Monday, July 25, 2011

Nashotah House Summer Instensives - Part I

It's hard to believe that these two weeks represent my final courses in the program.  Although I will return again to work and consult on my thesis later this year and into 2012, I seems strange to realize I will not enjoy the same community experience as one has during regular class sessions.  In part this tempts me to think about the possibility of continuing on for D.Min work.  I have enjoyed the convenience of distance (3 1/2 hour drive from home), and the unique mix of students and professors, some coming from far distant corners of the globe to this tiny outpost in southern Wisconsin.  In one of my classes we have students from Nigeria, Kenya, and Barbados in the Caribbean, as well as a Chinese professor from a seminary in Canada on sabbatical.  Besides my professors they are privileged to have on campus a visiting scholar who serves as principal of St. Stephen's Hosue at Oxford, teaching on their theology faculty, the Rev. Canon Dr. Robin Ward. 

My professors this year are also both visiting scholars, with additional connections to the Lutheran church.  Dr. David Herman, who teaches The History of the English Hymnal recently retired from the University of Delaware and is a very accomplished recitalist and composer.  Although now a practicing Anglican, Dr. Herman has served in the past as an organist and music director in a Lutheran parish.  He is also the author of the biography of Jan Bender, under whom he also studied.  The Rev. Dr. Philip Pfatteicher, who teaches The History and Function of the Liturgical Year, is actually a rostered Lutheran clergyman in the ELCA, although I believe he and his wife now attend an Episcopal church in Boston.  Dr. Pfatteicher is the author of several books on worship and liturgy, which a search on Amazon will provide you with titles and descriptions.  He has long served as a recognized expert in this field and it is a rare opportunity to study under a man of his stature and reputation.  You can read more about their backgrounds on the Nashotah site at this link

I will post additional observations in the days to come.  For now I have to return to work.  A paper awaits....

Corem Deo Conference - Part II

More than a week has passed since returning from the Higher Things conference in Illinois.  After regrouping at home for Sunday worship and a voters' meeting to follow (yeah!), I packed up again and headed off to Nashotah House for my two week intensives.  A separate post will follow on that subject.  Before moving on to my Nashotah experiences this year, it seems appropriate to wrap up my reflections on Higher Things first.  As noted in the previous post, my impressions for a first time attendee were positive overall.  I extend my commendations and gratitude to the hardworking staff of pastors and laypeople who managed to pull off what can only prove at times to be a logistical nightmare.  Yet the reward of seeing so many young people engaged in God's Word and participating fully in the liturgy more than compensates. For the record they handled the predictable glitches with competence and kept the program running in smooth fashion the whole week.  Lord willing I will see many of you next year at the conference in Missouri.  To those I connected with, it was was a pleasure to meet new friends and renew the friendships of old acquaintances.  Thank you for a great week of good Lutheran relaxation! 

What follows are a few pictures I managed to take before leaving.  The first shows the group gathered for one of the plenary sessions (mass gatherings held each day.)  It was truly impressive to see so many youth together to take in good Lutheran theology!

The next picture, although a bit blurry (my apologies), shows the youth gathered for one of the many worship services.  Attendees had the opportunity to attend Matins, Evening Prayer and Vespers every day. Compline was to be handled by individual groups in their dorms.  Imagine youth worshiping three or four times a day - and with traditional liturgy and hymns! 

The last two pictures simply show the dorm where I and my son stayed that week.  We were on the 15th floor of a 16 floor skyscraper. I didn't know dorms came in these gargantuan sizes. Since waiting for the two operating elevators could take a while, I sometimes descended on foot all the way to the ground level.  Feeling rather ambitious I also tried to ascend all 15.  I made it as far as floor 6.  A massive coronary did not seem a good enough reason to push it....

The room I shared with my son was small but comfortable.  Looking at the city from that height provided a rare view.  Thankfully the air conditioning worked well - at times too well!  I believe that the temperature went down as low as 63 or 64 degrees!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Coram Deo Conference - Part I

After an absence from the computer since Monday, I finally gained access to one here at the Illinois State University Library.  I left my laptop with my wife at the motel and decided to go free of technology for a few days.  Now that I have a moment before supper it seemed a good opportunity to post a brief initial update on my experience here at the Higher Things conference in Bloomington.  In general I have only good things to say.  Although billed as a youth conference, let no one fool you - this is great for adults!  The plenary sessions with Pr. Cwirla the first two days offered both theological stimulation and great entertainment.  Who thought that Lutheran clergy with collars could be so fun?  The sections have proved equally engaging and I have personally found the two I took in with Dr. Joel Heck of CU-Austin to be exceptionally informative.  I purchased his most recent book on Creation at the first session and will post separately on that work along with other insightful information he offered to us regarding Creation and Evolution. 

To look out at the crowd of over a thousand youth and parents willingly singing the historic liturgy and soaking up good, solid Lutheran theology gives me renewed hope for the future of the LCMS.  I commend those who started the Higher Things phenomenon back in 2000 as brilliantly proactive and forward-thinking regarding how to deal with the challenging state of Lutheranism in our time.  Instead of merely fighting and scratching out small victories in endless conventions, they set about launching a movement that may very well preserve a true Lutheran identity among us, sowing seeds in that generation that waits to replace us in the years to come.  One can only wonder what deep and lasting changes have already occurred through this ongoing mass catechesis.  I hope I live just long enough to see some of those fruits born as these HT youth begin to assume positions of leadership at the highest levels of Synod.

Supper is now just around the corner and given all the walking we do on this huge campus eating is a true necessity for this diabetic. So off I go for now.  Future posts to come detailing more of the experience.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My First Higher Things Conference

By this time next week I will already be well into my first Higher Things conference - Coram Deo.  Although a general invitation was offered to participate possibly as a sectional leader, I elected to pass this time around. I am hoping to do something I seldom do: sit, listen, enjoy, reflect, relax.  It's also a goal to gather information and impressions to take back to the other youth of my congregation and maybe even a neighboring parish or two.  Perhaps next year we will have to commandeer a large van to transport our group.  It's a hope.  My group this time around consists of my son David.....and me. Big group! He will be a senior next year and given that my daughter was able to experience one of the conferences in 2006 ("The Feast") at about the same age, it seemed time again.  I am truly looking forward to the experience and connecting again with fellow Lutherans.  Perhaps one of the readers who drops by this blog will be there and I can put a face and name with the predominantly anonymous readership known only by the numbers collected at Sitemeter.  If you recognize me, please say hello. BTW, I am going to the conference at Illinois State University.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why We Remain in Our Denominations

Last summer while at Nashotah I met some wonderful people, the majority of them Anglicans, many of those Anglicans members of the Episcopal Church.  Like some of the confessional folks I have met within the ELCA, the people who came to Nashotah seemed rather conservative compared to some of the high profile actions of their own denomination.  Naturally I wondered what kept these fine people within a church body so filled with liberal theology and practice.  I don't have a clear answer to that question and suspect that the answer varies from person to person.  Some may see themselves as positive leaven hoping to change the substance from within.  Others may stay out of a sense of ownership, as in "This is my church too, why should I leave?"  Others fight small concentrated battles with liberal leadership keeping the voice of dissent alive for future generations.  Still others may stay because it is convenient and comfortable compared with the insecurity and disruption of leaving. 

Of course such questions of staying and leaving concern many of us in the LCMS too - from both conservative and liberal sides of the aisle.  The reasons outlined above would likewise apply, although others could be given.  Some conservatives would stay claiming that as long as the published and public doctrine of the church body remains orthodox the practice can still be reformed.  For some within this subset an additional criteria is put forth concerning 'make or break' teachings such as the ordination of women, acknowledging that they can endure other lesser aberrations as long as this line is not crossed. 

And for those on the liberal side of the aisle - How might they answer?  Dr. Matthew Becker, thankfully, has been a higher profile figure willing to answer publicly, so we can use his response as one indication possibly shared by others.  In the comments section of one of his posts he noted the following in answer to why he doesn't resign from the roster of the Synod despite his disagreements with the public teaching of the LCMS:

I was baptized on 30 Sep 1962, by my grandfather at St. John Lutheran Church,
Salem, Oregon.

My parents faithfully took me to the divine services. There I first heard the gospel. There I was instructed in the faith. There I first received the Lord's body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins.

My pastor, Dr. Hempelmann, selected Second Peter 3:18 as my confirmation verse. Through my grandfather and Dr. Hempelmann I was encouraged to prepare for the pastoral ministry in the LCMS.

St. John provided me with both financial and evangelical support to attend Concordia College, Portland. There I encountered perhaps the best cohort of professors the LCMS has ever assembled at the undergraduate level. For other historic examples of scholarly, critical, and evangelical individuals in the synod's history, see "About Daystar" at

These have been my role models.

When I studied for four years at Concordia Seminary, at no point was I ever approached to stop my studies or remove myself from consideration for ordination. In fact, I was encouraged to pursue graduate theological work by several sem professors, notably Dr. Norman Nagel.

St. John also supported me during my years at the University of Chicago. During summers I returned to Salem and served as a summer vicar. The pastors, Dr. Frederick Niedner and Pr. Dale Koehneke, both from families with long histories in the LCMS, were very helpful to me in my preparations.

When I was ordained in July 1989, I freely, willingly, and publicly vowed to teach in accord with the doctrinal content of the holy Scriptures and in accord with the Lutheran Confessions as a faithful exhibition of the doctrinal content of the holy Scriptures. I have sought to fulfill this vow to the present day. On that hot July day I did not make any vows with regard to the LCMS.

When I was installed as pastor at Bethlehem, Dundee, Ill, I made the same vows. At that time I signed the Constitution of the LCMS. I was especially pleased to do this because of the crucial importance of Article II.

The Synod, as a human institution, remains subordinate to and normed by the doctrinal content of the Holy Scriptures and the witness to that doctrinal content by the Lutheran Confessions. Semper ecclesia reformanda.

As a human institution, the LCMS has changed its practices and understandings and applications of Scripture over time. Sometimes these changes have been for the better--that is, in accord with the gospel and Christian love--and other times, for the worse--that is, legalistically, unevangelically, with evident short-sightedness and a lack of Christian love.

As an errant, sinful theologian who continues nevertheless to try to live out his calling faithfully within the LCMS (the Board of the NW District of the LCMS, on which I served for many years, has labeled me "the NW District's LCMS missionary to Valparaiso University"), I will continue to study the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions to discern how the Spirit might be leading us to continue to reform the LCMS as one small part of the much larger Ecumene.

So far I have not been given any clear indication from the Lord that I should remove myself from the LCMS clergy roster.

So what can we glean from this to help us understand why those on both sides of the aisle remain entrenched, even while disagreeing on what seems like fundamental articles of the truth?  Dr. Becker reflects the reasoning of the older Seminex professors and students of past years.  To my eyes it is a minimalistic approach, although I would suspect that Becker would disagree with this assessment.  I say 'minimalistic' because he lays claim to the Scriptures and Confessions while indicating that they do not address certain teachings within the LCMS with which he disagrees.  For example, he would claim, I believe, that neither the Scriptures nor the Confessions would prohibit the ordination of women or the teaching of Evolution.  This is a 'synodocal thing,' he would claim, not a 'Bible thing.' 

I cannot disagree with Becker in that the Synod is not above error, unlike the Scriptures.  Yet we part ways in our interpretation of the above two items (among others) and that disagreement concerns in large part how we approach the scriptures.  Becker's hermeneutic is much different than the founders of the LCMS, and much more in line with the higher-critical post-war theology imported into Missouri 50+ years ago.  He may be right in claiming that the Confessions do not specifically address these particular issues, but they do address the substance of them, and that is the critical point.  Once he adopts Evolution he also adopts an approach to scripture which places it under reason and allows science to dictate its interpretation.  As I demonstrated in a prior post one cannot have it both ways.  You cannot embrace Evoution and still ultimately keep the cardinal doctrines intact, such as Original Sin and thus Salvation itself.  Supporting the ordination of women also impacts our view of the scriptures as we must choose whether to see them as slaves to their own culture and time or enduring truth. 

Becker remains within the LCMS, as do others who share his views, for the reason that they believe they can lay claim to the primary sources of doctrine in support of their teaching while also seeing the Synod as a mere human organization prone to error, especially when it concerns issues with which the broader contemporary society takes issue.  Yet what is clear beyond the words quoted above and printed elsewhere, Becker also remains in order to change the Synod - the 'leaven' reasoning noted before.  He hopes and waits for the day when his views will be accepted practice just as they are within the ELCA and TEC.  He knows that history is partly on his side as many of the mainline denominations have gone down this familiar path of liberalization.  Why should Missouri be different?  Why should he leave his home if it will change anyway?

Many like myself remain to hold the line and keep Missouri from slipping into that abyss.  It may be a losing battle, but this is also my church in which, like Becker, I was taught the faith and recited the very same ordination vows (a couple years before him in 1987.)  I have a stake in where it goes.  Two of my children have been confirmed in this church, and one is one the way.  I fight for their future more than my own.  It is a shame in this sinful world that those who lay claim to the same confessions of faith should end up in opposition.  I do not question Becker's faith, but I question the orthodoxy of his approach and some of the things he teaches.  To that end I will continue to challenge them in this medium.

Teacing Theology Through Hymns

Reflecting the old maxim of Prosper of Aquitaine Dr. David Scaer noted that "Dogmatics springs from the liturgical life of the church and dogmatics find its ultimate fulfillment in the liturgical life of the church" (Springfielder, Dec. 1971).  He specifically applies this to the hymnody which he said "serve(s) to broaden out the people's theology." They do so for the simple reason that they contain solid theology.  "Hymns from the earliest centuries of the church and from the Reformation reflect the highest degree of doctrinal development," he writes.  "Ambrose, Luther, Origen, John of Damascus and others were also great theologians of their time.  They were aware that the best way to teach dogmatics or doctrine to the people was through the hymns.  I would even endeavor to say that more can be done through hymns than through sermons; and the liturgical life of the church in some centuries and generations was the church's only salvation."

We might think Scaer's comments a bit exaggerated, especially concerning the idea that hymns could teach more than sermons.  However, we should not discount the simple power of hymns to penetrate the memory, especially through years of repetition, versus the tendency for people to forget most of the sermons they hear. Given that we should also be cautious about the songs and hymns offered on Sunday morning.  Proponents of contemporary worship avoid hymnals and traditional hymns out of a claim that they are boring and irrelevant.  Yet they substitute tunes and texts either lacking any substance or containing 'theology' which contradicts the faith we have taught.  I fear for where these parishoners will be a decade or two from now, especially as some drift into that shadowy place of dementia. 

John L. Bell, in his book The Singing Thing (2000), writes: "Consider a child born in the 1970's, finding himself coming toward the end of his life in a geriatric ward in the 2060's, and as he prepares to make his peace with God summoning up such a deeply spiritual ditty as: If I were a fuzzy wuzzy bear, I'd thank you, Lord, for my fuzzy wuzzy hair.  Children's hymns should never been seen as a form of entertainment to keep the kids happy.  These songs, in the future, will be evocative of God."

Dr. Bell makes his point well.  How sad it will be when the pastor struggles to minister to the elderly of another era because he cannot bring to mind a single hymn verse, save the vapid refrain from a contemporary ditty...

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Slavery and the Bible

For one raised in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement of the last century, the topic of slavery remains a sensitive issue.  With the official emancipation of African-American slaves in the 19th century, dealing with the issue of slavery in modern America concerns discussions of past events more than present realities.  Recently Dr. Matthew Becker, in a tribute to Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), decided to invoke the subject while inserting a passing jibe at the founder of his synod.  He writes:

At a time when people like the first president of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, C. F. W. Walther, who was born in the same year as Stowe, argued that slavery was ordained by God and a positive, biblically-grounded good, Stowe set forth a minority position that was also biblically-grounded: slavery is contradicted by the Bible's teachings about human equality and dignity, about human freedom and responsibility, about Christ's love for "the lowliest members of society."

It was tempting to simply pass over these comments recognizing Dr. Becker's inclination to take a jab at the Missouri Synod if given the chance.  However, in rereading the above statement it occurs that clarification is needed.   We will affirm that C.F.W. Walther did not outright condemn all slavery as sin.  He surveyed the many instances of slavery in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and demonstrated that a slave-master relationship is not considered intrinsically sinful.  Abuse of slaves is a sin and masters guilty of hurting and harming those serving under them are rightfully called to account and condemned.  However, to jump now to the conclusion that Walther "argued that slavery was ordained by God and a positive, biblically-grounded good" seems at best a stretch and at worst a misrepresentation of this honorable leader.  He wrote that God did not institute slavery any more than he instituted absolute monarchy.  Walther differentiates between the  relationship and the conditions under which that relationship exists.  He recognizes that these things came into being in a sinful world.  They are not perfect any more than any relationship in this world is, including governments of any type.  In fact, he quotes a Lutheran theologian who states: "Slavery is indeed a yoke under which one suffers. It is a lowly and terrible state, for nothing is lower and more terrible than to be given to another as his own, and if one obtains something, it is obtained for the other" (Friedrich Baduin, d. 1627).

If, as Becker claims, "slavery is contradicted by the Bible's teachings about human equality and dignity, about human freedom and responsibility, about Christ's love for 'the lowliest members of society,'" what is one to say of all that Paul himself wrote in the New Testament regarding the relationship between slaves and masters, especially the situation of Onesimus and Philemon?  Furthermore, slavery needs to be examined and discussed in a complete historical context, not in a vacuum or single historical instance.  Slavery in the Bible sometimes involved people who deliberately sold themselves into that condition for the sake of debts or security.  Many slaves enjoyed a relationship with their masters that was much like family (See the article "Does the Bible condone slavery?" for more detail.) To simply state that "slavery is contradicted by the Bible's teachings...." is to offer poor biblical teaching on the matter.  This demands a far better survey of the material and a more nuanced examination of the subject.  Given our natural sensitivities to this subject in light of our checkered history on the matter, it is easy to draw simple conclusions that fail to fully wrestle with all the details.

Well, this was not intended to be a full treatment of such an exhaustive subject, merely a note clarifying a comment elsewhere.  We'll leave it at that.