Friday, September 30, 2022

Will they come back?

Sometimes we focus on all the wrong things.  For example, we survey visitors to find out what brought them into our church or business for the first time.  That might be important to know.  What is more important to know is what will make them return -- why did they come back?

I fear for too many LCMS congregations, there is not much of a reason to return.  It is not simply because of facility or organist (or lack thereof) or pastor or people.  It might be a combination of those things but it is more likely that they did not find anything there compelling enough to return.  If you look hard enough at any congregation, you can find flaws.  Pastors wear those flaws out for everyone to see -- Sunday after Sunday.  But most folks who visit are not looking for a perfect congregation or a perfect church.  They are simply looking for one worth returning to.

While there might be a number of components to that judgment that this congregation is worth a second look, chief among them is faithfulness.  If the pastor is faithful and the people in the pews are faithful to God's Word and truth, there will be enough there to tell the visitor to come back again.  But if the visitor finds that things are rather casual and not much care is given to the gravity of our sin and the magnitude of God's goodness, it will be easy to write off this congregation or that and not bother with a second look.  

Along with faithfulness, is a commitment to do your best.  For pastors this means turning your attention to the sermon before Saturday night and picking the hymns for more reason than you like them (or the people do).  It means a practiced art of presiding in which the familiar texts of the Divine Service are treated as if they were new, carefully and deliberately spoken or sung.  It means knowing what is going on in the Divine Service and planning your route through the liturgy carefully.   It means that sometimes emergencies arise and you have to adjust but in general you plan and prepare for Sunday morning as the most important time of the week.  

No parish has to do everything well but every parish has to do some things well.  Faithful and engaging preaching, solid musical leadership from the organ, a clean facility, adequate parking, clear signage, and a good worship folder are at least the minimums the visitor expects and what we ought to offer to both visitor and member.  The burden for this falls especially upon the pastor but not only so.  Everyone who counts this parish as their church home has a duty and a responsibility to expect and aid everything to be done decently, in good order, our best for His glory.

Finally, is the issue of welcome.  Cultivating a sense of welcome is vital for getting the visitor to return.  This means noticing the visitor and expressing some interest in them and why they visit.  My own parish is blessed to have 3-10 new faces walk through the door for their first visit every Sunday.  Some of them are guests of members but the vast majority are real visitors -- people looking over the congregation in their search for a church home.  While we like to think of ourselves as friendly, our welcome is an organized endeavor with several people deep at every entrance to notice, talk to the visitor, and connect them.  This is especially true of those who practice close(d) communion -- it is foolish to say you practice close(d) communion and not be out there before the start of service to welcome the visitor and find out who they are and whether or not they desire to or should commune at this altar.

The way we advertise has changed.  Gone are the days when people surveyed newspapers as their primary source of information.  The Yellow Pages are not what they once were.  Your presence on social media does not have to tantalize the curiosity of the visitor but it must be clear and current about worship times, pictures, maps, and what to expect if you do visit.  This is the real value of social media for the Church -- not as a forum for commentary and comment but rather a means of getting your name and location and identity front and center for a people who connect primarily through media. 

The time when folks might appreciate a home visit in response to their church visit has probably come and gone.  They are probably not interested in a home baked goodie either.  But they will welcome a contact -- email, snail mail, or phone.  They would like to know somebody noticed them and, though it does not help to press them about their plans, it does help to ask them how best you might serve them in the aftermath of their visit.  Instead of talking all about yourself or your congregation, ask about them and you may find out just enough information to help welcome them back again for what, we pray, will become a habit.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

A Generous Orthodoxy. . .

Could it be that we have misunderstood the generosity of the Lord?  Whenever there is a plea for a generous orthodoxy it usually ends up being the suggestion that more flexibility and fluidity be allowed for those who disagree with matters of doctrine and faith.  Certainly the age in which we live supports such a definition of generosity in which the broad boulevard is substituted for the narrow way of Scripture.  I wish we could rescue the phrase, however.

A generous orthodoxy does not pick and choose what to believe, what to preach, and what to teach but is committed to the whole counsel of God's Word.  What generous orthodoxy does is apply it pastorally.  I believe this is the real substance of the impetus of CFW Walther in pursuit of the right understanding of and distinguishing of Law and Gospel.  It makes little sense to take his legacy as preaching helps.  You are preaching to an assembly and not simply to one person and therefore it is a fool's errand to presume that every hearer is in the same place and needs to hear the same word.  Yes, carefully distinguish the Law and Gospel in the sermon but only so that you do not turn the Gospel into Law and therefore render the Law into the Gospel.  But a generous orthodoxy addresses the hearer with the Word they need to hear.  Sometimes that is Law without much of the promise of the blood.  To hearts cloaked in evil and presuming that hidden sin is unknown, like the priest approaching David, the Law is a sword to draw blood.  Once repentance is born as the consequence of the Spirit's voice in the Law, the Gospel of mercy cannot be spared.  It would seem to me that a generous orthodoxy knows the people to whom we speak the Word of God and therefore what Word of God it is that we would speak.  This is what makes orthodoxy generous.  This is how we follow the example of our Lord who was painfully blunt among those without faith or repentance and incredibly merciful to those whose heart of faith was wounded by the world and their own failures.

In our own age, the liberal and progressive folks seems to have mistaken tolerance that accepts what the person feels as generous orthodoxy.  It would seem that Pope Francis has made the same error when he would suggest that the Church might accommodate in some way what Scripture plainly condemns.  In the same way, those on the other side of the theological spectrum often appear to delight in condemnation and only regretfully and reluctantly admit to mercy.  Surely we could all agree that this is neither orthodox nor generous.  If God desires not the death of a sinner, why should we?  Yet the language and demeanor of some have made it appear that orthodoxy is merely a contest for righteousness and not the pastoral and wise discernment of the sinner and the careful and loving application of the Law and Gospel.  The Church must chart a careful course here.  We cannot fail to speak forth the whole counsel of God's Word but we must be discerning when it comes to the hearer what predominates.  While this is not the easiest thing to do, it is far easier and more effective to do in pastoral care than it is in trying to lump all the Sunday morning hearers into one group, pick out one person and paint the whole for what we know of the one.  Again, the preacher must never forget he is preaching to the Church and it would do no one any good to begin suspecting the faces in the pews of hypocrisy, impenitence, or unbelief (unless there is obvious evidence).  

A generous orthodoxy does not fail to call out sin but not simply to condemn it.  It is that part of John 3:16-17 that we too often forget -- not to condemn but to save.  A generous orthodoxy does not fail to speak doctrinally and faithfully the truth that endures forever but neither does it fail to speak pastorally this doctrine so that the faithful might hear it, comprehend it by faith, and trust it for their eternal salvation.  A generous orthodoxy is not merely concerned with the eternal destiny of the sinner but is also about their holiness of life in the present.  A generous orthodoxy does not lay upon the faithful rules and requirements to the living of the faith but neither does it fail to ask the faithful to show forth in their words and works the faith that lives in their hearts.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

In remembrance of Me. . .

In a wonderful volume called "Walther's Hymnal" and published by CPH, Matthew Carver has made available for the first time in English many of the hymns that were known and sung in the congregations of the Synod where  C. F. W. Walther served (an accomplished organist as well as a pastor).

In one hymn you find these words: Thy mem'ry Lord, I' keeping... It draws us to Jesus command, "Do this in remembrance (anamnesis) of Me."  Clearly this idea of remembering is not an action of the mind alone as we might recall a precious memory or fact.  It is the point of the Supper He has given to us.  We remember most of all by eating and drinking in faith, acknowledging what is present and receive in the Holy Supper of our Lord.  Yet even this does not unpack the whole meaning of remembrance. 

The Supper of our Lord does not stand outside the saving actions of our Lord.  Rather, we remember by eating and drinking the very body and blood incarnate, crucified, suffered, died and rose again.  The remembrance the Son has commanded us to make is not a mental act but the participation in the body of Christ and in His blood.  We come in faith to receive what He has given and in that communion we receive what He has promised and placed there.

The anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom puts this communion in context.  Remembering, therefore, this salutary command, and all that was done in our behalf: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven the sitting at the right hand, the second and glorious coming...  Or in one Lutheran version:  Remembering, therefore, his salutary command, his life-giving Passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension, and his promise to come again, we give thanks to you, Lord God... 

My own particular favorite is the wording from El Culto Cristiano:  Remembering therefore His salutary precept, His life-giving passion and death, His glorious resurrection and ascension, and the promise of His coming again, we give thanks to You, O Lord God almighty, ... so that we who partake of Christ's holy body and of his precious blood may be filled with Your heavenly peace and joy; and also that we, in receiving the forgiveness of sins, together with the gifts of life and salvation, may be sanctified in body and soul and have our portion with all Your saints in light... 

Or we could place anamnesis simply in the context of the words of St. Paul and now well familiar to those who use Lutheran Service Book:  As often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes...

The anamnesis is also found in the rehearsal of the saving events of our Savior's life, also in LSB:
O Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, in giving us Your body and blood to eat and to drink, You lead us to remember and confess Your holy cross and passion, Your blessed death, Your rest in the tomb, Your resurrection from the dead, Your ascension into heaven, and Your coming for the final judgment. So remember us in Your kingdom and teach us to pray. . .

Holy Thursday is not a re-enactment of that Upper Room supper of Jesus. It is the means by which we participate in that same meal, extended through time and eternity as the Word speaks and bread and wine are set apart to be what that Word declares. Holy Thursday certainly places that meal directly in the context of the saving events by which our Lord won salvation for us in the unique way of the Church Year. So do the prayers of thanksgiving within the canon of the Divine Service.  We remember by receive in faith what He gives and promises and we proclaim that very same thing simply by eating and drinking in faith His holy body and precious blood.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Cope or transcend. . .

As school was starting (online, in person, or some combination of that), there were those who were concerned with how both students and teachers would cope with the anxiety or isolation or distance learning, or in person fears from the disruption in the wake of COVID 19.  The temptation is to intervene to either protect or defend folks from the dangers around us.  It is probably worth remembering that it is not possible to eliminate anxiety from our children or our adults. There is no way to insulate them from the things that threaten us.  But. . .we should help our children and adults to answer those anxieties on some level other than feelings. This is not about making folks feel better about the things that are troubling them but to place them in the context of what God has done and the fruits of His redeeming work.

Fear has its greatest power among those who are not anchored in the Word and promises of God.  Anxiety is the greater threat to those who are distant from the means of grace.  Worry is overcome not with explanations but with faith -- faith that trusts that God will do what He has promised to do, is where He has promised to be, and will not abandon us to whatever threatens us.  The problems that keep people awake at night and make them anxious during the day are faith problems and they require faith answers.  Whether you are talking about disruptions to education or fears of being with other people in other settings, these need to be addressed as faith problems and we need to respond to them with the resources that nourish and nurture faith -- the means of grace.

Frankly, I do not get why some allow their upsets or disputes to drive them from the means of grace.  It remains a curious truth that the very people who need what God gives in the Word and Sacraments are often the ones who remain distant from those means of grace.  If anything, the problems that toss around in our minds and fill our hearts with anxiety all night long find relief in the only one who can deliver eternity to us.  Christians do not have carefree and easy lives but we know where to go for the peace that passes understanding.  We admit that we cannot endure the storms and struggles of live on our own strength but we also confess that in Christ there is limitless strength for our weakness.

I am not sure any of us needs more coping mechanisms.  But I am quite positive that all of us need to know in whom we may transcend the prison of worry and the captivity of doubt that put all the stresses of our live under even more pressure.  We will eventually come to our breaking point.  But there is no breaking point for the Good Shepherd.  He abides in us even in the midst of all that would trouble our souls and speaks peace and tenderness to our fears and anxieties.  If you are having problems sleeping at night or coping with the world around you, go to Church -- not once to see if a miracle might happen but for three months, every Sunday, and pray the Our Father every day, several times a day, at home.  I have given this advice so often I cannot even recall how many times I have said it.  Very seldom does someone come back to me and say that same things are still keeping them away or causing them angst during their waking hours. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

The reason we do not know good. . .

It's all good.... so they say.  But it isn't.  We all know it is not true.  But we say it because we cannot agree on what is good.  We cannot even agree on what makes something good or bad.  Such is the state of affairs in our broken and divided society that we are not simply faced with competing ideas of what is beneficial and true or harmful and false, we have no idea how to judge them.

If a society cannot agree upon some sense of a common criteria for good, there is no common vision before us and we lack the shared moral vocabulary and judgment essential to a fruitful culture and nation.  Once we surrender what makes something good or bad to the individual, we can no longer have any good or bad to unite us -- either in the pursuit of it or in the eradication of it.  That is the fallacy of liberalism -- it has failed to define the good and instead has left it to the individual to decide what is good, when it is good, and how good it is.

Everything has come to be about freedom.  Education is no longer the pursuit of truth or facts or understanding the truth or the facts but about the individual's freedom to define his or her own truth and to define his or her own facts.  Those who teach are less teachers than they are coaches to aid and assist the student in pursuing his or her own vision of self, truth, history, culture, freedom, and the future.  It is no wonder college takes longer than ever and high schools are failing in the core mission of teaching what is real and not simply imagined or desired.  Now we want to impose the same burden upon elementary school children and government sponsored preschools.  The social purpose has triumphed over the educational goal.

It all began, however, with an inability to define what was wrong.  When divorce was no longer a wrong and no fault divorce made it quick, easy, and without stigma, divorce became good.  When the sexual revolution took sex out of marriage and birth control took children out of sex, all sex became good.  When abortion was no longer wrong, it became good and a necessary right.  Whatever happened to those who at least said abortion should be safe, legal, and rare?  Once you cannot define wrong or evil or, dare I say it, sin, it automatically blurs what is good.  When you leave it to the private judgment of the individual to define wrong, it must also be left to the private judgment of the individual to define good.  You cannot mess with one side of the equation and not also affect the other side.  The end result is not simply a divided society and conflicted nation but the complete and utter inability to marshal a people toward a common future.  This fragmentation of society began with the refusal to call some things evil and then the corresponding inability to call other things good.

It is not all good.  We all know it.  But we don't know how to find a way out of the mess of privatized truth, morality, virtue, and evil.  This makes it even more difficult for the liberal society to understand and even tolerate the Christian faith which is built upon the recognition of evil (sin) and the celebration of good (the Savior who answers evil with His own sacrificial suffering and death).  The churches that have bought into such private judgment have sacrificed the very Gospel in order to better fit what is happening around them and so have nothing to offer but the faint echo of it's all good to a society that has bought into the lie as their new truth.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Eucharistic Prayer. . . again. . .

I did some ruminating upon my friend Pr Will Weedon's appreciation for the Verba only canon of DS 3 along with his own admission to a preference for a Eucharistic prayer (at least at one point if not still).  While I certainly do not wish to take anything away from the sung Verba as it was intended in TLH but hardly ever done and is still intended in LSB but not that frequently the norm, I think there is a pastoral reason for debating again the Eucharistic prayer.  The Eucharistic prayer is not ceremony or ornament but the rehearsal of the salvation history in which the Supper of our Lord has its context, meaning, and setting.  But it is precisely the salvation

We live in an age of remarkable Biblical illiteracy -- even among the faithful on Sunday morning.  There was a time when a politician like Abraham Lincoln could borrow from the Good Book and everyone who heard him knew the Biblical reference that was being used for his speech.  That time has come and gone.  I used to marvel how Oswald Hoffman could weave together phrases from Scripture into his sermons (which we listened to religiously on the way to or from church on Sunday morning).  I was talking about that to someone who knew him well and quite literally listened to him every week only to find they they had not noticed.  In order to recognize Biblical references you must have Biblical proficiency.  That is precisely what is missing today.

Our children do not attend Sunday school and VBS and even catechism classes with the same urgency a previous generation of parents insisted and the congregation expected.  Divorce, travel, sports, and a host of other alternatives means that once a month is the new normal for attendance.  Even twice monthly means missing half of everything in Sunday school or the Divine Service (plus many congregations skip Sunday school and Bible study during the summer!).  This has created a need and an urgency more than ever for context.

On Sunday morning, before the first reading, I announce the day.  I literally announce what day it is in the Church Year, a sentence about the context for each of the three readings appointed, and a sentence about the theme of the sermon.  It is, like the Collect of the Day, a heads up to the people of God to know what to look for as the service continues.  Quite literally, this little addition is four or five sentences.  In addition, although I hate outlining, I put an outline of the sermon into the service folder.  It is also brief and not meant to suffice for listening to the sermon.  The outline does provide a convenient reference for those to refer back to during the week and it does help them to recall the words preached.  Again, the reason is the context of Biblical literacy and familiarity which is missing among even the faithful on Sunday morning.

For context, the Eucharistic prayer is important.  The Words of Institution alone are not missing anything and constitute the consecration formula that we Lutherans insist upon -- Christ's word doing what Christ has appointed that word to do.  But the Eucharistic prayer, which is not the consecration, provides a setting for and a context in which these words are set.  Even the rather ordinary Eucharistic prayers within LSB tell us what is happening, how to receive what is being offered, what this communion upon Christ's body and blood deliver, and what this communion witnesses and proclaims to the whole of the people of God and those even outside the Church.  It is not overly elaborate and orthodox to every jot and tittle though I think it is not quite as elegant and eloquent as some that have been offered or used in the history of the Church.  Yet it is something made more urgent because so many of our people do not have this context in their hearts and minds and too many of our people hear these words in isolation -- as if they were only symbolic or were a sort of incantation to get a desired result.  

Even more than this misunderstanding, I fear our people do not yet have a Eucharistic piety the way our liturgy and confessions presume.  These actual words may not be Lutheran but the content is -- the Eucharist is both source and summit of our lives of faith, our piety, and our vocation.  We are not really a people with a Word piety alone but a means of grace piety.  Word and Sacrament is how God comes to us and in this the Eucharistic prayer is even more important as our people's Biblical literacy wanes.   We got into trouble in a time when Biblical literacy was greater than today but the Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood became a little add on from time to time -- not often because that would keep it from being special and not necessary at all to the faithful.  Part of the the urgency now for a Eucharistic prayer is to locate the Sacrament within Christ's atoning work, encourage a hunger for what the Lord has given, and equip us to get past our penchant for localized doctrine about what the Sacrament is and confess it as we pray it.

The old saw about a Eucharistic prayer confusing people about what consecrates or about the distinction between prayer and proclamation (an untenable one) or the fears of sacrifice replacing sacrament is past its expiration date.  In an age of online communion and feelings that replace trust in Christ working through the means of grace, the Eucharistic prayer helps us locate Christ's work and His gifts within exactly the right context.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Why can't we have our own music?

It is with no small amount of fear and trepidation that I enter into the debate over musical style and its appropriateness in worship.  I know that there are those who think music has no association except the one you give it but I find that to be patently false.  Everything around us has an appropriate and commonly understood musical style: (a) television and its ads and programs and gameshows; (b) wedding receptions; (c) movies; (d) the dentist office while your teeth are being cleaned; (e) the sound tracks in stores; (f) elevator musak; (g) Disney has its own music; (h) amusement venues, video games, and carnivals -- they all have a commonly identifiable and appropriate musical style!  But somehow we are told that worship does not???  That the most sacred of settings must borrow a musical style from whatever the populace or culture finds appropriate?  Really?

We all have our own playlists and preferences.  Why would God not also have His own?  Is it only about the lyrics or is music and its rhythm, sound, style, and beat also a message?  The music of worship is to be worship music -- defined not by what we find meaningful but by what it says and how it says it.  It is also largely congregational -- designed for and used for communal song in response to God and His gifts that are the core and center of what happens on Sunday morning.  It seems pretty clear from the Old Testament and especially the Psalms that God has something to say about the music of worship.  Even the New Testament references to music are not quite generic but speak to the context and content as well as the purpose of such music.  Why now do we think that your favorite radio station or your playlist ought to be reflected in what is sung (or, more accurately, heard) on Sunday morning?

For that matter, I am also not a fan of the cocktail style piano music that puts the melody to a hymn in with the same style, chords, and rolls that one might expect to hear as background music in a bar -- background music designed neither to inspire nor offend but simply to be there in the background in case anyone just might be listening.  I do not mean to offend those who write them because I am sure there is a market for them but that is not good church music.  As good as the piano is, it is not a melodic instrument designed to support the voice.  It is a rhythmic and percussive instrument that uses strings but in a very different way than a violin or cello.  If you have to use a piano exclusively, better to play it straight than to make it sound like the piano man who adds a soundtrack to your lonely sips of fine bourbon or who plays unobtrusively while you and your party laugh and drink your wine.

Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving... sings the hymn stanza penned by  Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-405).  Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving ought to be the norm --not canned music we listen to or praise bands to entertain us or organists who make themselves more than the music they play but the song that lifts the voices to a unity of praise and thanksgiving for what Christ has done and for the fruits of His redeeming work we now receive.  This is not simply about borrowing the sound track from secular music but also about stealing the songs from the Contemporary Christian Music station or tracks we listen to online or on our various devices.  We do not sing love songs to Jesus but sing of the love Jesus has shown us sinners who deserved nothing of His kindness and mercy but who have received more than we could ever expect or dare to ask by His death and resurrection.  Of course, worship has its own music -- the music of the Divine Service and the hymns that make the voices of many into one voice lifted to God with high thanksgiving. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

Not all fruits of the liturgical movement are bad. . .

I was there when the first volumes of the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship came out in the 1970s.  I was there for the hymnal introduction workshop of Lutheran Book of Worship, Lutheran Worship, Hymnal Supplement 98, and Lutheran Service Book (and led a good share of them!).  To some, these were dark days in the life of Lutheranism.  None of these books was or is a perfect book and neither were The Lutheran Hymnal or Service Book and Hymnal or any of their predecessors.  I would be able to write a perfect book for me but I am fairly confident that many would find fault with it and it would not be a best seller.  Yet each book has brought not only some problems but advances in the cause of true and faithful liturgical reform.  I only wish some would admit it instead of living in the bubble of their own personal preference.

Not all the fruits of the liturgical movement are bad.  We count on many of them today as if they were somehow separate from and unrelated to the liturgical movement.  The mere fact that we are talking about worship is an improvement over the past.  The seminary preparation of the past was woefully inadequate for pastors to understand and teach why we use the Divine Service and how to use it faithfully and vibrantly as it was and is intended.  If that were not the case, there would have been a more organized and broad based movement for the weekly Eucharist expected by the Lutheran Confessions, a revived practice of private confession, a better sense of baptismal identity in piety and daily life, and the terrible inroads of the evangelical style seeker services and contemporary Christian music would not have made such an impact on Lutherans.  Instead the things of faithful Lutheran worship were advocated by voices and groups largely on the fringes of officialdom in Lutheranism -- at least until the liturgical movement began to make them mainstream.

Anyone who has read the pages of this blog knows that I am no fan of liturgical change that is more than incremental in rite and form yet at the same time I am a fervent advocate for the renewal of worship through a weekly Eucharist, renewed practice of private confession, a baptismal focus for our Christian identity, and for liturgical preaching that is thoroughly Biblical and confessional.  Some of these things came about because the liturgical movement brought these into the conversation.  Let us just be honest here and give some credit where credit is due.  It is possible to use every hymnal the LCMS has produced and probably even LBW in an orthodox, credible, and confessional way.  It is not just the book that needs to be confessional and faithful -- so do the pastors using the book!  I would maintain that while we should have the best hymnal possible, it is a fraud and a cop out to suggest that any of Missouri's books have been tainted or are so defective they cannot be used faithfully or should not be used.  It is more than a cruel joke; it is a lie.

The Divine Services in LW and LSB are not quite different rites but they certainly do push the envelope of difference -- the major differences here not between the settings which came out of the liturgical movement but the hymn based ordinaries first introduced in HS98 and more familiarly found from Luther's own Deutsche Messe.  Anyone who says that the first two settings of the Divine Service in LSB cannot be used faithfully in an orthodox and authentically Lutheran (evangelical catholic) manner is simply wrong.  The term Divine Service does not equate to TLH page 15 or LSB DS 3.  It is a convenient hobby horse for some but it is a straw man that is creating as much of a divide within confessional Lutheranism as contemporary Christian music and worship has for the rest of Lutheranism.  If you like DS 3 then simply admit that it is your preference and stop trying to make it about orthodoxy.

In the parish I serve, less than 10% of our Sunday morning crowd grew up with or can recall singing DS 3.  Of course, we still use it at least some of the time but the predominant settings we use are 1 and 2 from LSB.  That is what most of our younger congregants (who were raised Lutheran) grew up with.  We use the rite to its best and fullest, an expression of beauty and reverence and awe as we stand on the holy ground of God's presence to hear the voice of our Good Shepherd and to receive His gifts.  Maybe it is different in your parish but don't make it about the orthodoxy or less than orthodoxy of the rite and admit that you are expressing a preference and nothing more.  I get it.  I have preferences, too.  For my part, I would prefer to use Service Book and Hymnal Setting 2, by Regina H. Fryxell.  I love it -- the Gregorian style chant is wonderful.  I love the Healy Willan setting from TLH also.  But these are marginally useful to the larger church -- we might all agree that they will be used only in a few settings today and will someday be forgotten.  That's okay.  I am not arguing a doctrine here but my preference.  When you put the TLH pg. 15 up there with the commandments delivered by God directly into the hand of man, you are trying to put it where it does not belong and you are hiding your preference behind an imagined litmus test of true confessional orthodoxy.

A few months ago I wrote about Bronze Age Missourians and it created quite a stir.  I was not trying to be smug but simply admitting that there is no pristine moment in Missouri when it all came together.  The TLH was a good book but not used as it should and, while it advanced the cause, LW furthered the work (if for no other reason than Nagel's Introduction and the absence of a truncated Divine Service without the Sacrament).  HS98 and LSB continued to move things ahead.  All are good and decent tools and everyone can be used faithfully and with doctrinal integrity.  Along with the books, the liturgical movement bore some wonderful fruit that we dare not deny -- more frequent Communion, more talk about private confession, more focus on baptismal identity, and more talk about worship in general.  Yes, all of those books had some problems (read some of the complaints written to the Synod when TLH was first published!!!).  Yes, all of us might have edited out certain things and put other things in.  Yes, we all have our preferences.  Yes, we all love to make exaggerations in pursuit of a point (even me!).  But the honest reality is that we would not be where we are today without the liturgical movement -- the bad and the good.  So man up, pastors, and use the books faithfully and with integrity and stop trying to blame everything bad upon the liturgical movement, the more modern hymnals (especially LW), and the rites.  Everyone of them can be used to advance the cause so well articulated in the Augustana -- no mass abolished, ceremonies preserved as expressions of the faith they sign, and a non-sectarian view of what we have received from our catholic past and what we commend toward the catholic future.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

No agenda.... really?

NBC turned in a story about a small town Iowa library into national news.  You can read it all here and make your own judgement from the particulars reported by NBC.  What I would rather comment upon is the presumption that there was no agenda at work in this small town library.  Indeed, the story portrays the library staff as victims of a conspiracy fueled by a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor and his wife -- as if they were the ones with an agenda.

The story begins with this paragraph:

The public library in a small Iowa farming town has been embroiled in a monthslong controversy spurred by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, attempts to censor books with progressive and LGBTQ themes and the alleged harassment of LGBTQ staff members.

So the media has decided already who the villains are and who began this battle.  It began with the pastor and bigots.  They are the ones with the agenda and their petty bigotry has resulted in the loss of jobs and the closing of the library in this little community -- thus depriving everyone of the resources of the library.

However, it is certainly NOT an agenda to:

  1. Initiate a summer reading challenge that had encouraged patrons to read books by people of color and LGBTQ authors, or
  2.  The hiring of a new library director who had helped facilitate Marion’s first LGBTQ Pride event, including a drag queen storytime event and a parade around the library, or
  3. A plan to establish gender-neutral bathrooms in the building, or
  4. The choice to feature a display of [resources promoting] the LGBTQ agenda.  

I do not know the Pastor or his wife or the congregation he serves but I have been through Vinton, Iowa.  However, I do not claim to know much about that small town either.  It is situated halfway between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids which says absolutely nothing to most of the world.  But it is in Iowa and this state has a strange mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism in its politics.  I have little interest in trying to dissect the internal culture of Iowa small town life but I do think it is curious that from the get go, the voices for traditional marriage and a conservative view of LGBTQ and gender issues are automatically the ones with an agenda.  While the one who encourages reading LGBTQ authors in a summer reading program or who chooses a director who had helped facilitate a LGBTQ pride event, drag queen story time, and who promotes gender neutral bathrooms has no agenda at all.  Really?  I mean, you cannot make this up.  

If you are reading this story reported by NBC, you are being told who the bigot is and who the heroes are and it ain't those who hold to traditional sexual identity and marriage and who expect the public library, funded by public money, to have at least the appearance of neutrality in the culture wars.  Nope, the media has decided on which side it stands and, perhaps, has become the driving force in this debate.  I can tell you right now that they will probably win because the opponents of such activism have neither the resources nor the access to defend their positions much less control the debate the way NBC has.

Coming to a small town near you. . . or maybe already there!

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

What God would or would not want. . .

The Pope said it so it must be true.  “God does not want us to be slaves, but sons and daughters,” Francis said. “He does not want to make decisions for us, or oppress us with a sacral power, exercised in a world governed by religious laws. No! He created us to be free, and he asks us to be mature and responsible persons in life and in society.”

Hmmmm.  Did Francis get special revelation from God to say this?  Is this in accord with what we know God has said in His Word?  Or is this Francis' own perspective and he is presuming God agrees with him?  Who knows?  Who cares?

My point is not to dig on Francis.  Lord knows, there is enough to dig on and enough diggers.  What is my point is how freely some presume to speak for God -- even on subjects where God has, presumably, already spoken in His Word.  That is the bane of Christianity in general and its undoing.  To speak where God is silent or to be silent where God speaks is bad enough but to posit your own viewpoint and words as God's is even more dangerous.

Progressive Christianity has been particularly fond of speaking for God when God has already spoken.  It is the framework that holds up the liberal acceptance of a sexuality, gender, and marriage debate which has literally consumed the churches for a generation or more.  The passages of Scripture that would apply are either conveniently overlooked and creatively recast so that they do not say what we do not want them to say.  The pro-choice, climate change, diversity, critical race, and social justice issues that have become the gospel for so many, replacing the cross and empty tomb, have turned the focus solely upon this life and its improvement -- according to the presumed goals and ethical norms of Jesus.  They would protest that they are holding to the heart of Scripture if not to its actual words. But progressives are not alone.

When a Christian not Lutheran approached me one Sunday morning to ask to receive Holy Communion, I asked what they believed.  We believe everything in the Bible, they said.  And I asked a bit more.  No, it turns out, they did not believe that God was doing anything in baptism or that there was anything more than a symbolic presence to the Lord in the Eucharist.  They did not believe that any man can forgive sins in God's name or bind them against the unrepentant or that the pastoral office is an order given to the church (as opposed to a job for which he is hired by people who could do whatever the pastor did).  They did not believe that the Word of God was itself the actor doing what it said and therefore was not efficacious [but that the believer had to agree, consent, and believe the Word before anything happened].  They kept on talking about what they did not believe until it became clear that they did not believe everything in the Bible as they had said.

The radical confession of Sola Scriptura is not really about a naked or lonely Word but it is about the Word that informs, defines, and norms what it is that the Church believes, confesses, and teaches.  It is about the radical view that Scripture does what it says and deliver what it promises as a living Word and not a restatement of facts or history or even the proposal of philosophical truths to be believed.  We Lutherans are not anti-tradition.  We do not disdain the teaching magisterium of the Church.  But we do place at the center of both the living voice of Scripture as that which informs, defines, and gives boundaries to our faith.  Therefore, we Lutherans should not be people who put words in God's mouth or paper over our disagreements with His Word with creative interpretations nor should we be silent about what God has said.

One more thing.  The Scriptures are a liturgical book.  They are owned by the Church for whom they were written and delivered.  They are not the possession of the individual who decides to believe them or of the exegete who unpacks what they really say or the Gnostic who can delve under the words to discern hidden truth.  They are Christ's voice and they speak Christ's redemptive love and through that speaking faith is created and disciples are formed.  Their fruit lies not simply in an intellectual assent to what they say -- as if we had the power to make them true or render them false.  No, their fruit lies in the assembly of those who hear that Word, who recognize it as the living voice of the Good Shepherd, and who know that God is at work in that Word that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom forever.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

When political concerns rule the facts. . .

Whether you remember the politics of AIDS or the politics of Covid or the politics evolving with monkey pox, it is not necessarily about the facts or about the science.  Politics have had an inordinate influence over how the medical community and the government respond to urgent health issues.  While some think that this is correct, others decry how the panic is changed by the omission of some facts.  

Everyone knew that the AIDS crisis was a manageable crisis because it was well known how the disease was transmitted and the vulnerable population but everyone also knew that the powers that be had decided that this would not become the gay disease.  Everyone knows now that monkey pox is transmitted similarly and among the same population as AIDS but, as in the 1980s and 1990s, politics is affecting how this disease is portrayed and how we respond to it.  As it was then, the powers that be are working to make sure that this does not become a new gay disease.  All of this means that we cannot trust the headlines nor can we even trust those whose jobs are to manage the response of the medical community and government to such threats.  We thought we learned this after AIDS but apparently we have not.

The truth of Covid is that the vulnerable population was never children or youth or healthy individuals but those with comorbidities -- a term that has now entered all our vocabularies.  Those in charge knew this all along but instead portrayed Covid as an equal threat to everyone.  It was not but neither was it going to be a disease of those with compromised health situations.  In the aftermath of the bigger part of the pandemic, we learned that certain treatments harmed recovery, that masks were never what they were cracked up to be, and that no vaccine really prevented anyone from getting the disease.  Political concerns shaped what was said and how it was said to the general population -- by all sides, I might add.  While the cry is to listen to the science, those in charge of the science had political considerations and viewpoints that colored the response to the pandemic, to the vaccines, and to the national fear.  

The end result of failing to admit the limitations of science, especially early on in a health crisis, or of failing to be honest with the population has left us with an even bigger crisis than AIDS, Covid, or monkey pox.  We do not believe anyone anymore.  Some do not believe the science and others do not believe the medical community and nearly everyone distrusts the government.  So, in our failed efforts to be political with things that are facts we are left with a general population that has long ago tuned out of the news, turned away from medical authorities, and stopped listening to the government at all.  None of these are good and all of these will come back to haunt us down the road.

Those in government and medicine and the news have a solemn responsibility not to manipulate their script for political purpose and yet that is the betrayal that has crippled all of those institutions.  Worse, we are left only with the truth we deem to be true -- a truth only as deep and wide as one individual.  The skepticism that has erupted against such manipulations has spread -- sometimes rightfully and sometimes wrongly -- to nearly every institution in our society (even the Church!).  Such is the heavy burden that rests on government, medicine, the media, and religion.  The worst outcome is not that people will not believe you but that they will not believe anyone anymore.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Who is there and who is missing?

A while ago I read a FIRST THINGS post with the auspicious title: Seven Protestant Theologians Every Catholic Should Read.  You might take a gander.  At first I thought it was satire.  I mean really -- Harvey Cox???  After perusing the article it is clear that it is not a joke or humor of any kind.  Now what are you supposed to make of it?

There was no Lutheran on the list.  Interesting.  I guess that is because Lutherans are not really Protestants in the sense that term is usually used so I should be comforted that no Lutheran (good or bad) was on the list.  As I thought about it, however, it did infuriate me.  Apparently either Lutherans are marginal when it comes to heavyweights in the theological arena or else Lutherans are not considered all that important.  In any case, Roman Catholics ought to be paying more attention to confessional Lutherans than they should to somebody like Harvey Cox.

The theologians on the list seem to all fall around those who celebrate the new forms of religiosity arising worldwide -- so I should be glad we Lutherans did not show up on such a list.  That is about the last thing that needs to be shared with Rome.  Rome has its own problems with pachamamas and popes who send unclear signals about what is to be believed and what is not so important.  We Lutherans have some who consider themselves part of the clan but whose theology sounds more reformed (dare I say it?  deformed) than Lutheran and we seem to have the same problem as Rome does in trying to set the boundaries of orthodoxy.  So perhaps it is good that our mess is not paraded as a must read for [Roman] Catholics.

It does bring up a real question.  Who are the best voices of the various traditions of Christianity -- those who deny their faith or weasel out of what is believed or those who faithfully confess what is believed without apology or embarrassment?  Honestly, I thought that FIRST THINGS would have made sure it was the latter and not the former whose views were put on the pages of a journal dedicated to where orthodoxy and politics intersect.  But it just goes to show you that you cannot count on most things these days.  I wonder what Richard John Neuhaus would have thought of such a list?  Is there a value to lists like these?  Is it merely subjective or is there something more objective that would encourage the reading of good theological books?

There is not a small amount of overkill in the article:  Stanley Hauerwas is the most discussed and debated (living) theologian in the Anglo-American world.  I know Hauerwas and have a volume or two of his in my library but the idea that he is the most discussed and debated living theologian in the Anglo-American world is a stretch.  In the end, lists like these tell as much about the one who puts them together as they do about the people on that list. 

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Impertinence. . .

It often seems that prayer is no gift at all.  That is not to speak against God's call to pray or the prayer our Lord gave us but to admit that while we do pray, we generally do not get prayer right at all.  We pray more because we are sure God is distracted or asleep or lazy or unfaithful in His duty than out of repentance for our many sins and confidence in His unfailing mercy.  We are the impertinent who rush to presume the worst of God -- I do not mean evil but that God must be aroused to act and stirred to mercy.  God acts without our prayer and most often apart from our vision but God acts always in mercy towards those whom our Savior has redeemed with His blood shed and sufferings borne -- even to death!  How arrogant and prideful of us to pray as if these cardinal truths of God are mere postulations of our reason or guesses at the meaning of His own words!

God neither neglects nor ignores His creation and He certainly does anything but these with respect to those whom He has adopted as His own, He has clothed with Christ's righteousness, and on whom He has bestowed the inheritance of everlasting life.  It is not God's good will that we are seeking with our prayers but we pray precisely because we can count upon His good will -- when we can count on nothing else from anyone else.  I look at my own prayers and wonder if God does not shudder in hearing such faithless and manipulative words from our mouth!  Then I magnify what I pray with the many whom I serve and I fear that if God were anything but merciful He would have closed His ears to the voice of our supplications long ago.  We pray not to change God's mind nor to wake the sleeping giant but so that His good and gracious will may be done in us and through us.  If we begin at that point to pray, our prayers will not be the same again.

When the people of God come together to pray, we begin with the presumption that His Word is true, that He does what He has said, delivers what He has promised, and has only our best interest at heart.  This is the cause that brings us to our knees -- not the prospect that by our urging God may change His mind but that our minds might be changed by the riches of His grace, His mercies new every morning, and His love revealed in the stark profundity of the cross.  Of course, we are honest with the Lord.  We do not pray with plastic words that would mask the concerns of our hearts but neither do we pray with the desire or the idea that if we say the right words or do the right things, we can bend God's will our way and get the Lord to do what we will instead of His will.  We pray the concerns of our hearts to let them out from the captivity of thoughts and feelings and to place those concerns before the cross, praying in Jesus' name, and with confidence that God will give us good beyond what we deserve and will protect us from the evils we do.

Such prayer is the fruit of seeds of faith and not of doubt -- no last cause to the God of last causes but the first petition before the Lord whose mercy always puts us, our salvation, and our eternal good first.  If we would read prayer books, we would find this lesson there.  Not model prayers that worked (like the coupon codes that promise a discount for our online purchases) but prayers that teach us exactly this -- God's good and gracious will is perfectly expressed in the cross and empty tomb and with such a vision of His mercy before us, we can have confidence in His good and gracious will to govern our every day, provide for our every need, protect against our every enemy, and deliver us into His everlasting presence.  Read the good prayer books of those who went before us and they will teach you this premise for prayer and we both might just learn how to pray from the experience of it all.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Lawless. . .

Jesus said,  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”  I fear that we have made Jesus into some kind of antinomian figure, a heretic of the Old Covenant who has come to introduce a New Covenant in which there is no law -- only love.  If so, we have gotten Jesus wrong.  Our Lord Jesus does not challenge the Law God gave to Moses nor does He set it aside as if it no longer had meaning or purpose because the Gospel has come.  Instead, our Lord challenges the centuries-long tradition which was constitutive of the people of Israel. What He challenges is the interpretation of that Law and how it had come to be used at the hands of the religious authorities of the day.  In this respect, our Lord acted no differently than the prophets who came before and called a nation and their faith leaders to repentance.  The difference lies in that at the same time Jesus came to fulfill the Law and then to cover the repentant with His own righteousness as their clothing in life and in death.

By extension, some Christians presume that the Old Testament itself has been abrogated and is not relevant anymore.  It is read more for curiosity than for application to Christian life.  In the same way, the whole nature of the temple and its sacrificial worship is now happily forgotten in favor of an interior religion that takes what Jesus says about external piety without faith as the defining norm for what should be -- no public prayer, no fasting, no sacrifice, and no outward expression of any faith EXCEPT love.  If that is how you read Jesus, you have read Him wrong.  Our Lord never once castigates the Law has having failed anyone or anything nor does Jesus ever suggest that the temple is wrong and needs to go away.  Just the opposite, Scripture records how faithful Jesus was in the synagogue, at the temple, and following the feasts and observances of the Law as God intended.  His cleansing of the temple was not about the building but about the people and what they had done to prevent the House of God from being the temple God intended.

In the same way, modern folk insist that Jesus is interested in establishing a personal faith with individuals but does not really care if you go to church, if you find worship meaningful, or what you do that you call worship.  What a joke!  You can say yes to Jesus and no to church and God is happy that you have made a choice appropriate for you!???  Who said that?  Not Jesus.  When you hear people talk about a true Christian, it is usually in the context of behavior -- what they do or do not do or say or do not say.  If God was only interested in cleaning up bad behavior, we would only have the Law.  Faith that has no need of theology, morals, liturgy, or church is not the faith of Jesus. The truth is that Christians can corrupt all of these as easily and as effectively as the religious leaders led the people of God astray before Christ came.  We are sinners, aren't we?  But the solution when things go wrong is not to abandon what God has given and commanded but repentance and faith.  The solution to what people find lacking in the church is not the abolition of the church or the abrogation of corporate worship but the renewal of their proper use with the focus on what it is that calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies -- the means of grace.  The Word and Sacraments are not optional extras nor is church there for those who find it meaningful or who desire it.  Christ is there in the Word and Sacraments bestowing what He has won and promised and the Spirit is there enabling us to receive His gifts with joy.  A lawless person or church that pits the moral law against piety and practice has misread Jesus and proceeds to make exceptional what Jesus intended to be ordinary and routine.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The fragility of the internet. . .

While driving I listened to a report about how the DNA that is routinely offered up for ancestry research could be used for nefarious purpose by those who are our enemies.  I must say I had not even thought of that.  Then there was that cutting of the internet cables that thrust many French into darkness without the web and a report of how vulnerable our internet access can be to those who seek us harm.  Add to that all the ransom paid to those who hold our data captive and the ability of bad actors to access all the things stored on the cloud and you have a trifecta of terror.  Not to mention the robots that do everything and, apparently, while playing chess break an 8 year old's finger.  Nothing is safe.

Technology is wonderful until it isn't.  When it exposes us to harm through those who would steal our identity or trade on our personal information or rob us of assets, then it is not so good.  We think that everything is solid, secure, and safe but the reality is that much of technology is fragile -- dependent upon access to a broadband internet connection and subject to the wiles of those who are far smarter about harming us than we are to avoid such harm.  Then we begin to realize that maybe things are not quite as carefree as they seem.

Truth is that I am a dinosaur.  I do not like my meager private information in public -- not that I have something to hide but simply because I do not like to enlighten the marketers or the thieves to anything that might help them and harm me.  I hate the myriad of passwords that I must recall to do ordinary things on the internet and yet I am constantly warned to change them regularly with random passwords that no one could possibly recall or crack.  It is a conundrum of sorts.  So much of what we do is online -- even as a pastor and a church -- that we daily expose ourselves to those who are far better at exploiting us than we are at avoiding them.

I am not sure whether this feeds the rapid pace of change or is a fruit of that quickly evolving world.  It could be that we have invented the cloud because we put nothing on pause anymore or it could be that we put nothing on pause because we have everything in the cloud.  In any case, I spent some time in my small town home tending to the death of my mother and found the change of pace there captivating.  I hardly watched any TV, did not spend much time on the internet, and took a breather from the rapid pace of change that waited for me the day after I returned home.  Some of you are probably thinking that this means I am ready to retire but I would suggest that all of us are too tightly wound in our changing world and too fragile due to the pace of change and our vulnerability as well as dependence upon technology.  We all need a rest even if we are not all at a retirement age.

The fragility of the internet seems to be a reflection of our fragile lives -- so dependent upon technology, the whims of desire, the vulnerability of feelings, and the constant pursuit of happiness.  In the end we have much to be thankful for because of technology but only a fool would deny its cost to our lives as individuals, as a society, and as a nation.  It is a mixed blessing and we have spent more time harnessed to our digital tools than freed up by them for better pursuit.  In the end I fear that much of what ails us as a people and as a culture is a reflection of our lives and livelihoods so wedded to technology -- along with our happiness.  Surely the division and contempt with which we hold one another is fostered by if not created by the constant opportunity for self-expression created by the internet and social media.  So there we are -- we cannot live with it and we cannot live without it.  Or, at least that is what we think.

Technology is wonderful until it isn't.  Our digitally integrated lives are wonderful until they are not.  The cloud is wonderful until it betrays us.  It is a good thing that faith is not dependent upon or wedded to the virtual world of the web.  God comes to us in concrete forms in the means of grace in order to bestow concrete blessings.  Believe me, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting we have in Christ are far more real than the reality we encounter through technology.  The Word and Sacraments are always wonderful, always bestow what they promise, and always deliver what they sign and say.  Perhaps it is good to recall that from time to time...

Thursday, September 15, 2022

That which is not a right. . .

Ultimately, the Supreme Court has begun to come down on the side that something which is not a right cannot be granted as one and something which has been falsely deemed a right deprives no one when that right is no longer allowed.  This has much to do with such things as separate but not equal and abortion but not only those.  Now it falls to the same Court to figure out how to proceed.  I would have rather had the justices simply say the obvious -- Plessy was wrongly decided because it applied a standard it had to invent and it was overturned for the same reason.  The obvious thing in 1896 that society refused to admit was that any form of segregation denies equality to the minority.  It was also obvious in 1954 but instead of saying that the Court opted to pursue the vision of a just society as defined by sociological and psychological criteria -- not law.  A right decision made on the wrong grounds -- which is not altogether unusual.

In the same way, the Court had to invent rights not inherent in the Constitution to proceed with the Roe decision.  It thought it was on solid ground -- after all a generation before the Court had departed from the strict realm of law to pursue a social good it deemed worthy.  In 1954, they were correct in their conclusion even though wrong in their justification of that conclusion.  In 1972, they were wrong on both counts.  So in 2022, when Roe was effectively overturned, the Court tacitly admitted the obvious.  A line of thinking that led to the obvious decision in 1972 could no longer be allowed.  Justice Thomas is correct in suggesting that if this line of thinking is actively pursued, other invented rights or decisions based on something other than Constitution and law might be suspect.  But we do not have the stomach for that.  We have become a nation of rights without responsibilities and we no longer care whether those rights were granted legitimately or not according to our governing documents as a nation.  

The reality is that the Court cannot grant a right that does not exist in the Constitution and so when it takes that right away, it is taking away nothing but a deception that had been allowed to exist in the first place.  It happened when Plessy was overturned and it happened again when Roe was overturned.  That which is not a right cannot be taken away because it did not exist as a right to begin with -- it was the invention not of law but of justices who thought they knew what was best for a people either too ignorant or too impatient to battle this out where it should have been argued -- in the states.  Now that the Court seems willing to say when it was wrong, it ought to have the courage to admit that when it has granted rights not expressly permitted and denied rights expressly bestowed, it was not only wrong but had no power to do this.

The people may get it wrong.  New York may still allow abortion up to the time of delivery, for example.  But what one state gets wrong, will not cripple a nation with its fallacy of logic and law as Roe did for 50 years and as Plessy did for even longer.  When the justices get it wrong and impose their error upon a nation, division and conflict ensures to deprive us of more than invented rights.  When this happens, we end up arguing on the basis of feelings, self-interest, and individual moral authority -- tearing asunder the very things that created us as a nation and have contributed to the fabric of our union -- truth, respect for others, and a common sense of right and wrong.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

As allowed. . .

I recall a time in which business and entrepreneurial methods were encouraged by para-church groups loosely allied with the LCMS and when the hymnal and organ were stigmatized as enemies of growth.  It is not quite that way today but the currents that once believed that selling franchise food and the Eucharist were similar and that once believed you needed to have catchy, repeated lyrics to music with a beat or folks would leave.  It seems as if those who propose such things are less committed to changing the mind of the rest of us than they are preserving themselves as a shadow Synod within Missouri -- maintaining their views and practices where they are able.

I also recall a time in which pastors would openly laud how they wore down the resistance to ditching the liturgy for a manufactured order (usually without Holy Communion -- thank God!).  Or how they got their enemies to leave so that the altar could be moved to the side and a praise band situated down front.  Or how they convinced people to turn their attention to the screen and the pictures and words fed to it that medium by the worship planners.  They were moving toward a goal and, though this congregation did not allow them to move their quickly, the parish seemed to take sips at becoming an ape of whatever was happening in the evangelical world at the moment.  Perhaps those battles are fewer; I do not know.  It does seem like the battle lines have now been entrenched for long enough so that neither side is making great progress against the other.  It has become a somewhat peaceful co-existence -- albeit with some barking dogs (like me) still arguing.

There is another moment in Synod.  It is a moment in which reverence is gaining ground -- if not among the proponents of contemporary Christian worship techniques and practices, then at least among those who were liturgical but not quite ceremonial.  These are those who use the book but use it because they are Lutheran and that is custom even though they are not wedded in faith and piety to the liturgical life that book envisions.  In these parishes, battles are still being fought about what people will accept and allow -- even in what the pastor does alone without asking the people to do anything!  Many of these pastors are committed to celebrating the Eucharist as the Divine Service on every Sunday -- as prayerfully and reverently as he is allowed to do.  This still means convincing elders and councils and voters' assemblies to let the pastor chant (even though this asks little of the folks in the pew) or to let the pastor wear Eucharistic vestments (even though this asks nothing of the folks in the pew).  This still means convincing elders, council, and voters' assemblies to allow for a weekly Eucharist (even though this does not belong to anyone's voting franchise except the pastor's pastoral determination for the parish and consistency with our chief confession!).  This still means convincing elders and councils and voters' assemblies to follow the rubrics of the hymnal (in parishes where I have filled in, the worst offenders were those who insisted that they did it by the book only to give me pages of instructions about how they did it here!).  This still means convincing elders and councils and voters' assemblies that the pastor genuflecting is not Roman nor is his self-communion idolatry.  Yes, I know of places where exactly this is what has had to happen.

We seem to want a reverence that is moderate and not excessive -- sort of like the casual and rational God we would want.  But God is not casual nor does He condescend to our reason or understanding.  The worship of this God in the Old Covenant was not moderate at all but excessive and God directed every detail of the temple right down to the vestments of the priests.  Thankfully, we seem convinced that this God underwent a personality change in the New Covenant and is now pretty much good with whatever we decide, prefer, or find meaningful.  Hopefully, we will not be shocked with the things of the Old Covenant forgotten in the New return with even more excessive reverence, ceremony, and profundity when Revelation becomes reality and what Christ began is completed for all eternity.  How odd it is to think that there might be excessive reverence for the sake of a God who is wholly other and knowable only as He chooses to be known!  Indeed, we look for a magical line between reverence and excessive reverence in the face of a God who is relentless in His pursuit of us that we might be His own and live under Him in His Kingdom forever.  That line, my friends, does not exist.  It is fake.  It is false.  It is a lie.  The God who went all in for us cannot be offended by excessive reverence and devotion but He might be by our half-hearted attempts to be holy -- if only for an hour on Sunday morning.  Inward reverence that refuses to show is not quite reverence and just might be embarrassment borne of a concern more of what others and the world thinks than what is fitting for the high and holy God who became our incarnate Savior.  They go together or they don't go at all.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Who would do that?

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19C, preached on Sunday, September 11, 2022.

We live in a world where you write off your losses and get on with it.  We think it only smart.  If your old car breaks down, you get rid of it.  Better to face the small loss than keeping pouring money into a broken down vehicle.  There was a movie called The Money Pit in which the same thing was said of a house that was one expensive fix after another.  There is a certain amount of wisdom in knowing when to give up, when to write off your loss, and when to pursue another path.  That is the context of Luke 15.  A lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son are all seen, in the wisdom of the world, as lost causes.  Give it up and get on with it.  But not God.

These are parables of unfathomable mercy.  Jesus tells them because He is accused of being foolish, of eating and drinking with sinners who, in the minds of the religious authorities, are not worth it.  Jesus does not argue with them.  He does not explain Himself or God’s mercy.  He simply confronts us with the lavish and generous love of the Father and says “there it is.”  

Some have tried to turn these parables into morality plays.  The Church needs to be where the homeless, lost, and forsaken are – to leave behind the people in the pews in order to find those scarred by broken lives, broken hope, and broken identities.  It sounds good and it is certainly a great mission – sort of like a peace corps for God.  Go where good people won’t and confront those you find with the Gospel.  While only a fool would suggest that the poor and needy and forgotten of this world do not need to hear the good news of Jesus, that is not Jesus’ point.

Jesus is saying that the very folks who complain about the wasted time and effort on the lost sinners and unrighteous people are the lost sheep and lost coins whom God is not willing to write off, to walk away from, and to ignore.  This goes back to the earliest preachers in Christian history.  According to them, the ninety-nine sheep left behind and the nine coins still in the purse are not good people on earth but the heavenly host whom Jesus left to tabernacle with us sinners.  

In other words, God could have merely written off the world He created and consoled Himself with the legions of angels and heavenly beings who were always His.  He could have cut His losses and contented Himself with the heavenly host and said “enough already.”  But He did not.  Who does that?  Who risks everything for nothing?  There is only one.  God.

The great good news of this story is that God did not write YOU off.  You are the dogs who dare not get what belongs to the children, the one lost sheep who probably had a history of wandering off anyway, the lost coin that was not worth the cost of finding it, and the lost prodigal who cashed in God’s goodness and squandered it all.  Write them off.  Write them all off.  But God says “No.”

He is not content only with angels and heavenly beings.  He insists upon pursuing those who were lower than angels – the flesh and blood.  And for you and your salvation this merciful God willing to be made like us in every way except sin in order to rescue those unworthy of His extravagant and lavish mercy.  

You and every other sinner on earth are the lost sheep and lost coin and prodigals who deserve nothing but for whom God is willing to give all to save.  Why on earth would this not be the best news of all?  God knew you were unworthy of His love and He loved you still.  He knew you deserved nothing of the high cost He must pay to bring you back home but He paid that cost willingly.  He knew you to have wasted His resources and squandered His love but instead of cutting you off, He continues to give to you – mercy without end and grace without limit.

Jesus leaves heaven to search for and restore the lost – to restore you that you might belong to the Father, know the joy of your place within His family the Church, be regularly absolved of your sins, be fed and nourished at His table, and, at the end of days, be raised up glorious and holy and righteous to live as His own under Him in His kingdom forever.  If we have something for the least and lost of this world, it begins with this mercy.

Strangely, we tend to be jealous of angels.  We dream foolishly of growing wings and becoming angels when we die.  The reality is that the angels are envious of YOU.  For what angel did God leave heaven to rescue and restore?  None.  Jesus has not come for the good but to save the lost, condemned, and unworthy sinners that you see every time you look in to the mirror.  He has not come to pat anyone on the back or laud our good intentions that fall short of righteousness.  He has come for the complete failures who have only their sins to offer.  

On the cross, He bids us come. Come and lay down every sin where the only good and righteous man suffered and died.  Come and look into the face of mercy in the Savior who turns the cross into an altar and sacrifices Himself to set us free. The angels and heavenly beings are in awe of such love so how can you be complacent about it?  They rejoice every time the lost are found, the sinner welcomed home, the prodigal restored, the broken healed, and the dead raised.  There is the sound of joy in the heavenly places over you.  He who for the joy set before Him endured the cross and scorned its shame, has given everything that you might be His own – now in this mortal life and in eternity.  Can you honestly look into the face of such wondrous love and not be moved to joy, to tears of appreciation and thanksgiving?  The angels rejoice in heaven.  Will you rejoice on earth – you whom Christ has found, cleansed, raised up, and given eternal life?

The parables of a lost sheep and a lost coin bring home the wondrous love of God with which YOU are loved.  It is contrary to every earthly wisdom and logic.  Nobody wastes their most precious resources on something lost that does not want to be found.  No one but God.  The God of all eternity planned and moved until in the fullness of time He gave up everything for you.  You are the lost sheep and the lost coin.  Where God could have contented Himself with the angels and heavenly beings at His side, He willingly left them all for you.  The joy that comes from other things is fleeting but the joy that flows from mercy is eternal.

On this momentous anniversary of the event that shaped our world for evil, 9-11, we ought to know how fragile everything is but the mercy of God.  That is eternal.  God has not written you off.  He has not abandoned you.  His extravagant mercy has willingly suffered all things that you might be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom forever.  The lost are not your job to save.  Jesus has already saved them.  What is your calling is to shine with His light and show forth the joy of His salvation and God’s saving will shall be done.   In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

The evolution of the lie. . .

Roe has proven to be more than an outrage to those who have rallied in the cause of life.  But it has also become more than an outrage to those who insist upon such rights as bodily autonomy and choice without consequences or responsibility.  The protection of life is centered in truth that has stood the test of time, enjoyed the protection of secular law and morality as well as religious, and been pursued less for the sake of the living than for those unable to speak or defend themselves.  The protection of right for abortion (and every other aspect of choice, including euthanasia and assisted suicide) was invented in modern times, within a few generations, and has transformed secular and some religious law and morality.  Furthermore, the choice movement is largely designed for the protection of the individual for whom the life is deemed burdensome.  Though we say that we think the lives of the aged or disabled do not possess the dignity or noble character we think our lives should, the reality is that this is also more for our convenience than it is for any compassionate view of the fragile in body or mind.

What is interesting to me is how the myth became a protected and defended fact and how that false fact  became a cardinal truth in the culture of America and the West.  Abortion is a prime example of how this process works.  The myth that is borne of desire and want eventually becomes fact that is allowed to stand with other facts, even though disputed.  Eventually it becomes the cardinal truth that anchors and supports a whole host of supposed rights and truths.  Feminism gave birth to abortion and abortion gave birth to sexual liberation and the experimentation of sexual desire which eventually produced the strange circumstance of today.  We cannot define a woman per se except to say that anyone who feels like one must be one and we cannot impose any morality on the sovereign right of the mother to decide what to do with the life in her womb.  They are not distinct or separate but all tied together in what will become the undoing of all the protections that life has enjoyed.  In the end, this will erupt into a stream of violence that we are already witnessing in the schools, malls, and streets of America.  If it is legal to end the life in the womb, in some states right up until the moment of birth, it will become more and more untenable to justify the protections of law to anyone -- especially those whose views are unpopular or controversial.

The pro-life movement stands on the most challenged and unpopular truth in the modern day West but it is the cornerstone of many truths that have provided a structure and an anchor for the cause of morality and virtue.  The undoing of this truth in the presumption of right will ultimately strip all rights from every life and leave us subject to the whims of society, the will of the majority, and the intrusive role of government.  The Church is not simply heralding the protection of life but calling our world to repentance lest the decline and deterioration of sin aid and abet all that would rob us of our humanity.

Monday, September 12, 2022

NOT what to do in Church. . .

Click here for video that is upbeat, positive, has a good sound, a beat you can dance to, and has already proven to be a crowd pleaser.  But it is not church... 

If the Church cannot approach God with reverence and the vocabulary of Scripture, we cannot approach God by means of a lack of reverence and awe and the words of man.  The problem is not that the Church is too distinctive for the world to notice but that the Church is no longer distinctive and so the world sees nothing in the Church's walk or witness to notice.

Pray that the future holds less of these and more of these:


There are some Lutherans who outshine the Romans in their reverence and faithfulness.  We don't need to follow the Romans in their goofiness.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The sound of the church bell . . .

As most of you readers already know, I grew up in what most would describe as a bronze age, low church, Lutheran parish.  Interestingly, however, as low church as this parish was, chanting was the norm and the ringing of the bell was customary.  I do not mean the traditional ringing of the bell for the start of worship but the tolling of the bell during the Our Father and at other times within the Divine Service (Words of Institution and .  I did not know nor did I appreciate that this might be unusual to some.  The bell was not silent or rare but loud and ordinary.  When the Church bell was rung, people around the Church knew what was going on within the Church and, specifically, within the Divine Service.  The bell was an amplifier that magnified the liturgy by announcing it to the world and to the Christians who were absent from the worship of God'

Think of the bell as just that -- an amplifier that makes known to those not present what is happening at that moment with the House of the Lord.  In this respect the church bell is nothing more or less than the announcement of what is happening within the Divine Service at that moment.  The world hears the sound of the bell and with it the announcement that it is time for worship, that the Words of the Lord are being spoken over the bread and wine He has commanded and to which He has attached His promise, and that the assembly was praying as our Lord has taught us.  It is a good and salutary thing to hear the sound of the church bell whether you are apostate, heretic, or the faithful away from home.  

The silencing of the church bell either through laziness or disdain is not a small thing.  Where once the bell rang out into the community a call to worship and a reminder of the responsibility of the faithful to be where God has promised to be, today the bells are more and more silent, it could be because even the faithful do not want to be reminded of their place and their purpose as the people of God within the House of the Lord, gathered around His Word and Table.  It could be because we no longer passionately believe, teach, and confess as we once did what we once did.  It could be because we have silenced the bell out of some misguided notion of simplicity.  All of these might apply, but the reality is clouded by the fact that we have for a long time focused ourselves away from God and the things of God to ourselves and the tyranny of the moment and our ability to define that moment.

The truth is I despise the term adiaphora for the false way it is applied as if these things were meaningless and their usage was defined by personal affection or appreciation.  Church bells are not the things on which we pin our salvation but who in the world would say such a thing?  What church bells are, however, are voices into the community and to the faithful to say we cannot hide ourselves from God or the things of God.  Now more than ever this witness is needed.  So I am one who would suggest flaunting the sound of the bell while half a world is sleeping or pursuing the purchase of the Starbucks that would awaken their day.  We need to sound forth and out the sound of the bell into a world more and more unfriendly to the faith and more and more willing to silence the kerygma that is either unwelcome or offensive to the consciences and preferences of those around them.

I think of the sacring bell and the church bell as almost confessional and urgent in our day of minimums, preferences, and whims.  Maybe nobody else will see it this way but I wonder if that is also a part of the problem.  The call of the prophet was never the welcome voice of a God who would come when beckoned and go away when unwanted.  What is was and is remains the intruding voice of God who refuses the back  bench or the waiting area.  Ring those bells -- not simply at the start of worship but in the places where the bells have traditionally been sung -- during the Our Father, the consecration, and at the benediction.  When silence becomes more normal to those within the household of God, it just may also become even more offensive to those who don't believe.  The many who think that the household should defer until the world lends its approval should consider how whole thing becomes little more than a wallpaper for those who want it and less and less a cause for which any one might be willing to die.