When I was first asked to comment on the confessional renewal movement in general and the 9.5 Theses specifically, I could not imagine what I would say. To me it is a no-brainer. I am all for confessional renewal. It goes without saying. It’s what Lutherans do. It is what we are. I’ve been honored when my friends call me the doctrine police. I can’t wait till we recite the creed in worship. I enjoy sniffing out heresy. I am a Trinity freak. Nothing charges my spiritual battery more than a good 3-hour lecture on the relationship between Jesus, his Father and their Spirit. For me confessional renewal is like breathing. How could you be against it? As for the 9.5 Theses, I think they needed to be written. I believe they are a defining piece of our agenda. So what’s the big deal?
It hit me when I laid out my wardrobe for the synod assembly. When I was a new pastor, I used to pack my bulletin of reports, my Bible and my Book of Concord. I actually thought we would debate issues of doctrine. I haven’t packed my Book of Concord in six years. A hair dryer has taken its place. What we pack is indicative of our priorities. I would love to pack my Book of Concord again.
As I look at the 9.5 Theses and confessional renewal, I must say that my comments fall into the categories of gut reactions and prayerful pleas. I want the confessional renewal movement to pipe the tune to which our church dances for more than a season. I want the tune to be piped until the return of Jesus. I want the movement to have impact and I want it to be effective. I have no doubt, no doubt whatever, that the 9.5 Theses were offered with the same intentions. However, once issued, the manner in which they are debated can take on a life of its own. Therefore, I raise 9.5 concerns for the confessional renewal movement.
- Some like it hot! When you publish a wake-up call that includes anathema, things are going to get hot. Or at least one would hope so. Sometimes, I think we enjoy roasting one another for heat’s sake more than admonishing one another for Jesus’ sake. We need to be about the business of authoritative teaching, not toasting our colleagues.
- Confessional Renewal must have a heart for missions. As long as it is hot, let’s fan the flames with the other passion that should be the oxygen for confessional renewal: evangelism. Friends, people are perishing all around us. If confessional renewal serves only as an in-house memo, without equipping us for effective and passionate witness for the sake of the lost, shame on us. I say this because I always look for ways that a document informs our understanding of stewardship and evangelism. Too many times, I have heard comments divorcing witness and stewardship from the precious doctrine of the church. If you can find it read The Flaming Center by Carl Braaten to capture a vision for doctrine and outreach. Stewardship will follow quite naturally.
- Confessional passion and the ability to transcend camps.We are a denomination too satisfied with division. If confessional passion is to have any lasting impact, it will have to help us transcend this tendency. I have noticed that we tend to be very comfortable with like-minded, like-styled piety. When we actually have to talk with a brother or sister identified by another camp, we tend to avoid the conversation, get self-righteous, defensive and pompous. In so doing we cut off the very exchange that will enliven and enrich renewal.
Confessional renewal will take on many forms and will be raised up by many camps. Be prepared to seek out allies in other camps for maximum effectiveness. Confessional renewal will find strength when we look past our current “club” zones. We may not be as far apart as we think.
- Confessional prickliness and parochial habits. I am a Lutheran mutt. I started my call on January 1, 1988, the day we collectively became ELCA. In a sense I am everyone’s baby and nobody’s child. I had the best of all three worlds in my seminary training: Trinity and LSTC with Seminex. I had the best of all three predecessor church bodies and the LCMS in campus ministry at the University of Illinois and in my association with Phi Beta Chi, the pan-Lutheran sorority. I am a life-long Lutheran. That noble accomplishment was lived out watching, carefully, parochial peculiarity and family habits. When we discuss confessional renewal I am appalled at how quickly the discussion is reduced to stupid, insensitive, ill-informed parochial swipes and fault finding that diminishes the contribution, struggle and faithfulness of our heritage. It is mean-spirited, passé, tacky, and–I will say it–the devil’s tool. Shame on us for our ridiculous parochialism.
I must say that the parochialism is not limited to the 1988 merger. I still hear unresolved grief and issues related to mergers of decades ago. Get over it! We are a big church now and therefore have inherited a lot of stuff. When I heard our merger described as being the birth of a new church, I thought, “bull.” We are a blended family with many memories to merge and reform and drop. If confessional renewal is to be effective, we must approach it as a blended family that must attend to the issue with trust. Half of the anxiety over confessional renewal would vanish if now, after ten years, we actually took the time to know and trust one another.
- Sometimes, the discussion just gets bitchy! There, I didn’t know how to say that in a delicate manner, so there it is. I have no gift for subtlety. And in this category, I know whereof I speak. When we speak of things confessional, listen. Listen. Listen carefully.We need to listen to ourselves as we speak of confessional renewal and our beloved brothers and sisters. I am amazed how quickly the debate turns to offish bitchiness and snotty tones. Even our faces betray our hearts. The countenance of the debate is critical. The fastest way to sink the sub of confessional renewal is to adhere to bad manners. What’s the worst thing that could happen, I mean the worst, if we were to be careful, polite, kind, oh, dare I say it, nice, charitable in our construction, while being passionate for our beautiful jewel, the confessional heritage? Sometimes, it is more a matter of bad manners, than bad theology.
- A word about style. One of my favorite movies of all time is “Steele Magnolias.” During one scene in the beauty shop Claire asks for clarity regarding a recipe when she drawls out, “Is the Karo syrup light or dark?” To which Truvy answers, “It’s a matter of taste.” The Karo syrup is essential to the recipe. The lightness or darkness of the Karo syrup is a matter of taste. Too often the critical questions of confessional revival get lost in non-essential arguments regarding taste and style. I know that this observation is really going to yank some chains. In the interest of being fair, I will serve as an equal opportunity offender. I have heard our beloved siblings on the tradition side and our beloved siblings on the contemporary side, and all things in between, reduce the essentials of Word and Sacrament to issues of taste and style and their particular preferences. There are many ways to worship that uphold the integrity of our confessional heritage. If this is a hard concept to grasp, try this exercise. Take a wooden spoon and beat it on a counter 100 times while repeating this mantra: “Style is not essential and will sidetrack the confessional renewal movement.” If it does not sink in the first time, a couple thousand whacks will help.
- Lighten up! If we really want to get serious about confessional renewal, lighten up! Let’s consider the question of whether the confessional renewal movement would have greater impact if the discussion was offered in urgent love, seeking the joy of fellowship between sisters and brothers who have far more in common than they think. Let’s look hard and long for the ways in which the word of God is vibrant among us and try to build on our strengths. A renewal movement is often driven by crisis, and I do agree that a crisis looms in our midst.However, the movement will best be sustained by celebrating success, adherence, excellence and integrity.
- To market! To market! Without apology, I am going to use the “M” word in relation to the 9.5 Theses specifically and confessional renewal in general. If we are really serious about this renewal movement, we should ask if there is a strategy to effectively communicate the program, track success, evaluate overall performance, so that the passion we hold so dear will win the day and days to come? There is a big difference between swiping at the issue and taking the time to systematically develop a plan to renew the church. This is a big job! But as the saying goes, if you want to dance you have to pay the piper, and the one who pays the piper calls the tune. Are we ready to make the investment to market confessional renewal?
- The other side of the renewal coin, Biblical literacy. I am utterly convinced that if confessional literacy is going to set our agenda, its twin, Biblical literacy, must also be renewed. I know that I have already tweaked some cheeks and sensitivities in saying so. For me, the nutshell of Lutheran history in America is the ongoing polarization of Orthodoxy and Pietism. I believe that this polarization was a stupid move a few centuries back, and it is a tragic move now. Quite simply, in the face of the Enlightenment critique, the Church moved into a defensive posture and let the culture pipe the tune. Then the question of how to be Christian and modern played out in a divorce between Orthodoxy and Pietism and who got custody of the Church. Friends, the Enlightenment critique is dead, but we are still dancing to its passé tune.
In the movie Amadeus, Mozart was forced to delete the music from the dance at Figaro’s wedding. The Emperor came to see the rehearsal and commented on the ridiculous scene. “Where is the music?” No one dared answer. “Is it modern?” No one dared answer. While pointing to the obvious he said, “Well, look at them.” The music was put back in and the scene restored.
Friends, we look ridiculous, because we keep dancing to a tune that is no longer piped. We are contrived, pathetic and twisted if we do not see that confessional literacy and Biblical literacy are partners in the dance. What is the worst that could happen, I mean the worst, if we were to intentionally and passionately allow confessional literacy and Biblical literacy to set the agenda for our gatherings, meetings, strategies, outreach, mission and life together?
Well these are some of my thoughts and reactions. I don’t think confessional renewal has to be a scary, boring deal. I think it could be exciting, fun and cool. I even dare to believe that we could all count it as joy and that the wake-up call of the 9.5 Theses could be the beginning of our finest, most faithful hours.