I get asked from time to time: “What made you decide to become a pastor?” Not as often now as when I was preparing for ordination and interviewing with call committees. And that’s good, because my answers keep getting more blurry and shapeless as time goes on. The day is coming when all I’ll be able to muster in response to that question is a shrug and a resigned wave of the hand.

But I noticed something funny. As I became less and less articulate about my faith journey, I found myself more and more attentive to the things I was actually doing, and the people I was doing them with: speaking and hearing strange, ancient words; washing new believers with water; and breaking bread and pouring wine that is the body and blood of Christ. These are strange things to do! They are unaccustomed and awkward. They can seem pointless or even shocking.

But even as an ordinary, modern secular person, I came to love them to the point of obsession. I watch other people who are just as comfortable in the modern world as I am being moved and transformed by them too.

For my book Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance (Eerdmans, 2018), I didn’t want to write an argument for adopting Christian faith (although I’ve participated in plenty of such arguments) or even for becoming a Lutheran specifically. Instead, it’s an account of what Christians do together and why it still matters.

Sacred Signposts follows Martin Luther’s list of the seven “holy possessions” of the Christian church, from his treatise “On the Councils and the Church”:

  1. The word of God, which addresses us with infinite demands and promises unconditional grace, provoking faith and courting disbelief.
  2. Baptism, which drowns sin and unites us into one body across lines of ethnicity, gender, class and history.
  3. The sacrament of the altar, which creates union with Christ and with each other, beyond all boundaries the world puts up between us.
  4. Confession and absolution, which names and releases the sins of individuals and the world.
  5. Ministry, which sets rather ordinary people apart to celebrate all these possessions for the sake of the group, and to stand as a sign of God’s unaccountable grace to the world.
  6. Prayer, praise and worship, which take time and labor away from the world and allow us to envision and experience God’s kingdom.
  7. The holy cross, which reveals God for us in suffering, and compels us to identify with all who are unjustly exploited, injured or persecuted.

I chose to write about Luther’s “holy possessions” because they offer us a way to be faithful in our communities and bold in facing the world beyond them amid all that anxiety.

Luther felt obligated to explain how a Christian could know and trust that he or she was in the real church of Jesus Christ. Instead of focusing on history or philosophical principles, he talked about the possessions Christians enact together. I thought that was important, and that we could learn from it today.

Arguments change, but the practices we inhabit together keep right on going. They shape us, and they even shape the world around us, whether we notice it or not. They show us, over and over again, that the world doesn’t need to be the way it appears to us now, and we don’t have to be what we have always been.

It seems to me that Christians today are experiencing a double anxiety. We see a world becoming more and more “secular” or “post-Christian,” and we worry about the church’s future. At the same time, we see a world that is having its own crises, and we worry about the future of everything else we know.

I chose to write about Luther’s “holy possessions” because they offer us a way to be faithful in our communities and bold in facing the world beyond them amid all that anxiety.

We can embrace our weird, gross, ambivalent words, acts and deeds, and our radically imperfect communities deeply and fervently. And we can do this without either closing ourselves off from a world that seems to be “post-Christian,” or letting go of our oddities and the grace they impart, little by little.

That’s my hope, anyway. It’s a hope that has been nurtured by Luther’s endless arguments and bursts of beautiful praise. It’s been nurtured by walking with my fellow Lutherans through the challenges of our lives and the world we want so badly to protect and care for. God’s gifts are sufficient and already present among us. Our only task is to grasp them, cherish them and follow where they lead us.

Benjamin J. Dueholm
Dueholm is a pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Ill. His book Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance was released in July 2018.

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