From my uncle. He’s an MD, so this is probably real…
NEW SPECIES DISCOVERED
From my uncle. He’s an MD, so this is probably real…
Sweet, sweet rhyming words.
valēte, BWC et NYC…
In New York freedom looks like
Too many choices.
In New York I found a friend
To drown out the other voices:
Voices on a cell phone,
Voices from home,
Voices of the hard sell,
Voices down the stairwell
In New York.
Just got a place in New York.
In New York summers get hot,
Well into the hundreds;
You can’t walk around the block
Without a change of clothing –
Hot as a hair-dryer in your face,
Hot as handbag and a can of mace.
I just got a place in New York…
In New York you can forget,
Forget how to sit still.
Tell yourself you will stay in
But it’s down to Alphaville…
The Irish’ve been coming here for years,
Feel like they own the place:
They got the airport, city hall, dancehall, asphalt –
They even got the police.
Irish, Italians, Jews and Hispanics,
Religious nuts, political fanatics in the stew,
Happily not like me and you.
That’s where I lost you: New York…
In New York I lost it all
To you and your vices.
Still, I’m staying on to figure out
My midlife crisis.
I hit an iceberg in my life
But you know I’m still afloat
You lose your balance, lose your wife
In the queue for the lifeboat.
You got to put the women and children first,
But you’ve got an unquenchable thirst for New York…
In the stillness of the evening
When the sun has had its day,
I heard your voice a-whispering
Come away, now…
…thus proving that it is, in fact, possible. And essential, actually.
In case the deft theologizing and lucid prose do not make it abundantly clear right off the bat, I did not write the essay below. Many thanks to Pastor Curtis for graciously allowing me to host his work on my blog.
Rev. H. R. Curtis Trinity Lutheran Church – Worden, IL Zion Lutheran Church – Carpenter, IL
We are the living among the dying. We are those who know the cure to the world’s ailment of sin. So it is up to us spread the message of our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, what judgment will come upon us if we refuse! Just think of how many will go down to hell this day. I wonder how many of them could have been saved if we had just done a little more. How many would be entering the pearly gates if each of our members had just told one more person about Jesus? How many could we save if we were willing to give up our sacred cows and make Sunday worship speak to the outsider a little more rather than just to the insider? How many people have needlessly been turned off of the Gospel because of stodgy Lutheran hymns and cushionless pews? If the lost shall be saved, then we must repent, rethink, and reform what worship in our midst has been. We must open the doors, both physically and metaphorically, so that the seeking unbeliever will be drawn in and hear the Gospel and perhaps be saved.
Sound familiar? You’ve heard one version or another of that speech from Synod and district officials from time immemorial. No doubt you’ve heard that speech and felt a twinge of guilt: am I doing enough for the lost? On the other hand, if you’ve bothered to come here on a Friday in June, when sensible pastors are fishing, you have probably also not quite been comfortable with that speech. Is the liturgy really an impediment to missions? Will a praise band really save more people? Something just seems off with this line of reasoning. On the one hand, doesn’t God tell us to go forth and preach the Gospel to all nations? “Woe to me if I do not preach” and all that. And surely we’ve got to be intelligible so that others can understand us. “All things to all men that I might save some” – right?
(I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rev. Kevin Martin, for introducing me to several of the key concepts expressed in this paper.)
Today I’m going to try to untangle those questions, clear up the modern Lutheran confusion about worship and missions, and try to built an authentically Lutheran theology and practice of worship and mission based on the central doctrine of the Scriptures: salvation by grace alone, also known as the doctrine of election.
II. Functional Arminianism Explained
Back to that speech on missions you’ve heard so many times. The most recent rendition of this speech that came to my ears was in the context of natural disasters. Under discussion amongst a few pastors were natural disasters as a call to repentance – as Jesus talks of the tower of Siloam (this was soon after the Haiti quake). One brother, however, took the call to repentance in a novel direction: the call to repentance is really to us Christians. For when we see all those countless thousands die we should repent of not having shared the Gospel with them, we should remember that the time is short and the Word must get out before others go to hell.
This offers a good starting point for understanding what I’ll call the Functional Arminianism. Full-throated Arminianism, all Lutherans know, is bad. Jacob Herman (Arminius) grew distraught with Calvinism’s seeming imputation of delight in damnation to our Lord. Therefore, he posited that mankind possesses true free will in spiritual matters, that a man can decide whether or not to come to God. There is no mystery in this system. Why are some saved and not others? Some chose to follow God of their own free will, and some chose to reject him. There is no mystery in the Calvinist system either, by the way: God choses to save some to display his grace and he choses to damn some to display his justice. It’s just that Calvinism raises some uncomfortable questions about good, evil, and God – Arminius wanted out from under those questions. Yet, Arminius also wanted no part in the pope’s game of progressive justification which entailed purgatory. Arminius wanted salvation by grace alone and he wanted responsibility for damnation not to reside in God. The system he developed will be familiar to anyone who has ever heard an American Evangelical preach. Your good works can’t save you, your sins have damned you – but Christ has paid the bill. His blood covers all – so cast your lot with him! Make your decision for Christ today and be saved by his all-availing sacrifice.
The Lutheran (and Calvinist) critique of this system is that the pope’s system is let in through the side door. It’s only that in place of many and great good works, human salvation now hangs on a small and simple good work: deciding for Christ. Arminians are no Pelagians – they would whole heartedly agree that the work of the Holy Spirit is a necessity for a decision for Christ. But they would also assert that man’s truly free will truly plays a vital role in the matter. Much hoop jumping ensues that they might convince themselves that this decision is not a “work” – and like most jumping of hoops, it frays the nerves after a short while.
Lutherans get that. No Lutheran is advocating full-throated Arminianism. It was Luther, after all, who wrote The Bondage of the Will; “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him” and all that. Salvation really is by grace alone – God’s work alone. Which makes the obverse of the salvation coin read, in bold letters: ELECTION. “You did not chose me, but I chose you.” “It depends not on man’s will or exertion, but on God,” etc. If you want salvation by grace, then you must have the doctrine of unconditional election. But you need not have Calvinism – you can leave it as a mystery. Cur alii, alii non? For us this is the crux theologorum – a mystery whose bottom we never quite reach. God wants all men to be saved. Yet some are not – and it’s their fault, not God’s. Yet if any are saved it’s all God’s doing from beginning to end.
That Lutheran answer is obviously antithetical to Arminianism and neither does it comport with Calvinism. Arminius’ problem with Calvinism was that it appeared to make God the author of evil and damnation. In order to resolve this problem, yet keep grace alone, Arminius sneaked in just one teensy weensy work through the door of human choice. Lutheranism presents a different difficulty, similar to but distinct from Calvinism. It is most unsatisfying to have bold block letters reading I DON’T KNOW at the center of your theology of salvation. Why are some saved and not others? It’s a mystery that has not been explained to us – I don’t know.
But what if there were a side door also into Lutheranism? What could we do to retain grace alone yet also resolve this uncomfortable, illogical mystery? “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith.” Ah – here is a path to the side door. Salvation does not fall from the sky. God works through means. These means are the Word and the Sacraments. These gifts come through men – men to print Bibles, men to preach sermons, men to share the Gospel with their neighbors, and so forth. If men stop doing those things – then the Holy Spirit can’t call people by the Gospel and enlighten people with his gifts.
Thus a new theology emerges that is not Arminianism, nor Calvinism, nor, as I will argue below, Lutheranism. Those theologies all keep their attention within the person being saved: it is this individual’s will, choice, decision, works, that are under discussion. His will is free and he can choose salvation – or his will is not free and God alone must save him. The characters in the play are limited to two: God and the individual being saved. Lutheranism’s discussion of the means of grace – I am convinced – does not mean to introduce other characters as efficient causal agents. That is, when Luther speaks of the means of grace as tools of the Holy Spirit that is exactly what he intends to say: the Holy Spirit uses these means as tools, instruments. The Holy Spirit is the efficient causal agent.
But through that door of the means of grace other characters can be brought on to the stage: those men through whom the means of grace come. How shall they hear without someone preaching and how shall they preach unless they are sent – right? Now we can speak not only of the individual and God and argue whether the one the other or both are the efficient causal agents of salvation – now we can also speak of an almost limitless number of individuals who might be efficient causal agents of salvation – or at least cause damnation. If Grandma Schickelgrüber sends in her mission dollars and thereby a missionary goes to darkest Africa and preaches the Gospel – then the Holy Spirit can work and perhaps save Jean-Baptiste, the village blacksmith of Gadonga, Botswana. If Grandma Schickelgrüber, however, hordes her wealth in a Thrivent CD – no missionary goes to Gadonga and Jean-Baptiste goes to hell. The time is short for pauvre Jean-Baptiste, grand-mères: send in your mites! And there is your synodical theology of missions. There is the theology of the brother who saw
in the Haiti earthquake this question: how many of those people went to hell because you and I did nothing? We must repent – we must tell the Gospel – we must give our funds and send our missionaries because we are sending people to hell by our inaction.
If this theology sounds familiar to you it is not only because you have heard it from the district mission exec – is also because you have read about it in history books. This theology is, in fact, Roman Catholicism – the only other branch of Christianity that multiplies the possible causal agents of salvation beyond two. Rome does it through purgatory. In the final analysis, it is up to you and me and the Church on earth just how long grandma has to spend in purgation. Are you so selfish so as to horde your money, to cling to your bad habits, to be so lazy as not to pray, when those poor souls suffer without relief? At least with purgatory the elevator only goes up – the guilt trip is much more ponderous in the Functionally Arminian version where folks don’t only languish a while longer, but go to hell if we fail to act.
Actually, Roman Catholicism and Arminianism, too, can use the full bore guilt trip when it comes to missions – because once you allow in any human efficient cause in salvation you have allowed them all. If it’s up to a human being’s choice, then it can be up to other humans to convince them to choose. The Roman Catholic call for mission donations is identical to the Arminian call which is identical to the Functional Arminian-Lutheran version – almost. The savvy Lutheran practitioner of this call for missions will not dare to say that we are trying to convince people to make their decision for Jesus and convert themselves with their own will power. No, he will speak of the necessity to get the Word out so that the Holy Spirit can convert more men. Which is why I think the best name for its appearance in Lutheranism is Functional Arminianism.
Before going forward with a critique of Lutheran Functional Arminianism let me again summarize the case for it. We are saved by God’s grace alone. We cannot work for our salvation because our wills are bound – we are born in sin and cannot pull ourselves up by our boot straps. Therefore, God must himself save us if we are to be saved. But God does not do this without means. The Holy Spirit converts us, turns our bound wills toward him and enlivens faith in our hearts – but he does this through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. For these things to take place, men must be called into ministry, the church must be supported by financial gifts, missionaries must be sent into foreign lands, individuals must share the Gospel with their neighbors. If every Christian tomorrow shut his mouth and refused to speak the Gospel, if every Christian tomorrow shut his wallet and refused to send in mission dollars: then many will be damned because the Holy Spirit does not work outside of these means. Likewise, if the Church puts up artificial barriers to hearing the Word – like a stodgy liturgy, bad parking, terrible music, etc – then men will go to hell because they could not hear the Word in those circumstances and thereby be converted by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, a pastor’s crabby personality could prevent men from hearing the Gospel preached by him and thus prevent the Holy Spirit from saving some.
Given this theology, it is no surprise that many Lutheran churches look like Arminian churches. While the theory is slightly different, the practical implications overlap. The entrance of human agency into salvation simply comes at a different point – for the Arminian, in the will of the one to be saved, for the Lutheran in the will of those who can prevent the Holy Spirit from doing his work by refusing to give money for missions or tell their neighbor about Jesus. But once the human agency (as an efficient cause) is injected, the practice of the church flows naturally. The Arminian has a praise band because that is what a lot of people like, and they want to convince those people to make a decision for Christ. The Lutheran has a praise band because a lot of people won’t come hear the Word (through which the Holy Spirit works) unless they have a praise band; in other words, the Lutheran has a praise band because that is what a lot of people like. The Arminian gives to missions because people can’t make a decision for Christ unless they hear a preacher, and so folks might go to hell if they don’t give. The Lutheran gives to missions because people can’t be saved apart from the means of grace through which the Holy Spirit works, and so folks might go to hell if they don’t give. A slightly different expression of theology, to be sure – but the same practice, the same church life emerges – hence, Functional Arminianism. Indeed, even the speech patterns end up being the same: “Father God, we just want to praise you….” Such diction resides not in the Scriptures, not in the historic Lutheran liturgy, and not in the Confessions. Lutherans who pray this way learned it from American evangelicalism – and why? Well, birds of a feather flock together. Churches with the same practice recognize each other for what they are and learn from one another.
III. Critique of Functional Arminianism
Doctor Nagel is fond of pointing out that every error in theology is pushing a truth a bit too far. Jesus is a man – push that too far and you get Arianism. Jesus is God – push that too far and you get Docetism. God works through means – push that too far and you get Functional Arminianism.
This is where our critique of this theology must begin: with what it gets right. God does work through means. The Holy Spirit converts men through the means of grace – the preaching of his Word and the administration of his Sacraments. This is both how God gives birth to new believers and how he strengthens those who are already his children. This truth is a great comfort to us: for we can look at objective acts to know that we are saved. Do you doubt whether God loves you? You don’t have to wonder, like a Calvinist, if you are really one of his elect: you are baptized, God’s promises are for you. You don’t have to worry, like an Arminian, that your choosing of Jesus wasn’t done in the right way or with your whole heart the first time: it’s not your choice or power that matters, but God’s actions. You don’t have to fret, like a Roman Catholic, that you haven’t quite done enough yet – you are baptized – so of course God loves you. He made promises to you in that Baptism and God does not lie. You heard God himself forgive you in Holy Absolution. You received Jesus’ body and blood for the forgiveness of sins in the Supper. So never fear – God is really working through these means. And don’t bother chasing after your feelings or anything else – for God has only promised to work through these means. Receive God’s Word and Sacrament and know that you have God’s blessing. That is the comfort of the Lutheran means of grace theology – we have objective, tangible proof
that God has blessed us and is saving us. It is the grossest perversion of the sacred truth to take what is meant for our comfort and turn it into a basis for doubt, spiritual blackmail, and placing human action at the center of salvation. But this is what Functional Arminianism does. It takes a word of comfort – God works through Word and Sacrament to save you – and turns it into a word of doubt and extortion. Indeed, more than this, Functional Arminianism makes the Creator subject to the created. For take that statement from my Winkel brother – about all the people in Haiti we sent to hell by not getting them the Gospel quicker. What does that statement say and what does it imply? God was prevented from saving the people of Haiti because of our inaction. The number of saved on the last day would have been larger than it now will be had we acted differently. The Holy Spirit was powerless to do anything because he had (it seems foolishly) promised only to work through the means of grace which we prevented from going to Haiti. God wanted to save those poor people, but we stopped him from doing so.
There is the temptation in this theology – the same temptation that has always been front and center since the garden – pride and power. While my salvation is not up to me – I do have the power to prevent or allow others into heaven. What a head trip! Truly, on the day that we eat of this fruit we shall be as gods! Is it any wonder that this theology is so popular? What a sense of purpose and accomplishment comes with it – and what a powerful incentive guilt can be as well. For not only may I save, but my inaction may damn those who otherwise might have been saved. Such guilt can be wielded by skillful practitioners of the preaching arts to guarantee a steady income for life: every time a coin in the coffer rings, a missionary to darkest Africa springs.
But think a little more deeply on the subject. If someone else’s salvation is dependent on your works – isn’t your salvation dependent on someone else’s work? If your inaction can damn another – can’t someone else’s inaction damn you? Well then, it is not really true that neither life nor death nor angels nor powers can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus – all it takes is a selfish and lazy human being.
But this is madness. God does not make himself hostage to us when he promises to save us through the means of grace. But that is exactly what Functional Arminianism teaches, wittingly or not. This is why it is Functional Arminianism: the doctrine of election is completely denied. If it is true that the number of souls, X, that will be in God’s kingdom on the last day is a function of human exertion, then there is no doctrine of election at all; in the final analysis everything depends on man’s free will. And this is what happens to every scheme that tries to have the doctrine of salvation by grace alone without the doctrine of unconditional election. But you can’t have one without the other. It’s grace alone, or it’s works – whether your own or another’s, it does not matter. And if it is not by human works – then your salvation is secure because it is all in God’s hands. No one can snatch you out of God’s hands.
And, conversely, you cannot snatch anyone else out of God’s hands. If you refuse to preach the Gospel from this day out – God’s purpose in election will stand. If you attack and persecute the Church, none of the elect shall be lost. If you horde your money and refuse to pray for missionaries on their dangerous way, Christ’s little lambs will still be in his fold. He has lost none and he will lose none of those his Father has given him. Do nothing – and the number of souls in God’s kingdom on the last day will be just the same as if you had given all you had to missions and dedicated your every waking moment to preaching. Start a praise band and stroll the aisle while preaching in your polo shirt and shorts – and the number of souls in God’s kingdom on the last day will be just the same as if you chanted TLH p. 15 week in and week out rather poorly in an ill-fitting cassock alb and mismatched socks.
But if this is the case, then why preach at all? If this is the case, then why give at all? If this is the case, then why pray at all? If this is the case, then why give any thought to how worship is conducted or the church administered? I can sit around and do nothing and everything will be fine, so why bother?
If we find ourselves asking these questions then we can be sure that we have indeed been preaching the Gospel of the New Testament. For aren’t these the questions that the Gospel of grace alone elicits? If those who work only one hour receive the same pay as those who have borne the heat of the day – why bother? If good works cannot save, shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?
This is why only the Gospel, the real Gospel of grace alone and unconditional election (which are the same thing), can motivate good works. It is the only thing that can cut through the mercenary instinct in the fallen human mind. Is saving our skins the only possible motivation for good works? What a narrow and odd doctrine. God had to kill it with the Gospel. Is the desire to lord it over another and be a little god who can save some and damn others by action or inaction the only possible motivation for preaching the Gospel and giving to the Church? What a bizarre notion. God had to kill it with the doctrine of Election.
For consider what happens to Christian freedom and that hearty Lutheran joy in God’s creation under the Functional Arminian scheme. What is more important: your child’s college education or the saving of souls? How can you spend all that money that could have gone to missions? How dare you have a hobby that takes time that could have been spent in door to door evangelism! For surely, a soul saved is more important that a fishing trip. How can you in good conscience plunk down hundreds of dollars for a family vacation when that money could have have been used to save a soul? Those who take this doctrine seriously are already raffling off cars at Easter Sunday services. I salute them for having the courage of their convictions. If we can save people with our actions, if we must do whatever we can to get people into the church to hear the Word because God works through means – then woe to us if we don’t give a car away every week to get folks to show up, or flat out pay unbelievers to show up to hear the Word – woe to us if we spend even one dime on a cruise to Cazumel rather than on a missionary’s ticket to some Godforsaken land. But that is the road back to monasticism – the height of the peculiarly Roman version of this doctrine. The best thing you can do is dedicate your whole life, lock, stock, and barrel to the saving of souls. Everything else is second best, selfish, and carnal.
But Luther overthrew all those notions with the Gospel of grace alone – that is, with election. He famously said that he could wish all his works would be lost save only the catechism for children and The Bondage of the Will. It is those works that focus most clearly on salvation by grace, and grace alone. It is those works that allow for Christian freedom and the enjoyment of God’s creation. We are not bureaucrats in the Department of Salvation. We are not cubicle dwellers who must trudge through one sharing of the Gospel after another and never giving thought to any other matter. We are the sons of the free woman. We are the free children of God. We can sit in Wittenberg and drink beer while the Spirit does his work through the Word. We can go fishing and play racket ball take a walk with our wives and worry about how the Huskers will do this fall. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
And glory of glories – in all this the Lord has chosen to use us for his purposes. And his purposes are many. That he might have more children to love, he sets us in families and blesses us to be fruitful and multiply. That men might serve one another as Christ serves us, he gives us each a vocation and a place of service to others as butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. And that his word might go forth, he calls some to be preachers in his church and provides for them through generosity of the people. In all these things, God delights to bless us by doing his good works through us.
Why preach? Why give? How can we not? We who died to sin, how can we live in it any longer? We who are saved by grace, how can we resist giving a reason for this hope we have within to all who ask? We do not do good works to earn salvation, our own or another’s, but because we are the Father’s children and we love to please the Father. We do not spread the Gospel to collect feathers in our cap, or out of fear that God might lose one of his elect if we don’t, but because we live and breathe and have our being in this Gospel. A father loves his son just because. A preacher preaches just because. A Christian prays just because. If any mercenary thought, any extortion, any “or else” enters into such things they cease to be what they are and we are held again under the Law, coercion, and sin. God will save his elect, with or without you. If you do not a damn thing none of His elect will
be damned. If you do everything, their number will not increase. This is the doctrine of grace alone. This is the doctrine of election. It depends not on man’s will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
V. The Lutheran Practice of Worship and Missions
But does this matter? Is election the one doctrine that has no impact in the real world of Christian behavior? Can you believe like a Lutheran, but act like an Arminian? Can your substance be the Book of Concord, but your style Willow Creek? Should you know and believe in your heart that this doctrine of unconditional election is true, but act like it isn’t?
I have heard this paradox put in a positive light time and again. Yes, we know that God has his elect – yes, we know that salvation is not by human choice – but still God commands that we preach to bring people to faith. So, it seems that at the heart of the matter, yes, God alone saves. But in the workaday world of guiding a parish and sending out missionaries – our works do indeed matter. So you can be a Lutheran who knows the deep truths of election and grace – but you’ll still want to work with the down to earth tips and tricks that, well, work – and the place to go to learn those is at the feet of the Arminian gurus.
James Voelz tried on this notion a few years back in an influential article, “Newton and Einstein at the Foot of the Cross.” Voelz uses the analogy of physics as a way to explain how seemingly contradictory statements in Scripture and theology can be reconciled. He calls this a post-modern approach to theology – viewing these seemingly opposing statements as both being true depending on your perspective. (I hear echoes of this in the Saint Louis faculty’s talk of the Two Kinds of Righteousness as well, but that is a topic for another day.) From modern physics we know that there are deeper truths at work than Newton understood. But still, when you want to graph the trajectory of a baseball from the short stop to first base, you would waste a lot of time working through the general theory of relativity, gravity’s curving of space, and so forth. Newton’s simple, more straightforward equations will get the job done just fine.
Voelz’ essay is worth reading and as an exercise in speculative theology; it is enjoyable and expands the horizons of its readers. However, I was not impressed with how the essay was used by this or that professor in my seminary training. See – they would say – Lutherans are Einstein. We know the deep, accurate truth. And that is important to know and it even comes in handy – sometimes. But the Arminians are Newton. And when you are playing a game of pool, a skillful Newtonian engineer is worth a dozen Ivy League theoretical physicists. When it comes to the day to day practice of the church in reaching out to the lost, it’s not the highfalutin FC SD XI you need, but a good Billy Graham sermon.
So, it would seem, knowing the doctrine of election or not knowing it has no practical impact. But our Confessions treat Election like a practical doctrine – a doctrine that is not meant for the ivory tower but for the bedside and confessional. I think we are fools to imagine that a Lutheran parish can use Arminian forms of worship, Arminian songs, Arminian prayers, and Arminian preaching and remain Lutheran in theology. I think that we are fools if we think any doctrine worth having does not have practical implications. And election and salvation by grace alone are doctrines worth having.
So what does missions and worship based on a Lutheran confession of election and grace look like? If God has his elect, then my preaching of God’s Word will be received by them. I need not doubt it and I need not beat myself up if my preaching of God’s Word is not received. Consider Paul in Pisidian Antioch. He preaches a riproaring sermon at the synagogue and then Luke calmly notes, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
As many as were appointed to eternal life believed. That is my missions motto. That is how it works. The Word goes out because preachers have just got to preach, and Christians have just got to give an answer for the hope they have within – and then as many as were appointed to eternal life believe. If that is the case – then why on earth would I tailor the worship of God’s house to those who do not believe his Word? Will that make a difference in “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed?”
The Arminians, on the other hand, sail by the pole star of their theology: humans are free to reject God or not. Men need convincing. Everyone is a potential convert. Therefore, we need churches and worship that appeal to everyone. A praise band church for the Boomers, an ancient-future, organic whole-wheat host coffee house church for the jaded millenials, a rockabilly church for the hillbillies, red chasubles with giant white N’s on them in Nebraska, etc. We need that, because everyone is a potential convert, a person wavering on middle ground between God and Satan – and to get people to convert, to choose God, you need them to be comfortable. And since everyone is a potential convert – you must make everyone who is not yet converted comfortable. So your church starts to look like places where everyone who is not yet converted (unbelievers) are comfortable: whether coffee house, honky tonk dive, or university lecture hall. Thus the clientèle of Arminian churches is, by design, heathenish.
For a Lutheran, everyone is not a potential convert in the Arminian sense. We do not believe that every man is on a sort of neutral ground whence he may chose to go with God or not. Rather, we believe that everyone we meet just might be one of those appointed to eternal life who will believe when they hear the Word. Each man I see might just be one of God’s elect. Therefore, our churches do not cater to those who are not yet converted because we want to get them to make their decision. We don’t have to have this sort of church and that sort of church to appeal to this sort of unbeliever and that sort of unbeliever – we do not have several different constituencies that must be appeased. Rather, we serve the one people of God, his elect from every nation. And what the elect want, what the Church wants, is the Word of God, and worship that flows ceaselessly from the Word of God and is immersed in the imagery of the Word of God and is connected to the people of God of all times and places.
Potential converts will be comfortable with a stage they will recognize from corporate events and plays. The elect of every nation will want an altar, set high and front and center, so that the Lamb of God once sacrificed might always be before their eyes. Potential converts will need music they can connect with and that matches their individual
tastes – so they’ll need several different venues with several different genres represented. The elect of every nation will want the music of the Church, music that will connect them to Christians of all ages – not music that will pigeon hole them not only in their own time, but in their own demographic, thus cutting them off from fellowship with all the believers in their geographical area..
Potential converts will want to see a preacher they can relate to – a man in suit and tie, or khakis and polos – a buddy, a friend who might convince them to join up with him. The elect of every nation will want a servant of Christ, a man who stands in the stead of Christ and so is thus covered in robes thick with metaphorical meaning and beauty.
Potential converts will want preaching that is practical – that hits them where they live – that tells them how to get the things potential converts (that is, unbelievers) want: a happy family, a better sex life, a secure financial footing. Potential converts do not understand words like redemption, justification, propitiation, and so forth and certainly don’t want to hear them. The elect of every nation will want preaching that is dripping with the blood of Christ for they know and feel their sinful condition, their weakness, and their need. They want to learn the Word of God as he gave it and grow to know the language of the Scriptures inside and out.
Potential converts will want ample parking, theatre seats, shiny new buildings in the latest style, and a food court: things they recognize and are comfortable with. The elect of every nation will appreciate the solidity of a parish that has existed for a long time – and if they need a new building will want it to look like it will be there standing faithful watch until Christ returns. They will not want to be isolated from the body of Christ by the more than metaphorical walls of the theatre seats’ arms. And they also will like ample parking.
Potential converts will enjoy an hour away from the annoyance of caring for children and will thus demand a children’s service or other planned activity to keep pre-pubescent children out of sight and out of mind. The elect of every nation are the body of Christ, young and old, and yearn to be together to hear the preaching of his Word and to receive his Sacrament.
Potential converts are a little put out at being excluded – better not to have the Sacrament with them present, or if you must have it, not be too stringent about letting any and all participate. The elect of every nation cannot imagine a Sunday without the Body and Blood of Christ – and they do not wish any to receive it whose life or doctrine would give the lie to the unity it expresses.
Potential converts do not like to sing. It is an embarrassing public act best left to professionals. So the music should be the solo driven fare of the radio that you can sing along with if you so desire, but that someone else is actually singing. The elect of every nation recognize that there is too much joy for plain words only: he who sings, prays twice.
Potential converts like things new and fresh and want to be out of a rut. A screen will be handy in displaying new things for them to say and read. The elect of every nation want to pray together as the body of Christ in this time and with all times – thus they will want to know the words by heart and will want those words to be what Christians have always prayed.
Potential converts will want a diversion from any sense of holiness – a joke filled exposition of the little kiddies in a children’s sermon ought to do the trick. The elect of every nation want their children to view God’s house (and especially the chancel) as a holy place for prayer, worship, and silence – not jokes and play time.
Potential converts want to be entertained and will appreciate a stage drama put on every now and again. The elect of every nation want to be in the drama of salvation from confessing their sins to hearing the Word to meeting heaven on earth in the Sacrament.
This doctrine of election is the most practical of all for it tells you to whom, and therefore how, to minister. Let ministering to the elect be your pole star and guide to your ministry. Do what the elect Church of Christ wants. Lead the sheep committed to your care into being who they are, even when they are tempted by the world and false shepherds to be something less than what they are. This will give you the clear sight and the courage to know what to do when the lambs entrusted to your care come begging for a contemporary service and chancel dramas. That’s not really what they want – it is the world living in them trying to take over. The Church has never done such things – toss out the liturgy and introduce the theatre into the chancel? Be the man of God in that place and lead them better than that.
And rest assured – God will bring his elect to his Church where a faithful shepherd will care for them: as many as are appointed for eternal life will believe. Perhaps in your field of service that will be a small number, or perhaps it will be great. Perhaps you will have to undergo much adversity and Satanic attack and suffer much for the kingdom of Christ. Or perhaps it is the Lord’s pleasure to bless you with a peaceful ministry and your cross will come in other ways.
But no matter – be the man God ordained you to be: a servant of the Church, not a servant of potential converts or a would-be creator of the Church.
And likewise with missions – that is nothing else than a church living in a place where the church is small. The French traded with the Koreans – and lo and behold, the Word gets out (for how can Christians not give a reason for hope they have withing?) and some Koreans believe. What can the Church do then but send them their own pastor? The same happened when the Norwegians bumped into Madegascar – some one asks, and another gives a reason for the hope he has within, and a believer is born, and he needs a pastor, and off he goes to have a church and minister to the elect of every nation. The parish is the mission and there is no mission outside of the parish.
It’s not complicated – it’s hard, it’s heavy with crosses, and runs thick with the blood of martyrs – but it’s not complicated. The Church goes on being the Church – and somehow the Word goes forth, for what can a Christian do but be a Christian and confess his faith before the world? There are no techniques required – that is for salesman. We do not sell Jesus. We proclaim Him to be risen from the dead and are too busy being excited about that to give a particular damn what some heathen thinks about it: as many as are appointed to eternal life will believe, the elect of every nation will be gathered, nothing can stop God’s plan and purpose and nothing can direct or control it. Instead, the Church just turns on the beacon of God’s Word in the liturgy so that the elect know where they are supposed to gather.
Isn’t that a more exciting and appealing and, if I may, Lutheran, view of missions and worship than the Arminians can provide us? It is full of freedom and joy – not guilt and high pressure sales presentations. It is grace and not works – it is confidence in God and not fear of our own failings. It is simply being the Church – and letting the chips fall where they may. And for a pastor, it is simply ministering to the elect of every nation, the Church – and living one’s own life of continual repentance and faith, of failing and being washed up again in Confession and Absolution, of being kicked around and beaten up by the alligators and the half-heathen and the bureaucrats and then being healed with the Sacrament. And sometimes – sometimes it is even being martyred. But that crown is for the chosen few and we need not worry about that either. We’ll just go on being the men God ordained us to be: preaching the Word, serving the parish, shepherding the lambs toward green pastures and still waters, hopefully with the sense God gave a goose, but never apart from his grace.
for the Donnybrook lads
“I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes I feel like I just lead a quiet life of desperation.”
There were three of us in the car, driving the half-hour between the inn where a mutual friend was to be married and another friend’s house. Three of us were in that particular car, but a cohort of nine of us were there for the occasion — nine of the eleven men who lived together for the last two years of college. Most of us had lived in the house — called the Donnybrook — for two full years, while a few had done one-year stints. Generally speaking, though, we rounded up: if you lived in the Donnybrook, we pretty much just said that you were part of the whole grand two-year enterprise, myth being altogether more important than history, especially with us:
“Were you there when we burned that couch?”
“Of course you were! It was awesome, wasn’t it?”
But I digress.
“A quiet life of desperation.” I thought I knew better than most what that meant (I struggled with what shrinks call “major depression” throughout college, especially towards the end). I granted that someone else probably knew what those particular words meant when they were put together into a sentence — in a literal, grammatical way, that is. But, I thought, when most people use that phrase, they’re most likely using it somewhat poetically, perhaps hyperbolically. Because I knew what desperation was, and, well, they didn’t. Because they’re not me.
This, of course, is absurd.
To be honest, I didn’t think all of foregoing thoughts in toto; no, I just was hit with a small wave of incredulity, raising my eyebrows in the privacy of the back seat as that small wave crested. A somewhat involuntary response of which I am now ashamed. See, I didn’t have to think all those thoughts — indeed, in the thinking of them, I would have realized their arrogance and falsity. Instead, though, my incredulity filled in for them quite smartly, as it so often does. In place of thoughtfulness, I blithely, almost unconsciously substituted, “Yeah, right.” In my head, cowardly-like.
Of course, I did realize their arrogance and falsity when I thought them — out loud, to person three from that car ride, several days later. I related that I “couldn’t believe” that our friend had said what he said. Even as I related my disbelief, though, I realized its perversity: “I can’t believe” can easily mean “I was astonished to hear this true thing which I had not previously known,” yet it can just as easily mean, well, “Yeah, right” — a laconic quip issuing forth from the mouth of an egoist. As I was saying it, I realized that the friend to whom I said it…did…not…share my perspective. He did not find it implausible that our friend had actually meant what he said, that he actually did lead a “quiet life of desperation.” I immediately realized this, and sort of hoped that he would attribute a different meaning (the former, if you recall it) to my words than the one that I had intended (the latter — I’ve said it twice, now).
He sort of did, and I sort of backpedaled: “Yeah, I guess it just goes to show that you…don’t necessarily know what’s going on with everyone else,” I offered, platitudinously. “Everyone could be fighting a battle that you’re unaware of.”
Which, of course, is true. I had always accepted that this was true. You know, in the subjunctive mood: “Every person you know could be fighting a battle that you’re unaware of.” But by believing this, I never had to assume that everyone I knew was fighting a battle — just that they could be. Thus, I didn’t feel obligated to be charitable — either actively, or by listening with simple credulity — towards each person I met (to say nothing of my dearest friends), because as far as I knew, they were. No, I could hold my charity close to the vest. You know, in check. I think, though, that charity held in check is, you know…not charity.
It’s worse, though: it’s not that I failed to recognize a requirement (i.e., obligation) — far from feeling obligated, if I think about it, I didn’t even want to be charitable. Not if someone was about to creep onto my rarefied territory of “how miserable I’ve been”. In such a case I would (and, lamentably, will again, I’m sure, God damn it) defend the uniqueness of my suffering in all of its shitty glory. I’m going to wait for your lips to stop moving so I can remind you of my four-wisdom-tooth-tale. Because I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man. I think my liver is diseased, etc.
This combination of failure and refusal to believe others when they relate their experiences of suffering is a deadly form of pride. It is a denial of the personhood of one’s neighbor, for it is nothing less than the refusal to look upon him as a Thou, and not merely an It or an Other. But then if he is not a Thou to me, then I am not an I.
We are all made of dust, yet for some reason I have been able to disbelieve my brother when he says that he, too, tastes the bitterness of our mortal frame in his mouth. Something that humans can’t not know, I have tried to regard as privileged knowledge. Mine. My own. My precious?
Why? Because hell is exclusive. It’s the ultimate hipster bar. There’s only room enough for the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. Because although its gates can only be opened from the outside, they are locked from the inside by its sole occupant. Sartre said, infamously, “Hell is other people.” Well, I think hell is just…yourself. Actualized.
Are we not all made from the same motes of bitter dust? Does not Holy Scripture say that no temptation, including the temptation to succumb to despair, overtakes anyman but that which is common to all men?
We are. It does.
So much for exclusivity. And it’s a good thing, too.
“After this the priest says, ‘The holy things are for the holy’. Holy are the gifts presented, having received the visitation of the Holy Spirit; holy are you also, having been deemed worthy of the Holy Spirit; the holy things therefore correspond to the holy persons. But then you say, ‘One is Holy, One is the Lord, Jesus Christ’; for One is truly holy, by nature holy; we too are holy, but not by nature, only by participation, and discipline, and prayer” (St Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogic catecheses 5.19).
I missed Divine Service for the Ascension of Our Lord this past Thursday, which–if I finish writing this before midnight on Saturday, 19 May–was two days ago. Since I had to work at the restaurant that night, I had it in my head that I would pen some thoughts on the back of an old menu (as I do), and later on transfer them to this august weblog, but we (the restaurant) were busier than normal, so I had to, you know…actually do my job. Which is hosting.
At a prior time in my life I might not have cared that much about missing church, at least not on a Thursday night, but I’ve been part of a church that follows the historic Western Rite for about six years now, and have arrived at the point where missing church on high feast days is frankly a letdown. It’s not as though my attending church Thursday evening would have helped Christ out, or let Him know that I’m pious, etc. I didn’t violate an oath or anything like that. No, that’s all silly. But the real reason, though perhaps less silly, is no less affectatious:
The liturgy is a pageant. I didn’t show up for the performance. As a result, I got a little bit out of character.
I’m aware of how pretentious that sounds on the surface. Even if you were to dig beneath the surface, you may discover that the pretense is more than skin-deep. But the liturgy really is a pageant. I’d even say that it’s a play, a play which is in some sense acted out (if not actually enacted) by all of the faithful, i.e., the local Church congregation. But there’s no audience. It’s like a performance of a Shakespeare play which the actors act out for…well…themselves. I mean, it’s only somewhat like that. The point is that the liturgy requires an affectation on the part of the faithful (especially the uninitiate) which seems unnatural at first, and which will always be unnatural even long after it has stopped seeming so. But it really is all an act. A wearing of masks. Blessed hypocrisy and a grand pretense. Not natural. In the corporate worship of God, we, the members of the Body of Christ, are never less ourselves, and never more ourselves. We get into a character, a persona, that is not quite us, but not quite not us, but was nonetheless intended for us — and we for it. It’s the most normal thing in the cosmos, really, but it’s always something of an affectation for us poor, miserable sinners.
Anyway, what Thomas Aquinas says about the contemplative life holds true for the liturgy, as well (one might argue that Christian worship is the highest form of contemplation): Non est proprie humana, sed superhumana. Not a property of what is human, but what is superhuman. Not merely natural, but supernatural. And it’s a good thing, too. What is genuinely and, yes, naturally of us is not godly, is oriented not towards the worship of the Triune God, but towards the worship of self. The whole point of going to church is to be washed and cleansed from the merely natural, because our mere human nature is corrupt and not to be trusted: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah xvii, 9). We come to have our hearts changed, not to show God the goodness that (we think) is in our hearts.
In the liturgy, we sing to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We do not merely use our own speech, but rather we make God’s Word and words — culled directly from Holy Scripture — our words. While it’s good that they’re written on our hearts, we need to say them, sing them, with our mouths, too. As our words. We use God’s own Words, and we say and sing them to each other, not just to God. Sure, the songs of His children are a sweet-smelling aroma to Him. But they are not luxuries to us: they are life and light, food and drink — air, even — to the Church gathered in that place, and to each and every member therein. Notice that the angels whom Isaiah beholds in the throne-room of God sing to each other that God is holy:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isaiah vi, 1 – 3).
We, the Creator’s halfhearted creatures, are the ones who need to be reminded that God is holy.
But I digress…
The “problem” with me not making it to church for Ascension is not that I thereby failed to meet some legal obligation. Not at all — but I did lose out on the blessing of that particular feast: the blessing of bearing witness to the crucified and risen Lord’s ascension to the right hand of God the Father Almighty at a time when the other members of His Body were doing the same. Lent has come and gone; we have witnessed the suffering of Our Lord in Holy Scripture, at once triumphant yet horrendous; we have rejoiced with a joy not of ourselves upon witnessing His bursting to life from the tomb, at His assumption and defeat of death. To witness His Ascension to the Right Hand of God is to not only see the denouement of the play, but to sing the story as part of the chorus (think ancient Greek drama), the story which is finished, but whose finishedness is ongoing and ever-present. This is what it means to keep the feast.
And I really do mean to use the word “witness”, for in the Church we see with our ears. Truth is present to us in the preached Word in a way that, for the time being, is more real than sight. “Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (St. John xx, 29). We do not bear witness in some stark Cartesian sense, where the Ascension is a fact which we recognize and comprehend rationally. Inasmuch as it is a fact (a factum – something done or made), it is one which we are caught up into. Not through some esoteric Platonic epiphany. Not through a vague, personal mysticism. No, not through any of that. If you’re capable of such things (and I doubt that you are — no offense), great. The Church, however, is here for all of us poor sinners, and Her lowly means condescend to the lowest common denominator of all of our frailties. So we use things like the lectionary and Sacraments, and we have access to them through the ministrations of men who, though the Office they hold is sacred, are mere men. They give the holy things to the holy ones, the saints — we who are made holy by the Blood of the Lamb. These simple gifts “catch us up” into Christ’s ascension, into His ascendant reign of grace, into the three-personed life of the Trinity.
And these simple gifts do not merely signify, point to, or remind us of Christ. The pastor does not preach about Christ, or about His Gospel. What I missed on Thursday was not some lesson about Christ’s ascension that I could have learned only on that day. No, I’m sure that I can learn about Christ’s ascension in an academic way, even a spiritually edifying way, from any number of great books, or from a good conversation with Fr. Charles, any day of the week. This is all well and good. But every feast day is a different lens or prism through which we see the Gospel. To alter the predicate here, one might say that every feast day (most especially, though not exclusively, the feast-days of Easter) is a different token of the Gospel — the selfsame Gospel in every instance, but rendered differently. Each feast-day has its own poetics. On Ascension, then, the pastor preaches the Gospel (direct object — not an object of the preposition!) by means of the unique poetics of that feast. So, really, I lost nothing by dint of my absence from Divine Service, but what could have been gained (received, really) only by going to church, was just…well…not gained. Not received. I missed being there.
…but now it’s Exaudi Sunday (Seventh Sunday after Easter), and Pastor Esget taught an amazing class about Christology and the Ascension, and during Divine Service Pastor Kieselowsky preached a fantastic sermon about the Ascension, so I feel a little less disoriented and out of step with the liturgical calendar. Thanks be to God!
Honestly, I had intended to write more about the Ascension itself, and why the apostolic teaching concerning the Ascension, Christ’s reign at the Right Hand of the Father, the nature of heaven, et aliī, is so essential to the Church’s confession of Christ as Lord. After Pastor Esget’s class this morning, though, I realize that I have a bit more thinking and reading to do before I venture upon writing such a post in earnest. So I guess it’s good that I allowed myself to get sidetracked into writing about the liturgy again. Well, good for me. Maybe not good for you.
Thanks for reading. I’ll leave you with the lyrics to one of the hymns for Ascension that we sang today, “See, the Lord Ascends in Triumph,” which stand by themselves as beautiful poetry even without music. And it should come as no surprise that it does — the author, Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885), is William Wordsworth’s nephew…
~ See, the Lord Ascends in Triumph
See, the Lord ascends in triumph,
Conqu’ring King in royal state
Riding on the clouds, His chariot
To His heav’nly palace gate;
Hark! The choirs of angel voices
Joyful alleluias sing,
And the portals high are lifted
To receive their heav’nly King.
Who is this that comes in glory
With the trump of jubilee?
Lord of battles, God of armies,
He has gained the victory.
He who on the cross did suffer,
He who from the grave arose,
He has vanquished sin and Satan;
He by death has spoiled His foes.
While He lifts His hands in blessing
He is parted from His friends;
While their eager eyes behold Him,
He upon the clouds ascends.
He who walked with God and pleased Him,
Preaching truth and doom to come,
He, our Enoch, is translated
To His everlasting home.
Now our heav’nly Aaron enters
With His blood within the veil;
Joshua now is come to Canaan,
And the kings before Him quail.
Now He plants the tribes of Israel
In their promised resting place,
Now our great Elijah offers
Double portion of His grace.
He has raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heav’nly places,
There with Him in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
By our mighty Lord’s ascension
We by faith behold our own.
He averred an aversion
Premised on a promise
Immutable, yet muted:
That messianic hopes
Ought well stay kindled—
Unquenched by the
Salvation must be more of
White horses and war;
Less of giving gifts
To lazy, desperate thieves.
Also, an allegation:
That our this-worldly
On a paucity of strain,
A glutted surfeit of festival.
He did not, does not “like”
(As I neither do nor ever will)
The forcing of the Unforeseen
Through the mesh of prophecy,
Among other things.
That Yahweh’s Will is ever,
Has ever been, done
Is more scandalous than
Any breach of treaty or
Protocol. Fulfillment kills.
Fiat lux and Homo factus est
Burn—like gall; like wormwood;
Like Heraclitean fire.
No noumenon under which
We might hide here. Non est.
No, heaven must stay barred.
Else our righteous indignation
Over Divine indifference will be
All wet. We can’t have, don’t want,
When will we—and I mean he or I
Forgive this sublime sundering of our sky,
This Divine Trespass?
“Oh, no. No, he didn’t.”
But in between him and me
Resides the Incarnate One of Three,
Giving, not lending, belief—
Unapparent, and still not
Considering His Godhead
It is hard for me to kick against the goads
Of rhyme and rhythm, seeking other roads;
Instead, I enjamb with no regard
For human life. Poetry is hard.
I just came across an old op-ed piece that I wrote for the Hillsdale Collegian (Michigan’s oldest college newspaper — woot!) when I was a wee, fire-breathing freshman. Boy, is it embarrassing! So I’m sharing it with you here so I can … Continue reading