Sunday, April 30, 2023

What we can do. . .

Sadly some have presumed that God is sitting upon His throne having turned over general operations of His Church to His ministers and people.  There are people on both sides of the altar rail who delight in the idea that we can improve upon God's creation of a Church, that it is within our power to grow the Church, that it is within our purview to decide what the Church will believe, and that it is our job to fix what it wrong with the Church.  Sad is the word because look at what we have done to the Church.  Our stewardship running God's operation has surely been the problem and not the solution to anything.  We have forgotten a cardinal truth -- while it is not and has never been within our power to build the Church, we certainly can bring to ruin what belongs to the Lord.  

We have forgotten that the Spirit grows the Church, when and where He wills, through the means of grace.  In this respect, we Lutherans have forgotten some of the most basic tenets of our Confessions.  The Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the Church.  It is for this reason the ministry exists and it is through the ministry, that is through the Word and the Sacraments, that faith is born and the faithful live as God's own people.  We have been given a very different task -- not to advise the Lord or bring to fruition what He began or to improve upon His design.  No, it is given to us simply to be the Church. We think we are in management or research and development but we are the folks who bear witness to what the Lord has said and done, who confess it without fear before the world, and who live in this fellowship and communion on His terms.  

It does not matter if you are Roman Catholic or Lutheran or Anglican or whatever, the great temptation before us is to reject being the Church and to take it over, remaking the Church in our image instead of being Christ's Church.  Whether we are voting in church assemblies or a pope speaking to reporters at the back of a plane, our problem is that we think we are in charge and that what we think or decide matters most of all.  The faithful do not have to figure out what must be done to save Christ's Church.  Our Lord knows what He is doing.  We do not have find a way of accommodating the radical changes in truth and life that the world happens to embrace at any given moment.  We walk to the beat of a different drum and a different drummer.  We do not have to figure out how to make peace with the progressive forces of culture and education and industry or to ingratiate ourselves to the current folks who hold the reigns of power at this moment in time.  We just need to be the people Christ says we are, speak forth the truth of His Word without shame or embarrassment, and to be faithful to the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

We can't make things better but we can sure screw them up.  That is exactly our modern problem.  We think that God needs our help, wants our help, and has given us management of His Church because He cannot or will not do it anymore.  So we exchange the Word that endures forever for a truth one person wide and one moment deep.  We alter our confession to meet the shibboleths of modernity that will certainly have to adapted over and over again as the world embraces change ever more quickly.  We have raised anchor and now are adrift on the sea of modernity without even realizing that is the problem.  No, we cannot improve upon God's creation of His Church but we can sure tear it down, destroy it, and make it impotent.  God is the one and the only one who can build His Church.  He builds His Church when and where He wills but always with a ministry, through the Word and Sacraments, and by His Spirit.  If we could learn at least that much, maybe we could minimize some of the damage we are doing to His Church and we might see for a moment the future God has in store for His Church.  At this point, it would seem that much of Christianity has already given up on this.  That is why it is so important that we do not.  What a day it is when the people responsible for doing the most harm to the Church are working on the inside supposedly on God's behalf instead of the enemies outside whom we know are working for the destruction of Christ's Church!

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Does dress matter. . .

Apparently over in the ELCA melodrama, their first transgender bishop who was removed from office is suing for discrimination.  According to Rohrer, on the first day of work somebody had the nerve to use the wrong pronoun toward the bishop (misgendered) and ridiculed the bishop for featuring drag queens at his ordination.  Curious, the ELCA does not ordain bishops but installs them; you might have expected a bishop to know the difference.  Or, it could have occurred at the ordination as pastor, which, if memory serves, was not official but done by another group outside the ELCA and then affirmed by the ELCA after the official sanctions for GLBTQ in 2009.  It does bring up the matter of appropriate dress.  

For the drag queens, the appropriate dress is self-expression -- to the nines as they say.  Of course, there is no such thing as gender neutral drag attire, is there?  We are full of ourselves to the point where we get easily offended by anyone who does not feel as we feel.  Even Jesus should be as happy with our chosen means of self-expression as we are.  The crimes of not appreciating drag queens at an ordination or being misgendered are made more significant by the value we place on self-expression.  But how is this unlike much of what passes for dress at worship?  

The truth is that we have people with nice clothes in their closets who intentionally dress down for worship as much as we have those who dress up for it.  We have people who wear revealing clothing at worship as might be more appropriate for other occasions.  We have brides who sometimes dress to catch the groom not because they have him and we have men who think a faded tee shirt with beer advertising and some faded jeans is high style.  So what is the difference?  Is the drag queen inappropriate because of being a drag queen or is the dress itself inappropriate?  The truth is we have have trouble actually saying why.

If we say that clothing as self-expression is bad, not only drag queens are affected.  If we say that clothing does not matter, how can we say anything is inappropriate?  If we say they do matter, are we elevating what you wear to a higher plane than should be?  It would seem to me that St. Paul is clearer than we might first admit.  St. Paul says modesty is always the standard.  Modesty is always appropriate and this applies especially to worship.  We do not cover up because the body is bad but out of concern for the neighbor.  We do not cover up because we are ashamed but because we are not the focus of worship.  That seems to be a principle lost to our age.  You honor the person being buried with your dress.  You honor the bride and groom with your dress.  You honor the special restaurant not only with its extra cost but with your dress.  Why would we do anything less to enter into the Lord's presence?  Again, this is not about the clothes but about you and me and our attitude toward where we are why we are there.

My point is this.  In worship your dress should be modest (not humble here but modest -- not drawing attention to the parts of your body that attract that kind of attention).  If you have good clothes, what is a more fitting time to wear them than in the presence of the God who has become your salvation?  As our Lord said, externals do not make up for an empty heart but neither should they be in conflict with the posture of that heart. 

Friday, April 28, 2023

Communion outside the Mass. . .

It may come as a surprise to some that communion within the Mass is a norm which is more the result of reforms in Rome than a reflection of history.  The practice of communing outside Mass seems to be mentioned first in the second and third centuries. The context seems to arise from "emergency" situations in which the Eucharist from the Sunday celebration was sent to those who were absent (Justin, 1 Apol. 1, 67) and from domestic settings, bringing it to the home of the sick during the week (Tertullian, Ad uxorem 2, 5; De oratione 19).  Domestic weekday communion declined with overall less frequent communion and the introduction of weekday Mass (late fourth century).  In the Christian West, from the ninth century on, those not receiving communion on Sundays were sometimes dismissed with the priest's blessing, and communion then followed. This became more common in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Sunday Communion Service apart from the Mass is a late twentieth-century development. Although the service provides a means of eucharistic participation and access, the practice is at best tolerated and has never enjoyed the preeminent status according to the documents governing the liturgy.

Dogmatically, the Roman Church has always considered the reception of Communion by the faithful as the logical and necessary conclusion of the sacrificial celebration.  This was clearly the express will of Christ who invites to take and eat. Already St. John Chrysostom (349-407) complained, “In vain we stand before the altar, there is no one to partake.” Instruction had to take place to enjoin to the faithful the importance of receiving Communion. From the fourth century there were conciliar decrees obligating clerics to commune and in 1123 the First Lateran Council found it necessary to absolutely require confession and Communion at least once a year for all Catholics as an absolute minimum. This requirement, though it remains in force today it has seen widely diverging practice.  A return to more frequent Communion, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, restored the practice of more normal communion within the Mass.

My point here is not to focus on Rome's problems but to consider the situation Luther found in the Church at the time of the Reformation.  If communion was not usual within the Mass, if the people had to be encouraged to commune at least once a year, and if it would take three to four hundred years after the Reformation before Rome was able to restore communion during the Mass as a norm, that says a great deal about the condition of the faithful at the time of Luther.  It certainly explains Luther's own minimum of four times a year and makes Luther's minimum a much higher standard than the typical standard in place at the time.  In this respect, Luther was ahead of his time and envisioned the norm that was typical of the early church and should have remained the standard for the church ever since.  

Growing up in the Lutheranism of the 1950s I can see how a minimum of participation soon became the maximum number of times the Sacrament was even offered.  It would take a couple of generations within the Lutheranism of my past before we learned to see Luther's words in context and move to engage more faithfully the norm of our own Confession and the standard of the Church from earliest times of a weekly Eucharist in which the faithful would have had a pretty big reason not to commune when the Eucharist was offered.  In our Lutheran history, the Reformation which was also a time of sacramental renewal ended up getting lost in the swamps of Pietism, Rationalism, and non-sacramental Protestantism until it would take our own version of liturgical renewal to restore what Augustana said was our norm.  More than this, however, is the continuing work of restoring the Sacrament as the beating heart of our piety.  The easy part of restoring the frequency with which the Sacrament is offered is being done as I write.  The more frequent communions that take place as a result of more frequent celebrations is also being done as I write.  The restoration of the Eucharist to the center of our piety and the source and summit of our individual lives as well as our lives together continues to go on....

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Should Jesus have come at all?

In the sad debate within the Church of England over the blessing of same sex couples, one reads this comment by Archbishop Welby:  “So, when we vote, we need to think of that. It’s not just about what people will say — it is about what they will suffer.”  (emphasis added)   Needless to report, they voted not for what God said or even what should be said but as Archbishop Welby put it -- the vote was an act of caring.  So the General Synod bishops, clergy and laity voted 250-181 to offer blessing rites for same-sex couples married by the state — while retaining church doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman. They have made marriage a distinction without a difference but that is not the worst of it.  They did it because they were driven by the idea that their action would prevent or relieve suffering.

If you used that criteria for much of what Christianity confesses as doctrine, there would be no doctrine.  Imagine all the ink that has been spent over whether baptism does something or symbolizes something, over who should or should not be baptized, and how that baptism should take place.  The suffering born of those who insist someone is not baptized or that the baptism effected nothing is not without pause.  Or look at the Eucharist.  What about all the arguments over whether there is anything but bread or no bread left, whether this communion imparts something or symbolizes it, and who should be admitted and who should not be admitted to the Table.  The suffering born of those who sit excluded in the pew while others eat at the rail has been the subject of both reasoned and passionate words for centuries.  

If you used suffering as a litmus test for what you should believe or confess or do, would it not then be prudent to repudiate Scripture, St. Paul, and even Jesus Himself for saying the things said about those who practice adultery, fornication, homosexuality, slavery, etc.?  These are certainly seen as offensive words which have contributed to the suffering of those who believe they did not commit sin but were ordered by God with these desires or led by God out of unhappy situations.  No, the Word of God would not survive such a standard.

If the fact that suffering is caused is the reason why something ought to be or not, then how could Jesus escape condemnation?  Indeed, should Jesus have come at all?  Christianity is blamed for all kinds of wars and abuses.  Would there have been less suffering in the world if Christ had never been incarnate?  What about the suffering Jesus says will come to you because you belong to Him?  If ever there was a reason not to be Christian, it would be to avoid suffering.  The world has never been friendly toward Christianity even when some tried to make Christianity into a worldly power.  Who in their right minds would choose a faith that would bring you into conflict with the world, the culture, the society, etc.?

There is only one standard for judgment that befits the Church.  What does God say?  It does not matter if we understand it or can comprehend why God says it.  It matters only that God said it.  His Word is the ground of our being.  Archbishop Welby is waging a dangerous game by making suffering the condition of what the Church says or does.  For by that very same argument, there would be no Christian Church at all.  Maybe Bp Welby should explore Buddhism.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

DIE is the death of us. . .

Though it is universally diversity, equity, and inclusion, the initials could be arranged differently to more accurately reflect what is happening.   All across America institutions and industry have taken up the mantra of DIE with an almost religious fervor.  From preschools to the Ivy League universities, from the web sites of our largest businesses to governmental entities, the last few years have witnessed the hijacking of the ordinary purposes and goals of these schools and businesses to reflect the higher goal and purpose of a woke agenda.  This has not only divided America but caused confusion about what ought to be our agendas going forward and what are the core purposes and values of these agencies, institutions, and economic entities.

Wokeism is transforming our children by changing what happens in their classrooms and why.  The three goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion have transcended the typical curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic and consumed the energy, resources, and funds of these schools without a clear public debate or mandate for this change.  If only consider the positions and evaluation criteria applied to the people and programs of our schools to see how predominant the DIE has been cast over them.  The end result is disastrous for our children.  With every onslaught of the woke agenda, our children are falling further and further behind in their core educational skills and abilities but this has not slowed the relentless pursuit of social engineering through the classroom.  The end result will not be the elevation of our civilization but its decline.

Within these categories, race has become the lens through which everything is seen and judged without even admitting that equal access to education and opportunity have improved substantially.  That is not enough for the advocates of a Woke agenda.  Intent upon the division of the world in to the victims and those who victimize them, the Woke agenda is radical redistribution of power and wealth and not simply equality before the law or in the school system or in the marketplace.  Who you were seems to be a more important concern than who you might be or will be given such equality of access.

Far from galvanizing support for the DIE goals, the racial, economic, and educational tensions are greater than they have been since the integration of the schools sixty years ago.  Our credibility suffers with each advance of the DIE agenda as it further cements its hold upon education and expands its outreach into business.  Where once the investor had a choice to participate in socially conscious investments, now the major retailers and industries have decided there is economic interest in riding the wave of Wokism and seem committed to the use of their influence to advance the same goals and agenda as the schools of America now operate under.  However, no one seems to be asking if our schools are better schools or their graduates are actually better educated because of the Woke hold on the leadership and education of our schools and their faculties. 

What we have learned is that our liberty is so fragile and our people so easily offended or made uncomfortable that ordinary words are being removed from our vocabularies or replaced with words and concepts that have been judged less tainted by the past and less burdened by the baggage of what many have decided was only an oppressive and abusive history.  Grades and standards have been judged unilaterally and hopelessly repressive and racist.  The Woke agenda has become a counterrevolutionary fad even as we find ourselves hard pressed to fill the jobs we need with people whose educational preparation and whose fitness for the jobs they have will advance both our education and our accomplishment.

At some point in time, one hopes that we will awaken to the reality that Wokeism is inherently cannibalistic -- it can consume, tear down, and destroy but it cannot provide, build up, and inspire.  It is not a virtue oriented system but relies upon the sins of a nation and a people as its justification for existence.  Unlike the religious institutions that offer the actual hope of redemption, Wokeism within its DIE framework has no saving work -- only that of marking and destroying people and institutions.  For now, our politics seems powerless to raise the specter of an honest debate and it seems has one party completely allied with its Woke purpose while the other party differs less by essence than by pace.  Our educational institutions are so thoroughly caught up in the DIE agenda that some are wondering if they are salvageable at all.  Certainly it is easier to establish new universities than it is to rescue the ones we have.  Business probably is the least wedded to the agenda and there is at least some hope that if it proves unprofitable, the managers of America's main streets will reject what is Woke in favor of the profit motive.  But what will be left after this fad or trend has done its worst?  As if it could be worse, the end result of a people who have surrendered their identity and their case for a sham will be a greater mess than the mending of our institutions and agencies.

Though I have rearranged the initials to make it DIE, those who first put forth this Woke cause might have arranged them DEI because that it is Latin for God or deity.  Maybe that is exactly what they intended.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Wavering truth cements suspicion. . .

The meme seems to be the contemporary version of the editorial cartoon and there is no shortage of them.  Some of them are pithy and some are not.  I came across one intent upon revisiting what we were told during the pandemic that was supposed to be truth and science and then ended up to be something less.  You have heard it all before, I am sure.

  • We were told the virus was from a lab leak and then not and now it appears it was.
  • We were told that the vaccine would prevent us from getting the virus and it has not.
  • We were told that masks would prevent the spread and then it was said they did not.
  • We were told that lockdowns would stop the spread and they did not.

I could continue to go down the list but this is not about the list.  What it is about is this.  When you insist that something is true and it is not, people become suspicious, even callous toward truth in general.  The pandemic added to the deep suspicion of people about the wisdom, the integrity, and the trust you can have in government, leaders, and even medicine and science.  When truth wavers, the end result is that the idea and the need for truth itself becomes suspect.  It does not matter what side you were or are on with respect to COVID and the measures we were told would protect us, we have all learned to be wary of those who seemed so confident and certain then but whose views have been repudiated in hindsight.

Now turn your attention to the Church.  We offer truth to the world but we suffer from the same wavering truth that has afflicted the pandemic.  At some point in time, some scholars or religious leaders began to say that it did not matter if things in the Bible were real or myth, whether they were historical or invented, whether they were factual or symbolic.  Scripture was not based upon nor did it convey truth in that sense.  And what happened?  People began to be suspicious about every Christian truth and put Scripture under a microscope of suspicion that scrutinized its words more than any other book.

We offer the truth of an intelligent design to a world marvelously complex and to bodies fearfully and wonderfully made.  At some point in time, some scholars or religious leaders began to say that it was all an accident of fate, a mystery of a moment and a mutation that become something new, and that we were nothing but accidents.  And what happened?  We learned to see life as disposable and our lives as only the span of our days and the goal and purpose of life to fill up those days with what made us feel good.  The once noble characterization of life as a gift and blessing from God for noble purpose gave way to a something rather cheap and easy that bore no semblance to what God intended.

We offer a pattern of life and morality to the world but we have wavered about what is right or wrong, true or false.  At some point in time, our scholars or religious leaders not only permitted but encouraged us to believe that birth control was a duty, that sex was not really connected to marriage, that marriage was not really about children, and that it was a temporary and disposable relationship.  So we forgot what Scripture said and we stopped striving to live out what it held up.  In the end, we gave up and joined the throng of those who changed the definition of male and female, the definition of marriage, the purpose of marriage, and the shape of family.  And what happened?  People no longer looked to Scripture or the clear Christian witness of the ages for guidance or for definition and simply did what was right in their own eyes.

We gather in the presence of the Holy One in order to receive His gifts and this pattern and shape of worship exists over thousands of years.  At some point in time, our scholars or religious leaders told us that there could be room for self-expression, that the liturgy was ours as much as it was God's, and that the most important values were what we found meaningful or relevant or expressive.  And what happened?  Worship is not simply a free for all but almost an unnecessary add on to spiritual lives defined by us as individuals and informed by whatever fits our whims.

The Church needs to be careful.  Every time we suggest that the truth we knew is not the truth we know now, we create a disconnect in which the whole idea of any truth is assaulted.  When we undermined the authority of Scripture, creed, and confession, we lost credibility and surrendered our integrity to the altar of expediency.  You cannot tell people one thing in God's name for generations and then change it up without Biblical warrant without assaulting the very nature of truth itself.  It is one thing to admit that we were wrong but when we say God was wrong, we leave people with nothing that endures and with only the moment on which to hold.  A wavering voice for truth is more dangerous that a strident voice which denies it.

Monday, April 24, 2023

A roadside conversation. . .

The sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (A), preached on Sunday, April 23, 2023.

If something happens at church, everyone knows about it.  The pastor falls and fractures an ankle, a member passes out in church, somebody quits their job, or somebody is angry with the pastor or somebody else – these things make their way around the congregation without any of them being in church to hear of it.  That is the power of gossip.  It occupies our hearts and minds with our every complain, our every disappointment, and our every insistence to know every salacious detail about the scandal.  But the obvious is lost to us all.

On the road some of the followers of Jesus complained.  The food made of a little boy’s lunch was delicious, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, and He had taught them with authority like no other.  But then He died.  He was not smart enough to escape the trap of His enemies and death on a cross got Him.  We had hoped He might be the one.  We wanted Him to be the one.  Yes there were stories but who can believe the reports of excitable women or the disciples who had nothing more than the lack of a body.  We wanted to believe but who wants to get your hopes up only to be disappointed again.  Better to be left in your misery, right?

They knew everything about Jesus but the one thing needful.  They did not know His Word.  They knew of their disappointment and their fears but they did not know His Word.  So in this conversation with a stranger, they unloaded themselves on how sad they were that things did not pan out better for Jesus and better for them.  We do that every Sunday.  

We know of everyone’s secret sins, of all the times we wanted things to be right and they were wrong, of every disappointment, of every angry word somebody said to us and of every unmet expectation we had of our pastors and brothers and sisters in Christ.  What we do not know is the Word of Christ.  That is why our conversations are only about what is wrong and not what is right.  We know of every misstep of our leaders and everytime we think God let us down but we do not know God’s Word.

In this conversation, however, the stranger was not a nobody.  It was Jesus.  But Jesus was hidden.  Hidden not by God but by every disappointment, let down, unmet expectation, and the like.  They talked about what might be but was not. Because this was all they saw and talked about, they did see Jesus.  Jesus did not use magic to open their eyes.  He opened the Scriptures to them.  He did not explain the mysteries or make the things of God seem simple and easy.  He showed them how the Law and the prophets and the writings – every word of Scripture – pointed to Him.  Then in the visible Word of the Eucharist, they ate and drank the broken bread of the Upper Room. And then their hearts burned and they knew who Jesus was.  Then they looked past all their disappointments and self-pity only to see that Jesus was among them from the start of their conversation.
My friends, it is still that way.  There is no one more bitter than someone who feels the Church has wounded them or the pastor offended them or their friends in the pews forsaken them.  There is no one harder to address that someone who thought they had believed and known and understood how God worked only to disappointed in some way or been called to repentance and faith when they should have been recognized and honored.  They know everything but the Word of Christ and so they see nothing clearly but their wounds and disappointments.

This is the story of what happens when we know everything but the Word of God and when we know everything in that Word except Jesus who fulfills it.  Don’t be foolish.  God hears your prayers even when you do not receive the answers you want to those prayers.  God knows your needs even when you are disappointed in how He responds to those needs.  God is with you even when your life is a mess.  He who spared not His own Son but gave Him up for us all, will He not now give us all things in Christ?

We think that we need to know ourselves better in order to know God but the reality is that the things we think we know so well are often distractions from the one thing we need to know best of all.  You need to be people of His Word.  It is not about how well you know God but about the God who knows you better than yourselves.  It is not about the God who gave you everything you always wanted but about the God who gave Himself up for you.  It is not about the what might be but what God said and did, His Word promised and fulfilled in Christ Jesus.  

Jesus is seldom the Savior we wanted but He is always the Savior long promised in the Scriptures.  Jesus seldom does everything we ask or think He should do but He has never failed to fulfill the Scriptures and do for us what God had said He would always do.  For Jesus to be the Messiah does not mean He what we want.
No, for Jesus to be the Savior means He does what God said He would do – the Son of the woman born of the pain of childbirth as God in flesh to be killed by the serpent only to rise from the dead and crush the serpent’s head.  This is the promise of the prophets.  God would become His people’s Savior and keep the law so perfectly that His righteousness would cover all our failure.  God would suffer our sin and die our death to redeem those who should die for their sins.  God would rise up to stand with Job as the redeemer who lives to rescue those dead in trespasses and sin.

We know the names of everyone in the news.  We are enamored by all the details of celebrities.  We can recall the statistics of our favorite athletes and teams.  We will tell you why this or that candidate is the best one running in every election.  We have opinions about the best places to shop, the best brands to buy, the best places to go on vacation.  But we do not know God’s Word.  We hunger and thirst for many things before we our hearts burn for the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  We can tell you every time our faith has let us down but we cannot remember all that God has done to save us.  We are still having those one sided conversations like the disciples on the road to Emmaus and Jesus still has to open His Word to us and set His table among us before we will open our eyes.

The world likes to talk but Christians ought to love to listen to God’s Word.  The world loves to say what it wants but Christians ought to delight in God’s will.  The world looks for glory but Christians ought to look for the promises of God fulfilled as the mark of our Savior.  The world is infatuated with itself but Christians ought to be focused on Him who died and rose again.

We want euphoria and excitement but God delivers to us the ordinary that is made extraordinary by His grace – the Word of the cross and empty tomb, the voice that forgives our sins, the water that washes us with new life, and the bread that is His flesh and the cup that is His blood.  If our conversations were more about the Word of God that testifies to Christ and our hearts were rooted and planted in the Sacraments of Christ, our hearts would positively ache out for the joy that is set before us.  But as long as we are more conscious of every disappointment or offense or let down or empty feeling, there is no room for God to occupy our hearts with joy or our minds with peace.  At the end of this conversation, Jesus appearance was gone but His Word and Sacraments remained.  And that is where you and are now.  In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

Our disdain for submission. . .

Self-expression has become the most distinctive aspect of our personality and lives.  We view this as the most important value of all and it has almost become our definition for liberty.  In all the furor over what the government is going to do about the app TikTok, I heard a twenty something woman insist that she did not care about privacy or what China knew about her and her life.  What was most important to her was both her own self-expression through the videos on that platform and her right to view the self-expression of others.  It is certainly no different from the Frank Sinatra singing his signature song I've Gotta to Be Me (though it was written by Sammy Davis, Jr.).  Another age, to be sure, but the same sentiment.  Right or wrong does not matter but self-expression matters most of all.

It is no wonder then that we wade into thorny issues by talking about submission.  Men don't want to submit to other men, much less women, and nobody wants to submit to employers or laws or rules of any kind.  I've gotta be me.  The body has become a canvas for our self-expression and not only the clothing we wear but cosmetic surgery, tattoos, piercings, and make up.  It is not for women anymore.  Men are jumping on the bandwagon of promoting their bodies as a means of expressing who they are.  Women certainly do not want to submit to men and find it hard to defer to other women as well.  They use all the tools at their disposal to look like what they want to look like -- even if that look was in the past associated with men.  I've gotta be me.  Children do not want to be taught at home or in school but want their educational institutions to be places of self-expression.  Uniformity and even unity are suspect at best and despised at worst.  I've gotta be me.  Even the military, once the bastion of rules and order, has been forced to tolerate and even encourage diversity and self-expression.  Where the military once lagged behind society in general, the military today is often used as the place to try out social engineering plans.I've gotta be me.

In the Church it is no different.  People do not like to be told what to do there anymore than the rest of society.  Scripture must say different things to different people at different times and no one can tell me that what I think it says is wrong.  Spirituality is no longer the fruit of our lives together around the means of grace but it is our own individual domain and one largely of self-expression rather than any kind of submission.  It has become offensive to suggest that it is given only to pastors to do certain things in the Church and worship has become an arena for our self-expression or where we are entertained by the self-expression of others.  Morality is the most prominent avenue of self-expression but truth itself has fallen victim to the same tyranny of self.  There is no truth but my truth or the truth I allow.  The doctrinal authority of our creeds and confessions has come under the same constraint placed upon Scripture and so we are either offended by the judgments of those who came before us or dismiss them out of hand.

Pastors are no different.  I am no different.  We do not want to allow for the fact that we might be wrong or that we owe to others some measure of consideration or respect.  We all enjoy the localization of Church into the congregation because it means we can live in our own little worlds.  It works as long we find enough people who agree with us.  We elect as our leaders those who will allow us this freedom and we are deeply suspicious of those who represent a threat to this self-expression -- even those with whom we agree.  We tend to dogmatic toward others and focus on what we disagree with more than what unites us.  

All of this is, of course, the way of sin.  It is the recapitulation of Eden over and over and over again.  The ongoing war within us is not simply between the voice of the devil and the voice of God but our own hearts still seeking our own ways and still trying to use the voice of God to legitimize and give cover for our independence.  We are all fighting the same battle.  It is not unique to women in relation to their husbands or children in relation to their parents but all of us in relation to Christ.  We love when He invites us to cast off our heavy burdens and come to Him but we mistake His invitation to be the opportunity to cast off submission itself.  We scratch our heads when He tells us that we must hate everyone and even self, deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him.  Where in that picture is there room for me to be me?  We thought that the freedom Christ was giving was the liberty to express ourselves fully and without restraint but then comes St. Paul and his talk of self-denial, self-control, and living the new life we have in Christ.  

All of this highlights the importance of confession and absolution.  This sacramental gift and blessing is the grace we need to confront that sinful will and desire to elevate self-expression to the highest good and to learn submission to God's Word and will as the truest freedom of all.  It is both the forgiveness that restores us when our will's lead us where we should not go and the discipline of confession is the constant reminder of what happens when we listen to our hearts instead of God's Word.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The impact of the world on us. . .

While the great temptation is to see the cultural changes around us as things that are happening out there somewhere, the reality is that they are deeply involved in what happens at home and in the Church.  We are not insular communities but the home and the Church have leaks in just as we leak out into the world around us.  Whether we admit it or not, the changes in sexuality, marriage, family, privacy, feminism, screens, and such have and continue to have great impact on our doctrine as well as our life together.

Abortion and its related issues of the sacredness of life, the morality of how life begins and ends, the value attached to that life, and the particular value of the child have profoundly affected us.  Look at the numbers alone.  Baptisms, confirmations, and actual funerals are down.  This is not accidental.  There are congregations where a baptism is a rarity -- even the baptism of a child.  Are you telling me that has little or no affect on the place of baptism in the life of those assembled or in the Church?  The drop in youth confirmations is related to the lower numbers of baptism but it is also related to the mobility of our people and the multiplication of places where people have the opportunity to drop out, disappear, or jump ship.  Seeing one or no candidates for confirmation in the life of a congregation has a profound affect not only on the place of this rite but their view of themselves and their future.  The increasing numbers of deaths without services planned or private services in a funeral home alone has and continues to have a major impact on the congregation as well as the family.  Children who no longer live in the area where their parents live and who no longer attend the same or any church come home to arrange a burial and get back to their lives, ignoring or oblivious to the healing power of the funeral as people gather not simply to acknowledge the death but to confess the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

The heavy weight of culture is felt all over the place when it comes to the role of women in the Church.  When I first began my time as a Pastor, it was common and even ordinary to have most wives and mothers not work outside the home or work only part-time.  It has turned around until the stay at home mom or the one working limited hours is the oddity.  While I have no real quibble with the increased role of women in the life of the congregation, I cannot but notice that it has come with a cost -- men are reluctant leaders and in many congregations have disappeared from leadership roles except where the offices require males only.  While some will say this is a result of changes in the way the church has viewed offices and authority, the influence bearing upon these changes has not been Scripture or our history but the press of culture.  It becomes difficult for us to find inoffensive ways to say where and why men alone can serve (whether as pastors or parish offices) and so we tend not to say anything much at all -- embarrassed or confused about how to say it without making us sound positively medieval.  Of course, all of this is a result of the loss of the sense of order that God reflected over His creation, a rejection of that order by many, and a refusal to see vocation for what it is.  Submission to anyone or anything is hard to find in our culture of self-expression.

The digital imprint of life has surely affected how we see even the most central aspects of our life together.  The mere idea that an online gathering or a virtual communion might substitute for the personal assembly of a people together in the same place, hearing the same Word, confessing the same faith, and receiving the same Eucharist reflects the deep impact of the screen on worship.  We will continue to reap the effects of the pandemic as it hastened our foray into a digital parish life long after we have forgotten masks and distancing.  How was it possible that we so quickly gave consideration to and put into practice these impersonal means of worship and communion?  How did we give them legitimacy so fast that now they are the norms of our parish lives along with the in person assemblies?  When did online numbers become statistics relevant to the health of our congregations as well as the count of those present on Sunday or any other day the Eucharist is offered?  The theology was and is affected by the routines of a life that is centered on a screen for work, shopping, play, and entertainment.

I certainly do not have all the answers here but I find it disconcerting that even a church body as conservative and staid as Missouri lives with the impact of culture and seems to have gotten somewhat accustomed to it all.  What we do not notice, we will not reject -- that is always the way error comes into the life of the Church.  It is always a back or side door and never the front door which we have well guarded.  No, we will have to redouble our efforts at catechesis to maintain where we are and some of what we have lost we may never recover.  By catechesis here, I am not strictly talking about Bible study but about what the Scriptures say and how it relates to what is happening around us.  We cannot simply talk about that Scripture says unless we are also willing to apply it to our individual lives in Christ and our life together as the Church.

Some will see bogeymen everywhere.  The watchdogs of the internet are good at pointing out problems.  I know.  I am one of them.  But we must not react wildly to everything or we will accomplish nothing.  We must meet the challenges before us as they come with a careful and reasoned response based not upon opinion or fear but upon the solid Word of God and the creeds and confessions of those who went before us.  We must not retreat from the confrontation or we will lose our identity as salt and light in the world.  We must not become our enemies and react with vitriol, bitterness, and anger or our voices will not be heard in the world nor will those within our churches continue to listen.  Pastors and church leaders will need to be fervent in prayer along side the people in our pews and diligent.  For the urgency is not that the Church will die unless we save it but that we and those within our care may be lost to the Church unless we heed the call and take up the cause of Christ crucified and risen.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Blessing or curse?

The bane of many congregations is also their proud blessing -- a building.  I wish that I could say that I have not wondered why buildings became such a focus of our congregation's life.  It seems that so many of our problems and financial woes can be tied to real estate.  But, where would we be without those places of beauty in which we gather around the Word and Table of the Lord?  Is there anyone who honestly believes that the Church could have continued to exist solely within the homes of members as it did in the beginning?  So it would seem that blessing means taming the beast that is property and being financially prudent to make sure that we give these facilities the attention they need but no more.

When I grew up the slogan for Pontiac was longer, lower, and wider.  That seems to be an apt description of what has happened to our church buildings as well.  We moved to expansive structures that were mostly one story and consumed more ground for our structures than ever before.  In the city where I live, there are churches that literally consume the entire block of their address and more.  Strangely enough, the largest congregation in town has a much smaller imprint on the map than the one people assume is the biggest.  That may have something to do with the focus of the two congregations.

Where the facilities of the largest congregation (Roman Catholic) are focused largely on worship and catechesis, the buildings of the one people think is the largest (Baptist) has everything from weight rooms to athletic facilities to community rooms and on and on and on.  In fact, the space devoted to worship is but a small portion of the overall structure.  Perhaps that is the problem.  We Lutherans generally look to others as the pace setter for what we ought to be doing and we have looked at the expansive campuses of these Baptist and non-denominational congregations with envious eyes.  Is that really what we ought to be about?  

Soon after moving to Tennessee an early and insightful conversation with the neighboring Baptist pastor revealed that Sunday school attendance was the more important barometer of church health than any other statistic.  The sheer number of rooms used mostly for small adult and youth Sunday school classes (many only once a week) testifies to the importance attached to this.  Is that who we are?  The same complex had a gym as large as the sanctuary and housed a large sports program for which the congregation was well known.  Is that what distinguishes us?  The same congregation now has a satellite campus with a significant athletic club style set up and with ball fields and other outdoor space to support this kind of ministry.  Is that what we ought to be doing?

Before moving from New York to Tennessee now going on 31 years ago, the county we were in was facing financial problems because so much of the property in the county was owned by churches and tax exempt.  Even though much of the property had only limited or seasonal use and not for worship, they owned it because they could and it did not seem to cost them much.  Finally the county explored how they might tax property that was not used specifically for worship.  Suddenly those congregations had to decide how important that real estate was to them.  It was a consideration long delayed but very important.  My own parish had to decide what to do with an old resort that had been bequeathed to us.  We sold it as soon as we could.

What I am saying is this.  What buildings we need should be related to our primary mission.  Worship and catechesis remain the central focus of any Lutheran congregation of any size.  The scope of the structure might change because of the difference in attendance but not the primary purpose.  The rest of it is not evil or bad but it might distract us from the primary mission and will at least compete with that same primary mission for our funds.  In either case, it is not good.

Our building recently went through some updates -- walls painted that had not been touched in 20 years or more, restrooms that needed more than cosmetic attention, roof structures to be repaired, and HVAC units to be replaced.  It was costly but it was for rooms that are well used every day and every week.  In fact, none of our facility sits idle and every square foot of space is used regularly.  We are not maintaining a monument to ourselves but providing space for the work of the kingdom.  That said, their is a blessing and a curse involved with buildings.  We all know it.  Somebody once said the Roman Catholics are the largest land owners in the world.  Probably so but the rest of us Christians are probably not far behind.

Nobody ever prepared me for this kind of thing.  I learned nothing in seminary about this part of it and am thankful that my dad was skilled in such things and I grew up working with him in his business.  It was an informal education but a needful one.  Every church leader and all pastors need to have a basic understanding of finance, of the value of buildings, and of the oversight, maintenance, and use of the facilities and funds or they will surely bite you in the end.  Not to mention, of course, the need to make sure that we do not provide avenues of temptation for corruption.  Transparency in money matters and things related to building is essential.  Money given by donors for specific purposes must be accounted for and maybe some donations of property should be refused if it does not accord with needs. 

Working with money can be seductive, even for clerics, but it can also consume us when our ministry and mission lies with the Gospel and God's people.  The finance and property people and their cause should never get the final word but they must be heard or the work of the church and her mission will be swallowed up by their often consuming needs.

Friday, April 21, 2023

A curious note on singing. . .

We were without our mighty pipe organ to lead the church's song for several Sundays and Thursdays.  Instead, we relied upon a grand piano.  Some folks prefer the piano and thought it would be a good break from the sound of the organ.  It was, for them at least, in so far as the prelude, offertory, and postlude.  These are stand alone works without vocal participation.  But the hymns and the liturgy were not so successful.  In fact, the singing was diminished by the percussive sound of the piano and its inability to sustain melodic pitches the way the organ does.  

We have a singing congregation and we are blessed with a fine acoustical environment for music, a large and wonderful pipe organ, and a large liturgical choir.  It all combines to a vibrant atmosphere for singing and for chant.  And that is what we do -- literally, from beginning to end of the Divine Service.  Of course, the readings from Scripture, the sermon, and the prayer of the church is spoken.  Fortunately, we have a good acoustical environment for that as well.  Our PA system does not replace the spoken voice but merely enhances it so that people still hear the sound coming from the Pastor.

Acoustics were part of the grand design of our structure.  We knew we would eventually have a pipe organ of substance (this came earlier than we had thought and a larger instrument than we thought we would be able to afford at 65 ranks).  We have some stained glass but not the large side windows or large window over the altar of some church structures.  We have no carpeted surfaces in the whole building.  It is all concrete with ceramic tile, hardwood floors under the altar, and no pew pads either.  The ceiling is stained and varnished wood and the center of the nave is 37 feet high off the floor.  The wall surfaces are 1 1/2 inches of drywall.  There are plenty of architectural details, slanted walls, and pillars to provide not only visual interest but also acoustical aid for the benefit of a warm and reverberant building.

One of the real problems of many modern buildings is that acoustical concerns gathered little attention in either the design or the consideration of the structure.  The result is that these buildings do not aid music, encourage singing, and do not help with preaching.  In too many of these structures the ceiling is very low -- from 15-20 feet -- and the building is rectangular with carpeted floors and padded pews.  Instead of aiding the transport of the music, singing, or voice, these rooms literally suck the sound right out of the ears of the people.  It is a disaster for singing and does not help much with the spoken word.  So the end result is needless money spent to electronically amplify the sound -- even in small spaces.  Honestly, it was better when walls were not perfectly straight, when dimensions were not quite uniform, and when surfaces were not quite flat.  Modern building materials and more attention to exact dimensions and angles has created a harsher and flatter sound where there is some reverberation.

Here is a wonderful article by an Orthodox architect in which he addresses the specific concerns of Orthodox worship environments but also gives attention to the acoustical differences between a building that serves Bach's music and one that befits Orthodox chant.  It is particularly helpful in looking at the challenge before us as we shape our buildings because, as Churchill said, they shape us long after they are built.  I highly recommend it for those looking at renovating, building, or adapting structures for the special purpose of worship.  While it may be useful for those with evangelical styles of worship, it is essential reading for liturgical churches.  If we pay attention, we may just improve the singing along the way!

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Pulpits are made for preaching. . .

I had never thought about it much until dealing with a vacant congregation and the complaint about pastors who roam around when preaching.  The person, by no means elderly, had a hearing issue and every time the pastor moved, they lost part of what he said.  Part of their hearing was the visual of watching him speak.  For my part the antagonism against roaming preachers has largely been aesthetic but this gave me something to think about.  By most counts, 15-20% of all those over the age of 18 suffer some level of hearing loss.  It is a far more vexing problem than we admit and it is even more important to churches where the Word heard, applied, and understood is an absolute value.

Pulpits were created to assist the proclamation of the Word.  They do so by focusing the eye where the Word is proclaimed and preached.  They also did that by elevating the speaker and providing a sound board or solid surface behind him to help the voice make it to the ears of the hearers.  At some point we forgot all of that and pulpits became mere pieces of furniture, more for the appearance than for what they did.  It is a sad day that we began to think of the pulpit as an art design exercise more than a useful tool of the Word to aid the preacher.  Perhaps it began when church buildings started to be expressions of the imagination of the designers and builders more than the assembly of the faithful around the Word and Sacraments of our Lord.  Perhaps it is related to the advent of public address systems which tend to make the preachers lazy and rely more on the sound enhancement than the use of his voice and the locus of that voice in a pulpit.

I do not view this as a conservative or liberal issue but one of effective use of the tools for the preaching task.  Stay in the pulpit.  But do not hide in that pulpit as if it were a refuge.  Rather, use that pulpit as a tool and an aid.  It gives presence to the Word and the one who preaches that Word.  It draws attention to the solemnity of the Word that is preached and reminds preacher and hearer that this is not about the pastor or his opinions or his story telling ability or how well he entertains.  He is a servant of the Word and the pulpit can be an effective tool of the servant in his task.

Some may think it is cool to be set free to roam around but I think it feeds the preacher's ego as much as the pulpit can humble it.  We are here for a holy purpose and the Word entrusted to us is not something to be toyed with.  The sooner we learn this, the better.  I am all for serious preachers and serious preaching, for pulpits that display the gravitas of the Word preached from them, of pulpits that give visual weight and prominence to the importance of God's Word proclaimed and preached, and of the ease of our people both hearing and understanding what is preached.

My opinion may not count for much but I hope it gives people in the pew and those who should be in the pulpit pause.  If you have one of this itty bitty pulpits that is designed not to be seen, maybe you need to replace it.  Check with eBay or with any congregation near you that is replacing a sturdy wooden pulpit with a plexiglass unit fresh from the catalog of what is new and shiny.  In any case, use the pulpit and let it strengthen the preaching task as you come to terms with the serious business that preaching is.  Over time your people will come to appreciate you and your preaching even more.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Praying the Scriptures. . .

Devotional practices are largely person specific -- we all have our daily routines and preferences to be sure.  That said, there are patterns that tend to work well for larger groups of people and have served well over time.  Sometimes the problem is that we take on too much.  It seems like a good idea to read through the Bible in one year and it is doable but is it the best devotional practice?  I am not so sure.  Reading Scripture in smaller bites and reading it in the context of our prayer life is also a good and salutary practice.

Traditionally this practice has been called the lectio divina and has had three steps in the process of reading, praying, and meditating upon the Word of God.  First is the lectio, that is reading the text, slowly, carefully, and deliberately -- all the way through without stopping.  Then comes meditatio, spending time with it and focusing on the individual words, ruminating over those words and savoring them as one would savor one bite out of a full plate of food.  At this point, it moves to the praying of Scripture --  oratio --  letting the words you have read and meditated upon form and shape your prayers, prompting those prayers, and putting the voice of that Word into your lips as you pray.  Last is contemplatio; when the words read, meditated upon, and prayed then bear the good fruit of peace in your heart, give wisdom to the mind, and inform the shape of our Christian lives -- how we live because of that Word. 

After wrestling with several attempts to frame this kind of devotional life for pastors, Luther proposed an
evangelical pattern of spirituality that would become a familiar shape for Christians in general.  All of this was to draw one into the Scripture as well as to draw out of Scripture the gift and blessing of God's wisdom and grace.  For Luther, this was to involve three things: prayer (oratio), meditation (meditatio), and temptation (tentatio).  This pattern, like the one above, is atypical of the modern process of self-help devotions in which the goal is either the development or improvement of the self.  Both of these are more passive, receiving from God the fruits of His redeeming love and letting this drive the shape of our Christian thinking and living.  We do not climb the mountain to God but God has descended from the heavens in the voice of the prophets, in the incarnation of His Son, and in the Word that speaks of the promise of salvation kept in Him.  It is a focus decidedly on the heavens and eternal life.

If we are to grow in the Spirit and the Spirit to grow us into Christ, we need to be in God's Word.  God will not bestow the Spirit on us apart from the means and the primary means of grace is the Word of God.  In both of these, the focus is not on direct spiritual meditation or the Scriptures as mere springboard to a higher and more direct connection with God.  Luther himself faults this emphasis on the spiritual discipline of his monastic life.  It is a devotional life built upon and driving the Christian back into the external Word of God, the Scriptures.  Furthermore, this devotional life is not a substitute for nor in competition with the corporate life of God's people gathered around the Word and the Eucharist.  In fact, the pericopes appointed for the Sunday are the first place to start when spending time arranging a devotional schedule and order for the home and for the individual.  We need also to be careful not to make our devotional lives primarily mental or emotion centered.  God is, indeed, transforming the mind and the heart but the realm in which we encounter Him and the means of His work is external -- Word and Sacrament.  The Divine Service is both source and summit of our daily lives of prayer, meditation, and strengthening.

It might also be remembered that the point of this is eminently practical.  We live in the world -- a world made by Him but which did not know Him.  Our Lord bluntly warns us that the world will not treat us any better than it did Him.  In addition, Satan still is on the prowl looking for prey and we are the object of his affections.  There is in us a war between the old man on his way out and the new person created in Christ Jesus and given birth in the womb of baptism.  This means that the contemplatio and the tentatio are not some idealized pursuit of God's ways but the practical domain of a people ever tempted and ever being restored by God's grace.  The devil is no spectator watching our lives but actively at work tempting, creating doubt, attacking, and making us pridefully trust more in self than in Christ.  Though we do not talk about the devil and his works and ways as Luther did, we ought to.  The goal here is not to scare us or to create an unhealthy fear but to build us up so that we are not without answers or strength or weapons when tempted.  Go back to the first Sunday in Lent and think why our Lord was able to answer and deflect the temptations of the devil -- all the while Jesus was physically weak!

The goal of this is not to make me strong enough to stand on my own but to learn always to stand in Christ and on Christ alone.  A good devotional life will help build and sustain in us a living faith, so that we believe God is speaking His word directly to us and that this Word is how He works in us.  It will build us up to endure, persevere, and continue in the faith -- especially when our lives are filled with earthly defeats, trials, and afflictions.  We judge not with the results we see but always according to his promise, never forgetting that where we fail, He forgives and restores and where we can only see the moment, he beholds the heavenly future.  Finally, we are ever being directed away from the distractions of even a good and happy life as much the troubles we face and onto the face of God we see in Christ.  In Christ we see not only the face of the eternal God who has become our Savior and Redeemer but we behold our own future -- glorious flesh, the victory won, the eternal Sabbath rest in His presence without end.  So this builds within us a deep desire to know the Lord, to live in the presence of His Word and Sacraments now, and to anticipate the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom without end.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Make faith easier. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (A), preached on Sunday, April 16, 2023.

From the beginning of life after the fall into sin, man has complained to God that faith is too hard.  The most common petition of our prayers is the request for the Lord to make faith easier.  People weep before their pastors about how hard their lives are, how hard it is not to fall into temptation, and how hard it is to believe when their lives are so full of trouble.  Pastors weep before other pastors about how hard their lives are, how hard it is not to despair, and how hard it is to believe.  Is there a pattern here?

The women who went to the tomb were not received with joy.  Instead the disciples had to go and check it out because who can take the word of mere women.  And when they return from an empty tomb that was just as the women said, did they believe?  No, they continued to meet behind closed doors, locked closed doors, to commiserate their circumstance.  They thought Jesus was it and then He died.  They scattered out of fear they would be next and then came together only when they thought the danger may have passed.  But did they believe?  No, they did not.  They heard the news but without joy.

Jesus had insisted that they know what was going to happen.  He would be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, die, and rise again on the third day.  He had been betrayed by a friend, no less.  He had been falsely accused by sinful people.  He had suffered at their hands.  He died there on the cross.  They had all seen this happen, even it if was from a distance.  Did it help their faith?  No, they had the presence of Jesus and the words of Jesus fulfilled in fact and still they did not know what to make of an empty tomb.  Faith is hard, isn’t it.

Then on Easter evening, Jesus shows up in their midst without benefit of a key and a door handle.  Jesus is present among them and what do they think?  They thought Jesus was alive like Lazarus had returned to life.  They were not thinking what Jesus had said but only that now, finally, life was back to normal.  Everything could go back to the way it was.  But Jesus would have none of it.  He did not allow Mary Magdalene to touch Him and thereby hold on to the old way His followers had done.  He offered His wounds to the disciples not to prove anything but to show that He was not back to His old life but was among them in the new and glorious flesh of the resurrection.  Did they get it?  Probably not.  But this time they did pay attention.  Faith is hard, isn’t it?
They were all there save one – Thomas.  Thomas was more than a bit miffed that things had turned out the way they did.  In fact, Thomas had not simply left Jesus behind but left his brother disciples behind.  He was over it and had better things to do.  Faith was too hard.  Thomas was ready to move on.  Now I doubt it was quite that simple.  His fellow disciples had talked to him and urged him to reconsider and told him of their experience of the risen Christ.  But Thomas was done with it all.  I will never believe until I see for myself and touch with my own hands the wounds of the Savior.  Faith is hard, isn’t it?  Toooooo hard.

For whatever reason, nothing makes sense except the Holy Spirit, Thomas wakes up and packs up his pride to have supper with the rest of the disciples.  He did not expect that Jesus would be there.  Still behind locked doors, the rest of the disciples had told Thomas their story and just when they got to the good part, Jesus showed up too.  In a moment that stunned them all, Jesus thrust forth His hands and His feet.  Faith is hard, isn’t it?  Doubt is easy, rejection is simple, but faith is hard.  Even when Jesus shows Him His hands and His side, Thomas struggles to believe.  Finally, when it all comes pouring out, Thomas admits the obvious – My Lord and My God.

We wish that we could have been there for the miracle moments in Israel’s history but miracles do not make faith easier.  But we are here now and the truth is that faith is easier today than it was then – if we could see it.  We have grown so comfortable with the Word and the Sacraments that we no longer hear them as beng anything special.  In reality Moses and everyone with him right down to the days of our Lord’s death and resurrection think of us as the lucky ones. We have baptism, the absolution, and the Eucharist and still we complain.  We have the Scriptures that show us the example of unbelief and still we disbelieve.  Now is the easiest time of all to believe but we complain how hard faith is.

Our problem is not that we lack the means of grace nor the Holy Spirit working through those means of grace.  No, our problem is that we have the Word but do not read it.  We have baptism but act as if it were nothing special, Most of us cannot even say the day or time or place where we were baptized.  We have holy absolution but we do not confess.  We think of others as  sinners with a problem; no, sins are not that big of a deal.  We certainly do not need nor want to sit down and confess our sins to the pastor.  We have the Eucharist every week but every week more than half of us say to God, Thanks but no thanks.  

We have an embarrassment of riches every Sunday and still we complain faith is hard, too hard.  It ought to be easier.  Lord, make it easier to believe.  We are like the Thomases of this world who must be sought out when they are not where they should be, when they hear the testimony of the faithful and insist they still will not believe, and when they complain about how hard faith is and so are justified in their doubts and fears.  Ours is not a problem with God but a problem within ourselves.  We know what bestows faith, what strengthens faith, and what grows faith but we simply do not want to believe.  Period.

Every Sunday the Lord extends to us His hands and side and every week we see the wounds He said would come and every week we think this is too hard and ought to be made easier.  Every week God meets us where He has promised to be and we complain that faith is too hard and should be made more easier.  Every week He speaks to us by His Word and we complain that His Word is not clearer or more logical the way it should be.  Every week we are full of what God has not done and silent about what He has done for us and for our salvation.  God, make it easier to believe, we say.  But it is easy.  You are not the one believing but the Holy Spirit is working in you and through you.  Your faith is not the fruit of reasoned explanations but God showing you the hands and feet of Jesus.  You have more than enough to believe and more than enough to be sustained in this faith.  Just use it.   It is not as hard as you think it but it will never be easy.  In reality all God asks of us is to be where He Word speaks, where we remember His baptismal grace, where we rejoice at sins forgiven, and where we eat the bread of salvation and drink the cup of blessing.  Is that too hard?

In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.  Christ is Risen.

Are we raising our children to be fragile?

The age in which I grew up is gone.  We all know that.  But some of the principles of raising a child in that age could and should endure.  It is no secret that in that era the virtues of accountability and personal responsibility were high on the list of traits to be displayed to and encouraged in children.  Whether in the classroom or work (and I did not know of one kid in my class who did not work from elementary years on), children were being taught to be inquisitive, thoughtful, and respectful.  They were expected to encounter and to deal with people and ideas that they would find objectionable.  They lived with a profound witness of community and neighborliness.  Of course, this was not universal and there were plenty of egregious examples of the opposite.  I am speaking in more general terms.

I wonder when we began to raise our children differently.  I wonder when it was that we decided we needed to protect our children from such things as being accountable for what they said and did (or did not say and did not do that they should have).  I wonder when it was that we decided that we would no longer hold our children personally responsible not only for their behavior and mouth but also for the duties, chores, and routines of life together in a home and neighborhood and community.  I wonder when it was that society, families, and teachers began to see children as problems and to treat them as such.  When that happened, probably more gradually than suddenly, we found ourselves with fragile children who either did not grow up or grew up with the same fragility they had as children.  We must insulate our children from threats but if we insulate them from everything that might challenge them, they will never mature.  We insulate them in part because it is easier to do this than it is to raise them to be personally accountable and responsible and to build in them the Christian worldview.

At some point we began to fill our children's lives with diversions -- from sports to screens.  At some point we began to see our children more as victims or special cases deserving of different treatment by the schools, the society, and the law.  I well recall an old man who lived down the block.  He sometimes took odd jobs and this time was plowing a field behind our house.  There was a small stream there where my brother and I and our friends sometimes played cowboy and Indian, army, or just explored.  On one occasion old Red Gust had tied his thermos bottle in the stream to keep his water cold as he worked the field.  Somehow it got broken and he told my mother.  She marched me down to apologize and confiscated my allowance so that there thermos would be replaced.  I did not break it but I was in the group when it got broken.  I hated what she made me do but it was a profoundly character building experience.  Red Gust remained friendly and later as I grew up I sometimes helped him out with things around his house.  He bore no animus and the whole experience taught me what words could never teach.  I wonder if experiences like these still happen?  Or do we view the neighbor as our enemy and insist upon shielding our kids from responsibility?

In the high school Civics class we had arguments about democracy and socialism, the Vietnam war, the draft, and a host of hot button issues of the late 1960s.  We were forced to think not only about the issues but about the other side of those issues.  School did not protect me from ideas I would find objectionable but neither did it force those ideas upon me.  The experience forced me to take the faith, values, and instincts I had received from home and church and community as well as school and apply them to the issues at hand.  Do we provide safe educational spaces for our children where they are kept from controversial things or from encountering an idea they did not like -- where the classroom is an echo chamber of their own perspectives?  Do we live so distantly from the classroom as to be ignorant or indifferent to what is being taught to our children -- until something big hits the news or comes home on the one piece of paper we might have read?  Do we fail to build up the faith, character, values, and morality at home and so leave it to the schools to impose whatever happens to be policy or trend and then to instill these in our kids?

My parents did not know they were teaching me a Christian worldview but that is exactly what they did.  Of course, they did not have to compete with the overt enemies we find in culture, society, the institutions of our nation, and the media.  Nevertheless, they modeled by example as well as teaching with words what was important to my faith and life in Christ, to my life and work in the community, to my role as neighbor and citizen, and to be able to listen and think critically -- judging the ideas without judging the people.  I do not know how well I did as a dad to my kids in these areas.  I hope I did okay.  I did not want to raise dependent children who would be fragile but neither did I want to raise children who would give in to every new idea that came around the bend or to be swayed by personalities over the merits of the ideas themselves.  I wanted them to accept personal responsibility for their words and actions and yet to learn from their failures and not to be guaranteed success.  I wanted them to learn the value and worth of work and to see the workplace not as a prison but as a place of potential for service to others and not simply a paycheck.  I wanted them to know how to enjoy leisure time without pursuing a life of personal pleasure -- amusing themselves at the cost to their spouse, family, and community.  I hope that is what we are still trying to do but sometimes I fear we are raising children to be rather fragile, dependent, and, in the end, to be victims.

When I lived 30 hours by car from my family, we packed up our children as soon as they could travel so that they would know my family.  We did the same for my wife's family who were 17 hours away from the place we called home.  It was my responsibility to bring my kids to know their families in Nebraska and Indiana and not the responsibility of those who raised us to get to know their grandchildren.  We live in an even more fractured world where we are distant from where we grew up, ever mobile, and disconnected from the structures that were once pivotal to our identity as well as our lives.  I know this.  I am not expecting to go back in time and recreate another era.  What is remarkable to me, however, is how little we tend to use social media for the social purpose of connecting and engaging and how much we use it to express ourselves without regard to how or what it is we are saying.  We have the potential to live together in a much more polite and kind relationship than we are doing but as a whole our society has squandered every opportunity to engage ideas rather than feelings, to connect with people instead of emotions, and to live together with purpose instead of conflict.  As a whole, not only our children are more fragile today but life as a whole is more fragile and therefore less joyful, less hopeful, and less rewarding.  And that is a sad thing for me to say.

Monday, April 17, 2023

In Christ. . .

Faith is so often misunderstood -- not the tenets of faith but what faith itself is.  The great divide between infant baptism and believers baptism has less to do with what baptism is than how you understand faith.  It matters not what Scripture says, those opposed to infant baptism have decided that faith is an act of the will, a subscription to a certain set of beliefs of truths, a decision made at a moment in time, and an understanding of the self.  Because this defines what faith is, infants and small children cannot possibly have faith and therefore baptism is inaccessible to them.  On the other hand, it is precisely because faith is trust, a trust enabled and empowered not by human will but by the work of the Spirit, that infants and small children must be included in the baptismal command and promise.  That said, too many sacramental Christians have largely succumbed to the idea that faith is more about me than about God.  For us as Lutherans, this is critical.

As long as we listen to those who chart church growth using models of affinity or appeal we will be tempted for forget or diminish the role and work of the Spirit to bring us to faith and sustain that faith through the appointed means of the Word and the Sacraments.  And that is exactly what we have done.  We have subtly shifted the way we worship and the way we talk to try and fit into the parameters of a choice or decision of the will, a reflection of preference or desire, and the realm of individual and personal experience that we are almost embarrassed to hear Luther's explanation of the Third Article of the Creed.

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life.

We have come to trust in our efforts more than the work of the Spirit and we have accepted the whole idea that the Church is merely some voluntary association for those who desire it and not essential to believing or to the sustenance of that faith.  Why else would we keep as members people who have not darkened the doors of the Church for ages or who come only once in a blue moon?  Why else would hesitate to tell those who do not attend that it is sinful to absent themselves from the preaching of the Word and the fellowship of the Table?  Why else would we replace the centrality of altar and pulpit with mood music and inspirational talks that focus more on the improvement of this life than obtaining eternal life?  Why else would we accept the reality that many of our folks live as virtual strangers to the sound of God's voice in His Word and seek an experience or an emotion as sign and ground of their faith?

Faith is not primarily the subscription to a set of fixed belief statements nor is it living according to rules of behavior.  Faith is trust in Christ, trust bestowed by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace.  The life of faith is not a life of rule keeping or tracking propositions of what is believed but living in Christ the new life He has bestowed in Baptism and which He maintains by your life around the Word, absolution, and the Eucharist. 

The life of holiness we are given and to which we have been called is not some set of behavioral rules we can argue about.  It means living in Christ as His, His new creation.  This Christian life is the experience of grace in every aspect of our living and not within some neatly defined compartments or behind the convenient walls of sacred and secular.  The dogmatic content of the Church's teaching is the expression of this new creation and life -- building knowledge and understanding to be sure, but mostly to build trust in the mercy of God, the wisdom of God, the order of God, and the promise of God.  This does not in any way diminish doctrinal statements or confessions or creeds but places them within the obvious context of worship and life.  Martin Franzmann said that theology must sing, that all true theology is doxology.  This is where we live as the new people born of the baptismal womb by the power of the Spirit.  When we dislocate this doctrinal truth from this context, it becomes merely a set of truth propositions to be agreed upon or a set of rules we must follow.  

Nowhere is this more clear than in sexual behavior.  It might be enough for the world to hear that certain behaviors are simply wrong as the Law declares but for the Christian it is precisely that we are new creatures who live in Christ and for Christ that sexual desire is ordered by Christ and not by what we think or feel.  The moral voice of God is not simply the rule but the call to strive to reflect His goodness in our daily lives.  We love not because we have found someone to love or because that love feels good -- we love because He first loved us.  As much as this applies to the neighbor around us, it also applies to the husband or wife with whom we live in marriage and the children and parents that are also part of our vocation.  Love is not ours to express or define but it is God's love for us and now in us by baptism and faith.  

At some point in time we forgot that life in Christ and life in the Church are one.  They are not different lives but the same life.  Morality became a set of rules to constrain our wanton desires instead of Christ living in us and now through us by ordering our lives toward a higher good than self or moment -- one consistent with the heavenly calling.  Doctrine became a litmus test of orthodoxy instead the Spirit informing our minds.  Scripture became a book of facts instead of the living voice of God.  The Sacraments became things we did for God instead of God bestowing His gifts upon us, strengthening our faith and sustaining that new life in Christ to everlasting life.  Worship became a program defined by and its success determined by numbers instead of faithfulness.  And where has it left us?  People tune into talking heads who claim to make our lives in Christ easy and to use our faith to get what we want in this life.  They buy books that are written by people who do not even share what faith and life in Christ is.  They listen to music that hits on emotional and experiential levels instead of building us up in the Word of the Lord and the doctrine that flows from that Word.  Now we are at a point where we find it hard to say what is Christian and what is not but all the while have lost our focus on what it means to life in Christ the life Christ alone gives by the means of grace that feed and nourish this life to holiness now and to everlasting life.