When I was about 11 years old, a friend asked, “Are you Catholic or Christian?” I bristled and with a chest puffed up in self-righteous correction, I took this as an opportunity to inform her that Catholics were in fact Christian, and although I was not Catholic, I was Christian. I’m not sure it made much of an impression on her, but I felt satisfied that I’d corrected this egregious error.
This feeling was deflated when she asked, “What kind of Christian?” and I was forced to reply, “Lutheran,” not wanting to admit that I was any particular kind of Christian. Wasn’t “Christian” enough?
Despite being the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a member of a family filled with Lutherans, I resisted the label “Lutheran.” As a child, I didn’t understand why it mattered. What seemed important to me was that I was Christian, full-stop. I worshiped every week with my family; I learned to pray; I learned Bible stories; my relationship with God went through hills and valleys. Never did I worry whether what I was experiencing or learning could be labeled “Lutheran.” (Until candidacy for ordination, that is.)
I found that claiming this label of “Lutheran” often did very little to help identify who I was and my expression of faith. I learned that “Lutheran” meant to other people things that were foreign to me.
“Lutheran” has too often been used to identify a culture that I did not grow up in and which I still usually feel a visitor to—Jell-O was not served at my church; hotdish was something my aunts made but not my faith community; coffee was just coffee. There was no such thing as “Lutheran coffee.”
I’m also comfortable around people speaking in tongues or shouting “Amen!” in service. Growing up, prayers of the people were the prayers spoken by the people in the pews. Writing out prayers for Sunday worship was a completely foreign concept to me. Was I (and my church) less Lutheran?
The cultural hang-ups of Lutheran identity were only compounded by how little I felt inclined to even worry about Lutheran identity. When looking for a church to attend in college, I cared most that I found a community that would nurture my faith and help me engage in a world outside the bubble of university. That place was non-denominational. To this day I’m grateful for their care and my relationship that continues with the pastor.
Yet, here I am, a Lutheran pastor. Is this resistance to the Lutheran label contradictory? I believe that it reflects our history. Our tradition came into being because of people who sought to better express the gospel—to be church and to be Christian. As the ELCA reflects, struggles and sometimes churns over the changing landscape of our society and church, my hope is that we would simply stop worrying about being Lutheran and focus on what it means to be the body of Christ with all its diversity.
I can guess the anxiety that might be invoked in making such a statement. It’s not my hope that we stop being concerned about theology; it is not my hope that we stop reaching into our traditions and our history; it is not my hope that we stop wrestling with where God is leading our particular church.
It is my hope that we stop treating our identity as Lutherans as first or equal to our identity as called children of God. It is my hope that we no longer treat Lutheran as a cultural identity. It is my hope that we stop worrying about whether the people in our pews or in our communities proudly declare that they are Lutheran. It is my hope that we have the humility and the wisdom to know that we do not own the concept of grace and that God is working, moving and shaking our siblings across the theological spectrum of our faith. It is my hope that we experience the powerful work of the Spirit in the words and actions of all the church.
Being Lutheran cannot be the thing to which we aspire. Being the called children of God as we understand it—well, in that there’s hope to be found.
When a youth I mentored was baptized by immersion and had the words poured over her, she was not in that moment called to be Lutheran. She did not come for prayer, worship and healing because only Lutherans knew about those things. She came because she was seeking. God answered as God always does.
As a Lutheran pastor, I am far more concerned about being with others as they seek and grow in their relationship with God than whether they understand that relationship to be “Lutheran.” I am grateful for the gifts that the Lutheran church brings, for the Spirit’s work in our church and for the gift of new life that God gives the ELCA. I am grateful to be called by God and by this church.
We should know where we come from, what traditions have helped us over centuries and what theology we believe best expresses the gospel. These things will differentiate us from other followers of Christ and will also unite us. But I believe that what we offer seeking people is not the gift of “being Lutheran” but simply the gift of the living God.