Tuesday, November 12, 2013
If I ever forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! (Psalm 137).
Psalm 137 is the song of the exiles. They sat in their tears remembering Zion, their songs stolen by their captors, and their situation a scandal to them. In the midst of it all their longing hearts sang "how shall we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land? And, if I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither..."
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
The situation of an immigrant people in a strange land is mirrored from place to place and from time to time. I wrote a post a while ago attempting to suggest that Lutherans have struggled with the same thing -- how to sing the Lord's song in a new land. As an immigrant people whose language, culture, and religion was not an easy fit in America, Lutherans were left with a couple of choices. They could either live in isolation from the people around them or integrate more fully into the American culture. For a long time they lived in ethnic, religious, and cultural ghettos in the upper Midwest, for example, and a goodly segment of the Lutherans in America did not fully emerge until after the two World Wars. Some of the, of course, had become thoroughly American long before. But this was a journey in which there was as much loss as there was gain.
With the switch in language and adoption of the culture and values of a new land, Lutherans found it challenging to both distinguish between the cultural identity of their ethnic heritage and their confessional identity as Lutherans. Sometimes they confused and conflated the two. Sometimes they surrendered items that were part of their Lutheran identity while maintaining parts of their cultural and ethnic heritage that should have been expendable.
When it comes to matters of worship, this challenge was especially difficult. From the beginning of their time in America Lutherans found new challenges to the theology and practice of the Lutheran Confessions. Some of these were due to a shortage of clergy. Some of these were due to a distinctly anti-catholic bias among much of the American populace. Some of these were due to the pressure to look, act, and sound more like the Protestant landscape of America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Walther and the Saxons spoke pointedly about the character of some of the Lutheranism they found in America -- in which liturgical, confessional, and doctrinal integrity had been all too willingly surrendered until Lutherans were ill at ease and even ashamed of their catholic confessional identity and heritage. So it has always been a process of recovery that has accompanied the Lutheran journey in America and one in which a constant battle has raged between essentials and non-essentials in doctrine, worship, and practice.
Some of those debates have resulted in great moments of recovery and achievement (I am thinking here of things like the Galesburg rule on Lutheran altars and pulpits or the Common Service). Some of those have been moments of retreat and surrender (here I think of the American revision of the Augsburg Confession by Schmucker and the recent actions of some Lutherans with respect to sexuality and marriage).
There have also been moments in which it has been easier to be Lutheran in America and times in which it has been more difficult to retain the confessional integrity of our Lutheran identity and some measure of uniformity of its consequent practice. In the 1950s Lutherans were more unified theologically, liturgically, and confessionally than Lutheran are today. What we could afford to ignore or take more casually then is not a luxury easily affordable today when Lutheran identity is stretched by conflicting extremes and is often more local than synodical or national.
Many Lutherans have sat and wept at the waters of debate, conflict, schism, and bitterness when internal and inter-Lutheran disputes have torn our unity and made our relationships not only difficult but antagonistic. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land (though now our adopted home) remains a burning question to Lutherans today -- though one answered in significantly different ways by the ELCA, LCMS, WELS, ELS, etc...
My point in this blog is to challenge us not to forget who we are nor to allow ourselves to be intimidated by culture, society, or a liberal Christian landscape which is too often uncomfortable with doctrine and rubric. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Our heritage and our legacy as Lutherans is nothing if we forget who we are. Every time we forget, we must be reminded and those who remind us are like the prophets who call us not only to remember but to recover what we lost or surrendered. As irritating as those voices are, we cannot afford to ignore them.