Saturday, December 31, 2011

Seelsorger Discovers the Advantage of the E-reader

For my 51st birthday my wife blessed me with the gift of a Nook, the e-book reader created by Barnes and Noble.  Many of you have probably long since discovered this technological tool, but the Seelsorger often lags behind the pack (Confession: I have yet to send a text message from my phone.  Goal for 2012.)  At any rate I have come to truly appreciate the benefits of this device.  Not wanting to spend a lot and finding the Barnes and Noble site very workable to find books, I began to explore the many offerings available for bargain prices.  What an amazing treasure trove of classics!  Works by Luther and other reformers, plus an abundance of works by several church fathers, are all accessible for just under a dollar.  Admittedly, the translations are not the most recent, and many of the books are public domain, some dating back many decades.  Nevertheless, for a small budget you can amass a nice portable library with the flexibility of adding many other documents and books as you are able. I have only begun to explore, so I'm sure there are several undiscovered features yet to be found.  Now, if I can just master texting...

Top Ten Religious News Stories of 2011

Christianity Today has once again announced its top ten news stories for the past year.  Do you remember any of them?

1 - Rob Bell tries to legitimize universalism, prompting huge backlash.  He later announces leaving Mars Hill Bible Church.
2- States adopt 80 abortion restrictions in their 2011 legislative sessions, an all-time high (the previous record was 24).
3 - Mideast Christians conflicted about the Arab Spring, especially a anti-Christian violence follows Mubarak ouster in Egypt.
4 - John Scott, evangelical statesman, pastor, and builder of the global church, dies at 90.
5 - Beijing's Shouwang Church holds outdoor services for more than six months, enduring mass arrests as it leads China's booming house churches in unprecedented demands for religious freedom.
6 - HarperCollins, which already owns Zondervan, buys Thomas Nelson; it now has about 50 percent of the Christian book market.
7- How best to translate "Son of God" in Bibles for the Muslim world becomes a flashpoint, prompting Wycliffe to clarify standards and missionaries to pledge more civility.
8 - Tim Tebow's prominent display of faith becomes one of the sports world's major talking points.
9 - Largely Christian South Sudan votes for independence; persecution ensues for Christians in the Nuba Moutains and Khartoum.
10 - The PC (USA) votes to allow noncelibate gay pastors, prompting defections from presbyteries.  (Meanwhile, the United Methodists hold the line on same-sex unions amid a planned clergy revolt.)

From: Christianity Today, January 2012 issue, page 9.

I provided a few links for names and subjects you may wish to explore further. 

Happy New Year! to all who drop by here to read.  May the Lord richly bless you!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Repristination Press

My wife also blessed me with a couple of smaller works from Reprisination Press, Why? A Layman's Guide to the Liturgy by Burnell Eckardt and Johann Konrad Wilhelm Loehe: Portrait of a Confessional Lutheran by D. Richard Stuckwisch.  I have purchased books from Repristination before and have watched as their inventory has grown over the years, eventually branching out from reprints and translations into more recent original publications.  I get regular updates and sales offers, so I see the works as they become available.  They have been especially helpful in providing valuable reprints and translations of Gerhardt and other authors from the Age of Orthodoxy.  If you are unaware of them or have never visited their site, take a moment and peruse the many fine offers at Repristination Press

The introduction on their main page reads:

Repristination Press was started in Fort Wayne, Indiana in June of 1993, beginning publication with several books by Wilhelm Loehe, Charles Porterfield Krauth, and other works by 19th century Lutheran theologians. Over time, Repristination Press has become a leading publisher of English translations 16th and 17th century Lutheran theology, including works by Johann Gerhard, Nicolaus Hunnius, David Chytraeus, and J.A. Quenstedt.  Repristination Press has been located in Texas since 1998.

My New Reading Project for The New Year

After seeing the book at conferences and bookstores and passing it up, I finally determined that it was high time to stop neglecting it.  So when my dear wife asked for suggestions for Christmas I put Charles Porterfield Krauth's The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology on the list.  Even as the holiday quickly approached she was able to locate a copy on Amazon.com and I am now the proud owner of this 800+ page tome.  Having given her the CPH information I was surprised when I opened it up and looked for Dr. Larry Rast's preface and it was not there.  Come to find out this theological gem is part of the public domain and more than one publishing company has printed it.  My copy comes from Nabu Publishers, published in 2010, and is a public domain reprint. One reviewer of the CPH reprint notes that "They simply reprinted the old book, they didn't bother scanning it, OCR-bridging it and then using a cleaner typeface, which would make this much more readable."  Apparently my copy was from one that was scanned and the typography seems good.  Google Books also has a free ebook copy for those who wish to take this route.  For myself I still prefer an actual bound book in my hands.  However I am open to the e-readers out there such as Kindle.  Eventually I'll break down and buy one.

By the way, do any of the readers that stop by here know where I could find a copy of Dr. Rast's preface?  I would like to read it.

I know many others long ago discovered Krauth's gem.  However, it's still nice to find new treasures and I look forward to benefiting from this theologian's insights. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

White Christmas Not Scarce in This Part of the North

According to an AP article today, "Dreams of a white Christmas are hanging by a thread in the North, where unusually mild weather has left the ground bare in many places...."  Well, for those suffering with a green or brown Christmas, those of us up here in the "Northwoods" tundra section of the lower 48 will have a white Christmas.  Sorry to rub it in if your place is unseasonable mild, but northern Wisconsin is once again magically blanketed with a pleasant covering of frosty white.   To all who stop by to read - Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Church Participates in Gun Buy-Back Program

Recently a Lutheran church participated in a gun buy-back program in New York in the wake of the tragic shooting of a career police officer.  It is run by the New York Police Department in an effort to get more guns off the streets.  As an NRA member such programs admittedly raise questions for me, especially regarding effectiveness.  I believe that guns should be used safely and legally and support any effort that will strengthen that discipline.  However, it would seem that this well-meaning (but misdirected) effort is not as effective as supporters would like it be.  On the site NewYorkDefenseLawyer.com the author notes: "It’s true that offering $200 for a weapon will likely draw people to bring in their firearms. But, more interestingly, how many of these people are bringing in all of their weapons and how many are simply bringing in the ones they don’t have a desire to use anymore? It is difficult to measure the actual effectiveness of these programs and there are differing opinions about their effectiveness. Law enforcement typically says that these programs do work. Any firearm they collect is a firearm not being used on the street. The likelihood that the firearms turned in would have been used in a violent crime is probably very rare."

As one who remains active in my own community with concern for others outside the walls of my church, I would encourage churches to be discerning in how they choose to offer their services to the governing authorities.  It is not always a matter of engaging in symbolic gestures that look good to some, but end up simply lending our support to efforts that have no proven track records of success.  As Christians we all want to see a lessening of violent crime.  To that end we support our law enforcement departments with prayer that the Almighty would protect them and use them as effective instruments of defense on our behalf.  A gun buy-back effort, though sponsored by a law enforcement agency, carries more political baggage than we may realize and in the end may not truly contribute to their safety or our own.

We have many laws in this country governing the use of firearms, some of them quite strict.  Enforcement of these laws should be the greater priority of our authorities, not attempts to take from the citizens the ability to protect their own lives under the Second Amendment.  I highly suspect that true criminals are not turning their guns in at these collections, and that very few of these collected guns, if any, would ever have been used in violent crimes.  We need to go after the criminals directly, not indirectly.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Atheists' 'Navivity Scene' Counters Christian Scene with Blatant Insensitivity

As reported in an earlier post, the Freedom from Religion Foundation decided to put up a 'nativity scene' at the Wisconsin capital to counter one placed by a Christian group.  They put up their 'scene' on Wednesday.   According to a recent AP article it depicts Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.  What the article did not report were the other figures and captions, including a child in a manger with the sign "Heathen's Greetings," and a female figurine announcing "It's a girl!"   According to The Blaze: "In the atheist version of the nativity, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein are the three wise men. The baby, an African girl, is intended to represent the birthplace of mankind. The beloved angels are an astronaut and the Statue of Liberty."

Because the Christians put up a display the atheists insist they needed to have their views represented as well.  So, let's see if we can interpret their message as apposed to the Christian one.  Given the fact that it is a deliberate spoof on the traditional nativity scene, the clear message to me is that they believe in ridiculing things sacred to people of faith.  Of course, they wouldn't think of doing such a thing for those embracing other world religions such as Islam or Judaism.  That would be insensitive. But Christians are a different story. They invite ridicule, right?  Well, let's see if the Christian scene was insensitive to people who choose not to exercise faith in a deity.  I can't see that it was.  As reported before its really an historical representation.  As Christians we believe that the baby in the manger is God in human flesh.  But that's our interpretation.  We do not insist they interpret it that way, and no sign is provided to announce that.  In no way does it insult atheists - unless, of course, they choose to be insulted.  Yet that should mean that any depiction of the miraculous would be a deliberate insult to them and they should stage counter demonstrations wherever they find such depictions, especially if they should be on public land.   

The whole spectacle is a telling commentary on the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Insensitivity and ridicule seem to be their primary message.  How sad....

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ordain Women Now Adjusts to Reactions

As I reported earlier, OWN opened a Facebook page for the purpose of supposedly fostering discussion, even though the title of their group indicates the opposite.  As of yesterday they felt constrained to 'turn off' regular posting to the wall because of what they termed "spaming."  Experienced FB uses corrected this observation and noted that what was occurring, for the most part, was simply a spirited discussion, exactly what they were aiming for, or so it seemed.  Unfortunately, for them, much of the discussion was not supportive of their goal. As of today the reported "likes," a FB attribute to indicate popularity, is now at 222, up significantly from a few days ago when it was first launched.  It's hard to determine, however, where all those 'likes' originate, as some posters willingly admitted that they are LCMS refugees now living and working in the ELCA.  So, one would be cautious about concluding that this is a groundswell of support for their cause.

In reaction to the closing of the wall posting a parallel group was launched just yesterday, playing off of their name and logo: ORDAIN MEN ONLY in the LCMS.  Their "like" category is quickly catching up, now registering 171 as of today.  So, are there more who want ordination for women than do not?  I certainly wouldn't use FB as a barometer.  Still, it's interesting to watch the debate. 

A comment from the group's organizer notes: "Jayne, we're hoping that conversations will occur in congregations and throughout the Synod. CS."  How they will stimulate such 'conversations' in most local congregations remains to be seen.  Pastors, by and large, are 'gatekeepers' for mail coming into the parish, so a major push in this way will accomplish little, as those in Jesus First and Renewal in Missouri undoubted discovered in a past era.  Internet media is still largely untapped by many parishoners, especially those of the older generation (some of my elderly members hadn't even heard of it!).  Then we must factor in whether most of our younger women will even discover this site, let alone their main web site, and if they do whether they will be catalysts to inject a debate in their own churches.  Unless they could launch a major media campaign that would have maximum exposure in the average congregation, I seriously doubt that their 'movement' will gain any meaningful traction.  So, in the end, the desire to impact people at ground level will probably fall far short of its intended goal.  Their best hope is that the pastors themselves will champion their cause, and from my vantage point it does not seem that there are enough sympathetic to their cause to make even a dent.  


For now it therefore remains just another localized internet phenomenon. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Seasonal Attack on Nativity Scenes

'Tis the season to object to outdoor nativity scenes, especially those in public places.  Here in Wisconsin the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation is once again working to counter the Christmas spirit.  In reaction to a conservative group setting up a nativity scene at the capitol building, they are applying for a permit, the AP article reports, "for an opposing display."  They claim that the nativity scene isn't appropriate for a state building.  So what will their display be?  One that's "slightly blasphemous" with an "irreverent tweak" on the nativity scene.

Let's think about this for a moment.  First of all what is there in a typical nativity scene that should be so objectionable?  The article claims the scene includes "six statuettes."  That probably means there is one representing Joseph and Mary, three for the Magi, and one for the baby Jesus.  Or it could be Mary, Joseph, a shepherd or two, the baby Jesus and an angel.  As I remember most nativity scenes the figures are not labeled.  Now most people realize who the figures represent, but the point is that it is left to the viewer's interpretation.  There are no crosses or other overt religious symbols anywhere to be seen.  Just the figures, and maybe a star, but that certainly can't be construed as a distinctive religious symbol.  The scene makes no claims about what it represents.  It is, strictly speaking, simply an historical representation and no more.  Unlike icons and other traditional religious art, I don't even think that the Jesus figure is usually represented with a halo.  While some of the figures are often seen kneeling in the direction of the Christ-figure, the purpose of the kneeling is again left to the viewer's interpretation.  

Yet, the atheists, in the true spirit of mean-spiritedness, have decided to erect something that is "blasphemous" and "irreverent."  And this from the people who pride themselves on being "freethinking."  A quick look at their website reveals slogans that are intended to ridicule faith.  I thought that freedom of religion meant mutual respect.  How naive I must be.  Well, I think their efforts speak volumes about the direction and tone of their organization.  It's just sad that a strong belief in the separation of church and state has to result in an attack on religion itself. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

When Churches Started to Ordain Women

I found an interesting chronology on the Religious Tolerance site regarding when churches started to ordain women.  This timetable begins with the early 1800's, which is interesting in itself.  One of the arguments against women's ordination is its historic novelty, not its ancient roots. Given the more liberal nature of this site, I wonder why they didn't try to trace women's ordination further back?  Could it be that the church did not know such a novelty in previous eras, except in cases of heretical sects?  Furthermore, it is interesting to see how some of those initially ordained to the ministry in the 1800's, outside of the Quakers, either gravitated toward the Unitarians or came out of this group.  The Unitarian Universalist denomination, the site notes, became "the first large denomination to have a majority of female ministers. In 1999-APR, female ministers outnumbered their male counterpart 431 to 422." Looking at the remainder of the chronology, one wonders how close an association there is between the ordination of women and the liberal decline of theology in a given denomination. No doubt there is already a study on this worthy reading....

Friday, December 9, 2011

"Ordain Women Now" (OWN) Opens Facebook Page

Today it became official, according to website manager Carol Schmidt.  The name is changed, as is the mission. Initially the purpose was discussion surrounding the CTCR document "The Creator's Tapestry."  Such discussion did not occur, as was hoped.  Now the direction has changed.  As Ms. Schmidt notes:

While we have no idea how many people in the Missouri Synod want to advocate for the ordination of women, some of us believe there can be no hope for discussion without a place and voice for such advocacy.  Without a voice for advocacy, all voices who desire true discussion will be silenced even if an appearance of discussion is projected.

To widen their push for "advocacy" they have also opened a Facebook page.  Under the mission of the group the following is posted:

There are many theological perspectives on the role of women in the LCMS, but not all aspects have been heard or considered. Studies conducted over the last four decades by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) on the topic of women in church have created confusion and unnecessary division within and among congregations due to a lack of thorough study of the issues and of relevant Biblical texts.

For discussion to occur, all positions on an issue must be voiced or put forth. While there are many groups that ironically speak in favor of the silencing of women, there has never been a group in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that has advocated the ordination of women. Therefore, the purpose and mission of LCMS OWN is twofold:

1) To help create a space where the voices and writings of people in favor of the ordination of women can emerge and
2) To openly call for the public discussion, within congregations and synod-wide, of the ordination of women.


Obviously those desiring women's ordination in the LCMS do not intend to go away quietly.  In fact, they would like to see their agenda and debate spill over into our local congregations.  Such is the direction of "advocacy."  Respect for decades of responsible scholarship from our trusted theologians has been exchanged for a call to seek answers until we find the one we were looking for all along.  Obviously the seminaries are not on board.  Obviously officers in the highest place do not show a willingness to champion their cause.  So to the streets they go.  Create a space for local unrest until it rises high enough to force the hand of those above.  Or so it appears from my vantage point.

While this is being couched in terms of "discussion," the title of their group and website say it all.  Only one outcome is acceptable, so all "discussion" will ultimately have to arrive there.  This was the agenda all along, but only now is the impatience and boldness fully evident.  How does one "discuss" an issue impartially when the other side is screaming in capital letters: "ORDAIN WOMEN NOW!"??  No, discussion is not the goal.  But then again it hasn't really been so from the other side either.  While one can discuss theology to learn, their idea of discussion is to open up the matter for change.  Unfortunately to do so only creates the very confusion about which they complain.  I can only imagine if my seminary training had been nothing more than endless discussions of this sort.  Until very recently, historically speaking, women were not ordained to the office of the public ministry.  Two Millenia of theologians held that Paul and the church did not approve.  We have accepted their seasoned wisdom.  So, no, it is not a topic open for "discussion" if the purpose is to seek overthrowing centuries of hallowed practice for the sake of current sociological change. 

Whether this new initiative gains traction remains to be seen. Their first attempt fell flat. So far the Facebook initiative is mere hours old.  I will keep watching.

Addendum (on 12-10): After at least 20 hours of being published, the Facebook page has only 8 "likes."  In FB reality this seems awfully slow and small.  Apparently the ideas are not necessarily going "viral" yet....
Addendum (on 12-11):  They now have 50 "likes," and a few people have begun to comment, although not all in favor of WO.  Still a bit slow for Facebook....

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"The Creator's Tapestry" Transitions into "Ordain Women Now"

A while back a website was formed in reaction to the LCMS's Commission on Theology and Church Relation's document "The Creator's Tapestry."  This document discussed the roles of women from a biblical point of view as understood in the Missouri Synod.  Predictably some disagreed with this document and established a site to address it, having been largely unsuccessful in getting the powers that be to seriously change their views or revise the document.  Although one could readily guess the underlying sentiment of the website and its author's, it appeared that the initial goal was simply to open the discussion about the role of women in the church.  That has now changed.  Although the address still lists the site as "www.thecreatorstapsetry.com," the new title proclaims: "Ordain Women Now in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod."   To their credit they are at least fully honest about their true intent.

Although it is no surprise to me, the site is now clearly linked with Dr. Matthew Becker and his blog, as well as the Daystar Journal, both of which have been reviewed by the Northwoods Seelsorger.  In the past such views were kept largely hidden from public view.  Now they are very much in the open.  Dr. Becker has commented on multiple discussion boards/blog sites, being very forward in his conviction that women should be ordained.  The reaction from conservative/confessional lay people and pastors has been resistive, and the reaction of officials in the Synod....well, it appears silent for now.  He is free to proclaim contrary to Synod's positions very publicly as often as he desires without any repercussion. 

By following the link above you can visit and review the site for yourself.  The rhetoric remains predictable, so no new review is needed here.  One point, however, can be noted.  A couple of the articles ascribe "fear" to the motivation of the LCMS for not moving forward with desired change in the synod, especially in ordaining women.  Unfortunately this demeaning interpretation is applied to all who oppose the changes for which they clamor, assuming we are just too afraid to do what is right. In other words, we are cowards, holding back to save face. To correct this misinterpretation, let me state as clearly as possible that many of us in the Missouri Synod oppose the ordination of women, not out of craven fear of change, but out of deep commitment to the Word.  If anything we are fearful of offending our holy God and the Truth.  It is too bad that they cannot respect this motivation, even if they disagree with it.  I have no doubt that many of those who desire this change may be equally committed to what they view as truth.  They are wrong, and I am will call it as such.  But to ascribe further motivation is often risky, as we must delve into the unseen reaches of a person's mind and heart.  So, please, at least give us credit for our convictions and leave fear out of it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent

We often think of Advent as the beginning of the church year.  However, the church's calendar is more cyclical  than linear.  Thus, one does not so much observe a beginning and ending as an ongoing cycle moving from one theme to another. The traditional Advent Wreath may be an appropriate way to illustrate this, as we move toward Christmas by moving in a circle, a symbol of eternity.

One half of the year reflects on the life of the church, the other on the life of Christ.  Advent does make us think of beginnings and endings as it points us in anticipation to the end of time and the return of Christ, as well as the birth of Jesus.  Yet the best way to think of Advent is to see it in terms of the fulfillment of prophesy.  How do we know that Jesus will come again in glory, as He promised?  The answer is found in His first coming, the incarnation.  In a sense past, present and future are collapsed and made a single whole.  As we look back we find assurance to look ahead in hope.  The entire story comes together and we see not only the fulfillment of God's purpose from the beginning of time, but we also enjoy the assurance of a future already fulfilled as well.  Eternity has broken into time.  The church may often be seen as simply repristinating, always trying to live in the past.  However, this is far from the truth.  The past points us to the future, thus informing how we live in the present.

We often talk about Advent in terms of the various "comings" of Christ.  This Sunday's Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 64 offered a great example of this.  Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was the first to talk about the threefold coming: 1.) His visible coming in the incarnation, 2.) His coming into our hearts in an invisible way, and 3.) His coming at the end of time in glory, again in a visible way.  Cyril of Jerusalem from the fourth century added a fourth: His coming in the beginning - a birth from God before the ages.  Lutherans often talk about a threefold coming similar to Bernard's, yet different.  Instead of the invisible coming into the heart they usually speak of His coming in Word and Sacrament.  Given the tendency toward becoming overly subjective in matters of the faith, this last scheme seems preferable.

The actual origins of Advent remain obscure.  Its entry into the church's calendar comes much later than the other prominent festival times, arriving around the sixth century.  Rome was very conservative about this season and resisted it to some degree. The length of the season has varied over time, ranging from four to six weeks.  Gregory the Great fixed it at four as symbolic of the 4,000 years of waiting for the Messiah.  According to Gregory the world was also created 4,000 years prior to the Messiah.

The penitential aspect of Advent came from Gaul and Spain, although it arrived in Rome only in the twelfth century.  Gaul also emphasized the eschatological aspect of the season.  This might be a result of the work of Irish missionaries at that time.  Although we tend now to accent the hopeful anticipation of the season, historically it seems to have been more penitential in nature, a season much like Lent.  Some have thus referred to it as the "Winter Lent."  Many of us probably remember that the color of the Advent paraments were always purple/violet, just like Lent.  Only recently has the Lutheran church seen blue, a practice borrowed from Sarum use and introduced with the Lutheran Book of Worship in 1978.  It just took off from there.  Although retaining its Lenten character with the omission of the Gloria and other practices, Advent is also different in that the Alleluia is not technically omitted.  The Alleluia is a perpetual song of the church only to be silenced in Lent.

Traditionally the Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent was the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  This was eliminated with the revision of the lectionary (but restored again in LSB, as this Sunday testified).  Perhaps those who revised the lectionary felt that it was more properly located in the Lenten season.  Yet its place in the Advent season showed how the church deals with history.  Advent should properly be seen in light of the events of the Redemption as much as the Incarnation.  Again, it is about the 'coming' of God among men and what that means in the work and mission of God's Son.  As Emmanuel God comes to be with us for the purpose of saving us.

In our current culture Advent can be an awkward season.  Christmas songs have been playing at Walmart since Halloween or even before.  Yet the church is not ready for Christmas and resists arriving too soon.  We also want to prepare for this celebration properly, recognizing that the incarnation is an event far removed from the mystical-magical nature of folklore and the commercial excesses of actual practice.  Although it seems as if we are swimming against the current here, it is more necessary than ever.  May the Lord use this time to help our people recognize why we even pause to celebrate the birth of God's Son!

The ideas of this post came in large part from notes taken at a summer course entitled "History and Practice of the Church Year" taught by the Rev. Dr. Philip Pfatteicher at Nashotah House. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

DayStar Journal Publishes Fall Articles

In the continued interest of keeping all informed of theological discussions on both sides of the fence within Missourian circles, please note that the Daystar Journal has published a new set of articles for the fall. I have not had a chance to fully read and review all of them, and will report my reflections as time and opportunity allow.  After going to the Daystar Journal site click on "Recent Articles" for the current selection.

The introduction to the articles, however, indicates that the journal has decided to tackle topics in a "social gospel' direction this time around, a theme reminiscent of the 70's.  Still, the first article by David Domsch begins the offerings by taking a direct swipe at the LCMS under the accusation that it is a synod run entirely by fear.  After reading this brief selection one would be led to believe that Missouri is a dictatorial state.  Domsch also takes aim at the seminaries, which he obviously believes are failing to fulfill their duty.  He states: "We spend more to educate a single pastor than any other denomination in the US – with too often questionable results."  Ouch!  It would be interesting to have him expand on this accusation and help us understand how miserably our newer pastors are faring out there.  I suspect his problems are with those who come out with a conservative bent and run contrary to the Daystar philosophy of ecumenical openness and theological liberalism.  


It is a shame that the positive efforts of Missouri in the area of mercy could not at least be acknowledged.  While we are feeding the hungry and assisting the devastated throughout the world, we must be chastised now for not being political activists trying to change policies in Washington.  Under President Harrison's leadership over the years we have made tremendous strides in being a leader in diakonal ministry.  Too bad charity would not allow this to at least be noted in passing....

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Topography of Religion

Thanks to the former dean of Nashotah House, I discovered this little piece by way of his own blog "To All the World..."  The 'tool' is an interactive map of the U.S., that shows the percentage of faith groups represented by each state in the union.  Simply pass the cursor over the state and the bar graph to the right will immediately register the percentage of various religious groups. What was interesting to me is how many "unaffiliated" there are, sometimes equaling the number of Evangelicals and Catholics in certain areas. Check it out here

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Swedish Lutheran Church Hosts 'Techno Mass'

I shouldn't be surprised or shocked anymore.  When it comes to worship many churches assume that the form and music of worship remain neutral, and therefore subject it to whatever manipulation will attract the next crowd.  The Church of All Saints in Stockholm has simply applied that to the latest trend among the young, celebrating the upsurge of numbers while oblivious to the injury they inflicted on the spiritual life of God's people.  Take a moment and read the Associated Press article here reprinted by the Washington Post and judge for yourself.

Even the writer noted early on that the so-called service resembled a "disco at a youth center" more than worship. With increasingly fewer worshipers the church felt it needed to so something to attract the younger crowd and turned to the tools of the entertainment industry. That the participants were entertained is a given.  "It was an awesome feeling," said one.  “It was superfun, it was really kicking..." said another.  Yet did these young people have any sense of coming into the holy presence of God, humbly contrite for their sins, needful of the healing power of forgiveness in Christ?  Can't say.  No one apparently thought to offer that comment for the writer to copy.

As churches continue to play around with worship and mold it into something more attractive, they will reap exactly what they sow, to borrow a biblical metaphor.  They will fill pews, to be sure, but they will not gain worshipers cognizant of the real miracle in their midst, namely the true presence of Christ with gifts of grace.  They will only walk away with hyped up emotions always looking for more.  How sad. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thoughts on Purgatory

Purgatory presented Martin Luther with one of his early theological challenges.  I suspect that some Catholics today would claim that purgatory is among those practices of the past that possess little meaning for the modern believer.  In Luther's day purgatory featured prominently in the believer's mind.  It was also tied directly to indulgences which became a major fundraiser, especially for those trying to raise much needed capital to build St. Peters and pay off debts resulting from the purchase of titles and positions.  Given this state of affairs it makes sense that such a practice was ripe for abuse. 

However, past abuses aside, is purgatory a doctrine of the current Catholic Church?  The answer is yes.  Yet how central to Catholic teaching is purgatory?  Admittedly, purgatory also does not list among the primary and central teachings or truths of the church.  Alan Schreck (author of Catholic and Christian, 1984) sees part of the problem with Catholic-Protestant interaction coming either from non-Catholics who focus too heavily on these secondary truths, or from Catholics who make too much of them and thus unset the balance.  Rather than accusing Catholics of being 'un-Christian' he would like to see more charity in recognizing their shared commitment to such teachings as the divinity of Christ, and other more central doctrines.

 This is a reasonable request and Protestant-Catholic dialog will begin on a more positive note if common ground is first established.  That said, we still must wrestle with the reality of this teaching and what it means to the overall theological picture.  While doctrines may be ranked in a secondary manner, they must still be complimentary to the whole body of theological thought. 

So, let me present a brief summary of the essentials of purgatory as I understand them:
  • Purgatory is not for the condemned, or hell-bound soul.  Those in purgatory are said to have died in a "state of grace."  Thus, they are technically speaking, already heaven-bound.  It is not a 'second chance' for salvation for those who have already rejected God.  Prior faith is assumed.
  • Those who are in purgatory are not yet free from imperfection and therefore must make expiation for unforgiven venial sins and mortal sins which have been forgiven.  Another way this is expressed is to say that the person is still 'in bondage to sin.' 
  • As the name implies, purgatory is a place where heaven-bound souls are 'purified' or 'purged' of sinfulness and are then able to fully enter into the presence of God in heaven. Purgatory is presumed on the basis of God's holiness.  Nothing impure or unholy can enter into his presence. 
  • Direct scriptural support for purgatory comes primarily from the Apocrypha or Deutercanonical books which are included in Catholic bibles but usually omitted from Protestant ones.  (Note: Luther did include the Apocrypha in his Bible, but did not assign it the same canonical status as the other 66 books of the Old and New Testament.)  The Catholic church, however, does appeal to the other canonical books as well.
  • The Catholic church sees purgatory as a necessity to provide a place where "temporal punishment" for already forgiven sins can be accomplished.  Sin is said to possess a "double consequence."  In some cases it can result in the abandonment of faith altogether and thus result in the eternal consequence of hell.  On the other hand, it can have a more 'temporal' consequence of leaving the person with an unhealthy attachment to the things of this world.  Some saintly people can, in this life, live in such a way as to remove that attachment and die 'purified' of the effects of sin and thereby avoid further 'punishment.'   Through works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, the believer effectively "puts of the old man" and "puts on the new," as Paul notes in Ephesians 4.  
  • The Catholic Church sees support for the teaching of purgatory in the Church Fathers.  However, it seems that they appeal mainly to those of the 3rd century on.  
  • Purgatory is related to the practice of praying for the dead.  It is noted that praying for the dead would make no sense without purgatory.  They point to the practice of praying for the dead which they observe in the Early Church. 
Certainly others will be able to add to this list or even correct parts of it.  Please feel free to point out where I have missed the point.  I have consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as popular works by Schreck, as mentioned above, and Fr. M.J. Stravinskas in The Catholic Answer Book (1990).

Reflecting on the point listed above, I offer my thoughts and questions as reasoned by a Luthean:
  •  The concept of 'punishment' for sin, biblically speaking, is an aspect of God's justice, the result of which is complete condemnation of the sinner.  The heart of the gospel is that God's Son took all this upon Himself on the cross making total expiation for the sinner.  Forgiveness means that the guilt of this sin is removed from the sinner for the sake of Christ's prior sacrifice.  Isaiah is 'purged' of the guilt of his sin by God's declaration of forgiveness. 
  • Holiness in the presence of God comes through our putting on of Christ (Gal. 3:27) through baptism.  Our life is "hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).  When Jesus talks about heaven as a wedding banquet he refers to those accepted in as the ones properly clothed with the wedding garment, which obviously is the garment of salvation, the very holiness of Jesus himself.  If we needed to be purged of all sinfulness before entering into the presence of God, how were prior believers able to stand in God's presence even during their living years? 
I will offer additional thoughts in future posts as I continue to study and read.  Chemnitz is on my list (Examination of the Council of Trent).  Future posts will also address prayers for the dead. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Rehabilitation of Pelagius?

My attention was recently drawn to a resolution by the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta proposing a study that would lead to "honoring the contributions of Pelagius."  Resolution R11-7 reads:

Contributions of Pelagius 
Whereas the historical record of Pelagius’s contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and   whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition, and  whereas his restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, grace, free will, and the goodness of God’s creation, and   whereas in as much as the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans,   Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta appoint a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in our tradition  And be it further resolved that this committee will report their conclusions at the next Annual Council.
Submitted by the Rev. Benno D. Pattison, Rector, the Church of the Epiphany

For those unaware, Pelagius' views were soundly condemned by the Council of Carthage of 418 as heretical. The followers of Pelagius, in the early part of the fifth century, taught that man is not sinful by nature and that he can be saved by an act of his own will, albeit aided by God's grace.  The confessions of the Lutheran church have long recognized the error of Pelagius and have therefore condemned it as well:

"Our churches condemn the Pelagians and others who deny that the vice of origin is sin and who obscure the glory of Christ's merit and benefits by contending that man can be justified before God by his own strength and reason." - Augsburg Confession, II, 3 (Original Sin)

"Our churches condemn the Pelagians and others who teach that without the Holy Spirit, by the power of nature alone, we are able to love God above all things, and can also keep the commandments of God in so far as the substance of the acts is concerned." - Augsburg Confession, XVIII, 8 (Free Will)

"Against the Pelagians, Augustine maintains at length that grace is not given because of our merits." - Apology, IV, 29 (Justification)

"We likewise condemn the Pelagian error which asserts that man's nature is uncorrupted even after the Fall, and especially that in spiritual things its natural powers remained wholly good and pure." - Epitome, I, 13 (Original Sin).

"We also reject the errors of the crass Pelagians who taught that by his own  powers, without the grace of the Holy Spirti, man can convert himself to God, believe the Gospel, whole-heartedly obey God's law, and thus merit forgiveness of sins and eternal life." - Epitome, II, 9 (Free Will)

Given these sound, historic, condemnations it never occurred to me that Pelagius would have his defenders in this day of age, at least among those in Christian denominations.  Yet I would not be surprised either, especially in a time when heretics are rediscovered and promoted as possessors of hidden and suppressed truths.  The blog Sojourning Spirituality even posted an article entitled "Thank You, St. Pelagius."   Like the resolution printed above, they also claim that "Pelagius' wisdom has been ignored and suppressed because of his label as a 'heretic' by the Roman Church. But modern scholars are discovering that he wasn't as radical as the Roman Church made him out to be. And his theology wasn't as naive as Augustine made it out to be. So it's high time for a re-claiming of Pelagius and his theology."  Still, they readily admit that "our human condition isn't defined by original sin."  So is denial of Original Sin heresy or not?

Another article claims that "two ecclesiastical synods, two popes, at least thirty-two bishops and several influential Christians could not find anything wrong with Pelagius' doctrinal stances."  If such is the case it doesn't remove the fact that for nearly 1,600 years the church has upheld the condemnation of his teaching.

Of course the resolution above is only proposed.  One can hope that sane minds will see the confusion here and reject it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Published

I love to write (which is why I started this blog).  However, going the next step and submitting something for publication always seemed like too big of a step.  This past January, however, one of my professors handed back a paper I'd written the previous summer and made the comment that he thought what I had written was "publishable."  That finally gave me the impetus to give it a try.  What did I have to lose?  I reformatted the paper, doubled checked it again, and sent it off to LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology What a surprise when the Reformation issue arrived this past week and I saw that they had published it!  The article is entitled "Romans 7: Personal Struggle, Defense of the Law, or Israel's Struggle?"  It arose out of a class studying the "New Perspective on Paul."  As one of the 'token' Lutherans in the class (at this Anglican seminary) I decided to defend Luther against the newer 'perspective.'  My professor did not entirely agree with my final conclusion, but he was gracious enough to appreciate my argumentation. 

If you have ever considered publishing something, be it a full length academic treatise, an article for a popular magazine, a poem, or anything else, I encourage you to take the step and go for it.  For most of my life I left what I wrote tucked away in file folders or among the countless documents on my hard drive.  My professor gave me the push late in life to make that next step, and that is one of the benefits of going back to school, regardless of your age.  We need to be challenged to push ourselves, especially as we get older and more inclined to 'play it safe.'  Will I ever submit something for publication again?  I'm not sure, but at least I know I can, and that was an accomplishment in itself. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Imprecatory Psalms

Imprecatory psalms present a challenge.  The call for judgment and punishment on one's enemies, to the Christian ear, sounds harsh and excessive.  This morning my devotions involved Psalm 109, a primary imprecatory psalm.  Obviously the verses contain very harsh calls for hardship and suffering upon the "wicked man," possibly more than most psalms.  The 'psalm prayer' at the end in my breviary tried to soften the tone as it reminded the hearer that Jesus "blessed" those who cursed him and asked the Father to forgive those who nailed him the cross.  Still, the psalm does not bless the wicked man.  In fact, it asks that his "sin be always before the LORD."  How do we reconcile such language with our faith?

Although in no way coordinated with the cycle of readings, it so happened that one of the lessons to be read for today was from James 2.  The final verse of the reading seemed to throw light on the dilemma posed above: "For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment."  A careful reading of Psalm 109 will reveal that the "wicked man" of this psalm is a godless man devoid of mercy. He "loved cursing," and put it "on like a garment."  He "did not remember to show mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy and sought to kill the brokenhearted."  The psalmist does not come before God to seek revenge for his bruised feelings or to even the score.  He simply recognizes that those who reject the mercy of God and treat others with a harsh and unfair judgment should be judged by their own standards.  They do not recognize the mercy of God, so clearly they do not want it.  So let them be subject to the same conditions they impose on the world.  One might recall at this point Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:23ff.  When the servant was initially brought before his lord for a settlement of his accounts, he begged for mercy.  Out of compassion the master forgave the servant's debt.  However, when that same servant later found a fellow servant who owed him money, he showed no mercy, even though the man begged just as sincerely.  And how does the Lord respond here?  "'You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?'  And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt."  

The wicked man of Psalm 109 seems no different than the wicked servant of Matthew 18.  God shows mercy to the humble of heart who desire mercy.  However, to those who harden their hearts and reject His mercy, He gives them up to their base mind and allows them to face the conditions under which they wish to subject the world.  They have chosen this judgment, not God, for they chose the conditions.  Of course, those who cannot accept a God who is both loving and just will still find such judgement inconsistent and unfair.  They will see in Psalm 109 yet another reason to reject a God who seems almost hypocritical.  Yet that would be unfair in itself and also contrary to how we respond.  Justice, properly served, not only punishes the lawbreaker, but it ultimately serves to protect the innocent.  To have no justice in our world would result in chaos.  Thus, true love seeks to protect the innocent, even when it means punishing the wicked.  But note that the punishment is equal to that which the wicked chooses for others.  God merely says, if you want to live in a world of no mercy, then so be it.  I would have shown you mercy, if you asked.  But since you don't, I give you your request. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Patron Saint for National Coffee Day?

Today is my day.  Coffee has been part of my life as long as I can remember.  We even grind our own beans to get the freshest taste possible. How much do I consume each day?  You measure that?  Come on! As it is National Coffee Day it occurred to me that it should have its own 'patron saint.'  Giving it the most shallow reflection possible, I thought how about James and John, the "sons of thunder"? Works for me.  Any better ideas out there?  We only have today....

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Interesting Experience

If you follow the ALPB's "Your Turn" discussion board, you may have seen my name in several posts over the last week or two.  After following various discussions over the years I finally decided to dive in and actively participate.  What prompted my involvement was the postings from Dr. Matthew Becker.  Dr. Becker's writings on ALPB, his own blog, and on the Daystar Jounal have been documented and reviewed on this blog many times.  Until recently I had only commented on his public writings, but had never actually engaged him in active discussion.  The time seemed overdue to take that next step.  The discussions on the topic "Valparaiso University and the LCMS" are now closed.  Pastor Speckhard, the site monitor, realized that it had more than run its course.  I agree.  However, while it lasted it did prove to be a lively, at times contentious, but very revealing discussion.  It often surprised me how open Dr. Becker was about his views since he freely embraces Evolution, Women's Ordination and the Higher-Critical method of biblical interpretation, to name only a few of his beliefs that are at odds with the public confession of his denomination.  To his credit he is a highly intelligent and well-informed scholar.  He could be dismissive, at times, of his opponents, seeing their defense of conservative and confessional viewpoints as narrow minded and ill-informed.  One had to be ever vigilant to catch the tricks of debate that diverted you from the topic.  For me it was a good exercise in theological reflection and defense.

Having graduated from Concordia Seminary - St. Louis in 1988, I find it amazing how liberal his views have now become. I graduated from the sister seminary in Ft. Wayne the year prior, and knowing graduates from St. Louis from this time and since, it was not my impression that a wave of liberalism was active in those years.  It would seem that his studies at the University of Chicago had a lot to do with the turning of his theology, not to mention his admiration and friendship with liberal scholars outside the LCMS (such as Dr. Ed Schroeder.)  As is typical of those within the ELCA, he strongly insists that he is within the mainstream of Lutheran thinking, often invoking Luther and the Confessions to show that his convictions are all well supported by the sources.  He utilizes the "Gospel Reductionism" of a previous era, easily dismissing some sections of scripture he feels are in conflict with the gospel, even going to the point of proposing the "abrogation of the law," seeing the books of Moses as having little value to the theological enterprise today.  As one can see from his review of Dr. Scott Murray's book, he is among those who take issue with the Third Use of the Law, although they will still embrace FC, Epitome VI and insist that the conservatives simply misinterpret the whole point.

As was made evident by more than one poster Dr. Becker's theology is clearly that of the current ELCA.  Some questioned how he could feel comfortable in the LCMS considering his highly conflicting views of many theological areas.  I also pondered on this prior to my involvement with the ALPB site.  My reflections then still seem to hold.  To be honest, I am not really sure why he stays.  Part of me wonders, as I did before, if he sees himself at the vanguard of a movement to recapture the LCMS and direct it back to those old days before the Walkout.  He does not, however, give an indication that this is necessarily his plan.  He insists that there should be room for people such as him and for people such as me.  We should all be able to coexist together.  What is troubling, though, is that this is not a matter of simple differences on practice.  His theology was clearly condemned in New Orleans in '74, and were he on the faculty of Concordia-St. Louis today, I cannot see a reason why they would not bring him up on charges of false doctrine as they did the faculty then.  Is he then 'baiting' the LCMS to see what it will do?  Is he looking to be a modern day martyr of liberalism to make the Synod look bad if and when they finally take official action?  Or is he flaunting his freedom before the rest letting them know there is absolutely nothing they can do?  I don't know.  But it troubles me.

I am comforted by the fact that our seminaries are solid and that the theology Dr. Becker holds does not represent the mainstream of the Synod's ministerium.  As I noted before on this blog, those who still hold to the old Seminex theology are aging and passing from the scene.  The "Battle for the Bible" represents another era long gone.  So, perhaps I should just put this one to rest and chalk it up to an interesting experience.  Feel free to review the Valparaiso discussion site and let me know if I missed something.  It was, at times, a bit confusing to keep up with all the issues. 

Nice Post from "Pastoral Meanderings"

Like Pastor Peters I am now old enough to ponder that question as well: How did we get to this point?  The good pastor reflects on the changes he has observed in the Missouri Synod over the decades and wonders out loud why we need the diversity we now have.  I pass it on for your review:
"How did we get to his point?" at Pastoral Meanderings.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Lamb's Supper: A Review

Earlier this year a reader recommended a book by Dr. Scott Hahn entitled The Lamb's Supper (Doubleday, 1999).  In light of my upcoming research and the fact that my papers were finished, I finally secured a copy by inter-library loan and read it.  Dr. Hahn's book attempts to offer a fresh approach to the Mass by returning to the last book of Holy Scripture for insights.  He does admit that while seeming to be somewhat novel, his book actually borrows from the ancient fathers and thus rediscovers the past as much as provides new understandings.  The first portion of the book offers a primer on the Mass, obviously anticipating readers who may be less knowledgeable about the liturgical forms.  He writes as a Catholic convert and thus seems conscious of others like himself who may be looking for encouragement to change.  He also writes for Catholics in need of rediscovering the old forms and learning again a meaning they may never have been taught.  To these ends the book is well suited.

I approached the book looking for more extensive connections between Revelation and worship, which Hahn only briefly treats.  Again, one must appreciate that this work is geared toward a broad audience and does not promise to offer deep academic insights.  Nevertheless, he offered some interesting observations worth further research and study.  For example, understanding that Revelation is a book filled with allusions and references to worship, he suggests that the book is divided much like the liturgy into Word and Sacrament (121).  Chapters 1 to 10 concern the liturgy of the Word, while chapters 11 to the end concern the Sacrament.  This is in keeping with his central thesis that "If we want to make sense of the Apocalypse, we have to learn to read it with sacramental imagination" (118).  He notes that "If you go back and read Revelation end to end, you'll also notice that all of God's great historical interventions - plagues, wars, and so on - follow closely upon liturgical actions: hymns, doxologies, libations, incensing...." (120).   On the page prior to this he offers a helpful chart with references to various chapters coordinated with a variety of worship allusions.   Although I was aware of connections between Revelation and worship, it did not occur to me that the Eucharistic liturgy may actually provide a 'grid' upon which the myriad of apocalyptic details might be better comprehended.

For Hahn this approach provided the key that made sense of a book he had studied for years prior to converting to Catholicism.  It was in attending the Mass that the pieces finally came together.  As a Lutheran I could read this book sympathetically and often nod in agreement, even while maintaining a respectful disagreement with certain Catholic doctrinal points expected of such an author.  His other basic theme of the Mass as "heaven on earth" was a theme heard prior from Dr. Just and resonated easily with my view of the sacramental experience.  More than once I found myself thinking, 'I'm going to have to reread some of this and think more about it.'  While I was intrigued by his view, it was just different enough from the approach many of us have been given for years as to create moments of struggle as I tried to adapt the somewhat new hermeneutic to this book.  Still, as Dr. Hahn stressed, this is nothing new.  The ancient fathers said it all before.  Unfortunately we have too often distanced ourselves from the earliest centuries and treated exegesis as if it needed none of the older guides.  The fathers were steeped in the sacramental mysteries and it should not surprise us that they should see it in Revelation where our modern eyes are not as well focused.

As mentioned before, I need to soak this in and process it further.  Hahn has given us a way of viewing this too often confusing book of scripture with a fresh vision that avoids the misguided approaches of the evangelical community, and brought it back to its rightful home in the church's worship.  Perhaps if it wasn't divorced from its place in the worshiping assembly, we might never have wandered so far into such strange fields of interpretation.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Functional Marcionism

In light of an ongoing discussion over on the ALPB site, I would like to recommend a fine article on the use of the Old Testament by Dr. Daniel Gard of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne.  It is entitled "The Church's Scripture and Functional Marcionism."  (CTQ, 74: 2010, pages 209-224). The concluding paragraphs are worth noting here in summary:
The core and center of the Scriptures is the person of Jesus. All that the Old Testament conveys points us to him. The Old Testament is more than a series of specific prophecies that find their fulfillment in the person of Jesus, with everything else simply "filler." All of the Old Testament, just as the New, is focused on him. He is "Israel reduced to one." The offices of Christ-Prophet, Priest and King-are understandable only in light of the Old Testament offices. Conversely, the Old Testament offices are understandable only in light of the incarnation. Everything that took place before the incarnation is focused on him as much as everything that has happened since or will happen in the future is focused on him.
The continuity of the two testaments, and the continuity of the ongoing people of God, is all about Jesus. Reading the Old Testament is reading the word of Jesus who spoke by the prophets. He connects the history of ancient Israel with modern Israel, the church. From Genesis to Revelation, there is one narrative, one story, one Scripture. Marcion erred not just in the breadth of his de-canonization of the entire Old Testament but in his de-canonization of any of it. If the church is to be faithful to her own understanding of the Scriptures as the only source and norm for faith and life, the Old Testament must be an equal partner to the New Testament. For, indeed, they are not two but one Scripture, united in their witness to Christ.

As can be seen with some scholars today, there is a tendency to reduce the canon to a "canon within a canon."  Parts of the OT become subordinate to the NT and thus the unity of the Scriptures is dismantled.  Dr. Gard's article is worth reading in light of this current trend.  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

ABT

Well, another milestone was reached early this morning.  At around 1:18 a.m. the last of my graduate papers was sent out to my professor.  I am now A.B.T. - "All but thesis."  What a relief!  The papers didn't sound too interesting to my high school aged son, but I enjoyed them.  They both revolved around the theme of my upcoming thesis.  For my course in History and Practice of the Church Year with Dr. Pfatteicher I wrote a paper entitled "The Apocalypse in the Revised Common Lectionary: An Analysis of Its Use in the Church Year."  The second paper, written for History of the English Hymnal with Dr. Herman, was "Allusions to the Apocalypse in Selected Hymns in English."  I am gaining a new appreciation for the book of Revelation and its relationship to the worship of the church.  One of the books recommended by a past comment on this blog, The Lamb's Supper by Scott Hahn, is one of my next projects to read. I plan to spend the next few months doing preparatory reading on Revelation with the intent of beginning thesis work after the first of the year.  I'll keep you posted on the progress.

BTW, many, many thanks to my dear wife who stayed up way past midnight to proofread the last of my papers.  What would I do without her?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Where the Lutheran Church Is Truly Growing

Most of us realize that the era of church growth has come to an end. In fact, it never really existed.  The mega churches simply recycled the disgruntled church shoppers by luring them in with promises of entertainment and feel-good services.  The current number of Lutherans in this country rests at 7.4 million.  That number represents a 10% drop during the years 1990 to 2010.  So, all those efforts to "grow the church" did little to nothing to stem the tide of loss.  Truth be known we probably sent as many to other denominations as out the back door. Now compare that figure with a place like India which has enjoyed a 1,379% growth rate in the Lutheran Church in that same 20 year period.  They currently have 1.9 million members in a country known more for its Hindus and other non-Christians as for Christians in general.  Ethiopia gave me another surprise.  They have 5.6 million total Lutherans and have registered a growth rate of 495%.   Not surprising is to discover that countries such as Germany and Sweden have lost Lutherans in the double digit percentage rage.  I am not aware of all the reasons for the differences, but I can't help but wonder if liberal trends are simply a church killer.  Look at the mainline churches today such as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians and the ELCA.  Each of these is in decline.  Africa is known for its more conservative Lutheranism.  Nigeria has grown by 390% in 20 years, with a total membership of 2 million.  Perhaps they cherish what we are discarding and finding that in places torn up by war and bloodshed watering down the faith simply does not bring any real comfort.  I think we should be studying the church in these places.  They have much to teach us.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Reflections on an Anniversary

Yesterday my parish celebrated its 125th anniversary.  In 1886, gathering in a log cabin structure, they made a beginning in the yet unbroken wilderness of northern Wisconsin that would later become a thriving rural parish. Times such as this give pause for reflection and an opportunity to gain perspective.  Many congregations, like people, are known to go through periods of panic and concern, especially when giving wanes and pews are empty.  They look to the unknown future and predict a dismal outcome.  Unfortunately such forecasting is terribly shortsighted.  Looking back we realize that we have lived through times far more challenging than anything recently experienced.  Certainly the Great Depression should have signaled our demise when economic distress reached its critical heights.  Yet still St. Peter congregation survived. 

  • Anniversaries remind the parish that it is all about God's grace.  Looking back they should be humbled to realize that they could never have accomplished what they did without God's enduring help. 
  • Anniversaries keep the congregation connected with their past and thus inoculated against too much innovation.  We are the stewards of treasures entrusted to us, not wrecking crews just waiting to dismantle the old structures.  
  • Anniversaries remind communities that stable and faithful parishes are often the ones that have lasted the years, not the new upstarts that occur with each new trend. 
  • Anniversaries help people recapture the spirit of their ancestors who possessed a true sense of mission.  They existed to keep the gospel before isolated immigrants and scattered homesteaders.  Today we too often allow our churches to be self-serving and far too introspective. 
  • Anniversaries allow us to have a true sense of joy and celebration when darker voices wish to pull the parish down in negative thinking.  
Certainly more thoughts will come to mind later, but these are a few on the day after....

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Changing Nature of Christian College Presidents?

Recently news came in that Concordia University - St. Paul (my alma mater, class of '83) has a new president: the Rev. Tom Ries.  Although a graduate of the seminary his passion seems to lie as much with financial management as with theology. His post-graduate education involves a MBA from the University of Minnesota, along with an almost earned Ph.D, the emphasis being finances in higher education. After a time with the LCMS Foundation as president, CSP recruited Ries as its own 9th president in its 118 year history.  I have never had the privilege of serving on a search committee for a college, university or seminary, so my knowledge of the criteria used to choose a president is next to zero.  However, looking back at the various presidents of the institutions where I have studied, I wonder if the criteria is changing.  When I was in college the president was a former chaplain and two-star general in the U.S. Army.  Other successors, as I recall, were credentialed scholars and professors in the Synod.  This latest candidate seems to have been chosen for his expertise in fund-raising, as I suspect many presidents may now be selected as well.  Raising money for institutions of higher education, especially in the Synod, has changed.  Gone are the days when one could expect a check from headquarters, funded by the goodwill offerings of rank and file members from the Synod's churches.  While they retain a connection with the mother church, the financial tethers have long since disappeared.  Thus, I suspect that search committees now look for a master of fund-raising to keep the dollars flowing from the endless variety of donors.

This was probably inevitable.  Still, as one views the selection of these future leaders, one wonders how much time is spent evaluating the candidate's theological insights and views, considering whether that candidate best represents the institution's goals in service to the Synod.  Recently Concordia Theological Seminary - Ft. Wayne chose a new president as well.  The Rev. Dr. Lawrence Rast certainly brings impeccable credentials as a theologian.  Maybe things are different with seminaries as opposed to the universities.  Yet should they be?  We prepare our future teachers and other professional church workers at these institutions, so we have a stake in their theological maturity.  Why should a president here be any less of a leader in the teaching of the faith than at a seminary.  I have nothing against the Rev. Ries.  Nevertheless, he does not impress me as a theologian.  His service to the college has been in administrative and financial roles.  Likewise was his service to the church-at-large.  When talking about his church experience the main things touted was the tremendous growth his congregation experienced.  Then again, his pastor-mentor was the Rev. Dr. Guido Merkens, one of the early mega-church pastors.

I have not examined the other Concordias to see what different directions may be afoot, but I do wonder.  My fear, though, is that with faculty charged with the instruction of our future church leaders, we need leaders prepared to hold them to account and supportive of the Synod's overall theology.  I pray that Ries can be such a man for his own time.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Evangelism and Guilt

Over the years I have wrestled with evangelism.  Not so much the doing of it, but the guilt of it, or better said, the guilt of not doing it.  Looking back in the history of my congregation as we prepare for our 125th anniversary, I noticed huge evangelism pushes back into the 1960's, and no doubt beyond.  It was "Church Growth" and "web evangelism"  and things of this sort by the 80's when my ministry started.  I remember going down to Ann Arbor to be trained in the Dialog Evangelism II program that had just been launched.  They took D.James Kennedy's work and reworked it again from Biesenthal's prior reworking, changing the "dialog questions" to reflect the new realities they observed in the population.  By the time I arrived out here in the country in 2000 Evangelism as a 'program' seemed much on the wane.  At any rate, one finds it difficult to carry out traditional door-to-door methods when your neighbors are mostly a half mile separated from each other, not to mention the fact that catching people home in the evening no longer is a given.  Nevertheless, St. Peter congregation has not ceased proclaiming the Gospel, and last Sunday I brought into membership a man who had spent much of his adult life outside the church.  This Sunday or maybe next I might bring in a couple who went through adult instruction and found our church as people who lived in the area and felt at home here since he was a Catholic and she was Nazarene. Both are educated with graduate degrees. People of all types  come to the faith and grow in the faith even when we don't go knocking on their doors every Wednesday, and despite the fact that we don't have an organized program. Amazing.  Along those lines I appreciated a recent piece posted by Pr. Weedon on his blog:
What I have come to rejoice in is this:  our Lord did not command, "Go, fish for men!" He rather promised, "Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men."  He did not say:  "Go, witness!" He promises, "Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high and you will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth."  And He does make us so:  fishers and witnesses.  As we follow Him, as we seek to love Him and to love our neighbor, serving them and honoring them and opening our mouth whenever they ask us to account for the hope that is in us, the Lord actually has use of us in bringing others to faith.  But He solidly keeps His hands on the verbs for conversion.  Not only is it true that I cannot believe by myself; I cannot give faith to a single other person out there - no matter how clever I may be in my attempts.  But I can love them, serve them, rejoice in them, and whenever they ask an account - open my mouth to declare this great joy in which we live with our sins forgiven, our death destroyed, secure in the love of a Savior who loves them too and did all this for them as well.

Have you ever been in a conversation where you had the distinct impression that the other person asked a question of you, but really wasn't listening, wasn't interested, was only waiting to talk?  How frustrating that is?  And yet that's how we've made evangelism come off too often.  What a different critter it is when our witness to the Savior comes as a result of genuine inquiry.  And with no need to pressure the person - just to share with them the love that we have come to know and rejoice in and live from - and to assure them that it is for them as much as for us.  I see that as the Lord's keeping His gracious promise to us - to make us fishers, to make us witnesses.  Gift, not demand.  Promise, not burden.  Peace, not pressure. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Close(d) Communion and the Confession of the Church

Dr. Matthew Becker recently highlighted the case of Pr. Robert Stuenkel who admitted to communing with his wife in an ELCA church and now finds himself under the cloud of discipline for his actions.  However, beyond Stuenkel's personal situation, Dr. Becker takes the opportunity to expand his discussion to the Synod's overall policy and practice regarding Close Communion.  Having faced this issue in my own parish with all the emotion and divisiveness that it can often bring, I understand the difficulties involved in the actual application of this policy. It is not my intention of arguing the pros and cons of the Synod's close(d) communion practice or the general tenets of our fellowship practice, although such would be a useful discussion.  I simply wish to ponder the implications of dispensing with our policies in these areas and what it would mean, long term, for our churches.  Now I do not propose strict avoidance of all worship settings in other churches, or the WELS policy regarding prayer, as Dr. Becker implies has been the case in Missouri at times.  My concern, at this point, mainly concerns fellowship at the altar.  Dr. Becker argues that agreement in the essential elements of the doctrines of the Creed and Catechism proper as sufficient for fellowship at the altar.  I suspect in stating this that he exempts from this confession the currently divisive teachings between  some of our churches such as differences on sexual orientation and origins, that he would see as not taught explicitly in the Catechism (despite their relationship to a confession of the Decalog and the Creed). 

Beyond the above another issue that comes to mind involves the reason for membership in a congregation and that congregation's membership in a given denomination.  Does membership in a denomination imply nothing more than a 'brand' leaving churches no more than differing franchises that happen to offer the same product but under a different name?  Or are they mere fellowships not unlike a service club, like the Optimists or Kiwanis, where one joins together for a common cause without the need for common agreement?  Or is this simply a matter of minimalistic agreement where we avoid issues that we know will be divisive?  I understand the struggle involved in the Stuenkel case as it has been argued energetically in my own parish.  I understand that many of our rank-and-file members probably don't even understand many of the divisive issues separating our given parishes.  But again, does this mean that our denominational membership is for all practical purposes meaningless?  American denominationalism is a difficult reality to grapple with, especially when compared to the seemingly simpler conditions in prior historic eras.  Still, we need to answer the question of what it will mean for the future.  Denominations exist for fellowship and confession.  If we ignore that on the local, parish level, then what does that membership ultimately mean for any of us?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Dr. David Scaer's Article on the Validity of Churchly Acts by Ordained Women

Pastor H.C. Curtis, in addition to referencing C.S. Lewis, who I included in the previous post, also mentioned what he termed the "seminal" article on the subject by Dr. David Scaer.  Predictably Dr. Becker scoffed at the 'seminal' idea of it all, suggesting that even his peers at St. Louis had issues with what he wrote.  At any rate, for those who may not have read this essay, a pdf copy of the CTQ article, "The Validity of the Churchly Acts of Ordained Women" from 1989 can be found here.  It is worth reading, despite Becker's disapproval.  Dr. Scaer does refer to his writing as "an exploratory essay," recognizing that responses to the issue of women's ordination is a relatively new challenge for the church to face (perhaps much more then than now.)  He notes well how the movement toward WO may also bring about adjustments in other theological areas, including our view of God Himself (as in the intrusion of inclusive language substituting for that of scripture).

Recognizing that how one views ministry determines in large part how one approaches the question of WO, Scaer writes:

With certain views of the ministry, to be sure, it would be perfectly proper to ordain women. If the ministry is viewed merely as function (i.e., activities which the church is required to carry out irrespective of the agent)," then there can be no ultimately effective argument against giving this function to any man, woman, or child. If the ministry is seen as an extension of Christian faith and sanctification and not as a unique office, then the same tolerance of any lay person is not only proper but even encouraged. One may add to this view the idea that Christians are endowed with spiritual gifts which they are encouraged to discover. Each has his or her own ministry. Thus, if one's mother, wife, sister, or daughter discovers that she has the gift of leadership, she and the whole congregation with her may with good logic conclude that she may serve as minister or at least exercise some of the functions commonly assigned to this office. The problem is not helped by the lack of clarity about the word "ministry."

To understand the approach of Dr. Becker, and undoubtedly many proponents of WO today, you must understand that their view is largely functional.  

The view one has of the church, likewise, determines how one approaches WO.  Scaer again writes: 
Another factor in whether one finds women acceptable as public ministers is one's view of the church. If the church just happens to be any ad hoc gathering of Christians gathered for devotions, Bible study, or prayer, then women leaders or pastors might be acceptable.

Ultimately the reality of the living Christ must drive the discussion more than the approach of proof-passaging your opponent into submission.  It is at the heart of the issue.  Scare writes: 
Should a functional view of the ministry be seen as correct in the sense that the pastor is a representative not of Christ in His church, but of the church members themselves, then there is little which can be said against the validity or legitimacy of the churchly rites administered by women. The only wall left standing in the functional view preventing the introduction of women pastors are some Bible passages which hang suspended as prohibitions behind or under or over which nothing substantive exists. The biblical and confessional principle that behind the divine word of revelation there exists an even greater divine reality which supports the divine word must prevail. This greater reality is the incarnation. This view must prevail over a fundamentalist type of Barthianism which refuses to go behind the word of revelation to the reality of the incarnation....
The argument against women pastors cannot be that God simply forbids women to preach the word and administer the sacraments because He takes some kind of sadistic joy in seeing us weak humans saddled with still another negative commandment. The prohibitions against women pastors rest in a prior, deeper understanding of the incarnation and the divine reality of God Himself. Even the quite valid argument that women may not be pastors because Christ chose only men as apostles rests on the prior more fundamental reality of the incarnation. God did not choose to become incarnate in a male, as if He had a choice between male and female, but rather because He was the Son of the Father...
Where women serve as pastors, the doctrines of God and Christ are distorted, because women cannot represent God and Christ in His incarnation. God is of such a nature that He could not have become incarnate in a woman and He could not have chosen women to represent Him as apostles and pastors.
 
In these last comments Scaer illustrates well the real divide in the debate with Becker, especially since he tends to view God in more 'androgynous' terms and uses gender-specific labels only as incidental and critical to the issue at hand. 

In the end the issue must be seen in the full sense of what it means to be the Church, not in the isolated sense of personal rights or other such arguments.  Scaer thus notes: 
Resolving the difficulty by saying that the women pastors have the word and sacraments is at best a superficial and finally an inadequate judgment, because such a resolution of the problem looks at rites by their outward appearances and not as integral parts of the whole of the church and its theology. The Formula of Concord in denying the Supper to the Reformed at least alerts us to the possibility that what looks like a sacrament may indeed not be a sacrament. Preaching, just because something is being proclaimed, is not necessarily the word of God. Speaking and performing ritual acts inside of a church building do not necessarily qualify as word and sacrament. Here is a case in which what looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, flies like a duck, eats like a duck, and swims like a duck may indeed not be a duck after all. Gnostics simply were not Christians, though they called themselves Christians and engaged in what appeared to be certain New Testament rites and were Bible scholars. Ordained women pastors are not a phenomenon isolated from the remainder of a church's theology.

After rereading Scaer's article I can see how Dr. Becker foams in disgust.  The two men are miles apart and so, too, the church at present.  Although I have excerpted sections for your review, I still commend the article to your review in its entirety.