It was six years ago today that I officially began writing my dissertation. And it was almost exactly five years ago that I completed it (in September of 2002). All told, it was about a three-year process: six months to develop the dissertation proposal, 18 months of research, and 12 months to write the thing. Yes, I am well aware that it is far longer than a dissertation ought to be (at 1250+ pages, including appendices), but I did what I set out to do, and I did it to the best of my ability.
In order to complete the dissertation, I knew that I would need to have specific blocks of time set aside for that purpose. Tuesday was to be my "dissertation day" each week, and Tuesday the 11th of September 2001 was scheduled to be the first of those. There were other things going on in the world that day, as it turned out, and it would have been easy for me to set aside my writing under those circumstances. However, I was determined to be disciplined about the work that was before me, and so I put my hand to the plow and didn't look back. Those video images of airplanes and towers that everyone else saw over and over again, I never did see until a year or two later (on DVD). I don't remember how many pages I actually managed to write on 9-11-01, but I spent all day working on the task, and I really never did let up the pace until I had finished what I started. It was a pretty grueling year, actually, and I'm amazed that my family and I survived the ordeal.
It's been a while, thankfully, maybe even a year now, since anyone has asked me whether I "ever managed to finish" my doctorate. Yeah, that was back in November of 2002, when I successfully defended the dissertation and was declared a doctor of philosophy. I was asked again, earlier this week, if I was "still in South Bend." Yep, that's where the Lord called me to serve His flock, and I haven't turned tail and fled my post; I don't have any intentions or desires to do so, either. There are a handful of people out there who have actually read my dissertation, and at least a couple others who read enough of it to quote me out of context. Mostly it seems to be cited as an example of absurd length, which is more hurtful than anyone seems to realize or intend (I am sure), but I am grateful to those who have appreciateed the work that went into it.
There was a point, back in November of 1999, when I was ready to throw in the towel altogether. Being a full-time pastor with a growing family, and having already attempted two proposals that didn't end up working, I was utterly burned out, weary and disheartened. I'll never forget the meeting I had with my advisor at that point. That was Dr. James White. I went to see him with the intention of saying that I needed a sabbatical at the very least, and that I really wasn't sure I could ever finish the doctorate. In the course of our conversation, I did mention a proposal possibility that had been rattling around in my head for a while, which I didn't think would go over well (because it was such an LCMS topic). Dr. White literally jumped out of his chair and said, "That's a great idea!" By the time I left his office, not only was I not giving up, but I was actually feeling enthusiastic about my studies again for the first time in a long time. I would investigate and document the LCMS involvement in the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship, and its final decision not to adopt the resulting Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), but instead to publish its own revision of that work as Lutheran Worship (1982). I would focus especially on the eucharistic rites, which were among the most controversial aspects of that whole history. I would be doing extensive archival research, as well as oral history, and covering previously uncharted territory.
It was a great topic, and I'm pleased to say that I never did lose interest in what I was doing. The thing that really drove me, and enabled me to retain my motivation to complete the work, was a strong sense that what I was doing mattered, and that somehow it would serve the Church. If I had ever thought that any of my doctoral studies, including the dissertation, were simply for the sake of earning a degree, I'm sure I would have given up along the way. As it was, though, I knew that I was dealing with something of importance to the Church's life, because our history has something to teach us, as do our service books and hymnals.
Now, for the past couple of years, I've been working on a book, For All His Benefits, based upon my dissertation work. It has required additional research, including further archival digging and more oral history interviews, in order to broaden the scope and context. It is also aimed to be more narrative in character, and more palatable for the typical reader. For that reason, too, it will need to be considerably shorter than my dissertation, with far fewer notes and appendices. It is in the "on deck circle" as a project of the Good Shepherd Institute, for which I am grateful, and meanwhile I need to be about the task of writing. Today, fittingly enough, was a "book day" for me, although it involved reading and research rather than writing, in this case. Thankfully, there were no earth-shattering current events for me to ignore or be distracted by.
For All His Benefits will consider the hymnals and service books of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, from Walther's Kirchengesangbuch to the new Lutheran Service Book. The bulk of the discussion will still deal with the work of the ILCW, and the production of LBW and LW, but all of that will be set within the context of earlier and later books. There will be less focus on the eucharistic rites, and more comprehensive attention given to the process and the purpose of publishing hymns and orders of service for the Church's corporate life. My goal is to establish, in the introduction, a Lutheran theological framework for interpreting the significance of such things, by considering the contributions of Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformers.
Anyway, I felt a little nostalgic today, as I thought back to the events in my own life on 9-11-01. For me and mine, that day marked the beginning of something that would dominate our lives for the next year, far more so, and more tangibly, than the war on terror has. I'm not saying that to make light of anything, by no means, but simply to reflect upon the significance of the work that I was given to do. Thus far, at least, it has made hardly a difference to almost anyone else, but it is surely one of the most definitive junctures in my life, for which my wife and children also sacrificed a great deal. I am profoundly grateful for the support and encouragement of my family, and of my congregation. Perhaps it will yet be the case, in the writing of my book, that these efforts and sacrifices will still produce fruits to the benefit and edification of the Church.