Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Romans Bible Study

Tomorrow morning, we begin a study of Romans in our Together in the Word class.  I'm very excited about it.  Romans is my favorite book of the Bible (besides Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and about 61 other books - :).

Seriously, Romans does stand out as the clearest teaching in all the Bible of systematic theology.  St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, teaches us in these pages everything we need to know about what the Christian faith is and how it is lived.  There is little question why Luther was bonkers about this book.  Here is a little taste of what he had to say about it:
This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel.  It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.  We can never read it or ponder over it too much; for the more we deal with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes . . .
You think Luther liked this book?  The "chief part of the New Testament," the "purest gospel," and "every Christian should know it by heart" - yeah, I'd say he was a fan! :)

Can't wait for the study.  And, we'll get to use our new TLSB's, too (thanks to another generous donation, we were able to purchase another case of TLSB hardbacks, which arrived yesterday - that gives us 20 copies to grace our bookshelf in the Adult Bible Study room - how cool is that?).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Petition worth Signing

Should our Districts be including un-Lutheran materials, which put forth false teachings, in their official publications?  If you answer "No" to that question, then head over to the Steadfast site and sign your name to the petition Pr. Rossow has started.  You can go here or here to read more about what prompted this petition.   

Choke and Pukes

One of the drawbacks to living in Alma, MI is that there are no White Castle restaurants in the area.  You would think that Mt. Pleasant, that "big" city to our north, would have a White Castle.  Nope.  They got everything else you could think of, and some things you couldn't, but no White Castle.

So, yesterday, while down south for the St. Michael Liturgical Conference, I knew what I would be having for dinner.  After the conference, on the way to my parents' house, where I would spend the night, I stopped at the White Castle I had frequented while growing up and picked up a sack of "choke and pukes" (five to enjoy last night and five more to enjoy this evening).  I know others refer to White Castle burgers as "sliders," but we call 'em "choke and pukes" where I'm from.  Either nickname is ill founded, of course, since they are oh so delicious.  Seriously, is there anything better than a sack of "choke and pukes"?  Mmmm!!!

Here's a pic I took last night of my wonderful meal.  If you move your nose close enough to the monitor, you may even be able to smell 'em! :)  

St. Michael Liturgical Conference

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending the Twelfth Annual St. Michael Liturgical Conference at Zion Lutheran in Detroit.  I've attended this conference annually for the past several years and have always enjoyed it immensely.  This year was no exception, to be sure. 

The theme for the conference this year was "The Triduum Sacrum" (The Three Holy Days - Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday).  Rev. Dr. Kent Burreson (Assoc. Prof. and Dean of the Chapel at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis) was the Keynote Speaker and presented a very interesting paper titled, "The Triduum Sacrum and the Paschal Catechumenate."  Workshop presenters included Rev. Dr. Burnell Eckardt, Rev. Dr. Richard Zeile, Rev. Eric Forss, and Rev. Mark Braden (pastor at Zion and gracious host of the conference).  Much was shared about the various rubrics/rites involved in the Triduum Sacrum, and I left with a lot to chew on.  Good stuff, especially for a liturgical nerd, like me. :)

But, as wonderful as the various presentations were, the highlight for me were the Services in the Lord's House.  We began the conference with Holy Mass at 9:00 a.m., and it was simply heavenly.  Pr. Braden (our host) served as Celebrant (man, that dude has been blessed with some beautiful pipes - I wish I could chant the liturgy half as beautifully as him!), Pr. David Petersen served as preacher and delivered a most excellent Law/Gospel sermon, based on the Gospel lesson (raising of the widow's son at Nain), Prs. Eric Forss and Joel Basely served as Deacon and Subdeacon, respectively, and Bishop ( English District President) Rev. Dr. David Stechholz served as Officiant (always wonderful to be blessed by the Bishop!).  At Noon, we gathered again in the Lord's House for the Office of Sext, a beautiful, short prayer Service, and we concluded the business of the day with Solemn Vespers at 4:00 p.m.

I was so happy that three of our congregation's members were in attendance with me at this conference.  While I know that some parts of the presentations they heard were a little over their heads, I also know that they greatly appreciated the Services in the Lord's House, which were simply awesome (did I already mention that?:).   

I also have to say that the folks at Zion did a superb job of hosting the conference.  They were very hospitable to us, and both the luncheon and the Gemutlichkeit (fancy word for "reception") were most excellent.

Lastly, it was great fun to catch up with many brothers I don't get to see that often.  Lots of pastors for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration were at this conference, and it was a blessing to be in their midst.  A great day, indeed!   


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Where's Jesus, Mr. Osteen?

As promised during Bible Study this morning, below is the "Issues, Etc." segment of Pastor Wilken's latest review of a Joel Osteen "sermon."  Remember, the operative question is, "Where's Jesus?"  If you find Him in this sermon motivational message, please let me know. 

Off the Snide - Finally!

Lions 19
Redskins 14
Buccaneers fans can rest easy.  Their record of having the worst losing streak in NFL history is no longer in danger.   The Lions ended their 19-game losing streak (7 shy of the worst-ever Bucs) today with a victory over the dismal Redskins.  The last time we Lions fans were able to celebrate a victory was December 23, 2007.  Can't even remember back that far! :)  Hey, we're only 2 games out of first with this win.  Playoffs, maybe?  Come on, it could happen! :)  Way to go Lions - IT'S ABOUT TIME!

Football is Football, and the Divine Service is the Divine Service

I'm watching the Minnesota Vikings play football against the San Francisco 49ers right now. I would be watching the Lions-Redskins game, but it's blacked out, due to the fact that the Lions are at home and failed to sell out. But, that's besides the point.  The point is that I'm watching a football game.  I know it's a football game.  There are football players.  There is a football.  There are referees and coaches.  There is a play-by-play announcer and color commentator calling the game.  It's a football game, no doubt about it.

But, what if the refs, or the coaches, or the players, or the announcers declared that what I am witnessing is not a football game at all?  What if they told me that I am watching a baseball game?  That would be ridiculous, wouldn't it?  I mean, I know a football game when I see one.  So do you.  Football is football.  If the refs, coaches, players, and announcers claim that they're participating in a baseball game, they would simply be wrong.  They're participating in football, not baseball, as everyone can see.

Of course, I doubt very seriously that the refs, coaches, players, and announcers would claim to be participating in a baseball game.  They know it's football every bit as much as I do, and you do.  To claim otherwise would be utterly absurd.

It would be like those Lutherans who claim that their "contemporary praise worship" is equivalent to the Lutheran Divine Service.  No, it's not.  It is something completely different, as different as football is from baseball.  I know the Divine Service when I see it.  It is not that the Divine Service looks exactly the same everywhere.  There are differences here and there, minor variations in rubrics and ceremonies, but it's the same Divine Service.  The sport of football has many different teams, who wear different uniforms, and call different plays, etc., but they're all playing the same game.  They use the same equipment.  Likewise, the Lutheran Divine Service.  Some congregations chant, others speak; some pastors elevate and genuflect, others bow or don't do any action in those places; some pastors wear chasubles, others wear alb and stole; some congregations use incense, others don't; some congregations employ large choirs to lead the singing, others have small choirs or no choir at all, and so on.  But, they're all playing the same game (I know how bad that sounds, since the Divine Service is certainly no game, but you get my point). 

The common thread among those Lutherans who celebrate the Divine Service is the liturgy.  Following the football analogy, the liturgy is like the rule book.  We may "play the game" a little differently, but the liturgy keeps us playing the same "game."  And, just like with the rules of football, which have changed slightly from time to time, there have been alterations made to the liturgy from time to time.  But, the basic structure remains the same, and has been in place for a very long time.  In the same way that the changes to the NFL rule book have not altered the game in any significant way, so the changes in the liturgy have not altered the structure in any significant way.  In other words, if you watch ESPN Classic and see an NFL game from the 1960s, you'll recognize that it's the game of football being played, just like if you attended the Divine Service at any time throughout history, you would know what you're attending.  

Another common thread among those Lutherans who celebrate the Divine Service is a common confession of the faith and a shared theology of worship.  The Lutheran Divine Service is Christ-centered and Cross-focused.  It is reverent.  It is holy.  It is other-worldly.  It doesn't look like the world.  It looks like the Church.  It has no interest in relevance (as that term is often used in describing "worship" today) or political correctness.  It is focused on the Lord and His Gifts.  It is built upon the belief and confession that Christ is there present with those gathered around Word and Sacrament; that Christ is REALLY there.  In the Lutheran Divine Service, we are in the Lord's House, not our house.  We are the guests, He is the host.  We come to receive that which He desires to give.  In response to the Gifts we receive, we offer Him our thanks and praise.  The movement in the Lutheran Divine Service is from our Lord to us, not the other way around. 

All of this is vividly clear.  The Lutheran Divine Service is recognizable.  It can't be confused with other "styles" of "worship."  There is no debating this.   

And yet, amazingly, there are many so-called Lutherans who do wish to debate this.  They follow the "methods" and "styles" of other Christians, creating a "worship experience" that is decidedly un-Lutheran, and absurdly make the claim that it's the Divine Service they're celebrating.  Where they get their ideas for "worship" is no secret.  Visit your local Christian bookstore, watch Christian television (not EWTN, of course!), and listen to Christian radio (steer clear of the likes of "Issues, Etc.", of course!), and you will witness what is driving their "worship."  They use the "methods," "styles," and "songs" of non-Lutherans, who do not share a common confession of the faith or theology of worship with Lutherans.  "Worship" for these other Christians is something they do.  Jesus is not there in their "worship."  He is "up there" in heaven and "worship" for them is an exercise of "giving their all" for Jesus, the idea being that the louder they are, the more fervent they are, the more emotional they are, the better chance their "worship" has of reaching Jesus "up there."  The Lord and His Gifts are not their focus, which is why they have no problem pushing the altar to the side, or removing it altogether, to make room for the "praise band."  They turn the Lord's House into a house of entertainment.  And, they don't apologize for doing so.  They believe differently than we do.  Their theology is not our theology; it is as different as football is from baseball.  They are most certainly not playing the same "game" as we Lutherans are playing!

Thus, it is not only wrong for those who claim to be Lutheran to mimic the practices of those who do not believe as we Lutherans believe and then claim to be celebrating the Divine Service, it is, to put it bluntly, absurd - just as absurd as trying to convince me that I'm watching a baseball game when the TV is tuned to a football game.  I know football when I see it.  And, I know the Lutheran Divine Service when I see it.  Would that those who play a different "game" just be honest and admit it.  That would be oh so refreshing.  As it is, we'll have to continue to endure the absurdity of listening to those who play a different "game" trying to convince us that it's the same "game" we're playing.

In sum (for those of you who are visual learners), this:

is not the same as this:

or this:

That really should go without saying, shouldn't it? 

Pastor's prayer before Divine Service

O Lord God, dear Father in heaven, I am indeed unworthy of the office and ministry in which I am to make known Your glory and to nurture and to serve this congregation. 

But since You have appointed me to be a pastor and teacher, and the people are in need of the teaching and the instruction, be my helper and let Your holy angels attend me. 

Then if You are pleased to accomplish anything through me, to Your glory and not to mine or to the praise of men, grant me, out of Your pure grace and mercy, a right understanding of Your Word and that I may diligently perform it. 

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, shepherd and bishop of our souls, send Your Holy Spirit that He may work with me to will and to do through Your divine strength according to Your good pleasure.  Amen.  (Lutheran Service Book:  Pastoral Care Companion - Luther's Sacristy Prayer, p. xviii)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Happy Birthday, Charlotte!

This afternoon, the family of one of our members, Charlotte, threw a surprise b-day party for her at the church.  I've been to a few "surprise parties" in my day, but this one was one of the best.  Charlotte had absolutely no clue what she was walking into.  The look on her face was simply classic.  She thought there was a Thrivent meeting being held and walked in TOTALLY unsuspecting.  Great, great fun!

It was wonderful to see so many members from our congregation there to celebrate with Charlotte, who has been blessed with 80 years by her Lord.  The food was delicious and the company was wonderful.  It was a truly blessed event, indeed!

Gracious Lord, we thank and praise You for Your continued goodness to Your servant Charlotte, whom You have blessed with length of days in this present life.  Grant that she may continue to know Your loving-kindness, abide in the confession of Your care and protection, and in all things glorify Your holy name; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen. (Lutheran Service Book:  Pastoral Care Companion, pp 462-463) 


Perseverance of the saints

You see that title and are probably expecting something theological.  Nope.  I'm referring to the endurance necessary for those of us who "bleed green."  I really am shell-shocked over the Spartans' dismal start to this season.  I really thought all the hype leading into this season was justified.  Then, to see them come out and handle Montana State in their first game, I was sure this was going to be a banner year for Sparty.  Even after the ridiculous loss to CMU, I thought, "Just a fluke; they'll rebound."  Then they go into the hostile environment of South Bend and blow one they should have had.  Little nervous after that, since their defense was awful, but still thinking they'll rebound.  Then, today.  What was that?  I realize how difficult it is to win on the road in the Big Ten, but at least show up, would ya?  I was very disappointed in their effort today.  I thought we were supposed to have our problems on defense fixed this year.  Um, obviously not!  They've gotten worse.  Wow!  But, more than that, the boys were just not in the game at all.  From the opening whistle, they looked flat and unprepared.  The only positive to take away from this game is that they did battle till the end.  They didn't just throw in the towel.  That's something, I guess.  But, then that kick with 0:15 left.  Huh?!  We just scored two late touchdowns to give ourselves a chance and the kicker fails to execute an on-sides kick.  What genius on the sidelines thought it would be a good idea to squib-kick the ball in that situation?  Or, did Stenson just mis-kick it?  Whatever the case, there's no excuse for that.  It was one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen.  Would they have recovered the on-sides kick, hooked up on a "hail mary" for a touchdown, and converted the two-point conversion?  Probably not.  But, you got no chance of that when you pooch the ball 35 yards down the field.  Seriously frustrating!

So, no pep talks this week.  No "we'll get 'em next week!"  We have that other team from our state, whose name is never mentioned around here (who were the recipients of a ridiculous call by the refs today to ensure their victory - seriously, how much do they pay the refs? - when the receiver and the defender both have the ball, it's a reception!), coming in, and if someone doesn't figure out how to play defense, it could get ugly.  But, I'll stick with my team.  Always have; always will.  Who knows, maybe they'll show up next week and play like they can.  I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Perseverance of the saints = being a Spartans fan.     

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Must Read . . .

posted by Pastor Rossow over at the Steadfast site.  The similarities between the language used by the current ELCA leaders and our own LCMS leaders is very telling - and very, very scary! 

A Looong, but Blessed Day

One of the great joys of pastoral ministry is being able to deliver the Lord's Gifts to His children who are not able to attend the Divine Service.  These beloved ones are prevented from attending for a variety of reasons, but whatever physical or mental ailments they're suffering, the real tragedy for them is that they're not able to come to Church.  "I miss being able to come to Church" and "I wish I was able to make it there on Sundays" are common sentiments they share with me.  They are genuinely saddened that they are not able to come.  They miss it.  They would be there if they could be. 

What a blessing it is, then, for them to have Church brought to them by their pastor.  It doesn't take the sadness and regret they feel completely away.  They still wish they were able to come.  But, their faces light up when they see me walk in the room, and it is not because they're thrilled to see my goofy mug, but rather because they know that I bring with me Christ and His Gifts.  I'd like to think that they're happy to see me, too, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the object of their true joy are the Gifts I bring to them.   

But, if it is a blessing for them, it is just as much so for the pastor.  I admit that I often forget what a blessing it is for me to visit these beloved brothers and sisters who are shut-in or hospitalized.  There are times when the Old Adam in me sees this as a chore.  How many times have I caught myself saying, "I have to get my visits done"?  How pitiful!  Lord, have mercy!  It should always be, "I get to go out and visit these beloved ones and deliver unto them the Gifts they desire and need."  Of course, that always gets corrected, for it never fails that, no matter how busy I am, and no matter how much the Old Adam in me tries to convince me that it's a chore I'd rather not do, when I do go out and do these visits, it is always pure joy and blessing indeed.

So, today was a day of joy and blessing for me, as I was privileged to begin the day by teaching Bible Study (and we all got to use our new TLSB's as we finished our study of Leviticus - on to Romans next Thursday), continued by meeting with my wonderful secretary to finalize things for Sunday, went out for a tasty lunch (steak fajitas at the local Mexican restaurant) with someone I love dearly, and then spent the rest of the day and early evening traveling to and fro, delivering Word and Sacrament to God's children who are not able to come and receive these Divine and Blessed Gifts.  It was a loooong, but most blessed, day!

Lord Jesus, our Savior, You have compassion upon all the sick and afflicted.  Be with me, Your servant, in this hour that I may rightly comfort, strengthen, encourage, admonish, and prepare the sick for a blessed death.  Grant me Your Holy Spirit that all I say may be blessed and my prayers and supplications be pleasing to You.  Into Your hands I commend myself; at Your bidding I go.  You will preserve me, for I trust in You.  Blessed be Your holy name.  Amen. (Pastor's prayer before visiting the sick - Lutheran Service Book:  Pastoral Care Companion, p. xx)    

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Powder Puff MVP

Tonight, after Divine Service, I headed over to the high school football field to watch my daughter, Sarah, play in the annual Homecoming week "Powder Puff" game. It is always Senior-Sophomore vs. Junior-Freshman, and unless it is simply impossible for the refs (Varsity Football coaches) to fix things, the Senior-Sophomore team always wins. It is actually a lot of fun to watch, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion (in most cases).

I thought that tonight was going to be one of those times when it was going to be impossible for the refs to see to it that the Senior-Sophomore team won. The Junior-Freshman team was winning 24-20 with 30 seconds left in the game. The Senior-Sophomore team had the ball, 4th down and goal from the 15-yard line (this was the third "4th down" in a row, as the refs called penalties on the two previous 4th downs to keep the Senior-Sophomore team's hopes alive). The quarterback dropped back and threw the ball into the corner of the end zone and there was Senior Sarah making the game-winning catch. The crowd went wild! Woo-hoo!!!

This was Sarah's third TD reception in the game. I think it's safe to say that she was the MVP. I was a proud poppa, to say the least. Way to go, Sarah!

Monday, September 21, 2009


Our congregation received two cases of hardback copies of The Lutheran Study Bible (TLSB) today - FINALLY!  We should have received them a couple of weeks ago and were assured that we would receive them last week, but due to a couple of mix-ups, they didn't arrive until today.  That's okay.  I don't care.  They're here! 

I have spent the last couple of hours looking through this awesome resource.  Wow!  Color me impressed.  I love the introductions to the books, the detailed outlines, and the theological/devotional articles interspersed throughout.  And, the notes are very solid.  I love the little prayers thrown in here and there throughout the notes.  Whoever thought of adding that feature deserves our thanks.  It is a reminder that we should read God's Word prayerfully.  I also like the artwork throughout the book.  I know some who have expressed disappointment over the use of black-and-white drawings from the mid-19th century, but I think they bring some class to this Bible that other modern study Bibles lose with their modern art.  To each his own, I guess.  The charts throughout are very well done and contain tons of valuable info for the Bible student.  The colored maps are nice.  I wish more would have been included, but the ones that are included are nice.

Having quickly skimmed through several passages of interest to me, I am quickly falling in love with TLSB.  I know that this is going to be a valuable aid in my own personal study, but also as I lead corporate study of God's Word.  I have been studying the Bible for a long time and own several Study Bibles, but none of them compare to TLSB.  Finally, we have a Study Bible we can use that doesn't require us to constantly engage in weeding out the bad stuff in the notes.  I think this is going to go a long way toward improving the level of catechesis among our people.  The more laypeople who get their hands on TLSB and use it in place of other Study Bibles which contain lots of false teachings, the better.  In a day and age when the rate of Biblical literacy is shockingly low, TLSB is a most welcomed blessing.  Of course, getting people to actually use it will still be tricky, but at least it is now available.

I only have a few criticisms regarding the hardback edition of TLSB:  1) The pages are too thin.  They wrinkle very easily and it wouldn't take much at all to accidentally tear them if you're not very careful.  Obviously, in a Study Bible this size, the pages are going to have to be pretty thin, but I have other Study Bibles that have thin, but more durable, pages.  2) Bleed-through - because the pages are so thin, the writing on the other side makes it difficult to read at times.  You definitely will struggle with this if you have a light shining directly on the pages as you read.  It is much easier for me to read when I turn off my desk lamp and just allow the light from the room to illumine the pages.  3) Red-lettering of Christ's words - First things first:  I like the red-letter feature in Bibles.  Always have.  Miss it in those Bibles that don't have it.  I know others who don't like it.  Again, to each his own.  I grew up on it and like it.  Deal with it. :)  But, in TLSB, the red is not dark enough and, in some places, looks more pink.  Dimming the lights to deal with the bleed-through makes it difficult to read the red-lettering.  So, I guess I'll have to have the lights dimmed and then, when I'm reading the Gospels, I'll have to turn on my desk lamp.

But, that's it.  I'm sure I'll find other things I wish were different, and I'm positive that I'll find some notes that I disagree with (or think could be better), but, all in all, TLSB is simply awesome.  Maybe the pages will be a little more durable in the genuine leather edition I'm waiting on.  But, even if not, I'll still cherish and use this Study Bible for many years to come.

Can't wait to use TLSB in our Bible Studies this week!  

Morning Sun Article

I am in a rotation of local clergy who write the Saturday religion article in our local newspaper, The Morning Sun.  I've been doing so since the beginning of 2006 (you can click here to read all of the articles I have written).  It has been an interesting endeavor.  Surprisingly, I have only received a handful of negative responses to the articles I've written.  The reason I find that surprising is because I have never held back from confessing the truth about the Christian faith and have not shied away from pointing out the errors of others.  It's not that I'm looking for, or hoping to receive, negative responses to what I write, but I would just think more would come in.  Instead, 99% of the responses I have received over the years have been positive.  Maybe those who disagree with what I write are following mom's advice, "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all."  

Anyway, below is my latest offering, which was published this past Saturday, September 19.  I decided to do something a little different and sent in a homily I preached this year in observance of Holy Cross Day.  The reaction?  Five responses - all positive.  But, I wonder what those Christians thought who are attending congregations where the cross is hardly, if ever, mentioned. 

A Homily upon the Observance of Holy Cross Day
Published in The Morning Sun on Saturday, September 19.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25).  Oh, how true this is, dear friends.  God’s ways are indeed foolish according to our sinful human reason.  His plan of salvation is utterly ridiculous in the eyes of the world.  Already the Israelites in the wilderness learned how absurd God’s ways are.  For when they were afflicted with serpents, God didn’t send them a medicinal antidote, but ordered Moses to “make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num. 21:8).  This, of course, foreshadowed the ultimate foolishness of God which would happen on a hill outside the gates of Jerusalem some time later, when God Himself, incarnate in human flesh, allowed men to pound nails through His hands and feet and hang Him on a cross to die. 
No wonder the world mocks and ridicules Christianity.  No wonder they think Christians are a little “off.”  We believe that God Himself came down from heaven to be born of a virgin.  That the Almighty Creator of all things would enter the world in the human flesh of a baby is “crazy talk” to the world, not to mention the absurdity of His being born of a virgin.  But, what’s even crazier in the world’s eyes is that we believe that this same God took on human flesh, so that He could live the perfect life in place of sinful humanity, and so that He could pay the price for the sins of all people of all time by dying on the cross.  Yes, that’s right, Christians believe that the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the eternal Word of the Father, the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, became Flesh and dwelled among us to die in our place, for our sins. 
It is foolishness, we have to admit it.  It doesn’t compute, doesn’t make sense to our sinful human reason.  But, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”  God’s ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts.  The cross is folly to the world.  It is scandalous.  It is a stumbling block.  But, more than that, it is detestable in the eyes of the world, for the world wants a nice religion where no one has to die and everyone is saved, regardless of what they believe.  It wants a religion where the better you behave in this life, the more blessings you will receive from God, but also a religion where nobody has to suffer eternally for sin.  It wants a religion that echoes the wisdom of this world and follows its principles.  It wants a religion where a cross is unnecessary.
The world would be able to tolerate the “silliness” of Christianity if Christianity would only give up its exclusive claims.  It would welcome the cross, as foolish as it is, if it was conceded that the cross is only one of many paths to salvation.  But, alas, Christianity cannot concede this.  The cross is the only way.  For the One who hung on the cross for the sin of the world declares, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). 
There’s the rub, my friends.  There’s the reason the world hates Christianity.  Not only is it viewed as foolishness, but also as stubborn, intolerant, and arrogant.  The world simply cannot abide a religion which claims to have the only way to eternal salvation.   
But, let us not be moved, dear friends.  Let us not buckle under the pressure of the world.  Let us continue to put the cross front and center, “for the cross alone is our theology,” as Dr. Luther put it long ago.  The cross is the focus of all true Christian worship.  The cross is the “hour” for which our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world.  The cross is where the glory of God is fully revealed.  The cross is where our sins are taken away and forgiveness, life, and salvation are won for us by the holy, innocent Blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. 
A cross-less religion will not do.  The cross is necessary, for there is the once-for-all sacrifice for sin completed.  There, on the cross, our salvation is finished.  There, on the cross, is our redemption. 
Look there, O Christian.  Never stop looking to the cross.  There is your answer.  There are your sins taken away.  There is the fulfillment of the fiery serpent set on a pole in the wilderness.  All who are bitten by the serpent and infected with the poison of sin, which includes every human being born of Adam, when they gaze upon the cross in faith, shall live, now and forever. 
Foolishness?  Yes!  So be it!  The cross is God’s way, not ours; His plan of salvation, not ours.  And, whether the world likes it or not, the cross is the only way to salvation, for there is the only Blood shed that can take away our sins.  Therefore, let us unashamedly preach Christ Crucified.  With St. Paul, let us be “determined not to know anything among us, save Jesus Christ and Him Crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).  May the Holy Spirit open our eyes of faith to see through the foolishness of the cross, that we may recognize the power of God in all His glory revealed on Calvary’s holy mountain for sinners like you and me.  In Jesus’ Holy and Precious Name.  Amen. 
In Christ,
Rev. Thomas C. Messer, Pastor
Peace Lutheran Church ~ Alma, MI

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Tree of Life

Ever since Pr. Weedon began including quotes from Charles Porterfield Krauth's "The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology" on his blog many moons ago, I have been reading and studying this masterpiece, as time permits.  It is filled with theological gem after theological gem.  Every confessional Lutheran should buy, read, and study this book.  Today, I began reading the section on the Lord's Supper and came across this gem:
The first thing worthy of note in regard to the sacramental mystery is its antiquity.  It meets us at the threshold of the divine history of our race.  In Eden we see already the idea of natural and supernatural eating . . . The great loss of Paradise Lost was that of the Sacrament of Life, of that food, in with, and under which was given immortality, so objectively, positively, and really that even fallen man would have been made deathless by it:  "Now lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever," Gen. iii. 22.  The great gain of Paradise Regained is that of the Sacrament of Life.  Christ says:  "I am the life;" " The bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."  The cross of Christ is the tree of life, and He the precious fruit borne by heavenly grace upon it.  The cross is the centre of Paradise Regained, as the tree of life was the centre of the first Paradise.  Christ's body is the organ of the life purchased by His obedience and death.  The Holy Supper is the sacrament of that body, and, through the body, the sacrament of the life which that body brings.  (Krauth, "The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology," pp. 585-586). 
What Krauth teaches here is beautifully expressed in the Eucharistic Prayer in LSB, Divine Service 4:
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, king of all creation, for You have had mercy on us and given Your only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
In Your righteous judgment You condemned the sin of Adam and Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit, and You justly barred them and all their children from the tree of life.  Yet, in Your great mercy, You promised salvation by a second Adam, Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and made His cross a life-giving tree for all who trust in Him.

We give You thanks for the redemption You have prepared for us through Jesus Christ.  Grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may faithfully eat and drink of the fruits of His cross and receive the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation that come to us in His body and blood. 
Here us as we pray in His name and as He has taught us:  Our Father . . .
When we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, we are receiving the very fruits from the life-giving tree of His cross.  Our Lord has given us access, once again, to the Tree of Life!  When we partake of its Fruit in faith, life eternal is ours!  Beautiful stuff! 

Here, dear friends in Christ, is your Tree of Life:

The Greatness of Christ

Click here to read a beautiful sermon by Pastor Stuckwisch.  If pastors had trading cards, Pr. Stuckwisch's would be in high demand! :)  

Not Success, but Faithfulness

A good blog post by my friend, Rev. David Petersen (Redeemer, Ft. Wayne), was chosen by Jeff Scwharz as "Issues, Etc. Blog of the Week" on Friday.  You can click here to read the post and/or click below to listen to the segment on Issues. 

This is very good advice. Pastors are not called to be successful, but faithful. In fact, if we believe our Lord, pastors should expect to suffer criticism and ridicule if they abide in the Word of God. To proclaim the Law in its full sternness will not make the pastor very popular with many, for they do not want to hear that they are sinners. But, proclaim the Law the pastor must. To preach the Gospel in it's full sweetness will not win many friends either, for many want to play some role, however small or large, in their salvation. But, to preach the Gospel the pastor must. It will not do to pander to "felt needs." That's not the pastor's job and it doesn't work anyway, since everyone has different "felt needs." The old adage, "you can't please everyone," is true. You can't. But, it doesn't matter. Pastors are not called to please people, but to be the Good Shepherd's undershepherd; to deliver Word and Sacrament to God's people in Christ's stead and by His command. That's all - nothing more, nothing less. It is not our ministry, but Christ's; not our office, but Christ's; not our Word, but Christ's. We have no right to do our own thing. We have taken vows, were called and ordained, to do Christ's thing, not our thing.

Of course, all of that is easier said than done. Much easier to go with the flow and not cause any waves. Much easier to preach positive, motivational messages. Much easier to compromise by having different kinds of worship "styles" available, so that people can pick and choose the "style" they like best. Which is to say, much easier to follow the advice of our current synodical leadership. But, as Pr. Petersen notes, the easier way requires the pastor to sell his soul. Shooting for success comes at a great price!

So, pastors must strive not for success, but faithfulness. Doing so will bring suffering, but the faithful pastor is willing to endure, knowing that his reward will come later. And, if the pastor is faithful, the Word will do its work. Faithful Christians will be created and sustained by that Word. The pastor will not be alone, even though he may feel like it from time to time. There will be some who will love and support the pastor on account of his faithfulness and because they love Jesus.

So, away with all the advice to "just love your people" and "tend to their felt needs." The people need to be slain by the Law and made alive by the Gospel. The pastor who is faithful to his charge to give the people what they need, rather than what they want, truly loves the people he serves.

Strive for success or remain faithful? There is no choice for the pastor who serves under Christ. Besides, the faithful pastor is a successful pastor, not according to the world's standards for success, but according to the Lord's standards.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Pastor's prayer on Saturday evening

O God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, my Lord and my God, I humbly pray You to pardon all my sins.  Look not upon my unworthiness but upon Your great mercy, by which You have appointed me to be Your ambassador in Christ's stead.  Put Your Word in my mouth and tomorrow speak with my tongue.  Bring forth fruit through me, Your unworthy servant, and let not the preaching of Your Word be without effect among us.  May all that I utter be in accord with Your Word and the confession of Your Church, that Your name may be glorified, Your congregation truly awakened, and thus, through me, Your unworthy servant, Your Church be edified.

As You inhabited the praises of Israel, dwell in the praises of this our Church.  Let the sacrifice of our praise be acceptable to You, and preserve us from insincerity and thoughtless worship.

Incline Your ear to our prayer, O God of Jacob; hear the voice of our supplications and help us.

Preserve unto us Your holy Word that it may be joyfully and boldly proclaimed in its purity, and guard us in the right use of the Sacrament in accord with the institution of Jesus Christ, our Savior.  Restrain all who would destroy us and turn them to Yourself.

Be our God and our children's God, now and henceforth, and hear my prayer, O Father, for the sake of Your dear Son, Jesus Christ, our blessed Savior, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter divine.  Amen.  (Lutheran Service Book:  Pastoral Care Companion, p. xix)

Hang in there, Sparty!

Sparty gave the Irish all they could today, but came up a little short (33-30).  After last week's loss to CMU, I was happy to see my team battle a good Notre Dame squad today.  It didn't look good early, but they hung in there and fought to the end.  Poor Cousins (MSU QB) - that kid had a heck of a game.  I hope he doesn't hang his head and is able to put the two errant passes in the last two minutes behind him (one that should have been a TD and an interception which ended the game) and get ready for next week.  Call me the eternal optimist, but I still believe we have a chance to contend for the Big Ten title.  Coach Dantonio needs to get the kids to put the nightmare of last week and the heart-breaker of this week out of their heads.  The season starts next week in Wisconsin.  If we're ready to play, we can beat the Badgers.  Then, that other team from our state, about which we do not speak around these parts, pays us a visit.  After we beat them, we'll be 2-0 in the Big Ten and on our way!  So, hang in there Sparty.  There is a lot of football left to play in this season!        

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Prayer of thanksgiving for the congregation committed to the pastor's care

Glory and honor, praise and thanks be to You, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for all the mercy and faithfulness You have shown to this congregation. Your Word has not returned void, but You have here gathered a people that knows You and fears Your name. Give me Your Holy Spirit that I may at all times see the good things in this congregation and praise and thank You for them. Bless Your Word in times to come that it may preserve the faithful in Your grace, convert those who do not yet belong to You, and bring back the erring and straying. Gather Your people as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and shelter Your congregation with Your love; for You live and reign, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Lutheran Service Book:  Pastoral Care Companion, p. xxv) 

Issues, Etc. Blog of the Week

So, I was catching up on the last few days of Issues, Etc. broadcasts this evening and was surprised to hear that Jeff Schwarz chose my blog as Blog of the Week, based on my post, "That's Too Catholic!"

How cool is that?!

Thanks, Jeff.  I am honored, my friend.

You can listen to the Issues, Etc. Blog of the Week segment below:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It takes all kinds of churches?

Pictured to the left is Pastor Greg Bearss of LakePointe Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Pastor Bearss happens to be a classmate of mine from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne.  I guess I missed the class that taught us to replace the altar with a drum set and lead the Service in our jeans.  Come to think of it, after visiting LakePointe's website, I guess I missed a lot of classes.  Either that or Pastor Bearss has decided to ignore what we were taught at seminary and is out there doing his own thing.  I'm inclined to believe that it's the latter.

Anyway, Pastor Bearss is quickly becoming famous in our synod.  About a year and a half ago, our synodical president, Gerald Kieschnick, in his monthly letter to LCMS pastors, mentioned Pastor Bearss and the congregation he serves, informing us that LakePointe was a "perfect example" of an Ablaze! Covenant Congregation.  Now, Pastor Bearss and LakePointe are back in the synodical news, as they're featured in this month's edition of The Lutheran Witness.  In the article, Rev. Yohannes Mengsteab, LCMS World Mission national director for new mission development, agrees that congregations like LakePointe don't sound like "typical" LCMS congregations and goes on to say, "It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people."

This way of thinking comes straight out of the Satanic "Church Growth Movement" playbook, where the Church is told that she must change and adapt to the culture if she is to survive and grow; that she must follow the principles of the secular business world and treat the Gospel as her chief product to be creatively marketed for the consumers she is trying to reach, namely the "un-churched."  "It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people" is code for "the church must do whatever it takes to reach the lost."  I must have missed this at seminary, too, since I thought I learned that the lost were reached by the pure preaching of the Gospel and the faithful administration of the Sacraments according to Christ's institution, not by "whatever it takes."  This whole "whatever it takes" business runs contrary to everything I have learned in Holy Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions.   

LakePointe is a perfect example of a congregation that has adopted the principles of the Church Growth Movement.  I am happy to see that no one has yet forced them to include Lutheran in their name, 'cause they surely are not Lutheran.  But, that begs the question:  Why are they (and congregations like them that do not include Lutheran in their name and do not show any hint of being Lutheran in the public witness of their doctrine and practice) endorsed, promoted, and put forth as a "perfect example" of an Ablaze! Covenant Congregation?  I don't get it.  Someone please explain this to me.  Does Rev. Mengsteab mean to suggest that it takes all kinds of churches, even non-Lutheran churches, to reach all kinds of people in our Lutheran synod?  That must be what he means.  Where did he go to seminary?  What Bible is he reading?

Remember the good ole' days when congregations following the principles of the Church Growth Movement in our synod were simply tolerated.  We knew they were out there, but we pretended like they weren't and kept everything hush-hush.  In today's "not your grandfather's" LCMS, such congregations are not only allowed to come out of the closet, so to speak, but are praised as the wave of the future.  Our current synodical leaders are telling us that the future of our synod will be made secure by planting more and more non-Lutheran churches, since, after all, "it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people." 

So, if the direction our current synodical leadership is taking us continues, what can we expect the future LCMS to look like?  Well, that's simple - it will look like a hodgepodge of "all kinds of churches" (some Lutheran, some Methodist, some Baptist, some Pentecostal, some non-denominational, and so on).  Come to think of it, the current LCMS already looks a bit like that, doesn't it?

One more thing:  Anyone have a clue what the heck a "Baptism Bash" is?  I know I never learned about that at seminary and I can't find it in any of the Service Books or Agendas I have.   

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Father Hollywood . . .

hits the nail on the head in this post about grammar imitating life.  There have been a number of times since I've been a pastor when I've had other pastors ask about how things are going in the parish I serve.  Often, as the conversation goes on, the pastor I'm talking to will ask, "So, how many do you worship each Sunday?"  I have experienced great inward joy by always answering that question, "One God in Three Persons.  Why?  How many do you worship?"  I usually get the "quit being a smart-aleck, you know what I mean" look.  But, it's great fun.  What's scary is that sometimes the pastor who asks this question in this way is a solid, confessional Lutheran, and not of the "church-growth" ilk.  That's scary because it means that this faulty way of talking about worship in the church has become so common that even we who know better can find ourselves adopting this language.

In a similar vein, what also gets lost in the mix when we focus on how many warm bodies are occupying our pews is the truth that, when we gather together for Divine Service, the attendance is actually innumerable, since we are gathered together with all the saints, living and glorified, and all the angels and archangels.  Maybe next year when the synod sends us the form to fill out our statistics and updates (can't remember what the actual form is titled - shows you how much I pay attention to it), we should put, "Unknown (or, Known only by God)" in the blank after Average Sunday Worship. :)  Actually, I'm only half-kidding about this, since I think doing this would actually go a long way toward directing our focus back to where it should be when we talk about worship. 

Does time heal all wounds?

No, it doesn't.  Time may heal some wounds, but it doesn't heal all wounds.  It never heals wounds inflicted by the tongue.  Time can't take away the hurt feelings suffered by those who have been slandered or gossiped about behind their backs.  Time can't resolve conflicts between people.  Time doesn't repent and time doesn't forgive.  The advice to just give angry people space and time to get over whatever it is that has angered them is bad advice.  Not only will they not get over it, but they will inevitably infect others with their anger and inflict more wounds with their tongues.  Even if enough time passes and they seem to have gotten over it, they really haven't.  Whatever it was that angered them, if left unresolved, will always be there.  And, what of those whose names they have slandered and whose reputations they have damaged along the way?  Time can't take that away.  If the angry people seem to have gotten over it, but have not sought forgiveness from those they have damaged, nothing is gained.  A false peace results, which is always on the edge of erupting into conflict again.

Time does not heal all wounds.  The healing balm of forgiveness is the only cure for some wounds.  But, that healing balm cannot be applied when those in conflict refuse to talk.  Communication is the key.  Honesty, love, and the desire to be reconciled are pretty important, too.

What was it our Lord taught us?  "If your brother sins against you, give him enough time and space and hopefully he'll get over it"?  Um, no.  We are to go and show our brother (or sister) his (or her) fault.  Not later, but now, before things get more heated and ugly.  Time is not our ally in the conflict resolution process, but our enemy.  The more time that passes, the harder it will be to confront and deal with the issues that caused the conflict.

I wonder why this is so hard for Christians to understand.  Actually, I should rephrase that:  I wonder why this is so hard for Christians to practice, for surely all Christians know that the right thing to do when they are upset with a brother or sister is to go and talk things out, seeking reconciliation, which flows from their desire to forgive, love, and be at peace with one another.  And yet, having spent almost 20 years in various leadership positions in the church (the last four-plus years as a parish pastor), rare is the occasion when Christians actually practice what our Lord preaches.  Far more often, when they become upset with someone or something in the congregation, rather than confronting the matter and seeking after reconciliation, they harden their hearts, find like-minded people with whom they can gripe and complain, and even look for ways to get even or to punish their brothers and sisters (or the congregation, in general).  Time doesn't help.  Usually, if enough time passes and there has been no attempt at reconciliation, the final act of "showing those people" (or, "that congregation)" from these people who have grown angry for this, that, or the other reason is to leave.  "Let's see how they get along without us," they think.         

One wonders how such people can pray the Lord's Prayer with a clear conscience.  They can't really mean it when they pray, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," can they?  They are not willing to forgive.  They are not even willing to talk, so how can they be ready to forgive?  After all, forgiveness is not something we feel in our hearts, but something we give, by way of announcement, to others, on the basis of the forgiveness we have received from the Lord.

Of course, there is guilt on the other end of this equation as well.  Those who recognize that there are angry people in the congregation and refuse to confront those people in love and with the desire to restore them gently have failed to practice what our Lord preached as well.  It may be easier to simply ignore those people and let them stew, but the right thing to do is to confront them with the honest desire to try to understand where they're coming from and why they're upset.  Sometimes, this is impossible, as the angry people refuse to talk, but it is just as sinful not to try to reach out to these people as it is for these people to refuse to seek reconciliation and allow forgiveness to reign.  Mom was right, after all, "Two wrongs do not make a right." 

Anyway, the whole point is that time definitely does not heal all wounds.  Time can't repent and time can't forgive.  Time won't heal conflicts within the church.  Only Gospel-motivated faith and love for one another, which shows itself forth in a willingness to seek reconciliation and a desire to forgive can do that.   

Monday, September 14, 2009

Patience may be a virtue, but it's also a PAIN

I am doing my best to patiently wait for our copies of the hardback edition of The Lutheran Study Bible to ship, but it ain't easy, especially when I have to read about people all over the internet who have received their copies and are so excited about it.  I realize that the good folks at CPH are extremely busy these days and that I should just be patient, since all good things come to those who wait, and so forth, but I broke down today and gave them a call.  I'm glad I did.  The very nice lady on the phone didn't know why our hardbacks hadn't shipped yet and assured me that they will be shipped out today.  So, we should be receiving these sometime this week.  The larger print and leather editions won't be in until the end of the month, so we'll have to remain patient on those.  But, hopefully we'll have the hardback TLSB's in our hands by the end of the week.  If not, I'm getting in the car and driving down to St. Louis to get a copy myself! :) 

Pastor Weedon posted some insightful thoughts on his blog the other day, highlighting the fact that we Lutherans are very blessed to live in a day and age when so many extraordinary Lutheran resources are making their way into print.  I could not agree more.  With all the troubles we face in American Lutheranism today, even in our own synod, our publishing house (CPH) is doing a fabulous, and unprecedented, job of furnishing us with tremendous resources:  Lutheran Service Book (and all its companion volumes), Treasury of Daily Prayer (the absolute BEST prayer book ever produced!), Concordia:  The Lutheran Confessions (the BEST edition of our Lutheran Confessions in the English language yet, by far), and now The Lutheran Study Bible (which I can say with confidence is the best study Bible ever, even though I haven't seen it yet).  And this is not to mention the plethora of theological works which have been released of late, or will be released soon, including additional volumes of Luther's Works.  It truly is a most blessed time to be a Lutheran! 

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Private confession and absolution . . .

will be offered to all those who have even the slightest hint of satisfaction over Michigan State's loss to CMU today.

I'm still in shock.  Can't we play a little defense?  What the heck?  The only thing that will lessen the sickness I feel in my stomach right now is to see the Irish beat Michigan.  But, as satisfying as that would be, I doubt that it will take away the weeping and gnashing of teeth going on in the Messer house today!   

Christian Growth

Rev. Paul McCain, of CPH fame, had a fine post over at Cyberbrethren last week, which dealt with the subject of Christian growth.  This got me to thinking, and I offer some additional thoughts:

The Christian can grow in his/her faith.  Lutherans are often accused of teaching otherwise, which is quite absurd.  What we Lutherans believe, teach, and confess is that the Christian can never reach perfect sanctification in this life.  We Christians will remain sinners until we breathe our last breath here on earth.  But, that doesn't mean that we cannot grow in faith. 

But, how does such growth occur?  Not in the manner many believe, for many posit that Christian growth is fostered by motivating the Christian to think more highly of him/herself; to stop thinking of him/herself as a sinner and start concentrating on the good in him/her.  This way of thinking is prevalent among popular TV and radio "preachers" out there today.  If you watch and listen closely, you will notice that they almost never talk about sin.  For that matter, you will also notice that they rarely mention Jesus.  If Jesus does happen to make it into their motivational messages, it is to put Him forth as an example to follow, or a "life-coach" to heed, not as the Savior we so desperately need.  In their way of thinking, Jesus did His part for us 2,000 years ago and now it is up to us to do our part.  The focus is on leading the Christian to "become a better you" and to "live your best life now" (which happen to be the titles of both of Joel Osteen's books - Osteen is the most popular "preacher" in America today). 

What these "preachers" put forward will not help the Christian grow in his/her faith in any way, shape, or form.  In fact, quite the opposite will happen, for as the people who heed the motivational messages of these false prophets earnestly struggle to "become better thems" and "live their best lives now," they will need Jesus less and less, if at all.  Why is Jesus needed when the key to Christian growth and happiness lies solely within them?  Why is Jesus needed when they are no longer sinners in need of a Savior? 

No, my friends, true Christian growth happens through continual and honest self-examination in light of God's Holy Law, for it is only through such that Christians will recognize their sinfulness and desperate need of a Savior.  You want to grow in your faith as a Christian?  Get in touch with your sinfulness.  The more you realize how sinful you are (and, by the way, YOU are!), the more you will be led to fall upon your knees and plead for mercy, and the more you will learn to appreciate and cling to God's answer to your plea - His Son, your Savior, Jesus Christ, who lived the perfect life you can't live and died on the cross for every single one of your sins.

I know it sounds backwards, but this is the true way to Christian growth.  The Christian life is a life of daily repentance and faith.  That never changes.  We never move beyond the need to confess our sins and we never move beyond our need to rely solely on Jesus, the answer for our sins.

None of this is to say that the Christian lays around, day after day, lamenting his/her sins.  Not at all.  Ours is the victory in Christ.  We are free to live; free to serve; free to love.  It is because we know that our sins have been taken away by the Lamb of God that they need not haunt us.  We need not wallow in the mire of our sins, but are free to live as those redeemed by Christ the Crucified. 

It also must be stated that we do not simply throw in the towel concerning our sinfulness.  We strive to defeat sin.  We battle sin.  We crucify our flesh and its sinful desires.  We don't willingly and knowingly repeat the same sins with the attitude that it doesn't matter because Christ has died for them.  To do that is to turn the Gospel into "cheap grace."  No, we strive against sin.  And, when we fail, even when we fall into repeating the same sins over and over again, we approach the throne of grace with sorrow and repent, with the desire to amend our sinful ways.  Then, upon hearing the Good News that we are forgiven in Christ, we depart in peace, not to go out and do as we please, but to fight the good fight of the faith, which includes the ongoing battle in which we must be engaged with our sinful flesh.

The point of all of this is that true Christian growth is not marked by complacency and comfortable satisfaction.  It is certainly not fostered by encouraging an inflated self-esteem within the Christian.  Rather, it is marked by an internal struggle within the Christian, who is never content this side of heaven, but longs for the day when the struggle with sin will be ended.  That is to say, true Christians are not intent on becoming "better" thems, but "more faithful" thems; they are not concerned with living their best lives "now," but struggle through this life always with an eye on the "life of the world to come."  True Christians realize that the earthly lives they live are nothing more than pilgrimages in the wilderness of this sinful world on their way to the Promised Land.  Realizing this, true Christians love the habitation of their Lord's House, the place where His glory dwells.  They return regularly to the Divine Service, where their Lord meets them to absolve their sins, fill them with His Word, and feed them with the Heavenly Manna of His true Body and Blood, that they may live in His forgiveness and be strengthened and preserved in the faith.

In sum, to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 3:18) is not a matter of building your self-esteem, but a matter of increasing your reliance upon the Christ.  Such reliance comes only through continuous self-examination and faithful reception of the means of grace (Holy Word and Sacraments), through which the Holy Spirit works to sustain and strengthen the faith of repentant sinners.      

Thursday, September 10, 2009

On Being Lutheran

While I was cleaning up my work space this afternoon, I ran across the Summer 2009 edition of Thrivent magazine, which was given to me some time ago by one of our members.  It was opened up to page 10, where an article titled "On Being Lutheran" appears.  Included in the article are responses from readers to questions asked in the previous edition:  "If you grew up Lutheran, are you still attending a Lutheran church?  Why or why not?  And if you didn't grow up Lutheran, why are you now attending a Lutheran church?"  The responses are more than a little interesting:
Response #1:  I have been Lutheran all my life, praise the Lord!  I would not trade the truth of the Gospel - salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, based on Scripture alone - with anything another religion has to offer.  None can come close to this comforting truth!
This is a good response from someone who actually knows what Lutheranism is and why he is a Lutheran.  The only error in the response is that the phrase "in Christ alone" should have been inserted between "through faith alone" and "based on Scripture alone."  But, I think we all meant what this gentleman knew. :)
Response #2:  I grew up as a Lutheran but am no longer attending a Lutheran church.  My wife and I left our longtime church home following a change in pastors.  While we looked briefly at other Lutheran congregations, we ended up attending both Presbyterian and Methodist churches.  While there are differences in church teachings and governance, I found these issues to be relatively minor.
Obviously this person (couple) was not properly catechized, or didn't properly pay attention to the catechesis he(they) received, since the differences between Lutherans and Presbyterians and Methodists are huge.  One wonders what it was about the new pastor that drove this couple away.  Whatever it was, it surely wasn't worth giving up the very Body and Blood of our Lord in the Supper (or the correct doctrine of justification, etc.).
Response #3:  I was raised Lutheran, attending a church school through grade eight.  Having a firm foundation to build your life upon is a major blessing.  After attending a Lutheran church in Rochester, Minnesota, for 20 years, we switched to a large independent church.  Faith in Jesus as God's son, forgiveness of sins through His resurrection, and the Holy Spirit guiding our lives are nondenominational. 
The foundation this lady received was obviously not as firm as she thought.  "Forgiveness of sins through [Jesus'] resurrection"?  I thought He won forgiveness for us on the cross.  Hmmm . . . sounds like she joined one of them thar "evangelical" congregations that is full of "Easter Christians" and not "Good Friday Christians."  You know, the whole, "we gotta stop focusing on a dead Jesus and celebrate the alive Jesus" thing at work.
Response #4:  I grew up Lutheran and will always consider myself a Lutheran, but there is only one God and we don't have the sole rights to Him.  I am very thankful for everything that God and the Lutheran church have done for me, but I really don't think that God is going to check on which church we belong to on Judgment Day.  He will be interested only in our belief in Jesus as our Savior.
This lady expresses a very popular belief out there today, namely that it matters not where we go to church, so long as we believe in Jesus.  Many people extend this even further, declaring that we don't even need to belong to a church.  "I don't need no stinkin' church!  I believe in Jesus and that's all I need!"  Well, not really.  I mean, if you really believed in Jesus, why in the world would you deliberately stay away from His Church?  Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what true faith is, for it is not merely the possession of intellectual knowledge of Jesus and His salvific work (even the devils believe, and shudder for it!), but rather full trust in Jesus, which shows itself forth in the continual reception of His gifts via Word and Sacrament.  Besides this, the lady here shows forth another common misconception among many Christians, namely that there are many churches.  Um, no.  There is only one church.  On Judgment Day, you either belong to that one church or not.  What I think she means to say is that Lutherans are not the only Christians who go to heaven.  That's true.  There are Christians who belong to other denominations who will make it to heaven.  Only God knows who truly belongs to His Church.
Response #5:  I was raised a Presbyterian but have been a Lutheran since 1952.  My son was an avid watcher of The Howdy Doody Show on TV.  Every Friday, the host, Buffalo Bob Smith, said, "Now remember, boys and girls, go to the church or the synagogue of your choice this weekend."  My 5-year-old son kept repeating those words.  We sent him to the Lutheran church, and the pastor invited the whole family to attend.  We did and found the services very satisfying.  Thus we became Lutheran.   
Buffalo Bob Smith obviously had some serious theological issues, but I am glad that his influence played a role in bringing this family into the Lutheran church.  Not sure what this person means by "the services were very satisfying," but I hope what is meant is that they were fed on Word and Sacrament.  I'm gonna go ahead and make a ruling here that that's what this reader meant. :)
Response #6:  I was baptized Lutheran when I was 3 months old, and I still attend church.  I like the rich tradition of our liturgy, as it holds great meaning for me.  And I like the fact that most congregations now celebrate the Eucharist weekly.  
This is a man after my own heart.  Great response!  I'm not sure he's correct that "most" congregations now celebrate the Eucharist weekly, but he is right in noting that there has been a resurgence toward weekly Eucharist lately, which is a very blessed thing, indeed, since, well, we Lutherans confess that we celebrate the Mass (Divine Service with Holy Communion) EVERY Lord's Day (Sunday) and on feast days (cf. AC XXIV and AP XXIV).
Response #7:  My wife and I were raised Lutheran and were members of Lutheran churches for more than 50 years.  When we moved to our current community, in 1999, there was no Lutheran church in the area, and the closest one was a 25-minute drive away.  We became members of the nondenominational First Christian Church.  We found that while the style was very different from most Lutheran churches, the substance of truth remained the same.  
Ah, the ole' "style does not affect substance" argument!  Um, no, you cannot separate style from substance.  It doesn't work.  If you worship like methobapticostals and non-denoms, you is gonna eventually believe like them.  Been there, done that, got the t-shirt (literally).  If this couple really understood the difference between the actual substance of confessional Lutheranism and this nondenom congregation, they would be more than willing to make the 25-mile drive.

That's Too Catholic! - Part 2

Just in case you're interested, what inspired the last post was my running across these words again from our synod's first president, C.F.W. Walther.  It seems that he was already fighting the "that's too Catholic!" accusations in his day.  Go figure.  Here's Walther on this:

Whenever the divine service once again follows the old Evangelical-Lutheran agendas (or church books), it seems that many raise a great cry that it is "Roman Catholic": "Roman Catholic" when the pastor chants "The Lord be with you" and the congregation responds by chanting "and with thy spirit"; "Roman Catholic" when the pastor chants the collect and the blessing and the people respond with a chanted "Amen." Even the simplest Christian can respond to this outcry: "Prove to me that this chanting is contrary to the Word of God, then I too will call it `Roman Catholic' and have nothing more to do with it. However, you cannot prove this to me." If you insist upon calling every element in the divine service "Romish" that has been used by the Roman Catholic Church, it must follow that the reading of the Epistle and Gospel is also "Romish." Indeed, it is mischief to sing or preach in church, for the Roman Church has done this also . . .Those who cry out should remember that the Roman Catholic Church possesses every beautiful song of the old orthodox church. The chants and antiphons and responses were brought into the church long before the false teachings of Rome crept in. This Christian Church since the beginning, even in the Old Testament, has derived great joy from chanting... For more than 1700 years orthodox Christians have participated joyfully in the divine service. Should we, today, carry on by saying that such joyful participation is "Roman Catholic"? God forbid! Therefore, as we continue to hold and to restore our wonderful divine services in places where they have been forgotten, let us boldly confess that our worship forms do not tie us with the modern sects or with the church of Rome; rather, they join us to the one, holy Christian Church that is as old as the world and is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. (Der Lutheraner, July 19, 1853, issue, volume 9, number 24, page 163, translation by Paul McCain)

That's Too Catholic!

One of the most frustrating things for the 21st-century, confessional Lutheran pastor to deal with is the oft-repeated accusation that this, that, or the other thing is "too Catholic!"  Those who make these accusations really mean to say that what they're witnessing is "too Roman Catholic!"

Firstly, this charge is made by those on the outside looking in, who really haven't the first clue about what distinguishes Lutheran doctrine and practice from Roman Catholic doctrine and practice.  They see similarities between the two and conclude that they're the same.  I've heard it more times than I can remember:  "Oh, you're a Lutheran.  You're just like the Catholics, then."  This misunderstanding is certainly understandable, since such people are basing their conclusion simply upon what they see, and haven't taken a single moment to dig into matters more deeply.

Secondly, this charge is made by many life-long Lutherans who were brought up to believe that many ancient and laudable customs in the church were to be avoided because they were "Roman Catholic."  Making the sign of the cross is a case in point.  Other examples include chanting the liturgy, wearing Eucharistic vestments, elevating the Body and Blood of Christ at the Consecration, genuflecting, private confession and absolution, and observing the Feast Days of saints.  It doesn't matter for many that it can be easily proven that none of these customs originated in the Roman Catholic Church, but were already in existence long before it ever came into being.  They have been taught that these things are "Roman Catholic" and they'll hear nothing more about it, thank you very much.  I have met some life-long Lutherans in my day who are so convinced that these things are "Roman Catholic" that I am quite certain that the apostle Paul himself would not be able to convince them otherwise.

What is so frustrating about this is that the truth is so readily available to anyone who is in the habit of playing the "That's too (Roman) Catholic!" card.  A Lutheran need only read his/her copy of the Book of Concord to learn what truly distinguishes Lutherans from Roman Catholics.

What is also frustrating - and very telling - is that you almost never hear the cry, "That's too Baptist! (or Methodist, or Pentecostal, or whatever)"  The truth is, whether some want to admit it or not, that Lutherans have never been nearly as defensive concerning Protestant practices, especially since their coming to America where Protestantism has flourished.

This goes a long way toward explaining why American Lutheranism finds itself in such a mess today.  In our zeal to protect ourselves from the big, bad, wolf of Roman Catholicism, we have left ourselves unguarded from allowing Protestant influence to chart our course.  It is no surprise that we see many Lutherans mimicking the practices of Protestants today, for Lutherans have been caving in to Protestant influence for many years.  It is also no surprise to see many Lutherans making an easy transition from Lutheran congregations to Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, non-denominational, and other congregations, for they don't see the many major, doctrinal issues at stake.  "Protestants are our friends, after all.  We're okay, so long as we avoid Roman Catholicism." 

But the truth is (brace yourselves, Lutherans!) that we share much more in common with Roman Catholics than we do with modern Protestantism.  I know, shocking, isn't it?  But, it's true, nonetheless.  The Reformation, led by Blessed Dr. Martin Luther, was not about starting a new church, or even a new "version" of the church.  It was about reforming the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and restoring the Gospel to the center of all the church is, says, and does.  Our Lutheran forefathers were very adamant about the fact that they were not interested in dumping the ancient customs and traditions, but were intent on reverently keeping, and religiously defending, them.  They dropped some things that were contrary to the Gospel and reformed other customs and traditions to bring them in line with the Gospel, but simply kept in place all those things that served the Gospel and the piety of Christ's Church well.

None of this is to say that we don't have major differences with the Roman Catholic Church to this day.  We do - MAJOR differences!  But, here's a newsflash for ya:  We have MAJOR differences with Protestants, too!  To think that it is okey-dokey for Lutherans to adopt Protestant practices, while avoiding anything that looks, smells, or sounds Roman Catholic, is to completely misunderstand what Lutheranism truly is.

There is a cure for that, you know.  Read and study the Book of Concord for yourself.  You might be surprised at what you learn.  If you are diligent in your study, I am confident that you will see why it is frustrating for those of us who have studied what we Lutherans believe, teach, and confess to hear people claiming that many of the beautiful, ancient, Gospel-serving, pre-Roman Catholic customs and traditions are "too (Roman) Catholic!"