Sunday, April 7, 2013

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Back in the Saddle Again

Public declarations are a dangerous thing. Not only do you draw attention to yourself, making yourself an easier target, if you publicly state an intention to do something, you make yourself accountable to do it… unless you are an inside the beltway type with a spin machine to explain why it is your opponent’s fault that you didn’t do what you promised to do. Well, here is my next “regularly scheduled” podcast, the one I promised would be the first in a regular stream of such offerings… eleven months after the last one. To quote the first letter of Peter, undoubtedly, like a roaring lion my adversary, the devil, has been prowling around, seeking to devour me, but I don’t think I can lay my lack broadcast activity at his feet, however tempting it is to pass that buck along. No, though I am no less busy than I have ever been, an honest appraisal of these last few months leads to the inevitable conclusion that I have failed to regularly produce these podcasts for the same reason I have failed at a great many things in this life; a lack of steadfast purpose. The keyword in that phrase is “steadfast.” Stead comes from an old English word and means the place of a person or thing as occupied by a successor or substitute. So you can use Splenda instead of sugar or if they are sick the night of a big event, a friend might call you and ask you to fill in for them in their stead. It can also refer to the place, function, or position that assists another. So, to stand someone in good stead is to be useful or of good service to them. Fast means “firmly fixed in place; not easily moved; securely attached.” I had to go to the eighth definition on to find that one, which shows it is not in common English usage at present, though we may still occasionally hear someone in a nautical movie say something like, “Make fast the mainsail, Skipper” or hear an older person call someone “a fast friend.” Put together, these words mean “not subject to change, firm in belief, determination, or adherence” to a purpose. They mean loyalty to an intention or more often, a person, so that you stick fast to the purpose of acting in someone’s stead. Now, undoubtedly the aforementioned devil is in the details, but in my own case (and in the experience of most people I know), we rarely get around to reckoning with him for quite another reason, and that is because our purpose is not steadfast enough. We are not as “nose to the grindstone” as we should or could be, grappling with those details, not because we lack the will to do so, but because we lack the consistent habits that would allow us to realize our ambitions. If steadfast purpose at its core is the determination of our hearts, its public face is our habits. Even the most proactive, self-realized human being is not engaged in creative problem-solving most of their day. They get up the same way each day, go through their morning routine in much the same way, greet their families and coworkers with similar words each day, and pursue their daily ambitions within the context of their personal habits. In the Christian spiritual life, personal habit has more often been referred to by a different name—discipline. Listen here to an excerpt from one the movie Patton, wherein the famous general of World War II as he takes up its command, diagnoses the abject failure of the United States Army in their first confrontation with the German army in the African battle of Kassarene. You will have to excuse the language the general’s language, but as he says elsewhere in the movie, when he “wants it to stick,” he gives it us “loud and dirty.” “Do You want to know why this outfit got the hell kicked out of it?” begins the General Patton. “A blind man could see it in a minute; they don't look like soldiers, they don't act like soldiers… Why should they fight like soldiers?” “You're absolutely right,” replies General Omar Bradley, “The discipline's pretty poor.” Fixing General Bradley with a keen eye, Patton responds, “In about five minutes, we're going to start turning these boys” (saying this last word with contempt) into fanatics, razors.” A razor is a tool wherein all the force of the blade is brought to bear on a single point. It is a tool that is exquisitely well-designed for its intended purpose. What will turn Patton’s diminutive ‘boys’ into ‘soldiers’ be to feared is discipline. That the term discipline has by and large disappeared from the vocabulary of American Christianity is telling, for it dominated the mind of the Church for centuries. On Reformation Sunday, Lutherans proudly sing, “A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious. He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious.” The imagery is explicitly militaristic, for the Church is pictured as an active army, marching on the gates of hell, which will not prevail against Her. God is both our protection and our power in this fight with the powers of darkness, but we also are envisioned as soldiers. When my wife was a child (I was raised outside the Church), they still taught children a song that went “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery, I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army.” This aspect of the Christian life has been largely lost in modern American culture. As one wag has said, A Mighty Fortress has become A Comfy Mattress is Our God. We earnestly desire to have God as our protector, comforter, and “a very present help in trouble.” We are content to have Jesus as our Savior, Redeemer, intercessor, life coach, advisor, and even sometimes Lord, but we forget that one of the chief things a lord did for his people as their potentate was lead them in battle. This is not the place to trace the possible reasons for this change in the mindset of the modern church. Yet quite apart from the Scriptures, which are replete with militaristic imagery and metaphor, from the flaming sword in Genesis to Jesus bearing a sword astride a white war horse in the Revelation of St. John, there were existential reasons why the intentional Christian life was so often compared to the life of a soldier in the mind of the Church. Who can walk with someone through a long terminal illness and not be convinced that “the last enemy to be conquered is death?” (1 Cor. 15:26) Who can have seriously struggled to attain some measure of the simple Christian virtues like temperance, fortitude, or prudence—let alone the more difficult ones like chastity, justice, and humility—without coming to the conclusion that they were in a pitched battle with sin, the devil, and even their own nature? If we align ourselves with God, we set ourselves against the prince and powers of this world, and we can be sure they will not be sanguine about our defection to the other side, but rather will fight against us with all they have. Indeed, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) When we try to walk with integrity as Christians, to do something special and intentional for God, like a zebra breaking away the herd, we mark ourselves out for the lion as choice prey, an enemy who, though no more tasty than any other zebra in the herd, is to be especially targeted. If we are going to bear up under such an attack and faithfully carry out our mission, we are going to need to be disciplined. We are going to need to be good soldiers. I am not talking here about Christian perfection. I leave such illusions to those prone to self-deception. A good soldier doesn’t always succeed in his commission nor hit his intended target all the time. I am talking about consistency of effort, and the good soldier keeps fighting, keeps trying accomplish his mission no matter the opposition until he receives a new set of orders from his commander or lord. As General Patton helpfully points out, good soldiers are made by discipline. Have you noticed that disciple and discipline have the same root word? Both mean “one who follows after,” and if we would be good disciples, we must develop the disciplines of a disciple. We must pray, worship, and immerse ourselves in the Holy Scriptures. We must be serving others as our Lord served us, developing deep spiritual friendships with our fellow soldiers in Christ while we give our all to the kingdom effort in which we are engaged in the form of our time, treasures, and talents. All these things must become a regular part of our daily and weekly routine, things in which we habitually engage, disciplines that shape our lives. Of course, we do all these things not to earn our salvation. Rather, we do these things because they are the way in which we can learn to live as the people God created and redeemed us to be. Jesus came that we might “have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Living as His disciple, developing the disciplines of a follower of Jesus, is how we begin living that life of joy and abundance right now. But living in this way, while it might give us deep joy and unassailable peace, will put us at cross purposes with the prince of this world, so until our Lord comes again to bring the final victory, we must be prepared as a good soldier for the attack of the enemy. I want to read to you what surrounds that passage from 1 Peter I have been referring to in this podcast. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith.” (ESV) Another translation, interpreting the thought as much as the words, renders that passage “Discipline yourselves” and be “steadfast in your faith.” (NRSV) So today I am going to be a good soldier. Despite my failures of the past few months, I am being steadfast in my purpose and getting back to work with this podcast. Along with the other disciplines common to all disciples, I am heeding the counsel of many around me who find my way with words helpful in strengthening them as they “fight the good fight of faith.” I am beginning to see producing these podcasts as more central to my own particular Christian vocation as minister of the Word. Luther once described fallen humanity as a drunken peasant who is always falling off one side of his horse or the other. Thanks be to God who cares for us so much that we may cast all our anxieties on Him, and without looking back in regret, get back on our horse again! Since in General Patton I have been turning to an old cavalry officer for wisdom about how to live as a good soldier for Christ, I am going to end this podcast by saying, “Praise to you, O Christ!” and get…. back in the saddle again!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Day 4 – The Rubber Hits The Road

This morning began, as should all Christian endeavors, with worship. A sermon by Rev. Erma Wolf called us again to the hard task of ministering to those that anger us most because they are so similar to us. She reflected on the very familiar story of the woman at the well from the Gospel of John, recognizing that the crowd that gathered in response to the woman’s testimony were Samaritans also. (Samaritans were especially repugnant to Jews because they claimed to be worshipping the same God, but they did it in the wrong way.) To sum up Pr. Wolf’s point, as it was for the ancient Jews when they looked at the Samaritans, so it is for us when we look at Christians with whom we disagree: We are called not only to tolerate such people, but go to them, minister to them, and when necessary evangelize them with the fullness of the Gospel… because that is what Jesus did.

Dr. Paul Martinson concluded the theological presentations by outlining for us the deep connection between our theology and mission, especially noteworthy was his nuanced overview the differences between the visions of God proclaimed by Christianity and Islam. Following Dr. Martinson’s powerful lecture, Ryan Schwarz asked us the question, “What does all this mean for our future?” It was a time primarily for questions to be asked from the microphone by those in attendance. These questions were asked not of the lecturers of the assembly, for it is we as lay and clergy theologians who will have to answer them. These days have been intense and powerful, but they have only been the beginning. Much needs to be done, and not only must every thought must be made captive to Christ, so must our practices. As one person said eloquently from the microphone, “we must practice a faith that yields nothing while practicing a love that yields everything.”

My own answer to the question to the question “what does all this mean for our future?” was first articulated by Dr. Hinlicky on the first night of the conference: As our Sunday liturgy teaches us, Christian faith has as its starting point repentance. “Repent and believe the Gospel,” is our Lord’s first public declaration in the Gospel of Mark, and it is the starting point for us today as well. And what does repentance look like for us who hoping to put wheels on the ideas we have contemplated at this conference, those of us who want to see orthodox Lutheranism revitalized in this country? In practice, it will at the very least mean reexamining our every parish practice—no matter how hallowed a local tradition—with an eye toward the Great Commission and its injunction not only to spread the faith, but to teach “everything that Christ commanded us” so that we may be obedient to Christ. We must unflinchingly examine such local conventions so that we may practice what we preach… and so preach the faith even more faithfully.

With the conclusion of the theological conference, it was time to “see if this dog would hunt.” The ideas we had bandied about for two days now had to “become incarnate” in the form of the guiding documents of Lutheran CORE—the coalition that is to provide the fellowship, support, and resources for orthodox Lutherans of all denominations. Could this be done? Was there much hope for the future in this regard? How would it look when “the rubber hit the road?”

Have you ever seen smoke pour off the tires of a race car as the sheer power of the engine pushes the wheel beyond the ability of gravity, friction, and inertia to keep it bound to the pavement? That is the sense I have of what is happening here. The car is not moving fast—yet—but the power at work beneath the hood is showing its evidence everywhere here and it is but a matter of a short time before the wheels find their purchase, and we are off to the races.

It is gratifying to know that others seem to think so too. The assembly received greetings from other church bodies and had visitors from even more. The assembly received official greetings from several of these groups. Especially noteworthy were the remarks of Bishop Ray Sutton of the Anglican Church in North America and the Rev. Dr. Francis Stephanos of the Mekane Yesus Lutheran church of Ethiopia, who reminded us that “one cannot inherit the kingdom of God by majority vote.”

Christians who desire to be orthodox, confessional, one, holy, and apostolic are watching us. I leave the first day of this convocation optimistic about what they saw.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Day 3 - It Is Humbling To Be Here

I begin by wishing that everyone could be here with us in Columbus, Ohio. This day has proven to be one of the most humbling of my life and ministry. I mentioned in my entry from yesterday (posted earlier today, when I got the internet issues resolved), that the presentations have been uniformly excellent here in Upper Arlington. You will, of course, in the near future have the opportunity to assess them for yourself, so I will not belabor that point. What the upcoming internet broadcasts and book are sure to fail to convey, however, is the sense of hopeful expectancy that characterizes these proceedings. The Spirit is definitely doing something amazing, as seemingly just the right people with just the precise expertise needed to tackle the issues before us a church have been assembled from the disparate corners of North American Lutheranism. Not only has this been an immensely satisfying—though extremely challenging—couple of days intellectually, it has also been so emotionally and spiritually.

Simply put, it is humbling to be here.

Today’s presentations by Drs. Jenson, Paulson, Benne, and Hultgren were too detailed and complex to be reviewed well here, at the end of a long day of thinking. Suffice it to say, I will be returning to Christ Hamilton United with much about which to speak and preach. Dr. Jenson’s presentation gave a much-needed intellectual justification for why the language we inherit from the Scripture for God is the only language we can properly use to talk to, about, and for God. Dr. Hultgren helped us understand how understanding the Bible’s plain meaning as authoritative without steering into an unreflective fundamentalism is one of the hallmarks of classical Lutheranism. Drs. Paulson and Benne had for us perhaps the most challenging words of the conference, calling us (as did Dr. Hinlicky last night) to repentance for the way we have mishandled, ignored, and even denied clear teachings of Scripture in many aspects of human life in recent epochs, including but not limited to the proper use of human sexuality, especially heterosexuality. Most challenging of all was Dr. Paulson’s reminder of Dr. Martin Luther’s blunt statement of fact that “it is a characteristic of love to be easily deceived.” There is no space here to elaborate on what he meant by quoting Dr. Luther in this way; that is a topic for extended face-to-face discussion in the future. I will leave you with this to stimulate your little gray cells: How much evil have we as a culture and a church done or permitted to be done in the name of love? Is love the Gospel or is it a form of the Law? (Give Romans a careful read before you answer that last one too quickly.)

I close by noting that in his pinch-hitting banquet speech, I got a lesson on how to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ with conviction and utter clarity from the Rev. Dr. Gemechis Buba. Born in the crucible of communist oppression of the faith, he learned from his father—who suffered in prison for six years because he would not deny Christ just to secure his own freedom—that if we are truly and deeply Christian, we must be willing to suffer persecution and even expect it. “Where the Church’s witness is visible, it will be attacked,” he reminded us, for God is not unopposed in this world, as some futilely imagine. “The persecutions of Christians in China, Russia, Somalia, … and the Sudan are passing,” he warned us with the voice of an experienced and widely-traveled sufferer, “and now they are coming here to this country.”

He did not say this with a sense of hopelessness or fear. Rather, he said it to remind us of our true identity. “The Church without persecution is an anomaly,” he said, quoting the second century Church Father Tertullian. I would add to this quote a more famous one by the same theologian: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

I do not desire martyrdom. I would rather live for my Lord than die for Him. However, if the martyrdom of this pastor is what the Church of Jesus Christ needs to grow strong and flourish once again, so be it. To borrow from the American patriot Patrick Henry, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my Lord and His Church.” To quote a brother in Christ, “so then whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”

Yet I will not end this day, which has been so marvelous, reflecting on death but life. “The world,” Dr. Buba reminded us, “can take away your home, your clothing, your career, and your life. “But,” he shouted triumphantly holding aloft his Bible, “if you cling to the Word of God, the future belongs to you.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Day 2 – Seven Marks Constitution & Beginnings

I have to begin with an apology for the delay in posting this blog. For those of my congregation who are eagerly awaiting news from the floor these important proceedings, I hope the delay has not been too frustrating for anybody.

This day has been truly amazing. It began with Holy Eucharist with an absolutely riveting sermon by Rev. Cathy Ammlung. She preached on the texts of the Sunday before (as is the custom at midweek Eucharist services), reflecting on how Jesus’ right way of doing ministry results in the woman who had been bent over being able to stand upright and praise God. Get that pattern? Right practice of ministry leads to the right praise of God. Right praise of God is what this whole week is about; right praise (and proclamation) of God in the Lutheran church. How we can do that better than we have been so that we may be better disciples than we have been so that our churches would not be in the condition they are. The message was clear: If we hope to reform the church, to name, be claimed by, and praise God as the Bible and the Apostolic Tradition teach us to do, we must be willing to reform our practices of ministry to make them right.

Following that worship, after much good-natured wrangling to get the wording right, the Seven Marks Society adopted a constitution and became a real group. I am proud to be part of a group committed to the renewal of the Great Tradition within the Lutheran church. In the Reformation, Lutherans did not set out to form a new Church but rather to purify and recall to its heritage the one holy catholic and apostolic church of Jesus Christ. To be faithful to our heritage requires us not only to know that heritage, but to live it by doing the things that catholic Christians—even Lutheran ones—have historically done.

After lunch (at every meal I have been involved in meetings with colleagues where not only networking but important information has been exchanged) we began the theological conference. At most conferences, some of the lectures are good, some less so. At this one, the presentations have been uniformly excellent, all of them so far ending in a standing ovation by the gathered assembly. These ovations have been more than mere formalities by the like-minded. They have been responses to the excellence—and challenge—inhering in each of the presentations. I am excited because I have heard that these presentations will soon be available for you to hear or see on the internet, so you will have the opportunity to have your mind renewed as mine is being.

There have, of course, been a few moments that have been disappointing. These have usually involved uncharitable comments being made about “the powers that be” in the ELCA. They have been rare, and corrected quickly by a bystander, but still lamentable. One such person, after receiving the correction of a brother pastor, agreed that he had been out of line, but added, “I have been called a Nazi from the microphones of my synod’s assembly. It is wrong to be bitter, but it is hard not to be.” As I have met pastors from all over this week, the story of his mistreatment has been repeated in different ways by pastors from all over America. Most common are stories of pastors with strong track records of faithful service being told by a bishop’s staff—presumably afraid that they will stir up trouble for the unity of the ELCA as an institution by preaching according to their “bound consciences”—that there is simply “nothing available” for them. They are told they are too controversial, and that no congregation wants to interview them. Can this be true? Does truly no congregation want to interview them? God forgive me if I slander anyone here, but it seems unlikely. In any event, it makes such comments, though perhaps remarkably rare, more understandable, though no less lamentable.

I will wrap this reflection up now and plan to post my reflection on today’s proceedings later this evening, following tonight’s presentation by the Reverend Doctor Gemechis D. Buba, Director of African National Ministries in the ELCA.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day 1 – Seven Marks Society Convocation

It is 11:55pm, and I am just getting back to my hotel room from the “meeting after the meeting.” As Bp. Paull Spring noted in his greeting from Lutheran CORE, it was good tonight to be part of a worship service in the broader church in which you could engage wholeheartedly, where you could pray with the assurance that the worship leader (Rev. Cathy Ammlung, STS) would use hymns and liturgy rooted in the plain meaning of Scripture interpreted as the Apostles had taught the Church to do so. Though we met in a conference room, gathered around tables rather than in a sanctuary designed for the celebration of liturgy, I had the impression that Peter, James, Paul, and John would have been perfectly at home amidst the singing and prayers of our opening worship service.

Tonight’s business was primarily debating the language of the Constitution on which we will vote tomorrow. As always when your are constituting an organization, words are important, for the documents we adopt tomorrow will have the potential to both guide or limit, empower or hamstring us in the years to come. The discussion was substantive, and I look forward to seeing what kind of fruit it will bear tomorrow.

I think the most exciting part about tonight’s meeting for me personally was the greetings we received. Because of the Archbishop was out of the country, another bishop of the Anglican Church of North America brought us an extended greeting, pointing out the close ties between Lutherans and Anglicans, saying “If ever there was an ecumenical relationship made in heaven, it is ours.” This assured me that whatever the future holds, we will not be going it alone, and that taking the stand we are taking on the issue of faithfulness to the Bible aligns us more, not less, closely with the vast majority of the world's Christians. Also Bp. Bogonza, head of 5+ million member Lutheran Church of Tanzania, was with us, which I found very humbling. If I was tempted to think what we were doing here was insignificant simply because the initial number of participants tonight was so few, his presence disabused me of that notion. God is doing something profound, something that other Christians around the world are paying attention to, and it is a humbling (but thrilling) experience to be part of it.

Have to be up in a little less than six hours, so time for bed. I look forward to having more meat for you to chew on tomorrow.