Monday, July 31, 2023

The Evolving Definition of Parent. . .

By now you have all heard the furor created by California Bill AB957 that would effectively make the rightful and legal parent obligated to affirm the transgender confusion of his or her own child.  Failure to do so means risking being convicted of an offense for which that very same parent could/would lose custody of his or her own child or children.  It was amended to more clearly be inclusive of those who are or week guardianship of a minor child.  It means that this refusal to affirm would also be considered in the awarding of assigning custody or determination of visitation in the event of divorce.

While all of this is shocking, under it all has been the slowly evolving definition of the very word parent.  It was not that long ago that the definition of parent was not a functional one but a biological one.  Now the biology has taken second place to the function and the whole idea of parent almost ignores the whole matter of biology.  The Oxford Dictionary lists “parent” as a verb rarely used in the 1500s-1900s but now in the twentieth it has become one of the most prominent usages of the term.  A parent, at least as we see it today, is something you do but not something you are.  Therefore, anyone and even institutions can do parenting even it they could never be one in the biological sense of that term.

Today it is so common to use to use parent in the functional sense that we do not even presume that parent means a biological connection.  Indeed, that connection is often derided as not even a real parent -- the whole baby daddy idea.  Now with conception being one of the lesser purposes or functions of sex and sex being something not always connected to marriage or even commitment and reproductive technology aiding or replacing the sexual part of it, being a parent and parenting are almost completely different ideas and the primary one is definitely not being the parent.

California is only one step ahead of the rest of the progressive states and perhaps just a few strides ahead of the not so progressive ones.  It has made the great leap that the state (government) has not only the right to decide how you parent but to step in and parent in your place if you do not live up to their expectations.  The courts have already done this for a while, intervening with their authority into the home for various purposes -- even granting children emancipation from their family where the child desires and the state agrees.  In short, we have had agencies and governments stepping in loco parentis for some time now.  All of this proceeds from the diminishing of the biological aspect of that definition to a purely functional one -- one granted by the state not by actual fatherhood or motherhood and therefore one that can be taken away by the same state.

Of course there have always been parents who did not have a biological relationship to their children but these were exceptions which have now become normative while the biological connection has become exceptional.  This is not about any disdain for step parents or those who have a solid functional connection to a child without a legal or biological one.  This is about how the term parent is being redefined and accepted in such a way that its original meaning is obscured.  To parent has become the norm while being a parent (as natural father or mother) becomes the exception.  As we all should know by now, it is the solidifying of a definition that fits the culture or convenience of the moment.  This is a sad day for the family.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Reformed Catholicism. . .

Curious to read that there are voices from among the tattered ruins of mainline Protestantism, Evangelicalism, and even from within Rome in search of a Reformed Catholicism.  Curious, I say, because that space has already been claimed by the Lutherans -- at least I thought it had been.  The Lutheran Reformers clearly did not think they were starting a new church but bringing renewal to one that had lost its way.  They understood themselves and their work as the continuation of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church -- really nothing short of a dispute with Rome over the very claim to be the Catholic Church born at Pentecost and continued through the ages where the Word was rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered.  These individuals insisted that the catholicity of the faith is found in its teaching (the Word of God), not in a singular church office (like the papacy).  Their goal was not to dispute what had always and everywhere been believed and confessed but to preserve and pass on this  catholic doctrine so that the church catholic might be preserved and renewed amidst a time of great political, cultural, and technological upheaval.  

Could it be that some are calling for a new version of a Reformed Catholicism because Lutheranism has failed either to make its case as such or even perhaps has forgotten that this is who we claimed to be in our public confession?  Could it be that we have settled in as a more conservative version of the mainline Protestants with whom we really have nothing in common?  Could it be that we have deferred to being a more liturgical form of Evangelicalism as the path to maintaining or even growing  our church?  Could it be that have simply decided that it was too ambitious to be the continuing Catholic Church and have given up any aspirations except those of being a conservative denomination?  I wish I could say that such items were on the agenda for our national convention now meeting but they are not.

Instead, I fear that we are tired of the battles and have given up the bold aspirations of our Confessions and would rather be less than we could be or should be.  I fear that we are so content with the structures we put in place and propping them up that we no longer look to what might be if we took more seriously our Confessions and put to work the assets and blessings we have all around us.  I fear that we have adopted a less is more idea of our church -- less congregations but bigger or more stable congregations, less members but more committed ones, less of a mission but one we can handle.  Why does it have to be a choice?  Why do we have to settle for being a smaller church with a smaller mission just to survive?  We are we more comfortable seeing ourselves as another but more conservative brand of Protestantism than we are taking up the call to be the Reformed Catholics we said we were in the beginning?

Church conventions are more about bylaws, reaffirming our stands, avoiding conflicts too big or public, and assuring that our resolutions are passed by 80% or more.  We have too many folks calling the question just when we have begun to deliberate the issue.  We have too many who like to grandstand about their pet issue instead of dialog and deliberate the great challenges before us.  We have too many who have already given up on Synod and think it best to think of things local over anything else.  I have been to too many conventions, under Presidents from Bohlmann to Harrison, and we seem to be more interested in blaming the leader instead of looking into the mirror and more interested in avoiding the discussions of who we are and why we are here than having them.  It is not a new thing.  Instead of simply rearranging things to get by for another couple of years or postponing conventions by adopting a four year cycle, we ought to be looking into the soul of our life together through the lens of our Confessions and try being the Catholic Church we claim to be (well, at least we claimed to be nearly 500 years ago).  Then maybe those who are looking for alternatives to the mess of Protestantism, Evangelicalism, and Rome might have someplace to go.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Sobering Thoughts. . .


As the gathering of delegates and staff for the 68th Regular Convention of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod begins in downtown Milwaukee, we look around to see that as many congregations as we have in total membership are now exiting the United Methodist Church as that denomination begins a planned split.  We saw the same thing happen to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, though fewer people and parishes left to join either the NALC or the LCMC.  We saw the same thing happen in the Episcopal Church when the ACNA was formed -- though, again, less numbers departing than the Methodist numbers.  Looking at the breakdown of states, the division within the UMC mirrors the social, political, and cultural divisions within America.  While it explains a few things, it does not provide much comfort for us going forward.

The LCMS is facing its own divide.  Our once solid urban presence has been decimated over time until the large and once stable congregations located in the cities of America are now pretty much mission stations, barely surviving.  Our strong presence in the suburbs is less dismal but by no means secure.  Our rural presence is declining as the total numbers of the populations there also drop year after year.  We have a clear issues within those divides over matters of doctrine and practice -- everything from what happens on Sunday morning to the discipline of the Lord's Table.  We are facing grave questions about what can be done with our once lauded systems of colleges and universities.  We have empty rooms in both of our seminaries.  We are facing a clergy shortage over the next 5-10 years that may means many congregations will go without a pastor.  The cultural divisions between the saltwater regions of our nation and the Midwest where we have the largest number of congregations are felt within our districts and in Synod as a whole.

Worse than division is the great apathy that is also underneath all of this bad news.  Many of the United Methodists will depart not to other congregations but simply drop out of church entirely.  That is what happened when the ELCA bled out so many people -- virtually the size of Missouri since the merger that created this church body happened in 1988.  The drop in numbers has not translated into membership in other Lutheran churches or even other non-Lutheran churches.  They have disappeared.  That has also been the case for nearly every other denomination over the past 40 years or more -- and not always nor particularly tied to conflict and dispute.  

Clearly we must do a better job of retaining our people.  Membership is not a matter of a name on a piece of paper or a computer database but of an active presence and life together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  The strength of a denomination is in the strength of the individual parish and the strength of the parish is the strength of the Christian home.  While much of the news has been about divisions within Christianity, the real news is what we do not want to admit.  We have not done a great job of catechesis.  We have not done a great job encouraging regular and weekly worship or holding our people accountable for that.  We have not done a great job when our mobile population moves so that they know and can find a Lutheran parish to serve as their church home at their new address.  While some focus on how we have failed our youth, I think the problem lies deeper.  We have not done the faithful job God has called us to do to teach the faith, hold our people accountable to their faith and promises upon baptism, confirmation, and membership, or work to equip the home to be center not simply of the family but of the faith itself.

Looking at the news from the United Methodists is to look in the mirror and see what could be our future unless we renew our efforts to be in the Word, united in doctrine, one in witness, regular in worship, faithful in receiving the Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood, and diligent about teaching and passing on this faith in the home. 


Friday, July 28, 2023

A false distinction. . .

Undoubtedly you have heard Baptists complain about creeds and confessions and smugly insist: “There’s no creed but the Bible.”  It is a false statement.  This is a myth and an illusion.   “No creed but the Bible” is itself a creed.  But even this creed is not quite enough.  As has been shown in the contrast between Saddleback and Rick Warren and the Southern Baptist Convention over the issue of the ordination of women as pastors, it is the Bible understood particularly.  There is great irony in this conflict.  Warren has insisted that it is because Baptists have no creed, no definitive statement can be made about ordaining women or not ordaining them.  His argument has been that the unity of the Southern Baptists has always been in their common mission and not in a particular confession (of understanding of Scripture).  The divisions in the SBC would be overcome, in the view of Warren, if doctrine were given second place to mission.

Missouri Synod Lutherans ought to be familiar with such reasoning.  We have long had our own tensions created by those who think mission is the priority and those who think that doctrine is the priority. However, what Warren got wrong is what our own LCMS gets wrong.  Confession is not an enemy of mission but its very foundation.  In the past, Baptists were not hindered by their robust confession and faith but energized by it.  The same was certainly true for Lutherans.  What we confess is not an enemy to the work of evangelization, church planting, and foreign missions.  For both the Baptists and the Lutherans, pitting one against the other has become our undoing.  The work of mission expects confession and unity among those who share that confession.  Confession presumes mission and expects that the truth we hold is not ours only but for the sake of the world for whom Christ died.  It is always when we pit these things against each other that we suffer.

I cannot speak for the Baptists and only watch this development with curiosity but as a Lutheran I can certainly admit that in our past and what should be in our future is not the competition or conflict between our robust confession and mission but its flourishing.  The faith we share is not some dumbed down version of the faith.  We do not confess a minimalistic Christ or a minimalistic faith but the fullness of Christ and the Gospel of Him crucified and risen along with the fullness of a mission energy that rejoices to share what we have been given.  Perhaps the debate among Baptists in this regard is just starting and it could be that the debate among Missouri Synod Lutherans in this regard has merely moved to the back burner.  Whatever the case, the undoing of our identity and our work comes exactly from the presumption that doctrine must take second place to mission.  While there might be a legitimate complaint among some that mission has been replaced by mere survival in our tumultuous times, that is another issue entirely and not one solved by surrendering the fullness of our confession for the sake of numbers.  Those numbers, my friends, are not worth having.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

From inside. . .

While watching snippets of movie scenes on the internet, I noticed one that did not appear to be quite right.  It turns out that the scene was a mirror image of the film itself.  The images were on the opposite sides of the screen as they were originally.  Sometimes it did not matter but often it became unbearable.

I wonder sometimes if that is not how those outside the Church view the Church.  They see some things that accord with their own vocabulary and experience and yet they seem off and other things are simply too confusing or confounding to look at.  It is the same phenomenon as the way we look at stained glass in the Church.  From the inside it is clear but from the outside the same glass is skewed or confused to the point where it is hard even to admit that it is the same image on the outside that appears so clear and beautiful from the inside.

Christian truth does not always fare well under the gaze of the unbeliever or skeptic.  It is not because there is anything wrong with that truth or any flaw in that truth but because from the outside it is not quite right and often unbearable.  Surely listening to news media trying to encapsulate the larger Christian truth when explaining things religious that are also deemed newsworthy is the same problem.  What sense does it make to those outside the Church to speak of such things as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or even prayer?  That is the point.  It does not make sense.  It is only from the vantage point of being inside that one can see, know, believe, rejoice, and celebrate the grand self-disclosure of God in His Word and the means of grace through which He bestows His eternal gifts to His people caught in time.

Knowledge ought never be denied for its value and purpose by God's design but it is noteworthy that St. Paul insists that it is with the heart one believes (Rom. 10:10).  He continues to unfold the mystery of what is faith and insists that faith is not a voluntary activity of the mind or a decision of reason but the work of the Holy Spirit working through that Word.  How do you say that to people who live in a world of choice, preference, felt truth, and individualism?  You cannot.  You cannot make faith reasonable or approachable until those outside the faith can see what those inside behold.  How do you prove Christianity and eliminate the risk of believing?  The radical reality is that you do not observe God in nature or in the world and apprehend Him by faith but that faith is God's work through God's Word by God's Spirit.  We live in the illusion that there actually is objectivity.  What a lie we have told ourselves!  Joseph Ratzinger once observed, “There is no such thing as a mere observer. There is no such thing as pure objectivity.”  That is not meant to despair our reason or senses but to know their limits.  Christ transcends those limits with the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, and, we might add, that beyond which reason can deduce or vision can witness.  It is this reality so real that death cannot end it that God delivers to us in the limitation of our minds and hearts but outside the faith, living outside the Church, it is skewed at best and unintelligible at worst.

Faith is not nearly the gamble that living in the world, subsumed into its life and values truly is.  Faith is the surrender of the finite for the infinite under the direction of the Holy Spirit.  It does not reject the temporal but knows it is not its own end.  It means being more and more consumed by and reflective of this imparted truth of God's own revelation.  Being in but not of the world does not mean that we do not belong within God's creative order but that we know that this order gives way to the redemptive order born of Christ's incarnation, obedience, suffering, death, and resurrection.  Holding to this is not giving up the world but seeing the world as God would have us see it.  This diminishes nothing of God's creation or man's reason or science.  It does just the opposite.  This places all of that within the lens of God's creative and saving will and purpose.  Those outside see things they cannot comprehend or refuse to accept as the price of admission to the household of God but it is not that at all.  It is beholding the beginning of that which endures when everything else is gone and so gives meaning, purpose, and perspective to who we are, where we live, and how we live in it.

Christian life is like the stained glass of a church -- it is confusing and impossible to know unless you are inside.  Those considering Christianity are not objectively evaluating the truth of God and then deciding whether it is theirs or not, they cannot objectively evaluate anything until they see themselves, their life, their place in this world, and their hope in the world to come from the inside.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Educational fads. . .

Lord knows there are plenty of fads and trends in education that have not turned out well for the student.  We suffer the burden of people thinking something new will fix age old problems and those who think that education is neither enough nor the primary purpose of school.  They would have the school also responsible for repairing the broken students, making headway on the ills of our society, and introducing the social change currently in vogue.  That does not leave much time for education -- in the way it was viewed in the past, anyway.  Trend and fad are not friends of education as a whole or the individual student in particular.  In the wake of the pandemic and its abuse of the student's educational process, we find ourselves looking for gimmicks to fix what we did to fail them.  In my own state there are plenty of third graders who may not pass because they are not equipped to meet the educational standards for that grade and parents have been scrambling to find places in summer school.  It is not the student's fault.  They were in school beginning their educational journey just when Covid hit and we decided that a screen is the same as a teacher and a computer the same as a classroom.  So much for that fad.

There are things happening in education that could be viewed by some as trend or fad but they are not.  The eruption of classical schools and the championing of classical education is certainly gaining ground but it is not a fad.  Such a classical education is, in reality, the opposite of the trend or fad.  It does not tie what happens in the classroom to educational theory or poll or cultural expectation.  It follows a  pedagogical model that has ancient roots -- one, for example, that Luther would recognize if he saw it today.  Social constructs so much in the news are omitted in favor of language, rhetoric, reason.  These are taught not through the lens of personal experience but by immersing students in the great works of literature, philosophy, history, and science.

These means and methods have been drawn from Greek and Roman academic traditions honed and nurtured throughout the ages but, it would seem, dismissed by what education has become today.  It spends less time on the nitty gritty of reality than it does on virtue, truth, beauty, and eloquence.  It instructs by teaching them to know and then to think critically and finally how to articulate their thoughts in speech and writing.  A long time ago I read that the heart of education is the education of the soul.  As such, classical education is not simply interested in imparting information or eliciting feelings about that information -- it's goal is more than forming good students but forming students who are good.   Surely the absence of moral good in our culture is cause enough for us to consider this for more, dare I say, all our students but it turns out that students who are either bored or unengaged in the classrooms of public education are challenged and excel in classical educational settings.

I have seen the commercials on TV even in my own red state that insist that our current schools are the best they have ever been and we ought to leave education to the experts but the success of homeschoolers using this format is undeniable.  The rise of hundreds of classical schools across America is not simply a fad -- it is the yearning for something that works and the rejection of the new and different (given their track record of failing both students and society).  Do we have to wait for the next best thing in education to fail our students before we realize that the answer does not lie in all things new?  For Lutherans considering starting a parish school, it is a fool's errand to try to mimic the public school with a shot of Jesus thrown in.  How much better to form a classical school in which worship and catechesis are integral to their life of learning in the classroom?

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Triumph is defeat. . .

I am old enough to remember when the TIME magazine of April 8, 1966, arrived at our house with its bold question, Is God Dead?  Harvey Cox had already pretty much suggested that a year before with his The Secular City.  My parents did not let the magazine linger in the house and threw it away.  I had already read the article and knew that whatever it was talking about could not be answered by discarding the question.  Over the years the question is no longer on the forefront of theological discussion but the issue has been eclipsed by the rise of a culture not only in which God is suspect but in which God has become either the enemy of self or the being created by your own imagination (now to support the pursuit of the authentic self).  Cox is still alive though hardly mentioned anymore.  At age 93, he will soon find the answer to his own question but the culture has progressed far beyond what Cox or Nietzsche ever envisioned.

It must have been exhilarating to preside over the death of God and the triumph of the secular self.  Those were heady days in the 1960s and 1970s when the doctrines of Scripture and the moral markers of life's boundaries were all under challenge.  Though we might fault the arrogance of someone like Cox in deciding that God is either dead or irrelevant, it is exactly the sin of Eden that has proven impossible to break away from.  One of the central consequences of the death of God is the perception of a freedom that seems to be empowering but with comes the stark consequence of death and a meaningless, random, and pointless existence that surely should be terrifying to us.  That it is not is ample evidence of our own preoccupation with the moment and self to our eternal detriment.  To kill God is hardly to do anything to Him but it does the terrible to us.  In the absence of God, man must become god and a pantheon of gods as many as their are people.  In the vacuum created by God's departure, man as an individual is left to create his own value system and that value systems will inevitably compete for dominance.  Without the sacred, the secular will erect its own temples, its own rituals, and its own sacraments to transcend the prison of the moment.  Devoid of the voice of God to instruct us in the meaning and value of our lives, every individual is left to discover and define his or her own meaning of life and that brings the competing definitions into conflict. Without the sacred to anchor life, every person is adrift in their own lifeboat.

It is not enough then to desecrate and destroy the remnants of what was once sacred.  They must be replaced and their memory rendered abhorrent.  Surely this is where we are at today.  It is not enough that the forces against Christianity must challenge all that is Christian but they must co-opt Christianity itself until it becomes a vehicle for the secular, a mere echo of the voice of culture and self.  After this, the same powers must make it illegal to confess what had been in history and dogma and not simply allow it to become irrelevant.  If left unchecked, all the liberties we once enjoyed will be constrained for the sake of the new truths and new deities of the individual self.  Of course, the soft underbelly of it all that the self is not free but must live within the confines of what culture deems acceptable.  The triumph over God is short-lived and soon surrenders to the defeat of anything that transcends the moment.  In the end, we have nothing to hold onto in the face of death and nothing to pass on to those who follow us except the tyranny of self, the pursuit of present pleasures, and the peace made with death in order to justify it all.  God is not wounded by our arrogance but we are made poor and left to the wretchedness of our own excesses until nothing is left to sustain hope and nothing to constrain the violence that will inevitably arise within.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Do not pull the weeds. . .

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11A, preached on Sunday, July 23, 2023.

The problem is clear.  Who sowed the weeds?  Every pastor worth his salt spends countless hours on the question.  Where did I go wrong?  If I preached good seed, why are there so many seeds that failed to sprout and so many weeds that grow up in their place?  The temptation of the preacher is to doubt the seed.  This is bad.  To doubt the goodness of the seed of God’s Word is nothing short of blasphemy.  Yet every preacher has wondered about this and come pretty close to laying the blame squarely upon God when great sermons seem to produce no results.  But there is something worse that doubting the seed.  That is replacing the seed of God’s Word with seed that we know will grow if planted and will reap a harvest, even it if is only weeds.  This too is the great temptation of the preacher.  If the people will not respond to orthodox doctrine and faithful Biblical preaching, then I will give them what they want to hear.  You and I know how many churches have succumbed to this fallacy.

As bad as these things are – doubting God or trying to supplement the message of sin and forgiveness and life and death with something that will sell to the crowds, there is one thing that is far worse.  That is to presume to be God and to decide what God ought to be doing.  The disciples first doubted that the Master had planted good seed and when they were assured that He had, they presumed that God needed help to sort out the weeds from the wheat.  “Do you want us to pull up the weeds?”  It sounds innocent enough.  When you see a neighbor’s yard a mess with weeds, you presume they cannot handle things and maybe need some help.  So you offer the phone number of a lawn service to take care of that problem.  The disciples offered themselves.  Worse than offending God, Jesus warns that pulling the weeds will endanger the wheat.

Ours is not the god of Islam who authorizes his followers to pull the weeds and burn them.  Ours is the God of mercy who is patient and who waits to show mercy to those who deserve none of it.  Ours is the God of Jonah who sends the prophet where the prophet does not want to go and to a people he hopes will not repent. Ours is the God of the cross who forgives those who crucify Him and dies as the innocent for the guilty.  Ours is the God who wills that all men would be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  Even though we count on hearing this for ourselves, we bristle at sharing this with the people we have deemed unworthy of the Gospel, the weeds and tares of this mortal life who do not live up to our ideals.

We live in a world of purity cults.  It does not matter if you are conservative or liberal, in our world you must live up to certain standards to be worthy of being our friends, our allies, and our family.  You have to share certain political views or use the right pronouns or watch the right news channels or follow the same talking heads on the internet.  We are ready to draw boundaries but our God is always ready to open doors.

The disciples assume Jesus cannot handle it.  Look at the weeds.  He must be doing something wrong.  He must be sowing bad seed or cannot keep up with His weeding.  We assume the same thing.  Look at the people around you.  They are not the people they should be.  Either the seeds that they are hearing from this pulpit must be tainted or the pastor incapable of policing the flock.  Either way, they need our help.  We know who the good people are and who are weeds.  Jesus,  just let us dig in and we will get rid of the weeds and restore the shine to Your tarnished Church.  What could be wrong with that?  Surely, God and this pastor need our help because there are open sinners in this congregation and people who have not been faithful about worship and Bible study and good works.

But Jesus says, “No!”  He asks us to spread the seed but not to weed the soil, to share the faith but not to judge sinners, to call people to repentance but not to condemn them in their trespasses.  Why not?  What could possibly be wrong about establishing a few litmus tests or standards of behavior to decide who should be a member and who should not?  Jesus says that pulling the weeds will harm the wheat.  In other words by focusing on the personal righteousness of the individual instead of the cover of Christ’s righteousness, the faithful will suffer, they will lose their way, and they will be sacrificed for the cause of our own self-righteousness.  

Mohammed’s god rejoices at the death of infidels but the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.  Our calling is not to create a perfect world or a perfect family or a perfect church.  Our calling is to speak the Word of God.  Our calling is not to destroy our enemies but to turn the other cheek.  Our calling is not to save the world but to love our neighbor.  Our goal is not to save the sinner but to proclaim the Kingdom of God – not to claim some territory for Jesus but to proclaim the reign of Christ through the Word and Sacraments.  Neither right nor left understands the mercy of God and so it is no surprise that we struggle with it as well.

We live by faith and not by sight.  We do not survey the vast fields of God’s planting with pride and confidence that the world is losing and we are winning.  Instead we see weeds and only weeds, sinners and only sinners.  That which God is doing is not yet done, not even that which He has begun in you and me.  The weeds are not out there but in here, in our hearts and minds, and until that day when Christ commands the harvest, we live in the daily battle against pride and self-righteousness.  It is not the world who is called to repentance but you and me, the saints declared righteous in baptism but who still live with the sinful desires and with guilty souls.  Jesus warns us that to pull up the weeds will endanger not simply the weak Christian wrestling with his demons but you and me, who sit in the pews on Sunday morning and go to Bible study and Sunday school.  It is not for others that Jesus warns but for you and me.     

Ours is not a God who rushes to judgment and shrugs off the collateral damage.  Ours is the God who is patient and kind, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Ours is not the God who comes to condemn.  Ours is the God who comes to save.  Ours is not the God who delights in patting the righteous on the back but who delights in one sinner who repents and all of heaven rejoices with Him.  My friends, do not get caught up in a desire to fix the church for Jesus or to send the world packing on its way to hell.  Do not presume that you know the difference between the weeds and the wheat.  Trust in the Lord.  Hear the Gospel.  Believe in it.  Come in repentance.  Go with the desire to share this Gospel.  Let your hearts be consumed not with anger over the sinner but with joy over every single one who repents.  In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

The lions roar no more. . .

With the death of Pat Robertson a few months ago, it occurs to me how many of the lions whose names dominated Christianity in America have been silenced by death and how different things look today because of that.  Growing up in the 1950s, I did not realize that America was soon to be shaped in politics and religion by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Bakker, Billy Graham, D. James Kennedy, Robert Schuller, Charles Stanley, Adrian Rogers, and so many others.  These were household names along with a few others from a slightly earlier time, notably Archbishop Fulton Sheen and the voice of Walter A. Maier.  Now most all of them are dead.  They roar no more.  While you might think that others stepped up to take their places, that is not quite true.  There were other names though not so well known and they never caught the American imagination like these did.  In fact, some of those who might have been lions never quite grew up or did not live in the limelight as long or as loud,  Instead, we have the remains of their mighty religious empires.  From Bill Hybels to Rick Warren to Joel Osteen to Andy Stanley and so many more, their moment in the sun has not endured the way those of a previous era did.  Some of them ended up as poster children for things that were done wrong --- Hillsong and Mars Hill.  It makes you wonder if there will ever again be Evangelical and/or charismatic (small "c") leaders like there were.

It occurs to me as we look at the age of our current American President and the age of his primary rival that we are finding hard to replace these two figures with new, younger individuals who garner the same following.  No one but a fool would deny that his age is a very large factor in the choice of people to cast their ballot to Biden.  It is equally unlikely that Trump will saunter off the stage without a fight.  So we seem destined in some way or another to see these two political figures continue to occupy the prominent positions in party and power -- for good or for ill.  What strikes me as interesting is how this is also mirrored in other institutions and settings.  

There was an era in which national figures arose who commanded the devotion, respect, and following of more than a locale or a region.  Yes, some of them were lightening rods of conflict but even then the households of our churches knew their names, knew who they were, knew what they stood for, and knew what was at stake in choosing leaders.  I fear that this time has passed.  It bodes ill for our future.  There are as many people who think that Francis is not their pope as those who warm to him.  Archbishop Welby's tenure has seen the influence of the West diminish and his own office become a minor one.  Can anyone name the leaders of the Methodist Church or Presbyterian?  Does anyone know the name of the President of the Southern Baptist Convention?  It could be that the reason incumbents get re-elected has as much to do with the lack of known choices as it does who those incumbents are or what they have done.  This is certainly something to consider in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  In my own particular sphere, the Missouri Synod has shown moderate discontent with its leaders but those who opposed him struggle to find a viable candidate who can gather a following.  This year has offered such a potential opponent many opportunities to question the decisions made and positions taken by our leaders but such a person has not taken the Synod by storm.

National leaders are always a mixed blessing.  Some are flawed individuals who foist their weakness upon those who elect them.  On balance, however, we have been blessed more than cursed by such large figures in the past, even recent past.  It has not hurt Christianity when orthodox figures gained such prominence and it has hurt us when we appear to be divided by many anonymous individuals.  I think back to 1958 when TIME magazine featured on its cover Franklin Clark Fry as a national leader of significance from Lutheranism but across America.  It was a heady time but who cannot look back on that moment without a little nostalgia for the moment when Lutherans were more united than they are today and were considered a force to be reckoned with across the face of Christianity in America?  Yes, it is certainly a reflection of our secularized culture at war with orthodox Christianity but it is also a symptom of the disease that still afflicts us -- we tend to tear down our leaders more than raise them up and we tend to be suspicious of those with prominence more than admiring of them.  There was a time when you knew where churches stood because of the character of their leaders.  Today is not that time and I for one am sad about that.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Train up a child...

A child hardly ever understands or appreciates what he or she is taught or the decisions made by well-meaning parents.  There is some confusion today that suggests that perhaps we ought to wait to make those choices on behalf of our children until they get them and agree with them.  This is especially true of matters of faith but not only so.  How foolish it is to presume that in order to benefit from such things we must understand, appreciate, and consent to them!

We daily use a ton of things whose technology and operation we do not understand or appreciate but we employ them for work, leisure, and fun.  Can any of us figure out how the binary language of computers and codes can turn a symphony into data and then replay at will?  Or how a smart phone works to do all that we want it to do?  Or how the electricity works in your home or bluetooth or wifi?  Of course, we do know when it does not work and complain and wait for days on tech queues to get it working again.  We do not understand what they do to fix it and we will never remember it for the next time it stops working but we appreciate the devices when they do what we purchased them to do.

There is much that happens on Sunday morning that a child does not understand or appreciate.  Perhaps there is even more than none of us as adults really gets.  In any case, the value does not simply lie in the understanding but in the participation -- faith at work.  Training up a child in the way he should go was said long before we had worship folders or hymnals to keep us attuned to what is going on.  In the mystery of holy sacrifices and holy smoke in the temple and solemnly treated scrolls on the synagogue, the children of the children of Israel learned what to do before they knew why.  For much of Judah's history the rites of the temple remained long after the people and their leaders had traded them away for the next best deity of the day.  In their midst was the place were restoration took place and from it the call to repent even while the orders of the ages were lived out.  It is still that way.  Thousands of cars drive past our church on Sunday morning while bells ring and parking lots proclaim the mystery of what is happening here.

Teach your child what to do while in the Lord's House.  He or she may not be ready to absorb the reasons for it all and need not at this point to learn the rhythm and postures and direction of what happens in the Lord's House on the Lord's day.  Teach by example.  Only if your children know it is important to you will they learn that it should be important to them as well.  God did not give us kids to entertain but to train and the Lord's day in the Lord's House is the setting where that training takes place.  Let them know you are glad when the Lord said to you -- come and enter into My presence.  It is not a mental state but a full body participation that God has supplied so that His presence lives not in some imagined place but in the real splash of water, the power of words with authority, and the taste of bread and wine.  Train up a child on Sunday morning.  It will haunt the child as long as they live -- in a good way.  And if God is merciful, if they fall away, it will lead them back home.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Missing the noise of the typewriter. . .

Hardly anyone is old enough to recall the sound of several typewriters going at it at the same time.  Alas, I am.  The sound of the old manuals was replaced with the electrics -- though it was a change more nuanced than different.  I well recall the great joy the church office received when, in 1981, we purchased a brand spanking new IBM Selectric.  It was blue.  I have several fonts on the balls that magically hit the carbon ribbon and produced a clear and consistent type the likes of which no manual had ever done.  It was elegant.  It was wonderful.  But it was still rather noisy.  I miss that noise.

All around me people have keyboards that look like the old Chiclets but are now somewhat silent.  It is strange to hit a key and hear nothing much back from it.  My way of thinking is dependent upon the sound that echos back my thoughts as they appear now on a screen and once on paper.  I am one of those old fogies who has a keyboard that looks and, more importantly, sounds and feels like the old and venerable IBM Selectric.  I hoard them just in case the one I have dies.  I have a couple of spare for my wife as well.  We love them.  It is what I despair about in the case of the laptop -- the keyboards and pad are terrible.  At least I think so.

It occurs to me that so much has changed with this change.  The newsrooms of old were filled with the sound of fingers on keys and keys striking the paper.  It was a busy sound and a sound of people busy together.  Now the rooms are empty, people work from home, and they work on keyboards designed to muffle the sound of work being done.  I will admit that perhaps because of my experience, I do not like to work in silence.  The noise of others working actually helps me think and provides a certain measure of comfort in the fact that I am not alone.  Somebody no one will ever remember such a thing.

The same comfort comes from the sound of my fountain pen.  Unscrewing the pen or unsnapping it from its cap is the start of a magical moment of creativity.  Filling the reservoir with ink is its own labor of love.  Then, when all is ready, the nib hits the page and there is a certain sound and feel that I adore.  Perhaps it is because I write in the antiquated form called cursive while the world around me texts in their own language or prints.  Perhaps it is because I can recall when ballpoints were the messy ones and fountain pens were reliable or perhaps it is because my father bequeathed to me a legacy of love for that medium of expression or perhaps it is because the keyboard and pen work at the speed of my brain (although, to be honest, the pen is closer to my pace of thought and expression).

All in all, we have replaced the sound of work with the sound of pleasure.  Instead of the keys hitting the paper or the sounds of pens across the paper, we have a sound track playing in the background or in the ear buds.  We don't like the sound of work so we replace it with the sound of pleasure.  In the end, it is a sound at odds with what we are doing.  Could it be that we no longer esteem work highly?  Judging by the way we walk about it, we do not.  We ought to.  Work is good, a gift from God, and, something the unemployed who desire employment know to be a blessing.  The sounds of the workplaces across America have become more and more alien to us.  Artificial intelligence may seal the deal even more until there is no sound from us at all in the workplaces across our nation.  Though, judging by the errors of Siri when I voice commands and texts for her to send, AI is at best an unfinished work.  I wish my typing teacher were here.  You were graded by the number of errors in what you typed.  Look at any social media or smart phone today and it is clear that these things no longer count against what we say or how we say it.  And that is sad.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Finding a church. . .

It has long been known that among Lutherans it is hard to predict what you might find passing as worship on Sunday morning.  Contemporary is hardly enough of a word to describe the plethora of options being offered in the name of Augustana XXIV.  Lutherans in search of a more faithful Divine Service have for many years relied upon pastoral connections to recommend a place or looking at the offerings on the individual congregation's web presence or another organization that vets the info and gives some common values of a liturgical Lutheran presence.  Obviously, mileage may vary.  Not every congregation is known or connected if they do fit a more traditional definition of liturgy.  So it is that here we continue to get people testing the waters, so to speak, to see if what happens here looks Lutheran or not so much.  That said, I did not realize that Roman Catholics had the same problem on the same scale.  Apparently they do.

Whenever my family members find ourselves on vacation and that “first of days”—Sunday—rolls around and we must needs present ourselves at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I have learned to expect the worst—and have usually gotten it. There have been a few notable exceptions here and there, but I can count them on one hand. I have been subjected to Happy Birthday sung at Mass for those celebrating their annual trip ’round the sun, lay people angrily confronting the priest during his homily, terrible taste in music and even worse execution of the ceremonies of the Sacred Liturgy. I have had my fair share of aging hippy bands whose pitch sags worse than their lead-singer’s skin, and my children are instructed ahead of time that if Father asks if there are any visitors in the crowd, for heaven’s sake they are to keep their hands down.

It would seem that some Roman clergy have had enough of the questions from those traveling and have decided to share the locations of those offering a more, shall we say, reverent Mass. At “Reverent Mass Locator”  they have listed the locations of a growing number of reverent Masses across the nation to better help them prepare for what they might find or find what they are looking for amid the often banal and sad choices out there.  In other words, Rome is not far from Lutheranism in the tragedy of congregations and priests who have decided to surrender their identity to what fits the moment and makes people feel better.  I wish I could say I was comforted in knowing this was not simply a Lutheran problem.  I am not.

Of course, anyone with interest can find listed some of the more egregious worship practices of parishes that supposedly pass as Lutheran or Roman Catholic.  Sadly, those in solid liturgical and confessional settings seldom realize what a blessing they enjoy week after week after week.  It is a profound blessing to know that God's Word will be faithfully preached, the liturgy observed with appropriate reverence and decorum, and the devotion of God's people ordered by confession over preference.  That said, if you are in one of those reverent parishes, let me know.  I do get requests from people visiting or moving and am all the time looking to recommend a solid parish to them.  So to the Lutherans out there, jump up and down for joy and let your pastor and parish musician know how deeply you appreciate their faithfulness and let me know so that I, too, may rejoice.  May I suggest that you also increase your giving, praying, and appreciation for having such a blessed parish to call home.  Look around.  It is not, sadly, a common blessing.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

A beard. . .

While reading Allan Carlson's opinion piece on masculinity in the churches, I did a little thinking.  His words are compelling (it is called Unshaved Masses and, if you are not, why not become a subscriber to Touchstone?!).   There is much to think of here.

When I arrived home from college, I had a new possession.  It was a beard.  Now, I grant you, it was then a rather feeble attempt at one but it has endured.  It was in the beginning a mark of my rebellion.  Perhaps it was in reality a mark of the ultimate rebellion -- the embrace of tradition.  As Carlson quotes it, masculinity had its heyday when priests were celibate and Lutheran pastors were Herr Pastor (quoting Steven Ozment).  Who knew that my youthful rebellion was anything more than an adolescent rant (and you can't make me!).

I have worn this beard now fifty years -- longer than I have ever lived in one place, longer than I have been married, and longer than I have been a pastor.  It flew by in minutes in my mind but as I look around me the beard is, as Carlson says, making a comeback.  Sure, the beard more popular now is the one my son wears with its wild and untamed look -- his a shock of red down from his checks to his chest.  Not mine.  Mine is trimmed (less so in winter and a bit more in summer).  Plus mine is grayer now than brown.  It began the change the hair on my head soon followed.  But it was a beard and is and it was then and is now not simply facial hair.  It is, in some way, a mark of identity.

When I would visit St. Vladimir's Seminary, beards were all around me -- far more than at my seminary then (although you find many more now).  Maybe the East always knew how counter-cultural a beard truly was in a world that has become impossibly feminized.  What else would you expect in a world that cannot voice what a woman is and, therefore, must be equally in the dark about a man?  What else would you expect of a culture in which truth surrenders to feeling every time?  The beard is back in where the clean shaven once ruled and it never left those who insisted the theological world should have been put on pause sometime right after the last of the seven ecumenical councils.  Of course, that is an affront to those who insist that there is no real difference between a man and a woman but what they might feel about it.  It surely does take a heap of testosterone to grow the manly beard and those who feel it seem destined not to see it on their faces.  

So consider me unapologetic.  It may not be youthful rebellion anymore but there is a rebel under that gray facial hair -- a rebel for the catholic identity that seems terribly old fashioned in a progressive world.  I did not realize it at the time but the beard ended up making me seem out of step with the world around me and right now that is just fine.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Scientist or Magician

We learned during the pandemic the mantra trust the science.  But, of course, science did not have definitive answers.  It had clues and presumptions and postulations but the aftermath of Covid proved that some of what we thought was most true was not and some of the things dismissed as utter rubbish was, well, true.  The science did not help as we thought it would because science was reacting along with us to what was unfolding around us.  Yesterday's conclusions proved to be poor starting points for the heated rhetoric about distancing and masks and the danger of outdoors and the need for shutting down nearly all human interaction.  Worse, we repeated the same tired old postulates when it came to a vaccine that was not simply new but a new process for a vaccine to use.  My point here is not to argue the past but to see what it might be that we could learn from it.

Trying to make science black and white and to give it the penultimate role of judge over all things proved to be a misuse of science based upon misconceptions -- misconceptions not simply from the simple but from the learned as well.  Instead of shining light, we only increased the darkness.  We did not need any help in that area.  The whole modern movement has slowly being about dimming the light and increasing the shadows.  Instead of knowing clearly who we are, our place in the world around us, and what laws govern us and that world, we have been rendered so confused that we cannot even define the basic terms of man and woman.  Science, or at least those who trumpeted their idea of it, insisted that where religion and Scripture had sown darkness and left us captive, they were liberating us from all things foolish, prudish, and primitive.  Progress would be our savior instead of the God-man Jesus Christ -- as if progress were reasonable and religion were not!

In reality, it is upside down.  Religion brought clarity and this clarity allowed for the simplest of the simple to know God and themselves and the world.  Now there is only confusion or the imposed confusion of modernity.  The lights are dimming all around us as institution after institution becomes suspect and its truth subject to the unassailable truth of feeling and desire.  It was so plain that the worker could order his or her life around it and so profound that the wise sage could meditate upon it for a lifetime and still not come to its end.  More than this, it was a reality that was and is and will be until God intervenes to change it.  

In place of it all, science offers the present conclusion subject to adjustment.  Reason must give way to the presumed science of invented categories like gender and the ordinary shape of life must bend to the imposed shape of our new idea of family.  Science offers us no anchor in the storms of change and instead only releases us from the moorings of religion, morality, and reason to see where it all might land.  Land it did.  Culture and society are a wreck in pieces on the shore but no one will admit it.  Instead the naysayers who would refuse and refute this illegitimate science are labeled hate speakers and banished from the public square.  

It turned out that the only thing that was stable and enduring was religion -- the religion of the Book of God in which a world was created for life and then rescued from death not by reason or imagination but by the love that sacrifices and empties itself in death.  This was all simple and plain enough for a world to get until science made it suspect, racist, and against the reign of desire (and its whim).  We have been sold a bill of goods.  Science, or at least what passes for it, is able to give us nothing but question marks where religion put periods and exclamation points.  We pulled back the veil of religion and God was there.  We pulled back the curtain of science and it was a mere man parading as the magician with all the answers.  Maybe we chose the wrong curtain.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

The affirmation of denial. . .

As I was driving in my car, a radio report spoke of a governmental entity (I did not hear which) that was considering the denial of gender affirming treatment to be the equivalent of child abuse and itself the cause for the removal of children from their home and from the care of their parents.  It is certainly not the first we have heard of such things nor will it be the last.  Though the UK and other nations have scaled back the intervention of this kind in the life of a child, those in charge of media and government in the US have continued to march forward in the cause of forcing parents to consent to the gender whims of their young children.  That is itself a shock but not a jolt that comes out of the blue.

The whole name of this -- gender affirmation -- is itself a contradiction of  terms.  This does not affirm anything except the curiosity or whim expressed by a child that in any other generation would not even be thinking or talking about such things.  In our age, it has become the sacred truth that has no basis in fact or history but dare not be refused.  No matter that statistic after statistic refutes the idea that such gender affirming care reduces the rate of suicide (contemplated or attempted), those who are intent upon this path have replaced truth with feeling and, not in the least, with guilt upon those who would dare to deny what they believe is obvious.

Performing transgender surgeries, providing hormone-based transgender therapies, providing puberty blockers to children under the auspices of so-called “gender-affirming care is neither good medicine nor is it good for the mental health of the children.  Parents, placed in the difficult position of being both guilted into such treatment and bullied by the media, educational systems, and government, are put in the crosshairs of such false truths.  If they will not say it, we must.  Gender affirmation is child abuse.  Gender dysphoria among adults will be treated as they, their insurers, and their rights of majority age allow but in children it is the cruelest of abuse to rob them of their childhood, cut away reproductive organs, and use hormones to prevent their ordinary development -- among those who are least equipped to know the difference between feeling and truth, whim and reason.

What is even worse is that some churchly institutions (of higher education, medicine, and counseling) are actually doing the dirty work of this abuse.  The largest Catholic health system in the United States, CommonSpirit Health, is violating their own Roman Catholic moral teaching and identity is performing just that -- doing the transgender surgeries, providing hormone-based transgender therapies, prescribing puberty blockers to prepubescent children and then is actually financially subsidizing the same through its own employee benefits packages.  They are surely not alone.  How many faith based organizations are also financially subsidizing medical institutions and these procedures and therapies, providing all forms of modern contraception (including abortifacients), performing elective abortions, and doing surgical sterilizations?  My guess is close to 100%.  What do you think?

This does not affirm anything but denies the basic truth of Scripture, the common witness of Christian tradition, and the doctrine we have believed, taught, and confessed in the Name of Christ since the earliest days of Christianity.  This is the affirmation of denial and while we might not be in a position to make it stop on the level of the media, we can certainly control our educational, medical, and counseling institutions so that we are not complicit in this.  Rome has a larger stake in this pie than the Lutherans but all of us together owe our Lord and His people transparency and honesty in this regard so that Christians know where their institutions stand.  Caveat emptor.  

Monday, July 17, 2023

Ears to hear. . .

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10A, preached on Sunday, July 16, 2023.

Have you ever played the game of what sense you would be willing to surrender if you had to have one taken from you?  Would you surrender your eyes never to see  again or your nose never to smell again or your ears never to hear again?  We love to play games as if life were a game to be played but our Lord refuses to play such games.  In fact, our Lord insists that we have ears to hear and what they are designed to hear is the Word of God.  The reality, however, is that we gladly use our senses for just about anything and everything except that which is God’s Word and Sacraments.  We play games with the things God has given to us so that His Word and Spirit might dwell within us, bring us to faith, and keep us to eternal life. 

Jesus tells us a parable that disavows the false ideas that we have about our ears and what they are given to us to hear.  He describes not simply the different soils into which the seed is planted but what works against what is heard and against the work of the Spirit.

Those who hear the Word of God and then surrender that Word to their fears or their frustration are those in whom the devil sweeps in and steals the Word away.  We have plenty of time and energy and focus when we are doing what we want but as soon as God asks us to discipline ourselves to hear His Word, we are no longer interested.  The devil swoops in with questions.  Is this Bible study stuff fun?  Is it interesting?  Are you getting anything out of it?  It does not take long for our flesh to give up on the Word of God and let our ears, our minds, our eyes, and our mouths focus on something else.  The real enemy of faith is not opposition but boredom and apathy.  We use our senses for everything we think useful, fun, and interesting but we have nothing left for the one thing they are meant for – the Word of God.

Those who hear the Word of God and then give up when it proves hard are those who give up the faith whenever it demands something from us.  When God’s Word demands the attention of our minds, the focus of our hearts, we give it all up.  We have no roots to plant us or hold us to Him and so we move along to the next thing to come along, that which is new or different or easier.  Worship is not easy and it should not be.  Bible study is not easy nor should it be.  Controlling ourselves in the face of temptation is not easy nor should it be.  Forcing ourselves to do what is good and right before God is not easy nor should it be.  The road to heaven is filled with the footsteps of those who said this is harder than I thought and turned back.

Faith is not a panacea for all that troubles us.  Faith is its own trouble.  For faith pits us against the world, forces us to swim against the current of what seems right in the moment, and asks us to trust the higher power of God’s gracious will.  Parents, do not lie to your children and tell them church is fun or easy.  But tell them it is the most important claim upon them for this life and for eternal life.  Worship is not fun and it is not easy and it is not at all that practical in the eyes of the world, anyway.  We have surrendered all our senses to that which interests us or offers us reward but there is no room left for us to see and know and taste and hear the Lord and receive His gifts.

He who has ears, let him hear.  That is a solemn statement.  It is a word both of warning and of promise.  The warning is this.  If our ears are listening for everything but the voice of God, we will never hear that voice.  We will never hear and faith will wither and die and we will never receive what God has prepared for those who love Him.  But it is also a promise.  If we listen by the Spirit, God’s Word will not fail to do what that Word says and will deliver to us all that God has promised and accomplish in us all that He purposes.  It will build us up in faith so we endure.  But we need to listen and watch and hear and taste the goodness of the Lord in His Word and in the visible Word of His Sacraments.

God does not deceive you with half-truths and lies.  He does not tell you that if you hear and believe, you will get the life you desire.  No, He promises that because you belong to Christ, the world will hate and revile you the way it did Him and your life will be a constant battle against the desire to surrender just to make things easier.  Faith is not easy.  It is easier to make your peace with your faults and with the prospect of death and try to pack as much of life worth living between the start and end of that life.  But that is all there will be in life and death will require you to face what you lost over and over again, a living hell that has no end.

The Church has tried over the ages to make things easier for people and every time the people have left in greater numbers the easy faith than they did the hard faith.  All around us today is the example of churches that have redefined sin so that you are no longer a sinner and redefined death so that is not so bad and redefined God so the most He can do is to support you in whatever you choose for yourself.  It cannot get any easier.  What good is it to be filled with people and empty of hope?  How much better to equip us to battle against self, devil and the world for the sake of a treasure beyond imagination which we glimpse here every week?!

He who has ears, let him hear.  St. Paul says faith comes by hearing the Word of God.  The Spirit is at work in that Word calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying us and the whole Christian Church on earth.  God is pouring into you all His power so that you may endure and enduring to the end, be saved eternally.  You endure because you hear the Word of God that endures forever and you are kept in this faith because you remain near the means of grace.  He who has ears, let him hear.

We are fighting a constant battle against what is cheap, easy, and makes us feel better.  None of this is God.  None of this is authentic Church.  It is all a deception of devil who wants you to lose interest and give up or the world which wants you to turn your full attention and use all your senses for amusement, entertainment, and self-desire.  The things of God come to us freely in Christ but once given, they ask us of nothing less than the full attention of our ears to hear, our minds to understand, our eyes to see, and our mouths to taste the goodness of the Lord.  

Sometimes people wonder if we should make it easier on folks to join – why bother with all that instruction.  Life is short, grab them when you can.  Sometimes people wonder why we don’t open the altar rail up and let people decide what they believe and what they receive.  Who are we to judge anyhow?  Sometimes people wonder why the worship service is too long, why we sing too much, and why it is so foreign to everything else in life.  Make it fun – what is wrong with having a good time?  All of this only makes God and His Word and work trivial and inconsequential.  This good times God cares little, offers us less, and cannot be counted upon when things go bad.  That is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of the cross and empty tomb.  The states are too high, Christ has paid too high a cost that you might be His, His claim is on you – all of you – all your mind, heart, body, soul, reason, and senses.  Let everyone who has ears, hear.  In the holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

Nuance or difference. . .

As I read through a post on the First Things web exclusives this jumped out at me.

As our discussion turned to the Mass, a young woman shared her own experience and stated that the whole point of Mass is to receive Communion. I offered a different perspective: The primary purpose of Mass is to worship God, to give him the glory and adoration that are his due. That holds true whether or not we receive Communion at Mass.

The author, a Roman Catholic, was relating a conversation among other Roman Catholics about worship and the Mass.  What jumped out at me was the whole idea that we give God glory and adoration whether or not we receive Communion at Mass.  It struck me as an appeal quite clearly to the Law.  Giving God what He is due is the command and duty of the Law.  Perhaps I have been a Lutheran too long.  We would begin not with what we give to God but what God gives to us.

"Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. Music is drawn into this thankfulness and praise, enlarging and elevating the adoration of our gracious giver God.

Saying back to Him what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. Most true and sure is His Name, which He put upon us with the water of our Baptism. We are His. This we acknowledge at the beginning of the Divine Service. Where His Name is, there is He. Before Him we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness. His forgiveness is given us, and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim Him as our great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words He has used to make Himself known to us.

The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us, and then from us back to Him. He gives His gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Our Lord gives us His body to eat and His blood to drink. Finally His blessing moves us out into our calling, where His gifts have their fruition. How best to do this we may learn from His Word and from the way His Word has prompted His worship through the centuries. We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day the living heritage and something new."

The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us and only then from us back to Him.  If there is a Lutheran way of speaking about worship, it is surely this.  It is the perspective of the Gospel.  Who can worship Him without knowing Him, recognizing His gifts, and receiving what He has so graciously chosen to give?  But more than this, it is the very receiving of His gifts that is the highest worship.  This is our confession.  According to Luther, the highest form of worship is to trust God. In his book, The Freedom of the Christian, published in 1520, Luther wrote, 

"The very highest worship of God is this that we ascribe to Him truthfulness, righteousness and whatever else should be ascribed to one who is trusted. On the other hand, what greater rebellion against God, what greater wickedness, what greater contempt of God is there than not believing His promise? For what is this but to make God a liar or to doubt that He is truthful—that is, to ascribe truthfulness to one's self but lying and vanity to God."

This faith is itself the work of the Spirit working in the Word and the result of the Spirit's work in Holy Baptism.  Where such faith is born, it leads the faithful to that place where the absolution restores, the voice of God speaks, and the hand of God bestows His sacramental grace.  It is a complete misunderstanding of God and His Word to presume that the worship of faith is not the worship that takes place around His Word and Table and it is the same misunderstanding that the worship of God's House is not about faith.  He speaks and faith is born.  He washes and the dead are raised from the womb of the baptismal water.  He feeds and nourishes with the bread of the Eucharist and the hungry are fed eternal life.

The Roman Catholic author is absolutely correct.  The Mass is not something they have to sit through in order to receive Communion.  Neither is it for Lutherans.  The gift is the efficacious Word that does what it speaks and the sacramental sign that actually delivers what it symbolizes.  Yes, there are times when the Lutheran communicant may choose not to receive the Sacrament of the Altar but this is not surely the norm.  Yes, in Rome there was and maybe still is a time when the communicant receives outside the Mass but this is not surely envisioned to be normative.   The gifts of God for the people of God is not some affirmation of a theoretical gift but a real one, one that is both heard in the ear and believed in the heart and tasted in the mouth to nourish body and soul.  For Luther to say faith is the highest worship is also to understand that the faith that receives with repentance and joy the very Word of the Lord preached and read into heart and mind and the body and blood of the Lord Jesus upon the lips is faith fulfilling the Lord's command and promise and gift.  How this became two different things in Rome or in Lutheranism is a mystery to me.  Faith is the highest worship and the highest worship of that faith is to receive the gifts of God with the God-given gift of faith and from that to respond with service, thanks, praise, and obedience.  Why is this so hard?

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Death Cleaning. . .

Dö means death in Swedish and städning means cleaning. The thrust of the idea is to slowly begin decluttering your home so your death isn't such a burden for your children or those who will have to clean up things after you are gone.  It sounds terrible but long before the rest of the world learned the Swedish name for it, they were already doing it.  On the one hand, paring down was associated with death but on the other hand it was connected to retirement or downsizing. 
Once you reach the end of middle age (whatever that is currently, you start looking around your home and the various closets, basement, or atticstorage areas and you begin to wonder if you really need or want all the stuff that is hidden away or cluttering up the public areas of your dwelling.   A while ago I read about this according to Margareta Magnusson, whose book, "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your On Life More Pleasant," was published in 2018. 

All you have to do is watch some decorating and DIY shows on TV that feature Scandinavian design and you already know that the current model is more spare than others.  I grew up in a Swedish community and cannot substantiate that it was like this long ago but there was always a sense of less is more at a certain age.  When my grandparents moved off the farm and into town, they left much behind -- they did not want it or have room for it anymore.  They did not quite retire (it was the early 1960s) but they did change their work and they changed the house to reflect this.  Swedish Death Cleaning is in one sense a general decluttering process.  It may be in tune with the need to envision your family and heirs have to deal with the stuff you leave behind but there was also a sense of relief as the external work of decluttering bore some fruit in the peace and contentment of life as well.

While I would not press the analogy too much, it is the nature of repentance as well.  It is death cleaning in the penultimate sense.  Repentance begins with the affirmation that sin is not simply excess baggage but the mark of death's claim upon us.  We repent because sin has cluttered up our lives and hearts and it has become unmanageable.  We cannot bear the weight of it anymore.  Repentance is made possible by the Lord Jesus who has come to rid our lives not simply of the clutter but the clutter that marks us with death.  Like the hoarder on TV whose home is filled with mold and all sorts of other toxic things that have slowly stolen not simply their quality of life but the very life itself.  Sin has not simply made our lives bad, it has stole our lives from us and repentance admits what sin has done.  The lament of our hearts is not simply for the actual sins that cross our minds and our lips and are acted out in our bodies but for the condition that has cast its shadow over us and over all things.  This comes with our own deep regret and contrition over the part of all this that we participated in.  And this happens every Sunday when we confess the sins we have thought, said, and done and the uncleanness that we cannot wash away.

Death cleaning for us is the admission of that which causes death and of the cleaning that God has supplied to give hope to those who live in the shadow.  More than simply removing the sin and its consequence, God has undertaken the larger task of teaching our hearts to love the things of God more than we love ourselves and the familiar paths of sin that have marked our lives since their conception.  So a little death cleaning on a Sunday morning is a pretty good thing. . .

Saturday, July 15, 2023

But I don't like to wait. . .


I waited for the Lord, he inclined unto me, he heard my complaint.
O bless’d are they that hope and trust in the Lord. [Psalm 40:1-5]

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s (1809-1847) Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 52 is also known as Hymn of Praise (Lobegesang in German.)  Mendelssohn composed the symphony in 1840 and described it as “A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible, for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra.”  It is a large work, with a complete performance of the symphony lasting well over an hour.  I Waited for the Lord is one of the movements of this symphony.  It is scored for two soloists and chorus, with the text derived from Psalm 40.

We wait all the time. Our lives are filled with the burden of waiting.  We wait to fall asleep at night, for emails and text messages, for Amazon deliveries, for money to hit the bank account, for doctors, for torturous things to end and for blessed things to begin. The Christian life is likewise filled with waiting but not for things on earth.  This waiting is for the Lord, for an answer to our prayers, for the resolve of conflicted hearts, for peace to replace upset, for joy to overcome despair, and for hope to triumph over loss.  The old may have learned to wait while the young are anxious but in every case waiting is still a burden and a test of faith.  “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:30-31).

We wait not for the unknown so much as we wait for the promise of God to be kept, fulfilled, and delivered.  It is the waiting that only faith can undertake or it will become our undoing.  Waiting is a test of faith and of our confidence in the Word of God.  The answer to our unease at waiting and our fears is faith.  We believe that God hears us, answers us, and delivers to us all He has said.  This is our peace in waiting.  God is faithful and He will do it.

Friday, July 14, 2023

But that is blasphemy!

Blasphemy from the dictionary is the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.  Then and now, blasphemy has something in common but it is not God.  What the past and present share is a concern to protect that which is sacred. But that is where the similarity begins and ends.   It is that which is sacred about which the past and the present disagree.  Old-style blasphemy involved desecrating God because it was God who was sacred. Today’s blasphemy is not about God at all but about the god role played by man himself.  The blasphemy of 2023 is a challenge to the idea that man is not all-powerful, that man does not have the power or the right to create or define himself as he choose, or that man is subject to limits outside his control and beyond the realm of his choice.  

This is the blasphemy that is so sacred and essential to modern identity that it cannot be challenged and, when it is challenged, must be silenced even more than refuted.  Indeed, that which offends today is not a challenge to fact but feeling, not the denial of God but the denial of self, and not the freedom to choose but the refusal to affirm the sacred choices.  The media and social media are the guardians of this sacred truth and the means by which this sacred truth is affirmed.  Reality is the domain of perception and expression and has little connection to or reflection of fact, history, or truth.  We are no longer defined by things outside ourselves but we have have taken on as our new religion the primacy of self and its sacrament is our ability to define ourselves according to the mores we have invented.  

It is no longer much of a concern that we might be offending God.  To blaspheme God has become normal and ordinary.  It is routine.  Every day in our culture people and corporations and institutions choose to offend God and those who believe in Him in order to pursue the higher virtue of self-expression and choice.  It is not simply the LA Dodgers but the biggest of corporations, retail giants, and academic institutions.  Those who had religious roots and may still have Christian associations are so quick to jettison those relationships and reject their roots in order to pursue the new sacred of self and self-expression.  Even Notre Dame University observes and celebrates pride month.  Never mind what the catechism says, if it offends against the new sacred of sexual expression and gender identity, it must be condemned and labeled profane.

Some complain that saying this is offensive to those who do not want to challenge anyone or anything -- they just want to be free to express themselves and to live their own lives with the same rights and privileges as others.  Would that this was true.  An  example is marriage.  Same sex marriage is not simply about the right to coexist but is about the desire to transform what marriage is for everyone.  Gay men do not marry at the same rate as heterosexuals or lesbians but lesbians divorce at a rate far greater than even heterosexuals.  In the midst of this is the state of the children in these families.  Without a biological connection with those whom they once called a parent, we are charting new ground in the legal pursuit of guardianship -- something that has not been the case in heterosexual marriages even when they end in divorce.

In other cases, it is not merely about tolerating a legal status accorded to the alphabet soup of gender and sexual preference.  It is about the flaunting of such preferences.  This is not about toleration or acceptance but about an "in your face" attitude toward those around you.  So it is not enough to have a private preference or identity but these must be the sole or at least the primary definition of who you are, how you act, and what you do.  The Sisters Perpetual Indulgence are not looking for acceptance but to demean what others hold sacred and to be as outrageous as possible in their promotion of who they are.  The drag queens who read to children in the library are not interested in reading to the children but gaining acceptance from those children of their own identities and expression -- especially for those children whose parents reject the drag queen.

The blasphemy of today is to suggest that marriage is the basic shape of society as ordered by God and reflected over time and in history.  It is the offense of suggesting that children are essential to family and are the faithful response of the call to be fruitful and multiply.  It is the offense of suggesting that the mark of humanity is not being defined by desire but by the practice of self-control and the refusal to be governed by passions.  It is the offense of suggesting that in order to know who we are, we must know whose we are.  The blasphemy of today is not interested in preserving belief in God but is solely concerned with the preservation of the myth of human freedom to do and be whoever you choose.  All in all, it was easier and made a great deal more sense when blasphemy was about God.