Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Unity of the Church

I'm writing this "on the run," so I hope I can get the points to cohere. If not, blame pre-holiday work and personal pressures. (For heaven's sake don't blame the author for any lack of perception or insight.)

My Sister Dash, theological companion and fellow member of the Body of Christ at Mount Olive in Minneapolis (for which fact I give thanks every day) has undertaken a discussion kind of parallel to mine of homosesexuality and the Church on her blog, here, although her tack is decidedly different from mine. (Hers is actually a great "NO" to mine, to tell the truth. But she never has been able to resist putting me to the test, and I rise to the challenge every time -- whether I know what I'm talking about or not.) Her commentators (who are certainly welcome to comment here, too -- as, indeed, Jim has done) are supportive of her support for the Church's blessing of same-sex marriages and the ordination of non-celibate gay candidates for ministry. They rightly raise questions about my assumptions, and because I think that I have not carefully set out them out, let me say two brief things here -- with hopes that I can do some more thinking about this over my Christmas break.

The first -- and most direct -- challenge to my ruminations raised the need to take into account the long history of the Church's teachings and preachings on the matter of same-sex relationships. My chief concern in that is to uphold the unity of the Church -- at least, to the extent that the Church can today be said to be united at all. I acknowledge that this concern is fundamental to me. (If you'd like a quick-read call to re-unify the Church in structure as well as "spirit," which sets out the "arguments" for that call, I recommend In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, which was published by Eerdmans on behalf of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. That's a shameless plug, since I sit on the Board of the Center, but it is really a fascinating and probing call for the Church to come to grips with who she is. Camassia's [check her blog here] friend, Telford Work [whose site is here] , was one of the group of scholars from all corners of the Church who wrote that report of their discussions.)

The unity of the Church is fundamental to her identity as the Body of Christ, a name or characterization that I understand literally. A dismembered body is no body -- or at least it is radically less than was intended by the Creator. Remember Paul's analysis of the situation? (The hand does not say to the eye, "I don't need you.") For him, too, calling the Church the Body of Christ is more than a metaphor. The Church is the literal Body of Christ in the world: That is to say, just as the Christ once wandered around Galilea as Jesus of Nazareth, so now that same Christ (Jesus) is present to the world in a bodily way -- that is, with the ability to interact, to bump up against others, to suprise -- as the Church.

Now, that existence as the Body of Christ is complicated, eschatological. Each Christian as well as each congregation is a member of the Body of Christ; a congregation is the Church, even though it is not the fullest manifestation of the Church. The Church is -- to cite Lutheran usage from another context -- simul justus et peccator (at the same time saint and sinner -- or, wasn't it Saint Ambrose who referred to the Church as "chaste whore"). The Church is not all it is supposed to be, but at the same time, she is what God intends her to be (albeit sometimes against her very efforts to the contrary).

It is more than a wistful romanticism that desires the unity of the Church: It is our Lord's wish (and if that isn't good enough, well ...). As the Holy Father has noted in his encyclica Ut Unum Sint ("that they may be one," quoted in Latin from Jesus' High Priestly prayer), it is the mission of the Church to be one. It is a denial of the sacramental and ontological reality of the Church to content ourselves with the divisions that currently characterize "Christianity." (In a comment over at Dash's site, Jim claims I may be more appropriately a Roman Catholic than Lutheran -- and on this point, he may be correct. If to be Lutheran is to be content with the divisions of the Church and the infighting and "going our own way" that characterizes life in the Blob of Christ in the world, then I am most certainly not a Lutheran. However, I don't think that's what it means to be Lutheran at all. The Lutheran confessions make a strong point for the unity of the Church (something, unfortunately, they say all too little about because they took it for granted in all their diatribes!) -- they just argue about the signs and forms of that unity. The Reformers (if not their heirs) clearly saw themselves as a reforming movement within the Church Catholic, not as "separated brethren," not as a "new" or "different" Church. To that extent, I am where I belong right now -- in the Lutheran sphere, uncomfortable though that may make me.)

Much of this state of dividedness (and divisiveness) and much of our discussion of it have been fostered by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment raised issues of authority, of knowing, of living which confound life for those of us who live in the world established by the great Enlightenment thinkers. The Enlightenment was hostile to any authority that was not the individual's own authority. Thus the elevation of the "individual" over the "community" was a core feature -- a way of thinking that would have made no sense to those who came before. That I can make my own decisions, based on my own reason and experience and feelings, is a core feature of life that follows from the Enlightenment. (On my antipathy to the Enlightenment -- which, Brother Daniel, I fully acknowledge produced some amazingly good things -- I refer you to Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens or to almost any book published in the past couple of years by Eerdmans.)

When the individual becomes the focus of concern and the locus of decisionmaking, something has shifted from the days when the Church undertook to make reasonable and faithful decisions about what is necessary and to call on all believers to "toe the line." There was a recognition that the oneness of the Body of Christ required faithfulness to what had been inherited from the past -- though not without critical awareness of how to relate that to the then-contemporary scene. But there was a sense that authority rested in some other spot than the mind, heart, conscience, or genitals of the individual making decisions. Yes, I know that that authority was often abused. Hence, reform movements -- almost from the beginning. (And I also acknowledge that the Church has never been monolithic, but I think that that's a separate issue.) But the sense that the Church as a whole has a mandate to represent God in the world (and, practically speaking, to speak with one voice lest the world be confused about who God is and what He says).

One of the "fruits" of the Enlightenment is a radically undercut consensus on morality. "Do your own thing" has become more than a slogan; it is a presupposition, a commandment. But it is not good moral guidance.

Brief excursus: Hauerwas powerfully makes this point. The Enlightenment has pronounced that there should be no authority but the individual. However, that decree is itself an authoritative statement that comes from outside the individual. What a delightful irony -- and what fun to try to explain that to "with-it" twenty-first centuryers.

Back to the argument: Once one begins to divorce moral decisionmaking from the contemplation of the whole Church -- the whole Church, not just the Pope, not just the clergy, of course -- then all hell can break loose (again, I am being literal). If the ELCA can go against two millenia of Tradition to "bless" same-sex unions, then the denomination or congregation which chooses to declare one or another presidential candidate "God's anointed" (that's a translation of "Messiah," you know and is clearly blasphemous to the majority of Christians) is "entitled" to do its own thing, too. This has become clear to my progressive eyes and ears with respect to the Church of Rome. Certain right-wing Roman Catholics seem to think it no contradition that they urge the faithful to be loyal to the Vicar of Christ (the Pope) when he propounds on matters of faith and life, but then willfully ignore or misinterpret when he pronounces something that is at odds with their political agenda. For example, I heard Richard Neuhaus (a former leading Lutheran pastor who followed his lights with respect to authority across the Tiber into the Roman Catholic priesthood) extol the importance of loyalty to the Holy Father and then follow up by saying that there is nothing in the U.S.'s actions toward Iraq that is in any way at odds with the Holy Father's teaching (whether formal or informal).

My poorly made point is little more than this: If we are "free" to make our own way regardless of the teaching and practice of the Church in our own time and throughout time (you see there the "synchronic" and "diachronic" aspects of the Church's existence, another difficult issue to grapple with), then we have denied the essential unity of the Church, we have given over to an ideology that is not the Gospel, we have drawn our instruction from the world (probably) and not from the Word of God. (I could spend countless paragraphs criticizing the Jesus Seminar on similar grounds -- specifically, that they break the connection between Scripture and Church, a connection that is absolutely critical. The Bible, the canon of Scripture, was never intended to be a book of general application to the world at large; it was and should be the Church's preaching source.) To do so is to be unfaithful to who we are and to what we are intended to be.

Protestants, especially (but not exclusively), have trouble taking the Church seriously. I think that is a problem that roots in the Enlightenment-influenced hermeutic of the traditional sources of faith. If we could become more aware of the filters through which we read our Tradition, we would be well on the way to the reform that the Reforms rightly desired (and that at least Rome admits was justified).

One final point: None of this addresses with any intentionality whether the ELCA (or the ECUSA or any other group) ought or ought not to bless same-sex unions or ordain non-celibate gay candidates. It posits the right way for making that decision. It has generally, I think (despite my almost complete lack of knowledge of Church history) been true that when the Church is true to her character and follows the right path to discernment, she does all right. When the process is flawed, the product is flawed, and trouble ensues. That's my concern. Lutherans, for example, among the great church families earlier than most decided that woman may, without question, be ordained to the Holy Ministry. The decision (still decried by many in all traditions -- though generally, to my mind, with very little substantial reason) was, I think, the right one and it was arrived at carefully and with due respect both for what the Great Tradition had said and to what the Holy Spirit might be prompting in its time. (It was also done with sensitivity to the effects the decision might have on "church relations.") For that reason, there is little systematic opposition within mainstream Lutheranism (sorry for the characterization, but I realize that I read Missouri and the smaller Synods out of the mainstream -- which they may like, anyway) to women serving in parishes, on boards, and as bishops. (Contrast that with the way the Episcopal Church moved toward female presbyters and gay clerics!)

I know that my comments make it sound as though I am insensitive to issues of "justice" and modern understandings. I do not think that I am so, but I have trouble expressing myself in ways that are irenic and "reasonable." But I cannot any longer operate with definitions of "justice" and "morality" and "right" and "acceptable" and "blessing" and others that are not drawn from the Christian Tradition. To adapt definitions drawn from other spheres -- e.g., the sphere of law (my own profession, right now) or social theory (I'm a socialist anarchist of sorts, and I find it very easy to turn against the Church on certain issues) or other world religions -- is not something I think the Church should do .

And that, beloved friends, is the beginning of a four-volume set of musings that, pray God, never sees the light of day.

Peace and joy to you. And I apologize for setting this out early, but I'll be away from the computer for a few days for the holiday so I won't be able to say it: All joy and jope be yours as we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation and the Manifestation that the Word is True.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Another Advent reading (this one from Merton)

I underdertake to steal (under the cover of fair use) another good reading from the Bruderhof's Watch for the Light. If you can get a copy of this book, go into debt (it's not expensive) to secure one. Then hope that Paulist Press (which has reissued the volume after the Bruderhof's press, The Plough, went out of business) will also reprint the Lent companion volume, Bread and Wine. This reading is from Merton's Raids on the Unspeakable. (I'm not sure whether Merton quoted Clement's poem or whether the editors added it as a preface to the Merton reading.)

The Time of No Room
Thomas Merton

He who has come to men
dwells where we cannot tell
nor sight reveal him,
until the hour has struck
when the small heart does break
with hunger for him;
those who do merit least,
those whom no tongue does praise
the first to know him,
and on the face of the earth
the poorest village street
blossoming for him.

-- Jane Tyson Clement
"The Master" from No One Can Stem the Tide

So there was no room at the inn? True! But that is simply mentioned in passing, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, as the Evangelist points to what he really means us to see - the picture of pure peace, pure joy: "She wrapped her firstborn Son in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger" (Luke 2:7). By now we know it well, and yet we might still be questioning it - except that a reason was given for an act that might otherwise have seemed strange: "There was no room for them at the inn." Well, then, they obviously found some other place!

But when we read the Gospels and come to know them thoroughly, we realize there are other reasons why it was necessary that there be no room at the inn, and why there had to be some other place. In fact, the inn was the last place in the world for the birth of the Lord.

The Evangelists, preparing us for the announcement of the birth of the Lord, remind us that the fullness of time has come. Now is the time of final decision, the time of mercy, "the acceptable time," the time of settlement, the time of the end. It is the time of repentance, the time for the fulfillment of all promises, for the Promised One has come. But with the coming of the end, a great bustle and business begins to shake the nations of the world. The time of the end is the time of massed armies, "wars and rumors of wars," of huge crowds moving this way and that, of men "withering away for fear," of flaming cities and sinking fleets, of smoking lands laid waste, of technicians planning grandiose acts of destruction. The time of the end is the time of the Crowd: and the eschatological message is spoken in a world where, precisely because of the vast indefinite roar of armies on the move and the restlessness of turbulent mobs, the message can be heard only with difficulty. Yet it is heard by those who are aware that the display of power, hubris (power) and destruction is part of the kerygma (message). That which is to be judged announces itself, introduces itself by its sinister and arrogant claim to absolute power. Thus it is identified, and those who decide in favor of this claim are numbered, marked with the sign of power, aligned with power, and destroyed with it.

Why then was the inn crowded? Because of the census, the eschatological massing of the "whole world" in centers of registration, to be numbered, to be identified with the structure of imperial power. The purpose of the census: to discover those who were to be taxed. To find out those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.

The Bible had not been friendly to a census in the days when God was ruler of Israel (2 Samuel 24). The numbering of the people of God by an alien emperor and their full consent to it was itself an eschatological sign, preparing those who could understand it to meet judgment with repentance. After all, in the Apocalyptic literature of the Bible, this "summoning together" or convocation of the powers of the earth to do battle is the great sign of "the end."

It was therefore impossible that the Word should lose himself by being born into shapeless and passive mass. He had indeed emptied himself, taken the form of God's servant, man. But he did not empty himself to the point of becoming mass man, faceless man. It was therefore right that there should be no room for him in a crowd that had been called together as an eschatological sign. His being born outside that crowd is even more of a sign. That there is no room for him is a sign of the end.

Nor are the tidings of great joy announced in the crowded inn. In the massed crowd there are always new tidings of joy and disaster. Where each new announcement is the greatest of announcements, where every day's disaster is beyond compare, every day's danger demands the ultimate sacrifice, all news and all judgment is reduced to zero. News becomes merely a new noise in the mind, briefly replacing the noise that went before it and yielding to the noise that comes after it, so that eventually everything blends into the same monotonous and meaningless rumor. News? There is so much news that there is no room left for the true tidings, the "Good News," the Great Joy.

Hence the Great Joy is announced, after all, in silence, loneliness and darkness, to shepherds "living in the fields" or "living in the countryside" and apparently unmoved by the rumors or massed crowds. These are the remnant of the desert-dwellers, the nomads, the true Israel.

Even though "the whole world" is ordered to be inscribed, they do not seem to be affected. Doubtless they have registered, as Joseph and Mary will register, but they remain outside the agitation, and untouched by the vast movement, the massing of hundreds and thousands of people everywhere in the towns and cities.

They are therefore quite otherwise signed. They are designated, surrounded by a great light, they receive the message of the Great Joy, and they believe it with joy. They see the Shekinah over them, recognize themselves for what they are. They are the remnant, the people of no account, who are therefore chosen - the anawim. And they obey the light. Nor was anything else asked of them.

They go and see not a prophet, not a spirit, but the Flesh in which the glory of the Lord will be revealed and by which all men will be delivered from the power that is in the world, the power that seeks to destroy the world because the world is God's creation, the power that mimics creation, and in doing so, pillages and exhausts the resources of a bounteous God-given earth.

We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.

The primordial blessing, "increase and multiply," has suddenly become a hemorrhage of terror. We are numbered in billions, and massed together, marshalled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race and with ourselves, nauseated with life.

As the end approaches, there is no room for nature. The cities crowd it off the face of the earth.

As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.

In the time of the ultimate end, there is no room for man.

Those that lament the fact that there is no room for God must also be called to account for this. Have they perhaps added to the general crush by preaching a solid marble God that makes man alien to himself, a God that settles himself grimly like an implacable object in the inner heart of man and drives man out of himself in despair?

The time of the end is the time of demons who occupy the heart (pretending to be gods) so that man himself finds no room for himself in himself. He finds no space to rest in his own heart, not because it is full, but because it is void. If only he knew that the void itself, when hovered over by the Spirit, is an abyss of creativity...yet he cannot believe it. There is no room for belief.

In the time of the end there is no longer room for the desire to go on living. The time of the end is the time when men call upon the mountains to fall upon them, because they wish they did not exist.

Why? Because they are part of a proliferation of life that is not fully alive, it is programmed for death. A life that has not been chosen, and can hardly be accepted, has no more room for hope. Yet it must pretend to go on hoping. It is haunted by the demon of emptiness. And out of this unutterable void come the armies, the missiles, the weapons, the bombs, the concentration camps, the race riots, the racist murders, and all the other crimes of mass society.

Is this pessimism? Is this the unforgivable sin of admitting what everybody really feels? Is it pessimism to diagnose cancer as cancer? Or should one simply go on pretending that everything is getting better every day, because the time of the end is also - for some at any rate - the time of great prosperity? "The kings of the earth have joined in her idolatry, and the traders of the earth have grown rich from her excessive luxury" (Revelation 18:3).

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it - because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it - his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them, there is no escape even in imagination. They cannot identify with the power structure of a crowded humanity which seeks to project itself outward, anywhere, in a centrifugal flight into the void, to get out there where there is no God, no man, no name, no identity, no weight, no self, nothing but the bright, self-directed, perfectly obedient and infinitely expensive machine.

For those who are stubborn enough, devoted enough to power, there remains this last apocalyptic myth of machinery propagating its own kind in the eschatological wilderness of space - while on earth the bombs make room!

But the others: they remain imprisoned in other hopes, and in more pedestrian despairs, despairs and hopes which are held down to earth, down to street level, and to the pavement only: desire to be at least half-human, to taste a little human joy, to do a fairly decent job of productive work, to come home to the family...desires for which there is no room. It is in these that He hides himself, for whom there is no room.

The time of the end? All right: when?

That is not the question.

To say that it is the time of the end is to answer all the questions, for if it is the time of the end, and of great tribulation, then it is certainly and above all the time of the Great Joy. It is the time to "lift up your heads for your redemption is at hand." It is the time when the promise will be manifestly fulfilled, and no longer kept secret from anyone. It is the time for the joy that is given not as the world gives, and that no man can take away.

For the true eschatological banquet is not that of the birds on the bodies of the slain. It is the feast of the living, the wedding banquet of the Lamb. The true eschatological convocation is not the crowding of armies on the field of battle, but the summons of the Great Joy, the cry of deliverance: "Come out of her, my people, that you may not share in her sins and suffer from her plagues!" (Revelation 18:4). The cry of the time of the end was uttered also in the beginning by Lot in Sodom, to his sons-in-law: "Come, get out of this city, for the Lord will destroy it. But he seemed to them to be jesting" (Genesis 19:14).

To leave the city of death and imprisonment is surely not bad news except to those who have so identified themselves with their captivity that they can conceive no other reality and no other condition. In such a case, there is nothing but tribulation: for while to stay in captivity is tragic, to break away from it is unthinkable - and so more tragic still.

What is needed then is the grace and courage to see that "the Great Tribulation" and "the Great Joy" are really inseparable, and that the "Tribulation" becomes "Joy" when it is seen as the victory of life over death.

True, there is a sense in which there is no room for joy in this tribulation. To say there is "no room" for the Great Joy in the tribulation of "the end" is to say that the evangelical joy must not be confused with the joys proposed by the world in the time of the end - and, we must admit it, these are no longer convincing as joys. They become now stoic duties and sacrifices to be offered without question for ends that cannot be described just now, since there is too much smoke and the visibility is rather poor. In the last analysis, the "joy" proposed by the time of the end is simply the satisfaction and the relief of getting it all over with...

That is the demonic temptation of the "end." For eschatology is not finis and punishment, the winding up of accounts and the closing of books: it is the final beginning, the definitive birth into a new creation. It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving as actual.

But can we believe it? ("He seemed to them to be jesting!")

[Reprinted from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, copyright 2004.]

You may visit the Bruderhof website here (and I'll add it to my home page soon).

Monday, December 13, 2004

A Reading for the Third Week in Advent

At the risk of spending time in prison for violation of the copyright laws, I make fair use of the reading that follows to accomplish two purposes: first, to put into words an aspect of Advent that I have been inadequate in articulating, and second, to pay homage to one of the most under-appreciated theologians of the twentieth century, William Stringfellow (of blessed memory). This reading is taken from the Advent readings collection, Watchh for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, published by the Bruderhof house, The Plough (and, since the demise of that house, by Paulist Press), for reading on December 7 (irony probably fully intended). It seems also appropriate to post this for the Third Sunday in Advent this year, because John the Baptist sits at the center of the gospel reading for the day’s mass.

This is Stringfellow:

We live now, in the United States, in a culture so profoundly pagan that Advent is no longer really noticed, much less observed. The commercial acceleration of seasons, whereby the promotion of Christmas begins even before there is an opportunity to enjoy Halloween, is superficially, a reason for the vanishment [sic] of Advent. But a more significant cause is that the churches have become so utterly secularized that they no longer remember the topic of Advent. This situation cannot be blamed merely upon … the electronic preachers and talkers, or the other assorted peddlers of religion that so clutter the ethos of this society, any more than it can be said, simplistically, to be mainly the fault of American merchandising and consumerism.

Thus, if I remark about the disappearance of Advent I am not particularly complaining about the vulgarities of the marketplace prior to Christmas and I am certainly not talking about getting “back to God” or “putting Christ back into Christmas” (phrases that betray skepticism toward the Incarnation). Instead I am concerned with a single, straightforward question in biblical context. What is the subject of Advent?

Tradition has rendered John the Baptist and Advent figure and, if that be an appropriate connection (I reserve some queries about that), then clues to the meaning of the first coming of Christ may be found in the Baptist’s preaching. Listen to John the Baptist.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). In the Gospel according to Mark, the report is, John appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It should not be overlooked, furthermore, that when John the Baptist is imprisoned, Matthew states, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17). And later, when Jesus charges his disciples, he tells them to preach the same message.

For all the greeting card and sermonic rhetoric, I do not think that much rejoicing happens around Christmastime, least of all about the coming of the Lord. There is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing. In any case, maybe outbursts of either frolicking or rejoicing are premature, if John the Baptist has credibility. He identifies repentance as the message and the sentiment of Advent. And, in the texts just cited, that seems to be ratified by Jesus himself.

In context, in the bibilical accounts, the repentance that John the Baptist preaches is no private or individualistic effort, but the disposition of a person is related to the reconciliation of the whole of creation. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The eschatological reference is quite concrete. John the Baptist is warning the rulers of this world and the principalities and powers, as well as common people, of the impending judgment of the world in the Word of God signaled in the coming of Christ. …

The depletion of a contemporary recognition of the radically political character of Advent is in large measure occasioned by the illiteracy of church folk about the Second Advent and, in the mainline churches, the persistent quietism of pastors, preachers, and teachers about the Second Coming. That topic has been allowed to be preempted and usurped by astrologers, sectarian quacks, and multifarious hucksters. Yet it is impossible to apprehend either Advent except through the relationship of both Advents. The pioneer Christians, beleaguered as they were because of their insight, knew that the message of both Advents is political. That message is that in the coming of Jesus Christ, the nations and the principalities and the rulers of the world are judged in the Word of God. In the lordship of Christ they are rendered accountable to human life and, indeed, to all created life. Hence, the response of John the Baptist when he is pressed to show the meaning of the repentance he preaches is, “Bear fruits that befit repentance.”

In another part of the Bible traditionally invoked during Advent, Luke 1:52-54, the politics of both Advents is emphasized in attributing the recitation of the Magnificat to Mary:

He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.

In the First Advent, Christ the Lord comes into the world, in the next Advent, Christ the Lord comes as Judge of the world and of all the world’s thrones and pretenders, sovereignties and dominions, principalities and authorities, presidencies and regimes, in vindication of his lordship and the reign of the Word of God in history. This is the truth, which the world hates, which biblical people (repentant people) bear and by which they live as the church in the world in the time between the two Advents.

Thus, Brother William.

A blessed time of watching, waiting, and repenting to you.

An Advent Surprise

I have already noted that Advent is my favorite among the Church’s seasons. Today (Sunday) I had even more reason and experience to support my emotions.

We celebrated the Third Sunday of Advent at Mount Olive in good style (You can get another perspective on the day's events at my Sister Dash's blog here.) : The procession featured the “baby” choir (i.e., the really little kids) from the congregation's choir school, who sang the verses of the Kyrie, to which the congregation sang the responses. (And there is just something about little kids in black cassocks and white cottas that makes the anglophile in me almost swoon. Now if we could only get the little ruff-collars. And I remember when the youth choir wore skull caps, but that might be a little over the top, even for me. ) The Gospel reading focused on John the Baptizer, one of the really problematic figures in my theology of the Church (though see a later post here, where I quote William Stringfellow). The Vicar’s sermon was simply grand (and you can read a copy of it here eventually – I encourage it – although it does not adequately bring across her terrific humor, at the beginning, and then her sense of humility at the end). We welcomed new members – two of whom are returnees after a sojourn in another congregation. (It’s so good to have old friends back!)

And then, at the conclusion of the Pax, the lights went out – literally. All the lights went out, sparked on for one second, and then seemed to be out for good. And so they were until long after the conclusion of the mass. Now, Mount Olive is a kind of dark church building – English gothic with relatively narrow stained-glass windows, except for the taller and wider clerestory windows, which are also stained-glass, but which are way too high to lend much assistance to those of us on the floor. And since it was a dark and gloomy day (and very windy), there was very little light. It was almost vigil-like, quite dark with only the Advent wreath's three tapers (for once, I was almost glad for that wretched custom), the processional torches, the Eucharistic lights, and the candelabra -- and, oh yes, the "eternal light (no comment.)Oh, and we have candles mounted along the outside walls which emit pale blue light, but almost none.

Well, in true Mount Olive style, the “corrections” to accommodate the new situation were seamless (to use one worshipper’s word). During the offering, the choir sang an anthem a cappella (which may or may not have been the intended style: They may have known the piece so as to sing from memory, but also had ready access to a stash of candles to help them read.) The offertory canticle (printed in the bulletin) began with a pitch pipe (our congregation can sing four-part Bach without accompaniment, so no problem there) and went off without a hitch among those who can read by little light. (It wasn't totally unfamiliar to all of us, since we had sung it last week, but it is not an "ordinary" canticle.) But then there was the issue of lighting the texts for the presiding and assisting ministers. Well, no problem there, either.

The sacristan, one of Sister Dash’s colleagues, arranged for lighted tapers to be brought from the sacristy and handed them out to the other servers, who then gathered around the missal to enlighten it. Es war genug. Then for the communion: The sacristan approached three of the teenagers of the congregation to hold torches at the head of the center aisle, where communicants receive the bread and then turn to either side to drink of the chalice. The “intinction cup” ministers (we offer a common chalice and an intinction cup, to provide for various sentiments about the “drinking” mandate) held candles, so that communicants could see there. The teens, who have been trained as acolytes in the parish, glided into their jobs with nary a second-thought or misstep. (We are so lucky to have such talented and self-collected servers in our congregation.)

Well, by the time the “retiring procession” had retired, the congregation was ebullient. I think part of the excitement was that we had made it through an experience that not even the longest-term members could recall having occurred before. Another part of the excitement was a kind of arrogance, or -- better -- pride that nothing can get the best of us. And yet another, perhaps only "gut feeling" major aspect of this was the realization that this was an Advent event of the first rank.

The Advent imagery was on every hand. There was, most obviously, the contrasting light and dark. What can be more foundational to this season than waiting in the dark for the coming of the Light? Physical and spiritual darkness combined (we had a young visitor – about three years old – who was somewhat frightened by the dark and whose requests for light could be heard throughout the room), to be banished by a few and then more individual lights that eventually combined to banish some of the darkness.
And there was the lesson that the darkness can come at any time but will not defeat us.

That raises the issue of power: Earthly power (electricity, in this case) was withdrawn, but the power that matters could not be shut off. Thus, the power of the Word and of the Sacrament – the latter admittedly rendered somewhat less visible a word (St. Augustine) by the physical darkness – tamed, if it did not banish, that darkness. The power of the community staved off – even for Amelie, our young visitor – the fear of the darkness. (One lovely choir member eventually gave Amelie’s grandmother a lighted candle to help assuage Amelie’s fears, and it worked.) The power of the love of God found ways through the darkness to bring even the frail and relatively infirm forward to participate in the feast.

Advent is also about waiting for the unexpected. That’s sort of an oxymoron, but it’s true nonetheless. We cannot be quite sure that our waiting is fulfilled until He whom we await arrives. Expectation, watchfulness, surprise, questions (like John the Baptizer’s questions in today’s Gospel – thank you Vicar Jean for drawing that out), clear-eyed-ness: These are the stuff of Advent.

In one of my book discussion groups, we just finished a discussion of Gail Godwin’s novel Evensong. In that book, the main character, an Episcopal priest, is asked about faith. A dying friend asks her, “Do you believe that there is really anybody there? And she responds, “I’m not sure I believe as much as recognize. Belief seems to me something that is willed. But there are times when I definitely recognize the presence of something eternally beyond me working through me. … “

I am convinced that central to Advent discipline is discernment, careful consideration of what we see (and hear and feel, for that matter) in order to recognize what of our experience is of God. We ought and must seriously and critically consider the voices we hear (regardless of their source), the visions that appear to us, the emotions that well up in us. And we must match them to the Gospel to determine whether they are of the true God or some other being (benign or malevolent), whether they come from the light or advance the darkness. That’s why the virgins – wise and foolish – need oil in their lamps: They need to be able to see the coming-one’s face to determine whether he is the bridegroom. The Vicar noted in her sermon that John’s imprisonment had blinded and deafened him to the happenings involving Jesus and so he asked, “Are you he or ought we look for another?” Discernment and testing of spirits. Distinguishing true light from seductive darkness.

That happened at Mount Olive today. What a fortuitous bit of serendipity.

It drew to mind (although I know it’s not an exactly apt connection) another line from Evensong: At one point the narrator-rector remarks that her husband laughed “the surprised laugh of a reserved man ambushed by the gift of ludicrousness.” Ours was a ludicrous spectacle – the foolishness and the gaiety of this gathering of people who didn’t have the sense to shut down their gathering and go home when the failure of electricity made the agenda and paths -- and even heating -- unclear. But we laughed – and it was a smaller, quieter version of the laugh that we expect to laugh when our Advent waiting brings us to the Grand Finale.

The Light once came into darkness; He visited again today.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Maranatha! Come quickly.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

An Advent blessing

I am a great fan of the Bruderhof brothers and sisters. These "anabaptist" martyrs, by the earnestness and sacrifice of their witness and by their phenomenal publishing efforts (not available most only in electronic format), never fail to bring me up short and to impress on me the meaning of faith and, surprisingly for a so-called "non-liturgical" tradition, of the importance of the Church's calendar. Consequently, I subscribe for their daily e-mail devotional message and usually end up following links for a good half-hour or so after reflecting on it.

Today I was brought up short by the absolute beauty, elegance, eloquence, and truth of one of the reflections to which the "Daily Dig" led me, and I share the link here with you. Please accept it as my Advent blessing on you and let me know how it affected you. My dear Sister Dash, here, once referred her readers to something she called "pure poetry." I would copy her, but instead prefer to say, Here is truth -- perhaps not the whole truth and perhaps not nothing but the truth, but truth nonetheless.

Happy reading.

Here's the link to a meditation by David James Duncan, courtesy of the Bruderhof. In case that doesn't work, try this:

All blessings for this Advent season. Watch, wait, Our King comes.

Monday, December 06, 2004


As someone trained in liturgical studies and who touts a certain seriousness about the historic traditions of the Church, I am self-conscious about admitting that of all the seasons in the Church year, Advent (not even Easter, for heaven's sake) is my favorite. It may be the contrarian in me, I suppose, but I find in the lections, the hymnody, and the atmosphere so much to sink my faith-teeth into that I can barely contain myself.

I appreciate Advent, first, because of its counter-cultural aspects: While all the commercial world (at least in the West) is celebrating Christmas at the same time as it "prepares" for Christmas, the Church is saying, "It's not Christmas. We have more important work to do, a more important message to attend to than 'get the tree up' and 'I'll be home for Christmas.'" It's easy to adopt the world's calendar and to celebrate the Christmas season -- read the season of buying and busyness -- which extends from Thanksgiving Friday up to December 25. But that is not the Church's way.

In fact, before the Church allows herself to revel in the romanticism, the joy, the peace and comfort, the remarkable meaning of the Incarnation, she takes time to set a larger vista within which so to revel: Advent is an eschatological season. The message is not just, "It's time to celebrate Jesus' birthday" or "It's time to 'ret up' the place for Jesus to come as a baby -- which, of course, he has already done." No, the message is, "Now we wait for the Grand Finale, the apocalyptic wonder, the Second coming -- and with that coming all the promises which have been fulfilled in only a proleptic way will be fulfilled for all." It's a time of Isaiah's visions; it ought also be at time to read Revelation. (I don't get why those are not the Epistle readings!)

Advent is a call to set aside the busyness, not to "keep Christ in Christmas," but to be prepared to received the One Who Returns. How does one appropriately await the delayed Parousia? Well, by watching, waiting, acting justly and with mercy -- in short by living the life of God, as he has revealed it. That's what "preparation" is: Live the salvation you already have and thereby be ready to recognize the Lord when he comes.

From Fr. Alfred Delp, a German Jesuit who was executed by the Nazis for his faithful witness (+1945):

There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up. Where life is firm we need to sense its firmness; and where it is unstable and uncertain and has no basis, no foundation, we need to know this too and endure it.

We may ask why God has sent us into this time, why he has sent this whirlwind over the earth, why he keeps us in this chaos where all appears hopeless and dark and why there seems to be no end to this in sight. The answer to this question is perhaps that we were living on earth in an utterly false and counterfeit security. And now God strikes the earth till it resounds, now he shakes and shatters; not to pound us with fear, but to teach us one things -- the spirit's innermost moving and being moved.

Many of the things that are happening today would never have happened if we had been living in that movement and disquiet of heart which results when we are faced with God, the Lord, and when we look clearly at things as they really are.

-- quoted from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 2001)

Lord, by your Spirit, claim our hearts and souls, our minds and imaginations, our loyalties and our affections -- that we might be encouraged and empowered to fling wide doors and unbar gates, to straighten roads into royal highways, to comfort your people, and to proclaim an end to captivity. Amen. Maranatha!

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Two personal notes

I have occasion for two celebrations.

First, my dear BrRAR (who has contributed to the conversation at this site, and who has the insight, sensitivity, and good sense to run rings around may bloggers -- so why doesn't he have his own?) has recently undertaken a new ministry: He is now the director of chaplaincy services at a local hospital. In his new position, he will be called on not just to lend his support and compassion, but to apply his remarkable administrative ability and organizational skills. I don't know whether he was growing dissatisfied in his former position, but if he was, this is very good news because it keeps him local and at hand. That is a boon for him, for his family, for our church, and for me personally.

Bravo, RAR. Your in my prayers.

Second, while I was dressing this morning, I turned on a new-to-me recording of Puccini's opera Turandot. My daughter who was dressing in her room called out, "I know that opera. You were listening to it the other day while you were working on my bed." The point: She can recognize differences in opera music -- and not just the great aria(S?), but from the recitativo. She's 11 and fairly musical; and she used to sing along with The Magic Flute in the car (though not very seriously). But it does an opera-loving father's heart proud to hear "I recognize that."


Oh, and while we're on "Alleluia": When she was about 3 ( or maybe 4?), we were driving back from buying her some Easter shoes. Thus, it was Lent. She piped up from her car seat, "Papa, when will Lent be over so that we can sing the "alleluia" again?" I nearly ran off the road in my joy and astonishment. From the mouths of babes.

I know: Three personal notes, not two.


Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Anfechtungen: Notes on the "Gay Debate"

Having inspired no one to touch the hot potato of why homosexuality is such a hot-button issue for religion and politics, let me try a new tack. A chat group I’m involved in has been asked by one of its members to think together about the issues of the Church’s blessing same-sex unions (whether called marriage or not) and, ultimately I suppose, ordaining non-celibate gay persons to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Here I try to set out, with the greatest timidity, a witness about that question. In a nutshell, I ask, “Why may not my – and, I am confident, millions of people’s – positive experience with gay and lesbian couples be legitimately considered – alongside all the other data, including (pre-eminently) the scriptural record – in determining whether the Holy Spirit may be calling the Church to a new understanding of its traditional teaching?”

Unaccustomed as I am to wide-flung statements of truth (!), it seems to me that there are two poles which constitute the “heretical” boundaries of theological thinking. The first, and most natural I suppose to those of the so-called “liberal” persuasion (I must sometime think through the inaccuracy of that label), is to begin with our own situation and reason backward to what revelation has to say about it. We, in a sense, predetermine the Scriptural interpretation we seek to divine by running the Scriptures through a series of filters (our experience, our political agenda, certain of our key “values”) which will eliminate any chance that our already-arrived-at conclusions are questionable. The chief problem with this approach, as though I need say it, is that it sets the “thinker” in God’s place and uses the Scripture only as a tool to enforce the agenda, which agenda may in fact be exactly counter to the will of God. (This is by no means a sin limited to left-leaning do-gooders; you find this in all camps – perhaps even more so among the so-called “fundamentalists,” despite their denials, or “conservative Christians.”)

At the other pole is a strict text-based process. Read the Bible and weep; read carefully and analytically, of course, but “what is written is written,” each word means what it says. Forget any “hermeneutical” lens or circle; forget about any supposed inner logic to the Scriptural record; forget the cultural milieu in which the text(s) were written to make sense. When texts contradict, harmonize them, but beware trying to “trump” any passage with another. While I generally hold to that latter line (and won’t my friends be surprised to see that!), I also contend that there is a kind of nonsense to it. It may be my Lutheran upbringing showing through (I should be so lucky), but I buy the notion that there is a kind of “canon within the canon” of Scripture, a core proclamation around which all the rest makes sense only when seen in light of that core proclamation. So, for example, as Luther said (well, sort of said), it’s clear from a complete reading of scripture that God justifies the sinner purely for gracious reasons, quite apart from the sinner’s doing anything (even religious) to earn that gracious justification; all of Scripture can be shown to expound, elucidate, or complement that basic pronouncement. This canon-within-the-canon becomes a kind of lens for reading the entirety of scripture. (Of course, the “canon within the canon” school has its own problems, some of which align with those of the first school, but this is a blog, not a thesis.)

Let’s move forward to the area of homosexuality.

On the one hand, I am human and my humanity colors the way I read and think about issues theologically: To get personal, it seems that most – though by no means all – of my closest personal friends are gay or lesbian. (For clarification and to keep the record clear, lest their Bishops and/or vocations committees be concerned, neither of the “holy friendships” I have extolled on this blog involves a gay man,) Furthermore, most of my gay friends are “partnered”, some in relationships of more than twenty years. One of my longest-term and closest friends, six years ago joined his life with another man’s. I have never seen my friend better – more stable, secure, settled, and creative. The couple’s sense of love, commitment, compassion, care, and respect for each other are almost palpable – something we’d hope for for every marriage (i.e., a Church-blessed union in love and commitment of a man and a woman). Those facts most certainly color my view of the issue of how the Church ought to teach about homosexuality.

I place my personal experience in the context of the increasing acceptance of gayness in the secular society and even in the Church. (Yes, I know all about the recent elections. I challenge anyone convincingly to demonstrate to me that the votes on “gay marriage amendments” resulted from reasoned, discerning, carefully considered judgments.) The APA has removed homosexuality from its list of “disorders”; legislatures are passing equal protection statutes for gay people (I won’t even discuss Massachusetts’ Supreme Court); there are sit coms featuring gay people (if it’s in a sit com, it’s considered so acceptable as to be almost trivial – but of course, it may just be that it involves sex, which is the most trivial subject of all for TVAmerica). Even the United States Supreme Court (that bastion of liberal thought) is increasingly sympathetic to gay people’s concerns, well-being, and legal status. In addition, many Christian denominations are unsettled about the place of homosexuality in the faith (with most, admittedly, holding a so-called “conservative” ground -- which is as it should be, absent serious study and discernment about sexuality in general), but none that I know of has rejected gays for membership in the denomination. These are examples, voices, and movements that I find difficult to ignore (if for no other reason that I commune with gay brothers and sisters every Sunday – and sometimes during the week!). So the cultural picture is at least more ambivalent than it used to be.

On the other hand, I am a Christian, and that imposes certain restraints on my liberty to “be me” when reading and thinking theologically: In my case, I was once ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and while I am no longer a pastor, I still feel bound by my ordination vow to teach (and, now rarely) preach in strict accordance with the Word of God. As a Lutheran, I confess that a primary (but not the only, I think) on-going source of the revelation of the Word of God is Holy Scripture. As a catholic evangelical, I understand that Word of God is brought down through time to the current age by means of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and that any effort to come to terms with what the Word of God “means” in our time must be cognizant of what that Word of God has “meant” for and to the Church in the times before. Of course, that process of saying in the current milieu what has been said “in all times and in all places” involves an active involvement with the texts of the past – and that requires consideration of setting, history, culture, and the like of those relevant texts over against similar and dissimilar issues in the present. (I think that this is what Douglas John Hall - no raving liberal, I think – calls “contextualizing” the witness of Scripture.)

I am, therefore, on the issue of whether the Church ought to bless or otherwise sanction and support among its membership same-gender relationships (whether we call it marriage or not) in tension. On the one hand, my experience and instincts – instincts, not incidentally, formed by lifelong involvement in the Church, training in her colleges and seminaries, and enthusiastic on-going intellectual engagement with theological argument by her scholars and teachers – lead me primarily in one direction, namely, to offer nothing less than full sacramental recognition of same-gender relationships. On the other hand, a hand I may not and cannot ignore, the virtually univocal witness of the catholic (note the lower-case “c”) tradition is to deny any such recognition and, indeed, to sanction in other sense of the word, namely to denounce them as contrary to intention of God for the order of the world.

I regret, frankly, that I cannot willingly, guiltlessly, enthusiastically, and in good faith subscribe the “traditional” teaching of the Church on this matter. I can and must, of course, describe the teaching, explain it to some extent, and affirm that it is the Church’s teaching and is, consequently, binding on my conduct and on that of all Christians,

Please note: I am not willing – and I will oppose anyone who seeks – to defy the Church’s teaching, and for that reason I oppose any “civil disobedience” by pastors and parishes – such as that involved in the recent “irregular ordination” of a non-celibate Lutheran pastor in Minneapolis. The way to change the Church is through prayer and mutual discernment of a new way; it is not to overthrow the structure irrespective of any consensus. In the Church, the way of discipleship is “bearing the cross”; and that leaves no room for “civil disobedience” of the Church’s structures and leadership. In that regard, we Lutherans have much to unlearn about the glories of the Reformation’s approach!

As a Christian, I am rightly distrustful of my personal experience as a guide to God’s truth. We know that from the time of Eden that that approach has been trouble. But as a Christian, I know, too, that experience plays a part in the interpretation of Scripture. Else why would the Church’s teaching on slavery have changed? Or why would women now be ordained in certain quarters of the Church? Was it not new experience that opened the door to new understanding? Was it not such for Peter, who originally balked at the inclusion of Gentiles among the Christian flock? He was a Jew – as were all the original Christians – who thought that The Way (as Christian faith was called) required that one first become a Jew to be a Christian. Following his experience with Cornelius, however, (and I suspect with numerous other Gentiles) he realized what God had been telling him for some time – namely, that Gentiles, too, should be included in The Way, without first becoming Jews. (Acts 10)

My reading of that passage is that Peter’s experience was a factor in his discerning the Spirit’s guidance. It has seemed that throughout history, the Church has been called to clarify or modify its teaching as a result of changed conditions in the world. Such change was in no way a denunciation of the past; it was a “contextualizing” (Hall), a coming to terms with the Tradition in changed circumstances. Such change has often been accompanied by great turmoil (the Reformation springs to mind: sorry “conservative” Roman brothers and sister, but I really do see the Reformation as a reform movement within the Church) and by bombast on both (or all) sides arguing the “I have the truth and you seek to destroy the Church.”

If any of this is near true, then let me set out (with his permission) a portion of a letter I sent to one of my “holy friends.”

Might the all-Holy Spirit be summoning the Church to a new teaching? Might the current upset be God’s way of urging us to move out of a mistaken position (or even the right position at the time) to a new openness, a new attitude, a new teaching? [Note: I’m not saying that such is the case, merely that it is not faithlessness to raise the possibility.]

A recasting of my issue is this: What is the appropriate place of [one’s own] experience in the integration, affirmation, or questioning of Church teaching? I do not assert my [own, sole, personal] experience as a kind of ultimate test – of course not! But what am I to do when the Church’s teaching is being far from univocally supported – questioned even by those of good faith. (I do not claim that all who question the Church’s teaching as a part of the ELCA’s sexuality study have the best interests of the Church at heart. But many who are in turmoil around this issue do seek diligently to be faithful and to promote the Church’s well-being. After all, such questioning is occurring within a discernment process within the Church, is it not?)

None of this proposes even the beginning of an answer to where the Church ought to go. I know that there are many whose minds are made up already, and I envy them. It’s difficult for me to be in this “in between” land. But at this point I am as concerned about the process as I am about the outcome. So here I propose one subject of conversation about the process, to be addressed in advance of answering the ultimate question.

Musings on "Reformation Sunday"

This post has been delayed by a ridiculously busy business and personal life. I hope the lack of timeliness does not render its sentiments moot.

I offer here a painful reassessment of my long-held affection for the Feast of Reformation Day. Despite my tendencies to more “traditional” traditions of the faith (such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy), I do not especially regret being a Lutheran. In fact, there are times when I am dang proud to be born, baptized, confirmed, and ordained a Lutheran. But I was taught (by Lutheran theologians) to understand Lutheranism through a particular prism, and that understanding tempers my chauvinism. That understanding grounds what I say here.

We Lutherans recently celebrated the Day of Reformation – a time to wax eloquently about what a wonderful thing the Reformation was, with its focus on “justification by faith” (never mind the unfortunate consequences that have followed from that formulation which is slightly different from the biblical “justification by grace through faith”) and on the eternal beneficence of Martin Luther’s contribution to the life of faith. I concluded this year that I am convinced that a liturgical reformation day is a bad idea – and I am ready to abandon this “red day” in our denomination’s calendar in favor either of no special day or of some feast that we can share with other Christians.

Now let me say, in advance, that my home congregation (Mount Olive, Minneapolis) is relatively responsible in its celebration in what is essentially a parochially protestant (note the lower-case “p”) festival. (Even with approval of the Joint Declaration on Justification, the Vatican’s liturgical commission has not yet added “Reformation Day” to the calendar.) We try mightily to have a non-Lutheran (preferably, Roman Catholic) preacher (and this year, resonant of Lutheran history perhaps, a Roman Catholic nun preached a simply fabulous sermon that took as its texts the scripture readings and not a particular event in church history). We also try to connect the import of the reformation to the wider issues of life in the Christian Church. Nevertheless, we followed what has become a little too common practice among Lutheran congregations in celebrating a “Deutsche Messe” – i.e., a “German” mass in which hymns (many composed by Luther himself) substitute for the ordinary of the mass. Details are available in the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) for anyone who is not acquainted with this little business.

I was surprised, given my affection for many of the hymns that substitute for components of the mass, that for the first time in my adult life I was bored and offended by the substitutions to the ordinary of the mass (i.e., of those “regular” components of the structure of the mass). I found them showy, tedious, tendentious, and no longer appropriate. I ought not to have been surprised by my reaction, for I am an “evangelical catholic” – i.e., a Christian who tries to bring together the absolutely necessary “evangelical” insights into the grace of God in life of faith and the equally absolute necessity of binding oneself as a Christian to the 2000-year witness of the teaching and “tradition” of the Church catholic. But up to now, I have thrown myself into the celebration of “Reformation Sunday” with all the zeal of one trained to sing (after all: most of the so-called “thrust” of the Deutsche messe was to get people to sing). The tunes are energizing and quite satisfying to sing, both for voice-box and for soul.

But this year I was struck by what a chauvinistic thing this celebration of “Reformation Sunday” is: It proclaims (only by implication, of course) what a good thing it was that Luther helped split the Western Church (the “catholic” church had been split centuries earlier). We sing Luther hymns to bump inherited texts of the mass to demonstrate that no old “tradition” or “magisterium” or whatever would bind us. We make our own way, by God (uttered with the appropriate tone of reverence). “A Mighty Fortress” reminds us that the anti-christic Pope may still be lurking outside our doors. It was all just too parochial.

I repeat: None of this was the “text.” Nor is this what underlay the planning by our worship leaders (pastor and cantor). I suspect that there are plenty for whom that is the subtext. But I contend that, regardless of the intentions or interpretations of those who plan and lead such celebrations, the phenomenon of a “Reformation” Sunday proclaims just such a celebration of division in the Church and fosters a continuing schism that is an offense to God.

My pastor disputes my “deconstruction” of Reformation Sunday. For him, it is the Lutheran way of celebrating our “distinctive” contribution to the fullness of the Church’s life. For him, Luther’s hymns and perspective are worth raising up.

But I think he raises two different points. I don’t deny the value of Luther’s witness. But I do not celebrate the on-going value of the schism he provoked in the Church. And to substitute Luther’s – or even Bach’s – hymns for the jointly-held treasure of the Church’s liturgy is to suggest that our distinctiveness is out of the mainstream of the Church’s traditions. (It is, if nothing else, disrespect for the deposit of the liturgy – something that the churches are slowing learning to share.)

It is time that the Lutheran Church recover its noble identity: We are an “evangelical” movement within the wider “catholic” church; we are not meant to be a separate “denomination.” We Lutherans, as Lutherans (“qua Lutherans,” as Walter Prausnitz, professor of English at Concordia College Moorhead, taught me to say) exist only to remind the Church of the importance of maintaining “justification by grace through faith” as an essential element of the Church’s witness (but note: not as the only element of that witness nor as the content of that witness). We exist only until the entire Church recognizes as a fundamental doctrine that in all preaching and teaching, we must make clear that God’s grace precedes, pre-empts, and precludes any human effort to reconcile God and humanity. The Reformation was not intended to establish a “new” church or even to separate from the “catholic” church; its intent was to remain as a lobbying movement within the Church. We are “the true church,” but that only means that we maintain our relationships with the church in Rome and in Constantinople and in Geneva and in Cape Town. We have forgotten that role, that place, that goal, that identity; it’s time to return to it.

All this means that, far from taking pride in the schism occasioned by Br. Martin’s preaching (as necessary as that split may have been in its day), we repent of it and seek to reunify the Church. We must not be self-satisfied as “Lutherans.” Instead, we must be perennially dissatisfied that the Church is divided, that the credibility of the gospel is impeached by its being proclaimed in seemingly contradictory tongues, that Christians find excuses to denounce and ex-communicate each other (on grounds that are facially farcical) in order to claim the privilege to declare the grounds for reconciliation of the Church. (Lamentably, that is most certainly not the perspective a many seminary-trained leaders of the Lutheran Churches.)

It’s time to stop observing the feast of the Reformation – at least in its current configuration, and certainly its observance as the “Deutsche Messe.” That is a step that Lutherans can take to recognize the importance of acting out our identity as Christians. It would be a first, small step (following the mutual recognition by Lutherans – to the extent that we can be said to speak with one voice – and Roman Catholics of the joint declaration on justification) toward reconciliation and reunion with the Church of Rome (with hopes that the designation will soon be the “Church of Christ”).

Let’s try to be real about what it means to be Lutheran. We are a “confessing movement” WITHIN the Christian Church. We have for too long misunderstood ourselves as a separate “church,” but if we read the Augsburg Confession, we are not separate from the rest of the Church.

We may hope that the Church of Rome (and also that of Constantinople) will make similar moves to recognize our fraternity and to overcome parochial pride (which exists in abundance within those traditions, too). I personally hope and pray that such will be the case: I think it essential to their own views of themselves that they move in that direction. But that is not a condition that Lutherans should insist on or condition any activity on.

For now, it is incumbent on Lutherans who take seriously our identity and to end this display of self-aggrandizement which we call “Reformation Sunday.”