(Wondering what the heck a synod is and who is a bishop? Explore, my friend: http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions.aspx)
At the gathering, Bishop Gonia presented about the identity of an ELCA congregation. And although I usually don't like to put labels on everyone within the ELCA or within a certain denomination/group/etc, I found myself falling into the labels that he shared. I found what he had to say so true, and it is helping me shape a response when people ask, "so what do Lutherans believe anyway?" Even though I have thought of my response a lot, I still have a hard time answering that question. I think part of the beauty of the Lutheran-Christian faith IS the fact that I am unsure about how to answer that question. Being a bit confused about how to respond helps me recognize the openness, grayness, unsure-ness, and I'm-not-gonna-tell-you-what-to-believe-ness of Lutheran theology. I love that about Lutheranism. I get concerned if any denomination has it all figured out and fit into an exact system what folks are supposed to believe.
I know not all Lutherans would agree with me that Lutheran theology isn't precise, and even pinpointing Bishop Gonia's descriptions as "Lutheran" is systematizing it in a way. But even within the characteristics below, there is so much leeway. So much room for the Holy Spirit to enter in and allow God to move.
I DO talk about the Lutheran church and Martin Luther a lot... probably too much... but hearing what the bishop had to say affirmed my affection towards and fascination with the Lutheran church body (pues, at least the ELCA). And I don't think my desire to be a pastor within the ELCA (God-willing) is simply a result of "how I grew up" or even following along with just "what I know"...even though ELCA theology is the best that I know. In my exploration of "Lutheran faith" I have found God to best expressed in the way that I view God and see God at work within the Lutheran identity.
|This is Martin Luther. Not Bishop Gonia.|
Just to clarify.
The first characteristic of our ELCA identity is a Radical Grace. All Christian churches talk about grace - heck, it's at the heart of the Gospel - but in the words of Bishop Gonia, how we (we=ELCA Lutherans) carry the message of grace is unique. Even though I don't remember all that he got into about this, haha, I come to think of this as how we respond to the message of grace is different than our other Christian brothers and sisters. It is not just about accepting this grace as atonement for sins or to guarantee a spot in eternal life. It does not stop there. The grace that Christ exemplified is one of unconditional love for all. Lutherans embody that here and now, in a movement from head to embodiment - this message of grace not just in my head for me, but becoming a lived experience that inevitable affects my neighbor. This Radical Grace flows from everything that we do. It is a "daring, living confidence in God's grace," according to Martin Luther. And the ELCA website homepage expresses it well: "We are the church that shares a living, daring confidence in God's grace. Liberated by our faith, we embrace you as a whole person — questions, complexities and all."
The second characteristic of the ECLA identity is the Theology of the Cross. You can google "Theology of the Cross" versus the "Theology of Glory," etc. and learn more about it if you haven't heard the distinction before. Something that Biship Gonia said that stuck with me was that the Theology of the Cross expresses that "there is no place where God does not fully dwell." Christ is present in happiness AND in suffering. And because of that, everything has redemptive power. We go to the margins because that is where we are reminded of God's love. Everything - every person and every situation - even in the margins - can be a part of God's redemption for the world. I think that's pretty cool.
The final characteristic is the reality of Paradox. (Just last night I introduced the word paradox to some youth group kids, and it was awesome. We were talking about Jesus being both human and divine, and a video we watched described it as paradoxical. It's amazing what kids hold onto, and this idea that something can be something that it shouldn't be... at the same time... was fascinating for them.) The bishop shared how we live as a "both-and" church in an "either-or" world. (I found this affirming of my appreciation for the ELCA to be open and non-committal to one way of thinking.) We are quick to place things on one side of the line or the other, but we fail to recognize that God is present on BOTH sides. He tied this into how young adults are responding the the church as well, and I totally get what he means. Young adults are almost craving paradox. They are looking for someone to be honest, rather than tell them what to believe, or tell them that they have to pick one side or another. We are okay with the fact that we are sinner and saint at the same time; that there is law and there is gospel; that the sacred can be present in the secular, and vice versa. We embrace the paradox rather than try to avoid it.
Jesus was a paradox.. Just sayin'.
This is just a little bit of my reflecting and unpacking, and I have much more to think about. This part of Bishop Gonia's presentation, however, gave me a space to help better organize some of my thoughts and experiences of what is to be a Lutheran-Christian. He helped give words to what I experience within this church body, and I am grateful for that. I found it worth sharing with whoever reads this not for the sake of converting everyone to Lutheranism (I promise I don't try to do that... often.), but for the sake of making the Gospel known. How we live out these three characteristics - all based in Christ's Gospel message of life-over-death - in my opinion, will help us show God's love to a world so desperately in need of Life to win.