Missouri Synod’s Benke keeps going and going

Remember when the Rev. David Benke of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod got suspended by his denomination from taking part in an interfaith memorial service at Yankee Stadium after 9/11?

It was one of the biggest — and to many people, baffling — religion stories of 2002.

At the time, a letter from a superior to Benke said: “Joining in prayer with pagan clerics in Yankee Stadium was an offense both to God and to all Christians.”

The suspension was eventually lifted and Benke continued on as president of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which basically covers eastern New York state and has its headquarters in Bronxville.

I mention this because Benke was just elected to a seventh term as president (a bishop-like position).

Benke, 63, has been president since 1991, making him one of this region’s senior religious leaders. He is a good-humored and well-liked fellow among his clergy and with clergy from other denominations.

He also serves as pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and School in Brooklyn.

In his remarks at the district’s 57th convention, he said: “Where do I get my energy? Long-time residents and denizens of Cypress Hills who have known me know for over 35 years often say, ‘You know you always look the same.’ And my response is invariably, ‘Good grief! I must have really looked old when I was young.’ ”

He then continued: “The secret to my spiritual energy is my baptism. And yours.”

But Benke has to update his letter on the Atlantic District webpage.

The headline? “Rain, rain go away.”

And back where the Reformation began…

There are few Lutherans these days in the land of Martin Luther.

It’s no surprise, really.

As the Washington Post reports, decades of communism in East Germany, followed by the secularism that has swept through Europe, has greatly diminished the role and profile of Christianity in Wittenberg, Germany. Yeah, that’s the place where Lutheran nailed his list of grievances on the door of the church.

The Post reports that the two main Lutheran denominations in the U.S. — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod — are trying to revive Lutheranism in Wittenberg. But it’s not easy.

In September, Wittenberg began celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s arrival in the city.

And “Luther tourism” is good for the place, with some 200,000 people visiting the Castle Church each year.

But, as Wilhelm Torgerson, the Missouri Synod’s representative in Wittenberg, told the Post: “In east Germany, you actually have to go up to people and tell them who Jesus was. They say, ‘Oh yes, Christ. Didn’t he have something to do with Luther?’ “

More on the ELCA’s ‘gay ordination’ struggles

More on the never-ending “gay debate” in mainline denominations…

I mentioned last week the latest ELCA move on the question of ordaining gay clergy: a task force has recommended that a national assembly this summer decide whether congregations and synods (regional bodies) should have the flexibility to choose clergy in monogamous, same-sex relationships.

The task force recommendations are hard to absorb. Here is a summation from Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo, head of the Metro NY Synod of the ELCA:

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“In brief, the Churchwide Assembly this coming August will decide whether to create “space” for congregations and synods to publically recognize and hold accountable the relationship of same-gendered couples (step one), and (step two) whether our Church ought to find ways to allow the rostered ministry of such persons. The task force acknowledges that conscience-bound faithful Christians find themselves on different sides of this issue. The task force also acknowledges that we are bound not only in our own consciences but in love to the conscience of the other. Because of the lack of consensus in the church, the task force believes that we need to respect our differences and accept the different places in which the baptized find themselves. The recommendation affirms that our distinctive positions on this issue should not be church-dividing. No congregation or institution will be forced to call a leader they do not wish to call.”

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Rimbo also writes in a message to the NY synod:

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“There has been a range of emotions – from anticipation to anxiety – surrounding the release of the Social Statement on Human Sexuality. Now that it is here, it is important to familiarize ourselves with its contents. Most of the statement is a non-controversial, comprehensive, Biblically-based understanding of human sexuality. As mentioned above, theological themes like trust, hope, joy, grace and faith are extraordinarily helpful in our efforts to reflect on healthy human sexual response and behavior.”

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Also, the head of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod — a somewhat smaller and more conservative national Lutheran denomination — has released a statement lamenting the step taken by the ELCA task force.

Gerald B. Kieschnick, president of the LC-MS, writes that the ELCA move would “constitute a radical departure from the 2,000-year-long teaching of the Christian tradition that homosexual activity, whether inside or outside of a committed relationship, is contrary to Holy Scripture.”

After 7 years, Lutheran 9/11 relief agency done with work

In the days after 9/11, numerous religious groups stepped up to the challenge of providing for the material and spiritual needs of New Yorkers.

Among those that stepped up the most was Lutheran Disaster Relief of New York, an agency that was formed by the leaders of the two main Lutheran denominations in New York — the New York synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Over seven years, the agency distributed more than $9 million in grants, assistance, programs and services.

Lutheran Disaster Relief of New York recently disbanded and is worthy of a tribute. Lutherans don’t have the highest profile in New York’s religious mix these days, so many people not be aware of what the agency did.

The agency seemed to be involved with every corner of 9/11-related relief. John Scibilia, its first executive director (that’s him), helped me out with several 9/11-related stories and knew the right person to call on everything. The agency provided food vouchers for families, college tuition to people who lost parents, and was involved in numerous interfaith responses to 9/11.

The agency also provided $500,000 in grants to Koinonia, a Lutheran summer camp based in Sullivan County that offered numerous programs in NYC after 9/11: faith walks at Ground Zero, spiritual tours of downtown, summer Bible programs at city churches, and retreats for out-of-towners who wanted to do acts of kindness in NYC.

The agency’s commitment was due in large part to the commitment of Bishop Stephen Bouman, then head of the ELCA’s New York Synod, and the Rev. Dr. David Benke, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Atlantic District. The two are personal friends who didn’t let their theological differences affect their ability to work together to help those in need.

In 2004, Bouman wrote:

It has become clear to me that we’re entering an intense period of recovery. Far from being a distant memory, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, are looming larger than ever in the lives of its victims. A pastor tells me that he has just returned from visiting a widow of this tragedy in the hospital, who tried to take her life. The economic victims are struggling to find jobs, keep apartments, locate food, care for children in the midst of the hardest economy in recent memory. Many of the private and public disaster institutions are moving on, and many of the religious organizations have ceased giving any money for direct relief or funding of programs.

A theology of the cross and the generosity of our brothers and sisters in Christ keeps LDRNY in the midst of the comfort and renewal, working with others to help keep hope alive.

Around the same time, Benke wrote:

We’ve been learning what it means to be the Body of Christ. As the dust and ashes of mourning are remembered on this third commemoration, we pledge never to forget. But central to our remembrance is the Body and Blood of Christ, given and shed for us. Central to our remembrance is the strength of common action on behalf of hurting humanity granted to us as the Body called to action. Central to our remembrance is the connective tissue of our common Lutheran bond. Central to our remembrance is the frailty of the human condition and our desire to leave no one behind. And central to our remembrance is the undying commitment of LDRNY to bring comfort and renewal for years to come.

I know a lot of other religious agencies did big-time work after 9/11, but Lutheran Disaster Relief of New York was involved in everything and stuck it out for a long time. People should know.