Monday, February 28, 2022

The woke army. . .

What we face in the woke culture of the West is nothing less than an assault on every truth except their truth and every fact that does not support their truth.  Does it sound like I am making a radical statement?  Well, I am.  It is a radical wake up call to a people who are lazy and complacent -- and here I am speaking to Christians who think that this is not the state of things or else the craziness of the moment will blow away and things will go back to normal.  There soon will be no normal except that which the woke culture defines.  While this is in part due to the retrospective view of history that is even now undergoing a transformation, it is also due to the fact that our woke culture and willing society will allow nothing but their point of view to be expressed.

Yes, religion will always be free in the heart and mind of the believer but not in his or her mouth and not in public -- even in worship services.  Nobody will show up to your door to take away your Bible or your prayerbook or your catechism, but they do not need to do this.  If what is in your Bible, your prayerbook, and your catechism are prevented by law from being expressed in public, the end result is the same as a book burning.

No, you will not be sent to camps where you will be indoctrinated into the new point of view, but you will be censored and certain occupations and positions will no longer be open to those who dare to disagree with the woke point of view.  If you think I am falsely sounding an alarm, look at how those who run social media routinely restrict or ban certain people and certain points of view.  It was once said that if it was true, the truth would withstand the threats of lies and the power of deception.  The truth that is prevented from being expressed does not have to be debunked in order for the lie to win -- it has already won by simply allowing no opposition.

In America the examples are many.  Trump, no matter what you think of him, has been silenced by the social media of the day, tarred and feathered by accusation, and will be hunted down in courts until he is silenced.  Whether he deserves this or not, who would have thought that such a thing could have happened until now?  Why is his point of view so dangerous it cannot be allowed to be heard?  Did we not go through something like this when communists and communism was thought to be a threat too powerful to be allowed to speak?  How did that turn out? 

The methodology that would limit access to media and prevent opposing points of view is not conservative but radical.  It is the means by which fascists and despots once ruled the day.  We thought that a world of free news, free travel, and free ideas would prevent fascists and tyrants but now the very tools of these disgraced rulers and ideologies are being used against the very ideas that would challenge sexual liberty, gender identity, political dissent, and different views of a pandemic.

At the core of there are grave questions we must soon confront.  Is a political and social point of view so fragile that it cannot be questioned or challenged?  Is it so weak that it must be propped up by force and supported by threat against any and all who disagree?  Is liberty itself something so fragile that it can be killed by a small number of protesters turned rioters in the Capital?  Is the population so ignorant or foolish that they must be sequestered from those who disagree with the politics, social movements, and moral values promoted by the current ruling class?  Can we disagree with the people who sit in Congress and in the White House and in the Supreme Court building and still be patriotic Americans?  Is religion that offends the liberal and progressive platforms still a religion protected as constitutional right and freedom?

America is not alone.  Even now Canada’s Parliament is considering a bill (C10) that would censor public statements of basic Christian teachings, such as about sex and marriage. It would also censor public criticism of the government, such as possibly social media postings about the Freedom Convoy and any dissent from Covid regulations.  Right now in Finland a politician and a Church are on trial for the words found in any and every Bible.  When courts do not provide the kind of immediate penalties, it is not above such governments to freeze bank accounts and for employers to fire otherwise exemplary employees on the basis of their politics and religion.  Is this a step forward or a step back?  Is it occurring under an economically or socially conservative government or are these things the tools of the progressives seeking to enforce their point of view and squelch all dissent?  The woke army may be coming for you.  We have seen how it worked in the past.  Will we be strong enough to fight against the woke army now?  We shall see....

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Bound to what we can. . .

I overheard a couple of people talking about their churches and one, obviously Roman Catholic, said that his priest had heard his confession and then the person became ill and could not fulfill the holy obligation of the Mass.  The priest told the penitent, "People are not bound to do what they can’t do, only to what they can.  But there is no cover in confession for those who do not want to do what they ought."  Now there are some words to chew on.

Although we might disagree a bit over the way the obligation of the Mass is treated, Lutherans should take notice.  God does not bind us to what we cannot do.  When illness or unavoidable work steal us away from God's House, there is nothing we are able to do about that.  But the vast majority of people are absent from the Lord's House not by impossibility to attend but by a lack of desire.  There the duty remains and our failure to be glad to enter the Lord's House is itself a sign of sin and a wrong that deserves confession.

Confessing we do not want to go to the Divine Service may be true enough in fact but it is a signal that a serious problem has breached our hearts and this must be dealt with sooner rather than later.  Frankly, the majority of our people are not in the pews of the Lord's House on the Lord's Day around the Word and Table of the Lord -- not because they are not available but simply because they don't want to.  They feel no urgency either from sin and its guilt to receive God's absolution nor do they feel any real want or desire for the holiness of God's House and His unmerited gifts of grace delivered to us there.  That is a problem.

Frankly, I cannot tell how many times I have heard the yearning in a deployed soldier's words to be again in the presence of the Lord, hearing the faithful proclamation of His Word and receiving His body and blood -- but the urgencies of war have prevented it.  I cannot count the number of times a shut-in or nursing home resident has lamented the loss of not being able to be in Church on Sunday morning, among the fellowship of God's people around His Word and altar.  Those who cannot yearn to be present and those who are able simply choose not to be present.  Think about that.

This is surely not new.  Hebrews 10 reminds us that early on in the life of the Church there were those who neglected the assembly then -- just as there are now.  And the writer to the Hebrews urges the hearer of God's Word to encourage those missing so that miss what happens around the Word and Table of the Lord.  Judging by attendance figures, nearly every Church body in America and every congregation has less than half of its people there on any given Sunday.  Some find that number even worse -- perhaps 70-80% of those missing who should be there.  Think what your congregation or our church body would look like if 80% were there and only 20% we missing -- or everyone who could attend did attend!

Saturday, February 26, 2022

What we need. . .

So often the Church presumes that the problem in keeping people is the development of friendship ties to cement the place of people within the community of the Church.  There is some truth to this, of course, but friendship is not simply the goal.  What fellowship is lacking is nothing less than the true camaraderie of a people whose community is more than friendship but a common identity.

It is a good thing when the people of God share common interests.  It is a good thing when our primary friendships are forged from the community of faith.  But the Church will not be saved by common interest or even the affection of friendship.  Our association is not random or accidental or based upon choice.  Our association is born of the baptismal water that has given us new and everlasting life.  Our common life is rooted and planted in the soil of worship where God comes to us in words that accomplish His purpose and in bread and wine that are His flesh and blood.  It is not shared leisure or recreation or friendship that lead to our unity around the Word and Table of the Lord.  It is our unity around the Word and Table of the Lord that lead us to friendship.

Youth work has degenerated into a pale imitation of the places and ways to entertain ourselves.  Instead of engaging youth with the nobler identity and task of their baptismal vocation, we have distracted them with games.  How can this lead them to know and appreciated the seriousness of their baptismal identity as children of God or their place before Him on the holy ground of liturgy and worship?  But a knowledge of self flowing from the font and manifest in their life together around His Word and Table will certainly lead to friendship.

The same is true of the way we deal with men's or women's groups.  We presume that common interest will lead to the deeper association of their lives together around His Word and Table but it is and must be the other way around.  Having known and enjoyed our common life as the children of God by baptism and faith, realized in our life together around His Word and Table, we will naturally seek out and foster social relationships, common interests, and the pursuit of friendship.  That is how it works and not the other way around.

I fear that too many of our groups are simply interest groups that are just like the ones in the world, copy cat programs that seek to find friendship almost exclusively in interest, preference, and leisure.  The world is not our teacher and its aims cannot be renovated into a cohesive program of fellowship.  It is and must the opposite.  From our life together around His Word and Table will flow the ordinary interactions that people have but, again, this is not our chief aim.  Our most important goal and purpose is known and lived out in our association as the baptized people of God, confessing our faith, and living by the food of God's Word and Table.

Instead we have been content to add a thin veneer of religiosity to what are largely secular processes and ends.  A group begins with a spoken prayer before it proceeds to other endeavors and this is what makes it churchly.  Prayer ought to infuse everything we are and do and not simply be a perfunctory ritual.  Worship should not be the occasional activity of such fellowship groups but their primary identity and activity -- that from which everything else flows.

We should not be satisfied with less or other avenues of community but pursue with an even greater vigor and enthusiasm the fullest dimensions of our life together in the heavenly liturgy rehearsed here in time.  This is our koinonia and this is our primary association and fellowship.  This will forge for men a place for them to grow as men -- not the imagined masculinity of the world but the true masculinity that flows out of our heavenly Father's heart and follows the example of His Son, our Savior.  This will establish and further the growth of women as women -- not in competition with men or dominated by them but in the holy submission of love given shape by Blessed Mary's own submission to the will of God that ennobled her from generation to generation.  This will provide a place where children are truly nurtured in faith and righteousness, learning to love the Word of the Lord and to delight in His house -- the very kind of family into which our heavenly Father entrusted His only Son and marked by the examples of godliness in Mary and Joseph.  These ought to be the greater goals of our life together as the Church and offer to the baptized the blessed unity of a life together that is both now and eternal.

Friday, February 25, 2022

How will we know?

It has been a while since I wrote directly about the COVID situation but it is long past time to consider the question no one has been able to answer:  how will we know it is over?  Indeed, by what metric will we decide that COVID is over?  This is not simply theoretical but a most practical concern for a church.  For example, England has now put in place restrictions on gathering that include churches.  Given the unknowns in our future, it is not outside the realm of possibility that we might face the same government response again, right here.  How will we know it is over?

One metric used to be declining cases.  The advent of multiple variants and the addition to our vocabulary of delta and omicron and others to come means that it is highly unlikely we will see the cases simply wind down to nothing. 

Then the metric was natural immunity.  But as we have seen, as robust as that natural immunity might be, it does not prevent infection from variants or even reinfection from the original strain.  So it could be that, like the flu, COVID will be something that changes and natural immunity will not protect against those variants.

Another metric was vaccinations.  Since vaccination is no longer a one and done scenario but a multiplicity of boosts to the original dosage, it is hard to say what it will mean to be fully vaccinated in six months or a year or three years.

Of course, the ultimate metric is deaths.  The problem there is that there no uniform definition of cause of death when it comes to COVID so that it is hard to sort the statistics out to find out the actual death rate of which COVID is the primary cause.  There were patients with terminal illness who got COVID were listed as COVID deaths but were they primarily due to COVID?

The goal of these metrics was immunity, at least in the beginning.  Now it is not a vaccine to provide immunity but to prevent complications.  As we have seen all over the world, vaccination does not itself guarantee that the vaccinated will not get COVID -- only the hope that when you get it or get it again, the symptoms will be milder and hospitalizations less likely.  In the meantime, masks may end up being normal -- not because they make you safe but because they tell you the pandemic is still there.

If churches are waiting for the all clear siren sounding the end of the pandemic, they may have long to wait or may never hear it at all.  My point is not to argue what the right metric is or where we are in pursuit of that goal but to raise a point.  The uncertainty and fear may lesson as people become accustomed to it all but that may not translate into a resurgence of attendance or participation in the life of the church by those who have absented themselves from in person worship.  My thought is that those who have not returned will not return.  Some of them may have lived more on the fringes of the sacramental life of the congregation but many did not.  Some of them will keep up a private and individualized faith at home but many will not.  Some will find online offerings to be enough for them but many will not.  This may be less of an issue for the evangelical or Protestant congregation but it is a profound concern for a sacramental communion in which the weekly gathering of God's people in His House, around His Word and Table are the definition of what it means to be the Church (Hebrews 10).

I do not believe that we will ever know when it is over -- only when it no longer dominates the news.  Some of the metrics of that change are already coming.  My health insurer sent me an email in December telling me that no longer will they cover all COVID related costs outside the ordinary deductible and policy limits.  After January 1, most treatment costs will be borne by me within the parameters of my policy coverage and subject to the deductible -- like everything else.  In other words, COVID may go one but they are doing business as usual.  I am not a fan of insurers but perhaps they have made a point.  COVID may not go away but will we as the Church do business as usual?  I guess we will see. . .

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The power of yes. . .

The principle of the Great Reformation and its practice is largely a yes rather than a no.  Though it is easy to get lost in the polemics of Luther and his opponents, this was not a battle about what could not be allowed but what must be present.  Many Lutherans conveniently forget that Luther and his cohort were perfectly willing to keep the papacy, the bishops in place, and nearly everything else that modern day Lutherans find so objectionable -- if only the Gospel (God's yes! in Christ) were allowed to be preached!  

Institutional Lutheranism has managed to construct a Lutheranism that has a clear and secure identity in opposition to things.  Of course, Lutherans were opposed to the Sacrifice of the Mass, the abuse of penance, to purgatory and the treasury of merits, and to everything else that kept the Gospel from being THE Word proclaimed.  Works that supplanted or supplemented Christ's work were opposed not because works are bad but because they obscured the Gospel.  This Gospel is not some principle of love (as it has now become) but the concrete incarnation, obedient life, life-giving death, and triumphant resurrection of our Lord.  Scripture is sola not because we say it is so but because it is the only the voice of this Gospel that sets the prisoner free, gives sight to the blind, gives the lame to run, allows the deaf to hear, opens the mouth of the mute, and raises the dead.  It does so by the forgiveness of sins and the new birth of water and the Spirit.  It was and is and has always been about God's yes.

So when Lutherans (and anyone else) reads our Confessions, you either read a set of objections or you read the triumph of God's yes put into a conservative principle.  This is exactly what happens when it comes to the Mass.  We say yes before rushing to a no or until we have no choice but to say no to the received practices of the day -- ritual, church usages, liturgical forms, pious practices, ceremonies, church year, lectionary, tabernacles, elevation, vestments -- you name it!  The Reformation principle here applied shows a conserving spirit that was a conundrum to Rome (and still is) and a betrayal to the radical reformers who insisted that no was the ONLY word that could be said to the state of things in Christendom.  

Modern day Lutherans have sinned against our founding in two ways.  We have grown so comfortable with an institutional Lutheranism that we work to preserve a structure instead the Gospel itself.  In my own Synod, diversity of beliefs and practices become the cause of bylaws and procedures instead of what we believe, teach, and confess.  In the ELCA, the Gospel is redefined into a principle that rules Scripture and everything -- there is no no to anything (except that violates the woke ideals of culture)!  On the one hand, some Lutherans thing that what God has not explicitly allowed means it is forbidden, others think that what God has not forbidden is probably allowed (depending upon what it is) and still others think that even what God has forbidden has been overcome by our freedom in Christ (the triumph of love!).  The yes that we tend to talk about is not God's but ours -- the yes of our agreement to doctrinal propositions or the yes of our hearts to their own desires.  When will we remember that it is God's yes that matters?

Where is that careful spirit of Augustana and its claim to catholicity of doctrine and practice?  Where is that reverence for Scripture that defers preference and desire and everything to what God has done for us in Christ?  Where is the trust that the Law also reveals the perfect as well as constraining the error?  

If Lutheranism is to have a future, it will have to muddle through its twists and turns back to what we once stood for and were willing to die for -- the Gospel.  This is not some minimalist Gospel that merely affirms our own wants or lusts but the true Gospel that meets the sinner in despair and raises that sinner up with the power of Yes!  The cross is that yes.  Where sin ruined, God rescued.  Where death put an end, God made a new beginning.  If we fail to see this, we will make rule after rule that no one will follow or we will make Lutheranism a faint echo of self.  I have great hope but it is being tested by an institutional Lutheranism so entrenched that not even its own Confessions may move it and by a modernistic Lutheranism so free that God no longer matters.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Concern. . .

While it is certainly true that our Concordia universities and colleges have been less affected by the wokeness that has infected so much of higher education today, that does not mean we are immune from the influences of that agenda.  I am concerned that a report from within one of our Concordias suggests that there is now a kind of battle going on and it directly involves the election of a new president to succeed Pat Ferry who retired last year.

While I am fearful of spreading false rumors, I am also mindful that where there is smoke, there is some fire somewhere.  So I would pass onto you cautiously this information.

A CUWAA faculty member, Dr. Gregory Schulz, wrote this piece charging that a woke agenda was at work at CUW and specifically in the election of a president.  You can read his words published by Christian News (a publication with a reputation that some might believe is good cause for dismissing this).  CUW has a Diversity Guide, that is without dispute.  You can read it for yourself and make your own judgment as to its content.

Acting President Dr. William Cario believes that this is an attack on CUW and it appears his administration has suspended Dr. Schulz for his article.  This is the response of Dr. Cario:

I will admit that the Regents can often feel like they are between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand they have the realities of an educational system that has thoroughly invested in the woke agenda and the goals of diversity and inclusivity and which is in charge of credentialing the university.  On the other hand, they act not simply as representatives invested in the university but as fiduciary guardians of a campus and program that belongs to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and must abide by the confession, doctrine, and practice of that Synod.  As I have noted often here, that culture outside the university and the responsibility to be a Lutheran university are increasingly at odds.  Furthermore, the language of our woke culture and its cause for diversity and inclusivity are cloaked weasel words that often mean something different to those within the system than they do to those not schooled in the language and vocabulary of the woke culture.

When the university's own “demonstrated belief in and commitment to equity and inclusion” promotes racialized “diversity in all its myriad forms” and the deception of a gender fluid culture defined by self-affirmation and feelings, it may become impossible to find the delicate line in the middle.  I feel for those in charge and yet I am fearful that the pressures from the outside might by so great that our universities will find it hard -- perhaps even impossible -- to retain their Lutheran confession and identity without surrendering some of the things that they have cultivated and enjoyed in their pursuit of success.  If that is the case, they are not alone in having to sacrifice earthly success in order to remain faithful....

Stay tuned for more. . . .

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Why is it so hard to forgive?

Repentance has become more about the desire to be a better person and do better in the way you live you life than about sin.  It is about me and my desires and it seeks to ennoble me with bigger thoughts and desires than simply my preferences.  This view of repentance has turned the focus away from sin and God's undeserved grace and placed it on improvement, largely self-improvement.  In this way it was and is easy to substitute the ills of society and the world for personal sin.  It is as if the goal of repentance were to inspire us to want and to do the good things identified as affecting more than merely ourselves.  We repent of poverty instead of the sin of failing to help our neighbor.  We repent of racism instead of putting the best construction on all things and all people.  We repent of failing to show hospitality instead of being self-absorbed consumers.  

Such repentance seems to require evidence of change before forgiveness is offered.  Unless we are making progress toward the rectifying of the wrongs our society has done and our part in them, we should not ask for and we should not be granted forgiveness.  It is a limited forgiveness and a conditional one that is constantly being checked against that progress to see if it is warranted or justified.  What happens is that the focus is shifted away from the grantor of forgiveness and back to the sinner.  That sinner deserves forgiveness only insofar as they are making headway in correcting their wrongs, atoning for them, and showing the improvement that is desired.  This kind of repentance is merely a self-improvement program entered under duress.

Such repentance would not and cannot work before God.  How could forgiveness be tied to improvement when we are dead in trespasses and sin?  Even worse, it makes God's forgiveness something cheap and ordinary -- something regulated by and, indeed, occasioned by what the sinner thinks or feels or does.  Advent and Lent are penitential seasons not because they are times for the faithful to focus on their complicity in the great sins of humanity and the encouragement of those selfsame sinners to try harder, to do better, and to reflect this in words and actions that befit their seriousness.  No, this is not Advent or Lent.  Advent and Lent are penitential seasons precisely because they are when the faithful are confronted with the scandalously generous mercy of God who forgives those who do not deserve such forgiveness, who bears the cost of that forgiveness solely, and who restores those who show no evidence of improvement in their thoughts, words, or deeds except taking ownership of their sins (not as societal ills in which they have participated but as personal sins which they confess).

Lutherans do not disdain the ordinary piety of penitential seasons -- fasting, alms giving, devotion, and worship services.  But these are very places where we meet the mercy we do not deserve, where we hear about Him who bears the cost of our sin for us, and Him from whom the power to change our lives comes.  In this way Lutherans have a particular and needed aid to what was once a time of renewed self-improvement doomed to fail (like the proverbial New Year's resolutions by now thankfully forgotten) and our own efforts at this better behavior.  In addition, Lutherans have something to say against a confession which has become merely the acknowledgement of participation in corporate guilt and the failure to do more good instead of a confession of personal guilt and shame at that which was done wrong in thought, word, and deed.  But Lutherans also have something to say for the amazing way that our consolation of the brethren and application of God's forgiveness has also mirrored this conditional forgiveness gauged by signs of improvement.

Why is it so hard for us to forgive others?  Could it be that we have forgotten that forgiveness is not the reward or incentive offered to those who are fixing their problems but the unmerited mercy that focuses not on the wrong but on the cost of forgiveness willingly borne by the one forgiving?  Looking at the unpleasantness of social media and the deterioration of civility in our nation and in our churches, it is worth looking at how we have translated the idea of a merited forgiveness into our personal relationships -- thus assuring that few will actually need to be forgiven!  God's absolution is unconditional and it is bestowed not upon the worthy or deserving but sinners who own their sins and who invoke the atonement given for them by the blood of Christ upon the cross.  It is not cheap grace (as Bonhoeffer complained) that denies the striving for the living out of this new life given to us freely but at great cost to God.  What it is a focus on what grace is, what mercy is, what forgiveness is -- and that means looking not at the sinner but at the one forgiving.

Why would Jesus suggest in Matthew 18 that it is the duty of the wronged to seek out the one who wronged them?  Why would Jesus frame this pursuit not in the context of vengeance or justice but of restoration and forgiveness?  Why would Jesus make the condition of forgiveness not the changed behavior of the one who wronged but the desire of the wronged to forgive?  Because that is what God has done.  He sought out the sinner not for the sake of extracting revenge or getting justice but to show them mercy they did not deserve and made the sole condition of forgiveness was the heart of God.  If we began to apply this in our personal relationships, how might things be different?  Why do we wait for apologies from people who often do not even know that we are wounded?  Why are we stingy with our forgiveness and attach so many conditions to that forgiveness?  Why do we find it easier to remember the wrong than to forgive and forget it?  Could it be that the problem here is OUR hearts and wills and desires and not simply the sins of the sinners against us?  We are exactly those in Jesus' parable to who take mercy and then refuse it to others because what God is willing for us we are unwilling for others.  Could this be the reason why in the middle of the prayer Jesus taught that connection between God's absolution of the undeserved is made with how we forgive others?

If you treat mercy as a treasure to be doled out sparingly to the few who deserve it, it is no wonder why you have trouble forgiving others.  But the bigger problem may be that you have trouble with God's forgiveness as well.  Something to think about as Lent approaches.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Judge not but forgive. . .

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (C), preached on Sunday, February 20, 2022.

Judge not and you will not be judged.  In what world is that true?  Have you been on social media?  Do you hear the terrible things we say to each out and about each other?  Do you pay attention to how we talk about those elected to serve us?  Do you listen to the way we rush to judge any one for any thing and every thing?  And the weird thing about it is that the people we judge actually ask for our judgement!  Like those endless surveys from the places where you shop on the internet to the polls we answer about our last doctor’s visit, we beg to be judged by the people we neither respect or care about.  We are the worst judges of all.  Why right now you are judging me as I preach and that noisy kid fussing and the hymns we sing and the way the organist is playing them and the choir singing.  We cannot stop ourselves.

It does not matter whether we are competent to judge, we are the presumed experts in everything and we feel everyone deserves our opinion on everything.  And when people are offended by our judgments, we insist that we were only telling the truth as if truth justifies rudeness and self-righteousness.  The sin in the world tells us that our judgment is righteous.  I know; I am the same way.  Worst of all, we judge God.  We tell Him what part of His Word we believe and what we won’t believe.  We tell Him that if He does not answer our prayers like we say, He should bother at all.  We tell Him that our desires are more important than His Word and that truth is what we declare it to be.  

When Jesus tells us to judge not, He is hitting at the core issue of what sin has done to our hearts.  Instead of trusting and building up, we are skeptical and tear down.  It started in Eden but it did not stop there.  And it cannot stop until and unless Jesus takes residence in our hearts.  We do not stop judging in order to be found worthy of the Kingdom but because we are made members of the Kingdom we begin to learn that such judgment is not worthy of those who belong to Christ by baptism and faith.

The sweetest words we hear is the voice of God saying “I forgive you.”  And from them come the second most sweet words we hear, when those around us say “I forgive you.”  This forgiveness is not something God gives because we prove how sorry we are or because we promise never to do it again or because we can or will do something to repay such forgiveness.   
We do not forgive one another because they have proven how sorry they are or we trust their promise never to do it again or even because forgiveness is a strategic move that might help us.  We forgive because we have been forgiven.

The power to stop judging comes only from the One who has set aside judgment for the sake of mercy, condemnation for the sake of redemption.  Only Christ.  He is the true Joseph who forgives the sins of His brothers.  He is the true Bridegroom who forgives His bride, the Church, so that she is holy and pure before the Father.  He has endured every angry word, every terrible lie, every awful truth, and every false judgment and He bore it all for us.  Because He paid the price of our redemption with His own body and blood on the cross and spared us from every rightful condemnation for our sins, we are made new.
Our Lord not only removes the stain of guilt and its shame from our hearts, He replaces these with the desire to know Him, to mirror in our lives His ways, and to raise up our life and conversation to heaven.  That is why we cannot be content to live in the old ways of sin and judgment and why we seek by the aid of the Spirit to a higher good and a more noble life.  Is this not why St. Paul could say that he did not even know what sin was until he knew the mercy and compassion of our righteous God through His Son, Jesus Christ?  St. Paul became even more aware of his own failings in the face of Christ’s goodness and mercy.  And this is why the same St. Paul urges us to live lives worthy of our calling as the people of God.

As people who have received God’s mercy and grace, we live in this forgiveness and compassion.  As our Lord has shown to us the true friendship of His life offered for us, we live in friendship with the poor, the needy, the sick, the weak, and the dying.  We fight not for our rights but for the rights of those most vulnerable – the aged and the unborn.  Though we cannot tolerate evil parading as good or immorality as virtue, to every sinner who confesses their sin we offer the grace of forgiveness as we have been forgiven.  We do not ignore the speck in our neighbor’s eye but neither do ignore or excuse the log in our own eyes.  All of it is laid at the cross.  All of it was laid upon Jesus.  All of it has been cleansed by His blood.  St. Paul insists.  We are not who we were but have become new people in Christ Jesus, created in Him for the good works of His kingdom.

The good works of His kingdom are not overlooking evil or calling it good or standing silently before the forces of change who trample upon God’s Word.  No, while we dare not judge one another as superiors or gods above others neither dare we be quiet while evil rages around us.  We do not judge people but we must judge wrong and call it out.  We must stand together under the judgment of the law of God so that we might also stand together under His mercy.  For has judged us in mercy so that we might judge in mercy the sinner who stands outside the banner of His love.  And by this witness, those who are outside the faith will be drawn to that faith and, by the Holy Spirit, come to know with us not simply the goodness of the Lord but His mercy that does not end.

What we have to offer the world is nothing less than Christ has offered us – the mercy that does not condemn but confronts the sin and the sinner with the only power greater than sin – the forgiveness that came at great cost to Jesus but to us is free.  That is not only our calling but our glory – to proclaim what God does for sinners in Christ and to invite sinners to confess their sins, repent of their wrong, and know with us the power of God’s mercy to rescue the broken, the wounded, the shameful, and the guilty.  Judge not and you will not be judged.  By these words God connects what He has done for us to that which we are called to do for others in His name.

God help us to do no less.  For we are not nay sayers who presume evil but those who have enjoyed the yes of God’s mercy and who refuse to color the world with suspicion and judgment apart from the true judgment of His Word and truth.  And we do so confident that in that Word is not only the righteous and fair judgment of God against sin but the love for sinners that saves them.  In the Holy Name of Jesus. 

Another attempt. . .

The principle of sola Scriptura is often made out to be something it is not and is often paid lip service by those intent upon violating it.  What is sola Scriptura?  Let me put it this way.  Scripture is the only infallible rule or norm of faith and practice.  Okay, what does that mean?  It does not mean only Scripture or Scripture outside of Christian tradition or Scripture in opposition to creed and confession.  What it does mean is that Scripture is what informs and reforms everything else.  

So for the Lutheran, tradition has not only place but authority.  And, by the way, the beating heart of tradition is how and why we worship as we do.  The center of tradition is the liturgy.  We do not disdain orthodox Christian tradition.  We do not ignore such Christian tradition.  But neither do we place such tradition above the Word of God.  All Christian tradition is viewed in light of Scripture and not the other way around.  Tradition has binding authority upon us because it accords with Scripture.  Liturgy binds us because it is Scripture prayed and sung.  Creeds and councils can have binding authority.  They have this authority not because they are above or even in competition with Scripture but because they reflect what Scripture says and teaches.  Tradition is reformable by Scripture.  So is creed.  So is confession.  So is the liturgy.  The only thing that is not subject to reform is Scripture.  Criticism which stands over and above Scripture is rejected precisely because it makes that which is the rule and norm subject to another.  Scripture is our norming norm for all things.

The critics of sola Scriptura love to laugh off this position as bibliolatry or as intellectually untenable.  But what is the alternative?  Is it not the loss of such authority entirely?  If pope (whether one in Rome or thousands in Protestantism), where is the guarantee of infallibility and how can it be held when everyone knows that popes (as well as councils) have erred.  Such infallibility cannot be narrow so that it is rarely invoked or it is a useless infallibility.  It cannot be an infallibility invoked once in 1950 for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin and then put back on the shelf in the face of liturgical disconnects like Vatican II or invented truths like different paths to salvation apart from Christ or the challenges of higher criticism or the mockery of God that parades as feminism or sexual and gender freedom.  What use is an infallibility that is silent where Scripture clearly speaks?

The critics of sola Scriptura insist it is a fundamentalistic concept that is unworthy to the God-given gift of reason.  But where has reason gotten us?  Is the invention of purgatory or the creation of a divine economy and central bank of merits or predestination -- all entirely logical -- to be believed where Scripture and Christ are silent?  Reason is a gift and a blessing but it is no guarantee of infallibility nor does it lead us to a truth beyond Scripture or even hidden in Scripture but plain only to the few.  This is not to say that Scripture is clear in all things (it is not) but that lack belongs not to the Word of God.  It belongs to the fragile mind and frail understanding we bring to that Word because of sin since the Fall and because, in any case, we are creature and He is Creator.  If His ways were not above ours and reason could lead us to Him, then there would be no need of faith (which is, perhaps, the essential problem in finding an authority outside of Scripture which is above Scripture.  The very existence of the Nicene Creed proves the point.  Scripture is not only infallible but clear and its clarity remains so that even a child can confess its mystery.  

Certainly the early fathers affirm this.  Look at how Augustine treats this On Baptism 2.3.4:

But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity?

Or in Letter to Jerome, 82:

I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. . . . As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason.

Augustine does not disdain the Church and insists that the authority of the Church moved him to believe the Gospel but neither does Augustine place the Church above Scripture.  Certainly this is exactly as St. Luke suggests when he insists that he writes to give the believer confidence in the things in which he or she has been catechized (by the Church).  Augustine stands with Jerome who insists that the one who agrees with the Scripture is the Christian.  I have many other quotes from the fathers which I have put up on this blog before but this will suffice for now that sola Scriptura is not only the position of the fathers but show that it is the credible position against those who deposit such infallibility in the Church, councils, creeds, confessions, popes, reason, and intellect.  It does not take more faith to believe Scripture is infallible but greater faith to believe that anything else is and Scripture is not.



Sunday, February 20, 2022

Maranatha. . .

The ancient and eternal prayer of the Church Militant is Come, Lord Jesus.  It is the fervent petition of a Church caught in the already but not yet and in but not of the world place -- always uncomfortable and mostly fraught with the pain of persecution, fear, threat, and anxiety.  But that is our place.  So we pray for all the things for which people have always prayed to God and underneath all those prayers is that ancient and eternal longing -- Come, Lord Jesus.  Though Advent encapsulates this prayer more formally in the blessed Stir up collects, it is not the only season in which this yearning is heard.

The problem lies not with the petition but with how we understand it.  We are most certainly not asking the Lord for more money.  This is not a stewardship petition -- at least in the way that stewardship has come to be known.  Neither are we praying for more buildings, better facilities, and nicer structures in which to do the Lord's bidding.  These things upon which no stone will be left upon another are not the focus of our prayers.  Finally, this is not a prayer for more power in the world or more prestige before the world's leaders or more influence over the world's affairs.  We are not building an earthly kingdom whose territory must be defended against all enemies and we are not creating a utopia out of the broken state of things around us or angling for the restoration of a Christian culture to dominate the culture of the world.  This may seem like the focus of the prayer but these are not our concerns.

God's Kingdom is always weak in the eyes of the world (and perhaps in our own) and foolish before the power of reason and intellect (the worlds and even our own as the people of God).  We are praying for the mystery to be fully revealed, for the hidden to be rendered obvious, and for the promised to be fulfilled.  Ours is not a longing satisfied by earthly temples or kingdoms or power but only by the advent of the new heaven and new earth of His promise.  Our hope lies not in the rescue and refurbishment of the old but in the break through of the new that will not be replaced and cannot be.  We are not in anticipation of a thing but of God, not of a time but eternity, and not of a place but of the presence.  This prayer is the prayer for God to finish what He began, to bring to consummation that to which time has pointed, and to bring to culmination all that this that now hint at the eternal.  It is for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom without end, wherein all boundaries of time and place are transcended for the eternal now of God.

Because of this we are not disheartened by the shortcomings of a world that must pass away or a body that must succumb to death before life or a Church that must suffer in the tension of what the world sees and faith sees.  No, this cannot steal away our joy or rob us of the peace that passes understanding. This is part of Epiphany's revelation, building upon Advent's promise and Christmas' surprise.  We are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth and for the God who is making them come and ushering the broken out.  A Christianity in love with the moment or committed to the betterment of the present or to the evolution of truth by whim, desire, passion, or preference cannot pray this petition.  Only those who are detached from this world and its curses and blessings enough to behold by faith the eternal that is our future.  Heaven and earth may pass away but God's Word shall not -- except in those places where the people have become embarrassed by or  ashamed of that Word and have change it to fit the times or the people's wants.  Those are the ones who should fear most the Marantha.  For when it comes the lukewarm who think they are the Kingdom but who bear the stench of Eden's rebellion without repentance will be spewed from His mouth.  That same mouth will bear only welcome for those who endure to the end.  Come, you beloved and faithful, enter into your Master's joy forever.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Roe will not decide abortion. . .

Now, to be sure, I would be hopeful about and happy to see the SCOTUS overturn Roe.  But Roe will not decide abortion.  For one thing, that would return the decision to the states and we all know that some states will allow free and open access to abortion -- perhaps even pushing for a more liberal law than Roe.  And we know that some states will limit access to abortion.  Overturning Roe will not end abortion but will return the question to the states.  They will have to find their way through legislative means to decide Roe on a state by state basis (or perhaps in their own state courts).  We all know that.  Even the voices of warning who try to say the sky will fall of Roe is overturn.

But there is another dimension to this.  Roe must be overturned in every heart and mind before Roe will decide anything.  What we need more than even a Supreme Court admission of error on Roe is for all people to agree on the sacredness of life and to agree that life must be protected every stage of the journey from conception to death.  Roe is being fought in SCOTUS now and is being fought in state legislatures and state courts but the real battle is being played out in the hearts and minds of people.  

The battle to get Roe back into the SCOTUS is nothing compared to the battle to find a common consensus on the sacredness of life.  In the minds of nearly half our people, flushing away the fetus is a woman's choice and a legitimate means of birth control.  The battle is not about the rape victim or the survivor of abuse.  The numbers of those who seek abortion is minuscule compared to those who use abortion as a means of birth control.  Let's be honest.  The problem is no one wants to be held accountable for the choice they may to have sex so they want the option to get rid of what they did not prevent.  This is not a debate about abortion as much as it is a clash of values -- the most basic and essential values over life itself.

While I hope that the court will act to overturn Roe, I know this is not the end of anything.  It is a marginal victory at best and will need to be fought then one state and one mind at a time.  Only then will we have something to celebrate and a reason to give pause to our constant battle since 1973.  We are not fighting an abortion battle but a war over the sacred character of life.  Abortion is a mighty battle in this war but not the only one and it is but the tip of the iceberg in a culture which is more interested in making an ally out of death than protecting life at any cost.

As we have seen with the vaccine push, my body my choice only works when your choice fits the woke culture of what is right and important.  If we want to make a long term difference, we will need to work harder than convincing nine jurists that a bad decision was made in Roe.  We will need to change the minds of half our people and convince them that how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable life is the mark of our civilization or the lack of it.  It is not a particularly religious question though it can have a religious answer. 

Friday, February 18, 2022

Short shelf life. . .

I am not much of a fan of expiration dates.  Yes, a jar of mayonnaise that was 20 years past the best by date is not worth salvaging but neither do I think that the ketchup that expired last year is necessarily bad for me.  There are some things, however, that expire because we no longer want them.  My dad used to say that most folks get tired of their carpeting or drapes long before they wear out.  We do get tired of things and some things it is a good thing that we have outgrown them.  Who among us wants to return to the polyester leisure suit era?  In that case, the proverbial lime green or pink leisure suit did not wear out and is probably surviving just fine in the landfill but who wants them?

Worship songs don’t last as long as they used to. The average lifespan of a widely sung worship song is about a third of what it was 30 years ago, according to a study published in the January edition of the magazine Worship Leader.  Whereas once the songs of contemporary Christian music lasted a decade or even longer, now they seem to have a shelf life of about 3-4 years before giving way to newer songs.  It is certainly part of the dog eat dog nature of a competitive world not only seeking to have songs sung but earning money from the copyrighted material.  It is one more sign that when the focus is on what is new, it must always be new.  Curiously, the appetite seems to be coming as much from the hearers of this music as the songwriters and singers (thinking here that much of CCM is for the spectator more than for the congregation to sing).  According to the article, people are pressing their worship leaders with questions, "Have you heard this?  Do you know that?"  Some say it is because contemporary Christian music is no longer distributed by conference but by media -- Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, iTunes, Pandora, and YouTube. Some of these, perhaps even a majority of Christians using contemporary Christian music will themselves stream a new song weeks before they hear it in church.  It is not only this kind of music but the worship that uses such music that is very time sensitive and tied to consumption patterns.  The pastors and worship leaders of these churches are not introducing the latest and greatest worship song of the week but the people are insisting that they need them.  And with this is the unmistakable conclusion that yesterday's praise chorus or worship song is stale and boring sooner rather than later.

I write this after having led a Bible study on the topic of hymns, what they say, why we sing them, and how they witness the faith to the singer and those in the world.  Our journey went from Biblical canticles through the practice of Psalm singing to the early chants become hymns and finally to the Reformation and the Lutheran chorale.   None of these are contemporary though they might have been at some point but all of them have become the staples and familiar sets of God's people gathered around the means of grace to sing His praise.  They have endured not simply because they are singable or people are asked to sing them but because of what they sing.  The faith in words wedded to a text become a powerful means of teaching and expressing the hope that is in us.  In this way the Church has connected with those who went before, echoing in their words the contemporary song of praise that never goes in or out of style.  Also in this way, they add their voices to the voices of those who sang long ago and they prepare the voices of the the future to join in the timeless, never ending song of praise that is the hallmark of the faith and the faithful.

Good hymns never go out of style.  They may fall out of usage  -- especially after itching ears and voices seek after new songs to replace them but their message is not dated nor is their purview limited to a moment.  That is the mark of great hymnody -- when we sing what those who went before us sing and this happens all the way back to the earliest of days.  The good hymns of the moment become the priceless treasures added to the body of hymns received as the judgment of the Church is rendered by singing them more and not less.  It does not surprise me that a hymn like Abide with Me continues to be sung while the praise choruses of CCM fall out of style and become boring after a few years.  That says as much about us as it does the hymn or chorus itself.  Telling the story of Jesus is not dated and, if done well and matched well to a tune that fits the text, it becomes timeless!