Saturday, December 30, 2006

Understanding What the Catholics Really Teach

The other night I was perusing through the book Handling the Word of Truth by John Pless, and ran across a brief discussion of the RC teaching known in Latin as 'ex opere operato' [Lit: "by the work working," or "from the work having worked."] This is the point that Lutherans usually cry foul regarding what we see as the blatant works righteousness of their sacramental theology. The point comes from the idea that the sacraments are supposedly "beneficial to those who receive them by virtue of 'the doing of the act," as Pless notes. "This turns the gift into a performance that merits grace - a work of human beings rather than the work of the Lord." (94)

As I read this I began to think back to a comment I heard on Relevant Radio (the RC popular radio program that specializes in conservative Catholic apologetics, among other things) in one of the sermons by Fr. Corapi. He was commenting on the doctrine of ex opere operato and how it is misunderstood, especially since the rest of the canon explaining this doctrine is often not referenced. I agree that it is easy to perpetuate old misunderstandings without even checking the original sources. And Catholics have become a lot more astute at apologetics for their faith against traditional Protestant attacks. Lutheran need to be careful to explain everything well.

So I decided then and there to do my checking. Turns out that the doctrine of ex opere operato was pontificated in the Seventh Session of the Council of Trent held on March 3, 1547. It is covered under Canon 8 under the "Canons on the Sacraments in General." The Canon reads: "If anyone says that by the sacraments of the New Law grace is not conferred ex opere operato but that faith alone in the divine promise is sufficient to obtain grace, let him be anathema." I'm beginning to see why the Lutherans were concerned.

D.K. McKim in the Ewell Evangelical Dictionary notes that this canon "opposed the view that 'grace is not conferred though the act performed, but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices for the obtaining of grace.'" It seems that the RC want to protect the efficacy of the sacrament by sidelining the role of personal faith. The intention of protecting the efficacy of the sacrament is a worthy goal. Even Lutherans acknowledge that sacraments do not depend on the piety or faith of the celebrant, but that the sacrament is conducted according to Christ's command.

For Lutherans faith does not make the sacrament, as Pless notes, "but it is by faith alone that sinners receive the gifts promised and bestowed in these sacraments." (94) Catholics, reticent about the role of faith in receiving grace, will go so far as to say that the efficacy of the sacrament is valid as long as the recipient does not place an obstacle against the sacrament's administration, such as a blatant sinful act. Or put another way, to receive the benefits one must be properly disposed (see Wikipedia on ex opera operato). All in all, I believe that Catholics would want their understanding to be seen as being pure grace.

So, is the Catholic view pure works righteousness? My view at this point is that their intent is not such, but they confuse the role and place of faith terribly. By removing faith (which is pure gift) and substituting a correct disposition (i.e. a willingness to receive the gift), they seem to tilt the sacrament in the direction of man instead of God. And in separating faith and sacrament they are in danger of making it into an act of magic which benefits as long as it is not actively resisted. Yet Paul is clear that one can eat and drink to one's spiritual health as well as to one's spiritual peril, depending on whether one comes with faith or without.

As you can see understanding Catholic doctrine is at times a complex adventure. It is far too easy to apply easy generalizations about all kinds of things without attempting to understand what they mean. This is not to downplay their errors, which are legion. But simply to say that all Catholics are works righteous worshipers of Mary would miss the mark.

It takes time to try to understand their theology, and it doesn't help that layers of Scholastic theology encrust their doctrines, making it very difficult for a Lutheran to dissect with his "word alone" scalpel. But I'm still trying.

Friday, December 29, 2006

New Textbook Acknowledges Relgion's Place in History

It has been noted that history is written by the victors, not the vanquished. However, when it comes to writing textbooks for our schools and universities, history, it would seem is usually written by the politically correct liberal elite. It has been noticed for some time now that a historical revisionism has been taking place in our school's history books with a shift in emphasis. The founding fathers, being white mainstream fellows, were heavily edited in favor of history that highlighted women and minorities of note. And then there was the religion issue. With an increasingly pluralistic nation highly sensitive about offending anyone about anything, and with the ACLU valiantly attempting to erase any connection between faith and the nation, matters religious were also quietly edited out of history as if they were really only fringe moments of passing interest anyway.

A recent AP article by Richard N. Ostling, however, gives the impression that the recent publication of a new college-level textbook may be a reversal of this trend. "Unto a Good Land: A History of the American People" (2005) was a 10-year effort by six historians and 50 consultants to produce a history textbook that is, as they say, "carefully non-sectarian," and specifically geared at the college and university level, secular or not. Historian A.J. Scopino of Central Connecticut State University notes that this book is "a splendid work of social history wherein religion earns its proper place."

Still, Ostling admits, this book will be a "tough sell at secular universities." I agree. To admit that religion played a part in the history of this nation would be running headlong into a wall of resistance from the anti-religious power brokers in today's educational circles. As with evolution, modern day scholarship has tried hard to explain everything without having to resort to any reference to God, church or religion, even though any serious (and truly honest) student of history would be duty-bound to admit that much of the history of our country has real connections with matters of faith.

In checking, though, I was surprised when I didn't find any reviews of the book, positive or negative. It's been out since September 2005. Perhaps silence is criticism enough?

Personally I'm pleased to see an honest effort at producing a textbook for this level that restores a balance to historical inquiry. As homeschooling parents my wife and I noticed long ago that older history books were to be preferred over more recent ones, due in large part to the revisionism I referenced before. Thus, we have quite a collection of what I consider one of the premier history readers for pre-teen junior high students: The Landmark series, originally published, I believe in the 50's and 60's. There are over 100 volumes in this series (a few of which have been reprinted), and they cover many of the 'landmark' events of human history.

The publisher of this newest textbook, I noticed, is Eerdmans, of which I have many volumes in my library from this same publisher. Unfortunately, I have known Eerdmans to be primarily a religious book publisher, and while that does not bother me, I fear that it will be avoided by those in more secular circles who will hold their publishing emphasis as suspect to their objectivity.

At any rate, I'd like to review the text myself someday. The price tag though is high for me (over $50), so I'll probably wait for it to land on the shelf of the local Good Will store....

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Holy Innocents

Few churches - certainly few Lutheran churches - will pause to hold worship services in honor of the minor festivals between Christmas and New Years Day. I count myself fortunate to be in an older country parish that still has a tradition of having an Ascension Day Service. How many Lutheran parishes today still hold a service on such a day? I would imagine few. (I know I am the last one in my circuit to still have one!)

The parishes I have served over the last 19+ years have never observed the festivals of St. Stephen, St. John, or the Holy Innocents. Yet here in cyberspace I have the opportunity to observe them, even if ever so briefly.

I think that the last of these festivals, the Holy Innocents, especially needs to be remembered. Read the brief account at Matthew 2: 13-18. These little nameless martyrs may not have numbered more than a couple of dozen in all of little Bethlehem, but they were still innocent and unnecessary victims of Herod's satanic rage. Herod, of course, was known for his uncontrollable anger and violence, which he took out on several of his own family members, including his wife.

What does the slaughter of the innocents represent? Satan knows no bounds to his destruction and wrath. While the target was God's own Son and thus God himself, Satan has no respect for any person or life that stands in his evil way. In a similar and equally tragic way we remember with deep grief the millions of unborn babies that have been sacrificed in the name of choice and female autonomy. Satan is always a destroyer, and the destruction of children is a bold sign of the depth of his wickedness.

Should we therefore be surprised by the extent of violence and bloodshed in our world today? Grieved by it, to be sure, but not surprised. Worldwide terrorism is simply one manifestation of Satan's work. Herold, in essence, was simply an early terrorist.

Yet even in their tragedy these innocent lives declare praise to God. They were sacrificed because of Christ, of which there is no greater honor on earth. Rightfully they are included in the church's calendar as its first martyrs. It is interesting that in a mere three days since Christmas we have witnessed the commemoration of such bloodshed. Life in Christ is life lived on the front lines of a cosmic battle between the forces of heaven and hell, thus always under the cross. We may want to believe that the manufactured sense of peace and tranquility of the holidays is normal, but the truth of life is what we see here in Bethlehem as the blood of children is spilled.

Often the best testimonies of such occasions comes from the church's hymns and from her ancient collects, of which I offer here in closing:

From "By All Your Saints in Warfare" [LSB 517; LW 193]:
All praise for infant martyrs,
Whom Your mysterious love
Called early from their warfare
To share Your home above.
O Rachel, cease your weeping;
They rest form earthly cares!
Lord, grant us crowns as brilliant
And faith as sure as theirs.

Collect for Holy Innocents:
"Almighty God, whose praise was proclaimed on this day by the wicked death of innocent children, giving us thereby a picture of the death of your beloved Son, mortify and destroy in us all that is in conflict with you that we who have been called in faith to be your children may in life and death bear witness to your salvation; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen"

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

St. John, Apostle, Evangelist and Theologian

The image to the right is a copy of the Orthodox icon I have in my office at the church. My wife gave it to me as a birthday gift a couple of years ago since my birthday falls on the Minor Festival of St. John, which is today. I suppose if my mother had been Orthodox or RC, I may have been named John instead of the Celtic name of Don (Donald.)

What I find interesting about the inscription on the icon is what John is called. In the usual propers for this day John is listed (at least in LW) under the broader heading of the Evangelists along with Mark, Matthew and Luke. But this icon adds the additional title of "Theologian." John's symbol, the eagle, has sometimes been explained on the basis that his gospel "soars" in terms of its beautiful and lofty writing. But more than beauty is here. A careful look at this gospel shows that he is every bit the theologian when it comes to addressing key issues about the doctrine of God and Christ.

By the time this gospel was penned, probably around 90 AD, it is felt that the Gnostic heresy was already affecting the church. Now this form of gnosticism was no doubt different from later versions, but it is obvious that one area it affected was the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. From the opening verses concerning the eternal Logos (Word), to the post-resurrection confession of Thomas of "My Lord and My God," John's gospel is one of the most direct apologies for the divinity of the Christ. Still, its witness to the humanity of Jesus is equally strong. As such it would be my first choice in dealing with the Jehovah's Witnesses, the modern incarnation of another heresy spawned by Bishop Arius in the fourth century.

John's gospel is unique among the four, and compliments the synoptics nicely. Unlike the other evangelists, though, John lived longer and must have witnessed more of the theological aberrations that began to afflict the church in those later years. We are richer for his contribution, considering the great variety of false teachings and heresies that would descend upon the church in the centuries to follow the apostolic era.

As a participant in the story of Jesus, John seems relatively quiet, especially compared to personalities such as Peter. He doesn't have the checkered past of Matthew. True, he is one of the "Sons of Thunder," indicating his possible role among the Zealots, yet this potential radical nature does not show through. He was a commercial fisherman along with his brother James and father Zebedee, who later became part of the 'inner circle' of the 12, witnessing such events as the Transfiguration and the turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane. But most of all he shines brightest as the theologian of the church, proclaiming Christ clearly and boldly for all to see.

It feels appropriate as a pastor to know I was born on the feast day of St. John. As pastors we are trained to be theologians, teachers of the Word. I pray that the example of John may encourage me in my sacred vocation, along with other brothers in this office, that we, too, would aspire to preach only Christ with greatest clarity.

A blessed St. John day to all!

Collect for today:
"Merciful Lord, cast the bright beams of your light upon your Chruch that being instructed by the doctrine of your blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John, we may come to the light of everylasting life; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen." (LW, 100)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

It seems odd to follow the joyous day of Christ's birth with the remembrance of one of the church's first martyrs. However, for those who truly understand the essence of Christmas, maybe it's not so strange to turn our attention briefly to this event. For we know that closely connected with the birth of our Lord was the activity of Satan stirring Herod to murderous acts of jealousy, resulting in the church's truly first martyrs: the slaughter of Bethlehem's innocents. Christ came into the world as it's savior, which meant He came to suffer and die. Christmas and Good Friday, and ultimately Easter, are all one seamless robe of witness. There is no glory without the suffering, no crown without the cross.

Stephen's work in the church was admittedly short-lived. Appointed deacon in Acts 6 to assist the work of the apostles, he is dead by the end of Acts 7. Yet, as happens even in such brief periods of work, much more may be done that is realized. Stephen, although a deacon and charged with assisting in the church's physical needs, was nevertheless a clear witness to the gospel as well. His defense of Christ in Acts 7 is bold, clear and thorough. The reaction to his words betrays the hardness of heart that is too often a part of those who consider themselves religious but have no faith. The Law, especially, hit hard on their stubborn pride, and they attempted to stop the pain of conscience by killing the messenger. How often, even in the church today, is the proclamation of the Gospel opposed because it touches too closely to our personal sins. Stephen could have 'played it safe' that day and kept silent. But the courage of this saint was such that he knew that he could not. The Word must be proclaimed, even if it means the risk of our very lives.

Stephen also demonstrated a rare love for his enemies. He prayed for them even as they were stoning him, imitating his Lord's prayer from the cross ("Lord do not hold this sins against them..."). He prayed for their salvation. How often do we pray for those who oppose us and make our lives miserable? And how different it might be if instead of nursing our own hurt pride and ego we interceded for the salvation of our own enemies.

St. Stephen is a model for all Christians in how to live and suffer and die faithfully in Christ.

As the collect for this day reads:
"Heavenly Father, grant that in our sufferings for the sake of Christ we may follow the example of Saint Stephan, that we may look to him who suffered and was crucified on our behalf and pray for those who do us wrong; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. [LW, 116]

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Blessed Christmas to All!

I am about to go over for our annual Sunday School Christmas Pageant and watch the children tell the ancient, but timeless story of the birth of God's Son. For some it will simply be another 'cute moment,' and the deeper message will be lost on the gazing onlookers. But I am hoping that after all those practices of reciting the passages, that the children have internalized this story deep within their hearts. It's hard to get kids to memorize anything these days. Yet, as with the liturgy, 'repetition is the mother of all learning.' We do this pageant every other year, and the script was put together by me several years ago. It is virtually all quotations from the gospels.

At any rate, this post was originally intended for a much simpler purpose: To wish any who have been frequenting my humble little blog a very blessed and joy-filled Christmas. May you be comforted by the knowledge that the one born this night is our Savior from sin and death, the greatest Good News of all time!

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Mary, Mother of our Lord

Last Sunday in Bible class some members asked me why we don't hear much about Mary. Good question. Lutherans have historically been sensitive to Catholic excesses with regard to Mary. The list could include: her immaculate conception, her assumption into heaven, her role as coredemptrix, and her special status as intercessor to the Son (all of which do not have direct Biblical witness.) The omnipresence of Mary statues in countless front yards seems to reinforce in the non-Catholic mind the sense that Mary ranks a bit to high in the hierarchy of heaven for Protestant taste.

However, with all that said, Lutherans (and Protestants/ Evangelicals, etc.) must admit that we have historically given Mary short-shrift. This Sunday in the Gospel of Luke, the first chapter, we will hear again as Elizabeth declares her "blessed among women." Mary herself, in the beloved hymn the Magnificat, will also prophesy that "throughout all generations - people will call be blessed."

Now to be fair her 'blessedness' comes with the blessing of the "fruit of her womb." Still, Mary is unique among women. Her childlike faith and willingness to accept this role as the bearer of God's presence is humbling. Think for a moment about the overwhelming nature of what was happening in her life. A miracle without parallel was going to take place in her very womb. No other women would be a virgin mother with God as the father. Yet without a need to explain the mystery she quietly accepted this blessing, and with it the special calling to be a mother like no other.

She would worry about her son she feared lost. Her heart would be pieced in grief like other mothers. Yes, her struggles in many ways were not much different than mothers today. And yet her willingness to trust her son and humble herself before him is worthy of our attention. She assumes the vocation of one who will care for him and protect him in his vulnerable state, and then, in the end, will step aside to watch him die, no longer able to protect him, yet knowing that He is now protecting her.

Mary deserves our attention, and not just at Christmas. However, this Sunday is a good time to remember this blessed woman and the call of our own confessions to honor and follow the example of the saints. May we embrace with Mary this quiet miracle in Bethlehem, and join her praise as she "magnifies the Lord," remembering the gift that this child is to all mankind - Son of God and son of man, Jesus, the one come to save His people from their sins.

P.S. I was going to address one other issue with regard to Mary, but will leave it more as a question for today and welcome your response. Some within Lutheran circles, I've noticed, are quite committed to the teaching of the perpetual virginity of Mary. This has never been an issue for me. In reading Dr. David Scaer's commentary on James (purported to be to the brother of our Lord), it did not seem to be for this professor either. Do any of you have insights as to why the perpetual virginity of Mary would be so important to Lutherans?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

New Study on Premarital Sex Encounters

[Note: I had made it a goal to write at least one post per day. However, I was sick yesterday with some kind of intestinal-stomach bug. Thus, Wednesday was spent almost entirely on the coach...]

Based on my experiences from premarital counseling as a pastor, the latest AP article in yesterday's paper was not a surprise. A disappointment, perhaps, but not a surprise. "New study finds nine in 10 had premarital sex encounters," was the title several pages from the front. I guess for the editor it wasn't really all that new either. In fact, if I found an honest-to-goodness couple who didn't fit this profile I'd probably fall off my chair.

The study notes that "the high rates extend even to women born in the1940's, challenging the perceptions that people were more chaste in the past." However, given that those born in the 1940's were young women in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, I can't say that I'm all that surprised. Now, what I'd like to see is how dramatic the change has been among those born, say in the 1920's and 1930's who came of age in the 40's and 50's.

The study's author, interestingly, is a research director at the Guttmacher Institute, a a private New York-based think take that studies sexual and reproductive issues and which disagrees with the government-funded programs that rely primarily on abstinence-only teachings. Thus, it makes sense when the author, Lawrence Riner, says: "This is reality-check research. Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades."

So, we are supposed to design programs for the good of people based on their behavior trends? I don't see the people opposing the cigarette industry with this logic. But then again, in the minds of today's cultural elite, there are really no dangers to premarital sex - as long as reasonable precautions are taken to reduce the risk of pregnancy or STD's. Even though established studies will show that those involved in cohabitational arrangements are far more statistically prone to divorce.

One may have thought that we would have learn from the mistakes of the free-love 60's that sex outside of marriage carries a huge price, not only physically, but also in terms of the health of relationships.

As one who works with young people, many of whom are sexually active prior to marriage, I see it as part of my calling to educate them on what God desires and requires of his people. In all the history of the scriptures I fail to see where prophets or apostles accommodated the trends of their day and simply 'gave in' because 'everybody is doing it.'

This is a challenging time for the church. Too often we are tempted to follow trends and polls and studies as our guides. Churches are built and ministries formed to accommodate in just this way. Witness the history of Willow Creek. But that is not what we are called to do. May God grant us the strength to proclaim against the grain.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Nativity Story in the Movies

It's risky to write about something you haven't seen. Not that I don't want to see the latest movie The Nativity Story. I simply haven't had the chance yet. So, for anyone who reads this and has seen the movie, your insights and comments are most welcome.

Rev. Jack Cascione has written a nice review entitled "Hollywood Preaches the Gospel in 'Nativity.'" Two items stand out in his comments - One, he notes "the clarity of the Gospel in this movie..." Specifically he points to the Wise Men who at one point say, point-blank: "This is God in the flesh." I am very pleased to hear that the Gospel does not get short shrift in a day when so many in Hollywood are probably paranoid about being to specific about the claims of the scriptures - paranoid of giving offense.

Secondly, Pastor Cascione notes the realism of the film. He writes: "I loved the practicality and matter of fact approach of the story line. We are spared the syrupy, pietistic, melodramatic, hammed-up, folded hands, eyes-to-heaven characteristics." This is what I appreciated about Mel Gibson's "Passion." Sometimes in our efforts to sanctify the story for film, I fear we paper over the simple and profound beauty of the incarnation and what it means when God took on human flesh and lived among us.

The Lutheran Witness magazine also has a review of the film, and echoes Cascione's observations.: "The Nativity Story is not a film that will leave you floating on cloud nine or with a warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart. The director deliberately opted for realism rather than sentimentality." However, they are very positive about the effect of this approach: "You will find images from the film resurfacing in your mind days after you've seen it. And you will come away with your faith strengthened by a cinematic approach to the Christmas story that portrays a God who worked His will through people not much different from you and me." The articles author, Ardon Albrecht, also notes that the film would have pleased Luther himself. He said that Luther would have "liked the way the move shows Mary accepting Gabriel's announcement without the slightest doubt. To Luther, that was the true miracle of the Christmas story. He said: 'The Virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but the most amazing of all is that this maiden should believe the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen to be the mother of God."

A good general overview of the film with the particulars of actors and other cinematic details can be found in a brief article at Wikipedia.

I was surprised the other day when I heard Rush Limbaugh gushing over the film. For a man that seems to avoid even the hint of sentimentality, he was particularly moved by this movie.

Given all that I have heard and seen to date, I will admit that I'm eager to see this for myself. And if it's truly that good, to purchase the DVD and add it to my collection of 'must see' movies for the holidays.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The New Agenda for the Synod: LWF

I knew that those of more liberal persusions within the LCMS were becoming increasingly bold in their rhetoric, especially since the '04 synodical convenion. It's still interesting, however, to see what new direction they are willing to push without impunity. The latest directions to expect can be found in a recent DayStar Journal article by Robert Schmidt entitled "The Ecumenical Vision." Toward the end of the article Schmidt lays the cards on the table with this call:

"Ecumenical involvement for the LCMS should not be just an afterthought but should figure prominently in a new agenda for the synod. Joining our sister church bodies around the world, congregations should submit resolutions to the next synodical convention to apply for at least associate membership in the Lutheran World Federation. "

Historically the LCMS has resisted membership in the LWF (Lutheran World Federation) at any level. We have understood, however, that it is acceptable in the wider community of Christians to "cooperate in externals." LWR (Lutheran World Relief) within synod has long held to this principle and continues to coordinate its relief and assistance efforts with other Chrisitian groups and denominations, including the ELCA. But before anyone confuses this with what Schmidt is recommending, let's take a moment to examine just what the LWF is really all about.

For a brief explanation of the history and work of the Lutheran World Relief, check out the short Wickipedia article here. It should be noted that the LWF is not strictly a relief agency. It is also interested in persuing doctrinal consensus as well, and this it seeks with more than just other Lutherans. Of special note is the document known as the JDDJ, or the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," which the LWF was very instrumental in bringing about in 1999, and ceremoniously presented on the Day of Reformation that year. This document was touted by liberal-minded Lutherans as the virtual end of the our greatest division with the Roman Catholic Church. We were now agreed on the central doctrine of our faith! Yet a careful study of this document will show otherwise, for those willing to see that it is possible to use the same words with diferent meanings. No, Rome and Wittenberg still have very different views of justification. The book by Robert Preus, published posthumously, entitled Justifcation and Rome, will shed valuable light on this subject.

So, before we jump onto the LWF bandwagon, let us ask ourselves: Do we really want to be associated with a group that has essentially misrepresented the divisions between Rome and Wittenberg on the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls?

Again, before we embrace Schmidt's openness to all that is LWF, we should should also take a long and hard look at just what they believe and confess. Has Schmidt honestly read what they say? If so, I am even more concerned....

For example, if you are interested in what the LWF teaches, check out their statement on Missions. The various chapters of their Mission statement "Transformation, Reconcilliation, Empowerment," can be found here. Without reading too deeply the mere presence of the rather socialistic sounding word "empowerment" is alarming enough. For 'empowerment' seems too often to lead down the road of anti-government, anti-establishment socialistic reordering of society. Mission becomes defined then as 'empowering' the poor and downtroden to have a better life now, leaving the questions of eternity left behind in vague uncertainties.

Consider a few of these quotes from this document:

On the cross and suffering -

"In reality, in the depths of every oppression and exclusion, as experienced in context, is the crucified God. However, Christ’s crucifixion neither sanctifies unjust suffering nor provides a model for how suffering should be borne. Rather, it is a witness to God’s desire that no one should suffer violence. The way of the cross is a way of reconciliation and empowerment."

Or how about this on the Resurrection of our Lord -

"Christ’s resurrection is the single event that has deeply transformed the world. Violence, death, and the terror that its finality brings no longer have the last word. Resurrection opened a new reality of liberation and hope for humankind and the whole creation. God is reconciled with humankind and creation through Christ’s death and resurrection. God also opened up reconciliation between human beings and between humankind and creation. Moreover, Christ’s resurrection reveals the true nature of things. Creation itself takes on a new dimension. Every created thing, every moment and event, is pregnant with life-giving potentialities; nothing is allowed to have finality, even would-be “dead ends” are transformed into opportunities for mission. The way of resurrection is a way of transformation and empowerment."

Further reading of the document will reveal a very different concept of mission than the LCMS has traditionally embraced, namely the proclamation of salvation through Christ Jesus. Instead, one will find here a missiology that bleeds into a mission about ecological awareness and political injustices, and even commerical globilization. The Kingdom of the Right and Left are horiblly confused and misunderstood, as is typical of liberal Christianity with its Marxist philosophy.

Finally, consider their approach to the mission of the church and other religions. While they talk easily about the mission and the Gospel in one breath, they essentially deny it with the other. As they say:

"The LWF Tenth Assembly stated in its message: “God’s mission is wider than the bounds of the church.” However, quoting from the WCC Mission and Evangelism Conference, San Antonio, 1996, it added: “We cannot point to any other way to salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God. Coming to a positive understanding of the nature of missionary religions, and how to accommodate their need to propagate, can be a major theme in interfaith dialogues. However, interfaith dialogue should not aim at converting or winning over dialogue partners.”

Mission should not aim at converting unbelievers? Well, that kind of knocks the wind out of the church's sails, now doesn't it?

I would like to believe that Robert Schmidt does not truly understand the scope of the LWF's theological weaknesses. He talks of understanding our weaknesses, but misses the log in the eye of the LWF. Dear reader, listen to what is being said out there these days in places like DayStar. This is the coming agenda. This is the future some are looking for. Beware!

(P.S. For those wondeirng what the image is at the right, it is the logo of the Lutheran World Federation.)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

John the Baptizer and the Christ He Was Looking For

There is probably a difference of opinion as to whether John the Baptizer actually had doubts about Jesus as the Christ. In the Luke 7 pericope this morning (for those who follow the newest 3-year series out of CPH!), John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one to come or if they should look for another. Was he doing this for his followers only, or for himself as well? For myself I entertained the possibility that John had his own questions about what he was hearing about Jesus. Dr. Just's commentary on Luke was helpful here. He said that a "straightforward reading" of the text supported this interpretation. I concurred.

But why should John have doubts? Remember that a part of John's preaching involved the coming judgment. All reports of Jesus to that point would not have noted any judgment. Certainly John must have wondered. Did he also wonder, if Isaiah predicted of the Messiah that the captives would be set free, why he was still in prison? We don't know for sure. But it's possible.

Even if the doubts were only with his disciples, the problem still had to be addressed. Disappointed expectations are part of each of our lives. Some are disappointed that the church does not grow as it should. Some are disappointed with the preacher, as was evident with John ("What did you go into the wilderness to see?") Some are disappointed when Jesus doesn't do what we feel he should do for us right now (heal us). And such disappointments are often the result of having only part of the story. John would not live to see Good Friday or Easter or the Ascension. Many of us will probably not live to see the Parousia. Still, we believe. Why? For the same reason John would have. The testimony of the Word! We walk by faith and not by sight, Paul writes. And so it will always be with the church this side of heaven. The church is not always what we want it to be, but we still believe she is there, for the church itself is an article of faith. And where do we look? This morning I found the church where Jesus told us to look: in the proclamation of the Word and at the Table of the Supper. Disappointed expectations? Yes, we all have them, and the cure is the same as for John - the Word.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sales of Idled Churches Demonstrates a Changing of the Times

It's been a fairly well known reality that the Roman Catholic church has been in a massive sell-off of church edifices for the last several years. The shortage of priests has been one struggle. But it's also a matter of economics. In my own area I'm watching as the various parishes all coalesce into one mega cathedral, rural ethnic churches dropping by the wayside one by one.

Associated Press Writer Dinesh Ramde in her article “Sales of idled churches grow, demand creativity,” comments about this phenomena and how it affects Catholic churchgoers who often balk at the ‘creative’ ways the churches are used by future buyers. However, aside from this Catholic reaction, I found one comment in her article of particular interest, especially as it relates to churches and numbers in our own circles. She quotes the Rev. Richard Liska, who is pastor of St. Stephan church in Milwaukee, built in 1847, which sits about a mile from the airport and faces an ‘adult lounge’ and a parking lot. The closing of his church has to do with relocation. “Part of the reason to relocate,” he says, “is to go to more of a people setting rather than an industrial or commercial setting.”

A century or more ago many denominations, Catholic and Lutheran alike, built churches to serve immigrants from the old country, many of which settled either in the growing metropolitan industrial centers, or in the sprawling open spaces of the frontier where they settled to farm. To this day a majority of Lutheran church buildings are located in small towns and rural areas throughout the country. My own parish is a typical example, founded in 1886, to serve the Pomeranians from Prussia who came to homestead in northern Wisconsin.

However, times have changed. Many have moved to the ‘burbs’ and even those who work in the cities commute from ‘bedroom communities’ 30 or more miles away. It’s not that there isn’t a place for rural and inner city churches. In fact, I think that it will be the Lutherans who will probably be the ones to keep a presence in these difficult areas for years to come.

Church growthers, who are big on trumpeting the accomplishments of today’s mega-churches with their burgeoning ministries, love to tell the rest of the world their ‘tricks of the trade’ so that others might emulate their success and grow. They tout the blessings of contemporary worship and other relevant actions that attract today’s ‘seeker.’ What they don’t seem to be telling us is that much of their so-called success in growing big churches comes in large part from the one thing any business owner can tell you is key to their success: location, location, location.

Churches located in declining rural communities and in aging industrial centers are not the place to find a great influx of people just waiting to join. However, if you find a crossroads in the suburban regions where malls reign, there you have a demographic advantage. It may not be quite as simple as “if you build it they will come,” but it’s not far from it.

The RC church will continue to consolidate and close to survive. They are watching their church rolls rise and their attendance drop and their priesthood age. However, Lutherans do not face all these challenges in quite the same way. Furthermore, our church polity is different and allows us greater control over the decision of whether to make it work even in places others are abandoning. May God bless our mission work in these difficult declining areas, as we remain outposts of the Gospel to all people.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Controversy Over a New 'Christian' Video Game

I suppose it was the next logical step after a best-selling series of novels. And perhaps its indicative of the Evangelical need for continual relevance. So one should not be too surprised by the introduction of the latest real-time military strategy video game to hit the market: Left Behind: Eternal Forces (which retails, I read, for a cool $39.99!) The USA Today (12-14) featured an article about the cotroversy surrounding the game's introduction. ""It's faith-based killing that teaches God wants people dead if they don't see Chist as you do.' says the Rev. Tim Simpson, head of Christian Alliance for Progress, who played the game. 'Jesus would have turned the other cheek.'" (7A)

Tim LaHaye, author of the series upon which this game is based, endorsed the game. His response to the opposition was: 'These groups don't attack other violent video games. Their real attack is on our theology." Well, I'm not sure what the Rev. Simpson would say, but for myself, I'd say "Spot on!" Yes, it's the theology. Forget the violence for a moment. The whole Left Behind series is based on a very wrong-headed eschatology and soteriology, not to mention a confusion of kingdoms. I was almost embarased to read of the working of the game and how poor the theology was that supports it.

Jeffry Frichner, president and co-founder of the game says, "Players can engage in battle, fire guns, even kill innocents in the game, but there will be severe consequences. In fact, you can win this game without ever firing a shot, using weapons of spiritual means, such as prayer and worship." Simpson further observes that "once you do a kill, it causes your 'spiritual points' in the game to go down, but all you need to do is pray and you're good to go again, as if nothing else happened." Where does one begin in analyzing this? First of all, where is Christ? (Not that he belongs in a game, mind you.) Is He not the victor in this war against evil? Secondly, where are the means of grace, such as Word and Sacrament? Prayer and Worship are the weapons? In what sense? What does he mean by 'worship'? And using prayer as a "weapon" misunderstands what prayer is for. And we haven't even gotten to the issues of the End Times and what Christ intended to do. The Kingdom of the Left (government) daily battles the forces of evil on our behalf with the weapons of this world. There will be no earthly kingdom for us to fight for, contrary to the millenialists who think otherwise. "My kingdom is not of this world." Oh my, so many things to sort out here....

Well, I'm neither going to buy the game nor play it. If I need to escape I'll join my son on his Game Cube racing cars down dark city streets. Anyway, what would the Left Behind game teach me or my son? Aside from the violence issue, the worse corruption would be of our view of the Kingdom of Christ and His promises. No, I think crashing cars on the screen is enough for me.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Most Americans Don't Recognize Major Christian Leaders

At the end of last month, Jason Kane of the Religious News Service reported on a study by the Barna Group that could be very insightful for the church. The article is appropriately titled: "Rick Who? Most Americans Don't Recognize Major Christian Leaders." Part of me is not surprised, given the narrow interest many Americans have in the broader world and the dominance entertainment has over the public's attention. However, this may be quite insightful for Christians who assume that they are really having a huge impact on the culture of our day. One would have thought that Tim LaHaye, author of the best selling fiction of all time (the "Left Behind" series), would have been better known. Or even Rick Warren, who Kane claims, sold more copies of his "Purpose Driven Life"than any other nonfictionwork except the Bible. But alas, the public at large, and it would seem even many in the so-called Christian community, are not aware of these accomplishments. Of course I'm not disappointed. I was fearful of the impact of LaHaye's and Warren's books since they hit the bookstands. I watched in horror as Lutherans started snatching them up and pastors started using Warren's material for Lenten series. Now, if they would just slip into complete ubscurity.....

Still, isn't it interesting that with all their success they can't even rise to the level of today's celebrities? The world really pays little attention to the church. We may wish otherwise, but many people in our communities are busy with everything but faith, especially at this time of year. Is this a pesimistic outlook? Not at all. This is simply the realization that Jesus was right all along. The way to heaven is narrow, the way to hell wide. The church will always be a small island in the midst of the world. Humbling, yes? Good. I think that the church-at-large has been too caught up in its own success in the last several years. We have spent too much time looking for outward glory. Now that we know the reality of things, let's get back to work proclaiming the Gospel and leave the results to God.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Sermons and How They Are Heard

Every pastor preaches to be heard, but what is the reception really like out there? Many of us, while we might express curiosity, are probably very reluctant to know for sure. The person in the pew, for the most part, will form his or her opinions, but will seldom express them - at least not to the preacher. Some, who do not like what they hear, will act on those opinions by becoming less active in church, claiming it to be a waste of time, since they "don't get anything out of the sermon."

As pastors we are trained in the art of homiletics. We are taught principals of public speaking and communication, as well as the art of exegesis (the study and interpretation of the Word in the original). We realize that we are applying the Word to real people, so many of us, it is hoped, truly work to understand what our people need to hear. This is the bare essense of the task. Yet in the midst of this there are many other points that the man or woman in the pew also considers important. They expect the message to be clear and easy to follow, using illustrations from the world they know. If they lose the train of thought or suddenly cannot follow you, they become frustrated.

The quandary of the pastor often is balancing the need to learn what can sometimes be complex, and the desire of people to keep things as simple as possible.

Paul McCain, back in April, quoted an article by Chuck Coleson and Ann Morse, entitled "Soothing Ourselves to Death." It's not about preaching, per se, but contains a paragraph that is appropriate to this discussion. And the point here is the question of just what does the person in the pew bring when they come to hear a sermon? What are their skills - skill of listening and understanding? And has our media-saturated culture of the last several decades dulled the ability of our people to really hear and listen and understand? Coleson writes:

"The great strength of radio, as with books, has been to present in-depth teaching and moral discussion that engages Christians cognitively. This is something Americans find increasingly difficult. According to a recent study, the average college graduate's proficient literacy in English has declined from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent today. The study defines proficient literacy as the ability to read lengthy, complex texts and draw complicated inferences. Think about it: One out of three college graduates cannot read a book or absorb a serious sermon.
But the gospel above all else is revealed propositional truth—truth that speaks to all of life. Yes, the gospel is simple enough for a child to understand. Yet if you want to study doctrine and worldview, you need the capacity to think. You need the capacity to engage ideas cognitively.
Doctrine and biblical teaching are not—as some "emerging church" advocates believe—dry, dusty, abstract notions. This truth has to be carried into the heart and applied. But there is no escaping that it is truth that must be learned.
Sure, skits and catchy music are good tools for drawing people in, and good Christian music on the radio can inspire us. But these things aren't an end in and of themselves; they should engage us in learning and applying truth.
When Postman published his book two decades ago, he feared television would impair our capacity to think. He was right. Can we learn from this—or are we destined to follow suit, the church blissfully amusing itself into irrelevance?"

So, what does the preacher do, aware of this? No pastor worth his salt ever wants to be accused of "dumbing down" his message. However, as Luther encouraged pastors, he is to preach to every "Hans and Grettel." He is not preaching to a room full of Ph.D's. And to what degree does he comprimise in this, walking the fine balance between offering 'meat' for serious consumption, and milk for those not quite ready? This is my struggle at present. For after 19+ years of ministry it appears that I am at a point of serious reflection on my own homiletical skills. I am not reaching all my people. Some are tuning me out and staying away. To what degree do I explain this as lack of faith, and to what degree must I examine my own preaching? Keep tuned as I think this one out.....

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Pastoral Burnout

Occasionally I hear of pastors suffering from depression, and my heart goes out to them. Anyone who has served any time in the pastoral ministry knows the unique stress it brings and the vulnerability to mental strain and burnout. I commend the pastor who has even begun a blog devoted to his experiences with depression and mental disability. You can check it out here.

Both of my parents suffered from depression before they died. My father, who was a 23 year vet of the Army probably had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but they weren't that far along in this area when he retired in '63. My mother suffered from anxiety and panic attacks and depression to the end of her life, and it was the anti-anxiety meds that finally tipped the balance of her health and sent her spiriling into dementia. A look at their lives certainly reveals why they suffered as they did. The stress of combat, alcoholism, the pain of loss, the list goes on.

Pastors are not immune to the pressures of life, and one might contend that they are especially vulnerable. The expectations placed upon them are often huge. Not every pastor possesses an equal amount of gifts or abilities, and yet it is assumed that they will be as good in the pulpit as in the classroom as in the office.

In doing a little cyber-research, I discovered an article from 2001 from the Religious News Sevice entitled "Ill-behaving members leave to clergy burnout." (Hilary Wicai) She reviews a study done by the Klaases of Mission Growth Ministries, which was commissioned by the LCMS. "The fundamental finding is that people beating on each other is the main issue," Klaas said. How true. After 19+ years in the ministry I have seen all too much of this. And, yes, I have suffered along with my family. The tough part is not to take it personally, to turn it inside yourself.

There are other issues to be sure, but it was interesting to discover that this study put this issue at the forefront of clergy burnout.

Another article from Christian Century, entitled "Exit Interview: Why Pastors Leave" by David Wood, is also a good read in this area. He reviews a book by Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger entitled "Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry." Another aspect of clergy burnout noted was a sense of lonliness. Pastors, by the nature of their vocation must often work in issolation from their peers. As a circuit counselor I appreciate even more the colegiality of the fellowship of pastors. Cyberspace has spauned a whole world of list-serves and blogs which apparently are trying in their own way to fill this void. We need support from those who understand us. Pastors should be especially leary of allowing themselves to become isolated.

If pastors find themselves suffering from depression and lethargy in the ministry, where they no longer have the will and spirit to serve as they once did, they should find help and assistance from others. Do not suffer alone! Changes can be made. You are not trapped.

There are many reasons that eventually crush the spirit of the pastor. We walk by faith, not by sight, and ours is, yes, a lonely road, but not one without the strength and hope of Christ. I do not have all the answers to this issue, and find myself exploring it, in part, for my own personal and professional reflection.

On additional resource, however, comes from the saited Dr. Robert Preus, former president of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne. This should be at the top of the list of 'must reads' for those exploring this further. The title of the CTQ article is: “Clergy Mental Health and the Doctrine of Justification," and can be found at the seminary's site here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

On Finding Pastors to Serve

Recently at the meeting of the COP (Council of Presidents), a new "alternate-route" to the pastoral ministry was again suggested. Details were sketchy, but I'll admit I already have my concerns. You can read the LCMS News Release article here.

Later in the same article they also reported on the number of vacancies in Synod:
"District presidents reported a total of 814 pastoral vacancies in LCMS congregations. Of those, 371 are in congregations that are not calling men to fill those vacancies, and 443 are in congregations that are calling. The category breakdown for the calling congregations is for 328 sole pastors, 54 senior pastors, and 61 associate or assistant pastors."

We have a problem in the LCMS regarding the ministry, which is no mystery to any who have been around a while. Recently I talked with someone in the DELTO program and discovered that there were no requirements for Greek at all. None! I know the Baptists and others don't require this. But now, after all the Luther himself said of the value of the original languages - and after his historic translation of the Hebrew and Greek Bible into German - we are allowing ourselves to say that our pastors have no need for any compentency in this area?

Of course this is only the tip of the iceberg. There was also the major 'adjustment' of the Wichita convention (1989?) when Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession was disregarded when they approved Word and Sacrament ministry for the so-called lay minister. AC XIV says "Our churches teach that no one should publicly teach in teh Church, or administer the Sacraments, without a rightly ordered call." (McCain ed.) The "rightly ordered call" has historically been understood as the call into the pastoral ministry, not just a generic call of the baptized, or some 'call' into an auxiliary office created to support the Pastoral Office.

The need for all these alternate adjustments, though, is justified on the basis of a crisis - a crisis of too much need and not enough men to meet the need.

But how true is the so-called crisis? We have new graduates who sometimes do not get calls right away. We have men on CRM status who remain there indefinitely. We have a rising number of retired men (which will increase as the Baby-boomer generation slips into those years).

Do we have a shortage of ordained clergy? I don't think so.
--We have thousands in administrative positions in synod. Do they all need to be there? I was an administrative pastor in my previous call and it is obvious to me that there are many qualified laity that can carry out much of the business of administration the church today.
--We have men on CRM status. Are all of them such that they cannot be called? Or are our churches passing them over deliberately because of their views and convictions (e.g. on liturgy and contemporary worship) - or even their age (yes, there is an age-bias in Synod!).

Considering that we have other options within the pool of the ordained, it seems that we are deliberately looking elsewhere outside the ranks of pastors. Has anyone even discussed the worker-priest or "tent making ministry" model where a pastor becomes bi-vocational? It's possible to do. Why are we not exploring this at the COP?

And as in older years we also worked with the dual and tri-point parishes. I know that many churches chache at 'sharing' a pastor and it must seem easier to just give a church a man for his own, no matter how little training he has. But the synod functioned quite well in the past with the old order. Are we utilizing it as much as we can?

And have we really explored why our churches are biased against pastors already trained and ready to serve? This seems like the pink elephant in the middle of the room no one wants to talk about.

And finally, do we need all the beauricratic machinery that holds synod together at present? Why are there no blue-ribbon committees formed to down-size the IC?

I am concerned about the rout we are taking with the church and the ministry, and I fear that we are opening cans we will not later be able to close - cans containing theologies that will corrupt and damage our overall doctrine.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Weedon's Thoughts for Pastors

I am writing two posts today, aware that I may not get to the computer much tomorrow. There is a brief antlerless season for the next few days, and since I did not fill my tag, I'm thinking of giving it one more shot.....

At any rate, I ran across a nice post in Weedon's Blog entitled "Weedon's Miscellaneous Thoughts for New Pastors." I think that it offers much good thought for seasoned pastors as well. His insights betray a pastor with experience. I appreciate his true love and sensitivity to the parish and the sheep under the shepherd's care. All pastors would do well in reading his list. I will be the first to confess that I am not doing all that is on his list. It's not that I disagree. It's simply more a matter of sinful human flesh. His reading list of Luther's House Postils, Chemnitz, Walther, the Book of Concord and the Father is a good summary. I have these in my library, but, again, confess that my reading of them is inadeqate and insufficient. Maybe Weedon's words will spur me on to more.

Myth #4 and the Misguided Notions of Missions in the Church

Myth #4 from Eckhardt's article is printed below, so I won't repeat it again here. Anyway, I want to expand on his idea with a related myth of my own, namely, "the notion that the work of missions means increasing the number of people in church." I have heard this notion over the course of my ministry, and it oftentimes comes out during times of financial strain. "If only we had more people coming to church, then we would have more money." The related collorary involves getting inactives back in church, which perpetuates the idea that some people in the church will attend and give and be active if only we remind them to come from time to time. (I guess their inactivity couldn't possibly be linked to a lack of faith since they avoid God's very Word and Supper?)

Now aside from the poor theology of these notions, let's take note first of all of the horrible manipulation and self-serving aspect of these ideas. Think about it - We want you to come to our church today (or come back) because it looks good to have a larger attendance average (thus making us look successful! - and allowing our synod to single us out as a model church), and furthermore, we are assuming that when you come you will bring money which will help us pay our bills and keep us in the red. So, these people, then, are only potential "attendance numbers" and "giving units"? How depersonalized can we be? Even the business world realizes that the customer is wize enough to know when they are only an object to be exploited (Note when McDonalds went from the little intercom to face-to-face windows for ordering. Think they were not aware of this??)

It's hard for churches to see missions purely as the call of our Lord Jesus to proclaim the Gospel to all nations, catechizing them in all that he has taught us. Period. No strings attached. No ulterior motives included. Are we broke? Tough! It was probably poor stewardship of what God gave you in the first place. Don't look to the unbeliever or unrepentant delinquent to bail you out. They need to be taught again. They may not even understand the biblical concept of stewardship. Look at your financial issues as issues of proper management of resources given. And keep it there. Remember the parable of the talents and how the Master held his servants accountable for their use of what he gave them!

And as far as the size of the church - Oh, how pride is the downfall of the church! I pastor what I would describe as a medium-sized rural church (about 420 members 'on the books.') When I came we averaged about 200 a Sunday. However, over the last 6 years that number has come down to around 179. Now one of the reasons I may look to as an explanation is that we are 'out in the country,' and you know how those farm communties are going. We're lucky just to be here! People have to drive 7 to 10 miles to come from the nearby city, passing up another LCMS congregation in the process. And consider that families are smaller today. And.....well, you get the point. As a pastor I often feel a need to 'justify' where we are at numerically, and I feel held accountable when the numbers drop. Afterall, could it be that my sermons are not attracking some people, or keeping others away? What should I be doing to make sure more people come and less stay away?

But am I the Holy Spirit? Who gave me the personal power to make people come to faith and live in it? I am only the one who uses the means of grace as the instruments of my office, praying that the kingdom would come among them. That's it. Sure, there are personal reasons to consider that can get in the way at times. But I struggle with people who are quick to use the pastor as an excuse for staying away from church, especially when there are many other churches to which they can just as easy attend. In the same issue of Gottesdienst I referenced yesterday, the Rev. David H. Peterson of Ft. Wayne, IN writes an article called "How to Listen to a Sermon." At the end of the article he summarizes the "how" with "reading the text beforehand, prayer, actively listening, and even taking notes...." What? I have to really learn? Too many of our people have been conditioned to accept the lite fare of storytelling for real catechesis. Look at Bible class. Are all the people there after service? In many parishes probably not. The pulpit must be a place of teaching. It's our only chance.

Finally, missions must be understood as the love of God in Christ reaching out to the lost, caring enough to crush their sinful hearts with the law and to heal them again with the Gospel. Yes, we should to to where people are and bring them in to the wedding feast. But only because we care deeply for their eternal welfare, and because we love our Lord and honor his Word, not because we are looking at the dollar sign invisibly tatooed on their forehead.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Parishes in Trouble: Five Myths Debunked

In the most recent issue of Gottesdienst magazine, Dr. Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr. continues an article he began in the previous issue regarding pastors and parishes in troubling situations. Apparently he received more letters in response to this than of any other he had written, leading him to believe that this situation may be more widespread and pandemic than first realized by many. I share with you here the "myths" he debunks, and welcome your response. The website for Gottesdienst is here.

Five Myths:
1.) The first myth is the assertion that the pastor in a troubled parish is a pure oddity, a singularly awful example of a Christian leader, and that's why our church is in such trouble.
2.) The second myth is the assertion that if you had only done things a little more slowly or carefully, you wouldn't have had all this trouble.
3.) Th third myth is the idea that if you can't get through to many of the people here, maybe it's time you moved on.
4.) The fourth myth is the notion that parishes which have grown smaller haven't been properly mission-minded.
5.) The fifth myth is the diabolical suggestion that God has abandoned us.

Dr. Eckhardt of course expands on each of these points in his article, which I do not have the space and time to provide at this point. Nevertheless, I think that the myths alone speak volumes. What do you think?

BTW, Eckhardt's blog (Gottesblog) is worth checking out as well!

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The Christmas Wars

In yesterday's local paper my eye caught an op-ed piece by Kathryn Jean Lopez. It was entitled "For Christ's sake - literally," which you can read at The article begins with a straight-forward confession of her faith, as one who celebrates "the birth of Jesus Crhist, the son of God, my Savior." But then she adds shortly thereafter: "And I sure as heck don't want to have a political debate over it," meaning her desire to actually celebrate this holiday for what it is.

What she is referring to, which some of you are no doubt familiar with, is the annual war on Christmas. John Gibson of the Fox News Channel even wrote a book entitled: "War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought." I am fortunate, I suppose, because I live in a rather small town here in northern Wisconsin. This past Sunday evening I attended a community choir and band Christmas concert and there was no sensitivity to excluding anything Christian. This coming Sunday I will attend the high school's choir concert (which my wife is accompanying), and I fully expect to hear Christian carols. Now, admittedly my little town (under 9,000) doesn't have much of a diverse community. I know that there is a Muslim family, and maybe someone from the Jewish community. But no Mosques or Synaogues can be found up here. Perhaps that's part of it. But I feel for those who must endure the rediculous assault on this holiday, trying to remove its very character - and even, in some cases, its name (Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas). Lopez reviews from Gibson's book some of the more atrocious assaults, even telling of a principal who banned all green and red paper until after the first of the year. And why should that offend our pluralistic society? I'm lost.

Lopez also talks about an incident in Chicago regarding their annual Christkindlmarket Christmas Festival. The issue at hand started when clips from the upcoming movie "The Nativity" were to be shown. I'm sure you can scan the net and find articles talking more about this incident. Suffice it to say, it's one more example of how extreme the war is becoming.

But here is a followup thought on a more theological note: Shouldn't we, who live in the latter days, expect such attacks and such 'wars'? Have we not been told that the world will rebel against God and against His Anointed? (see Psalm 2). This may at some level be a civil rights issue, and I am all for removing in our pluralistic society this rediculous politically correct exercise in being all things to all people. Yet as I watch the drama part of me smiles. While they may remove all symbols and all reminders of Christ from the public square, they shall never remove the Christ. Even Herod was unsuccessful on that one.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

A Journey to Orthodoxy

By now many in cyberspace, especially confessional Lutheran cyberspace, have heard about the departure of John Fenton from the LCMS to Eastern Orthodoxy. Last night I listened to the interview where he chronicles his journey to Orthodoxy. He also has provided a written account on his blog Conversi ad Dominum. I have also read many reactions on several blogs, and have found many useful insights. Thus, I'm not sure that there is much for me to offer here that has probably not already been said, and that, in a better way than I could, if I tried.

I knew John by reputation, not personally. He was a couple of years behind me at Ft. Wayne. Over the last few years others too have left the LCMS for Orthodoxy and I can well suspect that my beloved alma matter has beem implicated on more than one occasion. However, being a Ft. Wayne grad and having even studied some patristics under no less than Dr. Weinrich himself, I can't say that I ever felt even a slight tempation from my studies at the seminary to entertain a move to Orthodoxy. I did visit a local Orthodox church during my years in Ft. Wayne (which was facinating), and later, in my earlier years of ministry, I went through a fase where I read a variety of Orthodox materials including the book by Ware to which Fenton refers, as well as a second volume. I also read Metropolitan Philip: His Life and His Dreams (1991) by Peter E. Gillquist that chronicled, among other things, the journey of seveal leaders from Campus Crusade over to Orthodoxy. And yes, I even purchased the Orthodox Study Bible (Thomas Nelson Pub.), partly for the patrisic quotes and insights lacking in typical Protestant/ Lutheran study Bibles.

I suspect that other conservative Lutheran pastors who have come to love the liturgy and the traditions of the church catholic have also toyed with Orthodoxy at some point. It has a certain appeal, especially when you are having to deal with the American Lutheran distain for tradition and liturgy that has infected too many of our people over the last 20 years. I can appreciate Fenton's need to find a place that holds these traditions as sacred.

However, as others have well noted, his inability to grasp their Pelagian tendencies in Orthodoxy (especially their unwillingness to embrace the biblical teaching on original sin) and his lack of any reference to Christ as central to church and faith, has left me puzzeled. The liturgy is a beautiful thing, and I have fought many a battle in my ministry to preserve its place in my churches. But would that love and commitment to the historic liturgy be a driving force for me to abandon my Lutheran convictions? I hope not. Furthermore, I feel that he has been unfairly critical of the fidelity of his former faith to the liturgical traditions of the church catholic. Fenton is a recognized scholar on the liturgy, and I respect his work in that area. Nevertheless, our liturgical traditions, as preserved in our hymnals, still reflect the apostolic and catholic traditions being grounded firmly in Holy Scripture.

I won't dicker with further issues. Others have analyzed him enough. This is a tempting time for confessionally-minded pastors to listen to other voices promising greener pastures as we deal with the discouragment of our own denomination's drift to Evangelicalism. Eastern Orthodoxy is exotic as are many things foreign, and as I mentioned, I too was tempted - for a time. But the clear witness of God's Word was too much to overcome, and so the books became just that - books about a subject for which I had a passing interest. I don't suspect that John Fenton will be the last one to leave. And I suspect that there will be accusations against leaders in our seminaries for being some kind of causal factor. So be it. All we can do is witness to the Truth and remain faithful by God's grace.

Monday, December 4, 2006

A Word of Encouragement from Sasse as We Begin a New "Year"

For almost two years now I have been part of a study group that is working its way through the various writings of Hermann Sasse. I have long enjoyed his works, and credit him with saving me theologically at a critical point early in my ministry. Currently we are in the book The Lonely Way: Selected Essays and Letters, Vol. I , 1927-1939 (CPH, 2001). In his essay from 1938 "The Church at the Turn of the Year," it seems that Sasse has some particularly comforting and encouraging words as we begin a new church year and anticipate a new secular year as well:

"The church has a relationship to time quite different from that of the world. The world hastens toward its end. It has some inkling of this but yet will not admit it. The world sees death ahead as an inescapable fate and seeks to overcome it, though it well knows that it is the world that shall be overcome. The anguish of death and longing for 'deeper, deeper eternity' speak alike from the great works of man, from the creations of his spirit, his will. In these he attempts to 'immortalize ' himself, to conquer eternity. But finally eternity is not his. Eternity belong to the triune God, to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It belongs to the one who is 'the one blessed and only powerful, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells there in light where no one can come, which no man has seen nor can see" [1 Tim 6:15-16].

The world does not recognize him. But the church believes in him. She sings her Gloria to him, "to the triune God, as he was in the beginning, is now, and shall be now and evermore.' As in the days of the apostles she prays to the one who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, who was and is and is to come, the Almighty: 'Maranatha!' 'Amen, yes, come, Lord Jesus!' [Rev. 22:20]. The world trembles before the great day of the Lord. It lets its philosophers prove that there could be no last day, no judgment. But the church waits expectantly for the blessed last day. 'Zion hears the watchman singing, And in her heart new joy is springing. She wakes, she rises from her gloom.' She hears the jeering question of the world: 'where is his promised advent? For after the fathers fell asleep, everything has remained as it has been form the beginning of creation' [2 Pet 3:4]. The world cannot wait. It is in a hurry because its time is nearing its end. it must always immediately have it all, otherwise it is too late. The church can wait. She has learned to do so in the course of nineteen centuries. She has a different relationship to time. For she belongs to one for whom a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day [2 Pet 3:8]. She is not anxious in the face of unstoppable , inescapable, unrepeatable time. She knows she is the possession of him who is the Lord of time, because he is the Lord of eternity. Therefore when the church crosses the threshold of a new year, she can never do so with the feeling of worldly anxiety which we all now as natural men, the anxiety in the face of an unknown future. She rather enters the new year in firm faith: 'My time in in thy hands.' In this faith the church of God on earth heads into the new year, the year of our Lord 1938." (pp. 431-432)

And for us in our time, in this same faith, we too head into the year of our Lord - 2007.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

A Triumphal Entry into Advent

With the old One Year Series it would have been customary to hear the account of Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem as the first Gospel pericope of Advent. Since the 3 Year Series became standard fare when I became a pastor 19 years ago, I honestly can't recall preaching on this account at any time in my ministry - until today. Curious as to how others may have handled such a text normally reserved for Palm Sunday, I searched the internet for ideas. Much to my surprise the homeletical treatment of this text for Advent was a desert. The Luke 19 reading is listed as an alternate, and predictably the first text from Luke 21 is usually used. Quite honestly, I would not have used the second text had not our pre-printed CPH bulletins chosen it for me (the lectionary within a lectionary??). Interestingly, the One-Year series in LW uses the Luke 19 pericope rather than the older Gospel from Matthew 21, which is from TLH.

At any rate I found Jesus' entry into Jerusalem the perfect Advent text. For the theme of Advent, as the word itself implies, is the "coming" of Christ. It was a relief not to have to repeat one more week of End Times texts, even though I appreciate the emphasis it gets in our lectionary at the end of every year. But here was the theme of Advent in a nutshell. Jesus comes to His people, even though some do not want him. He comes to the praise of his followers, as well as to the distain of his ememies. And He comes of his own accord and in His own way - seated humbly on a borrowed donkey. He never waits for His people to ask for his coming. So, despite the fact that the Pharisees would just as soon seen him march the other way right out of Israel, Jesus enters into the holiest of cities, and not for glory -although He rightly receives it. He comes to suffer and die on our behalf. He comes to sacrifice his very body on the altar of the cross for our salvation. He comes, his glory 'hidden' under the shame of sin and death.

Today I was also pleased that Advent One came for us on a "Communion Sunday." For what more appropriate way to emphasize the coming of the Christ among us even now than to taste and see Him in the Holy Supper! We poor sinners who deserve only death and hell, who hide our faces from the holy God out of shame, were still graced by His presence. What a moment of pure grace!

I hope that CPH uses this Gospel again soon. Now that I've preached on it I'd like to go to it again. It seems the perfect start to this season.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Congressman Taking Heat for Plans to Use Quran at Oath Ceremony

Keith Ellison will become the first Muslim member of the US Congress in January. I am surprised that he is the first. There is nothing shocking here. We have certainly had Muslims in government for some time now. However, his plans for the oath ceremony seems to have riled a few conservatives. He wants to use a Quran (Koran) instead of a Bible as part of his taking of the oath of office. Considering his faith, this is no surprise. However, conservatives are up in arms over this. Dennis Prager on his site went so far as to say that his use of the Quran "undermines American civilization." Come again?

I'm sorry, but I think that is a bit of an over- reaction. For one thing, the use of the Bible has, according to the AP article I read today, is part of a "photo-op ceremony," not the actual swearing in, which takes place on the House Floor with the whole congress assembled. Secondly, while I am a firm supporter of seeing faith in the public square, I don't think that the Bible's presence in such a situation, let alone a Koran, is integral - or detrimental - to the integrity of the oath. This is Kingdom of the Left, which our Lord rules and governs through whether the Bible is present and heeded or not. As a chaplain I appreciate the opportunity to share my Christian faith freely, even in a government institution (fire dept.). I appreciate the fact that my voice is not compromised by another faith; that I have the sole witness in this arena. But demanding that this man appear with his hands on a Bible when he doesn't even believe in it? That would be a farce. Anyway, it's a photo-op, not the actual ceremony. This just doesn't seem worth all the hype.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Witnessing and - or Evangelism?

This Sunday I am beginning a Bible study series on "witnessing." It's been a while since I have ventured into this area. No doubt part of the reason for this has to do with the sensitivity many lay people have to even the sound of the word "evangelism." I have also been dissatisfied with the resources that have previously been part of the whole evangelism training experience in the church. Starting back in the 70's with D. James Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion, and then to the LCMS clones Dialog Evangelism and Dialog Evangelism II, the standard model has been that we train laity to memorize a formal outline and then literally catechize the prospect in their home.

There is probably a place for these resources, although interestingly you don't hear much about them anymore.

This may be due to the Church Growth emphasis on simply inviting people to church and networking to expand the prospect list.

I don't think that the task of the church is to make sure that all of our people are evangelism experts ready to catechize. However, I do believe that they are often the first point of contact for catechisis. And because they are that "first point of contact" we owe them some time in talking about what that means.

Thus my class. The approach is three-fold in describing the approaches lay people may take. The title of the class, incidentally, comes from Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount: "Let Your Light Shine." First, I believe that we should remind our people that although sinners, their actions and behavior can either be an attractant to the Faith or a turn off. Remember Peter's words to godly wives, how by their reverent and obedient behavior they might win their unbelieving husbands without a word? Now I'm not talking here of "better-than-thou" pietism. But I am talking about being aware of how we live, that by God's grace even the pagans might see how we live in that grace and "give glory to your Father who is in heaven."

Secondly, I think the example of Andrew and Peter is helpful. Although called by some the "first missionary" (see yesterday's post for St. Andrew's Day), Andrew wasn't much of a formal missionary the day he saw Jesus. He had a lot to learn. But he knew enough to recognize him as the Messiah, and was motivated therefore to find his brother that he might see him for himself. Our people should know that as the faithful gather around Word and Sacrament there they find Jesus. Bringing them to church is a good way to expose them to the Gospel and open the door for further catechesis by the pastor.

Finally, the third example comes from Priscilla and Aquila in Acts. Both, as far as I can tell, were lay leaders in the new church. However, when hearing Apollos teaching one day, they privately took him to the side and explained more thoroughly some matters of the Faith that he may not have understood as well. It was private and they did not launch into a full-blown program of catechesis, but they did help. Many of our lay people are very well versed in the Faith. They should be encouraged to learn more and apply that knowledge to more inquisitive inquirers. Remember that it was J.R.R. Tolkien that helped fellow layman C.S. Lewis to give a reconsideration to the Faith.

So, that is all there is at this point. I'll tell you more after it develops.....