Sunday, August 28, 2011

What are the external markers that make us stand out?

That question was raised by Archbishop Dolan in the discussion of whether or not to re-institute the obligatory meatless fast on Fridays the whole year round and not just during Lent.  The subject of the fast is not the subject of this post but the thoughtful question raised in the midst of Bp Dolan's comments.  It is not one which Lutherans have escaped.  What are the external markers that make us stand out?

We Lutherans have, by most estimations, a secular piety.  We drink (moderately).  We dance (strangely).  We go to movies (when they are discounted).  We eat meat and fish (in quantities too large for our own good and not according to a church schedule).  We go to Church (most Sundays but not all, hardly ever on Wednesday or Sunday evenings).  We pray (but do not have beads).  We sit and stand in Church (but hardly ever kneel).  We confess our sins (but not very often specific sins and to the Pastor privately). We do not stand out in the world by our piety.  By most standards, we Lutherans do not do anything out of the ordinary from the rest of the population -- at least not because we are Lutheran, anyway.

In contrast to our invisible Lutheran piety, Roman Catholics (used to observe) Friday abstinence from meat; seriousness about Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; fasting on the Ember Days; saints names for children; confession at least annually; loyal membership in the local parish; fasting for three hours before Holy Communion; wear veils (women, anyway), etc.  Compare us to the Baptists who (used to) abstain from alcohol, dancing, movies, makeup (on women), go to Church 2-3 times a week, etc.  Now, I will grant you that other denominations are finding that they too blend in more and more to the secular world around them but it is a worthy question.  What are the external markers that make us stand out as Lutherans?

I guess we are moderates -- hardly extreme about anything.  Though this is not necessarily a good thing.  So it is our moderation that stands us apart -- we will indulge in nearly everything (as long as we do not overly indulge or we will not be found out for indulging).  Hmmmm.... Not exactly what I would hope for as an answer.

I would venture to say that Lutherans in the 16th-17th centuries did stand out.  Read the schedule of services and it seems that Lutherans were in Church all the time.  Matins, Mass, Vespers... these were the normal markers of our common life together as the people of God.  But that is not the case today.  In my search for the things that would stand out, I guess the catechism is probably one marker of our piety that we truly do share in common and that defines us in an external way.

Lutherans are Law - Gospel people.  We have Walther's book and Luther's insight but as much as I would like to claim this, I am not so sure that our people can clearly identify Law from Gospel or even define the terms.  This probably goes back to our failings in the paragraph below.  We have not been as deliberately catechetical as we think and it has begun to show -- in the pulpit as well as the pew.

We are means of grace people.  We believe that God is accessible and that He comes to us as He has promised in the Word and the Sacraments.  These frame our identity and our piety.  It is more the under girding than the deliberate conversation of Lutherans and, this too is a problem for us.  We have willingly flirted with people who do not believe in the means of grace (evangelical and fundamentalists) and we are reluctant sometimes to even admit our sacramental piety.  But it is there... buried a bit and underused but it is there.

We as Lutherans seem to own the question, "what does this mean?"  I am not so sure we own the answers as deeply or as confidently but we do own the question.  This is a good question for our time and I believe one worthy of more opinions than mine.  So if you will think about it and posit some answers in the comments section, I would be very interested in what you have to say.


Sage said...

I think we are moderates as you say, but the moderation these days is born from participating in the ecumenical tidal wave that has taken over Christianity in the past 40 years or so. Fitting in and not attracting attention to yourself has been the motto for the conservatives.

I agree that there has been much piety lost between then and now. When I studied the early Lutheran church, it was so much more involved than what we see today. I was curious why it had fallen out of favor (the practices) today. There are a handful of churches who do try and intergrate more times of worship but that's about it. Unless today's pastors inform the laity what they are missing and slowly introduce the concepts we will continue on as we are, much to our detriment.

I was shocked when I attended the mid-week Lenten services at my church and the few who attended were basically the elders and their families. To me, it was a time to soak in what the Lord had done for me, one of the most special moments in the church year. Good Friday the whole place was packed as was Easter, but that was expected. I think the laity believe they've heard it all, seen it all and don't need the reinforcement of continuous gospel and law to keep pointing them to the Lord.

We are lazy bellies to put it mildly, doing just enough to get by (we hope). Perhaps it's time for a pietistic revolution again? The problem with pendulum's is they swing too far either direction. We are 90 degrees to the left when we need to be at top dead center.

Pastor's are somewhat held hostage by their congregations in practice so it's an uphill battle, but it is achieveable. Enough reminders and discussion will slowly lead the sheep away from the thornbushes and back into green pastures. Right now, the sheep are blissfully ignorant and content to suffer from malnourishment. We can pray and help to convict those around us to wake up to the need, necessity of proper piety and our utter sinfulness that is not getting dealt with a few hours on Sunday.

Anonymous said...

The premise that our piety must
stand out is wrong. In his public
ministry Christ nailed the Pharisees
for their outward show of piety and
nothing in their hearts.

Today, it is possible to have a
meaningful relationship with Christ
through Word and Sacrament. Our
heart needs to have a deep love for
Christ and our fellowman. To have
Christ like-humility is needed.

James said...

I'd argue Lutherans have an identify of providing solid Christian education (k-12) to Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike. I was a product of a LCMS school. I was taught by godly teachers and pastors. I have read where Lutheran churches have the second largest number of organized religious schools behind the Roman Catholics. I don't know if this is true but there were many Lutheran schools near my childhood home in Michigan.

Iranaeus said...

Prayerfully, what makes a Lutheran "stick out" is his or her commitment in word and deed to the pillars of the Reformation: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura. And where there is no such commitment, or a misplaced or errant commitment: Semper Reformanda.

Anonymous said...

To quote Garrison Keillor:

I'm a Lutheran

"We are a modest people
And we never make a fuss
And it sure would be a better world
If they were all as modest as us.
We do not go for whooping it up,
Or a lot of yikkety-yak.
When we say hello, we avert our eyes
And we always sit in the back.
We sit in the pew where we always sit,
And we do not shout Amen.
And if anyone yells or waves their hands,
They're not invited back again."