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.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Storms and the God who stills them. . .

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 7B, preached on Sunday, June 23, 2024.

This may be one of our favorite texts of comfort but it is not a text without a challenge to the people of God.  In fact, there are hard words hidden in this sweet story.  The first one is the setting itself.  The simplest of tasks is fraught with danger and fear.  Life is not easy.  The world blows against us with ill winds and then we find ourselves in the midst of a storm.  Even though Jesus stills the storm, He still rebukes the disciples along with the wind and the wave.  “O ye of little faith!”  They accept the rebuke primarily because they were saved – as long as God rescues you, you can tolerate such hard language, I guess.  But there is more.

The promise that faith guarantees and easy life is a false one.  All those who put words into the mouth of God as if He were here to make our lives easier and better must eat their words.  The storms come.  In fact, the storms can be caused by faith.  If we were not of God’s kingdom and went along with the ways of the world, many of the storms in our souls and in our lives would disappear.  We have a life of struggle precisely because we hearken to the voice of God and not the voice of the world.  Storms come with faith and they are often because of faith.

The disciples in the boat might have thought like you and me that following Jesus would count for something.  At least they would be spared some of the storms of life and their lives preserved because of the work they were called to do.  That is the great temptation for church workers.  “Geez, God, we give You our lives – the least You can do is cut us a little slack.”  That is your great temptation, too.  But in that boat are disciples who will all suffer and all but John will die because of Jesus.  The ten will die a martyrs’ death at the hands of Jesus’ enemies and Judas will die a death of despair because he betrayed Jesus – only John will die a natural death.  We look for a storm-less life but God promises to be right there with us in the storm and to carry the faithful through those storms to perfect peace.

Then there is Jesus asleep in the back of the boat.  Like the disciples we presume this to mean God either is not paying attention to the storms in our lives or He does not care about them.  Both would be false conclusions.  The panic of the disciples is not caused by God.  Jesus’ rebuke insists their panic is because of their lack of faith.  Jesus sleeps not because He does not care or does not feel the threat.  He sleeps because He has absolute faith in the Father.  The disciples not only do not have faith in the Father, but they do not think Jesus is helping their cause either.

In that respect, the disciples did not even think to pray.  Unless you call their panicked words designed to rouse from sleep a God who seems to nap while the world goes to hell in a handbag prayer.  No, Jesus has it right; we don’t have much confidence in God and our prayers are less words of faith addressed to the Father than they are litanies of complaint about why we think this bad thing that happened to us is unfair.  To rest in Christ means to rest our hearts in Christ through prayer.  The storms will come but the prayer of the righteous accomplishes much.

The faith that we hold is not a method of avoiding troubles or trials.  We come together not to find a secret path around the mountains of fear, worry, pain, and suffering in our lives but to find a way through them.  Faith is not given to us so that we might escape the storms of life but so that we will not be overcome by them.  Now there is something to gnaw on.  God does not mean us to find a detour around trouble but to make us strong enough by the storms to weather trouble and overcome it.  Faith is a gift and a blessing not because if you have it that faith will never be tested but because in the time of test God is with us and He puts the full weight of all His resources to bear so that you will endure and be saved.

Another painful truth of this story is that we should not be afraid of pain, suffering, troubles, and trials.  Greater is He who is in YOU than he who is in the world.  In time of trouble, call upon the Lord.  Don’t panic or give in or run away but call on the Lord.  That is the promise of the Psalms.  Call upon the Lord in the day of trouble and He will deliver you.  The sin of the disciples is to panic for that panic leads to despair and the fear of it will cripple you and leave you even more vulnerable the next time it comes along.  Listen to our talk about the world and how bad things are.  Are we speaking honestly of the state of the world or are echoing the panic of the disciples?  Or, worse, have we given up hope?

Another painful truth of this story is that God uses storms for our good.  That is the lesson none of us wants to learn but all of us must learn.  The storms are big and powerful and threatening but God is at work in the storms as much as He is at work in the calm.  Whether cancer or loss of job or threat of imprisonment or the loss of friendships – the Lord is with us.  Whom shall we fear?  Living by faith alone is not a lesson you learn in a life without test or trouble.  The surest test of a ship is not how it looks in dry dock but how she handles the winds and the waves.  That is true of you and me.  You cannot depend upon the world’s ease and comfort without risking your faith being swamped by storms.  The storms strengthen faith.

That is how precious we are.  God will test us to preserve us and not to see what we look like when we break. Like Abraham ready to sacrifice his one and only son Isaac or Job who loses everything but God, the tests are not so that we will fail but so that we will succeed  Success looks like faith, living by faith, trusting in the Lord when eye cannot see nor emotions feel nor lives betray the hand of God at work.  Like Christ, we take the Lord at His Word.

The crosses you bear are crosses of faith.  How much do you trust the Lord to do what He has said and promised?  We fear that God keeps putting one more thing on our plate in order to see how much it will take to destroy us.  God already knows that.  We don’t.  So God tests us so that we may see He is reliable and trustworthy and so that we may learn that with Him all things are possible.  God has not come to condemn you nor has He saved you only to lose you to the enemies you have in this world or your own impatience or fear.  Look to Jesus and you will endure.  Listen to the voice of His Word.  Confess your sins.  Remember your baptism. Eat His body.  Drink His blood.  Pray.  Praise.  Give thanks in every circumstance.  He has called you by name.  When you pass through the waters, you will not drown.  For the Lord your God has become Your Savior.  The biggest storms Jesus must still are not out there somewhere but here, in our hearts, calming in us the storms of fear and panic and anxiety that would steal our faith.

Who is this who commands wind and wave?  It is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Moses and Joshua; the God of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and all the prophets; the God of the Psalms.  The God whose face is Jesus, whose heart is love, whose power is greater even than death, and whose life will raise us from the dead.  The disciples thought it was just Jesus napping on the pillow in the back of their boat.  Maybe you do also.  But Jesus is the Son of the Most High,, with authority over all things, and He uses that power to show mercy to the disciples tossed on a stormy sea and to you and me trying to keep our heads above water today.  My friends, for the Christian, success looks like faith and faith trusts in the faithfulness of the Lord.  In the Holy Name of Jesus.  Amen.

The pull of pills. . .

As I was talking with a parishioner about their health, the individual mentioned the difficulty had in trying to manage all their medications.  Mind you, we were here talking about prescriptions and not over the counter drugs.  In the end, the individual was taking some 26 different pills every day and some of those multiple times a day.  I am no doctor nor am I a pharmacist and I certainly am not in a position to challenge their medical advice.  What I am noting, however, is the pill train that many of us, especially senior citizens, are on.  On the other hand, my father was on no prescription medicines until his death and had only every been hospitalized once and that to replace both knees at age 80.  Along the same lines, I visit a 97 year old homebound retired nurse who takes no medications and lives on her own with visits from her daughter.  So where do you fit on this spectrum?  More or less?

We have come to expect to be on medication.  We tend to be disappointed if we go to the doctor and do not get a pill as a result of that visit.  We have been pushed into everything from vaccines to preventive meds that promise a great deal.  I am not sure they deliver.  What they have done, however, is to make us reliant on the pills and meds we take and incentivized the pill train.  On top of this, they have greatly maximized the power and influence of big pharma.  The evidence of this is on TV and the endless drug commercials by the big pharmaceutical companies who know that the pill train is making them big money.  Our question ought to be is it really helping us out and delivering on its promises?

In contraception this is even more true.  Believe it or not, the world of medicine and big pharma is worried that younger women are starting to look at the down side of the pill and choosing other forms of contraception.  Their fear, of course, is that this is the tip of the iceberg.  Indeed, the pill has been one of the most effective ad campaigns of the modern era and the beginning of what, for many, has been a life-long ride on the pill train. 

Speaking personally, I grew up being resistant to the idea that every pain means a trip to the doctor and the pharmacy.  When I married a nurse, I learned to trust and invest more in the medical industry.  At some point, however, both of us became concerned about power of big pharma and the one way street of more and more medications.  It was not cost related.  Our insurance is pretty good.  But it was exacerbated by the pandemic when the rush to a new vaccine became a stampede started by a combination of government, medicine, and big pharma.  I would not be honest if I did not admit that our trust in medical personnel and institutions has been shaken.  We are even now working to remove as many regular or occasional meds as we can and, believe it or not, some doctors are beginning to agree.  

The pull of pills is not simply the Bermuda Triangle of physicians, pharmaceuticals, and providers in medicine for profit.  It is our own inherent weakness.  We abhor pain and we refuse to practice any sort of self-denial.  We reject that any suffering must or ought to be endured.  We self-medicate with a host of things -- including some of what passes for religion -- in our pursuit of an easier, safer, painless life (and death).  Add onto this the idea that physician assisted or medically enabled death should be the painless and cost-free option available to any who desire it and you begin to see what I mean.  The investiture of the medical establishment with the power of God is a spiritual problem as much as it is a physical one.  We are in search of something sin has destroyed and, as a culture, we refuse to invest faith with any of the answers we desire.  We have turned Christianity into a means of accomplishing your wish list instead of an encounter with a holy and merciful God.  We look at the cross as if it were merely a symbol and we reject any call to discipleship that might mean we must bear one as well.  No, the pull of pills is marked by our push away from anything that costs us something in pursuit of an insular life.  The problem with this is that it does not lead to happiness or contentment.  In fact, it leads to even more despair, more pills, and more treatment of symptoms while the causes of our angst are ignored.

The pull of pills is a consequence of the transformation of the Christian gospel and worship into some form of therapeutic deism without doctrine or form and certainly without room for pain or suffering.  While some contemplate what sort of life this might be, I fear that it is the exact outcome of a religion in which doing what seems right in your own eyes is not only sanctioned but heralded. 

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Self-conscious clergy. . .

When I was in seminary, I was encouraged never to speak to the congregation as "you" in the sermon but to speak in the "royal we" in which you include yourself -- especially when you are calling your people to repentance.  Unspoken is the idea here that it is somehow unseemly and causes an unhealthy distance between pastor and people.  Curiously enough, I think that pastors are far more likely to be self-conscious about this than the people of God.  Most of God's people are smart enough to know that the pastor does not serve them as nor does he preach to them because he has a better or more personal righteousness than anyone else int he congregation.  My people know me.  They know my weakness, temptations, and sin perhaps even better than I do.  But they also know that I am not preaching myself or my own righteousness to them or before them but the Word of God that endures forever.

My point is less about what pronouns you use in preaching than the weakness of pastors who are too self-conscious about their role and vocation as pastors.  If your people know you are not called pastor because you have the highest cumulative righteousness quotient, why can't you as the pastor get over it and come to the same realization?  Sometimes we pastors are our own worst enemies.  We parade a false humility by suggesting that a clerical collar is just not me or Eucharistic vestments are too fancy or self-communion is too Catholic, a suit is too formal, or because we too are sinners we dare not call God's people to repentance.  Baloney.  God has not called you to a spirit of timidity.  Act like who you are as those shepherds whom the Lord has made overseers (bishops, for Pete's sake) over the flock in that place.  

We pastors worry that people will not figure out that we are just people, just sinners, and so we feel the false need to remind them and ourselves of this reality.  Our churches are not cults of personality even though we act as if this were a real danger among us Lutherans.  That is hardly a real danger among us.  There is a real danger, however, that our people will capitalize upon our false humility and our rejection of our role and vocation in order to dismiss what we preach and teach.  The pastor's role and vocation are challenged not by pastors who presume that they are Jesus but by the pastors who refuse to be Jesus to their people and who act as if they would prefer to be on the other side of the pulpit instead of in it.  The humility which says you need to be just a normal guy to your people is no humility at all but an excuse to cover up your own discomfort at being called not to be a friend or buddy to God's people but their shepherd in Christ.  Honestly, I have seldom met a person who was offended by their pastor acting like a pastor but I have heard many complain that their pastor was no different from them and therefore not worth listening to.  Pastors, be the pastor and if you are not interested in being the pastor to God's people, do them and us all a favor and get out of the ministry until you are ready to assume the mantle of office the Church confers.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

I don't want to talk. . .

While listening to an interview on the radio, I heard that the new way of being one church for the not so United Methodists may well be a loose confederation of independent jurisdictions who work together but who make decisions like who can be a minister separately (aka, LGBTQ+).  The elected leader of the UMC was gushing over this idea because it would allow them better to talk and listen to each other.  At that point, I almost lost my breakfast.  So, dividing enables a richer conversation.  Wow, who knew???

At this point I should admit that I don't want to talk and I don't want to listen anymore.  In fact, I am over it.  Talking and listening is code for changing doctrine and practice.  It is not a help to maintaining the faith once delivered to the saints, that is for sure.  The American Methodists are impatient.  It has taken too long and they are weary of the opposition to fully adopting the same sex and gender identity agenda of the radical left.  They would have preferred to vote to approve the full incorporation into the life of the church and the ministry for all kinds of LGBTQ+ folks but that was not forthcoming as long as Africans had any say so.  America has the money but Africa has the people.  So because they could not succeed at the ballot box in changing doctrine and practice, they will become independent and can act without having to either appease or face the rejection of those who do not wish to change.  Frankly, that is exactly what we face in Lutheranism.  Listening and talking are code words for changing doctrine and practice.

If you do not like residential seminary training as the preferred route to ordination, let us talk and listen to one another so that you can be persuaded to change your mind.  If you do not like an ordained ministry but want to keep the function and allow freedom and flexibility with who administers the functions, let us talk and listen to one another so that you can be persuaded to change your mind. If you do not like close(d) communion, let us talk and listen to one another so that you can be persuaded to change your mind.  If you do not like the minimal restrictions placed upon the service of women in the church, let us talk and listen to one another so that you can be persuaded to change your mind.  If you do not like liturgy or formal worship and prefer evangelical style worship, let us talk and listen to one another so that you can be persuaded to change your mind.  I could go on.  In the end, talking and listening are generally code words for the liberal or progressive side doing the talking and the traditional or conservative side doing the listening so that a change in doctrine and/or practice can be effected.  

I like talking and sometimes I even like listening but not if the whole purpose of it is to effect a disconnect between us and our confessions or our fathers in the faith and our future.  That is a lie.  Give me one example where the liberals or progressives have walked back their position on anything (except a strategic delay tactic).  In culture, society, education, and religion the direction is always toward a more liberal or progressive ideal and the talking and listening are simply tools to get there.  Sadly, in politics and religion the most the conservatives have gained is to slow down the pace of the liberalization of things.  And if you do not believe me, take a look at Pope Francis and those whom he has appointed and the things he has said and done.  He talks so that Roman Catholics might listen and change their doctrine and practice.  If he keeps talking same sex couples will marry, they will bless any and every desire and identity, and they will embrace abortion and birth control so that everyone may do what is right in their own minds.  But they will not be alone.  Protestants will already be there waiting for them and with them a ton of Lutherans, too.  But not me.  And I hope not you, either.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Am I a hypocrite?

Matthew records Jesus using the word hypocrite several times.  Those who practice righteousness in order to be seen and judged by man, those who fast and show their misery at fasting, those who pray to be seen rather than to have their prayers heard by God, those who announce their generosity to the poor, those who judge the speck in the eye of another but miss the log in their own eye, those who honor Him with their lips but not with faith, and those who tithe meticulously but whose hearts are not generous -- among others -- are called hypocrites.  Quite literally it means those who hide behind a mask but Jesus condemns them because the mask they hide behind is faith and faith is not a mask at all.  Or, it should not be.  St. Paul also uses the word as a means of identifying a bad conscience, a false conscience.  This is the failure of “good faith,” preferring to deceive and using a mask to cover up what is real in order to be who you are not.

What is common here is that the intent is to deceive.  The hypocrite intends to deceive by the mask he or she wears.  It is the whole point of it all.  The whole point of it all is to appear to be someone different than you are -- to wear a mask not simply to hide what is underneath but to deceive others so that they do not believe it is there at all.  So Jesus and St. Paul both condemn the intentional deception or lie.  It is not hard to see or to minimize the harshness of the rebuke for those who act to deceive by applying a thin veneer of piety and righteousness to cover a heart empty of faith or love.  We all get that.  But that is not the only way the charge hypocrite is cast about against the Christian.

Christians have only the holiness of Christ as their sure possession.  Our own holiness and righteousness is a weak and fragile thing -- in process toward a completion God knows but we struggle to see.  The world would label those who have not attained perfection hypocrites also.  They are certainly free to use this word as they might but they are not free to enlist the support of Jesus to do so.  Jesus does not call the Christian who struggles to be holy but fails a hypocrite.  Jesus calls them a sinner of His own redeeming and a lamb of His own flock.  It is not by accident that when our Lord gathered with the disciples on Easter evening, His ordination of apostles into bishops was marked by the bestowal of the office of the keys and His gift of holy absolution.  Our Lord knew His Church would need the grace to restore the fallen and absolve the penitent and so He directly and profoundly addressed this need with Holy Absolution.  That He did this is testament to the difference our Lord notes between those who strive but fail in their pursuit of righteousness lips, thoughts, and lives to honor Him who redeemed them and those whose pride in their goodness diminishes their need for a Savior.

Christians, people in the world may call you a hypocrite for striving for the mark and missing it but our Lord does not.  He calls you His own, seeks you out with the voice of His Word, restores you through the grace of forgiveness, and works by the Spirit so you may strive again to be holy as He is holy.  Christians know who they are.  Sinners redeemed by the blood of Jesus.  This is not our shame but our glory -- that Jesus loves us sinners and forgives us our sins and restores us when we fall.  This is also why we should not dismiss such failures as human nature but lament them with the holy sorrow of repentance.  It is because we lament our sins and failures so greatly that we esteem Christ's forgiveness and restoration so highly.  The world may delight in the distance between who God says you are and your own personal righteousness but God refuses to call the Christian who strives and fails a hypocrite.  That ought to encourage us to strive even more!

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Politics and religion. . . again

Luther is credited with promoting the two kingdoms understanding and, whether true or not, with the idea of the separation of church and state.  What Luther was concerned about is less the intrusion of the government into the life of the church but the preoccupation of the church with governing.  That is something that seems lost to us now.  Now more than ever, Christians seem prone to confuse the church  with the state and to operate with more worldly forms of power.  While this is normally the accusation laid at conservative Christians, the so-called Christian nationalists, it is no less true of the liberal and progressive side of Christianity.  They are just a likely to use worldly forms of power to promote their own worldviews, values, and agendas -- perhaps even more so!

Looking back on the Nazis and their relation to the churches of Germany, it is precisely the liberals who succumbed to the lies of national socialism, the abhorrent treatment of Jews, disabled, and a host of other minorities.  In particular, you can find that when more conservative religious leaders began to support the Nazis or simply to remain silent before their extreme injustice and intolerance, they tended to move from their more conservative religious position to one more liberal or progressive.  The reality is that these theologians abandoned the transcendence of God because they believed that it had failed them and failed their nation in pursuit of the immanent goals and needs before them as people and as a country.  In other words, it is impatience with the progress of their vision that caused them to substitute social action for faith in God.  When this happened, the church became merely an agent of the powerful in their move to reshape the political and cultural identity of a nation.

Could the same be happening here?  While the world is up in arms over such things as calling Christ King and fears a Christian nationalism that will break down the barriers of church and state that they regard as the bulwark of religious freedom, Christians on the other side have already succumbed to a Christian nationalism in which deference to the culture and government have come to define what it means to be a liberal or progressive Christian.  Certainly this is true with regard to sexual desire and gender identity but it is equally true with respect to the sacredness of life issues and ecology and climate change.  These positions have become the positions of these churches and the very definition of the gospel reshaped to mirror the diversity, equity, justice, and accessibility agendas borrowed from government, education, and social liberalism.

Is America really in danger of those who call Christ King and who reflect in His rule and reign a Biblical ethic with regard to life, sexual desire, gender, the stewardship of creation, and such OR is America more in danger of a Christianity which has abdicated the Scriptures in favor of the current political and cultural agenda on nearly every subject?  Of course, it is a danger when people presume that America is a Christian nation and not simply a nation of Christians.  It is a danger when they determine to use secular laws to promote religious purposes.  But the real danger may not be from the right at all.  So far, it is struggling simply to survive in an atmosphere in which disagreement with the positions of culture and government is considered radical, hateful, and not to be tolerated.  The cooperation between liberal Christianity and the aims of our woke society is a few steps behind the cooperation between the woke culture and education in America -- but not by much.  Progressive theology and progressive government and culture are natural allies and their common enemy is the Scriptures and orthodox Christianity.  The politics of religion we need to be more concerned about is the alliance between liberal Christianity and the woke world of government, education, sexuality, and diversity.  They are far more likely to use the tools of government and law against traditional Christianity than the other way around.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Gen Z.... downer news

Generation Zers form the demographic in between the Millennials and Generation Alpha. Typically the birth years range from the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2010s and these are generally the children of Generation Xers or older Millennials. They were the first to grow up with screens, specifically the screens that access the internet.  They are also known for being more allergic, less hopeful, and having more mental health diagnoses than other generations.  When it comes to the US, this generation is known also for their overall lack of trust or belief in religion, their disappointment and disillusionment in politics and government, and for the general rejection of marriage, parenthood, and family.  In fact, Gen Zers are the least religious generation in history!  The most common psychiatric disorders among Gen Zers include ADHD, anxiety disorders, behavioral disorders, and depression.  I could go on...  Before we rush to judge them, we might look in the mirror and ask ourselves what their parents and grandparents did wrong in raising a generation so detached from the anchors that give meaning and happiness to us as people.

One thing we must admit is that the parents of these children spent more time with them and provided them with more of the fruits of their incomes, technology, and leisure than ever before.  It cannot be that it is absentee parents who sowed the seeds of such discontent.  It must be in what the parents did provide that we find some link between the great disconnect between this generation and those who went before them.  This reinforces the proposition that parents are key to their children's growth and maturity even if they are not solely responsible for them.  What parents do and what they do not do sows the seeds that bear fruit in the later teenage and adult years of their children.  Sadly, here, it is not simply a loss of values or faith but the seeds of depression and despair that seem much more prevalent with this generation than others.  Or is it that the loss of values and faith in and of itself is tied to depression and despair?  That is my point.

Faith provides an anchor and a worldview which runs counter to the churning sea of change and the prevailing norms of culture and society.  Christian faith anchors our lives in Christ's life and creates a worldview through the cross.  By failing to raise their children in this faith, even those who claim to be Christian have deprived their children of more than a choice -- they have robbed their children of a source of meaning, purpose, and hope in their lives.  

Compared to Boomers, Gen Xers seemed to be all about parenting. They are a generation that focuses on learning about parenting and caring about work-life balance. They understand the importance of individualism and tend to more freely support their children’s choices for different lifestyles more than past generations. Generation X is also a generation of parents more directly involved in their kids’ development.  Millenials are having fewer children and are less likely to be married to have kids. Technology, the internet, and social media are all major influencers in their lives as parents and in the lives of their children. This is an open-minded generation of parents who are parenting in various styles that were not common to generations before. They may have been the children of helicopter parents so they are trying to be freer parents in approach compared with older generations.  But what is common to both generations is that they do not pass onto their children a set of values or the anchor of faith.

While they focus on their children's emotional health, they do not promote a Christian identity rooted in the holy joy of their life as a child of God by baptism and as sinners forgiven and redeemed by Jesus Christ.  While they teach children to be accepting of all, they do not equip their children with objective or solid truth and so they find it hard to promote the truth of Scripture except as one version or choice.  While they allow them to explore their identities more fully, they do not promote the traditional roles of husband, wife, father and mother nor do they encourage marriage as the shape of their life and community. While they teach their children to be environmentally conscious, they do not promote a sacredness of life nor encourage the protection of life from womb to tomb.  In effect, they give their children options instead of truth and Jesus is but one of those options.


Tuesday, June 18, 2024

To love pure and chaste. . .

One of the things that has undermined nearly all Christian moral teaching is the idea that the goal is unattainable and therefore unrealistic and only imaginary.  The presumption is that it is impossible for people to live chaste lives -- whether single or married -- and so the only realistic option to deal with it all is to find a way to normalize the unchaste and unfaithful lives of the people.  While it was once said routinely of teenagers who shacked up in the back of the family Chevy on Friday night after the game, it is now being said of nearly everyone.  Indulgence is normal.  Chastity and faithfulness are not.  In this game, porn is normal, too, and so is every other perversion once prohibited.  And that is about where we are at as a nation and culture.  We have normalized what every other generation before us labeled aberration, immorality, or sin.  What is even worse than this is that when we suggest to people that either chaste obedience to Christ in singleness or lifelong sexual fidelity to the spouse is simply not sustainable, we are saying exactly what the devil has said.  Sadly, this kind of reasoning has come from the highest quarters of Rome and the cutting edge theologians of Protestantism with equal vigor.  Christianity must find a way around this impossible expectation of sexual indulgence.  So, Jesus, change or die!

Anywhere and everywhere we are hearing that the problem lies with the Biblical view of Christianity and not with the sinners or their sins.  Maybe it was always that way -- at least the temptation.  But now more and more voices from within Christianity are insisting that it must be this way or Christianity will die.  Of course, any one and every one ought to be suspicious of those who say Christianity will die.  That said, however, the truth is that even conservative Christians are presuming that divorce is impossible to stop so it must be regularized, that every divorced is owed the right to remarry, that no age or gender should be expected to nor required to refrain from living out their sexual desires, and that this version of Christianity has to change.  The other way to approach this is to suggest that the traditional morality regarding sex, singleness and marriage was never really Biblical at all.  This view puts the words we want to hear in the mouth of God's Word and God's Son so we do not have to feel bad about indulging ourselves.  Sin does not need a Savior -- sin just needs not to be called sin and we are fine.

As long as we presume that marital fidelity and faithfulness over the lives of the husband and wife is exceptional, it will be exceptional and rare.  As long as we presume that it is impossible for the single to practice any sort of self-control, they will not feel obligated to try.  As long as we imagine that sex is about pleasure without commitment or children, that is all it will be.  In the meantime, chastity will become a relic of prudish past and nothing noble or virtuous at all.  When this happens, Satan will have won and we will have lost all that God in His mercy made known to us and gave us.  The reality is that among some churches this is already the case.


Monday, June 17, 2024

The mystery of the seed. . .

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6B, preached on Sunday, June 16, 2024.

The reality is that this Kingdom is less about seeds than it is about our consternation over how God does His work.  We want to see results in the world or in our own lives.  We are disappointment and disillusioned when you wake up every morning to bad news and when we see little sign of real progress in our own lives.  We want to be an army to conquer in the Lord’s name but instead we are sent forth without luggage or extra money and called to trust in the Lord, speak out His Gospel of the cross and empty tomb, and love our neighbor.  We want more.

Islam is attractive not because it is reasonable but because it appeals to our desire to punish the wicked and force the Kingdom of God to come.  It is the same reason why we want to vote in the Kingdom of God at the ballot box – something both those on the far left and the far right want to do. It is the same reason why we want to turn the church into a purity cult and expel those whose lives do not measure up.  It is the same reason why we count attendance and offerings and deem these to be the markers of a successful church.  We want results.  We want objective criteria by which we not only measure the progress of God but our own progress.  So we make faith into a choice or a decision and make sincerity more important than what you believe.  But it is all a lie and a scam.

The Kingdom of God is a mystery that defies explanation.  The Kingdom of God comes not by might or money or management but as a seed planted in the soil that becomes a mighty plant that bears fruit and shades from the heat.  Jesus tells us the parables of the seed not to explain how the Kingdom of God comes but to confront us with the mystery of God’s mercy.  No one reasons themselves into the Kingdom nor can we reason or argue others into it.  The Spirit brings the fruit of faith to the seed sown.  The seed is always God’s work and never our own – we do not by our own reason or strength believe but only the Spirit works the mystery of faith.

And it IS about faith.  Whether you are Abraham trusting in the promise of a nation begotten from your aged body or Moses who leads the people of God into the land of God’s promise, it is about faith.  Whether you are disciples who drop their nets and follow Jesus or children raised up in the faith in a faithful home or adults who just stumbled upon this thing called Christianity, it is about faith. There is no explanation to the Kingdom.  Only faith to plant the see and watch God grow it in others and in ourselves.

The church does not come by our management of God’s enterprise.  We are not called to supervise God’s hierarchy but to be servants of the Word.  If that is humbling to the pastors who stand before you every week, it is equally humbling to husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and neighbors.  We do not manage God’s resource but expend it.  We do not preserve or protect the seed but plant it.  We do not decide which soil is best or how much to water it but trust the Lord to bring the seed to fruition in His own time and by His own means. The time is the fullness of His own rich moment and the means are the Word and the Sacraments.  We trust in God as seed and sower – it is all the same.

The Lord is patient in His mercy.  He reigns not to establish a better world here or a heaven on earth but to rescue the lost and restore them unto Himself.  He reign has begun not with the herald of a trumpet and the advance of a mighty army but as the sower sowing the seed, nurturing its growth, and harvesting the fruit.  With what shall we compare the Kingdom of God?  I fear we today are much more inclined to compare it to a business operated for profit or an affinity group in search of followers or an influence group to shape what the world thinks, says, and does.  So the idea of a seed seems rather mundane and ordinary and even powerless in comparison.

We wish that God would deliver us and the world from all that we dislike and all that we are weary of waiting for.  We want to be instantly righteous and we want the Kingdom of God to come around us and among us in the blink of an eye.  The ways of the Lord are painfully slow to us and cloaked in mystery that begs us simply to trust when we want to understand and predict and control.  We want to be active when the path of faith seems so very passive to us.  But the Lord is hidden in the seed of His Word and in the flower of that seed in the mighty tree of life that is His Church.  He is merciful and works all things together for good even though this mercy and this work are deliberate and His timetable so plodding, it is for us and for our salvation that the Lord is slow.  This is His saving work.

While we see nothing, the Lord sees the seed become the mighty tree.  While we complain about slowness, the Lord intends to leave no one behind. Where we think it is a matter of our effort, the Lord points us to the cross and His work.  Where we try and make faith into a decision or choice, the Spirit insists He plants faith in us and brings it to fruition.  Where we think it is our job to build a world fitting for God, God fits us for His kingdom and builds us up in Christ day by day.

St. Paul hits it on the head.  This life is the tent.  Heaven is the eternal dwelling.  It is not that the tent is nothing.  It is that the eternal dwelling place is beyond our very imagination – what God has prepared for those who love His appearing.  If we groan, let us not grown with the discontent of our earthly lives or a world not the way we think it should be but as a people yearning for the future God has prepared.  If we groan, let it be as a people who are content with God’s forgiveness and mercy; who long to be in His presence forevermore and to do what the Lord has given us to do with this day and this moment.  Let us be people of good courage, who refuse to judge eternity by whatever happens in this moment and who refuse to let the moment steal our eternal joy from us.  We belong to the Lord.

Fathers ought to be aware of this mystery.  We plant and the most important thing we plant in the lives of our children is heaven, the Kingdom of God, by knowing Jesus Christ.  It is not about control but about faithfulness, not about predicting the outcome but trusting the Word of the Lord and faithful work to produce the fruit of faithful children.  A father’s work is not magic but planting good seed and waiting.

Farming was once more aware of the mystery.  The crop depended upon so many things completely out of the farmers control – from weather to weeds to the work of insects.  As we have improved agriculture, we have also become enamored with the idea that it happens because of us and what we do.  It is no different in the kingdom of God.  Christ is the seed planted in us by the power of the Holy Spirit and He works in us according to God’s timing and for God’s purpose.  This is the great mystery of the kingdom.  We accept this by faith not because we God’s Word is unclean but because it is only by faith that the mercy of God becomes our joy, the shade from the heat of the day and the place where we are nested into the arms of our Savior for everlasting life.  Amen.

Downsizing our way to success. . .

So another Roman Catholic diocese is in bankruptcy and shuttering churches.  The proposal announced in mid-April is called “Seek the City to Come” — it is a multiyear initiative attempting to address dropping attendance, declining revenues and debilitated buildings.  It could cut the number of parishes in the Archdiocese from 61 to 21.  Makes you wonder what it means to be an archdiocese, doesn't it.  Apparently not numbers of parishes or people.  It should be noted that in the same diocese is an FSSP parish there --  in a troubled neighborhood doing the Latin Mass with standing room only. Hmmmmm.

Before Lutherans snicker at the state of affairs in Rome, let us remember with humility that we are suffering from the same thing except that ours is not an organized systems of closers or mergers but a disorganized one resulting from the congregational governance of buildings and property.  It is our problem as well and not simply Baltimore's or Rome's.  

Let me say what it is not.  It is not a money problem.  Sure, buildings cost money and consume a large portion of the annual parish budget nearly everywhere.  It is not a problem, however, that would disappear if in every bank account of every Roman or Lutheran parish you added a couple of zeros to the left of the decimal point.  In fact, you can throw all the money you want at this problem and it will not go away.  It is not a cash flow or an income issue.

What it is about is people.  Those buildings were built because there once were people to fill the pews and all the school space.  The first problem is people -- where are they?  It is not a matter of overall membership declines, although that is also true, but of an absence of people in the pews weekly.  If all the names we counted on the books showed up every Sunday, the LCMS would not be looking at closing down congregations or dealing with empty facilities.  I am sure that the same is true for Rome.  We are reaping a history of disassociation of attendance from belief and belief from doctrine.  Add to that the work of culture, sex abuse, an unfriendly media, and moral transformation and you can see exactly why we are in the position we are in today.  Under it all is a failure of catechesis.  The phenomenon of a self-proclaimed Roman Catholic who does not even know nor agree with what his own church teaches shows that Biden is not alone in the problem of catechesis and confession.  Of course, Lutherans are not immune either.

It is also a problem of people -- specifically pastors and other church workers.  Before we go blaming our youth for their failure to consider and pursue church work vocations, let us admit that it has been a very long time since pastor/priest or other church worker had the esteem, respect, and affection of the church or the culture.  Going My Way has come and gone and the friendly treatment of the ministers has been replaced by ridicule, scandal, and outright hostility.  Strangely enough, the faithful in the pews have not been as vocal as they might to counter this trend -- at least within the confines of parish and family!  The sad but real truth is that few believe anymore that the pastoral office is a noble, virtuous, and essential vocation.  We seem inclined to find short-cuts to pastoral training and a willingness to substitute the laity for clergy anywhere and everywhere we can.  We could try raising up pastors and church workers and paying for their training.  Our parishes and our church schools are dying for people to serve them.  Literally, dying.

It is again a problem with people.  We have long ago lost our confidence in the Mass or Divine Service and had multiple affairs with other forms of spirituality which we deem just as good as what you do together in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day -- including online versions!  We have long ago lost confidence in the means of grace to do what Christ has said He will and replaced the Word and Sacraments with a plethora of programs that keep people busy but have little really to do with teaching or learning the faith.  We keep the rest of the building full while the nave and chancel are empty and think we are doing what our Lord called us to do.  We have long ago forsaken the idea that the Mass or Divine Service is its own culture and mixed up what you hear on the radio with the sacred music unique to the Church and turned formal liturgy into a homey experience replete with jokes, laughter, and irreverence.  And then we wonder why people don't take the Church or God seriously anymore!

We will not downsize our way into success.  The path before us has not changed.  Reverence is its own relevance.  Faithfulness is its own success.  Catechesis is its own reality.  The truth is that 40-50 people in worship every week and tithing are more than enough to support clergy and building.  The truth is that people always were and are the best witnesses to family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors -- we do not need to invent new programs.  It does not matter whether you are Roman or Lutheran, the path ahead is not to become more socially invested or culturally connected but to be more Christian, holding up by word and example the highest reverence and importance for our life of worship around the Word and Table of the Lord and honoring those who deliver Christ's gifts to us.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Who's destroying the Church?

As soon as we get down to business in any argument in the Church, one side is accused of destroying the Church to save her.  I have heard that line from the days of college and seminary when the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod was engaging their opponents in the so-called Battle for the Bible.  I have heard it said in the liturgical wars over liturgy and so-called seeker services more appealing to the entertainment aesthetic.  I have heard it proclaimed in the sex wars over who can marry and who cannot, who can be a pastor and who cannot, and whether there is any sexual behavior which conflicts with the Gospel.  I have heard this from those who insist that gender identity is the new justification conflict and where the war over freedom will be fought.  I have heard it put forth in the new idea of truth which no longer has to be objectively true for all or for all time but can merely be true for those who want or choose to believe it. I have heard it mostly, however, from those who were pushing the envelope and trying the cast off the constraints of the past.  If you do not modernize, the Church will die and those who refuse to budge are destroying the Church.

Oddly enough, those who are pushing the boundaries of freedom and laying aside the constraints of Scripture and tradition are seldom accused of destroying the Church.  They are usually the voices who lay that charge but seem to have avoided being labeled by it themselves.  Odd because the results of the liberalization of the faith, of views of sexuality, of the idea of gender, of worship, and nearly everything else have contributed more to the decline of Christianity than just about anything else.

The de-unification of the Methodist Church has clearly labeled the conservatives as the bad guys who ruined it for the good guys.  Those who opposed the changes or left the ELCA are the spoil sports who brought down the biggest Lutheran denomination.  Those who fight for traditional liturgy in nearly every church body are considered the problem children of their churches (just like the Latin Mass folks of Rome).  Those who lament the Church of England's choice to behave more like an agency of the government than a church (indeed, most Episcopalians of the West) are seen as naysayers against those who think change or die. Those in any liturgical church body who want to restrain the evangelical style worship devoid of order or tradition are routinely labeled as legalists and control freaks.  In Missouri's history, there are still voices within and outside who insist that the Bible thumpers killed this body and are responsible for its decline.

It is curious how the reality has challenged these assumptions.  The liberals and progressives became increasingly intolerant of any opposition in these churches and it was their refusal to allow disagreement that causes splits and declines (especially in the area of sexuality and gender).  The liberals and progressives have insisted with rather smug piety that they are choosing to meet people where they are and save them while their opponents are married to forms and ceremonies -- a convenient high road.  Those who choose to liberalize their view of Scripture are always doing it for the sake of the faith and not against what has always been believed and taught -- at least if you believe their PR.  In truth, intolerance is the virtue of those who push the limits and choose culture and society as authorities over Scripture.  Meeting people with entertainment style services broadcast to homes has not helped but weakened Christianity over all.  Trying to make Scripture more human has always come at the cost of making it less divine.  Who is destroying the Church?  I think it can be safely said that if ideology is the culprit, liberal and progressive ideologies are doing more harm than good.  Churches have more money but less people, more cultural relevance in the eyes of many but less truth that saves, more in common with the direction of the woke but less in common with Scripture and tradition.  My bet is on those who hold to the faith once delivered to the saints.  If the apostles were to walk into your church today and review what you believe and how you practice, would they find it home or would they find it a stranger?  That is the test of who is destroying the Church.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Broken trust. . .

I grew up in a very small town in which our local doctor was not merely our primary care physician but also a counselor, surgeon, and therapist.  He knew the people in his care not as notes on a computer or chart but as the people in the community in which he lived and worked  and worshiped.  He was held in great esteem -- perhaps too much.  There was a time in which physicians were considered demigods with the power to heal, relieve pain, and give answers and direction to the wounded and ailing.  There was a time in which I wanted more than anything to be such a doctor just like him.  As you already know that was not to be.

Sadly, I fear that the physicians I deal with now do not enjoy the same deep respect, affection, and trust that my hometown doc did now some seventy years ago.  It is not because they have personally failed me or given me a wrong diagnosis or caused me suffering.  Rather the problem lies with what medicine has become.  The reality is that no one doctor knows me or my medical condition.  I have a primary care physician whom I have gone to for some 25 years but he does not know me without referencing his screen.  In fact, he rarely looks up from the screen when I see him.  I have various physicians who treat different parts of me and some of them are really quite good but what is missing is one set of eyes that sees everything.

The problem today is that we have lost trust in the whole medical establishment.  The lies that were told during the pandemic, the terrible reality of big pharma, and the medicine that has become less focused on the patient and more on insurance codes and reimbursement have all conspired to make us skeptical of a profession we once regarded as saintly.  No, I am not painting everyone with the broad brush.  I know that there are great physicians, PAs, nurse practioners, nurses, techs, and the like who provide exceptional medical care.  What I am admitting is that the health care industry has become just that -- an industry.

No one presumes that Jeff Bezos created Amazon to make our lives better.  He was in it for the money and he created an amazing company that made him richer than rich.  His wealth boggles the imagination.  You can say the same for most captains of industry.  Maybe I was naive in believing that medicine was somehow immune from the same worship of the almighty dollar.  Maybe it was once not the motivation that it is now.  In any case, if you are smart you will not rely on your physician or insurance company or pharmacy to be your advocate.  You must be your own advocate.  You must take the lead in asking questions and pursing the answers -- whether it is about the diagnosis or the treatment or who pays for it.  Caveat emptor now includes more than used cars.  It includes ourselves as we try to find our way through the maze of medical care and its money trail.  Part of me longs for the old days.  Yeah, I know.  Nobody wants to abandon the advancements that have been made and the diseases now treated that once were a death sentence.  But nobody in their right mind believes that physicians are gods or that the goal of medicine is the needs of the patient.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Why do Lutherans look over the fence. . .

There are probably many reasons why Lutherans are attracted to Rome.  Some of those have been unfairly and shamefully presented by critics as Lutherans who like fancy things.  Well, if that makes you feel better I suppose you have a right to your opinion.  From my perspective, there are many reasons why Lutherans are uncomfortable enough about being Lutheran to look over the fence to other churches (here meaning only those historic alternatives such as Rome or Constantinople).  None of them have to do with the taste for fancy things.

The first problem is the shrinking state of confessional Lutheranism in America.  Yes, I know that this is not quite the case across the world, Africa in particular, but looking around you in the States is a depressing thing to do.  On the one hand you have those who keep the name but have long ago ceased to represent anything close to Lutheran doctrine and teaching.  Even when their worship retains the forms, they have emptied the words of any real meaning.  On the other hand you have those Lutherans who believe that the true Lutheran church in America is probably only one or two congregations and they have their moments.  It is an ungenerous and unkind version of Lutheranism which delights in sarcasm and tearing down others.  In addition, you have those who are more comfortable with the version of Lutheranism they grew up with than the one Luther knew, the Confessions describe, and liturgical parishes practice.  Not to mention those who have seem to tolerate any kind of worship practice as long as a theoretical Lutheran identity is maintained in the imagination.  Missouri may be Lutheranism's last great hope in America and Europe but is anyone happy about this?  This says volumes about the state of things in Lutheranism and why some may be looking over the fence to see how green the grass is there.

The second problem is internal inconsistency.  Even among conservative and confessional Lutheran bodies such as Missouri, there is a real lack of consistency among Lutheran congregations and their practices.  It is especially tiring because we are a somewhat congregational church body with episcope and no formal episcopal officers.  Our ability to rein in the fringes is not only frustrating but nearly impossible.  The internet only makes this diversity, especially with respect to worship, more painful.  While Rome surely has much of the same thing, there are mechanisms in place for Rome to stop it when it wants to.  Nobody in Rome or anywhere else (except liberal Protestantism) seems to like Pope Francis but everyone knows he will not last and Rome is still the largest Christian tradition in the world.  I can see why some look to Rome even though when I look I find the same problems of Missouri only magnified by multiples that seem to dizzy the mind.

The third problem is antiquity.  No, I am not talking about Rome being around since St. Peter.  What I am talking about is how so many Lutherans are content to think that their tradition began in 1517 (or 1847) and the ease with which they write off what went before.  We sound like the Anabaptists who suddenly believe that when they came along God sighed with relief that finally somebody got Him right.  The issue here is that many Lutherans seem perfectly fine being a denomination built in opposition to things and content with its own institutional history (which is not, by the way, the Church of the Augsburg Confession).  I do not want to belong to a church that has an establishment date in the recent past or even 500 years ago.  I am intent upon confessing and being the one, holy catholic and apostolic church and faith.  But sometimes it is frustrating about how hard Lutherans argue the tiniest Lutheran point against another Lutheran without seeming to care about the early church fathers or the catholic tradition.  If that is what Lutheranism has become, it is no wonder why some are looking over the fence.  The problem is that even this is not neatly answered by Rome.  Indeed, the Lutheran position is that Rome is the innovator and the creator of novelty -- passing it all off as catholic when we are real catholics.  It does not help that Lutherans seem to be okay with not being real catholics.  So the historical character of Rome is both an attraction and maybe a bit of a problem.

The last problem is doctrine.  There is little doctrinal homogeneity within Christian traditions anymore.  Are there any real Calvinists left?  Is Rome really an umbrella for competing and conflicting theological traditions -- held together by the papacy alone?  Does it mean anything to be Lutheran?  Gone are the days when we knew and cared about what we believed.  Christianity across the spectrum has lapsed into a collection of feelings, desires, preferences, and likes that dominate over doctrine and truth.  Even Scripture is not an unassailable voice for truth -- not within Lutheranism as a whole nor within Rome (don't even ask about Protestantism).  I do not agree but it is easy to see how some view putting up with Rome's doctrinal problems no different than putting up with the diversity within their own Lutheran tradition.

So let us at least be honest.  There are real problems that are pushing people to look over the fence to see how green the grass is over there.  They are not shallow minded nor do they like pretty things.  They can be serious people who lament what once fine and noble theological traditions have become in our age.  You may not like it or agree with it but you should not castigate them unfairly or inaccurately.  In most cases they are serious people looking for a serious church home in a slightly better state of condition than the one they are in now.  I do not think Rome is an improvement but I get where they are coming from and so should you.  Click here to view the best of liturgical adaptation in Rome!