Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Close Communion and the Holidays

Having just come through the largest Christian holiday, where the church is often filled to overflowing capacity with a variety not often seen during the remainder of the year, the age-old question of close(d) communion again presents itself. With many families making the effort to attend church as a group for at least this one day of the year, the conundrum of altar fellowship seems never quite as acute. For how does one 'refuse' the Sacrament to one family member while allowing it to another? And how does one deal with family members who once belonged to the church yet have now moved on to other communions, many of them at theological odds with their former church?

There is little doubt that many in the LCMS are not at all supportive of the established practice of close communion as officially confessed by the Synod, and this practice is probably widely ignored especially at the Easter celebration where attendance is at an all time high. The rationale for attending communion in a church whose teachings your present congregation is technically opposed to, becomes much more emotional than rational. We attend because it is the "family" thing to do. It is far too painful at such a happy occasion to deal with the reality of our real theological divisions. Or, the reality may be that we truly do not understand the real differences between our churches, especially the one to which we belong and the one we find ourself attending at the moment. The truth is that people, generally speaking, choose their churches more for personal reasons than for theological ones. Many of these churches may very well demand little in the way of understanding before accepting them into membership, thus perpetuating this unfortunate ignorance. Instruction classes may be no more than a few hours worth of introduction. Therefore, when the moment arrives to approach the altar, little thought is given to what this means as a visible demonstration of unity in faith, or as an outward confession. They simply do not understand. Or they do not want to.

So, what is the solution to this dilemma? Ah, now that's a question with which one could truly wrestle. The immediate answer certainly involves better catechesis. Yet this does not entirely remove the problem with which I began. Communion policy statements in the bulletin are invaluable as a tool to communicate the church's postion on fellowship at the altar. Yet, how many people really read these? How many actually read any bulletin announcements? And of those who do, how many just ignore them? Some people simply do not feel bound by any rules accept those they impose on themselves. It is part of an individualistic and relativistic society, and Lutherans are not exempt from this cultural malaise.

Close communion is a difficult practice for the confessional Lutheran pastor, one which often brings unwelcome pain to his ministry and not a little guilt in his inability to faithfully assure the faithfulness of its adherence.

Pros and Cons on Multiple Services

As we prepared to reintroduce a midweek service this summer, a discussion arose regarding the appropriateness of offering multiple services. Two main arguments against this practice were raised: 1.) We are catering only to the convenience of people who want to attend church around their own schedules, and 2.) It divides the congregation.

This service is only a seasonal offering, taking place from June through August, so the impact is limited. During the summer months we have noted that many people camp and travel and are often not available for Sunday services - at least not locally. Now it is true that some take advantage of this so as to have their Sundays free for other activities, whether that is to sleep in or engage in some recreational activity. If the service was not available they might very well come on Sunday anyway. For those who camp they are less likely to get dressed up and seek out a church in their area.

One could certainly argue that if a person truly wished to attend church on Sunday, a way could be found even while camping or on vacation away from home. For some of our people the desire is to be able to be away and still attend their own church that week. Perhaps this is motivated by a wish to see people they know, an awkwardness of being in a strange church, or maybe it is motivated by the need to be in a place that offers worship in a liturgical manner, something which is increasingly harder to find these days.

I am not sure of all the reasons, and it probably doesn't matter in the end (as I have little control over this.) As I have told my people, my call is to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. If there is a request to do this more often, I feel obligated to provide. It is what I am called to do. How does one ultimately argue with the request to have an additional time to worship? Of all the things we do inside and outside of the church in the name of 'convenience,' it would seem that the desire to have a time to worship is hard to turn down.

As to the issue of 'dividing the congregation,' I am not quite sure how to address this. Congregations can be quite 'divided' even when they gather in the same place and time. Some have observed that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. People, by nature, are inclined to associate and visit with people with whom they are familiar and with whom they feel most comfortable. They are probably not any more 'united' as a group even if they are all in the same room.

Yet how is the true unity of a congregation manifested? When we confess the church as the "communion of saints," we are also confessing our unity with the saints who have preceded us in death, as well as those still walking with us in this time and place. Unity is what we enjoy in and through Christ, even if we are physically separated by time and space.

Adding additional worship services, as I see it, is a rather practical solution to a church's attendance problems, and the easiest one at that. Even the 'church growth' gurus tell us that if we wish to increase the number of people coming to worship, the first step is giving them more opportunities to do so. It is also an economical way to temporarily deal with an overcrowding problem where the existing sanctuary is too small to accommodate all the people currently attending (if only I had this problem!).

The final decision on such matters falls to the voters, and one hopes that however one decides such things, the call to proclaim the Gospel and gather around the Lord's Table to receive His body and blood is kept in the forefront of any discussion. For too often in the church we decide things independent of the Gospel and the scriptural understanding of what the church truly is.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Some Pastoral Thoughts on Funerals

One of the more popular topics raised at pastoral home visits would have to be that of funerals. To their credit many simply want to know the ethical and appropriate way to proceed with certain customs, like the disposition of their remains. One topic in this category is the subject of cremation. Over the years I have taken the position that the church and the scriptures have been neutral on this matter. I am aware of Dr. Alvin Schmidt's little volume Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: A Biblical and Christian Examination of Cremation (2005), although I have yet to more than skim and spot read sections of the book. The link here is to the Amazon site, and the customer reviews may be worth your time if you would like to investigate this further. My view at present is with the reviewer who held this practice to fall within the area of adiophora, those things neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. Readers of this article may take a very different view of this, some based on Schmidt's well written argument, and I would certainly be willing to hear your points. I would also like to know how one would deal with such a sensitive matter in the most pastoral way possible. I honestly have not found any Christians who choose cremation for reasons even remotely approaching those of the ancient pagans. The link above to the article in Wikipedia is also worth reading for background on this practice and the wide range of reaction to the practice within Christian circles. The Roman Catholics at one time vigorously opposed it. The Eastern Orthodox church still does. In the Roman church allowance is made provided those disposing of the remains are not doing so as a denial of the resurrection. Again, I have yet to run into such people in my many burials. Undoubtedly they exist. Somehow I can't imagine them wanting my services, though.

Beyond these issues there is also the matter of where the funeral is held. For a Christian who is also a baptized member of a given congregation, the natural choice would be the sanctuary of the church to which they belonged. Or so I once thought. This is an area with which I struggle more as a pastor. While I am not opposed to the funeral home as a place of the funeral (as this, too, is adiophora), the witness of the act falls short of what we would want as Christians. By this I mean that a Christian would want the final act to be a witness to Christ and the place where this child of God encountered Christ in Word and Sacrament. Since our moral bodies were once the "temple of the Holy Spirit" as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 6:19, would we not want their final passage to be through the "temple" where God is present in Word and Sacrament? As much as I am able I always strongly encourage the use of the church sancturary for funerals.

Finally, the last item is a 'catch all' area where one deals with the details of the service itself. Like weddings this often falls to the preference to make of the funeral a personal display rather than a testimony to Christ. Somehow there is a felt need to glorify the deceased one last time before they are buried. Does this arise, in part, from hidden guilt that we did not attend to the living as much as should have? Or does it become an issue that the living want to have a 'stage' to speak and show their own views and insights? Or is it a matter that we think those attending the funeral don't know the really important details of the life of the deceased and it is our duty at the end to make them better informed on this important matter? Or is it a matter that we really believe that the deceased was a great person from whom we can learn one last lesson in life?

If some of these latter points are true, one can dispense with this quite easily by writing an article or a longer obituary and letting people read it at their leisure. If the person was that important while alive, why did we not sing their praises then? At any rate, there are other ways to do this.

For the service the point is to comfort the grieving with the only hope we have: Jesus Christ risen and alive, the source of eternal life to all who believe. That's it. Period. Nothing else helps here. Sure we can 'comfort' ourselves with memories, reminiscing about all the good things we remember doing and how it once made us feel happy (or so we choose to remember it now!). But does this really get to the issue of life in the midst of death? Does it offer any real hope beyond the grave? No. Why then should we spend valuable time on shallow matters of our own feelings and memories when we have the chance to hear the living voice of Christ?

This is all the more critical when we realize that funerals often attract a fair amount of unchurched and unbelieving people. Unlike weddings (don't get me started here...), people are far more open to the message of the Gospel. They may also be more conscious of their own mortality and desiring to know more about the possibility of eternal life. I have probably made this point before, but of the funerals I attend as a "guest," I have been sorely disappointed time and again by the obvious absence of Christ in these so-called services. What a wasted opporunity for genuine mission work! I wanted to stand up and say, "Before anyone leaves this place, we need to hear about Christ risen. Your eternal future depends on it."

Unfortunately, though, funerals fall to the vagaries of our culture as much as anything else. It is a pastor's work to catechize and inform as often as possible to counter the trends. At this season of Easter I am especially aware of this need. For nowhere else does the reality of Christ, life, and death become more vivid than at the grave. Thus, I have always been thankful that the last words of the graveside rite have been the Easter greeting: Christ is risen, He is risen indeed. These should be the only words left in the air as the grieving depart.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Gay Marriage Legal in Vermont - More to Come!

By now many of you are no doubt aware that Vermont has legalized gay marriage. The state house overrode the Governor's veto by a slim, but sufficient margin. Obviously this is not the result of an overwhelming majority, and it would be interesting to see the results of a statewide ballot initiative such as they had in California.

At present four states in our union now have legal marriage for homosexual partners. What is interesting is that the three other states - Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa - legalized this new definition of marriage through the courts, not the legislature. And California, which experimented with this novel procedure only to have the voters overturn them, is again trying to force the issue through the court system, petitioning the judicial branch to legislate outside of its jurisdiction. We will wait to see if the courts will dismiss the decision of a fair majority of voters and again play fast and loose with the governmental framework that our founders so carefully and cautiously constructed.

Three states at present are also lined up with bills to legalize gay marriage: New Hampshire, Maine, and New Jersey. Now one may easily observe that to date the majority of activity is occurring on the traditionally 'progressive' and liberal east coast, with Iowa as the exception. However, the precedent is set. Whether it be a move to legislate from the bench, or to push it by a bill in congress, the trend is spreading. One way or the other this so-called 'right' will be given regardless of what the majority of the nation desires or approves.

It is interesting how the Vermont legislature was influenced to pass this bill. In an AP article from April 8, autor Dave Gram wrote: "Courts typically deal with arcane ponts of constitutional law. While legislatures debate some of the same principals, the process may become much more personal. In Vermont, some of the most gripping debate came when gay and lesbian lawmakers took to the House floor last week and told their own personal love stories."

The article referenced Linda McLain, an expert in family law and policy, who also noted that using the "civil rights language of equality" could go a long way in making "gay marriage acceptable elsewhere."

Civil rights used to mean the rights one had by virture of their basic humanity - their gender and color, for example - and not their behavior. The precedent such legal developments set now with making sexual behavior a matter of basic human rights is destined to open up a "Pandora's Box" of possibilities this country has yet to imagine.

As for the church it will certainly make life more complicated. However, I highly doubt that even if my state legalized such unions and called them marriage, that any would seek a conservative country preacher to comply by forcing him to conduct such services. They would go to those who blessed them willingly. We would simply be further marginalized in society as those who are 'out of step' with where the public will is at.

The more burning question for me is how the state will treat those of us who feel complelled to publicly condemn such behavior as morally wrong from our pulpits. Will 'free speech' protect such acts, or will the state further decide that our right to proclaim the truth as we understand it is damaging to the welfare of others and therefore wrong and punishable by law? The vote is still out on this one.