What we should try doing is imagining living together as Lutherans, who take our confession of the faith seriously. Now, that would be something worth imagining indeed! Imagine if we didn't just say we were Lutherans, but actually lived and talked and breathed and believed and acted like Lutherans. Imagine if Lutheran pastors didn't just pay lip service to our Lutheran Confessions, but actually performed the duties of their Office in accordance with those Confessions, which they vowed to do at their Ordinations. Imagine if Lutheran laypeople took seriously the vow they made at Confirmation to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it. Imagine if we all took being Lutheran seriously. Imagine if being Lutheran meant more than belonging to a Lutheran congregation. Imagine if being Lutheran meant more than being the Sola Scriptura people, which, for many Lutherans today, pastors and layfolk alike, has come to mean, "Just me and my Bible." Imagine if Lutheran pastors actually kept their copies of the Book of Concord handy and read and studied it regularly. Imagine if they treated it like their guide to understanding the Scriptures and performing their pastoral duties, rather than as just another reference work they place on some shelf to collect dust and rarely consult. Imagine if Lutheran laypeople actually read and studied the Book of Concord, too, or at least wore the heck out of their personal copies of Luther's Small Catechism. Or, how about this: Imagine if we were half as united in being Lutheran in doctrine and practice as we are in our stance against the social evils that plague us today. Imagine if we took being Lutheran seriously - that's something worth imagining!
It seems to me that we have things backwards here: We want to imagine something that is already a reality (living as God's forgiven and forgiving family), but do not want to imagine something that is not a reality (being united as actual Lutherans).
There is a reason for this. It's a dirty, little secret among us that we want to keep hush-hush. It is this: Being Lutheran is not a distinct confession of the faith or a way of life for us; it is, rather, an assumption. We do not need to imagine being united as actual Lutherans because we already are, even if we're not. I know, it sounds screwy, but it's the way things work in the LCMS, which includes the Michigan District, the largest of the thirty-five districts.
This is why we don't need to actually bring theological matters to the floor of our conventions. We don't have any theological problems. That's impossible. We all believe the same thing. We're all Lutherans. It says so on our ordination certificates, on our church signs (well, most, anyway), and on our name badges. Being Lutheran is assumed - it's a given, something that we take for granted. We're all members of the LCMS, so we all believe the same thing, even if we don't. All of our worship is Christ-centered, even if it's not. Everything we do, through and through, drips with Lutheranism, even if it doesn't, because we're all Lutherans, even if we're not.
Thus, what we're left to work on, what the business of conventions becomes among us, is loving one another better, trusting each other more, and rooting each other on, as we go about spreading our perfectly united Lutheranism out into our extremely diverse cultural circumstances (because we all know that life is drastically different from place to place, even if only separated by a few miles) in creative, imaginative, and innovative ways. What we need are programs and ideas and techniques (you know, ministries) that will enable and empower us to conquer our own little kingdoms with our own unique versions of Lutheranism, all of which, no matter how unique, are equally Lutheran, of course.
I'm not being sarcastic. This is the reality, folks. I heard it, read it, lived it, witnessed it, and was amazed by it this past week. We're just not at all interested in dealing with the reality that we have serious divisions and disunity among us, since, well, those divisions and that disunity simply cannot really exist among us. If there are divisions, if there is disunity, it is not because we do not share a common confession of the faith; it is, rather, because some of us (myself included) refuse to accept the fact that we are all perfectly united Lutherans. The only real problem we have is that some (again, myself included) actually believe that we have problems.
It's all very frustrating and more than a little disheartening to this Lutheran. Perhaps this has much to do with the fact that I wasn't "born and raised" a Lutheran, but was brought into Lutheranism as a teenager by God's grace. I spent my childhood and early teenage years church hopping, going from place to place with friends and family, and when our Lord finally lead me to Lutheranism, it was like a breath of fresh air. The Gospel - what a concept! Before that, it was all Law, all the time - and, cheesy Law, sissified moralism. Being a Christian meant believing in Jesus, of course, but it also meant living right, being good, and avoiding sin. The worship and preaching I endured during my early years was geared toward "getting to heaven," and "getting to heaven" was dependent upon me. I remember constantly thinking to myself, "Am I good enough? Am I really saved? Will God let me into heaven?" And, then, the Gospel. Lutheranism. Wow. Awesome. The preaching and the worship was all about Jesus and what He has done, and continues to do, for me. What a relief! What Good News! I loved it; I still do - a LOT! And so, no one shall ever make me understand how it is that many Lutherans are so eager to abandon their confession of the faith in order to mimic the confession of the faith adhered to by other Christians. The Council of Presidents can put together as many "Theses on Worship" as they wish in the attempt to convince us that we're free to worship in many and various ways, even if those ways come straight from the methobapticostal playbook, but I shall never comprehend how many Lutherans so easily follow in Esau's steps, selling their birthright for the bread and lentil stew of man-centered preaching and worship found among most Protestants.
The worst part about this is that many do not even seem to know what they've done. How can they? They've bought into the LCMS Exceptionalism that assures them that we are all Lutherans, even if we're not. Thus, when you confront them theologically, they get a deer-in-the-headlights look on their faces, since they just cannot fathom the possibility that we might have some serious theological divisions among us. It's not that they're stupid or naive. They do know that there are real differences among us, it's just that they don't think those differences are theological. For them, we are as theologically united as any group of Christians could possibly be, and the differences we have among us are nothing more than stylistic and strategic in nature. All differences among us, then, are seen as belonging to the realm of adiaphora. We are perfectly united doctrinally, we just differ in how we put our doctrine into practice, and that is perfectly fine for them, because practice is only and always viewed as adiaphora and does not affect or change or disturb in any way our doctrine.
I left for the Convention early enough on Sunday to make it to Ann Arbor by 3:00 p.m., so that I could attend the Open Hearing of Floor Committee #1 - Theology, Relations, and Practice. After going around the room and introducing ourselves, the Chairman opened things up for us to express concerns and ask questions. I raised my hand and expressed concerns about Resolution 1-02 "To Rejoice in our God-given Unity and Celebrate our Christ-centered Diversity" (this is the resolution I blogged about a few weeks ago here). I told the committee that I was upset and disappointed by the fact that they had completely ignored the four overtures referenced in this resolution, which had called for the district to encourage the establishment of liturgical mission starts, and had seemingly written their own resolution from scratch, which had not a single overture as its basis. To their credit, the committee confessed that this was exactly what they had done, and were even a little apologetic about it. They understood my frustration and disappointment. But, they also made it vividly clear that they had the right to do what they did. After much discussion, all of which was pretty cordial, they asked those of us who had concerns about this (after I ran my mouth for a while, others thankfully chimed in, supporting me) what we wanted them to do. They asked what they could add to their resolution to make it more acceptable to us. I, and others, responded by saying that we wanted them to take one of the original overtures and work on it, not tweak their own "written-from-scratch" resolution. They said they would take everything into advisement and see what they could do.
We also talked a lot about Resolution 1-03 "To Reaffirm Deacon Ministry." My congregation had submitted an overture asking us to restore faithfulness to AC XIV, which you can read here. So, in this case, the committee had to decide between two contradicting overtures. Naturally, they went with the overture that would not require any theological reflection or discussion, but would simply call for the convention to "high-five" one another for the great work being done via the Deacon Program. Before I could chime in on this one, Pr. Edward Steeh of St. John Lutheran in Ray, MI spoke up, urging the committee to go with the overture my congregation had submitted, rather than the one the committee had chosen. This led to a very interesting, and most telling, discussion, during which most of the members of the committee readily admitted that something seems to be wrong with the Lay Deacon Program (Ya think?!), but that they were confident that they had gone a long way toward fixing the problem by asking the District President's Office to study the feasibility of circuit riders or other means of providing pastors to administer the Sacrament of the Altar where Lay Deacons currently serve. Why? Because it's okay for Lay Deacons to do everything else a pastor does without being rightly called, but people get a little itchy when it comes to them consecrating the elements and administering the Holy Supper. Yeah. You heard me right. This is the depth of theological thinking we have going on among us. I told the committee that this didn't make a bit of sense. If it's not okay for Lay Deacons to administer the Sacrament, it's not okay for them to preach, since, well, AC XIV forbids both. Thus, the committee's grand solution was no solution at all, but just added more confusion into the mix. They responded by saying that the jury is still out for them on this whole subject and that there were theologians among us who didn't see anything wrong with Lay Ministry, to which I responded by pointing out that the Systematic Theology Departments from both of our seminaries had released a Joint Statement about this, a quote from which was included in the overture our congregation had submitted. It went back and forth for a while, but it was clear that the committee wasn't going to budge on this one. They were not going to allow an actual theological discussion about this to hit the convention floor.
Anyway, those were the two big ones that we talked about during the Open Hearing. As I said above, the discussion was pretty cordial. I thanked the committee for hearing my concerns and they thanked me (and the others) for raising them, again assuring us that they would take everything into consideration.
After that, I went to register, visited with several friends, and waited for my lay delegate and his wife to arrive. When they got there, we attended the orientation for delegates, went and grabbed a quick bite to eat in the Ministry Tent (great subs provided by Lutheran Benefits Group), and then it was off to Divine Service in the Chapel, which was absolutely beautiful - Divine Service 3, everything chanted, Pres. Harrison preached an awesome sermon, and one gorgeous hymn after another. Outstanding! After Service, we went out for a couple of Lutheran beverages and some eats.
The joy we had after Sunday's Opening Divine Service was quickly snuffed out Monday morning, as the Service that morning was filled with contemporary Christian praise music and a motivational message in place of the sermon (something about how we can outwit Satan). I didn't actually go, but got there early enough to sit and watch the Service playing on the big screen in the Gym. My lay delegate and his wife went, but left after the readings, as they simply could not endure the informality and nonchalance they were witnessing, and the touchy-feely music (complete with many arms raised and swaying in the pews), in what was supposed to be the Lord's Holy House of Prayer. I had warned them that it was going to be like that, but they thought that, after the awesome Divine Service the night before, it couldn't be that bad. But, when they heard the pastor leading the Service say, "Who needs Starbucks, we have Jesus! Amen?!," at the beginning, they knew they were in trouble.
The Official Opening of the Convention began shortly after that Service and, after several introductory matters, our District President gave his address, the highlight of which was the standing ovation given to Pres. Harrison for his testimony before the House Committee earlier this year. The rest of the address was about "making progress with our walk with Jesus" and how "our relationship with Him is going nowhere unless it is lived out in relationship with others" and how "it is up to us to demonstrate Jesus' Presence until He returns on the Last Day" and how the world is changing so much and the church must change with it (this, of course, after making it clear that our Lord never changes - my lay delegate said to me during the break later, "Pastor, I don't understand how he could say that our Lord never changes, but then go on and on about how the Church must change," to which I responded by saying that I don't understand it either). Pres. Maier's address reminded me of the many times I had heard former LCMS Pres. Kieschnick speak - lots of stats about how much things have changed and how unChristian our nation has become to drive home the main point that we need to get outside our comfort zones and start thinking outside the box and be willing to change and take risks to reach the lost, because there will soon be Hell to pay if we don't, etc. But, evidently, it was just what many wanted to hear, as he was reelected on the first ballot with 78.6% of the vote.
Later in the afternoon, Pres. Harrison gave his presentation and Bible Study. Very nice. I had heard him give essentially the same Bible Study on "Witness, Mercy, Life Together" before, but it was great to hear it again, and I think a great many people were very impressed with him.
Then, it was finally on to business, as Floor Committee I took the stage to begin putting their resolutions to the floor (the full texts of all the resolutions acted upon during the Convention can be found on the Michigan District website here, although the final versions are still not posted for some reason). When they brought their first resolution to the floor - Res. 1-01 "To Encourage 'Life Together' Through Use of the Word of God and Prayer" - I wanted to go to the mic and ask why the Confessions were not mentioned in this resolution, but knew that I would be going to the mic when they got to 1-02, so decided to stay put. But, I do think that this resolution reveals a major issue among us that rarely gets talked about, namely the whole "Just Me and My Bible" mentality that many confuse for Sola Scriptura. The idea that we need to read Holy Scripture through the lens of our Confessions is simply lost on most. We end up being no different than other "Bible-believing Christians," as we approach the Scriptures on our own. No wonder much confusion and heterodoxy ensues. I also think that this "Word sans Our Confessions" approach has lead many to think of the Holy Supper as being far less significant than it is supposed to be among Lutherans, but that is the subject for another blog post, so I'll move on.
After the convention passed 1-01 by a grand majority, it was on to 1-02(a). I went to the mic and proposed a substitute resolution, asking that one of the original overtures this resolution was supposed to be based upon be considered by the convention, rather than the resolution the floor committee had written from scratch. After our lengthy discussion during the Open Hearing the day before, the floor committee changed the title and added a Whereas to their resolution, rather than tweak one of the original overtures as we had asked them. My substitute failed 65%-35%. Oh well. Expected, really. So, 1-02(a) as proposed by the floor committee was back on the floor. I went to the mic again and asked the floor committee to explain their rationale for referencing Rom. 14:5 in the third Whereas, which stated that Scripture grants Christians a certain freedom in determining how they worship the Lord. I still don't know what happened with that. The committee could not answer this question and the explanation they did try to give made no sense, which I stated, but then things just moved on. 1-02(a) passed by 70.8%. I suppose we could consider it a little victory that the Whereas the committee added, based on our discussion the day before, at least admitted that "there is a perception that the Michigan District has moved away from the strategy of starting liturgical mission congregations," but, given the fact that the meaning, purpose, and intent of the resolution we passed was still so far removed from the meaning, purpose, and intent of the original overtures, that little victory is more than a little hollow.
1-03 was brought to the floor next, which is the one about Reaffirming Deacon Ministry. I really wanted to go back to the mic again and propose another substitute, asking that the overture my congregation had submitted be taken up rather than this one, but, having just gone to the mic a couple of times, I decided that I would stay put unless someone else got up to speak against the resolution. No one did. It passed by 81.9%.
The only other time I went to the mic was on Tuesday, when 3-03(a) was brought to the floor "To Commend the Affiliation of Concordia University Ann Arbor and Concordia University Wisconsin." I didn't oppose the resolution at all, but I simply couldn't stomach the first Whereas, which read, "Whereas, the Lord God has miraculously parted the waters again - this time, Lake Michigan - that Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor might pursue educational ministry together." Really? As wonderful as it is that these two Universities were able to come together and save my alma mater, I don't think we should be comparing that with the actual parting of the Red Sea. I proposed a substitute Whereas, which was accepted by the floor committee as friendly, but as I was walking back to my seat, the chairman of floor committee 3 made a snarky remark, saying, "We were just trying to be cute and creative, but I guess that isn't welcomed by some at this convention," or something to that effect. He's right. Some of us would just prefer not to get cute and creative with Holy Scripture, comparing a metaphor with an actual Biblical event. But, when theology is assumed and really doesn't matter, that's what you get - cute and creative.
We were treated to more cuteness and creativity after lunch on Tuesday, as Rev. Mark Brandt thought it funny to share a new "hymn" he had written in honor of DP Maier, to the tune of "I Know That My Redeemer Lives":
This was NOT an actual hymn and was NOT sung during any kind of Service, but was a joke and was sung by many in the Gym (Convention Floor) to giggles and glee. DP Maier knew nothing about it. Rev. Brandt sprung it on him and the convention as a joke in response to earlier comments about how wonderful a hymn-writer Pr. Steve Starke is (Amen to that!). Rev. Brandt was jokingly saying that he could write hymns, too. The problem is that it's representative of how little we think theologically. It just didn't dawn on Rev. Brandt or others that singing praises to our DP to the tune of "I Know That My Redeemer Lives" might not be the best idea. It's a good indicator of how the whole convention went - just giggles and glee, patting each other on the back, praising God that we're all perfectly united as Lutherans, even though we're not, and very little in the way of theology or actual business. In fact, one of the things we learned at this convention was that overtures and amendments to resolutions can be declined because there is already "District policy in place." No duh! The reason for the overtures and amendments is to CHANGE DISTRICT POLICY - what part of that do some not understand? But, this "we already have District policy in place" strategy is very effective on the delegates, most of whom swallow it hook, line, and sinker. Funny, there was a resolution or two put forth by the District BoD to CHANGE DISTRICT POLICY and the floor committees conveniently forgot to invoke the "we already have District policy in place" line. It's all so arrogant and condescending, but the tragedy is that many fail to see the arrogance and condescension, as they are effectively distracted by the giggles and glee.
I was proud of my brother in Christ, Pr. Larry Wright, who went to the mic when Res. 2-08 was brought to the floor "To Respectfully Decline Overtures." The overtures the floor committee were asking to be declined were overtures submitted by our Midland Circuit and by the congregations served by Pr. Wright and myself. The overtures resolved to have the Michigan District be directed to use the funds received from the sale of congregational or district properties to only fund ministries which clearly stipulate that the Word and Sacraments shall be an integral and inseparable part of the ministry and mission receiving said funds. In other words, when a congregation closes, we want the District to use the funds it receives from the sale of that property to support or help establish an existing or new congregation where the Word of God is preached and the Holy Sacraments administered, rather than giving those funds to help start coffee houses or other so-called "ministries," as has been happening, where Word and Sacrament Ministry is not integral to the supposed "mission" being done. Pr. Wright made the good confession by giving an impassioned and clear testimony about the centrality and utter importance of Word and Sacrament Ministry among Lutherans, but his substitute failed (go figure!) and the convention ended up passing 2-08 by 78.3%. This, after Rev. David Davis, chairman of floor committee 2, invoked the "we already have District policy in place" line in response to Pr. Wright.
We did pass several good resolutions at this convention, including 1-04(a) "To Have the CTCR Address Questions Raised Concerning the SMP Program," 1-05 "To Review and Confirm the Baptismal Formula and Request Guidelines for the Acceptance of Members," 3-07 "To Encourage and Support Public University Campus Ministry" (presented by Christ the King, where my friend, Pr. Jon Bakker serves), and 1-09 "To Commend the Roman Catholic Church for its Stance on Religious Freedoms and Defense of the Rights of the Unborn," as well as many others, which were no-brainers. But, the tragedy is that we did not take up a single resolution that facilitated actual theological discussion about the divisions among us, since, again, those divisions can't actually exist. We all believe the same thing, even if we don't.
I think my lay delegate and his wife summed things up pretty well, as they indicated that their impression of the convention was that we were not there to actually work on our differences and discuss theology, but to ignore our differences and cheer one another on. They noted that they were disappointed that so many of the delegates there actually seemed a little disgusted when some of us went to the mic and tried to convince the convention to take up the theological matters that divide us. They said that it seemed like the vast majority of the delegates just wanted to move on and get to the "fluff-fluff" stuff. What all of this really means is that I'll have to beg and plead for someone else to serve as our congregation's lay delegate when, Lord willing, I attend my fourth District Convention as a pastoral delegate in 2015, since none of the lay delegates I bring with me ever want to go back. I can't blame them. It really is a shock to the system to see the vast differences that exist among us in our district (which were on full display throughout the convention, but especially during the worship services) and to not have any desire to work on them.
Additionally, this was the first convention in which the congregation I serve sent in overtures to be considered. We sent in six overtures and only two made it to the floor (1-04a and 1-05). Two were ignored completely, one was "respectfully declined," and one was so completely altered as to lose entirely its meaning, purpose, and intent (1-02a). I already have members asking me, "Why bother participating if they're just going to ignore most of what we send in for consideration?" I understand that sentiment, but, hey, 33% is better than nothing, right? :)
I was thankful to be able to sit by Pr. Tony Sikora and his lay delegate, Dennis Peskey, during the convention, and it was nice to be able to reconnect and visit with many friends and colleagues. I also had the pleasure of meeting several brothers in person, whom I had only previously known via Facebook and other sites online, and enjoyed the theological discussions I had with many of them. So, that's something.
Lastly, I'm sure there will be some who read this little report and come to the conclusion that I'm just being one of those stubborn, ultra-confessional jerks who plague our perfect synod. Maybe I am, but let me make one thing vividly clear. I do not hate our district leadership or the many pastors and laypeople who obviously adhere to a very different understanding of what Lutheranism is and how it is to be confessed and practiced among us. I really don't. In fact, I am certain that they have nothing but the best of intentions and that most of them are sincere in their convictions. Many of them are just downright nice people, who love Jesus and want to serve Him. God bless them for that! But, this is precisely the problem in our district and synod: We believe that loving one another and being nice and getting along and agreeing to disagree and all the other well-meaning sentiments should serve as the basis of our unity and our "walking together." I wholeheartedly disagree. I know a few pastors of other denominations who are some of the nicest guys you will ever be blessed to meet this side of heaven. I can get along with them just fine. I can be friends with them. I can even thank God for the many things about which we can completely agree. But, what I cannot do is pretend like the very real theological differences that exist between us don't matter or are unimportant. I cannot "walk together" with them in unity. The same holds true for those within my own church body, with whom I have very real theological differences. Those differences need to be discussed and worked out, not ignored. The basis of our unity is not loving one another and being nice and getting along and agreeing to disagree, etc., but our common confession of the faith, as expressed in our Lutheran Confessions. And that unity is not achieved simply because we all have vowed to subscribe unconditionally to those Confessions, but only if we live out those Confessions in word and deed. This, unfortunately, is not happening, and so what we really have is pretend unity, which is no unity at all. At the end of the day, the idea that we're all Lutherans, even if we're not, is a lie, and unless and until we admit that, the Word of God and its correct exposition in our Lutheran Confessions will not be permitted to do its work among us and move us toward a greater degree of unity in our district and synod. May our Lord lead us to admit this, so that our conventions can again one day become places where we discuss our theological differences and work toward resolving them on the basis of Holy Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions, as our forefathers in our synod used to do, rather than the mere opportunities to pat each other on the back and cheer one another on, while intentionally ignoring our serious differences, they have become today.
A guy can