What does it mean? (To live Lutheran, that is!)
"Luther, Lefse and the Lutheran Book of Worship: What Does It Mean?" That was the "catchy" title of a six-week class I led about 10 years ago, intended as a follow-up to a new member/disciple class in my congregation.
As it turned out, a number of people came, including some who had been attending the congregation for many years. They came with their own questions about the essence of being Lutheran and whether they still fit in even though they had never eaten lefse nor memorized the Small Catechism as a child.
Living Lutheran is, for me, something that can’t be summed up by one’s ethnic heritage, or foods from "the old country," or even any particular worship book or musical style.
My own particular Lutheran background was heavily influenced by growing up in a Southern city in which church potluck suppers meant fried chicken and barbecue rather than hotdish and lefse (which I never heard of until in my thirties!).
No, living Lutheran means two things which have been a constant for me from then until now.
Questions. Lots and lots of questions.
And grace. Sheer undeserved, overwhelming, unstinting grace.
The questions, of course, include both the ones I ask and the ones asked of me. I grew up being asked versions of the quintessential Lutheran question: "What does this mean?"
Friends would ask why my church baptized babies, or used alcohol in communion, or had a huge stained-glass crucifix over the altar.
What did it mean that I was getting confirmed, and was I born again?
And that, I am convinced, has led to a lifetime of asking questions myself. Sometimes I get answers. Sometimes, I don’t. And sometimes, the answers I receive don’t satisfy me.
I keep coming back with more questions or the same basic question rephrased. I bring these questions into classes and meetings, into assembly discussions and council deliberations.
"What does it mean?" I ask. Does this proposed statement really say what it ought to say? Does this wording in this liturgy really convey the things we believe?
Does this great new idea really reflect what we know of the God made known to us in Christ crucified and raised from the dead?
Luther’s basic question, "What does this mean," which is repeated throughout his Small Catechism, gives me permission to ask these questions, even when my questions put people on edge. Questions and the folks who ask them tend to do that.
We push, we prod, we dig and pick and burrow. We go back into the past hunting for precedents and background, while projecting scenarios into the future.
"What if we change this, what will it mean? What if we retrieve that, what might that do?"
Questions are viewed as a form of objecting, of raising arguments. Why can’t I just go along with the program? Why don’t I just take my questions and go away?
To live Lutheran doesn’t just mean asking questions of those around me, in this church and in my community; it also means asking God the two big questions: "What does this mean?" and "Why?"
How can I dare to do that? How can I dare to question God? Because I believe I live in God’s grace. I can ask questions, even ugly, rude and audacious questions, because I am not afraid of what God might do to me, the one asking such things.
I’ve been claimed as God's precious child through baptism. I’ve been saved by the blood of the Lamb. I’ve been redeemed while I was yet a sinner.
I didn’t earn it by the things I do; I didn’t believe my way into God’s good standing.
God has overwhelmed me with the grace that comes as a free gift with no strings attached, and nothing and no one can take that away from me.
So I can blast my ugly, impolite, demanding questions at God. I can lay all the unfairness and injustice of the world before God, with accusations of God’s complicity in those situations.
I can complain about what I see as the hypocrisies and wrongs in the Christian church, and in my own corner of that institution.
I can pour out my soul in lament for wrong choices, hardness of heart, and foolish pride and ignorance, that of others as well as myself.
I may not get answers. My questions may not have answers. But I do get God, listening. I receive grace, whether I deserve it or not.
And I am assured that, for some of us, living Lutheran through our persistent, unrelenting questions is exactly what we are called to do.