• June 2012

    Welcome to the Pastor’s Soapbox. My intention here is to provide a place for us as a congregation to discuss some issues. This will be the stuff that doesn’t come up in sermons (for various reasons), but is too involved to make an announcement or even a temple talk. Most of this will be theologically based, but then, there are many things to discuss.

    Many of the topics will be controversial. Some might even be painful for people to think about. I have no wish to offend, but I am called to “speak the truth in love,” which will be my mission statement for the soapbox column.

    Emphasis on the love. The truth I speak will necessarily be the as-I-see-it kind, so, what you get here is the Pastor’s opinion. It is the Pastor’s Soapbox, at least to start. Nevertheless (all the more!), your feedback will be welcomed. Email me or write me a note, and (by request) I will post what you say in the soapbox. I promise a minimum of editing, if any.

    Now, how am I going to handle requests for anonymity? For some time, it has been an important rule to me that unsigned comments receive no attention whatever. It’s just too easy to do a lot of damage with unsigned letters, since there is no way to challenge or debate such comments. All the same, I do understand that some people need to remain anonymous as they say what is on their hearts. Therefore I would ask that responses to my postings not be unsigned unless it is really necessary. Try to keep the unsigned comments to a minimum. If a comment does come in unsigned, I am going to use my prayerful discretion in deciding whether or not to post it. I will not rule it out of court automatically.

    I

    As a pastor, I am frequently called upon to conduct weddings, naturally enough. I am also a student of history, so I know that the institution of marriage has changed over the years and centuries, and even within my lifetime. What our society considers normal has not always been so; and there are probably changes in our future.

    While other issues surrounding marriage get more attention in the news, there is one issue that comes up much more often around here: it’s called cohabitation. What to do about couples who want to be married but are already living together?

    “Everybody’s doing it.” Not true, but cohabitation is becoming quite common.

    My information, based on some very good research, is that couples who live together before they are married are much more likely to experience difficulties, even leading to divorce, than couples not cohabiting before marriage. Whatever the reason is for that, the stats bear witness. The myth that couples should share housing before being married to see if they really are compatible turns out to be false. It is not good for your marriage to live together first.

    Recognizing this, some pastors (and not just in this area, but across America) when asked to do a wedding for a couple who is already living together, will require one or the other to move out first. I don’t think I’ll be doing that, for two reasons:

    One, the research shows that if the cohabitation has been a short-term thing, say if the couple wanted to get the moving-furniture headaches out of the way first, before the wedding, there is no significant damage to the relationship. They are no more likely to divorce than couples who don’t share an address for even a single day before the wedding.

    And two, I think it’s already too late for long-term cohabiting couples. If they have been living together with an idea of giving cohabitation a try before they marry, making them live separately for a few months won’t do much.

    The trump card, of course, is “What does the Bible say?” If God tells us to do things a certain way, then that’s that. As we are called to live in the world but not be of the world, society’s dictates and conventional wisdom do not order our lives and decisions. God does.

    The Bible holds marriage to be one of God’s greatest blessings to humankind. (That’s easy to believe when you have a marriage like mine. But I digress.) Marriage is the covenant of commitment between a man and a woman. The wedding is the ceremony where that commitment is made public; promises are made out in front of God and everybody who cares to listen.

    The vows are central. In our Lutheran wedding service, the pastor says this after the vows and exchange of rings: “(bride) and (groom), by their promises before God and in the presence of this congregation, have bound themselves together as husband and wife.” No power vested in me ties their knot. They do it.

    That kind of public commitment is supposed to be serious, but our society has forgotten what commitment is. It is true commitment that makes for an honest marriage. Vows are solemn vows, period.

    This is what the Bible says in Genesis, back when marriage was invented: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.” Other scriptures (from Ephesians, for example), back this up. True unity requires true commitment. A half-hearted ‘let’s give this a try and see what happens’ will not work. It’s not marriage.

    Therefore:

    1) Marriage is defined by the commitment; and not what modern society calls commitment either, but the real thing. A couple are really married if they seek, with God’s help, to do exactly what they say in their vows, no less.

    2) A marriage becomes official when the vows are made.

    (Those who say the wedding is only a ceremony and it’s the commitment that matters are right, but just barely. Neither the living together nor the sexual activity constitutes commitment. And certainly, trial cohabitation is the opposite of commitment. If real commitment is present, the parties should have the courage to stand up and say so in public, in front of God, say, in a wedding service.)

    3) It is an abuse of sexuality to have sex outside of marriage.

    (I do not believe that procreation is the sole purpose for marriage. There were times, believe it or not, that the church would not approve or bless a marriage unless the woman was pregnant first! We do not require any such thing anymore. I myself have performed more than one wedding in which the bride and groom expressed no intention whatever to have children - most often because they were older. I was still happy to marry them.)

    4) I will make every effort to let people know where I stand, and what I see to be the dangers of premarital cohabitation and extramarital sex.

    5) In premarital counseling, extra care will be taken with couples who are living together, to assure that they know the risks.

    6) In premarital counseling, extra care will be taken with all couples to make sure they understand the nature of marital commitment.

    A question posed -

    What is your policy or thoughts on baptism for a baby whose parents are not married but living together?

    Baptism is a gift from God in which he adopts us as his children. As such, I do not withhold baptism from anyone who desires it for him/herself or children.

    Contact with parents who wish to have their child baptized is an excellent opportunity to discuss marriage, if need be.

    (Later - ) This issue has more depth than I originally realized. This is no surprise, since baptism itself is deep. It is a gift from God, and as such will continue to lay hold of us and call us to be true children of God.

    So what about someone bringing their children to be baptized when they have not made the commitment of marriage to one another? Promises are made in baptism that have deep lifelong (and longer) importance. How can people make promises, particularly those baptismal promises, when they have not yet committed to each other?

    For that matter, how do we trustanyone to make baptismal promises? Modern people are notorious for taking vows lightly - and that’s all of us, not just unmarrieds.

    I think progress lies in an expanded direction. Let us call to mindall the promises being made in baptism:

    1. God makes a promise, as I noted earlier. His is the most important and most sure. God’s gifts and promises alone are enough reason to baptize, even if no one else is faithful.

    2. The parents and sponsors make promises, which we as the church, especially pastors, ought to make clear.

    3. (Here’s where you come in) The gathered people of God, that is the church, also make a promise. When we say “We welcome you into the Lord’s family,” we mean that we intend to act as family. Essentially, we are all making the same promise the sponsors make (One of our members was baptized with the whole congregation named as sponsors. Brilliant). If the parents fail in their duty to give this child a Christian upbringing, we as church must see to it. They’re family, after all.

    I therefore, on your behalf, commit the whole parish to the promises made in baptism for everyone baptized in our midst. Thank me later.

    II

    By now we have had considerable experience with the updated translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which I still prefer. Here I repost comments I made earlier when it was just being introduced in our congregation.

    Recent Bible study by experts (!) has shown that it is probably closer to the words that Jesus actually taught his disciples. Also, the word ‘trespasses’ has undergone a considerable change in meaning since first appearing in the King James. ‘Sins’ seems to tell it like it is. We have been using the new version in worship, but I will continue to use the traditional one at the nursing home.

    a response -

    My opinion on the new version of the Lord's Prayer is more for my daughter, which in turn makes me feel very strongly about the change. Anna is 7 years old and has known the Lord's Prayer (other version) since she was 4 years old. I have always been very proud of her learning it at such a young age and she always looked forward to saying this in church. Now, with the new version, she thinks she is saying it wrong. She gets quite upset over it and doesn't understand the why's behind it and frankly, I guess I don't see the need for it either. She and I have gone back to saying the other version together even in the midst of other people saying it the new way.

    --Sheila McCarty

    - (later) I appreciate all the comments that have come in on this issue. Here’s some more to think about:

    Martin Luther said that if we only had this prayer, it would be enough. It is the most significant prayer we have and is meant for all God’s people. When the occasion has us listening to the Lord’s Prayer being sung by a soloist, I still encourage the congregation to pray along. It’s that important to the people. It is therefore just as important for all who pray to get the most they can out of it - hence the version being used is important.

    Which version of the Lord’s Prayer is more meaningful to you? Does the one you’re used to (whichever one that might be) cause you to think about what you are praying, or are you so used to it that your mind wanders? Does it make sense to change periodically to keep us on our toes?

    We still encourage worshippers to use that version which works best for them, even if the rest of us are using the other one. Pray as Jesus taught you.

    III

    (also from earlier) The American flag does not strictly speaking belong in the chancel. I love my country - it is (no doubt in my mind) the greatest country on earth, past and present. Possibly future. Plus I have a great respect for the veterans who offered that “last full measure of devotion” for the flag and all it represents. I like the flag, I just think it’s out of place in the sanctuary. Every symbol in the front of the church should proclaim Jesus. Even the pastor should do so, with his actions, what he wears and what he says. A national flag up front runs counter to that proclamation. It also runs counter to the assurance we receive in the gospel, that the good news of Jesus is for all nations. (A U.N. flag would still be out of place; not to mention weird.) I have not made an issue out of this because of my respect for the veterans. It was for them that flags were put into churches in the first place, and it should be their call if the flag is to be removed. (An interesting alternative can be found in Canton Lutheran Church, where an area has been set aside in the narthex for the flags of the congregation.)

    IV

    I hear a lot about what heaven is like from people who have never been there. I haven’t either, but the Bible tells me quite a bit.

    First, people don’t become angels when they die. I don’t know where this one comes from, but it’s nowhere in the Bible. I even heard Billy Graham say it once, referring to children who die. Nope, people who die are just people. Angels are a distinct part of creation.

    I also have trouble believing that the dead are watching us. It’s supposed to be heaven. Why would the saints triumphant want to watch the dumb stuff we do? Again this one is nowhere in the Bible.

    Will we recognize each other in heaven? And if so,

    Will we be sad if someone we know doesn’t make it?

    I do not have specific verses to give you on this one, but consider this:

    1. I love no person more than the three people with whom I share a house - my family.

    2. Even so, I love them imperfectly.

    3. Heaven is perfection, perhaps most of all the perfection of love (“faith, hope and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love”).

    4. In heaven, therefore, I expect to love Erma, Anna and Rebecca perfectly. But then, if love is perfected, I must also love all others perfectly, even those I have never met (At this point, I usually refer to Harvey Jones. Who is Harvey Jones? I have no idea. But I expect to love him).

    5. God’s love is already perfected.

    6. However much I might miss someone from heaven, God will miss them even more.

    7. God will do everything to make sure they are there.

    8. I should too.

    V

    The Catholic Church in Larchwood got a rather large grant from the Casino fund recently, and I have been asked from several directions whether we here at Bethlehem should board that train. I said no.

    Now I do still think the Casino is evil (that word used intentionally). It sets up a false God; it robs from the poor and gives to the rich; it hurts the most those who can afford it the least. But I realize those things are my opinions, and my opinion alone is not enough to decide this.

    But here is something we can agree on. Applying for and receiving grants, from any source, would damage our stewardship. We need to do our own stewardship and not become dependent on outside money.

    We give the same reasoning when someone wants to include our congregation in their will. We would not want a sudden influx of inherited money in the general fund, because then our members would be encouraged to give their charity elsewhere (less likely, not at all). The stewardship habit, once lost, is difficult to re-learn. So for wills and the like, we have an endowment fund set up, with the stipulation that that money not be used for the general fund.

    Roman Catholic churches do their stewardship differently, and have done so for a long time. Grant money may work for them, but it will not work for us.

    Side note: When I lived in Connecticut, I saw a couple of churches that did become dependent on outside money. They were more like historic sites than working congregations. The membership had declined so much, from lack of commitment, that they were not what we call real congregations, but Churches (As Such) In Name Only. In fact, the congregation no longer had control over their buildings, nor anything else. An Ecclesiastical Society (mostly non-members) kept the books, applied for the grants, and chose the paint colors.

    VI

    Like other churches and denominations, we are struggling with our liturgy. Maybe struggling isn’t the right word. Some of us have a desire to update our church experience. We see other churches have contemporary liturgies and we find them attractive. Perhaps we an keep our members motivated with an upbeat service?

    The theory is basically sound. I like our contemporary services; I feel they add a new dimension to our life together. But I also like the traditional liturgy - in fact I prefer it - for reasons I have yet to make clear.

    Perhaps most of our members will be surprised to know that the basic format of the service reaches far and wide and connects us to the rest of the church. We are using the same order of service that was used by Christians at least to thesecond century AD. It is also the same order that Christians use in China, India, Russia, you name the place.

    Christians of every time and place come together on the first day of the week to hear the Word of God, proclaim our mutual faith (we even use the same creed), offer prayers for one another, and share in Holy Communion.

    When we come together, we set aside our mundane times and places and enter God-time in the God-place. We are truly one communion with all Christians and with God. This is a very important time!

    I know of a pastor who refuses to wear a watch in worship. He says that a watch is connected to earthly time, and when he worships, he wants to be in God’s time - the heavenly time zone. Nobody in his congregation complains. Apparently, they get home “in time.”

    I am a little wary of new liturgies, creeds someone put together from their own thoughts, creative orders of service and the like. They can be meaningful and inspiring, but too much would not be a good thing.

    When I was called to a church in Minnesota, there was a group of youth (mostly representing the Baptist church, but a few Lutherans) who wanted to start their own service. Essentially, they wanted a separate congregation for the youth. Most of the pastors opposed the idea, on the grounds that the church of Jesus Christ did not need to be further divided.

    Our time together should allow the Spirit to work in us, as the catechism says, to “call, gather, enlighten and sanctify.” The worship that does that is truly pleasing in God’s sight.

    VII

    Many parts of the preceding discussions relate to another issue here at Bethlehem. I’ll go ahead and say it: Audio-Visual.

    We have one group in our congregation with a certain vision for the worship space, and another group with a very different vision. These groups are don’t seem to be talking to each other, but only among themselves, which leads to the everyone-I-talk-to-agrees-with-me phenomenon.

    In order to avoid the division and hard feelings that normally result from this sort of thing, Let Us start talking as soon as possible. Starting points:

    1) The audio portion needs to be done. I don’t see much disagreement on this. We have a plan and an estimate on the cost in place, and we are getting close to having enough money for it. Let’s do it, and finally put an end to the dead zone about halfway back in the pews (I refer to the sound, not the people).

    2) The disagreement comes on the visual portion. Can we do the audio without the visual? Can we do the audio and add the visual later? If not, then we need to decide soon whether we want screens in our worship space. Let’s decidetogether, and before someone donates a lot of money into another special fund designated for screens, only to have the congregation decide against them.

    Pastor’s view on the subject in general:

    3) We need the audio upgrade (I’d favor the mid-range-cost choice). The sooner, the better.

    4) On the visual part, I am not so certain. But first, the positives:

    a) Screens in front are the wave of the future. This is not simply to say everybody is doing it, but many, perhaps a majority of the church and its worship resource providers will eventually come to expect it. The church without screens will one day be in the minority, and will have fewer options.

    b) I like the idea of people lifting their voices to sing or praise, rather than looking down at a book.

    c) Having more ways to convey the message is better than having fewer ways.

    d) Some things will be much easier to see on a screen than from the pews. I could see the improvement in visibility for, say, a baptism - point the camera toward the font and feed it to the screen so everyone gets a good view.

    5) There are some negatives:

    a) I don’t want just words up there for hymns, but I like to follow the music as well. Yea, verily, even unto the harmonies for those who love to sing parts. When Our Savior’s first started to use screens, I was still their pastor, and there were severe limits on available material. It is safe to say that our green books will never be formatted for screens, and it will be some time before the new red hymnal is ready, if ever.

    b) Placement will be a problem. A screen would have to be big enough to see from the back, but not so big that it obscures the cross. It would have to be high enough to see, again, from the back (or you could move UP), but not so high that the people in front could not see, or have to crane their necks, or encourage them to move back even farther. Would the screen be in a given position permanently, or would we be willing to pay extra for the moveable kind and train new people how to move it out, back, up, or whatever direction it needs?

    c) I’m not as techsavvy as I could be. This pastor would surely not get the full potential out of screens that is available. My PowerPoint sermons will be few and disappointing. That’s not to say future pastors won’t be brilliant.

    d) We touched on symbols above, under the discussion of flags in the church. To recap, everything in the front of the worship space is a symbol, to some extent, and should remind people to think about Jesus. Screens have a great potential to do this. They also have the opposite potential. They can be very distracting. They can be very distracting in a bad direction.

    Sunday worship would not pose a great problem in this regard. I have seen pastors, most recently our own bishop, use screen-symbols to great effect. I’m worried about other services.

    Along with the rule about every symbol needing to point to Christ, there’s a rule about every event in the worship space needing to be worshipful. Funerals and weddings are public ceremonies in the context of Christian worship.

    That’s usually the point where I lose a lot of people, so please read that last statement again.

    Come to my office sometime and read up on the rules for building use, especially with weddings. Every rule, and there are many, had to be made to point people in this direction, that this is a Christian worship service in which two people make public vows of lifelong fidelity. No, you may not have a dog as your ring-bearer. No, you may not throw rice, and no, birdseed isn’t okay either. No, you may not choose “Muskrat Love” for your Processional (oh, how I wish I was making that up).

    From a pastor’s point of view, it will be very difficult to tell couples what they can or cannot have on the screens during the ceremony. Given all the stuff you see on TV lately, my authority in this regard is diminishing. We can not count on a pastor’s authority to say what goes on screens and what doesn’t.

    The current trend is to make a video presentation, for screening at the reception, about how these two people came together, how they were meant for each other, and how this wedding was meant to be. These can be very well done, and when they are, they can be fun, entertaining, and even meaningful.

    But they are not worship. They distract from the worship of Jesus by imposing alternate symbols in the place of Christ-symbols.

    It is only a matter of time before someone asks to have this video in the wedding service itself. The screens are there, why can’t we use them? It would be so meaningful! Help me, dear friends, to learn how to say ‘no’ in the most loving way possible.

    It will be even more difficult to say ‘no’ in the context of a funeral.

    e) Technology being what it is, maybe we should save up our money until somebody invents holographic worship.

    Since I used so many more words on the negatives, it may seem like my mind is made up on this, but it is not. I think the negatives needed more words in their explanations. From where I sit, the positive reasons, those for having screens, would be harder to work around than the negatives. There are ways, although difficult ones, to mitigate the latter.

    So I post this to get us thinking. What is best at this time? Is it better to wait with the visual part until we are all on board and understand its proper use? Do those on the other side of this issue have valid reasons? Please extend the conversation. Listen to your brothers and sisters in Christian love. As we like to say at weddings, “Love does not insist on its own way.” --1 Corinthians 13

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