Monday, August 29, 2016

Why as a pastor I'm committed to saying I'm sorry, and why it's so hard to do so

If the movement we know as Lutheranism has a center to it, it is repentance. The first thesis of Luther's famous 95 reads, 

Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

Jesus said: repent (Matthew 4:17, echoing John the Baptist in Matthew 3:2). In other words:

Do penance. πένητες διάγετε. Live life poor.

This is very hard. Metanoia (another word closely related to repentance, indicating a change of heart and mind, a turning around to new life) is never easy. 

But for Luther, and therefore Lutherans, and really all Christians, it is the whole of our life.

If we are called to repentance, then it should be fairly obvious that we have something we need to repent of. We are going to fail. We will mess up. We will fail one another.

I will fail you as a blogger. I will fail my people as pastor. I will fail my family as father or husband.

Then Jesus will say to me once again, "Repent."

I've been pondering this call to repentance while reading a couple of fascinating posts this past week. The first is from the Pew Forum, Choosing a New Church or House of Worship. People switch churches for all kinds of reasons (although a significant percentage of people, 50%, never switch churches). 

On first look, the Pew Forum article on choosing a new church is not much, or at least not primarily, about repentance. The primary reason people change churches is because they move. It's hard to say how moving is a form of repentance, although in some instances it might be.

But if you dig down into the study more deeply, you find some fascinating trends. A not insignificant number of respondents find that they disagree with the pastor. So they change their heart and commit to a new community because of differences of perspective/faith.

I think sometimes the best thing you can do is change churches. Not every community is a match for every person. However, I think most Christians, and most faith communities, need to learn true repentance a bit better first, before they switch, because at least some church switching is a way to avoid the hard work of repentance.

Lots of pastors just move around from church to church to avoid repenting. Lots of church members do also. Avoidance gets you away from the context where repentance is necessary, but it doesn't contribute to maturity and new life.

Notice Jesus did not say: Run away. For the kingdom of God is at hand.

The other article that has had me thinking about repentance is by Alan Jacobs, what became of Christian intellectuals? It's a fascinating read, with one sentence in particular that stood out: "The social value of the intellectual derives from his or her acknowledgment of multiple, not always harmonious, allegiances, and potentially competing values."

It seems to me that this is something Christianity in particular might contribute to the intellectual life, even if it isn't doing so as publicly as the Niebuhr's of old: a life centered in repentance is always acknowledging multiple, not always harmonious, values, even within the individual, and noticing how they are competing with one another. 

I wonder if the decline of Christian intellectuals is a corollary to the avoidance of repentance. The Christian intellectual life is hard work. It challenges faith, requires study, shuns quick and easy answers, offers profound challenges to status quo and bumper sticker theology. Repentance and the intellectual life are close cousins, both involving the mind and the change of mind that can occur through real repentance or true intellectual inquiry.

Praying the Great Litany

There are many version of the Great Litany, roughly always following the same structure but updated for language and sometimes for content. This is an adaptation of two, the version from the Book of Common Prayer and the version found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. In the ELW it is set to a chant tone, but it works very well as a regular prayer, either with a group or even prayed individually. I commend it to your use.
P: O Lord,
C: Have mercy.
P: O Christ,
C: Have mercy.
P: O Lord,
C: Have mercy. Amen
P: God the Father, in heaven,
C: have mercy.
P: God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
C: Have mercy.
P: God the Holy Spirit.
C: Have mercy.
P: Be gracious to us.
C: Spare us, good Lord.
P: Be gracious to us.
C: Help us, good Lord.
P: From all sin, from all error, from all evil; from the cunning assaults of the devil; from an unprepared and evil death; from war, bloodshed, and violence; from corrupt and unjust government; from sedition and treason; from epidemic, drought, and family; from fire and flood, earthquake, lightning and storm, and from everlasting death;
C: Good Lord, deliver us.
P: By the mystery of Your holy incarnation; by Your holy nativity; by Your baptism, fasting, and temptation; by Your agony and bloody sweat; by Your cross and suffering; by Your precious death and burial; by Your glorious resurrection and ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter;
C: Help us, good Lord.
P: In all time of our tribulation, in all time of our prosperity, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment,
C: Help us, good Lord.
P: Though unworthy we implore You
C: To hear us, O Lord.
P: To rule and govern Your holy whole church, to guide all servants of Your Church in the love of your word  Word and in holy living, to put an end to all schisms and causes of offense, to bring into the way of truth all who have erred and are deceived, to bless the Church’s life-giving message that Jesus is Lord, to bring comfort to the sorrowing and hope to those living in fear, to beat down Satan under our feet, to send faithful laborers into Your harvest, and to accompany Your Word with Your grace and Spirit,
C: We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
P: To raise those that fall and to strengthen those that stand, and to comfort and help the weakhearted and the distressed,
C: We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
P: To give to all peoples and nations justice and peace, to preserve our land from discord and strife, to give our country Your protection in every time of need, to direct and defend our president and all in authority, to bless and protect our magistrates and all our people, to keep in safety the members of our armed forces and to give wisdom to those in command, to behold and help all who are in danger or need or tribulation; to protect and guide all who travel; to preserve and provide for all women in childbirth; to watch over children and to guide the young; to heal the sick and to strengthen their families and friends, to bring reconciliation to families in discord, to provide for the unemployed and all in need, to be merciful to all who are imprisoned, to support, comfort, and guide all orphans, widowers, and widows; and to have mercy on all your people,
C: We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
P: To forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers and to turn their hearts; to give and preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth; and graciously to hear our prayers;
C: We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
P: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
C: We implore You to hear us.
P: Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,
C: Have mercy.
P: Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,
C: Have mercy.
P: Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,
C: Grant us Your peace.
P: O Christ,
C: Hear us.
P: O Lord,
C: Have mercy.
P: O Christ,
C: Have mercy.
P: O Lord,
C: Have mercy. Amen

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

So when can you eat the meal Jesus instituted, and who serves it?

Lately I've been chatting with colleagues in my denomination about our theology of the Eucharist. Or maybe I should say our ecclesiology of the Eucharist, because more than we have a theology of what the Lord's supper means, we seem to have a structure around who can preside at it.

In this post, I'm going to try and describe why I have a "radically adjacent" ecclesiology of the Lord's Supper compared to my denomination and many colleagues. On the one hand, this is going to go deep into the weeds of church practice, so move along if that doesn't interest you. On the other hand, I'm not going to go out and try to quote everything about this from other sources.

You can find a ton written about the sacraments. I mean, there are shelves and shelves of books just on the Supper and Baptism. But for the purposes of this blog post, you probably just need to know that our denomination has a statement on the sacraments called the Use of the Means of Grace, and we have some things written about the sacraments in our book of confessions. The most central of these are articles X and XIII of the Augsburg Confession, but the one pastors most frequently debate (and the one actually most congregations really practice) is Article XIV (Of Ecclesiastical Order).

Plus, Jesus said some stuff about the meal, so there's that.

So, here's my basic set of theses on the Lord's Supper:

I. Jesus instituted this meal when he said, after distributing wine and bread as his body and blood, "Do this in remembrance of me."

II. He really meant it, both in the sense that this really is in some way his body and blood present in bread and wine, but also that we should do it in remembrance, and often (because he also said, "As often as you eat this bread and drink this wine..."

III. That's about it. So, when any community gathers that is centered in Christ, they are commissioned to share this meal. 

IV. By necessity, they'll have to come up with some way to share the meal. One very common way for that to happen is for the community to say to one of its members, "Hey, could you bless this meal for us?" So then that person does it. 

V. This meal is and signifies many things, but at root its doing in a meal what it is in actuality--the embodying of Christ in the world, faithing the people who have faith in it.

VI. Was Christum treibt--it's a motto of Luther's worth contemplating. We need more of doing Jesus as we together see fit, and the enforcement of bourgeoise forms of church on the denomination as a whole simply isn't working well.

A lot of complications have crept in around this meal that go way beyond what I've outlined above. As just a few examples, most churches now believe you have to be or should be "ordained" in order to "consecrate" the meal. And diverse denominations and communities aren't always sure they can "recognize" each other's ministries, which in the end means they aren't sure that the other communities are really sharing the Lord's Supper or not.

Almost all of these arguments (and they are legion) revolve around WHO can preside. Even most churches (at least churches in my denomination) would be reluctant to share communion without an ordained pastor presiding.

I am the called pastor in my church, so most weeks I preside. If I'm gone on vacation, we bring in ordained clergy either from within our own denomination, or from full communion partners. In my case, this typically means retired ELCA clergy or local Episcopalian clergy.

I don't "gate" the meal and the presidency of the meal, but I'm kind of under the impression this is the piety of my parish. On average, they probably want an ordained pastor to preside.

Additionally, and here's where things get really tricky, I'm ordained in "apostolic succession." This means there were certain conditions on the presence of bishops and such at my ordination that made my ordination more authentic and easily recognizable by other denominations. In my case, I'm ordained into at least three forms of apostolic succession (Anglican, Latvian Lutheran, and Swedish Lutheran).

Most of my congregation probably doesn't care about this part at all. But our ecumenical partners do, and our denomination does.

Why does all this matter to me, and why do I suggest, often with considerable zeal, that we should throw the floodgates open and let anyone preside at the meal?

For me, it's about mission, and a better sense of the community trusting that Christ is present among them.

Here's what I think, if I'm being REALLY critical. I think our current ecclesiology implies that Jesus is only present when the bishop shows up.

I know I know, people are going to say that isn't what we believe. And they're right. But our practice implies it, because you can only consecrate the Lord's Supper in our tradition if you've been ordained, and you can only be ordained by one of the bishops and become "rostered," so in practice, if you're really strict about it, we only let Jesus show up under the hands of bishops.

But what I think we actually believe as a church is something more along the lines of real presence in every community. That is, Jesus shows up wherever two or three are gathered. Which led me to post this a while back:

"Wherever two or three are gathered in my name." "As often as you eat and drink, do this in remembrance of me." 
That's Scripture. 
"Wherever there are enough households able to build a church building and afford a pastor with benefits, there am I in the midst of them." "Whenever you can find an ordained pastor, do this in remembrance of me."  
That's not Scripture.

Obviously, this is an over-simplification. But I think it's a simplification with merit, because honestly, we've started to operate as if the second quote, which isn't Scripture, actually is. The proof would be: Does the average ELCA member receive communion regularly outside of a church building, or in a community with a pastor who isn't on the church payroll?

I bet not. And they don't because nobody is imagining alternatives. Not only that, but some pastors are so territorial, they'd be bothered if Eucharists just started happening in their churches without them. And some parishes have such strong pieties around the Eucharist that they'd be uncomfortable with small groups or families gathering to share the Lord's Supper apart from the Sunday morning assembly with the ordained, consecrated pastor in apostolic succession presiding.

It's about this time in the conversation that clergy-types will bring up some funny things. They'll mention "good order" (because that's in our confession) or they'll mention ecumenical agreements (we have a few). And they're right, there's language in the confessions about the sacraments being presided over in "good order" and we need to make sure we're being good neighbors with the Episcopalians.

But what does that mean? For example, whose good order? Does good order mean a structure for ordination and training pastors? Or might good order mean "organized in such a way that people are sharing Jesus all over the place"?

What if the average parishioner in an ELCA congregation was equipped by their pastor to preside at communion? You know, the Bible did say pastors "equip the saints for the work of ministry." So is that just supposed to be making coffee for the narthex after worship, or might it be serving communion themselves in their small groups, at nursing homes, at prisons?

What if the meal Jesus instituted was established not to be guarded by a priestly class, but carried out by all disciples of Christ to be a priestly presence in the world?

There are a ton of ways to slice this onion, and one way is to imagine that all pastors (by which I mean, the kind like myself who serve congregations large enough to hire them as full-time employees) are actually bishops, and our responsibility is to ordain the people of God to preside at the meal Jesus instituted.

Perhaps I haven't done a good job training my people to be presiders at the Eucharist. In actual practice I'm pretty old school. My people get communion when they come on Sunday morning, and I speak the words and lift the bread and hand it out. But what if the mission of God is more living and active when the pastor stands in the midst of the assembly in persona Christi, and says, "Now go out and share this meal with others. You be the pastors."

This is not an either/or. We organize at all kinds of institutional levels, and I'm quite sure we'll always have synods and denominations, and bourgeois congregations with full-time staff clergy. If we can do a both/and approach, we can imagine lots of ways presiding at communion can be isomorphic rather than hierarchical.

But we can do a lot better job of recognizing the presence of Christ in households, small groups, and mission sized communities, and recognizing that they have everything in their midst to share the Eucharist--a group of people, a bit of bread and wine, and somebody, or a few, they can ask, "Would you offer the blessing?"

Addition: Perhaps one could say the difference between my proposal and the traditional proposals is that I locate the meal primarily in an event, whereas the traditional approaches locate the meal under the presidency of a person. So, is it the meal Christ instituted when the right person under the right hierarchy presides, or is it the meal Christ instituted in its happening among those who have heard the command? This doesn't have to be a complete either/or, but it does center things for us a bit.

In other words, I'm for things like mutual discernment, community, and apostolic succession: I just want to move the goal posts on what that looks like.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Give Refugee Children the Opportunity of an Education

Dear Clint,

It's the time of year when summer is coming to a close and school-aged children are preparing to return to the classroom. Many children are excited to be going back to school and looking forward to seeing their friends and sharing their tales of summer fun.

We have the special honor of helping refugee children find not only a safe place to call home, but a safe environment where they can learn. But we can't do it without your help.
Give children
a safe place to
live and learn.
Donate today!
So many children we serve come from countries where education services are erratic at best, or from refugee camps where their schooling has been put on hold for years. Children from Central America are unable to attend school every day due to violence, and if they are girls, they are not able to leave the house to attend school without an adult male or private car which is unaffordable for most.

Enrique*, a refugee child who was unable to attend school in his home country of El Salvador because of threats to his life by the gangs, broke down in tears when he found out that here in America he would be able to register and get support in attending school. His father came to the United States in the hopes of offering his son a better opportunity; he also became very emotional when he learned Enrique was going to be able to go to school and fulfill his dreams for a better future.

An education put on hold is not unique to Enrique, it is the experience of hundreds of thousands of refugee children searching for peace and safety.

As the school year begins, please be generous and support Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). Your donation today in support of Enrique and children like him, can ensure those most vulnerable will be cared for and have the future they deserve.

In Gratitude,
Linda Hartke
President & CEO

P.S. Your generosity at the start of this school year can provide LIRS the momentum it needs to give children a safe place to live and learn. Thank you in advance for your support!