Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A race to the bottom. . .

I must admit some glaring ignorance about the ordinary liturgical practices of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.  Since they used the same hymnal as the LCMS for many years, I had assumed that the liturgical practices were fairly consistent between the LCMS and WELS.  When their Christian Worship: A  Lutheran Hymnal came out in 1993, I found it odd and curious in different ways but not entirely unrecognizable within the TLH tradition.  That all changed when current and former WELS members began talking to me about the inherent bias in the WELS against liturgical things (everything from making the sign of the cross to chanting to more frequent celebrations of the Eucharist).  It prompted me to take a second look at that hymnal.

The Common Service claims to be a version of the history liturgy of the Christian church and a revision of The Order of the Holy Communion from TLH.  I began to notice the absence of rubrics (directions) and realized that in the Invocation there is no symbol of the cross to indicate that the sign of the cross may be made.  It turned out that this was a sign of things to come.  Though the cross symbol appears in the absolution, there is no direction to indicate what it means.    As expected the word "catholic" was not present in either the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed but it turns out it was omitted from the Athanasian Creed as well (where it was retained in TLH).

Unlike LSB which presumes that the full Eucharist is the norm (If there is no communion), CW presumes that this is ordinary (when there is no communion).  Even more odd is the absence of the Our Father from the canon and its placement at the prayers.  While I have always resisted the Lutheran innovation of the Our Father prior to the Verba, the connection between the Verba and the Our Father is most ancient and it represents a clear departure from catholic practice to omit the Our Father here.

It is not at all obvious that the pastor's portion of the liturgy could or should be chanted.  In fact, it is pretty clear from the pew book that the expectation is that the pastor will NOT chant, that chanting is an exception and, perhaps, an unwelcome one.  Even if the notes are in the pastor's book (or altar book), it certainly makes it appear that neither the publishers nor the folks in the pew expect the pastor to chant.

The sign of the cross is also conspicuously absent with respect to the morning and evening prayers of Luther and his bidding to make the sign of the cross at the invocation and how to pray.

One subtle hint lies in the fact that the clerical collar is a rarity among Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod clergy.  What you wear is not the primary thing but what you refuse to wear just may hint at your bias. All of this combined with the legendary affection WELS has with the Geneva Gown instead of the historic vesture of the pastor, leaves me with but one conclusion.  Perhaps those former and current WELS complainers are absolutely correct.  WELS does have a liturgical style and it is decidedly low church, a race to the bottom of the liturgical ladder, if you will, in which ceremony, vestments, and catholic tradition are suspect and unwelcome in the parishes of this church body.

How sad it is that a Lutheran body once captive to the liberal view could recapture its more orthodox theological underpinnings and then eschew the liturgical shape of that orthodox doctrine on Sunday morning.  It remains a problem for more the WELS.  Even in Missouri we have many who would find Luther's liturgical practice too shockingly katholisch to be tolerated in a Lutheran parish today.  How strange it is that some Lutherans today would be uncomfortable with the Lutheran praxis of Martin Luther, the second Martin (Chemnitz), the orthodox Lutheran fathers, or our most famous church musician, J. S. Bach!!

Addendum from Fr. Hollywood in 2009 RE Wisconsin Synod practice:

According to this Q&A from the WELS's own website, there have been at least two instances where laywomen in the WELS have said the Lord' Words of Institution over bread and wine and served it, claiming that it was the body and blood of the Lord. The practice was in no way condemned by the WELS hierarchy, but rather, the practice is current under a "moratorium" in order to "keep from offending our brothers."

This error has come about by the intersection of an error on the doctrine of the ministry combined with a legalistic view of the role of women.

First, WELS does not believe the pastoral office has been divinely established, and further teaches that "The Bible establishes all of public gospel ministry but does not establish a pastoral office as such or vest certain duties exclusive to that office" (Emphasis added).

From this starting point, WELS adds the next premise that the differences between male and female are limited to a legalistic "thou shalt not," as the article puts it:
"Since the Bible does not assign specific duties to the pastor, WELS approaches the matter of women communing women from Scripture's man and women role relationship principle. WELS doctrinal statements on the role of man and woman say that a woman may have any part in public ministry that does not assume teaching authority over a man. That, of course, would include women communing women" (emphasis added).
And this has moved beyond the theoretical into the practical: "WELS has had only two instances of women communing women, and our Conference of Presidents has since issued an indefinite moratorium on such practice to keep from offending our brothers until the matter is mutually resolved" (emphasis added).

My Comments:

As you can tell from the Q & A quoted from the WELS website, our Lutheran kin are in a race to the bottom in other ways as well -- functional understanding of the office of pastor and the distinction of that office and its functions to prevent women from serving ONLY when it places them in authority over men.  Odd, yes!  Lutheran, no!

Monday, June 29, 2015

The mighty 1%

Pastors hear a great many excuses.  Take a gander at the inactives and begin asking people why they are not in church on Sunday morning and you hear a heap of excuses.  Why it is downright exorbitant of God to expect us to give up our Sunday morning when that is the only time we have to sleep in, do the laundry, weed the garden, play golf, watch TV, do the food shopping, etc...  What kind of God would demand so much from us when He surely knows how valuable our time is?!

Of the total 10,080 minutes available per week, we typically spend about 120 minutes at church (worship and Bible study) or a whopping 1% or more of the total time available to us each week.   As one who does not pay much attention to the clock in worship, I find it humorous but sad that the clock watchers on Sunday morning think that a 75 minute service is bordering on scandalous.  What does God think of us that we are so jealous of the little time we spend together around the Word and Table of the Lord?  What should He think of our insistence that even 1% is too much?

At the very same time, we are quick to excuse habits and activities that take a great deal more than 1% of our time as worthy pursuits.  It takes more than 2 hours to play 18 holes of golf or travel to a movie theater and watch the current flick or even to wash, dry, hang up, and put away the laundry.  But that is not too much time if we want to do it or believe it has to be done.  On the other hand, worship is optional.  It just goes to show you how nearly everything that is wrong is a first commandment issue.  We don't want a god, we want to be THE god.

The big sins are not the sexy ones with all the juicy details or the scandalous ones with all their public shame and humiliation.  Nope, the biggest sins are the first commandment ones.  We reject the Lord not because we prefer another deity but because we want to be the deity.  God is on the clock but we do not time the things that we want to do.  God must face a nervous foot and an obvious glance at the watch but time is suspended when we are doing what we want to do when we want to do it.  No, the big sins have no shocking details of perverted behavior -- only a heart so perverse that it presumes it is a better god than God.  We may not have substituted any popular wannabes for the Lord's place in our lives but even God runs second to me, myself, and I.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Do not give into bitterness, hate, or judgment. . .

On Friday, the Supreme Court struck down every state law that prohibited same sex couples to marry.  It came as no real surprise but signals the great divide among the peoples of America.  In a division that mirrors the legalization of abortion some 40 years ago, Americans stand bitterly divided. 

As we consider what this will mean for Churches who confess marriage as God’s design of man and woman, it is important that we not rush either to fear or to bitterness.  God’s people were never going to triumph at the ballot box or in the courtroom but by the bold proclamation of God’s Word, the Law and the Gospel.  This is our strength and this is our power. God has promised the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church. 

In addition, the world expects Christians to be angry and bitter.  Now is not the time to rage but to show the face of Christ, to speak not simply with the voice of no but the positive description of the relationship God designed and man and woman before the Lord, living in fidelity, mirroring His creative love with the gift of children, raising their families to know and love the Lord through His Church, and committed to love their neighbors with Christ’s all surpassing love.

We must also acknowledge that we live in a new social climate in which the values of God and His kingdom are increasingly in conflict with the values of a world clearly headed its own way.  Yet with this conflict comes the real opportunity to explain what we believe, to give reason for the hope that is within us, to teach God’s purpose in creation and redemption, and to show forth the power of His redeeming love in our own lives and our lives together as the Church.

We will face great pressure to conform, to be unfairly labeled and criticized, and to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  But do not be afraid.  God has not given us over to the enemies of His Word and God has given us all the resources of His grace to endure the day of trouble, to proclaim the Gospel without fear, and to live boldly the love of Christ.  Our calling is not to win popularity contests or to embrace every detour of culture but to be steadfast and faithful to Christ and receive the crown of glory that does not fade.

verbum dei manet aeternum -- The Word of the Lord endures forever.

The season of my discontent. . .

I become rather agitated and adamant about this time every three years.  It is the silly season of District Conventions in which the business of the church is scheduled during Sunday morning when pastors should NOT be at conventions but SHOULD be in their parishes with their people!!

So whatever business is held on Sunday morning of the District Convention schedule will be done without me in attendance.  I will drive the four hours back home on Saturday night so that I will be in the pulpit and at the altar with my people on Sunday morning.  Probably not very many folks in the parish have any appreciation for my little rebellious act but that does not matter.  No church meeting is so important it should be scheduled over a Sunday morning and take the majority of pastors away from their place among their people to sit around tables.  The truth is that too much of what happens at church conventions is less business than it is cheerleading time.  I am not opposed to rallying people for the cause but whatever time we have allotted the convention we will fill -- even if some of it is fluff and it consumes time we should be using to debate the serious business of the Kingdom.

So, on this Sunday, while most of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors of my district are in Memphis, I will be back in Clarksville. . . my own little protest.  One day by sheer force of character, we shall prevail. . . at least that is my hope!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A birthday boy!

Sermon preached for the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (observed), on Thursday, June 25, 2015.

There are not many birthdays on the church calendar.  St. John the Baptist is one of the few, with Jesus, whose nativity we note with a special day.  Saints are remembered on the day of their death; unlike the way we think of things in which birth is everything, the saints are remembered in the context of God's promise of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.

We find John an odd figure perhaps because John was a bridge between two worlds – on the one hand he was a prophet of the Old Testament calling people to repentance but on the other hand he was the last of those prophets and a voice to point to the one who comes to fulfill the prophetic promise of old.

I do not think we would be friends with John.  We live a world of creature comforts and John was a man driven to cut through the niceties to speak pointedly of Him who was to come.  John wears shocking clothing even for the time in which he lived and he came with a shocking message: The Kingdom of God is at hand.

John was not a man of pleasantries and his voice sounds brash to our ears even more than it did so long ago.  John will not waste our time with casual talk but cuts to the core.  He worries little about our feelings and less about our comfort.  God is coming and that is all we need to know.  Repent is his message and believe for God is fulfilling His ancient promise now.  Pay attention or the saving moment will pass you by.  No wonder John had enemies.  It is blunt truth often deemed to pleasant for a people accustomed to the lies of sin.

Now to be sure, John is not simply a fire and brimstone preacher.  For he calls us not to the Law and to a repentance born of human deeds of righteousness.  John is a preacher of the Gospel.  The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.  God is coming.  God will deliver His people.  God is acting to keep His promise.  The wilderness echoes with the some of a promise enfleshed in the One who was and who now is.  Pay attention.  The day of salvation is here.

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God,  whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,  to guide our feet into the way of peace.  So sang Zechariah when he got his voice back.  John was not to fit in but to stand out and in standing out to point not to Himself but to Jesus. 

God raised up a prophet to go before His Son, to prepare His way, to give knowledge of salvation to His people, by the forgiveness of their sins, all because of the tender mercy of God and not out of His desire to condemn us.  We who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death have been brought to the light of life.  What is left for us except to repent, believe, and rejoice.  Yes, and one more thing.  For we are not called not to fit in but to stand out, pointing not to our righteousness but the righteousness of Christ we wear by baptism, and to speak, not the voice of condemnation or fear, but of hope.  Repent, for the Kingdom of God is here!

Stretching the boundaries. . .

It is easy to shoot for what is familiar and safe.  Too often that is all we aim for.  I have been in congregations where the same couple of dozen hymns were sung over and over again.  The rationale was often put in the context of that is what people like, that is about all we can handle musically, or that is what is easiest.  None of these is a particularly good reason for choosing the hymns of the service.

I know that there are people in my parish who do not like that we sing as many hymns from the hymnal as we can through a given year.  I know that there are those who would be happy as a clam if we sang the same couple of dozen hymns they like -- the only problem is getting everyone to agree on which couple of dozen they like!  I know that some people groan when they turn in the hymnal and find out it is a two page hymn or one with a gazillion stanzas.  I don't choose the hymns to make people angry but because it is a good thing to know the whole hymnal, hymns are chosen for text and with the three year series we have a lot of texts to connect with in choosing hymns for the day, and because we need to learn a new hymn every couple of weeks to expand the realm of the familiar (if only by baby steps).

There are pastors who complain that not all hymns in Lutheran Service Book are of great quality.  I suppose that this is true.  I am not as bothered by the use of hymns less compelling than others -- at least not as bothered as some folks who regularly vent their frustration on the internet.  We even sing "Earth and All Stars" every now and then.  No, you will not get me to say you should narrow the numbers of hymns you choose and sing on Sunday morning.  Naturally we do have an affinity for Lutheran hymns -- if we don't sing the great chorales, who will???  But that is not all we sing.  We regularly add hymns not in LSB (including some that did not make the cut from either TLH or LW) as well as newer hymns not even written when LSB was published!  I have written some hymns (not nearly as easy a task as some might make it out to be). Singing requires effort and voices need to be stretched -- and our repertoire needs expanding as well.  This is a not a bad thing.

The same is true of the choir.  Too often Lutheran choirs never even venture to sing the compositions of great Lutheran composers of the past or present.  Too often Lutheran choirs sing what is easy and popular (way too much contemporary sounding stuff that is more at home in another denomination than our own).  Yes the choir is a volunteer group and they do not all read music and some of them complain loudly when asked to work a little harder than they would like.  But go for it!  Our choir is a group of about 30-35 folks of varying musical ability and yet they regularly sing the great music of the masters (the old ones and the modern folks -- from Rutter to K. Lee Scott).  They regularly surprise themselves by doing a credible job with music that IS difficult to sing.  Our best for His glory, that is the point.

I will admit to some frustration that Lutherans tend to be infatuated more with the music of other traditions.  Why does the church that produced Bach find itself loving spirituals and American Gospel songs more than the great Lutheran chorales????  

When our new Associate Pastor is installed, the choir will sing Parry's "I Was Glad" (Psalm 122), Mendelssohn's "How Lovely Are the Messengers" and a Rutter piece as well.  We will find the money for some strings and brass players to make sure this is a blessed occasion in which the various components of the liturgy are up to the glorious event that is taking place.  And we will do it in mid-July, to boot!!

If you are doing worship planning, stretch the boundaries.  Do not skip the hymns with challenging melodies and thoughtful texts to find those which are easy and popular choices.  Do not presume that your people are incapable of doing more challenging music.  Give your people the chance -- in the pew and in the choir.  We can only do what we are challenged to do.  Stretch the boundaries!!!  But do so in the pursuit of that which has some theological and musical integrity and not because it is trendy, faddish, or cool.  You might just be surprised!!!

Friday, June 26, 2015

The snakes return to Ireland. . .

Long after Patrick sent them packing the snakes have returned to Ireland.  Where there was once a country in which divorce was illegal, where mass attendance was among the highest in Europe, and the Irish were traditional in most ways, now we have the first democratic vote to reject marriage between a man and a woman and to define it as a relationship without distinction as to sex.

How did this happen?

Some will say money helped -- the money from the left leaning agencies especially across the Atlantic.  Yes, I suppose that did help.  Some will say lack of any political will or opposition helped -- the politicians certainly abandoned traditional marriage from the Prime Minister all the way on down with but a few lone voices to reject the change.

But how could a country with so many people raised Roman Catholic, catechized in the faith and more practicing that faith than other nations of Europe, suddenly vote by more than 60% to reject church teaching?  There can be only one answer.  Catechesis was not effective, the faith was not really taught, and the people were left without much of a moral compass either by the teachers of the faith or by the leaders of the church in Ireland.

This is a warning shot across the bow of those who would teach the faith to children.  You cannot half-halfheartedly teach the faith, allow "conscience" to trump the Word of God, and leave it up to the people to figure out on their own what is right and wrong and then end up with any semblance of orthodoxy.  Teaching the faith means teaching the faith.  Teaching the faith means addressing Scripture as the highest truth that not even conscience can deny or dispute.  Teaching the faith means insisting that conscience calls us to affirm the Word of the Lord and not deny its teaching.

Wherever you find people falling away, you can almost always find a failure of teaching.  Whether you call it catechesis or not, whether it happens in the home or in the church, without faithful teaching the faith will not be faithful.  We do not do anyone much service by teaching them our own doubts or struggles as a substitute for Thus saith the Lord.  Nor do we provide any benefit to the student by suggesting that what we believe, confess, and teach is anything less most certainly true.

For too long we have been more interested in whether people liked us than they believed in the unchanging truth of God's Word faithfully confessed in every generation.  And what we ended up with is a cultural Christianity which finds little contradiction between voting for marriage without distinction as to sex and thinking themselves faithful Christian folk.

Better a smaller church in which people know and believe and confess the yesterday, today, and forever faith than a bigger church in which we pick and choose what we will believe as if doctrine were a smorgasbord and the biggest factor was personal preference.

The snakes have returned to Ireland and they will not be far behind in other places unless we teach our children well. . .