Saturday, April 26, 2008

Why is Confirmation Sometimes Held on Palm Sunday?


In the comments section of my last post I mentioned that the rite of Confirmation is held in some churches on Palm Sunday. The only reason I could see for the choice was allowing the newly confirmed to commune on Maundy Thursday and Easter. While that may be the reason adopted by some, Dr. David Scaer in a conference paper entitled "Confirmation as a Sacramental Rite" (2002, In Christ: The Collected Works of David P. Scaer, Vol. II), offers another explanation you may find interesting. He relates his experience at a German cultural museum in Berlin which featured an exhibit on Confirmation in its nineteenth-century section:

"In what then had become a united Germany under the leadership of Chancellor Bismark, Confirmation was the rite of passage from youth to adulthood. A Confirmation certificate served also as a diploma testifying to the good moral character of the confirmed, recommending her or him to their first employers. It seems as if this view of the rite came with the German immigrants to the United States, where Confirmation came to be seen as a graduation ceremony from formal education. It took place on Palm Sunday, which was the traditional end of the school year in Germany. Afterwards, the confirmand would take up manual work of some sort. We must remember that in the nineteenth century universal high school education still lay n the future, college education was rare, a master's was still the highest degree and some schools like Johns Hopkins were just thinking of importing the German doctor's degree. Around the age of fourteen or fifteen, my grandfather, Gustav Zimmerman, went to work delivering flowers for a New York City multi-millionaire, Eugene Higgins, a man for whom he worked for sixty years until Higgins died in 1949. He had been confirmed, and this meant in the minds of his parents he was qualified for a job." (142)

Well, now we know how Palm Sunday became a popular day for Confirmation for German Lutherans, and that it was the Germans who confused this rite with "graduation"!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Confirmation


This Sunday five young people will make their public confession of Christ in the Rite of Confirmation at St. Peter congregation. Mixed emotions often accompany this event for me as a pastor. Confirmation for Lutherans, unlike Roman Catholics, is not a sacrament. Nevertheless, this rite frequently attracts the kind of attention one would think appropriate and expected for sacramental actions. Although it finds its meaning within the reality of Holy Baptism, it seems too often to eclipse this sacrament and the blessings originally received, by the attention given to it.

If you talk to some Lutherans you may very well get the impression that Confirmation is a kind of 'rite of passage.' Here once effectively graduates from the drudgery of compulsory Sunday School attendance. Except for the occasional ushering duty, it allows one to now see church attendance according to convenience of the young person, and Bible study as purely optional. Parents, who knew the need to push their child so as to 'qualify' for confirmation, now step back with a huge sigh of relief, paranoid that if they push further the child will be alienated forever from the church.

Yet, how have we come to this point? Has the church unwittingly communicated the wrong message by all this attention, and failed to really help the child appreciate his or her true place in the assembly? Have we brought the baptized to the Table for the body and blood of Christ, only to leave them with the impression that their need for spiritual nourishment was only for that moment (and that they can now 'coast' on the 'grace' of confirmation until death)? Is this an issue primarily of the home, where parents encourage one thing and model something entirely different, effectively undoing whatever was attempted in the past two or three years of confirmation instruction? Or does part of the problem lie with our modern dilemma of adolescence where the young person is neither child nor adult, with even fewer expectations that they had before? Perhaps it is a combination of all the above and even more.

This Sunday will be a glorious occasion, and as always, I will be caught up in the festive nature of the day, forgetting for a moment my frustrations with the eventual outcome. Perhaps my dear readers may provide some wisdom and insight as I prepare for another year.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Was the State Right to Interfere?


Granted, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is anything but orthodox Christian, or it would appear, 'orthodox' Mormon. And yes, their polygamous lifestyle involving what appears to be child brides is disturbing. Yet, don't they have a right to practice their faith as they choose in a country where religious freedom is so widely touted?

They do, to a point. However, God has established the Left Kingdom for the general good of all people, especially when it comes to the protection of our physical health and welfare. If only one child was victimized within the walls of this secretive compound (Yearning for Zion Ranch), they are obligated to respond. In fact, I would want them to respond. A child is especially helpless in the face of a stronger adult.

One certainly is sensitive to these mothers who feel unjustly separated from their children. What mother would not? Yet, even from the brief news reports it is becoming increasingly clear that these mothers may not be willing to see the problems their children face, or the unhealthy realities of this bizarre situation. The few women interviewed appeared as if they were controlled and brainwashed to believe that the sect was a healthy and normal place. Put under sufficient stress people will often fall victim to irrational devotion to even the most abusive behavior. Personally, I think that some see the problems, but many cannot comprehend it due to the domineering influence of the cult.

The cult can believe what it wishes. But it cannot harm people and it cannot violate the law of the land, especially when that law is in accordance with God's own will.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The U.S. Visit of Pope Benedict XVI


The Pope's visit to the U.S. is unlike that of any other religious leader. It is more akin to the arrival of a head of state. Indeed, the pope is probably the only Christian clergyman who is a head of state, since the Vatican remains a self-contained country with its own diplomatic corps.

The Chicago Tribune had "A primer of pope's visit to U.S." on page 3 of the Sunday edition, complete with maps and photos that occupied a full half page. In their op-ed section "Perspective" they also featured articles reflecting on the state of the Catholic church and the work of this particular pontiff. It's interesting that in our secular age a religious leader can still command such attention from the media.

It will admittedly be a visit of mixed reception. From the start he lives in the shadow of his predecessor, who was undoubtedly the most popular pope of the modern era. On the news this morning someone quipped that at such papal appearances many came to "see" Pope John Paul, but they are coming to "hear" Pope Benedict. Yet to be fair his pontificate is still young.

Nevertheless, he comes to a church body that is restless and more than a bit disillusioned in many ways. The sex abuse scandals that rocked the church in past years still reverberate heavily, with more than one diocese finding itself in seeming financial collapse. As the one John Paul placed in charge of handling the crisis, I am sure there are those who will be critical of its yet unresolved issues.

And then there are those who will push the envelope of the hot button issues of women's ordination, gay rights, birth control, and marriage regulations. Benedict is certainly as conservative as John Paul, maybe more so. His reputation as the protector of doctrine under John Paul precedes him, and many realize that he will not be given to any real changes in church teachings. Their voices, which always dominate the airwaves and papers, will probably be smaller in the open when compared with the sheer size of the faithful who come to greet him.

As a Lutheran in a church body considerably smaller than the Roman church, one might be tempted to be a bit jealous of all the attention this receives. But to be honest, it's nice not to have the spotlight on us, for every time the media takes an interest, it's usually to showcase a crisis or a criticism. So I'll let Benedict take that heat for all of us :)

Pastors as True Shepherds


This past Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, has traditionally been known also as "Good Shepherd Sunday" due to the normally scheduled Gospel reading of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is clear from the John 10 reading that our Lord also addressed those who should have been shepherds to Israel but instead became the very opposite: thieves and robbers. Instead of caring for the sheep by leading them to the calm waters and green pastures of God's grace, they instead straight-jacketed them in burdensome legal mandates of their own interpretation.

And the shepherds today? Martin Luther, in reflecting on John 10, once stated that all who do not preach Christ are thieves and robbers. Unfortunately many a would-be shepherd preaches eloquently and passionately, waving his Bible in the air, yet fails to truly proclaim Christ and the free grace and salvation He won for us in His death. How easy it is to substitute legalistic expectations for grace! How tempting to attempt to inspire people by convincing them that they can make a difference if only they try a little harder. How seemingly Christian it is to turn the Gospel into Law, and rob God's people of their gifts in Christ by dominating the golden moment in the pulpit to talk of little but felt needs and techniques for happy living without breaking their sinful pride and healing with the blessed forgiveness of Christ.

The word "pastor" actually means "shepherd" and is an appropriate title for any Minister of the Word. Yet it is also a reminder to those of us who have this call to be faithful as shepherds, and not relinquish our vocation to be CEO's, religious coaches, or as some have called the ministers of the mega churches: ranchers. We lead sheep to still waters and green pastures where they can be nourished and fed. We do not leave the sheep to find their own food, but weekly lead them to the pastures of God's Word and the bounty of His Table. And if we faithfully lead them here, indeed as the psalmist said, they will not be wanting.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The State of the Office of the Holy Ministry Today

The Church today is subjected to many crises, and some have plagued the faithful since its inception at Pentecost. However, each generation or era has a particular crisis that defines it more than another. One of those with which the church wrestles today is its understanding of the Office of the Holy Ministry, or the Pastoral Office as it is also referred to in Lutheran circles.

Protestants, in general, find themselves with more ambiguity and uncertainty on this issue, than do church bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church. In many Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational groups it appears that the pastor is widely subjected to a "hire and fire" mentality not too different than one would find with "at will" employees in the outside world. In some cases longevity and personal charisma may shield the pastor from serious attack. However, for many their service is at the whim of a church that considers the office holder relevant only if he obeys the desires of the people and is able to produce numerical growth for the organization.

While spared much of this in our earlier history, even down to the middle of the of the last century, Lutheran pastors today find themselves in a perilous situation not unlike I have just described. Within the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, which is largely congregational in its structure (where the denomination and its leaders are mainly 'advisory'), many pastors have been dismissed by congregations for reasons far short of the usual causes traditionally used to terminate a call. The usual 'causes' would have been matters of great seriousness and failure, where damage to the office and congregation warranted such action. Sexual indiscretions and other moral failings that place the pastor as an object of reproach before the community, persistent teaching of false doctrine, unwillingness to perform the duties of the office - these were the issues that would bring a pastor down in the past. Today, it seems that for some churches the relationship between pastor and congregation is not unlike that of couples in a "no fault" divorce. They simply can't get along and one has to go. Irreconcilable differences, as we call it. No one has to be completely at fault, although the pastor will probably be identified as the primary offender. He has 'lorded it over the church' by a dictatorial leadership style. He has offended too many by a lack of tact and sensitivity.

Now it is true that there are situations where it would be healthier for a pastor to take another call or resign for the sake of the church. I am not defending those shepherds who truly have abused the authority and power of their position. And sometimes the stress of dysfunction between pastor and people is so acute that everyone is suffering. Yet my fear is that this failure of pastors is not the chief reason for the wide-spread dismissal of pastors today. My fear is that our perception of the Office is driving a new approach patterned on the world outside our walls, where the shepherd is believed to be the very hireling we once despised.

Pastors and people must work to recapture a faithful respect for this Office and the divine nature of its work. If we do not we will defeat our own efforts in the Kingdom by self-serving motives that turn the Bride of Christ into just another business competing with everyone else for our meager share in the market-place of declining values and materialistic aspirations.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Easter, Baptism and the Pascal Light


The new light of Easter enters slowly into the darkened sanctuary. "The light of Christ," the deacon chants with ever increasing intensity. Little by little the darkness is dispelled. Life has broken in on the shadow of death. This light will remain on the altar for the 50 days of His post-resurrection work, a testimony to the continued victory of life over death. Yet with the arrival of Pentecost the light does not disappear. Now its place is by the font, the water of life, where we die to the death-dealing power of sin and rise to newness of life in Christ. It will move on only one other occasion during this coming year. Each time the earthly remains of a child of God sit in state before the altar, the light will stand prominently at the head, even as the casket is draped in its pall, symbolic of the robe of righteousness that clothed the child in Baptism. The light scatters the darkness of death once more, forbidding a grief devoid of hope. We have died to sin. We have arisen to a new life in Christ. In Him we die no more.

And as this light sits quietly upon the altar each Lord's Day, it stands in testimony of the daily death and resurrection of each believer. For here, again before the altar in God's House, we pour out our confession, and pray for the resurrection new life that forgiveness brings to our sinful souls. The darkness of sin casts its long shadow over our lives, frustrating us at every turn, complicating our families and marriages and work. We know the damage it has done. We sense the death within. Yet we cannot give up hope. The holy absolution from God's servant cuts through the guilt and announces the victory of the one in whose stead he stands. I am not a forsaken sinner given to death and hell. I am a forgiven child of God, washed in Christ through the power of the Spirit, raised to a new and better life, empowered now to do what is impossible, save by the strength of God Himself.

The light has come and the darkness has neither overcome it, nor does it comprehend it. Praise be to the Light of Life!