31 May 2012

After 25 Years

“Don’t quit your day job!” I remember one of my elders saying that to me once, in the kindest of ways, after hearing me play guitar. He’s a fan of my musical efforts, don’t get me wrong. But he knows a hobby when he hears one, and he knows what he needs from his pastor. He is one of my encouragements in the Ministry, as are others. When he heard that we were taking a summer-hiatus from our normal Wednesday Vespers, due to vacation schedules and what-not, he told me, “I understand, but I will miss it.” He lives from my day job and doesn’t want me to quit it! I am his pastor.

He was with me the week before last on Wednesday night as we worked toward a completion of our study of the epistle of James. I read from the third chapter . . .

ESV James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Becoming a pastor-teacher in Christ’s Church is no hobby. It’s not even a job, really, not in the sense that we normally think. Our Lord warned against the hireling mentality, being “in it” for the money, or the security, to please men and so win their accolades and favor. That is a temptation, to be sure. We are all liable to stumble, as St. James says in the very next verse . . .

ESV James 3:2 For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

Part of that stumbling is the desire to be more than our Master and Teacher, Jesus, Who was despised, rejected, spoken against and finally rejected. Who wants THAT in a job description? “Be a pastor and be as offensive as a man can be!” You won’t even need to try. Just be faithful. Just repeat what you have been given to say, and hand on what you have received. Act as if you are not the CEO but a servant – a male nurse who has no authority to change the Doctor’s prescription; you are under His orders. Act like the waiter who cannot change what the Chef has prepared. Serve, don’t get cocky, and see where it gets you.

We can stumble in how we do that, of course. We can be jerks. We can get too familiar; you know, like the waiter who somehow thinks he’s there to make jokes, be your buddy, entertain instead of serve. I find such waiters fairly transparent. I know they are aiming at a higher tip. If they schmooze me, I will up the offering from 15 to 18, maybe 20 percent!

Hey, if it works when waiting tables at restaurants, maybe it will work for those who serve before the Table of the Lord. It only stands to reason. So, we stumble. It’s hard not to. We like to be liked. At least I do. “Like” is the big deal these days, from Facebook to YouTube. We are pleasers of men and we watch the indicators to see how we are doing. Are the pews filling up and staying full? Do people come, even on Wednesday nights? Even when it’s raining? Even when the local gal is in the top ten of American Idol?

Not one of us is immune. That’s why James warns against just anyone jumping into this thing called Holy Ministry. It’s no child’s play. No hobby. Not something you pursue half-heartedly while keeping your day job. That isn’t to say a man can’t be a pastor and something else at the same time. He surely can. St. Paul was a tent-maker, and he plied his trade for a reason; so that he needn’t be a burden on others. He didn’t do it to get rich. He did it so that he might continue pouring out the Gifts of God’s Heavenly Treasures to people who direly needed such service. He made tents so that He could continue serving in the stead of the Word Made Flesh, Who continues to tent or tabernacle among us in the Church through the Ministry of His Gospel. St. Paul sewed so he could continue sowing the Seed of God’s Word of Grace. Tent making supplied his daily needs so that Eternal Ones might be provided free of charge.

It may behoove a young pastor today to have a fall-back, like St. Paul’s. As for me? My music won’t do it. It’s just a hobby. I’ll have to be a bit more conventional if the suffering of the Servant Jesus ever rises to a level that I need another way to keep a roof above my head. The Lord will provide even then, and His Gifts will still be given – freely.

Why am I writing this? Because of what St. James says and what I’ve learned after 25 years in the Ministry. I am not a pastor because my “likes” outnumber my dislikes. I’m not a pastor because I can wail on a sermon the way my guitar heroes wail on a six string. This isn’t a talent show, and if it were, America wouldn’t know how to vote. The world never does. That anyone believes the Gospel – that by the death of a Man and His resurrection and ascension at the right hand of God as true God Himself – that anyone believes the benefits of that are poured over us in Baptism, spoken into our ears through preaching, teaching and the Absolution of a man who shows himself far less polished, practiced or professional than those who regularly entertain us with their music and acting – is an outright miracle! The world puts millions of dollars into a single hour of entertainment, and countless man and woman hours go into those sixty or ninety minutes our people sit enthralled. Pastors wrestle over a text for a week and then give birth on Sunday morning. It is often raw and messy and if you recorded it and put it up on YouTube, only a few would ever take the time to watch it, much less like it and share.

If this is a job, then pastors are crazy – at least the ones are who hold fast to all that God has given in His Son! We can find those who have found ways to appease the masses and plug into the likes of this world, so they flourish. They say what itching ears want to hear. They can prove their success with statistical reports and slick styles that really do entertain. I’ll admit it. I even find myself feeling a little jealous. Why can’t I do that, too?

Answer: Because I’m not as slick and skilled and stylish as others. I’m just not as good. I could try, but it would come off a bit clunky, like me trying to be the next American Idol when I really haven’t got the chops. Of course, the REAL reason I can’t do that is that it’s not what the Lord has put pastors in place to do or be. We are tempted to please men. We are called and ordained to serve them, whether they like or like it not, and that just plain isn’t easy. It goes against every competitive fiber of my being!

That’s why not everyone should desire to be a teacher in the church. Men’s souls are at stake, including those of the men who serve. We will be tempted at every turn to want to make the top ten with the world, to garner the votes that keep us in the running. Crosses aren’t popular or pleasant. We’d rather have couches, with big screens and top-notch music, the kind that rocks! I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I’m not tempted in the same way. I am, and that’s why I’m increasingly concerned when our Synod makes it easier for men to more quickly take up the mantle of pastoral service. I worry for them. Maybe they are stronger than I. Maybe they, like Luther’s hypothetical man who can rightly divide Law and Gospel, deserve to be made immediately a doctor of Holy Writ. Lacking that, I wonder what we are doing, rushing men into service, even before they are ordained?

Ordination doesn’t make a man indelibly worthy. It doesn’t give him super powers. St. Paul mentions the Spirit’s gift given Timothy at his ordination, so when the Lord puts a man into Office as His servant, He provides. I know that much. He provides His Word, and bids us take it seriously. For that, we are to be taken captive by it, daily and much. What else have we got? Faith comes by hearing, and that hearing only comes by the preaching of Christ; the preaching that is not me trying to win anyone’s approval, but me being gotten out of the way as much as possible so that the Word of the Lord is heard.

That’s hard. It’s scary. I don’t want to be diminished so that He may increase! When He does, I don't want to be taken to the brow of any hill to be cast off. I don’t want anyone picking up stones to stone me, and after 25 years, no one has hurled a single hymnal at my head. If they did, I wasn’t looking and it didn’t get very far. Makes me wonder about the times I’ve heard a hymnal go crashing to the floor! What it also makes me wonder is: Am I loving God’s people as Christ did, even to the point of saying what they least want to hear but most need?

I know the answer to that. No. I am not loving God’s people like that, but Christ is. So, it’s good advice to warn eager young men against rushing into where even angels fear to tread, namely, the Office of Christ. Oh, pursue it, but pray that it crush you before you dare speak. Explore if it’s something to which the Lord has a desire to call you. Study. Read. Talk to people. Pray. Then, go to the seminary. Yes, I know there are alternative routes available, and I’m not saying that alternates can’t be good. I’m pursuing my dream of being a rock star, of sorts. YouTube gives me that option. But few who make it as rock stars get where they want by doing what I’m doing via YouTube. Most invest themselves fully in what they want to be, and that’s what I’d advise anyone wanting to be a pastor.

Go to the seminary. Be crushed, broken and reshaped. Learn some humility. Learn that you have no right and no business being a pastor, but God must call someone, and so He puts men into place who are frail and sinful and oh-so-apt to stumble and stray. Our greatest threat is to think too much of ourselves and our authority. We do that, wanting to tweak the show from week to week so we stay in the running. We know how the game works. Everyone else does too. That’s why St. James warns us as he does. That’s why one of the hardest things for God to do is unmake a man from what he thinks people want so that they get what they really need: Christ – the unpopular – Christ – the uncool – Christ – the One Who can drive a crowd away with a single sermon – Christ, the crucified and risen, our Savior, our Baptizer, our Absolver, our Server, our Chef as well as the Main Course. Christ – our Pastor – and the Only One Who is worth having in the man who finally becomes a teacher in the Church.

Believe me, after 25 years, I'm still learning that, and Christ is still blessedly teaching me!

29 May 2012

Luther on the Dangers, and Promises of the Ministry

Here is a quote from Johann Gerhard's Theological Commonplaces on the Ecclesiastical Ministry by Luther regarding the dangers of the Ministry: "To preach the Word of God is nothing else than to draw to oneself the fury of all of hell and of Satan, and then [the fury] of all the saints in the world and all the power of the world. It is the most dangerous kind of life to be subjected to so many teeth of Satan." In another place Luther writes: "Likewise, it means that ministers of the Word are engaged in such great dangers from the devil, the world, and the flesh that they lack even divine help, and they could not be defended except by the help of God alone, after the heathen rage against them, kings rise up against them, and whatever is of the world vexes God's ambassadors. Therefore He promises that He Himself will be the defender against all those. And if He did not do this, and if we did not know He would do this, who would want to undergo the labor and perils of teaching? For whatever happens to Christ will also happen to all ministers." (p. 7 of Gerhard's Theological Commonplaces.)

No one can adequately prepare you for what you are about to enter. If in baptism you became a target and enemy of the devil, now you are twice his enemy, for you are God's spokesman in the midst of His people. But you will not be without help. God defends this ecclesiastical order in particular, says Gerhard. You will be amazed at how clever the Evil Foe is in his attacks. One day it will be through lethargy and lack of focus. Another day it will be through lust and temptation. Do not underestimate him, or your own sinful flesh! Notice that Luther also says that the fury "of all the saints in the world" will be drawn to you. This will happen no matter how well you teach, no matter how much you "love your people." You will be sent to minister to many people who expect you to be a "yes-man," someone who will provide "soft-pillows" for the impious (Chemnitz, Enchirdion: Ministry, Word, and Sacraments), someone who will make life easy for the flock. There will be many faithful among the flocks to which you are sent, but there will also be many who are stubborn.

When you are in doubt as to how to handle a situation, whether you are preparing people for a wedding, or a funeral, or answering requests for this or that kind of thing in worship, ask yourself how you would respond as a father to your children. The children do not always understand every decision you make. Sometimes, when there is no clear direction, no clear path, you err on the side of caution. You tell your children "no" not simply "because I said so," (as I wrote in another post on this blog), but because you have greater and larger things in mind than they do. You are called to protect and defend them from false teachers, and from false belief. Decisions you make will not always be popular, but if they are made in accord with Scripture, and are consistent with our doctrine, even when Scripture seems to be silent on it, then you can do so in good conscience.

One of the biggest temptations in the Ministry is to be that "yes-man," to be a pleaser of men, to be liked. A man can drive himself crazy thinking about every possible consequence and result of his actions and decisions. And you will do so, despite anyone's advice to the contrary. Whether people like you or not is not what you need to spend your time worrying about. Act according to your conscience, and at times, go with your gut. Don't get mad at people when they dislike you for your decision, but again, look at them as a father would his children. Have pity on them. If you sin against them, humble yourself and admit your faults and failures. When they sin against you, forgive them from your heart, even as our Lord enjoins in Matthew 6. It may be that they have had very poor teaching, or a very poor example set for them by previous ministers. Or it may be that they are just plain stubborn. In such cases, do not be afraid to rebuke them. Christ rebuked the disciples for their slowness of heart and their unbelief.

Christ is with your Ministry. He will defend it against the assaults and attacks of the world and all that rages against it. You could do worse than open up Gerhard before you are ordained, and read a little about the Ecclesiastical Ministry. Or, Martin Chemnitz' Enchiridion: Ministry, Word, and Sacraments. In the latter book, I especially recommend the second on the duties of ministers. Go to it! Preach the Word!

28 May 2012

The Divine Call

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

The Evangelical Lutheran Church reads this Bible passage and many others at the ordinations of the men our Lord Jesus Christ calls into His service to preach the Word in season and out of season. The Preaching Office is so important that the Reformers addressed its importance in Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession (Augustana). Let us review:

" It is taught among us that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call."

What does Augustana XIV mean? Has its meaning changed since the Confession was read before the Princes in 1530? For some in The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), Augustana means everything concerning the Preaching Office. For others, it means nothing. What happened to Augustana XIV? Where did go?

The LCMS has always held that a pastor was a man who was educated (seminary residency), examined, called (Divine Call), and ordained. She was serious about Augustana XIV. No one was to publicly teach or preach in the Church, nor administer the sacraments in the Church, without a regular call (rite vocatus). In 1989, everything changed for the LCMS. The Synod voted, in convention, to rescind Augustana XIV and replace it with the "lay ministry."

I asked earlier, what happened to Augustana XIV? The answer is that politics removed it from the LCMS.  1989 was a fateful year for the LCMS. She discarded a primary doctrine which the Evangelical Lutheran Church held for 459 years. Now, education and examination are no longer primary instruments in the Church. (See 2 Tim. 2:2; 3:2; Titus 1:9)

The LCMS has created many programs to put men into the preaching office; DELTO (Distance Education Leading to Ordination); AR (Alternate Route); SMPP (Specific Ministry Pastoral Program), and others. The LCMS has also rejected Augustana XIV by allowing men who resigned their Divine Call to continue to preach and administer the sacraments. She also allows men who have retired (resigned their Divine Call) to do the same. She also allows men to "read" sermons written by the pastor during his absence.  Why? And yet, she condemns the actions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for allowing women in the preaching office. What's the difference? Rejection of the Confession is still rejection.

What can be done about this? Can Augustana XIV be restored in the LCMS? Is there any hope that this terrible wrong can be corrected? My answer is yes. I say IT'S TIME! The President of the Synod has been given all the tools and authority to correct the problems stemming from the rejection of Augustana XIV. His actions must include discipline and possible removal of those who do not conform.

It is about theology. It has to be about theology otherwise the LCMS is just another business in the United States of America. In my previous post, Steadfast Office - Theology, not Politics, Rev. McCall made an astute observation in his comment (#23). He asked, (paraphrasing) if nothing is done about an erring brother, does that mean I am still tolerating  such behavior (tolerating his sin)? Or, do I or he need to leave.

His questions are asked because politics have taken over the LCMS. If the LCMS held to the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, Rev. McCall's questions would not have to be asked. The erring brother, congregation, District President, or whom ever sinned was corrected, then all would be well in the LCMS. As it is, those who do hold fast to the Scriptures and Lutheran Confessions are asking if they have to leave what they confess. This is just wrong. If the erring person refuses to confess his sin and repent (turn from evil), he must be removed from the Church (Matthew 18)

My prayer is that the Lord of the Church grant strength and courage to His Church to stand strong and be bold to call sinners to repentance.

26 May 2012

Theology, not Politics

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. (Matthew 28:18-20) NKJV

Jesus’ words in verse 20a are important to His Church on earth. Any church body should be mindful of it.  An honest question about it may be: has the LCMS kept this verse in mind? Do we teach all things? Do we need to repent? As the Psalmist laments, How long O Lord? Lord, have mercy upon us.

Recently, while attending the Minnesota North District Convention, another brother under the yoke of Christ came up to me and said, “This isn’t about theology. It’s about politics.” My stomach ached. I was sick. I asked him, “Are you kidding me? We are churchman gathered together to talk about the Church. Since when does politics dictate to the Church?”

I may be naive. I may be ignorant about many things. There are a few things however I am confident about.  One thing I know for sure is that I believe Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God. I know that the One I confess to be Lord is the same One who called and ordained me into His holy service to teach His people to observe all things [He] has commanded. I know it’s about theology. It has to be. If the Church is all about politics, then what are we doing with the Holy Bible and the Lutheran Confessions? If it’s all about politics, then these precious books are nothing more than books with mere common words written on their pages.

The Church must be about theology. If Church is about politics, it becomes a business.  That would make everyone in this “business” we call church nothing more than businessmen who are directed by politics. When I was confronted with the reality that the LCMS is not about theology but politics, my conscience was burdened.

How can I, as an under-shepherd of the Good Shepherd, teach them all things He has commanded us when it’s not about theology? I began to think that’s probably why we got ourselves into the situation we’re in today; it’s because of politics. The LCMS got herself into trouble because she cast aside the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions and replaced these things with politics which has resulted in By-Laws, open communion, contemporary worship, dancers, screen, projectors, women preachers and teachers, etc.

On that fateful day, April 16, 2012, when I was told that the Minnesota North District Convention is not about theology but politics, I came to the realization that The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod will never repair the wrongs she has committed and continues to commit.

IT’S TIME! for reformation! IT’S TIME! for confession and absolution. IT’S TIME! that NO means NO once again in the Church. IT’S TIME! to return to the command of Jesus that we, the Church be about theology and teach them all things He has commanded us.


Some Thoughts on Pastoral Formation

One of the phrases I heard at the Seminary over and over was "Pastoral Formation".  It makes sense - the thrust at the Sem (Fort Wayne at least) was that this was the place that helped to guide and shape "Pastoral Formation".  Of course I'm going to hear it there.  And of course, it comes up today in discussions as we consider how best we are to shape and form Pastors for various contexts.

I find I don't really like the term.  I get what it is saying - that going to the Seminary, going through that process - the disciplines of both classes and campus worship and field work/vicarage shapes a person, forms them into something they were not.  And it's true - I was a different person when I graduated than I was before I went to the Seminary.  But the difference wasn't in sudden by virtue of those experiences and those classes I was prepared to be a pastor.  No, while I had gotten tools and had been immersed in a rich spiritual life that I was eager to pass on, the biggest thing I learned was that I was in fact... not ready to be a pastor.  Oh, I received a call, and nigh on 8 years I am still there, serving... but this was not due to the fact that I was "ready", or that I had reach a certain level of skills and thus graduated into the pastoral office.  It wasn't that after 4 years I was "formed".  That isn't how it works -- it is only ego and pride that would let someone say that he is "ready" to be a pastor -- that he has been formed into what he needs to be.

The simple fact is that we in the clergy are always being shaped by God in the crucible of the office.  We are to be constantly learning.  We are to be constantly immersed in a deep devotional life.  We are to be in the Word, not only for our people but for ourselves.  The Seminary is just the tip of the iceberg, the beginnings, the rough shaping before a lifetime of formation. 

My father is a pastor.  He went to the Sem while I was in junior high - so I was a Sem brat as well.  I saw the changes, the growth in him - they happened when I first really became aware of myself and others.  And I knew stuff.  I could spot bad theology.  I could write well (after coaxing football players at Oklahoma to write term papers, writing a 3-4 page sermon would be a piece of cake!).  I was sure that I was ready to be a pastor.  And I suppose if there had been some catastrophic event where I hadn't gone to the Seminary but had to preach, I could have.  My cousin who is a baptist pastor basically did that... he endures.

But I would have viewed it more as a graduation, or something that I had as by right, just as I expected to be admitted to the Sem as a matter of course.  It would have been matter of fact.  What the Seminary experience does it is destroys that ego, that sense of self determined worth.  But all of that was a lie of my sinful flesh.  I am not a pastor because *I* will it... I am a pastor because I have been called by God.  I am a pastor in spite of all my weaknesses and deficiencies.  A friend at the Seminary once quipped that he held to a "dysfunctional view of the ministry" - that is, God uses dysfunction men to accomplish His ministry.

Without that time it the Sem, that time of study, reflection, guidance, reverence, and humiliation... well, when those weaknesses or deficiencies revealed themselves, I would have hidden and denied them, ignored them, pretend they didn't exist.  Or I would have broken.  Their revelation would have attacked my cherished self-identity, the one I would have worshiped of myself as "Pastor" -- and I probably would have crumbled... the flaws would not have born the burden of the office.   This is because I would have been thinking in terms of myself and who I am. 

The Pastoral office has very little to do with the particular man occupying it.  There are a line of pictures on the wall of the pastors before me.  If the Lord tarries, I pray that there will be pictures of men after me, and that I might be viewed as the least of them.  Rather, being a Pastor is about nothing other than Christ - than bringing Christ and His gifts to people.  Being a Pastor is about learning what John had said - I must decrease that He may increase.  A Pastor, while important, is fundamentally replaceable.  If not me, when I am gone, God will raise another.

And I'm not sure I would have seen that as clearly if I hadn't gone to Sem, if I assumed the task of being a pastor upon myself, if I figured I was good enough as is, or just needed some finishing up (or to be more honest, if that delusion hadn't been broken at the Sem).  Ego would have openly prevailed... even now Ego must be beaten down.  And thus - new trials come, new opportunities, new chances to learn.  And I see them differently now -- I see them as being less about me and more about this congregation that I have been given to serve for a time.

Is this "formation"?  I suppose.  But it's not a formation completed at Sem.  I am not fully formed yet -- and that's perfectly fine.  Rather, I suppose I would say that the Seminary helps to begin to form someone, and teaches them that they will continue to be formed by God for the rest of their days.  Without that, all is pride, vanity, or despair.

24 May 2012

Protecting the Guilty - Commandments 4 and 8

One of the aspects of the American Legal system is the presumption of innocence.  Innocent until proven guilty.  Granted, in the highly publicized cases, this sort of goes by the wayside, but this still remains the underlying principal of our system.  The accused is to be protected by law.

I would contend that within the Commandments, and specifically 4 and 8 (but not limited thereunto), that there is perhaps a similar and yet more astonishing principal at work.  Protecting the guilty.

Consider the 4th Commandment - Honor Your Father and Mother.  There are no conditions about their righteous conduct -- you are to honor them.  Period.  Even if they are guilty of whatever... you honor them.  Even if they misuse their authority over you, you honor them.  They are protected by this commandment.  You are to honor and serve them, regardless of how they have treated you.

Likewise, consider the 8th Commandment - Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor.  And, of course, like good Lutheran boys and girls, we explain this with the idea of putting the "best construction" on things, or explaining everything in the "kindest way".  This to is nothing less than an instruction to protect the guilty.  The neighbor's reputation is to be protected, even if they are guilty.  When person X wrongs me - let me bear the wronging and not bring shame to person X.  I am to protect even those who wrong me.

So often, in our interactions, we can forget that we are to protect the guilty.  We are to lessen the ripple effects of sin, to absorb it's impacts into ourselves so that their wickedness impacts fewer people and impacts them less harshly -- even lessening the impact for the guilty.  We show respect, and perhaps with our respectful conduct bring them to repentance.  We explain things the kindest way and reprove in private, hoping to bring to repentance rather than settling for letting rumors and shame change mere outward behavior.

Is this not what Christ has done for us?  What is salvation but Christ protecting us; we who are guilty of all things?  What is salvation but Christ Himself taking up the burden of our sin and doing away with it upon the Cross? 

This is what righteousness is - to protect the guilty, to do away with their sin, to forgive.  In all things we are to defend our neighbor -- not only our neighbor who is suffering unjustly, but even the neighbor who makes us to suffer unjustly.  We do so in the hopes that they will be brought to repentance and restored, not merely defeated in a way that (to borrow from yet another commandment) only seems right.

Thoughts and reactions, folks?