“No, that I do not have strength to believe”

But I think it very difficult to believe in a mild providence who looks down upon our earthly hell and smiles graciously in his beard; when I remember Gethsemane it is hard to believe that.  The rag on the rock, He who calls God His Father, is for me a protest and a contradiction of a nicy nice faith in God the Father.  I read during the war about human beings in Hamburg who, during a bombing, melted down with the asphalt in the streets.  Afterwards you could see a little child’s hand stick up out of the congealed mass.  I wonder if it is not the horror of this sight that makes it impossible for me not to look at the Christ hands in our altar painting.  This is the kind of thing the Good Father in heaven ought to look down on.  Perhaps a bit sorrowful, perhaps lifting His finger like an inept school teacher in the seventh grade: “Now let’s all be nice.”  No, that I do not have the strength to believe.

But what about my absolutism with respect to the right.  Perhaps it is a variant of this bland faith.  You put God a little farther away and change Him into a neuter; in that way you don’t have to reckon with His heart.

Klara Svensson in Holy Masquerade (53-54) [my annual Lenten reading]

Endless Discussion

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Hermann Sasse was frequently prescient, and since his words so often apply to multiple generations, it’s not surprising that he continues (rightly so) to be read.  One particular passage continues to apply to the Church in general, and to The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in particular:

Not every question can be settled by means of a friendly discussion.  It is necessary to remember that in an age which has a superstitious belief in dialogue as the infallible means of settling everything.  There are questions raised by the devil to destroy the church of Christ.  To achieve this, he may use as his mouthpiece not only ambitious professors of theology, his favorite tools, but also simple, pious souls.  Why women cannot be ordained is one of these questions. [“Ordination of Women?” The Lonely Way, II:402]

To which question Sasse spends the rest of the essay giving (or rather confessing) the answer.

Matthew Becker (someone who continually touts his position as a professor of theology) is one of those who holds to continual dialogue as the proper means of (un)settling every question.  I am not commenting on this because I expect that he will be removed from my church body’s roster; I don’t have a lot of confidence in that, even though he teaches several things contrary to what has been the Synod’s unchanged position throughout its history.  On the other hand, I happen to think that Becker’s particular brand of reductionistic Lutheran theology is either going the way of the dinosaur, or is going to be folded into the amorphous blob of modern, Protestant theology (which, as it turns out, are usually the same thing).  But his latest public comments (in one of the few friendly online places left to him in the LCMS) are so disingenuous and pedantic, and their irony is so palpable as nearly to require exhibition.  Not only that, but he manages to strike both the high notes of triumphalism, as well as the bass notes of persecuted humility (which was probably predictable, since the LCMS has failed for twenty years to find anything officially objectionable in his public teaching–which does make one wonder whether any pastor could ever be defrocked for false teaching in the LCMS, at least as long as he was able to take refuge in academic freedom and at the same time sufficiently obscure the pertinent Scriptures).

Becker’s contention is not that he doesn’t teach or advocate contrary to the position of the LCMS (and, it should be admitted, to the nearly unanimous understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ throughout time and space); his position is that the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions do not speak clearly on the issue and, therefore, he is justified in continuing to “ask questions” and pursue the “theological task” with respect to the Missouri Synod’s position.  I’m not going to spend time responding to his claims about what the Scriptures do and do not say about who should serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry.  There has been more than enough discussion of those points, even if Becker does not find them compelling.  (Or maybe he hasn’t read them, since he seems to think that no one has ever taken up the issues which he is so nobly–even Luther-like–raising?)

But two points stand out:

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An Entirely Wrong Scriptural Sermon

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C.F.W. Walther gives us some insight into why not every sermon (or song, for that matter) that is built from the Scriptures is a true or orthodox sermon.

That is the litmus test of a proper sermon.  The value of a sermon depends not only on whether every statement in it is taken from the Word of God and on whether it is in agreement with the same but also on whether Law and Gospel have been rightly distinguished.  If the same building materials are provided to two different architects, sometimes one will construct a magnificent building, while the other, using the same materials, will make a mess of it.  Because he is dim-witted, the latter may want to begin with the roof, or place all the windows in one room, or stack layers of stone or brick in such a way that the wall will be crooked.  One house will be out of plumb and such a bungled piece of work that it will collapse, while the other will stand firm and be a habitable and pleasant place to live.  In like manner, two different sermons might contain all the various doctrines–and while the one sermon may be a glorious and precious piece of work, the other may be wrong throughout.  …

This frequently happens when students give sermons. [Walther is giving lectures to seminary students.]  You will hear comforting remarks such as “It is all by grace,” only to be followed by “We must do good works,” which are then followed by statements such as “With our works we cannot gain salvation.”  There is no order to such sermons.  Nobody understands them–least of all the person who needs one of these doctrines most.

C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, 37-38

“The Flight Into Egypt” III

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Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes–
Some have got broken–and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week–
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted–quite unsuccessfully–
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress with joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father:
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will be done, that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

W.H. Auden, For The Time Being (ed. Alan Jacobs), 63-65

Reformation Week: Loehe on the Lutheran Church


The Lutheran Church knows that the Lord gives his Holy Spirit only through his Word and sacraments, and therefore it recognizes no other effective means than Word and sacrament. …

From its knowledge of human nature it knows that men will sooner open their hearts to the truth when it is gladly but sparingly imparted than when they hear its voice speaking constantly.  Therefore it understands how to give people enough of its means but not too much.  It does not consider it an insult, nor is it eager to interpret it as an insult, when someone says, “This pastor thinks it is enough if he preaches, catechizes, administers the sacraments, hears confessions, and comforts the sick!”  It knows that even the most faithful pastors do not do enough of this.  It has little use for multiplying pastoral duties but treasures those which are commanded in the Scriptures and have been recognized since ancient times.  To many people it is something novel that a man should not be a jack of many trades but a master of the few precious means, yet this is what the church has always thought.  In a word, it accomplishes much through a few means. …

It is enough, and more than enough, if a man just carries out the ancient duties of a pastor.  Superfluous and even a hindrance is the officiousness of modern pastors.  Here the slogan should be, “Not many, but much.”  The poverty of our fathers is richer than the wealth of their opponents.  It is through alternating periods of withdrawal and public appearance, stillness and publicity, through persistent use of Word and sacrament, through giving of a quiet but full measure, through modesty and steadfastness that the Lutheran church attains its goals.

It is not concerned with new means of encouraging good works, although they have been highly praised.  It does not desire to do its good works the way societies or factories do.  It knows that works carried out in the fashion of modern societies easily displace other works, disturb the harmony of manifold good works, and make men one-sided and intemperate.  It is afraid that societies which separate from the church and act as if everything depended on them may become organizations of extravagance and intemperance, even though they carry the name “temperance” in their titles.  …

The church has various activities, therefore, even though the means through which it performs them and encourages all good things are always the same–Word, sacrament, the holy office of the ministry.

Few means–many good works!  That is the way it is with the church.

J.K.W. Loehe, Three Books on the Church, 164-166

New Traditions and Old

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Every week, it seems, I read of one or another church planted in some place.  I pay more attention to those planted as congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, since that’s my home (for better or worse).  I’ve seen so many that I can describe them for you: it’s got some enigmatic name: some combination of letters and numbers, some obscure reference to a story in the Scriptures.  Either that, or it sounds like an early 2000s, upscale housing development (Eastpointe, Southpointe, Midpointe).  Second, it’s in a building that doesn’t look like what people associate with “church”: a warehouse, a storefront, some other nondescript building.  Third, they are going to play the worship music you’ll hear on the local Christian radio station, or maybe an uptempo version of an “old” hymn (e.g., “Amazing Grace.”  Although, I acknowledge, you are likely to hear both “In Christ Alone”–the ubiquitously cited great modern hymn–or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”)  Fourth, the congregation is often going to revolve around the vision and the leadership capabilities of the pastor and the great team the pastor has developed.  Fifth, they are going to have tech and sound people producing slick slides for the pastor’s “message” (often a series of messages based on some hot topic).  Sixth, the pop culture references are going to be coming out of your ears by the end.

Personally, I wonder how effective this pragmatic, relevant, culturally sensitive approach is at “reaching” the “unchurched” or “dechurched,” but whatever.  They aren’t asking my permission to do what they want, and they don’t really care whether I like what they’re doing or whether I think it is faithful to what we as Lutherans have received or whether it can adequately convey the weight of what Lutherans have received from our ancestors in the faith.  They are much more interested in the synchronic nature of our world, than in the diachronic tradition of benighted, premodern Christians.  Fine.

But could they please just acknowledge that they have a tradition and that it’s about 15 years old?  It’s the post-modern, clever, ironic, casual tradition of recent American consumerism.  It’s not the Lutheran tradition of 1800 years, reformed 500 years ago to bring the Gospel to the forefront.  I know, I know: they believe Lutheran theology, and they highlight free grace and mercy.  I suggest that holding to the sound pattern of teaching might be more than just saying the right things.  Language matters and every action teaches something.  I suggest they (since they employ the novelty) give an account of their traditions, and how they better and more adequately convey the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners.  I suggest they show why the liturgy that we have received (not just the “order of worship”) is deficient, even though it has been used in multiple languages and cultures, East and West, and for centuries.  I wonder if they have actually delved into the depths of the Lutheran liturgy and found it lacking, or if they observed merely the externals of it (organ, lackadaisical singing, little enthusiasm) and decided it wasn’t worth examining.  Can they see that from the perspective of the centuries, their complete jettisoning of the liturgical tradition of the Lutheran church for the trappings of modern evangelicalism infused with some Lutheran clichés appears a little arrogant?  As if what has been developed and strengthened and worked out for generations suddenly doesn’t “work” any more, and now they’re going to get it right?

Let me put it this way: nothing comes from nowhere.  From where do the songs come?  From where do the thoughts about the texts come?  From where do the ideas for how to set up a “worship space” come?  From where does the language come to talk about what is happening when congregations meet together?  Does it all have to come from Lutheran sources, as if there is nothing good outside of our tradition?  Of course not.  But when none of your language and none of your songs speak in a Lutheran voice, is it possible–maybe–that you’ve given up more than just the “style” of the Lutheran church?  I realize this discussion is acrimonious, but it’s not just because I’m a jerk who won’t let you “be all things to all people;” it’s also because we can’t be honest with each other about what we’re really doing.  If we could define what we think the gathering of the Church is for, we might have better success talking about what that gathering should look like.

[Just don’t tell me it’s all about preferences.  If you think that’s so, you simply haven’t understood the issues.]


Why Sports?

This probably isn’t the best time to have this discussion.  Indictments, criminal and otherwise, are floating around in the smoggy sports air.  Some people, who probably didn’t like sports — especially football — much at all, are using the current troubles to crow their triumphant and smug “I-told-you-sos.”  Others are commenting and opining because it’s their job.  Still others are commenting because it’s what you do on your computer, even though you have no more knowledge of the situation than anyone else does.  And still others are just sitting down in front of their TVs on Sunday afternoon and watching/shouting/cheering/crying when their teams win or lose.

I acknowledge all of that, and I agree that it’s easy to get a little (or a lot) cynical.  It seeps into the college game, and it seeps into youth programs where parents who yell at their pro teams (who can’t hear them) start to yell at their kids or their kids’ coaches (who can hear them).  It’s all a little disgusting.  But sports endure.  More rules, maybe.  More “safeguards” put in place.  More agreements and bargaining and limits on what can and cannot be done by athletes.  But people, even in spite of themselves, still watch.  They still pay to see the games live.  They still buy the jerseys and the hats and the other paraphernalia.  Why?  Why do sports (and for me, it’s primarily football) continue to compel our attention, even when we’re annoyed or disturbed (and sometimes, it still happens, inspired) by the lives of athletes off the field?

I don’t have a full answer to that question, but I do wonder if part of the current problem is that both fans and athletes take sports too seriously.  These are games, after all.  Some people view that to be an argument against pro sports.  I think it is actually the opposite: we enjoy watching sports precisely because they are not serious — not serious, at least, in the same way Christ and family and literature are serious.  Sports are, in fact, like all good things: problematic when they leave their proper realm.

Chesterton once wrote on politics:

Males, like females, in the course of that old fight between the public and private house, had indulged in overstatement and extravagance, feeling that they must keep up their end of the see-saw. We told our wives that Parliament had sat late on most essential business; but it never crossed our minds that our wives would believe it. We said that everyone must have a vote in the country; similarly our wives said that no one must have a pipe in the drawing room. In both cases the idea was the same. “It does not matter much, but if you let those things slide there is chaos.” We said that Lord Huggins or Mr. Buggins was absolutely necessary to the country. We knew quite well that nothing is necessary to the country except that the men should be men and the women women. We knew this; we thought the women knew it even more clearly; and we thought the women would say it. Suddenly, without warning, the women have begun to say all the nonsense that we ourselves hardly believed when we said it. The solemnity of politics; the necessity of votes; the necessity of Huggins; the necessity of Buggins; all these flow in a pellucid stream from the lips of all the suffragette speakers. I suppose in every fight, however old, one has a vague aspiration to conquer; but we never wanted to conquer women so completely as this. We only expected that they might leave us a little more margin for our nonsense; we never expected that they would accept it seriously as sense. [What’s Wrong with the World, Part 3, VII]

Now, whatever you want to make of his arguments against female suffrage, I feel like something similar has happened with sports; not necessarily between men and women (although something of Chesterton’s description comes through), but in the argument about whether sports matter.  Certain people (male or female) might act, discuss, argue as if sports really mattered to the world, as much as Huggins or Buggins mattered to the world.  We never expected to be taken seriously.  Suddenly, people have begun to say all the nonsense that we sports fans hardly believed when we said it.  It was always a diversion.  It was always something declaimed as serious and important when it was nothing of the sort.

But now people take it seriously.  I don’t know if the athletes themselves always did.  But sports has, in many ways, become too serious for its own good, as all idols eventually do.  It is no idol to cheer for a team, to find oneself in a community of like-minded individuals celebrating or commiserating together.  It is no idol to care what the team’s record is or whether they make the playoffs.  It becomes an idol when it leaves the realm of the sport and enters the realm of the serious.  It is an idol when it begins to matter in the same way your religion or, to a lesser degree, your family matter.  From the Christian perspective, sport (which, I venture to suggest, has been around since the beginning of creation) is simply one more good thing in the creation.  It is not The Good.  And it would be good if we could remember that again.


Capon on the Workers in the Vineyard

Opsías dé genoménēs [“when evening came”].  Heaven is Miller Time [I, and God, would pick a better beer, but that’s for a different time].  Heaven is the party in the streaming sunlight of the world’s final afternoon.  Heaven is where all the rednecks, and all the wood-butchers, and all the plumbers who never showed up — all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who just gave up on winning — simply waltz up to the bar of judgment with full pay envelopes and get down to the serious drinking that makes the new creation go round.  It is a bash that has happened, that insists upon happening, and that is happening now — and by the sweetness of its cassation, it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.

Heaven, in short, is fun.  And if you don’t like that, Buster (hetaíre [“friend”]), you can just go to…well, you’ll have to use your own imagination.  You’ll need it: this is the only bar in town.

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 397

Extra Stanzas

It is a travesty that so many hymns in Lutheran hymnals end–against the overwhelming testimony of the Scriptures–with stanzas about dying and going to heaven.  So I’m rewriting them.  No doubt improvements can be made, and if you don’t like mine, no big deal; write your own.  Here’s what I’m going to sing, unless you give me something better in the comments!

Lutheran Service Book (LSB) 524 (“How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”), stanza 7:

And then when I awake in life,
Body and soul unite!
Your good creation put to rights,
And make us whole again.

LSB 563 (“Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness”), alternate stanza 5:

When from the dust of death I rise
To greet my Savior in the skies,
Then on new earth my feet will stand,
I will live still from His good hand.

LSB 609 (“Jesus Sinners Doth Receive”), alternate stanza 7:

Jesus sinners doth receive;
Also I have been forgiven;
And when I this life must leave,
I shall find an open heaven.
But my hope is even more:
Jesus bodies doth restore.

LSB 686 (“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”), alternate stanza 4:

On that day when freed from sinning,
Lay my body in the grave.
But my soul shall cry out louder:
“Lord, how long?” and “Lord, please save!”
But we will not wait forever;
Christ the Life will hear our prayer!
And He will, our dear Lord Jesus,
Come and bring the Day to us.

LSB 702 (“My Faith Looks Up to Thee”), stanza 5:

My faith looks up to Thee,
In Christ, my life I see
Hidden in Him.
And when that life appears,
I’ll see Him as He is,
And at His Word I will
Be made like Him.

LSB 730 (“What Is the World to Me”), stanza 5:

What is the world to me?
When will it cease its groaning?
It longs in labor pains
For Christ and His revealing.
Until true children see
The world made new and free,
It ever shall be so:
The world is my home. 

LSB 733 (“O God, Our Help in Ages Past”), alternate stanza 6:

And we, when Jesus calls us forth,
From graves as from our beds,
Will wake and live forevermore
Bright, glorious as our Head.

LSB 761 (“Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”), stanza 5:

I will rest my soul in Thee
While my body lies in dust;
Even so, my hope is this
On Your Word my faith insists:
That my bones shall not remain
In the ground but live again.

LSB 763 (“When Peace, like a River”), stanza 5:

Because in that day mine own eyes shall see
Creation restored and renewed.
I’ll see Christ my Lord, and my body like His.
In that day, finally, all is well.