Thoughts on Hymn Picking

As a pastor, I pick a lot of hymns. The goal of any hymn should be to confess Christ. This means that a lot of “old favorites” are not really appropriate for the Divine Service. No agony there. If it doesn’t clearly speak back to God what he has said to us in His holy word, then it is of no use. It does not teach the faith. It does not confess. It does not belong in the church service. (But I won’t object if you want to sing it around a camp fire. Having asthma, I can’t go to camp fires anymore.)

The agony comes when a hymn – which is a great hymn, clearly confesses Christ, and does so better than about  80 percent of the hymns in the hymnal, with a great, singable, well matched tune, is right next to a hymn on the exact same topic that does the same thing even better, with just as good a tune. What that means is that I can either pick a hymn that isn’t quite as good, even though it’s excellent. Or I can omit a hymn that is worthy of being sung.

Those decisions are the hardest. Usually, I pick the better hymn first, and save the second one for a couple of weeks later, if appropriate. Sometimes that works, sometimes the themes have moved on, and it just doesn’t fit. And so a great hymn gets missed for that season.

Then, I can only console myself with, “There’s always next year…” Sometimes being a pastor is a lot like being a Cubs fan.

 

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Sermon for Ascension

Shamelessly adapted from Luther’s Ascension Day sermon:

We finally come to the feast of the Ascension. There really isn’t much to do. On Christmas we sing carols and light candles. On Palm Sunday we wave palms, On Good Friday we have Tenebrae, on Easter we come early and dress the altar. Today we’re just sort of standing there with the disciples, looking at the cloud. Yup. There he went. Do we really need this day? We’re still here, even though He has gone away.

Ascension Day reminds: You do nothing. There’s no fancy ritual. No preparation by the children. We just gather to hear and receive the Word and promise of God: This Jesus whom you saw go away into heaven will return in the same way you saw him go.

We don’t do anything. The gift has already been given. We hear and learn about the work of God for us. One more festival to go in this liturgical year – Pentecost. We will have covered once again the entire history of salvation. And that history tells us over and over again: It’s Jesus work, not yours. We do nothing to contribute to that salvation. We receive it as gift from him.

But in our sinful state, any time the truth is spoken, Satan is there with his silky smooth snake-oil salesman voice, asking again, “Did God really say…” Well, if the sins are forgiven, you can do whatever you want. You don’t even need to follow the law anymore. You can just go and sin-it-up and ask for forgiveness later.

Saint Paul already dealt with this in the first century. “Should we go on sinning so that grace may abound? By no means. How can we who died to sin live in it any longer.”

That’s the promise of Ascension Day. We have died to sin. We have King David, prophesying about today: You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive: You have received gifts for men; yes, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them.

What does it mean that he led captivity captive? We were in captivity to sin death and the devil. Jesus broke the bonds of that captivity, and now sin itself is captive to Jesus death, resurrection and ascension.

It means we are no longer bound under sin. Rather, in Christ, sin is your captive. Sin is not yet dead in this world. We still struggle with sin. But we are not captive to it. It is captive to those of us who have been Baptized into Christ’s precious name and who believe on that name for our salvation. What that means is that we no longer live in our sins. We no longer dwell in them. Whatever sin has you in it’s thrall, Christ’s redemption is greater. Yes! Christ’s work is greater than your sin. And now, you live by the Spirit, and though we are still weak in this world, and stumble, we can, by the word of God and prayer, begin to overcome our sin.

The sinful self wants to distort this teaching. Your sinful flesh wants to either tell you that you are holy, and so if you sin, you have failed in your salvation and all is lost. But it is not your salvation. It never was. Today we hear again the salvation is Christ’s – given freely.

And so the sinful flesh tries the other way – well, if it’s freely given, it is cheap, and I can abuse that freedom of the Gospel, and live according to the ways of the flesh. Also not true. We do not despair of our sins. Neither do we live in them anymore.

Rather, we return again and again to the Holy Church of Christ to hear his word of promise, to receive the gifts he gives of forgiveness, life and salvation. As it says on the cover, what was visible in our savior has passed over into His mysteries.

Jesus is hidden from our eyes. But He is not gone. With the eyes of faith, we see the water poured and know that Jesus is given even to the little children. We see the body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, offered now for you to take eat and take drink, to strengthen you in this true faith unto life everlasting. Amen.

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Representative Church

Our District President is giving his state of the district report. That’s always good in our district – and often the best part of the convention. Today he is speaking about the importance of the wider church, as we share in the fellowship of Christ, a fellowship not of like minds, but a fellowship in the Spirit, given as a gift of God as we confess the right doctrine together.

So you can also enjoy this fine report, here is a picture of President Hill delivering it:

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Wisdom of the Fathers

Today is the feast of Saint Athanasius. In honor of that, I quote Saint Gregory Nazianzen, who wrote a lovely oration in honor of Athanasius some years later. This is not from that oration, nor does it at all relate to Athanasius, but it was the best transition I could come up with on short notice.

In honor of the upcoming District Convention, here is the wisdom of Gregory, who at one point chaired the council of Constantinople, which finalized the Nicene Creed (So, kind of an important meeting):

For my part, if I am to write the truth, my inclination is to avoid all assemblies of bishops, because I have never seen any Council come to a good end, nor turn out to be a solution to evils. On the contrary, it usually increases them. You always find there love of contention and love of power (I hope you will not think me a bore, for writing like this), which beggar the description; and, while sitting in judgment on others, a man might well be convicted of ill-doing himself long before he should put down the ill-doings of his opponents. So I retired into myself; and came to the conclusion that the only security for one’s soul lies in keeping quiet.

Good to remember, before all the talking and voting begins…

 

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Why I won’t listen

People are accusing this simple country parson of being unreasonable. I won’t listen to the sermon, (except for a few words I heard when getting the screenshot – which was way more than enough) yet I am calling on the man who preached it to repent.

In our modern American culture, that seems unthinkable. Even pastors are suggesting I am not being fair. But I’m not interested in fair. I’m interested in faithful.

Back in my sem days, a friend was placed in a tiny town in Minnesota. One day, as he was working around the house, the JWs stopped by. The pastor told them that not only would he not hear them, but no one would, and they needed to leave. They told him it was a free country. On they went to the next house. It being Minnesota, it was one of his elders. They knocked. The man opened the door, and the pastor (clad in his paint-covered work pants and torn t-shirt) said, “As your pastor I am telling you that they are going to speak damnable lies to you, and you need to shut the door for your own good.” “Ok pastor.” End of conversation. I think they tried one more house, with similar results, before they got in their car and left town.

The pastor and members did not need to hear the false teaching to know that it was false teaching. As a pastor, people (generally not members) often give me books to read. The Secret, 40 Days of Purpose, Your Best Life Now, etc. “That’s heresy”, I say. “Oh, you really need to read it.” I am told. “Don’t judge before you look at it.” I do judge. I don’t look. I don’t have time to read every new heresy fad that comes down the pike. I would spend my whole ministry just listening to new heresy fads. That’s not only a waste of time, it’s downright dangerous. If you’re always working with hazardous substances, so much so that you don’t have time to nourish yourself with what is nutritive, you will die.

In Wyoming, we have some fairly large prairie dog towns. I’ve been told that rattle snakes live in the prairie dog holes. I’ve never seen one. But I always manage to give the openings a respectful distance. I warn others, even though I have not personally seen one. Why? Because it’s dangerous to get bitten by a rattlesnake. I don’t need to go through the experience to know how to avoid their homes. Similarly, I know the mess that cow pies can make of your boots, even though I have never stepped in a fresh one, and feel no need to try.

What happened in the seminary chapel was an offense before God. Jesus  tells the people “You don’t give holy things to dogs, or pearls to pigs, so don’t bother giving the things of God to people who will despise them.” He was using hyperbole, it is true. But that only works if we have a common understanding about how inappropriate it is to give holy things to a dog. Saying, “He was talking about people, he was only using dogs as an example” is to miss that the dogs are an example because they are unclean, can not enter into the holy places, and can not be given the holy things.

I did hear about two sentences of the sermon when I was getting my screen grab. He was telling the seminarians that they needed to be more like the dog. Here’s the thing – dogs and wolves may have separated into wild and domesticated, but genetically they can still breed. They are of the same scriptural “kind.” On the ark there was a pair of primitive dog-wolves, from which all modern dogs and wolves are descended. Scripture tells us that we are to be shepherds, not hirelings. We are to defend the sheep from the wolf, even at the risk of our lives. This hireling literally told the men that they need to be more like the wolf. I don’t need to listen to more words.

He brought something that is unclean – cousin to a wolf – into the house of God, before the altar of God, and used it as an example of what pastors are to be. That’s so far out of bounds, I don’t know how to describe it properly. I’ve tried here. Because people are not used to hearing that anything is wrong. My task is to distinguish between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean, and to teach the people. This was unclean, and people pretended it was holy. That is not profaning. It is defilement.

Peter had noble motives when he said he would not let Jesus be killed. You can even quote the fifth commandment from the catechism, or the book of James, that we can’t just let our neighbor die. We have to help him in every bodily need. And yet Peter was not speaking a word of God. He was acting as Satan. That same thing happened in the seminary chapel this week. Men were told to go out among the sheep, and behave more like wolves. That is not how this works. It is an offense before God. There will be judgment.

I will not listen to such heretics. And my advice is, do not listen to them yourselves. It’s not safe. If you want a word of the Lord to support that, how about this one from Jeremiah 23:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” (ESV)

To put that in more modern lingo:

God will judge. And unless we repent, we’re really asking for it.

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Do Not Give What Is Holy To Dogs

Bad Pastor!

UPDATE: I repent of saying that it was a sin for synod officials not to walk out of the service. I know there are many ways to address this, some publicly some privately. It is difficult to know how to respond to such a stunning display. I went too far in saying that not leaving was sinful. I have corrected the post accordingly, and have asked that it be updated as well on those sites that may share it.

***

I love my dog. I’ve always thought dogs were the coolest. And I think it really stinks that, because we sin, dogs have to die after only about 15 years or so.

However, dogs are not sentient beings. They can intuit a great deal. My dog knows if someone is having a bad day, and will hang out with them until they feel better. Other dogs can herd cattle more effectively and quickly than people.They do attend to their office as God has given it to them. They bark. They wag tails. They guard things.  But they can not reflect on the meaning of being a dog. They can not hear the Gospel.

But they are not baptized. They can not confess the faith. And despite my claims that the first dog we got when we were married was rather obviously a Calvinist, they can not join churches.

Jesus even says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs.”

How far has our synod fallen from the gold standard of “adherence to the word of God”?

Last night, in the chapel at one of our seminaries, a dog was brought out during the sermon. A sermon titled “Man’s Best Friend.” I don’t know the man who preached. I did not hear the sermon. But Jesus used small words, so even pastors should be able to understand. “Do not give what is holy to dogs.” How much greater an offense is it to call the dog a holy thing in itself. And that is what happened.

In the Old Testament, when Nadab and Abihu entered the holy place with “unauthorized fire” they were consumed by fire as a warning. We had a high official, who thought that instead of preaching Christ Crucified, he should show everyone a dog, in front of the altar of God.

So far, people at the synod headquarters are more upset with how heathen will market our materials than they are that one of our own defiled God’s House, made a mockery of Christ in a sermon, and did so at the very moment when we are sending men out as sheep among wolves  – and wolves are directly related to dogs. You want to know what to avoid, what to shield your people from, according to Holy Scripture and the word of our risen and ascended Lord? Look at the picture. There. That is what you are up against.

I love my dog. She’s “The Best”. But she is content to remain in the place God has given. And that is not among the holy things. My dog knows better than our own synod officials.

This isn’t a close call. This is a direct “We’re asking for fire and brimstone” moment of sin.

Our synod has officials who are given the responsibility of oversight even of district presidents. Those who are given authority in this situation must use that in a godly way, with a call to repent for the violation of God’s word that occurred there.

Next week we have a district convention. There is question time with the President of Synod. I think I may have a question for him.

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Easter Penitence

Sin in haste and repent at leisure, they say.

Well today I had a chance to catch up on some penitence for Lenten gluttony. It was occasioned by my daily bike ride. The temperature was 40 degrees. And I was biking directly into this wind:

And now, I feel rather penitent about it. Time to switch to carrots and rutabagas for snacks.

 

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