Praise be to the Triune God in whom alone is salvation from sin, death, Satan and hell, and in whose name alone we are assembled here for the blessed soul-saving work that lies before us! I greet you especially in the name of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus who willingly gave his life so that we through faith in him are assured of life everlasting.
Have you ever been at a gathering where you felt out of place? (—I hope you feel quite at home here!) Maybe it was at a party, a class reunion, a certain kind of banquet. It’s not a good feeling, is it? Of course, that depends on what kind of gathering we are talking about. Who would not want to feel totally out of place, if two weeks ago after church you walked into the Denny’s Restaurant in Westland, MI, and realized you were in the middle of the Michigan Atheists’ Sunday Brunch? Or maybe it is an experience similar to what one of our synod members related to me lately. He said he and his wife were visiting a large city of our nation and were shocked to observe unsuspectingly a parade that had little in it resembling an Ozzie and Harriet float with a waving Ward and June Cleaver at the helm. And that is an understatement. He was relieved not to have any children along as the crass display of homosexuality rolled on by.
We Christians, of course, are aliens and strangers in the world. When the apostle Peter wrote to Christians scattered in five regions of Asia Minor–at that time under fearful Roman dominion and today known as the Moslem country of Turkey–he referred to them not simply as “strangers in the world,” but “elect strangers in the world (1Peter 1:1). Luther comments: “Since they had been converted to the faith, he does not call them common sojourners but elect sojourners; just as if he should say: you, while you were heathen and strangers and did not know God and had no hope…are now citizens with the saints and members of the family of God…partakers of all the heavenly riches in Christ.” Assuming the ultimate goal of eternal life through faith in Christ, the apostle could give this exhortation for his readers’ day by day existence: Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:11, 12).
How do we as “elect strangers” relate to and interact with this present world? What role, if any, do we have to play in society? Should our time and energy only be occupied in the realm of the church? We have chosen for our theme at this year’s convention: “Seek the Peace of the Land.” Rev. David Thompson, our essayist, will take us through a study of Jeremiah 29:7, Seek the peace and the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. There is a role–an important one–for Christians to play in sowing seeds of positive influence in a society so prone to decadence. Our Lord’s familiar words come to mind: You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13). An early Christian writing called “The Epistle to Diognetus,” compares the existence of the believer in the world to the way the soul (in this present life) is encapsulated in the human body. “The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and Christians through the various cities of the world. The soul has its abode in the body, and yet is not of the body. So Christians have their abode in the world, and yet they are not of the world.” But lest we think the unknown author of this respected patristic writing was advocating any kind of separatism, we find this cogent description of Christians: “They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all others and they beget their children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives… They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are spoken evil of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life” (The Apostolic Fathers, J.B. Lightfoot, Baker Book House reprint, 1976, p. 254).
Think of what Christians have to transmit. We do not have an empty way of life to pass on. In fact, it was from an empty way of life that we were redeemed. The apostle Peter told the Asia Minor believers the very news that lifts our spirits today: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, so your faith and hope are in God (1 Peter 1:18–21). When we consider from where we have come—by nature dead in sin and because of sin even an enemy of God!—we are moved with gratitude to praise our Redeemer. Jesus’ holy blood was shed in order to exact in his own Person the full penalty for all of our transgressions in the sight of God’s perfect justice. That’s something no earthly ransom would or could ever attain! But what does this mean for our lives not only in church and at home, but also around our neighbors and in our interaction with government and in our social and civic activities across our great land? In all that we do we want Christ to be glorified. Even as we believers promote natural law in society’s realm, a chief reason for doing so is to use it as a connecting link for the Christian preaching of the Law, which of course is the foreign and dissonant prelude to presenting the symphonic sweetness of the holy Gospel. But the natural law also is vital for society’s preservation, and the church itself resides in society. So, the question is not do we get involved in society; it is how best to be involved. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15).
There is much that we can offer. We can show, for example, a great appreciation for the wonders of creation as illustrated artistically in Prof. Bill Bukowski’s “Creation Fresco” in the Meyer Hall. The entire Trinity is portrayed in the act of the creation. While the unbelieving world around us does not know its holy and loving Creator, fellow Christians can use human reason, natural law and observations of creation for conversation openers toward the final goal that sees hearts touched with the powerful Means of Grace. Luther has stated: “If the natural law were not written or inscribed by God in the heart, one would have to preach for a long time before the conscience were struck. Because it is, however, in the heart beforehand, albeit in darkness and entirely paled, it is revived by the Word, so that the heart must confess that the commandments say that one is to honor and love God and serve him, because he alone is good and does good, not only over against the pious, but also over against the wicked” (St. L. III, 1052). May we, then focus our attention this convention on how we can better “Seek the Peace of the Land.”
Martin Luther also said: “We should do our utmost to make peace prevail in our country, just as we should plow and sow to raise grain. To keep the peace, we should also be patient and friendly toward our neighbors. And our rulers should establish borders, build roads, and arm themselves against enemies and evil neighbors. But when all this has been done, one should say: ‘Well, I have done everything necessary to keep the peace, and all that is required for defense. But all this is nothing. Lord God, give Thou Thy blessing to this work, and establish peace within our borders. Our efforts can do nothing, our plowing and sowing cannot produce the fruits we need, no matter how gladly we work at it.’ Truly God will bless such faith in your diligence and such work for peace, and he will grant and maintain his gift of peace” (LW 14:119).
But how are we doing inside the church? Can we, for instance, as a small confessional Lutheran church body really make a difference? What can we as individual believers, as members of our local congregations and as members of our beloved ELS, do to affect the lives of people around us and of generations yet to be born? More than any worthy worldly dreams and goals affecting our material goods and energies, we want to transmit precisely, promptly, powerfully and passionately the Word of God. There is nothing that can be substituted for the Word of God and the Sacraments as the antidote for the spiritually devastating stench reeked by our own sinful flesh and perpetrated by the wily Serpent and the evil world in which we live. Peter focused his readers on solid hope: For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God (1 Peter 1:24).
Recently a hockey stick manufacturing company has made a comeback. Years ago it had produced a large quantity of wooden sticks. But when the desire for a composite stick–one made of various parts–came along, the Minnesota company, run by brothers named Christian, almost went out of business. Now there has been a rebound in sales. Apparently many hockey players have found that the composite sticks have not been as good as the wooden ones. What looked so good at first could not replace the old tried and true!
God’s Word alone is the tried and true. Substitutes have been offered and often religiously practiced. Feelings have failed. Medicines and vitamins last only so long. Exercise machines and aerobics help the body but cannot fill the void for the soul. Many emotion- driven worship services lacking clear Law-Gospel delineation may excite for a while, but they are unable to confront and comfort the soul with what it really needs. How vital to have worship services that focus on the Means of Grace! The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of the Lord stands forever (1 Peter 1:25). Only the Word of God endures and it alone gives life, for it presents Christ. The eternal and almighty God has attached his saving power to his verbally inerrant and inspired Word and the holy precious Sacraments found in that Word.
Check the grass outside the front window at your home. How long will it be around?
After next week’s cutting, where will the trimmings find their resting spot? The flowers and the grass teach us a powerful lesson. Moses wrote: You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning–though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered (Psalm 90:5, 6). Man is ephemeral, i.e., short-lived and fleeting, except for one thing–he has a soul. Where in eternity will this soul reside? Jesus said: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28). The life and death issue of embracing our Lord Jesus Christ as the One come in the flesh for the atonement of our sins cannot be taken lightly or treated as simply a priority in a spectrum of honorable alternatives. Knowing Christ is the whole enchilada! What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26) Yet, listen to this from our Lord: Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him (John 7:38).
Can we as a synod be of significance in channeling the water of life that gives new birth?
Does 2004 present a glass of opportunities that is half full or half empty as we direct people to the fount where there is the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit?
Around us we find demographically altered neighborhoods with multifarious nationalities. They can be touched with the Gospel, and in turn the saving news may even reach destinations way beyond imagined borders. We live in an age that groans unwittingly for spiritual intervention. We have financial capabilities that defy the paltry pocketbooks of many previous generations. Plopped on our doorsteps sit opportunities not experienced by previous generations: We of course have unparalleled technological resources. There is access to instant communications—the web, cells, emails, and now videophones. A number of these things also present serious challenges to the Christian way of life. But we move forward trusting that God has a mission purpose for us to be placed in our present locale, in our synod and in our vocations at this moment in time. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms (2 Peter 4:10).
More pointedly, what can we do for our children? You have been hearing much this year about the Lutheran Schools Initiative (LSI). The LSI is a proposal for our synod to establish a foundation/fund to underwrite startup costs for Lutheran elementary schools in conjunction and cooperation with local congregations. Such a fund would be more substantial in resources and in scope than the current annual proceeds coming from the 1992 “His Truth for Our Youth” offering. We are grateful for the support that has come from the “His Truth for Our Youth” offering; to this date, about $283,000 has been awarded from the “His Truth for Our Youth” fund in order to assist Lutheran elementary schools. Monies from the “His Truth for Our Youth” fund cannot be used for salaries or other current operating expenses. The LSI proposal, if adopted, should enable our synod to develop more schools and to do so in vicinities deemed to be choice locations for outreach. The BEY has been operating with a policy that up to $50,000 is the amount of help that could be given to a congregation wishing to start a school, assuming that the congregation meets criteria set by the board for the school’s viability and the congregation demonstrates its own support. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that amount could be substantially increased? Wouldn’t it be a blessing also to be able to approach specific churches and ask on behalf of the synod if they would consider sponsoring a school if/when major funding could be provided (both in terms of grants and loans)? Might it even be the case where as a synod we could establish a school or preschool simultaneous with the start of an exploratory mission?
The Lutheran Schools Initiative is a new and aggressive concept for our synod, but one that I believe is necessary and will–God willing–prove highly beneficial for our synod in the years to come. The Board for Education and Youth is recommending that the synod immediately establish a foundation/fund to be managed by the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees also is behind the initiative and in an addendum to its report is suggesting that the synod consider designating the next synod-wide offering for the LSI. Might there be individuals even at this convention who may be interested in establishing a bequest or endowment for such a worthy initiative? God has blessed us with many resources. How can we use what he so graciously has given us to serve the young so that they have the true heritage—God’s holy Word that lasts to eternity?
What a blessing the Lutheran Schools Initiative can also be for our Bethany Lutheran College and our Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary. The college now has the Elementary Education major. If we develop more schools, we are in a position to fill these ELS schools with our own graduates. Then too, who can underestimate the value of new grade schools in the early recruitment for our college and seminary? A priority for our synod has been youth leadership. Will not many who benefit from our Lutheran elementary education system be the leaders of tomorrow’s church? Many of us in attendance here today are grateful for parents and teachers who saw the Lutheran elementary school as a venerable agency used by God the Holy Spirit to inculcate in our minds the great doctrinal truths set forth in Luther’s Small Catechism? (This June 21—my now-sainted mother’s birthday—makes me even more acutely aware of this gratitude.)
Are we as passionate in desiring Lutheran schools as were our early synod fathers?
We provide you with some samplings from years past.
I am fully convinced that this is our most important home and foreign mission: To establish English-language Lutheran schools for children to which there are gathered all the children one can get, in order to instruct them about God’s great love to all men and to bring them up to be conscientious Christians and citizens. (President’s Address, 1922, Rev. George Gullixson)
If there is any matter of importance for us, which the Synod ought to take up now with strength and enthusiasm at the beginning of this new era, then it is our children’s schools. (President’s Address, 1923; Rev. George Gullixson quoting Dr. U.V. Koren)
When we consider what our brethren in the Missouri and Wisconsin synods have lived to see in this regard, then it can do nothing other than both shame and encourage us. Shame us, when we look at what we are and have in the Norwegian Synod, but encourage us when we look to the future with the firm determination of wanting to follow their example in the matter of schools… If we want to secure our future as the Norwegian Synod, if we want to live as an evangelical Lutheran church body, then we must take courage and ask God for grace to begin immediately with this simple daily work of bringing up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. (President’s Address, 1923, Rev. George Gullixson)
When we are about to begin a new period in the history of our Synod, may we all bear in mind that the future of our church depends upon the training that we will give our children. Never has there been a greater need for Christian day schools. True, such schools are not popular with the great masses, but they are precious in the eyes of the Good Shepherd, and His blessing will rest upon all those who labor faithfully to bring the little children to him by means of the Christian Day School. (Grace for Grace (Lutheran Synod Book Co., 1943), S.C. Ylvisaker)
Our Christian schools are most important tools in educating for eternity. Christian parents, knowing the dangers of the environment and the philosophy which persists so much in our state schools, wonderfully good and efficient as they are otherwise, will earnestly make use of every Christian educational agency possible… The schools which serve in the very best way in educating for eternity are our full-time parish schools, Christian high schools and colleges. For here young people not only learn the way of life, but they are taught by teachers consciously seeking to implant the Christian way of life in the young people entrusted to their care. In such full-time Christian schools God’s Word controls and permeates everything in education.” (1966 Convention Essay, “Educating for Eternity,” Rev. Luther Vangen)
The church-related school, which does not face the problem of religious pluralism and is free to teach Biblical doctrines, can do much more specific work in Christian education… This school enables the child to experience a totally Christ-centered program, a program which focuses the application of God’s word on him and on all areas of his life. Daily instruction in God’s Word encourages him to struggle against sin, to seek forgiveness in Christ, and to grow in love and service to God and man. (1987 Convention Essay, “Christian Education,” Ray Diepenbrock)
Last year at our convention we heard these statistics from our 2003 essayist:
Today, our synod’s congregations, with ninety-five teachers, conduct fifteen Christian day schools in addition to congregations which operate preschools only. Representing 11% of our congregations and educating 1,232 students or at least 28% of our children, this is the largest number of schools and students in our existence! By contrast, Wisconsin Synod conducts 359 schools for 44% of its children and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod conducts 1,031 schools for 27% of its children. At the same time, the congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America operate 155 elementary schools and in those schools only 24% of the students are members of that church body. (2003 Convention Essay, “A Table in the Wilderness,” Rev. Craig Ferkenstad)
God has not revealed how many new schools may be started in our synod in the next ten, twenty, thirty years. But he has told us how much he loves our children–no less than all of us. He wants them to be guarded against the dangers of secularism. He wants them to be protected from immorality. He wants them to grow in baptismal grace. He wants these lambs to remain faithful followers of in his fold. He wants them one day to pass along the good grazing ground to other lambs yet to appear on the scene. We ask God’s guidance and direction and blessing upon our consideration of the LSI.
One more item I would like to mention. We live in a highly ecumenical age where temptations scream at us to yield on points of doctrine or at least to adjust our confessional Lutheran practices for fear that we will become isolationists. We cannot, however, afford to yield. It is God’s doctrine. And our practice wants to highlight this crucial fact. True love for others can only be maintained if first and foremost true love is directed to God’s Word and to the correct exposition of that Word as shown in our Lutheran Confessions. I would hope that every pastor, every lay delegate–yes, every member of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod–would treasure and embrace the doctrine of church fellowship, for without it and without the corresponding practice, the floodgates of error and pluralism would quickly spring open on our blessed city set on a hill and eventually even the pivotal message of that skull-shaped hill long ago would be eroded. But our great Lord who has taught us to observe all things as he has commanded us (Matthew 28:20) promises to be with us to the very end of the age as we eagerly devote ourselves to the Holy Book.
The sainted Theodore Aaberg who wrote our beloved ELS history, concluded his book (A City Set on a Hill) with this excellent reminder for our synod:
Truth, as a body of doctrine, can indeed be set before a people by the preceding generation, but each succeeding generation must, through the Holy Spirit, make this truth its own as a part of its very faith and life before it can actually be said to possess it. There is in this sense no continuity to synodical history. Each succeeding generation must start all over again. In this way alone is a synod spared from offensive pride, dead orthodoxy, and liberalism. In this way alone is a new generation enabled to sing: ‘God’s Word is our great heritage’ (p. 265).
May God’s blessings rest upon our convention and upon all that we do in our Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
John A. Moldstad, president