Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Limits of Technology and the Church

On Gene Veith's blog an interesting topic was posted. It concerned the idea of online confession and absolution. The topic was launched by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway's reference to numerous online sites that encourage confession and the unloading of one's troubled conscience anonymously to some website. Numerous opinions have been given, and I would tend to side with those who are uncomfortable with this practice. As Veith's pastor reminded us from St. Paul, "all things may be lawful," but not all things "are helpful." That is, not all things "build up" (1 Cor. 10:23).

This discussion is a helpful reminder of the limitations of technology and matters of faith. There is no denying that email and the Internet have offered an invaluable colloquium and a helpful forum for discussion and debate. For some people isolated by distance and circumstance this has been the only way to engage in meaningful dialogue with those who share their views or are informed enough to effectively debate their points. Given the continued fracture of many church denominations between the poles of liberal and conservative, with people alienated in the process, sometimes the Internet is the only means of finding a compassionate fellowship for support. For these reasons and others I would not want to see this resource lost.

However, in a society that is becoming increasingly impersonal and selfishly turned in on itself, this technology can often serve the dark purpose of encouraging an unhealthy isolation without a corresponding accountability. The genius of membership in the 'real time' environment of a church is that people are accountable to their own shepherd and flock, and that they can also benefit from the real, physical comfort of fellow believers who care. Add to this the simple yet profound theological truth of the incarnation; namely, that God took on human flesh and dwelt among us. His very words were "enfleshed," not simply printed and disseminated. As good as the Internet and related forms of technology may be, the words on this screen can never take on the 'enfleshed' character that is Christ. It can only mirror it at best.

In the end relationships must be consummated by the mutual physical presence of those in the relationship. A husband may faithfully email his wife from Iraq where he lingers in a protracted tour of duty. This may be a 'life line' of sanity for him in an otherwise insane world where hatred and violence are daily fare. Still, he dreams of being with his wife, not merely communicating by mere words on a screen. The emails cannot substitute for the fullness of their union.

The church is the bride of Christ. And as such her relationship with her Husband cannot be sustained by mere words drifting in cyberspace. It must be consummated by physical connection via water and bread and wine where the realities of his true presence are given and received.

There is a danger in this technological blessing before us. While it brings unprecedented opportunities (which I am realizing even as I write these words for an audience beyond my knowledge), it presents as well a darker flip side of allowing people to live in isolation of the source of life they so desperately need. As for confession: it should be done before a pastor who can hold the penitent responsible and accountable, and before whom he can hear with his own ears the 'living voice' of the shepherd who stands "in the stead" of Christ, declaring his freedom from guilt and his liberty from death.

What We Wear to Church

Since my childhood I have noticed a gradual trend away from formal dress. Less and less people dress up for anything, even weddings or funerals. Blue jeans and a bar jacket are as acceptable attire as a suit and tie. When the banks when to "casual Fridays" I knew that a cultural trend had turned the corner. Banks, it seemed, were the last bastion of crisp formality - that is, after the military - or the church.

In an editorial entitled "What We Wear Says A lot About Our Churches, " Douglas Mendenhall leans toward the opinion that a mixture of casual and formal in the worship place shows more openness to others different than ourselves. We need both the formal and the casual to show that the church is a welcoming place. That's not a bad thought, I suppose. We certainly don't want to turn any away simply because they own less or earn less. Yet I suspect that most people dress the way they do not because of a need to be "welcoming," but simply because of a desire to be comfortable. And more and more the idea of being comfortable is of the highest priority in any public setting. It drives architecture and business and most certainly the service industry. And, of course, it is driving the church. Making people comfortable is a prime concern.

So, if that is true, using Mendenhall's question, what does this say about our churches? I fear that it says we have been losing a sense of being in the presence of our holy God. Unlike Moses there is no need to alter our dress or approach, for there is no 'burning bush' to face. Altars have disappeared in favor of stages, theater seats have replaced pews, and even clergy dress down in polo shirts, shunning robes and suits. Sermons become talks about 'felt needs,' and carefully avoid any mention of sin and judgment and repentance.

Have you ever noticed that in big trials the accused is carefully dressed in a nice suit, as is his lawyer? He needs to appear as if he is respectful of the setting and the judge. They even rise when the judge enters. Why is it that we dress our criminals up in suits for court, but dress down our children for church, where we stand before the most holy judge of the universe, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? One wonders.

In my first parish I remember a man by the name of Marty, who made an impression on my regarding church and dress. He was in his 20's or 30's and had a real need for serious dental work. When he came to church he went straight for the coffee urn and took his Styrofoam cup into the sanctuary and waited for the service. Obviously he was not accustomed to being in a church. Yet one thing strikes me. After a I while he came dressed in a suit. It didn't fit well, and was probably purchased at a second-hand shop. But he dressed up! Instinctively this unchurched man must have know he was something special. Why do our churched people feel so different?

What do our clothes say about our churches? I think they say more than we'd like to admit. Admittedly it's a cultural matter. The Bible does not specify exactly what we ought to wear. However, the Bible does describe what we encounter in the worshiping assembly, and that alone should affect how we approach God and the holy gifts he offers. I am not calling for everyone to dress up in fine suits and expensive dresses. Not everyone has a budget for this. But everyone has clothing they would wear to a nicer occasion than the local ball game. Would it not be nice for at least this level of attire to be used in the presence of God?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The "Age Wave" and the Church

As a Baby Boomer I was part of that grand surge of births following WWII, which crested in '63 and redefined its time. With these numbers no longer in play at the elementary or secondary school levels, school systems designed to serve this age surge are now rapidly downsizing and cutting programs. Well, the Baby Boomers are not finished causing change. Like a slow moving glacier this generation is cutting through the soil of society and cutting a new path now that they are entering their "golden" retirement years. Health care, retirement funds, the employment sector, nursing care, and even the church are all beginning a new period of change and adaptation.

Dr. Cliff Pederson calls this demographic "age wave" an "age tsunami." In the Spring issue of Issues in Christian Education he writes that the "challenge of the 21st century is not mere-aging - it is mass-aging. Never before in human history have we experienced so many older adults over the age of 65. The challenges and opportunities associated with mass-aging are unlike any demographic change this country has ever known, unlike any political or social movement in any generation and unlike any government reform ever experienced."

By the year 2010 - only four years hence - our population of 65 and over Americans will reach 39 million. By 2030 (when I am 70) it will surge to 70 million. Pederson notes that "this represents an unprecedented 77 percent growth rate, with one of every five Americans over the age of 65." The increases will only continue reaching a third of all Americans by 2050 (when I will probably be in heaven!).

Pederson comments that the "world has never experienced mass-aging before the 21st century. It is not that we are unacquainted with the effects of aging, but we have never before confronted them in such large numbers." And the church, according to Pederson, "is leading the mass-aging demographic." Lutherans, in particular, have a median age already in the 50's, compared to society at large which is still in the 30's.

So how will this impact the church? I think it already is. The WWII generation is in the process of dying off now, and these dear people were the backbone of the church's volunteer corps and its steady contributors. My church, for example, was built by this generation and the one before it. The Baby Boomers, by contrast, are a different lot. Blessed by more freedom and more time to recreate, along with greater incomes to do so, they appear to be a less settled and more transient people, less committed to the arrangements of their forefathers.

They, for example, are the generation that decided to redefine the worship of the church, catering to the Baby Boomer rebellion of all things formal and ritualistic, in favor of loose, casual and shallow entertainment models. Although they have not sacrificed all that came before, they are far less devoted to the past.

In this generation more have been working outside the home. In the 'old days' many church functions, such as the venerable ladies groups, were run by women who were 'stay-at-home-moms' or one of the many women working on farms. This is no longer true. Organizations founded by pre-Boomer adults are graying and turning white with age, and their models do not fit the Boomer lifestyle.

Boomers, who have more time for travel and vacation, and enjoy other forms of recreation along with their very involved children, are less able to serve in volunteer posts in congregations, even though one would think that ours was a time of unprecedented volunteer opportunties. Talk to any congregational president who has ever tried to recruit candidates for the annual election of officers and hear his deep sigh of frustration at being turned down over and over again. This generation is less willing, it seems, to commit. They have too many irons in the fire to do so.

Thus, the church is going to have to rework how it accomplishes many of its tasks, from funeral dinners, to youth work, to staffing the Sunday School and annual VBS. Already it has been discovered that Boomers prefer "task groups" and brief working committees to multiple year commitments.

Now it's a bit dangerous to lump all of this generation into one monolithic entity, and we should understand that older Boomers and younger Boomers are not all of the same mold. The comments above fit younger Boomers more closely than some of the eldest.

But there are other challenges on the horizon as well. Dr. Pederson notes one in particular that I believe will have far reaching effects. It is the "challenge of postmodernity." He writes that "the faith of older adults is under attack and not as stable as we once thought....To understand that Christian adults, in their 50s and 60s, were nurtured and educated in a modernist world. They learned to value objectivity, scientific knowledge, technology, progress, linear thinking, analytical reasoning and practical experimentation. Through their Christian education (sermons, Sunday School, confirmation, Bible reading and memorization, etc.) they adopted a worldview that included revelation as well as reason as foundations for prepositional truth that could either be confirmed or proven false. They were positive people believing that the mega-problems of the world and the soul could be solved."

However, things have changed. "At the beginning of the 21st century the modern, rational world in which older adults were raised has caved in on itself. Today's older adults are caught in the channel-surfing world of postmodernity that has lost the capacity for linear and analytical reasoning. The rational world of their formative years has been replaced by a subjective, psychological and feel-based worldview that leaves our older adults with a sense that they are bizarre relics of a future that never came."

Obviously the effects of these changes will be long lasting and will impact the church in ways she has not known for a long time. I believe that we will be well served to look back in history to how the church weathered other such changes to avoid their pitfalls, if possible. For example, when Rationalism and the Enlightenment hit the church around the 18th and 19th centuries, many aspects of the faith either gave in to this liberal view or enclosed themselves in their own little worlds. We can afford to do neither. But the temptation is there.

Although the eroding of values and tradition has been occurring during all of the 20 years of my ministry, I am hopeful that the treasures of the church can be kept intact for the generations yet to come. Even as churches fall into the pit of relevancy, jettisoning all that is old and past, others hold on, bucking this passing trend, and wait for the day when the treasures will once again be needed. I see my little rural church as a mission outpost, not unlike the days of the early medieval missionary-monks who settled in the midst of pagan worlds, trying to shed light on one corner of a very dark and troubled world.

So are we ready for this age wave? Yes and no. But it is not too late. We have to shed our preoccupation with the youth culture and focus again on the fundamental challenges of ministering to people as they approach heaven. Nurturing old memories and long forgotten truths is critical to preparing these adults for their final journey. And yes, the church will change. But the essence of her identity will remain intact. We also must redefine how we accomplish many of the traditional auxiliary tasks, finding new ways to staff. The people are there in great numbers. We just have to figure out how to direct them effectively.

And above all we must proclaim the unchanging Truth of Christ. Forget the feel-good sermons and pop culture attractants that we think will win others over to the church. We do not have the luxury of such experimentation when eternity looms much closer.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Personal Anniversary

Normally I use this blog to report and analyze events impacting the church-at-large. However, today is a special day for me and I wanted to pause for a moment to give a word of thanks to God and reflect on the past. Twenty years ago I was ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry. The picture at the right is a young 26 year old pastor, fresh out of seminary, pleasantly oblivious to the pressures and struggles he has yet to experience. He is standing just outside the sanctuary at his home church, Trinity Lutheran Church of Wausau, Wisconsin. Over the next two decades he will find his abilities and competence stretched to their limit, and more than once will wonder if he should leave this vocation and find another. Doubt will stalk him again and again.

On the other hand he will also be touched deeply by the bonds of Christian friendship and the trust people will place in him as he is welcomed into the inner sanctum of their private lives. He will marry young couples and baptize some of their babies and rejoice in the wonder of new human beginnings. He will bury the dead and begin more and more to think of his own passing. He will counsel the troubled and discover that Paul was right when he said that "we walk by faith and not by sight." And he will stand in God's presence at the altar and know that it is here, where the Word is proclaimed and the Supper is celebrated, that he will find the strength to fulfill his Call.

Twenty years later he is still a pastor, although he realizes that this is God's doing, not his own. Left to his own human weaknesses he very well could have left long ago. The future? Unwritten. He doesn't know what it brings. However, after two decades he knows not to take himself too seriously. He realizes that in the long run life is measured not in the hours or minutes of a current crisis, but in the years of faithfulness where the shepherd remains with his sheep, trusting in the perfect will of God.

Jesus once contrasted the hireling with the true shepherd, saying that the hireling runs away at the sign of danger, but the shepherd stays to defend the sheep. He was talking of himself, but by extension, every pastor is a kind of "icon of Christ," modeling this sacrificial love of the Good Shepherd. Pastors today are often modeled after CEOs and coaches, working hard to rally the people to new and exciting projects. I have sat in the administrator's chair and directed the workings of a large complex parish. Still, in the end it was not here, but again at the altar that my calling was found. And it was in the shadow of the Shepherd that I found the strength to stay and fight the evil the assails the Church, and not run as my weak flesh so desperately desired.

Twenty years. It's hard to believe it's been that long. But a look in the mirror reveals many well-earned gray hairs in my beard, and far fewer hairs on the crown of my head. There are lines around the eyes now. I can't even imagine what I will see twenty years from now. But it doesn't matter. Every day is a gift, an opportunity of grace to serve. So I will serve today just as I did the day before. God will take care of the future.

For twenty years of blessings unimagined and for the sheer grace of your forgiveness to a fallen sinner called to serve the Master, I offer my thanks this day to my Lord and my God. I am here because you gave me the voice to say, "Here am I, send me." And I will be here tomorrow because of the same grace. Remain with me, Lord, for I am weak. But in you, I can still be more than a conqueror.

With thankfulness to Christ for twenty years of his love and strength and undeserved honor in service - 1987-2007.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Conflicts Over the Return of the Latin Mass?

As many may be aware, increasing numbers of Catholic parishes have been returning to the Tridintine Latin Mass. Although certainly not a ground swell that will completely overtake the current practice of the church (proponents of the old Latin mass, it is reported, number no more than 2% of Catholics), there is a growing push for change in some places back to older customs and practices. According to a recent article in US News & World Report, there is a rising interest in the customs and practices of pre-Vatican II Catholicism among younger Catholics, and "a movement is building at seminaries nationwide to do just that: In addition to restoring the Latin mass, young priests are calling for greater devotion to the Virgin Mary, more frequent praying of the rosary, and priests turning away from the congregation as they once did." In addition to this, the author adds, there is a controversial call for "a diminished role for women, who since Vatican II have been allowed to participate in the mass as lay altar servers and readers."

This "Latin movement," however, may create a ripple of controversy in certain parishes. Thomas Reese, a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University predicts "a clash of cultures between clergy and the more liberal congregations as more of these conservative priests graduate and make their presence known." On the other hand, the current pope may relax restrictions on celebrating the 16th-century mass. He has cited "a new and renewed" interest in this ancient Latin liturgy, especially among the younger Catholics.

While the above trend may appear only to be a Catholic phenomenon, there seems to be a parallel experience in the church-at-large. Within Lutheranism (especially the LCMS) I have witnessed a conservative movement that has worked to draw the church back to its more traditional liturgical customs after being inundated for years by pushes for more contemporary music and less structured liturgy (or not liturgy at all), especially in the larger suburban parishes. This, of course, has not been without conflict and controversy, and more than one young pastor has been accused of dividing a church over these changes, and a few have been forced out of their churches by parishes that felt pushed too hard.

I have also read that the younger generations of believers across denominational lines are showing an increased desire to return to older customs and more traditional expressions of Christian spirituality. The Baby Boomers led a movement of their own in rebellion against established church orders and transformed the face of the church. But the Baby Boomers are aging and may be losing some of their grip on the future. It will be interesting to see if movements among younger generations that are being seen now will generate any real substantial change in the way the church worships, or if the trend established by the post-War group will leave a permanent mark.

Being of a traditionalist bent when it comes to worship and church practice, I understand the growing interest in this "Latin movement." Those pushing for these changes claim that they want to restore a greater atmosphere of reverence and beauty in worship that has too often been lacking. They also believe that greater discipline and stricter doctrines will bring renewed interest to the church among some Catholics. As a traditional Lutheran, I sympathize with such sentiments.

On the other hand, though, the push for the Tridinine Mass, from a Lutheran perspective, creates a return to certain expressions of the Catholic faith that were the original issues for dissent among the early reformers of the 16th century. The Rev. Paul McCain on his blog Cyberbrethren notes that it is this very form of the mass that Luther spoke out against so powerfully in the Smallcald Articles, one of the official confessional documents of the Lutheran faith. Unfortunately, the move toward the Tridintine Mass will not help in bridging the theological divide between these two faiths.

On another note, I found it interesting to read of the concerns of Jewish leaders to this "Latin movement." According to the article these leaders "take offense with the older rite's references to Jews as faithless, and they worry that a revival of the old traditions could foster anti-Semitism." This seems a bit over reactionary. But then, that is the nature of the days in which we live.....

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Continuing Shrinking Mainlines

The numbers are out: the Presbyterian Church (USA) dropped by more than 46,000 members in '06. But that is similar news to many mainline denominations in the past few decades, especially the older liberal ones, such as this Presbyterian denomination and the Episcopalians, or the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), which was the 1988 merger of older Lutheran bodies.

One can put forth any number of theories to explain such downturns. In our post-modern society we are well aware that denominational loyalty is at a very low ebb. People simply don't commit to denominational identity any more, or so we are told. They look for what best serves their personal needs and tastes.

However, there are other issues that drive these declines, and the Episcopalians share in this with their Presbyterian cousins. The AP article that reported the decline notes that "The latest drop comes as fighting intensifies within the church over how Presbyterians should interpret Scripture. Congregants are divided over whether the Bible bars gay relationships, among other theological issues."

The question of homosexuality, I believe, will prove to be the major divisive force of our time for the church-at-large. Right now the debate still rages and many are probably just looking and watching to see who wins the debate and the right to change the ancient practice of the church. The United Church of Christ long ago opened up its ordained clergy to actively practicing gays and lesbians, although discussions on the homosexuality issue are still divisive in the rank-and-file. And despite this radical move of freedom their numbers have continued to decline over the years as well. Their latest ad campaign tried to reverse this trends by glorying in their liberal all-inclusiveness by slamming the conservative denominations as being exclusive. The ad pictured pews as ejection-type seats rocketing people out of the church. However, as the American Spectator reports (relating its experiences to the Episcopalians):

"The spiritual descendant of New England's old Puritans, the UCC can claim an historical and social pedigree equal to the Episcopal Church. Both denominations are well-heeled, well educated and disproportionately comprised of social and political elites. Both are also liberal-controlled and suffering steep membership decline.

Despite all of its welcoming and affirming, the UCC has lost one million members over the last 40 years, or over 40 percent of its original membership....Last year's decision by the UCC to become the first major U.S. denomination formally to endorse same-sex 'marriage' only contributed to the UCC's membership plunge. At least one hundred congregations have voted to leave the UCC just since 2005, as recorded by The ultimate number probably will be several times that”

I would like to believe that many Christians simply cannot accept the whole-sale rejection of this biblical truth regarding sexuality, and will finally vote with their feet sending these mainlines more and more into a death spiral. But who knows? In our day people are deeply influenced by relativism and look at what happens around them with the familiar "Whatever!" Still, the numbers do tell a story and show a trend. This has only begun.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reflections on the Venite

The psalm that introduces and anchors the setting of Matins/ Morning Prayer is the 95th, also known as the "venite" from the opening word of the psalm in Latin ("come".) In my church it is sung monthly in the service of Matins, and is also part of my devotional life. As I read it again this morning, I couldn't help but notice the tone it sets for reverent worship in the presence of God.

Although some English translations use the word "worship" in this psalm, a detailed look at the psalm in its original Hebrew will show that this English concept is not present (worth-ship). Rather, the words translated as "worship" have the characteristic Hebrew emphasis on direct action. Worship is bowing down, kneeling, prostrating oneself before the "great King above all gods."

There is the sense here of being in the direct presence of the creator of the universe, and the sense is not at all 'chatty' as one finds too often in the worship language of modern Christians. One does not 'chat' with 'Father God." One "sings to the Lord Yahweh" and comes into the "presence" of the "great God" with "thanksgivings" and singing the ancient psalms.

In my recent blog article on church architecture I bemoaned the "meeting house" style that predominates in too many modern church edifices, and the casualness that often emanates from their worship in such places. The ancient cathedrals of time past forced the eye heavenward to the "great God" who ruled the heavens, and yet drew it earthward also to the altar and its cross, where the great God took on flesh in the person of Jesus. In churches that simply emphasize emotions over awe, the great God of the Venite is substituted for a Mister Rogers type of deity who commands no such reverence, but rather comes to make us feel good about ourselves.

Sometimes the word "fear" is used in connection with God, and this makes people uncomfortable. Although I answer that it is synonymous with "reverence" in many cases, one wonders if more godly "fear" might not be helpful. As so many Christians skip through life indifferent to the Word of God as it speaks to their lifestyle choices, a word of godly fear might be more in order these days.

Moses was told to take off his sandals before the Burning Bush, for he stood, Yahweh told him, "on holy ground." We need to rediscover that the ground on which we worship is indeed holy - set apart in the presence of the great God. And our knees must be bent in humble repentance, our backs bowed in awed wonder before this King of Kings. This is the posture of one coming for mercy. This is the position of true faithful worship.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fellowship at the Altar

If there is one issue that greatly confuses and concerns members of my church body it has to be fellowship and the Lord's Supper. Many churches today practice a very loose fellowship where the criteria for participation is the bare minimum of agreement on Jesus and real presence. Some denominations practice a completely open fellowship where everyone is invited, regardless of belief. Thus, when church bodies like the LCMS declare their fellowship at the altar to be one of "close" or "closed" fellowship as it is called, some people cringe in a way similar to those who have heard a derogatory or racist comment.

The fear is that we are denying a gift freely given that is not ours to withhold. Or that we are somehow unfairly judging the faith of the potential communicant and declaring ourselves to be spiritually superior. It is easy to see how one can come to these conclusions. Still, they are not correct.

The Supper on any given Sunday is celebrated at many tables and many altars. With the variety offered in today's denominational landscape it would not be difficult to find a church or denomination that fits the theological convictions of any given person. Thus, one could always find a place to commune, even if one or two altars were closed to their participation.

Unfortunately many church goers think little about what their church or any other believes. One can frequently hear a person saying that "they all believe in the same God," thus, they must be all the same. Simple logic, but one with a huge, gaping hole. Doctrine is a unified and interrelated whole, not a loose and unrelated collection of stray teachings. Take one out and the rest are affected. For example, belief in the real presence is intimately tied to ones understanding of the attributes of Christ and the communication of his natures. You simply cannot deny his real bodily presence and hold to the teaching that Christ, according to his human nature, enjoys the attributes of divinity, one of which is omnipresence.

For confessional Lutheran church bodies like the LCMS, fellowship at the altar has demonstrated an outward unity of faith. As Paul reminds us, we proclaim the Lord's atoning death each time we commune. It is not a matter of simply receiving, we are also proclaiming by our very presence. Thus, we ask that communicants be committed to the teaching of the church as we proclaim it, and be willing to do so publicly. However, many Christians today believe that faith is a person matter between them and God alone. Thus, some of the consternation.

Lutherans have also been conscious that one can eat and drink at the Table either to ones spiritual health or to ones spiritual condemnation. In Paul's day the judgement of God expressed itself very clearly in untimely deaths in Corinth when these people disregarded the presence of Christ and approached the table in irreverence and selfishness. Feeling truly responsible for the spiritual health of all, Lutherans have historically been quick to protect the potential communicant from spiritual harm by making sure they are adequately instructed and prepared. Again, many people disregard such caution as unnecessary, which may be due, in part, to a view of the Supper that is more Reformed, where the Supper is just a symbolic act.

However, Lutherans are not alone in their concern for fellowship at the Table. Roman Catholics have published statements in their own worship booklets regarding such matters. For example, the statement addressed to "Other Christians" (which I have seen in Catholic worship booklets) reads:
"We welcome to this celebration of the Eucharist those Christians who are not fully united with us. It is a consequence of the sad divisions in Christianity that we cannot extend to them a general invitation to receive Communion. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is an action of the celebrating community signifying a oneness in faith, life, and worship of the community. Reception of the Eucharist by Christians not fully united with us would imply a oneness which does not yet exist, and for which we must all pray."

I respect such a statement. It is honest and actually expresses much of what I, as a Lutheran, also believe about fellowship and the Supper. Unfortunately we live in an era that has looked down on the value of doctrinal faithfulness, and even certain leaders within the broader Evangelical community are speaking out against this laxity in their own midst. The mega churches of today practice a very loose fellowship, where the door is a revolving one, constantly spinning as people exit and enter at will. Commitment is a hard word for people raised in a promiscuous and permissive society that values uncontrolled freedom over discipline. Close(d) communion practices fly in the face of this societal laxity.

It is a shame that we have also lost our moorings to the Early Church in this area. Faced with such devastating heresies as Arianism, church leaders in the early centuries took great pains to make sure that those at their altars possessed the right, saving faith in Christ, and were not deniers of his divinity. They actually carried letters from their pastors or bishops to vouch for their orthodoxy. How far we have drifted from their concerns and their respect of the blessed Sacrament.

Fellowship at the Table will always be the thorn in the side of confessing church bodies as long as there are those who hold up openness at the altar as the true Christian ideal. Yet even Jesus admitted that his coming would bring more strife than peace at times. Christ is a divisive figure for many today, and that should not surprise us when they demand their rights at His Table with indifference to His own Word.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Church Architecture

As I have watched recent building projects in my area, I have noticed that architecture is finally moving away from the sterility of the 50's, 60's and 70's. What I mean is, that from my perspective, there is a move to incorporate texture and beauty back into the structure, as opposed to the boxy 'industrial' look of so much the the modern building in the last few decades. It is almost a kind of "retro" approach, reaching back to another era for inspiration. Look at the downtown projects in some cities, for example. Notice the arcane lamp posts and cobblestone sidewalks.

All of this then brings me to thinking about church architecture. In some ways it seems like a reversal. Instead of incorporating more art, there is a pragmatic move to make it as functional as possible. Looking at my church here in the country I am amazed at the rich historic appearance and the attention to art in service of the Gospel. It was built in the early 1950's in the middle of farm country, making one think that the pragmatic approach of much church budgeting would have resulted in a simpler structure. Yet the sanctuary windows are all traditional stained glass, with a beautiful "rose" style window at the back of the sanctuary in honor of the Trinity. A statue of the ascending Christ adorns the sturdy stone altar. The font, as well, is an eight-sided solid Indiana limestone structure. The exterior is done entirely in tan brick, with an imposing bell tower to its side with medieval castle-like crenelation.

I have often said that if this church were being built today it would not appear as it does. The cost would be prohibitive for most church-goers, who would see such details as excessive and unnecessary.

Admittedly I am not a great fan of modern church architecture, owing to my rather traditional bent. However, whether contemporary or traditional, the structure of a church is unique, at least if you are from a liturgically-minded church body - and it should reflect the sacramental life within. Our American forefathers contented themselves in Puritan fashion with "meeting houses." They were simply places to come together and pray and hear the Word, nothing more. The church growth movement of the last few decades has been a kind of 'throw-back' to this time, crafting huge theaters with massive stages and gargantuan jumbo tron screens. They are simply the old meeting houses on steroids. Rich art in the form of stained glass, statuary, painting, and relief work is sacrificed for PowerPoint and slide presentations that change every week based on the preacher's theme.

The medieval cathedrals of long ago were carefully crafted icons of the Gospel intended for a largely illiterate public. Yet they were also enduring monuments of the central themes of the Scripture's story, taking the worshiper to Christ and reminding them of the story of salvation. People today may think this unduly repetitive, since the story of salvation has often given way to practical concerns of daily living. And that is unfortunate. Our people are impoverished for this lack of beauty in service of the Gospel.

Yet this is a different time. Crosses are hindrances to reaching the unchurched, so we are told, so we remove them to keep from offending. Instead of entering a different world where we worship with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven - and where we should be pointed to heave and the kingdom yet to come - we sit down in folding theater seats in our shorts and sandals for a show, hardly noticing at all that we left the world from which we came.

I hope that this era passes quickly and we can learn from business that there is still a need for beauty. Even more, the Gospel, being the greatest treasure of all, should be appropriately adorned that the believer is compelled to give glory to God. For now I guess I'll stay in my arcane little edifice and wait for the tide to turn.....

[P. S. Although not the best photograph, the first picture is my church, St. Peter Lutheran in Polar, Wisconsin.]

Saturday, June 9, 2007

+ St. Columba of Iona +

When people think of the evangelization work of the Irish, they inevitably think of St. Patrick, a once enslaved British youth who returned to his former captors to bring the Gospel. However, another equally significant figure in Irish evangelistic efforts is the Irish missionary of the Early Middle Ages known as Columba of Iona (521-597). Columba was instrumental in introducing the Gospel to the ancient kingdom of the Picts, a confederation of tribes that eventually became Scotland.

Columba, also credited with revitalizing monasticism in his era, turned a base for contemplation into a base for missions, using the island of Iona to spearhead efforts to plant churches and spread the Good News of Christ throughout the land of Scotland.

As a Scotch-Irish descendant of the Macauleys, I appreciate the dedication and hard work of this tireless missionary to a people that were not his own. Knowing that the Picts were often a formidable foe of the Romans, it must have taken great courage to work with these pagan warriors. My forefathers were able to hear and believe, in part, because this man heard the call to go and make disciples of all nations.

To all who still labor as missionaries, whether to distant exotic lands or to the unbelieving neighbor next door, a blessed St. Columba day (he died on June 9)! May his example inspire the church anew to faithful missionary work in every generation.

[P.S. Saints Boniface and Columba represent a fascinating era of missionary work in the Early Middle Ages where Europe and the British Isles were first evangelized. Does anyone know of a readable history of missions from this era that concentrates on mission work to Europe and Britain?]

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

+ St. Boniface, Apostle to the Germans +

I missed the commemoration of Boniface, which is technically June 5, but did not want to miss the opportunity to recognize this important figure in the early evangelization of the Germanic lands. Boniface (c. 672-754), who was originally from England, felt compelled to take Christ to the pagan land of Frisia and later to the Frankish realm, a territory that encorporates what today would include Germany, France and the Netherlands. The most celebrated story of this 8th century missonary is his bold attempt to cut down the "holy tree" of Thor's Oak. It was a pagan holy site and the people believed that his effort to destroy it would result in him being struck dead. When he wasn't they began to see that maybe their pagan gods were not all powerful. I commend Boniface for his courage, for certainly he knew the risks of being an Elijah against the Baal prophets of his day.

In fact this God-given courage resulted eventually in his martyrdom in the land he first tried to evangelize - Frisia. Again, it was his effort to destroy their pagan shrines that brought about his execution. However, as Tertullian said in his day, the blood of the martyrs is often the seed of the chruch. Boniface's efforts were not in vain, and those of us of Germanic heritage owe a prayer of thanks for his missonary work over 1,200 years ago.

I believe that our modern missionary efforts may need to look back to those days of the early Middle Ages for guidance and encouragement as we face the increasing paganization of Eurpose and even our own country.

A more detailed history of this missionary of the early Medieval era can be found in an article on Wikipedia bearing his name.

A blessed St. Boniface day to all!

Dealing with Anti-Trinitarian Cults

The recently celebrated festival of the Holy Trinity is always a reminder that we live in a world where the doctrine of God is still questioned widely, even attacked - and by those who claim to be representatives of biblical truth. The Gospel reading this Sunday (LCMS, Three Year Series, C) was from John 8:48-59, where Jesus is confronted by the Jews as demon-possessed for his claims of divinity. Our Lord's patient responses are impressive, yet at the same time his firm and honest rebuttal reminds us that He will not let their lies remain unchallenged. It is clear that he wants them to come to the truth, to receive the life he offers.

One modern day illustration of this John 8 situation seems to be played out when cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and LDS (Mormons) send their followers out door-to-door to lure Christians away from the Truth. Although often appearing polite and not intending to attack the Truth, they come as those representing religions that actively condemn the orthodox faith regularly confessed in the church's historic creeds. The JWs indicate that they believe the doctrine of the Trinity to be of pagan origin, and that Jesus, while having divine-like qualities, is nevertheless a created being, often mistook for Michael the Archangel. These attacks on the Trinity are published and distributed widely, and are offered to unsuspecting Christians right at the sanctity of their homes.

Recently I ran a Bible class where one session was devoted to equipping people to answer the challenges of JWs to the doctrine of the Trinity and Christ's divinity. I fear that many Christians are ill-equipped to "give a reason for the hope that is within them," and when questioned may find themselves actively wondering if what they once believed is true.

On the other hand many Christians also take an alternate route and simply shut (or slam) the door and walk the other way. Those unfamiliar with the JWs may not realize that by this gesture they actually encourage the person at their door to leave even more convinced of their role as a martyr for Jehovah. Not to mention the poor witness we give by our rude behavior.

But how should we respond? By all means politeness is a given. Yet that does not mean agreement or willingness to let them be the dominant force in the presentation or discussion. Jesus called the Jews "liars." He revealed their attacks on the very truth of Holy Scripture. We should not be so polite that we are unwilling to show these misguided missionaries that they are attacking the truth of God himself and as such are in danger of being lost for all eternity.

More catechesis must be done today with our lay people regarding the cults. The early church presbyter Arius was deceitfully effective in spreading his denial of the truth of Christ's divinity through the medium of a cleverly devised song. Much of the Roman empire became influenced. And they didn't even have the Internet or TV. The modern day descendants of Arius and other heretics have at their disposal a far greater arsenal of weapons to attack the Truth. We need to be teaching now, not later. Our sheep are exposed to the wolves.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

You Can't Return to a Perfect Past

In a Sunday commentary article for The Post-Crescent of the Appleton-Fox Cities area, Lyle Boggs takes issue with "religious extremists" (as he calls them) who call for a return to a better time. Specifically he is referring to those who want to return to "the Christian values that this nation was founded upon." He states that in this search they have "tied their current search for purity to a narrow vision of the past."

Instead of going back to the founding of the country, Mr. Boggs takes a look at the era of the 50's which many fondly look back to as a more innocent era with far greater respect for Christian values (e.g. prayer in school.) Naturally, he finds many examples in counterargument that the 50's had their own blights, such as racism and various incidents of inequality. Looking even further he also takes note of the "campaigns of genocide against the Native Americans and 200 years of slavery..."

Without taking issue with Mr. Bogg's specific historical examples, or his thinly veiled dislike for conservative Christians who believe in absolutes, I have to agree with one thing: you can't return to a perfect past. For a perfect past never existed (save the Garden of Eden before the Fall.) Christians are admittedly guilty of sometimes spending too much time longing for a vision of what never really was. I know I have been. We sometimes think that it was better "way back then." It wasn't better. It was only different.

And Ozzie and Harriet were never real.

Not that we shouldn't look back to the past for guidance and correction on our misdirections of the present. There were some things our forefathers of the past did well. But we must never forget that each era was tainted and corrupted by the universal sin of Adam's fall in Eden. Each historical period is bloodied by murder and darkened by hate and violence, and smeared with the blindness of unbelief and licentiousness.

The Christian, therefore, is a forward-looking person who longs for the day of Christ's return, when the "new heaven and the new earth" will restore what was intended for us in Eden. Unlike the millenialists we do not look for the coming paradise on earth. We are not repristinationists, either, who believe we can recreate what we thought the past was. Instead, we collect and conserve the best of the past, and carry it into the present to use for the sake of the Gospel, and the good of mankind.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Football Chaplain Endangers Separation Between Church and State, Detractors Clalim

As a chaplain for a volunteer fire department, I found the AP news brief out of Des Moines this week disappointing. Apparently more than 100 faculty members at Iowa State University have signed a petition that opposes the football coach's plan to establish a chaplain as an official member of the team's staff.

Although the position will be funded by private donations, and despite the fact that there is a well established precedent both in the government and private sector for chaplains, faculty claim that "hiring a chaplain is improper at a public university given the separation between church and state. And they said the move would favor Christianity over other religions. 'Are you going to have counseling for Jewish students? Muslim students? There's no such thing as one religion or one version of Christianity,' said Dr. Hector Avolos, a professor of religious studies at ISU.' "

And how have similar positions in the military, public safety organizations, service clubs, and even industry created such a situation that the nation has not cried foul long before now? This is ridiculous! As a nation we have an enviable history of including pastoral care in the public sphere while still respecting and honoring each person's religious beliefs and convictions. When I was interviewed as part of my application for a chaplain's commission in the U.S. Navy, I was specifically asked how I might handle a situation involving a request from a Muslim solider. In this case it involved copies of the Qu'ran (Koran). Simple - acquisition the books. Period.

A chaplain recognizes that he lives between two worlds, and in so far as it does not compromise his faith, he can serve outside the parameters of his specific role. In the military chaplains serve at times as morale officers. Sometimes they teach classes that involve important life issues affecting soldiers and their families. As a chaplain for the fire department it would be my policy that if a person in need, be it a firefighter or victim, was of a faith different than my own, I would work to find other clergy to serve them. It's really not that difficult to work out.

I hope that ISU rethinks this matter.

Friday, June 1, 2007

+ St. Justin the Martyr +

Today is the recognized commemoration of the first century apologist Justin Martyr (100-165). An apologist is a defender of the faith. In modern use the word "apology" is usually understood as a polite excuse and expression of regret. However, the meaning here is from the root meaning of the Greek word apologia, namely reason or defense.

The latest hymnal of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service Book, now has a section of commemorations that includes this early father of the faith. This is encouraging, as even Lutherans have developed a bit of the Protestant amnesia when it comes to the history of the church (see my previous article on "Lessons from History"). In previous Lutheran hymnals only those figures referenced directly in the Bible were mentioned, with the possible exception of St. Lorenz, which was probably a concession to the "mother church" of the Bavarians in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Nevertheless, the Augsburg Confession, article 21 states that "Our churches teach that the remembrance of the saints is to be commended in order that we may imitate their faith and good works according to our calling." These "saints" include many of the notable personalities of the church throughout time, not just up through the death of the last apostle.

A nice summary of Justin's life and work may be found in the Wikipedia article bearing his name. As the title attached to his name indicates, Justin is known, in part, as one of the many brave Christians who died for the faith, in his case by being beheaded along with six other companions. He was a converted pagan who studied philosophy. After conversion to the faith he continued to wear his philosopher's robe as a sign that he had found the truth. It is believed that he eventually settled in Rome and established a school there.

A fair amount of literature exists by his pen, which includes two well-known Apologies. These are addressed to the Emperor and senate in defense of Christianity in response to the false accusations against the church, as a reasoned bridge between paganism and Christianity, and to give an insight into the liturgical life of the Early Church.

Justin writes: "For sound reason not only demands that we do not heed those who did or taught anything wrong, but it requires that the lover of truth must choose, in every way possible, to do and say what is right, even when threatened with death, rather than save his own life." One would hope that this courageous and bold spirit is still alive among many in our church today, for there is a renaissance of paganism in our time, and men like Justin and needed more than ever.

Justin also appeals to them that "after an accurate and thorough examination" they would "hand down a decision that will not be influenced by prejudice or by the desire to please superstitious men; a decision that will not be the result of an irrational impulse or of an evil rumor long persistent, lest it become a judgment against yourselves." Such words need to be repeated to the current enemies of the church that seek just as diligently to discredit Christians based on half-truths, rumor, and innuendo. We deserve, as all people, to be judged on the objective truth of what we proclaim and do, not on what people have developed in caricatures of us. "It is our duty, therefore," writes Justin, "to give everyone a chance of investigating our life and doctrines, lest we should pay the penalty for what they commit in their blindness, they who persist in being ignorant of our ways."

Justin is also bold to explain the demonic influence behind false gods that many 'politically correct' people today would be loathe to do. His awareness of the reality of the demonic realm would appear to some as overly mystic or superstitious. He writes that "the truth shall be told, for the wicked demons from ancient times appeared and defiled women, corrupted boys, and presented such terrifying sights to men that those who were not guided by reason in judging these diabolical acts were panic-stricken. Seized with fear and unaware that these were evil demons, they called them gods and greeted each by the name which each demon had bestowed upon himself."

For those who object to the Christian faith, one popular reason given is the so-called violence and injustice they have read about in the actions of those in the past, especially indicting the time of the Crusades. Although others are quick to indict all Christians based on the actions of only a few in any era. Justin seemed to have faced this problem as well. He asks that those so-called Christians "arrested and convicted as criminals" be judged on their personal offenses, "so that whoever is convicted may be punished as an offender, not as a Christian."

Aside from these matters Justin's description of the worshipping assembly is equally valuable to us today, especially in light of those who have deviated from the one, true faith and justify this on the basis of scripture, ignorant of what the Early Church believed and practiced. Regarding fellowship at the Table Justin willingly admits that already in the second century communicants were limited to those who have "acknowledged the truth of our teachings, who [have] been cleansed by baptism for the remission of sins and for [their] regeneration, and who regulates [their] life upon the principles laid down by Christ." Obviously the practice of "open communion" was unknown in the Early Church, and that they recognized the need for responsible pastoral care of those who communed.

Justin furthermore supports the real presence in the sacrament. It is no mere "ordinary bread" or "ordinary wine." Rather, he notes that the church even then believed that this is rather the "flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh."

For those Christians such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and those of various cults and sects that insist that it is sub-Christian to worship on Sunday verses Saturday, there is no support from this ancient father. He also gives us a 'snapshot' of early Christian worship, showing us how much our own practice relfects that of the ancient church. Justin writes that "On the day which is called Sunday we have a common assembly of all who live in the cities or in the outlying districts, and the memoirs of the Apostles [Gospels] or the writings of the prophets are read as long as there is time. Then when the reader has finished, the president of the assembly verbally admonishes and invites all to imitate such examples of virtue. Then we all stand up together and offer up our prayers, and as we said before, after we finish our prayers, bread and wine and water are presented. He who presides likewise offers up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the people express their approval by saying 'Amen.' The Eucharistic elements are distributed and consumed by those present, and to those who are absent they are sent through the deacons. The wealthy, if they wish, contribute whatever they desire, and the collection is placed in the custody of the president. With it he helps the orphans and widows, those who are needy because of sickness or any other reason, and the captives and strangers in our midst; in short, he takes care of all those in need. Sunday, indeed, is the day on which we all hold our common assembly because it is the first day on which God, transforming the darkness and prime matter, created the world; and our Savior Jesus Christ arose from the dead on the same day. Fro they crucified Him on the day before that of Saturn, and on the day after, which is Sunday, He appeared to His Apostles and disciples, and taught them the things which we have passed on to you...." [From: Readings in Church History, Vol. I, ed. by Colman J. Barry, O.S.B] --Incidently, it would be nice to see the church reclaim its original role in the support of the poor, a role, in some ways, long since abdicated to the state, which has had a checked history in its success in this area.

There is much more that could be shared that Justin has left us, but this is sufficient to demonstrate his great contribution to the church of his day as well as ours, nearly 2,000 years later. His voice is needed again. May others so gifted take up the apologist's mantle and bravely proclaim Christ and the Truth of his life, death, and resurrection, to our pagan and evil culture today!

A blessed St. Justin's day to all!