The Day the Flag Changed

Our_Redeemer_Lutheran_Church_(Staplehurst,_NE)_sanctuary_1You walk into your little Lutheran Church on Sunday morning and it’s just like every other Sunday. The beautiful altar is built like a city, with towers and pinnacles, like the New Jerusalem coming down from the clouds now anchored in front of you. On either side stand the flags, the flag of the United States on one side, the white “Christian Flag” on the other. Just like every Sunday since WWII when it became fashionable to put political flags inside the sanctuary.

But the next morning the Texas legislature declares independence from the United States and you now live in the National Republic of Texas. Or maybe there was a referendum. Regardless, you are now a citizen of Texas, and no longer an American. Or maybe the Republic of Texas grants you dual citizenship. No doubt there would be conflict. Lifelong friends will disagree on whether it was right, or legal, or smart. Legal experts, lawyers, and alarmingly, the military get involved and things get precarious. But no matter how peacefully it happens, there is bound to be disagreement about why and how.

Then the next Sunday rolls around and the church parking lot is plum full. You overhear boisterous greetings and see joyful hugs. But you also see the hand extended by the rancher to the “transplant” left dangling in the air. You stay neutral, nodding greetings at everyone, neither greeting one another with a “Mornin’ fellow Texan!” nor with “Mornin’ fellow American!” No, you simply nod your head and pass by everyone, walk up the steps of the church into the narthex, grab your bulletin and step into the sanctuary.

What do you see? There’s the altar, white and pristine with the communion elements already set in the middle. What do you see next to it? Which flag is flying? Which “side” wins? Where does the church stand on this?

We can argue whether its possible for a state to secede from the Union. We can argue if Texas has some “special exemption” to do so, as rumor abounds. It might never happen. This could very well be a useless scenario and a waste of computer bytes, but for the greater implication and truth. To whom is a church loyal? To which nation does the Holy Catholic Church and the Communion of Saints belong? When the flag is placed inside the church building what is being communicated?

We are blessed with stability in our nation and its borders, despite the deep differences and social division we have. We haven’t had to face changing borders and changing governments like many countries do, and have in the past. But this is temporary. Nations do not remain forever and every “Eternal Kingdom” has come, and will come to an end.

Which flag flies next to the Holy Altar of God? Which flag is planted inside the Kingdom of God? For we are, and are present in, the Kingdom of God when we gather in that holy place to receive God Himself and to commune with the Holy Trinity, with the angels and archangels, with the saints visible and invisible. We have a Lord and a Kingdom not of this World.

This truth made heads roll in ancient Rome. Caesar claimed lordship complete and Christians were condemned as traitors to Rome for claiming Jesus as Kyrios, even of an unearthly kingdom. But Kingdoms rise and fall, Nations come and go, and our inheritance is eternal. You are a holy nation to God (1 Pet. 2:9).

What belongs in the sanctuary? Who is Lord?

All Your Whatever Belong to Whomever


What should be taken for granted is up for grabs in our society, and what we see in a mirror is questioned from every angle. We face a crisis of identity in Western Civilization.

“Who am I?”should be a basic question to answer. We look down and see our sex. We look around and see our relationships. That’s who we are. But modern gnosticism denies this. For the Gnostics, there is an inner you who may not match the outer you. Your identity is, or could be separate from your sex and family and work and all other outer things. The body, your body, you, is not reality. Or not necessarily reality, and what you do with your body has no importance compared to the pleasure it gives the mind. Or the soul. Or the Ego, or whatever it is that the gnostics think they are.

I suppose the Christian might say that identity disorders go with the territory. Our fist parents wanted, not so much “to know good and evil” as to be the kind of creature that is like God. A change in identity occured, from eternal to mortal, from pure to despoiled.

I know the Christian says that the Christ gives identity. That is the nature of our faith. It is not so much in stain-removal or judicial metaphors about guilt but in ontology and identity. You are a new creation. You are now in Christ (ἐν χριστῷ). You are royal priests. You are the baptized. Or as the kids would  say, “All your base identity belong to Us Christ.”

But when we proclaim this news, which we believe is the best news there is (εὐαγγελίαν) it amounts to shouting into a tornado. The last thing modern types want to hear is that their identity is defective. Perhaps the starting place is to remind the world that we are souls and bodies, not the soulless fleshbags that some think, nor the hidden Ego trapped in a shell of the wrong sex (I refuse to call human sex “gender”, for the record) or desiring to manipulate the fleshbag in order to comfort the seared conscience.

The RNG and You

dice.jpg.scaled1000Gamers know about the RNG–the Random Numbers God. This is the personification of having those randomly generated events and rewards in video games. For Gamers, the RNG is always against you, giving you the opposite of what you need at the time, or giving something incredible too late. Seth Godin blogs about this in conjunction with iPhone games, concluding that it’s human nature to form narratives. When randomness is inconvenient or tragic, we are victims. When we benefit from the random (luck, gamble, coincidence) we somehow pat ourselves on the back. He rightly exhorts us to see reality, writing, “Here’s the truth: There is no reason. That’s why we define it as random. All the time we spend inventing reasons is probably better spent responding to what occurs.”

This opens a whole can of worms about providence and the foreknowledge of God and human freedom. Is there and RNG at work in our lives? Is it the Creator? Is it Jesus?

I’m not going there. But we do make stories of ourselves and our lives and we are the star and protaganist. When things go our way, then we deserve it and take credit. When things go against our wishes, we are the victims of conspiracy–divine, devilish, or human.

The Christian is not the star of our life, and we have no real story or overarching narrative. We are in Christ. It is His life that we live. It is His narrative that has become ours: suffering, death, and resurrection. He is our head, we are His members. Our lives have meaning and purpose and telos only in Him.

When things go for or against us, we have but one option: respond according to our true narrative as members of Christ’s body, knowing His narrative is at work, putting us to death and resurrecting us.

Or we can fight against this and try it on our own. But even then we may not be a star, but a supporting actor in some self-serving story another foists upon us.

Repentance and Cross

Death comes, then resurrection. This is the way of the cross, the way of Christ. It is what Lutherans call the “Theology of the Cross.” It is what Christ says, “If any would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). This is what repentance is.

This is life. We suffer travails and turmoil and overcome…or not. Nietzsche is credited with the old canard, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Nietzsche had a vision of the Übermensch who overcomes by force of will, who evolves into something greater than he once was. But this is not the theology of the cross. And it does not describe reality. In this world, we suffer, and those pangs and assualts and trauma add up until they do us in. We may overcome this or that with experience, we may learn from a mistake and avoid it in the future, but eventually weakness catches us.

In this sense, taking up our cross is the experience of all humanity. We all go to the grave. We will all be overcome in time. But the Cross of Jesus stands this on its head. It says, “Yes, you will go to the grave, but how will you go? Fighting it? Trying to beat it on your own? Or embracing it, denying yourself and following Jesus?”

crucifixThis is the Christian answer to death and to life. We know trials will come, and so we receive them, as Christ received them. They break us, but Christ has overcome them in the Resurrection. We drag ourselves, get pulled, or fall into the pit of misery, but instead of fighting it and railing against the injustice and chaos, we see Jesus there alongside us, living victor over all death and misery.

So what does this look like? It looks like failure. It looks like admitting the marriage is a failure, but having hope of resurrection and renewal, and trusting in Christ to bring that. It looks like admitting that your career is stalled and you will not accomplish half of what you desire, but having hope of resurrection and meaning beyond this life and present things. It looks like admitting the diagnosis is severe, or fatal, and yet hoping for resurrection because Jesus is resurrected.

It makes Christians into goons and weirdos, embracing travail, keeping joy in the midst of the greatest suffering. It makes Christians into fools, thanking God for betrayals and failures, because we know that Jesus is there and will draw us to Him even through the crosses we carry, inflicted or self-inflicted. But it is the way of Christ, to forgive the murderers, to embrace the cross, to look toward Jerusalem and its hill outside of town every day, knowing this is how God makes us His own and gives us resurrection and life.


Blessing of Candles and What We Like

I broke some liturgical rule Sunday. Candlemas, the service of blessing candles used in the sanctuary for the year ahead, is supposed to be February 2. Not Sunday, February 1. But we blessed the candles anyhow, plus the asperges rite. Probably a broken rule as well. I remember researching it last year and felt I could do the asperges with some precedent, but I don’t remember how or why.

This isn’t me. I just thought the water looked cool. I wear less modernist vestments, and no funny hat. For now.

I imagine some present didn’t “like” it. Maybe some didn’t like getting wet, or thought the candles and such were to pompous. I don’t know.

And it doesn’t matter. Truth be told, I’m not sure if I “liked” it. My human nature sees this and thinks “That’s a lot of work and effort. We could make this much simpler.” It did take planning and coordination to pull it off, time and energy I could have used for other things. In fact, this whole liturgical aparatus could be jettisoned. Now, most of the time I do enjoy it, and find it joyful. But sometimes it’s just a pain getting vested. I don’t like holding my hands together when I walk. Reverencing the crucifix on the altar gets tedious sometimes. My sinful, selfish nature does not often want to get so disciplined and deliberate. In general, I’m a guy who likes to kick my feet back and live informally.

We don’t worship liturgically because we like it, even if some do (including me, most of the time). It’s not about my likes or your likes. We do it because we behave as we believe, that God is present in Word and Sacrament, and He requires our honor, veneration and reverence.

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29 ESV).

It’s not about liking. It’s not about aesthetics (though we should always do things well). Our worship is not to satisfy our desires and expectations for experience, transcendence, awe, or emotion. It is to receive from God and to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

Growth in Sanctification, Morals, Lutheranism and Orthodoxy

Paris_psaulter_gr139_fol136vDo Christians grow in sanctification? Do we become more holy and what does that look like?

In E-Lutheranism this past Fall there were a number of Facebook debates, Pseudonymous bloggers, arguments and fights. I was aware of a few of them, though more raged in corners I don’t travel.

In the last few weeks, Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest, created a firestorm of his own at his blog (popular enough to land him a book deal or two), and the topic was strangely familiar. He wrote,

“I’m doing better.” Over the years I’m sure I’ve heard this many times in confession. I’ve also heard, “I’m not doing so well.” These are timely updates, personal measures and reports on the state of spiritual lives. And they are wrong.

You are not doing better. You are not doing worse.

In truth, we don’t know how we’re doing. Only God knows. But we have internalized a cultural narrative and made it the story of our soul. That narrative is the story of progress (or decline)….

Our Christian lives are not a moral project.

The moral improvement (or progress) of our lives is not the goal of the Christian life. It is not even on the same page. We imagine that if we manage to tell fewer lies, or lust fewer times, or fast a little more carefully, and swallow our angry words more completely, we are somehow the better for it and have “made progress.” But this is not so.

He elicited quite an objection. His Church is the Church of the Saints, after all. The Saints are living friends for the Orthodox. The Holy Ones, superior in sanctification, and he was saying “progress” is not the way of the Christian.

And in this post I found hope for Lutheranism and Orthodoxy at the same time.

The rest of his post was Law and Gospel in Orthodox lingo. And more so, his follow-up posts have been brilliant devotions on the theology of the cross, repentance (contrition and faith) and our life in Christ.

In one of the several follow-ups, he wrote the following in describing St. Mary of Egypt. She is a beloved Saint in the Orthodox tradition, known for her repentance and holiness. Or maybe just her repentance as Lutherans understand it. I post an excerpt here for you to consider. He’s a better writer than I am (and more practiced of late), so I’ll let him do the talking. Here’s what Fr. Stephen wrote:

But for all of that victory, [St. Mary of Egypt] still recognizes her weakness. When the Priest Zosimas questions her about her life she says: “You remind me, Zosimas, of what I dare not speak of. For when I recall all the dangers which I overcame, and all the violent thoughts which confused me, I am again afraid that they will take possession of me.”

Should we think of her as making “moral progress?” Were that the case, she would have no fear of the “dangers” and “violent thoughts.” She would have laid them to rest. What we see is repentance. Her repentance is not of the moral sort, a mere sorrow for deeds that have been done. Her repentance is an effort of self-emptying that is greeted by a Divine-filling. She becomes a vessel of grace in the manner described by St. Paul:

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2Co 4:6-7)

It is, of course, possible to describe the changes that occur in the state of repentance as “progress,” but this distorts the work that is taking place. In the words of the Elder Sophrony, “The way down is the way up.” The self-emptying of repentance is not the work of gradual improvement, a work of “getting better and better.” It is a work of becoming “lesser and lesser.” We are not saved by moral progress, transformed by our efforts. It is not self-improvement.

Because of the metaphors and images that dominate our culture, we quickly assume that change (for the good) is an improvement. But included within the progressive metaphor is an assumption of stability and a self-contained quality of goodness (improvement). Thus, if I buy a piece of property and make “improvements,” it is no longer the same. The streets and sewers that have been installed are now part of the property. In human terms, we presume that “progress” gained in the battle with the passions results in an improved self, a self that is less a prisoner to those same passions.

The human life is a dynamic relationship. We are not streets and sewers and electrical gridwork. What is “acquired” by grace in the work of repentance is a different dynamic, one in which our life is centered in the life of God. Repentance is never a one-time event – it is amode of existence.

The modern laboratory of experience that is the Recovery Movement (AA and the like), provides interesting contemporary examples of this same principle. No recovered alcoholic ever says that he is no longer an alcoholic. He will say that he is “a grateful recovering alcoholic.” For he knows that the life of repentance that is described in the 12 steps, is a life that, once ended, will quickly return him not to a new beginning, to a state of non-alcoholism. He quickly returns to where he stopped and will in a short time drink as though he had never known a day of sobriety. St. Mary of Egypt did well to fear all the “dangers” that she overcame. They have not disappeared.

Our “progress” is a road into the life of God – one that is better described as repentance, the word by which we were first invited to the journey.

Wir sind alle Bettler. We are beggars all. That is our faith, our repentance, and the expression of our sanctification. We repent. We become less.

Well, Here Goes Nothing

It’s been a long time. After months of not writing, then problems with hosting renewal, I gave up.

Now I’ve stopped giving up again. A few asked what happened and if I would blog again, and I thought about it then. But really? I had nothing to blog for a while and now I do.

So I wanted a fantastic, energetic, provocative, amazing post for my first one back. Or at least something. Then I got writer’s block again, so this must suffice.

For all five of you, thanks for sticking around. I’ll try not to disappoint you.

Incense and Divine Wrath

Last week at Higher Things incense was used during the last two Evening Prayer services. It was new for many of the kids there. For us, it smelled like Church usually does. The Higher Things staff had a nice description in their service booklet about why we use it. They emphasized the bodily nature of our faith and worship, along with the association of incense with Jesus, both at His birth and death, along with the anointing He received before His passion. They wrote, “When you smell incense, look for Jesus.” A pithy saying.

censing-in-church1Not long after I ran across the following article written by an Orthodox priest. It’s notable for two reasons: first, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon speaks quite openly about the wrath of God, which many Orthodox priests and believers shy away from these days. He writes,

Having determined that repentant prayer alone turns away the divine wrath, we should also consider two ritual gestures in which such prayer may be expressed: the offering of incense and the devout raising of the hands. Since Holy Scripture regards both these elevations as symbols of the soul’s ascent to God. It is no wonder we sometime find them joined in a unified ritual.

Perhaps Psalm 141 (Greek 140) best illustrates this perception. This psalm, still chanted at every Vespers service in the Orthodox Church, has been the evening prayer of God’s People since the time it accompanied the Evening Sacrifice in the Temple.

I cite the psalm’s relevant verse in the economy of the Hebrew text:

“Let my prayer be constant, incense before Your face; the raising of my hands, the evening sacrifice.”

The only finite verb here (tikkon, “to be steady,” or “constant,” or “established”) is unexpected, perhaps. At first glance, few things seem less constant, less “steady” than an incense cloud; it can be kept constant only by an ongoing renewal. Otherwise it dissipates.

The prayer must be continuous, then, in order to remain ever in God’s sight. What the psalmist apparently has in mind is the ongoing and permanent ascent of his prayer before the face of God. The incense fragrance, symbolic of prayer, rises up to Him along with the elevation of prayerful hands. Both the incense and the raised hands give expression to his devotion….

Numbers 16 tells a pertinent story: During one of Israel’s desert rebellions, at a time when the Lord in His wrath sent a plague on the people, Moses instructed Aaron,

“Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put on incense, and carry it quickly to the congregation and atone for them (Hebrew: kapher ‘alihem; Greek: exsilasthai peri avton); for wrath has gone forth from the Lord” (Numbers 16:46; Hebrew/Greek 17:11).

Lutherans reading this may wonder at a few of Fr. Patrick’s phrases and assertions, but consider incense and divine wrath and what we read above: incense and Jesus are connected. It’s not so much prayer done by us, nor burned incense that turns away the wrath of God, but Jesus does, with whom we also associate the burning of incense and the prayers of the Faithful One.

Jesus, divine wrath, incense and peace with God. It’s a good combination.

Parched for Belonging

The following first appeared in Grace Lutheran’s July newsletter


601px-Volkswagen_LogoWe are a people who want to belong, to have a identity among others, to be a member of a set, a group. Maybe a secret group, maybe not. We show our allegiance and membership with our Official Team Wear ™. With orange shirts on certain days, or with red license plate frames. Wearing the right color or team logos on your clothes and cars make you members of a club.

And of course there are more than these associations. Watch motorcyclists do the low hand wave to each other when they pass. It doesn’t matter if they’re Harley or Honda riders, they still have the same wave, the little signal of acknowledgment. “You are a member of my tribe,” it says. People who drive Volkswagens do the same, flashing a V sign to one another. To be honest, I don’t know if people who drive Jettas or Passats do it—but drive a ‘70 Ghia or a 64’ Beetle and you’ll see it. This tribe, this society of car drivers, of people “in the know” is compelling to humans. We long for this kind of belonging, for identity. We all want to have a place, and for others to know it.

Of course, in today’s compartmentalized, isolated society, flashing a V sign is the best kind of tribe or club to be in. No expectations, no meetings no commitments. You can be a member of this secret society without having to do more than make car payments and change your oil—things you are doing anyway. It’s a fleeting, transitory connection with a stranger, a self-chosen, self-determined, self-defined “belonging” to something that only amounts to a drop of water for the one who is parched for belonging.

This marks the greatest departure of belonging to the Church, to the Body of Christ. When you were baptized, you were inducted into the most exclusive society ever imagined, with the strongest ties, with the most ancient of founding, with the deepest connection between its members, known and unknown. It is a Society that is a Body, that connects members not based on temporary joys and delights (My other car is a….) but on the eternal identity of us in Creation and Redemption. A baptism is more than initiation. It is death and rebirth, being made a member of the mystical Body of Christ, as our funeral liturgy calls it.

It is the most secret of societies, for we cannot see the Spirit with eyes of flesh. It is the most open of societies, accepting everyone regardless of Team and language, race, and past associations. It it the most exclusive of tribes, as it demands greatest place and bears no competition. The Christ is Lord of all and trumps every other association, interest, tribe or club which claims ownership of even a part of us. It is the most free of all associations, as your belonging is held by the Creator of all, and is not based on your keeping the rules. You can sell your bike or car or switch loyalties to a Texas team (God forbid), and still belong to Jesus.

So why isn’t it enough? Why do we who call upon Him seek belonging with teams and vehicles and clothing and everywhere else the world calls to us: “Join us! Be like us!” Why do those rebels and teenagers who reject “labels” and “cliques” and those scenes join together with other rebels and outsiders and dress and talk and hang with them? Why is Christ and His Church not enough?

Christ and His Church demand change. It welcomes us as we are, but rightly says that who we are is not who we will be. God has larger plans for you. God is making you like His Christ. God is giving you even a share in divinity! This is a painful process as we repent all those cracks and thorns and worms that keep us from being sons and daughters of the King. Jesus eats with sinners and welcomes them. But sinners repent in the presence of Christ and “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11). Our flesh fights against this. It is hard. And we know not where it ends. Christ and His Kingdom and His righteous to be sure. But what does it look like for me? What Christ is changing in us and where we are headed is seen with faith, and not with our eyes.

Who you are is not who you will be. This is true regardless of faith, regardless of religion. We are all moving targets, all going through change. I no longer flash a V sign at Beetles. Even team loyalties can change over time. Who you are is not who you will be. But this becomes a promise and a hope and a fervent joy for us who belong to Christ. Who you are now is not who you will be. God is at work in you giving you His divine life. He is making you into more than who you are already. He is taking you and refining you, making you more purely you. This is His work in His Church. Through His Word and Sacraments, you belong to the most precious, coveted society there is: the Society of Heaven. The People of God. The Children of the Father. Sons and Daughters of the King of Kings.