By Paul Koch –
Well, it’s that time of year again. The kids are finishing up school, families are beginning to look anxiously toward their planned vacations, and it seems like every other week someone you know is getting married. Summer doesn’t officially begin until the 20th, but all the signs are pointing to its early arrival. And of course, this year, if you are part of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, summertime is marked by that strangest of strange churchly functions: the Synod in Convention.
From July 9th through the 14th, delegates and bureaucrats of our beloved church body will converge in Milwaukee for the 66th Convention of the LC-MS. And just as fig tree demonstrates the approach of summer, or for that matter the distant gaze of a child about to be released from school, so too the signs of the coming convention are beginning to rise in the church. E-mails from former bureaucrats addressing the authority and responsibility of current and new bureaucrats have begun to make the rounds. Official responses and explanations have been issued, and I’m sure will continue to show up for the next month or so.
Yes, that’s right. Convention season has come around, and I’m already beginning to do the safest thing possible: tune it out.
I wasn’t always this way. I remember when I actually met up with my good friend Graham to see a convention in action even though neither one of us were delegates. It was fascinating at the time to talk to old professors and hear their concerns and passions about the direction of the Synod. I remember caring. Strange to think that these days it is probably only the concerns of the seminary professors that could get me to really care again. It’s not that I don’t think the issues and matters that are worked out by faithful men and women at the convention are not critical (Okay, I can’t say that with a straight face. Let’s try helpful.). It’s not that they’re not helpful; it’s just that they can become overblown and all-encompassing.
While I know the church is to “promote good order” (1 Cor. 7:35), I also have a deep dislike for bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is established to control variables, make things flow well, and reduce risk. And while we all like these things, I can’t help but think that, especially in theology, the variables are important. The risk might just be what is needed, and bureaucracy just might lead us to a safe but fragile place dominated by fear and uncertainty.
I think I was on my vicarage in Bremerton, Washington when I first heard the phrase “the tip of the spear.” That year was the same as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. As I recall, the tip of the spear was a designation of those first of our soldiers and marines who began the assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are the sharpened point, honed for this purpose – the first ones in and the last ones out. Note that they are not the whole spear. The rest of the spear, the logistical support, communications, air defense, etc. give the tip of the spear its striking ability, but in the end, there is only one tip.
I think this might prove to be a helpful image for us to remember as the church goes through its convention season. The convention, the “business of the church,” is part of the spear (not unlike our congregational voter’s assemblies). As their decisions will affect our seminaries, they will affect the accuracy and strength of the spear. As they clarify bylaws and seek to reaffirm the confession and practices of the congregation, they will strengthen or weaken the connection between the spearhead and the rest of the shaft. But the Synod in Convention is not and never will be the tip of the spear.
Many years ago, a good friend and colleague of mine had a great way of reminding me of just this thing. I would call up Dale pissed off about something that happened at the bureaucratic level in the district, and he would always respond by saying, “Go see a shut-in.” The first time he said that, I thought he was nuts or just trying to distract me, but he was a trusted friend, so I took his advice. I would head off to visit a member of the congregation who hadn’t been able to make it to church. And there sitting awkwardly in an old chair or leaning next to the hospital bed set up in the living room, I saw the wisdom in his words. In the handing over of the gifts, in the words of absolution and the sharing of a meal of forgiveness, I was vividly reminded of the tip of the spear.
The tip of the spear in the church is the part that gets plunged into the lives of other people. It is not theoretical or hypothetical or bureaucratic but real and dirty and bloody.
The tip of the spear, then, is the words you say to your spouse; it is the compassion you show to a neighbor; it is meeting your vocation in the freeing confidence of Christ alone. The tip of the spear is the preaching of the Word and gathering around our Lord’s Table. The tip of the spear is found where two or three are gathered in the name of Christ.
So as the signs of the times continue to highlight the important matters facing the church, let us not forget the most crucial part. Let us continue to sharpen the tip of the spear. For no matter what is voted on in a convention, there is still a battle to fight against an enemy who has never been stopped by bylaws and bureaucrats.