Book review: Surviving the Storms: Memoirs of David P. Scaer

David Scaer is a pastor, professor, and theologian in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Attending Concordia Seminary (St. Louis) in the late 1950s, and then made a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary (then, Springfield, Illinois; now, Fort Wayne, Indiana) in 1966, Scaer has witnessed and has taken part in the theological battles that split the Missouri Synod and that established its contemporary identity. His memoirs bear witness to those turbulent years. Based on his own memory and on documents from those times—some of which confirm his memory and others which provide details he had forgotten—Scaer tells his story and also gives witness to the movement of various powers in the structure of a Synod—divine powers, human powers, and social-historical powers.

(Lutherans are Christians who agree with Martin Luther (1483-1546) in his insistence that sinners are saved from sin and evil by God’s grace alone through faith alone, and that authority over the Church and its doctrine are exercised by God through Scripture alone. Being Bible-based and Christ-centered, Lutherans accept two Sacraments in the Church (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion). For the most part, Lutherans maintain the historic worship practices of the Church. Outside of Europe, Lutherans tend to strongly support the separation of Church and State and tend to maintain their organizations in a congregational structure.)

(In North America, Lutheran congregations tended to gather in groups called synods. Some were geographically designated (Buffalo Synod, Iowa Synod, etc.) while others were named for their European origins (Norwegian Synod, Slovak Synod, etc.) Many synods have combined their resources and merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) while others—including the Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod—have retained their historic designations. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was one of the few Protestant church bodies in North America that responded to modernist ideas by maintaining its traditional teachings; in most cases, the modernists gained control of the denominational power structure, and the traditionalist, Bible-believing members left to start new church bodies.)

In the 1950s, Scaer was part of a small group of students who saw that their professors at the seminary were accepting the Noe-orthodox ideas of Karl Barth and were interpreting the Bible according to the historical-critical method advocated by Rudolf Bultmann and other European thinkers. Although this was a time when most college and graduate students bowed to authority and did not challenge their professors, these students became aware of the difference between traditional Lutheran teachings and the modernist teachings of these professors. They called attention to the difference, warning both seminary leaders and denominational leaders of what they were hearing, but those leaders were not quick to respond to these warnings.

Brothers J.A.O. Preus and Robert Preus (sons of the twentieth governor of the state of Minnesota and both trained Lutheran theologians) were aware of the problem and eventually responded to it. J.A.O. Preus was president of Concordia Theological Seminary from 1962 to 1969; in 1969 he was elected President of the Missouri Synod, an office he held until 1981. Robert Preus was President of Concordia Theological Seminary from 1974 until 1989.

A great deal has been written about the theological battles in the Missouri Synod. Those battles culminated in a “walk-out” at Concordia Seminary in 1974; professors, students, and congregations that supported the “walk-out” eventually joined the ELCA when it was formed in 1988. Some commentators have claimed that the synodical split was caused more by personalities than by theology, focusing particular attention on the Preus brothers. Others have insisted that key Christian teachings were at state in the dispute. Scaer’s memoirs illustrate the latter position, confirming and amplifying the accounts that address doctrinal challenges and correcting the impressions left by other writers.

Less literature covers the continuing battles within the Missouri Synod after the split was finalized. Concordia Theological Seminary was moved to a new campus in 1976, as the synod struggled to place qualified professors at both seminaries following the 1974 walk-out. Ralph Bohlmann followed J.A.O. Preus as president of the synod in 1981 and actively campaigned to undermine Robert Preus’ position in the synod and his work at the seminary. (Seminary students in the late 1980s joked that salt shakers in the school campus had microphones that were heard in Preus’ office on campus and that the pepper shakers had microphones that were heard in Bohlmann’s synodical office.) Preus was handed his retirement from the presidency by the seminary’s board of directors in 1989; he and his supporters fought to reinstate him in that position until Preus died in 1995.

“Surviving the Storms” contains Scaer’s memoirs. The book was not written to portray the experiences or feelings of any of his peers, mentors, or proteges. At times, Scaer may come across as petty and petulant, detailing the privileges that were denied to him, including automatic pay raises that were granted to most faculty members but excluded from his contract. However, his illustrations reveal the kind of warfare that was been waged behind the doors of the synod during his years of professional service. This book is lacking much of the clever wit and humor for which Scaer is known in the classroom and in public speaking. It also contains little of his theological incisiveness (which is, on the other hand, available in his other published writings). People without a connection to the history of Lutheranism in the late twentieth century might not gain much from reading this book. Those of us who were there, though, can learn much from this additional perspective of the things happening within the Church structure at that time. J.

Kathy

Last night being the first of several at my sister’s house for a late Christmas celebration, I slept lightly, and I remembered all of my dreams in the morning. Most of them included the theme of bringing order out of chaos, needing to clean up a large area filled with trash. Sometimes the mess was at work, sometimes at home. Invariably I was aware that a few valuable items were scattered within the trash, and I feared that they would be lost. Most of the other workers in the various dreams seemed content, though, to stand around and converse aimlessly with one another rather than getting involved in the work.

Oddly enough, Kathy appeared in two of those dreams. Kathy and I attended the same elementary school and junior high school, in which we were in the same homeroom. We also attended the same high school, but followed different paths which rarely crossed. She was one of the popular girls—cheerleader, athlete, pep club, and student government. I was involved in the band and orchestra, the school newspaper, and the spring musicals. Kathy was one of the truly attractive girls in junior high and senior high school. She was lovely in appearance, but not vain, gentle in manner, kind without being condescending. She was one of a trio of girls who always sat together at the beginning of the school year, when the teacher organized the desks in alphabetic order. Later in the school year, when the teacher allowed us to choose our own desks, the three friends remained together. Only if the teacher tried to rearrange the seating to split apart friends (for better order in the classroom, or so they said) did those three become scattered; and of course many opportunities arose during the course of the day for them to reconnect—to eat lunch together, or exercise together in Physical Education, or visit in the hallways between classes.

In one of last night’s dreams, Kathy was sitting at a table when I walked past. She stood, hugged me, kissed me on the mouth, smiled and said something friendly that I can no longer remember, and then sat again. I can assure you that in all our years of school together, she never did such a thing to me—not even once.

In the later dream, she and I both knew that it was Tuesday and that the lunch that was to be served on Tuesday was particularly repulsive. I knew of a couple of good restaurants across the street from where we were cleaning, and I wanted to invite her to join me for lunch. To the end of the dream, though, I failed to work up the courage to approach her with my invitation.

This morning, with Kathy still at the edges of my memory, I typed into Google® her name and our hometown. I learned that she had graduated college, gotten married, worked as a nurse, and had two sons. She was respected and well-liked by her coworkers and the patients she served. However, Kathy died almost one year ago. The comments that followed her obituary glowed with praise for her life of service and her kind and helpful personality.

I cannot guess what brought Kathy’s image into my dreams last night. Of all my classmates from those early days of school, she is scarcely the most memorable. We never became friends, as we truly had few common interests. Of all the dreams in all the unfamiliar bedrooms in all my travels over the years, why did she have to come into mine last night? J.

 

Coffee

In my life I have participated in most of the legal substance-abuse vices, with the exception of tobacco. I’ve been around smokers frequently, but I’ve not been interested in smoking. Some other time I might address the abuse of sugar, salt, and oils, but today I want to write about coffee.

My parents had the habit of drinking a cup of coffee with each meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They drank it black–no sugar, no milk or cream. As a child, I didn’t like the smell of coffee and didn’t want to drink coffee. Even when I went to college, coffee held no appeal for me.

That changed my last year of college. I took a course in art history which met three afternoons a week, right after lunch. The professor turned off the lights and showed slides of paintings and sculptures on the wall. He had a quiet, monotone voice. His quizzes were very difficult. To keep awake in class, I started drinking coffee with my lunch those three days of the week.

By the time I started graduate school, I was in the habit of drinking coffee every day. During my internship, I even learned to drink Cuban espresso, which absolutely requires a lot of sugar because it is so bitter. Also during my internship, I learned that drinking a cup of coffee during Wednesday night Bible class was a bad idea. I was often awake for hours after Bible class, until I learned to stop drinking coffee that late in the day.

When I graduated and started working a steady job, I had one day off each week. After a couple of months, I began to wonder why I always had a headache by lunchtime on my day off. I finally realized that my headache was a symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Rather than giving up on coffee the other six days of the week, I started drinking coffee on my day off as well, and the headaches went away.

My habit became two cups of coffee a day: one with breakfast and the other with lunch. Most of the time I drink it black. On hot summer days, I sometimes prepare a cup of iced coffee, which includes sugar. On some winter days, I treat myself to a mocha, stirring a package of hot chocolate mix into a cup of coffee. I always fix my coffee at home, because I do not want to pay the coffee shop prices to soothe my addiction. I have been careful not to have coffee in the mid-afternoon or evening, because I want to be able to sleep at night.

This was not a scientific study with proper controls, but I have played video games while mildly intoxicated with alcohol, and I have played the same games while “buzzed” with caffeine. In matters of coordination and in matters of judgment, I found that caffeine created more problems for me than alcohol.

Over the years, I have given up alcohol for Lent, and I have given up caffeine for Lent. I found caffeine to be the harder substance from which to fast. Withdrawal symptoms, the desire for a drink, and the rush to return to the substance when Easter arrived all were stronger for coffee than for alcoholic beverages.

My doctor suggested that I cut my coffee drinking in half to help control my blood pressure. At first I resisted his advice, but after I was diagnosed with anxiety, I was willing to cut back to one cup a day. I still drink a mug of coffee after breakfast before I leave for work.

Some web sites list the dangers of caffeine, while others insist that caffeine is safe except in extremely high doses. Some mornings I savor my cup of coffee, while other mornings I worry about my addiction to caffeine. I sympathize with people who struggle with addictions, because I know how powerful my own addiction is in my life. J.

Five back-to-school movies

When I was a boy, school didn’t start until the middle of the last week of August. We had half a day, and then a full day or two, and then a weekend before the school year really got rolling. Of course these were the days when I walked to school, uphill, even in the snow, twice a day. Gasoline was forty cents a gallon, milk was $1.32 a gallon, you could buy a loaf of bread for twenty-four cents and mail a letter for six cents. No, I did not have a pet dinosaur!

Anyhow, certain movies from the late 1970s and from the 1980s remind me of going back to school. The movies on my list are based in high schools and colleges rather than elementary school, and some are more true-to-life than others. A lot of other movies are set in schools, but the following movies mean the most to me this month as children, teens, young adults, and teachers are on their way back to their respective classrooms.

Grease (1978): This movie is nothing like my high school memories. I did not attend school in the 1950s, none of my fellow students were in their twenties or thirties, and only a few of them regularly broke into song and dance. (Some of those who did, though, were pretty good.) The “Summer Loving” bit of the movie, though, perfectly captures the feelings of the end of summer vacation and the start of the school year. My favorite memory of Grease will not be shown on the screen—I remember a ten-year-old girl who had just seen the movie trying to explain its plot to me. Priceless!

Animal House (1978): My college was nothing like this movie, but some students there definitely tried to reproduce this movie on campus. We had fraternities and sororities, excessive drinking and partying, in the setting of stately buildings and droll professors like Donald Sutherland’s character. Many of the guys wished they were John Belushi. This movie is raunchy enough that I would be embarrassed to watch it with my parents or my children, but it has its moments. “Seven years of college—wasted!” “Did we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!”

Fame (1980): Based on a real school in New York City, this movie shows scattered events from the lives of a few students and teachers at a high school dedicated to the fine arts (music, dance, and theater). Fame is more a collection of short stories than a movie with a single plot or theme, but the characters and their situations are entirely believable. Every song-and-dance number fits the movie. When I was in high school, I was involved in music and in theater, so some parts of this movie strike close to home.

Big Chill (1983): I saw this movie in a theater when it came out. All my friends saw this movie too. We were certain that we would keep in touch with each other, care about each other, and support each other. If it wasn’t for Facebook, most of us wouldn’t even know where the others are today. Not one scene in this movie takes place in a school, but this movie still reminds me of the intangible things that mattered most about college. It makes me think of the times we said to each other, “This is what college was meant to be.” Every fall I try to watch this movie the weekend of my alma mater’s homecoming celebration.

Footloose (1984): A young man from the big city must attend high school in a small town, a town where the council has banned dancing. Footloose is a typical coming-of-age, teen angst movie from the 1980s, but it is one of those movies that gets it right. Kevin Bacon shines as the central character, and John Lithgow is brilliant as the minister opposed to dancing, but the two of them are surrounded by smaller characters who are thoroughly convincing. Although the fist fight near the end of the movie seems contrived and unnecessary, every other scene builds the story, and the soundtrack is notable as well. I haven’t seen the recent remake, and I don’t want to see it. This movie is nearly perfect just the way it is.

Tomorrow: five more back-to-school movies from the 1980s. J.

Panic in the classroom

I respect every student who struggles with anxiety and/or agoraphobia and still attends classes to work toward an education. When going to school is a frightening experience, the temptation to drop out and stay at home must be strong. To all those reading who match that description, my hat is off to you.

For me, the classroom and the library have always been safe places and happy places. Even though I was bullied from the fifth grade through the ninth grade, I didn’t blame the school for that; being bullied during slow times probably only made me more focused on my studies. I loved going to college and to graduate school, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to return later to the classroom, this time as a teacher.

Not only am I introverted; I am also shy. It may seem strange that I enjoy teaching. When I teach, though, I know why I am there. I have a clearly designed role and task. I believe that three qualities make a teacher good: deep knowledge and understanding of the subject area, deep interest in the subject area with a desire to share knowledge and understanding, and genuine interest in the students. Those qualities make me happy to stand in front of a group of people and talk, even though I might not have the courage to approach any one of them or speak with them in a store or other public area.

One evening last week was different. I left work in the middle of the afternoon to prepare to teach, as is my habit, and as I approached my house I saw that the neighbor two doors down was having a tree removed. That made me sad and also a little angry, as I see no reason to destroy a healthy living tree. Of course I had to listen to the saws while I read through the chapter and ate my early supper. Still, I drove to the school and spoke with the office staff without feeling any different than usual.

The first sign something was not quite right was when I started writing notes on the classroom
whiteboard. I wrote “INDIA” in big letters at the top of the board, and it looked as if I was aiming for italics rather than bold letters. Then, when I tried to write “Harappan” underneath, it took three tries to achieve a legible “H.” A couple deep breaths and I was able to finish putting words on the board, but having my hands shake that badly before class even started was not a good sign.

As the students arrived one by one, I was able to enter the small talk before class—not my strongest suit, but something I generally can fake. Then I began the lecture and discussion. Fifteen minutes later I had completed half an hour of material without leaving out anything important. The thirty minutes on China were polished off in another fifteen minutes. I stammered more than usual and had to repeat some words—I can’t say whether that was due to talking faster or another symptom of the same panic. We moved on to the quiz, and the students who usually do well did about as well as usual, while the students who generally don’t do as well did even more poorly than usual.

I cannot guess why I felt so panicked in the classroom that evening. Was it lingering anger over the neighbor and his tree? Was staying up past midnight the night before to visit with family a mistake? Is the counseling that is working on identifying feelings and working backward to their causes making me worse instead of better? I have too many questions and not enough answers.

Lately I have been learning about mindfulness. (I will write more about mindfulness in another post.) I tried to be mindful in the classroom—I was able to talk to the class and cover all the material even if I did so in double speed. What happens this week is yet to be seen. Think good thoughts for me.

J.