Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Oh Sister, Where Art Thou?

Dear Michelle,

Do you mind if I call you that? I’d use your actual name, but I don’t know it. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ve never met. All I have is a picture in my hand, a picture of you smiling with a group of other adult confirmands.

I stumbled across a handful of these pictures—probably taken within last ten to fifteen years or so—last week at church. 

I wonder: Who are you? Where have you gone?

I’m not trying to single you out here. I have the same question about your fellow confirmands. In this little stack of pictures, I recognize only a few people.

Maybe you moved and joined another Lutheran church. Maybe you’re still a member here but don’t attend. Maybe a friend invited you to a different church, and it seemed like a better fit. Or maybe you just aren’t sure about this whole church thing.

Whatever the case, I hope we’ve done what we could to encourage you in your faith. And by “we,” I’m not talking about our called staff or your family and friends (although they play a big role), but I mean the rest of us—those who stand in the pews and say, “Amen. We welcome you in the name of the Lord.”

We welcome you, yes. And what else?

I do recall hearing something in the Bible about encouraging one another (e.g., Heb. 3:13).

And building up one another (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:11).

And praying for one another (e.g., James 5:16).

Baptismal sponsors do that sort of thing. At every baptism, we hear that sponsors are supposed to confess the faith, witness the baptism, pray for the baptized, and support his or her ongoing instruction and nurture in the Christian faith (Lutheran Service Book, p. 269).

It’s important work, but God doesn’t single out sponsors in those passages about encouraging and praying for one another. 

I suspect I could do better in this area. I do pray for all of you on the day you’re baptized or confirmed, but after that?

Well…if it comes up in the Prayer of the Church, I pray.

And when I read another depressing report about declining church membership and fading belief in the U.S., I pray. (But if I’m honest, I’m often more likely to feel helpless about the state of affairs than to pray boldly.)

I also say a prayer after thinking, “Hey, I haven’t seen that little baby who was baptized here two years ago.”

And now I’m saying a prayer for all of you in these pictures, asking God to help you “continue steadfast in this confession and Church” (as the words go in the Rite of Confirmation).

You’ve got me thinking, Michelle, about the whole business of encouraging one another in the faith.

I hope you’re being encouraged, wherever you are.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Explaining the Liturgy to Yourself and Others

If you worship in church that follows the historic liturgy, you’ve no doubt given at least a passing thought to the way you worship. If someone asked you what appeals to you (or not) about the liturgy or to explain it, what would you say?

If you’re not quite sure, or you have some thoughts and are curious to see how someone in another Christian tradition answers the question, you might want to pick up Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy (2008, Paraclete Press).

Galli, an Anglican and current editor of Christianity Today, identifies his target audience right out of the gate:
I write this book for those who find themselves attracted to liturgy but don’t quite know why. For those immersed in liturgy who want to think more deeply about it. And for those who wonder if it is worth committing themselves to a liturgical church. [. . .] The readers I hope will enjoy this book are those in or exploring Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches. 
I’m in that group (immersed in liturgy but want to think more deeply; Lutheran), and I know of at least one other person who probably is, too: the previous reader who underlined thoughts in purple throughout my used copy of the book.

Typically, the underlining would annoy me, but in this case, the marks provided some interesting insights. What struck this other reader about liturgy? Where did our marks overlap?

Following are five passages that are now double-underlined in my book in purple pen and pencil. I suspect that if you brought your favorite pen to the party, you might add a highlight here, too.
1. So, the liturgy teaches us about the story [the Biblical story], especially in Word and Sacrament. But it does more. It also embodies the Christian story in its very structure. [. . .] By participating in the liturgy, we’re doing more than “attending a service.” We are entering a story—a story in which we also play a role (p. 18).
2. The gift of the liturgy—and it is precisely why I need the liturgy—is that it helps me hear not so much “my little voice” but instead the still, small voice (Psalm 46). It leads away from the self and points me toward the community of God (p. 31).
3. …a commonplace of Christian theology: God is incomprehensible. A liturgical corollary of this truth is this: authentic worship of this God must, at some level, remain incomprehensible. Worship that enables us to encounter the living God should leave worshipers a bit stupefied; they should leave their pews, pump the minister’s hand, and enthusiastically blurt out, “I didn’t understand large portions of the service” (p. 49).
4. “The liturgy begins. . . as a real separation from the world,” writes Orothodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. [. . .] Precisely at this point the liturgy takes people out of their worlds and ushers them into a strange new world, to show them that, despite appearances, the last thing they need is more of the world out of which they’ve come (p. 56-57).
5. The liturgy does not target any age or cultural sub-group. It does not even target this century (it does not assume, as we moderns are tempted to do, that this is the best of all possible ages, the most significant era of history). Instead, the liturgy presents a form of worship that transcends our time and place (p. 58). 
The 14 short chapters of the book are filled with insights like these, but that’s not the only reason to read it. It’s also useful for those who go through the liturgy each and every week without really thinking much about it. (Hand raised here.)

The book slows down the liturgy, directing attention to each part. How many times, for example, have we heard the pastor say (or chant), “Lift up your hearts.” And we respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord.”

What does that mean, anyway? Lift up our hearts?

Galli’s explanation: We’re on a journey. We’re ascending, about to join a heavenly chorus to offer praise to God (p. 74).

Aha. And another little piece of the story comes into focus.

Friday, April 15, 2016

In Praise of Wine Bottle Wit

This month’s Friday Figure was going to be the epithet—that is, until a bottle of wine showed up on my countertop.

Some of you might already be familiar with this wine, especially if you check out sites like Old Lutheran, but it was news to me.

Zin Boldly! 

If I were in charge of wine ratings, I’d give this one 99 points just for the label.

Since I am not a wine rater, I’ll do the next best thing and give the winemakers, Borra Vineyards, props here on the blog for their clever pun, which is now the official figure of the month.

In keeping with the light spirit of the wine label, I’m going to skip the usual talk of definitions and rhetorical functions and instead just give you the link to the website of Borra Vineyards. If you explore a bit (hint: check the comments section), you’ll find out how a famous Lutheran quip ended up on a fine bottle of California wine. 

Oh, and about that “Sin Boldly” remark of Luther’s? The Beggars All site offers the following explanation: 
Luther was prone to strong hyperbole. It's his style, and this statement is a perfect example. The first thing to recognize is that the sentence is a statement of comparison. Luther's point is not to go out and commit multiple amounts of gleeful sin everyday, but rather to believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly despite the sin in our lives. Christians have a real savior. No amount of sin is too much to be atoned for by a perfect savior whose righteousness is imputed to the sinner who reaches out in faith.
 I buy that. And I’ll probably be buying a few more bottles of Zin Boldly, too. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Time to Retire Law and Gospel?

Have the concepts of Law and Gospel outlived their usefulness?

You might be thinking: “Are you kidding? What kind of question is that?”

I probably would have thought that, too, until I read the blog post, “Why I’ve Abandoned Law/Gospel Preaching,” which appeared on April 1 on the blog Lutheran Confessions.

“April 1?” you say to yourself. “Oh, I get it. April Fool’s Day! A satire!”

Nope. Some readers thought that, too, but the author made it pretty clear in the comments section that he’s serious about his claim that the Law-and-Gospel formula, particularly in the context of preaching, “is tired, problematic, and more.”

The author offers a few other provocative claims (e.g., Law and Gospel are too “white,” too narrow, too idiosyncratic, not useful) but doesn’t really go beyond that.

Thus, I wasn’t convinced.

His piece did get me to think, though. What would the world look like without Law and Gospel?

If you’re a long-time Lutheran, you might find it pretty difficult to think about spiritual matters apart from the Law-and-Gospel paradigm.

It’s everywhere—in the Small Catechism, confirmation classes, the liturgy, hymns, sermons. I even spotted it last Sunday as I was passing by a Sunday School art project; the students were asked to write down something they loved about church, and one wrote “Law and Gospel.”

I’m betting the same student could tell you the basic formula, too: The Law shows us our sin, and the Gospel shows us our Savior.

It’s a nice, clean formula (at least in the simple presentation above), capable of explaining all of God’s Word. It works for me, and it’s worked for countless others.

But that’s exactly why that blog post got me thinking. The idea of Law and Gospel being a formula—something capable of being “tiresome” or supplanted by something more useful—is intriguing. Can you think, for example, of an alternative paradigm that would explain God’s Word as well or better than Law and Gospel, or work as well as an aid in teaching and preaching?

We had similar discussions in grad school about Aristotle’s three means of persuasion: ethos (speaker credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotional appeal). Those concepts have had a significant influence on teaching, practice, and analysis, but in the world of modern rhetoric, they’ve faced the same charges as those leveled here against Law and Gospel: Tired. Not useful. Too narrow. Too culturally specific.

In one seminar, though, a professor asked: “How easy is it to think outside of those Aristotelian concepts? What else persuades people, and does it really fall outside the classical formulation?”

Similarly, how easy is it to think Lutheran thoughts without Law and Gospel?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a sign of staleness that those concepts govern our thinking so completely.

But I don’t think so.

Law and Gospel aren’t tired concepts. They are useful.

Just ask Lutherans who were raised in a different faith tradition. I’ve heard a number of these stories over the past several months, and they’ve had a common theme:
Works righteousness thinking is tiring. It’s daunting. And it leaves you uneasy as you constantly ask, “Am I doing enough to be saved?” (Answer: No.)
Enter Law-and-Gospel preaching, which lifts the burden. Yes, we do fall short, but Christ has us covered.

The words of the Apostle Paul come to mind here: “Hold fast the pattern of sound words...” (2 Tim. 1:13).

Hold fast.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

From Spontaneous Giver to Purposeful Steward


Just let the word sit there for a minute. What associations come to mind?

We considered this question in a recent Bible study, and people came up with a variety of responses.

Caretaker. Money giving. Serving others. Guilt. “Not interested.” Selfless. Cheerful. Trust. Fruit of faith. “Can’t accomplish it.” Pain/sacrifice. “We’re all in the same boat.”

As for me, I’d add “persuasion” to the list. When I hear the word “stewardship,” I fully expect to hear a persuasive pitch, much like a PBS fund drive or call from a charitable organization.

I instinctively resist these kinds of messages (e.g., change channels; ignore the call), but with church stewardship, something has sunk in over the years. The change has been gradual, but I think I can pinpoint a few key persuasive messages that have influenced my “stewardship trajectory.”

The Starter Message: What’s in Your Wallet?

When I was young, I watched the offering plate go around every Sunday and saw lots of people open their wallets, pull out some money, and toss it into the plate. Giving was an on-the-spot moment of generosity, an effort to do one’s part to help the church do its day-to-day work. I followed the same pattern when I started making my own money, never thinking much about giving, other than at that moment when the plate was coming my way and I’d have a quick conversation with myself along these lines: “Hmm…should I give the ten or the twenty? I do need to run errands after church today…Okay, yeah, I can spare the ten.”

I had no goals. I didn’t really reflect on my ability to give. It was just something I was supposed to do, cheerfully (“for God loves a cheerful giver,” 2 Cor. 9:7).

The Married Message: There’s More Than One Way to Do This

When I met my husband, I found out that my spontaneous approach to giving—which I thought was basically universal—was, in fact, not the only way to do things. Before we got married, I did my thing and he did his thing (contributing a fixed percentage of income to church). After we got married, though, we had to figure out how to get on the same page. My husband didn’t win me over completely at that point, despite his good reasons, but it seemed to matter more to him than it did to me. And it always helps to hear an endorsement from someone you trust. So, we went with percentage giving. In those early years, I became a nervous giver, wincing a little with every check we wrote.

Capital Campaign Message #1: To Whom Much is Given…

A few years later, when I was working at Bethany Lutheran College, we launched a major capital campaign called “The Five Talents,” which drew its core message from the parable of the five talents in Matthew (“To the one He gave five talents, to another two, to another one, each according to his ability, Matt. 25:15). I heard this core message over and over, in different ways—in campaign documents, conversations with colleagues, and inspirational stories from some very committed givers. I came away with one idea firmly planted in my head: “To whom much is given, much is required.” After the campaign, I became a more settled giver, seeing myself as an investment manager of sorts, entrusted by God to take care of His stuff.

Capital Campaign Message #2: Vocation

I’m now in the middle of another capital campaign (this time at our church), and I’m associating stewardship with a new word: vocation. Over the past few months, I’ve made a couple of dovetailing discoveries: 1) Gene Veith’s book on vocation, God at Work, and 2) stories from our church archives about the efforts of previous members to build and expand and advance God’s work—not just for themselves, but for countless others they’d never meet (including me).

The eternal light in the sanctuary of St. John's, always burning
After reading those old stories and thinking about the notion of being “God’s hands on earth,” I’ve started to think of stewardship more as an opportunity for me, as a redeemed member of the body of Christ, to serve others—a chance to use time, talents and treasure to do for others what they’ve done, through Christ, for me. I’m still influenced by the “Five Talents” mindset, but the notion of vocation shines a different light on purposeful giving.

Cynics might read all this and say that I’ve been thoroughly brainwashed. The church has me just where it wants me—parting with my money willingly!

Well, I am the church.

And that money? “A trust, O Lord, from Thee” (LSB 781).