Tuesday, November 12, 2013

If I ever forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! (Psalm 137).

Israel went through cycles of remembering and forgetting.  From their time of slavery in Egypt to the exile at the hands of the Assyrians to the Babylonian exile, the people of God promised never to forget and then failed to remember.  So the strong arm of the Lord prevailed against them and the voice of the prophet called to remembrance the acts of deliverance from the past to rekindle within them the fire of repentance and call them to recall His mercy again.

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.


Anonymous said...

The sad fact is, many converts from Evangelicalism are better Lutherans than born Lutherans. What must be done when members of parishes admit these converts know more about Lutheran history and practice than they?

Janis Williams said...

It seems to be true in the Lutheran Church that there is too much looking forward (adapting to culture and being relevant), and not enough reflection on Her history.

History has become a dirty word, destined for cleaning up (revision), or to be dropped from the language entirely.

Joanne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joanne said...

Art thou he that troubleth Israel?

Unknown said...

Fellow Christians:

Really, is the "Lutheran" identity so important?

Please listen to this 35 minute audio message:
It is the first of a series of five messages named “DIY: Sharing Jesus”
You may see the entire list of messages at: http://www.stjstl.net/media/messages/
Questions or comments may be directed to me at jimdavis332@gmail.com
Or Pastor Dion Garrett at dgarrett@stjstl.net
Please and thank you

Joanne said...

All Christian groups "share Jesus." Our belief about church is that a church must have a reason to be separate from other churches. If you don't have that reason, you must dissolve and join the group or groups that do have a reason for being a separate body from the whole.

Having the true teachings of Jesus and the apostles, tolerating no false teachings, and being the true visible church on earth are the reasons we posit for being and remaining a separate group of Christians.

If Missouri forgets its Jerusalem, then we are duty bound to seek out that church, that assembly of Christians that has not forgotten.

If Missouri reduces its teachings down to just one teaching, i.e. sharing Jesus, which is certainly a core function of the church, even the one true visible church on Earth, then where is its reason (teaching) to justify being a church? Remember the bleeding doubt addressed at the Altenburg Debates about whether Missouri was still a church??

Without its purpose, Missouri has no doctrinal reason to exist. So, if Missouri is not the true visible church on Earth, then we must shut it down. If Missouri does have a reason, a teaching, to be the church, then the true church shares the whole council of God, not just the lowest common denominator of Jesus teaching. Missouri will share all that Jesus and his apostles teach us.