Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ramblings about Lent

Lent is a powerful season for personal, spiritual growth. There are many traditions associated with Lent that have come down through the years. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with any of them. Giving up something for Lent, special devotions, time of reflection, use of ashes, mission outreach and many  more that I am not familiar with in my life. Through out the years (since being in the ministry I guess I should say), Penny and I have practiced the discipline of giving up something for Lent. It is a personal and private discipline. And in many ways, it has been very helpful in our spiritual walk. It has drawn us closer to our Lord. So in that way I believe it has been very good.

I normally don't talk about what we give up for Lent. Actually, very few even know that we do it. I take that from what our Lord says in the Sermon on the Mount, doing your acts of fasting and piety are meant to be between you and the Lord. So we have kept it that way.

But this year has been a challenge for us to follow what we have done. Not because we have the desire for it, which of course we do, but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we have been able to train our bodies and minds to follow the way of the Lord not the way of the flesh. The challenge for us has come from others within the Lutheran Church (and here I do not mean the members of St. Paul's, Troy. I am talking about the other clergy of the Lutheran Church.). It has seemed to me that we are taking our personal piety to great lengths and it has become a show. Things that were not part of the practice of the Lutheran Church have seemed to become almost a necessity if you want to be considered a good, confessional Lutheran. The more Lutheran you want to be, the more pious, the more "ancient" your practice is supposed to be. Things that were not a part of the Lutheran Church are now considered to be the "norm" and when you don't follow the practice, you are made to the outsider, the strange one. It is like everyone who wants to show that they are "true Lutheran" will jump on the bandwagon. For example, the whole imputation of ashes. It has become the craze among Lutherans. It seems that if you really want to be on the "in" crowd, you will make sure that your congregation uses ashes, and then you will talk about them over and over again as though they are the focus of your spiritual life.

It just seems to me that our actions have become the focus. We are so busy trying to prove we are good Lutherans, that we are following the way of the the ancients, the church of years gone by, that we are losing sight of who we are as Lutherans today. I am not a Lutheran from the 16th century. No matter how hard I try, I cannot be. I did not live then. The personal practice, the form of worship, the way of life - all are different now than they were then. To try to reach back and pull all that practice and form from then seems to be plastic and fake. It is like we are trying to be something we are not and cannot be. People today cannot worship as people in the 17th century. Nor do they really want to. Will they worship that way? Sure they will. They will do whatever the pastor of the congregation wishes to do. And some will even grow to like it, perhaps even love it. But that is not the majority of people in the pew. Lutherans don't want to be Catholic or Presbyterian. They don't want to act like they did in Walther's day (19th century) nor do they want to be like they were in the mid-20th century. They want to practice, worship and live as Lutherans in the 21st century.

Why do we feel that we need to go backwards in time? Is it because there are some Lutheran pastors and congregations that try to be Reformed or Baptist in practice, thinking that is the way to draw people in? Is it because we have this reaction against the mega-churches that we seem to want to drive people away from our churches by forcing an ancient form of worship upon them and making them feel that if they don't like it then they are not being good Lutheran?

All right, I know that I am generalizing. And any time you generalize you run the risk of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. That isn't my goal. I am just venting against the push that I am feeling from those within the Southern Illinois District of the LC-MS to return to a time that I don't enjoy, like or feel is necessary. I feel like we are leaving behind our Lutheran heritage. And before you jump of that and say, "But that is our heritage," understand what I mean. It feels and looks like we are trying to become Catholic or Orthodox. It feels like we are trying to force upon the church, me and others, people in the pews, etc. a form of worship and a type of piety that does not fit into the lives of people today.

Yes, there are those that like and enjoy the ancient form of worship. But there are more that don't. Why don't they speak out? Most of the time because they are intimidated by those who are brash and out spoken. They are made to feel less than Lutheran if they speak out and say that they don't like it. They are beaten down with this ancient father and that ancient father, and having never read them, nor caring to read them, nor having the time to read them, they feel that it is easier to say nothing and suffer in silence.

I don't like doing that. Back to my thoughts on giving up something for Lent. I have felt less inclined to hold to it, not because of weakness of the flesh but because of the sick feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I listen to those who are of the "true Lutheran" mindset. I feel that such action is nothing more than man trying to prove something. And at that point, I realize that my personal spiritual piety has become nothing more than show - trying to say, "See, I can do this. Look at what I am about." And then, I know that I am wrong. I have lost sight of why it is being done.

This too is the rambling of a parish pastor who is upset with the direction of his Church body. And soon, perhaps sooner than he thinks, he is going to have speak out and work to return to the Lutheran Church he grew up knowing and loving and wants to continue to have for the years to come.


  1. This is very interesting. I have recently started going back to church. Although I was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church, I went through a time when I decided I did not want to be a member of the church anymore. It had nothing to do with the Pastor or with the beliefs of the church. Unfortunaely, it had to do with one simple Sunday and two ladies that sat behind me and talked about me. Obviously, they didn't know that I was able to hear every word they were saying, but this one incident changed my heart...for the worse. So I spent a few years with only attending my church when the letters started coming from the elders or when someone in the family was being confirmed or it was a "special" holiday for the family. I was angry and I was confused and most of all, I was stubborn. I had decided that I knew best and that I no longer needed my church. So I went to other area churches once in a while (I think I thought I was proving a point, only to whom I don't know.), and I decided I was NEVER going back to Immanuel again.
    Fortunately, I had a change of heart this year. There was something inside of me that was missing something and it didn't take me long to figure out what it was. I missed my church. I missed being a part of something good and right. So I started going back.
    I guess I will get to the point of me writing...things have changed there since I've been gone. We received ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday and our services seem to be a little different.
    I'm not really saying I don't like the changes, but I do notice the changes. I too gave up something for Lent although I haven't heard it being brought up at church.
    My question would be...what is a "Good Lutheran" as opposed to just being a "Good Christian"?
    So maybe this comment kind of jumped around a little, but I would really love to have your answer to this question.
    Thanks for letting me comment!!


    1. Mandi,
      I will give a reply to your question in another blog.
      Thanks for reading and your response. I am thrilled that you are back in church, worshiping and being fed from Word and Sacrament.
      Reply coming soon.
      Pastor Mitch

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, Pr. Mitch.

    I appreciate your candidness. You mention that you fear that some may be offended by your comments. I, for one, am not offended in the least, even though I don't agree with everything you write. I’m grateful that you have commented and hope that my response will be helpful to the overall conversation between fellow Christians.

    I fully agree with what I perceive to be your point about personal piety—and not imposing that piety on others.

    I’ll post my comments in two parts.

    It appears to me that straw men are being set up on both sides of this issue with the result that personal piety is being imposed on others. For instance, a few of the so-called “confessionals” (among whom I am sometimes counted) set up a straw man at the SID convention by implying that those who do not use the liturgies from our hymnals either aren’t truly Lutheran or are likely to stray from Lutheranism. The voters at the convention apparently noticed the straw man, along with other potential problems with the worship resolution, so they did not pass it. (This seems to suggest that even if they desire to do so, the “confessionals” are not able to force a certain approach to worship on the SID.)

    I fear that the blog post above may unintentionally set up similar straw men and inadvertently impugn the personal piety of some fellow Christians.
    For instance, regarding ashes, I am not aware of any pastors (although there may be some) who even silently in their minds make ashes a sign of Lutheran orthodoxy. I know at least one who is identified as “confessional”—William Cwirla—who argues strongly against the use of ashes. In most cases I do not know whether individual congregations—even those with whom I have frequent contact—do or don’t offer ashes, nor am I curious to find out. As the post rightly suggests, the piety of one individual or congregation should not be imposed on others (although we should certainly consider the implications that our practices have for those in sister congregations).

    The congregation that I serve offers an option for ashes on Ash Wednesday. There is no expectation or urging either for people to receive ashes or not receive them. So some in the congregation choose to receive ashes; others do not. Neither group seems to make any assumptions about the other. This works for our parish. However, I do not presume that this practice should be followed by others, because I do not know what will best serve the faith lives of God’s people in other congregations. Still, it appears to me that in some Lutheran congregations God's people are best served by not offering on Ash Wednesday.

    Which is to say I agree with what I think is your central point, Pr. Mitch, namely, that we should not impose a particular piety on another Lutheran Christian or congregation.

    Bruce Keseman

  3. This is part 2 of my response. If you missed the first part of the response, I strongly agree with what I take as the main point of the post, that is, piety should not be imposed on fellow Lutheran Christians or congregations. I do, however, have concerns with pieces of the post.

    Contrary to the thought that some are trying to be Orthodox or Catholic, I would argue that most Lutheran pastors are seeking to be Lutheran. The fact that some Lutherans share some practices in common with our Orthodox or Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ does not mean those Lutherans are seeking to become Orthodox or Catholic, just as the fact that some Lutherans share some practices in common with our Methodist, Baptist, or Church-Growth siblings in the faith does not mean those Lutherans are seeking to become Methodists, Baptists, or Church-Growthers. To suggest otherwise seems to be setting up the same straw man against the so-called confessionals that the “confessionals” sometimes set up against their fellow Lutheran pastors.

    The post indicates that most people in the pew do not desire ancient practices to be part of their worship today. That is no doubt true in some congregations; but it seems presumptuous to assume it is true of every congregation. Each congregation seems best equipped to determine what practices will best deliver Jesus to God’s people in that place.

    Finally (and readers are probably thinking, “It’s about time he get to the end of his comments!”), the note that some desire to go backward in time seems to imply that individual congregations and Christians must be unusual if they find ancient practices to be beneficial to a life of faith in Christ today. It is true that some Lutherans do not find some ancient practices to be useful. But others find many ancient practices very useful to their 21st Century faith. For instance, some Lutherans fold their hands for prayer, some make the sign of the cross, some kneel for communion, some come to private confession, some receive ashes, some bow at the name of Jesus, some like processions, some want fancy vestments on their pastors, some desire altars and pulpits and baptismal fonts in their churches. All of those are long-time practices among God’s redeemed people. And I think it is safe to say that most Lutherans continue to use one or more of those practices, meaning that most Lutherans find at least some ancient practices to be useful. We just don’t all find the same practices beneficial as we live with faith in Christ.

    As the post rightly and clearly points out, personal piety ought never be made a mark of one’s fidelity to Christ or to the Lutheran confessions. On that central point, I am in whole-hearted agreement with you, Pr. Mitch.

    Thank you for your post and for enduring my response.

    Bruce Keseman

  4. Thanks for the comments Bruce. Appreciate the opportunity to have someone respond to the ramblings that I have made.

    Straw men are set up in most arguments whether they are intended or not. And as you rightly point out, no matter where you fall on the conversation, it is often easy to knock down others straw men while wanting yours to remain intact.

    The feeling that I have is that it has felt (from my perspective, whether it is right or not, it is still a feeling that I have had) is that while we are willing to allow a variety of worship in our midst, those who practice what might be termed "high church" style of worship, have gained the upper hand in the SID and have made the sole form of worship at all said SID events (Convention, Pastor's Conferences, etc.). Since I came back to SID 3 years ago, that is the only style of worship that has been offered making those of us who are not so enamored with "high church" feel out of place. I would feel the same way with those that practice nothing but contemporary worship. If that was all that was being offered, I would feel much the same, that we are being force fed that style of worship. The style of worship that I greatly enjoy and appreciate, and which we use here at St. Paul's, falls inbetween those two ends of the spectrum. We don't chant. We don't process. We don't use extra liturgical vestments. We worship as has been part of my Lutheran experience for most of my 50 years of life. When it is brought up here about using one of the other forms, the people balk at it and express their desire to remain as they are.

    Having said that, I come from an area where if you were not in agreement (not this district thankfully) with the form of worship, it became all out war. You were attacked at each turn, made to feel less than Lutheran if you thought otherwise, were beaten down (not literally but theologically) until you either walked away, throwing your hands in the air and not going back or you gave in because you couldn't take it any longer.

    That is not what I want to have happen in the SID. I rejoiced to to return to SID. And I do not want it to become a place of extremes where people do not talk, do not work together and do not accept those who, while remaining confessionally Lutheran, practice and worship in another form. I desire to have our district remain open to one anther, conversing with one another and moving forward together.

    So in the end, Brother Bruce, your response gives me hope. For at least there is openness and honesty. I am sure that I will continue to rant, to express myself and to set up straw men in many places. At the same time, I will remain staunchly Lutheran, entirely confessional and decidely mid-church (not high church or contemporary).