Week Seven, Day Three of Three: Lutheran Spice Still Needed in the Mix

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Why do there still need to be Lutherans?  In a time when there is a noticeable decline in attendance and participation in the life of churches, wouldn’t it make sense for all Christian communities to consolidate?  We are closer now than we have ever been since the start of the Reformation five hundred years ago.  In fact, the idea of Justification by God’s grace through faith no longer separates Lutherans from Roman Catholics.

After decades of ecumenical work following the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1962, the Joint Declaration on Justification was issued by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999.  The following excerpt highlights the agreement:   

“The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.” (you can access the complete document through the following links: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html or https://www.lutheranworld.org/content/resource-joint-declaration-doctrine-justification.) 

It was a big step toward restoring the unity of the church and a cause of celebration.  Not only did the Lutherans and Roman Catholics come together on the very issue that sparked the division at the time of the Reformation but other Protestant denominations also followed suit.  According to Wikipedia,

“The World Methodist Council adopted the Declaration on 18 July 2006.  The World Communion of Reformed Churches (representing the "80 million members of Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting, and Waldensian churches"), adopted the Declaration in 2017…On 18 July 2006, the World Methodist Council, meeting in SeoulSouth Korea, voted unanimously to adopt the document.” (reference)

With such widespread agreement, which in of itself is the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, why do we still need to be worshiping in separate communities?  Can’t we just all squeeze together into one big church with different pews?  If we share common understandings then why not a merger?

Two thoughts come to my mind.  First, historical traditions and customs remain important.  Although not central to the teaching and preaching of the gospel, each denomination and expression of Christianity has its rich background.  In a variety of cultures and experiences, Christians engaged the Incarnate Word.  Christ became ‘enfleshed’ in very different ways in Europe, North America, South America, throughout the Pacific, and on the African continent.  Of course, the process was imperfect.  Still, within each expression, each theological universe, and each adaptation the Spirit moved and revealed something of God.   What if the diversity that we have among Christians traditions is a not a defect but a divine blessing?  In that case, to let go of the particularities of tradition would be to lose something that is precious.  Instead of compromise, merger, and the inevitable ‘watered down expression,’ what if we celebrated and honored the diversity of traditions and customs deeply as the work of God?  What if we continued within our traditions in such a way that we allowed ourselves the freedom to learn from and incorporate the wisdom/experience of other traditions?  From the organic mixing and blending of Christian expressions, we would all participate in the ongoing work of the Spirit.

If a desire to celebrate and honor diversity is one reason not to seek a physical merger of all Christian communities into one megachurch, then the particularity of our separate witnesses is another.  What I mean here is that each Christian church has a particular witness and focus.  Even though all Christian churches would acknowledge that grace is an important theological concept, progressive Lutheran church bodies have placed grace at the center of teaching, ethical deliberation, proclamation, and welcome.  By grace, we have struggled through hot topics such as the ordination of women, homosexuality, abortion, advocacy, etc.   We don’t always agree – in fact, we are often in very different places when it comes to things.  But – by grace – we remain in the community.  Further, we seek to imitate God’s grace even as we know that we will fall short of all efforts. 

When a denomination lives out the particularity of its witness to Jesus Christ, there is something that benefits the larger Christian church.  For example, communities that have ordained women bear witness to the whole church that women are not only qualified to lead, preach, teach but also have a unique perspective that we all need to hear.  Though needed by all, this witness comes as a challenge and invitation to those parts of the church that continue to refuse to ordain women.  I could offer many similar examples.  Within the ELCA, the church that I continue to serve proudly, we can benefit from the prophetic witness and example of other Christian communities that are more attuned to dealing with issues of systemic racism. 

There is always something to learn (and be challenged by) from the cooperative interaction between church bodies that are moving in slightly different directions with different focuses and passions.  As long as we honor each other and seek to learn from each other (jettisoning the denominational arrogance of the past), then we have much to benefit from continuing in the particularity of witness.   

I yearn for the day that ecumenical interaction can result in the sharing of the sacraments – joining hands at the table as we share in communion.  At that table, which will more clearly reflect the heavenly banquet in which God prepares a feast for all people (Isaiah 25:6-9), we will celebrate together that the thing that unites us is Jesus’ life and God undying love.  Our unity will be found not in practice, tradition, or theology but rather in Christ above all things.  Reformation needs to continue to get to the place of that dream and beyond.

Our particularity and diversity have the potential of being good building materials available to the Spirit for this important work.   So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus…. I mean, yes, there is a need for a Lutheran witness.  There is also a need for the witness from Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed, Congregationalists, etc. – each of these expressions bring something that would be lost if they no longer existed.  Think of it as a complicated and wonderful jambalaya.  We will miss something if one of the spices or ingredients are left out.  Blending and working together, the ingredients lend depth and complexity that is flavorful. 

I will continue to serve as a Lutheran sous chef in the mix.  With Lutheran ‘spice’ (but not too spicy – wink) in hand, ready to season the Christian church’s witness to Jesus Christ.


Today’s scripture:  Isaiah 61: 3c

 They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.


Prayer:  (from Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal)

Almighty God, we praise you for your servants, through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life.  Raise up in our day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit, whose voices will give strength to your church and proclaim the reality of your reign, through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.


This entry concludes my Reformation commemoration blog series.  I want to thank all those who accompanied me on this journey.  The entire series is available in print form and reads from first entry to last (unlike the way that it is organized on the website).  You can order printed copies through my website (click here).

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth. 

My next planned blog series will be in Advent.  This year, Advent begins on December 3.   

In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Week Seven, Day Two of Three: Why I am a Lutheran Pastor

 
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What does this image inspire in you?  How does the passage from Isaiah interact with the image?  What connections or disconnection come to mind?  How do these words give shape to understandings of ministry?  


Why am I a Lutheran pastor?  A historical accident provides an initial answer.   Let me explain.  Bethany Lutheran Church was on the corner of the same street as my grandfather’s tire store on Hudson Boulevard (now Kennedy Boulevard).  In 1939, at the tail end of the Great Depression, my grandfather Lichtenberger bought the tire store for back taxes.   It would take some years later before the women at Bethany connected with my grandmother.  After they did, she didn’t miss going to worship, and she brought her youngest son (my Father) with her.   

Through the action of welcome on the part of a group of women (unknown to me), the faithfulness of my grandmother and later my parents, I became a Lutheran.  At the font at Bethany Lutheran Church on March 14, 1971, I was baptized a Christian in a Lutheran context.  My family maintained a Lutheran identity even after moving to St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Secaucus.  Again, thanks to the faithful witness of my parents, we attended weekly worship and were active in the life of the church.  It remained true to me even as I commuted to college (Go, Rutgers!).  During my second year at Rutgers, I heard God’s call to ordained ministry.  It studied to be a Lutheran pastor because I attended a Lutheran Church.

That was not, however, why I became a Lutheran pastor.  At Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, I discovered things about my Lutheran identity that I didn’t know before.  With each discovery, I became more excited about my Lutheran identity.  Well, that was mostly true.  When I discovered Luther’s writings about the Jewish people, I was shocked and horrified.  I also recoiled a bit when I learned of the ongoing struggle that women faced in being recognized as pastoral equals.  Bias and gender inequality are real negative legacies that sadly remain.  That said, knowing more about Lutheran theology, practice, history, and ethics convinced me that I was heading in the right direction with my call.  Lutheranism resonated with my spirit in a way that there was no doubt that I wanted to be a part of this movement within the larger catholic church. 

It wasn’t until seminary that I ever heard the idea that Lutheranism was a reform movement within the catholic church.  “catholic” is used here as it is in the translation of the Apostles’ Creed that the ELW uses in worship – universal.  That is what, after all, the Greek word “catholic” means.  Lutherans are a movement within a larger context, a larger church.   Part of our existence was (and remains) to offer an alternative perspective or voice to the Christian witness around the globe.  Were we to disappear overnight, the world would miss something important about the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In my final posting of this series – which will come out in the next day or two – I will ask whether this is still true in light of the progress made in ecumenical discussions.

I was proud and humbled on June 29, 1997, to be ordained a Lutheran pastor along with two women (see my blog series 20 Days Looking Back on 20 Years.)  In the two decades that followed, I continue to claim my Lutheran identity as an essential component of my vocation to serve as a spiritual leader.  Since the days of my seminary awakening unto all things Lutheran, I am aware now of more of the bumps and bruises of my heritage.  Not only is there a latent bias against women clergy (even after we have had women elected as bishops) but there also remains prejudice against same-gendered leaders, racism, anti-Roman Catholic bias, and a general aversion to things that are new.  You wouldn’t think that a church who celebrates Reformation Sunday as an annual festival would be as resistant to change as it is – but that is par for the course.  There are things about the current state of the Lutheran church on the national, synodical, and local levels that makes me disappointed and concerned.  In some ways, we doggedly cling to traditions and practices and in other ways we too quickly abandon the wisdom of the past.  We remain a broken body that remains in need of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.

That recognition is an important part of what I cling to as a Lutheran pastor.  Lutherans don’t have a monopoly on God’s grace.  Other Christians know of, preach, and rely on God’s grace.  As a Lutheran, however, grace permeates everything.  Grace is like the fresh air that comes in spring bringing hope and possibilities.  Grace is also like the ice that breaks open hard concrete under the winter’s snow.  Lutherans not only preach and teach grace as the core theological concept, but we also use it to open our understanding and welcome.  We struggle in this effort.   Grace raises questions that challenge many.    

How can we restrict gays and lesbians from serving as ordained pastors and ban same-gendered persons as ‘abominations’ (as other Christian groups outwardly do) in light of the concept of grace?  This question is one that continues to be discussed and debated in some corners of Lutheranism.  Traditions, theologies, and practices all hold authority within the Lutheran church as they do elsewhere in Christendom.  We have people on all sides of controversial topics.  Change remains difficult and takes a long time. 

Grace, however, is both a driver and a passenger in the movement of reform within the Lutheran church.  Whether a particular door is being opened or closed at any of the three levels of the church’s expression (congregation, synod, national), grace is recognized and honored.  Grace emboldens new ventures and comforts when we reach a dead end.   

I am a Lutheran pastor because I believe in a Graceful God.  I also believe that the life of Jesus Christ is a grace-event that invites us into lives of hospitality.   God frees us, so we don’t need to worry about our eternal salvation – Jesus has taken care of that concern.  God frees us to respond with acts/words of love to our neighbor.  Grace guides our heart, hands, and soul.  

Let me give you an example of how this idea guides my teaching as a pastor.  Recently, a confirmation student came to me with a question; “If God forgives everyone, does that mean that everyone is going to heaven?”   Good question.  You get an A+!   I have heard a variety of this question asked many times over the years.  My typical response – which is itself a Lutheran approach – is to say, “what do you think?”  He responded that he was perplexed.  On the one hand, God seems to love everyone.  He couldn’t imagine God not loving someone.  But, on the other hand, it seemed that some folks were evil and deserved punishment.  Already this young man has uncovered one of the truths of Christian living as a Lutheran – paradox.

Not only do Lutherans hold up grace but they do so in a dialectical tension.  Paradoxes abound, and Lutherans seem to live in the space between the poles.  “simul iustus et peccator” – is one of Luther’s paradoxical teachings.  We are simultaneously saint and sinner.  On the one hand, God has justified us through Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, we remain in bondage to our sin.  It is all so very messy.  For those Christians who are looking for a simple or easy answer, a Lutheran approach may not be for you.  If you are looking for your pastor to proof-text a verse from the Bible or answer by canon law, then you might be frustrated by the response of a Lutheran pastor.  You might, in fact, leave from such an encounter with more questions.  And that is the point because Lutheran theology doesn’t shy away from the complexity of life, theology, or God.  The search for truth involves engagement in apparent contradictions.  It’s messy to be sure.  It is also open to the movement of the Spirit and honors the mystery of God’s being. 

By the way, after listening to the confirmation student’s response, I shared my own.  God’s grace and forgiveness are bigger than we can ever imagine.  Something inside of human wiring wants vengeance and frames justice in terms of retribution.  Punishment is the only response that we can imagine for evil deeds.  That said, God’s grace operates on a different level.  God seeks wholeness and communion with all of the creation – with all people.  God’s love, grace, and forgiveness will always lie beyond our imagination.  As a Lutheran pastor; I will always fall back on grace.  Trusting in the abundant and everlasting grace of God, I remain a pastor in a church and tradition where such things are possible. 


Today’s scripture: Isaiah 61: 2-3b

2to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.


Prayer:  (from the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal (2006)):

Ever-living God, strengthen and sustain pastors and bishops, that with patience and understanding they may love and care for your people.  Grant that together they may follow in the way of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.


The next blog is the final one in this ongoing Reformation series.  In it, I will dapple with the question of whether it still makes sense for a Lutheran movement to exist within the Christian church.

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Week Seven, Day One of Three: Isn’t 500 years Enough?

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At the end of last week’s blog, I floated the question: does it still makes sense for Lutherans to continue to hold up the identity of being a church that is in the process of reforming?

It seems almost sacrilegious to raise such a question on the actual anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Thesis in Wittenberg.  On this day in 1517, the Lutheran Reformation started.  Quickly, the winds of reform swept in many directions throughout Europe.  Within a few years, reformations occurred in Switzerland, France, England, and other parts of Germany.  Reform also occurred in the Roman Catholic church as the counter-reformation brought its changes. 

Luther was a hero – albeit an imperfect one – in the faith.  Truly his writings, sermons, and ideas need to be remembered, recited, and continue to influence the Lutheran church?  Right?  Why would we give up on such things?

Why would a Lutheran pastor, who had any sensibility, raise on the very anniversary that so many within the Lutheran church have yearned to commemorate, the question of whether the larger Christian church still needs to contain a Lutheran identity?   It seems like such a fool has some “splaining” to do. 

During the remaining blog posts this week, which will be the last in this series, I will do just that.  I will also answer the question of why I am a Lutheran pastor, and why that identity means something to me.  Today, however, I want to give thanks for the church into which both Luther and myself were baptized. 

Whenever I meet with parents who are seeking baptism for their children, I am clear that they are not baptizing their babies Lutheran.  Baptism occurs into the life of the universal church – into the Body of Christ which is bigger than the Lutheran church.  It is bigger than the Roman Catholic church too!   Through water and God’s Word, God brings us into the company of all the saints.  Through baptism, God connects us to Christ’s church.

Recognition of baptism occurs within Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Reformed, Lutheran and other mainline Christian communities and is an important foundation for dialogue, respect, and ministry.  I yearn for the day when those who honor each other’s fonts can also honor each other’s tables.  The movement toward Christian unity remains an important goal for all those who believe in Christ.  Thankfully, this movement is the ongoing work of God’s Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit that drives reformation, reconciliation, and renewal. 

So, on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s work of renewal in Wittenberg – I make the sign of the cross on my brow and thank God for my baptism.  I thank God for the witness of reformers that have reformed the practices and theology of that universal church of which I am a part through baptism.  I also thank God for the ongoing presence of the Spirit which brings new life again and again to the church.

May God’s grace, love, and abiding presence be yours on this historic anniversary.


Today’s scripture: Isaiah 61: 1

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;


Prayer:  (from Martin Luther)

Grant that I may not pray alone with the mouth; help me that I may pray from the depths of my heart.     Amen.


The next installment - Day Two - will take a personal look at why I am a Lutheran pastor and why Lutheran Identity means something to me.

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Week Six - Day Three of Three: TO opening a global perspective.

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In the basement of Bethany Lutheran Church in North Bergen, New Jersey, I experienced my first global experience.  I was just a child at the time, more interested in playing games and coloring than adult conversations.  The shards of my memory, form a picture of a darkened room and a slide show presentation.  A missionary told stories that day of people and cultures on the other side of the world.  For the life of me, I can’t remember where those people lived or anything about their culture.  I do recall, however, that they were important to the people sitting around the basement table.  The church connected us across the miles.  They were our sisters and brothers in Christ, and we had a responsibility to support and care for them.

Fast forward three decades, and I’m proud to serve a church that continues to be active in global missions.  At St. James, we offer financial support to children and teenagers in Idunda so that they can go to school.  Thanks to folks like Dr. Ken and Birdie Olson, Miriam Ring, and others who have traveled to visit our companion congregation in Tanzania, we have first-hand contact and stories.  Through technology, I am Facebook friends with Pastor Baraka Mponzi and a few others from his congregation.  When the St. Paul Area Synod gathers for Synod Council meetings, Pastor Peter Harrits gives regular updates on the Bega Kwa Bega (which means “shoulder to shoulder” in Swahili) partnership that we have with the church in Iringa Diocese, Tanzania. 

Global partnerships, experiences, and stories are important because they broaden our vision as a church.  They invite us beyond tribal associations and the non-biblical thought that “charity begins at home.”  Don’t get me wrong; it is important for churches to be involved in hands-on efforts that provide relief for those in the neighborhood that are hurting and in need.  But these are our default positions.  Our hearts are naturally open to those who are near and need our help.  It requires a hard heart to resist helping when we hear the hardship stories of family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. 

This same compassion, however, does not naturally extend to those beyond tribal groupings.  Suspicion, fear, and biases inevitably creep into the picture.  Old tapes full of prejudice, fashioned by years of misunderstanding and a lack of personal experience, drown out our response.  We’d prefer to stay within the parameters of our tribal village.  If everyone would only take care of their own, then we would truly solve the problems that vex us all.   At least that is how uncritical tribal thinking goes.  Sadly, this disease infects our Lutheran churches.  

What is the cure for such malaise? 

The first step in the path of healing involves a recognition that tribalism contributes to the brokenness of the world because it tears at the heart of relationships between people. Tribalism is a sin in so far as it denies the biblical truth of the Imago Dei – that God created ALL people in God’s image.  When we close the tribal gates and circle the proverbial wagons, we participate in the kind of activity that contributes to divisions, builds walls, and digs dangerous trenches.  We grow farther apart whenever we huddle inward.  Over time, the divisions, gaps, walls, and trenches seem normal and the only way of keeping safe in a scary world full of many horrible threats.  Fear and mistrust loom and rule. 

This condition is not how God wants for anyone to live.  It is certainly not the dream that Christ has for his church.  When Jesus walked with his disciples and ate at the table with outcasts and sinners, he offered an alternative.  Instead of tribal association, Jesus was more global in his perspective.  When his family claimed exclusive and tribal rights to his presence (see  Mt. 12:48; Mk 3:33-34; Lk 8:21), Jesus refused to be obligated to his own family.  In Luke’s version of the encounter, Jesus declared, “my mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it (Lk 8:21).”  Jesus is more concerned with those who follow as disciples than he is with family and tribal ties. 

So if being a tribal community is not what Jesus wants for himself and on a larger scale is sinful, what do we do?  Aware of sin and a fundamental disconnect with Jesus’ ministry, the next step is one of confession.             

Tomorrow at the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we will begin our worship with a confession.  A group of Roman Catholic and Lutheran liturgical scholars working together as part of the Joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue wrote this confession.  We will confess that division and fracture in the church is not of God’s doing.  When both Lutherans and Roman Catholics turned to tribal warfare to defend the rightness of their ideas, doctrines, and traditions, it was sinful.  When we turned to our tribe and hunkered down, we were turning away from our Lord and God’s intention for us to live in shalom.  The confession that we will use tomorrow lifts up the sinful behavior on both sides of the rift that emerged from Luther’s actions a half millennia ago.  I hope that the confession that we will be using tomorrow at St. James will help in preventing our commemoration from being an uncritical tribal festival. 

After confession, the next step in the process away from tribalism is repentance.  Once we are aware that tribal thinking and behavior holds us captive, then we need to repent.  Repentance is a turning away from sinful behavior.  It means that we stop doing things the same old way.  It means that we stop thinking ourselves and our tribe superior to others.  It means that we stop our unfounded fears of new ideas and experiences.  It means that we stop our bigotry and inappropriate comments about others that we don’t even know.  It means that we stop building the damn walls. 

Repentance is also, and simultaneously, a turning toward God.  It means that we start building bridges.  It means that we get up the courage to introduce ourselves to people that we wouldn’t otherwise know – to listen to their experience.  It means that we start loving as Jesus loves.  It means that we reach beyond our backyard and let our compassion flow as freely “over there” as it does “over here.” It means that we start seeking partnerships that transcend the old divisions.   It means that we participate in the good work (which began decades ago) bringing Roman Catholics and Lutherans together.  It means that we orient ourselves globally.


Today’s scripture:  Isaiah 40: 30-31

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted, but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

 

Prayer:  Today as a prayer, I share the first and last two stanzas of one of my favorite hymns…

Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife, we hear your voice, O Son of Man…..

In haunts of wretchedness and need, on shadowed thresholds dark with fears, from paths where hide the lures of greed, we catch the vision of your tears…

O Master, from the mountainside make haste to heal these hearts of pain; among the restless throngs abide; oh, tread the city’s streets again…

Till all the world shall learn your love, and follow where your feet have trod; till glorious from your heav’n above shall come the city of our God. 

Amen. 

 

“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life”  by Frank M. North  - Evangelical Lutheran Worship #719


Today was the third installment of the sixth week of my Ongoing Reformation blog.  Next week will be the final week in this blog series.  In the week of the actual commemoration itself, I will be wondering about whether it still makes sense to mark this historical event anymore.  Does it make sense for Lutherans to continue to hold up the identity of being a church that is in the process of reforming?  Or is this tribal hubris? 

 

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Week Six, Day One of Three: Reforming the Way we Conceive the Body; From Tribal to Global

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I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I should have at the time.  But, I am deeply grateful for the experience of growing up in the hustle and bustle of northern New Jersey.  Everywhere you looked, there were lots of people.  In the great melting pot of the urban sprawl, only the diversity of backgrounds, nationalities, and cultures seemed to exceed the number of people.  Before people spoke of the concept of global villages, I had the experience of living nearby with those who went to different churches/temples, ate different foods, had a different shade of skin, and celebrated different holidays.  I’d be a liar if I said, “we all marvelously got along.”  We didn’t.  Fear, hatred, segregation, prejudice – were also part of my experience.  I’ve spoken elsewhere of the horrific and hateful jokes that I heard as a child/teenager.  I am ashamed now, but at the time I laughed along.  Just because diversity was present didn’t mean it was embraced or celebrated. 

Looking back, however, I am thankful for the progressive people who taught me and the wonderful opportunities that were able to open my heart to seeing diversity as a blessing.  I am grateful for the experiences – positive and negative – that allowed for growth.  Always in the process of learning, I look forward to the possibilities that living in a time of increased globalization continues to offer.  What is more, the church has a unique role to play in the framing of these possibilities in ways that highlight diversity as a blessing from God, the Creator and Mother of all life.    The church has an important witness that can help us navigate through the shallows of fear, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry.  In Christ, we have a vision of love, grace, mercy, acceptance, forgiveness, and hospitality.

To get to the point of witness and living out the Christ-vision, we have to reform some of our current thinking, practices, and welcome.  I suggest that we need to move FROM conceiving the Body of Christ in tribal terms TO imagining a global presence. 

Guiding our imagination is an idea from the prophet Isaiah; God is the Creator of the ends of the earth (Isaiah 40:28b).  The ends of the earth are a lot closer, thanks to technology and travel than ever before.  People and ideas can do laps around the earth in a way that was previously unimagined.  We can communicate with people a world away using devices that seem attached to our hands.  With the “ends of the earth” now in the palm of our hands, our response to the diversity of created life is no longer something we can avoid.  We have a choice.  We can open our hands in a gesture of friendship and desire to receive the blessing that is offered by others who are outwardly different.  Or, we can close our hands in a fist out of a fear of the unknown. 

It is a firm belief – supported by a close reading of scripture – that Christ calls us to engage the fullness of the world God created in love.  Love seeks to understand among diverse people and between differences.  Love moves beyond rigid tribal identities and seeks global interaction and interdependencies.  The church needs to always move in the direction of love.  We need to identify our tribal tendencies and then have the courage to open our hearts ‘to the ends of the earth.’ 


Today’s scripture:  Isaiah 40:28b

The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

 

Prayer:  Gracious God, this big world that you have made is getting smaller each day.  More and more, we find ourselves in contact with people from around the globe.  It is a time that is both exciting and filled with fear.    Our own experiences, perspectives, and origins limit our ability to understand, welcome, and delight in diversity.  Begin with our hearts and imagination.  Open us.  Give us the courage to seek wisdom and share the love that you have so graciously given to us.  Through Jesus Christ, Amen.


The next installment - Day Two - will take a closer look at Tribal Christianity and how our default position as the church is often to draw a tight circle around similarity of experience, nationality, race, and geography.

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Week Five - Day Three of Three: TO a place of Integrated Faith

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Sacred places and moments are those that we set aside.  They stand apart from the ordinary paths that we travel from day to day.  Apart, the sacred allows for connection with the Divine.  We stop, bow, and venerate when we encounter sacred space and things, which seem to have an origin that is otherworldly compared to the common stuff we run into on a daily basis.   Homes are not cathedrals.  Coffee mugs are not chalices.  Advertising jingles are not sacred arias.   Over the centuries, faithful people have found respite, inspiration, and strength for regular and daily living thanks to the sacred.  Sacred moments, rituals, places, and practices have nurtured my own spiritual life.   I am deeply grateful for the things that have been set aside, blessed, and labeled sacred. 

This week, however, I have been suggesting that one of the reforms that we need to make as we approach the 500th commemoration of the reformation is an integration of the sacred and profane (or ordinary) aspects of our lives.  Compartmentalized living has had a devastating impact on our spiritual lives as the compartment that we use to box our faith is getting smaller, and our busy lives are pushing the faith box deeper into the background of insignificance.  As a pastor, it is a cause of great concern for me to see this happen in the lives of the people that I’m called to serve.  It worries me, because, I know that faith is not something we can turn on and off – like having “God on demand.” 

Faith is a life-long engagement of struggling with the big questions and the unknowable things that go bump in the night.  Faith is a conversation between doubt and certainty where we often find ourselves lost for words and yet know to the core of our being that we are embraced by a loving God that simply won’t let us go.  The paradox is present at every turn on our faith journey.  Somewhere in the tension between opposite poles, we find the God who continues to be an incarnational presence in the messiness and contradictions of life itself.

None of these, however, is realistically available when we ignore our faith or don’t daily struggle with it or work at it.  With our minds, hearts, and bodies distracted elsewhere, our faith is dormant.  In the dynamic of growth and death, certainty and doubt – our faith can flourish.  Not so when we put it aside and go on to other things.  

It is in this context that I wonder if we need to reimagine the sacred.  How might we integrate sacredness into the fabric of each day so that we aren’t relying on one day a week?   How might we bring concepts of sanctuary, worship, Word, and sacraments into this day?   Can we do this in such a way as to not separate ourselves from the community of the baptized that gathers on the Sabbath?  How do we grow as spiritual individuals in full communion with the Christian church?

I am yearning for a place of integration in a culture that is compartmentalized and increasingly separated politically, culturally, racially, economically, and relationally.  I long for the place that the Jewish language calls Shalom; a wholeness and connectedness with God, my neighbor, and even my enemies.  Shalom is peace and so much more.  

We need to head in this direction with a sense of humility.  We go, after all, not from our desire for life that is filled with blessing and abundant with riches.  That is the misdirected steps of the prosperity gospel folks – who seek only their advancement as a works-based reward for self-righteous piety.     The Prosperity gospel is the invention of humanity.  The path of shalom, however, is the direction of discipleship of following in the steps of Jesus.  Humility, not brazen self-confidence is the way to travel.  When we travel in Jesus fashion, we walk with a grace-filled gait. 

Into this day, let us humbly seek connection with God in both the sacred and ordinary moments that the day holds in store for us.  Where will we find the sacred amidst the ordinary?  How will we recognize the spots of sacramental possibility?   

Three things come to my mind.  The first involves nurturing a prayer practice that opens our awareness of God’s presence in the moment.  For me, silent prayer is very important because it causes me to stop, breathe, and clear my mind of its random and distracted thoughts.  A few minutes (use your smart phone’s timer) does a world of good in raising awareness that God is with me.  It is not a transactional thing – I don’t do silent prayer to get centered for the day.  Rather, when I take time to be in prayer without words, I am aware of my need for God and that matters of the spirit are beyond my control.  Sometimes I receive the blessing of a comforting peace when I clear my mind.  Sometimes, I am restless and unable to feel connected, and I find an increase in my longing for God.  The beauty of silent prayer is that you can practice it at various points in the day.  I will often take advantage of the waiting times in the day to close my eyes, breathe, and pray.

Second integration point and certainly linked to silent prayer is the recognition that our day consists of various “threshold” moments.  A threshold marks the space wherein we move from one space to another, one task to another.  When I think about thresholds, I think of door frames.  We go through thresholds as we move around our homes, going from one room to another.  Threshold moments are the nanosecond barriers between going from one thing to another: getting out of bed, leaving the house, dialing the phone, sitting down at our desk at work, filling up our gas tanks.  Thresholds can involve physical locations.  They can also consist of conversations and interactions with others.  Thresholds are usually so quick that we aren’t even aware that we are shifting gears.   If I were a social scientist, I would be tempted to count the number of thresholds that we cross in the matter of a regular day.  The tally would no doubt surprise us.  With all this back and forth between things, people, places, and situations, there is a hidden opportunity for spiritual engagement.  What if as we crossed a threshold, we paused ever so slightly?  What if we asked for strength or gave thanks?  What if we asked God to guide our words and actions?  What if we sought the wisdom of Christ’s love as we traversed our threshold? 

The last integration idea to lift up involves our weekly worship.  If God is present in each day and we want to integrate spiritual growth and interaction with our daily living, then what is the role of assembling weekly in worship with other Christians?  If we increase our spiritual awareness during the week, why don’t we take a day of rest on Sunday?  Lord, knows we could all use a day to sleep in!  Worship remains a necessary component of Christian living because it is in worship that our hearts are tuned.  God’s Word and sacrament directs our faith in the way of Christ.  More than grounding or providing wisdom (it does these things for sure), in worship, we are shaped in the manner of God’s love and grace.  Forgiveness, mercy, celebration, joy, inspiration – all these things come to us as blessings and gifts from a God that continues to be present in the worship gathering of the baptized.   Like an instrument that is apt to go out of tune quickly, our hearts need regular adjustment.  It is all too easy for us to go flat with all the worries of the world bombarding us throughout the week.  Likewise, it is all too easy for us to go sharp with our self-importance and for our agendas to consume us that we forget Christ’s command to love our neighbor.   Worship tunes us in so that we can take part in the ongoing symphony that God is conducting in our lives and the world.

Through making time to pray, pausing at the thresholds, and worshiping we can, with humility, care for the spiritual life that God has given to each of us.  It doesn’t mean that things will all go smoothly.  The spiritual life is never the path of least resistance or a gravity-driven push downhill.  But it is a journey of profound sacred moments and precious engagement in the ordinary moments with God, others, and the whole of creation.  We travel not as experts but as learners and seekers.  


Today’s scripture: Isaiah 57: 18b-19

 I will lead them and repay them with comfort, creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the LORD; and I will heal them.

 

Prayer:  Gracious God, create in me an awareness of your presence at this moment.  Help me to stop and breathe as I reach each threshold of this day.  Let me pass into each conversation, adventure, struggle, journey with the sure and certain confidence that you are with me and that you call me to be guided in my living by Jesus.  Spirit animate my soul so that I might have the courage to live into the future in ways that are consistent with your love and grace.  Through Christ, Amen.


Today was the third installment of the fifth week of my Ongoing Reformation blog.  Next week, we continue with looking at the needed shift from tribal to global thinking.  

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Week Five - Day One of Three: Reforming the Way We Imagine the Sacred; FROM separated TO integrated.

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A while ago an older pastor friend of mine was cleaning out his library. I inherited boxes of books that do not have ISBN numbers or barcodes, much to the chagrin of my son, Mark, who was computerizing my library this past summer.   More than once, Mark questioned me, “Dad, are you ever going to read these books?”  I have to admit; at times, my bibliophilia gets the best of me.  I must say, however, that among the faded books covers, there were some genuine out-of-print gems.   

A reoccurring theme in the book stash that my friend gave me was how to make faith relevant in a changing time.  The books came from the turbulent nineteen sixties when many faithful people were wondering how the church should respond.  My friend was a progressive thinker, so you can imagine that the books of his library suggested that the church needed to reform.  We needed to change the way we were worshiping, speaking about God, praying, and doing ministry.  The answer was not to look back to the past but to look to the future with a bold hope.  These books come from the time of Vatican II and the spark of renewal movements in not only the Roman Catholic church but also across the board of mainline Protestant churches.

More than one book jacket suggested that what was needed was to establish a connection between Sunday and Monday morning.  In other words, to meet the challenges that befell modern Christians, the church of five decades ago saw that it needed to extend its voice beyond the sanctuary and a one-hour-per-week worship time.  The church, which was secure in a culturally reserved and respected SACRED space on Sunday morning would need to engage with the PROFANE (or secular) space of Monday morning if it wanted to remain relevant in the lives of the faithful.

Decades later, as I put my friend’s faded books onto the shelves in my library, it seems to me that the church did not rise to the challenge in the way that the authors suggested it should.  Not only has the separation between Sunday and Monday mornings increased but the whole sacred sphere of life seems to have shrunk.  Consumerism has increased as attendance on Sunday mornings has drastically declined.  Even those who attend church are not as regular in their attendance.  As a society, we have let the secular/profane intrude on our observance of the Sabbath.  The gift of Sabbath renewal is one that remains largely unopened.  

Consumable products that are readily available on TV and online promise to satisfy our spiritual hunger.  Unfortunately, the satisfaction is short-lived – like opening a bag of Cheetos.  After devouring bags of mass-produced spiritual snack food, all we have to show are the empty calories and orange fingers.  People are disregarding the deep-seated wisdom of nurturing Christian faith in the context of a community that gathers around Word and Sacrament in favor of the latest fad and celebrity self-based soul fix.  When you fill up on empty calories, it has a negative effort on the body.  Most of the time, it doesn’t even fill us up.  We are left wanting.  Hunger remains.    

Once again this week, we look at reforming the church from the viewpoint of reforming the heart and soul of the believer.  We look inward not to the exclusion of our connection with the community of Christ but because when we come down to it, if we want to see renewal in the church then we must begin with ourselves.  Each of us has the power to make changes this day that will have a positive change in the way that we encounter and respond to God and the world that Christ loves from the vantage point of the cross.  I can’t change your heart, but through the power of the Spirit working within me, I am empowered to do some soul searching and soul improvements of my own.  I start with desiring and longing for God in my life and I invite you to do the same. 

Building on the ideas we discussed last week about moving from transactional spirituality to relational spirituality, this week we look at reforming the way we imagine sacred space.  Do we make divisions between our sacred lives and the rest of life?  Do we maintain distinctions between faithful living and secular living?  How might we integrate our lives so that our souls are nurtured in every moment, whether or not it is on a Sunday in communion with other Christians?

Guiding us through the three blog posts of this week, where we will take up these questions, is a passage from the book of Isaiah.  It comes from a time when the people found themselves discouraged by the experience of exile.  They wondered whether God cared for them and if God could bring them to a place of wholeness.  Isaiah assures them of God’s eternal steadfast love and abiding presence.  Though God might get angry over the lack of devotion and the turning away to other sources for spiritual health, God remains faithful.  Isaiah holds the promise before our eyes; God will not abandon but will rather comfort and bring wholeness and healing.  Desiring wholeness and healing in our own life, we venture forth across the boundaries of sacred and profane.


Today’s scripture: Isaiah 57: 15-17

For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:  I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. 16For I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry; for then the spirits would grow faint before me, even the souls that I have made. 17Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry; I struck them, I hid and was angry; but they kept turning back to their own ways.

Prayer:  Wholly and holy God, you are the source of our life.  You have created us and all living things to live in connection with you in all that we say and do.  Your presence is with us in each moment: at church and home; at work and play; in our generosity and our reserve; in our action and passive moments – always, always you are near.  Sadly, we have responded in ways that separate and seek to limit your influence and guidance.  We suffer from a lack of peace.  Guide us back to you.  Let us rest in the sure and certain hope of your presence.  Allow for our desire to be focused on the path that leads your way.  Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.


Tomorrow, we will look at the need for integration of the sacred and profane aspects of our lives by lowering the boundaries that we construct to separate church from home and work. 

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Week Four: Day Three of Three - To a Place of Relational Trust

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Feelings of melancholy fill me as I think back to the last time I saw my Grandmother alive.  There was nothing more the Doctors could do to stop the uncaring cancer that ravaged her tiny body.  My family visited her in the small hospital room.  Our pastor came by to pray with us all around her bed.  At the time, I did not recognize what twenty years of ministry experience would teach me; the end of her precious life was so very near.  After our visit, we walked down the long hallway with the burden of goodbye heavy upon our hearts. 

As we left the hospital and walked across the tiny parking lot, we witnessed something unexpected.  To the west was the most beautiful sunset.  No doubt aided by the pollution of the north Jersey skies, the descending sun blazed in streaks of orange and gold.  In front of the amber panorama was the Hackensack River with its marshland shores.  High grasses with the occasional cattail standing tall in silhouette, completed the scene.  Instead of taking our breath away, the vista allowed us to breathe in deeply.  In the silence, we stopped and breathed.

I may not remember much of the details of that night, but I will never forget the sense of calm and peace that pervaded my very soul in those seconds.  In the midst of the cruel and horrible experience of my Grandmother’s cancer, suffering, and death there was a moment that I can only describe as holy.  God was present.  Even after all the subsequent years of theological training and reflection, I can’t say how it was so.  It simply was, and that experience was a sacred gift.  It didn’t make anything miraculously go away or change.  Grandma still died, and we grieved to the depths of our souls.  Nevertheless, the abiding assurance of that heavenly sunset was a life-giving and sacramental encounter.  It gave us the strength to get in the family suburban and head home to face the difficult days that lie ahead.

On Tuesday, I mentioned that my prayers “didn’t work” for Grandma as they did for Grandpa.   The transactional faith of my childhood and adolescence was disappointed by the reality of the dark side of life.  Tragedy and death offer a sober contradiction to those who live transactional faith lives.  As I mentioned earlier this week, transactional faith depends upon making deposits in the “goodness” bank.  We are good.  We are faithful.  We go to church and say our prayers.  We make deposits.  God pays out blessings as interest.  Of course, our misdeeds make sudden and sometimes unanticipated withdrawals.  If we are not diligent, we can overdraw our accounts, plunging us into spiritual debt. 

Old school Christian thinking reminds us of our miserable plight – so large is the debt of Adam that we don’t have much of a chance in this transactional system.  We can make regular payments, but the interest keeps us in eternal bondage.  That is why we need Jesus.  Substitutionary atonement theory reminds us that Jesus pays off the debt and settles our account with his blood.  Whew! We can continue unabated on our spiritual spending spree.   Of course, there are limits – the pundits of [outdated] substitutionary atonement theory quickly point out.  Having paid our way, God expects us to be good and build up our balance of goodness.  Heaven still is seen as the prize for a good life.  Hell is still the just desserts for bad decisions and evil living.   These are the mechanics of transactional faith.  Beyond my childhood and adolescent years, I uncritically accepted this theology as the gospel truth.   

Of course, transactional faith is far from either gospel or truth.  Discrepancies arise when despite our efforts to accumulate blessings and interest through careful saving and living, we find ourselves short.  Evil and bad things happen despite goodness and faithfulness.  Conversely, good and unbounded returns fall into the hands of people who are mean, nasty, and corrupt.  The transactional system just doesn’t work.  Continuing on that path is a recipe for turmoil, anger, and ultimately abandonment of God.  Afterall, if God isn’t going to be a good banker, then we might as well not bother to worship, pray, or try to be good.  Let the heathen gods reign as we eat, drink, and be merry without a thought to anyone but ourselves. 

Although it would take me twenty-five years from the night of the sunset over the Meadowlands, I have come around to another way of thinking and of believing.  Faith is not transactional.  Faith is relational.  Our connection to God does not happen through the local branch of the FIRST DIVINE TRUST, with its intricate scales of measurement, hidden fees, and variable rates of return.  Our connection to God begins with the very first breath that we take into our bodies and souls.  We have been created to be in a relationship with God.  God desires to be a part of not only our life but the entire life of all creation. 

The Christian idea of Incarnation (God becomes ‘en-fleshed’ in Jesus) illustrates the Divine desire to be relational.  In Jesus, God navigates the complex network of human joys and sufferings, ups, and downs, good and bad.  Jesus’ ministry becomes instructive for us as we try to fathom the incomprehensible nature of God.  Instead of being a judge or a banker, Jesus was a friend.  Jesus included the outsider, sinner, tax collector, poor, blind, and lame in his table fellowship.  Eating with them, Jesus shared the friendship of God and made them an important part of the kingdom of heaven.  Although the Pharisees clung to their transactional faith, with its rigid boundaries and uncaring rules, Jesus challenged such notions.  It was not about earning God’s favor but rather about turning toward God and dwelling in God’s presence.  This latter approach was an open invitation.

Jesus announced the Kingdom of God and invited his hearers to repent and believe.  Repentance is not only a turning away from doing bad things, but it is a turning toward God.  Turn toward the God who created you.  Turn, not to earn favor and goodies, but rather to connect with the source of your life.  When we turn toward God, we discover that we are invited to live our lives in balance with the rest of creation.  Love becomes the commandment and boundary that we are asked to follow and set in our relationships.  At times it is messy. But it is the way that God relates to us.  God enters into the messy times and struggles and is present to us with love.

No matter our shortcomings, failures, successes, dreams, adventures, joy and pain – we are made to relate in love to others and our Creator.  It is not something that we are left to do alone.  God remains near and abides with us.  God’s relational presence is transformational.  It brings life even in the midst of pain and death.   

What would it look like if we dared to abandon a transactional faith and instead trusted in the relationship that God made with us at the moment of our birth?   What if instead of worrying about an eternal bank account, we sought to engage with loving intent in the raging torrents of life, trusting that God has our life? 

What if instead of going to church or praying to accumulate points or negotiate a deal, we went to simply praise and thank God for always being there for us?  What if we read the Bible not to check for loopholes or to judge others, but to be inspired to live as the Creator of life made us?  What if we practiced our faith in the sure and certain hope that God’s love and care are present in each breath, even if we can’t wrap our heads around it?  

What if we prayed not to beg or barter with God but rather to seek to enter into that space that passes our understanding?  What if we stopped asking, “why me God?” and instead breathed deeply, trusting in God’s presence even in this messy and unknowable moment?  What if our prayers focused more on our breathing than on a lengthy shopping list of wants?  What if we were to speak less in our prayers and trust more in the sure and certain hope that our lives rest in God’s care?    


Scripture:  Isaiah 41: 8-10

8But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend;  9you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, "You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off "; 10do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you,  I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

Prayer: 

Gracious God, help me to trust in you above all things.  Train my heart to feel your presence and my ears to hear the song of your love.  Give me the courage to be bold in my loving and care for others and the world that you have so graciously made.  Guide me along the rough places and carry me when I am too weak to walk.   Through Christ, Amen.


Tommorrow, I begin Week Five of this blog series on the need for ongoing reformation.  The revised format of three blogs per week seems to be getting a good response so I will continue in that way.   Next week our three-part blog will focus on reforming our thinking about the sacred and profane spheres of life.  We will look to move FROM a place of separation between holy and unholy TO a place of integration.

Thank you for taking the time in your busy life this week to read this blog.  I hope that it has been helpful in encouraging faith formation in us all.  

If today's blog was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

Week Four - Day One of Three: Reforming the Way we Engage God; FROM transactional TO relational.

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When I was in high school, I ran Cross Country.  It was a lot of fun running in races.  My sophomore year, I had a particularly good run (pun intended) of medaling in every major meet.  As the season carried on, I can remember increasing the pressure on myself to perform.  At the time, I had a supercharged competitive spirit.  To finish my season with a medal from each race, I needed to come in the top thirty runners.   With hundreds of runners in each race, it was not easy to gain hardware. 

I remember going to church the week after each newly acquired medal and praying to God that I might continue gaining ground in my medal quest.  Now, I didn’t promise that if God gave me the strength to succeed that I would become a pastor.  I’m not Martin Luther, and I don’t pretend to be (Luther, after all, promised to become a monk if God rescued him from a lightning storm.) But, I do remember making a bargain.  Now I can’t recall the details of what I promised.   I think I promised to be good or something.   Whatever it was, it must have worked.  I completed my sophomore year with a medal from each race.  The medals now fill a cardboard shoebox in my basement.  Not only did I do well in the races, but I also managed to work a good deal with God.  

Negotiation.  Promises to do things in return for a Divine favor.  It is not an uncommon way of engaging God and living out our spiritual lives.  If we aren’t active in bargaining with God, then we at least think that the goodness of our lives should at least matter on some cosmic scale. 

We run into trouble, of course, when bad things happen to good people (ourselves included.)  “It isn’t fair!”  We cry out.   We try to do the right things, be nice to people, go to church, say our prayers.  We have done our part, and yet somehow we are still beleaguered by troubles.  Good people suffer from degenerative illnesses and battles with cancer.  Why God?  Why are you letting these things happen to me?  Why are you not keeping up your end of the bargain?

When it comes to our spiritual thinking, we can be very transactional.  If we do this, pray this, give this then we will receive this blessing, our fortunes will be good, and we will come out ahead.  This kind of thinking lies at the heart of the prosperity gospel with all of its opulent preachers who smile a whitened smile and encourage their television flocks to send their money in – if you give, then you will be blessed a hundredfold.  Giving becomes an investment strategy.  Those who are wealthy are so because God has blessed them richly for their good works.  Transactional faith has an appeal that can lure us in.  It seems so right in our supercharged consumerist and competitive society. 

Unfortunately, this transactional way of engaging God and living out our spiritual lives is problematic on many fronts.  It lacks a biblical integrity and simply does not align with the truth that we have observed from living – sometimes bad things happen to very good people. 

This week, we shift our reformation focus away from looking at Reforming the church as an institution and community.  Instead, we will focus on the individual believer.  Our heart needs reformation.  So do our minds and spirits.  We need to repent – turn toward God’s steadfast love that comes as a totally unearned, and non-negotiable gift.  Instead of engaging God in transactional terms, we will look at simply living in a trust-centered relationship. 

The scripture that I’ve chosen for this week is extremely personal and relational.  Connected to the community of believers, we are God’s friends.  God chooses us and desires to be in an abiding relationship with us – no matter what might happen.  Even in the midst of fires, challenges, turmoil, upheaval, and a thousand nasty occurrences, God promises to be present, alongside.  Walking with God, we find that transformation and resurrection emerge as real possibilities.  With hope, we trust – not to gain a transactional advantage but simply because we are God’s children.

So I hope you join me each day this week as we seek to reform the way we engage God; FROM transaction TO relational. 

By the way, does anyone want to make me an offer on a box of old running medals?  Just kidding!


Prayer:  Gracious God, you call us into a life-giving relationship with you.  You do this out of your endless mercy and steadfast love and not on account of our words or actions.  Help us to stop negotiating or bargaining with you.  Turn our prayers into conversations that spring forth from a growing trust and love.   Through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today’s scripture:  Isaiah 41: 8

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend;


This week the Reformation blog series itself will undergo a 'reform.'  Based on feedback received, the series will shift from a daily seven day posting to three weekly posts (Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday.)  I hope that this change will allow readers more time to read and process posts.  It will also be somewhat easier to write during these busy days of fall.  I thank you ahead of time for your patience and understanding.    

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Seven (Saturday), Week Three: TO a Place of Faith Formation

"like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house..."   1 Peter 2:5

"like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house..."   1 Peter 2:5

Martin Luther’s children did not go to Sunday School.  In the 16th century, there were no Sunday Schools!  The concept of Sunday School was as foreign to a person living in Luther’s time as would be the steam engine.  Sunday Schools are a product of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.  The Sunday School movement, spearheaded by Robert Raikes, founded schools for poor and orphaned children to teach them to read and write on their one day off from working in the factories – Sunday.  Religious and moral education was a part of the curriculum.  When England (and America) adopted compulsory public education a century later, the focus of the Sunday School focused exclusively on religious education.  Parents still brought their kids to Sunday School– whether or not they attended the services of a church – because until recent years it was seen as a cultural expectation of childhood.

The link between Sunday School, education, and childhood is strong from a historical perspective.  So is the concept that children must be educated in the way of the faith much as we instruct them in reading, writing, and ‘arithmetic.  Such things are part of childhood, at least as we have culturally constructed it.  Had the culture not shifted away from the church, our Sunday Schools would not have seen such a decline in numbers.  And we would probably not be having the conversation of reform. 

Although I will not join my colleagues who have boldly proclaimed that “Sunday School is dead,” I do think that we need to reform the way that we teach the faith.  This reformation is not, however, just for the children.  In fact, it can not start with children.   Adults must commit to their own faith formation much like they are instructed to do on an airline.  If there is a loss of cabin pressure, first put on your mask, then assist children and those who need help.  We need to breathe a spiritual breath of fresh air deeply into our souls. 

An important first step is to move away from the label of faith “EDUCATION.”  What’s in a name?  Too much of the past!   In general, when we think of EDUCATION, we think of something that happens in the first third of life.  We go to school as children, teens, and young adults.  Our formal education stops at some point when we walk across a stage, and someone hands us a fancy piece of paper.  I can already hear your objection. 

But we don’t stop learning!  What about life-long learning?  Yes, on both accounts.  It is true, but, our culture doesn’t enthusiastically support adult education for the masses.  Continuing education might be a part of some professional expectations, but for the majority of folks who are in the midst of their working years, ongoing structured learning is not.  There isn’t the time - and Lord knows at the end of a long workday – there isn’t the energy.  Learning happens largely in an unscripted way as we go about living.  We pick up things as we encounter them.  For example, we learn about medical procedures usually in the hospital when a loved one or we have to go through them.  We also find out things through media channels – there is a lot of information out there.  But do we take the time to engage this information with a critical eye?  Do we take the time to dig deeper into an area of interest for the pure sake of learning? 

Back to our discussion about learning the faith.   Our lack of EDUCATIONAL expectations and support for adults has crept into the church.  An attitude prevails that Faith EDUCATION is for the kids and for those who have the time to do such things.  Adults, who are in the second third of life, simply don’t have the time or energy to engage in faith-learning even if they want.  Besides, what kind of faith growth opportunities does the church offer?  Bible studies are either during the day or during ‘family time’ at nights and on the weekend.

The reformation that is needed is for the church to move away from thinking about providing EDUCATION classes and instead the church needs to encourage FAITH FORMATION opportunities (which may or may not be in classrooms).   At all ages, we need to ask the question; how do we best form and shape our spiritual selves?  How does the church best support this formation?  What kinds of opportunities and experiences might we provide that allow adults to grow and deepen their Christian faith?   

From my experience, faith practices such as worship, prayer, devotions, scripture reading, and service will all play a role.   FAITH FORMATION involves the making relational connections between God’s Word, our baptismal identity, and the world’s needs.  It is a matter of vocation – a spiritual calling – to engage Christ in the busy places of life so that we might be Christ to others. 

There is a compelling need for all Christians to grow in their faith and become life-long learners.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is especially paradoxically true for busy adults.  Faith formation takes time that we don't seem to have.  That said, we need the spiritual grounding that Faith Formation provides now more than ever.  We need genuine faith inn these confusing and conflicting times where so much information and outright lies bombard us daily.   There is the need for spiritual space for us to breathe and recognize that God accompanies us on our crazy travels.  We need a faith that trusts in God’s mercy and love above all things.  But these things don’t just happen, and we can’t buy our way into receiving them. 

The wisdom of those who have practiced the Christian faith over the centuries is that faith doesn’t happen overnight.  It is a life-long journey of ups and downs.  Faith occurs in relationship with a God that continues to come our way and invites us to turn in the direction of Divine love.  We practice our faith in worship, prayer, and service.  Also, our life experiences serve as a crucible in which our faith is molded and tested.   Challenges, joy, pain, triumphs, losses – all these things can serve as teachers if we have a willingness to be pupils.    

Our fears about the decline in Sunday School have driven excessive worry about the future of the church.  If we don’t connect our children to the church, then the church will die.  True.  It is a genuine concern.  It is an even greater concern, however, of this Lutheran pastor that if we don’t connect more adult lives with ongoing FAITH FORMATION, then the church will die in the present.  Our children, after all, are watching whether faith means anything to us.  If it doesn’t, then it won’t mean much to them.  So it is time to put on our own oxygen masks and starting breathing.

I finish this week’s blog with a quote from an ancient African bishop.  St. Augustine of Hippo once said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” 


Prayer:  Gracious God, life is often too busy.  We go in many directions, and our thoughts are often scattered all over the place.  We forget to make the time for you.  We forget to take care of ourselves.  We forget to share love with others.  We don’t breathe.  We don’t stop.  We don’t give thanks.  All of this gets in the way of nurturing the gift of faith that you have so graciously given to us.  Form our faith.  Guide our head, heart, and hands.  Help us to grow so that we might delight and live as your children.   Through Christ, Amen.

Today’s scripture: Isaiah 29: 16c

 Shall the thing made say of its maker,

"He did not make me";

 or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,

 "He has no understanding"?


Tommorrow, I begin Week Four of this blog series on the need for ongoing reformation.  To this point, we have exclusively looked at reforms within the church.  We will shift our focus in week four to reforms within our hearts.  We begin with moving FROM transactional TO relational.

Thank you for taking the time in your busy life this week to read this blog.  I hope that it has been helpful in encouraging faith formation in us all.  

If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Six (Friday-part b), Week Three: “TO” Questions to Ponder As We Imagine Reforming the Way We Teach the Faith

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Here are a few questions, in no particular order, to invite us to consider the way we teach the faith and the places that we might go TO as we seek reformation.

What ways do we learn the best?  

If faith is more a relationship than a subject, then how might we best grow and learn?

On what aspects about God do we best focus?  How can we best learn, for example, about God's mercy, grace, and forgiveness?

What lessons about God do we need to stop teaching our children, our teens, and adults?

What would be included if we were to write a modern Catechism for Christians?  Would this Catechism be "Lutheran" enough?  Would it matter?

How do we encourage a passion for life-long learning across generations?

What negative connotations does the word 'education' have for the average person?   Does our culture place the highest value on education?  If so, why do we spend more on bombs as a nation than on books?  

What daily practices might we adopt that will encourage our own faith formation?

Is faith best formed in a classroom, community, or through experiences?  How much does each of these areas (classroom, community, and experiences) play a part?  

What would it take to involve every adult at St. James in some type of faith formation?

How often do we pray that our faith and the faith of the church might grow?

Take a few minutes of silent reflection time and ponder these questions.  Maybe they inspire different questions in you.  You might want to write down your response, or you might want just to let your thoughts wander and accumulate.  The goal is to imagine what new and generative places God might be calling us.   Where are we being invited to dwell as we engage in faith formation practices?


Prayer:  O loving God, to turn away from you is to fall, to turn toward you is to rise, and to stand before you is to abide forever.  Grant us, dear God, in all our duties your help; in all our uncertainties your guidance; in all our dangers your protection; and in all our sorrows your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.    (a prayer of St. Augustine of Hippo)

Today’s Scripture:   Isaiah 29:16b

 Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?

 


Tomorrow, I will imagine what it might look like if we can reform faith formation.

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Five, Week Three: Dr. Luther Remained a Hungry and Thirsty Learner

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A note to my readers:  I apologize for not posting yesterday.  Today I am sharing two posts (now and this evening) to get us back on schedule.  I write as a pastor engaged in the changing context of a congregation.  From time to time, matters arise that require my attention, preventing me from meeting my posting deadline.  I appreciate your patience when this happens - Walt 

When he visited the parishes around Wittenberg in rural Saxony (1527-1528), Martin Luther was dismayed at what he found;

“Good God, what wretchedness I beheld!  The common people, especially those who live in the country, have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately, many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching.  Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty (Preface Small Catechism, 338).”

Luther responded to his experience by preaching a series of Catechetical sermons (not an uncommon practice at the time) and writing both the Small and Large Catechisms.  The Small Catechism is a basic summary of the Christian faith meant for household use.  The Large Catechism was more in-depth and was intended for use by pastors and those who wanted to delve into it.  Although he didn't invent the concept of a Catechism, Martin Luther's Catechisms are still widely used in the church.  

Luther spoke of his faith formation and the need of being a life-long learner;  

“I must still read and study the Catechism.  Every morning, and whenever else I have time, I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc.  I must still read and study the Catechism daily, yet I cannot master it as I wish but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and I do it gladly (Preface Large Catechism, BC 359).” 

Unlike learning a trade or how to do arithmetic, you can’t learn it, master it, and then live to a ripe old age from the fruits of your educational accomplishments.  Luther’s description of remaining a child and pupil of the Catechism suggests that faith is something that forms over a lifetime.  Again, Luther writes;  

“All the saints know of nothing better or different to learn, though they cannot learn it to perfection.  Are we not most marvelous fellows, therefore, if we imagine, after reading or hearing it once, that we know it all and need not read or study it anymore?  Most marvelous fellows, to think we can finish learning in one hour what God himself cannot finish teaching!  Actually [God] is busy teaching it from the beginning of the world to the end, and all prophets and saints have been busy learning it and have always remained pupils, and must continue to do so (Preface Large Catechism, BC,361).”

According to Luther, as we study, learn, ponder, and meditate on God’s Word, the Catechism, and our faith, the Holy Spirit is present and bestows ever new and greater light and fervor.   God is with us in the formation of our faith.  Faith is not so much an object or subject that we need education about, as it is a relationship in which we interact with God’s self.  The Holy Spirit accompanies us in our struggles and forms our faith in the process.

What is not helpful, however, is a lack of studying on our part or the arrogance to think that we know all that we need to know to live out our lives as Christians.  What is not helpful is the continued attitude that pervades within Lutheran churches (though I am sure that we are not alone here) that faith education is for the children and the youth.  We have bought into the very thing against which Luther cautions – becoming those ‘marvelous fellows’ that “know it all and need not read or study anymore.” 

Luther finishes up his first Preface to the Large Catechism with these words;

“Let all Christians exercise themselves in the Catechism daily, and constantly put it into practice… Let them continue to read and to teach, to learn and meditate and ponder.  Let them never stop until they have proved by experience that they have taught the devil to death and have become wiser than God himself and all his saints.  If they show such diligence, then I promise them – and their experience will bear me out – that they will gain much fruit and God will make excellent [persons] of them.  Then in due time they themselves will make the noble confession that they longer they work with the Catechism, the less they know of itand the more they have to learn.  Only then, hungry and thirsty, will they truly relish what not they cannot bear to smell because they are so bloated and surfeited.  (Preface Large Catechism, BC, 361).”

How do we create a learning environment in our communities of faith and struggle wherein we become hungry and thirsty to grow daily in our faith as children of God and pupils of God’s Word?  


Prayer:  O God, give us grace to set a good example to all among whom we live, to be just and true in all our dealings, to be strict and conscientious in the discharge of every day; pure and temperate in all enjoyment, gracious and generous and courteous toward all; so that the mind of Jesus Christ may be formed in us and all may know that we are his disciples; in whose name we pray.  Amen    (ELW, Pastoral Care, page 375)

Today’s Scripture: Isaiah 29: 16a

You turn things upside down!


Later today, we will be pondering a new set of questions.  If we need to reform the way we teach the faith FROM older models of education , then where should we turn TO?  Where could we go?  How will it look? Where might God be calling us?  

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Four (Wednesday), Week Four: A Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

 
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What does this image inspire in you?  How does the passage from Isaiah interact with the image?  What connections or disconnection come to mind?


Prayer:  

Prayer:  Gracious God, you know us better than we know ourselves.  Meet us in the places where fear, anxiety, hatred prevent us from learning your love and grace.  Instruct our hearts in the way of Jesus so that we might live in the brilliant light of your Jesus.  Open our minds so that we might seek to know you each day.  Strengthen our courage to share your love with our neighbor.  Through Jesus Christ, Amen.   

 

Today’s scripture: Isaiah 29:15

Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the LORD, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”


Tomorrow, we will have a Luther moment.  We’ll look at what Dr. Luther said about the ongoing need for faith formation and we will introduce the important concept of vocation.               

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Three (Tuesday), Week Three: “FROM” Questions to Ponder as we Consider Reforming Teaching the Faith

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Here are a few questions, in no particular order, to invite us to consider our teaching practices and the places that we might need to move FROM as we seek reformation.

 

What is the most important faith ‘lesson’ we try to impart to our children?

 

As adults, what would we most like to learn or figure out about our relationship with God?

 

Where are the gaps in our knowledge or experience when it comes to matters of faith?  Do we feel shame or embarrassment over these gaps?

 

How critical is it that children and adults can quote from memory pertinent verses from the Bible?  Why?

 

In teaching the faith, are we more concerned with content or substance?

 

Are Sunday morning formats still the best way for us to teach the faith to children, youth, and adults? 

 

What other formats might we use?  How might technology be used?

 

Do we nurture the spiritual well-being of children, youth, and adults and equip them for living out faith in daily life?

 

Is prayer taught as another subject or as a practice?  Do we teach a multitude of ways to pray?

 

How much of our personal experience of God do we share as we teach the faith?

 

 

Take a few minutes of silent reflection time and ponder these questions.  Maybe they inspire different questions in you.  You might want to write down your response, or you might want just to let your thoughts wander and accumulate.  The goal is to encourage a questioning mind and till the soil of our hearts so that they might be receptive for what God wishes to plant.


Prayer:  Lord God of our ancestors, we thank you for what you have done and will continue to do with our daughters and sons.  Walk with them in life, and keep the evil one from obstructing their path.  You see all; you know where the water is deep.  Keep them from danger.  Order their steps and guide their feet while they run the race of faith.  May the good work that you have begun in them be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray.  Amen.  

(ELW Pastoral Care, page 372)

TToday’s scripture: Isaiah 29:14b

The wisdom of their wise shall perish,

 and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.


Tomorrow, we will look at an image to continue our work of reforming our teaching practices.   

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Two (Monday), Week Three: FROM a place where we must get the lesson right.

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Paper Dolls.  Have you ever made a chain of Paper Dolls?  It requires some precision in folding the paper in just the right way.  For the link between the paper people to work properly (making them ‘hold hands’) you also need to cut in just the correct places.  Unfurling the Paper Dolls can be a magical experience; the Dolls seem to multiply and hold hands all at the same time.  But that only happens if you’ve properly done the folding and the cutting.  Paper Dolls are not that forgiving and can quickly turn from being a delight to a public exercise in futility and shame.  Look, all of our Dolls are holding hands, but yours are not!  What a maroon you are! Ha Ha!

My first tragic episode with Paper Dolls occurred when I was a Sunday School student in Kindergarten.   Bethany Lutheran Church held its Sunday School classes in the small basement.  Please forgive my memory if I get the details a little messed up – it has been a few decades since I have been there.  Kindergarteners were in a separate basement room for their instruction; the Church Council also used this small room, which had an oversized boardroom table in the center, for their meetings if I’m not mistaken. 

In my three piece Sunday suit, I went to Sunday School.  By and large, it was a positive experience because the people who took care of the Sunday School, the teachers, were great and loving people.  They are among those with whom I share words of thanks for teaching me the Christian faith.  Thinking back, more important than any lessons was the love, acceptance, and encouragement that they communicated in their words, actions, and presence.  Within a context of gratitude, I share the following story, a critique of the process of education and NOT the people involved.  After all, the people were doing the very best they could according to what I’d call standard patterns of Sunday School education. 

One day in that Kindergarten room with the big boardroom table, the lesson involved a craft.  We must have been talking about ‘being one in Christ’ or ‘loving one another’ or something like that.  Those lessons, and rightfully so, were very much repeated.  My Sunday School teacher passed out the paper and safety scissors.  Knowing Mr. Warner, he probably described the directions with his signature big smile on his face.  Fold here and here.  Smile.  Cut here and here.  The details of what followed are now largely a blur, but it didn’t go well for me.  My Paper Dolls were not following Jesus’ command to love each other and hold hands.  I remember feeling ashamed that I didn’t get it right.  I’m sure I didn’t get into trouble for doing it wrong, but that is my emotional memory of the incident.  

The situation of the unlinked Paper Dolls serves as a metaphor for me as I think back on my Christian education.  Again, I do NOT fault the dedicated volunteer teachers or the overworked pastors who were ultimately responsible for the content (and had to deal with the political reality of folks not liking what the denominational publishing house produced or wanting to switch teams and use what the Baptists were using.)  The system of Sunday School and its graduate component, Confirmation, was to educate children and youth on the basics of the faith.  The purpose was to impart the wisdom and doctrines of the church to the next generation so they could make the Paper Dolls in the right way.  Our education was done with a sense of importance so that we would grow up to be good and knowledgeable members of the church and stay out of trouble (away from drugs and jail).  My teachers taught me how to make the Paper Dolls, where to fold and how to cut.  What else was there to know? 

Looking back, however, the educational focus was not unlike the one that I experienced in school.  I had to memorize concepts, names, dates, places.  I had to comprehend and parrot back explanations on stories from the Bible.  It was like Algebra and English – Faith was just another subject in which I needed to acquire competency.  I can’t say that all the efforts – on the part of teachers, pastors, and myself – ever resulted in a deepened spirituality or connection with God.  In fact, the image of God that was encouraged was one of the big Principal in the sky who wanted to make sure that I got good grades, stayed out of trouble, and could properly cut my Paper Dolls. 

We live in a context where Sunday Schools are currently in decline.  According to a 2015 article in USA Today;    

Between 1997 and 2004, churches lost tens of thousands of Sunday school programs, according to data from the Barna Group, and more recent studies show that enrollment has fallen across denominations. From 2004 to 2010, for example, Sunday school attendance dropped nearly 40 percent among Evangelical Lutheran churches in America and almost 8 percent among Southern Baptist churches, prompting speculation that the problem may be more than just a decline in American religiosity (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/03/22/ozy-has-sun-set-on-sunday-school/25080073/)

The decline in participation in mainline churches certainly coincides with a reduction in Sunday School attendance.  With fewer people feeling a religious need to go to church, it makes sense that they won’t be sending their children to Sunday School to learn the faith.   What about the ‘drop-offs’ you say?  Didn’t we always have parents who dropped their kids off without going to worship?  Yes, but as the culture moves in a more secular direction, it is a matter of time before we see the ‘drop-off’ pattern stop.  Sadly, there is no longer a cultural value in many parts of the country for people to even have a ‘faith education.'  

My greater concern, however, is what happens after confirmation to youth and adults who remain ‘in the church.’  For most, faith education seems to stop after students ‘graduate’ confirmation.  We rightfully worry about the lack of youth participation in faith-based activities.  What we don’t concern ourselves as much with is the lack of adult participation in Bible studies and faith education.  This should be as much a concern.   Is it any wonder that our youth don’t become involved in greater numbers? Where are their parents?  

Is part of the reason for lack of participation in adult ed simply because adults see as much need for additional faith education as they have for additional math and science classes?  Education is something that you do when you are starting out.  You learn what you need to be a productive member of society, and then you go on to other things – like jobs, family, pastimes, sports, etc.   The average person knows what they need to know from their education when they were young.  That is true for reading, writing, arithmetic, and I would also guess that most would say for faith too!

But here is the catch – faith is not something we can learn once and then live with a basic competency.  Faith is not an object to be comprehended or a subject for us to master.  You can’t give a proficiency test for the faith that involves coloring in circles with a number two pencil.  Faith is more about relationships than it is about doctrines and content.  Faith is a matter of breathing and being.  Faith grows and dies in the crucible of our life experiences.  There are moments of clarity followed by deep and disturbing doubts.  Faith is formed in the spaces of our hearts, souls, interactions, as well as in our thought processes.

The notion that a child can go to six years of Sunday School, three years of Confirmation, and they are 'set' for the rest of their lives of 'faith' is preposterous, and yet that is what many in the Christian church have accepted as normative.  There is a church-wide need for us to become life-long learners and growers in faith.   It seems to me that we need to start this reform by shifting our language from education to formation.  Through our time together this week in the space of this blog, I hope that we can begin to imagine something different, more life-giving and generative than correctly making Paper Dolls.


Prayer:  O God of wisdom, in your goodness you provide faithful teachers for your church.  By your Holy Spirit give all teachers insight into your holy word, lives that are examples to us all, and the courage to know and do the truth; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

(from ELW, page 74)

Today’s scripture: Isaiah 29: 14a

so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing.


Tomorrow, I raise some questions for us to ponder about the way that we teach and learn the Christian faith.

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day One (Sunday), Week Three: Reforming the way we teach the faith is not only for the kids

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Let me begin by saying that I am deeply grateful for my parents and their faithfulness.  Were it not for their weekly practice of bringing me to worship, Sunday School, Confirmation class, etc. I might be an Orthodontist.  Not only did my parents get me to a nurturing place for my young faith, but they took an active part in my faith education.  Mom taught Sunday School.  Dad prayed each week when we got back to our pew after receiving communion.  They taught me by their actions not only on Sunday.  Throughout the week we prayed before meals and bible stories were not uncommon literary choices for bedtime ritual. 

 

I am also deeply grateful for the numerous Sunday School teachers and teachers at-large (who were simply present week in and week out and took an interest in the children) at the two churches of my childhood/youth.  In the spirit of thanks, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pastors who gave witness to Christ’s love and shared with me the message of Grace.   Two pastors, in particular, stand out – Pastor Gary Rickel and Pastor Mark Bruesehoff.  Both were graduates of Seminex (as would be my Spiritual Director in later years, Pastor Mark’s older brother Dick).       

 

For those who may not know, Seminex was a break-off seminary of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, the flagship seminary of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  If you would like a fuller history, check out the Wikipedia entry for Seminex: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seminex. As we think about celebrating the 500th commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation, what happened in St. Louis in the 1970’s is evidence of the ongoing nature of God’s Spirit at work in the church.  Akin to Luther’s actions centuries before was the courage of faculty and students to protest and march off the campus of an institution that was caught up in the politics of a church that was restricting academic freedom and Biblical interpretation.  They went into ‘exile’ not knowing if any of them would ever be allowed to preach, preside, or serve in a congregation.   What is more, without official academic accreditation, Seminex would not have been able to issue degrees and diplomas.  Again, the word that comes to my mind is “courage.” 

 

Eventually, the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago issued degrees and congregations called these reformation-minded pastors.  The path to serve in congregations, however, was not a particularly easy one for the graduates.  Two of those congregations that called Seminex pastors were Bethany Lutheran Church in North Bergen and St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Secaucus – the places that nurtured my burgeoning faith.

 

Though Pastor Rickel and Pastor Mark had very different gifts, these servants of Christ taught me that it was okay to question.  No doubt, they learned this lesson from their own Seminex experience.  Not only was it okay to ask questions, but this process was critical in the development of faith.  Questions are the grist for the mills of faith and Reformation.  Later on, in seminary, I read the work of Paul Tillich who identified doubt as a critical component in a faith life that is dynamic and alive (see Dynamic of Faith or the Courage to Be.)

 

I am grateful for the continued witness of the Seminex pastors to the church.  As I raise questions of reform in the context of parish ministry, I feel that I am standing on their shoulders – or at least receiving courage for the task.  I hope that my ministry will honor the same Christ who was honored by their sacrifices.  

 

This week, I will be looking at the need for the church to shift its understanding regarding how we teach the faith.  We need to move FROM an education-based approach (where we teach faith as an object – much like Algebra in school) TO a formation-based understanding (where we nurture faith as a relationship.)  It may seem like I am splitting a fine hair, but the distinction is critical.  There is much at stake.  In a secular culture that is no longer supportive of Christian faith (or any religion for that matter), the church needs to change its methods on both how it passes down the faith to the next generation and how it continues to nurture the faith of this generation.  At risk are issues of vocation, spirituality, and worship. 

 

So let’s jump into some questions, raise some concerns, and prayerfully consider reformation in this third week of our time together.


Prayer:  Gracious and holy God, give us diligence to seek you, wisdom to perceive you, and patience to wait for you.  Grant us, O God, a mind to meditate on you; eyes to behold you; ears to listen for your word; a heart to love you; and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, Amen.  

(from ELW, page 76)

Today’s scripture: Isaiah 29: 13

The LORD said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips,while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; 


Tommorrow, I share an experience that illustrates the need for reformation of the way we teach faith. 

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.

 

Day Seven (Saturday), Week Two: TO a Place of a truly Open Table.

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As a Lutheran pastor who has spent considerable time and energy around reforming congregational communion practices, the Table continues to be a place of focus when it comes to Reformation.   What we say and do around the Table has an impact on who we are as a worshiping community.  Further, our table practices shape our discipleship as followers of Jesus.  

Where our practices align with Jesus' meal practices, as recorded in scripture, we find hospitality, grace, mercy, hope, and resurrection.  In our communion with Christ - and in these sacred values embodied in the sacrament - we find that the gift of life - Christ's own body - is given and celebrated in the context of our own lives.  Here we find Luther’s interchange of love played out in real time.  As we partake this sacred meal, we find ourselves strengthened in our faith for faithful engagement in the struggles and challenges of our world. 

Where our practices do not align with Jesus' meal practices as recorded in scripture, we are in need of reformation.

I wonder if the long-held tradition/practice of 'fencing' the Table around baptism invites such reform.  Over the centuries, communion has been reserved exclusively for the baptized.   Those who come to the table, come already as disciples (or at least as the 'baptized').  The Body of Christ shared at the Table feeds those became baptized in Christ at the font.  There is something good and connected in such sacramental thinking.   In an orderly and Christian social context, there is a natural progression from birth through the waters of grace to the ongoing nurture of grace in the sharing of the supper.  

However, in the post-Christendom context in which we find ourselves, this natural progression is becoming more and more a fanciful construction.  With the largest growing religious segment of the U.S. population being the 'nones' (those who indicate a belief in God but do not claim any religious affiliation), the number of non-baptized (or baptized but never in church) is only going to increase.  In the face of such a dramatic social change, do we maintain our 'fence' around the table and admit only the baptized?   Do we go the route of those who announce that 'only the baptized' or 'only those who are in full sacramental agreement' are welcome to receive?  Those who link sacramental integrity with the purity of practice employ this Pharisaic strategy resting in a doctrinal certitude that is simply unopen to open the Table.  Others go the route of those who announce 'open table' without acknowledging that denominational regulations say otherwise.  It is an ecclesiastic version of a 'don't ask, don't tell' strategy that privileges local autonomy at the expense of the larger church, the church’s teaching and ecumenical agreements.

When I think about the meal practices of Jesus (particularly in the gospel of Luke), God's hospitality and welcome emerge in such a way that challenges any 'fences' that we might put on the Table to restrict access. 

Might the meal of the baptized followers of Jesus be such that we can share in this hospitality in new and transformative ways by removing all the barriers?  Does the integrity of the meal depend so much on who is allowed to receive as it does on the values of the baptized community that dares to set the table boldly in the name of Jesus?  Might the meal remain the meal of the baptized even as we share it with folks who have yet to come to the font?   Might we give greater witness to a broader understanding of Christ's hospitality, welcome, grace, and mercy by removing fences than by retaining them?

More questions, I know.  Perhaps they will be answered not by ecclesiastical conference and assembly through formal adaptation of statements and revised practices but rather at the Table in the local parish.  Albeit in violation of official mandates but aligned with Jesus’ table fellowship, if people are simply welcomed by the love of Jesus as they come to church, then it might work itself out in an organic way.  If “welcomed and communed regardless” becomes the ground level practice of the church, then over time the baptismal fence will be lowered.  It wouldn’t be the first time that church doctrines and formal proclamations had to catch up with the movement of the Spirit.  I will like to be at that Churchwide Assembly in years to come when the Church makes “Open Table” the official teaching of the E.L.C.A.  If I am, I will turn to the person next to me and say, “we’ve been doing this for years!”

[note: today’s blog contains previously published material that I wrote for the 499th commemoration of the Reformation in 2016]


Prayer:  Gracious God, why is truly welcoming others so difficult?  Why do we have a hard time opening our sacramental table, our homes, and our hearts to those who stand outside our experiences and identities?  Forgive the hardness of our hearts that prevents us from truly participating in your unbounded love for all peoples and creation.  Inspire within us a kind of hospitality and welcome that connects with the life of Jesus.  Breathe into our bodies the spirit that will embolden our response so that we might make your love in Christ known to others.  Through Christ, Amen.  

Today’s scripture:  Isaiah 25:9c

 This is the LORD for whom we have waited;

 let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.


Tomorrow, we start Week Three.  From reforming our Eucharistic Welcome, we turn to reforming the way that we think about how we grow in faith; from education to faith formation.   Thank you for reading what I have written this past week. 

Thank you for reading today's blog.  If it was meaningful to you, please "like" below, on FaceBook, or share it with your friends.   Feel free to leave a comment below.  I appreciate and listen to feedback that encourages growth.  In Eucharistic joy, Walt.