I Don’t Want My Church to Grow

The title is an exaggeration. Or, more accurately, a lie. As a Lutheran pastor, I do want my church to grow. If you stripped away all the artifice and false humility and my saying what I think I should say and even trying to think what I should think: yes, I want my church to grow more than anything else.

A Reader's Guide to Bonhoeffer Biographies

When I teach Bonhoeffer seminars at my seminary, I enjoy shocking the students early on by expressing what can only come across as a contrarian’s opinion: “You know, Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot to kill Hitler was probably the least interesting thing about his life.” The students are generally aghast at this. Surely the romantic image of Bonhoeffer as the courageous Christian resister and martyr is too precious a treasure to diminish in this way? Well, I go on to explain, I say this because, as deeply inspiring as his courage and resistance are, for the contemporary church his theology is an even more exciting contribution…

St. Rosa Young

Rosa Jinsey Young is known as the mother of black Lutheranism in central Alabama, as she singlehandedly brought the Lutheran church to rural Alabama from 1916 onward, establishing churches and schools for underserved black children and families. Her ministry led to the founding of what is now known as Concordia College Alabama in Selma, the only historically black Lutheran college in the nation…

Review of "The Story of the Human Body" by Daniel Lieberman

If an evil super-genius plotted to breed a race of obese, feeble, heart-diseased diabetics, he could hardly do better than to re-create the consumer paradise of twenty-first-century America. From cradle to grave we pass our days largely immobile, gazing at screens and wiggling our fingertips. To fuel this inactivity we devour copious quantities highly processed food, maintaining our metabolisms on ceaseless alert. Our environments are so sanitized of dreaded biological pathogens that our understimulated immune systems attack our own bodies; while in car and home we knowingly inhale a miasma of certified carcinogens against which we have no defense. We bomb the rare infection with such antibiotic force that our indigenous micro-biomes are catastrophically reconfigured, setting off a cascade of ailments only beginning to be understood by science…

The Genesis and Purpose of Year D

The recent publication of the twentieth anniversary edition of the Revised Common Lectionary marks a milestone in ecumenical cooperation on matters liturgical, from which its numerous contributors may rightly derive both hope and satisfaction. For a good many church leaders and laity, the RCL is simply a delightful and enriching tool for exploring Scripture, inspiring mission, and marking time in the life of faith. Such a prolific level of institutionalization or “normalization,” however, begs certain cautions, especially when such usage becomes measurable in decades. The aim of this essay is to enumerate the primary concerns that underlie, give rise to, and in some cases form the main focal points of Year D, my proposed expansion of the lectionary…

Review of "Luther's Jews" by Thomas Kaufmann

This book is very painful to read. It is also absolutely necessary. “Luther’s attitude to the Jews, though it makes him incomprehensible, indeed unbearable, to people of our time, is very much of his time” (153). This in brief is Kaufmann’s thesis: that Luther’s anti-Judaism and premodern anti-Semitism is representative, not unique, of the sixteenth-century church—small consolation for Lutherans and Christians. At yet, at the same time, we see in Luther two polarities of thought that are so mutually opposed as to be fundamentally bewildering...

Triduum

In the garden—
amid the grappling
with anguish and silence
—a sound of sounds arising
as if from earth itself
scorning the tumult of the city.
Discern the sounds: mountain
goat bleating her birth; thump
of wild ass and ox; futile beating
of outstretched ostrich wings...

The Confessional Indifference to Altitude

It astounds me that, in the twenty-two years I have shared responsibility for the liturgical formation of seminarians, I have heard Lutherans invoke the terms “high church” and “low church” as if they actually describe with clarity ministerial positions regarding worship. It is assumed that I am “high church” because I teach worship and know how to fire up a censer. On occasion I hear acquaintances mutter vituperatively about “low church” types, apparently ecclesiological life forms not far removed from amoebae...

Review of "Confessing the Gospel"

This two-volume set had its genesis in 1983 under the leadership of the late Ralph Bohlmann, president of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod at that time. It was hoped that a new dogmatics text would build on the work of Franz Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics (Volume 2 published in German in 1917; Volume 3 in 1920; Volume 1 in 1924; and the whole set translated into English in the 1950s) while addressing more recent developments in both churchly and academic theology. Writers from the LCMS and its international partners were recruited to address doctrinal topics within their fields of expertise. It would take over thirty years for the project to be brought to publication...

Font to Table or Table to Font?

What was once viewed as a radical departure from the tradition is being practiced by more and more mainline Protestant congregations in an attempt to be radically hospitable to the 'outsider.' Inviting all who are present to come to the Lord’s Supper (as a matter of principle, as opposed to accidentally communing on occasion someone who is not baptized) is becoming a normative practice in some ELCA congregations...

The Certain Ambiguity of Catholicity

I am a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod because, like most Missouri-Synod Lutherans, it is the church body into which I was born. It is not all that surprising, even in this age of consumer-driven Christianity, that many folks still cling to the church of their birth. Inertia is a powerful thing. But why I continue to remain a part of this synod is more complex than simple inertia...

Where Have All the Women Gone?

When I was in seminary and later in graduate school, I couldn’t help but notice a seeming paradox: that I was about the most “orthodox” of the women students, but I had come from the most “liberal” background. I was staggered and somewhat disbelieving when women from “conservative” backgrounds related the kind of notions they’d been raised with. I had certainly never been told that my choice of clothing was the one thing standing between young men and sin, or between young men and rape. I had never been told that my chief duty in life was to submit to my husband. I had never been told that I was ontologically disqualified from speaking the word of God on account of my biological sex...

Review of "A Theology in Outline" by Robert W. Jenson

One encounters but rarely that exquisite simplicity which only a master of things immensely complex can produce. Such is this book. Robert W. Jenson has been a theological force to reckon with, in this country and abroad, within Lutheranism and without. His own masters have been the prophet Ezekiel, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth, and it’s hard to get very far in his writings without stumbling across some Hegel. One of his foremost projects has been the revision of inherited Greek metaphysics according to the contrary account of reality offered by the holy Scriptures. Thus you would not necessarily expect this man, elegant writer though he has always been, to be so accessible...

Reintroducing Candlemas

I love liturgy. The solemnity of ritual enchants me. I consider it a great gift that, in the midst of “the changes and chances of this life,” as the prayer puts it, liturgy can hold many images and themes in unresolved, creative tension. In an era of societal polarization, we need liturgy’s particular ability to present multivalent meanings, to invite us into a life shaped by both/and rather than either/or. Liturgy presents us with ever-new and renewing visions of ourselves and God. I love liturgy and I want others to love liturgy, too, because liturgy is about and directed to God. Liturgy proclaims the gospel...

Review of "Luther's Theology of Beauty" by Mark C. Mattes

When I finished my doctoral thesis on Luther’s Theology of Music I hoped that some more capable theologian would investigate the themes I had accidentally come across: Luther’s theology as a theology of beauty and pleasure. In his Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty, Mark C. Mattes has fulfilled my wish. His title does not indicate a distinct issue within Luther’s thinking, such as the role of art in Christian worship or more remote issues such as Luther’s artistic likings or aesthetic principles that may be traceable in his writings. Rather, Mattes’s study is an outline of Luther’s theology approached from the perspective of beauty...

The Third Use for Doves and Serpents

Recruitment, rather than “evangelism” or a “membership drive,” should attract people to the church as the body of Christ, trained for disciplined discipleship. Such an approach will draw attention to the reality of life as seen by the writers of the Lutheran Confessions—namely, that believers need the discipline of the law to survive the interim between the first and second coming of Christ. That is why the final part of the Lutheran Confessions, the Formula of Concord, speaks of a careful distinction between divine mandates (law) and promises (gospel). The crucial work of the law involves its several uses...

Your Lamps with Gladness Take

The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1–13 was one of the best-loved Bible stories in the Middle Ages and early modern period. In contemporary times, however, this parable is far less popular than it was for our forebears, and for a number of reasons...