(A personal reflection)
I was raised a Lutheran, in a small community in northern Minnesota that very well could have been the inspiration for Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon. My dad came from a long line of Swedish Lutherans who had been part of the Swedish Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, which merged with the Lutheran Church in America (now part of the ELCA). Kittson County, where I lived, was at least at one time considered the most Swedish county in the United States and still boasts the highest percentage of Swedish speakers in the country. My dad was raised speaking Swedish at home and my grandfather, who lived with us when I was little, never fully converted to English.
The church we attended was called Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, a truly wonderful name for a church. “Evangelical” was the term Martin Luther used to refer to his reformation movement, and was kept in the name to honor the former Augustana church. My church was the largest church in town, with a membership of over 1,000 (but an average attendance at less than 1/3 of that). While the LCA was apparently known as the most liberal of the Lutheran denominations, I remember our church as being quite conservative, both socially and theologically.
Oddly enough, the Swedish Lutherans had been pietists, something that I’m sure would have caused Martin to spin in his grave. It was the very thing that Luther had warned about in the introduction to his commentary on Galatians:
I have taken in hand, in the name of the Lord, once again to expound the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians; not because I desire to teach new things, or such as you have not heard before, but because we have to fear, as the greatest and nearest danger, that Satan take from us the pure doctrine of faith and bring into the Church again the doctrine of works and men’s traditions.
When my dad was young, for example, playing cards were not allowed (although they could play regular card games with a deck of Rook cards), alcohol was wrong (except for medicinal purposes), and frivolous music was frowned upon.
These trends obviously didn’t stick in my family, as my dad and his brothers were self-taught musicians, my dad playing piano, guitar, and clarinet in a local swing band. My mother was Episcopalian, but joined the Lutheran church when I was little, and began teaching Sunday School, which she did for fifteen or more years. Neither of my parents were drinkers, although they no aversion to making home-made wine on occasion. By the time I was born, playing cards were in abundance in our house, and I could play Rummy as soon as I could count (if not before). My parents certainly demonstrated very high moral standards; however, I was never taught that God would be mad at me if I failed.
I grew up convinced that God loved and accepted me unconditionally. I don’t know where I first learned this, but I was surer of this than anything, even of my parents’ love for me. I’ve often heard that children will form their ideas about God from their relationship with their father. While I had a wonderful dad, I can’t really say that this principle held true for me. Rather, from a very early age I understood that God was the only person who would ever really love and accept me unconditionally. My parents were fallible, God was not. I might fear the wrath of my parents or other authority figures, but I never feared God’s wrath.
And to this day, I never have.
Amen! Thanks for sharing this, Howard.
I had a dream last night, principally generated, I think, by reading this mailing yesterday. I was attending some form of Lutheran or Episcopal church, where the emphasis in word and sacrament was the GRACE of God to us. It was wonderful, and I woke up around 3.45 am feeling really refreshed. I reflected on the dream when I awoke properly (around 7am) this morning, and realised, of course, that this was the ideal – the church as a place of recovery and genuine aid for the wretched and the needy – that would be all of us. The reality, of course, is often tragically different… we are bent in to that ‘righteousness of our own’ by our own propensity, and that is often merely fostered by the ‘do’ spirituality of much that passes for Christian practice. Thanks be to God that there is now that ‘new and living way’ where the ‘how much more’ of God’s care and grace can be known, even if it’s often missed entirely and the ‘official’ stuff on Sundays.