Monday, January 31, 2011
A Creative Tension which Can Also Be Destructive
Certainly when the Missouri forebearers came to the USA and saw the state of Lutheranism here, they thought the tilt had headed in the wrong direction. Part of the strenth of Missouri was the clear call to doctrinal truth and fidelity in a world in which compromise and the loss of identity had eased some of Lutheranism from the certainty of their Confessions to the more messy business of tolerance and an identity and practice more in keeping with the reality of the American landscape.
Yet the other remarkable thing about these Missouri forebearers is that they not without a commitment to mercy, service, and outreach. This is reflected in the phenomenal growth of a church body that began mostly with the passengers of a few small sailing ships and ended up a hundred years later heading toward its second million in size. It had also moved from a large rural to a much more urban and suburban church body during the same time period. The parochial school, system of colleges, and commitment to handling the flow of refugees from the fatherland pointed to a church not only with a head for truth but a heart of love.
At some point in time, the pendulum began to swing and purity became more important that mercy -- at least to some. When that happened tensions were created internally that began to threaten the very identity of this church body called Missouri. Those who wanted to err on the side of outreach and engagement were seen as liberal and those who were suspicious of other Lutherans and, perhaps, even fearful of this whole American experiment, claimed to be conservative. So we ended up in 2011 with a division in Missouri that saw those in favor of outreach and engagement as the heirs of the "moderate" Missouri of the 1970s and the term confessional became synonymous with those who fought that battle for the Bible and won.
I am not so sure that this is all that accurate -- to be sure those who left Missouri in the 1970s were more liturgical and churchly than many of those who operate as evangelicals in confesional clothing today. And, it could be said that those who fought and won in the 1970s may just have a bit too much in common with fundamentalists in American than they care to admit. In any case, the health of our church body and the positive future we seek is tied to the recapturing of the healthy balance between purity and mercy, between maintaining the faith faithfully and reaching out in love to those who are not at all like us.
If anyone is well poised to lead us back to such a tension in balance, it may well be Pres. Matthew Harrison. For many years he worked as a parish pastor in an inner city setting, as director of the organization for world relief and human care services for our entire church body, and at the same time maintained an exceptional career as author, translator, and teacher of confessional Lutheran theology. I certainly welcome our church body reclaiming its identity more in the middle of this tension. It is NOT that I believe we should discard or water down our confessional identity or theological stance but that I believe we must at the same time reclaim our heritage and activity of mercy and service.
The truth is that I find myself often between those for whom no one can ever be too pure and those for whom no one can be too compassionate and welcoming. Just because I am against the watering down of the faith in order to paper over churchly divisions or to win Amercans to faith from our increasingly secular culture, does not mean I am insensitive to the fact that many of our congregations are not welcoming communities of faith and are isolated from the people around them and, too often, unwilling to serve them in any meaningful way. What will prove destructive to us as a church body is if we choose one side of this tension over the other and what will help our rebirth and renewal is when we can find a way to be faithful in doctrine and practice while at the same time enthusiastically and cheerfully doing mercy's work and Christ-like service within our communities.