Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Exercises in understanding Lutheran identity: the Pacific Northwest, Lutheran CORE, Garrison Keillor and the ELCA

Articulating the meaning and identity of Lutheran Christianity, like many branding activities, involves understanding public discourse and "buzz." Many wise people have written and spoken about the perils of establishing and affirming identity based on what you don't want to be or critiquing another group. Lutheran CORE and other similar groups of Lutherans are getting a lot of mileage and energy involving themselves in activities and discourse that sets them apart from the ELCA--strategy meetings with press releases, declarations of redirecting funds, etc. Some folks from the ELCA are responding similarly to messages publicized by Lutheran CORE. The reasons for this kind of identity building vary depending on the conversation--authority of Scripture, justice, and faithfulness to Lutheran teachings to name a few.

I remember early in my theological/vocational discernment (around 1993-94) that Luther Seminary was a cauldron of anxiety because the first "sexuality document" was published by the ELCA. Gerhard Forde and Arland Hultgren publicly debated sexuality and Scripture. Forde talked about the authority of Scripture, Hultgren talked about how contemporary understandings of sexuality were not what was being addressed in Scripture. The more I heard and read these kind of debates, the more I was confused as to what it means to be a Lutheran Christian. The more I learned about my Christian tradition at Luther Seminary and in the Upper Midwest in general, the more dissonance I experienced. I was originally drawn to remain a Lutheran Christian because I believed in the principle, "justification by grace, through faith (in Jesus Christ)." My faith in Jesus Christ was not threatened or encouraged by these debates. I was more puzzled than anything.

One of the many things that drew me to my wife, Melanie, is how she lived out her Lutheran Christian faith as she was studying and training to be an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament. She is driven and focused on serving her neighbor in the name of Christ, and she is passionate about encouraging others to do the same, using the gifts that God has given them. Even though our cultural backgrounds were different, we were drawn together because of this shared value. We met and were married at Luther Seminary and went out into the world to live out our shared values with a call to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whereas I have received encouragement from Melanie to live out my call through preaching and serving my neighbor, the message articulated by ELCA as a whole and in pockets is different and often puzzling. When I looked to the ELCA, the energy was directed toward the debate over sexuality, ministry and Scripture. When I looked around to the congregations and areas I served (I have served many as a minister of Word and Sacrament, in interim ministry, in consulting and teaching) I saw a congregations that confuse and intertwine "Lutheranism" with an ethnicity (mostly either a Scandinavian variety or German). I have written and preached about this confusion on multiple occasions. However, I'm not sure I have articulated the dissonance I have experienced and highlighted to my fellow Lutherans as well as my Lutheran clergy colleague (though we do not know each other) Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.

Bolz-Weber articulates the dissonance between ethnicity, faith and religion in her review of Garrison Keillor's latest book "Life Among Lutherans," appearing in The Christian Century: "But [Keillor's] generalizations about religion are troubling; the book has absolutely nothing to do with my religious tradition. Lutheran is not an ethnicity. Keillor's conflation of Scandinavian-American Midwestern small-town ethnicity with Lutheranism makes me want to become a Methodist..." I've been addressing this dissonance using different books, though the books I've been reading are more geeky than Keillor, and I might do well to discuss with my fellow Lutheran Christians about what it means to be Lutheran using Keillor's book than my choices (Wellman and Killen/Silk). I agree with Bolz-Weber, Keillor is a story teller par excellence, but I think more than multiple people (both Lutheran and non-Lutheran) have mistaken what it means to be Lutheran in a similar fashion to Keillor's stories. Lutheran is not an ethnicity.

Out here in the Pacific Northwest, though we recognize the struggles of our Lutheran sisters and brothers in other parts of the country, there is not as much energy dedicated to the conflation of ethnicity, faith and religion, or large scale debates about sexuality and ministry (it happens, just not frequently). We have our own issues out here, namely that we as Lutherans in the PNW tend to complain and spew negativity that the culture doesn't accommodate us, rather than see the "open religious market (see the aforementioned books)" as a unique opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and serve our neighbor. I believe that Lutheran identity (as I was taught) can articulate the Gospel in a powerful way in this place. Pardon me if I don't want to direct my energy toward the buzz of current public discourse surrounding Lutherans. My colleague Nadia Bolz-Weber reminded me of my calling as a pastor at First Community Lutheran Church of Port Orchard, Washington, better than I have reminded myself lately.

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