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The road from believer to bishop

A Journey of Grace: The Formation of a Leader and a Church. By Herbert W. Chilstrom. Minneapolis: Huff Publishing Associates/Lutheran University Press. $25.00, hardbound. 600 pages, 2011.
One of the fascinating things about A Journey of Grace, an autobiography written by Herbert W. Chilstrom, is the number of levels at which it can be meaningfully read. To some extent, it is the story of the Augustana Synod as it came to fruition in this man who became the first presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a church in which Augustana was a decided minority. On another level, it is the institutional story of the beginning of the ELCA, the largest Lutheran church body in the United States.
At the same time, the book is a very personal story of a marriage and a family that had more than its share of challenges, which tested but never defeated the sense that God’s hand was at work in their lives. Above all, however, it is, as the title suggests, the story of a journey of grace or, to put it in other words, a love story of a man and his God, his church in its various manifestations (Augustana, the Lutheran Church in America [LCA], and the ELCA), and his family, especially his wife Corinne.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s first presiding bishop, Herbert W. Chilstrom, has penned an autobiography that brings alive his own story and that of the early ELCA.

Chilstrom is an engaging storyteller, such that the length of the book does not become burdensome even when the wealth of detail seems excessive.

I do not recall that Chilstrom ever uses the word “providence” to describe this journey. It is, after all, not a word heard all that much in Lutheran circles. But there is a strong sense of God’s providence at work in this narrative, a providence tempered by a host of situations and circumstances, however challenging, that never rise to the level of overwhelming or causing a denial of God’s grace.
Chilstrom is an engaging storyteller, such that the length of the book does not become burdensome even when the wealth of detail seems excessive. A regular journal writer, Chilstrom also had access to materials collected by his mother as well as annual files that he himself kept. One result is that the reader never needs to wonder about the accuracy of what is described from the author’s perspective. At the same time, the description is not a simple recitation of facts; the reader is also invited into the heart and soul of this man who describes himself as an “evangelical conservative with a radical social conscience.”
There are occasional hints of humor — for example, the description of what was probably his shortest sermon ever — as well as glimpses of anger and resentment — against the DMX group, for example, and its activity at the Assembly during which he was first elected presiding bishop. There are references to his accomplishments — “Mission 90 may have been my single most important contribution to the life of our young church” — as well as an acknowledgment of mistakes made or errors in judgment — the timing of his first visit to ecumenical churches abroad — and comments on difficult relationships with other leaders in the church.
But all such matters only add texture to what is the main theme: that his life, both personal and professional, has been lived under the canopy of God’s grace. It has been an eventful life and not one that a young boy growing up in rural Minnesota could have anticipated or probably even imagined. More than once in the early pages of this autobiography, Chilstrom uses words such as “I would not have known” or “little could I have imagined” to describe situations in which he would find himself in later years.
There is, thus, the sense that his life is being played out within the larger arena of God’s activity, a sense perhaps best described by his own reflection on the day of his ordination. “On that day, as many times since, I felt a profound conviction that this could not have happened to me unless God was involved in it from the beginning.”

Raised in the hands of God

Chilstrom’s is not a Pollyanna faith, however. As a parish pastor, a teacher/administrator at the Lutheran Bible Institute (LBI) in Teaneck, New Jersey, again as a parish pastor, and finally as a bishop, first in the Minnesota Synod of the LCA and then as the first presiding bishop of the ELCA, Chilstrom witnesses to God’s grace in the face of challenges for which there were no easy answers, while honing his own ability to make necessary difficult decisions.
In his relationship to his dearly loved but mentally challenged brother David, Chilstrom began to learn about the theology of the cross. At Augustana Seminary, he acknowledged the gifts received from his study at LBI — knowledge/content of the Bible, accent on the global mission of the church and faithfulness to its mission, and a strong devotional practice — but also moved away from a narrow view of faith and of the Bible and a legalistic pietism. In facing the suicide of his son and in confronting various health issues he and Corinne have experienced, he was held by God’s compassion. And in the daunting task of being at the helm of the creation of a merged church, the simple prayer “Help me fear no one but you” remained the center point, however dire the circumstance or difficult the challenge.

Chilstrom’s is not a Pollyanna faith.

Arguably, the most vexing issue he faced — first as a synodical bishop and then as the presiding bishop of the ELCA — was the debate and controversy over sexuality, especially homosexuality. Over the years he moved to a position that did not become the policy and practice of the ELCA until 2009, 14 years after he left the bishop’s office. As a bishop, however, he felt he needed to put the well-being of the church as he perceived it over his own preferences. In that sense, a comment he made about his efforts to address the issue of homosexuality goes beyond that issue and provides insight into what was his overall philosophy. “I am trying to find a middle way as is my usual pattern.”
In looking back on his ministry from the vantage point of retirement, Chilstrom ponders the question which underlies the whole autobiography: How much do we determine the outcome of our life? This book is his attempt to answer that question and is best summed up in his own words. “Our personal decisions are of great consequence. But only within a larger circle of the will and purpose of God. That’s the best I can do with this conundrum.”
It is rare for a book to be a valuable read on many levels. This is one of those rare ones.
Randy A. Nelson is emeritus professor of contextual education at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis.

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