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Thanksgiving —for WordAlone

by Pamela Schwandt

December 22, 2004

(Editor’s note: Pamela Schwandt taught English at St. Olaf College for 26 years and is a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minn.)

I’m writing this a few days after the November 2004 WordAlone conference on evangelism at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in White Bear Lake, and a few days before Thanksgiving. This seems a good time to reflect on my gratitude for WordAlone, for the existence of the organization and for the direction its leaders have taken it in the past five years. It began in the middle nineties as an Internet discussion group among geographically scattered Lutherans who were opposed to the communion agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and The Episcopal Church USA. Since the passage of that agreement, Called to Common Mission (CCM), in 1999, WordAlone has developed into a strong and disciplined voice for reform and renewal within the ELCA—one that speaks to me and for me.

It is also a teaching voice. Because of the work of WordAlone, I have been given the tools to reflect on these questions: What does it mean to be a Christian, today? What does it mean, and what does it not mean to be a Lutheran Christian, today? Because of its work, I have been given an intense refresher course in theology that 10 years ago I did not know I needed or wanted. In the midst of chaos within the church body into which I was baptized, I have grown hungry for explanations that make sense.

Long before the churchwide assembly of the ELCA voted by a slim margin to adopt CCM, I’d heard about the matter from friends who understood well the theological issues at stake—CCM would commit the ELCA to abandon central Lutheran teachings about the church. I couldn’t share their concern about issues that then seemed abstract to me. This seemed a case of messy church politics, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I was nourished and sustained in faith by my congregation and by my work with Stephen Ministry. I now see that I was exactly the kind of church member, loyal and apolitical, that ELCA headquarters counted on to get CCM passed. Too late I woke up to the fact that what had been given away was our belief in the priesthood of all believers. What had been installed in place of that Biblical teaching was a church hierarchy, a human construction. By the time of my awakening, the agreement with the Episcopalians already had been voted upon and the changes rapidly were being implemented.

It wasn’t until May of 2001 that I grew disturbed enough—and bold enough—to talk to our senior pastor, a supporter of CCM. He urged me to accept the communion agreement as a fait accompli: there was no point in protesting now, he said, and assured me that the changes were insignificant. If WordAlone had not been organized and ready to help and instruct, I would have had to do just that, to swallow hard and try to ignore what I knew were in fact radical changes in our church. But once I had begun to understand what was being orchestrated by church headquarters and by what methods, and to notice a dishonesty trickling down into my congregation, there was no blinking. Something was wrong, and I would eventually have felt obliged to flee to another denomination. But where? Anyone who has memorized Luther’s Small Catechism as a teenager and taken it to heart for many decades does not easily give up being a Lutheran. If WordAlone had not transformed itself from a protest group into an ardent missionary voice within the ELCA, I don’t know where I would have turned. I am grateful that WordAlone has allowed me to remain an active member of my congregation, which is dear to me, as I see that renewal and reform are gathering strength.

In the meantime I read the quarterly issues of WordAlone’s Network News, and each year I attend a WordAlone conference and a convention in the Twin Cities. I try to build upon and clarify the theological foundation laid down in my confirmation class and expanded in the required religion courses I took at St. Olaf College. In this way I learn what an evangelical Lutheran congregation or individual might look like, what a true proclamation of the Gospel might require of us. I learn what elements are essential for the true church to exist, and what are matters of congregational choice. I learn why Luther considered the eucharistic prayer a travesty. And where else could I listen to both sides of issues on blessing same sex marriages and ordaining non-celibate homosexuals, and furthermore, listen to a respectful discussion among audience and speakers afterwards? Where else would it be safe to express opposing ideas on topics that excite emotional extremes?

I look forward to hearing many voices speak about the authority of Scripture, to hearing honest debate next April at the WordAlone convention at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minn. As a teenager I learned that Lutherans are expected not only to give their hearts to Christ, but to use their minds in His service. Thanks be to God for WordAlone.