Thursday, October 23, 2014

Random thoughts on a random day. . .

We spend less time cooking, cleaning, working, and otherwise providing for life's essentials than ever before.  No generation has enjoyed as much free time as we do and no generation has had as many choices available for that free time as the options we routinely expect.  Yet the common complaint of us all is that we are too busy to do what we want and we seldom get close to completing all we intend.  Somehow that did not seem all that important to me when organizing one of my days this past month.

Sitting with a few shut-ins puts some of these things into a slightly different perspective.  One couple spends too much of their time shuffling from one doctor appointment to another.  They are not overly busy but overly tired -- weary of the endless litany of ailments, tests, diagnoses, and pills.  They know what is wrong with them.  They are old and old age brings a certain unpleasantness that is unavoidable (no matter what the pleasant mythology of aging tries to say).  This is a wisdom which they wish they had not learned.  They have found their length of days a mixed blessing -- as it surely it -- but they are wonderfully happy to spend time with their Pastor, who has come to inquire about them, to speak God's Word to them, and to feed them upon the body and blood of the Lord Jesus.

In the same day, another set of shut-ins finds a slightly different twist to their day.  Time moves ever so slowly during the day but quickly through the months.  One is suffering from the ever increasing ills of memory loss and his world grow ever smaller with each passing day.  His wife watches with a measure of sadness and relief -- sadness that their golden years have lost some of the shine and relief when he wakes, when they manage to get through the day without falling or some other household trouble.  They are also happy when their Pastor stops by to break the routine, bring news from their church and church family, and listen to the measure of the day so far.  Visitors do not stop as often as they would like and come more often because of need and not simply to say "hi".  The memory lost has not yet left him unable to speak the Our Father and ask to receive the body and blood of the Lord Jesus but he does have trouble swallowing and receives the Sacrament from a spoon.

The ministry of Word and Sacrament is all that but it is also a ministry of presence.  Amid the press of time, the urgency of a thousand problems, emails, phone calls, social media alerts, lessons to prepare, sermons to write, parish calendars and publications to prepare, etc... there is time just to sit, to talk, to look around, and to look into the lives of those entrusted to your care.  It is not always the kind of stuff that seems urgent or the kind of stuff that fits on a report or the kind of stuff that leaves you with statistics to share... but this is the stuff of a Pastor's day.

How we care for the youngest and for the oldest within the church is often a truer measure of the church's life and health than the raw statistics of attendance, giving, visitor follow ups, etc... that supervisors want to see.  How do you report these indicators of faithfulness also essential to the life of a Christian (Lutheran) congregation?

So after spend about half the day with shut-ins, there are still some phone messages to hear, calls to return, and a 90 minute youth catechism class to teach (finishing up a unit on baptism).  At the end of the day, it is sometimes hard to point to concrete accomplishments ("This is what I made/did") -- but there is purpose, value, and importance to it.  One of the great lessons of pastoral ministry is learning that pastoral care is not glamorous, it is hard to chart on your schedule, and difficult to report but it is often one of the most valuable things you will ever do.

PS...  The phone calls were about baptisms to schedule (5 so far) and new families to bring into the family of faith hat is this congregation.  These things are easier to chart and report.  So at the end of the day a little something for the statistics after all -- though it is a darn shame to characterize the great mystery of water and God's Word as a statistic!?!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Stand Up for Jesus. . .

All over the media is the buzz about the Houston pastors whose sermons were subpenaed.  What is a strange and foolish act on the part of the openly gay Houston major in support of her measures to help the cause of GLBT there has backfired.  It was an outrageous overstep.  Of all the responses, one of the most thoughtful is that penned by LCMS 4th Vice President and also Pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church in Houston.  Read it here.  It is good stuff.

Why I stand with the Houston five.


You believe the Word too much. . .

It was a discussion of sacramental theology, of the water of baptism that saves and of the bread and wine that is now Christ's body and blood in the same manner as the incarnation married divinity to humanity.  It was an argument of sorts over infants and children -- whether they were somehow aloof from sin and its consequences and therefore not in need of baptismal gift and grace or if they possessed some kind of rudimentary faith or must await an age of accountability.  It was a frustration of wills conflicting, of theological lenses that precluded the other from seeing what the one saw, and of posturing defined less by what the Scripture said than by rational and reasonable theological presupposition.

And then the arrow broke through...  But even then, once the point was understood, it was not granted.

"You believe the Word too much..." 

A blessed accusation, to be sure!  If one is left with the choice, the Lutheran chooses to believe more in the Word than in human work or act as the basis or promise of salvation.  It is the all encompassing sacramental theology of Lutheranism boiled down to the fewest of words -- you believe the Word too much...

But we do.  Hidden in the water of baptism is the ark that saves us.  The Word put it there.  No matter that you cannot see it with the eyes in your head.  It is there.  The Word has promised it.  Hidden in bread is the Body of Christ and in the cup His blood.  The Word put it there.  No matter that it still looks and tastes like the bread and wine it was, and still is, by earthly sense, it is the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Word has promised it.

We believe the Word too much.  If there was ever a Lutheran fault, I think it might be this.  But what we might call a fault in our world of seeing is believing is the greatest of all virtues.  We learned it from Mary, Blessed Virgin, who heard and at once became the Mother of God, the Son of the everlasting Father living in her womb!  Yes, shocking as it is, the BVM is the Mother of All Lutherans.  She believed the Word too much.  We believe the Word too much.

That is why I am not Roman Catholic or generic Protestant or even Orthodox.  This is why I am Lutheran.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Whose image do YOU wear?

Sermon preached for Pentecost 19, Proper 20A, on Sunday, October 19, 2014.

    Undoubtedly you have heard the Gospel reading before and undoubtedly you have heard stewardship and citizenship sermons and some of them undoubtedly came from me.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  But today I think we need to  explore another aspect of Jesus’ words about what belongs to Caesar or government and what belongs to the Lord.
    What began as a typical conversation complaining about taxes – one that might very well take place here and now – turned into something much different.  It was nothing less than an attempt to trap Jesus between God and Caesar.  We always talk about taxes and how to relieve ourselves of this burden so that we can do what we please with OUR money.  But Jesus offers us no out.   He asked for a coin and pointed to Caesar’s image.  Pay what you owe.  In other words, Jesus refused to justify avoiding paying what is rightfully owed to Uncle Sam. 
    It is sinful to refuse to pay what you owe because it proceeds from a selfish heart.  None of us is trying to keep from paying more to the government in order to give more to the Church or have more money for the poor.  Jesus knows this.  He is blunt. Yet, as hard as this is, this is the easy part of Jesus’ words.  Taxes to pay for the common good, such as defense, are sanctioned by God, just law, and just responsibility.
    Living as a citizen means sharing obligations for the common good and for the common need.  In other words, we have a duty to our neighbor and even to the stranger with whom we share both privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.  We may glory at cheating the government of their due but Jesus offers us no cover and refuses to countenance such behavior.
    But the conversation is not over.  Then comes the part that is much more difficult.  Uncle Sam wants only a part of you, a small percentage.  God is not content with a little bit of you, with a part of you, or with sharing you.  He has invested the blood of His Son to redeem you and you belong to Him.  You were bought with a price.  You belong to Him.  To run from this is to cheapen Jesus’ suffering and death and to act like the tenants we heard about last week who refused to give what was the right and duty owed to the owner.
    Let us approach this a different way.  Instead of thinking about a coin, think of YOU.  Whose image do YOU wear?  For that is what tells us what is due and to whom it is due.  Whose image do YOU wear?  Do you belong to the world?  Or, do you belong to the Lord who became Your Savior? 
    God’s claim would be easy if it were merely a claim on the time or money we call our own.  But that is not His claim.  His claim is on US – all that we are.  Our very selves belong to Him.  This is where it gets hard.  God claims all of us or none of us.
    We were created by God and marked with His image, made in His likeness.  His claim on us is the breath that gave us life and the life that we live out before Him.  But God claimed even more.  He also claimed our sins.  He sent forth His own Son to pay the sacrificial cost of that sin and to enter into the horror of death and tame it for us. We are therefore twice His.  Once in creation and once in our baptism when He marked us again as His own, setting us free from our captivity to sin and death and allowing us to live under Him in His kingdom as was His creative intention.  What the world owned died in your baptism and what arose belongs to God.
    St. Paul says the same thing.  You are not your own.  You were bought with a price.  Therefore glorify God in your body.  It is easy to give Caesar what is his due – it is but a percentage of our money.  But to give God what is His, to acknowledge His ownership over the whole of us, that demands nothing less than absolute faith. For just as God has claimed us, cleansed us from our sin, and set us free from death, so does He continue to provide for us, for this body and this life, and His mercies are new every morning.
    We are tempted to cheapen God’s claim on those who wear His image – 10% of our money, one day a week for worship and only a couple of hours then.  God is not satisfied with token ownership of those whom He has purchased and won with the very blood of His Son.  He demands all of you.  Nothing less.  How is that for stewardship!  Yet our jealous God is not selfish about us in the sense that we are over our things.  He is jealous for us out of love, desiring to save us and providing for us to keep us in this blessed faith and hope until no distraction or distortion of life can afflict us again and we are His in everlasting life.
    We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works... present yourselves as living sacrifices to the God whose image you wear.  Well, what do we sing every Sunday? What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me? It is not a rhetorical question.  It expects an answer.  You belong to the Lord.  You wear His image.  So do not sing it on Sunday unless you are prepared to live it Monday through Saturday.  Do not try to live as if you had two masters.  One is Lord, even Jesus Christ, and it is His domain in which we live this mortal life of ordinary responsibilities and duties to nation and neighbor even as it is His domain in which we live the new life that marks us for eternity.  God help us to wear His blessed image born in us by baptism now and to endure in this faith and hope to everlasting life.
Amen

Pastoral VS Doctrinal

I have said this more than once.  When did "pastoral" become an antonym of "doctrinal" or "dogmatic"?  When we describe pastors as pastoral what we tend to mean is that they do not follow the rules but bend the rules out of love or charity.  So a pastoral pastor will open the altar rail to whomever while a doctrinal or dogmatic pastor will insist upon following the rules and allowing only people in fellowship to commune.  There are a thousand other issues we could use to juxtapose pastoral with doctrinal or dogmatic and we would probably not cover them all.

It seems that Rome has picked up on this idea as well.  The designated replacement of Francis Cardinal George of Chicago is described as a "pastoral" bishop.  In other words, unlike, say, Cardinal Burke, this fellow will not be so intent upon enforcing the doctrinal stance of the Roman Catholic Church and will be more likely to, say, bend the rules rather than follow them.  No one is saying he is a heretic or out on the fringes but he is described as a moderate or pastoral -- sort of like Francis.

Frankly, I am sick and tied of the way we use pastoral to describe those who are more likely to ignore doctrine and toe the line on its practice.  There is nothing pastoral about a pastor (bishop, pope, you name it) who thinks doctrine is less important than people.  There is nothing pastoral about a pastor who has decided that dogma is optional and it has no particular practice associated with its belief.  Whether you are Lutheran or Roman Catholic or Orthodox or Methodist -- it does not matter -- holding to doctrine should not be a bad thing.  In fact, we have far too many people questioning doctrine, challenging the truth of Scripture, wondering about the historicity of this person or that event, dismissing the historic boundaries of morality, and discounting the ability of anyone to know for sure about much of anything of Scripture, truth, and God.

There is little love in the person who refuses to tell the truth to people who might be offended by it.  The Gospel is just as offensive as the Law, just as scandalous to the modern heart, and just as far fetched to the modern mind.  Love means telling the truth, telling it not as a weapon to wound but as the only means to salvation, healing, forgiveness, and life.  No church body needs people who are less likely to be truth tellers because people might not understand it, might be offended by it, or might use this truth as an excuse for keeping their distance from the God who made and saves them.  Just the opposite!  We believe that God's Word is truth and that this truth has the power to save, to bring about repentance, and to create faith.  It is the promise of Isaiah 55 that God will not find His Word empty but will rejoice in the fruit for which He has issued that Word (through the mouths of His people and through the faithfulness of pastors who are not ashamed of doctrine and dogma).

A wise retired Army chaplain once said to me that the kiss of death for a chaplain is to only say "no" to his commander.  "No, I cannot do that, but I can do this."  said the same chaplain.  In other words the real distinction here should be between those who only say no to wrong and those who say no to wrong but find in it the occasion to speak the yes of God's grace.  Pastoral should not mean that you do not say God's "no" but rather that in addition to speaking God's "no", you also speak God's "yes".

The real pastoral pastor (bishop, pope) will seek the truth of God's Word and its faithful confession and practice and follow it.  This is not in antithesis to love but its fullest expression.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The end of imagination. . .

Not a few have complained about a lack of creative thinking -- especially within our educational systems.  Many on all sides have lamented that tests are the single factors used to measure knowledge and that these tests are designed simply to regurgitate answers rather than stimulate thinking.  I remain somewhat conflicted in my own point of view on the value of such monolithic testing. 

One of the things that does trouble me is the impact of education and, perhaps even greater, the consequences of a video/tech culture on the imagination of youth.  Few would seriously challenge the idea that colleges today tend to have the most rigid boundaries of thought policed by teachers, administrators, and students alike.  But I cannot blame this all on the college.

Michael J. Lewis writing for First Things has put my concerns very clearly within the framework of education and play and the results of the choices we have made for ourselves.  He writes:  Students in my history of architecture course are amused to discover that the final exam offers a choice of questions. Some are bone dry (“discuss the development of the monumental staircase from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, citing examples”) and others deliberately open-ended (“General Meade overslept at Gettysburg and the South has won the Civil War; you are commissioner for the new national capital and must tell us which architects you will choose and what instructions you will give them.”) In offering this whimsical range of options, I do nothing original; my own professors at Haverford College did much the same in their day.

But a peculiar thing has happened. When I began teaching twenty-five years ago, almost all students would answer the imaginative question but year in, year out, their numbers dwindled, until almost all now take the dry and dutiful one. Baffled, I tried varying the questions but still the pattern held: Given the choice, each successive cohort preferred to recite tangible facts rather than to arrange them in a speculative and potentially risky structure. In other respects, today’s students are stronger than their predecessors; they are conspicuously more socialized, more personally obliging, and considerably more self-disciplined. To teach them is a joy, but they will risk nothing, not even for one facetious question on a minor exam.

Free play is not free when it happens under the control the choices and direction of others.  Our preoccupation with video games and technology means that we may be learning to follow more than we are learning to think, to risk, and to joy in our own imaginations.  This is a troubling thought.  I am not simply speaking theologically here but of the impact upon this directed play upon the imagination of the artist, the musician, the sculptor -- all the creative arts and vocations!

We seem to believe that play is too important to be left to the imagination of children and so we have directed and supervised this play.  Our attempts to create a egalitarian playing field, devoid of competition, bullying, intimidation, and victories have noble intentions but serious consequences upon the imagination of youth and adulthood.

...the process of producing the well-socialized, well-tempered contemporary child has inadvertently blunted some of those qualities that can only be acquired, as it were, when no one is looking. Chief of these is initiative—the capacity to size up a situation and take quick decisive action. Only those children who play under minimal supervision—“free range kids” in the happy phrase of Lenore Skenazy—get the chance to develop this sense of dash or pluck. They do this in the process of deciding what to play, establishing the rules, choosing sides, and resolving the inevitable dispute. In short, by acting as miniature citizens with autonomy rather than as passive subjects to be directed.

For adults to have imagination, they must have learned to play, to risk, to create, to inspire, etc...  I worry about what our well meaning attempts to insulate our kids from hurt, loss, defeat, and disappointment have won us.  Our kids may become not only couch potatoes who depend upon their technological toys to entertain them but end up with brittle imaginations fearful of the risk of creative thought.  That is not a good thing.

I well recall a line from an older movie in which Uncle Buck goes to school to meet with the principal who has charged his 6 year old niece with failing to take seriously her academic career.  I don't think I want to know a six-year-old who isn't a dreamer, or a sillyheart. And I sure don't want to know one who takes their student career seriously. I don't have a college degree. I don't even have a job. But I know a good kid when I see one. Because they're ALL good kids, until dried-out, brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they're no good.  Maybe we don't need to convince them they are no good.  All we have to do is convince them that the only way to play is to follow somebody else's imagination and that dreams are for others.  We have done more than abuse our children by taking away their play and insisting they act like smaller sized adults -- we may have also lost out on the giants of the creative arts who could endow us with some beauty, wonder, and joy in a world too full of sorrow, fear, and despair.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Billy Graham -- Secret Anglican???

Graham told one reporter that if he was starting over again he would be ‘an evangelical Anglican’. He once told veteran journalist Kenneth Woodward he saw ‘spiritual beauty in Anglican order’. Leighton Ford has revealed in an email to Wacker that Graham has asked Richard Bewes, former Rector of All Souls, Langham Place, to help officiate at his funeral service.

You can read about it here.

To those who seem to think that mission and liturgy are antithetical terms, here is affirmation from one unmistakable proponent of mission orientation that liturgy, beauty, and order are not antagonists to the work of God's kingdom.  Strangely, though, there are Lutherans who would argue with Graham and insist that in order for us to reach the lost and grow the church, we must ditch the liturgy, hymnody, and beauty all for the sake of relevance.  Hmmmm.... What do you think?