What Are We Doing Here?

Every year, each synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America holds its assembly, and every year I dutifully attend mine. For pastors, at least those who have spent their formative years in the Chicago area, it has a feel of old-home week alongside the official business, the workshops, worship, and messages from the national office. I usually enjoyed it and even looked forward to it.

This year, however, it left me feeling rather disoriented and unhappy. It’s not that we gather each year in denial about the state of our church, and the conditions in which we do our work. We’re at least past that, and the bargaining, and even the anger. We’re honest about the losses we have experienced and will continue to experience, even if we have perhaps not thoroughly processed our grief. Once upon a time our proposed resolutions provoked some debate, but the people who stood at the red microphones to push back have all gone somewhere else or died. We are who we are, and we’re not hiding from the fact.

It’s what we think we’re doing that has left me with a persistent unease. More to the point, I can’t quite figure out what we think we’re doing. We have no shortage of positive and even inspiring updates from the mission field, but virtually every one has to do with some creative initiative of service: making quilts for people who have experienced a disaster, or feeding people, or opening up our building for some worthy purpose. I don’t wish to diminish the value of any of these things. But I was left with the feeling that if you brought an innocent observer into the event and asked them, “what is Lutheranism?” the most obvious answer wouldn’t likely  have anything to do with Word and Sacrament, worship, teaching, preaching, sin and forgiveness, death and life, but rather with those creative, necessary, and not-obviously-connected initiatives. The things we’ve said about ourselves–about why we exist as a tradition apart from others–for most of the last 500 years have shrunk to a cipher.

In part this is because–as we have heard often, including last weekend, and as I myself have surely said many times–the questions of sin and forgiveness and human righteousness before God are not questions people in our mission fields especially care about. It apparently follows that we ought to be addressing the questions this stipulated “they” are asking, going where “they” are, and seeing what God is already doing there. In part this is tied up with a hugely important but, as far as I can tell, largely distinct question of how we move beyond our cultural ambit to include and invite people who have no particular emotional connection to the Copenhagen Jesus or “Beautiful Savior” (and I say this as someone who loves the Copenhagen Jesus and “Beautiful Savior”). Yes, by all means, the demons of white supremacy and the idols of the old volk churches must be cast out.

But this is no substitute for an affirmative claim of what “they” are to be included and invited into. It is not even a substitute for understanding how “we” relate to the very different habits and beliefs in which our great authoritative texts and practices took shape. It’s no substitute for some idea of what we’re doing here.

What if the alleged indifference of the age to questions of God’s righteousness is not the age’s wisdom, with which we must catch up, but rather the age’s folly, which we are duty-bound to try to break through? What if people are putting themselves and their world in serious danger by ignoring those questions? And what if, after all, the wisdom and the virtues and the forms of fellowship we wish to salvage from our little household end up being no more necessary or appealing than the rest of it?

I don’t ask this to be haughty or dismissive of the line of thinking that got us to this point. It really is necessary to, as they say, “meet people where they are,” to try to know what “they” know and see what “they” see. And it is necessary to refuse to see the church as a repository of truths that the world must be bargained or bullied into accepting for its own good. We proclaim neither signs nor wisdom but rather Christ crucified, as Paul says. And unlike either signs or wisdom, Christ crucified is not the mute possession of the one who proclaims.

So while I don’t want to ask what we think we’re doing with arrogance, I do want to ask it with urgency. I wrote a book to try to give it a meaningful answer, looking back to those things that are supposed to identify “church” in the world in the first place. But I hope to stay open to other ways of articulating an answer. I just want to hear one. Neither God nor the world requires Lutherans as such to prolong ourselves into the future.

When I was in seminary I had a conversation with a pastor I knew and liked who told me that he flatly rejected Augustine’s understanding of sin. At the time I was rather shocked and scandalized. There was a direct line from my experience of reading Augustine to my presence in seminary, after all. I would have said then, and would say now, that Lutheranism without that understanding of sin is preposterous and even wicked–antinomian, anti-Semitic, and radically uncharitable. Surely rejecting that understanding would lead a person somewhere else, to Orthodoxy or else liberal Anabaptism or maybe even Unitarianism.

What I hope I understand better now is that he and I were approaching the topic from totally different directions. I was, for all intents and purposes, a convert, who had experienced the idea of sin and redemption not as something given but as a flash of revelation. I was there because of it. He was there because he was born and raised to be there. There are not a few people for whom reworking their faith and their church around the death of an idea like sin is much easier and more reasonable than leaving the whole business behind for something different. That was the option I’d had and exercised. I had the luxury of arriving without departing.

It’s no grave sin to hold on to something past the point where you can properly articulate what it is. People are unsystematic. I am no exception. Having arrived at this point I am not terribly interested in continually asking whether I must go on. But more is required of me, and of all of us, than figuring out a creative way to keep the processes within the flexible membrane of this cell operating. We are here to do something–proclaim something, receive something, enact something together and in our separate lives–and the only way to finally die is to lose our image of what that “something” is.

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