Monday, March 25, 2013

Fear and trembling...

Have you ever wanted something so much you could think of nothing else and yet be so very afraid of it at the same time?

When I put together the booklet on the Christian Book of Concord (BOC), I did so because I wanted others to receive from it the same joy as do I.  Because I wanted others to know that this amazing book of the pure doctrine was for them, not merely for seminary students and pastors.  I had had the idea for the booklet for a long while before actually putting it together, because so many people asked me how I started reading the BOC whenever I talked about it.  That whenever was rather often.  Part of the booklet asks the question why read the BOC.  I did not have the right words to answer what I thought and felt until I found them online.  Thus, I remain utterly grateful that Paul McCain allowed me to use his words as a part of answering that question.

The short answer is the three Ps:  Our Confessions, the texts which comprise the exposition of the pure doctrine, are Pastoral, Personal, and Practical.

Of course, the section answering that question is much, much, much longer.  However, it just occurred to me that all three aspects of why read the BOC are exemplified in a segment of one section of one document.  So, I thought I would share it ... again ... as I explained.

Today, I had the Lord's Supper.  It has been nine weeks.  First, I was so devastated by a loss, I could not bring myself to do anything, even go to church.  Then my father died.  Then, after returning from the grueling strain of traveling, I spent three weeks in bed and another two wishing I were.  When I could possibly go, Lent arrived and all the fear it holds for me.  Fear that was magnified by the fear and guilt I carry about participating in the service of my father's funeral.  Never mind that I did not understand it would be a service.  Never mind that I do not believe what was said, spoken, and sung.  Mind that I spoke and sang out of pressure of the moment and the place rather than remain silent or, better yet, leave a service that did not teach the true Gospel.

I stopped speaking or thinking about the passing weeks. I tried to speak about my fear from the service, but mostly I hid from it.  I did not speak at all about my fear of possible unbelief that strikes me so often of late.  So, when my pastor left a voice mail message for me about seeing how I was doing and entreating me to let him bring me the gifts of Christ last week, I could not think how to answer.  He did email me when he heard about my father's death, but I could not answer at the time.  As I eventually wrote in the email I sent last week, whether I wrote 10 words or 10,000 neither would be enough.

He took my email as an invitation and called me back ... in truth, the third call in the past nine weeks, the second in the past month.  I held the phone shaking from head to toe, trying to work up the courage to answer.  I finally did.  He arranged to come today.

As much as I wanted him to do so, I kept bouncing between the fear of possible unbelief and the fear and shame of participating in the service.  Mixed in between those are all the things I think and feel about my father's death.  When it started snowing late last night--rather unexpectedly to me--I started weeping.  Great big sobs wracked my body, the same as when I listened to him talk last week and as I talked back with him for a while.  That day, he asked me about the funeral, about the time with my family. He asked.  He actually asked and wanted to know.  My father's death was not something that came and went as it seems it has been for the rest of the world and the rest of those in my life.  As I sobbed, I thought that my sin is so great that God sent a Spring snowstorm just to keep me from receiving the Lord's Supper.

When my pastor emailed this morning that he was still coming--a reply to my offer for him to choose safety over my desiring the Gospel--I started weeping again.  It is hard to admit to yourself that you were hoping the snow would have barred the way.  This wild, fierce battle of tug-of-war waged within me and I was not sure which side I wanted to win.

After entering, my pastor reached out his hand toward Amos.  Even as I protested, struggling to get the words out about how that scares Amos and he might bark and nip at the hand, my fluffy white beast wagged his tail and leaned into his hand.  I was shocked.

Once settled on the couch, my pastor asked some sort of question as he set out the elements for the Lord's supper.  I spent far, far too long answering whatever he asked (I do not remember), my eyes both drawn to and avoiding the wine and bread.  When it looked like he was wending the conversation back to the purpose of his visit, out spilled my first fear.

Then another.
And another.

Mostly, we got to the point of him wanting to give me the Lord's Supper and my insisting he shouldn't.  Mostly, I thought he wasn't listening to the fears I was speaking.  Mostly, he was trying to tell me he heard me and still believed it was good, right, and salutary for us to start the Divine Service ... Setting Three for me.

Do you believe God has a sense of humor?  I do. I could quote you chapter and verse examples that I believe give glimpses of that. However, instead I would ask, were you to respond in the negative, how in the world could the Creator not laugh with His creation, how could the Father not chuckle at the antics of His child?

Before even His blood passed down my throat, all that fear was gone.  If I were not truly worried my pastor might be overly concerned about my mental state to the point of calling for help, I would have burst into laughter as soon as I finished swallowing.  Chuckled really.  To me, it was as if Jesus punched me in the shoulder and chided, "Myrtle, why must you struggle so?  How could you think I mean you not to have My peace?  Silly wench!"

Of course, in between my listing each and every fear ten times over and then receiving the Lord's Supper, my pastor read the Gospel for Friday (when he is preaching next), which comes from Matthew 27.  Now, I am not sure which is more heady: 1) a pastor speaking Absolution with your very name stuck in with the Words "I forgive you"; 2) a pastor bringing the Lord's Supper to your bedside (literally and figuratively); or 3) a pastor reading the Living Word and then proceeding to preach exactly and specifically how that Word is for you with your very name stuck in with the Words.

Two of the reasons the Living Word was for me are comfort reasons that I am sure you could figure out yourself should you pick up the Bible and read the chapter.  The third reason, though, was wild and wonderful.  You see, he pointed out how when Jesus was suffering on the cross, the onlookers declared that the way to prove He was the Son of God was for Him to leave the cross and save Himself.  Yet after Christ died, the onlookers declared that He was the Son of God.  The proof wasn't in the living, but the dying.  And rising again, of course.  But Jesus could not rise from the dead unless He actually died.

The proof I have, then, that I am the daughter of the Son of God is not in my living, but in my dying.  I died with Him in the waters of Holy Baptism.  I died with Him each and every time He puts His very body and very blood into mine.  In both Sacraments I am joined in His death, which came from His living ... not mine.

I cannot write sensibly about my father's service.  Though washed clean this afternoon, I still struggle with the thought that I gave a witness of agreement or condoned the twisting of the Living Word that took place that day.  I can write about my struggle of wondering if I am speaking/acting/living unbelief.

Sometimes, my whole being screams that Jesus is not enough.  Six hours into the throes of innards writhing and all I want is someone there.  All I want is to not be alone.  Were you listening, you would surely tell me that I am not alone.  Jesus is with me.  I know that.  I do.  But Jesus is not enough.  He is not bodily there/here.  I look and see and taste and touch and feel alone.  [Well, aside from Amos.]

When I was weeping and trembling in the doctor's office, I wanted to not be alone. I wanted someone there to sit beside me, maybe even hold my hand.  I wanted someone to drive me so that I was not alone in the car, fore and aft, battling all my fear and shame.  I wanted someone to remind me true things when all I could think of was not true things.

I want someone to take me shopping or to fetch something for me.  I want someone to change the bedding.  I want someone to walk Amos.  I want someone to eat a meal with me.  I want someone to carry in bundles of wood.  I want someone to shovel the sidewalks.  I want someone to read the Living Word to me and someone to sing hymns to me and someone to talk about the BOC with me.  I want someone to pray with me.

I want to not be so alone.  And in those moments of deep longing I think that Jesus should be enough but is not.  I want Him to be.  I do.  But I think in my head and in my heart that He is not.

Despite my certitude that speaking such out loud would surely bar me from the altar, my pastor said ... many times over ... that he did not hear me speaking unbelief.  He heard me speaking pain and fear and weariness.  Jesus understands those things.  He even understands being alone.  That was part of Matthew 27 ... the reminder that Jesus was alone on the cross, both literally and figuratively when God turned away from the sin His Son bore.

So, still very much wracked by fear and trembling, I stopped obstructing the proceeding of the Divine Service and received forgiveness and peace.  Great peace.

No, I am not instantly free of all fear, but the fear of the Lord's Supper and my possible unbelief, was instantly gone.  At least for now.

This leads me to the pastoral and practical and personal aspect of the BOC.  In a way, even as I try to show you, I cannot truly isolate each passage and assign it a single category.  They are all in there. If you are old enough to get the reference, it is easiest to say that the BOC is Prego.

But if you say, "How can I come if I feel that I am not prepared?"  Answer, "That is also my cause for hesitation, especially because of the old way under the pope."  At that time we tortured ourselves to be so perfectly pure that God could not find the least blemish in us.  For this reason we became so timid that we were all instantly thrown into fear and said to ourselves, "Alas! we are unworthy!"  Then nature and reason begin to add up our unworthiness in comparison with the great and precious good. Then our good looks like a dark lantern in contrast with the bright sun, or like filth in comparison with precious stones. Because nature and reason see this, they refuse to approach and wait until they are prepared. They wait so long that one week trails into another, and half the year into the other. If you consider how good and pure you are and labor to have no hesitations, you would never approach.

Therefore, we must make a distinction here between people. Those who are lewd and morally loose must be told to stay away. They are not prepared to receive forgiveness of sin, since they do not desire it and do not wish to be godly. But the others, who are not such callous and wicked people, and who desire to be godly, must not absent themselves. This is true even though otherwise they are feeble and full of infirmities. For St. Hilary also has said, “If anyone has not committed sin for which he can rightly be put out of the congregation and be considered no Christian, he ought not to stay away from the Sacrament, let he deprive himself of life.” No one will live so well that he will not have many daily weaknesses in flesh and blood.

Such people must learn that it is the highest art to know that our Sacrament does not depend on our worthiness. We are not baptized because we are worthy and holy. Nor do we go to Confession because we are pure and without sin. On the contrary, we go because we are poor, miserable people. We go exactly because we are unworthy. This is true unless we are talking about someone who desires no grace and Absolution nor intends to change.

But whoever would gladly receive grace and comfort should drive himself and allow no one to frighten him away. Say, "I, indeed, would like to be worthy. But I come, not upon any worthiness, but upon Your Word, because You have commanded it. I come as one who would gladly be Your disciple, no matter what becomes of my worthiness." This is difficult. We always have this obstacle and hindrance to encounter: we look more upon ourselves than upon Christ's Word and lips. For human nature desires to action in such a way that it can stand and rest firmly on itself. Otherwise, it refuses to approach. 
 ~BOC, LC, V, 55-63 [emphasis mine]

So, well, all three are surely there.  Practically speaking, if you look upon your sin, you will be fearful of approaching Christ's body and blood.  Practically speaking, your nature will drive you to do so no matter what you desire.  Practically speaking, Luther gives answers to the questions that trouble you, specific answers that you can say aloud and not have to think up for yourself. 

Personally, not only do I and have I done so, Luther tells me that doing so is not unusual, that I am not alone in such struggles.  I am not alone in days turning into weeks and more.  

From a pastoral stand point, I learn that thinking such is precisely why I am worthy to approach the altar.  My looking upon my worthiness smites me, burdens me, shackles me, but it also underscores the truth that Christ's worthiness is the sole worthiness that is of consideration in who might be worthy to approach the altar and receive the Lord's Supper.  I am a sinner.  I am a saint.  This side of the veil, I will remain both.

Once again Psalm 91 resonates within me.  Once again, I am reminded of the pinions beneath which I seek refuge.  

In that single passage of Part V, my point, McCain's point, about why one should read our Confessions is made, but there are so very many lovely other bits in Part V.  

Here [the Lord's Supper] He offers to us the entire treasure that He has brought for us from heaven. With the greatest kindness He invites us to receive it also in other places, like when He says in St. Matthew 11:38, "Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." It is surely a sin and a shame that He so cordially and faithfully summons and encourages us to receive our highest and greatest good, yet we act so distantly toward it. We permit so long a time to pass without partaking of the Sacrament that we grow quiet cold and hardened, so that we have no longing or love for it. We must never think of the Sacrament as something harmful from which we had better flee, but as a pure, wholesome, comforting remedy that grants salvation and comfort. It will cure you and give you life both in soul and body. For where the soul has recovered, the body is also relieved. ~BOC, LC, V, 66-68 [emphasis mine]

See all those Myrtle thoughts in there??  A recognition of struggle and burdens.  A longing for peace and a fleeing from it.

For Christ Himself says, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." Because of your distress this command, invitation, and promise are given.  This ought to move you. He means those who are weary and heavy-laden with their sins, with the fear of death, temptations of the flesh, and of the devil. If, therefore, you are heavy laden and feel your weakness, then go joyfully to this Sacrament and receive refreshment, comfort, and strength.  ~BOC, LC, V, 71-73 [emphasis mine]

Christ come for those precisely like me.  
Christ gave the Sacrament for those precisely like me.  
Christ knows and understands and so instituted.

He commands.
He invites.
He promises.

With God's grace, you may feel your misery more and become hungrier for the Sacrament, especially since the devil doubles his force against you. He lies in wait for you without resting so that he can seize and destroy you, soul and body. You are not safe from him for one hour. How soon he can have you brought suddenly into misery and distress when you least expect it! ~BOC, LC, V, 84

Even our foe knows this.  Even he.  And in so knowing will fight you every step of the way, deepening the shadows of all the dark places within your heart and mind, hoping to blind you from the Light.

On this account it is indeed called a food of souls, which nourishes and strengthens the new man. For by Baptism we are first born anew. But, as we have said before, there still remains the old vicious nature of flesh and blood in mankind. There are so many hindrances and temptations of the devil and of the world that we often become weary and faint, and sometimes we also stumble.

Therefore, the Sacrament is given as a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself so that it will not fall back in such a battle, but become ever stronger and stronger. The new life must be guided so that it continually increases and progresses. But it must suffer much opposition. For the devil is such a furious enemy. When he sees that we oppose him and attack the old man, and that he cannot topple us over by force, he prowls and moves about on all sides. He tries every trick and does not stop until he finally wears us out, so that we either renounce our faith or throw up our hands and put up our feet, becoming indifferent or impatient. Now to this purpose the comfort of the Sacrament is given when the heart feels that the burden is becoming too heavy, so that it may gain here new power and refreshment.
~BOC, LC, V, 24-27

As I have said many times, I personally believe that parts IV and V are love letters from Jesus to man, penned through the hands of Luther.  Every reason you come up with to doubt and struggle against the Sacraments, Christ renders moot.  You are taunted by your enemy and He gives you the words and Words to speak in retort.  You are shackled and He gives you the key to the lock.  You are bloodied and beaten and He cleans and binds your wounds, healing you with His forgiveness, sustaining your body with His own.

Even more compelling as to why is that the riches of the Lord's Supper, for example, are woven throughout the texts.  We are not given just one way of explaining or showing or teaching.  We are given many. The Augsburg Confession, the Apology, and the Smalcald Articles all have their comforts, their consolation.  And some of the richest of all lies in the Formula Solid Declaration:

It must be carefully explained who the unworthy guests of this Supper are. They are those who go to this Sacrament without true repentance and sorrow for their sins, without true faith and the good intention of amending their lives. By their unworthy oral eating of Christ's body, they load themselves with damnation (i.e., with temporal and eternal punishments) and become guilty of profaning Christ's body and blood.

Some Christians have a weak faith and are shy, troubled, and heartily terrified because of the great number of their sins. They think that in their great impurity they are not worthy of this precious treasure and Christ's benefits. They feel their weakness of faith and lament it, and from their hearts desire that they may serve God with stronger, more joyful faith and pure obedience. These are the true worthy guests for whom this highly venerable Sacrament has been especially instituted and appointed. For Christ says:

Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. (Matthew 9:12)

[God's] power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him; ... for God has welcomed him. (Romans 14:1-3)

Whoever believes in [the Son of God, be it with a strong or with a weak faith] may have eternal life. (John 3:15)

Worthiness does not depend on the greatness or smallness, the weakness or strength of faith. Instead it depends on Christ's merit, which the distressed father of little faith enjoyed as well as Abraham, Paul, and others who have a joyful and strong faith.
~BOC, FSD, VII, 68-71


It is not our faith that makes the Sacrament, but only the true Word and institution of our almighty God and Savior, Jesus Christ. His Word always is and remains effective in the Christian Church. It is not invalidated or rendered ineffective by the worthiness or unworthiness of the minister, nor by the unbelief of the one who receives it. This is just like the Gospel. Even though godless hearers do not believe it, the Gospel is and remains nonetheless the true Gospel, only it does not work for salvation in the unbelieving. So whether those who receive the Sacrament believe or do not believe, Christ remains nonetheless true in His words when He says, "Take, eat; this is My body." He makes Himself present not by our faith, but by His almighty power. ~BOC, FSD, VII, 89

Ah, the certitude! 
It is not our faith. 
The struggle is known, even expected.
Those weak in faith are welcome.

Fully.  Heartily.  Always.

Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief!

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