A Mystical Point in Time: The Lutheran Ministerium and Synod-USA National Convention
The National Convention of the Lutheran Ministerium and Synod–USA held at Christ Lutheran Church of Chetek, Wisconsin June 22nd-24th was a Mystical Point in Time.
It was a glance back at recent American Lutheran history: first, a snapshot look at the inauguration of the American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) 25 years ago in Minneapolis, historically the predecessor body to the LMS-USA; second, a nostalgic nod to the launching of the LMS-USA itself in Indianapolis, Indiana 17 years ago in 1995.
This year’s National Gathering in northern Wisconsin reunited 4 men tied to the earliest history of both Lutheran bodies and all now members in good standing of the Clergy Roster of the LMS-USA in 2012. Dr. Donald Thorson of Chippewa Falls, a member of the Executive Committee of the American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) a quarter of a century ago, joined the LMS-USA formally in the moving closing service held at Christ Lutheran of Chetek on Sunday, June 24th; Dr./Pastor Ralph Spears the Presiding Pastor of the Synodical side of the LMS-USA and Pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran of Indianapolis, spoke at the Convention’s opening worship service on June 23rd; Pastor Mark Dankof of Immanuel Lutheran of San Antonio and a member of the LMS-USA since its inception in 1995, was acknowledged as the first Lutheran clergyman to join the AALC officially on July 10, 1987; Pastor Emeritus John Erickson of Christ Lutheran of Chetek, the Presiding Pastor of the Ministerium, rounded out the lineup of AALC veterans who have graced the senior leadership of the LMS-USA since the heady days of Indianapolis in 1995.
The theme of Pastor Spears’ message for the Opening Service on June 23rd was “What Do These Stones Mean?” The text for his address was I Peter 2: 1-10, the Epistle Reading of the Day. Pastor Spears underscored Jesus Christ as the Living Stone, “disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious,” and disciples of Christ as “lively stones. . . .” who comprise “the spiritual house, a holy priesthood, . . . a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, . . .” who have been “called out of darkness into His marvelous light. . . . [who] have now obtained mercy [I Peter 2, esp. verses 9-10].”
Pastor Spears emphasized the Living Stone as the center of the story of Christian redemption, reconciliation, and eternal life. The Lively Stones are entrusted with continuing to “Tell the Story,” of the Living Stone, the theme of the LMS-USA National Convention, with absolute fidelity to the inspired, inerrant Word of God of Scripture which conveys Christ Crucified and Christ Risen as the Christ of Scripture, the Christ of History, and the Christ of Faith.
Dr. Spears’ homily set the tone and the stage for the major speakers and presenters assigned to provide instruction and ministry to those gathered at Christ Lutheran for the weekend. There were seven (7) special presentations which followed, and which covered a wealth and breadth of material for those who traveled to northern Wisconsin from around the country to hear them.
These seven presentations were Dr. Ralph Spears’ thoughts on the significance and function of Liturgy; Pastor John Erickson’s repristination of his observations of October of 1993 in Janesville, Wisconsin on issues affecting the American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) in the early 1990s, issues having a direct bearing on the eventual formulation of the LMS-USA in 1995; Pastor Mark Dankof of San Antonio followed with a sobering application of lessons past and present in his message entitled, “The Famine, The Watchman, and the Remnant.” Dr. Donald Thorson’s offering was entitled, “Inerrancy of the Scriptures: A Question of Focus? Focusing on the History of the American Association of Lutheran Churches: Seeking Relevance for the Lutheran Ministerium and Synod-USA”; Maureen Spears-Tullis made a compelling presentation entitled, “What Makes a Church a Church?”: Musing on Models, Ministries, and True Meaning with Discussion.” Pastor Jeffrey Iverson rounded out the weekend with his own personal journey and life history, tabbed as his “Finding the LMS-USA.”
Each presentation was compelling. In his tome on Liturgy, Dr. Spears insisted that, “Liturgy ties together the theology and practice of a Church and acts as a barometer of its very function.” In that regard, the longtime Pastor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran in Indianapolis shared his historical and functional perspective on worship, postulating that, “Most liturgy can be traced to the all-important need to remember, especially in the context of a verbal tradition before the days of written history.” Liturgy in this regard involves the remembrance of key events in the life of a people in linear history, where the prose of scribes enables the people to “. . . memorize the events, rehearsing and singing the prose from memory from time immemorial.” Eventually, Dr. Spears reminded the Convention attendees, these pieces of prose were written down by later generations, as evidenced by the Song of Deborah and the Great Passover Liturgy. The Collect for the Second Sunday of Lent, titled “Reminisce,” is suggestive. God commanded His people to remember–and they did.
Dr. Spears proceeded to remind his hearers that if Liturgy includes committing a proven history to memory, it must also “. . . be careful with the words and phrases concerning God–and use them with great respect.” Liturgy must avoid the “God and I are buddies” approach in which “we prevail upon Him with a certain insider attitude“, where intimacy on God’s terms is replaced by one solely on ours. A misplaced sense of intimacy, a false sense of “ordering the Almighty around” and embracing the trivial to make it more approachable, are to be avoided. Calling upon the Name of the Lord is to be accompanied by absolute respect and care. The attitude of the Pastor in leading the Liturgy must be saturated in the latter, with balance rooted in Biblical and historical persective assisting in the avoidance of both manipulation and trivialization of the Divine and the Holy.
Pastor John Erickson’s review of his October 1993 message in Janesville, Wisconsin, entitled “A Problem of Identity,” brought 25 years of AALC and LMS-USA history into play in reviewing his own observations on an identity crisis in American Lutheran theology and worship previously evidenced in the Spears lecture on Liturgy. With references to changes in the AALC between its constituting National Convention in November of 1987 in Minneapolis, and an “infamous” National Convention only 3 years later at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Pastor Erickson chronicled the erosion of Lutheran theology and practice in that situation, courtesy of the trends of much of contemporary American Evangelicalism, including the Charismatic Movement, the Health-Wealth Prosperity Gospel, the reduction in doctrinally sound preaching, the embrace of Dispensationalism and Premillennial Eschatology, the replacement of the Lutheran Chancel (altar, font, and pulpit area) as the focus of worship with the “Stage” of Evangelical Performers and Entertainers, who often substitute “success” and “numbers” for doctrinal and devotional integrity informed by the history of Liturgy and the orthodox Lutheran understanding of this history.
Pastor Mark Dankof of San Antonio followed with “The Famine, The Watchman, and the Remnant.” It was noted that Pastor Dankof was literally the first Lutheran clergyman in history to be accepted onto the clergy roster of the American Association of Lutheran Churches on July 10, 1987. His congregation, St. Matthias Lutheran of Seattle, was one of the Charter Churches entered into membership on the AALC’s Congregational Roster at the constituting National Convention in Minneapolis in 1987. Pastor Dankof was subsequently elected to the AALC’s Board of Trustees and its Board of Higher Education in those pivotal days.
Yet within 3 years, he and his congregation were gone. Why? His presentation dealt with the reasons for the departure, based on the trends in the AALC cited by Pastor Erickson in 1993 and again in 2012. With reference to Amos 8, Habakkuk, Revelation 2: 9, and Daniel’s 70 Week Prophecy in Daniel 9, Pastor Dankof suggested that both the United States generally and most of American Lutheranism specifically, are being impacted by a Famine of God’s Word as Ancient Israel was at the time of Jeroboam II and the prophecies of Amos. To be a Watchman at such a time in history references the hardships of Habbakuk and others playing this role now for God’s people in difficult and dark days. The Confessing Church of Christ is a Remnant Gathering of the Faithful in the midst of such darkness, with reference to the Church of Smyrna in John’s Apocalpyse as the model (Revelation 2:9).
Dr. Donald Thorson of Chippewa Falls gave a critical overview of the history of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy in the strand of American Lutheranism officially committed to this position as articulated in Thesis Number One of the Minneapolis Theses (1925), with special attention paid to the history of the American Lutheran Conference (1930) and its Member Synods; the American Lutheran Church of 1960; and finally the American Association of Lutheran Churches (1987). The wealth of data, dates, and quotations from relevant documents cited by Dr. Thorson proved invaluable for those who heard the presentation and received a written summation of his lecture. Perhaps the most cogent observation provided by the AALC’s ex-Executive Committee member was the dry martini that, “In my view, the irony and lament of the ALC’s history is that the loftiest statement of faith [Thesis Number One of the Minneapolis Theses of 1925) did not protect an errant organization. The dominant [political] party in a group finds a way to re-interpret or circumvent what is written on paper.”
There were three (3) additional sessions of instruction for the faithful gathered at Christ Lutheran of Chetek. Maureen Spears-Tullis’ session on “What Makes a Church a Church” explored different Church Models, including the Church as Institution, the Church as Mystical Communion, the Church as Sacrament, the Church as Herald, and the Church as Servant. These Models correspond to various recognizable denominational forms in the United States; each has a description of its reason for being; each has advantages and disadvantages. Two recognizable dynamics to be identified are the Fighting Curmudgeon Syndrome and the “I’ll Help You Change” Syndrome. Maureen Spears Tullis concludes that these Syndromes, and the various Church Models, all indicate that the same goal is being pursued in different ways by all the approaches: “. . . trying to convert followers or establish salvation or keep church membership alive and the church doors open–by manipulating members into becoming closer to Christ. . . . ” An accompanying observation in the lecture was the emphasis on the true Church as one that is Christ proclaiming and centered in the Word. The dangerous of a modern church rooted in secularism, and as an institution “making Christ serve them instead of [them] serving Christ,” was emphasized as a warning to the Remnant and Confessing Church in a “Brave New World.”
Arik and Tina Johnson of Madison told the LMS-USA National Convention of their farming acreage south of Wisconsin’s Capitol, designed to be used to facilitate food production to feed the needy of the inner city in the name of Jesus Christ, according to the focus of the Parable of the Sower. The name of the food and Gospel proclamation ministry, based on the New Testament parable, is Altum Radix (“Deep Roots“). Arik has been the longtime Internet web site director of the LMS-USA gratis in perpetuity, and recently began the Facebook page for this Remnant gathering of the Lutheran faithful.
Finally, Pastor Jeffrey Iverson rounded out the Convention seminars with his “Finding the LMS-USA.” Pastor Iverson referenced all of the circumstances that led to his encounter with the Synod’s leadership in the 1990s; his personal journey in his calling prior to that time; his ordination service of June 8th, 1997 at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Indianapolis, presided over by Dr. Spears and where Pastor Mark Dankof offered the special day’s homily; and finally with references to many trials and tribulations since, trials seemingly typical for the Christian in an increasingly post-Christian American society and secularized church.
Pastor Iverson noted that, “Whatever the future holds for me, I know that the LMS-USA still has the treasure I was looking for back in 1997. That treasure is God’s inerrant Word, His Sacraments, our Lutheran Confessions, and our traditional Liturgy. But as the Apostle Paul reminds us, ‘. . . we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.'” [2 Corinthians 4: 7-9]