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Too much to give up!

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

February 26, 2009

Photo of Pr. McGettiganIn the world of revisionist compassion in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the thing that troubles me most is what I supposedly have to give up in order to exercise authentic pastoral care. Evident in issues from the environment to feminism, it may best be seen in the issue “du jour” – sexuality, specifically homosexuality. In this new world of caring, it seems that all I have to surrender is…well, most of what has underpinned my understanding and practice of mercy throughout the life of ministry God has graciously afforded me.

Where are we going and what are we losing with the assertion that we might best ignore 2,000 years of lived church experience? Answer – We are going toward the increasingly less subtle call to ignore the very fundamentals of our lives as disciples, the Biblical and, dare I say it in today’s world, doctrinal foundation and understanding of who God is and who we are as God’s church.

I have been more and more focused on this false dichotomy thanks to, and here comes an unashamed “commercial,” working through our own Sola Publishing’s study “A Reading and Discussion Study of The Augsburg Confession” with our small but growing adult study group Sunday mornings, as well as my personal reading of a challenging little book, “Christ Have Mercy: How To Put Your Faith In Action,” Matthew C. Harrison (Concordia Publishing House). In the foreword to “Christ Have Mercy” Dr. Oswald Hoffman is quoted, “We Lutherans have the best theology in the world, but we have yet to figure out how to pull it together out of the pages of our theology books and down and out of the airwaves and into the trenches of people’s lives” (p. 7).

The current fad in addressing this arduous challenge of bringing theology to bear on real pastoral needs is that we simply ignore or abandon in whole or in part our theological pretexts whenever they fail to fit our personal and anecdotal experience or they make addressing those perceived needs inconvenient or, worst of all, make us appear intolerant.

Doctrine and compassion are not by nature at odds with each other. Luther said it: “There is no doctrine of Christ that can be given up for the sake of charity” (Weimar Edition 20/2:447.8).

It is the clarity and simplicity of true Biblical understanding and the doctrine of the church that flows from that authentic hermeneutic that has infused and energized my pastoral ministry on those occasions when it has been at its best and when my sinful self-centered desire to have the world solely on my terms has not been allowed to intervene. It is doctrine that “keeps me honest” in the daily exercise of care. It is doctrine that challenges and impels me forward into new and uncharted territories of mercy. It is doctrine that accuses and admonishes my efforts when they are less than the call of one who confesses Christ as Christ and are revealed not as I might prefer to design the Christ of my life – a rather convenient and wimpy phantasm of the real Christ.

Early in his book, Matthew Harrison hooked me with this line, “Mercy is the key to moving boldly and confidently into the future with courage in the Gospel – a confidence and courage based on conviction.”

Where do I start in pastoral care? With a needs assessment? No, rather with the Gospel and with a conviction to that Gospel. That’s what makes our mercy different. It isn’t just your generic “do-goodism,” and it isn’t about just feeling good because of what I have done. It isn’t even about some thin veneer of acceptance and fraternity or sorority with each other. It is first about Jesus Christ and who we confess Christ to be and how that confession shapes our lives in both law and Gospel.

Who would I be without a strong Biblical understanding beyond just my feelings about this or that scriptural passage? Who would I be without that time tested doctrinal understanding of who we are as church and where we are going? I’d be a lot more tempted to a “self” understanding of the world and what compassion and mercy really are, and, believe me, “my” world is not all that inclusive or compassionate some days!!

It is much too much to ask that in order to be truly pastoral and merciful I need to “chuck” so much Biblical insight and doctrine that I have to weaken my confession, which is exactly what is being asked by the world of compassionate revisionism. Harrison again concluding the chapter, On Mercy and the Church’s Confession: “Far from being the enemy of mercy, the Lutheran Confessions are the greatest aid, directive, motivation, guide, and source for the Church’s life of mercy. Confession and mercy belong together. The Confessions unequivocally maintain the full truth of the God who was incarnate in human flesh” (p. 166).

Not only can I not give up even a small element of that truth for the sake of appearing on the surface more pastoral or compassionate, I desperately need that truth that I might have any sense whatsoever of the true meaning of compassion. Let’s get it right, authentic compassion grows from conviction followed by confession of the truth that is beyond just my individual and personal experience—the truth of the one who is all compassion and has been revealed, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let us pray. Thank you, gracious God, for the gift of your revealed truth and the mercy by which and to which it calls us. Rescue us from the temptation to lightly give it up for a little bit of temporary good feeling in the name of a “new” compassion of our own making, and help us cherish it more deeply each day. Amen.