Thursday, October 30, 2008

The headache of "incessant internal purification"

Every commandment which I command you today you must be careful to observe, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers. And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD. --Deuteronomy 8:1-3

For some reason, as my son and I sat on the couch this morning waiting for everyone else's day to begin, my thoughts turned to the Office of the Ministry and to doctrine and outreach. The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, stated boldly at his installation as President, "People, this is NOT a game. Our incessant internal purification at the expense of the eternal destiny of the souls of men and women for whom Christ died must stop!" The first time I heard the words in person was at the 2003 North Dakota District Convention, where President Kieschnick himself spoke against "incessant internal purification" as a hinderance to reaching the lost.

Hearing the words "incessant internal purification" makes my teeth itch. At first glance, it seems reasonable that the fate of the souls of men is much more important than the attempt to have perfect doctrine. The example that I seem to hear most is that there are more important things than knowing how many angels can stand or dance on the head of a pin. And to a certain extent, that's true. To reach the unchurch and the lost, we don't begin by teaching the full counsel of God, any more than we begin with our own children by handing them Franz Pieper's Christian Dogmatics.

However, there is more to "incessant internal purification" than meets the eye. There is a false dichotomy that separates evangelism/mission and doctrine. After all, if you don't know the Lord and His Word, how, then, can you teach the unreached about the Lord and His Word? In his sermon "Why Dare and Can We Never Give Up the Church's Struggle for the Pure Doctrine?" in 1876, the Rev. Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, First President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, said it this way:
Oh my dear friends of the Lutheran faith, confession, and conflict, do not be misled when today those are everywhere accused of lovelessness who still do not give up the battle for pure doctrine in our Church. . . . Oh my dear friends, let us indeed sorrow and lament over this: that false teachers constantly assail the pure doctrine in our Church and thus are at fault for the conflict and strife in the Church. However, let us never lament but rather extol and praise God that he always awakens men who fight against those false teachers, for, I repeat, this pertains to "the common salvation." . . . This conflict is one commanded us by God and is therefore certainly one blessed in time and in eternity. . . . Oh, therefore, let us never listen to those who praise and extol the conflict of the Reformation for the pure Gospel but want to know nothing of a similar conflict in our days.
To say it in an even more succinct fashion, the Rev. Alvin L. Barry, former President of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, put it this way: "Keep the message straight, Missouri! Get the message out, Missouri!"

There is a proper order to evangelism and outreach. First we must get the message straight. We do the unbeliever no favor if we lead him to a Christ who exists only in the imagination of our hearts. First we must be rooted in the Word of God. As the Church lives not on bread alone but "by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD", we must know what the Lord reveals to us about Himself through the Word. Only then can we reach out with the Word to the unbeliever with the Christ that actually exists, the Christ who makes Himself known through that very Word. Reaching out without first getting it straight may reach a goodly number of people, but you will not be bringing them to where they need to be.

It has been said that pastors who seek what is dismissively termed "incessant internal purification" live in an ivory tower. Well, we need those ivory tower pastors. Just as we prefer brain surgeons to perform brain surgery rather than general practitioners, we need pastors who specialize in specific areas of the Word of God. These ivory tower pastors have a specific task: to delve into the Word of God so that they may teach the pastors of the Church.

We also need men who are willing to climb those ivory towers, pastors who will sit at the feet of these specialists and learn from them. They climb a goodly number of these ivory towers, and each time they come down they bring with them the riches that the ivory tower pastors have mined from the Word. These are the "general practitioner" pastors, men who do not necessarily specialize in a specific area of the Word but have a solid foundation in that Word. These are the pastors who teach the laity, equipping them for the work God gives them to do. These are the pastors who, with the laity they have educated in the Word, reach out to the unchurched, to the dying, to the wayward and lost. These pastors may not have specialized in a specific area of the Word, but they bring with them a solid foundation and background in the Word. They have studied and can teach about the Jesus who has revealed Himself to us in His Word.

It is as Jesus said to the seventy as He sent them out: "The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few" (Luke 10:2a). But He doesn't stop there. He adds, "Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest" (Luke 10:2b). It is the Lord who calls men to serve as pastors. He chose the Twelve, and He taught them. He gave them three years of intense training under His watchful eye. And then He commanded them saying, "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" (Matthew 28:19-20a). Notice that He doesn't say to them, "Teach them only what you think is important." He commands them to share the full counsel of what He revealed to them.

Evanglism, outreach, missions--what Jesus calls "making disciples"--consists of two things: baptizing and teaching. Focusing on Baptism without regard for the doctrine of the Church is unfaithful, at best. And focusing on neither Baptism nor the doctrine of the Church in our outreach efforts is nothing more than misleading and nothing less than sinful. Thanks be to God for faithful pastors and laity who both "keep the message straight" and "get the message out"!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A new resource for daily prayer

Prayer is one of the greatest gifts God gives to His people. The ability to call upon Him as Father, as taught to us by our Brother and bestowed upon us in Baptism, is a rich blessing. Nevertheless, prayer is another of God's gifts that often finds itself neglected. I certainly speak for myself in this matter. I've tried ex corde prayer (prayer from the heart). I've tried using my miniature-sized copy of Lutheran Worship as my prayerbook. I've used numerous books that are specifically prepared as prayerbooks, such as The Brotherhood Prayer Book from the Lutheran Liturgical Prayer Brotherhood; The Minister's Prayerbook, which was edited by Dobberstein; and my favorite to this point: The Daily Office, edited by Herbert Lindemann. I even wrote my MDiv treatise on daily prayer. (And it's no earth-shattering work, I assure you. If I had it to do over again, I'd at least quadruple the research and spend more than six months working on it.)

Despite all this, my prayer life has always been a struggle for me. Too often I find myself not praying when I get up in the morning, when I eat, when I go to bed at night. My prayers lately seem to have become the products of the moments of need. "Lord, help me put the children to sleep." "Lord, give me patience." "Lord, I'd like to be a parish pastor again." The Lord certainly hears and answers these in-the-moment prayers. However, being outside the parish ministry at the moment, the struggle to maintain daily prayer has become more difficult. As a parish pastor there's always some flexibility to your morning schedule, and you can pencil in time for prayer and study before you head out for visits or hit the books for your sermon and Bible class work. But working in an office and having young children in the house, maintaining a schedule has been difficult at best.

Though no book can make it easier to schedule time to pray, the new Treasury of Daily Prayer from Concordia Publishing House has the potential to help you make the most of the prayer time you have. With orders of worship, daily scripture readings included in full, the entire Psalter, and a liturgical calendar to follow, you have a large collection of resources in one place. If you feel the need to supplement these resources with readings from the Book of Concord, the book suggests readings from the Confessions for each day. It's a flexible book, and it's completely Lutheran--and thus completely Christian--in its content.

I received my copy of the Treasury today, and I used it for prayer tonight. I prayed the Order of Compline, which is exactly as I remember it from Lutheran Worship as we prayed it at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary. The ease of the book and its convenient size--about the size of a hymnal or mid-sized Bible--are surprising. Though it's too early to say for sure, Treasury of Daily Prayer may supplant The Daily Office as my favorite prayer book. I can already without hesitation recommend it highly.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pastors Outside the Church

Every so often I'm caught off guard by the expectations, ideas, and misconceptions people have about pastors. I thought it would be a less frequent happening with me being outside the parish ministry at the moment, but if anything, it has happened more.

To give you a little background, I'm the manager of a community center in rural Louisiana. I oversee the day-to-day operations, bring in new ideas, and try to keep things running smoothly as I try to bring more people in to use the facility. I have a staff of 5 under me, three of whom are maintenance staff. I have an office assistant, an evening "building babysitter", and the three maintenance workers. The evening worker is the mother of one of my maintenance workers, and that maintenance worker is the father of another maintenance worker.

One of our workers left something fairly serious undone, and it could have been a very costly mistake. Fortunately, it turned out not to be so, but it could have been bad. And then something went missing at work, something only a worker with a key would be able to access. I asked everyone who has a key if they had used the missing item. I didn't accuse anyone of stealing, and I wasn't harsh. Nevertheless, the mother of one of the workers came in to the office today and gave me twenty minutes of heck. And she capped it off by saying, "And you [sic] a pastor. I expected better from you."

So what was it I did that was un-pastorly: overseeing my staff? Holding them responsible for their actions? I guess I'm missing something . . . and have been for a long time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Article on abortion

As wonderful a writer as I am (*wink*), sometimes even a teacher of the church must allow himself to be taught by others, and to let those others teach his usual audience. In that spirit, I bring you this excellent article by Uwe Siemon-Netto about abortion as genocide.

Remembering Collective Shame
By Uwe Siemon-Netto

This column requires a caveat: I am not an American citizen and therefore neither a Republican nor a Democrat. But as a German residing permanently in the United States I believe I have a duty to opine on at least one aspect of the upcoming elections – the question whether years from now Americans will have to wrestle with collective shame, just as I have had to deal with collective shame over what has happened in Germany in my childhood for my entire life.

It was West Germany’s first postwar president, Theodor Heuss, who coined the phrase, "collective shame" contrasting it with the notion of collective guilt, which he rejected. No, I cannot be expected to feel guilty for crimes the Nazis committed while I was still in elementary school. But as a bearer of a German passport I have never ceased feeling ashamed because three years before I was born German voters elected leaders planning the annihilation of millions of innocent people.

I am certain that in 1933 most Germans did not find the Nazis’ anti-Semitic rhetoric particularly attractive. What made them choose Hitler, then? It was the economy, stupid, and presumably injured national pride, and similar issues. This came to mind as I read the latest Faith in Life poll of issues Americans in general and white evangelicals in particular consider "very important" in this year’s elections.

Guess what? For both groups, the economy ranked first, while abortion was way down the list. Among Americans in general abortion took ninth and among white evangelicals seventh place, well below gas prices and healthcare. Now, it’s true that most evangelicals still believe that abortion should be illegal, which is where they differ from the general public and, astonishingly, from Roman Catholics even though their own church continues to fight valiantly against the ongoing mass destruction of unborn life. Still, 54 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of young Catholics have declared themselves "pro choice," according to the Faith in Life researchers.

What I am going to say next is going to make me many enemies, of this I am sure: Yes, there is a parallel here between what has happened in Germany in 1933 and what is happening in America now. The legalized murder of 40 million fetuses since Roe v. Wade in 1973 will one day cause collective shame of huge proportions. So what this wasn’t a "holocaust?" This term should remain reserved for another horror in history. But a genocide has been happening in the last 35 years, even if no liberators have shocked the world with photographs they snapped of the victims as the Allies did in Germany in 1945. And it has the open support of politicians running for office next month.

If most Americans, and shockingly even a majority of Catholics think physicians should have the "right" to suck babies’ brains out so that their skulls will collapse making it easy for these abortionists to drag their tiny bodies through the birth canal; if even most white evangelicals think that economic woes are a more important concerns (78 percent) than legalized mass murder (57 percent), then surely a moral lobotomy has been performed on this society.

I agree it would be unscholarly to claim that what is happening in America and much of the Western world every day is "another holocaust." No two historical events are exactly identical. So let’s leave the word "holocaust" where it belongs – next to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Mauthausen. Still there are compelling parallels between today’s genocide and the Nazi crimes, for example:

1. Man presumes do decide which lives are worthy of living and which are not. "Lebensunwertes Leben" (life unworthy of living) was a Nazi "excuse" for killing mentally handicapped children and adults, a crime that preceded the holocaust committed against the Jews. Notice that today fetuses diagnosed with Downs Syndrome are often aborted as a matter of course in America and Europe.

2. In German-occupied territories, Jews and Gypsies were gassed for no other reason than that some people considered it inconvenient to have them around. Today, unborn children are often slaughtered because it is inconvenient for their mothers to bring their pregnancies to term.

3. Murder I is legally defined as killing another human being with malice and aforethought. The Nazis killed Jewish and Gypsies with deliberation – and maliciously. But what are we to think of babies being killed deliberately simply because they would be a nuisance if they were allowed to live? No malice here?

4. Ordinary Germans of the Nazi era were rightly chastised for not having come to their Jewish neighbors’ rescue when they were rounded up and sent to extermination camps. Ordinary Americans and Western Europeans might find the fad to kill babies disagreeable, but as we see from the Faith in Life poll, most have more pressing concerns.

Some future day Americans and Western Europeans will be asked why they allowed their children to be slaughtered. They would even have less of an excuse than Germans of my grandparents’ and parents’ generation. In Germany, you risked your life if you dared to come to the Jews’ rescue. In today’s democracies the worst that can happen to you is being ridiculed for being "a Christian."

As a foreigner I have no right to tell Americans whom to elect on Nov. 4. Recently, though, a friend asked me: "If you worked in an office and a colleague asked you at the voter cooler, whom he should vote for what would you tell him?" Well, I would say: "I am not here to make up your mind for you. But personally I could never give my vote to so-called pro-choice candidates."

This would doubtless lead to a heated postmodern dialogue. Perhaps the colleague is not a Christian; he might chastise me for mixing politics and religion. "If you as a Christian oppose abortion," he could say, "then by all means don’t get involved in an abortion, just don’t impose your religious views on the rest of us." How would I answer that? An evangelical might yank out his Bible and quote passages pertaining to this issue. But to a non-Christian the Bible is meaningless; I am not sure a political debate around the water cooler is a great venue to start individual evangelization.

My Lutheran approach would be different. I would argue natural law, the law God has written upon the hearts of all human beings, including non-believers. Unless they really have undergone a moral lobotomy they should be open to this story: Down in Wichita, Kansas, there is a physician by the name of George Tiller. On his website he boasts that he has already performed 60,000 abortions, mostly late-term, and week after week he is killing 100 more unborn babies.

Dr. Tiller does not think of these fetuses as clusters of cancerous cells. He knows they are human because he baptizes some of them before he incinerates them in his own crematorium. You don’t baptize non- humans. Dr. Tiller knows that. He is a practicing Lutheran. His former congregation, Holy Cross of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, excommunicated him as an unrepentant sinner. But the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, which belongs to the ELCA, communes him. Did I mention that he kills 100 human beings every week and has already one away with 60.000? Sixty thousand! In Nuremberg they hanged some fiends for murdering less than 60 -- zero point one percent of Hiller’s toll. Perhaps this little tale will give even non-believers pause if they have not discarded their conscience, known to Christians as the law God has written upon every man’s heart. One day, of this I am certain, this will indeed result in collective shame – and God knows what other horrible consequences.

Uwe Siemon-Netto Ph.D., D.Litt.
Center for Lutheran Theology & Public Life
801 Seminary Place
St. Louis, MO 63105