Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Missouri's angst. . .

February 19, 1974, was the day when students led a walkout from the Concordia Seminary, 801 DeMun, St. Louis, MO -- only to return to eat supper in the cafeteria as some like to snicker about.  The next day a new seminary was born, Concordia Seminary in Exile (Seminex) and the whole of Missouri's history was forever altered.  Some who were stakeholders in the LCA and ALC would say that their future was also transformed by the fallout from the walkout but that is another story.  I am not here to recount the facts or rehearse the assignment of good guys and bad guys in this footnote in history.  My concern is to wonder why we still talk about it and why we feel it so deeply.

Though some would not believe it, I am an outsider in Missouri.  Though it might appear that I am on the inside (member of a Synodical commission and a district secretary), the reality is that was and remain an anomaly among those who lived through the tumultuous years from the late 1960s to the late 1970s.  At the time I entered St. John's College in Winfield, the numbers of presem students there rivaled the total produced by the entire system in one year today.  There were some 33 presem students in my class and I was one of the oddballs.  It was not my hair (though it was odd) or my looks (I have a radio face) but my background that stuck out.  The vast majority of those preparing for the ministry of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod were sons of pastors or sons of teachers and most of them related in one way or another.  Missouri was inbred almost from the beginning and by the time we got to the early 1970s it was true of the clergy even if is was not quite true of those in the pews.  It was not true of me.  I had only one person on my family tree who had been an LCMS pastor -- my great uncle Henry Krohn.  My mother was not Lutheran before she married and my father owned a hardware store and ran a plumbing and electrical business.  I was on the outside of Missouri but the profile of those preparing for the ministry was decidedly tilted toward those on the inside of Missouri.

In many respects then, the conflict of Missouri was not simply about power or theology but relationships. Others can argue the doctrinal and personality issues of the conflict.  I wonder about the personal.  What makes us so preoccupied by the events of 1974 (now 50 years ago with all the principal leaders long dead and the youngest participants in the struggle now ready for retirement) is that this was a family fight.  If it were not so personal, we would long ago have gotten past the unpleasantness but because it was familial it is harder to shrug off -- on both sides.  What complicates it all is that the Preus' brothers were viewed as outsiders and interlopers on Missouri's territory and in terms of Missouri's history.  That fact is not easy to recall with the host of surnamed Preus folks on our roster.  At the time, however, nothing got under some Missourian's craw more than the fact that this mess seemed to be stirred up and controlled by folks who were not us.  It still remains an issue for some families.

Furthermore, the interrelated character of many of those on Synodical boards and commissions and teaching in Missouri's colleges and seminaries meant that positions were not simply ideological but personal.  What I find ultimately fascinating is that the Presidents of Missouri were from Texas and now Texas seems to be the District voted most likely to secede from the Synod and that many of the leaders and faculty members of Missouri were from the then Atlantic District (a salt water district) and that district is now a shadow of its former size geographically and very weak in terms of numbers of people and pastors serving in that district.  Looking at things today you would never imagine how things looked in 1974 (the year I entered Concordia Senior College).

Though few actually left (a little over 100,000 people and some 200 congregations out of nearly 3 million people and 6,000 congregations), the impact of the split was felt much more deeply than the numbers tell.  It was who left and who they were related to and what congregations left and who had come up through those congregations into the ministerium of Missouri that remains a story to be told.  Though the numbers are dwindling due to age, infirmity, and death, those who left are still arguing that they represented the true spirit of Missouri and those who stayed (also declining numbers) continue to insist that they are the true and rightful heirs of Missouri's theological tradition.  In some respects, it could be possible to set aside the theological issues and see siblings fighting over who the sandbox belongs to.  I do not at all mean to suggest that I do not think there were theological issues.  Of course, there were and are and the problems in the ELCA are, in part, a testament to those issues.  Yet, we must never forget that this dispute was as personal as families who ended up on different sides of the fight, brothers who ended up in different seminaries, parents and children who ended up in different church bodies.  For this reason alone, I suspect, we will be talking about the split as long as there is anyone left alive who can remember it.  It will not become history until our memories are gone and we no longer feel the personal pain of the conflict.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Abide -- not a theory but real. . .

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (B), preached on Sunday, April 26, 2024.

I am not horticulturist and have no green thumb.  As far as I can tell, the only difference between a weed and a flower or vegetable is that we don’t want the weed to grow and we do want the other plant to grow.  But God is a horticulturist.  He has a green thumb.  The manifest number of plants all over His good creation is testament to His love and expertise in plants.  In particular, God is interested in vines.  Well, not just any vines.  Mostly grape vines.  He is a viticulurist or viniculturist.

That would account for the great number of allusions to vines and vine growing in the Scriptures.  There are at least 50 overt mentions of vines, grape vines, in the Scriptures and many more references to vineyards and wine presses and the like.  This is not because God loves wine.  It is because He loves us.  Hidden in nearly everyone of these references is the idea that the vine belongs to God and we are branches on His vine.  Plus He prunes the vine to produce more fruit, to branches which bear fruit only because they are attached to good root stock which gives life to the vine.  So it is no surprise that Jesus would use the analogy of the vine and its branches as He speaks of Himself, the people of God, and their life in Him.

Thanks be to God that I do not have to understand much about vines to get His point.  Neither do you.  It is not hard except for the fact that we don’t like to be told the obvious when it conflicts with what we want.  Abide in Me, Jesus says, and I will abide in you.  There is the wisdom of the ages so difficult for us to admit or appreciate.  You must be connected to Christ the vine in order to live, flourish, and bear the good fruit that lasts.  Otherwise, you will wither, die, and be burned up as so much dead wood.  It is not an essential faith and optional church but both essential.

Our problem is that we spiritualize a connection that Christ makes concrete.  When He calls upon us to abide in Him as branches to the vine, He is not speaking here of an imagined connection or an emotional one or even one of resemblance of behavior.  He is talking about going to church.  He is talking about being gathered together around the voice of His Word in absolution and Scripture and about being gathered around His table in Eucharist.  He is not talking about how we feel or what we think or what we want.  He is talking about where we are on the Lord’s day.  Jesus is talking about being in the Lord’s House, around the Word of the Lord and the Table of the Lord on the Lord’s Day.  He is talking about what happens here on Sundays and Thursdays at least.

The vast majority of people who have never come or who have fallen away claim that they don’t have a problem with church – just with the people in it and their pastor.  I get it.  Well, life together is messy.  People sit in your pew, offend your opinions, pester you when you want to be alone, ignore you when you need company, and a thousand other sins.  Babies cry and people figit.  It is too hot in the summer and too cool in the winter.  The pews are hard.  The organ is loud.  The hymns are strange.  The preaching is bad.  There are a thousand excuses to justify why we are not here.  But none of them mean a darn thing because only one thing matters:  Christ is here.

Jesus’ call to abide in Him is not a call to think about Him or dream about Him or fall in love with Him or like Him be friends with Him.  It is the call to listen to His Word, specifically the preaching of that Word.  As St. Paul famously said, “faith comes by hearing the Word of God.”  What Jesus says is that faith also lives by the Word of God.  Man does not live by bread alone but by the Word of the Lord.  Whether written in Deuteronomy or quoted by Jesus, the point is the same.  Faith begins and lives and grows by the preaching of the Word of God.  Preaching is somewhat unique to Christian worship.  It seems outdated in our digital age but it is the divinely appointed shape of our Christian lives.  Preaching can never go out of style because the preached Word is the God intended shape of our lives.

You can go to Bible study and read the Bible on your own but it is not the same as preaching.  You can watch videos of preachers preaching and listen to podcasts of preachers preaching but this is not what Jesus is talking about.  Sure it has some value especially for those who are homebound or in hospital and as supplement, but Jesus is talking about sitting together in pews or chairs and hearing the live voice preach the Gospel into your ears along with the rest of those who sit in the pews with you.  If you don’t like what I said, your problem is not with me but with Jesus.

Second, abiding in Christ means eating Christ as your food.  This is not about feeding upon Christ in your heart.  This is not about symbolic eating of symbolic food.  This is about the food that Jesus says is real – His flesh in bread and His blood in wine.  Nobody receives the essential vitamins and minerals from symbolic food.  The command of Jesus’ words is to “Do this in remembrance of Him.”  Jesus did not give a hermetically sealed snack and juice cup for His disciples to do at home.  He gathered them around Himself and gave them His body and blood in the Eucharistic bread and wine.  
And He commanded the disciples to continue to do what He did often in remembrance of Him.  The record of the New Testament is that God’s people know Christ in the breaking of the bread and that this Holy Communion is the essential food of God’s people until the foretaste gives way to the meal in heaven.

I feel like a fool that this needs to be said out loud.  Is this not obvious?  Must we really defend and argue for in person hearing of the sermons and receiving the Sacrament?  Sure, there are exceptions.  The homebound are not under judgment because they cannot come but those who do not come but can have more than judgment to worry about.  Their faith is literally dying.  How long can your body survive without food?  How long can faith live without Christ’s food of His flesh and blood?  Who in their right mind would ever want to find out?

Christ’s promise is that He will be here.  The challenge before the Christian congregation is will we be here to meet Christ where He is in His Word and Meal?  That is the essential question of every Christian, the essential challenge before every pastor, and the essential problem for every congregation.  Are you where Christ is and where He wants you to be and still dying on the vine?  While that might happen, what does happen here every week is that the sinner hears the voice of absolution and is restored as a child of God.  What does happen here every week is that the lost hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in Scripture and sermon and follow His voice to the still quiet waters and rich green pastures of everlasting life.  What does happen here every week is the hungry and thirsty are fed and drink of Christ’s flesh for the life of the world and His blood that purifies us from all our sin.  Abiding in Christ is not theory.  It is concrete and real – as real as a people and pastor together around God’s Word and Table every week until heaven brings to conclusion what is here begun.

Christ is risen!

A popular misquote. . .

A very popular quote attributed to St. Francis is:  "Preach the gospel at all times. And if necessary, use words."  The only problem is that the quote cannot be found in his works or his rule.  It just might be the most often-quoted saying of folks within the church today. While intended to support the idea that words should not be alone but in cooperation with works, it has passed into our phrase book as a way of presuming that the Gospel can be preached without words. It is attributed to St Francis of Assisi and sounds like our stereotype of him because of his concern for love for creation and for the downtrodden.  The problem is that he did not say it.  Facts seldom get in the way of our positions or our arguments so that in and of itself will probably not deter those who quote this fake quote. 

Francis did write, in his Rule of 1221: "All the Friars... should preach by their deeds," but this is within the context of the problem of hypocrisy -- when words and deeds are not together or in conflict or only one of exists -- echoing the words of St. James. Faith without works is dead.  But it does not at all accord with what we know of Francis to suggest that one can or should preach the Gospel without words.  It is certainly an effective sound byte but, like all such phrases, is not merely ripe for overuse but wrongly used.  The Gospel, herein meaning the proclamation of Jesus crucified and risen, can only happen with words.  Such preaching is not in competition with acts of mercy anymore than acts of mercy or love are in competition with the words of the Christian kerygma.

It is a fallacy of the modern age that words somehow interfere with or agitate against the practice of love for what God made and who God made.  The whole thing is right up there with the suspicion and dismissal of doctrine itself as opposed to love.  But most of all it exposes the confusion of what it meant by the Gospel.  While it is certainly true that the etymology of the word means good news, the Christian Gospel is not simply good news.  It is the specific good news of the incarnation of our Savior, His holy life that accords righteous for us sinners, His suffering and death that pays once for all sin's debt, and His resurrection from the dead that has the power to raise up all the dead who believe in Him.  You cannot preach this Gospel without words.  It is a foolish straw man to set up words and love in opposition anymore than faith and piety become enemies.  It is a lovely sentiment to those who want the Gospel to be generic good news but it is the antithesis of what the New Testament says.

Sure actions are important.  James is spot on.  Jesus says the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount.  Heart and hands are together.  Words and deeds are together.  Liturgically, ceremonies are not a substitute for the Word but the Word lived out.  When we bend the knee we do so remembering Him to whom every knee shall bow.  The goofiness of modern Christianity is that this old and apocryphal saying attributed to St. Francis epitomizes what is wrong with modern Christianity.  The love is not real love and the preaching is not real preaching.  There is no love in telling a sinner their sins are not real sins and there is no preaching without speaking of sin and redemption and the cross.  This meager blog will not stop the egregious use of this false quote nor will it give pause to those who love without Christ and preach without the cross.  But there is no reason for Christians to be tempted by this old canard.  It is a very catchy idea but it comes with a very dangerous risk.  It might seem to be very Christian not to have to talk out loud about what we believe and confess but it is clear from Scripture that God does not want our family and friends to feel the love alone.  The Lord wants them to know Jesus Christ and the power of His death and resurrection to bestow forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation upon them.  By the way, it is the same dead end to try and pit Word against Sacrament as if there was a competition there either.  What fools we are.  But if we are fools, at least let us be fools for Christ.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

A survivor. . .

Recently while looking for some information on a church, I encountered this description of one of their staff pastors and a Bible study he was leading.  He was introduced simply as a survivor of a more conservative Christian tradition.  His study was described around four key themes deconstructing authority, the Bible, salvation, and the end of time in order to reconstruct a life of faith.  Curiously, this congregation was advertising on the same page the complete performance of J. S. Bach's epic St. John Passion.  Now there is a task.  How do you reconcile the deconstruction of authority, Bible, salvation, and end times with the clear and unmistakable witness of Bach's St. John Passion?  Apparently, there is no contradiction in the minds of this large and established congregation.  They have all the trappings of a robust parish in which their music speaks of their faith but it is clear as you dig a little deeper that all is not what it seems.  They view the music as an aesthetic but not a component tied to the content of what they believe and confess.  The odd thing is that I resonate to their performance but find it hollow after reading how they view the faith itself.

Sadly, this disconnect between the faith confessed and how it is expressed is not local to this congregation but more typical.  We find it all the time.  Our Lutheran folks insist that they are Lutheran to the core but in the heart you find the deepest affection not for Bach but for the latest and greatest contemporary Christian composer or singer of pop gospel music and the hymns they love most of all are more from a Baptist hymnal than a Lutheran one.  The music is merely an aesthetic and not tied to the identity or faith held by the person.  It has become mere preference.  Most Lutherans do not want much to do with the great Lutheran composers (From Pachelbel all the way through the present day) and would prefer to have generic American hymnody over the Lutheran chorale.  We do not have mighty organs to supply the needed leadership of the great Lutheran musical tradition and our sanctuaries are padded down with carpet and cushy seats and inhibited by low ceilings that make it hard to sustain a lively congregational tradition of singing.  Although we are conservative and would turn up our noses at the congregation I mentioned above, we have succumbed to the very same fallacy -- style and substance are neither related nor indicative of what we believe.  How odd it is for me to admit that and yet it is true of us in other ways than it is true of them.

We are survivors all right but not of conservative Christian traditions.  We are survivors who have figured out a way to separate piety and practice from doctrine and confession.  That is the epidemic that is affecting all of Christianity in the worst of ways.  Liberals who like the ambiance of great liturgical music perform it wonderfully but simply cannot stomach believing the words.  Conservatives who insist that words matter cannot make themselves give up the guilty habit of sentimental, saccharine, emotional music.  Yet if Christianity is to survive, we will have to give up the hypocrisy.  What we believe and how we worship are not unrelated or distinct but vitally connected.  In our dream world in which we live as evangelicals within a confessional Lutheran imagination is not helping us anymore than it is helping a liberal and progressive congregation to retain the great music of the past.  They have become merely preference and not confession at all.  This is our undoing.  Not simply the culture outside the church but the culture inside whereby we find it comfortable to have our heads in one place and our hearts in another.  That is the problem.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Proof! or Proof?

It seems that the subject of the ordination of women is always current.  In part, the reason for this is that there is no clear Biblical support for the ordination of women nor is there any hint in history to support the ordination of women.  Of course, those who are in favor of this break in continuity with the past will not let the lack one Biblical passage in support of the idea curtail their insistence that it is, indeed, Biblical.  So from time to time we get another version of the common attempt to discredit those passages in Scripture which would preclude the ordination of women.  Now there is one more.  The most recent edition of Lutheran Forum includes a spirited defense of the ordination of women which is less an exegesis of passages that support the idea than it is an attempt to deal with those which do not.  While it may seem to be a fresh attempt, the article breaks no new ground and reflects something that is common to most readers of Lutheran Forum and many within Lutheranism -- they have already decided to ordain women and they know it represents a significant disconnect from the position of Lutherans until the most modern of times and want to reconcile their departure from history to that history.

In any case, a curious assertion was made.  The author insisted that the burden of proof lie on the side of those to show that women should not or cannot be ordained.  

Those opposing women's ordination bear the burden of proof and so must establish their case beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty.  Lutheran Forum, Fall 2024, p. 57

I will certainly grant that the author in his own mind has come to that conclusion and is thoroughly convinced morally, historically, theologically, and Biblically that this is the right time and the right decision for the ordination of women.  The fallacy of his argument is this.  Tradition does not have to prove itself.  For nearly two thousand years the uncontroverted and consistent Biblical exegesis and doctrinal stance of the Church was that women were not to be ordained.  For Rome and Constantinople as well as Missouri, this remains the case.  The exception does need to be proved but the rule does not.  It is a false premise that Protestant practice or evangelical decision or liberal action somehow is enough to trump the clear and consistent teaching and practice of the Church over the ages.

The problem is this.  Canterbury and Chicago have buckled to the pressure of feminism and culture and now are looking for a justification for their break with tradition and their new understanding of Scripture.  Even break off groups like the ACNA and NALC who have disdained the LGBTQ+ positions of their former jurisdictions cannot bring themselves to even discuss or review the ordination of women.  It has become for them just as much a sacred cow as the sex decisions were to their former church bodies.  So when they sit down with Missouri, they do not know what to say about this break with the past except that it is beyond challenge within their churches and so it is not on the table.  It is for his reason that this doctrine is a lex in search of a ratio and it will not find one.  It will remain what it is -- a break with the tradition that these bodies claim to uphold that they are duty bound by their very existence to observe.  Their only hope is this.  Eventually Rome, St. Louis, and Constantinople will eventually cave as they have done and then they will not feel so conspicuous.

Over my lifetime I have known two women who were ordained in the then Lutheran Church in America and who blamed their church body for deciding to ordain them without a sufficient justification in Scripture or theology.  Both were actually quite accomplished individuals.  At some point, however, both of them abandoned their former churches, renounced their ordination, and became Roman Catholic.  I blame the reason for this more on the way this decision to ordain women was reached and the continuing lack of a clear theological, Biblical, and moral imperative to justify it.  

Sadly, they did not even consider Missouri because of the sour taste in their mouths from decades of being told that saying no to the ordination of women was misogyny. The real haters of women are those who would put them in an untenable position by ordaining them without first establishing a theological and exegetical reason for departing from 2,000 years of unbroken confession and tradition.  The real abuse of women comes from the notion that she has value only if she can replace a man.  That is certainly alien to the gift of God in creating them male and female.  That said, as soon as a certain outcome is decided and the voice of Scripture and the historic tradition of the faithful are disregarded, the faith has lifted anchor and becomes as subjective as feeling or reason decides.  When that happens, we must prove what is faithful, orthodox, and true but are willing to accept without challenge the break with Scripture and tradition -- not only in the ordination of women but in all sorts of other truths and issues.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Cross Pollination

The accepted thesis of the day is that church music, sacred music, borrowed from secular music and then somehow or other became entrenched in judgment against secular music.  Even Lutherans still promote the lie that Luther's tunes were borrowed from the tavern.  Indeed, a whole culture has arisen based upon the premise that the cross pollination occurs from the secular to the sacred.  But it is a modern lie and falsehood.  The cross pollination is the other way around and has been with exception for more modern times when we chose to believe what was not true and built a religious musical industry upon that false premise.

If you look at Scripture, you see that music was given to man to be used in worship, that the worship of the people of God informed and shaped the rest of the music in their lives, and that music served a primary role in catechesis and memorization long before the birth of Christ.  You cannot read the record of the Old Testament or make your way through the descriptions of worship or the commands associated with the Temple or understand the Psalms without encountering a musical groundwork and expectation.  Contrary to those who begin with the question what parts should we sing, the history of worship in the Old and New Testament was the presumption of song.  Indeed, the burden lay not with what parts should we sing but what parts might not be sung.

Chant certainly solidified this understanding but it did not create it.  People sang before Gregorian Chant.  Music was not something indifferent but a medium whose primary purpose and goal was to glorify God.  The cross pollination that took place went from the sacred into the secular.  Sure, there were always those who profaned the gift and made it into something ugly or even vulgar.  That is the abuse of sin toward the things of beauty created by God for us and for us to use in the worship of God.  But the exception is not the rule.  The baudy, lewd, erotic, vulgar, and trivial are always the abuses of the gift and its form and function but never the rule.  Sacred music did not rescue the best of the secular but secular always profaned what was good, beautiful, noble, and the highest of our human offering.

In the age of Taylor Swift and a music industry that has become a very big business, we often forget this.  Where sacred music was the heavy hitter as far as the musical industry of the past, it now functions as the poor stepchild.  Worse, the cross pollination has robbed the sacred of its very character and identity and created a mixed genre in which it is nearly impossible to tell by the sound whether it is meant for the holy or the profane.  Contemporary Christian Music has exploited this to make itself into the largest segment of church music dollar wise.  Even liturgical congregations seem drawn to the idea of performance music in the idiomatic style of the day as a fit replacement for the choral, hymnic, and chant music of the past and present.  We have forgotten, however, that this was something new not that long ago.

Music today has become largely profane and not simply in terms of its venue.  The words speak of raw sex without moral inhibition or love and the vulgarities that inhabit the lyrics have made words once unspoken into normal speech.  The rhythms and beat of this music are designed less to communicate the text than to excite emotion and encourage the free surrender to it.  Could it be that as sacred music has diminished both in place and popularity, the secular music has become even more profane?  There is one thing missing today and that is any remnant of the cross pollination of the sacred into the secular.  It has become a one way street going the opposite direction.  This has ended up with the betrayal of what Luther once posited -- that music is the servant of the Word [text].  We have not been made more noble by this musical expression and that is exactly in contrast to the work and purpose of sacred music which does ennoble us as people as well as enshrine beauty as a very important cause.

Listen to the examples below and how, though different, they inspire, encourage, and draw us out of ourselves and into the realm of God's own beauty, majesty, and love.  If we heard more of this, might we be less satisfied by what passes for music in the pop count downs of every other genre?



Thursday, April 25, 2024

The mess of IVF. . .

A gazillion years ago the Bionic Man appeared on TV.  Col. Steve Austin was created by technology better than he was created by God.  We have the technology.  We can do this.  And so it was that science began invading the area of reproduction.  It was no longer a matter of marital love or intimacy but technology.  In the beginning it seemed destined to offer real hope to those who have had trouble conceiving.  The costs were huge but eventually insurance paid the bills.  It seemed like a reasoned and solidly moral thing to do -- to help the childless reach their dream of a son or a daughter.  But along the way IVF and the rest of the tools in the reproductive technology toolbox began to leave questions unanswered and collateral damage along the way.  Part of this is the backdrop for the Alabama Supreme Court decision and this is the part that ought to make everyone of us -- Christian or non-Christian -- uncomfortable.  The rationale of we can does not answer the question of should we.

The IVF and reproductive technology industry is a mess.  While IVF affects a very small minority of live births each year (about 2 percent in the United States), it consumes a great deal of money and leaves us with difficult questions about the status of the fertilized eggs and frozen embryos that remain -- not to mention the number aborted in order to achieve a viable pregnancy. While those who oppose IVF may appear to be mean and unsympathetic folks, that is the opposite of the case.  The most unsympathetic view of such things believes the remains from IVF are banked for a future need or tossed out like yesterday's garbage.  Why would we spend so much and go through so much disappointment to conceive if none of this meant anything?  The question is not sympathy but a compassion big enough to encompass every side of this problem.

According to the CDC “IVF Success Estimator,” the odds of a successful live birth by IVF are affected by the mother’s age, weight, underlying fertility factors, and pregnancy history. So, for a 34-year-old female of average weight and height with no underlying pathologies, using her own (fresh, not frozen) egg, the success rate is high -- close to 50 percent.  The odds decline for someone older, or with a history of ovulatory or uterine disorders, or scar tissue.  These odds are the problem.  In order to achieve success, the lab must create of multiple embryos, choose the most robust, and stockpile 8 to 20 embryos for other attempts.  Those embryonic children not implanted are left to wait out their fate in a cryogenic limbo subject to lab integrity, care, and, of course, no acts of God.  Well over a million such embryos are stored in the United States.  We have no uniform plan or procedure for what happens to them and some will undoubtedly become scientific subjects for experimentation.  

Now the odds of a successful birth decline precipitously when using embryos previously frozen.  The American Society of Reproductive Medicine reports the pregnancy success rate is between 2 and 12 percent per frozen egg.  The mess we have created is a technology ahead of our moral values and labs and physicians acting on their own moral character.  How can any of us be comforted by the fact that so many frozen embryos are in labs across America with the most likely outcome of becoming medical waste or destroyed accidentally or by equipment failure?  Good grief, we have more rules about the cribs we place our infants in and the car seats they sit in and the toys they play with than we have about over 1Million frozen embryos!  Even if you are fully onboard IVF and supportive of all that reproductive technology is doing, do you believe that this is credible or that the programs in place are acting with sufficient integrity and oversight?  

The dust up over the Alabama case forgets that the suit was brought by proponents of IVF who had invested in the promise of the technology but who insisted the clinic keeping their embryonic children in cryopreservation had not provided adequate protection, thus allowing a patient to somehow wander in and remove several embryos, causing their deaths. The parents sued to hold the clinic accountable not for the wrongful care of their property but for the wrongful death of their children.  In its opinion, the Alabama Supreme Court held that a statute protecting minors (including, as precedent held, embryos in the womb) contained no exception for embryos outside the womb. Indeed, the whole point of this lawsuit was to claim that IVF is a mess, the care provided the embryos is lax and uneven, and the duty, morally and legally, was higher rather than less.  Oddly enough, the suit wanted IVF to continue but under more stringent supervision and held to a higher standard!

Christians often prefer not knowing over a fully formed awareness of how these things work.  It is high time that we marshal the same resources we have used so effectively in the cause of life to address the mess of IVF.  Just because we can does not mean we should.  Many things possible are not beneficial -- even in an emotionally charged debate over IVF and reproductive technology we must be prepared to say that some things are just plain wrong!

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The problem of group think. . .

The liberals love to point to the flat earth idea or the idea that the earth is the center of the universe (or at least our solar system) and giggle about the foolishness of the Bible and of Christianity.  Why, nobody but a fool would take that at face value, right?  And, of course, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church made possible the continuation of a lie so obviously in conflict with the data (read science here), right?  Giggle, giggle.  Yes, how utterly stupid, naive, and foolish are those Christians who take the Scriptures at face value!  God gave us an intellect, didn't He?  That is why we need to use that intellect to correct the foolishness of the Bible.

Okay.  It was sarcastic and simplistic but it is pretty much the way people poo poo creationism and nearly everything else in Scripture that does not fit their worldview.  But could the very problem be the blinders of their worldview?  The interesting reality is not that people watched the sun rise in the East and set in the West and the stars cross through the night sky.  The interesting reality is that this idea of the earth at the center of our solar system was thoroughly attested by the data of the time.  It was not a lie jealously guarded by the Roman Catholic Church so much as it was the observable truth as people knew it.  So 500 years ago or more, there was one commonly held scientific phenomenon that gave credence to one commonly held scientific conclusion.  The earth was the center of the solar system (and perhaps the universe) and it did not move but everything around it did.  All of this was observable and noted by the great minds of the time all the way back to Ptolemy.

The very reason for the success of this geocentric model for so long wasn’t groupthink but the evidence which supported these conclusions -- better, in fact, than any alternatives including the truth. While some bemoan Christianity and its power to enforce groupthink as the reason for the mistaken, the reality is that the evidence people observed did fit this conclusion.  So, you pick the more reasonable conclusion:

  1. Either the earth is stationary, and the heavens (and everything in them) rotate about the earth (rotating 360° every 24 hours) with the moon and planets almost also in motion, OR,
  2. The stars and other heavenly bodies (except the earth) are all stationary, while the earth rotates about its axis 360° every 24 hours.

Practically everyone in the ancient, Christian, classical, and medieval world opted for the first explanation -- not the second.  The problem was not that there was no evidence for the first but that there was even less evidence for the second.  A false scientific principle was born: “absence of evidence” means “evidence of absence.”  It was the 17th century work of Lutheran Johannes Kepler to dismiss the Copernican assumption that planetary orbits must be reliant on circles and postulate the accurate heliocentric model.  He did overcome the dogma of the day with regard to this and did observe a great deal of skepticism and rejection but in the end he actually employed laws of planetary motion to prove the heliocentric model.  The problem was fixed not by rejecting the dogma of the day but by employing the laws to deal with the problems in the theory.

Groupthink today is doing the same thing -- now to discredit the Biblical integrity.  Absence of evidence has become evidence of absence in the hands of liberals and progressives.  They have become the dogmatic ones who insist that just about everything in the Biblical timeline and record must be suspect.  Archeology is proving to be the Kepler of the day, finding evidence where there was thought to be none and thus proving the Biblical timeline must be dealt with.  The example of the existence of Biblical peoples like the Hittites who were once thought to be myth until archeological record provided the evidence.  The same could be said about the Pontius Pilate's existence.  Groupthink today has marshaled the forces of a false science which is no longer open to challenge or question to insist that evolution must be the only explanation for the origins of life and all things.  We have a false science that refuses any challenge as opposed to the real science which does not automatically presume that a lack of evidence is evidence of the lack of truth.  Maybe we need a few Lutheran Keplers today to poke necessary holes in so many lines of thought that have become truth that must be held and dare not be questioned -- in everything from the origins of life and all things to sexual desire, from gender identity to the shape of marriage, from euthanasia to reproductive technology.  

Real science is never above the challenge and real science does not run away from any real confrontation.  The reality, however, is that we have in our culture, educational system, and government policy things that parade as science that are charlatans and liars.  Christianity is neither the source of this untruth nor is it the power behind it.  We are the victims of a conspiracy of lies, half-truths, and errors that have been half baked into unassailable truths that are now governing just about everything in our lives -- from the university to the legislature to the business domain.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Who controls the narrative. . .

In the months and weeks gone by we have seen political news, social commentary, and even what passes for religious reporting defined less by facts or truth than ideology.  While this is nothing new, the rarity of news that is given without commentary or slant is harder and harder to find and even more difficult to trust -- given the skepticism of our times.  The charge is laid against propaganda that masquerades as news and ideology that passes itself off as truth.  Where did we learn this?

There was a time in which the bias of media was well known and understood.  Even medium sized cities had two strong newspapers and media outlets so that the bias of one was offset by the bias of the other.  Even then, it is was less likely to bury the facts under commentary as much as it might be how the facts were treated.  When did that change?  Was it the loss of the newspapers as a powerful source of news and commentary?  Was it the invention of the news media?  Could it have been the government?  

Christopher Daly chronicles the government involvement in propaganda that substitutes as news or fact in the Smithsonian.  You can read it all there but in summary it tells the story of how President Woodrow Wilson's administration sought to control one of the pillars of democracy by implementing a plan to control, manipulate and censor all news coverage, on a scale never seen in U.S. history.  The freedom of the press is lauded as one of the most important pillars on which democracy rests but following the lead of the Germans and British, Wilson's administration used propaganda and censorship to effectively control what Americans heard and what they thought.  It ended up being an all-out war against the freedom of the press entered into because of a world war.  There have been plenty of recent articles on how ideology and governmental policy have constrained the opposition or challenge to the party line as well as become an effective wall to prevent certain truths or subjects from being openly discussed in the media.  You can read all about it but my concern is how the control of the narrative cedes this control to those who oppose you and how it affects the faith.

Christianity has done a pretty good job surrendering the narrative to those who oppose Biblical, creedal, and confessional doctrine and practice.  The only press space given to religious stories both in the public media and in social media is that which supports or extends the generally liberal or progressive view of things overall.  Consider the debate over Christian nationalism and how the media has chosen to portray not simply that subject but to define who fits under that umbrella.  Long ago the conservative Christian theological and moral position became a pariah on university campuses and among the intellectual elite in culture and politics.  It is not simply a matter of what is told but how it is told.  Consider how the Alabama Supreme Court ruling on the status of fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses created by reproductive technology has been covered.  Again, it is not simply a matter of whether we hear the story but the lens through which the story is told.

I realize that to many Christians this is a messy thing and they do not want to get their hands dirty.  Neither do I.  But I also realize that unless we reclaim the narrative and learn how to separate the ideology from the truth, we may end up not simply persona non grata but people without access to the public square at all.  Surely this is what is trying to happen in Finland with its persecution of MP Paivi Rasanen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola.  It is not enough to be acquitted when charged.  We must learn how to express ourselves and speak forth the truth in an age increasingly unfriendly to and without access to this Biblical truth and moral perspective.  By no means should we be mean or resentful.  We must be reasoned but no less passionate than the ideological enemies of the truth of God's Word against whom we are fighting.  We must proceed in full awareness that the media no longer guarantee a fair hearing to our cause and that they have become ideologically biased against the true Gospel and its practice.  But we must not surrender the narrative to their distortions or to the slant given them by the progressive worldview that underlies such opposition.  Perhaps this is exactly what Jesus meant in saying that the sons of darkness are shrewer than the children of Light or we must be wise as serpents while still as innocent as doves.  The time has long ago passed when we can could on any news outlet or social media to present the objective truth on just about anything and this also includes the objective truth of God's Word.

Monday, April 22, 2024

The Lord is my Shepherd...

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (B), preached on Sunday, April 21, 2024.

There is hardly an image more precious to us than to call the Lord our Good Shepherd.  There are perhaps a dozen overt references to God as our Shepherd but there are another 50 or so indirect mentions that imply or infer the same. Can you imagine a funeral without the 23rd Psalm?  Or Sunday school children not singing “I am Jesus little lamb?”  No, we are pretty wedded to the Lord as our Good Shepherd but yet with that comes some difficult things for us to swallow.

In the world to call someone a sheep is to insult them.  It accuses them of not being individuals but herd animals who cannot think or act on their own.  It presumes that we are spoon fed people who cannot chew upon the real facts.  We are crowd people who find the safest place to be in the anonymous middle of a large group.  We accuse our enemies of being sheep.  We insist the people who belong to a different party or vote for a different candidate are sheep.  You name it.  Our enemies are always sheep but we are not.  We are independent thinkers and we are fully prepared to go it alone.  Hogwash.

How arrogant we are!  Look at the cars we drive and the clothing we wear and the movies we see and the food we eat.  None of us is unmoved by peer pressure.  We all like what the crowds like and think what the crowd thinks.  We are all sheep.  We take our cues from others.  Our enemies cannot help themselves but we are not that gullible or foolish or stupid.  We think we are God’s helpers, His sheep dogs, but not sheep.  Look at your sins.  We are sheeple.  We sin like sheeple.  We are not heros or guardians of virtue.  We are driven by lust and power.  We are gossips and hypocrites.  We are skeptics of truth and consumers of lies.  So the first truth of calling Jesus our Good Shepherd is admitting we are sheep and heeding His call to repent.  Stop trying to act like you are not who you are.

We love the image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd but we presume that this means long, slow walks in comfortable meadows with a lot of scratches behind our ears and hugs.  That is not the kind of Shepherd Jesus is.  It is not because He has no emotions or cannot show them.  It is because He shows them by dying for His sheep.  Greater love has no one than he lay down his life for his sheep.  Who does that?  Only Jesus.  Jesus does not call us sheep to put us down – our sins have already done that.  Jesus calls us sheep because it is sheep for whom He has come to die.  He calls us sheep out of love.  Out of love the Shepherd dies for His sheep.   So if you are not a sheep, Jesus is not your Good Shepherd; He has nothing for you
This sheep and shepherd business is not the romantic stuff of idyllic images.  The most pastorale setting we are given is a cross and a Shepherd who dies for stupid, selfish, herd animals like you and me.  To call Jesus our Good Shepherd is to admit we are sheep and that shepherding is not nice and easy but hard and costly – even to death upon a cross.  But if this is what the Good Shepherd will do so that you might belong to Him, then cry out a Thanks Be To God for the world has never seen such love before.  

This Good Shepherd not only dies for you but lives for you.  The grave could not contain Him and now He lives so that you and I will be shepherded into the presence of God.  He is still your shepherd.  He will watch over you the whole of your life.  He will protect you from all your enemies and sometimes that means even protecting you from yourself.  He will guide you to the rich and verdant pastures of His Word, through the still quiet waters of baptism, and set His table for you in the presence of all your enemies.  The shepherd’s job is not simply to guard the sheep but to bring them through the valley of the shadow and into the mountain of God’s presence where they will dwell in safety forever.  This is what Jesus does for you.

We all know, however, that just as there are false teachings about the Good Shepherd, there are also false shepherds teaching people lies for truth and stealing away those for whom Christ died.  You are sheep.  Don’t be stupid sheep.  Do not be blindly led to destruction because you do not know God’s Word well enough to separate the false from the true.  Do not be a stranger to God’s House so what it always feels like your first time here.  Do not forget what Jesus teaches you and remember whatever the world is ranting about or selling in this moment.  The Good Shepherd deals only in truth because only truth saves.

You are what you eat.  Feed on Christ and you will grow up into Christ, beginning to look like Him in the thoughts you think, the words you say, and the works you do.  God has not come to feed your fragile egos and tell you that you are just fine the way you are.  That is the lie.  The truth is that you are dead without your Good Shepherd and your truth and your feelings will betray you to destruction.  God has called you to be kind but do you know what kindness looks like?  It looks like Jesus.  It sounds like Jesus.  Forgive as you have been forgiven.  That is as kind as it gets.  If the Spirit has led you to green pasture, lead others also in Christ’s presence.  Kindness is not about being soft but about truth.  That is also Christ.

Have you ever noticed that lambs know who has the milk?  Why is it that we don’t?  We are sheep but we need to be wise and discerning sheep.  We need to long for the true spiritual milk of God’s Word and know where that food is found.  We need to grow up into Christ who is our head, imitating the godly as they imitate Christ but refusing to imitate sin.  We cannot remain children who are susceptible to lies and deception but wise to the ways of the world so that we may avoid them and recognize what is of Christ and what is not.

We may like the image of Jesus as Good Shepherd and the romance of little lambs but the reality is better than the imagination.  Jesus does not love us with words or little acts of kindness.  He loves us to the cross.  He has put Himself between us and our enemies.  He allows Himself to be ravaged in the pain of death so that we might be kept to everlasting life.  Yes, we are sheep and herd animals but let us at least know which herd is the right one, where God’s Word is preached in truth and purity and where Christ’s table is set in accordance with His Word and will.

The Lord is my shepherd.  And we are His sheep.  Each of us a lamb of His own redeeming, for whom He died and in whom we now live.  The Lord is my shepherd.  And we are His sheep.  His presence and His voice and His table is set among us beckoning us to come to Him and never depart.  The Lord is my shepherd.  Ans we are His sheep.  Now in the hills and valleys of this mortal life and in the hillside of His eternal grace on high, where death and darkness can no more confuse or destroy us.  Thanks be to God!  Christ is risen.

The Jesus we want. . .

I have read any number of attempts to define how Jesus was as a child.  Some would insist that He is the righteous and dutiful Son of Mary even as He is the righteous and dutiful Son of God.  Others like to speculate that there might have been a little bit of naughtiness in Jesus -- well, if not naughtiness then youthful indiscretion and playful spirit.  The point that people try to make is that we do not know.  Scripture says little to shed real light on the nature of Jesus' childhood or childish fantasy.  Or does it?

It would seem that we know all we need to.  He was subject to His parents (Luke 2:51), about His Father's business (Luke 2:49), grew in stature and knowledge (Luke 2:40), and even in stature before men (Luke 2:52).  Are these not enough to suggest that though our Lord's divinity remained hidden, it was not absent nor was it so hidden that it was not noticed?  We want to believe that Jesus was a boy like every other boy in large measure because that covers us from all sorts of boyish foolishness and error.  But the reality is that Jesus was not a boy like every other boy precisely because there was no boy like Him.  Even if we were not fully conscious of this from the beginning, He was.  Mary pondered all these things in her heart and as Mother of our Lord taught Him through her example and her pondering to know all that surrounded His conception and birth.  In this, she is no different than any other mother even if Jesus is not exactly the same as every other boy.

We also want to believe that Jesus was a snap at carpentry -- having learned from master carpenter Joseph and having the adeptness of a natural being the Son of God.  But as the earthly carpenter is concerned with earthly dwellings, our Lord was born to build a heavenly dwelling place, a mansion with many rooms, to be filled with all those who love His appearing.  He goes there to prepare a place for us that we may be where He is and He with us forever.  Jesus building is not for Habitat for Humanity -- as noble and laudable as their work might be.  No, He is come to build a new heavens and a new earth and not to fix the errors or tinker with the limitations of this one.  He tabernacles in the womb of Mary and in the dust of the earth so that we might tabernacle with Him as sons and daughters of the Most High and tabernacle not in a grave but in the resurrection of the body for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

We are always trying to make Jesus more like us.  Odd.  Jesus is always working by the Spirit to make us more like Him.  While Christianity has certainly been successful in trying to hide Jesus in the earthly clothing not only of His flesh but our image, He will prevail to make us into Him, wearing the image of our Savior placed upon us in Baptism to shine like the stars of heaven forevermore.  

Sunday, April 21, 2024

But you won't what?

I read a great deal and write notes and then cannot recall where the little phrases which I wrote down actually came from.  Today is one of those days.  It is a great line for those who find worship boring.  Apparently the context was someone who was gung ho on Jesus but found most worship boring and so had stopped attending church.  In spite of this he insisted that he would gladly die for Jesus -- so deep was his faith and commitment.  But the responder asked why he would be willing to die for Jesus but refused to be bored for Him.  Yup.  Worth a laugh there but it is the kind of nervous laugh that hits you where you live.

We love action.  We love to be engaged in doing things.  We love to be the judges of what is true, relevant, and important.  What we do not love is waiting.  We do not want to wait on anyone and not even the Lord.  Going through Acts with a Bible study we were struck at the length of Paul's preaching -- well into the night.  That would never work here.  Sunday fits a schedule block.  It cannot go past its borders or it will infringe upon something else on our schedules.  Certainly those with small children could not have been expected to stay because responsible parenting means you get your kids home and tucked into bed at a reasonable hour.  But the real issue is that it would take an exceptional communicator to hold our attention for that long and either Paul was one and pastors today are not or they had nothing better to do.  In any case, it would not work here.

I get that from time to time and I expect every pastor does.  Our worship services are seldom less than 75 minutes and we do not have cup holders in the pew for a caffeine fix along the way.  My sermons are generally about 15 minutes and some longer.  Worship is an investment.  It is an investment of your time, of your attention, of your energy, and of your commitment.  Worship can seem boring in comparison to an action movie or a video game or even something that we find interesting but the rest of the world does not.  The problem is not making worship interesting.  The problem is working on the self-control to pay attention to what is taking place.

We have endeavored to make worship as painless as possible -- you can pick and choose a style that fits you, watch it at home in your pajamas, drink coffee or soda, exit for bathroom breaks, mute the sound, and surf the options like every other entertainment choice.  What these choices have not done is increased the numbers of the faithful or worship attendance overall.  For those who are quick to protest my judgement, I would suggest you look at the statistics and find out just how long your online viewers are actually watching.  My guess is that only a small percentage watch it all, about a third watch a significant chunk, and the rest are there for a few minutes and then gone.  We love Jesus but apparently we do not love Him enough to be bored. 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

A shell game. . .

The Church of England, like many established sects, is waning. By Its own statistics it has revealed that in 2022 the “worshipping community” was less than one million, with weekly attendance at 654,000.  Could it be that the Church of England is actually smaller than the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod?  Well, at least their endowment is bigger!

Statistics tell you little about why things are happening but only what is happening.  In the case of the good ole C of E, the decades of secularization, the waning influence of Scripture, and the lack of any doctrinal consensus have taken their toll.  They are a bare echo of their former self.  As true as this is, it is not always easy to digest.  An Anglophile like me imagines that grand cathedrals and city churches along with the rural chapels are all full.  They are full of nothing, least of all people.  Some have suggested that this is a bad thing -- even for those who never were or desired to be Anglican or even mainline Christian.  I suppose it is.  But the time to reverse the trend of ailing Christianity in Europe has come and gone.  For now, there may not always be a C of E anymore.

There are those who say that the decline of Protestantism was inevitable.  There are those who claim that it is still not too late to revive the dying churches of American Protestantism.  If so, it is about time to wake up and, shall I say it, smell the roses!  I do not know.  But this I do know, that the effectiveness of offering a church that does not stand for much of anything and does not demand it at all is going down the tubes.

Honestly, I just do not get it.  Forget the theology for now.  How has the vast liberalization of the theology and practice of Christians helped to fill the pews?  Yeah, you get it.  It has not.  It has not even staved off the impending disaster.  It has hastened it.  So why on earth would we want to emulate churches who fail to call anyone to repentance and who seem to delight in having fun poking pot shots at the message of Scripture?  Could it be that for all of us the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is that we feel better about ourselves for having failed to speak any courageous truth to anyone?  If people think you might be benign, why jump the gun and prove it to them as to remove all doubt?

While I take no joy in any Christian churches being emptied or closed because they offer a half-baked version of what people already believe, I take even less joy over those who look at conservative churches and say we are too rigid or too doctrinaire or too narrow-minded.  There is only one thing confessional churches have to learn from the likes of the CoE -- don't do what they have done.  Do not surrender the Gospel to your truth or the hope within us to feelings or the historicity of the faith to myth and legend.  Do not give up the liturgy for what feels good or seems right in the moment or presume that if you keep the form without the substance or presume that you can keep the substance without the form of the liturgy.  Do not depend upon bishops instead of the Word of God or keep the Word but forget to endow certain of the clergy with the responsibility for supervision of doctrine and practice.  We need all of these working together to sustain us and equip us to speak forth what we believe in a world where death has become normal.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Attendance or Adherence?

Reading some of the critics of current political office holders, the current President being one of them, in which the complaint is that going to mass substitutes for believing in the doctrine of Rome.  Indeed, the particular issue was put thusly:  [Roman] Catholicism is treated as an inherited identity, and devotion is measured by attendance, not adherence.  Now there is an oddity.  Usually the complaint is that those who claim to adhere but do not attend are the problems.  Now it is those who attend but who do not adhere.  I am at a loss to know what to say to this.  Jesus gives no cover for either.  I guess I will start with Him.

Jesus takes to task the religious authorities of the day precisely because they separated faith in the heart (shall we call this adherence) from the outward observance (shall we call this attendance).  Whether to the Pharisees (white washed tombs) or the Sermon on the Mount (and its piety for the approval of men), Jesus insists that you do not choose between either adherence or attendance.  It was His custom to attend -- a back handed way of saying it ought to be ours as well.  But that attendance was no mere habit (as good as the good habit of worship attendance is).  It was also adherence and the confession of nothing less than the whole counsel of God's Word (as we used to say).  Jesus is not about to choose between attendance or adherence and He will not let you or me off the hook either.  It is not and never was a choice between going or believing.  It should not be for us, either.

To attend is not some individual activity but expects and gives witness to your support for what is believe, taught, and confessed in that mass (or Divine Service).  It is a modern invention to presume that being there has nothing whatsoever to do with confessing what happens there as your own.  But it works conveniently to undermine the whole idea of close(d) communion and it makes legitimate the idea that you go where you feel at home no matter what that church stands for.  I hear it all the time.  Lutherans who insist that they are attending the Baptist mega church or big box evangelical for the sake of their children, a sports program, or because that is where their friends go -- but, they insist, that does not mean they have abandoned their Lutheran faith.  That usually lasts until it becomes uncomfortable not to be baptized as their church defines it and then that baby is thrown out with the baptismal water.  For whatever reason, they find it easier to hide behind the idea that Christ is somehow present in some sort of way in the Sacrament even in a Baptist or evangelical church.  Where you worship has nothing whatsoever to do with what you believe is a modern invention by those who invented the style vs substance idea.  Of course, it is a lie.  Everyone knows that -- eventually.  Then comes the comfort that at least they are attending.  The Word of God is generally present somewhere in Christian churches and it is not without effect.  We all admit that.  But the Word is often a still small voice in comparison to the shouted refusal to believe, confess, or teach the creedal or confessional faith of their own tradition -- much less the catholic faith of the Scriptures and tradition.  Or perhaps the loudest voice is the voice of self-improvement justified by some little tidbit of Scripture.  Not so much comfort left now, is there.

The point is this.  It matters where you go and it matters that you go.  Go where the Scriptures are preached and where the worship is a clear and honest reflection of that Word of God.  Go where worship is not a man centered work either for us or for God but God's service to us of His Word and Sacraments so that we might respond with praise from our lips, obedience from our hearts, understanding from our minds, and good works of our hands.  Go not as a person looking for a church home that fits you to a tee but go where the Word of God is proclaimed so that it makes you uncomfortable and where the worship is informed by the catholic and apostolic forms in service to that Word.  Go because you believe and because you want faith to grow and your life to grow (in holiness).  But go and pay attention to what happens there.  It seems that this is often lost on us today.  We go when we feel it and we pay little attention to what happens unless it entertains or amuses us.  Perhaps that is the modern problem.  We neither adhere nor attend.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

What does this mean?

By now you should have already heard about the controversy surrounding the funeral for Cecilia Gentili at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  I should not need to remind you but just in case you have forgotten the details, Gentili was a transgender prostitute, an atheist, and a misogynist whose life epitomized everything that the Roman Catholic Church is against.  Yet somehow or other she was given a Church funeral in one of the most prominent Roman Catholic sanctuaries in America.  As if that were not problem enough, the service as not quite by the book and featured prayers for transgender rights and a eulogy that praised Gentili as “Saint Cecilia, the mother of all whores.”  Before you get upset, remember that the priest in charge already apologized and by explanation said he had no idea of what was to transpire in the service. I am sure we are all sighing with relief right now.  It is done.  Move on, right?

Except for this issue.  The same thing will inevitably happen again.  That is what happens at all kinds of funerals, including those in churches.  Families and friends take over the service in order to make it personal, relevant to the individual, and a statement of some kind or another.  In its more benign forms it may be an ode to a favorite sports team or hobby.  Its more troubled form may be the substitution of sentiment for faith, storytelling for the Gospel, and secular music for songs of the faith.  Its worst forms are when the church is merely the venue and faith is conspicuously absent from eulogy, liturgy, and homily.  You do not have to be a dead trans prostitute for this to happen.  It happens everyday in funeral homes and in churches.  We have lost control of what happens in the celebrations of life that masquerade as modern day rites of death.  We have lost the narrative and are no longer even in charge.  Clergy and churches have become mere venues, familiar places, and rental spaces for the grieving to do what they think will make them feel better.  I understand why this happens in the funeral home since the family is paying the bill but nobody has the right to make a fool of God or God's servants.  We have to do more than apologize for things getting out of control.  We need to be the people in charge -- even if this means saying no and risking some bad publicity or an offended family member.

Funerals are not opportunities for self-expression -- either of the dead or the living.  They are the places where God's story is told because that is the only story that offers any hope or answer to the elephant in the room in the form of the dead body (or ashes).  St. Patrick's should not be allowed to get off the hook by saying they did not know what was about to happen.  Of course they did.  We all know what will happen if the pastor and parish musician are not there to say this is what the funeral is and this is what it is not.  Worse than merely desecrating the sacred space, this offends against the very faith itself and makes us and the God whom we worship fools before the world.  As sinners, we already do enough of this.  We do not need to help out our critics by giving them opportunity to mock the cross and empty tomb while we sit in vestments and watch it all unfold before us.  Have you gone to a typical funeral lately -- pardon me, celebration of life?  I watched with horror not long ago as a mic was passed around at the invitation of the presiding clergy so that the folks could tell their funniest story at the expense of the deceased.  I got up and left.  You should to.  This is not what it means to be friendly to those outside the faith.   

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

But can they read?

Luther famously championed public education for children but not for the generic purpose of education itself.  His desire was for people to be able to read the Scriptures.  Now, it would seem that education is for nearly every purpose except that.  But in our penchant for making schools responsible for so many other things, it just might be that reading itself has gone wanting as a skill and ability.

Some blame the politicization of schools and it is certainly true that our schools have become a politicized environment.  While this is not true strictly in the sense of Republican or Democrat, it is true that we as a nation have begun to use the school system as a social incubator in which to try our new ideas about everything.  This includes the subjects of ordinary instruction (new math) but it increasingly also includes the implementation of controversial social engineering such as the alphabet soup of sexual desire and gender orientation.  There may have been a time when it was about which books were suggested or required reading and which books were banned.  We all remember the games played by political groups to get things on or off of reading lists.  The unfortunate outcome of all of this is that this has been accompanied by a dramatic decline in the reading skills of our youth and our adults.

Some of this is not surprising.  Surely every generation has felt that the younger cohort is going to hell in a handbasket!  Hasn't it been the common complaint of teachers at every level that their students are simply not as prepared as previous generations?  Even Socrates complained about this and with him every teacher since. That does not mean they were wrong or the stereotype of the modern student ill-equipped to handle anything without a screen is wrong.  Despite No Child Left Behind or Common Core, every generation thinks the younger generation is failing to make the grade or cut as they did.  I once compared the requirements for graduation in the early 1900s in Minnesota to the present day curriculum and expectations.  You already know how we fared today.  It was not even a horse race.

There are reasons for this.  The age of children were raised with ubiquitous screens is now college age.  It is no coincidence that the iPhone itself, originally released in 2007, has has less than salutary effects on our ability to read and our endurance at reading.  This book is often tossed aside in favor of the dopamine hit they get from their omnipresent screens.  In contrast, the pleasures of the page are much more subtle.  COVID-19 gets blamed. The necessity of those measures put in place during the pandemic is still up for debate but not the learning loss of those who were in school at the time.  Across every level of education we find a profound impact that will continue to be felt for the next decade or more. In any case, it should be no surprise that online is not the same as inclass.  Don't forget the hate the phonics folks who insisted upon ditching what had been used for generations.  And there are those standardized tests, perhaps a distraction but now consuming a very important part of a child's whole educational experience.  Reading and writing are not what they used to be yet this is not mere nostalgia but a growing awareness that while we concerned about what our kids were reading, they did not learn to read at all.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Love those collects. . .

On Easter 3 in the Lutheran Service Book we prayed:

O God, through the humiliation of Your Son You raised up the fallen world. Grant to Your faithful people, rescued from the peril of everlasting death, perpetual gladness and eternal joys; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

It is a wonderful collect with a long history and a particular favorite of mine.  In the Latin it is:

Deus, qui Filii tui humilitate iacentem mundum erexisti: fidelibus tuis sanctam concede laetitiam; ut, quos perpetuae mortis eripuisti casibus, gaudiis facias perfrui sempiternis.  Amen.

The 1962 Latin is but a word or word form off from the Gelasian Sacramentary for the Sunday after the Octave of Easter, which fell April 14 this year. Deus, qui in filii tui humilitatem iacentem mundum erexisti, laetitiam concede <fidelibus tuis>, ut quos perpetuae <mortis> eripuisti casibus, gaudiis facias sempiternis perfruere.  So it is pretty close.  Collects are remarkably consistent over time.

Two different words in the prayer are used for the English joy: gaudium and laetitia. While you could spend your time trying to mark the distinctions within each term, it might be rabbit hole.  Suffice it to say that most Latin dictionaries would suggest that gaudium is interior joy while laetitia a more outward expression of joy.  You did note that guadium is plural -- many joys!  I do not know the background behind the translation used in LSB except that it is familiar to us from The Lutheran Hymnal.  It is a poetic but faithful translation of the Latin and shows us the elegance of words that do not simply give a literal expression of the original but place it in the best English.  This also is typical of the collects of the Church Year -- another reason to pray them daily following the Sunday for which these were appointed.