Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Life * and then you die.......?"

A pastor I once worked for used the following statement to sum up (in his opinion) the nature of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me?" His assessment was as follows: “This hymn basically says, 'life sucks*, then you die, but you get to go to heaven so it’s all OK.'” After my complete shock and utter disappointment that a Lutheran pastor could speak so superficially about this great hymn, I really got to thinking even more deeply about what this hymn means.

We’re studying the book of Job in Bible class at my parish. There’s a great deal of richness in that book, but I want to focus on one thing: God sends suffering. God uses suffering. The problem is that we want to know how and why he does it. Therefore, we offer excuses for God, telling the sufferer that everything will work out just fine and that God works all for good. In reality, though, we do not know how God will use that suffering, do we? The only thing we know is that he sends our trials, pain, and crosses. He does so for his own reasons to help up grow and trust in him. I think this to be a very valuable thing for all people to know. Hymns like, “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me?” express this very notion. There’s a lot of richness in the hymn but spend a little time contemplating the second and third stanzas:

1. Why should cross and trial grieve me?
Christ is near
With his cheer;
They will not defeat me.
Who can rob me of the heaven
That God’s Son
For me won
When his life was given?

2. When life’s troubles rise to meet me,
Though their weight
May be great
They will not defeat me.
God, my loving shepherd sends them;
He who knows
All my woes
Knows how best to end them.

3. God gives me my days of gladness,
And I will
Trust Him still
When He sends me sadness.
God is good; His love attends me
Day by day,
Come what may,
Guides me and defends me.

4. From God’s joy can nothing sever,
For I am
His dear lamb,
He, my Shepherd ever.
I am his because He gave me
His own blood
For my good
By His death to save me.

5. Now in Christ, death cannot slay me,
Though it might,
Day and night,
Trouble and dismay me.
Christ has made my death a portal
From the strife
Of this life
To His joy immortal!

The pastor I mentioned earlier, at core, really has contempt for the theology of the cross and for his peoples’ need to understand it. This hymn would be forever banned from use at that parish because of its serious text (however comforting it may be) and because of its musical “remoteness,” even though it is no more remote that any other hymn in the hymnal.

I contend that our people need to sing hymns like this one. If they do not know any really strong theology of the cross hymns, this should be first on the list. How it will aid them in their lives, only God will know. But we are told to consider it joy when we encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance. Knowing this hymn will go a long way to helping us find that joy.

*Putting the best construction on things, we are confident that the pastor used this colloquialism in the athletic sense of "suck wind" (as in "easily winded/out of shape"), rather than something else.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Lutheran Identity in Worship

We hear a lot of criticism in our confessional Lutheran corners about contemporary worship trends–– and there is a lot to criticize! But I’d like to spend a moment talking about good old traditional Lutheran Worship practices and why, I, as a former evangelical protestant (essentially Baptist), ran away from those worship practices.
  • The Liturgy – The Liturgy speaks of Christ and gives us God’s own words that we might speak them back to Him. We learn the parlance of faith and the rhythm of our spiritual lives from the liturgy, i.e., remember our baptism, confess our sins, receive the gracious gifts of God in His absolution, His word and His holy supper. We repeat the words of the liturgy, without modifying them or making them more “relevant.” This is so that throughout our lives and the end of our days we will not forget them. We use ceremony, ritual and reverence in the Liturgy because our Lord comes to us in his veritable body and blood. This is not a figurative visitation. It’s not wishful thinking. It is real, bodily and spiritual at the same time. I wonder how many Christians, if they really understood this would find it necessary to alter their casual, cool, and cutting edge worship. Somehow reverence seems to be the natural response to “God with us.”
  • Hymns and music – Our hymns too, give us Christ and teach us about sin, grace, and the baptismal life. In Confessional Lutheranism, there are certain important doctrines that are not as readily focused upon in other denominations: the theology of the cross (as opposed to a theology of glory), original sin, a particularly Lutheran breed of Christology and a distinctively Lutheran sacramentology. We also have a very well honed understanding of justification and the role of works in the life of faith. These are doctrines that are found in every denomination but Lutherans have always understood them in very specific ways. Our hymns tend to reflect very well the historic, classical teaching of the faith. This is what Luther intended and it is what makes the Lutheran heritage unique amongst Christian expressions.
When I finally came to Lutheranism, I learned quickly that Lutherans read scripture differently than evangelical protestants. It took a little more time to understand the nuances of that and I am still learning. But I do know this: Our hymns express our heritage and reflect what the confessions teach. Using hymnody from other protestant sources, e.g. Watts, Wesley. etc. is fine, but we must recognize that these poets did not write with the same sacramental and Christological orientation of Luther, Gerhardt, Starke and a host of other Lutheran poets. Some of our Lutherans are interested in singing favorite old standards that come squarely from the protestant hymn repertoire. Fine, but if that diet is too heavy, we will miss the distinctively Lutheran sacramental, confessional, and Christological identity so richly present throughout the Lutheran hymn corpus.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Worship the "Waffle House Way"

This morning I had breakfast at Waffle House. I hadn't been there in a few years, due to a couple of bad experiences, but one of their restaurants was right across the street from our hotel, and the parking lot was full of local plates, so my son & I took a chance and went in. We had a great breakfast, in a clean restaurant full of friendly workers. It brought back fond memories of my youth, when I used to cook at a Waffle House and learned the importance of doing things "The Waffle House Way".

Those who currently run the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod could benefit from considering the benefits of "The Waffle House Way". They should be open to this, acutally, because they are much enamored of the "church growth movement" and tend to appreciate corporate lingo. They may not be so crass as to speak of "market share", but the overall emphasis on "growing the church" using marketing, mission, and "outreach" techniques means synod & district officials and reports usually have much more talk about marketing strategies than, say, justification or the sacraments.

So let's take a look at what the brand "LCMS" means to folks as if LCMS were in the restaurant business. Working with the "church growth" analogies like this can actually be quite instructive.

First, what LCMS is doing now obscures what the "brand" LCMS means. The Ablaze! initiative, with its focus on adding new "products" such as new worship formats, new worship soundtracks, house churches/small groups, thrift shops, day care centers, and "intentional conversation teams", has resulted in a church body that trumpets not what it is supposedly about - Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins - but rather extols new "add-ons". This would be fine up to a point if there were consistency and if everything flowed from the Divine Serivce (for example, for decades we were known for having an excellent parochial school system, centered on the teaching of Christian doctrine). But the emphasis on various local congregational "ministries" rather than the Lord's Ministry makes it hard for the LCMS to maintain a cohesive identity. And, few people go to a restaurant for the side dishes on any regular basis. (I'm reminded of the old Wendy's ads from the 80's, which asked, "Where's the beef?")

And the problem is even worse than that. For the situation today is not that everyone is selling, say, waffles, but then adding additional but varying "sides" to their menus - which does make sense when the "sides" vary according to regional taste. No, what we have are some churches serving chicken while others serve fish and others serve beef. Our congregations have become like chocolates in Forrest Gump's box: "You never know which one you are going to get!"

Now I can hear the mission execs saying: "But, Cantor, these things are all adiaphora! What's important is the Gospel, and all this is about the Gospel!" Well, leaving aside for a moment the argument that much of what is being promoted is not about the Gospel, let's just assume that it is and again look at this from Waffle House's perspective. If a bunch of WH's were selling fish and another bunch were selling chickens it wouldn't matter if some were still selling waffles. There is absolutely NO WAY the company would say "But, people, these things don't matter. What's important is the protein. All of our restaurants are in the nutrition business and they all sell protein - just different kinds."

Some of the adiaphora that divides us is indeed adiaphora, and so cannot really be condemned. But are we really about promoting our church when we allow such diversity? Wouldn't it be better for people to know what to expect when they see the letters LCMS on a church sign? Certainly the Lutheran fathers and the founders of the LCMS thought so. Luther argued for regional uniformity (so presumably different 'side dishes' in one region verses another were fine); the LCMS constitution prescribes that all congregations adopt "exclusive use" of orthodox liturgies, hymnals, and agendae. Walther wrote about how the hymnal was "a flag by which an orthodox congregation is recognized."

Those who attended our grandfathers' church didn't have Waffle Houses to go to after the Divine Service. But they had the common horse sense to know the importance of a Waffle House doing things "The Waffle House Way". May we again have bishops and overseers in the church who appreciate who we really are and who we are supposed to be. And may we return promoting our congregations accordingly.