Monday, March 2, 2015

Catholic Liturgy. . .

I have been attending mass with more frequency of late, no longer as a tourist, so to speak. Since I am coming from the outside to the inside, I figure I have a right to ask a few things I hardly ever asked as a tourist.

My questions have nothing to do with the great issues roiling in the Church, but with worship. Oh, not liturgics. I know the outline of the mass very well; it is essentially the same used by Lutherans. Better put, Lutheran liturgy is, when employed properly, a Catholic liturgy, except for a few hiccups here and there. 

So Russ Saltzman, lately of Lutheranism and now a Roman Catholic, opines upon the frustrations of a convert with a new (old) church.  You can read him here. . .  One thing he wrote struck me -- Lutheran liturgy, when employed properly, is a catholic liturgy. . .  His complaints about Roman Catholics singing, or to be more accurate, lack of singing, are to be expected.  No one every accused a Roman Catholic parish of raising the roof in song (or chant).  It might irritate me, if I were to swim the Tiber, but it would be surely expected and no surprise.  The mighty singing tradition of Lutherans, and most of their Lutheran chorales, are absent in the average Roman Catholic parish.

His point is well taken.  The Lutheran liturgy, when employed properly, IS a catholic liturgy.  There is no denial of this in our Confessions nor did the Lutherans feel especially uneasy about this until more modern times. When we are Lutheran on Sunday morning, it is a catholic liturgy that is the prayed form of the truth we confess.  But the alternative is just as important.  When the Roman Catholic mass is done poorly, it is just as bad as what you often find in a less than stellar Lutheran setting.  And it is done as poorly in the average Roman parish more often than not.  I look at the Roman parishes around me and they sing evangelical style Haugen songs, if they sing at all.  The chant tradition and the use of the full propers is largely absent from any Roman Catholic parish around me (even the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Nashville where the guitar reigns supreme as done the sound of contemporary Christian music).  Many of the people do not ever open their mouths to speak the liturgical responses or do anything at all except receive Holy Communion.  In and out as quickly as possible is the norm here (can anyone point me where it is not the norm for Roman Catholic parishes).  Maybe if you live in Manhattan (the city in New York not in Kansas) you might find enough choices to find one where the mass is observed piously, reverently, with strong participation from the pews, and where the preaching is grand, but that is not what you find in a typical Roman Catholic parish.

There are those who say that Lutheranism in theory is better than the practice.  Yup, you got that right.  But it is also my experience that the same is true of Roman parishes.  The theory is better than the reality of Sunday morning (or late Saturday afternoon).  But the preaching is typically far worse than you find in the average Lutheran parish (and I do not say this to showcase Lutherans as well above average -- except in Lake Wobegon, for sure).  There are surely those who will disagree with me, but they do not have a Tennessee address and I bet most of them looked long and hard to find a Roman parish which had the best of both worlds.  So why not look as hard for Lutherans who employ it properly?

I suppose if someone wants to jump ship, the theory is enough to make you do it... but the Sunday morning experience will have to sustain you.  In that regard, I will gladly take the average hymnal using Lutheran parish, where the liturgy may not be high church but it is done reverently and where the people participate with voices in song and responses more than a mumble.  The theory may be enough to get you to jump but the Sunday morning experience is what will keep you afloat.  I don't know what Saltzman is finding but if he lived here I think it would not take long to long for some of what he left behind.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The problem with moral progress. . .

We want to believe that things are getting better.  It is often more than we can bear to admit that at best things are the same and at worst they are in decline.  We are ever hopeful that the Christian life will become easier, that doubts will disappear from believing, that we will be able to look back and see the moral improvement in our character and lives, and that are becoming more righteous and holy.  There is nothing wrong with this hope but there is something terribly wrong when we pin our faith to it.  We want to believe that we getting better -- day by day in some small way -- and this is too often what we use to prove that the Bible is true, that Jesus is real, that we are Christians, and that God is good.  It is a terrible trap and leaves us without refuge when the truth of sins, lies, enemies, doubts, and fears can no longer be masked.

I don't know about you  but I see little moral progress in my life.  My heart knows the pain of sins so familiar to me that they are like family and of the strangeness of holiness -- even though my mind knows this is what I should desire.  My life bears the marks of my failures and my failings in ways I cannot hide or ignore.  There are preachers and churches who presume such moral improvement and I wish I saw it but I don't.  Sin is my addiction and I am like an alcoholic but one drink away from losing sobriety.  This is why daily repentance is so important.  I know who I was, God knows who I will be, and every day He must convince me of who I am -- forgiven, born anew, raised from death to life by the merits and mercies of Jesus Christ alone.

Christianity is not a luxury for me.  It is a necessity.  My shame would drive me completely to despair were it not for the value God has placed upon my life.  I look in the mirror and my conscience tells me I am worthless.  I look into the water of the baptismal font and God declares me worth the priceless blood of Christ shed to cleanse me from my sin.  I look at the world and I feel defeated already.  I look at the cross and I see the victory that no one and nothing can steal from me.  I am undone except for Christ.

Hope for me is not some imagined progress toward holiness but the God who should be but is not put off by my sin, who became sin for me, that I might wear His righteousness as my new clothing.  I am not saying that there is not moral improvement or progress but only God sees and knows it.  And that is how it must be.  We would so quickly abandon the scandal of the cross in exchange for a feeble good work we want to trumpet before those around us and show off to God.  So it must be that while God can look and not see the darkness of my heart, I must see it so that I do not depart from Jesus Christ.  On the cross He has extended His arms in suffering to carry my wounds and on the wounds of His back He bears the full weight of my disobedience.  Jesus does not add something to my life -- He IS my life.

Some are comforted by the fact that they love Jesus.  I wish I loved Him.  Truth be told my heart is fickle and shallow.  I know I love myself but the Spirit has to teach me to love Jesus.  Like the sons of Zebedee I can hear the words of the cross and then ask God to make me happy and give me what I want -- and fail to see any disconnect between them.  Jesus tells me the truth always -- even when I would be content with the lies I want to hear.  So I come on Sunday morning -- not to beat my chest and tell the folks to do like I do because I have gotten the hang of it all.  No, I come on Sunday morning to pray, "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."  And the Lord lifts my eyes from me to Him, from sins to the cross, from death to life, and from the joy of the moment to the everlasting joy of the resurrection to eternal life.  Lamb of God, I come.... I come... Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on me... grant me Your peace.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A legacy of political correctness that is hard to shake. . .

One of the richest legacies of the modern movement for politically correct ideology and conversation is that dogma is not worth conflict, that difference does not mean right or wrong, and that heresy is too strong a word for those who reject parts of Scripture and the Christian faith.  Even in the Church we see this lasting influence of politically correct thinking -- even within conservative churches where doctrine is still believed, confessed, and taught.  I think of two of many examples:  Rome and St. Louis (the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod for those who might have missed the identification).

Playing out in Rome today is the idea that relationships are more important than doctrines.  So there are those who say that sincere people should be given a place at the Table of the Lord even though they were divorced or divorced and remarried or cohabiting.  There are also those who think that marriage might be a benefit for the gay and lesbian Christians and that an ordered disorder is better than a disordered one.  In addition, we have witnessed no less than Francis enter the fray of the debate of science and Scripture with respect to creation and a shrug of the shoulders over the rejection of the Biblical word as mere symbolism or mythology.  Finally, the Roman Catholic Church is struggling today over the idea of truth itself, more than mere loyalty to an individual or an institution.  The witness of popes praying at mosques and non-Christian religious folks being invited to days of prayer in Christian sanctuaries raises the inevitable question of whether the truth of Christ is for all and over all or merely one version among many coequal truths.

Playing out in Lutheranism today is the question of doctrinal integrity.  Some in Missouri believe that the fuss over doctrine and life is much ado about nothing -- that we already possess a greater measure of doctrinal unity than nearly all Protestant churches and that this ought to be enough.  Others are insisting that there are many things that could and ought to be ditched in favor of the higher and nobler goal of winning people for Jesus -- such things as sacramental identity, the liturgy, and the music of worship.  Hidden underneath it all is the idea that such things are not worthy the fight and the consequences of fighting over them are worse than the diversity that may test the limits of unity and order. 

On the other hand, when the ELCA adopted its opening to gay and lesbian clergy and marriage in 2009, it began with a conscience clause the appeared to allow congregations and clergy to dissent from this decision.  Now, almost six years later, it appears that in the ELCA you can deny the Virgin Birth of Jesus, doubt the physical resurrection of Jesus, disagree with the historicity of and the historical integrity of the Biblical accounts for just about everything but you may not disagree with the GLBT decisions of the ELCA.

The question remains:  what is so important it is worth fighting for?  What doctrinal truth, what practices reflect that truth, and what diversity from the confessional position of the church transcends the boundaries of unity?  Is the witness of Scripture clear or muddled?  Can we be certain enough of our faith to disapprove of that which contradicts that faith?  What deviation from the confessional position of the church breaks that confession and fractures our unity at the altar rail?

Obviously I am not going to solve those questions here.  Let me say, however, that the reason we fight is not because we are narrow minded, controlling, obsessive, etc...  The reason we fight is because we take the Scriptures, our Confessions, and our life together seriously -- so seriously, in fact, that we risk being misunderstood by the world around us when we dispute, contest, and even refute false teaching and unfaithful practice.  What is at work here is not some idyllic desire for lock step uniformity or some deluded idea of a pristine, golden age without dispute.  No, what we face is the very integrity of the faith we confess and the salvation in which we hope.  Our unity is not formed by common speculation but by common conviction -- Scripture teaches, catholic tradition affirms, our confessions declare, and we act in accord with them.

Missourians may seem to be a culture of infighting to those outside us.  Rome may appear to be a few old, angry, white haired men resisting modernity to those outside her.  Such a stereotype is convenient but inaccurate.  Of course there are those who simply cannot tolerate any diversity and who would insist that everything is church dividing.  Just as there are those who believe nothing is so important we should fight over it.  But every age and every generation has been tested and tried and now it is time for us to come down on the side of Scripture, catholic tradition, evangelical confession, and faithful practice.  The risk of losing the faith is worth it.  Certainty in what we believe, confess, and teach is worth it.  Integrity of confession and life together are worth it. Here we stand.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Some things are just not funny. . .

I have been tempted to comment and then thought better of it but in the end decided that something should be said. 

First Things recorded that the “Director of Civil and Human Rights” for the United Methodist Church, Bill Mefford, posted a picture to Twitter yesterday mocking the pro-life marchers. Mefford, who works for the church’s lobby arm, the General Board of Church and Society, ridiculed the marchers by posting a picture of himself standing before them with a sign saying “I march for sandwiches.”

Paul Stallsworth, himself a UMC pastor, wrote in First Things of his own sorrow over that sign.  You can read him here. . .

While we adamantly disagree with the pro-choice position, the worst thing of all in this debate that has divided America since 1973 is that we trivialize either position or the debate as a whole.  Surely the stakes of this issue are too high to allow us to mock what has caused hurt, consternation, division, and passion to several generations of Americans.  Mr. Mefford may have thought he was being cute, even witty.  In the end he showed himself to be the joke.  I hope and pray that all sides in this debate are serious about the issues, serious about the consequences, and serious about the stakes of our choice as a nation to permit the life of children in the womb to be ended at the will of the mother.  Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, this is not funny, not in the least, and not at all. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Good Lent. . .

Okay it is a good week into Lent. . . How is your Lent going?  I draw your attention to an article by George Wiegel in First Things about the journey part of keeping Lent.  I would also remind you of the article I penned for the great Seminary publication, For the Life of the World, on keeping a "good" Lent.

In addition to what we omit, Lent is also distinguished by what we add.  With those words I tried to draw attention to the fact that Lent is not merely about self-denial, about the giving up of favorite activities or foods.  It is about the addition of a focus and perspective.  We refocus ourselves and the worship of Sunday morning (and Wednesday evening) to the cross.  We refocus ourselves and our lives around the call to repentance -- the daily repentance in which the Holy Spirit works in us to meet our Lord at the foot of the cross, to leave behind there the sins, guilt, shame, and despair for which He died, and to rise up the creatures of His making in baptism.  We refocus ourselves toward the goal of our earthly lives and the outcome of our faith, the resurrection and eternal life to which all things in this present moment point.  We refocus ourselves on the good works that contribute nothing at all to our salvation but demonstrate the Spirit's life within us and mark us as God's own in the world.  We refocus ourselves on the Gospel -- that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer and die upon the cross, and on the third day rise again and that the forgiveness of sins be preached in His name from this place and time for all times and to the ends of the earth.

So at the risk of being misunderstood, let me say it again.  Good Lent.