I’m just back from one of the best pastor’s conferences I’ve been too and I’m still thinking on some of those items. The most amazing thing is that for the first time I actually heard back some of what I’ve been seeing and experiencing. The pastors, at least the presenters, have taken a decidedly theological turn. If in the past I’ve felt that much of these conferences have been about forms of therapy, the sense of trouble has risen to the point we are talking about serious things in a serious way. I don’t want to bash therapy too much, but if you take Jesse on Breaking Bad as the current culture, therapy is about acceptance. There are things you accept, and there are things that your don’t. As Jesse breaks down in “Problem Dog”, “do you accept that?” The whispered answer is no. Sin is not acceptable, but it is forgivable. The church is in the absolution business, not the acceptance business. We’ve been hiding that for too long. And of course absolution only works if you believe that Jesus Christ has the power to forgive sins. That is the deep difference. Therapy can be broader. You can make people without any faith feel better for a time with therapy. Real freedom and joy requires faith.
The LCMS likes to say that we are a confessional church. Yes, there are the ultra-confessionals for whom nobody is confessional enough. But even they serve a purpose. They are the first to spot things that we should consider. They are standing on a wall issuing warnings and taking the flack for making us uncomfortable. But at its core, to be a confessional church means what each portion of the Formula of Concord starts out with – “we believe teach and confess…”. Our experience of the risen savior Jesus Christ and our wrestling with his word, sometimes all the long night, have lead us to say these things are true. Building your life on these things is building your life on the Rock. When tides or tempest rise these things are a solid foundation that will not be moved. Getting back to Jesus, what confessing the confession means here is that we believe not just in a name Jesus, but a person who lived among us, taught us and sent apostles. The revelation of God is a thick one and not a thin veneer. And we were made to find it out (Prov 25:2).
While away, Rod Dreher had a couple of thoughts in the same vein. The release of an every 10 year study of American Jews was the source point. These are the two posts: post 1, post 2. I wanted to quote a couple of things. The first from his reflection of practicing the faith.
I’m seeing the seeds of this within the Orthodox Christianity we practice. Our pastor says that if we don’t come to vespers on Saturday night, we are not to present ourselves for communion on Sunday morning. The idea is that you should prepare yourself spiritually for the central event of your week. It’s hard to do, in the sense that from 6pm until about 7:10 every Saturday night, you are in church for evening prayer. I had to leave watching the LSU-Georgia game last weekend in the fourth quarter to make it to vespers on time. This was not fun! I did not want to do this! But it shows one’s children, and oneself, what it is to make church a priority. I’m by no means totally consistent on this, but I’m better than I was, and God willing, will be more faithful next year. The point is that it’s a practice that sets one’s community apart…Now, do I think fasting and vespers are essential to one’s salvation? No, not directly. As our priest reminds us about fasting, “This is medicine.” That is, it’s meant not as a punishment, but as an aid to holiness. Learning to deny oneself is part of acquiring salvation, certainly, and preparing oneself property for Holy Communion is as well. The point I’m trying to make here is that I don’t believe that God is not especially interested in us following specific rules. What He is interested in is our faithfulness to Him. Over time, I’ve come to see how these practices bring us closer to Him by reinforcing in us the fact — or what must become a fact — that He is our God and we are His people. It doesn’t really matter that you can’t eat a steak on Friday night, or go to the ball game on Saturday evening. What matters about that is that you have made obedience to God such a priority in your life that you are willing to sacrifice those good things for His sake. If you are part of a family and a community that practices these sorts of things, it seems to me that they really will move you closer to a conversion of the heart. After all, as a minority faith within American culture, you have to really believe this stuff in order to fast as the Orthodox church requires you to fast (and many Orthodox do not, let me be clear).
The second is the reflection that leads to some of the Elder Board discussions we have had and what I would credit the renewed seriousness of the pastors meetings to.
To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if you don’t push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you, you are going to find yourself shoved to the margins. In the future, Jews will be Orthodox, or they won’t be at all. In the future, Christians will be some form of small-o orthodoxy — Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox — or they won’t be either. The pressures to assimilate are just too strong for a go-along-to-get-along faith.
Nobody wants to hear that, but it’s hard to argue with the trajectory of religious belief and identity across generations.
The great commission (Matt 28:18-20) is to make disciples. We make disciples by baptizing and teaching. And in something that I’d say is characteristic of Jesus, we are given the tools and told to go use them. We are not given exact ways to do this. Go wrestle with it. A big part of my experience in the last five years is that the culture wants us to 100% baptize and 0% teach. They want the rite of passage, but they don’t really want to hear or understand much less live what it is about. I’ve argued, at a much more lenient place than Mr. Dreher’s Orthodox Priest about Saturday prayer in preparation for Sunday Communion, that preparation for the sacrament of baptism is appropriate. I’ve argued that we need to push back against the culture a little harder. Does that preparation ensure anything, especially the efficacy of baptism – no. The Spirit does what he wants. But this side of baptism we co-operate with the Spirit in living the Christian life. We can oppose the Spirit – despising His gifts of Word and Sacrament. Or we can put to death the flesh and our sinful nature so that the new man would arise. And that is the Spiritual truth behind Rod’s conclusions. Only things that die get to rise. Only when you’ve lost your life are you given a new one (Matt 16:25). Or said another way – those who have, more will be given, those who have not, even what they have will be taken away (Luke 19:16). Go-along-to-get-along faith, vast swaths of American Christianity, don’t want to experience that death. They are afraid of it. Let us hold on to a little of this life. Let us turn our heads for one last look at Sodom. They offer therapy. A confessional church, a confessional people, are about absolution…are about living into the Kingdom of God