30 August 2007

The Reformation of Penance

I don't have the reference ready to hand, but Philip Melanchthon somewhere assessed and summarized Dr. Luther's entire contribution as a reformation of the Sacrament of Penance. I've always appreciated that comment, especially with reference to Individual Confession and Holy Absolution, that means of grace and forgiveness which many Lutherans have not prized in the way that Luther and the Lutheran Confessions everywhere do. But, in studying the Smalcald Articles recently, I've gained a better and even broader appreciation for Melanchthon's take on Luther's Reformation. Specifically, I've been struck by Luther's discussion of true Repentance in pointed contrast to "the false penance of the papists." This is in this Third Part of his Smalcald Articles, subsection 3. What Luther there has provided, it seems to me, is really the best and most concise summary of what the Lutheran Reformation was all about.

I'm not going to type out the entire section, since anyone can find it in his or her own edition of the Book of Concord easily enough, but here are some of the more salient points from the beginning and toward the end of Luther's confession concerning Repentance (from the Kolb-Wengert edition of The Book of Concord, Fortress Press 2000, pages 312-318). It seems especially appropriate in light of the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, which was celebrated yesterday. It also strikes me as quite apropos to current discussions of preaching.

"The New Testament retains this office of the Law and teaches it, as Paul does and says, in Romans 1: 'The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all' people. Also Romans 3: 'So that the whole world may be held accountable to God' and 'no human being will be justified in His sight'; and Christ says in John 16: the Holy Spirit 'will convict the world of sin.'

"Now this is the thunderbolt of God, by means of which He destroys both the open sinner and the false saint and allows no one to be right but drives the whole lot of them into terror and despair. This is the hammer of which Jeremiah speaks: 'My word is a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.' This is not 'active contrition,' a contrived remorse, but 'passive contrition,' true affliction of the heart, suffering, and the pain of death.

"This is really what it means to begin true repentance. Here a person must listen to a judgment such as this: 'You are all of no account - whether you appear publicly to be sinners or saints. You must all become something different from what you are now and act in a different way, no matter who you are now and what you do. You may be as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you could want, but here no one is righteous, etc.

"To this office of the Law, however, the New Testament immediately adds the consoling promise of grace through the Gospel. This we should believe. As Christ says in Mark 1: 'Repent, and believe in the good news.' This is the same as, 'Become and act otherwise, and believe my promise.' Even before Jesus, John the Baptizer was called a preacher of repentance - but for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins. That is, John was to convict them all and turn them into sinners, so that they would know how they stood before God and would recognize themselves as lost people. In this way they were to be prepared for the Lord to receive grace, to await and accept from Him forgiveness of sins. Jesus Himself says in Luke 24: 'You must preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in My name to the whole world.'

"But where the Law exercises such an office alone, without the addition of the Gospel, there is death and hell, and the human creature must despair, like Saul and Judas. As St. Paul says: 'The Law kills through sin.' Moreover, the Gospel does not give consolation and forgiveness in only one way, but rather through the Word, Sacraments, and the like, so that with God there is truly rich redemption from the great prison of sin.

"Now we must compare the false penance of the sophists with true repentance, in order that they both might be better understood.

"It was impossible for them to teach correctly about penance, because they do not recognize what sin really is. Instead they say that the natural powers of humankind have remained whole and uncorrupted; that reason can teach correctly and the will can rightly act according to it; that God surely give His grace if human beings do as much as is in their power, according to human free will.

"From this it must follow that they only do penance for actual sins; such as evil thoughts to which they consent (because evil impulses, lusts, and inclinations were not sin), evil words, and evil works (which the free will could well have avoided).

"They divide such penance into three parts - contrition, confession, and satisfaction - with this comfort and pledge: that the person who is truly contrite, goes to confession, and makes satisfaction by these actions merits forgiveness and pays for sins before God. In this way, they directed the people who come to penance to place confidence in their own works. From this came the phrase that was spoken from the pulpit when they recited the general confession on behalf of the people: 'Spare my life, Lord God, until I do penance and improve my life.' Here there was no Christ. Nothing was mentioned about faith, but instead people hoped to overcome and blot out sin before God with their own works. We also became priests and monks with this intention; we wanted to set ourselves against sin.

"Contrition was handled in this way: Because no one could recall every sin (particularly those committed during an entire year), they resorted to the following loophole. If unknown sins were remembered later, then a person was also to be contrite for them and confess them, etc. Meanwhile, they were commended to God's grace.

"Moreover, since no one knew how great the contrition should be in order for it to suffice before God, this consolation was offered: Whoever could not have contritio (contrition) should have attritio, what I might call a halfway or beginning contrition. For they themselves have not understood either word, and they still know as little about what is being said as I do. Such attritio was then counted as contritio when people went to confession.

"And if it happened that some said they could not repent or be sorrowful for their sins (as might happen in fornication or revenge, etc.), they were asked whether they at least wished or really desired to have contrition. If they said 'yes' (because who would say 'no,' except the devil himself?), it was considered to be contrition, and their sins were forgiven on the basis of such a good work. Here they pointed to the example fo St. Bernard.

"Here we see how blind reason gropes around in the things of God and seeks comfort in its own works, according to its own darkened opinions. It cannot consider Christ or faith. If we look at this now in the light, then such contrition is a contrived and imaginary idea. It comes from one's own powers, without faith, without knowledge of Christ. In this state, a poor sinner who reflected on this lust or revenge would at times have more likely laughed than cried - except for those truly struck down by the Law or falsely plagued by the devil with a sorrowful spirit. Otherwise, such contrition was purely hypocrisy and did not kill the desire to sin. They had to be contrite, but would rather have sinned more - had it been without consequences. . . .

"Now, there were a few who did not consider themselves guilty of any actual sins of thought, word, and deeds - such as myself and others like me, who wanted to be monks and priests in monasteries and foundations. We resisted evil thoughts with fasting, keeping vigils, praying, holding Masses, using rough clothing and beds, etc. With earnestness and intensity we desired to be holy. Still, while we slept, the hereditary, inborn evil was at work according to its nature (as St. Augustine and St. Jerome, along with others, confess). However, each one held that some of the others were so holy, as we taught, that they were without sin and full of good works. On this basis, we transferred and sold our good works to others, as exceeding what we needed to get into heaven. This is really true, and there are seals, letters, and copies available to prove it.

"Such people did not need repentance. For why did they need to be contrite since they had not consented to evil thoughts? What did they need to confess, since they had avoided evil words? For what did they need to make satisfaction, since their deeds were guiltless to the point that they could sell their excess righteousness to other poor sinners? At the time of Christ the Pharisees and scribes were such saints, too.

"At this point, the fiery angel St. John, the preacher of true repentance, comes and destroys both sides with a single thunderclap, saying, 'Repent!' The one side thinks: 'But we have already done penance.' The other thinks: 'We do not need repentance.' John says, 'All of you together repent! You here are false penitents; those over there are false saints. You all need the forgiveness of sins because you all still do not know what true sin is, let alone that you ought to repent of it or avoid it. Not one of you is any good. You are full of unbelief, stupidity, and ignorance regarding God and His will. For God is present over there, in the One from whose fullness we all must receive grace upon grace and without whom no human being can be justified before God. Therefore, if you want to repent, then repent in the right way. Your penance does not do it. And you hypocrites, who think you do not need repentance, you brood of vipers, who assured you that you will escape the wrath to come, etc.'

"St. Paul also preaches this way in Romans 3 and says, 'No one has understanding; no one is righteous; no one seeks God; no one shows kindness, not even one; all have turned aside and become worthless.' And in Acts 17: 'Now God commands all people everywhere to repent.' He says, 'all people' - no single human being is excluded. This repentance teaches us to recognize sin: namely, that we are all lost, neither hide nor hair of us is good, and we must become absolutely new and different people.

"This repentance is not fragmentary or paltry - like the kind that does penance for actual sins - nor is it uncertain like that kind. It does not debate over what is a sin or what is not a sin. Instead, it simply lumps everything together and says, 'Everything is pure sin with us. What would we want to spend so much time investigating, dissecting, or distinguishing?' Therefore, here as well, contrition is not uncertain, because there remains nothing that we might consider a 'good' with which to pay for sin. Rather, there is plain, certain despair concerning all that we are, think, say, or do, etc.

"Similarly, such confession also cannot be false, uncertain, or fragmentary. All who confess that everything is pure sin with them embrace all sins, allow no exceptions, and do not forget a single one. Thus, satisfaction can never be uncertain either. For it consists not in our uncertain, sinful works but rather in the suffering and blood of the innocent 'Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.'"

Second Corinthians

In some ways it is humbling, in my twelfth year as a pastor, and yet also refreshing, that I continue to "discover" portions of the Holy Scriptures that I've not known as well or appreciated as much as I should. That's been my experience this week with respect to Second Corinthians. The New Testament Readings appointed for this week in the LSB Daily Lectionary have been from that letter of St. Paul, as was the Epistle Reading for the Feast of St. Bartholomew last week Friday, and I have simply been stunned by what a powerful Word of the Lord it is.

I've loved First Corinthians for many years, and probably turn to it more often than anything other than the Holy Gospels in my preaching and teaching, but I can't say that I've been nearly so aware of Second Corinthians. Of course there are certain passages that I've known and loved very well, but not so much within their context. There's the Apostolic stewardship of the Mysteries of God, the treasure bestowed in earthen vessels, and the Ministry of reconciliation in Christ Jesus, who became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. There's that beautiful passage concerning Christ, the Son of God, who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that we might inherit the riches of God in Him. There's St. Paul's litany of his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, which he dramatically sets forth in the rhetorical style of a military commander's boasting of great victories. The Apostle boasts in his weaknesses (in, with and under the Cross), and has even come to accept his thorn in the flesh, because the power of God is made perfect in weakness.

These isolated passages I have already been aware of; although, sadly enough, whenever I've gone looking for them, I've had to hunt a bit, because I've never really had them rooted within their proper locus. Now, however, in reading through this Epistle over the course of the week, I've been much more immersed in the entire scope and sequence of the letter, and it is truly amazing. This is surely one of the most profound, and at the same time one of the most practical writings, in all of Holy Scripture. It is a marvelous proclamation and teaching of the Office of the Holy Apostolic Ministry, of the Theology of the Cross, of Redemption and Justification, of faith and hope and love, of sanctification and good works. It really doesn't get any better than this.

I remember Dr. Weinrich saying that First Corinthians was one of the most frequently cited (if not the most frequently cited) New Testament Scriptures in the early church. I honestly don't recall whether he included Second Corinthians along with it, or not; I suspect that he did not. But, for my part, having now "discovered" this rare gem, I cannot help but think that I will be turning to it far more often than I have done in the past.

Worshiping Beings that Are No Gods

I continue to be struck by Dr. Luther's comments on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, 1535 (Luther's Works, Vol. 26, CPH 1963), with specific reference to Gal. 4:8-9. The following, in particular, seems particularly timely in our present day and age:

"By nature all men have the general knowledge that there is a God, according to the statement in Romans (1:19–20): ‘To the extent that God can be known, He is known to them. For His invisible nature, etc.’ Besides, the forms of worship and the religions that have been and remained among all nations are abundant evidence that at some time all men have had a general knowledge of God. Whether this was on the basis of nature or from the tradition of their parents, I am not discussing at the moment.

"But here again someone may raise the objection: ‘If all men know God, why does Paul say that before the proclamation of the Gospel the Galatians did not know God?’ I reply: There is a twofold knowledge of God: the general and the particular. All men have the general knowledge, namely, that God is, that He has created heaven and earth, that He is just, that He punishes the wicked, etc. But what God thinks of us, what He wants to give and to do to deliver us from sin and death and to save us — which is the particular and the true knowledge of God — this men do not know.

"Thus it can happen that someone’s face may be familiar to me but I do not really know him, because I do not know what he has in his mind. So it is that men know naturally that there is a God, but they do not know what He wants and what He does not want. For it is written: ‘No one understands God’ (Rom. 3:11); and elsewhere: ‘No one has ever seen God’ (John 1:18), that is, no one knows what the will of God is. Now what good does it do you to know that God exists if you do not know what His will is toward you? Here different people imagine different things. The Jews imagine that it is the will of God that they should worship God according to the commandments of the Law of Moses; the Turks, that they should observe the Koran; the monk, that he should do what he has learned to do. But all of them are deceived and, as Paul says in Romans, ‘become futile in their thinking' (Rom. 1:21); not knowing what is pleasing to God and what is displeasing to Him, they adore the imaginations of their own heart as though these were true God by nature, when by nature they are nothing at all.

"Paul indicates this when he says: ‘When you did not know God, that is, when you did not know what the will of God is, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; that is, you were in bondage to the dreams and imaginations of your own hearts, by which you made up the idea that God is to be worshiped with this or that ritual.’ From the acceptance of this major premise, ‘There is a God,’ there came all the idolatry of men, which would have been unknown in the world without the knowledge of the Deity. But because men had this natural knowledge about God, they conceived vain and wicked thoughts about God apart from and contrary to the Word; they embraced these as the very truth, and on the basis of these they imagined God otherwise than He is by nature. Thus a monk imagines a God who forgives sins and grants grace and eternal life because of the observance of his rule. That God does not exist anywhere. Therefore the monk neither serves nor worships the true God; he serves and worships one who by nature is no god, namely, a figment and idol of his own heart, his own false and empty notion about God, which he supposes to be the surest truth. But even reason itself is obliged to admit that a human opinion is not God. Therefore whoever wants to worship God or serve Him without the Word is serving, not the true God but, as Paul says, ‘one who by nature is no god.’

"Therefore it does not make much difference whether you call the ‘elements’ here (Gal. 4:9) the Law of Moses or some of the traditions of the Gentiles, even though Paul is speaking specifically and chiefly about the ‘elements’ of Moses. For someone who falls away from grace into the Law is no better off in his fall than someone apart from grace who falls into idolatry. Apart from Christ there is nothing but sheer idolatry, an idol and a false fiction about God, whether it is called the Law of Moses or the law of the pope or the Koran of the Turk."

29 August 2007

Preaching the Beheading of St. John

The recent flurry of blogversations about preaching invites reflection and consideration of this most important and definitive task to which I have been called. Preaching is the preeminent Christian activity, because everything depends upon God the Father’s preaching of the Word, His only-begotten Son, by whom all things are made, and without whom there is nothing. The Lord’s Supper is the culmination and pinnacle of this divine preaching, because the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, but the Voice of the Lord must ring out in the wilderness, and the preacher of repentance must ever go before His face to prepare His Way (and prepare us for His coming). For the Church on earth, it is always Advent, in order that it may also be Christmas and Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost. So, too, in each Divine Service, the proclamation of the Word precedes the enfleshed Word of the Supper.

Thinking out loud about preaching is not unlike talking about Jesus. All of this must finally give way to the real thing, that is, to the actual preaching of Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, it is surely helpful for us preachers to sharpen each other, as iron sharpens steel, and to stir each other up to more faithful preaching. If we feel threatened by comparisons, humbled by evaluations, or envious of brethren who are able to set the bar higher for all of us, what does any wounding of our prideful male egos matter, if we are thereby helped and encouraged to be better preachers of Christ? What matters is the Gospel, the forgiving of sins, the comforting of terrified consciences and trembling souls, for whom the Son of God has died and shed His precious blood. None of us will ever do this too well, nor as faithfully and well as we ought.

There are no works or merits of supererogation in the office of preaching. We have not yet come to the shedding of our blood and the giving of our lives to the point of death for this work. If we have lost our heads, it is not yet in the manner of the witness of St. John the Baptist. Rather, until we die, we are not only finite and frail creatures, but fallible and flawed in our own sinfulness. Of course, the power of God is made perfect in our weakness, but that is by His grace and mercy toward us and our hearers, not by any virtue in our weakness! So we ought to spur each other on to better and more faithful preaching. If the weakness of our sinful pride pushes us to "compete" in such preaching, well, Christ be praised, if only His Gospel is preached.

I know and admit that I often put more effort into my preaching when I consider that my colleagues are listening and paying attention. Shame on me for that, but it does help me to overcome the perverse laziness of my old Adam. Still, I generally find that my best preaching, if I may dare so speak of any such thing, is driven not by competition or ego, but by a love for Christ and His Gospel and, what always flows from that, a love for His people.

What makes any preaching the best sort of preaching is not rhetorical eloquence or poetic artistry, although these good first article gifts of God are often taken up into the service of His Word and the preaching of it; but the best preaching is that which delivers the better second article gifts of Christ and His forgiveness of sins into the ears, into the minds, into the hearts and bodies and lives of poor sinners. Sometimes it is the faltering, stuttering, stumbling sermon, by the preacher who is tired and beleaguered and hurting himself, which speaks to the heart of the matter without any flourish or garnish or impressive mastery of the English language. Sometimes the Lord allows the preacher to go hungry (and I don’t just mean his belly, but sometime his belly, too), in order that he would come into repentance and live out in the wilderness by nothing else but that Word which proceeds from the mouth of God. Not only because the Lord cares about the preacher and desires to strengthen his faith and life in Christ; but also because He cares about the congregation, and He desires to purify the preacher’s preaching, as if by fire, that it may become more precious than gold or silver. If anyone wants to be a good preacher, it is finally the Cross that teaches that art. It was the Cross, I am convinced, that taught Paul Gerhardt how to sing so well; it is the Cross that teaches me how to preach.

The thing about the Cross is that you cannot master it or package it, nor market it or sell it. It will always crucify you, and thank God for that. To preach the Cross, really, is first of all to be crucified by it, and then to crucify the hearers with your preaching. To preach the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is to be thrown into prison, to languish there, to wrestle with your doubts, to question everything, to wonder what is true, and to wait upon the Lord and His Word; and then, finally, to be put to death and laid to rest, that Christ may be all in all, and that you may be raised to newness of life in and with Him. To preach the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is to remove the heads of your hearers, that they be given to live no life but that of Christ, to have no body but His, to find no peace or rest but His Gospel. I can’t tell anyone else how to do this, no more than I can figure it out for myself by my own reason and strength. The Lord will use my reason and strength to serve the preaching of His Word to His people, for these are His gifts and they are at His disposal. But it is His Word and Spirit that teach me how to preach, that take hold of me and train me and sanctify my reason and strength, my lips and my language.

Aside from the fact that all of this is from the Lord, and always dependent upon Him, it also remains the case that every preacher is different; and every congregation is different; and each Lord’s Day, whether Sunday or some other Feast, has its own propria; and these are proclaimed and heard within a unique context and set of circumstances, not only from place to place, but from one week to the next. What will it look like to preach a particular Gospel in a particular place on a particular occasion? I don’t know ahead of time, and I can’t really tell you, even after the fact, because there will always be a difference between the preaching that actually takes place and any attempt to describe it or talk about it. I remember Dr. Scaer making that point once, that a sermon is not really the manuscript (whether one uses one or sticks to it or not), but it is the preaching that sounds from the pulpit into the ears of the congregation.

Listening to recorded sermons is a lot closer to the real thing than reading the words, but even a recording (or a broadcast) is not yet the same as the proclamation that occurs in the Church. Let us rejoice wherever and whenever the Word of the Gospel is given free course, whether by radio or recording or reading material, but let us not lose sight of the liturgical significance of preaching. It is not liturgical because it references the rites and ceremonies or propers of the Service, but because it is an integral part of the Liturgy. Liturgical preaching moves the congregation from the Lectern to the Altar, from the Apostolic Scriptures to the Word-made-Flesh and the New Testament in His Blood. That sort of preaching can only be completed within the Divine Service itself, wherein it is preached.

There is preaching that happens at the daily offices of Matins and Vespers, of course, and in the classroom, at the hospital, in the confessional, around the table, in the car. Each of those contexts will call for its own particular preaching. In every case, preaching may include the teaching of facts and information (a didactic element), because the Gospel is rooted in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate, who was crucified, died and was buried, and who rose again, in a particular place at a particular time in history. What is more, the Word of God says stuff, it makes assertions, it draws lines in the sand, it speaks the truth and makes it so. Anyway, Jesus commands His sent ones to baptize and to teach all that He has spoken; so there you go. But teaching facts and information does not yet make for preaching, not by itself.

Preaching is also catechetical, Sacramental, and Christological, but not simply by quoting the Catechism or referring to the Sacraments or saying a lot of nice things about Christ Jesus. Preaching is catechetical in so far as it puts the sinner to death with the Law, and raises the dead sinner to life with the forgiving of his sins (the Gospel), which is the preaching of repentance. That is what St. John the Baptist was called and sent to do, and what the holy Apostles were called and ordained to do, and what the called and ordained Ministers of Christ are called and sent to do within His Church to this day. Preaching is Sacramental when it returns the baptized to the significance of Holy Baptism by preaching repentance, and when it brings them to recline at the Lord’s Table to eat and drink His Body and His Blood in faith and with thanksgiving. And preaching is Christological when it is not simply about Jesus, but is the preaching of Christ Jesus, His Word of Holy Absolution sounding in the ear as from heaven itself.

Whatever components may go into a particular sermon (and I tend to think that each sermon will be, and ought to be, unique in this respect), preaching must be the proclamation of the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel. Not instruction in what these things are, but the Law and the Gospel themselves as they are, doing what they do, and God thus having His way with His people.

The Law is rightly preached when it is addressed to the hearer, in the Name of the Lord, as His divine command and prohibition, demanding obedience and threatening punishment. The Law always accuses, but not because it is phrased accusingly (or spoken with a "tone" of accusation or a wagging finger), but because it commands the hearer to do what he is not doing, does not want to do, and is not capable of doing (leastwise not with the perfection that God requires); and because it forbids the hearer to do what he is doing or would like to be doing.

The Gospel is rightly preached when it forgives the hearer’s sins. It is a real Absolution. It does not simply remind or reassure the hearer of something in the past, but it does something in the here and now: it heals the sick, it raises the dead, it opens the eyes of the blind, it opens the ears of the deaf, it makes the lame to walk, it comforts the weary and heavy laden. It isn’t about Jesus. It is Jesus, the Word of God, preached into the ears of His own people.

Good preaching of the Law and the Gospel is all of the above, yet not in the same couple of sentences with each and every sermon. The challenge is in preaching the particular Holy Gospel of the day, in such a way that it addresses itself to the congregation as the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ. So, for example, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is preached in such a way that the hearer is Herod condemned by the Law, seduced by Salome, guilty of adultery and bloodshed; and the hearer is in prison with St. John, and beheaded for the sake of Christ, and raised with Christ in His Resurrection. Whatever details of history, whatever teaching, whatever rhetorical devices may serve and support this preaching, all of that is fine and good, but it is the accusation and condemnation of the Law, the call to repentance, and the forgiving of sins in the Name and stead of Christ that actually constitutes the preaching per se.

The good news for the preacher (along with his own forgiveness of sins!) is that the same Word and Spirit of God that called and sent and supported and preserved St. John the Baptist, the Prophets and Apostles, and all the holy martyrs, attend the preacher in his office and task of preaching. The Lord gives such gifts for the sake of His Church, because He loves us, and He desires His Gospel to be preached and heard, because He desires to give to His little flock the Kingdom of His beloved Son. It does remain true, to the glory of His holy Name, that His power is made perfect in our weakness. The surpassing grace and benefits of Christ are all the more manifest in our frailty, lest we boast in ourselves or in anything other than the Cross of Christ.

28 August 2007

Mediocre Hymnody and the Lust for Something New

A relatively brief post, while I contemplate whether or not, or when, to get on board the preaching-post bandwagon.

It has occurred to me that one of the precipitating reasons for the so-called "Contemporary Worship" movement was boredom. Not with the Liturgy, though the Liturgy poorly administered can certainly become tedious, but with the glut of mediocre hymnody that seems to reign, even now, in so many Lutheran congregations. I'm talking about the standard, staple repertoire of hymns that dominate good old-fashioned conservative congregations. As soon as I would offer some specific examples, I'd start to get hate mail from people, so I'm not inclined to do that; because I'm thinking of hymns that are "old favorites" for lots of folks. Truth be told, I'm thinking of hymns that have been "old favorites" of mine, especially from my childhood.

I'm not talking about bad hymns, nor about hymns with questionable or heterodox theology. What I have in mind are hymns that do manage to say a few things that are true and right and good, because they confess the Word of God, more or less straightforwardly, though perhaps not eloquently or profoundly. I'm not suggesting that there is no place for such hymnody. There is. In any case, these are hymns that have found a place in our Lutheran hymnals, and I don't expect that they will be going the way of all flesh any time soon.

The trouble is that many of these standard hymns, which constitute the mainstay of hymnody in a lot of congregations, are not musically sturdy nor theologically substantial nor poetically rich. In other words, they don't have a lot of staying power. They get old. And the more you sing them, the more boring and tedious they become. They lose whatever punch they might have had for a while. Not because they have nothing to say, but it's not much to begin with, and it isn't said all that beautifully (perhaps sappily, but not with real literary art), and it's set to a simplistic tune that is all too easily mastered by the second stanza.

More and more, I've been struck by the fact that Lutherans have not gotten tired of their own historic Lutheran hymnody. They haven't been singing that hymnody, by and large, and they don't even know much of it! If they think about it at all, they think it's too hard, and they aren't inclined to learn it. Consequently, it's not those great Lutheran chorales that have worn out their welcome in our congregations. For the most part, those majestic treasures of our heritage have not been welcomed in the first place. No, the culprits are the Methodist hymns, and the generic Protestant hymns, that have so dominated our congregations for the past several generations. With that in mind, I find it no surprise at all that people (pastors and laity alike) got tired of the hymns they were singing, and started to lust for something new.

The more I sing the solid and substantial hymns of the historic Church, of which there are also a few that have been written in recent generations, the less interesting I find the "old favorites" that once seemed so moving and meaningful to me. There's such a qualitative difference!

If I'm right, and people simply got tired of singing that same ol', same ol' stuff - those few dozen favorite "oldies" that everyone loves and nobody could bear to part with, but which simply don't have that much to say or to offer for the long haul - it's just a crying shame that congregations weren't introduced to the tried and true hymnody of the Church catholic, instead of being lulled into a steady diet of sugar highs, becoming addicted to a constant craving for the next new thing, but never really being fed or satisfied.

27 August 2007

St. Monica, the Mother of the Western Church

Today, the 27th of August, commemorates St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. She is one of my favorite saints (if that is not an inappropriate evaluation to make). My middle daughter is named for her, although that has to do with the fact that St. Monica has sometimes been remembered on the 4th of May, around the time when my own Monica was born. The day of the commemoration was moved to this date, in proximity to that of her son on the morrow, the 28th of August, no doubt because of the tremendous role that she played in his conversion.

There are diverse opinions concerning St. Monica's husband, Patricius. He is variously said to have been a pagan, or abusive, though neither of these things appears to be substantiated. He was unfaithful to her at times, but she remained faithful to him. He likely did have some formal assocation with the Christian Church, and he was finally baptized in the Year of Our Lord 370. Whatever the case may have been, both he and St. Monica were intent upon their son receiving a classical education and rhetorical training, in order to insure that he would have a good career. Those provisions prepared St. Augustine well for the office to which he would eventually be called, to be a bishop and a doctor of theology, but his schooling did not make of him a Christian.

St. Monica is best remembered for her fervent desire and many years of heartfelt prayers for her son's conversion. He had been registered for Baptism as a child, but, in keeping with the custom of that day and age, he was not actually baptized then; for it was often the case that Holy Baptism would be delayed until after the "wild oats" of youth had been sown. (Sort of like waiting until puberty before allowing children to receive the Holy Communion.) Augustine, however, drifted further away from Christianity into pagan philosphy and heretical sects. So it was that his dear mother prayed, night and day, for nine long years or more, with great tears and weeping, that he would be returned to the faith and brought into the fellowship of the Church through Holy Baptism. Her piety, patience and perseverance in prayer are exemplary.

Several of my dearest friends have children who have departed from the Christian Church and from the Christian faith, and I suppose there is hardly anything in life more painful than such apostasy in one's children. I've said before that I worry about my children all the time, and I frankly do not know how I could bear to have any one of them renounce their faith in Christ. Yet, as a friend and as a pastor, I have been called upon to comfort, to console, and to counsel those who have found themselves in such a predicament. In such cases, I am grateful for the example of St. Monica, not only her faithfulness in prayer, but the faithfulness of the Lord in answering her prayer. He did not do so quickly, not by any means, but He did at last call her Augustine to Himself by the Gospel, enlighten him with tremendous gifts, both spiritual and temporal, sanctify him through the washing of water with the Word, and preserve Him steadfast thereafter in the one true faith. Indeed, St. Augustine became, not only a Christian disciple of Jesus, but a faithful pastor and bishop in his own day, and probably the most significant and influential of all the Church fathers. It is for this reason that I affectionately refer to St. Monica as the Mother of the Western Church.

St. Augustine was baptized, famously, by St. Ambrose of Milan. A pious tradition maintains that these two patristic giants emerged from the waters of that Baptism spontaneously singing the Te Deum Laudamus. Rightly should all the heavens glorify God for the preaching and teaching of these two faithful pastors and teachers of the faith. It was not long after that St. Monica died, having witnessed the answer to her many years of fervent prayer. I have often thought that she ranks up there with the Syrophoenician woman as an example of the Church's own persistence in prayer, though it would seem that the Lord has nothing but a stony silence or stern "No" to offer in response. He might have waited to bring her Augustine to the faith and Holy Baptism after her death, but it was in His tender mercy and compassion toward her that she lived to see that blessed day. It is sure and certain that she lauded and magnified God with her own hymns and prayers of thanksgiving for that gracious benefaction. She died soon thereafter in the faith and peace of Christ.

St. Monica was widowed at age 40, and she died at age 55, but she lived to see both her husband and her son baptized in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Such prayers are not always answered in the timing and circumstances that we would prefer. We pray in faith according to the Word and promises of God, in the Name of Jesus. There is no other confidence than that, which does not rely upon sight, or feelings, or experience, but solely upon Christ. In Him, however, the answer is always "Yes!" and "Amen!" We may be absolutely certain of the Gospel, though we may be sure of nothing else.

I have no guarantees that any particular child, nor any other person, will be called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified in the one true faith. I wish that I could speak with such certainty to my friends regarding their children, but there are some such questions and concerns that none of us can answer. We pray, however, in the confidence of Christ, who is most certainly true. And we do so knowing this (even if we must rely upon brothers and sisters in Christ to remind us), that, as much as we love our children, and care for them, and so desperately want the best for them, their own dear Father in heaven loves them surpassingly more then we do, far more so than we could ever imagine or comprehend. This is the greatest comfort that I can give to those whose children have departed from the Church and wandered away from the faith.

When the Holy Triune God bestows His Name upon a child in Holy Baptism, He binds Himself to that boy or girl, and binds him or her to Himself. The baptized one is adopted as a son of God, united with Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son, in His Cross and Resurrection, and anointed by His Holy Spirit. If we are zealous for and protective of our children, He is all the more so, and far more capable than any of us to guard and keep them from all harm and danger. The Father's eye remains upon the Prodigal Son, even when he has gone away to the far country, and even when he is languishing in the pig pen. The Good Shepherd comes to seek and to save the lost; He calls and gathers His lost and wandering sheep back into the sheepfold by His voice of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit is the first and best Master of properly dividing and applying the Law and the Gospel, of calling sinners to repentance and faith through the forgiveness of sins. What is more, the one true God is moved by His own holy love to preserve and protect His children.

We pray, after the example of St. Monica, for our children, for all our needs of body and soul, for the Church on earth and all the world, not as though it were necessary (or possible) for us to twist God's arm or compell Him to act against His good and gracious will or better judgment. Our prayer is rather the voice of faith, which takes God at His Word and holds Him to that, knowing that Christ has died for all, that in Him the Father has reconciled the world to Himself, and that He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. We pray for the Christian faith and life of our children, not as though it were necessary to convince the Lord to care for them, but that He would do for them (and for us) what He has sworn Himself to do. "I will never leave you nor forsake you," that is His promise. "If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself." Nor will He forget or neglect our children. We cannot love them more, nor care for them better, than He does.

26 August 2007

You See What You Expect To See

There's a great scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry is being given a tour of Snape's memories in the stone Pensieve, and the following lines caught my attention:

Snape was pacing up and down in front of Dumbledore.

"- mediocre, arrogant as his father, a determined rule-breaker, delighted to find himself famous, attention-seeking and impertinent -"

"You see what you expect to see, Severus," said Dumbledore, without raising his eyes from a copy of Transfiguration Today. "Other teachers report that the boy is modest, likable, and reasonably talented. Personally, I find him an engaging child." (The Deathly Hallows 679)

Dumbledore is exactly right. You see what you expect to see. I've recognized that in myself, recently, especially during and after the LCMS Convention. And I've certainly taken note of the same tendency in others, as well. If you expect the worst, you're likely to find it. And if you're determined to see only the best, you're likely to put a positive spin on everything, or to overlook the bad. What is most difficult is a balanced, fair and objective assessment. As soon as you start to tip in one direction or the other, it's as though all your marbles spill over to that side.

By Tuesday of the Convention, I was feeling pretty melancholy about the whole thing, weary and down-in-the-mouth. As often happens to me when I give way to that demeanor, I found myself getting irritated about every little thing, imagining the worst about everything and everyone around me, and sinking further and further into my own little pity party. The fact of the matter is that one of my temptations and weaknesses in life is to withdraw into myself when I am beleaguered and downcast; which is exactly the wrong thing to do, anytime really, but especially at such a point. I know that Satan works overtime to bring me into despair, and I too easily head down that path, all the more readily when I drift off on my own. Thankfully, as I've gotten older, I've come to recognize this tendency in myself for the sinful proclivity that it is, so that I am better able to identify it and deliberately resist the urge to crawl into a cave.

Well, in the midst of the Convention I didn't have much choice in the matter, anyway. I was there as a delegate, and so I was obliged to be at my post each day, even if pushing the buttons on my little electronic keypad was beginning to feel rather pointless by Tuesday evening. What difference did it make? "Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I'll eat some worms." And of course, with that kind of attitude, it was almost inevitable that I'd be sour about anything and everything that happened. I'm not sure that I would have been able to pull myself out of that funk, if not for the fraternal conversation and consolation of the brethren.

When you're surrounded by a huge crowd of strangers, it's easy enough to be left alone, and to feel yourself all alone. Yet, within that crowd were men who know me and care about me, and who care about Christ and His Church and His Gospel, who made a point of reaching out to me with friendship and fraternal encouragement. There were several of these brothers, in particular, who made all the difference in the world to me at that point. They were realistic and serious about what was happening, and concerned about what was yet to come, but they were not despairing or downhearted. Maybe it was partly a case of youthful optimism, but I rather think it was mainly a case of lighthearted joy in the forgiveness and freedom of the Gospel. It is true, after all, that God is still God, and Christ is the Lord of His Church in heaven and on earth, and the Spirit intercedes for us in our weakness, always crying out the "Kyrie! Eleison" of faith.

What struck me was not simply the way in which my friends and brothers in Christ were able, by their kindness and collegiality, to cheer my spirit and lift my countenace (remarkably so), but also the difference it made in my whole perspective on the Convention. It was partly their take on things, their level-headed evaluation of the good, the bad and the ugly, and their realistic assessment of the big picture. That helped me to step back and reconsider things without the ugly predisposition to interpret everything as a doom-and-gloom disaster in the making. But more than that, it also invited me to do, for them and for others, what I am called to do as a Christian and as a Minister of the Word of Christ, namely, to speak the truth in love; to admonish, correct and exhort, but also to forgive those who trespasses against me; to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me; to defend my neighbor, speak well of him, and to put the best construction on everything; and, in all of this, to confess the faith: not in spite of the Cross, but precisely in, with and under the Cross. Not only is this a healthier attitude; it is the right thing to do. If it seems foolish and naive, so be it; the foolishness of God is wiser than man. Christ also suffered once for all, the just for the unjust, not reviling those who reviled Him, but turning the cheek and commending Himself to the Father, and baring His back to the scourges I have deserved, and bearing my sins in His own body on the Cross, and becoming the curse of sin and death, so that I am judged righteous for His sake, and not for any merit or worthiness in me.

I'm not happy about much of what happened at the Convention. I'm even more unhappy about a number of things that should have happened but didn't. And I have serious concerns about various things that may yet happen as a consequence of decisions that were made this summer, such as the prospect of a complete restructuring of synodical polity and governance. But for all of that, I believe there were also some positive things that happened, including some rather significant decisions. And there were indications of hope for the future, potential improvements in our life together under the cross and in our confession of Christ and His Gospel. I am resisting the urge to lose sight of the good on account of the bad. It isn't all black or white, all or nothing. In particular, I will not presume to read hearts, to judge motivations, or to assume the worst about my neighbor. I am given to confess the Word of God, to speak the Law and the Gospel, and to deal with my brother (as well as my enemy) in the charity of Christ, who demonstrates His love for me in this, that while I was yet His mortal enemy, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death upon the Cross, in order to reconcile me, a sinner, to the Father.

Of course, the LCMS "Daily Prophet" is proclaiming "Peace, peace," while the Quibbler is warning of Nargles in the woodwork and Crumple-Horned Snorkack conspiracies at every hand. It troubles me, though, when I encounter reports on the Convention that seem determined to read the most negative possible interpretation into everything that happened, to impugn motivations, and to predict nothing but catastrophe in the future. I'm all in favor of sober judgment, but I worry that such persistent pessimism is but a fine line away from faithless unbelief. You see what you expect to see, and if you expect only the worst, than the worst is all that you will discern. Not the Cross, in which the joy of Christ is set before us, but self-pitying morbidity, which is far more likely to end in the suicidal despair of a Saul or a Judas than the repentance and boldness of those holy Apostles and sainted martyrs, Peter and Paul, who rejoiced to be counted worthy to share the sufferings of Christ.

I'm going to continue to urge that everyone participate in the polity and processes of our Synod, and contribute as much as possible to the studies and conferences and whatever else there may be coming down the pike. Let's all do what we are given to do, and avoid doing what we are not given to do, and trust Christ, and pray, and confess, and give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good (though we are not) and His mercy endures forever. But if there is an interest in making predictions about the future, I fully expect that the current administration will continue to gather more and more centralized power unto itself. That's been the trend for the past thirty or forty years, so far as I can tell, irrespective of who's in office. And just when anyone thinks that he has gotten for himself the power to establish a kingdom on earth, the Lord will punish sin with sin, and he who lives by the sword will die by the sword. For the same Lord who raises up Assyria to discipline Israel, raises up Babylon to discipline Assyria, and Persia to discipline Babylon, and Greece, and Rome, and all the might of man is but a fly-swatter in His hand. The Lord chastens whom He loves. He also heals. He puts to death, and He makes alive. It is better to suffer for the sake of Christ than as evildoers, but, in all of our suffering, let each and all of us repent.

At the same time that Snape was complaining about Harry, because he saw in him exactly what he expected to see, Harry was harboring his own suspicions about Snape, which he never did let go until he discovered the truth at the last. There was a lot of baggage between them, and their personalities clashed, and they could never have been chums, but they were wrong about each other. Neither of them was perfect, but neither of them was altogether evil, wicked, mean and nasty. They were sometimes motivated by less than the purest of motives, yet they consistently and bravely chose to take courageous action on behalf of good and noble causes, even at great personal cost. They are fictional characters, but there is an honest example for us in Harry Potter and Severus Snape.

You see what you expect to see. So fix your eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God, where He ever lives to make intercession for us before the Father in heaven. Fix your eyes on Jesus; by faith see only Him, who is your righteousness and holiness, your strength and your song, because He is your great Salvation; and in holy love, see Him also in your neighbor.

25 August 2007

The Feast of St. Bartholomew, the Apostle

Jesus is among you as the One who serves. He does so by the way and means of the apostolic Ministry of the Gospel, within His holy Christian Church, which rests upon the foundation of His holy Apostles, St. Bartholomew among them. Make no mistake, therefore, the office of the Apostles is a high and holy office, worthy of honor (for Jesus’ sake), and for which we rightly give thanks and praise to God.

Yet, for all of that, consider the disputes that arose (more than once) among the holy Twelve Apostles, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. Instead of humility and rejoicing in the vocation to which the Lord had called them by His grace, there was prideful competition and dissatisfaction. When considering themselves and each other according to the measure of this world, they failed to recognize the greatness and glory of Christ (in His Cross), but dreamed only of power, prestige and prerogative.

But do not be quick to despise the Apostles for their bickering. Do not give yourself over to the same vainglory and worldly spite; for you do no better than they within your own vocations and stations in life.

You do not consider yourself and your neighbor according to the Word and wisdom of God, but according to you own self-righteousness (which is rot) and from your own covetous lust for more and more, so rarely ever satisfied and content with your lot in life and that which the Lord has graciously given you.

You do not look upon your parents, your spouse, your children, your boss, coworkers or employees, your teachers or your students, through the lens of God’s commandments. He truly honors all of these neighbors of yours with His own holy Word, and it is for the sake of His name that you are to honor them — but you do not.

Neither do you consider yourself and your own station in life according to God’s Word, His Law and His Gospel. You are prideful when you ought to repent, and you despair when you ought to rejoice in Christ Jesus. When you succeed, you glory in yourself, and when you suffer, you complain that God has been unfair to you and mistreated you.

Repent of all this foolishness and sinful unbelief. Stop rebelling against the Word and wisdom of God and resisting His good and gracious will for you. Humble yourself before the Lord, and quit your complaining.

Do not despise the place that He has given you, be it great or small. Do not despise your neighbors, whether they be strong or weak. And do not despise the holy Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, their frailties and failings notwithstanding.

You are not the man (or woman) to trade tales of woe with these twelve men, who, for the name and sake of Christ and His Gospel, were persecuted and put to death. Or will you compare your suffering with that of St. Bartholomew, who is said to have been flayed alive and then beheaded for his faithful preaching of the Gospel? He and his fellows were persecuted, but not forsaken (they were never forsaken; nor are you). They were struck down, but not destroyed; afflicted, but not crushed; often perplexed and confused, sometimes mistaken, but, by the grace of God, not despairing.

By their own wisdom, reason and strength, they could not fathom the greatness of the Cross of Christ. And they, like you, could not comprehend the greatness and the glory of His Cross in their own lives. But His true divine greatness, and His true divine glory, never do depend upon the wisdom, reason or strength of man. Nor does He require that you first of all understand before He comes to serve you with His life.

Everything is other than you imagine or suppose. In your sinfulness, you covet to be God-like, but you do not know what God is like. Here the one true God, the Lord almighty, comes to you, reveals Himself to you, and gives Himself to you by His Word (by His Gospel of the Cross). His greatness and, indeed, His almighty power, are manifested in His mercy toward you, His divine compassion and holy love, for the sake of which He humbles Himself to serve you, to save you.

He humbles Himself for the sake of those who are prideful and presumptuous. He becomes obedient, even unto death, for the sake of those who are disobedient, unfaithful, irresponsible and lazy. He takes on the form of a servant, strips Himself of all prestige in the eyes of the world, gets down on His hands and knees to wash your dirty feet with free and full forgiveness of all your sins, and girds Himself to be your waiter, to serve you wholly and completely, to feed you with His very Body and give you to drink the finest of wines, His own holy and precious Blood.

By His Cross and Passion, He has reconciled you to the Father, obtained eternal peace and rest for your body and soul, and received all authority in heaven and on earth to forgive your sins and free you forever from death and the grave, from the devil and hell. Thus, in His Resurrection from the dead — because you share His Cross and Passion by your Baptism into His death — you also are raised up, exalted and ushered into the Kingdom of God with Him.

It is this Kingdom that He shares with you, freely, by His grace, by the ways and means of His Gospel. It is for this purpose that He is among you and serves you in the office and ministry that began with Himself and continued in His calling and sending of the Twelve Apostles: with Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, and all the rest.

He called these men, as He continues to call and ordain men to the Office of the Ministry all over the world, to serve His Church, His people, in His name and stead. This is a holy and honorable vocation, for which we give all thanks and praise to God in Christ. Yet, it is an office of service, and the greatness of this office is in its serving you with the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins.

Who is given the greater honor, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines, who is served, who eats and drinks? But here the Lord Jesus, the One who is truly the greatest in the Kingdom of God, He is among you as the One who serves. He tenderly invites you to recline here at His Table. He opens your mouth to feed you with Himself, with His Body, from His own hand. He pours out His Cup of Salvation to give you drink of His own Blood. Here the Lord of Life honors you with His gifts, and you live with Him in His Kingdom, by His grace. All glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

23 August 2007

What t'ado about Confirmation

I've had several people ask that I comment on my understanding of "Confirmation," and how I envision its place and purpose in our life together as members of the Church on earth. Fair enough, that's a reasonable request. I don't mind offering my perspective on this question, even though I find the topic rather tedious: partly because the history and theology of "confirmation" have been so convoluted and all over the map, it is difficult to speak with clarity concerning it; and partly because it is a human rite, for which neither Holy Scripture nor Church history have any definitive guidance to offer. There's a history to it, of course, but no real consistency or continuity; mostly accidental developments and after-the-fact interpretations. There's simply no one thing that is "confirmation," but a host of different practices that have been introduced under that term, each of them understood from a different theological perspective.

What first emerged as "confirmation," relatively early in the process of development, originated from an anointing with oil within the baptismal rite. It followed the washing of water with the Word, and preceded the administration of the Holy Communion. One of my dear professors, Dr. James White, used to describe the Holy Communion as the one part of Holy Baptism that was then repeated throughout the Christian life; because, in the early practice of the Church, these three things were all of a piece: Holy Baptism, anointing with oil, and the Holy Communion. Of course, all of this held true for both infants and adults, for anyone who was baptized. From that historical standpoint, therefore, "infant Communion" went hand-in-hand with that original form of "confirmation" as the prerequisite to First Communion. Isn't life strange.

Over time, this "confirmation" (anointing with oil) was separated from the baptismal rite, and the three things that used to be administered together were removed from one another by varying lengths of time. For those who are interested, it isn't that hard to track down this history from a variety of sources. An important point to note, however, is that "confirmation" was invested with a distinct sacramental significance of its own, disconnected from Holy Baptism, and obviously devoid of any divine institution or promise of Christ our Lord. It was for that reason that Dr. Luther had no use for this one of the seven Roman "sacraments." And when it was reintroduced among Lutherans, it took on different connotations altogether.

I'm not going to attempt to track the developments of "confirmation" following the Reformation, but simply give my attention to the sort of rite that we have inherited in our own day. I'm using the LSB rite of confirmation as my specific reference point.

Much of the confirmation rite, as we now have it, functions as a reaffirmation of Holy Baptism. It references that Sacrament in the opening address and again in the "confirmation blessing," but Holy Baptism is especially in view with the renunciations and interrogatory creed that are simply taken over into confirmation from the baptismal rite. Since the significance of Holy Baptism pertains to the entire Christian life and calls for the daily dying and rising of contrition, repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, there's nothing about this aspect of the rite that is unique or distinctive to "confirmation" per se. It is little different than the reaffirmation of Holy Baptism at Epiphany and the Easter Vigil, or the discipline of Lent, for that matter.

The opening address of the confirmation rite also references the catechesis of the Word of Christ that belongs to the making of disciples, and the confession of Christ that proceeds from such catechesis. This is taken up, not only in the confession of the Creed, but in the acknowledgment of the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures and of Lutheran doctrine as summarized in the Small Catechism. Beyond that which is already confessed in the baptismal rite itself, therefore, the rite of confirmation assumes a relatively limited body of catechesis (the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Small Catechism). If a young man will later be ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry, he'll be required to up the ante by swearing allegiance to the entire Book of Concord, but there is no such expectation specified in this case. Thus, as far as the confession of the faith is concerned, the rite of confirmation as we have received it envisions little more than the confession of all the baptized. The rite itself specifies no comprehensive knowledge, much less mastery, of the entire corpus of the Church's doctrine.

It is the next part of the rite that is distinctive and definitive of "confirmation" among Lutherans, that is, the vows and promises to be faithful in the confession and practice of this Lutheran faith even unto death. The confirmand is called upon to swear that enemies of the faith will have to pry it out of his cold dead fingers before he'll ever give it up. It is that oath and commitment that characterizes "confirmation" as we have received it. Everything else that follows is hardly unique to this rite. Even the "confirmation blessing" is simply a recalling of Holy Baptism and its gifts. The "confirmation verse" is a special touch, but not so very different, finally, than what a pastor might do for his catechumens in a variety of other circumstances; it is primarily invested with significance and meaning because of the occasion of "confirmation." The final prayer of thanksgiving and intercession for the confirmand(s) is nothing other than what the Church does for all her members on a regular basis. No, it is the public swearing of allegiance to Lutheran doctrine and practice, on one's very life, that defines "confirmation" for us. It is for this reason that I am not in favor of tying "confirmation" to First Communion, and why I would prefer to reserve the rite of "confirmation" until age 18 or 21.

First of all, despite the fact that "confirmation" is no Sacrament, as the Roman Church believes, it has been invested with a "sacramental" significance by the typical Lutheran practice. At the same time, it has been regarded as the Lutheran equivalent of a "decision for Jesus" and an "altar call" of the first magnitude. Especially when that way of thinking is connected to First Communion, it is no wonder that "confirmation" is viewed primarily as a grand achievement, by which one earns the right to receive the Sacrament of the Altar. All of this obfuscates the fact that both catechesis and the Lord's Supper are divine works and divine gifts, received by grace through faith in Christ, and not by works. It is not the confirmand's efforts or accomplishments that ought to be at the forefront in approaching the Holy Communion, but the mercies of God in Christ. It is not the marvelous display of "memory work," but the gracious and life-giving Word and Spirit of God that ought to be given attention and credit for the blessing given and received.

Second, I do not believe it is appropriate for children who are still under the authority of their parents to be swearing oaths on their own lives. I recognize that the renunciations of Holy Baptism already set even the youngest baptized infant at odds with the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh, which is ultimately no less serious, no less a matter of life-and-death. But not only are those renunciations articulated more passively, they are, as often as not, voiced on the child's behalf by parents, godparents, and the entire congregation. Thus, in Holy Baptism, it is clear that the child is taken into the arms of the Church, and remains especially under the care and protection of father and mother. The oaths and promises of the confirmation rite strike me as being of a rather different sort. They are a mature, adult commitment, which expresses a kind of grown-up "independence." I'm not trying to describe this negatively, but simply to say that, for an adolescent to swear such a thing appears to border on the usurping of the authority of his parents. It seems far more appropriate for such a promise to be made at the point of a young adult's emancipation from his father and mother, whether at the time of high school or college graduation, or at the point of marriage.

I've heard the argument asserted, any number of times, that if confirmation doesn't function as the way and means of admittance to the Holy Communion, then it cannot serve any salutary purpose but is actually inappropriate or wrong. I'm sorry, but I simply do not follow this line of reasoning. Why must confirmation be given some sort of "sacramental" significance in order to be meet, right and salutary within the freedom of the Gospel? Actually, I'm far more leery and concerned about allowing such a man-made rite to have any semblance of sacramental significance! Why not allow it to function, instead, as a rite of passage and, let's go ahead and say it, as a graduation ceremony. What's the problem with that? It does, in fact, mark a step up (a graduation) in the ongoing, lifelong process of catechesis and confession of the faith. We have graduation ceremonies for Lutheran gradeschools, for Lutheran high schools, for Lutheran colleges and seminaries, and I don't recall anyone ever suggesting that such occasions were inappropriate, or insisting that they had to be given "sacramental" connections.

Removing "confirmation," in the form that we have received it, from admittance to the Holy Communion, frees it to function as the rite itself suggests, that is, as an occasion of rejoicing in the catechesis thus far received, as an opportunity to confess the faith once delivered to the saints, and as a fully mature, public commitment to continue steadfast in this faith and confession until death. At 18 or 21 years of age, the confirmand is more adequately prepared to make such a confession and commitment, and does so more appropriately, than at the end of eighth grade. Ideally, I'd love to see catechumens in formal catechesis classes from age six until eighteen, and then stand up to swear that they'll continue to be catechized and to confess the faith for the rest of their lives within the life of the Church on earth. In the meantime, their catechesis and confession, as well as their Christian faith and life, are served and supported by the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. And there is no hint that this Holy Supper is their rightful mead for a job well done, but rather is a medicine of immortality and the life-giving Bread from heaven by which the Lord sustains them on their journey through the wilderness by His grace.

I don't know if that answers the questions that have been posed to me on "confirmation," but that is my thinking out loud about the topic for the time being.

Sports Night

I basically don't watch television at all anymore, and haven't for a number of years now. I got pulled into following American Idol a couple seasons ago, almost entirely because of Chris Daughtry's great voice, but that was a rare exception. I just have too many other things to do with my time, and most of what I've been able to gather about television sitcoms don't impress me much. So, the odds of me getting hooked on a show are slim to none, and two days ago I would have guffawed at the outlandish suggestion that I could possibly get hooked on any show with "sports" in the title. Never say never.

Back in the day when I did watch a bit of television, it was notoriously the case that if I became interested in a series, it was probably approaching its final season. Family Ties, Early Edition, Lois & Clark, Sliders, it's like these shows existed to reel me in, introduce me to the characters until I actually cared what happened to them, and then break my heart by ending. I guess it is only fair that, having sworn off television altogether for the past many years, I should discover a show and fall in love with it long after it has come and gone. Sort of like when I discovered Led Zeppelin in the late 80s.

Actually, I shouldn't say that I "discovered" anything. I have my very dear friends, Jason and Emily, to thank for introducing me to Sports Night. They could tell by the way I rolled my eyes a bit when they mentioned it, that I was pretty skeptical I would even be able to stay awake for such a show, much less enjoy it. But they assured me that it wasn't what it sounded like, and the fact is that I would have watched it with them just for the sake of sharing the time and enjoying their company. Well, I was in for a surprise, because this Sports Night show, which only ran for a couple of seasons and then went off the air a decade ago, or some such, is an outstanding piece of television.

The show focuses on the production of a fictional sports program, exploring the relationships and foibles of the two anchors, the producer, the director, and the others folks who work to put the thing together and on the air each night. Picture something like the old Mary Tyler Moore show, only with sports instead of the news. It features intelligent humor, witty repartee, and, perhaps most surprisingly, rather poignant introspection on serious aspects of life and love. I was rolling in my seat with laughter most of the time, and then suddenly wiping a tear from my eye at some very touching gesture or profound point. The acting was good, the characters well developed and quite believable, and the back-and-forth between them had a great rhythm. There were some risque elements, but they were intermittent and didn't dominate the show.

I think the plan was to watch an episode or two, but I couldn't get enough, and we ended up watching four or five or six altogether. Great stuff. I was continually struck by the juxtaposition of savvy humor and thoughtful reflection. There was a genuine care and concern for the needs of the neighbor, and for serving within one's own particular station in life, even if the show didn't use any such terminology. One episode dealt with the respect and consideration due to all those "little people" behind the scenes, who make the folks up front look good. Another episode included reference to the 3000-year-old Greek ghost, Thespus, evidently the first actor to speak out loud on stage. I have to check that out, because the show claimed that he did so on the 23rd of November, which happens to be my son Gerhardt's birthday. Jason and Emily (and my DoRena) laughed at the prospect of giving the poor boy yet another middle name! But when the character who knew about Thespus was asked what the ghost liked to do, he explained that Thespus likes to humble people in order to bring their priorities back into line with what is truly most important. Sounded a lot like repentance to me.

Anyway, I'm hooked, and I either need to find an excuse to go visit Jason and Emily again, since they have the entire series on DVD, or else I need to break down and purchase it for myself. If anyone else happened to have missed it when it was on the air (back in the late 90s), I'd recommend it highly. It's smart and thought-provoking entertainment, and, as far as television sitcoms go, as good as anything I've ever seen.

22 August 2007

Second Time Charmed

I went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix again this past weekend, just shy of six weeks since the first time I saw it (the day it opened in July). I had somewhat anticipated that I would enjoy the movie more on my second viewing, because I would be less inclined to compare and contrast the movie with the book. Well, I was right about that, but I really had no idea just how much more I would enjoy it and appreciate it. Actually, it was a whole different experience altogether. I absolutely loved it. The first time I saw it was within a couple weeks of listening to the fifth book on CD, so everything about the book was fresh and clear in my mind at that point. With the passage of time, and with so much else having happened recently (the Convention, and of course The Deathly Hallows), I just sat back and took in the movie for what it is. Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry in the movies, has commented on the difference between the books and the movies, and how you simply have to accept each of these for what they are. I think he is exactly right. I've decided, for myself at least, that it is best to watch the movies after reading the books, but not right away after doing so. That was the ticket in this case, anyway.

My only real disappointments with the movie, this second time around, still do stem from comparisons with the book. But, hey, the books are the definitive canon for the Harry Potter universe and story. Most of the differences, though, I accepted, and even appreciated, because there does have to be some adjustment of things to work within the parameters of the theatrical medium. Fair enough. Still, I was sorry that Dobby the house elf wasn't included, and that Kreacher was only introduced in a very limited sort of way. As important as these two become in the subsequent books, I would have preferred to see more of them in this movie. This was the second time that Neville has been given a role that Dobby plays in the books: he gave Harry the gillyweed in Goblet of Fire, and he discovered the room of requirements in Order of the Phoenix. (Now that I think of it, the room of requirements didn't seem quite right in the movie, either, and I wonder how that will effect things in the movie version of The Deathly Hallows.) My other disappointment, which is of greater significance to me, is the absence of Fawkes the Phoenix in Dumbledore's duel with Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic. In the book, Fawkes swallows a death curse that Voldemort casts at Dumbledore, and that is such a brilliant Christological image (of death being swallowed up by the One who dies and rises again). Especially since it is the Order of the Phoenix, it would have been good to retain that significant scene. Oh, well. Two isolated disappointments is a far cry from my overall disappointment with the movie the first time I saw it. Kudos to the director, who is currently working on the movie version of The Half-Blood Prince. I hope that he will be able to work his magic once again.

At the risk of introducing "political" commentary into my ponderings of pop culture, there were two things in the movie that struck me, in particular, in view of the recent LCMS Convention. The first was the way that Dolores Umbridge attempts to establish order by enacting more and more laws (educational decrees), and essentially removing any and all freedoms from the students of Hogwarts. She is driven by her own warped version of the law, and goes about trying to enforce it upon everyone else by heavy-handed legislation and severe punishments. Rather than bringing about the order she is so determined to have (as she screams at the centaurs before they drag her off into the woods), she pushes the students over the edge into covert and open rebellion (Dumbledore's Army, on the one hand, and the Weasley Twin's spectacular departure from Hogwarts on the other hand). Umbridge should have taken a lesson from Dobby, who is a loyal friend and willing servant of Harry Potter, because he freed the little house elf from slavery. So does the Gospel set us free to live by faith in Christ, and thereby also frees us to love and serve our neighbor. Unfortunately, the current synodical approach to structure and governance (and missions!) seems to be taking its cues from the Dolores Umbridge playbook. That is to say, instead of simply preaching and teaching the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ, and trusting the Word and Spirit of God to accomplish His purposes according to His good and gracious will, where and when (and how) it pleases Him, there is this increasing reliance upon rules and regulations, political structures and bylaw legislation, with the apparent goal of forcing everyone to comply with the mortal princes presently in power. I'm not at all convinced that such temptations don't have their way with both sides of the political aisle.

The other thing that struck me, especially after this past Sunday's Old Testament Reading from the Prophet Jeremiah (concerning those false prophets who run without being sent, who cry, "Peace, Peace," when there is no peace, and decline to preach the Law of God unto repentance), was the way in which The Daily Prophet insisted that everything was fine and, refusing to acknowledge that Voldemort had returned, derided Harry and Dumbledore for their warnings. It really hit me like a midrash on poor Jeremiah's situation, in which he's about the only one telling the truth, but nobody wants to hear it, and meanwhile the false prophets are scratching all the itching ears with exactly what they do want to hear. And it was the next day, I think, when I received the Lutheran Witness declaring how peaceful and loving and harmonious the LCMS is these days (while meanwhile my e-mail inbox is full of discussions of people who are past the point of no return and trying to determine the best course of departure). Even though I have been somewhat encouraged and optimistic concerning the recent Convention and the potential for improvements in the future, I hope that no one has heard me saying "Peace, Peace," where there is no peace. I'm sure there are those who think me hopelessly naive or deluded, but I have mainly tried to be fair and balanced and objective, and neither to despair nor to pretend that everything is okey-dokey. We live under the Cross, which is both our burden and our confidence. Anyway, I was struck by the falsity of the Prophet in the movie, and the way in which Harry was ridiculed and persecuted for proclaiming the truth.

Along with my overall pleasure with the movie, my two isolated disappointments, and my thoughts on similarities to LCMS politics, there were several things that I found to be most delightful about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, one of which I missed altogether the first time I saw it.

First, although it makes my twelve-year-old son giggle at me, I really like Hermione. I've always loved her character in the books, and I love the way that Emma Watson plays her in the movies. I would have liked to see her have a little more screen time and character development in this fifth movie, but, nevertheless, I really liked her again this time around. When I was twelve or thirteen, myself, and saw Star Wars for the first time, I thought that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), with those ridiculous buns on the side of her head, was the most beautiful and captivating creature in the world. My son giggles at me because, after one of the earlier movies, I mentioned that, if I were twelve or thirteen years old again, I'd probably have a similar crush on Hermione. Okay, laugh, but I know myself well enough to know that's true. As it is, her character reminds me a lot of myself and the way I was in school and such; and she also reminds me of girls I have known and befriended over the years, especially in my childhood; and I really appreciate the way that she relates to Harry (especially) and Ron. Since I'm not twelve or thirteen anymore, what I see in Hermione is, I think, the same thing that Harry sees and appreciates in her: she's a good-hearted person and a faithful friend.

So, as I mentioned after I saw this movie for the first time, I'm so glad they included the scene with Harry, Ron and Hermione, after Harry kisses Cho under the mistletoe. That's a great scene in the book, and it's a wonderful scene in the movie, as well. I love the way that Hermione describes all the different emotions that Cho is struggling with, and then Ron exclaims that no one could possibly be feeling all those different things at once, because that person would explode, and Hermione retorts that not everyone has his emotional range of a teaspoon. And then, after all the tension that has passed between the three friends in the story prior to that point, they all just burst into laughter together, and it's all just so very genuine and realistic. Others may have found it contrived or corny, but I thought it was incredibly touching.

Then, finally, there's the thing I missed completely the first time I saw The Order of the Phoenix: When Voldemort has taken over Harry, in the midst of his duel with Dumbledore, and there's this battle raging within Harry between who he is and his connection to Voldemort. It plays itself out a little differently than it does in the book, but I think it has an integrity of its own in the movie, and it remains true to the spirit of the thing. As Harry is lying there, writhing in pain and agony, and wishing that Dumbledore would just kill him and put him out of his misery, he catches sight of Ron and Hermione, and there's this series of flashbacks to the times they have shared together (including the post-kiss discussion), and he comes back to himself and lets go of Voldemort's hold on him because of his love for his friends (and their love for him). There's something quite genuine and authentic about that, I think, which can't be chalked up to flighty emotion. There is something tremendously valuable about friendship, and family, and relationships with other people, and community in general, and the bond of love with others outside of ourselves, all of which helps to turn us away from our sinful self-centeredness, away from our pride and vanity. Anyway, I found this scene to be very powerful on my second viewing of the film, and I can only suppose that I missed it the first time around because it is visually portrayed instead of narratively described (as it is in the book). The book works very well, but the movie does the job within its own proper medium.

18 August 2007

Floor Committee 8: Synod Structure and Governance

If the work of Floor Committee 7 managed to reach the low point of the Convention (with Res. 7-08), it was still this Floor Committee 8 on Synod Structure and Governance that really scraped rock bottom overall. Whereas most of the other committees demonstrated a willingness, even a desire, to hear what delegates had to say and to incorporate their constructive criticism and suggestions, that did not seem to be the case with this group. Maybe my perception has been skewed by the fact that this floor committee chose to ignore, not simply my comments at the open hearing, but the overture from our Indiana District pertaining to the synodical dispute resolution process

For the past two conventions now, we've been hearing about how representative the Council of Presidents is, because all of the district presidents are elected by pastoral and lay delegates from every congregation within their respective constituencies. That is likewise the rhetoric concerning the Synodical Nominations Committee, because it is comprised of members elected by the districts in convention. But that rhetoric is strangely absent in the case of overtures adopted and submitted by entire districts. Evidently, the handful of presidentially-appointed floor committee members is to be considered far wiser and more discerning than district conventions.

Nothing else that happened at the Convention this summer was more frustrating to me than the refusal of this group to acknowledge the conscientious concerns of my district and others. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, since the pertinent floor committee of our Indiana District Convention attempted to pull the same stunt. There, at least, it was still possible to bring the matter to the floor, whereupon it was adopted by a sizeable majority. Perhaps that was the fear of this synodical floor committee: if the delegates had actually been given a chance to discuss and deliberate the matter, they might have done something about the current travesty parading as a process for resolving disputes. Such is the power of these tiny little floor committees, that nothing is permitted to come before the assembly without their approval. It calls to mind the words of our Lord Jesus: "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called 'Benefactors.' But it is not this way with you" (St. Luke 22:25-26a). It ought not to be that way, at any rate. It is shameful.

The ability of the floor committees to hold the Convention in such a choke-hold does go to show that this particular committee was right about one thing: the polity of this Synod is in need of repair. Either we ought to be honest with ourselves and simply turn over the governance of the whole shebang to the Council of Presidents; or else, if we actually want to recover and retain a governance of the Synod by its members, that is to say, by the pastors and congregations and other rostered church workers who properly comprise this Synod, then those members ought to insist upon a real voice in what is done and exercise some real authority over what happens. As a starting point, floor committees should not have the prerogative to ignore the overtures of entire districts. Anything coming to the Synod in Convention from a district convention should be considered, discussed and debated, and acted upon, one way or the other. If conflicting overtures are submitted by different districts, so be it; let the Convention hash it out together, rather than leaving it to such a miniscule percentage of the delegation to think and decide for all the rest.

My experience is a case in point. As a delegate to the 2004 Convention, I reported to my congregation, to my brother pastors, and to my circuit on what happened. I was most concerned about Res. 8-01A of that previous Convention, which put into place the current dispute resolution process. For the better part of the next year, I brought my critique of this new legislation to the joint South Bend-LaPorte Circuit Pastors Conference for discussion and debate. Although there was not complete agreement among us as to how this thing ought to be dealt with, there was unanimous consensus that it needed to be addressed. I was asked to draft an overture on behalf of our conference, which I did. It was shared with our district president, who commended it to the pastors and teachers of the Indiana District for their careful consideration. Regrettably, we were prevented from bringing it to the district pastors' conference for any official action, because no time was allowed in the schedule for any synodical business, but the overture was distributed there (with the president's permission and blessing). It was then discussed by the northern and southern pastors' conferences of the district the following spring; the southern conference even voted to adopt it. Meanwhile, both our South Bend Circuit Forum and my own congregation, along with others in the district, adopted the overture and submitted it to the Indiana District Convention. Every step of this process was done out in the open, according to the protocols of our Synod; everything was done in good faith, with integrity, and in consultation with our district president.

So, what happened? First, even though the overture had been duly submitted by multiple entities, it was omitted from the district convention workbook. When this was pointed out, it was subsequently published as a "late overture" (despite the fact that it was not late at all) at the beginning of the convention. Fine, except that, as previously noted, the floor committee chose to ignore it altogether. When asked why that was, the chairman of the committee made the lame excuse that other districts had already passed resolutions pertaining to the same topic, and that it would be redundant for our district to consider it. Nevertheless, we were given the opportunity to bring it to the floor at that point. One of the members of the floor committee then spoke against it, on the pretense that it hadn't originated within our district. Excuse me? Since I drafted it myself, on behalf of my circuit colleagues, following many months of careful consideration, it most certainly did originate within our district. At any rate, after discussion of the matter, the resolution was passed by a 76% vote in the affirmative. Pretty impressive for a "controversial" matter that the floor committee did its best to hide from our district convention.

The saga didn't end there. For months after the convention, I periodically tried to determine whether or not the overture had been duly submitted to the President of the Synod for the 2007 LCMS Convention, as our district had voted to do. Nope. Nope. Nope. It finally took the efforts of my friend and colleague, Rev. Greg Fiechtner, the former secretrary of our district, to expedite this business half a year later. If he hadn't been on the ball to get that done, it does not seem likely that it would have happened.

Okay, so there it was, published in the Convention Workbook. Turns out that another district had picked up our overture and also submitted it. Great. Surely this would now have its turn to be considered by the Synod in Convention. But, no, those sixteen folks on Floor Committeee 8 simply disregarded it. Didn't do a thing with it. Didn't even show it the courtesy of putting it in the omnibus resolution of stuff to be declined. They just acted like it wasn't there, even after I called it to their attention at the open hearings. It's like that old Lily Tomlin spoof on ATT: "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the telephone company." Uh-huh. Which means that several years of real effort, playing by the rules and doing everything by the book, all got flushed away.

So, as I say, this floor committee on Synod Structure and Governance got one thing right: The polity is busted. Let's fix it. Let's start with the floor committees.

As far as the resolutions that Floor Committee 8 did bring to the consideration of the delegates, most of these were not impressive or encouraging, but some were downright disheartening.

8-01 To Adopt Amendments to the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws re Resolution 7-02A (905 pro; 292 against; 74%). Ostensibly, this resolution brings some closure to the impasse between the Board of Directors of the Synod and the Commission on Constitutional Matters, as to the Board's legal authority, responsibility, and liability on behalf of the Synod under the laws of the State of Missouri. Included in the "whereas" clauses was a statement from the Board itself, asking that the Convention "look upon the recommendations positively and adopt them." Sounds good, but I'm not convinced that anything was finally solved. The Bylaw amendments adopted by this resolution indicate, more than once, that cases of "conflict or uncertainty relative to the applicability of the laws of the State of Missouri" are to be "resolved in accord with the provisions in the Constitution and Bylaws of the Synod." That appears to beg the question, for one thing, but it also seems to presume that the Synod may interpret the law of the land according to its own proclivities, instead of simply submitting to the governing authorities established by God. I mean, shouldn't "the applicability of the laws of the State of Missouri" be the prerogative of the state's judiciary, rather than the Synod's own judgment?

8-02A To Affirm Christian Resolution of Disputes (665 pro; 341 against; 67%). Nothing was made more clear from the word "go" of this Convention, than the fact that civil lawsuits should not be tolerated. There was no nuance or sophistication in the way this point was hammered into the delegates, but only a persistent and (ironically) legalistic assertion of the case. Of course, the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 can seem very obvious on the surface, unless one takes into account the same holy Apostle's own use of the Roman legal system. Even the rationale set forth for this resolution, which has for its first main purpose the condemnation of lawsuits, indicates occasions when legal recourse would be permitted, as in disputes over "property rights or contract arrangements." I don't suppose that anyone relishes such legal action, no more than any Christian desires to be in conflict with another, but the fact is that Christians individually and the Church collectively live in the world as citizens and legal entitites of the government, which is God's servant for our good. Unpleasant as it may be, there are times when appealing to those governing authorities for the resolution of disputes pertaining to our life together in God's "kingdom of the left hand," also for us Christians, is not only tolerable but even godly and right. In any case, this resolution is misleading in its contrast between civil lawsuits and the Synod's dispute resolution process, as though there were no other options or any middle ground between these two approaches. There is this desperation to defend and support the dispute resolution process, but it is flawed throughout and difficult to use. It is no wonder that lawsuits have not been avoided, but encouraged, because the synodical process now in place discourages and hinders, if it does not actually prevent, the resolution of disputes. The goal is evidently not resolution, but an attempt to deny disputes by force of law. Don't argue! Don't fight! Be nice! Yeah, that ought to fix things. But, no, trying to compel people to behave themselves and get along by creating and enforcing rules (and removing God-given freedoms) does not work; it does not strengthen faith or sanctify anyone, but exacerbates sin and hardens hearts. This kind of legislation, which despises God's daily bread of "good government," and attempts to establish and maintain a utopia on earth, will neither prevent nor resolve disputes, but it does run the risk of turning us into a synod of sectarian fanatics instead of Lutherans.

8-03 To Encourage Study of "Congregation-Synod-Church," a Study of Basic Theological Principles Underlying LCMS Structure and Governance, April 2007. No action taken. It is odd that nothing was done with this resolution, since it is the baby of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synodical Structure and Governance, which is supposedly going to solve all of our problems over the next couple of years. Then again, with the groundwork laid for a special convention in 2009 (Res. 8-07S), perhaps it is assumed that this "Congregation-Synod-Church" study will provide the blueprint for the business of that convention. One thing is certain, everyone surely ought to read this document carefully, consider it well, and be prepared to respond thoughtfully with solid constructive criticism. Otherwise, the restructuring of our synodical polity and governance will simply be done for us, and then adopted by the force of momentum and rhetoric.

8-04 To Provide Wording for Congregations' Constitutions and Bylaws (1054 pro; 35 against; 96.8%). This resolution was one refreshing bright spot that managed to find its way into the work of Floor Committee 8, although it is a shame that such a resolution was necessary. It affirms "that the words 'inspired,' 'inerrant,' 'infallible,' and/or 'revealed' with respect to the written Word of God are in harmony with the confessional basis of the Synod (Art. II)," and that these words may therefore be included in the constitutions and bylaws of LCMS congregations. In fact, by way of a friendly amendment, the resolution not only permits but encourages the use of such language. Wonderful. What wasn't mentioned in the course of discussion is the reason for this resolution. Sadly, it came to the Convention because the Pacific Southwest District Constitution Committee had instructed congregations to avoid such words in their constitutions, and went so far as to disallow at least one congregation's entrance into the Synod based on those words appearing in their drafted constitution. Not only that, but the LCMS Commission on Constitutional Matters supported those actions, opining that such language goes beyond the Synod's confessional basis and should not be used in the constitutions of member congregations! This is all rather shocking and amazing, but it is reassuring and gratifying that the Synod in Convention was, at least in this case, given the opportunity to undo such gross theological error on the part of the CCM.

8-05A To Encourage the Study of CTCR Documents Relating to the Public Rebuke of Public Sin and to Amend Synodical Bylaws Relating to Matthew 18 (950 pro; 122 against; 88.6%). Despite the fact that the dispute resolution process was not really dealt with as it should be, it is a matter of great rejoicing that its most offensive doctrinal flaw was corrected by this resolution. It clarifies - and it instructs the CCM to amend the Bylaws of the Synod accordingly - that the Word of our Lord in St. Matthew 18 does not prohibit the public rebuke of public sin. The dispute resolution process adopted by the 2004 Convention, along with its numerous other flaws and weaknesses, cited St. Matthew 18 in its requirement of a face-to-face meeting, which, it insisted, was necessary even in the case of public sin. Irrespective of anything else, this contradiction of the Large Catechism's clear distinction between public and private sins was a matter of conscience for myself and many others, which could not be allowed to go unchallenged. Thanks to those pastors, congregations, and districts that objected to this blurring and confusion of public and private sin, this resolution has corrected the problem. This is not only a significant accomplishment, but also an encouraging sign of hope for the future. The Missouri Synod is still able to correct itself where it has fallen into error.

8-06 To Recommend Further Study of Composition of Hearing Panels in Bylaws 2.14, 2.15, and 2.17 (654 pro; 89 against; 88%). This resolution begins to address another flaw in the dispute resolution process that was adopted and put into place by the 2004 Convention. Specifically, that new process includes no provision for any laity on the hearing panels that make decisions for or against an accused member who is facing expulsion from membership in Synod. That's one of several unprecedented changes that were introduced, as compared to our Synod's historical practices. This resolution does not undo the change in question, but it has called for a special task force to study further the composion of the hearing panels. The task force will include at least one layperson (who is a hearing facilitator), and at least one commissioned minister. It is to report the results of its study, and any recommendations that it may have, no later than the 2010 Regular Convention of the Synod. There are no guarantees as to what will come of this, but a legitimate concern was hereby acknowledged and will be taken into account (which is certainly more than can be said regarding other concerns with the dispute process).

8-07S To Call Special Convention to Amend Synod Structure and Governance (793 pro; 325 against; 70.9%). I commented at some length on the process by which we arrived at this substitute resolution and adopted it, as I posted at the end of each day while the Convention was in session. So, I refer back to those thoughts and assessments, rather than rehearsing the whole scenario again. I will only reiterate the following few points: I believe that our synodical polity and governance do need to be addressed and, in some respects, significantly restructured. I am relatively pleased that the delegates to this 2007 Convention will comprise the delegation to a special convention in 2009, because this group seems inclined to consider discussion and debate and take it seriously into account. I remain quite concerned about what sort of polity and governance model will be lobbied for, because I fear there will be a strong push for policy-based management of the entire Synod. For that reason, in particular, and also because the members of Synod ought to be actively involved in establishing their own structure and conscientiously engaged in governing themselves, I urge everyone to participate in and contribute to the restructuring process to the full extent possible. And let us finally be guided and governed by the Word of God, rather than succumbing to partisan politics or pragmatic expediency.

8-08 To Provide a Process for Reconsideration of CCM Opinions. No action taken. It's too bad that nothing was done with this resolution, because the past six years have demonstrated how out of hand things have become. It is surely something that will need to be dealt with in connection with a restructuring of our synodical polity and governance.

8-09 To Amend Bylaws Re Commission on Structure Responsibilities. No action taken.

8-10 To Refer for Theological Study CCM Opinions 02-2296, 02-2309 and 02-2320 (603 pro; 191 against; 75.9%). This resolution strikes me as "too little, too late," but perhaps it does represent a small victory of sorts. Even Floor Committee 8 could not entirely ignore or dismiss the similar overtures submitted by nine different districts (as well as congregations, circuit forums, and pastors' conferences). Of course, there were numerous overtures calling for the overruling or reconsideration of these CCM opinions (pertaining to ecclesiastical supervision) already at the 2004 Convention, at which point nothing was done in response. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. So, this time around, the CCM opinions in question have been referred to the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (in consultation with the Council of Presidents and the Commission on Structure), to determine if there is any cause for concern. I'm sorry that I don't feel terribly optimistic about what the final outcome of this study will be, but rather than being cynical, I will simply acknowledge that persistence has paid off to this extent, and we really ought to remain confident that the Word of God is able to effect repentance. I am thankful that these matters were not simply sent back to the CCM for another set of opinions.

8-11 To Respectfully Decline Overtures Re CCM Opinions. No action taken.

8-12 To Respectfully Decline Overtures. No action taken. Of course, it hardly matters either way, since the floor committees are able to ignore overtures out of hand.

8-13 To Amend Bylaws for Special Convention (937 pro; 156 against; 85.7%). This clarifies that the business of a special convention "is limited to the specific stated purpose(s) for the calling of the special session." It is good to have this provision in place, in order to prevent any attempt (on anyone's part) to "hijack" the special convention in 2009 for any shenanigans.