Category Archives: Christian care

5 Tips To Keep In Mind When Visiting A Lutheran Church

 OCTOBER 24, 2022 BY GENE VEITH

When my wife and I first attended a Lutheran service, we were impressed with how formal it was, a far cry from what we were used to in the mainline Protestant denominations we grew up in and in the evangelical congregations we attended in college.  So we came back next week, only to find both the congregation and the pastor chanting.  We thought we had been transported back to the Middle Ages.

It turns out, that first service we attended was the one informal service that was held on months with five Sundays.  We came to learn that when Lutherans try to be informal–or, more recently, contemporary–they are still more formal and less contemporary than just about anyone else.  But the definitive Lutheran worship, which we learned to treasure, is to be found in what they call the “Divine Service,” which is called that because in it, Lutherans believe, God serves us.

Patheos has asked its writers to respond to some of the most frequent questions about the various religious traditions that they receive.  What most puzzles Patheos readers about Lutheranism is its worship.  They wonder what they need to know in order to understand what is going on.  Specifically, as the Patheos editors summarize the inquiries, “What should I keep in mind when visiting a Lutheran church?”  So it falls to me to try to explain.

What follows is an account of the traditional Divine Service, which can be dressed up or down, made more elaborate or more simple.  Even contemporary Lutheran services will tend to have the same structure and most of the same elements–from the confession and absolution to the Law & Gospel sermons–so that what I describe here, except for what I say about music, will mostly still apply.

Lutheran worship service

(1)  The Liturgy Consists Mostly of Words from Scripture

The first reaction of many visitors is, “This is Catholic!”  Or, “This is too Catholic!”  Yes, the liturgy goes way back through church history and is similar to that of Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and, among Protestants, Anglicans, whose Book of Common Prayer was greatly influenced by Lutheranism.

But the Lutheran liturgy also shows forth the principles of the Reformation.  Luther wanted to reform the church, not start a new one.  Later Protestants would want to start, more or less, from scratch, but the work of “reforming” means changing what is problematic, but leaving what is good.  For Luther, everything that pointed away from Christ and the Gospel should be eliminated, but what does point to Christ and the Gospel should be retained.

So the Lutheran liturgy leaves out elements in the Catholic mass such as praying for the dead and invoking the saints.  But it retains the overall structure and the ancient liturgical set-pieces, such as the Kyrie (“Lord have mercy. . .”) and the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”).  In fact, those set pieces and nearly all of the responses of the congregation are taken straight from the Bible.  When someone objects to our liturgy, I ask, “Which words of God do you think we shouldn’t say?”

The sanctuary will also demonstrate the Reformation principle of retaining elements that point to Christ.  There will typically be quite a bit of art in the sanctuary.  Lots of crosses.  That will include pictures of Jesus and other representational art.  This is not idolatry, since that means worshiping false gods and Jesus is the true God, who came as a visible, tangible human being discernible by the senses (1 John 1:1).  Lots of crucifixes, depicting Jesus on the cross.  Some Christians say that one should only use empty crosses because Jesus isn’t on the cross any more–He rose!  Well, Lutherans certainly believe in His Resurrection (and also have empty crosses), but we need to keep a constant focus on “Christ crucified”  (1 Corinthians 2:1 and 2 Corinthians 1:2), upon which which our salvation is based and which Lutherans apply in a host of ways in their “theology of the Cross.”

(2)  Chanting Lets Us Sing Prose, Such as Texts from Scripture

The Divine Service is mostly chanted by both the pastor and the congregation.  This may be the aspect that seems the most “Catholic” or “Medieval” or just unusual to visitors.  But chanting, with its flexible meter and flowing melodic line, is simply the way that a person can sing prose.

Most of our songs today–whether hymns or raps–are metrical, with fixed patterns of rhythm and rhyme.  That is to say, they put music to poems.  But it is also possible to sing any sequence of words.  That requires music that flows along with the pattern of speech.  This is what chanting is.

Some of my friends who are Reformed (a term Lutherans never use for themselves), belong to Psalms-only congregations.  Using their principle that Christians may only do what the Bible specifies (while Lutherans believe they are free to do whatever the Bible does not forbid), they do not sing hymns, just Psalms.  But what they sing are really metrical paraphrases of the Psalms, forced onto the Procrustean bed of meter and rhyme.  But we Lutherans sing the Psalms right out of the Bible by chanting them.

Lutherans do sing hymns that will be familiar to most visitors, including some of those metrical Psalms, drawing on the vast and varied musical heritage of the church universal.  Perhaps stranger to some visitors’ ears are the hymns from the Lutheran tradition, particularly those from the 16th and 17th century, often in the baroque style of vivid imagery and achingly beautiful, but complex, music.

(3)  The Pastor Will Forgive Your Sins

What most puts off quite a few visitors is at the beginning of the service when the members of the congregation confess their sins, first reflecting silently and then reading a prayer of repentance, after which the pastor says this or something like it:

Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of the Word I announce the grace of God to all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I forgive you?” some say. “The pastor can’t forgive sins!  Only Jesus can do that!”  Well, right, only Jesus can forgive sins.  But Lutherans believe that God works through human beings.  That is the doctrine of vocation.  Notice the wording:  “As a called and ordained servant of the Word.”  “Called” refers to vocation, which is simply the Latinate word for “calling.”  God forgives sins through pastors, just as He gives us our daily bread through farmers and creates new life through mothers and fathers.  The basis of the pastor’s forgiveness, also known as “absolution,” is “the grace of God to all of you” and the fact that He “has given His Son to die for you.”   (Lutherans reject the Reformed doctrine of Limited Atonement, so all have access to this grace and atonement.)

And the Scriptural warrant for human beings forgiving sins is pretty explicit.  After His resurrection, Jesus breathes on His disciples, saying,“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23).

(4)  You Will Hear a Law and Gospel Sermon

The sermon may also be different from what you are used to.  There will be no politics, no pop psychology, no Biblical principles for successful living.  (Lutheranism, with its theology of cross-bearing, is pretty much the opposite of the Prosperity Gospel.)  The sermon will be based on one or more of the three Bible readings (an Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel reading as determined by the Lectionary, a plan for Scripture reading tied to the church year), but it will be handled in terms of the distinct Lutheran hermeneutic and preaching paradigm of Law and Gospel.

The moral law in the Scripture will be proclaimed, but in a way that precludes self-righteousness.  Listeners will be persuaded that they do not, in fact, obey God’s Law, with its multiple ramifications, and that they are in sore need of repentance.  Whereupon the sermon will move to a proclamation of the Gospel, namely, that Christ has fulfilled this law on our behalf and has paid the penalty that we deserve for breaking it with His atoning death and resurrection. When we know that we are sinners and cannot save ourselves and believe that Jesus has died for us and offers us new life, we have saving faith, which, in turn, bears the fruit of love for our neighbors.

This is not “cheap grace” the pastor is teaching.  A skillful preacher can really make you feel guilty, which tempers our bad behavior.  And, by preaching the Gospel, he really make you feel free.  Lutherans speak of three uses of the Law:  the first, the civil use, is to restrain our external sinful proclivities; the second, the theological use, is to convict us of sin and drive us to the Gospel; and the third, the didactic use, is to teach Christians how to live in order to please God, which, motivated by gratitude, they now desire to do.

You will find no altar call in a Lutheran sermon.  Coming to faith is not a one-time decision.  Rather, the pattern of repentance and faith is repeated throughout the Christian’s life, and is enacted throughout the Divine Service.  The point at which you objectively became a Christian is when you were Baptized, even as an infant, a purely passive experience in which God called you by name and gave you the gift of the Holy Spirit.  But, just as that infant must be fed, be taught, and grow, the baptized Christian must be fed and taught and grow by means of the Word and Sacraments.  Otherwise, faith will die.

(5)  You Must be Catechized Before You Go Up for Communion.

If you are a visitor to a Lutheran church, observe what is happening and, if you want, go up for a blessing.  (Bow and cross your arms when the pastor comes your way.)  But if you are not a Lutheran and if the pastor doesn’t know you, you should refrain from taking the consecrated bread and wine.  The liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) would probably let you, but the more conservative Lutheran Church  Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Evangelical Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and smaller and independent church bodies practice “closed communion.”  Sometimes this is phrased as “close” communion, meaning that those who commune together should be close to each other as in being part of the same congregation or church body, but it means the same, that the altar is “closed” to those who have not been catechized and confirmed in the host church, its denomination, or a denomination with which it is in formal fellowship.

Please, please, do not be insulted, as many visitors are.  Lutherans are not denying that you are a Christian.  Anyone, of any denomination or non-denomination, who confesses faith in Christ is considered to be a Christian, and Lutherans do accept all Baptisms, of whatever mode or at whatever age.  It’s just that Lutherans hold to the Biblical teaching that no one should receive the Lord’s Supper without examining oneself and without “discerning the body” (1 Corinthians 11:28-29).

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“Discerning the body,” of course, means different things to different theologies. Catholics believe the bread is transubstantiated into the Body of Christ and so is no longer bread; Calvinists believe in a spiritual presence that depends on the faith of the person receiving it; most Protestants, again, hold it be merely symbolic.  But Lutherans believe that the body and blood of Christ are really present in, with, and under the bread and wine.  More than that, Christ gives His body and His blood in these physical elements “for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28).  Evangelicals speak of “receiving Christ” at their conversion.  Lutherans believe they “receive Christ” every time they take Holy Communion.

Some say that “discerning the body” refers not to the bread and wine of Holy Communion, but to the Body of Christ that is the Church.  Well, fine, and maybe it refers to both, since the two senses are intimately connected.  But that too is an argument for “closed” or “close” communion, since it requires awareness of those with whom you are communing.

Catholics and the Orthodox also practice closed communion, in line with their similarly high view of the Sacrament.  I have had occasions—weddings and funerals—to attend a Catholic mass, but it never bothered me that I couldn’t take communion. I didn’t want to. If I presented myself for communion, I would be participating with a church body that I don’t belong to and that I don’t agree with.  This is also why most Lutherans won’t commune at other churches that practice “open” communion.  It’s a matter of respecting differences.  And this respect can co-exist with a spirit of welcome and good-will.

So, please, visitors, know that you are welcome to a Lutheran service and don’t let our quirks be an obstacle.  I think you will appreciate, as my wife and I did, the sense of transcendence and holiness that we found there.

If you would like to learn more about Lutheranism, read the book that I wrote on that subject, The Spirituality of the Cross:  The Way of the First Evangelicals; talk to a pastor; and visit the Divine Service.

Baptism now saves you

1 Peter 3:20-21 English Standard Version (ESV)

 

20 because[a] they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
 Make this statement on line; “Baptism saves you”, the response will be immediate, “no it doesn’t”. The respondent never really says what does. Of course those who make their “decision” to “accept” Christ. Well just how magnanimous and smurfy of them. Because of course Jesus is waiting there just begging them to accept them, just hoping that they will be so kind as to accept Him so that He can then be their gini in a bottle.
Baptism saves you. You are led to church to be baptized. It is your sign that God has accepted you, that you are now born again in Jesus Christ, that you are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has become the Lord of your life through baptism, in His church, through His chosen minister. Not the concierge of your life.
For those self-appointed arbiters, who are basically taking direction from others that are more cheer-leaders and entertainers than Bible scholars, back up and really understand what you’re saying. You want to be baptized, as soon as possible. You want to be given that new life in Christ. You want that it is entirely God’s call and not yours. Why? Because when it’s God’s call, God’s action, God’s result, you know that it’s completely true and will not fail. When you presume to “decide”, “accept”, “make”, you look back after awhile and begin to think “did that really happen?” “did I do it right, right time, right way…” You don’t have any assurance, you just have continued doubt.
When someone comes to the altar at a, real, Lutheran Church, be they 8 hours, 8 days, 18 or 80 years old and are presented for baptism and baptized by a Christian minister, they know it was nothing about them and all about God. They are saved! Can they mess it up, can they reject and lose that salvation? Sure. But then they know it’s all about them and nothing about Jesus. Jesus did all that was necessary to save them. If they reject that, or presume on that, then it’s entirely on them.

Suicide, please, please don’t

For the suicide prevention hot line Call 800-273-8255 or you can Text 273TALK to 839863

This has been pushing on me for a while now. As a police chaplain I have had to minister to the families of a total of 4 suicides, 3 in the last 4 months. In addition it seems as though it comes up over and over. I get it, I really do. There are times when it just seems really hopeless.

As a police chaplain I have a very unique perspective in regard to a suicide. I spent 29 years in the Coast Guard, I’ve had to deal with death in so many forms. The difference between an accidental death, a person who dies after a long and loving life and the person who chooses to end their end life is enormous.

The scene of a suicide and yes that includes things like heroin overdoses, which I’ve also had my share of, is absolutely horrific. A Christian man or woman who’s had a good life, surrounded by family, friends, with the promise of Christ, the promise of new life in the resurrection, I’m not going to say it’s pleasant, it’s not, but there is an entirely different atmosphere. It’s been a good life (and that doesn’t mean it has to be great or without difficulties, every life has difficulties). The person was faithful, they lived their life guided by the Holy Spirit, I can tell the people there, there’s no doubt that person is in the presence of the Lord.

The horrific contrast to that is the death of someone who committed suicide. I’m not going to name names, or do anything that would violate the seal of the confessional (ever, God willing), but I can speak in generalities and there is nothing whatsoever pleasant or this goofy romanticism that has crept into the subject of suicide. It’s horrible. You either have a very few, sometimes 1 or 2 people survivors, and all of a sudden they have to deal with this horrific scene, that someone they cared for, in their household, took their own life. Have you ever dealt with someone who died violently? I doubt you have. Why on earth would you want to inflict that on someone, anyone, especially a member of your family? I’m not going to be graphic about it, frankly I just can’t bring myself to do it. But if you have some goofy idea that it’s somehow like in the funeral home the person who has died is in this pristine setting, you are just so horribly wrong. Finding someone who just committed suicide is a devastatingly traumatic impact on that person. They will never forget the scene they had to deal with. You want to talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? There you have it. Use your own imagination who is it that might find you? Do you really want to inflict that on that person?  I will answer that for you. No matter how much you may want to hurt, push back, punish someone, if you knew the actual result, you wouldn’t do this to your worst enemy. Trust me you just wouldn’t.

There are so many better ways to move on in your life, there really are, please let me or someone you trust help you. I know I’m going to get this pooh-pooh thing from people, “what do you know Jim?” But there is one thing I can offer to you. We do have one God, the only God, God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Despite the other opinions and other uninformed or others unthought out talk (and that’s just what it is), God the Father of Jesus, true God, really does love you and really wants the best for you and does not want you to hurt yourself. He made you, He really wants what is best for you. Unlike other beliefs, suicide as a Christian is never acceptable. The only exception is, as Jesus did, you genuinely directly sacrifice yourself to save another. If you’re a firefighter and rush into a house to save someone, if you throw yourself on a grenade to keep others from being killed, if you sacrifice your life to give birth (either in terms of how your life will change, or literally) then that is commendable, it is not suicide. Jesus said  ESV John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” Jesus laid down His life for all of us to give us the assurance of forgiveness and eternal life. Unless you can justify hurting yourself in terms of actually, physically protecting another don’t. Please I really am begging you, don’t.

The surviving person(s) has now been handed a whole, incredible, devastating  traumatic situation that they are always, just not capable of handling. When I say that, I mean handling on so many levels. The guilt is usually devastating. You have people who are just crushed that they could have done something to prevent this. You know they couldn’t have, but they are going to feel that way and they are going to feel that way for an awfully long time, often their entire life. That person’s world has just fallen in because of this. All of a sudden they have to deal with police, coroner, funeral home and quite often they do it all by themselves or with close family. Other deaths, people will jump to serve those who have had a loved one die. Suicide? People are going to avoid helping and even in the future, discussing it with the survivors. It is still just a horrible thing to have to deal with, especially if you don’t have to, it’s not their chaos to deal with. That may be cold-hearted, but imagine if someone you knew committed suicide? You’re just not going to want to get involved. Let’s face it in today’s world, people aren’t going to get involved if they don’t have to especially under these circumstances.

As a police chaplain I’ve been called in to temporarily minister to a survivor(s). I try to with all my heart. As best I can I try to empathize with the pain of that parent, spouse, brother, sister, child. In addition to everything else they are thinking: “What is my future going to be without my husband or my parent or child? If I depend on this person, how is my world going to change?” As best as I can, I know in my heart I can’t begin to reach the depth of grief, guilt and other emotions crashing in on that person. But I also have to help this person deal with this catastrophic, unanticipated situation in another way. The reality is that the remains of a human being are in their home. They have to make a decision then and there what will be done with that person. In a lot of cases, especially when it’s someone who is young, that person hasn’t made any arrangements for their death. I have to help them figure out in a very short time how this will be handled, how this will be paid for, what has to happen in the next few days. Again why would anyone cause this to be inflicted on another person? But all of a sudden they have to make decisions like this and usually they are completely unprepared and very afraid.

I’m not some kind of expert, I’m not trying to play God, I never want to have to deal with this situation again as long as I live. All I can tell you is the immediate result of someone taking their life has incredibly traumatic effect on people who I’m sure you never intended to hurt, but they will suffer incredibly if you hurt yourself.

I have had this discussion with other concerned people, we all agree if someone came to us and said suicide was on their mind, they would drop whatever they were doing and jump through hoops to help you. I’m the pastor of First Saint Johns Church in downtown York. You can stop and visit, 140 W King St. the phone number is 717.843.8597  I will jump through hoops to do what I can. Yea, ok, it may be awkward, embarrassing, uncomfortable, but it just is nothing compared to the way it would be if you did kill yourself. You may doubt it at times, but God really does love you. He created you, He has kept you going, and He has a great promise of true life for you that Jesus died for you, so that you won’t have to suffer. I get it, life can be tough, it can be really unpleasant, you can go through a lot of needless grief. Believe it or not, I truly understand. But God is there for you. He’s given you people like me as a trained, experienced pastor to help you. He gives you great brothers and sisters in Jesus who can also help you, THEY WANT TO HELP YOU! Don’t believe it? Try me! 

As I’ve said I have had to deal with the devastation suicide can cause for people you really do care about. You really don’t want to do that. Please, there are so many people who really do want to help you work through things, please let them do it. Years from now you will look back and praise and thank God that He gave you people who were there for you. But don’t pull away, don’t isolate yourself. People do pull away from those who can help, it’s not smart, it’s not healthy, it just won’t help. I hear the bitter, fist waving all the time. Are other people at fault at times that hurt you? Yes, there are. It happens to people all the time. Do you really want to inflict that hurt and pain on others who would have done anything they could to help you? Who have been there for you? Despite everything, you know that there are people who do want to help you, to make sure you’re safe? Please let them do that, I really am begging you from my heart. I want to meet and talk with you, I don’t want to meet your grieving relatives. Please take time, pray, really reach out to God, let Him comfort you and then get hold of me, or any of the many people you know who would want to be there for you. May God strengthen, bless and comfort you in Jesus.

SUICIDE WARNING SIGNS

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves.
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun.
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
  • Talking about being a burden to others.
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves.
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

link for “Lines for Life”   https://www.linesforlife.org/get-help-now/?gclid=Cj0KEQjw-ezKBRCGwqyK0rHzmvkBEiQAu-_-LGq6i3BjmZDuaYcm6nkxHal_BRphCkhu7Dri_QwEqKUaAuop8P8HAQ

For the suicide prevention hot line Call 800-273-8255 or you can Text 273TALK to 839863