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What’s a ‘happy throng?’

by Pastor David McGettigan, (WordAlone board member, Atlantic City, N. J.)

December 12, 2008

photo of Pr. McGettiganTwo great classic hymns struck me at the WordAlone theological conference last month. Actually, got my mind and my heart moving, first from “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Onward, then, you faithful, join our happy throng.” The words had no sooner passed my lips than I stopped—“happy” throng??

What’s so “happy” about what we are about? We are about serious business. We’re here about a “different” and a false gospel seeping into the church’s life and preaching. We are standing before a huge ecclesial institution and saying… well… “You are adrift.” Since when is that “happy?”

I certainly did not choose this moment nor this onerous task. I have been at best a reluctant member of the “throng.” I’d rather have been doing almost anything else! Bluntly, I came into this “throng” kicking and screaming.

The other great hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” and specifically the line, “Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up ‘How long?’” Now there’s a realistic hymn! Yes, Lord, how long? How long must we endure this burden? How long being maligned, misunderstood, marginalized? When will this pass so the “throng” can get back to happier things? “How long?” sounded much like the anguished cry of the prophets of old, and it sounds like mine.

No wonder so few of my brother and sister pastors and laity here at home are excited and enthused about getting involved despite my suspicion that a number are, indeed, sympathetic to the cause.

How long, Lord?

“How much can we endure?”

“How can this possibly be accomplished?”

Not exactly “happy” questions.

Along the way, between the magnificent hymns in Minnesota, in God’s gracious gift-giving, the speaker’s time and the small group discussion time unfolded as powerful experiences of God’s wisdom to the “throng.”

How long?” Well, keynote speaker Pastor Scott Grorud pretty much confirmed what we all realize—none of us knows either when or how this chapter of God’s renewal of a wandering people will culminate. He and Episcopal Bishop Fitz Allison, the other keynoter, however, wisely and humbly brought us back to the deep roots of our Reform experience—“semper reformanda”—always, always each of us, not just the institution of the church, but myself in need of reform.

Our confession—my confession—voiced beautifully by Bishop Allison (this is probably a paraphrase), “I have loved the church of the Lord more than the Lord of the church.” My sadness has probably less to do with enduring a little discomfort among my peers and the frustration of thinking I have better things to do with my life than with the sneaking suspicion in the depths of my heart that I am a personal stakeholder in creating this problem—my personal responsibility which I would love to evade. I have made an idol of the institution of the church and offered myself much more at the altar than before the presence of the Lord Himself.

Having confessed, in a very cleansing way the burden lightens and God opens up what is really happening among us—a new community, a “new” Church, but this time in His image and according to His plan. When we formed the “new” Lutheran church more than 20 years ago, perhaps it was just too much in our image and likeness. The picture the conference speakers painted was God establishing His “new” Church among us founded on His truth and authentic unity. That’s the “happy” news that makes us a “happy throng”—God has chosen us for renewal and for a new and splendid community: His Church.

Both Pastor Grorud and Bishop Allison mused who would have dreamed a decade ago that folks from such varied backgrounds denominationally would at this time find each other, finally find their unity in the truth of Jesus’ Gospel, and work side by side for the sake of orthodoxy in His church. Indeed, God may just be renewing His ecumenical movement—teaching us how to come together in unity that can only be founded on truth!

Oh, I know there are more than a few “How long, O Lord?” days still ahead. But I am coming to a deep and humble sense of joy that God has chosen each of us for this new and wondrous chapter in the story of His beloved Church: A growing community, a “happy throng” of which I am more grateful than ever to be a part. If I can reflect that new, more positive attitude as I encounter my reluctant brothers and sisters, it just might make a difference! And they, too, might swell the “happy throng.”