Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A few thoughts on Pastoral formation. . .

Having received a candidate from Concordia Theological Seminary as our associate pastor, I have been thinking about pastoral formation, the seminary, and the needs of the church a bit more than usual.  We seem to be in a perennial quandary over such things as curriculum and cost, qualities and qualifications, pastoral education and pastoral practice, and the like.  I have no quick or easy solutions here.  But I do not believe we gain much by relaxing either the entrance requirements or our expectation of an educated clergy.

The cost is great.  There is no denying this.  But is it too great?  That is the $10M question.  The Church is not merely judging who is called but equipping that person for the long haul (up to 40 years of active service).  I fear that we may make short-term decisions that have long-term consequences.  We are making an investment and if we expect to have an educated clergy in an age when pastors routinely must defend the faith and sort the path through an increasingly unfriendly society, now is not the time to skimp.  I will say that the current model of financing seminary education (on the backs of the fundraisers at the sems and the students and their loans) is untenable.   This has to change.  I long for the day when the Church will be the primary investor in this education.  I know it costs money but in my mind it is money well spent.  Perhaps it is true that it costs us $250K to bring someone from first interest to ordination and installation.  That is a great deal of money but I believe it is money well spent.  Do we have the will to follow through on this?

Pastoral formation involves more than ascertaining the inward call of the person.  It involves an ongoing judgment on the pastoral character and preparation of that individual.  Such judgments are not made once when the man is accepted into the seminary but every year as both the knowledge and pastoral character grow and are discerned by those charged with making such determination.  It appears to me that one of the key areas here is modeling for the seminarian as well as providing for him the richest and most faithful liturgical expression of the faith being taught in the classroom.  Some see the role of the seminary as exposing the seminarian to all that he might find in the parishes to which he might be called.  As great as this might sound on the surface, there is a higher goal here.  That is to make sure that the pastoral candidates sent forth from the seminaries of our church have equipped the man to faithfully and effectively lead and model a  liturgical piety that is authentic to and proceeds from our Confessions.  This part happens less in the classroom than in the chapel.  Pastoral formation includes learning to pray, how our spiritual lives flow from and back to the Eucharist as source and summit of our faith, and being immersed in the Word of the Lord personally as well as professionally.

Clearly, we have lost much of our confidence in pastors and in the seminaries ability to provide faithful pastors.  Some districts presidents talk as if the seminary is an enemy of the pastoral vocation and even go so far as to insist that they must unlearn what the candidates learned in seminary.  What this usually means is that they have bought into evangelical models of leadership in which the pastoral role and character is secondary to other aspects of leadership usually borrowed from non-Lutheran sources.  I will say something shocking here.  Pastors are not leaders and should not be in the sense that this term is being bantered about in evangelicalism, among the mega stars and gurus of church growth, and by those who think the primary job of the church is to keep up with the culture.  Pastors are pastors -- shepherds -- who feed, defend, care for, and guide the flow of God through the means of grace.  God places them among us not to vision cast, not to  develop new paradigms of leadership or evangelism, and not to reinvent the church for each new generation.  The world does not need a speedboat but an anchor and Christ is that anchor and the pastor testifies to Christ through his use of the means of grace through which Christ makes Himself know and does His work in us, among us, and through us.  We evaluate pastors on the basis of their faithfulness in providing the means of grace to God's people and in preaching and teaching faithfully with respect to the Kingdom -- not by statistics or earthly measures of success.

Finally, we must admit that we no longer value the pastoral vocation as highly as we once did.  Do we steer the best and brightest toward the pastoral calling?  Do we encourage our young men to consider God's call and the pastoral vocation?  Do we model how highly we value the office by the manner in which we treat the occupants of that office?  Do we believe that the pastoral office is given by God or merely the functions?  Do we see the ministry of the means of grace as key to the congregation and synod's life and health or do we value other things more highly?  Do we try to please the customer or faithfully shepherd the flock of God through the faithful use of His means of grace?  I will say again what I have said before.  Where pastors will love and care for their people energetically and confidently through the Word and Sacraments and where people will listen to the voice of the Word and be drawn into a life of daily repentance and trust in Christ, God is happy, the Church will grow as God designs, the Spirit is at work, and good fruits will come.  There is no perfect man for the perfect place but there are pastors who are sinners forgiven and restored sent to communities of sinners forgiven and restored by the same life-giving Word of the Gospel.  When both meet at the foot of the cross, God will be glorified, the kingdom will come, and the Church will endure.  When we regain our confidence in this, both pastors and parishes will find it easier to meet the challenges and changes presenting themselves to us.

I remain ever thankful to God for Pastor Daniel Ulrich who shares with me the responsibility for the flock in this place.  I am grateful for the folks at Concordia Theological Seminary where he was trained and his pastoral character formed.  I am confident that he will face with me great challenges and that the key for us to meet them will be faithfulness to creed and confession, to Word and Sacrament, to the love of God for us and our love in return.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Rockstar New Auxiliary Bishop

In a surprise move that turned out not to be all that surprising, the Pope named the 55 year-old rector/president of the Chicago diocese's Mundelein Seminary as one of three auxiliary bishops for the nation’s largest diocese in America — the 5 million-member archdiocese of Los Angeles — where he joins to other new auxiliaries: Msgr Joseph Brennan, 61, Irish-born Msgr David O’Connell, 61.

The appointment is notable because Barron was a protege of Francis Cardinal George and has become a media sensation with blogs, commentaries, media appearances, video series, and a widely known and highly regarded YouTube presence.  A Hollywood Bishop is perhaps a signal of how important keeping up with the changes and opportunities of a vigorous media presence can be.  Choosing someone as media savvy as Fr. Barron certainly means the Vatican is aware of both the opportunities and the pitfalls of an increasingly complex media world and has chosen someone whose voice and experience in this area are well known.

Speaking entirely as an outsider, I was also surprised that the Pope chose someone who has been so clearly identified with the B16 wing of traditional Roman Catholicism (doctrine and practice).  So it may seem that Francis does not have as much of an agenda here as once thought.  I do not know.  What I do know is that we Lutherans are in need of just the kind of people Fr. Barron is to Roman Catholics.  We need seasoned individuals whose faces are well recognized and whose voices are well known to help us navigate the increasingly difficult choices available to us in a technological world with an emphasis on media.  If Rome is acknowledging the role of the media in their program of new evangelization, it is up to us to figure out how best to use the resources and how to use them effectively to present who we are, what we believe, what we teach, and what we confess to a world that is so deeply entwined into social media and technology for news, information, and entertainment.

We have witnessed the effective stewardship of Adriane Heins as managing editor of The Lutheran Witness, we have seen how Facebook has been used by some among us, and we have witnessed the shift from blogs to Twitter and Instagram as technology morphs and changes.  Navigating these options is a daunting task for those who still provide regular pastoral care the old fashioned way through visitation and the means of grace.  But neither can we afford to ignore or overlook how we can use the media well.  I would be merely one of too many voices to predict that this media will only increase in scope and power as a tool for or against the Gospel.  We Lutherans need to be up on it and on our best game, to be sure.  We do not need just a presence but an effective and faithful presence, the cultivation of a solid voice and visual to accompany our various witnesses to the unchanging Gospel.  If you are one of those people so gifted or if you know of people, now is the time to raise up these people for service now and into the future. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Give your heart to Jesus

Sermon for Pentecost 14, Proper 17B, preached on Sunday, August 30, 2015.

    How comfortable we have become with the language of evangelicalism!  Why even staid, dry, dull, old Lutheran folk talk about giving their hearts to Jesus.  But we are not always sure why Jesus wants our hearts or what it all means.  Do we give them to Jesus because they are precious and pure or do we give them to Jesus because they stinking cesspools of death and decay that need to be made clean?  Do we give them to Jesus because He wants them or because we can't stand to live with them any longer?
    Jesus answers the question for us. Our hearts are worthless – filled with the stench of sin and the stink of death.  We want to believe that down deep we are better inside than we are on the outside but it is just the opposite.  We clean up nice on the outside but terrible sin lurks in our hearts.  We are worse than we look.  And unless our hearts are daily killed by repentance and faith, they will kill us – just like gangrenous limps will kill the whole body unless they are cut off, removed, and destroyed.
    What does Jesus say?  Out of the heart of man comes all kinds of evil.  Not hidden goodness, but hidden evil.  Evil thoughts to infect the mind, sexual immorality to turn love into something cheap and tawdry, deceit where truth ought to live... Lying lips that should speak praise, killing words and actions, hearts that love pleasure at all costs, enviousness that the fire of jealousy hot within us, wickedness that shames us, vulgar speech whose words make life cheap and nasty, gossip that delights in other's hurts, pride that refuses to admit sin, foolishness that parades as arrogance... did Jesus miss anything?
    Nope, we do not need to be taught how to sin.  It comes naturally to us.  So we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean.  But righteousness, well that we have to be taught and goodness and holiness.  These we do not know unless and until the Holy Spirit instructs us with the goal of the law. 
     So give your hearts to Jesus people.  And He will take them – right to the cross.  He will take your hearts and kill them.  He cannot rehabilitate them.  They are too far gone.  They must be killed.  Drowned just like Mitchell in the baptism this morning.  But it does not end there.  No, the mercy of God is too wonderful for that.  It is not just about death but about new life.
    He will give you new hearts, created in Christ Jesus for new life and good works.  He will create in you a willing spirit and restore to you the joy of your salvation.  He will bring forth a new person from the baptismal water – a child of God who is not alone to face the last gasps of sin's death in us.  Christ raises you up covered with His blood that cleanses you from all sin.
    Do not give your hearts to Jesus because they are good or decent or noble or valuable.  Give your hearts to Jesus so that He can destroy those wretched, stinking, decaying, fountains of sin and create in you a new heart, clean and pure, created in Christ Jesus for good works.  One that will delight in the Law of God and love what the Lord loves.
    Today we drop all pretenses and presumption of righteousness.  God knows the score.  We are the ones in the dark.  He sent His Son to die for you even though this heart of death is what He saw in you.  He loved us when we were unlovable.  He claimed the sin in us and made us new to live new lives in Him.  This is why we cannot stand our sin and why we refuse to walk in the ways of sin any longer.  This is why we cry out for new and clean hearts.  This is why we endeavor as  St. Paul urges us to walk worthy of our calling, to live sober, upright and holy lives, and to be the people we claim we are with our words.  This is why the Lord arms us with His armor so that we may not be weak or the victims of sin’s temptation any longer. 
    The romance of the heart beckons us but we have the truth.  We know that when a man and woman stand before the Lord they must do more than pledge their hearts to one another – they must pledge their wills, their strength, their commitment, and their resolve when their hearts are no longer in it.  For the heart that leads husband and wife to love each other can easily discard this love on a whim.  No, just as husband and wife need more than romance, so do Christians need more than the romance of hearts for Jesus.  We need a God who loves us as sinners but refuses to leave us there, a Savior who pays the whole cost of our redemption, and a Spirit who makes us new, to love and desire God and His goodness.
    As King David once prayed when his heart of sin became his undoing, so does our prayer remains:  Have mercy on me, blot out my transgressions, wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin, hide Your face from my sin, blot out all my iniquities, create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit within me, restore to me the joy of Your salvation, uphold me with Your free Spirit, deliver me from my blood guiltiness, do good in Your good pleasure to Your people, O Lord, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise.  Amen.

Lipstick on a pig. . .

We do a fine job of putting make up on evil, lipstick on a pig, so to speak, that masks and hides the true nature of the evil that is present.  We do this for a variety of reasons.  Few of us really wants to believe that evil is truly evil (we prefer to think of it as ignorance awaiting enlightenment or error awaiting correction).  We also want to believe Satan's lie that down deep we are good, those around us are good, and even our enemies are good.  Since Star Wars we are tempted to believe that the dark side is really a wrong choice that can be undone (if not easily than with some serious work).

That is what we want to believe.  But it is not the truth.  For example, Planned Parenthood has been exposed over and over again for its callous talk of selling the body parts of aborted babies and yet many -- too many -- are intent to believe that this is not as bad as its sounds.  When we watch the gay pride parades with their focus on the flamboyant and erotic, we should believe that same sex marriage is more about changing marriage than opening its societal and governmental benefits to same sex couples who want a traditional marriage.  When we shrug our shoulders at the rise of cohabitation and its acceptability in modern society, we want to believe that these are good people who are just trying to save money or plan for the wedding of their dreams.  When we hear all sorts and kinds of talk about tolerance among the various religions of the world we think it is about the laudable goal of reducing inflammatory rhetoric or getting us to be good neighbors but then we discover its real intent is to rob truth of its truthfulness and leave us with competing private sentiments buried too deeply inside the individual to affect the direction of the community or nation. We want to believe that a little instruction or correction will deal with these evils.  That is not true.

There is evil in this world that does not want anything but to destroy God and His people, to tear down the fragile fabric of our morality and to expose the deceitful lusts of the heart to the light of day with the freedom to do evil without consequence, guilt, or shame.  Evil wears masks, make up, and hides in respectability but this is exactly what makes it so dangerous.

A million years ago The Exorcist thrust upon the scene with its horrific portrayal of demon possession.  We rested somewhat secure in our beliefs that evil revealed itself to us in unmistakable shapes and forms.  It was a lie.  The devil never unmasks himself.  He must be unmasked by the Truth.  In confronting demons, Jesus first acted by exposing them, calling them forth from their hiding places, and forcing their darkness into the light.  That is the thing we need to do in His name in our own age and time.

Pray that we will not lose our nerve.  Pray that we will have the courage to confront darkness and expose evil for what it is.  For if we fail, many more will be taken in by its rotting heart hidden in the face of our own wants and desires.  Christ has not only unmasked evil but given us the Word of Truth so He might continue to unmask and expose evil in our own age and time.  The folks who are taken in by evil might be mistaken or naive but the evil that entices them and us is not simply mistaken or naive.  It is the enemy of God and His people roaring about like a lion seeking whom he may devour. 

Thoughts in the struggle. . .

Our identity as Christians never was tied to a flag, but always and exclusively to the Cross. It always was the case that here on earth we have no continuing city and that our citizenship is in heaven.  We are never content with the pilgrim character of the faith and we refuse to think of this earthly tent as a temporary home or of the Church has having a nomadic existence here on earth.  But that is the truth.

Our Christian weakness has always been to succumb to equating a flag with the Kingdom of God, an empire with the Church of Christ, and patriotism with faithfulness to God.  Where Christians have given into the temptation, the dark side of our nature has usually triumphed and we have wielded the sword in less than salutary ways.  Even popes have fancied themselves as kings or knights, doing battle literally with the enemies of Christ and His kingdom.  But the sword we are given and the only effective means against the enemies of our Lord and of His Church is the Word.  It is slow.  It is deliberate.  It appears weak.  It seems outgunned.  But the Word of the Lord endures forever.

Kingdoms and even church structures come and go.  I believe it was about 1969 that Fr. Ratzinger (before he was Pope Benedict XVI) suggested that the Church may well shrink and end up abandoning the great edifices of her prosperity but the Kingdom of God will endure.  Whether we are Americans or citizens of any other great power, we want to think God is with us, He is on our side, and He loves us more than others.  It is, however, more important that we are with God, that we are on His side, and that we love others as He has loved us.  As insignificant as these seem, they are the means by which the Kingdom comes and the Kingdom will prevail.

I for one do not want to think this way and I suspect you do not either.  But the chances of the aims of church and state paralleling or intersecting are fewer than their courses diverging and their aims conflicting.  This is not the oddity but the norm, according to the Lord Himself.  That Christians will face a hostile environment is not the exception but the rule.  Jesus insisted that we would not find it easier than He found it and promised to reward not our success but our faithfulness. Conflict with the state, persecution by word and deed, the rejection of the Divine Word, and the fight to remain faithful in an ever more faithless world was never the oddity but the norm,  What does Jesus say: “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). When we look upon the persecution of the first three centuries of the Church’s existence, we often shudder to think how it was.  But it was not anything strange or foreign.  Such persecution and challenge was and is the default mode for Christians living in but not of the world, living in the moment but for eternity.

You will see signs and rumors of more signs but do not lose heart. . . He who endures to the end WILL be saved.  You see, we know the outcome, the end of the story, and so, with Jesus, we struggle through.  We resist temptation and renounce the flesh and reject the false values of the fake kingdom.  They can harm us none.  He's judged.  The deed is done.  One little word can fell him.  This is our real and powerful hope and the foundation for the struggle.  Easter does not begin the fight but signals the end.  Until then we wait, we endure, refuse to give in.  Nor will we exchange the symbols of an eternal kingdom to be satisfied by what happens in the ballot box or the courtroom. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

No one but. . .

Justin Martyr, Apology I:66:

"And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh."
Having been reminded of this great quote of Justin Martyr (HT John Stephenson), we find again the great body of evidence that says that the only communion hospitality worth anything is that which proceeds from the common faith of those who discern Christ's body and blood, who live in repentant faith as the baptized, seeking to live the new life declared to them in that baptism by the Holy Spirit.  Anything less than this unity of faith and common life flowing form the font only betrays the meal and the Lord who is host and food.  It is not our supper or the Church's meal but Christ's table.  It is His witness and words that tell us who is welcome and who is not -- less to exclude some than to prevent those not of the same faith from receiving to their harm the presence of Christ (meant sacramentally but which can surely also be judgment against the communicant when faith in these words is not present).

Interestingly, I have found it more common that people from other churches (non-sacramental) are more likely to tell me that this is indeed what they believe.  To wit I must ask "Then why do you belong to a church that does not believe and teach thusly?"  And therein lies the rub.  Many pious Christians take the Word at its face value but belong to churches wherein that Word is denied.  Now they do so for a variety of reasons but perhaps the hardest is to admit that the presence of Christ in the Supper is itself a doctrinal issue of the first part.  So the challenge to them is not only why are in a church that does not confess and teach faithfully as you yourself acknowledge and why do you not condemn the error?  Perhaps the typical answer is that we believe that the Lord's Supper is portable, that is, it is what I think it is and not what my present church home might believe.  So what becomes operative here is the faith of the individual.  They are less forthcoming at how it is possible for two people to be together at the rail and one receive the Body of Christ and the other merely bread.  Lest we Lutherans think to highly of ourselves, this is the receptionist error that remains hidden among us as well.  The presence of Christ is conditional upon the throat and faith of the believer or else Christ does not come.  I do not understand how it is possible to hold onto such contradictory views but we as people are nothing if we are not inconsistent and fraught with contradiction.  I am sure that I have my own inconsistencies as well.  Which all the more points to the need for us to research what churches believe, confess, and teach and to be captive to the Word within the faithful confession.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

News from Down Under. . .

The truth is that most Lutherans in America know little about the Lutheran Church in Australia.  If we know anyone there, it is probably through their writings (Drs John Kleinig and Greg Lockwood have authored commentaries in the Concordia Series, for example).  Yet if you know anything of Herman Sasse, you should know a bit about the LCA.  Why does this small body matter?  It matters for many reasons but chief among them is the partnership between the LCA and the LCMS for many years.  Joined through a carefully negotiated confession and articles of agreement, two Australian Lutheran bodies (one with ties to the LCMS and one with ties to the old ALC [American Lutheran Church - now ELCA]) demonstrated great dedication in crafting a merger in which they agreed NOT to ordain women.  In the intervening years, some, perhaps many, have attempted to revisit the issue and this year is no different.

For the first time in LCA history, General Pastors Conference has been held several months before General Convention of Synod. The ordination question is considered so important that church leaders wanted pastors to have opportunity to properly explore the proposals coming to Convention and to give Synod ample time to consider their theological advice. General Synod will meet in convention from 29 September to 4 October.
The meeting of some 280 pastors was devoted almost completely to discussing the proposals to General Convention relating to ‘Women and the Call to the Office of the Public Ministry’ (‘ordination of women’). Fourteen proposals supported the ordination of women and two asking Convention to affirm the current teaching of the LCA not to ordain. There was no formal vote on the proposal but they did agree to frame debate on the issue on the St Peters Indooroopilly, Queensland, proposal in support of the ordination of women.  Immediately following the GPC, the College of Bishops of the LCA met.  The Bishops met more for active listening on the subject rather than to debate the ordination of women. A website, Ordination:  We're Listening has been a feature of the discussion and the whole issue of the ordination of women.

So what will happen? On day 4 of the LCA Convention, Friday, October 2, the entire agenda is given over the discussion of the ordination of women. I am personally concerned because Bishop Henderson's report specifically indicates he is directing this issue away from a pro vs con discussion to focus on personal stories and small group discussion.  He believes that this will enable everyone to consider the issue openly, apart from the influence of strong personalities and views.  He wrote:  As Christians we have the benefit of having Jesus join in our conversation, sometimes unrecognised, much as he did with the two disciples as they walked to Emmaus after the resurrection.  [I do not have a clue what that is supposed to mean.  Would Jesus say something different than what Scripture says and the tradition of the church has maintained without break to the most modern of times?]

We already know that Bishop Henderson favors the ordination of women.  It is significant that 14 of the 16 proposals to the Convention were in favor of ordaining women.  The call and ordination of women to the ministry is contrary to LCA’s Theses of Agreement, which the two former Lutheran Churches in Australia adopted in 1956 as the basis for the union ten years later. Since thesis 11 of the ‘Theses on the Office of the Ministry’ prohibits women from becoming pastors in the LCA on scriptural grounds, it means that the call and ordination of women in the LCA is a doctrinal issue and not just a matter of practice. Therefore, if women are to be ordained, this thesis would first have to be rescinded by the Church according to the procedures laid down in the constitution.  Those in favor of the ordination of women are openly parting ways with the formers of their church body and insist that this is not a doctrinal issue but a cultural one.  This is an issue whose time may well have come and the LCA may adopt to betray its founding fathers and agree that culture and practice are divorced from doctrine on the issue of the ordination of women, that the decision not to ordain in the past was a cultural one and that since the culture has changed, the decision may also change.

It should be noted that there is hope.  On the one hand we would do well to remember that any decision to ordain women would be to change current doctrine and teaching.  So that onus rests with those who want to change the status quo and such a vote would require a clear 2/3 majority of all registered delegates.  In addition, though perhaps Bp Henderson feared that a more formal debate would highlight personalities instead of the issues, this format actually encouraged the very kind of doctrinal conversation needed to consider the Biblical and catholic witness and the consequences of such a change among the pastors of the GPC.  Finally, I am told that, like the current situation in Missouri, younger pastors in the LCA seem to be more inclined not to change and to hold to the historic stance of their church with respect to the ordination of women.  I am also told that the GPC addressed the issue without the characteristic divisiveness so easily a part of doctrinal discussions on hot button issues such as this (from both sides, I might add).  If there is a real concern to dampen our hopes that the LCA will not change its doctrine and practice on the ordination of women, it is the fact that their convention is 2/3 lay and only 1/3 clergy.  But we must also trust the Lord of the Church and not discount the persuasive power of the Word that endures forever.

I would be happy to hear from folks down under but it is something I look at with great concern.  Pray for our brothers and sisters in the Lutheran Church of Australia.  You need only peruse a few of those voices in favor of the ordination of women to know why I am concerned.  Lift up this church in prayer.   We know that there are voices of faithfulness who do not wish to see the LCA change its doctrine.  The LCA was home for many years to a teacher and friend, Kurt Marquart, and it has long been a partner of the LCMS.  Pray that this will continue.