Friday, October 30, 2009

A "Church" Wedding

Ran across this story from BBC about a Japanese developer who built an English-style church on the 21st floor of a high-rise. He did this because it's quite popular for Japanese couples to be married in English-style church buildings.

We've had it happen before - someone calls us up at church and wants go get married here.
"Oh, are you a member?"
"Have you ever been here?"
"No. But your building looks pretty from the outside."
"Are you a Lutheran?"
"What's that?"

Where does this desire come from - for church weddings among the non-church going, or even non-Christian types?

But the problem is deeper. I suspect many people want a God on their own terms, who will smile when they want him to, but then fade away for the most part. A God like a family member you see only at - yes - weddings and funerals! A generic and pretty God that makes them feel good. Not a crucified and bloody sacrifice for their sin.

"Aunt Tilly, it's been forever! Isn't it a shame that we only see each other at weddings and funerals!"

I know of pastors who will marry anybody, anytime, anywhere - all in the name of "outreach". But how effective is this? And a better question - how does it maintain the integrity of our confession, when we reinforce people's conceptions of a fair-weather God?

In contrast, a Christian wedding centers on Christ - the true Bridegroom - and offers the couple and all attending an enduring word of promise with a message much bigger than "have a nice marriage you nice kids". This is our Savior, who gives meaning to marriage - and to all of life. And his house isn't just for show.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Task Force Proposals: Part 2

There are a number of Appendices to this document. Take Appendix 5, "Funding the Mission Reflections"

The gist this of this Appendix is this: "The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Funding the Mission" (BRTFFTM) came up with some suggestions for the 2007 Convention, and though that convention didn't do much with them, the suggestions dovetail nicely with the proposals of the BRTFSSG.

One BRTF helps another BRTF!

Buried in this Appendix 5 is the following paragraph:

It is time to grow this church. As a natural outcome of the goals of Ablaze! and the investment of Fan into Flame dollars, this Synod needs to organize a strategy to increase our membership by the 400,000 souls we lost in the last 20 years and stop the bleeding of those for whom our Lord bled and died. It is a disgrace to our faith and practice that we are losing membership.

I have to say this is one of the most straightforward admissions of Church Growth ideology I have seen. Usually the un-scriptural preoccupation with numerical growth is at least thinly veiled behind verbiage like "contacts" and "critical events" and "opportunities" or "life-cycle of a church".

Quite to the contrary, it is a disgrace to our faith and practice that we think WE can grow the church, and not the Lord alone.

Thanksgiving As Privilege

Thanksgiving as a privilege
(November Newsletter Article)

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever! Psalm 118:1

I think most of us know we should be more thankful to God for his blessings. We know it's a good thing to celebrate a day set aside for giving Him thanks. But we all know we should do more thanking, and be more thankful. This is a recognition of the law, that Thanksgiving is an obligation. God deserves our thanks, and is due much gratitude. We SHOULD, we MUST thank him. But oh, how we fail.

There's another way of looking at thanks-giving, and that is as a privilege. We GET to thank God. Think about it. We Christians have the privilege and honor of knowing God's name – so we know who to thank! I'm always struck by a popular song on the radio that says, “at the end of the day, we should give thanks and pray to the one....” The one what? The song never says. But we know who to thank, for He gives us His Name – the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Giver of all good things.

And we have the confidence to call upon him. He actually wants to hear our prayers, and is receptive to them through Jesus Christ. We are not only commanded to pray in thanksgiving, but we are also blessed to be able to do so. If God were deaf to our prayers of thanks, if He didn't hear our words of appreciation, there wouldn't be a relationship between us. But through Jesus Christ, there is a relationship – we are his children forever. As his dear children, God gives us all good things, and in return he receives our thanks. He delights in our prayers and our thanksgiving – and receives them.

And don't forget, thanks-giving is good for us, too! It teaches us to recognize our blessings, to understand rightly that we don't deserve these gifts. It teaches us that God is the one to approach for every physical and spiritual blessing. And it helps us not to worry about tomorrow, to be greedy or wasteful, but to appreciate fully the present gifts we enjoy. We can also give thanks for the promises of many more gifts to come.

So give thanks for your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, your house and home, clothing and shoes, food and drink, spouse, children, land, animals and all that you have! Give thanks for Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, and that His holy precious blood redeems you, an otherwise lost and condemned person. And give thanks that His Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies us in the one true faith, and keeps us with Christ forever.

There is so much for which to be thankful! May all your days be spent in the privilege of thanks-giving to the Giver of all good things. Amen.

Observations on the Task Force Proposals, Part 1: "Exclusive"

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance (BRTFSSG, or TF) has released its final recommendations for changes to the LC-MS in the summer of 2010.

As many of us pore over the 148 page document, I expect much discussion. I'll post some of my observations here.

One of the first things I noticed was a proposed change in what is required of membership:
Old Wording:
"Conditions of Membership"
4. Exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymnbooks and catechisms in church and school.

New (proposed) Wording:
"Requirements of Membership"
B.2. Use of worship and catechetical resources that are in harmony with the confessional basis of the Synod.

NOTICE WHAT'S MISSING? "Exclusive". No longer will we require, on paper anyway, that all our resources be doctrinally sound. Instead, we must use doctrinally sound resources, but not exclusively.

The new language permits what is, admittedly, already widespread: the use of unsound, impure, and doctrinally lacking resources for church and school: Baptist church-transformational programs. Non-denominational VBS curriculum. And of course, all manner of "contemporary" music from whatever hymnal or resource is popular and "reaches people".

This is one of the major divides in the LCMS today - between those who like to "borrow and baptize" and those who prefer to simply use the excellent resources we already have. I used to be the former, and have become a strong advocate of the latter. There are tremendous advantages to using sound, throughly and carefully reviewed LUTHERAN materials.

There are serious dangers to using resources that come from other denominations and traditions - whose contents and perspectives are unknown to us and different from us, both in what they teach and fail to teach.

So no thanks, Task Force. Let's keep the old wording on this one. Put me down as an excluder.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Every Bad Argument - ELCA Gay Clergy

This article from the Wasau Daily Herald (online - and previously in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) is a one-stop-shop for just about every bad argument rhetorical tactic that is and has been made to defend the ELCA's recent gay-clergy decisions. I don't know if the professor is affiliated with the ELCA or not (he teaches Sociology). But he's well acquainted with the rhetoric.

The bad arguments/tactics include:

- Labeling the conservatives as "dissidents"

- Asserting that everyone chooses to emphasize certain parts of Scripture
(an easy way for him to marginalize the "dissidents" AND Scripture - which he compares to a Rorshack test!)

- Comparing the conservatives to snake handlers

- If you believe what the Bible teaches on this, you must be over-fixated on someone else's sexual orientation (an attempt to turn blame around, change focus of the issue)

- Misunderstanding/misapplication of Leviticus and the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws

- Marginalizing Scripture as "Bronze Age Morality". We're much more enlightened today!

- Misunderstanding of the role of polygamy in Scripture (hint - God never says to DO it)

Yes, we've heard all these before in one form or another - and any of these arguments or attacks is easily parried if our opponents were willing to listen. But it strikes me that these sort of rants are not meant to inform, debate, or persuade as much as they are to shame and silence opposition.

Monday, October 12, 2009

LCMS President at South Wisconsin District (Video)

President Kieschnick came to the South Wisconsin District and held a Q& A at the district office on October 5th, 2009. The district website has posted video here:

*note: there are two videos, the DP's devotion/introduction is first, then the Q&A.

After some opening comments, President Kieschnick answered questions from those gathered on the following topics:

1. Cost of upcoming extended-length convention
Synopsis of PK's answer: He made the call, based on lots of input from others.

2. Recent actions of the ELCA regarding gay clergy
Synopsis: He has thought of "pulling the plug" but doesn't believe he has the authority to do so. However, if something "egregious" happens before the convention acts, we may dissolve specific relationships with agencies.

3. How do you respond when media outlets, etc, lump us in with the ELCA?
Synopsis: It's a pain. We answer as best we can. Better to explain who we are, rather than what others are doing.

4. A question on District pre-seminary interview committees, and the future of the seminaries.
Synopsis: A variety of benchmarks for a student to enter seminary - sometimes unqualified applicants make it through the screening process for various reasons, and even become pastors.

November 4-5 the Board for Pastor Ed and others are meeting to discuss the future of the seminaries - including the sustainability/stewardship of having 2 seminaries. Both seminaries have financial challenges.

5. What is it you do to encourage us to be healthy, missional, confessional parishes?

Synopsis: I try to help provide a sense of wholeness and health in biblical and practical guidance. Figure out how to meet the needs of your community's demographic, in a way that gets their attention. Get outside comfort zone, leadership of pastor. Schools, particularly preschools are a good way (and even profitable!). Pastors need to balance work and family.

6. Question on 2004 Convention resolution 8-01A on Ecclesiastical Supervision

Synopsis: CCM opinion which said if you get counsel from your ES, and act on it, then you are defended or supported, even if your action goes against scripture and confessions. CCM also opined, later (in a little known opinion), that if that counsel of the ES is incorrect, then he is held to correct that counsel. PK is asking the CCM to take another look at those opinions, pull them together, or somehow fix it.

7. Is the Nov 4-5 meeting, mentioned earlier, the first of its kind? Who will be there?

Synopsis: No, he called for a summit on pastoral formation 3-4 years ago, with representatives from many perspectives. At that time, SMP was conceived. Who will be there: BPE, Boards of Regents, responsible people.

8. Can we get something prepared to put in local papers, etc., that defines us as "not THAT Lutheran church body" in an evangelical way?

Synopsis: Yes, in a way which is winsome and positive. We have a plan on the table to do a nationwide campaign largely through USA Today - but it's very expensive. Send me an email to remind me of that suggestion.

9. As LCMS churches see refugees from ELCA, how are we instructing these people, and do you share concerns that we need to?

Synopsis: This is so fresh, he hasn't heard much input, but suggests parish pastors deal with people from ELCA same way you deal with non-Lutherans (i.e. via a membership class). We have other disagreements with ELCA beyond homosexual issue (ecumenical issues, authority of scripture, etc). LCMS parishes should welcome them to the regular class they offer.

He concluded with a story about a pastor who declined a unionistic prayer service and gave the impression he didn't care about the drought (the issue about which they gathered to pray). He believes we have to take opportunities to speak the truth in love, like he tried to do at the ELCA convention. Appealed to J.A.O. Prues (via paraphrase) that we need to re-think how to relate to other church bodies, to reach out etc..

Preaching at St. James

This Sunday, October 18th, I will be preaching at the congregation of my youth - St. James Lutheran in Baltimore (Overlea), Maryland. We will be observing the commemoration of St. Luke the Evangelist.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sermon - Pentecost 19 - Mark 10:17-22

Pentecost 19 – October 11th, 2009
Mark 10:17-22
“You Know”

The Rich young man makes a big show about falling on his knees and asking Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “You know the commandments....” and then lists some off.

You know. You know what you need to do – keep the law.

You know the law – the law God. The rules and regulations he sets forth in Holy Scripture, and has even written in the hearts of all mankind. You know it, right? That little voice we call the conscience, that tells you when you are doing something wrong.

Oh, but many people don't. Willful ignorance, perhaps. How many have hardened hearts that obscure that natural law? How many consciences are numb and dead to sin?

And how many people could recite all 10 commandments (much less what they mean)? Do you know the law even as well as that rich young man who came to Jesus? Oh, but pastor, I know the basic gist.... Is that how seriously God wants us to know his law? He wants us to know the gist of it? Or does he say, “Talk about these laws when you sit down and stand up; write them on your doorposts; teach them to your children”?

But what you know and the rich young man didn't know, is that you can't keep the law. He tried to fool himself (and Jesus too). “All these laws I have kept since I was a boy!”. Was it arrogance? Self-delusion? Or a false understanding of just what the law requires – which leads to a false sense of security and righteousness before God? What he didn't know was his sin – at least he didn't take it seriously.

Jesus pointed him to the law, not so that he would be self assured of his righteous state. Jesus was holding up the mirror – so he could see his own shortcomings and failures. Take a look. Do you keep all these laws? Are you kind and loving and respectful and generous? Do you watch your tongue and defend your neighbor? Do you obey the authorities, or do you cut corners here and there? Do you think you can get away with it? No one is good but God alone, Jesus reminds us. Not the rich young man, not you or me.

You know, don't you, that you can't keep the law?
You try, of course, we all do... but not as hard as we should. We try, but we make excuses. We try, but fail in deeds, words and thoughts. Sometimes we fail in little ways, sometimes in spectacular ways. But failure it is, for God demands perfection.

Or maybe you know the law well. And you know your sin well. Maybe there's that one sin that troubles you, that one dark deed from your past, or that one vice or habit you just can't shake – you know it oh so well. But maybe it drives you to despair. You fear God can't or won't forgive the burden of guilt you know so well. Or maybe you just don't know.

You need to know the law, and to know your sin. The rich young man may have fallen on his knees, but he wasn't there in confession. He knew the law, but only a thin outward veneer. He didn't know – didn't want to know – the depth and reality of his sin.

The first thing you need to know is your sin. But if that's all you know, you will only know despair. You know the bad news. And if you truly know the bad news, then you need to know the good news!

Know he Gospel – and know it well! Not in a book knowledge sort of way, but in faith and trust – to know the Lord. To know Jesus Christ, your Savior. To believe that God forgives your sins for Jesus' sake.

You know he is the “good teacher”. No one is good but God alone – it's true. But God Alone he is! Jesus Christ, Son of God in human flesh. He knew the law, and he knew how to keep it. Though he was like us in every way – he was without sin. And we know that he was good FOR us. He kept the law that we can't and don't keep. He earned the inheritance that was out of our reach.

Still he knows what it is like to be tempted, to thirst and hunger, to grieve at the grave of a loved one. He knows us – better than we know ourselves.

We know who he is – for he tells us and shows us. He is the one who came from the Father, and he is the only way to the Father. He is the one who lays down his life, and he takes it back again. He knew he would die. He knew he would be buried. He knew he would rise again!

We know he sits at the right hand of God, ruling all things for us. And we know he will come again to judge the living and the dead. We know his kingdom will never end.

We know him, by his word. But even better, he knows us. He calls us, he seals us, feeds us and leads us. “I know my sheep” he promises. And again, it's not an intellectual exercise. His knowledge of us means care and love – it means a relationship in which we belong to him, and he belongs to us. It's a blessed assurance that he will not forget you or forsake you. He knows you. And that's good to know!

Knowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ means knowing where true treasure is found. It's not in your wallet or you bank account. It's not even in the people you know and love. True treasure is in heaven – it is the eternal life that Jesus delivers to us by his perfect life, death, and resurrection. Knowing him is the true and lasting wealth. You can't take earthly riches with you, but Jesus takes you with him to eternity.

In the Christian faith, there's always more to know. We grow and learn and expand our horizons through study and devotion to his Word. The faith is incredibly deep and profound. But it's also very simple. There's really only one thing to know – one person to know – the Savior, the Christ, and him crucified for you.

You know the law. But you also know the Gospel. You know the Lord, Jesus Christ, and you know what he has done for you. Know it, believe it, and live it, for his sake! Amen.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Tork on KFUO Sale

Fellow South Wisconsin LCMS pastor from my district, Rev. Dan Torkelson, has posted the following insightful thoughts regarding the sale of KFUO-FM radio station in St. Louis. (posted with his permission)

Today, word is out that my beloved church body, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, has finalized the sale of its historic radio station, KFUO-FM, in St. Louis.

KFUO-FM was sold by a church body which is, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt, and this in more ways than one. It is one of a growing list of symptoms of a cancer in my beloved church body which needs serious treatment. The leadership of the LCMS needs to feel "the burn" of what it takes to kill a cancer.

The symptoms of the LCMS' remarkable decline can be seen in the legacy of the past 35 years. Quite famously (some have said infamously), Missouri won a "battle for the Bible" in the 1970s when it ousted liberal professors at the St. Louis Seminary who were teaching higher criticism and denying fundamental teachings of the Bible. Pres. J.A.O. Preus, acting on initiative from the congregations of the Synod, handed down an ultimatum which effectively reclaimed the SL Seminary for the Bible and, thus, for a faithful church body.

Pres. Preus's action was indeed necessary, even if it was a political, authority-driven, action. Sadly, the legacy of his action has been that an entire generation of leadership has led the LCMS in a political, authority-driven manner. The bureaucracy of the LCMS expanded precipitously as a result. Contentious issues were settled by presidential fiat and not the earnest goodwill and input of the congregations.

And now, the LCMS is facing a $17 million dollar financial shortfall. Bankrupt. Hence, the sale of KFUO.

In recent years, the LCMS has become a pale shadow of its former greatness. The leadership complains about "incessant internal purification" by faithful members of Synod who only wish to see our confession rise to prominence once again. The truth is actually quite the opposite. The LCMS suffers from a generation which has engaged in "incessant political purification" and the legacy of this politicization of the church is the bankruptcy we now see.

Our current leadership is responsible for the pulling of the most missionaries from the field we have seen since the debacle of the 1970s.

To cover for this anamoly, the leadership forced a "mission movement" called "Ablaze!" down the Synod's throat at the 2004 Convention. Despite Ablaze's high and lofty rhetoric, five years later it has only managed to accomplish the goal of only talking a good game about missions. If has failed to actually do any significant missions.

Now, in a move which seems more and more like hubris every day, the same generation of leadership which has created this sad state of affairs is proposing to fix it through a set of restructuring proposals which seeks to disenfranchise the vote of the local congregation, pit large congregations against small congregations (the majority of the Synod in numbers and finances to this day), disenfranchise the lay voice at legislative conventions. The force of these proposals is that the congregations need to change. Meanwhile, there is little given in the way of specifics in these proposals for the changing of the bureaucracy itself.

In other words, the leadership of the LCMS clearly seems to be saying one thing: "It's the congregation's fault. They are not giving enough to keep the ship afloat. They are ones who do not engage the mission."

Never mind that the Synod cannot specifically account for how many cents on the dollar actually gets to a real mission and/or missionary. If congregations aren't giving, it's because the Synod has not given them a good reason to do so.

The sale of KFUO will offer only short term relief of the financial problems which beset the LCMS, but long term success will require a new generation of leadership. Once again we see the short-sightedness of our leaders. We have the best trained pastors and church workers in American Christianity, but our Synodical leadership has not yet trusted them enough to involve them significantly in re-righting the ship.

The only good long-term solution ahead of us is to clear the decks of our leadership and start over.

IT'S TIME for a change.

God bless this mess.

Rev. Dan Torkelson, Pastor
Zion Ev. Lutheran Church, Clyman, WI

Monday, October 05, 2009

Sermon - Pentecost 18 - Mark 10:1-16

Pentecost 18 – October 4th, 2009
Mark 10:1-16
“What God Joins Together”

It's no secret that we've had a lot of discussion around here lately about marriage and divorce. I want to remind you first of all that we pastors don't select the readings for today based on our preferences, but on a pre-determined system called a lectionary. These readings, and this Gospel reading about marriage and divorce – are the appointed readings for today.

It's also no secret that we live in a culture that increasingly accepts divorce as a part of life. Hardly anyone promotes it as a good thing, but many have become as accepting of it as they have so many other sins. Can you remember the time when it was socially unacceptable? Can you remember when it was something to whisper about? “They're getting a divorce”. It used to be that way.

But today, many sins which were once kept secret are no longer so. We've become numb to the outrage and disgust over sin that God still knows. Sin's not a big deal to us, but it still is to God.

Sure divorce is legal, according to the civil law. It was the same in Jesus' time. A certificate could be written, the deed was done, it was all neat and clean – and Moses approved of it. Well, not really, Jesus said. He said Moses was accommodating to hardness of heart. He didn't want women to be abandoned and victimized by husbands who would leave them informally. At least with a formal decree, or certificate, the woman who was divorced would be free to remarry, and a new husband might provide for her.

But that's never how it was meant to be. Jesus appeals to a higher authority, a deeper order – the order of God's creation. And no matter what the pharisees thought about divorce, and no matter how legal or socially acceptable it is today, Jesus taught the truth that God never intended it. And he still doesn't. “What God has joined together, let man not separate”

Sometimes we do separate – from God, and from each other. But that's always the result of sin. When a marriage fails, it's because of sin. And sin is never God's will.

Interesting that God creates us male and female. That he takes great pains to show that we are “of the same stuff”, the woman is taken out of the man's rib. And when united again in the one-flesh union of marriage, what was separated is back together again. God tells us to be fruitful and multiply, and the one-flesh union finds a special expression in our offspring. Children bring husband and wife together, literally, in the flesh. They are part mom and part dad.

And all these deep mysteries of marriage have much to teach us about the eternal marriage of Christ, and of his church. Each of us is part of that entity – the body of Christ, his eternal bride.

We sing about it in our hymnody - “The Church's One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord” “From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride” “With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died”.

It's a marriage not made in heaven, but created in paradise – when God and his people were perfectly united. But the bride was unfaithful. We fell for another. And when Adam and Eve chose to adulterate their perfect relationship with God, they ran off with the devil and into sin and death.

Throughout history God would call his wayward people to repentance. He would call his bride to return. And at times they would. He went to great lengths to save them from slavery, from disaster, and from their foes. But time and again would they also turn away – adulterating themselves with false Gods like Baal and Asherah and Moloch. God even had a prophet, Hosea, take a prostitute as a wife to demonstrate in person the promiscuity of the Israelites. Sometimes they listened, sometimes they didn't. Sometimes there was repentance and mercy, other times, judgment.

But this ongoing cycle of repentance and grace was driving toward something, leading up to someone. It all found fulfillment in the joining in the flesh of God and man, in Jesus Christ, the Savior. He came to finally re-unite what man had put assunder in the Garden, and put assunder by his sin so many times since. Jesus came to reconcile us to himself, and to his Father. He came as the Bridegroom, preaching repentance and forgiveness. And he loved his beloved with a love that even faced death, but could not be conquered by death.

Maybe your marriage is happy and secure. Give thanks to God for such a gift. Maybe your marriage is troubled and suffering. Turn to God for help (and the resources he gives you) that it would not be torn assunder! Maybe you are single or a widow or a person too young to marry – no matter. You are still part of the bride, the object of Christ's eternal dying and undying love. And he calls you to be faithful as he is faithful to you.

His ultimate sacrifice is the basis for our self-sacrificing love of our spouse and of our neighbor. His forgiveness of all our adulterous ways gives us a reason to forgive each other for the many wrongs we do.

He joins us together – husband to wife in holy marriage until death do they part. He joins us together – sinners to himself in an eternal marriage which not even death can tear apart. And he joins us together with each other as a body – his people – in a mystic sweet communion of saints, eating together at his table, sealed as his children – members of one family - in our baptism.

As Christians, therefore we are our brother's and sister's keeper. We care about them, body and soul. We help them when and how we can, loving them as Christ loves us. Sometimes it's a word of encouragement, sometimes a word of warning. Sometimes we lend our ear and our shoulder to cry on. Always we pray.

One with God, One with one another. Let no one separate what God has joined together in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.