Friday, August 22, 2008


Here's part of my September newsletter to my congregation...

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:12-17 (ESV)

Dear Friends in Christ,

In the passage above from Romans 8 St. Paul is taking up an analogy that he also references his letters to the Galatians and to the Ephesians. No one, by nature, is deserving of a place in the family of the One True God. Rather, the forgiveness of sins and a place in that family, and the freedom to call upon the Creator of Heaven and Earth as “our Father,” is a gift of God. In Romans 8, as in Galatians 4 and Ephesians 1, we are reminded that in a spiritual sense we are all adopted by God.

The process of adopting our little boy, Brénainn, from Guatemala, has been a powerful and persistent reminder for me of this spiritual reality. As I have written previously, it is also a reminder that when I introduce the kids and say “these are my children” I am uttering a bit of a falsehood. The eternal truth is that they’re God’s children. They have been buried and raised with Christ in Holy Baptism. I am their father (small “f”). God is their Father. As with John the Baptist in relationship to Christ I must learn to say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” There is a sense in which parenting reflects that simple equation: Godly parenting = magnifying Christ and decreasing self.

In a letter to my brother pastors in the circuit, I wrote:

Our family now rejoices that nearly complete is the two-year-long process of adopting our little boy, Brénainn Manuel O’Donnell, from Guatemala. This last Friday we received our formal invitation from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City to present ourselves with little Brénainn at 7:15am on Monday, August 25, 2008 so that his paperwork can be completed for entry into the U.S. Brénainn was born on May 28, 2007. He has been in foster care by a lovely family of five since he was one day old. For all of us, perhaps especially for Brénainn and his foster family, this will be an exceedingly difficult transition. If you would, please pray for all of us, that the difficulty of new life circumstances will be tempered by the grace of knowing that from the very beginning God has been at work to shower this little boy, born under less than ideal circumstances, with love and compassion. Our family is humbled to the core by the many and various ways by which the Lord has provided for us in this process, including the prayerful support of many brothers in the Ministry and their flocks. . . . On September 2nd I will celebrate my 39th birthday in Guatemala with my lovely wife, Carrie, and four children: Siobhan, Aidan, Failenn and Brénainn. I cannot remember a time in my life, honestly, when I have been more humbled . . . and thankful.

What I wrote there about my brother pastors is true for all my friends and family. Thanks for your patience in my absence, and my deepest thanks for your support.

Until some time in early September, then, I am

Yours in Christ--lao_+

Thursday, August 21, 2008

LCMS Structure & Governance

I returned last night from three days of theological convocation in St. Louis, MO under the title, "Carrying Out God's Mission in the 21st Century: The Relationship Between Theology and Polity." I was appointed by the District President of the Ohio District of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod and was honored to serve.

I can only offer some preliminary thoughts here on the discussion and proposals, but I'll begin by paraphrasing a question I posed to a panel on day two of the convocation:

We are now into our second day of this convocation, and it seems to me that we have highly exalted the priesthood of All Believers (1 Peter 2), and rightly so; however, we have almost completely ignored Romans 10 (How can they hear [The Gospel] unless a preacher is sent?). Historically, I believe that the Missouri Synod has wonderfully upheld BOTH the Office of the Royal Priesthood (all Christians) and the Office of the Holy Ministry (pastors). How is it that a conference on structure, again now in its second day, can almost completely ignore talking about the pastoral office?

The centrality of the Gospel and the need to structure ourselves around Christ's Gospel-mission was the heart and soul of the convocation, and we had earlier in the day had a Methodist (Leonard Sweet) remind us of the Biblical paradoxes that Luther steadfastly upheld (eg., Christ as fully God AND fully man.). How is it that some of the best minds in the Missouri Synod failed to mention the Bible's most basic "structural arrangement": God's people, with their pastor, gathered around Word and Sacrament?

I have to start packing for my family's trip to Guatemala, where we will finally pick up the little man who will make us "Six O'Donnells।" I will not be around for a couple weeks to discuss the issues of this convocation with my friends, so I'll close with a couple quotations and some brief comment.

For my non-Lutheran readers, the "chief" confessional statement of the Lutheran Church is what is called "The Augsburg Confession" (AC). The brief Fourth Article of the AC (on "Justification") has come to be known among Lutherans as "the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls"; that is, the hub of the wheel, the one without which everything else is messed up. Here is AC 4:

1 Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. 2 People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. 3 God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4 [3:21–26; 4:5]. (Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions, Edited by Paul Timothy McCain (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005, 33.)

Here, we Lutherans have just summarized what constitutes saving faith. IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING Article 4, then, is Article 5, which is about HOW saving faith comes to us:

1 So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. 2 Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20:22]. He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. 3 This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.

4 Our churches condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that through their own preparations and works the Holy Spirit comes to them without the external Word. (Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions, Edited by Paul Timothy McCain (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005, 33.)

At the heart of the Christian faith is the Gospel of God’s free gift of forgiveness in and through the Eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ (John 3). One is “grafted” (Rom 11) or “adopted” (Gal 4) into Christ’s family through faith in the person and work of Christ (Eph 2, Apostles’ Creed), and this faith comes through hearing the forgiving Word of Christ (Rom 10, 1 Pet 3, Mt 26). All Christians are called to give answer for the hope that is in them (1 Pet 3), but Christ in His mercy has established the Pastoral office to herald the Good News "full time," if you will. Or, as St. Paul puts it, "How can they hear unless a preacher is sent?" (Rom 10).

Word and Sacrament, pastor and people: inseparable. ANY discussion of the Church’s structure must center in this Biblical reality. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod from its founding understood that true Biblical mission proceeds from this basic structure; that is, Christ’s mission proceeds from the beating heart of a Christian congregation. Whether it is a businessman speaking the Gospel to a coworker in need or a Pastor communing a "shut-in," it begins with God gathering us to hear and receive His Word.

It is unfortunate that a key member of this basic structure was at best ASSUMED by the recent convocation, but the process is just beginning. We can do better, and I am confident that we will.

Of course, there is also a lot of jockeying around for control of the Synod’s structures. So it was in the beginning, and so it will be until Christ returns. Differences, St. Paul tells us, are necessary (1 Cor 11). Many people see the structure proposals as an opportunity help the Synod and her congregations refocus on first things, and many people see the structure proposals as an surreptitious attempt to introduce an alien theological agenda into the life of the LCMS. The fact is that there are probably as many motivations as there are people involved. Even if many have impure motivations (there are always those) I am confident, in spite of this, that all this discussion about “reorganization” is providing us another opportunity to hear the Word of God and reaffirm who we are and why we are here. I welcome that discussion, and I believe that it may very well bear good fruit.

So, friends, that’s my opening entry. It’s a bit more didactic than I might otherwise post, but it’s a start. When I get back I will ponder some of the draft proposal’s specifics. (If you want to see those, by the way, visit Until next month, then, I am Yours in Christ, LAO_+