Rock-a-bye baby: A Theology of Children, Church and Family – post #1

Last month’s Lutheran Witness had a slate of articles that I was slightly shocked at. I want to explore some of that shock and some of the theology underlying it.
Here is a chart that basically spells out the problem (the chart is my compilation, pastors usually aren’t great at numbers and synodocrats don’t like publishing clear data)….

What you can see is that births per 1000 women in the US (I’ve looked at white, non-Hispanic because that is what most of the LCMS was/is) took a dramatic swing down from 1960 to 1980. Somewhere around 1970 it went below the magic “replacement rate”. What that means is that the white, non-Hispanic population of the US is shrinking. It will be smaller in the future than it is today. Communicant Membership is roughly a 10 year stagger. The LCMS by-and-large starts communion around the 12 years old. So the highest birthrate in 1960 leads to the highest communicant membership in 1970. It has been downhill since then.

That downhill slope hasn’t been that dramatic because of the other fact of our modern world – we live longer. Less kids in at the base gets mitigated by less deaths than might have been expected. The population gets older. But we can only extend those years out so far. We have more late 70’s and more 80’s and maybe even a few 90’s, but barring a major scientific breakthrough in longevity (which could happen, remember those ages in Genesis, we could find the genetic switches and a treatment), barring that breakthrough we can’t really extend that. What happens is what we currently see – a cliff. People are go-go, until they don’t go. Eventually that last major birth cohort casts off this mortal coil and we have a smaller church in a short number of years.

From the viewpoint of the church universal (the one, holy, catholic and apostolic) this might not be much of a problem. The church shrinks in the west and grows in Africa, Asia and South America. Just because whites stopped having kids doesn’t mean everybody did. From the viewpoint of American denominations this is disaster. From the viewpoint of a denominational pastor it is troubling. What that chart means is a vicious funnel for pulpits – barring a couple of things I’ll look at in this series. I can see myself about age 55-60 with churches closing left and right begging for that job at Wal-Mart or on the used car lot (because let’s face it, after 20 years in the parish at that age what would I be able to get?) and the retirement fund of the denomination that I’ve paid into for 20 years saying “sorry, we’re broke, thanks for paying for the retirement of the generation before you who caused the mess.”

Now to start setting up the problems. The first answer to any such problem could be evangelism. If we have this problem we could solve it through committed and concentrated evangelism of those who don’t look like us right now. But there is a problem with that. Those who don’t look like us, or who weren’t raised within a particular tradition, often have novel and interesting ways of carrying on the tradition. That fight that my grand-dad started, and left it to my Dad who bequeathed the vendetta to me just doesn’t carry the passion for a convert. If we were smart we’d learn from that, but we are not. Instead we moan that the newbies aren’t “confessional” enough. They obviously don’t have the pure doctrine because look at what they sing in worship, pray, hold their hands, etc. Unless you are committed to adapting your traditions to a new context, you just won’t convert enough. And if you aren’t, you compound the problem with internal doctrine wars. Which is exactly what we have seen since 1970 – the battle for the bible, worship wars, the battle for the liturgy, church growth “heresy”, missional.

Right now in the LCMS a strongly confessional faction is in political power. They got elected largely campaigning on being “your grandfather’s church”. Now smartly when they say such things they are adding they are grand-dad’s in the vein of doctrine and theology – not larger social things. Nobody likes to think that doctrine changes or theology changes. And some parts of it – like the creeds – don’t. That is what the Roman Catholic Church calls the deposit of faith. But if I take a look at the “doctrines” that my grand-dad followed: no usury, no life insurance, no birth control, no women in any leadership positions, no official women teachers, questions if English was a possible language, questions over just how kosher this democracy thing is, the list could go on… God the Father is still the maker of all things visible and invisible, God the son is still born of the virgin Mary and ruling from the right hand of the Father, God the Holy Spirit is still active in the Christian church and the communion of saints. The end note here is that churches tend to hold way too much as inviolate doctrine that is really just expression not of Christian identity but LCMS or Denominational identity. As the old joke goes – the seminarian leaves the home church loving Jesus and comes back loving the church.

So, faced with an inability to adapt practices to a new people due to “confessional/doctrinal” reasons, those in power must come up with some “solution” to the problem or at least appear to offer something. Enter the Lutheran Witness issue. Quoting from President Harrison,

Our LCMS birth rate mirrors that of the broader population of the US which is at an all-time low. So, how do we best encourage our young people to treasure marriage and have children? How do we make the point in a freeing and Gospel-oriented way? How do we encourage those capable of having more children to do so? How do we take concrete action in our congregations to care for children and encourage young parents…be fruitful and multiply. It can be a God-pleasing act to have a large, loving orthodox Lutheran family…

I think you can see what the correct doctrine and solution being offered is (hint, it looks like your grand-mothers existence). So, what I want to do in this series is look at some of the theology (which isn’t all crazy) behind the baby push. Now I’m the father of a very traditional family of three (ok, compared to what they are talking about we are slackers), so I do want to support it where I can as a true option, but I also want to look at some of the theological ugly side (i.e. if babies are gifts, and you aren’t having them, what does that mean), and I want to look at how that might not be the case.

Warning note, this series is me thinking out loud. I’m highly likely to be inflammatory and inconsiderate and make everyone mad. Because this is the true fault line in our culture, and I won’t agree with the LW expression enough for the confessional to feel comfortable, but I’ll be too natalist (especially in one area) for moderns to take. I’d love to hear your comments through-out this series, because it is in the living were this doctrine takes form.

Interesting (at least to me) talk given by Pres. Harrison

Kinda a “state of the union” address by the LCMS president. Here is the site I caught it on.

I’m not really sure what to say about it. The good I would think is that he is passionate and smart. Two characteristics that even when you might disagree on some things makes you willing to think you are heading in the right direction instead of into the ditch. Let me talk about this in a couple of ways. First, he is not afraid to talk about serious things. Although I do wonder if he would grant that same right to those who might disagree. Dialog is only tested when the one out of hierarchical power is allowed to debate. Otherwise it is just a clever inquisition. Second, as he alluded to in the talk, his audience was highly made up of those agreeing with him. And he challenged them to put up or shut up in regards to church planting. That crowd has “great expectations” of his presidency and he has consistently challenged them back instead of trying to just deliver the goods (which he can’t do anyway, at least not a keep his job.)

There are also a couple of items that gave me the willies. The fact that a synodical president in the midst of a rant on preaching felt free to call out his only bad example being seminarians or implying that the young are the worst talks to me of someone used to our system that blames and eats the young. Nothing was said about the generation or two still in pulpits that put us in this situation. But only those without homiletical sin should cast the first stone, so I’ll stop now after a pebble and freely admit that I am over the top about “protecting the least among us”. The second thing is the whole treatment of women and the conflation of women with the homosexual issue. First that is shoddy tarring with the same brush two vastly different things. (If you want the popular treatment of the complexity of women’s ordination check out Scot McKnight’s Blue Parakeet Even if you end up disagreeing, you will never just dismiss this issue so lightly). Second, he felt compelled to bring up the answer du jour for confessional church growth – more kids. Is there some truth to the argument that we are shrinking because we aren’t having enough kids? Yes. But as a local “prophet” ask me constantly – “What would you do with them if you were given them?” In his own talk he concedes that we lost something like 75% of those we are given. What I hear (not what he said, but what I hear when the things are put together) is something along the same lines as picking on seminarians. Instead of seminarians this time its those darn women not having enough kids that are giving us such trouble. Lets just say I don’t think that is a winning message.

So, like I said, I’m inclined to say right track, but man, there are just some things that made me cringe. I guess what I’d chalk that up to is that even at almost 40 I’m much younger than the ministerium that elected him, and I’ve grown up and worked in a much different environment that just hears different things to those spots.

Below is the talk. I’d encourage anyone to judge for themselves. I hope I haven’t been too negative. As I said, more positive, and the negative is probably more about me.

Part #1

Part #2

Part #3

Monday quarterbacking…

First, Teeeee-bowwwww! Don’t you just love it when a guy gets beat up for 4 hours and gets told he’s basically just above a slime mold and then that slime mold has the audacity to win ugly?

Ok, now that football is out of the way. One of my favorite sarcastic sayings that has some deep insight is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Churches, both congregations and even more so larger organizations, do this all the time. And they do it amp’ed up on crack. Churches tend to give a theological polish to the way they do things. Over time that theological polish builds up and becomes God told us to do it this way. Cross reference Eve’s answer to the snake (Gen 3:3), “God said we shouldn’t eat that fruit, and not to even touch it.” God said the first, but not the second. Theological polish build up.

Here is one place where the Lutheran Confessions are incredibly useful. Augsburg Confession article 7 defines where you see the church. The church is where you hear the gospel preached and the sacraments administered. Staying at the local congregation – the kingdom of the gospel is found in the preached word and the sacraments. When the called pastor steps out of those rolls, he or she is in the kingdom of the law. That is one of the reasons that I’m a big stickler for preceding any congregational meeting presentation I give with something along the lines – “you are completely free to disagree with what I’m saying here.” And I make sure the signs of the office (stole, alb, etc.) are put away. I don’t want to add Theological Polish. But we have probably all been part of situations or congregations where there has been theological polish build up, where decisions properly in the realm of debate and governance are given sacramental importance.

Now move that to a larger grouping level. We call these synods which is a great old name and captures the true nature. It means walking together. Groups of congregations that share a confession agree by human right to organize themselves. (The confessional document Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope is all about this. The reformers were happy to have a Pope as long as it was admitted that his office was what we would call secular.) But when you get to such bodies you tend to get Theological Polish build-up of staggering proportions. Whether that is actual or de facto infallible doctrines, fancy titles and the whole mess. Or just what we all know as the arrogance of office and the hostility and closed ears to dissent. All backed up and supported with the general sense that this is how God ordained it.

So, if you dare to suggest that something isn’t working, maybe we should take a closer look at it and change something, you usually get a dumb-struck reaction. What this really is, is a deep seated personal response by the authority. What do you mean it isn’t working, this is the system that produced and promoted me?!? Here is the CEO of google Eric Schmidt showing some self knowledge and an ability to see this problem.

“Regulation prohibits real innovation, because the regulation essentially defines a path to follow,” Mr. Schmidt said. This “by definition has a bias to the current outcome, because it’s a path for the current outcome.”

Now I’m going to give you a hypothetical title, a C.V. background and ask a question. It is not a big secret that there are a number of congregations is rough shape. In response to that a larger body decides to establish a office of Congregational Turnaround to help the struggling congregations. Now the C.V.
B.A. in Liberal Arts from Synodical College (~35 years ago)
M.Div. from Synodical Seminary (~30 years ago),
S.T.M. (advanced Theological degree) from Synodical Seminary (~20 years ago)
D.Miss. (specialized professional degree) from Synodical Seminary (~15 years ago)
Parish pastor in out of region (i.e. mid-western) parishes (30 – 20 years ago, and 10 years ago)
Foreign Missionary/Seminary Professor (between parish stints)
Mission Executive in a small (in-region) district (recently)

Now the question. Would such a hypothetical CV and hire for such a hypothetical office represent doing the same thing and expecting different outcomes?

There is a reason we have Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party Candidates, candidates for president who have never held office before and a bunch of other things. Andrew Sullivan nails it in Newsweek.

The theme that connects them all is disenfranchisement, the sense that the world is shifting deeply and inexorably beyond our ability to control it through our democratic institutions. You can call this many things, but a “democratic deficit” gets to the nub of it. Democracy means rule by the people—however rough-edged, however blunted by representative government, however imperfect. But everywhere, the people feel as if someone else is now ruling them—and see no way to regain control.

Now a hierarch would point out all kinds of theological problems with that. Many correct. But that response would just be adding to the feeling at large. The deeper question is can we remove enough of the polish build-up to respond as a group, or is this a new wine in old wineskins case?

A Strange Lack of Boldness…

That title is from this Mark Steyn article.

It would be heartening if more presidential candidates understood the urgency. But there is a strange lack of boldness in most of their proposals. They, too, seem victims of that 1950 moment, and assumptions of its permanence.

It is kind of funny – I’m constitutionally conservative. I’m a numbers guy after all. But the one thing that finance does teach you if you are paying attention is that you don’t get a return without a risk. The bigger the risk usually the higher the potential return, but also the likelihood for losing all goes way up. What people forget is that taking no risk is just death by a thousand cuts of inflation and obsolescence. We looked earlier this week at the parables of the talents. The one thing in those parables that gets punished is putting the talent in the ground or putting the mina in a cloth. Risk is part of the Kingdom of Heaven. (Although nobody in those parables ever loses, an interesting fact.) But why it is funny is that this in the bone conservative (like Mark Steyn) thinks this is a time that requires some bold action.

The Church at Sardis

I’m not talking about and I want to get out of the political sphere. That will be what it will be. And I’m not really talking this congregation. I think we are running a few good risks already. We are trying to live the vision statement and be actively engaged. I’m talking about the larger church. The two answers that I have consistently heard from current leadership are: a) what we have is good, its the best we can do and we should like it and b) all we really need to do is go back to {Walther, the 16th century boys, the church fathers} and do exactly what they did. Neither of those recognize the situation (Rev 3:1-2). At least the second starts with good advice if it is way to simplistic. What scares me the most about both those situations is that strange lack of boldness and the fact that the clock is running out. That church in Sardis is far more fragile, too comfortable in its assumptions of permanence, for reality.

Each generation lives the faith. Some add something. Others are strangely silent. What I wouldn’t want to be is the one on whom it started to look like the picture somewhere nearby.

And the answers are…

I could have guessed this. I sent in three questions to the CPH CEO in the ask the CEO anything. Two tough ones and a softball.

They answered the softball. Here is the softball response to
3) If you could have every pastor in synod relay one message from CPH to their congregation, what would that message be?

It was interesting that they wanted me to see this video as an answer to this question.

1) What is the thinking behind binding CPH so closely to one translation of the Bible? As a publisher, wouldn’t publishing an LSB-NLT or LSB-NIV be an attractive proposition?

I’m pretty dumb, but that is not a answer to my question. A more honest answer would have been to just remain silent or answer something like:
A) the synod convention in 199x recommended the ESV
B) our in house pastoral counsel says the ESV is what all Lutheran’s should be using
C) it would be attractive as a publisher to meet a customer want/need like different translations with the Lutheran Study Notes, but we want to maintain a consistent voice. That is why we as a publisher have chosen to use only the ESV.

But that would have required more trust and honesty than can be generated at those levels. I would also add that my question is inappropriate in what is a marketing campaign which is supposed to make them look good. I would have been absolutely floored and jumping up and down in delight if they had given that straight answer even though I don’t like it from a policy/practice standpoint. It would have meant that they are treating customers and each other as adults and can tell the truth about themselves. Which to be fair not many institutions or people can.

I guess two points. CPH is the in house publisher and we should support it. They do good work at what they do – publishing very conservative hymnals, Sunday School curriculum and study material. But…They are seriously politically and institutionally hidebound. We can’t expect leadership or innovation out of the publishing house. Until the leadership posts of the LCMS feel like they can answer questions like these, it is hard to place real trust or feel like anything is moving in the right direction. Step one is always to be able to tell the truth.

But then again, I’m just a snippy little country parson who doesn’t know his place.

Separating Law and Gospel – a look-in at the ELCA

Biology has the famous Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. That is the way that science has developed to talk about living things. As we understand more about DNA, some surprising things have happened on those tree branches. But the start of it really goes back to the childhood car game – animal, vegetable, mineral. In Biology that first cut is usually pretty easy. It is further down the line that things become tougher to divide.

In theology, the first cut is separating Law and Gospel. Are we talking about something that accuses us before God, or are we talking about God’s promises? And we have a devil of a time separating these things. Our fallen desires are to apply the promises to the law (do this and you will be rewarded, or don’t worry about the law we have grace) and to surround the gospel with the the law (here are the barriers to entry to the Kingdom).

The other major Lutheran grouping in the USA is in the process of breaking up or figuring out a way to stay together. From the outside it is tough telling which. This article from Christianity Today has a good overview of what some of those looking at breaking up are talking about. There are two things that it brings to mind in regards to law and gospel.

When church-y higher-ups start talking antinomian, it is usually time to run, fast. Antinomian is a big theological word for no law. What they are usually asserting is that the person against them has no respect for God’s law. That they are unjustly applying the gospel to the law. What they really mean is that “someone below me has dared to question me and since I am the law, they have sinned. Repent, recant and get back in line you antinomian.” The ELCA case is different. It is the people out of power who are calling those in power the antinomians. That difference means something. Are we a people under the law or under men? Those in power want to say “I am the law”. Those splitting in this case are saying, “no you are not, we’ve already got a perfectly fine law here in scripture, please pay attention to it.”

The second point is the short paragraph under “Speaking Ill of Love”. The professor being cited (Stephen Paulson) is getting right to the crux of the issues. The “crisis of authority” is really a muddled separation of law and gospel. When we are talking about marriage and ordination (like the ELCA is doing) are these part of God’s promises (the Gospel) or are they part of how God has ordered the world (the law)? He doesn’t, but you can expand the thought – are the synod/bishops who voted for the change part of the ordering of things (law) or an essential means of grace (gospel)?

The bad news is that a whole bunch of stuff in this life falls under the law. And the law always convicts us. We’ve always done something wrong. The good news is that God’s is fixing that. It started with Jesus. It continues in baptism, the supper and the gathering of believers. It finds its fulfillment in the resurrection. Until then, we muddle along. We “sin boldly” as Luther said. When we get into problems is when we want to claim that sin as righteousness or say that sin does not matter.

Warning – This Man Has No Ecclesiology

Here is a fun site to check in on every once in a while. Three women with a bunch of kids. Our three are put to shame. The particular post is trying to think about where church ends and politics begins. That is where the title of this post comes from. It is a reference to a Lutheran inside joke and a theologian by the name of Forde. (Ask me and I’ll explain further).

As Lutheran’s we belive in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”. Big problem there is it is an article of faith. We can’t see it. Even if we could see it here and now (i.e. Rome’s claims were right), we still couldn’t see it as the una sancta is in all times and all places, many of which have gone to their reward.

Confessionally we also profess the local congregation. AC7 – where the gospel is preached the sacraments administered.

Is there anything that is “church” between those two things – the one holy and the local congregation. There are many in the LCMS who have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to say yes.

Of course saying no doesn’t relieve someone of being civil to bureaucrats, but it does remove that slightly ill feeling of doing secular things in holy spaces. I think Rebekah’s theses are on the right track. These political assemblies called churches are really political entities (in the left hand kingdom in fancy Lutheran speak). Those in them deserve civil respect. The respect you would give a judge or the police. Which is much more than they often get. But these “churches” are not repositories of the gospel. They do not speak for the one holy. They can, but that take decades or centuries to sort out and then other voices join them.

A bunch of things become clearer when we see these intermediate bodies as law oriented bodies for the sake of the gospel. You want the gospel? Go to your congregation and expect the one holy we see in Revelation. You want to effectively manage the civil affairs? Send your best people and trust that they are doing the best they can. But don’t confuse their work for the church or the gospel. Doing so is claiming the same thing as Rome, and bluntly if anyone is going to claim that, the guy in Rome has a better case.