Reading Charlie’s blog pointed me at a debate (I’ll use polite words) between a Calvinist and a Lutheran. I’m vaguely familiar with the Calvinist; the Lutheran is someone I’ve met personally and I’ve even fixed his computer and on one or two occasions ate lunch with him.
I’m going to keep my diatribe simple. Very simple. Because I fall somewhere in between the two of them. (But I am Lutheran.)I’m Lutheran because of doctrine. Period. I don’t give a rip about Lutheran tradition. I’m not a 16th-century German. I’m an American of Scottish, English, and Irish descent with just a little German in me. Jesus wasn’t German and neither am I, so there’s nothing sacred to me about German traditions. If a church hocked its pipe organ and used the proceeds to buy bagpipes, I’d try to turn a cartwheel.
Music is one of the first things people notice about a church. So I fall in the camp that the music ought to be something that people can relate to. If the people who live around the church happen to be 16th century Germans, well, Martin Luther had an answer: Pipe organs, and sing in German. Novel idea. It worked. If the people around you are Scottish nationalists, then bagpipes would be a good idea. If the people around you are 30something 21st-century Americans, then it makes sense to consider guitars and drums. At my church last Sunday, horror of horrors, they actually used a Leonard Cohen song with Christianized lyrics as a hymn.
So, to some Lutherans, that makes me a Calvinist. And I do have some experience with Calvinism.
It was at a retreat sponsored by a Calvinist non-denominational organization (Great Commission Ministries) that I sang in church for the first time in nearly a decade. It was at that same retreat that God actually felt real for the first time in more than a decade. I suppose some Lutherans would call this a neo-Pentecostal movement because they talked about the Holy Spirit. Lutherans don’t talk about the Holy Spirit very much. It makes them uncomfortable.
I have to agree with the Lutheran that Calvinists tend to keep Jesus on the bench a little too much. But Lutherans keep the Holy Spirit on the bench too much.
And it’s not like the message at that retreat was emphasizing speaking in tongues or anything like that. I guess the reason he got through to me on that Sunday afternoon was because I’m a guy, and the Holy Spirit he presented was a tool. Plug the Fruits of the Spirit into you, and you see what’s wrong. If you read the fruits of the spirit and you don’t see you, then that means God isn’t working as well in your life as He could be. So what do you do about it? It has nothing to do with speaking in tongues, or that weird feeling in your stomach (I’ve had that). Ask Him to come in! What a novel idea…
So why am I Lutheran? The events that followed that weekend, frankly. Soon afterward, everything fell apart. And I mean everything. When I asked the people in my church home what everything that was going on meant, I got a long list of things I was supposed to be doing. None of it sounded right. So I started reading the Bible. Cover to cover. It took me about 10 weeks. I took the advice to heart and asked God what was wrong, what was missing. And you know what the answer was?
My old Lutheran confirmation class definition of grade came to mind: God’s riches at Christ’s expense.
No room for Dave in that definition.
I asked around a little about grace. The definition I received had Dave in it.
So I asked whether I wanted to rely on Dave to get it all right, or whether I wanted to rely on God.
Well, if Dave could get it right, there wouldn’t be much need for Jesus, would there?
Over the course of the next few months, God led me to a Lutheran church that remembered the definition of grace and also offered the things I’d liked about that Calvinist evangelical experience: sermons that were relevent to daily life and music that helped me look forward to church, rather than being something that has to be endured.
I would have traded away the music and the easily applied messages for that correct definition of grace.
To me, that’s the great hidden treasure of Lutheranism. Grace. And those are the roots. It was grace that told Martin Luther that indulgences were wrong, not hearing the tune of “A Mighty Fortress” outside the door. (Not that there’s anything wrong with “A Mighty Fortress.” Our church plays old songs too sometimes, to remind us that the God who was there for our multiple-great grandparents is the same God who’s with us today.)
A couple of years ago, I found myself in a Methodist service. I’ve always admired the Methodists. My wife was raised Methodist. But there was something about the service that reminded me of why I’m Lutheran. Again. We confessed our sins. And then that was it. There was a sort of brief assurance that you’ll do better next time.
Hello? Forgiveness? Please?
Half of the equation was gone. After we confess our sins at my church, my pastor always says something like this: “It’s my great privelige to announce to you that your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Exactly what he says varies sometimes, but he always starts out with something like, “It’s my great privelige.” This is good news he’s delivering! It’s the only reason we’re all still here! He should be glad to be saying it, and we should be glad to be hearing it. And yes, I know what he’s saying isn’t exactly what the blue book says he’s supposed to say. It’s more important to him to tell us this is good news than it is for him to tell us he’s called and ordained. We already know that because he’s the one who’s up front and talking.
Sometimes he even reads a verse from Scripture to prove it. I kind of wish he’d do that a little more often.
The great theologians will be annoyed that I didn’t throw Bible verses around. But I’m reminded that Jesus said this is simple enough that a child can understand. A lot of times–well, most of the time, probably–we make this way too complicated. Christianity is very simple.
A pastor put a question on a confirmation test once. It read: “If you died tonight and God asked you why He should let you in to heaven, what would you say?”
The right answer (which, as I recall, I got wrong) was one word. Don’t read on. Stop for a minute and see if you can figure out what the answer is supposed to be.
If you get that answer right, and you know why that answer is right, then it doesn’t matter all that much what else you believe. If everything else you believe is wrong, you’ll get to heaven by the skin of your teeth. But so will those rare people whose beliefs are 100% dead on right. (I don’t know who those people are, by the way. I’m pretty sure that I’m not one of them and that I fall somewhere in between. And even if I had all the education in the world, I doubt I’m smart enough to be able to figure out who they were.)
But at least I got that important question right. And hopefully you do too.