Destinations are important. As a child packed into a car on a Sunday afternoon for a random tour that seemed aimless, I began to discover that my dad (the person behind the wheel) may not have known where this journey would go but he did know where it would end up. Usually at the home of one my aunts or uncles where with some Lutheran style beverages and lots of snack foods, the adults in the room would tell the story of their lives to the children (who were not sure they wanted to hear it all). As it is now, well more than a half century removed with nearly all of my family now dead, I wish I would have listened more intently and could recall what was said.
As I recall the 25th Anniversary of Installation in my current parish, I am mindful of the fact that the journey of my life has more days behind me than before me. It is a time in which one tends to reflect less upon the journey than upon the desire to see a destination. We have been inculturated into the idea that our lives have a direction and a purpose and, I might say, an outcome. Christians have baptized this thinking and some of us think that God pulls the strings and directs us toward specific outcomes (everything from career to spouse to children to accomplishment). I do not join those who think everything is in God's plan and I am merely His marionette. I believe that the remnants of free will remain enough for us to choose and decide the twists and turns of this mortal life.
Sometimes it is this very idea of a "there" or end point that becomes the occasion for Lutherans to look with longing at other churches (especially those with deeper institutional roots). I reread the reasons behind Russ Saltzman's decision to enter the Roman Catholic Church and found it has just this idea. Lutheranism is a mess (more in an institutional sense than theologically). Of course, Rome and Constantinople are also a mess. So what is different? Our mess seems to highlight our weaknesses in such a way that the "there" or the outcome is more in question than in certainty. Rome and Constantinople have their own messes but they also have an institutional history somewhat longer than Lutheran jurisdictions and it provides a comfortable refuge for those who are not sure what will happen to Lutheranism down the pike.
As I have written often before, every Lutheran pastor who has worked to establish confessional identity, orthodox teaching, and consistent practice within a parish or several parishes, finds himself wondering what will happen when the next fellow comes along. It is not a lack of faith that causes us concern. We have seen someone come in and undo years of authentic Lutheran pastoral care in weeks or months. Congregations have declined and even split over such things. It is hard to see evidence of the kind of ecclesiastical supervision that would prevent such pendulum swings that create angst in the pew and in the pulpit over just such things. So I am not unsympathetic toward those Lutheran pastors who wonder about the "there" or the destination. All Lutheran jurisdictions are in some sort of decline. The "there" we fear may just be the "there" we cannot avoid. Read Saltzman:
What I sought for my faith was an ecclesial density; the feeling that there is a “there” there. The state of Lutheran church bodies in America simply does not approach it.
That said, it is not the Lutheranism that is the problem. It is the Lutherans who devalue or diminish their Lutheran identity in pursuit of success. I was interested to read again how Saltzman put it. He was not running away from Lutheranism as much as the state of affairs among Lutheran jurisdictions. He was not disowning his past but seeing his future clouded by the mess that Lutherans have created out of their once vibrant confessional identity. I hear some Lutherans who have jumped ship and seem to delight in shaking the dust off their feet but I also hear some who ache to remain Lutheran but who believe it is hard to be Lutheran in a Lutheran jurisdiction today.
I reject nothing of being a Lutheran. That is the transition, not the conversion; I am moving, but the Christian faith that has marked my life is coming with me. I learned my prayers as a Lutheran, memorized the catechism, and when I was struggling out of the well of agnosticism tending to atheism every third or fourth day, God put in my life some challenging, passionate, authentic Lutheran pastors who taught me well. For a guy who in those years did not believe Christ was raised, it was in a Lutheran community founded in the Resurrection of Christ that I first believed there had been a resurrection. What may I do with that, save give God praise?FWIW, I do not share that judgment. If I am ever going to jump ship, it will not be to exchange messes. That said, twenty-five years in one parish (after thirteen in another), I will do everything in my power to make sure that the confessional identity in teaching and practice will outlive me. Because, as we must recall from time to time, it is not about me, my preference, or my opinion, but about the Word of the Lord and the confessional exposition of that Word founded faith in which we confess the unchanging catholic and apostolic faith. The "there" may not be a more orderly institution but the fruits of the Word preached and the Sacraments administered in your term of service. The only question left is whether or not that is enough for me. . .