30 April 2009

A Question on the Promises of Christ Pertaining to Prayer in His Name

Reverend Fathers and Brothers in Christ, the Blackbirds have received an earnest request from one of our readers for an answer to his question concerning prayer. In particular, he desires to understand from Holy Scripture the promises of Christ Jesus pertaining to prayer in His Name. The reader has not posed the question anonymously, but has asked that his name not be posted publicly, so I am raising the question on his behalf. I strongly suspect that many other readers have questions of their own pertaining to the profound promises and mysteries of prayer, and I, with them, look forward to the comments that any and all of the Blackbirds may have to offer. In addition, the responses and comments of other pastors and lay readers are welcome.

Here, then, is the question as it was received, slightly abbreviated:

When I ask anyone whether I can expect God to grant me what I ask in true prayer (for not all that we call prayer really is prayer), the answer always seems to be the same. People tell me, "God will give you what you ask for, unless He sees that it would be bad for you," or "God will give you what you ask for, unless He sees that something else would be better for you." The standard response seems to be "what you ask or something better." Where is that written?
My question pertains only to the prayers of those who truly abide in Christ. Non-Christians and false Christians cannot pray at all, but only go through the motions of praying. They depend on their own or someone else’s righteousness, not solely on the righteousness of Christ. I am not talking about them, nor about things which they might ask but true Christians will not. There are things which true Christians never will ask of God, things which clearly are contrary to Scripture and for which true faith cannot ask.
Everything I read in Scripture tells me to believe that God wants me to ask of Him whatever I wish, depending solely on His mercy in the atoning work of His Son, and to expect Him to grant whatever I ask in Jesus’ name, which alone is worthy to be heard. He tells us many times that He wants us to pray to Him. Indeed, He commands us to pray, as the Large and Small Catechisms teach us.
In John 14:13-14, Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it." In John 15:7, He said, "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." In John 16:23-24, He said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full." He says similar things many times throughout both Testaments, and gives us many examples of His gracious answers to the prayers of the faithful. I cite these in particular because they seem to me to be the most clear, distinct, and explicit.
Jesus said these things to the Twelve in the last few hours of His earthly life, between the Last Supper and His betrayal. He was not speaking in parables, nor leaving any room for misunderstanding. And He said, "Whatever you ask," "whatever you wish." He did not say "unless I know of something better." The only qualifications He put on His promises are that we ask in His name, not our own or anyone else’s; and a description of those to whom the promises are given: "If you abide in me and my words abide in you."
I never have found any clear, distinct passages of Scripture which explicitly support the "that or something better" view of prayer. People often point me to 1 John 5:14, which says "And this is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us." They say, "See, here it says that God only hears us if we ask for things that are according to His will." But does "according to his will" refer to the thing asked, or to the asking? In other words, does He hear us only when the thing we ask is according to His will, or when our asking is according to His will, that is, in the name of Jesus, based on His truthfulness and righteousness alone? How would we know if a particular request is according to His will, since He gives us no extra-scriptural revelations?
The very next verse says, "And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him." If the answer to our prayer depended on what we ask, the Holy Spirit would not have caused St. John to use the words "whatever we ask," for God never makes mistakes, and always says exactly what He means to say.
Here I am told, "But we don’t really know what’s good for us. What if the thing you ask for would be bad for you? Surely a loving God would not give you anything bad, even if you, in your ignorance, asked for it. He would give you something better instead." In one of his sermons on prayer (God Grant it, pp. 422-424), Dr. Walther wrote, "God has still another wonderful way of hearing. He does not always give us what we ask for, but substitutes something else — and that something else is invariably better than what we requested. . . . Isn’t it still an answer when God gives us something better than what we desired?" Yes, it is an answer, but it is not the answer Jesus promised. Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in my name." He said, "Ask and it shall be given to you" (Matt. 7:7), not, "ask and it or something better shall be given to you." And as we see from the examples of the saints of old, in both Testaments, and in the whole history of the Church, God is in the habit of giving it and something better, beyond all that we ask or think.
Walther continues: "‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts know what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God’(Romans 8:26-27). Here we see that we often do not understand our own prayers. With our words we ask for something that may be harmful to us, but the Holy Ghost, who dwells in us, groans without our knowing for something more beneficial. God, who understands this mind of our prayers, which is hidden even to us, gives us the better response. Isn’t this a true answer?" As before, this would be a true answer, but it is not the answer Jesus promised.
It is true that we do not know what to ask for, but that does not mean that God will not give us the things for which we do ask. Walther (and Luther) said that we might ask for things which would be harmful to us, and that God, our loving Father, would by no means give us such things. But look at the very next verse: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). Knowing this, how can we think that anything we ask of God can harm us, even though we are all blind fools? Is God not able both to grant our prayers and to make them turn out to be the best thing for us?
An earthly father often must withhold things for which his children ask, because he sees that they would be harmful. But God is not an earthly father. He does not have to say, like an earthly father, "I see that this or that action would have good or bad consequences, therefore I will or will not do it." He can say, "I will to do this, and I decree that these shall be the consequences." Everything He does is totally voluntary. As Dr. Luther pointed out, "He is God. For His will no cause of reason could be assigned as a rule and standard of action, seeing that nothing is equal or superior to His will; it itself is the rule of all things. For if for it there were any rule or standard, or any cause or reason, it would no longer be the will of God" (From The Bondage of the Will, excerpted in What Luther Says, Plass, ed., p.1439).
In the face of all this, how can I accept the teaching that God will give me what I ask only if it would be the best thing without His intervention? Why are the things we ask in prayer assumed to be excluded from "all things," as if God could not also work them together for our good? I have tried for years to accept the teaching of "that or something better" and "unless it’s bad for you," and every time, I am stopped by the clear words of Christ: "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do." So I ask again: Where is "that or something better" written? Why is it that this teaching seems to be the standard answer to questions about prayer? I am not interested in implications or inferences, in rational arguments, or in experience. I am interested only in clear, distinct passages of Scripture.

28 April 2009

Weighing In on John 3 & 6

I appreciate Pastor Stuckwisch’s resilience in keeping the matter of early communion before us. I also appreciate the contributions and expressed concerns of all who have posted. As I’ve not posted here since the blog's inception, and since this is a subject that continues to interest me, I’ll add my two cents.

It is not simply a pastoral heart that has me wanting to see our young admitted to the Sacrament earlier than later. I am convinced from Holy Scripture that such is better than a lengthy absence from the Table following admission to the Font.

John 3 and John 6, I believe, speak of the absolute necessity of conversion and faith. Unless the Holy Spirit has worked faith, where and when He pleases in those who hear the Gospel, there is no salvation. As our Lord puts it, “apart from Me, you can do nothing.” Only in Christ is anyone saved.

John 3 speaks of the absolute necessity of conversion and does so according to the initial Sacrament of Holy Baptism. I don’t think any of our Lutheran fathers ever questioned that. At the same time, to say that John 3 speaks “exclusively” of Baptism leads us down the path of concluding that anyone who dies before that blessed washing is necessarily damned. Our fathers did not say that. Level heads in the early church acknowledged that catechumens who died a martyr’s death before the Sacrament of Holy Baptism were not lost. It is not the absence of Baptism but the absence of faith that damns. An honest consideration of the testimony of the fathers, I believe, must conclude that the Church – when it was at its best – acknowledged that the Spirit is working faith through the Word even leading up to the receiving of Holy Baptism. Otherwise, what is the point of the Church’s questioning at the Font: “Do you renounce the devil . . . ?” And, “Do you believe . . . ?”

No one is baptized in the Church unless he is first examined. No one is baptized apart from repentance and faith. If a child is too young to answer for himself, parents or sponsors answer in his stead, but the question is still asked of the child. I conclude therefore that while I MAY have baptized someone who did not repent and believe, I do not know that to be the case. Rather, from the answers given, I can say that – as far as I know – I have always baptized those who were together with us in the One True Faith.

I realize the bugaboo John 6 presents to us Lutherans in respect to the Sacrament of the Altar. Still, I cannot escape the conclusion that while it speaks “chiefly” of faith – as John 3 speaks chiefly of the necessity of conversion – it does not speak exclusively of a spiritual eating and drinking of Christ’s flesh and blood. Rather, as John 3 speaks of conversion in the context of Holy Baptism, so John 6 speaks of spiritual eating and drinking in the language of that Sacrament wherein the true Body and Blood are given us Christians to eat and to drink in bread and wine. In other words, with the majority of Christians, including us Lutherans – when we aren’t fighting those who claim that the flesh counts for nothing – I run as quickly to the Sacrament of the Altar at John 6 as I do to Holy Baptism at John 3. I’ve got our Lutheran hymnody to back me up on that, too!

What does this contribute to the discussion at hand? Well, while I cannot say that an infant of faithful Christian parents who dies prior to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism is necessarily damned, that does not lead me to teach that Baptism should be postponed.

Our Confessions speak of the necessity of Holy Baptism, but they do not speak as if the Spirit cannot or does not work faith even leading up to Holy Baptism. That said, who of us does not groan inwardly until a child is brought to the Font? Who of us does not urge the speed of that day, rather than its slowness? We are not ex opera style legalists, but we urge that Baptism be given sooner rather than later. We are eager and anxious for the comfort and surety of what Christ has promised in His Water and His Word, all the while trusting the Spirit to be at work even before Baptism through the preached, confessed and prayed Gospel, whether dealing with infants or older converts to the Faith.

As a father, I must say that my attitude toward communing my daughters fell along the same line, being informed by what our Lord says in John 6. My daughters weren’t baptized immediately upon birth, but within a Sunday or two of the same. John 3 speaks of the necessity of Baptism, though I would have answered for my daughters before their baptism as I did on the day they were Washed. “Yes, I renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways.” And, “Yes, I believe in God the Father . . . etc.”

Still, how much extra care and attention until the Sacrament was applied!

Likewise, how much consternation in this father’s heart until my daughters joined me at the Sacrament of the Altar! After all, John 6 speaks of the absolute necessity of faith in the very language most applicable to the Holy Supper. And if my daughters WERE eating and drinking by faith – otherwise, they could not be Christians - why not also orally in the Sacrament which Christ provided?

As John 3 rightly raised in me the eager desire to see my children washed, John 6 raised in me increasing concern that my daughters were not eating and drinking the very Body and Blood which Christ left us Christians in His Meal.

I don’t say my daughters would have been damned before admission to the Table. Neither would I say they’d have been damned had they died on the way to the Church the day of their Baptism. John 3 speaks of the absolute necessity of conversion, which the Spirit can work even leading up to Baptism. But John 3 – and other passages – made me anxious until my daughters WERE baptized. John 6 made me anxious until my daughters were communed.

A right understanding of John 3 keeps me from treating Baptism as the absolute point at which the Spirit is able to work faith, and a right understanding of John 6 keeps me from saying that the only faithful practice is to follow up infant baptism with infant communion. I Corinthians also helps in that regard, as does the proprium of the Eucharist itself. One need not reach a certain age to be born again, but I must say - at the very least - that the Supper is given to those who are able to eat and drink. As has been said in this discussion, Israel need not have forced its infants to eat manna or drink from the rock before they were weaned. But as soon as they were? As soon as a child COULD eat the Passover Lamb?

And now, as soon as a child is instructed sufficiently to confess that what he or she is receiving is what Christ has given and shed?

For me, John 6 urges toward sooner than later with respect to the Altar as much as John 3 does with respect to the Font.

ESV John 3:5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

ESV John 6:53 So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

Rick Sawyer
Good Shepherd, Brandon, MS

A Postmodern take on the "Post Church" idea

(This comes forth from being at my district's convention this past weekend and hearing the various speakers - of note being the Blue Ribbon Task ___________ on Structure and also Dr. Robert Newton speak to the importance of mission as hermeneutical key in a Post-Church society)

One of the hip and hep ideas amongst the muckity-mucks of theology today is that we are entering into a "Post-Church" era. This idea basically says that back in the good old days a few decades ago, we were a "Churched" society - that the Church was respected, that pastors were by virtue of being pastors cultural movers and shakers, and that there was an innate draw of people towards the Church. Now, however, they would say that this is not the case - we have moved Post-Church, and the Church doesn't have it's immediate cultural impact or power. And from there, the "and this is what we must do about it" vary in great detail based upon who is giving it.

What will follow is a "Postmodern" take on this idea using a Foucaulian style analysis of the situation. I suppose if I were so inclined, I could make this very scholarly, but I won't. This is a few minutes before heading into the office - but just see what you think. Perhaps one should view this as a rough intellectual draft.

1 - Church and Post Church Era itself.

I find that I am dubious of the distinction between the Church and the Post Church Era - at least in any fashion that tries to say that we have been in a "Church" centered era for the past 100 years. A simple look at the arts will demonstrate that Christianity has been moving further and further from the center. When religious material is treated in the last Century's art, it generally is from a dismissive or mocking approach. In literature, what religious stand do the characters ever take? And Television? It says something when the most strongly "Christian" characters on TV are on the Simpsons. (Actually, there are some interesting studies on how Christianity is used on the Simpsons in a sympathetic light - which is ironic given the furor that the Simpsons caused when it first aired amongst the moralists.)

I would submit that we are not seeing a change in culture in the past few centuries, but rather those in the Church are realizing that some of their own cultural assumptions are not in fact true. Consider your own congregation. The faithful assume that they should be at Church, and lament when people don't regularly attend. They don't understand how people could not attend. The assumption is that of course you go to Church on Sunday. That has been the standard assumption - but it's never been true in this Country. In fact, as the stats here from Christianity Today (and Gallup) demonstrate, even in the good old days, the peak attendance was 49%.

If less than half of people do something, and we assume that "everyone" does it as a matter of course, and then we understand that not everyone does - this does not denote a cultural change. This is merely folks in the Church coming to grips with reality.

The idea of moving into a Post-Church era is really nothing more than abandoning the egotistical myth of the Church's modern importance. It is not a cultural change - things have been as they have been. Objectively, there is no change - it's only a change as viewed from an internal, subjective position. So why then, is this couched in terms of cultural change?

2 - The Changing World = a Need for Change

We have seen that a variety of plans and responses to the objectively false idea of entering a "Post-Church" era have been presented. The reason for this is one that is rather simple. If a change is going to happen, then the person implementing the change gathers power. Structures and organizations will be modified, all in the name of meeting the current challenge, which tend to place power in the hands of the person making the change.

One can only get a change approved provided that there is some impetus for that change. If things culturally remain as they are - there is no need for change. But, if we are presented with a spectacular change in society, the fear of that change gives a person's call for change political weight.

If you can convince people that the world is changing, then you can convince them to accept your changes which localize power in you. It doesn't matter whether or not the world actually is changing, as long as you convince them.

Now, before charges of a lack of charity are leveled against me - this is not to insinuate that people calling for various changes in the Church are deviously distorting the truth - they may themselves be caught in subjective views of reality and actually think that massive changes are occurring. We do live in a time in American society where there is quite a bit of fear being tossed around - so it is no surprise that this as a matter of course sloshes into the Church. Nevertheless it can be used to a person's advantage.

3 - The Various Plans

Consider the various plans that have been introduced in the LCMS that are needed as a result of the "Changing" Society. You will note that they are introduced to focus power in the hands of the people proposing the Change.

A - Synodical Restructuring. The reason given is that times are changing. The solution - give more central power to the Synod. Who proposes this? A Synodical task force.

B - Missio Dei. Dr. Newton, a Missiologist, notes that we must respond to the Post Church era with a more mission focused approach. This increases the focus on his speciality. Moreover, it is latched onto by Synod. Synod at large has been the traditional clearing house for missions. If more Church work is viewed as mission, it falls more and more under Synodical purview.

C - Ablaze Congregational Planting. The planting of congregations had been an organic thing, where congregations would give birth to other congregations. Now (at least in Oklahoma), there is structured planning on the district level about where to place congregations and district funds. This makes the district vital to the planting of congregations, where before, if anything, it was simply a clearing house for funds and a place for helping to find a pastor.

D - SMPP. Note that the Seminaries were involved in this, just as much as the Synodical higher-ups. With the various lay ministry practices in each district, control of who gets ordained/licensed was decentralized. Both the Seminaries and the Synod hierarchy acquired more control via SMPP.

There are more and more that we could look at, but this will suffice for now. And note - this is not "evil" necessarily. If you know something is not true, but use it to acquire power - that is morally wicked. If you act in ignorance or your own fear, it's just simple reason to try to acquire more control to yourself so that you can face the changes in the way that you see fit.

4 - Conclusion.

So, what am I trying to say with this? Simply this - there has been a lot of focus on responding to our ever changing society. The amount of change is over blown. Things aren't as wild as they seem. Also, people will take advantage of the idea of needing to respond to change in order to acquire power - so pay attention to who gains power when a change in Church practice/structure/organization/attitude is presented.

26 April 2009


Dr. Stuckwisch and Rev. McCain continue to have a profitable discussion below - and I'd encourage our readers to keep up with it. I don't want to muddle in that specific discussion (which has, indeed, gotten very specific) - but their discussion has brought to the fore of my mind a couple of points that have occurred to me concerning the appropriate age for communion. I offer them here for the brethren to digest.

1. We (Confessional Lutherans) seem to be assuming that the practice at the time of the Reformation was good, right, and salutary. What if it wasn't? What if the Lutherans inherited a less than ideal practice? There's a lot of reading to be done here - but is it fair to say that since the practice of increasing the age of communion past the "age of reason" came out of the Lateran IV mindset that perhaps it bears some rethinking that goes beyond "what our Lutheran fathers did"? We've done that with notions like the
semper virgo - why not this?

2. We (Confessional Lutherans) are hanging an awfully heavy hat on I Cor. 11:28. Perhaps this bears some careful reconsideration. Maybe we shou
ld start by reconsidering the comments of the foremost interpreter of the Augsburg Confession:

...When in I Corinthians [11:28] Paul said that a man should examine himself [and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup], he spoke only of adults because he was speaking about those who were quarreling among themselves. However, he doesn’t here forbid that the sacrament of the altar be given even to children. (Martin Luther, Table Talk #365; Luther’s Works, Vol. 54 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967], p. 58) "


22 April 2009

To Clarify My Points on Catechesis and the Holy Communion

Setting aside the particular case that I previously mentioned, and taking up the question put to me concerning Dr. Luther's Catechisms, here is a more general summary of my understanding of catechesis in relation to the Holy Communion:

In the past, as a prerequisite for First Communion, I required that catechumens memorize (and recite from memory) the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Our Father, all but the longest of Luther's questions and answers on Holy Baptism, as well as the first two questions and answers concerning the Office of the Keys and the Sacrament of the Altar.
In more recent years, I have not required that a catechumen have all of this material memorized prior to First Communion. Rather, I have taken into account the context of ongoing catechesis that a young catechumen is receiving, both in the home and within the life of the church. I have tried to distinguish between the purpose and blessing of memorizing the Word, and the Word of God itself, which alone brings about and sustains repentance and faith. That is to say, it is not memorizing per se that catechizes the child and prepares him or her for the Holy Communion; it is the Word of God, alive with Christ and His Spirit, which does that divine work of catechization. Memorization serves and supports that Word of God; but so does a familial context of daily prayer and faithful church attendance.
Some children can memorize the Word very easily, without necessarily being engaged in the Word through daily prayer and catechesis. I rejoice in their knowledge and confession of the Word, to be sure, but I do not consider such a child to be better prepared than another child who may find memory work a constant struggle, but who is daily and richly immersed in that Word of God within the family and in the life of the Church.
In the Preface to the Large Catechism, Dr. Luther teaches (and, with him, we teach and confess) that fathers are required by God to catechize their families and households; in doing so, they are to expect their children and other members of the household to repeat the primary texts of the chief parts word for word, and that any servant who is unwilling to do so should be dismissed (and any child who refuses to do so sent to bed without any supper). Repeating things word for word is an effective pedagogical method of catechesis, and it certainly does lead to memorization of the text being repeated. However, it is the process of teaching through repetition that is fundamental, rather than the sooner-or-later outcome of verbatim memorization. The primary burden, in such a case, is on the catechist rather than the catechumen.
Dr. Luther indicates that one should know the texts of the first three chief parts before receiving the Holy Communion; but I do not equate "knowledge" with memorization (nor memorization per se with knowledge). Children are taught to know these texts by their parents and families praying them and confessing them and putting them into practice in the home. Again, this very process will foster and facilitate the memorization of these texts, but that will happen at different paces and intervals of progress, depending on the individual’s intellectual capacity and ability.
In Luther's Preface to the Small Catechism, he deplores the fact that people who are supposed to be Christians, who have been baptized and are receiving the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, do not even know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments. He faults the bishops and pastors, in particular, because they have not been catechizing the people even in these most basic, fundamental matters of God's Word. Thus, Luther urges his brother pastors to have compassion for the people, and to "inculcate this Catechism in the people, especially the young." It is clear from the context that what Luther means by "this Catechism" is the primary texts of the first three chief parts. His own explanations are described as these "tables and charts," which are offered as a means of assisting in the instruction of the Catechism itself.
Luther then outlines a plan for the process of catechesis, by which the people (including those already receiving the Holy Communion) are to be drilled in the basics and taught to understand them. It is evident from Luther's comments and examples that he envisions this to be a pattern for ongoing, lifelong catechesis, which serves both young and old, each age according to its own circumstances.
When Luther speaks of the necessity of a fixed text, it is again clear that he has the primary texts of the first three chief parts in mind: "The honored fathers understood this well, and therefore they all consistently used one form of the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments." Of course, the same principle applies to the explanations that Dr. Luther provides in the form of charts and tables, but he is not referring to his explanations at this point.
With the young, in particular, Dr. Luther urges that their pastors "keep to a single, fixed, and permanent form and wording, and teach them first of all the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, etc., according to the text, word for word, so that they can repeat it after you and commit it to memory." I do note the "etc." But I also note the distinction between "repeating it after you" and "committing it to memory." The repeating, as I have indicated, is a pedagogical method that aims toward memorization.
Luther goes on to say that "those who refuse to learn . . . are not to be admitted to the Sacrament." He does not say, "those who have not yet memorized," but "those who refuse to learn." There is a big difference between these things. It is one thing to be in the process of learning, repeating things word for word, and thereby beginning to commit them to memory; and quite another thing to refuse any part in this process. In any case, it is interesting that Dr. Luther mentions only here, at this first step in the process, anything about refusing to admit someone to the Sacrament. He makes that comment here, and connects it specifically to the process of learning (not to the completion of memorization). Only afterwards, in describing the next stage in the process of ongoing catechesis, does he advise, "after they have well memorized the text, then explain the meaning so that they understand what they are saying." Here is where Luther's simple explanations are brought to the fore. But nothing more is said about refusing anyone admission to the Holy Communion.
Indeed, what Luther does go on to say, in his description of ongoing catechesis, is that the people should be taught to yearn for the Sacrament of the Altar. He writes that, "if anyone does not seek or desire the Lord's Supper at the very least four times a year, it is to be feared that he despises the Sacrament and is no Christian." "For a person not to prize highly the Sacrament is tantamount to saying that he has no sin, no flesh, no devil, no world, no death, no danger, no hell." Therefore, without setting up any law about it, the pastors should "emphasize clearly the benefit, need, usefulness and blessing connected with the Sacrament, and also the harm and danger of neglecting it."
So, are the little children not in need of this Sacrament also? Do they not have flesh and blood, and live in the world, and face the assaults of the devil? Are they not Christians, who ought to be taught to seek and desire the Lord's Supper? Although their catechesis is just beginning, and may be at a very elementary stage, they should in fact be brought to such a hunger for the Body and Blood of Christ, the Medicine of Immortality.
Exactly as Dr. Luther writes in his Large Catechism, at the conclusion of his teaching of the Sacrament of the Altar: "Let this serve as an exhortation, then, not only for us who are old and advanced in years, but also for the young people who must be brought up in Christian teaching and a right understanding of it. With such training we may more easily instill the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer [again, the first three chief parts] into the young so that they will receive them with joy and earnestness, practice them from their youth, and become accustomed to them. For it is completely useless to try to change old people. We cannot perpetuate these and other teachings unless we train the people who come after us and succeed us in our office and work, so that they in turn may bring up their children successfully. In this way God's Word and a Christian community will be preserved.
"Therefore let all heads of a household remember that it is their duty, by God's injunction and command, to teach their children or have them taught the things they ought to know. Because they have been baptized and received into the people of Christ, they should also enjoy this fellowship of the Sacrament so that they may serve us and be useful. For they must all help us to believe, to love, to pray, and to fight against the devil." (Kolb-Wengert, 475-476)
Earlier, in his Preface to the Large Catechism, Dr. Luther has similarly stated: "As for the common people, we should be satisfied if they learned the three parts that have been in Christendom from ancient days, so that all who wish to be Christian in fact as well as in name, both young and old, may be well trained in them and familiar with them." He then goes on to identify specifically what he means by this, citing the primary texts of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Our Father. "These are the most necessary parts that we must first learn to repeat word for word. The children should be taught the habit of reciting them daily, when they arise in the morning, when they go to their meals, and when they go to bed at night." (Kolb-Wengert, 383-385)
Here we have, not only a pedagogical method for memorization, but, more importantly, the discipline of daily prayer and confession. Again, it is not those who have failed to memorize, but those who "refuse to learn these things," who should not be tolerated. Praying and confessing them several times a day with the head of the household will certainly result in memorizing them. Yet, again, it is not the accomplished fact of memorizing, but the reciting of the texts that is expected of children and all other members of the household. Once more, the texts that Dr. Luther is here referring to, as in each case above, are the primary texts of the first three chief parts. That is made explicitly clear in what he says. "For in these three parts everything contained in the Scriptures is comprehended in short, plain, and simple terms" (Kolb-Wengert, 385).
"When these three parts have been understood, it is appropriate that one ought also to know what to say about our Sacraments, which Christ Himself instituted, Baptism and the Holy Body and Blood of Christ," according to St. Matthew and St. Mark. "Thus we have, in all, five parts covering the whole of Christian teaching, which we should constantly teach and require recitation word for word." This daily recitation, coupled with sermons, Psalms and hymnody, constitutes the ongoing rhythm of lifelong catechesis; not as a pre-requisite before receiving the Sacrament, but as the life of the Christian who has been baptized and is receiving the Sacrament. "The reason we take such care to preach on the catechism frequently is to impress it upon our young people, not in a lofty and learned manner but briefly and very simply, so that it may penetrate deeply into their minds and remain fixed in their memories." (Kolb-Wengert, 385, 386)
Memorization is an important and salutary aim, one that is accomplished by the tried and tested pedagogical method of repeating fixed texts, word for word, on a regular basis. Repetition is the mother of learning. That remains true and necessary, not only prior to First Communion, but all life long. For, as Dr. Luther writes in his longer (later) preface to the Large Catechism:
"I am also a doctor and a preacher, just as learned and experienced as all of them who are so high and mighty. Nevertheless, each morning, and whenever else I have time, I do as a child who is being taught the catechism and 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, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the catechism — and I also do so gladly. These fussy, fastidious fellows would like quickly, with one reading, to be doctors above all doctors, to know it all and to need nothing more. Well this, too, is a sure sign that they despise both their office and the people's souls, yes, even God and His Word. They do not need to fall, for they have already fallen all too horribly. What they need, however, is to become children and begin to learn the ABCs, which they think they have long since outgrown. . . .
"And what else are these bored, presumptuous saints doing — people who will not read and study the catechism daily and have no desire to — except thinking that they are more learned than God Himself and all His holy angels, Prophets, Apostles, and all Christians? God Himself is not ashamed to teach it daily, for He knows of nothing better to teach, and He always keeps on teaching this one thing without proposing anything new or different. And all the saints know of nothing better or different to learn, although they cannot learn it to perfection." (Kolb-Wengert, 380-381, 382)
In all of the above, Dr. Luther distinguishes the primary texts of the first three chief parts as uniquely fundamental and foundational, and as the minimum that any Christian ought to know, including those "common people" who are already receiving the Sacrament of the Altar. These texts are to be read and recited daily, prayed and confessed morning, noon and night. A refusal to learn them in this fashion is tantamount to denying and despising the Christian faith altogether. Though these are the ABCs of the faith, they are not easily mastered — no, they are never perfectly mastered by anyone, of any age, in this life on earth — but they are the touchstone of ongoing, daily and lifelong catechesis for each and every Christian. They are an especially deep well, because all of Holy Scripture is summarized in these three chief parts; yet, they are also prayed and confessed by even the very young children.
In addition to these first three chief parts, the primary texts of the Sacraments should properly be learned, as well. And all of these things should be the object of preaching and teaching on a regular basis. To this end, Dr. Luther offers his Smaller and Larger Catechisms as means of assistance. The Psalms and Hymns of the Church also contribute to increased knowledge and understanding of all these things. So that Christians of every age are always growing from and into these chief parts of the Christian faith and life.

20 April 2009


The most nervewracking night of my life was a Tuesday evening in April of 1991. My father was a 4th Year Seminarian at Fort Wayne, and I was an 8th grader, with all the nervous energy, lack of self-control, and general junior-highiness which comes with that territory. It was call night in Fort Wayne. We had family showing up, so in order to make sure seats were saved for Grandma et al, mom and I showed up 2 hours early. So I sat for two hours not knowing where I would be living in 6 months. Even then, coming early didn't quite work - it got filled up - and as was befitting decent manners, I (and the a friend of mine) lost our "comfy" pew seats and we banished to the sides, sitting on the cold concrete sides at the Fort Wayne chapel, the air from the vents sliding all the way up our backs. A nerve wracking night. Even worse, I think, than my own call night in April of 2004.

Tonight is placement and call night at St. Louis. Placements for Vicarage tonight at Fort Wayne (including my member Jay Hobson) - call night tomorrow night. Do keep not only the Seminarians, but also their families in your prayers. Keep the Congregations who are awaiting pastors themselves, the congregations which will host vicars in your prayers.

And just in case Jay reads this. . . keep his future Vicarage Supervisor in your prayers as well >=o)

19 April 2009

Let the Little Child So Examine Herself

What is a pastor to do, when one of the baptized faithful looks him in the eye and asks to be given the Body and Blood of Christ? One who is pious and sincere, a devout believer, ongoingly catechized in the chief parts of the Christian faith, a lover of Christ Jesus, adoring of His Passion, regularly in church, not living an immoral or scandalous life, not propounding false doctrine, and not belonging to any other confession or communion than that of our own congregation and fellowship. One who happens to be three years old.

Yes, I know, let a man so examine himself, and so partake of the Sacrament. But what does this mean for us? And what does that look like, per se? Must it be and look the same in each case? Or does this self-examination belong to the propria of each particular communicant? Does it require that, without the assistance of parents and pastors, an individual must know certain texts by heart and be able to recite them, cognitively comprehend the grammar and syntax of them, and discuss them intellectually? Is self-examination an internal matter of the heart, or a matter of public confession, or both, or neither?

When St. Paul admonishes the Church to let a man so examine himself, the holy Apostle addresses, specifically, the case of those communicants who were failing to discern and distinguish the Body and Blood of Christ from ordinary food; and who, so failing in that discernment of the sacramental Body, were making distinctions between the members of the Body of Christ, in the way that ordinary food may be distinguished according to class and kind. That failure strikes me, not as a lack of rational knowledge, but as a lack of reverence before God and a corresponding lack of courtesy toward the brother and sister in Christ. It is a failure of faith and love, not of inadequate memory work.

However, I am not here contemplating the prospect of "infant communion." I'm considering the case of a three-year-old who does have a rational knowledge of Christ and His Word, and who does verbally confess the faith in which she has been baptized and in which she continues to be catechized. She may not know all the vocabulary words, but she knows her own need, and she knows her dear Savior. She knows and loves Jesus for who He is and for what He has done for her. She also knows what the Sacrament is, and that it is a good and blessed gift, and that she desires to receive it from her pastor as from Christ, her Good Shepherd, Himself.

Should she simply be confirmed and be done with that? In my opinion, no; although I am not nearly so hung up on the why, when and wherefore of the man-made rite of confirmation as I am concerned with the catechesis of the Word of God and the actual administration of the Holy Communion. Catechesis is, or ought to be, an ongoing and lifelong activity for every Christian. Discipleship is a way of life, a living and walking in the way of Christ, not a plateau that is reached at some particular point, whether early or late. The baptized continue to grow and mature in the faith and knowledge of Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Therefore, I resist the notion that "confirmation" should be treated as an arrival at some threshold of Christian achievement. It is a public confession of the faith, and an adult assertion of one's place vis-a-vis the church and the world. If I had my druthers, as I have mentioned elsewhere in the past, the rite of confirmation would be reserved until the verge of adulthood, whether at 18 or 21, at the point of going off to college or getting married. But, in any case, I think that has little to do with readiness or worthiness for the Holy Communion.

The self-examination with which a person is to approach the Holy Communion, I believe, does not derive from one's cognitive abilities, capacities or knowledge, but is a matter of the Word of God having it's way with the Christian: the Law of God that kills the sinner, and the Gospel that raises the dead to newness of life in Christ through the forgiveness of sins. Does that work of God and a Christian's self-examination happen on a cognitive level? Surely it does; not as arising out of cognition, but rather as the Word of God engages the whole person. The same self-examination occurs in the rite of Holy Baptism, and belongs to the repentant faith which defines the entire Christian life.

There is a need for discernment of the Body of Christ, both the Body that is given for us Christians to eat in the Sacrament, and that Body of Christ which comprises the members of His Church. These things go together. But what is the nature and expression of discernment? Is it not demonstrated in a desire for the Body of Christ and in the innocence of a little child who does not discriminate against the members of the Church? Or what is it that we would otherwise be looking for, exactly? I am far less concerned that any of my little three-year-old parishioners will despise or shun their brothers and sisters in Christ, than I sometimes am in the case of adults. And I am certainly no more inclined to question the sincerity and truth of a little child's confession of the Body and Blood of Christ, than I ever am in the case of an older child or adult who is able to recite the blessed words of the Small Catechism.

What I am pressing for is a new way of thinking about and implementing the criteria for admittance to the Holy Communion. I'm not advocating less catechesis, but ultimately more; only not as a completed pre-requisite before receiving the Sacrament, but as an ongoing context within which a person receives the Sacrament. Nor am I suggesting that self-examination and public confession be done away with, but that self-examination and public confession be assisted by those entrusted with the care and catechesis of the communicant, and that examination and confession be undertaken in ways congruent with the communicant's personal capacities.

The three-year-old who looked me in the eye and asked me to give her the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus has been baptized. She has been and continues to be catechized in the Word of God. She knows and prays the Our Father with her family and her congregation. She knows and confesses the Creed with her family and her congregation. She knows that she has needs and hungers, frailties and weaknesses; that she does things she should not, and fails to do things she should; and that her dear Father in heaven loves her, forgives her, and graciously provides for her through parents and pastors and others in her life. She knows who Jesus is, and that He is her Savior; that He died for her and rose again; and that He is the One whom the Church is all about. She knows that the Sacrament of the Altar is the Body and Blood of that same Lord Jesus Christ, whom she loves, and she desires to receive at His Word what He gives.

Though it broke my heart, I did not commune her when she asked again most recently (it was certainly not the first time). But as I have continued to reflect upon her request, and to consider her faith and her confession, I am more and more inclined to say, let the little child so examine herself, and so partake of the Sacrament. Indeed, I am constrained by another Word of the Lord that seems increasingly pertinent: Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them; for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

15 April 2009

Easter Headgear for Women

"Headgear for Women - It is a laudable custom, based upon a Scriptural injunction (1 Cor. 11:3-15), for women to wear an appropriate head covering in Church, especially at the time of the divine service."
The Lutheran Liturgy, p. 427

The women of the household observed the rubric on the Feast, as did a few more in the parish. More joy all around I say.

13 April 2009

Contemplating a Real Easter Vigil

On the impetous of my ambitious assistant and zealous young Emmausites, I'm contemplating the possibility of arranging the Easter Vigil next year as a real vigil; that is to say, watching and waiting through the night, in prayer and meditation on the Word of God, in anticipation of the proclamation of the Resurrection "very early in the morning on the first day of the week."

I'm seriously thinking about how it might work, in any case.

We'd pray an abbreviated Matins on the morning of Holy Saturday, as we have for the past number of years now; then make some preliminary preparations for the vigil before proceeding to a day of rest, whether in sleep or simply quiet and subdued activities on the day of our Lord's holy Sabbath.

The ministers of the vigil would then gather at the church at sundown or thereabouts, to make final preparations for the vigil itself. Instead of beginning at 7:00 p.m. and concluding at 9:00 p.m., as we have done in the past, I would anticipate the vigil beginning outside at 9:00 p.m. around a kindled fire. Those gathered for the vigil would proceed from there into the church in the Service of Light.

I'm envisioning the first Old Testament Reading at approximately 9:30 p.m. We would use all twelve of the appointed Readings in the course of the night, each followed by several minutes of contemplation, then the collect, then appropriate canticles and Psalmody. In the case of such Readings as the flood, we could possibly lengthen the selections from that account; or else pause in between the sections of it.

In any case, each subsequent Reading would occur at approximately the next half-hour interval: the second Reading at ~10:00 p.m., the third at ~10:30 p.m., the fourth at~11:00 p.m., and so on, until the twelfth Reading at ~3:00 a.m.

The remembrance and affirmation of Holy Baptism, and any actual Baptisms, would occur around 3:30 a.m. It seems to me that appropriate hymnody could be sung at the conclusion of that remembrance, rather than simply moving directly to the Litany of the Resurrection. I picture that Litany occuring at 4:00 a.m.

Then we would actually take the time, at that point, to prepare the church and sanctuary for the festive celebration of Easter. The black adornments of Good Friday would be removed, and the white adornments of Easter would be put in place. Flowers would be brought in from wherever they have been set aside for the purpose. Any banners and other artistic displays of Easter would be gotten out and positioned. The Altar itself would be prepared for the Divine Service, and the eucharistic vestments donned by the ministers of the Service. In short, whatever sort of transitional preparations would normally occur by happenstance during Holy Saturday, would be done at this point, between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00/6:00 a.m.

The Divine Service of the Word and Sacrament would then commence at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., taking the place of the Easter Sunrise Service. It would be a more expansive celebration than the rites and rubrics of the Easter Vigil in the Altar Book call for, as there would be no need to restrain our exuberance at all any longer.

Those unable to keep the entire vigil would be under no obligation to do so. Of course there is no obligation to begin with; but what I mean is that those who so desire could participate in the beginning of the vigil, some parts of the Service of Readings, or simply arrive in time for the Divine Service at sunrise. This belongs to the point and purpose of demarking the vigil at roughly half hour intervals. The ministers of the Service could likewise order and arrange themselves to allow opportunity for bodily rest in the course of the vigil, like the watches of the night.

Maybe this is too ambitious or otherwise unrealistic, but it is appealing to me; and as I have had people asking me about the possibility for the past three years now, I am wondering if we need to seize the day and do it while we still have Pastor Grobien at Emmaus to assist me with the undertaking.

What say you? Would this have a detrimental impact on the Chief Divine Service of Easter Sunday?

11 April 2009

Easter and the "easter bunny"?

I have four daughters 2yrs and under. Christmas last year brought a new enjoyable aspect because Katie our oldest was able to interact and “be apart” of our home Christmas celebration. My wife and I talked throughout last year trying to figure out what we are going to tell our daughters about “Santa Clause”. This reminds me that we are called, told to live in the world but not of the world. We are to live our lives as a testament to who’s we are and what we have in Christ our Lord, the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. Now that the wonderful and beautiful season of Easter is upon us the Easter Bunny has shown up. My wife approached me on Holy Saturday and said “I am not sure if I should feel guilty for not getting the girls Easter baskets with gifts and candy, to celebrate Easter.” I am not sure where this “tradition” has come from, just like I am not sure where a rabbit who lays colorful eggs came to represent Easter, the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour. My issue is I do not want to be a snob about this and look down at those who do celebrate Christmas with Santa Clause, or Easter with the Easter Bunny. I do however want to make it very clear to my family, especially my children, what happens and what the meaning is behind these most holy days of the church year. I don’t want my daughters to be the ones going to school happily telling everyone that there is no Santa Clause, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy and etc… There is some time before my daughters are sent off to school, but I worry as I am sure every father and mother worries for their children, did I teach them well enough? Did I secure a right understanding of who they are in Christ and His work for them? As a new father I ask anyone to respond to this. What place does Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or any other mythical/made-up character play in the celebration of the Christian life in and through the Church year, and how do you address this in your own family/congregation/community?

Thank you in advance and great blessings be upon you as we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!!!

10 April 2009

Sour Wine and Aged Wine Well Refined

This is the first year that I have appreciated the significance of Jesus' thirst on the cross. Like other events or occurrences during His Passion, He says "I thirst" in order to fulfill the Scripture. Yet is the fulfilling of the Scriptures merely in His doing what the Psalmist predicts (Ps 69:21)?

Reading on, Jesus is given a sponge with sour wine, held up to him on a branch of hyssop.

Reading on still further, when He is pierced in the side, water and blood pour from the wound, which St. John tells us testify to us in the water and blood which we receive in the Church, that is, in baptism and the wine of the Holy Communion.

Jesus gives us His blood for wine. This is the aged, refined wine of the mountain of the Lord (Isaiah 25:6-9). But what is the wine he drinks? Mere vinegar?

Not mere vinegar. It is the vinegar of the world's sin. The fruit of this creation which has been corrupted can never be true, refined, aged wine, but wine gone bad, wine that never suffices as wine because the world cannot bring forth pure fruits. The world produces mere vinegar.

Vinegar, then, is what Jesus drinks. We drink life and salvation in the wine, the blood that He gives us. He drinks the sour wine of our sin, the blood of death. Drinking it down, he destroys our sin on the cross.

The hyssop, also, is significant, for the Psalmist cries out elsewhere, "Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." The hyssop which covered the doorposts and lintel, protecting us from the destroyer, now applies the poison and gall to Our Lord. By this hyssop also we are made pure and cleansed, while Christ takes the impurity and poison of sin to himself.

Thus the Scriptures are fulfilled, not simply because He does what the Psalmist predicts, but because in drinking in our sin of sour wine by the branch of hyssop, he takes sin upon Himself and destroys it in His suffering and death.