Monday, February 8, 2016

Orthodoxy is the new radical. . .

In an age in which self-expression is deemed the highest goal of freedom and in which it seems there are few boundaries left to be traversed in the pursuit of individuality, perhaps the most radical thing one can be is an orthodox Christian!

The media have presumed to know all things about theology and to discern the intent of Scripture that transcends its clear and plain word.  Liberalism has escaped the fence of creed and confession to embrace a gospel which has little if anything to do with the cross, empty tomb, forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Social justice and advocacy have become the pursuits of the evangelistic fervor of evangelicalism with a conscience and liberal Protestantism.  Personal happiness and achievement have taken over the rest of evangelicalism and even threatened the agenda of ordinary Protestantism.

The boomers remain deluded in the pursuit of personal preference and still think that strumming a guitar in church is the cutting edge of contemporary and emergent Christianity.  The feminist, gay, lesbian, transgender, and every other agenda have become the new orthodoxy of too many Christians and too many denominations claiming to be Christian.  There is tolerance for nearly everything that a generation or two ago would have been labeled a perversion but there is no stomach for doctrine and morality consistent with the Scriptures and the early church fathers.

No, if you want to be radical in this age, orthodox doctrine, creedal and confessional theology, and historic, catholic liturgy (with the expectation that God actually works through the means of grace) is about as radical and odd as you can get in the world today.  As one who danced to the tune of the moment in his youthful rebellious years, I have learned that the most radical thing there is and every has been is orthodox Christianity which takes the Scriptures at their word, seeks the fullest catholic expression of doctrine and practice, and finds the vibrant surprise of God's presence not in feeling or thought but in the Word and Sacraments that actually do what they say and deliver what they promise.

In a strange turn of events, the most conventional Christianity of all is the one that has been transformed by the spirit of the age, that listens to the heartbeat and pulse of the moment, that seeks to be on the forefront but not too far ahead of every movement of social change, that loves technology more than the unchanging Gospel, and divorces the gospel from text and story until it becomes merely a moral of the story and tacit approval of what we have always wanted or desired.  To be radical is to gather around the Word and Table of the Lord, to believe the Scriptures without seeking to find hidden meaning or principle that trumps the fact of what is said, and to rejoice that God is with us in the concrete splash of water, voice of absolution, taste of bread, and sip of wine.

There is nothing stranger to our world than a conscience and life captive to the Word of the Lord.  There is no sight more out of keeping with modern sensibility than a smokey setting of incense and prayer, chant and liturgy, preaching and Sacrament.  There is no truth more radical than one which does not adjust or change or reflect the times and tenor of the people from age to age.  There is no God more radical than the One who would inhabit a Virgin's womb, a manger bare, a crude instrument of suffering, and a cold, dark tomb.  There is no more radical hope than in death life is born and this life will transcend all earthly reality, dream, and imagination.  There is no more radical conviction than because He lives, I shall live also.

Nope, if you want to be radical, try being a confessional Lutheran gathered with other confessional Lutherans around the Word and Table of the Lord, paying homage to catholic ceremonial that flows from catholic doctrine, singing the chorales of yesteryear while adding the best of the best to the heritage of faithful song, praying with the saints the Amen of Thy will be done, joyfully giving tithe and offering in testament to God's giving love, and walking out the door to fulfill the baptismal vocation of worship, witness, prayer, service, and works of mercy.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Spiritual exercise. . .

Listening to the TV I discovered that January is the top month for the sale of exercise equipment, gym memberships, and weight loss programs.  Perhaps we looked in the mirror after Christmas feasting and decided that our New Year's resolutions needed to be self-improvement.  In any case, Americans have taken this to heart.  Some manufacturers are posting big sales with specially discounted equipment and many gyms and athletic clubs are offering bargain rates to sign up the flabby who want to be fit and trim. I must confess to wanting to be fit and trim but heartily unsure I want to expend that much money or effort to get there.  Guess I will have to suffice with walking and ordinary exercise and some judicious surveying of the food choices in the fridge and on the table.

It is kind of amusing, however, that as much as we want to get in physical shape, we seem to desire less the spiritual kind of programs to put us back in the pink.  Worship attendance, which slowly built up during Advent to bulge at Christmas Eve, will generally see predictable declines until they rebound in Lent and in time for Easter.  Therein lies the problem.  Statistics tell us that regular church attendance, which was once a euphemism for weekly attendance, has come to a new normal of a couple of times a month.  We are robust in our ideals but pale in the follow through.  Surveys show that 80 percent of people who join the gym in January quit by June; 4 percent don’t make it past January, and 14 percent more drop out by the end of February. So perhaps we are merely manifesting the same lethargy toward religious exercises as we do toward physical fitness.

My point is simple.  How do we expect to have a vibrant and sturdy faith to meet the challenges of this mortal life and to remain steadfast amid temptation when we only attend worship sporadically and starve our faith of Word and Sacrament?  Grow up.  Get up on Sunday morning (even when you don't feel it) and get yourself into a solid, orthodox, Word and Sacrament congregation.  Open the dusty Bible and start reading (you don't have to begin at the beginning -- spend time in the Psalms to start things out).  Get a prayer book or use the hymnal and its daily offices and force yourself (self-discipline is not a vice but a virtue).  Get into the habit.  It is no different from good eating or exercise.  But you need not purchase a spiritual gym membership or invest is expensive prayer books.  The Scriptures and the hymnal provide you with all the resources you need to start out.  Failing that, why not at least give Portals of Prayer a shot (if you are LCMS or if you are not, go to and order a subscription).

It is amazing to me how many of us think that the road back to spiritual health begins with spiritual isolation, separation from the Lord's Word and House, and a diet devoid of the true spiritual food of Christ's flesh and blood!  If it is already February and you have not availed yourself of the worship of God's House or a daily devotional routine, Lent is almost here and it is the time to start up again (or even for the first time).  It is time for Christian habits to match Christian rhetoric!  Go to church!  It all starts there. . .

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Thoughts on reading the newspaper. . .

There is little of most newspapers devoted to religion or religious news -- unless that somehow bridges the gap between hard news and religion.  So most of the time we get mere tidbits -- even in local newspapers about local churches.  A few Sundays ago I opened my own daily newspaper and found a feature story with pictures about the new rector for the local Episcopal Church.  You will recall from previous posts that the Episcopalians are going through hard times -- both locally and throughout the modern world (vitality being more or less confined to the less developed regions of the globe).  They suffered through a tempestuous tenure of Katherine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop -- a term more noted for the expenditure of millions in litigation and time spent in court than anything else.  You may have caught the several hour extravaganza of the installation of her successor (Michael Bruce Curry) complete with Native American drummers and a host of other things some might find surprising.

Back to my story.  I opened the newspaper and found a feature interview with the new rector of the local Episcopal congregation and found her interview both amusing and confusing.  On one hand she admits to being a nerd who loves Beyonce and attends the Dragon-Con in Atlanta every year.  On the other hand she describes her role as more life coach than priest and cheerleader for Jesus and the social causes that some Episcopalians have substituted for the Gospel.

Then she was asked: Is this an exciting time for the Episcopal Church?

Holland: This is a very exciting time for the church. It has a lot to offer; our church has this ancient worship style with very deep roots. This is Christian tradition that began with Paul. So, we have this very beautiful traditional worship, and yet the church is very open and constantly evolving. We ordain women; we have married priests. The national church has started same-sex blessings and same-sex marriages. We are kind of an anomaly, ancient worship and open ideals.

The things that Jesus taught us about who he considered a blessed person, who is a blessing to us, who is to be loved, and who we are supposed to be loving, is pretty clear. He meant for us to love everybody, He was very clear about that. We are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the Episcopal tradition, in our baptismal vows, we vow to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. We take that vow very seriously.

Hmmm.  Read that first paragraph again.  This is an exciting time for the Episcopal Church?  That is not what most Episcopalians would say.  The Anglican communion is on the verge of collapse with deep divisions on the core of what is believed, taught, and confessed.  The old saying is certainly true:  may you live in interesting times but who would call the implosion of a once large and thriving communion to be interesting.

Then there is that confusing business of Christian tradition that began with Paul.  Or did it begin with Jesus?  Or is she talking about the liturgy beginning with Paul?  Or does she mean that the wholesale rejection of orthodox Christian doctrine that goes on under the guise of evolving church to be consistent with Paul's call to remain stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by ... delivered by the apostles, more than what we find contained in the Holy Scriptures. ... form of doctrine delivered to them, and the faith once delivered to the saints... (2 Thess. 2:15)?

Where does Scripture or the catholic tradition ever describe the church or faith as evolving?  Where is openness to new doctrines, teaching, and social justice positions heralded as a good thing for the Church?  But she did get it right -- we are an anomaly -- ancient worship and open ideas...  But that sort of negates the ancient worship since it ends up being lip service to ideas long ago rejected.

The second paragraph puts the whole Jesus thing into the context of behavior, social advocacy, and social justice.  But it is all Law and no Gospel.  Jesus is the moral model for us to aspire to -- never mind that His actual teachings conflict with the social positions taken by most liberal Episcopalians.  Sometimes you know the Gospel must conflict with the clear word of Scripture and you know which side we are supposed to come down!

Finally there is the suggestion that the Episcopal tradition has the core of its baptismal vows the promise to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.  Not being immediately familiar with the Episcopal rites, I took a gander at the baptismal rite in the current Book of Common Prayer.  The beginning section of the vows or promises sounds rather ordinary and orthodox.

Then the Celebrant asks the following questions of the candidates who can speak for themselves, and of the parents and godparents who speak on behalf of the infants and younger children
Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer I renounce them.
Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer I renounce them.
Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer I renounce them.
Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer I do.
Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer I do.
Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer I do. . .

Then you get there.  Sure enough, the Episcopalian baptismal rite seems rather ordinary and routine until you follow up this section with a few more questions and then it does appear that the purpose of the rite is not only to impart the new identity and new life in Christ that Scripture promises but also:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
People I will, with God's help.
Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and , whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God's help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God's help.
Celebrant Will you see and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God's help.
Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human
People I will, with God's help.  

The problem is that the first question (fidelity to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, breaking of the bread and prayers) has come in conflict with the later couple of questions -- at least if you believe that the apostles' teaching is equated with the Word of God/Scripture.  

Anyway, my point is that the Episcopal Church has become a church that is not sure who it is.  By the appearance of its worship on Sunday morning it tries to claim catholicity but it forsakes that catholicity upon the altar of relevance, contemporary social justice positions, and an idea of gospel that transcends and even conflicts with Scripture itself.  All of which goes back to the first part of the interview.  Is this an exciting time for the Episcopal Church?  Hmmmm.... not the excitement I would desire but for those relieved of any duty to the Word of God, it must be fun indeed!


Friday, February 5, 2016

Another one bites the dust. . .

Let me preface this news report (not all that new) with the concern that this is exactly what the LCMS is concerned about in our US based Concordia Universities.  It begs the question of assets, of whose assets they were/are, and how something that a church began can on its own disown its very existence and identity....  For those in Missouri who are looking at our own Concordias, the question in the back of our minds is whether or not something like this could happen to us:

From the Website of the Canadian Lutheran.

Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE) no longer identifies itself as a Christian institution. The university’s Board of Governors made the decision on November 27, 2015 when it decided to remove all references to Lutheranism and the Christian faith from its mission and vision statements.  Prior to the action, Concordia’s Mission statement identified the institution as a “community of learning grounded in scholarship, freedom, and the Christian faith.” Among its Values Statements, it identified itself as an “excellent smaller Christian university true to its mission and vision,” that “maintains its mission as a Christian university serving the public.” Guiding Directional Statements professed that “Concordia will honour its Lutheran heritage” and “will provide a foundation of faith and intellectual integrity that supports a scholarly community.”  All references to faith have now been deleted.

Previously, the introduction to Concordia’s previous Mission/Vision/Values Framework read: “Throughout its history, Concordia has remained grounded in the belief that the Christian faith gives purpose to life and that success depends upon spiritual maturity. The entire educational experience at Concordia is built on a foundation of the Christian faith and intellectual integrity characteristic of a Lutheran university, where people of various beliefs and backgrounds are in dialogue in a common pursuit of understanding and truth that ultimately leads to wisdom. That is what is meant by our motto: Initium Sapientiae Timor Domini – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Read Concordia’s original Mission/Vision/Values statement here.

LCC responds

Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) was given no advance notice that such action was being contemplated. As late as the end of August 2015, church officials had been assured in a letter from CUE’s Board of Governors that “all of the Board remains committed to Concordia’s Missions, Vision and Values.”

LCC President Robert Bugbee has communicated his dismay to CUE President Gerald S. Krispin over the recent action of CUE’s board, asking for clarity as to why the action was taken without consulting synod. He noted multiple assurances over the past years from Concordia’s leaders that such action was not being considered.

“Concordia was founded in 1921 as an educational ministry of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod,” President Bugbee reflected. “It is with incredible grief that we see Concordia now silence any reference to the Christian mission for which it was originally founded.”

Concordia’s recent decision has put LCC in a difficult situation: a number of professors (including the University president) are ordained ministers of LCC and hold calls from the church body to serve as ministers at the institution. As Concordia no longer claims to be a Christian institution in its mission statement, it is doubtful whether service at the institution can continue to be considered a call in the church’s understanding, thereby jeopardizing the place of these colleagues on the Synod’s roster.

The relationship between LCC and Concordia

CUE leadership held a town hall December 15, 2015 to answer serious concerns from faculty regarding the abrupt change in the college’s mission and values statements. LCC was not invited to or informed of the meeting. At the time, CUE President Krispin assured those present that the change in wording would not alter the deeper identity of Concordia, and that the college and synod could remain in cooperation despite these changes.  Concordia has taken a number of actions in recent years that have further separated it from the church. In 2010, Concordia notified LCC that it planned to alter its bylaws regarding the requirements for sitting on its Board of Governors. Previously all board members had been elected by Lutheran Church–Canada meeting in convention.

While synod raised concerns at the time, Concordia understood itself as able to make the decision with or without synod’s approval, arguing the 1978 Act of Incorporation that instituted Concordia as an independent organization failed to make provision for synod’s continuing legal authority over the college. The college, however, continued to operate under bylaws relying on LCC in convention to appoint its Board of Governors. But in 2010, as noted above, Concordia informed LCC it planned to change its bylaws regarding governance.  Even so, President Krispin assured LCC leaders that any decisions the college made would “not only maintain, but strengthen the shared ecclesiastical bond” with Lutheran Church–Canada. At the time, President Krispin further explained that Concordia’s Mission, Vision, and Values Framework would ensure the college’s identity as a Christian institution would be maintained. “It is this distinction that gives us our raison d’ ĂȘtre,” he wrote.

The actual change to a self-appointed (rather than LCC-appointed) board occurred in recent years. Consequently, LCC at its 2014 convention updated its own bylaws to recognize the alteration that had already occurred. Despite the changes, President Krispin assured the convention that “every member who signs onto the board has a charter to uphold the mission, vision, and values of this institution.” Concordia had also taken steps to ensure representation of at least three members of Lutheran Church–Canada: the President of the Alberta-British Columbia District, as well as two members from the general public.

In 2015, Concordia’s Board of Governors suspended the ABC District President’s ex officio position on the Board of Governors, citing uncertainty regarding the District’s corporate future and confusion over whom the appropriate representative should be (given the current division of labour between the ABC District President and LCC’s Interim Pastoral Leader). Despite this move, church leaders were assured by Concordia’s Board of Governors that “all of the Board remains committed to Concordia’s Mission, Vision and Values.”

President Bugbee is arranging consultation with Concordia’s leadership in determining what relationship the church body might have with the university going forward.

My Comments 

The school has undoubtedly been caught up in the financial morass of the Alberta British Columbia District and its Church Extension Fund.  That CEF made risky investments that now have forced the District to sell off much of its property and threatens to even close some of the congregations there.  Clearly this has had a wide impact and was at least part of the situation that caused the Concordia board to seek an independent status.  That said, there are too many questions to presume that this move simply insulates the school from the financial problems of the LCC District in question and it raises the issue of how long the school can continue offering chapel, religious courses, and pre-seminary training.  There is plenty of room to point fingers and to blame here but little that suggests a good future for either the school as it was once or the District and its problems.  If anything, this ought to provide good caution for churches and agencies who look to make investments.  Slow and steady is always preferable to risky schemes that depend upon too many factors to be successful and that promise rewards that might be appealing but not feasible.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Liturgical best practices. . .

The sad truth is that the liturgy with its structure and even specific texts is more often perceived as raw material to be kneaded and molded into something by those who plan and lead worship.  It is like a raw, basic dough that must be flavored and shaped.  Some advocate local circumstance as the primary tool when adding accents of taste and pleasing appearance.  Others define it according to personal preference.  Others use denominational identifications to tailor the ingredients to its finished form.  Even those who advocate for liturgical worship often see the liturgy as more starting point than ending product.  In the end the people who may have few things in common start at a common place in making the liturgy personal.  Though I am inherently disposed to being more friendly to those who add than I am to those who subtract, the truth is that both begin with what is there and adapt it.  Even me.  That said, there is something to appreciate about the evolution of the liturgy that has left us with a form that is not finished (Christ has not yet returned) but is itself the fruit of many years use, wisdom, and adaptation.  It is more a finished product than raw material.

Like it or not, educational theory has entered the realm of soft sciences and journal-driven research. Teachers are expected to know scientific “best practices” and follow them in their classrooms. Somehow experts have discovered that two plus two is best communicated at 71.5 degrees and 38% humidity, with 3200K soft-white lighting, with Mozart not Bach, by a teacher who promotes inclusivity, cultural sensitivity, and individual autonomy for each learning style.

Our liturgy is a form of education, and Catholics too have experts who suggest certain worship aids, lighting schemes, boutique liturgies, color palettes, and gimmicks to “shock and awe” the faithful, hopefully spurring them on to become “dynamic” Catholics and buy the next book. Even if these folks don’t claim their materials and approach are the “best practice,” they usually are not advocating for the Roman Rite done well and done obediently. At best, the Roman Rite is seen as the springboard, the point of departure.

I would like to propose that the [Divine Service] is itself the accumulation of two thousand years of best practices. The lectionary, the liturgical calendar, and the rite [itself] all attempt to put Christian teaching into a three-year (or one-year) curriculum, one which is suitable for the young and the old, the wise and the foolish. According to current educational models, this is a preposterous and ridiculous goal, akin to a one-room schoolhouse for pre-K through doctorate. It’s easy to criticize, but the reality is that it works.

It does work.  The best of the generations before have passed on to us form and texts that have proven faithful and usable -- not perfect mind you but thoroughly vetted through the time and experience of the saints who went before us.  Even as I plead for those who pick and choose from the liturgy they view as starting point or smorgasbord, I would also plead for less innovation when it comes to the shape of buildings for worship, the furniture of the chancel, and the general setting in which the liturgy takes place.  Here, as well, history is a teacher and has left us with some solid forms and shapes that have befriended the liturgical action and assisted the voices in the spoken and sung Word, the practice of prayer, the Sacrament of the Altar, and community of those who gather in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day.

My own lifetime has seen a radical departure from the usual shapes of the church's building for worship and left us with many structures that are at war with what goes on inside of them.  If only in the area of carpeting and building shapes that render singing a difficult task we would be better off.  But the reality is that too many chancels are structured as if the distribution of the Sacrament were a rarity rather than the often of the Lord's command.  Lines of sight obscure rather than focus the eye upon crucifix, altar, lectern, pulpit, and font.  Stark walls deprive the wandering eye and restless mind from being recalled to the holy purpose of the gathering.  The focus is on the assembly rather than on what the assembly has been assembled for.  Things that were neat and cool in the moment have left too many congregations with great financial investment in buildings that are unworthy of and unusable for the Divine Service.  Warehouse settings discourage reverence and awe and invite a casual attitude toward what is happening on Sunday morning as if it were merely a religious version of the activity of the mall.

History has bequeathed to us a liturgical form and settings for the practice of that form which assist its function.  The liturgy always has options for season and Sunday that require us to make decisions about what and when but it is not raw material given over to unseasoned hands to flavor and shape.  The buildings we build should begin with what we have learned from the history of God's people gathering for the liturgy and not with a blank slate.  Learning from the past will help us not only serve faithfully the people of this day but bequeath to those to come practice and settings to connect them to what has gone before and assist them in singing the praise of God and receiving His gifts in a new generation.