Friday, April 28, 2006

On Being Lutheran

Lutheran Zephyr has a neat thing going: He has asked bloggers and others to post on why they are Lutheran. You can check out the deal here.

I'm going to take him up on the deal, but I want to organize my thoughts for a day or so. (This is NOT an easy question for me to answer. And I'll need time to reduce the six-volume response to a decent length.)

I encourage you to take part -- those of you who happen to be Lutheran.

And check back to catch the final statement on this issue at this very site. (After all, no one can argue with me about why I am a Lutheran -- no matter how skewed I happen to perceive Lutheranism, eh?)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Blessed Easter

I am remiss in not having wished my Orthodox brothers and sisters a blessed Easter: It's about time you catch up with our celebration (of course, because you started later, yours will go longer).

I have looked into how to determine the date for Easter for Orthodox of the old calendar, and I came across this site (begin at sectioin 2.13), which provides a calculus for both East and West. Let me tell you that after trying to work through the math, I am determined simply to look it up every year!

It's good for all Christians to be able to sing out together, East nd West, with confidence, "The Lord is risen!" and to reply, "He is risen indeed, alleluia!"

Monday, April 24, 2006

On Not Leaving a Church

I stumbled on something I had saved over a month ago, and upon reading it, I almost rose right up out of my seat. (Actually, I was reclining as I read it, so rising was a less-enticing option than I make it sound.) Episcopal Bishop Edward S. Little II (of Northern Indiana) posted “Living with Tares” at (you may see it here). And he shares a very healthy perspective on life in the Church in this time of controversy and hand-wringing. Herewith, a précis of his reflection and some of my personal reactions.

Bp. Little addresses the painful issue of seeing friends and respected colleagues, together with numerous of the faithful, leaving the Episcopal Church -- usually for another, non-Episcopal Church or tradition. The usual “presenting issue” is that of homosexuality (though from my reading, it appears that many often couch that reason in higher-sounding phrases)and the Episcopal Church’s difficulty in coming to consensus on how to deal with it.

Bishop Little finds the departures doubly painful because, in addition to knowing and admiring many of the departers, he agrees with them that “[t}he Episcopal Church, my spiritual home since Christian conversion as a college sophomore, has (I believe) seriously erred. We have rejected clear biblical teaching, refused to listen to the pleas of Anglicans around the world, and shattered dialogue with many of our ecumenical partners.”

But Bp. Little sets out his case for staying in the Episcopal Church, rather than leaving, too – and I find his arguments compelling.

First, Bp. Little stresses that Jesus’ prayer that all his followers may be one is more than just a nice suggestion; it is mandate, command. Furthermore, Jesus “invites the world outside the Christian community to make decision about him on the basis of our unity.” How we deal with one another during times of crisis becomes part and parcel of and with the Gospel we proclaim – whether we mean to make it so or not.

Bp. Little offers to treat those whom he opposes (including, not incidentally, the now-notorious poster child for all that ails the ECUSA, Bp. Gene Robinson) as brothers and sisters in Christ, recognizing, too, that the differences that divide the church are not as clear as zealots on either pole would have us believe. Living with “tares among the wheat,” as Jesus puts it in a parable, seems the better part of wisdom, affording the Holy Spirit time to work her will through the controversy and upset.

The Bishop cites three principles offered by Augustine during the Donatist schism – and,. again, they seem bang-on correct and helpful:

“1. The true identity of the church as Christ’s body is in no way diminished by the imperfections of its human members. [If that applies to the sacramental actions of a heretical or immoral priest. it applies, a fortiori, to the Church.]

“2. As long as we live in this present age, we must accept that it is God’s will that saints and sinners are mixed together in the church.

“3. Breaking communion and separating ourselves from the church is ultimately more damaging than the heretical ideas and practices that may have occasioned these actions.”

I say, “Amen.” Here is a bishop acting and sounding like a bishop. I know that he will be accused of being weak, jelly-spined, heterodox, naïve, and a lot of other things. But I think he sounds a wise, orthodox, benevolent note: Let us try to live in peace with one another, regardless of our differences, in the spirit of Christian fellowship.

It’s not that the differences don’t matter. They are often critically important. and that fact coupled with a desire to remain faithful should inspire us to continue to work to discern the actual workings of the spirit of truth. We Lutherans, especially, should relate to that – as we face battles over gay unions, gay pastors, bishops, Eucharistic fellowship, congregational authority, and all the rest. Remember that when Luther died, one notable “biographer” noted that a stench very like the smell of devil pervaded the room when Luther died (or something of that sort – I know I’m not nuancing his point very well.) Today, however, “A Mighty Fortress” is sung even (I suspect) with the approval of The German Shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI (who probably sang it auf Deutsch, himself). While I understand that it’s easy to second-guess history, and I don’t mean to let either side off the hook, how much earlier might we have arrived at the Joint Decree on the Doctrine of Justification had Luther’s pope not excommunicated him (and worse) and had Luther himself and, especially, his followers responded to papal decrees with a little more humbly? (Yes, I know that Luther was fighting a losing case with the popes of his day, but that doesn’t necessarily rebut my concern. And yes, I know that the the Confessio Augustana allows for the papacy. Still … .)

Picking up one's toys and moving to another sandbox is no more productive in the Church than it is in a pre-school.

Now, It’s no secret that I constantly (sometimes more quietly, sometimes more vociferously) ruminate about my future in the ELCA. “We’ve got trouble” at Higgins Road and in Minneapolis. Is one of my great themes. And I am tempted to bolt, though to where I could bolt remains problematic.

A couple of things have held me back: Most seriously, there is no where for me to go except to a tradition where I would be severing communion with the family and friends who mean the most to me. (Thank you to Edith Humphrey for helping me to put this to words.) That is a huge price which I can pay only as an absolutely last resort.

Second, I don’t believe that “leaving” -- especially leaving in anger or disappointment -- is a legitimate option for anyone: Being drawn inescapably to another tradition is, I suppose, in contrast a legitimate reason for leaving. But as Carl Braaten has memorably put it, You don’t “leave” Lutheranism because you’re angry; in that case you just become an angry Lutheran Catholic or Lutheran Orthodox or Lutheran Baptist (wait: that last one is almost redundant for many). I know that’s what would be the case with me.

Third, if my wish or "needP is to leave my home congregation for another Lutheran place, it is almost impossible to find one whose liturgical life is up-to-snuff by my lights. I think the issue of liturgy in the historical forms and manners is more than a matter of taste – as I have noted probably ad nauseum. It is not enough to have good preaching (also rare) or good Christian education or ... or ... .

So now I have a new mission that accommodates my concerns. Following Bp. Allen's confession, I have a salve to keep me where I am. I cannnot swear, affirm, or aver that this is my stand to the end of time. For now, I draw from Bp. Allen a kind of mission. The Bishop summarizes that beautifully, and I quote him at length:

Why do I not join those who have left or are leaving? Why do I stay? Serving a broken and divided church is a hard calling, and I do not minimize the difficulty of the task or the inevitable disappointments that I will encounter on the journey. But the Lord, for his good purpose has (I humbly believe) thrown into one church Christians of radically different and sometimes theologically incompatible perspectives. [How Anglican is that? Lutherans would have some trouble swallowing it, I suppose, but the evidence suggests its true of us, too.] Is it possible that in the midst of this painful discontinuity, he may do a work that none of us can foresee? It is in that hope and in remembering that he is Lord of the Church and in charge of the big picture that I follow Jesus in the Episcopal Church [here I edit to say “ELCA”].

Friday, April 21, 2006

R.I.P., The Rev. Dr. James Burtness

Our heavenly Father has seen fit to welcome into his Kingdom his servant James Burtness. Burtness was long-time (and I mean long-time!) professor of theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. His death is a loss to the Church on earth, which can use all the same theologians it can get.

I didn't know Professor Burtness well; I've read some of his books, and we had a couple of very nice conversations about Bonhoeffer and about theological education in contemporary America. I regret not getting to know him better; he had so much to offer. He was inspiring: his scholarship on Bonhoeffer was ahead of his time and his lectures on theology in which "gasp-pel" figured prominently (I listened to tapes while I was in my parish in Fargo) are simply a couple of things to which I can point -- not to mention his role in establishing dialog, a singularly impressive and important theology journal in its time (since it was taken from Jenson and Braaten and subsequently turned over to Blackwells to publish, I neither care nor can afford to read it).

For what it's worth, I offer condolences to his family, friends, colleagues and students. Here is a local obituary.

Eternal rest, grant him, oh Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon him.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Wendell Berry, National Security, and Christian Concerns

Wendell Berry is one of America’s best and most versatile writers. A novelist, an essayist, an environmentalist, a social critic, a farmer, a theologian, and much more, Berry displays a deep commitment to principle, to ordered well-being, to such “old values” as commitment, fidelity (the subject of much of his writing), community, and respect for the basic dignity of all persons. I am incapable of not buying a new Wendell Berry book when I see one, and I do so regularly – as I did yesterday when I picked up his 2005 publication, The Way of Ignorance and other Essays. The first essay justifies the price of the book.

In that essay, “Secrecy vs. Rights,” he offers as eloquent, informed, and common-sense an analysis of the current security craze in America as I have seen anywhere (not that there are many appearing). It is a reflection that grows out of the 2004 decision (or non-decision) by the Supreme Court of the United States to let stand a lower-court ruling that “the Justice Department [sic: increasingly, many of us left-wingers are inclined to write “so-called Justice Department”] was within its rights in refusing to identify more than 700 people, most of those Arabs or Muslims, arrested for immigration violations in connection with the attacks” of September 11, 2001. This was, of course, done in the name of “national security” or protecting the country from terrorists. In the following mere four pages, Berry demonstrates from the Constitution of the United States (and most especially the Bill of Rights) and the Declaration of Independence that fundamental to the founding of this country was the principle that efforts to provide security for the nation could not trump individual liberties without destroying the basic fabric of this country’s existence. (I wish I had read this during law school: It would have been fabulous to use his analysis, which I never heard offered – even by liberals – , in class discussion.)

After arguing that defense and security are certainly legitimate and critical concerns, Berry demonstrates and concludes that, by the lights of the Founding Fathers, defense of the nation at the expense of its liberties would constitute a fundamental self-contradiction, resulting in the ultimate end of the country. His last paragraph is long, but worth quoting and contemplating:

Terrorism, against which the government without formally declaring war says we are “at war,” at the same time that it seeks to circumvent the legal conventions of war, has certainly precipitated a time of public danger. How badly frightened the general public may be by this state of affairs is a question hard to answer. But the federal government and the courts have given evidence that they, as the terrorists intended, are badly frightened. They are so badly frightened as to believe that they have no choice but to sacrifice the rights of persons in deference to the government’s need for secrecy. But it is an error to believe that these two “fundamental values” can somehow be justly “balanced” by the government or the courts, or that the people can judge responsibly between their rights, which they can easily know, and a proclaimed “need,” which the government so far forbids them to know. The Constitution, anyhow, does not provide for its own suspension by the fearful in a time of war and public danger. (italics added)

Let the people say “Amen” to that.

Berry’s is a logical and, to my mind, fundamentally correct analysis. It accurately portrays a kind of “simul” to government that Christians (at least of the Lutheran persuasion) identify in human being and (if they’re keen) human institutions (including government). The American form of government is at the same time protector from assaults from the outside (i.e., for example, war-making attacks on the populace) and protector from those inside who would violate fundamental principles in order to provide that other security. Responsible citizenship requires a careful balancing of the two concerns, but liberty remains the higher concern. As more than one important American hero (including Ben Franklin) has noted, “They who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

To my eye, we stand in a crisis of liberty in this land. It is as serious as that crisis (only acknowledged years later) realized by the internment into concentration camps of people of Japanese lineage (whether citizens or not) during World War II. Ours may be an even more serious crisis, because by act of Congress, the government can now intern citizens and non-citizens alike without announcing that they have taken them into custody, without releasing their names, without bringing them to trial (which parallels Lincoln’s suspension of the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War, an act later determined to be unconstitutional), without treating them as human beings. (The parallels to the "disappeareds" in Latin America and in communist countries in recent decades may not be entirely hyperbolic, except as to the numbers involved -- and perhaps the ultimate fate of those detainees.) The combination of the USA Patriot Act (the name alone provides a classic illustration that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel") and a current administration that arrogates to itself the supposed authority to do (literally) anything it wants, irrespective of legislation and legal precedent, results in a situation where even attorneys have to fear for their well-being if they zealously advocate for their clients (who may or may not be interned).

I was with a group of lawyers yesterday (in a continuing education event), discussing the state of bias in the judicial system. When I tried to raise the bias implicit in such legal areas as the Patriot Act and the exacerbation of the problem with the prohibition on speaking about detainees and requests for information, I couldn’t get anyone to acknowledge that I was raising an issue. They looked uncomfortable, but they preferred to stick to bias against blacks. So apparently even my own profession refuses to stand up for that which we have sworn to uphold – viz., the Constitution.

Christians are called to take seriously in the civil institutions within which they find themselves placed; relatively few are called to a life of withdrawal from the world. But Christians are called to be citizens with a clear eye and a realization that all things of the world are temporary, of secondary importance to “the things of the spirit.” (Thus, for example, while we may and ought to be good citizens, exercise of that good citizenship ought to empower us to refuse to fight in the military.) Supposedly, too, Christians realize that remaining alive is not the summa, the meaning of existence, though you wouldn’t know it to hear a lot of Christian preaching.

This understanding ought to result in a Christian outcry against the current state of affairs in this country. But it has not. Where is the Christian witness to the importance of welcoming the stranger (scripture contains no exception for the case where the stranger may be a threat – the whole point of the commandment is to overcome a kind of natural xenophobia, it seems to me), of freeing the unjustly imprisoned (some of the Guantanamo detainees have been there years, even though the government acknowledges that they are not security threats), of holding the gospel before the leaders? I am less concerned here with the missives of bishops than I am with individual Christians’ coming to grips with the existential impact of their faith. If a brother (whether Christian or Muslim) is dragged away simply because he fits some sort of profile, am I not required by the Lord of Life to scream my head off, too?

The issues of “national security” and “civil liberties” are religiously rich. Wendell Berry’s secular essay ought to set off overtones in the ears of faith in Christians. This is a very important issue for us.

It’s time for Christians to exercise their voice.

And by the way, if I suddenly disappear and the government denies that I am at Guantanamo, know for certain that that’s where I’ve been taken. (And I’m not sure whether that is a joke or not.)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


A friend just wrote to request ideas for how to be a responsible and faithful godfather (he prefers the title “sponsor”) to his godchild who turns 4 this year. He doesn’t find many resources available in print or on the Internet to advise him. A quick review suggests that he’s correct. (One internet posting advised “renounce the devil.” That’s good advice for us all, but I don’t see that it addresses my friend’s question very directly. So I’m going to start with some of my ideas. And then I hope that some who read this will contribute their own suggestions.

First a disclaimer: I am a godfather to several Christians. I have been a lousy one to some, a so-so one for a couple, and a faithful one to probably only one or two. I lament that, having learned from my misdeeds and my maturing, I will likely not have the chance to “prove myself” again. Hidden in that confession is the assertion that I have learned more from what I regret not having done than I have insight from the history of faith!

In thinking about this, I assume that the godchild is a child. That is really the only condition that exists in the Church today, I think. For adult catechumens, baptism ordinarily includes “confirmation” in the same rite – which is as it ought to be. For bad historical reasons, we now separate baptism from the bishop’s approval and sealing with the Holy Spirit -- which is what confirmation is supposed to be and which, in earliest times, was the way confirmation was offered. So now, when we baptize children, we impose a period of catechesis on them that lasts until their “confirmation.” Thus, the godparent’s responsibilities officially end with the child’s confirmation.

Two responsibilities head the list of ways that godparents fulfill their responsibilities to the child placed in their care – for godparenthood is a care-giving role. The first is to pray regularly for the godchild. The second is to spend time with the godchild.

It ought to go without saying that godparents keep their godchildren constantly close to their hearts in prayer. In this way, the godparent advocates for and represents the child to God. Does that need any expansion?

Hand-in-glove with prayer is the responsibility of a godparent to be involved in the life of the child. The godparent is bound to be a model of the Christian life, an educator and mentor into the ways of faithful living, a support through easy and difficult times of doubt and question. In short, the godparent is “Church” to the child. It’s hard to do that from afar (which is why, in most situations, I advocate choosing as godparents members of the home congregation – not a relative from across the country or a “best friend from childhood” who practices an entirely different kind of faith. And don’t get me going about godparents who aren’t practicing Christians!). In fact, the invitation to become a godparent carries implicit permission for the godparent to stick your nose into the child’s life, the parent’s “caretaking,” the theological matrix within which the child is reared, and the like. That responsibility, too, cannot be carried from afar.

So, a godparent should spend time with the child from the very beginning of her new life of faith – plain, old, ordinary, no-agenda person-with-person time (in addition to “special times – e.g., the baptismal anniversary Sunday, birthdays, school performances, and the like). The structure of that time together will change according to the developmental stage of the child: “Babysitting” once in a while during the child’s infancy and toddlerhood is not unreasonable; outings to the zoo or the park are a good way to stay connected and to bring up issues of faith. Heck, I recommend a tour with the child of the English minsters – and take me. (I regret that I did not offer my godchildren that opportunity, but since I have not done it for some, I cannot in fairness offer it to the children still under my care, can I?) Teaching songs, liturgical gestures, and the like can be integrated into “play time.” (This is, of course, not the exclusive realm of the godparent – but it is one that ought not be ignored in the often mistaken impression that the parents will do that.) The point is to develop a relationship with the child that is intimate, confidential, mutual, trusting – so that if the godchild needs counsel or a shoulder or something because of some crisis of faith, the godparent is there as an additional resource to the child.

Time together also allows the godparent to model the Christian life into which the child will grow. Thus, time in church together is phenomenally more important that instructing the child in the canons of the Council of Nicea in 325 (as enjoyable for all as that latter activity might be). But time outside church is just as influential. As the saying goes, Faith is caught, not taught. (That might come from the language: “Influence” comes from the same root as “influenza” – both suggest a kind of implanting of something that will come to fulfillment in the other.) Beware of the implicit meaning that the child can draw from the time together: Watching a godparent smoke, for example, teaches more than a dozen heart-to-heart talks about “respecting one’s body.” (In this way and with this awareness, having godchildren makes us godparents better people and better Christians: It keeps us on our toes on all sorts of levels.)

Now to the commercial aspect: Kids like to be remembered at traditional gift-giving times, and that’s a reasonable thing to keep in mind. I have always given my godchildren a gift on the anniversaries of their baptisms. (With two of them, the anniversary falls right around Christmas, so we’ve been able to elide the Christmas mess.) I tend not to remember birthdays – not on principle, although I could make the point that that “holiday” is the purview of some other set of intimates. If the baptism is not at Easter, an Easter remembrance seems a good thing to do.

Books are my preferred gift – big surprise there. I think personal libraries are cool, so I try to seed them when I can. But more importantly, there is a slew of pretty good (as opposed to schlocky and downright creepy) child-oriented fare of religious and theological value. Gail Ramshaw, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and eventually Wendell Berry, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walter Wangerin, and a host of others have written books of high quality that deal with issues of faith and life in the Church. (Check out Liturgical Training Publications, e.g., for some valuable ones on worship, liturgy, and saints; AugsburgFortress has some, too, that are fun to read with kids.)

In addition to books, CDs, DVDs, tapestries for the walls, toys (I’ve seen a neat Noah’s Ark, e.g.) all work. But in all of this, I discourage misidentifying godparents with “sugar daddies” and “sugar mommies.” Not only does that eclipse what the relationship between child and godparent is, but it’s a really bad example for life in general. So it’s not necessary to spend gobs of money on the godchild. The important thing is to show with some tangible trinket that you remember the godchild and that her Baptism is an important reality to both of you.

I don’t think any of this is particularly insightful (or helpful to my friend), but it’s a good thing for everyone in the Church to think about. We are pretty cavalier about godparents – or “sponsors” – even in the best of liturgical churches. (I was accepted by a Roman Catholic congregation as a godparent for my niece, but I was not asked to be her confirmation sponsor. Go figure!) I hope that the Church and congregations can be encouraged to take that issue more seriously. We ought to teach about relationship in confirmation (congratulations to the overseer of confirmation at my congregation for requiring the kids to write a letter inviting their godparents to their confirmation), in adult fora, in worship conferences, in premarital counseling sessions. (If anyone wants the rest of my views about how to structure a ministry of godparenting, I’ll be happy to provide! :) )

And now it’s your turn. What do you think? Do you remember a gift from a godparent that was particularly memorable – or one you gave a godchild that went over really well? Do you remember who your godparents were? Do you pray for them now?