Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bill O'Reilly a Universalist?

Normally I enjoy listening to Bill O'Reilly - when he sticks to political themes.  However, the otherwise erudite commentator strayed into theological waters too deep for him the other night.  The topic:  Is there a hell?  Mr. O'Reilly, a card-carrying Roman Catholic, argued for a limited hell, unfortunately confirming the universalism inherent in post-Vatican II theology.  His view, though, may best be labeled "semi-universalism" as he does not want to admit all to heaven, especially the notoriously evil dictators known to slaughter millions.  Thus, Hitler was up for serious judgment, as were others of his kind.  Yet when one came to Gandhi the rules shifted.  The God he was taught to believe in was far too merciful to exclude this sterling example of peace and goodwill.  Thus, Gandhi was almost certainly 'in.'

Mr. O'Reilly made several theological mistakes in his assessment of hell.  Eternal punishment or eternal life is not based on behavior, even the worst of it.  It is based on the presence or lack of genuine faith in Jesus.   "Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live" (John 11:25b).  Although it may be difficult for him to accept, any sin may be forgiven if repentance is genuine.  No one wants to think about a Hitler or Stalin being in heaven given the atrocities they committed.  Of course, we don't have to worry much in their case since evidence seems to point heavy in the direct of unbelief for both of these men.  Nevertheless, if we go the route of Mr. O'Reilly and concede heaven for good behavior, then the entire argument of Romans itself fails (not to mention the doctrine of justification as revealed throughout scripture.)  Abraham is not saved based on works, but faith.  Thus our commentator has made a rather egregious law-gospel error of the first rate.  Furthermore, although men such as Gandhi may be seen in the eyes of the world as virtuous, they are still far from perfect, a standard demanded by the Almighty for those wishing to attain heaven's glories by their own efforts.  Gandhi required forgiveness for his sins the same as you or I.  Unfortunately, from what we know of him he seemed to have respect for Jesus, but does not appear to have embraced him as his savior.  While God alone knows the eternal fate of mankind, we are not given much faith evidence in his case to allow for great hope.

I am disappointed in Mr. O'Reilly's universalistic views, but even more disappointed that as a man of faith educated within the church he would not know better.  Then again, may we assume that many modern post-Vatican II Catholics share the same convictions?  Mr. O'Reilly remains content to ignore the clear witness of Holy Scripture in favor of his rationalized argument based on personal wish.  When our Lord Himself declares that He is THE Way, THE Truth and THE Life, we are hard-pressed to look the other way and pretend He means something else.  Still, this is what Mr. O'Reilly has done and in the process has become a universalist, embracing a dangerous false teaching as old as the church itself.

Although I have yet to read Rob Bell's book Love Wins, it seems that Evangelicals are far from immune to the same problem.  Perhaps one of the readers here has information on his book and can comment.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Makes a Good Theologian

"Neither the accumulated wisdom of all the earth and the skies, nor languages, the Church Fathers, and daily reading of the Holy Scripture, nor immense learning and eloquence make a good theologian or pastor if the cross is not added.  Through the cross God purifies, cleanses, strengthens, and perfects the light of His true knowledge of true faith in Christ, of true understanding of the divine promises, proper prayer, hope, humility, and all the virtues which He has first planted in the heart through the Word.  Those are secure spirits rather than real Christians who live each day happily and joyfully, thinking that when they read the lament of an Ezekiel, the prayer of a Jonah, and other Psalms, they are hearing only empty words and vain dreams; therefore they can neither understand these descriptions of a faith struggling under the heaviest of trials nor can they speak of them to others. Accordingly we should equip ourselves for the Cross, which is just as necessary for those who wish to serve the Church as air and food are for the maintenance of the body...How can a person be able to understand the Gospel or teach it to others if he himself has not experienced the power of the Gospel in the midst of sorrows and trials?"
--David Chytraeus (1531-1600), " A Meditation on the Cross"

Friday, April 22, 2011

Luther on the Passion

"He has shown us great kindness and we should never forget it, but always thank him and find comfort for ourselves, confessing, His pain is my comfort, his wounds, my healing; his punishment, my redemption; his death, my life.  No one can preach it sufficiently; no one can be sufficiently amazed that so great a person came from heaven, stepped into our place, and suffered death for us.  We have been visited graciously and redeemed with a great price."
--Luther's Good Friday sermon, preached 1533, at home in the Lutherhalle

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Regarding the Survival of the Lutheran Church

In response to the posed question: Will there be a Lutheran church in the 21st century?
"When Hermann Sasse tried to wake his slumbering fellow-Lutherans with the question about the very survival of the Lutheran church, he had in mind something else [than the presence of a Lutheran church in the future].  What is the meaning of this question?  For one thing it cannot mean a glib recipe for success, like the popular sacrilege of 'goal-setting,' with the goal of Lutheran survival assured by keeping abreast of the most up-to-date trends with a Pandora's box full of clever methods and techniques.  What will 'survive' in this way may well call itself 'Lutheran,' but it will have nothing to do with the Lutheran confession, which on the contrary will be happily-clappily trampled underfoot to the soft seduction or the raucous savagery of 'Christian music.'  Or course, 'right doctrine and church' will survive - it is built on the Rock and cannot fail.  The question is, will we?  With us or without us, through us or despite us, God will see His 'right doctrine and church' through.  Shall we, by God's grace, have a part in this survival?  Will our long-suffering Synod and seminaries?  The answers to these questions lie hidden in the inscrutable counsels of God.  But as the mystery of the election of grace is meant not to paralyze us into inert passivity, but rather to nerve and steel us for the bedlam of the fray (Rom. 8:30, 31), so too the mystery of the church."

From: Dr. Kurt Marquart, "The Church In the Twenty-First Century: Will There Be a Lutheran One?" All Theology Is Christology: Essays in Honor of David P. Scaer, 2000, pages 181-182.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Value of a Calendar of Commemorations in the Church

"The calendar of commemorations is a kind of genealogical exploration of who one's spiritual ancestors have been.  It is a way of encouraging people to examine the personal stories of certain women and men to learn of the richness and the potential of human life lived by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  A study of the calendar is at once a course in theology, church history (and sometimes political history as well), spirituality, and prayer.  Such a calendar can convey something of the breadth of Christian history and provide a rich assorted variety of the young and the old, learned and ignorant, people of action and contemplatives, whose common denominator is simply that the grace of God worked mightily within them."
-From: Philip H. Pfatteicher, Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg, 1980, 16.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chesterton on Tradition

"Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise.  Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.  It is the democracy of the dead.  Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.  All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident  of death...Tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father."
From: G. K. Chesteron, "Ethics of Elfdom," 48 as quoted by Maschke in Gathered Guests.

Worship and History

"We Americans are a-historical.  Most of us know very little about history and probably care even less...Unfortunately, most churches in this country have the same mentality.  This is especially true of conservative Protestant churches...Unfortunately, when it comes to worship, there is a terrible price to pay for this attitude.  When we cut ourselves off from the rich treasury of resources and from the collective spirituality of God's people through the ages, we diminish our vision of God.  We isolate ourselves from what God would do in the world through his church."
From Robert Webber, Signs of Wonder: The Phenomenon of Convergence in Modern Liturgical and Charismatic Churches (Nashville: Abbot-Martyn, 1992), 9-10 - Quoted from Dr. Timothy Maschke's book, Gathered Guests: A Guide to Lutheran Worship

Friday, April 15, 2011

Looking into the Future

If the trends remain where churches continue to adopt alternate worship forms, while distancing themselves more and more from their inherited traditions, what might the future look like 10, 20, 30 or more years from now?  Prediction is always a risky and tricky business, and what follows certainly does not reflect the insights of a trained sociologist.  It is simply a sense of what might be based on personal observations over the last couple of decades.

  • Larger congregations - those with memberships in the thousands - will generally continue to move away from the inherited traditions and will embrace cutting edge change.  Those with blended worship and the few that still accommodate some semblance of a traditional service will abandon those transitional forms as the baby-boomer generation dies off.   Within about 30 years many of these 'mega-churches' will appear little different than any other Evangelical mega-church.  Of course, there are numerous churches that are already at this point.  With the departure of those who may still cherish the old forms (a largely aging group well into their retirement years) there will no longer be a need to retain anything of traditional, liturgical worship.  Exceptions will exist, but I predict they will be very few. 
  • My sense is that if traditional forms survive - and they will! - it will be in the smallest congregations (300 and under), some of them in predominantly rural settings.  The rural churches, unfortunately, will suffer the greatest attrition as family farms disappear and the population to sustain these churches becomes so thin as to make it impractical.  Pastors in these small churches may well have to become bi-vocational in order to remain at these posts.   Fortunately, if these smaller churches are in cities with an adequate industrial base or other vocational options, pastors will be able to find occupations sufficient to support their families.   The long-term future may therefore be with small congregations in cities large enough to support a sustainable economy. 
  • It may be necessary for some to become specialized church planters, planting mission starts that are committed from the beginning to a traditional-liturgical worship setting.  These 'missions' may very well remain small for their entire history, but they will provide additional 'outposts' to keep the traditions alive in a living congregation.  We need to shed ourselves of the thinking that 'bigger is better.'  In fact, smaller parishes, such as those in the earliest history of the church, are best able to maintain internal discipline.
  • At present our institutions are not equipped or committed to prepare this type of church planter, so this too may need rethinking.  With the aid of technology and the ability for online learning, new academies or institutes may need to be formed to develop such specialized leaders.  Although I realize that residential communities provide the best environment for formation, this model will have to be modified to accommodate a geographically diverse group.  In some ways I think that Nashotah House, where I am currently pursuing graduate work, may be providing a model worthy of looking at further.  They are deeply committed to residential learning, especially since the chapel is the center of their life as a community.  However, they are blending in semi-residential programs with intensive formats in order to work with students who cannot relocate for a full-time education.  I realize that our own seminaries are also adapting similar programs as well.  However, in 30 or 40 years will the existing institutions still be committed to training traditional pastors?  I don't know.  With the change in leadership swinging one way and then the other, it is hard to predict where the denomination will be in several decades, especially with additional institutional pressure to survive.  
I very much want to see the church of my youth survive to future generations.  However, I realize that it will not survive the same way as it has for me.  I grew up in a congregation of 3,000.  It is here I first learned the liturgy, beginning with TLH.  Yet the world has changed dramatically, even within my 50 years lifetime.   Demographics have shifted and communities are changing to meet new economic challenges.  The church of tomorrow must take this all into account, but not for the sake of changing its identity, but rather to determine how best to keep these churches staffed and sustained.   Like the Celts in the darkest centuries of the Middle Ages, we may be called to preserve the traditions the rest of our world is losing; preserving them for a time when they can be appreciated and utilized by larger communities of believers.   However, this preservation will occur in much smaller communities, not unlike the monasteries of old that existed in the very midst of the predominant pagan culture.  

Some Thoughts on Music and Trends in Worship

If you are following my latest posts you see a trend here.  Worship and the forms and music we use in its service lie close to my predominant concerns for the church.  Given this concern I did a bit of 'surfing' on the net to see what others thought on this matter.  What follows is a reflection on this and other thoughts.
  • Is music style a neutral issue?  One blogger noted: "There’s nothing inherently profane about rap, hip hop, country and western, or any other style of music."  I respectfully disagree.  I listen to a lot of the newer styles that my son enjoys, so I believe I am not yet completely out of touch.  Many of the styles this author notes evoke emotions and reactions quite foreign to the spirit of worship, especially Hebrews 12:28 which reminds us: "let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe...." I fail to see how rap and hip hop can convey any sense of holy reverence.  Anyone who listens to such music knows that its primary intention is quite different.  Given our culture can we hope to effectively divorce musical styles from the way they are used?  Hardly.  If you doubt this just try singing something sacred to a tune such as the theme song from "Gilligan's Island." 
  • This same blogger also talks about "an emotional attraction and power [people] do not experience with traditional church music."  Emotion is the bane of worship music in our time.  We value emotion in such a way as to place it virtually on par with faith itself.  At the conference this week one of the participants talked extensively about the need to tap into this area, especially for the younger crowd.  He made note of the old worn out idea that we are too head oriented and not sufficiently heart oriented.  The dichotomy is false and misleading.  Emotions vacillate wildly and thus remain very unpredictable measures of faith.  When we serve emotion we ultimately must sacrifice truth.  
  • Another site writes:  "Change will happen anyway, with or without us;  it is a fact.  Instead of refusing change and thus provoking revolt, we should become part of it, and make it happen in a responsible manner."  In a similar vein the oldest living American who recently died encouraged people to embrace change, even when change slaps you in the face.  "Every change is good," he said.  Not true.  Many changes, especially in the last few decades, have been disgraceful and revolting, particularly in the area of sexual freedom and experimentation.  Not all change is good.  This goes as well for changes in worship.  Many changes now occurring are jettisoning our valued traditions and leaving behind the collective wisdom of generations.  We are allowing the tastes and preferences of people to dictate our choices, creating a new way of leading by holding a moist finger in the air to see which way the prevailing winds are blowing today.  Some of the changes in worship import a foreign and false theology into our midst attempting to blend Charismatic and Baptistic practice with Lutheran theology.  The mix isn't working and we are eroding our identity and corrupting the faith of future generations.  
These are just a few of my thoughts and I will probably post another post or two along these lines.  Thank you for listening to my thoughts!

Hymnondy as Teacher of the Faith

As I reflect on this past week's conference I admit I am deeply frustrated with many in the Lutheran church today who see little to no value in the venerable old hymns.  Still, in all honesty, one can not forget the many who also value and treasure them and use them as part of the church's ongoing catechesis.  Which reminded me of an article published in Concordia Theological Quarterly nearly 18 years ago.  For those interested in the hymns as "teachers of the faith," I commend to you an article by Kantor Richard Resch of Concordia Theological Seminary - Ft. Wayne.  It is entitled "Hymnody as Teacher of the Faith." 

Resch's biography from the seminary website is as follows:
Richard C. Resch is a native of Rochester, New York. Kantor Resch graduated from Valparaiso University (B.Mus.), the Eastman School of Music (M.M.), and Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne (M.Div.). His organ study began in the Eastman School of Music Preparatory Department and then continued with the following organ professors: Paul Bunjes, Charles Ore, Philip Gehring, Russell Saunders, and David Craighead. He studied hymnology with Theodore Hoelty-Nickel and M. Alfred Bichsel and composition with Richard Wienhorst. He is Kantor and Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary. In 1978, he founded the Seminary Kantorei and has since traveled and recorded six CDs with this choir. In 1999, he became director of the Seminary's Schola Cantorum. In 2000, he became the Co-Director of the Good Shepherd Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary. Reverend Resch is also the Kantor at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. He served on Synod's Commission on Worship from 1992–2001 and as Chairman from 1998–2001. He served on the LCMS Hymnody Committee for Lutheran Service Book. He was the Executive Producer and Narrator of The Good Shepherd Institute’s DVD “Singing the Faith: Living the Lutheran Musical Heritage” (2008).  Kantor Resch is a frequent speaker and writer on topics concerning the relationship between theology and practice, as well as matters of church music.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bored with the Liturgy

Continuing my observations from the same conference, I was surprised to hear a layperson formally trained in the organ express a tendency to be bored with the repetition in the hymnal's order of services.  In discussing worship we touched on the impact technology is having on the younger generations and how this affects their reception of the liturgy.  It should be expected in a day of instant messaging and texting that some would find themselves impatient with the pace of historic forms.  Yet boredom often arises from a lack of understanding.  It became apparent to me in our discussions that a major culprit in the loss of this generation involves the unwillingness of church leaders to teach the forms of worship.  Over and over again we are told that we need to meet people where they are at and accommodate their tastes, especially in music.  Multiple services are offered at various times, creating a kind of segregation where the folks at 7:30 become a church separate from the folks at 9:00.  This segregation eventually insulates the worshiper from contact with the ancient forms, and in short order these people loose contact and familiarity with it entirely.  Thus, if they should be exposed to it later on it seems foreign in its unfamiliarity, and unable to understand it and lacking patience and the willingness of their leaders to teach it, they quickly become "bored."  How sad. 

Despite the fact that the conference attempted to initiate a discussion to bring the two sides in the worship debates closer, my fear is that we have arrived at a point in which "ne'er the twain shall meet."  Pastors infatuated with the 'methobapticostal' forms (term invented by someone else, but appropriate here), have no intention of going back and reclaiming what they have thrown away.  Those committed to the historic forms likewise have no intention of abandoning the tradition.  We are on not two parallel tracts, but rather two diverging roads whose distance becomes wider with each passing decade.  I wish that I could muster up more optimism for the future some desire to imagine, but my realistic side knows better.  I fear that it will not be long before our ability to communicate with the same shared vocabulary will also fade with time. 

Kyrie eleison.

German Liturgy?

Over the last couple of days I have been at a district conference on worship modeled after the synodical one in 2010.  Participants from the district offered brief talks on a variety of topics in an attempt to address, in part, the ongoing tension in Synod over the differences in worship.  One speaker, obviously supportive of contemporary worship, made observations about the historic liturgy that unfortunately perpetuate the tendency to repeat stereotypes with no basis in fact.  One of those stereotypes is the so-called the "German liturgy." Because our forefathers worshiped using the German tongue back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has become popular to thereby label the entire liturgy as Germanic.  Ironically, the historic liturgy does not receive a similar label in the Catholic tradition when other cultures use it, yet the same historic divine service lies at its core.  However, by thus labeling the liturgy detractors thereby enjoy the opportunity to disparage it in the eyes of others who see it as counterproductive to outreach and evangelism. 

Another related caricature used by the same presenter was the so-called "High Church Liturgy."  Left undefined the label causes the hearer to inaccurately differentiate between liturgy which includes chanting and spoken liturgy.  Here again, at the core, we find the same essence, the only difference being presentation.  Nevertheless, by adding the words "High Church" the speaker conjures up images of incense-waving deacons at a Catholic Mass, thereby prejudicing the hearer against the liturgy itself. 

I suppose I should not be surprised that debates on worship should not escape the over generalizations and misinformation so common in political rhetoric as well.  It simply disappoints me when this comes from clergy who should be sufficiently educated and informed to know the difference.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Outdated Words?

The May 2011 issue of Reader's Digest recently reported: "The New American Bible is missing some words with outdated connotations, reports UPI, and now maybe young children will stop snickering when they hear them.  Booty has become spoils of war, and virgin has become young woman."  This move to deliberately change the meaning of a word was successfully tried way back when the RSV came out and eliminated "virgin" from Isaiah.  I suspect that its removal from the New Testament is now complete as well.  Young children may indeed 'snicker' out of embarrassment from certain words, but they of all people probably know the inherent difference in these words better than we realize.  This is simply dishonest and ultimately attacks the very doctrine of the virgin birth.  Of course, current culture little respects abstinence, so there is little wonder why the word has lost not only its lexical meaning, but its moral one as well.  Another sad day for translation work.....

Sunday, April 3, 2011

What Is Casual Worship?

In a local paper a church ran an advertisement describing their worship as done in a "casual atmosphere."  This atmosphere was further defined as "friendly, uplifting and relaxed."  Somehow it seems that there is an inherent contradiction at work in the combination of "casual" and "worship."  The word "worship" is of Old English derivation, meaning "worth-ship," "worthiness" or "honor."  Obviously it indicates the respect and honor we render to another, which is still reflected in British usage today.  The book of Hebrews calls on us to "offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (12:28,29).  Elsewhere worship is described in terms of bowing down and kneeling, clearly references to deep respect and reverence.

Casual, as indicated in the ad, is a state of being relaxed and at ease.  Casual is what I think of when I am lounging in my living room in front of the TV.  Perhaps they would like me to have that image of their worship. Do they provide comfy couches instead of those unforgiving hardwood pews?  Yet, can one ever be entirely relaxed and at ease when we are confessing our sins?  How does a person stand in awe of the Almighty God and not be humbled?  Relaxed describes time with friends and family, not with the creator of the Universe.  

What ultimately makes "casual worship" at a church any better than something I could do in my own home?  Somehow church should be different.  Dr. Arthur Just's book on worship is entitled "Heaven on Earth."  Isn't that what worship should evoke?  The ancient cathedrals endeavored to create an 'atmosphere' of transcendence that lifted the eyes to heaven above through soaring spires and grand architecture.  Yes, God is also very close, close enough to 'taste and see' as we encounter Him in Word and Sacrament.  Yet even here the mystery of his presence brings us to that line between the earthly and heavenly that we struggle to understand, let alone adequately describe.  Casual doesn't come close to touching this.

I guess I'm not quite ready for casual worship.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nashotah House Updates Their Website

Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the place where the Northwoods Seelsorger has chosen to pursue his post-graduate studies for the present, recently updated their website with a much more attractive and interactive setting.   Faculty profiles include video introductions from the dean of the seminary as well as the associate dean of academic affairs, one of Northwoods' professors during the last two terms. While the site is a vast improvement over its previous one, it is obvious that it is still in a state of development.

Nashotah House positions itself within the Anglo-Catholic tradition, emphasizing the Benedictine Rule as the specific discipline of its spiritual and communal life.  Although my initial intentions last year included centering my studies in the Biblical Studies emphasis, it turns out that as much of my studies will end up in the area of liturgics, specifically liturgical history, an area that happens to be a unique strength at Nashotah.  This summer I will be registering for a class on the history and practice of the church year and an additional course on the history of English hymnody.  These will be the last two required courses of my degree (S.T.M.), and I am awaiting approval of my thesis topic.  The proposed topic concerns the Apocalypse and Worship, with an examination of the role and early omission of the Apocalypse in the lectionary and liturgical rites of the church along with a study of the inclusion of the Dignus Est in the later liturgy of the church.  My intent is to combine my biblical studies efforts with my work in liturgics, utilizing an interdisciplinary  approach instead of a single discipline.  Stayed tuned for further developments....