Saturday, February 28, 2009

Recovering Depression-Era Values

One of the more enjoyable aspects of being a pastor is being able to spend time with living history. By "living history" I mean the elderly; people who possess a rich depository of firsthand experience with the past. The elderly most interesting of late involve those with experiences from the Great Depression. Now in their 80's and 90's, this generation, like those of WWII, is disappearing at a rapid rate. Few remain to pass on their wisdom. So when I am able to, I deliberately try to get them to talk about those days. I don't care if it derails a Bible class temporarily, or if it prolongs a shut-in visit. Their experiences will too soon pass into secondhand recollection and I need to hear their voice of faith before it fades forever.

These unique treasure keepers possess for us an especially valuable memory: survival in one of history's most devastating economic disasters. Every day I listen to increasingly depressing reports of a failing economy. Every day I am told of how matters are teetering on the precipice of a free fall into catastrophe. Fear is our regular companion.

Then I look at these dear gray-haired saints and remember a time that once existed when people accepted a simpler world where less meant more, and the future was borrowed only to tomorrow. I look at my church and remember that this 120+ year old family of believers weathered crop failures and foreclosed farms and grasshopper plagues and rationed gas and herd-destroying diseases, and still woke up to face another day. A church that did not have to close its doors and a pastor who continued to serve when his only pay at times was probably no more than a donated chicken and a cart load of fire wood.

This was an era of much simpler times, and that may be part of its secret. A time before the assumption that every American was automatically owed a home, two cars, a house full of toys and technological trinkets, an unlimited health care policy, an updated wardrobe, and a vacation to get away from it all. It was a time when family and faith meant more than it does today. But then that was often all that you had.

I have no idea where our troubled times will lead. Will it mean socialized health care and nationalized banks and an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor and a disappearance of the middle class? Will it mean a second-rate nation on the world stage with more violence and less security? Will it mean a shrinkage of the freedoms we once enjoyed and a less hospitable climate for people of faith? I don't know. The future is known only to God. Thank goodness.

But what I do know is that as God did not abandon His people in times more troubled than ours, He certainly will not abandon us now. And as the church survived then, it will survive once more. By God's grace we will pass through the waters with a different outlook on our world, and a renewed set of values. Perhaps the church may learn to stop trying to entertain itself and get back to the real work of Word and Sacrament ministry. Maybe we will become more detached from our dependence on things and be freed to live more hope-filled lives that look increasingly to the coming of our Lord and our citizenship in heaven. Maybe we can reclaim something of what we lost in that last great Depression as the last survivors walk into the mist of eternity....

Friday, February 27, 2009

Needing a Theology of Church Extinction

In a recent article from the March issue of Christianity Today entitled "The Other Side of Church Growth," Philip Jenkins suggests that in contrast to a theology of church growth, we also need a theology of church extinction. As Stan Guthrie, the interviewer of Jenkins observes: "In our time, we are witnessing an extraordinary phenomenon: the virtual wiping out of the church in a place it has existed for nearly 2,000 years. The plight of Iraq's Christian community reminds us that church expansion is not a constantly upward slope."

While we are fixated in this country on the numerical growth of the church as a sign of the certainty of God's working in this world, how are we to then answer the reality of the contraction of the church in many parts of the world? As Jenkins points out, the killing of churches in these places comes largely as a result of active persecution. At the same time, however, when one area is contracting, another is expanding. Jenkins writes: "...1915 marks the beginning of the end of Christianity in the middle East, and the beginning of mass Christianity in Africa. It's almost as if one door closes and another one opens elsewhere....when Christianity is at its weakest in one area amazing new opportunities open elsewhere. My concern is that when we write Christian history, so often it's a matter of, 'Let's look at this expansion, and let's look at this growth and new opportunity.' We're not really seeing the doors that are closing...."

Jenkins' comments caused me to think also of our situation in this country, and specifically with the state of the Lutheran church itself. I realize that we are not talking here of a true "extinction" due to persecution. So my comments are a bit to the side of this subject (not wanting in any way to trivialize it either.) Nevertheless, a question arises in relation to this for me: how are we to explain the contraction of the church in certain areas, especially the Lutheran church? Many congregations, due, in part, to changing demographics and economics, will no doubt go out of existence in the coming years. Rural churches are particularly vulnerable. Yet this certainly does not explain the demise of all those that close their doors.

Church Growthers will be quick, I would imagine, to point out a failure of these places to "meet the needs" of their constituents, or to remain "relevant." The growth of their mega churches, on the other hand, show the gracious hand of God working among them, proved by their exponential growth. Yet, the contraction of a church or an entire denomination, as is the case for many mainline denominations today, is not always so quickly explained away. Some churches are 'killed,' I am convinced, by the changing of a culture that is weakening the convictions of a whole generation of people in the church today. As one watches the attendance of a church decline, one reality that becomes apparent is that people today lack the commitment to regular worship that their predecessors possessed. It is a generational weakening of the spiritual genetics.

Within synods there is also a frantic effort in these times to revitalize the ranks and reverse decades of numerical decline. Programs and marketing gimmicks are devised as the magic means to stop of hemorrhaging of the membership lists. Yet may its decline indicate something in and of itself that the programs cannot address or correct? May the death of an organization be inevitable due to a combination of factors, such as loss of clear identity and mission, and thus the commitment that comes with that? May there be an issue of faithfulness as well?

Jenkins has touched a nerve here. We need to think about this some more. Perhaps we have obsessed so much about the growth of the church we have failed to think theologically about the extinction of some of its parts. Are there issues of judgment and sin to examine here? Would the church do well to be a little more introspective than it has been? And are there times when extinction is a good thing, or simply, as is indicated in other parts of the world, a sign of the spiritual warfare that characterizes the church which lives and labors under the cross?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Indugences are Back

Young Catholics will no doubt be as surprised and confused as Protestants. It seemed as if they were a thing of the past, along with such practices as the mandatory eating of fish on Fridays. Yet it would appear that indulgences are making a comeback in church practice.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, entitled "For Catholics, a Door to Absolution Is Reopened," bishops are beginning to publicly announce the availability of the "plenary indulgence" (which eliminate any punishment in Purgatory until another sin is committed.) After reading the article I would have to note that the author is not entirely accurate with his Catholic theology, yet many in the mainstream media are weak on theology. Explaining indulgences and the doctrine of Purgatory to which they are related is sometimes a tricky business. With fairness to Catholics it is not right to paint Purgatory and indulgences as the theological equivalent of a "Get Out of Hell Free" card. Still, Purgatory has long disturbed Protestants because of our differing views of the status of a believer in Christ (we are covered in His righteousness and therefore holy in His sight), and the inference that works are attached to the whole business of salvation (where a good Catholic is encouraged to say prayers, attend mass, etc. for the purpose of accumulating time out of Purgatory.) Furthermore, the idea of any "temporal punishment" is unsavory to Lutherans who see such ideas as mitigating against the doctrine that punishment for sin was placed on Christ, even though we all suffer the 'consequences' of our individual sinful actions.

Indulgences are familiar to Lutherans in large part because of our history with Martin Luther and his reaction against the abuse of indulgences in 15th century Europe. As is well know, these letters of release time from Purgatory were sold, and even promoted for sale in part to fund the expansive building project of St. Peter's cathedral in Rome. Luther first addressed this publicly in his famous 95 Theses posted for debate in 1517.

Interesting is that the reintroduction of indulgences is being met with mixed reactions. Traditionalists within the church welcome them. Others wonder why now. One diocese heavily promotes them, another gives minimal attention. Part of the problem is trying to explain a custom and church teaching that has long been out of practice. Those over 50 will remember it, but those younger simply have no frame of reference.

One Lutheran theologian noted that the reintroduction of indulgences will "not advance the dialog" that has gone one between Catholics and Lutherans in recent years. Indeed, this will be a complication, to say the least. It opens up the original debate of 500+ years ago. However, that is good, since too often it has been my fear that we have overlooked too many of the differences between the two churches in the hasty interest of showing some kind of outward unity.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

To Stay or to Leave

A debate has raged for some time now about whether the Missouri Synod is so lost that the only choice left is to disassociate oneself from her entirely; that to stay is simply to endorse the falsehoods and wrong practice by ones presence. I have seen a fair number of confessionally minded pastors peal off over the years for any number of supposedly greener pastures: Rome, Orthodoxy, ELS, WELS, independent, etc. The argument espoused also contains not a little guilt for those who remain. Are we sharing in the sins of others by not leaving? Are we complicitely participating in an organizataion that is heterodox by holding on to membership with those whom we openly disagree?

In the midst of this debate I have often thought about men like Martin Luther and C.F. W. Walther, who both ended up outside the church bodies with which they began their ministries. Luther was officially excommunicated by Rome and seemed to show no intent on leaving on his own prior to his forced exit. Walther, as I have read, later repented of his actions in that he felt he abandoned a divine call by leaving for America (although I am sure he always rejoiced that God used his departure for a blessed purpose.) Should Luther have left the church of Rome once he became aware of her many sins and false teachings? Was he technically not in fellowship with this church until they removed him? And as far as Walther is concerned, what is one to make of their call in deciding to stay or leave?

Church or denominational membership is a complicated matter. I still wrestle with the debate that continues around me.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Possible Censorship or Needed Balance?

Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have long been favorite whipping boys of the political left. They are seen as long on talk and short on fact, and far too influential to impressionable citizens who they claim are being swayed by more rhetoric than truth. With the recent partisan struggle over the so-called Stimulus Bill, and the perceived role these radio personalities had in it, there is now increased talk about what can be done to rein them in. Reintroducing the Fairness Doctrine is one popular suggestion, although it was obolished over 20 years ago by the FCC. While the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC has the right to enforce it, it is not obligated to do so. With the modern poliferation of mutiple channels, both cable and public, not to mention the internet and radio, such a 'corrective' to the danger of on-sided reporting no longer seemed necessary. Although Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is in favor of it, it seems unlikely, at this juncture, that the president will pursue it.

In place of the Fairness Doctrine, Localism is the proposed alternate way to bring balance to the airwaves now seen as too one-sided, at least those that air conservative talk shows. As defined by the FCC, broadcast localism is the Commission's way to ensure that broadcaster's serve the needs of the communities to which they are licensed. As part of the ruling, each station is required to keep on file an "issues/program list" that interested members of the community can examine to see if the currently aired programs provide the "most significant treatment of the community issues."

Predictably there has been an outcry of concern as to the effect this FCC ruling could have on the overall freedom of speech and especially conservative talk radio. One site noted that "Where the Fairness Doctrine chilled all speech, Localism will compel speech of which FCC Commissioners like Copps approve. In a world of limited broadcast hours, compelling one sort of speech means sacrificing speech of another, effectively censoring speech."

Apparently President Obama favors enforcement of Localism more than the Fairness Doctrine, and as another site has noted, he "needs only three votes from the five-member FCC to define localism in such a way that no radio station would dare air any syndicated conservative programming." The perceived danger is that stations faced with challenges to currently aired shows might decide that omitting them altogether would be easier than going through the maddening struggle of trying to balace everthing to the satisfaction of those who complain.

So what does all this have to do with faith and church (since that is where I usually limit my commentary)? The First Amendment right to freedom of speech is a cherished liberty in our country, especially when it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel. Encroachment on this right usually does not come in a full frontal attack, but in a more subtle erosion of it by bits and pieces. In an increasingly politically correct society, where speaking out against such 'hot button issues' as homosexuality, or insisting on doctrinal absolutes constitutes right-wing rigidity of the highest order, not to mention the great sin of intollerence, the need to silence outspoken critics has risen anew among those of the liberal left. And silencing such voices is far easier if one simply hems them in by arcane little known rules and laws.

We would do well to stay informed on this issue in the months to come.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Too Much Casual

I should be more casual, given my age and generation (Baby Boomer.) However, it must have been the influence of being raised by Depression/ WWII era parents that skewed my view of this.  Don't get me wrong, I love to relax in a good, comfortable pair of jeans.   However, there is a time and place for casual atire.  Still, I sense this practice is eroding in all settings, and I am struggling to accept this.  When banks went to "casual Fridays" I cringed.  Banks were always suit and tie places.  Dealing with money was serious business.  Serious atire seemed appropriate.  So too with doctors.  They should dress to reflect the 'life and death' nature of their responsibilities. 

It was inevitible that the church would quickly follow suit.  In my 20+ years of ministry I have seen the 'dress code' decline much from what I remember as a kid.  Recently I heard about a new Wisconsin Synod mission start.  Their web site says it all:  Their slogan is: "Casual About Church.  Serious About God."  The church building (I can't really call it a "sanctuary") is styled after a coffee house.  Sofa chairs around tables with big screens in clear view allow the participants (can we call them "worshipers"?)to catch the pastor's sermon by remote (He's actually not there, but at the mother church several miles away.)  

I realize that people today are casual about everthing, especially dress.  The other week I went to a funeral as a guest and it seemed that I was the only one in a full suit with tie.  Weddings are much the same.  People simply resist dressing up and often brag about never wearing a tie.   I guess I'm just not sure why.  Aside from being comfortable, is it a matter of money? However, simple dress clothes really do not cost that much, and are often cheaper than the leather jackets and other expensive sports wear people buy.  

Dressing up, or going formal, used to show respect for someone (as in funerals and weddings), or demonstrate professionalism, two reasons I cling to the practice.  For the first reason - respect - I wonder: How can one be "causual about church" and still remain "serious about God"?  It seems contradictory to me.   If we are casual about how we approach God, then how do we maintain a posture of true respect and honor before His holiness?  Or have we reduced God back to our level?  I suspect the problem is as simple as how we view God.  Even those who encountered God in the incarnate Christ demonstrated true respect, especially those outside the established relgious structure, like the centurion.  I fear that today with 'causal church' as the norm, the view of God is going to change as well.  

Maybe bowing before the altar seems 'old school' or 'high church' to some, but that is how I approach my God.   I stand with Moses and Isaiah and Peter and John and all the rest who recognized the presence of divine holiness in their midst.   Casual, at that point, seems to fall short and is inadequate.  

What do you think?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Obama to Expand Faith-Based Office, Yet With Changes

According to the New York Times on Thursday:

WASHINGTON — President Obama signed an executive order Thursday to create a revamped White House office for religion-based and neighborhood programs, expanding an initiative started by the Bush administration that provides government support — and financing — to religious and charitable organizations that deliver social services....In announcing the expansion of the religion office, Mr. Obama did not settle the biggest question: Can religious groups that receive federal money for social service programs hire only those who share their faith?

The Bush administration said yes. But many religious groups and others that are concerned about employment discrimination and protecting the separation of church and state had pushed hard for Mr. Obama to repeal the Bush policies.

Meanwhile, other religious groups were lobbying to preserve their right to use religion as a criterion in hiring. Some religious social service providers warned they might stop working with the government if they were forced to change policies.

Instead of deciding the issue, the president called Thursday for a legal review of the policy case by case before determining whether religious groups can receive government money and selectively hire employees based on their religious beliefs.

The faith-based initiative of the Bush era presented many encouraging possibilities.  Yet it appears that it also set up an inevitable dilemma. While it is always tempting for the church to take money whereever it can find it, it seems prudent that we might want to reconsider this particular open hand. Why would a church willingly sacrifice its principles and convictions to governmental restrictions just for the sake of a financial benefit to an otherwise worthy social endeavor? Certainly the liberal edge of the 'faith community' will have no difficulty here. Yet for confessionally-minded Lutherans this is an area from which we can easily walk away.  

One side concern: If such restrictions are placed upon this program, will the sentiment spill over into chaplaincy programs in other governmental areas? We saw not so long ago how the military tried to restrict the prayers of its chaplains. Could more be coming?  


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why Is History Always Conveniently Forgotten?

I love history. Now that my age pushes me closer to 50 I realize that I now have history. Living through a few episodes on the world stage gives you a renewed and broader perspective on the present. With apologies to Dickens, it is never the "best and the worst of times." There is always something that is better or worse from the past.

Which brings me to a gripe with which I am currently wrestling. As we are all too painfully aware, the media with government in tow (or the other way around - I'm not sure), is pressing the panic button and invoking Chicken Little's fear. Every day with renewed layoff postings and business failures we are even more certain that the sky is indeed falling. We live constantly in the worst of times. Too bad the Great Depression Generation and those of the WWII era are dying off so quickly now. We need their perspective now more than ever. They could easily shame us into the realization that ours is by far a time unequally blessed. The few stories I remember from my mother and others is enough to keep me grounded in that truth. When did life suddenly become so horrible that we decided to bankrupt future generations in order to remove our temporary pain? Why are we whining so much these days?

In truth, ours is an 'a-historical' era, a problem that cuts across the field of human experience and is not limited to our current economic dilemma. Take the church, for example. Now I am certainly not a Pollyanna to be sure. It is apparent to me that much is amiss in our midst. Yet after reflecting recently at the Symposia about the infamous "walk out" in St. Louis, the great "Battle for the Bible," and all the issues broiling during the tumultuous 70's, I have a hard time convincing myself that all is lost in the Synod and the only choice is to abandon it and a complete failure. If ever there was a time to walk away I would have thought it to be then.

Perhaps you have a different view, and that's ok. My only plea is that when we analyze the present we spend a moment looking back from whence we came. Besides correcting the excesses of reaction, it may also hold hints of direction for the future. Could it be possible that those who came before may hold the solution to problems we face today? Could it be that we have already been down this road and the solution was already found? History is a road map we cannot afford to leave behind on our journey to tomorrow.