Saturday, February 23, 2008

Holy Week vs. Easter Week

For those in the ancient liturgical traditions the above title may seem a bit odd. Holy Week precedes the Easter feast, and Easter week, as such, would be the first week of this new festival. Why then the word "versus"?

Recently someone who is participating is a community Easter cantata was struggling when she noticed that there would be practices during Holy Week, especially on the evening of Maundy Thursday. She is a Lutheran and the Holy Week observance has always been very important to her. When she brought up her dilemma, a local Pentecostal pastor (of the church sponsoring this cantata) acknowledged the "sacrifice" some of the "extras" were making during what he called "Easter week." Still, he did not seem to appreciate that skipping out on church during Holy Week is a sacrifice in a negative way. Then again, without any real sacramental theology he would be unable to truly appreciate the deep significance that Maundy Thursday has for the Christian who values the Blessed Supper of Our Lord for the forgiveness of sin.

It is equally troubling to see the avoidance of Good Friday among some in the more evangelical traditions, although this is softening in recent years. In a question to a Pentecostal minister about their lack of observing the historic seasons, the minister replied: "The only 'traditions' observed by the Pentecostal church are those set forth in New Testament scripture, (the Lord's supper or communion and baptism in water), which return glory, honor, and praise to God; because we know that we owe our life for the grace He has extended to us for our redemption."

So why then would Good Friday, the day on which observe and 'honor' the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, be something outside the New Testament? And why is Easter more biblical? Can you have the cross without the empty tomb? And what about St. Paul who said that he was committed to preaching "Christ and Him crucified"?

My theory of this avoidance of Lent and Good Friday among those in the Pentecostal tradition stems from the fact that this church body is founded on a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross. Because upbeat emotions and the experience of joy and happiness as the paramount virtues of worship, struggle and suffering have no place. Yet how can the Christian not have times of grief and struggle if he is a sinner? Is there no understanding of the believer as both saint and sinner in the sense of Romans 7? And how can we appreciate the joy of Easter and the glory of his ascension if we do not first stand at the cross and see the fullness of that suffering and death on our behalf?

Our society is largely based on the premise that happiness is king, and suffering is bad. Yet even recently scientists are recognizing that a philosophy that is all about happiness is not healthy. As Christians if we do not grieve over our sins we cannot truly understand what repentance is all about, or the necessity of the atoning death at the cross. Unfortunately this Pentecostal minister will continue to avoid this moment of discomfort and miss the beautiful mystery of the cross and it's place in the Christian life. For us Lutherans, though, Good Friday stays. We think Paul really was on to something when he decided to preach Christ crucified and Him alone....

Thursday, February 14, 2008

eBay and the Relics Trade


Relics have long been important to certain sections of the church, most notably the Roman Catholic. As defined by Wikipedia, a relic is "an object, especially a piece of the body or a personal item of someone of religious significance, carefully preserved with an air of veneration as a tangible memorial.” At the time of the Reformation a lucrative trade in relics became the center of Luther's concern as he witnessed not only an abuse of the practice's original intent, but also became increasingly disturbed by what to him was a displacement of Christ from the heart of the people's devotion and worship.

The peddling of relics, in fact, seemed to have no end, and unfortunately no apparent means of regulation against fraudulent claims and the exploitation of the common man who simply trusted what his religious leaders told him. Admittedly in modern times these gross abuses seemed largely absent - until, that is, eBay allowed the renewal of this ancient abuse.

According to an article by Lisa Miller in the February 11 issue of Newsweek (4-Sale: Bones of the Saints, page 16), you could buy on eBay last week ""strands of hair, allegedly from the head of St. Therese of Lisieaux, the patron saint of the Air Force. Bids started at $40. Or you could buy what looks like a fragment of bone supposedly from Satin Philomena...Bidding started at $49.99. Or if you wanted to splurge, you could purchase a 'splendid, rare, antique' reliquary containing bone fragments of six different saints from a dearer in Belgium. SStarting price: $625.”

Now, in fairness to eBay this is outside of their normal policy and they are being cooperative in cracking down on the practice. And in fairness to the Roman Catholic Church there is no official endorsement or encouragement of this practice, nor a groundswell of support from mainline members. "To the Catholic faithful, however, it is an abomination," Miller remarks regarding the sale of relics on eBay.

However, it does demonstrate the old temptation to profit by taking advantage of the innocence or naiveté of others. "The sale of relics on eBay may just be another small sign of our societies' lust for material satisfaction...." Miller notes. Nevertheless, it also renews an old debate regarding the place and role of relics themselves, even those officially sanctioned. As a Lutheran I naturally remain skeptical, if not opposed to the practice. But more than simply an issue of authenticity, for me the real issue is a fear of displacing the source of trust from the Word and the Blessed Sacrament, which are more than sufficient to grant assurance of God's presence and grace.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

It's Not Enough Just to Say We Aren't Muslim


Recently the RNS included this brief undated article:

Muslims say Obama's denials come up short
By Omar Sacirbey
(UNDATED) To many Muslim Americans, it's understandable that Sen. Barack Obama has vociferously dismissed allegations that he is a “closet Muslim.” But what disappoints them is that the Democratic presidential contender has not followed up the denials -- which leave the impression that being Muslim is bad -- with comments saying that there is nothing wrong with Islam. His perceived silence on the issue, to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, reinforces the impression that politicians view Muslims as personae non gratae. “I was hoping that the response would not be to proclaim the horror of being insinuated a `Muslim,”' wrote one Muslim blogger, Manan Ahmed. “This is the state of Islamophobia in America today, where a simple declaration -- `He is a Muslim' -- casts doubts on a presidential campaign.”

Why must we read so much into everything? In an election season it is expected that every word and phrase of a candidate will be parsed and dissected without mercy, but sometimes this behavior reveals the truly petty nature of this country's hypersensitivities. Did Obama "proclaim the horror of being insinuate a 'Muslim,'" or is it possible, just possible, that he simply clarified a position that was inaccurately reported? Come on now! Can we have some sensible and reasonable discussion on these matters, or must we always resort to irrational assumptions based on reasonable omissions? Only for this religion, it seems, are we required to go above and beyond normal discourse to prove that we are not "Isalmophobic." But then again, it has been this way for other matters as well, including homosexuality and gender issues. It is never enough to simply say "I do not agree." We have to follow this up by proving we are not personally attacking the individual or that we believe they are subhuman or immoral or less patriotic, or whatever. Ugh....

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Organized Religion Reason for World's Problems?

Dear Abby may not be a great source of news, but it is sometimes a fascinating insight into what many people are thinking today. Just recently someone submitted an answer to Abby's query "What do you think is society's greatest problem?" The writer did not think she would print it, but Abby said that it had "merit." Here is what the writer said:

"...in my opinion organized religion has a lot to do with why the world is so badly messed up. Although most religions espouse values of kindness, generosity and good works, in practical application, it seems that religion is used more often to divide 'them' from 'us,' and to give people yet another way to discriminate against one another. It isn't limited to wars between different religions; one need only look back a few years to see different sects of Christians killing and terrorizing each other in Northern Ireland. And look at the state of religious warfare today. Muslims are murdering and terrorizing other Muslims in Iraq just for belonging to a different sect of Islam. If people were more concerned with doing the right things in THIS world, rather than preoccupying with what is going to happen in the NEXT one, our world would be a better place."

The opinion that "organized religion" is responsible for the world's ills is not a new idea. Many agnostics and liberal humanists have proposed the same point for many years. It is unfortunate that a few examples of radical extremism are used to color the entire picture of religion as a whole, not to mention the Christian Church, which is usually the culprit in this kind of discussions.

It is also interesting that this writer finds that religious people should be more preoccupied with current events, rather than matters of eternity, which is reflective of the goals of liberal Christianity and the ever popular "Social Gospel." As a pastor for many years I would propose that the opposite is the problem. If only people were more preoccupied with matters of eternity, they might think and act differently in the present, being more aware of the far reaching consequences of their behavior and its damaging effects on their faith. This writer, like so many, fails in the end to understand that "organized religion" is not the issue. The issue is sin and evil. Religion, like any organization of people, is not immune to the effects of sin or the temptations of evil. But discussing sin and evil today is not popular. Tolerance is the great virtue, even if it means tolerating and overlooking all manner of sinfulness. And look where that has gotten us.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Evangelicals and the Presidential Race


Much has been made of the role of Evangelicals and the current presidential race. They are credited, for example, with giving Gov. Huckabee a several state win on Super Tuesday. However, they are also far from united around one particular candidate at this early stage in the game, and one wonders if their numbers are lower this time around due to a decreased excitement about lowered expectations of being able to put a true conservative back into the White House. There is also the conflicted issue of Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith with which many Evangelicals struggle.

Then, to upset all, I read this as well at Religious New Service:

Poll finds 'born again' support for Democrats
By Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON -- The latest numbers from a California researcher about likely voting preferences of “born again” voters has given Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign something to trumpet. The Barna Group in Ventura, Calif., released statistics on Monday (Feb. 4) that showed that Clinton was preferred by 20 percent of born again likely voters, followed by fellow Democrat Barack Obama (18 percent) and former Republican Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (12 percent). It also found that 40 percent of born again likely voters would choose the Democratic candidate in November. Still, the numbers have prompted close watchers of polling to note that Barna's view of “born again” may be too large a swath of voters to mean much.

----------------------------

Now that's intriguing. What do so-called "born again" voters see in Clinton that would make them move in that direction? Isn't she pro-choice and pro-homosexual rights? Now one does have to consider the last line of this article where it admits that the definition of "born again" may be much too broad to mean anything. But still, is there something in the Clinton message that is resonating with some Evangelicals, or is this a matter of "bread and butter" issues that are impacting people on a very personal level, such as the economy and jobs, or family losses to the war? I don't know. But it makes you wonder what's going on this time around....

Ash Wednesday and the Christian Church


For Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalians and other churches that still employ the historic liturgy, Ash Wednesday has the been the traditional beginning of the season of Lent. Although inconsistent with it's name, some Lutheran churches omit the imposition of ashes on this day (due in part to it's supposed Catholic overtones). Nevertheless, they retain the day and the season.

I was under the impression that other Evangelical churches, especially the Baptist variety, did not observe this day or the Lenten season, again because of the supposed Catholic association. But before I declared this impression to be fact, I did a search on Google with "Ash Wednesday" and "Baptist." Surprisingly there are many Baptist churches that do have an Ash Wednesday service. Some even observe Lent. One church actually was going to offer the imposition of ashes!

Now how can that be? After jettisoning the liturgy and other historic trappings of the church catholic, why would they retain, or as I suspect, resurrect this ancient custom? Well, this is only conjecture, but my suspicion is that there is much that is very Christian and biblical about this day and the season of Lent, and even the Baptists couldn't ignore this. Who could be against a season of repentance and contemplation on the Passion of Our Lord?

Now I don't expect that Ash Wednesday is necessarily enjoying a widespread renaissance within the the Christian church as a whole. There are many Bible and Community churches, not to mention the Pentecostals, who will probably ignore the day. Many of these churches also seem to avoid Good Friday and offer Easter cantatas around that time just when the rest of us are deep into the Passion. Still, it's interesting that given enough time how people eventually discover that matters they had avoided because of a bias against anything Catholic may in fact be very biblical and meaningful.

So, to all who are gathering this night to begin the fast of Lent: The Lord be with you!

Monday, February 4, 2008

IF....

It's a little word, but it can say a lot. "If" makes us pause and consider what comes next. It can qualify what comes next, or simply remind us of what will result from certain actions. Often in the Divine Service God's people recite John's familiar words: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8,9) Denying our sinfulness sets us up to be liars. However, confession occurs under the assurance of God's constant forgiveness. Notice that the apostle did not say that God's forgiveness is dependent on our confession. It exists prior to it. It is a reality in the very nature of God that finds its fullness in the cross of His Son. In technical terms we call this "objective justification."

This morning as I was reading an online devotion I ran across an "if" that didn't sound quite right. It felt as if it limited this prior grace of God to act mercifully on our behalf regardless of our sins. It read: "
No matter the depths to which we may fall, if we turn in faith to our Lord, we have help and forgiveness in Jesus’ name." Now in fairness, I realize that the second part is an example of "subjective justification," that is, the reception of God 's grace in Christ by the Spirit-born faith of the believer. However, God is not limited by our faith. And more so, he helps even unbelievers in times of needs without a single prayer from their lips. Remember Jesus' words of sending rain on the just and the unjust? This is First Article stuff. Out of the mercy and love of the Father the world is sustained. I suspect that the author of the devotion believed this, but it illustrates a tricky part of using the word "if."

My sensitivity probably comes a Reformed tendency to qualify God's grace by the faith of the believer. IF you believe enough, God will heal you, or take care of your financial concerns, or whatever. You hear it repeatedly from the TV preachers who capitalize on this conditional "if."

Now IF I pray, I know even then that God hears me and will answer me. But that's a different use. This is simply faith believing a prior promise. And I realize that some things are limited by faith. Prayer, for example. Prayers uttered outside of faith and in the name of one who is not the true God is not prayer. Still, does this limit the truth that God might help this unbeliever? No. God's grace is already there. And that's my point. Now, again, the author of the devotion probably agrees with this, and I'm not faulting him. I'm just tired of hearing any limits placed on the boundless grace of God, even the bounds of my faith.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Is the LCMS Under a Curse?

I am currently making my way through Dr. Paul Zimmerman's book A Seminary in Crisis that I reported about here at least a year ago. It is a fascinating insight into that era in Missouri's history which led up to the famed "walkout" at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Since the events took place when I was but a teenager, it is interesting now to catch up with history and learn what I could not have known then.

After I purchased the book I saw Dr. Ed Schroeder has written a critique of it on his Crossings site, although I only read a portion of it at the time. I just finished reading all three parts. You can read all them for yourself, but I do want to draw your attention to one section. Although Dr. Schroeder attempts to distance himself from any personal bitterness of those years (He was eventually dismissed as professor due to false teaching), this bitterness - in my opinion, at least - leaks out when he claims with prophetic insight that Missouri is actually under a curse for its actions at New Orleans in the summer of 1973. Admittedly he is in large part also reacting to Dr. Zimmerman's claim of blessing on Missouri for the resolution of the issue of false teaching at the seminary. He writes in a late night email to current LCMS President Kieschnick:

“Here's the main point.
In the Small Catechism, Chief Part 1, Luther makes it a point to quote the Bible's own words about commandment-breakers--8th commandment-breakers included--that "God visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations."
Missouri's continuing turmoil, according to this Word of God, will continue, since God Himself continues to "visit" Missouri for that 8th commandment violation of 34 years ago. How can that not be true?
How to stop God being Missouri's critic? You know the answer. It was Jesus' drumbeat: "Repent," and having repented, "trust the Good News."
So to bring God's own peace back into Missouri, Missouri needs to rescind New Orleans 3-09 just as publicly as it gave that false witness way back then. Not for political reasons, but for pastoral ones, for Missouri's own peace with God. And then to trust the Good News anew.
I know that you know what Jesus says are the consequences of unrepentance in such passages as Luke 13:5. It's not that we who are still alive (about half) of the original 45 need our names cleared. Christ has already done that. It's Missouri who is in trouble--trouble with God.
Are you not called to the kingdom for just such a time as this? I think so.”

It is interesting that any current unrest in Missouri is attributed to our sin against those who were condemned for false teaching. Sounds a bit bitter to me, Dr. Schroeder. Perhaps a more balanced view might simply look to the suffering and sin that the church must wrestle with this side of heaven until Christ releases us when he returns in glory at the end of time. The church lives under the cross. That's why there's unrest. The devil strives against us. That's why there's unrest. Calling false teaching for what it is also brings strife, and we know this especially from the prophets of old. But Missouri is specifically under a curse? Now, Dr. Schroeder, that seems to contradict your continued call for the Gospel to predominate in all things. Anyway, the world itself is under a curse from the fall into sin, a curse that was assumed by our Lord at the cross on our behalf. Targeting Missouri specifically seems more than a bit off the mark....

Friday, February 1, 2008

1968 & 2008 - The More Things Change....

This afternoon I watched part of 1968 with Tom Brokaw on the History Channel, and later found myself comparing that year when I was 7 and the current year in which my youngest daughter is now 7. Sometimes we look at the present and bemoan how horrible life has become, forgetting just what the past really looked like in comparison. 1968 was as pivotal year in terms of societal upheaval as any in the last 40 years. The entire culture was transforming, and it was doing so in the midst of intense anger, violence, and a seeming disregard for all of the moral restraints of the previous generation.

In 1968 I was living in California with my mother who was raising me as a single mom (She had moved there in the late 1940's.) Born out of wedlock my mother decided to raise me alone, and my father decided to bow out and let her do it. She never asked for child-support, and as far as I know, he never gave any. I met my father but once, and remember little to nothing of him. After I became a father myself it perplexed me even more why he chose to have no role in his son's life. Our life in LA did not seem to be significantly affected by the turmoil embroiling the rest of the country, although I remember my mother talking about the riots near where she worked. My mother was simply trying to raise her only son (and only child) in a modest apartment on a waitress' wages. Within the year we would move north to Oregon, following my uncle and his family to start over, where my mother would reach a breaking point psychologically, requiring us finally to sell almost everything and make our way to Wisconsin where she would begin a long period of healing. So in 1968 we were fast approaching our own crisis as a family that mirrored the instability the country itself was going through. I am not sure how faithful my mother was in the church at that point, but thoughts of God were not far away. When we finally moved to Oregon she would retake an adult instruction course in the Lutheran church when it was discovered that her records back in Wisconsin were inadequate.

Now fast-forward to 2008, 40 years later. My youngest daughter is also 7, but is one of three siblings, and has two parents now happily married for 20 years. She has some learning disabilities, but is developing well as a student in a Lutheran school, while she also takes dance lessons on the side. Compared to my childhood at this point hers is very stable. However, the two parent family without divorce in which she lives seems more unusual 40 years later than the born out of wedlock single parent family I knew then. Still, the country she was born into somehow survived the radical changes of the 1960's, although it too is suffering during a time of war (Vietnam then, Iraq today).

Comparing the two eras and childhoods I thought of the popular phrase, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Our childhoods are already very different, and yet the faith of my mother and the church she raised me in is now reflected here 20 years later in a home still filled with faith and church. In an era where family values were being abandoned wholesale and violence threatened to rip the country apart, a single mother living in a liberal state far from her roots held fast to her commitment to motherhood and threw her life into the future of her only son. Today those values live on in that son who finds that the greatest gift he has in life, save his Savior, is his beloved wife and three children. The world is still torn up in violence and war. Cohabitation more and more replaces marriage, and families are often defined by division and disruption more than devotion. Yet, by God's grace, the family nevertheless survives and thrives.

Life is cyclic. Although it changes and transforms old customs, it also repeats itself in many ways as well. The struggles of my mother raising her out of wedlock son in 1968 in California, is now widespread in the heartland center of the nation once known for its family stability and no-nonsense values. Yet being raised in this environment gave me a unique insight into what I would face as a minister years later. Instead of teaching me to rebel, it taught me to understand and care. It also taught me to value the one thing so seemingly tenacious in my past: family. Today, my mother is gone, as is my natural father (who died in 1976 I am told). My adopted father passed away as well, along with all my grandparents. The situation is the same on my wife's side. My children have very little extended family. Thus, they cherish what they have, as I learned to do so long ago living alone with my mother.

Looking back, however, I am filled with deep thankfulness. For one more thing is apparent to me now, a single thread stretching through all those years unbroken by the sin and evil that has always been so prevalent. That thread is God's enduring grace in Christ Jesus. Many were probably predicting the demise of the organized church back in 1968 as the Beetles embraced Hinduism and a whole generation became lost in a haze of psychedelic smoke. Yet today it's still here. And alas, the church I serve just celebrated its 120th anniversary. Out here in the changing rural landscape where churches fade and die daily with shifting demographics, we actually celebrated more baptisms than funerals in the last 8 years. Grace. God is never finished, and certainly never defeated, even by a world always trying to tear up the past and warp the future.

Well, that's enough rambling. Maybe its the fact that I'm approaching my 50's that I'm starting to reminisce so much....