Friday, November 21, 2014

Having a bishop and/or the exercise of episcopal authority

As many of you may already know, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod does not call anyone bishop -- at least not formally.  Partly from our bad experience with one (Stephan) and partly because of our inherent lean to democratic structures within a national church body designed with limited authority, we are instinctively suspicious of that term.  Some have noted that we shy away from calling a few bishop so that we can all be bishops and do what we darn please.  There is always a measure of truth in a sarcastic comment.  There is some in this one, too.

That said, we do confer episcopal authority to a specific set of ordained men -- both on a national level and within mostly geographic districts.  This ministry of oversight (though I detest our fear of using the term episcopal authority) is essential to any and every church body with integrity of doctrine and practice.  They are not shift supervisors but exercise real episcopal authority over the doctrine and practice within their area of responsibility -- over both clergy and congregations.

Congregations are free to organize themselves as they will (within certain parameters) and to administer their own affairs as they choose (again within broad parameters)  but we believe that doctrine and practice are not congregational or private but the most public expression of who we are as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  Therefore congregations and clergy voluntarily surrender a measure of their independence to live within the common confession and life of a church structure in which certain officers have authority over their doctrine and practice.

I personally think it is a bit of foolishness not to call them bishops.  Others may disagree.  What all agree upon is that having people called bishop is itself no guarantee of orthodoxy or faithfulness in doctrine and practice.  What we should also be able to agree upon is that the episcopal exercise of such authority is essential to maintaining the bond of peace, sustaining the catholic confession, and practicing faithfully who we are.  The problem here is not what you call them but whether or not they will act upon the authority invested in them to oversee the doctrine and practice of those within their responsibility.  Sometimes those with the most hierarchical structure are positively abysmal at this oversight (thinking here the Episcopal Church).  Sometimes those most adverse to calling them bishops act like them (thinking here a few of the most faithful District Presidents in the LCMS).

We have watched the Extraordinary Synod in Rome (which calls them bishops) and found, to our shock, that on some votes (120 to 60) a significant number of their overseers have some very different viewpoints on what is faithful doctrine and practice (the polarities between Cardinals Burke and Kasper are hard to miss).  Indeed, one Roman Catholic commentator has suggested the most basic benefit of that Synod was to find out who is for us and who is against us.  Therein lies the rub.  You do not need to wear the title bishop to think that you have the right to depart from Scripture and the catholic tradition.  It happens all the time.

None of us delights in those who use their authority to chafe and irritate but what the churches need now more than ever are faithful overseers (really, could we not just use the churchly term bishop?) who speak the truth in love to those tempted to surrender the truth for the sake of love.  Rome needs them, Constantinople needs them, Canterbury needs them, and, guess what, St. Louis needs them.  We need more than administrators but teachers and examples of the faith who will challenge us to be the best we can be, living in faithfulness to our confession and in fervent service and submission to the saving will of Christ.  We need men who can say to the stupid stuff, "stop."  We need men who can say to the distracted, "pay attention."  We need men who can say to those who wanna be somebody else, be faithful to your confession.  Period.  We need men who can say to congregations "you cannot do that" and to clergy "enough already."  And we also need men who can speak positively and passionately why we believe, confess, and teach this and why the world needs to hear it.  When you get bishops like that, it matters less what you call them than you listen to them!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The God of Choice. . .

Of all the idols available to us, perhaps the most enticing is the idea of choice or preference.  We live in a world in which we make constant decisions about what we want or like -- at this particular moment.  Nothing of the choices we make is necessarily decisive for we retain the right to change our minds about anything and everything.

It has had the effect of making childhood, particularly adolescence, more confusing than ever before.  We do not make choices that endure but living in a constant state of making choices -- often from among the same options -- over and over again. 

As a child I grew up with barely a couple of channels on TV and never had a problem finding something to watch.  Today our children have hundreds of choices on their TV in addition to the myriad of choices available to them in video games, computers, internet, and other technological toys.  In fact, some of those choices require you to redefine the setting and rules of the game over and over again -- every time you play.

Henry Ford is said to have remarked that you could purchase one of his cars in any color you wanted so long as it was black.  Now we paint our wardrobes, rooms, and things with a myriad of choices that are limited only by our desire and imagination.  Color, style, design, and preference choices spill over from the walls of the homes in which we live to the displays of all those wonderful technological toys we love.

We view church and faith within the same consumer mindset.  We shop for the right church as if we were looking for a shirt.  It turns out that our loyalty to the church of our choice is not very deep.  We regularly change out churches like we do our shirts.  There is a growing segment of people who are not really members of any church but transient Christians who stop here and there on their way to the next thing that promises to satisfy their whims, at least for a moment.

Scripture and spirituality have also been surrendered to the idol of choice.  We no longer believe in God but we do affirm a spiritual desire.  We no longer believe the Bible but believe certain things in the Bible.  Either of these may change depending upon the choices available to us and our mood at the time.  We want to be spiritual but not if that means committing to something long term (other than self, of course).  We want to say we believe in the Bible but, really, not some of those strange things the Bible says that no modern person really believes anymore.

Even sexuality is not immune from the press of choice.  We are who we are but who we are may change with whim, desire, and availability.  Today the choice may be straight but tomorrow it may be bi and later gay.  Gender is bendable, flexible, and a choice more than a given defined by the sexual organs.  Today I use the boys bathroom but tomorrow I may self-identify differently.  The ultimate conclusion to the idea of "love the one you are with" is reflected in a gender identity which involves a range of choices which may be satisfying rather than one.

The problem in marriage is not just whether only male and female may marry but why limit yourself to marriage at all.  Culture has surrendered the idea "to death till us part" and left us with a commitment that lasts only as long as we find it pleasurable, satisfying, and easy.  It did not take very long to find out that gays divorce as quickly as straight people or that many gay people have come to the same conclusion as many straight people -- why marry at all?  So marriage has become a word defined more and more by personal preference and "what it means to me."  Children are a problem because they are permanent (at last until we can get them to the day care center).

The problem is that it sounds so awful to suggest that we change so we have labelled this change growth.  We grow as people, our opinions grow, our commitments grow.  We are ever growing (and changing) and it seems antithetical to growth to stick with one God, one Scripture, one gender, one spouse, etc...  Growing people need room to grow and the institutional structures of marriage and family may be too constrictive for a growing people -- unless, of course, we radically re-define them!

The Lord knows us.  He knows our fickle hearts, minds, and ways.  The slavery to preference or desire is nothing new nor is it new to Him.  But He has fashioned Himself as the God who is yesterday, today, and forever the same.  In contrast to our evolving ideas of who we are, what life is, and what we want out of it, He is the one constant.  Eventually we will tire of the constant need to set our general preferences for life.  Eventually we will find our desire to choose will itself become a choice we do not have to make.  This may happen when we are left high and dry by the choices, preferences, and options available to us.  Or it may happen when the Word of the Lord addresses our heart and the Spirit finally breaks through the clutter with a ray of light.  Either way, God is patient.  Yet we dare not confuse His patience with a lack of concern.  He is a jealous God -- not because He is consumed with Himself but because of His passion for us.  That passion was displayed most profoundly when Jesus surrendered Himself to death for His already dead people, paying the freight for our sins with His own blood, and suffering for all -- even those who put Him on that cross.  The Church that endures is the Church that is patient, that trusts in the promise of the Lord more than in what they see and hear and feel, and that expects the future God has prepared for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.  There is great comfort to me in this enduring truth through which my own brief and inconsequential life (at least to the world) endures to life eternal!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Francis' Agenda?!?

Pope Francis has “pushed the door open” on the issues of homosexuality and Communion for the divorced and remarried, and no vote by a future Synod of Bishops is going to reverse it, according to one of the pope’s closest advisors. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference and a member of Pope Francis’ inner circle, said in an interview with Die Zeit that the pope himself had ordered the rejected paragraph on homosexuality to be retained in the Synod’s final document.

It was widely reported by the world’s press, including interviews with high-ranking prelates, that the paragraphs relating to homosexuality and Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in the mid-term document aroused shock and outrage among some Synod fathers. The paragraphs asked whether the Church could learn to “accept” the homosexual “orientation.”

In the Synod’s final document, the fathers failed to approve a paragraph mentioning the Synod’s discussion of appropriate “pastoral attention” for homosexual persons and quoting Church teaching that homosexual unions are not “in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family.”

Despite only garnering 118 out of 180 votes, and thus failing to meet the needed two-thirds majority, the Vatican included the paragraph in the published document along with the vote tally. Likewise, the document included a paragraph on the discussions about opening Communion to civilly ‘remarried’ divorcees that had failed to gain the needed votes.

 This report, whether accurate in part or in whole, suggests that no one less than the Pope himself has intervened to turn what appeared to be a defeat for the progressives and restore language that will certainly be interpreted as an opening for gay and divorced Roman Catholics.  Even if it is not intended this way, it is certainly how it will be seen by those inside and outside of Rome.  Makes you wonder if Benedict is having second thoughts. . . I know that many both within and outside of Rome are having some. . .

Vexing. . .

The highly influential Hillsong Church and it’s head pastor, Brian Houston, are in the news because, at first glance, it appeared that they might be backtracking on Scripture's position on homosexuality.  The pastor has assured the world he has not changed his position at all but was nuancing that position in an attempt to keep the conversation open with those who disagree with the Bible's position on homosexuality.  He has been adamant that this massaging of an approach was an attempt for the church to remain relevant in the ongoing conversation with the world and those who oppose the traditional and Scriptural position.

I was asked a question on how the church can stay relevant in the context of gay marriage being legal in the two states of the USA where we have campuses. My answer was simply an admission of reality—no more and no less. I explained that this struggle for relevance was vexing as we did not want to become ostracized by a world that needs Christ.

What is striking here is less what he said or did not say about homosexuality but with his pursuit of relevance and his fear that his church(es) would become ostracized by a world in need of the Gospel.  It is clearly a problem for many Christians and has led to a distinction between public words and private conviction.  What we say in public is sufficiently vague as to keep the door open while in private we remain convinced of the Scriptural and traditional position on this matter.  Perhaps Houston is not unlike the desire of Pope Francis in trying to keep the doctrine but to publicly appear welcoming and sympathetic to GLBT, their families, and those who ally with them.  We have all wanted to do this on one issue or another or at one time or another.

I certainly do not fault those who find the dilemma vexing.  It most certainly is vexing.  But it is also a tension Jesus not only predicted but warned His Church about.  There will be those who deny the truth for the sake of public acceptance.  There will be those pressed by fear of persecution (the worst form of ostracization).  But the counsel of God's Son is to remain steadfast in the truth that endures forever.  Instead of apologizing for what we believe, we are called to speak it.  A defense of the faith is not an attempt to make it reasonable or comprehensible to the world.  Such is not possible.  His ways are not our own.  We walk not by sight but by faith -- trusting in that which mind cannot understand and eye cannot see.

We get in trouble more by waffling before the challenge than by simply letting our yes be yes and our no be no.  Houston is now viewed with suspicion by those who are not so sure he might have walked back his support for the Biblical truth and he is certainly viewed with suspicion by those to whom he had hoped to remain in open conversation.  How can you dialog with those who believe one thing privately but say something different in public?

In the end it is a lesson.  To be faithful means that the world will not understand, will not agree, and will, indeed, persecute those who speak the truth faithfully -- even when they speak it in love.  But we can do no less.  We can no more fail to speak the truth than we can afford to speak it in such way that it becomes a weapon rather than invitation.  For the Word of the Lord will produce its own results and God will bring forth His own appointed fruit from its speaking.  That is enough for you and me to know.  We are speakers of the truth but God is its voice and its power.  Regardless of how the truth is received by the world, it will not return to Him empty handed.  Once we get that right, we will find it easy to escape the conundrum that Pastor Houston and Hillsong have found themselves in.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Too much focus on the vehicle?

One of the perennial arguments of any current discussion of worship is that music is essentially neutral and that it is the text that matters -- the music being little more than the vehicle to deliver the text to us.  The earliest forms of Protestantism were not so sure about this.  One of the first things to go among them was chant and, though they were cautiously in favor of congregational song, it was only within strict parameters that hymnody began as we know it.  Some restricted the text to paraphrases or the literal wording of the Psalms (safe because God inspired them) but to these texts they had a smaller number of melodies which were associated almost exclusively with Psalm singing.

Lutherans bucked the trend and both preserved chanting and provided an atmosphere in which congregational song and liturgical music flourished.  Even then it was not without some complaint.  Bach was too busy on the keyboards for many and some thought that hymnody worked best when accompaniment was simple, plain, and drew little attention to itself.  We have all suffered through the mythology of Luther quotes (why must the devil get all the good music) or the equally false idea that he borrowed liberally from pub songs and secular melody (and countenanced it) to obtain suitable tunes to go with early Lutheran hymn texts.  Thankfully these have been pretty much exposed as falsehoods and inventions by scholars.

Now, nearly 500 years after Luther, we find ourselves in the midst of music battles within the worship wars.  The same old tired ideas of the past have been brought forward again and pressed upon us.  Music is neutral.  It does not matter what tunes we sing  but merely the text within that musical form.  So Christian rap and the great Lutheran chorales differ more on the scale of culture (high or low) than value or worth.  What foolishness we tell ourselves!

The early Christian hermits were suspicious of music.  They knew the power of music to drive, if not overwhelm, the text itself.  Chant was kept but polyphony, instrumental music, and congregational song were viewed by these desert fathers as influential as the very words of the music.  So Orthodoxy remains sung but absent instrumental accompaniment (especially in contrast to the use of the pipe organ in the West).

Music is more than merely a vehicle for the text.  It is itself a medium that communicates values, ideas, and identity.  Some would have us believe that music is to the text merely a vehicle to get the words into the minds and out the lips of the people and that it does not matter if that vehicle is a classy and elegant automobile or a lean and maneuverable scooter or motorcycle or a sturdy truck.  It matters not if it is a Mercedes or Mazda, Harley or Hummer, luxury sedan or junker.  The text is all that is important.  If this were the case, we might have less to argue about except culture.  But it is not.  Music matters and not simply as a delivery vehicle for the text.  It imposes ideas, can conflict with the text, has the power to overwhelm the words, and even detract from the content.

For this reason, music must not only deliver the text but serve it -- serve it as its hand maiden (as Luther put it) so that the aims of the text become the aims of the tune as well and what ends up is a comprehensive whole of text and tune working together for the same purpose, to deliver the same message, and to honor the same God.  The sad truth is that we choose songs we like not only for what the words say but simply for how it all sounds to us.  In fact, sometimes we never know or realize what the words actually say while remaining in love with the sound of the music.  Such is incompatible with Christian music, especially hymnody.  What distinguishes Christian music is that text and tune become a seamless whole in saying the same thing to heart and head -- at the same time.  When and where that happens, music is blessed and made as noble as any servant can be in serving a higher good.  When and where that does not happen, it is unworthy of worship, unworthy of our attention, and unworthy of the God whom it seeks to honor.

The danger in the Church today is as much from vehicles headed in a different direction from the Word of the Lord it claims to sing as it is from Christians who refuse to acknowledge the often obvious contradictions between preference and truth.  Christian music is NOT primarily about what we like but about what is faithful in words and in music.  We have, sadly, become accustomed to presuming that what we like is good enough for God.  What we forget is that it is nneither good enough for God NOR for us. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

All politics is local. . .

Some have said that Cardinal Kasper was playing to the hometown crowd when he brought up the issue of divorced Roman Catholics.  The population of Germany is growing more and more secular.  The numbers of Germans leaving the Church and therefore relieving themselves of the church tax burden grows with each succeeding year.  The age of the German Church is increasing and youth are not replacing them.  The benefits provided by the church tax structure, while generous now, are unsustainable given the above.  Some have said that Kasper is reacting not to a Roman Catholic problem but a German situation.  Interesting. . .

The same outspoken Cardinal has been caught up in a controversy in which private comments were recorded and made public in which he insisted that African Roman Catholics had to be excluded because of their hometown crowd and the difficulty in raising the issue of homosexuality.  According to Kasper this is a taboo subject among the Africans.  In a sense, he is admitting that his situation is different from theirs and that Rome may have to find a way to accommodate such differences (though probably he means that the Africans are at some point in time going to have to live with the recognition of gays and gay marriage already clearly intrenched in the West).

The point I am making is that no church and no Christianity can survive if it offers one answer for one set of people and another answer for others.  Rome is united more or less by its Pontiff.  Francis seems to have done a good job of uniting many folks in disappointment with him and his leadership.  Those who press for the full inclusion of gays, divorced, and other excluded groups will surely be disappointed with Francis' bungled leadership of their cause.  Those who insist upon a hermeneutic of continuity are undoubtedly disappointed with Francis for seemingly opening the door to radical change (or at least the expectation of such change to come) on these issues.

It all points out both the strength and the inherent weakness of the papacy.  On the one hand every religious group benefits from a clear and confident leader but on the other hand the leadership of such a large and diverse group means the confrontation with local needs and desires that are often at odds with the national unity and purpose of the larger group.  Where you have a Pope who is well respected and trusted, JPII, it is possible to unite people with disparate aims and purposes and to lead them to walk together.  When you have a Pope who is a theologian and a man of integrity, B16, people will listen to him even when they do not agree with him.  But when you have a Pope who appears to waver, to speak out of both sides of his mouth, and to give a false impression of what he believes or desires, it can only weaken and further divide an already weak and factionalized communion.

Lutherans and others cannot afford to watch this spectacle in Rome with only morbid curiosity.  The pressure upon our leaders is the same.  Faithfulness in doctrine and practice must be married to a compassionate heart.  Truth cannot be set at odds with either humility or kindness.  We struggle with the same issues and pressures as well as other issues.

For the Missouri Synod we run the same risk of being a rather loose conglomeration of independent but cooperating congregations (when it suits their interests) instead of being a churchly body that unites our divergent parishes.  We have enjoyed the leadership of an administration which has so far worked to enjoin faithfulness in doctrine and practice with a welcome face of compassion and kindness but every day brings new tests for this leadership.

St. Paul insists that our credibility before the world and our integrity with one another is our ability to speak the truth in love.  To lean on love without truth is to lie and to be content with truth minus love is be equally unfaithful.  God help us and may He raise up those who will lead us in both faithfulness and service.