Sunday, May 1, 2016

Lutherans -- the odd sort. . .

Lutherans are the odd sort, so often accused of a secular or at least invisible piety.  We have seemed to the world to be a bit too comfortable in the world and maybe a bit too at ease of the world.  With brat and beer in hand and an oompah band too loud to ignore, Lutherans appear far too at ease with their seemingly shallow piety.  So it is natural that some Lutherans would react to this by adding in a piety that makes the sacred and secular distinction a bit more plain.  It also stands to reason that, although Germans might warm up to this pietism, the Scandinavian Lutherans would turn up the heat on this pietistic reaction. 

I am not at all sure that such a characterization of Lutheran piety is all that accurate or that Lutherans needed the pietism to manufacture holiness not inherent to our Confessions and worship.  In fact, I believe just the opposite.  Lutherans have a profound piety, rooted and growing from a vibrant understanding of Scripture as the living voice of God addressing His people and from a vital sacramental life in which the signs actually deliver what they sign (without a need for much in the way of explaining the mystery).  Our sacramental theology is incarnational and our liturgical theology begins and ends with Christ delivering His gifts to His people with the response of those people, at the Spirit's prompting, hidden in the midst of it all.

Luther's two kingdoms of church and state is no attempt to neatly divide sacred from secular but polar extreme of our modern penchant for the naked, secular public square and the quiet privacy of faith.  No, indeed, Luther's two kingdoms infuses both church and state with the divine presence and authority (and not in the least, accountability).  He merely attempts to distinguish them so that neither preoccupies itself with the other and therefore neglects its own domain and purpose.

In the same way, the recovery of vocation as the order of God in creation recaptured in Christ and restored to God's people in baptism reflects the same antagonism against such neat distinctions between the sacred and secular.  God's people manifest their vocation not in mimicking the role and work of the priest or pastor but in husbands devoted to their wives and wives who are devoted to their husbands, parents and children living in sacrificial service, neighbors living not merely in the world but manifesting mercy to a world that finds mercy foreign and irrational, and citizens whose duties before the law are the obedience also of faith.

Lutherans, however, are stuck between two worlds that are ever distant from each other and more and more at odds with one another. On one hand, the Lutheran finds himself within a broadly secular culture, largely suspicious and indifferent to the claims of the transcendent.  The eternal values of this culture are in counted in increasing denominations of money, pleasure, and power -- though not without some guilt or at least fear that there needs to be a spiritual character to such indulgence. We Lutherans find ourselves surrounded and outnumbered by the voices of this broadly secular culture --  in mass media, on the internet, in patterns of permitted public speech, in the social expectations of the ordinary domestic orders and institutions of society, and in the aims and operations of governments that largely do what the Christian and the Church did in the past. Lutherans living in modern America are awash in a secularity that we find disconcerting and yet strange.  Some have chosen to accept it all and redefine both church and gospel in terms of social advocacy and a changing landscape of what sexuality, family, and goodness mean.  Others are tempted to the Amish option and wish to disappear from the landscape of the world.  Some are trying to find a renewed voice through which to speak the Gospel and a renewed sense of mercy in which to live it before the world in the hopes of recalling our wayward future back to some semblance of its original order.  If nothing else, it is an attempt to preserve the presence of the divine, though different and for different purpose, in both church and state.

We have come to sound shrill and uncaring to a world already thoroughly invested in the supreme value of pleasure, the sacred gift of preference, and their peace with death.  That is not necessarily because we are this way or because the piety and obedience of faith must appear this way to the world but because this is how the world has characterized us.  Like living with the name Lutheran, this has stuck to us and it does not appear it will change soon.  Yet that cannot keep us from speaking and we must not abandon the cause of true piety -- vocation.  Living within the home as those who love others before self and manifest this love with willing sacrifice, living within the neighborhood as people of charity, mercy, and truth, and living in the nation as honest and honorable citizens will probably not win the world but it is how we live our faith.  Living within the Church with the means of grace as the fountain and source, summit and goal of our lives, we will probably always appear strange before the world but this is how we live out our faith.  With man it is impossible.  It always was.  But with God all things are possible.  More than that, God is faithful and God will do what He has promised.  This is not merely our comfort as we lick our wounds from the world's bite, it is our confidence as we persist for the faith, endure in the kingdom, and remain faithful until Christ comes in His glory to finish His new creation.


Unknown said...

I grew up Methodist. In the Methodist the minister was the "church cop." He made visits to homes where he may have caught my parents and other members of our congregation enjoying an adult beverage and some penny ante poker (Fertile Myrtle anyone?). On a Sunday afternoon the blinds were closed and doors locked in fear that Dr. Clark, our minister, may drop by. Lutherans have no such hang ups because our Pastors are not church cops. They are stewards of the mysteries of God. Big difference. Happy to have been a Lutheran pastor - I got rid of the legalism, liberated by Lutheran theology.

Mabel said...

Where I live in the South, Lutherans are a small minority, people are not quite sure just what they are. This is evident in the short story by the late Eudora Welty, "June Recital" where the local piano teacher is "the member of "some distant church with a previously unheard-of name, the Lutheran", she remains an outsider in Morgana".
Of course, the poor Lutheran woman eventually goes mad and ends up on the county farm, which was the local asylum in the good old days.