Rev. William Cwirla, Holy Trinity, Hacienda Heights, California
Blogging at Rev. Cwirla’s Blogosphere, http://blog.higherthings.org/wcwirla/ and Blogosphere Underground, http://revcwirla.blogspot.com/
Many of our readers may be familiar with Pastor Cwirla’s name from his work with Higher Things, the confessional Lutheran youth organization. He’s been blogging at the HT website for some time, but recently started a new blog, Blogosphere Underground, as well. He told us, “I started my ‘underground’ blog when Issues, Etc. was taken off the air. I was a fan of the show, friends with Todd and Jeff, and a frequent guest. I knew the whole thing was going to go political. As the vice-president of Higher Things, I didn’t want to drag the organization into a political scrum.” Blogosphere Underground focuses more specifically on internal LCMS matters, whereas Rev. Cwirla’s Blogosphere touches on current events, movie reviews, YouTube clips of note, even discussion of life on other planets. Rev Cwirla’s Blogosphere also contains the posts that best epitomize why we feel he deserves to be called a Steadfast Lutheran: his sermons. Thank you for posting your sermons, Pastor Cwirla. And thank you too, for taking some time to answer a few questions for us.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in Chicago, baptized at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on the southwest side. The congregation was meeting at the elementary school gymnasium at the time, so I was baptized in a gym. I never was much of an athlete, however. I worked in industrial chemistry for six years prior to going to Concordia Seminary-St. Louis.
My favorite “adult beverage” is good red wine–Cabernets, Syrahs, Zinfandels. The “big reds,” as they call them. No wimpy wines, and definitely no white Zinfandel which is against the order of creation. I also like good beers.
Are you a “lifer” or a convert to Lutheranism?
I am what many would call a “lifer Lutheran.” I’ve never strayed too far from the Lutheran fold. I messed around with Youth for Christ in high school, which was an offshoot of Campus Crusade. They played guitars, had very cool youth leaders and plenty of cute girls. I lived at home during college, so I continued to worship in my family’s congregation though I poked my head in the campus Lutheran congregation which was LCA at the time. The pastor was very interested in historic liturgy and vestments. It was there I discovered that Lutherans could use incense and not start sneezing. When I left home for graduate school at Berkeley, I joined a very conservative and traditional LCMS congregation in town, a move that kind of surprised me, since I wasn’t that conservative and traditional at the time. I guess it represented stability at a time when everything else in my life was pretty much upside down. Berkeley has a way of bringing out one’s inner conservative.
What do you enjoy most about writing a blog?
What I enjoy most about blogging is the ability to put ideas out into the public square and then engage comments. For me, blogs are trial balloons to see if an idea will fly. I also regularly blog my sermons to share a bit of what is being said at Holy Trinity with the general public.
The “blogosphere” is definitely the 21st century marketplace of ideas. It isn’t for the squeamish or the faint of heart. I think many people misunderstand the role of blogging. They see it as some kind of publishing venture when really it’s an open-ended conversation.
I always try to include some level of humor in my blogging because I think it’s a good test of whether one is living under the Law or the Gospel. People who can’t see the absurdity of our condition or laugh at themselves need a strong dose of 200-proof Gospel to set them free.
How would you best describe the “issues” in the LCMS to someone who asks, “What’s all the fuss about? Why can’t we all just get along?”
“Getting along” is not an end in itself, but a fruit of the Spirit when the Word has had its way with us. The Bible never speaks of bare “unity” but of “unity of the Spirit” or “unity of the faith” which means that it’s not a unity we cook up for ourselves. The “issues” that plague the LCMS are complicated and interwoven with our history as an immigrant church body and our theological identity as confessing western catholic Christians.
Unfortunately, these issues tend to be oversimplified in terms of “us” versus “them,” traditional versus contemporary, doctrine versus mission, conservative versus liberal, confessional versus church growth-ist. Everyone seems to have a label for everyone else, which doesn’t help the situation.
I think the struggle today is similar to the struggle the Saxon immigrants who started the LCMS faced, namely, how to maintain a distinctive Lutheran identity in the stew of religion that is American Christianity. Lutherans have never been the majority voice in America, which was dominated by Reformed theology in the past and Evangelical theology today. Lutherans just don’t fit in terribly well. We’re too “evangelical” to be Roman Catholic, and too “catholic” to be Evangelical. We offer Christ and Him crucified for our forgiveness, life, and salvation, but no one naturally feels a need for that.
The struggle in the LCMS today is over how best to hold fast to our Lutheran distinctives, which are really the heart of Christianity itself, namely the centrality of Christ, the centrality of justification by grace through faith, the sacraments as divinely instituted means by which God reveals His grace to us, and our liturgical and catechetical heritage.
A great concern of mine is that we seem to be rapidly losing our Lutheran identity as confessing evangelical catholic Christians. In the past, our identity was maintained by three essential books: Scripture, Catechism, and Hymnal. We are in danger of losing the hymnal entirely in the move toward “contemporary” worship forms that are drawn from the Evangelical revival tradition where everything is fresh and projected on some screen. It’s disposable liturgy for a consumer culture. Our grasp of the Catechism and the Confessions is slipping, as people are more interested in “personal relevance” than they are in the articles of the faith. And even our hold on the Scriptures is weakening as we relativize the Word to a subjective reading in terms of “what it means to me.” Of all Christians, Lutherans ought to understand that the faith once delivered to the saints is something handed on like a baton in a relay race. The Christian life is not some 100-yard dash where everyone runs his own version of the race. I’m amazed by our fascination with the so called “emergent” church movement which is nothing more than a continual reinvention of Christianity, including every one of its historic heresies.
What do you think we as a church can do to encourage men in their unique vocation of leading their families spiritually?
I think the church has not done nearly enough to challenge her men to stand up and be confessors of the faith at home, in society, in the workplace, and in the church. First of all, the men need to pray with their families. A child should learn to pray Our Father from his or her father. The father needs to take the lead in family devotions, catechesis, and worship. The mother can help, certainly, but this is primarily father’s work to do, and if he doesn’t do it, the children suffer.
Second, I think the church needs to have its men in visible positions of spiritual leadership. We are suffering from a bit of clericalization, I’m afraid, where the pastor is the only spiritual man in the congregation. I would like to see a lot more of our men teaching Sunday school and Bible classes, especially with our youth. I am in the ministry today thanks to a handful of faithful men who taught Sunday school year after year in my congregation. We also need to have our men assisting in worship., and we need to encourage our men to open their hymnals and move their lips. I don’t know where this comes from, but many of our men set a poor example for their sons by their lack of participation in worship.
Third, I think we need to get away from this notion that the church is being “feminized.” The Church is the Bride of Christ, which is a feminine image. She ought to be feminine and motherly. What we need to be concerned about is the feminization of the pastoral office and the absence of true masculine leadership in our congregations. I think the men need to be challenged to take their place as true heads of their families, in the way of God’s own fatherly goodness and mercy. What we need is a healthy dose of Gospel dads who will raise their children in the fear and faith of the Lord.
Finally, the church needs to combat this Gnostic nonsense that floats around our post-feminist society that male and female are accidental traits like hair color or eye color. They are part of our essence as human beings created in the image of God–“male and female He created them.” If we don’t delight in our distinctions, we will miss the blessing and the opportunity that comes with being male and female.
When Midwesterners think of California, “lots of Lutherans” is hardly the phrase that comes to mind. Can you share what’s different about being a confessional Lutheran in California?
I think the lesser “density” of Lutherans in our neck of the woods can be a potential plus. People who are confessionally Lutheran here are so intentionally. Many people have left other denominations and joined a Lutheran congregation precisely for its distinctive preaching, teaching, and liturgy. Lutheranism on the west coast tends to be somewhat freer of Midwest Lutheran “culture,” the stuff that Garrison Keillor always pokes fun at, including the marshmallow jello salads. That freedom from Lutheran culture also can be a problem. There is considerable pressure to imitate the large, successful churches such as Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel or Rick Warren’s Saddleback. Our challenge is how to hold on to a Lutheran identity and ethos when you don’t have the support of a Lutheran culture or heritage. As I said, it’s both bane and blessing.
We also have a lot of people living here who are simply burned out on religion. They’ve done the altar call, they’ve given their hearts to Jesus many times over, some have been baptized two or three times, and they’ve concluded that religion doesn’t work for them. Some have been burned by their churches, which promised them one thing and then delivered something entirely different. These are the folks who would characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It’s really a kind of cultural Buddhism, where everyone pursues his or her own self-chosen path to enlightenment. A theology of the cross that preaches death to self in order to live in Christ and the neighbor is a tough sell in a culture where the self is king if not a god.
At the end of the day, though, we are all sinners in need of justification, whether we happen to live on a coast or somewhere in between. Geography doesn’t change our sinful condition; it is only the context in which we sin and the context in which God engages us through Baptism, Word, and Supper. When it comes to dying and rising, we are all in the same baptismal boat.