Wednesday, August 31, 2011

J.S.Bach, Fantasia & fuge in G minor BWV 542 - Raúl Prieto Ramírez, organ

working at being holy

On my way back from Mequon the other night I was listening to an interview on the Catholic radio station.  An author was discussing his new book on the lives of various saints.  And in the course of the discussion a statement was made which caught my attention.  It was about how Christians should "work at being holy."  Such phraseology does not quite sound right (or shouldn't anyway) to the Lutheran ear.  It is a window into a basic difference between Lutheran theology and Roman Catholic theology.  To clarify, it might be worth breaking this down into a few basic areas. 

First, let's talk about sin.  When a man sins against God's law, he does not become a little less holy.  Rather, he turns away from God.  Sin results in not merely physical, but also spiritual death, ie, the soul's alienation from God.  The soul is made for communion with its Creator, and when that communion is broken, the soul is effectively in hell.  We might say this state is a living hell, whether or not it is perceived as such.  As Luther said of Adam's spiritual condition after he sinned, "He was in the midst of death and hell."  Sin does not result in being somewhat less holy; it results in utter unholiness, a rupture in one's relationship with God, which must be repaired. 

What, then, is holiness?  Holiness is the blessed life of communion with God.  It is life as it was meant to be, life in its purest form.  If I may borrow a thought from Saint John's Gospel, it is life in its abundance or fullness.  As I say, the holiness of the soul is the state of being in communion with its Creator, to dwell in His presence.  Now let me add, sort of parenthetically, that we may also speak of being in the holy presence of God, when, for example, we approach the altar and take our Eucharistic Lord into our bodies.  And on that count, it is worth making a distinction.  Entering into communion with God, say, for example, in the Holy Supper, does not in and of itself, make one holy.  For if one is unprepared, then the presence of the holy God will have the opposite effect.  It will harm the one who is unprepared, and confirm his unbelief.  I am reminded of something David Scaer writes in one of his essays:
Unbelievers are kept away from the holy supper because their bodies are receiving what their souls despise, and they are tom apart in the very midst of their existence. Christ's body, intended to join human beings in the depths of their existence with God, becomes destructive of this unity and destines them to the most severe of all judgments. What unbelievers despise with their souls they eat with their mouths and it is joined to their bodies. An act of redemption becomes one of condemnation. They thrust themselves prematurely and unprepared before the judgment throne of Christ.
As with Moses before the burning bush, so with us today.  God draws close to us, and draws us close to Him, yet we dare not approach thoughtlessly or unprepared.

Now, what exactly is the proper preparation of which we speak?  As intimated in the passage above, we are not speaking of some subjective or moralistic preparation.  Rather, faith itself is what grasps the presence of God, and apprehends it.  Looking at the more general question again, we are now able to answer the question of just what makes a man holy.  The answer is simple.  When we hear the Gospel, and receive it in faith, the soul is reconciled to God, and brought into communion with Him.  As Luther writes of the spiritual condition of Adam and Eve after God preached the Gospel to them, promising the Savior:
This text it was that restored Adam and Eve to life and raised them again from death to the life which they had lost by their sin...This text is the absolution acquitting him and us all.  For if this Seed is so strong that He crushes the head of the serpent, He also crushes all its power; so, then, the devil is conquered, and all damage which Adam suffered is repaired.  Adam enters again the estate in which he was before.
Which is to say that no matter what effects of sin we must suffer in this life, by faith in Christ we are even now in paradisal union with God. 

To be sure, some Christians have a stronger faith than others, but it is not a certain level of strength that is required in one's faith for him to be worthy or prepared or able to receive God's gifts to his profit.  We approach in faith, and bare our wounds, our shame, our weakness, which is to say, our weak faith, and what we receive in the Gospel, along with the forgiveness of our sins, is the edifying and strengthening of our faith.  Faith itself is a gift, brought about by the Holy Ghost's work as He employs the powerful instrument of the Word.  And all the gifts He gives us in the Church make us holy, for they bring us into the salvific communion with our loving Father in Christ. 

There is such thing as increasing in holiness in this life.  But it is not anything that I can accomplish by my own work.  It is the work of God in me.

These are just some thoughts in response to what I think is a theologically sloppy mode of expression.  And it is not to say that Roman Catholics would necessarily disagree with all I have written here.  Nevertheless, these matters merit fleshing out.  In fact, they merit more than I am giving them here.

the quotable Terry Maher

"Stick that in your next Communion service COW."

My favorite line today from this online discussion.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Bruce Springsteen - Kitty's Back / Passaic 1978

What's that? You're wondering why I haven't played any Springsteen in a while? Okay, just for you, here is the 13 minute version of "Kitty's Back", from the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour.  As you will see, it was Little Steven's beret period.  And Max's sunglasses period.  And apparently Clarence's open shirt period.  This song has a lot of great moments, the sax work, the guitar work; one of my favorite aspects of it is how Roy on piano and Danny on organ complement each other.  Enjoy.

Saint Ambrose on Saint John the Baptist

In the Divine Office this morning we have the following for the Feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

From St. Ambrose's book on Virgins:
The memory of Saint John the Baptist is not to be passed over hastily; it is important that we should notice who was killed, and by whom, and for what reason, how, and on what occasion.  The just man is killed by adulterers, the death sentence is passed on the judge by the guilty.  And so the reward of the dancing-girl was the death of the Prophet.  Finally (which would horrify even barbarians), the order to carry out the cruel deed is proclaimed amid feasting and merry-making; and from the banquet to the prison, from the prison to the banquet, the obedient messenger of this cruel crime goes back and forth.  How many crimes are contained in this one wicked deed!
These words of the holy bishop lead me to the thought that John's death was profoundly Christlike.  At the first station of the traditional Way of the Cross we reflect on the irony of the sinless Christ being condemned by sinful man.  Soon after Christ's earthly sojourn we are told of a deacon who is full of faith and the Holy Ghost, whose fearless and powerful preaching, like the Forerunner's before him, gets him in much trouble.  In fact, Saint Luke describes Stephen's violent and cruel murder in terms which cannot help but remind the hearer of the Passion of Christ.  How appropriate that Saint John, the last of the Prophets, and Saint Stephen, arguably the first Christian to really get it and take the Gospel seriously, both die in ways which bear certain resemblances to the death of their Lord.  John points to Christ by means of his death as surely as he does in his life and preaching, which is to say that his ministry included his martyrdom, his ultimate witness.  And Stephen points back to Christ by means of a pure, Christlike diaconate, one which culminates in the laying down of his life at the hands of evil men, all of which, by the way, gives a lasting impression on one who will later be snatched up by Christ personally for His service throughout the Roman world. 

The mystery of Christ's holy suffering, death, and resurrection is the once for all sacrifice for sin.  It is also the pattern for the lives of those baptized into Christ.  The cruciform life of the Christian is to be expected, for the life we now live in the flesh we live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved us, and gave Himself for us.  Therefore, take heart when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for Christ's sake.  You don't feel blessed, but you are.  The prophets were treated likewise.  And they in turn were simply treated like the greatest Prophet Himself, Christ our Lord.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

cleave to my inmost parts

After receiving Holy Communion, it is my habit to pray this prayer:

May Thy Body, O Lord, which I have received, and Thy Blood which I have drunk, cleave to my inmost parts, and grant that no stain of sin may remain in me, whom these pure and holy mysteries have refreshed, Who livest and reignest world without end.  Amen.
The phrase cleave to my inmost parts caught my attention and imagination this morning.  It reminded me of what Moses writes at the end of Genesis 2. 
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
Some of you are thinking that the point at which I am driving is obvious.  Nevertheless, it is worth meditating upon a truth this beautiful.  This is the type of truth that should not be learned once and then thrown into a corner (as Luther laments too often happens with the Catechism).  Rather, it is the law in which the Christian, as Christian, exercises himself day and night (Ps 1). 

In the Holy Supper Jesus unites Himself with us as surely and intimately as a man unites himself with his wife.  In fact, all human marriage is but a dim reflection of the union between Christ and His Bride (the Church-and on the personal or microcosmic level, the Christian soul).  That is the one true, model, marriage.  Christ is the true Man, Who left His Father in one sense, and His mother in another sense, and cleaves to His holy spouse.  He does this for us, and out of His infinite love for us.

In our flesh we are thoroughly sinful, and in the Eucharist Christ imparts to us His forgiving touch.  In the struggles of life in this world, both as the result of our sin and that of others, we are afflicted with trouble of every sort, assailed by the devil, and hounded on every side by the morbid culture of the world, and in the Eucharist Christ comforts us with His pantokratic and vivifying presence.  He holds us to Himself, and in His Eucharistic embrace He renews our life.

And this eucharistic and mystical union, let us emphasize, is always fruitful.  He plants the seed of His sacramental Word in us, and it bears much fruit, far more than the most fruitful of human marriages.

The whole of the Christian life is soaked in the promises of Baptism.  This insight is one of the geniuses of Lutheran theology.  At the same time we should think on the fact that the whole of life for the Christian is eucharistic, not merely the hour and ten minutes you are in church, or the ten minutes or so in which you have the Eucharist within you, but the whole cycle of your days and weeks, your activity and passivity, your work and your rest, your relationships at home and at work, your commutes and your lunch breaks, your mental life and your verbal and active life, your phone calls and your Internet activity, your reading, writing, art, and conversation.  The whole pattern and trajectory of your life.  It is the sacrificial life of Christ lived out in your life.  It is Christ's witness, His martyrdom, in His members.  You and I are His fruit in this world, even when we don't see it and feel it.  We can assess our lives in terms of our sinfulness.  Yet at the same time, too often we forget that we can also train the eyes of faith to see life in terms of our holiness in Christ.  The eucharistic life is the life of our Eucharistic Lord made manifest in our various callings.  This is part of the truth behind the old saying that our whole life flows out of the Blessed Sacrament, and back to it.

It is worth keeping in your prayers the profound truth of our life in Christ, and the life of His which He imparts to us in His Supper.  I especially encourage you to meditate upon this the next time He does unite Himself with you in this way.  Kneel down for a moment, if you can, and just think about the rich truth of His presence, and its implications. 

Brewers win again

Here is a recap of today's Brewers game. 

As a lifelong Brewers fan, it's fun to watch them this year.  I remember vividly the 13 game winning streak in 87.  I was a waiter at the Ramada Inn Downtown, and I still remember listening to that 12th game on the radio in the kitchen with some of my coworkers.  I barely remember the World Series of 82.  And the Hank Aaron years were before my time.  In some ways, though, the 2011 Brewers are better than ever.  For the past month they have been the hottest team in the major leagues.  Right now they are ten and a half games ahead of the second place team in our division, and it seems that at Miller Park lately they can't be beat. 

I must say, baseball this good goes especially well with a stadium as cool as Miller Park, which turned ten this year.  If interested, you can read this piece about Miller Park, and watch this video which shows the park from the inside, and shows how quickly the convertible roof closes.

The Brewers home game is a unique experience, with the tailgating, the sausage race in the 6th inning, featuring the batwurst, Polish sausage, Chorizo, Italian Sausage, and hotdog; and of course the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" & "Roll Out the Barrel" in the 7th inning stretch (notice the people actually dancing the polka in this video).   There's also Bernie Brewer, who used to slide into a giant beer barrel.  Unfortunately, he no longer falls into beer, but just slides from point A to point B, which strikes me as almost pointless.

Admittedly, I say all of that as someone who hasn't been to a game in several years.  It doesn't have a place in my budget.  So I catch games when I can via TV, radio, and mostly reading about them the next day. I've been to Miller Park once so far, and that was for a Springsteen concert in September of 03. I could tell right away, though, just walking into the place, that it is 100% better than County Stadium, for baseball, or anything. I once took Ruth to a game back in the days of County Stadium, and our tickets ended up being for seats that were right behind one of those posts that blocked the view of the field. That was one of our more extravagant dates. And yet she married me.

Win or lose, Brewers baseball is part of Milwaukee, but it is especially fun right now.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Jim Liban Combo with Denny Geyer (Don't Start Me Talking)

This video features Denny Geyer's guitar work, and Jim Liban on vocals and of course harmonica.  Jim Liban, by the way, is my favorite blues harmonica player (in the post Wiest era).  This performance was in the 3rd Ward at the Italian Community Center.  FYI, I hear Jim Liban and Lil Rev are going to be at Linnemans next week (I gotta double check the date).

Friday, August 26, 2011

stir up the gift of God

When a man is ordained into the priesthood, he is set aside and consecrated for a holy and necessary role in the Church.  That role is described succinctly for us by the Augsburg Confession, where it is called the Ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments.  One need not be a pastor to be faithful to these essential functions of the Church's ministry.  No matter what his title, whether it be pastor, seminary recruiter, campus pastor, military chaplain, hospital chaplain, seminary instructor, headmaster, editor for the publishing house, translator for the publishing house, driver for the synod president, or whatever, a presbyter will be judged according to his faithfulness to the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. 

If you are an ordained priest in the Lutheran Church, and you haven't said Mass for years, or even months, I call upon you, and your confession calls upon you, to remember what the ministry is, and what you are.  You are a man to whom God gave a great gift by the laying on of hands.  You never lost that gift, by the way.  It is still in you.  It is a gift "which is in thee" as St. Paul says.  He doesn't say, "which was in thee."  What you need to do is to stir it up once again.  Pray for the gift of the Holy Ghost, that He would renew all His gifts in your life, and that He would renew your commitment to the ministry of the Word of God.  He will reorient your life.  Ask Him.  Ask Him every day, until He both shows you the way, and gives you the courage to take it. 

I disagree with the notion that seminary professors ought to be made to serve as parish pastors, for 1. it would be unfair to them and to the people to expect that all presbyters would make good pastors, 2. even if one would be good at being a pastor, it would be unfair to a church to get a pastor for only a short duration, even if it were a year or two, and 3. there are many ways they could keep themselves connected with the ministry of Word and Sacrament.   The same goes for the bureaucrats, heads of schools, and whatever else.  When you see opportunities to celebrate the Holy Supper, and to preach, take them.  When someone asks you to hear his confession, don't go through your mental files of all the reasons why you shouldn't do it.  Just do it.  You say you are out of practice?  I know you are, and hearing confession is the sure way to solve that problem.  No one ever asks you?  Then you are not writing, teaching, and preaching about it.  Not enough anyway.

If you are currently serving in "Word and Sacrament ministry," then I call upon you nonetheless to strive constantly to renew your commitment to it.  Ask the Holy Ghost to give you a pure love of the Eucharist.  Ask Him to make you a better minister of Christ and of Christ's Church.  Ask Him, for He Who can renew the face of the earth can also renew the dry soil in you.  He Who brought light to the world by His word can enlighten the darkness in your heart.  You don't see any noteworthy darkness in your heart that harms your life of ministry?  Have you stopped to think about it lately?  Ask God.  He will show you.

Christ our Lord, Who gave His life to atone for the sin of the world, wants to give the forgiveness and life that He won for us on the cross to men, women, and children here in the modern world, through your life, work, and witness.  His boundless love gushes from His pierced and sacred heart even now.  It does so through ministries that are shaped by His cross.  Let your ministry bear the marks of the Lord Jesus.  If it does, then no man can ultimately trouble you, not even the Old Adam in you.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Nacho Libre - I Only Believe In Science

a thought on the nature of a seminary

Before there were seminaries, and even before there were universities, it was the bishop himself who was responsible for a candidate's training. That was the purest and most direct form of priestly formation. From the bishop a candidate learned holy doctrine. From the bishop he learned how to handle the holy things. And from the bishop he learned holy living. By contrast, our seminaries barely manage to teach the first of these three. (To be sure, I am a fan of the concept and tradition of the seminary-I just wish modern seminaries would pay more attention to their genuine responsibilities, and clean their house of the distractions of their contrived responsibilities.)

In the course of time, priestly formation began to take place in other ways, such as monastic training, cathedral schools, universities, or the modern seminary. And yet, even when a man is prepared for churchly ministry in one of these other ways, it is still the bishop who is responsible for his training. The bishop is merely entrusting, or delegating, certain aspects, or even all, of the training to this or that specialist, or to a school, etc.

The relationship between the parent and the primary & secondary schools is perhaps an apt analogy.  It is the parent who is called upon to raise and train the child.  The school, the teachers, even a private tutor, these are only taking on certain aspects of this training/raising on behalf of the parent. Likewise, the bishop is the spiritual father of a church, and he is called upon to teach and train. The seminary merely takes on this role on his behalf.

In terms of the LC-MS culture, this is not a readily apparent truth.  For we have a less than traditional concept of episcopal authority.  Seminarists on their year of training in the parish ("vicarage") often refer to the vicarage supervisor as their "bishop."  There is truth in this, and I don't discount it. Yet it would be good for the seminarist to recognize that his bishop is still the one who sent him to seminary, which in one sense is his home pastor, and in another sense is his home district president.

Interestingly, LC-MS custom seems to implicitly recognize this, since ordination is reserved for the district president, who may delegate it to another pastor.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Saints Timothy, Hippolytus, and Symphorian

Along with this being the octave day of the Dormition of the Mother of God, it is also the day on which the Church remembers three martyrs.

In the early fourth century Timothy of Antioch started preaching in Rome.  The prefect had him arrested and sent to prison, after which he was scourged for his refusal to sacrifice to the gods.  Finally, he was beheaded.

The facts surrounding Hippolytus are lost.  We are told in the martyrology, however, that at Ostia he was bound hand and foot by Emperor Alexander and thrown into a pit of water.  His body was recovered by Christians, and buried nearby.

Symphorian was a young man of the late third century.  For his faith he was brought to trial before Emperor Aurelian.  His mother encouraged him thus, "My son, think of eternal life. Raise your glance to heaven and behold your eternal King! Your life will not be taken from you, but transformed into a better one!"

All three of these holy men were called to give witness to Christ their Lord.  The same goes for all Christians today.  The difference is simply that of circumstance, and that in some cases witness takes the form of bloody martyrdom, while in other cases our witness takes the form of what the Church calls white martyrdom, that is, the witness of the sacrifice of our whole life for the sake of Christ. 

Let us remember with gratitude these martyrs, and consider what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls the "end of their conversation," and let us strive to follow their witness, in whatever way God calls each of us to do.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

back to "setting three"

As of today, Luther Memorial is back to using the Setting Three Mass.  Thank God. 

There are, however, some strange inconsistencies in this order (LSB 184-202).  Take the Gloria Patri, for example.  You get the classic wording (Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.) after the Introit if your church happens to opt for that form, which is given on page 186.  Many churches, however, make the understandable and commendable choice to sing the Gloria Patri to the same tune that was used in the proper Introit of the day, and in that case, what most churches will do is use the modern wording (Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.) since that is what is given in the LSB propers.  Yet the traditional wording of the Gloria Patri is used in the Nunc Dimitis after Communion.

Another example is the use of the second person singular pronoun.  Does this order go with the modern bland you, your, etc, or the classic thou, thee, thy, thine?  Once again they basically said, "Why not both?"  The LSB propers will give you Introits out of the ESV Bible, where one gets, for example,
The Lord said to me, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you"
instead of something more classic, like Coverdale's
Whereof the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.
And yet the classic pronouns are peppered all over other parts of the Mass, like the Gloria in Excelsis.  Saying "Glory be to Thee, O Lord" before the Gospel, and "Praise be to Thee, O Christ" after the Gospel, is a beautiful and appropriate way to adorn this solemn moment of the liturgy.  Yet in between these two acclamations, it is a bit of a let down to hear the Gospel in the ESV, instead of, say, the KJV.

There are various levels of consistency for which one might strive.  One of the tragedies of LSB is that it fails to be consistent in what is presented in the same book.  This is especially odd and tragic in light of the popular trend in congregations to use a rotation of most or all of the services in LSB.  That means that a congregation (and the Lutheran in the pew of such a congregation) will gain a growing confusion over even simple things like how to answer the priest when he says "The Lord be with you."  What if he says this on an occasion when there is no book or piece of paper in the hands of the people, such as at a pot-luck, or the start of a Bible Class, or at a wedding dinner?  We all know what is heard in today's LC-MS, an almost hilarious cacophony of confusion.

With the inclusion of a classic form of liturgy, however, as in the case of Setting Three, it is especially important to strive for consistency at least within that service, so that a parish that decides to use that liturgy exclusively for the Eucharist will have a consistent form of worship on which it can rely.  In that regard, too, the LSB fails.

I am glad to use this order, nonetheless.  Overall, it is a refreshing return to tradition.

Trapped Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live Hyde Park 2009

How about a palate cleanser.

Lord Jesus, Thou the Church's Head

This morning at Mass for the entrance hymn we sang "Lord Jesus Christ, the Church's Head" as it appears in Lutheran Service Book (hymn 647).  I rather like this hymn, quite despite the fact that it is a product of the Pietist Movement of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Its author, Johann Mentzer, was born in 1658, the same year in which both Oliver Cromwell and his antagonist Edward Sexby died.  Mentzer died in 1734, the year in which Daniel Boone was born.  More importantly, however, Pietism was still in full swing.  What's so bad about Pietism?  It spawned Methodism, the Brethren, and a less than genuinely Lutheran strain of Lutheranism which pervades major churches like the LC-MS to this day.  For evidence of the Pietist influence on the LC-MS, one need look no further than the fact that in most LC-MS homes-of high class and low-it is Zinzendorf's table prayer that is prayed each day (a prayer which I tolerate but will not use).  Within Mentzer's close circle was no less an archpietist than Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf himself.  

Nevertheless, Mentzer seems to have been a faithful pastor, and one to whom personal suffering was not unknown, having to mourn, for example, the death of his wife, a death which left him with six young children.  Suffering or affliction, both worldly and spiritual, is a key ingredient in the making of a true theologian, and in this case, a theological poet and hymn writer.  I like to put it this way: the Gospel is best appreciated and proclaimed by men who know the Blues.  And although Mentzer was a Pietist, I would gladly take a good Pietist hymn (a good Pietist hymn is one which, despite its historical context, is substantially Lutheran) any day over the dross of the succeeding centuries (which populates too much space in our hymn books).

Though we sang the hymn this morning in its modern bastardized form in LSB, I would share with you a better translation, that of William J. Schaefer in The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941.
Lord Jesus, Thou the Church's Head,
Thou art her one Foundation;
In Thee she trusts, before Thee bows,
And waits for Thy salvation.
Built on this Rock secure,
Thy Church shall endure
E'en though the world decay
And all things pass away.
Oh, hear, oh, hear us, Jesus!
O Lord, let this Thy little flock,
Thy name alone confessing,
Continue in Thy loving care,
True unity possessing.
Thy Sacraments, O Lord,
And Thy saving Word
To us e'er pure retain.
Grant that they may remain
Our only strength and comfort.

Help us to serve Thee evermore
With hearts both pure and lowly;
And may Thy Word, that light divine,
Shine on in splendor holy
That we repentance show,
In faith ever grow;
The power of sin destroy
And all that doth annoy.
Oh, make us faithful Christians!
And for Thy Gospel let us dare
To sacrifice all treasure;
Teach us to bear Thy blessed cross,
To find in Thee all pleasure.
Oh, grant us steadfastness
In joy and distress,
That we Thee ne'er forsake.
Let us by grace partake
Of endless joy and glory.
But should we really be praying that the Sacraments and the Word may remain our only strength and comfort?  We rightly confess in the Small Catechism that Christ alone is our comfort.  Let's look more closely at the context of that reference in the Catechism.  In preparation for going to Communion, we have the Christian Questions, question 16 of which is as follows:
Q. Why ought we to remember and proclaim His death?
A. That we may learn to believe that no creature could make satisfaction for our sins but Christ, true God and man; and that we may learn to look with terror at our sins, and to regard them as great indeed, and to find joy and comfort in Him alone, and thus be saved through such faith.
The Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, when faithfully kept, teaches us to find our joy and comfort in Christ alone.  The same goes for the other sacraments and the Word of God, each in its own way.  For He is their content.  Johann Mentzer is right after all.  It is in the external Word of God and in His sacraments, or what Saint Paul calls God's mysteries, that Christ promises to give us all strength, all comfort, and all true joy in this life. 

We need more hymns of this quality (theological and poetic) in the church.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Arkansas Traveler (Harmonica Version)

arrogant or just accurate?

At his blog Paul McCain reports about a church that calls itself The Lutheran Church-International.  I don't know anything about this church, so I would have welcomed to chance to learn something substantive, to see a real critique.  Instead he makes fun of the name, Lutheran Church-International, as being a sign of arrogance.  I can certainly relate to the desire to make fun and ridicule.  I often give in to it myself.  I think it can be quite healthy and appropriate, depending on the subject and the situation.  Yet the particular criticism McCain levels in this case gives me pause.  He says:

The smaller the group, the more grandiose the name. And so, here also, in this case, there is a “church body” that consists of less than fifteen micro-congregations, if that many, and because they have some micro outpost in the Caribbean and in Africa and/or elsewhere, they have decided to use the name “Lutheran Church—International.” To my knowledge, no group of Lutherans have ever taken such an arrogant step and claimed “international” status.
It certainly is an unusual name.  After glancing at its web site, however, I must say that, even though it is a small group of churches, mostly in the eastern United States, it does have several churches in other countries.  I guess, just putting myself in someone else's shoe for a moment, if I were a member of a church in Venezuela, I'm not sure it would sit well with me for the church body to be of another country.  So maybe the Lutheran Church-International isn't being arrogant so much as it is simply being accurate.

Also, I admit that the LC-I is a micro-synod, but I don't see why it is necessary for McCain to emphasize that its churches are "micro-congregations."  More than once in my life (and my whole life-since infant baptism-has been LC-MS) I have been a member of a numerically small church, and I don't think I would appreciate the claim that I was merely part of a "micro-congregation."  This line of thinking seems frighteningly akin to the idea that in the LC-MS structuring, the megachurches should have more political representation. 

Finally, the umbrage McCain takes at the arrogant and unprecedented step of claiming "international" status is kind of funny coming from one who is part of the bureaucracy of a church whose headquarters is called The International Center.

FIDIL - live at Irishfest Aug 18 2011

Friday, August 19, 2011

Not St. Bernard's Day

For those interested, today is not the feast of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.  Sure, a church might decide to declare that 19 August is now Bernard's Day.  It might also decide that from now on 23 December will be Christmas, that Michaelmas will be the 28th of September, or even that St. Monica's Day is 27 August.  Nevertheless, it doesn't make it so.  Not in my book.  Literally, not in my book.  I respectfully decline to participate in every new idea that a church body decides to extricate from its hinder region.

Jackson Cage - Bruce Springsteen - London 2002

You can try with all your might
But you're reminded every night
That you been judged and handed life
Down in the Jackson Cage

Well darlin' can you understand
The way that they will turn a man
Into a stranger to waste away
Down in the Jackson Cage

The Place of the Psalms in the Church

Along with the Our Father, the psalms are the gold standard of Christian prayer.  For by means of the powerful Word of God, they rehearse and celebrate the judgements of the Lord, which, as we pray in the 19th Psalm, are "more to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold."  Pope Benedict XVI is right when he says that the Psalter is "the prayer book par excellence;" in this he echoes the Christian wisdom of all ages.  The Blessed Reformer writes:
The Psalter ought to be a dear and beloved book, if only because it promises Christ's death and resurrection so clearly, and so typifies His kingdom and the conditions and nature of all Christendom that it might well be called the little Bible.  It puts everything that is in all the Bible most beautifully and briefly, and is made an Enchiridion, or handbook, so that I have a notion that the Holy Ghost wanted to take the trouble to compile a short Bible and example-book of all Christendom, or of all saints.  
Unfortunately, however, the modern Church's knowledge of these truths about the Psalms is more theoretical than real.  That is because the modern Church's knowledge of the Psalms is more theoretical than real.  To really know a thing is to know it for oneself, to experience it, to come to relate to it personally, to appropriate it and be able to make it one's own confession.  In a sense, we get a picture of this type of knowledge from what Moses teaches us about the world's proto-marriage.  Adam and Eve shamelessly expose themselves to each other.  The man cleaves to his Eve; they enter into an essentially one flesh union.  In short, Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and bare him offspring, for such knowledge is too wonderful not to have a fruitful result.  Life itself is affirmed, and perpetuated.  As with the first Adam, so with the Second, the New Man, Christ our Lord, Whose holy Bride, the Church, is made from the elements taken from His pierced side.  He takes her to Himself, plants His seed, His Word, in her, as He does with the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, and the result of this union is that new life is conceived.  In fact, the New Man Himself comes forth and rises in the lives of each of her members.  The Church in this way comes to recognize her true identity in light of being known by her Lord.  She is blessed among women, for unlike others, He will not on the last day say to her, I know you not (Luke 13).  Christ both knows her, and knows whence she is, for she is flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone.  And far from being an absentee husband, whom we hope to finally meet only in heaven, we might say that by means of His law He exercises Himself in the Church day and night.  The result is that He is the tree of life, planted by the waters of Baptism, that will bring forth His fruit in due season (Psalm 1).        

To be sure, there are Christians who know the psalms in this intimate and fruitful way, but as a whole, as a body, the Church of our age knows the psalter about as well as it knows the beauty of the Athanasian Creed (another churchly tragedy, to which we must devote a separate rant), which is to say, hardly not at all.  Each generation must take on this heritage anew and open it up for itself.  Unfortunately, for the present age the heritage of the Psalms is essentially a closed book.  We can open it up again, but that will take real work, and real initiative.  Sadly, too many seminary instructors and administrators are training men to go out and be precisely the type of pastors who do not take initiative, but are content with the practices that are in place.

Yet we could start heading down the right road by taking some very simple steps.  First, by making sure that our people are hearing and singing the Psalms in our public worship.  This is vital.  The degree to which the Psalms are part of a church's liturgical life (whether it be none at all, or minimally, or moderately, or extremely fully and vibrantly) is at once both a sign of how important the Psalms are to a church and an indicator of how much the people will be inspired to use and love the Psalms in their own lives.  In other words, public worship patterns and practices relate dynamically with the Christian's devotional practices.  You cannot simply encourage people, in a parish newsletter column, to pray the Psalms.  If you want the people to have more than a theoretical love of the Psalms, they must see, hear, and experience the praying of the Psalms together as a church.  The natural result will be that it will begin to take deep root in their hearts.

I suppose that most of our churches do include psalmody in their liturgical worshp.  Nevertheless, each church should strive to improve its own practice in this regard.  If the psalmody in your parish is limited to the Introit and the Gradual, then give your people opportunity for a larger dose of the Psalms.  This can be done both in terms of the Sunday Mass and in terms of the Divine Office.  Consider adding a Sunday Vespers, or a First Vespers on Saturday evening, or a Sunday Matins (or another morning office, like Lauds or Prime).  If the Psalmody in your parish is recited, then work toward having it chanted.  You think you are beyond learning to chant?  You are wrong.  You won't learn?  Then know that the chanting of the Psalms is not the sole realm of the pastor anyway.  See if there is anyone in your parish who either has musical skill, or who will learn, and let that person train a choir.  If there is already a completely full and vibrant use of the Psalms in the public worship of your church, then be sure to include the psalms in your preaching and teaching, and help train choirs and pastors of other parishes.  If you're an out of work deacon, at least blog on this important subject, and try to be an example for others.  Whatever you are doing, do more.  Whatever you are doing well, do it better.  In that way, you and your church will be part of the solution.  We cannot rest content until the Psalms once again enjoy the exalted status they had in the early Church.

To gain a taste of the place of the Psalms in the early Church, let us hear the witness of Saint John Chrysostom:
If we keep vigil in the Church, David comes first, last, and midst. If early in the morning we seek for the melody of hymns, first, last, and midst is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of the departed, if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last, and midst. O marvellous wonder! Many who have made but little progress in literature, nay, who have scarcely mastered its first principles, have the psalter by heart. Nor is it in cities and churches alone that at all times, through every age, David is illustrious; in the midst of the forum, in the wilderness, and uninhabitable land, he excites the praises of God. In monasteries, amongst those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, midst, and last. In the convents of virgins, where are the bands of them that imitate Mary; in the deserts, where are men crucified to this world, and having their conversation with God, first, midst, and last is he.
In the course of time the Psalms receded from common use.  We can be grateful, however, that in the Medieval Period they were at least preserved in the choirs of the cathedrals and monasteries.  And rigorous standards for Ordination included knowledge of the Psalms (though their enforcement was not always quite uniform).  As one account tells us:
S. Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the fifth age, refused to ordain any clerk who could not repeat “David” by heart. S. Gregory the Great declined to consecrate a Bishop who had not learnt the Psalter, and his refusal was enjoined on others by the Second Council of Nicaea. The Eighth Council of Toledo (653) orders that “none henceforth shall be promoted to any ecclesiastical dignity who do not perfectly know the whole Psalter, and in addition to that the usual Canticles and Hymns, and the Formula of Baptism.” In like manner the Council of Oviedo (1050) decrees that “the Archdeacon shall present such clerks for Ordination at the Ember seasons as know perfectly the whole Psalter, the Canticles, the Hymns, the Gospels, and the Collects.” So thoroughly did they carry out S. Augustine’s exhortation with respect to the Psalms.

So how well would today's Lutheran clergy stack up by those standards?  Before we point any fingers toward them, however, we should keep in mind that they are the product of our seminaries, which are the product of our age.  As I say, we can at least begin to improve matters by looking at where we are, and taking steps from there. 

It was disappointing to attend Mass at a church when I was out of town recently only to discover that there would be no Introit or Gradual.  It's not even that there was a slip up during the Mass; they were not included in the printed buletin, which means that a specific decision was made not to use them.  That's pretty pathetic.  To start using the Introits and Graduals would take about two minutes of homework during the week.  When the Church leaves off the liturgical praying of the Psalms, even if that is only an occasional fluke, it sends the message that the Psalms are not really all that important.  On the other hand, as we improve our practice, the people will take notice.  And our improved practice will bear much fruit. 

Let me add, as a final thought, that when I see that phrase, much fruit, I cannot help but think of the name of the great Saint Polycarp.  Polycarp was a Christian who knew the Word of God, and was bold to live that Word according to his vocation.  At the culmination of his life in this world, he was encouraged with the words, "Play the man, Polycarp. Be strong."  The Church needs a new generation of real men, not as the world defines it, but as only Christ can produce in those who will be conformed to His Word and His cross.  Praying the Psalms, for yourself, and for your people, will help set you in the right direction.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

happy anniversary

In 1994, in a little country church in North Dakota, Ruth and I had the great blessing of being married on the vigil of one of the chief feasts of the Virgin Mother of God, of whom Luther said, "No woman can inspire such pure thoughts in a man as this virgin."  How fitting to embark on the gloriously rough, strange road of marriage with such a Marian backdrop.  The truest, purest, most blessed and fruitful marriage is that between Christ and the Church, and so the holy life of Mary serves to remind us, among other things, of this great marital dimension of the Church's (and the Christian's) life in Christ, for Mary is the perfect pattern and image of the Church. 

As glorious as marriage truly is, I dare not glory in it, for as the text upon which Ruth's father preached that day tells us, "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."  All of life for those baptized into Christ, it turns out, is shaped by the cross.  It's all about Jesus, the forgiveness of sins which He won for us by His death, the life we have in Him, our identity in Him.  Even the high calling of marriage serves to conform us to His sacrificial life and death.  It is the setting of God's love and forgiveness in Christ, shared among Christ's members.  Another way to consider this mystery is that the paschal mystery of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection life is lived out in the life of those who are in Christ.  As Gerard Manley Hopkins writes,

for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces

When we embrace our vocations, we embrace the holy cross.  Such an embracing will always be fruitful.  The fruit is not always ours to predict nor easy to identify from a fleshly point of view.  But it is there.  And so I do glory in this way of the cross.

Happy anniversary, Ruth.  Seventeen years and counting.