Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Joys of Ministering to the Dying, the Greiving and the Soon-to-be-Married

Looking at the date of my last post, I was surprised to see that my absence from blogging has been a whole week now. As a parish pastor shepherding the flock takes first priority, and this past week demanded my all and then some. By this time last Tuesday two of my members had died, and with a midweek service and a wedding coming up that Saturday, it was clear that even sleep would be slighted along the way. I preached five times in a period of four days, with Thursday's evening sermon being rewritten for Sunday on that morning, simply because I didn't like the way it flowed the first time. My wife, who heard it on Thursday, actually said she liked it. But I'm the one that has to preach it, and if I don't have a sense of peace about what I am saying I go back and retool the message. God's Word demands the very best of the preacher's art, time constraints notwithstanding.

But far from complaining, you should know that such labor is full of rich rewards for the undershepherd of Christ. Ministering to the dying and the grieving is among some of the most fulfilling tasks of the pastor. Anne, though lost in the fog of dementia, made the good confession soon after her arrival in Hospice. I heard her clear admission of guilt and clear affirmation of faith in the forgiveness of sins through Christ. The first thing she saw from her bed was a picture of Jesus and the cross on the wall. I am grateful that she died in this little Catholic hospital, for where else could I have hoped to have the very walls witness to the hope of salvation? The text for her funeral sermon was Joshua 23: 14, 15. It is part of Joshua's farewell address to the Israelites. Moses' successor reminded the people that not one of Yahweh's promises had failed, despite the fact that there was no shortage of grumbling along the way. Anne, born in 1913, had lived through at least 6 wars and the Great Depression. Those of us much younger can hardly appreciate the challenges faced by her generation. Yet what a pleasure to be reminded that for nearly 94 years Anne could safely say that all of the promises of God were fulfilled, beginning at the font of Baptism where she was made a child of God in Christ.

Harold's death was a surprise that Tuesday, for his stay at the local nursing home came about after a fall caused a broken arm. Other than that he seemed fine. He had been with my parish for less than 7 years, having moved back to the area after a stay in Illinois where he raised his family. As with so many of the aged saints here, I would minister to him only at the end of his life. Yet paging through the church records, his first steps as God's child unfolded in the ancient pen marks on the brittle yellowed pages of this ancient tome. In 1922 he was baptized, years removed from the crises looming with the Stock Market crash of '29. However, in 1936, at the heart of the Great Depression, he sat in an August hot church facing the stern face of Pastor Zuberbeier along with 17 other young people. The good pastor preached that day on the text from Genesis 28:20-22, which is at the end of the story of Jacob's Dream at Bethel. I used the same text for his funeral on Saturday, emphasizing this great statement of faith in the face of uncertainty and fear. In those early years Harold's world here in Langlade County was reeling from a nationwide economic disaster and successive crop failures. A plague of grasshoppers ravaged the countryside. But these German Lutherans would not give up faith. And neither did Harold. Some 70 later, hunched over from age, he would drive the eight miles out into the farm land from which he originally came, to hear the Word of God. He died in the faith into which he was born.

The wedding that followed this funeral brought a very different atmosphere. From grief and sorrow to joy, it is sometimes hard to make this transition when you preach. Still, we stood before those gathered and recalled how God himself was making the two one in Christ, a union unlike any other human relationship known. The groom serves with the Air Force and is currently based out of Colorado Springs. If his back successfully heals he hopes to one day return overseas, maybe to Afghanistan. My prayers go with this young couple. They will face such mammoth pressures if he is deployed again. I pray their union holds against the struggles of a certainly long separation. Still, they were united in Christ. What greater strength could they have and what deeper source of love, than the Savior himself?

Ending my long week I was once again in the pulpit, but now, however, to minister to my people who came for the regular Sunday service. The text for this message (twice written!) was from the epistle reading in Hebrews 12, especially those verses that talk about the discipline of the Christian life. I couldn't help but think about the discipline through which God was taking me these last few days, honing my skills, driving me to depend more and more on the Lord who called me. The writer of Hebrews was preaching a classic theology of the cross. Too often in the church today preachers want to coddle their listeners instead of preparing them to face the hardships that come with living under the cross. Those who grieved lived under the cross. Their loved ones are in heaven, but they are still aliens and strangers on earth, greeting the glory of their future home from a distance. The young married couple will live likewise under the cross. They face the uncertainties of war. But for all of them God is using their struggles as a means to strengthen them and direct them to the all-sufficient Christ. Through their hardships he is treating them as children. Only illegitimate children, the writer tells us, are left without the hardships of discipline.

And so now I am back to my regular routine, with more disciplining from my Savior. A long list of "must dos" awaits me. But I had to sit down today and write once more. I missed it. I guess it's just too much a part of me now. Thanks for listening.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Faith and Science - Should They Always Be Kept Separate?

Quiet and unassuming, Leonard Parker's brilliance often pales beside other personalities in the world of physics. While many will quickly relate Stephen Hawking to the ground-breaking work of quantum physics and its revolutionary effect on how we understand our universe, Parker's work still lies in the shadows of awareness for most of us.

Despite the fact that contemplating the inner recesses of the universe occupies an inordinate amount of time and energy for this genius, Dr. Parker also has another passion: faith. After his mother died in 1985 Parker seemed to rediscover his religious roots. His Jewish faith deepened in the years following. According to Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Sunday, Aug. 19), Parker "began attending daily services to recite the Kaddish prayer for his mother." Yet, how did this meticulous scientist reconcile faith and reason, which drove so many of his waking hours?

"While he found that faith and physics sometimes conflict (modern cosmology puts the age of the universe far older than many religions would have it), Parker let the two coexist. As he saw it, separate areas of the brain drive our passions for science and religion. The two need not be forced to compete."

"The physicist who joined two theories of nature saw no contradiction in maintaining this wall between science and religion. It would be foolish to bring the scientific method of experimenting and observation into a house of worship. Nor would it make sense to test a theory of the universe by chanting a prayer."

Yet, need there be such a split between faith and science? From a modern point of view letting faith inform science seems archaic and unenlightened. So scientists are forced either to abandon one and embrace the other, or to live a schizophrenic existence between science and faith.

Still, science, for all its attention to objective fact, is nevertheless an arena of unknowns. Faith, as it is grounded in the foundation of an inspired scripture, can inform us of the unknowns. However, one must trust in the source of that scripture and the verity of its message. Here the intrinsic doubt of science competes with faith. Parker has taken the road that seems easiest. The hard questions are never breached. Faith is never challenged. Whole sources of information are discounted out of hand. But then is this really faith? And can one find hope in such a divided existence where God is left just out of hand's reach?

Should We All Call God Allah?

Christians should begin to address God as Allah in order to improve relations with Muslims, suggests Dutch Catholic Bishop Matinus "Tiny" Muskens. "God really doesn't care how we address him," he said, noting that we shouldn't be divided over such terminology and that God is above such "bickering."

Bishop Muskens pointed out that Christians who speak Arabic already use the word "Allah" to refer to God. According to Wikipedia "Allah is the standard word for 'God' [in Arabic]." The article notes that "Arabic-speakers of all faiths, including Christians and Jews use the word 'Allah' to mean 'God.'" So, does the Bishop have a point here?

Not so quick. How one refers to the true God is more than just a semantic exercise. The implications of what names and titles mean are far-reaching when it comes to differentiating the essential differences between religions. In the English-speaking world the name "Allah" is firmly linked with the Muslim concept of deity. Thus, for a Christian to use the name "Allah" in the context of the Christian faith would be to confuse, not enlighten. For the Muslim idea of deity is completely opposed to that confessed by the Christian, namely, that God is triune.

Some make the argument that Arab-Christians have been using "Allah" for God for generations. They further point out that this word predates the Muslim usage. It is a generic word for God in the Arabic tongue.

Which brings us to a dilemma even Christians face with their own generic English word "God." In our post-modern society with its emphasis on civic religion, God has become the all-embracing designation for deity to encompass all expressions, including the deistic concept held by some of the early founders of this nation. Thus, even the English word "God" is not without its problems in making a clear confession.

Not having any experience in Middle-Eastern missions, I will refrain from being critical of the usage of Allah in Arabic-speaking countries among Christians. Yet to embrace the bishop's suggestions that Christians everywhere begin to use this name is simply not tenable. For to use this name in the Christian west is at once to invoke in the minds of many a concept of God that comes from the Qu'ran, not the Bible. One cannot avoid that since the name Allah is firmly established in the western mind not just as another word for deity, but as the personal name by which a Muslim calls in prayer to his god.

Furthermore, to do this simply to "improve relations with Muslims" is to risk the clarity of our own confession for mere public relations. No, Bishop Muskens, I'll pass on this one....

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Silliness of Idol Worship

They gathered again to to remember the "king." Not the King of Kings, mind you, but the King of Rock and Roll. This was the 30th annual vigil for the song legend Elvis Presley who passed away on August 16, 1977. His followers, however, have not dimmed in their support over these many years. In fact, their idol worship is just as strong.

Reflecting back one fan commented: "When I would hear him sing, I'd go into like a trance and nothing else around me mattered." Recalling an experience in '57, one woman admitted: "We rubbed our hands on the stage and I didn't wash my hands for a week." Eew!

Apparently they had record numbers at Graceland this year for the candle light vigil at the king's grave sight. At least 40,000 attended. However, the Convention and Visitor's Bureau of Memphis predicts that up to 75,000 will be in the city for the anniversary this year. Add to this the fact that up to 600,000 tourists visit Graceland each year.

Maybe I'm still too young to appreciate this undying attraction to Elvis. I was born in '60 and he died when I was a junior in High School. Unfortunately I was influenced during those critical teen age years on the disco phenomena. The "king" had already hit his peak by then.

Yet it is not just a sense of loyalty to a musical artist when it comes to Elvis. Many people quietly remember the singers and actors they appreciated over the years. And in the process we often overlook a lot of their faults, honoring their achievements despite their failings. But what is it with Elvis? Even a casual search on the web will reveal that attachment to Elvis has taken on religious dimensions.

There is an interesting paper by Niquel Patterson entitled "Elvis: Sights and Faith: Making Sense of the Seemingly Absurd" on the web Patterson is undoubtedly a fan, and probably more than that. Overlooking the biases of the author, the paper still gives a rather detailed insight into the real religious fervor over Elvis. Aside from actual churches devoted to his name and memory, people do attribute to him divine-like characteristics, claiming to have had their lives changed by his presence and help long after he died.

If this was just a pocket of excessively misdirected fans, one could ignore it. But what is disturbing is just how widespread the worship of Elvis has become in the last three decades. Considering our supposedly enlightened times of demanding scientific verification, a worship of Elvis is a throwback to ancient pagan roots.

From a Christian perspective it is on the one hand a clear violation of the First Commandment. Yet as the title to this article also noted, it is pure silliness as well. Yes, some say he was a cultural change-agent. Yes, others will claim he was an amazing musical talent. But let's get real! He was a man who died in his excesses - dropped over from a drug overdose. And as far as I know he didn't spend his millions trying to support the overall mission of telling the world about Christ. He was confused on the direction and balance of his own life. And now others want to look to him to help theirs? What blindness the evil one still causes.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Importance of Numbers

Numbers fascinate us. They provide a seemingly concrete description of all that we do with black-and-white precision. Virtually every aspect of our lives is defined by numbers: our age and health, the size and nature of our communities, our economy, our personal finances, as well as trends far into the distant future.

It is not surprising that the church should also enjoy an equal fascination with numbers. It was reported recently that the overall membership of the largest Lutheran denomination declined again. Given it's liberal leanings, such numbers will be looked upon by some as a prediction of its eventual demise. The LCMS, on the other hand, has defined its future by an increase in numbers, even providing an on-line 'counter' to track its outreach. Mega churches, those behemoths of success, are now pushing for greater representation in the denomination, with the belief that numbers represent power and influence.

The local struggling congregation is of course not immune to this number game either. Members weekly pour over the attendance figures and the bottom line of their fellow member's giving. Decreases in either spell trouble and give rise to calls of panic that the sky is again falling fast.

Those who see great things in counting typically point to Pentecost and the record of the conversions that day. Thousands! they yell with jubilation. However, it is convenient to pass over the many uncounted disciples who left Jesus and his group at the end of John 6. Our Lord, unmoved by such fickle ups and downs simply asked those remaining: Are you leaving too?

Jesus once told the parable about a shepherd who left the 99 for the one stray that wandered away and became lost. The one was important to him as were the 99. Why do we get so caught up in the numbers, defining the success and failure of everything by their increases and decreases when our Lord seemed so unaffected by them?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Women Pastors in the LCMS?

Probably not that far off thanks to renewed publicity from the far left in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. While the convention this time around did not take on the issue of women in the church (as it did famously in '04 by opening all church offices except the pastoral office to women), a recent article in the online DayStar Journal indicates that the time is right to bring the topic back to the forefront of synodical discussion.

In "Let's Include Women in the Pastoral Office," Pastor Karl Wyneken represents a paper originally written for the group Voices/Vision in the 90's in which he defends the practice of women in the pastoral office. According to the editor/author: "When this article was published previously in Voices/Vision, a complaint was filed against him; he received a visit from high officials in the synod and was virtually told to be silent on the matter." Now that the synodical leadership has been substantially changed over the last three years, it appears that there is a new openness to seeing this topic resurrected for official consideration.

In prelude comments to the article the author begins: "Can we talk? Can we talk about how the Bible is to be interpreted with regard to women’s ordination? In Germany the Selbst√§ndige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche (SELK) has had a vigorous open discussion of the issue, as has the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA)."

Wyneken appears to be simply requesting the opportunity for open discussion on the issue. I say "appears" because the expressed goal of many within Voices/Vision has been not merely discussion, but eventual inclusion of women within the pastoral office. Thus, the intent is clear that through "vigorous open discussion of the issue" DayStar and others are looking to see the collective opinion of Synod change so that this practice can eventually be adopted in a future convention.

His paper, which I encourage you to read, is a classic apology for women's ordination. We will hear and see similar appeals and defenses in the coming years. But how does someone defend a practice that was consistently avoided by the church for generations and has only become mainstream in the latter half of the last century? Have we not heeded the clear word of Scripture to guide us in this issue?

That last point is where Wyneken finds the rip in the barrier. As previous denominations did in justifying women in the ministry, he knows that the only way is to call the prohibitions into question by insisting that the scriptures speaking to these issues are culturally bound and do not speak to our time. He cannot deny that there are words from Paul forbidding women to publicly proclaim the word in the worship assembly, or to not be in positions of authority over men. Therefore, he must argue that they are: 1.) culturally conditioned and not applicable to the current era, and 2.) some of them are simply not clear enough on which to base a doctrine of the church.

One can detect a sort of "Gospel Reductionism" of a previous time in his argumentation. As he states early on:
"One such assumption would be that the Bible was ever intended to provide us with direct and absolute answers to questions such as this. The Bible’s all-important purpose is clear—to lead us in faith to a right and saving relationship with God in Christ. But the Bible is not a kind of “manual of operation” that settles firmly and completely such matters as how we are to organize and govern the church, what offices are necessary, or how leadership positions are to be filled."

Do you hear how he is framing the question? The Gospel is the issue, he insists, and that is all that counts. All the rest of this incidental. The same argumentation, by the way, is used to justify using the belief in Evolution within the church. The Bible, it is said there too, is not a kind of "manual" for science, but a declaration of the Gospel.

The problem with this argumentation is that is fails (or refuses) to acknowledge that even in such instances as church offices and the role of men and women the Gospel is being proclaimed. How? Consider Paul's words in Ephesians 5 regarding marriage. Here he states that the man is to the woman as Christ is to the church. This is where the image of the church as the Bride of Christ shines most clearly. Yet if we mix the genders with the very one who stands "in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ," how do we effectively communicate this image? We don't. We rather confuse. And that is abundantly evident in the current church culture that shuns such issues as "obedience" as being restrictive and counterproductive to the freedom of the Gospel.

Still, the church is the obedient bride of Christ. He is the head of the church. And as the pastor stands before his flock he is a living reminder of this Christ who feeds his sheep and leads them beside the still waters of divine forgiveness. No - the pastor is not Christ! (I hear people complain that pastors insist on this, although I have yet to find one!) But by the very words of the absolution he stands "in the stead" of his Lord and as an official ambassador of the Gospel he speaks with the very authority of the One who sent him.

And considering the fact that the church has offices at all, again we must once more recognize the Gospel purpose behind this instead of pushing it to the side as cultural refuse to be abandoned. In addressing many issues, especially of worship, Paul indicated that God is not a God of disorder, but of order. Notice how this also plays right into how the scriptures begin? (Creation is not a random accident, but a planned and ordered event.) The need for organization within the church, as it was in Israel itself, is to serve the church's calling to effectively and efficiently proclaim this saving Gospel, and thus to present Christ to the world.

Wyneken's arguments against the certainly and purpose of the scriptures are not new, and any who have studied the debate will recognize them immediately. So why not just ignore them as the comments of someone on the 'fringe'? For the simple reason that in our Biblically illiterate climate people will accept anything that sounds convincing. In a culture that is increasingly a-historical, they will willingly ignore 2,000 years of church practice as irrelevant. There is often precious little humility today when one considers the Fathers of the past. We are always reinventing, always rediscovering, always calling in question. This is the post-modern era where all truth is relative and open to question.

So, will there be women pastors in the LCMS? Not for the immediate future, perhaps. But I fear the potential closer than ever. But first we have to change the constitution itself. I'll get back to you in 2009 and 2010.....

Side note: Pr. Wyneken begins by asking "Can we talk?" indicating that we need to openly discuss this issue again. I appreciate the need and value of discussing theology and whereby we sharpen our understanding of divine matters. However, the idea here is not merely to discuss, but to call into serious question the biblical legitimacy of the former practice, and eventually to move matters to a conclusive change. A time comes, I believe, that you stop trying to change the beliefs and practices of a church and work instead to find a new one or create a denomination yourself that supports your convictions.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

LCMS and Stem Cell Research

The debate on stem cell research will receive much additional attention as the presidential race heats up in coming weeks. For this reason I am glad that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod went on record at their recent convention in support of adult stem cell research, but made it clear that such research that destroys human life (embryonic stem cells) is unacceptable and not supported.

The benefits of stem cell research are well known and varied. These cells are currently used in the ongoing treatment of such conditions as multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Parkinson's. Michael J. Fox and Nancy Reagen have raised awareness by their frequent public comments, using their own suffering as a plea for more support. However, as people look at the diseases ravaging such popular people and their families, they tend to forget the larger ethical questions behind this research, especially those issues that affect the very sanctity of life itself.

The debate on stem cell research touches on the heart of the issue of life that has been at the center of discussion for over 30 years. Proponents on both sides of the issue often appear equally vocal in their support of life, but only one side recognizes the fullness of human life as it extends even into the womb. This is the ultimate question. Where and when does human life begin? If we cannot answer this questions satisfactorily as a culture, we will only continue to erode the sanctity of it, substituting definitions of convenience to wiggle out of the ethical dilemma. Life begins at conception. Period. Hopefully some day that will be the only definition needed.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Divine Service at ULC

This morning our family enjoyed a most edifying worship service here in Boulder, CO. Pastor Daniel G.O. Burhop, a recent graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary - Ft. Wayne, led the Divine Service at University Lutheran Chapel (ULC) and proclaimed a solid Law-Gospel sermon on the subject of prayer from Luke 11. His message specifically expounded the significance of calling God "Father," which he indicated is unique to the Christian faith. We call upon our God as Father because of the relationship we have with the Son, through whom we are made God's children.

Pastor Burhop reminded us that university chapels can still be liturgically faithful places of worship with distinctive Lutheran practice, and not the kind of glorified camp sing-a-longs which these places are tempted to become. We are blessed to have men such as this pastor and others like Pastor Marcus Zill up in Laramie, WY, who has been instrumental in spearheading the Christ on Campus emphasis of the Higher Things organization that specializes in ministry to college students. [You can read here of the activities and campus chapters associated with this great organization.]

My hope is that there are others like these, and that a return to faithful worship on campus chapels is increasing, not decreasing (which based on the above is obviously happening.) We are told of younger generations which desire a worship that is more historic and genuinely spiritual and not the dated preference of their Baby-boomer parents who are still stuck in the 80's with Easy Rock.

Lutheran chapels like these two in Boulder and Laramie deserve our support both in prayer and in dollars. Unlike regular parishes their congregation is largely a transient group of ever-changing students with limited financial resources. Support, I suspect, is largely dependent on mission money from districts, which is not always a secure source. For mission emphases can change with each convention and each administration. Perhaps now is the time for regular churches to start 'adopting' chapel ministries, especially those that are making a good faith effort to remain genuinely Lutheran.

So, thank you Pastor Burhop for feeding us spiritually this Lord's Day with the true Word and with the blessed Supper. We pray that the Lord blesses your ministry this coming Fall as the students return and you are faced with the challenges of reaching out to many who need the community of the faithful and others who still need to hear of the Savior.

ELCA to Open Sexuality Debate at Biennial Assembly

Although a comprehensive study of sexuality is due in 2009, many in the ELCA do not want to wait. Having refused to change their rules governing non-celibate clergy at the assembly in 2005, they will again address resolutions on the place of gay clergy and same-sex blessings at the assembly scheduled to meet on August 8 - 12.

No less than 21 of he 65 synods have asked the assembly to again debate these issues, with many actually asking for change in the denomination's stand. "The battle lines are being drawn," notes one advocate.

The 5 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church of Amercia, the largest Lutheran denomination in the US, will certainly be watched closely this coming week, especially by their Lutheran denominational neighbors such as the LCMS. No other Lutheran body in this county has ventured to alter the long-standing biblical prohibitions against homosexuality. Still, considering the ELCA's more liberal approach to the doctrine of scripture, such change is predictable. The change would be seen as simply a new and broader understanding of the Bible, recognizing that many past prohibitions were simply 'culturally conditioned' and not part of the original text.

Given the ELCA's fellowship agreements with other denominations such as the Episcopalian church, there must certainly be pressure from the outside to change, since so many of the liberal mainstream bodies already have. If overtures are passed that fundamentally change the ELCA's acceptance of non-celibate clergy and adopt same-sex blessings, the divide that separates them from other Lutheran bodies will be a virtually insurmountable obstacle to any hopeful unification and fellowship in the future.