Lutheran Fundamentalism & Civility

In a previous post, I commented on the secularization of the 10 Commandments.  Recently, that stirred up some comments that turned “sharp”.  Combine that with my current reading of Eric Gritch’s “Toxic Spiritualities” and I’ve got some observations I’d like to make, and I fully expect to be blasted more for these.

The commenter wrote,

Lutherans base our beliefs on the teaching of truth and are firmly committed to guarding against false teachings. It is a church that exists for one reason and one reason only, the sake of pure doctrine of the Gospel – a confessional church above all others. We are faithful to this church because it is the church of Jesus Christ and the plain Word of God not because of our history or because it is the church of Luther. The Lutheran Church is, to quote Dr. Theodore Schmauk, “the church who stakes all on bearing witness. Her office is one of public proclamation and confession of the Truth, as it is in Christ Jesus. The preaching of God’s Word, pure and as given in Scripture, is her central activity… She is here to proclaim and apply God’s Word in Scripture, sermon, and sacrament. She is the church of faithful, regular, and continuous witness to the Truth. Hence the source of her witness, the Word; the standard of her witness, the Confessions; are central; and she is willing to abide by and uphold her confessional principle.”  … Lutheranism does not change, it cannot change because the gospel which is the substance of our confession does not and cannot change.

I don’t think I could find a better example of Lutheran Fundamentalism if I tried.  I differ significantly from the author of this post, and for that reason, other parts of the comment resort to some uncivil discourse.

One fundamentalist aspect of the comment is the focus on preserving pure doctrine.  The author will no doubt agree with me that the primary purpose of the Lutheran church is proclamation of the Gospel (although that’s not what the author says).  Yet the author retains an intense focus on the “purity” of the Gospel.  It is a mistake, I believe, to resolve the Grace AND Obedience polarity of the New Testament witness on one side or the other, and it seems that the author insists on doing that.  I find it interesting that when I read the Schmauk quote, I find that I can agree with it without elevating the confessions to near-scripture authority.  Therefore it doesn’t work very well as a “proof text”.

And yes, Lutheranism can and does need to change while the Gospel remains the same.  Relevance to 21st century demands that there be change from 16th century arguments.

Another section of the comment is probably more illustrative of Triumphalism than Fundamentalism, but the two “toxic spiritualities” are close cousins.

You state, “Let’s let our culture borrow from many religious traditions to order society for the common good … and let our culture borrow from secular traditions to order society for the common good.”  Lutheranism does not “borrow from many religious traditions.”

My original post had to do with the secular culture, not Lutheran culture.  Maybe that was lost on the author of the comment.  I never suggested that Lutheranism borrows from other religious traditions.  I suggested that was a proper role of the secular culture.  Too often, those deeply entrenched in a religious world don’t recognize the secular world and its structure as having value … maybe even to the point of wanting the secular world to mirror the religious world.  That’s Triumphalism.  That also dismisses Luther’s Two Kingdoms Principle as invalid.

It is because of the Two Kingdoms Principle that I can make the claim that secularizing the 10 Commandments is inappropriate and be firmly rooted in Lutheran principles.  For the commenter, the use of the Two Kingdoms Principle makes me a “socialist”.

Which gets me to the topic of civility.

In a series of comments from this person, I’ve been called

  • bitter
  • condescending
  • elitist
  • all-knowing
  • small of heart
  • socialist

Sharing one’s perspective is a terrible thing, I guess.

Can’t we just disagree without resorting to demonizing the other?


Christmas Wars

I think it is worse this year.

More and more “Christian” groups are stridently demanding that Christmas be celebrated as the remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ and are opposing what I refer to as “secular Christmas” celebrations.  One group, “Repent Amarillo”, has gone so far as posting a video of the execution of Santa Claus.

I observe that as a group loses influence within a culture, they often become more strident and work hard at regaining lost influence.  This is what I think is happening to religious conservatives.

I operate with the assumption that there are two Christmas celebrations.  One is firmly rooted in the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  The other is a secular winter holiday with the same name.  When someone wishes me “Happy Holidays”, they are in fact being considerate because they don’t know which one (or ones) I celebrate.

Here is the kicker.  I celebrate both.  I don’t find that to be a problem at all.

What religious conservatives and Christmas “purists” don’t seem to recognize is that they continue to drive a wedge between Christians and non-Christians with their strident rhetoric.  When it gets to be an either/or situation, evangelism suffers.  Far better to use Paul’s example in Corinth when faced with the monument to the “unknown god”.  He shared with the people of Corinth what he knew about that unknown god … Jesus Christ rather than beating them over the head with their paganism.

The way Christians can claim Christmas is through that interpretive maneuver.  After all, it is a short step from the secular Christmas celebrations to the Christian celebrations, and when approached reasonably, most who observe the secular holiday are open to Christian interpretation.

Movie Recommendation

This past weekend, Netflix delivered “God Grew Tired of Us”, a documentary about the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and the story of their integration into U.S. society (New York state & Pennsylvania).  I was riveted.

I met one of the “Lost Boys” a year and a half ago, and was moved by his story.  We were partners in an exercise to get to know one another at a Mission Developer Training session sponsored by the ELCA.  When I saw this documentary on the Netflix list, I had to watch.

The cultural contrast between the Sudan of their childhood and the U.S. of  their adulthood is frankly embarrassing.  The high level of learning necessary to adapt to our culture is astonishing.  I’m sure it would be the same for me to move into the culture from which they came.

My wife was not as impressed.  She had recently read “What is the What” and so most of the themes were more familiar to her.

I’ll recommend either the documentary or the book.  These “Lost Boys” are going to continue to have a significant impact on our culture and the communities in which they live.


Dialogue in Disagreement

It seems to me that one of the most difficult things for Christians to do is to engage in dialogue over matters where there is disagreement, especially in matters related to faith.  I’m going to use a recent comment on this blog to illustrate this and to attempt to engage in some dialogue, knowing in advance that I’ll make some mistakes, and it won’t be perfect.  The article I wrote that the commenter responded to is here.

The quoted comments will be italicized and indented.

My comments will be in normal typeface.

Are you really a pastor or just pretending, because you make no sense at all.

I’m sorry that you didn’t understand.  I was attempting some very short answers to complicated questions, and my shortcuts were likely too brief.  Please, because we disagree or you don’t understand, don’t call into question my role in this church.  Too often, we belittle those with whom we disagree or don’t understand.  I’ll attempt to not belittle you.

The commenter then quotes my statement, and adds a comment.

“You see, the matter is that the ELCA is what the congregations determine it to be. It is not some monolithic entity” The ELCA is what happens to a denomination when they are of the world and not in the world. Our congregation could easily vote to reject the ELCA statements
and go with the flow and not make waves. What would the point be in belonging to the ELCA Club and paying dues to support someone elses agendas.

Once again, I apologize that I wasn’t clear.  I’ll try to expand and be more clear.  The ELCA is indeed a denomination, but since its inception, it has been described as being composed of three expressions; the congregation, the synod, and the churchwide.  Most who are unhappy with the “ELCA” are focused only on part of the church, usually churchwide.  What each congregation teaches and how it lives the Gospel helps shape what is the ELCA.  As congregations decide to leave, they change the dynamic of what is the ELCA, which I think is a great loss to this church. Therefore, there is no such thing as “the ELCA Club”.  The ELCA does not exist apart from the congregations of which it is made.  The ELCA is not some independent “other”.  Mission support is not paying “dues” but gathering together resources for shared ministry.  Congregations have a responsibility to be engaged with one another because we are the ELCA.

I note that we wrestle with our role as parts of a body in many other ways too.  I may disagree with the priorities of the local congregation (especially related to where we spend our resources), but still am engaged in sharing ministry with others.  I will work to influence the priorities of congregational spending wherever I can, but ultimately, it is about something larger than me and what I hold to be important.  Likewise, I share ministry with people who throw a few dollars into the offering plate every once in a while, even though I contribute enough that it makes a difference in how I have to budget other things in my household.  I disagree strongly with their priorities, and yet, will work side by side with them to advance the ministry and mission of the congregation.

Because I have this perspective, I’m not as troubled by decisions of the ELCA which run counter to my specific priorities or my specific understanding of the center of scripture.  Likewise, I’m not threatened by those congregations that in their context, make different choices than I make in my context.  That does not mean for me that the ELCA is a denomination “of the world”.  Your comment suggests to me that you believe that those who voted to approve controversial positions were not grounded in scripture.  I listened carefully to the debate, and am convinced that there was appropriate attention to scripture from all sides, even the sides of the debate with which I disagree.  What takes priority and what is the central message of the Gospel is different for different people.  In some ways, it is similar to the differences between denominations.  But from my perspective, these differences are not sufficient to cause a split. Clearly, you see that differently.

“Regarding abortion, the issue is not about knowing someone who has had an abortion but supporting a denomination that offers to pay for the murder of a child.

I agree that the question about abortion is not about knowing someone who has had an abortion.  I apologize for being curt in my reply. Abortion is a passionate debate, one where there is little hope for dialogue.  Passions run much too high.  The commenter is opposed to the ELCA health plan paying for abortions.  I probably agree, not having thought about it much.  I’d simply ask that there be some discussion about what constitutes abortion for the commenter.  Is the commenter against termination of any pregnancy, viable or not?  How is that determined?  I don’t know enough about all this. Then, as in guidance offered in many parts of scripture, one must weigh the “greater good”.  That is not easy even from scripture.  Remember, this is the scripture that advocates stoning of adulterers and disobedient children.  It both commands divorce and calls divorce adultery.

As far as sexuality in colleges of the ELCA, again I say, it is not about knowing that there is sexual activity but the fact that the colleges are providing avenues of acceptance of for such activity.
I went to college in the 70′s and had a good old time, but when I grew up I knew my children would go to a Christian college because my husband and I wanted the best faith based professors to mentor them and serve as Godly examples. Well that was a waste, so why would someone choose to send their child to an ELCA school who’s attitude has nothing to do with Biblical teachings.

I have some real challenges with broad sweeping statements about what constitutes Christianity (based on morals).  The American Lutheran Church college I attended shaped my understanding and appreciation of paradox, vocation, and scripture (that was not literal or fundamental).  Students and professors sometimes lived out the Christian faith in obvious ways, and at other times were engaged in sinful activity … including competitiveness for grades.  In some ways, I’m not sure what a “Christian College” might be.  Is it a college that lives radical grace and forgiveness as its foundational values?  Is it one that offers radical hospitality?  Is it one where the poor, disenfranchised, alienated, and those whom society has deemed valueless are lifted up and given value?  Is it one where only scripture is used for teaching?  Is it one where all share all possessions in common?  Is it one in which vocation is understood as a calling of God and equipping of the Holy Spirit?  Is it one in which one is allowed and encouraged to wrestle with questions of faith in a safe learning environment, far from fear of condemnation?  Some of us might define Christianity in these ways from a faithful reading of Scripture.  “Christian” is a term I use to describe Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  I’d be interested in conversation about how the commenter describes “Christian”.  In the places where I have conversations about the Christian faith, Christian does not mean only one thing, and it is not universally understandable.

And yes I dare say that we all have seen illicit sexual activity in our congregation as well as many other sins, if we didnt all sin there would be no need to go to church. We are to observe, address and repent of our sins. If all our sins are okay, I’m okay, you’re okay, he’s okay ,it’s okay, we’re all okay.,lets just all get along. Then why did Christ have to die on the cross. It is our job to love our brothers enough to steer them away from sin and each of us help each other to recognize and repent .

Often, when there is conversation about these kinds of disagreements, the conversation devolves to the “if there are no standards then everything is ok and Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension mean nothing” position.  Please, step back and take a breath.  It is not “everything goes”, although I can see where it can look like that’s where it is leading.  Obedience to scripture is important.  But here we’ll probably disagree about what is most important in scripture.  Grace is important.  I often wonder if one is more important than the other, because when I put one ahead of the other, things get messed up.  It is my experience that sometimes grace happens before obedience.  Sometimes obedience is first.  Sometimes forgiveness comes before repentance.  Sometimes repentance is first.  Sometimes obedience draws me closer to God and sometimes God draws me closer to obedience.  I don’t want to be like the Pharisees who could see everyone’s failings and not consider their own.

I ask, because I’m interested to know, is there a point where forgiveness is not offered if there is no real change in a person’s behavior (if repentance is related to behavior)?  Does anyone ever repent about Thanksgiving Day feasting (gluttony), a sin when so much of the world goes hungry or do we in the church bless this sin?  Does anyone ever repent of the coveting that is the basis for our North American economy or does the church simply go along?  Jesus says all remarriage (in one of the Gospels) is sinful, and yet we don’t demand those marriages end.  My point is not to justify “sin”, but to invite us into a larger question where we seek out the answers together and listen carefully to one another in a way that honors how scripture speaks to another.  I want to have this kind of conversation … not because I know the answers, but because it has implications on what we mean by repentance, obedience, sinfulness, and forgiveness.  Why is it that some sins are considered acceptable and others are not?  How do we decide?  Is there a difference between sin as a condition and sinful acts?  Dialogue will reveal a good deal in these matters.

There is more from the commenter, some of it quite personal.  I hope I did not call her names, or insinuate that she is homophobic or un-Christian, or is out of touch with the world.  If I did, I am sorry for that, for that was not my intent.  There is too much of that in the world as it is.  I have a lot of questions, and believe that Christians can ask questions of one another without having to fight about preconceived truths.  I learn a great deal from these kinds of dialogues and invite people into them all the time.

There is more I can say, and I’ve said too much, so enough for now. 

World AIDS Day – 2010

Today is World AIDS Day.  In the ELCA, we’ve been called upon by our Presiding Bishop to pray, remember, lead by example, and sign a religious leaders’ commitment to action in response to HIV and AIDS.

I’ve signed the commitment, which is located here, and invite other clergy to do the same.  This commitment is rather extensive.  The commitment reads, in part:

Conscious of the specific needs of all those affected by HIV, this leadership means…

To people living with HIV, I commit myself to:

  • working tirelessly to end all stigmatizing attitudes and actions until people living with HIV are fully included in our religious communities and societies;
  • supporting concerted efforts and partnerships to provide support including health care and education in ways that respect privacy and dignity;
  • seeking to understand and respond to the specific needs and situations of different communities affected by HIV to enable all people living with HIV to participate fully in society;
  • providing spiritual support and resources to give hope and enable positive living, assuring you that HIV cannot separate you from love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness.

To children, I commit to:

  • Recognizing your rights, including health, education and support, that will help you celebrate childhood and learn values and ethical practices for safer and healthier living.

To young people, I commit to:

  • Listening to your needs and empowering you with the values and support to help protect you from violence and suppression and from behaviours that create risks for yourself and others;
  • Enabling and facilitating your leadership and participation.

To women and girls, I commit to:

  • Recognizing your special vulnerability and roles as caregivers and mothers and working tirelessly to ensure you have the services you require for prevention, treatment, care and support.
  • Exercising respect and challenging any oppressive systems of power within my religious community and society which fuel violence and injustice;
  • Providing space for your voice and leadership in our communities.

To men and boys, I commit to:

  • Encouraging understanding of power that allows people to relate to one another with dignity and love.
  • Supporting leadership and decision making that addresses the root causes of HIV.

To my religious community, I commit to:

  • Doing all I can to break the barriers of silence and exclusion to fully and openly include people living with HIV and their families in our religious communities;
  • Leading by example and encouraging my religious community to deepen its engagement in the response to HIV, including advocating for prevention, treatment, care and support for all.

To networks, organizations and public institutions, I commit to:

  • Fully supporting all efforts to extend services and support that will enable an HIV-free generation by 2015;
  • Challenging and supporting governments to meet their moral duty to implement their promises on HIV in their priorities, practices and financial support.
  • partnering with you to combine our experiences, approaches and expertise to reach our common goal of halting the spread of HIV and reversing the pandemic.

To those I am addressing in this pledge and to other religious leaders who join me in this covenant/pledge, I commit to:

  • reporting through available channels every 18 months how I have worked to fulfill my pledge. (September 2011, March 2013, and September 2014)

My first action is simple.  I’ll encourage our Bishop to sign, and ask him to encourage others to sign.

The importance of a blessing

Many secretly believe that children really don’t belong in worship, especially if they are “disruptive”. We’ve worked hard to nurture the participation of children in worship, including simple things like a simple laminated order of service in every pew rack, children’s Bibles in every pew, and ways for children to participate in worship leadership.  Disruptions occur, but they are not usually very long.  The pastors do a good job ignoring them and parents do a pretty good job at making proper adjustments.

We invite parents to help determine when their children are ready to begin to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion and offer age-appropriate education prior to first communion.  We offer a simple blessing accompanied by a hand on the head for those who do not receive communion. (I say, “May God bless, protect, and keep you all the days of your life.”)

Yesterday in worship, a young girl of about 4 came forward to the altar, and was prepared for the blessing.  For at least 30 seconds, she pulled her bangs up to expose her forehead, and waited patiently for the blessing.  I think only her mother and I noticed, and we were both moved.

Pondering Pastor

Secularizing the 10 Commandments

It was just once too many times.  I caught part of an interview with Glenn Beck last evening where he was advocating that the 10 Commandments were a good set of “rules” for our country and that even atheists could support them.  He joins a very long list of people who somehow believe that the 10 Commandments are easily secularized.  But let’s look at the first 3 Commandments (as Lutherans count them).

  1. You shall have no other Gods.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
  3. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

How do you secularize that?  How do atheists accept those?  These first 3 Commandments have to do with our relationship with God!  Now I know that Glenn Beck wants to restore the place of religion in our society but this naturally leads to some questions for me.

  1. Which god?  People in this nation worship any number of deities.  I’ll refuse to worship Glenn Beck’s god.
  2. A “generic god” is not God.  Generic prayer is not prayer.  How does this proposal reconcile the multiple deities worshiped in this country without resorting either to “establishment of religion” or so watering down the witness of God’s self-revelation that we simply become a culture that worships a generic god.

Even the last 7 Commandments are problematic if they are not addressed to a specific people with other “commentary” in sacred scripture.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.
  6. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  7. You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

Much of the advertising in this country uses coveting as a means to encourage us to purchase products, essential for the market economy we live in.  Without coveting, our economy collapses.  Of course, with unbridled covetousness, our economy  has a “bubble” then collapses.

I’d like those who advocate for the secularization of the 10 Commandments to be honest.  They really believe that the 5 Commandments are worthy of attention.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.

Oh, except that much advertising relies on false witness.  Large profits require “theft”.  Many fathers are unknown or absent.  We encourage killing in self-defense and war.  Pre-marital sexual activity is the norm.  Porn fuels an economy that influences technology.

What is our society to do?  If we were to follow the 10 Commandments, our economy would falter even more, especially if these 10 Commandments are divorced from the context in which they were given to God’s own people.

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe the 10 Commandments are valuable … within the context of a faith community.  God didn’t give these commandments to the Egyptians or any other power of the day.  God gave these commandments to the small band of people God claimed as God’s own.  These commandments set God’s people apart from the other peoples/nations.  They were/are a gift.

God’s people have shared this gift to the cultures in which we live, and where it made sense, those cultures have adopted them.  Let’s not secularize the 10 Commandments however.  Let’s let our culture borrow from many religious traditions to order society for the common good … and let our culture borrow from secular traditions to order society for the common good.  Let’s stop using religious language as if our culture and the religious tradition are one in the same.  That will only turn out poorly.