Going Home

Saint Paul wrote: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” [Philippians 1:22-23]

We are home from our 50th high school reunion. Having not been back where we grew up for over a decade, we were not really prepared for the massive changes. We drove past a house we had built in 1981 and saw that the trees we planted had grown to be massive. We looked for familiar restaurants, but they were long closed, the buildings no longer in existence. Yes, we were able to enjoy an old favorite, hamburgers with a side of fried zucchini, but the other places we wanted to stop were gone.

Our lives continue, changes happen. Paul was in prison for proclaiming the truth that Christ Jesus, who is true God and true man, died to redeem sinful mankind from the punishment of their sin. Paul was in prison for declaring that “by grace you have been saved through faith.” [Ephesians 2:8a] This word of hope has always been rejected by this world.

But we are in the world, if but for a short time. At the reunion, we were shocked to learn that almost one quarter of our classmates are no longer living. Age and accidents have taken their toll. Yet even for those who are still here, those with whom we chatted during the events of the reunion weekend, the home town is no longer home.

As Christians, we long for our true home, to be with Christ. Because of His death and resurrection, we are assured of the forgiveness of sins. Where there is forgiveness, there is life everlasting. We really are not part of this world, but long for the true home, that which has been prepared by Christ Jesus for those who are saved by grace alone.

While we were in the hometown, we really didn’t fit in. While we are in this world, we don’t fit in. Paul, proclaiming God’s rich love and mercy as found in Christ Jesus alone did not fit in. So we long to depart, to be with Christ.

Yet we are still in this world, still interacting with those who reject the message of salvation. We strive to serve God by serving our neighbors, reflecting His love for all people.

So, we are back in the more familiar places, that which we now call home, realizing that even here we really are temporary tenants. We look forward to our heavenly home even as we enjoy this home where God has placed us.

May you find comfort in knowing that heaven awaits, be it soon or be it in the far future. May God bless you with the assurance that your sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ, and for His sake you have the promise of life everlasting.

The Church

Saint Peter, in Acts chapter 2, preached what might be considered the first Lutheran sermon. He properly distinguished law and Gospel, first showing the gathered crowd their sin, then proclaiming salvation by grace through faith for the sake of Christ.

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” [Acts 2:37-42 (ESV)]

So on Pentecost, Saint Peter and the Apostles defined the church. Our Lutheran Confessions, specifically the Augsburg Confession article VII, defines the church: “Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5-6.”

In the second chapter of Acts we see this played out. 3,000 people were added to the roles of the church in Jerusalem through baptism. We believe, teach, and confess that baptism is a sacrament, one of the means by which the Holy Spirit creates faith which holds to the promises of God. Thus baptism is God’s work, done through the hands of the pastor (or layman, in the case of an emergency).

Peter, in his good Lutheran sermon, quoted the Old Testament — which is appropriate, for the New Testament hadn’t been written. Indeed, there is a lot in the New Testament which happened well after Pentecost. But the Old Testament is filled with Christ Jesus. The Old Testament is filled with God’s grace, love, and mercy. When we confess in the Nicene Creed, “and on the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures,” we are quoting Saint Paul who agrees with Jesus, Himself, that the resurrection was well and truly foretold in the Old Testament. Thus the Word, the Gospel of salvation because of God’s undeserved and boundless love, shown in the sacrificial death of His Son, is also the primary means by which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains faith.

So what is the result? 3,000 people learned from the Apostles who taught the Gospel. They took the Lord’s Supper, “the breaking of bread,” which is God’s gift to the church to strengthen faith and forgive sins. They worshiped and prayed with the Apostles, and each other, growing in faith and trust in the promise of the forgiveness of sins. They even were drawn back to their baptism as they were reminded that their sins were forgiven for Christ’s sake.

So the Church is the people of God called by Him through the proclaimed Gospel, and given the gifts promised in the Gospel through the properly administered sacraments. We consider there are either two or three sacraments, depending on your definition. The classic definition says “instituted by Jesus, and tied to a physical substance, giving the forgiveness of sins.” With this definition we have baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, we may define the sacraments as “instituted by Jesus for the forgiveness of sins,” which then includes absolution. Take your pick. Absolution may be the applied Gospel, or it may be a sacrament. Either way, your sins are declared forgiven (John 20:23).

So the church is not a building. Nor is the church a specific denomination. The Lutheran Church may go the way of the do-do bird, and the true Christian Church (God’s saints gathered around the Gospel and sacraments) still exists. That is comforting, for our hope of everlasting life is based on God’s promises, not our sinful, human institutions.

We trust that God will preserve the Gospel in its purity, and will raise up faithful men who will be His instruments to proclaim Christ as our Redeemer, while properly administering the sacraments.

Thus we pray for the church, knowing that at least a faithful remnant will remain until our Lord returns. We also pray that we may be faithful in preaching the Gospel and administering the means of grace (Word and sacrament) according to Christ’s institution. Finally, we pray that our faithful witness of the truth will be a light in this sin-darkened world, the light of Jesus Christ.

Questions

While driving to Idaho on CAP chaplain business, I was listening to a recording of a book by Saint Ambrose (340-397), once the bishop of Milan. Among the topics he discussed — the recording was almost 10 hours long — was telling the truth as a virtue. This also leads to transparency.

There are religions and groups which do not tell the public everything. You can’t join unless you take an oath not to reveal the secrets of the group, such as passwords, handshakes, and rituals. This, among other things, is one of the reasons we do not permit LCMS members to join the various lodges. More than the secrecy, they deny salvation through Christ alone, so holding memberships in the LCMS and the lodge is actually inconceivable, if you take either one seriously.

The Christian Church, especially the Lutheran Church, does not keep secrets from her members. As Ambrose wrote (paraphrased), “The bishop’s job is to teach.” Ambrose simply was agreeing with Saint Paul, 1 Timothy 3:2. Pretty much any Lutheran pastor would rather teach the Christian faith than anything else.

If we are so open and honest, why do visitors find us so mysterious? Why are they confused about the service, and misunderstand the words we use? When I was defending my dissertation, I made the comment that most (greater than 90 percent) of education is learning applied vocabulary. So many of our sciences, such as zoology, biology, meteorology, and the like may be translated “words about…” Our classrooms teach more words than actions, even in subjects which require physical training. As an example, much of learning to play the violin is learning the language of music and the parts of the instrument.

So our visitors come in and hear words like “justification” and “sanctification” and “grace” and “mercy.” They hear that they have sinned in thought, word, and deed, yet they have not really examined themselves using the mirror of God’s holy Law. No wonder they are confused. The working vocabulary of any profession, be it in a church or a factory or an airplane cockpit, sounds like the speaking in tongues of Acts chapter 2.

Unlike some organizations, some religions throughout the ages, we answer questions. We want to answer questions. We know that the only way to learn is to ask, to think about the answer, then to possibly ask again in a slightly different way. Matter of fact, in adult education some research suggests that you need to deal with a concept at least seven times before it makes sense and becomes a part of your knowledge base.

So the pastor’s library is open for one and all to do research. We begin our Bible class on Sunday morning with a session of “Stump the Chump” where we may discuss any aspect of theology.

Remember faith (that which holds to God’s promise) comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God. It consists of knowledge — often incomplete. Add to the knowledge trust that the knowledge is correct. Finally you trust that which you know.

Therefore, I welcome your questions, and look forward to learning as I research the ones that stump me. This way we are all increasing in knowledge of God’s rich love as seen in Christ Jesus.

And for the way home I am planning on listening to some G. K. Chesterton. Expect some interesting quotes in the forthcoming sermons.

Why Use the Liturgy?

A few years ago, while serving another congregation, a parishioner asked, “Why can’t we sing fun songs? Why can’t we change the liturgy to make it more interesting?” Shortly thereafter said parishioner transferred to another congregation which used contemporary worship and changed the liturgy each week. What would we lose if we were to give in and change the liturgy weekly?

Unlike the Old Testament, which gave a good indication of what went on in the Tabernacle or Temple, the New Testament only hints at the practices of the early church. We know that one of the first contemporary worship services, at the foot of Mount Sinai involving a golden calf, turned out poorly for the children of Israel. King Saul also learned the hard way that changing the form of worship was not God pleasing. But there are no such examples in the New Testament.

What we have in the New Testament are the members of the Christian Church adapting their Jewish traditions as they celebrated salvation by grace through faith for the sake of Christ. Peter and John are found going to the Temple in Acts 3, as an example. Later, in Acts 21, Paul is seen going to the Temple to complete a vow.

We can turn to early Christian writings, like the Didache (http://www.thedidache.com/) which give us examples of the early worship practices of the Church. Hippolytus of Rome, who lived in the late second and early third centuries, also wrote of the Apostolic traditions surrounding the practice of the Lord’s Supper. These sources look surprisingly like our practices today.

The liturgy as we know it was developed over the years. It was based on the practices which the Apostles knew from the Temple and synagogue, but amended with Christian references and sources. Yet, because of the source, we are connected with all the faithful, the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) as we join with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven singing the thrice Holy as witnessed by Isaiah (chapter 6).

As you read the liturgy as found in the Lutheran Service Book, you will see the Biblical references for each phrase or canticle. The traditional liturgy is God’s Word applied to each of us each Sunday. The modern liturgies are paraphrases, trying to improve the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

By keeping the liturgy intact, we are helping both young and old. In our congregation there is a kindergarten student who has learned quite a bit of the liturgy, though he cannot yet read. On the other end of life, there are the aged who suffer from memory loss, but can still follow that which they learned as infants. The sick, the downtrodden, the stressed, can still recite portions of God’s Word which gives comfort and hope. The Word of God is ingrained, and arises like the lyrics of an old song, unbidden but bringing comfort.

As a pastor, my calling is to bring the Word of God in its truth and purity to those entrusted to my care. Though there are some interesting variations on the liturgy, nothing replaces rote learning for deep memory. Nothing replaces the framework of God’s Word, unchanging and yet seen in different contexts each week during the Church Year.

The parishioner in the former congregation got what she wanted, but certainly found it was not what she truly needed. She did not receive the unchanging and powerful Word of God, but a watered down version which appeals to our own sense of delight.

The Word of God brings us life everlasting. The words of men may be a quiet echo of that Word, but tainted with our own sin and our own base desires.

Which is best for you? As a pastor, I believe I may best serve you by bringing you the comfort of God’s Word, week in and week out. And those days where the sermon seems to miss its mark, though God’s Word will not return void, the liturgy helps reinforce that Christ Jesus died for you, that you are redeemed from everlasting death because of God’s love. That is why we retain and use the traditional liturgy in this congregation.

Why a Blog?

Why should we have a blog on a church website? What purpose does it serve? These are good questions, questions with a different answer for every webmaster or pastor.

Good Shepherd Leadville is unique in that it is the only liturgical Lutheran Church for a radius of at least 50 miles, if not more. It is the highest Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod congregation, and it is in a county where 83 percent of the population does not admit to participating in any organized religion. The only reason the church can keep its doors open, the pastor has some outside income to help defray the cost of living. Without a bi-vocational pastor, there is no way the church could financially survive.

But the small number of people (between 10 and 20 on any given Sunday) who attend each week need the assurance of God’s grace, love, and mercy. They need to hear of salvation by grace through faith for the sake of Christ. They need the objective proof of God’s undeserved love through the properly proclaimed Word, both Law and Gospel, and the properly administered sacraments. They need a pastor who will pray for and with them, visit them when they are ill or in the hospital, and bring the the assurance of life everlasting.

Sometimes the blog will discuss various aspects of being a pastor, such as the joy of service planning. Sometimes it will be an answer to a question, such as the upcoming “What did Luther have to say about the Ottoman Empire?” Sometimes it will be about externals, such as serving as a Civil Air Patrol chaplain.

This blog does not replace a Bible Study, though I certainly will answer questions you may pose. This blog does not replace attending the Divine Service each week, though you are welcome to download each sermon preached in or for this congregation. This blog is truly musings about being a pastor, being a rural congregation, and being in an area that simply has no desire to hear the truth of God’s love.

The people that I am honored to serve, having been called by God through the church to this place, deserve the best that I can offer. The best is the assurance of the forgiveness of sins for the sake of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The best is the hope of the resurrection, for where there is the complete forgiveness of sins, there is eternal life. (As for the resurrection, you might want to read 1 Corinthians 15 for a description of why temporal death is necessary on our way to eternal life.)

My plan is to post something each week, a bit eclectic but fun nonetheless. I will do this to make the church more accessible as you come to realize that the pastor really enjoys what he is doing. I will do this in hopes that you will come to know that our help is in the Name of the Lord, that in Him we are assured of heaven. That, and it is fun too.

Chaplaincy

Last week the was the Civil Air Patrol National Conference in Baltimore. The CAP is the auxiliary of the United States Air Force, founded just one week before Pearl Harbor in 1941. We are chartered by the United States Congress to perform emergency services missions (we are credited with saving 105 lives so far this year), the cadet program to build the next generation of leaders, and aerospace education.

There are about 400 chaplains serving the organization. To be appointed as a chaplain, the applicant must meet the same educational and endorsement requirements as active duty chaplains. By Federal law, CAP Chaplains may be asked to back fill for active duty, National Guard, or Reserve chaplains. Therefore, their training parallels that of the armed forces.

Chaplains are the only people in the organization whose primary responsibility is for the spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical care of the members. Yes, other jobs, such as logistics, ensure we have clothing and billeting, but their job is about things, not people. The same is true about safety, their job is about mishaps, not the care of others.

During my time last week in Baltimore for the conference, I saw first hand many chaplains living the core value “volunteer service.” They willingly put themselves under the needs of others, caring for those in distress. Time and again, chaplains stepped up to assist people with illness or injury, and listened to the hurting and distressed.

This reflects the love of God as shown in Christ Jesus. He was incarnate, not for His own glory, but to willingly take upon Himself the disease of our sin. He served us by dying and rising again. He continues to serve us through Word and Sacrament, as we are assured of the forgiveness of our sins and life everlasting.

It is an honor to serve as a pastor to this congregation, to be the one who gives hope in a sin-sickened world by pointing us to Christ Jesus. It is an honor to serve CAP as a chaplain, a reminder of God’s presence in a secular organization, caring for those who may not know Christ, and helping them see His love.

Thus we are able to serve others because Christ Jesus first served us.

Hymns

Last week we looked a bit at the church year and the context of service planning. As I was working on the sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, I kept humming the tune for the hymn of the day. Yes, it was an ear worm.

This got me to thinking as I struggled with the theme, “No one can serve two masters,” from Luke 16:13. Finally I discarded the sermon draft and decided to tackle this from the perspective of the hymn of the day (a.k.a. sermon hymn).

“What is the World to Me?” — Lutheran Service Book 730 — says pretty much everything I wanted to say for the sermon. It doesn’t speak of word and sacrament, the means by which we come to faith and are sustained in our faith, but it does talk of the results of that faith. Trust in God.

So how do we choose hymns for a given service? As noted, the context is most important. Although it might be theologically appropriate to sing “Silent Night” at the Easter Sunrise service, the context is all wrong. There are suggested hymn of the day lists in the materials provided for the Lutheran Service Book, and various authors made suggestions for our older hymnals. Normally these suggestions are very good and fit the context of the day. Some are historical, such as “Wake! Awake! For Night is Flying” on the last Sunday of the Church Year. Others are traditional, such as singing “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” on Easter.

I look first at the theology, does the hymn truly and clearly speak about Christ Jesus and salvation by God’s grace for His sake? Not all hymns can be “Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” but there are a lot of solid hymns. I especially like “Lord Jesus Christ, You Have Prepared” as the distribution hymn for the Lord’s Supper because it teaches solid Lutheran theology about this most important sacrament. You can find other examples as well.

If the words work well, then I look at both the number of stanzas and the music. If we can’t sing the hymn, even if the congregation has practiced it (“Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old” comes to mind here), I won’t use it. If it is a lengthy hymn like “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” or “Ye Sons and Daughters of the King,” which we use on the first Sunday after Easter, I may split the hymn into three parts, one for opening, one for the sermon, and one for closing.

Last, but not least, is it a favorite? If I can shoehorn “Jerusalem the Golden” for the Sunday closest to Sally’s birthday, I will do so. Hymns are not the “American Top 40” which is heard from coast to coast, but a tool for focusing our attention to the theme of the day or to teach doctrine. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a favorite or two.

Much of the music found in contemporary worship, actually much of the music written in the 1800s in England as well, places the focus on us rather than Christ. Some times our congregation will use such a hymn, but it must be balanced with hymns teaching solid theology.

Certain hymns, such as “In the Garden” are not in our Lutheran hymnals for good reasons. Fortunately my standard is to stick with the hymnal, so I can easily reject requests for such music.

Finally, theologians did not stop writing good hymns in 1545. We have a number of writers and composers working diligently today on hymns worthy of use in the Divine Service. Some are in the current hymnal, some still need to be discovered. If the hymn should be used in the service and it is not yet in our hymnal, it can be used as a solo or choir selection (oh for a choir!) during the offertory.

So that is hymn selection in a nutshell.

Service plans

Service planning is one of those tasks which, though not completely enjoyable, must be done. When I was on vicarage, almost thirty years ago, we (the pastor and I) would give the organist our hymns by the Wednesday preceding a Sunday service. Though it worked for that congregation, it really didn’t give anyone a chance to think through the way that one Sunday is related to the next.

Once back from vicarage, during my fourth year at the seminary, Dr. Donald Deffner assigned us the task of doing a full year of sermon texts, titles, and themes. I expanded this to include the hymns, readings, and service information. With the exception of 1997, which was lost during a move from one database manager to another, I’ve got the service plans going back to 1992.

When planning services, I start with the place within the liturgical or church year. The first half of the year — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pre-Lent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday — are pretty straight forward. After all, each of these divisions have a well known theme. In Advent we look for the coming Christ, and in Epiphany He is revealed. The twelve days of Christmas are about His birth and the effect that birth has for faithful Christians (there are three martyr days directly after Christmas Day), while Lent is about Christ’s suffering and death.

But what about that long season from Trinity Sunday through the Sunday of the Fulfillment? Dr. Luther Reed, in his book on the liturgy, identifies four major themes during this half of the church year.

The first theme is the “Call to the Kingdom of Grace” during which we discover the marks of the Church, her confession of faith, and the use of the Means of Grace. The second is “The Righteousness of the Kingdom” which focuses on Christian living. The third is “Aspects of the New Life of Righteousness.” Here the readings focus on Christian perseverance in the face of difficulty, and Christian warfare as we deal with the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Finally, the church looks at the end times, which brings us back to Advent.

With the overall context of the Sunday, we look to the theme of the readings for a given Sunday. More often than not, the Introit and Collect for the Sunday also build on the theme of the readings. Only as we find that emphasis can we begin to determine the theme for the sermon. The hymns also reflect that theme so to give one coherent message.

As for the hymns, there are many good hymns in each of the Lutheran hymnals available to us, The Lutheran Hymnal, Lutheran Worship, and Lutheran Service Book. Unlike some pastors, I do not draw hymns from outside sources. If the congregation has chosen to use the Lutheran Service Book, the hymns come from that hymnal. Though there are many good hymns outside of the hymnal, I hesitate to bring them into the service because that can open the door for music of lesser theological quality.

My goal is to provide the organist and altar guild with the service plans for at least eight weeks in advance, typically covering a complete liturgical season (or more). This gives them a chance to plan for service music, paraments, and the like.

So, that is service planning in a nutshell.