There will be an answer...

Copyright 2011 Lutheran University Press. This essay will be published by Lutheran University Press in a book entitled Sources of Authority in the Church.
A poem inspired by Genesis 4, the story of humanity's first child. It's entitled "Without You."1

Back before the dawn,
     east of envy, error or wrong,
     that's where I wish to be.

I want to walk a land sans time,
Where harmonies and life still rhyme,
Without a past that haunts my soul,
Where no one dies and Abel's whole,
     where I belong again.

A mark burns on my brow,
     imprisons me in now,
     robs all possibility.

The brand was given me in love,
Forgiveness breathed by winds above.
I can't be killed, nor can I live,
Without a tie to what I did.
     I stalk the in-between.

City streets of Nod,
     furtive glances, small iPod,
     what hope is there for me?

I. Companions on the Journey
"You have heard that it was said... but I say to you...."

[1] I grew up in Seattle. My father taught law at the University of Washington. My mother was a speech pathologist doing research with special needs children, also at the university. Language was important to both of them and if I had a dime for every time I was told, "Words have meaning, use them carefully." I would be a rich man.

There will be an answer... by Dave Brauer-Rieke

[2] Not surprisingly, perhaps, language was often the focus of dinner conversations at our house. "How would you use that word in a sentence?" my mother might ask. Or Dad, "What other meanings or connotations does that term have?" And off we would go, the family diving into delightful debate, until... until Dad decided we had talked enough. Then he would reach over to the sacred resource library sitting on the kitchen counter next to the dinner table.

[3] The sacred resource library contained all those books needed for daily life. There were several dog eared copies of outdated church directories, a Betty Crocker cookbook, the family Bible, a phone book and, of course, the dictionary. So, when the time was right, Dad would pick up the dictionary, turn to the word in question and read to us exactly what he had been saying all along. I swear the man read the book for entertainment!

[4] One day, though, things changed and the world spun off its axis.

[5] One day, as Dad began to read the various meanings of a word under discussion, a look of distress, abject horror and begrudging pride began to creep over his face. Surprisingly, what he read matched more closely with what my brother was advocating than what he himself had suggested. The impossible had happened. Apparently Dad was wrong.

[6] Time stopped. The family as a whole slipped into some strange, kairotic time warp. Like those few seconds before a car wreck, we all hung suspended in eternity, focused on my father, each thinking to himself, "What does this mean?" and "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" As we watched and wondered, no longer rooted in reality, Dad slowly closed the dictionary and slipped it back into its slot in the sacred resource library. Then he said, "Mr. Webster is wrong about that one!"

[7] Humor. Graciousness. A teachable moment. The point of such dinner conversations was, of course, never who was right or who was wrong. We never assigned personal value, respect or moral appropriateness to matters of understanding or perspective. No one left the family. There were always greater goals in mind, such as education, engagement, the formation of young minds, insight, the multiplication of possibilities and, of course, the building of one's vocabulary. Mr. Webster was a respected member of the family, as was the Apostle Paul and Luke, but there can be no one right answer to what a word means, or how a Bible verse is understood. Language, like the Gospel itself, lives and breathes. It grows and shapes us even as we shape it. Sources of authority are "partners on the journey," kin in the great adventure of life. This is what I was taught growing up in a loving, Lutheran, legal, linguistic home.

"What is truth?"

II. All other ground

"Built on a rock...."

[8] Eight years of Lutheran higher education did nothing to dissuade me of this understanding. In point of fact, it only reinforced it. However, finally called to pastor a small, rural congregation in eastern Oregon I began to see that real people in the real world do not necessarily think this way.

[9] Authorities are anchors and footholds. We depend on doctors for health. Lawyers and judges enforce the law. The Bible tells us how to be good and, if we fail, the Bible assures us that Jesus loves us anyway. Government is responsible for roads and wars. In theory we should let the politicians do their jobs and we, in turn, should be left alone to do ours.

[10] Authorities are fixed points of reference which the river of life washes over and around. They are the 'rock of our salvation' upon which wise people build. Stream beds and boulders are designed by God to keep life in check because life, don't you know, is a dangerous and unpredictable ride. God, of course, is the only ultimate authority, but earthly systems echo divine prerogative. They should be respected and obeyed. This is what I learned pastoring good, hardworking, honest people in a small town in eastern Oregon. It is a wholesome and healthy perspective, different, but not inconsistent with what I had learned as a child.

[11] Nonetheless, metaphorically speaking, when residents of Minot, North Dakota. watch the waters of the Souris River scale their homes; or when hurricanes, floods, heat waves and tornadoes invade the south; or as snowmelt from the Cascade Mountains combines with runoff from receding glaciers, rushing down the Columbia River, washing rocks we thought would never move downstream; when — metaphorically speaking — our anchors or footholds shift, we become anxious and uncertain.

"This also is vanity and vexation of spirit."

III. Betrayal

"Thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived."6

[12] "Can the authorities get me a job so I can feed my family?" "Is there anyone I can trust, who cares as much about me and mine as them and theirs?" "Where is 'justice' to be found in a world where poverty pools at the feet of power, and race, gender, citizenship and sexual orientation continue to define possibilities?"

[13] I have been asked as one of the Evangelical Lutheran bishops in North America what questions I think people in our churches have about authorities and sources of authority. This is what I hear.

[14] We live in a Grover Norquist/Harold Camping/Glenn Beck sort of world. Individual agendas, despair, distrust and the accumulation of past failures lead many to blame, disengage or react against power. Authorities today are often viewed not only as untrustworthy, but forces to target for overthrow. Be it Viet Nam or Watergate, climate change, health care or shifting social and religious morals, many people feel not only confused, but actively betrayed by those in authority. From school board meetings to international affairs, in both political and religious realms, distrust and the absence of civil discourse marks our day.

[15] I suggest, however, that it is not the authoritative structures which are at fault. It is not that people as a whole seek thoughtlessly to undermine social stability. The problem is the raging river. It is the pace of change in our 21st century world which has us all in a tailspin.

[16] Over the past few decades we have come to talk about paradigm shifts, post-modern sensibilities, "truthiness," Wiki information and "Third Places." We struggle to find words for what we are just beginning to understand. People today are called to process terabytes of information through authorities and institutions designed for AM radio. We haven't got the bandwidth. The resulting systems failures take all forms, and who knew that a penny in the fuse box wouldn't fix the problem anymore? For that matter, what's a fuse box and why would you want one?

[17] Our world is out of sync with itself. We are not all having the same conversation, much less at the same time or in the same way. Confusion among authorities is not the issue. It is a symptom. The challenge is change. Our fiber optics are all crossed. We observe this reality and say we have a problem, and were they wires we would have, but they're not — and the mess is not necessarily a problem. Things are just different.

[18] "Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?"7 Jesus asks. The answer, of course, is "Yes." Yes we have eyes, but I just don't see it. Yes we have ears, but nobody is asking me. Like the disciples before us, we seem unable to disengage from business as usual in any healthy or wholesome way, although we must. We feel betrayed because our sin, or maybe just reality, or maybe even the promises of God, have caught up with us. Nobody asked me, though. Why didn't I get the memo?

"Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

IV. Self-authenticating Authority

"What then shall we say to this?"

[19] When people hold their Bibles high as a shield against the power of the Word, it is a sure sign that God is at work. Our knowledge of the world grows and wanders. Sometimes it floods its own banks, leaving devastation in the wake of new direction. We understand the truth of this, but it is difficult to ride the waves.

[20] In addition, today we live in a truly global society. The many streams of teaching and tradition the human family holds now meet. The result is both wonder and awe, and an unprecedented confluence of fear and fanaticism. Many are tired of too much challenge in too little time. Some fall passive. Others react with vengeance. Confusion reigns.

[21] Lutheranism, however, was birthed out of the cauldron of change. Lutherans understand the power of the Word as one which comes to us as both Law and Gospel. Authority is dynamic, confronting, and fluid. It has to be. Furthermore, the power of the Word does not depend upon our own agency or approval. It is its own reality.

[22] The Law, of course, is not rules or virtues, ethics or morals. It is the relentless press of truth upon our consciousness. The Law is the swelling Mississippi River and the devastation of the Gulf Coast. It is the condemnation of the rich by the dislocation and disease of the poor. The Law is the diminution of a church seeking survival rather than the Spirit, or propriety rather than prophecy. One need neither preach nor press the Law upon the world, for it is self-authenticating. Its truth is evident to any with eyes to see or ears to hear. Its judgments are sure. Still, as faithful servants of God we do preach, and the Law is made known through our words as well as our experience.

[23] There is also a companion power, or authority, which sequesters away what the Law unearths. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unlike the Law, the Gospel must be preached because it cannot be seen on weather maps, or read on pickets of prejudice and pain. Like the Law, however, the Gospel is self-authenticating, for where the Word of Life and deeds of healing come together there is always truth. If my gay child is welcomed in your church, or ghettos filled with "illegal immigrants" are lifted up, or the Muslims in our midst are prayed with, and not just for — where such things happen good news is preached and the hungry are not turned away.

[24] What do people believe about the sources of authority in our world today? When I ask, people tell me they do not care what the Church says, or what Congress debates, because words are cheap and powers lie. They, and we, remain unconvinced by authorities we do not trust and no longer subscribe to. And if that were not enough, for many, among the least trustworthy of all authorities is the Church, which is believed to have suppressed innocent people and justified the rape of our world, if not our person. People do not care about our hymns or our organs or our liturgies or our theology because such things do not touch the depths of their lives, where they bleed and beg and break.

[25] However, a Gospel which embraces humanity; a people willing to become less so that those they have made little might become more; a Church risking death to make room for new life; in this there is power.

[26] And if Jesus is these things; if Jesus is compassion and care; if Jesus is acceptance and anger; if Jesus buries brokenness in dignity and delight; if such a thing exists; if such a Savior lives; "I'm listening."

[27] The floods of truth in our present day are indeed disconcerting. We all see them, and from what angle we observe the carnage hardly matters. When the raging waters of change dig too deep and dislodge too much, we all run.

[28] But the time has come to stop blaming the rocks and cursing the earthquakes. Where Christ reigns there is always wholeness and hope. For a season the sources of authority in our world may be untrusted, and perhaps even untrustworthy. Yet the Source of Authority which lives in, with and under our everyday experience, which verifies Love or reveals our lovelessness, this Authority can be shunned, but not shamed. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ can be denied, but not defeated. This is a truth people in our churches also know. It is who we are. In the Gospel's embrace we rest and work with certainty and joy.

[29] I live in Cascadia, the Pacific Northwest, a bio-region defined more or less by the tributaries and turns of the Columbia River. Here the forests and farm lands of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Idaho are all united in one purpose and process. The Cascade Mountains, studded as they are with snowcapped volcanic peaks, nonetheless take their name from the fact that waters cascade and thunder down their rocky cliffs almost everywhere you look. Rivers don't flow in my world as much as they seep, scour and sculpt. As a "first article" proclamation they also bear an authority which has shaped my life. I close with a poem inspired by their beauty and the promises of Revelation 22. It is entitled, "When Rivers Roar."10

Meandering majesty
Welling up from the throne of God
Thundering down Main Street
Terraforming time

A river
The river of the water of life
Transparent testimony
Parsing possibilities

Water and life
Bounds and bars broken
The separated now the separator
     Empire and arrogance rent asunder
     Certainty and certitude cleaved in two
     Soul and spirit

Compassionate chaos
Spanning here and there
Fruits of healing
     The new
     The now
     The necessary

Amen and Amen
Come Lord Jesus
Let it be Lord
Let it be

Dave Brauer-Rieke is Bishop of the Oregon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.




1. Brauer-Rieke, Dave, "Without You," 2005. (Unpublished poem based on Genesis 4)

2. Matthew 5:21ff, New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

3. John 18:38 NRSV

4. Grundtvig, Nikolai F.S., "Built on a Rock" Lyrics. tr. Carl Doving, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

5. Ecclesiastes 2:26, King James Version Bible, Public Domain.

6. Jeremiah 20:7 KJV

7. Mark 8:18 NRSV

8. Luke 21:28 NRSV

9. Romans 8:31, Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

10. Brauer-Rieke, Dave, "When Rivers Roar," 2011. (Unpublished poem based on Revelation 22)


© September 2011
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 11, Issue 5