Dear esteemed pastors and delegates, members and friends of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Jesus’ blood-bought souls, all:
“We Are Fearfully and Wonderfully Made!” (Ps. 139:14).
God so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son, who became flesh, was born of a woman and dwelt among us with a human body and soul. The Son of Man was fearfully and wonderfully made that He might be born under the law to redeem us who are under the law. Christ Jesus lived perfectly in this life, never sinning once, so that He might sacrifice His holy body and soul unto death for our sinful bodies and souls. God honored the human race, the crown of His creation, by becoming one of us. He joined us in our flesh and blood, so that He might save us from the power of death.
As we gather in convention this week we will review God’s good gift of our own bodies, which Jesus has redeemed. We will especially consider our lives from conception to the resurrection unto life everlasting.
The unbelieving world around us has often undermined the Christian understanding of this marvelous gift of God. Increasingly today we hear of body shaming which can result in harmful eating disorders, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and body dysmorphia. Hating one’s body has led to such heinous acts of self-harm, mutilation, and even suicide.
Because of these misunderstandings Christians often have been misled to lose sight of the beauty of their bodies and their glorious divine purposes. God made the world to support our bodies and we in turn, manage God’s created world in service to Him and our neighbor. Even after sin, God still gives us our bodies not to abuse but to use to His glory. This even includes putting them to bed in the grave awaiting the great gettin’ up morning when they will rise and be reunited with our souls. Then we will enjoy the full life secured by Jesus’ blood-bought redemption through the sacrifice of His holy body in our behalf.
We are observing two dedications this week. Both have much to do with human bodies. The Military Monument recognizes the service our veterans rendered for us by risking the health and safety of their bodies for our safekeeping. Some even laid down their lives as a loving sacrifice for others. The Bethany Activity Center is a place to exercise and train the body, not just in youthful days to compete in sports but also to keep fit and healthy into one’s senior years.
As we now review the work we have done together this past year do not take for granted that these things have all been done through our God-given bodies. The implementation of our five-year strategic plan “Tell of Jesus and His Love” has not been carried out among us as disembodied spiritual activities. Sure, as God’s faithful people we have put our hand to the plow, so to speak, with prayer and meditation seeking to do all things in accordance with His will. But materials have been produced with minds at work, fingers touching keyboards, hands producing copies, collating and stapling, feet distributing these to various places. Mouths, lips, tongues and voices have been proclaiming the Gospel’s saving message in various venues. They have been delivered so that they might be seen and heard with eyes and ears affecting minds and hearts. Evangelical face to face visits have been made by Circuit Visitors and their alternates, administrators and counselors with pastors and congregations. Boards and committees have met in person to carry out what we have decided to do together while it is day, before the night comes when no one can work.
You will notice that under the report of the Planning and Coordinating Committee our various boards, committees, institutions and officers are fulfilling our strategic plan to reach its goals on time. In addition, a subcommittee has been formed to develop a system whereby more dynamic strategic planning may occur throughout the year. This is because the current committee, as structured, deals primarily with our annual budgets and only occasionally does strategic planning. It is our goal, as this is being tested, that we might find a more permanent structure by 2026 to carry out planning in a more consistent and productive manner.
We also get to review the report of the Commission on Congregations at Critical Mass as an addendum to the report of the Board of Trustees. It is our intention that we might find helpful ways to close the back door to membership losses in many of our congregations. In addition, through proper assessment and planning, we intend to provide ways to enhance outreach efforts. We desire to assist congregations that wish to go beyond a “maintenance” status to becoming thriving locations in the communities where God has placed them. So, through proper sacramental piety, we might find more and more who will migrate to these places finding them to be restful nesting locations, having all their spiritual needs met in their daily living.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that our American culture is becoming less and less influenced by its original Christian flavor. It was commonplace at the close of the last century that Christian “church shoppers” would physically find and enter churches to visit and ultimately attend. We in the ELS benefited from this; but this is not so much the case any longer. Yes, there are still shoppers who look into our “windows” online whom we do well to accommodate as best we can. But take note of this: we are living in a time when parents are especially searching for places of spiritual refuge for their children and we should all consider how we might mobilize to offer such inviting places for these young refugees.
Consider how traditionally American Lutheranism has done well in providing Christ-centered schools and even now some states are establishing “school choice” making it even more inviting. Perhaps your church could start exploring such options as early childhood programs, Power Hour and preschool, or elementary or secondary education. Some of our churches already have facilities that could easily accommodate such pursuits. Ask our Board for Lutheran Schools for an evaluation and some direction. Even if such major opportunities for the spiritual training of children are not feasible in your setting, please consider the report from the Sunday School Attendance Committee and see how offering a limited opportunity for weekly spiritual instruction might be offered through your congregation even if there are no children currently listed among your members.
Last month on the festival of Pentecost I was present for the Divine Service at one of our ELS churches in which five children from one family were all baptized. In speaking with the pastor afterwards I was told that three years ago the initial contact was made through Power Hour and now through the school the eldest child requested to be baptized. It is hoped that this will lead the parents to receive instruction and be similarly baptized as it has happened for many families in the past. Teachers in our schools physically sit among small children letting them come to Jesus. They instruct them with their “hearts, hands and voices” proclaiming the wonders God has done for them in their Savior as they early on prepare for future vocations of serving their neighbors in their bodies.
The Four-Stage Panel has been working in an expedited manner as instructed by the synod in 2021 to determine if we can recommend to recognize and thus officially declare fellowship with our brothers and sisters of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Kenya. Even though delayed on account of COVID travel restrictions, three of the panel members finally made an extended onsite visit last December and were well pleased with what they witnessed. While we awaited verification of various documents and actions from the ELDK, and were unable at the printing of the Book of Reports and Memorials to make such a recommendation, I am now pleased to report this recommendation is being put forward at this convention. It is part of an addendum to the president’s report which should have been distributed for your consideration.
A little history: President Moldstad had urged the Doctrine Committee to make this recommendation already in 2020 and was planning to make a face to face visit himself before that convention. However, the pandemic stopped travel even canceling the convention and then his soul was taken to heaven, all of which prevented those plans from being fulfilled. But now it is the recommendation of the panel that we recognize our unity in doctrine with these faithful confessional Lutheran Christians. The Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ–Kenya, a WELS-affiliated church body based in a different region of Kenya, is supportive of this acknowledgment of unity.
President Mark Onunda of the LCMC–Kenya preached and presided at the installation of the ELDK’s president, Gwachi Evans, this past April. The leaders and members of the ELDK have taken a bold stance in disaffiliating from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya, which, despite being in fellowship with the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, remains also as a full member church of the ELCA-backed Lutheran World Federation. In the face of persecution, even at times putting their bodies in harms-way, they have severed their ties with this heterodox church body. The ELDK seeks a close fraternal working relationship with the ELS in receiving theological support as they move forward as a relatively new and faithful Lutheran church body.
By God’s grace through His generous people, we surpassed our 2022 goal for congregational giving of $820,000 by $75,000! This excess of the budgeted income was once again designated to be given to our Bethany Lutheran College for its operating budgetary needs. Concurrently we also had an outpouring of additional gifts in the sum of $300,000 that was given for the Ukraine Crisis Fund. God’s people through the labor of their bodies took of their income received from the gracious hand of our Lord and supplied the many needs for Gospel ministry far and wide. Our new challenge for this year’s budget has a $840,000 goal in congregational giving. The Board of Trustees is recommending to you that we once again commit ourselves to any excess income in reaching that goal be designated for our Bethany Lutheran College’s operational costs.
We will once again be informed that the financial challenge remains a daunting one for our college. In part we are seeing nationwide that there is an increasing interest in tech sciences but a plummeting student demand for the humanities. So traditional liberal arts colleges are facing a future decline in enrollment for those majors. In addition, there is a predicted overall decline in college age students on the near horizon. We applaud BLC’s administration for wrestling with these challenges and finding ways to keep our doors open without losing our liberal arts culture on campus while also providing many strong and successful majors from which our students may choose. It might also be pointed out that we have experienced a record number in enrollment in each of the past three years. However, I do think we still need to explore more innovative ways to reach out to new prospective students, parents and donors alike who share our many traditional Christian values but have not yet been exposed to what God allows us to offer here in His name.
Some Lutheran colleges in America this last century have sought to appeal to a larger population by dropping their Lutheran identity. While this may have resulted in an increased enrollment for a time, it also allowed these institutions to drift from their theological roots and the Gospel message has all but vanished from their mission. As long as Bethany Lutheran College is the college of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, we fully intend with the help of God that she will remain faithful to the Holy Scriptures and to our Lutheran Confessions under the watchful eye of the synod.
However, I wish to challenge some misperceptions floating about out there that our college is undergoing mission drift. While the unbelieving world around us poses ever new challenges, BLC remains committed to providing that “One Thing Needful” in her classrooms and in her campus life. By God’s grace the spiritual blessings our college provides its students are apparent in many ways, e.g., daily chapel, adult instruction classes, student Baptisms and Confirmations. In my time working with the Board of Regents and the college’s administration, I have been very pleased with the way they have addressed any and all questions and the measures they have taken to answer any legitimate concerns brought to their attention.
Sadly, even the government is threatening to impose new rules and regulations that will challenge our ability to provide a Christ-centered, Biblically faithful higher education. Fervently pray that our Lord will continue to strengthen us in our resolve to remain faithful to Him in every way. Specifically pray for the Board of Regents and the administration as they continue to wrestle with making difficult decisions in order to maintain a college for the ELS that remains Christ-centered and financially viable.
As mentioned in my report I heard a presentation in January given by Pastor Jonathan Bauer of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod who spoke on the topic “Our Lutheran Moment: Why Now Is a Good Time for Us to be Doing What We Do Best.” It is not only our college that feels the pressure to follow the practices outside our Lutheran circles to better accommodate the ways of the world. Our congregations and pastors can also feel this pressure to forsake the old paths and do what Lutherans do not do well all in an effort to increase our numbers. Following other approaches when it comes to our divine services, for example, often can mean that we forsake the sacramental emphasis of the Lord coming to us with His gracious presence forgiving us our sins, receiving life in its abundance and resting secure in our everlasting salvation. Even though Jesus has ascended He reaches down to us and touches us right where we live with water, His living word, bread, wine, and one another.
We continue to confess this in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession in regard to changing traditions: “[W]e teach that freedom should be so controlled that the inexperienced may not be offended and, because of freedom’s abuse [Romans 14:13–23] may not become more opposed to the true doctrine of the Gospel. Nothing in customary rites should be changed without a reasonable cause. So to nurture unity, old customs that can be kept without sin or inconvenience should be kept.”1
While we have much freedom in our practices as Christians, changes are never to be pursued which distract from the Gospel, having our eyes diverted from Christ to ourselves or to our worship leaders in a cultic fashion. Without the Gospel at the center of our worship there is no building up of the church as it alone “is the power of God unto salvation.”
The means of grace were instituted by our Lord so that He might come to His people through the human touch as they are applied and distributed by real human beings in real human bodies. The mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren does not work so well on screens as nice as that technology is at connecting people from afar. The Lord desires that His gracious presence be received with a personal tactile experience. God became incarnate to dwell among us and His means of grace were put into place by Him so that He might be with us always to the very end of the age in a real intimate way. Certainly, the word heard proclaimed can still happen online, but the full measure of Jesus’ gifts to the church are not received online, but in person with real bodies communicating to us in real time His everlasting love and peace.2
In these menacing days with the ever increasing cultural and governmental hostility toward Christians, let us not forsake what we have received which alone saves. We live at peace with God our Creator for the sake of His only begotten Son who became flesh and sacrificed His holy body for our eternal salvation of body and soul in the new creation with Him forever. Meanwhile we continue to serve our Lord in this old creation with our bodies fulfilling our many and varied vocations as God uses us to serve neighbor.
In your vocation as citizens of Christ’s kingdom on earth, you are called to be part of Jesus’ mission that all people for whom He lived, died and rose again might repent, believe and thus be saved. It is not a burdensome law you must now fulfill, but an evangelical imperative, so that you get to be part of His mission. Do you think first Century Christians, or 16th Century, or even early 20th Century needed evangelism workshops, seminars, “how to” evangelism books? In all Christian generations the kingdom of heaven has been advancing forcefully and forceful people are still seizing it (cf. Mt. 11:12). Consider your God-given role and rejoice in fulfilling it naturally in your everyday life being prepared for the time when your neighbor is ready to hear the good news of salvation from you.
As we live sacramentally under God’s abundant grace, we cannot but help to speak of these saving works of God. We are God’s own people made so through the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, His Son. The mission of the kingdom of God is naturally a part of our lives now in this world. “Broken people bringing Good News of the Healer to other broken people… There’s a world full of broken people—including your neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family members—counting on it.”3
God uses introverts and extroverts in His Church to speak of the hope that is within each one of us. There is no need to approach developing relationships and giving an answer by mastering the psychological ways of a salesman or professional counselor: determining how the lost person connects and communicates; learning how to listen; how to phrase probing questions, etc. Just be natural as you seek to love neighbor as yourself.
Developing loving and caring relationships is essential for a lost or unchurched person to trust Christians enough to ask for an answer to the hope they observe in their words and actions. But it may take decades.
Keep your relationships natural with your many neighbors God puts in your life, not intentionally forced. If you are merely intending to strike up a relationship with the goal of “sharing” the Gospel, you will have an agenda that can interfere with Jesus’ agenda. Be who Jesus made you to be, one who is at peace with God for Jesus’ sake and He will put opportunities before you where you are asked to give an answer by those He has surrounded you in your many and varied vocations. You will naturally answer in your way and the Spirit will use it to accomplish Jesus’ agenda.
God serves your neighbors through you. Opportunities abound how you naturally respond in your daily living among neighbors to show forth the love of God by your many actions performed through your bodies. You will know what your neighbor needs by following these words of our Lord: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Mt. 7:12). You and I will find that most of our evangelism efforts will be hidden in the questions we finally ask Jesus in the judgment: “When did we see You naked, or hungry, or sick, or in prison…?”
Oftentimes we become frustrated with ourselves in this life, but we are encouraged by the inspired words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians:
“[W]e are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (5:6-8) Washed clean in Jesus’ blood and dressed in His righteousness through faith, what we are currently doing in our bodies in His name is always good in the sight of the Father. So, we fear not the future for the Lord is still with us—Immanuel.4
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Each one of us has been called to various vocations in this life now to serve our neighbors helping and befriending them in every bodily need. Jesus did not sacrifice His holy body and shed His holy blood in vain. You, your body and soul both, were saved by His sacred death upon the cross. Live now in the peace that Jesus will return to redeem your bodies from this life of corruption and decay, so that you might finally live in them experiencing life to its fullest with Him in His body unto life everlasting.
Let us sing the last two stanzas of Hymn #406 and seek God’s strength and favor in all that we do in our bodies in life, in death and in resurrection. Please rise to sing:
Yea, Lord, ‘twas Thy rich bounty gave
My body, soul, and all I have
In this poor life of labor.
Lord, grant that I in every place
May glorify Thy lavish grace
And serve and help my neighbor.
Let no false doctrine me beguile
Let Satan not my soul defile.
Give strength and patience unto me
To bear my cross and follow Thee.
Lord Jesus Christ,
My God and Lord, my God and Lord,
In death Thy comfort still afford.
Lord, let at last Thine angels come
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my Fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.
ELH #406, vv. 2&3
Let us all say from the heart say—“Amen”
Glenn R. Obenberger, president
1 Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XV (VIII) “Human Traditions. We also confess in the Formula of Concord: “Therefore, we believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every time and place has the right, power, and authority to change, reduce, or expand such practices according to circumstances in an orderly and appropriate manner, without frivolity or offense, as seems most useful, beneficial, and best for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the building up of the church.” (FC X, 9)
2 When considering what goes on in our churches every Sunday, Prof. Cherney (WELS) urges: “Let our worship communicate dignity, grace, and such a deep sense of the holy that visitors to our services will conclude that God is really among us (1 Corinthians 14:25).” [Forward to Vol. 120 of Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Winter 2023, pp. 4–5]
3 Connected to Christ: Witnessing in Everyday Life, by Mark A Wood, CPH, 2021, p. 11.
4 We also confess with Paul in his letter to the Romans: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (8:22–25).