Saturday, February 18, 2017

CP 276 An epiphany, grief, and hope... maybe

CP 276 An epiphany, grief and hope… maybe
About six months ago I was watching an AFL game on a Sunday afternoon. The Greater Western Sydney Giants were winning comfortably and it was both a joy and a marvel to me. Their teamwork was something to behold. What they did together looked almost miraculous. They backed each other at every opportunity, trusted each other, anticipated each other, respected each other’s different abilities, played with passion, covered each other’s mistakes and exuberantly and collectively celebrated their successes. The members of that team trusted each other and believed in each other. And without doubt they were brilliantly coached. As I said, both a joy and a marvel. And as I watched I experienced an epiphany moment which crystallised and brought to the surface a deeply felt awareness, with accompanying emotions, of pain and grief and sadness.
What was the thought that brought on this epiphany moment? It shocked me. The Lutheran Church in Australia would be hard put to win a game, any game, because we simply don’t know how to function as a united team. Six months later I am still numbed by that conviction, but it has not changed. I have lived with the frustration and grief which accompanied that epiphany every single day since.
I’ve been part of the LCA since 1971. I became a ministry student in 1974 and was ordained for ministry in December 1978. We were trained to celebrate our orthodoxy. It took many years to acknowledge to myself that as a church we have not been particularly humble about that orthodoxy. Much of our theology was taught in terms of ‘our’ doctrine over against ‘theirs’, as in other churches, and we knew that ‘we’ had it nailed down. Inside that conviction was a truth that we tended to identify ‘the opposition’ as the other churches, rather than anything to do with the dominion of darkness and its prince. It’s almost as if we were trained to be contentious. For years my hope has been that the Spirit of Jesus would wean us off that superiority complex.
The most unpalatable truth, however, for me at least, has been that for much of my 38 years in ministry we seem also to have been at war with each other. Significant blocks of us simply have not trusted each other. We’ve not all been pulling in the same direction, and burning up huge amounts of energy in the process. That’s what was clarified for me on that day six months ago. There have been heroic and wonderful things happening in lots of places over many years. But too easily and readily we also fight each other. Often we are against each other, denigrate each other, and even undermine each other. We struggle to respect, support or encourage those whose journey is in any way different from ours. Think of the constant conflicts over women in ministry, or scripture interpretation, or about prayer with other Christians, or even fellowship with other Lutheran churches, or styles of worship. We just don’t seem to know how to be ‘catholic’ in the proper sense of that term. There is something about us which declares, ‘My way or the highway.’ We are prone to attach dismissive, pigeon-holing labels to each other like ‘reformed’ or ‘legalistic’ or ‘antinomian’ or ‘charismatic’ or ‘pentecostal’ without particularly trying to listen to, or understand, what the other is endeavouring to communicate. Sometimes I wonder if we have a spiritual ‘fault-finding gene’. Whatever it is, it appears to be driven by fear.
As this stuff is happening among us, Jesus Christ is not blessed and honoured and therefore our heavenly Father is not blessed and honoured. And if that is so we have grieved the Holy Spirit, given an opportunity to the devil, and quenched the Spirit’s fire. It is, after all, a risky business to attribute to the devil any works of the Holy Spirit. It is also devastating in its effects on Christ’s communion.
I confess that I am and have been as much a part of this problem as anybody. I am as guilty as anyone. All the matters I have raised can be pinned to my Adam’s CV. I too have been part of the infighting, the judgements, the politicisation, the mistrust, the animosity, the dismissals, the pigeon-holing and the abysmal failure to heed the voice of the coach.
Our behaviours are much more than an academic matter. Who we are and how we think and are together has impacts across the church and its congregations. It affects the capacity of the community, ‘to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ It also shatters us on the ground. Allow me to give you some examples.
In late April we crossed paths with a couple we love and respect deeply. I have known the husband since vicarage 39 years ago. He’s a Pastor’s son. The wife is a pastor’s daughter. We passionately share the fellowship of the Gospel. It is always a joy to meet them. They now worship in a church not Lutheran. They have no sense of freedom to be who they are in Christ in their local Lutheran Church. Having had no sense of being valued, and no freedom to use their gifts, they have moved elsewhere. I know many like this.
Rosemarie’s sister and her husband left their local Lutheran Church in August this year, having been lifelong members. Their new Pastor finds it impossible to accept their encounter with, and experience of, the Holy Spirit. They revel in the Word and love their Lord with a passionate joy. They are not nut-cases, just deeply saddened and frustrated by the head-in-the-sand stonewalling denial. They have a wonderful awareness of the call to live out their faith and witness under pastoral authority. They simply cannot submit to a pastor who denies what they ‘know’. I know far too many in the exact situation.
In early October, in Bargara, we spent a day with friends who were with the Launceston Congregation when we were there during 1972-73. Having been active leaders in their church in Qld for many years, they no longer worship at all. They had come to a place where they had concluded that their value to a church was simply ‘to be used’. I know many more like this.
I’m in touch with numbers of older Pastors who inspired and mentored me in the 70’s and 80’s. A lot of those Pastors who entered ministry around the time of Union have come to retirement disillusioned. Some consider themselves to have been mauled by one or other of their leaders. One expressed his sorrow that his Pastor hardly seems to proclaim the Cross or the Gospel. Just a few of these men are embittered. The majority are wondrously glad of the Gospel, and rejoice where good stuff happens. And most are quietly sad for the LCA.
Having travelled, during 2016, right down the south coast of NSW, all the way along the coast of Victoria, and SA as far as Ceduna, and then the entire east coast from Sydney to Port Douglas and back, and worshipping most Sundays, we constantly asked, ‘Where are the young people, the young parents with kids, where are the children?’ We found many of them in vital local congregations, but rarely among the Lutherans. Eudunda was my first Parish. In 1983 average attendance was 280-300, including lots of kids. On Easter Sunday morning this year there was an attendance of maybe 75, including one child for kid’s talk. Eudunda has a healthy Lutheran School!
The following week at Ceduna, a growing town which used to have a vibrant congregation, there were, including 4 visitors, 16 adults in worship and one child. There is a Lutheran School there too!
(Does anybody ever wonder about any negative effects arising from the astonishing growth in the number of Lutheran primary and secondary schools since the early 1980’s? Does anybody share with me that our schools do not appear to be producing worshipping members in local congregations? Have we, blessed by the secular community around us, in embracing education the way we have, done one of the very things that helps suck life out of our churches in the long run? Who considers these questions?)
 The under-representation of children in so many of our churches, even the non-presence of children and their parents, was, and is, utterly depressing. It was all so sad, but nothing compared to the frustrated grief I felt and feel about the fact that few appear to be troubled by this. Occasionally one might have read a letter in the Lutheran where someone asks, ‘What has happened…?’ And yes, there are congregations where there is vibrant whole community life. However, we all know of congregations which used to have large Sunday Schools, which now do not have one at all.
Some years ago, in one congregation of which I am aware, a young father approached his pastor to request that maybe the time of Sunday worship could be more inclusive of the children. The following Sunday the traditional liturgy was even more fully sung. It stayed that way. Within a few months all six families with children had left to join other local churches. The following Christmas was the first time in more than 100 years that there was not a single child in worship on Christmas Eve!
The events I have just shared occurred in a thriving country community. The communities have grown, while most of our churches have been in decline. In NSW, where I have worked since 1983, we have lost around 20 full time pastoral positions since the 1980’s. Such is life? Probably hundreds of our small churches across Australia have lost membership as their community numbers fell. It is true that there has been a migration to larger centres, even as family size declined. There is an understandable grief and sadness for the past. But can we say that our churches in growth areas have been able to grow? I believe we are a church in grief but do not know how to say so. And if we are not a church in grief then we ought to be…
There are other questions too. I’ve mentioned the absence of parents of children. Do you know, I know of hardly any parents of our age - 65+, retired – whose children are all worshipping. Many of them have none of their children worshipping. Do we care? Have we mutely accepted this as the new normal? As Professor Julius Sumner Miller was wont to ask, ‘Why is it so?’ Do we care?
We have all known all along about this decline, observable in most mainline denominations. Just among us, there were, if memory serves me right, about 200,000 members over the two pre-union churches in 1960. What are our figures now? 50,000? In NSW membership numbers fell from a high of over 13,000 in the early 60’s to be lucky to be 2,500 now. (By contrast, by the way, Mekane Yesu in Ethiopia had 200,000 in 1960 and had grown to over 4,000,000 by 2001, and over 7,000,000 by 2015. We applaud their growth but I often wonder that it seems we are deliberately ignorant about how and why it occurred!)
Is it difficult to admit the truth of this decline? Is it terminal? Probable or possible? There are no doubt as many explanations for our dilemma as there are people who think about it. When I think about it in human terms I don’t hold out much hope. What is true is that I can hardly bring myself to pray for renewal of the church anymore. I do pray, every single day, for revival. Yes, revival. Without it we are a dead church walking. I unashamedly long for, and pray every day for, a fresh, sovereign outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I pray for ‘Pentecost’ on our church, in our day.
It is easy to say to, or about, those who use phrases like, ‘There’s got to be something more,’ that they want something extra, above and beyond the grace of the Gospel. I suspect that we are mis-hearing these folk. In my experience they are reading their scriptures and asking if they haven’t been short-changed. Their concern and awareness is that something is missing from that neat little package we call church membership. And I personally believe what’s missing is the dynamic presence and anointing of the Holy Spirit of Jesus.
I wonder if we know how spiritually insulting it is when Pastors and other leaders insinuate, or even ‘accuse’ many of these folk of seeking an emotional experience. That is not how I know them. I have believed for years now that the Lutheran Church is so conditioned by a head /brain / reasoned / academic understanding of what it teaches that it simply does not know how to distinguish between spirit/Spirit and emotion.
I wish we could start again. The constantly flowing new wine of the Holy Spirit which is flowing in our day might need new wineskins! I know that institutional arthritis makes it just about impossible to rethink our ways and to, God forbid, question our assumptions. It needs to happen. But for this to happen we will need to become a church filled with the Holy Spirit, a church which recognises that the Holy Spirit of Jesus the Christ has not just two tasks with us, but three!
What do I mean? Not two tasks but three? First, the Spirit of Jesus brings us to faith in Christ. Yes. I doubt we will argue over that truth.
Then, second, the Spirit of Jesus Christ works through the living word to conform us to Christ, transforming us, sanctifying us, transfiguring us.
Last, but certainly not least, the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ is also given, without measure, to empower the body of Christ for Christ’s continuing ministry, just as Jesus himself was so empowered through his anointing in the Jordan. The power bestowed at Pentecost was, above all, a ministry enabling power, a power to bear collective witness. The gifts of the Spirit were, and are, intimately connected with the gift of the Spirit. His living presence, dynamically experienced within our lives, is a ministry transforming presence. He involves each of us in that ministry. Through that transforming presence, the Gospel is heard in fresh and liberating ways. Through that inner-living presence, Jesus Christ’s own ministry continues, and surprise, surprise, we find that every soul in the church has a part to play in that ministry!
I can air this in a slightly different way by asking some questions. Firstly, did Jesus have the Holy Spirit, was the Holy Spirit with him, before he was baptized in the Jordan? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then I have to ask why was it necessary for the Spirit to come upon him in the Jordan?
Second, did the disciples who saw Jesus after the resurrection have the Holy Spirit within/in them before the Pentecost outpouring? You know the answer! What then is Pentecost? Why was Pentecost necessary?
Third, let’s consider ourselves? Do we believe, teach and confess with confidence the truth of the indwelling Holy Spirit in our own lives and the lives of all believers? Again, you know the answer. Are we as much in need of a sovereign outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the Apostles? Do we too need such an anointing? Why would we not need it?
Allow me to expose my deepest questions. Are we trapped in our thinking and behaviour by the running-off-the-tongue formulations like, ‘The Spirit works through word and sacrament.’ This late in my call as a Pastor I hardly know what that means. I am not for one moment denigrating the preaching of Christ or the blessing which comes to us in Holy Communion. I do know that as a cliché, ‘The Spirit works through word and sacrament,’ phrase serves as a blocking, default position which, perhaps inadvertently, keeps our people in place, (or displaced.)
At heart here are some profound concerns. Is there something about the way we have defined ministry, or the way we uphold the Office of the Ministry, which is true according to our confessional positions, but is not an accurate representation of the position and Spirit of the New Testament? And if these things are doctrinally set in stone, not to be questioned, is it possible that our Confessions function in the same way as Roman Canon Law, in that the doctrine determines the way we read scripture rather than the scripture itself informing teaching and behaviour?
Personally, I reckon I have a high view of the Office of the Ministry with its accompanying authority and responsibility. I also believe that it is incumbent upon me to exercise that authority and responsibility to draw upwards those under my care so that they too live and work in Christ with authority and responsibility. The ministry call goes out to all of us in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
I confess that in my heart I do not have much faith that as a church, as bishops, as theologians, we are able to question some of our core assumptions. Yet this must be our task and challenge. Without it, especially in the leadership of our bishops and pastors, we are destined to continue to wither. The business of celebrating Luther and his journey of finding hope and faith in Christ, along with his challenging the assumptions of Rome, is sort of meaningless when one considers the emptiness of most European Churches, let alone the Australian Church. I want us all to proclaim Our Lord, Jesus the Christ, Redeemer and Saviour, The Righteous One, in the full power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the most glorious way we will ever have to give honour and joy to the Father.
I pray for each of you and I bless you in our Lord, Jesus the Christ.


Tuesday, February 07, 2017

CP 275 What's happening (happened) under our noses!

CP 275 What’s happening (happened) under our noses!
A couple of Saturdays ago I was ‘at the computer’ in a Macdonalds near Wollongong. Us miserly oldies know you can get free Wifi at Maccas. As well as my open study bible, I was accessing the Bible Gateway site to bring together the Christ prophecies in Isaiah with their Jesus Christ fulfilment from the New Testament. Why? Getting ready to teach in Vietnam and also preaching at the Sutherland church in Sydney. Out of the corner of my eye I became aware of a shirt-and-tie well-dressed gentleman at the counter with his family. I soon had him profiled as a real estate salesman getting in some time with the wife and kids for coffee, coke and fries. Couldn’t have been more wrong!
The family sat themselves at the table next to mine and the dad observed that I looked as though I was doing some bible study. I replied that I was exploring the linkage between the Isaiah texts and Jesus the Christ. He thought that was good. ‘We do bible study too.’ About twenty minutes later they were ready to leave. As the dad passed by me, he dropped a pamphlet on my table and said, ‘You might find that helpful.’ Real estate salesman? Nope. Jehovah’s Witness giving me a copy of The Watchtower, with a key article entitled, How to Get More From Reading the Bible.
I didn’t look at it again until I came across it this morning in an exercise book I use. Having given it a read there are two things I want to share. First, I’m just flabbergasted, staggered, even bewildered, by its content, both in what is being taught and, more devastatingly, what is not being taught. In its 16 close typed pages, Jesus is rarely mentioned, with a clear sense that he’s just one man, albeit a good one, a good example, among many others. There is not a single reference to the Cross of Christ, nor to repentance or forgiveness, nor to grace, nor to faith in Jesus Christ and his passionate work, nor Christ’s righteousness. At no point is Jesus proclaimed as Lord. The holy spirit is, ‘God’s… powerful active force.’ The Bible is primarily a book of advice and guidance from the Creator. Reading the Bible can improve your life because it has advice about relationships with others, emotional and physical health, moral values and economic welfare! And since I have read it, everything within me has been crying, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!
You can’t just ignore Jesus the Christ, Saviour, Lord, Redeemer, Immanuel, Name above all names, King of kings, Lord of Lords, Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the beginning and the end, the Word who was with God and is God, who took on flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, the one before whom every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that He is Lord, without whom we can do nothing! He is the Lord who is my Light and my Shepherd, the Lord who is my Way, Truth and Life, my peace, my joy, my hope and my love, my Resurrection, my strength and my song. In Him the Father is totally for me. I can only honour the Father by honouring the Son.
Secondly, there’s a particular reason this publication caused such a storm in my heart this morning. As you know we have spent the last year on the road with the caravan. Because we are so often in different places, we attend just about every single Market we come across. And during this year, beginning in Queensland, we started to note that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a manned stall at every single Market. Not only there. We became aware of their presence at beaches, parks, railway stations, in fact any place where numbers of people might gather. There is free literature everywhere and the approach is unpressured. But they are available for conversation in all the public places where the people are! All the while, I’ve asked myself, ‘Where are those who confess Jesus as the Christ, Saviour of the world, Lord of life, Lord over death and the devil, whose life up to the cross, and his death upon that cross is the foundation, the only foundation for forgiveness and reconciliation with the Almighty One?’
People, where are we? Where have we been? I have no idea when these well-meaning people changed their strategy. For sure, they proclaim a different Jesus than the one I know. And for sure, they have stepped into the empty place where we have been called to be. Somewhere in our history we vacated the battlefield. We ourselves have lost the vision of being the Lord’s watchmen in our communities. We forgot to lift up our eyes to see the harvest field before us. This whole thing makes me cringe about our dumbness. We were instructed to ‘Go out into all the world…’ And what have we done? Built churches and expected the guilt ridden and the broken and weary to come to us. Fail, fail, fail, me included.
In the latter part of this year, I sort of got a vision where the local Christians in each town and place did have a little stall or presence where the people gather. Since many markets are on Sunday it would mean somebody wouldn’t be in church each week. (I guess they’d be being church each week!) We’d soon find simple literature to get conversations going. And anybody could do it, especially the hundreds of older knowledgeable folk who have wisdom and passion to mentor the young. I’ve resolved to do it myself. I will need a mechanism so I’ll probably get myself a decent supply of the sort of ordinary secular books people like to read, and also have decent Christ-centred stuff as well. And be available for whatever conversation arises.
Maybe more on this later.

Got to finish here. Be blessed in Him. Fred