Despite some evidence to the contrary, I do not like playing the political game. I've done it when I though it necessary in the young and callow days of my youth, though I am neither mentally nor emotionally equipped for a life of politics, whether it's the state or ecclesiastical kind. I've been bitten in the butt (if you'll pardon the expression) one too many times to enjoy that game, so I avoid these days it when I can. However, sometimes it becomes necessary to put your hand in the flame.
Last week, February 16-18, 2012, the Southern Illinois District of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod met in its 56th triennial convention. It was our duty to elect officers, to listen to reports concerning the district’s activities and health, and to act upon or reject various resolutions which had been submitted to the district for our consideration. Some of those things were fairly agreeable—for example, it took no great deliberation to thank former District President Herb Mueller for his service to the district, service which was interrupted by his sudden drafting into Synodical service as First Vice-President. Upon his departure, Timothy Scharr, who had served as the district’s First Vice-President, was elevated to the office of President; and it was our glad duty to confirm that elevation by electing him to that office so that he could continue his faithful service in that capacity. We also, with few exceptions, elected a fairly good slate of district officials.
However, even in as solid a district as ours, there is never full agreement or cooperation when it comes to our doctrine and practice. A fairly innocuous resolution to encourage the exclusive use of doctrinally pure liturgical materials was so watered down by amendments that it was unpalatable even to some of those who originally supported it. Words like "legalism" and "lack of trust" were thrown around by those who felt their liturgical freedoms were being endangered. At the end of a convention a resolution was introduced to bring the district's differences regarding liturgical uniformity to the Synod's Koinonia Project, a program designed "to discuss and clarify how faithful teaching (doctrine) and faithful doing (practice) are intimately connected and ought be congruent." (In other words, we'll discuss our differences so we'll understand each other better and hopefully find some sort of unity. We'll talk, and then we'll talk, and then we'll talk some more, until we've talked through all the things we need to talk about.)
One of the high points of the convention for me was spending time with y wife. She served as my congregation's lay delegate to the convention and as a member of one of the floor committees. We spent more quality time together in about 48 hours than we have in a long time. Our teenage daughter watched the Terrible Trouble Twins in our hotel room. Since the hotel and convention center were connected, we could visit the kids during breaks and were available in case of emergency. While they played games in our rooms, Faith and I sat together and enjoyed just being "alone" together without the kids getting jealous of our attention--something we don't get to do very often.
Another high point was the presentation of Bishop Wilhelm Weber of the Lutheran Church in South Africa. The LCSA is a mission partner of the Southern District, and it's encouraging to see fellow Lutherans in another part of the world clinging faithfully to the Word of God. In fact, it seems as though their faithfulness is a beacon to the rest of the world, just as Africa was a beacon of early Christianity through such worthies as Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose. Perhaps they can teach us a thing or two.
The presence of LCMS President Matthew Harrison for the first evening of the convention was a tremendous blessing, especially considering the long day he had already had after testifying before Congress regarding the Obama administration's incursion into the First Amendment rights of both church bodies and individual Christians (and Jews, by the way). He received a standing ovation for his bold and faithful testimony before the princes of this world, and then he taught us boldly from the Word of God.
Something I had never seen before at a district convention was the opportunity for individual confession and absolution. Though I did not avail myself of this opportunity, the fact that it was even offered at what is, in essence, a business meeting, was an encouraging sign for our church body.
And of course, any time a group of pastors gets together, we tend to enjoy periods of relaxation around a Lutheran beverage of choice. Spending time with the brothers over a can, bottle, mug or glass of beer (couldn't find a stein anywhere) is always a pleasant way to pass a few hours time. The consolation of the brothers is a blessing not to be missed.
All was not wine and roses, however. I've already mentioned the lack of unity in doctrine and practice among the delegates. I don't want to dwell on that, lest I get frustrated and cynical (or even more so than usual).
In addition to the obvious disparity in doctrine in practice was what might have seemed a passing comment in a sermon. One of the preachers talked about birth control, saying that those who "close themselves to the possibility of children have something in common with those who are pro-choice." In other words, he taught from the pulpit that those who practice any form of contraception are sinning against the Fifth Commandment. To preach that from the pulpit, while possibly not untrue (though you'd have to have extremely clear and compelling evidence from Scripture to convince me), would require a lot of teaching on the part of a preacher before he could say such a thing without unduly binding the consciences of the sheep in his care. And to throw it in as an offhand statement? Let's just say *I* won't be preaching that from the pulpit any time soon.
For the most part, the convention was a pleasant surprise for me. Not that I'd want to do it all the time, but I suppose I can handle it every three years. I hope my pessimism will prove to be unfounded concerning the Koinonia Project, and I hope that the Lord will restore true unity in the Church. Nonetheless, I won't be surprised if our fellowship remains fractured as long as the Church awaits the return of Christ in glory.