Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Incessant Doctrinal Purification

This past week I was privileged to have a conversation with a man who is being persecuted for being a Lutheran. It's really a very sad tale. The irony of his story is that he is being persecuted by Lutherans, specifically, powerful members of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. It would seem that his past public commitment to our historic theology as a laymen has led to his being somewhat ostracized by the powers that be when it comes to final certification for ordination. After over five years at the Seminary, completing both and M.Div. and another graduate degree, it is not the Seminary that stands in his way. The question is whether or not he will “legally” “get a call.” Even though the position of the LC-MS is that a congregation always has the right to choose its pastor, I that it is the Seminaries who certify tested men to be rostered for these positions, things don't always work in practice the way we have them on paper.

His story is not over yet, and I pray it goes well. But it was something he mentioned in our conversation that sparked the interest I want to opine on today. It was a phrase he used – brief, simple, quick. He was casually describing the way some Lutherans have come to view the commitment of other Lutherans to being Lutheran as a bad thing. The phrase is intended to stigmatize, to mildly offend, to stereotype and to shut-down. It is a sort of innuendo-dirty-word which is meant to push all who hear it away from one idea and towards another, more civil position. The phrase is, “incessant doctrinal purification.”

The first time I heard it used was when I was at Seminary. I am pretty confidant it was not used by a professor, but by a rather highly placed synodical official who was addressing an auditorium as a plenary speaker. His was quite clear in his convicting call to all who were listening: “We must stop this incessant doctrinal purification.” This is our problem. This is our trouble. People like this get in the way.

At the time I took his meaning and probably agreed with it. His confession was that some Lutherans, by focusing too much on their confession, have stopped our corporate Missouri Synod from being efficient at confessing, and this has stopped the mission of the Church (that is, the LC-Ms) from being all that it could and should be. It's actually a rather old idea, dating at the very least to the 17th century when Lutheran pietists began teaching that “Doctrine divides, service unites!” Later, classical liberalism (and more recently, American Evangelical Church Growth) made the same notion slightly more catchy, “Deeds not Creeds!” I'd say it differently. It's more like, “Golly gee, if only we weren't so worried about what we believe, then we'd be able to get more people to believe it.”

Of course, when I say it that way I'm being a little unfair. I'm biased because I think Creeds are eternally more important than deeds. I sort of go in for incessant doctrinal purification, at least, in a “everyone needs a hobby” kind of way. But its about more than a hyper-retentive need to have all my pencils sharpened to perfect points. Yet its just here that the phrase “incessant doctrinal purification” becomes so striking and almost highly poetic. Until this week, whenever I'd heard the phrase, I'd heard it as it was intended: as a degrading attack meant to make me feel guilty for being focused on the wrong things (that wrong thing being the bane of all missonalness, “doctrine.”) When I would hear it, I would grimace and hope that somehow I could avoid being seen as that confessional, hard, stubborn, rude, misguided, selfish image that the phrase intentionally pegged me for. But this week, when the gentleman I was discoursing with dropped it as a mere turn of phrase in a conversation about largely disconnected issues, I was forced to pause and think about the words in a new context. Stripped away from their polemic, the words “incessant doctrinal purification” took on a whole new meaning.

What if one reads those words (“incessant doctrinal purification”) as a phrase in which it is not we who are the nasty, mean subject (those awful men who are engaged in an epic and unending effort to purify the Biblical Truth like a lab-technician might sterilize a petri dish). What if God is the one who is vociferously intent upon “incessant, doctrinal purification”?

It was as if I saw heaven open up and angels ascending and descending upon the purpose of all doctrine, of all confession, of the entire Bible: the Son of Man. In Jesus Christ our God has set it as his doctrine that he will purify us through the incessant forgiveness of our sins – and not only our sins, but the sins of the entire world. Suddenly there was no better description for the entire mission of the Holy catholic Church than “incessant doctrinal purification”! Through the Word – teaching all things that Jesus entrusted to us, under the gift of Holy Baptism – that is, through doctrine – our God is unremittingly, stubbornly, ceaselessly – that is, incessantly – seeking and saving, promising and regenerating, raising and cleansing – that is, purifying for himself a people after his own heart.

Incessant doctrinal purification. The Gospel. Go figure. This wonderful insight into the great value this polemic phrase has for rightly proclaiming who Jesus is and what he has done probably will not help the gentlemen in his efforts at submitting to the powers that be in the hopes of receiving a call. But isn't it wonderful to remember that even when the world is against us, we have a God who is so steadfastly committed to saving us from it that he would dare be labeled an incessant, doctrinal purifier? Yes, even that stigma he took upon himself in his Son, hanging on a cross, that, lifted up, he might draw all of us to himself.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pentecost 17 - James 4b and 5


Monday, September 21, 2009

Video blah blah

I've been working semi-feverishly to get the Wisdom and Hope from this week converted into flash to post before I leave for the Symposium in St. Louis - but, alas, I have failed in this endeavor (a pox upon non-open source codecs!)

Even so, I do hope to get it up upon my return, and I may - just may - blog about the Symposium while I'm there.

See you soon.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pentecost 16 - James 3b and 4a


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Worship War

This week I'm going to talk about something controversial. It's not controversial at St. John, and for that I'm glad. But at the same time I'm not sure we always understand the why of what we do and the why of why we don't.

What am I talking about? I'm talking about what is commonly called “worship” in America. Perhaps the liturgy we receive at St. John is all you've ever known. But, believe it or not, it is not the norm for most churches in America – and one might even say it is quickly becoming “unnormal” for churches in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

There's no way we can talk about all the factors of these “worship wars” (as they've come to be called) in a short afternoon email. It is a deep issue, with much pain caused on many sides, much zeal, much sincerity, much fear, much truth ... and many lies. Today I want to make it simple. I want to shows us clearly why, if we desire to be Lutherans, we need to be very careful about “worship.” To do this, I'm going to quote a few passages from our Lutheran Confessions.

Shortly after Luther's death, the Lutheran princes lost a field battle to the Emperor, who was a staunch Roman Catholic. He then imposed on the Lutheran territories a church-mandate called the “Augsburg Interim.” It forced the Lutherans and their pastors to return to Roman Catholic “worship styles,” such as the sacrifice of the mass – a ritual which treated the Lord's Supper as an act of sacrifice by the priest, crucifying Christ again.

Responses varied. Some Lutherans said, “Well, we're still allowed to preach. This is just a matter of worship style. Its neutral. We can do this and it won't hurt our faith in Jesus.” They called this "adiaphora," or “things neither commanded nor forbidden” by Scripture. Many other Lutherans were highly disturbed, both by the false religion they were being compelled to participate in, and by the fact some of their dear brethren were so casually adopting practices which gave the appearance that the Pope and his teachings were perfectly acceptable.

When the Formula of Concord was signed by many Lutheran churches, and the Book of Concord was published to bring unity to the Lutherans in their stand against the world, the devil and the flesh, the teachers of the day made a clear statement about this controversy. In the tenth Article, called “Church Practices” or “Adiaphora,” they draw a line right to the heart of the matter, leaving all Lutherans a once for all answer to both avoiding needless pain and working together in the mission of preaching a clear Gospel about Jesus' death and resurrection for us. We confess:

We must not include among the truly free adiaphora or indifferent matters ceremonies that give the appearance or are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from the papist religion, or that their religion is not completely contrary to ours.

It couldn't really be more clear. We have no right as the Church to try to look like other churches in order to convince those churches or their members that we are not diametrically opposed to them on their teaching of salvation.

What ought to strike us as terrifying today is that the most common answer given for the use of so-called “contemporary” or revivalistic worship practices in Lutheran churches is precisely because the pastors and people believe that others who have been raised in either Protestantism or American secular culture need to be convinced that the differences between Biblical Lutheranism and other churches simply isn't that big a deal. More so, the revival-music movements were developed by groups who wanted to convince the people that the differences between the Church and the world isn't that big a deal.

But the knife cuts even deeper. The teachers of our Formula saw what we have completely lost sight of: In regard to true adiaphora or indifferent things we believe, teach and confess that such ceremonies, in and of themselves, are no worship of God or any part of it.

That is, if we are ever going to call anything we do in our Churches, “adiaphora – something neither commanded nor forbidden,” then we also must say, “It's not worship.” We cannot honestly say, “It's worship style. It's adiaphora.” To do so is to ignore Jesus' own words, “In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine.”

What does this mean? It means that true worship is not what we do. Where there is something in the Church that is true worship, we are not allowed to change it. True worship is received. It is the Word of God coming to us. It is the Sacrament of the Altar, given to us. It is our prayers which are only the Word of God spoken again. It is our praise which comes only from faith in the Word, and which again proclaims the same Words – the deeds of the Christ who brought us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. It is this misunderstanding that lies at the very heart of all our “worship wars.”

Worship has nothing to do with singing, with enjoying what is sung, with having warm feelings about God, or with anything else that relies on us. True worship is faith created in us by the Word, and that Word then drives and gives and leads us to all the the places where God serves us: Gottesdienst, as the Lutherans used to say: Divine Service.

In this way, there is no such thing as a worship “style.” There is belief and there is unbelief. There are God's gifts, and there is us. What about so-called “contemporary worship” and so-called “traditional worship”?

First, confessional Lutherans do not “do” traditional worship in the same way that more revivalistic groups “do” contemporary worship. What we do at St. John is we rely on the common Divine Service or Divine “Liturgy” which has been gradually formed by two thousand years of history in the western churches – from the Jerusalem Church we read of in Acts, to the medieval Roman Christians, to the Reformation and into our own day. We rely on it because it is simply a pattern of sound words for hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments. In this way, we do not even have “traditional worship” at St. John. We have the Divine Service. We also use an organ and have a choir – but that is not what makes us “traditional” in the Lutheran sense of the word. What makes us traditional is that we gather around the Word for the sake of hearing about who Jesus is, what Jesus has done, and what he is coming again to do.

As we meet, we meet in the midst of a context of teachers who support a movement they call “contemporary” which truly teaches that our way of receiving Jesus is really just a style that we prefer and nothing more. To make matters worse, the movement also teaches that our “style” of receiving Jesus won't work for mission or to convert the world. What we need more is to look less like Church, to look less like Lutherans, and to look more like anything that will attract people to sit in the pews. This should sound familiar. Here we have a movement that actually considers the adiaphora – the song, the feelings, the style – to be the worship.

We must not include among the truly free adiaphora or indifferent matters ceremonies which give the appearance or are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly....We believe, teach and confess that such ceremonies are no worship of God or any part of it.

It makes me sad that so many Lutherans have thought so little about this matter. Our confessions have rarely served us as a guide, which is what they are there for! The Book of Concord is not just a book of answers, but a norm for settling controversies about new ideas that we come face to face with. Our confessions are a pattern of thought about Words which can help our little ship navigate how to be the best Biblical Church it can in the midst of raging times, as we confesss, Particularly when the opponents [of the Gospel] are striving either through violence or coercion or through craft and deceit to suppress pure teaching and subtly to slip their false teaching back into our churches – such things, even indifferent things, may in no way be permitted with a clear conscience and without damaging the divine Truth.

What then, shall we do? We begin by rejoicing that as of yet the fleece has not been slipped over our eyes. The Blessed Gift of the Word and Sacrament are still given in our midst, and they are not obscured by the uncommanded things – not yet. We become disciples of this Church and this Way which is the Church. We must learn from Jesus how to believe, teach and confess, for the sake of growing a new harmony out of the current disorder. This harmony will be founded on the proclamation of the doctrine which unites us. We must also pray for those, Lutheran and otherwise, who are spending all their time on the indifferent things, putting their hopes in these works of men, treating them as if they were the mission of the Church, and teaching them as if they were God's concern. We also pray for conversion and we pray for reconversion for ourselves. We pray for the Light of Christ to be a City on a hill for all of us – that together, the Lamb at the Center is our sun and moon and stars. Finally, we pray that we would not be afraid to speak of this Mystery, but that his discipling of us would make us bold to speak the Truth in love, as we confess, without frivolity or offense, as seems most useful, beneficial, and best for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the building up of the Church.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wisdom and Hope - Acts 7


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pentecost 15 - James 2b and 3


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dump the Liturgy for Youths' Sake!

She did it all on her own. Well...maybe not...we do sing with her every night.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Week in, Week out

One week into life with a new baby and things haven't really lightened up. My folks headed for Kansas City early Monday morning leaving us slightly quieter house. There was a little extra fuss in re-ordering the bedtime routine without Grandma last night, but afterwards it all settled down quite nicely. Trinity even gave her mother a break with a six hour sleep session during the middle of the night.

Today we had a bit of a scare – nothing serious – but enough to significantly distract two young parents, not to mention keep me from sitting down to write this week's Enews until right now, about 5pm. Without going into detail, Trinity's umbilical chord was giving her a little trouble as it began to loosen and there was a small amount of bleeding. When Mer called the pediatrician, he said he wanted to see her, which meant, effectively, that Pastor Engler dropped let me out of his car following our circuit Greek study and I hopped right into our minivan – as Mer is still not supposed to drive. All five of us plodded down Cityline to spend more than a good hour in a sun-filled, stuffy examine room before we even saw a doctor.

The good news is that the chord is pretty normal, and even the small amount of bleeding is not unheard of. To boot, her bilirubin count is down, which saves us a scheduled trip this Friday that we now don't need to make.

The bad news is there is not great theological ponderings for the Enews this week. Except maybe this:

Every parent knows that feeling – the fear that comes one when we truly believe something “bad” might really happen to our child or children. It's a gut feeling, and you can't control it. It can be debilitating. It's always exhausting. We want to fix it. We go nuts if we don't have the power to fix it. An overwhelming passion to help and serve and have mercy comes over us.

Interestingly enough, this is precisely how God looks at us. That is why he sent Jesus. He saw us in our “bad,” with sickness and death and all the rest of the wreck we were making of it. Only, there is a difference: God is never helpless. Our Father had the power to fix it. So he did. He sent Jesus to be our Physician – the doctor who by the death of his own healthy body would make us all into a new Man.

That hardly makes little scares in parenting and life any easier. Today, I was no less impatient, worried or downright miffed at God for the lightly terrifying interruption to my afternoon. But it does reveal that, under God's Truth, my unease, my scares, my impatience and even my miffedness don't really matter. What matters is God – who he is – what he's done for us in his Son – and what he's sending his Son again to do.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Marriage of Adam Clinton Koontz and Jennifer Mae Schwarz


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Pentecost 14 - James 1 and 2a


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

We Had a Baby

In light of our wonderfully speedy delivery last night, I think I'm going to be taking it easy with this week's Enews/blogpost. Most of you already saw in the email, but Trinity Promise Fisk was born at 6:32 pm, weighing in at 7,2 with a height a little over 20.

I saw them both this morning and everything is looking good. Discharge will be tomorrow at 11am.

This Sunday we will include the rite of Holy Baptism in the service of Morning Prayer at St. John. We hope to see all of you there to celebrate with us the second birth unto new life in Christ forever. Thanks for your prayers!

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