Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Teach, Teach, Teach

Many of us heard it frequently at the Seminary. Probably thousands of times. “Catechize your people!” “Teach your people!” “The people have not been taught, and you are there to teach them!”

It’s true. I had good, honest, faithful pastors growing up but once I began reading and studying theology I wondered why I had never learned this stuff before, why I had never been taught before. To be charitable, it might have been the case that I had not received the ears to hear it yet. Perhaps my pastors were delivering gold by the shovel-full and it all simply went past me, too wrapped up in my own thoughts and sin, too immature to notice it. I’ve seen this happen with my people. Once I was discussing sanctification for the hundredth time when one member piped up, “I never heard that before!”

It bears repeating from another post, however: the emphasis on continual teaching of the congregation is a liberal proposition. It assumes that education will lead to wisdom and solve all problems. Horace Mann was wrong.

The other implicit assumption is that people want to be taught and will accept the truth when they hear it. This assumption is most suspect of all.

Thank You

I want to thank all of you who read this post regularly, and especially those who leave comments. This site reached an all-time high in readers this month, and though the numbers are quite modest compared to many, I am humbled that so many of you feel I have something worthwhile to share. I especially enjoy the comments I receive, whether they affirm or critique, as they give me a chance to know you, to read your blogs, and to support you, even as you support me.

Again, thank you, and glory to God for all things!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Prayer Language Linguistics

Do you know the Lordijustwanna language? Primarily used in prayer, one hears it often on television, or from friends who may be of a different faith tradition than you. Here’s an example:

Dear Lord Father God in Heaven,
I just wanna hallow your name.
Lord, just let your kingdom come, and your will be done, here on earth just like it is in heaven.
Lord, just give us this day our daily bread,
And Lord, I just wanna ask you to forgive my trespasses just like I forgive those who trespass against us.
And Lord, just let me not be lead into temptation, Lord.
But deliver me from evil.
For Lord, I just wanna praise you and thank you and just, Lord, just give you the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Lord. Amen.

My question is: What is this word “just” doing there in all those sentences? How does it function grammatically?

Just” as in: I am only asking this one thing

“Lord just let your blessing” meaning: Just do it, Lord!

as in: Just in case

Is “just” being used a linguistic particle?

Is it a stalling particle, the same as “um..” or “uh…” or “er…” or “ya know…” or “like…”?

Does anyone know why so many people pray like this?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Being Transparent

f you live in a fishbowl, it’s a bad idea to try to hide. It just looks funny. Everyone can see you slinking around. What follows is for those in the ministry, but applies to any living in the public eye.
My vicarage supervisor advised me to always telegraph what I would be doing. In other words, whether personally or professionally, a pastor should lay the groundwork, tell others what he is thinking about, planning to do, wanting to do. Get opinions and follow them (or not), but don’t surprise people. Pastors do not like surprises and neither do layfolk.

Of course, this should be done within reason. One doesn’t need to publicize buying a new shirt. Buying a new house? Definitely. The larger the matter one is contemplating, the more it needs to be broadcast as well. Tweaking the Confirmation curriculum should be broadcast to elders and parents. Adding a year to the usual curriculum should be publicized often to many groups. If a matter you are contemplating could be interpreted in a negative way, looks unseemly, or is subject to due criticism, pray for a way to avoid doing it. It’s not worth it. If it must be done, be very public about what is going on. It still may appear questionable, but being honest and public about the matter will cover over a multitude of questions.
And it should go without being said, the people to broadcast this to are the ones who gossip.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Family Altar

When I attended Concordia Seminary I heard much about having “family devotions” and the importance of them for students. Single students (like me) were also encouraged to have our private devotions as well as to make use of time with fellow students, formally or informally.

I didn’t hear much about a “family altar” until a few years ago. It’s a common enough phrase, but when I did an internet search for it, I was amused to find at the top of the list many articles written by Protestants which described the “family altar” in metaphorical terms. They all had variations of “‘family altar’ means ‘devotion/private time.’” An altar without an altar. Of course many Protestant churches do not have an altar, so why would one have one in their home?

The importance of praying devotions with the family is given, but having a place to pray, a specific area set aside as sacred within the home–a concrete place–is nearly as important. Our religion is not abstract, after all. Our Lord was incarnate with a specific body received from His Virgin Mother. He had family and extended family. He may not have had a place to lay his head (Mat. 8:20), but He slept, ate and drank. Our religion is concrete. We have four Gospels, and water and bread and wine made holy by Our Lord which work salvation in our souls. Christianity is not “spiritual,” meaning incorporeal and intangible, it is of the Spirit and Truth revealed to us through holy men, prophets, apostles. It is physical…but not of the flesh.

What is it?
A family altar–a place to worship in the home is a great aid and reminder to pray devotions with your family. An altar could be placed anywhere, but tradition suggests an East wall in your home, the traditional direction for prayer (”For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:27 )). A family altar need not be hidden away from public view, but do place it in a room away from the general hubbub of life.

The altar consists of a table or a shelf on which you may place a Bible, a prayer book or hymnal, and one or two candles. On the wall in front of the table you may hang a crucifix. If you have icons or devotional “artwork” these may be hung near the crucifix as well (A recent CPH publication entitled The Baptism of Your Child gives some similar suggestions).

How do you use it?
First, choose a consistent time that the family can gather together, without too many other distractions. Devotions are not primarily about hearing stories, receiving instruction or reading edifying material, instead, they are prayed. Choose then an order which emphasizes prayer. In Lutheran Service Book one may use Matins, Morning Prayer, Vespers, Evening Prayer, or the shorter, one-page, orders for Morning, Noon or Night. A devotional writing is not out of place, by any means, but ought never replace prayer and Scripture–indeed it is of tertiary importance.

Begin with lighting the candles. This is important, for it prepares us physically and spiritually. Christ is the Light of the World, and lighting candles reminds us that what we are about to do is significant and set aside from everyday life.

If you are not in the habit of praying regular devotions, do not attempt to use the entire service (especially Matins or Vespers), especially if you have young children. Children should not be unduly taxed (Eph. 6:4), and if a devotional life is to be cultivated in them, keeping the prayers within their attention span is critical. Over the course of a month or two an additional element may be added, gradually lengthening the time spent in prayer. Praying the entire Vespers service is about the maximum length devotions should last, and that would be much too long for children under 12! Above all, ask your pastor for advice and follow his guidelines.

A Word on Prayer Posture
Stand, and teach your children to stand. We stand at attention for the flag, the President, ladies entering a room, your boss and so forth. Standing for prayer before the Holy Trinity is not too much to ask. Standing is also a helpful reminder for small children that what you are doing is special (If you are unable to stand for any length of time, obviously use your sanctified common sense.)

Praying your devotions in a structured time and place helps enormously in making this time for prayer a priority for your family. Children especially are helped by having a predicable ritual and process for prayer, and despite how “sophisticated” we believe ourselves to be as adults, we could learn from our children in the benefits of structure, predictability and consistency.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Those Who Leave, Part II

Emily at The Children of God wrote a nice, gentle post on how to consider those who have left or are leaving the LCMS. Check it out.

But why are pastors (and layfolk) interested in leaving? What is so wrong with Missouri that some would forgo retirement payments and excellent health care coverage, the esteem of peers, friends, even family? Clergy leaving a church body is much different than management leaving a corporation; it’s emotional, it strikes at their personal identity–it is life changing like few other things can be.

Whatever is wrong with the LCMS certainly must be profound. But what is it, exactly? Those on the outside may look at Missouri and say, “How ungrateful you are! The problems in this or that denomination are so much worse than anything you may be facing!” They may be right in this. As one Synodical President said, we have a lot we do not disagree about. But those items we do disagree about strike at the heart of who we are.

Here are some individual considerations that have weighed heavily on some who have left or are contemplating leaving, as they report it (the list is not complete). Note well: I write this to give some background explanation to those who are not connected with church politics, gossip, message boards and email lists.

1. The Lutheran Confessions are adhered to in theory but not in practice.

A. Lay ministers preach and administer the sacraments without rite vocatus, i.e., being rightly called.

B. Closed Communion is not practiced in many places.

C. The Liturgy is not honored or prayed. Yes, this is a confessional matter.

D. Eucharistic piety is poor. The Body and Blood of the Lord are confessed by the mouth, but not by the hands or behavior.

E. There seems to be several levels of actual Confessional subscription at work in our clergy: ones who take the Confessions seriously in all matters; ones who adhere mostly to the “believe and teach” statements; ones who never cracked them open since graduation.

2. The LCMS is “not your grandfather’s Synod anymore.”

A. Our District Presidents have formed an unconstitutional Committee (Council of Presidents) which wields excessive power over the church.

B. Some District Presidents seem to yield to the temptation of “lording it over others,” while turning blind eyes to real problems.

C. Church Growth practices are actively encouraged and codified in the Conventions (a la Ablaze! and contemporary mission congregations).

D. Doctrinal and theological rigor which once characterized our denomination has waned and is replaced by neo-Evangelical concerns and slogans.

E. “Unionism” and “Syncretism” being practiced by pastors and congregations.

F. While “church” always has “politics”–the LCMS is drenched in politicking and the active repression of the opposing party, hence the virtual elimination of floor nominations at this year’s convention, the labeling of “lawsuit party members” at the election, despite the fact that the lawsuit settlement imposed no punitive measures; and various other nefarious deeds.

And the list could go on. What is happening is bureaucratic rot coupled with theological decay.

One pastor who is no longer LCMS wrote the following, comparing the LCMS to an airplane:

“In each case the plane has left the runway and already has a destination route prepared. Those who don’t like the destination are continually asked whether they would like to fly high or lower, or whether an additional packet of peanuts would help. There is no intention of even considering the possibility that the pre-determined destination might be changed. The Synod in Convention is not going to deal with our points of dissent.”

It is the slippery slope argument that gets most of these guys. And while the “slippery slope argument” can be a logical fallacy, sometimes it’s not, like when the slope really is slippery. I know many pastors who are uneasy with what is happening in the LCMS, but are either “staying and fighting” or “waiting and seeing” what direction this plane is really headed.

What I see is a denomination that seems to be turning into just another mainstream Evangelical/Protestant church body, only with infant baptism and a high view of the Lord’s Supper.

Is "Liberty" Christian?

Christianity Today Online has a great article about the conservative reaction to an interview with President Bush, found here.

The portion many are reacting to is this quotation from the President:

The other debate is whether or not it is a hopeless venture to encourage the spread of liberty. Most of you all around this table are much better historians than I am. And people have said, you know, this is Wilsonian, it’s hopelessly idealistic. One, it is idealistic, to this extent: It’s idealistic to believe people long to be free. And nothing will change my belief. I come at it many different ways. Really not primarily from a political science perspective, frankly; it’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist. (reference)

This political, democratic freedom Bush speaks about is a confusing of the Two Kingdoms and borders on Liberation Theology (see the quote from Ross Douthat). Christ gives freedom, to be sure, but it is not freedom to vote, nor freedom from political tyranny that Christ gives. He did not overthrow the power of Caesar and His Kingdom is not of this world. He gives us freedom from the law of sin and death, and the freedom to live under the law of love (Rom. 13:10).

The United States of America is a great place to live because of the freedoms we enjoy. It is also a dark, sinful place to live because of the freedoms other people enjoy. God has certainly blessed us with a land of plenty, and God has blessed us with our form of government which largely embraces justice and truth. But God has established every government on this earth (Rom. 13:1-7). It is false to equate our constitutional republic with Christianity, as if our government was the most congruent with Christianity. It is not.

And again, Mr. President, the “Almighty” loves and gives freedom, but let us not confuse His Kingdom with those of this world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Ceaseless Mercy of God

I can look at my own life and see any number of places where events could have turned on the spot in such a manner to have changed the entire course of my life for the worse. On the one hand it says that in certain times in my life I sailed a little close to the edge (this is true). But it also says that despite my own efforts to damn my soul, God saved me. And this is the witness of Scripture, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” –Fr. Stephen Freeman (link here)

I believe we all have such times and I fear for those who, recounting their lives, do not see places where they were on the brink of personal disaster. How could one then give thanks for God’s grace in preserving us? Needless to say, some of us have gone over the edge at times, and yet found God’s hand restoring us, catching us and “putting our feet upon the rock” (Psa. 40).

Though it seems chilling to write it, I believe there are more times of such spiritual danger than we ever realize, being borne about by angels and the mercy of God alone, moment by moment being saved from utter destruction and disaster.

“For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:28)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What's New is Not So New

Pope Benedict XVI issued the “Motu Proprio” last weekend, allowing parish priests to offer the Tridentine Rite liturgy without prior approval of their diocesan Bishop.

For those of you to whom this sentence sounded like Latin, here’s the deal. Vatican II changed the Catholic liturgy, and as some would have it, their piety. Not just from Latin to English here in the US, but the text of the liturgy changed as well. We in the LCMS might compare it to the differences between old “page 15″ and Lutheran Worship with its differences in language, music, text, and feel. Now multiply this difference by a thousand and you’ll get the picture for Catholics.

Up to this point, many US Bishops did not allow parish priests to use the old liturgy. Now the Pope has issued a directive allowing priests to do so, without the consent of their local bishop.

Pretty big news by itself, however, what happens in Rome always affects Protestants. The Motu Proprio of last week will eventually have its impact upon the LCMS and all protestants. It changes the landscape of Christianity.

Many conservatives hail this as a good thing, reigning in some of the liturgical nonsenseries of the Catholic Church. But this article takes a different tact, and if you are at all interested in this subject, please read it now.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

When Things Go Wrong

How do you take it when things go wrong? Not just one thing, but many, like the car dying, the house breaking, children running wild, pests and storms and strife all cast at once–how do you understand this?

Superstition says you are cursed. Superstition says you should get out of town, change your luck somehow. I’ve known some people who have moved away when too many negative things happened to them. I don’t know if things got any better. Writers at NBC would have you go back and correct all the wrongs of your past. This makes good comedy.

The Christian often sees things in two different ways: the devil is attacking you because you are doing something right, something God pleasing, and our enemy wants you to stop. Somehow he receives the authority to attack, or manipulates our sins for ill effect.

The other response is perhaps you are doing something wrong and God is punishing you. There is a great German proverb, Kleine suende Gott straf sofort (Small sins God punishes immediately). This applies to all those times that you make a rude comment and immediately trip, or tell an inappropriate joke and in the next moment slam your hand in a door. But when serious matters go south, we sometimes think that God is handing out the punishment for the wrongdoing. Please note: for my Lutheran readers, this position is taken in our Confessions: SD I.4; SD V, et al. For any non-Lutheran readers, please chime in and let me know if your tradition teaches that God punishes sin temporally.

Obviously the problem is these two ideas are completely opposite of one another, and thus gives no guidance at all, and we go ’round and round with ourselves, “The devil because I’m right, or God because I’m wrong?” Our enemy would have it no other way.

The Christian response is to not ask the question. We are all sinners, certainly deserving of no good thing. That matters go wrong should not surprise us; we ought to be surprised when things go well, for if it is not I that ruin everything with my pride and passions, it is my neighbor, and I then sin in blaming him with anger.

Repentance and faith is the response of the Christian when things go wrong. All things are for our good, and what our souls need most is repentance and trust in our God who loves us. Such repentance is best expressed in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. St. Paul tells us to give thanks in every situation, all the more when the world seems staked against us, for we know that the Almighty is for us.

Instead of wondering if our household calamities are from our enemy or from God, we can be sure of one thing: our need for more repentance and faith in the God who loves all mankind. Give thanks for this reminder that life and goods are fragile, that repentance is lifelong, and then live your repentance quietly, knowing that our Lord will provide all for us.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Patience Again

’ve been pondering patience this past week, and how alien it seems to our spirits and hearts. We can speak much about our instant gratification culture, and much of that is true, but a lack of patience infects nearly everything we do at home, work and church.

My vicarage supervisor would say that most issues that arose in a congregation would “work themselves out.” Wisdom comes in knowing which ones will, and which situations need some gentle nudges. Less pious people sometimes observe that some problems work themselves out through the graveyard…or maybe that shows a spiritual maturity?

Exhibiting patience is difficult, perhaps one of the most difficult virtues to practice. It requires denying your emotions: your anger (however righteous it may be); your pride and arrogance; passion for truth and justice. It requires denying them and mastering them, for one cannot respond or wait in patience when all worked up about something. It requires faith to trust that our merciful and loving God is truly Lord of all, and holds all things in His hand. It means giving up our feeling and desire for control.

But secular culture derides patience. It appears too much like inaction, like indecisiveness, lazy, and so it prizes the opposite. If one decides to actively cultivate patience, his peers will not approve.

And as the old observation goes, “If you pray for patience, God will give you very trying circumstances.” We say it tongue-in-cheek, but this observation is true–and serious. The virtues must be practiced and lived. One cannot be patient without adversity to withstand and pressure to act quickly. We cannot expect to grow in virtue without the opportunity to practice it, just as we cannot grow in any gift without using it. But perhaps it would be wise to first pray for God’s help in responding patiently to the circumstances we face right now.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Sanctification Bandwagon

Bloggers all over have been noting and discussing the lack of sanctification in Lutheran (LCMS) preaching over the last decade or two. Rev. McCain has posted on this recently. I recommend his posts…but can’t find them on his site right now.

Why, though? Why are sermons preaching sanctification missing? Even more, why are there so many of us living unsanctified lives, by all appearances? Two reasons:
1. Lutherans struggle with antinomianism. Debate all you want, but it’s true. Of course we reject it officially. It’s unchristian. But in our practice we struggle against it. Luther’s oft-quoted, yet spurious “Sin boldly” doesn’t help.

And now for the unorthodox reason:

2. We have no saints.

Yes, I know the line about all of us who are baptizing being at once sinner and saint. I know what we say about Grandma Jenkins and Pastor Himmelreich, that they are the saints in glory even now. We have our own hagriographical pieces about Walther and Luther, and if you’re from Ft. Wayne, Loehe.

We have the Ancient and Accepted Order of titling Bible-people “St.” if, and only if they appear in the Bible, unless our congregation is named after him. Thus, St. Peter and St. Lawrence.

But in our commemorations there are no “saints.” We have no saints in our piety. We honor heroes aplenty, but nearly in the same way we honor Washington and Lincoln, giving thanks for the great things God gave them to do, their courage and insight. But we do not seek to emulate our Christian “heroes.” We do not tell stories about them that inspire us to “imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7) We give thanks for the accomplishments and faithfulness of those who have gone before us, but do not honor them as being more sanctified than we are, as being further along the path, as examples to be imitated. We take a modern, critical view of the miracles that they reportedly worked, erasing even more honor. Those in our commemorations become “Great Men and Women of (Christian) History, For Whom We Ought to Give Thanks to God For, But We Ought to Give Thanks to God For Everyone Anyway.”

In Roman Catholic circles one sometimes hears the insulting compliment, “He’s trying to be a saint.” It means of course, the person is living a very pious life. And maybe, just maybe, he’s trying to be perfect.

This insult/compliment is nonsense to Lutherans. How can one “try to be a saint?” The Good Lutheran Response to this is, “You are one already!” Which completely undermines the desire to live a life of sanctification. When the goal of living a life full of grace, a life of complete repentance, a life devoid of sin is taken away, when the examples of men and women who achieved this, or close to it, are removed, when they are not constantly being praised and lifted up as examples to us, as Hebrews tells us they ought to be, what do we have left?

Already struggling against some antinomian currents in our theology, and egalitarianism in our anthropology (we’re all saints and sinners, all the same, really), we have no goal to shoot for. Add to this confusion over the role of the Law in Christian Living (the so-called Third Use) and we’re left with sermons about Justification 52 times a year.