Friday, October 31, 2014

Martin Luther is my name. . .

Remember my kudos to The Lutheran Witness???

Perhaps we should loan out Adriane Heins to the ELCA's The Lutheran.  While I was praising the reinvigorated monthly journal for our church body, I had occasion to peruse some back issues of The Lutheran only to find it a less than salutary experience.

Perhaps the article that stands out most in my mind was one subtitled The Most Real Church I Know and it was written by Kaethe Schwehn, a summary of her year as a 20 something coming to terms with her floundering faith..."  I cannot tell the state of her heart but if her article is any reflection of the state of her faith today, it still seems to be floundering to me.

She describes Vespers at Holden Village as a requirement for all who live there "whether or not God is your thing."  Schwehn calls it a quiet time together, with either feigned or artificial but unison liturgical conversation.  I agree with her, "to practice a religion is, in some ways, to take responsibility for it.  This is why it is easier to be spiritual than religious..."  But then things got dicey.  By remaining aloof from religion, "you don't have to deal with the idiots who still think God is a man [I hope she would agree Jesus was/is], who still think marriage is just about men and women [I guess that position is so over for folks of her age], who want to preach the tomb without the resurrection [what about those who want to preach the resurrection without the tomb?], or damnation instead of grace [but no problem with preaching grace without consequences]..."  Anyway, if this represents the caliber of The Lutheran, I cannot recommend it, and, apparently, many within the ELCA agree with me because I am told subscriptions are dropping precipitously....

Let me leave you with one more choice statement:  "I go [to Vespers] because I love the space where we worship. . . with its acid trip ceiling and altar standing just to the left of the free throw line, is the most real church I know..."

I don't wanna

The heirs of the Great Reformation gather on this day to trumpet the accomplishments of Martin Luther and his cohort of renewers of the faith.  We may not be happy to be Lutheran the rest of the year but on October 31 we are proud to beat our pumped out chests, sing A Mighty Fortress, and bemoan the wretched state of the church before Luther made it a personal cause!

Don't get me wrong.  I love Reformation Day.  I love being Lutheran (most all the time).  But I fear for the future of Lutheran churches (not so much for Lutheranism).  The Lutheranism that is the Book of Concord confessed, the great Lutheran chorales sung, the Divine Service with all of its reverence and awe, the Small Catechism and its explanations -- these will endure.  Sometimes I am not so sure about the Lutherans.

We Lutherans might have been undone by our pride in the man Luther and in our hero worship of his person but not so much anymore...  We Lutherans might have been undone by our flirtations with evangelicals and others -- the folks we might be if we were not Lutheran and still try to be while attempting to be Lutheran -- and we still could be.  We Lutherans might have been undone by those who have given up on the Reformation entirely and who are resigned to reconciliation with another communion (Rome or Constantinople) but the numbers swimming in either direction is fewer than the publicity implies.

What will be our undoing is our laziness, our infatuation with preference and feeling, and our unwillingness to work very hard at anything spiritual.  If Lutherans disappear, it will be because I just don't wanna will end up ruling the day.  I just don't wanna do anything so I will just stand here and watch from the sidelines of Sunday morning...  I just don't wanna learn anything, so I will just assume that all churches basically believe the same things or their errors and virtues complement the other churches so that none of us really knows what is truth...  I just don't wanna speak the words of the Divine Service or sing the hymns so I will let others do it and stand there like a lump on log...  I just don't wanna pay attention to doctrine and truth so I will content myself to measure what happens on Sunday morning on whether or not I feel better, got anything out of it, were entertained, educated, or got to do my thing in the spotlight...  I just don't wanna be responsible for raising my child in the faith, taking him or her to catechism and Sunday school, or modeling for him or her how to participate in the Divine Service...   I just don't wanna be accountable to anyone for anything and I don't want others to look over my shoulder and presume to tell me anything...   I just don't wanna do anything I don't wanna do!  Believe!  Practice!  Sing!  etc...

If Lutheran churches end up disappearing, it will not happen because Rome won or Geneva won but because Lutherans ended up giving up on their confession, congregation, catechism, and conscience.  That is the real danger facing us -- look in the mirror.  When Lutherans find other things to do on Sunday morning they are saying the Divine Service, the Word and the Sacraments, and their local congregation don't matter so much after all.  This is what threatens our existence.  The devil is counting on our lackadaisical attitudes that leave the believing, the confessing, the singing, the worshiping, the teaching, the serving, the caring to others. 

We are our own worst enemies.  Some of us have forgotten the voices of our fathers in the faith and have attempted to reinvent Lutheranism (in the image of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, mainline Protestantism).  Some of us have forgotten the witness side of confession and treat the stranger as the oddity to be ignored rather than the stranger to be welcomed.  Some of us have forgotten that pure doctrine matters because their people believe and confess it and not as an ornament for the shelf.  Some of us have forgotten that unless we pass on faithfully the legacy passed on to us we have little to be proud of.  Some of us have forgotten that Lutheran is not antithetical to Christian but claim to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith.

Lutherans unite -- not against the world but for the Divine Service as source and summit of our Christian lives EVERY week...  not as a people whose every word is "no" but as those who speak also and with even greater vigor God's "yes" in Christ crucified... not as a people willing to let others do what is our baptismal calling but as the people convinced that what we believe, confess, teach, and do matters... not as a people happy to beat our chest for the victories of yesterday but as those who fight the good fight of faith today...  not as a people who secretly wish we were somebody else but as those whose convictions are solid, sure, and deep in the faith called Lutheranism...

Come on, Lutherans, be Lutheran -- not just on Sunday morning either.  We are our own worst enemies.  Either we believe the efficacious Word and have confidence in the means of grace to deliver what they sign or we have no business wearing the name that others wore so nobly before us.  If Lutherans disappear we can blame no one but ourselves.  Today is Halloween -- when folks dress up in costume.  Lutheran is not a costume -- it is a confession upheld, a conviction shared, a community gathered around Word and Sacrament, a catechism to be taught, and a cause too important to be left to others. . .  Don't wear your Lutheranism as a costume.  Wear it as the face of faithful catholic Christianity.  Then Lutherans and Lutheranism will have a sure future.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

No domino effect here. . .

“Incest between siblings appears to be very rare in Western societies according to the available data but those affected describe how difficult their situation is in light of the threat of punishment. They feel their fundamental freedoms have been violated and are forced into secrecy or to deny their love.The majority of the German Ethics Council is of the opinion that it is not appropriate for a criminal law to preserve a social taboo.In the case of consensual incest among adult siblings, neither the fear of negative consequences for the family, nor the possibility of the birth of children from such incestuous relationships can justify a criminal prohibition. The fundamental right of adult siblings to sexual self-determination has more weight in such cases than the abstract protection of the family.”

Read more here. . .

Sexual self-determination is, according to the German Ethics Council, the most fundamental of rights.  Given the secularization of Europe, apparently a right more profound than the freedom of religion even.  Once we thought Germany was solid -- after all the people who brought you Mercedes Benz and BMW and Audi and VW were surely common sense people, right?  Such foolishness is shocking but not completely unpredictable.  We have had an uncommon shortage of common sense of late, Germany included.  But my point in this is to remind folks that once the sacred barriers of morality and family were vitiated, all the once solid prohibitions would eventually fall.  If it is not a direct consequence of gay marriage, cohabitation, and the sexual revolution, it is an indirect one.  As Europe goes, so goes America -- only a generation or so behind, perhaps.  Polygamy can no longer be prohibited -- say the courts.  Marriage is whatever the people marrying choose it to be -- say the courts.  Pedophilia maybe a different sexual orientation and not a perversion -- says psychiatry now and probably the courts soon.  Incest is an unfair ban against the fundamental right of sexual self-determination.  What is next?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The last gasps of church. . .

I once received these lists of the dying breaths and last words of churches (or denominations) as notes from lay folks asking me if they should be worried.  I once read these lists thinking that these so-called experts ought to be heard and maybe they had something to say.  Not anymore.

The latest incarnation I had emailed to me was written by Brian Dodd (whoever he is) and his last gasps of a dying church are:
  1. “Isn’t it great that our music is never too loud?”
  2. “Isn’t it nice seeing people in coats and ties and not disrespecting God by wearing jeans and shorts?”
  3. “We’re more spiritual and doctrinally pure than that fast-growing, watered-down gospel, baptizing-hundreds–maybe-thousands-every-year church down the street.”
  4. “Can you believe that church is stealing all our young people?”
  5. “I hear we’re having to cut the budget because giving is not what it used to be.”
  6. “Isn’t it great having all this room on the pew to spread out.”
  7. “I love singing all four verses.”
  8. “Don’t worry about our attendance. Let me tell you how large our membership is.”
  9. “Are you coming to Monday night visitation? How about the Wednesday night prayer service?”
  10. “Remember the good ‘ole days.”
  11. “Visitors, please stand.”
  12. “I hear it’s just a show over there.”
  13. “We just formed a Committee on Committees.”
  14. “We don’t talk about money. We preach the Bible.”
  15. “You don’t want that fast growth. Slooooow growth is what you need.”
  16. “Isn’t it great getting out of the parking lot quickly?”
  17. “The poor will always be with us.”
  18. “I’m really tired of having to hear about lost people all the time.”
  19. “Pastor, I think we need to start praying for revival.”
Do these phrases hit close to home for you? Are there any more comments you want to add that you’ve heard?

I suppose there is truth to all of those lists but the answer offered by the gurus of growth are generally the same -- reinvent yourself, ditch the focus on doctrine and liturgy, take up entertainment/seeker worship, put a praise band in place of the organ, put a stage where the chancel was, dress down, act casual, try for relevance, preach trendy stuff that hits people's felt needs, shy away from mentioning sin and Jesus (except in the most generic sense), and take time to listen to the experts who know better than you or the Word of God what makes a church grow...

Here is another one. . . sent to me by a reader of this blog and written by George Bullard, the topic here is not a dying congregation but a denomination committing suicide.

Many denominations are slowly committing suicide. Suicide is not an intentional destination. It is, however, the unintended consequence of their collective actions over multiple years.  Denominational movements reach a point that they institutionalize. They do this because it is fashionable, to create organizations that will guarantee their survival, in response to requests from parts of the constituency that they provide more programs and management, to complete their rebellion against other Christian groups they do not want to emulate, because focusing on institutional things keep them busy and gains them greater status and notoriety, and because the opportunity was available to them.
Eventually they become hooked and even if they wanted to quit, many cannot or are in denial they are killing themselves. Here are seven ways their suicide is becoming increasingly inevitable. These are not the only ways, but they are effective ways of committing suicide.

First, they lose their first love which is congregations. They focus time, energy, and resources on social and political issues as well as supporting auxiliary institutions rather than congregations. They focus their efforts directly rather than in ways that cooperate with congregations. Rather than building up congregations who can impact issues and institutions, they strive to build up their own role in impacting issues and institutions.

Second, they fail to create and sustain a congregational multiplication movement that launches a number of new congregations each year equal to three percent of the number of congregations they have at the beginning of each new year. The three percent figure is minimal to sustain the denomination when a certain percentage of congregations are dying each year, and a majority of existing congregations are plateaued and declining.

Third, culturally, if not officially, denominations formalize education requirements. All ministers are expected to have a master’s degree from a seminary or divinity school and true leaders are expected to have some type of doctoral degree. This empowers the upward socioeconomic mobility of the denomination and leaves behind masses of demographics who need to be engaged missionally.

Fourth, officially they formalize and perhaps centralize the ordination of ministers. At least it is no longer a local congregational issue—if it ever was. Attempts are made to create and sustain a higher quality of clergy through the ordination process. Too often the excellence in character and competency sought for is a target missed.

Fifth, understanding and hearing the voice of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit is misplaced. When denominations believe the voice of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit is greater in denominational headquarters than it is at the grassroots, they lessen the power and impact of the Triune God throughout their movement.

Sixth, when denominational headquarters does not understand the difference between a strategic framework and a strategy it may be committing suicide. A strategic framework is what is needed at denominational headquarters, and even in many middle judicatories. Specific contextual strategies are what emerge at the grassroots through individual congregations and networks of congregations.

Seventh, when denominations regularly restructure, their focus is usually on rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. The primary outcome of denominational restructuring is often setting that denomination up to restructure again within five years. Even when there are attempts at broad-based ownership among congregational leaders for restructuring efforts the focus is still on managing the past rather than leading into the future.

Bingo.  It hit the LCMS in nearly every place we are vulnerable...  congregationalism reigns supreme, church planting is the only real goal and purpose, everyone a minister, listen to the people, find which direction the wind is blowing, set people free to do things on their own, forget constitutions and by-laws. . .  Again, there is a measure of truth in all of these lists but the solutions are never as simple or as idyllic as the writers of such lists think.  By this list, the Roman Catholic Church should be dying because it is the most controlling of all denominational structures but instead it is flourishing.  By this list, the Southern Baptist Church should be flourishing but it is no longer growing free and easy.  In other words, be careful about re-inventing yourselves to fit the lists of the self-appointed experts who know better than everyone else.

You want my take on all of this?  Be faithful.  Be faithful in proclaiming the Word, the full counsel of God's Words, rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel.  Be faithful in administering the Sacraments according to Christ's institution.  Be faithful in welcoming the stranger, loving the poor, and serving those in need.  Be faithful in maintaining the sacred tradition handed down to you and deliver it faithfully to those who come after you.  Be faithful in catechizing youth and converts.  Be faithful in raising up the faith whether it is received or not, whether it is among friends or enemies of the Gospel.  Be faithful and God will grow the congregation and denomination or not -- maybe He has a different future in mind than the one we anticipate -- but God will deliver whatever growth the kingdom of God finds.  Do what He has called us to do and do it faithfully, taking the work of the Kingdom, the Word of God, and the Sacraments seriously while not taking ourselves overly seriously and the will and desire of God shall be done -- not because of us but through us!

That is enough.  And skip the reading of lists of why your church is dying... it only distracts you from what you ought to be reading, wasting time that should be given to the faithful work God has given us to do, and instilling fear that we make church grow or die when, if we are faithful, it is God's domain to bring growth to His Church. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Who are we Lutherans?

Sermon for Reformation Sunday, preached on Sunday, October 26, 2014.

    When somebody wants me to eat what I do not want to try, I am always told but it tastes like chicken.  Since chicken can taste like anything we choose to use for seasoning, I suppose there is an element of truth to it.  But if I wanted chicken, I would have asked for it.
    Definitions born of comparison are inherently flawed.  They may sometimes be helpful but they are never fully accurate or complete.  One of the great temptations for Lutherans in a sea awash with Protestants of various stripes and Roman Catholics is to explain ourselves in relation to others.  We are like Roman Catholics, except... we are like Methodists except... But we must be more than just not Roman Catholics and not Methodists and not Baptists. We can't merely be against but must positively stand for what we believe and confess.  If we would claim to be heirs of the great Reformation we must speak boldly and positively who we are and why it matters to the world.
    The heart and core of the Reformation is not an antagonism   against Rome or the Pope but a quest for authority – what can I trust.  We know that even the best intended people fail us.  We have to have something more than our own feelings or the opinions of one or many on which to base our faith.  So Lutherans confess Scripture alone.
    Scripture alone is trustworthy and reliable.  God cannot lie to us or deceive us.  Scripture alone reveals God to us and is that which norms or shapes what we believe, confess, and teach.  Yet this Scripture is more than just error free, it is efficacious.  The Word of the Lord is factual but not just a book of facts.  It is the living voice of God who speaks and in His speaking, His work is done, faith is imparted, and His grace delivered to His people.
    Yet this Scripture is not the domain for the individual to decide what it says.  If this were true, we would have exchanged one pope for everyone a pope and ended up even further removed from knowing the truth that sets us free. The Scripture speaks consistently, yesterday, today and forever the same truth.  This is what that word catholic means – unchanging!  The Reformation was not about change but about continuity with Scripture and the catholic tradition.
    The quest of the Reformation was not a better morality but hope for the sinner, caught up in sin, guilt, shame, and death. This was personal for Luther and it is personal for us.  Our salvation is sure because we fickle people contribute nothing to that salvation.  It is God's grace alone that we are saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  His free gift and unmerited favor has redeemed us lost and condemned sinners, not with silver or gold but with the holy and precious blood of Christ.
    The power of the Reformation is Christ alone. Christ reveals the Scriptures to us.  He is the key to that Word.  He alone fulfills the Father's will and apart from Him we have no certain knowledge of God at all.  He is the face of God, the voice of God, and the power of God to release us sinners from our sins and restore us to our place as His children, that we may know Him and live under Him in His kingdom now and forevermore.  Therefore the Gospel is THE message of God to us – Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
    Our Lord Himself insists that the Law, the prophets, and the writings – the whole of the Old Testament – testifies of Him. This is our confidence.  If we know Christ by baptism and faith, then we are saved, then we have the Spirit working in us His purpose, to display the good works that do not earn our salvation but do show forth who we are and whose we are.
    We make a great claim.  We insist that we have departed not from the catholic faith delivered to the saints and handed down from generation to generation.  That claim is true ONLY when we affirm God's Word as the infallible truth that does what it says to and for us, that grace alone is our glory and our confidence in salvation, and that Christ alone has shown to us the face of God as our Savior and Redeemer.  These will remain only words until we speak them to our children and tell them to the world.
    Today we will witness the baptismal affirmation of some of our youth.  They will speak forth their faith and make bold promises of lifelong faithfulness.  But these remain only words unless we support them, unless we hold them accountable, and unless we encourage them in these vows with our prayers and example.  All of us are bound together in Christ to do just that – hold each other accountable and encourage one another in the faith. 
    Those confirmed today will, like us, have to wear our faith before the world.  The faith we wear before the world cannot be defined by comparison.  We cannot afford to define ourselves as like Roman Catholics except or like Baptists except or like Methodists except...  We must learn to identify who we are why it matters in a positive sense.  We are Word alone, Grace alone, Christ alone people.  We insist that who we are and what we confess is not sectarian.  We insist that we confess the fullness of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith, once delivered to the saints.  This great confession IS a confession of Scripture, of grace, and of Christ. 
    What we have received, we pass on.  To those confirmed today, and to those who will hear the Gospel... and to a world waiting to know the Gospel that forgives, restores, sustains, and saves.  So from us the Word goes forth to the world.  Unless we are willing to do this, we are unworthy of the name Lutheran and of the great heritage of the Reformation.  Therefore, let us do no less for the future than was done by the faithful who went before us.  Amen.

Sacramental or devotional. . .

One of the more profound difficulties of the modern age is the way the liturgy, even among its friends, is more likely to be seen in the context of the devotional life of the individual, as one of many tools or sources of spiritual growth, rather than the source and summit of Christian life.  In other words, there remains a distinct tension between the Divine Service as the fount from which our lives in Christ flow and the summit or peak to which our lives are addressed and the idea that corporate worship, the Divine Service, the means of grace, are all one of several or even many sources of our spiritual lives and not the goal or peak of that spiritual life.  The tension is between individual and corporate, to be sure, but it is far more than this.  The Eucharist is the singular and gracious source of our life together, koinonia, as well as the focus to which our lives return in the unbroken cycle of the eighth day and our lives planted within God's kingdom and time by baptism.

I encountered this in an article, of all things, on the tension between the Benedictine and Jesuit models of spiritual life.  Peter Kwasniewski wrote an article at the New Liturgical Movement website called The Ironic Outcome of the Benedictine-Jesuit Controversy.  According to Kwasniewski (a mouthful),  A “Benedictine” liturgical model, drawing from monastic life and its corporate worship and devotional life, and paralleling the classical liturgical movement, views the liturgy as the source and summit of Christian life.  On the other hand, a “Jesuit” liturgical model sees the Mass as “one among many tools of personal spiritual growth, with private meditation having a certain pride of place.” 

The fruits of the Liturgical Reform include, among other things, a kind of merging of the two models.  The liturgy is a chief priority for the individual devotional life of the baptized, but, it is a liturgy which is less communal gathering than it is a more intensely personal and subjective liturgy which is both perceived and valued individually.  

Certainly it is not much disputed that the path of liturgical development, demonstrated especially by the medieval period, has been a move from the more corporate sense of the gift received and celebrated to a more individual piety in which the value and blessing of the Mass is viewed through the lens of the individual.  Perhaps this mirrored the eventual silence and spectator role of the faithful as the Mass became less the domain of the people's response than the arena of the clergy, minor clergy, and choir.  The somewhat Romantic view of the development of the liturgy and a desire to replicate the more pristine forms of the church's earliest life were not without their own lens of judgment by the individual.  

The author of the article insists:  The legacy of the post-conciliar reform is a Benedictine insistence on the primacy of liturgy, fused with a Jesuitized re-conception of liturgy as collective private devotion. It is as if new Jesuit wine has been poured into old Benedictine wineskins, causing them to rupture. The moment of triumph was the moment of disaster, as the very notion of a rite—a formal ritualized act of common worship based on a common orthodox tradition—gave way to a pluralistic, relaxed, malleable, and privatized praxis of variations on a more or less Catholic theme. In short, the Consilium’s exploitation of Sacrosanctum Concilium left us with a volatile mixture that makes genuine reform today much more difficult.  

While he speaks from and to a Roman Catholic perspective, his words are not without application within the larger world of liturgical reform.  The point is that liturgical reform is made more complicated and because it is not simply about forms, change, texts, antiquity, and modernity but about a more modern idea of an individual spiritual life of which corporate worship and the Mass/Divine Service is but one component (albeit very important) vs the idea that the personal and individual devotional life of the Christian draws upon many sources and is encompassed less toward God than it is the fullness of the life of the individual.  I think that is exactly the key.

Folks fighting the worship wars are often seen as battling musical styles or ancient words and forms that have meaning only because they are ancient.  In essence, we tend to take for granted that everyone looks to the Mass/Divine Service as the same thing and for the same purpose.  This is a fallacy.  Lutherans also find liturgical renewal challenging because our people no longer see the Divine Service as source and summit of their baptismal lives together (first) and individually (as a consequence).  Rather, the hard truth to admit is that our people no longer see the essential need for the Divine Service or even the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood.  Their devotional lives have many sources and the summit of their devotional lives is shaped by individual need and focus -- a better life, marriage, family, work, etc... or happiness.

When I visit delinquent members and even when I speak with regular folks who sometimes absent themselves for somewhat prolonged times from the Divine Service, I hear them assure me that they are still Christians, still believe, still read the Bible, etc... but that they do not need to attend corporate worship or to receive the Sacrament to nurture their lives in Christ.  They draw from many sources and the Eucharist is but one.  This is surely open to debate but my point is that they are saying that their individual devotional lives are neither rooted from nor directed to return to the Divine Service.  This surely applies to Lutherans the same difficulty that the author of the article sees as one of the fruits of modern liturgical renewal -- yes the Eucharist is important but it is not the source and summit of the Christian life but rather one of many different sources and peaks of my individual piety.  This has to change before we can address the actual changes in form and words that also marked the time of modern liturgical renewal.  Increasingly we are finding folks less attached to the Divine Service and more individualized both in their expectation of and their appreciation for what happens within the Divine Service.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Made real by our experience. . .

Experience is many things.  It is not bad -- in fact it is good.  Our experience of the Christian faith and even our emotions within that experience are good things. . . but they are not that which makes the faith real.  Experience and emotion are a response to the reality which exists by virtue of God's Word that speaks and creates, that is efficacious delivering what it promises, and that does not fail to accomplish God's purpose in sending it.

The idea that something of the faith is made real by our experience is dangerous for that means it can be rendered unreal by our failure to experience it or our rejection of that experience.  In a sense this is no different from those who complain about their pastor not because he fails to preach God's Word rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel or faithfully administering the Sacraments according to Christ's institution but because they don't like him.  They claim to get nothing out of his sermons and even to find their faith hindered by his ministry.  But what they get out of his preaching and ministry (of Word and Sacrament) is neither created nor prevented by their like or dislike of the man.  It is the nature of the Word that it does what it promises and delivers what it says.  Period.

Yeah, I know what he means.  I have had those moments when emotion, experience, and faith all come together.  They are good moments and not bad.  But good or bad, our experience of Christ, our experience of His Gospel, and our experience of His grace is rendered neither real nor unreal by special moments or memories or a lack of them.  We pastors need to be careful lest we turn folks to the uncertain ground of feelings and experiences from the solid foundation of God's Word.  Especially when we broadcast these words across the internet.