Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Of Foreboding and Forgiveness


This column reaches you from France. It is written with a sense of foreboding. Just before leaving California, I called a friend in New York. He is a native Berliner of Jewish descent. In the early Nazi years he fled to Paris while still a teenager, and then fought in the French Resistance. “Make the best of your stay in Europe,” he counseled me. “By the time of your return we might be living in a totally different world.”

This sounded plausible. You would have to be blind and deaf not to realize that a new era is upon us, and that this era is unlikely to be agreeable. We discern the bitter fruit of human hubris all around us – in the Gulf of Mexico, in economics, finance, in the shaky condition of governments on both sides of the Atlantic; in the deplorable failure of most media outlets to inform their audiences responsibly about world affairs; and in the state of the Church many of whose branches have either slid into rank heresy kowtowing to sexual deviance, or are offering feel-good fluff as a tonic to soothe the apprehension millions share with my New York friend.

This morning I telephoned a former German government minister about the future of dollar, the euro and other currencies. He is a statesman with a reputation of financial wisdom. He said, “I frankly cannot predict where we are heading. I have just bought Norwegian bonds because the Norwegian money appears to be relatively healthy, but who knows? Tomorrow I could be proven wrong.”

It cannot be the purpose of this column to list the plethora of indicators leading a neighbor of mine in France to compare the current time in history with the situation that prevailed in Europe just before World War I. “An insignificant event in an insignificant placed triggered that calamity,” she said, referring to the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914.

As the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod approaches its convention in Houston in July, it must consider the present perils in national and world affairs. Confessional Lutherans know of course that theirs is not to offer amateurish advice in worldly matters. Bicker though they might among each other, the various parties within the LCMS have generally resisted the temptation to emulate other denominations in poaching in alien territory, meaning the secular realm.

In fact, the opposite extreme is true and equally deplorable – an ostrich-like inclination not to concern itself at all with the likelihood of impending catastrophe. You don’t hear much from Lutherans about the Church’s role if and when disaster strikes. Four years ago, I taught a doctoral-level seminar at Concordia Seminary St. Louis on precisely this issue and received some brilliant papers from my students but could not find anybody prepared to publish them; they did not appeal to prevalent Lutheran tastes in America.

But then how is the Church to react in the event of terrorist attacks with nuclear or biological devices; how will it function when the supplies of food and energy are disrupted, and when communications have broken down? How will it respond to severe persecution perhaps even in America and Western Europe? How will it minister to its faithful when they are cut off from their sanctuaries, and when pastors have lost contact to their scattered flocks?

Are these unthinkable scenarios? It would be foolish to assume that they were – even in the United States. Take the word of a septuagenarian for this, a man who has spent his childhood in a country that used to be the most civilized in the world and was reduced to an antechamber of hell almost overnight.

The time might soon come when there will be no mega churches with thousands of happy-clappy congregants; whoever among Lutherans believes that in periods of woe bestselling guidelines to a purpose-driven life can be put into action will be egregiously disappointed. What sustained me in air raid shelters and during months of starvation were not expressions of religious enthusiasm but the words and tunes of the Scripture-based liturgy I had memorized since Sunday school, and the unshakeable message that, whatever happened, I was a forgiven sinner and would therefore live eternally by virtue of Christ’s vicarious suffering, death and resurrection.

This basic Christian truth is most clearly formulated in the Lutheran Confessions. However, they are a treasure sometimes too well kept by the LCMS; it makes no sense to hold these treasures jealously in reserve when millions of troubled Christians realize that they are staring at the abyss. I know of Lutherans outside the Missouri Synod praying that the LCMS will emerge from Houston “as a robust church ready to allow the treasures of its own tradition to bear fruit.” The man who said this was Thomas Schlichting, a canon lawyer and high-ranking official in the state-related “Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony.”

Rev. Albrecht-Immanuel Herzog, a pastor in the regional Lutheran Church in Bavaria, told me about sizable groups of Lutherans in Germany who are not in communion with the LCMS but are yearning for confessional clarity. “Missouri could provide this clarity if only it surfaced and opened its treasure chest,” he said adding that particularly younger pastors and theologians felt that way.

It is comforting to know that none of the major factions in the LCMS is inclined to follow the mainline Protestant trend toward apostasy. Yet even among Missourians the liberating Lutheran message is diluted by corporate numbers games, and drowned out by sets of drums that have replaced altars in many of our sanctuaries. And this message is: “You are forgiven. Now go and roll up your sleeves and engage this dangerous world.” This is what the Lutheran Church must proclaim more urgently than ever in times of foreboding, and this is why I have endorsed Rev. Matthew Harrison’s candidacy for the office of LCMS President. In my estimation he is the most likely man to open the Lutheran treasure chest for all to see. The moment to do this for the benefit of the whole Church of Christ is now.

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