International Mission Board Chair Reflects on International Conference
From Revelation 7: “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God,Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God forever and ever. Amen.”
When All Saints Sunday comes around, I always wonder what that would sound like, every tribe and nation and tongue and people speaking praise to God. Would it be a cacophony or is there is special, heavenly angelic language that all will speak? Would that praise be in their language of origin? If so, what would that sound like?
I had a chance to find out at the International Conference on Confessional Leadership in the 21st Century. To hear the Lord’s Prayer in so many different languages from Latvian to Spanish and Chinese to German was truly an inspiration. I want to thank all who made this event possible and all who attended.
Some of the insights that were gained from a gathering like this are equally as inspirational. After the results of the election and the various dissections and interpretations, I have to believe that we live in an absolutely secularized culture in which the Government has appropriated the place once held by the church. To hear from confessional Lutherans around the world who have lived in that reality for years was fascinating and informative. To see Lutheran theology as a means to bridge the gaps in our culture is a concept that we must seek to master, because according to many, Luther is uniquely able to make the connection that is needed in a secular culture that still seeks answers to religious questions. One of the speakers said that we need to have a “critical reappropriation” of our heritage so that we can translate it into our culture.
One of the more haunting statements was this: “Spiritual bewilderment is perfectly acceptable in Lutheran theology.” I am personally happy to hear that because I spend a great deal of my time bewildered. I am bewildered by what I see around me. I am bewildered by suffering and the foolishness I see. I am bewildered that I would think I would find something different in a fallen world and I still look for the good. I am bewildered when we fail to act as what we are, the Body of Christ. The phrase resonated with me in the work that I see needs to be done among our pastors. There is the belief that when you are called into a congregation you are the “theologian in residence” and you had better have all the answers. Many of us get into problems because even if we don’t have the answers we act like we do. There is a place for bewilderment.
Robert Preus once commented on how bewildering it must have been for Christians behind the iron curtain to pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask that God’s Kingdom come and God’s will be done for a generation all the while in political bondage. Yet their pastors and leaders entered that bewilderment with them, and they were blessed. Lutheran ministry is blessed when our people see us as leaders that enter with them in their suffering and perplexity, not necessarily with answers, but with the same questions they have. Our leadership, at least what is helpful, is always to bring them to Christ. Lutheran’s have a unique ability to live in perplexity, and that is the theology of the cross. It resonates as some have said, because of the existential realities that come from this world that is in the “gray and latter days.”
Existential problems cause misery. We all experience it. When things go great, we’re happy. When we suffer, there is unhappiness. It is God who allows us to suffer afflictions for the purpose of pruning us so that in that misery we would turn back to Him “with our whole heart.” This is why Paul wrote that, “We glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character, and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:3–5).
Although it was not really a topic, there was another theme that I have been personally interested in for years and that is preaching. The centrality and importance of preaching was undergirded again and again by different speakers from different perspectives, but it was there. Preaching is what “gathers and transforms” when it is centered on Christ and Him crucified. The church is not constituted managerially or institutionally but by the preaching of Christ.
This is another existential reality that we need to focus on as pastors and teachers. There are all kinds of issues and problems in our churches here in the United States that take an inordinate amount of time and treasure to ameliorate (if we would spend time listening to the issues in emerging world countries we would be ashamed) and our answers are usually managerial in nature. Management techniques, someone said, may be helpful, but what is essential is preaching and the faith handed down once and for all to the saints. Our President Harrison has been quoted as saying about some problem or another that, “We just have to confess our way through it.” Far be it from me to amend President Harrison’s words but when we pastors confront problems in our congregations we need to “preach our way through it.”
The themes of Witness, Mercy and Life Together held the conference together and set the table for the presentations. The reality of the Witness given by partners and friends around the world is amazing. The place for Mercy here and around the world was reiterated over and over again. The reality of our Life Together was made concrete and personal.
To spend time with these Lutherans from around the world was fascinating and exhilarating. Some of the stories are sad, and some are inspirational. Some of the participants have fought for the faith once and for all handed down to the saints all of their adult lives, and in some cases since they could go to church and worship on their own. Some are beginning to see the time coming when they might be persecuted for what they believe, teach and confess. Yet all of the ones that I talked to, and most of those who spoke, believe that whatever comes we must “confess our way through it.” What else can we do? Where else can we go? Only Christ has the words of eternal life!
By the way, what did it sound like to hear all of those people praying the Lord’s Prayer in their own language? At the risk of sounding corny, it sounded glorious!
The Rev. Bernie Seter is the chairman of the LCMS Board for International Mission.
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