Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Guest Blogger Pastor Bill Cwirla

Cwirla. There’s a lot that could be said about Pastor Bill Cwirla, some of it even good. He’s one of those guys that’s impossible to avoid – a little like Savoir Faire, the mouse character in the ‘60's cartoon Klondike Cat, whose tag line was “Savoir Faire is everywhere.” That’s a fitting line for Pastor Cwirla.

I have to confess though that I find his writing to be a little bit annoying. Every time I read something he’s written, especially if it’s taped to the wall of his underground bunker, I find it annoyingly good. I wish I could write like that. I look at his post. I look at my post. Mine looks like a wilted flower by comparison. A little like a jumble of junked, rusted-out ‘74 Mustangs. Maybe they got the job done, but they sure were ugly. But you shouldn’t covet your neighbor’s writing ability! If you're in the neighborhood, check out his blogging "manscape" at Blogosphere Underground.

So what else could Pastor Cwirla possibly do that would garner the "everywhere" crown? Most notably, he’s the Pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California. If that’s not enough for you, he’s the President of Higher Things, the Confessional Lutheran youth organization (highly recommended). He’s also the author of another blog, Rev. Cwirla's Blogosphere. And oh yeah, he’s also co-host of the hugely popular Lutheran talk radio show The God Whisperers, along with sidekick Pastor Craig Donofrio. Did I miss anything? Yep. He also writes the occasional post for The Brothers of John the Steadfast, plus intermittent appearances on Issues, Etc., Fighting for the Faith, and whatever else I omitted. This guy’s got a resume longer than a giraffe’s neck. And all of that he does when he’s not busy scuba diving.

Seriously, Pastor Cwirla’s a true theologian of the cross, who calls a thing what it is. I’m happy that he’s taken the time to share his thoughts with us. Hopefully I’ll have the pleasure of breaking bread with him sometime soon. In the meantime, we can all savor what he’s got to say about Issues, Etc. and “our boys.” Sit back, relax, and enjoy the read - but before you do, here's a quick clip from Pastor Cwirla's August 5th, 2008 visit to Issues, Etc.:


Reflections on the Issues, Etc. Cancellation One Year Later

The Issues, Etc. “incident” of March 18, 2008 was a perfect demonstration of institutionalism in action. All human institutions, no matter how benevolent their purpose or well-intentioned the people behind them, are beastly in character. By beastly, I do not necessarily mean bad, just wild - untamable, undomesticated, and potentially dangerous, always needing to be caged by checks and balances.

Institutions are legal fictions, created to bring people together for a common purpose. In a sense, they are nearly inevitable. Where two or three are gathered, there will almost always be an institution of some sort. Being man-made legal fictions, they tend to take on a perpetual life of their own, refusing to die at any cost and becoming self-protective and self-promoting. Just look our government’s futile attempts to bail out failed institutions today. Institutional authority in the hands of fallen men easily turns into power to control, hence the “beastly” character. The old Adam is a control freak.

The case of Issues, Etc. revealed the beastly side of the Lutheran Church MIssouri Synod, what has come to be dubbed “LCMS, Inc.” As a federation of like-minded congregations and pastors, the LCMS is a relatively benign advisory body whose purpose is to maintain a recognizable measure of confessional uniformity in doctrine and practice and do the common heavy lifting of running seminaries. But as an institution with property, pensions, and financial holdings as well as a matrix of standing boards and committees, LCMS, Inc. is a left-handed, wild thing with all the inherent institutional beastliness.

Don’t let the fact that LCMS, Inc is a church institution distract you. The beastliness of church institutions should come as no surprise to the sons and daughters of the Reformation. Luther quickly found out that the Roman beast had a set of fangs and would use them when provoked. He also discovered that beasts are highly resistant to reform.

The cancellation of Issues, Etc. on Holy Tuesday, 2008 was, in a small, parochial way, yet another example of how the institutional beast operates. Without prior notice, under the cover of Holy Week, LCMS, Inc. abruptly cancelled its most prominent radio show, and immediately terminated the contracts of host Rev. Todd Wilken and producer Jeff Schwarz, making their severance packages contingent on a gag order. The stated cause was “financial and stewardship reasons.” Money is, after all, the lifeblood of the institutional beast. Issues, Etc. had poked the institutional beast one too many times and funds were low. Human sacrifices were now demanded.

If you think institutional beasts retreat to their lair and hibernate after snarling off their enemies, think again. Less than a year later, LCMS, Inc. bared its fangs once more, this time sending a pack of legal pit bulls to bargain for an abandoned trademark to the name “Issues, Etc.” in return for, yes you guessed it, a gag order against any discouraging words. LCMS, Inc. subsequently dropped its legal objections to the unprotected trademark, but don’t expect this to be the end. Jeff Schwarz may be bullet proof laity, but host Todd Wilken is on the clergy roster of the LCMS. Enough said.

The beauty of the Issues, Etc. incident comes with the creative use of the internet and its new media along with the strong initiative of the church’s laity, many of whom are young, zealous and thoroughly confessional. Through the medium of e-mail, the word of Issues, Etc’s cancellation spread like wildfire and the blogosphere was ablaze. Existing conservative and confessional blogs instantly took up the cause. New sites, such as Save the LCMS! and Augsburg1530 sprang up almost overnight publishing late breaking news along with document releases and in-depth analyses.

At the forefront was journalist-blogger Mollie Z. Hemingway who wrote a critical piece entitled “Radio Silence” published by the Wall Street Journal both in print and on-line. Her article not only reported the cancellation of the show, but revealed some of the flamboyant sub-confessional practices tolerated and promoted by the LCMS and criticized by Issues, Etc. For her whistle blowing, Ms. Hemingway heard the roar of the beast with a failed attempt to force a public retraction and tarnish her journalistic reputation.

LCMS, Inc. was obviously not prepared for a reformation in the age of the “interweb.” It was clueless about the popularity of Issues, Etc. as an internet show and completely inept to meet the challenge of a young, committed, net-savvy group of supporters. Traditional public relations tactics of containment and spin control through carefully constructed press releases simply could not keep pace with the blazing blogosphere. Synodical news releases were met with instantaneous responses and rebuttals replete with charts, graphs, and audio/video clips. Internal documents were leaked and posted to the public. Even a new set of 95 Theses was hammered to the internet’s door.

People who had never met face to face were now galvanized around a common cause. An on-line petition drew over 7500 signatures and comments of support, even from those who were heavily criticized by Issues, Etc. A confessionally-minded Lutheran networking site, The Wittenberg Trail, sprang up overnight from obscurity to become a vibrant internet community of over 4,000 members. In the aftermath, a new gathering of Lutheran laymen was organized called the Brothers of John the Steadfast. Through internet communication, the virtual Lutheran community became an actual community with a service of evening prayer, a bratwurst supper, and an organized rally at LCMS, Inc. headquarters, all without a single meeting with bad coffee and endless reading of the minutes. Your grandfather’s church had gone paperless and wireless.

Death and resurrection is the mechanism of life under the cross. Unless the grain dies, it cannot bear fruit. Issues, Etc. needed to die to its dependence on LCMS, Inc. if it was to rise as a living voice of confessional Lutheran orthodoxy. A few months after its cancellation, Issues, Etc. sprang to life again, now as an internet broadcast under the banner of Lutheran Public Radio on the fledgling Pirate Christian Radio network, the brainchild of Chris “Extreme Theology” Rosebrough, another Lutheran layman. The familiar list of Issues, Etc. guests returned like swallows to Capistrano, eager to resume the conversation which was now broadcast 2 hours a day.

When you try to stomp out a fire, you are certain to spread it. The cancellation of Issues, Etc. spawned a worldwide network of orthodox Lutheran podcast programs including The God Whisperers, Tabletalk Radio, Radical Grace, Take the Stand, Higher Things Radio, Fighting for the Faith, and twelve baskets full of sermon broadcasts from various Lutheran churches.

Where all this new media Lutheranism will lead, only God knows and He’s not talking. There is a new vibrancy and creativity in the confessional Lutheran cause awakened by what surely seemed at the time to be an insignificant event - the cancellation of a Lutheran talk radio show on a little AM station in St. Louis. Will Issues, Etc. survive as an independent voice free from its institutional moorings? Will Pirate Christian Radio be able to sustain its creativity and grow in listeners? What will happen to LCMS, Inc. and its leadership? Who really knows? And does it really matter? None of us is absolutely necessary or indispensable.

If the gates of Hades cannot prevail against the Church, neither can the institutional beasts we create.


Elephantschild said...

I have to make a plug for Pr. Cwirla's moonlighting as a "Liturgical Gangsta" over at iMonk. It's good stuff. Don't miss the commentary on Lutheran potlucks, although he forgot to mention the french-fried onions on top of the green bean casserole.

Three cheers for the new Lutheran media; what a blessing the cancellation has turned out to be.

WM Cwirla said...

A serious oversight indeed. That and my obvious slight at our Norwegian brethren with the omission of the strange gelatinous fish product called "lutefisk."