27 July 2007

Big Picture: The First Shall Be Last

It's been a full week since the Convention concluded. As I have stepped back to assess and reassess what happened, I remain unconvinced that the "Jesus First" (sic) political action group was really all that effective in accomplishing its goals. Oh, I readily agree that much of what happened was comfortable to "Jesus First," and compatible with its agenda. But I am mainly of a mind that this was far more a matter of momentum and coincidence than any great political success. Perhaps that seems a pointless distinction, given the end results either way. Yet, I believe it is important to consider what has actually happened, and why, lest we take our cues and draw our conclusions from superficial appearances, and be misled even further away from the heart and substance of the Church.

To be sure, "Jesus First" was impressive in its organization and presentation, both leading up to and at the Convention. Clearly, a great deal of time and energy were expended, and what must have been a lot of money was invested (in something other than fanning the flames of Ablaze!). At least nine mailings of glossy, full-color newsletters to all of the delegates, as well as multiple "letters" from individual delegates, a professionally-printed voting guide (not that "Jesus First" is in favor of telling people how to vote, normally, but desperate times call for desperate measures), a daily bulletin handed out to delegates as they left their hotels in the morning, a display table in the Convention center, and well-identified workers available on every hand. It is not hard to imagine the long hours and sleepless nights that were required to make all of this happen, since I have good friends and colleagues who engaged in the same kind of efforts for the conservatives three years ago. It's all well-intentioned, no doubt, on everybody's part. But does it actually do any good (even aside from whether one's positions are right or wrong)?

My Mom always said that it takes two to argue or fight, and I warrant that is no less true on the level of national synodical politics. Political sparring tends to be self-perpetuating, in my opinion, and can easily become an all-consuming distraction from the very things for which we all contend. I've said before that, without a conservative counterpart to butt heads against, I think "Jesus First" primarily came off looking bad, perhaps even a little silly, at this year's Convention. I'm sure their ardent supporters didn't think so, but the non-partisan lay delegate sitting next to me became increasingly frustrated and impatient with the "Jesus First" posturing and propaganda as the week wore on. I never said a word against "Jesus First," but as far as he could tell, the people representing that group were primarily interested in preventing discussion and debate. From my perspective, he was not the only one who quickly grew weary of having the same two or three gentlemen stand up and call the question after only one or two speakers. That ploy worked for the first day or two, before the delegates got the feel of parliamentary procedure, but the assembly became less and less tolerant of terminating debate prematurely.

The fact of the matter is that "Jesus First" was in an agreeable and advantageous position going into this Convention. There is no secret that it has been supportive of the current LCMS administration (with the exception of the Board of Directors), and sympathetic to the President's agenda. Indeed, the main line of argument from "Jesus First" for the past four or five years has been that we must "trust our respected leaders" (except for the Board of Directors). It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that the business at hand throughout this Convention tended to be in line with the "Jesus First" agenda. The incumbent administration will always have the momentum, just as incumbent officers are normally a shoe-in for re-election (barring any major guffaws). The Floor Committees, appointed by the President, for all intents and purposes control what comes before the delegates, and of course the Chair determines and directs how things are handled. That's not a fault of the present administration, but an aspect of our polity, be it good, bad or otherwise. Sometimes one interest group has the advantage, sometimes another, and that's just the way it goes.

In view of the advantages that "Jesus First" had this time around, and given the tremendous amount of time, energy and money it devoted to accomplishing its political goals, the real surprise is not what it achieved, but what it did not. The "Jesus First" voting guide, the "One List," was somewhat successful, but not overwhelmingly so. The resolutions that we dealt with as delegates were largely agreeable to "Jesus First," yet they did not come to us from "Jesus First," but from the Floor Committees. Despite my own frustrations and disappointments with Floor Committee 8, positive adjustments in many of the other resolutions were brought about through open hearings with the other Floor Committees. Those preliminary amendments by and large reflected the concerns and constructive criticism of conservative delegates, who spoke on the basis of their personal considerations and convictions. The process worked.

As resolutions came to the floor of the Convention, amendments and substitutions were largely resisted, but not entirely so. Where discussion and debate were permitted to happen, there were further corrections and improvements made. Some resolutions were tabled and died, and at least one resolution was defeated. Here, too, the process was working: that is to say, the real political process of the Convention itself, in contrast to the lobbying of para-synodical political action groups. There was give and take, and productive argument in the best sense of the word. Bad things were avoided, and good things were accomplished. In my opinion, nobody "ran away with the show." Certainly, there was plenty of stuff that didn't go my way, but I'd frankly be shocked and a little nervous if it had (or ever did). I surely don't have all wisdom, but I am prone to pride and presumptuousness; so on both counts I pray that the Church at large would assist me in correcting my errors, curbing my ego, and clarifying my confession of Christ.

Thus far, I've been analyzing the elections in particular, and that has been interesting. Despite the prejudicial comments of the Chair and one of the newly re-elected vice presidents of Synod, floor nominations were permitted and received (as the democratic process and the rules of good order require). Even so, and not surprisingly, the floor nominees did not do well in the elections. But that was true across the board. "Jesus First" included four floor nominees in its "One List," and all four of them made it onto the Big Ballot, but none of them were elected. The "United List" called for many more floor nominations, and most of them made it, but only one of them was elected. There can be no question, therefore, that incumbents and the initial slate of candidates from the Nominations Committee had a decided advantage, irrespective of political alignments. What is more, in almost every case where there needed to be a second ballot for any given office, the nominees receiving the most votes on the first ballot were then elected, again irrespective of anyone's voting guide. These things suggest that delegates were taking their lead from a variety of sources and considering a variety of factors. As it should be.

A couple of outstanding examples are the elections of the vice presidents, the Secretary of Synod, and the Board of Directors. Naturally, these are the offices to which "Jesus First" directed the bulk of its attention, but it honestly didn't do very well in these cases. True, its candidates for President, First Vice-President, and three of the other vice presidents were elected, but all five of these were incumbents, and their winning majorities were not impressive. Chaplain John Wohlrabe not only did respectably on the presidential ballot, but came very close to winning the office of First Vice-President, and was then elected as Third Vice-President of the Synod. The "Jesus First" candidates who weren't already incumbents didn't come close. Similarly, Rev. Ray Hartwig was handily re-elected as the Secretary of the Synod, despite the rhetoric of "Jesus First" against him, and Rev. Robert Kuhn was re-elected to the Board of Directors, even though no one has been subjected to greater criticism by "Jesus First" than he has been for years.

Well, these are simply examples that I have noted, and I am aware that exceptions to the rule can always be discovered. I'm not suggesting that "Jesus First" was entirely unsuccessful, but I am arguing that its impressive political efforts were a poor investment on its part. More to the point, and aside from the fact that I disagree with "Jesus First" pretty widely on most things, I am more and more convinced that political posturing and propaganda does more harm than good (by almost any criteria). I know there were conservative political efforts, as well, but I'm glad they didn't amount to much organization or any spit and polish. That's in spite of the fact that I am sympathetic to, and largely in agreement with, conservative goals and intentions. I just don't believe that para-synodical political groups are the right means to those ends.

I do encourage everyone to discuss elections, nominations and candidates, overtures and resolutions, and even our synodical polity and processes. I'm not inclined to frown upon voting guides, either, because I doubt that anyone can possibly know everyone on the ballot; the laity probably know fewer than a handful of the people, and little biographical paragraphs can be as misleading as they are helpful. We ought to be talking to like-minded colleagues and peers, but also to colleagues and brothers in Christ with whom we don't see eye-to-eye. Not simply for the sake of argument (though genuine argument is usually beneficial), nor only to correct what we believe to be errors in our neighbor, but for the sake of correcting and strengthening our own understanding of the Christian faith and life. We are in a precarious position indeed, if any one of us ever presumes to be the anchor of orthodoxy. Come, let us reason together in the fear of the Lord, in the faith of Christ, in the true wisdom of His Word and Holy Spirit. Amen. Maranatha!


Rev. David M. Juhl said...

Brother Rick:

Thank you for your reasoned and sane comments these last couple weeks on the convention.

Do you think that healthy conversation with the adversaries in our own Synod will be a fruitless endeavor?

It seems no matter how many times you can attempt to correct poor theology and practice, certain people will continue to do things the way they want to do things, enjoying protection from their District President who likely agrees with them.

Some of our brothers have made up their minds and are working to leave the LC-MS because they see the situation as beyond hopeless, earthly speaking.

Some of our brothers have determined to stay put and contend for the faith until they are removed either by the congregation or by the district and/or synod. It is likely the latter option might not happen, as I fear those who contend will be ignored.

It is fruitful to continue the discussion or are we consigned to mere curios in a cabinet, gathering dust while being pulled out occasionally to show what our synod once was?

Fr BFE said...

Rick, I just returned from vacation, and, having read this and your earlier "A Perfect Disaster" post, find that there's no need for me to blog; you've done it already! Exactly my sentiments. I referenced you at my own blog: href="http://gottesblog.blogspot.com. Great work! + Fritz

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for the nice responses, dear brothers in Christ. I'm glad that my comments have been helpful and apparently received in the spirit with which they were intended.

Brother David, your questions are worthy of a response, although I surely don't presume to have all the answers. I do, however, trust that the Word of God is able to change hearts and minds (and that nothing else but His Word can do). I'm tempted to say that if Saul of Tarsus can be converted, then so can anyone else; but I should rather say that, if the Lord in His mercy has called me by His Word and Spirit to fear, love and trust in Him, then He surely can do the same with others, where and when it pleases Him.

For our part, we are called to serve as the children of God within our respective stations in life, and the outcome of our words and works remains in His care and keeping. Chiefly, we are given to confess His Word, which is the way of prayer, praise and proclamation. Let the chips fall where they may beyond that, and let us give thanks to God if we poor sinners are counted worthy to bear the Holy Cross of Christ. It is only by His Cross, in any case, that any of us is sustained in repentance, in His Word and faith, until we depart to be with Him.

When I began at the seminary, I was hopelessly naive and foolishly misguided above various things. I was basically "conservative" by personal inclination, and I had the good Lutheran gut instinct of the Small Catechism, but I didn't have a clear grasp of the Church and Ministry, of the Liturgy and the means of grace. I was taught these things in the course of my studies, but the single biggest factor in my theological catechesis was the pastoral care and example of my field work pastor, Rev. Peter Ledic. He dealt with me evangelically and patiently, and more than anything else, he simply served me as a good pastor, and that was what opened my eyes and my ears, and penetrated my thick skull, to see and hear and comprehend what I had not understood before. My courses clarified and substantiated what Pastor Ledice exemplified, but it was the witness of his faith and love within his vocation that had the greatest influence upon me. I shall be eternally grateful for that.

I mention that experience because, whenever I have considered the way that Pastor Ledic dealt with me, and the blessing that it was, it has helped me to be more patient with brothers who do not see or understand things as I do. Not only in the sense that a patient approach on my part will be more helpful to them, but also in the sense that, well, I still do have things to learn myself, and I ought not be so quick to assume that my brother is the one who is wrong. I've been misguided and mistaken in the past, and I'm sure that will be the case for as long as I live. The only thing I can be sure of is the Word of God; so what both my brother and I need is to be hearing that Word, and speaking that Word to/for each other.

The problems that plague our Synod, the ones that really matter, are theological problems, which require a theological response. There are political problems, too, which ought to be addressed, ultimately for the sake of the Gospel, which our polity and practice ought to serve and support, instead of hindering and obfuscating. Politics can also serve and assist the theological effort to confront and deal with our theological problems, just as God governs His Kingom of Power in the service of His Church on earth. But frustrating as our LCMS structure and governance may be, that is the polity which the Lord in His providence has granted, and the process by which we engage one another in love. Not assuming that we are always in agreement, but trusting the Lord to bless our confession of His Word, unto repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that ecclesiastical disagreements are partly necessary for the sake of clarifying the truth, the doctrine and practice of the faith. We ought to resist the temptation to think and speak in terms of "winning" or "losing," but to recognize and rejoice in the opportunity we are given to confess the faith. I believe that if we engage one another with the Word of God, that will be a good and worthwhile effort, even though we may not see any practical results. So that is what I intend to do, in my own faltering, fumbling, feeble and finite way. I can only hope and pray that Christ and His Spirit will mercifully sustain me and assist me, to the glory of His Name, and for the benefit of my neighbor.

I do know this, and rejoice in this, that my own faith and hope and love are strengthened by those dear brothers in Christ who speak His Word of Law and Gospel to me, unto repentance and the forgiveness of my sins. And as far as I can see, that sort of preaching and catechesis is not only continuing but increasing in the LCMS. I don't believe the Gospel will be better served by abandoning the Synod.