A Boat with Billowed Sail

Whether it’s Peter, Paul, and Mary’s 1963 “Puff the Magic Dragon,” or the 1977 – rather annoying – song by Styx “Come Sail Away” or the 1980 – less annoying – song by Christopher Cross “Sail Away”, images of the sea captivate. But this is not about the sea but about a synod.

A church denomination of any size is like a British Man of War. There are numerous sails in the rigging designed to catch the slightest hint of a wind. You just think you know what the doldrums are, and if you don’t look it up, you’ll not understand why they put as many sails as they could in the air.

A church denomination, either intentionally or unintentionally, has many sails unfurled that can catch every gust, breeze, or gale of the spirit of the age. The Synod’s health plans, retirement plans, her bank (Church Extension Fund) and now her credit union, as well as her providing military chaplains and immigration and refugee services are a few of the many sails LCMS, Inc. has aloft.

You saw her catch the wind when LCMS headquarters glommed on to the ice bucket challenge. You feel the huff and puff of the spirit of the age when St. Louis seminary encourages your church to have a “watch party” for their Call service. (Why not call it Draft Day and billow with the winds coming off the NFL draft?) You heard her catch a gale when then President Kieschnick being interviewed after 911 was caught off guard by the interviewer asking him if he could say that all those dying in the attack were going to heaven, and if he couldn’t say that how was he different than the Muslims who attacked us? The Synod’s sails billow with the fresh winds of the spirit of the age every time we amend, edit, or color our way of thinking, speaking, or doing, so as to not offend the age.

An individual pastor or church really doesn’t have that many sails in the air. I’m a dingy with one sail. It’s easy for me not to catch the spirit of this age as it blows about me. In an emergency, I can just lower my one sail. Church bodies have many sails to lower and they can’t, won’t, or don’t lower them quickly.

Lutheranism has historically been divided by those who would fill their sails with the American spirit, and those who confessed against it. The LCMS – and before her the ALC – tries to stand between the two positions. Historically, all you can say taking this position will get you is blown away. The moderate ALC was blown right into the far left LCA which really had been blown into the spirit of the age by the tropical force winds radiating from the General Synod and her Definite Platform of 1855: a true hurricane of a blow that the Good Ship LCMS weathered.

Read the book Uncertain Saints. This 1975 book outlines the moderating influence of the Lutheran Layman’s League from its earliest beginnings circa 1917, and describes how our sails get set to catch the spirit of the age: Laymen increasingly find our theology at odds with the society around them. In time, some older pastors see that our ship is lagging behind without the spirit of the age billowing our sails. Then new leaders arise who approach things from a different perspective. “The result was usually a theology or a ‘theologization’ depending on one’s perspective, of moderate lay practice. In the twentieth century, this happened repeatedly on one question after another in lay life” (Graebner, Alan, 117-118).

After the syncretistic, unionistic prayer service in Yankee Stadium, after Rev. Wallace Schultz was pitched overboard off Lutheran Hour Ministries for doing his job as second vice president, I called their headquarters and asked them about this. Here’s what their official spokesman said to me: “We have no official position on that prayer service.” Can you see the sails billowing?

It is going to take incredible faithfulness, integrity, and courage for the LCMS to drop her sails and risk languishing in the doldrums as the spirit of our age passes by. Individuals even at the synodical level may have all three, but the institution does not. She is giving every indication that her sails are fully unfurled: her desire to open (again) an office in the nation’s capital, her allowing the taking of the name Lutheran off of churches and universities. She is following the “Lutheran” organizations who have set forth full sail already. Thrivent for Lutherans is now Thrivent; Lutheran Social Services of the South is now Upbring.

Lincoln said that public sentiment is everything. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail, without it nothing can succeed” (Speaking of Homosexuality, 89). Everyone knows the public sentiment on climate change, recycling, women, and LGBTQ issues. If the LCMS completes her journey to that egalitarian land where women are ordained, she will quickly fall to this issue too. She has already passed the waypoints of women’s suffrage, girl acolytes, women ushers, readers, and communion assistants. I don’t see how any denomination who has caught all these winds of this age can fail to be driven by them unto the rocks of women’s ordination and LGBTQ-ism. My personal opinion is that this will happen at latest in the lifetime of the generation below the Baby Boomers.

In the song, Puff the dragon ceases to go with Jackie Paper on a boat with billowed sail because Jackie no longer believes in him. Let us not stop believing in the dragon, the serpent, the old evil foe. He exists and it is his breath you feel in the spirit of the age.


About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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