Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Order of Creation

In the "Colloquium Fratrum" of the most recent Logia (Epiphany 2007), I was reminded again of the ongoing debate in the LCMS regarding the "Order of Creation" as it applies to the service of women in the church. Dr. Matthew Becker, in response to an earlier article by Pastor Holger Sontag ( which dealt with the propriety of women teaching theology at the seminary in reaction to an article by Becker - see below), remarked that,

.."the 'the order of creation,' in which men are 'the head' of women and women are ontologically subordinate to men, these texts no longer make any sense in contemporary Western, scientific societies. The cosmological foundation on which such an 'order of creation' argument rests has been overturned by knowledge from the natural sciences and by cultural changes in the East over the past three hundred years. To argue that God actually created the man first, and then the woman from the rib of man, and that this chronological sequence has significance for the ontological authority of men over women, is outdated as the traditional interpretation of those biblical texts that speak of the earth being founded on pillars, of the earth not moving,...." (47)

The original article by Dr. Becker ("Female Teachers of Theology"), to which Pr. Sonntag initially responded, can be found on the DayStar site here. Other articles addressing similar topics in the DayStar Journal (Reformation 2005), can be found here. It should be noted for those who are not familiar with DayStar or its online journal, that the articles on this site represent the more liberal views within the LCMS today, and I believe demonstrate where the major pushes in theology will come from in the years to come.

Reflecting back to the 2004 convention, I suspect that the germinal seeds of Dr. Becker's theology were already evident. The resolution which opened to women all offices of the church, save the pastorate, from this delegate's perspective, largely ignored the "order of creation" argument presented by those on the CTCR who dissented from the majority opinion. I did not support the resolution, and it was one that I had my name publicly listed as opposing. Nevertheless, in true LCMS fashion, while the resolution claimed to be based on Holy Scripture, it did not insist that all congregations submit to it and change their constitutions in accordance with it. I wrote to the CCM with questions on this situation, and, well, I didn't seem to get anywhere. Since then I have simply lived as if the resolution did not exist. It seems as if that is what they wanted me to do - or did they? I'm still confused.

There has been an undeniable shift in the theological understanding of men and women in the LCMS in the last several years. This shift is reflective of changes that have occurred in other denominations over the last several decades. While those warning that the ordination of women is the next, logical step in the progression of things is a huge overreaction, I propose that it is quite on target. However, I suspect that outright ordination is not critical to the plan. My prediction is that the participation of women within the public ministerial acts normally reserved to the Office of Pastor (preaching, leading the liturgy, reading of scripture, etc.), will be gradually expanded until their ordination is a virtual de facto reality.

I am disappointed, but not surprised, by Dr. Becker's dismissal of the "order of creation" as essentially "outdated." His argument, though, is reflective of an older liberalism which is firmly rooted in the Enlightenment, and although seemingly flushed out in the mid-70's, appears to be finding a renaissance among us again. Still, his arguments are carefully couched in appeals to the Lutheran fathers and enthusiastic appeals to biblical witness.

It should be further noted that Dr. Becker would not be counted among those supportive of a literal understanding of the Genesis creation account, upon which any argument of the "order of creation" is based. Note his remarks in an essay from 2005:

"How many people in the past three hundred years have rejected the Christian faith, or have never given it a second thought, because they were told, or they thought, they had to accept a literalistic reading of Genesis (and similar biblical texts with cosmological connections) as an essential element of that faith, when all the physical evidence and rational argument goes against such a literalistic understanding?"
(2005 Pentecost issue of the DayStar Journal)

With this biblical under girding compromised, it really is a logical step to call into question any "ordering" which God may have imposed even at that early date. We need to beware of these shifts among us. There is certainly more to come....

[P.S. For those interested in subscribing to the very fine Lutheran theological journal Logia, should visit their website here.]

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dealing with Demons

In the Gospel lesson this morning Jesus deals directly with the demonic kingdom (Luke 4:31-44). First a demon-possessed man speaks to Jesus in the synagogue, and later Jesus delivers others brought to him while ministering in Capernaum. Within Lutheran circles I have not found many who talk much about the demonic. Perhaps there is a bit of that modernistic thinking that feels they were more relevant to the ancient world. Maybe the thinking is that the demons were more open and demonstrative as Jesus carried out his earthly mission. Then again, some of it may simply be avoidance or denial. Talking about Satan and his kingdom is unsettling. And the thought of encountering it in our own lives is frightening. Let's just leave it to the horror movies, we think.

But Satan is alive and active in the world in which we live. Peter warns us to be on guard, for the devil, he writes, is "a roaring lion seeking someone to devour." Throughout the world Satan's kingdom is busy stirring unrest and warfare and violence. Much of what we see in Iraq today is a result of Satan's meddling.

In the last few years I have been invited into three homes where people genuinely believed that there was an evil presence. In two of the three cases I was invited to assist another Lutheran pastor. One of the homes was that of a Roman Catholic family. What we did was actually quite simple. We took the House Blessing service from the new LSB hymnal agenda, and went room to room reading scripture and sharing prayers. In each case the phenomena that had been disturbing the family ceased. In all cases the family was deeply appreciative. We believed them. We took them seriously. And we did what pastors are especially called to do: We confronted evil.

What then should we conclude? I believe that we need to take evil more seriously that we do. If we believe in the Scriptures as the true Word of God, we must then take what it says of the demonic at face value. Do we look for a demon under every rock? Of course not. Some Christians can become obsessed over this and start to find demons for every known sin. Still, the presence of evil is real. It can and does present itself much as it always has.

In the Lutheran Church we have a gap in our literature and ritual when it comes to dealing with cases such as what we read in the Gospel reading today. Or so it seems to me. I willingly admit that I have much left to research on the subject. I believe that with the rise and revival of pagan practices, many borrowed from ancient cults, there will be a corresponding experience of more overt demonic activity. And we must be prepared to deal with it realistically. Would a pastor in our churches today know how to effectively respond to an actual case of possession, if one should present itself? I find it interesting that after backing away from such matters during the latter half of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church recently revised its manual on exorcism and even held special training in Rome.

But one thing we should always remember: Our greatest weapon against evil is the same used by Jesus - the Word of God. It is, as Paul calls it, "the sword of the Spirit." As we walked through the homes for the blessing, it was only the Word and prayer that we brought. Still, evil must have sensed that where God's Word is, they are not welcome. In a sense they heard Jesus say again: "Be silent! Come out...."

May our Lord continue to prepare His Church to face these final evil days by clinging even more firmly to that strong Word of promise in Christ.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Celibacy and the Roman Catholic Church

Should priests be allowed to marry? That is probably one of the most popular questions today, even within the Roman Catholic Church. A search on Google for the words "priests marry catholic" generated no less than 1,380,000 hits. "Celibacy used to go with priesthood as fish went with Fridays," commented the former seminary president, Rev. Donald Cozzens. "Over the past 40 to 50 years, I would argue that more and more Catholics are questioning the need to link celibacy with priesthood." (AP article, 1-26-07)

Cozzens is arguing for the church to drop the age-old requirement. And part of what is fueling his call for change, as well as many in the RC church today, is the challenge of a numerically declining priesthood. Personally I was shocked to learn just how much a difference there is compared to 40 years ago. There were 42,000 active priests in 2005. That is a 29% decline from 1965. In 1965 there were 549 parishes without a resident priest. Today that number is 3,200! Obviously this is a true crisis for the RC church.

Yet, should the question of celibacy be argued purely on the basis of expediency and institutional survival? While as a Lutheran I see no need for such a vow, I would be the first to caution the adoption or removal of any practice without the thorough examination of all the theological reasons for doing so.

I find it interesting that celibacy, as a requirement for the priesthood, was only made mandatory in the 12th century. Priests and bishops were apparently free to marry in all those centuries prior to that. Furthermore, priests in the eastern rites have no such requirement. But what is the rationale or theological basis for this practice, and why did it arise so late in the history of the church? Rev. Cozzens recommends that the practice should be limited to those who believe they have the "gift" or charism for such a practice. That would certainly square with St. Paul, who although was seemingly celibate himself, rightly acknowledged that this was not for everyone.

I understand one of the rationale for celibacy, in that it supposedly allows a priest to be entirely focused on his calling, without the distraction of wife and children. But an apologetic could just as easily be given for a married priesthood, from the perspective of the priest now possessing greater practical insight into his member's lives and circumstances. A binding practice like this cannot be decided purely on how it may or may not affect the priest.

St. Peter was married, and in this Sunday's gospel it his his own mother-in-law that is healed. Many feel that at one time Paul, too, was married, as this was the prevailing practice among the Pharisees. Our own Lord elevates the gift of marriage highly, and Paul encourages many to pursue it, notwithstanding the current crisis of the last days. It would seem that this church needs first to wrestle again with the biblical and theological reasons. Even an examination of Tradition would be in order, with the attending question of why there is a seeming absence of Early Church precedent prior to the 12th century.

With all this said, I don't look for the RC church to change on this issue. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have shown unyielding support. Yet, even if it doesn't change, I believe that the rank-and-file Catholic in the pew deserves a well thought out rationale that they can understand, and from their perspective, accept.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Leading By Doing What is Right - Not What is Popular

One of the frustrations with the church today is that it is making itself over in the image of popular preference. Countless churches are designing their sanctuaries, revising their worship, and restructuring their governance, according to current trends determined by the most recent poll data.

Ergun Mehmet Caner, president of Falwell's Liberty Theological Seminary, wrote a refreshingly candid article on this topic with the straightforward title: "Polls are for Liberals: Churches must not lead by consensus or popularity" (National Liberty Journal, Feb. 2007). Especially poignant was his account of President Ford in the days leading up to his pardon of Nixon. He recounts how everyone was pushing to see Nixon brought up on charges. "Every poll taken indicated a vast majority of Americans wanted the former president on trial for the crimes of which he had been accused." Caner continues by noting that as the president contemplated the possibility of pardon, his own advisers were split. "They were sure that if he were to pardon Nixon, President Ford would lose the upcoming election. President Ford, on the other hand, saw the decision as one that would spare the country a scandal and a circus. His own political future was not his highest concern."

What Caner recounts next shows that leadership finds its essence not in testing the wind with a finger to determine where the winds of desire are blowing that day. It comes in doing what one author called "the hard right." "As one of his advisers spoke about the polls that indicated that Americans wanted a trial, the normally calm Ford sharply replied, 'I don't care what the polls say! I don't need polls to tell me what is right and wrong!'"

Caner then reminds his readers that "Evangelicals could learn quite a lesson from President Ford." I would add that Lutherans could learn such a lesson as well. As a pastor I know firsthand the temptation to make decisions based on what the fallout will be. No leader wants to be unpopular. No leader enjoys standing alone. Yet true leadership is the fortitude to put aside the inner need for emotional security and step out ahead of the group to do what is right, even if it comes with a personal price.

In the Missouri Synod we have not always rewarded such leadership; in fact we have punished it. We are also on the roller coaster of change these days as we try to determine, according to popular opinion, what the church should look like in the years to come. One of the hardest decisions I had to make as a pastor came when I stood before the church and its leadership and told them that I could not follow their desire to introduce contemporary worship. I did this twice in two different parishes, and both times it required me to do what I felt was right, even though I knew there would be great opposition. Actually, I wasn't sure if it might ultimately cost me my pastorate.

However, I discovered in those dark days of leadership that people will often be inspired to follow a leader and stand beside them in the fight, if they know he is completely committed to his cause. They do not appreciate waffling. I have seen laypeople risk their own positions along with me because the cause was right and they knew that I was not going to pull back when the heat of controversy became too uncomfortable.

This is what I still hope for in the church and especially in my own denomination. It is always tempting to ride the wave of change and see outward signs of temporary success (such as one might define it at the moment.) Regardless of what one might say of President Ford's decision, we have to admire his moral fortitude to take what he saw as the "harder right." I admire a leader who is willing to risk for the sake of what is right, not one who is always looking to the next election.

So, bravo Ford! May your example remind us in the church what we need to do. There is a right thing to do, and we must do it, whether that is in defending the church's biblical and historic worship, speaking out on the role of women, or cautioning overly enthusiastic pushes for ecumenical openness. May the Lord lift up such leaders for our time.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord ?- The Conversion of Paul

Today marks the minor festival of the Conversion of St. Paul. Few apostles or evangelists have days in the church calendar that identify them with a significant event in their life. The "Confession" of Peter was on January 18, but otherwise the days are noted only by the name and office of the saint. Paul actually gets extra billing in the calendar in the additional festival of St. Peter and St. Paul on June 29. It is interesting that of all the apostles these two should not have separate feast days, save the "event" festivals previously noted.

St. Paul is by far one of the most complex and fascinating personalities of the New Testament. A brief blog post could never do him justice. However, his story is encouraging for me pastorally as I consider the ongoing ministry of the church to reach the often hardened sinners of our own time. Paul was no ordinary non-believer. He was a persecutor of the church itself. He was "breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1). And by his own admission he "formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted" Christ (1 Tim. 1:13). Many would have been content to give up on Paul and assume that such a man would never become an ally of the Kingdom. Yet Jesus did not give up on Paul. He confronted him with the Law on the road to Damascus and called him to faith. And then made of him the greatest missionary the church has ever known.

There are many in our families and even in our churches (synod) who seem beyond reach. They are hardened in their opinions, bitter in their outlook, and resistant at every turn. We want to shake the dust from out feet and move on to easier prospects. But is the Lord finished with them? Is the story over? Is anyone beyond the grace and mercy of God? "For with God nothing will be impossible," the angel told Mary. And so it is still the truth for us today.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

1 Corinthians 14 and Glossolalia

In the current 3-year series there is a lectio continua from from the letter of 1 Corinthians. This series of readings encompasses chapters 12 through 15, and includes the familiar sections on spiritual gifts, the body metaphor for the church, tongues, and the resurrection. Although I am not preaching on these texts this season, it has been a challenging area for our local Greek Study Group. Today we worked on the epistle text for February 4, which includes selected verses from chapter 14, the chapter where Paul talks about the place and purpose of "speaking in tongues," also known technically as glossolalia, a transliterated term from the Greek.

While our group is in no way sympathetic to the charismatic or neo-Pentecostal movement, nor did any of us claim to have possessed or sought the so-called "gift of tongues," we did struggle among ourselves as to how to define this so-called "tongue" or language to which Paul refers. Charismatics and Pentecostals have long defined it as a kind of "prayer language" spoken only to God. Perhaps it is the opening verse of chapter 13 that gives rise to this: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels...." (RSV) It has enjoyed a highly elevated status, especially among Pentecostal denominations, and has often been used to define the spiritual state or maturity of a believer.

But what exactly is the "tongue" to which Paul refers? It does not appear to be the phenomena from the Pentecost event in Acts 2, where Peter's words are instantly understood by others who spoke different languages. Furthermore, it seems to be rather isolated to Corinth when one compares the other letters of Paul. One member of our group saw the issue Paul was addressing more in terms of an actual foreign language. This is appealing, but I am not sure it entirely fits the context of what Paul was addressing. The issue at stake was a very self-centered one, with tongues-speakers speaking out in public worship in a loveless way with no concern to those who might be in the assembly. Paul shows concern for the unbeliever who can only come to faith by hearing the clear intelligible Word of God. He talks about "building up" the body through the proclamation of the Word (prophesy), as contrasted with the unedifying result of the tongues-speakers.

In the CTCR document Spiritual Gifts (1994), the following is mentioned regarding this issue:

"This [gift of tongues] is mentioned last [in chapter 12], perhaps to highlight the Corinthians' special interest in this manifestation of the Spirit, which occasioned Paul's entire discussion of gifts. This gift 'in the case of the Corinthians, apparently had reference to a 'language,' unintelligible to others as well as to the speaker, by which a Christian praised God.' St. Paul obviously regarded it as an authentic gift of the Spirit, but he emphasizes that it 'can be useful in the church only if it is supplemented with the gift of interpretation (v. 5), for only then will it edify the church.' It should also be 'carefully noted that the apostle in 1 Corinthians 12 to 14 is not discussing the gift of tongues for the purpose of encouraging or assisting the Corinthians in acquiring this gift.' In this specific context 'his purpose is rather to point out the dangers and abuses that have resulted from its misuse and to encourage the use of other spiritual gifts, especially prophesy." (Quotations taken from the CTCR document The Charismatic Movement and Lutheran Theology from 1972)

Determining exactly what this language is of which Paul talks is not the key critical matter in the text. Other issues take precedence. Nevertheless, it does speak to the issue that still exists among us today in what is now called the "Renewal Movement." Many within all the major denominations claim to be tongues-speakers, and to value the gift as important to their faith. Within the LCMS the predominant renewal movement went out of public existence a couple of years back. They said that their goals had been accomplished. This still concerns me. Has the charismatic experience become so mainstream among us that it no longer requires a "movement" to promote it? I believe that may be the case. Look at how the LCMS actively promoted "spiritual gifts inventories" and other stock-in-trade tools of the movement throughout the last 30 years in its stewardship programs. Although we spoke against it with one voice, we embraced its language with the other. Ultimately we have been in the process of recreating ourselves into what was termed by someone as a "methobapticostal" denomination. Now with a national evangelism program sporting a Methodist symbol, we are well on way to strengthening what we have so dutifully crafted in the previous decades.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Hideous American Crime of Abortion

The title printed above was taken from a sermon by Dr. David Scaer in 1989. He was preaching on the occasion of the Slaughter of the Innocents, and indicated that the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade shoud really be "commemorated on December 28, the Day of the Holy Innocents. On that day, churches should be decked in black for the hideous American crime of abortion, which compares in its brutality to Stalin's extermination of the Ukrainians in 1930's, Hitler's destruction of Jews in Germany and Poland in the 1940's, and the near obliteration of the Cambodians by the Kymer Rouge in the 1970's Our slaughter is even more thorough and long lasting, covering the 1970's, 1980's, and now the 1990's."

While the debate rages in this country, many have lost sight of the real crime at the heart of it. Politicians will bandy about the topic as election time fodder, using it as a way to characterize one's political leanings. But this is much more than whether one believes there should be prayer in the classroom or a monument of the 10 Commandments in the courthouse. This is a travesty of culture-wide proportions. We are, in a very real sense, killing ourselves as a nation. Many will point to the loss of life in Iraq, bemoaning the sacrifice of our young men and women, yet so few, in turn, realize that a loss of life several times this size looms in dark shadows right in the midst of our own nation.

Over the years I have participated in a variety of activities to promote life against the crime of abortion. Still, how easy it is to say we disagree and make a few gestures to show our disapproval, such as one might over a controversial school board decision. In churches across the land there will be pulpits which will have been silent on this issue, with certain clergy fearful of their parishioner's reactions, some indifferent, and others who think such matters are best left out of church affairs.

Dr. Scaer, at the beginning of his sermon, writes about an upcoming "pro-life" march that will be taking place there in Ft. Wayne and what that march means. He says: "You may call it a 'pro-life' march; you may call it an 'anti-abortion' march. You may call it anything you want. We are simply against murder, especially the murder of helpless, defenseless infants. At some other time you will have the freedom to discuss whether this kind of protest belongs to the kingdom of the left hand or the kingdom of the right hand, or whether we are mixing church and state. But we do not have the freedom to sit back and do nothing about the perpetual slaughter of the holy innocents. There can be no moral neutrality in the matter of infanticide. It might be legal, but it can never be moral."

You are right, Dr. Scaer. We do not have the right to sit back and do nothing. In our area we run a signature ad in the newspaper on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade (Jan. 22), showing our support for the rights of the unborn. It may not be much, but it's something. We need to make it crystal clear to our children as we catechize them, that the fifth commandment governs the protection of their future unborn children, and that there is no gray area here regarding whether abortion is an option. My sorrow, though, is that the so-called Christian community is so divided on this. Shouldn't this be something over which even the most liberal-minded person would become outraged? May the voices of these, our brothers and sisters from the dead, call up to those who might still hear. And may Cain be aroused to repent and change his ways, even as that Cain lives within the church.

In memory of the unborn dead, 1973-2007. May the Lord have mercy on those yet at risk.

[Note: For those interested in reading Dr. Scaer's sermons, see In Christ: The Collected Works of David P. Scaer, Lutheran Confessor - Vol. I, Sermons (Concordia Catechetical Academy, 2004). Go here to order. ]

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Why Being Lutheran Matthers - A Symposium on Catechesis

My classmate, Rev. Peter Bender, is sponsoring a special symposium on catechesis through the Concordia Catechetical Academy that is a "must see" this summer. The theme is "Why Being Lutheran Matters: Catechesis on the Church under the Third Article." I am not sure that I will make it, but I'm going to try. This is a critical topic to discuss at this time, and I hope some of you will be able to take advantage of it. Dates: June 20, 21, and 22, 2007. Location: The Country Springs Hotel in Waukesha, Wisconsin. You can visit the CCA on the web here, although I didn't see information for this symposia posted as of yet.

Learning from Other Traditions

After the addition of the latest two new articles to the DayStar Journal, it is clear that ecumenical awareness is the centerpiece to their identity. As indicated here before, I am sensing more with each passing day that the powers that be will be moving the synodical machinery in this direction with much greater fervor, beginning with this convention.

One of the articles by Harold L. Kitzmann, entitled "Arrogance Born of Ignorance vs. Learning from Other Traditions," deserves some specific comment, however. The subtitle of the article reads: "Harold Kitzman relates some of his personal ecumenical experiences as he seeks to fathom the depth of the LCMS’s opposition to fellowship with other Christians."

The article then goes on to relate, as the subtitle indicates, the author's 'personal experiences' as grounds for greater ecumenical awareness and practice on the part of Lutherans. Considering Dr. Kitzmann's academic background, I really would have expected an argument on the basis of scripture or some other authority. Appealing to experience, while difficult and impossible to refute, is not a convincing argument for changing the church's practice. Personal observations of people and events are by nature highly subjective and thus interpreted by the observer's own bias.

I mention this, because by observation this author may very well label me as one of those stodgy Lutherans whose close fellowship practices earns him the "arrogance born of ignorance" award. My parish practices "close(d) communion." And I do not participate in joint worship with other clergy outside the LCMS. Thus, I am probably inflicted with what he calls "ingrown theological toenails." I'm isolated and insulated from any other influence.

Or am I? This week, as the previous posts indicate, I was at the annual Symposia in Ft. Wayne. For those unfamiliar with this event, let it be known that this stodgy conservative Lutheran institution has had the gall to invite as speakers scholars from the whole spectrum of theological orientations. I have heard John Neuhouse, who is now with the Roman church. I have heard Bruce Matzger, who I suspect is probably Presbyterian. One year we heard Dr. Muller from Calvin College/ seminary in Grand Rapids. And this year we had speakers from the ELCA and the Reformed church. It is stimulating and interesting to hear their presentations, even if I may not always agree with them. No arrogance born of ignorance here.

I was also pleased to have a personal friend there who is an ELCA pastor from my area. We do not enjoy altar and pulpit fellowship, although I sense I am probably closer to him than many in my own synod. Does this fellowship division upset him? At some level, probably. But he respects it and honors it and continues to come to Ft. Wayne every year to learn with the rest of us.

While I am open to learning from others, I have also been careful not to lose the bearings of my own tradition. There is a reason I am a Lutheran. Dr. Kitzmann, however, seems so enamored by the practices of other clergy and churches, I fear he is quick to adopt anyone's practice without much critical reflection. He willingly crosses boundaries without regard for the common fellowship commitments we have agreed on as a church body. During a sabbatical from the parish he settled into a Catholic parish as his place of worship, bypassing all Lutheran churches in his area.

I sense that Dr. Kitzmann either does not understand or appreciate why Lutherans have the fellowship practices they do. For that matter it would seem that "Father Tom" didn't understand the Catholic reasons either. There is the matter of honesty and integrity. If the teachings of the Faith matter, and if Truth is important, we must hold each other accountable to it. Belonging to a particular church in a particular communion means something. Or it should. We must be willing to admit that differences on certain matters of the Faith do affect fellowship this side of heaven, because when the Church witnesses to the Truth it is not a hodge-podge collection of sayings and truisms, but a unity of revelation. By downplaying the Truth of our Faith we are doing an injustice to those seeking the Truth. What should they believe? Why does it matter? We stand the danger of filling the minds of catechumins with more questions than answers, and more confusion than clarity.

I am not afraid of interacting with other Christians, and I enjoy discussing theology with people from traditions different than my own. But I still believe that what we believe, teach and confess as Lutherans is the Truth. All LCMS clergy say as much at their ordination and installation vows. But today more and more apparently are just going through the motions. Words and truth are pliable concepts meant to be formed and bent to what suits us at the moment. How sad.

Reflections from the Symposia - Part 3

It took a bit longer to return to Wisconsin than I originally hoped, but I made it home in time for supper last night. Although ideally I would love to stay for the final lectures on Friday, I usually use this day for travel since it takes upwards of 9 to10 yours for the trip back. It's tough to travel alone for that many hours, but I have found over the years that listening to a book on tape (now CD) helps to pass the time and remain alert. Although it has nothing to do with the Symposia, per se, I would still like to recommend the book I listened to on my way back. Written by Vicki Constantine Croke, The Lady and the Panda is a fascinating and engaging story of the first American explorer to bring back a live panda from China in the 1930's. Well, enough of my recreational reading.

I did not catch all of the lectures on Thursday, but as I said in the previous post, I did make sure to be there for Dr. David Scaer's. The hall by this time was predictably packed. His lecture was entitled "The Metamorphosis of Confessional Lutheranism." The thesis of the lecture centered on the progression of change evident among confessional Lutherans over the last decades, first in terms of biblical studies, and then in terms of liturgical renewal. As always his paper was direct and pulled no punches, yet it was also quite informative. He expounded on the difference in approaches within Missouri as the "Catholic Principle" (CP) and the "Evangelical Principle" (EP). The CP looks to the past tradition of the church catholic for guidance, insight and example for practice. The EP, which has dominated the synod's exegetical and liturgical practice in a previous generation, seemingly discounted or ignored this tradition. The results of this are certainly evident as one looks back over the last several decades, such as in the greater frequency of Holy Communion, and the restoration of the Divine Service from its "page 5" Protestant format where the liturgy of the Word was divorced from the Service of the Sacrament.

The day's speakers included two from the ELCA. While I missed the first one, I heard about it later. I hope that it is included on the web site so that I can read it for myself. Apparently he betrayed his left-leaning insights more than most. The second ELCA speaker was Dr. Carl E. Braaten. Dr. Braaten may be known to many for his collaboration on the dogmatics text he wrote some years back that is used in ELCA seminaries. His lecture was entitled "Confessional Lutheranism in an Ecumenical World." The emphasis of his paper, however, centered on his premise that Lutherans "are Catholics in exile." From his perspective the largest impediment to returning from our 'exile' is the "false government" in Rome. Like the Eastern Orthodox we reject the "universal jurisdiction" of the pope. I was disappointed, though, that Dr. Braaten did not appreciate the more significant differences, especially regarding the central doctrine of the church: justification. It was actually surprising to hear him refer to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) as "a miracle of grace." He seemed to be caught up in the belief that Rome and Wittenberg really do agree on this central doctrine, although anyone who has examined the document itself, and reflected on the use of terms between these two communions, will eventually realize that Rome conceded nothing and that they still believe everything they did at the time of Luther. The Council of Trent, although perhaps ignored or discounted by some Catholic and non-Catholic scholars today, is still the 'official' teaching of Rome. He stated that the "mutual condemnations" of the two churches "no longer apply," but what he failed to mention is that Rome did not removed them. The agency of the church that approved JDDJ on Rome's behalf was not the arm of the church that defines or enforces the teachings of the church. For those who wish to study the background of this document and the terms involved, should read Dr. Robert Preus' book Justification and Rome, published by CPH.

As always worship was a highlight, and the morning Matin's service was no exception. It was the annual Epiphany Lessons and Carols. I almost missed this service, and when I came in and heard the Kontorei singing "Of the Father's Love Begotten," I remembered why this service has always been so inspiring.

For me the Symposia ended with the Thursday evening banquet. The food was delicious and the company at my table enjoyable and stimulating. They dispensed with the usual banquet speaker this year, which was OK. Following the banquet was the annual "Sabre of Boldness" award by Gottesdienst. The recipient was Dr. Ronald Feuerhahn. Dr. Feuerhahn is now suffering from Parkinson's disease and it was inspiring to hear him address those present for the award. A truly humble theologian.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Reflections from the Symposia - Part 2

On Wednesday they concluded the exegetical symposia and began the symposia on the confessions. The latter is actually the original symposia, with the exegetical being only 21 years old. Dr. Dean Wenthe, president of CTS (Concordia Theological Seminary) began the day's lectures with the lengthy topic "From Creation to Consummation: The Inclusive Identity of Israel's God as Challenge to Ancient and Contemporary Pluralism." The essence of his paper was directed toward the fact that much of the energy of the Torah is directed against pagan plurality. He noted the extensive Hebrew vocabulary for the words idol and idolatry. It is true that you can often determine the priorities or predominant issues of a culture based on the specialization of certain words. He ended his lecture reminding us that our calling is to proclaim the uncompromisingly exclusive nature of God. In light of the controversy that has swirled around Dr. Benke in the past, especially regarding the nature of his witness to the true God in the midst of a very pluralistic environment, this is a needful reminder in our church today.

The second lecture was given by Dr. John G. Nordling, one of the newer professors at CTS. He recently completed the Concordia Commentary on Philemon and is considered an expert on ancient slavery. Thus his topic was no surprise: "Identity in Christ: Pauline Perspectives on Slavery." Although rather technical in many places, his lecture did highlight a point I may not have completely appreciated in my studies of the NT, namely that slavery was a kind of 'touchstone' upon which the Christian life was played out in the NT world. While Paul himself was probably never a 'slave' in the conventional sense of the word, he used this identity frequently as part of his self-understanding as an apostle. While some scholars would maintain that Christianity was not as initially attractive to the lower classes, Nordling maintains that the faith was indeed very much a slave's religion. Thus the imagery of slavery was a natural and helpful one for Paul to use in relating the nature of the Christian faith. We are not our own, we belong to Christ. We are called to suffer in His name. This seems to be a helpful point for us to remember in our often independent-minded faith. Our life does not belong to us. We are called daily to die to sin and rise with Christ. We are slaves of Christ.

The third lecture was given by Dr. Adam Francisco, a young professor out of our Concordia in NY. His engaging topic caught my attention right away: "Luther, Lutheranism, and the Challenge of Islam." He gave an informative overview of the history of Luther and Lutherans and Islam. I was surprised by how much Luther wrote on this subject and how well informed he was, considering he probably never had any contact with an actual Muslim in his lifetime. His approach to Islam was refreshingly candid considering the politically-correct sensitivity we have been prone to as of late. He noted that the Koran is the opposite of the scriptures especially in that it has a low view of sin and a high view of humanity. Francisco also put to rest the idea being peddled these days that the Confessions show some relation between the God of Islam and that of the Bible. Luther himself said that "Allah is the devil in disguise." However, what should be our source material in understanding what Islam truly believes? Dr. Franciso said that most people go straight to the Qu'ran (Koran) or to books written by Christians about Islam. He, on the other hand, recommended going to the Hadith (see here for an article in Wikipedia.)

The fourth lecture was presented by Dr. Philip Cary on the topic of "Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin." Dr. Cary comes from an Anglican background and although he is an 'outsider' to the Lutheran church he seemed to have a pretty solid grasp on how we view faith compared to the Evangelicals. Evangelicals appear to be more prone to a "faith in faith" approach, while Lutherans look to the objective means through which faith is created, namely Baptism.

The final lecture of the day (I can't believe I really sat through all of them today!) was by Dr. Larry Rast. Dr. Rast, professor of Church History at CTS is an informative and interesting speaker, and I look forward to his lecture each year. His topic was "Fundamentalism, Neo-Evangelicalism and the Revival of a Confessional Awareness in the LCMS." His paper dealt with an outline of Missouri history stretching back to the controversies of Dr. Pieper's day to the present. Ever careful to say enough, but not too much, one was given a brief but informative insight into the theological state of affairs at present. His paper was a good prelude to the introduction of Dr. Paul Zimmerman's book, A Seminary in Crisis, just published by CPH, which chronicles the events leading up to the 1974 "walk out" in St. Louis and especially the Fact Finding Committee commissioned by J.A.O. Preus. The book's cover is featured to the right of this article. (You can see the ordering information at CPH here.) Dr. Zimmerman and Dr. Barth are the only two remaining members of that committee. I was privileged to have Dr. Zimmerman was one of my parishioners in Traverse City, Michigan, and was delighted to see him yesterday after many years. He and his wife appear to be in good health and spirits. I plan to get my copy signed by him today and then digest its 400+ pages when I return.

The lectures are only part of the symposia experience. Dr. Rast preached the first day and Dr. Wenthe was the featured preacher yesterday, and both of their homilies were very pastoral and insightful to the text. We used the new LSB and it's wonderful for this country parson to hear chanting again! At the end of the day was the Vespers service for the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. Dr. Just delivered the homily for this occasion and the Schola Contorum presented some beautiful choral pieces. It was most inspiring and I was all prepared to die and be with Christ!

As I type this the first lecture of the day is in progress, but I will be back for Dr. Scaer's after chapel. No one misses his! So, I best be off again. It all goes so quick. Tonight is the banquet and then tomorrow I am on the road back home. I will probably type my concluding thoughts after I return home.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Reflections from the Symposia

Well I made it safe and sound! Thanks for all who offered a prayer on my behalf. Roads were surprisingly clear and the weather reports were overstated. My trip, which included only one stop, was completed in 8 1/2 hours (a record for me.)

As usual my annual journey to "The Fort" has been amply rewarded. A trip to the bookstore, numerous visits with dear old friends, and stimulating lectures filled the first day. I look in three of the first lectures in full, and part of the fourth. Dr. Geischen's lecture on "Christian Identity in Thessalonica" offered me a perspective into this book by Paul that I did not have before. The book of Thessalonians essentially asks the question: What is it like to be "in Christ," what is it like to be a Christian? Paul surprisingly answers, in part, by pointing to himself. But before anyone becomes too defensive, let it be known that he does not point to any sense of piety, or moral purity, but rather to the cruciform pattern of his life, which he came into through Baptism. It also showed itself in what Just would later call his "Jesus scars," the physical signs of his suffering for the sake of the Gospel. As pastors we also carry out our ministries as "living epistles" pointing to Christ, bearing in ourselves our own Jesus scars from a life under the cross. (BTW, Dr. Gieschen is the upcoming author of the new Concordia Commentary on Thessalonians to be published by CPH in the future. Dr. Gieschen and I served together at Trinity in Traverse City, MI many years ago. I appreciate the pastoral sensitivity he brings to his teaching.)

Dr. Just in the second lecture initially seemed to be responding to reactions to his previous year's paper on Galatians. He said that Lutherans seem constrained to read Paul through 16th century lens. Most read Galatians in light of the doctrine of Justification alone, and miss other significant aspects of the book. He reminded his hearers that we need to read Paul in the context of his own time and culture; we need to hear him as his First Century readers would have heard him. It is helpful to be reminded that we should endeavor to understand the background of each book and the culture out of which the writer is working. The ancient world simply did not see the world as post-modern Americans do. I found it interesting to consider whether Paul's "Damascus Road Experience" was a call or a conversion. Was Paul familiar with Jesus and his teachings? Considering that Paul may very well have been in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, it would seem probable that Paul was indeed familiar with what he said and did. When he was baptized later by Ananias we note that no catechesis is offered. He didn't need any more than to know that Jesus was the answer to all he had learned to this point (including his extensive knowledge of the OT), just like the converts on the Day of Pentecost.

The third lecture by Dr. Malherbe again was interesting in considering the world out of which Paul worked and taught. Paul's letter to the Corinthians reflects the world of philosophy to which the Corinthians would have been exposed and in which they thought and reasoned.

These are mere highlights of what was discussed, and in no way do justice to the overall content of the lectures. I will have to spend more time digesting what I heard and probably reread the lectures on the web once they are published (see www.ctsfw.edu).

Well, supper beckons. I will write more tomorrow as time allows. The Lord be with you all!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

I'm Bound for Ft Wayne

Early tomorrow morning I plan to leave for Ft. Wayne for the Symposia at Concordia Theological Seminary. It will take me at least 10 hours, and looking at the weather down there, I will be facing some significant snow challenges. Say a prayer for us foolish travelers! At any rate I will probably not write here for a day or two. However, if I have the chance, I want to include an article or so on some of the topics or papers that will be discussed at the Symposia.

Theories of the Atonement - Which One is Right?

Although Christian traditions which descend from the Reformation era share a common view of the Atonement, there is a noticeable difference when one compares traditions from the East and West. Nevertheless, there is common agreement among Christian churches that Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day is central to salvation, and that a chief benefit of that salvation is forgiveness and new life. Beyond this, though, views differ as to the emphasis of certain aspects of our Lord's sacrifice and the reasons for its occurrence.

It is interesting to discover that over time no one dominant view of the Atonement has predominated. While the Early Church worked out distinct language and formulae to describe the nature of Christ and the Godhead against the onslaught of destructive heresies, and codified it in creeds which the Church still confesses, the Ancient Church did not establish one solitary view of the Atonement as the "orthodox" doctrine. Thus a plethora of 'theories' abound, some better than others, some helpful, but inadequate by themselves.

Lutherans, with the doctrine of Justification by Grace through faith as a central core of their theological orientation, would favor what could be called the Penal Substitution Theory. The idea in this theory is that Christ becomes our substitute in death, paying the price that sin has exacted on humanity through Adam. This view of the Atonement naturally involves the wrath and justice of God and how Christ satisfied this by his own sinless life and his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. This view of the Atonement is certainly not the only one used by Lutherans, but the Penal Substitution Theory, it is safe to say, predominates. It is the theological under girding of the Lutheran view of confession and absolution as an application of the Atonement to the individual.

For Christians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition the above view is avoided. Part of the discomfort here no doubt comes from a differing view of original sin, with Reformation era believers viewing original sin as disease and depravity inherited from Adam (AC, Art. II). Eastern Christians view original sin as being born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good (K. Ware).

Mark Dever, in "Nothing But the Blood" (Christianity Today, May 1, 2006), offers what I think could be a succint summary of the overall Orthodox view of the Atonement:

"The Eastern Orthodox have long accepted theosis as the main result of Christ's death. Reflecting on 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 4:13, 2 Peter 1:4, and other passages, many have suggested that God's work in us through Christ is best understood not by language of penalty, payment, ransom, and satisfaction, but by language of love, inclusion, growth, and deification."

Fr. Kallistos Ware also notes in his book The Orthodox Way: "The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification...the Incarnation...is a doctrine of sharing or participation. Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is." (97)

Part of the difference between East and West is certainly the point from which the Atonement is approached. Lutherans, admittedly, approach the Atonement with a predominant Pauline view, looking especially to his writings on the wrath of God (esp. Rom. 1) and the justification of the sinner. The Orthodox approach the matter from the Incarnation and emphasize the spiritual relationship between Christ and the believer.

One common area between the two traditions, in my view, would be the Victory Theory of the Atonement (Christus Victor). Here Christ's death and resurrection is celebrated as a victory over the power of evil and death itself.

In contemplating the differing views of the Atonement between East and West, I have come to appreciate that at least from a Lutheran perspective, it is helpful to remember that there is more than one way to approach the Atonement biblically, and as noted before, the ancient church did not codify one single view. However, recognizing the themes of sin and God's wrath and the judicial language of Paul in describing the Atonement, it is perplexing to a Lutheran why the Orthodox may appear so put off by any view of the Atonement which views Christ's death as substitutionary payment for sin. Perhaps we do not understand each other well enough in this area. Perhaps it is that we are reading the same passages differently. And perhaps there are even more complex issues left unaddressed by such a short article. I know I am still working at understanding the differences.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

More Americans Join Orthodox Churches

They number about 1.2 million in the U.S. at present, around half the size of the LCMS or the Episcopalians. However, the Orthodox Church in America is growing, and that growth is being fueled largely by converts to the faith; converts which appear to come mainly from cross-overs from other denominations.

According to a recent AP article about 1/3 of all U.S. Orthodox priests are now converts as well. Apparently the conversion of John Fenton was a sign of the times. A 2006 survey of the four Orthodox seminaries in the country found that about 43% of seminarians are converts according to Alexi D. Krindatch, research director at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkley, California. But it isn't only from the folds of Lutheran flocks that these new converts are coming. They are also entering from traditions as distant from Orthodoxy as conservative Baptists.

Krindatch found in his research that 1/3 of the more than 200 parishes in the U.S. parishes in the Antiochian Orthodox Church were founded after 1990. One fast-growing church in Wheaton, Ill. has seen an overwhelming majority of its newest members coming from the under 40 age group.

Orthodoxy in this country was largely an immigrant church, much like Lutherans a century ago. Like other American denominations, though, the change from the ethnic languages to the vernacular and the influx of people who do not share the history of the church, will have an impact on the character of this church in years to come. One of those changes comes from the zeal new members often bring to their discovered church, which can clash with the more easygoing approach of older members.

Orthodoxy, unlike Roman Catholicism, is more decentralized and diversified, with divisions apparent largely around ethnic differences. They do not have a titular head like the pope, and so authority appears more defused. While this will certainly appeal to some who are turned off from what they sometimes see as heavy-handedness from Rome, others will undoubtedly be frustrated by the myriad of foreign jurisdictions that form the patchwork quilt of American Orthodoxy. There are currently 22 separate jurisdictions in the US. Church.

Yet what ultimately attacks these newcomers to this ancient church? Not surprisingly a large selling point is the beauty of the liturgy. Another point is the "durability of the theology." Consistency would be the word to describe the appeal in part.

This growth in Orthodoxy should say something to Lutherans. At a time when young Americans are looking for a more durable tradition to anchor their faith in turbulent times of change, the Lutheran church is often jettisoning its traditions in a desperate attempt to woo Baby-boomers and chronic church-shoppers looking for new programs. A handful of confessional congregations are valiantly trying to hold the line for the future, but pressure is often intense as they hear the manta: "change or die."

We should watch this new era in Orthodoxy and learn. But we should be watching not only for why these new people are joining, but how they adapt to the influx of new blood. How will they integrate people who come with that newly married excitement, and keep peace with old timers who may resent the impression that the new ones are only there for their own needs. How will they build community out of this? It will be interesting to observe.

Friday, January 12, 2007

It's Greek to Me and That's Ok

When something is unintelligible we say that it's "Greek to me." Somehow Greek has become the symbol of all that is confusing and beyond understanding. That's unfortunate. Now I'll be the first to admit that studying Greek in college was one of the greatest challenges of my academic career. And even today as I gather weekly with two other area pastors to translate upcoming pericopes, I am reminded that working with this language can be a mind-twisting experience. Still, Greek has to be one of the most precise and crisp languages used to communicate human thought throughout history. Unlike English with its myriad exceptions and borrowed words, ancient Greek is far more predictable.

Traditionally pastors were required to study Greek as part of their preparation for the ministry. Not so long ago I heard that this requirement doesn't hold for those in the DELTO (Distance Education Leading to Ordination) program. I was quite surprised - and disappointed. True, learning Greek isn't every one's cup of tea. Some pick this up at ease, others flounder in a sea of syntax. Nevertheless, I believe that it is still indispensable for the overall education of one who would preach the Word of God.

One reason is that a pastor without some mastery of Greek is always dependant on a translation. Some of the translations out there are fairly good and faithful in conveying the intent of the text. Yet no matter how good they are, they are still, technically, only an interpretation of the original inspired text. A look at the plethora of translations today is proof enough of this point. To go from one language to another is a cross-cultural experience, not merely the definition of a foreign word into the language of the reader.

Another point in defense of the learning of Greek is that it opens areas of the text that would have been closed without access to the original. When we formed our Greek Study Group a year ago I was quite amazed how the text began to open up for me and how my preaching was refreshed as I took the time to explore it in more depth. Some pastors undoubtedly feel as if the "well runs dry" in their preaching. They can't figure out anything new to offer their people. Yet the well of the original always offers fresh material. The nuances of a verb, the order of the sentence, the uniqueness of a word's definition, the variety of areas to explore is unending.

It used to be that to learn Greek you had to go to college or find a private tutor. However, the resources available today on the web and the book store are so great that I believe anyone could learn this blessed language. And the tools available to the student are also so plentiful that one is never lacking in places to find answers. While my professors would have frowned on such tools as interlinear Bibles, I would not. It is a tool to bridge the gap and assist those who translate. True, it should not be an end in itself. But it is a tool.

I believe that the church more than ever needs pastors trained in the original languages. The theological erosion by the left, the mushy middle of the moderate, and the onslaught of biblistic cults make such mastery indispensable to today's shepherd. Luther said that "The languages are the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit is contained." He better than most knew their value, especially as he worked to put the voice of the Lord into the language of the Germans.

I am fearful that the church is losing sight of the value of this tool. I hope that they don't lose sight of it entirely.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Liturgy, the People, and New Hymnals

One of the top ten most risky things a pastor can do in his ministry is to introduce a new hymnal. The advent of Lutheran Worship (LW), unfortunately, raised the stakes on that risk when it ignored the fact that significant change in the church's liturgy is usually resisted by the faithful. My church uses LW and I am at peace with it. As as pastor I have used it since at least the early 90's. The church I am at presently introduced it in the mid-80's. One would think that any trauma experienced over the introduction nigh near 20 years or more ago would have long faded. But not so. Memories run deep. Echoes of these memories surfaced recently as we talked at my church about the newest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book (LSB).

One aspect of LSB that appeals to me is that they reversed the trend of significant change. Now I'm not a stodgy resistant- to- change-at-any-cost kind of pastor. But I have noticed in a very practical way a truth the church has always understood: the liturgy (and its hymns) have historically been the least resistive to change and represent the primary theology of the people.
Considering the onslaught of contemporary worship (CW) on the church, especially in the last 20 years, it is surprising to be able to say this. Many people today are conditioned to expect change and even believe it is necessary to survive. Yet on the other hand there is also a deep need for consistency. As everything else in the world changes, many Christians, I believe, want the church to be at least one place in their life they can look to and know that it will remain the same. We need stability in the midst of change. We need to know that some things are a "given." And there is comfort in the familiar. Just look at your own personal rituals and how you maintain them to give yourself stability.

I am not enough of a prophet to predict exactly what the impact of CW will be on the church in the long run. However, part of me senses that it will run its course for some and they will turn again to the stability of a consistent liturgy. From what I've read and seen, it would appear that such a phenomenon may already be occurring among younger generations who do not share the rebellion of the Baby Boomers, the tsunami movement of rejection of all their parents held dear.

In the end, even if they do not consciously think about it, people need and want to keep the liturgy and song they know. It's the voice of their faith, past and future. We are probably going to eventually get the new LSB. But we are going slowly. Not because this hymnal is hard to learn, but because of the damage done 20 years ago when LW ripped the rug out from under the church. I'm pleased the the Commission on Worship did not do this again. They must have known.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Cold Hard Numbers

I'm really not a fan of annual reports. Don't get me wrong - I know their value. But as a pastor, reviewing the year's stats can be depressing. As I was amassing the attendance figures and the membership losses and gains, I was faced with that familiar inner tendency to judge the so-called success of the ministry by the cold hard numbers before me. Average attendance down again. Net loss of membership again. My members have been kind about not holding me personally responsible for this. But a pastor struggles not to do it to himself.

It's at this point that I'm particularly glad that my daughter gave me Klement Preus' book The Fire and the Staff (CPH, 2004) for Christmas. I have only begun this work, but two items were especially comforting to me as a pastor. The first occurs early in the book as Preus confesses his seeming failure in campus ministry at the University of North Dakota. To his fellow pastors he admitted:

"During my whole ministry I have been listening to the glowing success stories of other pastors. I have felt intimidated by those who obviously knew an awful lot more than me about growing their churches. Out of sheer self-doubt I have shirked the daunting task of saving the world. I have felt guilty because my Gospel presentation is apparently not winsome enough. I have lost sheep and lost sleep. My joy has taken a vacation and my natural optimism has deserted me, all because I have not done what the experts said. And I refuse to tell you gentlemen how great my current ministry is. It's bad. All the numerical indicators are down. I am losing members. I am losing leaders.....Yet, gentlemen, despite this terrible news I still think that God is doing just find in my church, and I think I am too. Here is stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me."

Much to his surprise the pastors applauded. He said, "Later I realized why the men applauded. I had put words to their own feelings. These pastors were faithfully serving small, rural congregations in shrinking communities. They were, demographically speaking, in the wilderness with no view of the Promised Land. But they were still faithful, even vibrant, ministers of Christ. Most of these pastors had already learned that the indicators of success in the ministry have always been the same. We call them the marks of the church." By the "marks" he was referring to Word and Sacrament.

I knew this even before I read it. But it was nice to hear him say it again. Although I have long known that "success" in the ministry, if one dares to use such a word, is never measured by numbers. Sure, numbers can be an indicator of trouble at times. And yes, a church whose pews are rapidly emptying due to an inept and unfaithful shepherd needs to be addressed. But that's not the normal situation.

A little later Preus also takes a swing at the Church Growth movement and their fascination with numbers. "I have often heard Church Growth advocates use the statistics in the Book of Acts to justify their expectation for numerical growth in the church. I am impressed with the remarkable growth reported in the first six chapters of Acts. Everything seems wonderful until you read these ominous words: 'And there arose on that day a great persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles' (Acts 8:1). After that, the Jerusalem church never grew again. Is this failure? Had they not read about the 44 ways to increase church attendance?"

My church is one of those rural churches in a demographically challenged area. Overall we are fortunate that we are not shrinking faster than many rural churches. This is a very stable congregation with a lot of children and young families. And last night I also found out that our giving increased in December even as the overall attendance decreased from the previous year. Yet when all is said and done, the numbers simply don't tell the complete story, or even a fraction of it. I'm even wondering now why I put them all together for the report. For those fixated on such things it too often encourages people to develop myopic pessimism.

For now the only number that matters is the one solitary figure on the cross, and the unlimited grace which he won for all people. As long as that doesn't change, I'll be ok.