Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Churches Cut Out Weddings

Well this is a new twist. In an attempt to protest the illegality of gay weddings, some liberal churches are refusing to do any civil weddings at all. The pastors who are refusing to sign legal wedding licenses are predominately from a handful of small liberal churches, according to the Associated Press article, I believe this past Sunday (the article was handed to me in church undated.)

These churches, however, may perform a religious ceremony "to bless the unions of straight and gay couples - but straight couples must go separately to a judge or justice of the peace for the marriage license," the article reports. The idea being pushed is that the separation of church and state should dictate that civil marriages and religious ceremonies celebrating a marriage are two different things. Under the guise of this separation principle these pastors are thus refusing to perform "civil marriages."

Interesting. As Lutherans we have never had a problem recognizing a purely civil wedding as being a legitimate marriage. We celebrate this union in church in recognition of the fact that marriage was created by God Himself, and is the recipient of His many blesssings. And therein is the rub. Those in support of homosexual unions have been unsuccessful in getting the state to broaden the definition of "marriage" to include the union of gay as well as straight couples. Attempt after attempt was launched across the nation, yet each went down in flames, rejected by one state after another in official referendums. So, now that this attempt has failed, the move is to reject any connection between the civil definition of marriage and the church. Marriage is a "religious thing," and civil unions are religiously neutral? Am I getting it right?

The battle at hand is still very much a cultural one. It is not an issue of the separation of church and state. The issue is the institution of marriage as it has been understood and supported throughout our history. Yes, there are religious issues at state as well. But the fight is to get the state to redefine the uniqueness of an institution that has been the foundation of our social fabric as a nation, and in the process to create a new institution that comes with an entirely different set of values.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Waiting with Patience in Advent

This past Sunday the Epistle reading from St. James, the fifth chapter, reminded us to "be patient" as we wait for the coming of the Lord. The bishop of Jerusalem was writing to Christians under the pressure of poverty and violence and certainly no little persecution since the day of Stephen's martyrdom. In his words of encouragement he pointed to the farmer, who despite the unpredictability of the Spring and Autumn rains, so critical for a successful crop, nevertheless remained full of hope by focusing on the valuable harvest to come. James also reminded his readers of the prophets, who faithfully proclaimed God's Word, even though many rejected their message and turned on the messengers themselves. Finally he pointed to Job, the greater sufferer, who learned what it really means to live under the cross, where the face of God is hidden behind pain and loss.

Advent is a season that teaches patience as we are required to wait for our celebration, first giving attention to repentance and the examination of our hearts, which are too often hard and calloused with the world's cares and concerns. We know that to rush into Christmas without appreciating the great need for this coming Savior would be to miss the essence of this holy day.

Yet waiting is never easy. Even in the church the calendar is often crammed with activities and parties that threaten to disrupt our meditation on the mystery of the incarnation by filling our already full days. I realize that for myself Advent has not been the contemplative season of faith which it ought to be. Unfortunately in our face-paced culture that values being busy over being still, prayer and meditation are too often sacrificed on the altar of seeming productivity.

So I need to listen to James again. I may be waiting, but that waiting is frequently just the counting of days and biding time. Yet when the Lord calls on us to "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46), He is calling us ultimately to prayer.

May this Advent season still be for all of us a time of faith-filled waiting, and may we resist the pressure that too often pulls us away from the quiet sanctuary of being the presence of the living Christ.

Missionaries Must Also Evangelize

It might seem self-evident that missionary work, by definition, involves proclaiming the Gospel. However social and humanitarian efforts can easily eclipse the normal focus of evangelization. Recently Religious News Service posted this brief note:

Vatican says missionaries must also evangelize
By Francis X. Rocca
VATICAN CITY -- Roman Catholic missionaries should aim to convert people to their faith and not restrict themselves to humanitarian good works, according to a Vatican document released Friday (Dec. 14). The 19-page document tries to correct a “growing confusion” among theologians who argue that “it is enough (for missionaries) to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity,” and who claim that it is “possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church.” The statement is a follow-up to Dominus Iesus, the 2000 document produced by Pope Benedict XVI when he was still a cardinal, which said that non-Christians are in a “gravely deficient situation” on the question of salvation.

What the Roman Catholic church has struggled with has also been a source of contention within the broader church as well. In an article entitled "Peace, Justice, Evangelism: The Mission of the Church," Peter Kroeker indicates the great variety of views within the Mennonite Brethren tradition, which is probably indicative of many others:

"William Richardson (26-37), for example, states that evangelism is social action. Others see evangelism as simply the proclamation of the gospel. Jose Bonino (3), at one extreme, identifies {19} the claim of some people that the gospel implies liberation and revolution. Maurice Sinclair (23-24) makes a case that the gospel of the Kingdom has a vital application to the task of development. Jacob Loewen (121-122) points to the need for defining the gospel in its broadest and deepest dimensions rather than looking for a “one chord” definition."

While serving our neighbor in acts of love and charity is an outgrowth of the Gospel, the actual proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified and risen can never be optional in the mission work of the church. Also, redefining the mission of the church as political liberation and justice is a horrible confusion of the different kingdoms and the true role of the church in the world. There is also a lack of understanding among the liberation gospel promoters regarding the call of the church to suffer and bear the cross of a calling that often involves persecution.

Many churches would do well to reexamine how they have redefined the mission of the church, and to embrace again the original commission of Christ to "make disciples of all nations" by "baptizing....and teaching" them about the only Way, Truth, and Life.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Was Huckabee Right?

Recently Mike Huckabee asked a question during an interview that has caused a bit of controversy. He simply asked if the Mormons taught that Jesus and Satan were brothers? Now, first of all, let us note that Huckabee did not say that the Mormons taught this. He merely asked if it was so, admitting that he did not know a lot about Mormon doctrine. This little piece of fact was conveniently forgotten in the transmission of the story. However, in an election season we can expect such things to happen. Any little word that has potential for controversy is pounced upon with great enthusiasm by those seeking sensationalism.

But aside from this, the question is stilled begged: Do the Mormons teach that Satan and Jesus were brothers? There has been swift response by Mormons to distance themselves from this, and for good reason. Even nominal Christians would be quite offended to be told that the Savior of the Word and the arch-enemy of God are essentially related.

To answer the question, I first turned to the major texts of Mormonism. However, I quickly realized that all I had to do was to turn to the LDS official web site for the answer. Under the section "I Have a Question" one inquirer asks: "How can Jesus and Lucifer be spirit brothers when their characters and purposes are so utterly opposed?" I want to quote the entire response here so that there is no question about the context or overall content as presented. But we must understand a few things before I give you the quote:

-According to Mormon belief Lucifer, like Jesus and many others, are all considered "spirit children" of the Father. Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, and thus God, is not essentially distinguished from other beings, such as the angels, which are not God, or from men, which are not angels. They all enjoy a common source.
-Mormons would not say that Satan and Jesus are brothers, but as this answer shows, would rather indicate that Lucifer and Jesus as spirit brothers, noting that Satan is what Lucifer became when he rebelled.

So, here is what Jess L. Christensen, Institute of Religion director at Utah State University, Logan, Utah, answered on behalf of the LDS church (Note that the words in bold were done by me to greater emphasize those sections addressing the issue at hand):

"On first hearing, the doctrine that Lucifer and our Lord, Jesus Christ, are brothers may seem surprising to some—especially to those unacquainted with latter-day revelations. But both the scriptures and the prophets affirm that Jesus Christ and Lucifer are indeed offspring of our Heavenly Father and, therefore, spirit brothers. Jesus Christ was with the Father from the beginning. Lucifer, too, was an angel “who was in authority in the presence of God,” a “son of the morning.” (See Isa. 14:12; D&C 76:25–27.) Both Jesus and Lucifer were strong leaders with great knowledge and influence. But as the Firstborn of the Father, Jesus was Lucifer’s older brother. (See Col. 1:15; D&C 93:21.)
How could two such great spirits become so totally opposite? The answer lies in the principle of agency, which has existed from all eternity. (See D&C 93:30–31.) Of Lucifer, the scripture says that because of rebellion “he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies.” (Moses 4:4.) Note that he was not created evil, but became Satan by his own choice.

When our Father in Heaven presented his plan of salvation, Jesus sustained the plan and his part in it, giving the glory to God, to whom it properly belonged. Lucifer, on the other hand, sought power, honor, and glory only for himself. (See Isa. 14:13–14; Moses 4:1–2.) When his modification of the Father’s plan was rejected, he rebelled against God and was subsequently cast out of heaven with those who had sided with him. (See Rev. 12:7–9; D&C 29:36–37.)

That brothers would make dramatically different choices is not unusual. It has happened time and again, as the scriptures attest: Cain chose to serve Satan; Abel chose to serve God. (See Moses 5:16–18.) Esau “despised his birthright”; Jacob wanted to honor it. (Gen. 25:29–34.) Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him; he sought to preserve them. (Gen. 37:12–24; Gen. 45:3–11.)

It is ironic that the agency with which Lucifer rebelled is the very gift he tried to take from man. His proposal was that all be forced back into God’s presence. (See Moses 4:1, 3.) But the principle of agency is fundamental to the existence and progression of intelligent beings: as we make wise choices, we grow in light and truth. On the other hand, wrong choices—such as the one Satan made—stop progress and can even deny us blessings that we already have. (See D&C 93:30–36.)

In order for us to progress, therefore, we must have the opportunity to choose good or evil. Interestingly, Satan and his angels—those who opposed agency—have become that opposition. As the prophet Lehi taught, “Men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.” (2 Ne. 2:27.)

Although the Father has allowed Satan and his angels to tempt mankind, he has given each of us the ability to rise above temptation. (See 1 Cor. 10:13.) He has also given us the great gift of the Atonement.

When the Lord placed enmity between Eve’s children and the devil, Satan was told that he would bruise the heel of Eve’s seed, but her seed would bruise his head. (See Moses 4:21.) President Joseph Fielding Smith explained that “the ‘God of peace,’ who according to the scriptures is to bruise Satan, is Jesus Christ.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957, 1:3.) Satan would bruise the Savior’s heel by leading men to crucify Him. But through his death and resurrection, Christ overcame death for all of us; and through his atonement, he offers each of us a way to escape the eternal ramifications of sin. Thus, Satan’s machinations have been frustrated and eventually he will be judged, bound, and cast into hell forever. (See Rev. 20:1–10; D&C 29:26–29.)

In Hebrew, the word bruise means “to crush or grind.” Therefore, the very heel that was bruised will crush Satan and will help us overcome the world and return to our Father. As we use our agency to choose good over evil, the atonement of Christ prepares the way for us to return to our Father in Heaven.

We can only imagine the sorrow of our Heavenly Father as he watched a loved son incite and lead a rebellion and lose his opportunity for exaltation. But we can also imagine the Father’s love and rejoicing as he welcomed back the beloved son who had valiantly and perfectly fought the battles of life and brought about the great Atonement through his suffering and death."

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Five Laws of Christian Freedom

As Todd Wilken admits in a recent article in Issues, Etc., the combination of the word "freedom" and "law" seems out of place. "What does the Law have to do with Christian freedom?" However, Wilken is addressing an issue that is often used within the Church as a license for abuse or excess in the name of freedom. The issue is sometimes referred to by its technical Latin name, adiophora, which refers to the area of theology concerning matters that are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture.

Within the LCMS the appeal to adiophora is often used by pastors and churches to justify massive overhauls of the liturgy and the ministry with the justification that the details of these areas are not spelled out in specific terms within Scripture. However, as the saying goes, "the devil is in the details," and much mischief has been attempted by tampering with the little things that often go unnoticed by the general observer.

Christian freedom has therefore been used in some cases to abandon the historic worship forms of the church, disregard fellowship restrictions in Holy Communion, and mingle the genders within leadership and worship of the church. So, is Christian Freedom a 'blank check,' theologically speaking, that leaves even matters of worship to the whims of the masses?

In an attempt to better define the area of Christian Freedom, Rev. Wilken presents what he refers to as "Five Laws" that govern this area. If you do not currently receive Issues, Etc., I would recommend subcribing and reading articles like this in full. I can only summarize in the space here.

Law 1: Where Scripture speaks, speak; where Scripture is silent, be silent. Wilken is responding with this "law" to the "Regulative Principle" of the Calvinist Reformation that says: "If the Bible doesn't specifically command X, Y, or Z, then the Bible forbids X, Y, and Z. We have seen this principle in action where Christians forbid things that are truly open to Christian freedom (within the limits of decency), such as dancing and the drinking of alcoholic beverages.

Law 2: Don't confuse your refusal to listen with Scripture's silence. Here Wilken is responding to the logic that says if the Scriptures do not address an issue specifically by name, then it must not be important enough to limit or regulate and we are free to do as we wish. This is the "Regulative Principle" turned on its head: "If the Bible doesn't specifically forbid X,Y, or Z, when the Bible approves of X, Y, or Z. An example here could be such 'hot button' topics like gay marriage, cohabitation, or women's ordination. Does the Bible address in detail any of these issue? Not really. They didn't impact the people of this time in the way they do ours. Still, the principles at stake are addressed: sexual immorality, the nature of marriage, and the role of women and the office of pastor. The Bible also does not address genocide, wife-beating or incest, but it clearly condemns such actions as violating the very essence of marriage and family as he created it.

Law 3: Your freedom stops where false doctrine begins. Is the Bible silent on how Christian ought to worship? It is true that the exact form that worship takes is left within the area of Christian Freedom. However, the Bible is never silent about what that form communicates. Today many in the Church are confessing that they are Lutherans, but they worship like Baptists or Pentecostals, and they sing songs that clearly undermine and counter our Christ-centered and sacramentally-based theology. Wilken quotes John Pless who demonstrates how the issue of historic liturgy is actually an issue of faith: "The liturgical crisis is a crisis of faith, for faith lives by the Word of the Lord. The contemporary uneasiness with the liturgy is really an anxiety over whether the Word of the Lord will really do what the Lord promises us that it will do." He is referring, in this case, to those who insist that the historic liturgy be jettisoned because it hinders the evangelistic efforts of the church to proclaim Christ.

Law 4: Your freedom stops where your Christian brother's conscience begins. The first note Wilken makes is that this concerns the "Christian brother" not the unbeliever. He mentions this because some have used this principle again to justify major changes in the church in order not to "offend" the unchurched, such as removing the cross from the sanctuary. This principle, however, is concerned with what Paul would refer to as the "weaker brother." The issue here, therefore, is will my actions undermine the Gospel? Wilken uses examples in this case of Paul's different decisions regarding the circumcision of Titus and Timothy (cf. Gal. 2 and Acts 16).

Law 5: Just because there is more than one right way to do it, doesn't mean that there is no wrong way to do it. Here we confront the the principle of "anything goes." The reasoning is: "I have my way; you have your way; there are no wrong ways; it's all good!" Wilken remarks that "This is the single greatest and most dangerous misconception about adiophora and Christian freedom." He says that it replaces Christian freedom with license. "In the name of Christian freedom, these churches have left free to give sinners less and less Jesus, and in some cases no Jesus at all." Unfortunately too many churches today have given into such license and permit atrocities that would have been condemned as heresy or heathen in an earlier, more faithful era. And with worship - Is there a "wrong way" to do it? I once sat in a church as youth members cart-wheeled down the isle and handled out balloons to children in the pews. I remained in that sanctuary only out of respect for my mother. Should I have been upset? Should such behavior seemed inappropriate for a sacred setting devoted to the worship of God? You be the judge....

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Blogging Anniversary

A minor milestone, to be sure, but Sunday the 25th represented the one year anniversary of this blog. This cyber-journey had direction from the beginning, but its destination has always been unknown. While many blogs exist primarily to chronicle individual opinions and random thoughts, the goal of this site aimed at offering information and fostering discussion on worthy topics that impact the world of faith and church. Not knowing where such a journey would lead or how far it would go, I have been pleasantly surprised by the readership this little corner of the blogosphere has attracted and engaged, modest as it may be by standards of established blogging. While the topics are ultimately my own choosing, their choice has often been influenced by comments and feedback. Those who read and offer insights and even challenge my views have given me an interesting and invigorating experience in the task of public writing. I learned early on that the words one sends forth into the unknown expanses of cyberspace must be carefully crafted and arranged. Unlike some in blogging I decided from the beginning that my name and identity would be clearly known and attached to my opinions. This decision, I believe, helps to make an author assume ownership and responsibility for what they say. Too often anonymous bloggers can assume a caustic persona allowing them to lob angry invectives at those with whom they disagree, but without facing the consequences of the pain they may cause in the process. As a pastor this has never been a choice for me, so it never occurred to me to start doing that now.

So, lest I forget, please let me offer my thanks to those who take the time to read these entries and for those who respond, either positively or negatively. Blogging at its best, I believe, is an interactive process, but one that ideally operates with respect. This is a unique and unparalleled experience for me, since contrary to my regular life, some of those who interact with this blog are anonymous both in name and identity.

In the October issue of Christianity Today, I was initially taken aback by a brief article entitled "The Death of Blogs." He talked of "widespread blog burnout," and I thought, great, I jumped on a dying trend! "Tech researcher Gartner Inc. reported earlier this year that 200 million people have given up blogging, more than twice as many as are active." According to the author Ted Olsen, "blogging as peaked." However, he then adds: "Which isn't to say that blogging is dead. Quite the opposite. Blog aggregator estimates that 3 million new blogs are launched every month." Guess the bandwagon is still rolling....

Olsen then notes that while some Christian blogs are very good, what "tired bloggers are increasingly that it's not necessarily the quality of their blog posts that matter. It's matching their quality with frequency." Admittedly, as a blogger, I have struggled at times with how frequent one should post. In the beginning I shot for one post a day. However, being a working pastor, active father and husband, fire chaplain, Boy Scout leader, etc., this was not always practical, and this blog was never my primary vocation or avocation. Still, as one person noted: "You can't expect readers to show up unless you show up." So for those who have continued to monitor this blog despite some occasional extended absences - thank you again!

The motivation for blogging, it would seem, is too often the desire for self-glorification or self-advertisement. I certainly am not immune to such temptation or free of the guilt. And frequently the effort is a short-lived shot at a brief moment in the sun with ever so small bragging rights to accompany it. Olsen opens up his article noting:

"As weblogs proliferated earlier this decade, Andy Warhol's famous aphorism was modified to read, 'In the future everyone will be famous to 15 people.' Now it looks like Warhol was right: Thanks to widespread blog burnout, everyone will be famous to 15 people for 15 minutes."

I hope that I will not look back at this blog adventure somewhere down the road with that realization. My love of writing keeps me coming back to the keyboard, and in some way I hope that my own personal reading and reflecting offer others helpful information to use in the lives of those who drop by this little corner of cyberspace. To that end I look to my "new year" ahead and again offer you my thanks - even those I may never know.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Recollections on a Recent Trip to Germany

While I have been critical of material on the DayStar site and of Dr. Matthew Becker's writing, in particular, I did enjoy a recent article regarding his recent October class trip to Germany. Dr. Becker, a professor of theology at Valparasio University, led a group of twenty students on a week-long study trip to sites in central and eastern Germany connected with Martin Luther.

The information he shares is very informative, especially concerning the contemporary condition of the German church. Although I was aware that Christianity in Europe has been declining for a long time and is at a very low point in the Reformer's homeland, I was still shocked by the statistics Becker presented:

According to a 2005 survey, the percentage of Christians in Thüringen is 34% (ca. 780,000 out of 2.3 million). In Sachsen the figure is 25% (1 million out of 4 million). The percentage is even lower in Sachsen-Anhalt, only 19% (ca. 456,000 out of 2.4 million). In cities such as Leipzig (place of Luther's 1519 debate with Eck and the home of J. S. Bach for 27 years), the figure may be as low as 5% (ca. 2500 in a city of half a million). According to its website (, the Evangelisch-Lutherische Landeskirche Sachsen has 835,000 members in 882 congregations. The Lutheran Landeskirche of Thüringen has slightly fewer: 563,000 members."

Aside from this, Becker's article is a very informative tour de force of the significant sites of the Reformation era. It would be a good piece to review if one were able to visit this area in the near future, especially around the Reformation events he describes. Along with many sites and churches, Becker describes the newly renovated Lutherhaus and museum which the students visited and is now a state-of-the-art facility that would be well worth seeing:

the newly renovated "Lutherhaus," the former Augustinian monastery that became Luther's home and is now a very interesting museum. What used to be a rather simple exhibit (I last visited in 1996), with displays mostly in German, now is state-of-the-art and includes interpretive materials in both German and English. The VU students and I spent more than two hours there, and we still did not see everything. Presenting artifacts and detailed information about Luther, Katharina, their family and extended household, the museum also gives the visitor an interesting glimpse into late-medieval life and the early history of the Reformation. Highlights include the tiny pulpit in which Luther kneeled or sat to preach his more than 2,000 sermons in the Town Church, his habit, the cellars (these now contain very informative displays on Luther's domestic life, e.g., how Katarina made beer and wine and how meals were prepared—a large number of cookware and utensils have been unearthed since 2004), the Großer Hörsaal in which Luther lectured, portraits and "The Ten Commandments Panel" by Cranach Sr. and Jr. (and members of his artists school), a room full of first editions of Luther's writings, the completed German Bible (probably the most valuable and historically important object in the museum) and of course the dark, wood-paneled Lutherstube (with oven, table and decorated ceiling). In the summer of 2004 masonry bricks were discovered in what has come to be called "the Luthergarten." This news turned into a sensation when it became clear that these were not merely the remains of a foundation but a lofty basement storey standing in a trench. Other evidence has led scholars to conclude that these are the remains of Luther's study, used by him from 1522 onwards and located near the monastery's latrine. (Luther frequently mentioned the fact that his study was near to a "cloaca," a latrine—which functioned only until 1540.) This archeological discovery puts to an end the false notion that Luther's Reformation Discovery occurred while he was actually "in the latrine," ala psycho-biographical speculations about Luther's constipation and other intestinal problems. Luther's discovery occurred in his study "near a latrine."

I have to confess that part of me was envious as I read the article, having long wished to visit these same sites. The My dream is still alive, however. One day I will get to see this for myself!

The entire article, "Reformationsfest 2007 in the Lutherländer,"
can be found at the DayStar website.

Monday, November 26, 2007

How Clergy Dress

A recent comment on an old post regarding dressing for church (July) brought up the topic of clergy dress. As all can see from my picture on this blog I prefer the so-called "Roman collar" or "tab shirt." I also occasionally wear the "Anglican" or "neckband" style of shirt popular among some Lutherans and Episcopalians. Within my tradition a great variety exists. The appearance of a Lutheran clergyman can range from very casual to a suit and tie to a clerical collar. No doubt much is communicated by the way a pastor dresses, even though there are those who would like to believe that dress is neutral. As pastor dresses for the most part, I suspect, to reflect the way he views his office (vocation) and the way he wishes to project himself to his people.

While I do not wish to judge the dress of other pastors, I would like to offer a rationale for those of us who wear distinctive clerical clothing. To some eyes the "Roman collar" makes the Lutheran pastor appear stiff and aloof, and suspect of Roman tendencies (e.g. highly liturgical). And for this reason many would avoid this dress altogether. Personally I realize that people often form opinions of dress without taking the time to understand the person, and little can be done in most cases to alleviate this bias.

In a culture that uses uniforms for quick and easy identification, the clerical collar shirt offers the pastor a way to help people determine his purpose even before they talk to him. This is especially evident in hospitals where a suit and tie can be confusing to those who identify doctors with this. In my work with the fire department I have come to realize that uniforms are a necessary and important part of what we do, especially when one does not always have the luxury of explaining to people the details of what is happening. So, for starters, the clerical shirt is a means of communication and identification.

Secondly, the clerical attire also helps to illustrate the purpose and role of the pastor within the worshiping community. He is, as we Lutherans say in the familiar absolution, "a called and ordained minister of the Word" standing "in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ." In a small way the shirt demonstrates an awareness of his calling. While he is a sinner just like those he serves, he is also the one who brings the reality of Christ's presence to them in Word and Sacrament.

Thirdly, the clerical collar is not bound to the passing and changing styles of men's dress, and it does not convey to people the wealth of the wearer. A man wearing such a shirt looks the same today as he will 20 years from now, and it is difficult to know if he is an impoverished cleric or one well paid. A clerical shirt is a clerical shirt, and even the cheap ones have the same features as the more expensive ones.

Finally, the uniform helps me as a pastor be personally conscious of my calling. This week I was out hunting with some members and naturally I was decked out in "hunter orange" (It helps to keep me from being shot at.) Today, on my day off I am wearing a well-worn flannel shirt and blue jeans (in case you thought I did everything in that black shirt with the little tab!). But when I am working, especially when I am visiting shut-ins and the hospitalized or counseling the troubled or attending important meetings in the church, the shirt helps to remind me of my role. I am not the administrator of the parish, although I assist in keeping things running smoothly. I am not just a counselor, although I counsel the troubled. I am the pastor, a word that means "shepherd," and my calling first and foremost is to bring Christ to the people through the Word and Sacrament ministry of the church. That's who I am. The shirt, in a small way, helps me to honor and respect the privilege that this office represents, and keeps me focused on my true calling.

One last note: I believe that many people are sufficiently accustomed to seeing this attire so they do not automatically assume that the wearer is from one particular denomination. For not only do Lutherans and Roman Catholics use this style of dress, but Episcopalian and Orthodox priests, as well as some from other Protestant denominations.

Well, that's probably more than any wanted to know on the subject :) But for what it's worth....

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Defining the Word "Christain"

After reading the comments on the last article, one might be tempted to ask: Is there a clear, universally accepted definition of the word "Christian," or is it somewhat vague to fit most people who profess some belief in Jesus? My understanding was that the term Christian was reserved for those churches that confessed the truth of God according to the historic and universal creeds. Thus, Christian meant one who believed in God as triune, three persons, one Godhead. It also meant one who believed in Jesus as fully God and fully man (the Two Natures of Christ.) Using this definition any number of different churches are included, even if they do not formally subscribe to the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles', Nicene, Athanasian.) However, historically within the mainline Christian denominations, certain religious organizations have not been included, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Christian Scientists , some of the most popular of the American-born groups, even though they have similar vocabulary and may claim fidelity to the Bible.

However, in common usage, the term “Christian” is defined very broadly, and in many cases would include organizations that otherwise would deny basic beliefs of the historic faith such as those referenced above. Consulting a dictionary is little help. Dictionaries reflect common usage, not historic usage (aside from etymological background, which also is of little help in this case.) The answer to the question at the beginning therefore is no, there is no clear, universally accepted definition of Christian, and yes, the usual use of the term is quite vague and is used to include people who have some belief in Jesus. The dilemma is similar to our national use of the word “God.” We say “In God We Trust.” We make a pledge claiming to support “one nation under God.” But which God? Don’t all religions ultimately believe in the same God? Some believe this. But it makes no sense. How can you have mutually exclusive definitions of a divine being and say that it refers to the same being? Or for that matter, how can you reconcile those who believe in multiple gods with one that is monotheistic? So it is with the word Christian. We have mutually exclusive groups all claiming the same term, and with that comes a predictable watering down of the definition.

Thus, when I refer to myself as a Christian and a member of a Christian Church I have no idea how people ultimately understand me. To many it is simply a way of saying that I don't belong to any of the other major world religions such as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. But considering the broad definition of Christian, such a differentiation means little in terms of my theological understanding of God, the Bible 0r the truths contained within that sacred text.

Members of the LDS church may wish to refer to themselves as Christian, and based on general usage they will have many who will not object (especially those who do not understand the significant theological differences between Mormons and mainline Christian churches.) Yet since they are, by their own definition, a renewal movement that understands current mainline expressions of Christianity in error and themselves as the true Christian Church on earth, we have to at least admit that some defining of terms is needed if we are to communicate effectively. For now I am going to use the term as it was once understood, basing my identity as Christian from the historic universal creeds that long defined the boundaries of what was orthodox (another potentially confusing term!) regarding who God is and how He has chosen to redeem the world. If a potential convert could not confess his faith in the words of the Apostles' Creed, he could not be baptized and received into the Christian Church. This has been the practice in the church for at least 1,900 years. If others wish to introduce more novel interpretations, so be it. But history must judge.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Mormons are Now Christians?

Mitt Romney's run for the presidency has placed the Mormon church back into the public eye. But it has also stirred up old questions and concerns. Sensitive to an image that appears less than Christian, they have decided to step up their marketing strategy of painting the church in bold Christian colors. In the November 12 issue of U.S. News and World Report, Elder M. Russel Ballard was interviewed by Jay Tolson as to "The Mormon Way." Here is some of the interchange:

Tolson: What is the biggest misconception that people have about your church?
Ballard: One is that some people say we Mormons are not Christians. We can't comprehend that, when Jesus Christ is the center of everything we teach and believe...The other thing is that some people say the Mormons are a cult. We don't understands that. We're a very strong Christian organization that's doing great things and trying to relieve human suffering, to increase knowledge of the gospel truths.....

[Comment: Mormons are not Christian for the simple reason that they do not confess or believe that Jesus is true man and God, and that they do not confess or believe in God as triune. If they were trying to increase knowledge of the Gospel truths, they would teach the Gospel in truth, not according to the false gospel of Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, Book of Mormon, or any other books that contradicts the scriptures.]

Tolson: And what about your sacred Scriptures?
Ballard: We also get that one: "Well, Mormons don't believe in the Bible. You have your own Bible." Which is ridiculous. We think that the Bible is a miracle. We accept the Bible, and we also accept the Book of Mormon. We use them hand in hand as Scripture and guidance and doctrine. Interestingly, the Book of Mormon has more references to Christ and his teaching and his words than are in the Bible.

[Comment: Don't forget that the Mormons accept the Bible in so far as it agrees with the Book of Mormon and their other books. Plus, they interpret the Bible in light of the Book of Mormon, not the Book of Mormon in light of the Bible. As far as the references to Christ, I wonder if Mr. Ballard understands the many typological references to Christ throughout the Old Testament? Any way, mentioning the name of Christ means little if you confess Him falsely.]

Tolson: And the doctrine of the Trinity?
Ballard: Let's put it in simply terms: God the Father, Jesus Christ, Holy Ghost - separate individuals. God is the father of all our spirits. Jesus Christ, son of God, savior of the world, is separate and distinct. When you go door to door, as we did as young men, and talk to the average person - the theologians might have a different view - but people think fo them as distinct.

[Comment: Now we determine truth by what "people think"? Any Christian who cannot identify this confession as false and misleading regarding the nature of the Trinity needs additional instruction. Note that Jesus is never confessed as God in human flesh. Note the emphasis on the word "separate and distinct," as opposed to no reference to the unity of the Godhead. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is ONE." Nothing. And that is simply because they do not believe in the unity of the Godhead, but rather in a plurality of gods. Additional investigation into what they really teach would quickly reveal a very pagan concept of deity, where Mormons become 'gods' themselves and populate other planets. Mr. Ballard may think that this description of the Trinity will be accepted by most people as orthodox and biblical, but true informed Christians know better. It took no time at all for my Bible class a few weeks ago to see the huge holes in this.]

On one hand I am surprised by their very forward attempt to address topics which they have historically been at great odds regarding the Christian church. But they obviously believe that the average person out there will buy their rhetoric. Well, the Church needs to make sure it is informing their people of the differences, because apparently the LDS people are busy blurring the lines.....

Monday, November 5, 2007

Pittsburgh Episcopalians Take First Step in Leaving their Denomination

On Friday representatives from the Episcopal diocese of Pittsburgh voted to approve amendments to their constitution which grant initial approval for separation from the mother church. The Pittsburgh diocese joined other dioceses in San Joaquin, California and Quincy, Illinois in making these preliminary moves toward independence. For some time now Episcopalians have been struggling internally over differing views on issues of homosexuality, scriptural authority, scriptural interpretations, and other doctrines such as the divinity of Christ.

"As a diocese, we have come to a fork in the road," noted Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan just prior to lay delegates approving the amendments 118 to 58 and clergy by a margin of 109 to 24. "Indeed, it has become clear that our understandings are not only different, but mutually exclusive, even destructive to one another," he said.

Joe Mandak in his Associate Press article from Saturday, observed that the division within the church has sharpened since the Episcopalians consecrated New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson in 2003. Robinson is "openly gay," he noted.

The Pittsburgh diocese is looking to possibly join with another province of the Anglican Communion, a "loose-knit worldwide coalition of churches that align themselves with the Church of England."

The amendments passed on Friday, however, are not final. They must be approved again at the next diocesan convention in November 2008.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

Depending on who you listen to, times are tough right now for the economy. Housing sales are down, gas prices are up, stock prices are up and down daily, and the common consumer struggles just make it another day. To read the news one might think that we were a poor, third world country with no jobs. Is it as bad as it all seems?

Obviously I'm not an economist, nor do I understand the wide world of finances. Yet I do understand how God provides, regardless of what the commentators say. I also understand that man does not live on mere bread alone.

In the Lord's Prayer Jesus instructs us to pray only once for our physical needs of food, shelter and clothing. And when we pray, we pray only for what is needed for that day. Admittedly it is a very different approach than we see in the unbelieving world that is forecasting well into the future, and worrying about events that have not even occurred. Jesus once said that worrying this way fails to add even a short span to our life. Medical science tells us that it actually subtracts from it. Still, we worry. And what does it get us? Nothing but ulcers, coronary problems, and headaches.

Of course it is impossible to just shut off our anxiety and trust. This is the work of the Spirit. Thus, when we pray for our daily bread we are also praying for the faith to trust our Lord to provide, and to accept his wisdom. As Paul realized, God's grace is all the we need, and that even in our weakness God's strength is made manifest. Thus, deprivation can serve the purposes of God. The less we have, the more we must depend and trust. Living in a country flush with wealth is a difficult place to practice faith. How sad to see such a wealthy nation worry about a few cents more at the pump and a few dollars less in the 401k. Do we have food? Do we have shelter? Are we clothed? Many in the world must do without even these most basic needs.

In my first parish I lived in one of the poorest counties of Michigan, and the poor there often wore designer clothing and had money for the state-run lottery. This is poverty?

God grant us faith to live in dependence on His boundless grace and to trust in His never failing provision, mindful that He alone knows our needs of both body and soul.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Willow Creek Made a Mistake?

Questioning the techniques and philosophy of "Church Growth" is tantamount to be "politically incorrect" in today's church. Especially if one were to call into question the success of the Church Growth flag ship, Willow Creek Community Church. At least until now.

In a rather revealing article by Bob Burney entitled "A Shocking 'Confession' from Willow Creek Community Church," we discover that the gurus of the modern church may have taken a wrong road after all. After decades of telling us to throw out everything we ever knew about how to run a church, they are now telling us to possibly throw out their own original advice.

Burney writes:
"Willow Creek has released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry. The study’s findings are in a new book titled Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels himself called the findings 'earth shaking,' 'ground breaking' and 'mind blowing.'

The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples. It gets worse. Hybels laments:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for."

Wow. Can it really be that they missed the mark by that much?

Of course the CG methodology still has crowd appeal. But that's it. Burney then notes:

"If you simply want a crowd, the 'seeker sensitive' model produces results. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it’s a bust. In a shocking confession, Hybels states: We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own."

Catechesis. Yes, I think that's what he's trying to say. Catechesis. But when you jettison the whole of Christian history, tradition and practice, these little details often become lost. Too bad they had to waste all those millions only to find this out so late.....

So what will this mean for denominations like the LCMS? Will all those churches who staked their future on Hybel now reexamine how they have been running their churches? Will the CG methodology be called into questions and the church return to its more honored roots?

I could hope that might happen, but I doubt it. The LCMS is often years behind the trend curve, and not very willing to admit they hooked their wagon to the wrong horse. However, for those of us who decided to simply be faithful even if we weren't busing at the seams, it is nice to hear a church and pastor with so much influence admit their mistakes. I commend their honesty.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Golden Compass

In a previous post I indicated that atheism is "in." So as the Evangelicals discovered the power of popular paperbacks and the appeal of the 'big screen' to further their views, we should not be surprised if agnostics and atheists utilize the same resources. In December of this year a new movie is scheduled to hit the theaters which is based on the first volume in a children's book trilogy by British author Philip Pullman, who has won prizes in the UK for his children's literature. By his own admission, Pullman is a non-believer and an atheist, although he seems to leave the door open for a slim possibillity. He states:

"I don't know whether there's a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they say. I think it's perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don't know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away.
Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it's because he's ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they're responsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I'd want nothing to do with them." The article from which this interview came can be found here.

A write up can be found on which summarizes the concerns Christians have been voicing about the movie, the author, and the seeming intent to sell the more explicit books to unsuspecting parents and children at Christmastime. Nicole Kidman will be a featured star in the movie, so there is no doubt that it will have sufficient draw.

While many Christians appear to be quite alarmed by the movie and books, Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, actually supports and endorses the movie. He believes that it is not anti-Christian, as such, but rather anti-dogmatic or anti-control, issues that need to be addressed in the church. You can read the transcript of an interview the archbishop had with Pullman on the The archbishop engages in a very friendly discussion with Pullman, and although Pullman is a humanist and atheist, the two actually have much common ground. As is the case with many Christian leaders today, the archbishop obviously espouses very liberal views of scripture and creation, with which Pullman easily resonated. I suspect the dialog would have been much different if the clergyman was more evangelical.

Are his books decidedly anti-God and anti-Christian? Pullman does not feel so. However, he sees "fundamentalism" as the great danger of our time. Of course he points to fundamentalism in all faiths, but it is Christianity that appears to be featured most. As Pullman himself says:

"It's a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy. I'm telling a story, I'm showing various characters whom I've invented saying things and doing things and acting out beliefs which they have, and not necessarily which I have. The tendency of the whole thing might be this or it might be that, but what I'm doing is telling a story, not preaching a sermon.
But when you look at organised religion of whatever sort – whether it's Christianity in all its variants, or whether it's Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism – wherever you see organised religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It's almost a universal law.

It's not just Christianity I'm getting at. The reason that the forms of religion in the books seem to be Christian is because that's the world I'm familiar with. That's the world I grew up in and I knew. If I had been brought up as an orthodox Jew, I would no doubt find things to criticise in that religion. But I don't know that world as well as I know Christianity."

I suspect that Pullman would see the church and faith I espouse as "fundamentalistic" and thus dangerous.

Yet, does Pullman have an agenda? Is he out to completely counter everything the church teaches and to indoctrinate children with an anti-religious or anti-God view? It's hard to tell, despite the concerns raised. Supposedly he made comments that his characters "kill God" in his books. I couldn't find the quote, but maybe someone out there has a source.

Personally my concerns are still greater for movies and books like The Da Vinci Code which very clearly cause people to call into question facts they have known and believed their whole lives. I saw this first hand in some with whom I counseled and talked. Will "The Golden Compass" or the Pullman books cause great damage to children's faith? I'm certainly not with the archbishop in being ready to recommend them. I'd like to read the books first and see the movie for myself. However, fantasy is a genre that does not always translate into completely concrete ideas. Did children form firmer ideas of God and faith from The Chronicles of Narnia? I suspect that more people have formed faith convictions from Star Wars alone than from any fantasy movie ever produced.

Without the movie there to review, it's hard to say much more. Have any of you out there read Pullman's books, especially his children's books? I'd be curious to know your insights.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Corum Deo Symposium

Last night I attended a brief symposium in a neighboring town sponsored by a new Lutheran devotional society called Coram Deo (L: "face to face with God"). Their featured speaker was a classmate of mine, the Rev. Peter Bender, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church and Academy in Sussex, WI, and founder of the Concordia Catechetical Academy. Pastor Bender spoke on the theme of home and personal devotions. The evening's session was preceded by a candle light vespers service, a wonderful closure to the day's Reformation celebration. Personally I benefited greatly from Pastor Bender's insightful Bible study on the Syrophonecian women with the demon-possessed daughter (as a lesson on faith and prayer), as well as a review of Lutheran resources for personal prayer.

Bender reviewed the devotional resources he uses in his parish and school, and they are impressive. They also sound a bit overwhelming. Many of our churches are light years away from the discipline he has established, and sometimes can barely even maintain a Lutheran piety at all. However, the work he does in promoting a revival of genuine Lutheran catechesis is commendable. We can hope that such a renewal in the devotional life of the Lutheran church continues to increase.

BTW, Bender will be presenting the second volume of Dr. David Scaer's writings at the annual Symposia in Ft. Wayne this January. The first volume contained sermons, while this second one features more of his popular writings and and articles.

Can Lutherans "Cross" Themselves?

Ironically, I learned to "cross" myself as a Lutheran from a converted Jew. Prior to my time at seminary this practice was foreign to me, as it is undoubtedly still to many Lutherans. Now I "cross" myself regularly, and my people see it weekly as I begin my sermon invoking the name of the Trinity.

However, to "cross" oneself is to many Lutherans a decidedly "Catholic" custom. And it is true that at weddings and funerals one can usually identify the visiting Catholics by observing the ones crossing themselves - and those who stop praying the Lord's Prayer before the final doxology :)

But "crossing" oneself is a practice that was encouraged by Luther in his Small Catechism as part of the regular devotional life of the Christian. For Lutherans familiar with the Rite of Baptism, this action should have a ring of familiarity, as the first thing a pastor does is to trace the sign of the holy cross upon the head and heart of the child even before he is baptized. Thus, to "cross" ourselves as Lutherans is to immediately recall our baptisms and the reality of our status as redeemed and regenerated children of God in Christ.

It is also the confession of the Creed by the actions of our body. We confess with our lips and our hands the truth of God as three-in-one, a truth that is central to our Faith as Christians, and distinguishes us from the many popular non-Christian cults in our country, such as the familiar Jehovah's Witnesses with their Arian beliefs. Crossing ourselves is one of many physical disciplines that brings our whole being into an act of worship, such as bowing, kneeling, and other gestures of faith.

Of course, any action can become a victim of meaningless rote, and crossing oneself is not exempt. Still, if the faith on our lips and in our heart is centered in Christ alone, crossing ourselves is always appropriate and helpful. For what better reminder of our salvation and life than to have the cross itself traced upon our heart each day?

The Lutheran "Yes"

In the October issue of the devotional newsletter for Corum Deo (see previous post), editor Steven Gjerde includes a nice article on the positive nature of the Reformation. Here is a snippet from that article:

"If someone asked you why Martin Luther raised his voice in protest, sparking a church-wide reformation, what would you answer? Would you say, 'He was saying 'no' to indulgences, in which people paid money for salvation? Or, 'he did not think that we had to do certain things to be saved'? Or, 'He thought we should pray to God, and not to Mary or the saints?' All of those answer are common, and they certainly touch on issues relating to the Lutheran Reformation. Yet if you look back at them, you'll notice a decidedly negative character in all of the statements, leading some people to wonder: Is a protest against things all that Lutheranism has to offer? Is it just a big 'no'?

This issue of Corum Deo rings with the conviction that the Lutheran Church was born from a 'yes': yes to Christ, yes to grace, and yes to a lively and renewed devotion in the Church. Indeed, one way to understand the Reformation is to see it as a reform of devotion in the Church's homes and congregations. Luther's radical focus on Christ Jesus, grace, and faith was inspired by his pastoral desire to enliven the spirit of the Church and direct its mind to the source of true and lasting joy."

Pastor Gjerde makes an important point as we remember the Reformation in the Lutheran Church this month. So often it is used only as an opportunity to point out past abuses and current differences, both of which have their place. However, the Lutheran Church does not exist simply as an institutionalized protest. It exists to provide a Word and Sacrament presence for the life and wellbeing of God's people as they gather together in Christ. Luther himself devoted much energy and time to giving the church resources for a rich devotional life that would keep the grace of the Gospel central in its life.

So, is the Reformation just one big NO? Not at all. It is a YES to Christ!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Luther's Legacy

This morning thousands of Lutheran churches will celebrate the Reformation. To some it may seem a very sectarian occasion in a more ecumenically enlightened world. Wasn't the Reformation responsible for splintering Christendom into countless scattered pieces and disrupting the unity of the church? Didn't the Reformation break with the history of the past and abandon the rich traditions carefully collected over millenia?

Certainly there were excesses and abuses in the period of the Reformation. This, like all periods of history, was not a perfect time. However, as a Lutheran, I look back positively to this era and note that much good came of Martin Luther's efforts. Yet first of all we need to note that the church was already divided at his time, technically speaking. It had been so since 1054 when Rome and Constantinople parted ways. And as to a break with the past - Yes, some of the more radical reformers did abandon all that came before and began with a blank slate, failing to see the value in many of the church's traditions. Luther, though, did not. When he returned to Wittenberg after his brief hiatus in the Wartburg castle, he was very critical of men such as Carstadt for stirring up the people and causing untold damage. Luther was not a revolutionary. He was a son of the Church calling for a return to what he understood was the true and pure faith of the Fathers before him.

Yet, aside from these issues, what might we recognize as the Reformer's lasting legacy these past five centuries?

Although far from an expert on Luther and the Reformation, let me offer a few pastoral observations of my own:
-A return to biblical study using the original languages.
-A Bible in the vernacular of the people.
-A liturgy in the vernacular of the people.
-An openness to marriage for those in the priesthood (ministry).
-A renewed understanding of the Two Kingdoms and their proper roles.
-An appreciation for the Biblical teachings of Law and Gospel and their proper division and application in all theology.
-A restoration of the importance of preaching along with the Sacrament as key aspects of worship.
-A revival of singing among the laity of the church and a beginning of new hymnody.
-A renewed emphasis on catechesis with his two catechisms.
-A restoration of the use of both elements in the Supper as a regular practice.

Of course, being Lutheran, one must mention what is considered fundamental to the Reformation itself, as well as the whole of scripture: the central doctrine of justification by grace through faith for the sake of Christ. In the end we believe that what Luther desired most of all was to return to the Church to Christ. That is the Reformation in a nutshell. To the degree that we continue to place Christ at the center of worship and teaching and practice, Luther's greatest legacy lives on. For the greatest and most basic of the 'solas' will always be Christ alone! Soli Deo Gloria - To Him Alone be All Glory!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Are Ghosts Real?

With the approach of the familiar holiday of Halloween, the subject of "ghosts and goblins" again fill the air. Of course a lot of it is in jest, but a few take the subject quite seriously. In my local paper this morning a group known as the a "ghost hunt team" was featured. They are a small version of what many have seen on such cable shows as the "Ghost Hunters." Armed with techno gadgets for measuring sights and sounds beyond the awareness of normal human senses, they head out to old cemeteries and abandoned buildings in search of restless spirits.

The theory behind such efforts is that once dead the spirit of the deceased lingers around in this world, unable or unwilling to leave. These spirits, they claim, are either friendly and benign, or mischievous and even spiteful - much like they probably were during their living years.

As a Christian, however, such theories not only irritate me, the naivete also concerns me. There are disembodied spirits in our world, both good and bad, but this is where the similarities in our views part ways. For the spirits known by the Christian from the Bible are either angels or demons. Considering that the role of angels is to assist the work of the Kingdom and to ultimately point to Christ, it is unlikely that they would assume form to distract the believer, although many believe in "angel sightings" with as much vigor as they do for ghosts.

Demons, on the other hand, we know to be not only malevolent, but also deceptive. They appear as "angels of light," Paul informs us, if that will further their work. Peter describes the devil as a "roaring lion" set on destruction. Paul again warns the believer to be protected with the entire "armor of God" when engaging these powers and principalities.

So called "ghost hunters" are unfortunately misguided and misinformed. And unknowingly they are playing with a very dangerous entity for which they are woefully unprepared. Normally such spirits should be left untouched. They are only engaged when the need arises, and then only with the power and protection of God's living Word.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Tolerance Memo

As Stan Guthrie points out, atheism is in, and as we have seen with some recent volumes from their ranks, they are clearly in a bad mood. In his article "Answering the Atheists" from the November issue of Christianity Today, Mr. Guthrie quotes from Christopher Hitchens's book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything showing their new edgy approach: "Many of the teachings of Christianity are, as well as being incredible and mythical, immoral." Richard Dawkins, Guthrie notes, "suggests that believers 'just shut up.'" To which he the adds: "Apparently, they didn't get the tolerance memo."

Guthrie makes a profound point in those last few words tinged with tongue-in-cheek humor. Atheists make much of the supposed intolerance of the church that chooses to believe in absolute truth as apposed to the relativism of popular culture. The mere fact that we might insist (at the direction of God's own word) that only those who believe in Christ will gain eternal life, labels us hopelessly rigid and even hateful. Yet when these vitriolic unbelievers take their shots, their unwillingness of allow equal showing in the marketplace of ideas is incredibly transparent. Yes, Guthrie may have a point: Apparently they didn't get that tolerance memo....

A New Title for Ministers

In a recent ad placed by College Avenue Baptist Church of San Diego, this 2,000-plus member mega church is looking for a PASTOR OF WORSHIP AND CREATIVE EXPRESSION. They state that they "desire varied and creative worship expressions that are passionate, engaging, full of Scripture, prayer, and an awareness of God's presence." Have they considered the liturgy and the Lord's Supper? Nah. That's just not sufficiently creative, passionate or engaging.....

Sheep or Constituents?

Many who endorse the Church Growth Movement see it merely as a theologically neutral tool for ministry. In a desire simply to increase the number of people hearing the Good News, what can be wrong with borrowing from the very practical realm of sociology, psychology, and business? We need to be practical and pragmatic in understanding trends and technology if the church hopes to remain effective in a modern world, so the gurus of success tell us.

Aside from the incompatibility of the concepts of "effective" or even "successful" as applied to the ministry and mission of a church under the cross, other matters in this philosophy are equally troubling. In an article entitled "Who Asks the Trough Questions?" from the October 2007 issue of Religious Product, Lyle Schaller reveals the fundamental issue at stake with three simple words. As he discusses five current trends in American Protestantism, he makes this statement: "High on that list is a consequence of that higher level of competition among Christian congregations to identify, reach, attract, welcome, serve, assimilate, and nurture potential future constituents."

What an amazing contrast this is with Jesus who told a parable of the shepherd who left the 99 to look for the one lost sheep. Our Lord often compared Himself with a shepherd who guarded and protected his flock of sheep, intimately aware of each animal's name, ready to sacrifice his own life for theirs. He was not the "hired hand" who abandoned the sheep at the first sign of danger, or who entered the sheepfold illegally to take advantage of the sheep.

But here we have the sheep for whom the Shepherd laid down his life described in sterile business lingo: potential future constituents. Customers, if you prefer. We exist to provide a more appealing product than the next guy down the street. After all, this is a matter of competition, where we must find our 'market niche.'

Sorry, but the folks who will gather on Sunday at my church, member or not, will remain sheep in need of a shepherd, not constituents in search of a more successful CEO.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gone But Still Taking a Final Shot

Dr. Mary Todd, author of the controversial book Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, wrapped up DayStar's journal on women's ordination with a brief article. Although departed from the LCMS scene and now teaching in a school outside of the synodical system, she still seems determined to take a few parting shots at her former home. Her final words take a last stab at the church she deems hopelessly lost in denial and forced silence: "And in declaring once again it knows the will of God, the church will continue to deny itself the gifts of women who, created in the image of God, seek only to carry the good news as women did that first Easter morning. Thank God those women broke the rule."

Aside from the familiar rhetoric of denying the gifts of women, etc., Dr. Todd reveals one point I have long suspected is at the core of the argument for women's ordination. Reflecting on this past summer's convention she states:

"More troubling, then, is the late resolution from this summer’s convention that overwhelmingly affirmed the inerrancy of scripture. It is this principle that underlies the synod’s resistance to break its silence on the question of ordaining women, for to hold discussion would be an invitation to open the scriptures and take seriously all passages, not only a few. The same principle requires the silence, for the church needs to mean what it says. How better to do so than to limit the service of women as it understands scripture directs?"

Although Dr. Todd fails to appreciate the high view of scripture that the Lutheran church has long held, she does sense the center of the controversy. The point does boil down to how one handles scripture. In Dr. Todd's approach, it appears, we should be always willing to call into question the beliefs of the past, even the historicity and viability of the scriptures, not to mention the well established practice of the church catholic over nearly 2,000 years of its history. A reading of other articles on the DayStar site will reveal a similar line of thinking of those still within the LCMS fold.

Her attack on the Synod's approach to scripture, however, takes a turn by accusing the church body of selective treatment of the contents of the Bible. How have we not taken "seriously" all passages that speak to the role of women in the church? Or does this mean that if we conclude that the roles of men and women are different in the church we have failed to take it all seriously? It all depends on if you agree with the conclusions.

This argument cannot be resolved within the LCMS to the satisfaction of all involved. That much I grant to Dr. Todd. The battle will continue until one side tires and leaves, or we literally split the denomination. Either way hard feelings and bitterness will remain. Such is the church militant.

[Note: Dr. Todd was previously a professor and assistant vice president of academic affairs at Concordia University in River Forest. She is now VP for Academic Affairs at Ohio Domincan University, which is described as a "private Catholic liberal arts university." "It is a place where diversity is embraced and individualism is celebrated," according to the history of the university. The Dominican Order of Preachers were the founders of this university, and still play a role in its ongoing operation. I wonder: in a church body that has been as staunch and solid in prohibiting women in the office of pastoral ministry, does this "Catholic" university embrace her views on this subject, or is she flying under the radar on this one?]

GOP Hopefuls Try to Win Over Religious Right

Several of the GOP contenders addressed the Values Voters Summit in D.C. this past Saturday, hoping to win over a large and powerful voting block. Former N.Y. major Rudy Guiliani, a professed Catholic, had the biggest liability as an avowed abortion rights supporter. Mit Romney is conservative and prolife, but his liability for Evangelicals is his Mormon faith. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher and Arkansas governor seemed to muster the greatest positive reaction, as he repeatedly appealed to the crowd with biblical images and passages and a passionate support of conservative values. John McCain, who has conflicted with the right over immigration among other issues, tried to tout his honesty and consistent pro-life voting record.

Still, unlike previous elections, the Religious Right has yet to galvanize around a single candidate, and there are rumors of support for a Third Party candidate, if one should arise. Yet, despite the liberal tendencies of the U.S. and Democratic control of both houses, people of faith remain a viable voting force, and of great interest to conservative Christian voters.

As a Lutheran I shy away from promoting individual candidate or parties. More so, as a pastor, I often remain mute on this area during election time, respecting the rights of my people to make informed choices according to conscience. Still, my role as citizen permits me to participate in the process and use my vote as a means to influencing the direction of my government. I am, if you could guess, socially conservative as well as theologically conservative. I believe strongly in the rights of the unborn (as does the LCMS and the Roman Catholic Church, to name a few denominations with views on this), and believe that Roe vs. Wade was and remains a great tragedy.

I believe that God ordained government as an instrument of his will (Romans 13), and that our support of it is consistent with our faith. Government, however, is not the same as the Church, and we must understand that it is not a "sanctified institution," bearing still the marks of a fallen world, and prone to good as well as evil.

As a citizen I therefore believe that we participate and vote as people of faith, and it is consistent with that faith to do so with the standards God has set forth in his Word as our guide. Should one support a candidate that also supports these biblical values? Of course. Still, could a president who was not a Christian also be a good leader? That depends. I certainly would prefer an honest unbeliever to a deceptive or incompetent believer. Luther recognized that the ruler leads by God's gift of reason, and not strictly according to the Bible. This is the Kingdom of the Left, and its purpose, as Paul informs us, is to protect the nation and enforce the laws that provide for a stable and safe land. If a candidate is supportive therefore of the rights of all life (including the unborn), and prepared to efficiently and effectively use the resources we have for the defense of the nation, they should be given a fair consideration. If that person is a Christian, great. But even godless Caesar was recognized by Paul as a legitimate ruler for whom we should pray, and who had within his power to provide a place where the Church would exist in peace.

Well, enough said. Do I know who I am going to vote for yet? No. I'm still listening.....

Friday, October 19, 2007

Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) H.R. 2015

Below please read the note I received from Wisconsin Family Action regarding the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is scheduled for consideration in the House very soon:

As Wisconsin Family Action reported earlier this month the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) H.R. 2015 will likely be receiving a vote in the House of Representatives very soon--as early as next week, according to our national sources.

ENDA, if passed into law, will prevent employers in Christian schools, Christian businesses, the Boy Scouts, and other organizations from discriminating against an individual who behaves homosexually. Although the bill contains "religious exemption" clauses, these clauses only exclude churches and religious positions in schools; the exemptions do not exclude other positions that can have equal or greater influence within the organizations or business.

The author of the bill, Rep. Barney Frank (CD 4-Mass.), is one of two openly homosexual members of the House. The other openly homosexual member, Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (CD 2), is a cosponsor of the bill. Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin (CD 4) is also a cosponsor of this bill.

Not only can the intention of the bill be seen by who supports it, but sponsors also clearly state the goal of the legislation. Rep. Frank has the following statement on his website:

"Before I came to Congress in 1981, former Members, the gentlewoman from New York (Ms. Abzug), gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Tsongas) and others, in the House filed legislation to make it illegal to discriminate against people in employment based on their sexual orientation; that is, they would have made it illegal in the same way that the 1964 Civil Rights Act made it illegal based on race, but in a different statute for a variety of reasons, for people to be fired, for people to refuse to hire people, for people to be denied promotions or in other ways discriminated against in the job based on their being gay or lesbian or bisexual. That was, and has been, the number one legislative goal of gay and lesbian, bisexual people for more than 30 years." (Emphasis added)

Our national sister organization, Family Research Council, provides the following additional points that may help clarify the bill and its likely effects:

ENDA affords special protection to a group that is not disadvantaged. The issue is not job discrimination: It is whether private businesses will be forced by law to accommodate homosexual activists' attempts to legitimize homosexual behavior. The first 'religious exemption' clause is very narrow and offers no clear protection to church-related businesses: Religious schools or charitable organizations, religious bookstores, or any business affiliated with a church or denomination fall outside this narrow definition, and could presumably be required to hire homosexual applicants.

The second 'religious exemption' clause fails to offer protection for all hiring by church-related organizations or businesses. The position of a teacher or religion at a church-related school would be exempt, but, e.g., that of a biology teacher would not. Thus, most of the teachers and staff at a religious school would be covered by ENDA, which means that the church would be forced to hire homosexual applicants for such positions-despite the fact that their lifestyle would be in direct opposition to the religious beliefs of the organization or company.

It is unlikely that the 'religious exemption' included in the bill would survive court challenge: Institutions that could be targeted included religious summer camps, the Boy Scouts, Christian bookstores, religious publishing houses, religious television and radio stations, and any business with fifteen or more employees.

ENDA violates employers' and employees' Constitutional freedom of religion, speech, and association. The proposed legislation would prohibit employers from taking their most deeply held beliefs into account when making hiring, management, and promotion decisions. This would pose an unprecedented intrusion by the federal government into people's lives.
ENDA would approvingly bring private behavior considered immoral by many into the public square. By declaring that all sexual preferences are equally valid, ENDA would change national policy supporting marriage and family."

If the above information if accurate, it would be of interest to Christians everywhere to exercise their vocation as citizens in expressing their concerns directly to those who will vote on this bill (your Representatives in the House.) The possibilities of this bill worry me, especially with two children in a Christian day school and as a volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America.

You can read the actual wording of Bill 2015 here in this pdf file.

Too Many Little Struggling Churches?

In a recent article for JesusFirst, entitled "Where are You Going, Missouri?", Pastor Charles S. Mueller, Sr. states the following:

"Hand-in-hand with a pastor shortage is the fact that we have too many parishes that are on a subsistence level, barely able to maintain facilities, to minimally support a pastor and to share a little with others. In many areas our churches are spaced as if we were still in the 19th century serving a flock that buggies to worship or is culturally concentrated enough to walk to church.

The LCMS has too many churches that of necessity spend the majority of their time dealing with roof replacement, furnace repair and patching parking lots. Untrue? Review the minutes of a dozen or so randomly selected church councils and voter’s assemblies. What are their pressing issues? More ministry? Increasing their out reach effectiveness? Missions and other human needs? Hardly. The agenda issues are largely survival concerns using how effective the parish used to be as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. I think that will be a hard sell in heaven. But rejoice: there is forgiveness.
So what’s the solution? There is none until we acknowledge the pressing character of the moment. It’s like the 13th century recipe for rabbit stew that begins, “First, catch the rabbit.” Or, to put it another way, acknowledge the current reality."

So what is Pastor Mueller implying here? We can't know for sure since he stops just short of making the obvious conclusion. However, it appears to me that he sees a solution in closing these little struggling parishes so that more resources can be more effectively allocated to bigger and better mega churches and larger ministries. Doesn't that seem to be where he's heading with this? Or am I paranoid? (Don't answer that....)

As a pastor of a small, rural parish, I'd like to respond briefly to his observations. It is true that many of our parishes located in small towns and rural farm areas, that were planted a century or more ago, were located in these places based on the demographic needs of the times. A good percentage of my congregation is still clustered within a 5-mile radius of the church where many of the farms once flourished. The second largest segment of my people now also live in the nearby city about 7 miles to the west.

And yes, we do spend some time talking about roofs and furnaces. But to be fair I know that larger parishes must do the same. Yet does this mean that we are not "in mission" because of our attention to these realities of maintaining a building? I don't think so. Too often mission is
gauged by the number of formal programs to which resources must be allocated. Yet smaller churches are not program-oriented this way. They reach out to others, but they do it far more casually. No dollars are attached to their efforts. They simply do it on their own time. Evangelism is happening all the time in my church, but you might not know it if you were simply looking at the budget for some line item for program expenditures.

No, Pastor Mueller, I beg to differ with your observations. I know where you're going with this, and I think that you are selling many of these little parishes short. In some cases these little struggling churches are actually serving as refuges from the larger mega churches which have transformed into large corporations catering to the whims of their communities, but lacking in the intimacy and family cohesiveness of the small rural parish, not to mention a commitment to real Lutheran belief and practice. The smaller parishes are also some of the last bastions of genuine liturgical worship where you can still find a hymnal in the pew. There are people who want this, and with modern transportation being what it is (We have moved far beyond those 'buggies'!), they do not always mind driving up to 30 minutes to find such a church. I know, because a lot of my people do just that.

So let's hear a cheer for those little churches with their harvest dinners and potlucks and organs and pews and cash-strapped budgets. God still has a use for them.

O.k. I didn't respond "briefly." What do you expect of a preacher?