Archive for May, 2011

Even When Steeples Are Falling

The pictures of devastation in Joplin, Missouri, tell the story better than words. And for those of us who have personally witnessed the aftermath of a mega tornado, they bring back vivid memories.

Years ago I had the opportunity to witness the devastation suffered by the little South Dakota community of Spencer after one of these tornados had torn through the town, leaving almost nothing but rubble. It was eerily quiet as I walked into what had been a small but active rural community. On the far end of town, National Guard heavy equipment was gathering together a depository of destroyed cars and trucks. Relief efforts were underway.

The most remarkable thing for me was my own confusion, as I tried to figure out where I was in the small town. Although I had been there numerous times before, I couldn’t tell where anything had been. The once-familiar pattern of streets  had become a gridwork to separate piles of rubble left by the storm. Even the town’s water tower was no longer standing. I realized then how important landmarks are, and the landmarks were gone.

Only when I came upon the site of our LCMS church, its sign still half standing, and only when I looked out on the surroundings from the floor of the church swept clean except for a few randomly strewn hymnals–only then could I finally make some sense out of the community. Now as I looked out on the landscape of shredded trees and splintered wood and basement holes I could see where things had been. It was the church that helped me to get my bearings.

It was a teaching moment, a poignant reminder of the role of the church in our lives, especially in times of tumult, “even,” as our hymn proclaims, “when steeples are falling” (“Built On the Rock,” st. 1). There were four churches in Spencer. There were no steeples left standing. But still left standing was the role and presence of the church to help those left confused and suffering and mourning to begin to find their way.

Our LCMS pastor serving the congregation at Spencer understood this very well. He pastored the entire community after the storm. Later in the week at the town’s athletic field, he provided a worship service of thanksgiving for the entire community. His message was clear: The steeples may be down, but the church and its message of unfailing hope and life are present. This will be our landmark during the confusion and struggles of the weeks and months to come, to help us maintain our bearings, even though most things familiar will be gone.

We have learned again these past weeks that we never know when our lives will change dramatically, even to the point of losing all things earthly. We may be left to wander in confusion among the wreckage of once well-ordered lives, unable to recognize much of anything. But there will always be a landmark to help us get our bearings.  We will still have the church, its even-when-silenced bells still “chiming and calling,” its Gospel assuring us of God’s love despite all.

For five people in Spencer and 125 people in Joplin, the storm was their time to leave all behind, a time that will come for all of us in due time, in one manner or another. What a blessing to know that even then, as we pass from this turbulent world into “rest everlasting,” we will not wander or wonder. We will have the words of Christ articulated in the hymn to provide all the direction we will need: “I know my own and my own know Me; You, not the world, my face shall see. My peace I leave with you.” To which we will gladly say, “Amen.”

Ray Hartwig

Worship at the Jesus Congregation in Riga

When you see the skyline of Riga, Latvia, two of the tallest steeples belong to Lutheran Churches. The Dom Church (the cathedral for the archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, Janis Vanags) and of St. Peter’s are both impressive in Old Riga.  But the church we attended Sunday for our trip was the Jesus Lutheran Church, a congregation in Riga dating to the 18th century.  It was my privilege to bring greetings on behalf of President Harrison and the LCMS to the 300+ gathered worshipers (The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod are in pulpit and altar fellowship), a great honor to be sure.  We share the same confession, the same Gospel, the same sacraments, the same Christ.

However, the most amazing moment for us came in the liturgy at the beginning of the Agnus Dei.  Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a surge of people coming down the center aisle.  In that congregation, the custom is that all those desiring the Lord’s Supper come forward and stand in the space between the kneelers before the altar and the front pew, each one waiting for his/her turn at the altar. But the surge down the aisle was from all the grey haired men and women who were eager to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood.  There were many young people there, but the elderly went first.  So they came, some with walkers or crutches, some in wheel chairs, some stooped over with canes, but they all came forward eagerly.

I thought of what they had seen during the difficult days of the Soviet Union when Latvia was (unwillingly) made a part of the Soviet empire.  Our translator, Sandra Gintere, told of her father-in-law, a Lutheran pastor arrested literally as he came down from the pulpit and sent to Siberia because he had been evangelizing and teaching young people the catechism.  The price they had paid to follow Christ was enormous.  So there they were, surging down the aisle, eager to receive the One who had purchased them with His precious blood, eager to be refreshed and strengthened at the Lord’s Table with the medicine of immortality, Christ’s Body and Blood.  They knew the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42) and did not want anyone to take it away.  Thank God for our brothers and sisters in Christ in Latvia, for our common faith and our life together in Jesus.

In His Service
+ Herb Mueller

LCMS president addresses Joplin tornado damage, relief

LCMS Pres. Harrison speaks about the tornado damage in Joplin, Mo., reports on LCMS member safety and offers ways you can help.

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Commencement Address at Concordia Theological Seminary

I want to share with you—especially with the faculty of this august institution—the same words I just shared with the faculty of the St. Louis Seminary: you are the greatest Lutheran faculty on earth. And I want there to be absolutely no doubt that when I say that to one of the two faculties, I really mean it.

The Lord loves a commencement, make no mistake about it. A very long time ago the Lord ceased his eternal contemplation, put on his doctor’s cap, and commenced it all! Bereshith bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’arets. New Revised Harrison Translation: “At the commencement God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). In fact, the Bible is packed with teaching about commencements!

There is a “commencement Christology”: “At the commencement was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Or, “He [Christ] was at the commencement with God” (John 1:2).

Mark’s commencement Christology begins, like Elert’s Structure of Lutheranism, with the evangelische Ansatz: “The commencement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

Now, I could elaborate interminably on this commencement theology, but I am fully aware that Luther’s advice for preaching is even more applicable to a commencement address.

  1. Stand up!
  2. Speak up!
  3. Shut up!

And this address will be judged by number three, which Luther said was the most difficult. One verse from Scripture, however, does give me a bit of concern over this honorary doctorate: “An inheritance gained hastily in the commencement will not be blessed in the end” (Proverbs 20:21).

The most profound thing I’ve ever read on seminary education was written by a rather obscure, nineteenth-century, German Lutheran, August Vilmar:

Theology serves real life in this world and in eternity. Every glimpse the theologian pays past real life is false, an offense of the eye, a squint. Every step theology takes past real life is a misstep leading to falling and in the end infallibly to shattering in pieces when repeated. Theology shares what it has, totally and unabridged . . . All this because its content is for those who receive it, the breath of life, an indispensable nourishment, no different from air, and sunlight and bread, since none on earth can live who does not receive what proceeds from theology . . .

The need to receive, however consists in hunger and thirst for the Word of God, for the certainty of eternal life, of salvation. In theology should be given and received the Word of God, the certainty, the undoubted, unimpeachable certainty of eternal life, of salvation. [Christ!] Theology . . . instructs the coming generation toward becoming a generation of true shepherds, able and ready to gather the sheep, to go after, to seek and find them. It must educate shepherds for whom this never ending and arduous labor of shepherding, pasturing and seeking the sheep has become second nature, so that their hearts are grieved when they do not tend the entire flock . . . and this care is extinguished only with the last breath of life. [Vilmar, Theology of Facts Versus a Theology of Rhetoric]

Vilmar’s Theology of Facts is now commencing—now coming full circle in your lives.

The nearest thing to a commencement address I could find in Luther’s writings was a sermon on Matthew 28:19, preached at the occasion of the first ordination of a large number of candidates in Wittenberg.

Luther makes a point, which is the most powerful and comforting thing that could possibly be spoken to people just like you this day: “So that there would be no doubt that our Lord and Head is with us, He thus spoke a potent blessing over them and said, ‘Behold, I am with you’” (Referring to Mt. 28). And Luther goes on to describe precisely what the Lord’s promised presence blesses—the doling out of divine gold! Luther preached:

Preaching salvation to men does not stem from our power . . . We are merely an instrument and means, through which Christ is speaking . . . [This is] like a lord [who] places a gold coin in the hand of [his] servant so that [he give it] to a needy person. It does not belong to the servant, who is merely the hand that passes it on . . . He is the lord’s spoon, [his] hand.

We are the spoon; He gives drink through us; the food and drink are the Lord’s . . . Hence we conclude and say: Even if a parson is neither pious nor worthy to [be called] God’s son and servant—so too the servant, even if his hand is decrepit and scabby—nevertheless the golden coin, which the Lord is giving by means of his hand, is good, because it is the Lord’s own. This coin rightfully belongs to the Lord, [although] He gives by means of a scoundrel. . . .

For this reason [then] look to the gift and to [its] true giver, and not to the organ through which it is given, unless [the gift is given] by such a man who would not be giving what God has mandated, but would [instead] give you a penny in the place of a gold coin . . . [WA 41:454-459, translated by J. Mumme].

You, my dear graduates, have had a gold coin dropped into your scabby hands—Ph.D.s, S.T.M.s, M.Div.s, M.A.R.s, pastors and deaconesses1 You’ve been given the gold! Don’t dole out pennies! The gold?

Law: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:28ff). Go for the gold! Not limp noodle preaching of an anemic word of pseudo law! Be a gold hammer, striking a gold anvil, producing a gold coin. Preach like the apostles! Speak the Law like the apostles: “You killed the Author of life . . .” (Acts 3:15).

Gospel: Christ’s conception, birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension! All of it yours through a blessed and happy exchange! Baptism (“Baptism now saves you”; 1 Peter 3:21)! Word of God (“living and active”; Heb. 4:12)! “Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven . . .” (John 20:23); “He upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3)! Lord’s Supper (“Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”)! Gold!

Theology for witness, mercy, and life together! Gold for preaching (“The Word does not return void”; Is. 55:11)! Gold for mercy (“And he had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd”; Mark 6:34). Gold for life together! And as you commence this new chapter in your lives, you will find that those whom you serve will dish up this gold for you too . . . And without it, you will die.

Here’s a passage that is a particular admonishment to you this evening: “Let what you heard at the commencement abide in you. If what you heard at the commencement abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24).

The Lord is commencing something with you today. You’ve got gold in your hand! And you also have what Luther called “a potent promise”—“And lo I am with you always . . .” (Mt. 28:20).

So let the commencement commence! “And I am sure of this, that he who commenced a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3–6).

Matthew C. Harrison
May 20, 2011

Presentations at the Mercy Conference – Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia

If you follow this blog, by now you know that we have been engaged in a series of three mercy conferences in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia.  But what was the mercy conference all about?  Here is a short summary of the conference, listing the presenters.

Herbert Mueller – First Vice President of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod brought a keynote address on our Biblical and Confessional Theology of Mercy (summarized elsewhere in this blog).

Bryan Salminen – Serving as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in St. John’s, Michigan, Dr. Salminen is also a psychologist teaching a class at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.  His presentation focused on a theology of the body and of passion.  Our sexuality is a pointer for our need for communion with God, a need God fills with Himself in Christ.

John Fale – is a pastor of our Synod presently serving as the interim executive director of LCMS World Relief/Human Care. Before coming to the Synod, he served as a hospital chaplain for 14 years.  He led conference participants into a deeper understanding of the need for the pastoral care of the sick.  Times of personal illness will often make a person emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to the attacks of the devil.  The pastor’s task is to bring the right medicine at the right time for each person.

Grace Rao – serves as a deaconess, presently on the staff of LCMS World Relieve/Human Care.  Grace organized this conference with the help of her counterpart in Latvia – Ms. Inta Putnina, in charge of diaconal work in Riga, Latvia. She also made a very interesting presentation on the calling and work of deaconesses and their relationship to the pastoral office.

Sara Bielby – is a deaconess serving two congregations in Michigan: Immanuel Lutheran Church, Macomb, and University Lutheran Chapel in Ann Arbor.  In a moving way, she focused on the need for visitation of the marginal and lonely.  Deaconesses put the love of Christ into action, leading to the cure that is found in Christ and His means of grace.

John Pless – teaches pastoral theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.  His lecture focused on the pastoral care of the dying. Death is not the natural end or course of things, but death is the last enemy.  Yet it is an enemy defeated by Christ Himself, who died and rose for us.  Life is not ours to take, but God’s to give and to take according to His plan.  Death brings judgment, a judgment Christ received on our behalf, so that now, in Christ, we are judged righteous. Death swallowed up in Christ’s death and resurrection becomes the portal to life everlasting.

Of course, we would not have been able to hold a conference in Latvia without a great deal of help in Latvia.  We had the cooperation and help of all the bishops in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, led by Archbishop Janis Vanags.  However, Ms. Inta Putnina, director of the diaconal center of the church in Riga, was invaluable in her work to support and organize our conference.  Mrs. Sandra Gintere (wife of one of the Latvian pastors and instructor at the Luther Academy, who also has a PhD from CTS, Fort Wayne) worked untiringly as our interpreter, with the help of Ms. Mara Zviedre (who had translated several theological papers on the Church’s work of mercy into Latvian). We pray God’s continued blessing on our partnership in the Gospel and in the Church’s work of mercy with our brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia.

+ Herbert C. Mueller

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