13 October 2008

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Blog?

It saddens me, how prone we sinners are to misuse and abuse the good gifts of God. We tend either to idolize His gifts, worshiping the creature instead of the Creator; or we despise and reject His gifts as though they were inherently sinful and deadly, as though He were the author of evil. Why must it be so elusive for us to receive His gifts with thanksgiving, to sanctify them to our use by His Word and prayer, to use them and even to enjoy them to the glory of His name? That is what He intends in giving such good gifts, and that is what we believe, teach and confess concerning His creation and His providence. So, why the fuss and bother?

Among God's good first article gifts of daily bread, I would surely include the computer, the internet, electronic correspondence and communications, and various web-based forums for discussion and debate, such as blogging. I know that lots of bad stuff happens with the internet. Even good Christian people have allowed themselves to become ensnared with wicked perversity, as addicting and besetting in its own way as alcohol and drugs can be. Apart from the obvious abuse that internet pornography is, computer usage and the internet itself can become idolatrous obsessions, false gods that enslave and command the sinful heart and mind. When such things distract and divert from one's proper vocations and stations in life, and when they pull one away from the neighbors he ought to be serving in love, then the use of those things has become sinful and needs to be curtailed. In some cases, it may even be necessary to go "cold turkey," depending on one's disposition and particular circumstances. In general, though, it is more simply a matter of returning to the Word of God and prayer, in order to receive and use things rightly, as intended, in faith and love and with thanksgiving.

I blogged about blogging in relation to my vocations last year. Since then, I have regularly reminded myself to abide by my own admonitions in that regard. Both then and now, I have resisted the temptation to give up blogging altogether, because I believe that it can be a useful tool for communication and encouragement. I am frequently well served by the blogging of my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I would like to think that I am sometimes able to serve them and others in return. I am determined not to despise this good gift of God, in any case, but to guard and guide my use of it according to His Word. That means limiting the amount of time I spend in reading and writing blog posts, and then exercising care in whatever I do write in such forums. It means that I blog in order to serve and support my neighbors, near and far, and not for hurting or harming. It means that, also by this way and means, I seek to shine a light instead of cursing the darkness.

Despite my good intentions and best efforts to be reverent and courteous in my blogging, I know there have been posts along the way that have offended people here and there. I am sorry for that, because I certainly do not rejoice in anyone's hurt feelings, but I don't necessarily apologize for what I have written. If ever I have caused offense by speaking falsely, unfairly, unclearly, inappropriately or out of turn, then I must repent and make amends, learn from my mistakes and do better. But wherever anyone has taken offense at my confession of the truth, or simply on account of personal disagreements in matters that are free, there I must let the chips fall where they may. Confessing the truth belongs to my vocations as a Christian and a minister of the Word of Christ. As far as my personal opinions are concerned, I'm grateful for the freedom of conscience that God grants me in Christ Jesus, and for the freedom of speech that I enjoy as an American citizen.

While I do regret any offense that may ever be given or taken within the context of my own "thinking-out-loud," I have been more disappointed by some of the reactions to the "Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds." Not disagreements or differences of opinion, but dismissive and derogatory comments; not directed to the blackbirds for discussion and debate, but leveled against them as accusations made behind their backs. This sort of thing is frustrating, not only because it is unfair and unhelpful, but because it is so typical of the way that fraternal conversation is nowadays hindered and discouraged. Immediately it is assumed that a group of pastors doing anything on their own initiative must be up to no good.

Not surprisingly, the blackbirds have been labeled "liturgical nazis." This sort of rhetoric would be considered offensive if it was used of anyone else, but certain people are fair game for false witness, and no one is supposed to cry "foul." I've learned to let it go when such pejoratives are aimed at me, but I am inclined and compelled to defend my brothers and their good reputations. Neither on our blog, nor to my knowledge in their pastoral practice, have any of the blackbirds oppressed the Church or Christian consciences with liturgical legalism; far less have they committed violence or caused injury to body or soul. I wish the real "liturgical nazis" would please sit down and shut up, but that will have to be the topic of another blog post. As far as the four-and-twenty blackbirds are concerned, there are differences of opinion among them, but also a clear and consistent confession of freedom in that which God has left free. These are men more likely to lay aside their own freedoms for the sake of love than ever to insist that others must do as they do. It is likewise for the sake of holy love that they are forthright in stating their opinions regarding practices that are rightly evaluated as better or worse in giving free course to the Gospel.

From various other remarks I have heard, I gather that the four-and-twenty blackbirds have been decreed subversive. How so? A few of the responses (on and off line) to a recent series of posts on an evangelical "rule" or "canon of concord" suggest that fear, mistrust, suspicion and cynicism may be the reigning rule of thumb for some of the critics. It is a sad day for the Church, however, if pastors cannot explore possibilities with one another, brainstorm potential practices, air considerations of casuistry, and ponder what it means to be faithful in confessing the Gospel within the current context and circumstances of life. True, not every conversation should be undertaken publicly; there is a need for discretion, an appropriate time and place for offering proposals, and a time to be more circumspect. However, it is unfair to characterize the four-and-twenty blackbirds and their blog on the basis of a single thread of discussion.

What the blackbirds are really about is pastoral theology and pastoral care, something that parish pastors are uniquely qualified to discuss (fancy that). The four-and-twenty blackbirds are not unique in their confessional convictions and their commitment to the Holy Scriptures, but they are unified in those common convictions and commitments. They bring to bear those theological standards upon the questions and concerns confronting pastors in the daily duties and demands of their office. The purpose of the blog is not subversive or divisive, but the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. The naysayers have been relatively few; many other pastors have indicated the benefit of this effort and conveyed appreciation for it.

If anyone honestly cares to know the point and purpose of the Blackbirds blog, he should be encouraged to read what I wrote here when it began. As to the protocol and procedure that the four-and-twenty blackbirds follow, such things may be readily discovered and discerned under the "Rubrics and Blogistics for the Blackbirds" on the right-hand side of that blog. Thus, there have been posts on Luther's view of Christian education; on the practice of Individual Confession and Absolution; on the visitation and pastoral care of the dying; on the good examples of Norman Nagel and Kenneth Korby; on the criteria for selecting hymns; and on the balancing of a pastor's several vocations; as well as other similar topics of discussion. These comments and conversations have been constructive, edifying, instructive and beneficial. Have critics been reading and following the blog, or simply reacting to hearsay on the basis of their own assumptions and prejudices? What is anyone afraid of?

Back in the day when I began my studies at the seminary, in the fall of 1989, the semester immediately following the forced retirement of Dr. Robert Preus, the campus was still marked by the open and vigorous theological conversation that Dr. Preus so enjoyed, exemplified and fostered. Chapel attendance every day was very high, and then almost everyone would make their way from the chapel to the commons for discussion and debate; students and faculty alike. It was great, but it wasn't to last. As time passed and each semester came and went, the atmosphere on campus became less and less prone to discussion. Chapel attendance declined, and by my fourth year almost no one frequented the commons. Students were reluctant to gather anywhere conspicuously, and most of the faculty were seldom to be seen outside of the classroom. The conversations that did take place were marked by literal and metaphorical looking over the shoulder. Fear, mistrust, suspicion and cynicism were prevalent. It wasn't conducive to theological growth, and it wasn't healthy for the life of the Church at large, either. Theologians need the sharpening of discussion and debate. So do pastors, frankly, both present and future. Which is why it worries me, and saddens me, and frustrates me, when it seems that efforts to promote and encourage conversation are frowned upon or decried. I can understand an aggravation with political action groups and partisan propaganda; I too am weary of the combative spirit that has become a tenor of the times. The remedy to such ills, however, is not to squelch public discourse, but to engage one another in genuine theological conversation. That was and is a primary goal of the "Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds" blog, and I don't apologize for inviting it. In this case, the chips fall where they may.


Dizziness said...

Thankfully the atmosphere at the seminary is better than when you left it. Chapel attendance could always be better. But most go to coffee afterwards and usually only a fair amount of caution is needed with touchy subjects.

Some of the professors even challenge the classes with "hot button" topics, both current and past. The students play it safe usually.

Funny that some of this conversation outside the classroom lately has surrounded Four-and-Twenty posts. :) But never derogatory, at least that I've heard. Maybe others that I didn't hear.

Keep it up. The conversations are stimulating to engage in, even as an silent outsider.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm glad that the atmosphere on campus is more conducive to conversation than it was for most of my time as a student there. Christ be praised for that.

I'd like to think that the blackbirds have something to contribute to discussions; I hope that is the case, and that it continues to be so.