Big Yellow Cultural Taxis

Counting Crows brought 1970 forward to 2002 when they covered the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi.”  I remember hearing that song all over pop radio.  The lines stick in your brain (as they must have done for Bob Dylan and Amy Grant, who covered the song as well): “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot/With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin’ hot spot/Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone/They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” (Which lyric, by the way, reminds me of this gem of pop Christian music.)

Don’t it always seem to go that way?  You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.  Something psychological happens when you take something or someone for granted and then, all of a sudden, the thing or the person is gone.  Mostly we think of family, whether lovers, spouses, parents, or children, but I happen to be thinking of the liturgy.  There is so much pressure on pastors and churches to give up the liturgy in favor of more user-friendly or missional “worship styles” and many have capitulated.  Even those who don’t give in feel the imposed guilt and perhaps begin to question whether something else might indeed better serve people’s needs.  This in spite of the fact that nearly the entire argument for doing something other than the liturgy is emotivistic.  That doesn’t necessarily equate to emotional, although the emotions are often involved.  It means that every single argument over what a congregation’s gathering ought to look like is reduced to how someone feels.  It is the equivalent of saying “murder is wrong” because “I don’t like murder.”  So: “the liturgy is good or bad” = “I like or don’t like the liturgy.”  The entire quarrel (and that is what it often is) is reduced to gut-reactions and only then framed by some semblance of a rationality.

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What Is Article XIV?

[This post is essentially inside baseball for The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, although it certainly has implications for the Church as a whole, since the Book of Concord is a confession for the sake of the Church.]

It is only one sentence in the English translation of the Latin: “Concerning church order they teach that no one should teach publicly in the church or administer the sacraments unless properly called.”1 In the English translation of the German, it reads: “Concerning church government it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper [public] call.”2

The controverted terms today are “no one” (German: niemand; Latin: nemo); “publicly” (German: öffentlich; Latin: publice); and “proper call” [translated “regularly called” by the Triglotta] (German: ordentlichen Beruf; Latin: rite vocatus) (Concordia Triglotta 38-39).

Current controversies in the LCMS seem to revolve primarily around semantics: what does rite vocatus mean? It is often used as shorthand for AC XIV, but no word means anything apart from its context. That fact led to this question: Why did Melanchthon (affirmed by the Confessors) find it necessary to confess just this statement on the public preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments? None of the notes on the translations of these words clarifies anything for our modern problems and controversies over who should exercise the Office of the Ministry (or, perhaps better: who should be exercised in the Office). For example, with reference to the Kolb/Wengert edition, what does it mean to be called in a “regular manner by a proper public authority”? (See the note on rite vocatus.) Certainly, the Lutheran Church has historically left it an open question what constitutes a “proper public authority,”3 whether secular officials, consistories, bishops, or synods. “Regular” (and rite seems to bear this out) appears to be “simply the way things are done.” If “the way things are done” has changed from the time of the Augsburg Confession, the words rite vocatus, in and of themselves, cannot bear the weight that we try to put upon them.

Since neither the Augsburg Confession nor the other Confessions confess every possible teaching of the Scriptures, the first significant question is: “To whom or at what practice is this statement directed?” In other words: what is being confessed here and for what reason? It is clear that in the case of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, the statements are presented to the Holy Roman Emperor and they are confessions of practice in the face of Roman accusations that the Evangelicals had departed from historic doctrine and practice, i.e., that the Evangelicals had separated themselves from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Evangelicals’ defense is always that they had not departed from the true teaching of the Church (meaning that wherever the Church—including the Roman Church—had correctly explicated the Scriptures and had not contravened or made ecclesiastical law beyond what the Scriptures commanded or forbade, the Evangelicals confessed nothing more or less).

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Allowed to Disagree

G.K. Chesterton once wrote of George Bernard Shaw, “In some matters the difference between us seems to amount to this: that I very respectfully recognize that he disagrees with me, but he will not even allow me to disagree with him” (“Our Birthday,” G.K.s Weekly, 21st March, 1935; in The G.K. Chesterton Collection on Kindle).

Part of the difference between Lutherans and Reformed on the Sacrament of the Altar seems to amount to this: that while the Lutherans (most of the time) respectfully recognize that the Reformed disagree with us, the Reformed will not allow the Lutherans to disagree with them about the Supper.  This is not a new phenomenon.  All the way back to the earliest disagreements among the different confessions arising from the Reformation, the Lutherans made church fellowship the sine qua non of altar fellowship, and vice-versa.  One necessarily entailed the other, just as it did from the very beginning of the Church of Christ on earth (see Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship).  On the other hand, the non-Lutheran Reformed began, at least as early as 1631 at the French Synod of Charenton, to welcome Lutherans to Reformed tables.  Whether it was because sharing mere bread and wine does not require any agreement on what is happening to and for Christians there, or whether it was because the Lord’s Supper didn’t belong to the essential core of the Christian Faith (Zwingli), the Reformed have never understood the Lutheran objection to a shared Supper.  They will not allow the Lutherans to disagree with them.  (Regarding the myriad contradictions that serious Reformed see in Lutheran teaching, see Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, 105ff.)

Besides the current cultural context, which inevitably reduces and minimizes confessional differences, the Reformed descendants of Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, et al. find the Lutheran position to be a loveless one.  In the uniform (until recently) and historical Lutheran practice of sharing the communion of the Lord only when confessional unity under the Scriptures is recognized, the Reformed hear only an accusation against them that they are not Christians or not “Christian enough.”  But it is at precisely this point where the Lutherans feel the exasperation of Chesterton when arguing with Shaw: we simply want to recognize the real and substantial gulf between the Lutheran and Reformed positions, and they will not even allow us to disagree with them.  The Lutherans believe that the two positions are as far apart as heaven and earth: the bare fact of whether we eat Christ’s Body and Blood with the bread and wine, or whether we do not, is–quite literally–everything.  This is why, for Lutherans, “all questions of the life and teaching of the church ultimately [lead] to the question of the Lord’s Supper” (Sasse, “Why Hold Fast to the Lutheran Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper?” The Lonely Way, I:453).

Finally, we simply want to be honest, and state that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between those who confess Christ’s Body and Blood eaten and drunk by everyone (even, God forbid, an unbeliever) who communes, and those who say that there is only bread and wine eaten and drunk by some or all.  This is not a difference in how Christ’s Body and Blood are present, but whether they are.  Lutherans have never confessed a particular mode, means, or mechanism of describing Christ’s Presence in the Sacrament (e.g., “consubstantiation”).  But Lutherans have always confessed that His Body and Blood are eaten and drunk by everyone, quite apart from an individual’s faith.  This is what Jesus says, and our horizontal unity around the altar depends on making the same confession about Jesus’ own words.  That is what “confession” means: saying the same thing.  And that is what “communion” means: union-with.  Union with Jesus in His Body and Blood (which is impossible if His Body and Blood are not actually there); and union with the other members of His Body precisely because we all share the same Christ as He gives Himself to us.  This, and nothing else, is the cause of “closed Communion.”  Closed to all who refuse to confess with us the simple words of Jesus, but open to all who receive these words with faith and joy.  We cannot force anyone to accept this confession, but we do ask that those who don’t accept it allow us to respectfully disagree with them.

Timotheos

An Open Letter to the Guilty

This is not for anyone for whom everything is great.  This is not for those with perfect families, perfect faith, a perfect congregation, or perfect health.  This is for the guilty and the desolate.

I think you know the Gospel, but you have never believed it, not really.  You thought the Gospel was for those who are nice, those who have things under control.  You thought the Gospel was for those whose sin is manageable, who seem to breeze through life without any regrets.

You think that your sin is too great, that God would not want a sinner such as you.  You think that your sin disqualifies you from serving in your congregation.  You think that people would shun you if they knew who you “really are.”  You think that God is visiting the consequences of your sin upon your children.  Otherwise, why would they suffer the way that they do?  What did they do to deserve what has happened to them?

You were always in the Church, but you were somehow sold a lie about the mercy of God.  Somehow you came to believe that God would make everything in your life turn out okay if only you kept “believing.”  But your faith wasn’t in Christ; it was in your faith.  In other words, your faith was in you, in your ability to go on believing things about God.

You heard the Gospel, but you didn’t really believe it.  Because the Gospel is not “everything will be okay in this life.”  The Gospel isn’t “God accepts people who don’t do anything bad enough to disqualify them from grace.”  The Gospel isn’t “as long as you keep up your end of the Law, then God will bless you and your family.”

The Gospel is one thing, and one thing only: Jesus Christ, crucified to save sinners.  All sinners.  You.  And especially the bad sinners, who can’t figure out why nothing seems to go right for them.  Who think, like Job’s friends, that there must be something they’ve done or left undone that has brought about these circumstances.  Who are out of control and can’t drag themselves out of the pits they seem inevitably to dig.  The Gospel is for those who can’t quite believe that Jesus died also for them.  The Gospel is for those who recoil in horror from the awful reality of their own sin.  The Gospel is for you.

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“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

loehe_unterschrift

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.]

Timotheos