Sunday, December 31, 2023

The World's Last Night

The myth of progress dies on this night and we meet instead the promise of a real future in Christ whose coming again is part of the Gospel itself.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

I was reminded. . .

In December of 2017 a lost C.S. Lewis piece of writing was recovered by Stepanie Derrick, a PhD student at the University of Stirling.  In her research she found the following article from The Strand, an historically significant journal no longer in publication.  The piece has Lewis’ rather provocative thesis that a re-paganization of the West would actually aid the cause of the Gospel.

A Christmas Sermon For Pagans from C.S. Lewis

    When I was asked to write a Christmas sermon for pagans, I accepted the job light-heartedly enough, but now that I sit down to tackle it, I discover a difficulty: are there any pagans in England for me to write to? I know that people keep on telling us that this country is relapsing into paganism; but they only mean that it is ceasing to be Christian, and is that at all the same thing?

    Let us remember what a pagan or heathen (I use the words interchangably) really was. A heathen was a man who lived out on the heath, out in the wilds. A pagan was a man who lived in a “pagus” or small village. Both words in fact meant a rustic or yokel. They date from the time when the larger towns of the Roman Empire were already Christianised, but the old nature religions still lingered in the country. Pagans or heathens were the backward people in the remote districts who had not yet been converted, who were still pre-Christians. To say that modern people who have drifted away from Christianity are pagans is to suggest that a post-Christian man is the same as a pre-Christian man. But that is like thinking that a woman who has lost her husband is the same sort of person as an unmarried girl. Or that a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built.

    The ruined street and the unbuilt field are alike in one respect, namely that neither will keep you dry if it rains, but they are different in every other respect: rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads, and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups, and the lark singing overhead.

    The real pagan differed from the post-Christian in the following ways. Firstly, he was religious. From the Christian point of view, he was indeed too religious by half. He was full of reverence. For him the earth was holy, the woods and waters were alive. His agriculture was a ritual as well as a technique. And secondly, he believed in what we now call “an objective right and wrong”. That is, he thought the distinction between pious and impious acts was something that existed independently of human opinions: something like the multiplication table, which man had not invented, but had found to be true, and which he had better take notice of. The gods would punish him if he did not.

    To be sure, by Christian standards his list of right and wrong acts was rather a muddled one. He thought (and the Christians agreed) that the gods would punish him for setting the dogs on a beggar who came to his door, or for striking his father. But he also thought they would punish him for turning his face to the wrong point of the compass when he began ploughing. Though his code included some fantastic sins and duties, it got in most of the real ones.

    This leads us to the third great difference between a pagan and a post-Christian man. Believing in a real right and wrong means finding out that you are not very good. The pagan code may have been on some points a low one, but it was too high for the pagan to live up to. Hence a pagan, though in many ways merrier than a modern, had a deep sadness. When he asked himself what was wrong with the world, he did not immediately reply “the social system” or “our allies” or “education”. It occurred to him that he – himself – might be one of the things that was wrong with the world. He knew he had sinned. And the terrible thing was he thought the gods made no difference between voluntary and involuntary sins. You might get into their bad books by mere accident. And once in, it was very hard to get out of them. The pagan dealt with this situation in a rather silly way. His religion was a mass of ceremonies, sacrifices, purifications, et cetera, which were supposed to take away guilt, but they never quite succeeded. His conscience was not at ease.

    Now, the post-Christian view which is gradually coming into existence (it is complete already in some people, and still incomplete in others) is quite different. According to it, nature is not a living thing to be reverenced. It is a kind of machine for us to exploit. There is no objective right or wrong. Each race or class can invent its own code or ideology just as it pleases. And whatever may be amiss with the world, it is certainly not we the ordinary people. It is up to God, if after all he should happen to exist, or to government, or to education, to give us what we want. They are the shop, we are the customer, and the customer is always right.

    Now if the post-Christian view is the correct one then we have indeed woken from a nightmare. The old fear, the old reverence, the old restraints… how delightful to have woken up into freedom, to be responsible to no one, to be utterly and absolutely our own masters! We have, of course, lost some fun. A universe of colourless electrons (which is presently going to run down and annihilate all organic life everywhere and forever) is, perhaps, a little dreary compared with the earth-mother and the sky-father, the wood nymphs and the water nymphs, chaste Diana riding the night sky and homely Vesta flickering on the hearth. But one can’t have everything, and there are always the flicks and the radio: if the new view is correct, it has very solid advantages.

    But is it? And if so, why are things not going better? What do you make of the present threat of world famine? We know now it is not entirely due to the war. From country after country comes the same story of failing harvests. Even the whales have less oil. Can it be that nature, or something behind nature, is not simply a machine that we can do what we like with? That she is hitting back? Waive the point. Suppose she is only a machine, and that we are free to master her at our pleasure. Have you not begun to see that man’s conquest of nature is really man’s conquest of man? That every power wrested from nature is used by some men over other men? Men are the victims, not the conquerors in this struggle. Each new victory over nature yields new means of propaganda to enslave them, new weapons to kill them, new power for the state, and new weakness for the citizen. New contraceptives to keep man from being born at all.

    As for ideologies, does no one see the catch? If there is no real wrong and right – nothing good or bad in itself – none of these ideologies can be better or worse than another. For a better moral code can only mean one which comes nearer to some real or absolute code. One map of New York can be better than another only if there is a real New York for it to be truer to. If there is no objective standard then our choice between one  ideology and another becomes a matter of arbitrary taste. Our battle for democratic ideals against Nazi ideals has been a waste of time, because the one is no better than the other. Nor can there ever be any real improvement or deterioration. If there is no real goal, we can’t get any nearer to it, or farther from it. In fact there is no real reason for doing anything at all.

    It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true pagans, if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. I don’t mean that we should begin leaving little bits of bread under the tree at the end of the garden as an offering to the dryad. I don’t mean that we should dance to Dionysus across Hampstead Heath, though perhaps a little more solemn or ecstatic gaity and a little less commercialised amusement might make our holidays better than they now are. I don’t even mean (though I do very much wish) that we should recover that sympathy with nature, that religious attitude to the family, and that appetite for beauty which the better pagans had. Perhaps what I do mean is best put like this: if the modern post-Christian view is wrong (and every day I find it harder to think it right) then there are three kinds of people in the world. 1) Those who are sick and don’t know it: the post-Christians. 2) Those who are sick and know it: the pagans. 3) Those who have found the cure.

    And if you start in the first class, you must go through the second to reach the third. For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which paganism had not distinctly heard: that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us. All over the world, even in Japan, even in Russia, men and women will meet on December the 25th to do a very old-fashioned and very pagan thing: to sing and feast because God has been born.

    You are uncertain whether it is more than a myth. Well, if it is only a myth then our last hope is gone. But is the opposite explanation not worth trying? Who knows but that here – and here alone – lies your way back? Not only to heaven, but to earth too, and to the great human family whose oldest hopes are confirmed by this story that does not die.

Friday, December 29, 2023

In general. . .

The easy love is to love things in the abstract.  We love the idea of the thing but not necessarily the thing itself.  That is because the easiest love is to love in general, to love the abstract.  In fact, it is easy to love almost anything in general – we can love marriage but hate to be married or or love the idea of children but hate kids or love a vocation but hate work or love the idea of being thin but hate the diet and exercise.  It is like the old Peanuts cartoon -- I love mankind; it is people I can't stand!

So we love the idea of God but not a particular God.  We love being religious but cannot stand religion.  We love the ritual and the piety but don't want to mess it up with content -- you know, doctrine and that kind of stuff.  So the spiritual without being religious idea appeals to us greatly.  Sure, sometimes you miss the specifics -- the worship and all that stuff but then you go to church like you would see a movie or something and get a little fix of it all to tide you over.  But you do not go every Sunday.  There is always some reason to justify the occasional religious participation while keeping a safe distance from actually believing in something.

It is always the particular that brings problems.  There is too much baggage in believing in a specific God.  That is one of the reasons why we don't want to belong to organized religion.  Too much goes with it for us to feel the comfortable distance we desire.  So we have a God who is largely contained until we want Him or need Him and then He comes at our call like the family dog but knows when to disappear before the whole thing gets awkward or uncomfortable.  

Does God love the way we do?  Does God love mankind in general but have trouble dealing with us as individual people?  If it is our fall back, is it God's as well?  That is the difficulty in trying to maintain a safe distance from God.  We are not sure we want God to maintain the same distance with us.  There is a bit of an attraction to the idea that God comes when He is called but it also means we are alone.  Furthermore, the exceptional love of God for us is not the general love of all but the specific love of me.  This is the genius of Luther's catechism.

I believe that God has made me and not simply all humanity or all things -- not where did everything come from but where did I come from and what does my life mean and why does it have value.  I believe that Jesus redeemed me and not simply humanity or a portion of it -- me and my sins He has known and loved me still and determined not to leave me in those sins or the death they caused.  I believe that the Holy Spirit works in me, calling me to faith, gathering me unto the Father around the means of grace, enlightening me to faith and obedience.  God's love is not in words but in the deed of His Son's entrance into the womb of the Virgin, to a righteous life lived for me, to a death upon a cross for my sins, and raised so that I might live forevermore.

God is certainly omnipresent, all powerful, all knowing, all good.  The fact that He fills all things and sustains all that He has made is comforting, to be sure, but His love for us is not in the abstract nor in general but specific.  He has made me.  He has redeemed me.  With the personal love manifest in His Son, Jesus Christ, and the mighty acts by which He has redeemed me -- but not only me.

And, by the way, that presumes a particular faith and not whatever we would choose to believe.  It also presumes, I think, a particular Church -- the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  This is not a communion of versions nor is it a fellowship in general.  As creeds and confessions reflect Scripture to us, this is a specific faith for there is salvation in Christ and in no other.  This is the scandal of the particular that we daily wrestle with in a culture which refuses to believe that faith, truth, morality, or life is anything more than what you define it to be.  The particularity of God is not an affirmation of the radical individualism of our culture but the profound rescue of a particular people for a common life and future. 

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Dealing with loss. . .

In our rush to celebrate life and not grieve for the dead, we leave ourselves suffering grief even more.  It is a sad thing that our loss of those whom we love can be answered with stories that would make us smile and to fill the service with things meaningful to the dead.  Instead of an answer to death, we have surrendered to its lingering shadow cast over our lives, our happiness, and our peace.  The celebrations of life promise so much more than they can deliver.  Instead of helping turn us to hope, they leave our grief unanswered and the Christian lost in the pain of loss and separation.  Instead of rendering death less real, the celebration of life only make it more real and ultimately more powerful.

The Christian funeral rite takes us through the valley of the shadow but does not leave us there.  It confronts us with death, with the seriousness of death, and with its reign over human flesh.  But it moves us to Him who has answered death with His own life, planted in the ground as seed for three days before rising up triumphant.  This Jesus Christ has power to draw unto Himself all who die in Him so that death may not keep them -- anymore than it could keep Him.  He promises with His resurrection not a virtual life or an eternal memory or even a spiritual existence but a new and glorious flesh like His and a real life that has no end, where no tears are shed, where no illness threatens, where age and frailty can no longer steal strength and vigor, and where hearts know only perfect peace, contentment, and joy.

The great hymns of the faith offer us not simply a remembrance of the musical taste of the dead but the sung refreshment of this faith and hope.  With music the words are sung into our ears and out our lips until they can find firmer place within our hearts and minds.  And when we cannot find the voice to raise, those around us gladly loan us their hope by lifting up their own voices in song, singing back to the Lord the very hope He has sung to us in His Son, our Savior.

The whole rite takes place within the Lord's House, around the Word and Table of the Lord.  There we are reminded not simply of the life of the dead but how that life was nurtured and nourished by the Lord through His Word read, marked, and inwardly digested and His flesh and blood given and shed for us and present in this bread and cup set apart by His Word for His purpose.  We look to the familiar colors of stained glass, the images of the faith all around us, the crucifix (and cross) where the death that killed death is constantly before us, and the place where hope was born becomes the place where hope is refreshed in the face of death.

But most especially do we return to the House of the Lord after the funeral so that we may be as near to those whom we love as is possible until the great and grand reunion when Christ dawns His eternal day.  For there, right there, in the Divine Service the voices heard around us and the voices of the saints join with angels and archangels until only one sound is heard -- Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Sabaoth!  Hosanna in the Highest!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!  Hosanna evermore!  There gathered, the church in time with the church no longer bound by its constraints are one.  Part of it glimpsing the future and part of it knowing that future even better than mortal flesh can know.  Part of it seated at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb without end and part of it happy to feast upon its foretaste.  How can we not find comfort here!

So on this Day of the Holy Innocents when we recall the youngest and first martyrs of Christ, we remember that the cries were not without answer.  God in His grace did not abandon the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem to a grief unanswered or to the misery of hopes and dreams left unfulfilled.  Christ came for the martyred infants and toddlers just as He came for their parents and just as He has come for us.  The grieving and those who mourn find more than the remembrance of the past to console but the promise of a real future, a blessed reunion without the pain of any more death. For those who die in Christ live evermore.  They have a future and we have something to look forward to as we await that day when the dusk and twilight finally give way to the eternal day.  The Holy Innocents are not forgotten but they are recalled with a more powerful memory than the story of their lives or their deaths.  They are recalled in the Name of Christ who remembers the dead by raising them to everlasting life.  It is this life that we ought to celebrate for without it we have only the past.  In Christ we have today and tomorrow.  God, help us believe this.


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

St. John the Evangelist. . .

Merciful Lord, cast the bright beams of Your light upon Your Church that we, being instructed in the doctrine of Your blessed apostle and evangelist John, may come to the light of everlasting life; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

St. John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee and Salome, was one of the Twelve Apostles. John was called by our Lord in the first year of His public ministry. He is also known as John the Evangelist, John of Patmos and the Beloved Disciple. John's older brother was St. James the Great, another one of the Twelve. Jesus called the brothers "Boanerges," meaning "sons of thunder." John is believed to be the longest living apostle and the only not to die a martyr's death.  John, with Peter and James, were the only witnesses of the raising of Daughter of Jairus, and the closest witnesses to the Agony in Gethsemane. John was the one who reported to Jesus they had "'forbidden' a non-disciple from casting out demons in Jesus' name." This prompted Jesus to state, "he who is not against us is on our side."  John and Peter were the two apostles sent by Jesus to make preparations for the final Passover meal, the Last Supper. During the meal, St. John sat next to Jesus, leaning on him rather than lying along the couches as was the custom of the day.  John was the only one of the Twelve Apostles who did not forsake the Savior in the hour of His Passion. He stood faithfully at the cross when the Savior made him the guardian of His Mother.

The writings of if Blessed John are highly significant.  Believed by many to have been the last gospel written, John focused upon the divinity of Jesus -- right from the first chapter of the Gospel that bears His name: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1.1)

The Gospel of John contains the “I am” sayings of Jesus. These sayings teach us a a great deal about Jesus. They are:

  • I am the bread of life (6.35)
  • I am the light of the world (8.12)
  • I am the gate for the sheep (10.7)
  • I am the good shepherd (10.11)
  • I am the way, and the truth, and the life (14.6)
  • I am the vine, you are the branches (15.5)

From the cross, Jesus commended Blessed Mary to John:

“Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple. “Here is your mother.“ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19.26)

John was later exiled to the Island of Patmos; from there he wrote Revelation;  Later he returned to Ephesus.  In his old age he continued to visit the churches of Asia. St. Jerome relates that when age and weakness grew upon him so that he was no longer able to preach to the people, he would be carried to the assembly of the faithful by his disciples, with great difficulty; and every time said to his flock only these words: "My dear children, love one another."  From Eusebius we have this timeline:  St. John died in peace at Ephesus in the third year of Trajan; that is, the hundredth of the Christian era, or the sixty-sixth from the crucifixion of Christ.  St. John was then about ninety-four years old, according to St. Epiphanus.


Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Evermore and evermore. . . .

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Day, preached on December 25, 2023.

    Christmas Day brings out the faithful.  Christmas Eve brings out the masses.  I will admit that sometimes it seems like Christmas Eve is for a crowd largely unfamiliar to us except at Christmas.  Some would complain about that.  We ought to be glad that if nothing else will bring them from their homes to God’s, at least Christmas will.  They will hear the Word.  God is good.  He will work through that Word whether we live to see or ever know what fruit it bears.

    On Christmas Day we do not hear Luke’s familiar story with its details and drama.  Instead, we hear John’s theological framework for what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.  It is eloquent and profound.  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Much of that might be lost to the Christmas Eve crowd but we are here and we are up to John’s lofty wisdom.  Yet there is perhaps an interpreter of John who can frame John’s words about as clearly as it can be.  That man is Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, writing in the fourth century.  We know him through the translator and poet John Mason Neale.  Though you may not have heard that name before, you sang his words as the Hymn of the Day – “Of the Father’s love begotten.”  Take your hymnal and open it to hymn 384 and follow along with me.

                    Of the Father’s love begotten
                        Ere the worlds began to be,
                    He is Alpha and Omega,
                        He the source, the ending He,
                    Of the things that are, that have been,
                        And that future years shall see
                            Evermore and evermore.

Clemens is the master poet and Neale his English interpreter.  “Of the Father’s love begotten...” God is love.  He has always been love.  He always will be love.  But His love is not a feeling or an emotion – no matter how strong.  It is the driving force in all He is and all He does.  The love of God eternally begot His Son, long before creation was created and a world came into being.  The Son of God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end.  Here is the promise and Jesus own words from the final book of the New Testament.  From Him are all things, in Him all things have their being, and to Him are all things.  The past is His.  The present is His.  The future is His.  He is the only eternal and those who are immortal are immortal only in Him.

                Oh, that birth forever blessèd,
                    When the virgin, full of grace,
                By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
                    Bore the Savior of our race,
                And the babe, the world’s Redeemer,
                    First revealed His sacred face
                        Evermore and evermore.

This God forever entered time and space.  Planted in the womb of the Virgin by the Word of God spoken through the Archangel, He is born like us as one of us yet without sin.  The God of Gods and Light of Light and True God of True God whom we confess in the creed becomes flesh and blood to a Virgin full of grace, by the power of the Spirit.  And on Christmas Day, the world made by Him first saw His face.  All creation knew to praise Him except mankind, the same mankind who had rebelled in Eden and who lived under the veil of unbelief and fear.  Angels had to beckon the reluctant and the stranger to the manger.

                This is He whom seers in old time
                    Chanted of with one accord,
                Whom the voices of the prophets
                    Promised in their faithful word.
                Now He shines, the long-expected;
                    Let creation praise its Lord
                        Evermore and evermore.

He is the embodiment of the prophetic promise, the hope of Israel in flesh and blood, and the fulfillment of every Word of Scripture.  Though a world had grown tired of waiting, God had not wearied of delivering His one and only Son.  But like the plans of God, they unfolded not with haste or surprise but with deliberate steps as the Bible made known.  The seers and prophets of old time spoke with one voice of what was coming and now they stand with the angels as the manger reveals the Son of God and creation rejoices to praise its eternal God.

                O ye heights of heav’n, adore Him;
                    Angel hosts, His praises sing.
                Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him
                    And extol our God and King.
                Let no tongue on earth be silent,
                    Ev’ry voice in concert ring
                        Evermore and evermore.

Here we are bluntly reminded.  Praise begins on high and filters down to us on earth.  Before we see, we must be told where to look.  Before we speak, we must hear the voice of the Word.  Before we sing, we must be taught the tune.  So as the angelic choir of Bethlehem taught the shepherds who taught the Magi who taught the followers of John who taught the Jews who would receive Him who taught the Gentiles to know Him, so now we listen and then we respond, speaking back to God what He has told us, the result being a grand and glorious and eternal choir singing:  Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Power and Might.  Though for now some voices are silent, at the end they will all sing – either willingly by joyful faith or forced to acknowledge the One who is also Judge as well as Savior.

                Christ, to Thee, with God the Father,
                    And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee
                Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
                    And unending praises be,
                Honor, glory, and dominion,
                    And eternal victory
                        Evermore and evermore. Amen.

Every great hymn is doxology.  All theology must sing.  All doctrine must praise.  So here we join to chant to Christ, with God the Father, and Holy Ghost, with thanksgiving high and praises without end.  If you recall, this echoes throughout the Divine Service, doesn’t it.  It is in the Gloria in Excelsis, at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, and the proclamation of the mystery of the faith.  Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is Yours, almighty Father, both now and forever.  The highest glory, of course, is not words from the mouth but faith.  Faith to rejoice in Christ our Savior.  Faith to confess our sins trusting in His absolution.  Faith to hear His voice speaking in Scripture.  Faith to approach His table and feast upon the flesh and blood of Christ.  

So, enough time here, let us move quickly to the praise of bended knee before the manger of bread and wine in which Christ comes to us and we respond with praise and thanksgiving.  For this is Christmas every Sunday.  Amen.

St. Stephen's Day

‘Good King Wenceslas’ was actually Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. He was also known as Vaclac the Good, or Svatý Václav in Czech and lived from c.907 to 28 September 935.  The reason we have his exact date of death is that, upon orders from his brother Boleslaus the Cruel, Wenceslas was killed on The Holy Innocents. 

Wenceslas was not raised in a family with a long history in the faith.  His grandfather had been converted to Christianity by Saints Cyril and Methodius while his mother was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief (though she was baptised before marriage).  Young Wenceslas’ father died leaving a power vacuum during which his  mother was banished and his grandmother murdered.  After the dust had settled,Wenceslas was chosen by the people of Bohemia to be their king.  His mother was regent until Wenceslas reached the age of 18; then he banished her.  In the turmoil, the country was split in half and one part given to Wenceslas’ younger brother, Boleslaus.  Boleslaus was not content with half and in September 935 he plotted with a group of noblemen to kill his brother.  It was said of Wenceslas:  “His deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty.”  

The words to the carol were written in 1853 by John Mason Neale and joined to a much older melody – it’s a 13th-century tune called ‘Tempus adest floridum’ in praise of the spring.  The carol was written for the Feast of St Stephen, better known as Boxing Day.  It continues to celebrate a long tradition of charitable giving on the Second Day of Christmas.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’
‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither.’
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.’
‘Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing. 



Monday, December 25, 2023

Lutheran Mass for a Christmas Morning

The consensus among musicologists is that Michael Praetorius is perhaps the most underestimated and under-regarded German composer of his generation and, despite his prolific output, one of the most unknown individuals in our own time.

His first published work, Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion, nine volumes, 1605–1610), the composer has laid out for us 1,244 compositions that explore how the great Lutheran chorale melodies might be set — hymns which were and are the very backbone of Lutheran liturgical life.  Though he was an accomplished musician and a sophisticated composer, he wrote that joined the Italian Baroque style to the Lutheran chorale in such a way that the typical parish choir could perform it.

If you know Praetorius at all, you may know him through his 1609 harmonization of the fifteenth-century German folk carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen ("Lo how a rose e'er blooming." It is an unsung piece that often gets passed over in favor of more familiar carols but it, along with Praetorius' setting of  "Good Christian men, rejoice" provide a glimpse into his gift and greatness.

You can find some rather fine examples of Praetorius' works on CD but as we are in the shadow of Christmas, I would turn your attention to the works recorded under the title Mass for a Christmas morning.  Here the genius of Praetorius is set not simply in heavenly choirs in their most glorious and spectacular mode but within a context of a parish mass for Christmas morning. Here is a Lutheran mass as it might have been heard under the baton of Praetorius and with his hands on the keyboard of the mighty pipe organ in an early 17th century Lutheran congregation.

The rather ambitious CD is in reality a liturgical reconstruction of sorts.  It begins with an a capella  Christum wir sollen loben schon (Luther's translation of a pre-Reformation hymn).  This eight-stanza hymn has a date of 1524 but the setting here is from Lutheran pastor and theologian Lucas Osiander (1534–1604).

four-part setting of

It is followed by an Introit -- Praetorius's own 1619 setting of Puer natus in Bethlehem ("a Boy is born in Bethlehem").  The Kyrie and Gloria come from another Praetorius' work also published in 1619 --  Missa gantz Teudsch ("Mass, completely in German").  By this you know clearly that the Lutherans retained the mass as they claim in the Augsburg Confession except, in this case, in the vernacular.

You hear the traditional Christmas hymns in this imagined "service" --  Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her ("From heaven above to earth I come"), Quem pastors laudavere ("Shepherds sang their praises o'er him"), and Puer nobis nascitur ("Unto us a boy is born").  You can find them in just about any Lutheran hymnal -- even today!

So this Christmas morning, enjoy the Praetorius' genius and give it a listen.  It sounds like the best of Lutheranism and it is.  So put this on and enjoy this unsung Lutheran hero and his gift of music.  If only Lutheran parishes sounded like this on Christmas morning!  Ahhhhhh, would that it would be so!



With great joy. . .

Sermon for the Divine Service for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2023.

    For 31 years I have celebrated Christmas with you.  Well, not all of you.  Some of you are new within the last years and others new tonight.  Still others of you who were here are gone from us, planted in death like a seed to be brought to miraculous flower by our Lord Jesus Christ.  The you of whom I speak is the Church.  You have been my holiday family for more than I have spent Christmas with my parents or grand-parents.  I cannot recall a Christmas without you and maybe you without me.  But things change.   And things remain the same.

    Things change.  My children are grown.  I have buried hundreds of those who once gathered with us in darkened sanctuaries with candles and Silent Night.  It might seem that sadness steals our joy but the gift of this night is joy that remains the same – in loss and in gain.  The joy is not that life is without sorrow or pain or even that it goes on after trial and trouble.  The joy is that Christ is born.  Not that He will be or was but is born.  He is born for you and for me.  For the rescue of our lives from oblivion and for the redemption of all our sins through forgiveness.  Tonight is joy.  This joy comes not in the absence of pain or loss but in the midst of it all, reminding us that we do not mourn the past but look to the future and the finish of what the manger began.  This day, though it is not quite the beginning of the end, it is the end of the beginning.

    The works of our salvation are done.  The words of the prophet fulfilled.  The demands of the law kept.  Our forgiveness has been purchased with suffering.  Our redemption has been accomplished by the holy Child of Mary.  Our joy is that the future has been accomplished and though we wait for the finish of what God began, we already know the outcome.  The holy Child born of Mary has many brothers and sisters and tonight we carry our candles and sing the carols to remind ourselves that we rejoice in what has been accomplished for us.

    It could be that the angels expected an earthly host to match the heavenly host that sang on the night of our Savior’s birth.  But their holy joy was not betrayed by the quiet reception of a sleeping world while Christ was born.  Their joy anticipated the day when sinners would repent, when what Jesus accomplished would be given to a people who deserved none of His kindness, born of water and the Word in baptism, to a life that death cannot end.  They sang not for the night only but for what was begun when the long promised Savior was born.

    The shepherds did not know what to expect.  They should have been fearful by the appearance of the heavenly beings interrupting their quiet night with the flock.  The angels came saying “Do not be afraid.”  They came telling the good tidings of great joy for all the people.  They came to tell shepherds to lay aside their staffs and be gathered by the Good Shepherd who was born to bring the flock to the Father.  They came singing because singing is what you do when joy over takes your heart.  They sang “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth.”  The miracle is that the shepherds did not run and hide but went to see what the angels had described.  They were in search of joy that would not abandon them when life offered them no happiness.  And joy captured their hearts, flowing from a manger where the face of God shone with eternal light.

    We keep delaying the start of joy in our lives and postponing contentment.  We make our happiness contingent upon what others do or say.  We refuse to be consoled and prefer to live with our anger, disappointment, and resentment.  The world is not a pleasant place though we have more amusements and  entertainment available than in any age before us.  What we need is honest joy.  The joy of sins that are forgiven never to be counted against us again.  The joy of a clear conscience not because we have never done wrong but because we have a Savior whose forgiveness is bigger than our every sin.  The joy not of a perfect life but a perfect hope and a life which here we cannot even imagine.  The joy not of no one missing but everyone restored in the blest reunion of the saints on high.  They joy of the God who loved us once enough to send His Son and who loves us still enough to preserve us to that day when time shall end and life shall never end.

    We all have regrets.  We all have things we wish we could undo.  We all have words we wish we had not said.  We all have losses, painful losses that in this holy season of our Savior’s birth become more painful than we think we can bear.  Our joy lies not in quick fix for an ancient problem but in the fullness of time when the Son of God was born of Mary’s womb and the Savior came to rescue us from the past, to release us from the present, and to bestow upon us a future we never thought we would have.  Most of us do not know what we are doing and it shows. We fear how things will end.  Fear not.  You are not in control but God is.  He is a God of goodness and mercy, grace and kindness.  He knows what He is doing and He knows what we need.  He does not ask us to figure it out but to trust in His Son who has accomplished all things for us and our salvation.  This is also the source of our joy.

    Sure, we make our plans and dream our dreams but if they fail and our lives seem to fall apart, God is still with us.  The Lord gives, the Lord takes away – not as a God who seeks to hurt but as the God who saves us – no matter what the cost of our salvation.  The angels still sing and we sing with them the song they have taught us – Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth.  We sing because everything He promised has been fulfilled.  The Savior was born.  The shepherds came.  The manger was filled.  The cross was conquered.  The grave had its sting taken away.  Whatever the world seems like it can do, it cannot take this from you or from me.  This is our joy.

    Ours is not the fragile happiness of a what if that might happen.  Ours is not a gamble on how something might turn out.  Ours is not a game to see if we can win at life before death claims us.  All of these have been done by the Child of Mary who proved to be the Son of God.  We may not find happiness but we will find contentment.  Christ is our contentment.  In plenty or in want, we have learned the secret of contentment and it turns out it has nothing to do with what we do or earn or accumulate and everything to do with what Jesus has done for us.  We may not always laugh but joy occupies our hearts.  We will die but the grave has become nothing more fearful than a bed from which we will be raised to new and everlasting life.  We came with empty hands but we leave full hearts.

    You are Christ’s.  Christ is yours.  This is the secret of our joy.  Because of this, whatever this Christmas will be, it will be the best Christmas we can have.  For God has decided to give us the good we do not deserve and has born upon His Son the punishment for us all.  These are the tidings of great joy of which the angels sang, the shepherds saw, and the night sky shone.  These are the bright morning stars that still beckon us from our sorrows, pain, and loss.  If these are the focus of this night, believe me.  Joy will not disappoint you.  Yet even the best joy you know now will pale in comparison to the joy that awaits us next year, whether it be here in Clarksville or in heaven.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Singing like angels. . .

Sermon for Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2023.

Though we are fascinated by angels, they are in many respects terrifying creatures.  The angels are not soft or cuddly but unnerving agents of God whom they serve with out hesitation.  They can be instruments of destruction but they more often support and encourage God's people at His bidding.  They often are used to announce what God is doing.  So the archangel Gabriel announced that God had shown His favor to the Virgin Mary that she would become the Mother of His Son.  But underneath everything angels do is their calling to praise God and worship Him.  Though we want to be angels, maybe we can learn to be like them.

So on that night when the fulfillment of God’s promise was taking place, the angels fulfill two of those purposes.  An angel visits shepherds who are keeping watch over their flocks.  The glory of the Lord did not comfort them.  It caused them great fear.   They did not know what to think and what they did think was terrifying to them.  But the angel had not come to make them afraid.  Instead the angel announces to those shepherds that “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”  

You cannot be an angel but you can be like the angels.  Do not be voices of dread and doom but of hope and promise.  Announce not yourself or your accomplishments or your thoughts or your opinions but what the Lord has done.  Why are we so free with our ideas of who is the best candidate for this office or that or the best team in this sport or that or the best singer or actor but our lips grow silent in speaking the Word of God?  Be like angels.  Speak clearly the Word of God.  Let the Lord commandeer your voices so that those who live in darkness and the shadow of death may know light and life.  Speak the Gospel without worrying about who or how they hear it so that those captive to sin may be set free through forgiveness.  Be like angels.  Do the Lord’s bidding.

At the moment when the angel told the shepherds what God was doing in Bethlehem, the heavens opened and a multitude of the heavenly host praised God singing:  “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth!”  Be like the angels.  Praise God.  Do not be a stranger to His house.  Do not be reluctant to bend the knee in worship or open the voice in praise.  Let everything you think and say and do be an act of worship.  This is not about ramping up your feelings but making everything in your life a prayer and a thanksgiving.  Do not let yourself become a spectator within the company of those who praise God for His goodness.  Join in like the angels.  Be like the angels.  Don’t become a prisoner to your whims or your desires.  The angels exist solely to worship God.  Their worship begins with the song of praise and thanksgiving we also sing – Glory to God in the highest – but that is not the sum of it all.  They worship God with their actions.  They do not second guess God or let doubts steal their confidence away from God’s promises.  They do not let their mood determine if they feel like praising God or serving their neighbor.  

You cannot be an angel but you can be like the angels.  Let your words and your works be the same and when you slip up or screw up, ask the Lord to absolve you and He will.  He is not stingy with His forgiveness.  Do not be stingy with yours.  Do not think the worst of people but put the best construction on everything.  Suspicion and skepticism and doubt and fear always work against faith and steal the voice of praise from God’s people.  God knows the worst about you and loves you still.  Love Him for this and love your brothers and sisters in the Lord even when they fail you and let you down.

You cannot be an an gel but you can be like the angels.  They are always filled with joy.  They rejoice not over their hopes met or their dreams fulfilled but over every sinner who repents.  They rejoice not over blessings that are by nature temporary but the gift of eternity that cannot be taken away from the people of God.  They do not rejoice only because Jesus is a baby in a manger but because He is the Lord who suffers, dies, and rises so that the lost may be found, the broken healed, the sorrowing rejoice, and the grieving hope.  I fear that we have forgotten how to be joyful – not happy like the happiness that gets what you want but joyful – trusting in the Lord without fear.  Christians have become sourpusses and cranky people.  We smile more at the screw ups of others than their successes.  We laugh more at our enemies suffering than the unworthy who is lifted up.  Be like the angels.  Let your hearts of joy be evident in what you think, say, and do.  No one will pay the cost of Christian faith if it means giving up joy.  God has not forced you into such a choice.  It is not faith or joy but joy because of faith.

You cannot be an angel but you can be like the angels.  The angels have a sense of wonder and awe at the things of God.  Do not be like those who marvel more at social media and memes more than the work of God to save you.  Be like the child who lives in painful anticipation of the joy of opening his presents or giving her presents to others.  God has given you the gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Share those gifts with others.  Be joyful in the sharing of what God has given you.  For the miracle of His gifts is that they do not diminish in us as we give them away; instead they multiply and grow by sharing.

You cannot be an angel but you can be like the angels.  Yes, you have heartaches.  People have not treated you well.  You have been disappointed over and over again and you will be in the future as well.  Your family is dysfunctional.  Your health is not good.  You bank account is not full.  We all have a thousand reasons to fret or be grumpy but tonight God has given us a cause for joy.  Unto you is born this day a Savior who loves you, who forgives you, who knows you, and who wants you to be with Him forevermore.  This is Jesus who lives up to His name:  He saves His people.

Be like the angels.  Surrender to joy until you learn like St. Paul to be content in every circumstance because Christ is yours and you are His.  Be like the angels.  Let your mouth speak the saving truth the sinner and the dying long to hear.  Christ has overcome sin and died the fearful death to raise us to the endless life of heaven.  Be like the angels.  Worship the Lord often and regularly and not simply on Christmas.  Let it be said of you that you were never a stranger to God’s House nor was the voice of His Word unfamiliar to you.  Be like the angels.  What you know of God, share and give away – forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Be like the angels.  Be occupied with joy – not complaint or bitterness or anger but joy.  The best Christmas is not behind you.  The best Christmas is this one. . . and the next one. . . until we celebrate it in the presence of the angels.  The tidings are good and the joy is full.  That is what we learn from the angels.

With God all things are possible. . .

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 24, 2023.

    In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a village named Nazareth, to a Virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, whose name was Mary.  There might not seem something miraculous in those words but Blessed Mary would disagree.  She wondered aloud in the Magnificat how the Lord on high could notice her, of low estate, much less visit her with the Word of the Lord through the Archangel.  But with God all things are possible.

    The angel greeted her saying, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”  But Mary was troubled at this and wondered what it meant.  There was a time when everyone believed in God but they believed that God was angry with them.  An unannounced visit from an angel would not be an occasion for comfort but fear.  If God noticed you, He noticed your sin and a visit would certainly mark that sin with disfavor, punishment, and condemnation.  But not this time.  The Lord did not come to blessed Mary with a call to repent but with the voice of blessing.  “Hail, full of grace” and with a gracious promise: “The Lord is with you.”  But with God all things are possible.

    “You will conceive and bear a son and you shall call His name Jesus.”  Mary did not know what to say.  She knew this could not be true.  She was a virgin.  She knew where babies came from.  She was not an ignorant youth or a prude.  She honored marriage and was herself betrothed to Joseph.  She brought to her husband her most important gift.  The gift of herself.  So how could she be pregnant and how to know she was carrying a son and how was it that the son was already named by God.  But with God all things are possible.

    He will be great, called the Son of the Most High, and will inherit the throne of His father David and over the house of Jacob forever and His kingdom shall be without end.  Kings come from royal families and not insignificant lines on a family tree that distantly flows from David.  Or do they?  Kings come and go but their kingdoms remain.  Or do they?  Blessed Mary was perplexed by what this all could mean because it promised a future she had never even dared to dream.  Looking around her, the age of kings like David and Solomon were a memory and now Israel had but a puppet on the throne, one placed their not by divine right but by the will and consent of the Romans.  But with God all things are possible.

    The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you and the child you bear shall be called holy.  This is not how children are conceived.  This is not a child born of fleshly will and desire.  God was working and working in her to bring to fulfillment the plan of the ages to save His people from their sins.  She was a sinner.  The sacrifices had been made in the Temple, the offerings given, and the blood of the atonement poured out for the sins of Mary as for any other sinner.  How can a sinner give birth to the Holy One?  With God all things are possible.

    Your cousin Elizabeth in her old age has conceived and is with a son – you know for how many years she was judged to be barren.  Elizabeth and Zechariah had planned on, hoped for, and then lived with the loss of their dream of a family.  And when flesh could not provide a son, God did.  This was a sign for Mary – just as Abraham had wrestled with his dream of a son until God brought the surprise of grace to bear upon his broken heart.  Just was what God did for Abraham was not for Abraham alone, so what God did for Elizabeth and Zechariah was not for them alone.  Neither would the Son of Mary be for Mary alone but for the sake of the whole world.  With God all things are possible.

    And when you expected blessed Mary to throw up her arms and say it was all too much and to leave her to her ordinary life, from her lips is spoken the voice of faith.  “I am the Lord’s servant; do as you have said.”  Her consent probably surprised her.  Every instinct in her was telling her to run away but she remained.  Every impulse of her mind and heart was to laugh at how ludicrous it was for her to be the mother of God’s Son and Him come to finish the reign of David once for all.  But she did not.  She bowed her head in submission and whispered a yes to the promise that nothing is impossible with God.

    Here you are.  On the cusp of Christmas – literally.  The holiday has long ago become a burden of plans and parties, families and fault lines, gifts and ingratitude – but Christmas will come whether you want it or not.  It is come not to fit into your plans but so that you might fit into God’s.  The Savior born of Mary has come for you and to you and because of that you, too, are favored by God and the Lord is with you.  You thought that God was too good for you but He came in flesh and blood just for you, that you may know His favor, receive His forgiveness, be born anew to everlasting life, and walk the days of your life in the fear and favor of the most High God, the one called Jesus.  With God all things are possible.
    Here you are.  You have lost loved ones whose place will never be filled and have other ones who have enlarged your family.  You have had a year’s worth of days of conflict and are now trying to paper over differences for a Hallmark holiday.  This is not what you hoped for and much less than you imagined.  But Christ is here and He has reigned from the throne of the cross over sin and from the throne of the empty tomb over death.  He reigns for you, that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom without end.  He reigns to raise you from sin’s death and sweep you up in His arms that You may belong to Him forever.  You did not know God cared or that He even noticed you among all the big issues of the day but God came for you to be Your Savior.  With God all things are possible.

    How can this be?  We have all the excuses along with all the disappointments to lay at the feet of Jesus and the miracle of miracles is that He takes them from us, forgives us, and now nothing separates us from His grace and mercy.  The saints of old stand out not like heros who triumphed against enemies but those who were raised to glory by the God who raised you from death to life in baptism.  We are all the barren in whom the Spirit has worked faith.  We are all the impossibilities in whom God has worked His salvation miracle.  At last we see.  It is true.  Nothing is impossible with God.  Not even my own forgiveness, life, and salvation.

    Only one thing left.  The amen of faith.  I am God’s servant.  Do with me as You will.  This is not the voice of defeat and resignation but the voice of victory and promise.  We who come with a past have been given a future.  We who come with sin have been washed clean in baptismal water.  We who come with doubts and fears have had faith planted in us by the Spirit.  We who hunger and thirst for all the wrong things have been granted a place at the table where God filled us with good things we do not deserve and for which we dared not ask.  That is the miracle of Christmas.  And in but a few hours we will celebrate anew what it means for us that nothing is impossible with God.  Mary will be there.  Elizabeth too.  All of us with Jesus who fulfills us and fills us with goodness, mercy, and love forever.

The Nativity of Our Lord + Christmas Eve

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)  And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)  To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.   And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.   And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.  And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

             Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.  And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.  And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.  But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.





Or just tune into Lutheran Public Radio. . .

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Word and Song. . .

As I have said here before, watch the soundtrack you put to your faith.  Lutherans have no business whatsoever listening to contemporary Christian music and the generic radio versions of it so rampant among the choices before us.  It is easy to forget that we have music far superior in content and in music available to us through our own hymnal, Lutheran Service Book.  It is also easy for us to forget that we have a magnificent resource to hear the hymns and great choral works of our Lutheran tradition -- one envied by Rome, Canterbury, and a host of other traditions.  That resource is Lutheran Public Radio.

You can listen to it HERE.

You can support it HERE.

This is what you should be listening to all day long.  It is part of what I listen to on a daily basis.  Lutheran Public Radio ought to be your daily sound track and mine.  If you listen to podcasts, why not switch it up a bit and listen to the music.  Believe you me, you will not regret it.  This is the best!!!

Here is the direct link for your phone.

If you want more resources, consider the following:

Sing for Joy -- hymns and choral music appointed for the three year lectionary and online weekly.  It is an irritation to listen to the announcer some of the time but the music is worth ignoring her commentary.  I listen to it every Sunday at 5 am as I begin my devotions and sermon review for the Divine Service.  It comes to you from St. Olaf College.  It is associated with the ELCA but the music is from the greater hymnody and choral works of the Church.

For the God Who Sings -- is a bit more highbrow.  It comes from the Australian Broadcasting Company and you must get it online but wow -- some weeks it is beyond telling.  Almost every week a Bach cantata is featured.  Listen to it.  There is minimal commentary and the usual nod to contemporary works (not as much appreciated by me as the classics) but it is also a great resource.  You have to love Stephen Watkins voice as the announcer who puts it all together and tells us what we are hearing.

When it comes to reading about our great Lutheran hymn and choral tradition, there are plenty of sources in print (including the Hymnal Companion produced for Lutheran Service Book).  Check out Concordia Publishing House for more (also they have a blog on music and worship and if you look at their anthem selection, you can hear most of their anthems with a real choir there as well). 

There is one more resource you need to look at.  Dr. Anthony Esolen is a marvelous writer who has great appreciation for and knowledge of the great hymn tradition of orthodox Christianity.  He writes a simply magnificent reflection upon hymns, giving us great information on each author, and digging out the often surprising circumstances behind the composition of those hymns.  You can find his blog Word and Song here. I have been privileged to meet him and converse with him .  He is Roman Catholic and has provided wonderful resources any faithful Lutheran would also appreciate -- he is a professor, author, translator, poet, and Christian thinker.  He also contributes to Touchstone (a great journal for any serious Christian).  When I was honored by my alma mater as alumnus of the year (2017), Dr. Esolen also was honored with an honorary doctorate from Concordia Theological Seminary.  Subscribe to his Word and Song resource and you will love how he brings the back story of hymns to life. 

Once you start, you will never be satisfied with the pale echoes of pop music supposedly with Christian lyrics that passes for Christian radio.  It is worth it for your faith to make the change NOW.


Friday, December 22, 2023

What I need. . .

No one needs a church to tell us when we are right.  We think we are right most of the time.  We do not need a faint echo of our self-centered presumption to tell us that we are correct.  In the same way, we do not need a church to tell us when we are wrong and we know it.  We do not need a church to pile on our brokenness and make us feel even worse when we are caught up in error and know it.  We need a church to tell us we are wrong when we think we are right.

The age in which we live does not much tolerate anyone who points out wrong.  We have a truth that is one person wide and one moment deep.  We have preference and desire that ends up shaping everything and judging everything until there is little that is true for all people or all times.  We have a standard of judgment which is based not upon fact or anything objective or outside the realm of the person but dependent upon the individual, their desires, and their experience for everything.  We have a world in which the only thing we hear is the echo of our own voices confirming us in our chosen truth and affirming us in all our choices.  The world around us may not much like a church that tells us when we are wrong but without this voice we are left to the lies that condemn and deprived of the truth that saves.

Our lives as the faithful need to hear the objective truth that we do not want to hear or we will only be confirmed in our error and left to the ravages of lies and deception.  The great danger we face is not simply of a church that is silent when she should and must speak but a people who gladly choose the comfortable error for the hard truth every day of the week.  It is for this reason that we need to belong to a church that is not a good fit for us but one faithful to the Word of the Lord and bold enough to speak that Word when no one wants to hear it.

Some of those errors are ismsDocetism (1st century), Montanism, Ebionites (Adoptionism), Valentinianism, Sabellianism, Marcionism, Patripassianism (2nd century), Novatianism (3rd century), Arianism, Donatism, Monophysitism, Apollinarism (4th century), Nestorianism, Pelagianism, Eutychianism, (5th century), Iconoclasm, and Monothelitism (7th century), etc.  Some of them are not even big enough to be an ism and are only the self-referencing lies we tell ourselves when we do not want to face the truth.  Though it might seem like heresies are always new, the reality is that we recycle the old lies over and over again, under new names and with slightly different emphases.  We want and need an infallible witness to be our guide and our foundation.  That witness is Scripture.  The reason why Scripture is not enough to silence all doubts, fears, and false teachings is because our sinful hearts resonate by instinct to the sound of those self-chosen lies and we must daily learn anew the wisdom from on high which God addresses us through the voice of His Word.  We need a living tradition of the faith and the faithful to attest to the unchanging message of God's Word and to apply it to the challenges and issues of our own day.

Your truth or my truth matters not.  God's truth matters.  This is not because we do not matter to God but precisely because we matter to Him.  It is out of His great love for us that He has provided us the Scriptures to be our anchor in the storm, our light to show the way, and our truth amid error.  It is out of His great love for us that He does not leave us in the prison of our feelings, wants, desires, preferences, or choices but delivers to us the saving Gospel yesterday, today, and forever the same.  We need to hear this when we are lost in error, at the dead ends of this mortal life, caught up in despair before death, left anxious by the uncertainties of this mortal life, and wearied by the struggle.  I don't need a church to pat me on the back.  I need a church which will reach out with the lifeline of God's Word to pull me from error, find me when I am lost, and restore me when I have fallen.  Don't go to a church that makes you feel special or important or good.  Go to the one that will speak God's Word to you when you don't want to hear it.  Go to the one that attests to the unchanging Word and confesses the catholic faith over the trends and fads of the moment.  You will not regret it.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

What is the creed for?

There was a time in which creeds and confessions stated the minimum.  You have to believe this at least in order to be consider orthodox.  That was certainly the case with the old Roman symbol that became the Apostles' Creed.  Formed in the earliest centuries of Christianity and framed in the context of baptismal questions, that creed became the minimum that must be confessed in order to be baptized into the life of the Church -- though it was never the maximum and the catechumen was always growing in faith.  It was also true of the Nicene addition to the Apostles' Creed that was required to answer the Arian heresy.  The place of that creed in the liturgy extended this minimum though it was never intended to be the sum total of what we believe, teach, and confess.

Now, however, the days are different.  Creeds have become in most denominations the maximal expressions of the faith and one that many even struggle even to confess.  The confessional documents of old have become mere footnotes in the history of the tradition and do not inform or norm what is believed, confessed, or taught today.  Strangely, what once was considered the beginning has become the end.  If you get to the creed, you have gone as far as you need to go.  It is no wonder that what we confess in words has become somewhat distant from what we actually believe.  The words we confess have become aspirational instead of confessional.

Curiously enough, even liturgical churches which would never consider omitting the creed from the liturgy do not include it so much as a confession as a relic -- a symbolic tie to the past rather than a living link between those who came before.  We have made the faith into symbols detached from the fact of history and also distanced from what we actually believe and confess.  The sacred deposit has become like a museum piece which we treasure not for the truth and hope it embodies but for the antiquity of it -- sort of how we like antiques as objects that appeal to our feelings and memories rather than as a useful objects we employ in daily life.  In this way the creeds and confessions of old end up like great-grandma's china in the cabinet -- we love it sentimentally but never actually eat off of it.

The Small Catechism can easily become such a thing as well.  Children learn the catechism not for what it means for them and their daily lives but simply as a rite of passage, similar to their parents, in which the catechism becomes ritual without meaning and words without content.  I fear that this is how I was catechized.  We memorized the words but we did not learn them.  In contrast to that past, the next generations sought to emphasize the relationship but ended up with feelings over truth and emotion over doctrine.  It is not that we need a balance.  We don't.  We need something different.  We need to approach the catechism as the living faith once confessed, now taught to us, and continuing to live in us every day -- not to mention passed on through us to others.  The goal here is not a common rite of passage but a unity of faith and piety, doctrine and life, dogma and worship.  The goal of the catechism is that each life might be, as Franzmann so eloquently put it, a high doxology.  Theology must sing and it sings through our own voices -- not in performance to entertain or for the art of it but as true piety.  This we believe.

Over the last month or so I was privileged to baptize a dozen or so -- babies just a week old and young boys from 4 to 12.  We brought them in not through a common ritual but by the means of grace that does what it says and bestows what it signs.  At each baptism the family joined the candidate or became the voice of the baptized in saying "This we believe" even as the water splashed over the forehead three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The congregation was there to testify that this was as real as reality gets -- though known by faith.  With the witness of God working in water to incorporate these as God's sons and daughters, we acknowledge what was done for us and to us and are refreshed by this glorious knowledge.  In the end though, it is not about how we feel but what God says and does and the Spirit moving through the water and the Word to make it so.  After the baptism it is the liturgy which becomes the catechist, imparting the fruits of Christ's redeeming work through the means of grace, and by confessing the creed we say each week this we believe.  When the creeds become mere historical documents and aspirational instead of confessional, the whole liturgical act devolves into mere empty ritual accompanied by meaningless words.  

In the end it is like those who know Jesus only as the infant in the manger or the ghostly image rising from the tomb.  They are Christmas and Easter people who come for the tradition but who know it only as relic of the past and not as part of their identity.  We repeat the words yet remain the words of other sand not our own.  We teach them to our children and we confess them so that they may be our words -- owned by faith and confessed in life.  "You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth." (Deut. 11:18-21) 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

New on the Homeschooling Front. . .

According to surveys and reports, homeschooling in the U.S. increased dramatically during the pandemic — and, now with the pandemic in the rear view mirror, it appears that homeschooling is here to stay. More than that, homeschooling seems to be the fastest-growing form of education in the U.S. (according to the Washington Post).  Purporting to cover more than 60% of the American school-age population, the survey found the increase in homeschooled students who began during the pandemic has continued through the 2022-23 school year.  That said, the reality is that there are probably school districts larger than the total numbers of homeschooled students in the US -- an estimated 2.2 million+ homeschooled students.  This should come as a surprise to none of us.

Although there are a variety of reasons why families might choose to homeschool, including religious as well as political, those who began during the pandemic did so primarily because they found the makeshift online classes a failure educationally and then continued for educational reasons as well -- enjoying the ability to meet your child at his or her level for each individual subject.  The curious thing is that this is spread across race, ethnicity, and economic divides.  Some are looking for a safe and secure environment for learning and others are looking to safeguard their children from influences in society and neighborhoods.  Others are more concerned about making sure their children get a head start in this world.  It is safe to say that the mandates placed upon public schools to squeeze into their educational day cultural programs have also spawned the desire to focus on the the core curriculum without the school becoming a place to repair or address flaws and failings in the homes and communities surrounding those students.

There  are a few downsides to homeschooling.  One is that the standards vary -- although typically homeschoolers score as well as or higher than their public school counterparts on the standard educational measurement tests administered by states.  Another is that children are sometimes isolated at home with their parents and have not socialized with other children their age -- although this is mediated by homeschooling cooperatives and groups that work together to provide the full range of social and personal relationships that can be missing.  

There are some families who choose homeschooling because they are not sure the public schools can provide the support and services they need for their children's developmental disabilities .   choosing homeschooling because schools aren't always able to provide their children with the services that best suit their needs.  There are also some families who find the news of school violence to be a profound encouragement to school their children at home.  There are some families who might choose private schools but the high costs of tuition and other expenses are not feasible for their budgets.

The end result is that homeschooling is here to stay and it provides a unique opportunity for churches to provide a place for co-ops to meet, a means of supporting the homeschoolers with arts and music that are a good fit for churches and their musical staff members, and a way to reach out to those who may be looking for a church home in which values and beliefs are supported and encouraged.  It is no surprise that conservative Christians tend to predominate homeschoolers but there are many on the opposite end of the spectrum who also are teaching their children at home.  Finally, it is good to know that there are great resources available to homeschooling families -- many of them Lutheran!  You are not on your own and there is a wide web of direct support and internet resources to help you out.