By bronze age Missourians, I mean those whose understanding of the faith and whose practice was shaped by what many in Missouri call our heyday -- the 1910s-1940s. Those were the days when we were growing as a Synod, had an abundance of men training to be pastors, had many parochial schools, had many women and men training to be called teachers, and we were mostly in the same lane when it came to doctrine and practice (especially worship). Those are the things that folks miss in the uncertain days like today when we are not growing, when our parishes are getting smaller, when we are short of men in Seminary and both women and men in training to be teachers, when we are closing schools instead of opening them, when we are not united in doctrine or in practice (especially worship). I get that. Believe you me, I wish we had some of that back as well.
When I mean, however, is that however good the times were for us, we were not exactly the best Lutherans when it comes to the markers laid out by the Augustana. We had abolished the Mass. Most of our parishes had the Sacrament only quarterly and we can all agree that it had long ago stopped being the center of our focus for the Divine Service or our individual piety. We had abolished private confession. There was hardly a passing reference to it in the edition of Luther's Small Catechism used at the time. Our pastors and our parishes were islands, distant from their community and neighbors -- more known for their isolation than for their connection. We did not emphasize our baptismal identity but focused more on a faith that gave intellectual assent to propositions (or proof texts) from the Scriptures. We were out of touch with our past and presumed it was as monolithic as we were at the time. We defined the faith more by what we were against than what we were for -- never a good thing. We were deeply suspicious of other Christians and held our Roman Catholic neighbors in deep contempt. We ran our congregations like democratic institutions -- voting on matters that were in the domain of the Pastor and the Word of God and then insisting we were not.
We thought we knew what Luther looked like and what Lutherans were but we had barely scratched the Book of Concord or looked beyond our own experience growing up to define such things. Luther wore a black Geneva gown, had the Sacrament quarterly, tossed out private confession (along with the Book of James), told us that German was the perfect language for academic theology, and that it was better to have no piety at all than an external one. None of this is true, of course. I grew up with an great extended family which was formed in such a time. My father questioned me but never questioned the pastor who confirmed him. It was only when I got him the handy tool of the Readers Edition of the Book of Concord that he read outside the lines. At first he did not believe this was what we confessed and then began to be angry. He had been taught that to come to the Sacrament was a solemn ordeal centered in the confession of our sins more than the communication of their forgiveness. Like him, I experienced a new birth of Lutheranism much more positive than my catechetical upbringing as I began to read, learn, and be taught in preparation for the pastoral ministry. Unlike some of the people in my age group, I was not rebelling against the music or the reverence or the doctrine but that we had passed on a glimpse of Lutheranism that was not authentic to the bigger picture and then had declared it to be the only true Lutheranism.
While some might insist that my view of such things is skewed by my own experience, I have found many commonalities on the East Coast, in the South, and throughout the Mid-West where I have lived, studied, and served. I am not condemning the people -- they were taught as their pastors taught them. What I am condemning is the idea that Lutheranism in its past and its best form for the future looks like snapshot of those times. We were certainly not Lutheran lite but we were Lutherans with blinders on -- blinders to our own catholic perspective as the Augustana puts it and to what we were really reforming. Why is it that Luther and the Lutherans of the first couple of hundred years were willing to keep what the Lutherans of that period would fight and die to prevent? When did the half mass that ended at the offering become the norm for a Church that had insisted we celebrate the Lord's Supper every Lord's Day and every other day people desire to receive it? When did a sense of liturgical minimalism define how we saw not only the Divine Service but even the shape of our individual piety?
If the contemporary worship movement has spawned confusion and distorted our Lutheran identity, then so has the myth that Lutherans everywhere and always have looked like the bronze age Missourians of our past. This is not a matter of choosing one or the other. This is about the rediscovery of the vibrant, careful, and catholic Confessions of our Church. It is about seeing the hymnal as a minimal Sunday morning expression of what it means to be Lutheran while also affirming that there is a rich history of ceremony that adds to the basic rubrics of the Divine Service as it has been published among us. It is about a personal and individual piety that is not me 'n Jesus against the world or the Bible as inspirational sentiment but about my life no longer mine as it is born of baptismal water, of a vocation and not simply a secular life with a Sunday morning component, and of the Eucharist as the heart and center of our weekly gathering. It is about the Scriptures not as book of facts or ideas but the living voice of God who still speaks and addresses us with the words of life -- words that do not have truth because we give them truth or meaning because we define them but efficacious words that do what they say every time they speak. It is about a worldview shaped by our baptismal life in Christ fed, nourished, and directed by the Word and the Eucharist -- and not simply a more religious or conservative version of what happens outside the Church. It is about being able to affirm what we confess and not simply negate the wrongs in our culture, society, and nation.
For example, can any Lutheran actually say why marriage is so important, why marriage between a man and a woman is so important, and why children are so important -- instead of simply saying why divorce and cohabitation are bad or marriage should not be redefined for other genders and sexual preferences or why to have or not have children is a private decision for the couple to make and to practice by any means of birth control? If we cannot affirm the positive in God's order, how dare we speak at all! And this goes for much of the faith. If being Lutheran only matters in terms of what we are not (not Baptists or Roman Catholics), something is wrong. I grew up on the tail of the bronze age and I did not know why we worshiped as we did, why the family was the shape of the home, community, and the church, whether the Bible was an encyclopedia of knowledge or a book of rules for living or faith propositions to be believed. I knew I was Lutheran but did not know how to explain my Lutheranism except that I was not something else. That is what failed us from that era. Perhaps it did not matter as profoundly as it matters today that we could not answer these questions but I can tell you this, Missouri will not find renewal in trying to return to the earlier decades of the twentieth century anymore than she will find renewal trying to keep up with the rapid pace of change we find today.
If you are offended by my comments, I am sorry. I hope you are challenged by them to look deeper and give answer in a positive sense to the hope that is in you and to the shape of your life together around the Word and Table of the Lord and individually as you live out what it means to be a baptized child of God.