Sunday, July 14, 2024

The move to uncertainty. . .

Whether you like it or not, the characterization of the orthodox and catholic faith over the ages was certainty and clarity.  While there were moments of confusion, the remarkable scope and progress of Christianity was built upon a profound certainty about the world, the Creator, the reason for evil, the location of death's source, morality, and the objective nature of truth.  In creed and confession, the Church laid before the world this clear and confident vision of the reality we encounter around us and in us.  More than this, it was shaped by the overwhelming mystery of God's love manifest in His Trinitarian identity, the reason for our own existence in His image and by His design, and the redemption of the world through His Son in flesh and blood.  As modernity began to be established from the Enlightenment through Humanism and into the so-called scientific age, the world has been left with less and less certainty and clarity.  In the place of these there is only confusion.

When in modernity we assign error to some parts of God's Word (or at least its possibility), we are left with the confusion of which parts of God's Word are in error and which are not.  When evolution became the defining rationale for why everything and each of us exist, it left us without a plan or purpose and life became random, spontaneous, and unpredictable.  When life itself was no longer sacred, we lost our own sense of value and identity and any protection afforded us.  Everything became tenuous and tentative -- even desire and gender.  Our culture of victims left us without justice, without punishment for the evil doer and therefore the corresponding honor and value assigned to virtue.  Our society seems to love this ambiguity because it leaves a gaping whole where order once stood and it has been replaced with power.  Now everything has to do with power and those who wield it and those who bestow it.  

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why many of those younger are in search of Church that does not look like a social organization or religious club but one that actually expects and builds upon transcendence and constancy as the marks of authenticity along with the traditional marks of the Church.  In any case, the progress toward uncertainty is untenable and ultimately destructive of everything it claims to order and preserve.  By removing morality and order and replacing it with the judgment of the moment and normality with exception, we are left where we are now -- in a crisis mode of division and contempt that has no possibility of reconciliation -- nor does it seem to want this.  In place of these structures, power and control are all that remain.  So that is where we are at now -- fighting over who is in power and who controls the structure.  While this is obviously true of the world and government and society, it is no less true of what remains of religious structures as well.  Everything cannot be true or there is no truth and everyone's opinion cannot be held in the same esteem or there is only error.  If life has value only because we assign it then we can reassign that value at any time and for any cause.  If truth is defined by the individual and lives within the boards those individuals assign to it, it forsakes the very essence of what it means to be truth.  If marriage and family have no definition or order to them but are constantly being remade and remodeled to suit the times, they are not institutions but merely the tools of the powerful used to remodel society until the only thing that matters is power.

Open the hymnal.  Read the catechism.  Listen to the Scriptures.  These are words of certainty and clarity from which our whole social order and our values come and are reflected.  But unless we are willing to identity and hold to these changeless values and orders, we have nothing of substance or hopeful for the world.  It is for this reason that Church cannot marry the spirit of the age or she will be a widow in the next generation.  Or worse, she will be a chameleon who changes everything to reflect whatever opinion or thought she is sitting upon at the moment.  If that is the case, better a widow then a promiscuous Church which insists it is all good.  When that happens nothing is good -- not even God.  This might just explain why those raised nearest these changes are suffering such anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Giants in the moment. . .

So guess what -- I am still behind in my reading!  I just found out that Jürgen Moltmann passed away last month.  He was 98.  He, along with Wolfhart Pannenberg, were giants in the moment when I was in my final years of college.  Although I think I gave to the Seminary the last volumes I had by these authors, I cannot imagine people reading them now except to explore a footnote in history.  Their great promise gave way to a largely forgotten contribution to theology and that is probably best.  Although he was ostensibly from a Lutheran perspective, Moltmann had long ago decided that Luther was mostly in the way of what he wanted to explore and believe.  Unfortunately, that could also be said of Scripture.  It was also in the way of his theological expression.  Moltmann was not driven either by the witness of Scripture or its theological framework but by the concerns of and context of the moment.  

I wish I could recall why we had to read Moltmann and Pannenberg.  It is probably because they were the newest and most orthodox of the radical voices that were pervading Christian thought in the early 1970s.  That is probably not saying all that much.  After all, the concerns for the oppressed and the so-called injustices of capitalism have become the fodder for many books but long ago the Marxist structure of a version of Christianity has fallen out of fashion.  Yes, the whole communist and socialist promise has revealed its darker side and most have been replaced by some form of democratic socialism or capitalism or dictatorship.  It makes it hard to build your theology on the moment when you wake up one day to find out that the world has moved on and you were left with yesterdays construct.  Oh, well.  At least you sold a lot of books and generated a fair amount of heat but not much light.  Maybe Wiki will mention that in his listing there.  

What I find so strange is that were it not for a couple of Seminary professors, I do not think I would have found out about other Christian teachers whose lives were not lived out in fifteen minutes of fame but in a growing esteem that has not faded and most likely will not.  Here I am speaking about the Early Church Fathers and those who are claimed by Roman and Evangelical alike.  Yes, there are such theologians!  Their witness is not meant for the museum of history but for the engagement of God's people with His mystery evidenced in Scripture and the goal of proclaiming that mystery so that any might be saved.  Yes, that was Moltmann's complaint about Luther -- he was too concerned about the individual's salvation to be much use to a profound and modern theologian.  Curiously, Luther has not gone out of style but I am afraid Moltmann and Pannenberg certaintly have.  Maybe Moltmann and others who participated wittingly or unwittingly in liberation theology have themselves been liberated from our notice of those who were giants only in a moment.  If that is the case, I hope and pray that it will give us more time to listen to the great fathers in the faith whose voices and vision seems to become ever more profound as the clock ticks.

In the end, Patristics should have replaced the engagement with the moderns in my college years.  Ultimately it did with a few voices -- including someone who actually was at university with the likes of Edgar J. Goodspeed!  That is where my attention ended up going and rightly so.  For all the Moltmanns and Pannenbergs of this world, their contributions are fairly small and their impact almost negligent in comparison to the Greek and Latin Fathers both prior to and after Nicea.  If you want my vote and I suspect the vote of folks like Heino Kadai and C. George Fry and William Weinrich, you will find your way to an earlier era in which unpacking the faith was more important than departing from it.  If you, you will head to the Ante and Post Nicene fathers along with those of that generation.  I know that is more where I end up and more often.  If you do grow up you soon realize that your job is not to explain God or define Him but merely to proclaim what He has done through His Son.  When that happens, you learn also that building something up is always better than tearing it down.

Friday, July 12, 2024

A Bible just for you. . .

I suppose you can blame it all about the time when secular publishers began to notice how much money there was to be made in the religious book selling industry -- particularly in the selling of Bibles.  About that time the number of versions available exploded -- within a generation going from basically the KJV and RSV to versions that were specific to specific needs and tastes.  I am not yet talking about the plethora of study Bibles but the idea of tailoring a Bible to a context.  The next thing you knew there were Bibles for specific age groups, marital status, reading levels, and such.  You had everything from a Bible for teenage boys to one for alcoholics in recovery and everything in between.  It did not take long for the computer and smartphones to launch their own version of the modern day app complete with everything from a targeted reading pattern to a verse a day.  All you need to do is to google a subject and put Bible verse in with the search to see how these resources are adapted to you, to your interest, and to you wants -- in many ways no different than targeted advertising.

All of this raises a question.  Should a version of the Bible be tailored to me or should I be shaped by the Word of God?  In fact, some are now beginning to wonder if the use of Scripture memes and apps has not skewed the way we hear and read and know God's Word.  I think they are on to something.  We have come to expect that Scripture will be adjusted to fit us instead of us adjusting to what God's Word says.  That is not only true for liberals but also for those who might be considered and who might consider themselves conservatives.  Increasingly we know the Scriptures in snippets and not even verses or sections of verses.  We know just enough to be dangerous.  That is a problem worth a good discussion.  

We do not need a Bible just for me.  We need to hear objectively the whole counsel of God's Word.  We do not need someone to edit out God's Word so that it fits a targeted audience.  Sinners are the targeted audience for Scripture and God wills that all would be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the way we hear only parts of Scripture and then mostly the parts we want to hear and not the whole counsel of God's Word.  Even in the way we edit the readings to be sensitive to things going on in culture is offensive to me.  We try to minimize things that might offend when the whole message of God's Word is offensive -- we are sinners marked for death in need of a Savior because we cannot save ourselves.  You have to get to that before you can acknowledge the goodness of the Father's love in sending His Son to be our Savior.  How long before we edit out sin and death until the message of Jesus is merely inspirational and not salvific?  Oh, wait, we are already there.

If you hear Law and Gospel, sin and forgiveness, death and resurrection, you should be thankful.  Not even most Christians hear that on Sunday morning so it stands to reason they do not seek it out from God's Word either.  Be thankful that we hold to the faith once delivered to the saints and do not try to re-invent or edit away the sharp edges of God's Word.  For it is in these that His love is most marvelously displayed. 

Thursday, July 11, 2024

The difference between what must be and should be. . .

Orthodox and confessional Lutheranism has a choice.  That choice is between what we absolutely must have and what we should have.  This is a question that relates on so many levels.

Orthodox and confessional Lutheranism does not absolutely require great church buildings, mighty pipe organs, wonderful choirs, vestments, pews, stained glass, paraments, etc...  Of course, in times of necessity and want, Lutheran churches have survived without these things.  But the choice is misplaced if it is between what we must have and what is essential versus what best represents us and what we ought to have.  Minimalism has long been the bane of Lutheranism and has resulted in the false idea that we only need what is essential and the rest is mere adiaphora (falsely defined as personal taste).  Lutherans are not positioned to minimalism in anything.  Luther did not put together the hymn service of the Deutsche Messe because he thought this was optimal but where necessity lived without the blessing of the fuller liturgy and ceremonial.  In this Luther was not breaking ground but merely following the practice of the Christian Church through the ages.  In his own day, the rural and smaller parishes knew the low mass as normative -- not a sung mass with servers but a spoken mass with minimal assistants.  It is still more typical in Roman Catholic parishes that the mass is observed without deacon, subdeacon, and choir.  In fact, Luther was raising the bar a bit by providing a sung alternative which enabled even the smallest parish with the least resources to have a sung mass (Divine Service).

Orthodox and confessional Lutheranism does not absolutely require an educated clergy, steeped in the knowledge of the church fathers, equipped with Biblical languages, and trained up with all the tools of the office.  Certainly the men Wilhelm Loehe sent out and some of the so-called practical pastors of the old Ft. Wayne seminary were less well equipped than the graduates we send forth today.  Yet this was never seen as optimal but necessary for a specific need and time.  It did not take long to bolster the educational resources of the often derogatory term practical seminary until it became virtually the same as the other seminary.  When the Synod set forth the Specific Ministry Pastor program, it was in response to a need (and an attempt to order what had been an odd conglomeration of paths and programs).  Synod was clear that this was not to be the ordinary route to ordination but the extraordinary one and for those specific needs and purposes identified by the Synod.  Now there are voices suggesting that the internet can replace the knowledge of basic Greek (and Hebrew).  Perhaps there are adequate tools available but without the man knowing how to use those tools, he remains the servant of the technology and its maters and not even their equal.  Nevertheless, Lutheran Churches have never in their history suggested that what might be necessary for the moment should become the norm for preparing men to be pastors.  In fact, it could be said that it is not simply the classroom that forms the man for the office but the chapel and the life of the gathered community around the Word and Sacraments.  How can you do this online?

Frankly, what is killing us as a church and the church at large is the idea that minimalism can suffice for every need.  We do not need a minimalistic orthodoxy but a full and generous orthodoxy that knows and can effectively teach and give witness to the faith so that those assembled every week can teach and give witness to the faith in their homes and work places.  Mission congregations always begin in rented spaces with just enough to mark the sacred space where God bestows His gifts to His gathered people.  But no mission parish ever stays there.  It does not take long before they rightfully long for and begin to provide those external and visible markers of the faith they confess.  It is our nature to strive for fullness.  That is not something we ought to complain about or work against but foster.  This fullness does not work against the overall mission but aids and supports the external work of witness from the firm foundation of reverent liturgy, vibrant congregational song, Biblical preaching, and confessional and passionate catechetical teaching.  Our church is not dying because we are too Lutheran but precisely because we are not Lutheran enough.  Some folks need to be reminded of this from time to time.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

The power of the status quo. . .

The reality is that most Americans think they are conservatives and I am sure that this also applies to Lutherans.  The problem here is that the thing we are trying to conserve most of all is the status quo -- what we know best.  That has long been the problem.

Conservatives left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but they did not want to go too far back in time -- only back far enough to keep the ELCA prior to the Church Wide Assembling sex decisions of 2009.  So, the ordination is off the table and many of the social and ecumenical perspectives of the ELCA were incorporated into the bodies that departed official ELCA.  What they wanted to conserve most was the church body they had known until it become one they thought had gone too far.  The same is true of the Methodists departing from the United Methodist Church and the Anglicans who left from the Episcopal Church.  These folks are conservatives but relative conservatives -- they will continue to affirm and hold onto their status quo prior to the things they found objectionable.  Sadly, for most it has to do with the sex issues of preference/same sex marriage and gender identity.  Biblical authority, traditional family, Judeo-Christian morality, and objective truth, along with the ordination of women, are too much to tackle.  

The same is true of the liturgical renewal movement.  Most folks have decided that the Lutheranism they grew up with is probably the most authentic face for Lutherans.  Here, you might draw the line differently in different denominations but for the ELCA folk the Lutheran Book of Worship is the line in the sand.  For the LCMS folk, it was The Lutheran Hymnal and now is (at least part of) Lutheran Service Book.  Ceremonial?  Yes, but not too ceremonial (read that catholic).  Liturgical?  Yes, but not because we really like that stuff -- it is just who we are.  Vestments?  Yes, but not the fancy ones that look to, well, catholic.  The conservatives who preserve catholic doctrine and practice have become radicals in just about every denomination.  Even Roman Catholics in general and the Pope see the Novus Ordo (post-Vatican II form) to be the bedrock of their identity and the Latin Mass to be, well, too conservative.

Curiously, conservatism has been reference not at what was and now should be but more what we did yesterday that we should continue.  Even on social issues, we want to be conservative but not too conservative -- think here the great public relations blow up over Alabama granting the rights of personhood to frozen embryos.   It is an odd position.  What is really being said is that we want to slow down change.  If that is the case, that is certainly not what it means to be a conservative.  Though it may well be exactly what people want -- a slower pace of change to get more accustomed to them and to go back to the time before these issues so deeply divided us (think here abortion, same sex marriage, and the trans business).  Could it be that this is also how we see the Scriptures?  True and essential when it comes to matters directly relating to our salvation and flexible enough to allow disagreement on other things?  Yes, in other words, the Bible is God's Word but just not all of it.  We get to decide which parts are, of course!

Republicans want to turn the clock back a little but not dismantle the whole government.  Lutherans want to keep things close to how they used to be but that used to be is referenced in their memory and not in Lutheran orthodoxy or the Reformation.  What an odd kind of conservatism!

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The sky IS falling. . .

Abortion and birth control may have ripples far beyond the mere morality of what we think and do.  It appears that the birth rates once slightly bolstered post-Covid have now fallen even lower than expected.  Indeed, the sky IS falling.  The world is facing a significant demographic milestone as soon the global fertility rate will drop below the point needed to keep population constant. It has already happened in some countries and may soon have its impact felt everywhere.  Then the issue will not be what is good or right but who will fund retirements and pay for health care and staff the businesses and factories and provide essential services. 

Fertility is falling almost everywhere -- certainly for women in higher income brackets and with more education but now it is being felt also across all levels of income, education and labor-force participation.  Far from being a mere election issue or a morality issue, this will have huge implications for how people live, how economies grow and function, and even the stature of the world’s superpowers.  

What happened among high-income nations in the 1970s is now happening in developing countries, too. India has surpassed China as the most populous country (just last year) but its own fertility is now below replacement.  The sky IS falling according to academic experts -- “The demographic winter is coming,” said Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania.  

Why?  It is predictable and should have been but not in the traditional places such as state-level differences in parental abortion notification laws, unemployment rates, Medicaid availability, housing costs, religion, child-care costs and student debt.  This reflects a broader shift.  Certainly raising children is more expensive than before but parents’ preferences and perceived constraints have contributed even more to the change.  This is the triumph of the autonomous self where the quality of life is judged by career, leisure, relationships outside the home, and the cost of technology.  Though mothers and fathers, especially the more highly educated, spend more time with their children than in the past, that time is increasingly not spread over more children but focused on fewer -- even one. 

As the birthrates fall, nations and cities will experience depopulation, closed schools, stagnant or declining property values, and fewer people entering and staying in the workforce.  With that will come ith consequences ranging from closed schools to stagnant property values. Less selective colleges will increased costs of pensions and healthcare for growing ranks of the gray haired.  In the end, we may find ourselves rethinking the value of children not because we want them but because we need them.

I wish I could say that we Lutherans did not fall into the usual pattern but my fear is that we do -- we

reflect more the values and direction of the world around us than we do the Word of God.  That is the problem.  It is not only abortion which has become normal.  Birth control has become normal.  The idea that children are to be planned has become normal.  The size of the family capped at 2-3 children has become normal.  Not having any children (by choice) has become normal.  Odd that we complain that there are no children in church anymore but then adopt the ways and values of the world when it comes to having children, when to have them, and how many to have.  When Jesus says we are in the world but not of it, He is talking about just such things as this.

How sad it is that what the Word of God cannot convince us to, we will accept from the scientists who are insisting the sky is falling because the numbers of children are falling and population decline is inevitable (already felt in many places!).  But that is about where it is.  At some point we will decide that we must sacrifice a bit of our money, time, control, and quality of life to have enough children to make sure the factories still turn out goods, the retirement income still flows, and the world still looks kind of life it did when we were growing up.  It may be the right conclusion but it will be for all the wrong reasons.  "Be fruitful and multiply" was not an option or choice given to us but God's first great commission.  "Children are a blessing from the Lord" is not a theoretical statement but a practical judgment. 


Monday, July 8, 2024

A little venture now a teenager. . .

I began this little blog fifteen years ago today.  It started with these words:

I remember someone telling me once that thinking is a dangerous occupation. Perhaps. I find myself thinking a lot. While driving down the road, after reading a few lines from a book or a blog, while waiting in a phone que. Some of those thoughts are best forgotten. Some of them worth remembering. A few of them worth sharing. So I am going to take a few moments to share some of my random thoughts in a meandering conversation. It is my prayerful hope that they will spur on your own reflective thinking. Don't expect something profound. Occasionally I hope to say something worth remembering. If the regular duties of a Parish Pastor are urgent, you may not hear much from me. But I will try to give it a few minutes a week. Anyway, here it goes!

It is grown into a hobby all the while blogging has gone into decline.  Some 6.5 Million folks have visited this site (at least with a formal counter).  I have no idea how many pass long or repost what I have written here but I suspect it would surprise me.   A few have remained through it all and many others have come and gone.  I am not sure why it all kept going.  Perhaps I just have a lot to say or at least I think I do.  There have been a few minor changes in design and I have had to moderate comments after a few folks got nasty with their words.  It has been a rather satisfying endeavor and I am sure if you read everything you would find that I have changed my mind about some things, doubled down on other things, and forgotten what I said or thought about still other things.  

I am grateful if you are reading this.  If we have never met, I consider you friendly if not a friend.  If we have it may well have been because of this little venture.  I never thought this thing would last this long but it may last a little longer.  I am still reading and thinking and we all know how dangerous that can be.  My library has been thinned out and most of it is at home now.  As I have said so often, I love what I do and do what I love -- wouldn't it be grand if we all were in that boat!  God bless you friends and join me in giving thanks to God for the gift of words.  Where would we be without them?

Sunday, July 7, 2024

What to do with death. . .

There was a time -- about the time our family was little -- when it was considered bad child rearing to mention death.  The nighttime prayer I knew as a child was altered to remove any possibility that if I went to sleep I might not arise.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take became Guide me, Jesus, through the night, wake me with the morning light.  There were other iterations of that prayer that likewise sanitized the bedtime prayer of any hint of the dreaded "d" word.  It was not only in the bedtime prayers that death was banished from children, funerals suddenly became adult gatherings and children were largely absent and shielded from the death of even parents and grandparents.  It was all an attempt to keep the shadow of death from eclipsing the sun of our happiness.

At some point in time, death was transformed.  It became natural.  It also become something other than death.  In the great circle of life, death was not the end or an end but merely a passing onto a better state.  The causes of climate change, preservation, and ecology combined to paint death as the emptying of the jar so that the spirit of the person might fly free.  The death scene devastated audiences, both kids and adults alike, but the film was an enormous hit -- in part because the death became not a death but a kind of victory.   The circular flow of life and death and how "everything you see exists together in a delicate balance," kept the death from being, well, death.  Mufasa was still there in the spiritual world and he rejoined his son for a victory lap at the end -- smiling because all was well.  It was not quite a resurrection and not quite a death either.  It appealed to Christians struggling to figure out what death was for them in light of Christ and it appealed to the spiritual but not religious who just wanted happiness and everything resolved in the end.

Now we have entered another phase.  Death is now a choice.  If you hurt too much or despair for your future or face a diagnosis you cannot live with, death is there in a painless form with a medical stamp of approval and the understanding of a world sure that sometimes life is worse than death.  Imagine that.  Living is worse than dying!  And living is not worth living if you cannot have what you want, be who you want to be, or enjoy what you want to enjoy.  So our medical establishment has stepped up to the plate.  The same drugs that could not guarantee a painless death for the person on death row have become the staple of those who want to peacefully end their lives.  It seems that many do not even care if there is anything after death so long as they get to be in control of their dying as well as their living.  Perhaps the prayer will change again.  Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if life becomes too much for me, just let me die peacefully.  Death is now welcomed by those who think life is not worth the living.

In the end, the resurrection of our Lord and the resurrection of the body and the dead seem not such a big deal.  At least for those who found the whole idea of a tomb without body or bones too much to swallow.  In any case, the lynch pin of the Christian faith has always been that life is real, death is real, Jesus really lived and really died, but He rose never to die again and with a glorious flesh no longer subject to death or any of its temporal ills that might lead to death.  The Pharisees and Sadducees argued over whether there was a resurrection at all and maybe we have ended up right back there.  The scandal of the cross and empty tomb were always to be the places where faith lived or died.  We have finally gotten back there again.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

On this day. . .

On this day some 44 years ago, I was set apart as Pastor and conferred the authority of the office.  It took place on what seemed like the hottest day of that year before a wilting congregation in the building where I was baptized, confirmed, and my faith nurtured by the Word and Table of the Lord.  It was not a fancy occasion with a few pastors, a District President, and God's people in prayer.  But it was an auspicious occasion because of the work given to the Pastor to do.  I have thought out loud about that day before on these pages and will not duplicate it all here.  Suffice it to say it was a long time ago and just yesterday at the same time.  I suspect many will understand what I mean.  Yet it has been my joy and privilege to serve the people of God these many years and now to welcome one more to the fellowship.   

Now, on this day, in Normal, Illinois, another man will be ordained as Pastor of the Church and upon him will be conferred the authority of the office which he will exercise when he is installed as the Associate Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church.  He will serve with me (for a time at least) and it will be my privilege both to welcome and to support his learning and growing into the duties, responsibilities, and identity of the office of Pastor.  Though 44 years will separate us in time, the authority of the office remains the same.  Whether old or young or somewhere in between, Pastors have the same authority conferred upon them by the Church.  They may be as green as they come (I certainly was) or have a wealth of life experience preceding their ordination but it does not matter.  Pastors are called and set apart to preach the Word of God in all its truth and purity and to administer the Holy Sacraments according to Christ's own institution.  They pledge fealty to the Lutheran symbols and promise faithfulness before God and the congregation.  They are surrounded by others who share the Pastoral Office and who stand in solidarity with them.  They exercise the duties and responsibilities of the office not as dictators but neither are they hirelings.  They serve in partnership with the people of God, each doing their own part in the overall work God has given us to do and in the places where God has appointed.

So today I welcome an associate and coworker as well as another who shares the office who becomes part of the band of brothers we call Pastors.  God bless you, Jim!

Friday, July 5, 2024

How quaint. . .

It is remarkable to me how easily we modern people tend to fall into the trap of believing that those who went before us were either hopelessly ignorant or naive enough to believe things that we, today, would deem unbelievable.  You could start with the Biblical account of the Creation and head to the mighty miracles of the Old Testament like the parting of the Red Sea so the people of God could pass through on their journey to the Promised Land (while still pursued by then Egyptian army).  Or you could head into the New Testament and go through the Virgin Birth or the miracles of Jesus or even which words Jesus really spoke.  And then you could find your way down the path of such things as the ever-virginity of Christ.  While some things might seem more profound and essential than the cause of Blessed Mary's perpetual virginity, we fall victims to the same hubris along the way.  We know better.

How odd it is that we can so easily dismiss the sacrament of ordination as mere apostolic custom!  How strange it is that we can replace confidence in God's Word with confidence in the scientific postulations of man!  How weird that we marvel at the miracles of our own technology while at the same time trying to look for a way to bring the miracles of God in the Old Testament and His miracles in Christ down to something explainable!  How foolish we are to reject what every Christian teacher believed right down through the ages including Luther and Calvin and those who followed them at least until the early 1800s!  Is it really that we know better or we just think that given the state of culture, life, and the norms of ordinary belief we can no more hold the things once believed as tenable?

The problem with Christianity today is not that we believe too much but too little.  We are even out of step with the Reformers and nearly every Christian teaching from the time of the apostles until the last couple of centuries and it does not bother us.  In fact, we seem to take great comfort with the fact that we are so smart, so well educated, and so proficient with science and technology that we tell people all the time that no one believes this stuff anymore.  The problem is this.  It does have consequences.  It renders our confession of the creeds of Christendom suspect and empty.  It means that we know better than Jesus who spoke of Adam as a real person and Moses and the parting of the Red Sea as real truth -- something we seem to enjoy insisting even though it places us over the Son of the Most High.  It means that we are more thoroughly conversant with the cultural and societal beliefs today than we are the Biblical context or consistent confession.  It also means that we are more distant from our forefathers in the faith than we should be and do not seem to find it the least bit disconcerting that they and their words have become more history that creed or confession fit for the present day.

Some think that we are foolish to argue over such things as the historicity of Adam and Eve or the saving events of the Old Testament or the miracles of Jesus or the ever-virginity of Blessed Mary.  If that was all we are debating then perhaps the charge might be apropos but it does not take much digging to discover that what we are really talking about is whether or not we put our reason over God's Word and our understanding over the faithful who went before us.  When you put it like that, it is not arguing over minutiae but over the truthfulness and reliability of the Scriptures and their teachers down through the ages.  Put it that way and I would rather fall on the side of the faithful who went before me and look foolish in the eyes of some today than to wise in the moment and foolish before the God who is yesterday, today, and forever the same.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Edenic Bliss. . .

Though Augustine famously insisted there was no rest for his soul until it rested in the Lord, the pursuit of the restless soul outside of God seems inevitably to repair the broken world and restore Eden.  The souls of modernity chafe under limitations, insecurity, risky commitment, and happiness.  Eden beckons not as a return to pristine humanity but as refuge for the strife and struggle of this mortal life.  The soul of the modern man rests not quite in God but in an image of a godly world shaped by the human imagination to restore what was lost to us in Eden.  The problem, of course, is that this is not achievable!

There was a time in which America was seen as the shining city set on a hill.  We truly believed the propaganda that we had evolved the government and society into the best balance of freedom and order ever known and that it served as a magnet for humanity living under the oppression of want, dictatorship, or repression.  The Ugly American was as much about this arrogance as it was anything else.  At some point Americans seem to have given up on the exportation of our democratic experiment and turned inward.

The tumultuous years of the 1960s and 1970s left us in the midst of a revolution against the very thing we once thought was our glory.  It began a conflict between those who were shamed or embarrassed by the American dream and those who still promoted it as the end all of world conflict, injustice, inequity, and success.  Now, looking back over half a century, we see another view.  Those who have come to hate America.  They are looking to dismantle America in pursuit of their own version of diversity, equity, justice, and access.  The goal has moved from the safety and security of a home, a family, and an income to self-expression and to a rigid tolerance in which everyone is allowed to think and feel what they desire except those who disagree.

It is the same pursuit of rest and the same idyllic but false image of Eden that fuels the fire under the college discontent and the stance on behalf of those oppressed by the mighty forces of democracy.  The marchers are not in pursuit of a family and home and occupation but radical self-expression which seems to have little use for or regard for marriage and family or things in general (technology being the main exception).  It is a restlessness that is the same as the past but for different reasons and in pursuit of a different end.  Yet without God it is as flawed and failed as those movements before.

At least the movements in the past paid lip service to religion and in particular to Christianity.  That did little to focus the Gospel and a great deal to confuse it.  Now the march of progress has performed a friendly takeover of Christianity to remake the Gospel away from sin and redemption to the woke agendas that are behind every secular educational institution and the motive behind the use of freedom in government and the judiciary.  Orthodox Christianity has no place in the minds or hearts of those who restlessly march in pursuit of their version of Eden restored.

In the end, Augustine might have reminded us all that it is not the world that needs rest or rescuing but people who live in the valley of the shadow with the shackles of our sin impossible for us to remove.  I pray for America and for the kind of life my children and grandchildren will enjoy here but I have little interest in rescuing a nation from itself, or this version of itself.  Instead, my prayer is for those who hear the Word of God and believe it.  Their souls will find rest the world and our nation cannot offer.  But I will labor on for the cause of freedom and for the responsible use of that freedom and for the defense of that freedom that has enabled me to enjoy a better life.  

As we light our firecrackers and burn our burgers this Fourth of July, it might do us a bit of good to remember that the soul's rest lies in Christ but the good of this nation is always made better by a people who know what sin is, know their own sin, and know the answer to sin in the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin.  Christians should disavow themselves of kingdom building in the name of God but we should never fail to do good where we can and with what we have been given.  Thanks be to God when a nation and its governance allows us to do just that.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

The Spirit doing a new thing. . .

Among some it is avant garde to suggest that anything and everything old (read that Old Testament) is being replaced by something new by the Holy Spirit.  It is, after all, the Spirit who teaches old men to dream new dreams and young men to see visions of what might be.  Or so you might be led to believe.  In reality, the old things that some point to as being the nasty patriarchal stuff of the Old Testament are in reality not what they claim and the new things of the Spirit are not quite what they think as well.

Your interpretation of the pages of Holy Writ is wrong, narrow-minded, bound by patriarchal culture from the 1st through 19th centuries. If the early church had been so closed to the Spirit's work, we wouldn't have had Samaritan believers or a eunuch believing or Gentile believers. The OT tradition spoke against all those. The Spirit did not. 

Really?  The whole promise of the Old Testament was not to Jews only but to the nations, tribes, and clans and families outside Israel.  Indeed, there is nothing new about  the Samaritans or the Ethiopian eunuch believing or Gentiles being received into the company of the faithful.  This was not something new but God's age-old plan corrupted by a Jewish exclusivism and restored in Christ.  

The Spirit doing a new things is really doing something not so new at all but currently not in vogue.  For example, the Spirit brings to mind all that Jesus taught (which itself was all that the Father had made known to Him).  The Spirit does not really complete or contradict the Old Testament or the New.  The Spirit is the one who opens the Scriptures so that we may know and see and believe.  The wider net of the Gospel was never exclusive to Jews but from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth.  

Quite honestly, I am sick and tired of aging folk from my generation trying to insist that the Church has suffered under the weight of nineteen centuries of patriarchalism, misogyny, homophobia, etc...  The Church has suffered more the weight of liberals who insist upon boring us with their imagined ideas that have no support in Scripture or tradition but which are paraded out as testament to what the Spirit is doing among us -- the new stuff.  There is nothing so stuffy as a liberal who has sucked all the air out of the room with words that mean nothing and opinions that contradict Scripture.  The Church must suffer the boring epithets of those outside the kingdom who presume to tell us what we ought to believe and those who have co-opted the kingdom from God and His Word and the living tradition of the faithful but we dare not allow them to go unchallenged.  The new thing the Spirit is sent to do is plant faith into the dead earth of our sinful hearts through the means of grace.  If He does that, He has done enough for us all.

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

How important is it?

Well, the Methodists have gone and done it.  The United Methodists in the US have decided that it is worth dividing their church and for the sake of giving approval to homosexuality and homosexual clergy.  This issue was the hill on which a church died.  Imagine that.  Not for the sake of the divinity of Christ or His humanity or for the sake of justification or for the cause of Scripture -- they were willing to kill a church for the sake of the alphabet soup of sexual desire and gender identity.  So they effectively eliminated the opposition -- diluting the votes of the conservatives by denying the Africans the right to vote on what happened in America and turning their backs on conservatives in their own denomination.  

Of course, it began with the ordination of women.  No, I am not saying we should blame the ordination of women for all this craziness.  What is to blame is this.  Once a church body has learned to ignore or silence Scripture and ignore or overrule the catholic tradition, everything is possible.  It will not be long before in the name of the Gospel they disengage sex from marriage and insist that Jesus died so that everyone can do what is right in their own eyes.  By the way, that little Biblical phrase was never a positive one to describe virtue but the mark of sure apostasy and sin.  

The cause was a “radically inclusive” church for everyone – especially its LGBTQIA+ members -- but with no room for those who disagree with them on these issues -- including other Methodists.  Think how far they have come.  In 1972, the UMC declared homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching” and later banned “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from becoming ordained.  In did not take long before the United Methodist Church began a civil war over sex issues that has lasted decades. When the United Methodist Church’s governing body opened a temporary window for congregations to petition to leave over the issue in 2019, who could have predicted that four years later, according to church records, more than 7,600 churches voted to disaffiliate.  The divorce proceedings were ON. The once United Methodists are, like many progressive and liberal Christian churches, bleeding off members and congregations while unhesitatingly pursuing the cause of LGBTQIA+ inclusivity.  So, even if Jesus decided it was wrong, the UMC is not sure it matters.  They have forged their path and redefined the faith to fit what they insist have to be the positions of their church body on these issues.  They are sad for the pain and suffering caused the LGBTQIA+ folks but not for the damage done to their church body.  The nation’s largest Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran denominations have all now removed barriers to LGBTQIA+ participation in the pulpit, at the altar, and in the pews but all of this has come amid long-term declines in membership and influence.  How important are the sex issues to liberal Christianity?  Ask your local Methodist....


Monday, July 1, 2024

I touched you, Lord.

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8B, preached on Sunday, June 30, 2024.

What could the two stories in the Gospel for today have in common?  On the one hand we have a synagogue ruler with some stature and authority who comes to Jesus to plead for his daughter who is sick unto death.  On the other hand, there is the woman who has suffered a twelve year menstrual flow that has rendered her an outcast from the life of God’s people and left her weak and in despair.  Jairus at least could go to Jesus and plead his case but this woman was left with a chance to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.  Both were praying for healing, for an end to their burden, and for life to be restored.  But beyond this, their was something distinct and profound about their faith and this is what binds them together.

I suspect we have more instinctive sympathy for Jairus.  After all, he was not pleading for himself but for his daughter.  She was twelve and had her whole life ahead of her.  She is the picture of innocence and we feel for her cause more than the woman.  The woman was suffering but she was not dying.  She had lost much but she was still able to get around.  Her cause was not for another but for herself.  I suspect we would look at her the way we look at a bag lady on the street – yes, it is sad but she just needs to try harder.

We are hard people.  We judge people harshly.  We have in our own minds the great difference between real needs and false ones, between the true needy and those who just need to work a little harder to deal with their problems.  Oddly enough, Jesus does not distinguish them nor does He rank one need higher than another.  In one respect, since the woman with the flow of blood interrupted Jesus conversation with Jairus it might seem like He is more sympathetic to the woman.  The reality is this.  Mercy does not look at the worthiness of the person who asks for mercy.  No, indeed, the mercy of Jesus is rich, extravagant, lavish, and generous to a fault.  It is a mercy that is almost scandalous in its kindness.

What Jesus was looking for in both Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood is faith.  What mercy looks for is not worthiness but faith – faith that trusts in the power of that mercy.  In fact, Jesus commends the faith of both and uses this moment to encourage not only His disciples but you and me to such a faith.  Both of these are taking the biggest risk of all – trusting in Jesus.  Jairus was a synagogue leader who had to risk his stature in the synagogue to trust in Jesus to deliver for his daughter what only the Messiah can deliver – perfect healing!

Now curiously, the woman with the flow of blood does not appear to have faith. She might appear to us to be rather superstitious – after all she reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.  Did she believe His clothing was magical?  Did she believe that the Lord was so filled with power that merely sneaking a touch would deliver her from all that the physicians of the day could not?

There is a teaching moment here.  Jesus might appear to be surprised by the power that seems to have escaped His garment and His body but Jesus is not a victim here.  Jesus has come for this woman, for the sick and afflicted and those marked with the death of sin.  He has come to restore the lost and seat again the estranged at His table.  So Jesus calls out the woman in order to call out her faith, both for her sake and for the sake of the disciples and even for you and me.  Jesus makes a big deal of this so that this woman will own her faith.  When she does, Jesus sends her forth telling her that her faith has made her whole again.  Yes, she was cleansed of the affliction that had troubled her for twelve years but also she was restored to be part of the fellowship of God’s house again.  Her fractured life was made whole.

There was another teaching moment.  Jairus’ cause had been post-poned long enough so that his daughter had died.  In fact, the servants from his house not only gave him the worst news of all, “Your daughter is dead,” but also told him to give it up, go home, and leave Jesus alone.  I suspect we would have said the same.  “Hey, fellow, yeah, I know it is bad, but nothing more can be done so give it up and leave Jesus alone.”  We are always saying the same thing.  What can the Church do about broken marriages or kids who turn out bad or people who lose their goods to storm or bankruptcy, or any of the thousand other terrible things people suffer?  What can we do?  What can faith do?  What can God do?

Jesus hears them and interrupts them.  Do NOT fear.  Only believe!  Then Jesus left behind all those who thought nothing more could be done, took with Him Peter, James, and John, and entered Jairus’ house.  The place was filled with tears and cries of sorrow – a commotion too loud and crazy for anyone to calm. Then Jesus did the unthinkable.  He banished the mourners and took the grieving mother and father to the body of the daughter and raised her from the dead.  To the voices of those who said to leave it alone and get on with their lives and the laughter of those who insisted Jesus could not do anything, our Lord tested their faith.  They followed Him to the body and saw their daughter raised from death to life.

Twelve years of life wasted away by disease and twelve years of life lost to the power of death.  My friends, to the world faith is foolishness.  Even your own sinful flesh is often telling you to give up, God either cannot or will not do anything, and simply to get on with your life.  These are the tests of faith.  The power of God is not in magical garments or in worthy causes but in faith.  Those who believe in the Lord are counted righteous, raised from sin’s death to everlasting life, and kept to the day of Christ’s coming.

Nowhere is your faith more tested than in worship.  Pastors are not supermen.  They have not magical answers or magical cloths to hold onto.  They have no crystal balls to divine what God has hidden.  Their power is their words, preaching God’s Word.  Their power is in water administered with the promise of God in baptism.  Their power is in the voice of absolution that makes happen in heaven what now happens on earth.  Their power is in bread offered to you as Christ’s flesh for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses you from all your sin.  It is all received with laughter and disdain as if this were mere foolishness or superstition.  This is YOUR test of faith.  Will you reach out to these means of grace to touch Jesus?  Will you let the world tell you your cause is too late or your need too great or will you trust Jesus?

Every crisis of our lives is a crisis of faith.  Whom will we trust?  Jesus offers us the only Word that can deliver what it promises, the only water that gives new and everlasting life, the only voice that speaks and sins fall away, and the only bread and wine that feed us with heavenly food.  Here is Jesus every Sunday, calling you to faith, and inviting you to reach out from the comfort of your disappointment, cynicism, and doubt.  “Who touched Me?”  And every Sunday we approach His throne of grace in fear and trembling and say, “Lord, it is I.  I am the one who touched You.  Give me salvation.”  In the holy Name of Jesus.  Amen

A rite of passage. . .

At some point in the life of a youth, the typical pattern of rebellion requires you to disown your father.  He who was once your everything is not suspect, hopelessly outdated, and perhaps even irrelevant.  For the youth this happens just long enough until you find yourself echoing what your father said -- sadly, sometime after he has passed away.  It is the wisdom of youth that your father once knew everything until he knew somethings until he new a few things until he knew nothing.  Then, at some point, you awaken to a renewed appreciation for your father and may even come to believe he did know almost everything.

This is not without its pattern in faith as well as life.  It seems that those of a certain generation grew up with great confidence in the faith of their fathers until they didn't.  They began to be suspect of the great minds and voices of the generations who went before -- even of Scripture.  It got to the point where the heroes of their youth became the boogeymen of their middle age.  Tragically, some have not progressed beyond their childhood rebellion against the faith and the house of their fathers.  That seems to be a common affliction for boomers and perhaps we are not alone.  I will admit, however, that the older I get the more appreciative I am of the great fathers of the faith -- both the Lutheran ones and those who were long before Luther.

The obligatory rite of passage which casts suspicion and rejects those who went before has given rise to all sorts of rebellions that have become normal in the minds of many.  The rejection of marriage and its Biblical order gave birth to a feminism in which male and female meant little as labels and the only measure of equality was the freedom to be the other.  The rejection of sex as a gift to the married and for procreation gave birth to intimacy which was more or less only for personal pleasure with even love being optional.  The rejection of the shape of creation as male and female gave birth to a fluid gender as secure as the feeling of the moment and without a real definition to know what either of those genders actually means.  The rejection of the true diversity of the God who became flesh in order to make one people from many nations, tribes, races, and ethnicities became the fake diversity in which only the rejection of the traditional is allowed and which seems to be still all about sex.  I could go on.  You get my drift.

What is most distressing, however, is that our growing familiarity with Scripture has led this youthful rebellion to reject the voice of God's Word or qualify it through the reason and/or experience of the interpreter.  We are not merely rejecting something but God Himself.  As soon as we treat the Scriptures as less than God's Word, we render mute the voice of God to address us with His timeless Word.  As soon as we take a position hostile to the claims of the faithful of the past about that Word, we build a wall between those who went before and ourselves.  As soon as we approach the Scriptures with a skepticism we would not dare to use against science or the prevailing fake science of the day, we turn God's Word into a battlefield in which His voice is lost in the clamor for control of the landscape.

How odd it is that some come to the faith with the enthusiasm of a true believer because they have been lied to or disappointed by the relevant truth that anchors no one only to end up sitting in the pews with a people who have long ago gotten over the faith and tamed the mighty God!  I find myself at odds with my own feel good generation so full of itself when it comes to truth.  It is not that I did not go through the rebellious period as a rite of passage, I did go through it and left it behind me.  Once I spoken and acted and thought like a child.  No more.  Those whose youthful rebellion against tradition and Scripture continues are caught in the loop of their own ignorance, presuming that their childhood and youthful fancy is the truest thing of all.  Hopefully, they will realize at some point that they have foolishly extended a youthful rite of passage and turned it into the cardinal virtue of their identity.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

You do not have time for that. . .

If you listen to my sermons you will discover that there are few illustrations and the story is a rare component into the homiletical moment.  It is not because I have no illustrations or stories.  The problem is just the opposite.  I have too many.  If I were to include them, the time spent preaching and applying the Word of God would, of necessity, diminish.  Furthermore, I am getting older and have begun to realize that my time in the pulpit will not be long.  So I get to the point rather quickly and try to stick to it.

When I was being trained as a preacher, I heard a great deal about content but also a great deal about the necessity for good illustrations, eye contact, and a good turn of the phrase.  I will admit that wordsmithing remains a concern of mine not because the sermon is great literature but because the time our hearers give us is precious and we need to use it effectively and wisely.  This means knowing how to speak in English, using the full tools of the language and grammar.  Of course, I am not an expert in this but I do try.

I do not believe that I am a great preacher.  It is not because I am humble that I admit this.  It is because I listen to sermons all the time (thanks to the miracle of the internet!).  I love to listen to sermons and to read them.  When I do, I realize that there are really great preachers out there and I am not one of them.  That is okay.  I try very hard and work on improving my craft not for the sake of me but for the solemn sake of the Gospel.  

Since my parish sends out many people across the nation and even the world, I get reports back from the folks we send forth.  Their most common complaints are the lack of a Lutheran parish using the liturgy faithfully, reverently, and with confidence AND poor preaching.  They are not talking about eye contact or the lack of a good story but sermons which end up being good orations yet without a point -- or at least without the Gospel.  They tell me that sermons tend to fall into a predictable pattern.  You were bad, God was/is good, not try harder not to be bad.  This is the better pattern.  The worse pattern spends even less time on your sin and trying harder to be holy and leaves you simply with the idea that God is good and that is all that matters.  I do not have objective evidence of their complaint about the preaching but I presume that they were being accurate in their critique.  I know this because this is how I began preaching!  In the beginning it was an attempt to preach the whole counsel of God's Word, from Genesis to Revelation, every week.  Then it evolved into the desire to engage God's people and the story became the means.  It moved to a same sing song story of a Gospel sandwich -- dutifully between two slices of the law and spiced up with the requisite stories, illustrations, and eye contact with the hearers.  In the end, I learned from listening to preachers how to preach, from reading sermons how to write them, and from faithful pastors how to call their people to repentance and faith.

It could be worse.  Listen to most other preachers (not Lutheran!) and those in liberal Lutheran congregations!  It could be far worse.  If I could say anything to a preacher, it would be the caution that you do not have the time to spend on stories, illustrations, and oratorical skills.  The sermon has fewer minutes of the hearer's attention than in the past.  The pressure is on.  You have time to preach the Word and that is what you need to do.  Furthermore, the Law/Gospel dialectic, while important, is NOT a sermon pattern.  All deference to Walther, the Law Gospel stuff he talks about in his book by the same name is more about pastoral care than directly about preaching.  If you read Walther's sermons you would find that they violate what he says in his lectures.  Thankfully, his preaching is better for it.  Preach the Word.  Let that Word define the sermon and not a formula for content (% illustration, % Law, % Gospel, etc...).  Remember, not to get in the way of the Word but neither let your own self-consciousness in standing in the pulpit prevent you from speaking that Word.  If Jesus said that His witnesses would preach repentance, forgiveness, and faith, then He expects us to do the same -- and not just occasionally.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Moderation is not what it's cracked up to be. . .

As I have often said, Lutherans love the muddy middle.  Moderation in all things.  Even moderate sinning has become the familiar explanation of Luther's admonition to sin boldly.  Moderation is not really much of a principle for our piety or our lives in Christ.  No one mistook Jesus for a moderate.  He was zealous in ways that made even His disciples uncomfortable.  We have made moderation into what it was never meant to be -- a life principle, a liturgical principle, and a justification for occasion indulgence.  There must be something better than “moderation in all things.”  In fact, there are a ton of things that deserve something more than moderation.  Should your love for your spouse and children be moderate?  Should your pursuit of what is good and right and true be moderate?  Should your defense of life be moderate?  Should your relationship to the Church be moderate?  Of course not.  In these things we are not to be moderate at all but zealous.  What benefit is there to balance self-love and love for others?  For a lukewarm piety that is occasionally hot and cold but mostly tepid?  For love which is tentative and has limits?  No, there are plenty of things that should not be moderated in our lives.  We have in this the testament of the saints who were not moderate people or even temperate.  They bordered on the extreme and their zealotry is uncomfortable to us. 

Among the cardinal virtues, temperance (the equivalent of the Lutheran principle of moderation) is not first but last.  Before moderation and temperance must come prudence.  Prudence is an old word that should be rescued from dusty bound volumes wasting away on unvisited library shelves.  It means carefulness, discretion, and humility. Prudence is the ability to govern and discipline oneself, not to be overcome by emotion or whim or desire but to judge your emotions and your actions by a higher standard.

Prudence gives way to justice.  The virtue of justice conditions prudence by an external standard -- how does it impact others? Where justice is concerned only with the righteousness of the thought or act, prudence adds in the question of who might be harmed by it?  Then comes fortitude -- the strength to bear the burden of righteousness and virtue.  Those who bear up under the cost of character are not weak but the strongest of strong.  Virtue almost always has a cost to it.

Sin curved everything inward, toward the judgment of the self.  The way we incline toward moderation can reflect this -- when everything is relative except the preservation of what we want and what makes us happy.  We are most immoderate about that.  Sin loves the muddy middle of moderation.  We get to decide when is enough and we get to decide when the cost is too much or the rewards too little.  The mortification of the flesh must be for something more than self-improvement.  It must be for the sake of God Himself.  Our denial of desire is not for the sake of us but for the sake of another -- for the sake of and in response to God's own self-denial.  We too often judge the cost on the basis of what we want and what we have deemed important enough.  Moderation is not strictly an end but a principle used in the process of getting what we want and this destroys whatever virtue is left in moderation.

A half-hearted pursuit of holiness produces a half-hearted repentance.  It is easy to employ moderation to minimize the damage sin has done just as it is easy to employ moderation to minimize the striving for what is good, holy, righteous, pure, just, beautiful, and merciful.  God is not interested in being one of many boarders in the hotel of the heart.  He is jealous -- jealous for us.  He wants all of us and in His most immoderate love He is willing to take even our sins and death that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom without end.  In that sense, moderation must be dealt with carefully or it becomes an excuse for keeping as much a safe distance from Him as it in keeping a safe distance from the extreme of evil.  

Friday, June 28, 2024

Mark your identity. . .

I live in a decent size city (about 250K) with a deep and abiding affection for chains.  We have all the chain fast food joints including those who are up and coming and those who are down and on their way out.  We have all the chain restaurants with the menus that seem to be different versions of the same basic playbook though some seem to do well many belong to mostly bankrupt franchises.  We have all the chain stores (including an incredible 10 or more Walmart locations) and that means we can shop in person, have it delivered to our car or have it dropped off at the house.  We have all the chain strip mall franchises and that reflects the obligatory strangely named boutiques whose products are a mystery as well as more than the usual nail salons, spas, etc...  What we do not have are unique places to eat or shop that are local or have local roots.  I wish that I could say there was hope for more differentiation but it does not look likely anytime in the near future.

We have the same odd conglomeration of churches whose worship services, sermons, programs, and buildings seem carved from the same retail or mall playbook.  There are new names that tell you nothing about what the group is about (Bridge, Lifelight, etc...) and old names DBA something chic but in their corporate documents they sound like a number and a Baptist church (or Church of Christ or something similar).  We have Christians doing pretty much the same things on Sunday morning and everyone claiming they do it better, did it first, or have improved upon the entertainment style of doing church with something for everyone.  Some of these churches were once distinctive but not so much anymore.  More of them have read the same playbook and are beginning to look and act pretty much the same no matter their denominational tilt.

So skip theology and think about this.  What can a liturgical and confessional church gain from offering a faint echo of what others are doing better or doing on a small scale what some are doing in the big box kind of churches in town?  That is why it is so foolish to cast aside a real identity for a fake one and presume that this will attract those looking for something authentic and real.  Is this really the best we can do?  Is adiaphora merely a cover for mimicking anyone and everyone except our hymnal and confessional documents?  If we want an identity, why not try our own?  There is nothing quite as distinctive as a liturgical and confessional Lutheran Church on Sunday morning.  Chanted liturgy, reverence, solid Biblical preaching, doctrinal catechesis, and the like are not to be found in the no-name churches and most Roman Catholic parishes seem to be lost on a time trip back to the days of Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Honestly, in my decent size city there is only church doing what we do -- that is us!

Instead of competing to be relevant, why not play our trump card.  We have a God who is accessible to us in the Means of Grace and every Sunday we walk upon the holy ground of His presence bidden by the Spirit to touch eternity and taste immortality in the Eucharist.  We have a God who actually cares more about holiness than happiness, about the eternal treasure than what is in at this moment.  We are a people who gladly surrender our diversity to be one people before the one Lord by means of the one baptism.  Mark your identity before the world but make sure it is as Lutheran as it can be (that means, by the way, catholic and apostolic and not sectarian!).  If Lutheranism doomed to die, let it die because we lived and died as the people we said we were and not as a people who try on new clothing and a new identity every time something new shows up.  We have a distinctive identity.  Let's flaunt it!

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Of what dreams?

On Pentecost we heard St. Peter quote from the prophet Joel:

 “And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions."

Heady words for a heady day but somehow they have been co-opted by many in support of all kinds of things the prophet never envisioned and God did not promise.  Where are the dreams and visions of which the prophet spoke and St. Peter testified?  They lay fallen and discarded by a Christianity discontent with truth and in pursuit of cultural relevance.  How sad it is for them to have stolen from the aged the very promise of God and made the visions of the young the foolishness of the present moment masquerading at the timeless truth of eternity!

Pentecost has been emptied of its transcendent truth and reduced to a day of mere echoes of the moment.  Once there were a people who left behind the locked door of the upper room to venture out with the boldness of the Spirit and preach the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen to any who would hear.  Once there were people who insisted that the Gospel was the key to transcending the values and virtues of a world more concerned with self-interest than redemption.  Once there were people who were willing to risk their own personal safety for the sake the Word that might bring the hearer to faith in the incarnate Lord Jesus whose dying and rising again offered forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to all who believed.  The prophet looked through the window of the Spirit to a day when just such a church and just such a clergy would risk health, safety, misunderstanding, and even death to proclaim the dream now real by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  Now we live at a time when the wisdom of the world sits on a throne equal with the God of Gods  and Light of Light.  In this new Christianity, the job of the Spirit is not redemption but getting in touch with the sovereign self even if it means violating every one of God's commandments and the very nature of His order.

In the end part of Christianity thinks that Pentecost is the freedom to violate consistent custom and God's order and to be happy in the moment.  In their minds, the only freedom worth having is the freedom to oppose the Lord on the ground of feelings.  I guess we have backed ourselves into this corner but perhaps we have forgotten the cost of our pursuit of a liberty that can only say yes to what we think and desire and cannot transcend the moment with anything remotely like eternity.  The only dreams such a faith can dream are those already present in the heart and not the unimaginable promise of God's own gift.  In this version of Christianity, the visions always look like what we see in our mirrors and the dreams are rooted in the values we invent for ourselves and our future.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

How odd!

Conversion therapies designed to change those youth who see themselves as same sex attracted have been banned in a variety of states -- 24 to be exact, plus localities.  Actually it is the majority of the population of the US who lives within such states and localities.  As you might presume, they tend to be West Coast, Northeast, and a few liberal Midwestern and industrial states (Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, to name a few).  Now, one might be inclined to think that those who are opposed to therapies designed for minors might also be inclined to be against puberty blockers or surgical procedures for minors suffering from gender dysphoria.  The fact that this is not the case further supports the ideology that is behind the whole LGBTQ+ side of things.  

The difference between the two (conversion therapy and hormone blockers and other invasive therapies for those with gender dysphoria) is that the conversion therapies do not cause bodily harm to the individuals in the same way that the gender affirming therapies do.  Sure, there may be psychological harm to the individual (at least perceived) in conversion therapies but there are not the irreversible physiological changes, especially including fertility, when puberty blockers are administered to minors before/during puberty solely because puberty is seen to be the enemy of their felt gender versus the actual biological sex of their bodies.

In other words, it is okay to harm the person permanently in pursuit of what society has deemed normal but it is not okay to temporarily harm the person in pursuit of what everyone agrees is normal (at least in terms of the overwhelming majority!).  The world is left with one conclusion.  Politics is informing this decision about what can and should be done and what cannot and should not be done to the minor.  While the world seems to accuse the religious of letting their ideology govern their opinions, it is clear that they LBGTQ+ community and their supporters have not removed the log from their own eyes.  Is it too much to ask people to be consistent?  Well, maybe it is....

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

AI and the Church

“We understand AI isn't everyone's thing. But as long as it's around, we might as well put it in the service of the Kingdom.”  At least that is how Catholic Answers put to rest complaints about their use of an AI priest named Father Justin to give answers and spiritual direction to those who asked.  I do not think we have much to worry about having something similar show up on the website.  That does not mean that people are not going to try.

Already we have folks who suggest that AI could be used to assist with sermon preparation (or replace it) and thus aid the already busy calendars of pastors.  No.  It is not good.  Don't do it.  AI, even if it came up with a better sermon, is not the one tasked with preaching God's Word to God's people.  Besides, sometimes we pastors are just lazy enough or desperate enough to utilize AI on our own.  Same answer.  No.  It is not good.  Don't do it.

Others have suggested that AI might relieve some of the burden of research or preparation for everything from Bible studies to doctrinal essays.  Again, we do not need to farm out to a technology that cannot believe what tasks belong to the faithful and those who serve them.  Some have suggested that some of the tedius stuff could be offloaded to AI -- review of church constitutions, for example.  The same answer applies.  Even if AI could, it is not the one tasked with this duty or responsibility.  Don't farm out to a soul-less entity the work of carrying for souls. 

Frankly, I do not get what the attraction is -- except that it is new and different.  We daily deal with the limitations as well as blessings of our technology.  We know that this is not a panacea for things we either do not want to do or think we cannot do well.  The smarts in the boxes and in the clouds are only as smart as the people running them.  For now, at least.

The last thing we need is a program to apply to people what belongs to those on whom the authority of an office has been conferred.  God does not need a glorified answering machine (human or digital!).  God needs people to wrestle with the content and apply that content to real people with a pastoral heart.  No digital substitute can or ever will be able to do that. 

Good grief, we have plenty of big problems in Christianity without trying to add to them by making a digital assistant to replace the pastors and lay leaders in their exercise of the responsibility given to them.  AI may not be everyone's thing but it should never be the Church's thing.  I would be far more comforted with a flawed sinner wrestling with such things than I am by a digital entity who mines data according to algorithms in order to accomplish what the same technology screws up on my phone, my laptop, my social media, and my apps.  Enough said.  Stop it.