Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Blogging Anniversary


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Recollections on a Recent Trip to Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

How Clergy Dress


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Defining the Word "Christain"


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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2007

Mormons are Now Christians?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, November 5, 2007

Pittsburgh Episcopalians Take First Step in Leaving their Denomination


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread


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

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

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

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

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

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