Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter Service? Yes! Easter Vigil? Huh?

If you’re a Lutheran, you probably know the punch line to this joke: How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: None. Lutherans don’t believe in change.

Okay, I have to admit, it’s a little bit true. Sitting on the pulpit side of the church does feel strange to me, and I still pine for the red 1941 hymnal. But change is a good thing.

Case in point: Holy Week services. I’ve always loved Holy Week, but now I really look forward to the services.

All four of them.

When I was young, we attended two services: one on Good Friday, and one on Easter morning. (There was probably a Maundy Thursday service, too, but I don’t recall going.) The Good Friday service was in the afternoon and ended around 3:00 p.m.—a nice parallel with Mark 15:33: “And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”

For a long time, that 1:00 service (which my old church still offers) was the ONLY way to observe Good Friday (and the days leading up to Easter).

Of course, the Lutheran experience is broader than that. I just didn’t know how much until I started attending churches in other denominations.

Today, my “Lutheran Holy Week” experience includes a Maundy Thursday Divine Service, Tenebrae (meaning “darkness” or “shadows”) on Good Friday, an Easter Vigil on Saturday, and Divine Service on Easter morning.

These services are all special in their own way, communicating through different sights, sounds, and symbols the message of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection.

At the end of Maundy Thursday service, for instance, there’s the somber stripping of the altar, accompanied by the chanting of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

On Good Friday, all but one of the candles on the Tenebrae candelabrum (see image above) are methodically extinguished, symbolizing the flight of the apostles and the agonizing death of Christ. The central candle is removed, a book slams shut, and the candle returns: It is finished.

At the Vigil, worshippers gather outside around a fire, holding small candles lit by the paschal candle, representing the light of Christ. The dark opening stages of the Easter Vigil give way to church bells, bright lights, and a change of vestments later in the service, signaling the transition from Lent to Easter, from suffering and death to resurrection.

Then there’s the joy of Easter morning, with its triumphant hymns, Easter lilies, and packed pews.

On those packed pews: I suppose the attendance on Easter, in comparison with the other Holy Week services, makes sense. Easter church is, no doubt, one tradition that all of us share—not just Lutherans, but Christians generally. The other services? Probably not so much.

Take Tenebrae, for example. Our Kantor, Pastor Roger Goetz, tells me he introduced the Tenebrae service at St. John’s in the early 1980s. At the time, there were no Lutheran versions available, so he composed chants for the service. The Easter Vigil is even newer; it’s been offered at St. John’s only since 2004.

To be honest, I might not be inclined to attend all four services, if not for someone else in the family with a strong interest. The services aren’t part of my Lutheran DNA, and they’re still somewhat unfamiliar.

But now that I’ve attended all of them for a few years now, I’m hooked. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Good Friday Figure: The Rhetorical Question

There are questions, and there are questions. And the Passion accounts are full of both.

Some questions are meant to be answered, as in, “Whom do you seek?” (And they said: “Jesus of Nazareth.”)

Others expect no answer, as when Jesus says to Peter: “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that my Father has given me?” (John 18:11) In this case, Christ is making a point; he’s not expecting a counterargument from Peter.

Such is the nature of today’s Friday figure, the rhetorical question, defined by Silva Rhetoricae as “any question asked for a purpose other than to obtain the information the question asks.”

Christ asks a number of these questions in various accounts of his capture, trial, and crucifixion. In the betrayal scene in Luke, for example, Christ turns to Judas and asks, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss? (Luke 22:48). In John’s account (John 18:21-23), when the high priest questions Jesus, he responds, “I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me?” An officer then strikes Jesus, thinking his tone is inappropriate. Jesus makes a point again in question form. “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?”

Then we have one of Christ’s most well-known lines from the Passion story: “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34). When Jesus cries out these words “with a loud voice,” onlookers think he’s calling for Elijah (which, as noted in the Lutheran Study Bible, sounds identical to Eloi) to come take him down. If  Christ actually had been calling Elijah, his question would not have been rhetorical.

But he wasn’t calling Elijah. He was calling out to God, with no expectation of a last-minute rescue, or even a response.

So why utter these words? What’s the rhetorical purpose?

The insights offered in the Lutheran Study Bible square with what I’ve always been taught about these lines. The commentary on the line in Matthew (Matt. 27:46), for example, indicates that it “poignantly portrays the separation of Christ from His Father,” the loud voice a “cry of pain and loneliness.” In a comment on the entire passage, the authors draw attention to Jesus crying “in agony at His abandonment.”

Such is the price of bearing the sins of the whole world. The appointed Epistle reading for Good Friday (One-Year Lectionary) underscores this idea: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

When I hear that desperate question—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?—I’m reminded of the heavy price of sin, and the enormous sacrifice Christ made on that cross.

But there’s some debate about what’s really going on with this rhetorical question.

As I was reading up on the “forsaken” question, I ran across a couple of arguments with the following assertions: a) Christ was actually not forsaken or abandoned, and b) He uttered those words to provide a sign that He was truly the Son of God.

The BiblicalUnitarian site, for example, offers this interpretation:
We assert that Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, verse 1, not in a cry of despair at being forsaken by God, but rather a cry of proclamation to those Jews gathered at Golgotha that what was taking place before their eyes was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, and that he really was who he said he was.
I’m not so convinced by the first assertion, that the words are not a cry of despair, but the second claim is intriguing. As the argument goes, people of the time would have known Psalm 22 well. The words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would have triggered the association and provided a clear sign that this was indeed Christ, the Son of God, fulfilling God’s will according to the Scriptures.

Is it then possible that the “forsaken” question serves more than one purpose?

I’ll treat the question as non-rhetorical, and venture a “yes” in response.

Christ before Pilate (1881). Mihály Munkácsy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

When Family and Friends Drift Away

A couple of days ago I was in my daughter’s room, looking at her bulletin board, which is covered with pictures of family members. In the middle of the board I saw a photo of Ingrid and some cousins with my dad, taken on an Easter weekend long ago.

My dad LOVED Easter. I’ve got several other Easter pictures like the one on the bulletin board—Ingrid and my dad coloring eggs, decorating an Easter cake, hunting for Easter eggs in my parents’ backyard.

One thing this photo collection doesn’t show is that my dad also loved Easter church services, especially the hymns. He wouldn’t miss Easter Sunday, and that was always my ray of hope with him.

I thought a lot about my dad as I read this month’s featured book, What They Need to Hear: Sharing Christ with Family and Friends, by Klemet I. Preus (CPH, 2013). The book is a collection of 90 letters Rev. Preus wrote to his father-in-law, Lloyd, when Lloyd was struggling with cancer.

At the time, Lloyd was what we might call a lapsed Christian (or “dechurched,” in the lingo of social science research). In the preface, Rev. Preus offers some basic background on Lloyd’s life in the church (which may make you think of your own “Lloyd”):
Lloyd Bingaman had been baptized in a river at age ten. In his twenties he had been instructed into the teachings of the Lutheran Church and had joined that church when he married his wife, Edith. In the early years he had regularly attended services, but as his daughters grew up and left home, his commitment to the church decreased. After Edith died, he severed his relationship with any congregation. He didn’t have any animosity toward the Church. He had even visited the church I pastored on occasion. He thought about God a lot, and we had some interesting theological discussions over the years. He just didn’t attend worship services or show much interest in wanting what Christ and the Church have to offer. (p. 7)
The letters, written over an 18-month period, cover a range of topics, including belief in miracles, the danger of various “idols” (including reason, feelings, our own will, and faith itself), the centrality of the crucifixion, elements of worship, and end-of-life concerns (e.g., dying, death, and heaven).

Lloyd eventually made it back to church. By the time he died, Rev. Preus could confidently state, “I know that I will see him again someday” (p. 193).

That marks the end of the story proper, but the book also includes some general principles for talking with friends and family members who have drifted (or perhaps have never heard about Christ). Those principles—e.g., repeated interaction, good answers to objections, a high level of trust—would no doubt work across cases, but for your specific Lloyd, you may need to do some homework.

The Lloyd in the book, for instance, had real difficulty believing in miracles, so Rev. Preus devoted many letters to that topic. My own “Lloyd,” my dad, had very different issues, more like the ones expressed by this anonymous writer, who posted her concerns in a comment on Pastoral Meanderings:
I cannot speak for others, but I can tell you why I left the Lutherans Missouri Synod, and have only recently joined ELCA. My husband was unfaithful, and we decided we needed counseling. The ministers (all THREE of them) had no time for us! They had plenty of time to hunt us down to request more money, time after time. When family members, including my husband and myself, were hospitalized for critical conditions, the ministers had no time to visit the hospital (although the Catholic priest, the Methodist minister, two other ministers, and the non-denominational minister dropped by to pray with us). My husband and I eventually divorced, and I received a notice from the church that I had been removed from the congregation! I requested an audience with the minister, which I received, and he did not explain to me WHY I was being removed, nor would he reinstate me.
The problem for my dad, as for this writer, was the church itself—namely, the people in it. The people in the church made him angry at some point, and the great drift began. We had a lot of conversations about church, probably very few, though, that mimicked the clearly argued positions in Rev. Preus’s letters. My dad was hard to argue with. If he believed, for instance, that pastors wanted him in church mainly to get his money, I wasn’t going to convince him otherwise.

So instead, I focused mainly on inviting him to church, where he could hear Words far more powerful than my own.

Ultimately, my dad did come back, on a path not unlike Lloyd’s. He was diagnosed with cancer, which he struggled with for three years. I visited him on the weekend before he died, and a few memories have stuck with me: watching a religious show with him on TV, discussing the hymn “Beautiful Savior” (one of his favorites), and opening the door for his pastor, who had come to check on him.

If there are Easter egg hunts in heaven, this guy will definitely volunteer to help.
At his funeral, the pastor made a point of assuring us that my dad was well prepared for heaven when he died. If ever you’ve worked with a “Lloyd,” you know that a sentence like that ranks right up there with with “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” in the comfort department.

I'll be thinking about that this Sunday, as we sing all those great Easter hymns my dad loved.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Devil at the Wedding

I’ve sometimes wondered if service folders at Lutheran weddings and funerals should come with an explanatory note.

Warning: You may hear things in this service that you wouldn’t expect.

You may not be expecting to hear about Christ. You might not expect to hear the word sin. And you probably aren’t expecting the devil to make an appearance.

But that’s just what happened at a wedding I attended recently.

Everything about the wedding was right out of Brides magazine, from the beautifully decorated, packed church to the charming, petal-throwing flower girl to the beautiful bride and beaming groom.

Then came the sermon, and with it, the devil.

I’ll admit, even I was surprised.

The devil? Who invited him? Really? On this sunny, perfect wedding day?

But that was one of the messages of the sermon: The devil doesn’t need an invitation. He just crashes the party.
The devil’s no fool. The fool says in his heart, there is no God. Not the devil. He’s no fool. He knows God. And he knows God’s works. He’s no fool; he’s a saboteur. What’s evil he desires to make appear good. More importantly, what’s good he desires to ruin. And what better target could he have than your marriage?
There was more talk like this in the sermon—frank talk about the devil with his crowbar, seeking to pry apart what God joins together. But then came the hopeful secret of marriage, and with it, another name you don’t always hear in wedding or funeral sermons: Christ. (An interesting exercise: Browse the wedding sermons on sermoncentral.com and see how often Christ is mentioned.)
Here’s the secret of marriage in this fallen world—its power comes from what and whom it depicts. That is, its power comes from Christ and His Church. Believe me, the crowbar’s going to make its way into your life. But when it does, say to yourselves and one another: “The crowbar has made its way into our life—not my life—our life. It’s being used against us, whom the Lord joined together. Against us, who are married in the likeness of Christ and His Church. Of Christ, who gave Himself up for His church. Of Christ, who in His death has forgiven all sins—even those that threaten our marriage. Of Christ, who took His raggedy-Anne church and by His blood presented her in all splendor—holy and without blemish. And of the Church, where Christ brings that forgiveness of sins in Word and Sacrament. Where I myself was washed in the Baptism that made the Church Christ’s! Of the Church against which the gates of hell itself can’t prevail.” That’s what you say to yourselves. Forgiven, I forgive. Forgiven, we forgive. 
The sermon was a clear departure from the standard “stick with each other, communicate, let your love carry you through the tough times” message. It probably wouldn’t suit everyone’s preaching style. But as I looked at all those young people standing in the front of the church, it occurred to me that this is probably exactly the sort of thing every beautiful bride and beaming groom should hear as they start their new life together.

And I wondered: What if messages like this were more the norm than the exception?

Sermon by J. S. Bruss, with thanks for passing along the copy.

Fehlerteufel by Jlorenz1 de:jlorenz1@web.de (own creation) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Can You Study the Faith TOO Much?

This Sunday at church, I’m supposed to turn in a “Spiritual Renewal Pledge Sheet” as part of the spiritual renewal phase of our capital campaign.

I’m having some trouble with it.

It’s not that the options don’t appeal or aren’t relevant. There are 25 choices on the list, some related to worship (e.g., increase attendance at church; sing the hymns), some to personal and daily devotion (e.g., say table prayers, keep a prayer log or journal), and others to growing in the knowledge of Christ (e.g., attend Bible class at church; read the Book of Concord).

I’m just not seeing exactly what I’d like to do. I’m not even sure I know how to describe it.

One possibility: “Find the proper balance between theological study and devotional piety.”

Does that make sense?

Here’s another way of putting it, from a quotation I spotted on Facebook: “He is no theologian who treats God as an object to be studied instead of a person to be worshipped.”

If Facebook had a “makes me think” or “gives me pause” button, I would have clicked it.

God is a fascinating subject. I like studying His Word, and words about Him, especially Lutheran words. That’s what keeps me going on this blog.

I’ve learned a lot since I started writing, on subjects ranging from Chrismons to chi rho symbols to chiasmus to covetousness (and God’s role in all of them).

But I’ve wondered more than once: Can God be TOO interesting, academically?

He’s pretty safe as an academic subject. I can keep Him at arm’s length and acknowledge various truths about Him—and myself—without feeling much. (Yes, I’m a sinner. Yes, I deserve eternal punishment. Yes, God is merciful. Yes, I’m saved solely because of Him.)

Collect 100 points. Get an A. Analyze more. Increase distance.

Of course, not everyone encounters this problem. God can be an object of study AND a person to be worshipped. I know a number of people—pastors, in particular—who seem to balance theological study and personal devotion well.

I’m just not there at this point, and my tussle with the Spiritual Renewal Pledge Sheet reminded me of that. I scanned the list a couple weeks ago, passed over everything in the worship and personal devotion categories, and made a quick choice: Read the text and notes of one book in the ESV Study Bible. (Excellent! A reason to read Habakkuk!)
Habakkuk, with some interesting looking words

I haven’t actually checked that item, though, and I don’t think I will. Time to backtrack and think harder about some of the items I breezed over.
  • Read the daily devotion in A Treasury of Daily Prayer. 
  • Pray Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayer each day.
  • Pray each day for those in need from the weekly church list.
  • Make a conscious effort to meditate on the words of the hymns, prayers, and the liturgy.
  • Make use of private confession and absolution with a pastor.

Of these options, I’m gravitating most to the fourth item: reflect on hymns and prayers. I think I’ll do it in church for an hour each week, by myself (an idea inspired by our recent campaign Prayer Vigil).

Nothing to dissect. No arguments to assess. No sentences to fuss over or references to cross-check. 

Distance decreased.


Campaign materials created by Wittenberg Church Consultants.

Habakkuk the Prophet, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th century. By 18th-century icon painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

God in the Garden of Eden: What Do You See?

Got ten or fifteen minutes to spare? If you’re an art fan, here’s a suggestion: Take a tour of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

The tour is online, and it’s fascinating.

Bosch’s imaginative painting probably isn’t for everyone. It’s filled with nude frolicking and hellish landscapes, but again, if you’re interested in fine art and religious imagery, it’s worth a look.

Strange creatures. A city on fire. Giant ears crushing poor lost souls. Dr. Suess-like pink towers.

And then there’s the Garden of Eden in the lower lefthand corner, which for me was the most surprising image.

The charming English narrator of the tour offers this description: “Eve has just been created from one of Adam’s ribs. In between them stands the Creator, looking us straight in the eye.”

Think for a minute. When you imagine the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, what does God look like?

For me, he’s old. Fatherly. He’s the God in the Sistine Chapel.

But Bosch has a different idea. Here’s a young man in the Garden, left hand in a familiar position—two fingers and thumb up, two fingers down—offering a blessing on the new couple.

Jesus in the Garden.

First reaction: What’s HE doing there?

Next reaction: Oh, right. Why wouldn’t He be there?

And then: Why is this such a surprise?

It’s funny. I routinely recognize the Trinity. I know that Jesus is God and was present at the creation. Christ's existence extends beyond the four Gospels. His words are both red and black.

And yet.

The visual reminder is helpful, especially in light of popular arguments that the Old Testament God is not the same as the New Testament God. The former (so the thinking goes) is a God of wrath, the latter a God of love. One trumps the other; Christ’s red words count more than anything else.

I heard something along these lines last summer in a conversation about Islam and Christianity at a family gathering. One person brought up a line from the Old Testament, and her friend said,  “Jesus would never say something like THAT!” The conversation continued, with the friend insisting that Jesus is not the same guy as the OT God.

I’m guessing the Bosch picture might not have made much of a difference in that conversation. It’s just an artist’s rendering, after all, and who really knows what God looks like?

But the picture does point to something more reliable: God’s words about Himself.

A few examples:
John 8:58: Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”
Exodus 3:14-15: God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"  God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
John 1: 1-3, 10: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made…He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.
“In the beginning was the Word”—a perfect description of Bosch’s God in the Garden.

Garden of Earthly Delights. Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Creation of Man (Sistine Chapel). Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.