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Considerations while Receiving Communion

Remember This at All?

Remember This at All?

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:13-14)

“Dear Savior, we come to your table at your gracious invitation to eat and drink your holy body and blood. Let us find favor in your eyes to receive this holy sacrament in faith for the salvation of our souls and to the glory of your holy name.” (Lutheran Worship, Prayer before Reception of Holy Communion.)

I think about this scripture and pray this prayer when I go take communion often. I’m not sure why (a version of the prayer is in the front of LSB), except that I might have something to with the fact that I’m always rushed because I have to go back up to the choir loft and tape another hymn, or I’m the last usher in line and have to tell pastor who to go give to communion in the pew to. Point is, I go to communion with a busy mind and a guilty heart sometimes. I still get Christ’s body and blood, which is fear-inducing.

It’s probably a good thing that communion is for sinners.

John 17:20-26: One Because of Christ’s Glory

John 17 is a prayer, the sacerdotal prayer, that Jesus prays in the midst of the disciples, somewhat as a sermon. What is prayer? Jesus knew what was going to happen and what the Father was going to do, even after he ascended. But he prayed for His own strength, and that His disciples would be strengthened. In the prayer that Our Lord gave us, we ask for him to do things He has already done (“hallowed be Your name”), but we ask them because we are weak.

Throughout this prayer, Jesus connects himself to His Father, and then Himself to His disciples, and finally, His disciples to His church. It is through this line we receive the Gospel.

Jesus has spent the last couple of hours giving His final teaching to his disciples, and with this prayer, He first looks at himself. He needs His father’s help as much as His disciples. Then he turns His attention to His disciples, those He has trained and prays for their strength.

v. 20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,”

Note how Jesus connects the church to the Apostles. Jesus has first testified to the father, and now the disciples will testify to what they have seen and believed about Jesus. (16:30, and post-resurrection). Throughout this prayer, Jesus has connected his work (His “glory”) to His union with God, and the work that God sent him to do.

Grammatical point: the word of the disciples comes before in me. Faith always come through hearing the message, God’s word to us. (Mary conceived through her ears.)

v. 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

We have access to the Father via the Son. Through the Son’s work, we can stand forgiven before the Father.

Where are we one with Christ? In His supper. This is an uncomfortable topic. In the age of ecumenism and our ELCA cousins badgering us, we de-emphasize how we are united to our fellow believers at the Lord’s table. It is an easy trap to fall into-we only talk about the forgiveness we receive at the table, and then, we feel awkward when we tell our neighbors they can’t go to the supper, and they take it personally. We need to take seriously how the Supper judges us.

Through Christ word’s here, we can be assured that no matter what disagreements we may have, we will always be one in Him, because of how He is one with God.

v. 22 “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” God’s glory is through suffering. Glory doesn’t just mean shiny stuff. Glory is the work of Jesus, that He would set His majesty and titles aside, all so that we should be forgiven.

Why go to Easter Vigil and Long Communion Lines

If you are good Lutheran, you will have been to church three times in four days by the time Easter is up, so why would it hurt if you went four times in four days? I get it: you’re physically spent, and you literally can’t go to church again. But if you live in Seward, here’s the benefit of coming to Easter Vigil at St. John: you will get to watch yours truly play with fire!

Okay, that’s a really lousy reason compared to hearing about God’s grace and reason. But it is ironic that the two major festivals in the church, Christmas (celebration of the Incarnate Word) and Easter (Celebration of Christ’s victory), are both marked by service the night before that involve candles. One is the height of all celebration, the other is an afterthought.

Pastor Will Weedon does a lot better job of explaining Easter Vigil in this podcast, but let me state this from my experience: the service is a lot of readings (not unlike Christmas day), and focuses on how the story of the Bible has culminated in the event we celebrate on Easter, Christ’s resurrection, the promised and testified to hope. If you’re home, going to bed early for 6:30 sunrise service, I understand. But you are missing out.

It’ll look just like this.

Lutherans seem talk about communion a lot, but in one of two ways: one, there are those who talk about what a joy it is to receive Christ’s body and blood, and two, how long it takes. I haven’t met a lot of Lutherans who will talk about both.

Let me just say this, since Easter is tomorrow and you’re probably going to find yourself in a long line: give thanks that it takes so long to go up for communion. You get to sing more hymns, and more time to ponder the mystery of the sacrament. And if you’re church has a lot of old people who sit in front like mine does, it’s going to take them a long time to get up there. I’m on the ushering committee at St. John, I know how long it takes.

I’m guessing there are certain congregations in the LCMS that discontinued weekly communion because it just took so long and so many volunteer hours, which I get. But while it’s up to an individual congregation to decide how often they communion, just remember: you are receiving a gift from God, with your brothers and sisters, for your eternal salvation. Do you really want to complain about how long it takes to set the table and do the dishes?

Let me share from my own personal experience. Since I usher at St. John’s, there are Sundays I don’t get to read the prayer in the front of the hymnal before I go up to take communion. Sometimes, I do feel rushed, since I communion at the end and have to tell Pastor who needs to receive communion in the pew (which is a significant responsibility). I don’t always take communion with the best mindset, but I’m there, and my receiving depends on what God does for me, not what I’m thinking at the time.

So this Sunday, when you’re in a long line headed to an assist who is standing outside the altar, just remember: you’re able to have slice of heaven this because Jesus gave up his God-head and rose from the dead. Even if you’re groggy, you’re getting Christ’s body and blood.

Productive Lutheran Worship Discussion?

After reading Pastor Todd Wilken’s Worship Wars article in the Fall Issues Etc. Journal, I would like to examine  the choices that lead a congregation to worship the way it does. While I agree that doctrine is inevitably at the center of worship controversy, looking across our synod and making a sweeping judgment that a return to doctrine is going to automatically going to cure worship-related-anxieties is not the only answer that everyone will accept. It starts with doctrine, but it doesn’t just end there.

As I’ve traveled around our Synod, I’ve been many different congregations, some who use the liturgy in its fullness, and some that use some or all contemporary. One thing I’ve found that’s a bit surprising is that the churches who use the liturgy (and keep closed communion) are more friendly and outgoing than the churches who use contemporary worship. I suspect this in large part because the liturgical churches know that they are asking more of people, and they are okay with that. Some people may find their worship dense and confusing, but the liturgical church uses this as an opportunity to present the gospel. Meanwhile, the non-liturgical churches often have greeters with authenticity and zeal of a car salesman.

As I’ve heard the stories of the advocates of alternative worship, they all follow the same narrative. Dying church, no young people are coming, older adults panic, so contemporary worship gets instituted. Visitors come in and don’t understand the liturgy. Instead of explaining it, the pastor says “Lord have mercy on me” and runs for his guitar. Notice how all these methods are reactionary, presumptuous, and don’t even involve discussion with the people they are trying to reach.

So, in some sense, the difference in our synod between those who use the liturgy and those who use the praise band can come down to “Inner Scoreboard”, as Warren Buffett would say. If your congregation is a middling 150 people, how do you feel about it? Are you okay with consistent attendance by a select few who give and who do a lot of the work, or do you want more? To put it within the context of Wilken’s post, are you okay with worshiping in the way that best reflects the doctrine you believe, or do you have to go chasing people? I will say this: while it’s admirable to try to reach more people, if a congregation holds steadfast to its doctrinally principals, even the most worldly people will admire that.

But of course, none of this deals with the primal issue in our synod, namely we are divided on the nature of what worship should be, going down multiple generations, and don’t have a platform to discuss these issues. In my CUW class, there was a per-seminary student whose father was the pastor of a LCMS parish who embraced contemporary worship and church growth practices. His senior seminar tried to justify contemporary worship’s place in our synod, but it lacked any opening for anyone from the opposing side to come in and engage him on the topic. Even the moderate students didn’t respect it.

So how do we create a platform to have meaningful conversations about worship in our synod? Doctrine is a huge part of the worship wars and at the center, but to find a real solution to the worship wars, we have to talk about practice within the context of doctrine. First, we talk about what we believe and why we are part of this synod (given how we are slaves to tradition at times, such self-examination). Then, let’s move beyond that and talk about what’s essential to teach our churches through worship and preaching. Then, move on to circumstance. If people are leaving our church, what’s the solution? Is changing the worship style the real solution? What about the churches that are taking in more people with alternate worship? Do we want to do everything that they do and believe what they want to believe?

So, there are two parts to this discussion, first doctrine (in the pastor’s study and in the sanctuary) and then practice. The way to have a productive discussion about worship is starting with doctrine, working through this issues, clear through to practice. But it’s important that as we move the discussion from doctrine to practice, we don’t suddenly stop talking about doctrine and jump to practice, because these things are inevitably connected. And even if they aren’t we should weigh them to be sure.

The LCMS is divided on this issue, and working through it is probably going to take another generation. Be honest about what you’re doing and consistent in doing it. Don’t sit on the differences you have with your brother; instead, bring them to the front, and share them openly. Even if we don’t come to a consensus, maybe we can at least move forward.

Church Work: Taping for Shut-ins

A while back, I saw a blurb in the St. John bulletin asking for someone to help with the tape ministry at St. John, which made audio tapes for the older adults at St. John. I called about, and it turned out that our family friends Gene and Marian Faszholz were in charge of the production. So I began helping them make tapes for the shut-in members of the congregation.

I know what you are thinking: can’t we just digitally record the service? Yes, the service is recorded digitally and with full video. There is a ministry that distributes DVD’s but so far, we haven’t worked out a way to easily distribute a distribute an audio recording or CD’s, so we’re stuck with tapes until these machines break. The machines have already been paid for, so anything else we get out of them is gravy.

On the Sundays I tape, I arrive around 8:10 to set up the taping equipment. It’s stored in the work area behind the fellowship area by the pastor’s offices. I take the three bulky tape copiers out of the cupboard, plug them in, and stock them with tapes. I take a clean tape that’s never been used before and write the date on it, and head upstairs.

The taping equipment is up in the corner of the balcony at church. During the school year, I usually have to climb past choirs (bells or voice, and sometimes both), to get to the tape deck and where I insert the tape. I have a little over forty minutes of record time, so I have to cut certain things out, like the pre-service announcements, or a couple of the hymn verses. Time has never been a problem, and once the service is done I head back down to the tape room.

Tape Deck

Once I’m there, I plug the tape into the first machine, careful to get the right side up (otherwise, I will have to stay late and record the eleven o’clock service). It usually takes me half an hour to get all of the tapes I need, during which time I sort the bulletins to send with the tapes, or just read the news bulletin. I need thirty tapes for all of the routes and another seven or eight for the church office, in case someone wants to pick them up during the week. I’m lucky-when Gene started working with the tape ministry ten years ago, he had to make twice as many tapes.

Yes, Tapes.

When I started, there were three delivery routes, so I always had to take a route to either Heartland or around town. But since there have been a few death, and we only do two routes now. While I enjoy not having to deliver and going to Bible study instead, I do miss seeing the people at Heartland. It’s great to be a presence in their lives.

(Worship Committee)

Church Work: What I Do For Worship Committe

Where I watch the sermon from when I’m on Worship Committee Duty

A two years ago, I was asked to be a part of the worship committee at St. John Evangelical Lutheran. As I wasn’t doing a lot at the time, I said sure, and since have been privileged to serve my Christian community in such a capacity.

Worship committee members are part of the ushering team at St. John and do a lot of the coordinating of the various participants in the service (acolytes, lay readers, etc.). One WC member is on duty at each service (two for 8:30 communion services), along with the usher teams, and mostly just handout programs at the beginning, help with offering, and direct people up to communion. They are also have the responsibility of finding a communion assistant if one doesn’t show up, or lighting the candles if one of the kids doesn’t show up (done both). Post-service, they collect bulletins and go up the aisles to collect attendance registers and take them to the office, and change the hymn boards. I’ve even had the privilege of setting up for baptism.

By and far the biggest responsibility of the worship committee is responding to a medical emergency if one arises during the service. This happened once when I was serving (thankfully others were there to help as well), a second time when I wasn’t to someone who was sitting directly behind me. There’s an automatic defibrillator that all of us are trained to use, and Clark urges all of the members to take CPR courses annually.

One of my friends told me when I first started that I had the perfect demeanor to be an usher. I suppose she’s right, although I hadn’t put a lot of thought into it. Sure, it’s a couple of meetings over the course of a year and staying late after service, but with everything God has done for me, it is the least that I can do to serve His people.

For 8:30 service, I arrive at 7:45. I collate programs and news bulletins for most of that time, greet people as they come in. I love it when we have an usher group of teenagers during lent because it usually means I can sit back and let them do all the work, and it’s great to have them involved. I always end up pacing a lot during the sermon, because I worry about having to help someone who might have a medical emergency. Surprisingly, Pastor Ratcliffe doesn’t find this distracting.

Young Man in an Old Man’s Church

With my service the worship committee and with the tape ministry, I’m always getting to church twenty to thirty minutes before service. Usually, about that time, there are a couple of older ladies running around doing stuff, and every once in a while, they will say something about how great it is that I’m very involved at St. John, and I always nod and say how happy I am to be there. Funny thing is, whenever I try and start to have a conversation with them about theological issues, I’m speaking a language they don’t understand.

This is an odd generational gap I find myself with the older saints of the congregation-while I  don’t doubt their faith’s sincerity, they grew up in a generation were in Lutherans were Lutherans, Roman Catholics were Roman Catholics, Methodists were Methodists, etc, etc. They just believed what the church taught them and that was that. Meanwhile, I was homeschooled, and all the kids I grew up with went to different churches, and many of my Lutheran friends have ended up in other churches. So I find myself having to work out what I believe.

The older generations grew up in a different society, and in many cases, they had stronger families and better churches, which was a great blessing from God. But then the social upheaval of the sixties and seventies finally started to penetrate the Midwest, and they’ve left scars on my generation I doubt we will recover from. Sometimes, I look at my elders and think they had it lucky, other times I wonder if I will be any different when I am their age, trying to hold on to an old way of thinking while a brave new world transforms around me every day.

The hallmark of this is the problem that exists in the LCMS-we don’t know how to discuss our differences productively, in a way that works toward an out-cause. Instead, each of us focuses on our own churches, and uses their model to justify practice. I don’t know why we can’t come together, state our practices and beliefs, listen to each other, and try to understand.

But now, God has blessed me with preparing a Bible study for the young adults of St. John, and looking at Isaiah has helped me to consider how I relate to my peers. God’s prophet proclaims to a generation that is 200 years set apart from the great king David, the coming judgment for sin and the continual need for a savior. This is the kind of study I need, to understand how God spoke to a people at a particular time to see how He speaks to us now, just as he did in the pas.

It is the return to the Scriptures that can help the LCMS find new ground. Maybe, thirty years from now, we’ll be a Synod that at least knows where it has to go and respects each other a little better, but that can only happen, if one, we return to the Scriptures, and two, if we head God’s call to proclaim the Gospel and live his truth in love.

The Social Church: Everything is Under Control

There is another aspect to woman’s ordination that needs addressing and that is the aspect of the social church and civil religion. This has become a growing phenomenon in America, more so in the black community than others, where it the church was indeed a great force in the progress of social relations. These aspects are present in every church, whether it be the pastor who spends have his sermon talking about his programs (Rick Warren) or the mainline denominations, who preach about their vast ecumenical progress, that really does nothing but make a mockery of the term agreement. The teaching out there, and it is clear: the church’s greatest value to society is to provide an avenue for social change. Meanwhile, the outsiders wouldn’t know that Christian churches teach Christ for the salvation of our sins.

This is a fine distinction that we must make: the church can, and should, be a cause for uplifting the political causes, as in the abortion debate and the debate over gay marriage, and for caring for the elderly and the poor. But that isn’t what the primary focus of the church is: that must be to call sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

The church that focus on social good is not practicing Christianity, but a form of civil religion, with an emphasis on the “civil”. The real temptation here isn’t just to put social needs ahead of the church, but to be a church that agrees with the ways of the world. What the world wants is a church that makes good citizens, get them politically active, teaches them morals, but doesn’t upset the social balance. Ancient Rome set up this practice more directly: citizens could worship their own gods, but they had to give a pinch of incense to the emperor. And of course, here in America, a church that puts special emphasis on women, to the point that it breaks its solid contract with the Scriptures, well that church should be give special celebration in the public eye.

Our church, while not facing dramatic social persecution, is nonetheless in the position where it has to be in contradiction to the world. God has given us such a great blessing in Scripture, with salvation through his Son Jesus Christ, and many other teachings, including the Order of Creation and the roles of men and women. But if we throw away even one part of the Scriptures, we loose their authority and everything is out on the table.

Maintaining this is a tireless task. As I’ve written about before, I know many people who’ve left the LCMS because they felt like they’ve mastered its doctrine. Even now, I hear theologians talking about woman’s ordination as if they are sick of answering the question, and frankly, I’m a little sick of having to write about it. But let us not grow weary of defending the truths that have been passed down to us by our Christian fathers. If we don’t cling to the Scriptures alone, there is the potential for false teaching, and soon we’re on the path to universalism.

Joe Paterno’s fall, part 1: General thoughts, and Implications for the Church

I listen to ESPN radio on a daily basis, and since the Brett Farve-come-back-from-retirement story in 2008, there hasn’t been a story that gripped me to the radio then the Joe Paterno-Penn State sex abuse scandal. Interestingly enough, both situations featured the rending of an small town’s athletic program’s icon, although the situation at Penn State involves a far greater charge of sexual abuse against children. This tragic story has a couple of different angles, and it’s probably going to take me more than one blog post. So in this first post, I’m going to lay out my initial thoughts and turn my attention to how some conservative religions writers have touched on this issue, and how they could go deeper.

First of all, what happened behind the curtain at Penn State where retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was abusing young boys is a tragedy, and the only thing that is a greater tragedy is that Joe Paterno allowed it to go on. It is repeated that Paterno did met his legal obligation to tell his superiors about the incident, but really, Joe Paterno has no superior at Penn State. He should be the one facing perjury and obstruction of justice charges; the athletic director and university president happen to be the fall guys for Paterno. Paterno, in a sense, could have been blinded by generational biases, as domestic and child abuse were thought by his fathers to be matters that should be handled in the family. While that doesn’t excuse Paterno in any way for reporting the abuse or not confronting Sandusky, it does explain why he let the abuse go on for so long and allowed it to go unnoticed.

All this points to the fact that the gutless, Paterno-worshiping sports media won’t say: Paterno should have retired years ago. In an age where the responsibilities of a coach had grown enormously and coaches literally work themselves to death, a program can’t have an eighty year-old coach who doesn’t fully understand the seriousness of sexual abuse allegations. Granted, many of the abuse allegations happened before the 2004 incident where Paterno kicked the university president and athletic director out of his home when they even suggested he retire (at age 78). But if Paterno had retired in 1992 when he was 66, he would have coached for twenty-six seasons, more than a full coaching career. This was the danger of giving one man too much power was that, ultimately, he would abuse it, and it would hurt the university in the long run.

The national media is remarkably soft when it comes to Paterno. I remember an episode of Around the Horn from early 2007, when the topic of Joe Paterno coaching in the press box came up. The host Tony Reali, a young man of about thirty, set up the question for all of the reporters to come out and say that Joe Paterno should just retire if he was going to coach from the press box, but each one of the older columnists said that Paterno coaching in the press box was a great idea, and could even help Penn State. At the end of the debate, Reali was struck by the almost unanimous praise for Paterno’s flaying attempt to be Penn State’s coach.

Throughout the coverage of Paterno’s firing, members of the media struggled to separate their own emotions from Paterno. Whether it be longtime newspaper columnists or former Paterno players turned analysts such as Matt Millen and Todd Blackledge, the media seemed lost in the memories of the Paterno they knew and loved. Joe Pa was the last great coach of generation, and for him to be forced into is unfortunate, even if it had to happen. Truly, Paterno did a lot of good for college football, the university he served, and the players he coached, and all that will be remembered. But the stain of Paterno’s blind eye on Sandusky’s crimes will stick to resume forever.

The religious and conservative media were drawn to this story for obvious reasons. Paterno’s attitude for keeping the scandal in house unfortunately mirrors that of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal very closely. The large consensus I’ve noted among the aforementioned media, is first, is that it seems to be a chorus calling for immediate reports of any knowledge of sexual abuse. While that is a very important point in the consideration of this case, there is another strain of the Paterno story that churches should talk about because, as in the case of sex abuse scandal that hit close to me, it could be as common in such a cover-up in a church or in a small town.

I grew up in a large Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod parish that had a school, which, while I did not attend it, grew to a prominent feat of 400 students in a community of 6,000 people. It was a very well-respected school in our town, and our church body as a whole. The two senior teachers, the principal and the head art teacher, together with the parish music director, were jokingly referred to as the “holy trinity” around our congregations. While pastors came and went over the years, these people stayed in their positions. Nothing in the congregation and school happened without their say-so.

Then one year, about a month after the art teacher had retired, a former student came forward with a sexual abuse charges against both the school principal and the art teacher. Before a meeting to determine what would be done with the principal, he committed suicide. Other victims came forward, and then congregation was torn apart. Ten years later, the school’s enrollment is half of what it was before the scandal.

The one similarity between this scandal and the Penn State scandal was that in both instances, there were individuals who had too much power. In the case of Penn State, it was the enabler who had the power; in the case of the parish school, it was the abusers themselves.

The reason Paterno was able to cover up Sandusky’s abuse, was quite simply, he was able to. He won big at a major college football program, and accumulated the praise and adoration of the university’s community for it. But unlike his contemporary, Tom Osborne, who chose to retire at sixty and put his institution first, Paterno used his power to cling to his position long after he’d reached retirement age, and the reverence of Paterno left the university exposed to the scandal that befell it. The scandal stayed in the closet because that was where Paterno wanted it to stay, and no one dared to challenge him.

Like Penn State University, many churches themselves are small organizations, and for those in rural communities, the pastor of a church or priest of a parish is often the most educated individual in the community, and thus the most respected. The rural areas of the country are desperate for educated people as all the talented young people leave for jobs in the city, and the urban church is desperate for the educated, able pastor to lead reforms for the poor and underprivileged children and families. While the vast majority of such religious leaders are indeed people who are above reproach, that doesn’t mean that they should ever be exempt from any scrutiny; in fact, Moses tells the Israelites in Deuteronomy 13 that they should test the prophets who come. Paul even exhorts his student Timothy to be judicious in his selection of teachers and warns him of false prophets.

And also like a university community, churches are often very insular institutions. Now, there are many positives to this. In the case of the school, it can provide a place for children to grow up it. Churches can be places of study, drawing closer to God, and healing for life’s hardships. But just as easily as a church can be a safe place, the walls can be used to hide abuse and allegations, under the guise of protecting the institution. While the institution may be protected in the short term, it is only being built up for long-term damage, not to mention scarring the lives of children. And when the church is found to cover sexual abuse up, the ratifications are much greater than in any other organization, as well they should be. If you teach abstinence in a culture of sexual freedom, you will get scored if such abuse is brought to light.

In light of these things, churches need to emphasize things like the doctrine of the ministry. I don’t know much about other church bodies, but in my church, it is taught that Christ gave a specific ministry office to his apostles, an office that is greater than the apostles themselves. (Matthew 16:18-19; 28:18-20). This teaching has been used to comfort many people who received the sacrament from priests or pastors who were themselves living in sin or went on to quit the ministry. While obviously this teaching doesn’t excuse the behavior of a pedophile, it can comfort a congregation who needs to deal with such a person because getting rid of pastor X doesn’t destroy the office the church has had for 2,000 years and will continue to have long after any pastor they know is gone.

So there are my thoughts on Joe Paterno, and what the church should learn from his scandal. I have many more thoughts on Paterno, what the scandal says about small colleges and rural America, the media’s coverage of his dismal, and the riots afterward, but I will save it for another post.

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