From the Editor

What Does It Mean to be Lutheran…and Why Should We Care?

The basics of Lutheranism in one newspaper page

This is my final “From the Editor” column. After 135 monthly editorials, it’s possible readers have heard more from this editor than they wanted. But thanks for indulging me one more salvo.

I want to dedicate this parting essay to my wife, Kathe. She’s been my strong behind-the-scenes support throughout these eleven-plus years of my editorship. A piece in the Fall 2007 edition of Thrivent Magazine suggests that homemakers contribute an average annual value to the family treasury of $138,095 (that’s what their spouses would have to pay for their services should they have to purchase them on the open market). At that rate, Kathe has contributed upwards of $1.5 million to the Sherer family economy since I began as editor in August 1996. (She also worked for several years during this same period as bookkeeper at Metro Lutheran.)

Permit me to invite you, in this final editorial, into a conversation suggested by the title. What does it mean to be a Lutheran in American culture right now, and why does it matter? I was asked to develop this topic for a presentation for some lay Lutheran folk in south Minneapolis this fall. Let me condense for you here some of what I shared there (and, for those readers who were present at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on France Avenue, be aware that I’m offering here some slight additions and alterations to what I said at that session).

If a non-Lutheran looked for “Lutheran identifiers” in the U.S. these days, what might they name? Here are five accidental (cultural) Lutheran identifiers that come to mind. All are “adiaphora,” which means, “we may like these things, but they’re not crucial.”

* Pipe organs, a sung liturgy, hymn chorales, Lutheran college choirs. Admittedly some Lutherans are distancing themselves from some or all of these nowadays, but they still “feel Lutheran” to most of us.

* Altars and pulpits, stained glass windows, robes and stoles. Many Protestants are puzzled that Lutherans still use these, although Episcopalian, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians think Lutherans don’t use them “with sufficient intentionality.” (Maybe we do and maybe we don’t. You decide.)

* Sauerkraut and beer / lutefisk and lefse (choose one set). Of course, if you’re Lutheran and your heritage is not northern European, this sounds like “inside baseball.” Adiaphora.

* Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. Garrison Keillor started out Sanctified Brethren, “tried” Lutheranism, and is currently Episcopalian. His radio ruminations are sometimes accurate but often skewed. Lutherans in Ohio or California may wonder who he’s really talking about. Still, where else can you get this kind of free publicity? Take it with some salt.

* Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. We love our fraternal and its grant programs, but there was Lutheranism long before Thrivent.

Here, by contrast, are five intentional (theological) Lutheran identifiers. These are not adiaphora, but rather close to the authentic Lutheran soul. (There are surely others, but let’s not unload the whole wagon of hay in one place.)

* Radical grace. Martin Luther said justification was the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. Roman Catholics disagreed in his day (some think they still do). Many former members of law-driven churches (“do this, and this, and this, or you may not make it to heaven”) report becoming Lutheran was “the most freeing thing I’ve ever experienced.” Lutherans believe God embraces us unconditionally and nothing we do will ever change or contribute to that. Hence, Lutherans embrace infant baptism and reject calls to “make a decision for Christ.” (If this puzzles you, ask your pastor about it.)

* A proper distinction between Law and Gospel. More than perhaps any other religious faith group, Lutherans know that whatever condemns us (Law, which is bad news) is not to be confused with that which frees, empowers and saves us (Gospel, which is good news). Law has several functions — it condemns us, it keeps us out of trouble (as a curb against bad behavior) and it helps us know how to love God. But it never brings us into God’s presence or gains for us God’s loving embrace. Only God, through Christ, does that. Who cares? Lutherans do, because almost all other Christians (by current population numbers) regularly confuse Law and Gospel, leaving the faithful misled and, in many cases, desperate for true assurance.

* Sinners and saints simultaneously. This may be the most outrageous and baffling of all the Lutheran distinctives. I find it to be one of the most paradoxical, and (perhaps therefore) marvelous of the set of five. Simply put, we’re headed for death (caught in sin) but simultaneously made holy, sanctified, with a “saintly make-over.” Paul calls believers “saints” at the beginning of most of his letters, but he also urges them to confront their own sinfulness. Puzzling? Sure. But amazingly reassuring, hopeful and realistic.

* What’s finite (limited) can receive (contain) what’s infinite. Example: Lutherans believe ordinary bread and wine can contain the real presence of Christ. When we receive one, we receive the other (a good reason to bow your head in reverence when the pastor speaks the words of institution during the sacrament). No other Christians affirm this, leading them to a sacramental understanding that veers either toward mere symbolism or unwarranted magical thinking. Luther went to war (theolgically) for this idea. His spiritual discendants should contend for it as well.

* Christian freedom / Christian servitude. This is another classic Lutheran paradox. Luther declared, rightly, that a Christian is “perfectly free, a servant of none” yet “perfectly bound a servant of all.” Double-talk? Think about it. Paul taught us, “For freedom Christ has set us free,” yet reminded us we have freedom for one reason: to serve others for the sake of Christ. So, are we free or are we bound? We’re both simultaneously.

These five identifiers (and there are others) help Lutherans know why they are not “like everybody else.” If being “Lutheran odd” bothers you, keep in mind: Scripture calls us to be “peculiar” (differently identified) people. We can and should wear our Lutheran identity proudly (but never pridefully).

It has been a rare privilege serving as editor of Metro Lutheran. Please continue to support the paper and embrace the work of the new editor. Many of you have asked what comes next for me. With our older daughter likely to relocate to Portland, Kathe and I are seriously exploring having a retirement home built in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. We’ll miss Minnesota, but a part of us will always remain here with you.