Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Integrity of the Liturgy

Chauvinism alert: This will likely be of interest primarily -- if not only -- to Lutherans.

The inestimable Philip Pfatteicher has published a comparison and review of the daily offices as they appear in the two new Lutheran service books, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW: published by the ELCA) and Lutheran Service Book (published by the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod [and, yes, it's supposed to be an "em" dash]). Of interest to me is his analysis of the utter weakness of the offices in the ELW, since that's the book we use in my congregation -- over my objections, I will note for the record. For my money, it's both a devastating critique and an accurate statement. Many of us would like to see a denomination's worship book designed so that it serves both the congregation and the family in their respective worship and devotions. It is clear that the powers-that-be who designed the ELW have no sense of that. It is also clear that the worship professionals in the denomination have tin ears, faulty training, no ecclesiology, and bad taste. In short, my expectations for this boondoggle have been confirmed.

What the Rev. Dr. Philip does not mention is that he has produced a prodigious alternative to the ELW for the daily office. The Daily Prayer of the Church contains, in one volume, the office rites, music, hymnody, readings "in the ancient" way. You may consult here for more information.

I'm embarrassed, in a way, to admit that it has supplanted the brievary I used to use. It's difficult to have to choose between two wonderful works, and so perhaps I'll go back and forth every two years. I have been very satisfied with For all the Saints: A Prayer Book by and for the Church. Compiled and organized by my friend Fred Schumacher, this "resource" is rich in other ways from Pfatteicher's. Of chief note about Saints is its including three full lections for each day, together with a reading from the writings of some saint, drawn from the full history and all traditions of the Christian Church. (Pfatteicher's, already a very thick book, can accommodate only a verse or two -- in what I understand to me the breviary tradition.) Schumacher's is also easier to use (you start at the front of volume 1 and work through in order to volume 4) -- but you can do that when you get four volumes to work with. Pfatteicher's takes some getting used to, but that poses no major problem to anyone who is committed to using it.

I say that I'm embarrassed about my defection because I am serve as the Synod liaison for the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, which happens to publish both of the works (in the case of Pfatteicher, in tandem with Kirk House). Loyalty might have obviated the need for one of the two books, had they been published by different groups. But ... .

One advantage the Pfatteicher has over the Schumacher is that it follows the "new" calendar in force with the ELW -- i.e., it relates a little more closely to the secular calendar (we now have "ordinary time" instead of "after Pentecost") and allows for pre-Advent preparations (but without the "-gesima" Sundays). Still and all, they are both great achievements and I hawk them whenever I can. (Too: If you're a Lutheran and don't read -- er, subscribe to -- Lutheran Forum, also published by ALPB, you are missing out on a dandy and inspiring experience.) Note: Both office books use the daily prayer orders and music from the Lutheran Book of Worship, which, while not eliminated from the AugsburgFortress line (at least as I understand matters), has been forsaken for absolutely no good reason by the ELCA. I personally don't think that the music of that worship book's offices is stunning or especially invigorating (nothing compares to the anglican chant settings of Matins and Vespers in the now-ancient Service Book and Hymnal) but it is better than what has replaced it. (And that just goes to show that when you have good texts and historical sense, you can make good music -- all of which are lacking in the new "worship resource," as the promoters insist on calling it.)

Do yourself (and ALPB) a favor and buy one or both of the daily office books that I recommend. And begin to take seriously your responsibility to pray without ceasing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My friend Cha suggested that I blog the discussion I am facilitating in our congregation on the Gospel According to Matthew. That will be a daunting task, and I will not commit to doing a very comprehensive job of doing so. Nevertheless, I pick up the gauntlet and relay, on an occasional basis, some of the glory that comes from the meetings. We began this past Sunday with a consideration of Matthew 1 -- specifically, the genealogy section.

I think it is in his monograph, A Coming Christ in Advent, that Raymond E. Brown, perhaps my favorite Bible scholar, enthusiastically urges preachers to take up the “begats” of the first chapter of Matthew. There is much to be gleaned for our benefit from what seems a rather arcane recital of a male-celebrating list of forebears. What can possibly serve faith about this section of chapter 1? Quite a bit, Fr. Brown said.

Well, a little snooping around in anticipation of leading a Bible study of the Gospel of Matthew and our first week of discussing the Gospel have shown me that Raymond Brown, once again, knew his stuff. These first few verses are packed with information, assertion, confession, contradiction, and confusion. And taken as a whole, it now seems to me indispensable to the Gospel.

The most obvious feature of the list of “begats” (and scholars seem to agree that the translation “was the father of” is too weak; “begat” or “fathered” or “sired” is much more to the point of the Greek) is that it is the history of Israel writ in brief. Jesus is said to be “son of Abraham.” And from Abraham, recipient of the covenantal promise (about which more later), through Joseph, wife of Mary, the history of the faith and nation of Israel comes to rest on Jesus. (Now, of course, that history comes by way of Jacob’s, in essence, adopting Jesus. It is the curious thing about Matthew’s Gospel that he, pace Luke, makes no effort to draw Mary into the line of descent, but brings Jesus in through the side door, as it were, through Joseph.) And that is central to the message, if you will, that Matthew tries to get across: Jesus does not represent God’s rejecting Israel in favor of some new line, but he does represent the “fulfillment” of all Israel has existed to bring about. At one level, this is the most Jewish of the Gospels (something the St. John’s Bible illuminators got in spades: Whoever illuminated the “begats” designed the family tree in the shape of a menorah and inscribed the names in Hebrew!)

Abraham was blessed “to be a blessing”: By his heirs all nations would be brought back into faithfulness with The Lord, creator of heaven and earth. Through her history, Israel seemed to forget that, but her life was intentionally missional – to live in fidelity to the identity of her God and thereby to be the means by which “all nations bless themselves,” that is, return to The Lord. Finally in Jesus, the Father God sent his Son to bring that mission to fruition. And, of course, that comes with a complicating factor for those who viewed Israel’s history with a chauvinistic eye.

The covenant to Abraham was intended, Matthew insists, ultimately to include non-Israel – i.e., Gentiles. And the second half of Matthew’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ opening the mission of his original Twelve to the rest of the world. This was not a mission to reject Israel, but to expand Israel to “nations.” In Stanley Hauerwas’ words, Jesus is the summing up of the history of Israel

so that Jew and Gentile alike now live as God’s people – or, at least, that the path to this eschatological reality is made straight and the journey begun.

Additional evidence that Matthew wants to stress openness to the Gentiles is carried by his including women in the list of the begats. While there may be no scriptural support for the claim of motherhood on the part of some of them, Matthew includes Tamar, and Hagar, Bathsheba (though not by name), and Ruth. Some of these are women of ill-repute; most (if not all) are not Jews. Yet here they are: The genealogy is no whitewash over history. And one of the facts that is not whitewashed over is that Gentiles have served a place in God’s work all along – as they will again. God can and has made use of surprising instruments to work his will – witness these women, including, let us not forget, a virgin – and he does so for his ultimate purposes, which are all-inclusive.

Wonderfully, this is the story not just of the fulfillment (a big word for Matthew) of Israel’s being, but that of the entire cosmos. The Gospel’s “begats” section begins “The book of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah.” By using the word “genesis,” both here and at the opening of the birth narrative, Matthew signals that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent a recapitulation of creation. The very destiny of God’s creation is at stake in Jesus’ life, Hauerwas notes. This is no mere “heaven in the sky in the sweet by-and-by when I die” kind of story; this is about the restoring humanity to our proper place in creation along with all the other created “things and beings.” This is the story of salvation of the world – world taken, not just as a substitute for the people who dwell therein, but at face value.

And part of the salvation of the world includes the salvation of its “politics” – this is the point of naming Jesus “son of David.” Matthew is a most political book, but it shows us that the “politics of Jesus” (to use Yoder’s term) is an alternative to the world’s power politics – with their reliance on force, violence, dishonesty, compromise. From the Sermon on the Mount through his peaceful submission to death, even death on a cross,

In all of this, Matthew makes clear that he has no intention of writing a pseudo-history of Jesus; his efforts are in another direction. He interpolates connections, elides dynasties, omit kings. And he doesn’t even count very well: His claim to three sets of fourteen generations each doesn’t add up. But the effect is to reinforce the impression that his goal is homiletic, not historical. (It reminds me of the claim I frequently make about the Current Occupant of the White House: His theme is “Let me tell you what’s going on – and don’t confuse me with the facts.”) He wishes us to see in the man whose story he tells God’s final act and statement to accomplish his will, embodied in the very real human (hence the point of the genealogy in the first place) Jesus.

And that makes sense of Hauerwas’ claim that “who” Jesus was and is” tells us the “what” and “why” of Jesus. Matthew’s is not a propositional treatise – ala Paul’s letters, for example. This is the narrative of the one whose life is the content of his message. The only way to come to grips with Jesus is to follow him, to become his disciple (something he, as his final act on earth, charges his disciples to make of all nations) – to listen to him, to wrestle with his words and his deeds, to see in him the full vesture of God in human flesh.

And that’s not bad for a list of names, is it?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Holy and Mundane

One of the things I most love about Lutheranism, if I understand anything about it, is its embrace of paradox: Indeed, I think paradox is the modus operandi of Lutheran theology. I am fond of using an ellipse as an image of Lutheran theology. An ellipse is the configuration of all points defined by their steady relationship to two fixed points, called “foci.” In Lutheranism, there are several of these elliptical arrangements, depending on what one wishes to talk about. Thus, there is “law and gospel,” and proclamation from Lutheran pulpits is framed in terms (one hopes, not expressed in terms) of those two foci. To be a good Lutheran, one must keep the two foci in tension and develop preaching and teaching out of that tension. While one may stress one or the other from time to time, one can’t ignore one or the other (hence, the image of an ellipse as opposed to a circle or straight line). There are other examples of the elliptical nature of Lutheran theology: “catholic and evangelical,” (dear to my heart!) “(simul) justus et peccator,” "Scripture and the Great Tradition," and you can supply numerous others.

One of those tensions planted deeply in my spiritual development relates to the eucharist. It is a tension of “holy/special” with “common/ordinary.” When I was growing up, my congregation celebrated (if that can be the word) holy communion four times a year. The services were in the evening; only confirmed members received – and not nearly all of them; the pastor eschewed the surplice and wore only cassock and stole; the lighting was subdued; the hymnody dour and slow. It was a daunting experience – no trace of joy; lots of talk of fear and trembling – as though the setting didn’t obviate the need for talking about them. And all of this was perceived to be a way of keeping the communion “special.” The great danger, I remember hearing in Sunday School and confirmation, was rendering the Lord’s Supper as something “common” or “ordinary.” As was later opined in the great debates about celebrating communion more frequently (and this was before the push for every-Sunday eucharists), celebrating more frequently or with less sobriety would rob the sacrament of its specialness, its power, its “meaning,” its effect. (That theology was wrong on so many points, but it held sway for decades.)

Well, we live in a new era – and I generally say, thanks be to God. My own congregation, as I have noted ad nauseum, celebrates the holy eucharist every Sunday and on significant feasts, too. We decry “close(d)” communion – i.e., communion only for those who meet certain standards of orthodoxy, as we measure it. We commune “continuously” – i.e., we do not commune by tables, but rather “on the run” – so as to emphasize eating and drinking by the entire assembly as one. (This is not uncontroversial even at Mount Olive. There are still those who would prefer to commune at the altar rail, one group at a time, with each table getting its own blessing before departing. But, while I would appreciate a means of communing that is less “buffet” and more “banquet” in style, I think we pretty much do the best that we can. We have steps up to the altar rail and the problems they pose for some of our members are obviated by communing at the level of nave. I am not a fan of “tables.”) We sing rousing hymns. We “celebrate” and our spirits are uplifted. Most of us come away happy.

But, curmudgeon that I am, I wonder whether even we at Mount Olive are at risk of dissolving the ellipse of the eucharist – that of the tension between “common” and “special.” Now, I believe that the eucharist is meant to be common – it is the most ordinary thing that Christians do, as ordinary as breathing, eating with family and friends, carrying on daily conversation. When my daughter was about four and already communing, she spotted the big red button on the side of my head and, adept at pushing all my buttons, proclaimed just as we were to go forward to receive, “I don’t want to commune today.” Well, for once I had my wits about me (perhaps it was the proximity of the Holy Spirit at the moment) and I said to her, “Of course you will.” “But I don’t want to.” “That doesn’t matter; you will commune.” “Why?” “Because that’s what Christians do.” And that settled the matter for her. Never again have we fought over whether to commune. (I have temporarily lost the battle over communing by the common cup; she prefers the intinction cup, as do most of her friends. But I am confident that I’ll eventually win this war, too.)

My point was and is that communing regularly – as we said of voting in Chicago, early and often – is the very way of life of those who bear the name “Christian.” If we do nothing else, we commune. Of course, if we commune, unless we are in very peculiar circumstances, I don’t know how communing can be all that we do. But that’s for another post.

Now, in the church, the sense of communion as “ordinary” – at least in the sense of being something that should be done as regularly as prayer and Bible reading – has won out. But at what cost, I wonder.

As with so much of church life, the pendulum just can’t seem to stop at the via media; it has to continue past center to the opposite extreme. And I wonder whether communion has become too “common.” Far from close(d) communion, we practice virtually no eucharistic discipline at all: Oh, we may put in our bulletins (as we do at Mount Olive) that we welcome to communion anyone baptized in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, but in no sense do we check credentials of any “stranger” presenting himself or herself. (And, truth to tell, I wouldn’t want us to.)

My wish has been granted (to call it a prayer might stretch matters): Eucharist has become a common expectation and practice. But for many, I suspect, it has – as predicted – ceased to be special. With the American inability to live with paradox, most of us have resolved the tension in favor of ordinary. And it shows in the manner that many commune: There is a distinct lack of reverence toward the body and blood themselves, which are tossed around like so much old gravy. (In my in-laws’ congregation, after communing, the communicants discard their little plastic individual glass into a waste basket, without regard for whether there’s wine still in it or not. Needless to say, I almost faint – especially when that is combined with happy-clappy songs projected on the side screens.) Communion is seen as “due” to anyone who wants it, irrespective of any commitment to or involvement with the congregation that gives flesh and blood to the body and blood of the eucharist. It’s a picnic to which all and sundry (perhaps even including the ants) are welcome.

And superstition has replaced reverence. I was recently at a confirmation in a large church. This congregation almost never offers congregation communion services; the pressing need for religious services on-the-hour doesn’t allow for it in a 45-minute service. So for the confirmation (which looked and sounded more like a graduation – unfortunate connotations, there – replete with little diploma folders), communion was something of an open question. The church’s solution: Have the confirmands stand, throw out the words of institution (with NONE of the versicles, canticles, or anything else that give the Eucharistic liturgy its substance), and commune just the confirmands, while the soloist sang a medley of Bible camp standards. (Side note: And we wonder why we won’t see most of those kids in church again?) Let the congregation witness the event – after all, it’s a spectator sport, anyway (well, except for the offering). Sanctify the event with a little communion thrown in; don’t worry about the absolute nonsense it makes of whatever meaning the confirmation rite has (and I argue that it has very little). Give it out along with a Bible and a diploma. No need to dim the lights (that only happened for the sermon!). It was almost surreal – and that would have been interesting, if the entire event hadn’t been so damned sad!

Obviously extreme examples prove very little, but they can open our eyes to deeper realities. Reverence is a dying art in Lutheran worship; it has become all too common – almost indistinguishable from the other entertainment venues we frequent. (I’m not sure, frankly, that I would object to a Starbucks outlet at Mount Olive, but I draw the line at cup holders attached to the pews!) And some of that helps explain much of the problem of Lutheranism today.

Back to paradox; re-stress the tensions. Forget Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis; the Gospel is not synthetic and neither should be our theology. Recapture “dialectic”: It means more than “with words.” Bring back “the holy” aspect of Church life. Take off your shoes, as Moses was told; this is holy ground. We could stand lessons in how to stand on holy ground without losing our sense of terra firma.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Yet Another Requien

I have just learned that Madeleine L'Engle died yesterday. She was well into her 80s and she died of natural causes, so there is reason to not to be too crestfallen. Still, another marvelous artist has left our immediate midst to join the heavenly liturgy, and that's reason to mourn.

I have been a fan of Ms. L'Engle's for decades, but not primarily through her famous so-called "children's books," Wrinkle and the Austen books, but through her journals and her adult novels. Her journals, sometimes purportedly written in the dead of night when she couldn't sleep and missed her last husband, made me want to be a memoirist. But that requires a certain degree of insight, so I couldn't follow her example. Still, if I can't sleep, I follow her advice to enjoy the wakefulness (especially in the midst of winter) and drink a cup of warmed chicken broth.

There is a very touching obituary here. (No one does obits the way The New York Times does.)

Eternal rest grant her, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon her.

And the people of God are heard to say, Amen.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Church on the Move

For those who worry that the Church may be stuck in the mud and unable to move out to meet new challenges, I offer this (courtesy of my Sister in Christ, Kate):

It's pretty cool, and it reminds me so much of my roots on the prairies of North Dakota.



R.I.P., Luciano Pavarotti

I don't like saying good-bye to fantastic opera singers: Even though there is a plethora of new talent waiting to assume the roles, there is something seriously aging about watching one's heroes leave the stage. So far this year, two big operatic names and talents have added their voices to the heavenly choruses (although my singer friends note that soloists make poor choristers): Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti, the latter of whom died yesterday.

Here is a touching and fair obit:

I can't say that I was a great fan of Pavarotti's: He was too "tenor-ish" for me -- which I say even though, at one time, I was a tenor and I continue to adore the tenor voice. But my taste runs to the deeper qualities of a Placido Domingo (who, I think, is a genius; who began as a baritone, and who continues to sing beautifully). His voice was and is unmistakable, but it was always too shrill for me. (I also absolutely loathe "Irish tenors.")

Still, when I attended his recitals, as I was privileged to do two or three times, I couldn't deny the charisma of the man. He was a superstar, a commercial success, and an attractive ambassador for opera and lieder to those not-yet-acquainted with it. And I can't hear "Nessun Dorma" sung by anyone else without thinking, "If they can retire a baseball jersey, why can't they do so with an opera aria?" Pavarotti would get "Nessun" hands down. (I know: Callas could claim anything from Norma, Price gets "O, Patria Mia," and the like -- and the opera halls would fall silent.)

He wasn't the greatest human being, it seems. I was living in Chicago when Ardis Krainik announced the Pavarotti would no longer be scheduled for performances with the Lyric Opera in Chicago because of his unreliability. (I think I was to hear him in two operas while I had seasons there, and he failed to show for either -- and while I didn't much care, the seat-buying public was mostly incensed.) He also seems to have treated his (first) wife and family shabbily -- taking up late in life with something of a trophy wife.

So, Pavarotti was fun to make fun of and pretty good to listen to.

Rest eternal grant him, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon him.