My nearly 102 year old grandmother died last week.
The last time we had regular conversation was 10 years ago, before she began losing her memory. She often asked me if I was going to be a Lutheran pastor. My answers repeatedly, and resoundingly, disappointed her.
Some context: my grandmother was baptized, confirmed and raised Lutheran, married a Swedish immigrant in a Lutheran church, was involved in various women’s circles, and finally had her funeral in the same Lutheran church. For my grandmother, when Jesus said he was the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) those three things were found only in a Lutheran church, and none other. A Christianity outside of the Lutheran church? Unthinkable.
As I grew older, I eventually shed the Lutheranism (ELCA) of my youth. It was increasingly theologically liberal, socially progressive and seemingly devoid of an explicit gospel message, often displaced by fuzzy theology and entertainingly cute stories. This was the Lutheranism I remember—“Luther-lite,” one that Luther himself would scantly recognize. The years have taken a greater toll on the ELCA, and I have little hope things will improve.
But however valid my concerns for the ELCA, my grandmother’s passing provides fitting occasion to articulate what I did appreciate from my Lutheran heritage:
- Liturgy: Every week out of that forest green hymnal we had a rhythm of corporate confession of sin and pardon, affirmation of the faith, etc.
- Creeds: Every week we corporately recited the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed.
- Hymnody: Instead of singing contemporary praise songs (quite popular in the 70’s with the Jesus Movement), we sang traditional and well-known hymns, many of them with theological fiber.
- Weekly Communion: The significance of the Lord’s Supper was unmistakable. I even took a class on Communion’s importance, albeit from a distinctly Lutheran perspective.
- Catechism: I was taught the essentials of the faith in Sunday School and Confirmation. Here is where I learned the biblical narrative rife with compelling stories, along with core biblical content.
I did these things weekly. Yes, at times they became rote. And I’m unsure how many of the congregants really believed what we were doing, saying, singing and praying. However, in hindsight I see how the Lord used my growing up Lutheran, even with all of my present misgivings, to lay basic yet crucial building blocks that would later be honed and refined.
And even though I’m no longer Lutheran, many of the above attributes are things I highly nvalue today, albeit from a (chastened) Reformed perspective: liturgy, creeds, hymnody, weekly Communion and catechism. Indeed, many evangelical churches would do well to incorporate the best of these aspects into the fabric of their church life, without fearing that they will end up Lutheran or like any of the other liberal mainline denominations. (With due apologies to any Missouri Synod readers, who are screaming “Don’t forget about us! We’re Lutheran too!”)
So as I lay down to bed for the night, with my Luther bobblehead doll keeping watch on my burgeoning bookshelf, I thank God for my grandmother and for the best aspects of Lutheranism she embodied.
And I also pray that the Lutheran church she knew and loved will remember, repent and return not only to Luther’s primary tenets of justification by faith alone by grace alone, in Christ alone and the primacy of the Scriptures, but to Luther’s Christ, who is the only way, the truth and the life—for all of us.
Even for this former Lutheran.