Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A review of Matthew Harrison’s, “It’s Time: LCMS Unity and Mission”

Although it was written nearly one year ago (October of 2008), I have only recently been made aware of Matthew C. Harrison’s paper addressing the woeful divisions of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod entitled, “It’s Time: LCMS Unity and Mission”. Knowing Matthew to be a man possessing both conservative, sound doctrine as well as a genuine heart for seeking and saving the lost (as evidenced by his lengthy and excellent work with LCMS World Mission), I immediately set out to read it and e-publish a review, and I must say from the outset that I’m extremely glad that I did.

Matt opens with a compelling illustration; an ocean-going ship that is occupied by a crew that is one small part bitterly opposed to her course, one part radically committed to her course, and a large majority that are apathetic as regards to the ship altogether. What can be done?

Immediately, upon the first page, Matt’s paper has won my respect. For he acknowledges that while simply putting the matter to a vote and accepting the will of the majority may be fine for an actual ship, it nevertheless is destructive and divisive when the metaphorical ship is in actuality the church. Or perhaps the crew majority could simply rid themselves of the impure influences of the losers? Ridding ourselves of opposition by jettisoning all mutineers and extra baggage through force is acceptable upon the high seas, but it is the very antithesis of the redeeming and reconciling truth of the Gospel that we hold to in faith. The answer, Matt rightly points out, is not coercion, but consensus.

It is this point of consensus and not coercion that he expands upon, revisits, and in some ways revises throughout the rest of the paper. Matt takes the historical and present challenges of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod along with a refreshing splash of respected Reformers (such as Luther and Chemnitz) and an explicit reliance upon the Scriptures as the rule and norm of faith, and wonderfully and expertly weaves together into a tapestry that reveals that the fundamental problem we face in the LC-MS today is not one of structure nor of power and control but, as Matt says, a “lack of faith in the power of the Word to unite even us.”

And BOOM! . . . Matt nails it. Look at the divisions that persist in the LC-MS. Look at the things we argue over. And then look at how we try to resolve them: Through vilifying one another in internet forums and blogs, through campaigning for the “right person” to be elected into Synodical office, through resolutions that seek the full compliance of other parties and factions . . . in other words: through coercion. We have long since stopped believing that the Word of God is living and active and able to bring about the good and pleasing unity that God desires.

Matt’s answer is as radical as it is simple: That we first repent of our own sinful divisiveness, that we actively listen to the Word of God for guidance, and then that we actively listen to one another. Simply put, Matt Harrison dares to offer the radical, unheard of suggestion that we actually rely upon the Word of God, and in particular His Gospel, to be our rule of faith and life at home, in our churches . . . and even in our Synod.

That, my friends, is profound. It is provocative. And it is the very reason why I’m heartily recommending Matt’s paper to you to read for yourself. His is a clarion call back to what matters most: Christ at the center of all.

What if we were to embrace that notion? To really, truly embrace it? To repent of our own lack of faith in the transforming power of God’s Word, to repent of our own feeble and weak attempts to fix Synod through restructuring, through programs, through solicitation of financial support . . . and instead say with radical, uncompromising, unfaltering conviction that Jesus Christ IS at the center of every single one of our decisions, and that we will heed His Word in every aspect of our lives together?

I’ll tell you what would happen: exactly what Matt suggests will happen. That we will come to be missionally doctrinal and doctrinally missional. That both active mission endeavors and pure doctrine will be held in high, high regard. That we will be able once again to express our given unity in Christ to one another and for the benefit of the world that looks on.

“It’s time for us to be united in doctrine and mission, doctrine for mission in order “to seek and save the lost.” It’s time to be about mission and mercy. It is tme to tend the fellowship (koinonia) we have been given in Christ, and to care for one another. Christ is with us, and the world is before us. It’s time to face the real problem and to address it once and for all. “Let’s go!” (Mark 1:38). It’s time!”—Matthew C. Harrison

Matthew C. Harrison’s paper “It’s Time: LCMS Unity And Mission” can be viewed and/or downloaded at http://www.itistime.org/

Thursday, July 02, 2009

On social media and virtual relationships What I've learned to value in them

Are so-called "virtual relationships" valid? I have a good number of internet-only friends (friends I've never met in real life, but nevertheless whom I've associated with for several years online), and I value their friendship immensely. I've been thinking a fair bit recently about the validity of online relationships and the value I place in them.

It began while I was on a vacation recently. Traveling away from home for me meant no internet access unless I happened across a Wi-Fi hotspot. This provided an opportunity to disconnect from the ubiquitous curse/blessing of Microsoft Outlook and the friendly chime alerting me to an incoming email, but it also forced me to disconnect (partially, as it turned out) from my circle of online friends. No pastors forum. No Facebook. No Old Lutheran. None of those regular and expected channels of communication were open to me for a period of about two weeks.

I noticed a few things. One, I didn't experience the withdrawal symptoms of an internet addict. I felt no compulsion to stop at a trendy Starbucks to get a double fix of caffeine and 'net, nor the need to haul out my laptop just because the interstate rest stop advertised free Wi-Fi access. It was good to break away from everything that was "back home" and focus a bit more on the here and now of traveling and seeing family.

But I also noticed a distinct difference in the make-up of my Twitter tweets (you can follow me @troyneujahr). Whereas normally I'd confine a tweet to a work-related ministry question, something that was perhaps intended to start a conversation or give insight into a pastor's day, on vacation my tweets started to take on a new flavor. With no possibility of entering into a discussion with my online community, I started to view my tweets as a sort of mini-postcard. I'd think of my online friends as I typed out 140 characters of "What I'm doing now", and in my mind there?d always be a little additional tagline of "Wish you were here." A Twitter update became my way of thinking fondly of my online friends for a few moments and expressing (albeit obliquely) a longing for the coming day when we could freely converse once again.

I can only think of one possibility for my behavior: in my mind, the relationships I've formed online are genuine relationships that mirror person-to-person relationships in every way. I have casual acquaintances in real life with whom I can pass a few moments of pleasant conversation, and I have the same type of acquaintances online. I also have a select, limited number of deep personal friends in real life whom I rely upon for advice and support, but I also have the same type of online friends, as well. One friend in particular is a man that I have NEVER met in real life, but I nevertheless have no doubt that if I were to show up at his home unannounced I would be welcomed as a cherished and long-time friend . . . because that is what we are, despite the limitations of online, virtual communication.

What's more, I have also recently learned that a virtual friendship can actually create a bond that, when brought into real life, is almost immediately transferable. At our recent LC-MS Michigan District convention, for instance, I bumped into a few folks that I have connected with on Facebook. In each instance, I saw them from a short distance away, recognized them from their online profile, and introduced myself saying, "We're friends on Facebook." Without fail there was a second or two of visible mental processing followed by an "Oh yeah! Good to meet you!", and then a few pleasant and enjoyable minutes of conversation. Not the awkward sort of first-meeting conversation, either, but rather a continuation of what we knew of each other from the virtual world. Virtual friendship transferred quickly and easily into real-world friendship.

Can virtual friendships entirely replace real-world face-to-face contact? No, I'd never suggest that it could. In the case of the church worship service, for instance, there is a necessity of a flesh-and-blood gathering of human beings meeting consistently around Word and Sacrament. "Virtual worship" remains, in my mind, a self-defeating term. Likewise, the relationship of me to my best friend (save Christ), namely my wife Stephanie, is something that could never be replicated online.

But consider what true friendship really is: two people learning to understand and appreciate one another for who they are. Seeing each other in a variety of different contexts, seeing each other through a variety of life events?both crises and celebrations. Two people interacting in friendly banter, in arguments, in difference of opinions, in requests for prayers, and in mutual consolation. Two people supporting one another, loving one another, and befriending one another.

Through the blessing of the internet, God has given me such friendships. Some in real life, some online. It's a blessing for which I'm extremely thankful. And I've learned that, when it comes to friendship, there is no such thing as a "virtual friend" . . . there are only friends that I've met in person and friends that I have not.

Thank you, Lord, for those friends.