Friday, April 23, 2010

Seminary or Bust

Seminary kicked my butt. And I am happy to admit it. I am a better pastor and my congregation is better fed because of it. I arrived at seminary thinking I was special, that I had what it would take to light the world on fire. Seminary cured me of these notions.

My first quarter introduced me to Dr Horace Hummel. Dr Hummel kicked my butt. I had never worked so hard hoping only to pass. Second year introduced me to Dr Norman Nagel. Dr Nagel obliterated me. And I love him for it. He broke down my legallstic and limited notions of God's work and tore the roof off my understanding of the Gospel. I got to know Dr Jeff Gibbs who introduced me to the sheer joy of exegesis. I got to know Dr Fueherhann who brought thoughtful analysis to my own history as he opened up the ideas that string from generation to generation. I can personally say with no hesitation that I can see farther and clearer because I stand on the shoulders of these and other men who were my teachers during my years at the seminary.

There is currently a movement in our synod to to deprive burgeoning pastors of the treasure trove of seminary education. Through various programs such as the Specific Ministry Program, men can become pastors with little to no residential time on our seminary campuses. In my mind this is sentencing us to poverty.

Think of it this way, suppose you were the owner of a 5 star restaurant famous for its culinary delicacies. Would you turn your kitchen over to someone who studied at home via the internet? Would you want a chef trained from a video series? Or would you want a chef mentored by the world's foremost and best chefs? Would you want a chef who spent time being trained and personally tutored by those who know the craft inside and out?

It is true that there are some pragmatic reasons for moving away from a residential seminary training program. Seminary training is expensive. A three year residential program is inconvenient. Non residential programs provide an easier means for capable men to become pastors. However, at the same time there are those who resent their seminary training. They arrive, as I did, thinking seminary was a hoop to jump through. They are resent their instructors, seeing them as unreasonable and harsh for their expectations. They get through their time at the seminary with a minimum of work and effort and then brag about leaving their Greek New Testament and their Book of Concord on their shelf. I thank the Lord that he moved me to repent of these sins and see the error. Yet I fear that our current "seminary lite" programs are a capitulation to those who deny the fruitfulness of seminary training. I am afraid that our 5 star restaurant could soon become a Denny's.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Everyday Miracle

In the second chapter Acts, Saint Luke records an astounding miracle. As you may well know, Acts 2 records the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. As they prayed in the upper room, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and then went out into the streets to preach, each one in a language that he had never learned or studied. Usually when we think of miracles in Acts 2 this is the one that comes to mind. But there is another. If you keep reading to the end of the chapter you will find that Luke records another miracle.

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (ESV)

When you stop to think about it, this is an astounding miracle. It was only a matter of weeks before that these very same people, the residents of Jerusalem, were gathered together at the trial and execution of Jesus. They were threatening to riot if Pontius Pilate did not hand Jesus over to them so that they could murder him. And now, only about a month and a half later they have been transformed from murders into philanthropists. They have opened their hearts and their hands to share what they had in common with all those who had need. This is nothing short of a miracle.

So, one must ask, what changed?

The best answer, the only answer, is Jesus. Jesus changed everything. To begin with, Jesus died. Not for his own crimes but for theirs. And even though they were murderers, he did not hold their crimes against them. Secondly, Jesus rose. Following his death, he demonstrated his authority over death by defeating it. Death had to let him go because he fulfilled death's penalty. Thirdly, he ascended. Jesus, the God-man ascended into heaven to sit on heaven's throne and to send His Holy Spirit. Fourthly, Pentecost came. The Spirit came. He came to the Apostles and then he came into the hearts and lives of those murdering Jerusalemites through the preaching of Peter and the apostles.

Luke tells us they were cut to the heart. The Holy Spirit convicted them of their sin. Luke tells us they asked the apostles what they should do. They were told to repent and to be baptized. The murderers repented. The sinners were baptized. They received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then, they were filled with the love of God for one another so that they gave of themselves generously and saw to it that no one was hungry and that no one had a need.

This community of Christians in Acts was truly a Spirit directed community. They were moved in their love for God to love each other. There was no need for taxes or dues or fees because they willingly gave as each one was able to each one who had need.

For us who are Christians 2000 years and a few thousand miles removed we might ask if the same miracle happened here? Yes it has. The same Spirit has come to us as we have gathered together to break the Bread of Christ's Body. The same Spirit flows through the living waters of Baptism. The same Spirit is alive and active in the preaching and hearing of the Word. This Spirit turns us from murderers and sinners and idolaters to lovers of God and one another.

Has the miracle of Pentecost moved us to the same works and gifts of love? Yes. Consider the gifts that are given each Sunday as Spirit filled Christians open their hearts and their hands to give their offerings so that they might be used to offer gifts of love to the families in our church and local community? Is that Holy Spirit who would prompt us to these gifts ever resisted through sins of greed and selfishness? Yes. Are these sins that we need to repent of? Yes. Does the Holy Spirit bring us to forgiveness? Yes.

We are baptized Christians. In our baptism the Spirit has united us to the death and resurrection of Jesus. This gift continues to be given to us brand new each day. Every night we go to bed confessing the sins of that day and every morning we wake up completely new with a clean slate. Every day we live in the knowledge and assurance that we are redeemed sinners, loved by God.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Numbers Are In

Those who follow LCMS politics might be interested to know that the nominations for Synod President have been counted. Occasionally I write for a website called Cross Focused Leadership for Missouri. This site has posted a review of these nomination tallies. The review is pasted below.

The numbers are in. LCMS congregations have submitted their nominations for the office of president, those nominations have been tallied, and the numbers have been reported. For the office of president, Matthew Harrison 1,332; Gerald Kieschnick 755; Herbert Mueller, Jr. 503; Carl Fickenscher II 5; and Daniel Gard 3. Those numbers tell an interesting story.

For the last nine years Gerald Kieschnick has served faithfully as our synodical president. Those years have been challenging and at times controversial. Yet through the challenges and even through the controversy, support for President Kieschnick has remained consistent. Even though some have questioned his approach, congregations have opted to give him the benefit of the doubt, backing him with their support through their nomination. For example, President Kieschnick received 1,055 nominations for the 2007 convention. The next closest was John C. Wohlrabe Jr. with 607. That is a difference of more than 400 congregations.

The latest round of nominations tell a new story. As the Synod faces organizational and financial challenges in addition to the doctrinal stresses of the past decade, congregations are nominating a new leader to lead us through these difficult waters. Rather than renominating our current President, who has sought to address these challenges through structural change (via the recommendations from The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Government), congregations are instead nominating a man who maintains that our problem is not structural, but relational. Our biggest problem is not that we need to become more efficient, like a business. Our biggest problem is that we have lost the ability to talk through our differences, like a family. Congregations appear to be in agreement that the structure will work just fine and the financial situation will improve if we stop brushing our issues under the rug and do the hard work of getting together to discuss those things that divide us.

Take another look at the numbers. Whereas in previous years and based on nominations the synod has given its nod to keep going with the direction Gerald Kieschnick had set, this year the margins are quite different. Kieschnick does not enjoy such a wide margin of support. In contrast, Pastor Matt Harrison, who has outlined a plan to bring the family back around to the table, has suddenly received 1,332 nominations.

So what has changed? In the past three years, Matt Harrison has demonstrated great leadership. This leadership has been evident as he spearheaded relief efforts in New Orleans following Katrina, and more recently in Haiti. He has shown himself to be a man proficient in our Lutheran Theology. He has demonstrated a knowledge of our history as a denomination and is conversant with our Missouri Synod source materials. He has a pastoral heart. In addition to his leadership, he has also provided a plan to help lead us out of our challenges and problems; financial, organizational, and relational!We are encouraged that more congregations of Missouri are putting their support behind the man who wants to keep the conversation “all in the family”. This bodes well for our synod.

We hope that delegates to the convention listen to the congregations, elect Matt Harrison as our President, and elect men and women in all offices who support his vision for cross-focused leadership for Missouri.