Why I Bother Being Lutheran: #500



Author's note: Oct. 31, 2017 marks 500 years since German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation and forever changing the Christian church and the world. Here's my take on why, 500 years later, I still bother calling myself a Lutheran.

I remember when it happened.

For most of my life I'd been running away, then coming back.

Running away, then coming back.

This time, though, it seemed more final.

I was sitting in the upper level balcony in a massive worship space at a Baptist church in Southwest Florida.

I'd been going to their 20-somethings group, a single female sportswriter far from my Midwest roots in the South, and I sort of fit in, though not really, and most of the time the people who talked to me were not the actual 20-somethings but the 40s and 50-somethings who really wanted this 20-somethings group to take off and it just sort of wasn't beyond the tight-knit group who'd grown up together. Which wasn't necessarily a weakness, considering that having about thirty 20-somethings gather together at a church, for something church-related, once a week, was about as close to a miracle as most of us had seen.

So I'd been going weekly most weeks, and even though I covered hockey games or baseball games most Saturday nights until early in the morning, I thought, OK I am going to go to church.

***

And the music. The music was fine, good really, probably better than most churches.

The message, it was probably good, too. Pretty inoffensive. Some Bible stuff. Jesus was in there, playing his part.

And I sat there and I sang and I didn't go up for the altar call and I passed the communion around and none of it bothered me until I looked around and around and around and I felt upside down there in church and here it was, with a sinking finality.

I missed the primacy of the Cross. I searched for it valiantly.

Its theology was imprinted on my heart.

I couldn't run anymore. It was clear.

I was Lutheran. I am Lutheran.

***

In certain parts of America, many of which I've lived in, you tell people you're Lutheran and they give you a funny look - like you just said you were orange or you worshiped trees.

"Is that like Christian?" they ask.

"It IS Christian," I protest, remembering perhaps why for years I'd run.

***

Half of my family, my mom's side, has been Lutheran since Germany, where it's not called Lutheran because Martin Luther himself never wanted to to make his own denomination, only to reform Catholic church.

My grandfather was a Lutheran pastor, though he left multiple churches, and he doesn't want to go back to a Lutheran church today. He'll give you a good Lutheran sermon if you ask him for one, though. Once a pastor, always a pastor.

My grandpa's dad was a baseball scout, and my grandpa wanted to play pro baseball, so the ministry was a sort of consolation prize, originally, until the calling wound its way around his heart, as it had for his grandfather in Canada, and grandfathers before that, winding its way through poor Prussian villages perhaps all the way up to the Baltic Sea and Scandinavia, where Lutheranism would hold fast and take root, binding itself to the cold hearts of Swedes and Norwegians, who with their German brethren would bring this strange new church to America, particularly to Pennsylvania, Minnesota, the Upper Midwest, and enclaves across America wherever Germans and Scandinavians settled.

My dad's family were Southern German Catholics, seeming to me to be the other side of the coin from my staunch Lutheran relatives. The two were perhaps essentially the same, though maybe Catholics drank (a bit) more and kneeled more (certainly), and Lutherans were perhaps more convinced of their own rightness, a necessary bond to our unbridled founder.

I wound up Lutheran instead of Catholic, the church where my parents married, by mere accident of geography, though perhaps God would have found another way to get me in. My parents, my mom particularly, weren't thrilled with the Catholic parish near their house, and when they heard of a new Lutheran church starting in a nearby elementary school, where they could walk to church in the summer, ever the pragmatists my parents shook off their Catholic wedding and became Lutheran, again, for my mom.

***

And so much of my life: this was all I knew. The large, growing, bustling Lutheran church. Cherub choir and white robes. Bibles in church at age 8, First Communion at age 11 with a poufy white dress. Soup Suppers and Lenten services on Wednesday nights in icy Minnesota February and March. The ominous Remember that you are dust, the Law lurking in the shadow of the Gospel.

The Confirmation class of nearly 200 students, confirmed on Reformation Day in October, when I was 15 and a sophomore in high school. The fellow confirmands who thought Martin Luther, the monk, once had a dream of ending segregation in America, but who nonetheless knew and loved Jesus and so were confirmed anyway. With so many kids, who could bother to parse the Catechism? We did the best we could, as Lutherans trying to adapt to the times, to grow and expand without losing who we were.

***

Not that it was all Lutheran. As I said, I ran when I could. Ran to Baptist Bible Camp in Northern Minnesota, where I learned praise songs and swam across the lake and did canoe races. Ran to the Covenant Church for Wednesday night youth group, where the boys were cute, and the youth pastor didn't know my parents. Ran to Campus Crusades for Christ in college, to the upstart non-denominational church with a Calvinist bent, to Christian Campus House at the University of Missouri, where my friends went, and I learned that being baptized as an infant put me in the minority among Christians at Mizzou.

***

See I tell you this today not because denominations necessarily matter that much anymore. Not because I think one is better than another or because I think everyone should be Lutheran or because  I think the Reformation 500 Year Anniversary will get more press this year than Halloween: it won't - even in Minnesota, where the Minnesota Vikings play at 8:30 a.m. on Reformation Sunday.

I guess I tell you this because I want to explain why, despite all the running and all the questions, and all the potential problems and wonderings, and ethnic trappings, and infighting, and even schism -- why I stay. Why I bother being Lutheran. And not just being Lutheran. I went to Luther Seminary. I'm a Lutheran ordained pastor. Five hundred years after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door, this venerable faith still has something to say: in English this time.

***

See there's Lutheran and then there's Lutheran.

Lutheran is Garrison Keillor. Hot dishes and Lutefisk and cultural community built around shared German, Scandinavian, and Upper Midwest roots.

Lutheran is Herr Pastor. And choral robes and A Mighty Fortress and committee meetings about the rummage sale and unemotional men who do not talk about their faith outside of church.

Lutheran is hunger relief, a good thing, and missions, and service, though all somehow assumed to be connected to Jesus and to church without offending anyone or being "religious" in public.

Lutheran is passive aggressive "Minnesota nice," unintentional, systemic racism and sexism, entrenched in systems that were built only to do good and preach the Gospel but as they became institutions became entangled inextricably with money and with power and sometimes this was for good - for incredible service and good deeds, as in Lutheran World Relief - and then sometimes this was for bad, as we forgot how to examine ourselves and turned insular.

Lutheran is small, dying congregations - unwilling to bind together with the other church two blocks away because of a feud 50 years ago between the Norwegians and the Swedes. Congregations dotted across the country, some centered on social issues: for or against, meeting in committees week in and week out, ostensibly wanting new members, but unintentionally pushing away anyone new who does not know the secret Lutheran handshakes we brought with us from Europe.

I am this Lutheran. It is in my blood. But I bother being Lutheran because I believe in the power of Lutheran to change the world: 500 years after Martin first did it with his 95 Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg.

Lutheran is theology of the cross. A dark theology rooted on calvary that speaks to people in the depths of our souls: in grief, in death, in dying, in betrayal: God is there! God was there on Calvary and even as Jesus died and God cried, it was through this darkness on Friday that the sun rose again on Resurrection Easter Sunday. Theology of the Cross says that we hope because of the darkness, we hope because of suffering and death, knowing that as Paul wrote in Romans 5: "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us ..."

Luther wrote about theology of the cross in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518:

That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in things that have happened.
He (or she, my edit!) deserves to be a called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

The morning after Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, Irma.
The morning after Las Vegas.
The morning after 9/11.
The morning after your loved one dies.
The morning after the diagnosis.
The morning after a miscarriage.

It is the theology of the cross that speaks, that preaches, to a suffering world desperately in need of a moment of hope and truth in the face of so much darkness and evil.

If God was there at the Cross, and Jesus rose again, then God could still be here - even after death - even after suffering - after divorce and betrayal -- God could still be here.

And the theology of the cross that is Lutheran not only heals but it indicts.

To the Pat Robertsons of the world, who claim to understand the workings of God, who suggest that human suffering is wrought by the hands of an angry God, the theology of the cross indicts.

To the Joel Osteens of the world, who claim that once you give your life to Christ, suffering vanishes and wealth ensues, the theology of the cross indicts, reminding us that God's greatest power often comes immediately following the greatest darkness and suffering we've experienced, and God's greatest power often manifests in those whom the world would shun, forget, or oppress.

To those who would make Christianity an either/or proposition, who would attempt to ascertain who is in and who is out of heaven - the theology of the cross does what it always does, what always made me run back to being Lutheran, feet falling heedlessly - reminding human beings of the absolute sovereignty of a God who died and rose again - reminding human beings that what we have is not earned but given, by grace or by luck or perhaps by greed - that we are together in awe of a God who saves us not because of what we do or who we are but because of who God is, and that is worth worshiping.

Lutheran is vocation: a word Luther took out of the Catholic vernacular to refer only to religious professions: like nuns or priests - and moved it into the everyday, reminding each of us that each day we have the responsibility and the freedom to choose life over death again, as we received in the moment of new life of baptism, water pouring over our infant, child or adult heads. 

Lutheran is knowing that God created each one of us to be loved beyond measure, that each human life is equally powerful and ordained by God - and Lutheran is also knowing that the greatest exercise of Christian freedom is to serve one another. 

Lutheran is to shun an all-encompassing theological system, and instead to rely on questions - prayers really - to God each day. Where am I called to serve my neighbor? Where am I called to serve God? Am I loving myself the way God loves me? Am I impinging on another's freedom? Am I treating something or someone other than God as my Lord?

And finally, Lutheran is to accept the reality of the imperfect Christian community - the church as it is and as we live, not as we would have it be. 

When I preach, I don't use a manuscript, but I always carry with me two books; folded inside are my painstaking preaching notes. One book is the Bible. The other is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together.

Bonhoeffer, a Christian martyr killed in a concentration camp for plotting against Hitler, has been claimed recently by everyone from liberals to conservatives, Catholics to Evangelicals.

The truth is that Bonhoeffer was Lutheran, a man of great theological learning and great theological conviction, an all-too-rare combination in our alternately vapid and timid times. This is what he says about Christian brotherhood, about the community of the church.

Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize, it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.

I, perhaps like you, dear friend, have spent many days and weeks and months and years wringing my hands over the state of our church, Lutheran or otherwise. Too conservative. Too liberal. Too traditional. Too contemporary. Too small. Too big. Too male. Too female. Too white. Too fast. Too slow. Too old. Too young.

The Lutheran church has within it all of those elements, all of those sins, those shortcomings - the -isms that bring us forward to confession, the tendency of a doctrine-based church to divide and divide again until there is no longer any church that remains, only angry individual Christians and their families, and children who want nothing to do with Jesus at all.

And yet the Lutheran Church is not dead and is not monolithic. The Mekane Yesus - Lutheran roots - Church in Ethiopia is the largest Lutheran church in the world, surpassing Sweden in recent years. 

I bother being Lutheran because I have run away and God has always brought me back to these truths, to this grace, to this freedom and finally to this responsibility.

Five hundred years later, the church is still in need of Reformation. These Lutheran truths must speak again today, inasmuch as they point toward Jesus and away from the salvation we think lies within ourselves or within other would-be saviors. There is no such time as this for Reformation.

To 500 years more: if not of Lutherans than at least of Jesus-followers who never forget the Cross.

Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum
The Word of the Lord remains forever, a Reformation-era rallying cry


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