As has been said in our journal, it often seems that the Matt Groenings of the world see shallowness, hypocrisy, and plain old stupidity in the church far clearer than many within its hallowed halls. For being shallow, hypocritical, and plain old stupid the church is justly pilloried, and no one in the church ought to cry foul. The Rev. Lovejoy of the Simpsons is a caricature, but not as over the top as some might first think, and just as he makes us laugh, so he should also make us scorn that which is similar in the church.
A convenient and highly visible forum for pillorying just about anything, including the church, is the bumper sticker. For a while my favorite bumper sticker read, “Come the Rapture: Can I have your car?” However, this was supplanted several years ago by: “Look busy, Jesus is coming!” There are even web sites devoted to the slogan (T-shirts and all).
When I saw that bumper sticker for the first time I thought about the holy busyness that pervades all too much of Lutheranism. “The busy church is a happy church!” my associate and I would joke while I was still in the Wisconsin Synod. Indeed, we served one very busy church. With some 600 parishioners and an eight grade school the social calendar was quite full. During the basketball season the gym became the sanctuary for the worshippers, for as more than one person observed, basketball was the chief religion of St. Pete’s, at least during the winter. In addition to a Lutheran day school we had a Lutheran area high school, a Lutheran camp, a Lutheran cemetery, a Lutheran men’s basketball league, Lutheran men’s and women’s softball leagues, a Lutheran nursing home, Lutheran insurance, and Lutheran Pioneers (they’re just like Boy Scouts except they’ve got red scarves). The problem with all this holy busyness was that precious little was Lutheran.* To be sure the care of the aged and the burial of the dead is our bounded duty, but these things are not unique to the gospel. They also happen among Muslims and the Hassidim. Defenders of all this holy hurrying would be quick to point out that learning how to run a ban saw at the Pioneer or Scout meeting beats manufacturing meth. However, this misses the point. The point is this: What is the Church? What is the essence and the ministry of the Church?
We ask further, “Is this holy busyness about Christ or about us? Is this about the gospel of the redemption of the world or is it about something else? Does this thing have any eternal value? In other words, will we still being doing this thing at the Feast of the Lamb?” To a large degree much of the stuff which passes for holy doing simply is not.
The pernicious thing about all this is that members of those parishes which don’t have something scheduled for every night of the month, or which formerly did but now are “dying” churches, feel guilty that they’re not doing something holy, which, when you think about it, is probably a good definition of pietism. However, one can hardly imagine Jesus being pleased that families are repeatedly pulled from their homes for doings at church, or that fathers and mothers come home at ungodly hours due to unnecessarily long church meetings, many of which were unnecessary in the first place. This is not to mention that one finds none of this in the picture of the church given us in the gospels or the Book of Acts. The Lord saw holy humbug for what it was. Far reaching evangelism efforts, he said, all too often made people twice the children of hell than they already were. (Mt 23:15) It was the smallest gift put into the Temple treasury, freely given by a widow, that moved Christ, not the gifts of the big givers (Mk 12:42). Rabbinic cell groups searched the scriptures for eternal life, but couldn’t find the One they testified about, the only one who could give them the life they sought. (Jn 5:39)
When one listens to the supporters of all this busyness, you get the impression that all these activities are the new sacraments of the church and not unfortunate distractions. We can be quite sure that these modern day distractions were not the situation in the first three centuries of the church’s history. Persecution serves to refine the church down to its very essence, ridding it of unneeded dross. That essence is Christ and his Body. It is Christ ministering to his church through the Office of the Holy Ministry at the Mass. It is the giving out of Christ’s gifts of grace through the preaching of the church, through its catechesis, and through its witness. It is the giving out of Christ in the blessed sacraments by which the people of God are born anew, absolved of their sins, and fed divinized flesh and blood, for true fellowship is not socializing in the fellowship hall, but the communion of saints at the sanctuary “together with angels and archangels”. The essence and ministry of the church is Christ carrying on his ministry of compassion to children and to this suffering world through his people as they go about their Christian vocations and practice Christian charity. Finally, it is the Holy Cross: suffering for the truth, witnessing declining membership as people seek golden calves elsewhere, and being reduced to nothing as the Lord refines each of us in his holy fires and we dribble into his holy, nail-scarred hands.
For a moment, let us return to the matter of Christian vocation. Just as the church gets sidetracked when it fails to understand its true essence, so confusion results when the church doesn’t understand Christian vocation. Therefore, in addition to determining the true essence and ministry of the church, it is essential that we understand what true Christian vocation is. And it’s not that everyone in the parish has a church job. That faulty thinking has led churches to create make-work church tasks so that everyone feels “a sense of ownership” of their overly busy congregations. One is reminded of the sainted Kurt Marquart’s great picture of “cadres of sheep” being galvanized for holy action. Not only is this pious busyness supposed to create a feeling of worth and belonging, it also holds out the promise of growth. The rationale is that the local congregation operates much like a cruise ship offering an array of things to do: something for everyone, an activity or group for a variety of tastes and interests. Do all this stuff and they will come! However, most of the “seekers” I’ve met at the church door over the years are the “weary and heavy-laden” of whom Jesus spoke, who want to lay down their burdens, rather than assuming unnecessary, man-made loads. If that doesn’t convince our busy holy rollers, then perhaps the criteria by which they judge truth should be held before them: success. Folks, it doesn’t work. Is anyone showing up for these gigs? Even when it does “work”, even when the people of the parish are having fun doing lots of extraneous stuff, or even when lots of people from the neighborhood show up for some gala, we need to remember that holy fluff is still fluff. After all, how many of these folks who poke their heads in the doors at the annual auction, or who enroll their children in the open-enrollment Lutheran school, or who attend the marriage enrichment seminar are keepers, that is, are led to the altar of the Lord to eat and to drink?
It’s not that there isn’t work to do around the church, but that much of what passes for church work has little or nothing to do with eternity. The things that need to get done around the church will get done, and the people of the church will develop their own social relationships. But this is not the heart of church life. If the Mass is the heart and life of the church, then true church work ought to have a relationship to the Mass. For example, a youth group can be comprised of the parish’s acolytes. Young girls can benefit from the company of the women of the church by helping to care for the sacred Eucharistic vessels and linens and doing charitable work. Why spend precious time rehashing things of dubious importance at interminable church meetings, especially when true Christian vocation outside the walls of the church demands most of a believer’s time?
“Every one a minister,” is a profound misunderstanding of Christian vocation. At the heart of the word vocation is the word voce or calling. The question is: “Where have you been called?” If you have a wedding band on your finger you have been called to be husband or wife, perhaps father or mother. That is often enough in itself. In addition to family, Christ’s laypeople also find their vocation in their places of employment, where they serve as model workers and as lights in dark places. Students are called to be Christian students. Widows are called to be Christian widows. Cancer patients are called to be patient Christians. Where are you right now? That’s probably your vocation. The issue, you see, is not where you wish you could be, or where you think you might feel more holy, feeling better about yourself, but where you are right now. Again, that’s probably your vocation, like it or not, exciting or mundane. Real Christian heroes are not those who go to a Promise Keeper’s revival where big sweaty men hug other sweaty men and promise to do what they never did nor can do; no, real heroes are that husband and wife who stay home night after dreary night in what will probably always be a crappy marriage and yet remain faithful nonetheless. Luther wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520):
Therefore I advise no one to enter any religious order or the priesthood, indeed, I advise everyone against it – unless he is forearmed with this knowledge and understands that the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone. (AE 36, p 78)
In other words, wiping running noses and dirty butts as an act of faith more than equals and surpasses all high profile manufactured church positions and trump being a non-ordained “Eucharistic minister” any day, for God ordained the former, not the latter.
However, the old Adam and the old Eve in each of us is not satisfied with this. They would seek to be more godly, just like God. That sounded like a good idea once upon a time. It turned out to be hell. Failing to learn is one of the many curses inherited by the fallen children of Adam and Eve, and so pious folks, often with the aid of misguided church leaders, have devised their own vocations. The “spiritual gifts inventory” conceived by the Church Growth movement sought to categorize godly action and give everyone a church job. Despite good intentions, a bastard was born. This kind of godliness has always been a bust. Luther sought a holier life cloistered in the monastery. In the end he merely dragged his worst enemy with him into his cell, and he only began to find respite from this enemy when his father confessor told him to find himself in the wounds of Christ. One modern day theologian has seen a resurgence of such seemingly pious thinking and dubbed it “neo-monasticism.”** “Keep your good deeds out of heaven,” Luther once said, “God doesn’t need them, but your neighbor does.” Luther once related this about his prior and father confessor in the monastery:
Dr. Staupitz….said to me on a certain occasion: “I have more than a thousand times lied to God that I would become godly and never did what I promised. Now I shall never again make up my mind to become godly; for I see that I cannot carry out my resolution. I shall never lie to God any more.” (The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, p 23)
As if all this busyness wasn’t bad enough add tackiness to the indictment, for it seems that promoters of busy spirituality gravitate toward slogans. Even though Saint Paul took the sloganeers of Corinth to task, leaving no prestige for himself, nor Apollos, nor Cephas, the promoters of holy doing do love those slogans. I recall that several decades ago a backwater synod with national aspirations had the proposed slogan, “Every State by ’68!” I don’t think that the bureaucratic goal was met as envisioned. Now, decades later in my new digs, we’re all ablaze. One Bible scholar has recently noted that when things are ablaze in the Bible it’s usually not a good thing, Pentecost notwithstanding. Indeed, as a lad I was taught that when ablaze one was to stop, drop, and roll.
I know that it’s easy to poke fun at bureaucratic tomfoolery, but there is something demonic which lies behind all this. It is this: A bureaucratic mistrust of the people of God and those who serve them in the Office of the Holy Ministry. Believe me, in every parish that I’ve served the laity had a great desire to lead family and friends to the altar of the Lord, and they didn’t need a program to tell them how. While confessional wanna-bees like this author get criticized for being indifferent toward “outreach”, I have found that lovers of the sacraments and the Liturgy are the most passionate evangelists for the gospel, not to mention that they have something of substance to offer their hearers beyond the latest shallow, sappy, contemporary trifle.
If slogans are all the rage, then let confessional types think up their own. Hey, how about this one: “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Ps 46:10) Be still, husbands and wives, and leave the “Friendship Sunday” committee meeting at 9:45 and go home and make love to your dear spouse, or at least fold that load of towels together. Be still, single Christian, and drop out of that Bible study led by your Evangelical neighbor and attend Matins (or complain to the head deacon that your church doesn’t have Matins during the week). Be still, invalid, you who moan that you have no vocation, for your vocation is allowing others to exercise their Christianity by serving you. Be still, young Christian, stop envying those who are more popular or are better looking than you are and note that most folks can’t remember too much about high school nor do they care to (it wasn’t that important). Be still, synod bureaucrat, we in the parish already have a program, it’s called the Mass.
Jesus is coming! But don’t worry it’s quite alright to look unbusy, weary and heavy laden, for that’s what you are.
Jesus is coming, get busy! Get busy getting yourself off to church, for Jesus is coming in the flesh for the weary and heavy laden at every Mass.
Jesus is coming, but don’t do anything. He’s coming to help you, let him do it all for you. For you see doing nothing is the most proper Eucharistic thanksgiving there is, for it lets God be God for you.
Look busy? I’ll pass, it’s the Lord’s Shabbat, I’ve received divine refreshment, I think I’ll sip a glass of Merlot and then take a nap. Ciao! §
*Te Deum Laudamus for the handful of truly Lutheran teachers who faithfully teach the pericopes, Catechism, and Lutheran hymnody. Unsung heroes they.
**This is not to say that there can’t be a true kind of monasticism. However, it must be freely entered and freely left, and it must not have human merit attached to it. One such monastery is Saint Augustine’s House in Oxford, Michigan. A lovely place! The only Lutheran monastery in North America. I’m thinking of signing up. Check it out at: www.staugustineshouse.org.