Thoughts on Using a Prepared Sermon Series

I’m using a Lenten series this year written by Concordia Seminary President Dale Meyer and his homiletics students. I’ve only used a sermon series written by someone else a few times in my near-ten years of ministry, and those were for the Lenten “round-robin” services I’ve participated in from time to time. In fact, apart from those three or four years, I’ve never used a sermon written by someone else. The few I have for those services was with some serious heavy re-writing. Ok, St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Sermon is the exception; I’ve read that at one of the Easter services a few times.

I approached using this prepared series a bit apprehensively. Not so much out of pride–Dale Meyer is a better preacher than me and most others. But I was apprehensive because preaching is a very personal thing for me. My sermons are for this congregation, for this time, for this moment and are more than just monologues, but are proclaimed in relationship between my and the people, preached to me and to them together. This is why I have never posted a sermon in its entirety here. They are not for general consumption and are not words for everyone.

Having said this, I preached the second in the lenten series this evening and realized that one benefit to using a series is that already it has brought some observations and topics that I do not generally address. This evening the topic was our identity, namely, our fragmented selves we present to the world versus the identity we have in Christ through baptism. In the past, I’m sure I have touched on this as a theme, but never as a topic, never as directly as this sermon did.

For this reason, I am grateful that I am using the series, and realize that there is more to using a prepared series than avoiding work, which I thought was the case before. It has definitely given me more to consider, and may just enrich my preaching in the future.

Blue Ribbon Task Force and Analysis Part Three:The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

Again, I was impressed with the overall demeanor and forthrightness of the Task Force. They have been responsive to questions and criticism and changed much of their recommendations over time. They do appear to be genuine and actively listening to the concerns and needs of those who have responded.

And many of their recommendations are good. I firmly support the change in length of terms, the four-year cycle and the reduction in delegates to Synodical Conventions. These will provide significant cost-savings to the Synod and to the congregations, which are assessed for conventions. In fact, I really find that few of the actual recommendations are bad or dangerous or misguided or anything else that critics have suggested. Since I am not a voting delegate to the Convention, I recommended those at my table vote “yes” for all of them for several reasons: 1) they do seem to hang together well and support one another; 2) it’s worth seeing what and how it will change our synod. Change, after all, is not our enemy.

The Bad

Having said that, I do have a few serious objections to recommendation #18. The Chief Mission Officer is endued with incredible power and influence and is an unelected position.

The perceived problem the CMO corrects is what they called the “Silo Effect.” Each of the existing Boards and Commissions are somewhat independent of the President, answering only to their elected boards. Each Program Board is able therefore to function independently of each other, and as someone on the panel said, “At times against one another.” The CMO, therefore, would eliminate this problem and provide for a coordinated implementation of the directives of the Convention and the Synodical President.

Basically the CMO would be running the show at the International Center, and in effect by a secondary–unelected–Synodical President. I asked the panel several questions about this which they were gracious enough to answer, yet their answers were unsatisfactory. Their claim is that the CMO is purely administrative, in that he answers to the President and oversees the tasks and responsibilities the President gives him in overseeing the two major offices of the Synod (National and International Mission). They added that since the President is out of the office on trips 40% of the time, it is necessary to have someone there to provide oversight and guidance to the offices and their work. The panel said that the President would retain all ecclesiastical duties, while the CMO would be administrative.

This is naive at best. The work of our current program boards which will be condensed into two offices IS ecclesiastical. It is theological. It is the work of the Gospel…hopefully. The CMO will be directly overseeing the missions, the spending, the establishment of goals and meeting those of Evangelism, Stewardship, Youth, Ethnic ministries and more. This is ecclesiastical. Period.

And the CMO is unelected and does not answer to the Convention. This is the most serious problem of the recommendations per se.

The Ugly

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance is not going to “fix” the Synod. It may indeed provide a streamlined method and allow the Synod to financially continue, but it cannot and will not heal the dysfunction and division that we are facing. In some ways it may only serve to cover it up even more.

There was an assumption that the Panel made several times which colored all their work and recommendations, namely, that Scripture does not stipulate polity. That is an exegetical move Lutherans have always made. I won’t argue with that here. But the problem is that the panel used this as a controlling principle and refused to consider implications of what our polity means for those doctrines and practices which are scriptural. For instance, grouping the ordained and non-ordained into one group called “Associate Members of Synod” is fine on the surface. Problems arise though when each order has the equal right to be selected as delegates. The panel said quite clearly that “Scripture does not tell us who should be voting or how it should be ordered.” True enough. But Scripture does, in our Lutheran understanding, divinely establish only one order in the Church–that of the Office of the Holy Ministry. When our actions and polity and human ordering of the system undermines the uniqueness of the office, or wrongly group this with humanly created orders and offices, it undermines Scripture and what we confess about the Office. There are theological implications–big ones–that the Panel and Task Force are ignoring.

Some make the argument that this ignorance is intentional. With SMP, “Lay Pastors” and the frequent abuse of the Office in allowing DCEs and Vicars to administer sacraments, the Office of the Ministry is being undermined and altered right before our eyes. The recommendation to create the “Associate Member” category simply helps in further degrading the divinely established office into something functional.

It may be unchristian to assign nefarious intentions to the Task Force. So I will be as christian as possible: what we are facing in our Synod is not a plot to give us a functional, protestant view of church and ministry but is due to  ignorance and foolishness and a complete and total disregard and aversion to think theologically. It is neglect. Of course it is easy and comfortable for us to partition off theology from practice, to ignore the implications of what we say and do. It is a result of sin. Of denial. What I am saying is that the Synod is suffering this sin in epidemic porportions.

Furthermore, there is a distressing change to the constitution in several articles. First, the proposed changes to Article III eliminate the language of III.7. Right now that section reads, “Encourage congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice, but also to develop an appreciation of a variety of responsible practices and customs which are in harmony with our common profession of faith;”. That section is expanded into two in the proposed changes, and it eliminates the language of “uniformity in church practice.”

The panel argued with our 2nd VP David Nehrenz, saying that the proposed changes mean the same thing, and that he has nothing to worry about. They must not have understood the point. The proposed change completely gives up the fact that our current constitution calls for “striving for uniformity” and it always has. Now, one may argue that it is unenforced and virtually ignored for the last 30 years or so. True. Furthermore, the current wording in emphasizing both “uniformity” and “variety” completely undermines one another; in other words, it is impossible to both call for things to be the same and different. That is true as well. The language of “variety” was recently added to the constitution (don’t ask me when). The Synod has called for uniformity of practice since its founding (or at least since 1894). To remove this will only throw in the towel.

Furthermore, under Article VI.4 the current constitution reads, “Exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymnbooks, and catechisms in church and school.” The proposed change (Art. VI.B.2) reads, “Use of worship and catechetical resources that are in harmony with the confessional basis of the Synod.” The panel argued with VP Nehrenz again that these two statements say the same thing. They do not. There is a difference in determining if something is pure and if it is in harmony. What this effects is the practical blessings of using whatever one wants as long as an argument can be sustained that it is somehow “in harmony.”

I’m saving the best for last.

As I sat through hours of talk and rationale and explanation and statements about “getting back to grass roots” and “emphasizing congregations” and “getting back to basics” of our mission in our congregations and our mission together and so forth, it slowly dawned on me that something very important was missing from everything that was being said. Worship.

Christ is head of the church, the ecclesia, those who are called out from the world and placed together around Him as our head and the one who is priest and lamb before us and with us. The ecclesia is the gathering of His people. It is the people who worship and receive Him in the Sacraments. As one delegate said to me privately, “Worship is ground zero for the church.” Worship–Divine Service–is everything. It is our identity, our life. It is what the Body of Christ does, its foundation, its creation, it is the life of the Church. But it was never mentioned. Never spoken of as our basic mission, as our life. Instead it was “missions” and “saving souls” and “doing the work of God” and all kinds of other priorities, some vague, some concrete.

I ask you, especially laity: how do you experience the Church, the Body of Christ, our Confession and Practice, our Mission, our life and identity as LCMS, as Lutherans, as Chrisitans?

I bet it is on Sunday mornings.

This is the problem with our Synod, and has been, probably since its foundation. The BRTFSSG will not fix it. They refused to mention it.

Lord help us.

Blue Ribbon Task Force Report and Analysis Part Two

In this part I will address the content of the presentation and the recommendations of the Task Force in more detail, reporting on some of the major changes and providing information gleaned from the Q&A portions of the presentation. Part Three will offer my analysis and commentary on the good, bad and ugly of the Synod and this restructuring proposal.

The final report is published here. If any of these posts are of interest to you, I recommend you read the whole thing, in all it’s mind-numbing detail.

Recommendations #1-3 were essentially brushed over by the panel. They include

#1 Affirm and Clarify Governing Documents

#2 Clarify the Congregational Principle

#3 Restore Circuits to their Primary Purpose

Despite some significant changes to the wording of the Constitution, the panel emphasized #3 the most throughout the event. They explained this by telling us to stop thinking of “circuits” as we know them now. Instead we should think of them like “clusters” of similar congregations.

Recommendation #4 is to establish yet another Task force to continue to study the configurations of the Districts, with an aim toward reducing the number to streamline expenses, reduplication and things of the sort.

Recommendation #5 and #6 deal with congregational representation at District Conventions. The main thrust is that every congregational will receive two votes: 1 lay and 1 “Associate Member of Synod” which means ordained or non-ordained church worker. A congregation may choose to send whatever Associate Member of Synod it wishes to the convention, be they pastor, principle, DCE, teacher or whomever. Furthermore these two recommendations include allowing dual parishes and vacancy parishes the right to each send one lay and one associate member, giving them more votes than they currently have. The controversial proposal of allowing congregations with 1000+ members an additional lay vote is included. However, if all these proposals are passed, the effect will be that a total of 560 votes will be given to large congregations, 411 to dual and tri-point parishes, and up to 750 for vacancy congregations based on today’s number. This is not an issue of allowing larger congregation to bully smaller ones with more votes. Probably the opposite. The panel explained the principle for this was equal representation at District Conventions.

Recommendations #7-8 invovle establishing five geographical regions which would then elect a regional Synodical Vice-President for their region. This is not to “represent the region” as the Synodical VPs represent the President, but to allow a more equitable distribution of the prasesidium and to allow VPs to not be clustered around the Great Lakes regions, but to play a greater role in attendance at District Events and so forth across the entire Synod.

Recommendation #9 is to change the terms of elected offices from 3 years to 4 and change the “cycle” of conventions to match this. The cycle would be: Year 1, Circuit Convocations; Year 2, District Convocation; Year 3, District Convention; Year 4, Synodical Convention.

Recommendation #10 calls for District Conventions to elect delegates to the Synodical Convention, according to the percentage of total synodical membership holding district membership. In other words, if the Oklahoma District had 3% of the total communicant members of the LCMS, then they would be allowed a 3% share of delegates to the Synodical Convention. In other words, the number of delegates to the Synodical Convention would not be determined by the number of valid circuits, as it is now, but on the size of the district as a whole.

#11 recommends halving the size of the convention to 650 delegates. There is precedent for this in our history, and would introduce a substantial cost-savings for the Synod.

There are a series of recommendations I don’t wish to comment on. Those may be found in the final report at the link above.

Recommendation #16 might have been controversial. It gives priority to convention resolutions to circuits and districts over overtures submitted by congregations. The rationale is that if a congregation cannot convince her circuit or district that said issue is important, it is likely not to convince the Synod as a whole to vote or even consider it. Point taken. The other reason this is not as bad as it may sound is that the Floor Committees already ignore whatever overtures they wish. But this recommendation could force them to at least consider the district resolutions more heavily than they sometimes do.

Recommendation #18 is a big one. It recommends completely restructuring the boards/committees/commissions of the Synod into two main offices: the Office of National Mission and the Office of International Mission. These two offices would direct and implement the priorities, resolutions and goals of the Convention. The Offices would be supervised and report to a newly created position called the Chief Missions Officer, who would report to the President. The CMO would be appointed by the Synodical President and approved by the Synodical Board of Directors. It is claimed that this position would be chiefly administrative.

Recommendations 19-21 all direct further task force work in clarifying the priority of the consitution of the by-laws, renaming the synod, and examining certification of pastors.

Again, in Part Three I will offer my commentary on this.

Blue Ribbon Task Force Report and Analysis: Part One

Part One: A Summary of the Event

My report and analysis will be divided into three parts. First, I will provide a general look at what happened at the conference. In part two I will offer and comment upon the content of the presentations and a portion of the questions raised and answers given, with emphasis on what I feel are the most critical and important recommendations. The final section will give my summary and general critique of this proposal and the future of the Synod.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance began their work four years ago. President Kieschnick suggested that they have spent thousands of hours on the recommendations, and it shows. Before you read all of this, please be aware that the entire presentation given in Boston a few weeks ago will be posted on the the Synod’s website in a few weeks. My review and analysis can be compared to this, keeping in mind that there may be some differences between that presentation and this one in Dallas.

The event began Friday at 1 pm. The presentation was held for four Districts: Oklahoma, Texas, Mid-South and Southern. I represented the Oklahoma District as a member of the Praesidium, not as a delegate. After some welcoming remarks, 1st Vice President Diekelman offered an opening devotion, based on the “Service of Prayer and Preaching” found in The Lutheran Service Book. Following this, we endured some lengthy presentations by members of the Task Force on the History of the Synod’s Constitution and Structure, and the basic methodology of the Task Force. These presentations were necessary, though on the long side, especially for a Friday afternoon.

These reports emphasized a few points that are important. First, they insisted there was no “hidden agenda” in what they were proposing. Second, they listened to leaders, congregations, circuits and each and every individual comment offered–thousands and thousands of them. Third, they emphasized that their work was somewhat independent of the Synodical President: while he directed them in their duties, their recommendations do not necessarily please the president in every point. President Kieschnick also emphasized this, directing us to re-read his report, which takes exception to a few of the proposals.

Next, the Task Force described each recommendation they offered, with an rationale provided. While not entirely comprehensive, they provided a good summary with some supporting reasons. At the conclusion of this, each table was allowed time to discuss the recommendations and submit written questions to the Task Force.

After our most excellent dinner (truly the most delicious broccoli I’ve ever had–steamed with onions and peppers–buttery and al dente), the best part of the conference began, with reading the questions, followed by a question-and-answer from the floor. At 8:15 pm, the four districts present at the Conference split into “Caucuses”, each with a representative from the Task Force or Praesidium present, to discuss the recommendations and have questions answered.

The next morning the conference convened at 8:00 am with more Q&A. First, additional submitted questions were answered, followed by equal time for questions from the floor. The even concluded with some closing remarks and closing devotion. We were dismissed at noon.

While painfully long, the meeting was very helpful for me in getting the big picture in what the Task Force was proposing and understanding the minutiae of the recommendations. I am encouraged by many of the recommendations, yet have some deep and abiding concerns in the overall picture and the future of our Synod.

Regional Gathering Update

I’m back from the BRTFSSG Regional Gathering. That’s “Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance.” As you no doubt figured out, live blogging wasn’t an option. They didn’t provide power in the Hall and I had trouble trying to connect to the ‘net. Sigh.

So I took copious notes and asked a number of questions and am working on a thorough post now. Be looking for it tomorrow or Monday.

My initial thoughts, though, are pretty positive. Many of the seriously bad ideas are no longer on the table and what is left is mostly pretty decent, as far as it goes. I was impressed with the presentation and the Task Force definitely did a great job in remaining positive, neither getting defensive nor growing impatient with any of the questions and showing understanding with many of the difficult questions and issues.

Details to come!

Lost Man Found and Answered Prayer

Ed Sutter, a friend of a member here, went missing Sunday morning. He left for his church at 9:30 and never showed up there, nor back at his home. At 88 and in poor health, his friends and family were very worried about him.

Sheriff’s deputies, search and rescue and observation planes looked for him Monday and Tuesday. Thoughts were that Ed went West, where he owns a vast extent of property. But he was not found. With temperatures well below freezing at night and not much above during the day, hope of finding him alive was growing thin.

Wednesday at noon the Senior’s Group gathered for lunch. Ed had joined his friend at these monthly lunches often for the last year or so, and his absence was on all our minds. I offered a prayer for the food and additional prayers for Ed, that he might be found alive. It felt a little awkward to pray for that. Reason dictated a man in his condition could not survive over 72 hours in conditions as we had.

But not ten minutes later his friend received a phone call. Ed was found in his car by a farmer, dehydrated and weak, but alive. He was being taken to the hospital in town.

It’s simply a miracle. Praise be to God!

The lesson I received from that is not to worry about reason and what seems impossible when praying. With God all things are possible. What’s more, this miracle was a great opportunity to see that we should never give up praying. Ed’s friend prayed day and night for good news, and I’m sure she prayed  much more than I prayed in the days preceding. She never gave up and God granted her prayer.

Obviously, this does not always happen. There are plenty of occasions were God’s people waiting years and years for Him to answer prayers. I’ve had more prayers answered with a “No” than anything else. But there are ones where there has been a profound and humbling “Yes.”

It doesn’t make sense to us. Why would we presume that God would tinker with things just for us? Isn’t intercessory prayer like this pretty manipulative? Doesn’t it treat God like a giant treasure-chest or like a magic hat?

I don’t know about that. What I do know is the great condescension of God that He would lend His ear to us at all. The great wonder that God even once would answer the prayer of us, His lowly creatures. That He would be one with us in Jesus Christ. In other words, if you are tempted to see prayer as beneath intelligent Christians–intelligent humans, and as manipulative, don’t blame us. The greater effrontery is that God deigns to actually listen to us!

Such it is. But prayer is a blessing, and a blessing not because sometimes we get what we want. It is not in having the King and Creator of All things visible and invisible pausing His divine ordering of every atom and isotope and particle to listen to the cries of we creatures of dust. The greatest blessing of prayer, the greater purpose of prayer is not in seeking stuff but in seeking Him.  It is to speak to Him, to bring our desires and sins and weakness to Him, to seek His will always, to conform ourselves to it. To empty ourselves of our self and be filled with Him and turned to others, created in His image. This is the greatest blessing of prayer.

Off To Dallas Soon for the Regional Gathering

I’m heading to Dallas this weekend for the regional Pre-Convention gathering of delegates. The purpose of this is to be briefed on the restructuring proposals that the LCMS will be voting on this Summer. No, I’m not a delegate to the Convention, but as 3rd VP of the Oklahoma District, my District President asked me to attend so that I and the other VPs would be well-informed of what is happening.

Some time ago I posted my thoughts on the initial proposal. The final proposal has changed somewhat and I haven’t offered comment on that yet. I plan to do so after this weekend. Restructuring our Synod probably needs to happen; it’s not a necessarily bad thing. But it’s not necessarily a good thing either. As it streamlines operating procedures it has the opportunity for good. As it eliminates the voice of smaller congregations it is problematic, to say the least.

If possible, I’m going to try my hand at some live blogging, if they will allow internet access during the presentations. If not, I’ll be taking notes and work them into a blog post for early next week.

Man in “Vegetative State” Answers “Yes” and “No” Questions

In a study that challenges the diagnosis of vegetative state, doctors found that the brain of a seemingly unconscious, vegetative man responded to yes-or-no questions in the same fashion as an alert, conscious person. This discovery not only complicates the medical definition of consciousness, but seems to call into question centuries of philosophy dealing with the nature of life and the self. Here’s the story

If this pans out it doesn’t take a genius to see that it will revolutionize medical ethics. Lord help us!