No Stones Will Speak for Me!

Ruth Koch

Daystar Free Conference · Mundelein, Illinois · 31 October 2000

Copyright Ruth N. Koch.  Permission to publish in full or in part in any publication requires permission of the author.

 

I have been asked to address the topic of leadership—both lay and clergy leadership in our church body.  This poem by an anonymous author highlights one of the pertinent points of my presentation:

One night I had a wondrous dream.

One set of footprints there were seen,

The footprints of my precious Lord.

But mine were not along the shore.

But then some stranger prints appeared,

And I asked the Lord, “What have we here?

Those prints are large and round and neat,

But, Lord, they are too big for feet.”

“My child,” He said in somber tones,

For miles I carried you alone.

I challenged you to walk in faith,

But you refused and made me wait.

“You disobeyed, you would not grow,

The walk of faith you would not know.

So I got tired, I got fed up,

And there I dropped you on your butt.

“Because in life there comes a time,

When one must fight, and one must climb,

When one must rise and take a stand,

Or leave their butt prints in the sand.”

 

This is a critical time in the story of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.  It’s a time to climb, it’s a time to rise and take a stand—and if we don’t take a stand, I’m afraid it will not be our footprints that are left in the sand.  But why is it so important now?  Well, we are currently witness to impressive declines in the number of confirmands, Sunday schools, parochial school enrollments and synodical membership.

Morale is at a dramatic low, and a question that formerly only occupied our thoughts is more frequently heard on our lips: “Do I really want to be part of a church body that treats its people badly?”  I have considered that question in a heartfelt way many times in the last few years.  Perhaps you have also.

But it is, in essence, a bad question.  It’s a question that reveals more about where we have been than where we might go.  And it’s a question that actually exposes the cause of our problems instead of pointing us toward the implied solution, which would, of course, be to leave a church body that treats its people badly.  And it is a question that lays bare the leadership challenges set before both clergy and laity, both elected and not elected leaders, before each Christian.

“Do I really want to be part of a church body that treats its people badly?” Let’s take a look at some of the assumptions and beliefs which might invite that kind of question.  Let’s look at the end of the question first.

First, do we have a church body that, in general, treats its people badly?  Overall, most members in the pews of congregations of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod would hear your question and respond with a blank stare.  “What are you talking about?” they might respond.  By far, the majority of members would say that they are not, and have not been, treated badly.  Indeed, they are served with the blessed Gospel week after week.  They are instructed, baptized, communed, married and buried by loving and faithful professional church workers.  All is well in Mt. Comfort, Nebraska, and at St. John’s-by-the-gas-station, they would say.  And we can’t gainsay that assessment.  It is evidence of the grace of God that many remain untouched and unconcerned by the serious problems which confront our church body.  And for that mercy we truly thank God.

But there are others, and their numbers are growing, who are puzzled and frustrated by what seem to be arbitrary rules and regulations that are first suggested, but are then insisted upon, by our denomination’s leadership:

  • Families who are not allowed to commune together because one family member is a fellow Christian but not a member of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. If you’ve not experienced it yourself, it’s kind of hard to match the sadness of having your Mom come to visit and choosing to go to a church other than your own, in order to avoid breaking rules that never made sense to you in the first place.
  • And what of women who love and study the Word of God and yet in some congregations are not allowed to read the Word of God in public worship services?
  • And the growing number of young adult men and women, your and my sons and daughters, who look at the paternalism and sexism in our denomination and say something akin to, “You must be kidding!” as they walk away.

 

And what of those who bring the gospel message to others, whether deaconesses, teachers, clergy, lay ministers, authors, chaplains, musicians or Sunday School teachers?  Those in the bowels of the Missouri Synod’s Culture of Bad Behavior will not greet your query with a blank stare because of what they have seen or experienced.

In the largest numbers ever, professional church workers are leaving our church body.  Over the decade from 1987 to 1996, a larger number of LCMS pastors left active ministry by going on “candidate status” or by resigning from the ministry than the number that retired or died, a net loss of 1226 pastors, or an average of 123 per year.

The numbers for commissioned ministers are even more staggering.  Twelve times more commissioned ministers left active ministry than the number who retired or resigned.  That’s a loss just shy of 3,000 servants, an average of 296 per year.   And modest gains in seminary enrollment will have little impact on the growing number of congregations without pastors.

Projections are that in 2007, 24% of our parishes will be vacant, and the shortfall continues to escalate through 2017, when the percent of vacancies is projected at 38%.

In the early 1980’s, an interesting study was conducted by Concordia Health Plans.  Concordia Health Plans reviewed its claims for mental health services and determined that the largest segment of our church worker population to receive professional mental health services was not the church worker, or the church worker’s spouse, but the church worker’s son.  Now, there are lots of reasons why some of our kids might require mental health services, but the concentration of services to sons of church workers is an intriguing and unexplored fact.  Perhaps it correlates with the fact that fewer than 20% of first year students at St. Louis, and 5% at Fort Wayne are children of clergy.

Reading the first person responses of church worker children in the Board of Higher Education’s study of clergy shortages (available for download on the LCMS website) is heartbreaking.  That’s because young people reported first hand, “The message gets lost in all the politics,” and, “Lots of congregations are in ‘attack mode,’” and, “It’s a one man show: the pastor against the world,” and, “I worry about my dad, that he’s headed for a breakdown because of all the stress.”  These young people, traditionally a recruitment source of future church workers, have seen Missouri’s Culture of Bad Behavior and they want no part of it.

But even if children of church workers have answered the question, “Do I want to be part of a church body that treats its people badly?” with a resounding “No,” it’s still a bad question.  And here’s why.

It’s a bad question because it betrays our external orientation.  Our focus is external, “out there,” and our energies are being marshaled to wage war and fight battles, and the more we are consumed with the battle and the enemy “out there,” the closer we move toward being powerless, hopeless, helpless victims.  While being a victim of our synod’s Culture of Bad Behavior is almost a badge of honor these days, we are learning to define ourselves and take our identity from the folks and issues and decrees and maneuvers that thwart, block, oppress, and frustrate us.  We are defining ourselves by who and what we oppose, rather than self-differentiating on the basis of who we are and what we are called by God to do.

And it’s only a half step from being a victim of our synod’s Culture of Bad Behavior to becoming fully preoccupied with the playground bullies of our synod.  Now, bullies were once widely dismissed as an inevitable part of growing up—no worse than chicken pox and skinned knees.  But bullying and destructive teasing at school are now considered a kind of juvenile terrorism that encompasses a whole range of antisocial acts, including assault, intimidation, extortion, ridicule and ostracism.  And there is a growing body of research demonstrating that bullies are substantially more likely to engage in delinquency as adolescents and crime as adults, while victims of bullying are at far greater risk for physical illness, school failure, depression and suicide.

And just who are the bullies on your synodical playground?  Right off the top of my head, let’s just say there are two bullies, though you could probably think of more.  And let’s just say those two bullies are named Sherman and Wally, the Cotton brothers.  Sherman can intimidate you and win, because he threatens to tell stories about you to all the other kids.  On the other hand, Wally might try to convince you to do what he wants by reporting you to the principal, with a hefty list of perceived grievances.  Once you’ve seen either of the Cotton brothers successfully bully someone else, you are likely to get a stomachache and want to stay home from school.

I know grown ups who get a stomachache when they are afraid.

At James H. Bean School in Sidney, Maine, school social worker Stan Davis has devised a innovative anti-bullying program.  Davis defines bullying as not merely an individual predicament but a social problem, no less than racism, or sexism.  Davis regards bullying as a basic violation of a child’s civil rights.  In short, bullying—done by a small minority of children—would not happen without the fearful and silent acquiescence of other children and the unspoken and unadmitted complicity of adults.

“We are our brother’s keeper,” says Davis, and that is why his anti-bullying program mobilizes the large, potentially powerful crowd of non-bullies—an estimated 80-90% of the school population.  Davis teaches a three step anti-bullying strategy:  1. Tell the bully to stop.  2.  Tell a teacher.  3.  Reach out in friendship.

Martin Luther King once said, “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  I would imagine that you veterans of our synodical playground wars and skirmishes had your hearts broken less by the injustices of our increasingly legalistic system than by the quiet acquiescence of your friends—the quintessential ambivalent bystanders who didn’t join the bullying but didn’t protest it either.  And you may also have been wounded by the deafening silence of those who stood in the role of “teachers and principals” but who did not act on their adult responsibility to intervene.

But, there we go again, focusing on externals.  Like Stan Davis, we need not focus our attention on the bullies, but rather on the Christian community that will not tolerate bullying.  By the age that you and I are, you have all figured out the startling truth that we cannot control another person’s behavior, we can only control our own.  And we can, by the grace and with the help of God, BE the community of support and help that a victim of bullying needs.

We’ve always had bullies, and there’s no shortage of bullies on the horizon—“The bullies you will always have with you,” Jesus might have said.  But it’s not the presence of bullies that should challenge us, but rather the call to BE the change we want to see in our community, a Christ-like community that will reach out to support, instead of standing miserably against the playground fence while others chase and pinch and hit and trip our friends.  We can quietly walk to the side of those who are being mistreated and BE the change we want to see in others.

This is not easy, because to take a stand next to someone who needs us, we have to go deep and confront our own fears.  Those fears make our palms sweaty and cause our hearts to race—and invite our minds to race to all manner of “what ifs” that send chills up and down our spines.  What if Sherman tells stories about me?  What if Wally runs to the principal and demands my punishment?  What if the adults on the playground behave like wimps and weenies and will not stand up for what is right?  What if people misunderstand, because this is so complicated, and think ill of me?

Ah, but there we go again.  It’s the old external orientation thing rearing its ugly head once more:  the focus more on externals than on the call of Christ to do the right thing—and the promise that you will have the right words to say and the courage you need in the moment.

I know whereof I speak.  At the 1998 Synodical Convention, I was talking with Orv and Clara Mueller in the hallway outside the hearing room.  You will recall that Orv was being censured for participating in a relative’s wedding at an ELCA church, with other family members.  I had planned to go to the hearing and, as I assess it now, stand by the fence and watch while some bullies chased and pinched and mistreated Orv.  I might well have come out of that hearing room with my external orientation firmly in place and said, “Oh, my!  What a shameful display.  Aren’t they awful?”

But, as God would engineer it, when we finished our conversation and filed into the hearing room, there was a little confusion around finding seats.  In the end, there I sat between Orv and Clara.  I, of course, offered to move over a seat, so that they could sit next to one another, but they are loving and gracious folks who welcomed me into the circle of their love.

And as the righteous ones began their attacks, I felt my face burn.  It wasn’t burning with the shame of listening to such petty foolishness, such unchristian and uncharitable behavior—it wasn’t burning because I was in the presence of folks who were doing terrible things in the Name of Christ and His Church—oh, no.  That would have been almost noble.  No, my face burned because I was asking those externally-oriented, hellish questions, those “what ifs:”  What if the Muellers are judged (rightly or wrongly) to have done the wrong thing?  Then I, like Peter in the courtyard, will be associated with someone who’s in Big Trouble.  What will people think of me?  I admit that initially I squirmed in that chair.

I thought it was challenging to sit in that chair and think of all the external terrors that were possible, but the real challenge before me was to go deeper, to go inside.  The real challenge was to go to the basic values and decent behaviors that are the fruit of my Christian faith.

Never before having had the privilege of standing publicly with someone at such a crucial moment, I had to ask a question more important than the “What if” kind.  I had to ask, “What is the right thing to do?”  And I knew with every bone in my body that the right thing to do was to be right there, in that chair, in that room, right between Orv and Clara, simply present as a sister in Christ.  Those of you who know the Muellers will know what I mean when I say that I was drawing courage and strength from them, not giving it.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday,

…the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”   They were acknowledging Jesus as coming from God and the Pharisees didn’t like it one bit.

“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”  (Luke 19:37-40)

Sitting in the hearing room that day, I knew that I could not in good conscience depend on anyone else to do the right thing in my place.  No stones would cry out for justice, no stone would support the Muellers.   And even though it was a small service to them, it was my calling at that time, in that place.  And I didn’t want any stones to speak for me—No stones will speak for me, because I will do the right thing.

Four simple words:  Do the right thing.

“But what,” you say, “is the right thing?  Everyone has good points in the arguments they raise.  I can see both sides.  And, besides, it’s not my fight.  A long time ago, I learned, ‘If the bullet doesn’t have your name on it, step aside.’ And, besides, I’ve got a family to support, and I’m only X-number of years from retirement, and besides, I’ve been Missouri Synod all my life, and that’s just the way it is in this church, too late to change it now.  And besides, we’re a bunch of crusty old Germans who will always be fighting about something.”  By now it’s a practiced routine.

But that bullet that you step aside for will find its mark in someone else. And the gossip and rumor that goes unchallenged will wound a part of the Body of Christ.  The formal charges leveled against another person that could honestly be leveled against you because you’ve done the same thing, will only take one of you down, if you are silent.

Or will it really only take down one of you, if you are silent?

The first time you are silent when you should speak, your conscience will accuse you.  But after you have resisted your conscience a second time, the accusation softens and yields to the rationalizations of your defense.  And it is easier each time you resist.  The end result is that your conscience is seared, the tender place where God gently causes discomfort is callused, the power of your witness is blunted.

A person with a seared conscience is in a dangerous place morally and spiritually.  Your silence will take you down as well.

In his book, Deep Change, University of Michigan Professor Robert Quinn comments on the destructive results of moral compromise:

The process begins innocently enough.  In pursuing some justifiable end, we make a trade-off of some kind.  We know it is wrong, but we rationalize our choice.  We use the end to justify the means.  As time passes, something inside us starts to wither.  We are forced to live at the cognitive level, the rational, goal-seeking level.  We lose our vitality and begin to work from sheer discipline.  Our energy is not naturally replenished, and we experience no joy in what we do.  We are experiencing slow death…To thwart our defense mechanisms and bypass slow death, we must first confront our own hypocrisy and cowardice.  We must recognize the lies that we have been telling ourselves.  We must acknowledge our own weakness, greed, insensitivity, and lack of vision and courage. (p.78)

 

The Holy Spirit makes us aware of ourselves and what we are doing: the lies we tell ourselves, our failure of nerve, and our lack of courage.   And it is because of the work of the Holy Spirit that we begin to understand our deep need for repentance, that “turn for the better” that brings us to the foot of the cross and into the forgiving presence of our Savior Christ.

We sometimes hear of students who have adopted the “Shut-up-and-graduate,” method of dealing with conflict or potential conflict at college or seminary—and I have been wondering if any part of the plague of depression and loss of heart that so many of our professional church workers are experiencing is related to a “Shut-up-and-just-do-your-work” approach to life and work in the face of the problems in our church body.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that many folks have decided, for the very respectable and honorable reason of preserving the gospel work that they are doing, to ignore the elephant in our synodical living room.  But to ignore the elephant is to give it permission to sit wherever it wants to sit and to trample on whatever and whomever gets in its way.  It’s not long before you don’t want to go into the living room anymore, but dealing with the consequences of the invasion begins to steal emotional and professional energy, and then you become flat and dull and easy prey for those who would dominate or manipulate you.  Interesting that the vitality and joy of gospel ministry, the very thing that was supposed to be preserved, begins to slip away when personal integrity is compromised.

Our opportunity to either do the right thing or to compromise our principles is often found at the seemingly insignificant opportunities and junctures of life.  You don’t have to face a synodical commission or storm the International Center or even write an article for Jesus First publication to stand and be counted.  God has graciously provided innumerable small, but preciously effective, opportunities to do the right thing, to bless your church with righteousness and hope.  Proverbs 4:18 describes it well:  “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”

“Ah, but there are bullies on my playground,” you say.  Yes, of course, there are bullies on your playground.  Maybe your bully is a colleague at the place where you teach, a pastor in a neighboring parish, a fellow member who believes it is his or her mission to stand guard over the Gospel with a shotgun.

Perhaps a word about authoritarian personalities will comfort you at this juncture and stir up your courage.  This is a brief and necessarily over-simplified description of the authoritarian personality:

  • Authoritarians are basically folks who unthinkingly, blindly, mindlessly defer to authority figures.
  • The compliant, subservient, unquestioning follower becomes a dominated person who is actually pretty darn mad inside.
  • But, of course, it’s not acceptable to be mad at a dominating authority, so authoritarians take their anger out on someone safe
  • So they look around for people who are not following the rules, people who are doing “bad things,” according to their own evaluation and definition
  • And it’s pretty easy to find people who are doing “bad things,” because the authoritarian thinks very simply: the world is full of black and white choices–and things are either good or bad, people are good guys or bad guys.
  • Since the authoritarian already believes he or she has an exclusive lock on the truth, he or she opposes new ideas, unconventional solutions, and creative imaginations. Original thinkers are dangerous.  Intellectuals are a threat.  Creative and innovative people are perceived as menacing.
  • Because they feel weak, it is important that authoritarians have strong, powerful leaders or be part of a powerful group that can enforce the rules when too many people “get out of control.”
  • But here’s the most fascinating thing about authoritarians: When an authoritarian enters a situation or stirs up a conflict, they are acting on borrowed authority.  Authority borrowed from their leader or their group.  They have their antenna out for weakness, and they hate weakness, because they cannot tolerate it in themselves.  So…..if you show weakness in the face of an authoritarian’s judgment or bullying, you will be crushed into the earth.  But if you show strength, if you do the right thing in the moment of testing, your authoritarian opponent will heed and be impressed with your strength.

 

Ghandi knew that principle and used it in his non-violent struggle for the Indian people in South Africa in the early 1900’s.  One of his first acts was to hold a public burning of the work passes required of all non-European people in South Africa, passes which reinforced the government’s racist Apartheid policies.  This pass-burning event is beautifully captured in the movie Gandhi and described by Robert Quinn:

The pass burning is held in the presence of South African police.  After a short speech, one man burns a pass and is arrested.  The senior police officer turns to threaten the crowd.  As he does so, Gandhi, without comment, burns several more passes.  For this he receives a violent clubbing across his arm.  As Gandhi lies writhing in pain on the ground, the police officer again warns the crowd.  He then turns back to see the injured Gandhi lifting still another pass toward the fire.  He strikes Gandhi in the stomach, and Gandhi again collapses.  Yet Gandhi lifts himself and finds the strength to burn still another pass.  The policeman becomes enraged and with all his might smashes Gandhi across the forehead.  Gandhi falls.  To his amazement, the policeman sees a set of trembling fingers struggling to grasp still another pass and move it slowly and painfully toward the fire.

 

At this point there is a profoundly important change.  The policeman’s rage fades, and his lips make no more demands.  As he raises his club, this authority figure, who just seconds before had seemed so much in control, suddenly appears desperate.  His face is contorted with confusion and his eyes beg for relief.  At this extraordinary moment, control makes a paradoxical shift from the physically dominant man of external authority to the physically wounded man of internal authority.  The club hangs frozen in the air as the work pass moves haltingly, but certainly, to the fire. (Quinn, Change the World, p.8)

 

Christians, too, are right at home with this kind of paradox: the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.  As St. Paul so eloquently puts it:

Dear ones, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus—who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.  Therefore, as it is written: “let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 26-31)

 

God wants to wrest our external orientation from us.  The bullies are “out there,” and the place you need to be looking is not out there, but inside, aware of the grace of God and the indwelling presence of Christ through His Spirit, and embracing the mission for which you have been created and equipped.  Look outside only to watch God at work in our world, keeping promises and working saving faith in the hearts of formerly lost women and men.  Watch God acting as a change agent by using you and me to make a contribution and a difference in our world.

And while you’re looking at what God has done, rejoice that you are joined with Christ, claimed in baptism, and consecrated for ministry.  Will knowing that affect the way you step up to and embrace those pregnant moments when your conscience is challenged?

Safe with Christ for all eternity, will you have unconditional courage when God puts before you an opportunity to do the right thing?

Blessed with a peace that passes understanding and a confirmed reservation at the celebration banquet of the Lamb, will you step up to the challenge to do what you know is right?

Before we take action, we ask God, “What is the right thing to do in this situation?”  God’s Word helps us determine an answer to that question—and we also have the gift of our powers of reasoning and our intuition—and the gift of the Body of Christ and the Christian community.

In an approach that I believe complements a Christian’s dependence on God, social scientist Lawrence Kohlberg suggests that we can potentially move through six stages of moral reasoning to arrive at an answer to the question, “What is the right thing to do in this situation?

  • The two earliest stages are based on anticipation of external rewards and the fear of external punishments.  I decide what is right by what I think I will gain or lose by engaging in the behavior.  External pressures, my personal bullies, determine who I am and how I will act.
  • The next two stages are based on compliance with group norms and notions of what is fair and just.  In this more developed realm, I decide what is right by asking what is expected and what is fair to everyone in the relationship.  There’s a barter system by which a person earns approval and there are clear rewards for conformity.
  • In the final two stages, moral reasoning becomes internally driven, fueled by underlying ethical principles.  In stage six, internally driven people act according to conscience, even if the acts involve personal risk.

 

Making moral decisions based on the threats of playground bullies is clearly stage one or two behavior.  Deciding what is right based only on Convention overtures or CTCR rulings lands you in stage three or four.  However, prayerfully, thoughtfully, perhaps agonizingly working with God’s Word, surrendering to God’s will and direction for your life, and living out the commissioning you were given at your baptism is acting according to a God-informed conscience, a mature and principled stage six.

That your decision may also keep the bullies at bay or may also agree with a convention overture or a CTCR decision is all the better.  But, should it not, you will have to dip deeply into the well of God’s mercy and grace and ask God for courage and strength, trusting that God will ultimately protect you.  Even if you suffer pain and injury short term, God will ultimately protect you.

You will also have to squarely, prayerfully confront your fears.  Listen to M. Truman Cooper describe the grace of God in the midst of fear:

Suppose what you fear

could be trapped

and held in Paris.

 

Then you would have the courage

to go everywhere in the world.

All the directions of the compass

open to you,

except the degrees east or west

of true north

that lead to Paris.

 

Still, you wouldn’t dare

to put your toes smack dab

on the city limit line.

 

And you’re not really willing to stand on a mountainside

miles away

and watch the Paris lights

come up at night.

 

And just to be on the safe side, you decide to stay completely

out of France.

 

But then danger

seems too close

even to those boundaries,

and you feel the timid part of you

covering the whole globe again.

 

You need the kind of friend

who learns your secret and says,

“See Paris first.”

 

 

We pray: You know us as we are, O God—the true selves we rarely show to others and you know the fears, little and large, that direct more of our living than would be our choice. We fight the fears and try to pray them away, we imagine courage and picture ourselves as brave, we say, “It’s all in our mind,” and attempt to think positively, we laugh at our silliness and forge ahead to the wall.  But often these ways of coping fail, leaving us the fearful person we least want to be.

If our fears were stored in Paris, it would free the rest of the world for our enjoyment.  Yet for many of us, just knowing where they are would still give them power over us.

We would be so bold as to ask that You go to Paris with us, O God.  With You by our side, we can face what we don’t want to see, staring it in the face with a courage that can only come with knowing we are not alone.

And that has always been Your assurance: we are not alone.

Sometimes we forget that.  But not today.  Today we head for Paris—with You.  Amen.

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