Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reflections on the Installation of a Pastor

The other day as my wife was proofreading an installation service for a neighboring congregation, she observed how hearing the promises in this rite would be helpful even for a church that already has a pastor. I agree. As with marriage, we often forget about the depth and implications of the solemn obligations to which we originally pledged ourselves. Below are selections from the Rite of Installation as found in the current Agenda of the Lutheran Service Book.

Address of the Pastor-elect
P: Dear brother in Christ, the Lord grant that you receive and keep these words in your heart so that you may be strengthened and encourage in your labors.

God gathers His Church by and around His Holy Gospel and thereby also grants its growth and increase according to His good pleasure. That this may be done, He has established the Office of the Holy Ministry into which you have been called by the Church and have been ordained and consecrated by prayer and the laying on of hands. It is fitting that you should again acknowledge the responsibilities of this holy office in which you are to serve as a pastor this congregation.

In the presence of his congregation and before our Lord God to whom you must give an account now and at the Last Day, I now ask you:

Do you acknowledge that the Lord has called you through His Church into the ministry of Word and Sacrament?

R: I do.

These are serious and heavy words to hear, yet they also are tremendously comforting. For the pastor does not carry out his work by his own direction or desire, but because he is called specifically by the Lord Himself through the Church. Note the very important order of the words!

Do you promise that you will perform the duties of your office in accordance with these Confessions, and that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions?

R: Yes, I promise, with the help of God.

P: Will you faithfully instruct both young and old in the chief articles of Christian doctrine, will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you? Will you minister faithfully to the sick and dying, and will you demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel? Will you admonish and encourage the people to a lively confidence in Christ and in holy living?

R: Yes, I will, with the help of God.

P: Finally, will you honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life? Will you be diligent in the study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions? And will you be constant in prayer for those under your pastoral care?

R: I will, the Lord helping me through the power grace of His Holy Spirit.

For all those congregations that have chastised their pastors for being "too Lutheran," such words would be a helpful reminder that this man has pledged himself to be faithful to the very confessions of this church in all that he preaches and all that he does. He has no choice but to "be Lutheran" in his ministry.

Also, would that each of us pastors remember likewise our responsibility to be "diligent" in our "study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions." Growth in Word and Confessions does not end at graduation from seminary!

Finally, each pastor in humility should remember the charge here to "be constant in prayer for those under his pastoral care." This was a sobering reminder for me to be more faithful in this area.

Installation of the Pastor
The presiding minister addresses the congregation:

P: Beloved in the Lord, Holy Scripture says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Hebrews 13:17 NIV

You have heard the solemn promise of him called to be your pastor. Will you receive him, show him that love, honor, and obedience in the Lord that you owe to the shepherd and teacher placed over you by your Lord Jesus Christ, and will you support him by your gifts and pry for him always that in his labors he may retain a cheerful spirit and that his ministry among you may be abundantly blessed?

C: We will, with the help of God.

P: Will you honor and uphold our pastor as he serves in all his God-pleasing responsibilities? Will you aid him as he cares for his family? Will you be diligent to “put the best construction on everything,” recognizing that “love covers a multitude of sins”?

Oh, that every congregation heard these words annually! Much heartache and division might be avoided if such a high view of the Office and its place in the church was recognized and honored.

Perhaps we should read some of these words in a voters' meeting occasionally.....

Monday, March 23, 2009

Another LCMS Pastor Crosses Over to Orthodoxy

Yet another pastor of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has left the church for the lure of Orthodoxy. Fr. Fenton's case was by far the most celebrated in recent years. Fr. Hogg was yet another of which I am aware. Now it is the Rev. Daniel Hackney. You can read more of his 'conversion' in the article "Pastor finds a home in Orthodox Christianity." Having had my own flirtation with the East, I understand to some degree its appeal. Still, it concerns me to see so many LCMS pastors leave for Orthodoxy in last few years. What should we be doing at the seminary level to help our pastors truly appreciate the rich heritage they already have in the Lutheran Church? Or is there something else we need to be doing?

Fr. Hogg in his blog Pillar and Ground of Truth opines on the question of Lutherans heading East in "Why do Lutherans Go East?" His view and the 30 comments that follow, of course, are all from an Orthodox bias, and a "I-left-Lutheranism-for-Orthodoxy" at that. So read with discretion.

Even the Dictionaries Have Caved In

According to the Religious News Service blog, Merriam-Webster, the trusted dictionary for most of my life, has caved in to the cultural pressure of defining our language in such a way as to placate practitioners of alternate lifestyle relationships.....

Redefining Marriage

Marriage has officially been least, according to the updated version of Merriam-Webster's dictionary.

The AP reports: In its Web and print editions, Merriam-Webster defines marriage as "the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law."

But in a nod to evolving ideas of love and English usage, the Springfield, Mass.-based company in 2003 added a secondary meaning for "marriage" as "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage."

"World Net Daily was apparently first to write about the change ... six years after the fact.

In a statement M-W said that was actually one of the last dictionaries to include same-sex relationships in its marriage definition. It did so because the term has become part of the general lexicon, according to the AP.

I would like to know how one defines "becoming part of the general lexicon." Just how many people have to use a word in a way that deviates from its historic use before it is acknowledged as part of "general" usage? The total number of GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bi-sexual) people in this country amounts to 1.51% of the population. It seems to me that the GLBT population (a small minority at that) is the predominant driving force behind the push for "gay marriage," and the desire to redefine this institution to include same-sex couples. "Civil unions," a term used legally and more extensively (historically speaking), would be a term that qualifies more for the "general lexicon" than would "gay marriage."

The only justification for "general" usage is the fact that it repeatedly appears in newscast and newspapers on a regular basis. But is that reason enough to change the dictionary?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Some Christians Now Disappointed in Obama

Did they expect it to be different after he was elected? Last Fall many Evangelicals and Catholics jumped on the Obama bandwagon for a variety of reasons, and in the process, it appears, turned a blind eye to certain areas that would later come back to haunt them. They may have been tired by the war in the Middle East. They may have been concerned about the worsening economy. Financial worries topped the list for many of them. Obama ran a upbeat campaign aimed to project the beginning of an era change and hope. He was the face of youth and possibility. Nothing seemed out of range now. Christians saw a man deeply concerned about people and life, and assumed he shared their values.

Unfortunately there was also a entire agenda accompanying him that ran completely counter to conservative Christian values. He was pro-abortion. He was prepared to reverse the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research put in place by the previous administration. Somehow, it seems, they thought that when he talked about openness and fairness on the major culture issues of the day, he would allow their convictions a place at the table. They were wrong. And now they are experiencing what may aptly be called 'buyer's remorse.'

"Thus far, I have been disappointed to see little give. There's been a lot of take," said the Rev. Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention who serves on a advisory board to President Obama's White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, as reported by AP religious writer Eric Gorski. "I've seen little give in the area of relating to the evangelical community as far as life issues."

One of the major priorities of the president's faith-based office is "to find ways to reduce the abortion rate, an attempt at common ground," the AP article reported. However, in contradistinction to this goal Obama promptly lifted restriction on federal funding of international family planing groups that perform abortions for provide information about abortion. Furthermore, the administration also said that it would "rescind broad protections put in place in the waning days of the Bush administration for health workers who refuse to provide care they find objectionable on personal, moral or religious grounds." The claim was that the Bush policy "went too far and could restrict services such as family planning and infertility treatments." For me, that rationale is a bit of a stretch.

Still, some evangelicals remain optimistic. Instead of looking at what he is doing, they look to the more radical things he might have done, and calm their fears that it could have been worse. After all, the congress has yet to reverse the legislation that bans the use of federal money to create or destroy human embryos for research, they claim.

Well, it's admirable to want to be optimistic, but in this case I suspect its more about wishful thinking. President Obama was quite clear about his views on life-issues during the campaign. His record of past actions was there for any to review. Many of us voted based on that information, not on what we wished could be. We should not be surprised by his actions now, and we should not be so Pollyanna as to think he is going to suddenly be supportive of the values of the Christian right. It's just not going to happen.

President Obama comes from a United Church of Christ background, one that is deeply steeped in liberal values and theology. Thus, the predominant religious moral influence in his life did not create in him a conviction to defend unborn life, and we should not expect that it would. On the contrary, following the faith of his church, he would naturally defend the right of a woman to kill her unborn child and resist any legal effort to restrict that right. A woman's right to choose is a supreme right above the fetus. The UCC is on record supporting the right of a woman to an abortion even in the case of partial birth abortions, a position that values the health concerns of the mother well above the right of the unborn to live. If you want to see exactly where this church stands on such a controversial issue, be sure to read this pdf file entitled "Statement in response to the Supreme Court Ruling to uphold the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003."

The next four years will predictably be an era in which advances made on behalf of the rights of the unborn are repeatedly challenged and often reversed. The implications of this agenda will also spill over into other life issues that impact the elderly and disabled. Conservative Christians need to wake up and accept the reality of the times.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is the Church Shrinking Nationwide?

According to the cover story in the March 9 issue of USA TODAY "almost all denominations are losing ground." In fact the percentage of those who claim to be "some type of Christian" has shrunk by 11% in the span of one generation. As the author Cathy Lynn Grossman wrote: "When it comes to religion, the USA is a land of freelancers."

The dramatic changes were detailed in the new American Identification Survey (ARIS). It has found that even despite the fact that growth and immigration have added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, "almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990."

What is of particular interest is the growth of what the survey calls "nones," those who claim no religion. It has grown from 8.2 % in 1990 to 15% in 2008! Furthermore, the survey discovered that the "nones" where the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.

Much of the decline in the percentage of Christians in America comes from the liberal mainline denominations, which is of little surprise. As the survey reports:

Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans, and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.

A majority of the growth within the ranks of those identifying with the Christian faith came from the ranks of the generic evangelicals. Again the survey reveals that:

Most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as "Christian," "Evangelical/Born Again," or "non-denominational Christian." The last of these, associated with the growth of megachurches, has increased from less than 200,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2001 to over 8 million today. These groups grew from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2001 to 11.8 percent in 2008. Significantly, 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants now also identify themselves as evangelical or born again.

"It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism--mainline versus evangelical--is collapsing," said Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program. "A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United State s."

Other findings of interest would include the following:
-Mormons have increased in numbers enough to hold their own proportionally, at 1.4 percent of the population.
-The Muslim proportion of the population continues to grow, from .3 percent in 1990 to .5 percent in 2001 to .6 percent in 2008.
-The number of adherents of Eastern Religions, which more than doubled in the 1990s, has declined slightly.
-Only1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million. Twenty-seven percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral at their death.
-Adherents of New Religious movements, inc luding Wiccans and self-described pagans, have grown faster this decade than in the 1990s.

There is no doubt that we live in the "last days." As Paul writes: "The Spirit says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons...." (1 Timothy 4:1).

The findings of this survey have continued and new implications for those of us within one of the "mainline denominations" that has been shrinking, namely the LCMS. It seems likely that the pattern of shrinkage will continue for some years to come, despite the efforts of denominational beaurocrats to stem the inevitable tide of loss. The era of the big denominational structure is coming to a close. As this growing form of "generic" Christianity gains momentum, catechesis will become even more critical in the future as people continue to blur the lines between what is orthodox and what is heresy and falsehood.

Evangelism is also going to change as we encounter a growing population of people raised with no faith. The usual touch points we counted on before are disappearing. This generation is coming in ignorant of the most basic aspects of general biblical knowledge. In some ways it is almost like going to a third world country and starting from scratch. One major difference, though, is that in some of these pagan countries there is still a sense of spirituality and an interest in things spiritual. This new generation is decidedly irreligious. That's going to be a new and tremendous challenge.

Finally, the "decieving spirits" will continue to experience a growth in their cultish religions. While the interest in things from the Far East is declining, facination in things false and demonic will not. Much of what Paul encountered in his missionary journeys may well become more of a norm for us in this country. The devil, it would appear, is, as predicted, becoming more bold as the days near to the End.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I'm with Tevye - Tradition is How We Keep Our Balance

Last night I had the privilege of seeing Fiddler on the Roof for the first time. It was a stage rendition of the famous musical done at my son's high school. Oh, and did I mention that my son was in the play?

I suppose it seems odd that I am enjoying this play for the first time only in my middle years. Still, enjoy it I did. And probably more so precisely because of my age.

In many ways I related most closely to the central character Tevye. He is the poor milkman in the Russian village Anatevka, struggling to make ends meet in the pre-revolution year of 1905. Although he freely admits to his many struggles and frustrations in occasional prayers to God, he still values the tightknit Jewish community that comprises his world.

In his first monologue Tevye addresses the audience and explains to them the meaning behind the "fiddler on the roof" visible behind him, which serves as the theme of the play. It is a simple, yet profound testimony to the value of tradition - especially in our day when tradition is so often devalued in favor of change.

Tevye: A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!

Tevye: Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as... as a fiddler on the roof!

Although Tevye is Jewish, his point would be well taken by a Christian as well. We, too, have our traditions, and their value to the community of believers has been to help us "keep our balance." In their enthusiastic rush to throw out the honored traditions of the church, many modern reconstructionists completely miss that they are jetisoning the very means whereby the church keeps from swinging into dangerous extremes. For example, without the tradition of the liturgy every pastor is free to substitute his own thoughts and feelings in place of God's Word. These so-called "creative worship" liturgies end up as little more than personal commentary unanchored by any stable truth. The experiments with the liturgy over the years have therefore had disasterous effects in such places as the disruption of the confession of the church, both of sins and faith. Without a solid base we leave our poor people as little more than "fiddlers on a roof," weaving precariously on the edge of falling into spiritual injury and death.

In the play Tyve sees his treasured traditions devalued and abandoned one by one. Much of the story surrounds his struggle to adapt to the change that is disrupting his family and even the future of the very village he calls home. The village is divided, in some ways, between those who embrace change over tradition, and those who cling to tradition. As his daughters choose mates to marry Tevye feels forced to make his own choices between the tradition he values and the love he has for his own children.

Unfortunately we too often feel forced to make the false choice between the honored traditions of the faith and the ability to adapt to our own changing world. Yet, to relinquish these traditions is to lose our balance. Life is aptly described as those who are trying to "scratch out a tune without breaking their neck." It is precarious at times. But Tevye is right. We need our traditions for stability. Shalom to the Tevye's of the church!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jesus First Gearing Up Again

From time to time I drop in on the Jesus First website just to see what is happening on that side of LCMS issues and life. Many times the newsletter and articles are months out of date. No surprise. They are a political group designed for political purposes, especially to influence the direction of synodical policies and elections all the way to the national level. Given that the current climate in Synod has been quietly within their wishes, and the national convention was well behind us, there has been little reason to write.

However, the various districts of the LCMS will be holding their conventions throughout the next half year. Two have already met (North Dekota and Southern Illinois). These inevitably have some impact on what will occur at the synodical convention in 2010, and will give opportunity for the national organization to address the districts on upcoming developments. Thus, JF is "gearing up" their political machine to keep the troops informed in preparation for that future convention. Note how in their schedule of conventions they have specifically marked with an asterisk those conventions electing members to the national nominating committee. Note also their directive to JF operatives: "The Committee on Convention Nominations is an extremely important one. If your district will be electing someone to this important committee, we encourage you to work for the election of someone who will work to nominate “Gospel-centered, mission-driven, and future oriented” leaders for our Synod. " They dare never try to honestly potray themselves as anything but blatently political. It's so painfully obvious.

One would do well to read Rev. Charles S. Mueller Sr.'s article "Jesus First on Duty for Another Season." It sets the JF agenda for 2010 in broad general terms. The gist of his paper is that JF is a centrist organization that seeks only to keep the extremes in check. It also continues the encouragement that the LCMS is a big family with a fair amount of diversity that should be honored. But note, this diversity, he claims, is all within accepted bounds. Between the lines: Maintain the progress we have gained. If national suggests change, that's o.k. (especially the Blue Ribbon Committee's report on governance changes.) Watch out for the extremests (definition: those who seem to think there are any real problems with how the Synod is doing things these days, what what we believe.)

For the record, we do have problems, some of which I watched being created by my very eyes when I was a delegate in 2004. That was the year JF assumed obvious power over the structure. The role of men and women in the church remains an unresolved issue. The conflict within our understanding of pastoral ministry remains an issue. Fellowship and communion practice remains an issue. These are just a few. Unfortunately I see subtle and not so subtle tendencies of the ELCA creeping in year by year, especially the "live and let live" mentality I observed in the other post I made today. The message is we're big enough for almost everything as long as we move the boundaries of what is extreme and redefine them as acceptible.

Well, I'll be watching. 2010 may or may not be a watershed moment. That remains to be seen. But I'll be watching....

ELCA Task Force Makes Recommendations for Practicing Homosexual Pastors

Less than a month ago the ELCA's task force on sexuality issued a recommendation for their upcoming national convention. The last study that came out of the ELCA proved to be highly controversial, and this study will prove to be no less. Essentially, they are asking for their denomination to reverse its current policy regarding gay and lesbian pastors and allow them the freedom to be fully rostered clergy while also fully practicing homosexuals. Up to this point they served the church but were required to remain celebate.

In true liberal fashion the task force admits disagreements within the church body on this subject, but leans in the direction of solving this tension by the simple "live and let live" philosophy. Forget truth. The subject of sexuality is relative as far as the Bible is concerned.

The task force acknowledged that there is neither "a consensus -- a general agreement -- nor any emerging consensus" either within the ELCA or within other faith communities in North America, according to its report. The task force stated that ELCA members "must seek a common way to live and serve in the midst of disagreements."
"Through careful listening to this church and to one another other, task force members share a sober appreciation for the depth of disagreement on this matter. We also share a longing for church unity," said the Rev. Peter Strommen, Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church, Prior Lake, Minn., and task force chair. "Our hope is that a way can be found to live in the unity of the gospel amidst our differences."

Yet how does one live in the midst of disagreements if you believe that a given practice is contrary to God's holy will? Can one imagine Jesus going to the religious leaders of his day, or Paul to the churches he served, and saying "We must seek a common way to live and serve in the midst of disagreements" when they believed that the truth of God's will was at stake?

The task force recommends an incremented strategy for applying the changes, looking for agreement at various levels in a stepped process.

The task force recommended that a process begin with the churchwide assembly, "declaring its intention about what it wants to do," according to the report. It proposed four steps to be taken consecutively. If the assembly agrees to the first, then the second, third and fourth would be considered only if the preceding steps have been approved.

The first step asks the assembly whether it is committed "to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships," said the report.
The second step asks the assembly whether it is committed to finding a way for Lutherans in committed, same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA professional leaders -- clergy, associates in ministry, diaconal ministers and deaconesses.
If steps one and two are accepted, step three asks the assembly to commit to implementing steps one and two "in such a way that all this church bear the burdens of the other, love the neighbor, and respect the bound conscience of any with whom they disagree." According to the report, "decisions about policy that serve only the interests of one or another group will not be acceptable."
Step four presents a proposal for how the ELCA could move toward change "in a way that respects the bound conscience of all," said the report. The fourth step is different from the previous steps in that it is "not simply a commitment in principle, but makes a specific recommendation for flexibility within existing structures and practices of this church to allow for people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to be approved" for professional service in the ELCA, stated the report.

Other Lutherans have long struggled with the ELCA's abandonment of truth in favor of adopting publicly accepted practices outside the church. This step, while not surprising given its past actions, only pushes them away from their conservative cousins at a distance that now seems unrecoverable. It remains yet to be seen if the assembly will adopt these recommendations, so we should still wait and see what is to come. My fear, however, is that such a direction is inevitable for a church that no longer honors the abolute nature of God's will.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Chicken and the Egg

It's long been a 'pet peeve' with me, so let me vent a moment, after I show you what got me going. In the "letters" section of the recent Lutheran Witness, a man from Oklahoma wrote in response to an article in a previous issue celebrating our Lutheran faith and heritage: "As I read, I got the distinct impression it was much more important to be Lutheran first and then Christian. How sad that the emphasis wasn't on being Christian first."

This really doesn't have to involve a long response. In fact, it begs a simple question which all Lutherans should be able to answer: Is being Lutheran different than being Christian? What part of being Lutheran is different than being Christian? And why does one have to come first? (thus, the "chicken and egg" title to this post)? No one seems to want to answer this.

My theory is that people seem to believe that each church possesses a basic Christian identity that is common to all, and that Lutherans add to that a body of teachings that are adiophora. I hope I'm wrong, but what other explanation is there? To say you are a "Christian first" implies at the outset that being Lutheran is secondary, and therefore not entirely essential to being Christian. And if that is true, which part of our Lutheran faith do we want to declare 'sub Christian'?

O.k., that's all the rant I'm going to make for now....