Advent, Christmas Carols and Church Discomfort

Advent IconIn Bible class this past week we were looking at Romans 3. One of the observations was that when Paul really wants to ground something for his audience he quotes the Psalms. Romans 3:10-18 is one long mashing together of lines from the Psalms. The point behind that observation is that it was the hymnbook that anchored most people recognition of the theology. Everybody remembers the songs, or at least the good ones. Each branch of the Christian tree always had there own hymnbook. Within that book were the shared songs of all (Joy to the World, Amazing Grace) and those that were more special to a specific tradition (the 15 verse hymns of Martin Luther like From Heaven Above to Earth I Come). As beautiful I I find “From Heaven Above”, I would not expect a Baptist to know it. I would have expected Baptist and Lutheran to know O Little Town of Bethlehem or Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming. And even the committed atheist knows Silent Night.

I slipped into the subjunctive past there, I would have expected, because while I would have, I’m not sure if that expectation was realistic even in the past. And it is no longer operative today. First because the outlet for these songs is no longer as wide as it once were. As a small boy, the secular radio station in during Christmas would play Carols as specific as O Little Town of Bethlehem or It Came upon a Midnight Clear. Also, it was fading already, but that was a time when non-professionals sang regularly. Whether it was community choirs or Caroling or before any church function or just in the home, people sang. I don’t think that is true anymore, other than getting caught singing along to Katy Perry in the car to embarrass your kids. The only place these songs and singing happens on a regular basis in in church.

Now if you are a near every Sunday attender, even if you are skipping traditions, in a few years you will become accustomed and know the songs of that tradition at least to the point of recognition. And again in that subjunctive past, a larger percentage of Christians attended at those frequencies. Once upon a time, the rule of thumb was the ratio of attendance to membership was 1:2. I consider us fortunate to be in the 1:3 range. I know many pastors who hold 1:4 as the new guideline. If attendance is monthly (1:4) there are big gaps. For example, the season of Advent is 4 weeks. There are more, but I would say there are three great hymns of Advent: On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry, Hark the Glad Sound and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. (The Lutheran Specific gem might have been Come, Thou Precious Ransom Come). Talking with the person who is arranging some of the music for one of those Advent Services, she was surprised when nobody in the group knew O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. My reaction was that if your church attendance had been limited to Christmas as a kid why would you know it? And expanding that to the current situation, if you are in service once a month, in December that is probably not that third week (15th – 22th) that is the traditional place for O Come, O Come. O Come, O Come is ancient dating back to at least the 9th century as the antiphons in Evensong or Vespers. A verse a day from Dec 17th to the 24th focusing that last week before Christmas day. The advent Hymnbook, which for me personally is the beating heart of Christian piety and practice (for if we are not in a perpetual advent what are we in), is something that for many within the church is not familiar.

Now there are two reactions to this. The first is a general “dumbing down” of the hymnbook. You can do this by capitulating to the culture and bringing in professionals all the time. That is what CCM is. We replicate the radio sound you know, bring it into the sanctuary and have a professional sing it hoping that you will do what you do to the radio. You can also do this by shrinking the hymnbook. By singing the same hymns instead of 1 – 3 times a year singing a smaller number 3 – 6 times a year. If they don’t go with the text or the theological theme of the day, oh well. A third way is simple defiance which is really asking the faithful to keep alive this tradition and practice the faith. And this is where I want to bring in another article and address that third part of my title.

James Rodgers, layman and fellow LCMS’er, writes today in First Things:

Churches also need to take back some of the responsibility that they shifted onto American culture. Because of the (largely Protestant) religious public consensus in early and 19th Century America, social pressure effectively substituted for ecclesiastical discipline. We can debate whether this cultural arrangement ever worked all that well (as well as what prompted it), but whatever moral consensus ever existed has been strained by the upheavals of post-War American culture. Because of the earlier reliance on social consensus, and the consequent blurring of lines between society and Church, this cultural shift created an ecclesiastical challenge. American churches must now get into the business of distinguishing between themselves and the broader culture in ways that they didn’t in early American history.

For Christians who have been used to thinking of themselves as sitting in the mainstream of American society and culture, this can be a disturbing and disorienting shift. The upshot is that the self-identity of church communities in the U.S. must now be drawn much more sharply than it was in the past, or else they will simply evaporate with the evaporating (or evaporated) consensus. All this is to say that the Church and Christians in America can no longer free ride on the diffuse pseudo-Christianity of American culture. We must express the ontological reality that Jesus created his Church to be through baptism and the Supper: One with him, and one with one another

There was a time when O Come, O Come, Emmanuel I would have placed in the general cultural knowledge like Silent Night. As Dr Rodgers points out, the American church had it easy in a sense. The culture helped instruct in the faith. He calls it ecclesiastical discipline, but what I would call it is the law of practice. What does it mean to be a practicing Christian? The culture used to form and guide people to at least nominal practice. Today, true practice of the faith is counter-cultural. The church and the individual must take responsibility for their own practice. What does this mean? Well, in one sense it can be that stubborn defiance in regards to language and songs. You know you have walked into something different when the hymnbook is used. And it might require some learning. But in a deeper sense, the church is probably going to have to get used to proclaiming a clear law. Membership in American society is not membership or practice of the Christian faith. Spelling out what it means to live your baptism, to receive the body of Christ, and to incarnate that body in your world. The church has been vague for a long time accepting the general societal definition. That definition is now toxic to the true faith.

Family Negotiations

Presidential Family Church

Caught this picture this morning. There was a mild chuckle at a political joke (some news guy asked a senior IT specialist his advice for the President concerning Obamacare and he responded “go to church”), but the deeper emotion was in the gaps and not about national power politics, but about family politics.

Look at the three closely bunched together: Mr. and Mrs. Obama and (I believe) Malia and her general smile. Then look at the distance between the President and (I believe) Sasha and her expression. Most of us don’t go to church through photographers and hurled questions. (I loved the President’s response – “C’mon, we’re going to church”.) Mr. & Mrs. Obama’s somewhat pained and plastic expressions are understandable. But, Malia, she doesn’t want to be there, at all.

Is it church itself (“but, Dad, we don’t normally go, why do we have to go today?”)? Is it the openness to photographers (normally the kids are kept out of photos, but not when Dad is present)? Is it a vague feeling of unease (“Dad, why are you using us as a prop”, even if it isn’t true)? I wonder who did the family negotiations – Mr. or Mrs.? Were they nice or authoritarian? (“Do this for Daddy” or “Do it, you don’t have a choice sweet one”.)

Every family has these little negotiations. Thank goodness most of us are not in the public eye. But there might be some things that we can learn. If church is a regular habit, those “why today?” and “keeping up appearances” complaints are greatly minimized. When you are in one of those family negotiations, allow yourself to step back. It might seem like the time to extract a concession, or the time to be all “I’ll go, but I’m going to be passive agressively grumpy”. But this is your family. How do you let grace prevail? Family is the first place we learn the economy of grace.

Reformation Day – Hero or Human?


Biblical Texts: Rev 14:6-7, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
Full Sermon Draft

Reformation Day to me is always a tough day to preach. For all my formative years and if any of the examples that I sampled this week are representative, the general approach to Reformation Day is full on Triumphalism and spiking of the football. And it is not that I can’t or won’t defend my side. I think Luther in particular and the reformers in general were right on a lot more than they were wrong. But if there is one thing that the gospel doesn’t really accept it is heroes. We have heroes of the faith, usually called saints, but ask why they are saints. Many of them are martyrs with a subset dying gruesomely. The next batch are those dedicated to outcasts – like the priests in leper colonies or Mother Teresa among the untouchables. There are the scholars and teachers and theologians. They often avoided the deaths, but the exchange seems to be that the society around them was passing away (c/r Augustine). Usually the equivalent of the Chinese toast, “may you live in interesting times”. What gets you on the list of the Saints is not usually someone confused with “winning”. The more we make a Hero out of Luther or the Reformers, the less they actually have to instruct us. The more we make them great men and women, the less we allow them to influence us.

Not an argument to tear them down or deconstruct them or even psycho-analyze them (although I suppose I do a little of that). The argument is to see them in context – fully human. When we do that, it is not bringing them down to our level, because according to the law we are already all on the same level – in deep trouble. But when we allow them to human, we are set free. We can admit the flaws (repent) and accept the grace. Both for them, and for us; both for their impossible circumstances, and for ours. We can hope to mend what was broken instead of building monuments. One of Luther’s most famous lines for theologians is: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” It is the harder road, but you don’t get real glory without walking through Calvary.

John Calvin, Baseball Fan


We have a natural tendency to mess things up. We can’t help it. Even when we think we are doing good we very likely are in the midst of mortal sin, or at least the next royal mess. Everything from bringing democracy to the middle east to expanding healthcare, from trying to comfort a friend to advising daughters on boyfriends. Intentions are rarely bad. And we can imagine a universe where this goes well. We just don’t happen to live in that universe. We don’t get to make clean choices and pick between good and evil. We don’t see that well. Most of our choices are actually between bad and worse. Welcome to the triage center known as a fallen world. And just because we didn’t intend to, doesn’t let us off the hook. We are morally culpable – sometimes to the third and forth generations.

Sometimes two great plays lead to a limp off loss in the World Series.

But unlike Boston, whose only recourse is game 4, we have Hope. The law is not the final word. The righteousness of God is by Grace.

The Sorting Hat

Hogwarts crestHarry Potter explains it all. Ok, maybe not everything, but Harry Potter is on continuous loop around the parson’s house. And, sadly, having read the Sorcerer’s Stone about as many times as my namesake gospel, you start to get a feel for the deep reasons why. Ms. Rowling tapped into a simple but nuanced way to understand the universe. Returning to the books is like returning to the catechism. You find again all the simple truth of why you feel, think or believe what you do. This might strike a note of foreboding for a people with a catechism already, but I’m not sure that panic is in order. First because much of the explanatory power is not really metaphysical or religious in nature. Second, because the magic really comes in two forms, comic relief and tragic. Magic is either funny and easily seen as the outcome of a world with a crack running through it, or it is the cause of that crack. The things that win in the end are available to wizard and muggle alike, namely love, especially in its self-sacrificial form. (And if you can’t follow that Christ haunting, well, can’t do anything for you.)

We like to divide things into binaries – good and evil, republican and democrat, law and gospel. As much explanatory power as binaries often have, they usually reduce the world too much. That is when we sometimes admit things in threes like: the good, the bad and the ugly or like kings, priests and labor or every presentation list ever (like this one!). That uber-three the Trinity stands as ground for threes, but using three to define the earthly things isn’t very biblical. JK decides to divide the world of people into 4 corners: Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. And this has incredible power.

Ravenclaw gets short-shift in the books. I can’t remember any except Harry’s comic relief first girlfriend. Ms. Rowling must not have run across this type much, but she knows they exist, and the group is recognizable. You could say egg-heads, but it is deeper than that. If your first commitment in to THE TRUTH then you are a Ravenclaw. Thomas Aquinas is the patron saint of Ravenclaw. Ravenclaw has a negative image in Slytherin. For Slytherin the only important thing is ideology. In the books the ideology is purity of wizard blood, but that is really just a prop. The real ideology is POWER. Why I say this is a negative image of Ravenclaw is because THE TRUTH is an ideology as well. You don’t know if you are a Ravenclaw or a Slytherin until THE TRUTH causes you to lose POWER. Constantine would be the icon of Slytherin. Hufflepuff is really just the great mass of people who muddle through. Sometimes we produce great muddlers (aka Cedric Diggory), but mostly Hufflepuffs just go along. This might be a stretch, but Augustine is a Hufflepuff. Yes, the world is falling to pieces around me, my mother won’t stop bugging me, the people want me to be bishop, how do you get through? You muddle through the city of man on the way to the City of God. The last house, Gryffindor, is somewhat tougher, partly because JK stuffs all her real characters here. She fairly obviously has a moral point to make, we should all emulate Gryffindor, but what do we emulate. Hermione would seem to be a Ravenclaw. Harry himself comes awfully close to Slytherin. And Ron is a born Hufflepuff. What makes them Gryffindors? Ultimately it is the cultivation of a virtue – courage. That Ravenclaw Aquinas would list it uniquely among the cardinal virtues because while the other virtues restrain our human nature, it takes courage to begin to modify it. The sanctified life requires courage. Interestingly Aquinas is the official patron saint of courage (all those Ravenclaws who write get all the good spots), but Thomas More might be a good one. And if you are Protestant (and Lutheran) I might suggest Luther especially approaching Reformation Day.

And I’d suggest that is a deep way of understanding people. All four, even Slytherin, have noble attributes. (And if you think I’m wrong about that, think about how much we owe to people who correctly pursue and use power. There is a case to be made that General Washington (with aide-de-camp Hamilton) would be a Slytherin to Jefferson’s Ravenclaw. I’ll take that Slytherin any day.) And I’m not sure it really leaves anyone out. Yes there is a catch-all group, but that seems like life. If you are a 10 year old reading Harry, that 4-up way of looking at people might strike me a putting the best construction on everyone.

So why am I thinking about Harry Potter instead of my namesake gospel? Well, it struck me that the 4 corners view does more justice to our political situation, and it helps to understand that we’ve come under the unfortunate sway of a bunch of Slytherins. I say that of both parties because it is pretty clear that the guiding ideology is power. When you have the hubris to take over 1/6th of the economy, that takeover throws many people out of their current insurance arrangements, and your replacement breaks everything you promised, this is not about Truth or Courage or Muddling Through. This is about power. Likewise when you are willing to shutdown the government basically because you can, this is about power. Under R’s and under D’s the federal system sucks in more power. That is Slytherin, and George Washingtons seem to be in short supply. Regardless of your party, the better questions to ask would be those that might expose a devotion to power alone. I’d rather be ruled by the first 300 Hufflepuffs than the best and brightest Slytherins.

Congregational Meeting Presentation

We had our congregational meeting yesterday. The simple agenda was: short preschool update, budget presentation, nominations. Here are the core charts shared. Just paging through them doesn’t give you the actual talk. I try and make slides that are support and hence they don’t “walk” quite as easy. If I’m just reading charts I’m not respecting your intelligence. But, these are the underlying data that the council and elders have been working with.

The progression of the charts is:
– agenda & Church vision
– statistical picture of congregation
– How that vision becomes reality, or How we spend your tithes in mission
– Budget, or what we want to spend next year
– Pastor’s words on what the budget means and the state of the congregation

Congregational Budget Meeting Oct 2013 vCongregation

Wrestling with the Promise


Biblical Text: Genesis 32:22-30
Full Draft of Sermon

This text is one of the strangest in the Bible, but I think it might be one of the most important for churches that baptize babies to understand.

The sermon is a character study on Jacob. You can read the entire story yourself starting in Genesis 25:19ff, but the core of my take away is that Jacob came into the world a child of promise and proceeds to attempt to earn it or escape from it. And he continues in conflict…until he can’t. Alone, in the night, scared he’s losing it all…Jacob prays. And then Jacob wrestles through the night..until he gets his blessing.

The blessing once taken from a blind Father by trickery is granted face to face. The blessing once traded for is accepted freely. The blessing that once came by grasping…is gained by letting go. And the name is changed. Not that those blessings were not true, they just were not claimed. They were not believed. But now, walking with a limp, no longer running. Israel no longer strives in conflict, but rests on the promise.

We baptized a child today. In baptism that child is made an heir of the promise – Just like Jacob. The promise is true. It doesn’t matter what we do because baptism doesn’t depend upon us. But why this text is important, is because we can turn our back on that gift. To learn the lesson of Jacob is wrestle with the promise. To hold onto God and not let go until we have made the grace and the hope ours. The christian life, lived with a Lutheran accent, is about those wrestling matches where we receive as ours what God has already given. Where we learn to live by grace in hope, instead of conflict.

Two Articles with Some Great Writing

You really should go and read this article…Death Doesn’t Care If You’re Sexy. How our lack of the law reduces our freedom in extremely sad ways…but without the technical jargon and written much better than I could.

A second article. The thesis here is much more scandalous, but man, the man can write/preach. Example: “So the liberty of conscience that the Reformers fought for was not — whatever else it was — liberty to fail to identify temples of Molech.”

A Christendom Question

This is a little noodling, no great answer, if you’ve got it please tell me…

I put Christendom in the title knowing that anyone my age or younger probably doesn’t know what that means. The last people who might have actually experienced it in a deeply meaningful way are my parents age. So why am I using an archaic term? Because I have a real question. Because we deal with the remains.

First a definition. This is my understanding of Christendom. A person, just by the fact of being born in a society, maintains the idea that they are a Christian regardless of actual beliefs, practices or worship. Once upon a time Christendom was strong enough that even without any observable worship or practices, everyone knew what the church’s professed beliefs were. Abraham Lincoln is the perfect example. Looking at his practice (especially as a boy and young man), there is no christian practice. But, reading any of his speeches, and calling out the 2nd inaugural or the House Divided Speech, you can’t but hear a product of Christian formation. As Christendom fractured or became weaker, that formation became less to the point where today you have self-professed life long Christians who not only haven’t been to service for over a decade, have probably skipped prayers or bible reading for most of that time, and couldn’t tell you what “a house divided” refers too in the life of Jesus. For many John 3:16, or a decent paraphrase, would be tough.

Now the pastoral practice question. In Christendom, things like baptisms, weddings, pastoral care (which is sharing the cross and the comfort of the resurrection) and funerals were assumed. Unless the person went out of their way to say “I don’t believe” or “I opt out” the church handled these things. In a post-Christendom society I think it is clear that such things will be “opt-in”. (Why are baptists faring better? Because the believer’s baptism and the testimony story are clear “opt-ins”. That is not a statement on the theology, but the pragmatics.) In the world of my kids (and I would say myself) one will have to say “I believe, teach and confess Christ” or “I opt in”. And this is made clear by one’s worship and practice. In Christendom the collective practice could carry the slacker. Not in post-Christendom. I say this because, does it make sense to marry someone saying “this marriage is picture of the communion between Christ and His Bride the Church” when the bride and groom don’t really believe that or know what it means? What kind of meaning or comfort is there in the cross and resurrection if one does not understand them or confess them? (It might take a death bead to move head knowledge to heart and kindle faith, but if there is no head knowledge to begin with?) I ask questions like those and largely think they are rhetorical. There would be no purpose in them. The death bed call would retain a purpose of that 11th hour call to the vineyard, but those are not as often as we do not have an art of dying anymore. What we have is a call from the mortician to see if the church would hold a service, because, well, because why? Pastors just a little older than I would still follow old advice on all these occasions. You do all that come as a chance to preach the gospel. And that is perfect Christendom thinking. It assumes that everyone who is present has enough understanding of the law and their place against it that the call to repentance and offer of grace is meaningful. These occasions allegorically represent the early, third and sixth hour calls to the vineyard. But what if you don’t know the way to the vineyard? Or if you’ve rejected the vineyard in favor of some other work or just loafing? Do such calls have any meaning other than witness against?

The pastoral question becomes, I think, how do you move from the automatic yes to something that offers the chance to believe and confess? And how do you do that when there are still many who maintain a Christendom understanding that everyone is a Christian by default?

As I said, just some noodling. Trying to get to good questions.

Was It Over When the Germans Bomber Pearl Harbor?

After reading this, I’m feeling some of the rolling exuberance of the title of this post. (And Belushi and I share the same workout trainer.)

It is not that I’m against bigness (reference JB’s trainer), but can we be honest. Big Finance brings you Lehman Brothers and Bank America extorting every average taxpaying bank account holding person in America. Pay me just for being me or I’ll nuke the economy and take your kid’s sucker away. Big Government brings you such things as the Iraq War, your health insurance doubling in price and the pink police state that won’t or can’t manage to put John Corzine behind bars but will harass you for buying a big-gulp or having your middle school chorus sing Away in A Manger at the Christmas sparkle season concert. Big Agriculture brings you ethanol in the gas pump and corn syrup in everything else such that you can’t buy a box of Corn Flakes for less than $10. Things used to get big when they did stuff right and made a better product. Ford paid well and his guys bought his cars. GM made cars in colors other than black and got bigger. IBM filled rooms with computers that put us on the moon. We have that power now in our calculators. Think we are going to the moon anytime soon?

So can anyone tell me what makes us think that Big Religion is a good thing? Yes it is really cool being in a room with 10,000 people singing the same thing, but does it have to be My Jesus, My Boyfriend x 80 verses? Your Best Life Now is an interesting pep-rally (not really, but go with it), but Jesus tends to say things like “pick up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 10:38, 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23, 14:27). Think if you have to keep a place full with at least 3000 people you would ever hear a sermon on suffering with Jesus? You know what the secret to big is? Telling you what you want to hear and already believe. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a mustard seed or yeast (Luke 13:18-21). It works small and surprising – not loud and predictable.

I know, sour grapes. But not really. We are in budget mode around here. Part of budget mode is looking and evaluating the past year and reminding ourselves why we do what we do. You can look at the vision statement here, but I consistently go back to the three points in it.

– Teaches the apostolic faith
We are a church grounded in the bible, creeds and confessions. Not apologetically, but robustly, because these proclaim the apostolic faith. Likewise the hymnbook of the church from all ages contains the best spiritual reflection and living waters available to the faith. Our goal is not a mountain top experience but getting to the mountaintop. If your base camp is already thin-air, think you’ll get there? We also practice both Word & Sacrament – breathing with both lungs so to speak. We teach the apostolic faith because Jesus promised to be present in these things. And we want to see Jesus (John 12:21).

– Encourages growth and depth in that faith
The great commission says to make disciples. We form people who learn, know and live their faith. We don’t reduce the gospel to a slogan or the Christian life to simple moralism. We seek the truth.

– Actively engage in the great commission
I’ve already referred to the great commission, to make disciples (Matt 28:18-20). Part of making disciples is entrusting the gospel to them (2 Tim 2:2). The Christian life and mission is a shared endeavor that we are active in.

How good are we at this vision? We are human, so we are not that good. So we repent, we receive the gospel through word and sacrament, and we try again – 7 times daily (Luke 17:4). I don’t know if that qualifies us as a “boutique” as the article would have it, but it is our attempt at faithfulness to Jesus. You are welcome to come and see (John 1:39, 46).