the Lord will keep His promise or if the Lord’s power is enough to sustain us and prevent His Church from defeat.  So we have done exactly that which Christ said.  We have wept and lamented as the world has rejoiced, making Christians and the Church a laughing stock before the world.  The Church has given up on Christ to do what He has promised and deliver His grace where He has placed it and substituted marketing programs for preaching and social clubs for the Church of Jesus Christ.  Jesus promised that we will know the truth and the truth will set us free but we have too often surrendered that truth to whims of the world and put our confidence in what we do instead of what He has done.

We find it so easy to surrender God’s eternal good for what is expedient in the moment, to swap out God’s promise for our own decision, and to worship the cult of desire more than God.  We ask and plead for God to do it our way, to give us what we think we need, to trust us to know best since we are here and He is in heaven.  We ask for stuff and for pleasure and for happiness.  We think we know what makes our joy full and complete and we want God to know it so that He can give us what we desire.  And we call it prayer.   God has already given us all we need.  He knows that this side of glory we will face want and need and doubt and fear.  He knows that our faith will be tested and tried by the enemies of His kingdom and by our own willful pride.  He knows that we live in a world filled with appealing lies and He knows how susceptible we are to these empty words.  So He promises us His Spirit – the Spirit of truth.

What does the Spirit do?  The Spirit unmasks the lies outside us and within us that play act as if they were truth.  The Spirit strikes from us any notion that we are here to win and then to punish our enemies and rule the world as gods and kings.  The Spirit brings us to repentance.  The Spirit empties our hearts of the pride that fills them so He might fill our hearts with love for God, the desire to be holy, and the trust that He who has given us His will also give us all things in Christ.

We nearly burst with frustration because we think the burdens of life too heavy and the clock too slow in delivering us from troubles.  But it is only a little while.  As short as this life is or as long as it can be, the days pass quickly and fade before the eternal.  Our weeping and moaning last only for a little while; through it all God is with us. Yes, we will have sorrows and our lives will seem to break under the weight of all our disappointment and pain.  Yes, we will feel empty and alone.  But this sorrow will turn to joy and our emptiness filled with a joy that endures forever.

If we have Christ, we have everything needful.  If we have Christ, then we have the Spirit dwelling in us amid trouble and trial.  We have the Spirit dwelling in us teaching our hearts to believe His Word.  We have the Spirit dwelling in us with the  power of truth against the lies we tell ourselves and the lies the world tells us.  We have the Spirit as hands to grasp the promise and turn our weeping into laughter, our sorrows into joy, and our disappointment into hope.

For now we will suffer with lack and want and need.  But none of these can derail the Lord’s work to keep us faithful.  None of what we lack can compare with what God has given to us in Christ.  We cry out, to be sure, but those cries have become the groanings of hope for a people who long for God to finish His new creation in us and deliver to us everything in Christ.  If we have Christ, we have all things.  Nothing in this moment and nothing in this flesh can stand against Christ and the power of His death and resurrection.  Nothing in this world and this life can threaten the Spirit’s work to build faith in our hearts and sustain us in this truth to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
In a moment, in the mystery of God’s work, a life is born in the womb of a woman. The child lives within her but in her but not the same as her.  Through the months the child becomes stronger and stronger until the body of the mother can no longer hold the child.  And then from the old, new life comes into the world.  Tears and pain give way to joy and deep contentment.  

And this is what is happening in you right now.  In the mystery of God’s work in baptism, a new life has been planted in you.  This life lives in you becoming stronger and stronger until your old life can no longer bear it.  And then, in the day of the Lord, the new life is fully there and the old is gone. Tears, pain, and struggle give way to pure joy and contentment.  You do not see the progress and pray the Lord to hasten the day.  But the Lord works all things according to His will and timing.  It is enough that You have Christ and His promise.  You ache and long for the day when the pain is done and the new creation complete within you.  But you have Christ, you have His Spirit, and you have His promise.  And this is enough.

You are not on your own.  You have not been left to your devices.  Christ is with You.  In His Word and Sacrament, He is working in you to complete that which He began.  You may not see it any more than a mother can picture the face of the child in her womb.  But God is at work in you by the power of His Holy Spirit.  Repent.  Rejoice.  Be glad.  Hope.  Believe.  Our anguish will not even survive to be a memory.  For now we want but then we shall be satisfied and what is empty will be filled for all eternity.  God in you, the hope of glory.  Amen.

Always Gnosticism. . .

The grave threat against Christianity has always been and still is Gnosticism.  It is that unwholesome belief that the flesh and bodily things are somehow unworthy, common, and in the way of the true wisdom of the spiritual.  It is also the pursuit of things hidden and the disdain for the things plain.  It is this that progressive and liberal Christianity has come to define as truth.  In this view, Christianity has less to do with us as mortals and everything to do with the spiritual.  The pursuit of our mortal lives lies in the understanding of unbodily things, of secret mysteries, hidden behind the obvious for those who will pass through event, fact, and truth toward something greater.  So this Christianity is not interested in the redemption of the body, in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting as embodied people.  Instead, it looks at the body for what it is not instead of for what it is.  This is what St. Paul warns against in 1 Corinthians 15.  It ought to be the warning that arises from orthodox Christianity today.

Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the current preoccupation with discerning and deciding for gender -- as if it had nothing to do with the body itself!  What is obvious (male or female) is set aside in favor of what is hidden in feelings and desires.  This is not simply a decision that one makes in adulthood but the burden thrust upon our children from the youngest age -- they must discern who they are and decide who that is -- not in terms of vocation or occupation but gender.  Medicine's foremost warning to do no harm is set aside in treating the body as a canvas for the self-expression of feeling and desire.  This can mean treating puberty as if it were a disease and the reproductive organs as if they were a prison.  And we have not even begun to talk about sin yet.

It is also true in many other areas of life.  The pursuit of happiness, once a freedom enshrined in rights guaranteed, has become the sole pursuit of life.  It is a happiness that is not a blessing to the happy but the burden and duty of life that offers a constantly changing target that will prevent the focus ever from being taken off self and placed on another.  Marriage gets in its way.  Children are roadblocks to this personal and solitary journey toward happiness.  Medicine is a tool for happiness (the way pain reduction has displaced healing as its purpose and even required the people who serve medicine to provide a painless exit when someone arrives at the conclusion that it is time).

The celebration of life that so quickly replaced the funeral and the focus on the past instead of any real future is another aspect of this Gnosticism.  The life is lauded for its self-centered focus upon happiness and the greatest accomplishment is such a life well lived.  In the end, the spirit is released from the body to a better place that is not defined and to an existence vague enough to be just about anything.  Think how this contrasts with the preaching of the Savior who dies to kill death and rises to bestow the life death cannot overcome.  Think how disappointing it is to the purveyors of this Gnosticism that Jesus can be touched, eats, walks, and has a real, fleshly body (though glorious).

It was, in my view, the beginning of what ended up the great Battle for the Bible -- the idea that the factual or historical reality of something is either unnecessary or even an impediment to the spiritual truth represented there.  It is not that Adam and Eve are not real people but that their existence as people is irrelevent to Genesis and the unfolding story of sin and redemption.  It is not that Jonah and the whale are not real and the event of the prophet's amazing attempt at escape historical but this does not matter and its historicity may even impede its spiritual meaning and appreciation.  So it is for Jesus' resurrection.  It does not need to be said that Jesus did not rise and His bones might still be found in a cave in Palestine but that the historical truth of that event is somehow unnecessary and even detracts from the spiritual meaning of the resurrection.  It does not need to be said that marriage is the divinely instituted order for church and society but marriage is optional and even an enemy of personal fulfillment -- a fulfillment that is spiritual and not physical in nature.  I could go on.  Once you unleash this genie from the bottle, Gnosticism is free to rob Christianity of the truth of all truths and to leave us with a hidden gem to find, a secret path to follow, and a spiritual future that looks back at flesh and blood as if it were youthful foolishness.

This can have nothing to do with the Jesus who comes in flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin, who suffers, dies, and sheds His blood upon the cruel instrument of death on the cross, and who rises to rescue not the idea of a person but their body from its chains as well.  It does not take long then to gut the sacraments from their reality and to make the Word a code book to be broken instead of the Word of Life to be believed.  Imagine that.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Scriptures are. . .

One of the curious things is also one of the most obvious -- that Scripture is not primarily words but a voice speaking.  I fear that in our context of a published book, we have forgotten that God's Word is a living Word, a living voice, that speaks.  We think of printed words on a page and of an individual reading those words, interpreting them for him or herself, and applying those words personally and individually.  That is not the context of Scripture from the beginning but a very recent aberration and one that is fraught with tensions and problems. 

Scripture was primarily a worship and catechetical book in the Old Testament.  It was found in the community of Temple and synagogue and not on a bookshelf in a home.  People assembled together to hear the Word, just as they did in Luke 4 when Jesus got the scroll, opened to the text appointed for the day, and preached not only by Jesus' speaking but by His very presence as the Word Incarnate.  In the assembly is where the Scriptures were heard by most folks -- at least until more modern times.

In this respect Scripture is ecclesiological -- it is the Church's book, addressed to the Church, received by the Church, and taken up by the Church as her voice to the world.  In contrast, we have come to think of the Bible as the people's book, to make of it what they will, and therefore devoid of meaning and purpose except those assigned to it by the reader.  It is no wonder that people are all over the page when it comes to what the Word of God says.  In fact, the soft underbelly of Protestantism is that private interpretation has not only become the norm but the ideal.  We may come together to share our individual insights but we do not think of God's Word as being addressed to the Church and not to us as individuals.

Furthermore, Scripture is liturgical.  Its context is liturgical -- not simply by virtue of its history of use within the assembly of the Old and New Testament communities but because it is an efficacious or sacramental Word that does what it says as well as mean what it says.  The whole purpose of Scripture is not to inform but to bring the sinner into the presence of a gracious God so that the forgiven sinner might worship the Lord in spirit and in truth (a clear reference here to the means of grace!).  Scripture is a living Word and speaks life -- and the Holy Spirit is the breath and power that not only prepares the hearer but enables the hearer to hear in faith and thus enter into the Body of Christ as that Body is gathered around His Word and Sacraments.  All Scriptural is liturgical because it testifies to Christ and Christ brings us into communion with the Father -- worship.

In a tragic sense, the Church has surrendered too much of this.  We have surrendered the Word to the Biblical scholars to tell us what we do not know -- as if there is a hidden meaning or a hidden reality about the text that must be unpacked by an academic or intellectual pursuit.  The Biblical scholar no longer sees their work in service to the Church but often in opposition to what the Church has believed, confessed, and taught -- as if we naive or ignorant and must be taught.  In a strange sense, most of modern Biblical scholarship begins with presuppositions that either undermine or exist in opposition to the basic tenets of faith.

Further in this vein, the Church has allowed Scripture to be ripped from its liturgical context and so its goal is no longer Christ but the satisfaction of our curiosity or the explanation of our problems in a way that makes us feel better.  Has the work of Biblical scholars aided in the proclamation of this living Word or distracted from it?  Have the individual interpretations that flow from the personal reading of Scripture aided in our worship or impeded that liturgical assembly?  Is Christ the goal and the end of Scripture or is there another goal or end?  The goal here is the edification not simply of the individual but the building up of the Body of Christ.  

Liturgically we address this.  The lectionary volume in our parish is encased in a silver book cover.  It signals in a visual way that this is not simply a book nor is Scripture like other books.  It is the Word of God.  When we carry this book, we honor it because it belongs first to Christ and exists to accomplish His purpose.  Its words are not ours and the voice that reads it is its voice -- it remains God's Word to accomplish His purpose and His voice even though the mouth of the reader.  So the reader finishes the text by saying:  The Word of the Lord!  And the people respond Thanks be to God!  When the Gospel is read in the midst of the assembly, accompanied in procession with the processional crucifix and candles, it gives even more profound notice that this is God's Word, that it speaks Christs and Him crucified, and that this Christ is our Light and our Life.  We turn to meet this Word and we remain standing until it is placed upon the lectern, acknowledging its unique and special place.  I hope that we learn to address this, within the congregation, to be sure, and especially within the formation of pastors in the seminaries. 


Saturday, May 14, 2022

Curious. . .

I received an email the other day from someone who reported to me how someone (name was not listed) suggested that those who like liturgical worship are, in fact, merely reflecting upon worship their own rather affluent lifestyles.  A curious statement to be sure.  Since American affluence is hardly reflected in anything formal or orderly but the chaos of anything goes -- from behavior to vulgarity to dress!  Americans are certainly not in great danger of a more formal or ceremonial anything.  Instead, it is the opposite affliction that is common to America -- a deliberate casual attitude toward nearly everything except desire (which must be honored and respected above all!).

The reality is actually quite the opposite.  Liturgical and ceremonial Lutheran worship has survived and even thrived where there was little affluence.  Think historically of the parish served by the Rev. Berthold von Schenk or look at where the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus began his ministry.  Far from being large or affluent, these parishes were small and had meager resources.  What was true in the past, is also very true of today.  Sure, there are those congregations which are blessed with an abundance of resources and people and who still endeavor to reflect the fullness of our evangelical and catholic tradition rather than its minimum, but the vast majority are on the small side and do not have any fat wallets.  Think here of parishes like Zion in Detroit or St. Pauls in Kewanee.  It would be nice if the more liturgical parishes of the LCMS could claim an abundance of both money and people but the reality is that these parishes typically are on the small side all the way around.

On the other hand, the most affluent parishes of the LCMS tend to be on the casual side of things -- from the style of worship to the typical wardrobe of those on either side of the rail (as if there was an actual altar rail).  Part of the reality here is that it costs the big bucks to pay for the technology rich style of worship that requires screens and big bands and one of those expensive cups of designer coffee.   If there is any congregation that reflects the American mood today, it is not the confessional or liturgical parish.  It might, on the other hand, be the evangelical style Lutheran who likes theater style seating, lighting, and entertainment as well as the option of watching it all on his personal screen while wearing sleep pants and munching on the breakfast Uber Eats just delivered.

Affluence has little to do with support for liturgical worship with confessional integrity.  In fact, despite what the critics say, liturgical worship with confessional integrity has always been rather out of step with culture and this is even more true today.  It is counter culture to kneel, cross yourself, chant, genuflect, use incense, or use a chalice.  If you want to stick out like a sore thumb in Lutheranism today, advocate for a more elaborate ceremonial within the historic parameters of our confession.  That is true not just for Lutherans, it is true for nearly ever Christian tradition.  Pope Francis has admitted as much in his dogged pursuit of the Latin Mass enthusiasts.  If Francis is afraid of a small group of zealots for a dead language, perhaps that tells you as much about the power of ceremony as it does the insecurities of a particular Pope.  It is no different within Lutheranism.  There are those who are confident that the undoing of Luther's legacy is threatened more by those who add in a ceremony or two or a few words to the ordinary liturgy of the hymnal than it is by those who long ago ditched the book, the liturgy, the lectionary, and the Sacrament for a swell pair of khakis and a nice polo in a warehouse outfitted with the latest techno toys.

Lets be real, folks!  Individualism, casual to the extreme, the priority of preference, and whatever makes us feel good is the encroaching fog that threatens to dim the Church's light before the world.  Anything that challenges these and turns the focus on the efficacy of a Word that does what it says and water, bread, and wine that are what they sign is the most radical thing of all.   

Friday, May 13, 2022

Setting the record straight. . .

Now that Roe might be overturned, it is time to rebut some of the myths that have been posited about abortion.

  • Overturning Roe will not stop abortions.  It merely turns the decision back to the states to decide where we all know some will allow and some will restrict abortion.  Even now state laws differ.  In at least one state you can abort right up until the moment of delivery -- even though that is not what Roe decided either.  So leave it up to the states like most laws are and should be.
  • Overturning Roe simply admits the obvious -- the Constitution did not envision, did not foresee, and does not include any right to abortion.  There is no such thing as a civil right for abortion so all the comparisons to the legitimate and laudable Civil Rights Movement are foolish comparisons.  FWIW, nearly all of the leaders of that important and impressive movement were against abortion.
  • Overturning Roe will not restrict doctors from the ordinary pursuit of their duties and medical responsibilities -- not even for those suffering miscarriage or the mothers whose lives are medically threatened by the continuation of the pregnancy.  This is not about inserting police into a doctor's office or testing legitimate medical advice with attorneys present.
  • Overturning Roe will not immediately end the death of these innocent ones.  People will travel to places where abortion is legal and the changing of a law does not change people's minds -- we have witnessed that too often for anyone to question that truth.
  • Overturning Roe will not make bring back the back alley abortionists.  There are abundant alternatives available to a practice just as immoral as the abortions themselves.  As I said above, people can travel and will even, as it might seem, on somebody else's dime.

And while I am at it, some foolish things people say about those who are pro-life and the churches who advocate for the rights of the unborn (along with others society is not so sure it wants or values).

  • Those who are think that pro-life folks are only interested in preventing the killing of the child should remember that the pro-life are also, by and large, the same folks who are volunteering at food pantries, giving money to all sorts and kinds of relief agencies, rounding up their total at stores for good causes, and a thousand other things that improve the lives of those in need.  It is foolish, stupid, and wrong to suggest that people want the babies but refuse to invest in the lives of their moms or families or the children.
  • Those who think that abortion is health care need to remember that we do not reward doctors for killing their patients.  Every OB doctor has two patients -- the child in the womb deserves every consideration as much as the mother.  Health care is supposed to mean protecting life.  It is about time that we saw through the lie that killing the child in the womb is good medicine.
  • Those who think every child has a right to be wanted should look at the high statistics for infertility and the monies being spent every year in reproductive technology -- in large measure because abortion has eliminated the babies available for adoption.  If every child aborted in a given year were suddenly available to adopt, everyone of them would be.  If you are GLBTQ+, you might want to think twice about being pro-choice since this means babies would be available for you to adopt as well -- what with laws against discrimination and all.
  • Those who think my body, my choice -- where were you when this business of Covid vaccinations and mask wearing and such were being mandated?  That phrase works only when it conveniently fits your prejudice.  Further, it is not your body.  The baby in the womb is not merely another organ in the mother's body but has separate DNA and a life distinct enough from the mother so that not every disease the mother has is passed on to the child.  Furthermore, wasn't it your choice to have sex or not?  Wasn't that the choice you should be concerned about?  
  • Those who try to compare abortion to other things might recall that in abortion there is only one party consenting -- the one seeks to end the life of the other.  The choice to abort, unlike the choice to have intercourse, is not mutual but completely one-sided -- not altogether unlike the kind of violence that would take away the choice and consent from the woman by rape or incest. 
  • Those who were wearing masks and social distancing for the past two years should have realized that if these things work, so does contraception.  While contraception is not necessarily the best choice, it will at least protect us from having to kill the life of another because somebody did not think ahead or prepare for that choice to have sex.
  • Those who think that the government has no right to force this on you might do well to remember all the things the government does force on us -- things that are supposed to save lives -- like a seat belt, for example.  If saving lives is an important function of our government, how does legalized killing of the life in the womb square with that cause?
  • Those who suggest that the child in the womb isn't a real child because they have not been invited to funerals for miscarried babies -- well, that is about the rudest thing I have ever heard.  As a pastor I can tell you first hand of the loss, pain, sorrow, and suffering of those who endure a miscarriage.  Some of them would be happy to have had the opportunity to have a funeral for their beloved child who did not live long enough to be held in their arms.  If it were a customary practice, I know many who would have appreciated their loss being treated as a real loss with real grief.  Instead they are subjected to uncaring comments like the child must have been damaged or it is natures way of fixing a mistake or there is always a next time.  You are right, maybe we ought to honor the dignity of the grieving parents, grandparents, and siblings by holding a funeral for the miscarried babies and I will invite all those who think that the child in the womb is not real to come and find out how it hurts.

You know what is strange?  We live at a time when a war is going on in Europe and people are dying over real estate and yet some folks think the world is coming to an end because they might have their access to a free abortion restricted in some way.  Are our values so skewed by the demand for rights that we no longer pay attention to the cost of those rights or those who must suffer for us to have those rights?  

I will admit that I am radically pro-life.  I do not even understand why an innocent child should have to suffer in case of rape or incest.  Why not punish the perpetrator of these crimes instead of the baby?  Why not allow that child of your pain to bring joy to a family unable to conceive?  Life is made cheap by the way we treat those least able to care for themselves.  It is high time we acknowledged our error and try to make amends.  From the baby in the womb to the aged in a nursing home, every life is sacred, precious, and the duty and responsibility of a compassionate society to protect and care for -- even when the cost is great!  The mark of our nobility as people is shown not by the rights we demand but by the cost we bear so that those who require our sacrifice may live.  

If you were looking for theological statements, I was aiming at another audience today -- one that does not listen to the Word of God but should see how unreasonable the arguments are which are enlisted to make the murder of the child int he womb a legal and moral right and choice.  Abortion is the most illogical and irrational practice of our modern world -- even without arguments from the Word of God.