Truth and Comfort

Teaching is no joke, sonny!  I’m not talking of those who get out of it with a lot of eyewash: you’ll knock up against plenty of them in the course of your life, and get to know ’em.  Comforting truths, they call it!  Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.  Besides, you’ve no right to call that sort of thing comfort.  Might as well talk about condolences!  The Word of God is a red-hot iron.  And you who preach it ‘ud go picking it up with a pair of tongs, for fear of burning yourself, you daren’t get hold of it with both hands.  It’s too funny!  Why, the priest who descends from the pulpit of Truth, with a mouth like a hen’s vent, a little hot but pleased with himself, he’s not been preaching: at best he’s been purring like a tabby-cat.  Mind you that can happen to us all, we’re all half asleep, it’s the devil to wake us up, sometimes–the apostles slept all right at Gethsemane.  Still, there’s a difference….And mind you many a fellow who waves his arms and sweats like a furniture-remover isn’t necessarily more awakened than the rest.  On the contrary.  I simply mean that when the Lord has drawn from me some word for the good of souls, I know, because of the pain of it.

[Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, 42]

“Joy Is In the Gift of the Church”

I’d say: I can’t help wearing an outfit like an undertaker’s man.  After all, the Pope rigs himself up in white and the cardinals in red, so what’s the odds?  But I’d have the right to go around adorned like the Queen of Sheba because I’m bringing you joy.  I’ll give it to you for nothing, you have only to ask.  Joy is in the gift of the Church, whatever joy is possible for this sad world to share.  Whatever you did against the Church, has been done against joy.  I’m not stopping you from calculating the procession of the equinoxes or splitting the atom.  But what would it profit you even to create life itself, when you have lost all sense of what life really is?  Might as well blow your brains out among your test-tubes.  Manufacture “life” as much as you like, I say!  It’s the vision you give us of death that poisons the thoughts of poor devils bit by bit, that gradually clouds and dulls their last happiness.  You’ll be able to keep it up so long as your industries and capital permit you to turn the world into a fair-ground of mechanical roundabouts, twirling madly in a perpetual din of brass and crackling fireworks.  But just you wait.  Wait for the first quarter-of-an-hour’s silence.  Then the Word will be heard of men–not the voice they rejected, which spoke so quietly: “I am the way, the Resurrection and the Life”–but the voice from the depths: “I am the door for ever locked, the road which leads nowhere, the lie, the everlasting dark.”

He said these last words so gloomily that I must have grown paler–or rather yellower, which has been my way, alas, of turning pale during the last few months–for he poured me out a second glass of gin and we changed the subject.

[Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, 16]

“Eaten Up By Boredom”

Well, as I was saying, the world is eaten up by boredom.  To perceive this needs a little preliminary thought: you can’t see it all at once.  It is like dust.  You go about and never notice, you breathe it in, you eat and drink it.  It is sifted so fine it doesn’t even grit on your teeth.  But stand still for an instant and there it is, coating your face and hands.  To shake off this drizzle of ashes you must be for ever on the go.  And so people are always ‘on the go.’  Perhaps the answer would be that the world has long been familiar with boredom, that such is the true condition of man.  No doubt the seed was scattered all over life, and here and there found fertile soil to take root; but I wonder if man has ever before experienced this contagion, this leprosy of boredom: an aborted despair, a shameful form of despair in some way like the fermentation of a Christianity in decay.

[Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, 2]

A Christian Life?

It’s an intriguing question.  Now that I’m a Christian, what should I do?  Yes, I know I’m forgiven.  Yes!  YES!  I KNOW I’M FORGIVEN!  Now what should I do?

It used to intrigue me a lot more than it does now.

At my university alma mater, the distinction between Law and Gospel was taught nearly this crudely: the Gospel is good, and since the Gospel is the solution to the Law [yes, I recognize the false premise there], the Law must be bad.  This is the sort of polarity that is commonly called (at least among particular Lutherans centered in the lower Midwest) “Gospel reductionism.”  It has all sorts of nice off-shoots, such as using the “Gospel” to determine which parts of the Scriptures we ought to take as “the Word of God.”  Because the Bible is not coterminous with the Word of God, you know?  (Notice, the reverse is certainly true: the Word of God is not coterminous with the Bible, because Jesus.)  The Bible contains the Word of God.  And, of course, hence nearly all of mainline Protestantism.

But now you’ve gotten me off my main point, which is that because Law and Gospel were taught so crudely, I had a hard time thinking about good works at all.  I knew that both Jesus and all the apostolic writings commanded that Christians do certain things.  But I was being taught that the Law not only always accused, but that it only accused.  So these teachers avoided the charge of antinomianism because they still held that the Law had a purpose, but only an accusatory one.

But if the Law has only an accusatory function in the life of the Christian, I was stuck on how to deal with good works as good.  Because if good works are the Law, they must actually be bad.  See?  The old controversies never really go away (see Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration IV:3-5).

There are different ways to approach this problem, both theoretical and practical, but where it actually hits the ground is in preaching.  With the above polarized dichotomy of Law versus Gospel, combined with the exhortations to good works in the Scriptures, Lutheran preachers often ended up with a Law-Gospel-Law sandwich: I know I have to preach Law and Gospel, because that’s the fundamental distinction in the Scriptures, but I also know I have to actually preach this exhortation (especially in Paul’s letters), so I will phrase the Law in terms of the Gospel: you now get to do all these good things that you don’t really want to do.  This is your response to the good news of the Gospel!  Don’t you want to do these good works now?

Still felt like a burden to me; still felt exactly like the Law, but now it gummed you to death instead of tearing your head off with sharp teeth.

The real problem is not that Lutherans had got Law and Gospel wrong (the whole Scriptures is still divided into those two Words), but that we forgot where the Law belongs once you become a Christian.  Insofar as you are a Christian, it no longer has anything to say about your relationship with God (unless Jesus didn’t really do it all); now, it can only and always speak about your relationship with your family, friends, neighbors, communities, co-workers, etc.  If you can only speak in terms of one kind of righteousness (between you and God), then you are either driving people into despair with your constant exhortations to do good works; or you are replacing your neighbor with God, so that you never actually want to help your neighbor in himself, you only want to serve God through your neighbor (which makes your neighbor expendable and interchangeable; as long as you have someone to serve, it doesn’t matter that the person is an actual person with concrete needs).

From this point, my question is this:  Do we really not know what to do?  Is that the problem?  And the solution is to tell more people what they should do more?  I suggest trying that with your children.  All you’ll get is little hypocrites, no matter how nicely you tell them what they now get to do.  Once you’ve reminded them 85 times that it’s not good to break the Fourth Commandment, I think they probably know what they ought to do.  The problem is not that they don’t know what to do, it’s that they, according to themselves, don’t want to do it.  And not only do they not want to do it, they will become defensive and argue to the death why they shouldn’t have to do it.

I overstate the case slightly.  Sometimes children want to do what’s right.  (I had that conversation with my oldest daughter yesterday.)  But in both instances, when they want to do what’s right and when they don’t, they know what the right thing is.  Once you’ve disciplined the Old Adam after you’ve drowned him (or even if you’re trying to discipline an undrowned Adam), children are not ignorant about what is right.  They hear nothing all day long but what they are supposed to do.  Occasionally, the advice conflicts (and leaving aside for the time being those examples of schools and others who explicitly and actively contradict parents), but for the most part, they hear consistent messages: show respect, don’t hit, be nice, don’t take what isn’t yours, work things out.  The solution, as counter-intuitive as it is to our common, sinful logic of the Law, is not to tell them what to do more and more (I should take my own advice).  The solution is confession and absolution, or the two parts of repentance.  The solution is to get them to the Gospel, always.  No, you can’t just tell them “you’re forgiven” when they are caught in a lie; the Gospel without contrition produced by the Word of God only builds self-righteousness and complacency.  Law and Gospel, applied like finely tuned surgical instruments, according to the specific diagnosis.

Which brings me back to the beginning: are Christians really supposed to live lives that look different from an unbeliever’s actions?  We naturally assume so, and I grant that Christians ought to live lives different from the general mass of unbelievers, who naturally do what their flesh demands (Eph. 4:17).  That is, we ought to live lives in Christ that are fundamentally opposed to our lives outside of Christ.  And I grant that in a fundamentally decadent culture, not lying, cheating, and stealing will in themselves be enough to set a Christian apart.  But when we come to the specific actions that Christians are to do, I can’t see that they are any different from how we’d want a virtuous pagan to live (regardless of whether any actually live that way).  In other words, which of the following things require Christ to do externally (ad hominibus)?  Don’t murder?  Don’t steal?  Don’t hold grudges?  Don’t lie?  Bitterness, undue anger, slander, etc.?  Which of these things would, say, virtuous pagan philosophers reject?  None of these are specifically Christian virtues, except perhaps to forgive as Christ has forgiven you.  But at that point we are in a different realm, the single realm where the truly Christian life is played out: the communion of the saints in the holy things.  The only truly and particularly and explicitly Christian actions I can see are: hearing the Word of God, receiving His sacramental gifts, and worshiping Him in return, two of which are completely passive, and the third is simply returning to God the praise for what He has already done.

I’m open to correction on this, but is there any single action that is done by a Christian that we would not want to be done by an unbeliever, because if everyone did such things the world would be a better place?  And which of those things would not be commended by a thoughtful, atheist philosopher?  Don’t the atheists have it correct on this point, when they (unfortunately) whittle the Christian faith down to its moral content?  Isn’t this also part of the cause of the attrition from Christian churches, that people who have been told over and over to live a particular kind of “Christian” life find that they can do it without even being a Christian?

Christianity is not about morality, and anyone who says it is might as well give up the mirage of Christianity altogether, and simply teach how to live a good life (cf. Osteen et al.).  There is not, as far as I can see, any particularly Christian ethics.

What ought Christians do qua Christians?  Hear the Gospel, receive the Sacraments, and live toward your neighbor in the best way you can, according to their needs and your means.  Not complicated to say (though, of course, carrying it out against the desires of your sinful flesh is a completely different animal).  You are pleasing to God in Christ, so do what your neighbor needs.  No calculating, no motive-checking, no hesitation, no measuring of sin as if it were a substance you could separate from your sinful flesh or reduce to a manageable level.  You have good works, your neighbors need them, God commands them.

I suggest that if people are not doing good works toward their neighbors, it’s because they are not receiving the good works of Jesus, the fruit of His cross and resurrection.  In other words, they don’t really believe the Gospel, and that sort of superficial faith (not really faith at all) is what James condemns.  True faith in the Christ who has done everything does indeed produce good fruit, but the branch must be connected to the Vine.

What should you do?  Pretty much what you would have done if you were a virtuous pagan; but now you know that Christ has redeemed your entire life, your “good” works and your bad.  Live your life, for Christ’s sake!

[fire away…!]


Actions and Words, Again

[See here for the first part]

So it seems that many people do not care that the treasures of the liturgy and the hymns are lost, and along with them any sustained relevance in the lives of sinners who, essentially, are exactly the same as sinners, say, 1700 years ago.

(Aside: It seems to me, in fact, that our current cultural situation is very near the situation of people like Ambrose and Augustine, following the legalization and then the State sponsorship of Christianity: i.e., very soon–if not already–there will be an influx of people into the Church or the sphere of those who belong to the Church, who have been pagans their entire lives.  They will not have been baptized and they will be approaching the Church from a position of nearly complete ignorance.  What will we do with them?  Will we pretend we can dumb down the Gospel to the level of unbelief, and that this will somehow appeal to them enough that they will gladly join Christian congregations?  Or will we be secure enough in our liturgical and apostolic heritage to assimilate them into the life of the Church, with the fullness of its ancient doctrine and practices (see Acts 2:42)?  This will obviously require much more work than what we’re currently doing, and a complete reworking of our present process of catechesis.  We will be starting at the ground floor, hoping to make life-long Christians.  That cannot happen in six weeks, or even two years.  Perhaps the early catechumenate, mutatis mutandis, can help us here if we are willing.)

But for those who do think the liturgy has something to offer, if only as a vestigial memory from childhood, what can we do?  I do not pretend to have the answers to a problem that has been in the making for probably 300+ years.  However, I will offer some tentative ideas, to begin or continue a discussion, especially in the LCMS (since that is my context).

  1. Parents, as I said in the first part of this, must be committed to what happens on the Lord’s Day.  Not only those who are parents of those particular children, but other members of the congregation who also have a vested interest in whether children grow up in the fear and instruction of the Lord.  Sunday School teachers cannot teach a class, and then absent themselves from the Divine Service without a very compelling reason.  Even if you think people don’t notice, it sends a strong message to children not to see their Sunday School teachers in the Divine Service.  It says you’re only putting in your time, and no more.  The other members of the congregation, surrounding the children, cannot sing and say everything half-heartedly or no-heartedly.
  2. When you are present in the Divine Service, and when you are at home, you must be willing to teach your children about the various parts of the liturgy (e.g., show them where things are in the hymnal), and connect the liturgy to the various concerns that arise in day to day life.  The Nunc Dimittis, for example, is especially appropriate for night time singing before bed.  (If you don’t know how it connects, ask your pastor!  He, if he’s anything like me, would love to tell you, almost more than anything.)  In the Service itself, you have to participate yourself and help your children to do so according to their ages.  Children will memorize the words if they hear the people around them singing them.  They do it with everything else you say; why not with the Divine Service?  Participate and sing the hymns, even if you don’t like that particular one!
  3. Related to that, realizing that the words are pure Gospel, sing them like you mean them.  If your children see you mumbling the words, or sitting there without your hymnal open, or glazedly looking out the window, they will quickly realize that these things are not important.  Guess where they won’t want to be next week?
  4. This presence and this participation will not only impact your children.  Here, we’ve come back around to unbelievers.  Imagine, first, this scenario: someone who is not a member of a congregation, who maybe has no connection with a congregation, who finds the Divine Service foreign, visits your congregation.  This person sits in a pew, sees people socializing right up until the beginning of the second stanza of the opening hymn, and singing the liturgy and reading the responses as if they were reading a manual on how to correctly install the flush mechanism of a modern toilet.  The hymns sound how Lutherans are always accused of sounding: like funeral dirges, not necessarily musically, but in the manner and appearance of the people singing them.  Death cometh, hopefully sooner rather than later.   At least, that’s what I’d be thinking.  Now, ask yourself this question: why in the world would that person ever want to return to your congregation for a Divine Service?  The fact is, we are the cause of the things we complain about.  The pastor can only do so much to speak and sing his parts with passion (especially if he’s an introvert like me); the people have to do a little work.  And if they do: if they sing with joy, if they appear to actually believe what they are singing and saying, might that not cause someone to take a second look at what appears at first to be an hour completely removed from the twenty-first century?  Maybe there’s something more here than meets my first glance.  Maybe still waters run deep.  Maybe…

Now, obviously none of these things, or anyone else’s ideas, will guarantee that churches will stop shrinking, that kids will start to love and treasure the liturgy more than their parents, that we can reverse a decades-long trend of apathy toward the liturgy that the Christian Church has developed over 2000 years.  Proverbs 22:6 is a proverb–the way things generally go–not a promise.  But the guarantee of continued falling away from God’s promises in baptism is much more likely if parents do not carry out their God-given responsibilities and bring their children to the services of the Lord’s House, teach them the stories of God’s salvation in Christ, and sing to them the songs that the Church has sanctified by long use.

On the other hand, if you want your children to keep looking for a church that will “fit their needs” and give them what they think they want, eventually they will just do what they always wanted anyway, and treat the Lord’s Day as just another day in the weekend.  If that’s what you want, I’d suggest we all just keep doing what we’re doing and kill off the liturgy, and with it the Faith that it instills.  I’m not willing to give up just yet.


Actions and Words

I know this is going to sound harsher than I mean it but, believe me, this is more a lament than a rant.

I often hear worried words and see much hand-wringing over the fact that “young people” are not going to church anymore.  That is usually connected to the worry about the “unchurched” and I’m sure it comes up often in evangelism or outreach committees.  We worry and we cast our anxious looks around at empty pews, but I’m not sure we really believe what we say; or if we do believe it, our actions don’t bear out our confession.

Let me put it this way: if we were really worried about youth and unbelievers, what are the sorts of things we would do?  Do we want them to go to church on Sunday to hear God’s Word and receive His gifts, and not just as an obligation or as a burden of the Law (there is that pesky Third Commandment)?  What would show that?  Maybe going to the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day and whenever else the services of the Lord’s House are held?  Not just when we don’t have anything else going on, but every single week (barring sickness or death).  We would make it clear from the very beginning of their baptismal life that the Lord’s House is where the Lord’s people are found on the Lord’s Day.  Full stop.  Yes, you can play sports; yes, you can have friends over.  But believe this: those things, and all things, will give way to the Word of God given to us for our forgiveness and edification.

If not, the exception swiftly becomes the rule.  In fact, it takes about three generations, as far as I can tell.  The first generation attends the Divine Service weekly, even if they are farmers and it’s a nice day for plowing or spraying the fields.  There are no exceptions to this, or if there are, they come about once every ten years.  That’s just how it is.  The second generation learned this from their parents, and by mere force of habit they follow this pattern–pretty much.  But maybe they’re not so happy with some pastor or the way the service always stays the same.  So even though they go every week, or at least twice a month, their children hear them complain about various aspects of church.  Their children also see them become a little more lax about when they go, and when they make their children go.  Because they want their children to go “for the right reasons, not because they have to, like I did.”  The problem is that the little sinners often don’t want to go.  They’d rather travel with their sports team or stay overnight with their non-church-going friend on Saturday night.  And the parents find themselves, in spite of their better desires, not wanting to “deprive” their children of those experiences.  And, anyway, what does it hurt not to go to church every single Sunday?  I mean, it’s not like going to church makes you a Christian, or that everyone who goes to church is a Christian.  Sure, they want their children to be Christians and to go to church–at least, they know they’re supposed to want that–and they still want them to do their confirmation homework and go to Sunday School (though they drop them off and don’t go to Bible study).  Finally, their children learn their lessons better than their parents teach it: church is something we should do, probably, but it’s not something absolutely necessary, so if we have “better” things to do, we will do them.  And we’ll still put in our appearances once a month or so.  We’re still Christians, because we say we believe in God (though we’re not quite sure who that God is, or how he/she/it is different from the Muslim’s or the Jew’s or the Mormon’s god), and we believe that Jesus died for our sins (though we’re not quite sure why we need that, or what it means to believe it).

So we come to the third generation, the members of which know that their parents think going to church is important, and their grandparents thought it was really important, but have a lot of trouble coming up with even one good reason why it’s important for them (except, maybe, when they have children, and the pressure from the parents becomes a little more intense, especially about baptism).  And they essentially, and consciously, don’t think being in the Lord’s House is any more important than the atheist down the street thinks it is.  (Of course, they don’t really know any atheists, because in small, rural communities everyone is a member of some church.  Right?  Aren’t they?  Well, they were baptized there, at least.)  And when they do come to the Divine Service, they find it irrelevant and boring.  Which is sort of like saying it’s irrelevant and boring to weed your garden when the weeds have already killed off all the flowers and vegetables.

Sort of bleak, isn’t it?  But the quicker we realize that this is our situation in at least the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the better off we’ll be.  As Charlie Peacock put it in a song, “Cheer up Church/you’re worse off than you think.”

Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of parents (despite what they say) with their children for 20 or 30 years has been teaching them that what happens on the Lord’s Day is unimportant, irrelevant, boring, and unrealistic.  Why are we surprised when they believe it?  And then, once we’ve thoroughly inculcated in them this apathy toward the liturgy, we complain that it’s not meeting their needs and we need to do something else.  So maybe the Baby Boomers got their way after all, not by actively teaching the destruction of the liturgy, but by the inertia of the sinful nature.

I’d like to offer some possibilities toward a solution to this problem and how we might recover the beauty and the pure Gospel power of the liturgy, even without proficient cantors and choirs and instrumentalists, even in a rural congregation, but I’m beginning to think, even as I write this, that that’s just not what people want.  They don’t want to discover the depths of the catholic Divine Service, as it’s been handed down and refined through the centuries.  They’ve already convinced themselves that the liturgy, along with the strong, orthodox hymns, have outlived their usefulness.  So then: damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead (into faddishness–which will certainly mean irrelevance, not after 2000 years, but as quickly as worship innovators sense any new, cutting-edge entertainment to engage the cynical and jaded “youth”)!

But if you’re interested….hold on….