Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Divine Service - Heaven on Earth

You know that old joke where the man is trapped in a flood and water is rising all around him? He climbs up on his roof and prays to God to rescue him. A guy in a raft comes by and implores him to jump in, but the man says, "That's okay, I trust that God will rescue me." Then, a boat comes by and the man refuses to get in, saying the same thing. Finally, as the water is about to overtake him, a helicopter appears and a rope is thrown down to the man, but again the man says, "That's okay, I trust that God will rescue me." The man perishes in the flood. When he gets to heaven, he says to God, "What happened? I prayed to you and trusted that you would rescue me. Why did you let me die?" God says, "Good grief, I sent you a raft, a boat, and a helicopter!" :)

In the same way, many people, even many Christians, fail to realize that our Lord sends us relief and rescue in the Divine Service, where Jesus Himself is Present among us in His Holy Word and Sacraments to deliver to us forgiveness, life, and salvation. In the Divine Service, heaven and earth intersect, as we sing with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, "Holy, Holy, Holy," for there is where our Lord Jesus Christ fulfills His promise to be with us always. Right there on the altar. There is Jesus in His very Body and Blood, the Bread of Life given to sustain us as we make our way through the wilderness of this sinful world until we reach the Promised Land of His eternal kingdom.

But, like the man in the joke above, many people, even many Christians, stay away from the Divine Service, thinking, "That's okay, I don't need to go to Church. I pray to God and trust that He will rescue me." They believe they have their own "personal relationship with Jesus" and don't need to go to the very place where Jesus is Present to establish and sustain a relationship with them. But, someday, when the veil is finally lifted and they see things for what they truly are, they'll realize that Jesus had been sending them the raft of Holy Absolution, the boat of Holy Preaching, and the helicopter of the Holy Supper to them all along in the Divine Service.

All of this came to mind when I read the excellent devotion by Rev. Dr. Scott Murray this morning, which you can find here.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Video Message from President Harrison

Thank you, President Harrison. And, Amen!

Peace Book Club - September 2012

Our Peace Book Club met this past Tuesday evening for the first time since May to discuss the four books we tackled over the summer. We had a great discussion on each of those books, while enjoying the wonderful food and beverages prepared by my lovely wife (thanks, Lisa!), and a little Turkish Coffee Annie made for us. A few of our club members couldn't join us, but the six of us who were there had a great time.

What follows is a brief summary of our collective thoughts on the four books we discussed, as well as the rating we gave each (they are presented in the order we discussed them):

I think we spent the most time discussing this book, and rightly so. Of the four books we read this summer, this one was by far the meatiest and most substantive. It is genuine literature, reminiscent of classics like those penned by Twain. A tragic and earthy story of a young woman's attempt to figure out how to live after being abandoned by her mother and witnessing her father's death, Campbell's tale cannot help but grab readers by the heart as they follow Margo's journeys up and down the Stark River.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I think I read the first four or five pages four or five times over a week or two before finally buckling down and continuing on. It just seemed to start pretty slow for me. But, I'm ever so glad I got past that initial hesitancy and trudged through, for it turned out to be one of the most-thought provoking tales I've digested in some time. There were many nights after reading this book that I was lost in thought for hours, pondering the tragic circumstances that lead this little girl to experience many things no little girl should ever have to endure, and how those experiences informed the choices she made and the path she trod. It's been a couple of months since I've finished the book and I'm still thinking about it!

I heartily recommend this one. It's not a book you can pick up and blaze through. It's a book that requires an investment on the reader's part; a book that gives one furiously to think about how tragic life can be in this fallen world and how those who are less fortunate are forced to find a way to deal with the cards they've been dealt; a book that gives meaning to the saying, "Lo, but by the grace of God go I"; a book that cannot help but make you a little more cautious before passing judgment upon others, not knowing what circumstances may have led to their current lot in life. If you'll make the investment, you'll be the better for it.

After a lengthy and lively discussion, our book club voted and ended up giving this book a 4.5 on our 1-5 rating scale, 5 being the best. 

Written by former secret service agent Clint Hill, this is a book containing his memoirs of the years he spent assigned to First Lady Jackie Kennedy. This book surprised me as well. I was sure I wouldn't like it, since, to be perfectly blunt and honest, I really wasn't the least bit interested in reading about the goings on of Mrs. Kennedy and company. But, I was actually intrigued to read Mr. Hill's account of those years and learned a ton not only about what life was like guarding the First Lady, but also about the many sacrifices our country's secret service agents must make in performing their duties. Not only must they be willing to take a bullet for the people they guard, but they also must endure the "bullets" of being away from their families far more than they're with them, hectic and often sleepless schedules, and relative thanklessness and anonymity, not from the people they guard, but from virtually everyone else. Can you name any of the secret service agents guarding our current President or First Lady today? See what I mean?

I think that was the general consensus among us, that we learned a lot that we would have otherwise never known by reading this book, and that's always a good thing. Plus, there are some stunning revelations Mr. Hill springs on you as you travel with him through that time. You get to see a different side of Jackie Kennedy, as Mr. Hill's intimate memoirs reveal much about her that was previously unknown. Oh, and Mr. Hill grew up a Lutheran, so that's a bonus. :)

I'm still not all that interested in the topic itself, but I did enjoy it nonetheless. So did our group. We thought it was good, not great, and so we gave it a 3.

This is the third installment in Maier's fictional series featuring Professor Jonathan Weber, the first two being A Skeleton in God's Closet and More Than a Skeleton. Like the first two, this is a fun, quick read that invokes from the reader several "What If's."

The "What If's" in this one: What if we discovered an authentic manuscript that contained the full, original ending to the Gospel of Mark. What if that same ancient manuscript also contained a Second Acts? What would those texts say? How would Christians react to such a discovery? Would these newly discovered texts be added to the canon? Which Christians would be favorable to those additions and which would reject them? And so on.

The way we eventually get to all those "What If's" is a fun, adventurous ride, as Maier's talent to write a good tale comes to the surface again in this one. Having said that, as we discussed this book, the same criticisms were shared by all in our club, namely that there are some parts of the book that are just too far-fetched. Professor Weber gains worldwide fame after a mistranslation of his recently released book, Jesus of Nazareth, is discovered in the Arabic version. This angers many Muslims and a fatwah is placed upon Weber, requiring him to have around the clock CIA protection. Given what we've witnessed recently in the news, it's not all that unbelievable that such a thing could happen. The far-fetched part comes when, eventually, this leads to a debate between Weber, a Christian, and a Muslim leader named Abbas al-Rashid. Such a debate, in and of itself, is not far-fetched. What is far-fetched is that such a debate would get the attention of the whole world. It wouldn't. Few would care.

Also, there are many happenings in the book that are just a little overly convenient, and other things that are just a little too predictable and seem forced. However, the overall theme of the book, coupled with the adventurous nature of the tale itself, is able to overcome those things and make it a book worth the time. I think we all agreed that A Skeleton in God's Closet is by far the best of the three books in this series, with The Constantine Codex edging out More Than a Skeleton as second-best. We gave this one a 3 on our rating scale.

I was most interested in hearing what the others thought of this one, since I can't remember when I've enjoyed reading a book so much. I was thrilled to find that the others had the same reaction. That may seem odd, since Unholy Night is a fictional tale presenting revisionist history centered upon the Biblical account of the Three Wise Men, who visit the Baby Jesus (of course, as any serious student of the Bible knows, we are not told the number of the magi who followed the star and visited Jesus, but because they offer Him three gifts, the legend of Three Wise Men developed). Actually, it's really a story centering upon just one of these Wise Men, named Balthazar. He is an infamous thief and murderer, who has become widely known throughout the Roman Empire as "The Antioch Ghost." Balthazar meets the other two Wise Men in a prison cell when he is finally captured after years of wreaking havoc and, after the three thieves manage to escape, they wind up stumbling upon the stable in Bethlehem, where they meet Joseph, Mary, and the Baby Jesus. From there, the epic adventure ensues.

It is all so totally ridiculous, and there are a plethora of things that do not even come close to matching the Biblical account, but none of that takes away from the genius of Grahame-Smith's ability to weave an adventurous tale around The Greatest Story Ever Told, while amazingly remaining respectful and avoiding blasphemy as he does it. I absolutely loved it!

We had a blast discussing this book, actually quoting out loud several of our favorite parts. What we all most enjoyed was the hilarious humor Grahame-Smith displays throughout. There are several times in the book when he sets you up for a laugh after letting you into a character's (most often, Balthazar) thinking and then springing the reality on you, which is the opposite of that thinking. To illustrate the way he does this, I'll use myself as an example:
I often find humor in books, but very rarely do I ever laugh out loud while reading. In fact, I can't remember ever doing so. And so, I'm not going to do that now. I don't care how funny I think this part of this book is, I will at most chuckle to myself, but I will definitely not laugh out loud. That's not going to happen. No way. To do so would be silly, and I'm not a silly person. No, there is no way, not a chance, not even a slight chance, that I'm going to laugh out loud.

I laughed out loud. 
Okay, so maybe that's not the best illustration, but hopefully you get the idea. And, it's true. I laughed out loud several times while reading this book. :)

Besides his engaging writing style, ability to make the reader laugh, and unbelievably imaginative story-telling, Grahame-Smith's genius also lies in turning a despicable, vile, selfish character into a genuine hero, but not in a predictable way that insults the reader's intelligence. Balthazar is a ruthless scoundrel, but even ruthless scoundrels have principles. He is a selfish man, hell-bent on revenge and self-preservation, but even selfish, self-preserving men, lustful for vengeance, have a heart. You just can't help but root for this Billy the Kid meets Indiana Jones character, even though he makes you sick at the same time.

I don't want to share any more details about the book, since I don't want to spoil too much for those who may give it a read, but, believe me, there is so much more I could share on this one. I first heard of Grahame-Smith when the film based on his book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, came out earlier this year. I thought it sounded totally absurd and had no desire to either see the movie or read the book. But, after reading Unholy Night, I will be ordering that book, as well as his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, soon. Consider me a huge fan; this guy can write! I'm sure his other books are as equally absurd as was this one, but I am intrigued to see how he turns that absurdity into a riveting, awesome tale, as he did with Unholy Night. As one reviewer opined, it is the "brilliant and twisted mind" of Grahame-Smith that enables him "to take a little mystery, bend a little history, and weave an epic tale." That is certainly an accurate description of what he did with Unholy Night, and I look forward to seeing how he does it in his other books.

Anyway, as I said above, we all had very similar reactions to this book and enjoyed it thoroughly. In fact, we gave this book a unanimous 5, which was the first time we have done so since our book club began. A couple of us gave Once Upon a River a 5, too, but most gave it a 4 or 4.5, so it didn't earn the privilege of getting the first 5 among us. But, Unholy Night was well deserving to earn that privilege. I give it my highest recommendation. This book brings to life the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Go and get it now; you won't be disappointed!

After discussing these four books, we ended up assigning two books to be read over the next couple of months: The Root of All Evil: A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel by Ray Keating and The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Having loved reading Warrior Monk last summer, we are all eager to see what adventures await us in the life of Pastor Stephen Grant, a truly unforgettable character. But, since we're sure that most of us will get through that one fairly quickly, we assigned Follet's large tome, so that we can begin reading it as soon as we finish The Root of All Evil. We will discuss The Root of All Evil in October and The Pillars of the Earth in November.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle?

“God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle”
(September 2012 Newsletter Article) 

I’m betting that most of you have heard this one before. Perhaps, you’ve even used it yourself at times. A friend or loved one is going through a time of suffering and you seek to comfort that person by saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

I know I’ve heard this one many times. I’ve seen it used on Facebook and in mass emails often, and I’ve even had friends and loved ones say it to me during times of suffering. It is used with the best of intentions, and most people think that it’s a direct quote right from the Bible, or at least a paraphrase of a Biblical verse, but it is neither.

The Biblical verse this cliché is supposed to paraphrase is 1 Corinthians 10:13, where St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

To understand what St. Paul means by this, we need to look at the surrounding context. It is clear from that context that he is in the midst of rebuking the Corinthians for a) idolatry, b) sexual immorality, and c) works-righteousness (or, overconfidence in themselves). He reminds them what happened to their fathers in the faith, how they turned away from God after He had rescued them from their bondage in Egypt. God had saved them with His mighty hand and they turned away from Him so that they could indulge their own evil desires. They put God to the test and were overcome by serpents. They didn’t trust God, but grumbled against Him, and most of them perished in the wilderness, never getting to enter the Promised Land. The point St. Paul is making with the Corinthians is summed up in verse 12, the verse immediately preceding the verse quoted above, upon which the cliché in question is supposed to be based, where he says, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” And, this is followed up with the exhortation in verse 14, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” Then, St. Paul points them to an example of the idolatry into which they have fallen, moving into a lengthy discourse on their abuse of the Holy Supper.

Putting all of this together, it should be evident how the popular cliché, “God will never give you more than you can handle,” is a gross misinterpretation of the verse it is supposed to paraphrase. The whole point here is that YOU cannot handle things. It is a rebuke against those who try to handle things themselves, rather than turning to God for rescue. And, it has absolutely nothing to do with the pain and suffering we all endure in this life, whether we bring that upon ourselves or it comes from the outside, which is when the cliché in question is most often invoked. This passage is addressing those who give in to the temptation of the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh, refuse to turn to God for rescue (“the way of escape”), and think that they’re still standing in the faith.

God will never give you more than you can handle? Nonsense! You cannot handle temptation on your own. You cannot endure the pain and suffering living in this sinful world brings on your own. You cannot handle God’s Law on your own. You cannot remain standing steadfast in the faith on your own. Left on your own, you will most definitely fall. Left on your own, you will follow in the footsteps of the grumbling and idolatrous Israelites who were overcome by serpents in the wilderness. Left on your own, God’s Holy Law will devour you whole. Left on your own, you will fall from grace, lose faith, and have the Holy Spirit depart from you.

Here’s the other reason this popular cliché is so wrongheaded: It suggests that God is the one GIVING you the temptation or the pain and suffering you’re enduring. But, we’re told in Scripture that “God tempts no one” (James 1:13ff.). God is not the author of evil. God is not the source of the pain and suffering you endure in this sinful world. That evil, those temptations, the pain and suffering with which you are afflicted, come from the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh, NOT from God. It is true that God allows us to experience these things in this life. It is true that God tests and disciplines us at times, just as an earthly father does for his children. It is true that God works all things together (even the temptations, pain, and suffering we endure) for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). He is the God who uses what is meant for evil for good. Joseph’s brothers had an evil intent when they sold him into slavery, but God used what they meant for evil to accomplish their salvation. And, of course, the greatest example of this is the Crucifixion of His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The Jewish religious authorities meant that for evil, but God used it to accomplish the greatest good ever known in the world. So, yes, God allows us to be tempted and to endure times of pain and suffering in this life, but it is not true that He gives us these things, as if He is their source and wants to toughen us up so that we can learn how to handle them on our own, which is what the cliché really means. On the contrary, God allows these things to happen in our lives so that we would turn to Him for rescue.

God will never give you more than you can handle? Wrong! You cannot handle things on your own. If you could, God would not have had to send His Son to live and die in your place. If we want to make this cliché Scriptural and true, we would have to say something like, “God will never allow you to suffer more than He can handle.” Now, that is most certainly true, as certain and true as is the fact that you will be tempted and will endure much pain and suffering in this life. But, God will never forsake you. He will always provide the “way of escape,” and the “way of escape” is just another way of saying, “Jesus.” For, Jesus is your way of escape. Jesus is your refuge. Jesus is your rescue. He lived the perfect life you cannot live. He resisted and overcame all the temptations common to man, the temptations to which you have often fallen prey. He endured all the pain and suffering the devil, the world, and sinners could throw at Him and never wavered an inch in faith through it all, as you often do when pain and suffering come upon you. You cannot handle these things on your own, but Jesus has handled them perfectly for you. He is your way of escape. He is your mighty fortress. He is your strength. Flee from yourselves and to Jesus. That’s the whole point St. Paul is making in this oft misunderstood passage.

Do you see, then, why telling people that God will never give them more than they can handle is wrong in so many ways? As I said above, I know that people have the best of intentions when they use this cliché, but good intentions aside, it is a tragically flawed way of trying to get God into the equation somehow. Would that we never uttered this cliché again, but instead pointed our friends and loved ones, who are enduring times of temptation, pain, or suffering, to the One who can handle it all for them, to the One who has already handled it all for them, and who remains available to them to handle whatever the devil, this sinful world, and their own sinful flesh throw their way, even Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. The best advice you can give to such a friend is to direct them to go to where Jesus is for them, namely to the Divine Service in His Holy Church, where He is Truly Present to absolve them of their sins, feed them upon the sweet honey of His Word, cleanse them with the very Body and Blood He gave and shed for them, and bestow His eternal peace upon them as they depart back into the wilderness of this sinful world, where they will inevitably continue to be harassed by its temptations, pain, and suffering.

In this vale of tears, this valley of the shadow of death, you will be confronted with much that you cannot handle, my friends. But, know this: Jesus has handled it all in your place. Flee to Him in times of temptation, pain, and suffering. He will never fail you. He can handle it. He desires that you come to Him, you who are weary and heavy-laden, that He might give you peace. In Him, you have the sure and certain promise that there is coming a Day when you will be tempted no more and never again experience the pain and suffering, trials and tribulations, of living in this sinful world. You will live and reign with Him in the eternal kingdom that has been prepared for you. And, as St. Paul assures you, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

Your servant in Christ,
Pastor Messer

Saturday, September 8, 2012

What Happened To Our Referees?

Remember the fact-checking frenzy that was all over the media last week regarding the speech delivered by Rep. Paul Ryan? Every major news outlet was all over it. You couldn't turn on the television or radio, or open a newspaper, without hearing or reading about how Mr. Ryan's speech contained several distortions of the truth, misleading statements, and outright lies.

And, it did. Sorry, Republican faithful. It did. Mr. Ryan's speech was filled with falsehoods. In fact, I'm quite sure he and the Romney/Ryan campaign gurus were well aware of that fact, and they proceeded with the less-than-truthful speech anyway. They are trying to win an election, and winning an election in America these days is far more important than speaking the truth. Winning an election is about carefully selected talking points meant to scratch itching ears that will hopefully lead to votes, the truth be damned. It's about doing whatever needs to be done and saying whatever needs to be said to convince people that your opponent is a villain and you are just what our country needs. Mr. Ryan is a politician. He is playing the game, the goal of which is to win. He cannot be sidetracked by something as insignificant as the truth. It's a game, folks, and it's played by both sides. We all know it. So do the politicians who seek our votes.

So, Mr. Ryan lied. He did. Let's just be honest and admit it. He lied like many of the Obama television ads that have run to date have been proven to be outright lies. He lied like Mitt Romney lied, who lied like President Clinton, Vice President Biden, and President Obama lied at their convention. None of them are even trying to convince you with the truth; they're all simply trying to persuade you to vote for them and will tell you what they think you want to hear, which is determined by their respective think-tanks, in order to accomplish that goal. Lying and deceiving is just a part of the process. You do whatever it takes to win. The truth really has nothing at all to do with it.

The truth is that American politics has become nothing more than a sport. The politicians are the players who play the game; their campaign managers are the head coaches, who consult with their many assistant coaches (political strategists, communications experts, etc.) and develop a game-plan; Fox News is the cheerleading squad for the Republicans, MSNBC for the Democrats; we are the fans. The game is played and we root for our teams. But, where are the referees?

The refs have traditionally been the media, but those days have long since passed us by. It used to be that the networks and major newspapers around our country would report the news and stick to the facts. They used to take pride in leaving their personal biases aside, being careful not to skew their reporting in a way that would reveal their personal endorsements of various political candidates. No, they never did this perfectly (bias would come through here and there), but at least they used to try. Not anymore. We don't get news these days; we get commentary. We don't get facts; we get spin and talking points, and not just from the obvious suspects on Fox and MSNBC, but even from the networks and other supposed-to-be unbiased news outlets.

Case in point: How much did you hear yesterday from the mass media about Sandra Fluke's speech, which she delivered Thursday night, and which you can watch in the video above? Where was the fact-checking frenzy on that one? Ryan stretched the truth and delivered some falsehoods in his speech last week and the media went nuts - and, rightly so! But, where were they yesterday to correct the litany of lies told by Ms. Fluke?

One may argue that this is an unfair comparison, since Ms. Fluke is just a Democrat supporter, while Mr. Ryan is the Republican Vice Presidential candidate.I would buy that, except for the fact that the lies told by Ms. Fluke during her speech are the same lies that have been repeated ad nauseum by the Democrats over the last several months, and the media has done nothing to correct them.

Those lies began earlier this year when the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing and heard from witnesses who believed that the HHS mandate requiring all insurance companies, even those run by religious institutions, to cover contraception, abortifacients, and sterilizations violated their religious freedom. The lying began that very day, as Nancy Pelosi and many other Democrats went before the cameras and falsely claimed that a) the hearing was about contraception, b) no women were allowed on the panel, and c) Ms. Sandra Fluke was shut out by the Republicans. Perhaps you remember all the headlines that appeared the following day: "Where Are the Women?"; "All-Male Birth Control Panel"; "Women Barred from All-Male Panel," etc. Heck, even Saturday Night Live got in the act later that week, doing a sketch that followed the lies told by the Democrats and repeated everywhere in the media.

And so, because these lies were never corrected by the media, Ms. Fluke felt perfectly comfortable taking the stage a couple of nights ago to bring these lies back to the surface. She began her speech by saying,
"Some of you may remember that earlier this year, Republicans shut me out of a hearing on contraception. In fact, on that panel, they didn’t hear from a single woman, even though they were debating an issue that affects nearly every woman." 
Here, let me do some fact-checking, since the media is not interested in doing so:

Fact-check #1 - The Republicans did not shut Ms. Fluke out of that hearing in February. In fact, the Democrats did not submit her name until well after the deadline had passed to submit potential witnesses. In fact, the Democrats did not submit any names until after the deadline had passed. They did this on purpose. It was strategy. They knew that if they waited until the last minute, until after the deadline had passed, the Republicans would probably deny their witnesses and they could moan about it to the media. Also, while they did not allow Ms. Fluke to testify at the hearing, since a) her name had not been submitted on time and b) she wanted to testify about contraception and had no qualifications to testify about religious freedom, the Republicans did post a lengthy video on this House Committee's website of Ms. Fluke delivering a speech about contraception. Finally, the Republicans did allow another Democratic witness to testify, who was going to testify about religious freedom, even though his name was submitted late as well, but, wonder of wonders, he was a no show.

Fact-check #2 - Ms. Fluke claims that she was shut out of a hearing on contraception. In fact, the hearing was not on contraception; it was on freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. Amazingly, the media never even attempted to correct that, as the headlines noted above show. They still haven't. So, Ms. Fluke can comfortably repeat this lie, knowing that it will not only not be corrected, but will actually be happily repeated by the media.

Fact-check #3 - Ms. Fluke says, "In fact, on that panel, they didn't hear from a single woman, even though they were debating an issue that affects nearly every woman." One wonders if Ms. Fluke understands what the word fact means, since, in actual fact, there were two women who testified at the hearing, Dr. Allison Garrett and Laura Champion, both of whom hold prominent positions at their respective Christian universities. But, again, the media never really did anything to correct this blatant falsehood. They still haven't, not in any meaningful way. And again, the debate that day was not over contraception, but over an issue that affects all Americans, not just "nearly every woman," namely, religious freedom.

Later in her speech, Ms. Fluke said that if Romney and Ryan were elected, "It would be an America in which you have a new vice president who co-sponsored a bill that would allow pregnant women to die preventable deaths in our emergency rooms."

Fact-check #4 - Ms. Fluke is parroting the lie told in December of last year by Nancy Pelosi, who, in referring to the Protect Life Act, which was co-sponsored by Ryan, said that Republicans would be voting "to say that women can die on the floor." That was a bold-faced lie told back then, but, again, the media did nothing to correct it. And so, Ms. Fluke can repeat it without flinching an eye-lash. In fact, if you read that bill, you will see that it does make exceptions in the cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother. So, um, no, the bill in question does not seek to allow pregnant women to die preventable deaths in our emergency rooms. How absurd!

Oh, and while I'm mentioning absurdities, why can't Ms. Fluke and her ilk speak the truth about the choice they want women to retain? They keep saying that women should have the right to choose what they do with their own bodies. I wholeheartedly agree. Who wouldn't agree with that? But, that's NOT what they mean, and they know that. What they mean is that they want women to retain the right to choose to kill the body of a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT HUMAN BEING growing in their womb. Just say that. Just say what you really mean. Just say that you want to be able to make the choice to kill your babies. That's what you want. Let's call that Fact-check #5 - A woman's right to choose is NOT the choice to do what they want with their own bodies, but, in fact, the choice to kill a completely different body.

And, when it comes to the whole contraception thing, quit trying to hide the truth behind emotional appeals to medical necessities. You know full well that religious institutions do not prevent contraceptive coverage for medical necessities. Even those pesky Roman Catholics will make exceptions when such is the case. But, that's a moot point, since what you really want is to be able to have promiscuous sex without the worry of getting pregnant. What you also want is to be able to pop a pill to abort children you didn't want to conceive. And, you want all of that to be paid for by those who do not wish to support your promiscuity and your killing, because such behavior violates their consciences and religious tenets. It's funny, you want those whose consciences and religious tenets do not support your sexual immorality to stay out of your bedrooms and not bother you about your sexual choices, but, at the same time, you want those same people to pay for what you do in your bedrooms. Amazing. 

I could go on, but you get the point. The politicians and their pundits continue their lies and the referees only call fouls on one team. No, it's worse than that. Not only do the referees only call fouls on one team, but they actually repeat and publicize the lies of the other team, giving the impression that those lies are true. And, as any sports fan knows, there's nothing worse than some home-town refs. But, that's exactly what we have with our media today. Mr. Ryan gets butchered; Ms. Fluke gets praised. Pretty sad, that. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Upon What Authority . . .

. . . do you base your beliefs? That is the question. It's always the question.

So, you're in a debate with a proud atheist, who thinks you are an ignorant fool for believing in what he deems to be a fairy tale, concocted by ignorant, superstitious humans long ago as some sort of psychological or sociological coping mechanism. You quickly recognize the old, worn-out talking points and soundbites he's throwing at you (the Bible is full of contradictions and can't be trusted because it has been translated and copied so many times, etc.; there were many other religions before Christianity came along; why do you eat shellfish and why don't you stone your women for wearing clothing with different fabrics?; if God exists, why is he powerless to stop the many evils and catastrophes that happen in the world?; science has proven that the evolutionary theory is no theory, but fact; the books of your Bible were arbitrarily decided upon by Constantine in the fourth century; there has been more blood shed because of religion than all other causes; we can't even be sure whether this Jesus you believe in even existed; and so forth), and the temptation is to argue with this proud atheist point for point. Don't! To do so would be nothing more than an exercise in futility. It doesn't matter that he's just plain ignorant about many of the things he's simply parroting, having heard them from others. It doesn't matter that he has no clue how to interpret the Bible or what Christianity is. It doesn't matter that he hasn't spent an ounce of time studying textual criticism, the Biblical manuscript evidence, or the historical basis for Christianity. To try to engage him point for point will just further confirm his belief that you are just another in a long line of superstitious humans intent on defending your fairy tale. Ask me how I know.

So, what should you do? Ask him upon what authority he bases his beliefs. You will probably be told that he doesn't have beliefs, but sticks with the facts. Good! This gives opportunity to rephrase the question: Upon what authority do you arrive at your facts? The two most common responses you will hear are 1) Science and 2) Common Sense (human reason, rational thought). If the response is science, ask him which scientific resources he uses as his authority to arrive at his facts. Most often, the proud atheist will stumble here, since most of them haven't really done anything resembling any kind of study or research into any of the supposed facts they readily cite, but are in the happy habit of just aping what they've heard others saying or what they've read on popular atheist websites, and so forth. But, maybe just maybe, he'll provide you with some resources. Good! Ask him which of these resources makes the claim to have proven macroevolution as fact. Remember, he is a proud atheist, who thinks that he doesn't have beliefs, but relies on facts. Ask him to show you those facts. Since he cannot do that, you'll most likely get hit with more soundbites and popular rhetoric. But, hold his feet to the fire. You want facts. You want to know upon what authority those facts are based. Eventually, if you resist the temptation to argue, but continue to press him for the authoritative basis of the supposed facts he so readily cites, he will have to admit that his authority is not so authoritative and his facts not so factual, after all. Either that, or he will call you some names and walk away in disgust. Either way, you will have given this proud atheist much to ponder, which should be your only goal. You will have forced him to actually think about the authority upon which he bases his beliefs facts, which, after all the smoke from the rhetoric fades away, whether he tells you science or common sense initially, is himself. He believes what he believes. He is his own god. He is his own authority.

Of course, were a proud atheist to read what I've written here, he would scream and moan about how off base I am, but, after all that screaming and moaning subsides, the only thing he is really left with is that he believes what he believes. He can no more prove his supposed facts than you can prove the existence of God. He may never admit that, but it is an irrefutable fact, nonetheless. The difference between you and him is not a matter of one of you being able to prove the other wrong; rather, it is simply a matter of the authority upon which each of you bases your beliefs. Your authority is the revealed Word of God in Holy Scripture; his authority is himself. It's really that simple.

A few months back, I ran into a college science professor on a friend's Facebook thread. According to him, I was a superstitious moron because I don't accept the theory of evolution as fact. He thought that meant that I had never studied evolution and had no clue what I was talking about. The temptation was severe to correct that impression by informing him that I have spent countless hours over many years studying evolution (I even have three of the most popular modern college texts on the subject sitting on my bookshelf that I have been reading when time permits), but I resisted that temptation. I simply asked him to point me to the authoritative resource that proves macroevolution as fact. In short fashion, he responded by sending me two different links to 20-page abstracts he had written for his own dissertation on how paired fins evolved over time to form appendages, and so forth, which was supposedly proof for macroevolution. I read both of these abstracts from beginning to end, having to rely on Google to look up several scientific terms along the way. What I found fascinating was that the conclusions in each of these abstracts made it vividly clear that everything proposed was hypothetical theory. Both conclusions admitted that much of the evidence needed to prove the theory is non-existent. So, by the author's own admission, which was in black-and-white for all to read, the whole paper was nothing more than his best guess, which relied upon the presumptions of a series of other best guesses. It was like saying that D is true, if C follows B and B follows A, but we have no evidence that either C, B, or A even exists. It was really quite remarkable, but not surprising, since, at the end of the day, all that such scientists have are presumptions and guesses - having read my share of scientific journals and evolution text books, that is always the case.

Anyway, after carefully reading both of these abstracts, I responded to this science professor by noting what he himself said in the conclusions of both, telling him that he did nothing more than prove my point, which was simply that he couldn't prove macroevolution as fact; that the theory of evolution remains a theory, not fact. He could not do anything to refute my response. He was caught by his own words. He revealed himself and his guesses and theories, which were based on the guesses and theories of others like him, to be the authority upon which he based his beliefs, which were indeed beliefs, not facts. But, rather than receiving an intelligent response, I was called more names and told how ignorant I was. That's fine. I don't mind being called names or being told how ignorant I am by someone who is so delusional that he cannot even accept his own words quoted back at him. But, what scares me is that this dude is teaching kids at the college level that his best guesses and theories are facts, when he himself knows better.

So, what's my point in all this? It's simple: Stop trying to prove you're right when debating proud atheists. Instead, put the onus on them to prove they're right. Ask them upon what authority they base their supposed facts. If you can get them to answer that question honestly, you win, NOT because you have proven your beliefs to be superior than theirs, but simply because you have led them to discover for themselves that their facts are no facts at all, but beliefs, and that the authority upon which those beliefs are held is themselves. You have science on your side in these debates, for science simply does not prove what they think it does, despite all the popular propaganda to the contrary (my favorite little bit of popular propaganda is the saying, "Evolution is a theory like gravity is a theory" - cute, but, um, not so much). So, dig beneath the soundbites and propaganda. Get to the authority. Uncover the real facts by getting them to expose their supposed facts as the beliefs they are. This is a much better approach than going into a defensive posture, as tempting as that may be. Besides, there may be time for that later. Once it is an established fact that both sides are dealing in the realm of beliefs, perhaps a discussion can ensue about those beliefs, and the authority upon which those beliefs are held. Or, maybe not. Maybe you'll be called names and your opponent will leave in disgust. So be it. At least you can say that you tried. And, whether or not the proud atheist will ever admit it, you will have given him much to ponder, because, try as he might, he will not be able to find the resource that proves his beliefs to be facts, since no such resource exists. That little nugget of truth simply has to give one furiously to think, which is really all you can hope to accomplish, at least initially.   

Friday, June 29, 2012

We're All Lutheran, Even If We're Not (or, My Review of the Michigan District Convention)

The theme for the 100th Regular Michigan District Convention was "Imagine Living as God's Forgiven and Forgiving Family." I'm not sure why we must imagine such a thing. If we are part of God's family, we're forgiven and forgiving. That kind of goes with the turf when adopted into the Divine Family. No need to imagine this at all. Baptized into Christ, we're forgiven. Fed upon the sweet honey of God's Word via Holy Absolution, Holy Preaching, and the Holy Supper, we're continuously washed anew in the Blood of the Lamb - forgiven and made clean. So, we need not imagine living as God's forgiven family; God's family only and always lives in forgiveness. And the same goes for living as God's forgiving family. We do. There can be no other way. We have been forgiven, and so we forgive. It's what God's family does. No need to invoke the imagination here at all.

What we should try doing is imagining living together as Lutherans, who take our confession of the faith seriously. Now, that would be something worth imagining indeed! Imagine if we didn't just say we were Lutherans, but actually lived and talked and breathed and believed and acted like Lutherans. Imagine if Lutheran pastors didn't just pay lip service to our Lutheran Confessions, but actually performed the duties of their Office in accordance with those Confessions, which they vowed to do at their Ordinations. Imagine if Lutheran laypeople took seriously the vow they made at Confirmation to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it. Imagine if we all took being Lutheran seriously. Imagine if being Lutheran meant more than belonging to a Lutheran congregation. Imagine if being Lutheran meant more than being the Sola Scriptura people, which, for many Lutherans today, pastors and layfolk alike, has come to mean, "Just me and my Bible." Imagine if Lutheran pastors actually kept their copies of the Book of Concord handy and read and studied it regularly. Imagine if they treated it like their guide to understanding the Scriptures and performing their pastoral duties, rather than as just another reference work they place on some shelf to collect dust and rarely consult. Imagine if Lutheran laypeople actually read and studied the Book of Concord, too, or at least wore the heck out of their personal copies of Luther's Small Catechism. Or, how about this: Imagine if we were half as united in being Lutheran in doctrine and practice as we are in our stance against the social evils that plague us today. Imagine if we took being Lutheran seriously - that's something worth imagining!

It seems to me that we have things backwards here: We want to imagine something that is already a reality (living as God's forgiven and forgiving family), but do not want to imagine something that is not a reality (being united as actual Lutherans).

There is a reason for this. It's a dirty, little secret among us that we want to keep hush-hush. It is this: Being Lutheran is not a distinct confession of the faith or a way of life for us; it is, rather, an assumption. We do not need to imagine being united as actual Lutherans because we already are, even if we're not. I know, it sounds screwy, but it's the way things work in the LCMS, which includes the Michigan District, the largest of the thirty-five districts.

This is why we don't need to actually bring theological matters to the floor of our conventions. We don't have any theological problems. That's impossible. We all believe the same thing. We're all Lutherans. It says so on our ordination certificates, on our church signs (well, most, anyway), and on our name badges. Being Lutheran is assumed - it's a given, something that we take for granted. We're all members of the LCMS, so we all believe the same thing, even if we don't. All of our worship is Christ-centered, even if it's not. Everything we do, through and through, drips with Lutheranism, even if it doesn't, because we're all Lutherans, even if we're not.

Thus, what we're left to work on, what the business of conventions becomes among us, is loving one another better, trusting each other more, and rooting each other on, as we go about spreading our perfectly united Lutheranism out into our extremely diverse cultural circumstances (because we all know that life is drastically different from place to place, even if only separated by a few miles) in creative, imaginative, and innovative ways. What we need are programs and ideas and techniques (you know, ministries) that will enable and empower us to conquer our own little kingdoms with our own unique versions of Lutheranism, all of which, no matter how unique, are equally Lutheran, of course.

I'm not being sarcastic. This is the reality, folks. I heard it, read it, lived it, witnessed it, and was amazed by it this past week. We're just not at all interested in dealing with the reality that we have serious divisions and disunity among us, since, well, those divisions and that disunity simply cannot really exist among us. If there are divisions, if there is disunity, it is not because we do not share a common confession of the faith; it is, rather, because some of us (myself included) refuse to accept the fact that we are all perfectly united Lutherans. The only real problem we have is that some (again, myself included) actually believe that we have problems.

It's all very frustrating and more than a little disheartening to this Lutheran. Perhaps this has much to do with the fact that I wasn't "born and raised" a Lutheran, but was brought into Lutheranism as a teenager by God's grace. I spent my childhood and early teenage years church hopping, going from place to place with friends and family, and when our Lord finally lead me to Lutheranism, it was like a breath of fresh air. The Gospel - what a concept! Before that, it was all Law, all the time - and, cheesy Law, sissified moralism. Being a Christian meant believing in Jesus, of course, but it also meant living right, being good, and avoiding sin. The worship and preaching I endured during my early years was geared toward "getting to heaven," and "getting to heaven" was dependent upon me. I remember constantly thinking to myself, "Am I good enough? Am I really saved? Will God let me into heaven?" And, then, the Gospel. Lutheranism. Wow. Awesome. The preaching and the worship was all about Jesus and what He has done, and continues to do, for me. What a relief! What Good News! I loved it; I still do - a LOT! And so, no one shall ever make me understand how it is that many Lutherans are so eager to abandon their confession of the faith in order to mimic the confession of the faith adhered to by other Christians. The Council of Presidents can put together as many "Theses on Worship" as they wish in the attempt to convince us that we're free to worship in many and various ways, even if those ways come straight from the methobapticostal playbook, but I shall never comprehend how many Lutherans so easily follow in Esau's steps, selling their birthright for the bread and lentil stew of man-centered preaching and worship found among most Protestants.

The worst part about this is that many do not even seem to know what they've done. How can they? They've bought into the LCMS Exceptionalism that assures them that we are all Lutherans, even if we're not. Thus, when you confront them theologically, they get a deer-in-the-headlights look on their faces, since they just cannot fathom the possibility that we might have some serious theological divisions among us. It's not that they're stupid or naive. They do know that there are real differences among us, it's just that they don't think those differences are theological. For them, we are as theologically united as any group of Christians could possibly be, and the differences we have among us are nothing more than stylistic and strategic in nature. All differences among us, then, are seen as belonging to the realm of adiaphora. We are perfectly united doctrinally, we just differ in how we put our doctrine into practice, and that is perfectly fine for them, because practice is only and always viewed as adiaphora and does not affect or change or disturb in any way our doctrine. 

I left for the Convention early enough on Sunday to make it to Ann Arbor by 3:00 p.m., so that I could attend the Open Hearing of Floor Committee #1 - Theology, Relations, and Practice. After going around the room and introducing ourselves, the Chairman opened things up for us to express concerns and ask questions. I raised my hand and expressed concerns about Resolution 1-02 "To Rejoice in our God-given Unity and Celebrate our Christ-centered Diversity" (this is the resolution I blogged about a few weeks ago here). I told the committee that I was upset and disappointed by the fact that they had completely ignored the four overtures referenced in this resolution, which had called for the district to encourage the establishment of liturgical mission starts, and had seemingly written their own resolution from scratch, which had not a single overture as its basis. To their credit, the committee confessed that this was exactly what they had done, and were even a little apologetic about it. They understood my frustration and disappointment. But, they also made it vividly clear that they had the right to do what they did. After much discussion, all of which was pretty cordial, they asked those of us who had concerns about this (after I ran my mouth for a while, others thankfully chimed in, supporting me) what we wanted them to do. They asked what they could add to their resolution to make it more acceptable to us. I, and others, responded by saying that we wanted them to take one of the original overtures and work on it, not tweak their own "written-from-scratch" resolution. They said they would take everything into advisement and see what they could do.

We also talked a lot about Resolution 1-03 "To Reaffirm Deacon Ministry." My congregation had submitted an overture asking us to restore faithfulness to AC XIV, which you can read here. So, in this case, the committee had to decide between two contradicting overtures. Naturally, they went with the overture that would not require any theological reflection or discussion, but would simply call for the convention to "high-five" one another for the great work being done via the Deacon Program. Before I could chime in on this one, Pr. Edward Steeh of St. John Lutheran in Ray, MI spoke up, urging the committee to go with the overture my congregation had submitted, rather than the one the committee had chosen. This led to a very interesting, and most telling, discussion, during which most of the members of the committee readily admitted that something seems to be wrong with the Lay Deacon Program (Ya think?!), but that they were confident that they had gone a long way toward fixing the problem by asking the District President's Office to study the feasibility of circuit riders or other means of providing pastors to administer the Sacrament of the Altar where Lay Deacons currently serve. Why? Because it's okay for Lay Deacons to do everything else a pastor does without being rightly called, but people get a little itchy when it comes to them consecrating the elements and administering the Holy Supper. Yeah. You heard me right. This is the depth of theological thinking we have going on among us. I told the committee that this didn't make a bit of sense. If it's not okay for Lay Deacons to administer the Sacrament, it's not okay for them to preach, since, well, AC XIV forbids both. Thus, the committee's grand solution was no solution at all, but just added more confusion into the mix. They responded by saying that the jury is still out for them on this whole subject and that there were theologians among us who didn't see anything wrong with Lay Ministry, to which I responded by pointing out that the Systematic Theology Departments from both of our seminaries had released a Joint Statement about this, a quote from which was included in the overture our congregation had submitted. It went back and forth for a while, but it was clear that the committee wasn't going to budge on this one. They were not going to allow an actual theological discussion about this to hit the convention floor.

Anyway, those were the two big ones that we talked about during the Open Hearing. As I said above, the discussion was pretty cordial. I thanked the committee for hearing my concerns and they thanked me (and the others) for raising them, again assuring us that they would take everything into consideration.

After that, I went to register, visited with several friends, and waited for my lay delegate and his wife to arrive. When they got there, we attended the orientation for delegates, went and grabbed a quick bite to eat in the Ministry Tent (great subs provided by Lutheran Benefits Group), and then it was off to Divine Service in the Chapel, which was absolutely beautiful - Divine Service 3, everything chanted, Pres. Harrison preached an awesome sermon, and one gorgeous hymn after another. Outstanding! After Service, we went out for a couple of Lutheran beverages and some eats.

The joy we had after Sunday's Opening Divine Service was quickly snuffed out Monday morning, as the Service that morning was filled with contemporary Christian praise music and a motivational message in place of the sermon (something about how we can outwit Satan). I didn't actually go, but got there early enough to sit and watch the Service playing on the big screen in the Gym. My lay delegate and his wife went, but left after the readings, as they simply could not endure the informality and nonchalance they were witnessing, and the touchy-feely music (complete with many arms raised and swaying in the pews), in what was supposed to be the Lord's Holy House of Prayer. I had warned them that it was going to be like that, but they thought that, after the awesome Divine Service the night before, it couldn't be that bad. But, when they heard the pastor leading the Service say, "Who needs Starbucks, we have Jesus! Amen?!," at the beginning, they knew they were in trouble.

The Official Opening of the Convention began shortly after that Service and, after several introductory matters, our District President gave his address, the highlight of which was the standing ovation given to Pres. Harrison for his testimony before the House Committee earlier this year. The rest of the address was about "making progress with our walk with Jesus" and how "our relationship with Him is going nowhere unless it is lived out in relationship with others" and how "it is up to us to demonstrate Jesus' Presence until He returns on the Last Day" and how the world is changing so much and the church must change with it (this, of course, after making it clear that our Lord never changes - my lay delegate said to me during the break later, "Pastor, I don't understand how he could say that our Lord never changes, but then go on and on about how the Church must change," to which I responded by saying that I don't understand it either). Pres. Maier's address reminded me of the many times I had heard former LCMS Pres. Kieschnick speak - lots of stats about how much things have changed and how unChristian our nation has become to drive home the main point that we need to get outside our comfort zones and start thinking outside the box and be willing to change and take risks to reach the lost, because there will soon be Hell to pay if we don't, etc. But, evidently, it was just what many wanted to hear, as he was reelected on the first ballot with 78.6% of the vote.

Later in the afternoon, Pres. Harrison gave his presentation and Bible Study. Very nice. I had heard him give essentially the same Bible Study on "Witness, Mercy, Life Together" before, but it was great to hear it again, and I think a great many people were very impressed with him.

Then, it was finally on to business, as Floor Committee I took the stage to begin putting their resolutions to the floor (the full texts of all the resolutions acted upon during the Convention can be found on the Michigan District website here, although the final versions are still not posted for some reason). When they brought their first resolution to the floor - Res. 1-01 "To Encourage 'Life Together' Through Use of the Word of God and Prayer" - I wanted to go to the mic and ask why the Confessions were not mentioned in this resolution, but knew that I would be going to the mic when they got to 1-02, so decided to stay put. But, I do think that this resolution reveals a major issue among us that rarely gets talked about, namely the whole "Just Me and My Bible" mentality that many confuse for Sola Scriptura. The idea that we need to read Holy Scripture through the lens of our Confessions is simply lost on most. We end up being no different than other "Bible-believing Christians," as we approach the Scriptures on our own. No wonder much confusion and heterodoxy ensues. I also think that this "Word sans Our Confessions" approach has lead many to think of the Holy Supper as being far less significant than it is supposed to be among Lutherans, but that is the subject for another blog post, so I'll move on.

After the convention passed 1-01 by a grand majority, it was on to 1-02(a). I went to the mic and proposed a substitute resolution, asking that one of the original overtures this resolution was supposed to be based upon be considered by the convention, rather than the resolution the floor committee had written from scratch. After our lengthy discussion during the Open Hearing the day before, the floor committee changed the title and added a Whereas to their resolution, rather than tweak one of the original overtures as we had asked them. My substitute failed 65%-35%. Oh well. Expected, really. So, 1-02(a) as proposed by the floor committee was back on the floor. I went to the mic again and asked the floor committee to explain their rationale for referencing Rom. 14:5 in the third Whereas, which stated that Scripture grants Christians a certain freedom in determining how they worship the Lord. I still don't know what happened with that. The committee could not answer this question and the explanation they did try to give made no sense, which I stated, but then things just moved on. 1-02(a) passed by 70.8%. I suppose we could consider it a little victory that the Whereas the committee added, based on our discussion the day before, at least admitted that "there is a perception that the Michigan District has moved away from the strategy of starting liturgical mission congregations," but, given the fact that the meaning, purpose, and intent of the resolution we passed was still so far removed from the meaning, purpose, and intent of the original overtures, that little victory is more than a little hollow.

1-03 was brought to the floor next, which is the one about Reaffirming Deacon Ministry. I really wanted to go back to the mic again and propose another substitute, asking that the overture my congregation had submitted be taken up rather than this one, but, having just gone to the mic a couple of times, I decided that I would stay put unless someone else got up to speak against the resolution. No one did. It passed by 81.9%.

The only other time I went to the mic was on Tuesday, when 3-03(a) was brought to the floor "To Commend the Affiliation of Concordia University Ann Arbor and Concordia University Wisconsin." I didn't oppose the resolution at all, but I simply couldn't stomach the first Whereas, which read, "Whereas, the Lord God has miraculously parted the waters again - this time, Lake Michigan - that Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor might pursue educational ministry together." Really? As wonderful as it is that these two Universities were able to come together and save my alma mater, I don't think we should be comparing that with the actual parting of the Red Sea. I proposed a substitute Whereas, which was accepted by the floor committee as friendly, but as I was walking back to my seat, the chairman of floor committee 3 made a snarky remark, saying, "We were just trying to be cute and creative, but I guess that isn't welcomed by some at this convention," or something to that effect. He's right. Some of us would just prefer not to get cute and creative with Holy Scripture, comparing a metaphor with an actual Biblical event. But, when theology is assumed and really doesn't matter, that's what you get - cute and creative.

We were treated to more cuteness and creativity after lunch on Tuesday, as Rev. Mark Brandt thought it funny to share a new "hymn" he had written in honor of DP Maier, to the tune of "I Know That My Redeemer Lives":

This was NOT an actual hymn and was NOT sung during any kind of Service, but was a joke and was sung by many in the Gym (Convention Floor) to giggles and glee. DP Maier knew nothing about it. Rev. Brandt sprung it on him and the convention as a joke in response to earlier comments about how wonderful a hymn-writer Pr. Steve Starke is (Amen to that!). Rev. Brandt was jokingly saying that he could write hymns, too. The problem is that it's representative of how little we think theologically. It just didn't dawn on Rev. Brandt or others that singing praises to our DP to the tune of "I Know That My Redeemer Lives" might not be the best idea. It's a good indicator of how the whole convention went - just giggles and glee, patting each other on the back, praising God that we're all perfectly united as Lutherans, even though we're not, and very little in the way of theology or actual business. In fact, one of the things we learned at this convention was that overtures and amendments to resolutions can be declined because there is already "District policy in place." No duh! The reason for the overtures and amendments is to CHANGE DISTRICT POLICY - what part of that do some not understand? But, this "we already have District policy in place" strategy is very effective on the delegates, most of whom swallow it hook, line, and sinker. Funny, there was a resolution or two put forth by the District BoD to CHANGE DISTRICT POLICY and the floor committees conveniently forgot to invoke the "we already have District policy in place" line. It's all so arrogant and condescending, but the tragedy is that many fail to see the arrogance and condescension, as they are effectively distracted by the giggles and glee.

I was proud of my brother in Christ, Pr. Larry Wright, who went to the mic when Res. 2-08 was brought to the floor "To Respectfully Decline Overtures." The overtures the floor committee were asking to be declined were overtures submitted by our Midland Circuit and by the congregations served by Pr. Wright and myself. The overtures resolved to have the Michigan District be directed to use the funds received from the sale of congregational or district properties to only fund ministries which clearly stipulate that the Word and Sacraments shall be an integral and inseparable part of the ministry and mission receiving said funds. In other words, when a congregation closes, we want the District to use the funds it receives from the sale of that property to support or help establish an existing or new congregation where the Word of God is preached and the Holy Sacraments administered, rather than giving those funds to help start coffee houses or other so-called "ministries," as has been happening, where Word and Sacrament Ministry is not integral to the supposed "mission" being done. Pr. Wright made the good confession by giving an impassioned and clear testimony about the centrality and utter importance of Word and Sacrament Ministry among Lutherans, but his substitute failed (go figure!) and the convention ended up passing 2-08 by 78.3%. This, after Rev. David Davis, chairman of floor committee 2, invoked the "we already have District policy in place" line in response to Pr. Wright.

We did pass several good resolutions at this convention, including 1-04(a) "To Have the CTCR Address Questions Raised Concerning the SMP Program," 1-05 "To Review and Confirm the Baptismal Formula and Request Guidelines for the Acceptance of Members," 3-07 "To Encourage and Support Public University Campus Ministry" (presented by Christ the King, where my friend, Pr. Jon Bakker serves), and 1-09 "To Commend the Roman Catholic Church for its Stance on Religious Freedoms and Defense of the Rights of the Unborn," as well as many others, which were no-brainers. But, the tragedy is that we did not take up a single resolution that facilitated actual theological discussion about the divisions among us, since, again, those divisions can't actually exist. We all believe the same thing, even if we don't.

I think my lay delegate and his wife summed things up pretty well, as they indicated that their impression of the convention was that we were not there to actually work on our differences and discuss theology, but to ignore our differences and cheer one another on. They noted that they were disappointed that so many of the delegates there actually seemed a little disgusted when some of us went to the mic and tried to convince the convention to take up the theological matters that divide us. They said that it seemed like the vast majority of the delegates just wanted to move on and get to the "fluff-fluff" stuff. What all of this really means is that I'll have to beg and plead for someone else to serve as our congregation's lay delegate when, Lord willing, I attend my fourth District Convention as a pastoral delegate in 2015, since none of the lay delegates I bring with me ever want to go back. I can't blame them. It really is a shock to the system to see the vast differences that exist among us in our district (which were on full display throughout the convention, but especially during the worship services) and to not have any desire to work on them.

Additionally, this was the first convention in which the congregation I serve sent in overtures to be considered. We sent in six overtures and only two made it to the floor (1-04a and 1-05). Two were ignored completely, one was "respectfully declined," and one was so completely altered as to lose entirely its meaning, purpose, and intent (1-02a). I already have members asking me, "Why bother participating if they're just going to ignore most of what we send in for consideration?" I understand that sentiment, but, hey, 33% is better than nothing, right? :)

I was thankful to be able to sit by Pr. Tony Sikora and his lay delegate, Dennis Peskey, during the convention, and it was nice to be able to reconnect and visit with many friends and colleagues. I also had the pleasure of meeting several brothers in person, whom I had only previously known via Facebook and other sites online, and enjoyed the theological discussions I had with many of them. So, that's something.    

Lastly, I'm sure there will be some who read this little report and come to the conclusion that I'm just being one of those stubborn, ultra-confessional jerks who plague our perfect synod. Maybe I am, but let me make one thing vividly clear. I do not hate our district leadership or the many pastors and laypeople who obviously adhere to a very different understanding of what Lutheranism is and how it is to be confessed and practiced among us. I really don't. In fact, I am certain that they have nothing but the best of intentions and that most of them are sincere in their convictions. Many of them are just downright nice people, who love Jesus and want to serve Him. God bless them for that! But, this is precisely the problem in our district and synod: We believe that loving one another and being nice and getting along and agreeing to disagree and all the other well-meaning sentiments should serve as the basis of our unity and our "walking together." I wholeheartedly disagree. I know a few pastors of other denominations who are some of the nicest guys you will ever be blessed to meet this side of heaven. I can get along with them just fine. I can be friends with them. I can even thank God for the many things about which we can completely agree. But, what I cannot do is pretend like the very real theological differences that exist between us don't matter or are unimportant. I cannot "walk together" with them in unity. The same holds true for those within my own church body, with whom I have very real theological differences. Those differences need to be discussed and worked out, not ignored. The basis of our unity is not loving one another and being nice and getting along and agreeing to disagree, etc., but our common confession of the faith, as expressed in our Lutheran Confessions. And that unity is not achieved simply because we all have vowed to subscribe unconditionally to those Confessions, but only if we live out those Confessions in word and deed. This, unfortunately, is not happening, and so what we really have is pretend unity, which is no unity at all. At the end of the day, the idea that we're all Lutherans, even if we're not, is a lie, and unless and until we admit that, the Word of God and its correct exposition in our Lutheran Confessions will not be permitted to do its work among us and move us toward a greater degree of unity in our district and synod. May our Lord lead us to admit this, so that our conventions can again one day become places where we discuss our theological differences and work toward resolving them on the basis of Holy Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions, as our forefathers in our synod used to do, rather than the mere opportunities to pat each other on the back and cheer one another on, while intentionally ignoring our serious differences, they have become today.

A guy can dream imagine, can't he?   

Monday, June 11, 2012

Missional Moments?

The Minnesota South District Convention will occur later this week. In reading the agenda, I notice that there is time allotted for eight "Missional Moments" throughout the convention. What in the world are "Missional Moments"?

If I had to guess, I'd say that these will be five minute videos or testimonials of some sort, showing how this or that congregation or these or those individuals are "sharing their faith" in some fashion. If I'm right, these videos or testimonials will probably be accompanied by emotionally-manipulative music playing in the background as the convention witnesses how the lost are being reached (have your hankies ready!).

I'm basing this guess on a couple of factors: 1) I have seen this sort of thing personally in the past at my own district conventions. I think they were called "Ablaze!(tm) Moments" or "Great Commission Moments" or "Faith-Sharing Moments" or something like that. They were cheesy and not at all in line with our Lutheran Confession of the faith (of course, saying that these days is seen by many as being akin to kicking puppies, but so be it), but they had just the right amount of emotional manipulation to cast a spell over many in the assembly, leading them to believe that these sorts of "___________ Moments" was what the Church was all about, the real "ministry" and "mission" happening not via the preaching of the pure Gospel and right administration of the Holy Sacraments in the Divine Service, but out there in the world whenever a Christian has a "critical moment" with an unbeliever unchurched person and makes a "gospel contact." 2) The "Guiding Principles" of the MNS District, which sees its mission as "developing missional leaders in congregations and schools" and wants all Christians in their district to see themselves as Missionaries, who "fervently seek opportunities to speak of Jesus with friends and neighbors," and wants congregations in their district to see themselves as "mission outposts." This, of course, comes with all sorts of goal-setting, since it is important to keep track of how well this "everyone a missionary" strategy is working (i.e. how many souls are being saved by the Missionaries - all Christians - in the district). Plus, if all those Missionaries are not being as fervent as they ought, these goals can be referenced to guilt motivate them to get out there with more fervency to reach the lost (after all, as our former synodical president often quipped, "Every time I snap my fingers, someone goes to Hell!"). So, I'm guessing that these "Missional Moments" will be used in the spirit of these Guiding Principles - opportunities to reinforce the idea that everyone is a Missionary and to motivate all to get out there and save the lost, already!

The irony in all of this is that those who follow the "everyone a minister/missionary" philosophy (which comes from decidedly un-Lutheran sources - just sayin') think that, in doing so, they are fulfilling the so-called "Great Commission." Really, though, what they are fulfilling is what I like to call the "Great Omission," since, well, they actually omit the things Jesus Himself says makes disciples in their missional, Jesus-follower-making model. The things that actually make disciples (Baptism, catechesis, absolution, preaching, reception of the Lord's Supper - all under the authority of Jesus in the Church He established and in which He continues to be Present) are secondary to the real "ministry" and "mission," which happens whenever a Christian Missionary confesses the Gospel shares his/her faith with an unbeliever unchurched person out in the world. In the "Great Omission," what is really important are the "gospel contacts" all the Missionaries (all people) make. The real "Gospel Contacts" (Baptism, catechesis, absolution, preaching, reception of the Lord's Supper) are often not even counted in the goals of those who follow the "Great Omission" (e.g. none of these actual "Gospel Contacts" were important enough to be counted in the running tally of soul-saving that used to stain grace our synodical website in the "Ablaze!(tm) Ticker"). 

But, I know, I'm just a nasty, polarizing "confessional," who doesn't care about saving the lost. If I did, I would jump on board with the program and start teaching the people I am blessed to serve that they are Missionaries, who need to get out there in the world and start saving the lost - pronto! But, alas, I love them too much to burden them with the guilt of allowing so many people go to Hell because of their obvious laziness. Plus, I still hold the crazy belief that saving the lost is something best left to the Holy Spirit, who does that lost-saving work via the means of grace (Holy Word and Sacraments), which He Himself established for this purpose. So, I teach the people I serve to live out their God-given vocations and to always be ready to confess the faith if and when the Holy Spirit presents the opportunity, but to also be comforted by the fact that they are not "missionaries" and that saving the lost is not their job, which, of course, means that neither myself nor the congregation I serve will ever be featured in a district's "Missional Moments" at a convention. Oh well, I suppose I'll have to learn to live with that. 

Whatever these "Missional Moments" turn out to be at the upcoming MNS District Convention, I think it is safe to conclude, based on the actions of the MNS BoD toward University Lutheran Chapel, that none of the following pics would be considered by them to be "Missional Moments." On the contrary, what you see depicted in the pics below has to be eliminated so that they can fulfill the "Great Omission" by selling and destroying ULC to make way for students to be raised up as Missionaries, so that more "gospel contacts" can be made and less people will have to go to Hell whenever we snap our fingers.