May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ rest upon us as we gather in his name to review the work of our church body, to plan for the future, and to implement those plans in keeping with our Lord’s command to “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15).
Dear delegates, pastors and friends:
Significant changes on our nation’s economic landscape have occurred since we gathered here last June. Thirty days before the 44th US president was elected, a financial crisis grew so rapidly it virtually determined what would be the new government’s chief focus. Our country’s first president of African-American descent, Barack H. Obama, was sworn into office in January, a month which also witnessed 207,000 manufacturing jobs vanish–the largest one-month drop since October 1982. Economists quipped that if a crumbling sound was heard, you shouldn’t be surprised—it was simply millions of Americans cracking their nest eggs. The seesaw in fiscal reporting and forecasting has not just been fodder for the evening news. Lives and plans of individuals, families and congregations in our synod have been impacted—some, quite noticeably.
Our stewardship theme for the 2009 convention, “All We Have—A Trust From Thee,” was selected last August. At first thought, one might wonder: should a different subject have been chosen—maybe a theme emphasizing God’s providence, or a theme dedicated to prayer, or one stressing the continual loving presence of our Lord even when material losses are substantial? But think again. What an opportunity presents itself for a discussion on management of all that the Lord provides, even (maybe, especially) when challenged with a reduction of earthly goods! If this is true for us personally, this is true also for us synodically. Can austere times be used to channel our thinking toward a thorough examination of what we already have been granted and how our gracious God would have us respond?
Psalm 103 states: “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (vv. 1–5). King David, the writer of this psalm, expresses sincere gratitude to our God. We believers share this same gratitude as we look over the brief span of our lives in this fleeting world. Our God has redeemed us sinners from eternal destruction through the life, death and resurrection of the One whose entry into Jerusalem David had prophesied when he penned in another of his psalms: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Psalm 118:26).
A British theologian has summarized sin and salvation this way: “For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.”1 The knowledge of that gift of all gifts—our loving God substituting himself for us in the person of the Messiah and then obtaining and granting us forgiveness of sins—is what opens our eyes spiritually to see countless other blessings from the hand of our merciful Maker and Provider. We are from start to finish fully dependent on our great Benefactor who showers us with his goodness!
This thought was captured by Dr. John Kleinig, a Lutheran theologian from Australia, in his recent book, Grace Upon Grace: “Because our spiritual life and health depends on receiving from Christ, we exercise our faith by becoming beggars before God. And that’s not easy for us who fancy that we are producers of spiritual goods and owners of spiritual gifts… In our witness to our associates we [will] not come across as spiritual millionaires, but as beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.”2
We have so much for which to give thanks! This is true individually. This is true for our families. This is true for us as a nation—whether our nation realizes it or not. This is true for our congregations who experience joys and blessings through the weekly proclamation of the saving Gospel and the distribution of the holy sacrament. This is certainly also true for us as we find ourselves united together in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod for the purpose of spreading the Good News of Christ to others, for preserving doctrinal accord and confession, and for fostering Christian living among our membership.
Come along with me for a moment and take a brief inventory of some of the great blessings we enjoy as a synod.
1) Proper distinguishing of Law and Gospel preached in our pulpits. This is not something to take for granted. Philip Melanchthon, in authoring the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, bemoaned the lack of good preaching in many of the German churches, leaving people confused about their salvation. He wrote in the Apology: “But there are probably many people in many places who are in doubt about important issues but do not hear teachers capable of setting their consciences at rest.”3 If that assessment accurately pictures the typical church scene in the day of the Lutheran Reformers, how much more so today! Many in our land assemble each Sunday in steepled sanctuaries or in round mega-structures but are fed spiritual pabulum. We are deeply saddened when parishioners not only are led to question the veracity of Scripture but do not receive even a drop of the pure of medicine of Christ’s Gospel for the remission of sins. Instead, they are directed to their own vain attempts at righteousness for their confidence. Dr. Walther insisted: “Every sermon must contain both doctrines [Law & Gospel]. When either is missing, the other is wrong. For any sermon is wrong that does not present all that is necessary to a person’s salvation.”4
Thank God, we have well-trained clergy and teachers in our synod! Pray that we would continue to have our church workers so equipped. A pastor of a different Lutheran synod recently expressed himself on the need for maintaining a system of thorough scriptural and confessional education for clergy. He said, “Our people need pastors who are well-trained and well-educated. They need to know that those tending their souls are competent in the art of applying the healing balm of the Gospel to wounded consciences first. It’s true that strong interpersonal skills are important, but they are always secondary to delivering the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.”5
Here also I would like to draw special attention to the faithful wives of our pastors. The pastor’s wife carries out a vital role in encouraging and upholding her husband as he carries out his calling with Word and sacrament. She may also have a distinctive influence upon the church for years to come, since in many cases future pastors, teachers and lay leaders have their origins in the parsonage.
2) Our excellent institutions of higher learning: Bethany Lutheran College and Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary. While traveling away from the Mankato epicenter and bumping into individuals unfamiliar with the ELS, a remark often is heard, “Oh, your church runs Bethany. That’s a good school!” Our college—with its nineteen baccalaureates–and our seminary, the synod’s school of the prophets, enjoy reputations of academic excellence. Of greater importance, what is taught at our college and seminary highlights for our students Holy Scripture as the source of all truth, especially the truth of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Say a prayer of thanks for our college and seminary. Also, acknowledge past blessings as we consider the leaders who have gone before us. In this regard, it is fitting to draw special attention to the name of Rev. Raymond Branstad. Ray died on April 1, 2009, at the age of 92. He served as president of our Bethany Lutheran College from 1970–78. While president, he once was interviewed by the Minneapolis Tribune who did on article on “tiny Bethany College” in Mankato, Minnesota. At the time 215 students were enrolled. A lengthy article with pictures led the second section of that newspaper on December 19, 1972. Ray was quoted as saying, “Young people today are searching for some meaning in their lives. We give them motivation. We lead them to the One Thing Meaningful; it is Bethany’s motto—One Thing Needful—and it is ‘salvation by grace through faith in Christ the Savior.’” Older members in our synod may remember fondly something else about President Branstad: When the convention floor would debate finances—whether more to missions or to Bethany College—he would strongly make the case that the college was indeed also a great mission arm for the synod.
3) Our Lutheran elementary schools. Think of the young souls in our synod’s preschools and elementary schools in connection with our convention theme: “All We Have—A Trust From Thee.” The word “trust” carries the definition of “something committed to be used or cared for in the interest of another.” You’ve heard it said before: Out of all the earthly gifts God has given us, our children are the only “possessions” of this world we can—through faith in Christ—take with us into eternity. The psalmist calls children “a heritage from the Lord” (Psalm 127). Whether it is the children in our Sunday schools, our youth programs, or in our Lutheran elementary schools, they all are precious in God’s sight and we can do no better than to encourage the development of quality Lutheran schools to assist parents especially with their spiritual training. We agree wholeheartedly with the editor of our Lutheran Sentinel as he states in this month’s editorial: “The more that churches educate the next generations for living as Christian pilgrims in a changing world, the more we will equip them to proclaim the pure Gospel, defend the faith, and be examples of Christian love. This education begins at home as parents diligently teach their children the Bible stories, recite the Small Catechism, sing the teaching hymns in the hymnal, and teach them to pray. Given a foundation at home, the local congregation can build children up in the holy faith to meet the challenges of the years ahead.”6
4) Our mission programs—both home and foreign. In his hymn “May God Bestow on Us His Grace,” Dr. Luther begins with the plea that our Lord would provide us richly with the blessings of his grace so that we might ourselves be guided to life eternal. But he quickly adds this compelling point: “…And also to the heathen show / Christ’s riches without measure / And unto God convert them” (ELH #591, v. 1).
Praise God for the home missions we have been able to establish over the years! Hundreds of souls have been touched with Christ’s saving Word. Between the years of 1965 and 2007 an amount of $9,558,000 has been expended by our synod on home mission congregations, and that figure represents only interest and operating subsidies paid out to a sum total of 89 churches. Our synod remains committed to establishing home missions, even as we look for alternatives to expensive starts, including consideration of funding the man instead of the location, vicars-in-mission, daughtering congregations and bi-vocational missionaries.
While we train men to assist in developing home missions, encouragement for learning the Hispanic language ought to be considered. In the years ahead is it possible to have a majority of our seminary graduates fairly fluent in conversational Spanish? Toward this end, we are hoping that our seminary and college might collaborate in being able to offer such a program for pre-seminary and seminary students. A grant of $10,000 already has been received from Thrivent Financial as seed-money for this kind of project. Without adding undue academic requirements for seminarians, a certification of participation and qualification could be attached to the transcript of future seminary graduates indicating to our mission boards a certain proficiency level attained. Even if the Spanish proficiency level in may not reach the ability to preach sermons to an all-Latino assembly, enough training may occur to make English-as-second-language courses available as valuable outreach tools in various communities. We are being told that by 2050 population projections show almost one-third of the US census will be of Hispanic/Latino origin.
In our brief inventory of synodical blessings, the subject of foreign missions deserves extra mention. From the time in 1968 when our synod began with its own foreign field in Peru we have entered three other countries as well: Chile, India and Korea. Last year the synod approved the acquisition of the church-related mission organization Thoughts of Faith (TOF), while asking the Board for Foreign Missions to come with a restructuring proposal for future operations. [The board’s proposal is included in the Synod Review Committee’s report to this convention.] What this means is that, upon the adoption of the restructuring proposal, the synod will be involved in mission work in seven foreign fields (with the addition of the TOF fields of Latvia, Czech Republic and Ukraine). Some might wonder about the advisability/feasibility of this is in light of economic challenges we face here in the US. Yet, the blessings that come from encouraging our brothers and sisters in Christ in these countries, particularly assisting churches in becoming self-supporting, are commendable. We should also assure the convention that representatives from Thoughts of Faith, Inc., and from our Board for Foreign Missions are confident we can carry the increased supervisory work load with special funding provided and without impacting the synod’s annual operating budget.
In Ukraine 23 pastors serve 24 congregations and 10 preaching stations, ministering to about 2,000 souls in the Ukrainian Lutheran Church. The Confessional Lutheran Church in Latvia has eight pastors watching over seven congregations, with a combined total of 600 souls. The church that meets in the school building in Plzen, Czech Republic, has a membership of 195, and we rejoice that on June 7 two men, the Rev. Martin Vrsecky and the Rev. Petr Krkora, were ordained into the public ministry.
What blessings our Lord has bestowed! Pray that this trust, or charge, from God in the area of foreign missions is put to good use so that, through our efforts in cooperation with our brothers and sister in the faith in other lands, we may together: “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim / Till all the world adore His sacred name” (ELH #194).
5) Our doctrinal adherence—clearly a blessing never to be taken for granted. We are in an era where denominational ties mean little or nothing to so many. The number of unchurched also is rapidly increasing. A 2008 religious survey indicates 15% of respondents claim to have no religion. This is up from 14.2% in 2001 and from 8.2% in 1990. Naturally, an opportunity for evangelism presents itself; it is also true, however, that the increase of people disinterested in churches and creeds could tempt us to soften our doctrine and practice. Liberal mainline churches have succumbed to this temptation for decades. Yes, thank God we adhere to doctrine. But, as we thank, plead for the Lord to keep us ever steadfast in his Word.
6) One more: our fellowship with each other. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). The bond we have in our determination to confess the truth, to be zealous for missions, and to want to work together for the glory and honor of our Savior is a bond unlike any other human alliances. We praise God for the fellowship we enjoy with our fellow Christians here in the ELS, with our sister synod in the United States, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and also with our fellow believers of like-minded confession in the worldwide CELC. What a great benefit to be able to share such unity, even as we strengthen and encourage one another along the narrow path.
A Jewish legend tells a story about King David. Tradition says that when David would go to bed at night there would usually be a stringed instrument hanging over the bed. The lyre was positioned in such a way that, when the north wind would come up at midnight, it would blow through the instrument causing it to produce sweet music. Being awakened by this music, David would get out of bed, pray and praise God until dawn.
Whether or not this story of David is true, we can apply it to our own lives: Let the sweet music of God’s goodness in all that he does for us–and we have just spent moments on an synodical inventory–move us constantly to express our gratitude to the Lord in words, in music, in our monetary offerings, in our deeds and in our prayers.
ALL WE HAVE—A TRUST FROM THEE. The endowment of blessings provided us from above instills in us the desire to be better managers. How should we then act? How would you act if you had been given a huge sum as an active operating endowment for life? Thankful, certainly. Interested in preserving the corpus—in this case, the body of doctrine. Wanting to use the resources wisely—spending ourselves in ways to advance his kingdom. Concerned with giving an accounting, not for merit, but for the Master’s honor. Finally, we wait on the Lord who alone yields the increase.
Oh, Thou who hast given us so very much, grant us one more thing—a grateful heart. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA!
John A. Moldstad, president
1 Stott, John. The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 160.
2 Kleinig, John W. Grace Upon Grace (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2008), p. 55.
3 Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XII, par. 130; Tappert ed., p. 202.
4 Walther, C. F. W. The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, tr. from German edition of 1897) , p. 25.
5 Rev. B. Stark in the LCMS Reporter, March 2009, p. 5.
6 Lutheran Sentinel, June 2009, Rev. T. Gullixson’s “A World of Changes,” p. 15.