Saturday, May 31, 2008

Not News

It happens on every broadcast of FOX-8 news: "Breaking News! Someone has been shot in the [fill in the blank] neighborhood..."

Sorry, but in New Orleans, that's not news. Especially when it happens in Orleans Parish, is committed by young men, happens in broad daylight, and the shooter is still at large. Nor is it news when Crimestoppers is offering a reward and when the family of the victim asks for anyone with information to come forward.

This is not "news" it's "routine."

Likewise, it's not news when we have crooked cops (yawn), criminals being let out of jail because witnesses are too intimidated to testify or the DA messed up some basic forensic work that a 8-year old kid and a pair of gloves could have handled, or when a criminal has been arrested more times than he is years old and is still running around openly threatening people.

It's just not news.

Neither is: hot weather, politicians arguing and pointing fingers and demanding apologies and more sincere apologies, sports figures trash talking each other, dishonest contractors, heavy traffic, messed up bridges and levees, slipping SAT scores, celebrities saying and doing stupid things, rising gas prices, and general economic woes.

None of this is news.

Do you know what really would be news? Wendy's actually getting a single order correct! Now that should elicit a "Breaking News!" on FOX-8. I honestly cannot remember the last time when they didn't mess up my order - usually making several mistakes all at once. Wendy's still being in business should be news. The body of Dave Thomas not reaching through the grave to choke a Wendy's manager to death should be news.

Hospital Madness

Truth is funnier than fiction.

Some novels, like Catch-22 and A Confederacy of Dunces are laugh-out-loud funny because they reflect, at least to a certain extent, the craziness of real life - even in situations that are in and of themselves not funny. Catch-22 deals with bureaucratic regulations in the face of war and death. Confederacy spoofs the quirks of New Orleans life through the eyes of an obviously mentally ill person. War and mental illness are hardly funny, and yet surrounding these very serious situations is a cocoon of absurdity, silliness, and human foibles that one can only laugh at.

I've been in the hospital a good bit lately - mainly as a pastor visiting parishioners, but yesterday, as the husband of a patient. Mrs. Hollywood had a minor surgical procedure yesterday. It was done while Lion Boy and I waited, and then we drove her home. She's doing just great, and feels a lot better.

But yesterday, Mrs. H. was doubled over in pain. Her doctor told her to meet him at the emergency room of West Jefferson Hospital. Rather than take the expressway at rush hour, I "cleverly" took the back way - which includes a draw bridge over the Harvey Canal. Of course, just as we got to the bridge, it opened. There was no way of knowing how long we would be waiting as traffic mounted and backed up. So, we abandoned that plan and ended up on the expressway anyway - having to go in the opposite direction and find a turnaround.

I was looking for the next way to cross the Harvey Canal - namely the Harvey tunnel. Unbeknown to us, the tunnel was closed - as a dump truck driver had just accidentally spilled a load of mud into the tunnel, causing a 23-car pile-up. The driver had abandoned the truck and fled on foot. Thankfully, we missed out on that pandemonium, as I missed the turn for the tunnel. That left the expressway overpass, and its huge back-up of cars at the hospital exit.

We finally made it to the hospital, and I dropped Mrs. H. off at Emergency. Now, all I had to do was to park and carry the sleeping Lion Boy to the emergency room. However, parking is never easy at this hospital. I did find a vacant spot for clergy - but the sign said "WJMC Clergy." Did that mean all clergy (which hospitals typically have), or was that only for clergy employed by the hospital? Seeing the big orange sticker pasted on the side of the one car in a clergy spot as a punishment for "illegal parking," I figured I didn't need that "ag" and moved on.

I found a spot about 20 miles away, and finding no camel, trekked across the Sahara with the small furnace known as Leo slung across my neck and chest. I headed toward the large date palm like a Bedouin in search of an oasis and kept my feet moving. Eventually, we made it to the hospital to find Mrs. H. inside doubled over in agony.

Her doctor appeared out of nowhere, with his ever-present Mona Lisa smile and supreme calmness. He summoned a nurse in as few words as humanly possible, and had us follow him to admission. He chatted with us as though he were sipping a pina colada without a care in the world. This truly had a calming effect. He was very compassionate, but in a matter-of-fact way that kept angers from flaring.

The clerks skedaddled about muttering about paperwork, since Grace's "case" had been opened on the ER computers. The doctor calmly took out his blackberry, pulled up a seat next to the clerk, and started arranging for a room. The clerk, who was extremely nice, asked Grace and me to fill out enough forms to close on a house. From her bent-over position, Grace had to write her initials probably a couple dozen times, and then sign several forms. I also had to sign some papers. She also had to dig around her purse for her drivers license. It was kind of surreal.

For insurance purposes, I had to answer questions about my employment: Salem Lutheran Church. (I was wearing a clerical collar). I was asked what my religion is. I was also asked if I attend the church where I work. I could not help but look around for Chaplain Tappman and Major Major. Through it all sat the serene doctor in his impeccable green scrubs, Mona Lisa smile intact, getting things done for us.

Finally, Mrs. Hollywood was whisked away in a wheelchair, as Lion Boy and I scurried behind. At last, the questions and paperwork were done. Ha!

We got to the room, after which a nurse's assistant proceeded to ask the same questions all over again. Then came a nurse - with the exact same questions. Then the doctor (apologetically) asked the same questions. He smiled that little knowing grin, and said "I'm sorry" after each question. Then came another nurse - same questions. Then the anesthesiologist. Yep, you got it. The exact same questions. And the doctor continued to smile calmly, while Grace answered the same questions in between bouts of agony.

One of my parishioners was on duty as a nurse. It was nice to see a familiar face in such conditions. Finally, Miss Grace was wheeled over to "same day surgery."

Lion Boy and I hung out. And hung out. And hung out. We went to the gift shop, rode the elevator, had ice cream, played Spider Man, and passed the time. While Leo played with a toy "Venom" (a Spider man villain), I read from A Confederacy of Dunces and laughed out loud at the madness of my fellow New Orleanian Ignatius J. Reilly and the absurdity of his world.

Finally, we joined Mrs. Hollywood back in the hospital room, and watched cartoons to hold Lion Boy's attention. They brought Grace some food, and even a meal for me. We turned it into a "date" as we dined on salisbury steak, squash, rice, Jello, and lemonade as Leo watched movies. Of course, this won't help my reputation as a New Orleanian, but I actually liked the meal!

The nurse checked in on us a couple times, and was very compassionate, attentive, and helpful.

We finally made it home, to a houseful of hungry cats singing in five-part harmony for dinner.

It was a long day, but in the end, all went well. We had a lot of comedy to reflect on. Lion Boy was such a brave and compassionate lad, even when Mommy was being poked and prodded by people in strange uniforms. We asked a lot of him, being stuck in a hospital for hours on end. The staff at West Jefferson was absolutely wonderful. Through all the absurdity, all the bureaucratic regulations, all the insane legal documents - they were compassionate, kind, and generous. And Grace's doctor is the greatest. I don't impress easily, but I'm impressed with this guy.

I realize that the absurdity is due to our society's litigiousness as well as the ubiquitous bureaucracy of medical insurance (the medical-industrial complex?). A lot of the repetition of questions (which only increases the chances of a mistake) is because of HIPA and other burdensome regulations. Remember the good old days when each hospital bed had a "chart"? I guess those days are gone. Perhaps technology will pick up the slack at some point. It seems like kids with hand-held video games that talk to each other have it more together than hospital staff. It seems like with online database technology, redundancy should be a thing of the past. I suppose that will come with time.

But at least in the meanwhile, we have something to laugh at. Were it not for the ridiculousness of life and the bungling bureaucracies that mankind continues to create, there would be no Catch-22 or Confederacy of Dunces to make us laugh, we could find no joy at all in the midst of war and hospitals. For in the final analysis, wasn't it another author who loved to laugh at the madness of real life, William Shakespeare, who said: "All's well that ends well"?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Justice, Texas Style

There was a time when kidnapping was a capital offense. I suspect not a single person will be prosecuted for this crime, and the perpetrators will probably be immune to any lawsuits.

In other Texas justice news, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean remain incarcerated.

And they make jokes about how crooked Louisiana is!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Do the Walls of the Church Make a Christian?

There is a lot of discussion these days about "the institutional church" and a desire to recast Christianity apart from its traditional nature. Christianity is often treated as an individual lifestyle choice, while things like altars and pastors are scorned as being out of step with the current culture, and swapped out for coffee counters and baristas.

You don't need a church building, a service, a liturgy, a pastor, or a dogmatic set of beliefs to be a Christian, we are constantly told. And, "missional worshiping communities" that embrace the new paradigm are rewarded with large numbers - a fact that has not escaped the notice of many officials of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

An old friend of mine, Fr. Demetri Tonias, pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Concord, NH, has written a great article that takes us back to the church fathers for the answer to the question: "Do the walls of the Church make a Christian?"

Indeed, the swaggering cock-a-doodle-doo of the Emerging Church rooster (who thinks he causes the sun to rise by his crowing) is drowned out by the still small voice of the Word of God in Ecclesiates 1:9. The same discussions about "the institutional church" have been going on since the days of Sts. Augsutine, Ambrose, and Simplicianus in the fourth century.

And if you enjoyed that Fr. Demetri article, you might like this one, about the role of habit in the Christian life.

A Cautionary Tale about Feminism

This interesting article, written by Rebecca Walker, the daughter of feminist literary icon Alice Walker, reads like a Greek tragedy - though the author managed to salvage a somewhat happy ending to the devastation wrought on her life by our culture's dominant anti-family feminist ideology.

Reading Grandma's Diaries

Here's a really interesting article from the blog Home Living. The author uses her grandmother's diary to catalog the changes in American society over the course of her lifetime. In case some of my younger readers don't know what a diary is, it's an offline blog. ;-)

I had similar experiences as a child, spending lots of time with my maternal grandfather (born 1898) and grandmother (born 1916) and my paternal great-grandmother (born 1900). My visits with my grandparents were irreplaceable, and bordered on the magical. Hour upon hour, they traced my family history for me from their own childhoods in rural horse-and-buggy roads and one-room shack homes in remote mountains in West Virginia. They called to mind their own ancestors and children: coal miners, horse traders, soldiers in the War Between the States, gold and land speculators, schoolteachers, farmers, moonshiners, prohibition officers, World War II vets, and most of all, loving mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers.

The generation born around the turn of the 20th century arguably saw more change than any other before or since. As children, they rode horses on dusty roads, lived in shacks, hunted and farmed their own food, had no electricity or refrigeration, and even lacked running water and indoor plumbing. In their old age, they lived in air conditioned homes, watched cable television, incorporated kitchen appliances into daily life, flew in airplanes, saw a man on the moon.

They also observed profound devastations in family life and the life of the church and society.

A very interesting article indeed.

Lutheran Public Radio

Exciting news! Be looking for this upcoming issues-driven radio show from Lutheran Public Radio and Pirate Christian Radio. Pirate? I like the idea and all, but I will not be praying the Arrrrrgh Father!

Can't wait to hear the program. And please note that you can make a contribution to the show as well. Eye-patch sold separately. Parrot and peg-leg not included...

Sermon: Wednesday of Trinity 1

28 May 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Gen 15:1-6

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“The Word of the Lord came to Abram…” This is the same Word of God by which all things were made. This is the same Word of God that forgives us all our sins. This is the same Word of God that does not return void.

And, this is the same Word of God who was with God and who was God in the beginning, the Word made flesh, the Word that takes ordinary bread and ordinary wine and makes them the incarnate Word in flesh and blood.

This Word of God was given to Abram in an extraordinary way – by a vision. And yet, unlike modern supposed “visions” that preachers and authors of bestselling books claim to have, this vision did not promise a prosperity gospel, a name it an claim it theology of glory, or the authority for Abram to engage in promiscuous behavior with his followers. This vision, though it contained a promise, did not promise immediate material rewards to Abram – but rather the long term benefit of descendants and a nation to be born from his heirs. There was no “vision” to induce other people to send Abram money or to make people commit immoral acts with Abram for the sake of his ego or pleasure. Indeed, this vision is not the sort that causes books to fly off the shelf or would make Abram a sought-after guest on Oprah.

A lot of people today claim to have “visions” – and it is interesting how many of these “visions” have nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins, nothing to do with God’s grand plan to “make all things new,” nothing to do with our Lord Jesus Christ and His ministry to liberate mankind from death and the devil.

But let’s take a look at Abram’s vision. God certainly promised him very real, concrete things. God entered into a covenant with Abram and promised to provide him with a son – and through that son, another Son would come into the world. God was promising to do the impossible – to take an old man and wife, a broken-down parody of Adam and Eve, whose sinful, mortal bodies were well past the age of procreation – and make them a great nation, a nation out of which the Messiah would come.

Thus, the Word of the Lord according to the vision of Abram was centered on Christ. The Word pointed forward to the Word. The Word given in spirit to Abram points to the Word made flesh in the form of Abram’s descendant.

The whole point of this vision, this Word of God, in fact the whole point of the entire Word of God in Scripture is summed up in the last verse of our Old Testament lesson: “And he [Abraham] believed in the LORD, and He [the Lord] accounted it to him [Abraham] for righteousness.”

It all boils down to this: Abram believes in the Lord, and this belief is accounted to Abram as righteousness. There is no greater summation of the Christian faith, of the Bible, of the Gospel itself than this one sentence only fifteen chapters into the first book of Moses.

Abram’s faith was accounted as righteousness.

The word we translate as “accounted” is sometimes translated as “credited” or “considered.” Abram (whose name was to be changed to Abraham) was a righteous man, to be rewarded as a righteous man, as a perfect man – not by works, but by being “credited” with righteousness through his belief in the Lord. Abraham was saved by grace through faith, faith in Jesus, extended on credit to him two thousand years before his Descendant and Savior was to be born.

This, dear friends, is the Word of God. This is the constant refrain and drumbeat of Scripture. This Word, a Word of belief, of credit, and of righteousness, is given as a gift to them that believe. And this is by far a greater treasure than all the material wealth in all the world. For this is the treasure stored up in heaven, the participation, the communion of the believer to the God who has created him, and who has re-created him anew.

And notice that this Word of God has free reign. It is not bound by space and time. For Abram, and all Old Testament believers have salvation the same way we do after our Lord’s resurrection, because we have faith in the Lord, and are credited with righteousness. The saving power of the Word of God is not limited to those living in the years A.D., but permeates the entire time and space continuum of the universe.

For this is the nature of faith. Faith is knowledge not rooted in what can be seen or measured. Faith is belief in a promise, even though we may never see the fulfillment of that promise in this life. Just as we have faith that our Savior is coming again at the end of time to save us and bring us to everlasting life, Abram could look forward with the eyes of faith to when the Lord’s covenant with him would be fulfilled, even finding fulfillment in an unknown Descendant. It doesn’t matter that Abram had no specific knowledge, for he wasn’t saved by “knowledge,” but rather by his faith. He is not saved by a “message,” but rather by a Word.

And this Word is the same Word we hear today, dear brothers and sisters. For this Word took flesh. This Word was crucified, died, and was raised to life again. This Word paid for our sins, and this Word defeated him who sought to silence the Word and shut the creative and redemptive mouth of God. This Word is given to us in holy absolution, though given meekly by a pastor’s mouth. For the power of the word is not in how well it is spoken, but in its divine origin. And this Word is given to us again and again, as we take the Lord’s Supper, the Word made incarnate in space and time, in bread and wine, in body and blood, given and shed for us, for the forgiveness of sins.

And indeed, we believe in our Lord, in His Word, and this belief, this faith, is accounted to us for righteousness, both now, and unto the end of the age. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Christian Latin

The Christian Church not only overcame the mighty Roman Empire, she also conquered the Latin language, which in turn served the Church until recent centuries as the language not only of theological study, but of prayer, liturgy, and the Scriptures. Latin preserved Western Civilization and the texts of the Christian faith.

Here are some outstanding reflections on the role of Latin in the lives of modern Christians.

First, an article by the brilliant English apologist of the Christian faith, outstanding scholar, and friend of C.S. Lewis - Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) - an autobiographical account of her own studies in Latin.

Next, here is an inspiring tribute to studying the classics in the original languages by the legendary Penn State football coach (and scholar) Joe Paterno.

Finally, a reflection on Latin's immortality as the language of the Church (as opposed to the "dying" languages such as our own English) by the Rev. Randall Paine (a biographer of G.K. Chesterton).

I can really relate to the Randall Paine article, as I have had to learn two versions of the Small Catechism and three versions of the Nicene Creed. This results in the frustration of getting the words muddled up - thus defeating the purpose of committing these texts to memory.

The translations of the Bible, the creeds, and the liturgy that are used in "living" (read: "dying") languages are constantly subject to change. The only ones that are constant are those translations in "dead" (read: "immortal") languages, such as the Koine Greek of the New Testament and the Latin of the Western Church.

Note: All three of these articles are from Memoria Press. You can find some other great links here.

Speaking in Tongues

The Hollywood family prays the table prayer as it appears in the Small Catechism of Martin Luther (using the latest translation as it is published by Concordia Publishing House and as it appears in our latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book). It's really an ancient Latin prayer that Luther translated into German, and which was then, in turn, translated into English.

We also pray it in its traditional Latin form.

So, I often give three-year old Lion Boy the choice: "English or Latin." Almost inevitably, he emphatically lobbies for Anglophonism. He knows the prayer well, and can say it along with me.

Once in a while, he chooses Latin - and he knows it pretty well in its original form too.

The other day, he threw us for a loop. First, he insisted that we pray in English. Then, just as the Hollywoods were poised to dig in, he called out "Now in Latin." We meekly complied. Then, he further requested: "In French!" We have never prayed the table prayer in French.

So, I headed to the internet to find a French version of the prayer Benedic, Domine. About the only way I could find it was to locate a copy of Luther's Small catechism in French. Mrs. Hollywood (a Dutch-French-Canadian) commented that the prayer just doesn't sound natural (I think her exact words were: "too Lutheran" - which gave me seminary flashbacks of sitting in Dr. Scaer's class). I would surmise it's because the prayer made a long journey from Latin, to German, and from there to French - which would probably make it sound unnatural.

I believe this is why the Latin table prayer in the Lutheran confessions is different than the way the rest of the world prays it in Latin - because it was translated from Latin, to German, and back to Latin again. I don't know this for sure, but I think it's a reasonable hypothesis given the wording.

But anyway, in my search, I ran across a really interesting website of various works of Martin Luther and the Lutheran Confessions in numerous languages. Especially interesting was the facsimile (and English translation) of the sixteenth century translation of the Augsburg Confession into Greek - I suspect for the purpose of the ill-fated theological dialog with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II. The title of the Greek version of the Augsburg Confession is: Exomologesis tes orthodoxou pisteos (The Confession of the Orthodox Faith).

As interesting as all this is, I still haven't found a standard translation of the table prayer into French. Maybe Francophones simply prayed the prayer in Latin for so long that they never got around to "going native" on that one. If anyone knows, please fill me in!

Here is the original Latin version:

Benedic, Domine, nos et haec Tua dona, quae de Tua largitate sumus sumpturi, per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

ESV De-Pastorized?

An interesting discussion going on at the blogsite of a pastor who points out, and is favorably inclined, to a 2007 revision of the English Standard Version (ESV) that renders the Greek word ποιμένας in Eph 4:11 as "shepherds" (instead of the former translation "pastors").

Given the ESV's status as the quasi-official translation of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, as well as the ESV's stated objectives to make use of traditional churchly terminology* in its translation, I can't say I'm too thrilled.

I have commented in the thread a few times.

So, what do y'all think? Should we in the Christian ministry take down those signs on our doors that say "Pastor" and replace them with "Shepherd"? Will our LCMS agendas and lectionaries change to reflect this "new and improved" translation?

I'm wondering what additional changes are being proposed. I'm also wondering if this change (which flies in the face of five centuries of English translation precedent) is driven by the "emerging church movement" which often eschews the traditional churchly lingo that the ESV claims to be committed to preserving.

* From the ESV Preface: "The ESV also carries forward classic translation principles in its literary style. Accordingly it retains theological terminology—words such as grace, faith, justification, sanctification, redemption, regeneration, reconciliation, propitiation—because of their central importance for Christian doctrine and also because the underlying Greek words were already becoming key words and technical terms in New Testament times."

Trinity 1 and Confirmation Sunday

25 May 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 16:19-31 (Gen 15:1-6, 1 John 4:16-21)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There’s a funny old story that’s not so funny after Hurricane Katrina, but it does make a good point. It goes like this: A guy is in the middle of a flood, and he prays for God to save him. A neighbor comes by in a boat, but the man refuses, saying that God is going to save him. As the water rises, a rescue worker comes by on another boat and offers to save him. Again, the man says that God will save him. Finally, he’s on his roof, and a national guardsman flies over with a helicopter and lowers a rope. The man refuses again. And so, he drowns. He meets God and is angry. He asks: “Why didn’t you save me?” God replies: “What are you talking about? I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”

Jesus tells us a very similar story, known as “Lazarus and the Rich Man.” In this tale, both the Rich Man and the poor beggar Lazarus die. Lazarus is in heaven, and the Rich Man is in hell. In his suffering, the Rich Man pleads to the patriarch Abraham to ease his suffering. But he cannot. It is too late. The Rich Man chose to worship the false god of wealth. His time to repent is over. The Rich Man pleads for messengers to warn his wicked brothers to repent. Abraham says that the Rich Man’s brothers already have messengers – the words of the Bible. Finally, the Rich Man asks Abraham to send a messenger from the dead to warn them, maybe like the ghosts who brought Ebenezer Scrooge to have a change in heart in A Christmas Carol. But the answer is no. And here, Jesus, the storyteller, gives the punch line: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”

Dear confirmands, Jesus is giving all of us – especially you – a great warning. You and your parents need to keep in mind that you are either in, or headed to, high school. You will soon be driving, working, heading to college, perhaps even getting engaged and married. You will soon be confronted with overwhelming pressure regarding drinking, drugs, sexuality, and fitting in with your friends in a culture that no longer respects Christianity.

And like the Rich Man in Jesus’s lesson, the easy thing to do is to put our faith on the back burner and serve some other god: maybe wealth, popularity, cheap thrills, or even illegal activities. But as a pastor, take my word on this: “Stuff happens.” I guarantee you that you will all deal with very serious things that will hit you out of nowhere: family members will get sick or die, you will have hardships and sadness, you will watch your friends make stupid choices and get into trouble, you will be affected by accidents, illnesses, crime, peer pressure, and even death itself.

And even if you make overwhelmingly good choices, you aren’t perfect. You will make mistakes. You will fall into sin. And whether it’s your fault or not, one way or another, you will die. You will be in the same position as Lazarus and the Rich Man. You may have no idea when you will die. Every sermon you hear may be your very last warning to repent and believe the Gospel. Each time you come to this rail to take the Lord’s body and blood may be your last. Each conversation you have with your parents may be the final one.

I will say it again: “Stuff happens.”

One of the most frustrating things for pastors is how often we confirm young people, give them the holy sacrament, and that’s the last time we see them. Some might make it for Christmas or Easter once in a while, but like the Rich Man, there is always something more “important” than coming to church to hear the Gospel and take the Holy Sacrament: whether work, education, sports, entertainment, or just sleeping in.

And you parents, keep in mind, you set the example. I can teach, preach, lecture, quiz, scribble on a blackboard, and wear my Bible out teaching your kids for two years of confirmation classes. But if you’re never in church, you’re telling them this stuff isn’t important. You’re teaching them to be like the Rich Man in our Lord’s parable. If this Christian faith is important to you, we will all see you confirmands and your parents in this church regularly hearing the Gospel and receiving the Sacrament. God is here in this place giving out eternal life and salvation, pouring His love upon you, week in and week out. And if you can’t make it on Sunday mornings, we have the Divine Service on Wednesday nights. And if you’re shut in your home, I will bring the Gospel to you.

We need to hold you accountable, just as you need to hold us accountable. We are a community, a family of believers, brothers and sisters in the Lord. We’re a little flock with a common enemy, and a mutual Savior. We’re all in this together.

And when stuff happens, when you’re in the hospital, when you’re depressed, when a family member is sick, you need to understand that God has sent you two boats and a helicopter. He has given you Christian brothers and sisters to help you, and a pastor to bring the Word of God and the Sacrament to you. One of the first things that you should do in such times is to call me, so that I can strengthen you with the consolation of the Gospel and the “medicine of immortality” that is the Lord’s Supper.

Last Sunday, I asked each of you confirmands the following question: “Does the Lord’s Supper strengthen your faith in Jesus?” Each of you answered “yes.” Each of you also explained to me that in the Holy Supper, the Lord Jesus is miraculously physically present, and that in this sacrament, your sins are forgiven.

This, dear friends, is why Lazarus was in Paradise with Abraham, and why the Rich Man was begging for a drop of water in hell.

If you really believe what you say you believe, you will do whatever it takes to get to this place where the Gospel is preached and the body and blood of Jesus are given out. Being a beggar who believes the Gospel is better than being a rich person who doesn’t. And you have all told me where and how your faith in Jesus is strengthened.

Consider yourself warned. Not just by me, but by Moses, and the prophets, and even by the One who came back from the dead! For that One, the resurrected One, did not come to condemn you, dear friends, but to save you. For as St. John says in our epistle: “We have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him,” and “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment.” This torment is what the Rich Man experienced in hell. He was tormented. He was fearful. Just as all people are fearful when “stuff happens.”

But notice what conquers fear: love. And God is love. This is why you answered “yes” when I asked you if the Lord’s Supper strengthens your faith. God’s love is made physical for you, taken into your very body when you eat the very body and drink the very blood of Christ.

For the promise of God was given to you at your baptism, and is being confirmed today in your witness before this congregation, in the vows you will make, and in the communion you will share with God and with us. And that promise is the same promise given to Abraham, who “believed in the Lord” and this belief was “accounted… to him for righteousness.”

The beggar Lazarus was also a sinner. He was not worthy to enter paradise. And yet, he did. For he called upon the name of the Lord. He believed, and he too was credited with the righteousness of his Savior. The Rich Man was not credited with righteousness, for his god was his wealth.

And this is the Good News! Your eternal life is completely free. You can’t earn it, and it isn’t for sale. You parents can’t provide it for your children, and you confirmands can’t download it off the internet. You cannot achieve this righteousness through works. It is given to you as a free gift. And that gift is poured out upon you here, in this sanctuary, and in Divine Services all over the world where Jesus is present in His Word proclaimed by a called and ordained servant with the authority to forgive sins. The gift of the very same salvation given to Lazarus is offered to you, dear confirmands, and all of you in this congregation, week in and week out, in the form of a meal, a holy meal, a miraculous meal, that will strengthen your faith and give you something to hold onto when the inevitable “stuff happens.”

And when “stuff happens,” when the floods of life rise and threaten to engulf you, keep in mind that the Lord provides for you. We have been warned not to shun the boat of the Gospel, not to spurn the helicopter of the Lord’s Supper. But along with this warning, He also gives us a glorious promise:

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, because as He is, so are we in this world.”

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Open and Closed Communion

An interesting discussion about closed communion at the blog of a Reformed pastor named John Armstrong, who had visited an LCMS church, and wrote about the church's communion policy. I did toss in my two cents to help clarify our understanding of closed communion.

But what I thought was really interesting was the response of an LCMS lay person whose church practices open communion...

Larry Beane says:

We Lutherans believe Jesus is present, physically. We confess that we physically eat His flesh and physically drink His blood. He is not merely spiritually present. Nor are the elements in any way symbolic. This is problematic to our Protestant brothers and sisters.

I respond:

I am Pentecostal and a Lutheran and believe this truth as well. The elements are not Symbolic. If you are familiar with most Pentecostal theology in practice today you would find it embraces true presence than anything else. Sure, the doctrines of denominations may not yet reflect this, but the practice is true presence. Books are written about it: See the book the Meal that Heals.

So, now the question is, those Pentecostals (like me) who embrace the true presence, believe it, practice it with reverence, do we "qualify" to come to the table or is there some other hoop we have not yet jumped thru to take communion?

The way, we practice "Open" communion at our LCMS church is like this:

We post and publish for all to comprehend that we believe in the true presence and if you embrace that reality you are welcome to come to the table. We do not examine you, that is between you and God, Paul instructed us thus. We follow that ideal.

If a Methodist or Catholic or even a Buddhist comes forward we do not turn him or her away. We inform them or the reality of our communion practices and accept them if they present themselves.

I think that is a pretty Lutheran thing to do.

One other thing, My forefathers built one of the first Lutheran Churches in West Prussia (Pommerania) less than a hundred years after the reformation. The building stands today in Naugard near Stettin which is now Poland. My Lutheran Roots and passions go very deep.

I was raised and confirmed in the German Lutheran LCMS in North Dakota. That church I grew up in which was very traditional LCMS, and is housed in a beautiful brick building my Father built and laid the cornerstone in 1959 (The year I was Confirmed) is about to be abandoned. I'm sad about that.

The future vitality of the LCMS is not in a work the form of which as you or I grew up in. Those days are drawing to a close and will not come again. I miss the old, but value the new.

I think that the divisions over these things are damaging to the furtherance of the Communion of the LCMS. I support the Synod President and his desire to see us break out of the dead past and I hope you will as well.

The LCMS needs changes made. As a Charismatic Lutheran I want to be part of furthering the Kingdom of God, not of the LCMS. No denominational traditions or polity transcends that.

One other thing, I spend a lot of time with Pastors who are making it work nationally in the LCMS. In particular I am a friend of the pastor of the largest LCMS church in America. He will need to be defrocked as well if we use your standards.

Those who use practices similar to our little Church of 500 worshiping on Sundays seem to prosper more than does than the dying on the vine churches in our fellowship who don't. That's just observation even in our area. There are a dozen churches in our district within 25 miles that are LCMS. I know them all. The pattern holds. Those who are embracing the new are prospering. Those who are clinging to the old are dying. I don't want to see the LCMS die. I don't think you do either. We have national leadership who doesn't either. We should hear them out.

Nothing can be made better without change. Of course not all change is improvement but there can be no betterment without change. That axiom is most certainly true. In our churches, in our lives, in our culture.

Change my heart oh GOD...........Make it ever new.....Change my heart oh God...Make me more like YOU.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

8th Grade Graduation Sermon

Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Isa 65:1

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

This year’s theme verse from Isaiah points out that we are not in charge. God is. For as many decisions as God leaves in our hands, He is ultimately the one calling the shots. He chose us as His people in Jesus Christ, even as He chose to bring these young people to where they would hear the Gospel as the basis of their education.

I know many of you parents can hardly believe your sons and daughters are headed to ninth grade already. For even without deciding to do so, without even trying, they grew. They grew not only physically, but intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually as well. God watches over them. God is in charge. There is great comfort in this.

Whether they have been here at Salem only a single year, or more than a decade, these young people are different than when they first arrived. And like you, many of their teachers can hardly believe their eyes at how they have grown and matured under God’s direction, under your parental love and care, and under the dedicated and loving work of the faculty, staff, and administration here at Salem.

And now, we have sung “This is the Feast of Victory” to celebrate not only their graduation, but our Lord’s victory over death and the grave. We have sung “Now Thank We All Our God” in gratitude for all the Lord has done for us. And finally, we will close with the hymn of praise to the Most Blessed Holy Trinity, the Doxology. We celebrate, we give thanks, and we praise the God who calls us, forgives our sins, and watches over us in Christ Jesus.

Dear graduates, you will no longer be in our classrooms, no longer our students, no more our discipuli. We are handing you off to other teachers under whose guidance you will continue to grow under the loving eyes of your heavenly Father. And though we are sad to see you go, we are happy to see you succeed, taking some of Salem with you no matter where the Lord takes you in His plan for your life.

Go with our blessings. Come and visit as our friends. We know that you will represent Salem with honor, with joy, and with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And as we prayed every day we were together, let us pray:

“I thank you, my Heaven Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously kept me this day; and I pray that you would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.” Amen.

V: Dominus vobiscum. (R: Et cum Spiritu tuo). Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

More on the FLDS situation in Texas

This is certainly a controversial issue, and creates a lot of strong feelings whether one agrees or disagrees with the actions of the State of Texas. I find this analysis by Stacy McDonald to be an outstanding recapitulation of what most Christians agree about, as well as disagree about, in this case.

I also believe her conclusions are absolutely correct, and eloquently stated in a way that does not throw gasoline on the fire.

Fathers, Daughters, and Christian Modesty

The following article, written by a Christian father, has not only some excellent insights with regard to feminine Christian modesty, but also excellent practical suggestions as to how Christian fathers can protect their daughters' modesty in an age and culture that is not only clueless about what is fashionable for young women, but also antithetical and hostile to a worldview shaped by Scripture and the Church.

Gents, you are in charge! Use the authority that God has given you. That doesn't mean sitting in the La-Z-Boy ordering your wife to fetch chicken wings, and hollering at your daughter to bring you a beer before the game starts. Rather, being the head of the household means you are the protector of your family - especially when it comes to defending your daughters' dignity.

That article reminded me of a blog post on the topic of feminine modesty written by Rev. Dr. Rick Stuckwisch, who is not only the parochial father of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in South Bend, Indiana, but is also the familial father of three daughters and six sons (as well as a husband of 23 years to the wife he so obviously reveres and adores).

Dr. Stuckwisch often writes about Christian fatherhood, especially in the light of his daughter's upcoming wedding.

If you're not a subscriber to Dr. Stuckwisch's blog, you're missing out! He's one of those individuals whose blog is worth reading every single time he posts - like an exquisite dessert and a delightful cup of coffee. He is poetic, profound, theological, exuding Christian joy, entertaining, and always drives his readers to think deeply, pray fervently, and seek Christ where He may be found. And he does so with evangelical humility and the doting heart of a Christian family man and pastor.

And with nine children, Dr. Stuckwisch knows a thing or two about being a dad!

Sermon: Feast of the Holy Trinity

18 May 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 3:1-17 (Isa 6:1-7, Rom 11:33-36)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Some people that you meet are what we call an “enigma.” They are a puzzle. Just when you think you have them figured out, they surprise you. Just when you think you have them pegged, they do something you could have never predicted. Some people are so secretive that you might think they are actually foreign spies. There are some people you can know for decades and still really not really know them.

Other people are candid to a fault. They will come out and tell you everything, even without flinching. Their routines are so regular and their life so locked in to routine that you can set your watch by them. It is as though such people live in a fishbowl. There is no mystery about such people. What you see is what you get.

So, what about God. Is God enigmatic, mysterious, ethereal, otherworldly, and unpredictable enough to be frightening? Or is God predictable, consistent, approachable, plain-spoken, and an open book?

To be sure, God is mysterious, beyond our understanding, mighty, and enigmatic. As St. Paul writes to the Christians at Rome: “Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord?”

When the prophet Isaiah was transported to the throne room of the Almighty God, he was out of his element. Isaiah was dwarfed by God’s immensity. He was overwhelmed by the seraphim, the highest level of angels, who stood at the right and left of the throne, and as mighty and magnificent as they were, they themselves cowered, covering their faces, and crying out from behind their wings the praises of the God whose voice boomed and rattled the doors of the smoke-filled room.

Here we see a revelation of God as the mighty Creator, the King, the Lord of Lords, the Most Holy One, the One whose very presence terrifies the holy prophet Isaiah, who lies on the floor blubbering in the fetal position, whimpering about how unclean he is.

God is so mighty and untouchable, that it should come as no surprise there is much we simply don’t know about Him. Our feeble brains and filthy souls simply could not handle even a fraction of God. Even fleeting glimpses of God in His full glory in Scripture result in utter confusion and terror for those who stood in His presence, as well as for us, who can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be standing before Him.

But then, even when we think we have figured out that we can’t figure God out, he throws us another curve ball. In our Gospel, we see a man named Nicodemus, a worshiper of the God who revealed Himself to Isaiah. Nicodemus takes a nighttime stroll and finds God. Only God is not on a throne, but in human form, wearing the garb of a rabbi. Nicodemus calls God “Teacher” and proceeds to question God about the nature of the universe and salvation.

In this case, God is plain-spoken. He speaks to Nicodemus eyeball to eyeball, Man to man. He tells him that in order to be a part of God’s kingdom, one must be “born again.” He further explains to a confused Nicodemus that this second birth is not a form of reincarnation from one’s mother, but is rather a rebirth of “water and the Spirit.” Jesus tells him: “Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.” Jesus speaks of Himself in the plural: “We” and “Our.” “If I have told you earthly things,” says our Lord, “and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

Nicodemus encounters God being candid, visible, tangible, available for questions, willing to have a conversation, and openly walking about in space and time, limited in space, and communicating through flesh to flesh. This is the God who sits at table, eats, drinks, laughs, weeps, hurts, is angry, who prays to His Father, who promises to send the Holy Spirit, who admits to being a heavenly king over the hosts of heaven, and yet who is executed by an earthly king egged on by a mob and betrayed by a son of hell.

And so we see God as both enigma and as teacher, as the unknowable and as the self-revelation, as the completely Other and the completely Us, as the Creator who is apart from time and space and as the One who is bound by the very limits of creation itself – all wrapped up in one.

This is the God who has created us, redeemed us, and sanctified us. The God whose demands condemn us, and whose mercy saves us. The God whose perfection must be appeased, and who perfectly appeases that perfection Himself. This is the God into whose Triune name – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – we have been baptized. This is the God whom we are too small to understand, and yet, who became small enough for us to understand.

And so, on this day, the Sunday after Pentecost, the Church throughout the world worships our Lord in His revelation to us as both Trinity and Unity. And as we confessed in the Creed: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity…”

And though holding the correct doctrine is a given, notice that the creed does not say we are saved by the good work of holding the right doctrine. Indeed, we are saved by grace, not by works. This is why we confess we are saved by holding the catholic faith. Faith. Faith alone. Faith, meaning belief. The catholic faith is a belief, and yet it is not intellectual. For “the catholic faith is this, that we worship…”

If you are interested in salvation, dear friends, it is not enough to be able to recite the catechism. It is not enough to express belief in God. It isn’t even enough to claim to have faith. For you must hold the catholic faith, the one true faith, the wholesome faith in its entirety. And what is this faith? It is that we “worship.” You cannot be a Christian if you simply believe in God – even simply believing in the Trinity. Even Satan believes in the Trinity. Indeed, to hold the catholic faith unto salvation means to worship the Triune God, the true God in His Unity and the true God in His Trinity.

To hold the catholic faith, to be saved, is to worship the Father, to worship the Son, and to worship the Holy Spirit.

We fall upon our faces before God just as Isaiah did. We sit at the feet of our Master and Teacher, just as Nicodemus did. We are regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit, given the forgiveness of sins promised by the Father and secured by the Son. We are born again of water and the Spirit in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we worship this God who puts His name on us, who gives us new birth, who draws us into His kingdom, who brings us to eternal life.

One thing God has revealed about Himself is His disposition towards His creation. “For while we were yet sinners, Christ,” that is God, “died for us.” Even when His creation betrayed Him, He desired to save that creation. Even when one He called “friend” betrayed Him, He was to die for that betrayer, and all betrayers. For in spite of the world’s unlovableness, in the face of mankind’s rebellion and sin, our Triune God is a God of love and mercy: “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” As our Lord Himself testifies: “Greater love has no-one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

This, dear friends, is the good news of the catholic faith. For our faith isn’t a sterile collection of teachings that you get rewarded for answering correctly, a cosmic version of Final Jeopardy. The catholic faith we hold on to, cling to, hang on for dear life to, is this: we worship the one true God, the one Triune God, the One who took flesh, the One who died a sacrificial death, the One who conquered the evil one, the One who broke death’s stranglehold over us.

We worship the One whose flesh and blood are given to us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. We worship the One who gives us a second birth by water and Word. We worship the One whose Spirit is given to those ordained to pronounce forgiveness. We worship the One whose coal from the altar is placed upon our lips, the One who declares in His mercy, in His love, in His Trinity, and in His Unity: “Your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.”

“For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Some helpful Latin sites

(photo by Vautrin_Baires)

Here is free web-based course to learn medieval Latin - which is almost identical to classical Latin, but there are a few slight grammatical differences as well as some different vocabulary. This site is run by the British National Archives.

Here is a helpful site from St. Louis University. Lots of university level handouts, charts, and exercises. SLU is a Jesuit university. Need I say more? Similarly, here is a link to Fr. Reggie Foster's Latin class (Fr. Reggie is the Vatican's chief Latinist) through one of his students, Fr. Gary Coulter. Also, here is the Vatican's collection of writings in Latin.

Here is a fantastic blogsite with outstanding links. The Latin-English parsing dictionary called Words is a work of genius, and is a must-have (and it's free, and can be downloaded and run locally). And here is a Windows interface for the Words program.

Here is a ton of Latin texts and textbooks, from beginner to advanced, all free, all in the public domain, all for download in pdf. This one is a gem! Also a gem is this online library of ancient and not-so-ancient Latin texts. And if you'd like to read the actual Latin scrolls, check this out! Poetry lovers, don't miss this line-by-line parallel collection of poems by Catullus.

Classicist Dr. Laura Gibbs has some really helpful ideas, such as learning Latin through proverbs (including audio), through fables, as well as through the Vulgate (the Latin Bible).

Here is a site of free MP3s of the Bible in Latin and Greek. Note: the Latin pronunciation is based on the rules of modern Spanish and the New Testament (Koine) Greek is pronounced according to modern Greek. For those who want an excellent Vulgate-English online tool (that even parses!), it is online, and can be downloaded and run locally as well.

Ephemeris is a Latin web-based newspaper, that also has some audio on some of the stories. The Finnish Broadcasting Company has a podcast of its shortwave news program in Latin. Here is a blog of weekly news in Latin. Here is another podcast, of Latin readings. Here is a collection of photographs of Latin inscriptions from flickr. And if you're really ambitious, check out this Latin webring.

I would be remiss if I didn't point you to what is, in my opinion, the very best Latin course ever, in which you learn Latin by jumping in with both feet and reading Latin. This is the course I'm using with my middle school students, and they are doing great! This course, by Danish scholar Hans Oerberg, has even replaced the standard Wheelock course at Concordia University - Chicago.

Please feel free to comment with other sites and helpful hints! I know this barely scratches the surface, and with the internet, we never run out of useful tools for teachers and students alike.

Bona fortuna, discipuli!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Non-Reporter and Big Brother Ablaze!(tm)

A certain church convention of the future?

I just got the new Reporter, the national monthly "official" newspaper of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

A couple of things caught my eye.

According to page 11, there was a conference put on by the Women's Leadership Institute to promote women's leadership in the church, including: "technology, getting youth involved in ministry [sic], vocation, worship styles, spirituality, and outreach." Interesting, especially when juxtaposed with page 2 of the Ablaze!(tm) update insert highlighting the work of 4 long term missionaries (sic) in England, Germany, and Hungary. None of them are ordained, and, in fact, all of them are women. This, when pastors are being recalled from missionary fields.

Also interesting, on page 3 of the Ablaze!(tm) insert, there is a new congregation in the LCMS called "theAlley" (lower-case "t", no space, and upper-case "A") in which the benediction at the end of the service (sic) closes with "...Amen. Now hit the streets." The self-importance of this congregation is such that even the mighty English language must bow to its quirks. There are several sentences in the Reporter that begin with a lowercase "t" to accommodate the iconoclastic appellation of this heavily featured and funded operation. Page 4 of the insert highlights another "church plant" (sic) that, like theAlley, avoids any mention of being Lutheran. It's called "Mosaic" and is touted as a "worshiping community" that holds "celebration events."

Under the headline "Acts 1:8 offers outreach tips" (which made me want to respond: "well, that's mighty nice of the Bible, isn't it?), we're given an example of a church marketing strategy: give out free postage stamps on tax day. Of course, Acts 1:8 says nothing about gimmicks and giveaways, but rather testifies of our Lord giving the Eleven the authority to preach by virtue of the promised Holy Spirit, and telling them they are to be "witnesses" (Greek: "martyrs") to the whole world. And there is no gimmick or giveaway that corresponds to martyrdom. But hey, people need postage stamps and eternal salvation. So why not offer it as a bundle? I sold a lot of candy and goodies at Hollywood Video using this technique, so why should the Christian faith be any different than convincing people to buy microwave snacks?

But what I find extraordinary is not so much what the Reporter says, but what it doesn't say.

The most significant news event in the life of our church body over recent weeks has been the Issues, Etc. affair, in which a popular syndicated radio program (and podcast) of that name was suddenly canceled, five days before Easter, and two full-time employees (one a called pastor, and the other whose wife has serious health issues) were sacked. They were not told why, and they were urged to sign a gag order about the whole matter.

The response of the people of our churches has been phenomenal. More than 7,000 signatures were added to an online petition in some three weeks. People in every state and many countries around the world were outraged. Pastors, laypeople, and even prominent theologians from outside the Lutheran tradition weighed in. Blogsites and facebook groups were spawned. Freewill offerings in the thousands of dollars were raised for the two men who were fired.

David Strand, of the synod's Board for Communications Services, who carried out the firings, was swamped with e-mails. His response was a lot of bureaucratic doublespeak and a great deal of legal-ese and business-ese argot coming from the church headquarters. The president of the synod claimed no input of, but rather knowledge of, the decision, while the rest of the Board was not told the firings were coming at all.

An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by LCMS congregation member and popular religion writer Mollie Hemingway showcased the conflict and brewing disunity in the LCMS. The president of the synod, Rev. Jerry Kieschnick, replied by denying that there is disunity in synod - which ran along with other responses which clearly showed the extant level of disunity that the president denies. The whole thing has a surreal, Orwellian feel to it.

The Board for Communications Services ran an ad seeking a replacement for the talk-show host who had been sacked, only to revoke it after a day of receiving outraged calls and e-mails, claiming the posting was a "mistake."

There was even a first-ever protest at the International Center of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, as some 80 peaceful demonstrators carried signs (while employees were told not to speak to the media, to avoid the protesters, and barriers were even put up in the building). Pictures were taken of the demonstrators by synodical employees. For Lutherans, particularly conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans, to demonstrate is nothing short of extraordinary, as any casual listener of A Prairie Home Companion would be inclined to infer.

So, what does the Reporter have to say about all of this?

[cue the sound effect of crickets chirping]

No reporting in the Reporter. Not even in the letters to the editor - and I find it hard to believe that the editor suffered from a paucity of letters this month! Our church's newspaper should be called the Non-Reporter this month. Is this, as the evolutionists would have us believe, purely by accident, or was this by some top-down design?

Now, to be fair, there is an oblique reference to the situation on page three under the headline: "Kieschnick addresses unity, division in synod". And, as the title would indicate, the president is saying two things at the same time. As Father Duddleswell once remarked about fence-sitting, it's no wonder the human backside looks like it does.

So, it looks like the Reporter is destined to face the same decline as the mainstream media, especially the big newspapers, as technology makes it more and more difficult to control the flow of information via a central bureaucracy, whereby things that happened can be written out of existence and where things that are untrue can be given an official endorsement, along the lines of 1984.

But of course, Orwell never considered the role of bloggers in the neutralizing of Big Brother's monopoly on information. I don't think a lot of the dino-crats in St. Louis do either.

A step in the right direction

An earlier post of mine that concerned my desire to see our culture, and more importantly, our synod and church culture, move in a more frugal direction made a few people angry. But again, I find frugality a difficult concept for any Christian to attack. Not rushing like a lemming to join the secular world's commercial crash-and-burn into debt, materialism, and greed seems to be a common thread that runs through the Scriptures themselves.

But even apart from the concept of Christian stewardship, the ideas of self control, moderation, savings, delayed gratification, the wise use of resources, and plain old fashioned thrift just make good sense from a purely economic standpoint as well - especially as the dollar continues its downward spiral, the price of crude oil continues to skyrocket, politicians of every political stripe promise bigger and bigger government, and the world of mortgages and banking continue to be on edge.

Of course, frugality doesn't mean being a miser. Rather it means that when you do spend money, it is wisely, it is based on budgetary constraints, and it is not a matter of "I want it" and "I'll just charge it."

In the midst of my pessimism with the economy, I was encouraged to see that some young people are starting to see the writing on the wall, and are less subject to corporate manipulation that they "need" to have the latest and greatest expensive clothing. They are thinking for themselves and adopting a mindset of frugality and prioritization of resources. This shows maturity, and perhaps even the tremors of rebellion against the "youth culture" (which is, in fact, cporporate manipulation) that has contributed so much to the devastation of families - Christian families included.

Hopefully, this youthful experimentation with frugality and common sense will become a trend, and these young people won't repeat the mistakes of their big-spending "keep up with the Joneses" parents and grandparents.

Good for them!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Lutherans: A Fable of the Present

I just had another look at the 1973 film Catholics: A Fable of the Future, in which a youthful Martin Sheen plays a priest sent from Rome to deal with an outbreak of traditionalism on a remote Irish island. The movie (based on the novel by Canadian Brian Moore) is available on DVD under the title The Conflict. It is set at some point in the not-too-distant future, when the Roman Catholic Church has taken the ecumenical reforms of Vatican II to a new level (the film makes a passing reference to "Vatican IV").

The version of the VHS that I have is identical with the DVD. Some ten minutes have been edited out of the beginning of the film. Without this opening scene, the viewer must gradually figure out the dystopian, futuristic nature of the film.

While the DVD version's title is somewhat ambiguous, I have to admit that I kind of like it. The entire plot revolves around not just "a" conflict, but "the" conflict - The Conflict between absolute truth as articulated by the Christian faith over and against postmodern subjectivism of false religion.

In the movie, this conflict is focused on how the Catholic Mass is to be said - but it is soon demonstrated that the conflict isn't merely one of Latin vs. English, or which direction the celebrant should face when he presides at the altar. The conflict runs much deeper and involves the very roots of faith: the belief in the transcendent, faith in the words of Scripture, the pre-eminence of the forgiveness of sins, the purpose of the Church, and the nature of truth itself.

In short, the film captures the battle between Christian traditionalism and postmodern spirituality. It depicts a clash between a faithful monastic group that clings to ancient dogma against a pragmatic bureaucracy with a contemporary political and popular secular agenda - and the latter's embarrassment with, and intolerance of, the former.

One element of the conflict involves the dichotomy between being "missional" over and against being considered merely "maintenance" (to use current terminology not used in the film, though a revealing discussion about the nature of missionary work takes place). The aging monks on the distant island, bereft of television and quaintly ignorant of things like helicopters, live out a hard and antiquated existence of farming and fishing, as well as worshiping in a 12th century Gothic church. On the surface, nothing could be less "missional" and more "maintenance" than this tiny, largely gray-haired monastic community. Yet, their celebration of the traditional Mass has been embraced by people on the Irish mainland, as well as by pilgrims from around the world eager to worship in the old order. The traditionalism of the monks has ironically become mission work to a diverse group of people from around the world: young, old, black, white, male, female, people of every culture and language.

The popularity of this traditionalism raises alarm bells in Rome, where the order's father-general feels embarrassment at the antiquated ideas being carried out by this monastery - especially given his own status as the president of an upcoming congress between Christians and Buddhists. There seems to be a fear that this traditionalism is in reality a form of rebellion against their authority and the goals of the church hierarchy.

Martin Sheen's character, Father Kinsella, an American radical priest and advocate of "liberation theology" (which combines Marxism and Christianity and calls for leftist political revolution), is sent from Rome to the island to settle things. The ancient crucifixes on the stone walls of the monastic cells stand in stark contrast to Kinsella's plain gold cross around his neck. The traditional posture and vestments of the monks are the very antithesis of Kinsella's praying in the lotus position in his street attire. Kinsella informs the abbot and the community that in addition to the Latin Mass being banned, Catholics are no longer required to believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and that private confession has been abolished in the interest of ecumenical relationships.

The monks and priests on the island are enraged and deeply hurt. They are even more resolved to resist. Their abbot is desperately trying to hold things together, seeking to maintain cordial relations with Rome and Fr. Kinsella, as well as trying to maintain a sense of order and tranquility among his monks.

I won't spoil the ending as to how the conflict turns out.

But the premise of the movie ties in very well to the current conflict in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. The fault lines brought to visibility by the Issues, Etc. scandal make Catholics: A Fable even more meaningful to us in the LCMS. While much of the current discord among Lutherans is framed as being merely a cosmetic debate over liturgical style, the underlying causes of our synodical divisions run far deeper. The debates over liturgy are only the tip of the iceberg.

While there may not be any open conflict between the traditionalist element and their detractors in the LCMS bureaucracy regarding the Real Presence in the Sacrament, there is a similar division regarding the supernatural. The Lutheran Confessions are very clear that although God uses earthly means, that is, the Word of God as preached by pastors, to evangelize and bring people to faith, the process of conversion is supernatural. The preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments bring about faith when and where the Holy Spirit desires. This belief causes traditionalists within the LCMS to cling to the traditional liturgy, to theologically rigorous hymnody, and a reverential and dignified approach to worship. However, the modern element, which dominates the church's bureaucratic leadership, has a more pragmatic approach to evangelism and "church growth." The hierarchy is promoting business and sales models, gimmicks, programs, and a modernist approach to worship that more closely resembles American generic evangelicalism than the traditional catholic liturgy of historic, sacramental Lutheranism.

Thus, where traditionalists are content to allow pastors to recklessly cast seeds about like the biblical model of the sower (Matt 13:1-23), the modernists (or perhaps more accurately, post-modernists) have a far more "practical" approach that leans heavily on psychology, marketing, demographics, the social sciences, and promotional techniques learned from outside of our religious tradition (not to mention the Bible). The two underlying approaches to evangelism indeed play out in style of worship. The traditionalists cling to ancient liturgical forms, whereas the post-modernists feel free to leave tradition and embrace technology, entertainment, and other secular forms. The former are moving toward increased ritual and use of vestments, the latter are going the opposite direction, toward spontaneity and casual attire. The former pay homage to history, the latter see history as less relevant.

The current president of the LCMS has used the epithet "speed bumps" to describe traditionalists in the church body, and has admonished church members that "this is not your grandfather's church." This is precisely the role personified by Father Kinsella in the film. The monks, for their part, replied to Kinsella by singing the traditional hymn: "Faith of our Fathers".

Another subtle conflict in the film pitted Kinsella's condescension of the monk's humble fare and quaint folkways - especially in light of his cosmopolitan and stylish demeanor. In a telling scene, immediately after an impassioned and eloquent soliloquy in defense of the traditional liturgy (over and against informality and "entertainment") delivered by one of the monks, Father Manus, (who is also the main celebrant of the Latin Mass), Father Kinsella walks away disapprovingly as Manus and one of the brothers lovingly and joyfully feed a baby sheep that had been lost. The "go-getter" Kinsella, though an ordained priest, does not preach and administer sacraments. He is a bureaucratic henchman, who sees his work as Rome's executive policy enforcer as more important than "feeding lambs" (John 21:15) like a common preacher and steward of the mysteries.

The conflict over the liturgy is really symptomatic of the difference between a faith that is dogmatic and supernatural vs. a faith that is flexible and pragmatic. The same dynamic is evident in both this movie and the current situation in the LCMS: a division between traditionalist pastors and congregations and their pragmatic and political leaders who are embarrassed by the traditionalists, and seek to use ecclesiastical executive authority to bring about compliance from those they deem to be inflexible and standing in the way of the growth and public esteem of the church.