Islam’s Future in America—Part I

islam-9-1532819-640x480At the conclusion of my article on the visit of Pope Francis to America a couple weeks ago, I said: “Roman Catholics are not our greatest spiritual enemies. That designation belongs to Satan, the world, our own sinful flesh and Islam. I’ll say more about the last topic on that list in the weeks ahead.” This week I’m making the first installment on keeping that promise.

The title of this edition of Perspectives is borrowed from that of an article in the January/April edition of Concordia Theological Quarterly by Dr. Adam Francisco, Professor and Chair of the History and Political Thought Department at Concordia University Irvine in Irvine, Cal. Dr. Francisco is a young, very intelligent authority on Islam and is the son-in-law of Terry’s and my very good friends, Priscilla and Bob Newton. Bob is president of the California-Nevada-Hawaii District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and a very bright mission-minded theological leader. Contents of Dr. Francisco’s article are shared here with his permission.

Dr. Francisco’s article chronicles the history of the first Muslims in the United States, who were slaves from Africa brought to this country over 200 years ago. Initially their influence was basically negligible. However, in the late 19th century the first Muslim missionary, Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb (1846-1916), began work in the U.S. Webb “was born in New York, raised in a Presbyterian household, moved to Missouri … established ties with Muslims in India, and received a commission from them to begin a mission to America.” Webb was basically unsuccessful in his five-year effort to promulgate the Islamic faith in America.

A few years later Islam’s influence in this country was catalyzed by “the thousands of immigrants who managed to circumvent the restrictions of the Immigration Act of 1891. By the 1920s it is estimated that around 60,000 had settled in cities throughout the United States. Most of them kept their religion private and sometimes even lied about it. But a few were apparently emboldened to advance Islam.”

The result was “a good bit of success in winning converts” among African Americans in Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, and St. Louis in just three years (1920-1923) by holding what are described as “Mosque meetings” where the “virtues of Islam were exalted and Christianity was severely criticized.” The plan of Islam was to “conquer America.”

Perhaps that’s enough to whet your appetite. I’ll continue next week with more on this important topic. My goal is to be as objective and accurate as possible, being neither unnecessarily alarmist nor gullibly naïve about the potential impact of Islam’s future in America. See you next week.

The Papal Visit

Pope Francis at UNPope Francis has concluded his visit to America, which in some ways seemed longer than the six days he actually spent in our country. The reception he received in the cities on his itinerary was warm and enthusiastic. His pastoral touch was obvious, as he paused en route to touch and bless individuals, particularly children with special needs, their families and caregivers.

While comments could be made about each of the pope’s speeches, I’ll share here a few thoughts about Saturday’s 90-minute worship service at Saints Peter and Paul Basilica in Philadelphia. It was carried live, in its entirety, on Fox News and a couple other national networks.

Watching such a service brings to mind more similarities between Catholicism and Lutheranism. Both are fundamentally liturgical and sacramental. Clergy vestments, Scripture readings, homily, hymns sung by congregation and choir to organ and orchestra accompaniment are quite familiar. Seminarians later visited briefly by the pope sang the familiar “Lift High the Cross.”

Yet some of the differences between the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations were also obvious, including a somewhat appealing use of incense and the repeated veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s obvious that Catholics still pray to Mary and consider her holy and a perpetual virgin. They often and properly identified her as the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, thankfully making generous reference to his work of redemption on Calvary’s cross.

The publicity, news and TV coverage received by the Catholic Church last week was worth millions and likely will catalyze, at least temporarily, a resurgence of interest in Catholicism. The negative image of the church resulting from sexual abuse scandals of the past may perhaps be somewhat mitigated by this pope’s messages and non-self-aggrandizing sense of humility.

That humility was emphasized, intentionally, in simple yet significant ways. One of the most visible was his ground transportation in the U.S., provided not in a limousine or even a Chevrolet Suburban, but sometimes in the Popemobile, at other times in a much smaller Fiat. By the way, the Vatican vehicle registration plate for the Popemobile and all official Vatican vehicles, begins with the letters “SCV” (an acronym of the Latin Status Civitatis Vaticanae “Vatican City State”) followed by the vehicle fleet number. In this case the plate read SCV-1.

Summarily, Pope Francis should feel very good about his visit to the U.S. And so should the Roman Catholic Church. The visibility and news coverage received by both provided publicity beyond the hopes, not to mention the dreams, of the rest of Christendom.

I pray that the result of this papal visit will be fruitful for the kingdom. As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, perhaps even our own church will experience resurgence from the apathetic atrophy in which we seem to be stuck. Time will tell. Lord, help us!

Pope Francis in the U.S.

Pope FrancisFor the first time in his papacy—and his life—Pope Francis is visiting the United States. This week he is traveling through Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. Hundreds of thousands of people are anticipating the chance to see him during his time here in our country. Tickets for public masses, papal parades and even public transportation are highly coveted.

During the first part of his six-day, three-city visit to the U.S., the pope met with President Obama and today will address the U.S. Congress. Later today he will travel to New York, where he will conduct evening prayer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and address the United Nations. Over the weekend he will take part in a Vatican-sponsored conference on families in Philadelphia. The official version of the Pope’s entire schedule is posted below.

Pope Francis, the 266th pope, was elected at the age of 76, is the first Jesuit pope and the first pope from the Americas. One report I read reminds us that the pope is not a politician, he’s a priest and that, despite what the American media might say of his objectives, this trip is the pope’s opportunity to focus more on things spiritual than things political. I hope that’s true.

I’ll take the risk here of sharing a few brief thoughts about popes and the Catholic Church. Quite often, when making a presentation on The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and its place in world Christendom, I compare the pope to the president of the LCMS. Here’s what I say:

The LCMS president has spiritual connection with approximately two million people, mostly in the United States. The pope has connection with over one billion people all across the globe. That’s one thousand million, which is 500 times more than the LCMS.

On November 26, 2001, just a few months after Terry and I sold our home and left our family in Texas to move to St. Louis to assume the office of president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I underwent radical prostatectomy. Not many folks other than our family, my senior staff and a number of close friends knew about my surgery. That same week, Pope John Paul II had a cold and sore throat. He made front page news around the world! I fully understand the reason.

Our Lutheran Confessions refer to the papacy as the antichrist. This characterization is often understood to describe individual popes who conducted their ministry in less than God pleasing ways, especially the popes in office during the time leading up to the 16th century Reformation. Not nearly as many Lutherans today as in the past consider the pope the antichrist.

The Roman Catholic Church has different understandings of eternity than most of the rest of Christianity, including the existence of purgatory. Catholics are still assigned acts of penance and encouraged to purchase indulgences. While faith in Christ is emphasized, so is praying to saints. Papal infallibility, seven sacraments rather than just two, and the Immaculate Conception of Mary are also upheld. Lutherans and other Christians respectfully disagree with these beliefs.

For the record, our Lutheran understanding of eternity is simply this: We believe we are saved for eternity by grace, through faith in Christ our Lord, and not by works of the law. Because of the perfect fulfilling of the law by Christ and his vicarious atonement for our sins on Calvary’s cross, our sins are forgiven, both temporally and eternally. Heaven is a free gift of God’s grace, which we in no way deserve and for which we will be eternally grateful.

Notwithstanding the differences noted and a few others as well, which are not insignificant, I consider Roman Catholics our sisters and brothers in Christ. They, together with Lutherans and other Christians, confess their faith in The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed and The Athanasian Creed. Roman Catholics are not our greatest spiritual enemies. That designation belongs to Satan, the world, our own sinful flesh and Islam. I’ll say more about the last topic on that list in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, welcome to the U.S., Pope Francis. I’m glad you’re here!

U.S. Itinerary for Pope Francis

Tuesday, Sept. 22

4 p.m.: Pope Francis arrives in U.S. at Joint Base Andrews just outside of Washington. He will be greeted by President Obama.

Wednesday, Sept. 23

9:15 a.m.: Pope Francis will appear at an official welcoming ceremony on the White House South Lawn then meet with President Obama.

11 a.m.: The Pope will parade around the Ellipse just south of the White House and the National Mall.

11:30 a.m.: Pope Francis will pray with U.S. bishops at D.C.’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

4:30p.m.: The Pope will canonize Junípero Serra during a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Thursday, Sept. 24

10a.m.: Speech before a Joint Session of Congress followed by an appearance on the West Front of the Capitol at 11 a.m.

11:15 a.m.: The Pope will visit St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in D.C. and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, where he is expected to meet with clients of the St. Maria’s Meals program who will have gathered for lunch, including some who are homeless or live in shelters

4p.m.: Pope Francis heads to New York where he’ll land by 5 p.m.

6:45 p.m.: The Pope will conduct evening prayer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral near New York’s Rockefeller Center.

Friday, Sept. 25

8:30 a.m.: Pope Francis will address the United Nations General Assembly, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary. The Pope is also expected to attend bilateral meetings with the U.N. Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly.

11:30 a.m.: The Pope will pray, meet with families and deliver an address at a multi-religious service at the Sept. 11 memorial and museum at the site of the World Trade Center.

4 p.m.: Before taking his motorcade through Central Park, the Pope will visit a third grade class at Our Lady Queen of Angels school, a 120-year-old institution in East Harlem.

5 p.m.: Motorcade through West Central Park between 72nd and 60th Streets. A ticket and valid ID are required to enter.

6 p.m.: Mass at Madison Square Garden.

Saturday, Sept. 26

8:40 a.m.: Pope departs New York for final leg of the trip, arriving in Philadelphia at 9:30 a.m.

10:30 a.m.: Mass at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the mother church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

4:45 p.m.: The Pope is expected to talk immigration and religious during an address at Independence Mall

7:30 p.m.: Visit and prayer vigil at the World Meeting of the Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Sunday, Sept. 27

9:15 a.m.: The Pope will meet with Bishops at St. Martin’s Chapel, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

11 a.m.: Visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the city’s largest jail.

4 p.m.: Mass at World Meeting of the Families.

7 p.m.: Meeting with World Meeting organizers, benefactors and volunteers.

8 p.m.: Official departure.

Opposition and Proposition

Credit: casarosada.gob.ar

Credit: casarosada.gob.ar

Statistics show a growing increase in the percentage of U.S. population who declare no religious preference. Other statistics reflect radical disagreement on controversial issues of social and sexual significance. These realities challenge the Christian church to think and act proactively in presenting the claims of Christianity in a way that compels greater attention and response.

That’s why a recent Austin American Statesman article attributing quotes to Pope Francis drew significant attention. The Pope is quoted as saying: “The Roman Catholic church has grown obsessed with preaching about abortion, gay marriage and contraception. I have chosen not to speak of those issues despite recriminations from some critics.”

Pope Francis sought to “set a new tone for the church” by saying it should be “a home for all and not a small chapel focused on doctrine, orthodoxy and a limited agenda of moral teachings. It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”

He continued: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance. Otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” The very next day the very same man reiterated, in unmistakable terms, the church’s position against abortion. And I’m glad he did!

For unless and until convinced that God has not spoken clearly on controversial contemporary issues, we cannot and should not try to change what we believe God has said regarding such matters. We have a duty to state clearly what we believe God’s will mandates we must oppose. That should be done unequivocally and unapologetically, at appropriate times and places. Yet in the process of expressing opposition, we dare not obfuscate our primary purpose of proposition.

That propositional purpose is the powerful proclamation of God’s love in Christ, law and gospel, sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness, justification and sanctification. That’s the message that touches the hearts of people and brings them to the foot of the cross! That’s the message with which we must lead! For people need to hear what the church proposes much more loudly and clearly than only what the church opposes!

Some Things Haven’t Changed

Sale of Indulgences

The sale of indulgences, as depicted in a woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder, c. 1530
Credit: Wikipedia

News that caught my attention last week was in Time magazine (August 5, 2013) in the section titled The Culture. It read: “Tech-savvy Catholics will spend less time in purgatory—or so says Pope Francis. The Pontiff has decreed that people who follow the events of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro via the Vatican’s Twitter feed can get indulgences, which Catholics believe reduce time spent atoning for sins in the afterlife.”

Bummer! And just when it seemed the largest Christian Church in the world was beginning to move in the right direction. Pope Francis has done things in the early days of his papacy that provide hope to many, both in and beyond the church he leads. But, alas! One very important matter is still in need of papal rectification—the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.

In our Lutheran understanding, that doctrine on which the church stands or falls is described with the words sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura. We believe the Bible teaches that a sinner is justified—forgiven and declared right with God by God’s grace alone, through God’s gift of faith alone, communicated in God’s Word alone.

That’s the central teaching of the Christian faith, expressed by Holy Spirit-inspired St. Paul:  
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works (and not a product purchased by tech-savvy Twittering—my words, not Paul’s), so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)

The primary focus of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was this doctrine. He wrote directly against indulgences, especially in Thesis # 27: “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”

Why was this necessary? Because Johann Tetzel, a Reformation era penance peddler, chanted in his sales pitch: “As soon as the coin in the coffer clings, the soul from purgatory springs!”

With due respect and love for the 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church and their papal leader, it appears the primary issue that catalyzed the Reformation is still an issue. Apparently some things, including that thing, haven’t changed in 500 years!

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!

A Clergy Dominated Church?

Clergy 1Monday’s Austin American Statesman provided coverage of Pope Francis’ speech to some three million attendees at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. He is reported to have addressed a gathering of the region’s bishops, telling them to “look out for their flocks and put an end to the ‘clerical’ culture that places priests on pedestals – often with what Francis called the ‘sinful complicity’ of lay Catholics who hold the clergy in such high esteem.”

That’s very interesting and, frankly, not surprising. It sounds a lot like the direction the LCMS seems to be heading these days with respect to clergy/lay relationships. Clergy dominance was particularly evident at last week’s Synod convention, even more so than in the past. In worship services, on the podium and at microphones, black shirts and white collars were abundant.

That in itself is not at all problematic. I often wore clerical attire for official church business, and still do, especially when robed for preaching and leadership in other worship roles.

But the trend toward a clergy dominated culture in the church is also currently manifested in the exclusion of laity from consideration for positions of significant leadership in our church body. That includes, for example, university presidents, significant missionary supervisors, and other leadership positions at the national level.

Furthermore, there’s a discernible aloofness and even pharisaical demeanor exhibited by some pastors, obvious during worship services and in pastoral ministry functions as well. Intentionally or unintentionally, this telegraphs a “holier than thou” attitude in both work and worship.

While this could simply be an unintended byproduct of deep and sincere piety, I don’t believe it enhances the pastoral office or represents its true nature. Pastors are called to serve, not to be served. Pastors are called to lead evangelically and collaboratively, not to dominate or domineer.

So the clergy culture referenced by Pope Francis is not the sole possession of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. We have some of that stuff in our own Lutheran midst.

What’s the bottom line? Some seem intent on moving us toward a clergy dominated church. I believe that’s not helpful and tends to dishonor the priesthood of all believers.

All of us, lay and clergy alike, do well to remember that not all who build up the body of Christ are ordained clergy: “He (Christ) gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:11-12)

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!