Monday, June 30, 2008

Old Cajun Joke of the Day

(with tongue in cheek apologies to Rev. William Weedon):

Two Cajuns are sittin' out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night sippin' Whiskey, when they see a bright object descend from the sky. "Boudreaux, wot dat?" "I don know, Pierre." The object lands, a hatch slowly lowers onto the ground, and a strange alien creature makes its way down the gangway. "Well look at dat, Boudreaux!" "Pierre, wot is dat?" "I don know, Boudreaux, but you betta start the roux."

Note: Typically, such stories involve two perennial protagonists called Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, but since this one was s
tolen from a Lew Rockwell article called God Bless Louisiana, I left it as is.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sermon: Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul

June 29, 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 16:13-19 (Acts 15:1-21, Gal 2:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

On the one hand, you can’t find two more different men than Sts. Peter and Paul.

Peter was a fisherman, brash and blunt, likely not very educated, and sometimes even vulgar. Paul was a rabbi, an intellectual, a citizen of Rome who could come off pretty snobby at times.

But their lives and destinies would intertwine in a way that was to shake the world to its bedrock – as twin pillars in the apostolic foundation of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Peter was to become the leading spokesman of the twelve. And Paul was to become a sort-of thirteenth apostle, an evangelist to the Gentiles. And though they didn’t always get along with each other, (on one occasion, Paul rebuked Peter publicly and to his face), and at times their relationship was strained, God used them mightily for the sake of the Gospel and for the life of the world.

Both of them have some skeletons in the closet. Peter, in spite of his boasting to the contrary, fled like a coward when our Lord Jesus was under arrest. Paul, for his part, took an active role in persecuting Christians, even participating in the lynching of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Both Peter and Paul would repent of their siding with the enemies of Jesus. Both were personally called to repentance by our Lord. Both suffered terribly for their sinfulness. Both did repent, and both were called to be shepherds of the Lord’s flock, sent out as apostles and preachers. In their ministries, both apostles found themselves in Rome, proclaiming the Gospel in the center of the civilized world, right in the teeth of the devil. Both were martyred, according to tradition, on the same day, though it may have been in different years, under the terrible persecutions of Emperor Nero.

Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside down, dying the death of a slave, the same type of death the Master he served, while Paul, being a citizen of Rome, died by the steely blade of the sword, being beheaded.

The inverted cross of Christ and the Sword of the Word of God are certainly symbols of the preaching of Sts. Peter and Paul. And their work in bringing the Gospel to Rome was just the beginning. For within three centuries of their deaths, the Roman Empire would, beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, be won over for Christianity. And the Gospel would be spread to far-flung places like England, France, Spain, and Portugal – countries that just so happened to colonize around the world centuries later, sowing the seeds of the Word of God wherever they went.

Nothing can be more clear to us today than the providence of God at work in the most incredible ways, bringing together this apostolic “odd couple,” using them in spite of their “baggage,” bringing both of them to the most powerful city in the Empire, and using that evil Empire that was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Christians (including Peter and Paul) as a tool to foil the devil’s plans, using the blood of the martyrs to grow the Christian Church into becoming Rome’s conqueror.

For aside from a few history students and professors, who even remembers the name Nero today? When he is called to mind, he is remembered as a lunatic. All that is physically left of the mighty Empire is a pile of ruins. And yet, over the graves of Sts Peter and Paul are two cathedrals. All over the world, Christian congregations are named for these saints. Peter and Paul’s writings are inscripturated in the New Testament, having been inspired by the Holy Spirit, and are read by billions.

And the only reason Rome is the “eternal city” is because we are eternal. Rome was conquered by the Church, through the blood of Peter and Paul, shed in the name of the One who shed His blood for them, and for all people.

Our Lord asks the disciples what may be the single most important question one could ever ponder: “Who do people say I am?” And it is Simon the son of Jonah, the one who by his own admission speaks with unclean lips, whose lips utter the Good Confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For as our Lord tells him, he didn’t learn this from flesh and blood. All who confess Jesus as the Christ do so because of divine revelation. And this confession earns Simon a nickname: “Peter” – the “Rock Man. For Peter’s divine confession is the kind of thing that will indeed serve as a foundation. And that ministry Peter will be called into – the “keys of the kingdom” – the authority to forgive sins and to excommunicate – is promised to Peter and to all the apostles. It is this apostolic ministry, anchored in a right confession of the person of Jesus, that our Lord will use as a foundation for His Church. And His Church is no house of straw. It is no shanty built on sinking sand. Rather it is a glorious temple, fabricated of living stones of confessors of eternal Truth who repeat the Good Confession of St. Peter. And not even the gates of Hell will knock this holy house down.

And even when the House of the Lord seems like it is crumbling within, the Holy Spirit keeps the edifice intact. In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the devil threatened the House at its very foundations, as the apostles themselves were at odds with each other in dealing with the Satanic return of legalism, attempting to supplant the Gospel and overthrow the Good Confession of St. Peter and the apostles.

For this Church is never to be destroyed – though the Temple would collapse and the “tabernacle of David” had “fallen down.” And the Lord used Peter and Paul to fulfill the prophecy repeated in our reading from Acts: “I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord who does all these things.”

The Lord God of Israel was building a greater House, an Ark of refuge for all of mankind, Jew and Gentile alike. The Lord Jesus appeared to St. Peter to declare all food clean (and to make Gentiles welcome in the Church) just as He appeared to St. Paul and called him to preach over the course of three extraordinary missionary journeys to reach Gentiles in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

And it would be St. Paul’s letters that have given the Church such a clear and glorious picture of the Gospel, which stood in stark contrast to “false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue in with you.”

Indeed, Sts Peter and Paul shed their blood that we might partake of our Lord’s blood. These two pillars of the faith preached the Word of God, and Satan sought to take away their liberty for preaching the liberty we have in Christ, having been freed from the terror of the law, freed to look to Christ and not our own merits, freed to do good works out of love and not out of thoughts of earning God’s favor. These two martyrs and apostles, though so different in personality were united in purpose: the proclamation and the propagation of the Good News of our risen Lord Jesus Christ to the very ends of the earth, whether in the synagogues of the Jews, in the temples of the Greeks and Romans, or in the marketplaces of the farthest-flung ends of the world, a world atoned for by the death of Jesus, a world into which the Church has been sent to break the bonds of sin, of death, and of Satan’s stranglehold on mankind.

The Lord continues to work through a diversity of men today, men who preach the good news both to Jews and Gentiles, preachers who, whether safe and comfortable, or risking life and limb, continue to bring the Gospel to those whom the Lord has revealed himself, people who repeat Peter’s Good Confession. The Lord continues to work through a diversity lay people as well, men and women of every tribe and tongue, of every profession and vocation, as they live their lives centered in the Gospel. Whether rich or poor, whether blue collar or white collar, some carrying baggage from the past, others living out the faith under adverse and life-threatening conditions, forgiven sinners all.

May all Christians look to Sts. Peter and Paul as not only examples of the faith whom we emulate, but also as living stones to whom we cling, held together by the mortar of Christ’s blood, built on the foundation of the Good Confession, with Christ Himself as our cornerstone.

For just as Peter confessed, so do we: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Just as St. Paul preached, so do we live in the newness of life won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection, granted to us through holy baptism, and preached anew to us every time that Word of God is proclaimed. And if our lives should ever be recalled from us by cross or by sword, let them be offered humbly back to Him who gave us life, gives us life, and will give us life forever and ever. Amen.

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

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why politicians and lawyers are despised...

Rep. James Fagan of Taunton, Mass.

Of course, the obvious disclaimer is that there are honest politicians and honest lawyers. Okay, I know the punch line is in there somewhere, something about "hens' teeth" or the Land of Oz. But there really are people of integrity in these positions.

Back in the eighties, I worked as a corrections officer in the State of Ohio. My boss, the county sheriff, was an enigma in many ways: he was a soft-spoken county executive who, a few months before I started at the jail, had personally diffused a hostage situation by pointing a gun at an inmate's head and threatening to blow it off. He served the county as a Democrat, but was conservative, pro-life, and pro-gun. He was a politician (in the strictest sense of the term) who had to run for re-election, but who could not stand politics. He was a truly decent Christian gentleman who served (I believe) three terms, but lost that last bid for re-election.

After I changed careers, taking a software consulting job out of state, I lost touch with him. I understand that he retired, and moved back down South where he came from years before. I heard that at some point, he had to become a federal witness and change his identity (hence, I'm hesitant to identify him by name). I have no idea where he is now, or even if he's still alive.

But I remember he once said to me: "The only thing lower than a politician is a child molester."

The Sheriff always saw himself as a cop, and could not stand the political process, all the wheeling and dealing and watching out for blindside attacks from one's opponents.

In Massachusetts, they currently have a politician who is also a defense lawyer, who not only defends child molesters, but who vows to put their young victims on the stand and...

" them apart. I'm going to make sure that the rest of their life is ruined, that when they're 8 years old, they throw up; when they're 12 years old, they won't sleep; when they're 19 years old, they'll have nightmares and they'll never have a relationship with anybody."

Now, isn't that lovely? What an asset to have in the statehouse and in the halls of justice! Of course, a defense attorney should act zealously to defend a person who is innocent, and is morally bound to provide a proper defense even for a guilty person, but to speak of victims, little children, in this way, is monstrous. Simply monstrous.

And note how people are hemming and hawing, wringing their hands, and making all sorts of excuses for Rep. Fagan's "hyperbole." You know, "hyperbole" used to mean describing a little fish as a big fish, or exaggerating how far a person could hit a golf ball. Boasting about ruining the lives of child rape victims isn't "hyperbole." It's simply vile. It is almost beyond words.

No decent person should speak with this man, look at him, do business with him, or give him the time of day. There was a time when someone saying something like this would have been shunned (and likely more than that). In more civilized times, Fagan might have been challenged to a dual. At very least, his colleagues in the capital would have walked out in protest and sought his impeachment and removal from the Legislature (not to mention disbarment) for dishonoring himself, the House, and the dignity of the legal process for which he serves as an officer of the court.

But nothing of the sort will happen. Why? Because we have become a society of barbarians, bereft of honor and wanting of courage. Nobody will stand up for what is decent. Mark my words: the politicians on the other side of the aisle will try to exploit Fagan's words, they'll express "outrage" and call for "retractions" - but all the while they'll be there to shake his hand, swill martinis, talk about what a great guy he is, and shag a few golf balls with him.

"The only thing lower..."

The term "bottom-feeder" comes to mind.

Instead, his esteemed colleagues will make excuses, they'll "work with" Mr. Fagan, the people will continue to grant him the nearly godlike status that we give politicians. He will continue to strut around as a man about town, people will curry his favor, and will continue to be surrounded by the usual cast of sycophants and hangers-on.

"The only thing lower than a politician is a child molester," said my boss. Sheriff, if you're out there somewhere reading this, please know that someone remembers your integrity - and it is sorely missed in this current culture of the lowest common denominator, of the savage, of the parasite. Your statement is true, though in this case, I think the politician is actually at the same level as the child molesters he defends.

In any case, I would not want this Fagan character anywhere near my wife and son. And if he continues to represent the citizens of Massachusetts, well, I guess the old dictum applies: you get the government you deserve.

So, I guess the moral of the story is that not all politicians and lawyers are dirt-bags, but some of them certainly are.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Load up the Pistol and prepare to be blown away...

I'm not a huge sports fan, but some athletes are just impossible not to watch and be enthralled at what they can do. The late Pete Maravich (following in the footsteps of his innovative father, coach Press Maravich) revolutionized basketball, and he did it not only through mental brilliance, but also by hours upon hours of rigorous, disciplined practice.

In the above video montage, you will see footage that just looks fake (but isn't), things that seem to defy the laws of physics (but don't).

About a year ago, I read the Maravich biography called Maravich by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill. It was a captivating read about a boy and his father, a family struggling with alcoholism, of innovation and butting heads against all sorts of naysayers, growing up as the coach's son, struggles with fame, injury, depression, and ultimately, redemption through Christianity.

"Pistol" Pete Maravich died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 40, ironic because he had once quipped: "I don't want to play 10 years and then die of a heart attack when I'm 40." He collapsed during a pickup game with friends (including Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson) in a church gymnasium, less than a minute after his last words: "I feel great."

It turns out that Maravich was born with no left coronary artery, a rare congenital heart defect that went undetected because he was such a great athlete. To have performed at this level of athleticism with a major heart defect of this sort is nothing less than extraordinary. The defect probably would have been detected if he were not a professional athlete.

Basketball aficionados consider Pete Maravich to be years ahead of his time, a player whose effects are still felt in the basketball world today. In fact, his career college scoring record at LSU (3,667 points, an average of 44.2 points per game over a three-year career) not only still stands, it has never even been close to being broken. And this in spite of rule changes, like the fact that players may now have four-year (instead of three-year) varsity careers and the three-point basket (which did not exist when Maravich played in the NCAA).

A lot of experts do not believe this collegiate record (which has stood since 1970) will ever be broken.

There is a family-friendly and inspiring film called The Pistol about Pete Maravich's childhood and his close relationship with his father - more accurately, a single year (1959) in South Carolina that Maravich considered the happiest of his life. The film is not entirely true to life, as his mother's struggles with alcoholism (which would eventually result in her suicide) are nowhere to be found in this movie. Nonetheless, it recounts the tireless hard work and innovation that went into the lives of Press and Pete Maravich (the latter of which makes a cameo appearance).

Maravich was a great athlete but a greater spokesman for the Christian faith, which he (and his father) reconnected with before his untimely death.

Sermon: Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

25 June 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: 1 Tim 6:11b-16

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

The devil hates the Church. The devil wants to destroy the Gospel. He always has, and always will as long as he exists. His greatest weapon is the lie, for Satan is the “father of lies.”

Ironically, our congregation bears the name “Lutheran” thanks to one of Satan’s lies. But like the cross, a scandal to the world but the glory of the Church, we keep this name as a testimony of Satan’s sinful attacks upon the Gospel.

For the Church is “Christian.” We are not followers of Paul or Apollos, nor even of Luther – but of Christ. We are Christians. And we are catholic Christians, meaning we are Christians who confess the same faith as Christians in every time and place. The church is catholic, that is, universal, bigger than this little group or that small time period.

In the middle ages, the Church became rich, powerful, and worldly. She lost her innocence, and began to sell what she should have given away for free. Christ took a back seat to political might. The Gospel gave way to worldly wealth. Faithful Catholics around the world were appalled. Many called for reform. A lot of reformers were put to death.

There were two kinds of reformers. Some were faithful Catholic Christians who stood with the historic faith of the Bible. Others pushed for changes that were outside of the Scripture. One of the defenders of the corrupted church, Dr. Eck, lumped all the reformers together. This is known as “tarbrushing.” It’s a dishonest way to discuss any issue.

A reformer named Martin Luther, and others who thought the way he did, were “tarbrushed” by Dr. Eck. They were accused of leaving Christ to follow Luther. They were considered no longer catholic Christians, but Lutheran heretics. And this “tarbrushing” is how a group of German Catholic reformers became known as Lutherans.

And so the “Lutherans” did what all Christians are called to do, in the words of St. Paul in our epistle, they “confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”

Under pressure from the emperor, a meeting was called on this very date in 1530 in the City of Augsburg. The so-called Lutherans were to write up a paper, a “confession” of their faith. The emperor’s idea was that this confession would prove that these reformers were not Christians, not Catholics, but rather “Lutherans” and heretics.

So here was a chance for the reformers to confess. And what did they say in the face of Dr. Eck’s dishonest accusations?

To the charge that they had left the Catholic faith, they said this: “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.”

To the charge that they worshiped a different God, they said: “Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting.”

To the charge that they abolished the ministry, they said: “That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted.” To the charge that they had abolished priestly ordination, they replied: “no one should publically teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called” (and they used the Latin term “rite vocatus”, a canon law term for ordination of presbyters by the laying on of hands).

To the charge that they had abolished the traditional forms of worship in favor of something more “contemporary,” the Lutherans confessed that they “teach that those ought to be observed which may be observed without sin, and which are profitable unto tranquility and good order in the Church, as particular holy-days, festivals, and the like.” They also confessed: “Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also reserved…. It does not, therefore, appear that the Mass is more devoutly celebrated among our adversaries than among us.”

And concerning ceremonies, it is a Satanic lie that we Lutherans have gotten rid of the ancient, traditional Catholic rituals and ceremonies, for the Confession retorts: “It is a false and malicious charge that all the ceremonies, all the things instituted of old, are abolished in our churches.” We Lutherans retained everything from the past, unless those things were sinful. Contrary to the lies of the devil, we have retained things like vestments, traditional hymns, the order of the liturgy, chanting, the lectionary of readings and the historic church calendar, the sign of the cross, bowing, genuflecting, incense, candles, bells, etc. Not every congregation must make use of all these things, but none of these ceremonies were abolished by the Lutherans – no matter what lies the devil has told about us.

The Lutherans also confess closed communion, citing as authority one of the ancient fathers of the Church, St. John Chrysostom: “the priest stands daily at the altar, inviting some to the Communion and keeping back others.”

To the charge that the Lutherans had abolished private confession and absolution, the Good Confession states: “Confession in the churches is not abolished among us; for it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved” and “Private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches.”

To the charge that the Lutherans did not believe in good works, the Lutherans themselves confessed: “This faith is bound to bring forth good works, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God.”

To the charge that we deny the power of baptism, our confession replies that baptism: “is necessary to salvation” and we further “condemn the Anabaptists, who reject the baptism of children, and say that children are saved without baptism.”

And yes, it’s true, our priests are permitted to marry, for as the Confession points out, it is a matter of history: “It is also evident that in the ancient Church priests were married men.” We are the ones who appeal to antiquity.

After the Augsburg Confession was presented and read publically, exactly 478 years ago, there was quite a stir. Prince William of Bavaria said: “I’ve been misinformed about what you Lutherans teach.” He then asked Dr. Eck, the one who had been doing the misinforming, if he could discredit the Lutheran position. Eck replied that he could not by using only Scripture. Prince William was stunned: “Do you mean to say,” he asked Dr. Eck, “that the Lutherans are sitting inside the Scriptures and we outside of them?”

The Bishop of Augsburg said of the Good Confession of the so-called Lutherans: “It is the truth, the pure truth, we cannot deny it!”

For Satan’s lie cannot endure. As we confess in the Augsburg Confession: “our churches dissent in no article of faith from the Church Catholic, but only omit some abuses which are new.” As St. Paul implores us to confess the faith, our forefathers in Augsburg confessed: “it was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies, nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic.”

We Lutherans, the name having been put upon us notwithstanding, are Christians, Catholic Christians, members of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” the Church that believes, that teaches, and that confesses, the Church that makes disciples of all nations by water and the Spirit, by the Word of God and the holy sacraments. And that Church’s mission and ministry are to give away what we have been given for free: salvation and eternal life.

This is what it means that we are saved: “by grace.” It’s free. It’s been won for you by Christ alone. It is testified in the Holy Scriptures and confessed by the Church from the time of the apostles. Salvation and eternal life are not for sale. You can’t earn them. You can’t buy them. You can’t store them up and sell them to the highest bidder.

That is the central message of Augsburg, of the “good confession in the presence of many witnesses” that St. Paul implores Timothy, all pastors, and all Christians, to believe and to proclaim, to cling to against every lie of Satan.

We give thanks to God for the brave confessors of Augsburg, who risked life and limb to “make the good confession” even before kings and princes, in the very teeth of the devil who sought to silence the Gospel.

We pray that we, who bear the name “Lutheran”, may continue in their confession, that we may hold the same doctrine, that we may never be ashamed of the Catholic articles of faith confessed by the 16th century confessors of Augsburg, and that this “good confession” is our confession in 21st century Gretna. May we continue “without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing,” when He will “make the good confession” concerning us before His Father. “He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords… to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen.”

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This Pachelbel is not for church...

... yet what virtuosity! I ran across this performance while looking for something on YouTube. I had seen it before a while back (I may have even blogged it, I don't remember!) - but it's the kind of thing that you can watch a few times.

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) was a Lutheran Kantor (church musician) and is said to have influenced another great Lutheran church musician named Johann Sebastian Bach.


A neighbor lady gave Mrs. H. ten issues of "Women's World" magazines. Now, maybe I'm drawing too facile a conclusion, but see if you're thinking what I'm thinking...

The Sept 4, 2007 issue's big headline reads: "Breakthrough Harvard research! Easiest-ever way to LOSE 7 lbs A WEEK!" Also on the cover are three beautiful tall glasses and the headline: "Yummiest milkshakes! Surprise flavors!"

Next up, November 27, 2007. Main headline: "LOSE 27 lbs by Christmas! Cornell University calorie-cycling trick" Also on the cover: two scrumptious-looking cupcakes and the headline: "Cupcake magic!" (Now, in fairness, these are "Diet friendly! Surprise! Made from holiday leftovers!" cupcakes.) Also, a fully-decorated gingerbread house, covered with gooey candy and white icing, under the headline: "Chocolate Chip Cookie House!"

Moving right along to December 4, 2007. Main headline: "Lose 5 lbs this week eating breakthrough new FAT-BURNING PASTA!" Secondary headlines include a salad that prevents arthritis and "brain yoga" to address health problems. Also on the cover: marshmallow-laden Rice Krispy squares and a white cake covered with strawberries and Oreos along with the headline: "Too busy to cook? Almost-instant treats." Also, a decorated cookie and the headline: "Cookie magic!"

OK, now we're getting really close to Christmas, December 24, 2007. Headline: "YOU, HOLIDAY GORGEOUS!" Also, secondary headlines about "beating carb cravings," stress, back aches, "Snacks that Lower your cholesterol 25%!", vitamins to relieve fatigue, and foods that "Prevent aging!" Pictures: a candy-coated Christmas tree confection, a white cake (also candy-covered), and two candy-laden green-iced cupcakes, covered by the headline: "Cute! Fast! Easy!" (And, I hope that headline refers to the desserts rather than the woman on the cover...)

OK, so Christmas is over, it's the December 31, 2007 issue. Headline: "Make this your slim-at-last year! 2008 Diet Breakthroughs!" Secondary headlines include: "Shoes and bags that make you Look pounds thinner!", a TV channel that can help with stress, and a "snack that PREVENTS HEART ATTACK, STROKE and DIABETES!" Also on the cover: a cake shaped like a champaigne bottle and the ubiquitous cupcake (uh, the dessert, not the girl). Headline: "Toast 2008! No bake Champaigne cake! Easy celebration treats!"

Now that the new year has arrived, it's time to get down to business. January 14, 2008, main headline: "Are your hormones making you fat?" Secondary headlines include: "Quick tricks for A flatter tummy!" and a tea that will "Burn fat faster! Prevent cancer! Strengthen your bones!" Also on the cover: a delicious looking pie covered in whipped cream and fruit, with the headline: "Yummy! Extra-easy cream pies."

On to January 21, 2008. Headline: "Secrets from America's hottest diet club!" Also on the cover: a chocolate and pretzel pie covered in marshmallows and drizzled in chocolate syrup, with the headline: "Love pretzels and chips? You'll crave these recipes." And, two cups of cocoa, one with what seems to be mint chocolate chip ice cream and the other with a cookie and chocolate soft-serve on top, with the headline: Most delicious-ever hot chocolate!" (This is under another, smaller cover story: "Jeans that will give you A perfect body!")

Next, January 28, 2008. Here we go, headline: "Extra-filling! Metabolism boosting! The breakfast that makes women SLIM!" Secondary headlines include: "Surprising new SUPERFOODS to... Boost your energy! Cure insomnia! Kiss stress goodbye!" and "Coughing? Why you need more CHOCOLATE!" Also on the cover: a key-lime cake/pie confection piled high with whipped cream, raspberries, and limes, and a yellow cake iced in white that seems to have nuts of some type inside, with the headline: "Sunshine treats!"

February 11, 2008, main headline: "BREAKTHROUGH MAYO CLINIC RESEARCH! MELT OFF 44 lbs with the easiest exercise ever!" (Also secondary headlines about boosting energy, dealing with stress, lowering blood pressure, and stopping headaches, and how to "BURN 335 CALORIES AN HOUR!" while watching TV or looking at e-mail). And what else? We've got an assortment of lollipops, cookies, and chocolate truffles (Valentine's Day themed) and the headline "We [heart] chocolate!"

Okay, is it just my imagination, or are you thinking what I'm thinking you're thinking that I'm thinking?

I think it's time for a snack...

Monday, June 23, 2008

How a Little Gelateria Helped Save New Orleans

This fun little video uses some of the pictures I took of Brocato's on the second day of their grand re-opening.

Father Hollywood Curse?

I mention someone on my blog, and next thing you know, he's dead.


In all seriousness, George Carlin was a comedic genius. He had a keen eye for observing the absurdities of life, and presented them in such an exaggerated way that you'd have to be made of stone not to laugh.

Carlin was extremely crude, he was hostile to Christianity, and he was overwhelmingly leftist in his politics - to the point of Marxism. And yet, there were observations he made that were riotously funny, because they were as true as they were absurd.

He also had the ability not to work "blue" - as evidenced by his portrayal of Mr. Conductor in the toddler TV series Thomas the Tank Engline (one can only imagine what the out-takes sounded like) and in supplying the voice of Fillmore, the hippy VW van in the children's film Cars.

I saw George Carlin perform back in the 1980s in Akron, Ohio. My stomach literally hurt the next day, no lie. I had laughed to the point where my abs burned like I had done sets of sit-ups. I had actually smuggled a low-tech tape recorder into the show, and the tape had more of me laughing than anything else. Sadly, the bootleg recording was stolen when my car (my super-uncool beige 1982 Ford Escort) was broken into in Cleveland at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

So, if the thief is out there, and if you still have my George Carlin tape, please return it. The statute of limitations is over, and I promise, no questions will be asked.

Meanwhile, I can't really say that George Carlin rests in peace, but I suppose we can hope that he repented before his death. He truly had a gift of God - even if he didn't acknowledge the Source of that gift.

But now, if Bruce Springsteen suddenly drops dead of a heart attack, I may have to shut down the blog.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thoughts on Ordination Vows

Whenever we are confronted with the unfortunate situation of a pastor serving a congregation of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod resigning his office and leaving Lutheranism for another communion (as has happened recently with a well-known Lutheran pastor named Daniel Woodring who converted to Roman Catholicism) - the claws come out and ugly accusations fly. Usually, such men are accused of "surrendering the Gospel" - which is a way of claiming that the one holy catholic and apostolic church is to be found only in one communion or church body, a bureaucratic definition of the church which is at odds with the definition found in our own confessional writings (e.g. AC 7 & 8).

Of course, these decisions are typically gut-wrenching not only for the former pastor and his family, but for his former parish, and for his friends left behind, and his erstwhile colleagues in the ministry who often feel betrayed, hurt, and angry. However, some of the responses border on frothing at the mouth. Too often, our discourse in the Missouri Synod is governed by emotion and rage instead of theology and charity.

One tactic used to try to throw gasoline on the fire is to accuse the newly-defected former pastors of "breaking their ordination vows." At holy ordination, the candidate takes vows at the altar just before hands are laid on him. A Lutheran candidate promises that his teaching will be governed by the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, since they are the Word of God. He also vows that his teaching will be normed by the various confessional writings that make up the 1580 Book of Concord, and in the Missouri Synod, he does so "because" these are a correct exposition of the Word of God. He also pledges to adorn his ministry with a holy life, and never to reveal sins confessed to him.

Now, if a man leaves his post as a Lutheran minister to become either a layman or clergyman of another communion (where, obviously, the Book of Concord is not normative), is he violating his ordination vows?

Absolutely not.

When his resignation is accepted by his bishop or district president, he is being released from those vows. At that point, he has been freed from that obligation, just as a man who works for Walmart or MicroSoft, if he quits his job, is no longer under obligation to take orders from the managers and to abide by company policy.

I had a parallel situation serving as a notary public, and later as a corrections officer in the State of Ohio. I had to swear certain oaths that specifically mentioned the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Ohio (I don't remember the exact wording). Of course, I am no longer a citizen of Ohio. Because of that (and the fact that I no longer hold either of those offices), I am no longer bound by any oaths to the Ohio Constitution.

Similarly, American soldiers take oaths to the U.S. Constitution. However, if such a soldier's term expires and he marries a foreigner, for instance, and moves to another country and becomes a citizen of that country, surrendering his U.S. citizenship, he is no longer bound to those oaths, nor to the obligations and duties of citizenship. Those oaths are tied to that vocation, that station in life. And when that vocation terminates, so does the oath.

It is especially ironic when Lutherans claim ordination vows are somehow binding for life, given that we Lutherans were named after a man who famously broke his own vows of ecclesiastical obedience and celibacy. I'm not saying Luther was wrong to do so, but I find the double standard to be emblematic of a logical inconsistency.

Other examples include the recent spate of pastors and congregations who have resigned from the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and yet remain Lutheran. Such pastors and congregations are no longer bound to the dictates of their former district presidents and various resolutions and bylaws of synod that were formerly binding upon them as members of synod. Nobody has ever claimed that, Rev. Jack Cascione, for example, is still in any way bound by the constitution and bylaws of the of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. He simply isn't. Neither are the pastors and congregations that were once LCMS, but are now members of ELDoNA.

Now, if a pastor were to remain in a Lutheran pulpit while teaching doctrine contrary to the Lutheran confessions, he would indeed be breaking his vow. The honest thing to do in such a case would be to resign. In fact, that would be the honorable thing to do. When Dan Woodring came to the conclusion that he no longer believed in the Lutheran confessions, he did the honorable and laudable thing to resign his ministry and leave the Lutheran confession of faith. We can all disagree with him and take exception to his reasoning, but it is simply fatuous to argue that he, as a Roman Catholic layman, is morally bound to believe in something he no longer believes in. Instead of hassling him about it, we should be grateful that he acted with integrity. Far worse would have been to remain as a "trojan horse". Now that would have been breaking his oaths.

And, of course, we don't burden men who leave other communions to become Lutherans with such rhetoric. My classmate Rev. LeRoy Leach was a former Presbyterian pastor who came to the conclusion that he could no longer in good conscience confess the Westminster Confession of Faith. Instead, he came to realize that he was a confessor of the Book of Concord, and resigned his ministry to become a Lutheran. No Lutherans excoriated him for "breaking his vows." In fact, he was allowed to attend seminary and colloquize into the ministerium of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. If Dan Woodring is to be blasted for breaking his ordination vows, so should LeRoy Leach.

But, of course, both men followed their consciences, acted honorably, and went to the communions that reflected their beliefs. Both men left behind former parishioners, and I think it is a safe assumption (and certainly in line with the 8th commandment) to presume that these men, and others like them, did not take these steps flippantly.

The same goes for men who have left the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church to become Lutheran pastors. I can't think of a single Lutheran who would argue that such a man is bound to continue his vow of celibacy that he vowed as part of his former ministry. We have men on our clergy roster who were pastors in Assemblies of God, Reformed, and Episcopal churches as well. Are they somehow morally obligated to the vows they made at their respective ordinations?

If ordination vows are to be considered irrevocable, lifetime vows (like the oaths of the Masonic Lodge), then we should never allow a man to resign from the clergy roster, nor should former pastors of other communions ever be allowed to renounce those vows and serve as pastors in our communion. In fact, such irrevocable vows would reflect a kind of "indelible mark" that would forever prevent a man from laicizing (though we do confess some sort of irrevocable nature of ordination since it is, like baptism, never repeated - though the church has always allowed men under orders to receive dispensations from vows when granted by superiors - which is exactly what happens when a man's district president accepts a pastor's resignation).

I don't think anything or anyone is served when a man leaves the Lutheran ministry and is then angrily accused of "breaking vows." I believe this is nothing more than an attempt to hurt him, an effort to inflame the situation and seek revenge. It's a low blow. Certainly, we ought to be more charitable. We ought to be consistent. We should not casually toss around such accusations - like politically-motivated charges of rape or racism - unless we want to be treated with as much skepticism as the "boy who cried wolf" or the accuser of the Duke lacrosse team.

I do believe that things told to such men in confidence - especially sins that have been confessed - must still be kept in confidence, given that those sins were confessed with that understanding to begin with, and furthermore, the word "never" is part of that vow. Maintaining confidence is also something that all Christians are obliged to do whether lay or clergy. In a life or death situation, lay people can indeed hear confessions and absolve - and they are just as bound to keep those matters confidential as any pastor under ordination vows and holy orders. That doesn't change when a Lutheran pastor leaves his ministry for any reason.

Finally, if we really want to root out violators of ordination vows, we would be duty bound to bring charges upon pastors who are not working to bring their congregations into compliance with the Lutheran confessions, such as pastors who do not offer private confession, pastors who are not working towards restoration of every-Sunday communion, pastors who are not working to restore traditional worship practices - as all of these things are part of those confessions that Lutheran pastors bind themselves to at ordination.

I'm not suggesting such a "witch hunt," but rather pointing out the inconsistency of the Scarlet Letter we emblazon on pastors who renounce Lutheran doctrine and leave, while we "turn the Nelson's Eye" to those pastors who ignore Lutheran doctrine and yet stay put. I'd rather have the former than the latter. It is the latter are guilty of breaking their vows, not the former.

If a man no longer accepts the Holy Scriptures to be God's inerrant Word and/or the Book of Concord to be a correct exposition of that Word of God, he needs to be encouraged to leave us in peace. Continuing to hurl invective at him afterward only makes us look like stalkers or spurned teenagers and it only impedes the man's former congregation from healing. Personally, I believe our confession is robust enough that we can defend it without resorting to hysteria and personal attacks. Besides, being charitable may leave the door open a crack, just in case the prodigal wishes to return. Burning the bridge makes such reconciliation a lot less likely.

But even if such a reconciliation never happens in time, we need to accept the reality that all Christians are our brothers and sisters - and far from being something to be disappointed about, we should rejoice that God is merciful and that the church extends beyond the borders of any one church body. And even if communion is not restored on this side of the grave between us and those who leave Lutheranism, we know that communion will be restored in eternity.

Sermon: Trinity 5

22 June 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 5:1-11 (1 Kings 19:11-21, 1 Cor 1:18-25)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

God’s Word is most often a big disappointment. Imagine how the crowds on the shore of Lake Gennesaret must have felt, having gathered, in the words of the holy evangelist, “to hear the word of God.” This mighty prophet Jesus has come to say something profound, or to perhaps move mountains with His speech. Now, St. Luke does tell us almost after the fact that Jesus did teach the multitudes, but what does he actually record our Lord saying? What miracle would the people see on this day?

Luke reports that Jesus says: “Row out further and drop your nets.” That’s it. No moving mountains, no dead men walking, no stirring up of the Pharisees on this day. Thus says the Lord: “Put your net in the water.” This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

And instead of the lame walking and the blind seeing, we see the miracle of the successful fishing trip. Of course, Peter sees in a profound way what has just happened. This seemingly foolish preaching by Jesus, these seemingly insignificant words about fishing, had the power to call Peter to repentance: “Depart from me” he prays, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” And our Lord not only receives Peter’s confession and forgives him with those familiar words of absolution so often pronounced by Him who has power over all things in heaven and on earth: “Do not be afraid,” our Blessed Lord also gives Peter a new vocation as a preacher, one who would catch men in the net of the Gospel, using that same seemingly foolish Word of Jesus to draw men to repentance and everlasting life.

Of course, to the casual observer, this just looked silly. The preacher tells the fisherman to cast his net. The fisherman does what the preacher says. The fisherman catches some fish.

Where are the miracles? Where is the great philosophy?

This speech about throwing a net in the water is all foolishness. For to the Jew, as Paul tells us, these words of Jesus are silly. For they seek a sign, a wonder, a miracle. They want to speak in tongues, or handle snakes, see a guy in a wheelchair dance around, or watch the preacher blow on people and they fall down. To the Jews, these preachers are a dime a dozen, and they expect a good show.

And to the Greek, as Paul also tells us, this is still foolishness, for the Greeks want wisdom. They expect the preacher to be an Aristotle, a Homer, a Euclid, a Solon, or even an Archimedes.

But what does Jesus give them? Wisdom about fishing and a sign of His authority in the form of a command to toss a net. No magic and no oration, only the forgiveness of sins and the still, small voice of God, a voice, a word, a message that carries with it the power that called creation into being.

And those who reject God, those who want something more profound, the wisdom-seekers, the scribes, the disputers of this age, are not impressed with this kind of preaching, the preaching of the cross, for is all so much foolishness in the eyes of the world, and utterly juvenile waste of time. But to those who are called, those like Peter, James, John, and all Christians, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ Himself is “the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

A beautiful preview of our Lord Jesus’s preaching, of the way that preaching is received, and of the preachers who would preach this folly in the eyes of the world, is shown in our Old Testament lesson, in the person of the prophet Elijah.

God’s prophet was given a vision of raw power. In the wake of God walking by, Elijah saw a fierce wind that ripped boulders off a mountain. He saw the earth quake and rumble. And finally, he saw a devastating fire. And yet, God’s Word was not to be found in such awesome displays of might, displays the world would respect. Instead, the Word of God came to Elijah in something the world would mock: a “still small voice.”

The power of the Word of God is in the content, not in the delivery. The might of God’s Word lies in the fact that it is God’s Word, not in the mastery and bravado of the preacher. And Elijah was that preacher, and as a sign of his ministry, he wrapped his mantle around his face, not unlike the way a pastor wraps his stole over his shoulders.

And in spite of the fact that so many people did not want to hear the Word of God, in fact, at every turn, Elijah found people who wanted to kill him, he was nevertheless sent to preach. And not only that, but Elijah was to ordain a new preacher. For Elijah’s still small voice would not sound forth upon the earth forever. He was to hand off the mantle to Elisha, to figuratively place the stole around the neck of a new pastor, so that “still small voice,” that “message of the cross,” that Word of God – that fishes for men, calls to repentance, forgives sin, and gives everlasting life – might continue, in the still, small words of Jesus, “for the life of the world.”

For no matter what the unreceptive and unrepentant world thinks, no matter how disapproving those who do not believe are, no matter how small the remnant of those who have not bowed the knees to Baal, God’s “still small voice” continues to proclaim the scandal of the cross, the “foolishness of God” that is “wiser than men,” the “foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”

This is why the Lord came to Peter on that day at Gennesaret. He came not only to save him by His Word, but also to call him to likewise preach that word. It was our Lord Jesus who would be Elijah to Peter’s Elisha, and it would be St. Peter whom the Lord would give not a mantle, but rather the keys of the kingdom and the Holy Spirit, with the promise that “if you forgive anyone his sins they are forgiven, but if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” And Peter and all the apostles and their successors would use their own “still small voice” to proclaim the Word of God, to fish for men, to cast the net of the Gospel into the deep, and to pass along the mantle to each new generation of those called to preach the foolishness that redeems us, the cross that saves us, the very Jesus who gives us everlasting life.

May we have ears to hear this still small voice, hearts simple enough to receive this foolishness of God, and lips unafraid to confess this “folly” before the wise of this world. “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Amen.

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

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jesus Down Two Touchdowns...

I just received a certain publication from a certain administrative subdivision of a certain Lutheran church body.

On page 2 of this publication, the word Ablaze!(tm) is given great prominence - attested by the editorial standard that the word always begins with a capital "A", ends with an exclamation point, is set in an italic font, and is always in bold.

This one page contains seventeen mentions of Ablaze!(tm).

So, how's Jesus faring these days? By contrast, our Blessed Lord, the King of the universe, the One who died on the cross for our sins, rose triumphantly from the dead, and lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for all eternity was mentioned four times - sans exclamation point, and with no bolding.

Ablaze!(tm) 17, Jesus 4.

Of course, with two safeties, we can only conclude that our Lord Jesus is quite a powerhouse on defense in the red zone.

According to Scripture, we are in the last days, so I can only conclude we're in Overtime - though how many ticks are left on the clock is anyone's guess except the Father. But I do know this much, our Lord will not be outscored, not by Satan nor by any man-made marketing gimmick.

For God, two touchdowns is nothing, sports fans. Look for some razzle dazzle, clock management that will make your head spin, and an onside kick. Remember, it was that gutsy call of the play action fake followed by a cross pattern that caught the Demons napping that sent the game into OT in the first place.

Our Lord will not be denied, not by the BCS, not by crooked refs, not by bum luck, and not by being pushed into playing second string to a slogan.

Back to you in the booth, John.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fr. Manus tells it like it is...

Canadian novelist Brian Moore wrote a prescient novel in 1973, called Catholics. [I know I have blogged on this before, but I want to share a specific passage with you].

It was quickly made into a film entitled Catholics: A Fable, which was subsequently released on DVD under the title The Conflict.

The story is set around the turn of the century (circa 2000), which was some thirty years in the future. Moore is writing literally in the shadow of the great changes in the Roman Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and the subsequent novus ordo ("new order") Mass that replaced the Latin Tridentine Mass instituted at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Obviously, Moore envisioned even further radical changes and a more drastic shift away from tradition as the twentieth century moved on.

Needless to say, the sweeping changes of the 1960s affected more than just the Roman Catholic Church. And, the recent promotion of the Old Mass under Pope Benedict, as well as the current fault lines in Lutheranism, especially in liturgical matters (including the restored "common service" styled as Divine Service 3 in the newly released Lutheran Service Book), make Moore's book a very interesting read indeed. And, as a bonus, the film closely follows the book.

The current resurgent traditionalism in the Roman Church is epitomized by the propagation and promotion of the Latin Mass. And while it has been a long time indeed since Lutherans have celebrated Latin Masses, there is a traditionalist movement within American Lutheranism that is opting for the historic one year lectionary (as opposed to the Vatican II-inspired three year series) and the older traditional liturgy, the "Common Service" (Divine Service 3) as opposed to the Vatican II-inspired Divine Services 1 and 2. And while there is more support for the three-year series and Divine Service 1 (such as regarding Sunday School materials and helps for giving private pastoral care published by Concordia Publishing House), there is a substantial and stubborn minority of churches clinging to the older historical forms - many even opting to leave Vatican II behind to take on the common service and the one-year lectionary anew.

Perhaps the extreme experimentation of the 1960s is beginning to fall apart. Hopefully, younger generations are seeing that there is value in historical continuity, that many of the reforms, liturgical and otherwise, made in the era of The Beatles, Woodstock, and LSD have not necessarily been felicitous.

In Catholics, a group of monks on a remote Irish island have continued to say the Old Mass in Latin. It has become known around the world, and is a scandal to the modern Roman Church, which is trying to leave the past behind. A radical American priest, Father Kinsella (played by Martin Sheen in the film) is dispatched from Rome to the island to enforce compliance of the new ways upon the old community (hence "The Conflict"). The main celebrant of these Latin Masses is a gentle monastic priest named Father Manus.

In his initial meeting with Fr. Kinsella, Fr. Manus delivers the following soliloquy explaining why traditionalism (embodied by the Old Mass) is better than innovation (as expressed in the New Mass). Poignantly, immediately after this sermonette, Manus joins another monk in joyfully feeding a baby lamb that had been missing, but was found (an obvious reference to the role of the pastor in his charge to feed the Lord's lambs in John 21:15 as well as the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:1-7. In contrast to the bully bureaucrat and up-and-coming politician Kinsella, Manus is a true pastor, a shepherd who actually provides for the Lord's flock year in and year out.

Anyway, Father Manus's remarks are so powerful, I want to share them with you here. Obviously, these are spoken in the person of a Roman Catholic. And yet, theological differences aside, there is much in Father Manus's words that reflect the spirit of the traditionalist movement among the Lutherans, the Anglo-Catholics, the Reformed, and the Neo-Evangelicals.

I find the clash between reverence and entertainment, between tradition and innovation, and between faith in the power of the Word of God over and against man-made marketing tactics makes this speech as relevant today as when Moore published it 35 years ago. It is a brilliantly written passage, reflecting a stream of consciousness from a man with much to say, speaking spontaneously from the heart. Picture an elderly monk pleading with a much-younger priest who looks at him with almost indulgent pity during the tirade:

"What was it I wanted to tell him? What was it I wanted, ah, Lord, I do not know, I tell you, Father Kinsella, since I heard you were coming, I have lain awake at night arguing the toss with myself, saying this and saying that, and - look, it is as plain as the nose on your face, we did nothing to start all this, we went on saying the Mass over there in Cahirciveen the way it was always said, the way we had always said it, the way we had been brought up to say it. The Mass! The Mass in Latin, the priest with his back turned to the congregation because both he and the congregation faced the altar where God was. Offering up the daily sacrifice of the Mass to God. Changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ the way Jesus told his discipls to do it at the Last Supper. 'This is my body and this is my blood. Do ye this in commemoration of me.' God sent His Son to redeem us. His Son came down into the world and was crucified for our sins and the Mass is the commemoration of that crucifixion, of that sacrifice of the body and blood of Jesus Christ for our sins. It is the priest and people praying to God, assisting in a miracle whereby Jesus Christ again comes down among us, body and blood in the form of the bread and wine there on the altar. And the Mass was said in Latin because Latin was the language of the Church and the Church was one and universal and a Catholic could go into any church in the world, here, or in Timbuktu, or in China, and hear the same Mass, the only Mass there was, the Latin Mass. And if the Mass was in Latin, that was part of the mystery of it, for the Mass was not talking to your neighbor, it was talking to God. Almighty God! And we did it that way for nearly two thousand years and, in all that time, the church was a place to be quiet in, and respectful, it was a hushed place because God was there, God on the altar, in the tabernacle in the form of a wafer of bread and a chalice of wine. It was God's house, where, every day, the daily miracle took place. God coming down among us. A mystery. Just as this new Mass isn't a mystery, it's a mockery, a singsong, it's not talking to God, it's talking to your neighbor, and that's why it's in English, or German or Chinese or whatever language the people in the church happen to speak. It's a symbol, they say, but a symbol of what? It's some entertainment show, that's what it is. And the people see through it. They do! That's why they come to Coom Mountain, that's why they come on planes and boats and the cars thick on the roads and the people camping out in the fields, God help them, and that's why they are there with the rain pouring down on them, and when the Sanctus bell is rung at the moment of Elevation, when the priest kneels and raises up the Host - aye, that little round piece of bread that is now the the body of Our Blessed Saviour - holds it up - Almighty God - and the congregation is kneeling at the priest's back, bowed down to adore their God, aye, Father, if you saw those people their heads bare, the rain pelting off their faces, when they see the Host raised up, that piece of unleavened bread that, through the mystery and the miracle of the Mass, is now the body and blood of Jesus Christ, Our Saviour, then you would be ashamed, Father, you would be ashamed to sweep all that away and put in its place what you have put there - singing and guitars and turning to touch your neighbor, playacting and nonsense, all to make the people come into church the way they used to go to the parish hall for a bingo game!" [Brian Moore, Catholics, Pocket Books, New York, 1973, pp. 56-58]

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Note on Comments

I have meant to post this for quite a while. The demands on my time have rendered it impossible for me to respond to the many excellent and thought-provoking comments that people leave on my blog. But I do read all of them, and appreciate them. One of the great things about blogging is that by reading comments to one's posts, a person can actually learn a great deal, and can be directed to other sources and opportunities to learn.

So, if you've commented to my blog recently and were met by stony silence, rest assured I'm not snubbing you! How much I get to respond depends on the ebb and flow of time and labor. There were some really helpful posts I wanted to reply to, but time has kind of passed me by.

I suppose that goes without saying, but I wanted to say it anyway.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Traditionalism is not Legalism

George Carlin once quipped that anyone driving slower than you is an "idiot" and anyone driving faster than you is a "maniac."

Of course, this is because the sinful nature sees itself as, like the third bowl of porridge: "just right."

In the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, especially exacerbated by the multiplicity of electronic media, there is a real culture of trying to bully people into being Just Like Me. You will see it pretty often these days, be it on blogs, in social networking sites, or on e-lists. The self-styled "confessional Lutherans" often berate the emerging movement, the contemporary worship faction, or the church growth industry for not being reverent and traditional enough. Their opponents often reply by playing (in the words of Rev. Todd Wilkin) "the Pharisee card." In other words, the "confessional Lutherans" are denounced by their less liturgical counterparts for "legalism" and for being "Pharisees." Of course, the characterization is unfair and a poor substitute for rational and churchmanly debate and discourse.

But, the game goes the other direction. There is a movement of traditionalism, not only in Lutheran circles, but also among the Roman Catholic, Reformed, and even neo-Evangelical branches of the Church Catholic. Creeds and confessions are being dusted off. Churches that have been hesitant to use the traditional church year and the lectionary are taking them out for a spin. Chasubles and incense are cautiously being reintroduced in liturgical churches - even in America where minimalism and anti-Roman hysteria has skewed Lutheranism and Anglicanism in a more Protestant direction than the confessional writings and tradition of those communions confess on paper.

But the traditionalist movement is being ridiculed as legalism by the "confessional Lutheran" faction in the same way that the "confessional Lutherans" are often mischaracterized by their opponents. And the impersonality of the internet emboldens a sense of rudeness that is far less likely in a more personal forum.

One example I've seen recently involved a pious Lutheran lady who blogged about her decision to adopt what was, until the sexual revolution, almost a universal practice among Christian ladies in worship - the wearing of a head covering. For this, she was mocked and ridiculed by "confessional Lutherans." A pastor even went so far as to post pictures of women wearing Muslim burkas on her website, and to question her motives.

Another "traditionalist Lutheran" layman was explaining some of the rationale for the traditional Lutheran practice of receiving communion on the tongue. He was by no means saying this is a requirement, but was rather explaining why this was customary and nearly universal among Lutherans for centuries - until very recent times (when communing in the hand became common in the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church). The dialog went on to discuss the way pastors have traditionally been taught to hold their hands while distributing communion, and he made a cogent and calm argument in favor of the traditional practice. In response, this educated layman was openly mocked by pastors, who themselves tried to tag him with the accusation that he was "scorning" them and not showing enough obeisance to the pastoral office. Of course, namecalling never refutes a good argument. I know the fellow in question, and you will not find a more gentlemanly, churchly person. He is scholarly and genteel, and has profound respect for thr holy office. Some of his opponents simply sought to silence him through bullying and playing loose and fast with the facts. Again, the traditional position was mocked and associated with legalism.

Sadly, people seem to forget that these "rubrics" (specific instructions about worship) are ancient, appear in Lutheran hymnals and/or liturgical guidebooks, are nowhere taught as meritorious for salvation and are never touted as such today by any Lutherans, and simply give direction about how to do things.

They are, in short, etiquette.

Etiquette is not a priority in our culture these days. It is denigrated as some kind of pompous self-aggrandizing trivia about which fork to use at a fancy dinner. Today's movies and TV shows routinely celebrate rudeness. Even children's movies are filled with burping and flatulence. Anyone who displays etiquette is portrayed as effeminate - when in fact, the correct way to describe this ethos is "chivalry", which is at its core, a manly Christian deference for women, for children, and for those who are weaker or disadvantaged in any way. And even among those who are not weaker, politeness is simply striving to treat others the way we ourselves would want to be treated - which, in spite of its seemingly un-Lutheran "legalism," sounds vaguely familiar for some reason.

Of course, etiquette and chivalry would preclude mocking a lady with pictures of women wearing burkas. Etiquette would also dictate gracious disagreement rather than misstating the opposing view and trying to destroy a person's reputation.

I can't help but think of the story of the Southern lady who went to Manhattan, and her rude and obnoxious hosts wanted to rub her nose in the fact that they had conquered her home state in the "late unpleasantness." So, they took her to the St. Gaudens equestrian statue of General Sherman which includes the figure of an angel (portrayed in the feminine) walking alongside. The Southern lady got the upper hand, though. When asked for her reaction, she replied: "Isn't that just like a Yankee to make the lady walk?" Unfortunately, these days, there is little or no deference shown to ladies, Christian or otherwise. It's as though "confessional Lutherans" have surrendered the premises of feminism unawares.

The other nice thing about etiquette is it prevents distraction and embarrassment. For example, my fifth grade music teacher, who was rather eccentric, had the habit of putting a record on for the students and then sitting on the piano bench, mindlessly burying her index finger two knuckles deep in her nose, digging wax out of her ear, picking at her scalp, then rolling the amalgamated bio-matter around in her fingers, and eating it. You can imagine the reaction of her students, who observed this trainwreck tableau with rapt attention. No doubt, she had no idea that she was doing this. She had no "rubric" to suggest a proper place or procedure for her hands. So, she did what came naturally.

A liturgical rubric about hands developed over many centuries (a rubric mocked by some of the "confesisonal Lutheran"faction) involving the celebrant. When communion begins, the ancient custom is for the priest to place his index finger and thumb together. This keeps his fingertips and thumbs clean, since he is placing the hosts into the mouths of his parishioners. It also keeps him from brusing his hair, picking his eyes, or imitating the rhinotillexial rituals of my fifth grade music teacher - which would certainly detract friom the Gospel (and yes, someone will, no doubt, claim that he will deliberately be picking his nose during next Sunday's service to express his freedom in the Gospel...). The rubric allows a habit to be formed - a good habit, a hygenic habit, a helpful habit. This isn't legalism, it's common courtesy. It's like the rubric of brushing your teeth or not wiping your nose on the altar linens.

Now, I find that particular rubric (keeping finger and thumb together, that is) difficult to master (I don't have liturgical assistants), but I do make the effort to keep in in spirit. When I am celebrating the Mass, I try very hard not to touch anything - especially not my face - with my right forefinger and thumb. I bless the children with my pinky instead (since I use my thumb and forfinger to give communion). Does this merit something for me? Of course not. Is it a good habit to foster? I think so.

The rubric is not only good hygiene, it promotes protection of the Lord's body from desecration. Most rubrics are rooted in a desire for good order in worship, or common courtesy and hygenic considerations. These are good things, not bad. This isn't legalism, but rather a loving attention to propriety and detail. Often the celebrant in Christian churches is seen with hands folded. Again, this is a habit that continues to protect the hands from picking up foreign substances which will then be placed into people's mouths. And yes, it is a way for the pastor to focus on something other than wondering what the heck to do with his hands so that he doesn't draw undo attention to himself. We don't have to reinvent the wheel out of some misguided Romaphobia or desire to look as slovenly as possible so as not to appear overly catholic (a seminary professor once said that Dr. Nagel suggested, tongue in cheek, that the pastor should make sure his stole is a little crooked so as not to appear too "high church").

Another example: the custom of the pastor turning to his right (instead of his left) dates back to the days when we had deacons (that would be "male deaconesses" for some of our modern LCMS folks unfamiliar with the term) assisting at the altar. The priest would turn to his right so as not to turn his back on the deacon. Now, I don't have a deacon, but I do usually have a lay elder assisting me, and I do try to avoid turning my back to him - whether he is on my left or right. That little matter of etiquette will not merit salvation, has no effect on the efficacy of my preaching or the validity of the sacrament, but it is the polite thing to do. I don't insist others do this, but I might mention it if I were teaching a course on liturgy - and I'm sure someone would interpret it as legalism, and suggest the Christian thing would be to turn one's back on him in order to express Christian freedom. Sigh.

Traditionalism is filled with polite actions. And that's not a bad thing, especially in the face of people coming to church with bare midriffs, nearly exposed breasts, ball caps on the head, and chomping on bubble gum (I'm thinking mainly of funerals and weddings here). Propriety is not legalism, and mocking those who strive to go back to practices rooted in reverent tradition doesn't add anything to the discussion. In fact, it just fuels the fire of criticism among "liberals" that the "conservatives" are cads, rubes, troglodytes, and barbarians. Maybe it's also a matter of Christian liberty that we may indeed rise above these impressions? Maybe Christian freedom includes the freedom to not to confirm to the bottom-shelf stereotype asserted by our opponents?

I do think it entirely compatible with the Gospel not to mock and humilate Christian ladies who cover their heads nor those who place their hands in such a way as to maintain hygiene and respect. It seems to me quintessensially Lutheran to honor our forebears rather than presume the worst of their motives in handing down rubrics to us.

And if you want to disagree, please feel free. But at the risk of being called a "legalist," I insist that any discussion of this topic will be conducted as ladies and gentlemen. I'm a fan of Robert E. Lee's single rubric concerning the behavior of his students at Washington College: "Be a gentleman." If you're not, your post will disappear and not be addressed.

That's my rubric, and I'm sticking to it.