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Do we swim in altogether different oceans?

Listening to the words spoken at the microphones about the Sexuality Statement and the Ministry Recommendations [at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis in August 2009] is a strange experience. The voices go back and forth from red mic to green mic, and it’s hard not to feel like we are already two churches, our deeply divided witness passing like two ships in the night. But, no, even that analogy falls short. It seems more like we are boats in altogether different oceans.

David Weiss

David Weiss

Listening to our respective appeals to Scripture, tradition, and the Lutheran Confessions, it is hardly evident that those standing at the red and green mics are referring to the same documents. At one mic these foundational pieces of our heritage are deployed like a set of wagons circled against a hostile world. At the other they are lifted like a sextant, that trustworthy tool used by mariners to navigate with confidence in the absence of fixed points.
There seem to be two uncomfortable truths at the heart of this.
We in this church understand the place of our own experience in the life of faith in decidedly different ways. For some, experience is dismissed outright as utterly untrustworthy — especially in instances where it challenges the “reason” of the majority or the texts we hold sacred or confessional. From this perspective any appeal to experience is compelling evidence of a morally and rationally bankrupt position. To tender insight grounded in experience is to play right into the devil’s hands.

We are a people with profoundly different experiences of the God with whom we keep faith.

For others of us, experience — while by no means immune to critique — is regarded as potentially bearing profound and even sacred insight. It is acknowledged as one arena in which the Wind of the Spirit moves. It is an opening into which voices silenced by majorities can speak a word of truth, helping to interpret Scripture, to complete tradition, and to refine our reading of the Confessions.
The difficulty here is that these positions appear intrinsically polarizing. They are not different takes on the same picture. They are arguments about the nature of the eyes that see the picture.
Who is marked in baptism?
The second truth is even less comfortable to name. We have markedly different experiences of the God who has marked us in baptism. Although both camps seem hesitant to raise the stakes this high — at least not at the microphone — behind the differing positions we stake out explicitly, lie arguments unspoken that reach to the very character of God. What we read in Scripture, what we hear in (and silenced beneath) tradition, and what we carry with us of the Confessions is shaped by our experience of the God with whom we keep faith.
Now I need to be very clear, I am not suggesting at all that we are keeping faith with different Gods. I am saying that we are a people with profoundly different experiences of the God with whom we keep faith. And we have yet to be honest or compassionate about what that means for us as a church.
As Lutherans we speak of faith as relational trust. If we intend to be one church at the end of this week — or this year — perhaps the biggest task to which we will be called is this: to acknowledge that in this moment the way to keep faith with God is to live in relational trust with one another. To confess that this Ocean is both deeper and more mysterious than any group of us can fathom, and that every voice on the boat has a witness to bear. May it be so.
David Weiss, author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God (, attends St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church (ELCA) in St. Paul. He wrote this blog entry during the ELCA assembly.

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